Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Principal's Office is Not a Bad Place

When we moved into our new administration building last July, I was thrilled to have an office and adjoining conference room! The previous principal's office had such a small space that there was barely room to hold a meeting in there. That is why I decided last year that I would invite every class to visit the principal's office. It was amusing to see students walking so quietly and respectfully into the office, not quite knowing why they were there. I had so much fun reading them stories and having them ask questions about the building. They looked around and noticed all the details that personalized the office and inquired about photos of my family, or a poster from Mike Strembitsky Elementary School, and asked why some of the windows were different colors. I told them that the principal's office was not a scary place and that I would love for them to visit me anytime.

Fast forward to this week. Our second graders are in the midst of a project-based unit on taking care of the Earth.  This is their description of their unit: Our uses or misuses of natural resources has a direct effect on our lives as well as future generations. Yesterday was also International Dot Day so it was a great opportunity to use the bags of bottle caps that someone donated to our second graders. (Thanks, Jenny Dyer!) Since reflection is such an important part of a lesson plan, I'd like to share my thoughts after teaching a math lesson that involved counting and adding larger numbers.

  • Sharing the learning targets at the beginning helped to focus the lesson on what students would be expected to know and do.
  • Giving students opportunities to share what they've learned and to ask questions before beginning the activity took time but it was essential as a way to involve students in the lesson. One of the questions that students in all classes came up with is "Can we recycle those bottle caps?" What a great question for them to research! Is there a place in Hawaii that would accept those bottle caps?
  • With guidance, students can work together to accomplish an assignment. Some groups worked very well together and others took longer to get started, but in the end, all groups were able to count the bottle caps in their pile.
  • The students were engaged. Yes, it was a bit noisier-than-usual in the office, but it was the kind of noise that we like to hear from students.
  • Some groups were amazing and came up with their own way of organizing their bottle caps so they could count them easily. One pair of girls even recorded their groups of tens by using tally marks. When it came time to count, they were quickly able to look at their marks and count by 10's to get to their total of 322. I was impressed! (I wish I had a photo of them and their strategy!)
These are the things I would do differently if I taught a similar lesson again:
  • I would share the lesson plan ahead-of-time with the classroom teachers so they can give feedback and be better prepared to co-teach the lesson. This means I need to be better prepared the next time; frankly, I kept changing my plans and it wasn't finalized until the morning of the lesson. Luckily, all the teachers jumped right in to assist.
  • Working with manipulatives is engaging for students. However, I think the lesson would have been more effective in a small group where the teacher could formatively assess students and have them explain their thinking. There were groups that couldn't quite get off the ground. They appeared to be doing fine when an adult was there, but we would return after a few minutes and they were back to square one. This is why I believe that teaching students to work independently is so important. This allows the teacher time to work with small groups and to take notes on students to see where they may need more assistance.
  • I should have activities available for the early finishers. Those groups who had a plan and executed that plan often finished their assignment quite quickly. They ended up helping other groups or just milling around. What a waste of valuable learning time!
I am appreciative that I am able to invite students into the principal's office, and I love the hugs I get in return. Several of the students mentioned that they had been in the office the previous year, and they even remembered the story I read to them. Building a positive relationship with students pays huge dividends down the road, especially for those students who may struggle socially or behaviorally. I hope our students realize that going to the principal's office can be a really good thing!

Students generated questions after seeing a bag of bottle caps. This teacher used a Thinking Map to record student ideas. She also had students estimate how many bottle caps they thought were in the bag. 
This group opted to sort their bottle caps by color and then count them. 
This group worked quickly and made rows of tens. Counting was then pretty easy since they all know how to count by tens. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

#ANW - Yes, I Admit I Watch It :-)

American Ninja Warrior Season 7 comes to a close next Monday.  I am sad to see Season 7 end, but I'm already looking forward to Season 8. Who would believe that I would enjoy a competition like ANW, but the truth is, there is so much to like about it!

I love the human interest stories about the competitors. Some share heartbreaking stories, and others have overcome personal challenges to get to this point in their lives. One can't help but root for them to get through the different obstacles, and I find myself cheering for every one of them.

I admire each competitor's passion and drive to take on these challenges. I watch the videos of how they trained and how much time and effort they put into improving themselves physically and mentally, knowing that all that effort could be wiped out at the first obstacle.

I feel their heartbreak when competitors don't qualify for the next stage and hear their deep disappointment at having failed in their quest.  Yet there they are the following season, more determined than ever to conquer the obstacle that took them down the previous year.

