Thursday, October 29, 2015

Talkin' Bout My Generation

How are we judged as a generation?

My wife and I dined out the other night with our 20-month-old son, Cooper. We had a quiet dinner at Mike Ditka's restaurant in the suburbs. Cooper ate his share of beans, carrots, and he may have gotten a sample of the pot roast nachos we had for an appetizer. During this particular meal, Cooper was the MBOC (big man on campus) of the blue haired 4pm dinner crowd that young parenthood has thrust us into. The patrons around us spent more time looking at him than they did talking with each other. They valued having a youngster in the crowd...I think.

Toward the end of our dinner, an elderly gentleman approached our table to talk to us. He asked us how we enjoyed our meal and if our son got enough to eat. Pushing at least 80 years of age, my wife and I could not really figure out where he came from. He didn't seem to be dining at a particular table, nor was he Mike Ditka. He asked Cooper if he ate enough. When Cooper responded, "No," - the stock answer for most kids his age, the gentlemen pulled out his wallet. He peeled off two dollar bills and left them at the table for Cooper saying nothing more.

What an amazing gesture.

Or was it weird? Was it weird because people don't do that anymore or because people my age do not expect it, or don't appreciate how awesome it was?

A friend of mine used to visit his grandmother often. He would bring his wife each time and like clockwork, when it was time to part ways, grandma would pull him aside. She would hand him a 5 dollar bill like it was a winning lotto ticket advising, "Don't tell your wife I gave you this." That is to say, "I want you to have it to spend for yourself."

It was five dollars.

But that doesn't matter. There is a desire for people of an older generation to take care of each other and take care of us.  Those who lived during the Depression value community and practicality. My parents are more generous with me than they are with themselves. Same with my in-laws.

When one of my favorite colleagues retired four years ago his written advice to me was simple, "Good luck with all this- you are going to need it."

It's different now.

We live in an "adapt or perish society," and certainly the same could be said about our field of education. What are we missing as a generation? I feel like some in my age group want to skip steps in the process. They see other young leaders getting promoted and reaching the top quicker than previously imaginable- and they miss the steps of sacrifice, hard work, humility, and deference to our peers. I became a high school administrator at age 29. Two of my best friends became managers at their financial firm at 27. We can't apologize for those opportunities because we, too, are probably guilty from time to time. But we do have to live with the stereotypes of our peers and work to debunk them.

That said, we are motivated. We are certainly educated, albeit with loans to still pay. We are efficient and we are full of amazing ideas. We can iterate at lightning speed. Change doesn't scare us. "Historically, we've always done it that way," is not in our vocabulary.

The question becomes- how do we take all those amazing characterizations of our generation and put them to work? How can we work to take care of those around us, valuing both their experience and their generosity?

Can we value the process and inspire the change?

I vacation with those two best friends often. One night in Vegas, we spoke of our career choices and if we made the right respective calls. I am the oddball in the group for a variety of reasons, among those is undoubtedly my profession. My friend Ryan told me, "You know what Andrew, the worst decision you made was to be a teacher. I think you could have done anything you wanted to do. (He made sure to mention selling cars as an addendum to that statement). But the best decision you made was to be a teacher. We need more people like you to guide this next generation."

I had to sift through Ryan's statement a bit, but he meant it as a compliment in every sense. So maybe people are misjudging my generation and maybe, just maybe, we just have to sift through it a bit to find the positives. 

No stranger left me two dollars at the table that night, but a friend left me his two cents. Our task as a generation is to redefine ourselves and seek opportunities to help our kids- the next generation. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"The Village Project"

My job is hard. But without some time for a passion project, my job would be even harder. There's no right time for it, but feeding your professional passion helps make the "everyday" work seem that much more exciting.

I have a passion for helping kids. 

In my current role, I am not afforded as much contact with kids as I was in the classroom- so I try to manufacture as much contact with our kids as I can. This year, we are dreaming big.

Just over two years ago, one of my goals for the school year was to have all of my AP students pass the AP exam with a 4 or 5. We did it. It was not easy, but we did it and we did it together.

In building on my passion for the AP exam, we are putting a team together and forming the "Village Project." The goal of the Village Project is to take 5-10 lower level Juniors enrolled in English classes and have them pass the AP test at the end of the year. They are not AP students and will not be taking the actual AP course. But, we are going to build in support along the way, help the students establish "AP habits of mind," and we are going to be relentless in our pursuit pushing these students beyond what they think they can do. Every kid can pass an AP exam, whether they believe it or not, and we are out to prove it.

Will we actually find students who want to do this? Can we give them four collective hours of extra support per week?  Aren't we just wasting our time when some of our regular AP students can't pass the exam? And what if they don't pass at the end of the year?

Yes. I hope. Absolutely not. what?

My partner in crime is the students' English teacher who also happens to teach AP Literature. We are pulling in social studies teachers, a department chair, a writing coach an administrator, and hopefully others. It takes a village to raise an AP child, and I am confident that with the right supports, we can do it.

