Imagine a school full of kitchens

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I love having people over to my house. My motto with any get-together is: the more the merrier. In fact, Thanksgiving is now my favorite holiday simply because it is the holiday our family gets to host. My house is wonderful, nothing fancy nor overly big, and when you put 25+ people in the main living area, which includes our kitchen, it’s definitely cozy. I’m usually concerned about having enough food (though it never fails that there is usually enough for a second party) and the clean up is obnoxious (especially when scrubbing multiple NESCO roasters), but the conversation, laughter, and vibrancy of the atmosphere…well, it just doesn’t get any better! When it comes to gatherings, people generally come for the food, the kitchen is where the food is prepared, and, subsequently, where the magic lies.

A few weeks ago, I hosted a meet ‘n’ greet in the office for my staff because I am new to the building, and I wanted everyone to have an opportunity to meet me in person before we begin working together. I picked up coffee, juice, breakfast pastries*, and some fruit. I brought a folding table into the office, complete with school-colored plastic table cloths, to display the smorgasbord. There’s a counter that spans across the entire main office, that actually resembles a kitchen island. The area outside of that counter is probably about as big as a large modern kitchen (watch HGTV or This Old House and you’ll know what I mean), so when 2/3 to 3/4 of the staff showed up, there was an awesome buzz in the air, the room was loud, filled with laughter, and absolutely alive.

The variety of conversation was all over the board: sharing about summer trips, to-do lists for spouses or kids, and of course, when talking to me, the standard tell me about yourself small talk (which I am good at and know is necessary, but hate). The atmosphere, though entirely professional, felt more like a home than a workplace, and I realized that is what I want every day at school to feel like for every staff member and student. So as I think about the experiences I have had in my kitchen at home and that atmosphere of the summer meet and greet, I propose that classrooms and schools become a kitchen for learning using these guidelines:

  • Plan for the right amount of food (content) for the guests (students). Time guidelines for kids attention spans with direct instruction generally don’t go higher than 12-15 minutes at a time (for high school seniors)!
  • When prepping and executing the plans, use the right utensil for the right job. You can’t cut a steak with a drawer full of spoons nor can you engage kids with cookie-cutter instruction and packets of worksheets.
  • Make sure relationships are built so guests (teachers and students) don’t just feel like they belong to a community, but KNOW they are the community.
  • If guests are learning, don’t mind the noise or the mess. Time is a premium and if the room is in a groove, just go with it. Plus, you can clean things up later and someone stays behind to help.
  • Make learning exciting, fun, and full of stories that are not just entertaining, but contain lessons that impact students lives. This is where the authenticity is.
  • Along those lines, make sure there is content and experiences that have meaning and can be connected to outside the classroom. Application is key – again making learning authentic.
  • Like tasting a good dessert, everyone should leave wanting more, and salivating at the thought of what can be eaten (learned) next for “the unfed mind devours itself” (Gore Vidal).

Part of why I went into the education was because I was inspired by my high school choir director, Greg Carpenter, and the way he was able to create community, loyalty, and draw out meaning from the music for his students. One day, while discussing the meaning of a song, he posed the question, “How do you celebrate life?” The meaning behind this question (and the song) was pseudo carpe diem (Oh Captain, my captain!), and the notion of appreciating every moment we have together.  After 16 years, I still think about that question and now often ask myself: How can we celebrate school? Celebrate the work we do with kids? Celebrate the opportunities we have to connect and collaborate with the educators we see every day or on social media? How can celebrate each day in our classrooms and school like a we would in a warm, inviting kitchen surrounded by others?

*For the record I bought 4 dozen donuts and after 3 hours and 25+ people, had 33 left. Enough for another party!

Know your role..And teach lights out: Understanding evaluation standards for improvement

teach_learn-385x300Image from https://cctl.delhi.edu/

Like many other educators, I have always kept the essential question “What do I want students to know or be able to do?” in the forefront of the instructional decisions I make.  This is not uncommon, but what might be is the idea of whether or not educators (and leaders) really, truly, know their own criteria for what they should know or be able to do when it comes to the responsibilities of their profession.

