Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Holiday Break Assignment for Teachers

This week America wept.  We watched as the aftermath unfolded following one of the greatest tragedies of our era.  Our hearts go out to the victims and survivors of Newtown, Connecticut.  Once again our reflective lens is in sharp focus.  We have all viewed our problems as feeble in comparison to their loss and pain.  No words can express the sorrow which is born from unfathomable acts.
Reflection is a practice which I attempt to use regularly.  This week, as I discovered how pathetic my simple problems were, I also rediscovered some of the wonderful factors which were at work in my life.  First, I am proud of my children and who they are developing into.  I’m not always happy with their decisions, but that’s part of growing up.  I can honestly say that I like my kids.  Second, I am proud of my work family and who we are all developing into.  We are a community of life-long learners and few of us are ever happy with the status quo.  What more could I ask for but a group of teachers who are continuously working to improve?  AAK is a great place to work.  Third, I am proud of the students at AAK.  Once again I find that I’m not always proud of their decisions, but I do believe our student body is healthy.  A principal cannot ask for a better group of kids.  Fourth, I am proud of our North Country community.  Supportive is the word which comes to mind as I reflect on their involvement with their children, budgetary issues, safety, etc.  Our community cares about their children and about our school.
As demands press upon us from all directions; as SED continues to provide half of what we need and all of what we don’t need; as stress builds; as tempers flare, it’s important, especially in light of recent tragedies, to take stock in what we do have.  So, I wish you all well for the Holiday Season.  Rest and relax – you’ve earned it.  But, please take time to reflect on what positive factors are working in your life.  This is your assignment. 
                                                                                                                Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 13, 2012

“Nothing you do for children is ever wasted. They seem not to notice us, hovering, averting our eyes, and they seldom offer thanks, but what we do for them is never wasted.” Garrison Keillor

In looking at teaching across many grade levels – pre-Kindergarten through college, I often think that one area or level would be easier to teach than another because students at some ages appear to want to please the teacher more than others.  Students, especially in the middle-level, give off an appearance of insouciance in terms of the teachers regard for them.  Certainly, one could surmise that first graders would need a teacher more than young adolescents.  Folks, as you already know, nothing could be further from the truth.  The more time I spend with our middle grade students, the more obvious it is to me that these young adults crave my attention, my guidance, and my approval.

Our students at AAK feel the same about you. They need you. They rely on you for instruction, compassion, and consistency. Although it may not always be readily apparent, your students like it when you take control. Your students know that good teachers control their classrooms, and they understand and appreciate the boundaries you set. Middle school students thrive in an atmosphere where the teacher stresses self-discipline and communicates with parents regarding progress in this critical area. They respect teachers who discipline students in a firm yet respectful and compassionate manner that does not sacrifice a student’s dignity. Effective teachers establish a set of clear, though limited, expectations with consequences that are consistently and fairly meted out. Teachers who are well organized tend to have the most disciplined classes. The structure of the classroom prevents a lot of off-task behavior, and students know what to expect from day to day.

Being fair and consistent requires courage on the part of teachers, but students will admire those teachers who stand up for what is right and speak out when they observe unfairness. The curriculum you must cover in your various subject areas is vast and even daunting. However, the values you teach your students are even more important. Students expect you to have beliefs and opinions not only about your subject matter but also about what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, much of what our students learn from textbooks at this age may be forgotten over time. The life lessons you teach them, however, will last a lifetime! Thanks for expertly imparting unto our students what I consider to be an exceptional and comprehensive curriculum. Thank you also for teaching them relevant lessons about life. You are their role model; you may doubt this at times, but even during these moments of doubt, remember this truth. Our kids are watching us and learning from us within the walls of our classrooms and beyond. Therefore, be firm, be fair, be consistent, and use good judgment. Teach your students what you know, but also who you are. Everywhere I go, I find myself extolling the many virtues of the A. A. Kingston Middle School teaching force; thank you all for making this such an easy and sincere act in which to engage!

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

'Tis the season to give thanks!

I have read, posted, re-read, posted again, and have found relevance in this entry each time I forge through it.  It’s a time for giving thanks and no one sums-up this idea better than Randy.   Thanks, Randy, for allowing me to share it once again.  Enjoy your Thanksgiving Vacation.  Jamie. 

