An educator’s thoughts while #socialdistancing

On our fourth morning of having no school due to Coronavirus, I woke up extra early in hopes of getting some work done for a graduate class I’m currently taking.  Prior to the outbreak, my usual routine would be to stay up late and do my work while the house was quiet.  Since schools have been closed, I flipped it and have been doing my reading and writing before the kids wake up.

We’ve been following a daily schedule that I found posted by a trusted colleague on social media and it has been working in the sense of giving our family a sense of purpose during the day.  I’ve been sharing pics from our time outside with followers on social media just to spread the word and connect with other friends and families, as we are all in this together.

So this morning, I found myself doing something strangely familiar….

Instead of reading the largely bad news in the news about the spread of the coronavirus, as a kind of warm up while the coffee was brewing, I started with checking email from work.  I was very happy to find this week’s edition of The Marshall Memo waiting for me.  This is a wonderful resource for busy educators to help keep connected to trends and research in the field.  This week it focused on educational resources for educators who are also parents!  After three days of being teacher-in-chief of my own kids–first, fifth and seventh graders–I began to feel like I was ignoring my own experience as a professional educator.  I found myself wanting to offer them more personalized tasks to complete during our academic time on the daily schedule.  The Marshall Memo was a treasure trove.  This will help compliment the wonderful resources being sent home from their schools.  Both principals–in addition to our superintendent–have communicated frequently this week in genuine attempts to help keep parents in the loop and hopefully keep the kids connected to their schools.  Just knowing that teachers and school leaders are still there for my kids puts me at ease.  While there is no way to replicate what happens in school, it’s great when I see my older kids checking google classroom and reading messages from their teachers.  Having teachers continuing to be a presence in my kids’ lives helps me as the keeper of the home schedule to motivate my kids to do academic work for a few hours a day.

As the news comes out daily and the restrictions become more severe in response, parents may feel overwhelmed at times.  That is what is driving me to wake up early to plan out the activities for the day!  Be sure to do something together each day.  On rainy days it is even more of a challenge for us, but we found some free yoga lessons on TV that we have been doing as a family and doing yoga together has become fun and something we all look forward to doing.  On days with better weather, we go out for long walks together a couple times a day.  Now that we are no longer allowed to visit local playgrounds or playing fields, we have discovered trails managed by Mass DCR and Mass Audubon Society.  To get out into the woods, to listen to the sounds of nature, and to see how the signs of rebirth and renewal in nature are very the perfect antidote for the uncertainty and worry that is all around us.

As we distance ourselves socially from our friends and colleagues, let’s take stock in the blessings we have in front of us.  Rather than focus on all the things we cannot do in these challenging times, let’s focus on what we have right in front of us.  Let’s show them how to enjoy spending time together, how to keep a positive attitude, how to be curious, how to build resiliency in mind and body, and how to live in the moment.

I would love to hear from you with your thoughts about this post.

 

 

A Problem of Practice: helping students through struggle

When we state our beliefs about learning that we believe all students can learn, we are implying that we can work with all students to help guide them down the path of learning.  What happens when some students experience difficulties that obstruct the path of learning?

photo of woman sleeping on table
Photo by Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.com

Schools have an obligation to work with these students to ensure that they too have access to educational success.  A high-performing school is only as good as how it supports its struggling students.  If we are truly interested in teaching all students then we have to focus on improving the academic support of our students who struggle.

As a career educator with 17 years of experience teaching in the secondary classroom and six years of experience in administration, I am interested in examining how schools support all students, but specifically students who struggle, as they work through a challenging program designed to prepare them for post-secondary education and the current and future workplace.  When students struggle at various points in their high school careers,  how can we ensure that we are effectively preparing students with all the relevant skills they will need to be successful in the contemporary university and workplace settings?  I am fascinated by the question of how we as schools respond when students struggle to meet expectations.  How do we and can we adjust our practice in the classroom and on the school-wide level to ensure that all students succeed?

Currently high schools set  graduation requirements that asks students to focus on acquiring a set number of credits across a variety of academic departments.  For example in my school, in order to graduate, students need to acquire 130 credits which is broken down into 16 credits of English, 16 credits in math among others. While this system seems to work well overall, students can go through high school, taking different course selections and have widely different experiences, exhibiting degrees of mastery of the essential skills necessary for college and career.  How can we ensure that students who get lower grades and who are thus tracked into lower-level classes attain the pre-requisite knowledge and skills that will serve them well in college?  When students struggle in high school, their grades tend to suffer and sometimes they change their academic program as a result.  Changes in a student’s academic program due to failure and low grades may impact a student’s future college and career choices.

