Show. Don’t Tell.

In which I do a book talk on Wonder for my 5th grade commencement speech.

I was handed a copy of a Movin’ On Up speech delivered by Mr. Kellogg a couple of years ago. The title was “Make it a Good Day”. He spoke about the importance of making good choices instead of just saying so. It is a good script. I plan to expand upon it.

At Howe, we adhere to values such as compassion and teamwork, acceptance, imagination and attitude, responsibility and respect, and attendance. These powerful concepts were present in a book I read aloud to some 5th graders this year, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I found a good summary of this book at the Children’s Craniofacial Association:

“August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial difference that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to enter 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid, then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?”

I thought this book exemplified many of the Howe values.

Compassion and Teamwork

When Auggie enters school, no one initially sits by him at lunch. Summer, a classmate, realizes this and chooses to eat with Auggie every day. They form a strong bond. In order to show compassion toward others, we need to have the courage to take that first step.

Acceptance

Auggie’s older sister Via is one of his biggest supporters. She sticks up for him when others treat him differently. However, she struggles to balance her loyalty to her brother with her need for her own life at her new high school. Via also doesn’t how to deal with the fact that Auggie is becoming more independent and doesn’t need her as much as he used to.

Imagination and Attitude

Before school started, Auggie and his family had a difficult time preparing for the first day. He was creative in his approach to try and fit in with his peers, such as doing more listening than talking to learn about life at Beecher Prep. It also helped that the school provided an orientation for Auggie and made it clear about what is expected of all students.

Responsibility and Respect

One of Auggie’s best friends at Beecher, Jack Will, makes a poor decision in the middle of the story. He gets involved in a hurtful conversation about Auggie with classmates. He happened to hear it, and the two of them stopped hanging out. It is true that a friendship takes a lifetime to build, but only a minute to damage or even destroy.

Attendance

Auggie not only deals with his physical disability, but also with a bullying situation. His adversary, Julian, persuades others to help him make Auggie’s life miserable through words and actions. Auggie handles this with maturity and composure. Classmates see how Auggie responds and start to come around to his side. Would this have been the case had he lashed out at Julian? I don’t think so. The story ends with Auggie being recognized in front of his peers for his courage, his willingness to forgive, and his determination to be successful despite large obstacles.

As you move up to the middle school, consider some of these reflective questions and the lessons from Wonder:

  • How will you show Summer’s compassion for those that struggle?
  • How will you show acceptance like Via, and appropriately stick up for others?
  • How will you act as Auggie did when you feel out of place? Will you stay focused on what’s important and steer clear of less desirable situations?
  • How will you avoid Jack Will’s poor decision and not talk about others behind their backs, whether they are your friends or not, whether online or face-to-face?
  • How will you show determination in your attendance at school every day, and deal with the “Julians” in your life with both assertiveness and understanding?

You will notice that I am asking you, not the group. Each one of us is accountable to ourselves. There will be challenges in your future, but I am confident that what you will have to face will be minor compared to what kids such as Auggie deal with every day.

These questions I pose to you also do not demand a verbal response. We expect that your actions will be the answer to these questions. Show. Don’t tell. As they say, actions speak louder than words.

If I Post on My Blog and No One Reads It, Did I Really Write It?

My staff and I are having some good conversations about the how and why for becoming more connected online with our families. Questions such as “Why should we?”, “What are the benefits for students?”, and “Is it one more thing added to my plate?” are all items we have tried to address.

More specifically, the biggest question seems to be, “Why should we share student learning online when it seems like no one is reading it?” We don’t lack for data that supports why we should start engaging with our families and community through tools such as social media. Consider the following research cited by Meg Carnes and Kitty Portersfield in their book Why Social Media Matters (Solution Tree, 2012):

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75% of parents ages 18-29 use social media.

8% of adults under 30 read a print newspaper.

90% of families with incomes of $30,000 to $49,000 have a cell phone.

