Tag Archives: El Milagro

CHRISTMAS LIVES

MORE STORIES from “Fighting For Ms. Rios:

BookCoverImageIn December, Fighting For Ms. Rios was released in both paperback and Kindle formats.  It is a fictional collection of journals written by a gifted fourth grade student named Aiden, about his school, his friends, and his inspiring first-year teacher– Ms. Rios.  I have resurrected my blog to break down some of Aiden’s many stories and themes… all observations about our schools from a child’s point of view.

Christmas lives.  In spite of the best efforts of the ACLU or whoever else is as busy as one of Santa’s disgruntled little elves trying to dismantle Christmas and remove it from all mention in public schools– it is still mentioned. Frequently. And celebrated.

Aiden is in awe at his teacher’s gift for telling stories, especially when it comes to weaving in cultural traditions. In “Storyteller” he writes:

“In December she told stories about Christmas and Kwanza and Hanukkah and didn’t make it sound like she was just trying to provide equal time to be politically correct.”

That’s the thing with Christmas.  We aren’t supposed to talk about it in our schools because we don’t want tax payer dollars expended to propagandize any one faith. No Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas Santa Clause scenes, or Christmas Tannebaum art projects.  It’s one of those holidays that we are supposed to whisper about as an odd tribute to all the people that don’t actually celebrate Christmas.  As if children aren’t aware of the imminent arrival of their favorite day of the year.

But for Ms. Rios, even the arrival of Christmas presents itself as a teachable moment: there is more to December than  racing to the shopping malls to contribute to stimulate the economy.

“The whole world worships God,” she said at the end of the last story of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa season. “Each to his or her own. This is all of humankind’s most spiritual time of year—maybe because it’s so close to the beginning of the new year. Maybe because it’s symbolic of our deep, deep desire to live in peace. Maybe because it represents the origins of our collective religions or the source of our individual faith. But it is universally a time for family. And food. And prayer. And light. And forgiveness.”

Aiden’s own references to Christmas are sprinkled throughout his journals- not as prayers– but as vivid metaphors:

It reminded me of Christmas and how time seems to move so slowly in anticipation of the big day, but then when the day actually gets here, it seems to speed past in a blur. (From– Beware of Bilbo)

 Just before Mrs. Holstrum interrupted her conversation with two other teachers, I heard Ms. Rios talking about her class and her students and “light bulbs that go on and off like Christmas trees.” (From– Minimum Days)

• Every child’s eyes were as big as Christmas morning. I looked around and thought, “My goodness…this is gonna be an interesting year.” And I was right. (From– Labradors)

• One day Ms. Rios said that “being a teacher is like coming out to the living room on Christmas morning and having thirty-two gifts to unwrap.” (From– Storyteller)

There is much to unwrap in Fighting for Ms. Rios.  Aiden is unconstrained by political posturing.  For him, Christmas lives.

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Filed under El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, public education, spiritual intelligence, Uncategorized

THE MILAGRO TRILOGY

For a while I was blogging all the time. Right here.  Some really, really good stuff.  I cranked out blog post after blog post– at least once a week– usually on Saturday mornings.  I would consistently check my stats and it looked like, depending on what I wrote, I’d have quite a few people dropping in.  Then something happened.  I got so tied up in writing and editing my second book, I couldn’t pour any more creative energy into sustaining my blog.  So I didn’t.

Now “Fighting for Ms. Rios” is complete and soon to be released.  It is a story told by a highly gifted fourth grader named Aiden who is not only an extraordinary young writer, but he is amazingly perceptive about adults and their schools. And he can fight.  Aiden writes a series of nine journals over the course of the school year, chronicling his experiences with his friends and with his remarkable first year teacher– Ms. Rios.

I had lots of people edit my book and at one point even had it placed with a publisher called Park East Press.  But I realized publishing can be a sleazy business if you get caught up with the wrong folks– and Park East Press turned out to be the wrong folks.  So I wrestled my manuscript back from them and decided instead to join the hundreds of other entrepreneurial writers and inventors and musicians and filmmakers who value their voice… and I placed my book project on Kickstarter.  Check it out.  There is even a book trailer there.

