My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults

I have been a secondary principal for half of my education career – 12 out of 24 years.  Starting this fall, I will have been in the main chair more than I was anywhere else.  And so as I enter this off-season and reflect on the past school year, I can honestly say that I pushed myself in a new way.  You see, I was starting to get a bit stale.  Yes, I still was intensely challenged, and the commitment to my campus, its students, faculty, staff, and community, had not wavered.  I simply wasn’t sure what was missing.  And thus, I spent this past school year trying to figure out what I was trying to figure out.

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Twelve months ago I entered the summer focused on the idea of becoming a learner again.  I juiced up my iPad, downloaded some great books, and read a lot.  The focus of what I consumed relied upon Twitter, and thus I resuscitated my twitter handle and committed to jump back into the learning.  I was excited.  I ate up articles, retweeted prolifically, and tried to spark wonderful conversation.  My followers grew slowly and my notifications were few.  I didn’t feel like I was gaining traction.  And so when the start of the new year came, it was easy to “get busy with school.”

In October I attended the What Great Educators Do Differently Conference in Chicago with two friends.  I was inspired and my learning engine was reignited.  This idea of discovery and sharing and pushing myself was exactly what I needed.  And as the conference closed, I kept hearing people mention #GeniusHour.  I didn’t know what it was, and, honestly, I was afraid to ask.  I nodded my head and figured it was something I could research later.

A few weeks later, I revisited my notes from the conference, and came across the term – #GeniusHour – again.  I decided to google it.  And as I perused the first website, and then the second, and then the third, I became energized again.  My thoughts raced from, “sure this can work in ES or MS, but what could it look like in the content-obsessed world of high school.”  And then the light bulb went off.

I spent the next two weeks constructing a #GeniusHour presentation for my administrative team.  I then presented to the 12 of them the idea of #GeniusHour followed by the challenge that would come their way.  I told them that we were each going to embark on this work and purely learn.  Topics could be related to school or education, or they could be something more personal.

GeniusHour Final

The room was silent.

A few members of my team had smiles as they knew what they were going to do.  Others had clarifying questions – perfectly acceptable.  And others basically kept their heads down.

I told them that they didn’t have to seek my approval.  That I was happy to support or be available as they wished.  I was specific enough to keep repeating the 4 caveats yet vague enough to make some restless.  And I was okay with that.

That was in late November.  In May and early June we took turns presenting our #GeniusHour projects.  What emerged has exceeded my expectations.  The topics ranged from learning a new language, to a DIY project; others focused on starting a blog while another was writing a novel with his son.  Two projects centered on relationships with one focused on just adults and the other on adults and students.  Finally, one teammate shared her journey from an inactive lifestyle to completing the Texas Ironman Triathlon.

And as we debriefed each presentation the common challenges of being a learner surfaced.  The uncomfortable feeling of starting something you weren’t certain you would understand or be good at.  The idea of learning taking longer or shorter than expected.  The focus on the outcome as opposed to the minutiae.  They had all reengaged as learners.  They also spoke about what it could look like in the classroom and how they might better support both teachers and students.

Prepared to be wrong

This #GeniusHour work that we embarked on will lead much of what we do in August with our entire team.  It wasn’t perfect – two members of my team chose not to participate.  And I had to come to terms with that as being okay.  They may not have felt safe or merely weren’t ready to reenter that space.  The remaining ten that did will share their learning with smaller groups on campus.  We will support our teachers in becoming a learner again.  Maybe their topic will center on an idea for their classroom or maybe it will be more personal.  Frankly, I don’t think the topic matters at all.  It’s the process that will count more.  It’s the experience that will stick with them as they move through the school year.

I didn’t know how it would go with my team, and I don’t know how it will go trying to scale it up with 185 teachers.  However I was certain that we needed a fresh challenge to jump start our work, and I’m counting on that same energy to launch our faculty forward as well.  If we don’t try then we’ll never know.

