Happy New School Year!

Students and teachers across the world are beginning a new year. How do I know? My Facebook feed is inundated with Back-to-School pics- and I love it! Here are a few from my feed over the years. Don’t tell my kids!

When our kids would tell us about their first few days of school, it was clear how the year was going to go. The teachers who spent time getting to know their students by building relationships and building routines were more likely to be the teachers that helped our kids feel cared for and feel confident.

It doesn’t need to take a lot of time to begin on the right foot. It can be as simple as standing at the classroom door, shaking each student’s hand, looking them in the eyes, making a quick introduction, and welcoming them to class. The old don’t-smile-until-Christmas advice has never been good for anyone.

Who are your students?

Over the first few weeks of school, the connection you make with students will impact the rest of the year. First impressions work both ways. Tell them about yourself as a student and a learner when you were their age. Better yet, show them a picture of YOU at their age. Here I am at different stages of awkwardness.

Let them know what your dreams were for your future. Where you thought you’d be. How you got where you are now.

Have a laugh, reminisce, then focus on them.

As much as it is a great ice-breaker for them to get to know each other, I recommend that you also get their info on paper (or digitally). Maybe through a discussion post or journal entry on your LMS, or a Google Form, or even a shared Google Doc. This may be the most important data you collect all year.

Focus your questions on these 3 topics (including a few examples):

Your students as people…

  • What is their background?
  • Where is home (especially important to those who are international)?
  • How would their family and friends describe them?
  • What do they need you to know about them?

Your students as learners…

  • What type of teacher do they respect?
  • How do they learn best?
  • How do they ask for help when they need it?

Your students as the future…

  • What are they passionate about?
  • What is happening now in their world that excites them?
  • What is happening now in their world that worries them?

Finally, let’s get back to you.

How are You Modeling Lifelong Learning?

As we get to know our students and they get to know us, we need to think about how we are modeling learning as learners ourselves. We need to build our own learning networks and share, with students, what we are learning as well as how we are using that learning. If we expect students to be learners, we must be learners.

Facebook and Twitter have made this easy. If you teach science and use the NGSS, then there’s a Facebook page for you. If you teach PE, then there are pages for you. If you use Seesaw, then there are pages for you. Honestly, if you teach it, someone is posting about it!

Here is a Google Site that I made last year with links to pages that are worth adding to your learning network. Leave me a comment if you have others that I should add.

My thoughts and energy are with you all this year. It’s going to be GREAT!

Learning Walks Grow Learning

Are Learning Walks part of your school’s culture? What do you look for on a Learning Walk? How can Learning Walks improve every school’s climate?

These were some of the questions asked of our team (several years ago) when Martin Skelton came in and got us “Looking for Learning!” His advice allowed me to step back and notice the learning environment, as well as my routines and daily objectives. Fast-forward a few years and in comes another wise consultant who deepened my understanding of looking for learning through Learning Walks. It was clear that teachers could make small tweaks to what they already do to encourage visiting students, parents, administrators, and the community to see what their students were learning, not just what they were doing.

What Do You Look For on a Learning Walk?

On Learning Walks, you look for learning. What does learning look like? That’s the harder question. There are a few simple ways that I look for learning in our school’s hallways.

  • I look for authentic student work displayed along the corridors.
  • I look for the process of the work, not just the final product. Where did their learning begin and where are they now?
  • I also look for the purpose of the learning (the objective or “I Can” statement).
  • I also look for reflections of the learning, either written by each student or a shared class reflection.

Within the classroom, I look for learning in many different ways. It’s important to first get a feel for each individual classroom’s environment. If each classroom was expected to have the exact same set-up and the exact same routines, then teachers’ creativity and passion would be stifled- we don’t want that. However, if you were a new student and this was your first visit, what would you need to look for to know that you could learn in this room? There are a few simple ways that I look for learning in classrooms.

  • I look for today’s schedule.
  • I look for what we are learning today (and hopefully why and how).
  • I look for instructions of routines (How do kids choose books from the library? What are the steps of the writing process? How do we solve problems? What to do if you’re absent?).
  • I look for varied learning spaces. (Can some students stand or sit on the carpet? Does learning happen in different places in the classroom?).

Learning Walks can also be focused on a specific initiative. Emily DeLiddo of languageisliving.com, is a literacy consultant who narrowed my focus of Learning Walks to Literacy-Rich Environments. Emily drafted a Learning Walk that focused on 7 sub-topics: environment, halls, word walls, materials, charts, library, and environmental print. She recommended that we should share the Learning Walk document with teachers, revise it if needed, then chunk the sub-topics into doable actions. Since most of the teachers already had their classrooms set up for the workshop model, we could celebrate the positive documentation of ENVIRONMENTS.