Guest Writing – Randy Burlingame
'Tis the season to give thanks!
            When Jamie first asked me to contribute to his Friday Focus, I wasn't quite sure what I could offer.  But, as the Thanksgiving holiday draws near, I began to think about how it might be nice to give thanks for the many great things that make A.A.K. a special place.

            I am thankful for many things here at A.A.K., and as I reflect upon my lengthy time here, I am most thankful for the people whom I often refer to as my "work family."  Seriously, I spend more time with the people in this building than with my "real" family.  My colleagues are more than just co-workers.  They make me laugh when I need to, listen to my frustrations and complaints, give me support when I need it, and genuinely care about me and my well-being.  This family isn't comprised of only Team 7; it extends throughout the building.  This staff has a good time together, in and out of school.  For this, I am thankful.

            I am also thankful for the community spirit that permeates this building.  Walk down any of A.A.K.'s hallways and it's easy to see that every adult and every student is a part of this community.  Each person's role may be different, but when all of those roles are put together, the sense of community in this building is very evident and very real.  Just ask a member of the Schools-to-Watch team that visited earlier this year or ask a substitute who has experience in other buildings or other districts.  They recognize what many of us may take for granted.  For this community spirit, I am thankful.

            Despite what I may lead many of you to believe, I am also thankful for the students of A.A.K.  Our students are really good kids!  Compare them to students in other districts and our worst troublemaker would look angelic to teachers in other places.  If you have any doubt about this, talk to a substitute who has worked at other districts (some not too far away from us).  Do they frustrate us sometimes?  Absolutely!  But, before screaming at (fill in the blank) next time, remind yourself that you could be teaching in one of these other schools.  For our generally well-behaved and respectful students, I am thankful.

            As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, let me extend a very heartfelt thanks to all of you for helping to make our work setting a pretty great place to come to every day.  Have a great break, don't eat too much, and enjoy your time with your family and friends.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Organize for Success

This may not be the traditional blog entry that you’re used to.  It’s not about a different strategy or approach to instruction.  It’s not in regards to activities or confirmation of excellence.  It’s not evidence of an epiphany-type event which I experienced.  It’s a very simple fulminate which many of us may be thinking, but don’t place into words.  It has its base in NCLB and RttT, and now I see and hear about schools where premonitions are coming to fruition.  In education, a main task is to create an environment in which all students have an opportunity to learn.  I feel that the very basics of the system designed to help education are, in fact, working against us.

It begins with the premise of NCLB in that all children must be proficient by a given date.  According to Diane Ravitch (2007), the former US Under Secretary of Education, “No nation or state has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency for all of its students, and to create a system that will eventually label every school a “failure” that is unable to achieve the unattainable is likely to breed resignation and a sense of hopelessness on the part of educators.”  These impressions prevent people and organizations from solving problems and improving their situations.  Described by R.M.Kanter (2004), “When people become resigned to their fate, nothing ever changes.  When people are surrounded by the feeling that they are the victims of uncontrollable forces around them – they drag others down with them, finding the worst in everything, or resisting other people’s ideas but offering none of their own.”  This idea is the antithesis of our mission.  Schools needs to be a place where children can find achievement, view the potential in themselves, and struggle and strive for their best.  It must be the avenue for success.  For this to occur teachers have to continue to be problem-solvers and be invested in each child’s success.  This appears to be the vertex of the issue:  teachers are working in a system where they feel helpless to outside forces, feeling undervalued, while trying to provide the exact opposite environment in their classrooms. 

The antidote to despair is hope, but instilling hope requires more than pleasant affirmations and a sunny disposition.  Hope is not a very effective organizational strategy, but organizations can foster hope, optimism, and collective self-efficacy when they have systems which allow people to experience success.  The organizational structure of a school can allow for success.  Teamwork, clear lines of communication, and common planning time will allow the most desperate of teachers an avenue to achieve.  Using the middle-school model, defined in the Essential Elements, will allow any school or organization to breed the positive attributes which will eventually place the educators in control of their success.  A brilliant teacher will not shine in a flawed system.  However, even average teachers can find brilliance in a well-designed system. 