I currently see three ways students struggle in general in high school.  There are students who are going through a health crisis.  Typically, these students miss school for a chunk of time to get treatment.  During this absence, teachers are asked to reduce the list of work that is missed so the student is not inundated with work upon his/her return.  Many high schools have implemented transition or “bridge” support systems that pair students with an academic support counselor and an academic aid who help students manage the workload and liaise directly with teachers to help the student get back on track.  In most cases, these students are able to transition back from a hospitalization successfully with the help of these dedicated staff members.  In some cases, a student’s transition back is not smooth and uniform.  Some students experience a smooth transition back in some of their classes and they may experience difficulty in one or two academic classes over a longer period of time.  What ends up happening is that the student’s grade dips into failure and for a variety of reasons he/she has difficulty returning to passing grades after the transition back from hospitalization.  In some cases, the student was failing before the hospitalization and the extended absence only makes the possibility of returning to passing grades that much more difficult.  Once the student experiences failure in a course over two academic terms, it becomes almost mathematically impossible for him/her to pass the course for the year and we withdraw the student from the class to “lighten their load” and ensure the success in the courses that he/she is passing, allowing them to focus on their other core classes.  Students can then make up those credits in later years, either by taking another course later in their academic program or not ever if the credits are not essential to graduation.

What if we had additional interventions to put into place at the first sign of academic struggle to ensure that failure is more of a temporary rather than chronic state?  If students who return from hospitalization had additional academic support maybe they would be better equipped to handle their academic workload while dealing with issues outside of school.

Another common occurrence of struggle in high school happens when students are in transition from middle school to high school.  Students enter high school with some gaps and may not be aware of these gaps.  If they are placed in courses that are generally on grade level, they may experience failure early on in their ninth grade year.  These gaps may be apparent and if so they are placed in courses leveled with appropriate pace and challenge in their ninth grade year.  Once these students start their high school career in the courses with a level of challenge that matches their motivation in some or all academic departments, they generally remain in courses that may not push them out of their comfort zone for the remainder of their high school career.  These students might never strive to take the most challenging courses in the program of studies, thus limiting heir post-secondary choices.

What if we had interventions to fill those learning gaps early in 9th grade or even in earlier so that students could enter 9th grade taking a grade level college prep program?  What if we could provide targeted support throughout 9th grade to ensure that students could learn the skills necessary for success to provide them with the opportunity to enter some honors level classes later in their high school career?

A third way students struggle in high school occurs when students have trouble balancing a full curricular program with co-curricular and athletic activities.  Students who participate in high-level varsity athletics may neglect their studies during the sports season.  In some cases, warnings are issued by academic teachers and students do not have the wherewithal to make adjustments in their time management or study skills to ensure that they keep up academically.  Because of the way eligibility works, students may begin to experience dips in academic performance during one athletic season and these dips solidify into failure that extends beyond the athletic season.  This pattern of failure becomes too difficult for the student to break and these students may begin to experience failure in multiple classes.

What if students had a way to build and practice those time management skills concurrently with their athletic seasons?  What if students could be identified at the first signs of struggle to receive targeted interventions that might help them maintain passing grades early on before a pattern of failure develops?

When this struggle happens, we put supports in place, like pairing a student up with a transition counselor who helps the student navigate their way back to academic success.  We rely on teachers to utilize Tier 1 interventions, such as working with a student one-on-one after school.  Most high schools don’t have much flexibility when it comes to Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports, which are small group settings where students can work with a teacher building specific skills.  It is a challenge to provide students with individualized help in specific subjects in most high schools due to the way the schedule works.  The only real tool we have to support struggling students currently is to ask teachers to reduce the workload down to “essential work” and forgive other work.   Students go forward with gaps in knowledge or skills.  Most high school schedules don’t provide much flexibility or time for students to get back on track.  The only way to provide this time is to take it away from another course, which is a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario.

I believe that all stakeholders in a school can work together to answer the questions posed above in order to provide timely support to help students who experience some form a struggle over their time in high school.  As educators, we have to commit to teaching and supporting ALL STUDENTS, so we have to be willing to look closely at our practice inside and outside the classroom to make adjustments that benefit all students, but especially our students who struggle.

