Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Happy Year New

I always find the end of the calendar year a challenge.  The cold weather sets in, there’s no sunlight, and we’re all too busy to realize that the cookies and chocolates that we've been devouring aren't the best diet.  It’s hectic and many of us find the days of December to be stressful.  Yet, there’s an activity that you can participate in to rejuvenate and reinvigorate yourself over the Holiday Break:  Reflection.  Many of us have experienced significant changes during 2013, personally and professionally.  Whether these changes have been for the better or worse, it’s important to remember and reflect.  It seems that hindsight is always clearer than when the path was ahead.  But, reflection for some is only a beginning.

A few years ago as I rang the Salvation Army bell at Walmart I thanked a contributor and said, “Merry Christmas” to him.  This older gentleman replied, “and a Happy Year New.”  At first this struck me as being odd, but I wonder if it was a slip of the cliché or a restating of it in a new context. I’d like to think that he was telling me to have a happy year and make it new: to move beyond my trials of that year and make the new year a happy year. To do this I needed to do more than simply reflect. I needed to rethink and use my 20/20 hindsight.

The root of reflection is improvement, not just remembrance, so reflection can lead to a new and different coming year. To make a year brand new, then, we need to identify what needs to be different in 2014. To honestly answer this question we need to begin with the individual. It’s too easy to point out reasons why things can’t change – it’s much more difficult to create the positive energy necessary for creating a year that’s new.

We must be the change we wish to see in the world.   Mahatma Gandhi

Through my reflections of 2013, I’ve been truly impressed with the many initiatives that you have endeavored with to make NNCS and the North Country better.  Most recently – the Angel Tree, Snack Pack Program, Key Club helping the elderly and offering free movies, food drives, bell ringing, PTSA Story Hour, donating to families in need, caroling, coming in on weekends to decorate the elementary hallway, collecting coats and mittens for children, Fun Nights, foreign language students teaching elementary, acceptance of special needs programs, and the PAL program.  Your generosity and empathy is overwhelming. I’m sure that Ghandi would be impressed. But what would you change about 2013, if you could, to make 2014 a new year?

I’d like to regale you with a personal story. About 15 years ago my health was not good, my teaching position was eliminated and my wife’s teaching position wasn’t a tenure track. I was fortunate enough to be able to retain a job, but it wasn’t in the middle school – where I had taught for 10 years. After my second week of teaching that September, I visited with Mrs. Chorba, my principal and mentor. I asked her to find a way to get me back to the middle school. As we discussed my dissatisfaction she had discovered that my request came from the fact that I found the climate much different from what I was comfortable with. Her words cut me to the core, “If you don’t like the climate and ‘feeling’ of the school, then what can you do to change it?” This sage advice was the beginning of a personal realization that I could have a significant impact on others and my surroundings. Shortly after this, I began working with the policies and procedures at the high school and district levels. It dawned on me that the only time I felt like I couldn’t enact positive change was when I told myself that I couldn’t. I learned the difficult lesson that sometimes change is good. What once seemed uncomfortable to me ended up being a tremendous experience. I came to learn that my new school was filled with wonderful teachers and students whom I learned a great deal from. I enjoyed working there and I am a better educator because of my experiences there. As I now reflect on that long-ago adventure, I’m unsure if the school climate was influenced positively by me after my conversation with Mrs. Chorba, or influenced negatively by me before my conversation.

Working in schools, we look to make a positive impact on the lives of children.  You have done so and then some.  You have influenced more than just your students, you have made an impact on me.  I am genuinely impressed by you and I challenge you to own your day and make the new year truly new.