This information seems to support our efforts in creating classroom and student blogs, as well as sharing student work via digital portfolios. Yet it still seems like we are sometimes speaking into a vacuum. Families do not comment on our posts. We have had very few (if any) requests from parents to gain access to their child’s gallery of writing housed online.

Moving Forward

Despite these initial concerns, we have already seen benefits to becoming more connected educators. One thing I have stressed with staff is we are trailblazers. Not every school is doing this. Many families are unfamiliar with the tools we are trying with students. I have encouraged teachers to stick with it, because eventually they will come. Even posting their printed classroom newsletters on a classroom blog is a step in the right direction. Right now we save them on an internal drive, but it seems like they would be better placed online so parents can access 24/7. I have modeled this same practice by adding our school’s Twitter and school blog feeds to our district website.

There is also the engagement factor. When teachers have told students that their work will be shared online, their interest and efforts have piqued. All of a sudden, they realized that their potential audience just got a whole lot bigger. This subsequently sets an additional purpose for their learning activities, even if it is nothing more flashy than word work or summarizing a text they just read. Documenting these evidence-based practices over time also shows the students that these daily literacy activities are very important toward becoming better readers and writers. Growth can be seen more easily and authentically when their visual and audible learning products stand side-by-side in curation tools such as Dropbox and Evernote

FInally, there is definitely a need for parent education. It is obvious to me that families have the digital tools. They use smart phones frequently while waiting for their children to be dismissed at the end of the day. With that, we have a technology night planned for parents in the next couple of weeks. My role will be to show everyone how the devices they hold in their hands can access a wealth of information about their kids as well as learning resources in general. All of the tools we are trying out have a mobile application to access them. The idea that a parent can check their child’s grades, attendance and learning progress while waiting in the lobby should be a novel one.

A great resource for digital parent outreach is Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza) and the #ptchat he moderates on Twitter. You can check out the multitude of ways his school has connected with families in the latest edition of Principal magazine. In your school, what ways have you become more connected with your families online? Please share in the comments.

Increasing Engagement

This post is also featured on Stenhouse’s blog.

For a while it was popular in educational circles to talk about “time on task”. In some circles it still is. But, as many have noted, children are always on task; the important question is, what is the task?

– Peter Johnson, Knowing Literacy

My school faced a dilemma last spring: The grant for our after school reading intervention had run out. This also included our A.M. and P.M. study centers. Many of our students and families utilized these services to get extra academic support and to provide supervision for children whose parents worked early or late. We had a captive audience in those who attended, but no resources left in which to captivate them with, or so I initially thought.

As I prepared our final report for the grant, I noticed a pattern. Students who attended the structured, computer-based reading intervention after school did not make gains when compared to their peers. Students who attended the morning and after school study centers, with minimal educator support, showed more growth than their school peers. It was a small sample size, but results nonetheless.

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Around the same time, I came across Peter Johnston’s post “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement” on Stenhouse’s blog. In it he describes a study he conducted with Gay Ivey in a secondary classroom. Students were given edgy fiction and few expectations, other than to read the books and discuss them with classmates. They took control of their learning, selecting texts based on their interests and communicating with each other about what they read. Subsequently, their tests scores went up and their social and emotional well being improved.

This post was the proverbial manna from heaven. Along with Richard Allington’s suggestion in Schools That Work for the principal to help facilitate the morning center, we had a possible answer to our problem. Some of our Title I funds were allocated to support two staff members two times a week to facilitate the after school book club for 4th and 5th graders. At the same time, I shifted the schedule of an English Language Learner aide so she would come in an hour earlier to catch the students in the morning. Even though all of this programming was to be hosted in the school library, we did purchase some high interest texts from a local book store. Total cost for this year-long program: Approximately $3000.

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So how have we reduced instruction and increased engagement?

More of a variety of literacy resources are available. For example, students can listen to books on tape, practice their letters and writing using art supplies, and select any text they find interesting.

