Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#4, Distance Learning, March 28, 2020)

I am writing this entry on Saturday, March 28, 2020 – after two weeks of distance learning. When I first started visualizing what teaching using distance learning would look like, I mistakenly imagined it would be very similar to classroom teaching. I pictured students spending the day from 8:00 to 3:00 either listening to their teacher providing direct instruction, interacting with their teacher and their classmates, reading, or working on skills or materials. I pictured teachers prepping as usual, giving directions, and being available during their normal work hours. I did not take in all of the complexities that being home due to an epidemic brings. It is remarkably complicated.

And it’s not one size fits all. Not one bit. We have students whose families have stresses that prevent them from being available. We have teachers in the same situation. We have teachers who now have to learn a whole new way of teaching, with entirely different uses of technology. In general, the teachers who are doing their best are spending far more hours than they were spending in the normal jobs. There are long hours of learning, preparation, trial and error, collaboration, research, and more. It’s tough on everyone.

Two weeks in, people are seeking to know the expectations and objectives this new distance learning paradigm. I drafted a set of objectives for our district, then received feedback from a number of teachers and instructional leaders, and together we have developed version one of the MBUSD Objectives for Distance Learning. We will be using this as an overall framework for the teaching and learning we want to see with distance learning. It is clear in its objectives, but leaves the “how” up to the teacher. I already have seen plenty of highly effective strategies and uses of technology that teachers are using to achieve these objectives, and I look forward to seeing more. We will learn together.

MBUSD DISTANCE LEARNING OBJECTIVES

 

Students will continue to learn. This is the message from the Governor of California, and it remains our primary objective in MBUSD. Our teachers have made spectacular efforts to be a source of strength, normalcy, care, and connection in our students’ lives. Teaching and learning will continue in MBUSD through distance learning. 

Teachers will be streamlining the curriculum and focusing on what is most critical for students to learn. Our commitment is to utilize distance learning to prepare students for next year while understanding the evolving challenges that all of us face in the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. We will seek ways to focus our content on our essential standards, so we can better keep all of our learners engaged, and in order to have more opportunities to support students who are not meeting the standards. When we begin the 2020-21 school year, teachers will need to keep this unique year in mind and will teach or review critical concepts as needed before moving to new concepts.

Teachers will strive to help students regularly connect with their classmates and their teacher. The amount of isolation we are all experiencing during this epidemic presents a major challenge to our social and emotional well-being. Our students need opportunities to remain connected with their classmates and their teachers. Teachers will be using a variety of methods to achieve this.


Students will receive feedback on their assignments. We are continuing to communicate with other local districts, the county, and the state regarding report cards, final grades, and, for high school, grades on transcripts. This is an evolving discussion, and one that will place at its center the best way to reflect student learning in circumstances that are far from normal. Unless students are failing multiple courses or are notified that they are not meeting standards or are at risk of failure/retention, they will be progressing to the next level in 2020-21.


Teachers will receive additional time each week to collaborate with colleagues, discuss curriculum, and to share and learn best distance learning practices. Our teachers have done an amazing job in moving to online instruction. But there is still so much to learn, so we will build in one half day of time during one school day each week for additional learning, as this remains an extraordinarily new and evolving world of teaching. MBUSD supports each school in developing its own schedule to provide this time. Each school site will be in touch with its families once that is done.


Everyone needs to be patient and flexible with themselves and each other. Our teachers are working to adjust to a whole new method of instructional delivery and are learning as they plan, often while dealing with the same challenges that all of us face as we adjust to working from home and caring for ourselves and our families in this new reality. We will all work together to help provide students with the ability to plan, manage, and structure their day to the best of our ability. We understand that lessons and assignments may take a little longer or turn out differently than we expect. We know that flexibility is important – for students as well as teachers – and we will seek to provide that flexibility when it is needed.


We will strive to provide assignments and directions to students and families in a timely and consistent manner. Our community has many working parents, including teachers, who appreciate having the lesson plans ahead of time so they can prepare their students for the day/week, which is particularly helpful to students who may need more support from their parents to plan their day. As everyone begins to settle into this new structure, teachers will be more and more able to establish a routine for posting assignments and schedules for upcoming activities so that students (and their parents, when needed) can plan ahead. 


These Distance Learning Objectives will evolve. As we receive feedback from teachers, employees, students, and families, we will learn more about effective and meaningful practices for teaching and learning through distance learning, as well as ways to maintain strong connections within our classroom and school communities. This will be a living document that evolves as we learn.


We will get through this together. With kindness, compassion, creativity, support from the MBUSD community, and a commitment to teach and learn in a sea of change, our teachers and our students will prevail through this epidemic, and our community will emerge stronger and more together than ever.

 

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#3, Teams, March 23, 2020)

As I have made these COVID-19 posts on Facebook, and I as tentatively enter the world of “social distance media,” I have heard from so many people from different chapters of my life. I have been fortunate in my 58 years of existence to have been a member of many amazing and magical teams. Sometimes the situation and the people just gel to create magical moments during a lifetime. I’ve had so many. My family, which has grown and changed over the years, has always been an amazing team. As my very funny and lovely mother-in-law says, my family “puts the fun in dysfunctional.” My 6th grade basketball team. My graduating class of 1980 at Catholic High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, which still has amazing bonds. My freshman dorm-mates at Stanford. My small eclectic group of friends from my year in West Berlin in 1982-83. My first teaching job in San Lorenzo. My vice principal experience at Lodi High School. My principal experience at Malibu High School. My close-knit neighbors who are an incredible part of my life. My wacky 5:30 AM masters swimming group at LMU. And my colleagues in my current job as Superintendent in Manhattan Beach. That’s a lot! All of those were amazing teams who added magical, supportive, fun-filled, and meaningful elements to my life.

