Sunday, February 7, 2016

I Don't Miss The Classroom

That's right, I said it... I don't miss the classroom. Yes, I love being an educator and I love working with kids, their families and other educators but I don't miss the classroom. 

You see, I recently had the opportunity (a most amazing one) to teach kindergarten for the whole day. It was a Monday morning and we had only three substitutes in the building but five teachers were out. Yup - two uncovered classes. This is not necessarily unusual for a school on any given day - not enough subs - but there was a lot going on and I had to make a quick decision about who would be teaching kindergarten. I looked at my calendar and it was open for the most part and although I had a million "administrative" things to get done, I realized it would be the least disruptive thing to put myself in as the sub for the day. 

I didn't cover the class so I can walk around the building and tell everyone about it. I didn't cover the class so I can flood my social media feed with pics of myself "working" with kids (who cares about me?). I didn't cover the class so I could be seen as the "savior" who took one for the team. I didn't cover the class so I could be in the "trenches" for a day. I didn't even cover the class because I necessarily wanted to do it. 

I covered the class because I thought it was in the best interest of children (not necessarily the part about having me as their teacher but that is a whole other story). The kids would have one teacher for the whole day, which would allow for some consistency. I also covered the class so I didn't have to pull someone else from their program or class, which would have been disruptive to other kids. Bottom line... covering kindergarten for the day was about our kids and teachers, not me.  

So, I headed down to Room 6 and although I was initially somewhat nervous (I had never taught kindergarten before) I didn't have much time to think about it because the day had started and we needed to get moving - those little munchkins were ready to learn! Fortunately the classroom teacher had left the most detailed and awesome plans that were the key to us successfully navigating the day. We did everything from shared reading, to math, to several Groundhog Day themed projects to visiting the science lab and going to Art. That was all the stuff laid out for me in the amazing plans that literally accounted for every minute of the day. We also went off course a couple of times... we did a Google Hangout with the incredible Mr. Greg and his adorable kindergarten class in Tennessee (we counted to 100 to help them celebrate their 100th day of school). We also ended the day with some Twitter based "exit slips" where the children sat on the rug and partnered up to come up with one thing they did or learned during the day that we then tweeted out to the world. Before I knew it, it was time to go home. Overall, it was an awesome day filled with lots of learning, smiling and fun! 


After dismissing the class, I went down to the Main Office where a bunch of teachers were chatting, sharing stories about their days and laughing (the norm at the end of the day at Cantiague). Of course, everyone wanted to know how my day went as one of the kindergarten teachers... apparently the building had been buzzing about the fact that I taught kindergarten all day. 

Everyone wanted to know if I was exhausted (I was tired but being a principal is draining on every level too because I deal with hundreds of people on any given day). 

Everyone wanted to know how challenged I was by the day (there was a lot to get done and it was a busy day but as a principal, I am often running around like a chicken without a head because I am trying to meet the needs of dozens of people while putting out fires at the same time). 

Everyone wanted to know how I did with managing the little munchkins all day (they were full of energy but they were so good, they were so kind to each other and they were excited to learn, which is not something I always experience when dealing with people as the principal). 

Everyone wanted to know if spending the day in kindergarten made me realize how much I missed teaching. I laughed at some of the questions, answered them with a smile and then eventually retreated into my office because I was slightly embarrassed to share my one big takeaway from the day... that I don't miss the classroom. 

That's right, I don't miss the classroom. It has been almost 11 years since I had my own class when I last taught fifth grade. Yes, I loved teaching and learning and working with a small group of kids... a group of kids that eventually became my kids over the course of the year. But, about 11 years ago I decided I wanted to try administration and I took on my first building leadership position and basically, I have never looked back. 

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely moments when I would much rather be in my own classroom with my own kids but overall, I love being a school leader. I love the opportunities being a lead learner provides me. 

I love working with and interacting with our children, teachers and family members on any given day. 

I love being able to spend time with our children during class, lunch and recess because not only do they make me laugh and smile but they share really rich and important perspectives. 

I love amplifying student voice and then acting on what they share, which have accomplished by including students on our Shared Decision Making Team (made up of students, families, teachers and me).  

I love being able to chat with teachers during formal and informal meetings because these conversations impact the trajectory of our collective journey. 

I love interacting with parents and family members during PTA gatherings and functions because they provide me tremendous insight that helps us get better. 

I love participating in and facilitating professional development because keeping learning at the center of our community is a daily goal. 

I love being able to spend the majority of my day in all of our classrooms. 

I love being able to capture images and then using social media to amplify and accelerate our story by sharing all of the amazing things happening at Cantiague. 

Basically, I love being a principal. I love all of the opportunities and experiences it affords me. I love being able to connect with every classroom and every child and every teacher and every family member! I love the work I get to do with the entire school community and that is the main reason I don't miss the classroom. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

5 Steps To Rebranding HW

My Take On HW...

