Whose Property Is It?

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There’s a thought-provoking article in EdSurge this morning. Just who owns a teacher’s intellectual property? My husband, a former software engineer for several large tech companies, always had to sign over his rights to any ideas that he created as part of the hiring process. But educators do no such thing – at least until now.

2014-11-25-lincoln-024Advancing technology is going to make this an essential question for every school district to grapple with. Our lesson plans, reviewed regularly, are shared electronically not only with administrators but with colleagues. Documents and resources geared toward teaching, in fact, the teaching guides themselves, are often created by groups of teachers. It may be just a matter of time before enterprising schools, looking for new sources of revenue, want to monetize lesson plans or other teaching ideas developed by teaching staff.

An example of this is sharing classroom plans with Special Education inclusion partners who need to know what the classroom language and content goals are in order to make learning accessible to students on individual education plans. This past year, I’ve had my lesson plans copied into another teacher’s plan book without permission or attribution. When asked to stop, the person did; however, she continued to copy my “I can” or language/content goals again without permission. Was this a violation of my intellectual property?

In the age of Teachers-Pay-Teachers, intellectual property is about to become a huge factor. Pay attention.

Becoming Good Neighbors

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Our Fourth Graders were charged this year with finding and executing a community service project. Luckily, we needed to look no farther than a small City park about a block from our school. Lincoln Square Park honors our 16th president with a IMG_0148monument erected by Lowell school children in the early 1900s and a small and pleasant green space in a neighborhood surrounded by businesses and multi-family houses right off one of the main roads in and out of the City of Lowell.

Several weeks ago, students cleaned the park of a winter’s worth of trash and planted a few flowers that we were able to purchase through a student penny collection. It was a great experience for our kids. That day they became park overseers – they are quite passionate when they go back to the park and find a dropped cup or wrapper.

One of our community partners, Washington Savings Bank and Vichtcha Kong, learned of our project and gifted the students with a generous donation. This week, we put that donation to use. We re-stained the 6 park benches and added more annuals to the monument area. And the result?
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Well, the neighbors surrounding the Park are also getting into the excitement of restoring Lincoln Square Park into a slice of green community space.  Yes, there is still trash but it unofficially seems less.

As we were staining benches, cars on nearby Chelmsford Street honked and  shouted encouragement to our students. A nearby business owner came over to help me open a container of stain and when the two of us didn’t have the right tool to get the lid off, she involved the “guys” from a nearby car repair shop.  Grandparents wheeling babies stopped to ask us what we were doing and thanked us.  Sometimes we just got a smile or a nod, but the appreciation was loud and clear. And for the first time in my memory, we saw several folks just sitting in the park enjoying being outdoors on a pleasant mid-June day. It made me wonder: isn’t this what the Park’s designers intended?

When a school becomes collaborator with the community, just look at what can happen! In addition to being centers for learning, schools must be good neighbors.

What Is Missing In This Era of Teaching

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I am a retiring teaching and I am worried. Why?

DSC_0447Well, not because of wondering what I’m going to do with myself. I don’t know yet, but  that’s okay.

What I AM worried about is what will happen to our most needy of student populations. Will a public education be available to those kids? Is our education system  morphing into a place where education will not be the great equalizer. A place of opportunity.

Recently, the New Orleans Public Schools shuttered the last five of its traditional public schools. That’s right, New Orleans schoolchildren will be attending privately run charter schools. Parents must apply to the schools, negotiate school lottery procedures, arrange transportation, and hope against hope that the entity overseeing their child’s education is not just in it for profit.

Originally conceived as places of educational innovation – education laboratories – 20 years ago when the first charter opened in Minnesota, corporate America has discovered a new profit center. Corporations running charters, such as SABIS, do a disservice not only to the independently-run charters who do encourage innovation, but to students and families.

The reasons for corporate American upping their involvement in education have nothing much to do with altruism. Read here about tax incentives and profit center opportunities that have made support of education a less-than-noble effort by corporations looking for a new way to make money.

Public education has been my passion for the last 20 years. From where I sit, public schools are the opportunity center for anyone who wants to take advantage of it. Call me naive.

Without an equalizing opportunity afforded to everyone, our society as a whole will suffer. Will the rest of education go the way of New Orleans? Time will tell, but the increased influence of corporations over education and education policy do not make me very hopeful.  We test our (human) students over and over and look at the data as if they are widgets on an assembly line. Education power brokers expect results no matter whether the student is hungry, or has been witness to domestic violence that morning.  Quality control, people.

My hope for the future? That our leaders grow a backbone and with some conviction, somewhere, somehow stop this nonsense before the disenfranchised of our society have less hope of achieving the American Dream.

Best Teacher on Earth?

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One of the joys of teaching elementary-aged students is receiving a card emblazoned with #1 Teacher or similar sentiments.  A few weeks ago, one of my students wrote out a card telling me I was “the best teacher on Earth.”