Philosophy of Educational Leadership

I have based my career on my core beliefs that the most powerful kind of learning happens when educators work carefully to create engaging, real-world contexts in which students push themselves to think critically and creatively to solve problems.  I believe that an effective classroom has a dedicated professional teacher who fosters a community of learners where all members are valued for who they are, all voices are appreciated and all points of view are considered as they engage with the big ideas of the course.  I believe that an effective school is committed to self-reflection and continual improvement, especially related to the most vulnerable students.  I believe that school leadership is at its best when it seeks consensus, is transparent in word and deed, and is guided by what is in the best interest of students.  I believe that our job as educators is to help students discover their passion, acquire knowledge and develop the skills that will serve them well on their paths towards being full, active citizens of our democratic society.

Leadership of Student Body

  • Support/foster rich program of co-curriculars and encourage active participation
  • Work directly with student leaders to encourage service, participation and coordinated planning of major events
  • Team approach to ensure that code of conduct is enforced in a consistent and equitable manner
  • Be visible and accessible to students in classrooms, during lunch, before and after school and on social media

Leadership of Curriculum and Program

  • Work collaboratively with department leaders to ensure program of studies aligns with district strategic plan
  • Work directly with teachers to build structures that support all learners with innovative & engaging content that is relevant and prepares them for transitions to next grade level
  • Work closely with special education department to ensure services are delivered in compliance with the law
  • Work closely with Guidance to ensure that all students have access to multi-tiered system of supports; that the we provide timely and effective support for our most vulnerable students; that we are in compliance with 504s
  • Support & strengthen programs that support our most vulnerable students

Leadership of PD

  • Ensure that professional development for staff is aligned with district strategic plan
  • Team approach that involves listening to teachers to plan out long-term goals, yearly goals so that PD is focused and feels authentic
  • Encourage and support teacher collaboration both within and across departments
  • Allow for choice
  • Build culture of self-reflection, continual improvement

Outreach

  • Invite stakeholders to meet and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the school to build a collaborative, inclusive vision
  • Consistently publish a blog to keep all stakeholders in the loop, to celebrate achievements, to enlist support and participation from students, parents and the community
  • Explore existing structures to foster collaborative leadership among students and staff; look to build structures that meet regularly to give input and advice to guide decision-making
  • Ask for feedback informally and formally
  • Maintain a presence on social media to engage students, parents, staff and the community
  • Ensure through consistent regular outreach that minority communities (students from Boston, Gay-straight alliance) within the school have a voice in collaborative decision-making

Leadership Safety & Security

  • Work as part of a team including town public safety officials to review of safety and security procedures
  • Review, revise and implement updated bullying and harassment plan, including updated reporting protocols
  • Review, revise and implement updated safety and security plan in conjunction with district leadership team
  • Review, revise and implement updated emergency communication systems with building and district leadership teams
  • Ensure that all students & staff are aware of and prepared in all procedures regarding emergency evacuation, shelter-in-place & lockdown
  • Build culture of “See something, say something” and “worry early and report” to ensure that safety is top priority of everyone in the community
  • Review, revise & implement threat assessment protocol among a school/building-wide crisis team

Teacher Evaluation

  • Belief that evaluation is a constructive process to support teacher growth
  • Key belief is that evaluation is a partnership based on mutual respect, assuming good intentions and understanding that excellent teachers develop through hard work, examining their practice and welcoming feedback

Building Culture

  • Focus on SEL best practices in classroom and relationship building
  • Collaborate with teachers to build culture of continual improvement and self-reflection;
  • Celebrate positive contributions of all students
  • Model Growth Mindset
  • Build culture of excellence for all students

 

Calling all MA Administrators: Attendance Coding Dilemma

This post may only appeal to the fellow administrators out there.  I’ll say that straight off the bat.

Let me start by explaining the context of the dilemma.  Schools in Massachusetts have to report attendance data to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education via electronic uploads at various times throughout the school year.  The Department has recently implemented a new accountability system that is outlined here.   The purpose of the new accountability system is to “provide clear, actionable information to families, community members, and the public about district and school performance.”  One of the multiple indicators that the department uses to calculate an overall score for each school is Chronic Absenteeism.  Chronic Absenteeism is defined as the “percentage of students missing 10 percent or more of the days they were enrolled at a given school during a school year.”  If you would like to find an explanation of all the indicators and/or an overview of the whole accountability system, please visit this page and download the documents entitled “system-1pager-indicators” and the “school-leaders-guide.”

