August 28, 2015

Keep It Simple


Remember when we were in elementary school and our teachers always told us to use the KISS method: Keep It Super Simple (or other variations). Many of us keep that in mind as we maneuver through our work and personal lives. Somewhere along the line, though, it becomes difficult to keep it simple.

In education we have seen many changes during the last 20 years and often those changes don't come with "and you can also STOP doing this." It seems that as new mandates arrive in education, we are only adding to our plates. We often talk about "doing more with less" and certainly try to make that work but it becomes more difficult. As curricula have developed and advanced and educational processes are researched to the nth degree, we have to take a step back and decide it is okay to focus on just a few things that can actually impact our students. We have to remember that we are all about the students in education.

As we talk about student learning and success, though, it is a simple process that we all too often decide to complicate.

  • What are we teaching
    • That is, what is happening in our classrooms
  • What is the expected curriculum 
    • If we are using the State Standards, does our classroom instruction match up? We have gone through this with the Michigan Curriculum Framework and the Content Expectations previously
  • What gaps do we have
    • As we compare our taught curriculum to the expected, we have to fill in the gaps and ensure that we are teaching "the currculum"
  • How are our students doing academically
    • We have to look at our student performance: 1) on state assessments; 2) on nationally normed assessments; 3) on classroom performance (e.g. grades). Students shouldn't be just a number, but their performance can tell us something. 
  • What can we do to improve student performance 
    • We have to decide what to do with students who are succeeding, students who are struggling, and students who are failing. We have to believe that all students can learn and strive to make sure that happens. 
You may be saying to yourself or even aloud, "Why does this matter?"It matters because our students are the future and we want to provide them every opportunity to learn and be prepared for the future. At an elementary school I used to work at, our mission was "Preparing today's student for tomorrow's world." This is so true of our educational mission. Why are we doing this? Because we want our kids ready when the future arrives. 

The simple steps we can take include the aforementioned alignment of our teaching with the curriculum, implementing opportunities for teachers and staff to collaborate, allow time for teachers to develop quarterly assessments and make them a part of the assessment program, and finally, make sure teachers have time to review information and make appropriate modifications. 

Furthermore, leaders have to provide teachers with the materials and supplies they need in their classroom to successful teach so the students are able to learn.In addition, we have to provide opportunities for teachers to learn new skills and continue to develop throughout their careers. Often professional development opportunities are not aimed at activities that help teachers help students. Sometimes PDs are aimed at compliance or even the occasional fun activities that have nothing to do with student learning. It's no wonder that teachers are disengaged in professional learning and thus students lose interest as they travel through school. 

Education is a simple process. Teachers teach. Students learn. We have to get back to the moment when everyone in education is engaged: the leaders, the teachers, the students, the families — even the boards of education … We all have to work together to create excellent opportunities for kids. We have to keep it super simple! 

August 24, 2015

Fresh Fish!

There's nothing more delicious than fresh caught fish on the shores of a great lake in Michigan.

One of the summer excursions for Lori and me included a visit to Paradise, Michigan. It's a small community in the Upper Peninsula that sits right on Whitefish Bay. It's a cool place to visit. And believe it or not, the food is "to die for." That's right!

Eating fresh whitefish highlighted our visit.

The Fish House is open six days a week. That is, if they have a successful catch. If they do not catch enough fish, they don't even open. The day we visited, they hadn't caught enough trout so even though it was on the menu, they didn't serve any. But the whitefish that day was incredible.

If you get a chance, visit the Fish House right past the curve in Paradise, Michigan. You will not be disappointed. It reminded me of what Seth Godin talks about when he refers to a "purple cow." The Fish House serves incredible fish IF THEY HAVE A SUCCESSFUL CATCH. And as you can see, the sign is simple. And the fish is delish.

You still have time as summer doesn't officially end for a little while. And you're still hungry!

August 22, 2015

A Refreshingly Delicious Beverage

A Truly Michigan Treat

It's probably been possible to get ginger ale at McDonald's for years. I never really looked into it before because I don't generally drink ginger ale unless I'm enjoying a coney dog at Lafayette Coney in Detroit. And when I'm there I always drink Vernors because it's a classic Detroit ale.

Near Grand Rapids yesterday I made a major discovery: McDonald's is now selling the refreshingly delicious Vernors in that market. I haven't noticed the sign anywhere else and I'm not even sure that Vernors will go all that well with McDonald's Big Macs, but it's an interesting development.
One of the nation’s oldest soft drinks, Vernors Ginger Ale was first served to the public in 1866. The drink was created by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor, a well-respected pharmacist with a reputation for meticulous care with his prescriptions.
Like most pharmacists of his time, Dr. Vernor also ran a soda fountain adjacent to his Woodward Avenue pharmacy. The doctor was working on a medicinal tonic of vanilla and spices, with the addition of ginger to calm the stomach, when he was called to fight in the Civil War. He left the blend in an oak cask and went off to fight in the Civil War in 1862. When Vernor returned from the war, he opened the barrel and was surprised by its delicious contents. The beverage had a zesty, sweet, gingery flavor that was accentuated by the wood’s aging process. (taken from the following source:
One great treat you can make yourself is called a Boston Cooler. A Boston Cooler is a blend of vanilla ice cream and Vernors. It's called a Boston Cooler because of the street in Detroit it was created on, not because of the city in Massachusettes.