I’m not sure how great teams get created. I’ve read a lot about it. If you read the annotated bibliography I’ve been keeping for the last 10 years, you’ll see a lot of books about creating and sustaining great teams. For me, part of it comes with not being afraid to start over. I’ve left many jobs that I absolutely loved to start a new job with different challenges. Part of creating a team comes from having a meaningful job to do, and surrounding myself with colleagues who are just as committed as I am to getting that job done right. Part of it comes from my love of laughter, and enjoying being around those who foster it. Finally, I think teams are created when people create spaces in the day, week, or year for downtime and an opportunity to breathe. Keith Urban, one of the hardest working entertainers in the world, sings a song called “Wasted Time,” where he has the line, “Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life was all that wasted time.” When I would spend a morning biking with my friend Will Carey, he would usually say he had, “Nothing to do, and all day to do it.” All you need is purpose, laughter, and time, and  . . . the right people.

I could write a blog post about each of the teams I mentioned above. None of them would do justice to the special nature of each, but it is nice to reflect. I’ll write today on my first teaching job, my five years of teaching History at San Lorenzo High School, where I was a part of two beautiful teams: my amazing, creative, and laughter-filled group of colleagues, and my spectacular and inspirational students.

San Lorenzo is a small suburb in Northern California, located at the intersection of the 880 and 238 freeways, just south of Oakland. (If you’re wondering why we Californians use freeway numbers and roads to describe where something is, watch the not-so-flattering series, The Californians, from Saturday Night Live). I was hired to work there two days before the school year started, as getting a job as a history teacher was not easy back in 1985. I taught four different courses in four different classrooms all over the campus. I asked for a lot of help with those four courses, and I met a lot of people as I pushed my cart around the campus between classes. And I started learning how to teach.

I look just the same today!

Let’s be clear. Teaching is hard. It’s awesome, but it is really, really difficult to be a good teacher. My first three years of teaching were some of the most challenging and most rewarding of my life. I had lesson plans that totally bombed, late nights trying to figure out what and how to teach the next day, stacks of grading that never seemed to get done, new classroom management challenges every day in class, and a wide variety of failures and successes. But it got better. And the main reason it improved was because of the afternoons I would spend with my fellow teachers and colleagues, lamenting our failures and telling stories that made us laugh. A few of us even started a band, The Underpaid, that performed at some union events and served as the pit band for that year’s San Lorenzo High School musical, Grease. We worked together, struggled to find ways to help our students, worked out together, played together, laughed together, and together accomplished great things for the students of San Lorenzo. This was an amazing team. The beauty, love, and laughter of this team has stayed with me to do this day, and I am still grateful for each person who contributed to that magical era in my life.

What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm!

But it wasn’t just the teachers. I loved my students as well. They were patient with me (most of the time) as I learned how to teach. They put up with my crazy ideas for teaching, like when I taught the American Revolution from the perspective of the Vietnam War and the Apartheid Movement. They were talented and smart, and I enjoyed seeing all that they brought to the table. SLZHS did not send many students directly to four-year colleges. The main recruiters on campus were the local community college and the US military. Those can be great options for students, but one of my primary goals for my students was and continues to be maximizing their options for their futures. In an effort to get more students to feel ready for four-year college, I started the first-ever Advanced Placement course in our district, and I began teaching AP US History in 1988. Those next two years of teaching created one of my favorite teams in my life, as I moved up with the students the next year, teaching AP Government and Economics.

For me, AP US History has always been a course that uses US History to teach students how to think and write. And, boy, did those students write. Every Monday, they had to turn in five to six essays, each one of which took at least 30 minutes of writing, and much more time reading, researching, and thinking. By the time I finished teaching my last AP US History course in 2004, I had reduced that load by 50%, and it was still a lot. The students loved and hated the challenge. I gave out my home phone number for students to call me. Half the calls were just about dealing with stress. But as we learned together, we all fell in love with our hard-working group. The students supported each other. Our class days had a lot of lecturing (too much, now that I look back on it), but tons of time for laughter, support, and conversation. We had evening review sessions, and Saturday morning review sessions. We became a team.

This experience shaped what I believe teaching should be about. Teaching at its best is like coaching. When a player fails to do what a coach expects of him or her, a good coach does not simply cut the player from the team or put him or her on the bench for the rest of the season. The quality coach insists that it be done again, and offers different pieces of advice, refusing to rest until the job is done right. Because the team will not succeed unless each player can do their job successfully. Good teaching should be done the same way. My goal as a teacher was to coach students and help them continue improving until they reached their potential. And my goal was always to believe in my students and to have extraordinarily high expectations for them.

This team of students exceeded all of my expectations. Most passed the AP exam, and all of them were ready for college. They went to all kinds of colleges, from Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) to UC Berkeley to Stanford, and so many of them are successful. They are teachers, IT professionals, high school principals, immigration attorneys, researchers, business owners, and successful parents, and so many of them are still very good friends with each other. One of the students even said nice things about me when I took the job here in MBUSD! They remain one of the most successful teams I have ever been a part of, and I love them all for what they added to my life.

So thank you to all of my friends, colleagues, and students from San Lorenzo High School. And thank you to all of my teammates from throughout my life. I hope that we all can keep building new teams as we go through life. During this incredible COVID-19 time, I already see, similar to what happened after 9/11, communities and neighborhoods bonding and teaming a little more closely. Maybe this can be one of the first ever crises that actually teams the entire planet a little more closely. Through pain and suffering, a greater good often emerges. Let’s all do what we can to build our own teams, be open to joining future and unknown teams, and see what joy and purpose it can bring us.

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 – (#2, Connections, March 19, 2020)

March 19, 2020

Today was Day Four of online schooling in MBUSD. Yesterday, I sent out an email to our entire MBUSD community with an update. I praised our teachers and staff who are learning on the fly, acknowledged that parents have it pretty rough these days with their new world (though there is some nice humor as parents are playing the role of their children’s teacher at home), and asked everyone to be patient as we learn together. You can see my newsletter here.