Several years ago, Wisconsin rolled out its new Educator Effectiveness Model (evaluation tool), and as a teacher at the time, I still remember the confusing explanation of the ratios of rubric scores to objective setting and thinking, “Here we go again. The plane is still being built while already being flown.” At the time, there was concern about movement to pay for performance, teaching to a test, and the fear of a value-added model which, as most know by now, research says does little to improve student learning. My favorite study (of which the reference I cannot find) is one in which teachers in Tennessee were offered something like a $15,000 bonus if a certain percentage of their students attained benchmark/growth targets and not one teacher was able to collect. Of course, it wasn’t for lack of motivation or bad teaching, but there’s just so many variables when it comes to kids and learning. Perhaps this is best illustrated in Vollmer’s Blueberry story linked here.

What got lost in all this was the heart of the matter: let’s figure out a systematic way to give all teachers meaningful feedback and an opportunity to grow. When Wisconsin adopted their new model, schools began using one of two evaluation rubrics: Danielson’s Framework for Teaching or the “Goals and Roles Model” which is centered around Stronge’s Qualities of Effective Teachers, 2nd ed.

These are tools that I have gotten on board with because one of my personal beliefs is that the reason why school organizations, like Wisconsin’s,  needed to move to a more consistent, rigorous evaluation system was not because of ineffective teachers, but because of ineffective evaluators. If administrators had been getting into classrooms consistently looking for specific elements that impacted student success/learning and provided teachers with meaningful feedback for improvement, the ability to attack and argue about public schools employing “a bunch of bad, lazy teachers who can’t get fired because of tenure while the rest of the real world has it so much rougher” may not have come to exist. Imagine how different the landscape of education, teacher unions, collective bargaining, and health care (those Cadillac plans for public employees!) could look now, but I digress.

As I’ve evaluated and coached educators the last two years using the Danielson Framework, I have that rubric, and its expectations, burned into my brain. I also know that I would be a far better classroom teacher now than I was when I left the classroom because I know that rubric inside and out. In fact, some of the things that I know are great practices, I wish I could go back and try on a regular basis. Actually, what I really wish was that I had paid more attention to the rubric when I was being evaluated and focused on growing through that evaluative process. Perhaps some of that comes from having an administrator who is there to support you and help you grow in the classroom – which is what I strive to do for my staff every day. In the words of @Bethhouf and @Burgess_Shelley in Lead Like a Pirate,  it’s important to drop ANCHORs so teachers know they are valued, we, as leaders, add value to their work (through the evaluation and coaching process), and help push practice forward in the conversations we have with them about teaching and learning!

Every time I look at, or visualize, the descriptors in the teacher evaluation rubric, I get excited about the possibilities for teachers and students in the classroom. Check this out:

On Establishing a Culture for Learning:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 11.27.28 AMOn Communicating with Students:

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On Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques:

Screen Shot 2017-07-25 at 11.27.57 AMOn Engaging Students in learning:

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On Using Assessment in Instruction:

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If educators get just close to implementing these descriptors, that is the kind of classroom I would want to be in as a teacher OR a student, and as an administrator, a school full of classroom with those attributes excites me to the core. Format of evidence collection and evaluative systems aside, when we get to the heart of what we are trying to achieve as educators, the potential level of student learning and achievement is thrilling to think about and ABSOLUTELY attainable. We just need to have urgency and be intentional about what we do, but that all starts with knowing the criteria in the first place. We have our “why?” – to make schools engaging places for learning. Now we need to be sure to focus on the “what?” and our “how?”

Take time to get to know your evaluation rubric, and don’t just jump hoops, know your role (or evaluative standards) and teach lights out!

Stuck in the middle (of discipline) with you

A big part of my current leadership position includes student discipline. Yes, I’m the administrator who whenever I walk into a classroom, teachers ask, “Who do you need to speak to?” I’ve also been told, in jest, that I have the “not fun job at school,” and I’ve even joked that my position could be likened to “Dirty Harry” getting the short end of the stick on a job. I will grant that student discipline is a dirty job, BUT someone has to do it.

I am not scary or mean person, nor do I always need to speak to a student about a behavior despite having days when I have to do a lot of investigative work to construct an accurate picture of what really happened in a classroom. I love knowing that teachers and their work with students are supported each and every day through what I do with discipline. My mantra as a leader has always been “removing obstacles that inhibit learning in the classroom” and discipline is probably one of the most concrete ways to accomplish that.