To conclude my rant, I say that we can only have influence over the circumstances within our reach, which happens to be what occurs in our buildings and districts.  Control over “outside factors” is futile and will lead to utter despair.  Look to the Essential Elements to help lead your decision-making.  No school is too large or too small to implement an organizational structure which will enable educators yearning to find success. 

                                                                                                            Have a great weekend.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Ill never forget those anxious, nail-biting moments when my par­ents—usually my mom—took off for parent-teacher conferences. I wasn’t always the most diligent of students, so I worried. Would I get in trou­ble for combing my hair in social studies class to im­press the girls? (Yes, I actually had hair at one time.) Would I have to begin my science fair project when she got home? The due date was only a few days from now, and in my opinion I had plenty of time remaining to complete the task. Years later, I prepare for my own childs parent-teacher conferences, and I am still nervous. What if my child isnt doing as well as I hoped? What if they’re socializing too much in class? Will the teacher think I’m a bad parent?  This is what goes through the minds of some parents.
Be positive with people and you’ll get positive results (Blanchard, Lacinak, Tompkins, Ballard, & Blanchard, 2002).
As a former coach, I view parent-teacher conferences like a time-out in a game. It is a brief opportunity in a contest (school year) to praise or redirect performances. Todd Whitaker (2004) is known for stating, “Raise the praise and minimize the criticize.” A confer­ence is not the time to vividly describe and elaborate on every single minor classroom disruption, but if critical feedback is necessary it’s often best delivered with a sandwiching technique.
Great teachers help create magical moments and have the ability to ignore minor errors (Whitaker, 2004).
Here are some additional tips for successful conferences that I found from the Illinois Education Association (2000). I hope you will keep these in mind as you prepare for next week’s conferences:
  1. Prepare an outline. How are you going to budget your minimal time with parents?
  2. Gather student samples for praising and for redirecting.
  3. Anticipate possible parent concerns.
  4. Greet each parent with a handshake and a friendly smile.  (I always stood to greet a parent.)
  5. Ask parents if they have any concerns, and reassure parents that their concerns will be addressed.
  6. Before addressing any concern, describe students’ improve­ments or successes since Interims.
  7. Collaborate when addressing any concern. There should be teacher suggestions as well as parent input. Both parties should agree to this strategy. Suggestions may include more parent in­volvement by having parents sign daily agendas, assign­ments, or tests. This may mean more teacher involvement also, such as signing agendas, checking notebooks or binders, or hav­ing a phone or email contact.
  8. End on a positive note.
It is impossible to praise too much as long as it is authentic (Bissell, 1992).
Conferences have provided me with some of my most rewarding mo­ments in teaching. Just as we appreciate praise for our efforts, parents appre­ciate praise for their efforts and their child’s progress. The school calendar may set aside time for parent-teacher conferences each year. However, I believe great teachers know that parent-teacher conferences are held throughout the entire school year. A great teacher keeps the student, the team, and the parents informed at all times.  Enjoy meeting and getting to know the parents of your students.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A "How To" Manual for Middle Schools