One of the big game changers in this world of non-human contact has been Zoom, the online video conferencing tool. CEO Eric Yuan brilliantly gave Zoom accounts with no time restrictions to every educator who asked. We asked and now have accounts for all of our employees. In just four days, and it’s one of the platforms that’s already making a massive difference.

On Tuesday morning, I met via Zoom with the 25 members of our leadership team – principals, vice principals, directors, and my senior leadership team. The first thing we did was each get a chance to check in with thoughts of this new normal. (I’m normally not a big icebreaker/check-in fan – in fact, in most cases I’ll use any excuse to get out of it, but this was pretty special.) All of us on the MBUSD leadership team thrive on human interaction. Most of us were teachers, and all of us have a passion for knowing, caring for, and leading our teams. After just two days of school being out, it was clear that the human connection was already missing in our lives. We laughed, discussed serious topics, saw and heard each other, and connected. And though it was completely virtual – it absolutely filled a void. It was powerful.

I’m hearing the same thing from teachers and parents. At home, my wife Jill has been utilizing Zoom and Google Classroom with her 5th grade class. Her students love it. My 11th grade son Dawson has been participating in Zoom and Google Classroom lessons in his classes as well. Dawson actually likes the fact that this new version of  high school is so much more “efficient.” He said that he can now get through his whole school day and all of his homework in four to six hours. In a normal day, he spends at least 10 hours attending school or doing homework. The kid never complains, but in a weird way, he thinks this new normal may actually be better for him than traditional school. So far. (Dad note: I get what he’s feeling, but . . . he’s wrong.) I am hearing from so many parents that the Zoom lessons are a great part of the day in the homes, as their children are craving seeing and interacting with their teacher and their classmates. And I think that all of us running a Zoom meeting secretly like the fact that when necessary, the organizer can just click the “mute all” button. Where is that button in real life! We are improving in our use of Zoom, Google Classroom and other methods we can use to make these connections with students.  Patience, Grasshopper. We will get there.

In four days, my overwhelming lesson from our experience so far reinforces what I already know: The primary role of teachers is helping students make connections. My friend Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has been writing about that for years. It’s not about the content. As a high school history teacher, I don’t care whether or not you know what year the War of 1812 was in. (Though I bet you know at least one of the years!) I do care that you are able to read, think, write, and see the meaning of key events. Those skills are critical to learn. But the key ingredients that allow students to successfully learn, and Dr. Immordino-Yang has brain research to prove it, is students’ confidence that their teachers know them, care for them, and believe in them. It’s all about the connections.

So thank you, Eric Yuan. You are going to make a gazillion more dollars from this and you are connecting us in a time when we have never needed it more. And thanks to our teachers, students, parents, and employees who are making those connections in a whole new way.

Stay connected and stay healthy,

Mike

Reflections on School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#1, Beginnings, March 17, 2020)

March 17, 2020

Last week was one of the craziest weeks I’ve had as an educator and perhaps as a human being. Whether or not to close schools was a huge debate for our area and for the country. Many parents and medical professionals were saying that the sooner all schools closed, the more quickly the nation could slow down the spread of COVID-19. But it was also a debate on child care, as closing the schools meant that working professionals, including first responders and medical professionals, might not be able to go to work if schools were closed. I heard from parents and medical professionals about that as well. It was a week where the news was changing every hour, rumors were flying, and emotion was high. For the first time in my life, even more than 9/11, a sense of panic has been evident throughout the nation in terms of making sure people felt that they had the supplies they needed to survive. I heard from employees and I heard from parents, and it truly was a 50/50 split on what was the best tactic to take. And, by the way, it was a highly emotional 50/50 split. I was in regular communication with individual board members, with the Department of Public Health, with other superintendents, with the County Superintendent, with employees, and with district leaders. In the end, we made the decision to close our schools about a day before the County and the rest of the world did. And now, there are only a few schools in the nation, if not the world, that remain open. We have entered a new and hopefully unique phase in our lives.

As we begin this week without students in our schools, there are many important items to work out. We have to address how we are going to effectively and lovingly teach our students, how we are going to best utilize all of our employees, how we are going to keep our employees and our students safe, and how we are going to continue to get the necessary work of the District done. Our teachers began planning for this possibility well before our decision to close, but they are learning a whole new world of online instruction. We are already hearing amazing stories about how our teachers are interacting with our students. One of our kindergarten teachers is already legendary in my mind because I had the chance to see her first video for her kindergarten students, where she was wonderful, but her outstanding performance was truly hijacked by Coco the cat. Her cat made several appearances in the video, and if my kindergarten student had seen that, he would have been head-over-heels for Coco the cat. Even I can’t get enough. I can’t wait to see Coco the cat again! I look forward to seeing many more examples of our teachers working with our students. I am hoping that our parents, when something great happens, will let me know about it. Our teachers are often too humble to share the great things they are doing. That being said, I hope everyone is patient with our teachers, because again, this is a whole new world. Our schools are closed for four weeks at this point, but I know many professionals are saying it will be at least eight before schools across the country re-open, and tonight, the Governor said we may not re-open before the end of the school year. Nothing is certain at this point, and we will continue to learn.

I have many different perspectives on this remarkable time period, which has only just begun. Of course, I am superintendent of our schools here in Manhattan Beach, so I have that perspective. I am married to a 5th grade teacher at a Malibu elementary school, and I have Jill’s perspective as she learns her way through this. And I have the perspective of my two sons. My younger son Dawson is a junior at Malibu High School. He was out of school last year for six weeks because of the Woolsey fire, and now it’s happening again. What a crazy experience for him. And my older son, Ryan, is an attorney living up in Sacramento, so I have his perspective as well. I am thinking that maybe I can share glimpses of all these perspectives in the upcoming blogs. I think it will be a good record of a unique time in our lives, and I hope that it can provide something – I don’t even know what that might be – for others as we work our way through this time. I will be doing my best to make several blog entries a week as we live through this unprecedented time. Even if it is read by only a few, I hope it can be supportive to those, and I know I will benefit by taking the time to reflect, write, and share.

