It’s Testing Time, Pass the Tissues

The month of March signals the beginning of testing season for Maryland elementary schools.  It’s an annual rite of passage that takes time away from instruction, disrupts the regular schedule, brings children to tears, and produces a general fog of stress to schools across the state.  The schedule for testing in our school looks like this:

Test                                                    Grade                         Dates
MSA Reading & Math                  3rd-5th Grade              March 4-18

MSA Science                                5th Grade                     March 24-April 4

PARCC Field Test (PBA)             One 4th grade class     March 24-April 11

PARCC Field Test (EOY)             One 4th grade class     May 5-June 6

As you can see, testing will impact our school from the first week in March through the first week in June.  That’s thirteen weeks of testing.  Luckily, spring break gives our students and teachers a brief respite from the madness.

Maryland, like many other states, is in the transition from using state testing measures to using the PARCC assessment (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).  This means that while students in third through fifth grade have been taught using the Common Core State Standards this year, they will be assessed on the defunct Maryland State Curriculum.

The relevance of the data that will be collected is questionable.  We’re giving the test anyway.  I don’t think anyone can tell me why.  Well, maybe that’s not true.  We’re giving the test because Maryland accepted Race to the Top funds and the feds have threatened to withhold or ask for states to return funds if they don’t administer the tests.  No one has the courage to stop an assessment train that is careening its way down a track to nowhere.

Teachers know that assessment is important.  They use informal assessments every day to make instructional decisions about their students.  Assessments help teachers understand where their students are on the learning continuum.  State and federal tests have never provided teachers with that information.  State and federal tests have been used to judge schools, school districts, and states.  State and federal tests have been used to praise affluent schools and their communities while degrading high-poverty schools.

The late Donald Graves wrote the book Testing Is Not Teaching over 12 years ago.  It would be nice if politicians, superintendents, school leaders, teachers, and parents read it.  There is a better way for American schools to improve.  It is a way that does not value testing over people.  It is a way that includes teacher expertise in gathering relevant assessment data.  I could go on, but I have to get ready for testing.  I’m sure I have a box of tissues around here somewhere.

Leading Change in Education

The process of leading change in education is complex and challenging.  John Kotter is recognized as an expert on the topic of leadership and change.  He wrote Leading Change in 1996, which Time magazine selected as one of the 25 most influential business management books ever written.  Kotter’s work has been adopted by many graduate schools of education.

The use of business strategies when training future educational leaders can be problematic.  We should be cautious when extending the values of business to the field of education.  Not all business practices translate well to teaching and school leadership.  Schools exist to serve children and families.  We should never look at students in the proprietary way that businesses do their products.

Many would argue that the seminal work on leading change in education has yet to be written.  Until that happens, let’s consider Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change and apply it to education.  Can his business-based ideas on change leadership be translated to education?

1. Establishing a Sense of Urgency

Our children don’t have time for us to decide to act on their behalf.  Urgency should be a catalyst for the change needed in our schools.  Urgency, however, should never lead to people feeling like they have been run over.  New leaders have to assess what is truly urgent versus what can be done over time through partnering and collaboration.

2. Creating a Guiding Coalition

Team-building is an essential skill for the modern school leader.  Not much will be accomplished if stakeholders are not part of the change process.  School leaders will have to possess strong skills when assembling their team.  Unlike businesses, however, schools need to be inclusive in their team-building efforts.  Without a broad base of support, change efforts are less likely to succeed.

3.  Developing A Change Vision

For Kotter, vision is the product of an individual.  You possess the vision and then you share it.  In education, vision should be the product of collaborative efforts.  The model of a heroic leader swooping in and saving a school diminishes any prior efforts made toward improvement.  When vision is developed collaboratively it is also more comprehensive.

4.  Communicating the Vision for Buy-In

The concept of “selling” a vision is a business-like approach that leaves others out of the equation.  If we develop the vision together, then no one needs to sell it to me.  I am already in.  The more people included in the development of the vision, the more who will learn about it through word-of-mouth.  A cooperatively developed vision sells itself.

