If this is water… what is education?

I was recently sent this amazing video made from a commencement speech title “This is Water.” The speech, given by David Foster Wallace, which was hardly known until it was discovered by The Glossary a few years after David had passed away.

 

In the beginning few lines of the speech, Wallace describes two young fish swimming past and older fish who says, “Good morning boys, how is the water?” The two young fish swim on and eventually one asks “What the hell is water?”

 

I’ve watched this video about 5 times now, and have discussed it with friends, co-workers and relatives. Now I ponder to myself, as a principal… if this is water, then what is education?

 

Let’s get the conversation started…. Tell me… what is education?

 

 

We can do better…

Our school recently participated in the annual state testing of students in grades 3, 4 and 5. I noticed after the first day was complete that we had a lot “free” time in the afternoon. Not to mention, there were a fair share of kids who ended up in my office for discipline related issues that emerged from…. you guessed it…. “free time.”

 

Considering the fact that the actual assessments were only about 90 minutes (at the most) I was a bit dismayed at the lack of structure after the testing. I heard a lot of comments such as “they need a break,” “this testing is overwhelming,” and even “these kids can’t take anything more today.” I sent out a blanket email detailing my expectations, and highlighting what I valued. This whole situation took me back to my first year of teaching when I learned a valuable lesson about how we can do better.

 

 

I was finishing up my first marking period and I had to get my grades finished. In order to accomplish this task I put in the movie “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about fall, Halloween or anything other than keeping the kids occupied so I could get my work completed. I needed time. My mentor, a fantastic, passionate teacher who I admired, asked me about the movie I was showing. I told him that I really needed to get my grades finished. He was understanding, but then he said something to me that I will never forget. He said, “I really hate it when my son comes home and tells me that he just watched a movie in school. I really think, as educators, that we can do better than that. These kids can watch movies anytime, we should be able to do more.” That was like a dagger through my heart. Ouch. He was right. We can do better.

 

Since that time I have never showed a mindless movie, and refuse to allow it as an administrator. I firmly agree with my mentor…. we can do better. Sure, kids can watch movies that are connected to the curriculum, or even parts of movies but we should always make sure that what we do is connected. We should always be raising the rigor, extending the line, raising the bar. Always! We can do better!

 

So what happened the rest of the week? Honestly, I saw more engagement, projects and even more of what I had seen before we started the assessments. I had to have some conversations with teachers about my expectations and why I feel so passionately that we need to continue to send the right message to the students, parents and community. I know some of the teachers were not happy with me and I understand. I was there before and I am so thankful that someone challenged me to keep the bar raised high! We can do better! 

 

We can do better! 

 

Teachers, You Make Kids BLOOM!

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Dear Teachers,

My wife developed and implemented the idea…

You have no idea the power that you possess. You make kids BLOOM!

 

When I think of teacher appreciation, I start by thinking of my second grade teacher Mrs. Levin. Second grade was tough for me and I almost didn’t make it through. Yes, I actually had to go to summer school in order to pass into 3rd grade. I missed a lot of school that year, chose not to wear my glasses, had trouble focusing, rushed through assignments, did silly things to end up on the bench and was an overall pain in the (you know what).

 

My second grade class (I’m back row second from left)

Despite all of that, Mrs. Levin cared about me and was patient with me even though I probably let her down very often. Reflecting back on second grade, I realize that she taught me a lot more than just Language Arts, Math, Social Studies and Science, she taught me to believe in myself. Had it not been for Mrs. Levin, I would not be where I am today.

 

The down side of teacher appreciation is that you may never hear or know the impact that you have had on a student (in my case I never told Mrs. Levin) but you must realize that you too have made a difference in the lives of children…. There is someone, somewhere who truly appreciated what you did for them (or their child)…

 

Here is a video I had the students at RM Bacon make to show appreciation to their teachers while they are still here! The message of the video is quite clear… Students like teachers because they are nice, help them learn, and support them…


And that is why we are teachers!

 

Thank You!

Solving the achievement gap through cooperative grouping

Part 3 of the ongoing series where students are solving the achievement gap issues at RM Bacon….

