Thursday, January 24, 2013

Michael's Book Review

I am thrilled to share my blog with a guest writer this week. His name is Michael and he is a 5th Grader in our school who has actively participated in a Book Club with me, his principal, for the last five years. We recently completed a group reading of the book The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff, which provided us with many opportunities for rich dialogue and conversations. This book pushed us to think about things in a different way and allowed us the opportunity to delve into the idea of THEME as it relates to a text. After finishing the book, Michael generated the following review and reflection on one of the THEMES in the book. Please take a few minutes to read Michael's reflections - they are truly impressive! Please leave a comment because I am hoping that we can encourage Michael to start his own blog after this experience... its not easy to publicly share your thoughts! 

The Thing About Georgie by Lisa Graff
Review and Reflection by Michael
I applaud Graff for writing such a humorous and relatable story and including such a heartfelt message. Bravo!
This book is about Georgie (a dwarf) who when we first meet him is having some problems with life. Actually one problem: Jeanie the meanie.  She won’t stop nagging Georgie and reminding him of his condition. Then to make matters worse, his parents who are normal-sized are having a normal-sized baby. That is like knowing that your younger sibling is going to pass you in height except your younger sibling is nine years younger than you are (because Georgie is in fourth grade.) That is embarrassing, humiliating and it really emphasized Georgie’s condition. Then the worst happens, note that at this point in the story Georgie is on Christmas break,  just as Georgie’s family is going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve his mother gets zapped because she put her finger in an electric socket. She is fine, but because of the baby and Georgie’s condition the family decided it was best to go to the hospital. Georgie is left to spend Christmas Eve at his best friend Andy’s house. Even though he was kept busy by Andy’s family he still wanted to spend Christmas Eve as he usually does, at his house with his parents. Poor Georgie, his parents call, they have to stay overnight at the hospital. Now, Andy has made a new friend in school named Russ Wilkins but Georgie is jealous of this new friend. Unfortunately Georgie poorly addresses this issue at Andy’s house, that night and it results in an argument that is devastating to their relationship.
When they come back from Christmas Break everyone is assigned to work on a president assignment with a partner of their choice. Since Georgie and Andy had that big fight they are not partners. Georgie couldn’t find a partner so the teacher assigned him the only other person that couldn’t find a partner, Jeanie the meanie. During the majority of the report instead of doing her report Jeanie chose to doodle and asked Georgie questions. One of which being about Georgie’s ability to act on stage. She asked whether Georgie had stage fright. Since Georgie was intent on doing his work he did not respond immediately to Jeanie’s question. She interpreted that as hesitation and assumed Georgie had stage fright.  Even though he didn’t and was just afraid that people would laugh at his condition and since he never thought of himself as a public speaker.
When his teacher was passing around sign-up slips for the presidential play, Georgie did not write himself down even though his hero is George Washington. Georgie’s full name is Georgie Washington Bishop so he feels a special connection to George Washington. He doesn’t sign up but when his teacher is writing the cast on the board next to Abraham Lincoln, by the way that is who Georgie did his report on: Abraham Lincoln, but back to the story his teacher writes Georgie Bishop. Why did the teacher write his name on the board? Who signed him up? Turns out Jeanie signed him up. She wanted him to get over his “Stage fright.”  To her credit she helped Georgie memorize his lines and she helped him with his costume. If she hadn’t done that Georgie would sound terrible on stage and then people would be laughing at him. She wasn’t a meanie after all.
I believe that no one is mean for the sake of being mean. They are mean for a reason. Whether it’s a cultural thing or it’s because they are sad. (In Jeanie’s case she was mean because of family issues. The absence of a mother and her brothers teasing her all contribute to her hard outer shell.)
Back to the story, Georgie was nervous but he got out on stage and he was funny and entertaining and he delivered his lines well. The audience did laugh but they were not laughing at Georgie they were laughing for Georgie. He was star of the show and he felt tall not just because he was standing on empty cans because for the first time in the book he felt proud of himself.
Now, self-pride is a funny thing, there has to be a certain balance because if you’re too proud of yourself you come off as pompous and self-infatuated and those are not good characteristics to be described as. But if you have to little you doubt yourself and you don’t trust yourself and that’s not good either. You see, balance.
On with the story, on the ride home from the school that night a question was on Georgie’s mind. A question he had been pondering for quite a long time. He asked his parents whether they liked him less because of his condition and whether they were disappointed. His parents stopped the car and said very seriously that they were disappointed that they were going to have a child with dwarfism but that they looked past his dwarfism and couldn’t love him more for who he really is.
The reoccurring theme of this story is dwarfism and all the problems that surround it. Dwarfism or growth hormone deficiency is when the pituitary gland isn’t making enough growth hormone. It refers to anybody who is a lot lower than average height. As you heard it is no cup of tea being a dwarf. Although Georgie was faced with tough challenges he got through them and did not let them define who he is. No matter what problems you have emotional, physical the most important thing to remember is you will get through it. And as long as you don’t let it define who you are you will be fine. Although it does drain your pride and self- confidence you will get through it. I hear stories on the news about suicide and I wonder why they would like to leave this beautiful wonderful world. Now I know, they have lost all hope and happiness it was drained from them. They let their problems define who they are and maybe if they’re reading what you’re reading right now they would have lived. Trust me, if you don’t let your problems define who you are you will get through even the darkest of nights. There isn’t just one word that describes you. We are all different and unique and we should be judged for what’s on the inside of us. I’m not talking about nerves and organs and all that I’m talking about what makes us special. By not even looking at any of my friends I will be able to guess who they are based on just a few describing words about them. That is why the morale of this book: there’s more to explore about everyone than meets the eye is such a beautiful and important morale.  All these things that I am saying are true. And all these words were evoked by The Thing About Georgie. So next time you see this book at the library check it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Reading to Dogs: Great for Kids

