Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Students' First Day: Off to a Good Start

We color coded schedules, discussed coaching, listened to a story, reviewed expectations, handed out paperwork, and started on our first project, The Name Project. The students also learned in library and technology classes too. The equipment we expected was installed and there was time for students to run and play also. A good start to the year!

Students First Day of School

Students will learn about classroom "coaching corners"
and the potential good coaching holds for reaching their goals.
It's tough to beat what a "servant leadership" attitude and action does for your work as an educator. When you see your role as one of serving students, engagement and empowerment for you and your students naturally follows. It's amazing.

So today as we begin the year, there's much that my colleagues and I will do to serve our students well.

The day will start with lots of introductions. There's no way around it as to introduce the students to what's available and what's possible allows them to think broadly about what and how they'll access the supports available to learn.

Hence, I'll introduce our class website, routines, upcoming field studies, and overall curriculum goals.

There will also be time for read aloud, choosing books, recess, lunch, and starting our name project.

I'm looking forward to meeting my new students, learning their names, and hearing their stories. It's a gift to meet 24 new people, people that will impact my life greatly in the year ahead.

What's Reasonable?

If you're an idealist like me, you may have to reach out to ask about what is reasonable.

Idealists see potential and promise. For idealists, we see few obstacles to what's possible. Idealists believe, "If you can imagine it, it can happen."

That's why reasonableness is an important consideration.

What is reasonable with respect to effort, result, expectation, time, materials, and support?

Reasonableness is a good point of thought and discussion for students, parents, educators, and administrators.

For example, what is a reasonable rate of growth for a student that struggles?

What is a reasonable timeline for the implementation of a new unit of study?

What is a reasonable amount of time at the start of the year to spend on team building and community?

What is a reasonable amount of time each week for teacher planning and collaboration?

What is a reasonable set of protocols and mandates?

What is a reasonable budget for school supplies and equipment?

There is a bit of disruption between the concept of reasonable and ideal--that's the space I learned about during the "hosting conversations" presentation--a space named the "chaortic field." This is the space where innovation is born. It's a valued space, but not always an easy space.

When schools adopt inclusive, transparent collaborative processes they open the door to the chaortic field, the space between reasonable and ideal, a space that fosters greater innovation, team, and opportunity.

Don't Speak Up?

Don't speak up.

Be grateful for what you get.

Choose your battles.

Less is more.

Be humble and grateful.

Time and again we hear words like this; time and again people caution against speaking up, asking questions, advocating for your needs, and reaching for more as educators.

Yet, time and again, we're told to foster this advocacy, voice, and strength in students.

It's a mismatch in many educational organizations.

If you're going to empower students, you have to empower educators too.

Some seemingly simple ways to do this include the following:
  • Include educators authentically in the decisions and choices that affect their work
  • Communicate transparently and regularly about what's happening and why
  • Use lead time so educators have time to plan and be prepared for initiatives and events
  • Help educators attain the schedules, materials, time, and support they need to do the job well
Educators, in general, are motivated by doing a good job for students.

At times that potential is lost because educators' voices are not taken seriously and their ability to choose for themselves and their students is limited.

I believe schools hold great potential for betterment by employing powerful models of distributive leadership that lead to greater educator voice and choice. This, in turn, will lead to greater student voice and choice, and in the end we'll produce empowered, confident, and successful future advocates--advocates for themselves and their communities. This, I believe, is a critical consideration.

Value in Words vs. Value in Action

Do your words reflect your actions?

For dreamers, thinkers, and committed educators everywhere, that's a key question.

I often say that my words sometimes outpace my actions--I am always trying to catch up to the promise my words present. I can see it and I'm always working towards it. What the mind can see and body can do are often distanced from one another.

Yet, we need to continue to believe that we can catch up to that vision and instill those values and beliefs in our work everyday. We have to find the supportive allies, chart the course, reflect, and continue to move towards that light.

Some are satisfied to accept things as they are rather than to build towards better. It's already good enough they think and worry about upsetting the status quo. I understand that feeling because ideas for change so often create angst, worry, and conflict--many don't desire change and want things to stay the same.

What powers my thirst for change? I see what small changes can do to empower greater positivity and service to students. I know that if we're prepared well, we're able to focus better on the needs of children. I understand that good data analysis helps us to pinpoint small opportunities to create greater success with regard to student learning, inspiration, and service.

As I thought about this yesterday, I wondered how those who fought for their rights to vote or have equal access to laws and opportunities, convinced their friends and family members to join them.

I can imagine early suffragettes trying to convince their friends that women do deserve the right to vote and greater equal rights to men. I'm sure that many women were afraid to join this movement at first and perhaps throughout the advocacy.

In the best of circumstances, our words for change are matched with action for change. We can't promote an idea in the abstract and then not contribute to that idea in reality. For me this challenge lies in relationship building. I believe we need to work together well to do the best possible job in schools, yet these relationships are often strained when vision and priorities differ, and there is little time to discuss these differences in order to come to common ground.

For example we talk about the opportunity gap, but how much time and good analysis do we give to that subject. Similarly we all agree about preparedness for good teaching, but we may disagree in what that looks like or includes. To do better, we need the time to meet, talk, and come to agreement about what to do and how to do it.

Last year, in mid winter, we began to re-look at our schedule, a schedule that was good, but held room for positive change. We devoted considerable time and effort to looking at ways to better that schedule, and provided lots of ideas to the scheduling team. Our efforts were rewarded when we received a terrific teaching schedule this year--one that provided the time needed to teach well and one that eliminated times that were difficult for students to navigate--little bits of time that resulted in challenge.