Cooperative learning requires patience

During our 3rd week we had the students spend the entire day steeped in cooperative learning. In preparing  for this, we thought a lot about how we teach kids to work cooperatively as opposed to just having them work on an assignment in close proximity. Cooperative learning is difficult… especially when you combine students in grades 3, 4 and 5 who may have never worked together prior to this program. Honestly, how often can adults say they really work collaboratively? (that’s another blog for another time).

 

We spent the first part of the morning teaching the students how to work cooperatively. We made sure that they understood that everyone in the group needed a responsibility  We taught them how to honor brainstorming ideas. We taught them group consensus tools (thumbs up, down or in the middle). Everything had to be voted on and the students had to learn the art of consensus. For instance, in one group the discussion boiled down to one question… How could they get Timothy from thumbs down (he opposed it) to thumbs in the middle (he could live with it).  Ironically, it was Timothy’s own idea that he eventually couldn’t live with and the group had to re-work their plan. Frustration! Tears!

 

Cooperative learning is not always fun

All three groups had tears. It was difficult for students to truly honor ideas, plans and even concerns regarding their projects. Even though we modeled cooperative learning and facilitated the groups, we still had struggles. The students became very frustrated with each other, some felt left out…. all of the kids wanted to give up at some point. We stayed with them and helped them through the struggles. After seeing the frustrations evident in each group we all looked at each other and said ‘they need a break.’

 

During the break, we took the kids outside for some fun team building exercises. Although it was a simple activity, the kids loved it. They had to get a ball around the circle (without giving it to the person next to them and they could only touch it once). We modeled manners (which actually helps the students understand the pattern of the game). Anytime they passed the ball they had to say the person’s name. Anytime they caught the ball they had to say “Thank you” and then the person’s name. As the students figured out the pattern, they were able to add in multiple balls and one team were able to have 7 going at the same time. Success!

 

The second half of the day went much better. Eventually the groups were able to able to plan their PBL projects. One group chose to do an imovie, another group chose to do a dramatic song, and the 3rd group chose to do a classroom skit. Next week we begin filming!

Saturday Success Program Week 2: It’s all about learning

Completed success with the tangrams

I have learned that the purpose of this program is create opportunities for our learners to achieve success! Believe me….. the tasks this week were frustrating (All the teachers have to do the activities and experience the frustration along with the students).

 

Our morning activity was a lesson on metacognition (how we process new information). The students did an exercise that allowed them to experience the metacognitive process (mull, connect, rehearse, express, assess, reflect, revisit and learn). I learned this exercise through working with Let Me Learn, an organization whose mission is to research and provide insights into the learning process.

 

In math and language arts, in addition to the allotted time on Success Maker, the students were presented with problem solving activities through the use of Tangrams. Our teachers assisted the students through the process as they experienced frustration with the task. All students eventually solved their Tangrams puzzles and were elated! This lesson integrated percentages, spatial sense, vocabulary, angles and revisited a variety of math concepts.

 

Success!

In the Problem Based Learning, we asked the students to reflect on three simple questions:

  1. What makes school hard for you?
  2. What would you do to show your teacher you learned something
  3. What activities do you like to do outside of school? How would you show a friend how to do that activity?

 

The discussion on learning was very interesting. The students were able to make connections about how they learn things naturally and how they are required to come out of that comfort zone in school.  Next week will build on their learner-awareness and they will begin to formulate their ideas on how they can help close the achievement gap!

 

Our final activity was Silly Cup. We split into 4 teams and we had to flip a cup over so it was right side up. Of course our team won, but eventually every student completed the activity and they all got to keep their cup. The students and teachers were cheering each other on, and we ended the day on a very positive note.

How about we let the kids figure out the achievement gap?

We started a Saturday program at my school in order to provide students with additional academic remediation, support, and some fun. I know that some of you might think this is just another “test prep” venture to raise scores considering we identified specific students, and it’s April…. You would be both correct and incorrect (or maybe it is just how you define test prep).

 

Here is a little information about the program. We have targeted about 30 students in grades 3, 4, and 5 to provide math and language arts remediation through a very effective tool. The tool that we use is SuccessMaker which is a digital learning curriculum that is designed to assess, remediate and instruct based on the Common Core and New Jersey Model Curriculum. In addition to the online instruction and assistance, we have teachers who work with students individually on their specific needs. SuccessMaker can develop specific lessons for the teachers and students to master. Additionally, SuccessMaker also facilitates 21st century learning as the students are required to use high levels of Blooms Taxonomy to solve problems while also providing them with the experience for taking the online assessments such PARCC.

