Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best Runs of 2011 - trails, teams, and marathons

2011 is almost over.  Personally, it was a great year for running: no debilitating injuries that kept me from pounding the pavement and I am getting better at staying the course, keeping my commitment to myself to keep moving, and living the discipline of going the distance and trying to log miles to stay marathon-ready.  I averaged 40 miles per week over the last year.

So, with the end of another year approaching, here it is, the long-awaited, much-anticipated list of this year's best runs according to my own totally subjective opinion!  (If that's not enough of a disclaimer I'll  also note that I am most decidedly not an elite runner and I have the privilege of being sponsored by: no one.)

First of all, let's be clear about the criteria.  To have the audacity to call these the "Best Runs of 2011" is a bit presumptuous, admittedly.  I didn't run every run out there.  But of those road races and trail runs I did have the privilege of participating in this past, here's the ones that I found the most memorable:

5. Chevron Houston Marathon: It's not the cool swag, although medals, mugs, and t-shirts make for a pretty sweet set-up for participants.  The packet pick-up and pre-race seminars are sweet and the post-run support (including chocolate milk) is great.  It also offers a relatively flat course and great crowd support rooting runners of all ages and abilities as we pace through the miles.  For me, though, the satisfaction of this run has more to do with getting out of Nebraska in the brutal mid-January cold and going somewhere it's much more likely to be sunny and 70.  Results at http://www.chevronhoustonmarathon.com/Marathon/Results.cfm

4. XTerra BOLT Trail Run: A brutal, beautiful, and demanding course that is a complementary event to the XTerra Triathlon occurring the same weekend at Nebraska's Branched Oak Lake park.  So while the really crazy-committed athletes do the triathlon, those of us who 'just' run can find satisfaction with this event.  The 5 miles will leave even veteran trail runners and cross country harriers spent. You're in thickly wooded trail for about three of the five miles and to call the path rigorous really doesn't do it justice - you'd better keep your head on a swivel or you'll be picking pine needles out of your butt and wondering how you face-planted so fast.  No need to 'warm up' - the August humidity and demanding terrain will get you heated up right away.  Course map available right here http://www.xterrabolt.com/maps/TrailRunMap.pdf

3. Bohemian Alps 50K Endurance Run: I admit that although I would definitely flag this one as highly memorable, I am ambivalent about ever doing it again.  Brutal.  But for those who say, "26.2?  That just doesn't seem far enough," this run might be for you.  Any race that begins with a pledge recitation / waiver of liability wherein the runners confess to their general stupidity and idiotic intent to "do it anyway" is bound to offer its share of challenges.  The 2011 32 mile stretch had segments of dirt road that, because of moisture and precipitation basically turned it into a churning mud run that left me utterly exhausted and tested my will to keep going.  Anyone naive enough to consider Nebraska "flat" just needs to run the hills outside Brainard for a revelation.  The finisher keepsake plaque is cool.  The camaraderie on the course is slim.  If you are not talking with another runner who happens to be alongside, you are on your own.  The run support consists of a couple guys in a pickup truck with a few coolers of supplies - cookies, bananas, water, Gatorade. They'll meet you at the next aid station a few miles down the road.  Just keep running.  Race info available at http://dalenielsen68626.tripod.com/

2. Lincoln Marathon: Even if it weren't the hometown favorite for hundreds of local Lincoln runners who make the trek religiously every year, this run would be one of the tops. Most participants can attest to the top-quality in-race support from volunteers who staff the aid stations throughout the course.  The crowds cheering runners along, especially on stretches down Sheridan Boulevard and along Highway 2, are simply fantastic and provide a huge motivational burst.  To give you an idea of how popular this run has deservedly become, registration for the May, 2012 run just opened a few weeks back.  The entries are capped at 10,000 and it's nearly full already.

Information and results for the Lincoln National Guard Marathon and Half-Marathon are available at http://www.lincolnrun.org/races/marathon

1. Market To Market Relay: It's about team, it's about unity, it's about the nostalgic thrill revisited of cheering on your teammate as he lifts his knees and pumps his arms, baton in hand, getting ready for the exchange.  It's about rooting one another on.  This Omaha to Lincoln relay is an absolute blast, and a grueling gut-check as well.  It's not the first or second leg that will zap you . . . but by the time that third leg comes up and the combination of dried sweat and post-run stench is threatening to asphyxiate everyone on your team as they ride to the next exchange station in the team Suburban, you're just really, really tired.  Our creatively named "2yearsolder" team finished 5th in Open just in front of the Beer View Mirrors.

Results for M2M are available here http://markettomarketrelay.com/

Here's hoping 2012 brings you success in your running and fitness goals!  Let me know what your "Top Runs" list would consist of and whether you agree with mine.  Happy trails to you -

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Comments at Building A Healthier Future Summit

The conference was held November 29 and 30 in Washington, DC. It was sponsored by the Partnership For A Healthier America and I spoke in the Healthy Schools strand on behalf of the Alliance For A Healthier Generation. 