Merry Christmas and Happy Year New!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Parent-Teacher Conferences

This is a re-post from previous years:

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 isn't 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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Keystone

Do you know what a keystone is?  It’s a term that’s important enough to be the slogan for a state just off our southern border.   To be literal, a keystone is a wedge-shaped stone piece at the top of a masonry vault or arch.   However, the figurative use of the term, according to Wikipedia, refers to the central supporting element of a larger structure, such as a theory or an organization, without which the whole structure would collapse.  To be historic, Pennsylvania was the keystone of the colonies, being centrally located as well as being the center of an early colonial movement towards federalism.  Recently I was reading a historical article which based some of its ideology on this early federal movement, which was supported by the “Keystone” state.  My mind wandered off the article and into the classroom, thus beginning my simple examination to find the “Keystone” to a successful classroom.

There are many important elements which must be present in a successful classroom.  This blog would be prolonged if I endeavored to list them all.  However, clear communication must be present with each component of the classroom.  At every level in each component of the classroom, there must exist communication which is two-way and open.  Obviously, the learning process is centered on finding an effective method of communication; however, my wandering mind takes me to an important partner in the process:  the parent.  How do we communicate with parents?  In each successful classroom there are usually multiple methods which allow for two-way communication.  Phone, email, and even texts can be utilized.  However, I have often seen a lack of development in a very simple, yet effective, mode of communication:  the website.

A website can contain a lot of the “static” information which parents are often searching for.  It can contain resources and create a climate of partnering.  I’ve even seen websites which list the homework assignments for the day – and I would gladly debate anyone who feels that this lessens the role for developing a responsible student.  To the contrary, it’s the responsible student who knows how and where to find information – what better source of information than a website designed by the teacher.

For teachers who want a medium which is easily changed each day/week/month, then consider the blog.  A blog can contain the same elements as a website, but is usually a bit easier to update on a regular basis.  As I scan the classroom websites of teachers I am seeing more and more classroom blogs.

This brings me to your homework assignment for today.  I would like to challenge you to visit five classroom websites – and only one can be from NNCS.  The other four have to be from other schools in the North Country, state, or beyond.  See how their site is organized and what types of information are placed on it.  Here’s the catch – you have to send an email to that teacher and let them know what you liked about their site.  Imagine the affirmation they’ll feel to receive that email from you.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Letter to Faculty on Common Core

I want to take this opportunity to address an issue that has caused anxiety to our teachers and school community this year, the Common Core.  This has been particularly an issue with math as teachers have worked to adopt the new modules which have not been fully released by the SED.  We have heard from many teachers and parents about how difficult this new transition has been given the level of math expected of our students and the method of instruction within the lessons provided by the SED.  You are not alone.  

This past week I spoke to our regional superintendents and like NNCS their schools have mostly adopted the math modules with similar concerns raised.  I also spoke with many around New York State and the issues of excessive copying, time spent on lesson prep and delivery, student homework, and the prescriptive nature of the lessons were expressed again and again.  These issues were also addressed with the Commissioner.  So what can we do?

Though we wish the Commissioner had provided another year to prepare for the implementation of the Common Core, he did not. That we cannot change and it is unlikely that anything will be rolled back to provide the additional time.  The Common Core is here to stay as it is with the other 45 states in the country which have adopted these higher standards.  As a whole student achievement needs to be raised to better prepare the next generation for a successful life and the Common Core has been chosen as the vehicle to get there.  However, we can find ways to work within the curriculum to provide high quality instruction without taking out the gifts each teacher brings to the classroom.

Though like most districts, NNCS has adopted the Common Core math modules it does not mean the teacher has to rotely follow every word of the documents.  We expect that teachers will infuse their own personality, creativity, and supplements to bring these lessons to life; while maintaining the integrity of the lesson components.  Many teachers have already begun to do so as they have become more comfortable with the curriculum.  They have also modified the homework assignments to provide students and their parents with a better understanding of what is expected given the lack of a textbook or other materials which would explain the nature of the work.

On the parent front, I would encourage you to share the resources from the parent section of EngageNY and the PTA website (  Any additional suggestions from our teaching staff to assist our parents in understanding would be greatly appreciated.  