5.  Empowering Broad-based Action

Kotter’s views on empowering action blend well with current school reform efforts.  Once the vision is set, school leaders need to work to remove any of the obstacles that stand in the way of progress.  They should create structures that foster the vision while encouraging risk-taking and “no box” thinking among their teachers.

6.  Generating Short-term Wins

Short-term victories are important in education, especially when they lead to long-term wins.  School leaders should celebrate their short-term wins while continuing to articulate the long-term goals.  Celebration is even more important in education than in business.  Sometimes, celebration is the only positive our teachers experience, particularly in these times of fiscal austerity.

7.  Never Letting Up

Education is the one profession that renews itself every year.  A new school year brings with it great hope.  For schools with a clear long-term vision, the new school year is also an opportunity to continue focusing on key initiatives.  If schools are truly seeking to improve, their plans and strategies must focus on enduring goals.  “Dripping water hollows out a stone…”

8.  Incorporating Change Into the Culture

School leaders rarely stay in one place for very long.  Is the change that you are fostering dependent on you?  If you left your school today, what would continue?  These are questions you should ask yourself every time you consider new initiatives.  If the change you are seeking is dependent solely upon your leadership, then it might not be as important as you think.  Change for the sake of change undermines effective school reform efforts.  Developing a culture of change and innovation leaves your school with a natural succession plan.  Isn’t that what change leadership is all about?

School-based Edcamps- Redefining Professional Development

In November, I blogged about the great experience I had at EdCampBmore at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland:

I ended my post with this statement:

“The edcamp approach to professional development could be a great way to inject excitement back into the profession. How much stronger could our schools become if the teachers in the building were given the chance to share their knowledge with their peers in deep and meaningful ways? I don’t know the exact answer, but I plan to find out. Don’t tell my teachers, but we’re about to plan our first school-based edcamp. Now I’ll never get to sleep!”

Well, I did tell my teachers and last week we held our first ever school-based edcamp, EdCampRHLee!  It was a very successful event (see the teacher comments below) and it’s the kind of PD that all schools should consider trying.  Here are some tips that may help you plan your own school-based edcamp:

Sow Seeds

The idea of an edcamp can be hard to explain to others, so start talking about it well in advance of the day.  If you can attend an edcamp before you host your own, do it.  It’s not essential, but it will help you share a clear message.  In the weeks leading up to your edcamp, touch base with staff members and encourage them to share what they are working on or passionate about.

Build Momentum

Once the idea has been shared, you need to keep it out there.  I posted signs everywhere a staff member might travel (even in the restroom stalls).  The signs simply said, “#EdCampRHLee is coming! Professional Development Redefined, What will you share?”  This created interest and reminded the staff that edcamps are inclusive, anyone can share or present.

The Twitter Connection

This tip is not a must do, but it is a critical part of most edcamps.  In the past year, we have been encouraging teachers to sign up for Twitter as a PLN tool.  By the time we held our edcamp, over 90% percent of our teachers had joined.  Regional edcamps use Twitter as a promotional tool and for backchanneling the event.  Backchanneling gives others a chance to follow your conference in real-time.  It is a great way to share links and resources with others.  If you search for #EdCampRHLee on Twitter you will get an idea of what this looks like.

The Schedule

Creating the edcamp schedule is exciting and scary.  Until it starts to come together, you have no idea what will happen.  Our edcamp was held on an early dismissal day and was three hours long.  When staff members proposed sessions, they used post-it notes with the title of their session, their name, and the room they would use.  As the proposal ideas came in, it was helpful to have one person looking for duplication (similar sessions could be combined into one timeslot).