I am John Skretta, Norris superintendent.  To give you some idea of our context so you know where I'm coming from, we are a district of over 2,000 students in southeast Nebraska just south of our capitol city, Lincoln.  We are a consolidated district that draws from numerous surrounding small towns, and we are growing in student enrollment every year.  We are a combination rural and suburban district.

Our demographics are that we have 15% free and reduced lunch participation and we have 10% special education. Like a lot of schools, we have seen an increase in those numbers in recent years.

To our district, in the context of our discussion today, one of the most important thing for schools to do is realize that students' health and also the wellbeing of staff members are in fact logical precursors to high academic achievement.  These things are not separate from a quality educational experience that assures excellent academic outcomes.  They are in fact central tenets of a positive learning experience. 

At Norris , we believe sound nutrition, quality health education, routine opportunities for physical activity, and embracing the importance of physical education are all a part of how we do business, they are part of the fabric of our being.  We believe affirming that only fosters better success in the rigorous core areas of math, science and English.

We didn't achieve that level of integration and cohesiveness unilaterally, we have only been able to do that because of commitments from partners internal and external, like Shannon Vogler, our Alliance Relationship Manager in Nebraska. You don't achieve anything systemically as a unilateral effort or a top-down dictate. This isn't about compliance or policy dictates, it's about reaching critical mass consensus within a school community to propel positive change forward. 

So when we got tired of playing cat and mouse with repeated go-rounds from snack vendors on stocking too many products of minimal nutritional value AKA junk food, we had a parent help guide us in finding great values to purchase our own vending machines.  And we use the Alliance Product Calculator to help make some of those product selections that comprise our inventory.

When we needed help to acquire milk machines so that we could offer students healthier beverage alternatives, our friends in the farming community and with Prairieland Dairy stepped up and we sell a machine full of skim and 1% daily as a great student consumption option for kids.

When we needed help with health alignment k-8, we were able to bring out the Alliance's Kathy Wilbur all the way from Maine to help us with the HECAT and now we have a well-articulated health sequences in no small measure because of her content expertise.

When we needed to reseed our cross-country course or get rock on the trail for our Elementary walking path, a Board member who works in construction stepped up to make it possible.

It started all the way at the beginning in the 05-06 school year when the state legislature (in response to federal requirements) dictated that schools adopt policies for student health by the summer of 06.  When we adopted our student health policy, we had leadership from within with a school board member whose training and background is as an RN, and we hired a nutritionist from our district and had student and parent volunteers  providing sound recommendations.  So it had a chance right away to be a dynamic document, not a dead-on-arrival dust-gatherer like so many policies that exist in name and number only.

When we wanted to integrate our School Wellness Council with school improvement, we knew we weren't alone and wouldn't be declared to be inhabiting the lunatic fringe, because we have had partners in the Kearney and Lincoln districts who were already finding correlations between BMI and fitness test results with scores and grades. And we had the courage to push forward because our state Board of Education and our state department of Ed have adopted a state level Coordinated School Health policy. So now we are examining risk and protective factor data along with Fitnessgram results when we are talking about state test results and other achievement indicators. 

When we wanted to integrate daily fresh fruit and vegetable snacks in the Elementary, we got tips and strategies from parents who serve as early childhood care providers and preschool educators.  

And when we wanted to offer a fun family fitness activity that promoted the crazy concept of mothers and fathers being active together with their children, we worked with Angry Cow Adventures and other local health and fitness vendors like NE Surf Company to sponsor an annual outdoor adventure race at a state park in our district. 

We believe our results academically bear out the importance of a balanced curricular approach. We don't relegate any subject area to marginalized status, we value how the holistic educational experience enhances and complements results across the board.  We are into curricular integration and we make an earnest commitment to the success of every individual learner on our campus. 

We have the highest ACT scores we have had in 5 years with a 23.7 average, we have a 99% graduation rate, and when computing mandatory state rest results across all grades tested- three through eight and eleven, we have among the best cumulative percent proficient scores in reading and math in the state.

We believe schools should embrace this coordinated curricular approach as instrumental, not an optional or peripheral endeavor. 

Our mission is clear, and unlike what one might commonly encounter, we consider mission first and we believe ours is memorably succinct, not rhetorically cluttered. We guarantee quality learning experiences so that every individual learner thrives as a productive, lifelong citizen.

If the things we are doing as a school district are contributing factors in a cultural epidemic that results in reduced life expectancies for our students, how can we claim we are fulfilling our mission!? We cannot. 

So we are striving to fulfill our mission. Like many Alliance partner schools, we have a long way to go and lots of room for further improvement, but we are committed to this journey and believe that through the power of public and private partnerships, we will continue to succeed and help students flourish.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why build, why now? The three "N"s rationale for Norris building project

The Board of Education has determined that a bond issue will be before the Norris district in March, 2012.  The plan will call for a new grades 3, 4, 5 elementary school to be located just northwest of the existing middle school.

