Thursday, March 31, 2011

Team Leader's Attend Meeting

This past week your Team Leaders spoke at a Board of Education Finance Committee meeting. Their words touched many who listened, including me. I am humbled to be in the presence of these great educators. While their words were much-to-kind to me, they do cut to the heart of what a middle school can and should be.

We are here this afternoon representing the A.A.K. family – the teachers, faculty, and staff. We at A.A.K. wish to commend those of you on the school board, Mr. Brady, Mr. Cruikshank, and the other administrators who are working to devise a plan to continue the excellent programming offered to the students of our district during these difficult budgetary times. Your job is not an easy one.

Besides commending you on your hard work, the teams at A.A.K. want to encourage you to revisit the New York State Essential Elements when considering the impact of any cuts at the Middle School. While we consider all programming to be important in developing well-rounded students, we also understand that cuts are unavoidable. These cuts will affect everyone, especially our students. Because of the numerous funded and unfunded state mandates placed upon the Middle School, we realize the difficulty currently faced by decision-makers.

Simply put, A.A.K. received the “Schools to Watch” designation in 2009, making us one of only 200 middle schools nationwide to earn this recognition. We believe in and practice the principles of the Essential Elements every day. Schools to Watch site evaluators - and our own students - recognize and appreciate the team concept and flexible block scheduling that allow the invitational environment and approach that are necessary for the complete development of the middle level child – socially, emotionally, and academically. The STRIDES program, the 7th grade advisory program, the Greek mythology project in Grade 6, and the 5th grade Latin American project are just a few of the experiences and opportunities that benefit our students. Our students like to be at school.

Four years ago, Mr. Cruikshank saw something special at A.A.K. His insight was validated when we earned our distinction. He supported us then, and we support his efforts to maintain our excellence now. We trust him and all of you charged with making these difficult decisions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What is a Middle School?

Last spring, I was speaking with Amy Guiney from SUNY Potsdam. You may have heard of her, she is responsible for many areas involving the education students, including observation and student teacher scheduling. During our discussion she asked what SUNY Potsdam could do to improve their program. This was the “in” that I needed. I framed my reply beginning with, “Well, since you asked…” and ended with a question: “What specific middle-level concepts do you teach?” I knew the answer, but wanted her to state that they didn’t have any specific courses involving the middle-level. After this wonderfully productive discussion, I have found myself being asked to periodically lend my perspective to various graduate and undergraduate classes.

Today I will be speaking to a group of student teachers, fresh from their first high school experience. Almost all of the students joining me will be moving into their second placement at a middle school. I think this is why I was asked to speak to this specific group; to help prepare them for our mysterious world called middle school. I’m sure that most of them will be spewing with confidence as they stroll into their next placement. I also think it’s safe to say they have a solid grasp of the subject matter. However, I’m positive that … they really have no idea what they’re about to encounter.

The root of my discussion will center on the title of this Friday Focus. Furthermore, I hope to discuss what a middle-schooler is. By investigating the concept of a middle school, I hope to introduce to them the Essential Elements, for this is the blueprint of a successful school. These elements indirectly tell us about the actual middle-schooler: development (body and mind), coping skills (or lack thereof), relationships (teacher-student, student-student, and even teacher-teacher), and the necessity of co-parenting for 6 ½ hours each day with their guardians.

I would encourage you to personally reflect on what you would say to a group of bright-eyed future teachers. This exercise has been invaluable for me.

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ten Things We Should Unlearn (or at least ponder)

