What does a literacy-rich classroom look like?

Early literacy efforts are, needless to say, an ongoing concern for school districts across the US and the world.  The pendulum on what methodology is best has swung in enough directions to make the average teacher dizzy.  What constitutes good reading instruction?

The International Reading Association adopted standards in 2005 that are research-based and worth revisiting.  The IRA recommends that effective early childhood educators:

  • Recognize the importance of language and literacy experiences relative to achievement
  • Integrate early literacy experiences into the curriculum
  • Connect physical, emotional, and social goals in the language and literacy curriculum
  • Develop appropriate language and literacy standards
  • Create a language and literacy program that is culturally competent
  • Participate in professional development opportunities to stay up-to-date on evidence-based practice

For more info, see the IRA link below:

http://www.reading.org/Libraries/position-statements-and-resolutions/ps1066_preschool.pdf

The question we must continually ask ourselves is, “What do those standards look like in the primary grades?”  What would an observer “see” in the classroom that demonstrates those standards?  The third bullet above is a poignant reminder that early literacy skills are best honed in a classroom that capitalizes on the social, emotional, and physical connections to learning.  Yes, strong literacy skills are a must for every teacher, but if they are unable to connect with students on a personal level, their success will be limited.

The other theme running through the IRA’s recommendations is that language and literacy are complementary skills.  Students in the primary grades must be exposed to a language-rich environment.  Reading skills will grow much quicker and deeper in a dynamic classroom that promotes discussion, movement, play, theater, and student autonomy.  A teacher who structures the classroom for student-choice will develop the independence in students that they need to succeed in life.

What do you expect to see in the primary grades when it comes to reading?  What indicators tell you that a classroom is literacy rich?  Join #mdeschat this Thursday 8PM ET and share, or add a comment below!

3 Tips for Building Teacher Leadership

Good schools have good leadership.  Great schools have great teacher leadership.  We can all think back to the day when the single heroic leader model was the norm.  This was the era of the authoritarian principal who ruled with a firm hand.  They were the only “expert” in the building and they used their influence in every aspect of management.  Some of those dinosaurs remain, but much like the dinosaurs, they are headed for extinction.

The postmodern principal recognizes that schools have no chance of success unless leadership is a shared commodity.  The job is just too big.  The need to develop teachers as leaders is a generally accepted premise in most school districts.  The challenge, of course, is how to do it.  How can school systems and individual schools harness the skills of their teachers to improve instruction and raise student achievement?

Here are three thoughts that school leaders may want to consider when developing teacher leaders:

Include Everyone

School leaders who select the teacher leaders in their building automatically limit the potential for success.  Everyone can lead in some way.  If teachers aren’t considered part of the leadership team, then they are unlikely to be a part of a school’s success.  Principals who are perceived as having “their people” create a climate of acrimony that leaves many on the outside looking in.  Leadership opportunities must be given to everyone.

Identify and Capitalize on Strengths

We expect teachers to know the strengths and challenges of their students.  School leaders must do the same with their teachers.  This can be done formally (surveys) or informally (conversations/observations).  Either way, school leaders can capitalize on that knowledge when developing their school improvement plans.  Every teacher should be offered and encouraged to have their moment to shine.

Trust

School leaders must take a leap of faith and trust teachers.  Sometimes, that trust must be given before it is earned.  Most principals want control over the sharing of information in their buildings.  They want to make sure that instruction is consistent and focused.  Trusting teachers and their expertise will actually enhance quality instruction.  Teachers want to be included in the important decisions related to instruction.  When school leaders exclude teachers, they eliminate the potential for innovation.  Innovative teaching comes from a school climate that fosters risk-taking.  If principals are willing to trust their teachers, the ideas will come pouring out.

Building teacher leadership is one way that school leaders may be able to ensure long-term success.  School leaders come and go.  Turnover and change are inevitable.  When leadership is shared, the transition to new leadership is much smoother.  We owe it to our students and their families to utilize the knowledge of our teachers.  Let’s replace those dinosaurs with a new generation of resilient and inclusive leaders.

Are you a dynamic leader?

What is dynamic leadership?  How do you know if you have it or not? Why is it important?  School leaders continue to take on a range of daily responsibilities. Dynamic leadership may be the singular approach that allows schools to meet with success.  Our students and teachers cannot afford to be led by those who lack the skills to ensure that every minute of their day is spent meaningfully.  Are you a dynamic leader?  Let’s look at the arguable qualities that make a leader dynamic or not.