I have had many people ask me for my opinion about the issue and the timing of the request.  It is well known that Norris, just like the vast majority of districts across the state, underwent a budget cut in state aid last spring. While the Nebraska economy has remained relatively strong, we are still emerging from a recession and the economy is still in recovery mode.

With that said, it is actually an ideal time for Norris to move forward with a building project.

The rationale is quite simple.  There are three bases for it.

#1: The Need:

Our current Elementary school is at capacity.  We were already at 95% capacity when DLR and Olsson Associates completed a site development study on behalf of the district in 2008.  We haven't gotten any smaller since then. Our pk-4 Elementary enrollment sits at nearly 800 students!  In our desire to keep class sizes manageable, we have this year had to resort to holding one grade level classroom in a pod area.  Rubbermaid storage bins used as a makeshift wall do not constitute the sort of classroom environment we really want for our kids.  The last time the Board considered a bond issue was in the fall of 2003 for what became our middle school.  Our enrollment at that time was under 1700.  Today, we have over 2,050 students, nearly 20% growth.  Our numbers warrant this project and the time to move forward is now.

#2: The Numbers:

The numbers are very favorable financially.  Interest rates are approaching all-time lows and construction firms are aggressively seeking work and delivering projects at or below projected costs for similar work.  Through the Construction Manager @ Risk process we will use, the district will know the guaranteed maximum price and have clear oversight and control of the process.

Bonds funds are separate from the general fund of the district.  Bonds funds are set aside for clearly stipulated construction purposes.  We have bonds retiring from the 2000 Elementary School addition next year and, shortly after that, Qualified Capital Purpose Undertaking Funds bonds retiring from post-tornado facilities improvements.  By wrapping the new debt service into the old, there will be no change on the existing bond levy for our constituents.  We won't be asking for more from our taxpayers, just that they continue their commitment to meeting the needs of the growing Norris School District.  We believe this is the right thing to do and that our public expects us to meet the needs of our students.

We can build a new Elementary and possibly address some other facilities needs in our district and do so without any adverse effect on the existing bond levy.  Homeowners continue to pay what they have, and we meet the needs of Norris.  

While Norris had a general fund revenue cut in state aid due to the loss of federal recovery dollars, the district has emerged from that well positioned to sustain all programming and quality of operations going forward.

#3: The kNow-How (okay, technically, that is not a third "'N' for Norris" rationale but the 'k' is silent!):

The district enjoys excellent leadership and support.  Your trust is placed in capable and experienced hands and the guidance we rely upon comes from the best in the school business.  The combined years of experience of our Board of Education, our architectural service provider DLR, and our administrative team have seen districts including Norris through dozens of successful school construction projects.  We have adopted a delivery method for the process that will result in an efficient, expedient construction process that will produce a building to meet the needs of our district for many years to come.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Comments to @norris160 teachers on technology integration

This morning Tech Director Noel Erskine and Network Administrator Jim McConnell hosted an ad hoc committee to engage in strategic planning and professional development preparation for further technology integration.  Here were some of the topics, areas of interest, and needs identified:


Blogging with Google sites
Google forms
Google sites
Advanced Google forms with self-grading quizzes
Review game web sites.
Sessions on web resources for specific curricular strands or grade levels
Paperless classroom workflow and setup.
Smartpen (Livescribe)

Technology needs:
More computer availability
More Clickers

One comment I would offer is in follow-up to Rick's comments about the need for more computers, which I think was widely re-affirmed. Dr. Brandt and Shari seemed ecstatic to learn that a cart of netbooks will be rolling their way soon.

This summer we had the opportunity as members of the admin team to meet with Scott McLeod and discuss tech integration at the Administrators' Days conference in Kearney.  He indicated it is crucial that a "robust device" - whether a tablet, a smart phone, a laptop - whatever - be "in the hands of every individual learner" in order for seamless tech integration to occur and for educational methodology to move away from a 'stand and deliver' to a more 'learner-centered' mode.  I think McLeod's points have a lot of validity. I even think that at some levels and in some content areas, it would be increasingly possible to use technology in lieu of textbooks and to build courses online that do not require textbooks and a lot of hard copy materials (some of Janelle's comments this morning resonated with this theme).  I would like to challenge us to consider how we can do that.  I don't want discussions around technology to approach it as a discrete topic, one that is separate and distinct from curriculum and instruction.  Discussions about technology must also incorporate discussions about how we teach and how we access and deliver valuable content to students.  

Thank you for your leadership and your initiative in helping us move forward as a district to keep on the cutting edge technologically.  I realize we will always have a push for more resources and that the need stated is a legitimate one.  The infrastructure development which occurred this summer with wireless was a huge step forward.  We are now at a place where our capacity to integrate classroom-level devices (whether tablets or laptops) is the envy of most districts.  We need you to continue to consider how you integrate this amazing capacity and what the needs are for you to do so - both materially and instructionally.  Keep communicating that back to us so we can help you on this journey!  