Perhaps what I enjoy most about student discipline is that each referral is a new problem to solve, and after it is resolved, an opportunity for self reflection. I get to decide what approach to take (offer a carrot or bear the stick), if I am too lenient or stern when it comes to issuing consequences, or how I can make consequences meaningful. I have to choose my words carefully so I communicate to students what the appropriate behavior is and that students understand that even though they made a bad choice today, they are a still good person. We learn from it, don’t repeat it, and move on.

One of my favorite interview questions is the one that has to do with a teacher sends a student to your office, the student leaves with a smile on their face, and the teacher questions your method. Discipline isn’t about making kids cry and feel bad about themselves, it is making sure they don’t make the poor choice again and understand what to do better next time. It’s all about achieving positive results.

To borrow from Peter King king’s MMQB, here are the 10 things I think about discipline:

  1. The essential guiding question for discipline: How can we, as the adults in a situation, remove triggers that might cause students to act in an undesirable way or demonstrate negative behaviors? Start with this question and establish routines and procedures accordingly.
  2. Find ways to build relationships with students just as you did as a teacher. Students love when their principal plays games with them and shows interest in who they are. It gives you credibility, and students are generally more responsive to what you have to say if they do find themselves in your office.
  3. PBIS is awesome and proactivity is crucial. Clearly outline expectations from the start to set students up for success. We can’t assume they know how to behave in a given environment and they have to know that different environments call for different behaviors. Favorite analogy: They might both be musical performances, but I don’t act the same way at a rock concert as a I would a symphony.
  4. Biggest challenge with discipline at the administrative level = never experiencing what happened first hand. Move over C.S.I., I have to investigate just what happened to the missing lunch box in the kindergarten classroom.
  5. Most students will tell you they did nothing wrong and that they got in trouble for “doing nothing.” The teacher will explain what happened. I have to admit though, it is always impressive when a student can tell me exactly what happened while leaving out all the parts that implicate any blame on them.
  6. Natural consequences are highly effective. Picking up pea gravel on the playground, sweeping out a school bus, or wiping lunch tables are great deterrents for rocking throwing and making messes with food.
  7. If placing a call to a family about a discipline referral, and there is no answer or the voicemail box is full, send an email letting them briefly know what occurred. There is no reason for a parent to panic about a missed call from his or her child’s school.
  8. Contact families so they understand what happened before a student goes home that day. It’s an easy way to avoid a conversations with a concerned parent/guardian.
  9. Make sure families understand that you are there to help their child and believe that child is a good person. Parents always appreciate hearing something positive about their child (especially if their child is in the office frequently).
  10. Document, document, document. Keeping accurate, detailed records about discipline referrals can help you understand behavior patterns and respond more appropriate to student needs on an individual, classroom, and even the school level.

Stealers Wheel: Stuck in the Middle with you

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see it makes no sense at all
Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor?
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

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The Letter of the Day

Creativity and excitement about learning are so innate in children, so how or why is it that we, as educators (present company included), can do or say things – usually inadvertently – to stifle it?

Thanks to my two year old daughter, I have had Sesame Street’s “Letter of the Day” song stuck in my head for weeks. If you aren’t familiar, click here (Warning: It’s really catchy!).  For the record, when we hear the song in my house, the letter of the day is always “M” because we only watch one episode over and over again. The girl is 2 and she likes what she likes. (I’m sure parents can relate)

At the risk of sounding like an overly proud parent, I must preface this blog post that my daughter recognizes all of the letters of the alphabet, knows their sounds, reads them when she sees them, and is a very clever witty little girl. Because of this, she can and has  made a joke of the aforementioned “Letter of the Day” song. How?  Sometimes when my wife or I sing the song to get her to choose a letter and when we get to the part where it comes time to say that letter, she looks at us with a frighteningly deviant smile and yells “CRANBERRY” (which is then followed by hysterical laughter).

Why have I shared this? As I use my winter break to regenerate for the next part of the school year, I began thinking about that awesome learning innocence in children, my own included, and their willingness to take risks, experiment, or answer a question without fear of ridicule or rejection. In their minds, the possibilities of what an answer can be or what something can do is limitless. There is no worry about logic or reason, they just want to share what is on their mind, ask a question, or make (what they believe is) a really funny joke/play on words.

