Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Honest Question from a Parent

Last week was Student/Parent/Teacher Conference Week. I love how our teachers have figured out creative ways to have students share their learning and their goals with their parents and allow time for teachers to share information about how the child is doing in class.

After one of these conferences, I received an email from a parent. She stated that her child is flourishing in her class and she believes a lot of the credit goes to the teacher. However, this parent expressed concern that we do not have a common curriculum at our school. Specifically, she asked why we did not have common language arts and mathematics books so all students have a consistent curriculum. I appreciate her questions and the fact that she felt comfortable about sharing her concerns with me. I speculate that her concern stems from the fact that our military-impacted students are transient, and this parent wants to be sure that her child will have the tools to be successful when they move to another duty station. This blog is a means of sharing our school's philosophy of teaching and learning and hopefully, to allay her concerns about our curriculum.

As a State educational system, we are required to follow the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics and the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards for Science and Social Studies. The standards are the curriculum, what we teach and all grade level teachers refer to these standards when they plan their lessons. However, at Hale Kula, we give our teachers flexibility in how they teach the curriculum; we do not require our teachers to follow a specific program although there are resources available if that is what they choose to use.

In the past, we have had school-wide curricular programs. When I became principal back in 2003, we were using Success for All as our reading program. Then we purchased Harcourt Trophies. For math, we have used Silver Burdett, then we purchased Math Investigations and then Math Out of the Box. These program materials were costly and also required professional development for teachers as well as annual expenditures to replenish the consumables. When the Common Core was released, teachers sat together as grade levels to make sense of the standards and to create their year-long matrix as well as a pacing guide. Because students had different needs, teachers wanted flexibility in the resources they used and how they taught the standards. We were, in fact, ahead-of-the-game and began implementing the new standards before we were required to do so. In essence, teachers were creating their own curriculum.

As the principal of our school, I trust our teachers to make the right decisions for their students. I believe that they all have college degrees in education and know the pedagogy of how best to teach their students.They know that students are all different and what works for one student may not have the same impact on another student. They search for engaging and challenging activities on-line or attend workshops or conferences (often on their own time) and are willing to try new, innovative ways to reach all of their students.

At our school, teachers address many of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts through interdisciplinary units that are based on the social studies and science standards. Our teachers are constantly reviewing and revising these units to update strategies and resources they can use including the use of technology and relevant and meaningful projects. We have students writing letters to Crayola to ask why Hawaii is not included as part of their Recycling Markers program. Other students are creating public service announcements to raise awareness of global issues such as recycling or bullying. Still others are learning about the unique challenges of living in an island state and the sustainability of our indigenous plants and animals.

Our teachers know that they will have my support if they want to try new strategies for teaching and learning. That is why a number of teachers are using the Daily Five or learning centers in addition to whole group instruction. Teachers teach mini-lessons then students have a choice of what they want to work on in their daily rotations while teachers work on interventions or circulate to provide support to individuals or small groups.  Other teachers use art and problem-solving games as a means of applying math concepts. Interdisciplinary unit projects often look different even if students are focusing on the same essential questions and big ideas because student questions and interests may take learning in a different direction. In some classes, students try out new technology tools, and those students then teach others. By allowing teachers flexibility in how they teach and then providing opportunities to collaborate and exchange ideas, strategies, and resources, all of our teachers have improved their professional practices.

But this isn't a free-for-all, teach-whatever-you-want-to curriculum. Teachers are still responsible to ensure that their students can demonstrate that they meet the standards for their grade level. This is why our teachers meet in grade level teams to agree on their matrix of what standards will be taught and when they will be taught. This is why grade level teachers agree on common assessments for reading, writing, and math. This is why they share student work and analyze results to ensure that students are learning what they need to. . This is the expectation for all teachers and part of their accountability measure for their evaluation.

I am so proud when I see our students so excited to share what they're learning. I want every one of them to believe that they can achieve success and to feel confident about themselves as learners.
Recently, I have read a number of blogs or articles about unhappy teachers who no longer feel the joy of teaching due to mandates, over-testing, and the continuous focus on data analysis. Those kinds of teacher attitudes will negatively impact student attitudes towards learning. Our job as educators is to encourage and inspire our students to follow their passions. and to give them the tools to achieve success.

This is a pretty long-winded response to that parent's inquiry about a common curriculum. The bottom line is that it is the teacher in the classroom who makes the difference. This child is flourishing because she has a teacher who continues to learn, to seek new ideas, and to collaborate with her colleagues, and she has a mother who is involved in her education and asks questions to advocate for all children at the school.


  1. HI Jan,

    Thank you for taking the time to address this parent's concern. Your article was very informational and heart-felt. I am often impressed by how caring you are toward your teachers and students. Thank you for all you do.

    Betty Bookmyer,
    Central District Behavioral Health Specialist.

  2. Thank you, Betty, for your kind words. Everyone contributes at Hale Kula including you. Otherwise, we could not do the things we do for our students and their families.