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 (http://pta.org/parents/content.cfm?ItemNumber=2910).  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.