Our schedule looked like this:

1:30   Schedule creation, brainstorming, discussion, proposals
2:00 iPad for beginners Conferring   with writers Morning   Meeting Teach Like a Pirate Multi-cult Music
2:35 Yoga for teachers SLO writing Math Sign Language Mentor Text Websites
3:10 Math   Rotation/NumTalk New ideas for using novels Common   Core/ DiscoveryEd Social   Thinking Haiku Deck
3:45 iPad advanced Math Work Stations KidBlog Twitter for beginners STEM Night ideas
4:15   Resources Smackdown


Once we got underway, I traveled to every session and tweeted out pics of our staff members in action.  I also used the PA system to keep everyone on schedule.  The day ended with a resources smackdown.  The smackdown is an opportunity for staff members to share ideas that may have not fit into the schedule for a whole session.  Our teachers shared popular apps, websites, and resources.

What did the teachers think?

This was a great opportunity to connect colleagues with a shared interest.  As students like to choose what they are doing in the Daily 5, we also like to choose our professional development.  I came away impressed at the talent and knowledge of our community of learners.  Thanks for providing this awesome opportunity.”
Linda, kindergarten teacher

I was skeptical at first, but really enjoyed the whole afternoon.  I enjoyed both teaching and being an active participant.  The staff came up with a wide selection of topics.  Edcamp provided variety.  In some of the sessions, we could be “taught” something WE wanted to know about.  Other sessions really allowed us to dialogue on something we were interested in.  It wasn’t just a “turn and talk” time, but was really a chance to actually TALK with peers to get their feedback and ideas.”
Brenda, special education teacher

EdCampRHLee was a great opportunity to meet with our peers to share information.  Knowing the presenters made it a lot easier to ask questions.”
Kerri, fourth grade teacher

I really appreciated having a choice in what I learned today at #EdCampRHLee. It was also impressive to see the knowledge our staff has about so many diverse topics.”
Lindsey, second grade teacher

At first, I was very skeptical about today’s professional development.  I loved the idea of edcamps in theory. What is there not to love with all of the choices, opportunities to learn from peers, and short, flexible mini sessions?  However, with it being new to so many of us, I thought that the sessions would be very simplistic.  I was pleasantly surprised with how much information I was able to gather from my colleagues.  I have always been impressed with their wealth of knowledge, but I assumed that our first attempt would present our staff with a huge learning curve.  I was amazed with the high level of engagement, support, and choice when participating in my first edcamp experience.”
Michael, fifth grade teacher

I loved having the freedom to move around to things I was most interested in. I loved being able to “move on” if it didn’t hold my interest and find something that did. I thought it was great that we had such diverse topics, including yoga. I learned so much about Social Thinking just listening to everyone. It was great being able to discuss as opposed to just being “talked to.”  I liked sharing our book study informally as well.”
Lisa, kindergarten teacher

Edcamp is a great way to differentiate staff development and collaborate with other staff based on individual teacher needs and interests.  I enjoyed sharing ideas and learning from other teachers that I may not normally have the opportunity or time to chat with.  Little planning was needed ahead of time and I received ideas I can use immediately in my classroom.”
Julie, third grade teacher

Final Thoughts

Edcamps should be a natural extension of the professional development that schools offer.  Teachers need to connect with their colleagues.  With the pace of change in education, our teachers have been taking on more and more.  The concept of collective intelligence should not be ignored by school leaders.

School-based edcamps celebrate the knowledge of teachers.  When we tap into the creativity of our teachers, we open up avenues for student learning.  If our schools are to be successful, we must include teachers in decisions related to their professional development.  Edcamps are a great way to start in that direction.  Give it a try, there is much to gain!

Fostering L.O.V.E. in Your Classroom

Valentine’s Day is one of the most exciting days of the year for elementary students.  Many of us can easily recall the feelings of affection we had for a classmate when we were still wide-eyed and innocent.  The day brings great anticipation.  Who will give us a valentine?  What message will we choose to give a special someone with our conversation heart candy?

For many children, Valentine’s Day is their first experience with “love.”  As adults, we know that there will be many trials and tribulations later, but for now we smile at their crushes and stories about “boyfriends” and “girlfriends.”  Don’t we all secretly wish we could have that time back again, just a little? Oh well, at least we can re-live it through our children.

