Sunday, October 28, 2012

Remaining True to Your Values

When I drive past the Mars Candy Company in Chicago, I expect to see a perfectly executed landscape.  The flowers and plants change with the seasons, but the lawn, shrubs, flowers and plants are consistently flawless.  My one and only experience inside the Mars building was about 50 years ago when my class took a field trip there.  Even now, I remember the spotless machinery, bowls, and equipment inside that produced the candy bars that we loved so much.  As I learned about leadership, I came to understand the importance of developing shared values with your community/business/school.  It is a challenging process that not only takes a great deal of time, but it requires the leaders to push every decision through the filter of those values.  Leaders, through their own behavior and the decisions they make, help cement the values of the community.  Sometimes, hard conversations and decisions result.

Over the past several years, our school district has made a commitment to making learning accessible to all students through inclusion of students with special needs, providing equitable learning opportunities for students whose first language is not English, and extending accelerated learning to the top 10% of students.  We have co-teaching classrooms in every grade level in all of our schools.  The co-teachers have been provided with professional development to learn how to modify, differentiate, and create a climate of respect for all students’ needs.  Every student in our school district has a wireless device with access to learning software that is constantly updated to provide our students with the most relevant. current information.  Our teachers are supported to best integrate technology with before school, after school, summertime, common plan time professional development as well as access to instructional coaches who will help teachers to execute just about anything in their classrooms and school communities. 

Two years ago, our school leaders became aware of the negative effects that poor diet and activity has had on our community.  We learned that we have higher than average obesity in our schools.  It was a no-brainer for us to work with our staff, parents, and students to increase awareness about healthy eating, adding opportunities for fitness, and changing the food we serve our students.  Our principals’ commitment to the US Healthy Schools Challenge was consistent with our values.  We wanted our students to have access to the same healthy foods and fitness opportunities that children in the top performing schools have.  Research shows that high poverty, high minority communities have the highest rates of obesity and the accompanying health issues.  There are many studies that show that  children with ADHD and autism have greater than average difficulty metabolizing sugars and that sugar may trigger fluctuation in the ability to concentrate and  focus as well as to behave appropriately.  

Our school’s food provider changed our schools’ menus drastically to help us to achieve the US Healthy Schools Challenge.  We added a daily fruit and vegetable kiosk, a two times per week fruit or vegetable afternoon snack, and a more frequent salad bar option..  The daily menu eliminated chocolate milk, limited the sugars, increased the whole grain products, reduced the processed foods, all while keeping the cost to students the same as in previous years. 

The challenge to our values came this week when an incentive for the school district to earn more money for every meal served to students receiving free and reduced lunches.  The administrators at the district level agreed to follow a regional menu for the week instead of the specialized menu provided to our district.  The principals were not consulted in the decision and were left wondering what had happened to the commitment to our students to provide access to healthy foods.  Students, who have been educated over the past couple of years to read labels, wondered why they were being served breakfast bars with 11-23 grams of sugar all week.   When I asked why we served a breakfast bar with twice the daily recommended amount of sugar, I was told that we were serving a federally approved menu this week so that we would qualify for an additional 6 cents per meal increase to the district. 

What happened to our values?  Are we so easily influenced by money that we abandon our values? As often happens in school bureaucracies, a decision was made that did not include those closest to the students.  Our only option now is to repair the damage.  We need to help our staff, students, and parents understand that we operate in a flawed system.  While Mrs. Obama is encouraging healthy eating, the federal system that provides meals in schools is not providing the best dietary choices.  Our students will benefit by challenging that system and will learn a lot in the process.

Our schools, like businesses, will flourish with consistency to strong, well-determined values and beliefs that provide equitable access to the very best that we can provide to all of our students, all of the time.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Establishing Parity

A district instructional coach was requesting to have some staff members present at a training.  He asked if I would contact the “co-teachers” and include them in the group.  I was puzzled as I didn’t understand why he was singling them out for the event.  So I asked, “why do you need the co-teaching pair?”  His response, “no, I just need the co-teacher.”  It took me a minute to understand that he was referring to the special education teacher as “the co-teacher.”  I asked him what he calls the “general education teacher” of the pair.  “That one is the primary teacher.”  I realized then, that while we had established parity within our school community, it didn’t extend to the greater community. 

When we first began co-teaching 7 years ago, the teachers and I who were initially invested in the concept, went out of our way to tell everyone that two teachers were going to be equally in charge of the learning in one classroom.  We made sure that we communicated that message fully.  The classroom name-  (i.e. 4SL) was 4SmithLacey.  We never called students over the loudspeaker without saying both teachers’ names.  When we called for that group in the lunchroom, we shouted, “Ms. Smith and Ms. Lacey’s class!”  The class name (4SL) was written on the playground in white paint so the students knew where to line up.  Parents were slightly confused initially, but caught on with the repetition that we provided.  If a parent came to the office and said she wanted to meet with her child’s teacher, Ms. Smith, we proudly told her that Ms. Smith or Ms. Lacey would get the message and one of them would get back to her. 

But, boy did we blow it when we didn’t help all of our school employees who are not in direct contact with the co-teaching classrooms understand that our students have the benefit of two teachers who are of equal importance to their students.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Celebrating Strengths

In the opening days of school last week, a  presenter was having a hard time with the display of her computer on the Smart Board.  A co-teaching pair was nearby and I asked Christina if she’d help the presenter.  With a few swift clicks, the screen was on display.  Christina’s teaching partner, Joan said, so that all in the session could hear, “Christina is just great with technology.  Even better than that, she is so helpful and doesn’t make you feel stupid because you couldn’t figure it out.”