Dynamic​​​                           Not
Fearless                  ​​​          Fearful
Inclusive​​​                           Isolated
Failure as opportunity​ ​      Failure as disaster
Innovative​​​                        Traditional
Proactive​​​                          Reactive

Fearless, not fearful

Leaders who are consumed by fear are unable to make even the simplest decisions.  They are the veritable “deer in the headlights.”  On the other hand, fearless leaders are thoughtful and decisive.  They weigh all of the options while making timely decisions.  Fearless leaders operate from a mindset that focuses on what is right for students first.  They don’t allow fear to cloud their judgment.

Inclusive, not isolated

Dynamic leaders understand that you can never have enough help and support.  While they are confident in their ability, they know that the success of their school depends on many people.  They give a voice to students, teachers, and parents.  Most importantly, they trust that others are competent and capable.  They assume the best in people without being naïve.

Failure as opportunity, not disaster

Failure is inevitable.  Dynamic leaders expect failure, some even plan for it.  Dynamic leaders model their humanity by acknowledging failure and using it to plan for the next success.  Students benefit from observing school leaders and teachers who model a mature response to failure.  If we expect our students to be resilient, we need to give them the tools for handling failure.

Innovative, not traditional

Traditional thinking gets you traditional results.  Innovative thinking, however, can take you places you’ve never been before.  What is the number one quality of an innovator?  They look to others for new ideas.  Yes, some innovators create their own great ideas, but most innovation builds on the work of others.  Innovative leaders are self-aware.  They know their strengths and challenges, so they fill in the gaps by capitalizing on the human assets around them.

Proactive, not reactive

Dynamic leaders are always one step ahead of change.  They anticipate change and start planning for it before it’s necessary.  Proactive leaders are calm and cool under duress because they are rarely surprised.  They support students and teachers by contextualizing change.  In schools, proactive leaders integrate new curricula, standards, and teaching practices with those already in place.  Their “we can do this” attitude reassures others that someone is looking out for them.

While dynamic leadership can be discussed and debated, it is harder to define.  It may be one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” phenomena.  What other qualities make a leader dynamic?  Post your comments below or tweet out a response to this post and help us grow the list.

Advice from A Great PLN!

The topic for #mdeschat last night was looking toward the New Year.  While the challenges of teaching and leading are many, it was reassuring to hear the hope and energy expressed by many in last night’s chat.  The last question was “fill-in-the-blank” and the answers are a good example of the power of positive thinking.

“2015 will be a great year because…

@WalterReap

…I will continue to avoid “the box” and create an environment where creativity is valued.”

@BarbaraGruener

…I am surrounded by passionate educators who uplift, encourage, empathize, understand, care, support, hope, heal and love.”

@stony12270

…we have amazing resources to utilize as educators! Twitter networking has no limits!”

@teacherwithtuba

…that beats the alternative.”

@justin_heid

…more and more educators are stepping out of their comfort zones for the benefit of student learning and growth.”

@krisyvonne

…I will listen to understand.”

@JonHarper70bd

…each day my own PLN grows and I get to learn from brilliant people who have much to teach me.”

@TiawanaG

…I will continue to build strong, long-lasting relationships through social media.”

@Renglish71

…I have family by my side, a career that’s invigorating, and a network of colleagues on Twitter to support me!”

@ppw78

…I have a balance between work and home and a child graduating high school.”

@Mrs_Abi_VR

…I’m lucky enough to have another year in the world’s greatest profession!”

@SchooLeader

…I have decided to make it so.”

Such inspiration from people who spend every day supporting teachers and students!  Perhaps Brandon Kiser’s (@SchooLeader) last statement says it best, 2015 will be great if we only decide to make it so!  That spirit of thinking reminds us of our potential.  Is it possible to make significant change and progress just because we decide to?  I sure hope so.

Reflections by a first-year assistant principal

Elizabeth Manning is a first-year assistant principal at Richard Henry Lee Elementary in Glen Burnie, Maryland. She is hosting #mdeschat this Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.  Her topic for the night is reflecting on the calendar year.  Elizabeth took the time out of her busy schedule for a little reflecting of her own.  Her responses to the questions below provide insight to anyone interested in pursuing a career in educational administration.

Tell us about yourself.

I moved to Maryland 9 years ago when I was hired to teach at Tyler Heights Elementary.  Since then, I worked for the district Title I Office and the Elementary Network Support Team.  My current position, however, is one that I have been ambitiously seeking for a while, and I am grateful that I can call Richard Henry Lee Elementary home.  I am thankful to be back in a school setting interacting with teachers and students on a daily basis.

As a new assistant principal, what has been your biggest challenge this year?

