Saturday, June 17, 2017

Tribute to My Favorite Dads


On this Father's Day weekend, I want to pay tribute to my favorite Dads.This photo, taken before Boys' Day in 2008, shows the three Dads who are most special to me.

The first is my Dad, Keiji Amemiya. Dad died almost four years ago, but he continues to hold a place in my heart. He was the sole provider in a family with five children, and at one time, there were four of us, five years old and younger. We never realized that we were "poor" because we were rich in other ways. We had a loving family and spent a lot of time doing things that didn't cost money - going to the beach, playing outside, throwing ball with Dad (he was a catcher and quite a ballplayer), singing songs, and being together as a family. When he passed away, I wrote a blog, "Aloha, Dad." Those words are as applicable today as they were back then. I miss my Dad, and every day, I try to live up to what he would expect of me.

My husband, Randy, is Dad to our three sons. His mom divorced when he was a young boy, and he remembers feeling a sense of loss at not having a Dad like other kids his age. His mom remarried, and his stepdad became his Dad.  Randy is driven to succeed. In his professional life in appointed or elected positions, he has made a difference in the lives of those who live here in Hawaii, but I am sure he most treasures his role as Dad and Grandpa. I think Randy sometimes wishes he was more present when the boys were growing up, but that hasn't impacted his positive relationship with them now that they are adults.

Our oldest son, Justin, is a divorced Dad, and he has the boys every-other-week, but he is always a part of their lives. Last year, after visiting them, I wrote "Proud Grandma," which is really a tribute to the way Justin is parenting the boys. It can't have been easy for him to start a career in a new place, but through hard work and innovative ideas, he has been successful. I love the way he introduces our grandsons to new activities and encourages them to be adventuresome, do their best ("Iwase boys never give up! is their mantra), and to be respectful to others.

Happy Father's Day to all the Dads out there!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The World Looks Different from a PBL Perspective

My husband and I decided to take a vacation to Maui this past weekend. No golf, no plans, just to relax. It was great! We walked part of the Lahaina Historic Trail and learned about the history of the once-capital of the Hawaiian Islands. Later, while waiting for our hotel room to be ready, we went to watch a USTA tennis tournament for adults and got to talk story with someone we hadn't seen since our boys played junior tennis twenty years ago. It was wonderful to catch up with how our kids - now adults with kids of their own - are doing. It brought back memories of all those weekends on the tennis courts when the boys were playing competitive junior tennis.

On Sunday, we planned to go to Iao Valley since my husband had just finished reading a book about the kings of Hawaii and was curious about the Battle of Kepaniwai that took place at Iao Valley where so many warriors died that the river "ran red with the blood of the dead."  Along the way, I saw some signs that said "Restore the Flow." I was curious. . .

Unfortunately, there was a gate at the entrance to Iao Valley. Apparently, a storm caused damage to the parking lot, and the repairs were not completed. We were disappointed, but continued down a side road, thinking we'd turn around and go back to Wailuku. Instead, we discovered Kepaniwai Park, a cute little park with a walking trail and cultural structures that are maintained by different cultural groups who settled in Maui - a missionary house as well as houses from Hawaii, Japan, China, Korea, Portugal, and the Philippines.


As we were walking the trail, I noticed a sign that said, "Caution. Swim at Your Own Risk." I looked at the river and wondered who would swim there. There was very little water, and the rocks looked like there had been no water flow in quite awhile. I realized at that moment what the "Restore the Flow" sign meant. It intrigued me. Why would anyone stop the river from flowing? How did this impact the animals and plants that lived in the river? How long has it been since the water flow was reduced? I realized at that moment that I no longer saw problems in quite the same way. Project-based learning had changed my perspective, and if I were teaching at a school on Maui, I believe that this could be a relevant problem that my students could explore.



As you can see, the river bed is very dry, and the rocks look as if they haven't been under water in quite a while. Look at how white they are!

When I returned home to Oahu, I read up on this fight over the water which was diverted years ago by a sugar company. An article from 2013, "Fight over water's flow" explains the conflict.  I don't know when or if the river will ever be restored to how it was back during the days of the Battle of Kepaniwai. It appears that the fight is not over, and after the storm in September 2016 - probably the one that damaged the Iao Valley parking lot - there are further clashes between the "Residents, activists, and engineers . . . "  So who "owns" the water and what can be done to restore the river to its former glory? Is there a win-win to this problem on Maui? Wouldn't it be great if students could suggest solutions that could resolve this conflict?

