Monday, August 27, 2012

Communicating with Parents

I started off my career in education as a preschool Head Start teacher, and I strongly believe in the power of partnerships with parents. Head Start, which is a program for disadvantaged preschoolers, emphasizes that parents are their child's first teachers. I saw, first-hand, the many positive benefits of involving parents in the classroom or at school.  As a young teacher, I realized that we should be creating those opportunities to invite parent volunteers into our classroom to work with students, not just to do clerical types of tasks.  Involving parents as volunteers in the classroom effectively lowered the adult-to-student ratio and had the added benefit of building capacity in the parents to learn skills and strategies for working with their own children at home.

Many university education programs do not teach courses on how to work with or communicate with parents, and therefore, teachers do not always see the benefits of building that partnership.  New teachers are often overwhelmed with the responsibilities of learning the culture of the school, planning standards-based lessons in the different curricular areas, and dealing with classroom management.  They often do not realize the benefits of building strong parent partnerships even before school begins which can start with something as simple as a telephone call or a short note or email/text message to share something positive. When a positive relationship between home and school is fostered, the child is the ultimate beneficiary.

Last year, our school decided to invest in Edline to create a website which communicated more effectively with parents and the school community.  Our school website serves as an information system for site visitors and acts as an intermediary between the numerous stakeholders in the educational process. Our goals are: 1) introducing educational stakeholders to our school, 2) providing opportunities for local and global publication of student work, 3) acting as an intermediary to educational resources and community information, and 4) providing a rich source of locally relevant data. 

Although we continuously updated the website last school year, survey results indicated that  60% of our parents never logged on to Edline to get information about our school.  As a school, we realized that if we are to improve the percentage of parents accessing our website, we needed to give them a reason to get on, and after discussions, we decided that we would encourage teachers to create class webpages. To get to the class webpage, parents would have to access the school site first.

Some teachers had been using class webpages as a way to communicate with parents about upcoming activities or homework assignments, to share information about the curriculum or to post classroom photos. What we noticed was that there were fewer parent complaints from those classes with webpages.  So this year, we "highly encouraged" teachers to create class webpages or blogs.  Right now, about 90% of the teachers have class webpages, although several are still "under construction."  For the most part, I am impressed with the quality of the webpages; they are creative, attractive, and contains lots of valuable information for parents.  We're hoping that the investment up-front will lead to positive relationships and better communication with our parents.

It wasn't easy, and for many of our teachers, we were asking them to do something which was not in their comfort zone.  However, we are fortunate to have teachers who volunteered to help their colleagues get their webpages set up.  Once they got started, some teachers took off, and I am amazed at the individualization of each webpage.  We're sending out the parent activation codes this week, and I am hopeful that this year, our survey results will show an increase in the number of parents who are accessing our school website as a vehicle to get information.   

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Science is an Adventure"

One week has passed since we got our sea urchins.  It was somewhat traumatic - for the teachers :-)  They are concerned that some of their urchins are dying and they want to know if they're doing something wrong.  The urchins aren't eating the specially-designed food, and now it's laying on the bottom of the aquarium.  We don't have the right kind of scale, and we don't know if we're overfeeding or underfeeding the urchins.  Dr. Jones is patient and reassures the teachers that this is normal; we didn't know how the urchins would do when they were moved from one environment to another; we need to try the different foods to see if the urchins will eat them because around November, it'll be harder to get the limu.  He encourages the teachers and tells them that they (and the students) are doing fine, and he concludes his advice with "Science is an adventure!"

I love that line!  Sometimes, as educators, we want everything to come out "perfect."  This is a new experience for us; we have never been part of a project using live animals, and we don't want our urchins to die.  But as Dr. Jones shares, science is an adventure.  That is why I appreciate that these teachers volunteered and are so immersed in this project.  I smile when I read their questions and observations within our edmodo group and I share their concern when things are still so unpredictable.

I remember attending a workshop when I was beginning my career as a teacher back in the mid-1970's. The presenter (Dr. Pickens from the University of Hawaii) wrote this sentence on the board.
      Teachers teach science to students.
He asked us to change the words around to change the whole meaning of the sentence. I was really excited when I figured it out.
      Teachers teach students to science.

As someone who learned science in school primarily through textbooks, this opened up a whole new perspective on how to teach science to my young students.  (Note:  Look up "science" in any dictionary, and it's a noun, not a verb.)  I made it my mission to make sure that students were sciencing in my classroom.  We encouraged exploration and discovery:  we had tools like magnifying glasses, assorted magnets, balances, and even a stereoscope on the science table; students brought in live bugs to feed the green Anole lizard in the terrarium and through their observations, they found out that even if they could catch lots of sowbugs, the lizard wouldn't eat them, so they had to find other food.  We raised butterflies from caterpillars and toads from tadpoles.  I won't forget a parent/teacher conference I had with a father who shared that on the first day of school, his first grader solemnly and very seriously stated, "I like Mrs. Iwase; she has a lizard skeleton on her science table."