I’m not sure I feel about how deserved that honor is. You see, lately I think I might better be called a test proctor, not a teacher.

Since we administered our first state test in the March Round – an 18 hour test extravaganza spread over 3 days – our students have endured a 40-question Math Benchmark, Math Module tests (3!), Fountas/Pinnell Reading Assessments  (administered individually), and SRI computerized reading tests. In the middle of all this testing, students also completed 2 days of state testing in mathematics.

Now with 11 days until school ends, instead of enjoying a more relaxed class atmosphere, students are completing yet another Module test, a computerized assessment for a CAI program, and a progress monitoring Math test.

With all this testing going on, when do we actually teach? I’m not sure I can tell you that exactly. In between?

Take a look at all the time lost to testing in the last 2 months.  Staggering and concerning, isn’t it?  And what does the assessment show? It shows we can give lots of tests and that the kids have a good level of stamina for testing. Beyond that, we’re often so busy administering assessments that taking a thoughtful look at results and what they mean for instruction never seems to get done. If we can’t learn anything about what is working or not working for our students, what is the point?

This week, my colleagues across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are attempting to raise public awareness. We don’t need all the time taken away from instruction to complete assessments show us what students need.

We need #lesstesting.

We Need To Make Time for This!

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I’ve been privileged to teach in a school that embraced the tenets of Responsive Classroom. If you’ve never been exposed to this program, explore this link. There is a calm sense of purposefulness in Responsive Classroom schools; it begins right from the first days of school when students are explicitly taught expectations for their own behaviors and treatment of other members of the community of learners, but also for the materials and equipment that we use in our classroom. Kids learn to manage conflicts and to care about each other.

Unfortunately, much of what we used to do had to be let go. As it stands, the time demands in classrooms exceed the number of minutes in a school day. Something is always slipping out of reach. Unfortunately over the last few years, working through Responsive Classroom has nearly disappeared.

2013fieldday3legsThe end of a school year is a time when many children feel stressed and worried. They are concerned, naturally, about leaving the comfort of their familiar classroom and teacher and sometimes their school. This is especially true for children of poverty or trauma. Any teacher who has experienced the end of the year with students with socio-economic challenges has seen the Two-Weeks-To-Go meltdowns. It is the overwhelming unknowns that create behavior challenges just when we’d all like to sit back and glide toward a finish line.

I have had a challenging group of mainly girls this year. This last week they seem to be unable to stop themselves from being in each other’s business. The final tip-off that things were about to blow came this afternoon when one of my students voiced that she didn’t think anyone was her friend anymore and a nearby eavesdropper commented, “Well, I don’t like you!”. Wow! Even I was taken aback by this lack of a filter!

So, we stopped what we were working on (Literary Essays), as Writing Workshop was no longer the most important thing to be accomplished. We had to fix our community so that everyone felt they were being treated civilly. We had to resolve those conflicts.

Back when we “had the time” for Morning Meetings and community building, our days seemed to go better. Oh there were times when we needed to talk it out – my favorite conflict resolution activity has always been Ruth Sidney Charney’s Pretzel activity – but mainly our days started and ended with warmth, calm, and a feeling that together we could accomplish most anything. What has been lost in our high-pressure, inanely over-scheduled days where we hit the ground running and don’t stop until dismissal is the chance to work on interpersonal skills.

Today was simply the point when students, already feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsure, let me know in no uncertain terms that they need something else. We used some of those principles that Ruth Sidney Charney advocates and cleared the air. My favorite part of today was at the end when one student asked if we could all try to “say something nice” about each other. I knew we were on our way to healing!

Even if there are only two weeks left in our school year, we are going to pass on those mandated must-dos and find a way to become a community again. Every child in that class deserves to feel safe and welcomed.

Community Service

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This year, one of our efforts as a school community was to engage our students in community service.  I personally think this is a great idea, especially for mid-elementary students who can be somewhat egocentric.  It’s a big wide world out DSC_0351there!

DSC_0360Fortunately for us, our service opportunity was within walking distance of our urban school.  Nearby Lincoln Square Park holds a monument to our 16th President and school namesake.  In 1908, Lowell schoolchildren raised money toward the monument’s placement, so it seemed an appropriate connection to history to do something at this spot. This link leads to more information about the monument and its recent restoration.

With the help of some outstanding community partners – Washington DSC_0357Savings Bank, Four Seasons Landscaping, and the Steve Purtell of the City Park Department – and our school community, students swept, raked, and picked up this beautiful gem of outdoor space in Lowell.  This was the first time planting experience for many of our students. They learned to dig in plants, tap plants out of containers, and even to use rakes and shovels.

But most of all, our students learned that to make a public space pleasant and enjoyable, it takes effort and is the responsibility of everyone in the community.

What better lesson could there be?

You May Never Know How Much That Means

As I checked out of the supermarket this week, I heard someone calling my name. That’s pretty unusual as my grocery store is in the next town. It’s not what you might assume; the next town allows food shopping and wine buying in the same place.  I like to call it lowering my carbon footprint or practicing fuel conservation.

