Saturday, January 30, 2016

It's Time for a Change - Let's Not Wait Too Long to Get Started

Last school year, I had the opportunity to travel with the Education Institute of Hawaii to learn more about school empowerment. After returning from this trip, I reflected about the impact of this trip in this blog post.

I recently attended the 2nd Annual Hawaii School Empowerment Conference featuring several keynote speakers including Pasi Sahlberg who has written about Finland's educational successes and Diane Ravitch, an outspoken advocate for public education in our country. (I will admit that I was looking forward to seeing Ms. Ravitch in person because I enjoy reading about her; she is passionate and has very strong ideas. However, she spoke to us via video conferencing so the impact was perhaps lessened.)

I feel fortunate that in my early experiences as a newbie teacher, I was empowered. Starting my career as a Head Start teacher meant that I created my own curriculum and monitored student progress on a continuum. When I started teaching in the Department of Education, we had basals to guide us, but as a teacher, I had flexibility in how I used those resources in my classroom. My training as an educator prepared me to understand that not all students learn in the same way and it was my responsibility to find what works, especially for students who learn differently.

Our job as educators is to empower our students. In this blog post, Empower Students: 5 Powerful Strategies, teacher Celina Brennan suggests that we need to "step back, let go, and empower students to take charge of their own learning."

But a teacher who is not empowered may not know how to empower his/her students, and a principal who has never been empowered might not empower the teachers and staff at the school. Therein lies a problem for schools today. If our educators are in a compliance-driven system where mandated curriculum and standardized test scores are the measure of success, how can we prepare our students for a world where they are expected to be innovative, collaborative, critical thinkers and problem-solvers, and literate engaged learners?

Empowerment and accountability go hand-in-hand. In our country, standardized test results are overused as a means of judging schools, school districts, and states. Data is important, and setting goals is essential in any organization including our schools. However, holding schools accountable based solely on data such as test scores, student growth, chronic absenteeism, or graduation rate is a narrow-minded focus when empowered schools are implementing powerful learning initiatives such as project-based learning, Senior Capstone Projects, competency-based blended learning, and community and business internships. Students are applying critical literacy and technology skills and strategies throughout the day to meaningfully engage in their own learning.

School should be a place where students have an opportunity to follow their passions, to explore and make new discoveries, to share what they've learned in creative ways, and to reflect on how this learning impacts them and their world.  Let's empower schools so they can determine their own goals on how they will be held accountable.
I enjoyed listening to Pasi Sahlberg speak about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment that shows our country lagging behind many other countries. Pasi has written a book about Finland's educational system; their country is consistently near the top in PISA ratings.
ESSA or Every Student Succeeds Act was recently signed into law and No Child Left Behind has thankfully been laid to rest. ESSA still requires annual testing for students in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10-12 , but states can determine which test to use. Diane Ravitch suggested that this is where our state Board of Education might start. Hopefully, our Department will choose a less time-consuming statewide assessment system; the Smarter Balanced Assessments need to go. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Have You Seen This?

This morning, I sent this photo to the whole staff with a message:

I was walking around campus and saw this and decided to take a photo. Do you know what it is? Do you know where it is located on our school?  I had never seen anything like it before! I'm not telling you what it is; go find out yourself :-)

I started receiving responses from our staff. I guess they thought it was a contest (not this time) or that I really didn't know what it was and was asking for their help.

My motivation was simple. 

I walk around campus quite a bit and love to snap photos with my iPhone whenever I see something interesting. The photos are then posted on social media or become part of our weekly Staff Bulletin. I carry my phone at all times because I never know when I'll have a great photo opportunity. 

We have a fairly spread-out campus, and I've noticed that we sometimes have a tendency to walk the shortest distance from one place to another. Often, we don't stop to observe interesting things around us. This photo was a way to send a message that it's okay to take a longer route to get from the classroom to the library or to the cafeteria or the playground;. It's perfectly fine to stop and have our students ask questions about what they observe. Then, search for answers to the questions. When I saw this flower, a lot of questions popped into my mind. Imagine how exciting it would be for students to discover the answers to their questions!