The dilemma arises as most high school administrators will tell you is that it not unusual for a significant portion of your student body to be absent for at least 18 days a year.  The state counts all absences the same, whereas school policy usually distinguishes between “excused” and “unexcused.”  Most high schools in Massachusetts have policies that limit the number of unexcused absences and penalize students for exceeding that limit.  So while we do create policies to penalize excessive “unexcused” absences, we generally do not impose limits on “excused” absences.  We use policy to clearly define what constitutes an excused absence and how to get the absence excused. We often consider some school-related absences like college visits or school field trips as “excused absences.”  In addition, when students have long-term medical absences or hospitalizations, we often provide access to the curriculum and tutors to help students make progress, and we code these as “excused absences.”

Under this new accountability system the question for school leaders is:  How can we tighten up our school-based attendance codes to limit the number excused absences?

One approach to this question is to figure out how DESE defines attendance.  In document entitled “DESE Attendance and Dropout Reporting Guidance”, which you will find here, attendance is defined as “a student must be at school, at a school related activity (e.g. field trip), or receiving academic instruction for at least half the school day to be counted as present.”  In addition, this document tells us that “students who are receiving academic instruction from the district for at least half the school day should be counted as present.”

Earlier this month, I sent an email to all secondary school administrators who are members of the MSAA asking them how the code absences when a student is hospitalized or absent and receiving tutoring.  Many schools responded and expressed interest in hearing the results of my little informal study, which is why I’m writing this post now.  I’ve created a google sheet of all the schools that responded to my request.  Please feel free to consult members of this community if you have question or ideas on how to approach this attendance coding dilemma.  There a few schools out there who already code hospitalization/medical long-term absence with tutoring as “present” or “present excused” as well as those who code “Field Trip” and “College Visit” as “present: school business.”

Please let me know if you find this information helpful.

#MassCue18

If you didn’t get a chance to attend this incredible conference, here are some digital footprints that I’ve collected to help capture the spirit of Day 1 of MassCUE18.

The morning started with 3 Keynotes, which were each very inspiring.  Attendees added thoughts, images and notes to #masscue18 on Twitter.  I’ve collected a sampling of Tweets posted during or shortly after the first day’s keynotes using Wakely: http://wke.lt/w/s/0VcCM

After the keynotes, the classroom sessions began.  There were dozens of workshops to choose from.  My highlights for the day are the following:

The educators from our district were invited to the field for a group photo and that was pretty cool:

DuxGilletteMassCUE

In the end, it was a valuable day to re-connect with colleagues from within the district and from around the commonwealth, learn some current best practices around working in a technology-rich environment with students and teachers, and be inspired by the thoughts and words of some pretty amazing keynote speakers.  All of that, and unlimited free coffee, a variety of really friendly vendors whose products can enrich your learning environment, and some good ice cream!

Making Time for Professional Growth #MSSAASI

http://www.lushome.com/floating-water-tap-fountains-adding-magic-illusions-creative-designs-landscaping-ideas/101041

In today’s busy world, it takes a lot of energy to prioritize and execute a to-do list filled with our work, family, and social responsibilities.  As professional educators we often leave our own professional growth and development to our district leaders to figure out for us.  Some of us engage in professional learning networks on social media and that recharges the batteries for us to keep us running full throttle during the school year.  One way I’ve taken a more active role in my own professional growth since becoming a school administrator is to join Massachusetts Secondary Schools Administrator’s Association.  If you too are a busy educator who yearns for high quality professional learning opportunities outside of your own school or district, I highly recommend seeking our your local branch of your national organization, whether it’s NCTE, ACTFL, NASSP, NCTE, NCHE, ASCD or ISTE, these organizations help to connect you to other educators to expand your own professional network while also providing you access to conferences geared towards personalized learning.

This week, I attended a conference called Summer Institute by MSSAA.

Not only did I have a chance to connect with some truly inspiring educators, many of whom I follow on Twitter, but I also got to attend workshops that helped push my thinking on how to engage with students, teachers, and parents as an assistant principal.