I know that people are stressed.  I want all to know that we are in this together and teachers can only do the best they can as we get through this transition period.  There are no easy answers and it is clear that even the SED cannot predict everything that will come up as this reform of historic proportions is implemented.  We have an excellent teaching staff at NNCS and I have great confidence that with time we will work our way through these issues.  We stand ready to support your efforts.   


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Great Start

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?  Honestly, my anticipation has prevented me for years from sleeping through the night before the first day of school.  The smells of floor wax, new sneakers, fresh pencils and, of course, the familiar smiles are emotional signposts in my mind.  This summer I missed having school in session.  This is not to say I don’t love my summer vacation, I’m just really happy 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 day 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 Norwood-Norfolk family.  Well done!

Building positive relationships with our students and parents is essential to our mission as educators.  I have previously participated in Twitter chats (@CruikshankJamie) with parents and educators on this topic and the consensus was always overwhelming.  Schools that make relationship-building a priority excel in almost all areas.  The results have been touted, shown, and discussed during these chats.  Your small gestures to children and their families 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 also 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!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Take a Closer Look

Over the past few weeks, I have seen a lot of our NYS Education Commissioner King and Deputy Commissioner Slentz.  Their message has effectively prepared us for the devastating outcomes associated with the 2012-13 state assessments in ELA and mathematics.  As the date for the release of the scores approached, we received many “talking points” to inform our boards, communities, and teachers about the outcomes with explanations of new baselines and how these exams should not be viewed as a reflection on the efforts of students and teachers this year.  Their message, while well-intentioned considering their perspective, seems self-serving and insulting.

The highly trained educators, caring and thoughtful parents, and diligent board of education members across our state are intuitive enough to call this message to question.  How were we really supposed to prepare our students for a newly designed exam – based on a new curriculum – which hadn’t been fully developed in NYS?  To date, NYS has still not disseminated all the curricular documents that our students were tested on last April.  These scores do not represent a new baseline.  They represent the bottom-line.  In the coming months and years, as the state catches up with their own schedule to assist teachers with the necessary curricular items, we will begin to implement a new and robust curriculum. 

In quoting the blog of respected Superintendent Dr. Teresa Thayer Snyder of the Voorheesville Central School District, “If you establish a baseline this low, the subsequent growth over the next few years will indicate that your plans for elevating the outcomes were necessary.  However, it must be recognized that the test developers control the scaled scores—indeed they have developed a draconian statistical formula that is elaborate, if indecipherable, to determine scaled scores.  I would bet my house on the fact that over the next few years, scores will “improve”—not necessarily student learning, but scores.  They must, because the State accepted millions and millions of dollars to increase student scores and increase graduation rates.  If scores do not improve from this baseline, then those ‘powers that be’ will have a lot of explaining to do to justify having accepted those millions.”  This façade was created by designing and executing exams based on a curriculum which hasn't been implemented.  Of course the student scores will increase when the teachers have an adequate opportunity to teach. 

The recently released “talking points” were a necessity to cover the unsuccessful attempt to properly implement new curriculum, not to mention the premature expectation of DDI and APPR requirements based on this curriculum.  Wouldn’t it have made more sense to finish the curriculum, allow teachers and students ample time to familiarize themselves with that curriculum and then hold them accountable for the content (Common Core…then DDI based on CCLS’s…then APPR)?  Considering this barrage of new initiatives, not one of them has a chance of being implemented as effectively as it could have been, had NYSED slowed itself down to realistically consider the perspectives of those who would be directly affected.  In doing so, our educational leaders in NY would have gained tremendous support and respect from the professionals they are entrusted to guide.  Unfortunately, the opposite is true.  NYSED’s ultimate goal of improving student preparedness for successfully navigating this ever-changing world is, indeed, commendable; and I fully support the preparation of students who are college and career ready.  However, their implementation tactics are questionable.