As educators, we want our students to feel this kind of passion for something and to demonstrate the determination of these competitors. Yet we often don't allow our students to share what they excel at. I have seen students so excited to talk about video games. They would beat me soundly; I wouldn't stand a chance if they challenged me!  Other students have musical, athletic, or artistic talents that we are not aware of in school. When we focus so much of school time on academics and testing, those students who may have talents in other areas might never receive the accolades they deserve.

As I listen to the personal stories of some of the ANW competitors, I wonder how many were  poor students in school. Some were drifting through life until they heard about this competition. ANW became an obsession to them, an opportunity to prove to others - but more importantly, to themselves - that with focus and perseverance, they could achieve something they never thought possible.

Our job as educators is to encourage every student to explore new experiences and to persevere when they find something that they are interested in.  We don't know what their passions and talents will be, and it will probably change numerous times in their lives. However, they won't know if they don't have the opportunity to try.

School is a great place to start engaging students to pursue their interests!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Social-Emotional Skills - As Important as Academics

Recently, Peter DeWitt shared a blog about a recent experience. "You know what does suck?" he asks. "It's the way we talk about school."  Peter does not hide the struggles he faced as a student, and I am sure his decision to become an educator is directly correlated to those school experiences. Many of his blogs in Finding Common Ground speak of school climate, treating others with respect, and listening to what others have to say. I value his ideas and insights.

Recently, our school team discussed two articles/studies at our quarterly Triage Advisory meeting. This group includes our school team, District staff, and military partners from Tripler and US Army Garrison. The first was a longitudinal study which showed that military-connected students who had experienced multiple deployments of their soldier-parents during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were more at-risk for problematic behaviors. The second was a study that indicated that a child's social skills at age 5 were highly correlated with their success in adulthood.  These studies were timely because this year, one of our strong focuses as a school is on continuing to improve our Positive Behavior Intervention Support System so that all students can be successful socially and emotionally as well as academically.

What do we have in place now to address the teaching of social skills and improving school climate?

  • We share a Project Wisdom message over the intercom daily.
  • We have school-wide agreements based on Tribesand students can describe what each one means in the classroom or in the school.
  • We have a conflict resolution process where students reflect on the causes and effects of their behaviors on themselves and others.
  • Our school teams work together to review data and create behavior support plans for those students who may need more support to be successful in school.
  • Our PBIS cadre meets regularly to review disciplinary data and to come up with school-wide activities to address areas of concern. We regularly update our PBIS booklet, and all teachers have a copy. 
  • We emphasize the General Learner Outcomes, and some students set goals based on these GLOs.
This appears to be a pretty good list of things we already do to address the teaching of social skills, but we can do much more.  In this age, schools are rated based on high stakes testing scores. As the aforementioned studies indicate, however,  a school culture focusing on positive social and emotional skills is perhaps more important than just focusing on academics. So what can we do to improve what we already have in place at our school?
  • Sharing the Project Wisdom message is not sufficient. We need to make sure students are discussing the message in their classroom and at home.  We should share the message with our teachers and with our parents so they can follow up the discussion and perhaps set goals together.
  • Tribes and the General Learner Outcomes are important, but if students do not buy into them, they will just be another top-down mandate. If students co-construct criteria for what a Tribes classroom or school looks like or what the GLOs mean, they will be more apt to hold themselves responsible for being part of a positive community of learners. 
  • I've noticed a lot of teachers using an app to communicate with parents about student behavior during the day. Technology is great, but it must have a purpose. Do we really want to inform parents every time their child needs to be redirected or did not follow the teacher's instructions? Do all students need to have an individualized account or is it more effective to work together as a class towards a common goal based on Tribes, the GLOs, or whatever the class agrees on?
  • We have been in classrooms where students co-construct criteria and hold themselves and each other accountable.  It is wonderful to see and feel the positive climate in those classrooms, and students take responsibility for their actions. It is a safe environment, and when there is a problem, the whole class problem-solves together. In those classrooms, social and emotional skills are at the center, and academic learning revolves around it. 
As Peter DeWitt shares in his blog post, "What Holds Us Back From Focusing on School Climate?
"There is no doubt that school climate is vitally important.  When I work with educators in schools or school districts, school climate comes up as an important element to the social-emotional and academic growth of children.  I feel that school climate is the plate for which everything else, including academics, sits on.  But too often it falls to the wayside and it becomes something where leaders act reactively rather than proactively."

As a military-impacted school, we have an obligation to ensure that our students are successful wherever they may move to in the future.  Teaching academics via the Common Core State Standards is important, but perhaps we should be doing more to teach social and emotional skills which can lead students to be more successful in the future.