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In both the morning study center and after school book club, we strive to provide choice in books. Some guidance is provided by staff when they appear to have a tough time finding their next read. However, for the most part we stay out of the way.

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We have created an inviting, cozy environment to allow kids to chat with each other while reading their books. Whistle chairs, foam shaped like an upside down whistle and covered with a leather case, are an example of a purchase we made to help create this climate. Educators need to give kids permission to read, both with our words and our actions. By doing this, we let them know that it is okay to just sit around and enjoy a book while at school.

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As well, they like writing book reviews on bookmark cards. They are propped on the front of the respective book and displayed on a designated table for others to check out. These students are now seen as readers and writers by their classmates. At this age, peers’ perceptions are students’ realities.

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One hiccup we have noticed is the inconsistent attendance of a few of our 4th and 5th graders after school. To address this, the staff and I have discussed ways to leverage technology to increase engagement. One idea is allowing students to connect on Edmodo. It is a safe social media tool for schools to share and discuss their learning. This would allow students to write their thoughts and questions about what they are reading for a broader audience, as well as read what others have posted.

At a fraction of the previous year’s costs, we have developed a literacy intervention that engages students and has the potential to increase students’ reading abilities at a faster rate than prescribed programming. At the same time, departing from past practices is a scary proposition for us as educators. It means giving up the spotlight and allowing student learning to take center stage. Teachers and principals, myself included, sometimes think we can control student outcomes. This naturally leads us into trying to control the learning at times. Yet it is an open and curious mind that learns best. We can facilitate this mindset by increasing engagement in students through thoughtful instruction and sharing our enthusiasm for reading. And isn’t engagement the reason we read and learn anyway?

Mitigating Student Mobility: New Student Placement Interviews

Since the holiday break, my count for new students enrolling in my elementary building is at seven. Research is very clear about the negative effects mobility has on students’ achievement and social/emotional well being. There is also evidence that new students coming into a classroom can impact the learning of the students already there. According to a 2009 study from Notre Dame, when there is an addition to a class roster, current students get less attention, classroom routines are disrupted, and the pace of instruction slows to allow for the new student to catch up.

With this knowledge, it behooves any school to be proactive on this matter. One tool we have used in the past is a new student placement interview form. For a variety of reasons we have not been consistent about this practice. Subsequently, students may be having a harder time acclimating to their new environment. Being reflective practitioners, we have concluded that this tool is essential to getting to know our new students and ease the transition process when they come to us.

When a family registers, either my social worker, guidance counselor or I will sit down with the student and/or parent to ask them the following questions. If this is not possible, we then call the child’s previous school to get more information from a teacher or principal.

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This interview form is especially useful for my building. We have multiple sections at every grade level. Therefore we have more options for placement of these students to better meet their academic and social/emotional needs.

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Do you have a process such as this in place? If not, how do you transition your new students into your school? Ideas and feedback are always welcome on this blog.

Rethinking My School’s Homework Policy

Since becoming a more connected educator, I have learned much from my professional learning network about the pros and cons of homework, especially at the elementary level. With my student handbook needing an update, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my school’s beliefs regarding this topic.

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Cathy Vatterot, author of Rethinking Homework, offers a reasonable view of how educators can address this touchy subject. With her recommendations, along with information and experiences shared by my colleagues, I made some substantial changes to my school’s homework policy. Text in bold are my potential additions; language with strikethrough may be deleted.

HOWE SCHOOL HOMEWORK POLICY

Homework is an out-of-school assignment that contributes to the educational process of the child. It should be an extension of class work and should be related to the objectives of the curriculum presently being studied.

Homework may include additional practice exercises, reading of material on a specific subject, in-depth extension of classroom activities, or independent project work related to the subject. Instructional time is maximized and consists of introducing new material, so drill and memorization review and reinforcement become an important part of homework.