I was most impressed when I found out that Potsdam Central was named the top school in the North Country by Business First magazine.  The rankings were based on student academic outcomes and were developed as a comparison to the thirty three schools in three North Country counties.  The students, teachers, and community should be proud of this ranking.  The primary, intermediate, middle, and high school programs contain excellent teachers, dedicated staff, hard-working students, and supportive parents.  This collaboration is a key to this academic acknowledgement. 
However, I see no irony that this recognition comes on the heels of AAK’s Re-Designation as a School to Watch by the New York State Education Department and the New York State Middle School Association.  This designation is based on the Regent’s Policy on middle-level programing; the Essential Elements.  These Essential Elements provide for strategies and programming which lead to success in the middle, an oft misunderstood component to the K – 12 continuum.  The basic tenants in the Essential Elements are to provide an academically rich curriculum in an organizational structure that cares for the social emotional needs of each child.  The Essential Elements Rubric is an extraordinary guide to finding success in the middle.  Therefore, if you want improvement in the middle-level, then look to the Essential Elements as a guide.
One aspect which sets the Essential Elements apart from many of the other program enhancing evaluative structures is that the student need comes to the forefront.  A child’s social and emotional necessities have to be addressed if we are to expect a child to thrive.  We can look towards Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to demonstrate this import; if a child is hungry – the deep-belly hunger that many of our students of poverty experience – then they won’t be thinking of algebra during math class.  If they’re not sure where “home” will be tonight, then the science lesson loses effect.  If a child’s basic needs are not met, then we cannot assume they will be able to learn.  This idea is demonstrated in the recent DASA regulations, which ensure that our children feel safe when they are at school, another basic need.  At AAK, our faculty and staff have excelled in helping these children transition from elementary to high school – addressing the individual need each child demonstrates.  A strong middle-level which defines their programming based on the Essential Elements will find their students academically successful.  I see significance between our two recent designations.  Overall academic success cannot exist without excellence in all key components in the K – 12 continuum, involving the entire school community. 
I congratulate the Potsdam Educational Community for their commitment to excellence.  I would encourage all middle-level practitioners to use the guide that SED provided, the Essential Elements.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Effectively Delivering Negative Feedback

There are times when we need to provide constructive feedback to others.  As a coach, I often found my players tuning me out or becoming defensive when I was attempting to better their performance.  I found that this occurred many times in the classroom, too.  My advice was usually accurate, but the message was seldom heard.  For a principal, teacher, coach, or parent, sometimes the process of delivery is just as important as the message.

During the early years of my coaching, I was fortunate to watch an interview with legendary coach John Wooden.  He explained his process of sandwiching constructive criticism between two positive comments.  I found this practice valuable.  My comments to the children were the same as before; but after employing this strategy I found that my comments were heard.  Providing a positive opening statement allows the listener to drop any defenses so that the feedback may be provided.  Allowing time for the listener to process the constructive feedback is important.  The final, and often overlooked, piece to “the sandwich” is the final comment; which ends the conversation on a psychological upswing.  This final comment is the motivation for the listener to modify their approach and to accept the feedback. 

To simplify this strategy, think of a well-constructed letter.  There is an introduction and greeting.  Traditionally these are written in a welcoming tone.  The body of the letter is the substance and the closing marks the writer’s appreciation and sincerity.  The sandwich strategy is very similar in nature. 

Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Questioning as an Instructional Strategy

The most basic way teachers have to stimulate interactive thinking and learning in the classroom is through the use of questions.                                                (Rice & Taylor, 2000)

As a classroom teacher, I often reminded myself that my lessons should be effective, efficient, and relevant. By incorporating focused questioning techniques, teachers can help to ensure effectiveness, efficiency, and relevancy. At AAK, I have enjoyed observing various questioning strategies employed by our skillful teaching staff. Too often, however, questioning becomes an overlooked component of the lesson.

Obviously, through questioning, we check for individual and whole-group understanding (Rice & Taylor, 2000). Questioning indi­vidual students is most effective; questioning the whole group is most efficient. At times, it is appropriate to opt for efficiency. When so doing, you might consider using signal responses (teaching students to show” the answer by a predetermined signal). Questioning individual students is more common and therefore requires greater teacher attention. In questioning, all students should believe that they are as likely to be called on as any other student. In questioning individual students, I find it more effective to utilize an ask-pause-call method as opposed to a call-ask-wait technique. In the first case, the teacher phrases a question, giving all students time to formulate a potential response. Then, she calls on a random student to provide an answer. Example: “I’m going to ask you a ques­tion, and I want everyone to think of an answer. From what you read in our text, what were some causes of the Civil War?

When calling on an individual for a response, allow ample wait time. Research suggests we should wait 3–5 seconds after asking the question before calling on any individual student (Rice & Taylor, 2000). We should then allow at least 5 seconds for a response and another 3–5 seconds after obtaining a response before reacting. If, after waiting, the student initially does not provide an answer, you might entice a response by offering a clue and restating the ques­tion. If, after this, the student still had no answer, I would often reply, Thats okay, Suzanne, but pay attention, because I’m coming back to you. Then, I might call on another student to provide the correct answer. Once I received the correct answer, I would return to the original student, getting her to verbalize the correct answer.