With this in mind, I continue to wonder how we can establish innovation, change, and improvement efforts in an ongoing way so that it's a natural part of our work and not a yearly worry as new challenges arise as we know challenges will arise. What would this look like? How would we institute this and stay committed to it?

I will think on this more as I move forward. Onward.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Preparation Equals Peace

If you read my blog, you know I like to be prepared. I enjoy the preparation and planning that goes into teaching well. I know this is important.

Now this doesn't mean I don't leave room for serendipity and some surprise because I do--there is value in that too.

In general though, especially for the needed, and not-too glamorous supplies, information, equipment, and schedules, I'm a big fan of preparation and planning--the kind of work that sets the stage for an energized, positive, empowered start to the year. Do you agree?

Does that Act Equal Value?

In complex environments such as schools you have to think about the value of your actions--do your actions matter?

In these complex environments, there's much to contend with in order to do the job you envision and dream of. There's multiple mandates, rules, permission processes, and communication to navigate, and before venturing down each road, you have to stop, think, and ask yourself, "Is this path worth it? Is this path valuable?"

Sometimes the issues you face in school, and I suppose in life too, are alarming. You wonder, "Why does this continue to happen or why has this happened for the first time?" Yet the events persist and you have to make a decision about whether you will champion that cause or not--you can't champion every cause, or work to right every wrong. Educators have to be choosy about what they go after, and if at all possible, the key is to go after the actions and efforts that matter.

For example today I got a bit upset about a last minute equipment change--one that I didn't anticipate on the day before school starts, a day when I had my room set up and time planned. Yet the equipment change was planned, reviewed, and about to happen soon.  There may be less disruption than I've anticipated, and I just have to let it go because I don't have any control over it anyways. The same is true for a few specialist scheduling issues. Again, I just have to wait it out until the schedules are created and the patterns of service can commence.

As an educator our power is limited in many ways, and our power is great in other ways. We have tremendous power over the kinds of relationships we make, the issues we advocate for, and the time we put in to do the job well. On the other hand, we have to be mindful of the areas where our power is small and our voice little--unless very important, you just have to steer clear of those areas. Some are very good at this, and others not so good.

In general, I'm a big fan of being ready for the first day of school with schedules, equipments, and plans--I like to focus that day solely on the students and no other matters. I actually believe this is possible.

For now thought, I've got to pull my focus back to the classroom and the students and let the schedules and equipment go. Onward.

School Days: Navigating the Challenges

Schools are complex environments with many people and many activities. And in environments with that level of activity and number of people there are bound to be challenges.

Today's challenges included scheduling some specialist teachers and facilities issues. Our base schedule is awesome, but scheduling some specialist educators could not happen due to a number of reasons. That means we'll have to wait for our specialist services to start. I imagine that the wait won't be too long. In the meantime I'll study the IEPs and lists of students who receive those services today to make sure I'm meeting the requirements listed.

Facilities issues included new classroom equipment that requires installation. Hopefully it won't mean too much of a disruption to the room set up. We're in an old building so there's often updates that occur which mean rearranging the room and other related actions.

Also the union membership met to discuss the changes in health care which means more costs for many teachers. The information is complex and worrisome. I was surprised that the plans changed before people had a chance to update their flex spending accounts to put away enough pretax dollars to help out with the extra costs. I have to keep studying the information and go to extra meeting to hear the descriptions as well. Rising health care costs is a worry for many educators and I assume, others too.

On the positive side, an awesome teaching assistant set up the classroom library, and the team, as usual, powered through a large number of items quickly.

Many, many new students and kindergartners toured the building. Their enthusiasm and excitement for school was wonderful. Bright eyes and energetic they roamed the halls.

Further the custodians, as I mentioned before, did an awesome job cleaning the room and making it shiny for the first day.

The start of any new adventure has its positive events and challenges, and the key is to navigate that path with grace, respect, and care. Onward.

Class Jobs: Why Didn't I Think of This Before?

Class Job List
This morning I'm trying to anticipate and change all the little details that were annoying last year. One of those areas was classroom jobs.

Over the years, I've tried all kinds of job structures with regard to the work that has to be done each week to keep the classroom clean and operative.

Truly with 24 children and two or more teachers in one room all day combined with active learning, the mess and jobs to do are  quite extensive. Hence, there's a need for everyone to pitch in with some kind of organized plan to keep the room clean and complete all the daily tasks.

So today I crafted a plan that I think will be easy for everyone to follow. The chart above demonstrated the plan. Each child has a number. Children will work with a partner to complete the job. Each week partners will have a different job. Jobs are lettered A-L. All students or I have to do is look at the list to know who has what job each week. I'll enlarge the post and hang it on the organization bulletin board for all to see.

Of course there are jobs that everyone has to do each day too which includes desk organization, floor clean-up, stacking chairs, and their coat rack clean-up. I hope this plan streamlines the need for me to redirect and manage the clean-up and daily tasks. I'll introduce the plan on the first day of school. Let's see what happens.

Details and Big Picture

The quote, "A community is not an abstract ideal," challenges educators in important ways.
The great start to the school year led me to review the initial week's plans and to-do list. We've got some great field experiences planned and special team days too.

Today I'll focus on the room details--lots of putting things where they belong, "everything in its place and a place for everything." When students know where to find materials, they're a lot more independent and satisfied in the classroom.