As described in Dr. Snyder’s blog, when we examine the distribution of student scores, there will be a distinct gap between the scores of children of poverty vs. children who live above the poverty line.  While all have been relegated to a point 30 to 40 percent lower than previous years, the exact curve is absolutely connected to socioeconomic status – which has been historically true in such testing from recent memory.  I would suggest the state should have taken the money used to give these recent exams and place it in programs which assist our neediest families with resources to connect them to the school community.  This cost would not have been slight, considering the price NYS paid to Pearson to create, print, ship (2 ways), analyze, and ultimately – shred, the math and ELA exams, which were unreasonably given to students in grades 3-8.  The programs which we could have implemented to assist in developing positive relationships with our families would have paid NYS back ten-fold and narrowed the performance gap previously demonstrated by students in poverty.

The part of this story which remains mostly untold is the effect on our children.  In a previous Blog post I reflect on the effects which are felt by all.  We will now need to talk with parents and children who previously scored 4’s, only now to be told that they are not considered as good as they thought they were – all because of a manipulation of the scaling of their scores.  We will build up our at-risk and underperforming children who were just told by NYS that they aren’t simply below proficiency, but rather, essentially non-learners.  Children are the unwitting pawns in a massive scheme to prove how these “high standards” are improving outcomes over time. 

As we analyze the information and designate resources to improve instruction, please be assured Norwood-Norfolk Central School remains committed to our Mission Statement, which is to prepare all students to be successful in the 21st Century by engaging them in challenging learning environments that meet the highest academic, social and ethical standards. Students will be empowered to achieve their full potential as creative, purposeful lifelong learners, who strive for academic success, responsible citizenship and well-being in a collaborative, diverse and dynamic learning community.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What Do You Remember About School?

My memories of school are focused on people.  The funny and caring teachers, the server in the cafeteria who used to give me an extra grilled-cheese sandwich, the kids who I sat with in math class, the custodian who seemed to know everything about the NY Knicks, my coach, the secretary who still remembered my voice on the phone long after I had graduated, the smell of the floor cleaner, the sixth grade trip on Uncle Sam’s Boat Tour, selling pizza’s to raise money for the sixth grade trip, graduation, that big game, baking ‘stuff’ in Home Ec and then putting-on a dinner for the Board, the play (I was the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland), playing my trumpet with my friend Aaron, my principal going to all the basketball games, ect., ect., ect.
I also remember many things about the academics…listening to Mr. Grudowski in Chemistry, learning Mrs. Buckingham’s science vocabulary for the next laboratory, Mrs. Master’s grammar lessons, Mr. Pitkin and Mr. Stemples teaching math through problem-solving, Mrs. Maguire telling me that I don’t have to go to Resource Room anymore, Mrs. Brothers dramatizing stories of the Civil War, Earth Science and Physics with Doc Cardinal, Mr. Richardson telling us about puberty, Mrs. Romonda and Mrs. Francey helping me learn my times tables, and who can forget Mr. Tasitano teaching me what it really meant by the phrase, To be or not to be. 
As I reminisce, it dawns on me that I can’t balance a chemistry equation and have no idea what an endoplasmic reticulum is.  Calculus is kind of like math and you can tell from my writing that grammar sometimes escapes me.  I do think of myself as a problem-solver, but I will admit that a Geometry Regents would stump me.  I do remember what I learned in Health class and my times tables are rather solid, but I am still trying to figure out Hamlet. 
So, what do I really remember about school?   It’s the people.  I obviously learned the academics along the way, but it is the people who shaped me through the experiences and opportunities that they provided.  
In the past few months I’ve had some incredible experiences talking with former students.  Some of them were on my teams while others had attended my math or science classes.  With each conversation we reminisced.  They had recalled specific conversations, actions, and feelings from those many years ago.  The irony is that none of them regaled me with their knowledge of math, science, or sports.  Instead, their memory was about me, how I treated them, the classroom/team dynamics, our struggles together, and the feelings that they remember. 
As I conclude my thoughts, I should have chosen a better title.  Maybe, “What do you want your students to remember?” 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Is Right

