[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]
Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there. Go ahead, I’ll wait. All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?
If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?
Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.
While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.
Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.
[NOTE: This is the second of two blog posts about workshop presentations I recently gave.]
Ever since I started working at Wiley Elementary School and participated in the New Teacher Mentoring and Induction program, I have received regular email updates from the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative. I attended the annual conference my first year at Wiley, then I attended a Beginning Teacher Conference the summer after that year. The following summer I attended the Beginning Teacher Conference again. I have found these conferences to be incredibly useful and believe I am a better teacher for having participated in them.
Earlier this year, I received an email seeking requests for workshop proposals for the the 11th Annual Induction and Mentoring Conference to be held in Champaign. One of the event organisers happens to also be one of the organisers for EdCamp CU, the “unconference” that I have helped organise for the past year. She asked me if I would be willing to put in a proposal for the conference based on two of the critical areas they were going to focus on: Teachers as Learners and Teachers as Influencers. I wrote a proposal for each and submitted them.
To my surprise, both proposals were accepted, and so it was that today I spent the day at the iHotel and Conference Center in Champaign, networking with teachers, administrators, and professional development coordinators. In addition to presenting two workshops, I got to attend the EdChats (mini general session presentations), and got to help two early career teachers from a nearby district make plans for how they can create an induction and mentoring program in their schools.
The first session I presented was on the cross-grade collaboration process I have done with Miss C for the past six years. It started as Reading Buddies but has morphed into Learning Buddies. I only had four participants, but they seemed excited about the ways that could increase collaboration in their schools and find teachers to partner with to create vertical learning opportunities for their students.
The second session I gave also only had four participants. This one was on using social media to influence the school environment for good. I shared my belief that it is more important for teachers to have a positive social media presence than to have no presence at all. (Many teachers, especially early career teachers, are told to hide their identities online and avoid any networking with students, parents, or colleagues. I take a different approach, although, in general, I avoid adding parents to my personal Facebook network until after their students have left my classroom for good.) I showed how I use Twitter to connect with educators and researchers and how I use hashtags to track important topics. The teachers present shared how they use social media and gave others resources for how to get started.
The INTC Conference was a long, busy day, but it was so worth it! I was able to connect with great teachers, share ways that my school district has helped me become a teacher leader, and even got to connect with a friend from the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute who is now a teacher in the nearby district mentioned above.
Tomorrow I return to the classroom after a long absence. I hope I will be able to use what I learned on Friday and today to make a difference in my students’ lives.
[NOTE: This is the first of two blog posts about workshop presentations that I recently gave.]
Last Friday I had the opportunity to present a workshop to two groups of teachers during my district’s Winter Institute. My workshop focused on Hapara Dashboard, the web-based software that we use to monitor students on their Chromebooks. (Oddly enough, I have apparently never written about this software, despite the fact that it has been in use in my building for over a year. Oops.)
Hapara Dashboard allows me to see what students are doing on their Chromebooks in real time by showing me what tabs they have open at any given time. I can also view and save screenshots of their active screens. Through Highlights, I can send links to every device in my classroom and I can limit students’ browsing to specific sites. I can view their Google Drive folders and can create documents that are sent to each individual student and automatically populated in a folder that I have specified. I can send students messages to remind them of tasks or call them to my back table without saying anything. Through Workspace, I can create assignments with stated goals, resources, evidence, and rubrics. I can grade assignments and return them for further editing or return them with a final grade, making it so students cannot alter them further.
My presentation was to showcase all of these features and ask teachers if they would be interested in using this software if it was made available. Every single teacher who came to my sessions told me that they were definitely interested and wanted to know why we didn’t already have this software in place. (Short answer: it is expensive.) Still, the response was overwhelmingly positive and many teachers felt that using Hapara Dashboard would greatly increase productivity in the classroom and make the devices more effective.
I am hopeful that this will be something that will happen soon!
I feel like I have had a lot of posts this year that have hinted at frustration with my job, with my students, and with the slow progress we have been making in establishing a strong classroom community. While I don’t want to diminish those feelings, which I believe are perfectly valid and understandable, I also don’t want the casual reader of this blog to think that I am one of those teachers who blogs simply to vent.
Because I’m not and I don’t.
As a matter of fact, my blogging has become a way for me to proclaim, loudly and publicly, that I love my job and I love my students even though I am frustrated as can be with some of the things that are happening and, perhaps more importantly, not happening. I am very grateful for the opportunity I have had for the past five and a half years to do what I do. This is, after all, the job I dreamed of having since I was in fourth grade. It is still my dream job even if, yes, I am hoping to eventually move from classroom leadership to building leadership as I transition from classroom teacher to building principal.
But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love my job because, again, I really, really, really do. Anyone who has ever talked to me in person knows that there are some topics that will get me going for hours on end and what I do every single day as a teacher is one of those topics. (Other topics include books, tabletop gaming, and British television.)
As the last hour or so of the annual Thanksgiving Day observance in the United States approaches, I wanted to express gratitude for the teachers, principal, staff, parents, and students who have made my job at Wiley Elementary School the wonderful experience it has been. In keeping with my blogging norms, I will not name them by name, but know this:
- My principal is wonderful; she cares, she supports, she encourages, she directs, she leads.