I'll also focus on the daily routines of signing in, lunch count, copies of the schedule, and student name lists. Even though all the information is on the team website, not everyone has good access to tech still so paper copies of essential information are helpful.

One challenge at the start of the school year is the angst a teacher feels about rushing into the curriculum. In many places, there are tight curriculum maps and lists that hurry us along without providing enough good time at the start of the year to build strong teams and a caring community, the kind of community Ruth Charney supports in her wonderful book, Teaching Children to Care. I'll resist that push in favor of community building as everything I've read and I'm reading now supports what Charney wrote so many years ago which is that the first six weeks of school should be devoted to creating a strong classroom community.

My favorite work is the thinking, planning, responding, and creating with and for students. My least favorite work is all the details of organization, but it's work that has to be done so that's today's order. Onward.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Teacher Day One: School Year 2016-2017

Wayland Public Schools 2016-2017 Goals

There were a number of positive and helpful surprises on the first day of school including increased computer access (yeah!), terrific organizational notes from many colleagues to help with students' first days of school, a host of exciting initiatives shared by colleagues, and a school system-wide vision that I value and desire to support since the vision holds promise for what we can do with and for students.

My lean classroom is airy and inviting. Since I'm co-creating the environment with students, I've hung few posters and displayed less materials. We'll take the start slowly emphasizing organizing, getting to know one another, and creating classroom protocols, routines, and goals.

Data reports and the online parent survey have provided us with an initial sketch of each student and the class. Next week's share with last year's teachers, curriculum night, another survey, and lots of team building activities will broaden and deepen our understanding.

It's the first year in a long time that I haven't had a major change in grade, structure, school, or curriculum which means it's a year when I can really focus in on goals set and the students in my midst.

Dan Callahan adds a thoughtful response to this post:
He's got me thinking about a better T word--any ideas?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Racism: It Happened in . . .

I sadly read a story of racism in a local community in the Globe today. I read a similar story about prejudice towards an LGBT couple in another local community recently. I've heard students in my own community relay similar stories. We have a presidential candidate who continually crosses the line of dignity when speaking about people. With this in mind, we will do our students well to bring up the issues of racism and respect early on in the school year.

I won't decry one candidate or the other, but I will foster a discussion about human dignity and respect for one another. I'll make sure that we make the time to get to know one another and to discuss what happens when name calling, prejudice, and racism occur. We'll talk about ways that we can prevent that kind of tenor and behavior in our own school community. I'll also foster this conversation in my home with my own family. I'm sure the families that are dealing with the fall-out of the local racist issues wish they had talked about it more with their children before this happened. Education is integral with regard to this matter.

School Starts Tomorrow: Focus on What Matters

Tomorrow is the first day of school for educators in the system where I work. The key is to focus on what matters as I start my 31st year teaching school.

Goals and Vision
The superintendent will share the systemwide goals and vision. I like to teach with the goals and vision in mind so I will listen carefully to his introduction.

If I've learned anything as an educator, it's that we're better together. You simply can't do this job on your own, and you need your colleagues. After the superintendent speaks, our local union president will speak. He'll discuss upcoming health care benefit changes which will cost educators more money. He'll also mention upcoming negotiations, and I'm sure he'll end with the fact that it's our collective good work with and for students that matters, and that working together for fair and beneficial work conditions and salaries matters too since "our working conditions are children's learning conditions."

Listening, Planning, and Collaboration
Today's students are rarely taught by one teacher. Instead it's a team event where students are taught by many, many educators throughout each week, educators that include technology coordinators, librarians, art teachers, music teachers, physical education teachers, special educators, paraeducators, guidance counselors, math teachers, ELA teachers, and social studies and science teachers. Hence we'll spend a lot of time at the start of the year listening to one another as we finalize learning/teaching schedules, routines, and priorities.

Expect the Unexpected
In every complex environment, obstacles, known and unknown exist. It could be the fact that expected supplies haven't arrived, incomplete renovations, a last-minute change in staffing, and new curriculum programs--whatever it is, you can definitely expect some unexpected obstacles to the fine tuned plans you've created over the summer. It's best to understand that this will happen and continue to work towards mitigating these kinds of events as much as possible with colleagues.

Focus on Students
Whatever you do in schools, if you use the lens of what's best for students, you'll make good choices. Keep students front and center in every action, and model with colleagues what you hope students will emulate in their own collaboration, learning, voice, and choice.

Outreach, Collegiality, and Professional Learning
Look for inspiring opportunities to reach out, collaborate, and learn. Countless opportunities exist including our upcoming ECET2-MA2016. Make a point to make time for this kind of work as it serves to ignite your passions and elevate your efforts to teach well.

The start of school can be overwhelming, and the key is to meet it with a sense of positivity and promise. This positivity will translate to better learning and outcomes for you and your students.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Teach Well: Data Analysis

As a fan of streamlined standardized testing, I like what the data can tell us about the landscape of our class. Recently Massachusetts released a host of data to educators--data we can use, in part, to plan our programs so that we tailor our efforts to individual students, small groups, and the whole grade-level team.

I used the data to color code our class list so that we can easily sort the data in a number of ways to help us analyze the work that we're doing and the work that needs to be done in order to help every child achieve a strong foundation in the basics with good ability to read, write, and solve mathematical problems.

I always emphasize my support for standardized tests with the word "streamlined" since the tests don't tell us about the whole child and they are not the complete puzzle when it comes to understanding a child or teaching a child well. Yet the state's information which includes scores and other factors helps us to see our students with new eyes and greater detail, and this view helps us to teach the children well.