Let me begin by saying I am a proponent of standardized assessments, if they are well-constructed and used for a well-defined educational benefit.  I am also a policy follower and have always looked to the written rules to determine outcomes.  I am also an advocate. 
During the past few days I have placed our students through the rigors of the NYS ELA Assessment, with every security measure in place to ensure test integrity.  I have watched in amazement as many of our children have worked to the very last minute of the required time period.  I am proud of them.  Children with diagnosed reading disabilities, having the right to extended time, sitting for two or almost three hours per day working diligently to produce the desired results.  They want to succeed.  They want to please.  They want to do their best.  They feel defeated, berated, and embarrassed.  Through tears, an 8th grader questioned, “Why does New York State want us to fail?” 
In my professional practice, I encourage reflection.  The question from this 8th grader caused me a great deal of pain as I ruminated.  I have no reply for this child. 
Many of my teacher’s reflect through writing.  I would like to share the reflections of a professional who works in my building.
We were told to prepare ourselves to fall in love. We did immediately, with his remarkable embracement of the privilege to receive an education, his unrelenting passion for learning, his intelligence, his profound integrity, his gentle and generous soul. This is the experience one receives being in his presence each day at school.
This is his experience at home. Both parents are in prison; his step-father is on house arrest and wears an ankle monitor. He awakes each morning at 4 a.m. in order to board the bus on time, no one seeing him off, traveling two hours to school each morning. His medication for severe anxiety leaves him sleepless most nights, arriving at school a bit tired, although happy, grateful and ready to grasp the day.
In addition to a grade level team that would love to clone him, he relies on a teaching assistant to be his teacher, counselor, surrogate mother, confidante and cheerleader. Through everyone’s efforts, his self-esteem has been built up to a point where one can now get a glimmer of what he indeed believes to be true: that he is good, he is worthy and he is intelligent. That was yesterday.
This is today. His self-worth plummeted. His previous feelings of self-doubt surfaced and turned quickly to self-loathing, resulting in rapid self-destruction. He sat at his desk, angry tears streaming down his face, fists clenching and unclenching his pencil and eraser, unable to go on. He was unsure of what to do, but sure he was a failure. School, the very environment he has come to love and trust, duped him. He no longer trusts. We told him how smart he is…you told him he is stupid. You entered his life for a mere three days, and in that short time had the ability to diminish him to the shell of a child he once was. That is what you did today.
This is what is going to happen tomorrow. We will take his defeated spirit, his tormented soul, and begin, once again, to build him back up. We will attend to his fragile mind and his broken spirit. We will give him the education that he longs for. We will give him the loving attention he deserves. We will tell him he is smart and capable. We will once again hold up the mirror of goodness and greatness so he can see, once again in himself, all we have been telling him to be true…he is good, he is worthy and he is intelligent.
We cannot begin today though; we will begin rebuilding tomorrow, as we will have to wait for today to be a distant memory for him, so he can love and trust us once more.
This reflection expresses the personal struggles of our students as well as our professionals.  My educators want to do what is required, but they also know what is educationally and pedagogically right.  We need to listen to these highly trained professional educators.  This week, I have been a witness to situations where the teacher has felt completely helpless as they watch a child distance themselves from school.  There is no joy or love of learning today.  Intrinsic motivation?  Gone.  Interestingly, there have been no questions from teachers about APPR or evaluations this week; it’s not about that.  It’s about our children and the teachers are crying, too. 
The current era of test-obsession has brought about another damaging dynamic which is played out between home and school.   Test refusals and parents “opting out” of the exam has placed our collaboration at odds.  Our families who are encouraging their children to refuse the exams are not wing-nuts, but rather highly educated professionals.  They don’t want to be arguing with the school, but system has left them no choice.  We need to listen to the concerns of our families.
The conflicting feelings are felt by all.  We want to follow the rules – and we will.  We want to encourage our children – and we have.  We want something better – and we must.  
I will complete my thoughts for today with a (non-fiction) story about a teacher who journal writes with her students.  Among the many wonderful student reflections gathered after the state assessments there was one particularly insightful child whose words were a simple quote from Albert Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” 
I hope your weekend brings much rest and restoration.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Your Spring Break Assignment