We often fail to compliment our peers publicly, or at all.  This co-teaching pair has been very intentional to do just that as they began working together a year ago.  When they began their partnership in 4th grade, Joan and Christina attended a 2- day workshop and explored what they each liked, couldn’t tolerate, did well, hated to do, and more.  They learned a lot of co-teaching strategies that they have made work well in their classroom.  But none of those strategies would be effective if the co-teaching pair didn’t get through the hurdles that we encounter in any close relationship, i.e. a marriage. 

Christina and Joan model their good working relationship for their students.  In the first days of school, I visited their classroom as they guided the students through various routines and use of materials.  The two teachers compliment each other, thank each other, offer to help the other one—all things that we want our students to do with each other. 

Encourage teachers who work together closely to find the strengths in each other as well as themselves.  Acknowledging them openly will strengthen the relationship of the pair as well benefiting the students.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Engaging New Teachers

Like many districts around the country, our district is conducting our new teacher induction week.  We've made some drastic changes considering the fact that our district, in a week's time, will be fully 1:1 with every student having an iPad or a macbook 24/7.  Our icoaches (instructional coaches), also new this year, were very instrumental in the planning of the induction week's activities.  We "flipped" some things that we gave way too much time to in the past-- mandatory training videos.  Teachers were issued their laptops before the week began so have a chance to watch the videos at home rather than spending time in the sessions.  Our icoaches structured the week so that the new teachers would learn the Apple products, iLife and iWork, Google docs, e-chalk, Discovery Education, as well has how to develop their personal learning network.  By week's end, we hope to have them connected in a Diigo group as well as following the hashtags I mentioned in Sunday's blog post, #edchat, #cpchat, #engchat, and #sschat .  Our staff presenters are ever conscious of the fact that the learner needs to be doing more work than the instructor.  So we chose to use Today's Meet  to keep the questions that pop up as the participants work on sample projects.  One of us responded in real time.  All the participants can see the Today's Meet screen so the rhythm of the "classroom" is  undisturbed.  Today's Meet would be a great tool to use in staff meetings, "town hall" events, classrooms, and  PTA meetings, and maybe even school board meetings.  It keeps the "back chatter" down.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Supporting New Teachers

What’s a way to make sure that learning is accessible to all students?  Make sure that their teachers are adequately supported, and not just by the administrators, but by all the teachers in their school and beyond.

Last week I had the privilege of working with a group of 13 teachers who are going to be mentoring first or second year teachers.  Here’s some important points to keep in mind when working with novice teachers:

·      Mentor roles:  advocate, listener, resource, problem-solver, collaborator, coach, learner
·      There are phases of teaching within the school calendar.  August brings Anticipation.  September/October is about Survival.  November/December bring Disillusionment.  Rejuvenation follows the winter break, followed by  Reflection in April and May and back to Anticipation in June.
·      The mentor should match up the new teacher needs during those phases and provide appropriate supports, ie:  provide resources to take the sting out of the first parent/teacher conferences or offer to sit in on them.
·      In order to develop autonomy in the new teacher, the mentor must effectively support him/her.  Listening well and observing will help the mentor assess the type of support the new teacher needs.  At the very beginning, the new teacher may need the mentor to control the interaction and provide resources, anticipate problems, co-construct solutions.  As the new teacher becomes more adept, the mentor guides the interactions without necessarily controlling them.  The mentor begins to act like a facilitator with the mentor and new teacher co-constructing solutions and materials.  As the new teacher moves toward full autonomy, the new teacher directs the interactions.  The new teacher self-assesses and self-prescribes, with the mentor acting as a co-facilitator.
·      Mentors need to be observant to the cues, clues, and circumstances provided by the new teacher to determine the level of support needed.
·      Establish a focus for the work of the new teacher/mentor dyad through listening and either paraphrasing or clarifying concerns of the new teacher.  Support the new teacher through direct teaching or resources, collaborative problem solving or advocacy or collaborative problem solving and reflective questioning.

We discussed the need for all teachers to develop a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and read a great article from the May, 2012 issue of Educational Leadership for ideas.  A suggestion from the author of that article was to connect the  teachers on Twitter and use hashtags to access resources easily.   Some great hashtags for teachers: #edchat, #cpchat, #engchat, and #sschat.

No amount of support from a mentor will be sufficient without making sure that your school is a supportive environment for new teachers to thrive.  Does your school:
·      Provide opportunities for teachers to visit each other’s classrooms and give feedback?
·      Share ideas and materials?
·      Have common plan time?
·      Provide opportunity for teachers to grade/analyze student work?
·      Choose books to study together?
·      Limit the numbers of difficult students assigned to a new teacher’s class?
·      Share responsibility for student learning and discipline?
·      Use the knowledge and experiences that beginning teachers bring as an opportunity to learn?
·      Principal visit classrooms often and give teachers feedback?

Many of the new mentors that I worked with said that all of the above contributed to their success as a new teacher.  The mentor and new teacher relationship is the most significant element that will ensure the new teacher’s success.  But the school leadership and culture are also vital to growing and keeping great teachers in the classroom.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

Getting RtI Right

While the school is getting scrubbed clean and the playground resurfaced, 10 of my best teachers and I attended a 3 day conference facilitated by Reading Recovery to help us better understand how to structure the RtI process and understand the various tiered supports that should be in place.  these two books, Interventions that Work & Teaching for Deep Comprehension were used as references.  We purchased some copies of them as they have great intervention lessons as well as lots of tier 1 interventions that can be done in the classroom.