[I tweeted several in-meeting comments which you can pick up off my twitter timeline @jskretta - some of the other tweeters from today's meeting include @noelerskine & @jimmcconnell62 & @jillr2 & @mrscoady so please follow us and we'll follow you for continuing #edtech discussion.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The best advice Baker ever gave me

Baker kicks it old school
Today is Roy Baker's birthday.  Dr. Baker was a great school leader who shepherded the Norris District through unprecedented growth and helped us come roaring back when a tornado decimated our campus.  More importantly to me, Roy is a friend and a mentor.

The best advice Baker ever gave me?  I'll share it with you:

"I don't care what somebody else says the message is.  The only thing that matters is what the message is based upon your actions."

Stay focused on results!

Baker's always done that.  He's wired that way.  I spoke with him this afternoon to wish him a happy b-day, asked what he was up to.  I had heard he'd been doing well in a local golf league paired up with Gary DeBoer.  Baker growled, "We actually lost today so we're going to get second."

No prizes for second and "Good is the enemy of great."  Keep striving and stay focused on results.

Happy Birthday, Doc.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Really simple advice from the Sup for our new teachers

When I say it's really simple, what I mean by that is that it's very easy for me to dispense advice.  Adhering to it could prove challenging!  But here are a few basic lessons to contemplate as you embark upon your teaching career at Norris:

  • Gratitude is the right attitude.  We are privileged to be in education and to have the opportunity to work with young people.  It is a wonderfully inspiring life to be an educator.  Be thankful you get to live this challenging and rewarding adventure!  We all have moments where the gratitude slips and the cynicism spikes, but let's not let those fleeting moments define us. 
  • The compassionate response is usually the correct one.  Students will frustrate you.  Their behaviors will perplex and annoy you.  And some of them, well, you'll find their limit-testing behaviors downright annoying.  The punitive reaction, though, will seldom bring about the results you really want.  If you're really about promoting positive relationships and building a collaborative learning environment, you'll ask yourself first, "What can I do differently to bring this kid around?" before you resort to punting students out of class, office referrals, or hollow verbal admonitions that just turn students away or against you.  Yes, the discipline code and all the rules and regs have their place.  But students conduct themselves admirably mostly due to a classroom climate and school culture of mutual respect and caring - not because the language in the student handbook is ironclad.
  • Don't say "We can't," "I won't," or "That'll never happen" (or any variant thereof) when students initiate  ideas with you related to their learning.  It is not your job to place obstacles in front of students which deter their innate curiosity or convince them that adults don't listen, don't care, or don't value them as people.  Find a way.
  • Don't allow your instruction to be characterized by a pale, bland uniformity in the name of "consistency." Yes, you have a curriculum - you have essential questions and major objectives and you must dutifully promote student attainment of mastery related to these.  There are many paths and myriad road maps to proficiency. Is your classroom going to be a pale monolith of grayish monotony or a multi-colored monument to the innate creativity and intellectual curiosity of your students?
  • When students initiate ideas with you related to their learning, and your impulse is to say, "That doesn't fit with my lesson plan," your immediate response overriding that impulse should be, "Let's think that over."  When it comes to differentiating instruction, you'd better get there - and fast, if you want to keep students engaged and really foster high levels of achievement.
  • "Let's work together, c'mon, c'mon, let's work together."  Remember that old song by Canned Heat? You probably don't.  They played at Woodstock.  The '69 version.  Nevertheless, the song I'm referencing emphasizes the partnership you need to establish with parents.  Reach out. Too many young teachers are anxious and insecure about interacting with parents.  Get over it.  Make the calls.  Build the relationships.  Connect.  Share.  Ask for input, and don't be afraid to share your expertise.  They're counting on it.
  • Build an expansive Professional Learning Network and use it.  It's never been easier to do so and that means it's never been more unforgivable to live a life of painfully myopic isolation as a teacher.  You shouldn't just be reaching across the hallway and down the next wing. You should be reaching across states and nations and around the world to connect with other educators, share your insights, and steal their best ideas to bring them home here.  Blog.  Tweet.  Reach out and greet and meet other educators.  Use professional affiliations from PDK to ASCD, but don't for a second limit yourself to the institutionalized 
  • Have fun.  At Norris, we don't check our own spirit of intellectual curiosity at the door.  A sense of wonderment is appropriate! Go ahead and revel in the awesomeness of the ability of individual learners and classrooms to inspire and amaze you.  Share that with your colleagues.  You are hereby ordered to inspire others and be inspired by them.  
  • Have a great year.  See you in your classrooms and out in the halls, and I look forward to connecting with you out in cyberspace.  I post on this blog, my webpage is on the district site, and I tweet @jskretta.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fitnessgram: A great tech tool for assessing student health & fitness in schools

