Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Using the Olympics to Excite and Engage!

Four years ago this month, I decided to write a blog about my experiences and learnings as the principal of our school. It has been a challenge at times to keep going with this blog, but I'm glad I'm continuing. Today, I decided to go back and read some of the first blogs I wrote. Ah . . . I remember the stress I felt when I first pressed "publish." Today, I realize that the blog is primarily a way for me to personally reflect on education issues, challenges and successes at our school, and my personal journey as a school leader. I don't regret my decision to start this blog.

One of my reasons for re-reading my first blogs is because I knew I had written about the London Olympics. Because the Rio Games are starting soon, I wanted to get some ideas about what I'd written four years ago. I think there are so many learning opportunities that can engage our students and generate interest in the Olympics! I decided to update my original blog to make it more relevant to what we know about engaging and empowering students in their own learning.

Every four years, we watch and cheer as athletes from countries all over the world compete in the Summer Olympics.  I love the Olympics!  Despite the conflicts between countries that may be occurring at that time, it seems that the Olympics embody what the world could and should be. We cheer for those representing our country, but we also cheer for those who may not win a medal but have overcome adversities to be on the world stage.

I also love the Olympics for the opportunities it provides for students to learn about so many different aspects of the Games. Encourage your students to read articles or books or watch the Olympics on TV to get some background knowledge, then have them brainstorm questions they may have.

Today, we started our new school year, and our vice principal and I decided to use the Olympics as our theme. The first day back can be grueling - lots of information to absorb! Forcing teachers to listen while we drone on and on is directly opposite of what we want to see in our classrooms.

Teachers got into teams for countries like Togo, Nicaragua, Dominica, Micronesia, and Solomon Islands. What is the commonality of all those teams? (If you don't know, research and find out!) Then teachers did some research and each team shared an interesting fact about their country. I think it would be a great classroom activity for students! Throughout the day, teams collected points. It was great to see the teamwork and the camaraderie amongst the staff! It was fun!

Another activity was having teachers brainstorm higher level thinking questions about the Olympics; each team posted questions in our Google+ community. There were some great questions that could lead to exploring and discovering new information and then sharing with others. These are examples of the questions our teachers came up with:
  • Why and how did Rio get chosen for the 2016 Olympics? 
  • What sport/event do you think should be added to the Olympics? Why?
  • How do the Olympics affect the local economy?
  • What is the optimal training and diet for an athlete to perform at the highest level?
  • How would you engineer your own model Olympic stadium? What materials would you use? Why?
  • Based on the history of Olympic games, what kinds of Olympic events would you expect in 100 years?
  • How do athletes mentally prepare for all the stress and pressure that comes with representing their country?
  • If we developed our own Inouye Elementary Olympics, what games would you include? Why?
  • Why do people who don't normally watch sports watch the Olympics?
I think the Olympics is a great way to discuss Personal/Social issues. There are so many stories of Olympic athletes who have overcome obstacles to stand on the podium.  Wilma RudolphJesse Owens, and  Duke Kahanamoku are but a few examples.  Learn what makes these Olympic athletes stand out from others who may be equally talented.  This is a great opportunity to discuss goal-setting and developing a plan of action for the school year.  Students would then track their progress on their personal goal.

Perhaps we can have students ask the questions and discover the answers to their questions. Encourage them to follow the Olympics and learn about the different events and get to know athletes  including those from different countries. Every time I watch the Olympics, I learn something new about a country or a sport or an athlete. Our students will, too.

School begins on Monday.  An Olympics unit is a great way to incorporate rigor, relevance, and relationships into the classroom!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Support for New Teachers

This will be my 14th year as principal of our school, and the first that we have such a turnover of teachers. In my last blog, I shared my feelings about losing staff and hiring new teachers. I ended the blog on a positive note, and I feel confident that we will benefit from the individual strengths and life experiences of our new staff.

Since then, I read a timely and relevant blog, "8 Characteristics of a Great Teacher," and it was such validation of what I believe as an administrator. I reflected on our interviews with numerous applicants, and I know why we selected the teachers we did. When we ask our interview questions, we are listening to the candidates' core beliefs and their life experiences about why they went into teaching and what they can offer to our students and school community. We can tell when they are being honest and saying what they believe. Throughout the interview, woven into the different questions we ask, we get a glimpse into that teacher's philosophy and beliefs about education and about children.  We were picky; even though we had a number of openings, we preferred to ask for another list if we didn't feel that anyone would be the kind of teacher who would thrive in our school.

Many of the teachers we hired are new to the state or new to the profession, and they bring a wealth of experiences to our school. I am excited about what they shared when we asked about any innovative projects they had been involved with. They are committed to building strong relationships with their students, especially those who are the most challenging. As the interview ended, some teachers found a way to add that they are not textbook or worksheet-driven and prefer to engage students through inquiry-based hands-on activities that encourage collaboration and communication with others. I was pleased that these interviewees were confident enough to let me know up-front about their beliefs and practices. As part of our interview process, we want any teacher applicant to know that as a school, we believe that there is a general guideline of what students need to learn and do, but teachers are encouraged to use their own strengths as well as the strengths and interests of their students to provide a rich, engaging, and empowering classroom curriculum.

What these interviews indicated to me was contrary to what we've been hearing about schools today. The teachers we hired did not talk about high test scores or following a set program. They shared about knowing their kids and building a community within their classroom so their students would feel safe and will want to come to school even if they are experiencing challenges such as transitions or deployments. They are excited to try new things that we have implemented at our school like creating a class web page to communicate with families or using technology to share student learning. And they embraced our school vision, "Empowering learners to explore, discover, create, and share" and related our vision to themselves as teachers and learners.

Now that we have found the teachers we want for our school, it is our responsibility as administrators to provide them with the support and guidance they need to be successful in their new positions. Our grade level teams, instructional coaches, technology team, and mentor teachers are essential in providing that support. After all, teaching is a challenging profession but with the right support, our new teachers will continue to grow personally and professionally.