Friday, December 26, 2014

My Hopes for Education in Hawaii - 2015

I just read a short EduWeek blog about Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Edu-Predictions for 2015.   It got me thinking about what I would want to see happen in education in Hawaii in 2015.

First, as an early childhood education major, I strongly believe in making preschool accessible for all 4-year-olds in Hawaii.  Universal preschool is not a new idea; it's been around since the 1980s with The Berman Report and the 1990's with the Cayetano Task Force. It's taking far too long - over 25 years - for our State to make a commitment to ensure that ALL 4-year-olds have an opportunity to attend a quality pre-kindergarten program.  Until we make that commitment, we will have an opportunity gap that turns into an achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots.   Our children and their future are too important; we need to stop making excuses about the lack of funds to support universal preschool.

Second, with our Superintendent signing the Future Ready pledge, it is my hope that more support will be provided to schools to ensure that our teachers and students are able to personalize teaching and learning through the use of technology to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and create. Our school has been on a journey to create our own curriculum and to address the Common Core State Standards through interdisciplinary units and project-based or problem-based learning. I am hopeful that the State will allow us flexibility in implementation and will allow us to apply for funding through the Future Ready program to provide continued professional development for our teachers as well as to purchase devices for our students.   Recently, over 85 billion students worldwide participated in the second annual Hour of  Code. To prepare our students for their future, we need to introduce coding in every school in Hawaii and it should count as a math or science credit towards high school graduation. We would also like to pilot Bring Your Own Technology with some of our older students. In this day and age, students need to understand that their smartphones or mobile devices are computers that can be used for more than just texting, social media, or playing music or games.

Third, most of our schools were built for a different kind of educational system. Hale Kula, built in 1959, is really fortunate to have received funding from the Department of Defense and the State of Hawaii to transform our school where 21st century teaching and learning will be supported. This whole project has made me realize how important buildings are to a school. We need to invest in upgrading our schools; most of our schools in Hawaii were built for a different era with the factory model that was prevalent in education at that time. Our construction project has made me realize how our teachers were doing their best to give our students 21st century learning experiences without the proper infrastructure.  Educators are creative and do their best to make things work, but they shouldn't have to do so.  It is my hope that policymakers will truly make education a priority by being creative and figuring out a way to fund 21st century buildings at our schools. The Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs conducted a study in 2012 that outlines a long-term plan to address the need to transform outdated and aging schools.  Perhaps this plan should be re-examined and shared with all stakeholders.

Finally, I hope our Department will engage our schools in discussions about the Smarter Balanced Assessments. I've shared my thoughts in two earlier blogs so I won't repeat myself. I believe that we need to examine other ways of determining how students are doing in school, perhaps by having them keep an electronic portfolio of their best work from the time they enter our school system until they graduate. Part of the requirement for this portfolio is to have students reflect on why they chose those pieces and what they learned.  This is a powerful individualized process that holds students accountable and is highly personalized, and when the appropriate support is provided, even kindergarten students can self-reflect on what they want to keep as evidences of their learning and why. It is true that an electronic portfolio doesn't have the capacity to compare students through a common assessment, but I doubt that a test score is the best predictor of success in life.  We need to re-examine whether the amount of money we spend on testing could be better utilized to improve teaching and learning at our schools.

As a lifelong educator who remains passionate about improving education in Hawaii, I believe it takes the commitment of everyone to engage in a discussion to ensure that our children are prepared for their future through a quality public education system. Let's make that commitment together.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Commitment to Our School

As I look back on my experiences at our school for the past 11+ years, I am amazed at my journey and my growth as a leader. I have the same passion and vision for leadership, but I have learned so much about what it takes to lead a school.  I am not the same person I was back when I was first hired. Indeed, I was a bit naive to think that the job would get easier the longer I stayed at our school!

Before becoming a principal, I had opportunities to hone my leadership philosophy as a teacher-leader and a coach, president, and tournament chairperson for different youth sports groups. My core beliefs about leadership have not changed much. I still believe that a leader earns respect; it is not given. I believe in teamwork; one person alone cannot accomplish what a team of people can. I believe that an idea worth trying can be better when the leader is open to discussion.  And I believe that a leader needs to make time to sometimes "get away" from the job and to re-energize.

Much has changed in education since I first became a principal. Technology has changed the way we teach and learn, not just for students, but for teachers and school leaders as well.  Brain research provides information on how students learn, and in this digital age, it is definitely through active learning and hands-on projects rather than paper/pencil worksheets. We know that teamwork and collaboration are integral; the strength of the group is greater than the individual, and everyone has something to contribute to the team. We know that not everyone learns in the same way, and it is important to present information in multiple ways to address the needs of the learners. (This is true for adults as well as children.)

Although I could be considered a seasoned principal, I continue to learn much from those around me. As I visit classrooms, I marvel at how comfortable our students are when collaborating on a document or presentation in Google Drive. I listen to their discussions and their ideas, and I am proud of how they listen to each other, respect other's ideas, and are willing to try different strategies to solve problems. I watch them in a Google Hangout, asking higher-level questions so confidently, and I know that instruction in the classroom focuses on critical thinking and not just regurgitating information. I look at student projects and listen to them share what they did and I admire their creativity in using different tools to share their learning. Our teachers have taught me as well. They attend classes, conferences, and workshops and come back, eager to share what they have learned. They willingly try new ideas and discuss how to apply what they learned with their colleagues. They take on challenges such as chairing Focus Groups for our accreditation, presenting at a conference, guiding students through a media or coding project, or coaching a team; all of these extra tasks require them to put in time, something that is in short supply for all educators.

Through my journey as a school leader, I have come to realize what kind of a leader I strive to be. A leader with a strong vision for what education can and should be.  A leader who knows that it takes a team to implement that vision. A leader who understands that our work is never done, that the road to excellence never ends. A leader who learns from experiences and strives to do better the next time. A leader who trusts the members of our team to do their best. A leader who uses the power of technology to communicate and to keep up-to-date personally and professionally.  A leader with the strength to advocate for our school, to ensure that our students and teachers benefit from decisions made by policy-makers.

As we approach the end of 2014 and enter a new year, I commit to continue to learn and improve so I can effectively lead our school to new heights.  Imua!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What are We Doing to Our Kids? Part II

Earlier, I published a blog that shared my concerns regarding the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) titled "What are We Doing to Our Kids?". Since then, I've had the opportunity to delve deeper into the requirements to administer the SBA and I believe even more strongly that we are headed down the wrong path if we think that these assessments will measure whether our students will ultimately be successful in life.

My major concern is that these assessments are not the way students should be demonstrating their learning.  Young children learn by making sense of information, by asking questions, exploring and discovering their own answers by using available resources. They learn collaboratively by working with others and building on their strengths as well as addressing any challenges to their learning. Children learn by making mistakes, by trying their ideas and then working to make improvements. Expecting students as young as eight years old to sit for long periods of time to complete an extended assignment on a topic that may have little relevance and no real meaning for that child is a recipe for failure. Children are more than test scores.  Those test scores do not define who the child is, what they are good at, and why we value them as important members of our school and classroom community.

Another major concern for me is the amount of resources it will take to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessments. I question the amount of money being spent on developing, implementing, and scoring these assessments  I question the value to the school or the teacher when results for students will not be available until long after the year is over. I question the amount of time being spent on preparing for the test and on taking the test, time that could and should be spent on student-centered, active learning.  I worry that technology issues will impact the entire school when testing becomes the priority and all other computer activities come to a halt during Smarter Balanced Assessment administration. This is a real concern for our school where we use technology at all grade levels to collaborate, communicate, think critically, create, and connect with others globally.

