Thursday, October 3, 2019

Unsung Heroes Make For A Great Start and Finish to Our Days

Our district has many unsung heroes, and I am fortunate to know most of them and to call them colleague and friend.  Our Transportation Department is home to just one group of those heros.  Simply put, our bus drivers are remarkable.  I've known this for years, but I decided I wanted to get to know the drivers even better in order to support them and our students.  So in the last month I have ridden each of my school's morning bus routes.  Eight buses serve our school community, and it has been an absolute privilege to learn about the drivers and to watch them perform their craft and science with our students.

Being a bus driver is a uniquely challenging art.  First, drivers have to be on-time.  They can't be early, and it's best to not be late.  Drivers have to judge traffic and the weather to arrive at their many stops as close to their assigned time as possible.  Next, safety is critical.  Yes, buses are large, and the community looks out for them.  Still, buses are large!  I know I wouldn't want to drive one empty-let alone one filled with the most-precious members of our school district.  Finally, much of the "work" bus drivers must do is while driving, facing the road, and monitoring students through a rear-view mirror.  They literally do much of their work backwards and in a moving vehicle!

I had time each morning to ask the drivers about what drew them to being bus drivers for our district.  Each driver had a unique response, but I heard two common themes over and over.  They each love kids, and they want to help students start and end their days on positive notes.  I observed that all drivers knew their kids.  Relationships matter to our drivers.  They greeted the students by name, and they worked very hard to have systems in place so they could know the students' names.  I noticed inspirational quotes and fun artwork inside the buses.  I noticed drivers laughing and singing with the kids and being especially helpful for any student who may struggle.  I heard positive praise for students who were making good choices.  I heard gentle reminders for students who needed some encouragement about being safe.  I saw high-fives and hugs from kids as they were boarding and leaving the bus.  Drivers often said things like, "Have a great day, and I can't wait to see you when I pick you up after school."

One observation was perhaps the most special theme I experienced while riding the buses.  In their own way--but over and over--I heard bus drivers calling the students, "their kids" or "my kids."  The sense of ownership and love the drivers have for our students helps our students know that they are cared for, safe, and loved.  I can't imagine any greater gifts to help our students be more successful leaders and learners.

It is an honor and privilege to work with so many unsung heroes.  Our district is fortunate to partner with many teams who help support our students.  The next time you see a bus, please give them a little extra room on the road and be sure to give them a thumbs up or a wave.  They're transporting--with great care and love--our most precious cargo.

PS--Many thanks to the entire Transportation Department--from mechanics to drivers to receptionists for allowing me this great opportunity.  Also, thank you to the staff at Woods who did extra AM car duty so I could ride the buses. I am grateful.

Friday, August 30, 2019

New Identities

My wife and I had our identities taken this summer--twice.

The first time our identity was stolen by a hacker.  Control of our email account was taken from us which meant he/she was able to take control of our online shopping account and ultimately our credit card.  We had charges on our accounts that were not from us.  We made multiple calls to the shopping site, our credit card, the email and internet provider, the state police, and even the FBI.  In the end, we spent more than 30 hours protecting our credit, changing accounts and passwords, and collecting and submitting the proper documentation.  It was horrible.  We felt like we didn't know what to do, and we were worried about what could happen next.  My best advice is to change your passwords--frequently.

The second time our identity was taken from us took a little longer.  In fact, it took almost 19 years for us to lose this identity.  In some ways, however, our identities seem to disappear in an absolute instant.  Our daughters are both away and in college now which means we are "official" empty nesters.  Strangely, many of emotions between the two identity "thefts" are the same.  In both instances we initially felt like we didn't know what to do, and we were worried about what could happen next.  Our house is now strangely quiet.  We do about half as much laundry, and our leftover meals last a lot longer.  There isn't as much clutter around the house, but I've been told the messes are still from me!  My wife and I are beginning to create new identities for ourselves, and we're excited!  My best advice is to see each day as a great blessing.