Unfortunately, as we grow older, the social acceptability of these healthy risk taking behaviors seems to diminish; however, the innocent love of learning and creative thinking should remain strong, and, as educators, it is important to do what we can to keep it that way by remember a few ideas. They are this:

Learning is collaborative. We learn from others. Though the “copy cat world” is discouraged, a variation on something someone says or does turns out to be revolutionary (beg, borrow, steal, right?). The wheel has really never been reinvented (still round), but the right tire treads make a difference on a snowy road.

Learning is messy/loud. When I taught general music, some of the very best learning activities for my students came from stations (workshop). I would have students creating patterns on tone bars, composing on keyboard instruments, reviewing fundamentals with percussion auxiliary, and learning theory through music games. There were days when a cacophony of sound would echo down the hallway and it was by most accounts, anything but musical. Students experimented, tried new things, succeeded and failed, revised ideas, got frustrated, asked endless questions, and when it came time for summative assessment at the end of the unit, they demonstrated the knowledge and skills and I had hoped they would acquire.

Great learning is organized chaos (and fun). With learning stations or any project based/group task, there is weeks of preparation training students on how to work in groups. There are hours spent designing supports that ensure students are able to manipulate resources so when they are in those stations, they can focus on the content and not just the tasks. The classroom environment itself will be respectful and conducive to learning, but despite all this, there will STILL be times when it will seem crazy because of the excitement about learning.

It’s tempting to tell kids to be careful, to tell them to be quiet down when they get loud (learning noise!), or to be nervous about them failing. Get over that. Often times, what a teacher thinks is a disaster (because it feels like chaos) is the best day for students because they were able to let loose and engage in an authentic learning process that was FUN.

Learning requires good feedback. This is key. I will say it again: This is key. How we set up the activity, outline criteria, and respond to our students when they have questions and working sets the tone for learning. Asking questions that require an explanation of thinking and help students arrive at an answer (even if it is wrong) without explicitly giving it away is important.

A student can’t just hear, “that’s good,” or “try agin, ” because those phrases don’t have context or meaning. Feedback has to be meaningful and specific so that it guides students through the learning process. Explain what is good and why it is good or why a student needs to try again. One of my favorite questions that I see on many math classroom walls/anchor charts is: Does your answer make sense? If a student is multiplying whole numbers and the product is smaller than the multiplicand and/or multiplier, clearly some re-thinking needs to occur. We learn through constant feedback. If something goes well, we continue on. If something goes poorly, we learn more through solving problems and trying new things.

So let me ask…

What are your “Letter of the Day” moments with your kids (students or children)?

What will you do next time when someone answers “CRANBERRY” and gives that overly complex answer (that might look like attention seeking in a classroom, but shows a lot of thought behind what is said).

What will you do to make sure you continue that natural flame for learning and spark creativity? Are you doing all you can, in action and words, to encourage and not stifle?

 

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Dance far away.
Now clap your hands.
To the letter of the day. Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap, clap, clap.
What’s the letter? (4X)
The letter of the day is…

 

 

No time…

There isn’t enough time. I have too much to do. Just one more thing to add to my plate. Sound familiar? The amount of time we have is never going to change, so the way we use it has to.

It isn’t hard to make a case that people are busy, time is at a premium, or that there are more demands on the education profession than ever. Comprehensive standards, state assessments, school accountability, new technologies, parent communication, and a greater understanding of how children learn all create a need for dynamic, differentiated instruction and high achievement. Not to mention progress monitoring, data analysis, meetings, team collaboration, grading, newsletters, endless email, and somewhere in all that, delivering the dynamic, differentiated instruction to students for 7.5 hours a day. I’m overwhelmed just reading about it! Well, actually I’m not.

This fall, I wrote an article for the school newsletter about PBIS and responsibility. In that article, I used the term stewardship and encouraged families to have conversations with their children about taking care of their possessions. As professionals, we also have a responsibility to be stewards of our resources including, one of the most precious (yes, you guessed it), TIME.

Time is a resource that, in reality, we can never have more of. We are stuck with 16-18 hours of wake time a day (because you should sleep for 6-8), students are only at school 7.5 hours a day, and we only have students in classrooms about 180 days a year. It’s a lot of time, but yet it isn’t very much. The truth is, the amount doesn’t matter, and it isn’t worth worrying about, because it’s all we have. Our focus shouldn’t be on how much or how little time we have for education, but how that time is spent on education.