  1. Teachers know all the answers. If this were true, then why do companies produce a teacher edition? Some of my best lessons were developed from a student asking a question and my reply of, “I don’t know, let’s figure this out.” I don’t know anyone who has ALL the answers.
  2. Teachers have to control the class. Sage on the stage or guide on the side; there’s a place for both in the classroom. Early in my career I heard, “Trust the Chaos” from a co-worker when I walked into their classroom. I began to embrace opportunities which engaged the students and allowed them to collaborate. A novice observer may have thought that my classroom was not controlled, they would have been wrong. An active class does not mean that a class is out of control.
  3. Teachers are responsible for the learning. In truth, students are responsible for the learning. Teachers are responsible for providing the proper environment, modeling, practice, and engaging activities to enable the child to learn.
  4. Students are obliged to respect teachers. Respect isn’t given, it’s earned. I respect people (students included) who’s actions I admire.
  5. Learning can be measured by a letter or a number. A more precise system would allow us to indicate a level of success for each individual learning standard.
  6. Teachers should plan activities and then assessment. I became a much better teacher when I created the final summative assessment and then developed the learning opportunities. The Understanding by Design (UbD) approach really works!
  7. Learners need to sit quietly and listen. I’m not encouraging free talk and pandemonium, but the only subject matter learned by this is compliance. Brain research has found that we are social creatures (big surprise) and we learn best through collaboration, discussion, and trial.
  8. Technology integration is optional. Is it our task to prepare our students for tomorrow’s world? Do you think that technology is a fad or phase?
  9. Worksheets support learning. What was the last worksheet you filled out? Mine was from the IRS and I didn’t learn much from it. Worksheets provide an opportunity to practice a concept independently, but the application of a concept is when deep learning occurs. A worksheet on its own will soon be forgotten.
  10. A subject must be taught independently to be mastered. Looking back, I must admit that one of my most successful experiences as a teacher was when I used four fictional novels to teach a year-long science class. This included two books by Jean Craighead George, one book by Gary Paulsen, and one by Doctor Seuss.

I hope you enjoy the weekend.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Combating Cabin Fever in Teachers

The following is what I sent to my faculty today. I had a secondary motive, other than having my teachers review other websites, to send each other positive notes. March is a long month and cabin fever is real. Getting a positive note from a colleague always lifts the spirits and motivates us. Enjoy.

I normally begin my Friday Focus with a quote, thought, or idea, which expands to a reflection and sometimes a revelation. Today I’m changing things up and asking you to be an active participant. Your task is relatively simple and will take only a few minutes of your time. I would like you to visit five teacher websites and spend a moment navigating around them. If you like something about the website, then send that teacher a quick note to let them know. Here’s the catch – I would like it if you would only view one site from your team and one site from another teacher at AAK. (That leaves three sites left, right?) Please select one teacher site from the high school and one teacher site from the elementary school. For the fifth site I’d like you to travel the internet waves to another district and view a teacher site from outside the Potsdam district. It’s important to remember to send a note or email telling the teachers what you liked about their site.

Thanks for being such willing participants in this exercise. Have a fantastic weekend!

Friday, March 4, 2011

How do you measure the health of a school?

We’ve had a lot of distractions lately. Budget, testing, homework, apathy, cut-scores, subgroups; the list is long and each have the ability to increase anxiety and raise the blood-pressure. So I’ve decided to focus on the question, How do you measure the health of a school? As I ponder this cardinal question, it strikes me that the answer most likely depends on the perspective of the one doing the pondering.

It would make sense that a physician may say that the health of the school depends on the number of absences, known illnesses, and concussions received while at school. A lawyer may believe that a healthy school is one which experiences no litigation. Arne Duncan would think that standardized test scores would indicate a healthy or infirmed school. Ruby Payne would look into the level of generational poverty and the cultural backgrounds of the teachers before answering this question. Governor Cuomo would undoubtedly say that all New York Schools are first in cost and 34th in results (even though his data is one-dimensional, outdated, and simply wrong), therefore we’re all unhealthy. Paul Vermette would tend to think that a healthy school is one that takes care of the social-emotional and development needs of each child. Mel Riddile, former principal and an associate of NASSP said that his barometer of a healthy school is to listen to what the staff of the school talks about. Teachers in [healthy] schools talk about students and how they are meeting their needs. [Unhealthy] schools talk about adult wants and adult needs. I found that perspective the most intriguing.

I believe that the most accurate answer to this question is from the perspective of the Essential Elements. These elements encompass all the aforementioned thoughts and ideas. So, a healthy school is one that implements the Essential Elements to a high degree. This is where AAK excels.

The distractions that claim our time and focus will not diminish in the coming days, weeks, and months. It will be imperative to remember that our objective is to remain a beacon of excellence for our students, families, and other educators looking for solutions. We are developmentally responsive to the needs of our students and this will be our continued emphasis. Programs will change, but our mission will not. Being a healthy school, as being an excellent school, is not a destination, but rather a process. We will continue with the process of excellence regardless of the distractions.

Thank you for providing a healthy, child-focused school. Have a wonderful weekend.