On the other hand, by employing a call-ask-wait technique (e.g., Suzanne, what is a noun?), the resulting effect is that the anxiety level is raised for one student while everyone else is off the hook and not accountable for responding or even attending (Rice & Taylor, 2000). As a teacher, I often found myself reluctant to call on those struggling students who I feared would not be able to respond cor­rectly. By employing an ask-pause-call method of questioning, allow­ing ample wait time, providing additional clues, and—ulti­mately—coming back to students who dont initially know the correct answer, I felt that I was able to engage all learners more effectively.

I am pleased, therefore, to note that teachers at AAK are skilled in questioning techniques and avoid capricious patterns of checking for individual and whole-group understanding. Josef Albers stated with perceptiveness, Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers. Thanks for taking the time to reflect on your daily questioning techniques. More importantly, thanks for Teaching with Passion each day!

                                                                                     Have a Great Weekend!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

While large meetings and grand symbolic actions play a part, the most significant change in work culture is accomplished in one-to-one personal interactions.                                                                                      (Sagor, 1992, p. 18)
I do enjoy our faculty meetings and our other large group gatherings, but I understand Sagor’s emphasis on individualized interactions playing a key role in the success of any work culture, including school buildings and individual classrooms. This is applicable as we work with each other and as we work with our students and parents. One of the primary skills we must possess in order to establish positive interpersonal relations is the seemingly simple skill of listening. It is of paramount importance that we listen: to our students, our parents, and—perhaps most notably—to each other. As important as it is for us to be active listeners, it is equally important that our students do likewise. Highlight the following aspects of effective listening in your own practice and in teaching your students to listen:
  • Make eye contact.
  • Give your undivided attention.
  • Send nonverbal signals that you are interested and that you care. For example, don’t shuffle papers or continue writing when someone is with you.
  • Be able to restate or paraphrase what is being said when appropriate.
  • Don’t interrupt. Even though this may happen to us, guard against sending the message that you do not have time to listen. (McEwan, 2003)
The more we listen, the more we learn. Listening often allows us to quell erumpent conflicts. Moreover, through engaged listening, we have the opportunity to put into practice a central theme of a popular book, To Kill a Mockingbird. In this classic novel by Harper Lee, Atticus often stresses to his daughter, Scout, the importance of seeing things from the other person’s perspective. By effectively listening to others, we enable ourselves to really know another person, thereby improving our little world, however slightly. Encourage your students to engage in the above listening techniques.
At times, we become so overwhelmed that making the time to truly listen gets shortchanged. I know that I am often guilty of this myself. Thanks for listening to our students, our parents, and each other. Thanks also for letting me know if and when I am not doing the same.
Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What makes a good school has very little to do with how rich or poor the students are or the type of curriculum that’s taught. It has very little to do with special programs, expansive playing fields, huge endowments, snappy uniforms, celebrity alumni, or whether the school is wired to the Internet. What makes a good school, whether it’s public or private, religious or nonreligious, charter or noncharter, is a feeling. A feeling shared by the entire staff that their particular school is special. The feeling that their school really belongs to them.     (Manna, 1999)

The above quote may not directly tie in to the subject matter of this correspondence, the characteristics of effective teachers. However, I thought of AAK Middle School when I came across it. The feeling here is nearly palpable. It truly is special, and it fosters a feeling of ownership among staff and students. Thanks to our teachers, custodians, secretaries, counselors, nurse, librarian, cafeteria people, psychologists, aides, assistants, and maintenance workers, we have created and maintained such a feeling.

While cleaning out some files from the office a while back, I came across an article titled “What Makes a Good Teacher?” (Traina, 1999). Please accept my apology if this is something that has been shared previously, but I found that it rang true with respect to my experience. The author sought to identify characteristics that are consistently cited by students and parents as those exhibited by their very best teachers. They are as follows:

Command of subject matter. Effective teachers know their subject matter inside and out. In addition, they convey a love of, and passion for, their subject matter.
Caring deeply about each student and about that student’s accomplishment and growth. Effective teachers take time to consider each student as an individual and a unique learner. They take the time and make the effort to get to know about each student, inquiring of their interests, family, and so forth.
Distinctive character. Effective teachers add a special flavor and zeal to their instruction that creates a memorable impression on their students. Whether it is an eccentric sense of humor or a tragedy overcome, such teachers stand out in the minds of their students.