Other factors that help us teach well include the following:
  • Time to get to know each child and their families at the start of the year to build strong relationships.
  • Time to understand a child's curiosity, passion, and need.
  • Frequent informal assessments including conversation and observation.
  • Significant time to learn in ways that cannot be measured by a standardized test such as activities that include trial and error, problem solving, making, and more.
  • The many ways we can coach a child forward into his/her life in positive, affirmative ways since we know that the most successful people in society are not necessarily those who performed best on an elementary school standardized test.
Teaching is never one thing or another, it's always that right mix of approaches that responds well to the context in which you teach and the children that you teach. Every school has to take the information available and create programs that inspire, engage, and forward a child's interest in learning as well as skill to learn. That's why teaching is both an art and science--it profits from data and depends on craft and vision.

How will you use the host of wonderful data Massachusetts offers educators? In what ways will your team analyze the data available and match informal systemwide measures to create programs that inspire and develop students' academic, social, and emotional skills and abilities? 

As we learn to use data better, we can also better the ways we teach each child. That's not to say that personalization in this way is sufficient since what happens when students and teachers collaborate is essential to the learning process. Learning alone is not sufficient in most cases. Collaborative, cooperative learning is also essential--there's magic when a group of learners come to the table to create, debate, and collaborate. That's integral to the learning process too.

How we approach the learning year and how we mold programs to best meet the needs of all of our students is an important consideration at this point in the school year. Massachusetts' wonderful trove of data is one source of strength with regard to this process. Let me know how you plan to access and maximize that data bank to support learners. I'm curious. 

Teach Children Well: Ride the School Bus

Emdin in his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and The Rest of Y'all Too, prompts us with good rationale to know our students well. One way to know students is to make the time to ride the bus home with students. That's one way to get to know students' neighborhoods and friendships. I'm going to try that. Seems so simple, yet potentially powerful.

Note:Unfortunately district leadership did not allow me to ride the bus due to numbers. I'll continue to consider this result.

Teach Well: Separate Truth from Heresay

Heresay can reign if we don't ask the right questions. Good questions/comments that can separate the truth from heresay include the following:
  • Can I take a look at the data? What does the data say?
  • How was the data analyzed? Why was that analysis strategy used? 
  • May I see that in writing so I can give it greater thought and depth?
  • What publicized facts led to that assumption?
  • Why would you say that? What evidence led you to that conclusion?
  • How many? When? Whom?
  • Let's lay out the timeline of events to show how the issue evolved?
  • How was this handled in similar circumstances?
Too often as humans we jump to conclusions or accept heresay as fact and truth when there isn't the evidence or facts to back up such assumptions.

When I read Intentional Interruption, the book demonstrated how we naturally choose comfort over truth or conjecture over reality since it's easier and more comforting. 

When teaching well we have to focus in on our students and what they need. And in doing so, we have to look at the data and find out the facts to lead us to the best possible support and effort.

In conversation about school, listen carefully. Work to separate heresay from fact and then work with honest data to develop the amazing potential that exists for every child. 

"Every Kid Needs a Champion"

This morning's wonderful #satchat inspired me on this Saturday before school starts for the 2016-2017 school year.

Rita Pierson's TED Talk is an amazing talk that every teacher should watch before the school year starts. It's one of those talks I can watch over and over again.

Enjoy the talk. Be inspired, and have a terrific school year as you teach children well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

School Can Be Fun!

I just love this video:

First Days of School: Marshmallow-Gumdrop-Spaghetti Homework

To begin the school year, we'll focus on building a strong sense of team. One activity we'll use is the popular marshmallow-gumdrop-spaghetti building challenge. As I learned this summer during the Wayland STEAM Institute, it's often great to give students a chance to try out materials and challenges on their own first before embarking on that challenge with a team. So for the first week's homework, we'll give each child a baggie of spaghetti, gumdrops, and a large marshmallow. We'll ask them to try making a tower at home with these materials, and then draw or photograph the tower they made and answer the questions on this page. I think this will be an enjoyable and profitable first week's homework. Do you agree?

Note: This TED Talk will give you an inside look at this challenge.

Spaghetti and Marshmallow Challenge:
We won't likely score or give a 20 minute time limit. I'll "read the students" before making these decisions. 

Here's one set of instructions, though I'd like to use gumdrops instead for a number of reasons rather than tape and string.

Student Results:

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 3.13.33 PM.png
By Mia
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 4.20.41 AM.png
By Ashley
By Ben W
By Ben C
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 7.34.38 AM.png
By Jack Q.
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 7.35.11 AM.pngBy Michael W.
By Sam B
By Wilson
By Hue
By Mikail

By Ben

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Health Care Decisions

I attended a meeting about health care changes today.

There's so much to know and understand about health care.

So much so that I think a lot of people put the information aside due to the complexity, but it's important to understand your health care.

In the next few days, I'll study up on this topic so that I'm ready to meet and work more with colleagues on this topic and other related matters.

2016-2017 School Year Committments

As my husband and I spoke about house renovations, he said, "You're repeating yourself, it's the same words." (I can hear my colleagues smiling and nodding in the background.).

I responded, "No, it's a spiral, I'm edging you towards change."

It's the same with my blog and school-speak, the repetition, though laborious at times, is truly edging me towards change. It's so easy with our human brains to resort to what's known and comfortable, rather than what's new and potentially better. To change, we have to continually remind ourselves with words and actions or else we won't get there.

