Shifting the Mindset. Changing the Culture. Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortable.

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been collaborating with my administrative  team, brainstorming, conversing, drafting, preparing to provide our district with a realistic process, an action plan for curriculum reform, a way to guide our teachers’ as they plod up the steep hill that leads to developing and deepening our students’ understanding.  Even though most teachers would agree that rote learning will not prepare students for transfer, the dusty curriculum binders, lesson plans and classroom observations tell a different story.  And, the more I think, question and reflect, the more I realize that it’s not just our students who are masters at being compliant and complacent; our teachers are as well. And dare I say it, principals too.

That’s my “IT”. That’s my reason for asking my colleagues to think purposefully about curricular planning and school reform. That’s my “WHY” for asking teachers to trust in the UbD process and know that this isn’t a “prescriptive method” that will fade with time.  It’s not a plan. It’s not a thing to lose or throw away. It’s not a fad or a quick fix.  This is going to be a way of operating on a daily basis.  Like eating healthy, it must be a lifestyle change.

That’s why I want to remove the copier from every school’s faculty room.  That’s why I want to celebrate teachers who are rebelling against the norm and coaching their students from the sidelines.   That’s why I want to offer incentives to teachers who are pushing students to solve a local or global problem and then giving them the resources and tools to share their voice with the WORLD via a podcast, a blog, etc.  And if they don’t have the tools to truly address an outside audience, why can’t students pretend they are an author, a politician, a life fitness coach, an intern: “Imagine you are a writer for an academic journal, and you must write a literary analysis, assessing Kate Chopin’s use of motif in her short stories to provide insight into the New England region.”

So, over the course of the next year, as we begin to change the conversation and the culture, my hope is that teachers truly THINK about what their students already know, need to know and should know for long term success.  My hope is that teachers focus on the STUDENTS and their learning rather than unpacking every standard and speaking faster to “cover” it all.  My hope is that teachers have the “ah-ha” moment and realize that teaching is coaching. It’s helping students come to an understanding of important ideas and then supporting them as they transfer their learning to new situations.  It’s formally assessing them after the game not during practice.  (BTW- Why are we grading formative assessments? Why are students receiving grades for attending class, being prepared and participating? And we wonder why our students are so grade driven.)

Overall, moving into the 18-19 school year, my hope is that ALL of us UNDERSTAND that we must get comfortable being uncomfortable.   We must demand that our DESIGNS and methods foster ongoing inquiry.  This is going to take an environment that allows for reflecting.  It’s going to take a lot of time. It’s going to take patience. It’s going to take a lot of sweat, tears and heart.

But, isn’t it worth it? Aren’t our students worth it? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Simple. Just Constantly Pay Attention.

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Last year I asked my staff to make a shift and show students HOW to learn.  I reminded them in this digital age that their job wasn’t to give students information anymore, but rather to teach students HOW to find the information and HOW to ask the right questions.   I asked them to shake things up a bit so students weren’t dependent on them, on the textbook, on the Internet, on the test.   I encouraged them to alter their instructional strategies, create authentic assessments, give performance-based tasks & problem-based tasks that taught invention, allowing them to use common Internet sites (CourseHero, KhanAcademy, Wolfram Alpha) creatively so their students could reach higher levels of creative thinking.  This was a monumental task, one that opened my teachers’ eyes.  While the task may have been intimidating, I noticed how moved my teachers were, as they vowed to make a shift.

This September I’m not challenging teachers  to fulfill such a monumental task; instead, I’m asking them (teachers and fellow administrators ) to simply PAY ATTENTION, tune into their senses to OBSERVE and LISTEN. Notice that I didn’t use the “dead verbs” to “see” and “hear”.   Observing is so much more than seeing; it’s watching with a purpose.  Observing means noticing the details…the raised eyebrows, the poor posture, the missing homework, the tired eyes, the chronic absenteeism, the broken pencil on the floor, the cluttered office, the snarky responses, the wrinkled dress shirt, etc.