At this point I think most friends, colleagues and members of my PLN know how I feel about HW and in case someone missed it, I am not a fan. I have written extensively about HW on my blog (this post is the third post in a 3-part series - part one and part two were shared over the last couple of weeks). I have also shared dozens of comments on social media about my own HW experiences as a graduate student, about my son's HW as a middle schooler and other general opinions about this decades old practice that doesn't seem to have a positive impact on students and their learning... yet we keep assigning it. 

HW: It May Be Here To Stay... 

With that being said, it doesn't seem that HW is going away anytime time soon. In order to see HW eliminated there has to be a thoughtful process that is respectful of everyone's preconceived notions about HW. For most of society, HW is just the norm... the way it has always been done. Most of us had HW as students growing up and so we expect our children or students to have the same experience. In fact, some parents might argue that a lack of HW is indicative of a lack of learning. So, HW is probably not going away without a fight (in spite of all the research) so I think the time has come to REBRAND HW and make it something that children will be excited to engage in and parents will no longer dread.

Rebranding HW in 5 Steps... 

Here are my 5 steps to rebranding HW:

1) Eliminate it! The over abundance of research that shows no positive correlation between HW and academic performance in school should be reason enough to eliminate HW; but if that does not seem like a good enough reason, then listen to the students because my guess is they would express a strong dislike for HW, which should speak to it being irrelevant and meaningless to the people it is supposed to be impacting the most!

2) Call it something else... anything else because the mere mention of HW generally garners a negative reaction from most learners. For example, in Kindergarten at Cantiague our children are expected to read at least 2 nights a week but, instead of calling it "Reading Homework," the teachers call it Book in A Bag and the kids get super excited when they realize it is a Book In A Bag night! Someone else shared that at their school students get math homework 2 - 3 nights a week but instead of calling it "Math Homework," the children become Number Explorers one night or Magical Mathematicians the other night. The assignment may not necessarily be any different but because the word homework is nowhere to be found, the children respond differently. So, get creative and start by eliminating the word homework and see how that impacts your students!

3) Give learners choices with what they can experience at home to extend their learning (see what I did there? Didn't use HW). For example, create a menu of activities that gives students a voice in how they want to deepen and broaden their understandings in a specific content area. For example, at Cantiague, our kindergarten students practice their words using a “word study menu.” The teachers have provided the children with different activities to choose from that tap in to different modalities and interests.  These are as simple as writing their words in the steam in the shower, tracing words on a family member’s back, cheering the words like a cheer leader or building the words out of legos or different materials. After speaking with the children about their choices as part of the word study menu, it is clear that they look forward to these activities and the teachers are seeing a new level excitement surrounding learning their sight words. Basically, what the children see as a fun project, game, or activity is helping to build their foundational skills. Although this example is specific to kindergarten at Cantiague, it is super easy to change it up for older students and across all content areas because the basic idea is giving children choices so they are empowered learners beyond the school day. For example, instead of having fifth graders read about the Civil War in a textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter, give them the pertinent information and then give them a choice about how they could communicate their knowledge... maybe they could create a video about what could have happened if the South won the war or they could start a blog and write a diary as a soldier from the north or create a historical fiction picture book based on the war... the possibilities are endless!  

4) Take experiences such as Genius Hour or MakerSpace and have the children engage in activities of that nature at home where they can try something new, create something from scratch or pursue a new passion! Whatever it looks like, it builds on step 3 where students have choices for what they learn outside of school but gives them more independence over the actual process and product. This is something we are going to start doing at Cantiague where we have dubbed Tuesday nights... Try It Tuesday! This idea was suggested by one of our amazing fourth grade teachers at Cantiague who was already trying it in her classroom. This is how she framed Try It Tuesday... Every Tuesday night instead of traditional homework, the children have to try something new. It’s kind of like Genius Hour at home with no limits! I have found that the kids are motivated and engaged to experiment, imagine, plan, create and improve their “designs,” whatever that may look like to them. I started this Try It Tuesday ritual and have found that it encourages appreciation and happiness in my classroom! Based on this suggestion about Try It Tuesday and the positive feedback it received from students and their families, we will be making this a school-wide experience starting in March. Every Tuesday night at Cantiague will be TRY IT TUESDAY and although the children will be able to do whatever they want, they will also have a menu of ideas to chose from in case they are stuck for inspiration at home. I am super excited about this shift in our HW practice!

5) Flip the classroom experience and try doing HW in school while letting the children do some of the learning at home. For example, instead of having children do a worksheet about fractions at home, have them watch a short video about fractions at home and then come to school the next day and engage in various fraction based activities. Although I never tried this as a teacher, I have observed several teachers who have used this approach and their feedback is that the students have a more positive attitude about the homework and the teachers feel like they have a better understanding of their students' readiness levels because they are seeing what the children can actually produce in class. This is one of the problems with HW - we never know how much support a learner might be getting at home and how much they actually understand. So get out there and try flipping your classroom!

