Currently Me

The best inspiration sometimes comes from fellow bloggers… thanks to RunSingTeach’s Sarah Barton Thomas for posting this today, with her list inspired by Lindsay’s List.

Here’s my list

Currently: Dogs are fed and waiting for their walk, drinking coffee, husband is at work, kid will wake up any minute (must type fast!).

Current Inspiration: Minimalist and tiny houses. We need to downsize and get a handle on all the stuff in our life.

My favorite from a tiny house on Sauvie Island, near Portland, Oregon. Picture from:

Current Book: Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Seriously. Must catch up on blog posts this week.

Current Tune: Wisconsin Public Radio has Sunday afternoon program called Simply Folk that I LOVE. Yesterday they started with the Indigo Girls playing In the Bleak Midwinter, which is one of my favorite holiday tunes.

Current Drink: SO Delicious non-dairy egg nog

Current Foods: Homemade applesauce. Making and freezing batches for reusable pouches. For the kid, not me.

Current Show(s): (guilty confession) I just finished watching the final season of How I Met Your Mother. We used to watch it but lost interest when it dragged on too long, but I wanted to know it ended!

Current Outfit: Leggings under skinny black jeans (it’s cold here!), striped black and beige shirt from the Loft, silver hoops, Frye’s boots, and curled hair. When I dress up. Otherwise: well worn jeans (plus long underwear – have I mentioned it’s cold?) and nike sweatshirt with grey Lululemon Vinyasa Scarf.

Current Indulgence: Coconut cream dark chocolate and Pinterest and aforementioned coconut egg nog.

Current Want: New book bag – must be classy, waterproof, possible to bike with, backpack/shoulder bag, fit my computer and water bottle but not too heavy… I don’t think it exists.

Current Gratitude: My kid LOVES books. We read “Are you my mother?” over and over, first thing when he wakes up and before bed. He also loves “I am a bunny,” and when we found a hollow log at the dog park yesterday, he recognized it as “Nan-itch” (Nicholas)’s home. So sweet.

Nicholas the Bunny Image from

What’s happening with you, right now?

Chapter 2 of Organizing Schools for Improvement

This is a follow up post to yesterday’s introduction & chapter 1. I’ve been enjoying this reading immensely because it quantitatively presents an understanding the support systems of a school and shows interactions between them. Many of the questions that I have had around emergent properties like how innovation affects school culture could be approached with these methods. The primary phenomena investigates is “how to better organize schools to support improvements in student engagement and learning” (p.48).

I find myself drawn to this more descriptive approach to research rather than as an interventionist. I think this is because the questions that I ask are on a large scale, so the idea of creating an intervention to “test” them would take years. It makes me think of the Hertzpring-Russell diagram, a plot of the absolute magnitude and temperature of stars, revealing the “main sequence” of stellar evolution. I wonder if I could make something like that for restructuring of schools… Hmmm.

Chapter 2: A Framework of Essential Supports

In this chapter the thrust is to explore the framework that emerged from the data. It’s worth noting that the criticism of business in the mid 80s was that large bureaucratic organizations were failing because they did not “respond well to local needs, had little capacity to learn, and stifled rather than nurtured innovation” (p.46). Sounds like the Chicago Public Schools, thus the Chicago School Reform Act. With more autonomy for restructuring at the school level, it makes sense to look at the school as the unit of research. This departs from some reform efforts at that time, which focused exclusively on instruction and the role of the principal as instructional leader.

The stated goal of the “theory of school organization and its improvement” (p.44) is to be grounded in practice. The tension between theory and practice is longstanding. (I have seen theory and practice best unified through design, so it will be interesting to see if there are similarities there. Also, it is hard for me to both approach this work as a practitioner and as a researcher, but if that is the goal it will be important to evaluate it from both perspectives.)