In the meantime… “Fighting for Ms. Rios” will be released on bookshelves and Kindles in September.  But that’s not all.  I’ve nearly finished a sequel called “Broken in the Middle,” where our gifted little writer, Aiden, is now in 7th grade and struggling to rise above the worst adversity that a kid will ever face.  The theme of the book is resiliency, and it is a hopeful story.

And of course there is a sequel to the sequel.  In “Catching In A Crowd” Aiden is a senior who attends a very unusual charter high school.  He is a decorated high school athlete, but the real offers are coming in from schools that specialize in creative writing.   In the final book of what has now become the Milagro Trilogy, Aiden’s journey through the K-12 system is complete.

So that’s where I’ve been.  Writing the Milagro Trilogy instead of blog posts.  But I intend to resurrect my blog, if for no other reason than to update you on the progress of the Trilogy and Aiden’s latests exploits.

Let me know what you think.

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BEYOND YOUR SCHOOL’S TATTOO

A few years ago The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology released a study on the trend of tattooing. In it, they estimated that 24% of the population between the ages of 18 and 50 had at least one tattoo. But that was five years ago. It is likely much higher now.

And the most popular tattoo? It is the tribal band, a sun or butterfly, or some Chinese script that one can only hope means what you think it means when you commit to wearing it for the rest of your life.

A tattoo is all about commitment and communicating your “brand”.

So I wonder why our parents and our teachers don’t routinely get tattoos of our school logo. Come to think of it, I see all kinds of tattoos every day at my school, but I have never seen even one that promotes our brand.

That’s troubling. Not because I want to see a bunch of tattoo designs of our school, but because tattoos are the the ultimate expression of a customer’s faithfulness to a product. The single most powerful indicator of customer loyalty is when clients willingly share their positive experience with family and friends and urge them to see for themselves. It is the concept of “net promoter”.

And how do citizens of a capitalist and democratic society express their product loyalty? Through their frequent patronage. By word of mouth. By wearing a tee shirt (Hard Rock Cafe-London?) Through Twitter and Yelp and Facebook.

And by affiliating oneself to an idea… symbolically captured in a tattooed brand: the mercedes benz hood logo, the channel interlocking “c’s”, the nike swoosh, the flirtive persona of the playboy bunny, the venerable “NY” of the New York Yankees.

If you were to Google tattoo designs for Harley Davidson you would find pages and pages of them and no shortage of examples carved into every conceivable body part. It is a small price to pay for attaching oneself to the notion of raw power, independence and engineering excellence. Tattoos are, among other things, metaphoric.

If you Google tattoo designs for your school, on the other hand, chances are you won’t find any. You won’t find my school either and that’s the problem. Our stakeholders would sooner ink images of automobiles or household appliances or tobasco sauce to their forearms than their neighborhood school.

There may be some reasons for that:

• Product brands are familiar and reliable and often represent an attribute that an individual is willing to “advertise” for the rest of his or her life. It is less about the product and more about the metaphor. And our schools don’t make good life-long metaphors.

• When schools do show up as tattoos they are logos for universities like USC or Notre Dame or the bright red “A” of the Crimson Tide. But don’t be mistaken. These tattoos are not in tribute to the math department or to the fine services rendered over in accounting. They represent football teams that win more than they lose. Teams with history and swagger. We all like a winner. The Trojans may be on probation but they certainly aren’t in Program Improvement.

• Perhaps most importantly, if someone is willing to tattoo the icon of a business or product to their body, it is because that brand is incontrovertible and well defined. There is no going back. There is, for example, no debate about who (or what) the Apple or Target icons represent.

The neighborhood elementary school? That’s a different story.

But if people have a positive enough experience in the marketplace, if they are so passionate about a product that they feel it in their bones, if they are willing to shout from the rooftops, to at least buy the (Ferrari) tee shirt until they can afford the car– then you have a brand that works.