Valentine’s Day is also a good time for teachers to remember the importance of love in the classroom.  Love still has an important place in our schools.  Fostering love in the classroom builds a sense of community for our students.  There are many ways to establish and cultivate love in our classrooms.  Here are four suggestions for making your classroom a loving environment.


Let your students know that you like them.  This can’t be faked.  If they don’t feel it, they won’t be able to do their best for you.  The brain is wired to perform best when it’s comfortable.  Tell them you like them.  Show them you like them…each and every day.


Offer your students choices.  Students who are given choices in what and how they learn feel that they are part of the learning process.  Learning isn’t something that happens to them, it is something that happens with them.  Teachers who know their students well are more likely to provide students with learning choices that they value and that motivate them to become independent learners.


Value their differences.  Get to know their culture, their background, and their interests.  Find out the names of their pets, their favorite relatives, and the sports they play.  Like adults, our students want to be recognized as individuals.  This takes time, but it is time well-spent.


Excite them about learning.  When teachers are excited about teaching, students become excited about learning, it’s that simple.  Move around the room.  Check in with each student for every lesson you teach.  Get your students up and moving.  Students need to talk about their learning.  Meaningful learning can be messy and loud.  Take a deep breath and tell yourself that that’s okay.

So, this Valentine’s Day remember the importance of love in teaching.  Students who feel loved are more open and available for learning.  They are also more likely to give back.  Maybe they’ll give you a sweet card or some candy this Friday.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

A Primary Years Programme Primer

The Primary Years Programme will be featured on #mdeschat Thursday, February 6th at 9 p.m. EST.  I sat down with three PYP school leaders to discuss the benefits of using International Baccalaureate strategies at the elementary level.  Their strong knowledge of PYP pedagogy should be helpful to all schools that are seeking to meet the needs of today’s learners.

Jason “Jay” Graham is a PYP Online Lead Facilitator, a PYP Workshop Leader, and a grade one teacher at Badung International School on the island of Java in Indonesia.  Rachel Amstutz is principal of South Shore Elementary in Crownsville, Maryland.  Walter Reap is principal of Germantown Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland.

1.  When and how did your school become a Primary Years Programme school?

Jay:  Bandung International School in Indonesia became a PYP in 2007. We went through a pre-authorization phase before I was at the school.  The process is outlined here: 

Rachel:  In December 2010, I was invited to attend a PYP training to investigate the program as a possibility for our district.  I attended and LOVED the philosophy.  I lobbied for months afterward for my school to be considered for PYP implementation.  I also began the long process of introducing PYP to my staff and parent community to build buy-in.  Since my school did not feed directly into a MYP school, we could not be identified in the first round of schools.  However, we were selected for candidacy in the 2nd year and have been on our journey to authorization since then.

Walter:  We were officially authorized as a PYP school this year (2013-2014).  This was a three year process that included creating synergy and getting stakeholder buy-in.  I would say this continues even now, but began seven years ago.

2.  Can you share how the Primary Years Programme addresses the “whole” child?

Jay:  The Learner Profile which is at the heart of all 3 programmes (PYP, MYP and IB/DP) is paramount here. Check this document 

Rachel:  PYP encourages educators to be cognizant of the whole child at all times—in planning, in teaching, and in assessing.   The Learner Profile reminds us to develop students who are well-rounded, caring, thoughtful, and capable of exploring topics from multiple perspectives.  More than most other initiatives, PYP keeps the development of the whole child at its forefront and trains educators to be mindful of the social, emotional, spiritual and cogitative experience the child has in learning.

Walter:  I believe the whole child is addressed through the programme of inquiry which looks to address intellectual, social, and emotional learning as well as personal skills.  This is done by placing the learner in the center of the learning and building the learning experience (taught curriculum) around the learner.  Students look to demonstrate learning both in and outside of school.  Action is therefore the goal of the IB learner.