These are just 5 steps to rebranding homework but I am sure there are dozens more so please share some in the comments below! Although I would love to eliminate homework completely, I don't think we are there yet so I am hopeful that rebranding the experience will make it a more positive one for students, their families and educators!   

Saturday, January 23, 2016

What Can I Say?

The following post is the second in a 3 part series on the topic of homework. The first post in the series was a guest post by Allison, one of our amazing #Cantiague teachers. Allison offered us insight into how homework works in her classroom and why it is at a minimum in her learning community. In the following post I share my own personal take on homework, which helped me flush out my history with homework, which has influenced my current position. Here it goes...

Homework... what can I say? I have been thinking long and hard about this topic over the last couple of months and the truth is, I am not a fan. The main reason my opinion of homework has shifted so dramatically over the last few years is because of my experiences as a parent. Here is the deal- helping Paul with his homework is not always necessarily that much fun... actually, it is rarely fun. It is frustrating, slow, time consuming and rarely does it lead him to a deeper understanding or appreciation for something he learned about in school. In fact, for him, homework is just something he has to get done because his teachers tell him to and he never wants to disappoint his teachers. 

So, if our kids don't want to do the homework and their only motivation is to be compliant and please someone else, does the homework actually have any sustainability or value? From my lens, the answer is no. Maybe I'm missing the mark... maybe there is some value to homework but I have yet to see it.

Don't get me wrong, my opinion about homework has evolved over time but the greatest shift came in the last four years. When I was a classroom teacher I gave homework every single night because I thought that was the sign of a "good" teacher. I gave math worksheets, reading with some sort of log or reflection and some type of word work every single night. I gave homework because that is all I knew as a student. I did try and give less homework because I remember homework being such a struggle for me. 

My parents are immigrants and although they were able to speak English, they weren't able to help me with my homework. I remember having dozens of math problems each night and reading from textbooks and answering questions and having book reports and projects, with little adult support. I remember homework being something I dreaded and often got me into trouble at school because I invariably made mistakes or didn't complete the assignments. Trust me, that wasn't fun or easy. Even though my experiences with homework weren't necessarily positive, I still couldn't do away with it as a teacher. Homework had always been given and I was convinced that the parents of my students were going to judge me by how much homework I gave and the quality of the assignments.

I guess one could say that I was somewhat indifferent to homework. I didn't love it but felt it was a norm within schools and thus it should be given each night. That thinking stayed with me even into my first few years as a principal. Then Paul got to 3rd grade and all of that changed. Homework suddenly became the bane of my existence... in fact, I think I dreaded homework just as much as Paul did at that point (actually, I might have dreaded it more). Homework became the "black hole" of our time together - it sucked out the fun and took away time from the things we actually wanted to do together (build Lego sets, read books for fun or play video games). Homework became a source of tension and stress in our home... and it was something both of us were feeling and taking out on each other. Homework was more of a battle than it was an extension of the learning in school.

That is when I realized something had to change and I started doing some research about the impact of homework on the academic experience of students. And guess what? I couldn't find any research that showed a direct correlation between the practice of giving homework and academic success within school. I read a lot of Alfie Kohn's work, who presented extensive research about homework and actually shared that homework could have a negative impact on children and their families (click here to see a summary of his research findings). It wasn't the only research I came across - in fact there were dozens of studies that show homework has no positive impact in elementary school and even middle school. Yet, homework is the norm... not the exception and I don't understand why if there is no research to support the practice.

Research shows us that people learn through social interactions and thus we encourage collaborative inquiry in our classrooms - we are not forcing students to work in silent isolation (except at some schools but that is a whole other post). 

Research shows that positive reinforcement is a way to get students to model desired behaviors instead of acting out and thus we implement behavior plans and reward positive behaviors - we are not just relying on consequences and punishments to change behaviors. 

Research shows us that children learn better in smaller chunks of time because of their short attention span and thus we keep our direct instruction to 20 minutes or less - we are not lecturing for hours on end in the hopes that children will learn. 

I would argue that we don't use research enough in schools to guide our practice but we do use it in many instances and yet when it comes to homework, we do the opposite? Why? What are the benefits of homework? How is homework impacting our students in a positive way? How is homework supporting or extending the learning from within the classroom? If we don't have the answers to questions like these then the time has come for us to revisit homework; to reconsider homework; to potentially re-brand homework!

What do you think about homework? Why do you think that? What is the value of homework? Does homework in our schools need to change? Can we throw out homework completely at the elementary level? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts, insights and opinions!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Wasting Precious Time

The following reflection on homework at the elementary level comes from Allison, who teaches 5th grade here at #Cantiague Elementary. Her perspectives as a parent and educator shed light on the homework debate from two angles - she definitely gave me a lot to consider. Most importantly, Allison addresses the age old question... does more homework better prepare children for middle school? Read on to find out what she thinks... 

