Friday, February 16, 2018

Positive Relationships with Our Special Needs Parents

I have sat in on a lot of IEP meetings as an administrator. There have been a few that were challenging, but overall, our school welcomes the opportunity to work with parents to create an Individualized Education Program that meets the needs of the special needs student.

In an earlier blog post, I shared some ideas about "How Can We Improve Special Education Services in Hawaii?" I feel that we are doing well at our school because we have great staff who truly provide quality learning experiences for our students. Our staff cares for our special needs students, and that is reflected in our classrooms as well as in our positive relationships with the child and his/her family.

The purpose of this blog post is to remind ourselves that parents are the most important person at an IEP meeting. They know their child best, and it behooves us to listen and learn from them. Sometimes, parents are uncomfortable at the meeting and may be reluctant to say much, thinking that the school knows best or even feeling a bit guilty that somehow, they have failed in their role as parents. As the school team, we try to put parents at-ease by having them share about their child.  Tell us what your child is like at home. What does he/she like to do? What are your goals for your child? This information is so important because it helps the team to build a stronger relationship with the child as well as the parents. We encourage teachers to get to know their students because doing so builds stronger relationships that can truly make a difference for that child. It is no different for special needs students; in fact, it can be even more important for that child to have a teacher who knows what he/she likes or what is frustrating or what might be motivating. There have been meetings where parents clearly felt emotional when asked to share about their child. It can be difficult to share the challenges they face at home every day. Those insights can help us, the child's IEP team. We can find out so much about a child by asking his/her parents for their input, and the IEP we create together will be a stronger document as a result.

I wish that all teachers would be required to spend time in a special needs class before having their own classroom. It gives a whole new perspective on what it means to work as a team to help a student continue to grow and be successful. The one year I taught a class of special education preschoolers gave me the insight and empathy I need to be a successful administrator sitting in on IEP meetings. To this day, I remember those students and what they taught me, like Joshua who spoke gibberish when he started. His mom shared that every week, they called her parents on the mainland, and usually, he wouldn't want to talk to them or if he did, his grandparents had no idea what he was saying. Towards the end of the year, Joshua's mom shared that her parents were crying when she finally got the phone away from him the previous evening. His grandparents could understand what Joshua was so excited to share with them. I remember Sam who didn't walk when he started but was so determined to do so. At Preschool Play Day where all the special needs PK students gathered for fun and games with lots of soldier-volunteers, the last activity was to run from one side of the gym to the other. Sam started with his walker. The other kids ran and celebrated when they got to the other side. Sam kept going. He was the only one on the gym floor, and everyone was on the sidelines, cheering him on. He would stop to rest, then continue. The roar was deafening when he crossed that line, and a soldier picked him up and carried him to the loud cheers of the whole gym. I still get tears in my eyes when I remember that moment, and it was 30 years ago.

The point I'm trying to make is this. To us, that child is a student,  and we do our best to help him/her to be successful in school. To his/her parents, that special needs child is their world, and they want him/her to be successful in life. I will admit that when I became an administrator, receiving training on the nuts and bolts of special education and IEPs, I was told to "be tough" and "know the law" and "don't give in." I didn't receive any training on how to work with parents, and yet, that is what makes or breaks a relationship. Each one of those special needs students and their families that I have had the privilege to work with taught me that "it takes a village" to educate a child, and the home/school relationship is crucial to a child's success.














Sunday, February 11, 2018

Learning through Exploration and Play

We recently had a discussion in our Leadership Team about purchasing programs with school funds; those programs are getting more expensive, and not all students or classrooms are actually using them. Additionally, we do not have the data to indicate that these programs are actually making a difference for a majority of our students. Is it worth spending that kind of money on technology?

Recently, George Couros posted this blog, "Personalized Learning vs Personalization of Learning," and he states, ""Technology is powerful and creates opportunities that I couldn't even imagine as a student, and we would be crazy not to embrace and build upon what is in front of us. But if it dehumanizes our schools, then we have forgotten that we not only there to develop learners, but people as well." I also read this blog, "Why I Left Silicon Valley, Ed Tech, and 'Personalized' Learning" by Paul Emerich, as well as this one "5 Risks Posed by the Increasing Misuse of Technology in Schools" by Diana Ravitch. I believe in the use of technology to explore, discover, create, and share, but I have mixed feelings about students sitting in front of the computer to do a "program" when we aren't checking usage or whether it's making a difference for our students.