Most concerning to me, though, is the negative impact on our students and the unnecessary stress we place on them. Is there a test for students who may be gifted in art or music? What about a student who has great interpersonal skills, who has advanced physical motor skills, or who may have creative out-of-the-box ideas but struggles with reading or writing? A test score does not define a student, and our responsibility as educators is to guide and support students and to expose them to many different activities so they can find what they are passionate about.

An article by Diane Ravitch, "The Myth of Chinese Super Schools" is a must-read for everyone. The article is based on Dr. Yong Zhao's book, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon:  Why China Has the Best (and the Worst) Education System in the World.  Dr. Zhao dreams of a world where students are encouraged to be "confident, curious, and creative." As Diane Ravitch states in her article, "Until we break free of standardized testing, this ideal will remain out of reach."

It is time for us to speak up if we are concerned.

Students are learning to code using available computers and devices at the school.  These activities could be halted for several months while 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders take the Smarter Balanced Assessments on-line.

Activities like art, music, physical education, dance, and drama are as important to children's development as reading, writing, and math.  Yet schools are eliminating these programs and focusing primarily on language arts and math because they are measured on tests like the Smarter Balanced Assessments. 

@Diane Ravitch

Thursday, November 27, 2014

What are We Doing to Our Kids?

For several years now, we've been waiting for  SBAC and PARCC to complete their assessments based on the Common Core State Standards. We heard that SBAC would be good for Hawaii, that we would see how our students compared to schools in other districts or states across the nation.  We would be comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges. Because of our school's highly transient population with students who have attended different schools before enrolling at ours, I looked forward to having something other than NAEP to share with parents when they expressed concern that their child would be behind when they returned to the mainland.

Last year, our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers volunteered to pilot the SBAC. At that time, they shared that the assessment was difficult, that students did not have sufficient time to complete the performance task, and that it was challenging to navigate the assessment on the computer.  They were honest and provided feedback about their concerns. We hoped there would be changes because we knew that this year, student assessments would be graded and scores shared publicly.

Yesterday, our school assessment team had an opportunity to review the SBAC requirements as well as the practice tests and performance tasks. As I realized the amount of time that will be expended to prepare for the assessment, I became increasingly concerned. It isn't just preparing to take the SBAC that concerns me. It's the amount of testing time needed to ensure that our students can be successful; it's the labor required to ensure the fidelity of the devices so technology doesn't impede our students while they're taking the assessment; it's preparing each student's individual account to check off the appropriate accommodations for each student; it's the test items themselves and whether it is realistic to expect students as young as third grade to have the computer skills to successfully complete the assessment tasks.

Click on the SBAC practice test link and choose a grade and the performance task for math or English Language Arts.  I did, and it immediately raised concerns for me. I consider myself pretty competent in navigating between on-line documents, but expecting that of 8-year-olds is unrealistic. (In fact, I personally still prefer to have paper copies of the readings so I can compare them side-by-side.) Students can highlight or take notes on what they read, but they won't know what to take notes on if they don't know what the task is that they will be asked to complete. (That's a strategy we teach our students - read the question or know what is expected at the end so there is a purpose for reading.) When students finish one section, they cannot go back to it, even if they want to clarify their answer. (How many times do we, as adults, save our document so we can go back to revise it?) Asking students to sit for long periods of time is unrealistic, yet that is what is expected.  (As an adult taking the practice test, I had difficulty getting through the instructions, the articles, and the constructed responses.)

Our classroom teachers encourage higher level thinking skills, collaboration, and creativity; we allow multiple ways for students to share what they have learned including the use of technology or Web 2.0 tools.  SBAC expects only one way for students to show what they've learned - through writing - and this could be a challenge, especially for those who struggle with reading or writing.  My concern is that any high-stakes assessment will not favor the out-of-the-box thinker or the person who may learn in a different way.

The truth is that millions of dollars have already gone into the creation of these assessments and millions more will be paid by states or districts as implementation begins this school year. While I understand that communities deserve to know how their school measures up against others, I fear that a focus on high test scores could come at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum where the individuality of each student is nurtured and appreciated. Is this what we want for our kids?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thanksgiving Appreciations

I thought I'd share an old post, one that I wrote when I first started blogging.  I re-read it, and it is as relevant today as it was two years ago and shares my appreciations for our Hale Kula family.

Giving Thanks  - first posted on November 17, 2012

As we approach a three-day school week to celebrate Thanksgiving, this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on my principalship at Hale Kula and all that I am thankful for.  What makes a school special and unique is its people, and Hale Kula 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 Hale Kula 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 Hale Kula about aloha, lokahi, kokua, `ohana, kuleana, and malama and share it with others when they leave Hawaii.

I am grateful to the Hale Kula 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 deployed, 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 Hale Kula and Hawaii.  I am truly proud to be part of our Hale Kula `ohana.

May all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

Friday, November 21, 2014

"My Profession No Longer Exists"

I was engaged in a rich discussion with a teacher this afternoon to discuss an observation I conducted with her as part of our teacher evaluation system.  Although the process can be time-consuming, the end-result is an honest conversation about the classroom, the students, the successes, and the challenges as well as the growth of the teacher. I honestly can say that I enjoy these reflective conferences and the opportunity to get to know the teacher better.

Then I went to check on my email. My husband had sent me a link to an article, and I was curious; he rarely sends me links, especially those about education. It was an article that was printed in the Daily Kos titled,"Teacher's resignation letter: 'My profession . . .  no longer exists' first published in April 2013. As I read the letter in its entirety, I was saddened. Here was someone who clearly was proud to be a teacher. He devoted 40 years to the profession, and now he was quitting because he lost faith in the system and the leadership at his school and in his district.

I have read many letters or blogs from disgruntled educators who feel we have lost our way. There are so many things to complain about - the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing, ranking of schools based on test scores, the comparison of schools by the public based on those rankings, test scores weighing heavily on teacher and principal evaluations, and the top-down mandates that keep schools and teachers from being empowered to address the needs of their students. I've been a critic, too, and I have been vocal about these concerns with my colleagues or in my blogs.

But even after 40+ years as an educator, I still love what I do. With all the changes taking place and the expectations of the public regarding teaching and learning, we need leaders who will support our teachers so they can do what they have been trained to do -- teach our students so they can gain the skills to reach their maximum potential. This means empowering our teachers to be innovative and to try new ideas in their classroom. It means having a venue for sharing ideas and problem-solving together. It means providing support and learning experiences so teachers can continue to improve.  It means building the capacity of our staff so everyone is valued for what they can offer to the group. When we work together towards our common goals, everyone benefits, especially our students!

Being an educator is challenging, but I cannot imagine a more rewarding profession to be in!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Thoughts about Math Fluency and Homework

Last night, our Response to Intervention coaches planned a Family Math Night to kick off Fact Busters Month at Hale Kula.  Teachers have expressed concern that students in the upper elementary grades are still counting on fingers and don't have their facts memorized. But is math fluency about memorizing facts or is it about understanding math concepts and using strategies to get to the answers quickly? A blog by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Linda M. Gojak titled "Fluency: Simply Fast and Accurate? I Think Not!" states that students need to build  understanding and flexible thinking if they are to become fluent in mathematics.

I enjoyed observing students during the different activities at Family Math Night. There were games for them to practice math fluency, primarily addition facts for students up to second grade and multiplication facts for the older students. Parents encouraged their children to figure out the answers on their own, and some students were quick with their responses. Others struggled, however, and it is those students who need to build understanding and flexible thinking so they can be more fluent in mathematics.