I spend countless hours each week sitting on the sidelines of Tyler’s basketball games with other parents of elementary and middle school aged children. The one “hot topic” that consistently comes up is…HOMEWORK. Inevitably, someone is complaining about the fact that their child is spending too many precious hours completing meaningless and ridiculous homework. First graders expected to read 20 minutes a night and struggling to fill in reading logs, Third graders writing monotonous spelling sentences each week, second graders writing responses to literature on a daily basis, and 7th graders doing pages and pages from the math text book every night. Knowing that I teach in the #1 school in New York  (yup, that's right), they always turn to me and say, “Allison, what do you think about all of this homework? In Jericho, your kids must be spending HOURS on their work at home.” 

Everyone is shocked to hear my response when I explain that my principal has shared several research based articles which show that homework in elementary school has no impact on academic success. I share that my fifth grade colleagues and I have made a conscious decision to do away with reading logs, and really limit the amount of homework we give each night. My friends are shocked to hear that we have done away with our vocabulary workbook and instead we have looked for authentic ways to have our kids engage in meaningful word study work. Friends are surprised to learn that on most nights our kids are given a maximum of five math problems to practice at home, and that our students are never told what to read or write about at home - we try and give our kids freedom and flexibility. 

Instead of excessive amounts of homework, we encourage our kids to explore their interests and passions in their free time. We want them to read for pleasure and write for real reasons. We expect them to play outside and enjoy time with their families whenever possible. We respect the fact that our kids have very busy extracurricular lives - whether they go to an after school religious school or a sport, they are growing in other ways and pursuing other interests. We recognize that during the school day we challenge our children and expect a lot of our ten-year old "babies" - they are still children. Everybody deserves a little “down time”. 

Does everyone agree with our practices? Not necessarily. Do we get questions? Yes. In fact, the parents in our class used to question whether or not our students would be prepared for middle school, given our homework philosophy (or lack thereof). Our answer is that our kids are prepared for middle school because we foster a positive attitude towards learning, make connections with our kids (and their families), build self - esteem, address social emotional skills, and create a learning environment that fosters independence and empowers our kids. In my opinion, these skills are way more important than any book report, spelling assignment, or workbook page that so many teachers and kids are wasting precious time on each and every night. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

3 Stages of Planning

Over the last couple of days I have read a bunch of wonderfully written #OneWord posts. I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, especially in the case of this powerful post about empathy by my friend Bill. Although I couldn't necessarily pick just one word, recently I have been thinking a lot about planning and how that impacts teaching and learning in our school each day. Much of my thinking has been anchored in the monthly literacy check-in conversations we have had at Cantiague where we have been discussing the integration of the new TC Units of Study and how these resources are impacting planning for literacy instruction and actual implementation. 

Planning: A Personal Journey

This notion of "planning" is one I have struggled with my entire career as an educator... I could never quite plan far enough ahead yet I always over planned to make sure every minute was accounted for in my classroom. I have run the spectrum of planning... planning week to week using a plan book; planning an entire unit of study in advance using a template; and planning day to day on sheets of loose leaf paper based on what I actually got accomplished on any given day with my students. The following graphic accurately captures what the "planning" experience looked like for me as a classroom teacher and even sometimes as a principal (be honest - how many of you can relate??)...  

Fortunately, with almost 20 years experience as an educator I can confidently say that although I may have yet to master the whole planning situation, I have come to understand how important it really is to plan for learning and teaching within our classrooms. Regardless of what style or approach or format an educator uses, the bottom line is that we must plan in advance to have some sort of trajectory for the learning we hope to see unfold in our classrooms. Some of the questions I am constantly reflecting on include... What do we want our learners to master during a course of inquiry? What are the essential questions for this unit? What are the skills and strategies we want to expose our learners to during this lesson or unit? How are we going to ensure that the learning is student centered and student driven? Having reflected on questions like these (and dozens more), I have come to some personal understandings about planning. The way I see it, there are three stages of planning we could be engaging in that could have a positive impact on our students. 

Stage 1: Unit Design

The first stage of planning, and the one that I think is most effective and beneficial to maximizing the learning and teaching experience, is unit planning. What do I mean by unit planning? I don't mean picking up the new TC Units of Study (reading or writing) and necessarily following them verbatim (although that may work for many educators). No, I mean thinking about a unit of study that would be most beneficial to students... YOUR students. Think about what you want your students to have accomplished at the end of the unit of study. What are the essential (big & overarching) questions they should be able to answer? What knowledge and skills should students have acquired at the end of a unit? Could the TC Units of Study be the resource an educator uses as the anchor for a unit? Yes! But, the end goals should be established for the current group of students... TC Units of Study are a resource - they are not the curriculum. 

