New Commitments

Happy 2011!

It’s great that we’ve been blessed to see the beginning of another year! This is the time we normally set resolutions for the new year on things we’d like to do better or different. For educators, resolutions mean something else. We’ve already made a commitment to students at the beginning of the school year and we won’t abandon them. What this time offers us is a break/opportunity to disengage [for a moment] so we can re-engage and come back stronger.

This break offers a gift of reflection – an opportunity to examine our practices and philosophies to determine if we need to make changes for student learning. We place so much emphasis on resolutions because it’s a big deal to commit and then to change – and seeing long term changes makes a bigger impression. What would that change look like for you?
  • Committing to making regular contact to parents with the purpose of impacting a difference in student behavior and habits
  • Committing to changing a classroom practice that’s been routine for you but may not be in best interest for students
  • Committing to using a 2.0 tool that would be a stretch for you to learn/integrate but would really show kids the changing/shrinking world they live in
  • Committing to connecting to other educators and engaging in best practices dialogue
We wake up and put new efforts in place reach kids. This is a great time to look objectively at what we do and think and commit to doing better for the students!

Connecting with Kids – Listen Up Teachers/Dalton Sherman

The following was part of our faculty meeting on 12.8.10.

Our school was gifted with a set of books, ‘Listen Up, Teacher!’ I’d been toiling with what would make a great first book for a book study and this turned out to be a right-on-time gift.  It’s a great, quick read written by educators using students’ perspectives.  Below, I took several pages and just highlighted some key points. There are a lot of worthy points in this book and we can spend days on one chapter, but this was cool for idea generating and experience sharing:

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 We immediately launched into this great video presentation from a dynamic middle school presenter in Texas. He speaks better for himself than I ever could:
Our message that day was its not about me or you [Principal or Teacher], our talks and efforts have to be about the kids.
  • Do we believe in our kids? – Are we designing lessons to produce fantastic, bold students like Dalton Sherman?
  • Do you know your kids? – I shared some of my experiences growing up and asked the teachers if they knew which kids didn’t have heat yet? Which haven’t had new clothes in a while?

Dedicating our lives to teach kids means we will engage in a lifelong pursuit to better our skills but we can’t forget that we teach kids, not subjects.

Relevant Skills, Real-World Resources

While we had our final football game of the year [conference champs!] I noticed this young lady finishing her math homework. As most teachers do, I became intrigued by her attention and drive to finish. It appeared that she wasn’t really working that hard but more energy went into completing the task.  She had borrowed someone’s cell phone to get through this work.  From the picture, you can see this wasn’t a PDA or smartphone, but just a simple calculator tool on a regular flip phone.

I began a slight conversation with her and took this picture of the math topic.  The class was assigned 24 problems in all, the even problems for the section. Like most math textbooks, these sections were heavy with computation problems up front then a couple of higher level problems at the end. 

Seeing her work these problems reminds me of conversations with math teachers about their reluctance to allow students to use calculators for fear of building a dependence on calculators. We’ve all talked to math teachers about this topic and have heard the same rationales: ‘they won’t always have a calculator’; ‘how do they learn the basics?’

This was some great validation.  This young lady made some serious points to teachers who are looking and listening:
  • Relevant skills – [Specific to NC] Math End-of-Grade tests for 3-8 grades are 2/3 calculator active and 1/3 calculator inactive.  The curriculum is designed to assess skills other than the computation we were trained on and that we value so much. How rigorous would your work be if you gave a calculator for every homework assignment? What are you measuring?  Is your work based on the curriculum or the math skills you were taught to value?
  • Real-world Resources – 15 years ago the argument of calculators not being prevalent may have been worthy but today, that looks altogether different.  This young lady’s cell phone is nothing fancy but it serves her purpose. Let’s expand that a little – how many students do you have that own a cell phone with no service or with no regular service but use the other tools? We need to appreciate the 21st century resourcing available to our students and plan for it.
Last night was daylight’s saving time and my wife and I were laughing at the fact that we never touched a clock or device to set it back – automatic process. Our 16 year old daughter has NO expectation to update devices – Natives & Immigrants! 
We all have to adjust our thinking for new resources and none more critical than in our classrooms.