We understand the relationship between fluency in reading and comprehension.  We know that if a student has difficulty with decoding and struggles with sight words, reading fluency is negatively affected.  The meaning of the sentence or paragraph is often lost when so much effort is spent on figuring out the words.

Likewise, students who have poor fluency in math facts will most likely struggle with problem-solving or other math application skills. The Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice  require students to be able to communicate their understanding and to use effective strategies to solve problems. Math is not just rows of problems with no relevance to real-life. Math should be understood and discussed, much like we discuss literature.

Our RTI coaches, working with students who struggle with math, planned a series of fun "Fact Busters" activities to encourage practicing and becoming more proficient with math facts and strategies. Students are encouraged to practice at home; they are monitoring their own progress. All students took a pre-assessment based on expected grade level targets and at the end of one month, they will take a post-assessment. Our hope is that 100% of our students will show significant gains.

Recently, there has been much discussion - even amongst our Hale Kula teachers - about homework. Some schools have even banned homework. We had a discussion about homework at our school a few years ago, and we never came to an agreement, so no policy was implemented. Personally, I believe that homework should not be stressful for the family. I cringe when I hear that students are taking two hours or more to complete their homework and that parents may not know how to help their child with more rigorous expectations of the Common Core. Homework should be a review of lessons, and if the student cannot complete the assignment independently or explain the instructions to parents, that is an indication that the homework is not appropriate.

Homework should not be drudgery, and it should be a review for students to build their skills. What kinds of "homework" can parents do to help their child with math fluency? Here are a few suggestions: In the car or just before bedtime, play math facts games. Mix up addition and subtraction for younger students and multiplication and division problems for older students. Find apps where children can practice math facts while playing a game such as shooting at UFOs or accumulating points towards a goal. Play games with cards or dice that help students with math facts. Have your child make their own flash cards of math facts they know. Have them review and add more to their pile as they master their facts so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. Ask children how many ways they can get to a specific number. For example, if the number is 5, possible ways would be 4+1 or 10-5 or  10-3-2 or 1/2 of 10. The possibilities are endless! When riding in the car, parents can give their child word problems and have them explain how they got their answer. Or turn it around and have the child think of a word problem using specific numbers and share their answer and how they solved it. There are so many opportunities and possibilities because math is all around us!

I am interested in seeing the results of our "Fact Busters" program and whether continued practice with math fluency will result in higher proficiency scores on our mid-year screening scores for math. One month is not much time to show improvement, but regardless of the results, we will continue to encourage our teachers, students, and parents to schedule time to practice math facts in ways that are fun for everyone.
Students and parents practiced math facts using iPad apps at Family Math Night.
Students played a "Math Facts Memory" game against a parent.   
@NCTM #halekula

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reflections - Empowerment School Tour, October 2014

On Friday, I returned from a whirlwind tour with 26 others to four school districts in five days - Los Angeles Unified School District, Alliance College Ready Public Schools in LA (an alliance of 26 charter schools), Clark County School District in Las Vegas, and Edmonton School District in Alberta, Canada.  The visit was capped by a visit to Michael Strembitsy School in Edmonton. What an incredible learning and professional development opportunity for me!

The purpose of this trip was to learn more about school empowerment, defined as placing responsibility for decision-making in the hands of those who are most impacted - those at the school level. Empowerment is more than just being responsible for one's budget.  It means engaging the school community in meaningful discussions about how money is spent, staffing decisions, and curricular and instructional decisions to ensure quality teaching and learning at that particular school. It means that schools will be more accountable for their decisions especially those that focus on student achievement.

The larger issue of what school empowerment means and how it is implemented in our Department is being discussed  and must involve all of us who value education in Hawaii. We have elements of empowerment through our School Community Councils and the ability to create a Financial Plan to address the needs of our individual schools.  However, top-down mandates are still common and can be discouraging to the school especially when they are in direct conflict with the culture of the school.

As a school leader, I work with our school community to address the needs of our school, Every school is unique, and one size doesn't fit all. As the principal of Hale Kula Elementary School, I have the responsibility to ensure that our Academic and Financial Plan reflects the individuality of our school so that all students can be successful.

Sustainability in education is not as easy as it sounds. The Edmonton Public Schools had 22 years under Mr. Strembitsky's leadership as Superintendent. His tenure and strong core belief in school empowerment ensured its sustainability. Principals and leaders in the Edmonton system shared that a few years ago, when a Superintendent brought in an external provider to increase student achievement, that top-down mandate was a challenge for those who had been raised in an empowered system.  Today, school communities in Edmonton are once again empowered to create a strategic plan (modeled after the District plan) that is tailored for their school and are accountable for their results.

I do believe that one's experiences as a teacher define how one leads as an administrator. I was fortunate in that I started my career as a Head Start teacher, a program created as part of President Johnson's War on Poverty. We were expected to involve parents in their child's education; we worked hand-in-hand with a social worker and public health nurse to address individual needs of students and families. We had a nutritionist and dental hygienist on staff as well as others who provided services to individual students with special needs. Head Start provided students with a preschool experience so they would be more successful when they started kindergarten. I was empowered as a teacher; I knew the non-negotiables, but I could design my curriculum based on the needs of my students and use data to drive my instruction.

I believe that school leaders must empower our teachers if we want them to empower their students. As a school leader, it is my job to take mandates from the State or District and mold them so they make sense for our teachers. It is not easy to maintain empowerment in the face of top-down mandates, but we have done so by protecting our teachers and encouraging their continued growth as educators in areas they have personally identified for themselves. At Hale Kula, the Common Core State Standards guide our instruction, but teachers have flexibility in how they teach and what resources they use.  All grade levels have a matrix for the year and a pacing guide to keep them on-track.  Teachers meet to agree on assessment tasks, and they review data to determine next steps. As far as a school-wide focus, we are especially proud of how we are using technology as a tool for teaching and learning.  Check out a presentation our library media specialist created to demonstrate how we have empowered our teachers and students to use technology effectively to share their learnings.

Our school vision states "Hale Kula empowers learners to explore, discover, create, and share."  This applies to all of us - adults and children - so we can continue to learn and grow.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Learning from Other School Districts

The Education Institute of Hawaii was recently formed to discuss issues and impact policies related to improving our public education system.  I was asked to be part of a fact-finding traveling delegation to visit Los Angeles Unified School District, Alliance for College Ready Schools (Los Angeles), Clark County School District (Las Vegas), and Edmonton Public Schools.  The purpose is to learn more from school districts that successfully implement empowerment and transformative practices as well as to learn about what didn't work and why so we don't make the same mistakes.

The Legislature passed Act 51 back in 2004, and Hawaii schools now receive funding based on a weighted student formula. Schools have some authority over how to spend these funds although most of the allocation is spent on personnel. Each school has a School Community Council whose primary purpose is to assist with developing and monitoring the Academic Plan. Act 51 was supposed to "reinvent" education in Hawaii, but schools have not really changed much. 

This was not the case at the two Clark County Schools I visited.  One was an International School where students received instruction for half the day in English and for the other half in Spanish.  The goal was to have students fully fluent in both languages by the third grade.  Another Clark County School I visited is a charter school for Science. The school prides itself on the opportunities it provides for students in STEAM - science, technology, engineering, art, and math. I wonder if this could work in Hawaii, to have some schools specialize and to offer families choices, based on the interests or strengths of the child. 