For Leadership Day 2011, educational leaders have been invited to  blog about whatever we like related to effective school technology leadership: successes, challenges, reflections, needs, wants, resources, ideas, etc.  What a cool idea!  It's a great invite to push and promote these resources with one another.  Info on this is available at @mccleod's "Calling all bloggers!" post at http://bigthink.com/ideas/39450

I'd like to tell you about Fitnessgram and encourage your school to consider adoption of this tech tool.  One of the things I am most passionate about as an educator is the connection between health and academic achievement.  Ever since I read my Maslow in my early Ed Psych courses as a pre-service teacher, the correlation resonated.  I realized there is a profound simplicity and truth in prioritizing health, safety, and belonging needs and that doing so in education is essential if we want students to be able to perform complex cognitive tasks.  Simply put, healthy students learn better. 

One tech tool for helping bring student health and fitness data into your conversation around the overall quality of your instructional program is Fitnessgram, which provides very basic tests of strength, flexibility, endurance and an assessment of body composition or BMI.  The scores are inputted and through the software, reports can be formatted which provide aggregate analysis by grade, gender, and test.

The idea of fitness testing in schools is hardly new and for decades many schools have been doing the Presidential Fitness testing.  But the Fitnessgram is more of a criterion-referenced fitness test that places students by age and gender into norming groups that identify whether the individual assessed is in the HFZ or "Healthy Fit Zone." We have had Fitnessgram for a couple years now at Norris and test at all levels - elementary, middle, and high school.  The students enjoy the tests because (a) they are working for a target range, not a pass/fail like the Presidential Test (b) they get meaningful results and are provided individually tailored reports in a timely manner after completing the tests (c) they can track their own progress over time.

Historically, Physical Education curriculum has been characterized by a competitive team sports dynamic that does not allow individual students to flourish in aspiring toward and attaining meaningful individual fitness goals.  The Fitnessgram assessment helps schools make a shift to providing students with important individual health data that instills a commitment and interest in fitness for a lifetime, to attain personally meaningful health goals.

In addition to the individual reports, the Fitnessgram aggregate reports can show whether there are significant health disparities in the areas assessed across grade levels within your system.  This can help a district target its interventions and tailor instruction to best meet the needs of students.

We have a small network version for our unified campus district, and we will probably be adopting the web-based version in the future.  It was not a big investment and has helped bring our whole PE team into a data driven culture in our district.  Fitnessgram is like any tech tool - it is not perfect.  Importing rosters from our student information system hasn't been without glitches and there's no getting away from some data entry when it comes to recording scores on the rosters, but those have been pretty small sacrifices for the results.  Happy #leadershipday11 !

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

10 Web Resources to Galvanize Your School’s Commitment to Coordinated School Health

There are many ways and many resources, but here are some external resources I’ve found helpful and hope you do, too:

  • The Nebraska statewide Coordinated School Health Policy, adopted March, 2010

  • Partnership For A Healthy Lincoln offers resources including national and local trend data on the obesity epidemic.

  • Action steps from the Let’s Move! campaign to assist schools.

  • Healthy alternatives to the traditional ‘junk food as reward’ classroom celebrations offered by the CT Department of Education.

  • Information from the Partnership for a Healthier America about the Chefs Move! To Schools campaign to place visiting chefs in schools to help educate children about healthy eating.

  • Read about the impact the Alliance is having on beverages sold in schools by getting full calorie sodas out of schools.

  • 2010 Youth Risk Behavior Survey results; tables, graphs, and trends analysis.

  • Empirically validated findings demonstrating the connection between exercise and intellectual performance, displayed in a user-friendly table with source reference noted.

  • American Alliance for Health, PE, Recreation and Dance legislative and policy advocacy information.  Get connected to the key issues at state and local levels.

  • President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition: includes general nutrition information, fit facts, Shape of the Nation, and Physical Activity and Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Cherish our freedom to learn

Happy Fourth of July!

Though it is still not something we do frequently enough, it is common on Independence Day to recognize the commitments of those who serve in our Armed Forces to protect the freedoms we hold so dearly.  That is an appropriate gesture, and one of the things our Norris school community is very proud of are the many students who have made the choice to serve our country as soldiers.  We must  also recognize that numerous Norris families have endured great hardships over the last several years as parents of our students have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  The resilience and cohesiveness of these families is inspiring, and we should all continue to do our part to encircle those affected by deployments in the broader family of our district and reach out to them.

Another facet of freedom that is appropriate to contemplate on the July 4 holiday is the impact teachers have on helping a democracy flourish.  Unless we are free to learn, to inquire, to challenge one another, to ask difficult questions, and to pursue our thinking in creative and innovative ways, our democracy will not flourish.  Teachers are essential in perpetuating democracy and public schools need to be places where teachers are asking essential questions about meaningful content to guide students toward greater levels of autonomy and higher levels of critical thought. Through the relationships our teachers establish with individual learners, trust is built.  Within the bonds of trust, a learner can take leaps of faith and risk 'not-knowing' to overcome ignorance and strive towards knowledge and awareness.  That nurturing process helps instill democratic ideals in young people.