Years ago when I was just starting out as a teacher, I attended a workshop. The Professor (I think his name was Dr. Carr) had written this sentence on the blackboard in capital letters. TEACHERS TEACH SCIENCE TO STUDENTS. He challenged us to change the order of these five words. I was so excited when I figured it out: TEACHERS TEACH STUDENTS TO SCIENCE. "Science is a verb," he said. "Students should be sciencing." I never forgot that, and it became one of my core beliefs as an educator and a parent/grandparent. 

I hope our teachers show their students the photo and then take a walk around the school to look for that plant. Then I hope they have their students ask questions and discover the answers. Perhaps they could ask someone, an "expert"; perhaps they could make a guess about what kind of flower or plant it is and do some research; perhaps they have another way of finding the answers to their questions.

My suggestion to our teachers: Start out a little earlier to get to your destination. Take a different route. Encourage questions. Take time to science. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Great Way to Spend a Day!

The Hawaii State Legislature is set to convene next week for 60 working days. Legislators are presently holding briefings, researching, holding meetings, and generally getting ready to do the work to set new directions for the State. Our Department relies on the Legislature for funding, and once the session begins, the work is non-stop and hectic.

Recently, our school was fortunate to be part of a visitation and 'talk story' session with legislators and principals. We believe that policymakers need to know what is happening at schools, and we relished the opportunity to share the teaching and learning that takes place in our classrooms. Planning what and how to share really depends on how much time is allocated. We decided that a Mini Poster Session would showcase how our students from kindergarten through fifth grade are using technology as a tool for collaborating, communicating, thinking critically, and creating. It was awesome to see students so excited to share; they were confident and poised as they explained their projects to our guests.
Katelyn, a second grader, shares her project with Senate Education Chair Michelle Kidani.
Third grader Caden was excited to share a coding game he is creating. "I was working on it all weekend," he admitted, "but I still have to add some stuff to make it cooler."

The next stop was to Moanalua Middle School; they were one of the original schools in the 1:1 Access Learning pilot program that was funded by the Legislature in 2013.  We visited classrooms and observed students using their devices in math, science, and a design studio elective class. Principal Lisa Nagamine is a passionate advocate for the use of technology at her school in all classrooms. She and her staff have created a strong culture where collaboration is valued and continuous improvement is an expectation. 

The final visit for the day was to Kaimuki High School. My husband is a proud graduate of KHS, class of 1965, and he often shares that his experiences at the school helped to shape who he is today. When we drove up to the campus, I was amazed at the huge mural in the front of the school. "Gee, has it been that long since I've been here?" I thought to myself. Then I discovered that the students had worked with an artist to create the mural, and that it had been completed between August and November 2015. The mural is a highly-visible reminder of the positive changes taking place at the school. Principal Wade Araki proudly speaks of the school's transformation and the transition to a modular schedule and competency-based education. I will admit that when I heard a news report about KHS going to a competency-based system, I was thinking of those college courses where students read a chapter from a textbook, took a test, and after getting a passing score, went on to the next chapter. The course grade depended on the number of tests completed. KHS is definitely not that kind of competency-based system. Students are expected to complete rigorous assignments in all content areas, and all students belong to one of five academies on campus. Teachers monitor student progress and provide support and guidance to those who may be struggling or need extra assistance. The assignments are rigorous, and students go at their own pace. If a student completes his/her assignments earlier, they can work on their passion projects in their area of interest. Students can also take college courses and receive dual credit. Attendance is up, and tardies are down. It was evident that students were engaged in their work. Everyone had a computer and all were working on a different assignment or topic; they barely noticed that we were in the room. 

Here are my thoughts as I reflected on this school visit experience with the legislators:
  • Every school is different and addresses their challenges in different ways. What works at one school may not necessarily work at another. One size doesn't fit all. 
  • We need to encourage out-of-the-box, creative, innovative thinking by our students, our teachers, our school leaders, and our policymakers. As the school visitations have shown, when schools are empowered to take risks and to try something different, the impact on the community can be substantial.
  • Visiting schools and classrooms is the best professional development opportunity for educators. We can learn so much from others, yet we rarely make the time to do so. Every school and every teacher has something positive to share; let's learn from each other. Additionally, all educators should belong to a Professional Learning Network where members communicate, collaborate, share ideas, and problem-solve, either face-to-face or virtually. 
  • Having a strong vision of what we want to accomplish and the persistence to do whatever is necessary is essential if we want to make a difference for our students. 
  • Educators need to band together to make our voices heard and to advocate for our students, our schools, and our communities. With the legislative session opening in just a few days, we need to send a message that if we want our students to be college, career, and citizenship-ready, schools could use more funding.  It's difficult to be innovative when so much of our budgets are spent on personnel or other Department mandates.
  • We need to commit to ensuring that every child is Future Ready. This is not about purchasing devices or other technologies. It's about preparing our students with 21st century skills and strategies so they can compete globally;  it's about ensuring that teachers receive the professional development and support they need to positively impact their students; it's about schools being creative and resourceful and engaging students through meaningful and relevant learning. 