 

But there is more to our program then SuccessMaker. First, team-building and cooperative learning activities are embedded within the structure of the program because we feel urged to not only address the academic needs but also the social and emotional needs of our learners. We want them to feel confident as they approach problems and situations that involve critical thinking.  Since we have the students grouped into three teams, we wanted to continue to push the envelope and challenge the students, and that is where Problem Based Learning comes in.

 

For our “problem”, the students are going to have determine why there is an achievement gap and what they can do to “solve” the problem. During the first session,  we presented them with the challenge and what the end result could look like (an invention, commercial, iMovie trailer, etc.). We also asked them to define what is a “problem” and why are some students achieving while others are not. For instance, in order to engage them in self reflection (we all know that kids like to point fingers), we asked the students this question, “Who is responsible for the achievement gap… is it parents, teachers, principals or students?” Most, if not all the students said the responsibility falls on themselves. Their rationale for owning the problem included items such as low self esteem, not paying attention, and not taking school seriously.

 

Over the next few weeks the students in PBL will be presented with data about the achievement gap as well as what adults say about the achievement gap. Ultimately, the students will solve this problem and present their findings to parents, teachers and other students at our culminating event on May 11.

 

I will make sure to report back on their progress each week as well as their solutions to this age old problem… why do some students achieve while others do not…..

 

 

Are you a producer or consumer?

Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context.An insight that manifests itself suddenly, such as understanding how to solve a difficult problem, is sometimes called by the German word Aha-Erlebnis. The term was coined by the German psychologist and theoretical linguist Karl Bühler. It is also known as an epiphany. Source: Wikipedia

When I read Insights Into Action, I was hooked from the introduction. Bill Sterrett asked himself this very reflective question… “Am I really prepared for this?” I know that every school leader has wrestled with this question from time to time and for Bill to begin his book with that question was powerful. There are times when being a school leader is isolating and challenging. Throughout the book, Bill provides concrete examples of how to address the isolation and challenges. He needs us to take action!

 

I felt many parallels to Bill’s experiences as a school leader.  Bill was the principal of a Title 1 school in Virginia, challenged with the task of improving student achievement with limited resources. He had a very supportive superintendent, and was encouraged to take risks. Sound familiar?(If you have followed my blog you will see the striking similarities) So Bill challenged himself to tell his story, even going so far as telling me in a recent Skype conversation that we need more school leaders to be producers, not just consumers. Bill’s epiphany was clear, we all have insights into the education system, but how many of us are taking action?

 

Insights Into Action will be a quick read for anyone who is interested in a succinct framework for being a more effective leader. Bill integrates his interviews with some of the most influential practitioners of our age. You will read stories from:

  • Baruti Kafele, a vision-oriented, high energy school leader who provides his cell phone number to students, parents and teachers.
  • Rick DuFour, one of the leading proponents of being a learning leader through the use of PLCs.
  • Alex Carter, a Milken National Educator and coauthor of The Insider’s Guide to High School, as he discusses the crucial role Professional Development plays in leadership development.
  • Bill’s former superintendent Pamela Moran, the superintendent of Albemarle County Public School who is an author, presenter and active blogger as she discusses how technology as enhanced critical thinking skills.

Each chapter is organized in a way that allows the reader to reflect on their current practice, and then develop an action plan for improvement. I am excited about my action items I garnered from this book:

  • Start a book club with my colleagues (Insights Into Action) to enhance our professional practice together.
  • Continue to tell the story of my school, and district so that others may learn.
  • Schedule monthly walkthroughs with my colleagues to discuss instruction

“Even though we have busy schedules,” Bill said, “We need to be mindful of the importance of producing, not just consuming.”

 

What are you going to produce? 

The next frontier of reform: Just do it (right)

During the 2013 ASCD in conference in Chicago I was able to see one of my favorite speakers, Bryan Goodwin. Bryan, who was recently promoted to Chief Operating Officer of McREL and is a regular contributor to Education Leadership, discussed his take on the next frontier of reform.