My biggest challenge was learning how to do things the Richard Henry Lee way.  Each school has a culture that makes them unique, forming relationships with staff members early on has helped me become a quick learner as to how business is done here.  At the beginning of the school year I would say to people, “I don’t know, what I don’t know.”  As I get to know the students, the staff, and parents, it is increasingly evident that this school is student-centered with a focus on literacy and STEAM initiatives, but not to the abandonment of creating lifelong learners and responsible community members.

What has surprised you?

It always surprises me how fast both the day, and school year, is flying by.  I often feel like I’m out at morning bus duty, take a walk through the school and next thing you know, I look at my watch and its time for lunch duty!  It doesn’t seem possible that we are already well into December and will soon be writing 2015 to date our papers.  Finding the time to fit everything into our fast-paced days is something I’m working on improving.

How have relationships changed from your transition as a teacher to administrator?

As a teacher, it is easier to find a “buddy” who is going through the same things you are experiencing, within your grade level or at your school.  As an assistant principal, there is no one else with your job in your building.  I’ve had many roles as a “teacher leader,” but the dynamic shifts when the role of “evaluator” is added to your responsibilities.  Conversations are constantly about “What is best for the students?” as opposed to what is fair and equal to my grade level, my classroom, or my current role.  I am thankful to have a principal who is a great mentor and has offered suggestions on how to make the transition from, “teacher leader” to “student-growth leader.”

What advice would you give an aspiring administrator?

If I could tell an aspiring administrator anything, it would be “do your homework, don’t be complacent.” If you are prepping for the SLLA (School Leaders Licensure Assessment), then study, read books and take practice tests.  If you are prepping for an interview, read books and talk to assistant principals, principals, regional assistant superintendents (or principal supervisors) to get feedback or advice.  Then, when you are finally hired as a new assistant principal, keep pushing the envelope to try new things, read the latest research, journal about your experiences (or blog), communicate frequently with your principal and take the time to reflect!  The key is to prepare to work hard.

How do you think the second half of the school year will be different than the first?

My challenge for the first half of the year was learning the “what’s, how’s, and who’s” of the building.  Now that I’m familiar with school procedures and student names, the second half of the year will be a big push for continuous development of the action steps on the school improvement plan.  With the new PARCC assessment on the horizon, it will be important to keep our academic focus narrow so we can achieve our goals during non-testing times.  The entire school year is a time for growing our students into the kind, caring, capable learners that will be the responsible community members of the future.

Thanks, Elizabeth, your reflection skills will make you an excellent principal!

The Way of Mindful Education

This book review, by Christopher Wooleyhand, appears in the November/December edition of Principal magazine.  Copyright 2014 National Association of Elementary School Principals.  All rights reserved.

The Way of Mindful Education: Cultivating Well-being in Teachers and Students.  Daniel Rechtschaffen.  W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, 318 pages.

How much better would your school be if the teachers in your building were focused, attentive, and compassionate?  Extend those same thoughts to students.  Would your school be the ideal learning environment if your students were trained to handle the stress and trauma that can keep them from realizing their full potential?  In The Way of Mindful Education, Daniel Rechtschaffen offers educators the tools to develop classrooms and schools that cultivate attention while promoting kindness toward ourselves and others.

​Rechtschaffen, a therapist and founder of the Mindful Education Institute, has trained educators around the world.  He discusses the history of mindful education and provides the reader with ample research supporting the benefits of this unique approach.  According to Rechtschaffen, mindfulness was given birth after World War II when the World Health Organization commissioned a study on the psychological health of European children.  Researchers and educators finally began to understand the emotional needs of children in context to their academic and worldly success.  Rechtschaffen presents the science behind mindfulness to support its use in education.  He believes that mindfulness, “[c]ultivates attention, compassion, happiness, and relaxation and decreases impulsivity, anxiety, and other emotional states.”

​After establishing the credibility of mindfulness, Rechtschaffen goes to work on teachers first.  He encourages teachers to begin a personal journey toward mindfulness that will serve as a good example to their students.  Readers may be tempted to skip this section and move onto how mindfulness can be applied in the classroom.  Rechtschaffen would suggest that we have to, “[t]ake care of ourselves and cultivate our own mindful practice, and what we need to embody our practice in the world.”

​It is in the final two chapters that Rechtschaffen shares the “how to” of mindfulness.  These chapters describe the mindful classroom and the mindful curriculum.  The reader will gain a clear sense of how mindfulness can be employed in any classroom.  Rechtschaffen outlines the qualities of a mindful teacher and the essential ingredients of the mindful classroom in his closing chapters.  Most importantly, he provides the reader with ample resources and lessons that can be used immediately in the classroom.