Let's work together to make a difference for our students and our schools!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A New Year, New Commitments

Happy New Year! This is the first time in five years that our whole family is together, and I am a happy Mom :-) Just being together with our extended families is the best present I could wish for and makes this time of the year so special.
Our three sons and two grandsons made the trip home to celebrate the New Year together and to attend a wedding for one of our nephews. We will cherish this time together; Hawaii will always be home for our sons even though they may live elsewhere.
A New Year - 2016!
This will be a momentous year for our school as we look ahead to 2016. Our three-year construction project will be completed, and the new facilities will certainly impact teaching and learning now and in the future.

Hale Kula Pride:
Our school is focusing on Hale Kula Pride for our Positive Behavior Intervention Support, so I thought it appropriate to refocus my own commitments based on our expectations. Here goes!

Take Care of Yourself
I've always stressed that we need to take care of ourselves or we cannot take care of our students. This means that we need to eat healthier, exercise our minds and our bodies, and maintain positive relationships. Our family and friends should be a priority; the job will always be there, but kids grow up and create their own lives. I certainly do not regret the time I spent with our sons when they were younger, things that didn't cost a penny but remain ingrained in our memories - reading our favorite books, singing songs with enthusiasm, splashing in puddles, and exploring and discovering new places and new knowledge. Now that our sons and grandsons are home for a short vacation, I realize how precious time together is.

This past year, I re-committed to exercising and joined my husband at the gym. I know that the time spent there will pay off now and in the future. Exercising regularly and eating healthier will hopefully make me feel better. At this time, I'm thinking of a fun way to get all of our staff involved in taking care of ourselves. After all, it's more fun when we do things together, and a little friendly competition is always appreciated.

Take Care of Others
An important part of being a school leader is taking care of others: our students, our staff, our parents, and our community. As a military-impacted school which is often a "pit stop" in a child's whole educational experience, we strive to ensure a safe and engaging school environment where students gain the skills and strategies to be successful wherever they may travel to next. We cannot do it alone.

Recently, I wrote a blog, "Are You Busy? and I realized that there are times when I have not made time for others or I have not returned phone calls right away. It is never intentional, but I can see that by not making the time, I have sent a message that minimized the concerns of the other person. As my commitment to "take care of others," I strive to not let "busyness" get in the way of doing what is right.

We are grateful for the support of the US Army and US Army Garrison Hawaii who work closely with schools. We appreciate their support especially through projects like this video, "Every Day Counts" that is shared with all military-impacted schools. These are important issues, and this video clearly shows the partnership between the military and our public schools.

Take Care of Our School
When we broke ground on our construction project back on July 1, 2013, I said we had received a gift, one I never expected when I became principal in 2003. Although there have been many challenges in running a school while construction is ongoing,  I have learned so much from working collaboratively with the contractors and others involved in this project. I've also made it a priority to "take care of our school" by providing input, by questioning when I don't understand, and by following up when there are concerns especially about safety. We have a blog that updates our school community about what is happening with the project. It has been a great way to document the progress and the transformation of our school facilities!

We are the first school in Hawaii to receive funding as part of the Congressional appropriation to upgrade schools on military bases in the United States. As such, we are the "guinea pig" and the Department has learned from our experiences to make it possible for other schools like Solomon Elementary and Mokapu Elementary to benefit.

As our project enters its final months before completion, I will continue to advocate for our school, not just for our facilities but for additional funding so we can provide a well-rounded education for our students.

Happy New Year, everyone! Let's make 2016 a great one by working together and showing Hale Kula Pride!