Wishing you all good health,

Mike

Lawnmowers and Snowplows

When I was a high school principal, a parent of a senior came up to me and asked, “Did you really tell my son he should turn down his college admission offers and go be a professional musician instead?” I smiled and said that yes, that was my advice to him. She shook her head and said she had not believed her son when he told her. Part of my advice may have been because in my next life I’d love to be a professional musician, but most of it was based on my knowledge of him, his abilities, and his dreams. We both laugh about it now, as that choice has worked out pretty well for him. Phew!

My point is, there are many paths to a successful adulthood, and college, particularly the name of the college, is not the only determinant of our children’s future success. Two of my friends who I would call extraordinarily successful did not go to college at all. And there is ample evidence that, for people who go to college, the name of the college they attend has little to nothing to do with their future success (see Frank Bruni’s – Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be; Challenge Success White Paper – Why College Engagement Matters More that Selectivity). As Jason Gay stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “College is college – some schools have more to offer than others, but in your life, you’re going to meet plenty of useless dingbats who went to the most distinguished colleges in the country. You’ll also encounter wizards who barely went to school at all.”

So why in the world do so many of us care so much, stress so much, and do all sorts of things to get our children into the most prestigious college possible? Why would parents risk their integrity, and their children’s integrity, by cheating in the college admissions process? Most of us would never even consider something that extreme, but it does represent the anxiety that plagues many parents and students, especially in a community that values education so highly and that is populated by so many highly successful college educated adults. In the wake of recent events, I have heard several stories of college students and graduates who called their parents and asked them if they pulled strings to get them into college. That’s a heartbreaking question on many levels, and it speaks to the culture that we live in, the pressure we put on ourselves and our children, and our perceptions about the whimsical nature of the college admission process, especially at the most “elite” schools – based not on substance but on luck, or fate, or a thumb on a scale. We have to do something about this. I hope this recent cheating and admissions scandal can be a catalyst and help pull us back from this insanity.

Our message to ourselves and to our kids about college should be simple: It’s going to be OK.

There are a lot of things in parenting that matter way more than where our children go to college. Are we raising children who are hard workers, who can overcome adversity, who are kind, who are passionate about something, who will be good parents and partners and friends, who strive to improve, who are confident in their own self-worth, who are ethical, who are healthy, and who know they are loved?

Julie Lythcott-Haims, who will be speaking at Mira Costa this Sunday afternoon and Monday night (sign up here), writes in her book How to Raise an Adult, “Why did parenting change from preparing our kids for life to protecting them from life, which means they’re not prepared to live life on their own?” I’ve heard this parenting technique called lawnmower parenting – blazing a path in front of our kids so that not a single blade of grass gets in their way. (In the north they call it snowplow parenting. I love southern California!)

And as we have seen, this approach is dangerous not only to children but to their parents as well. Lythcott-Haims adds, “Not only does overparenting hurt our children; it harms us, too. Parents today are scared, not to mention exhausted, anxious, and depressed.” I’ve seen it. It’s real. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it’s not just something we can flip a switch and change.

My youngest son is a sophomore in high school. I find it hard not to ask about his grades, and I don’t like it when his grades are lower than they I think they should be. But I’m working on it. Maybe I write these blog entries to remind myself to practice what I preach. BUT IT’S NOT EASY! I try to focus even more on what he loves to do, his friends, his challenges, and what he’s trying to get better at. Or just to talk about what he loves – movies, food, golf, video games, e-sports, or good things happening in this world.

What’s especially challenging for our parents is that many of us are talking the right talk, but our kids don’t believe it. They have accepted the false elite college premise, and they work each other up about it relentlessly. That’s why cheating is an epidemic in schools today. The cheating in today’s high schools isn’t from the Bluto Blutarsky’s of the world who are trying to improve their 0.00 GPA. They are A and B students wanting all A’s. Challenge Success has written a White Paper on that too – Cheat or Be Cheated – which examines the culture of cheating. Jason Gay adds in his article, “Not everyone cheats. Not everyone cuts corners. There isn’t a diploma in the world more valuable than your integrity – and you can’t buy your integrity back.”

I write this for parents because it starts with us. Although we shake our head when we hear about the parents who paid big money, lied, or cheated to get their children into college, the factors that led to those behaviors are all around us every day. I encourage you to listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims and/or read her book, then talk about it all with your friends and fellow parents. Let’s shut down the lawnmowers and let our children fend more for themselves, practice self-advocacy, overcome problems, and even experience failure.

As for us, you know that we here in MBUSD are working on this too. We are striving to make our schools healthier places for our students. We are making changes to the amount and types of homework we are assigning; we now end the first semester in high school before winter break, allowing for a true break; we have Link Crew and WEB programs, both designed to welcome new students to a school; we cap AP classes for students at four; we have the “office hours” schedule at Mira Costa, making Wednesdays a unique day at the high school; and we are encouraging our students to be mindful in a variety of ways. And we’re still working on it.

We are all in this together.

– Mike Matthews

LiveWell Magazine Interview with Dr. Matthews and area superintendents

BCHD sat down with the heads of the three Beach Cities school districts to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing students today – and how they are tackling it all together.
There’s so much happening in our schools and the lives of today’s students – from stressful academic demands to social-emotional well-being. So, we thought it would be a perfect time to have a discussion with the superintendents who are guiding Beach Cities’ school districts:
  • Patricia Escalante (Hermosa Beach City School District)
  • Dr. Michael Matthews (Manhattan Beach Unified School District)
  • Dr. Steven Keller (Redondo Beach Unified School District).