The start of a school year reminds me that we ask our students to "create" new identities for themselves each year.  All of our students are expected to learn, and that brings a unique set of pressures for every age.  There are, of  course, differences from grade to grade.  (There is a big difference from being a 2nd grader to being a 3rd grader.  Just ask one.)  Some of our students have moved from different countries and are learning a new language.  Some of our students are developing techniques to make and keep better friends.  Many of our students are adjusting to new sensory needs or speech and language needs.  Just the social/emotional needs of a new school year require all identities to mature and change.  The transition into a new school year requires everyone to create new identities.

I'm grateful that our community and school collaborate to help our students with their new identities and these transitions.  It's a good reminder to all of us that these changes can be a challenge, and while the feelings are very real, things do get better.  It's also a great reminder that every change is an opportunity for exciting and new learning.

My wife and I have secured our credit, and the new journeys we will take together truly are exciting.  (We'll always be parents, by the way.  It's just different now!)  The new school year will be just as exciting.  Here's to new identities, wonderful learning opportunities, and an even better year!

Now, about that hacker...

Monday, August 12, 2019

Hope In a New School Year

Our new school year begins soon.  Students will enter our school for their first day of the '19-'20 school year just after Labor Day weekend.  Staff have returned and are busy preparing rooms, planning lessons, and collaboratively learning how to create even better opportunities for our students.  As a building principal, this is the time of the year when I write about hope for the future and gratitude for our supportive community and remarkable staff.

This year, however, feels different.

Yes, I do have great hope for the future, and I am very, very grateful for our community and staff.  I am regularly amazed by what our students and district are able to do together.  It is a privilege to work as an educator in my district, but I have seen a change that worries me.

I am worried about gun violence in our country and the lasting impact this is having on our young people.

While I have political beliefs about gun violence and gun safety, I am not writing this post to spread those beliefs.  Rather, I am writing this post to help inform the adults in my community that we must address anxiety and stress from gun violence.  This includes the impact on young people of 24 hours news and instant updates on the smartphones in our pockets.

To be clear, I am not an expert, and I am not claiming to have all of the answers to solve these very complex issues.  If anything, I am hoping to bring to light that the solutions will also need to be just as complex.

One "solution" I recently saw marketed was bullet proof backpacks.  Maybe this is not new to you, but I was taken aback.  I haven't decided yet if I am for or against a product like this.  It's clearly an emotional topic, but I did begin to reflect on what we do in our district and if we have any students who may be bringing backpacks like this to school.  I began to think about how parents may prepare their kids to use a bullet proof backpack and the unintended consequences of those conversation.  In my years as an educator I am acutely aware that students are almost always able to discern the messages we intend and don't always intend to send when we discuss difficult topics with them.  One message of a bullet proof backpack is, of course, "This will help keep you safe."  Perhaps the unintended message is, "You will not be safe without this backpack."

Do kids feel unsafe?  If they do feel unsafe, what is the impact on their learning and development?

I know that when kids (and adults for that matter) feel unsafe they become more anxious.  They are not always able to make the best of decisions.  They may struggle to think clearly or to emotionally bond with others.  They may not retain important information.  I know you can add to this list, and gun violence is clearly not the only source of anxiety, but gun violence is real, and it has increased.  As I suggested earlier, it seems even more real in 2019 with the types of instant communication we literally have at our fingertips.

I tried to imagine how much much gun violence has increased since I was in elementary school.  I wanted to compare my childhood experiences with our daughters' experiences.  While I know it's not scientific or always 100% accurate, I turned to Wikipedia and searched for Lists of Mass Shootings in the United States.  I don't intend  to debate the numbers or definitions Wikipedia uses to make this list, but here's what I found:

  • From when I was born in 1970 and until my 18th birthday, Wikipedia lists 239 people killed in mass shootings in the United States.
  • From when our youngest daughter was born and until she turned 18 on August 5, 2019, Wikipedia lists 959 people killed in mass shootings in the United States.
And I did not grow up with 24 hour news or any sort of internet, wifi, or smartphone connectivity.

