Sunday, April 22, 2018

Our Inaugural PBL Showcase!

I love this quote from George Couros: "Our responsibility isn't solely to teach memorization or mechanics of a task but to spark a curiosity that empowers students to learn on their own. To wonder. To explore. To become leaders. . . . if students leave school less curious than when they started, we have failed them."  George started his latest blog with this quote from The Innovator's Mindset. Coincidentally, I'm starting this blog with his quote because it is so appropriate.

We hosted our first Project Based Learning Showcase this past week. Last summer when our PBL cohort of 15 teachers was meeting with Marnie Masuda-Cleveland to learn more about place-based project based learning, we agreed to hold a Showcase on Thursday, April 19, 2018. It seemed like a good date - far enough into the year to ensure that students in those classrooms had the experiences and would be ready to share their learnings with the school community. All teachers knew their grade level standards and decided what their PBL might include and creating a driving question, all the while knowing that things could change depending on their students and their questions.

Our PBL Leadership Team provided training for all staff throughout the school year, and the cohort met as a Professional Learning Community to share their successes as well as their challenges and to get feedback from their peers, all in preparation for that April 19 Showcase.

I'll be honest. We didn't really know what to expect or what a Showcase was "supposed" to look like, but as the year went on, it was evident that students in our cohort classrooms were empowered in their learning, and we had other teachers jump on-board the PBL train. As a principal, I was delighted! We want all of our classrooms to use PBL processes, but we know that initially, we needed a strong team to get on-board and give it a go.

Fast forward to April 19. We had notified our school community about the PBL Showcase, but we didn't really know how many students and families to expect. We were prepared (we have a great PBL Leadership Team who took care of the details including this outstanding handout), and the event exceeded our expectations. As the students were at their stations getting ready to share their learnings, the families filled the cafeteria and learned more about project based learning and why it is  important. (Link to slideshow) Because 98% of our students are military-impacted and transition through different schools throughout their lives, we believe they need skills that are transportable. PBL is perfect for our students.

To say that our students, families, and teachers were proud is an understatement. The students were articulate and communicated with confidence about what they had explored, discovered, and created.  PBL emphasizes collaborative learning, thinking critically, and communicating, and all were on display at our Showcase. One of our parents shared that her child, a rather shy first grader, was nervous initially, but by the end of the evening, after talking with so many parents and answering questions, her confidence was evident. "She couldn't stop talking about the Showcase," her mother marveled. Other parents shared that they had never heard about PBL until that evening; they were impressed and wanted to know why all students weren't given that opportunity. (Video link of Snapshots)

Our plan is to expand project based learning next year and to encourage every teacher to empower their students through PBL.  Project based learning is an integral component of our school's design, and we will be determining a local measure that will be part of our school's Strive HI data. Our cohort will support our other teachers as they begin to implement PBL processes with their students. We may decide on a school-wide driving question such as "How can we make a difference?" which could apply to all of the projects that were shared at this year's Showcase.

Walking into a PBL classroom and observing students so excited about their learning is what we want for all students. As Alvin Lin (@teampueo) shared with our complex principals, "When kids leave our classroom doors, do they see their world as a playground for ideas and learning, that there are problems to be solved, discoveries to be made, and people to be impacted?" I believe that project based learning can have that impact on our students. We cannot only focus on test scores and memorization. We need to focus on deeper learning that sticks, learning that helps students to care about others, to care about their community, and to care about their world.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Learning to Read or Loving to Read?

It's the last weekend of Spring Break. I love these breaks because it affords me an opportunity to catch up on my reading - not just for professional growth but for enjoyment as well. (Hooray for authors like Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, and Lee Child!)

I don't know when I bought Life's Literacy Lessons but I found it this week in a stack of books at home. (Spring Break is also a great time to do some spring cleaning.) I loved that Steven L. Layne shared his views on reading instruction in humorous, nostalgic, and sometimes-blunt anecdotes and poems. I found myself nodding my head, smiling to myself, and basically agreeing with the author's message.