3.  What is the role of formative and summative assessment in a PYP school? 

Jay:  In general formative is ongoing; summative is the ‘final’ showing of understanding.  Each unit in Primary Years Programme (there are 6) has a summative assessment.  I think the role of each is to gauge understanding throughout and then gauge understanding at the end.

Rachel:  Assessment, both formative and summative, is clearly outlined in a PYP school.  It may not look any different than any other school, but the school must develop an assessment policy to tell how assessments are used in the school.  This document is a comprehensive explanation of all types of assessments, the frequency at which assessments are administered, etc.    Therefore in my school formative and summative assessments are used constantly to assess students’ learning.

Walter:  Formative assessment shows the progression of the learner through the unit planners.  These assessments monitor student progress of the teaching and learning.  Summative assessments provide opportunities for the learners to demonstrate their learning through the lens of one of the seven themes around the five essential elements.

 4.  Can you explain how the Primary Years Programme distinguishes between the written and taught curriculum?

Jay:  Well I can point you to here if you haven’t seen it already. But the basic difference to me is the written is concerned about WHAT we want to learn and the TAUGHT is more about HOW we will learn the written.

Rachel:  Certainly not any better than the IB can!


Focusing on what students will learn and the 6 transdisciplinary themes, skills, etc….


The written curriculum in action, focusing on HOW students best learn.

Walter:  The written curriculum is the district-designed and planned curriculum including the scope and sequence of the documents developed by the content coordinators.  In our building, teachers have flexibility when using the district’s curricular documents to develop the programme of inquiry.

5.  How is your school addressing the transdisciplinary themes that are central to the Primary Years Programme?

Jay:  In my opinion, not well. I wrote about how the homeroom teacher (me), music, Indonesian and Art teacher made explicit connections to the key concepts and central idea in this unit here.  It is challenging  though  and it comes down to directed collaborative planning. We do have stand- alone planners for math etc. when needed.

Rachel:  Our program of inquiry has been developed to ensure that a child who advances from K-5 at my school will experience all elements of the 6 transdisciplinary units.  We’ve organized our program of inquiry to ensure that at each grade level the way in which they address the transdisciplinary themes is distinct from the way in which other grades address each theme.  See our POI here:

This document includes each theme’s central idea, lines of inquiry, and key concepts.

Walter:  We are using resource monies from Title One to provide additional planning days with substitute coverage to write and reflect on unit planners.  This means that teachers have a built in day each month to come together as a grade level team and look at how students are progressing through the unit planners.  As grade level teams are becoming more knowledgeable about the students in their classroom and how to structure/align learning, the planners are more cohesive as well as are a better fit for learning.

6.  What has been the biggest plus of being a PYP school?

Jay:  Inquiry based learning, freedom to learn, differentiation is promoted, non-standards based (no tests). I love how kids have freedom to learn, explore.

Rachel:  The biggest advantage in being a PYP school is that the process has made (is making) my staff and me much more aware of our instructional decisions and more intentional about what we do.  The process makes you really think through why you do what you do, what’s best for children, how to make learning meaningful enough to encourage students to take action, and it makes you ensure that students think about the world, the global community and their responsibility for it.  Also, instructionally, PYP encompasses everything we know to be the best practices for promoting effective learning.

Walter:  This programme has changed the culture of our entire school community.  Nine years ago managing behaviors was the biggest challenge as a high poverty school.  Our enrollment continues to be increasingly diverse, but there are more families who traditionally were sending their children to private schools who are now sending their children to their neighborhood school.  The building culture is changing to one of learning and we have been able to align the use of Title One funds to promote a spirit of collaboration.

Thanks so much to Jay, Rachel, and Walter for sharing their passion and knowledge of the Primary Years Programme!  We can all benefit from applying those good PYP strategies in our schools.

You can find Jason “Jay” Graham on Skype at jason.graham84, on Twitter @jasongraham99 and on his blog

Rachel can be followed on Twitter @rachelamstutz and on her blog at:

Walter can be followed on Twitter @WalterReap