Environ

This quarter, our elementary teachers are going to implement Learning Walks as part of their professional learning.

learning walk 3

Teams can decide when they’re ready for other teams to visit their team for a Learning Walk. Hopefully, this will allow teachers to be confident in their work, while also giving praise to colleagues.

learning walk 2

Each grade level has an Apple Tree (I know it’s corny; I can’t help it). They simply stick the apple (possibly the Word Walls apple) to their tree and the other grade levels know that they are ready to show off their Word Walls. Everyone has a different take on Word Walls and how to use them, so teachers can get lots of ideas from their colleagues that may help them learn a different way.

WW

Learning Walk1

Teachers will have a chance to share what they’ve learned from visiting other classrooms during staff meetings. It’s a great chance to take a few minutes from the agenda to celebrate learning.

How Can Learning Walks Improve Every School’s Climate?

Learning Walks, when used as a learning tool and never as an evaluation, will focus the entire staff on learning and feedback. They allow teachers and students to be more comfortable and confident with what is happening in the classroom. When the school community can easily look for learning in the hallways and classrooms, the school becomes a museum of learning and an art gallery of understanding.

Teams with Poor Coaching Don’t Win the Big Game- in learning, every day is the Big Game

Some people work better on their own; I am not one of those people. I like being part of a team. I like everything that being on a team means… building a plan together, stretching together, practicing together, playing together, succeeding together, failing together, reflecting together, and improving together.

As a teacher, I was so blessed to work on some amazing teams of teachers and students. A few that come to mind are the grade 6 team at ACS Beirut (2001-2003)- we were energetic, passionate about learning, and made learning fun! The Dream Team of Seven Springs Middle School (2003-2005)- we took interdisciplinary learning to a whole new level, looping allowed us to really bond, and I worked with master teachers. DEMS (2007-2011)- I found my philosophical twin, and we team taught the heck out of grade 8- always keeping the students’ emotional well-being ahead of everything else!

Sometimes I was being mentored; other times I was the mentor. That’s what teams do- everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone helps their team improve. No one is better than anyone else. PS- I am including students in my definition of team, so should you.

Being part of a team was what made teaching and learning so meaningful, but here I was, an administrator- with no team. I was lonely.

Then something happened… Something significant… Something that gave me goose bumps. I realized that being an administrator meant taking on the role as the coach of a team. A coach’s job is to inspire as a team, set goals as a team, learn as a team, communicate and model effectively as a team, play-succeed-fail as a team, reflect and improve as a team. Every team needs good coaching or the players are just playing for themselves.

This realization came last week during a professional development day. Grades K-5 team leaders assembled with their principal and me to develop division-wide Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions for the writing units of study. Here is how we worked as an effective (and totally awesome) team:

  • We built a plan together- What are the lifelong learning goals of writing?
  • We stretched our thinking together- What do we already know, and what do we need to know, about the significance of being lifelong writers?
  • We practiced and played together- What work have we done that is meaningful and should be honored?
  • We succeeded together- What are we doing well and is worth continuing?
  • We failed together- What should we stop doing, and why?
  • We reflected together- What did we used to think and what do we now know?
  • We improved together- When can we do this with other subjects? This was powerful!
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll
K-5 Teamwork- Succeeding Together! Photo credit: Krista Roll

Think about the inspiring coaches and teammates that you’ve had over the years. If you don’t have that same inspiration and passion to win the Big Game, then make some changes. Your team, whether they are colleagues or students, need a quality coach. Don’t let them down!

Seriously… Kids Really are Counting On You! Inspire them and be a teacher worth remembering.

Imagine that you are a student. It is 6am, you’ve pressed snooze 3 times, and your first thought is of a specific teacher. How does that teacher make you feel?

