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.

Retreating to the Chesapeake Bay

“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest- but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”

Richard Louv
Last Child in the Woods

I had the pleasure of spending three days last week on a principals’ retreat sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  We gathered at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Maryland for introductions and orientation prior to boarding a CBF vessel for Tangier Island, Virginia.  Our three days were filled with exploration, discovery, and hands-on learning; the kind of teaching and learning that all children and adults should be exposed to.

The CBF principals’ program promotes using environmental education to boost academic achievement and get students involved in improving their community.  It offers participants a chance to network with other principals, to share ideas, and to learn from each other in a truly unique setting.

We canoed, scraped for soft crabs, set out and pulled in crab pots, visited the Tangier Combined School, fished, progged (beach combed) and ate local fare.  Maryland elementary, middle, and high school principals from Harford, Anne Arundel and Montgomery County participated.  It was obvious that each shared a passion for being outdoors and, most importantly, for involving their students and teachers in learning that promotes the value of environmental education.

One of the outcomes of the experience is that the participants develop an environmental education action plan.  Each principal creates a plan to pay their learning forward.  This aspect of the principals’ retreat has led to many schools in Maryland expanding environmental education opportunities for students.  Several of the principals are spreading the word to their districts on the benefits of getting their students outside.

Why does any of this matter?  It matters because we are raising a generation of students who spend little to no time in the outdoors.  While research supports the benefits of environmental education on learning, our motivation should be simpler.  We need to get our children outside because it’s good for them.  It makes them well-rounded individuals.  It makes all of us better people.  Don’t let this generation miss out on the value of knowing the woods or lying in a field listening to the wind and looking at the clouds.

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.

Strategic Planning in Schools

The strategic planning process begins in the spring for many schools.  It can be challenging for school leadership teams to shift their thinking from closing out the current year to preparing for the next.  In April, I reviewed The School Improvement Planning Handbook by Duke, Carr, and Sterrett.  Their seven-step plan for developing and implementing school improvement plans is a good place to start.  They recommend the following steps:

  1. Data gathering- use multiple sources, anecdotal, formative, and summative
  2. Diagnosing- examine the data to pinpoint concerns
  3. Assessing context, constraints, and capacity- what factors will impact your efforts?
  4. Focusing- decide your focus, align your goals, and provide a rationale
  5. Determining strategies- what will you do and how will you measure it?
  6. Developing the plan- what resources will you need and how will you fit it all in?
  7. Managing and monitoring the plan- when will you review your plan’s success?

Whether you follow these steps exactly, or modify them to meet your needs, the strategic planning process requires great thought by school leadership teams.  More than likely, your plan will be a combination of continuing some practices, deleting some, and strengthening others.  Arguably, the most important aspect of strategic planning is that it is done collaboratively.  The likelihood for success rises when strategic planning is a shared practice.

I asked several of my principal colleagues to share how they begin the strategic planning process in their schools.  Here is what they said:

We are in the process of looking at the work each grade level has done related to the school improvement plan.  We are determining the next level of work for each grade level and for individual teachers by examining progress over time through the lens of the action steps selected as an area of focus.  We will work vertically to determine grade level and school “next steps” based on commonalities of student “data,” student work samples, and teacher needs.  
Walter Reap (@WalterReap)

I am currently planning an all-day school improvement team meeting with 20 staff members.  We will examine all the data we have:  math, reading, behavior, walk-throughs, observations, science, social studies, writing and work together to begin identifying priorities.  We will then work through the action steps.  We used our last SIT meeting to have teams discuss the current plan and assess where we are and modifications that need to be made.
Cheryl Cox (@CoxCherylcox628)

I sit with my leadership team to analyze data and determine how we are doing with current goals and establish 2 or 3 big rocks for future goals.  Then, with the SIT, we look to see how these rocks can be monitored through daily classroom instructional practice.
Jeffery S. Haynie (@crazydukie)

We’re looking at where we want to be this time next year and how we are going to get there.
Pat Keffer (@psikeffer)

We have been reviewing and analyzing data throughout the year to identify areas in need of growth and successes.  We have used administrative walk-throughs to collect data to make decisions about the next school year.  We look at the positive growth areas so we can expand on them as well as areas of needed improvement.  Our leadership team determined a need for more collaborative planning and team teaching.  I also find opportunities to talk with my colleagues about what they are doing at their schools.  There is power in collaboration and much to be learned from other principals. 
Sue Myers (@SueMyers1984)

As Sue Myers suggests above, collaboration among principals in a district supports the strategic planning process.  It is a model that easily translates to the school level.  When everyone contributes to the instructional vision of the school, only good things can happen!

Will Fed Guidance on Charter Schools Bring Change?

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued a letter of guidance last week to charter schools (see link below).  While supportive in tone, it laid out clear expectations regarding the application of civil rights laws in charter schools.  This is good news for all schools.  Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Catherine E. Lhamon’s letter suggests that a new level of transparency needs to be practiced by charter schools.

Charter schools have been criticized for many of their dubious practices.  The OCR letter, thankfully, addresses these concerns.  The letter included guidance in the following areas:

  • charter schools are expected to know and understand Federal civil rights laws
  • admissions procedures may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or disability
  • special education students cannot be excluded
  • once admitted, students with disabilities must be provided FAPE (free appropriate public education)
  • charter schools cannot ask students to waive their rights to FAPE
  • English learners must be provided the same meaningful access to admissions information
  • English learners must be provided with effective language instruction
  • charter schools must operate under local desegregation plans
  • discipline policies and enforcement must be free of discriminatory practices

It is reasonable to expect that charter schools operate under the same rules as public schools as they are funded by the public using a per-pupil expenditure formula.  The rush into the public charter business led to violations by many of these eager start-ups.  While some charter schools have been touted for their innovative practices, many of them have been operating outside the guidelines addressed in the OCR letter.

Why should anyone care about how public charter schools operate?  They should care because charter schools have been siphoning away students from their home schools and eroding communities across the country.  They have become quasi private schools by selectively choosing who gets in and who doesn’t.

The OCR’s letter is a starting point for holding public charter schools to the same expectations as all other public schools.  Enforcing civil rights laws will be another question.  Let’s hope the OCR monitors the performance of public charter schools and takes action when necessary.

http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201405-charter.pdf

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.