These aren't just lofty abstractions or noble ideals. If you want to earn, you've got to learn.  Study after study notes that future earning potential is highly correlated educational attainment.  Our teachers do a great job preparing Norris students for post-secondary life - whether at two or four-year colleges, the workforce or the military.  With the essential role teachers serve in empowering young minds, it is disheartening to read about some of the negative rhetoric that has been spewed from politicians during the recession who want to scapegoat education for the fiscal woes of a nation.  Public education is a great value for the dollar, and the vast majority of teachers I know are incredibly dedicated, caring people who are motivated not by the myth of 'summers off' but by the highest ideals of fostering student learning and helping others attain their life dreams.

At Norris, we have been giving a lot of thought to how we can use technology to empower learners.  We took an innovative  role as a district in adopting Open Office and instituting Google Apps, encouraging student e-mail and document sharing for collaboration last year.  Our next step is that we have been doing summer infrastructure work on the wireless that will allow us to empower learners to make Norris a BYOD "Bring Your Own Device" school where the connection is up, on, and open all the time.  It will depend on the ingenuity and intelligence of teachers and students to take advantage of a learning environment that is more powerfully connected than any we have had before - at any time in our district's short history and at any time in the history of public education.  Capacity is not an issue.   In addition to the open wi-fi, we will be rolling out a limited implementation of iPads and Chrome notebooks.  The capability will be there to connect.  So let's empower one another to use this freedom to better ourselves, learn more, and aspire towards an even greater future in this amazing democracy.

And on this Fourth of July, if you love learning, enjoy reading, dared to question, and weren't afraid to wish, to dream, and to inquire, you probably have a teacher to thank for that.  So thank them for helping instill democratic values in you as a learner and thank your community for supporting public education.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What Gil Scott-Heron meant to me

I was saddened to learn of the recent passing of poet and spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron.  What Gil Scott-Heron's amazing poetry meant to me was that poems could inspire peoples' social consciousness and raise their awareness.  And that they could do so in a way that was really cool!  I could respond aesthetically and emotionally - and even politically - to the words of an African American voice whose life and life experiences were very different from my own.  I am someone who grew up in a fairly homogeneous small-town rural culture in southeast Iowa and then Nebraska.  Reading Gil Scott-Heron's poetry and listening to his rhymes made me stretch outside the boundaries of that culture to realize bigger connections in the social fabric of American life.

With his passing, many of the most influential voices of hip hop and rap have come forward to celebrate Scott-Heron's legacy as they themselves (artists ranging from Chuck D to Eminem) see their art as appreciating and perpetuating his legacy. My own experience as a reader of his amazing works came about because of my teacher Joyce Joyce, who was a fantastic and thought-provoking prof I studied under at UNL at the time. I became someone who enjoyed listening to his albums, and that in turn really helped instill in me a personal appreciation of and understanding of the importance of multicultural literature and the prominent role it should have in schools.  That appreciation was developed as an undergraduate English student who was studying literature at a time when it was still very common to experience academic reading as mostly 'canonical' literature, which is to say, mostly lit written by DWMs or Dead White Males.  Without saying anything to denigrate the voices and the amazing literary accomplishments of those authors, Gil Scott-Heron was a  prominent voice in late 20th Century American literature because he was a voice of social consciousness: hip, self-aware, humorous, politically provocative, and rhythmic.  That rhythmic sensibility helped me to see the connection between his writings and the Beat poets, whom I already loved - guys like Ginsberg and Kerouac - who were definitely inspired by jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coletrane - and the later hip-hop artists who were part of my pop culture lexicon: from LL Cool J to Public Enemy.  

I would not have had the opportunity to make those important connections if a teacher would not have cared enough and risked enough to step outside the predictable boundaries of academic discourse to share Gil Scott-Heron with a lot of students whose reading background was much like my own.  I thank Dr. Joyce Joyce for the inspiration and am quite confident she continues to inspire students as a prof at Temple (http://www.temple.edu/english/people/faculty/joyce.html).  I am grateful she introduced me to Gil Scott-Heron and a lot of other amazing African American authors and poets whose works I will continue to appreciate and enjoy.  

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Gorging on test scores & starving for meaningful health & fitness data

This afternoon I attended the NE Medical Association's Childhood Health / Obesity policy group meeting.  The group is comprised of various public health advocates - doctors, registered dietitians, nutritionists, and educators, among others - who are working together to propose helpful solutions and policy-level impact in combating obesity.  Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions and the CDC has labeled it accordingly.