At AAK, we are obviously staffed by teachers with distinctive character who care deeply about each and every one of their students. It is equally apparent that AAK teachers possess a superior command of their respective content areas. As a result, your students will remember you long after they leave us.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Back to School - Yeah!

Schools are not buildings, curriculums, and machines. Schools are relationships and interactions among people.               
(Johnson & Johnson, 1989)

Did you know that I love the beginning of school?  I honestly couldn’t sleep the night before the children came for their first day.  The smells of floor wax, new sneakers, fresh pencils and, of course, the familiar smiles are emotional signposts in my mind.  I missed being in school.  This is not to say I don’t love my summer vacation, I’m just really glad that school has begun.

I can tell that many of you are glad to be here, too.  Your energy, passion, and excitement is palpable.  Students were met at the classroom door with greetings and salutations.  The atmosphere was very pleasant.  The children loved their first week of school.  I also have learned that many of you had made calls home before the children even left the building on Thursday.  It goes without saying how appreciative our parents are for this simple act.  You welcomed these nervous and anxious parents into the AAK family.  Well done!

Building positive relationships with our students and parents is essential to our mission as educators.  This week, I participated in a Twitter chat with parents and educators nationwide and the consensus was overwhelming.  Schools that made relationship-building a priority excelled in almost all areas.  The results were touted, shown, and discussed during this chat.  As a point of Potsdam PRIDE, AAK’s practice of calling and emailing the parents with a personal greeting from our teachers was mentioned during this chat and it impressed many.  This small gesture forms the foundation for success.  We can build a strong structure on a good foundation.

While we continue to stress relationship-building with our students and parents, I’d like to encourage you to search for opportunities to practice the 100/0 principle with colleagues, co-workers, and family.  I’m confident that it will improve all relational situations. 

Good luck with this school year.  You’re off to a wonderful beginning. 

Be the light!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Personal Learning Plan

“The principal goal of education is to create men (& women) who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done.”
Jean Piaget

“…to preparing each student to become a life-long learner…”
                                                                                                            AAK Mission Statement

One of the basic tenants of education, which is present in almost every school mission statement, is for our students to become life-long learners.  It’s our responsibility to provide the tools, purpose, skills, and environment which fosters learning.  Our aim to engage the students will provide the mechanism for learning beyond the classroom.  It’s exciting to hear from a child what they discovered in their own backyard, read in a book, or what interesting person they recently met.  A self-discovered “light” can do more than perpetuate the intrinsic motivation of a child; their enthusiasm can be infectious.

As we begin to move closer to our summer vacation I have traditionally reinforced my belief in reflection.  This year I’m changing gears a bit and would like you to consider one question, “Were your teachers successful?”  The development of life-long learners didn’t begin with our current era of education, but rather, has been around for many.  It was probably spoken by your teachers as a goal, mission, or vision from your school.  So, were your teachers successful?  Are you a life-long learner? 

We could probably agree that all of us spend hours learning each day.  Many of us have special hobbies which we dive into.  We continue to work on our interests to increase the level of proficiency that we have in them and summer appears to be the best time for such endeavors.  To look beyond the casual, I also spend time during summer vacation learning something new about my craft of education.  Former AAK Principal Ed Hanlon instilled this by placing a simple goal before me as a young teacher.  Change your plans.  He furthered my task by encouraging me, and his entire faculty, to rework about 20% of their classroom plans each year.  During my career as a teacher at AAK I did this.  It wasn’t easy, but in doing so I grew immensely as an educator.  My planning, instruction, and assessment improved each year. 

As the circle of pedagogical influence is completed, I encourage you to do the same.  Take a look at one area of your craft, learn more about it, and do as Mr. Hanlon suggested.  Summer is the perfect opportunity to enjoy learning about teaching.  In the first meeting of the year, I showed to you the video, "We've Got to Be That Light" by Dr. Jeff Goldstein.  Both mentors require the same mindset.  That good enough is not great.  A conviction that student learning and development is dependent on the opportunities they have. 