Effective school research indicates that a positive correlation exists between expanding opportunities for learning and academic achievement. Most children, therefore, will have some homework each school day. Homework may include problem solving, completion of assignments introduced in class, projects, reading ahead in the textbook and other tasks as assigned by teachers. The daily amount of time depends upon grade level, varying from 10 to 45 minutes daily at the elementary level. In order to attain the maximum benefits from homework, your child is responsible for completing homework assignments on time and as directed.

The homework policy that has been established at Howe School indicates that all students will, on a regular basis, receive homework assignments for completion outside of the regularly allocated class time. The amount, frequency and nature of the assignments should be based on the teacher’s professional judgement, students’ needs and reflect the child’s grade, subject and needs. Homework will vary by instructional level, with assignments potentially increasing in length and frequency as the child progresses through the grades.

Homework fulfills the following purposes:

To review and reinforce classroom learning by providing practice with an application of knowledge gained.
To teach children responsibility, neatness and organizational skills. To promote family involvement, school connectedness and two way communication between home and school.

The following amount of time is expected what you might expect for homework daily (excluding Wednesdays):
Grades K and 1st – Approximately 10-20 minutes
Grades 2nd and 3rd – Approximately 15-30 minutes
Grades 4th and 5th – Approximately 20-40 minutes

Note: These expectations will take into consideration a child’s ability and nature of assignments. Any child not completing homework assignments will be expected to stay inside during the noon recess to finish the work.

The following expectations exist for teachers, all children, and parents.

Each teacher will: assign meaningful homework; take into account the capabilities of the class; assign work that will benefit each child and give all children feedback on assignments.

Each child will: learn to accept this responsibility; complete the assignments on time and with high quality; and develop good study habits.

Each parent must: nurture that responsibility in his/her child; encourage his/her child to complete homework assignments; provide for a climate that will foster educational endeavors; and stress the value of hard work and good study habits.

All children make far greater advances in academics when homework is given frequently to extend the school day. Additionally, Academic gains are greater when parents take a vital supportive role in helping the child fulfill his/her responsibility. Ask your child’s teacher for helpful hints in more information in helping your child complete homework assignments.

Students who do not complete their homework at home are expected to complete it before school or during noon recess.
HOMEWORK – MAKE-UP WORK REQUESTS

As a result of student absences, sometimes make-up work is requested. If a child is absent for one or two days, make-up work may not be sent home prior to the student’s return. We are anxious for students to get well. Reading a library book is encouraged. Although we appreciate parent requests, teachers need sufficient time to gather materials. If a student is absent more than two days, please contact the office before 8:30 a.m. so the teacher has time to prepare materials by the end of the school day. With classes of 20 or more students and the possibility of several absences, it takes a significant amount of time to honor make-up work requests. We appreciate your understanding.

I am also sharing these possible revisions with staff and families. When we briefly discussed this topic as a faculty, beliefs were expectedly all over the place. Having a strict policy does not honor where everyone is at on this topic. My hope is that the changes we make will reflect best practices, knowing that it may always be a work in progress.

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Where are you at on the continuum of homework in school, especially at the elementary level? How would you revise this policy? Please share in the comments.

Three Characteristics of a Winning Team

The San Antonio Spurs are one of the most successful basketball teams in the NBA and one of the respected organizations in all of professional sports. They are having another successful season, currently 15-4, with their latest victim being my home state’s Milwaukee Bucks. I have noticed three characteristics of the Spurs that could be found in other successful organizations.

Focusing on What Matters

Recently, the San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich incurred a team fine of $250,000 for sitting four of their five starters during a regular season game. While I am not necessarily agreeing with the coach’s decision, as I am sure there were some disappointed fans, it is a clear example of what it means to focus on what matters. Regarding the fine, the coach probably knew he might get in trouble for his decision. He still went through with it. My guess is he felt his players’ current health and future success in the playoffs were more important than ticket sales and television revenues.

Open and Honest Conversations

A comment was made two years ago by Spurs’ future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, after being asked by the press if his coach was pleased with their win that night.