This past Monday I had the opportunity to watch a pilot episode of 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School on PBS.  While the episode focused on one particular high school in Washington, DC, I found relevance in the issues and trials these professionals, students, and families experience.  I highly recommend you watch an episode. 
During one segment of the show they presented an instructional coach working with a first year teacher.  I was impressed with the insightfulness of this coach.  Through observation and conferencing, she worked with this young professional and keyed in on many aspects that, with focused improvement, will lead to academic success.
During an epilog with this instructional coach, she made a statement which forced me to immediately grab my computer and begin typing this message.  She said, “You may think this is your classroom, but it’s the students.  You may think that it’s your lesson, but it’s the students’ lesson.”  I remember sharing a similar sentiment with you about the classroom being the students last year in the video, You've Got To Be That Light, by Jeff Goldstein.  However, the concept that the lesson plan is the students is something that I feel we all need time to think about.  A simple cognitive exercise for you this vacation:  Who are your lesson plans for?   

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Have you ever experienced a moment when something is said that brings everything into focus?  An occurrence that makes you stop and think before you dare say anything more.  This happened to me this past weekend while I was attending the NYS Middle School Association Board of Directors meeting. 

Our board was discussing ways of supporting our middle-level teachers as we continue to uncover the Common Core Learning Standards.  We discussed the idea of having middle school teachers write about their best practices within the CCLS and present at our October conference; providing others with some replicable practices.  A few of us presented the idea that our teachers are experiencing a wave of anxiety and overload from the Regents Reform Agenda.  We went so far to suggest that it would be difficult to find teachers to write and/or present because teachers are so busy.  That’s when it happened.  Stephen Parker Zielinski, the NYS Middle School Association President said in a very calm voice, “Teachers are highly trained professionals; they are not lay-people.  I reject the idea that they are anything less.”  Mr. Zielinski’s unadorned suggestion was that teachers are professionals and as such, contribute to their own profession. 

There are times when we all feel underappreciated or believe the precept that others don’t treat us as an authority.  Mr. Zielinski’s comment brought to the forefront in my mind of what that truly means.  He flatly rejected the idea that a teacher would not contribute to the profession because that would simply be, well, unprofessional.  Being a contributor to the educational profession equates to being a professional.  Therefore, our own actions dictate how we are viewed.  There’s a reason why Mr. Zielinski, a principal from South Seneca Middle-High School, is the president of a state-wide organization.  He does more than talk the talk – he walks the walk.

My reflection on his words brought me to think about people who I view as a professional.  Consequently, they are also the people who I respect and admire.  Their actions, in word and deed, benefit others as well as the whole of their profession or calling. 

This brings us to my focus that there are specific actions which lead us to being professionals.  A professional must continue learning and improving.  This goes beyond the staff development days; it means that you are engaged in a professional learning community.  This is a rather easy thing for us to do.  To simplify, identify what is new or less-known to you regarding your craft and then develop your learning community.  Here are a few thoughts for research:  How do I increase the rigor in my questioning.  What are some Close Reading strategies?  How can an inclusive mainstreamed classroom work?, etc.  To find the answers to many of your inquiries you must find the experts.  With social media, the experts are within a few minutes search.  Professionals communicate with each other and discuss relevant topics. 

Another act of professionalism is to reflect on a successful practice that you employ and write about it.  Others could benefit from your experience.  I began writing this blog as a way of self-reflection – I didn’t even share it with anyone until I had completed about 20 entries.  The dialogue which a blog or article elicits is a way of engaging people in their learning.  You could be the expert in their learning community.  We could take this idea one step farther to suggest that you could present your successful practice to others.  There are many opportunities:  team meetings, faculty meetings, department meetings, conferences.