Listening means internalizing what is heard, making connections, responding appropriately and validating who’s speaking.  Listening also involves making meaning of the white noise, the blue noise, etc.  What’s to make of students sighing or the silence during a faculty meeting?  What’s to make of the eye contact not made as you cross someone’s path or the uncomfortable smile you receive when you address a student, teacher or colleague?  Think about how can you use this data to inform yourself about your students’ or your teachers’ needs and interests.

Even more importantly, how do you SHOW your students that you are observing and listening?  How do you SHOW them that you care enough to want to observe and listen?  Do you initiate change based on this informal feedback you receive?  Do you acknowledge their wants, needs, responses and opinions?

If you do one thing this school year, be actively engaged, listening and observing.  These simple, yet BOLD actions will show your students or teachers that you CARE and APPRECIATE them; while this may sound “cheesy”, it’s the truth.  Observing and listening will help to sustain a culture of respect that compliments learning.

 

Humble and Very Appreciative

I remember interviewing for my first high school teaching position like it was yesterday. The air was heavy. The weather was humid. I ran through every answer I had prepared to the 101 interview questions I had brainstormed the week prior. Even though I had the passion and the enthusiasm, I was nervous. I knew that if my nerves kept me from articulating my answers clearly and specifically during an interview, then it didn’t matter how bright my smile was or how big my heart was, I wasn’t getting the opportunity to influence students on a daily basis.  That’s all I wanted. I wanted to get that once in a lifetime opportunity to transform lives. (Let’s be honest, I also wanted the keys to TRANSFORM a classroom – decorate the room with splashes of color, motivational quotes and posters of literary terms.)

Needless to say after not “being the right fit” at the first high school (and not interviewing so well…), I finally found my glass slipper. I found “my home away from home” that fit me. Its mission, vision and thematic program that focused on a specialized program in communications was a dream come true for this English teacher.  To this day, I’m so thankful that that administrator took a chance on me. He saw the light in my eyes and fire in my heart. He knew that I would work hard for the students and for the school community.  I didn’t have the most articulate answers to his questions (due to nerves and anxiety), but I had the energy, the attitude and a HUGE smile.  Now, 10 years later, (thanks to my principal and my district’s belief in me) I’m making more of a global impact as the Assistant Principal of Curriculum across the district, working with five career academies and their communities.

While I definitely enjoy facilitating the articulation of curriculum and instructional strategies and forging consensus among diverse stakeholders, I feel that the most fulfilling aspect of my job is when I’m called to stand in as a building principal. When I’m called to serve as the principal, I have direct contact with the students and have the ability to steer them to make better choices. My works days are usually so fragmented; they consist of working in conference rooms updating curricula, writing observation reports, creating presentations or leading meetings, so the time I get to spend communicating with parents, students and teachers is refreshing and one aspect of this position that I truly appreciate.

So… as I prepare for the next stage in my professional career, I pray that the interviewer sees through my nerves and takes a chance on me.  While I may not have mastered the art of building a schedule or refining a budget, I will learn. I will surround myself with a talented team. I will observe, listen, shadow, read and ask questions.  At the end of the day, it’s all about building trusting relationships with the community and listening to the needs of my stakeholders – oh and knowing every BOARD policy too…

I hope that some day I will be given the keys to my own school, so I can TRANSFORM IT. I’m ready… I’m ready to empower my team (students, staff, parents), motivate them, acknowledge their hardwork, reward their efforts and appreciate them EVERY DAY.

My mom always said, “Thank you goes a long way.”

Strategies for Embedding Formative Assessment

Strategy #1: Clarify, share and understand learning intentions and success criteria.The aim is not to help students complete the activity; it is to help them learn.

  • Get students to assess samples of student work – from anonymous students and then from peers
  • Use rubrics as the starting point for a dialogue with students.
  • Find out what your students think they are learning.
  • Use phrases like: “We are learning to…” and “What I’m looking for…”

Strategy #2: Engineer effective discussion, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of learning. Plan questions in advance.

