Help Wanted.

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Our current Assistant Principal is retiring as is our Superintendent of schools.  Selection Committees, Blue Ribbon Panels, all are busy vetting candidates to find the best possible match for our school(s). So even though my own career days are numbered (and no one listens to the “old guy” anyway), I have a few thoughts.

One. A school leader, no matter the level, needs to have a strong background in teaching.  More than 5 years, although I know of several outstanding administrators with less teaching experience. Those people are exceptions and exceptional – grab them. But for most administrators, a wide-ranging experience as a teacher is needed. Think of it as a reality head slap.

Two. Don’t be afraid to hire someone who seems “smarter” than you. As a 30-year-old, I learned to play tennis recreationally. Want to know how I got better at it? I played with people who could whiz a serve right past me. It was terrifically humbling and made me want to do better. Never play your game down, play it up.

Three. Be a listener. If you don’t understand what someone may be telling you, ask them to re-explain it. As many times as it takes. Then make your decision.  Early in my career, I disagreed voraciously with my then-administrator. We eventually agreed to disagree – after all SHE was the one responsible for the decision’s impact. But I felt listened to. I felt I had a voice even if the ultimate decision was not what I would have wanted.

Four. Get in there and get dirty. One of my favorite administrators did that my first year in a new school. She led by example and modeled exactly what she expected of each of us.  Taking the time to work with even an experienced teacher was one of my all-time career favorite moments. I learned and continued to apply those techniques even after she retired.

Five. Research on practice is great, but be sure it has been judiciously applied. Not all research will be valuable to all students. Try. Reflect. Adjust. Be strong enough to tell the emperor he has no clothes on (that’s a tough one on an “at will” contract).

Six. Read your staff CVs. Who is it that is working in your building? What about that person’s strengths and background can be used to greatest value? You may come away surprised.

It is most difficult to be a school administrator. It’s difficult to be any level of educator. You end up holding the responsibility for lots of things and sometimes leading a staff is like herding cats.

But your students, parents, and teachers are all relying on your leadership to move us to reach higher than we thought possible.

Discuss Amongst Yourselves

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Linda Richman was right. Throw out an open question and get the talk going.

Author collectionIn our fourth grade classroom we’ve taken accountable talk to another level. We use many of the prompts that programs like Making Meaning explicitly teach, so outside of insisting on speaking patterns that first use and then play off of these stems, there were just a few new talk moves to initiate.

So this year, I have taken myself out of the discussion leading role and thrown that back to students.  When we have a whole class discussion, we gather on the carpet and – this is important – face each other by sitting on the perimeter just like we do for Morning Meeting.  Why is this important? Because students can see each other and that is part of the active listening that is required in group discussions.

Students must talk to each other and not to me. I throw out the question. I sometimes have to be the traffic cop when discussions go off-topic or when students in their enthusiasm forget about talking over each other. But basically, I’m out. If someone has a follow-up point, it’s up to the person initiating to recognize them. And me? I get to observe students and their thought processes.

Oh we’ve used “talking sticks”, but mainly my students have gotten used to talking with each other using polite and focused discussion questions, perhaps challenging each other’s thinking. Wouldn’t it be awesome if the talking heads on TV could learn some of these same skills?

No one has to be the sage on the stage. The students can do this. And the benefits are endless for both of us.

To whom are you accountable?

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We were asked that very question during a faculty meeting presentation yesterday.  Oh there are layers and layers of accountability in the education world in which we live: administrators, students, parents. Yes, we are all accountable to them. Family members, significant others? Those people too.

My answer? I am accountable to me.

I am accountable to me for what I do in my profession. And for acting to improve those things that need fixing in my own practice. If, on reflection, a lesson fails, it is on me to figure that out and fix it. If the students “don’t get” what I’m teaching, I am accountable for finding another way for them to access those skills or that knowledge.

If I disagree with how I am being told to teach or even what to teach, I am accountable to me. I need to read and research and seek out those who are expert so that I can persuade or disagree or (heavens!) go against the directive and do what is right. Even when it is lonely.DSC_0107

Oh there are some “experts” who have the bully pulpit these days who would tell me that my job is to follow directives. Like a sheep.

But sometimes I cannot do that.  I am accountable to me.

You are more than a number

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We are at that time of the year when high stakes test prep is kicked into gear. I try to keep the required and inevitable test prep low-key and casual, if that’s even possible, because, for goodness sake — the kids are 10! 2014-11-25-lincoln-024

Here in my urban classroom, however, the tension and stress can be seen in my students’ actions and words. They have already endured round after round of mid-year assessment. Layering MCAS testing on top of that is like dousing your paper cut in hand sanitizer. Some kids are at the breaking point.

To O who wondered yesterday if he hadn’t been born, would the world (and I) be better off.  You are more than a number.

And to A, a kid with a tough exterior, but so hard on herself that tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped onto her desk because her reading score “wasn’t good.” You are more than a number.