- My fourth grade partner this year (number five in six years) has been wonderful! We are learning together as we navigate a new math curriculum and as we change and adapt to the needs of our students.
- The fifth grade team makes me proud to say that I taught roughly half of their students. These two wonderful women (plus the long-term substitute who is covering maternity leave for one of them) are passionate about challenging their students, holding them to high standards of leadership, and preparing them for the oh-so-scary world of middle school.
- The third grade team does a great job of teaching and guiding, preparing their students for my classroom while maintaining wonderful relationships with them after they move to my room.
- The second grade teachers are a powerhouse of experience and they never make me feel weak or inferior when I come in to ask for help or advice, nor do they shy away from asking a much newer teacher (me) for technology assistance.
- The first grade teachers are delightfully wacky and quirky but they know how important their work is and they make sure their students are learning and growing every single day.
- The kindergarten teachers started at Wiley the same year I did, although one has gone from second grade to first grade to kindergarten. They are two of my closest friends at work and their passion for early childhood education amazes me.
- Our office secretaries are so patient with students, with families, and with teachers! I cannot imagine Wiley without them, although I still miss our previous office manager/secretary who retired this year.
- Our new custodian (who started this year after our previous custodian also retired and promptly moved to Florida), is great with students, smiling and talking to them but making sure they know that they had better not make a mess in the bathrooms!
- Our special education teachers are an amazing team that works hard to make sure we are meeting the needs of our students with special needs. The teacher who works directly with my students has been especially supportive of helping me find ways to increase the sense of community in my room.
- Our two reading interventionists are another powerhouse team that have worked together for more years than I can say, yet they are continually learning and improving in what they do.
- Our other specialists, such as our speech and language pathologist, our social worker, and our school psychologist, are always on the go and yet they are always ready to provide advice, counsel, or just to listen if I need to talk.
- Our fine arts teachers are amazing individuals who share their passion for music, for visual arts, and the performing arts in a way that makes each student know that the arts are just as important as academic subjects.
- Our new PE teacher has been a huge blessing to our building! Not only do our students receive a higher quality level of physical education than when teachers were doing it on our own, but he also works with us to identify ways we can improve play during recess. (And I am able to collaborate with my grade level partner twice a week every week now!)
- The other professionals who pop in and out of our building throughout the week are no less important. Whether they are working with students with specialised needs or teaching band and strings or providing instructional coaching, I see them and I appreciate them.
If not for these amazing women and men, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. They inspire me every single day and I hope that I am a positive influence on them and their students, as well. So on this day of giving thanks, to my wonderful colleagues, while I know it isn’t nearly enough, I say thank you. You really are the best colleagues I could hope for!
Today was the first time this academic year that I was gone for the entire day. I am actually surprised that I made it all the way to the middle/end of November without an absence, but I guess that many of the district committees and task forces and professional groups I have been a part of for four years have stopped having meetings that lasted either an entire day or a half day.
To prepare my students for my absence, I told them that it was going to be happening all this week then we spent about half an hour yesterday discussing the students’ responsibilities when a substitute teacher is there, as well as the substitute teacher’s responsibilities. I shared with students what the day should be like for them, going over the schedule and making sure they knew what I expected of them. And, of course, I left detailed plans for my substitute, since I still remember well the terror I experienced when I worked as a substitute and walked into a classroom where there were no plans left for me. (Sorry, Urbana teachers; I don’t remember the name of the teacher I was subbing for that day.)
It is now almost 10 pm on Friday night and I didn’t get any phone calls, text messages, or emails about my class, so I am hoping that it means that my students made it through the day without duct-taping the substitute to the wall or setting the room on fire.
So, what took me away from my classroom today? It was the first day of the 83rd Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the the Illinois Association of School Business Officers (often called the Triple I Conference or the Illinois Joint Annual Conference, abbreviated on Twitter as ILjac15 because JACIASBIASAIASBO2015 is a over the top). This was my third year attending as a guest of Washington Grade School District 52, where my mother is in her 15th year on the school board. (Of course, since I am in an educational administration program, my hope is that one day I will attend as a member of the IASA and/or as a representative of my own school district!)
Due to traffic and other delays, I wasn’t able to make it to some of the early panel sessions held today, but I did get to hear the first general session speaker, DeDe Murcer Moffett, who spoke passionately about the need to have people in your life who help you snap out of it when you start wallowing in doubt or regret, push you forward, and encourage you to succeed. She calls these people your snappers and pushers and it got me wondering who my snappers and pushers are. I thought about my amazing colleagues in my building and my district and the support that we offer each other. I thought about the fantastic teachers I had in my own educational career and the equally fantastic teachers that I have the privilege of working with in my building and my district. Then I thought about whether or not I am a snapper and a pusher in my role in my school as a teacher, a technology specialist, a union representative, and a member of the building leadership team. I’d like to think that I am.
It was a great way to kick off a conference that I look forward to attending each year! (I also ran into my district deputy superintendent and got to chat a few minutes about the awesome recognition that the district received for the Urbana Early Childhood Center. And somehow managed to forget to introduce my wife. Oops. Sorry!) I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on family and community engagement, technology, wellness, and student-led conferences!