  • No hands up, except to ask a question. Choose students at random: electronic randomizer, sticks, small cards, hot seat questioning
  • Don’t let “don’t know” end the conversation.
  • Allow as much wait time as students need. Don’t answer your own question.
  • Try to avoid questions altogether. Make statements:
    • Declarative statement: (“You thought B was the best answer.”)
    • Reflective statement: (“So, what you’re saying is…”)
    • Statement of mind: (“I’m puzzled when you say…”)
    • Statement of interest: (“I’d like to hear a bit more about…”)
    • Student referral: (“It sounds like you’re agreeing with what Amy said…”)
    • Teacher opinion: (“I’ve never seen that happen…”)
    • Student question: (“Perhaps you could express that as a question.”)
    • Class question: (“What questions should we be asking now?”)
  • Get students to generate two-three questions using question shells (to ask at the end/start of a lesson or working in pairs. Some question shells might be:
    • How are…and…different?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of?
    • Explain why…
    • How does…affect…?
    • What would happen if?
    • Why is…happening?
    • What is the strongest counter-argument against…?

Strategy #3: Provide feedback that moves learners forward. Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.

  • Give feedback that either increases the students’ efforts or increases the students’ aspiration.
  • Model responding to feedback by discussing feedback given to an anonymous student.
  • Stress that “smart” is not something you are but something you get.
  • Don’t praise intelligence. Make praise specific to a task recently completed.
  • Whenever you give feedback, allocate class time for students to respond.
  • Focus your feedback! Don’t give feedback on everything students do.
  • Make it clear what the student is meant to do with the comment.
  • Feedback should focus on what’s next, not what’s past.
  • Have groups of students match the comments to the work.
  • Get students to link the feedback to the learning intentions and success criteria.

Strategy #4: Activate students as learning resources for one another.

  • Start with a whole-class discussion session then move into pairs.
  • Use “expert” students as learning resources for other students.
  • Model and discuss effective and ineffective feedback.
  • Provide sentence starters.
  • Use the “ABC” feedback technique: Agree with, Build on, Challenge
  • Emphasize group goals in classroom work.
  • Build in plenty of time for groups to reflect on how they are working.

Strategy #5: Activate students as owners of their own learning. Only learners create learning. Teachers create environments within which students learn. 

  • Focus self-assessment on improvement, not on grades.
  • Make self-assessment a routine part of classwork. (Use learning portfolios and create a question parking lot.)
  • Survey students regularly on their learning.
  • Insist that students attend parent-teacher conferences.  Have a list of questions to help students plan what they will discuss with their parents.

 

– From Embedding Formative Assessment by Dylan William and Siobhan Leahy (Learning Sciences International, 2015)

The Truths of Data Analysis

  • You’ll be happy to know, it’s not about numbers. It’s about improving instruction.
  • Data analysis is most effective when it’s performed with other teachers who share the same standards and assessments, who can discuss concretely and specifically, based on student results, what is working and what is not working.
  • Teacher teams need to be able to meet in “data dialogues” during the school day for 45 minutes to an hour at least once every two weeks, and more often, if possible. This time must be held sacred for data dialogues and not used for other purposes.
  • The most productive data-driven teams engage in collaborative dialogues, identifying class-wide patterns of strengths and weaknesses for possible re-teaching, students ready for enrichment and those needing interventions and what the focus of those interventions should be, and plans for improving instruction in the next unit.
  • The most important questions in data analyses are not, “What did the students score?” and “How many passed?” The most important questions are: “What do the students know?” “What do they not know?” and “What are we going to do about it?”