If we don't reach our goal, we are going to have a ton of fun along the way. Our students will hopefully gain an appreciation for a more rigorous and collective college-level effort, and with any luck, will be more inclined to try college when all is said and done.

We are going to film everything, blog about it, present it at the AP conference next year and learn from our mistakes. Hopefully this pilot can be taken to scale and affect even more students at our school and students at other schools too.

Living in beta. Playing with house money. Going where others' doubt. The Village Project.

We would love your support along the way and appreciate any advice you may have!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Service Learning

I did not want to go. Staring down the prospect of running my first summer school program eight hours after our flight landed seemed daunting. Leaving my wife and a 16 month-old to fend for themselves for eight days seemed unfair. We talk a lot about risk-taking in innovative leadership...well, supervising three dozen kids in a foreign country certainly included plenty of that. The layers of accountability for their safety and well-being seemed intimidating.

But in the spirit of "you learn something new everyday," this past week, I learned something new through an experience I've never had. For the past eight days, 35 of our high school students joined several administrators and teachers for a service trip in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. This was the second annual trip that our service club organized to play with orphans and teach in Mexican schools with heavy orphaned populations.

While this story may be personal to our experience, I hope our experience can inspire others to give their time to service, and learn a whole lot more in the process.

I was not planning to go on the trip for many of these reasons but one day, a student of ours changed my mind. A veteran of last year's trip, I met her at the cashier's counter in the main office. She was peeling off singles from a wad of cash she held in her hand. She deposited her $100 downpayment to go back to Mexico on the trip. I asked her where she got all the money.

"Well Mr. Sharos, I wash cars all year and these are the tips I have been collecting for this trip. I went last year and I cannot wait to go again this year."

So here is one of our students, working all year, for the opportunity to do more service work.

Seriously? I needed to get over myself. That day I told our principal that I would love to join if he would have me.

For as many roadblocks as I created for myself, I was nervous and anxious to see how it went. As I reflect on the lessons I learned from our work, I think three things stood out more than anything:

1. Once you create a culture of service, it will spread.

Last year's trip was only the beginning of an identity that we hope to create in our school. Ownership of our collective space under shared themes, phrases, and commonalities helps create a school building that both the students and staff can be proud of. As more students join the service trip, and return in the following years, we are creating an identity and culture of service that is contagious. I am proud to be associated with kids who are selfless with their time, talents, and treasures. The best "high" in education comes from watching our students have fun. This trip provided that opportunity, but also left me in awe of their collective sacrifice to help others.

2. Service learning breaks down walls for our students.

Our kids do not get to experience things like this all the time. Many of our families are first generation, blue-collar immigrants who came from Mexico seeking opportunity. In that struggle to adapt to this country, our kids are often subjected to "survival mode" at home and do not necessarily have access to the experience of traveling. In that vain, our kids found excitement in experiencing an airplane ride, a boat trip, and the simplicity of "Panchos Takos" for dinner. At the same time, they did so in the comfort of their home language and the familiarity of their own culture. As I struggled to adapt to the language and culture during the week, I often thought about how our kids must feel living in America-without these comforts. Every one of our faculty members should go on this trip just once to experience this phenomenon alone. The two-sided empathy I've gained has enriched my perspective of the students and the population we serve.

3. The suspension of reality is something we all need sometimes. 

The world we lived in for the past eight days was nothing like our world here- and that is ok. For the adults, it gave us the opportunity to unplug and enjoy the company of each other and our kids. Some of our students made friends with kids they normally would never talk to. The stories, laughs, and smiles we shared will travel back with us.

On the last night, we all took a dinner/dance cruise on the ocean. The adults looked on as our kids staged their own dance party on the deck of the boat. Our students were having so much fun after an exhausting week of 100 degree heat and a jam-packed schedule. They also managed to physically pull many of our adult chaperones to join them in the dance circle.

The symbolism of that goes much deeper than dancing a few steps to Marc Anthony's, "Vivir mi Vida."

Like the student who pulled me in with her downpayment of singles, the lessons learned
from this trip will last a lifetime.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Design Thinking: "Yes, and..." vs. "Yes, but..."

Having worked in just one school district for my entire career, I credit Leyden for all of my professional development. From in-house PD to conferences all over the country, I've benefited from some amazing experiences with some truly inspirational educators. Sure, I have learned from friends and colleagues on Twitter, but even my PLN and Twitter networks were inspired by people like Jason Markey, who had used Twitter as a learning tool for  years. 

Today, I had an opportunity to work with Eric Burmeister and our Professional Learning Planning Team at Leyden. One of our goals for next school year is to create an "Innovation Incubator" team of teachers that will be given the curricular freedom and lesson design autonomy to create amazing classrooms for our kids.  These teachers will form a PLC that focuses on piloting anything imaginable, from changes to physical learning spaces, to innovative web 2.0 software to things our field has never seen before. Their task is simple: innovate (with a "semi-blank" checkbook and as much freedom as we can provide). 

