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Marc Cohen

Our Expectations Are (and Should Be) High

I am a principal. I knew I wanted to become a principal soon after I began my teaching career almost 20 years ago, and I count myself as among the fortunate few who can honestly say they are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing. Seven years ago, when I began this phase of my career, a colleague, herself a retired principal, asked me if I understood the difference between being the principal of the school and every other position in the building. I am sure that I gave her some academic response, to which she simply stated, "Always remember, the lives of every student in the building are in your hands." While I imagine she was including the literal safety of my kids in her comment, I am certain that what she really meant was that my success or failure as a leader would have life-changing implications for the quality of the futures my students would live.

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Marc Cohen

Our Children Are Counting on Us

As the education world around us continues to spiral through the misguided insanity of testing as both the academic means and the end, I remain steadfast in my determination to provide whatever I can to ensure that each and every student who walks through the door of my school has equitable access to high-quality instruction and is provided the kinds of learning opportunities that nurture academic risk-taking, critical inquiry, and principled reflection. In short, I expect for my students the same as I expect for my own children. I want them equipped to make a consciously positive impact on the world around them. We need to spend at least as much time developing the self-efficacy, collaboration, and problem-solving skills they will need to make this happen as we do preparing (enabling) them for success on our current professional obsession—the high-stakes standardized assessment.

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Marc Cohen

How Do You Keep Your Students Healthy, Safe, Engaged, Supported, and Challenged During Summer Vacation?

I love the summer vacation. It is a wonderful opportunity for me to regroup, reflect, and rejuvenate in anticipation of a new school year. It is a gift that I can get two months annually to recharge my professional batteries through professional development, systemic planning, and—of course—personal vacation time. 

By this time of year, I am usually drained of the energy that I always seem to have on the first day of school.  I am ready for a break and desperately in need of time away. By June, I long for a quiet school, devoid of office referrals and lunch duty, broken-down buses and broken hearts. By August, I long for the heartfelt joy I get when students and staff return. I long for the magic that I bear witness to each day as I visit classrooms and observe instruction.  I long for the hugs and the smiles and the perspective-changing "aha!" moments that come from the "emotional crises" my middle school students experience each day.

I am concerned though. While I am eager to see the school year come to a close and excited for the promises that summers bring, I am not so sure that many of my students are experiencing the same level of excitement. Every year I see suspensions and referrals skyrocket in May and June. Though some of this may be due, in part, to the changing seasons and the associated spring fever, and some might come from the frustrations teachers and administrators feel after a long school year, I suspect there is more to it. For many of the students in my school, this is where they come for a consistent meal, a welcoming smile, and a healthy dose of high expectations. May and June means an end to so many things our students come to rely on us for. 

It is funny. We sometimes joke about the fact that the kids we have the most problems with rarely seem to be absent from school. Why is that? Perhaps because we give them a safe place to do what other students get out of their systems at home with their parents: seek attention, rebel, challenge authority, push limits, and learn to get along.

Although there is no doubt that the summer months can be fun for many, for others summer means hunger, fear, disengagement, and regression. We work in a profession that stresses the importance of relationships, especially with young people who long for someone to care about them, and then we abruptly interrupt these relationships with a nine-week separation. We feed and nurture our students for nine months, and then we send them off to fend for themselves over the summer months. We stress the importance of consistency and guided practice and then, after getting students where we want them by June, we sabotage them with nine weeks away from instruction in July and August.

Schools cannot be everything to everyone, but there has to be a better way. Some districts have year-round schooling, but in this economy that is not a likely change for systems that don't. Others have summer camps and service-related projects to keep students active; but again, a bad economy is a great excuse not to fund these kinds of initiatives. 

I am interested in hearing what schools and districts are doing to keep young people healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged during the long, hot summer months.

Marc Cohen

Grew Up Analog: Where Do I Plug In?

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend the ASCD Annual Conference in San Antonio, Tex. The theme of the conference was "Critical Transformations." While at the conference, I spent most of my time going to sessions that helped me grow my understanding of what students need as 21st century learners. 

I must admit that I am a bit of a technology geek. It is not that I am particularly skilled at writing code. I have Ubuntu on my computer at home, which the guy at Staples thought was way cool, although he was disappointed when I told him I hadn’t heard of Linux. I don't understand what all the beef is with Windows, and to me, Bill Gates is just a VERY wealthy guy who gives billions to help schools innovate. I know about Facebook and MySpace and have even been known to tweet a bit, but I don't own a whole lot of gadgets. I am the only one in my family, including both of my kids, who does not own an iPod, and my 7-year-old thinks it is funny that I didn't know you could watch television from your computer until he showed me how a few months ago.

