Monthly Archives: March 2013

Stop. Observe. Analyze. Reflect. Recharge. Regroup. Repurpose.

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”–Margaret J. Wheatley

Years ago I landscaped with a friend during the summer months. We worked on some lovely lakefront homes in the Lake George region of Upstate New York, and on occasion we’d bring in a subcontractor to do a challenging deck, walkway, or other project beyond our skill sets. I remember one craftsman in particular who we hired to build a complex walkway designed to snake its way in a sinuous fashion off the back deck and on to the front lawn. His name was Nick, and his work was truly exceptional. He generally worked at a steady pace, but would take what I saw as frequent breaks. After one lengthy break, I asked him why he had stopped and if anything was wrong. “No. Everything is looking good.”, he said. He then explained that the complexity of his work demanded time to stop and evaluate his progress. “The more intricate the project, the more often I need to stop and evaluate. If I rush the work, or don’t pay attention to the finer details, then the end product will not meet my satisfaction or that of the customer’s.” What Nick was explaining to me was the value of analysis and reflection, and the importance of taking time to do both well—in any line of work.

Do we take time in education on a daily basis to soak in the stimuli of our environment and the finer details of our labor? In the classroom, do we make time to stop and reflect? Do we pause during lessons to ensure students are making sense and finding meaning of the content, or do we cover the material and move on to the next topic? Do we wait when asking a question to study the students and their readiness/willingness to participate, giving each student the necessary retrieval response time, or do we choose the student with the first hand up or the student we know has the right answer? As an instructional leader, do we stop and sense the school culture? Do we listen empathically to teachers, parents and students? Do we set aside time with teachers to participate in important data analysis and reflection? Do we make time to visit classrooms, follow-up on post conferences to check on teacher progress on action items, and walk the halls and grounds? Do we visit with parents in and outside of our building, listen intently of their interests and concerns, and work to involve them more in school functions?

It’s so tempting to grind through the work and get it all done, but what is “it?” Why are we doing the work we do, and are the products of a quality satisfying to us and our customers, the students and society at large? Do we build into our daily schedule time to stop and observe our progress along our individual paths, and do we make adjustments when we occasionally go off path? In this busy world of education reform, it’s ever more important to take time to monitor and adjust. To observe and celebrate what’s working well, and forgive ourselves when things don’t go quite as planned. To periodically disconnect from the ever-growing, incessant stream of email messages, texts, and news alerts, and to regain a sense of mind, body, spirit. We and our students deserve no less.

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A Repost: When Planning for Academic Success, Know Thy Students Well

How we observe and interact with our environment varies greatly from one person to the next, and the implications for learning are huge.

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One individual may view a spider’s web with horror while another sees beauty in its elaborate structure. One sees a day on the ocean as an opportunity for rest and relaxation while another shutters at the queezie thought of sea sickness. One person salivates at the idea of liver and onions (okay, maybe not), while another loses their appetite. When you get right down to it, our past experiences have a tremendous and nearly unyielding impact on how we see and respond to things, particularly when it comes to school and learning.

Background knowledge, prior learning, and schema are what help shape a student’s readiness to learn, and if you think all children start on an equal footing, visit a kindergarten class sometime in the early fall and observe the diversity. Some children arrive at school knowing how to read and write their names while others don’t know the letters of the alphabet. Some kids have enjoyed trips with family members to museums, plays, professional sports games, and botanical gardens, while others haven’t been beyond the confines of their town lines. The disparities in readiness can be extreme, leading to experiential deficits for some young learners that will take two or three years of intense interventions to get them on grade level. And if we don’t remediate the deficits while the children are young, we risk a potentially angry, self-conscious, learner-helpless student in the future.

Last week in my curriculum and pedagogy class, we did a lesson on decoding. As a hook, I opened with a black and white video of Captain Midnight’s Secret Decoder Ring sponsored by Ovaltine. To demonstrate the power of past experiences and background knowledge, I asked students to view the picture shown above (the infant weight lifter) and come up with six to eight words describing the picture. Students were then directed to list the words in columns on the board, and then report out. What diversity! You’d have thought the students were looking at different pictures! The best part was when I had each student go to a different student’s word list and come up with one or two words that captured the essence of the list (See below).