That is why I am so excited when I see hands-on learning happening at our school. No technology needed. Just a great activity where students are learning through exploration and play. We have different activities in the library that encourage problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity. Students love going to the library to "play" with other students, and they often create awesome structures! They are learning through exploration and play, unbounded by rules about the ":correct" way to build. What I love about these activities is that they are so open-ended, and students can use them in different ways to collaborate and create.



Recently, our kindergarten students had the opportunity to participate in several different activities for the 100th day of school. The one I liked best was using 100 paper cups to collaborate and create. With limited instructions (students had to share with group members but could build together or on their own - some started off individually but realized they could build something bigger if they built together), the students made some awesome structures!  I observed a group of students dividing their 100 cups equally amongst all team members. Others just eyeballed it or took a stack and got started. I saw groups discussing with each other first and then building while other groups started off individually then combined their ideas. There was no bickering but lots of encouragement. When a stack toppled, students picked up the cups and started over. What was great was that no two creations looked alike!

So were the students learning through this activity? Definitely! They used words like more, less, higher, taller, and shorter. They stacked cups into towers of equal height or stacked them pyramid-style. And maybe more importantly, they were developing perseverance and learning the power of collaboration and teamwork. Here are just a few examples of their creations.




Later that week, I went to the Makerspace and observed third graders who were learning about different types of simple machines. They were presented with challenges, and that day's challenge was to invent a machine that could toss a ping pong ball high enough to catch. Each group had the same materials, and each student had to draw their design and explain it to their teammates. After that, each team discussed their ideas and came up with one plan they would try. There was a lot of discussion, and each team agreed on their plan. Some chose one student's plan, and others opted to combine different plans to build their machine. Then it was time to build and then try their machines out. Some were successful, and others needed a little bit of revising. What was great was that all students were so engaged and worked well together. They cheered for other teams when they were successful, and gave suggestions to teams that were not. They were truly learning through exploration!




School is an opportunity for teachers and students to learn together. That teacher-student relationship is vital to empowering and engaging students in their learning. It was evident in both classrooms that students were applying what they had learned, not just the academic skills but also social-emotional skills. This is something that a computer cannot do. Computers can take data on what a student knows or how a student does on an assignment, but computers cannot encourage him/her to persevere if students are having problems. They cannot figure out where a student is having difficulty and provide interventions or strategies to help him/her to succeed on the task.

Technology is wonderful and will only improve with time. As I stated earlier, technology is a wonderful tool for exploring, discovering, creating, and sharing. Often, however, low-tech or no-tech can be just as successful, engaging, and empowering for students.






Friday, January 26, 2018

Thoughts on Empowerment, Student Agency, and Parent Voice

This has been a week to reflect on several issues that impact teaching and learning at DKIES: empowerment, student agency, and parent voice.

After attending the Education Institute of Hawaii 2018 Empowerment Conference with a team of teachers, I am comfortable in saying that we are empowered at DKIES. We are not a textbook-driven school, and students have opportunities to work collaboratively to solve problems, including problems that affect our school community or our state. Our students and teachers are learning through project-based learning and are truly making a difference. Our military-impacted students need more than just a curriculum that focuses on grade level standards; they need the non-cognitive skills that will prepare them for their futures. Our first graders learn about wants and needs and coordinate a drive to help victims of Hurricane Harvey; second graders use their garden to hone math and science skills and build a compost bin to produce richer soil that they can reuse; and fourth graders learn about climate change and plant new plants to replace the invasive species they removed earlier.  Dr. Bill Daggett shared this slide about "The Top 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution." I believe that PBL has empowered our teachers and students by providing a venue to explore their questions and to share what they learned.


Earlier this week, Eric Sheninger visited DKIES and had discussions with students and school leaders about student agency - voice, choice, and advocacy.  The students were in a circle around Eric as he posed questions to them about their goals, their passions, and how school helps them achieve their goals. Observing the conversation was eye-opening. Some students had quick answers when Eric asked questions, but when he probed and asked "Why?" quite a few could not respond. For example, a student responded confidently that he wants to go to MIT, but he could not answer when Eric asked him "Why?" The question that students were quickest to respond to was, "What do you like best about school?" Their answers were revealing: Eagle Council, clubs on Fridays, Cardboard Challenge, Hour of Code, Enrichment classes, recess, and their responses came quickly.  While students had shared their dream of going to MIT or becoming engineers, none of them mentioned academics though these were our "best and brightest." It was the first time I was an observer in a discussion with our DKIES students that was totally student-focused.