After identifying the essential questions and specific knowledge and skills, now take a few steps back and think about what evidence could be "collected" during a unit to show what children have learned. This is the time to think about how the learning during a unit of study will be assessed because starting with the assessment in mind and planning backwards from that point only increases the chances of academic success for learners. The final step in unit planning is thinking about the day to day learning experiences and the instruction that need to take place in order for the children to be able to answer the essential questions at the end of the unit.

A resource that is often used to facilitate this type of unit planning is the Understanding By Design model. The graphic below provides a great visual for the thinking that goes into this type of planning. What we know about systems thinking is that we plan ahead for our end goal - basically planning for our ideal situation - and working back from there. 

Stage 2: Logistics, Schedules & Priorities

The second stage of planning considers all the logistics... scheduling, units of study across the different content areas and possibilities for interdisciplinary learning experiences. This is where the week to week planning gets refined and executed. If a teacher knows four students will be out of the classroom at reading at 9:30am twice during the week, they will plan around that to ensure that the children don't miss any new content. The second stage of planning will also consider what was accomplished the week before and what the goal is for the following week. This stage of planning drills deeper than what might be considered when planning the entire unit of study. This is where an educator considers the daily learning experiences and how they might unfold in the classroom using mini-lessons, direct instruction, guided practice, small group work and independent practice.

Stage 3: Day To Day

The third stage of planning is based on the data we collect from our students on a daily basis and this impacts the day to day instruction that unfolds in our classrooms. Yes, we may have planned a six week unit of study in writing workshop that focuses on poetry but if we notice that the majority of our students are struggling with a strategy or skill on any given day, then that should impact, and even dictate, the next day's mini-lesson. It might throw the unit of study slightly off course but ultimately, we must use data to guide and plan our daily instruction so that we are meeting the needs of our students and helping them work towards mastery of specific skills. The learning and teaching that unfolds in a classroom each day should not be solely based on a unit that was planned weeks in advance - it needs to be shaped and impacted by our students and their needs.

You Decide

Although there is not one size fits all approach to planning, I do believe these three stages of planning will ultimately have the most positive impact on the teaching and learning that unfolds in our classrooms each day. I hope that the readers of this post will join me in reflecting on their individual planning styles and how we can collaborate, as a PLN, to enhance our skills in this area!  

Monday, December 21, 2015

12 Steps to #GeniusHour

From HaikuDeck

Over the last year at #Cantiague we have made a concerted effort to meaningfully integrate the Genius Hour experience throughout our building. We were looking for a way to continue to amplify student voice and act on their input and feedback. As Genius Hour slowly trickled into the classrooms at the beginning of last year, the feedback was incredibly positive and the children wanted more of it. They were excited, passionate and they were owning their learning. 

The other thing that happened as a result of the genius hour movement at #Cantiague was that the children were no longer just learning to please their teachers; instead, they were learning because it mattered to them and they were passionate about the subject matter!

From Edutopia

With that in mind, our amazing second grade team decided to refine the process last year to better meet the needs of the children and be more "faithful" to the Genius Hour experience. Nancy, Carly, Adam and Carolyn are the guest authors of this post that offers 12 steps to implementing the #GeniusHour experience in any school and any grade level!

Genius Hour Experience (#Cantiague Second Grade Style)

Last year, we launched our Genius Hour experience in second grade.  After the first “go around” we reflected on our experience.  We realized what we loved, but also what we wanted to make better.  This year is off to a great start!  Here is what Genius Hour looks like in our room the second time around...  

1.  We started our first session by discussing our passions.  We gave each child a piece of paper with 2 dots. We asked them to draw something from those two dots that they love.  Students wrote the topic of their drawing/idea on an index card. Each student filed the index card in their Genius Hour index card box.  Some topics included beaches, nature, American Girl Dolls, hockey etc.

2. In our next session, we gave each child a piece of paper with a squiggly line and challenged them to turn that line into something they love or feel passionate about, completely different from the last session.  Students drew cars, Pandas, Hawaii, diamonds etc. Just like the last session, students wrote this new topic on a different colored index card and filed it in their Genius Hour box.

3. In the next session, we revisited their drawings and cards. We asked them to make a decision about which topic they would like to stick with for this round of Genius Hour.  They spent some time thinking and deciding. Students selected the card they chose to further research.  We collected this card.

4. In the next session, we gave back their topic index cards and asked students to brainstorm what he/she already knows about this topic, in the “K” section of KWL.  They had to really think about everything they knew and jot it down. 

5. Next session, we asked students to generate questions he/she has on their topic of choice. It was a great lesson to show students that we may still have questions on things we already love. They wrote down everything they are curious about or want to know more about! We also explained that “good” questions are not yes or no question; it needs to be something that you can find lots of information on. 