Instructional Walls: Archiving Key Instruction

     This year our school has committed to really honing in on and implementing what we consider impactful learning strategies. This goes beyond our ever developing and growing understanding of rigor, relationships and relevance.  These are all shared strategies and observances from visiting other classes and schools wherein educators are making a huge difference in student learning.
     The strategy featured here is instructional walls.  Transitioning language and beliefs from word walls to instructional walls has helped us describe in better detail the desired outcomes we’d like to see in teachers’ rooms.  We are all familiar with word walls. Commonly, we will post key vocabulary around the room after, or sometimes before, we’ve gone over it in class [can’t emphasize enough the importance of key vocabulary]. Instead of posting the words out of context, an instructional wall shows the key vocabulary in action.
     Below are some great examples of instructional walls in my school and around our district:

Slides 1-5: These were taken from a high school math teacher. Its evident that she teaches Geometry and Algebra, each section of the room is dedicated to a subject – it shows vocabulary, calculator strokes and formulas, key learning! [Check this teacher out]
Slides 6-12 – This room shows a clear progression of learning and how information is tied together. Look carefully and you’ll see some familiar information [Check this teacher out]
Slides 13&15 – These are from a science/reading teacher in my building. 13 is cool because its a growing bank of all year words for different categories. 15 shows a plot mountain that 7th and 8th grade are working on. The pictures I took of the student samples didn’t come out well but you can see the model from which they were completed here. [Check this teacher out]
Slide 14 – In house math teacher – cool archiving of essentials. [Check this teacher out]
Slides 16-17 – A math counterpart from across district. Great key information! [Check this teacher out]

Some key points to remember for all these teachers:

  • These facts are left up in the room for students to use and refer back to as needed, classroom work or tests. That’s the most important piece – availability for students.
  • This information grows as instruction progresses, organic development. This information is rebuilt every semester/school year as information is introduced.
  • Common planning and development – Slides 1-5 and 6-12 are from side by side classrooms. You can bet these teachers have some agreed upon curriculum priorities

    Please share out any great examples you’ve seen. We have a desire and need to get better for our kids!

Data for Differentiation

     I recently ran EVAAS Data reports for some of my teachers. EVAAS is North Carolina’s customized program that provides all kinds of data for teachers, schools and school systems. Data is a great conversation starter and this information helps teachers with planning, decision making and  forecasting areas of high need. I wanted to highlight a couple of areas we will be focusing on:

  • Data is validation that one size does not fit all! – The first report I ran predicts the probability of students passing NC EOG/EOC’s based on previous performance data. This is sortable from highest probability of passing to the lowest or vice-versa.  When examining the list, the question we have to keep in front of us is what are we doing to serve/help kids with different levels of need? Most of us understand that students with a 95% probability of passing an EOG need less support than a student with a 5% probability  of passing – but what are we doing to make this a reality.
  • It starts with a plan. In order for this to be evidenced in delivery impactful planning must take place. With this data in front of us at the beginning, we can forecast potential hurdles and really prepare for student needs. If we are truly committed to growth and/or passing scores on our end of grades tests, looking at this data and planning for different needs should be a non-negotiable.

     This does mean more work for us – but we didn’t get into teaching for us, we chose to become supermen/superwomen to make a difference in their lives.

Jedis vs Clones; Starfleet vs Borg – What Kind of Students are We Creating?


     We’ve started having regularly scheduled meetings with our new teachers as a way to provide some dedicated, singular-purposed support.  Our first meeting went great, we had a lot to share about anticipated and unanticipated joys and stressors.  As one of our new teachers was talking/reflecting on her first days everyone in group could see the light bulb flash over her head as she made the connection that the learning activities we create and deliver have a direct result on the type of interactions that occur in the class and the types of learners/future citizens we are helping shape. Her illumination was what we plan or [don’t plan] has a direct bearing on creating independent or dependent learners, risk takers or passive learners!
This was great! We began sharing out how creating dependent learners, passive learners, adds more work to the classroom teacher! We kept speaking of pushing more work back on the students – let the 11-13 year olds work tire themselves from the quality work we put together!  This was awesome sharing.
 After the meeting, I received some inspiration from one of my favorite teachers in the world [you can see him on my profile picture]. That’s what generated the connections below:

Jedis vs Clones
What kind of student/education warrior are you training? 
Think of your classroom:
  • Do you value receiving multiple viewpoints?
  • Are your activities set up to have more than one correct answer?
  • Is your instruction designed to create flexible, adaptable learners or is are you structuring assignments and assessments generate standard answers from ‘hunt and find’ answer generating?
Are you preparing them for your past classroom experiences or what they need to be successful in a changing educational environment or job market?
Are you training someone who can create and respond intelligently to different blogs or answer a set of static questions with multiple choice answers, worksheet or webpage?