At our pre-trip meeting today, we were asked to think about some of the questions we have.  In our delegation, we are a diverse group with different perspectives on education, so there will be a range of questions. Here are a few of the questions I'll be thinking about during our visitations:
  • What exactly does school empowerment mean?  
  • School choice appears to be an important part of these school districts. Can we offer choices in Hawaii? How would school choice work in our statewide system?
  • Are parents and the community more invested and involved in their child's education if they have a choice in which one would be the best fit for their child?
  • What special training do principals need to be effective administrators in an empowered school system?
  • Are there "specialty" schools in these districts (e.g. Gifted/Talented, Performing Arts, etc.)? If so, how are students selected for these schools?
  • The State presently is responsible for services such as transportation, food services, special education, and Title I. Who handles these services in an empowered school system?
  • And the most important question - Has school empowerment positively impacted student achievement? What does the data show?
This is a great opportunity to positively impact our public school system here in Hawaii, and I am honored to have been asked to participate.

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Plan Going Forward - Improving Literacy at HKES

Tonight is our semi-annual Virtual School Community meeting where we share information about our school and solicit feedback or suggestions from our school community.  Last night, I was posting our questions for discussion, and a parent immediately posted his question to the school.  I remember that when I shared our results via social media, this same parent asked why our scores were so low because 32% of our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders were not proficient in reading, and 43% did not reach the goal of 300 points for math.

I realized that a simple answer on our Facebook page would not do justice to this parent's concern. He suggested asking other schools what they were doing to get the kinds of scores they are getting. We have done that . . . when a school has done exceptionally well, I've asked the principal the question. What are you doing to get those kinds of results?

The truth is that there is no one answer.  Some schools implement a school-wide language arts or math program, and others do not.  Some focus on interventions, and others are just getting started with their Response to Intervention program.  Some have high parent involvement and other schools have minimal participation. Some are in higher-income districts, and some have a high number of disadvantaged students.  Some have a high percentage of experienced teachers, while some schools have teachers who have fewer years in the Department.

I don't believe in offering excuses; that does not help us to move forward and improve teaching and learning at HKES. But I also am aware that there is no magic bullet to solve our problems, and it could be that what works for another school is not what we need to do at HKES.

So what are we doing at HKES to ensure that our students are successful readers, writers, mathematicians, and thinkers? We are implementing a number of research-based strategies that have been successful in engaging students in their own learning.  One such strategy is having students ask and answer higher-level thinking questions before, during, and after an assignment. We also continue to focus on authentic learning such as interdisciplinary units, project-based or problem-based learning, integration of technology and the arts into the content areas (e.g. science or social studies), and differentiated instruction focused on student needs.  Our Response to Intervention process is well-grounded in research, and students who need extra help are identified early so they can receive the assistance they need to be successful in the classroom. Recognizing that students learn in different ways, we use manipulatives to teach the concrete, then move on to the representational model to build understanding of concepts. Additionally, we believe that students need to set goals, reflect, and assess their own work and behavior in order to improve.

All teachers are now being evaluated using a system based in part on student and teacher growth. Working hand-in-hand with the administrators and colleagues, teachers will be looking closely at student data and creating a plan so each individual child can meet or exceed proficiency on grade level expectations. We believe that by focusing on what each child needs and providing a relevant and engaging curriculum, we will be more successful in ensuring that students are ready for the next grade level at the end of the school year.

At HKES, students come and go on a daily basis. The challenge for us is to see where they are when they enroll at our school so we can ensure their success whether they continue at Hale Kula or transfer to another school when their family is assigned permanent housing. Because our school has one of the highest transiency rates, this can be a challenge for our staff!

As the principal of HKES, I am committed to providing our staff with the tools and support they need to continue their professional growth which will, in turn, positively impact student achievement. Although I agree that we need to have a system of accountability to compare student achievement, I also believe that test scores alone do not tell the whole story of a school. Through the power of social media, we keep in touch with parents who have shared their children's successful transition to their new schools - those run by the Department of Defense as well as schools all over the nation.  We appreciate the opportunity to "talk story" with our parents - virtually or face-to-face. We will continue to seek input on how we can improve; parent participation is such an important component in a student's success in school!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Aloha to Our Library/Tech Center

Take a look at the library/tech center building for the last time today.  Tomorrow, workers will be coming in to demolish the building to make way for our new 21st century library/media/student center with a completion date in early 2016.

While it is certainly an exciting time for our school, it is also bittersweet.  That building is 55 years old! Think of all the students who've walked into that library, discovered a favorite book, read voraciously about a topic of interest, or collaborated on a media project using tools such as Minecraft or Weebly or Thinglink. Think of all the librarians or the teachers who helped students and their families discover the joy of literacy through our library and special events such as Book Fairs, the Hour of Code, parent-child read-alouds, author visits, or Read Across America activities.

Today, the library is more than a place to borrow books. This week, Michelle Colte was selected as the inaugural School Librarian of the Year, besting 91 other exemplary school librarians from around the nation. According to Mark Ray in a blog about this award, the creativity and passion of these librarians bodes well for the future of school libraries.

We look forward to documenting the construction of our new library/media/student center as we say "aloha" to a place that has such wonderful memories for so many!

This is the view of our library, taken in 2009.  

After the abatement and the removal of the exterior paint, this is what the library looks like as they prepare to demolish the building.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Student Achievement Data

Today, the Hawaii Department of Education released the most recent achievement results for our schools.  This report, called Strive-HI, replaces No Child Left Behind for accountability.

Last year, our third, fourth, and fifth graders took the Hawaii Bridge Assessment which was based on the Common Core State Standards.  This statewide assessment was designed to prepare for this year's Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  Like the rest of the State, our scores for Reading Proficiency and Math Proficiency dropped a bit due to the increased rigor of the CCSS.

In 2012-2013, 62% of our students were proficient in math and 77% were proficient in reading.  In 2013-2014, that number dropped to 57% for math and 68% for proficiency compared to the state average of 59% for math and 69% for reading.  In science, 63% of our fourth graders met proficiency in 2012-2013, and this past year, that number was 61% compared with the state average of 40%.

Achievement data, student growth in math and reading scores, chronic absenteeism, and gap rate are the measures used to determine a school's Strive-HI status.  Hale Kula students improved in our math growth from 42 points to 57 points and in our reading growth from 47 points to 52 points.  Chronic absenteeism, which we really targeted last school year, went from 16% in 2012-2013 to 5% last school year.  This is a phenomenal improvement, and we intend to continue to stress being in school, on-time and ready-to-learn.  The gap rate, however, increased from 17% to 36%.  This means that the achievement gap between those with greater challenges -- disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and Special Education students -- widened.  This is an area we need to focus on to ensure that ALL students continue to progress on grade level expectations.

Some states are opting to pull out of their commitment to implement the Common Core State Standards. Hawaii is not one of those states.  The CCSS are more rigorous and require students to think critically and reflect on their learning.  Instruction focuses on higher-level thinking skills, not just memorization and rote learning.  It is more challenging for teachers and students, but in the long run, our students will be better-prepared as we empower them to explore, discover, create, and share through project-based learning that integrates the use of technology and Web 2.0 tools.

We are proud of our school's continued progress towards implementation of the Common Core State Standards.  At this week's Parent-Teacher Conference, you will be receiving a Parent's Guide to the CCSS. Please take time to read this pamphlet, and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.

If parents are interested, we can plan a Common Core State Standards information session where you will have a chance to learn more about the standards and ask questions so you know how to support your child at home. Here is a link to indicate your interest in attending a session:

We are committed to continuously improve at Hale Kula Elementary School.  As a school with high transiency, we know that we need to prepare our students, not just for academic success, but for life.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Is Spelling Important?