When I began teaching reading many moons ago, I wasn't aware of all the scientific research behind reading. I was not on either side of the reading wars, and for some reason, I missed the political debate over the best way to teach reading. ("The Reading Wars") For much of that time, I was teaching Head Start, and I was shielded from that debate (thankfully). Teaching preschoolers who were from low income families gave me the experiences I needed to understand that hands-on learning was crucial to help students make connections. When I became a teacher in elementary school, I was lucky. The principals I worked for weren't micromanagers, so I was able to teach reading using a variety of strategies; after all, our students were all different, at different levels, and with different interests. 

Here are few of my beliefs about reading, gleaned after over 45 years as an educator:

  • Reading instruction is not one-size-fits-all. Everyone is different and what might work for one student might not work for another. As Steven L. Layne shares in his poem "For the Balanced Instruction Advocate" (page 14),  "Balance is a difficult state to achieve. It takes dedication, perseverance and equal support from all sides. Teachers come equipped with these first two qualities. Why doesn't everyone just stop bickering and help us out with that last part."
  • Students need to be surrounded by a variety of reading materials. We learn to read so we can read to learn. There are those who say that students in grades K-2 are learning to read so they can read to learn later. That is why the reading curriculum is heavy on phonics instruction in the early years. I don't buy that. Kids can learn from the time they are exposed to books and other reading material, and if their interest level is high, they just might surprise you with their knowledge.
  • We need to make time every day to read aloud to students. (Listen to Steven L. Layne read his poem, "Read to Them.") Truthfully, reading aloud to my students was one of my favorite times of the day. I loved holding my kids captive with a great story. In his poem, "Priorities," (page 62) Dr. Layne shares that "It is easy to become convinced that there are more important things to do than read to the kids. I really doubt it." I agree.
  • I don't believe in inundating students with homework, but reading every day should be an expectation. It should be something the student has chosen to read, not something that is assigned based on Lexile levels or to complete a book report. 
  • As the mother and grandmother of boys, I am concerned that many of our boys are turned off to reading because we don't always allow them to read what they want to. I am reminded of a conversation with our school librarian last school year. Some of the kindergarten boys were in a section of the library that was "off-limits" for younger students. (I'm not sure who called me in to intervene; it wasn't the librarian.) Mrs. Colte shared that she needed to rethink the "rules" in the library. Why couldn't kindergarten boys borrow books about football if that's what they wanted? I told her that when I spoke to the boys and told them to put the books back, they knew exactly where they got the books from, and they knew the players and their teams. Let's not force our boys to read what we think they need and let them choose their reading material. 
  • I am not a fan of grade level standards for reading. Students come in at different places as far as reading is concerned. Expecting every student to achieve grade level standards does not take student differences into consideration. I would prefer using a continuum and starting where the child is and then planning next steps in the progression. 
  • There is no reason why we can't use available technology to help our students who need the most help with decoding and fluency. In this article, "The Goal of Phonics Instruction is to Get Readers Not to Use Phonics When Reading," the author shares two strategies that have been successful in producing gains in reading fluency and comprehension: assisted reading (listening to a text simultaneously while reading the text) and repeated reading (practicing several times until the reader can read the text fluently.) Students can independently use technology to help them self-assess their decoding and fluency. They can listen to another person reading the text while following along; they can time themselves to see how many words they can read in a minute, practice reading the same passage a few times and time themselves again to see their progress.  We should teach students these strategies to help them become more fluent readers which will lead to automaticity and hopefully, better comprehension. 
  • My final thought - when I read Life's Literacy Lessons,  "Aliteracy Poem" hit home for me. One of the reasons for going into education was because I wanted students to realize their potential and to realize that we can learn something new every day of our lives. Reading is essential if we want to be life-long learners. Dr. Layne (page 16) states, "Aliterate individuals are those who can read but choose not to do so. I often ask my graduate students, 'If we teach the children how to read, but none of them want to, have we done our jobs?'" I recently asked a 10-year-old who read voraciously when he was younger what he was reading. "Nothing," he replied, "I read in school, but that's it." It puzzled me. When this boy was 7, he asked for the set of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books for  his birthday and finished reading all of them within a month. What happened to his love of reading?  Sometimes in our zeal to get our students to be better readers, we tell them what to read based on their reading level. But  if students don't have the life experiences to relate to a book, they won't find that book enjoyable. Let them choose what to read.
So here I am on this dreary last weekend of Spring Break. Now that I've finished this blog, I'm going to snuggle up in my warm bed and read my Michael Connelly book. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Science is a Verb