Does our daughter feel scared?  Is she more anxious at 18 than I was at 18 because of gun violence or the reporting of that violence?  I'm not sure, and I'm not sure it would be possible to measure or compare, but the numbers were staggering  to me.  Our daughter has potentially been aware of 4 times more mass shooting deaths in her lifetime than I was in my first 18 years of life.

How should adults respond to a mass shooting?  I suppose this is the most important topic of all because the numbers suggest we will eventually need to respond to another mass shooting. In fact, I know from experience that our young people look to the adults for how to respond. 

The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement has some resources.  You can download their special guide on how to talk to kids about tragedies here.  (I know as adults we get inundated with documents we "should" read, so I have listed the section topics here to encourage you to download the document and to really read it.  It is 2 pages.)
  • They Will Ask What Happened
  • Could I Have Done Anything to Prevent This?
  • Whose Faults Is It?
  • Is This Going to Change My Life?
  • Can I Help?
  • I Don't Want to Make Things Worse, So Should I Say Nothing Instead?
  • What If It Upsets Them?
  • Should I Bring It Up Even If They Don't Ask Questions?  What If They Don't Seem To Want To Talk About It?
  • How Can I Tell If Children Need More Than I Can Provide?  Where Should I Go For Such Help?
  • If I Have More Questions, Where Can I Turn For Answers?
What I know is not the answer is to do nothing or to pretend that this will go away.  The numbers, wherever you seek them, tell the story.  We need to parent our young people differently in 2019 than our parents parented us.  That seems to hold true for almost every generation mainly because the contexts change.  It's not always bad either.  The "good old days" were not always as good as we necessarily remember them, but this issue of gun violence still feels different to me.

I am grateful for where I work and live.  Our community engages in deep conversations around safety and helping young people, and they financially support structural changes to our schools to make them even more safe.  Our district is recognized by others as a leader in helping young people academically, socially, and emotionally.  We have remarkable partnerships with other organizations in our community to help everyone.  Our staff takes these issues seriously and advocates for even more training and supports.  I do see hope.  Our students smile and laugh and help each other.  They want the world to be better, and they know they play a part in helping the world.   They work together.  They listen to each other.  They solve problems.  They ask questions.  They advocate for others.  The list is endless.

My faith and others encourage me to not worry so much, but I still do.  I worry our society has become numb to this sort of violence or that we have begun to see these numbers as normal.  Violence and  unnecessary stress or anxiety should never become normal.  Our future depends on it.

Read the download.

Thank you.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Community is the Foundation

We have an amazing school with high expectations for ourselves and our students.  Our district, the staff, parents, community, and students expect our students to achieve at high levels.  We intentionally plan for students to grow.  Parents regularly tell me they have moved to our school and district because of the expectations we have for our students and the proficiency and growth results our students have achieved.

I am grateful for what our students and district have achieved, but I am just as grateful for how we have achieved them.

Our district and school has a remarkable sense of unity and "can-do" spirit.  We see beyond test scores and budgets.  We reach into what others might see as impossible and focus on students and community.

One could argue that it starts with one simple idea.  We do not have individual school mascots.  Our entire district--with educational levels from birth through adults--are Novi Wildcats.  It's a simple concept, but the ramifications are far-reaching.  There isn't a sense of competition between our schools.  Instead, we share the same mascot and therefore the same ideals--the same ideals for our students.  From bus drivers to carpenters and teachers to our district's nurse, I hear over and over again a focus on our students.

At the school where I am principal I have recently been overwhelmed by the events our Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) has planned and held.  In the last month our PTO has sponsored three very special events that have touched our entire school.

Our PTO Multi-Cultural Night had at least 600 attendees intentionally celebrating how we are more alike than different despite 25 unique home languages spoken across only 420 students in our building.  Music, food, crafts, and dancing were everywhere, but there was also a deep sense of unity that is impossible to measure. 

Family roller skating night was very cold, but young and old laced-up skates and laughed and giggled at our local roller-rink.  Moms and Dads helped kids have fun. Kids helped each other, and on that cold winter night everyone was warm--together. 