 

-Taken from Ronald Thomas’ “The Nine Truths of Data Analysis”

 

 

 

A Different Mindset But Same Attitude: Year #1 Reflection

On Monday, February 1, Facebook reminded me that one year ago that day my colleagues presented me with a beautiful Alex and Ani bracelet: “You have the ability to leave a positive imprint on the lives of others.” I was leaving the classroom and jumping over to the “dark side” (I didn’t see it that way) as my teacher friends called it. In other words, I was becoming an administrator.  I viewed myself as a leader, in a better position to make more of a global change.  Finally, my voice would be heard and I could be the advocate and supporter for my colleagues that I always wanted for myself when I was teaching.  So many emotions consumed me that first week (heck, if I’m being honest…they still consume me): excitement, anxiety, nervousness, fear, nostalgia.

As I reflect and think about my journey, I’m amazed at how the last 12 months have altered my perspective on education and have totally transformed my mindset.  I ask so many more questions now, questions that I never even thought to ask before: What’s the purpose of giving every student the same assignment every day? Why can’t we make the schedule work to give teachers common planning time? Why don’t we have a faculty dress code? Why do so many male students have 504s? Why can’t a teacher’s “Do Now” serve as a daily pre-assessment? What’s the rationale for a student having a major test two days before a final exam? Do grades really reflect what our students know? Why does the NJDOE upload curricula labeled “model” when it’s far from it?! Why didn’t I ever have a course on assessment creation, data analysis or curriculum writing in my education classes?  Why do some educators remain in their silo, afraid to team-teach, and resistant to sharing their strategies/materials?  Why are parents so coddling?

These are just a few of the open-ended questions that continue to consume me when I’m observing professionals, attending ScIP/DEAC meetings, creating agendas, designing presentations, aligning activities to standards, revising curricula, conferencing, offering feedback, covering buildings for principals.

When I’m not asking questions and reflecting on my practice, I’m wondering… wondering why my grad classes never told me that being an administrator will be different. It will be stressful. You will work on snow days. You will eat alone. You won’t be able to make everyone happy.  You will question yourself and your decisions and ask yourself if it’s all worth it.

While my transition has been bittersweet, I do enjoy being on the other side.  I enjoy being able to go to the bathroom ANY time of the day that I want! I enjoy being a part of five very different cultures within one district, all amazing and unique in their own way.  I enjoy seeing my colleagues make tough decisions while I linger in the shadows, listening, absorbing, learning. But… the best part of my job involves observing dynamic teachers, who aren’t afraid to challenge the students. These teachers inspire me so much, giving me tools and tricks to share with others across the district.  My even better days are when I’m “home” and my previous students seek me out to ask a grammatical question or they run after me, waving their flawless essay in my face.  Their pride in their work and their exhaustive list of questions energize me, reminding me why I LOVE this field!

At the end of the day, it’s all about the students, all 1,600 of them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Planning is Crucial to a Teacher’s Effectiveness

Many teachers spend copious amounts of time over the summer mapping out their lessons for the upcoming school year.  Almost all teachers give up their Sunday nights writing individual lesson plans.  I lived that life once.  I remember how  cumbersome the process was at times, copying and pasting standards and objectives into a word document.

Even though I got frustrated with the process, when I was done I felt so productive.  Planning forced me to refer to the curriculum.  It pushed me to reflect and map out short and long term plans while asking important questions:

  • What will my students understand today?
  • Why am I teaching the materials I’m teaching?
  • What’s the outcome I want to achieve?

Reviewing my plans and comparing them to the curriculum document, I really was able to see which standards I overemphasized and which ones I didn’t teach at all.  Let’s face it.  We’re all guilty of teaching to our strengths. I loved teaching writing, analyzing Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s plays because I felt comfortable teaching what I loved.  Yet, I loathed teaching poetry and grammar concepts, but I knew I had to bite the bullet since it’s what the state standards required.