All–in–all, Vernors Ginger Ale is a wonderful treat. And it's pure Michigan!

August 21, 2015

Chaos Killed the Dinosaurs

My mom put me in a Pampers commercial on TV. — Christian Slater

Christian Slater is on the Today show this morning. I'm not sure if he is going to become a member of the morning show or not, but several years ago he was an up–and–coming superstar actor. In the late '80s he was on a role appearing in a great many solid movies, but then his well–documented lifestyle got in the way of his success. Heathers and Pump Up the Volume were hits for him.

Back then Jack Nicholson also was a rockstar actor, having hit after hit. His role as the Joker in the original reboot of Batman was classic. Nicholson's A Few Good Men, Hoffa, and As Good As It Gets were huge in the '90s.

In the mid–90s I started thinking that it would be awesome if Nicholson would play Slater's father in a movie. The actors are similar, separated by generations. They have looks in common, as well as their voices. It would still be great if the duo would appear as father and son in a movie. How cool would that be?

August 20, 2015

Front Office on the Same Page

"A front office that works together on the same page." 

In one sentence Dave Dombrowski made a statement. You can read all you want into the statement or you can take it at face value. He could be saying that the front office in Detroit no longer played well together or he could be stating that he understands that the Red Sox front office was dysfunctional. Regardless it is paramount in leadership to work with a team that is on the same page and going in the same direction. 

Dave Dombrowski led a renaissance in the Motor City. As the Fox Theater marquee displayed this message in 2006 the tradition of baseball in Detroit began to change and Comerica Park suddenly was home for the Tigers. 

Leaders & Managers

Like me you have probably read the columns about great leaders and great managers as well as bad managers and bad leaders. Leadership and management are not the same; it's been stated clearly that leadership is about people and management is about things or systems. That's probably true. Michael Fullan is one of the leading writers on effective change and he places a great deal of focus on building the capacity of people through the change process. Collaborative culture is relatively new in work environments. Much of the 20th Century was spent in isolation in all industries. Now we are focused on working together and moving forward.

Educational Aspect

In 2006 Fullan wrote "Change theoryA force for school improvement" and it supplemented his work in the book The Six Secrets of Change. Fullan focused on the development of people through the difficult change process, including:

  1. a focus on motivation; 
  2. capacity building, with a focus on results; 
  3. learning in context; 
  4. changing context; 
  5. a bias for reflective action; 
  6. tri-level engagement; 
  7. persistence and flexibility in staying the course

Dombrowski & Avila 

Overall it's important to motivate your colleagues, including the management team, the front–line team, the support team. Motivation makes a different. Then building the capacity is important. Raising the bar and helping people understand the need to reach those goals — all the while ensuring that everyone is able to learn, improve, and contribute. Working within the system and changing the context of the process and allowing everyone time to "get on board" is also necessary. Create a focus on reflective action. Fullan says, "People learn best through doing, reflection, inquiry, evidence, more doing and so on." Finally, getting all stakeholders in the engagement process makes a difference, e.g. the state, district, and school. Persistence makes a difference but the leaders and managers have to stay the course but also be flexible. While Fullan is focused on education, it's clear that these same factors were in place as Dombrowski began rebuilding the Tigers back in 2002. Fourteen years is a long time to run any organization, let alone a baseball team.

Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski have worked together more than once in the past. Is there the potential for one more reunion? 

Same Page

Dombrowski may have encountered some things changing in the Tigers front office or maybe it was just that Mike Illitch somehow lost faith in his President/General Manager. We may never know what really transpired that fateful August 1 morning or afternoon. We have heard that Mr. Illitch contacted Mr. Avila and offered him the General Manager position on Saturday, August 1 but didn't notify Dombrowski of the change until Tuesday, August 4 — in the evening. It doesn't add up and it makes one wonder about the behind–the–back dealings that may have occurred. Remember, at his introductory press conference in Boston, Dombrowski said, "A front office that works together on the same page." 


Clearly Dombrowski managed the organization well but his leadership has come into question lately. It's been said he's rigid, somewhat of a micromanager. He was the President and General Manager — there was no title that suggested leadership. The organization reflected Dombrowski's management style. Now, Mr. I has decided a less rigid style is necessary and possible one more focused on analytics would be the right route. Is that where the front office breakdown happened, analytics? Only time will tell …

August 19, 2015

Dombrowski to the Red Sox

Baseball is the greatest game.

As you may have noticed, I have tried to write about more things other than baseball. It's not even that the Tigers are having such a lackluster season; it's that I need to explore all of my interests in more detail than I have for the last several years. I'll try to combine two facets into one but once again I'm writing about leadership and the greatest game.