  1. “I am so excited to go to school! My teacher is always happy to see us, and includes us in planning our units and projects. The time goes by so fast, because we are always moving around and doing interesting things that keep us on our toes and learning in new ways. I feel safe to make mistakes and don’t stress out when we have a test since the tests are fair and allow us to talk about what we learned.” – Sounds like a Master teacher!
  1. “I wonder what today will be like? Sometimes we learn really interesting things and have some fun; we even get to talk about our thoughts and ideas. Other times it seems that we’re all in trouble and don’t know why. Usually we can tell as soon as we walk in and look toward the teacher’s desk. Unfortunately, if it’s a bad day, we are stuck working out of the book and no one’s allowed to talk. It’s not fun to guess what kind of day it will be.” – Oh, boy, that sounds like a moody teacher.
  1. “Ugh, I don’t even want to go to school. All we do is the same thing every week. Read the pages, complete the worksheets, go over the homework, take the test, and repeat for 30 weeks. Sometimes we are lucky enough to get a project, but it’s the same project this class did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. This teacher must be as bored as their students. I guess I just have to survive the year.” – This is the meh teacher. Most of us have had at least one of these- every year of middle and high school. It’s not you, is it? 

Are you a master? Are you moody? Or, are you… (shoulder shrug goes here) Meh? Trust me, your students see you in one of those categories. Understandably, expecting a master teacher every day may seem unrealistic. We all have a few bad days, but if you are not inspired to be the kind of teacher who inspires kids to have a passion for learning, then please remind me why you are a teacher?

The best part is that you get a chance to be better, every single day! All it takes is an honest conversation with your students. What do they love about your class? What would they like to see changed? Why? How? Students expect feedback to make them better learners. Shouldn’t we expect feedback to make us better teachers?

Be brave, teachers! Kids are counting on us to inspire a passion for lifelong learning. Workbooks and textbooks don’t cover that. Be better than that. Don’t you want to be remembered as a great teacher?

A Shout Out to Teachers with Teacher Kids in their Class – I Feel Your Pain and Appreciate YOU

     It’s not easy, I know. My first year teaching, I had the daughter of my principal in my 8th grade English class. I think that is when I first broke out in hives. I knew that everything I said and did was being discussed at their dinner table each evening. It made me very conscientious about my lessons, my homework, my feedback, and my grading. I was a GREAT teacher that year.
     The next year, I did not have any children of colleagues- to be perfectly honest, my teaching practices were not nearly as polished or exciting as that first year. I relaxed, my teaching relaxed, I did not become better- I became lazier. I am so ashamed to admit this, but I am sure there are others like me out there. Right?
     Once I began teaching internationally, teachers’ kids were everywhere- in every class. I stepped up my game, but this time, for the RIGHT REASONS. I made sure that there was no room for error, no matter who was in my class. I worked really hard to build strong relationships with my students; I needed their trust, their respect, and their love – families were counting on me. Of course, I’m human, I had my fair share of struggles and “off” days- I learned and grew from them.
     In the back of my mind, I began considering these 3 questions:
If my child was in this class…
  • would they get it (purpose, instructions, feedback, assessments)?
  • would they feel liked, loved, challenged, and happy?
  • would they be getting the best effort from their teacher?
Teachers,
I am asking you to ask yourself these questions as often as possible,
if not every day of every year.

And to the teachers of my outspoken children- past, present, and future…
owl-chalkboard-thank-you
for putting up with us,
for putting up with them,
for giving your heart and soul to teaching and learning.

I would like to leave you with my favorite TED Talk from a truly inspiring teacher. Every day should be Teacher Appreciation Day 🙂

Courageous or Troublemaker?

It takes courage to stand up to absurdity when all around you people remain comfortably seated. But if we need one more reason to do the right thing, consider this: The kids are watching us, deciding how to live their lives in part by how we’ve chosen to live ours. – Alfie Kohn

One of the best parts of my job is talking with teachers.  I am a sucker for professional conversation- especially when it includes discussion of big, bold ideas.

However, I sometimes have teachers come to me feeling defeated.  They have lost their spark, their passion.  On occasion they tell me that it’s not worth the fight.  They’re just going to do what they were hired for… not go out of their way to try to make a difference or be heard… it just gets them in trouble.  They see other teachers who show up, teach kids, and go home.  They aren’t interested in equity or impacting change.  They just do their job and don’t complain.  – Of course I’m summarizing their words with as little exaggeration as possible, I hope.

In Alfie Kohn’s commentary from Education Week, Encouraging Educator Courage, he concludes with the previous introductory quote.  Within the article, he applauds the teachers who bucked the system- not because they were trying to cause problems, but because they were standing up for what they believed in.  He also tells of the courage of a teacher who insisted that her students “think for themselves, the teacher may be wrong.”

When I think back over my years, I can remember instances of courage and capitulation.  I hope that my students remember me as a person who stood up for them, stood up for myself, and owned the many mistakes I made.

The article is worth your time and thoughts.

Be Courageous!

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/09/18/04kohn.h33.html