​While the concept of mindfulness may initially seem complex and unconventional, it is a low-risk, high reward approach to helping teachers and students manage the stresses that impact their daily performance.  That alone makes it worthy of consideration by any school leader who values the emotional needs of students and staff members.

Thanks PLN!

Thanksgiving is a great time to reflect.  I am lucky to have a wonderful wife and two great children.  I remind myself not to take that for granted.  No matter what challenges life may bring, your family is always there for you.

On a professional level, I am thankful for many of the great educators and colleagues I have met through Twitter.  Thanks to…

@Jonharper70bd for becoming an inspiring writer/blogger whose posts are elegant and poignant.

@RunnerBliss @KNESconnoisseur and @jaimer9578 for motivating me to become a better runner.

@WalterReap @lindamcToth and @rachelamstutz for making #mdeschat a successful professional development tool.

@psikeffer @MrCsajko @janercooper @Ms_Stover @missreed  and @Grade3withMissB for always adding great insight to the #mdeschat conversation.

@JessMuonio and @LTaylorELA for sending out tweets that make me laugh.

@buttercup01em and @MrsToal05 for using Twitter to connect with our school community.

@RHLeeESAACPS teachers who have embraced Twitter to connect with parents.

@PrincipalDerby @RegAMF42 and @MrMoxley for setting such a great example for how social media can enhance communication with parents and colleagues and also for their green school efforts and advocacy.

@nlattimore for being such an inspiring leader and Ravens fan!

and, finally…

to @ppw78 for her partnership and unwavering support!

I have certainly missed many others who make me a better person and educator.  Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to help me grow.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving, see you on Twitter!

Tips for successful parent-teacher conferences

November is parent/teacher conference month in many school districts across the United States.  Conferences give teachers the opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting with parents and discuss student progress from the first quarter of the school year.  What should teachers remember as they prepare for conferences?  What should parents expect to learn from their conference?  I asked several principal colleagues to share their sage advice.

What is your best piece of advice for teachers as they prepare for conferences? 

Try to hear your message through the ears and hearts of the parents.  Parents send us their very best and whatever you are saying about their child you are saying about them, too. Be honest, be respectful, be kind. – Pat Keffer @psikeffer

Start with one positive, even if it seems like a stretch.  Listen to their concerns, but keep them on track. – Donna Usewick @dsusewick

Always start with a positive and don’t overwhelm parents with constructive feedback.  Pick a few things the student needs to work on (the big rocks) and focus on those items. Also, try to be specific about what they can do to positively influence the change needed. It is also helpful to provide some information about major curricular shifts within the Maryland College and Career Ready standards. – Jason Otte  @fishingfan24

I encourage teachers to have a written plan for what they want to share and be consistent with all parents – share something positive (a snapshot of their child during the school day), areas of concern, how the parent can provide support at home, and offer an opportunity for questions.  Student work should also be available for the parent to review.  Above all, it is important for the teacher to be positive and engage the parents as partners in their child’s education. – Sue Myers @SueMyers1984

Come prepared—jot down notes before the conference about the child that include positives and opportunities for growth.  While we want to celebrate all students’ successes and special traits, we want to encourage growth in all students.  Providing parents with specific strategies and areas to focus on supports student learning and pulls parents into the magic of learning. – Rachel Amstutz @rachelamstutz

Be prepared.  Make sure you know the student themselves, not just the work they do.  Rehearse what you are going to share about school wide initiatives. -Amanda Salveron @APACSalveron

What should parents expect to learn from their conference with the teacher?

Parents should understand the strengths of their child as well as the areas of need…academically and socially, and specifically how the parents can help and support. This would require an understanding of the expectations that the teacher has for the child and class, again, academically and socially. – Pat Keffer @psikeffer

Parents should have a good overall picture of progress.  Teachers need to make sure that parents know that this is 10 or 15 minute conversation and that constant communication is the key. – Donna Usewick @dsusewick

It would be my hope that parents would walk away feeling positive, with a better understanding of what specifically their child needs to work on, as well as some information about major educational shifts that could impact their child. – Jason Otte @fishingfan24

Parents should expect to learn their child’s current skill level in all academic areas as well as specific strengths and next steps.  Expect to leave with strategies to begin using immediately at home to help move your child to the next level! –Rachel Amstutz @rachelamstutz

Parents should learn about what the teacher is doing to meet the needs of their individual student.  They should also learn how they can be supportive of their student at home. – Amanda Salveron @APACSalveron

Conferences can be a stressful event for parents.  Here are some final tips to help reduce anxiety as parents prepare for their conference:

• Ask your child if there is anything that s/he would like you to discuss with the teacher
• Jot down notes on what you would like to discuss at the conference
• Arrive promptly or a few minutes early
• Begin with positive comments about the teacher or classroom
• Be open-minded to suggestions from the teacher
• Take notes about what is discussed to share with your child
• Express appreciation for the conference
• Keep to the allotted amount of time

 

Thanks to my awesome PLN for providing great advice about parent-teacher conferences!