In 2001, the Tigers hired a new President, Dave Dombrowski. No one can argue that he completely changed the culture of the Tigers organization. The '90s were abysmal in Detroit if you were a Tigers fan. The ballpark at the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull was allowed to crumble as relatively–new owner Mike Illitch aimed to build a new home for the Tigers. Even after a major upgrade to the Tigers Plaza, a carnival–like area at the entrance to Tiger Stadium, things were allowed to oxidize and rust. By 1999 the "last season" the Stadium was a shadow of its former self. The Tigers went through several general managers in the '90s as well as a few managers — strange considering that the Tigers though 1995 had Sparky Anderson at the helm for 17 seasons.

It's irrelevant to name all of the GMs from the '90s nor is it important to name the subsequent managers after Anderson's blackball, er, retirement from baseball. In 2001 Dombrowski joined the Tigers are President, in the spring of 2002 he added the title of General Manager after firing Randy Smith, who himself was brought in to the be the bright and shining star. His claim to fame in Detroit was trading the team for Juan Gonzalez who hated playing for the Tigers and bolted as a free agent following the 2000 season after rejecting an offer that would have made the poster boy for steroids the highest paid and longest termed player in baseball. We can be thankful that playing for the Cleveland Indians sounded better than sticking with the Tigers as it might have been difficult to overcome such a contract.

So, that brings us to Dombrowski who is joining the Boston Red Sox as President of Baseball Operations. He comes on the scene with two albatross contracts just signed last winter in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. The pitching is in rough shape, as well, and the closer has struggled and is injured for the remainder of the season. So Dombrowski joins the Sox with a couple of jobs: do something with at least Ramiez's contract and find a bullpen. (Sound familier?) Plus, he has to determine if the Sox keep former Tiger Rick Porcello or try to move his contract as well.

Dombrowski joins an organization with more in the coffers than the Tigers currently have, plus the team has won three World Series in the past several seasons. He has work to do in Boston, as noted. Today at 2 p.m. the Sox will hold a press conference introducing Dombrowski and its reported that following the season current GM Ben Cherington will step down. The Tigers' former GM is a great baseball man but the word is that he's micromanaging and rigid. Upon joining the Tigers in 2001, the organization needed that. Over the course of the following 14 years, though, that need may have waned. That seems to be par for the course in leadership. Certain types of leadership work at certain times. The Tigers determined that they needed to relax things a bit (as well as bring a focus on to analytics) and the Red Sox determined they needed more rigid leadership. Baseball truly is the greatest game.

August 18, 2015

Just "Post" It

“Post It”

Oh I found a comma out of place and there are only seven ways you’re supposed to use a comma, so I’ll take it out and print one more copy. If this sounds familiar to you, then you understand how writing has changed with the invention of social media and specifically blogging.

When I was a younger writer, several drafts of everything were required. I don’t know if this was something that was expected by the teacher or adviser or if it were something that I instilled in myself. I used to make so many drafts of everything -- I think I perfected the writing process.  

The writing process is different when you create a blog post. The process I use is that I get an idea and I put a topic or sentence in Evernote, often on my iPhone. Then I’ll look up topics and decide that, “Yeah, I feel like going down that road today.” Truthfully, I write about a quarter of what I should into Evernote because blog post ideas are almost everywhere. Ideas that I should have developed in the last few days are (1) the decline and fall of McDonald’s as a somewhat quality place, (2) Billy Joel and the idea of “just end it,” and (3) my coffee evolution. Many more ideas occur every day.

Once I start my post, I usually follow a formula that was created by Copyblogger called “11 Essential Ingredients Every Blog Post Needs.” For several years I just freely wrote following an idea, but now I use the formula as a basis to make sure I include everything I need to in each post. I’ll read it over after writing it in Google Docs and make sure I like the content and its relatively error free. I’ve developed the idea that I’m sharing ideas on my blog not necessarily publishing error–free copy; furthermore, Seth Godin advises us to “ship it.” That’s what I try to do.

When I’m ready to hit “sent,” I put the content into Blogger and find a photo or two that supports the content. I place that photo within the blog post, look it over in blogger — often hitting preview a dozen times to be sure it looks really good, then I write a few labels that I find relevant; finally, after letting it settle for a few minutes, I hit publish. In a perfect world, I would find 20–30 minutes every single day to create content that might get read. I started out to write about baseball, education, and entertainment. Ten years later, I still write about all of that, but it’s more specifically about the Detroit Tigers and Detroit in general, leadership in education, and only sometimes entertainment. In fact, entertainment has been replaced by general living and the things we experience on a daily basis.

As an English teacher I focused on teaching the writing process and helping each student learn how to prepare by some early writing, creating a first draft, doing research, revising the first draft, working with classmates on revising, and finally editing those last few things that need editing. Of course there is a great difference between revising and editing — but I bet my former students don’t really remember that. I’m sure there is a generation of adults out there, though, that would never consider using “a lot,” the wrong “there,” or EVER writing “that” in  anyway!