Sunday, December 29, 2013

How Can We Better Prepare Our Students for College

Last week, we invited a panel of ten recent Kettle Run High School graduates for two forum sessions (one for sophomores and juniors and another exclusively for seniors).

My eight take-aways; each followed by suggestions how we can do a better job of aiding our current students—and parents—with the goal of preparing them for college.

1.     College costs are troublesome
Students are worried about the rising costs of college. These, of course, are well documented, but one recent grad put it quite succinctly, “I’m broke. But it’s no big deal; everyone in college is.”

While there’s little we can do about the rising costs of college, we must continue to educate parents and students about the financial burdens of college. Our counseling department offers several great information sessions about paying for college. We can expend on these by partnering up with our feeder elementary schools to provide parents with more information regarding paying and saving for colleges.

2.     Find the right college
All panel members spoke of the importance of finding a college that matches not just your potential major, but also your personality. They mentioned that each campus has its own vibe, energy, and personality. But, they also talked about the hundreds of clubs and activities available on each campus. One sarcastically said, “We could even have a club for people who like playing with bendy-straws.”

None of the above is earth-shattering, but I include it in my take-aways because I’m fortunate work in a school that does a great job of providing numerous activities, clubs, etc. for students, but we can do better.

3.     Choosing a college ain’t easy.
This one piggy-backs on the above two. Selecting the right college takes tremendous time and effort and doing so is a tremendous investment. The panel offered several practical suggestions:
    • be sure to interview at your with the admissions office (the interview should be as much for you as it is for them),
    • spend a night or two at a college that you’re considering
    • visit/attend a couple of classes on your visit
    • rank your priorities
    • don’t choose a college just because of it’s sports teams or something else
    • be sure your college offers—or even better excels at—your potential major

Our current policy only allows seniors to receive “excused” absences (up to 3 days) for college visits. With all that goes into selecting the right college and because college admissions offices often offer potential applicants with valuable insights (“You need to raise your GPA,” “We’d like to see you take a more strenuous course load,” etc.) visiting colleges during your junior year makes sense.  Additionally, we always want students to plan ahead, so why not extend the excused absence policy to juniors?

4.     Get rid of exam exemptions
Our county has an exam exemption policy for all high school students. If a student earns an A and has less than 4 absences, he/she doesn’t have to take his/her final exam in that class. The policy also exempts students with B’s and 3 or fewer absences.

Every single recent graduate stated that this policy is a disservice. “I went through 4 years of high school without taking a final and BAM! you get to college and you have no clue how to prepare for one.”
Another student echoed the feelings of the group, “I understand that the policy might get us to class, but it doesn’t prepare us for college.”
Every single member of the panel recommended getting rid of or greatly modifying our exam exemption policy.

5.     Time management skills
Time and time again, panel members alluded to the importance of time management skills. One talked about making use of a planner and a calendar. Another talked about the challenge of managing her free time. A third mentioned making productive use of downtime. One student talked about giving her friends/roommates her electronic devices so she wasn’t distracted. 

In between the two sessions, I asked panel members how we could improve students time management skills and they honestly stated that it is learned from experiences and not something that can be taught. Pressing further, we determined that more project-based learning and student involvement in a wide-variety of activities (see item 2) are helpful.

6.     AP Classes are extremely valuable
If we ever doubted, the value of our AP and Dual Enrollment curricula, the panel quickly shot down any concerns. When asked, “What class best prepared you for college?” While the panel’s answers varied, each of the classes mentioned was an AP class.

We've greatly expanded our AP offerings and we must not lose sight of their value and we should make it a goal in all of our classes to better prepare students for college. In creating common assessments, we must ensure that some questions go beyond the state standards and are college-level. Additionally, all of our classes must include intense reading, writing and research.

7.     Mimic college classes
The graduates, especially those at the larger colleges, mentioned that one of the hardest transitions for them was adjusting to the large, impersonal, lecture-only classes. While not advocating lectures, why not turn our AP Government class (a senior, dual enrollment class that most of seniors take) into a large lecture-based class? Obviously, the details and semantics would need to be worked out, but it might be worth trying.

8.     Above all else, students want the skills
One of the unique challenges high school teachers face is balancing the instructional needs of their students while instilling discipline, time management, and responsibility. During the break between the two sessions—and after repeatedly hearing about the importance of time management—I asked several members of the panel, “Which is more important: learning or being held to a deadline?”