Recently, our fourth graders learned about how climate change is impacting native plants and animals at Kahuku Point, and they went on a field trip to remove invasive plants and replace them with native plants. Our second graders are learning about taking care of our community and our earth by reducing, reusing, and recycling, and they have embarked on a campaign to encourage our school community to do our part to reduce the amount of paper we use and to recycle. 

In the past, our teachers created interdisciplinary units that embedded different content - literature, researching, writing, science, social studies, math, the arts - into their lessons, but IDUs were teacher-directed. Today, through project-based learning, students ask the questions that determine what they learn about a topic and how they can share their learning. PBL is student-driven, and it's a powerful way for students to learn. When our students become the activators of knowledge through their probing questions, they begin to realize that they can have a positive impact on their school or their community or their state or their world. This is especially important to us here in Hawaii because we are an island state with limited resources.  Our students and teachers can use the PBL process to collaborate with others to solve problems, communicate their ideas, and to hopefully make a difference in our world. Project-based learning is an opportunity to take a problem and to look at it from different perspectives. It's real-world learning that has the potential to create the kind of global citizens who can make a positive impact on this world. 


Fourth graders were proud to make a difference by ridding the area of invasive plants and replacing them with native plants. 

At our last PBL professional development session, teachers were asked "Why PBL?" They shared responses that reflected their growth in understanding how PBL can engage students in deeper learning and in making a difference in their way of thinking. 



Monday, May 8, 2017

Awesomeness

We have an outstanding staff. I don't know how we got so lucky to have people who are passionate about their work and go above-and-beyond to make sure our students and their families have a wonderful experience at our school. Last week, our Parent Teacher Organization went overboard to make sure our staff felt appreciated during Staff Appreciation Week; we felt so special!

Today, I'd like to pay a special tribute to two of our staff who have demonstrated perseverance and resiliency and who were celebrated on Saturday, May 6, 2017.

Our Vice Principal, Yuuko Arikawa, completed her Certification Institute for School Leaders training on Saturday. She put in nearly two years of work which included Master's level college classes, weekend trainings, and long-term projects and/or action research. What people may not know is that Ms. Arikawa is a single mom with four children, and they are her priority. I'm not sure how she does it, but she is a supermom who is always on-the-go. She does her schoolwork while waiting for her kids to finish band practice, or hula, or track, or some other activity.  She is the first to volunteer if someone asks, and she has a deep love and commitment to Hawaii.  At work, Ms. Arikawa is a quick learner, a great listener and communicator, and a collaborative problem-solver. She is organized and works well with our entire school community. Frankly, I'm not sure when she finds time for herself!

Esther Park is a fifth grade teacher who was selected by her colleagues as the HSTA Teacher of Excellence for our school. Five years ago, Ms. Park was hired through the Teach for America program. It was not easy; she had the desire and the drive, but teaching is challenging and although she had experience as a volunteer working with youth, that is not the same as having a classroom. I wasn't sure if she would continue past the two years of her TFA contract, but she was determined, and despite the tears and the frustrations, she stuck it out. Ms. Park decided to continue her journey to become an educator, and she decided to remain in Hawaii. What many people don't realize is that Ms. Park did not speak a word of English when she came to the United States at the age of 10. This is what drives her as an educator, and in her classroom, all students are accepted for their strengths and their individualities. Ms. Park is a special educator, one who keeps learning and growing and will continue to do so.

I could share many more examples of teachers who have persevered through challenges at our school, and they do it for one reason. They do it for our students. Ms. Arikawa and Ms. Park are young educators who will positively impact many more students, and there are so many more educators like them in our Department.  Teacher Appreciation Week happens once in a school year, but the awesomeness happens every day.









Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rethinking How We Address Our Behaviorally-Challenged Students

I've been in education for over 40 years, as a teacher and now as an administrator. I have encountered challenging students, and I can name those few who stand out in my mind. I often wonder what happened to them and how they're doing now. I hope they are successful in life because they were certainly having a difficult time in school.

I just finished reading Lost at School by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. I wish I had read it earlier because this book is about those 5% of our behaviorally-challenged students who take up 80% of our time at school. We've tried so many different ways of dealing with them - with empathy, with sternness, by having them spend time in the office, and even sending them home when it's been a particularly bad day. Deep down, though, I knew that we weren't getting to the root of the real problem, and that's why it's been so frustrating for me as an administrator.