In following a generally accepted educational philosophy of practicing what we hope to preach, we explored the design thinking model engineered by some of the Silicon Valley's best and brightest innovators. We created a test case that centered around improving the quality and comfort of our students' most coveted space- the cafeteria. Starting from a base of empathy, we asked four of our students open ended questions about their "turf." Our questions aimed to solicit feelings and emotions about our cafeteria in order to guide the design of a cafeteria of their dreams.

By starting with empathy, we were empowered to make changes using the students' guidance, not our own beliefs. We dreamed, and we dreamed big. We followed just one rule during our brainstorming session: whenever someone proposed an idea for the cafeteria, the group's response had to be, "Yes, and..." 

So often in education, we hear "Yes, but..." when we propose new ideas. 

We are all really good at asking questions, and many times, reminding others why new ideas won't work. But even basic changes in education probably started out as a dream much bigger, a change more sweeping, or a cheese moved even farther from its original spot. By dreaming big and thinking wild, we can create a prototype that incites positive energy and pioneering ideas into our design. 

Following the mantra of "Yes, and," we created a cafeteria prototype with food options that were both creative and healthy. We designed a student-centered space with outdoor seating, televisions, and space to relax. There may have even been food trucks, retractable roofs, and organic vegetables growing from our school's roof in some of our prototypes. Dreaming big. Check. Thinking wild. Certainly. But most important-responding to our user's expressed emotions. 

So how do we know that it worked? We invited the students back in the room to judge our ideas. The students were instructed to ask us tough questions and make sure that our design addressed all of their concerns. We wanted their feedback, but moreover, we wanted to know if our design was reflective of their dreams too.

You should have seen the looks on their faces! (because who can resist lunch from a food truck, really?)

We can't protect the status quo because its "the way we have always done things." In looking at the design of anything- be it PLC, a new grading practice, innovative lesson design, or a groundbreaking curricular change- we can start from a mindset of "Yes, and..." 

In doing so, we can find a finished product that empathizes with our audience and maybe even stretches what we originally thought was possible. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

I'm Sold: Blended Learning

When I was first introduced to the flipped class model in 2011, I questioned its effectiveness just like many of my peers. I remember my principal saying that it was, "just as innovative as assigning homework,"- and I pretty much agreed. Students don't always do their homework; only this time, if a student blew off a flipped lesson at home, they would be hopeless the next day in class. Wait, you mean I would have to create all these videos and post them online? What exactly are my kids supposed to be doing in class then?  And how again do I get past the fact that many of my kids don't have internet connection at home?


Most of us can agree that the more often we do something, we learn and become become refined at our practice or craft. While my growth as a teacher was steady in my first few years, I certainly had a long way to go. As a high school social studies teacher in 2011, I could basically put 184 days worth of lessons into the following 5 categories:

1. Innovative- things I was trying for the first time, redefining strategies of modifying them with tech
2. Collaborative- students work while I circulate, converse and assess
3. Teacher-Centered- lecture, basically just content, funny & entertaining but with passive learning
4. Skill-Based- reading, writing, debating, analyzing, or arguing history
5. Basic- covering material, google docs and web searches, no collaboration, little interaction

If you asked my students which style of learning they probably preferred, I bet they would confirm the order of the list just as it is. If you ask me what I actually spent more time doing, I would probably be ashamed to tell you the truth.

So much of our lesson design centers around self-imposed, curricular restraints that limit our creativity and bore our students to death. 

Every one of us teaches something exciting and worthwhile. There has to be a reason why we went into our respective disciplines in the first place. The best teachers are the ones that bring that passion for their content alive.


Flipped learning, or blended learning allowed me to explore more options in innovation, and in turn, combined previous "lesson categories" into one giant pool of trial and error. Lessons grounded in collaborative work, skill based practice, content driven specifics and even teacher centered instruction can all be funneled through blended learning. Video curation or creation is possible through amazing sites like blendspace and edpuzzle. Teachers can even use simple tools like google hangouts to record a lecture or screencast-o-mastic to record their lesson online.

So why aren't more teachers doing this? Time is certainly a roadblock to beginning. But looking at the long road, once videos are created or compiled, they are available forever just like your favorite worksheet! Familiarity with technology could be another reason- and a fair one. So many of these tools have become user friendly, truthfully, and with a learning management system in place, teachers already have conquered step one. Finally, I know teachers have a tough time seeing past the need for content driven, skill based instruction that is efficient and has worked in the past.  But the kids are not "us." We liked school- at least enough to choose a carer run by bells. Our kids probably don't feel the same excitement to learn. The last time I shadowed a student, it was the longest day of my life.  Sitting through seven classes was difficult. So how to we change that?


Maybe the only question we should ask is, "what is standing in our way?"  Asking questions is easy. Instead of starting the blended learning, or even the "innovation" conversation with questions as I did, maybe start with answers.  Engaging students is our number one priority. So...jump in.