Principal's Corner
This is a space to learn about our changing educational landscape and the impact on Shaker Heights High School.
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Learning by Doing
Posted 8/26/2019 at 9:45:25 AM by [System User]
I believe in Learning by Doing

My high school history teacher once said, "School is practice for life." He clearly defined how school and the "real" world had different rules and measures of success and failure. The conversation drove me crazy. I didn't want to practice life, I wanted to live it. I had that frustrating conversation with my teacher more than twenty five years ago, and I've been working to prove him wrong ever since.

Now, our world is changing rapidly.. It was far easier for my history teacher to tell me school was practice for life before the internet, and cell phones, and tablets were everywhere. Now, all the information in the world is easily accessible.But most schools still keep what happens in school separate from what happens in the world. Outside of school, students create YouTube videos. They mix their own music. They take their own photos and upload, alter, and create their own content. But too often, school remains about regurgitating the information  the teacher gave the student back to the teacher, via essay, test, poster or worksheet.  I want students to see that school and the world are not two distinct places with the Grand Canyon between them.

In too many schools, learning occurs in silos. Math never connects with Science, and History never connects with English. This content divide becomes even more prominent with students with low academic skills. It's easy to fall into the trap of teaching the who, what, when, and where of the content and never getting into any depth of learning regardless of the topic. Students end up completing worksheets and answering multiple choice questions on tests, and the result is very little practical or measurable learning ever occurs. It's also sometimes difficult to avoid these silos with our highest achieving students. These are students in Advanced Placement classes who are driven to earn a high score on the test. They are focused on the right answer and their score, and while some learning inevitably happens, if we tried to engage these students in dialogue about their learning six months or a year later, much of what they learned is gone.

Learning by doing means applying what students are expected to learn in real-world scenarios. A former colleague of mine used to say, "Start with a problem and end with an audience." Have you seen the movie Apollo 13? A way to think about learning by doing is through the scene in that movie when the engineers have to solve a filtration problem with only the materials the astronauts have with them in space. Here's the scene. Students are also far more likely to put their best effort on a task when they are solving an actual problem, and when they have to present their results to an audience beyond their teacher or parents. 

In my last school, I created a program called X-Block to give all students the opportunity to apply their learning in the community. X-Block occurred weekly. We had one afternoon with no formal classes each week, and all students worked with community partners doing the work they do out in the world. There were no tests, no quizzes, and no homework. There were no textbooks or lectures either. Instead, students were learning by doing. There were no contrived tasks or hypothetical situations. 100% of our students chose the partners they wanted to work with, and they worked on real tasks that mattered to both the students and the partners, each and every week. 

Students wrote poetry with Lake Erie Ink, and published their work in an original book each semester. They learned to think critically and problem solve while repairing motorcycles at Skidmark Garage. They applied Physics, and learned perseverance and how to row at The Foundry. They applied their knowledge of Biology, while learning urban composting at Rust Belt Riders. We built furniture at Soulcraft Woodshop. One of our best experiences was with two-one-fix bicycle. Students first learned to repair a bicycle, and then built a bike from scratch to give to someone else in their life. They applied, physics, math, problem-solving, and learned about empathy, all at the same time. Students also programmed drones and raspberry pi, cooked healthy food options and discovered a love of yoga. They learned photography, created side-by-side with a blacksmith, played squash, made music, and so much more.

Learning by doing is both beautiful and scary all at the same time. School is often set up to be about the teacher as the possessor of knowledge, with the students as the recipients of that knowledge (Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). I believe that students learn better by working side by side with their teachers on real work that matters. To see it in action can be absolutely terrifying for everyone involved. Where is the textbook? What about the desks? Where are the rows? Why aren't they in a classroom? Why is it so noisy? But some students who hate school, and never speak in class, are completely engaged when they can learn by doing. Other students, who have learned to do school well, sometimes said we weren't doing school correctly. Then they created something that didn't exist before, and experienced incredible pride in their accomplishments.