That evening, we hosted our School Community Council Virtual Facebook meeting. We've been doing this since 2013; wow, I didn't realize it had been so long! Instead of asking generic questions like "What can we do to improve the teaching of reading?" or "What other family events would you suggest for our school?" or "Safety is an important priority for our school. Do you have any concerns to improve traffic safety in the mornings and afternoon?" we decided to take what we had learned at the Empowerment Conference and ask questions like, "What are your hopes and dreams for your children?" or "Our world is changing quickly. Did you know that there will be driverless cars by 2019? What types of skills will our students need to exhibit a purposeful life in 5 years? 10 years? 25 years?" One parent responded with this comment: "Build their confidence but don't baby them. . let them learn from their mistakes and try to fix it themselves." I shared a comment one of our students had made about learning more from her failures during the discussion with Eric Sheninger that day to which the parent responded, "That's great, but was this available to all students?" I made some lame excuse about it being a last-minute opportunity because I realized she was right! All students need that opportunity to have their voices heard. (View the on-line discussions here.) Parents' voices are important, too, and I love that many of the parents who participate in these virtual meetings are not the ones who are in our school helping out with parent activities or volunteering in classrooms because they may have little ones at home or they may be working or going to school themselves. We need to hear their voices, too!

So what does that mean for our school? Well, once student voice became a buzzword in education and one of Superintendent Kishimoto's priority strategies, we realized the opportunities we have to really listen to our students and to have them be part of the solution. The other day, Vice Principal Arikawa was in a discussion with a group of boys after an altercation at recess time over basketball. Rather than overreacting and warning the boys that we would ban them from basketball or take away the ball if they couldn't play nicely, she asked questions and the outcome after an hour-long conversation was shared in a memo.  The boys were so excited! They had never considered themselves as "leaders" yet here they were, being asked to lead the discussion with their peers about how to ensure that basketball can be an option at recess while also taking safety into consideration. We don't know where this journey will lead, but our hope is that this will have a positive impact on other students and help them to realize their power to make their voices heard and to truly make a difference, not only for themselves, but for others as well.



Empowered schools are more than just engaged schools. We truly need to hear the voices of our entire school community in order to prepare our students for their futures!


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network for PBL School Leaders

Two short years ago, I attended an informational session with Bob Lenz from the Buck Institute.  Our Department received a grant from the Castle Foundation, and he was providing information and seeking school leaders to participate in the first Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network. In my application, I stated, "In this world where information and experts are readily available, all of us can create our own learning opportunities based on our interests, talents, and passions. PBL is a framework where we can all be explorers, discoverers, creators, and sharers and where we can make a positive difference in our world." I was excited to be accepted.

This past week was our last official event, and we all had the opportunity to share how we had grown through our HILN experience. It was bittersweet; I was proud at how far all of us had traveled on this PBL journey, but I was sad to see it end.  Our culminating activity was a  presentation to a panel, some of our HILN colleagues, and invited guests. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on my personal journey as a PBL leader. 

The first HILN sessions set the tone for what was to come. ("A Unique Opportunity") I'll be honest; I was a bit hesitant at first because I didn't know anyone else who was part of this cohort, and uncertain about what to expect. The activities were designed to get to know others better, and I could see that I was somewhere in the middle where PBL was concerned. I had done a lot of reading and our school was committed to making the change from teacher-directed interdisciplinary units to student-driven project-based learning, but as we know, change takes time. Some school leaders were just exploring the possibility of implementing PBL at their schools while for others in HILN, PBL was an integral part of the teaching and learning experience at their schools (e.g. SEEQS and Innovations Charter School

Our quarterly HILN sessions went by quickly. This was the first time that I participated in professional development of this nature where we met quarterly over a period of time with the opportunity to apply what we had learned and to reflect on our experiences prior to the next session.  I looked forward to the HILN workshops; there is something to be said about building a culture of trust with like-minded school leaders. I quickly realized that I would gain from this PD what I put into it, and building relationships with my fellow HILN colleagues was essential.  It helped to have a leader whom I liked immediately upon meeting her. Cris Waldfogel put me at ease and pushed me to reflect more deeply and to think above and beyond. The HILN workshops were all part of us experiencing PBL through the lens of a school leader.