I learned science through textbooks. Suffice it to say that I don't recall much from my classes. When I was studying to become an early childhood educator, I was introduced to a new way of teaching science through hands-on experiences. Dr. Pickens from the University of Hawaii provided an "aha" moment for me that I never forgot: "Science is a verb," he shared, and that changed my views as an educator about science.

Our Hawaii schools are expected to transition to the Next Generation Science Standards by 2020, and if implemented correctly, students will be actively sciencing rather than just learning science concepts through books. It will not be easy because many of us who became elementary educators do not have strong backgrounds in science.

Recently, Alvin Lin (@teampueo), a Science Resource Teacher funded through a DoDEA grant. "introduced" the shift to our complex area principals.  As an administrator, my professional development generally focuses on leadership issues or mandatory trainings. This presentation was a breath of fresh air! We were scientists, making observations about "Mystery Fish." I loved the time spent working with my partner, exploring, discovering, and taking notes on our observations.  As I looked around the room, I noticed that all of us adults were absorbed in what we were doing and having FUN! If anything, the time for exploration was much too short!

Alvin then shared a "Tale of Two Classrooms." The results were surprising but at the same time, not surprising. (If you want to read the Bertelsmann Foundation study, here's a link.) The main point of this study: Make learning stick! Stand and deliver is not enough; learning must be student-centered, relevant, and process-based.

I am definitely not an expert in science education, but I do know that it is important for students to explore and discover about their world through sciencing. Kids are naturally curious and ask hundreds of questions, if we let them. As a mom as well as an elementary school teacher, I loved opening up worlds for my children by building on their natural curiosity about the science around them.

Back in 2012, I blogged about an exciting project our students were participating in.  ("Science is an Adventure") Unfortunately, the sea urchin project lasted for just two years, but this is an example of the kind of sciencing that makes learning stick.  With guidance from experts like Alvin Lin, and by collaborating with their colleagues and learning from each other, I am optimistic that our teachers will make the shift to NGSS and teach students to science.

Monday, February 19, 2018

(After Another Mass Shooting) Let's Listen to These Students!

I don't like to get too political in this blog, but this is one instance when I feel I must.

There was another school shooting last week. I am a school principal; an event like this impacts me because I wonder whether all of our practice drills will really prepare us and keep our students and staff safe. Parents send their kids to school and expect us to keep them safe. We take that responsibility seriously.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida experienced something no one should have to experience in school. Their friends and teachers were killed in a well-planned attack with an assault rifle by a former student who had been expelled.

The students are angry; they want change; they want to ensure that there are no more school shootings, and they are taking action. They are calling out the political leaders who refuse to change the law that allows citizens, including those with mental health issues, to purchase assault rifles. ("Walkouts, Marches, and Rallies: A Guide to the School Violence Protests after the Florida Shootings") 

I read comments on social media about this shooting. People blaming parents for not disciplining their kids. Others are blaming kids for ostracizing kids who are different. Adults are saying that kids don't know what they're talking about and should be in school, not planning protests or meeting with legislators. These comments anger me. 

At our school, our students are encouraged to "make a difference." This year, students have helped out a school in Houston that was impacted by Hurricane Harvey; others have cleared an area of invasive plants on the North Shore that has been affected by climate change and replanted native plants; students collected canned foods for the Hawaii Food Bank; and others are conducting a toiletries drive to help homeless children. These are issues that are important to our students, and they are taking action. This is project-based learning, real-world learning for students that empowers students to engage in learning that is meaningful. 

This is what students in Parkland, Florida are hoping to do. They want to engage legislators in discussions about something they are passionate about - making sure that their school would be the last school shooting in our country. I applaud them for their leadership. I applaud them for their concern. I applaud them for their courage. I hope they are successful in making the changes necessary to keep everyone safe in school. 

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!