Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday's Five - Qualities of Excellent Principals

It's tough to be a teacher in the current educational climate.  It may be even harder to be a principal.  You've got pressure to get the students in your building to perform on standardized tests, budget cuts, teachers who have had the love of teaching beaten out of them by politicians and media, and parents who increasingly can be classified as either helicopter parents or school adversaries.  It's a rare individual who can navigate this environment to build a culture of collaboration in a school, a focus on student learning instead of test prep, and a great relationship between his/her school and the community.

Often we hear what makes a great administrator from politicians and corporations who are driving the "education reform" movement:  Someone who uses "data" to increase test scores.  Those politicians and corporations have their own agenda, and it's not to increase student learning.  It has everything to do with political power and increased profits.  I'm a huge proponent of using data to drive instruction.  The data should be from within lessons and immediate - the opposite of what standardized tests provide. 

Our principals should be much more than excellent statisticians.  Contrary to what we are being told, better test scores don't equate with more learning.  As a matter of fact, often the opposite is true: better test scores come at the expense of real learning and thinking. 

As someone who entered the teaching profession because I wanted to have a positive impact on future generations, wanted to inspire children to love learning, and wanted to make the world better through increased understanding, I don't really care about test scores.  At least not more than I'm required to.  I don't want a principal that is solely driven by test data.  I want a principal that helps me help students learn, think, understand, and work together.

Here are five qualities I would look for in a principal:
  1. Leadership - Leaders are able to inspire those they lead.  They are able to balance giving autonomy to each member of their team with the need to make timely decisions.  They put people in situations that accentuate their strengths and make them likely to succeed.  Great leaders cultivate an environment in which people work together to be more than the sum of their parts.  Even the principals that I've met who were the best instructional leaders could not match the combined teaching expertise of their entire teaching staff.  The best principals are able to cultivate an environment where that knowledge is shared, expanded, and utilized to help students learn.  Great principals are great leaders.
  2. Consistency - When it comes to discipline decisions, curriculum matters, teacher evaluations, or any other aspect of a principal's job, it's important for those in the building to know that there will be consistency.  When you know what's expected of you, it's much easier to excel at your job. 
  3. Fearless - You can't move forward without taking some risks.  Principals who always play it safe, strive to maintain the status quo, and never think outside the box end up with buildings that stagnate.  Every decision a principal makes doesn't have to be risky, but some do.  Taking chances and learning from mistakes should be welcomed in a school from the principal down to the students.
  4. Networked - Two heads are better than one.  Three are better than two.  Thousands of people communicating, collaborating, problem solving, and innovating lead to great things.  Today's principal, just like today's teacher, needs to be involved in networking in order to stay current, have a support network, and get new ideas. 
  5. Global Thinker - In the era of instant information, polarized politics, and social media, it's easy to lose focus on the big, important issues while trying to deal with the small, but white-hot problems that arise.  Dealing with those small flames effectively is vital, but the best principals are those who can handle those situations without compromising what's really important. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Friday's Five - Self-Reflection

In order to become better at anything we do, it's important to take an honest look at our practices and look for areas of improvement.  Knowing our strengths, and recognizing our weaknesses allows us to make positive changes in our teaching.  Often, it's hard to do this self-reflection for a variety of reasons.

Over the past few weeks, I've been forced into reflecting on my teaching, and it's been both humbling and immensely beneficial.  I've been fortunate to be nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST), and the demands of the application process have forced me to seriously look at what I do as a professional both in and out of the classroom.  Because of this, I've been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about ways teachers can self-reflect to improve their craft.  Here are five ideas.
  1. Videotape and watch a lesson or two.  Having to watch myself teach has made me realize a few things about my teaching.  As the amount of time in the period gets short, my use of formative assessment decreases.  When my students are discussing concepts in groups, I sometimes cut them off earlier than I should.  Sometimes they are having great conversations, and I should let them continue.  I never would have realized these things if I didn't watch myself teaching.
  2. Allow others that you trust to come into your room, and discuss your teaching with them.  This is beneficial for both of you.  Too often we teach with the door closed.  Our great lessons never get shared, and we never get to hear an outside perspective on our teaching.  Some lessons are great, some stink, and most fall somewhere in between.  That's going to be true whether another teacher is watching your lesson or not.  The only difference is that you get professional advice and dialogue when you invite others into your room.
  3. Re-write your resume at least once per year.  If you are not looking for a job, it's easy to forget about your resume.  It can be a great self-reflection too, though.  As you look over your list of achievements you'll probably find it easy to identify what areas are strengths, and areas that are lacking.  Identifying those lacking areas is the first step toward building them into strengths.
  4. Develop lessons collaboratively with others who teach the same topics.  This can be colleagues in the same school/district, or it can be those you know from networking.  Collaborative planning gives you ideas of ways to improve upon your pedagogy, opportunities to share resources (like videos you make, math manipulatives, etc.), and different points of view.  Collaborating with those in a different location is easy now with videoconferencing tools like Skype and Facetime.
  5. Participate in a Professional Learning Community (PLC).  This term has gotten a bad reputation in some places because it refers to mandatory meetings lead by an administrator.  That's not what a PLC should be.  Get a group of committed professionals together and agree to meet once a month or every few weeks to discuss pedagogy.  At each meeting, set the topic for the following meeting and decide upon the information and/or data that each teacher needs to collect.  One month you could focus on formative assessment and have everyone bring the two techniques that work best in their classrooms to share.  The next month you could focus on reading comprehension and have each teacher bring a summary of a journal article, blog post, or other piece on best reading comprehension practices.  The meetings should be voluntary, lead by teachers, and the topics should be set based on what the participants want to improve upon.  