Since I’ve transitioned to the “other side”, I’ve reviewed a lot of lesson plans and what I’ve noticed is that the teacher who takes the time to establish a detailed unit plan or plans for differentiated instruction is much more effective in the classroom.  They vary their instructional strategies and have wonderful classroom management.  They integrate technology and have smooth transitions between activities.  Plans that are minimal or solely list activities without any objectives at all don’t transfer well to the classroom.  Teachers who aren’t planning, aren’t very productive and if teachers aren’t productive, students aren’t achieving.

“Objectives bring in focus, discipline, and measurability to a lesson” (Lemov, 2012).

There’s a great book entitled Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov that discusses the importance of lesson planning and objectives and specifically describes the type of planning that makes for effective teaching, ensuring academic success.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Critical Words

Researchers estimate 85% of achievement test scores are based on the vocabulary of the standards.  Students from poverty, ELL students and other at-risk students are particularly in need of learning these words in ways that meet their specific learning needs.

Below are the critical verbs of the Common Core State Standards:

  • Analyze
  • Articulate
  • Cite
  • Compare
  • Comprehend
  • Contrast
  • Delineate
  • Demonstrate
  • Describe
  • Determine
  • Develop
  • Distinguish
  • Draw
  • Evaluate
  • Explain
  • Identify
  • Infer
  • Integrate
  • Interpret
  • Locate
  • Organize
  • Paraphrase
  • Refer
  • Retell
  • Suggest
  • Support
  • Summarize
  • Synthesize
  • Trace

Summer Reads to Enhance Your Teaching Practice & Re-ignite Your Flame

I always loved reading; that is just one of the reasons I decided to pursue my dream of being an English teacher or as my NJ certificate states: Teacher of English.  Unfortunately, once I accepted the role as a secondary educator, reading for “fun” had to take a back seat.  Now, I had to channel my energy differently.  I couldn’t peruse Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses just for the fun of it.  Instead, I had to spend my time “unpacking” Common Core standards, planning differentiated lessons, creating authentic assessments, researching how to create effective rubrics, collaborating online with colleagues and communicating with parents.  During the school year, my readings weren’t readings of choice, they were required readings.   These readings included document based essays, research papers, thesis statements, outlines, and expository paragraphs.  The only real time to engage in pleasurable reading would be in July and August when my toes were buried in the sand and the salty air kissed my skin; thus, I counted down the days…not because I didn’t want to be in the classroom with my students but because I just didn’t want to spend my nights and weekends reading essays. I yearned to read literature, varied literature that ranged from graphic texts to Caribbean novels.

I still wanted to read and learn more, so I went back to school to become a master of my practice and attain my supervisory and administrative certificate.  It was that summer, the summer I returned to grad school, that I realized that I could be inspired, not only by novels and classics, but by non-fiction texts that provide instructional strategies and methods for being an effective instructor and leader.  As the summer of 2015 approaches, I thought I would share some of these inspirational texts. Hopefully, they help you re-ignite your flame and rejuvenate your practice:

*Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator (2012) by Dave Burgess.  PIRATE is a convenient acronym that captures Burgess’s philosophy for how to hook students and prevent teacher burnout.  He provides an uplifting reminder of identifying what’s holding teachers back from letting go and setting sail.

*Real Talk for Real Teachers (2014) by Rafe Esquith.  You may know Esquith from his past two books, NYTimes best seller Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire… and There are No Shortcuts.  He really inspires his students and breathes new life into their education.  He’s an enthusiastic and upbeat writer who divides this book in three parts and offers advice for teachers at three stages in their careers: Part I for new teachers, Part II for those mid-career and Part III for veteran teachers.

The Motivation Equation: Designing Lessons that Set Kids’ Minds on Fire (2013) by Kathleen Cushman.  Cushman  provides insight into what teachers can do to improve student engagement from the voice of teenagers.  She distills advice from students into eight areas teachers can improve to better motivate students such as make it relevant, keep it active, act like a coach, give students time to reflect, and more. Plus, it’s free as a multi-media ebook here!