To C who worries if she will “flunk the MCAS” and not go on to Middle School. You are more than a number.

To N who just wants to get a 4 on his report card. You are more than a number.

To all my sweet, hard-working students, who rise up to meet every challenge I throw at them in the best way that they know how. YOU ARE MORE THAN A NUMBER! And I apologize that you have to go through this.

Torn between not giving a rat’s behind and giving my students every strategy I can muster so they can get through this unfair and practically useless test is a non-stop debate I have in my head every day. MCAS tests our students on English Language Arts and Composition when we are barely three-quarters of the way through fourth grade. When my kids get their score – or number – how are they supposed to feel?

So for you, O and A and N and all of “my” kids, I apologize. You are so much more than a test score to me. You are funny, and enthusiastic, and curious, and talented and challenging, and I would never have wanted to miss out on knowing who you all are. You are more than a number, you are infinity.

Text Mapping Nonfiction

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We’ve been working with nonfiction texts this winter, and so I was doing my due diligence on better ways to teach students how to read and comprehend these texts.

For an experienced reader, navigating nonfiction is not a daunting task, but imagine for a moment what it must be like to see all the busyness that makes up a nonfiction text for elementary students.  Text features – captions, text boxes, maps, labels, diagrams – a less expert reader has a difficult time capturing the flow of text. The difficulty of this really wasn’t brought home to me until I started text mapping with my fourth grade students.

A challenge for my students has been that either the text is so fractured because students stop to attend to the features as they try to read the text or the features are skipped entirely.  For my students, that means they are missing important pieces of information. And in testing situations, students often miss something nuanced that ends up in a test item. I knew I needed some new strategies that would help kids – and me – sort out how to read nonfiction in a more methodical, systematic manner.

And so with the help of Google, I happened upon text mapping, an innovation created by Dave Middlebrook.

One of the biggest advantages to implementing text mapping strategies was that I noticed how almost immediately my students could follow the flow of the actual text. Since the visual and textual features that supported their reading could be segregated away from the flow of words, the whole reading made more sense to them. They were more able to follow the flow of the words and then go back to pick up more information using those visual and textual features. For a more detailed version of the advantages of text mapping, be sure to read this section from the Textmapping Project Page.

We used the scroll strategy in my classroom for several iterations; however, this being test prep season, I’ve moved away from a physical scroll to adapting text maps to the normal page formats. Also, with a nod to prepping for state testing, we needed to invent black and white coding as colored pencils, highlighters, and the like are not allowed.  While some of the impact of coding is lost when color coding features is removed, the supporting features are still called out from the text. And students are still able to follow a logical flow of text and text features.

For elementary level teachers and more ideas about using text mapping, check out Classroom 2.0. 

Private Sector Burnout – This sounds familiar

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I was drawn to this article in the New York Times this morning: Why You Hate Work. Now, there is no way I can say I “hate” the work that I do. There is something uniquely satisfying about teaching even the smallest of skills or ideas to a child. Spiritually, teaching is an incredible opportunity to serve the greater good.

But the current atmosphere surrounding educators and education is particularly toxic.

Which made this OpEd citing conditions for mainly white-collar workers in corporate America kind of interesting.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

As I read the article, I thought about how similar burnout in a white-collar environment is to burnout in education. According to this article posted in Forbes, 46% of all new teachers leave the professional within 5 years. Boomer teachers, like me, are finding it nearly intolerable to deal with the onerous working conditions brought on by mandate after mandate undermining what was once an honorable profession.

I’m not at all comforted by the fact that those who work in white-collar positions are feeling the same burnout that most educators increasingly experience. I am alarmed. I hope you are too.

It’s the poverty stupid

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Remember when then-candidate Clinton – Bill, not Hillary – had a sign probably written by James Carville that read “It’s The Economy, Stupid”?

Well, to paraphrase in this age of educators-can-do-nothing-right, I’d like to say that as anyone who scratches below the surface of education knows, it’s the poverty, stupid.

The Alternet recently published an article summarizing some recent research concerning the effects of poverty on students. Read it for yourself here. The conclusion indicates that poor school performance is not about poor teacher performance. It is about hunger and trauma and the social ills that come from worrying whether or not your family will have a place to live when you arrive home or how hungry you will be because there is not enough money to buy food. Want to know more? Get your hands on Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

Educators know that we are not the only factor in a child’s academic “success”, especially when that success is defined by those who would quantify learning by the correct number of answer bubbles on a high-stakes test.

So many factors fall beyond an educator’s control and affect our students: medical care, hunger, lack of housing, parents who must work multiple jobs and long hours, and social factors such as the ones mentioned in articles.

This week my classroom has been battling the flu. Teaching children basic cleanliness routines, to use soap and water in fact, is not that unusual. Telling a parent that a child with a temp over 102 degrees that a trip to the doctor (or more likely the hospital emergency room) was in order – not a dose of Tylenol – is not that unusual.