In my best case outcome, I see teachers embracing this challenge.  And I see them more able to empathize with the challenges of learning.  Each teacher will see that different learning styles exist, and that timelines and modes of sharing can enhance and empower the content they hold so dear.  Additionally, their students will no longer see themselves as the only ones taking a risk.  It’s increasing humanity on campus.  Genuine vulnerability in an intimate way.  Maybe it will help a student persevere a bit more, give it a go one more time.  We will see.

How have you recently engaged as a learner? How could you facilitate a #GeniusHour with the people that work alongside you?

 

Favorite Day of the Year: High School Graduation

 

BHS GRADUATIONThe last weekend in May is often a fond time for high school principals.  While some welcome the end of another school year and the “off-season” that comes with June, it is the actual commencement exercises that I enjoy the most.  It is, maybe, the singular day where everyone is happy.  The students walking across the stage have all achieved whatever is needed and thus they are pleased.  Parents have only two requirements for the event – make sure their child’s name is in the program and be sure to announce their name.  That’s it.  So they are delighted.  It’s a great day.

Now for me it is also a workout as I shake the hands of more than 800 graduates and smile for individual pictures with each of them.  While it is a grind, the graduation allows me to have a personal moment with each of them before they head forward.  I hope to never take that for granted.

I also have the charge of sharing a few words of wisdom, and that is a practice that I take seriously.  It is a chance to convey to both students and parents what is important to you, and thus the school.  It’s a chance to reward them for their faith and trust in public education and remind them that you have their best interest at heart.  For this annual speech in front of nearly 10,000 people, I often use some form of a common script.  However this year was different, this class more unique, and thus I pushed myself.  Below is what I shared and I hope that others may find it helpful.

“The scars on my skin are a map of the adventures and the places I’ve been.”

-U Li La Lu, poi dog pondering

Map of Adventures

Having the honor to stand before you and offer a few words as you move forward is a highlight for me.  My pride in your accomplishments is boundless.  Among many highlights, this class led us to our first Football Playoff Victory in 43 years, you won National Championships in a variety of competitions, you’ve been offered scholarship dollars that exceed $36 Million (by the way this is nearly $15 Million more than our previous record); you’ve entertained others across the country, and you’ve comforted each other through the toughest challenges anyone might face.  We laughed and celebrated while we cried and grieved.  There was no obstacle put before us that we could not overcome.

Now this is the part of my speech where I normally challenge you to live your life with great wisdom while offering some sage advice.  However this year, as has been referenced, is different.  You see, this year I learned from you.

I learned what it means to be part of a community.  I watched as over four years together you each accepted each other regardless of background, race, economic status, gender identity, or any of the other means by which we too often get categorized.  You refrained from falling in to the stereotypes that so many try to paint upon your generation.  While you embraced the typical high school experiences such as Homecoming, student concerts and athletic events, and, of course, Prom, you also found moments to bring people and resources together for a greater purpose.  Being part of a community is similar to being part of a family.  And it’s important to remember that family members agree and disagree, they hug and cry, they share the grandest of laughs while embracing through the lowest moments of sorrow.  And then they recover.  It may not always be pretty and it can get messy, however it is absolutely what every family experiences and exactly what needs to happen.

Now I was and remain a fan of a TV show called LOST.  And while making every effort to not give anything away, there is a great quote delivered in the series finale that I think particularly fits this senior class, and I’d like to share it.

LOST Speech no words

This is a place that you all made together so that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people on that island. That’s why all of you are here. Nobody does it alone. You needed all of them, and they needed you.

While these past four years were both not fiction and not an episode of Survivor, the school you entered in 9th grade was what was necessary then.  And for the years that followed you sacrificed, you invested in yourself, and you built exactly what was required.  Together you created this senior year because it was what you needed.  And a few months ago – when we lost Jade & Michael – together you made your way through it.  Because you had to and because you could.

Now the worry that often creeps in for seniors at this time is what happens next.  Maybe you will want your community to mirror what it is now.  Or perhaps you will desire something completely different.  My wisdom for you is that because of the experience you had at Bellaire, you, more than most of your peers across the city, state, and country, are truly prepared to build your own community.  Because you have already experienced it, if you can truly commit to do it, then what results from your effort will be exactly what you require.  You have that within you.  Trust it.