I loved spelling tests when I was in elementary school.  I was good at spelling and didn't even have to study to get good grades.  So when I began teaching elementary school, I followed the lead of those who had been teaching that grade level for many years as well as what I remembered from my days in elementary school.  We followed the spelling list in the Teacher's Manual for reading.  The kids wrote the words down on Monday, wrote it several times in their spelling book for homework that night, wrote a sentence with each word the next night, alphabetized the list on Wednesday, and studied for the test on Thursday night.  After the test on Friday, parents waited anxiously for the tests to be returned, and we had happy kids or sad kids, depending on how they did.  Sometimes, parents would say, "We studied all night long, and he knew how to spell the word last night.  I don't understand why he missed it."

I began to question the value of spelling tests.  I was concerned that students were scoring 100% on Friday, yet they were misspelling those same words when they wrote in their journal or responded to a question the following week.  When a parent shared that he'd promised to take his son to Toys 'R Us if he scored 100% on his test, I realized that I needed to rethink whether spelling tests were that important.

So I changed what I was doing.  On Monday, the students would take a pre-test, and if a student scored 90%-100%, he/she was exempt from taking the test on Friday.  They still did the homework, but these students didn't have to write the word several times in their spelling book.  At least I was differentiating, I thought, but really, those spelling tests still bothered me.  I also noticed that some students felt defeated; they were working so hard but still not getting the kind of scores they wanted. "Is spelling so important?" I asked myself.  It would have been so easy to abandon spelling altogether and take the heat when parents questioned why.  In the back of my mind, however,  I knew that to be an effective reader and writer, a person needs to be aware of spelling. Knowing patterns and rules does help to decode words and to make connections between letters and sounds which then lead to fluency in reading and writing.

Then I bought a book on teaching spelling, and my biggest "aha" was that spelling is developmental.  (I wish I still had that book because it changed my thinking about spelling.)  The book contained lists for each grade level, and teachers could determine a child's developmental stage by how they spelled the words.  I found it so interesting that how a child spelled a word could determine their developmental stage and influence what and how I taught those children. Recently, I found the "Monster Test" that I remember giving to my students a few years ago. It was a simple way to give students a short test and determine their approximate developmental level for spelling. As I recall, it was really quite accurate and helped me to understand what level students were at and how I could help them get to the next level.

After that, the way I taught spelling changed in my classroom.  We used manipulatives, looked at patterns, and played with words.  One of my favorite memories is when we were thinking of words with "_ar" as the final syllable. (I was teaching first grade at that time.)  I would give a clue, and students had to spell the word with their magnetic letters or write it on their whiteboard.  For example, I said, "This is something you can ride in,"  and students excitedly spelled out "car."  After spelling "far" and "star" and "war," I asked students if they had a riddle for a word that ended with _ar.  I called on Lauren, and she whispered a word in my ear.  "Okay," I said, all the while wondering what her riddle would be.  "This is a place where daddies go after a hard day at work," she proudly shared.  The students had no problem spelling out "bar!"and here I was, thinking of "bar of soap" or "gold bar."

It was those kinds of activities that made a difference for my students.  They began to look forward to the short spelling lessons and for homework, students made lists of words with the pattern we were learning.  Students were delighted when they contributed a word to the list that other students might not have thought of!  Students corrected spelling words in a paragraph or did other fun activities based on the pattern we were studying that week.  We also had a word wall, and students had their own personal Quick-Word Handbook. They didn't have to worry about spelling for their first writing draft but they knew that self-correcting their spelling was part of the writing process, and they had tools they could rely on if they needed help.

Oh, one more thing . . . we did take spelling tests, but now, they weren't taken every Friday.  Sometime during the week when I thought the students had internalized that spelling pattern, I assessed them, and I added in some bonus words for those who wanted a challenge. The students almost always spelled the words correctly, and if they made an error, they were able to self-correct their mistake. Most importantly, though, was that their subsequent writing assignments reflected that they had truly learned the spelling patterns of the words we had studied.

In this age of Spell-Check, is it important for students to learn to spell correctly?  Yes, I believe that spelling still has a place in the classroom.  Being an effective communicator and a quality producer means that the reader's understanding and enjoyment of a piece of writing is not hindered by poor spelling.  How we teach spelling, however, does not have to be mundane or boring.  

Friday, August 8, 2014

A New School Year = A New Way Forward

Today is a perfect day for me to reflect on the first two weeks of SY 2014-2015.  School was cancelled due to the impending hurricanes - Isella and Julio.  Right now, the sun is shining here in Central Oahu, but earlier, we had rain and some wind.  Nothing like the Big Island, though, for which we are grateful.  Hopefully, Julio changes direction and misses our islands.

I have been the principal at Hale Kula since 2002, and each year has brought new learnings and experiences for me.  This year will be no exception.  Last year was challenging with the implementation of a trial Educator Effectiveness System, the new evaluation system the teachers agreed to as part of their last contract negotiations.  The Department wisely enlisted feedback from principals and teachers and revised the system this year so it is more manageable and can truly make a difference in improving teaching and learning.

This summer was probably the busiest since I first became principal.  Our campus has been transformed into a construction zone, and workers were busy getting as much done as possible while school was not in session, including working into the evening and on weekends. (I started a blog last year to document our progress on this project.)  Today, that campus has changed considerably and will continue to change for the next two years or so.  We are fortunate to be working with a wonderful team.  Everyone patiently answers my numerous questions, and they take care of our concerns right away. We haven't completely moved into our new administration building yet, and we still have lots of organizing to do. It certainly is wonderful, though, to be in a new office which is more than twice the size of the other one.

Enrollment is down -- way down -- and we cannot figure out why this is happening.  Our School Liaison Officer shared that this seems to be a trend, and it may have to do with the increase in housing allowance for our military personnel.  Perhaps families are opting to use their increase in allowance and live off-base. Whatever the reason, we could face some hard decisions on Official Enrollment Count Date next week because our allocation is based on the number of students enrolled.

This year, students in Hawaii will be taking the Smarter Balanced Assessments for the first time.  This will provide us with baseline data for future years.  Last school year, our school participated in the pilot SBAC test, and the students struggled.  Teachers realized that preparing our students for the Hawaii State Assessment was very different; they had gotten used to the types of questions on the HSA, and it was clear that the SBAC requires more writing and deeper thinking.  Students need to have those kinds of experiences if we expect them to feel confident as test-takers.  At Hale Kula, we did not purchase the programs for language arts (Wonders) or math (Stepping Stones) because we did not have the funds to do so.  We have the opportunity to demonstrate that it is not the program that makes a difference; it is the teacher in the classroom who empowers students to want to learn through inquiry-based projects, problem-solving activities, and differentiated instruction, as well as collaboration within the school as well as globally.

Recently, Eric Sheninger spoke with a group of school leaders from the North Central complex area. Eric is the principal of New Milford High School; he is an innovative school leader, renowned speaker-presenter, and the author of Digital Leadership:  Changing Paradigms for Changing Times.  As a school leader, he supported and empowered his staff and students to transform teaching and learning and to use technology as a tool for exploring, collaborating, communicating, thinking critically, problem-solving, creating, and sharing.  The projects he shared, all staff or student-initiated, were inspiring and true examples of learning beyond the walls of the school.  This is what we would like all of our Hale Kula students to experience, from our youngest preschoolers to our fifth graders.

And this is what I hope all our teachers believe about me as an administrator -- that I will support and empower them to try new ideas in their classroom; it is only two weeks since our teachers returned for the school year, but already, several of them have shared that they will be trying something new this year.  Many are also open to sharing with other teachers at our Tech Tips Tuesdays about how they use a specific tech tool in their classroom.  We are encouraging reflection - by students and teachers - as a way to make learning more permanent and meaningful.  Perhaps someone will decide to try blogging as a reflective tool; it's been effective for me :-)

I am looking forward to a great school year!

#SAVMP, #Eric Sheninger

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mahalo, Eric Sheninger!