Here are highlights of the roundtable conversation.

Q: Since each of you were in school, how has life changed for K-12 students?
A: Escalante: “Social media is the obvious (difference), but kids in my day still got feelings hurt. It was maybe more passive-aggressive because people would talk behind your back or send notes about you. With social media, everything is so instant. We only had CBS, NBC and ABC. No cable TV, no 24-hour news cycle.”
Matthews: “When I went to high school there was actually little pressure about which college to go to. None of my friends talked about it, my parents didn’t talk about it. But that is one million degrees different right now. (Life) was much lower key when I was in high school. No social media, so I didn’t know what I was missing out on. I’m sure it was a lot, but I didn’t have social media to remind me about all that.”
Keller: “Technology obviously is ubiquitous now, in every shape, matter and form. Computer labs were just starting when I was in high school; now everyone’s got a device. It’s a different game. Access to information is real-time, and that has its pros and cons. If you are a great parent, though, it can actually serve you well.”
Q: Are Beach Cities kids under more pressure to get into the best colleges?
A: Escalante: “Short answer: yes. But, I think our kids are hungry for a deeper understanding about themselves. They are no longer thinking that they’re just born a certain way – they are learning they have control. But they are under a lot of pressure. The pressure to go to the “sweatshirt colleges” is real in our community and it’s a lot to put on kids, especially the ones who don’t fit into that pigeonhole. Those kids need to know it’s okay to take a different pathway to success; it’s beneficial to think outside of the box and be creative. These are the conversations we need to be having as parents and teachers with our children.”
Matthews: “To Pat’s point, a key piece of research is set to be released from Stanford in the next week that essentially shows the lifetime income differential between the top 200 colleges in the country is marginally different. That means whether you’re going to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale or the University of Arkansas, your income isn’t going to vary much, on average. Assuming that’s what the research shows, I can’t wait to share that with the community.” (To read the report from Challenge Success, click here)
Keller: “Rather than base the whole college process off the question of: How much money will I make when I graduate?, I urge our kids to focus on becoming better, more informed citizens. Make a better use of your time on earth; try to make the world a better place. And if money follows and capitalism thrives, then great. That’s the honest conversation I’m having with our kids and the community – and I think our community understands the importance of it.”
Q: How has the relationship between health and school evolved over the years?
A: Matthews: “We don’t need to do a lot of pushing to have our students striving to be the very best academically. They’re already doing that on their own. Our job has transformed into turning this quest for excellence into a quest for student wellness. It’s a push we’re making with teachers, counselors, parents and students. And Beach Cities Health District is a big partner for us. I’d say we now focus as much on student wellness as we do on academic excellence. It’s a giant change.”
Escalante: “The conversations between the three districts have become more frequent, richer and more focused on the wellness for kids. We are operating with like minds and have support from each of our boards. It’s more powerful when we can work together and have common frames of reference and language around wellness for kids and expectations. And I agree with Mike about BCHD…We truly see the health district as an absolute working partnership to support total well-being. I’m sure all three districts feel that way.”
Keller: “I totally agree with Pat and Mike. The whole focus on social emotional well-being – our kids being physically fit, having great nutrition and academics – are all pieces and values we believe in and transfer to the 20,000 South Bay kids that we serve. It’s just who we are as people. The heavy lift is for the teachers and staff and Beach Cities Health District to systematize and implement. But that’s a good place to come from, where you believe in it before you even start.”
Q: How would you describe your district’s relationship with Beach Cities Health District?
A: Matthews:“BCHD has been a great partner for us, but they’ve also pushed us. The health district is singular in its focus, so they always come to us with programs to support areas of need, like social-emotional wellness. They push us to be better and it makes us healthier.”
Keller: “Our staff, kids and parents benefit from the longevity of the synergy we’ve had with BCHD. Kindergarteners come in and are, for lack of a better word, indoctrinated into our well-established culture of physical and social-emotional health. It’s not all about test scores; it’s also about their health and their family’s health. So, I think that our relationship over the last decade has been very helpful. People move here expecting this relationship, expecting BCHD to be involved. I think parents are well aware of it, and, hence, our enrollment has increased over the last 12 years. I think it’s partially because of our relationship with Beach Cities Health District.”
Escalante: “In 2012, BCHD came to me in my first year as superintendent with MindUP, a program designed to teach children how to regulate negative emotions and their internal decisions by teaching them mindfulness practices and how their brains work. Initially, we were worried about appearing too new age, but we ended up launching it, having success with it and are now a California Distinguished School because of it. MindUP is a great example of how BCHD has given us a lot of different tools to approach our students’ health more holistically.”
Q: You seem to be in sync philosophically; do you have strong working relationships with one another?
A: All: “We do, yeah.”
Keller: “I’ve been here the longest (since 2006) and for me (collaboration) started when Mike became superintendent (in 2010) … I never really connected with Hermosa until Pat came along (in 2012). It’s reached the point where we all even know each other’s kids.”
Matthews: “Steven invited me to lunch right when I came in, and then we both met with Pat when she came in. (We now) call each other, text each other, meet together and do some planning. Also, whenever there’s a question or an issue, we respond to each other immediately, and I’m grateful for that.”
Q: Here’s a fun one: Which is the best high school in the Beach Cities?
A: Escalante: “I’m staying out of this one … (laughing).”
Matthews: “Here’s what I’ll say, we’ve got great school districts. You can’t go wrong. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Keller: “Ten years ago, I would’ve said it depends on what you are looking for in a high school, and I’d have described two different schools – one more focused on academics and ours more focused on the whole child. But that’s no longer the case. Mike changed that when he was hired because he understands the value of the whole child approach. So, I agree completely with what Mike said. You really can’t go wrong.”
Q: The three of you wound-up in the South Bay, but where did each of you go to high school?”
A: Keller: “I went to South Torrance High School.”
Escalante: “I went to Palos Verdes High School.”
Matthews: “I went to high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. So, we’re all pretty local.”
Read more in the latest edition of our LiveWell Magazine.

