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.

Summer Renewal

Summer offers educators the chance to, as Stephen Covey taught us, sharpen the saw.  Covey touted the need for balance in our physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual lives.  When all four dimensions are balanced, the result is personal and professional synergy.  The sum of synergistic living is always greater than its parts.  When all four dimensions are attended to, everything falls into place.

The modern educator can easily be overwhelmed by the challenges of teaching in the 21st century.  If we don’t take the time to renew ourselves on a personal and professional level, we won’t be effective in supporting the growth of our students.  The greatest gift of being an educator is that every school year starts anew.

What will you do to sharpen your saw this summer?  What books will you read for personal and professional pleasure?  I’ve included some links below to potential summer reading lists.  Here are responses to those questions from a few colleagues and PLN members:

I am planning on reading, Falling In Love With Close Reading as well as articles etc. on arts integration since we are in the exploratory stages.  I’ll be sharpening the saw at the beach as much as possible.

-Donna Usewick, @dsusewick

For recreational reading, I hope to read The English Girl by Daniel Silva and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  For professional reading, I plan to read Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen.  I am traveling to Ireland as soon as school is out and taking a short trip to St. Michael’s, Maryland at the end of July for some golf.  I hope to get some more golf in on the Fridays that schools are closed.  I am also attending the NAESP conference in Nashville this July.

-Theresa Zablonski, @tzablonski

I will be reading The Homework Myth by Alfie Cohn, Positive Discipline by Nelsen, as well as Sue O’Connell’s book on math practices.  This summer, I plan to reflect on the school year and think about each aspect of our school and how to make improvements.  For myself, I will spend time with my family and hit the beach!

-Cheryl Cox, @CoxCherylcox628

The Ultimate Summer Reading List for Teachers via Scholastic:

http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/ultimate-summer-reading-list-teachers

The best books about educational leadership via Amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Best-Books-About-Educational-Leadership/lm/R1TJOMF4RU830V

Top Ten School Leadership Books via @AngelaMaiers:

http://www.angelamaiers.com/2010/06/top-10-school-leadership-books.html

Eternally Optimistic

June marks the end of my 27th year as an educator, twelve years as a teacher and fifteen as an administrator.  Even with all of those years behind me, I remain highly optimistic about the importance and impact of public education.  This optimism comes from the gift of seeing children grow every day and every school year.

It is humbling and inspiring to watch a kindergarten child go from learning to recognize the letters of the alphabet to reading grade level passages in a 10 month time span.  As our fifth graders prepare for middle school, I think about how much progress they have made during their time in elementary school.

How can one not be positive when they have the opportunity to observe first-hand all of the great things that happen in an elementary school?  I wish public school reformers and critics had the chance to see the miracles that teachers perform on a daily basis.  Educators bear all of the responsibility and rarely get the credit they deserve for the incredible job they do.  With that in mind, here is my summer wish list for teachers:

  • rest
  • family time
  • a good book (of your choosing)
  • time in the sun with your feet in the sand
  • a roller coaster ride
  • peace and quiet
  • a long walk with someone special
  • a foot massage from a professional
  • an out-of-town trip
  • a good meal cooked by someone else
  • _____________________________(add your own)

Teachers need the summer to rejuvenate and prepare for the next school year.  If you see a teacher over the summer, smile and say hello, but don’t ask them if they enjoy having their summers off.  We know they are never really “off” of work.  Tell them how much you appreciate what they do, then let them rejuvenate in peace.

What Data Should We Use?

School leaders and teachers have been besieged by national and local experts who emphasize the need to make “data-driven decisions.”  Check the agenda for any educational conference and you will likely find the term “data-driven decision making” in the description of several speakers’ sessions.  The term data-driven is a catchphrase of educational jargon that is gradually losing its meaning.  Like a song that has been over-played on the radio, the concept of data-driven decision making is losing its momentum and “listeners” are beginning to tune out.

How do we re-invigorate the discussion around the meaningful use of data in our schools?  Let’s start by broadening the definition of “data.”  What comes to mind when someone suggests an examination of school data?   Can we get beyond the obvious data sources and consider non-traditional data points that may be greater indicators of student success?  Here are a few thoughts that may broaden our definition of data:

Attendance– It’s really simple; students who attend school regularly do better than students who don’t.  What does your attendance data look like and what do you do when students don’t come to school?