So today, once again, I'm reminding myself of the changes I want to embed as I start the new school year. Changes that include the following:

  • More lunches (or cogens as Emdin supports) with students.
  • More effort to co-construct the classroom, routines, and learning with students.
  • Continued collegial and family outreach via newsletters, meetings, and collaboration.
  • Continued daily learning and student as well as embedding that learning into the daily teaching/learning.
  • Greater cultural proficiency beginning with efforts to foster greater understanding, dialogue, and integration with students' interests, environments, families, friends, and needs. 
  • Greater focus on feedback by instituting a new weekly feedback routine.
  • Hyperfocus on math and STEAM teaching.
  • Focus on optimal communication and advocacy via my work as a union board member, state/national union member, and DESE TAC member.

MA Schools: Step Back and Take the Long View

As I prepare for the school year ahead, and consider the many issues educators face, I believe it's time for our state to step back and take the long view with regard to education. Specifically, this is what I recommend.

No More Charters
I believe that Massachusetts has what it takes to reignite public education for our state and nation. Massachusetts educators are well educated, enthusiastic, and invested in doing a terrific job for the children of Massachusetts. Rather than giving our money away to private enterprises, I believe we should reinvest those dollars into continuing to create top notch public schools. We can do this with the following actions:
  • Invest in school infrastructure by ensuring that every school has the following attributes:
    • Strong, student-centered leadership that creates loving, holistic, broad-minded, student centered schools. In some cases, the reason some charters are doing well is that they have innovative leadership--there's no reason why our public schools can't have this. In many cases, our administrative models in some schools are outdated.
    • Quality physical environments--every school should be a welcoming, bright, updated, tech-savvy, naturally beautiful environment. 
    • Reasonable expectations--class size, standards, teacher-student responsibility, time-on-task, and collaborative time should be reasonable and doable. As it stands now there are educators who have unreasonable expectations. For example, in our most challenged schools, there needs to be a very low student-teacher ratio so that teachers can deal with the HUGE issues many students face in those environments. I believe this ratio should reflect innovative service delivery models, not the old fashion one teacher-one classroom model. 
    • Continue the positive Union-State synergy and debate that occurs--this back-and-forth conversation, advocacy, and debate helps to shape strong schools. 
    • Continue with the strong focus on achievement, and new ESSA related focus on the whole child to continue to build strong, innovative, successful schools and learning organizations. Massachusetts is doing an excellent job, and continued investment in our public schools will only continue this good work. 
    • Make sure that all Massachusetts educators receive a fair wage, work conditions, and benefits. It's known that states with the strongest unions have the strongest schools, and that's because educators in those states receive the benefits they need to be able to do a good job every day for students.
  • Continue to support private industries innovation with regard to education supplies, technology, and consultation, but allow the public to make the decisions about how they'll use public money and what public money will be spent to acquire innovations created by the private sector. 
  • Continue to build relationships with the private sector with regard to providing student internships, jobs, training, and other creative programs and support. For example the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting a day-long "Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2)" event in Massachusetts to raise the conversation, share, and efforts related to Teaching ALL Students, particularly those most distanced from needed resources, supports, and success.  
I believe Massachusetts has great leadership right now in almost all sectors. This is awesome. This leadership has to look forward to what our state does to impact every citizen and our nation. If Massachusetts makes the bold move to reinvest in public schools with the idea that our schools are "nation/community builders," "family advocates," and "servants committed to the success and welfare of the whole child" we will lead the country forward to reinvesting in the public schools and what those schools can be for our people, country, and world.  It's possible because in Massachusetts we have what it takes to forward this positive, inclusive, success-oriented effort. 

Teachers' Work Conditions are Students' Learning Conditions: Making Sense of Health Care

I serve on my school's local union board. Today we are meeting to discuss new health care guidelines. It appears that our members will have difficult decisions to make regarding their health care costs in the year ahead now that the system has decided to change health care benefits.

I don't think I'm alone when I say that health care is confusing. I receive countless health care notices for my family--notices that are extremely complex and difficult to figure out. Plus, the new plans are tricky too since they involve all kinds of personal and professional accounts.

Now, however, as a union board member, I have to wrap my brain around this and listen carefully as my colleagues discuss the tough decisions that our members will have to make--decisions that I'll have to explain as a union board member.

In all, there's much to be said about all of this.

First, there's no reason why in this day and age that health care paperwork or plans have to be so confusing. The only reason I can think of for all of this confusion is that confusion breeds ignorance and ignorance opens the door for profits since people are so confused, they don't know what to do. This is an area of great need with regard to our legislatures, health care companies, work places, and tax efforts. Of course, I believe that health care is a human right and that it should be fairly distributed, supported, and paid for. We can definitely do better in this regard as a people and nation.

Next, it's true that teachers' work conditions are students' learning conditions. Fair pay, good health care, and reasonable work conditions create an environment where teachers don't have to work two jobs, and conditions where teachers can do their work well. I believe that all educators deserve a good wage--the kind of wage that allows them to own a home, raise a family, work one job, and have a little fun once in a while. When this happens, educators are able to go to work each day and do the best possible job.

So in a short while, I'll devote a good deal of time with colleagues to unearth what seems like a very complex new system of health care, one that appears to raise costs for some if not all educators. I'll know more in time and be able to report more accurately then. Onward.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Co-Construct the Classroom

While the room doesn't look fancy, it's got great spaces for super learning and co-creation with students and colleagues. 