Bryan began his presentation by asking a question about education reform… How well are we equipped with implementation? I could see his point because we often talk of ideas, espouse our theories, and pontificate on what is right… but do we know how to implement? Measure the implementation?

Knowing is not the same as doing

The objectives for his presentation were….

  • Identify common faulty assumptions about implementation
  • Provide you with new ways of thinking about implementation
  • Practical tips and guidance for better implementation

Bryan talked about some research that he conducted on the “Gold standards of studies” regarding programs to increase student achievement. The results were lackluster. What stood out to Bryan and his team was that the implementation had a significant impact on the the results. It left him with more questions then answers…

if we know better, why don’t we do better?

Bryan reviewed 5 implementation fallacies….

  • Truth shall set them free (When people know what to do, they will do it) -Professional Development doesn’t always work – Do people always automatically adopt new methods? He researched PD and found that just by telling people what to do (study the theory or demonstration or even practice) yields little in transferring the knowledge into the pedagogy  Yet, the research was clear that Peer Coaching has 95% transfer rate (Joyce & Showers,2002).
  • Talk slower and lower (Fear, facts and force overcome resistance)  – Bryan asked us a simple questions… Would you change or die? How many people out of 10 would change or die? The research shows that only 1 would actually change their behavior. What makes us change? Seeing how the change is possible, experiencing success and emotional support.
  • Shock and awe (Doing more does more) –What does your school implementation plan look like? Bryan showed us a few slides of various school districts’ implementation plans for school improvement. We were all amazed at how long the list grew (and what was put in the list)…. I think one slide had 50 or more implementation strategies (more like ideas) for improving reading… How could you possible achieve all 50 plus ideas?
  • Running before walking (ignoring improvement progressions) –  What is your progression? Mourshead, M (2010) researched how the world’s most improved systems keep getting better. For instance, aviation success rate is 99.999%. Standard Operating Procedures(SOP) ensure that the progression is always followed… What are your SOPs for continuous classroom improvement?
  • Focusing on the what, not the who (ignoring culture) – So much reform, so little change. Who have beat the odds, and actually improved schools? According to Bryan, the schools who have turned themselves around have somethings in common… Each has a culture of high expectations for learning and behavior. What is the secret sauce of improvement?  Culture is the secret sauce of school implementation!

Bryan then transitioned into discussing how implementation can be achieved…. He recommended that we read Start With Why by Simon Sinek.

 

No one buys what you do, they buy why you do it

Here are some suggestions Bryan offered us on implementation..

  • Focus – Do a few things well.
  • Challenge, engage, be intentional and motivational
  • Develop data-driven “high-reliability” systems
  • Create high-performance school cultures
  • Provide whole-child student supports
  • Seek quick wins with a 6 week cycle
  • Don’t do the Forrest Gump for learning (Box of Chocolates)


As I processed the presentation with my colleagues, our curriculum coach said, “We need to stop resting our laurels on excuses, and shift our mindset into a “can do” culture. This is how we can improve our implementation!”

For more information:

Bryan Goodwin on Twitter

Education Leadership 

 

 

 

Egg-Possible is Nothing!

“Doc” Bunny visited RM Bacon and had the kids estimate the amount of jelly beans in the jar for a clue to the Egg Hunt treasure

Ask any educator about the week before Spring Break and you will most likely get a similar answer. Even though it comes at different times each year, it always happens at the “right” time. Everyone needs a “break” from each other….

This year, we packed a few egg-tivities into our pre Spring Break Week.  We had a 5th grade math challenge, Students vs. Teachers Hockey Game, life cycle of a chick, egg dying, egg experiments,  egg tossing, scrambled eggs and the most intense Egg Hunt we have ever experienced (thanks to @mrsbensonsbunch for coordinating). The best part of the Egg Hunt was the prize waiting for each class when they finished… a new basket of toys for recess (courtesy of our Home and School Association).

In continuing with our schools’ dedication to “telling our story” we put together a video to show the lighter side of the week (the 9 minutes is well worth it because you see the Harlem Shake, the Wobble, and a lot of shenanigans)

Life Cycle of a Chicken

Mrs. Simpson also teachers students about Russian artifacts!

Egg-cited for Spring Break!

5th Grade Math Challenge

The 2012-13 theme for our school is “Impossible is Nothing!” but this week it was “Egg-possible is Nothing!”