If we want to prepare students for the world they will enter, instead of the world we entered when we graduated from high school, we have to change the student experience for our students. We can't expect students to create, and wonder and question when they get to college or enter the workforce, if we haven't given students the opportunity to have those experiences in high school. Exposure to real world problems and the opportunity to apply learning in the community is one way to make school life, instead of practice for life.
Equal and Fair
Posted 8/19/2019 at 11:12:06 AM by [System User]
I believe that equal and fair are not the same.

Teenagers want everyone to be treated the same, no matter the circumstances, all the time. “That’s not fair!” is a common refrain in high schools everywhere. When we know our students, really know them, academically and as people, we have a much better understanding of what each student needs, rather than just being a school that enforces the same rules with everyone, regardless of individual needs. For example, discussions regarding rules about cell phone usage in schools is an ever-present topic of conversation. Keep all phones in your locker. Keep them on your person, but turn them off. Turn in your phone to your teacher every period. The principal will take your phone if you use it in class. All of these are examples of rules in place in some schools. But should cell phone rules and guidelines be universal for every student all the time? I know someone who checks her phone when it beeps because it is monitoring her insulin levels and helping her to understand her blood sugar levels in the moment. What about a student who is waiting for news about their parent’s surgery? Students should not be listening to music in class instead of listening to their teacher. And there ought to be a difference in the consequences for the student listening to music versus the student checking her phone waiting to hear about the outcome of surgery. Equal and fair are not the same. We don’t need to apply every rule universally for every situation. The specific circumstances must be considered when determining consequences. Students sometimes ask why there might be consequences for one student and not another. “That’s not fair,'' they say. My response is always: Equal and fair are not the same.

Fighting is unacceptable in any school. But consequences can be different based on circumstances. If one student tries to fight, and that student is dealing with a traumatic situation at home, then an out of school suspension might not be what’s best for that student. The student must have consequences for attempting to fight, but perhaps the consequences ought to be time out of class, with a counselor, in support of the trauma that may have led to the attempted fight. Equal and fair are not the same.

Academically, someone who is an English Language Learner might need more time in English class than a native English speaker. Someone with a learning difference might need extra time on a test, or to have something read aloud to them. Someone who is excelling in math might need to be challenged to apply math concepts outside of class in the community. A student excelling at speaking Spanish, French, or German might need to be challenged to speak to a native speaker of that language instead of using a textbook. All these students earn the same credit for completing their courses. They just arrive at their destination through different paths because equal and fair are not the same.

There are two key misconceptions associated with this idea of equal and fair not being the same. Here’s the first. Equal and fair are not the same means we have different goals for different groups of students. This is incorrect. We have the same goals for all students, despite their needs. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that because a group of students has less, or starts out behind another group, that we should lower our expectations. We will not lower our expectations at Shaker Heights High School. Instead, we need extreme clarity about the destination for all our students. And then we must provide all students what they need to get to our agreed upon destination. If we believe that all SHHS students should have the choice to go to college, then we must provide different support to ensure every single student can meet that goal. Not everyone needs the same support to reach the same goal. We need to be clear about who needs what, and how we will meet that need as a school community. But our process begins with common expectations for all. How we get to the common goal can be varied for different students. But the goal remains the same.

The second misconception is that having the same goal for all means if we are providing more resources to one group of students, then we must be providing less resources to another. This misconception implies that in order to help one group reach a goal, we must diminish another groups’ educational experience. I don’t accept this premise. We have enough resources at our school to provide fair support and amazing experiences for every single student. Equal and fair are not the same, does not mean that one group gets more financial resources applied to them so another group gets less financial resources applied to them. Not every student needs the same experiences at our school. But every student has different needs that we must meet to ensure our purpose as a school is achieved by every single student. Meeting those needs will never mean that we are taking away from one group in support of another.  

We need to give all students what they need. We don’t need to give every student the same experience. This applies to discipline and consequences just as it applies to learning. Equal and fair are not the same. This I believe.
Kids Over Content
Posted 8/12/2019 at 11:23:33 AM by [System User]
I believe we teach kids, not content.