So as you prepare for the next exciting adventure in your life treasure the time you have had together.  Many of you will move on to the same college or city, and the effort needed to maintain friendships in this technologically rich world is far less than it was for your parents and me.  Yet it still requires effort, it demands respect, and it starts with a shared experience.  As your principal these past four years, I am confident that the shared experience of having moved through Bellaire is one that has been powerful for you.  I am humbled by your success and I thank you for always sustaining the necessary effort.  Go forward from today and lead a life that you take pride in, that you respect, and that you value.  Also be sure to eat your veggies, apply sunscreen, Stay Classy, Live Long and Prosper, and, finally, May the Force Be With You.

Understanding that the Principal has the opportunity to offer the final sentiments to students before they leave your school, how do you approach this opportunity?  What words of wisdom do you share?

 

 

 

 

Be Loud & Be Proud

Not long ago I had the chance to hear Joe Sanfelippo talk about how each school must be willing to tell their story.  I’ve heard Joe share this discussion more than once and each time I take something different away from it.  That’s how it usually is, right?  Like a great book or movie, we learn something new with each experience.  Now I want to focus on one particular communication tool we have used for the past 5 years and I’m hopeful it can be of value to other schools either now or for the coming school year.  This event helps us tell our story and we call it Cardinal Kickoff.  The premise centers on the idea that we want to open our doors and show you everything that makes us #CardinalProud.

The description that follows is not a prescription or recipe, rather an example of how a school can take assets that already exist and organize them in a purposeful manner.

TYS Big

Cardinal Kickoff begins with parents arriving and finding our advanced guitar students playing in the auditorium foyer.  And as families grab a program and find a seat, there is a PowerPoint playing with pictures and quick facts cycling and a small string quartet sharing a few pieces.  This large group general session involves a 30 minute presentation focusing on the academic life, the means by which we communicate, and the various ways that kids can get involved on campus.  It’s mostly me talking with some short mixed media pieces to help inform.  The session ends with an introduction to the spirit within our school as led by our Cheerleaders.  As they teach the Color Shout to our future Cardinals you can feel the energy begin to climb within the room.  What follows is my favorite part.

Cardinal Kickoff Big

Students and families head to the cafeteria down hallways flanked with our jazz band playing.  And as a little pep enters your step, students can begin to see and hear the buzz inside.  Filling every corner of this large space are tables packed with posters, treats, memorabilia, and sign-up sheets. The room is filled with electricity powered by current students who are recruiting with the same zeal as a basketball scout that has just found the next Lebron James.  Prospective families make their way through the crowds, moving past the Robotics booth to the South Asian Student Union.  They grab a cookie from the Baking Club and enjoy the Anime Club videos.  Music blasts from a corner area with eMotions dancers in a freestyle break-dance session.  Finally they cruise past the Swimming and Lacrosse tables to find the Chess Club.  And each year as students leave the cafeteria, catching up with mom and dad, I often hear something along the lines of, “this school really does have everything.”  Cardinal Kickoff allows us to show off the student life that exists on campus, an element that fully complements our academic program.  The student life portion of the high school experience is alive on our campus.  As a staff member said the first year as the event closed – we are big, we are loud and we are proud.

I share all of this as an example of how we try to tell our story.  And as I reflect on the event, I offer another conclusion that I have reached – one that might be even more important.  I have learned that while I thought we were telling the story to families on the outside, the most ardent consumers were the students and staff within the building.  You see, for many of them this was a chance to learn themselves about all that we offer.  Students were finding out that we had all these programs, and these opportunities, and that made them proud.  And they began to share that same story to others on campus.  And the resulting energy, excitement, and enthusiasm have been the greatest rewards.

Microphone wide

Telling your story doesn’t just benefit people that are looking for the best school.  Deciding to share all that makes you proud is just as important to those already on the inside.  Stories teach us and they also remind us.  They have the power to get us through the toughest times in the spring semester and they can propel us toward the fall.  Momentum can spring from telling your story.  It doesn’t matter if you share it with a microphone in your hand or while standing in line at the grocery store.  The point is that you are the only person that can.  I hope you’ll consider the power of your school’s story and commit to start telling it today.