In Edmin's book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. . . and the Rest of Y'all Too, he recommends co-constructing the classroom with students. I thought a lot about this as I set up my classroom today. Rather than hang up lots of posters, choose seats for students, and make all the decisions about specific spaces and places, I left a lot of free space and white walls for students and I to make the room our own.

School Success: A Healthy, Happy Routine

This quote came from Chris Emdin's Book,
For White Folks that Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y'all
What matters with regard to the new school year for teachers and students alike is establishing a healthy, happy routine. It's important that the routine is loose-tight which means it's tight enough to happen most of the time, but loose enough to give way for revision and change when needed.

That kind of flexible, but mostly predictable routine does what Gmelch notes in the quote to the right--provides control and confidence, and that's what we want for ourselves and for the children we parent and teach.

One good way to establish this routine is to co-create it with your students and/or children by asking the following questions:
  • What's important to us?
  • What goals have we set?
  • How can we help each other?
  • Who is going to be in charge of what?
Routines established with effort and commitment early in the school year tend to stick, and it's much more difficult to establish new routines later in the school year so it's important to give those the initial routine setting the time and attention it deserves as that's what you'll mostly live with for the rest of the school year. 

What routines will you set for the upcoming school year? How will you practice and solidify those routines in the early weeks of the year? What signage will you use to announce and relay the routines?

These are questions I'm focusing on now as I set a few good routines for the year ahead. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Teaching Well

To teach well, you have to keep your eyes on the prize.

First, identify the prize. At the end of the year, what will you have achieved if you taught well--that's the prize.

Then identify the obstacles that will make attaining the prize difficult. Keep distance and find as many ways as possible to remove or sidestep the obstacles. Yet, think a bit about those obstacles--do they hold truths that will help you to teach better? If so, embed into the teaching/learning path.

Chart your path.

Stop, reflect, and revise along the way.

Find allies for your journey.

Happy travels!

Focus In: Teach Well

It's been a summer of big ideas and lots and lots of professional learning. Now with school just a week away, it's time to focus in and teach well.

What does that mean?

It means that I really want to reach for some of the teaching/learning goals I've learned about and believe in during the next year--goals that include the following:
  • Work collaboratively with the learning team to meet individual and collective goals
  • Establish a strong relationship with every learner and their families
  • Teach all standards with pedagogy that invites voice and choice
  • Reflect regularly, revise as needed
  • Create an inviting, welcoming learning environment
  • Embed a learning/teaching routine that includes regular feedback and thoughtful coaching with the goal of helping every child meet the learning/teaching objectives determined
  • Putting most of the teaching/learning energy into grade-level team goals and endeavor
  • Working towards a balanced professional/personal pattern that maximizes good energy, health, and focus.
With this in mind, I want to focus on the school year agenda as well, an agenda that includes the following:
  • Day to day focus on teaching the identified standards, units, programs, and most importantly the children I work with every day.
  • Professional learning focused on the MassCUE Presentation, ECET2-MA2016 event, DESE Teacher Advisory Cabinet, MTA Professional Learning Committee, school Child Study and Green Teams, and local union efforts to support educators.
  • Next summer's local and MTA professional learning efforts.
After many years of devoting countless hours into my professional craft, I also would like to spend a bit more time on personal efforts this year such as updating my home, nurturing my family, and a continued attempt to transform our lifestyle to an Earth-friendly, healthy pattern that includes mostly locally grown foods, little to no plastics, water conservation, and more as I learn. The fun will include the many family celebrations that occur throughout the year. 

Readying for the school year ahead means taking a look at the big picture, creating a routine that helps you achieve those goals, and then pacing the learning/teaching path ahead. 

Follow Your Learning Path

At the start of the school year, I want to introduce students to the idea of one's learning path.

I'll begin by showing this clip and asking, What do you think this has to do with learning?

I'll list what students say, and then I'll say, "The yellow brick road in a sense is a learning path. What do you think a learning path is?"

Again, I'll listen.

Then I'll tell, in short, the story of my learning path. I'll draw a path and add pictures as I tell my story.

Then I'll note that our learning path is influenced a lot by each of us and also by many other factors. What factors do you think influence your learning path? We'll talk about those.

Then I'll give students a copy of the sheet below and I'll tell them to start drafting their learning path. I'll add that they can use the template I handed out or make their own. I'll let them talk, dream, and wonder as they draft their plans.

Later during that lesson or the next day, we'll share what we came up with and we'll talk about how we can make this school year a good step on each child's learning path. We'll return to this notion time and again throughout the year as I coach the class and individual students forward.

Students and I will use this template during the discussion. I'll create an 11" X 18" copy. I'll note that you can make a learning path plan for a week, month, year, years, or your whole lifetime. It's important, however, to revise as you go along because influences occur that impact your learning path. Also I'll note that the learning path starts the minute you are conceived (actually some are saying there's learning in your DNA too, but I have to research that) and goes on throughout your life and sometimes impacts those beyond your life too.

Related Images
There are many ways to look at learning paths. I may share some of the images below with students as well. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Emdin Teaches: Cogenerative Dialogues

August 2017 Update: Since I wrote this post, Pam Moran shared with me a wonderful example of high school students presenting a rap cypher:

Note that I couldn't find an example of a rap cypher without swears and other words generally not accepted in school. As I read Emdin's book, I'm going to think about that. I did think this was a good example of a rap cypher though with regard to "privileging every voice," listening to one another, respecting individuality, and the artistry involved. I have more to learn in this realm and if you have good examples for school use, let me know.  Below is an example of a children's rap cypher in Minnesota.