 

Reach for the Stars: My Promotion Address to the Manhattan Beach Middle School Class of 2018

Congratulations to the MBMS 8th Grade Class of 2018.

Your class has chosen the theme, “Reach for the Stars” for this ceremony. And why not?

It’s way better than themes that Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh might have chosen:

  • What’s the use?
  • I shouldn’t even try.
  • Nothing’s going to change.

Reach for the Stars is way better.

Everyone knows that if you want to become a better athlete or a better artist or musician, you need to practice, work, and learn from a good teacher or coach.

But for some reason, most people don’t believe that we can become smarter. People think that we were born with a certain amount of smarts, and that’s just not going to change.

Brain research has proven that is just not true. Just as you can reach for the stars and become a better athlete or a better artist, you can become smarter. Scientists and researchers call this a “Growth Mindset.”

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Many brain researchers have shown proof of Growth Mindset, but some students and teachers still don’t believe it. We have to convince students, parents, AND teachers that the growth mindset is real and needs to be utilized.

So how do you get smarter? How does this growth mindset thing work?

  1. Challenge yourself. Try hard stuff. Find interesting problems and try to solve them. Push yourself. Don’t take the easy way.
  2. Fail. Learn from your failures. When you challenge yourself, you will fail. Brain researchers are saying that nothing promotes growth as much as learning from failure. We have teachers and students who define F-A-I-L as First Attempt in Learning.  I love it.
  3. Explore new ideas through reading, Care about something! Learn about it! Do you know how you become a better reader? By reading more. Fall in love with reading and you’ll have something to enjoy your whole life and your brain will grow.
  4. Be careful with social media: There are two big evils in social media: The first is FOMO – The Fear of Missing Out – because you focus on the cool things others are posting. Believe me, no one’s life is super-duper awesome every minute. The real-life stuff we deal with is not what you see on social media. The second evil is the unfortunate propensity of some people to be mean and try to bring people down. Be careful.
  5. Take care of your brain. Again, let’s look at brain research and science. If you want your brain to grow, there are two most important habits you can develop: (1) get enough sleep. You need more than you think. Do everything you can to get that sleep. (2) Don’t use drugs and alcohol. Your brain is growing and developing, and nothing can slow down that growth more than drugs and alcohol.

Most of all, believe that your best and smartest days are ahead of you. Brain research is on your side. Don’t let others define your story. Set big fat hairy goals for yourself. Be OK when you fail, and try again. Never stop growing. Never stop reaching for the stars.

Congratulations again to the MBMS 8th Grade Class of 2018, to your parents, and to all of your great teachers who have made a difference in your lives.

My Comments at the Beach Cities Health District Summit on Youth Stress and Substance Abuse

I had the honor of attending an amazing event in our community today. Beach Cities Health District sponsored a Summit on Youth Stress and Substance Abuse. This is a huge issue for our community, for the communities of the Consortium 2030 group, and for the nation as a whole. We heard from 12 students in our local middle and high schools. They spoke about stress, the value of teachers knowing them well, the amount of vaping that is permeating teen culture and our schools, and so much more. They were great. One of my favorite comments was from a student who said, “I am expected to do the best I can, actually, to do more than the best I can.” We heard from former US Representative Mary Bono Mack, who shared stories addiction in her family, and gave ideas for how we can work together to support individuals and families in crisis. It was a powerful summit, and I am grateful for being able to participate.

Along with our other local superintendents, I was asked to make remarks at the summit. Here is what I shared.

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MMatBCHDI had a beautiful start to my day today. Fifty-one graduating seniors, their parents, and their Meadows Elementary School teachers reunited on the Meadows Elementary School cafeteria. There were tears, smiles, laughter, and comments about how the teachers used to be taller. It reminded me of the joy of friendships, of powerful teacher-student connections, and of a community celebrating together.

It was a great lead in to this amazing summit, as we work together to make life for our youth healthier, safer, and happier.

This is a powerful room of people actively seeking to improve social emotional wellness, diminish stress, and end substance abuse with our youth. Some people in the room are interested in learning more, a few may be skeptical, most are concerned, some have devoted their professional and personal lives to this cause, and some are here full of pain from the suffering or even the loss of loved ones. That’s the range of people we have in this room and in our schools.

I want to thank Beach Cities Health District for sponsoring this summit and for helping to start this conversation. The original Blue Zones report made it clear that our communities are stressed places. It does not look that way on the surface. I heard someone say that we are like ducks. We look all nice and peaceful, but underneath the water, we are paddling like hell, going somewhere in a hurry or just trying to stay afloat. We are a stressed community, and our kids feel it. I’m a parent of two young men, ages 27 and 15. I’m an educator for the near 7,000 students in the Manhattan Beach School District. I join all of you in trying to find that right line between encouraging, pushing, caring, and unconditionally loving our own children and the children of our community.

Our students are stressed. Read Denise Pope’s book, Overloaded and Underprepared. Read Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. Students are stressed about college. Parents are even more stressed about college. They burden themselves with loads of classes that are often just too much. Go to Families Connected meetings, sponsored by amazing parents like Laura McIntyre. Our students don’t sleep enough. They worry that their lives may not be as interesting as what they see on their social media feeds. They witness people being mean to each other and to them. Our students are certainly stressed.

On the other hand, our students have joyful experiences as well. I saw it this morning. Last week, I got to see our choir singing joyfully in Disney Hall. I see it with students in marching band performing on the field, or in an amazing musical, or on a sports team achieving a new personal record, or on the robotics team, or in a class they love smiling because of what they learn and how they are learning it. One senior last night admitted to an auditorium of parents and students, “I’ll say it, I love math and I thank Mr. Chou for making me love it in 5th grade!” I see that joy when I shadowed students and witnessed the power of friends reconnecting at lunch, at nutrition breaks, or just saying hello in the hallway.