Our PTO just held Family Fun Night where they hire a disc jockey to play tunes and teach dances to children and parents.  We also provide ice cream as a fun treat.  Again, parents and staff were able to enjoy being together and having fun.  I saw parents laughing with their kids and kids engaging with each other in ways that just can't happen in a math or reading lesson.

Coming soon our PTO will host Milk and Cookies Night where students and families return to school in their pajamas to hear stories read by our staff.  The evening will conclude with--milk and cookies.

The list of what our PTO does is long, and I have only highlighted a few of the activities and events they plan for our school and students.  And, none of the events I shared here were "fund" raising events.  Rather, they were and are "fun" raising events.  Simply, our PTO supports the community in our school.  When we have community, we have a stronger focus on what is really important--our students.  That unity and focus is the strongest of foundations for growth and achievement, and I am grateful.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Safety First

Dear Parents of My Students,

It goes without saying that keeping our school safe is my number one priority, and in talking with many of you, I believe keeping our school safe is also your priority.   I need your help.  We need your help.

Our parking lot has been unsafe.

Approximately 75 cars arrive each morning to drop-off their children.  We have slightly less than that at afternoon pick-up.  (The rest of our students use our bus system and/or walk to school.)  My staff and I do AM and PM car duty each day.  I am outside each morning and afternoon I am present in the building.  Whether sunshine, rain, or snow, it's my favorite part of the day.  I genuinely enjoy greeting students and their families as they begin their days or saying goodbye to them after a great day of learning.

Let me just clearly state my safety concerns.
  • Drivers are going too fast.
  • I notice too many drivers using their cell phones.
  • Cars are pulling around each other without watching closely what else is happening.
  • Families park in the lot and walk their child across the busy parking lot.  This means the entire line must stop for you.  It is inefficient and unsafe.  Our line works best when pedestrians are not in the lot. 
  • Some families park in the lot and then have their child walk across the lot without an adult.  This is absolutely unacceptable and unsafe.
Over my years at our school I have seen cars hit each other.  One car jumped the curb and hit a sign.  We need to do better.

To be fair, the majority of drivers are doing a great job.  They are helpful, understanding, and safe.  The extreme cases, however, are very scary.

With support from our PTO, you will soon notice new signage outside.

We will also be sending this flyer home.

I am confident we can do a better job to help our parking lot be a safer place for our school, students, and each other.

Thank you for your continued vigilance and partnership as we work to, "Grow Great Leaders!" and keep them safe.  Please share this with your spouses, grandparents, and any other caregivers who may be using our pick-up and drop-off line.


David Ascher

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Forgiveness is a gift

Do you make mistakes?  Have you ever sent an email and wished you could "unsend" it?  What about saying something and realizing you had mistakenly offended someone?  I know it's not just words that can hurt.  Even the tone we use can send the wrong message. Most of us have done this either intentionally or unintentionally, and with so many ways to communicate (face to face, phone, e-mail, social media, written letters or  notes, etc...) I sometimes feel like there are even more ways to hurt people.

Like you, I communicate a lot.  As a building principal, an educator, and a professional, my words matter.  My tone matters.  What I say and how I say it matters to my students, my colleagues, and our community.  It should.  And yet, I know I still stumble.

Fortunately, I work within a school and a school community with people who understand the power of forgiveness.  My colleagues hold me accountable in professional ways when I inadvertently offend someone.  They seek clarification.  They give me the benefit of the doubt.  They forgive me.

Perhaps forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we have and can give to someone else?  Forgiveness allows us to make mistakes and to grow from them.  Forgiveness gives us permission to take some needed risks while knowing we will have the support from others if we fail.  Forgiveness helps us move forward.

Our students, of  course, learn about forgiveness from adults.  They're watching to see how we handle controversy and struggles.  Forgiveness is just one gift we can teach them.

I'm not saying I or anyone should have "free passes" because of forgiveness from others.  No, I am simply very grateful for what people, colleagues, and others provide me when I make a mistake.  

