Friday, May 29, 2015

A Salute to the Class of 2015

The following is the preliminary script for the address given to the graduates of the Class of 2015 at their commencement exercises May 29, 2015 at North Fayette Valley High School.
For the past few months I have tried to articulate in my mind what I wanted to say at graduation about the seniors in the Class of 2015 at North Fayette Valley High School.  Generally it has been easy for my to capsulize a class in a few words, but this year’s group has proven very difficult to sum up.  I have kept searching for that to no avail.  I remarked a year ago about the incredible academic achievement of the Class of 2014 with scores and accomplishments that were mind blowing.  In 2013, I spoke about the incredible pockets of talent and the amazing performances and accomplishments members of the class had over the course of their high school career.  For the Class of 2012 I discussed the potential and my personal curiosity as to where they were all going to end up.  But what about this bunch that sits before me?
Here is what I have come up with:  You are like the middle child.  Now I am going to describe what I mean from a few different perspectives.  You see last year in the first year of NFV, the seniors were the ones that got all of the attention.  First to do this, first to do that, and on and on and on.  They were the ones that had to leave behind their comfort zones in their last year of high school.  They got to make decisions and set the foundation for what was to come.  And the 9th and 10th graders – the younger siblings – we weren’t too worried about them because after a couple of years they would be just fine.  Plus, just like moms and dads do, we gave them extra attention to make sure they found their way.  And yes, we worried more about them than we did about you.  Would they find their way around the building?  Would they make friends?  How would they handle a school so big?  What about driving so far so early in the morning? 
And then there were you, the juniors.  Did anyone even notice you were here?  Were you here?  There’s three or four of you that we needed to check on this year to be sure you were who you claimed to be!  A lot of folks couldn’t tell the difference between a D.J. and a J.D.!  In some respects it was kind of like your class was invisible.  Neglected.  The school year ended, the first class of North Fayette Valley graduated and everyone patted themselves on their back about how well Year 1 had gone.  People were feeling pretty good.
And then we started this past school year, and with the older sibling gone and out of the house, the middle child was now ready to come out of his/her shell.  And this is what we found – this group of young men and women – these seniors – had become a strong, unified class of students that supported each other and had worked together to make each other better.   They had developed new friendships and found a lot of common interests.  Most of them have not been caught up getting a lot of individual attention or having the spotlight on them.  They have explored opportunities and have performed at a very high level.   There are some incredible minds in this class.  Some great thinkers.  A lot of this became evident through their Capstone experience.  They raised the bar with the quality of research and presentations they gave.  Many of them attacked the project, like they attack their classes, with the goal of learning.
Like the middle child there is a sense of empathy and a desire to help others.  A few were integral in putting together a program to draw awareness to how many students in our school struggle with mental health issues.  Others have provided much needed and appreciated service to others, such as playing the piano at a nursing home.  Parents are biased, but when I say that there are some really great kids in this class, you can take that coming from someone that wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it!  There are some truly nice, caring people that sit before me today, and we all have benefitted from having them build the foundation for our school.
Middle children do succeed, and a research study from the United Kingdom presents evidence that they out do their older and younger siblings.  Over half of the Presidents of our country were a middle-child.  Bill Gates, Peyton Manning, J-Lo, Donald Trump, Abraham Lincoln, David Letterman, Warren Buffett – all middle kids.  There were not great expectations place on this class – typical of the middle child – and perhaps because of this, they blossomed as their own intuition dictated.  They have done their own thing, and it has worked out very well.  We have over around 50 musicians in this class that have performed at the highest level in the state.  We have athletes that have won at the highest level in the state.  We have students that have represented our school extremely well in a number of different ways, making the staff and the community very proud.

The Class of 2015 is the one that has truly defined North Fayette Valley.  They have been instrumental in terms of setting the expectations for future classes.  They have to a large extent defined what it means to be a TigerHawk.  In this year’s class  you can truly see how some of the old traditions have merged and new ones are starting.  You saw a number of photos in the video earlier and rarely did you see one from the past year where students from both districts weren’t in the frame.  Some of these young men and women are going to make a difference in the lives of others in a big way.  There are people in this class with a social conscience who recognize that they have a role in the betterment of our lives.  To them I wish great success and hope that they will not be deterred by limits place upon them by others.  Good luck to all of you!  You have made us proud to be from NFV!