The relationships we built with our HILN colleagues  are what made our discussions and the activities so effective.  One of the most powerful activities was our "Learning Walk" where we visited each others' schools and had the opportunity to share challenges we were facing in a safe and supportive environment and to seek and receive feedback from our colleagues in the form of "wonderings" or probing questions.  ("PBL Learning Walks - An Awesome PD Experience"

I realize that now, I look at problems or challenges through a PBL lens. I find myself asking questions, exploring to discover answers, and then sharing what I've learned often through a blog post. "Why?" questions are pondered prior to asking "How?" or "What?" and modeling the process for our teachers has helped them to be more open to implementing PBL, even if they are starting with baby steps. ("The World Looks Different from a PBL Perspective")

We culminated HILN by presenting our learning to a panel and others in the audience. We submitted a digital collection of our learning prior to this presentation, and as I reflected on the critical elements of PBL - vision, culture, capacity building, and continuous improvement - I realized just how much I had gained through my participation in HILN. I loved hearing my colleagues share their PBL journey and realized how much all of us had grown. This was not intended to be a dog-and-pony-show, but rather a response to the driving question, "How have you used your Project Based Learning Leadership Elements to promote and sustain high-quality PBL in your school or district?" Somehow, though, we all managed to weave in some of the exemplary projects at our schools as part of our presentation, and frankly, I was blown away by what some of our students are doing at their schools.

Our commitment to PBL at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School continues to evolve. I believe that PBL will always be evolving because as our world changes and new problems emerge, our students' questions, interests, and curiosity will dictate where their learning will take them. PBL is a way of thinking, a shift from student as a passive receptacle of lessons to an active maker of their own learning. It is an exciting time to be an educator!

Link to my Digital Collection
Link to my Demonstration of Learning










Monday, January 15, 2018

Preparing for an Emergency

Yesterday, I received an Emergency Alert text on my iPhone like thousands of people around the state. "This is not a drill," the text stated. My initial reaction was to go to my son's room (he hasn't yet returned to the mainland) to ask if he got the text as well. (He did.) My husband was at a meeting in Honolulu at the time and called to ask if we got the message. I immediately closed our jalousies (not much protection there), and tried to call my Mom. She doesn't have a cell phone and lives by herself. I couldn't get in touch with her, so I called my older sister to ask if she knew where Mom was. My sister was skeptical and asked questions:  Are you sure it isn't a false alarm? I don't see anything on TV about it. Why aren't the sirens going off? Hmmm . . . good questions. I checked on Facebook and saw that others had posted about the text message they received.

Then it dawned on me that I didn't receive any messages from US Army Garrison Command. Because I work on a military base, I get their messages by email, text, work phone, and on my cell phone. This time, I didn't get anything. When my husband called, he said the message was false though it wasn't confirmed until a few minutes later.

Since then, I've read lots of personal accounts on FB about the incident which turned out to be human error in pressing the wrong button. People are angry; they were frightened, understandably.

I realize that as a senior citizen, I viewed the incident with different lenses from others. After hearing a presentation about what schools should do in case of a North Korea attack, my initial reaction was, "Why would I want to survive something like that?" Of course, as a school leader, my responsibility is to protect those we serve, so we had a discussion and created a contingency plan should something like this happen during school hours.

Many are quick to blame those in charge for this error. We expect government to protect us, but unfortunately, we live on tiny islands in the middle of a huge ocean. We don't have the capacity - yet - to sustain ourselves should there be a threat to our safety from an attack. I think this was a wake-up call to be better-informed and better-prepared should there be an unexpected disaster - natural or otherwise. This human error also exposed chinks in our system that need to be addressed and improved so such a false alarm doesn't happen again.

Frankly, I am proud of our people in Hawaii who, although they felt helpless and terrified, behaved civilly despite the fear and the uncertainty over their own futures - for themselves and those they loved. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when word was received that it was a mistake. Life went on, and if nothing else, this false alarm gave us an opportunity to reflect on what could have been and to be better-informed and better-prepared in the future.

I think we've become a little bit spoiled about instant notifications. In the "old days," such a mistake would not have happened because we would not have the option of receiving these kinds of emergency notifications. Technology is great, but it presents other problems as we saw yesterday.  Many shared their stories about calling those they loved, crying, and praying.

I have confidence that given the opportunity, we can make a difference. As citizens, we should ask tough questions and be part of the solution. Let's work together to ensure that if something happens in the future, we can help and support each other.

Evacuating to the Teen Center
Every month, schools are required to perform emergency drills so we are prepared in case of an actual disaster. Once a year, we conduct an evacuation drill with oversight by the military. We realize the necessity to hold a drill to get everyone into our three safest buildings on campus and evaluate whether we need to make adjustments. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

What is the Culture at Our School?

It's Winter Break. It's pretty quiet around the school with a few workers on campus to catch up on maintenance or end-of-the-year responsibilities. I usually spend a couple of days during school breaks to clean my office and to trash things I no longer need, but this time, I did a pretty good job of keeping my office relatively free of clutter. (That's an accomplishment for me!) I've been having a difficult time writing a new post for this blog. It's not that I've not been reflecting; on the contrary, I've probably been reflecting more-than-usual as I near the end of my career as an educator and a principal at our school.