We've been addressing the needs of students with behavioral needs via a Functional Behavior Analysis and creating a Behavior Support Plan. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. For our most behaviorally-challenged students, the BSP might work in the beginning, and then it loses its luster and the problem might worsen. We regularly meet with our school teams, and discuss new behaviors we are observing or new approaches to address the student's needs. We continue discussing the same students and seeing minimal progress in their behaviors. A lot of these most challenging students are academically capable, but their behaviors are getting in the way of their progress.

So what are the major ideas I gained from this book?

  • It's not the kid's fault. It's not the parent's fault. Let's stop the blame game.
  • Students who are behaviorally challenged lack essential thinking skills.
  • Just as we differentiate and provide interventions for students lacking academic skills, we need to differentiate and provide interventions for those who lack the essential thinking skills.
  • Often, school teams create Support Plans that address the behavior (e.g. meltdowns, eloping, aggressive behaviors, etc.) rather than the lagging skills that these students need to be successful (e.g. difficulty transitioning from one activity to another; difficulty with basic social skills; seeing things as black or white and not in shades of gray, etc.)
  • We often make assumptions about why a student behaved as he/she did. We don't ask the open-ended questions that "drill down" to the reason why the student behaved as he/she did.
  • We think there needs to be a consequence when these students exhibit their challenging behaviors. Yet, consequences - either positive or negative - rarely work for these students. 
  • Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) is an effective way of solving problems collaboratively and not unilaterally. Adults and students work together to understand the problem and come up with a solution that addresses the concerns as well as the lagging skills that students may lack. 
  • We've been spinning our wheels with some of our students. Because most of our students are transient, we do whatever we can, and when these challenging students leave our school, we rarely know how they're doing at their new school. We do let the new school know about the supports we've provided, but unlike other parents whose children are doing well, we don't hear from parents of these challenging students.
I have reason to be hopeful, though. We will be implementing a complex-wide social-emotional learning curriculum next year; we hope to include a universal screening tool for behavior that will help us as a school to provide the supports and interventions for students who are most at-risk. Of course, unless teachers are invested in implementing social-emotional learning regularly as part of their curriculum, positive changes may not be observed.

  • In one classroom, students start the day doing yoga or meditation breaths. They take turns being the "Yogi Master," leading their classmates in their exercises. When students need a break, they go to designated areas to "chill" or to get their bodies moving before returning to their designated learning activity.
  • In another classroom, students did a mini-project-based learning where they discussed what they needed to work on to make sure they're ready for the next grade level. The students agreed that they need to be ready academically. When I did an observation and it was time for recess, the teacher reminded two students that they owed five minutes of recess. It wasn't a punishment; one student started working on an assignment and the other got a book to read to the teacher. The class came up with the name,  "Academy,"  as well as the decision to make up the learning time lost during recess. It was awesome to see these students taking responsibility for what they realized was a poor choice.
  • We have been trying to "drill down" to find out why a student behaved inappropriately. It's been pretty interesting. We found out that a major trigger for some students is believing that we will be calling their parents which will then lead to them being grounded. When we convince them that we are serious about problem-solving rather than reporting to parents, the students begin to open up to us, and their lagging skills are evident in their responses. Given the opportunity to problem-solve, these students demonstrate empathy. "I hope we can resolve our problems," a student wrote to someone he had a conflict with. This was a breakthrough for him.
I am so glad I learned about this book. I plan to share it with our staff and together, we can build a strong Response to Intervention system for our behaviorally-challenged students so they have the skills to be successful whether they're at our school or move elsewhere.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Proud to Be a Principal at a Military-Impacted School

April is the Month of the Military Child, and as the principal for 14 years of a school with 98% military-impacted students, I would like to share my thoughts about the joys as well as the challenges of working with this population.