How can I repay or recognize this gift?  The best way to is to learn from my mistakes, try to do better, and pay it forward by forgiving others.

As we move towards a new year I resolve to do better when I communicate, but I also resolve to forgive more.  

In this holiday season, who have you forgiven lately?  

Friday, October 26, 2018

Teaching and Learning Unwritten Rules

Play with me for just a bit.

You enter a movie theater to view the latest blockbuster, and all seats are filled except for one that is in the middle of a long row.  That's OK because you're the last person to enter the theater.  You shuffle in front of and sometimes  over people, but you finally get to the lone, remaining seat in the room.  You sit to make yourself comfortable, and the film starts.  Now remember, the theater is full--very full.  You're surrounded by people who want to see the movie--just like you do.  The rules are fairly simple.  Sit, turn off electronics, don't talk.  Enjoy.  The rules are so simple, they can be shared via a dancing cup or a talking box  of popcorn.  But at least one rule in a crowded movie theater is an unwritten rule.

Who gets to use the armrests?

Hmmmm....  While there are enough seats for every person, armrests are usually shared.  This can create a bit of a quandary-unless you understand  unwritten rules.

From my experience the person who is present first or the larger person gets to use the armrests.  That doesn't always seem quite fair.  And surely it doesn't always feel as comfortable.  After all, you paid just as much to see the show as the people on both sides of you.  Don't you deserve to be able to use an armrest too?

There really isn't an answer to these questions, of course, but this story does illustrate the power of unwritten rules.  Not navigating an unwritten rule properly can single you out.  It can even lead to embarrassment or other uncomfortable situations.  Some of these situations are so uncomfortable people won't even put themselves in those situations.  When was the last time you went to a different church, synagogue, or temple?  It's not that I am not respectful or even curious.  One reason I don't is because I don't understand the unwritten rules, and I don't want to offend anyone.

Playgrounds at school have unwritten rules too.

You'd think rules for recess would be fairly self-explanatory, and they are in many cases.  Have fun.  Be safe.  Be respectful.  Recall, however, how many "new rules" get made up within a soccer game or a game of four square.  What's out, or what's in?  Who leads?  What is a score?  What is allowed or not allowed?  How are controversies resolved?  How are teams  decided?  What if teams are uneven?  What if someone new doesn't know the rules?  What if someone doesn't understand the rules because he/she is learning to speak a new  language?

When you stop and reflect deeply, there are many, many unwritten rules at recess.

Teaching unwritten rules is just one reason why we have noon aides.

I've written about our noon aides in the past.  They are a team of dedicated individuals who help monitor our kids at lunch recess.  They help our kids be safe, be respectful, and have fun.  But they do so much more.

With great support from our district's educational foundation, all elementary schools in our district are embarking on a partnership with Playworks, an organization teaching leadership skills through play on the playground.  We have a Playworks coach who visits our school one week a month.  In that time she teaches games to classrooms and then she helps implement games and fair play with our team of noon aides during recess.  She will even be training a cohort of 4th grade junior coaches to help facilitate this work across the building.

The Playworks website shares:

Why Play Matters in Schools

Play is especially important in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes,“Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it.”At Playworks, we believe that every child deserves the opportunity to play, every day.

What Gets In the Way of Play

When you think of recess, do you remember laughing, playing, and having fun? Or do you remember sitting on the sidelines, getting in fights, and waiting for the bell?For many students, playtime is anything but playful.
  • Children who feel excluded or who do not know the rules play less with their peers. They have fewer opportunities for physical activity and social development.
  • Playground lessons are priceless, but kids need strategies for success. When play is too unsafe or when conflicts escalate, kids miss out on fun—and learning opportunities.
  • Children play together outside school less than they once did. By learning games and having time to play at school, kids are able to explore creativity and leadership.

While we are just beginning our journey with Playworks, I am grateful for our partnership and for our noon aides and staff.  I'm confident we can help more students find more success by uncovering and intentionally teaching the unwritten rules in our already loving, safe, respectful school.