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And All That Jazz

Princess-and-the-frog  So here’s what’s cool about The Princess and the Frog:

1.  The princess has a great work ethic and a dream, which she doesn’t forget about when she ends up with the prince.  In fact, the prince helps her realize her dream.

2.  The princess is smart, beautiful, and black. 

3.  The princess’s rich friend is white, but she’s not a jerk.

4.  The story takes place in New Orleans way before the hurricane.

5.  Evil is evil.  

6.  Good is complex.

7.  The hand-drawn graphics are beautiful and the Dixieland is great.

8.   Spoiler alert:  The Cajon lightning bug dies, but in true Disney fashion, he becomes a star (like in the sky, not like in Britney Spears).

9. You can go and see it without taking a kid as cover, but it’s more fun with a kid.

10. Title IX still rules.

New Semester’s Resolutions

As a school person, the New Year starts in September, right after Labor Day.Baby_New_Year    The other New Year, the one celebrated by everyone else in January, is just a few weeks shy of the end of the first semester, which is usually a time to consider what’s working and what isn’t.  School administration is all about strategic planning.

So January is a good time to think about these top issues:

1) How are those new hires working out?  Have you been in to see them?  Have you talked with their mentors?  Are you optimistic about their having a successful year or do you need to start monitoring progress? 

2) What about the folks who are eligible for retirement next June?  Are any of them retired on active duty already?  Do you need to talk with any of them about their future plans? 

3) State tests will be approaching before you know it.  Have teachers looked over the data from last year and adjusted curriculum accordingly?  It’s still not too late to do that, but if you don’t, you can expect pretty much what you got the year before and the year before that.

4) If you’re a high school administrator, have you been monitoring the kids at risk of dropping out?  How about the kids who should graduate in June?  Are the counselors on top of the credits they’ll need for graduation?  Are they working with kids who are applying early admission?

5) If you’re an elementary administrator, have any teachers already decided which kids they’re going to recommend for retention?  This is good information for you to have so that you can intervene on behalf of the kids.  (A veteran first grade teacher once told me that she could tell after two weeks of school which children would have to be retained.)  You may need to protect some kids from a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The second semester is the time to stay or correct the course, and it’s important that we just don’t just turn the corner and keep on keeping on.



Some Things Never Change

Every year our educational plans become more and more complicated, more and more grandiose, and 2010 will be no different.  New catchphrases will be invented for old strategies, and we will continue to explore new ideas.  Cultures change, budgets change, priorities change, leaders change – but reading as the first educational priority remains.  Because if a kid can’t read, nothing else matters.

Book_kid  Elementary school is all about reading.  Nothing – absolutely nothing – is as important. Not being able to read is the single most frequent cause of kids’ falling behind and dropping out.  That’s why the elementary principal should do everything possible to focus instruction on kids learning that skill above all others. 

That’s why all primary children should have extended, uninterrupted blocks of time for reading instruction.

That’s why no child should be pulled out during reading time for extra help, resource room, physicals, counseling, testing, or anything else. 

That’s why the reading block shouldn’t be interrupted by random calls from the office that are not emergencies.

That’s why kids shouldn’t be coloring workbook pages to keep them busy while the teacher works with reading groups.  Especially when there are computers in the room.

That’s why every extra penny you have as principal should go into your reading program – teacher training, reduction of class size, materials, aides.

If everyone believes that reading is the most important thing that happens in the primary grades, classrooms should be rich in language materials – words, books, paper, computers, easels, white boards – everything that encourages a child to immerse herself in language. Reading silently and aloud should be part of every day and children should have a range of materials to choose from.

Not every child will learn at the same time, but the teacher needs to believe that eventually all will learn to read, and she has to be committed to making that happen.

Making sure kids can read is such a simple educational concept.  We need to refuse to be distracted by other bells and whistles.


A Briefcase Full of Monkeys

I’m working in my office during the holiday break when a department head catches me.  “I saw your car,” she says, “and I thought this might be a good time to talk to you.”

This is most definitely NOT a good time to talk to me.  The reason I’m here during school break is to tackle some of the paperwork that accumulated during school time when I WAS talking to people. 

But whatever.  So she comes in, sits down, and opens her briefcase.  Out leap about a dozen monkeys, who scamper around my office, scattering papers, upending the furniture, and leaving fingerprints on my computer screen.  Monkeys  Each monkey is a problem in her department or in the school.  She describes them in detail:  There is the budget monkey, the lazy students monkey, the overworked monkey, the incompetent colleague monkey, the state test monkey, and several others. I listen and watch as the monkeys dance across my desk.

When she finishes, she snaps her  briefcase shut.  “Well,” she says, “I feel a lot better. Thanks for listening and taking care these issues.”  She heads out with an empty briefcase, leaving the monkeys behind.