Science is not just a subject or a content area we need to teach in school.   Students need to science.  Our sea urchin project, Robotics, and our Hope Garden are wonderful examples of students sciencing.  I'll share about Robotics and the Hope Garden in future blogs.  For now, I'll be encouraging our teachers to teach their students to science and to be adventurers because "Science is an adventure!"

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sea Urchins Project-Based Learning

A year ago, Dr. Rick Jones of University of Hawaii, West-Oahu, came to us with a proposal to raise sea urchins as part of a NOAA grant he had received.  He purchased aquariums and other necessary materials and was ready to serve as our mentor.  Would Hale Kula be interested?  One part of me wanted to say "yes" immediately; however, I realized that the timing wasn't right.  School was just beginning, and teachers had too much on their plates already with the crossover to implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  Sea urchins?  We couldn't count on the kind of interest or commitment we needed from teachers to start something of this magnitude.  Fortunately, Dr. Jones was patient and agreed to put the project on-hold for a year.  The delay allowed us to prepare, a necessity when implementing a project like this one.  This past summer, we received valuable professional development from Dr. Jones and as the teachers learned more, they realized the importance of this project and how our students would now be part of the solution to a bigger problem that is plaguing our coral reefs here in Hawaii.  The teacher volunteers were on-board and committed to participating and learning together.

Yesterday, the sea urchins were delivered.  I wish I could have captured the excitement of the students in every classroom!  They have just started learning about sea urchins, sharing what they already know, asking questions and researching to find the answers.  They are learning to use different resources on-line and in print to discover new knowledge.  These students are not yet aware of why they are raising the sea urchins and the importance of  what they are doing, but by the time these sea urchins are big enough to be released in Kaneohe Bay in about 4 months, the students will  understand about sustainability and stewardship and realize the responsibility we all have to take care of our world.

Our public schools are under fire these days for not "educating" our students to the public's satisfaction.  We hear that our country's scores on PISA are miserable, that our students are unprepared for college, and that America's students are being left behind.  Teachers are being evaluated based on test scores or the growth model (based on test scores).  Companies inundate principals with promises to increase student proficiency in reading, or math, or science if we purchase their product.  As school budgets shrink, principals are forced to make difficult decisions regarding which positions to keep and which ones to eliminate to balance the budget.  Sadly, positions for counselors, librarians, music, and art are often the first to be cut as schools focus their energies on raising test scores to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind.

As a principal, I need to balance the goal of ensuring that our students have the skills to meet AYP while also focusing on what education can and should be in today's 21st century world.  It shouldn't be only about passing a statewide assessment with a targeted score.  There is so much more to learning than what can be measured on an on-line assessment.  This sea urchin project will be an example of the 3R's meeting the 4C's!   and I can't wait to see the teaching and learning this year!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Positive Beginning of the School Year

Our first week of school is over, and I can't believe how quickly it went. My favorite part of being a principal is being able to walk into classes and see what's going on.  This year, one of our goals is to build a positive classroom and school culture, and I am encouraged by what I observed on my walkthroughs this week.

At the school-wide level, our Positive Behavior Cadre is tasked with examining data and proactively addressing areas of concern.  Last year, this cadre instituted two initiatives which are really making a positive difference at our school.  One is "Quiet Zones"  and the other is the "Super Eagle Walk." The biggest impact has been in the decreased incidences of student misbehavior in the hallways.  Prior to implementing Quiet Zones and the Super Eagle Walk, we had complaints about students talking and laughing in the hallways, disturbing other classes in session.  We also experienced incidences such as students swinging lunch bags, or pushing others playfully, causing arguments or retaliation.  Now, students know that these kinds of behaviors are unacceptable.  Teachers have stressed the importance of following these expectations, and students quickly get into Super Eagle position and refrain from talking when they are going from one location to another.  It is amazing how we can transform behavior when everyone is on the same page!

The important point to make here is that a positive classroom or school culture needs to be nurtured.  It isn't something that is done at the beginning of the year; it needs to be a part of what we do daily.  Recently, I read a blog by Cammy Harbison about the relationship between student achievement and a strong classroom community.  My wish is that every teacher reads this blog and takes her message to heart.  Students need to feel that they are an important part of their classroom and school community and that they have something to contribute.  Accountability for their own learning starts with a feeling of belonging.  For our highly transient military-impacted students, this is even more important, and this is something we will continue to work on.

I'm optimistic!  We're off to a great start to school year 2012-2013!