In a similar view, I have long encouraged your involvement in community events.  Whether in the school community or within the greater North Country community, professionals are involved.  We work for an improvement to the status quo.  People admire those who devote their most precious resource – time. 

I was fortunate as a young professional, a beginning teacher in my twenties.  My mentors continuously challenged me to be involved, be informed, and be a learner.  They formed many of my burgeoning ideas of professionalism, through mentoring.  Later, as an experienced teacher at the high school, my mentors pushed me to be an agent of change, a solution-minded problem solver.  During my tenure as the building leader at AAK, I hope that I’ve encouraged you to hold your head high and be proud of being a professional teacher, to work in service of the children, and to constantly challenge good in an effort to be great.  My goal is that all of you will complete the cycle of mentoring and influence tomorrow’s classrooms. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Academic Coach

One of my idols is legendary coach John Wooden.  What he did for UCLA, basketball, and the lives of his players would take volumes to record.  I began learning of his contributions as I studied various coaching styles in my early years working with the PCS sports teams.  The lessons learned transcended the games.

In reviewing any practice plan of mine, when I would introduce a new topic or skill, there would be periods of short, focused instruction, modeling, low-risk practicing, group and individual development, then high-risk practicing.  At each stage I would create authentic opportunities to engage the athlete, enabling me to critically assess and provide feedback.  Of course, repetition would be elemental for any concept or skill to become automatic. 

During the course of any practice, complications would inevitably occur, resulting in a loss of instructional time.  I often found myself forced to make a decision.  Should I rush through the time-tested process and try to speed the learning, or should I eliminate one of the steps?  After much trial, and even more error, I learned that the best solution was to eliminate the short, focused instruction.  (I realize that this technique may seem counter-intuitive to most; however, it was at every other stage of this learning process that I could provide critical feedback to the learner.)  Therefore, I would place my athletes into some low-risk (consequence free; an objective-laden bell ringer; an exploratory game, etc.) situations without instruction, having them draw upon their previous experiences and my feedback for proper development.  I experienced more success with this approach than when I directly instructed them and reduced the amount of time for feedback and practice. 

Many educators present to one or two learning modalities.  We know it’s difficult to address every learning style.  Moreover, differentiation brings an additional level of difficulty to most presentations.  This is why I bring this Friday Focus to you.  Even when a student has had little or no prior exposure to a concept or skill, students can often learn that concept or skill through investigation or discussion that either builds on their basic prior knowledge or excites to spark new knowledge.  And when students are stuck, it doesn’t always mean they need you to tell them the answer.  Just asking kids the right question is often enough to help them move forward. 

Please know that I’m not suggesting teachers kick-back while students learn or don’t learn on their own.  Instead, students should be provided a chance to learn by doing, with access to resources that can help them (technology, books, a classmate, you).  Teachers, meanwhile, circulate to assess what children know and what they don’t know – helping troubleshoot as necessary.  This allows teachers to plan the post-activity whole-group instruction/correction/discussion as it would benefit the student.  It’s at this point when a teacher can facilitate the sharing of solutions and insights, address common misconceptions, and scaffold understanding to a deeper level. 

As I describe this Constructivist learning process, two popular instructional methodologies come to mind.  The first strategy being most like what I describe is referred to as project-based learning.  The second strategy would be the flipped-classroom model, but with little or video instruction.  In both approaches to instruction, the classroom time is spent in exploration, investigation, and collaboration on authentic tasks. 

Anxiety and uncertainty over the CCLS and new APPR requirements seem to have swayed many educators away from these methodologies, potentially stifling creativity.  In analysis of the new standards, it is my belief that as we become more comfortable with these new directives, we will realize the countless possibilities for expanding opportunities for deeper understanding through less “sage on the stage” instruction.  Telling a child that the pool is deep will not ensure that they know it’s deep until they jump in.  Affording students experiences to explore, access and build their own knowledge is at the “core” of the standards. 