So much has changed since I was appointed principal back in February 2003:
  • At that time, our school name was Hale Kula Elementary School. Last year, the Board of Education approved the changing of our name to Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School after the late Senator who did so much for schools in Hawaii and for the military population.
  • When I began, we had less than 500 students due to the privatization of housing on Schofield. Homes in our area were razed to make room for newer homes.
  • In 2004, troops from Schofield were deployed to the Middle East, and many soldier-parents were deployed multiple times until about 2012 when the last units returned home. Deployments were stressful for our students and their parents, and as a school, we needed to address the emotional challenges our students were facing. That's when our partnership with the Tripler School Mental Health Team blossomed. Today, they are an important part of our school team to address the social-emotional needs of students and their families. 
  • As the privatized homes were completed, enrollment at our school began to increase at an alarming rate, and by 2012, we were overcrowded. Every room at the school was being used, and we even had to have a dividing wall built in several of our portable classrooms to accommodate all of our students and staff.
  • We were so fortunate to receive Congressional and State funding to address the condition and capacity of our school with a $33.2 million allocation. After 3 years of living with dust, noise, and general inconveniences, the project was completed, and the result is amazing! 
  • We are constantly learning about how students learn. Our students have opportunities to explore, discover, create, and share using technology and other tools for learning. We are moving from interdisciplinary units that are teacher-directed to project-based learning. We are excited about this shift in how teaching and learning can engage our students and prepare them to be responsible global citizens.
Throughout my tenure at DKIES, student transitions have been a constant. Every week, we have students enrolling and departing, approximately 500-700 in a single year. Other principals are astounded when I share those numbers. Transitions are a huge challenge at our school, but our staff is so accommodating, and our students are resilient. I cannot imagine how it feels to be uprooted every few years and move to a new home away from family and friends. Added to that, changing to a new school in the middle of the year is a challenge. Yet our military students do this all the time, and our teachers adjust their classroom instruction to address this transiency.

At our school, communication is key. Our Facebook and Twitter posts provide an opportunity to share the great things happening at our school and to seek input and engagement from parents. We hold two virtual School Community Meetings each year, and participation at these meetings has provided parents with the opportunity to share ideas that may have worked at other schools their child attended or to bring up concerns that we may not have been aware of.  We seek input through our annual School Community Council survey, and we get a pulse of how parents are feeling about the curriculum, the school culture, and whether they feel their child will be ready for the next grade level. We also solicit comments about their concerns and what they like best about our school. This feedback helps us to focus on areas where we can improve.

Recently, a former parent wrote to me that her son would be graduating from college as an aerospace engineer. She wanted me to know that the supports he received at our school helped him throughout his educational experience. Former students (or their proud parents) share about the academic, athletic,and other achievements as they graduate from high school and continue their education. Clearly, these students excelled despite the challenges they faced as military dependents.

When I became principal of our school 14 years ago, I stated that my goal was to give students an experience they would remember for the rest of their lives. I wanted our students to know that they had attended school in Hawaii, and I wanted them to take with them the values and experiences that they can only get here in this special place. I think we've succeeded.

April is the Month of the Military Child. Let's salute our military children!















Friday, March 31, 2017

I Wish I'd Learned Math This Way

My grandson loves math. "I'm a mathematician," he told me on his recent trip back home. "Give me a hard problem." This is a kid who asked me to give him math problems whether we're riding in the car or waiting for our food at a restaurant. His younger brother also loves a good math challenge. After reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler, I asked my son to work on a collaborative math activity with my grandsons called "Four 4's." The instructions (from Mathematical Mindsets) states, "Can you find every number between 1 and 20 using only four 4's and any operation?" In the meantime, I was also working on this activity.

A few hours later, my son called. They were done! How could that be? I was still struggling with some of the numbers. My son shared that he taught my older grandson about square roots and factorials, and that helped them to complete the challenge. I hadn't thought about square roots and I had forgotten what factorials were. (Goes to show how much math I've forgotten!) When I asked my son to send me their work so I could check the ones I was missing, my son refused. "Not until you're done," he told me. Well, for the next week, the problem consumed me! I found myself thinking of possibilities while I was driving and rushing home, only to find out I already had that number.  I finally Googled it so I could say I was done :-)

I enjoyed teaching math even if it was just to elementary aged students.  I found it challenging but so rewarding when students "got" what I was trying to teach. When I went to a workshop about using a problem-solving model that encouraged students to collaborate and share strategies, it was an "aha: moment for me. The kids liked it, too, much better than drill and kill worksheets. After reading Mathematical Mindsets, though, I realized that we hadn't gone far enough. Instead of a problem-solving model, we need to teach with a project-based model where students have opportunities to solve open-ended problems like "Four Fours." As a school, we're learning more about project-based learning, and it's important that we find ways to integrate or embed real-world mathematics into our projects.

Today, our second graders held another Garden Sale. They have been practicing lots of math skills as they plant, grow, harvest, and sell their veggies. As they reflect and expand on this project, I see so much potential for them to learn and apply math throughout this project!

Next year, one of our school's focuses will be on improving the teaching and learning of mathematics. We need to emphasize a mathematical mindset that values persevering through struggles and learning from our failures. It won't be easy, but I look forward to the challenge!