It’s not all darkness out there. There is a lot of light, as evidenced by their joy and smiling.

How do we help that power of light to prevail over the dark powers of stress, sadness, and anxiety? Because when that power of light and joy does not prevail, that’s when substance abuse sees an opening. And it will jump at that opening.

What can we do to help our students succeed with the right amount of stress? How can we help the light to prevail?

I’m a big believer in the concept of Flow. I even read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book and understood at least half of it. Here’s what I do understand about flow. There is no better time to be alive than when you are so immersed in something that time ceases to exist. For me, that can be moments with family and friends, bicycling, cooking, learning something new, reading, swimming, golfing, in a fascinating conversation, in a high-quality meeting, solving a complex problem, and many other times. In those times, there is no worry about anything. The next thing is nowhere in your mind.

I want us to create more opportunities for flow in our children’s and our students’ lives. I want us to have it in our lives!

One way we are trying to make that happen in MBUSD is by having students experience more Personalized Learning. When I was in school, memorization was the key to success. And I was pretty good. I still know the quadratic formula. I can still integrate calculus problems. I still know that there are 6.02 x 1023 molecules in a mole. I have no idea how to apply any of those things. With that type of memorization-centric teaching, who needs personalized learning?

But with the advent of the smart phone and technology all that knowledge is one button away. Some still argue with that. But many of us in this room used to know 40 phone numbers, now we are lucky to know 3. Does that keep us from talking on the phone? OK, does it keep any of us from texting?

Schools are no longer the repository of knowledge to be imparted unto students. We must be coaches, mentors, and we have to know our students. We need to teach them skills that can help them learn and succeed. We can help our students to grow and find their flow. Teaching has a whole new meaning these days, and it is more challenging than ever.

That’s what our social emotional wellness movement is all about in our schools. We are looking for ANYTHING we can do to chip away at student stress. We are looking for anything we can do to connect and help our students lead healthy productive lives. Here is what we are working on:

  • How do we make homework meaningful and never busywork, and not assign so much that our students have extreme burdens outside of school?
  • How do we create school schedules, block schedules, that make it easier on students to thrive each day?
  • How do we use counselors, classroom teachers, advisories, and more to help students connect with adults who care?
  • How do we create academic experiences that are appropriately challenging for each child and as meaningful as possible?
  • How do we convince parents and students that life will be OK, in fact our students will thrive, even if they choose to go to a college not ranked at the very top?
  • How do we convince our students and parents that taking too many classes can suck the joy and health right out of students’ lives?
  • How do we help our students to care for themselves and their brain health by getting enough sleep each night?
  • How do we encourage inclusiveness in our community, where everyone feels welcome, and no one feels isolated or attacked?
  • How can students include classes into their high school schedules that create a space where they can be joyful, pursue what they love, and experience flow each and every day?

That’s what we are trying to do in our schools. These are the questions our board is trying to figure out. We are working with students, parents, BCHD, our partner districts, our local therapists and health community, and anyone who cares. Some of you who are in the room with me know that not everyone believes the way we do. But I believe it, and I know you do too.

Everything we can do, every positive change we make, big and small, they all diminish the need for coping mechanisms like substance abuse and bullying, and they all increase our students’ potential for joy and flow.

That’s what we are all trying to do. We are not there yet. But our summit should remind us all that we are not alone and we are not giving up.

I thank each of you for every effort you make to help us in this quest.

MBUSDatBCHD

I’m joined by Manhattan Beach Mayor Amy Howorth, MBUSD Board Members Jen Cochran and Ellen Rosenberg, Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale, and BCHD Chief Executive Officer Tom Bakaly.

 

 

 

Celebrating Astronauts and Teaching Excellence

When the last transmission for the International Space Station ended, the crowd in the middle school auditorium cheered wildly. The applause went on for over three minutes – more than 500 people swept up in the tremendous emotion of the moment. There were students, parents, and educators in the room, and every one of them was moved. The adults, understanding the magnitude, were using words like “spine-tingling” and “chills,” and looking around I could see that almost all of them (including me!) had tears of joy in their eyes. It was one of the most powerful educational events I have ever experienced in my 30+ years of public education. It was perfect, and it was symbolic of so many things we do right here in MBUSD.

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It all started when one of our five Elementary Science Specialists, Ms. Joanne Michael, applied to the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station program to win a slot for ten minutes of ham radio time with an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) as it passed in range of Manhattan Beach. MBEF, Northrup Grumman, and her local radio club all supported her in the application process. She got the word in December of 2016 that she had been selected, then started doing the work to make it happen. She found fellow ham radio operators who would volunteer their time. She selected students of all grade levels to ask the questions, and prepared them to ask their questions in a strong voice using radio communication techniques. In order to communicate with someone in outer space, she figured out how to get an antenna mounted to the top of the MBMS auditorium. She took care of all of that, and the zillions of other logistics that all needed to happen just right to make the event work.

Early in the morning of the planned conversation, Ms. Michael went over to our middle school auditorium, which was large enough to accommodate all of the Meadows Elementary School students, many of their parents, and other guests anxious for this experience. She worked with her fellow ham radio operators, making sure the equipment and back up equipment had the best chance of working. There was so much that could go wrong, and there was just a single ten-minute window while the space station, travelling at 17,500 miles per hour, would be in range of her radio signal. Two of the last four schools had not been successful in reaching the ISS. Astronauts have interruptions sometimes! Technology has glitches sometimes. So much could go wrong. But not on this day.