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What this lesson demonstrated was how diverse our perspectives are thanks to varied experiences that have shaped our brains. Susan Kovalik has written, “Intelligence is a measure of experience,” and so it goes in the world of education. It is our job to determine what our students know and do not know. It is our job to learn of students’ interests and fears, and it is our job to plan accordingly. There’s a good reason Danielson’s first domain is Planning and Preparation, and the first New York Teaching Standard is Knowledge of Students and Learning. People do better when they know better. When an educator knows his or her students’ prior knowledge, past experiences, and schema, and when that educator plans accordingly, well, great things happen in the classroom.

Rescue Remedy for Putting Kids Back on the Graduation Pathway

Sometimes the data stares you in the face. A 6th grade student chooses to cut school too many times. Another 6th grader fails an ELA/Reading or Math class, while a third student gets a poor behavior report in a core subject area. Sadly, for each of these 6th grade students, their chances of dropping out or not graduating on time in high school just increased 75% (Balfanz, 2009). That’s right, research has shown that for schools with 80% or more subsidized lunch students, if a 6th grade student fails an ELA or Math class, OR misses 20 or more classes, OR gets a poor behavior report in a core subject class, his/her chances of dropping out in high school or not graduating on time increase to 75%!

In Frontline’s Middle School Moment, the story follows a 6th grade student Omarina Cabrera as she treads aimlessly along the pathway to graduation. As her home life spirals out of control, her attendance at school falls along with her grades, and she is surely destined to gain momentum down the slope to non-completion, i.e. high school dropout. The 11-year old (think about that for a second–11 years old) is lost in a sea of confusion, grappling with family issues too common in socio-economically deprived environments. Failing to see the critical juncture in her life, she disengages from school and proceeds to the likely path of high school dropout.

The data are there. Attendance is down, grades are falling, and teachers notice changes in the student’s disposition. She contributes less often to class discussions, fails to complete assignments, and so on. The data are there, and in this student’s case, the data are used to rescue the child from her descent. Under the leadership of Principal Dolores Peterson, Middle School 244 in the Bronx tracks scores of data of EVERY student on a weekly basis, looking for the markers that deem a child at-risk for failure. For students identified as at-risk, counselors assign interventions, monitor progress, and usually have a success story on their hands two years later. In Omarina’s case, rather than proceed further along the path to non-completion, the school’s interventions lead to a straight A, near perfect attendance record in 8th grade. Rather than having few options for high school, Omarina has been accepted to some of the city’s finest schools. Wow! The data were there all along. All it took was purposeful attention to middle school markers correlated with high school non-completion. Oh, and really strong building principal leadership.

We have reams of data on our students, yet if we are to be honest with ourselves, we neglect to look for the markers that point to high school non-completion, or we look at the data but fail to diligently implement and monitor the necessary action steps. We’re doing a pretty good job of rating teacher and principal performance, which is an important element to any effective institution. However, it is disconcerting we are not placing equal energies and monies towards monitoring our at-risk students and plucking them off the pathways to non-completion. In a time of stretched school budgets with the concomitant layoffs and program cuts, the likelihood of tracking such data and assigning staff to support the at-risk student is being compromised. That is a serious problem to our country’s well-being and one that needs to be addressed.

We have embarked on an exciting mission of raising the bar for literacy and math in this country, and the Common Core Shifts in instruction are a welcome change. However, we need to be certain children of all socioeconomic levels benefit from the reforms sweeping the nation, particularly our subsidized lunch students. Our country spends much less than other OECD countries on the education of poor children (“Learning for the Very Young: Little Steps,” 2013), and the gap in funding is especially problematic during the highly formative pre-school years (only on of every six four-year olds attends public pre-school in this country). That must change. Thanks to Balfanz’s research (2009), we know the markers for student dropouts and just how critically important the middle school years are to students’ academic success. If we hope to see more students graduate and contribute to a healthy, vibrant democratic society, then we must do more to rescue our children. We have the data, and we know the remedy. It’s a matter of prioritizing how we use data and funding the efforts that will save our non-completers. After all, failure is not an option.

Balfanz, Robert. (2009). Putting Middle Grade Students On The Graduation Path.  Retrieved from http://www.amle.org/portals/0/pdf/research/research_from_the_field/policy_brief_balfanz.pdf.

Learning for the Very Young: Little Steps (February 9th-15th, 2013). The Economist, 62.