I don’t want to open the door to an AWESOME discussion on one of the greatest teachers in history and how he differentiated his teachings to someone so strong with the force [or how someone with such broken English made some of the most profound teachings in our history] but I do want to stress that unless we are willing to differentiate, experiment and dive into instruction relevant to our students we are at risk of losing them or take an active role in causing them to fall behind.
Starfleet vs Borg Collective
What kind of classroom/school are you building? What does your learning environment value?
I shared with my new teachers that my first years in education was dedicated to building a middle school classroom VERY much like the ones I experienced – rows, Mad Minute multiplication drills, page-by-page instruction and a lot of me standing by the board or overhead working math problems [which I was great at but I don’t need the practice].  Exposure, great mentoring and risk taking led me to be a problem solver and start valuing problem solving in my classroom.

Think of our favorite Starfleet captain and the out-the-box-thinking he had to come up with to pass the Kobayashi Maru [link provided for those who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Trekdom]. Our efforts should focus on challenging and producing that same game-changing behavior. Thinkers are needed – we all place a high value on the individual and lateral thinking but what systems does our instititution/classrooms promote?

I’m excited for my new teachers, particularly when I hear and see their evolution unfold before me. When we left our talk, I immediately Tweeted the experience and got some great feedback from @magical teacher, @thenewtag, @teachingwithsoul and @tomaltepeter. This is ready evidence of the Power of the PLN! In addition to building a support network in this building and district, I am also committing myself to helping these new teachers build their own efficacy in their own PLN. #ntchat is great tool that I’ve only learned about recently dedicated to supporting and mentoring new teachers.
[I think by next step will be to invest in some posters]

What’s Best for Kids..,

     We’ve recently had our first principal’s meeting with our new superintendent, Dr. Dale Ellis. We heard a lot of great things about outlining our future efforts in reaching and teaching kids. As he talked about making a difference and the importance of good decision making, he spent a great deal of time speaking on ‘what’s best for kids is often not the easiest thing for teachers.’ This really captured some of great conversations I’ve recently had with veteran and new teachers.

     Bell to Bell Convenience [not so much] – Our efforts to design quality lessons for student learning won’t always be done between the opening and closing bells. Planning a quality unit, lesson or assessment won’t look the same every time and it can’t be a systematic or formulaic process. It will and should be different each and every time we sit down because we should be expecting different outcomes. Inspired planning isn’t on a schedule.

    Working out of your zone! – If we are truly designing learning for our students, we should see a significant shift of work from our end to the students’ end. ‘Parking lot planning’ is desperate and last minute – when we aren’t prepared we resort to it. It looks like generic work sheets and reflects the lowest of expectations, for our students and ourselves. We won’t prepare students for their world if we aren’t moving away from the safe and easy plans. It takes inspiration to start the race and determination to stay in it.

     We owe it to students to do more for their learning. Here are two things that will make a big difference.

     Big Picture Planning – We are a Learning Focused school district. There are several planning options from  designed to accelerate and/or support learning on all levels. Student Learning Maps are used outline the key learning concepts, organize them and provide a clear picture of what we want students to know at the end of the unit. Essential questions and Vocabulary are critical to this process. Identifying them won’t happen in the parking lot.

    PLN / PLC – Another killer to student learning and achievement has been solo planning. Don’t get me wrong, individually we can come up with some good, creative activities for students. But imagine how much more impactful our learning efforts can be if increase value added support from our colleagues.  Seeking out input from others could make the difference from having a teacher-centered lesson to a student centered one; a fact-finding reading assignment to an activity that requires analysis and evaluation.

     We signed up to become teachers to make a difference and be a difference for students.  We owe it to them to be the best educators we can, that will mean moving out of our comfort zone and gathering as much support as we can from each other.