6. After that, each child needed to reflect on all their questions and pick the 5 they wanted to take through the process of researching.  We spent a lot of time focusing on the kinds of questions they should ask.

7. In our next session, students wrote down their five questions (one on each index cards) and teachers stapled their topic card on top, followed by the five index cards into a booklet. Students filed this booklet into their Genius Hour box.

8. Before the next Genius Hour, we sent a note home to each family with their child’s topic and asked parents to help us prepare students by sending in materials that their children can use for researching. We also encouraged the kids to check out books for the library on their topic. We asked for things like books, magazines, websites, articles, apps, or anything else that would help his/her child learn more on this passion topic.

9. After that, the kids were ready to start their research in class.  Students were provided with several sessions to find answers to their questions.  Some students realized that the materials they brought in were either very helpful or not helpful at all for the questions he/she have on their topic. Students were given opportunities to look for other materials in school or at home before the next Genius Hour session.  At this point, most students have completed their research and are ready for the next step! 

10. Future sessions: From there, we will give children the opportunity to pick how they would like to present their information and findings.  Last year, we had students make books, scrap books, dioramas, posters, video presentations, PowerPoints, Sock Puppet, and Show Me presentations.  This year, we have so many more ideas on ways for the students to present.  QR codes, Google Slides, new Apps, coding, and so many other cool ways to present findings.  We tell the kids…..The Sky is the Limit!

11. Finally, we will allow time for each child to share their passion project with the class.  This is such a wonderful opportunity for the students to build confidence and feel proud of all their hard work.  We can’t wait to see how it all turns out this year! Stay tuned on Twitter to see the final presentations! 

12. Have fun... Genius Hour is another way to amplify student voice and empower our learners to take ownership of their learning by incorporating their passions and interests as described in the following graphic...

From TeachThought

So, are you ready for the Genius Hour experience? If so, try the steps above and share any feedback with us on how we can enhance or refine the experience!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

11 Things Paul Taught Me About School

Today Paul turns 11 years old! That's right... it has been exactly 11 years since that first time I met him and held him in my arms! He changed my world in an instant - Paul defined unconditional love for me and taught me what it feels like to be willing to give your life for someone else. It is hard to believe that this funny, opinionated and brave young man once fit into the palm of my hand. But, here he is, in middle school. He has his own passions and interests, his own circle of friends and his own strong set of beliefs... he thinks a meal isn't complete if there isn't a dipping sauce or something fried, he thinks Justin Bieber is overrated and he thinks the less sleep, the better. 

The list can go on and on about his likes and dislikes but the thing that stands out the most to me is his opinion about school. I think the word HATE might be too strong but let's just say that he is not the biggest fan. Paul has been making an argument for 2 months of school and 10 months off for the last couple of years; he is the kid who dreads Sunday nights because Monday means school; he is the kid who counts down the days to the next break; he is the kid who remembers nothing about his school day except for what he ate at lunch and what he did in gym; he is the kid who only looks forward to school because it's a chance to socialize with all of his friends; and of course, he is the kid who would like to do away with HW! Does his disdain for school upset me a little bit? Yes because I love being an educator and am inspired each day at Cantiague by our kids, staff and families! But, do I understand why he dislikes school? Yes. Did I view school in the same way at his age? YES! Do I wish I could change things for Paul, when it comes to his school experience? Yes! Ugh... school is a touchy subject in our home!

Fortunately, when I push past the negativity, I realize that Paul loves a lot of things about school (even if he doesn't admit it) and that over the years, Paul has given me tremendous insight into school, teaching and learning. In fact, Paul has taught me a LOT about school. 

So, in honor of Paul's 11th birthday, here are 11 things I have learned about school from my most epic son...

1) Kids want to know what the point is of the work they are doing in school. They need to be able to answer the following questions as it relates to their learning... What are you learning? Why are you learning it? (Thank you Joe for sharing these questions with me). Learning and teaching shouldn't be shrouded in mystery! We need to be explicit and clear with our kids. Paul will often say... "Dad, I am not sure what the point of school is!"

2) Whatever is being taught in school should matter to kids and help empower them with some type of knowledge that will contribute positively to their lives. Knowledge is power but only if our kids understand the value of said knowledge. Paul is developing a whole skill set outside of school that he sees as more valuable than what he is learning school - that has to change!

3) Something changes around 3rd grade... and the change isn't necessarily good. Paul said school was fun up until that point but then something changed and school became more about busy work and "getting through the curriculum" (his words). Learning and fun used to be synonymous but by fourth grade they became two separate and not necessarily equal things within school!

4) Kids want to feel loved, valued, safe and respected within the context of their schools and that comes as a result of investing time in healthy and positive relationships. The teachers who Paul qualifies as his "favorites" are the ones who took the time to get to know him as a person... not just as a learner! 