When I first started teaching high school students, my school was adding a grade each year. I was charged with teaching writing to our rising 10th grade, the oldest students in the school. We wrote the entire first quarter. I tried using writing prompts to get them going. I offered controversial statements and had them respond. We wrote, and we wrote, and we wrote. And every night, I filled their papers with ink, because frankly, the kids were terrible writers. This was an inner city school, with students reading and writing far below grade level. I knew how far the students had to go to even be on-grade-level writers, and I felt an incredible sense of urgency to get them there. At the end of the first quarter, I had worked harder than I had ever worked before, and every student was failing the class, and every student hated our class and me, because I was unintentionally telling my students with my words, actions, and feedback that they weren’t up to par.

I needed help. My school was becoming the only K-12 public school in New York City. And the previous year, I worked closely with the K-3 team. They were my original mentors, and that’s who I went to for support. I sat down with Meryl-an absolutely phenomenal kindergarten teacher to talk about my struggles. And it was such a memorable conversation that I can still feel the awkwardness of sitting with my knees up high, in those too-small kindergarten seats. I had to push away from the table to speak, because my knees were above the tabletop. Meryl told me that I was so focused on the content, the what of what needed to be learned, that I was forgetting about the kids, the ones who needed to do the learning. The students had been willing to write for me, but I kept sending their papers back with low grades, and feedback essentially telling the students they weren’t good enough, no matter what they did.

Meryl suggested I grow a literacy-focused classroom. She proposed that I put my students growing literacy at the center of the course, instead of focusing entirely on the content and what needed to be learned in one short school year. This sounded great, but I was a second year teacher, and I had no idea how to move forward. What did it mean to focus on the kids, more than the content? Meryl proposed I give each of the students a journal, and while I might offer a prompt occasionally, each student could write whatever s/he wanted in the journal. I would never grade the quality of writing, and I would never write directly in the journal. I could write questions, but only on post-its that students could easily remove, and they wouldn’t be required to answer my questions. Then Meryl suggested I read a book aloud to the students. Together, we selected the novel Push, by Sapphire. If you don’t know it, it’s a tough and powerful story. I read this book aloud in class, every day, while adding the journaling component to the class, and continuing to expect high quality writing on more traditional assignments, like essays and persuasive writing pieces. And everything changed and the most amazing shift occurred. Almost every student, without any prompting, started writing deeply personal stories to me in their journals. For a few, those writings evolved into conversations. For one student, she wrote about her life that school year, and for two more years after that, even though I wasn’t always her teacher. She would walk into my room, hand me the journal, and leave. And I continued to write only questions, and only on post-it notes. We never once spoke aloud about what she wrote. It wasn’t necessary. And upon her graduation, I gave her a journal. The act of writing in journals, without fear of negative feedback, and not having to worry about whether the comma was in the right place, or if their participle was dangling, or if their voice was active, rather than passive, gave the students confidence in their classroom writing assignments. We wrote, and we read, and shared this amazing experience. Every student passed the class. Every one of those students graduated from high school, and every one of them went to college or post-secondary training, and finished. I know, because I remain in touch with most of them, more than twenty years later.

But here’s the amazing part. I used whole class journaling three more times in my teaching career, but not every year. And the year after this story unfolded, I intended to read Push again with my new group of students. I started it with them. But the new group of students hated it. They hated it so much, that we stopped and picked an entirely different book to read together. I realized that reading Push had been what that first group of students needed. And that need wasn’t universal. It wasn’t the content of the book, that was so important. It was the shared experience, and the connections we forged as a class, that made the difference. My next group of students had many of the same needs in terms of growing their writing skills. But trying to do the same learning, in the same way, with a different group of students, was like trying to tell the same joke or story to a different group and expecting the same reactions. It just doesn’t work. I needed an entirely different entry point to address the same skills with a new group of students, because while they had similar strengths and weaknesses as students, they were totally different people. Reading Push with a group of tenth graders in 1997 was one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my career, and I’ve never used that book again. Being empowered by my veteran teaching colleagues, to reinvent the reading materials for the same course the next year, because I would have a different group of students, was an even more important lesson that has impacted my entire career.