I will spend the rest of the afternoon trying to catch and tame the monkeys.  An hour later I haven’t caught any of them.  I glance out the window and the department head is playing catch with her kids.

This is my own fault, I realize with chagrin.  Why didn’t I say, “Wait a minute.  The lazy students monkey belongs to you.  The overworked monkey is only your imagination.  I’ll take the budget monkey (I’ve seen him before), but the state test monkey is your responsibility”?  Next time, I think.  Next time she’ll have to take those monkeys with her when she leaves.


My List for Santa


My List for Santa

Every child a reader by second grade.

Every child a writer by second grade.

Classes no bigger than 15 children in primary grades.

 Physical education or physical fitness every day K-12.

Teachers who believe that every child can learn.

Administrators who have a vision for their school.

Integrated special education.

Parent support.

Arts for everyone.

Technology for everyone.

Equity in financial aid for all schools.

This is just a partial list, of course.  I don’t want to seem unreasonable.



What Price Leadership?

Like several other states, New York is facing a budget shortfall that could plunge it into bankruptcy. In the latest attempt to keep the state solvent, the Governor has unilaterally decided to delay 10% of aid to schools.  The Governor at first tried to exempt the poorest 5% of schools, but the legislature rejected that proposal.  Consequently the 480 school districts in New York State, from Scaresdale to Lyme Central, will find their aid indefinitely delayed.  Many schools fear they will actually never see that 10%.

It’s probably heresy on my part to say this, but school people are often among the most myopic when it comes to state aid.  If only school aid were to be cut, they would have reason to complain, and complain loudly.  In fact, social services and hospitals that many of our students and their families depend on are facing the same kinds of cuts or worse. 

The problem is that the cuts come in the middle of the year, long after schools have adopted budgets and are living with them.  If some school leaders were honest, they know that they can survive on fund balance. Other schools, particularly those in small rural areas and inner cities, will have a rougher go of it. And while few would actually admit it out loud, sometimes cuts provide the opportunity to jettison programs that don’t work.Antdavid_paterson   

The reason that the Governor acted unilaterally is that the Legislature, called into special session to address the financial crisis, preferred to cut nothing so as to be seen as heroes in their home districts.  Of course, it isn’t as if the financial situation the state finds itself it appeared overnight.  Last January, with a looming crisis on the horizon, the legislature nonetheless awarded school aid as usual.  Everyone rejoiced.  Frankly, school superintendents could have better dealt with the cuts while they were formulating their budgets rather than having to deal with them halfway through the year.

As expected, the unions are planning to sue the Governor (no cost there, of course). What an amazing show of leadership it would have been for school leaders and union leaders to step up and heroically say, “We know that everyone has to share the pain, and we’ll do our part this time so that the state can remain solvent and avoid even further crises.”  I’ll put that on my Christmas wish list.




Leaving on a Jet Plane

No matter how long the holiday vacation is, some kids will leave early or return late or both.  Some staff may try to do the same.

Parents who wish to take their children out of school early will explain that the flights are cheaper if you can leave before Christmas week.  They are right of course.  Usually they’ve already got the tickets, so they’re not really asking for permission to take their child out of school.  What they want to know is, “Is my son going to miss anything?”

This is one of those times when you really have to resist the temptation to answer, “Oh, no, we’ll just mark time until he comes back.”  Of course, the truth is (even if we don’t like to admit it) that the kid probably won’t miss anything of substance if he leaves a day or two before school officially breaks for vacation.  What he’ll likely miss are the parties, the gift exchange, the caroling, and the holiday concert. JetPlane  

What we hope, of course, is that if families are going to extend the official school vacation, they’ll do it at the front end.  Students who are not back when school reopens in January actually may miss something since that’s the time teachers traditionally begin new units of study, new books, new assignments.  Few teachers like to start the New Year by giving extra help to a student who comes back late and tan from the Bahamas.

Then there’s the question of winter sports.  The holiday break is a great time for basketball tournaments and extra practice, but coaches have to be careful not to penalize kids who are on family vacations. 

While some school administrators may themselves be leaving on a jet plane, many of us will be using some of those school vacation days to get caught up and/or prepared for January.  It’s amazing how much you can get done in your office in one day of interrupted work.





No Connection

The resignation, while accepted without one iota of regret, was unexpected, coming as it did in December.  The guidance counselor had been on the losing end of a grievance, and his unhappiness with the outcome and with his job was palpable.  So it was good for the school, good for kids, and good for me as principal that he resigned.  But where to find a replacement mid-year?

Enter Mr. Mott, a recently retired counselor from a neighboring district.  “Tell you what,” he said, “Let me be the interim counselor and you can post the job in the spring when you might actually get some good candidates.”

Hiring Mr. Mott was one of the best things I ever did.  Kids respected him right from the beginning because of his huge size and his booming voice, but they quickly learned to like him and trust him.  He knew what he was talking about and followed through on promises.  He did things he didn’t have to, like going to basketball games or concerts or spaghetti dinners. He pulled kids in after school just to talk.  “It’s a good way to get to know them,” he said. Going out of his way like that, he connected with quite a few kids, notably some of our more reluctant scholars.