In chapter 4 of Christopher Emdin's book, For White Folks who Teach in the Hood. . .and the rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, he introduces educators to a process for cogenerative dialogue--a process that can really serve to create a co-constructed classroom community, one where students have significant voice and choice. He begins by introducing the rap cypher, and then uses the rules of cyphers to promote cogenerative dialogue (cogen) in the classroom. He notes that the education extension of what youth do already validates their culture and positions them as experts even before dialogue starts.

I really like what he has to say in this chapter and I'd like to try it out this year. Last year I committed to a similar process, but I didn't do a good job and I didn't sustain the effort. I wonder if my colleagues would be interested in committing to this process too as I think if we do it together we'd be more likely to implement this vital process well.

I will start by identify four students who represent diverse groups from the class. We'll meet at lunch on the same day each week, a day when I don't have playground duty. As Emdin suggests, we'll begin with a small classroom issue, and I follow the decision of the group to build trust and work towards a co-constructed classroom environment.

More details about the process can be found in the tweets below and in Emdin's book. I can truly see how this effort would truly help to build a more dynamic class community.

Media: Share the Good News!

Last night a quiet teacher friend of mine from a school system that sometimes gets bad press from the media came over for dinner. She showed me picture after picture of her students and projects she's done. Her work was amazing and the students were so happy and enthusiastic. I said to her, the local newspaper should place one of these pictures on the front page every day.

Instead when we looked at popular media threads yesterday we saw the picture of an obviously ill teacher who arrived to school in a worrisome way. Instead of being informative, the media played the role of "freak show" as they demeaned the sadly ill educator. That's the message about schools and teachers that overwhelmed the press yesterday. Meanwhile, educators, like my friend, have already devoted considerable time this summer to shop for supplies and set up colorful, welcoming classrooms. Everyday she goes to school and orchestrates the wonderful, new age learning that she shared with me. And her students who represent a vast multitude of cultures shared the common feature of wearing big smiles as they tested catapults, watched chemical reactions blow up balloons, share culture stories, and investigate national parks. Super projects, terrific teaching.

Of course some media outlets are responsible. They take their role of information share seriously, and rather than stoke the fire of craziness and disrespect, they tell the true stories of what's going on in our country--information we need to hear. But other media resources, solely try to sell time or space to make a profit, and use sensational stories to do that.

Our communities will profit from dedicated, sensitive media that tells the truth, but doesn't play on the foibles and sad acts of the mentally ill, addicted, and troubled individuals. Yes, it's important for public safety to be aware of bad acts and actors, but it's also important to tell about all the good news out there--the kinds of stories my friend shared with me last night, stories that have the potential to inspire a whole community towards greater good and result.

New School Year:Welcome Children and Families

A quiet, loving couple and their enthusiastic, computer-loving, inquisitive son sat across from me at the dentist's office. I asked the boy what grade he was going into, and then said "Are you going to fifth grade?" I knew that would get his attention since he was clearly at the primary level of grade school.

I found out that he was going to kindergarten after three years of preschool. His parents, possibly immigrants, confided that they didn't know when school started or what to expect. I asked, "Didn't you read a note or is there a website?" They said that there was no note and no information on the website. I said, "Why don't you stop by the school, introduce yourselves, and ask about start-of-school times and dates." I hope they do that.

After I spoke to this couple I wondered if it's true that there are students and families in communities that haven't received welcome letters, information about school starts, and class lists. I know that the community I work in sends out a number of letters during the summer to alert families about the new school year. I know that our websites provide good information.

Truly wouldn't it be great if the first day of school each year was met with a bit of local anticipation and fanfare. Newspapers could have a countdown and dates on the front page. There could be outreach to neighborhoods, grocery stores, and other places that people frequent.

I suppose this happens, and it could be that new parents who are new to the country, state, or community, may not really know where to turn to get the needed information. As teachers we need to look for ways to welcome the eager, loving families that will send their children to us this year. We also have to find ways to support their children too recognizing that some children will be coming from homes that are distanced from the mainstream school experience. The more we can reach out, the more families and students will reach back.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Starting the Year with a Teamwork Focus

An early focus on TEAM will include an early focus on STEAM too.
Yesterday the grade-level teachers met for a day to map out the curriculum year and weekly schedule. It was a busy day of phoning field study locations, emailing the principal for feedback, and share ideas about the year ahead. In addition to becoming more culturally proficient teachers we will also focus on teamwork with the students.

The first few days of school will mainly focus on getting to know individual students and building team with a myriad of great activities--activities that will step us into the math, reading, writing, social studies, science, and interdisciplinary STEAM study.

Our schedule looks great thanks to the work of so many. Our team is extensive including a large array of educators and paraeducators. Now it's time to collect the last few supplies and set up the classroom.

These presentations, in part, will lead the efforts in the first few days:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Maximize-Minimize-Prioritze for a Healthy Lifestyle

Learning from Nicolette next to a flower garden.
Tonight at Stearns Farm CSA in Framingham, Massachusetts, Nicolette Blanco educated a small number of adults and one very curious and thoughtful child about the ways that we can maximize, minimize, and prioritize for a healthy lifestyle.