 

An ineffective way to look at teachers

Liz Bowie’s recent reporting on Maryland’s teacher evaluation system (Where ineffective teachers are found, November 2, 2014) raises many questions.  Bowie’s investigative report contains several quotes from Sandi Jacobs, the vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.  The NCTQ is a Washington think tank with a clear political agenda that is anti-teacher and highly critical of teacher education programs across the United States.  Their advisory committee includes Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, two former school system czars who share a dislike for teachers, principals, and their unions.

Jacobs questions the expertise of school leaders by suggesting that they are unwilling to have “difficult conversations” with ineffective teachers.  She implies that school leaders have not been trained to assess teachers and are not asked to be instructional leaders.  Bowie’s report ends by stating that economists believe that the percentage of ineffective teachers should be somewhere between 15–20 percent.

Liz Bowie’s article leaves the reader believing that Maryland’s teacher rating system is insufficient and that there are many ineffective teachers out there who are being rated higher than they deserve.  The article also suggests that Maryland principals are to blame.  While few educators or administrators believe that the current teacher evaluation system is perfect, many believe in the need for accountability.  Teachers and principals understand the focus on student performance and its connection to evaluation.

Several states have struggled to develop fair, value-added measures to quantify a profession that is part art and part science.  Maryland will continue to refine its teacher evaluation model and its school districts will adjust accordingly.  Hopefully, Maryland’s education system will never be run by economists.  I would be uneasy working in a state or school district that considers 15-20 percent an acceptable number for ineffective teachers.

Economists and meteorologists have similar records of success when it comes to forecasting. School leaders cannot afford to use guesswork when developing highly effective teachers.  They do not think about percentages, they think about people.  Great principals support and develop great teachers.  They also spend time counseling ineffective teachers out of the profession.  That alone accounts for the low percentage of ineffective teachers in the profession.

What percentage of ineffective teachers is acceptable?  The answer has to be zero.  Try the same question with other professions.  Air traffic controllers?  Physicians?  News reporters? Politicians? Police officers?  Rather than questioning whether three percent is too low, we should be working to make sure that no ineffective teacher ever stands in front of our children.

An edited version of this post appeared in the Baltimore Sun’s Readers Respond section on November 5, 2014, all rights reserved.

http://bsun.md/189vtrN

Isn’t it time for an elementary TOY, Maryland?

According to educationbug.org, there are 1,424 public schools in the state of Maryland.  More than half (866/60%) of those schools are elementary level.  With a little investigating at localschooldirectory.com one can discover that there are 33,000 elementary teachers (K-5) in Maryland and 24,544 secondary teachers.

The question I have is, if there are nearly ten thousand more elementary teachers in Maryland than secondary teachers, why has there only been one elementary level Maryland Teacher of the Year in the last eleven years?  This puzzling pattern is not just a state issue, but a local district issue as well.  I can’t remember the last time an elementary teacher won the county teacher of the year award in my district.

I am not suggesting that there is some kind of nefarious plot against elementary teachers, but there may be something as deeply disturbing afoot.  Have elementary teachers become the Rodney Dangerfield’s of education?  Is there a lack of respect for what elementary teachers do?  Are secondary teachers selected more often because they tend to specialize in specific content areas?  I have more questions than answers, but I am hoping that respect is not the reason.

I have great admiration for what middle and high school teachers accomplish every year.  They make an impact on the lives of students that often determines the direction they will take as young adults.  Yet, no one can tell me that their accomplishments are more meaningful or important than what elementary teachers do.

I get the sense that the people who sit on these selection committees think elementary teachers spend their days wiping noses and tying shoes.  While our teachers do those things gladly, they also provide innovative instruction in science, technology, reading, math and many other areas.  Elementary teachers form the foundation that middle schools and high schools build on.  Without that foundation, our educational system would crumble.

I am hopeful that selection committees across Maryland (and other states) will be diligent in evaluating candidates fairly.  Fairness starts with giving equal weight to the level that candidates represent.  Being a middle or high school teacher should not give one an advantage over elementary level candidates.  Perhaps members of the selection committees should spend a little time in an elementary school.  If they are brave enough to, it won’t be long before this conspicuous disparity is rectified.