I could have kept him on staff forever, but he reminded me in the spring that he had already retired, he was only an interim, and it was time for me to post the job.  I did, and Mr. Mott retired a second time.

I ran into Mr. Mott in the grocery store the other day and we started talking about the big local news -- a couple of 17-year-olds who were arrested for murder last week. In pictures they looked bewildered and resigned to their fate rather than threatening, as if they barely understood how they had gotten to a place where they were shackled and wearing orange jump suits.

Prisoners Every time something like this happens, responsible school people play the tape back in their heads.  Is there something we could have or should have done? The boys resided in the city school district where Mr. Mott had been a counselor years ago, but they didn’t attend school.  “You know,” Mr. Mott said, “ these boys, they didn’t just drop out last year.  They’ve been dropping out for a long time, maybe even starting in elementary school.  No connection at school, no support at home. I’ve seen it a million times.  It still gets to me.“  He shook his head.  “There are days that I’d give anything to be back at school working with kids like that,” he said.  “I mean, what are we doing for them?”












The Glorified Typewriter




As a writer, this is what makes me crazy:  Watching kids write out their stories on paper first and then type them into the computer.  When I see teachers in elementary or middle school insist that students have a rough draft in pencil before they sit down at the computer, I want to scream.

Some of you may be old enough to remember when college libraries had card catalogues, stacks, and books on reserve.  Writing a research paper, let alone a thesis or a dissertation, was a major undertaking.  You had to look up the topic in the card catalogue, fill out a form, and take it to the librarian.  If the book was in (and that was a big IF), it may or may not have what you needed.  Books on reserve could only be used in the library and only for a limited time.  Of course, because everyone needed those books and not everyone wanted to read them in the library, some students just ripped out the pages they needed.

Then there was typing the paper.  Some professors would accept onionskin, a thin, membrane-like paper which you could actually erase with a simple pencil eraser.  Most professors, however, insisted on regular typewriter paper.  Minor typos could be fixed with white out, but major revisions required you to type the whole thing over.  So once the paper was typed, you tried not to notice any problems because revision was so onerous.

So some of today’s teachers, instead of showing kids how easy – wonderfully, amazingly, beautifully easy – it is to compose on a computer choose to act as if it’s really just a glorified typewriter.  These teachers believe that writing and revising are absolutely two separate functions, not something you would ever do simultaneously as real writers do.  Cutting and pasting, saving drafts, researching as you write, checking a thesaurus, locating a source, moving whole paragraphs, deleting phrases, adding others … all of this should be taught as soon as students are able to put words together in a sentence.

Making kids today compose with a #2 pencil would be like asking Tolstoy to write War and Peace with a twig in snow.  Kids will be better writers --and thinkers-- if show them right from the start all the tools they have right in front of them.

Let the Yuletide Roll

Few things are more beautiful than watching little kids sing at a holiday concert.  They couldn’t be cuter.  They are excited and happy to be up on stage with their parents and relatives watching them perform the songs they’ve rehearsed for weeks.  Almost all the kids are dressed in their holiday best. The auditorium is filled with parents and relatives, and it doesn’t take long for the heat from all those people to warm the place.  Parents are waving to their kids on stage or blocking other people’s view as they videotape the event. Cameras emit a sprinkle of flashes.


The school doesn’t have a separate auditorium, but there is a stage in the gym.  Over time we figured out that if a program is held in the gym with all the lights on, people behave as if  they’re at a sports event, leaving their seats, talking during the performance, chatting on their cell phones.  If we turn down the lights, however, they act like they’re in an auditorium.

Anyway, the lights were turned down, the first graders started to sing, and it was magical.  There is nothing like children’s voices raised in song to put you in the holiday spirit.

Unless, of course, one of the kids gets so hot and excited that he throws up on stage.  Once that happens, the spell is broken because with little kids it doesn’t take much to incite a barf-o-rama (ask anyone who has ever chaperoned a bus trip with little kids).  The principal and I raced to the outside doors to let the icy wind whistle through the gym, taking with it the offending smell.  The principal radioed for custodians to come out from wherever they go to hide during an evening concert and get the cleanup started.  The music teacher shushed the “eeeeewwww, gross” comments emanating from the little girls and hustled everybody off the stage until the custodians arrived.

Things eventually calmed down and the concert continued, but for me the spell was broken.  I kept thinking about the little boy who started it all.  His parents had found his coat, wrapped him up, and taken him home, his head buried in his father’s chest. His face was flushed either from fever or from mortification or both.  I hoped, in the spirit of the holidays, that when he returned to school none of his classmates would remember the incident. I also hoped that Santa would bring him whatever he asked for.





Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.