Thursday, October 29, 2015

Observations Aren't Enough

Although I have been an elementary school principal for almost ten years it didn't occur to me until recently that formal classroom observations and informal walk-throughs of classrooms aren't enough to provide us with a complete picture of what is happening in our schools... we must also be engaging in conversations too! 

My Pitfalls

You see, what I have come to understand is that the formal observations and informal walk-throughs have led me to certain pitfalls. Either I am making assumptions that everything is great based on a snapshot; or I am trying to generalize what I watched over a 40 minute period to make broad stroke statements about the whole year; or I am overreacting to something I saw; I start to think that certain teachers only eat snack and pack up. But that is not the reality. That is not the complete picture because observations are not enough. 

Not Just Any Talking

I know this sounds like a no brainer and many would argue that they engage in a lot of conversations on a daily basis but, I am not talking about exchanging pleasantries or chatting in passing. I am not even talking about visiting classrooms and watching what is going on for a few minutes and then offering some feedback. Yes, those conversations and exchanges are important but they are not enough. We, as the educational leaders in the space, need to spend more time talking with those around us than just talking in passing or after an observation. In fact, we need to be talking and sharing with intentionality. Observations, pre-observations and post-observation conferences are not enough.   

Intentional Conversations

I am referring to setting aside "sacred" time to talk about learning. I am referring to the importance of scheduling time to discuss the instructional practices that are unfolding within our classrooms. I am referring to discussing the readiness levels of our students and what we are doing to best meet their needs. Up until this year it never occurred to me how important it was to set up this time to meet with our teachers and just talk without distractions. Just talk about learning. Just talk about teaching. Just talk about the successes and failures within our schools. Just talk... but with focus and intentionality. 

Literacy Check-Ins

At the start of the school year we bought each classroom teacher a set of the new Teacher's College Reading and Writing Units of Study and although we are not officially a TC school, we were offering our teachers PD opportunities with the amazing JoEllen McCarthy. These PD opportunities and new resources have led to a shift in the instructional practices unfolding in our classrooms, which has been impressive but, as we know, any shifts present their own challenges and concerns. So, in an effort to better support our teachers, I scheduled 30 minute "Literacy Check-In Meetings" with each grade level at the end of September just to talk, share and check in to see how the literacy learning was unfolding in our school. I set a timer at the beginning of the meeting, which took place during a common prep time, because I wanted to keep the discussions to 30 minutes and wanted to be respectful of our teachers' valuable time. As we kicked off the meeting, I took on the role of facilitator and recorder and set up a Google Doc for each grade level to track our thoughts. I started the meetings by asking each team how they were doing, what they were trying and how it was going... and then I did less talking and more listening.  

The Bottom Line

Well, the flow of conversation and exchange of ideas that ensued during these literacy check-in meetings was awesome to observe and even better to participate in. I learned so much about our students and teachers from these conversations. For example, I learned that what TC suggested takes one day, takes us about 3 or 4 days. I learned that our teachers really know our kids and their readiness levels and that serves as the impetus for every instructional decision. I learned that our teachers do a lot of self-assessing and engage the students in a lot of self-assessment. I learned that student voice matters at Cantiague as we develop lifelong readers and authors. I learned that our teachers are really thoughtful about the work they challenge our students to complete within the reading and writing workshop experiences. 

The list can go on and on but the point is, I learned so much from these conversations about what was going on in our school that for the first time ever, I felt like I was getting a more complete picture of what our teachers were doing and why they were making certain choices! It also helped me realize that observations aren't enough... we need to be intentional about our work and as a result, we need to spend time facilitating conversations because talking (and more importantly listening) is not only enlightening but it can help us fill in the picture of what is going on in our buildings and help us best meet the needs of our learners.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

YouTube: Informational Text Hotbed?

A couple of years ago when I wanted to learn how to tie a bowtie, the first thing I did was go to YouTube and watched this video. Within fifteen minutes I was able to tie my own bowtie - mission accomplished and Bow Tie Tuesday was no longer out of my reach.  

Of course, the truth is, I never would have considered YouTube as the right place for research if it weren't for my son, Paul. Paul is a YouTube fanatic (I would argue that he is slightly obsessed) and basically all the information he consumes comes from YouTube. Whether he is watching his favorite #MineCraft channel (Pat & Jen Popular MMOs) or doing research on drones for his science class (he watched this video by Mocomi Kids), Paul does not go to Google to find something out - he goes to YouTube! YouTube is this generation's Google - with over 75 hours of video content being uploaded every minute to YouTube it is a primary source of information for our youngest generation. 

