Shelley Burgess

Reflections of an educational learner and leader


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Rolling our Snowball

My husband (@burgessdave) recently wrote a blog post titled,  “Rolling Snowballs Downhill”.  He compared the process of changing school culture to rolling a snowball downhill; the snowball starts small, but as it rolls downhill, it gains momentum, picks up more snow, and can eventually grow quite large.  In his post, he writes:

“Change is created by starting small and building powerful relationships with a committed but often small initial group. This group can then hit the ground and start moving forward. They will find it easier to overcome inertia because they will not be weighed down by the naysayers, the reluctant, and the largest group of all…the comfortable. They will be free to build momentum unencumbered by the resistance and friction that so often dooms forward progress in projects that try to bring everyone along for the ride from the beginning. As they build speed rolling down the hill, they will attract others to the cause who will now want to get involved with a successful and positive movement. Eventually, the size of the snowball reaches the point of critical mass, drawing in all around it and becoming an unstoppable force for change and progress.”

In the past few months, I have recently discovered for myself the power of social media and many web 2.0 tools… I am more connected than I have ever been before, and the professional learning I have experienced  through social media is the best I have had in years.  I want this experience for EVERYONE in our district.  As a district leader, I also have started to think about flipping classrooms and meetings, hosting edcamps, having students and adults write and reflect through blogging…  there is so much more I think about doing as I continue to connect and learn from colleagues around the world who are part of my PLN.

What I know, though, is that many are as sceptical as I was a few months ago; some do not understand or believe; some do not know how these tools might impact them professionally; some are intimidated; many do not know what they are missing!

As much as I want social media and web 2.0 tools, and all of the possibilities they have to offer, to be an integral part of our system, I am convinced that in order to make this happen, we have to roll a snowball downhill.  I am fortunate to have a colleague (@directoramy) who is as committed about the use of social media as I am.  With our initial enthusiasm, we were able to recruit two principals and one of our coordinators to join us.  A dedicated teacher joined in! We have added a few of our academic coaches to the mix and just yesterday hosted an open invitation to our first “Connected Leaders” series where we offered a Twitter tutorial.  We helped strengthen the understanding of Twitter for a few of our colleagues, and we had four more start their accounts and send their first tweets – one of whom will quickly be our next Twitter addict.  With about 15 of us now connected, we have even started our own District hash tag.

Becoming a “connected” district and harnessing the power of web 2.0 tools may not happen as quickly as I might hope, but we are moving forward with a small, committed group.  We have made our snowball, and we are getting ready to roll it downhill!


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What Story Will They Tell About You?

I have had the unusual experience of attending two Memorial Services this week – one for a member of our school community and another for my neighbor.  Both passed away unexpectedly and both well before their time.  At the service I attended today, the priest gave a powerful and moving sermon about the spirit someone leaves behind as they move on.  Although my words will never do his justice, he proposed to us that when someone passes, their spirit lives on as the collection of stories people tell about them.  How people remember us, the stories they tell, are in the end our legacy.  In fact, these stories are often the most powerful and moving part of any memorial service we attend.

I have also recently read three blog posts that struck a chord with me, and it is because they carry a similar message.  The first was Leave a Legacy  by Justin Tarte (@justintarte), the second was Leaders… What is Your Family Footprint by David Culberhouse (@dculberhouse), and the third was My Son the Volcano by Jennifer Marten (@jenmarten)  All three of these posts ask us to think about the legacy, the footprint, the words, or as the priest today said… “the collection of stories” we ultimately will leave behind.

As a San Diegan, I was deeply moved this week when I read an article that came out in the San Diego Union Tribune about an SDPD officer who was murdered a year ago.  Three minutes before the officer’s death, his last conversation, which happened to be with a child, was captured on video.  It was shared with us in a story Officer’s Last Conversation Reverberates posted on August 7th. He was in line behind a 13 year old boy in line at McDonald’s – he engaged him in conversation, and when the boy did not have enough money to pay for his items, Officer Henwood paid for the rest.  The story inspired one of our Council members to say this:  “All of us can show kindness to a stranger… All of us can leave the world a little better than we found it.” It is a testament to the type of man he was, and his spirit lives on through this story we are all telling.

The day after this article came out, I was engaged in a conversation with one of my colleagues who shared with me another story of a series of interactions an adult (a teacher) had had with a very special child in my colleague’s life.  In telling this very personal story, she actually used the words “the teacher killed his spirit” – that is the story being told about this teacher.

As educators, our voices are loud, our words and our actions critical.  What we say and do has amazing power.  We make hundreds of decisions every day that have an incredible impact on the children we serve.  I encourage all of us to remember the story being told about Officer Henwood and to think about the collection of stories we want people to tell about us.