This brings me to my selected title for today’s thoughts.  What is your Personal Learning Plan (PLP)?  What would you like to know more about so that you can enact positive change in your classroom?  Take time in the next eight weeks to relax and recharge, but also place some thought in developing a PLP.  If you accept this request then you’ll look back on this summer as one of the most rewarding of your career.

Have a great summer!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Feel the Fire!

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

-W.B. Yeats

I’m a quote guy.  I love them.  When I coached basketball we began each practice with the analysis of a quote.  In the soccer locker room, I posted them all over the walls of the “dungeon.”  Many of you rely on quotes, too.  I see them posted in your rooms and spoken to children; all in the quest of imparting sagely advice.  We use them with versatility to motivate, inspire, and possibly in the modification of an action.  There’s a quote for every occasion.  I think my son, Daniel, would agree.  He’s constantly beleaguered by quotes from his every-caring father.

The quote from William Yeats speaks to the heart of what we need to do.  This herculean task is placed before each of us as we grapple with low student motivation, generational and situational poverty, and the stressors from the SED.  Are these late 19th century words a solution to our 21st century problems?  I’m asking that you spend time contemplating these words and the meaning for you.  It really doesn’t matter your approach to this exercise, it’s simply a good practice. 

If you’re the type who enjoys a mental exercise, try changing your perspective while completing this task.  The perspective of a teacher is most comfortable for us.  What about the perspective of a parent or possibly a student.  These words may have a different significance.  For those of you who are cognitive giants try to alter your method while delving into the depths of Mr. Yeats’ mind.  Look at it from a philosophical point to understand why he wrote this.  What about the behaviorist in us all who try to place situations with each statement.  The constructivist approach would certainly create meaning. 

I hope you found relevance within this activity. 

Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Be SAFE; Be RESPONSIBLE; RESPECT others, yourself, & your school

These standards are a component of all school guideposts.  We want our children to feel safe and to be safe.  We strive to encourage personal and group responsibility.  We cherish the moments when respect is observed.  When any of these are diminutive, the entirety of the school is affected. 

Being developmentally responsive to the needs of our students is something that AAK has received recognition for through our Schools to Watch status.  The need for our response was seldom more important than recently as Mr. Saber and I presented “Let’s Talk: Bullying, Harassment, and Our Children” to the parents of our fifth graders.  Once again our students’ demonstrated need for assistance was answered by the diligence of our professionals.  Safety, responsibility, and ultimately the respect of our students were queried.   

During “Let’s Talk” we discussed the difference between normal relational conflict, harassment, and bullying.  We looked at relational conflict as opportunities for teachable moments both in the school and at home.  The parents understood that overreacting could be just as detrimental to their child as underreacting.  Our children need to develop their skills during these difficult times so that they can learn to navigate adult relationships.  Children need assistance and occasional advice, especially when they feel that things are moving out of their control. 

We transitioned our discussion into the more sensitive area of harassment.  Negative comments, racial slurs, and put-downs are examples of harassing behaviors.  SED recently provided additional guidance as they defined characteristics of harassment when actions were based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, or gender (identity or expression).  These areas cannot be used in a negative manner against another child.  It’s simply not allowed and the parents agreed. 

What appears to be a wide, grey line between harassing behavior and bullying is clarified through the SED’s guidance document.  Bullying is a hostile activity which harms or induces fear through the threat of further aggression and/or creates terror.  It can be a subtle act or very obvious.  It can be a single person or a group.  For a harassing act to be considered bullying, four distinct features are present.  A power imbalance, either physical or social, exists.  There has to be a proven intent to harm.  This can be a physical attack or an attack on the social-emotional psyche of the victim.  There is a threat of further aggression and both the victim and perpetrator know that this action will continue.  Finally, the victim experiences terror.   