Survey teachers– Ask your teachers what they see and what they need to be better at what they do.  You can save a lot of time by valuing the instincts of your teachers.

Interview students– Ask your students what they like, what they want, and how they like to learn.  Just be prepared for their answers.

Observe instruction– Another obvious data point.  What patterns (positive and negative) exist within and between grade levels?  How can we support teachers in the “nuts and bolts” of teaching?

Teacher expertise– How can we develop teachers on an individual level?  Can we differentiate their professional development in the same spirit that we expect them to differentiate instruction for their students?

Grades– Are grading practices aligned with instruction?  Are we examining progress toward the standards to refine our teaching?

Work samples/portfolios– Tests are not the only indicator of student success.  Can students retain and apply what they have learned and does it show in their daily work?  What does student work look like over time?  Is measuring growth still relevant?

Data-driven decisions should not be limited by examining only formative and summative assessments over the course of a school year.  Anecdotal and observational data are just as relevant when assessing student and teacher success.  Ultimately, an emphasis on a variety of data sources will provide a clearer picture of student performance.  Then you can get to work on what to do.

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.

14 Ways to Promote Culturally Responsive Teaching

The Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo, commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla.  While it is a holiday that many Americans enjoy, it also inadvertently reinforces cultural stereotypes.  Let’s take the opportunity this Cinco de Mayo to think about how we can foster culturally responsive teaching in our schools and classrooms.

Eileen Whelan Ariza, author of Not for ESOL Teachers, shares the following culturally responsive teaching strategies that are based on recommendations from Brown University’s Education Alliance for Culturally Responsive Teaching:

  1. Get to know the culture of your students.
  2. Try to make home visits.
  3. Attend neighborhood and local cultural events.
  4. Use inquiry-based teaching that is culturally relevant.
  5. Scaffold for students by activating prior knowledge.
  6. Call on students regardless of English proficiency, modify your questioning strategies.
  7. Integrate multicultural views into daily instruction.
  8. Learn about diverse learning and teaching styles and culturally appropriate behaviors.
  9. Incorporate the students’ native language within class learning situations.
  10. Seek to understand parents of English learners.
  11. Use a variety of learning strategies and have high expectations for all students.
  12. Use cooperative and collaborative learning on a regular basis
  13. Aim to increase academic language proficiency, orally and in writing.
  14. Be conscious of your own ethnocentric attitudes.

Effective strategies for English learners are effective strategies for all students.  While it is impossible to be fully aware of all of the nuances associated with every culture, it is possible to care about how culture impacts teaching and learning.  Culturally responsive teachers have a natural interest in the lives of their students.  They use this interest to motivate students toward success.

Culturally responsive teachers recognize that stereotypes don’t define the children they teach.  While they recognize that stereotypes exist, they strive to learn more about the culture of their students in order to dispel the myths and clarify reality.  As with any school, or classroom, great teaching is about relationships.

So, feel free to enjoy and celebrate Cinco de Mayo today.  Just don’t forget that it’s only one small part of Mexican culture.  Maybe you can celebrate by asking your students to share a few others.

Five Thoughts for Teachers Heading Into the Final Stretch

The spring holiday break is over for most of us now.  June will be here before you know it.  As you prepare for the remaining days of the school year, here are five things to consider when planning for instruction.

1.  Revisit Your Expectations

The final weeks of the school year can be the most challenging.  Treat the next week like the first week of school.  Have an honest discussion with students about classroom routines, behaviors, and procedures.  Make it fun and collaborative and you will be able to quickly get back into the flow.

2.  Check the Standards

Spend some time with your grade level teammates looking at the progress that your students have made toward the standards.  Much can be done and much progress can be made by students over the last quarter of the year.  Look at the formative and summative data that you have collected.  Are there instructional trends that will impact how and what you teach?  Don’t forget to speak with any and all resource teachers for support and ideas.

3.  Make a Plan

Once you have identified the instructional areas that you need to focus on, make a plan that will take you through the end of the year.  That plan should include student-specific and content-specific goals.  It is also a good idea to talk with teachers in the next grade up.  If you’re a second grade teacher, ask the third grade teachers what skills their students need to be successful next year.