    Monday, March 19, 2012

    You Get What You Pay For

    This past Friday my wife and I took our kids out for dinner at a local restaurant.  The server complimented our children on their manners and then explained that he is a teacher who is working as a server on weekends to try and make ends meet.  According to the Association of American Educators, the percentage of teachers who are working second and third jobs has risen from 11% in 1981 to over 20% today.

    Later this weekend, @shirky17 on Plurk posted this astute observation:

    Most people would be shocked if their server was a doctor, lawyer, architect, or other professional trying to earn enough money to make ends meet.  Nobody is shocked when their server is a teacher.

    If you want to know why our educational system is broken, look at the respect that is given to the people who are doing the educating.  When teaching is reduced to a job that cannot even pay someone enough to meet their monthly obligations instead of a profession, should we be shocked that our educational system has problems? 

    When you look at countries like Finland, where teaching is one of the most respected and revered professions a person can have, is it any shock that their educational system is one of the best in the world?

    Friday, March 16, 2012

    Friday's Five - I'm Not a Trained Monkey! (and other thoughts)

    Some Fridays it's hard to come up with a topic about which to write.  Others it's hard to choose one topic because there are so many ideas I have floating around in my head.  Today is the latter.  I guess that means I should have blogged more during the week.  In any case, I'm going to share five thoughts that I've had the past couple of days.
      Photo Credit: C. Frank Starmer
    1. I'm not a trained monkey.  It's state assessment week(s) here in Pennsylvania.  The majority of my time in school has been spent watching students fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil.  Any trained monkey could do this.  I want to teach.  I want my students to learn.  The purpose of assessment is to guide teaching so that students learn more.  I won't get the results of this assessment until these students have moved on from my classroom.  It's a political shell game that doesn't benefit my students, and all the free snacks in the world won't convince them differently.  I'm a teacher, not a trained monkey.  Let me teach.  Let my students learn.
    2. About those free snacks during state testing time - If research shows that kids' brains work better when they are well fed, have snacks, etc., shouldn't we be giving them the snacks during the learning and not during the assessment?  Funny how something as simple as a snack can illustrate so perfectly how out-of-whack our priorities have become.
    3. Yesterday in the faculty room, someone was complaining that our elementary school pedagogy is too driven by the demands of colleges.  When talking about being more innovative with how we assess, teach, and organize schools, the counter-argument is often, "But what will happen when they get to college?  They'll be expected to listen to lectures and learn on their own."  Here's the thing: sticking 50-200 people in a room, lecturing at them (whether you use a PowerPoint presentation or not), and telling them to read textbooks in order to find additional information is not good teaching.  It's not the best way for people to learn.  I don't care how much people pay to subject themselves and their kids to that nonsense, it's still lousy pedagogy.  If colleges really cared about student learning and not their profit statements, they'd tailor their pedagogy to be more like kindergarten.  More play.  More investigation.  More collaboration.  More learning.
    4. The difference in the restlessness of elementary students after changing the clocks for Daylight Savings Time in the spring is stark.  It's like they know they should be outside now.  After hearing John Medina explain during his ISTE keynote last summer how the human brain performs optimally outside, while the body is in motion, and in changing meteorological conditions, this restlessness makes a whole lot more sense.  
    5. I've been lucky enough to be nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) this year, and a whole lot of my energy has been spent the past few weeks preparing my application.  The application is extensive and overwhelming, but I'm benefitting a great deal from the reflection and introspection into my practices that is required.  Part of that reflection has made me re-realize how much I benefit from all of you out there in my PLN - on Plurk, Twitter, Facebook, and those who I connect with in the blogosphere.  I am sincerely grateful to all of you for helping me better myself and my teaching.   