I believe in social media for education.  As a school leader, I realize the need to be connected to other educators, to learn from them, to validate what we are doing at Hale Kula, and to continue my professional growth.  I am also cognizant of sharing positive news about our students and staff with our school community through Facebook and blogs as well as news articles we send to the local newspaper.

Two weeks ago, after breakfast and prior to leaving for school, I checked my Google+ community and read Eric Sheninger's blog, "The End is Only the Beginning" where he shared that he would be leaving New Milford High School for a position at Scholastic with ICLE.  Eric is one of the connected principals I follow on Twitter and Google+ and at the time, I was reading his book, Digital Leadership:  Changing Paradigms for Changing Times on my Nexus tablet.  Like others,  I posted a comment congratulating Eric on his decision and added, "Too bad you can't do residencies in Hawaii :-)"  Imagine my surprise when Eric responded that he was coming to Hawaii.  I asked him, "Is it all play and no work?" to which he replied that he might be able to work something out.  Well, of course I had to follow up - this was Eric Sheninger, after all - and despite the short time frame, we were able to schedule a presentation with him today.  (Note:  When I reflect on how we put this together, I am surprised at my audacity in asking him whether he would give up part of his vacation for us.)

I was a bit nervous; I had convinced principals to attend.  Some had to rearrange meetings or miss trainings.  Others needed a little more prodding;  this is the last week before the new school year starts and they weren't sure they wanted to make the time to listen to someone talking about digital leadership. I didn't really know Eric; I just knew of him.  What if his message didn't resonate?  What if he didn't connect with the audience?

Well, I didn't have to worry.  Eric was great!  His experiences, his stories, the research, the slides, and the videos all added up to a presentation with so many high points.  We especially saw his pride when he shared news stories about his students at New Milford High School who were doing amazing things using technology as a tool to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and create - essential skills for global citizens.  I was astounded by a project, "Let's Make Some Good Art" by Sarah, a sophomore student.  Her thoughtful insights and reflections were mature for someone so young,  and I am tempted to send the link to education policy makers so they can see the possibilities when we trust our students to use mobile learning devices as a tool to share their learnings.

For me, Eric's presentation was validation that we are on the right track at our school.  We aren't anywhere near New Milford High School, but we are communicating with our community through social media, and students share their learnings using Web 2.0 tools. We've done coding, participated in the Cardboard Challenge,  and have started dabbling in Minecraft where student groups created their own community.  We share documents, presentations, etc. using Google Drive, and we have a private Google+ community for our teachers to share resources, photos, ideas, ask questions, and discuss concerns.  We know we can do more, though, and that will be one of my personal goals for next school year.

At a recent presentation I attended at ISTE, presenter George Couros shared, "We shouldn't be engaging students; we should be empowering them."  That, to me, is what we need to strive for as we become digital leaders in a changing world - empowering our staff and our students to ask, "What if?" or "How can I?" or "Why not?" and then supporting them in their efforts and giving them the confidence to learn from their mistakes.

As a school principal, it is my hope that more of my colleagues will see the value of using social media to communicate and to connect with others as part of a personal learning network.  Eric Sheninger has planted the seeds with his presentation today; now it is up to us to support each other so we can grow and flourish as digital school leaders and as a school community.  Our students are counting on us.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Classroom Management and Behavior Charts

Students will learn more when they are invested in and contributors in their classroom community. Classroom management is one of the components of our State's observation protocol for teacher evaluations.  We have been in classrooms where the teacher planned a wonderful lesson that fell flat because students were not engaged or invested.  

As a classroom teacher, I tried so many different strategies to ensure that my students would "behave." I gave out tickets to students to trade in on Fridays; it was too much work, and the students and I grew tired of it.  I wrote names on the board of students who were misbehaving, and there was a series of "punishments" if they got so many checks.  The same kids always had their names on the board so I stopped that.  I flipped it and started writing names of "good" kids, those who were ready before everyone else, who helped out another child, or who did something positive.  That was better; at least I was rewarding students and not punishing them.  Then I tried giving points to teams; this lasted longer because peer pressure was somewhat effective for most students.  However, certain teams would rarely earn points because they were saddled with the kid who didn't care.  This often led to a feeling of frustration at having "that kid" on our team.  When I saw another teacher with a traffic light system, I tried that, too, with pretty good results.  My recollection is that only one student was placed on red light that whole year.  I think his mother was more devastated than he was.

After that, I went into administration, never discovering the "perfect" classroom and behavior management system.  As I visited classrooms and spoke with teachers, it was evident that there were many different systems in place, and some worked better than others.  But was it the system, or was it the teacher?  Last year, I made the decision that any behavior management system needed to include opportunities for students to be rewarded for positive behaviors and not just moving down for "negative" behaviors.  I was concerned that the first question I heard parents ask their kindergartener at the end of the school day was, "Were you on green today?" And it bothered me when parents requested a classroom change because "my child is on red every day." I really thought that if we started looking for opportunities to recognize positive behaviors in a child, the classroom climate would be so much more pleasant.  Was it successful?  For some teachers, it was, but for others, it didn't really matter if there were 3 colors or 5.  There were students who still got on red more often than not.

Last week, one of our teachers sent me this blog, "So What's My Problem with Public Behavior Charts?" and it was so timely.  As a principal, I want to see well-managed classrooms where students are happy and meaningfully engaged and empowered through challenging activities.  I have been in classrooms where the teacher never raises her voice, where students help each other, and a compliment by someone else - a visitor, another teacher, a parent, the principal - means a marble added to the class jar which, when filled, means a special prize for the whole class. There is no "individual" chart where students are supposed to feel badly about being called out for an inappropriate behavior.

Often, an individualized behavior chart can have the opposite effect of what is expected, creating an "I don't care" attitude which can lead to a butting of heads between the teacher and that student.  This student then is labeled as "challenging" and may be recommended for counseling services or is referred to the office to speak with an administrator.

Changing teachers' mindsets about behavior management can be difficult, but I realize that is part of my responsibilities as an administrator.  We need a discussion about the best way to get students to want to be a positive contributor to their classroom.  It starts with being included as an integral part of their classroom community and knowing our students so we can fully engage them as learners.  In other words, we need to build positive relationships with all of our students if we want them to gain the most benefit from the time they spend in our classroom.

P.S. - For more thoughts on this topic, read No Punishment/No Rewards.  Thank you, Pernille Ripp, for sharing your thoughts so clearly.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reflection - ISTE 2014

Three years ago, we sent a team of three teachers to the International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego, and they came back so excited about all they had learned.  They also shared that they heard the message over and over that change cannot occur without the support and leadership of the principal.  Now, they agreed that I am not a barrier at our school, but they felt it was important for me to attend a future ISTE conference just because - because there were so many opportunities to learn something new; because it was a chance to network with like-minded individuals; because it was so inspiring to hear and see how others are using technology in the classroom; because it motivated these teachers to know that our school was on the right path with our initiatives; and because they wanted me to be as excited as they were about all the possibilities.

So this year, I decided to request funding to send a team of three - myself, our librarian/media specialist, and an instructional coach - to ISTE 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Truthfully, like any large conference in a crowded venue, there will be positives and a few negatives as well.  Let me share some of my take-aways from ISTE 2014.