Poverty and trauma affect children at their core. Kids who are hungry, or worried about where they will get their next meal; kids who don’t have a safe, clean environment in which to stay outside of school – those kids are not focused on whether or not Choice A or Choice C is the best answer to a test item.

Unless we as a society are willing to tackle the ugly and difficult issue of economic equality, I fear the stupidity will continue. It’s not just the teacher, it’s the poverty.

Ten #whatifs for You, Mr. Duncan

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On December 30th, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan posed a question to the Twitter-verse:

What if every district committed both to identifying what made their 5 best schools successful & providing those opps to all their students?

I’m not sure Mr. Duncan was prepared for the response he received from U.S. educators. But then, I’m not sure Mr. Duncan is even aware of what anyone outside of his inner circle might think. So, go ahead, Google #whatif and read some of the responses.

I have my own list of educational #whatifs for Mr. Duncan and it goes something like this:

  • #whatif local and state (and yes, even national) education administrators spent at least 50% of their time each week observing in classrooms. Real observations, get down and dirty and participate observations? Unescorted.
  • #whatif educational practitioners had a voice in decision-making? And that voice was at least listened to? Could teachers be trusted to teach and make decisions about how and when something is taught?
  • #whatif lesson planning was less about district-mandated formats and more about creating safe, thought-provoking conversations, experiences and explorations?
  • #whatif January was not “test-heavy”, but “teach-heavy”?
  • #whatif MCAS English Language Arts testing happened at the actual end of an academic year instead of three-quarters of the way through? And by the way, #whatif less time was spent collecting data and more time spent figuring out what kids need through observation and analysis?
  • #whatif school schedules allowed adequate time for play? One 10 or 15 minute break in a 6+ hour day? No wonder students act out!
  • #whatif parents were allowed to leave work and visit their child in school without fear of reprimand or firing?
  • #whatif the Arts were not just an after-thought or prep. What if we actually practiced Gardener’s 7 intelligences and could honor students whose strengths and talents lie in different areas?
  • #whatif teaching professionals had real collaboration time? Not just an hour or so out of class to give a cursory look at a teaching module.
  • #whatif all my students had the basic necessities – food, clothing, a safe place to be before and after school, a roof over their head?

#whatif we all voiced our opinions on this? What would you add?

This Is Why

I got a new student a week ago. One with many behavioral and social and emotional issues. To be honest, reading his IEP gave me a headache. And a heartache.

He was placed in my classroom because there was a rumor that he had an IEP, and I am one of two inclusion classrooms at our grade level. A few phone calls later, the IEP was faxed over from the sending district along with FBAs, token boards, and lots of indications that a pretty standard classroom might not be the placement outlined on his IEP. So, now we wait. We wait for a placement that will better fit his emotional needs, will keep him safe, and will keep his classmates safe.

But while we wait, we are all trying to honor what his IEP says he needs. Each day is a new adventure for me in reaching into my professional bag of tricks and making this work. Some days have been better than others. His engaging grin sometimes appears to mask some other hurts in his life.

Today, he did something so unexpected, that I know when it’s time for that new placement to happen, it’ll be difficult. For both of us.

After making a holiday ornament as a surprise for someone at home, my new found friend brought his ornament to me. “To Mrs. Bisson, From J.”  I even got a hug!

Even when it’s only been a week, never underestimate the power of connections to even the most disconnected child. It is why I do what I do.

Building Student Independence

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I often hear what I hope are compliments when visitors walk into my classroom, and I am able to attend to this new intermission in our day’s work.

DSC_0162It wasn’t always this way of course. Kids are kids.  Their natural inclination is that the moment teacher is distracted it will seem like a golden opportunity to do “something else”. So, when I started reading and researching the Daily Five some years ago, I was  drawn to the idea that the students can be taught to make their own choices, that the kids can work with greater independence and self-responsibility.

Before the Daily Five entered my teaching life, I felt that I needed to whip the kids into shape. I was in charge. All the kids had to do was sit back and comply – and mostly they did. But they didn’t own anything. I’m sure that for most kids, that was not all that motivating.

From the first day, everything – and I do mean every routine – is presented and practiced using the Daily Five 10 Steps to Independence.  For me, along with the brain-based research, this nugget of pedagogy has been the most exciting part of adopting the Daily Five model in Literacy and in Math workshops. When I say everything, I mean every single routine in our day has been practiced with independence in mind – line ups, transitions, emergency drills, finding a spot to read within the room. It sounds and often is tedious, but the end result has been that the kids know what is expected and rise to meet the expectations for increased responsibility.

Learning to trust 8, 9, and 10 year olds to make good decisions isn’t easy for teachers who are held accountable for everything in our current teaching environment. But building that trusting relationship is essential to the human back-and-forth that breathes life into our relationships with kids. And for me, that is worth every moment it has taken to build student independence.

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