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Spend it on your own well-being:

This fall, I met with teachers about their Personal Professional Growth (PPG) goals for the school year, which I enjoy because I love to hear about how teachers plan to better themselves so to have a bigger impact on students and achievement. In one of those meetings, a really good teacher told me that they wanted to focus their PPG on increasing their own happiness through relaxation, taking care of their body, sleeping more, worrying less, etc. Though my instant thought was, “How do we measure this as it relates to student achievement?” I couldn’t really argue with their rationale because a happy teacher at the top of their mental game is going to be exponentially more effective than one who is burnt out or run down. (For those of you wondering, the goal was approved, but revised to place emphasis on locating and implementing classroom strategies that contribute to a positive learning environment.)

Spend it on your students’ well-being:

Similarly, one of my teachers devoted a small portion of their remedial summer school session helping students center themselves through yoga. This teacher understood their students’ social-emotional needs, and those students raved about the yoga and how much better they felt at school. Now, there isn’t time to spend 20 minutes on yoga at school each day, but you can take 5-7 minutes here and there to allow students to hit the mental reset button. That time “lost” to a brain break or movement activity is going to be made up when students are focused for the next 20-30 minutes because of it. Give and take.

Time should also used to provide students opportunities to engage in class discussion about non-subject related content. A brief share about “favorite ice cream flavors” or “what’s worse: Barney or Teletubbies?” allows students to build deeper, more meaningful working relationships with you, and each other, in the classroom. If students feel like they belong to a community and see that their teacher is a person who REALLY cares about them, credibility and a cultured bond will make them eager to engage in discussion and learning.

Spend it efficiently…

It all comes down to evaluating the areas in our professional lives where we can use time efficiently and productively.  To do that, we start by asking the following questions:

What occupies the majority of our time during the day (when we are not with students)?

What are the things we really, truly worry about the most (because they are important)?

Hopefully those answers are the same, but chances are, they are not. I know when I was teaching, the time I spent planning rehearsals and on the podium directing my instrumental ensembles (most important!) was a small fraction of the job, and that always bothered me. Below are more questions we can ask about time efficiency, and if the initial answer to any of these is, “No,” then it might be time make some adjustments.

Are we using an appropriate method of communication professionally? Ah, email. So convenient, right? Send it when you want, and answer when you can. Honestly, I’m guilty of over-emailing at times. My school psychologist and I have offices that are 20 feet apart, and yet I catch myself having email conversations with her from our offices. After the 3rd exchange, I usually figure it out, and finish the conversation in person over the span of about 2 minutes. I type fast, but not as fast as I talk. “Old-fashioned” phone calls and actual face time can be much more efficient.

Sticking with technology, I find value in interacting with my PLN on Twitter and enjoy reading/viewing the #thatissofunnycuteinspiringandamazingIcantbelieveIdidntth inkofthatviralvideosgifspicturesongmyself as much as the next person, but in reality how often do we really need to check social media? You’re reading this blog right now (thank you by the way) and taking that time for yourself, but how many times have you done this today, and what could you be doing instead? Sadly adults now spend more time in front of screens than teenagers do.

…so it results in quality instruction

Are we planning dynamic instruction that targets multiple standards and engages students from the start?  Would it be better to focus on what we believed to be the 70-80% of grade level standards that are really important and worked to ensure students understood them on a really deep level instead of scrambling to gloss over every single one standard because the “curriculum said we had to?”

Do we take the time to really understand what students know at the beginning of a unit to avoid spending unnecessary time reviewing content or skills they already mastered? Are we creating assessments that really measure learning, or are we merely seeking a grade through menial tasks?

Are we properly managing resources in the classroom so time isn’t being wasted passing out papers or supplies? Better yet, are we teaching students to initiate the classroom routines and procedures so they take ownership of transitions and maximize time on task?

Are we assigning meaningful class/homework activities that allow students to share their learning outside of the classroom? Though developing the activities will take time, it’s going to create better results in the classroom,and take less time than making copies of worksheet packets, grading those worksheets, and probably disciplining students because they aren’t intellectually engaged in a lesson.

The questions go on and on, but if we aren’t constantly reflecting and asking ourselves, “Is there a better way?” we will always feel as though we don’t have enough time to get everything done.  Be a steward of time, and embrace the reality that it isn’t the amount, but the method in which time is utilized.

The Guess Who: No Time

(No time left for you)
On my way to better things
(No time left for you)
I’ll find myself some wings
(No time left for you)
Distant roads are calling me
(No time left for you)

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