Teaching that Matters: Engaging Minds, Improving Schools (2015) by Frank Thomas. Thomas presents a vision of schools where teachers want to teach and classrooms where students want to learn.  Based on both experience and research, Thomas introduces a variety of strategies from taking “Internet Sabbaths” to Six Hat Thinking to improve student discussions.

The Natty Professor: A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making it Work (2015) by Tim Gunn. From design instructor to mentor of Project Runway, Gunn speaks from the heart sharing the secrets to his success: It’s all about how we learn: not just in a classroom but every day, at any age in any situation.  Gunn shares his tips for motivating others and sparking their curiosity while talking about the best and worst teachers he’s ever known. He shares his proven T.E.A.C.H philosophy: Truth-Telling, Empathy, Asking, Cheerleading and Hoping for the Best!

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Please feel free to email me (kharmon@ctemc.org) if you are looking for specific literature to help enhance your instructional delivery, assessment, or lesson planning and pacing.

High-Achieving Students Achieve Differently

I remember when I first began my journey as an “academy” teacher.  My friends who taught at “normal” high schools would verbalize how envious they were of my position: “You have the cream of the crop, the best and brightest of Monmouth County.  How enjoyable it must be to teach students who want to learn.” I nodded my head in agreement because they were right: I was lucky… lucky to have the opportunity to engage with such earnest students who had a passion for learning and an unwavering drive to succeed..lucky to have students who asked tough questions and kept me on my toes…lucky to have a homogeneous group who learned the same way…lucky to teach the “honors” kids.

I didn’t have to worry about differentiating my teaching strategies and assignments or so I thought.  As a naive first year high school teacher, I quickly assumed because I was teaching an honors level 9th grade English course, that all my students learned the same way at the same pace.  Then, over the course of my time with them, I began to observe and assess. I noticed doodling students who were bored and easily distracted.   What was I doing wrong?

My job wasn’t as easy as I had thought; in fact, it was much more challenging because now, I had to find a way to provide alternative activities to students who had already mastered the curriculum content.  I had to offer students options to make activities more meaningful to them.  I had to vary my questions, directing higher level questions to the students who mastered the content, while adjusting my questioning strategy according to students’ readiness levels.  I had to research differentiation techniques and try them! I would’ve been doing my students a major dis-service if I didn’t follow through with this mission.  Before I began I had to ask three questions for effective differentiation:

1. What do I want students to know, understand and be able to do?

2. Who already knows, understands, and/or can use the content or demonstrate the skills?

3. What can I do for him, her, or them so they can make continuous progress and extend their learning?

After I had my answers, I began to research various differentiation strategies and then tried them out. These are some of the techniques I found and tried that worked for me.

*Tiered Assignments: Tiered activities are a series of related tasks of varying complexity. It involves planning and offering learning experiences at increasing levels of difficulty.  One example of an effective tool for tiering is “Think-Tac-Toe”.  In simplest terms this provides multiple options in a tic-tac-toe format for student projects, products and lessons.  This differentiation strategy encourages choice.  See below:

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Think-Tac-Toe: Mesopotamia and Gilgamesh. From “Strategies for Differentiation”, Julia Roberts and Tracy Inman

*Flexible Grouping: Flexible grouping allows students to be appropriately challenged and avoids labeling a student’s readiness as static.  Students should not be kept in a static group for any particular subjects as their learning will probably accelerate from time to time.

*Anchoring Activities:  This may be a list of activities that a student can do at any moment when they have completed present assignments or it can be assigned for a short period at the beginning of each class.  These activities may relate to specific needs or enrichment opportunities, including problems to solve or journals to write.  They could also be part of a long-term project that a student is working on.  These activities offer the teacher time to provide direct instruction to individual students or a group of students. Students can work at different paces but also have productive work to they can do.

At the end of the day, I realized that differentiated instruction is an organic process. It’s whimsical. It’s messy, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, my assessment results showed gains; thankfully, my exhaustive efforts paid off.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?