I listened with one ear for my own health and one for information to share with the children I teach and families I work with. As Nicolette spoke about the terrific benefits of drinking water, eating healthy fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and whole dairy foods,  steering clear of toxins, ample sleep, rest, laughter, and meaningful relationships, I thought about how the students and I might make these lessons visible in the classroom this year.

Further, Nicolette shared lots of healthy snack suggestions such as hummus with raw veggies, guacamole, salsa, and bean chips, a handful of nuts, fresh fruit, plain yogurt with fresh fruit, and smoothies with fruit and almond milk. She noted how processed chemicalized foods, sugar, trans fats, and artificial sweeteners are energy zappers. And, reiterated what we all know which is that sugary drinks and soda are the leading source of sugar in the American diet--a source that zaps energy, causes cavities, and leads to health problems. Instead, she recommended that children add fresh fruit to water to give it a taste they like.

I found this leave on the farm after the talk.
She also told the parents in the crowd that they need to be detectives and observe how their children interact with food. For example, don't worry so much about when they eat, but instead pay attention to what they are eating. Let them eat when they're hungry, but make sure they're eating healthy food at least 90% of the time. Also, she mentioned the fact that overactivity can sometimes be connected with food dyes, and that eliminating those dyes have helped some children to calm down. Similarly she mentioned the connection between dairy products and ear infections or congestion for some children and adults. Near the end of her talk, Nicolette promoted the "Life Vitamins" of fun, nature, rest/relaxation, and love.

Nicolette's long term experience and interest in healthy living makes her a terrific speaker--she approaches the topic with an open, welcoming attitude. I think she' be a perfect speaker for a PTO event that focuses on what parents and teachers can do to help children and themselves live healthy lives

In addition she has recently published a book, By a Thread: 21 Tips on Resilience for the Partly Unraveled, about resilience which provides the reader with a number of exercises that will help him/her to build resilience and enjoyment in life. I plan to use the book to guide a number of healthy student activities too.

Annual Score Review: Time for Progressive Tests?

Prior to the school year, I typically analyze a host of scores that provide one illustration of individual and collective student achievement.

As I looked over the scores, I thought about last year's program and this year's program to come.

I continue to be somewhat frustrated with the grade-level approach to scores since students who struggle and score many years behind the grade level continue to take tests that are several levels above their skill/knowledge level. These grade level tests provide a steep climb that sometimes results in teaching-to-the-test since teachers feel the pressure to try to move a child up several levels. Teaching-to-the-test generally results in dull teaching rather than an inspiring, engaging program--the kind of program that will truly help a struggling student love learning and persevere.

For example, let's say you're a child that for some reason scores a 1/5 in third grade. That means out of five levels where levels 4 and 5 are considered "grade level," you've scored a 1 which is three levels away from reaching what's considered grade level. Then you move to the next grade, and now according to the tests you're even further behind because to catch up with the previous and next grade standards.

This reminds me of when I used to climb mountains with my family. I was the slowest hiker. I'd work so hard to get up to my family members who would wait for me now and then. As soon as I reached them, ready for a rest, they'd take off and start running up to the next level. I could never catch up. As I look back on this, I realize that allergies had a lot to do with it. I simply couldn't breathe as well as my family members which slowed me down during the woodsy portion of the climb.

Now most of our test takers do catch up by high school--few to none in our system do not pass the high school tests. As students mature and learn about themselves and the academic knowledge, concept, and skill, they are able to meet the requirements of the tests.

I wish the tests would not be tied to grade levels, but instead be a progression of skill, knowledge, and concept. That way your goal would be to keep edging up the the knowledge, concept, and skill trajectory. That would help us to look at a child's growth overall rather than his/her connection to the grade-level. Tests like this would help our students who score at the highest levels too because these students consistently score at the top of the grade level with little room for advancement. In a progressive test, there would essentially be no end as students could just keep learning more and scoring higher.

I continue to be a fan of streamlined standardized tests. I don't think that tests should be tied to teachers' performance, but instead tied to an overall school's efforts and progress. I think that the key with tests is to get an overview of the individual student's knowledge, concept, and skill that can be tested as well as an overview of a school's performance. It's one way to assess how students are doing and should be combined with other types of formal and informal assessments to gain a holistic picture of a school's work. We know that successful, happy, contributing citizens didn't necessarily score high on standardized tests, but instead found areas of work and study that inspired them, propelled them forward, and helped them to achieve with strength. We can't forget that as we analyze test scores.

With that in mind as I analyzed the scores, this is what I noticed:
  • One area of attention continues to be students who struggle on these tests. These students typically work with a host of educators, and it's very important that we carefully target our collective efforts to support these children well. Students who struggle with academics demand the best possible teaching and a sensitive holistic approach. Over the years, I have been impressed with these students' long term success, and the one common factor leading to that success, is the steady support, care, and attention from the child's family and educators.
  • Again, time on task matters. Steady learning and practice leads to success.
  • And a solid weekly learning routine that involves feedback and parent communication--the more we can let parents know how students are doing, the more we will gain their support which is integral to helping every child succeed. Also a weekly pattern helps students to keep track of their performance and learning.
  • Match tests to the curriculum. In some cases we have tests that are not well matched to the curriculum and these tests require time and attention that could be focused on the curriculum content instead. 
Fortunately our students do well on tests overall, so the worry is not the same as in schools where most students face challenge with the tests for many varied reasons. 

The yearly review and analysis helps me to gear up for the new year on my own and with colleagues. Our collective attention to this one area of school life helps each of us to continue to support students with past and new successful approaches.