And if people are willing to compromise their career aspirations for a visible tattoo, to endure the stinging pain and fuss with the healing process, to brook the criticism from mom and the in-laws, to say nothing of their jealous friends’ incessant chiding–it is only because they believe so deeply in what that brand represents.

And, sadly, that is why there aren’t a lot of public schools represented in tattoos. Neither for metaphoric value. Nor for the sake of sentiment.

When it comes to our experience in public schools, there simply is no “brand” identity that invokes the kind of passion required to allow some 19 year old to carve a Chevy monster truck with Bridgestone tires into your ribcage. We forfeited that responsibility to the marketing genius of politicians who chose instead to brand public schools in a far less generous light: as ineffective, archaic, moribund sinkholes that waste taxpayer dollars.

Time for a different brand. Time to promote the extraordinary capacity of teachers and schools to not only engender amazing academic results in whatever test you want to gives us… but to simultaneously prepare students for a future that they will actually inherit– one that will no doubt require them to think, create, innovate, problem solve, communicate (in multiple languages) and work effectively with others.

What would that brand look like? And would you be willing to tattoo the icon to your body if it all lead to extraordinary results?

(This post also appears on LeaderTalk)

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CRUCIBLE

Three weeks remain in the 2009-10 school year an we have just finished testing. We expect to see significant growth over the year before and we expect the schools down the street will  have gotten even more growth and we will be reminded that the schools down the street did it right and we are somehow not as efficient or effective or committed or skilled or blessed or insightful or something.

In the meantime, we also moved the ball down the field on our plan to implement more multi-age classrooms and transform our teaching. We are preparing to return to a curriculum that inspires our children to think and create and spring out of bed in the morning and race down the street to El Milagro because there are things happening here that are worth learning.  In the post-test celebration our students danced on the playground and I was reminded how much I miss seeing them find their rhythm.

Along the way we even challenged ourselves to find a solution to that stubborn dilemma that all teachers face in June: what to do with the kids that aren’t ready for the next grade.  Retain them? Socially promote them?  Transfer them to the schools down the street that have all the answers?

We decided that no one zeros in on student needs like we do.  We decided that we wouldn’t have to retain or socially promote kids that weren’t ready… if we just get them all ready!  And since kids learn and develop on their own time , we decided we would give each struggling learner their own timeline and gameplan for promotion… and multi-age classrooms allow us to do that.

So much is happening at El Milagro… even in the face of opposition and cynicism that we are somehow cheating or taking short cuts.  If you read this blog you know… we are totally focussed on finding a better way.  So we dip, even for a moment, into the fires, searching for that wisdom that even those schools down the street might learn from us.

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Filed under charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, innovation and change, school reform, Un-graded schools

RESURRECT A DREAM

A new study from the Center for Research and Reform in Education at John Hopkins University has concluded that “Spanish-speaking children learn to read English equally well regardless of whether they are taught primarily in English or in both English and their native language.”

In other words, bilingual instruction does no harm as it relates to the acquisition of English literacy skills; we can reintroduce the goal of bilingualism  and Spanish literacy – without any negative consequences to English reading acquisition.

In still other words… if it does no harm… and thus there is no adverse impact on test scores… then the advantages of bilingual instruction now outweigh the disadvantages… according to the latest research on the topic!

The director of the report, Dr. Robert Slavin, noted that

“Here’s a study that gives more solid information than has existed before that quality of instruction is important. The idea that the language of instruction is going to be decisive just doesn’t come through. You can succeed in either language. You can fail in either language.”

We have always said that it’s the quality of the teaching and the passion for promoting biliteracy that makes the difference!!!

Of course at El Milagro, we have stretched to squeeze every point we can from the California Standards Test.  Our student mobility and the drive to stay out of Program Improvement forced us to abandon dual language instruction.  But next year we are eliminating those external pressures by

• Dramatically increasing the number of multi-age classrooms on our campus

• Developing a rich, integrated curriculum for those multi-age classrooms

• Placing students in grade levels according to their performance level (and not according to their age)

• Promoting students only when they demonstrate mastery of their grade level standards

Not only does this allow us to satisfy all the AYP demands, it will allow us to reintroduce the arts, health and fitness, science and social study.  We can teach children to think again.  We can promote creativity and performance and  problem solving and innovation.  The multiple intelligences!