What I mean when I say that I am a technology geek is that I find 21st century technology, especially those designed to enhance learning, to be really cool and really exciting. I have watched my students flourish when lessons have been designed to integrate educational technology. SMART Boards, activotes, active expressions, mobile laptop labs, wireless connections, Kurzweil, alpha smarts, Skype, Web 2.0, YouTube, webex, and so forth—all of these and more are currently being used to capture our students' attention, to accommodate their learning needs, and to help our teachers communicate their lessons more effectively and efficiently.

At the conference, I had the chance to hear Don Tapscott speak. Some of you may have heard of Tapscott, who has made quite a stir with his national bestseller, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. His new book, Grown Up Digital, came out last year and was the focus of his keynote address that morning. In his speech, Tapscott urged educators to "empower student-led collaboration and to reinvent traditional methods of instruction by embracing technology." Tapscott said, "Internet is not a problem; it is a learning opportunity…Don’t blame the Internet for how our approach to learning and thinking has changed. That's like blaming the library for ignorance."

Students today are far more plugged in than ever before. They no longer respond as they may once have to the "sage on the stage" approach to teaching and learning. In the blink of an eye, or more aptly, the click of a keystroke, they can access much of the information presented in traditional lectures. Students today are hungry for lessons that engage their minds, that promote critical thinking and collaborative problem solving. They want to be trusted to access information for themselves and seem to be asking for the opportunity to construct and apply their knowledge more independently.

Tapscott's presentation really got me thinking about how we structure our day, organize our classrooms, and lock students out of so many online resources that they freely access from home or on their cell phones. I am interested in hearing how folks in the ASCD community have integrated the ideas Tapscott discusses in their schools and what the impact has been on student engagement and performance.

Marc Cohen

Find Your Voice and Be Heard

In the past several months, I've had the chance to learn firsthand from ASCD Public Policy staffer Tina Dove about how to effectively advocate on behalf of the students and educators that I serve as a middle school principal. I met with members of the House and Senate to share my professional experiences, to celebrate the successes of my school, and to advocate on behalf of students about issues that were important to me. Since this was my first time doing this kind of thing on the national level, I decided to stick with my passion: eliminating the racial/socioeconomic predictability of student achievement. 

Who could argue with this? Who could find fault or room for disagreement in our efforts to provide all students a caring and nurturing school environment and access to highly qualified instructors and rigorous curriculum? In the year 2009, how in the world could there be anyone at this level of national prominence who could disagree that all students, regardless of race or economic circumstance, deserve equitable access to best instructional practices? I figured that I was safe. And for the most part I was. But in at least one visit, I was met with a remarkable sense of apathy toward "those people who live in those ghettos ... those people are beyond hope." You can translate for yourself which measured student subgroups might be represented in this comment. 

My post today is less about this individual who I am intentionally not identifying; rather it is about a call to action. The Whole Child Initiative calls on us to make a commitment to all children. It proposes a broader definition of achievement and accountability that promotes the development of children who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. My experience on Capitol Hill showed me just how important it is for educators in the field to find ways to make their voices heard. We speak for these children and they need us now more than ever before. With competing national economic priorities, education budgets across the country are being slashed, and a generation of young people is left hoping, even when some think they are beyond hope. It is up to us to help Congress see the critical role educating the whole child has on the security and global competitiveness of our nation.

I will end my post with a recommendation that was given to me before my visits and became easier to follow as I gained experience. Know your elevator speech: a concise, carefully planned, and well-practiced description of the issue that you wish to share using language and information that your mother should be able to understand in the time it would take to ride up an elevator. I also recommend using ASCD's Advocacy Guide as well as the Communications Tool Kit to get started.

Now it is your turn. I am interested in hearing from people in the field (teachers, administrators, counselors, community activists) who have effectively advocated on behalf of the whole child. What tips can you share? What lessons have you learned that could benefit those of us just starting down this journey of advocacy? I look forward to hearing from each of you.

Marc Cohen

Looking Back on the President's Address to Students

As a middle school principal, I am embarrassed to admit just how much time I spent planning for and responding to concerns about President Obama's speech to our nation's children that aired Tuesday, September 8. The newspaper headlines talked of communities outraged because they believed the president was stepping over the lines of power. The pundits opined about using our children for political gain. As for me...I just wanted my students to hear the most powerful man in the world talk about the importance of staying in school and getting a good education. I wanted my African American students, especially, to see a vision of success that can be within their grasp if they answer the president's call to take their education seriously.

It seemed that schools and districts were divided about whether the speech was an opportunity for the president to cheer on students as they started a new school year or an intrusion on instruction and a violation of federal authority over schools. I decided to give my students the opportunity to hear from the president with the understanding that parents needed only ask if they wanted to opt their child out of the activity.

Now that most of the hubbub has died down, how do you feel your school and community response to the president's speech? Were there legitimate concerns for the whole child, or was it simply political games?

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