The Good

  • Keynote speaker Kevin Carroll,  was absolutely inspiring!  He asked us to be present with him and he would hopefully give us something in return.  Did he?  Absolutely!  I am sure I wasn't the only one in the audience who wished I could have videotaped his presentation, and unfortunately, I didn't even take notes or tweet out his quotes; I was that engrossed in what he was sharing. His message?  He learned his life lessons on the playground with a red rubber ball, and he reminded us of the importance of play in life.  As an early childhood education major, I had always believed that "play is a child's work" and that children need time to explore and discover through play.  Kevin Carroll's presentation validated what I have always believed (but had not put into action at our school), and I began to think of how we might have our teachers "play" so they can, in turn, understand how important that is for our students while still ensuring quality teaching and learning.
  • When I saw that George Couros was going to be presenting, I knew I wanted to attend his session.  I answered George's call last summer and was part of his #SAVMP (School Administrators Virtual Mentoring Program), a novel idea that an experienced principal could virtually mentor a beginning school leader.  I wanted to see and hear George in person, so I actually sat on the floor in the room for the previous session so I would be assured of a seat for his presentation.  And I wasn't disappointed.  I marvel at anyone who can talk for that length of time and keep the audience engaged - laughing and crying and thinking - while sharing an important message about "myths of technology." Three thoughts which had the biggest impact for me as an administrator - "We need innovative educators before we can have innovative students;"and "The biggest shift for educators is not skill set; it's mindset;" and "It's not enough to engage students; we need to empower them."
  • I had heard so much about Doug Kiang and his presentations on gaming in education.  I just happened to be passing by a room and saw that he was going to be presenting in an hour.  At that moment, I made the decision to forego the session I had intended to attend.  In fact, I sat in on the previous session, just so I could hear him.  Yes, I went all the way to Atlanta to listen to someone from Hawaii present :-)  As a competitive person who loves playing games (but who is definitely NOT a gamer), I was interested in hearing Doug share about how we can use gaming concepts in the classroom.  This is an area that I definitely want to learn more about.
  • The poster sessions provided great resources, but what I most enjoyed was listening to students discussing their projects as well as the tech tools they used to create and share.  What was really impressive were those schools in Mexico who sent students to share and how well they were able to create projects and communicate in English when that is clearly not their first language.  As I listened to them and their pride in sharing their projects, I realized that this is something we can do at our schools.  Many schools have curriculum fairs where parents and the community can view what students are learning; this is an opportunity for students to share how they are using technology to collaborate, communicate, think critically, create, and share.  We can replicate something similar at our school or in our complex or even in the state.
  • The sandboxes and playgrounds were an opportunity to learn something new from an "expert." This is really a way for teachers to participate in hands-on professional development and to share and learn from others how they use technology to enhance teaching and learning.  The only barrier I can see to implementation would be the unwillingness of teachers to give up their own time to learn through this kind of hands-on learning.  So we need to provide the opportunities, and we need to make sure that teachers take away something meaningful that they can use right away.  Successful personalized PD for teachers is something I'd like to implement this coming school year.
  • Ignite sessions - 5 minutes and 20 slides to speak on any topic you are passionate about.  How fun!  It got me thinking . . . can our students do something like this?  I think it's possible - perhaps 3 minutes and 10-12 slides would be more appropriate for our elementary school students.  We want students to be passionate about their own learning; Ignite would be a great way to have them share their passion!
The Not-So-Good
  • With the number of sessions and presenters, something that sounds good was not always applicable to me.  Taking a suggestion from others who had attended ISTE previously, I did walk out on a few presentations that sounded good but started off poorly.  I was there to learn and to make the most of this opportunity, and I really did not want to "waste" valuable time. There was too much to do and too many options to sit in on a presentation that did not fit my needs.
  • Perhaps I was not looking in the right place, but I saw few sessions for administrators.  If we are, indeed, the "missing link" in how technology is integrated in our schools, then we should have dynamic principals sharing their stories.  I would have loved to hear how principals are successfully using technology to address the Common Core State Standards - not with on-line programs but with project-based or challenge-based learning.  I could have learned from principals who have leveraged funding, partnered with their community, or sought grants to ensure that their students had access to technology.  I want to hear from principals at schools where all teachers have the opportunity to learn with and from other teachers in face-to-face sessions, virtually, or through social media.  This, I believe, was my main purpose for attending ISTE 2014, and I did not have that opportunity to learn from other exemplary principals.
So was it worth it to attend ISTE 2014?  Yes, but the real value will come when we apply what we learned to make a difference at our school.  Technology is changing education, and new apps and tools are being created every day.  We cannot possibly keep up with all the changes in technology, but we can take what we learn and empower our teachers and our students to improve teaching and learning for all.  That is one of my goals for this coming school year.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Time for Reflection

It's been about a month since SY 2013-2014 ended.  Summer is usually a time to reflect on the past year and start planning for the next.

This summer, however, has been a little different.  Since school ended, we've been busy packing and getting ready to move to our new building.  Looking at everything today, it doesn't seem possible that we will be moving, but I've been assured that the building will be ready.  Renovations on half of the  the existing classrooms are also going on as is construction of our 10-classroom building (scheduled to be completed in December or January). I don't doubt the contractors; they've been up-front with us about the challenges, but they've also been accommodating.  Subcontractors have been working in the evenings or on the weekends if necessary to finish their part of the work.  We are really fortunate to have a great working relationship with the contractors; they explain things to me in simple language so I can understand.  Honestly, I watch them working, and I have no idea how the drawings on paper become buildings that are safe, functional, and appealing to the eye.  As I walked around the school today, I was reminded of summer 1993 when Mililani Mauka Elementary was ready to open.  The situation was similar -- up until the last week of summer, we were wondering if the work would get done in time for school to open.  It did, and I am confident we will be moving next month.

Last week, we returned from a wonderful vacation to celebrate our granddaughter's high school graduation. There's nothing better than getting together with family, and this was the first time in about 15 months that we were all together. We were able to watch our grandson play soccer, and it brought back memories of all those years I coached youth soccer.  The graduation ceremony was beautiful (albeit different from Hawaii), and we enjoyed spending time with our daughter-in-law's family which included her 97-year old aunt who traveled from Hawaii and her 101-year old grandma who came from Maryland..  Amazing!!

Sometimes after a vacation, it's difficult to get going, but this was a productive week for me.  I got the class lists done and completed my e-Portfolio for my principal evaluation.  While I was away, the Superintendent announced changes to the Educator Effectiveness System in response to the outcry from teachers and principals about the negative impact of the tasks.  I believe the changes are good, and hopefully, the process will lead to more productive discussions between administrators and teachers, discussions that will lead to improved teaching and learning. My first task when we return from school is to review the changes to EES with our teachers and to share how the process will help us to improve our practices to positively impact student learning.  I've been thinking about how to share this important information and to make the connection with our school vision and mission.

Tomorrow, I leave for the ISTE  (International Society for Technology in Education) conference in Atlanta. I've heard that the conference is inspiring, and I am sure I'll be learning a lot and meeting many others who, like me, believe in the power of technology as a tool for learning.  It will be an opportunity to network with and to learn from others.  And maybe I'll get to talk with people I'm following on Twitter!

I plan to have time to reflect at the end of each day and to share at least one post a day on Google+.  Then it'll be back to work, and hopefully, we'll be ready to move to our new building!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Empowering Schools

Recently, a retired, respected principal sent out a survey to sitting principals in our Department.  Results were shared recently in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article titled, "Principals feel they're hamstrung, survey finds".  A follow-up op-ed piece as well as a "Name in the News" profile on retired principal John Sosa all pointed to the same message:  sitting principals are concerned with the present state of the Department, but they are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.  In response to the question, "What should individual principals do?" Mr. Sosa replied, "I think they have to stand up and be counted.  The system can be changed, but it's going to take the principals coming forth, the active sitting principals."