4.  Set Your Students Free

No, I am not suggesting a free-for-all, but the final weeks of the school year are a great opportunity to shift the focus to student-owned learning.  Getting students actively involved in the learning process reduces many of the negative behaviors we see in the latter part of the year.  Let the students do the teaching, capitalize on their creativity, go outside for some hands-on learning, find as many ways as you can to promote “student talk” over “teacher talk.”

5.  Have Fun

Maya Angelou said it best, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What have you done, or will you do, that your students will remember for years to come?  If you don’t have an answer, that’s okay. You have plenty of time left.  Plan a fun field trip, invite a guest speaker in, collaborate on an activity with a colleague in another grade.  Ask your students what they’d like to do.  You’re sure to get some creative answers.  Sometimes it’s the simplest things that help students remember how you made them feel.  Good luck!

Meet Kelly Reider, English Language Leader

reiderk

Kelly Reider will guest host #mdeschat this Thursday, April 3rd at 9PM EST.  She is the Coordinator for English Language Acquisition and the International Student Services Office for Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland.  Kelly is passionate about supporting schools in their efforts at meeting the needs of English learners.  We sat down with her for a Q&A on current issues impacting the ESL field.

Tell us about yourself.

This is the start of my 21st year in education.  I have two teenage sons, an 8th grader and a high school senior!  Our office is responsible for registering international students, screening students for English language services, writing curriculum, and providing professional development.  In addition, we supervise English Language Acquisition teachers, conduct local and state language assessments, and coordinate interpretation and translation services.  Prior to AACPS, I taught in Onslow County, North Carolina as well as Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, Maryland.  I’ve been an ESL teacher, elementary classroom teacher, professional development specialist, and elementary assistant principal along the way.

The English language acquisition field comes with a plethora of acronyms (ESOL, ESL, ELA, TESL, TSOL, ELL etc.).  Can you clarify some of the terms and let our readers know which are politically correct?  

We certainly like our share of acronyms!  ESOL and ESL are used pretty interchangeably.  Both refer to instructional programs for English learners.  When you add the “T”, this usually means “teachers” and refers to the professional groups.  English language acquisition (ELA) and English language development (ELD) can refer to instructional programs, but they also refer to the field of research and science behind the process of acquiring/developing language.  English learner (EL) is the most current term used to refer to the student.  Many still use English language learner (ELL) as well.  R-ELL/R-EL refer to “re-classified” students who have exited the instructional program and are monitored for two years.  No English Proficiency (NEP) is a dated acronym that is not used very often these days.

What is the role of the ELA teacher in your district?

We have been working for the past two years to redefine the role of the ELA teacher.  In the past, ELA (then ESOL for us) teachers functioned more as an instructional support.  The ELA teacher is now expected to take on the role of a language acquisition teacher who has the primary responsibility of delivering and assessing the ELA approved curricula.  ELA is a content area, just like science, math and language arts.  Our ELA teachers are also expected to be language development experts who are a resource for the language development for ALL students.

What are some of the challenges that a large district faces in meeting the needs of English language learners?

Most school systems struggle with the allocation of staffing and other resources across a variety of programs and initiatives.  As our English learner enrollment continues to grow quickly (approximately 40% over the past 4 years), we have not been able to maintain a student-teacher ratio that can meet the wide variety of educational needs of our students.  We continuously work to improve our curricula and pedagogy to make the best use of every minute we have to teach students.

Over the past year, our system has experienced a sizeable increase in the number of English learners enrolling with significantly interrupted formal education and limited native language literacy.  The number of students over 16 years old enrolling as 9th graders has more than tripled in the past 4 years. Many of these students enter school with limited academic background.  Many are arriving as unaccompanied minors who are also working to support themselves while attending school. Balancing the various needs of students, graduation requirements, mandated assessments, and the social-emotional arena can be quite overwhelming for schools.

Equally important is the need to build every teacher’s capacity for providing the best instruction for English learners.  Language development needs to take place all day, every day in order for us to close the academic language gap.  Coordinating language development with the other district initiatives competing for teachers’ time and attention is an ongoing challenge.  We are continually looking for new ways to provide professional development to as many teachers as possible.  It is important that every teacher is prepared to differentiate for language and make content accessible to all students.

What instructional tips do you have for classroom teachers with ELL students?

