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.

Giving Students Our B.E.S.T.

Every day is a gift with a child, no matter what problems you have.

-Carol Ann Duffy

Monday is the first day for students in our district.  How excited they must be!  Anticipation and hope well up in the hearts of children and parents on the eve of a new school year.  New clothes, new shoes, and fresh supplies make for a restless night of sleep.  Our families send their best to our schools and they deserve our best in return.  Giving our students the best means:

Being a safe place for children to learn, grow, and challenge themselves.

Establishing routines and expectations that promote active learning.

Showing a passion for learning that is contagious and enduring.

Taking the time to know students on a personal level; their likes, dislikes, fears, and strengths.

Great teachers and school leaders know that children learn best when they feel a connection to their school, their teacher, and their classmates.  These values are not found in state standards or in textbooks, but they are equally, if not more important.

Let’s make sure that we give our teachers the freedom to establish welcoming classrooms that value the individuality of every child.  Before we turn our focus to collecting data, let’s show students that we care deeply about the unique and amazing individuals they are.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

“Renewal requires opening yourself up to new ways of thinking and feeling”

-Deborah Day

Our teachers return to school next week.  They’ll spend the week preparing their rooms, getting to know new colleagues, and participating in many staff development opportunities.  Of course, they will be most excited to get ready for and meet their new students.  One of the greatest parts of working in education is the sense of renewal that comes with the start of the school year.  The excitement is palpable as custodians clean, teachers put names on desks, and grade level teams begin planning for instruction.

I am sure that other professions experience feelings of renewal, but in teaching we get that opportunity every year.  No matter how challenging the previous year was, we begin the new school year with high hopes, aspirations, and dreams.  As Deborah Day notes above, renewal only requires that we open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and feeling.  What an awesome notion!  All we have to do is consider the possibilities.

Once the possibilities are considered, human nature takes over and we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves.  If we were disorganized, we can become organized.  If we lacked energy, we can become more energetic.  If we were an average teacher, we can do better or even become great!  August and September are the times to consciously decide what the year will be like and then work for it.

Our students deserve teachers who re-commit themselves to their profession at the start of the school year.  Thankfully, I see teachers who do this with grace and consistency every year.  They welcome their new students with open and accepting arms, provide structure and support, and take them to places they have never been before.  They build independent learners who are self-sufficient in the pursuit of knowledge.

Let’s salute and celebrate the teachers who come back with a rejuvenated energy for the profession they love.  They are the ones who will make a difference in the lives of our students.  They are the ones who remind us of the value of renewal in teaching.

Redefining the Narrative: African American Students Find their Path to College

There is an excellent article in the Washington Post today written by Emma Brown (Traversing two D.C.s, from Dunbar High to Georgetown University).  It highlights the experiences of two former Dunbar (D.C.) High School graduates and former class valedictorians.  The article is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the challenges that African American students face when they venture into the world of higher education.

Johnathan Carrington and Sharnita James want a chance to excel in life.  They grew up in neighborhoods and went to schools that provided the best education possible.  It wasn’t enough.  College was a wake-up call for Johnathan and Sharnita who shared the challenges they faced in transitioning to Georgetown University and the University of Delaware, respectively.

The inspiring aspect of their stories is that, despite the odds, they are succeeding in college (Sharnita graduated) and have bright futures ahead of them.  Their stories remind us that minority students can write their own personal life narrative.  They can define who they are despite how society might see them.

What can educators learn from their stories?  Urban students shouldn’t have to make the higher education journey alone.  As strong-willed as they both seem, Sharnita and Johnathan shouldn’t have to maneuver the complex environment of college unaided.  Georgetown University recognizes that and seems to have supports in place.

There were two important quotes in Brown’s story that stuck with me:

“My mind-set was, no matter what, I’m going to graduate.” (Sharnita James)

“I realized I have to take initiative in some things. I have to make Georgetown cater to me. I have to find my path.” (Johnathan Carrington)

Such wisdom from growing young minds!  How can we NOT support students when they demonstrate an unfailing desire to succeed?  Dunbar High School must be incredibly proud of their former valedictorians.  Maybe one day Johnathan and Sharnita’s success stories will be the norm, rather than the exception.  One can hope.

The Mad Rush

The middle of May signals the start of the “mad rush” toward the last day of school.  Students, teachers, parents, and administrators are faced with fitting in all of the things that need to be done between now and the final school day.  This can be exciting and overwhelming at the same time.  Here are a few quick tips for each group that may make the coming days a little less stressful.