The obesity epidemic is real locally, too, and thousands of Nebraskans are affected by it.  Our district is similar to most across the state and we have between 20 & 30% of our students per grade level who are highly overweight or obese.  The health consequences are dire and schools do have a role in this.  We have students with us for a good portion of the day during the school year and for many kids, a majority of calories consumed on those days are at school.  Schools need to promote physical activity for a lifetime and nutrition literacy.  Schools don't need to be dictatorial and Machiavellian about instituting 'regime change' that takes the element of choice out of classrooms and lunchrooms, but when it comes to student diets, schools need to help encourage the consumption of healthy foods and minimize the frequency and prevalence of the bad stuff.  By 'bad stuff' I just mean foods of minimal nutritional value - candy and pop, for starters.

It occurred to me that one of the things schools should be doing is reporting out on their vending product choices, publishing their a la carte lunch items, and disclosing aggregate (group only) BMI data to show what their trendline (waistline trendline!) analysis looks like.  Why?  Because schools that are being up front about their aggregate BMI results and sharing fitness testing results will be more likely to be positioned to share why physical activity and health education are priorities in their district.  We've already got the evidence that shows the correlation between fitness and academic achievement.  Healthy students are more learning-ready and are more likely to achieve higher learner outcomes.  It's obvious to parents but what is less obvious is how sedentary the learning experience remains for many students.

Our mission statement talks about our commitment to helping each individual learner "thrive."  In order to do that, we have an obligation to take a balanced curricular approach.  We need to carefully integrate routine physical activity opportunities and promote healthy student nutrition choices throughout the day.  It's not that tough to do - it doesn't require a lot of resources schools don't already have - and it's the right thing to do.  We just need to provide the support for everyone doing it, consistently, through quality professional development.

One of the things the group talked about is that, to borrow the Druckerian truism, "What gets measured gets done."  Schools are now recording BMI data and many districts, like ours, have instituted fitness testing using the Fitnessgram.  We are going to publicize our fitness testing group results - grade level group summaries.  We can do this for tests of strength, flexibility, and endurance.  I think our parents are every bit as concerned about the health of their students and what schools are doing to promote healthy, learning-ready students, as they are in seeing how their kids are reading and performing in mathematics.

By the way, while I was there this afternoon I got to meet one of my heroes, Dr. Cristina Fernandez.  She does amazing work providing interventions and education for children and families that are afflicted with childhood obesity and the attendant health problems.  Her blogs provide great outreach and practical advice about this profoundly important public health issue.  Check her posts out at http://blogs.livewellnebraska.com/author/cfernandez/ and you'll see what I mean.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Testimony to NE Legislature in support of Children's Health Advisory Committee LB125

[I testified at Legislative hearing 2-10-11 in favor of the bill because I believe it would further Coordinated School Health. NDE, NCSA, School Boards' Association were neutral.  Dr. Karla Lester of Teach A Kid To Fish, Dr. Bob Rauner, and others also testified in support, representing NE Dietitians and American Heart Association and others. Text of my testimony today.]

Good afternoon, Senators, distinguished committee members, my name is John Skretta and that is spelled J-O-H-N S-K-R-E-T-T-A. I am testifying in support of LB 125. I am a doctor but in the interest of total disclosure, I confess I am not a medical doctor but merely a doc of Education so I'll leave the dispensing of actual medical advice to Rauner and Lester and those inescapable pharmaceutical ads on TV!

I am the Superintendent of the Norris School District . As an administrator at Norris, I have had the privilege to promote our schools’ attempts to deliberately integrate physical activity during the student day, increase the nutritional value of our food service program, institute fitness testing at all levels in our Physical Education program, and monitor Body Mass Index grade level data. We report this information to our Board and we share information about these initiatives to our district through newsletters and wellness council meetings. We support our staff through providing professional development opportunities in these areas.

We intend to keep moving forward. My belief is that the legislation in front of you today provides desperately needed positive mojo for student health. To put it another way, we need LB125 to increase the muscle mass behind the healthy schools movement and help all schools in NE including ours to do the heavy lifting required to really institute best practices.

I speak to you today as a school administrator and parent. I’ve got 2,050 kids in my charge and four boys of my own in that mix. We are bombarded with messages about food that is cheap, accessible, and readily available but without a sound nutrition education curriculum that is integrated in schools we have risked becoming a nation of junk food junkies. By the way, have you tried the extreme cheddar burst Cheetos twists? Delicious!

We have achieved a higher standard of living than any nation at any time in history, yet our children’s life expectancies are for the first time lower than those of the previous generation because of decreases in physical activity and increases in sedentary screen time. We need to make sure we are being prudent in our approach in schools to help students think and act critically to take charge of their own healthy lifestyles.

LB 125 is good legislation. It addresses a significant social need and some might fairly say (and the CDC has declared it thus) a public health epidemic, and it does so through a collaborative, consensus-building manner by instituting a committee that is process driven and results-oriented.