Second, the framework is meant to be analytic, in the sense that a practitioner could use it as a tool to guide school improvement. (This resonates with me after what I said above about creating a H-R-like diagram of school characteristics that creates a “main-sequence.”) The framework is based in organizational theory but also informed by contingency theory, given that this is an analytic tool meant to guide school improvement rather than a recipe for how to do the best school improvement.

They get at this with the “baking a cake” analogy to the concept of “essentiality.” You have to have certain ingredients (e.g. flour, sugar, eggs, baking powder, and salt) to make a cake, but the exact ratios are a little flexible. This is like school improvement: without one ingredient, the improvement isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, focusing exclusively on the exact right amount eggs also isn’t going to make it happen if you’ve got no flour. This is why it’s emergent. All ingredients need to be there.

Figures 2.1-4 – these give the four levels of organization.

IMG_2837 IMG_2838 IMG_2839 IMG_2840

(I debated whether to post these because I don’t want to violate copyright, but seeing them next to each other is really helpful. In the book they are separated on different pages and this way you really get the zoom out of each level and a sense of just how complex the system is!)

An interesting component that they notice was missing from their data collection is the managerial dimension of school leadership. The researchers note that this became obvious after 1996 when the focus was on non-improving schools and found that there were schools where just the basic routines were not getting done. Management is a necessary but insufficient condition for improvement.

5 subsystems: School leadership, parent-community-school ties, professional capacity, student-centered learning climate, instructional guidance. There are 14 indicators for these subsystems developed to “capture the degree to which the essential supports developed in Chicago elementary schools” (p.71).

Up next, Chapter 3.

Reflections on my first semester of graduate school

I finished my first semester of graduate school! Hooray! It has better than I could have ever imagined, even when I started planning this 4 years ago. I feel incredibly fortunate to have found my way to this place at this time.

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Sometimes it feels like I don’t “do” anything all day. There is no immediate feedback from students or peers, no fires to put out, sometimes a meeting, usually a couple journal articles.
  2. Is it worth my time to do this? There are so many things to join, brown bags to attend, books to read, concepts to understand, MOOCs to take, blog posts to write. Should I?
  3. What will my question be? What will my research be? Is it edgy enough? Is it radical enough? Is it interesting enough? Will it get me a job? Will I like it? Will it be a profound change in the life of all people teaching in schools everywhere for ever and ever? Will I finish it?
  4. My questions change every day, if not every hour. After a lecture about the future of higher ed I debated jumping from K-12 focus to higher ed. Wait a minute. Do I want to read about it or devote my intellectual life to it? Is it interesting or fascinating?
  5. I want to stay here forever!
  6. I want to graduate at soon as possible to escape the cold weather and earn a salary.
  7. Will anyone be interested in my research? Do I even belong here? *Sigh*

This spring I’m taking four classes, one of which is public school law, which I’m super excited about. I’m not really sure why, but maybe because law school is one of those paths not taken, and this might be a glimpse in that direction. I’m also going to take an Interactive Museum Exhibit Design class, mostly because it sounds fun and I’ll get to make stuff. Onward!

As always, I am grateful for a supportive partner, who tucks the kid in at night when I’m at class and listens to me babble about things I’m thinking about. There is no way my ideas would be as good or my spirits as high or my life as full without him.

Introduction & Chapter 1, Organizing Schools for Improvement

Book cover. Retrieved Dec 16, 2014 from

One book I’m reading during the “recess” from classes is Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (2010), by Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton. As I’ve done for other independent readings, I’ll try to summarize the chapters and add my own reflections at the end. I’ve found that writing these blog posts improves my comprehension and memory of the research. It’s like all that research on learning actually works!


Policy context: The research presented in this book is based on the reform initiatives in the Chicago Public School (CPS) District beginning with the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. Essentially, Local School Councils (LSCs) were given the authority to determine how to education their children, including hiring the school principal. Eight years later, some schools had shown marked improvements while others languished; this research effort tried to understand why. Continue reading “Introduction & Chapter 1, Organizing Schools for Improvement”