The more and more I started thinking about the notion of YouTube being the go to "search" engine for our children, the more and more I started considering the ways we could harness the power of YouTube within the classroom to engage our learners on a different level. Sure, we can show video clips from YouTube, that is one way to use the resource in the classroom for educational purposes... but what if we challenged students to think more critically about the videos that they are actively consuming? What if we challenged students to consider the various features of the videos they are watching and how those features impact the quality of the video and the delivery of the information? What if we asked our students to rate different videos based on how much they learned? This is something I think we need to seriously consider in our schools because integrating YouTube videos within the curriculum may not only engage students in a different way but will also be a direct link to their "real worlds." Our children and students are spending a lot of time on YouTube so why not educate them about how to critically consume the information they are exposed to within that context? Why not bridge the gap between what they are doing outside of school with what they are learning to do within the walls of our schools?

With the integration of the Common Core State Standards (regardless of how we might feel about them) and the emphasis on 21st Century Skills, I have thought a lot about promoting critical thinking skills in our students and I think this is another way to make that happen. The first thing that comes to mind is the nonfiction work our children do in school. They read nonfiction, write nonfiction and sometimes write about the nonfiction they are reading. They explore expository texts, directions/recipes and informational texts. What if we broaden the lens of what we consider an informational text? Could we work YouTube videos into that unit of study and push our students to analyze the features of this type of "text"? We know that informational texts are intended to inform the reader about the natural or social world and the more and more I think about the videos our children are watching on YouTube, the more I think we are missing a powerful instructional opportunity. 

So, although I'm not sure if YouTube is a hotbed of informational texts, I am sure that we can use appropriate videos from this site to teach our children how to be stronger critical consumers of information and at the same time, hook an entire portion of our student body that we have missed in the past.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Don't Worry, Be Happy

This week, I am honored to have two amazing educators wrote a guest post for my blog! I have the opportunity to work with this awesome team each and every day - Allison and Marissa, otherwise known as the Levlons here at #Cantiague! They are our 5th grade co-teachers and they wrote a piece about the ways they go about creating a happy classroom in honor of our #YearOfHappy! I think this is a MUST read for all educators...

Perhaps Winnie the Pooh said it best when he stated, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” 

Dr. Sinanis has declared the 2015-1016 school year, #yearofhappy. We have been thinking a lot about this phenomenon and realized some important things about what motivates our students, what motivates us, and about our classroom environment in general. It is really quite simple. Kids perform better when they are happy. If they look forward to coming to school, have positive learning experiences while they are here, feel connected to their teachers and peers, and leave each day with a smile, they WILL be more successful. They are more open to learning, they are motivated to succeed, and their confidence soars. After all, don’t you perform better when you are happy? 

So now that we know happiness promotes success, how do we make it happen? Let’s begin with our morning meeting. The Levlon morning meeting has been compared to the Kelly and Michael show (LOL). We bring humor to the meeting, engage our audience, and make sure student voice is heard and valued. Each day our students look forward to this casual and comfortable experience. A benefit to co-teaching is that we are able to model positive social interactions all day every day. The Levlons take this opportunity to model compassion, kindness, and humor. We are constantly laughing at ourselves, and WITH each other and our students. 

We also work hard to create a safe and happy environment for our kids. We often refer to math instruction in our classroom as “group therapy,” which lets our students know that we are “all in it together.” They feel comfortable making mistakes, and this motivates them to try harder, and enables them to be more successful than they believed they were capable of. 

Our students also really enjoy our daily read aloud. After lunch is a sacred time in our classroom where we read books to our kids strictly for enjoyment. There is no mini lesson attached or hidden agenda. We simply read to read! We choose relevant books that we know the kids will relate to, connect with, and enjoy hearing. During these read alouds, we laugh together, cry together, and definitely grow together. 

Another happy time in room 26 is Genius Hour. This is a time each week, where the kids can explore their passions and interests. It enables EVERY child to be successful and feel good about what they’re working on. We all look forward to this special weekly experience. 

Most importantly, throughout each day we talk to our students. Not just about what we are learning in Social Studies or Reading Workshop, but about what’s going on in their lives. We make connections with them and follow up with them about how things are going. We’ll ask how a new soccer team is working out, or if they received that special robot for their birthday. We also share information about our lives; our kids and our weekends. It’s not a surprise when our students follow up and ask us about what’s going on in our lives as well. We care about each other and respect each other as individuals. 

So, if you ask us what makes our kids so happy, we can list a whole bunch of activities and experiences that occur in our classroom on a daily basis. We believe it really boils down to the way we treat our kids. We make every decision with their best interest at heart (and they know it!). We listen to them and empower them. We hug them and love them. The best part is that in return, our kids love us back and add so much joy to our lives. We come to work HAPPY every day and we are motivated to be the BEST we can be for our kids!