We teach kids, not content. There are plenty of skills that we want to teach students each and every year. Topics like organization, and how to be persuasive as a writer, how to think critically, and problem solve are all skills we want our students to have. And we don’t have to teach them the same way every year, while using the same materials. One group of students may need to learn these skills differently than another group, within the same school year. When we know our students as individuals, we start to understand that individuals don’t all need the same learning, in the same way, at the same time, and at the same pace. If we want all our students to learn about theme, it doesn’t mean that we all have to read Macbeth together. I don’t agree that there are universal texts, readings, and experiences that everyone must access in high school. There’s always discussions about whether all students should read a core set of books. Does it matter if everyone reading this blog post read the same titles in high school that I did? Should our experiences in English and Math and Science, and Music all have been the same? Or does it matter more if our teachers knew us, cared about us as individuals, and met our academic needs, even if they were different from the person sitting next to us?

What do our students need? And how do our student needs shift from class to class and year to year? In every teacher interview I’ve ever led, I tell the candidate that we teach kids not content. You can be passionate about Shakespeare, the Pythagorean theorem, punnett squares, engineering, painting, or the Battle of Yorktown. But if you don’t love teaching kids first, second, and third, you aren’t who our students need.

We teach kids not content. And it makes all the difference in the world.
Care
Posted 8/4/2019 at 8:29:06 PM by [System User]
I believe that every student needs at least one adult in school with whom they feel connected.
 
I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate. My junior year of college, I took a fascinating class about educational philosophy. In it, we read The Challenge to Care in Schools, by Nel Noddings. Noddings argues that a caring relationship between teacher and student is at the heart of a positive school experience. I remember writing a scathing rebuke of of this idea. Before I became a teacher, I believed that clear articulation of the content was far more important than whether or not a student liked their teacher. I didn’t remember liking all my teachers, so I thought that liking teachers was secondary to learning from them. Feeling cared about by teachers seemed at the time, an unnecessary luxury that could happen in a classroom, but certainly wasn’t a requirement.
 
Then I became an inner city teacher in New York City. And twenty-three years later, I can say with confidence that every single success I’ve ever had as an educator has occurred because of the caring relationship I have developed with my students and their families. What I didn’t understand as a college student in my educational philosophy course that I do understand now, is that I was a compliant student in high school. Compliance doesn’t require care. But for students to learn, to question, to wonder, to make, to fail, to try harder, and to imagine new possibilities, care is the most vital ingredient for learning to occur. 
 
Creating a caring environment in a classroom and a school does not happen by accident. Creating a caring environment requires purposeful choices and actions to ensure all our students are seen, heard, and acknowledged for the strengths and gifts they bring to school each and every day. Purposefully caring for all students means asking ourselves important questions like:
  • Do I know my students beyond just knowing their names and faces?
  • Do I know how our students are doing in all their classes?
  • Does our curricula represent all students? And by extension, can each of our students find him/her/their self in the classes they are taking?
  • Is the value of care evident in the office, hallways, our messages to families, and our classrooms?
  • Who are the students we don’t know? Why don’t we know them? And who will take on the important task of getting to know them?
  • Do we listen to student voice? How do our students know their ideas are valued?
The above list of questions isn’t all-inclusive. It’s a start. For me, purposefully caring for students means greeting them at the door. It means knowing students names. It means asking about their weekends, and caring about the responses. It means showing up to events our students value. It means knowing where students live, and the types of issues they are dealing with. It means knowing who they live with and not making assumptions about what is and isn’t happening outside of school. It means listening. And asking questions. And listening some more. It means laughing together, and having common experiences together. 
 