Here are my notes from three workshops I attended over the past two days:

This morning (DAY #2) I attended another workshop entitled, “The Alchemy of Social Media: Prioritizing Relationships to Nurture Whole School Community through Legacy Building.”  I know the title is a mouthful, but it really captures the entire hour discussion hosted by Marty Geoghegan and Brian McCann.  In their workshop they discussed how as school leaders they have experimented using social media and in doing so have created gold.

Sometimes as educators we spend so much time in our respective buildings working our to-do lists, solving problems and organizing events and activities, that we lose sight of what’s happening in the field of education at large.  We also can tend to feel cut off from educators in other schools and districts.  Ever since I started this journey as an educator who connects with a Personal Learning Network on Twitter and as a blogger, I’ve discovered that there’s no better way to find inspiration than to put yourself out there on social media and engage with peers and colleagues both within and without of your district.  I’m grateful to my superiors in my home district for supporting me in my desire to attend this conference as a professional development activity.  I’ve spent two days with a whole community of leaders in education, and I feel reinvigorated to return to my school and get to work on the new school year.  Please take some time to read through my notes from the workshops posted above and explore the links to the educators I’ve mentioned.  If you appreciate what you see, please follow them on Twitter and on their blogs.

If you would like to connect with me and become part of my PLN, please follow this blog and/or follow me on Twitter.

The power of community

The Student Council at Duxbury High School composed the phrased “Define Your Legacy” as the catchphrase to frame their efforts for the 2016-2017 school year.  Student Council President Emily M. took that phrase as a challenge and used it to inspire an idea she had about bringing seniors citizens into our school, into our classrooms to participate in discussions with our current senior students.  In early October, Emily began meeting with the school administration, with leaders in our community, as well as with teachers who might be interested in participating, adopting a highly collaborative and professional approach to making this idea a reality.  On Friday, November 18th, 2016, a group of about a dozen members of the Duxbury Senior Center came to Duxbury High School and spent the day touring the facility, observing classes and student demonstrations, and engaging in thoughtful discussions on the past, present and future of teaching and learning in Duxbury.

The group of visitors arrived just after 9:00 am and was greeted by representatives of the student body, faculty and administration.  Mr. Stephens, principal of DHS, welcomed the group over coffee and light refreshments in our Breadboard area located in the central concourse of the school that we like to refer to as “Main Street.”  During this meet and greet, Emily paired each visitor with a junior or senior student who would act as a personal guide for the remainder of the day.  Soon after, the principal led the group on a tour of the facilities, giving some insights into the construction process and how the plan for the building was developed collaboratively by the building committee a few years ago.  The tour made a lengthy stop in the music suite and visitors were able to observe rehearsals by the symphonic orchestra and string orchestra.  Visitors were introduced to Mr. Ric Madru, director of the music program, who gave them an overview of all the programs offered and answered questions as they came up.  The tour continued on to the wood shop where our Tech. Ed. teacher, Mr. Files showed the group around the woodshop and then introduced the group to members of the Robotics Team.  The group was amazed while viewing a demonstration of the team’s robot which was remotely controlled by one of the students to play soccer with members of the visiting group.

The robotics demonstration was followed by classroom visits.  Each visitor was given a choice as to the types of classes they were interested in visiting–choosing among AP English Literature, AP English Language, AP Biology, US History II, and AP Calculus.  For this part of the program, each visitor traveled with their personal student guide and had a chance to interact and engage with students and the teacher of the classes they visited.  Most visitors were able to spend about 30 minutes in two different classes.

The visitors enjoyed lunch provided by the student chefs of the Breadboard kitchen in the faculty dining room.  This was a good opportunity for visitors to talk informally with teachers, administrators and students about the new building, teaching and learning, or the wonderful food on the menu.

After lunch, visitors, students, teachers and administrators participated in a round-table discussion during which all participants could ask questions and share insights about how education has changed over the years.  The group was delighted to listen to Mrs. Mary Ciccarelli give a wonderful presentation about the history of Duxbury High School and how teaching methods have developed over the years and how the educational values are reflected in the architecture of the buildings that have housed schools over the decades.

At the end of the day, all who participated raved about the experience!  The leadership of the Senior Center and the Duxbury Student Government in collaboration with the DHS Administration have committed to running this program for more members of the senior center in the Spring.  In the end, this intergenerational learning opportunity is on its way to becoming a part of the fabric of Duxbury High School, ensuring that Emily M. has gone a long way towards Defining her Legacy and proving the power of community!