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Through my Daughter’s Eyes

I have learned an incredible amount about learning, teaching and leading from many people in my career, but for the past few years, I think I have learned the most in my role as a parent and through the eyes of my children.  This post is about what I have learned through the eyes of my eight year old daughter who will be entering 4th grade in the fall.

I know I’m her mother, but Ashlyn truly is one of the brightest children I know – all the “numbers” support this – she scores advanced on every assessment, usually with a perfect score; she has scored high enough on a myriad of assessments that she has been labeled “gifted and talented”, her report cards are perfect, she wins numerous academic awards etc., etc., etc.,

More important to me… she is a voracious learner!  She spends most of her free time asking inquisitive and amazing questions, and she diligently seeks the answers through any source she can get her hands on.  Google and You Tube are two of her best friends.  We have spent countless hours researching every minute detail of her favorite animals so she can write books and stories.  For every bug, lizard or other obscure creature she catches in the yard, we have to hunt down its species, its ideal environment and what it eats so we can care for it in our home.  For every pet she has wanted us to buy her she has combed through online research so she can make her plea to us with all of the evidence to back up why it is a good idea – she does this so well; we now run a small zoo.

Through books and online tutorials, she has taught herself to draw, to play songs on the harmonica and the keyboard, and to fold origami.  She conducts science experiments. She has learned how to care for every one of her pets.  She recently started her own blog and has written to the Humane Society asking for their advice on the best way an eight year old might give back to their organization because she wants to thank them for bringing us her cat.  Ashlyn is a reader, a writer… a highly effective communicator.  She is a creator and a critical thinker.  She is passionate about learning

…and she does not like school. 

Some years have been better than others, but overall school is something we have mostly tolerated.

My husband and I are both educators, we believe in public education, and we support our community schools, but it has been a challenge for us watching her experience school – even as she attends a school that California has honored as “Distinguished”.

Despite the fact that the school has Promethean Boards in the classrooms and Netbooks for every child to use, we rarely see evidence of projects or assignments that demonstrate they are in use… even when I know my daughter and many of her peers are highly proficient users of the technology sitting in the rooms. The assignments and tests that come home most frequently are multiple-choice or fill in the blank type activities which require limited thinking.  While we save many of the projects, creations, stories, and books my daughter has created at home, most of what comes from school goes into the trash can – they are not things she is proud of… they are things she has endured. My husband and I have spent the past four years pulling teeth to get her to complete the packets of worksheets that come home weekly for homework – and to be honest, we have reached a point where we often do not even require her to do them anymore.  She writes her blog posts or learns something new of her choosing instead.

While my daughter has certainly had some good experiences in school and teachers I truly admire, I can’t begin to express my frustration over some of the conversations I have had over the years about different ways school might be able to better challenge and engage my daughter.  I have heard too many excuses… the class size is too big, we have too much material to cover, we have to get them ready for the test, the other students need me more… the list goes on.  It is not my intent to communicate here that I blame any of teachers – in fact, I believe that almost every year she has been in school, she has had hard-working teachers who are trying to do their best in the system in which they have been asked to work.

On paper, my daughter is a school success story, but in reality, school has been failing her.

So… who is at fault?

Every one of us who serves in an educational leadership role – whether at the Federal, State, District or Site level – has to accept a little piece of the blame.  Whether intended or not, we have created a system that values test scores above all else – they are what we highlight; they are what we celebrate; they are what we use to determine good schools, “distinguished schools”, from failing ones and “good” teachers from “bad” ones… And somewhere along the way too many schools and too many classrooms have left truly authentic, appropriately challenging and highly engaging learning behind.

We have done the same in my District, certainly not intentionally, but when we entered Program Improvement a few years ago (despite many years of consistent growth!), test scores became a primary focus, and while we have done a lot of good work over the past few years, we have also made some mistakes… particularly in our communication of what we value.

What I love about the conversations we are starting to have now, is that we are talking more about learning and less about test scores.  We are re-thinking our vision, and we know it includes so much more than what test scores will indicate.  We are talking about providing students with highly engaging and content-rich curriculum and instruction, and we are asking ourselves more questions about how to incorporate technology and make learning more relevant.  We are asking more teachers to step into leadership roles and to help us push our thinking, and we are telling stories of our learning.  We are making this shift one step… one day at a time but we are relentless.  I expect that this will be a great year for us and our students will learn some amazing things… and when this happens – the test scores will take care of themselves.

What I have learned from my daughter is that when a child is passionate about learning (which I believe every child is when they enter school), school should be a place they want to be EVERY DAY.  Seeing school through my daughter’s eyes has pushed me to think about the type of learning opportunities I want for her, and I want nothing less for the students I serve in my District. We should be creating experiences in our districts and our schools that cause students to celebrate the END of summer break – not the beginning of it!