5) Our kids come to school with a lot of knowledge, experiences and abilities - let's access those and give our children opportunities to be lead learners in school each and every day. Our kids are not empty vessels to be filled with information... they are forever evolving, growing and learning - let's capitalize on that reality. Paul always talks about the experiences in school when he got to share his passions and interests with classmates because his teachers saw them as valuable. 

6) Kids need time to socialize in school because they learn a lot through these interactions. Paul often talks about conversations he had with friends and what he took away from these exchanges. He also shared how much he loves sitting in groups because if he doesn't understand something, he can ask a classmate. Socialization isn't only about discussing the latest Minecraft update but it's also an opportunity to learn from peers. So, no more desks and rows - let kids sit together so they can learn.

7) Kids, even in MS and HS, love lunch and even some recess! Our children need unstructured time to talk, laugh, play, decompress and have fun! Paul may not recall much from his school day but he can always give me a play by play of lunch and recess. So, NO MORE silent lunches! NO MORE taking away recess as a consequence (unless something happened at recess)! Let kids talk (maybe even loudly) and have fun!  

8) Sometimes just using technology in place of a worksheet is totally fine because the device itself makes the activity more fun. Yes, we want meaningful technology integration (check out the SAMR model if you must) that pushes our children to further develop 21st century skills but sometimes, the device in itself is enough. Paul raves about the school days where he has access to technology, even if it is not in the most meaningful way.

9) Worksheets with "fill in the blanks" or an infinite number of math problems are not fun and are generally not necessary. Our children can show us their understandings in so many other ways and often times, all worksheets do is decontextualize the learning and reduce it to mindless guessing. Our kids deserve better - let's push them to access their critical thinking skills with less worksheets and more open ended activities. Granted, sometimes Paul prefers a worksheet because they are easy and don't challenge him to think but that is not ok - our kids deserve more!

10) Opportunities to innovate, create and pursue passions within school need to be the norm, not the exception. We have to build the curriculum around these ways of thinking - not try and force them into the curriculum we have so carefully planned in advance. We need to give our students (and teachers) the space to collaboratively solve problems and create their ideal learning environment - these are at the core of a space that values and appreciates innovation (thank you George for helping me develop my innovator's mindset). 

11) HW stinks... it is that simple and it is the one thing I have heard consistently from Paul. HW is meaningless, useless, and doesn't necessarily help our kids learn anything better. In fact HW takes up time when our kids just want to unwind after school, spend time with family and friends and pursue their personal passions!

Of course, Paul has taught me a lot more about life over the last 11 years but these are the lessons about school that stood out. These lessons are the ones that guide my daily work as an educator and often inspire me to create an amazing space for kids here at Cantiague. I share this list in the hopes that other educators will join me on this journey where student voice is heard and changing the narrative of public education is the goal! 

Will you join me?  

Monday, December 7, 2015

Let It Go

Gradual Release of Responsibility For Learning...

One of the things that I have been reflecting on over the last couple of weeks as I have been doing formal classroom observations at Cantiague is this notion of the gradual release of responsibility for learning from teacher to student. This is the method that the reading and writing workshop models are built upon where the teacher slowly relinquishes control of the learning from her/himself to the students. Although we focus heavily on this philosophy when talking about literacy instruction it is clear to me that it is an instructional model that could apply to any and all content areas... math, social studies, science, engineering, etc. From my perspective, this approach to instruction validates the importance of the teaching while keeping the emphasis on the learning... both student and teacher learning.  

What does it look like?

Here are a couple of graphics that helped me visualize and better understand what that might look like in a classroom...

From Xenia Public Schools

Modeling To Start...

At the core, the philosophy is based on this idea that the teacher possess some level of expertise and thus begins the lesson with modeling or direct instruction. The lesson generally comes as a result of data that has been collected in previous lessons or a unit that has been planned with outcomes carefully considered. This is where the expert (usually the teacher but even a student can teach the lesson) models for the novice.... it mirrors an apprenticeship. This portion of the model should be short and direct - really no more than 10 to 15 minutes. Mantra for this portion... "I, the teacher, shows you, the students."

Guiding The Learners... 

The learning experience then shifts to guided practice where the children begin to explore the concept that was just taught by the teacher but the teacher now does the work with the students. This could be done independently or in partnerships or even small groups. Typically the guided practice portion of the model unfolds with the teacher in close proximity so they can monitor student progress. Proximity really matters throughout instruction so keeping the children close together allows for constant informal assessment and data collection. So, for example the children might stay on the rug for this portion of the lesson. This portion of the model should be no more than 10 minutes - it's a quick guided practice. Mantra for this portion... "I, the teacher, and you, the students, do this together. "

Empowering The Learners... 