George Couros to the rescue! His latest blog post, "People Shape Culture" was exactly what I was thinking about, and when George's first line stated,  "I am struggling with an idea here, so I have decided to blog it out . . Let's see where it goes." It was as if he was reading my mind.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the culture of our school. I reflect on the first few years of my tenure here, and I realize how much I've grown as a leader. Yet my basic beliefs about teaching and learning haven't changed much. I still believe that we need to focus on our students and what they need to be successful. The culture of a military-impacted school is different from a local community school where students might attend with the same classmates from K-12. There are different challenges at our school, challenges that we've addressed through supports as well as our curriculum and instruction. ("Proud to Be a Principal at a Military-Impacted School"

I was lucky to work under school leaders who trusted me and gave me the green light to try new strategies or lessons to engage my students. I believe this is why I, as a principal, work to build relationships with our staff so they are comfortable to be innovative in their classrooms to meet the needs of their students. Many of the ideas and changes we have implemented were suggested by teachers: co-teaching, Response to Intervention, project-based learning, Google Apps for Education (G-Suite), student-led conferences, integration of technology for teaching and learning, our Exploratoria, afternoon enrichment classes, and more.

I reflected on our staff, and I realized that 90% have been hired or were transferred to our school after I became principal fifteen years ago. This is probably why our school culture is one that is aligned with my personal beliefs about education. We hired the right people for our culture and put them in the right seats on the bus.

When I leave the school, I expect that the culture will change. If it's true that people shape culture, then what we've implemented based on our beliefs will remain, but the new leader will bring in his/her ideas to positively influence the culture. And that is how it should be!
  







Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Giving Thanks, 2017

When I first started blogging, this was one of my first posts. That was back in 2012, and since then, I have continued to blog and share my thoughts with our school community. I think this "old" post is still reflective of how I feel about our school so I am re-posting and updating it since so many of our families are new to our school. Happy Thanksgiving to our DKIES `ohana!

This Thanksgiving day in 2017 is a perfect opportunity to reflect on my principalship at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School and all that I am thankful for.  What makes a school special and unique is its people, and DKIES is no exception.

All of my schooling has been here in Hawaii, and I can't imagine being uprooted in the middle of the year and having to go to a new school, make new friends, learn new rules, procedures, and curriculum, and adjust to these new surroundings. Yet our DKIES students are asked to do this not once but multiple times in their school careers.  More often than not, this is occurring while a parent is attending training or is deployed.  Our students make the best of their situation even while they are missing a parent who may be off-island for training exercises or who may be deployed and in harm's way.  I marvel at their resilience, and my hope is that they will take what they've learned at DKIES about aloha and share it with others when they leave Hawaii.  At DKIES, Eagles Pride means to
Take care of yourself. Take care of others. Take care of our school.  This is a message we hope they will live throughout their education years.

I am grateful to the DKIES parents who support our school and trust us with their children. Military  parents' lives are so different from what I experienced as a young mom when I had family and friends to support me.  Being uprooted from their system of support is a challenge, and their confidence in our school to take care of their children is a responsibility we take seriously.  To the soldier parents who have committed to serving and protecting our nation, I send my heartfelt thanks. And to the spouse who is left behind to take care of the home and the family while the soldier is absent, you deserve kudos for all you do.  It takes a strong person to accept and adapt to military life and often, you turn every new change of duty station as an adventure and a learning opportunity for your family.  Mahalo for all you do.

I am so honored to be at a school with such a great staff.  I love going to work every day because I work with people who care about our school as much as I do.  Others may not realize the challenges of working with a highly transient military population, but your commitment and pride in your work is what makes our school so special.  I hope you realize the positive impact you have, long after the students and families have left DKIES and Hawaii.  I am truly proud to be part of our DKIES `ohana.

4 1/2 years ago, we were one of the original schools on military bases in the United States to receive funding to upgrade and renovate our facilities. In 2016, all of the construction was completed, and our school was renamed after a great American hero from Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye. When I first became principal of Hale Kula Elementary School in February 2003, I would never have imagined how the school would transform during my tenure. I am so appreciative to Congress and the State of Hawaii Legislature for funding our $33.2 million project, to everyone who made this project possible, and to our school community for their patience and support throughout the challenging construction phases. It is humbling to realize all that went into this project to benefit our students now and in the future.

I am truly blessed with a wonderful and loving family, supportive friends, a job that I love, good health, living in a place that many consider paradise. I couldn't ask for more.

May all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!