Reading to Dogs Program
A Program So Doggon’ Good for Kids!

Guest Post by Lisa Palmieri @LPalmReader
(Reading Specialist at Cantiague Elementary School)

Reading to Dogs is a program that can help make a difference in children’s attitudes toward reading, improve their reading skills and show them how wonderful companion animals can be.  The primary purpose of this program is for students to practice reading in a stress-free and judgment-free zone.  It has been a valuable and fantastic addition to our reading program here at Cantiague!

Once a week Buddy, an adorable and gentle golden retriever, “listens” to students read.  As the student enters the room he/she greets the dog, and Buddy returns the greeting with a wag, smile or sometimes a paw!  Buddy and the student then sit (or lay) on a comfortable blanket, in a private room.  The child reads a familiar text to him. Some of the students show Buddy the pictures from the text; others stop reading to tell how a character is feeling or to explain a fact.  Meanwhile, Buddy just listens attentively! He pays close attention as the student reads without corrections or judgment.  He is simply a loving dog giving the child 100% of his attention. 

The children chosen for this program are readers who vary in age and are at different readiness levels.  Some of the children may have faced challenges while developing their reading skills and thus their self-confidence may have been compromised. All threats of being judged are put aside when reading to Buddy.  Rereading a “Just Right” book helps build confidence and fluency…rereading with Buddy makes the experience pleasurable!  Associating pleasure with reading helps the developing reader feel good about reading!  As a teacher (and parent), I have witnessed the difference a positive attitude can make in a child’s performance.  Having a positive mindset can truly help a student advance his/her skills.

Our vision and hope is that this program will help students improve their literacy skills and feelings about reading.  Students who have had the opportunity to read with Buddy are incredibly enthusiastic! ALL of the students who read with him last year have asked (okay, begged) to read with him again this year! Buddy is certainly our reading ‘buddy’ here at Cantiague!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

If I Were Commissioner of Education

As I have been reflecting on my letter to Dr. John King, our esteemed Commissioner of Education here in New York State, I realize that I can no longer wait for a response as it has been over two months since I sent him the letter in the hopes that a conversation can begin about what is best for our students and school. Clearly, either he has not read it (I am hoping that is the case) or he has read it and is choosing not to respond and at least engage in a dialogue with me about the current state of public education. Either way, nothing is changing! So, I am going to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on what the world of public education might look like in New York State if I were Commissioner of Education (and who knows, after completing my doctorate at Penn, that may very well be one of my many goals because I believe in public education and I support the incredible educators who lead our classrooms and schools each day)...

Educators, the ones who are actually in classrooms and in our schools, would have a voice in all state mandates, plans and proposed changes because they are the direct advocates for our children and know what is necessary to support the students' success and their (educators) collective efforts in addressing all student needs!

I would visit as many schools as possible with an emphasis placed on exploring successful schools so that their practices could be analyzed and potentially replicated in all schools throughout the state regardless of race and class and location. Instead of basing the reform efforts on what is not working in our ineffective schools, I will make it a point to try and recreate what is working in our effective schools!

Every school would have two administrators - a Lead Learner (traditionally known as the principal) who would focus on instructional leadership, staff development, contact with children, staff and parents. Then there would be an Educational Administrative Assistant who would support the efforts of the Lead Learner by handling all organizational and administrative issues - scheduling, paper work, meeting mandates, etc. By bifurcating the duties traditionally associated with the principalship, we could put emphasis on the instructional leadership but not lose sight of the "managerial" responsibilities.

Every school would have instructional coaches (at least a literacy and math coach) to provide ongoing professional development for all staff and ensure that all standards are being met - these members of the team are CRITICAL!

Money would be cut from testing initiatives (hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on creating flawed assessments) and put that money back into our schools so that we could hire more staff to reduce class size, especially in the primary years 
(there should be no more than 15 kids in our K & 1 classes); so we could infuse technology into every learning experience and make 1:1 model the norm and not the exception! Technology can no longer be seen as an add-on; instead it must serve as the foundation for learning. Technology will help us on our quest to assist our students in their evolution from consumers of information to creators of information!