But it also suggests that it is time to resurrect our dual language program… and our dream of biliteracy for all children.

Joy. Authentic learning.  Dos idiomas.  El Milagro.

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A RABBLE OF INNOVATORS ON THE FAST COMPANY LAWN

This week, the publication Fast Company released its annual survey it calls the Top 50 Most Innovative Companies in the world.

Here is the top 10:

#1 Facebook

#2 Amazon

#3 Apple

#4 Google

#5 Huawei

#6 First Solar

#7 PG&E

#8 Novartis

#9 Walmart

#10 HP

That’s just the Top 10.  Disney is #20.  Cisco (#17) and Twitter (#50) are on the Top 50 too.  So is Grey New York (#24), the advertising genius that makes the commercials with the E-Trade baby.  Nike (#13) , Netflix (#12), and the Indian Premier League that televises international cricket matches(#22)– all on the list.

So how do you get on the list?  Fast Company says:

Even in these tough times, surprising and extraordinary efforts are under way in businesses across the globe. From politics to technology, energy, and transportation; from marketing to retail, health care, and design, each company on the list illustrates the power and potential of innovative ideas and creative execution.

There you have it.  Innovative ideas and creative execution.

I noticed that El Milagro was not on the list.  I noticed, in fact, that there are no schools on the list.  Not the KIPP schools or High Tech High or Kaplan University.  In fact, I noticed “education” wasn’t even mentioned in the quote above.  Education is rarely mentioned in the same breath as “innovation”.

Politics… technology… energy… transportation… marketing… retail… health care… design… that is where Fast Company goes for examples of innovative organizations.  And rightly so.

This past week there were protests across the state of California and around the nation to shine the light on inevitable  budget cuts in schools.  I stood on the lawn of the capital building in Sacramento and watched.  There was a rabble of a couple thousand activists with hand made placards and signs and hippies playing percussion instruments trying to resurrect some of the energy of the 60’s.  Good luck.  I assumed that many in the crowd were educators who had called in for a sub in order to be out on the lawn protesting about the loss of funding to public education.  $100 per sub.

In the comments section of the Fast Company blog on their 50 Most Innovative Companies I was struck by this quote:

“In times of economic crisis, chaos, and rising strains on system designs, innovative organizations have the edge.”

And this one:

“Changes create movement. Movement create action. Action creates Innovation.”

And finally… this one:

“Innovation is not the result but the way we act. The result is a consequence of our acts. If you keep doing it the same way, we will get always the same results. The companies that are shaping and will shape the future are the ones that are not afraid to try different things, different actions. Those actions are the ones that will shape our future.”

Instead of innovating, the rabble was chanting on the Capitol lawn while the governor was off speaking to the Charter Schools Conference.  But no worries. Even though he missed their presentation, he can pick it up on Hulu (#11) and enjoy it at his leisure… maybe over a bowl of Fritos (#28).

For our own part, at El Milagro we are going to navigate through the crisis and get on next year’s list of the Top 50 Most Innovative Organizations.

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Filed under California budget, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education

THE TURN-AROUND PLACE

Allen Odden is a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the  University of Wisconsin-Madison who claims to know how to turn around low achieving schools.  In fact he wrote a book about the topic called “Ten Strategies for Doubling Student Performance”.  He doesn’t work in schools, he studies those of us who do.  So his premise is that school turnarounds are not a new phenomenon and that “we”  know how to fix them, and “we know how to literally double student performance in low income schools, and in the process take huge chunks out of the achievement gaps that separate students along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

In a recent article in Education Week entitled We Know How to Turn Schools Around, Odden identifies 10 core elements he picked up from studying schools just like El Milagro.  Here is Odden’s checklist:

ONE: Create a sense of urgency.