“Absolutely not. What did they score? Like 70-something points,” said Duncan. “That’s 70-something reasons for him to complain.”

(Retrieved from: http://www.48minutesofhell.com/san-antonio-spurs-95-portland-trail-blazers-78-at-long-last-48-minutes-of-hell)

The quote speaks volumes about the relationship Tim Duncan has with his coach. They can have an honest exchange of words while maintaining a level of respect. Each person knows where the other stands. This quote also shows a sense of humor among the team, probably developed from many years of working together and establishing strong relationships.

Humility

Gregg Popovich is the longest tenured coach of any professional sport team (16 seasons). How has he lasted this long? One reason is his ability to give credit to his players. The quote below speaks loudly about his character and leadership.

“He (Tim Duncan) doesn’t really even talk to me anymore. Half the things I say he doesn’t even hear…Time to go!”

(Retrieved from: http://www.slamonline.com/online/media/slam-tv/2012/11/gregg-popovich-discusses-his-marriage-to-tim-duncan-video/)

In his own witty way, Gregg Popovich acknowledged that the players on the court are the people who make a difference. He comes across like he is just along for the ride, even though that is not entirely true.

These characteristics have prompted questions in my own mind:

  • As a principal, am I advocating on behalf of my teachers? Are they getting enough time to collaborate and rejuvenate? Am I successfully filtering out the “administrivia” so they can focus on instruction and learning?
  • Is my building focusing on what matters? Is our purpose (student learning) a priority over outcomes (test scores, report cards) mostly beyond our control?
  • Do I allow and even seek out an open and honest dialogue with my staff and families?
  • Are the people who are doing the heavy lifting getting the credit?

Where is your organization at in building and sustaining a winning team? Please share in the comments.

Using Rubrics to Evaluate Educators

I live and work in Wisconsin. That means that, through a waiver for No Child Left Behind, I along with every other public educator will soon be assessed using a twenty-three point rubric. It will be on a scale of one to four, with one being “ineffective” and a four qualifying as “highly effective”.

Here is a sample of what the rubric looks like (draft only; it can also be found at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website).

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What’s Good About It

Clear Expectations
No longer can a teacher or administrator’s livelihood depend solely on a supervisor’s judgment. In fact, this rubric is but one piece of a more comprehensive evaluation system. With multiple measures, one would assume that the rating a teacher or administrator receives should be more valid.

Time to Try and Offer Feedback
My district is part of a pilot for the Educator Effectiveness Plan. I am one of three principals using this new system on a trial basis only. Our team was given three days of intensive training to help us use this tool with greater reliability. In addition, the state team that developed this is asking us, the practitioners, to provide feedback about how effective this tool is for evaluations.

What Needs to Improve

The Four Point Rubric
When I taught 5th and 6th grade, I often used the web tool Rubistar to develop differentiated levels of achievement for various activities. The students and I would develop these together with a computer connected to the television screen (this is pre-SMART board era). What I remember finding most frustrating is trying to wordsmith the descriptors. For example, what is the difference between “differentiates” and “develops” when describing staff development offerings? I don’t know either, but both of these qualifiers are used in this new rubric within the same element.

The Levels of Effectiveness
This might be the area that needs the most attention. Why do we need four levels of effectiveness? Maybe I am a little too black and white on this issue, but I feel like I am either doing my job or I am not. For example, if I am holding others accountable in the area of professionalism, then I am meeting expectations. If I have failed to do this, then I am not meeting expectations. Anywhere in between should be handled with a candid conversation between the supervisor and the employee. I fear that breaking down every aspect of what a teacher or administrator does takes the thinking and doing out of our positions and attempts to simplify our jobs to a series of steps or processes. This profession is just not that simple.

Next Steps
I plan to continue to keep an open mind about this new system and hope I do not come across negatively. Many smart and caring professionals put a lot of time into this plan. As well, they are giving us the opportunity to share our thoughts on how to make it even better. I just hope they listen.