The expectation of district leadership would be the personalization of professional development opportunities for all educators - teachers and principals alike! This should not be a "one size" fits all approach; instead, we should find out what our educators need (based on observations, conversations, etc.) and tailor their learning to meet those needs. As Morris, Crowson, Porter-Gehrie and Hurwitz point out in Principals in Action: The Reality of Managing Schools (1981), principals should provide help throughout the year to all teachers on various professional responsibilities including how to personalize instruction, how to assess students, how to communicate with parents and how to implement successful classroom management techniques. By providing support in these areas through modeling and professional development opportunities, the expectations for what qualifies good instruction will be clear and teachers will have an understanding of what is expected each day. Additionally, we should expect the experts within each educational institution to share their knowledge with others - collaboration is the key to success!

The Common Core Standards will serve as the "floor" NOT the "ceiling" - they are not the curriculum but instead a guide for the experiences we want all our children to have while in school.

We will throw away the "cookie cutters" and empower every educator to lead and instruct in the way that is most sound for their student population. We cannot mandate that every teacher uses the same materials at the same time and in the same way - that is not public school - that is a factory! We must encourage creativity, collaboration and critical thinking because that is what it takes to be college and career ready! This is directly connected to the Professional Development piece because we want all educators to be skilled enough to make these sound decisions for their students.

Implement a career path of sorts for all teachers that doesn't necessarily mean that if one is a "good teacher" their only option for growth is becoming an administrator. We should consider implementing a four-level system where teachers could move from the novice level to the experienced level to master teacher level and finally to the teacher coach level and with each step up the ladder, they will receive an increase in salary and the daily expectations will change. Not everyone has to move up this ladder but every teacher, with the proper support from administration, will at least reach the experienced level. 

In regards to state testing and the current APPR Plan, I offer the following thoughts...

If I had the ability to scrap the current principal and teacher evaluation plans in New York State, the first thing I would do is eliminate the connection between students’ performance on various standardized and local assessments to the evaluation ratings of educators. This connection does not provide a complete picture of a student’s performance or an educators’ effectiveness. These assessments just capture a moment in time and do not necessarily provide children with an opportunity to show what they know and understand in a comprehensive way. Furthermore, the tests do not look the same from one year to the next and thus comparing a student’s growth over a two-year period doesn’t necessarily provide a fair and accurate comparison. Another problem that stems from using assessments as part of the educator evaluation system is that nothing can be done with the data. First off, the groups of students determining an educator’s evaluation are from the year before and so the assessment is purely summative, which does not help inform instruction. Along the same vein is the idea that the data does not explain WHY a student answered a question incorrectly, which should be our emphasis when analyzing data. Yes, data analysis can pinpoint WHAT a student answered correctly or incorrectly, but it cannot provide insight as to WHY they answered a certain way. Finally, evaluating an educator based on how much a student has grown on a snapshot assessment does not reflect the collective growth or progress of that specific child in the various content areas nor the child’s social and emotional development.    

Now, if the powers that be in New York State are not willing to scrap the current principal and teacher evaluation plans, I would like to suggest some revisions that would satisfy the reformists and maintain a high level of staff morale while promoting effective instructional practices. First and foremost, lets change the standardized tests. No test that places emphasis on multiple-choice questions can possibly capture the data we are looking for to evaluate educators and assess student understandings. This is a simple fix because there are portions of the current New York State assessments that give children a platform to exhibit their understandings and communicate their thinking. Whether it is the short answers or extended responses on the ELA assessment or the challenge to explain one’s thinking on the Math assessment, the current assessment tools already contain some opportunities to more thoroughly assess a student’s understandings. With that in mind, let’s shift the focus from the unreliable multiple-choice experience to a more concrete evaluation of a student’s ability to synthesize and apply their understandings to any situation. Then, lets shorten the assessment experience – lets ensure that this is a test of skills and not one of stamina alone. Children should not be sitting for three days in a row, for over an hour each day, to show what they know on a test that relies on multiple-choice questions and answers. We already have an abundance of research and information about child development and we know that children, especially in their primary years, are more successful when they work for shorter periods of time to capitalize on their limited attention spans. Finally, lets use multiple data points to assess an educator’s effectiveness instead of looking at the growth over a one-year period using the value added model.  For example, we could begin by tracking an educator’s data over a three-year period using the same assessment tools. By examining similar types of data over a period of time, we could identify specific trends that speak to the educator’s instructional/leadership techniques instead of solely looking at the students’ performance on one test. This way we could triangulate data and create a comprehensive image of an educator’s performance over a period of time that would help to more accurately qualify them as ineffective or effective.      

These are just some of the things that I would consider attempting if I were the Commissioner of Education in New York State. I realize there are a million other ideas that haven't even crossed my mind that I missed above but rest assured, I would not make any of these decisions in isolation; instead, I would consult different constituent groups and consider their perspectives and insights in my attempt to do what is best for children.
You see, my main motivation is my son, who is eight years old and is currently in third grade. I want to create the ideal public school educational experience for him because that is what he (and all our children) deserves. I am hopeful that this post might start a state-wide, even nation-wide, exchange among educators about what we would do if we were in the position of Commissioners of Education... please leave comments because we need to share the many amazing ideas that are out there (especially from those on the "front lines" - our teachers, teacher aides, principals, parents etc.) about how we can improve the public school experience for our children - we must unite because there is power in numbers and our efforts must be coordinated and united if we are to bring about any change!