Caring in our classrooms can be different for every teacher. In my experience, some of what works best is greeting every student at the door. When teachers know their students’ nicknames or whether they want to be called by their given name or not, students feel cared about. The idea that teachers ought not to smile before Thanksgiving is a myth. Getting to know every student means smiling, and laughing and empathizing and learning together. What is and isn’t on the walls of classrooms tells students whether they are cared about. Is only the best student work up for everyone to see? Do our students see that growth and improvement is honored and respected also? What are we reading, and who wrote it? Curricular choices explicitly and implicitly tell students what we value. Can African American, LatinX, LGBTQ, and other students find themselves in the lessons we teach and learn every day? The answer to that question sends a clear message about care for all in our school. 
 
High School is stressful regardless of the classes our students are in. While every student wants to put academics at the forefront of their experiences, social, emotional, athletic, and family issues often take center stage. Do we know what makes our students tick? Do we know their struggles? Their hopes, dreams and fears? Do we notice when they miss class? Do we tell them we missed them when they’ve been gone? All of this and more are markers of care. It takes purposeful actions on the part of every adult in our school to make caring for all a reality. 
 
Every student needs at least one adult in school with whom they feel connected. This I believe.
 
Until next time on the Principal’s Corner...
Reply Posts
Relationships
Posted 8/10/2019 at 12:08:39 PM by [anonymous visitor]
Relationships are everything - success and learning will move at the pace of trust. Love this - Can African American, LatinX, LGBTQ, and other students find themselves in the lessons we teach and learn every day
This I Believe ...
Posted 7/29/2019 at 4:53:30 PM by [System User]
I’m a huge fan of the NPR show and podcast series, This I Believe. I love reading about or hearing about individual people’s passion, strength, weaknesses or a seemingly benign moment in time and its’ importance to an individual. Mostly though, I love stories. I thought I might use the This I Believe format to articulate my views to our community about teaching, learning, and the role school can have towards preparing students for the world they will enter, and the role school can have in shaping twenty-first century citizens. Here’s a guiding belief statement to help you, the reader, understand what I believe about school, teaching, and learning. 

I believe that failure means not having succeeded yet.

When I was an elementary school student, I thought that an F in school was something akin to a root canal, or surgery without anesthesia. I imagined an F came with unbearable pain and suffering. I would do anything to avoid it. In high school, I discovered there wasn’t any actual physical pain associated with earning an F on an assignment. I wasn’t willing to see if there was pain in failing a course. But if I failed an assignment, there was no lightning, or thunder, no one bled. The pain of an F earned on an assignment in school was negligible. If I didn’t feel like putting in the work on an assignment, and I could handle getting a C in the course instead of an A, then an F on a difficult, or unwanted assignment, I reasoned, could be considered a strategic success. The only actual pain associated with an F on a high school assignment, occurred when my parents found out about an F I’d earned. I learned to avoid F’s in high school just because I didn’t want to feel my parents’ wrath. 

In college, my parents weren’t there to yell at me. And I had no idea why I was taking the classes on my course schedule. And I couldn’t figure out what any course had to do with my life, because I couldn’t see through my fog to have any sense of what my life might hold. When there wasn’t any lightning, thunder, bleeding, or parents’ wrath, my F’s seemed to have virtually no consequences at all. And F’s on assignments quickly turned into F’s in courses. I also wasn’t inspired to do better for me or for anyone else. That is until the letter came after my fifth or sixth F, that essentially said, I seemed like a nice person, but if I didn’t get my academic act together, I would lose my scholarship. That letter gave me some great insight into the wrath my parents could bring to the table. I got my act together and though my mother would say today, that she’s the reason I got it together, the truth is, I decided in one particular moment to be a different version of myself, and to never fail again. I graduated from college on time, and never looked back. I was twenty when I made the decision to turn things around. I believed at that time that I could live a life where I might never fail again, if I just willed it to be so. If only that were true. The truth is, I fail all the time. I make regular mistakes. I start a diet, and stop. I commit to exercising regularly and then don’t. I intend to go to bed earlier, and find myself watching tv until all hours of the night. If there’s one thing I’ve become an expert at in my adulthood, it’s failure. And I’ve learned as an adult, if I’m willing to deal with the consequences or outcomes of those failures, then I will. 