Making this legislation a priority and emphasizing the importance of healthy school environments through a coordinated school health approach is not frivolous. It is not spendy. It is not a ‘deterrent’ from what is important and essential. Until student’s health needs are met and schools work with communities and we institute statewide reform to address this, we are not going to see the student learning out comes we all desire.
Key considerations in support of LB 125:
  • Extends and allows us to actualize the intent of the Student Health mandate. The legislature mandated student health policies. Now is the time to help us move from policy adoption to practical implementation by the work of the proposed advisory committee.
  • Measurable results. Are we about measurability and performance, or not? We broadcast test scores in the cores, we demand fiscal transparency from schools, we examine every demographic facet. Yet when it comes to a basic Student Health Index and profoundly important data like BMI, we are systematically choosing to ignore it. In doing that, we risk telling kids and communities: health doesn’t matter.
  • Real health care reform. Talk to anyone in insurance. The best cure is prevention. You want to drive costs down for the Medicare reimbursements our state cannot afford to sustain? Prevention. It starts with empowering kids with good information and building a statewide approach through the advisory committee.
  • Accountability. We are living in an era of unprecedented focus on results. You’ve already made us responsible and accountable for everything from anti-date-rape curriculum to anti-bullying to a springtime testing extravaganza. Hold us accountable for doing our part and for partnering up with health care professionals to promote healthy school environments. There is nothing overbearing in that. It’s basic and attainable, with your support.
Thank you.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Techno-Poppin': From Droppin' Office To Cloud Floating

We have made some bold moves with Technology recently in the Norris School district and I would anticipate a few more are coming.  I commend Noel Erskine, Tech Director, and Jim McConnell, Network Administrator, in this process.  What we are demonstrating in this process is a phenomenon one Norris Board member has described as being "on the bleeding edge."  The point is that in times of fiscal constraints and when resources are slim, it is important to take an innovative approach and figure out where resources can be conserved to maintain an innovative edge while providing comparable utility and functionality with technology - and other resources, too.  Managing costs does not mean minimizing results.  We have thought differently and innovated to provide a more prosperous tech environment for students and staff while actually saving resources.

  • We took an underutilized space in our district and converted it to a student lab.  The underutilized space? The Norris Board room.  We converted that to a testing lab and we are now having students in there regularly and routinely using a room that used to sit unoccupied most hours, most days, week in and week out.  We are getting a better ROI out of that now.  We were able to use some Special Education ARRA money to do that. Our Board benefits through being able to use the space monthly for Board meetings that now occur via the nasbonline.org e-meetings site.  Our students benefit by having another lab space to further their computer-assisted learning.  
  • We dumped Outlook and public folders earlier this year and officially made the transition January 1 ("Your Outlook account no longer works people - to the Cloud!") to G-mail. G-mail with the Chrome browser and you're set.  It's amazing how great it is having the exact same interface and e-mail wherever you've got internet access. G-Mail on Chrome flies.  On top of that, the other apps such as Google Docs have been so great to integrate our projects.  There is more shared doc development and authentic collaboration than we've ever seen occurring, both among colleagues on the faculty and admin and among our students.
  • We formally announced this week that we are dumping Microsoft Office and embracing Open Office.  It's a move in part predicated on finance and in part based on risk/reward.  Low risk, high reward in conserving dollars that can be repurposed for other things.  The move has not been without some reluctance among those who have grown accustomed to the ease and elegance of the Cadillac that is the Office Suite.  However, we approached this the right way and I know the decision is fundamentally sound: we had pilot groups including teachers and our entire admin team on this for weeks immersing themselves in it and every application of it before we moved to roll out.  In light of a possible >$1 million reduction in state aid, a savings of 20K or more in annual licensing fees is not insignificant.  We have already been receiving positive feedback from staff on this, just a few days in.  Schools have limited means to conserve resources operationally; most school costs are tied up in personnel.  Moves like this that offer us an open source program that looks, feels, and functions similarly and is user friendly are going to be enacted in the interest of saving money while maintaining the service.  We don't sacrifice anything, we just have to make the change.  
I am proud of our district for embracing these tech-oriented changes.  It's been like anything else: some people are innovators, constantly looking for a means to refresh and reinvent themselves, always examining purpose and striving to get better. Some are early adopters who are opportunists seeking better results.  And some people are going to exhibit generally good followership and say "Alright, you gave me the rationale, you described what and why we're doing this, let's march forward together."  And, yes, then there is always that slim percentage organizationally who are disengaged or just entrenched in their resistance to change. At Norris, we are going to be forward thinking, fast to innovate and quick to adapt, while maintaining strong, sustained support for staff and excellent resources for kids to enhance their learning.  

Stay tuned, because I believe we're just getting started.  It seems to some of us that the world of textbook adoption has become an anachronism in today's environment of personal digital devices.  Why buy hard copies that are immediately several editions out of date when a tablet or a hand-held or even a desktop workstation can connect a learner to the same knowledge base, constantly refined and reformed by emerging research?