    Friday, March 9, 2012

    Friday's Five - Filter-Friendly Youtube Alternatives

    Like many other schools, the district in which I teach blocks Youtube and Vimeo.  Often teachers in my building ask me, "How can I post this video that my students have created on their blog (or our class wiki) without using Youtube?"  After the same question was asked by a teacher on the Facebook Educator Page, I thought I would offer five suggestions for alternatives in today's post.
    1. Schooltube - It's easy to use, easy to embed, and unblocked by the majority of school filters.  If you are looking for a place to simply upload a video and be able to embed it and share it, this is an excellent option.
    2. Flickr/stevegarfield
    3. Voicethread - This is my favorite place to host videos for my class.  As a matter of fact, I just used it as part of a math lesson on measurement this week. The video quality is slightly reduced compared to some of the other sites, but I like that you can easily create "scenes" on different slides and allow students to comment on each different section of the video.  You can also combine slides with videos, documents, and pictures into your Voicethread.
    4. Qik - This combination of website and app for your smartphone allows you to shoot video with your phone that automatically uploads instantly to the web.  You can then easily share the video without uploading or converting the file.  For those using portable devices in the classroom, or those with no access to a camera other than your phone, this is a great tool.
    5. MyBrainshark - With MyBrainshark you can create presentations by uploading content including videos, documents, PDF files, and photos.  It also allows you to narrate your presentation, share it with others, and track who views your creations. 
    6. Teachertube - Much like Schooltube, this rarely-blocked site is easy to use and allows you to easily embed and share your videos.  I've used it many times in the past to host short videos, but over time have found myself using the above four tools more.

    Friday, March 2, 2012

    Friday's Five - Developing Better Writers

    When I've talked to college professors, high school teachers, local business owners, and others who deal with our young adults I'm often told that the ability of these young adults to express themselves in writing is sorely lacking.  Even in my fifth grade classroom I've seen an increase in students who struggle to write complete sentences, cannot use correct punctuation, and find it difficult to express themselves.  Some of the causes are probably an increase in "textese" and  the increased shift from a balanced curriculum to one that focuses solely on  math and reading during the last decade of NCLB testing.  Instead of looking at causes, however, let's look at five ways we can develop better writers in our classrooms and schools.
    Photo Credit:  János Fehér
    1. Make a commitment to have each student write at least one complete sentence per subject per day.  At first, this sounds like something that must already be happening in our schools.  It's not.  Think about the average math or science classroom.  Often there is very little writing going on, and even less that is written in complete sentences.  Instead of having students raise their hands to answer questions, make every student write their responses in complete sentences.  Then choose a few at random to share their responses.  In addition to building writing skills, you'll be using formative assessment to check the understanding of all of your students.
    2. Get your students blogging.  When your work is being published to a wide audience, you are more likely to pay attention to the details of your writing.  The reading specialist and special education teacher in my building claim that their students' punctuation, capitalization, and spelling improved dramatically when they started blogging.  Blogging also is a great way to get students in subjects outside of language arts writing as well.  Asking students to share their learning ensures that they really understand the concepts being taught.  It's impossible to write about a topic well without understanding it.
    3. Grade less.  Not everything that an author writes gets published.  Students need opportunities to simply write for the purpose of writing.  I can't tell you how many posts I start and then scrap.  If I were being graded on each of my posts I'd stop blogging.  I'm sure many of our students feel the same way.  Just like students sometimes draw for fun, we should encourage them to write for fun.  
    4. Give opportunities for students to be creative.  In the past 10 years I've seen writing become much more formulaic in schools due to the rubrics on standardized tests.  We tell students, "If you do X, Y, and Z, then you'll get a '4' on the test."  I can't think of anything more detrimental to building a love of writing, nor more likely to destroy a student's ability to write creatively.  Allow students to illustrate their writings if they are artistic, write in verse if they enjoy poetry, or use web 2.0 tools to enhance their writings.  Give students writing assignments that lend themselves to creativity.  One of my favorite writing activities that I do with my class is to pass out cards with random narrative titles, main character descriptions, and settings.  I then ask my students to put together a good narrative using the elements they randomly received.  One student might have to write a story entitled "The Missing Day" that takes place in the old west about a pillow salesman, while another student gets "Elbow Soup" as a title, present day New York City as a setting, and an alien from the planet Oooff as a main character.  Since we spend a lot of time talking about how good narratives are composed in reading class, the stories they write are usually very good.
    5. Build a love of reading.  It's very difficult to complete a job when you don't have access to the right tools.  Students who don't read much often are lacking the vocabulary and figurative language skills to write well.  Because of that they often have no confidence in their writing abilities and shut down any time they are asked to express themselves that way.  For these students, helping them find the motivation to read is supremely important.
    How do you develop writing skills in your classroom?  Have you seen a change in the writing ability of students entering your class over the past few years?  What else can we do to show students the power of well-written words?