In school, we set deadlines for assignments, tell students there won’t be any extensions, and give them F’s when they don’t meet our deadlines. We tell students that having to meet deadlines builds character. We tell students in the real world, they will have to get it right the first time at their job. They can’t miss their deadlines when it matters. Except how true is that? There are certainly jobs and tasks that have to be done on time. But is that the norm? I passed my driver’s test the first time I took it. But I had friends who took multiple tries to pass their tests. If you look at our licenses it doesn’t say I passed the first time, and they passed the third. Does it matter that I got it right the first time, and they needed more time? Or is what matters that we all have our licenses? When my wife and I moved to Ohio, no one told us about RITA taxes, and we never knew to ask. We missed the RITA tax deadline for the first couple of years living here because we didn’t know about it. I didn’t get an F. I got a scary letter saying I should pay what I owe. So I did. 

It’s common in schools to tell the story of Michael Jordan having not made his high school varsity basketball team on his first try. We use the story to tell students they shouldn’t give up. Yet we tell students all the time that they failed an assignment in English or Science class and they can’t do it again. They failed. How do we raise up the Michael Jordan story as evidence of trying again, and not let students retake or redo an assignment in class?

Lots of students believe, like I did, that an F means pain of some sort. And when they find out, like I did, that there isn’t any pain associated with an F, they stop trying, and sometimes stop caring about their grades at all. We can change this without being scary. We can change this without setting more stringent deadlines. We can change by giving students tasks in school that demand falling down, and picking themselves up again. If we want students to believe that failure means the end, then we should keep on telling them that failure is the worst thing that could happen. But that only works until they figure out, like I did, that failure in school, isn’t always really that bad. And what if they don’t figure it out? Do we want adults who believe that trying something once and failing, means never trying again?

I want students to understand that failure means not having succeeded yet. That means we don’t give them the answer, no matter how much they want it. That means we create tasks that matter to students. Build something, make something, create something that you or someone else needs. And don’t stop until you get it right. Even if that takes multiple tries. When students see the work they are doing matters beyond the grade book, there is an incentive to get it right. It’s okay to give students difficult tasks, as long as they are tasks that matter. When students see the value in the work, they want to get it right, no matter how many tries they may need. Failure ought to never mean that you’re done. Keep going until you get it right. And that’s what learning can be. When students don’t fail because of fear of repercussions, they don’t have opportunities to learn the self-starting and motivation skills they need to be successful in the future. Now I’m successful at my work because I’m motivated to get it right and be better. We can’t just assume students learn those skills on their own. Instead we need to be purposeful about creating conditions where students can and should fail, so they get back up, dust themselves off, and keep going. 

Until next time on the Principal’s Corner...
Reply Posts
Great piece
Posted 8/10/2019 at 12:09:19 PM by [anonymous visitor]
Failing forward - I'm going to try as a parent to not use progress book as my freshman enters high school.
Welcome!
Posted 7/9/2019 at 8:23:33 AM by [System User]
Welcome to the Principal's Corner! I am Eric Juli, and I am the new principal of Shaker Heights High School. I will be writing and posting videos in this space about a variety of topics related to my philosophy of education, improving student learning, post-secondary planning, equity, relationship building, learning by doing, and what school can be in our rapidly changing world. This is a space to learn about our changing educational landscape and the impact on Shaker Heights High School.
 
I will not be posting weekly updates in this space, reminders about events, or any calendar specific posts. We will be updating you on calendar events using other tools, including three new social media accounts. Please check them out and follow us on these platforms.
I look forward to speaking with you about the topics I post about in this space. I hope the posts are thought provoking, and get you wondering and asking questions about the application of this thinking to Shaker Heights High School. Occasionally, I will also link to interesting articles to support our ongoing dialogue. 
 
Thanks for checking in on the Principal's Corner!  

Contact

Mr. Eric Juli, Principal
15911 Aldersyde Drive
Shaker Heights, OH 44120
(216) 295-4200
juli_e@shaker.org

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