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Grades Game

There are times when we all understand something a little better when we can see it from a different perspective.  Grades are a concept that we all have experienced and have some idea of their meaning.  But like a lot of things experienced in life, they are one of those things that many of us may not truly understand.  What we do know is that they are an important part of what takes place at school, and since they are important, better understanding is imperative.
The reason why our school has focused on grading is because what was being done had strayed far off course from the original intent.  A grade is a symbol for what a student has learned, and in the purest form, is connected to more information that defines what it actually is that the student has learned.  Our move toward standards-based grading is underway, and the steps we have taken are being more refined in our classrooms.  However, it is never too late to go back to the fundamentals, just like a good coach takes a step back in the middle of the season, in order to help people understand the need for, and some of the changes we have made.
As mentioned above, analogies often help with understanding.  We could use any sport, but we will use one I am more familiar with as are many of you: football.  Coaches and athletes spend the majority of their time together out on the practice field just as teachers and student spend hours together in the classroom.  On a given day, the offensive line coach will drill the players on their footwork, making sure that they teach their body the appropriate first step and keeping weight distributed where it needs to be.  In the classroom, the English teacher spends time teaching and reviewing writing mechanics so that the student can write a coherent and correct sentence each and every time she puts something down on paper.  While the coach and athlete participate in an exchange of instruction and practice, the same is done in the classroom.  The linebacker learns to read his keys preparing for the next game and the math student solves problems and draws conclusions.  All of this is part of what we call practice.  The coach evaluates whether his linebackers are taking the right drop on pass coverage and whether they are making progress on reading their keys.  The math teacher checks progress on the homework assignments and worksheets his algebra students have completed.  Progress.  Learning.  Is the athlete/student moving forward?  And, just as the football coach does not give a grade or award a helmet sticker for the player’s efforts during practice, nor should the classroom teacher.   What is learned during football practice has an impact on the game Friday night, but grades are not handed out.  It is preparation for the “final exam” on Friday night.
To find out how well their players have learned and whether they can apply it in a game-like situation, the football coaches have their players scrimmage.  The scrimmage isn’t the real thing, but is simulates what the players are going to see on Friday night.  It is a safe environment where success and failure gives the coach a chance to make corrections they otherwise may have not noticed.  In the classroom these are called quizzes.  A quiz should not define a student’s success or failure, but should provide information about progress to the student and teacher.  Scrimmages are most effective when discussion takes place between coach and player to insure understanding of responsibilities and technique.  The science teacher and student should use the results of the quiz over particles to re-teach concepts that were not understood, or continue reading for more information.  Again, helmet stickers are not passed out after a scrimmage, nor does it make sense to grade the quiz.

Game night is Friday, the final test!  Has all of the work on the field, watching film, reviewing the playbook paid off?  Reviewing the homework, looking over the quizzes, and re-reading the chapters all provide preparation for game time, or in the case of American history, the unit test over the Gilded Age.  Anxiety tends to be a little more pronounced than it was on Wednesday during the scrimmage/class when the linemen/history students were reviewing their assignments.  Games matter.  Tests matter.  Both of these are the opportunities for the student/athlete to show exactly what they can and can’t do, what they know and don’t know.  When done correctly, teaching, practice, and scrimmaging have prepared students/athletes for the test/game.  Practice and scrimmages are essential in preparation for success, but on the football field Friday night, no one really cares about the athletes practice habits or performance in the scrimmage.  The proof is on the field.  The only thing that matters is how they play the game.  While this will sound crass as it is applied to the classroom, whether or not a student does homework, completes a few questions at the end of the chapter, or performed well on a 10-point quiz really doesn’t matter.  Yes, they are important and should be used to help the student prepare for the test.  But, they should not affect the student’s grade.  On Friday night, when that corner back reacts as he was taught to a move the receiver makes and positions himself to intercept the pass, that is what matters.  Not the fact the he missed practice on Tuesday when they practiced the skill and did not do it correctly in the scrimmage on Wednesday.  He did it Friday!  The same can be said about the quarterback who has an outstanding week of practices and looks like Tom Brady in the scrimmage Wednesday.  If he does not handle the pressure and his anxiety on Friday, and throws three interceptions and fumbles the ball twice, he did not “pass the test.”  The history student needs to step up and perform as well.  Chances are, if she has prepared well, learned from the quizzes, and approaches the test with confidence, she will do just fine.