It has been quite some time since I actually solved math problems. I texted these photos to my grandsons so they could see that grandma is practicing math, too!
I'm contemplating taking Jo Boaler's on-line class but I'm a little gun-shy because its been so long since I actually took a math class. Wait a minute! Where's my mathematical mindset?
Our second graders are so excited about their garden! Today, they harvested cleaned, packaged, and sold carrots, kale, mustard cabbage, and choy sum. 
Students took orders from customers and figured out how much they owed.
Different students will have the opportunity to apply their math skills to real-life situations.
These students collected the money and gave customers change. Students are learning new skills and getting better with making change. 







Saturday, March 11, 2017

PBL Learning Walks - An Awesome PD Experience!

When I first got the email that we would be doing learning walks for the Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network, I put it on the back burner because it meant traveling to the Big Island just before Spring Break during a very busy week. Thankfully, I made the decision that this was an important part of the HILN journey, and at 5:00 a.m. on Thursday, I was at the airport, ready to take off for the Big Island with Kapono Ciotti. Our destinations? Innovations Public Charter School and Honaunau Elementary School. 

Innovations PCS services students in grades K-8 in multi-age classrooms, and their curriculum is student-centered, inquiry-based, and project-based. We had an opportunity to visit different grade levels, and clearly, students are engaged in their own learning. We saw 7th and 8th graders leading a discussion with their peers that embedded the theme of immigration in a study about poetry. Another group of students shared how they are creating freeze-dried snacks for the Hokulea crew to take along on their voyages. Some students were experimenting with recipes, and others were re-designing a solar-dehydrator. I was struck by the confidence of the students as they worked on these real-world projects.
Students were chopping up dried fruits and are working on a recipe to make granola snack bars for the Hokulea crew.

These students were fixing the solar dehydrator to make it work more efficiently. I was surprised at how comfortable students are with using different tools for their projects. Students were working independently with the teacher circulating amongst the different groups who were involved in different projects.

In every classroom, students were engaged in their work and were helping each other to understand and complete the assignments. In one fifth and sixth grade classroom, students were working on a video to explain a math concept to their parents as part of their upcoming student-led conference. The teacher shared that when she checked student projects the previous day, she realized that her instructions and expectations were not clear to the students so she spent some class time reviewing the rubric and asking questions to ensure students understood the descriptors. She also showed the students an exemplary project that one of their classmates had completed. After that, students realized what they needed to do, and off they went to work with their partners. The video the teacher shared is by a sixth grader named Cameron, and it is amazing, and his real-life application is quite creative :-)



Honaunau Elementary is a different kind of school from Innovations. They are a very rural community with a high percentage of disadvantaged and English Learner students. We didn't get to visit classrooms (there were subs because teachers were at a PD), but we talked with staff and the principal shared their journey. Even if she stated that they're just beginning their PBL journey, I beg to differ. The students are very involved in their school garden, and students give up their recesses to "work" in the garden. They even have a partnership with Ace Hardware in their community; students grow starter plants which are sold at the store. Their latest project is harvesting seeds from plants. Students are learning through hands-on projects and becoming more effective communicators as they share what they're learning with their school community. 

 Students problem-solved to build these water catchments because when it rained, the water fell off the roof and soaked the ground. They now collect the rainwater and use it for their plants.

These are some of the starter plants the students are raising and selling at Ace Hardware. Students who work during recess get paid, and the school has worked with parents to set up a savings account at a nearby credit union, and students are depositing their earnings in their account. What a powerful lesson these students are learning about saving!

Much as I loved visiting the classrooms, the real meat of our learning walk came at the end of each school visit. Our BIE leader, Cris Waldfogel is a master at getting the most out of the discussion and reflection. I've been on the receiving end of learning walks in the past, and I realize that what separated those from this one was Cris' expertise in leading the discussion. The questions, the affirmations, the wonderings, the reflections . . .  I felt that it was such a trusting, positive environment where the school leaders could share their questions and "insecurities" and be validated for their efforts. School leaders Jennifer Hiro (Innovations PCS) and Noreen Kunitomo (Honaunau Elementary) are inspirational yet very humble. So much learning is going on in their schools, and at the heart of student learning are projects that are rigorous and relevant and build relationships amongst students, teachers, and the school community. 
Next month, my HILN "Grey Team" will be visiting our school and Waialae PCS. I am still a bit nervous about the learning walk, but I know that the team will be supportive and provide our school team with honest feedback and help us to reflect on how we want to proceed with PBL.  This learning walk protocol is powerful; sometimes it takes an outsider's perspective to help us to celebrate what we've accomplished and to reflect on how we will continue on our PBL journey.