A Really Great Week and The Instructional Leadership Pipeline

This was a really good work week. In fact, it was an excellent week! The kind where you find yourself singing boldly with songs on the car radio caring little if other drivers see you singing or not. A week where your energy surges late in the day, followed by a blissful crash while watching reruns of Downton Abby at night with your spouse. This week was one of those special weeks when you did things for others that really, really matter. In this case, the theme was on developing instructional leaders.

On Monday I joined a small group of other State University of New York (SUNY) professors and Deans to design and deliver professional development sessions for the Statewide Teacher Education Network (S-TEN). We spent a good days work planning one six-hour session on Data-Driven Instruction, and another session on the new Ed TPA. Much as P-12 has been scrambling to absorb changes through the Regents Reform Agenda, higher education has grappled with its own challenges, including making certain teacher and principal graduates are ready for more stringent certification assessments and prepared to successfully contribute to our schools and communities.

Monday was a good day, but Thursday did not disappoint as our New Principals Academy met for its monthly two-hour session (The New Principals Academy is a partnership project between Queensbury Central School District and SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury designed to provide professional development tailored specifically to the interests of new principals, assistant principals or other administrators). Prior topics have ranged from time management and evidence-based observations, to common core instructional shifts and the change process. On Thursday, I asked the group to identify their thoughts on the instructional leadership pipeline. More specifically, I asked them, 1) What are the best practices? 2) What are the needs, gaps? and 3) Advice to aspiring leaders to increase their skills. The ensuing discussions were lively and rich.

Some best practices and topics identified included: 1) solid, intensive internships; 2) time management; 3) networking opportunities with other instructional leaders and higher ed personnel; 4) conducting evidence-based observations; 5) the ISLLC Policy Standards; and 6) developing open lines of communication with all district stakeholders. Areas of need and gaps included: 1) more rigorous internships (a catch 22 for some as they grapple with full-time work and their ed leadership program); 2) an uncertain future (jobs, policies from State Ed, etc); 3) more real life, authentic learning experiences (implementation of CCLS, APPR, DDI,…); 4) mentoring programs; 5) requirements for rigorous research (thesis); and 6) classes that are current and evolve with the changing landscape of P-12 education. Finally, our academy participants offered the following advice to aspiring leaders: 1) step out of your comfort zones and vary your experiences and levels; 2) build relationships; 3) choose a strong prep program, not just a convenient one; 4) know yourself well–your strengths and weaknesses; 5) believe and have trust in your teachers; and 6) forgive yourself and others–everyone makes mistakes. What a fantastic day we had on Thursday!

If Monday and Thursday were good days, then Friday could be considered the icing on the cake for that was the day we officially launched Cambridge Central School District’s Teacher Leader Effectiveness (TLE) Grant. The TLE Grant Initiative was strategically designed by the New York State Education Department to, among other things, cultivate a continuum for developing teacher leaders within school districts. In Cambridge Central School District’s (CCSD) case, they wrote the grant to focus on empowering teachers to lead change (a la Race to the Top) through cognitive coaching, professional learning communities, and effective student teacher placements and mentorships. There are many outstanding components to the CCSD grant project design, including a focus on Wiggins and McTighes’ Understanding by Design, which happened to be Friday’s topic.

So on Friday, eight teacher leaders, two building principals, and the grant director convened at the SUNY Plattsburgh at Queensbury Branch Campus to officially launch the grant and delve into the Backward Design Process. What a day! What a group! It was evident from the start the selection of teacher leaders was done carefully and effectively. The eight individuals knew their craft and had a level of intensity and purpose that was inspiring! We discussed the three stages of Backwards Design. We reviewed the Common Core Standards and concomitant instructional shifts, and we looked at PARCC’s  Model Content Frameworks. When I asked the teacher leaders why they chose to do this important work, they explained their desire to be a resource for others. To serve their communities and colleagues. To increase communication and do what’s best for their children, school, and community. They were eager for the hard work ahead, in spite of the uncertainties and time such efforts demanded. They were inspiring, and when the day ended I was left feeling very, very satisfied and hopeful for our profession.

And so went a very good work week. One  which focused on the instructional leadership pipeline and change. A week that was about service to the profession, service to the community, and service to one another. A week that reminded us all that, despite the naysayers about school reform, anything is possible when you bring together a small group of talented, motivated, and passionate individuals interested in making a difference in the lives of others. Ahh, what a fine week it was, and what a way to set the table for next week’s important work.