Four hundred Meadows Elementary students walked to MBMS (no small feat in itself!) and gathered in the auditorium with their parents and other educators. Ms. Michael wore her astronaut suit that day. Of course she did! She made sure the 500 people in the audience knew to be perfectly still and quiet during the 10-minute talk. She made sure everyone knew this whole experiment just might not work, but that failure is how people learn. She reminded them that instead of clapping or cheering, they should give the sign language sign for applause or hooray, by raising their hands in the air and shaking them. (We have several deaf and hard of hearing students in MBUSD). She showed them the big screen with a red dot that moved over China, then Japan, then the Pacific. The dot was the ISS, and the circle around the dot showed when we would be in range for a conversation.

As the right edge of that circle hit southern California, she asked everyone to be quiet, and the ham operator started talking over the intercom, “NAISS, NAISS this is Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Silence. He said it again, “NAISS, NAISS this Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Silence. Four more times he called, “NAISS, NAISS this Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo Come in.” Then, after the seventh call, a voice responded.

“Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo this is Paolo Nespoli on the International Space Station.”

There were muffled noises of excitement in the audience, and as I turned to the audience, all hands were in the air waving vigorously. The silent applause was deafening and joyful. We were communicating with an astronaut in outer space! That’s when my eyes first starting misting up. It was such a moment, and every person in the room was completely engaged and would not have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.

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The ham operator turned it over to Ms. Michael, who greeted the astronaut, then immediately let the students take the stage and start asking their questions. Here were some of the questions:

  • How do you get picked to be an astronaut? Over.
  • How do you eat without your food flying away? Over.
  • How long did it take you to get to the ISS? Over.
  • How do you take a shower in space? Over.
  • Does anyone ever get sick in space? Over.
  • What inspired you to be an astronaut? Over.
  • Can you see the hurricanes and the wildfires from space? Over.

Astronaut Paolo Nespoli called students by name. He answered their questions efficiently, but he filled his answers with interesting examples and stories. He made it personal, and you could tell that he loved this part of his job. The audience was perfect during the entire time. The sound quality was very, very good, but we were all watching the screen showing the ISS moving over Los Angeles, and then going in a southeast direction. It would not be long until it went out of range.

As I was witnessing the last few minutes, I was overcome thinking about the power of great teaching. This entire experience was happening because of one teacher’s efforts. Ms. Michael’s passion for science and for teaching science was behind everything we were all experiencing. She had invested hundreds of hours in making this happen, and she had gathered countless volunteers to invest similar amounts of time. And all of those hours were invested with no guarantee of how it would come out. Great teachers are risk takers and optimists. They try new things hoping that it will work out wonderfully and figuring out how to make lemonade when it doesn’t. Great teachers make connections with students and help the students to play an active role in the learning experience. Great teachers are models for how to be lifelong learners. Great teachers show their passion for a subject and inspire students to catch that passion.

On September 8, Joanne Michael gave us all of that and more in one of the greatest teaching and learning experiences I have ever witnessed.

After all the students had asked all of their questions, Ms. Michael got to ask a couple more. Finally, as the back edge of the circle had gone east of Los Angeles, she proudly signed off from Manhattan Beach. We heard the astronaut do the same, and it was over. There were a few seconds of radio and auditorium silence, then the crowd erupted in loud, joyous cheering that went on for what seemed like forever. They were cheering for Ms. Michael. They were cheering for science. They were cheering for space exploration. They were cheering for our ham radio operators and everyone who made this happen. Most of all, they were cheering because they were all part of something incredibly unique and special.

As the cheering died down, and we all returned to our lives here on Earth, I was and I still am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am grateful for Ms. Michael and for all of our teachers who pursue teaching excellence every day. I am grateful to MBEF for providing the funding necessary for elementary science specialists and so much more. I am grateful for astronauts who realize their power to teach and inspire. Finally, I grateful to work in MBUSD, where we are so fully committed to pursuing teaching excellence to inspire and support all of our students.

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To see the entire experience, click here. The actual conversation experience begins at the 28-minute mark.

2017 Thoughts on Advanced Placement

Back in 2015, I wrote a blog entry on AP classes.  This entry is an update to that post.  In the last two years, we have ramped up our focus on student stress here in MBUSD, and we are not alone.  We have joined other districts with a similar interest through Stanford’s Challenge Success initiative.  We study the issue with 6 other high performing districts across the country in the 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium.  So please allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress.

First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US History as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least one  Advanced Placement class during their high school career. There is research behind that.  Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 62% of our graduates (up from 48% in 2010) take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is a good number reflecting outstanding progress, I would like to see that number be more like 70%. That is the percentage of our graduates going directly to a four-year college.

On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our Board, our counselors, and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means. Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. This year, our high school limited the number of AP classes a student can take in one year to four.  I believe that’s still too much, but I like the initiative.  Unfortunately, I believe this cap actually encouraged some students to take four AP classes instead of three this year.  We will continue to examine this very important topic.  I strongly believe that one or two AP classes in the junior and/or senior year is a great number for any student wanting to be prepared for four-year college.

I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there. If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.

I heard a telling story this year from a parent who has actually read some of these ideas that I write!  He told me that his daughter was ready to to take three AP classes, but that an admissions officer from a college told her that she should take four.  The father was upset that the admissions officer gave the advice, and the daughter reluctantly took a fourth AP class.  She did well in the class, but did miss out on a class she would rather have taken.  The reward for taking that fourth class?  She got into many excellent schools, but did not get into the school of the ill-advising admissions counselor.  Students should take interesting classes, mix in the right amount of challenge, and not focus on maxing out a transcript.  It will be OK.

I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015), who states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.

Thank you,

Mike Matthews

The 21st Century Superintendents’ Consortium is comprised of Eanes (TX), Edina (MN), Highland Park (TX), Manhattan Beach (CA), Palo Alto (CA), New Trier (IL), and Westside (NE) school districts. The mission of the 21st Century Superintendent’s Consortium is to develop the whole child, preparing learners for a successful life beyond high school.