The final component to this instructional model involves the students doing the work independently so the teacher can assess whether or not the strategy or skill or concept has been mastered and which students need more scaffolding, support or are ready for the next step. This is a prime opportunity for the teacher to either pull a small group or conduct 1:1 conferences to informally assess the progress of the group and begin planning for future instruction. This portion of the model could be anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the content, routines and independence of the children. Solidifying routines during this portion of the model will help maximize the teacher's time so they can have contact with as many children as possible and support the children's journey towards independence. Mantra for this portion..."You, the student, do the work while I, the teacher, assess and support."

Let It Go... 

I share this overview as a reminder for how any and all instructional periods could look from reading workshop to genius hour because our goal should always be to move towards student independence and always keep the focus on the learning! In the end, it behooves us to LET IT GO and empower our students to own their learning!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Is Our Culture?

A Faculty Discussion...

We recently had a transformational afternoon at #Cantiague thanks to an important conversation during our Faculty Enhancement Opportunity (it's our term for a Faculty Meeting because no one wants to go to a meeting... but that is a whole other post) about our school culture. Although we have had many discussions about our collective vision for the school, conversations about the things we stand for as non-negotiables and talks about the things we believe in philosophically, we have never directly reflected on the culture of our school. What is our culture? What makes Cantiague, Cantiague? What feelings and emotions are evoked when thinking about Cantiague? These, and many more, were the questions that helped frame our discussion about culture.  

What is Culture?

From my perspective, culture is rarely a tangible "thing" but it is made up of those things you feel... sometimes things you see, hear and can even touch but ultimately, culture is about feelings and emotions. You get a sense of a school's culture from the parking lot and the exterior of the building - a dimly lit exterior versus a brightly lit exterior tells you something about culture. You get an even better sense of a school's culture from the way you are greeted by the Main Office team - a warm smile and greeting versus no one looking up to acknowledge your presence tells you a lot about the culture. And your understanding of the school's culture is solidified after you spend about 30 minutes with the principal - someone who has positive, healthy and compassionate relationships with all members of the community versus someone who doesn't leave the office and complains about the staff tells you a whole LOT about the culture of a school. 

"A school’s culture can be defined as the traditions, beliefs,
policies, and norms within a school that can be shaped,
enhanced, and maintained through the school’s principal and

teacher-leaders." (Short & Greer, 1997). Although I do agree that traditions, beliefs and norms impact a school's culture, we have to be careful about not letting traditions, beliefs and norms become code for... "This is the way we have always done things..." and an excuse for not embracing innovation and evolution as part of a school's culture. I see culture as a living thing that is constantly evolving and going through iterations - not in a rapid way but over time, the culture of a building can be changed, can be nurtured, can evolve - for better or worse. 

Culture is not a fixed thing or entity. I think if culture had a mindset it would be a growth mindset or innovator's mindset. I think culture is result of the feelings and emotions that are experienced within a school and we know those evolve over time based on what is going on within a school community. Unless they don't change. And then, they won't evolve. In that case, the culture of a school will be fixed. Culture will be so entrenched in tradition that there will be no change. Culture will be stagnant. I would argue that in that case, culture would also be negative. 

The culture of school can look quite different depending on the school but the one common denominator in every school that always impacts the culture, in positive or negative ways, is the principal. 

School Culture: Perpetuated by the Principal

Yes, a school's culture evokes emotions and feelings in people within and outside of the organization and it is my belief that the principal has the biggest impact on a school's culture. The principal doesn't necessarily single-handily create the school's culture but that one person has the greatest impact on the way a school's culture feels. Yes, the actions of many make up the culture of a school (students, staff and families) but the tone and leadership style of one (the principal) will dramatically impact (positively or negatively) the trajectory of the school's culture. A horrible manager will perpetuate a negative culture. A confident, informed and compassionate instructional leader will perpetuate a positive culture. Either way, the principal directly impacts the culture of a school.

So Now What?

Regardless of how you define culture or whether or not you agree with my belief that the building principal has the greatest impact on culture, the fact remains that a school's culture is something we must be aware of and must attend to for the sake of our entire community. We must know how people feel and what they think when they are in our schools. We must know how our kids feel. We must know how our teachers feel. We must know how our families feel. We must know how members of the community feel because those feelings and emotions will tell us a LOT about our school's culture.  

That was my starting point recently during our F.E.O. (Faculty Enhancement Opportunity) at Cantiague. I thought I had a pretty good handle on our school's culture but then it occurred to me that we had never discussed it as a team - how do the rest of the adults in our building define the culture of our school? So, I posed the question to our staff and asked them to work in groups of 2 to 4 to define our school's culture in 3 words or less. They were then asked to work collaboratively in a Google Slides presentation to share their words and this was intentional because a group of 4th graders taught our staff how to use Google Slides at an F.E.O. earlier in the month and I wanted to reinforce the resource. 

This is what our #Cantiague staff came up with...  

So, now I challenge each of you to go back to your schools and ask the question... What is Our Culture?