Making the Case for Better Meetings

For many, the word “meeting” has a negative connotation. Ask anyone to conjure up images and they may think of piles of paperwork that will end up in the recycle bin, pointless PowerPoints, and styrofoam coffee cups stuffed with candy wrappers, evidence of last ditch efforts by staff to load up on caffeine in order to remain focused.

As someone new to leading a school, a focus of mine is to make meetings more meaningful. Here are some strategies that I have learned from others, along with other tips I have discovered the hard way.

1. Have an agenda and stick to it.

This comment was reiterated at my PBIS training today, and it cannot be said enough. For me and many others, it is nice to see the topics ahead of time so I can plan my thinking. Also, the only topics to be discussed are limited to what is written means there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

2. Use data in a visual format.

Throwing a bunch of numbers in front of unsuspecting staff is just that, a bunch of numbers. Putting those same numbers in an arresting display catches the eye and solicits engagement. Once you have their attention…

3. Provide a framework for discussion.

I like to use a five step data analysis process to guide our discussions. It keeps the language consistent and our feedback objective with each other, especially helpful when we are looking at teacher’s assessment results of their students. We try not to judge, just listen and ask for clarification to promote reflection.

4. Let the teachers do the talking.

My role is to start, facilitate and guide the discussion, not to flaunt what I think I know. The best answers come from within. As long as the discussion is about kids, generally positive and constructive, and uses evidence to support decisions, I see no need to interfere.

5. Follow up with minutes.

This is an area that I am slowly getting better at. Handwritten notes are fine, but I find myself placing them on my pile of things to do when I get back to my office. How big is your “To do” pile? Bringing my laptop and typing what was said during discussion ensures that the minutes will be ready for immediate delivery to all staff with one click of the Send button.

One of my favorite positive quotes about meetings is from Todd Whitaker, who stated, “One goal of every faculty meeting is that teachers should be more excited about teaching tomorrow than they were today”. This advice, along with the strategies mentioned above, are all ideas I have gleaned from other educational leaders that work for me. What works for you and your staff?

The Writing Principal?

As an elementary school principal, I conducted my first writing activity with a class. It was a poem that piggy backed off the book I read aloud to one of my kindergarten classes, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. I had already read them this book at my prior visit, so I followed up with The Little Fireman by the same author to start the writing lesson. This was good on two notes. One, we were able to point out how the author uses patterns when writing her books. Plus, she collaborates with other writers to make new stories. Second, the fireman book gave some inspiration for the kindergarteners to come up with ideas for a topic for our Important Poem.

One of the more active students suggested fire trucks, so I jumped on that opportunity to praise him for making a text-to-text connection. I used my Moleskine book journal to model how to write the shared writing poem, with the help of the document camera. (At first, I thought I could also give the kindergartners a template to try these poems on their own once modeled. Their teachers showed me the errors in my thinking). We used the same format as the author did to write this poem about fire trucks:

The most important thing about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.
They are on wheels.
They are also red.
But the most important things about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.

I provided the majority of the sentences, with the students helping me come up with words to describe the fire truck. Once we were done, we attempted to take a picture of the poem we wrote using the document camera. Between the teacher and me, all we have is the picture below. I’ll have to do it the “old fashioned way” and scan the poem to print off. The teacher will have that poem in one of her literacy centers for her students to reread. I had a lot of fun writing with the students!


Grading and Assessment Newsletter to Parents

I want to thank everyone for attending parent teacher conferences in November. The goal of these nights are to facilitate conversation between teacher and parent about how your son or daughter is doing in school. I hope you found it helpful and informative.

Discussions are also occurring at a larger level in the education world. Most of what you read in the news focuses on dwindling funds for public education and thinking of ways to do “less with more”. Yet beneath these debates are more productive conversations about the daily teaching and learning happening everyday in school. One of the most pressing topics is assessment and grading.

When you and I went to school, and even still today, an A on a report card meant you were working your hardest and learning to the best of your abilities. Here in town, you can walk down the street from Howe to rent movies for free based on how many A’s you receive. Leaving near the Wisconsin Dells, I recall more than one summer as a kid, bringing my fourth quarter report card to get into a water park for free. I cannot remember what I did to get the A or what exactly I learned, other than to meet my teacher’s expectations.

These practices are changing. The focus on how a student is doing academically in education is moving toward growth of the student’s skills and knowledge toward mastery of a standard, such as adding two digit numbers. This is in contrast to getting a grade for turning in quality homework, raising your hand in class X number of times, or reading so many books per month. The former criteria tells you where a student is at in their abilities; the latter tells you more about their work habits, behavior and ability to play the game of school, all thrown together in a pot to concoct an average for nine weeks of work.

A great example of how grading and assessment will look when moving toward a growth model for mastery is karate. Dr. Thomas Guskey, a recognized expert in grades in school, states that went a karate student progresses from white belt to eventually black belt, he or she does not receive a “gray belt”. His example is a clever way of pointing out that an average is an inappropriate way to recognize mastery in an area. That student earned the black belt because he or she demonstrated the ability and knowledge that all students of karate must attain for this level of achievement. It is irrelevant whether it took them three months or three years to get there. The important thing is that mastery was reached, measured with reliable assessments such as a physical demonstration.