Many teachers are uncomfortable with newcomers and feel helpless when the student does not understand any English.  Just remember this is temporary.  The most important thing is to include the students and insist that they remain engaged and involved.  Language is developed through listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  While students may need a bit of time to watch and take things in, it is important for the student to be engaged and active.  Using visuals, providing organizers, restating in simplified language, and hands-on learning are all helpful.  I encourage all teachers to use their English language acquisition teacher as a resource to review the students’ language proficiency data and discuss what are appropriate developmental expectations and goals.

Is there one book you would suggest we read to better understand the important issues in English language acquisition?

There are quite a few depending on the topic – cultural awareness, instruction, language development…..  The best I’ve found for practical instruction is “Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners – A Guide for K-12 Teachers” by Shelley Fairbain and Stephaney Jones-Vo.  This book looks at instruction by proficiency levels in a very practical way.

Thanks, Kelly!  We appreciate your efforts in supporting schools with their English learner needs.  Kelly can be followed on Twitter @reiderkelly.

Five Steps to Expanding Your PLN on Twitter

1.      First you have to join.

Obviously, joining Twitter is the first step towards expanding your personal/professional learning network (PLN).  What’s not so obvious, however, is that “how” you start is also important.  Don’t be an egg.  Put a picture in your profile.  Avatars are fine, but educators like to see the actual person they might follow, so take a deep breath and choose a picture you like.  Tell us a little bit about yourself in your profile.  Who are you?  What are your passions?  Why are you on Twitter?  A good picture and a nice profile are enough for the average tweep (Twitter user) who’s trying to decide who to follow.

2.     Follow People

Twitter is ultimately about having conversations.  In order to have conversations, you have to follow people.  One of the slightly annoying things about signing up for Twitter is that it automatically directs you to follow people.  Bypass that part and follow people when you are ready.  Most people start out following people they know.  That’s natural because you already have a rapport and comfort level with people you know.  The value of Twitter, however, is how it can connect you to people all over the world.

A good goal for someone new to Twitter is to follow 100 people.  Follow people who follow people you respect.  It’s okay if you don’t know them.  Also, follow people back.  Your “follower” to “following” ratio should be close to 1:1.  People who only follow back a small percentage of their followers aren’t truly interested in a conversation.  There are some strange folks out there, however, so don’t feel obligated to follow back everyone.

3.     Tweet and Re-tweet

If you don’t tweet are you really on Twitter?  Sure, Twitter can be used as a one way tool to gain information, but everyone has something they can share.  If you aren’t ready to send an “original” tweet, then just retweet the stuff you like.  The more you retweet, the more likely you are to meet new people.  It’s like starting the first conversation at a cocktail party.  Once you start tweeting regularly you’ll begin to see the value of Twitter as a learning tool.

4.     Lurk in a Chat

Twitter chats are amazing opportunities to learn from your PLN.  Most folks who are new to Twitter will find chats to be a little overwhelming and fast-moving.  Start out by lurking in a chat.  Go under the hashtag (#) for any chat you’re interested in and just follow the conversation.

For a list of educational chats see this link:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AiftIdjCeWSXdDRLRzNsVktUUGJpRWJhdUlWLS1Genc#gid=0

5.     Participate in a Chat

When you’re ready, join in on a chat.  Remember to include the hashtag in your tweet, otherwise only those who follow you will be able to read it.  Twitter chats almost always lead to more followers.  They are great ways to connect with people who share similar interests.  Many chats use a Q1-A1 format.  This means the moderator numbers their questions.  When you respond, use the letter “A” and the corresponding question number.  For example:

Q1.  How has Twitter expanded your learning? #mdeschat
A1.  By connecting me with great educators all over the globe. #mdeschat

Why Twitter?

Twitter helps you find your professional voice.  By sharing your views, and listening to others, you begin to develop a coherent professional voice.  You gain confidence in yourself and refine your views.  Most of us work hard all day, but we rarely find the time to discuss our craft with others.  Educators on Twitter are very supportive of their PLN colleagues.  The greatest value of Twitter is that it broadens your professional knowledge for free!  Who wouldn’t want to have access to some of the greatest minds in their profession?  Go out and find them on Twitter.  You won’t be disappointed.

Any discussion on Twitter would be incomplete without referring to one of the greatest sources of information for educators.  Visit Cybraryman’s Twitter page for all of the information you’ll ever need:

http://www.cybraryman.com/twitter.html