Since I’m horrible with placing people outside of the everyday, usual spots, this lovely woman didn’t leave me hanging. She (re)introduced herself and the minute she stated her name I knew where we had met. About 25 years ago, I taught her youngest son.

Memories of an engaging second grader flooded back in an instant. Hearing he was already 31 left me speechless. That was just not possible. He just had to be 8 or 9, maybe 12. 31? I couldn’t believe it. How thoughtful of his mom to recognize me and to let me know how he was!

One of the best fringe benefits of teaching? Catching up with students who have passed through my classroom. It doesn’t matter if it’s been one year, or 21 years. Each one holds a special place in my heart and mind.

Hearing from former students is an honor and privilege for every teacher. Don’t ever stop. You may never know how much it means.

 

 

 

What We Have Here Is A Failure to Communicate

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This weekend, our grade level was asked to give some feedback on communication, or lack thereof, in our school.  As further proof that everything in life can be explained by movies, these lines spoken by Stother Martin in Cool Hand Luke popped into my head immediately:

 What we have here is a failure to communicate.

2014-11-25-lincoln-024Communication on every level is one thing that makes or breaks a school’s culture. I’ve worked with some really great communicators over the span of 30 years.  Here are some things that I’ve learned are important:

Is the message always top-down? Collaborative decision-making can be less expedient. Why are major decisions and messages always delivered by administrators? Is it for expediency of delivering a consistent message or is it because it’s easier to just make the decision at the top?

Group decision making takes extra time and effort because the group having the discussion must hear all the points of view and then negotiate the final message. I believe that a healthy debate of topics is a sign of a group/team that respects each other. We teach our students accountable talk, why is it so impossible for adults to practice the same talk moves? We need to stop the “pants-on-fire” method of decision making and allow vertically grouped staff to have discussions and make decisions that may not please everyone, but will allow all voices a time to be heard.

Is the reasoning known? One of my relatives gave my son and husband each shirts many years ago. Matt’s said “But why?” and Adrien’s “Because I said so.”

For administrators and leaders, it must be much more expedient to say “this is the way it’s going to go”, end of story. But “because I said so” is a sign of the micro-management that signals a death knell for collaborative cultures. It dis-empowers (is that even a word?) those who are doing the actual teaching. It squashes any chance of finding a creative solution to a “problem”, whether the problem is big or small. And it takes the voice away for the ones who are going to do the task. Sometimes those of us on the ground floor can see a problem that those with a wider view cannot.

Is it timely? Last minute changes happen, everyone understands that. But a constant stream of last minute important information is not only frustrating, it makes people (me) resentful. As good as they are subs and paraprofessionals cannot deliver instruction the way a teacher can; teaching today and teaching with the Common Core standards is more complicated than “open your book to page 109″.  Plans that are rewritten or simply rehashed on the fly are mostly a waste of time for students.

I want to know how long someone has been sitting on the information.  This week I got a notice for a special education meeting on Friday – the day of the meeting. I got an email about it on Thursday. There was no time to prepare data for the meeting. How professional does that appear?

What does success look like? In contrast, this week our Literacy Coach took time during Common Planning to step my grade level through all the (known) events upcoming for the last 6 weeks of school. While it makes my head spin, I appreciated how she communicated what was expected to be accomplished by year-end and now can approach planning more thoughtfully.  She also willingly adjusted some dates to accommodate year-end events our grade level wanted.  Collaborative? Check. Timely? Check. Reasoning explained? Check.  Now that’s successful communication.

Cramming or Happiness?

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I can’t be alone in thinking that this stretch of the academic year could be better used.  We have been practicing for state tests, administering state tests, and administering district assessments since March. Here we are 2 months later getting ready for the next round of state assessment and end-of-year assessments.

If you are ready to say “uncle”, raise your hand.

Recently I heard suggestion made that we should “double up” on our mathematics instruction so the students would have more math exposure ahead of the MCAS.  Think about that for a moment.

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Exploring erosion with a stream table.

I enjoy math and I actually enjoy TEACHING math. But I don’t think force-feeding math standards down kid’s throats in anticipation of state math assessments is good for anyone. Remember college and cramming for a final? Well, this is just as effective, except the people cramming are 10 years old.

What makes my students happy and excited these days is science.  So far I’ve been able to resist the suggestion to bag science instruction and cram for a math test.  I’ll continue to do this even in the face of state testing and suggestions that my class is “behind” the district schedule. Why? Because for some of my students, it is the highlight of their day.

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Standardizing stream table variables.

Why does school need to be so full of drudgery and test preparation and sticking to artificial schedules that do not reflect developmental learning? Ten year olds need to be filled with the excitement of discovering something new, of making sense of something; they need to learn to love learning. And if that something is science (or math, or reading or writing), then that’s where we will be going.

Learning should be happiness.

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.

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