It has been ten years since Act 51 was passed by the 2004 Legislature, and the expectation was that principals and school communities would be empowered to make decisions to address the unique needs of their school.  A weighted student formula, modeled after the one implemented in the Edmonton School district, allocated funds based on student need.  Principals and schools would be empowered, but they would also be accountable for student achievement.  In the aftermath of Act 51, school communities were tasked with making decisions about how to spend the money they were allocated to ensure student success.

Today, ten years after the Reinventing Education Act of 2004, whose purpose was to decentralize the DOE and give decision-making power to the schools - in essence, turning the Department upside-down - the balance has shifted power back to the top.Today, schools are even being told how to spend their weighted student formula funds.  We have had to create positions to implement the Department's priority strategies, and now, we are being mandated to purchase a specific program for English Language Arts and Mathematics.  A school with 300 students could pay upwards of $160,000 on these two programs with additional costs incurred each year for professional development, consummable workbooks, or renewal of licenses.. As an educator who believes that teachers should be empowered to use a multitude of resources to address the needs of their students, this has been a difficult mandate to swallow.

To make matters even more challenging, as a result of the negotiated contract to tie teacher performance to student learning, the Department hastily instituted an Educator Effectiveness System this year which is labor and time-intensive. The different components provides data to rate ALL teachers using the SAME evaluation tool.  Why are we evaluating beginning teachers using the same criteria and rubric as experienced, distinguished teachers?  Why aren't teachers setting their own goals for improvement?  Shouldn't we be encouraging teachers to be innovative and to grow professionally in an area they may be interested in or passionate about? Don't we want teachers to be life-long learners?  Just as standardized testing doesn't tell the true story of a student and how much he/she knows, EES ratings do not tell the true value of a teacher.

This school year has been confusing for educators at our school.  Teachers dutifully completed the required tasks, but we know that all the EES requirements boiled down to compliance. At the end of the day, we could say we completed everything and checked off every box in pde3 for every teacher, but all of these tasks did NOT necessarily lead to increased student achievement.

We made the decision not to purchase the mandated English Language Arts curriculum.  I have no doubt that the year would have been even more difficult for our teachers if we had forced a new program on them.

Instead, our teachers had the opportunity to try new ideas, and they sought opportunities to learn new instructional strategies, often through the use of new technologies.  Students had choices on what to read and write when teachers implemented The Daily Five.  The entire school was excited to share their creative Cardboard Challenge projects which integrated STEM concepts.  Classrooms participated in the Global Read Aloud, Google Hangouts, Mystery Classrooms, and virtual field trips with schools around the globe.. Students created websites, collaborated on Google presentations, learned to code during The Hour of Code, produced informative videos to share important messages, and created communities in Minecraft. They grew their own vegetables, marketed their own sunflower seeds, learned about our state's history and culture by tending their Hawaiian garden, integrated math concepts in art projects, and built their own simple machines.  All of these projects would not have been possible without innovative classroom teachers who had "permission" to try something new.

This is what education should be:  Empowering principals to empower teachers to empower students. Education is about leadership to innovate and to create. Our school will probably never lead the state in standardized test scores, but we believe our students will be better prepared for life if we empower our teachers and our students to be innovative and to take responsibility for their own learning.

Teaching and learning should be exciting, and schools need to be empowered to address the unique needs of their community rather than being mandated to implement one-size-fits-all curriculum.  That was the intent of Act 51.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Owning Our Data

As our school year comes to a close in a few days, it is time to reflect on a process which has driven us this past year - Data Team meetings.  This is one of our Department's 6 Priority Strategies, and we complied, scheduling meetings so teachers could work together to discuss and improve instructional practices as well as student performance.  This data would also be used for one of the two Student Learning Objectives which teachers had to complete as part of their Educator Effectiveness System of evaluation which focused on student growth and learning. We also complied with another Priority Strategy by convening quarterly Academic Review Team meetings to review our data. At each meeting, we shared the data we had, and we were clearly flat-lining, but we could not identify the cause.  Analyzing data did not necessarily improve student learning in all classrooms.  So what went wrong?

During our second round of teacher observations, I realized that the evidences pointed to marked improvement in four of the five components of the Danielson Framework that we are using as part of the teacher evaluation system.  Lessons were more collaborative and engaging, included critical thinking skills and an expectation that students would have opportunities to discuss with each other. The one area that is not improving however, is assessment, and that is where we need to focus our efforts next year.

Examples of formative assessments we are seeing in classrooms are exit tickets with a similar problem for students to solve that is similar to the one they did in class; whiteboards where students hold up their response to a question with the teacher spot-checking; teacher questions to the whole group with the same students often raising their hand to respond; or the assignment itself to check for understanding to reteach later.  We also saw students sharing responses with each other and lots of group work where students collaborated on an assignment.  Lots of great teaching and learning are happening in our classrooms, but our data did not reflect this. The universal screening tool for Response to Intervention (another Department Priority Strategy) indicated that despite progress monitoring and intervention support, too many students were not moving towards proficiency.  The referral rate for special education evaluations remained high.  And despite my reluctance to rate teaching and learning based on high-stakes testing, the fact is that many of our students are not proficient on grade level standards if the Hawaii State Bridge Assessment is any indication.

Rather than sharing data at our last ART meeting, we had an honest discussion about why our students are not showing the kinds of gains we would expect to see if our lessons are addressing what they need to know and care about.  We came to some agreement about some of the things we need to change next year.  Here is a list of what we discussed and will be implementing:

  • Too much time was spent this year on summative assessments (HSA Bridge, KidBiz, Measuring Up Live!, AimsWeb, SBAC pilot, grade level content assessments, etc.). Next year, we made the decision not to test kindergarteners using AimsWeb because K teachers already have an assessment that they have used successfully to gauge student progress on readiness skills. However, universal screening using AimsWeb will be administered to all grades 1-5 students at the beginning and end of the year.  Students who are at "Below" or "Well Below" on the specific AimsWeb screenings will be progress monitored and assessed during the middle of the year.  This will help us make decisions for those students who need the most support or those who are demonstrating little or no progress.  
  • Every classroom teacher will implement an RTI support system in his/her classroom, a time when students will receive differentiated instruction which is tailored to his/her needs.  This should not be difficult because many of our teachers already have a system in place where students rotate through learning activities and the teacher works with students in small homogeneous groups to address specific skills or strengths. The RTI literacy coach and special education teacher can assist with these small groups and work collaboratively to address the needs of individual students at this time. 
  • Teachers need to own their data and students need to set their own goals.  Parents should be informed about the goals for their children so they can help at home and encourage continued growth.  At our school, we have two conference weeks - one in the fall and one in the spring.  In the past, our spring conference has been student-led, but perhaps it is time to involve students in their fall conference as well so the school can truly partner with the home to ensure success for every student.
  • Recent research shows that ". . . reflecting after learning something new makes it stick in your brain." In an article titled, "Study:  You Really Can 'Work Smarter, Not Harder'," participants who had the opportunity to reflect on their strategies or on what they had learned, performed about 20% better on a final assessment, and the effects were long-lasting, not short-term.  Many of our teachers use learning logs, journals, or interactive notebooks with their students.  Adding in a reflection piece with feedback could have a positive impact on student learning and provide the teacher with invaluable information about what students may still be struggling with or may not fully understand.  Reflection is a way for students to take ownership for their own learning. 
Our job is to provide the supports from instructional coaches, RTI literacy coaches, mentor teachers, and colleagues so teachers can view data as "their friend" and not just something they do because they are required to do so.  It is my hope that implementing these strategies school-wide with fidelity will lead to more productive Data Team meetings where teachers are sharing successes, asking tough questions, and being true critical friends so that by the end of the year, all students are ready for the rigors of the next grade level.