While schools continuously look to the basic guideposts to dictate decorum, it’s important to recognize that respect is paramount and a basic component of safety and responsibility.  Respect for self is diligence, hard-work, and a conscientious attitude.  Respect for others is empathy and a tolerance of ideas that are different from our own and that the sum of the whole is greater than any one part.  Respect for the school is singular in purpose and comes from the relationships of its people and intention of its mission.  I’m proud of AAK’s response to the needs of the children.  Parental collaboration is crucial for a successful mission and “Let’s Talk” completed the circle for this involvement.  I appreciate the work completed by Mr. Saber towards this mission.  Moreover, his willingness to be involved demonstrated that we believe in our mission and that AAK is truly a School to Watch. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

ENGAGING the learner

This week I brought a writing done a couple of years ago our of the file cabinet. It talks about ENGAGING the learner.
I hope you enjoy and find new motivation in this previous writing.
Essential Question

How does one teach so that every student is valued and can develop a meaningful understanding?

As I try to write meaningful thoughts for the Friday Focus, oftentimes I’m confronted with writers-block; a common ailment for many would-be writers.  To forge through this dilemma, I began to formulate the above Essential Question on which to focus my reflections.  Essential Questions are used in most of your classrooms and serve in much the same way as I’ve used this one – to focus the instructional message.  Writing a quality question is almost an art form, but it goes to the heart of the issue of projected outcomes for the instructional lesson.  While this is not quite to the level of a “backwards design” as described by Wiggins and McTighe in their book, Understanding by Design (a must read for lesson/unit development), it does set the expectation for the learning outcome.
To address this Essential Question, I turned to Dr. Paul Vermette, Professor at Niagara University, author, and Constructivist Conference attendee.  As many of you know, Paul is an expert at developing meaningful understanding and valuing the learner.  I have taken a number of workshops and classes from him, and always come away with furthering my own personal knowledge.  In a recent publication, he states that teachers can tap into student interests, strengths, passions, and concerns by focusing on eight factors.
Entice effort and build community.  We should take every opportunity to motivate, encourage, and support students.
Negotiate meaning.  Students must develop their own understanding of important ideas; they are never expected to memorize without meaning nor are they to claim understanding without their own examination.  This “constructivist” ideal has been supported through much of the current brain-based research.
Group collaboratively.  Students work in and out of partnerships; consequently, they must be respectful of everyone else and accept the responsibility of honoring a community of diverse individuals.  Brain-based research also indicates that a social component strengthens the permanency of a learned concept.
Active learning and authentic assessment.  Learning is seen as the result of thinking and is demonstrated by a performance of understanding.  Learning is doing and is always visible and audible; “tests” mean providing evidence of understanding by skilled use of ideas in a new and realistic situation.
Graphic organizers.  A simplistic but powerful tool, these are used regularly to examine information, record thinking, and to document relationships.  Students think visually on a regular basis and keep these as other people keep computer files.
Intelligence interventions.  Diversity is the norm, so differentiated instruction has also become the norm.  Teachers and students utilize a myriad set of strategies, ideas, and practices to find ones that work for specific individuals.
Note making.  Unlike most classrooms in which every student is expected to develop a set of “notes” that are identical to the teacher’s, note making expects each student to record his or her own ideas as they happen and as questions are being answered.  Like a “captain’s log,” those notes explicate the musings, the analogies, the partial answers, and the insights gathered as students navigate the realities of their investigations.
Grade wisely.  Grading practices stand as the real belief system of a teacher.  In every case, the teacher should give the benefit of the doubt to the thinker-learner and use the grades as motivators for continued work.  The approach to grading a project, and assignment, a homework, or an interaction becomes the vehicle by which a teacher defines his or her philosophy and sends messages to students about their own expectations for success in that class.       
In a way that speaks volumes about the teaching style of Paul Vermette, he has produced a simple and easy to understand message.  ENGAGING the learner in the content is critical in developing meaningful understanding.  During the past two summers, I have had the opportunity to sit and talk with Dr. Vermette about AAK.  We’ve discussed many of the factors which led to his message of the ENGAGING classroom.  I think he would be proud of how AAK teachers conduct their learning activities.  In each classroom, I see components of his philosophy.  We have students that are constructing their knowledge and feel valued by the teachers and their classmates.  AAK is more than just another middle school…for that…thank you.                                                                     

                                                                        Have a great weekend.

Source:  Engaging Students in Their Own Learning, Paul Vermette.