As I stated, when parents and teachers meet, the focus is on communicating information about your son or daughter’s learning. My goal for the changes in how grades are reported are that conversations will be more substantial because better data will be shared between both parties. If you have questions or ideas on this topic, I’d love to hear them. Stop by or give me a call.

How My Checkbook Helped Me Bring Meaning to Data

As a newly appointed elementary principal, I feel like I am learning a whole new job (I previously served as a middle school assistant principal/athletic director and as an elementary school teacher). As I have tried to balance home and work, my checkbook has taken a back seat to parent meetings, family obligations and everything else that is involved in the principalship and parenthood. The result has been a checking balance that has been unchecked, offset by moving savings over to prevent overdraft charges.

At first glance, I assumed I was just too busy to deal with the day-to-day mundaneness of logging expenses and deposits on my ledger. That would make sense considering my current learning curve. However, what was different? Nothing, besides a new job and the fact that I just didn’t want to take care of the finances. This realization led me to think about what I expect of my teachers and the data they blindly input into spreadsheets about their students’ achievement. What was their purpose for collecting guided reading and math facts data, other than to do what their principal asked?

To use the same writing format as Margaret Wise Brown does in The Important Book, “The important thing about data is that teachers can use it to inform instruction. It involves numbers. It takes time to collect. Sometimes the results aren’t reliable. But the important thing about data is that teachers can use it to inform instruction”. A recent tweet I made proclaimed that the best universal screener is the classroom teacher. How can data help them make informed decisions, when they don’t see the end results or the purpose? Is this why I wasn’t keeping my check book up to date?

I started to make changes at home and at school. At home, I downloaded a few apps on my iPad to help me track expenses and pay down debt such as car loans more quickly. What these apps do is give me a visual representation of how I spend my money along with what changes I can make to better balance my household budget. The same holds true for student data. I took the spreadsheets my teachers entered student data into and linked them to graphs on other pages in the spreadsheet. These graphs showed student progress by month in reading and math, growth rate needed to meet end-of-year benchmarks and classroom progress.

My teachers are more motivated to get the data entered in a timely manner, because we see a purpose in our practices. Conversations about student data between teachers are much more productive now because the focus is on student learning and teacher practices, not on what we assume to be effective or ineffective. Relevancy and meaning are vital, whatever the focus may be.

My response to my son’s teacher, who asked me about tablets in the classroom

I would recommend the iPad 2. Kindle Fire does not have a camera. All other tablets pale in comparison. My preference for cover is the ZooGue, $50 but heavy duty and can be propped up to be used as a station in classrooms.

With this device you can take the picture, upload it from the iPad’s photo library to the Shutterfly app, and your share site is ready. Saves lots of time transferring pics from one place to the other. I’ve tried it at Howe and it works well.

We are ordering iPads now for teachers to use by January. I have used them with a few students to promote reading and math. The possibilities are limitless, but two examples of apps I use are Evernote and Dragon Dictation. Evernote records someone speaking while you take notes. One use: students can record themselves reading while you do running records0 Play it back for instance feedback, and share with parents when needed. Dragon Dictation simply dictates what someone says into the device. Good tool for immediate student feedback with their reading fluency and diction. Both apps are free.

To get quick, free and easy PD, I highly recommend getting on Twitter if you don’t already use it. My name is @HowePrincipal. I’d be happy to give a shout out for you if you decide to join, to build your Professional Learning Network (PLN) – let me know if interested. I find it very beneificial because the people that I follow and those that follow me (principals, tech coordinators) have similar interests and many times more experience in certain areas. Lots of educators are on it. They share many resources for all things iPad and learning. Also, “Tweeps” have chats to bounce ideas off of each other. Way better than Facebook.

You are welcome to join the Howe book study w/ iPads; we are reading “How to Deal with Difficult Parents” and iPad PD will be imbedded within the study. Starts in January, ends in April. If you are interested and have a device by then, let me know and I can get you set up. You just would have to purchase the iBook. Would you have PD funds to support this purchase? I would think so, maybe Terry or Kelly can help.

Let me know how I can be of assistance in the future.

My First Blog Post

An email response from Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook

Dear Matt,

Thanks for the email and the photo. Terrific!

I am presently working on the 7th and my final edition of the Handbook, so
your email was a vote of encouragement that I needed this morning.

I just finished the technology chapter (who’d have ever though such a
chapter would have been in the book 30 years go when I started) and I’m
attaching it here as a preview. The book probably won’t be out until Sept.
2012, so this is well in advance and will probably have some revisions due
to changing technology between now and then. But there’s enough to bite into
here with some sobering stats, including the stuff about where the silicon
valley folks send their kids to school and the candid conversation between
Gates and Jobs just before the latter died and their views of education

Keep me posted on your experiences during these early days as a reading
principal. I’m very interested.

Best, Jim