TWO:  Set ambitious goals: (e.g.; to double student performance on state tests, to double the percentage of students scoring at advanced levels, to make sure that no student performs below the basic level at the end of 3rd grade, and that all students leave that grade reading on level.)

THREE:  Throw out the old curriculum and adopt new textbooks, create new curriculum programs, and start to build, over time, a common understanding of effective instruction.

FOUR. Move beyond a concentration on state tests and use a battery of assessments, including formative and diagnostic assessments, common end-of-curriculum-unit assessments, and benchmark assessments.  All of these enable teachers to make midcourse corrections and to get students into interventions earlier.

FIVE:  Create and implement an intensive and ongoing professional-development program. (The best schools form collaborative teacher teams— aka, professional learning communities—that meet often, make use of student data, and work with school-based coaches to improve curriculum and instruction.)

SIX:  Provide extended learning time and extra help for all students to attain proficiency. (e.g., Some combination of one-on-one or small-group tutoring for struggling students, together with extended-day and summer programs that emphasize providing academic help.)

SEVEN: Use time effectively. (Core instructional time for reading, math, and increasingly science is protected from intrusions; each minute is devoted to teaching the class. Literacy time often is extended to 90 to 120 minutes a day.)

EIGHT:  Teachers lead grade- and subject-based professional learning communities. Most of the instructional coaches are the school’s best teachers, and they orchestrate the overall professional-development system. And principals provide real instructional leadership.

NINE: Staff members read the most recent research, reach out to experts in the field, look for and use best practices, and take responsibility for assessing the impact on student learning of what they do, improving instructional practices when student results are not what’s desired.

TEN:  Recruit the talent needed to accomplish lofty goals and implement the collaborative and powerful educational strategies discussed here.

Ok.  So that is his list.  It just so happens that at El Milagro we have been down the path on all 10 core elements.  They are in place. Maybe that is why we have never missed an AYP goal, never missed a year of positive gains on the API, and recently been named a Title I Academic Award Winning School in the state of California.  Or maybe our success has come from going even deeper when initiating school reforms.

There are three problems with the good professor’s premise:

First, it assumes that a “turn around school”  is one that is getting better test scores.  But  perhaps the bigger challenge in school leadership is protecting kids from the craziness of schools obsessed with higher test scores– while still getting higher test scores! It is harder to get results when you refuse to become a test prep academy or when your school still values the meaningful extracurricular activities that don’t always directly tie in to testing (like athletics, theater, the arts, and music).

Secondly,  this article (and the publication of his book!) assumes a college professor has some authority on an issue he has “studied”… as opposed to a having actively engaged in the work of really turning a school around!  It is much like hiring a sports writer to coach an NFL team to the Superbowl or a film critic to create an academy award winning movie.

Finally, in concentrating on these broader, more obvious initiatives that we already stumbled across years ago… Odden’s list misses (at least )10 core elements that run even deeper into the DNA of a successful school.  For example, we have found that to turn a school around and sustain long term, continuous improvement, you must:

• Strike a BALANCE between raising students and raising test scores

• ENGAGE CHILDREN  in their own learning and growth; help them to be experts in analyzing their own test data and set goals accordingly

• Lead parents in a community transition from parent involvement to PARENT ENGAGEMENTwhere parents’ energy is first and foremost directed toward helping their child be a successful learner

• Integrate successful TECHNOLOGY solutions that bridge the digital divide and simultaneously accelerate learning

• Create systems that support STUDENT WELLNESS (academic, social, emotional, mental, medical, dental), especially for students who are otherwise at high risk

• Promote healthy NUTRITIONAL HABITS  and a climate that promotes daily exercise

• Maintain a BEHAVIOR POLICY  that is clear, democratic, humane, and prudently applied (as opposed to “zero tolerance”)

• Promote COMMUNITY SERVICE and each students’ capacity for contributing to others

• Create a sense of individual EFFICACY  among staff and students

• Foster RESILIENCY in individuals and in the school organization as a whole.

Those are my ten.  For now. There will be more innovations for professors to study in how we turn our schools around.

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Filed under charter schools, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, resiliency, school reform, standardized testing, teaching