Students

-provide students with consistency over the final weeks
-lower their stress levels by giving them advance notice of what’s coming up
-reassure them that by the last day of school they will be ready for the next grade
-provide some closing activities that allow them to reflect on their year
-have them write letters to next year’s students giving them advice for success

Teachers

-have a clear plan for what will be taught until the last day of school
-organize your days so that you’re not left with a mountain of paperwork at the end
-start consolidating your materials and planning for next year
-take some time to reflect with your grade level on all of the successes you’ve had
-brainstorm with colleagues about how you can improve specific areas next year
-start making summer plans, it goes quickly, so make sure fun is included

Parents

-remind your child that while summer is on their mind, there is much work to be done
-keep your child’s morning and evening routines consistent
-tell your child how proud you are of their accomplishments
-plan a summer that includes fun learning opportunities
-find ways to support the school over the final weeks (volunteer, field trips etc.)

Administrators

-be an example of “calm and reason,” even if your head is spinning from all that has to be done
-provide your students and staff with a structure that keeps routines in place
-stay focused on students, even when other tasks may pull you away
-start planning for the summer and next year, both personally and professionally
-tell your students and staff how much they are appreciated before they head off

If everyone works together, the year can only end on a positive note.  Take satisfaction in knowing that your students and staff made significant growth this year.  The great part of being an educator is that you get to do it all again next year.  Just take a deep breath before you start thinking about that.

Twenty-four Things Successful Schools Do

In 2007, Karin Chenoweth (@karinchenoweth) wrote a book titled It’s Being Done.  Her work highlights numerous schools that are successful with diverse student populations.  These schools prove that all students can learn when principals and teachers maintain high expectations and a commitment to the needs of each and every child.

Through a compelling narrative, Chenoweth identified 24 things that successful schools do to meet the needs of all students.  How does your school measure up?

  1. They don’t teach to the test.
  2. They have high expectations for all students.
  3. They know what the stakes are.
  4. They embrace and use data.
  5. They use data to focus on specific students, not just groups.
  6. They constantly reexamine what they do.
  7. They embrace accountability.
  8. They make decisions based on what is good for students.
  9. They use school time wisely.
  10. They leverage community resources.
  11. They expand the time students have in school.
  12. Discipline isn’t about punishment.
  13. They foster an atmosphere of respect.
  14. They like children.
  15. They make sure that students who struggle the most have the best instruction.
  16. Principals are a constant presence.
  17. Principals are not the only leaders.
  18. They pay attention to teacher quality.
  19. Teachers have time to meet and plan collaboratively.
  20. Teachers observe each other.
  21. Professional development is valued.
  22. They train and acculturate new teachers with great thought and purpose.
  23. Office and building staff consider themselves part of the educational mission.
  24. They are nice places to work.

In this era of accountability, the noise created by school reform shouldn’t drown out the important work that is being done in schools across America.  Is your school a nice place to work?  It’s such a simple question, yet it speaks to our priorities.  Can you imagine how great our schools would be if we tried our best to address the 24 practices above?  Luckily, Chenoweth’s book shows us that we don’t have to use our imagination…it’s being done.

Book Review-The School Improvement Planning Handbook

The School Improvement Planning Handbook:  Getting Focused for Turnaround and Transition. Daniel L. Duke, Marsha Carr, and William Sterrett. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013, 287 pages.

The school improvement process can seem daunting to even the most seasoned administrator.  Many school districts are focusing on turning struggling schools toward increased achievement.  However, deciding where to start, what to include, and how to address the needs of a school community remains extremely challenging.

So, how should school leaders approach the improvement process and how do we turn schools around? The authors of The School Improvement Planning Handbook provide readers with a framework for developing specific strategies that may pave the way for success.

The authors offer a structured approach to targeting the key elements in a school improvement plan. They note that, “[s]uccessful school improvement plans are not merely the private product of savvy principals. They are the result of a number of carefully executed steps, a good deal of teamwork, and lots of open and honest reflection.”

While the book is much more than a “handbook,” its handbook format makes it very user-friendly. Section one takes the reader through the seven steps to good planning, assists school leaders in finding their focus, and offers suggestions on how to avoid the many pitfalls faced by school improvement planners. Section two uses several scenarios to demonstrate how school leaders can use research-based strategies to focus on challenges in reading, math, school culture, teacher performance, ELL students, at-risk students, attendance, and the achievement gap. The third and final section takes a more in-depth look at comprehensive school reform. The authors provide guidance on effective turnaround planning, sustaining improvement, and reaching the ultimate goal of educational excellence.

The School Improvement Planning Handbook is ideal for principals looking to invigorate the improvement process, or for any school leader interested in developing a “living” school improvement plan. New principals should find the seven-step process described in section one as an excellent guide for structuring a comprehensive plan. The authors intended their book to be “a practical book for practitioners.” Their focus on real-life examples and research-based best practices makes it just that.

This article, written by Christopher Wooleyhand, was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Principal magazine. Copyright 2014 National Association of Elementary School Principals. All Rights Reserved.

https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/Wooleyhand_MA14.pdf

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.

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:

http://christopherwooleyhand.edublogs.org/2013/11/10/extending-the-edcamp-philosophy-to-school-based-pd/

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.

-L-

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.

-O-

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.

-V-

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.

-E-

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?