As we all continue to delve into the new standards, I am confident that AAK will continue to be a beacon of excellence in the area of instructional strategy and methodology.  Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I'm a Successful Failure

The idea of failure being a positive experience for children and their development is nothing new.  There have been volumes written on the topic.  Yet, when I was recently asked about my own failures, I froze.  Please don’t be mistaken; I’ve had countless “failures” and an equal number of set-backs.  My inability to answer and to clearly state a failure surprised me.  It was at this point that I authentically understood the value of failure.
Recently, I read an article by Jessica Lahey, entitled Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail.  The premise of this article supported exactly what the title indicated and I believe that few educators would disagree.  Lahey’s assertion perpetuated some lively discussion among several others whom also read the piece.
Failure, in and of itself, is not what we aspire to do.  Reflection of such experiences is the key to unlocking meaningful life’s lessons, internalizing new found realizations and moving on.  Only then is failure valuable.  Our disappointments enable our need for reflection.  True reflection leads to improvement and the potential for success.  As I once explained to my soccer teams, “We can learn more from a loss than a win.”
Personally and professionally I’ve provided myself quite a number of opportunities to fail.  However, I believe I have had very few meaningless failures because I reflected, changed, and moved forward.  My so-called failures became opportunities.  Everyone has experienced this phenomenon in one form or another.  In relation to our classrooms, our task is to provide opportunities for children to learn how to be successful at failing.  We must see the opportunities in each child as they struggle and teach the process of reflection. 
Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Importance of Life Skills

Today’s Focus is more business-like than my usual philosophical brilliance J.  My plan is also to display recognition of the professional and reflective nature of the teachers at AAK.  Your diligence is respected.
The Potsdam Central School District has re-written our Grading and Homework Policy in recent years.  During and after the first re-write, teachers, students, and parents delved into the much needed conversation of effectively grading a child’s performance.  It was at this time we recognized the significance of reporting on other, non-academic characteristics; separate from academic grades.  Throughout the initial phases of implementing that policy, the middle school defined these desirable traits and thus was born our Life Skills Rubric. 
After much feedback, reflection, and dialogue, the Grading and Homework Policy was, yet again, edited.  A component of both re-worked policies was that the Life Skills were strongly supported and that teachers should report on these non-academic skills.  As our building continued to support the use of the Life Skills Rubric, we noticed its’ limitations.  A few concerns were voiced during our Team Leaders meeting and so we decided to re-work the Life Skills Rubric to better reflect the character traits our teachers wish to report.  Currently, our Team Leaders are presenting the potential new rubric to their constituents.  If I may speak for the Team Leaders, your feedback is valued.  The areas that are reported on in this draft rubric are work habits & preparation, organization, and class participation. 
In reflection from the past few years, I am glad that we continue to believe these desirable traits need to be reported.  As I review student report cards, I often contemplate on the Life Skills in comparison to the academic grades.  There is little irony in the fact that students who traditionally score well with their behavioral grades also score well in their class averages.  While this certainly applies to the majority, it’s not always a steadfast rule.  This is where the significance lies, with students who don’t reflect the norm.  Most of us can think of a student who works hard and displays desirable characteristics, but doesn’t always receive equally high academic grades.  Similarly, there are students who do receive the high academic grades, but struggle with some of the skills we identify with successful students.  This additional behavioral grade adds tremendous value to the report card.  As a parent, many times I look to this assessment before viewing the academic grade. 
I thank you for standing tall and demonstrating that teachers do more than teach the curriculum. 
                                                                                                Have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Healthy Practice for Teachers

This is an activity which I asked you to participate in a few years ago.  I actually had a lot of feedback at the time from teachers on my staff as well as teachers from other districts (who my teachers had contacted).  It’s a quick activity and I feel you’ll get a lot out of it, professionally.
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!