All the students believed mastering the necessary skills and content outweighs the importance of being firm on deadlines. In particular, they singled out one of our AP English teachers for her efforts. “She doesn’t let you off the hook….If you turn something in that’s not go enough, she’ll make you do it again. I hated her at the time, but it prepared me for college.”
Simply put, this speaks to the importance of mastery learning and redos and retakes. It does at times conflict with the goal of mimicking college classes, but if we truly value learning and high standards, it’s worth it.

Other tips:
1.     Find your passion in high school. The earlier you can declare your major, the better off you’re going to be.
2.     Visit as many colleges as you can.
3.     Don’t limit your college choices to one type of college or one that your friends are applying to.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Holiday Wishes

It seems impossible that this is the day before our well-earned winter break. I need not look far to see and feel inspired for the forthcoming holiday. Dedicated and caring students and educators surround me. So many of our students do so much to help those who are less fortunate from helping at the homeless shelters to charitable contributions to missionary trips. I know many of you also do the same.

Teaching—and this includes our dedicated instructional assistants—is the noblest of professions. We’re constantly giving our time, money and our hearts and souls to our students. They really are our children. As teachers we foster creativity, develop character, and inspire greatness by helping each student reach his/her potential. We shape the future through our efforts. Every day we make a difference in the world.

I’m blessed to work in such a special place.

I wish you and your families the best holiday season and a happy New Year. 

See you in 2014! 


Sunday, December 22, 2013

PLN Blogging Challenge

Dwight Carter, a Wittenberg University friend who is now an integral part of my PLN, gave me homework. He challenged me to share 11 random facts about myself and to answer 11 questions. Then I had to create 11 my own questions and challenge 11 other bloggers.

Dwight is a 2013 Digital Principal of the Year, so I had to do this assignment.

11 Random Facts About Me

  1. Nine people are living in our house right now. Besides me: My wife, my daughter, my stepson, two step-daughters, my stepdaughter’s daughter, fiancée, and his son.
  2. As a freshman in high school, I stood 5’2” (I’m now 6’4”) . I also wore glasses, had braces and didn’t weigh more than 98 pounds.
  3. Speaking of high school, my high school is one of the oldest in America (founded in 1744).
  4. As a child, I loved chocolate mousse, but I can't tell you the last time I've eaten it.
  5. With one exception, for every job I've interviewed for I've been offered a position. 
  6. I attended two colleges (Springfield College and Wittenberg University). The first time I saw either was when I stepped foot on them for student orientation. 
  7. I've never been to a live music concert. 
  8. I've never smoked a cigarette. 
  9. I hate dancing. 
  10. I've lived in Virginia since 1994, but I don't get the UVA vs Virginia Tech debate. University of Maryland is better than both of them.
  11. I'm such a bad singer that even my wife is embarrassed when I try to sing in church.
My Responses to Dwight's Questions
  1. What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?  Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Doug Lemov
  2. What person in history would you want to have dinner with? Jackie Robinson
  3. What’s the one thing you care about the most? Family
  4. Who is your all time favorite cartoon character? By default, Bart Simpson. I was only allowed 30 minutes of tv as a child, so I watched few cartoons. 
  5. What was your favorite extracurricular activity in high school? Basketball 
  6. Growing up, were you a nerd, jock, teacher’s pet, loner, or extravert? Yes to all except “extravert.” Until high school, I was a definite “nerd” without the accompanying GPA. I loved sports, but never excelled. Until my junior year of high school, I was extremely introverted.
  7. What’s your dream vacation? Family vacation to Costa Rica. 
  8. What’s one thing you would invent that would positively change lives? An app for parents with all of the answers to every question, scenario and dilemma 
  9. If you weren’t an educator, what would do for a living? I’d probably be in sports management (when I entered college, I was a sports management major). 
  10. If you were to give a TED Talk, what would be your topic? Finding your passion
  11. What's your one sentence? I've helped people fulfill their dreams by recognizing what they're capable of. 
11 Bloggers I'm Challenging

  1. Phil Griffins
  2. Joe Mazza
  3. Mike McNeff
  4. Bill Burkhead
  5. Travis Burns
  6. Wade Whitehead
  7. Kay Conners
  8. Jared Wastler
  9. Chris Wooleyhand
  10. Joe Clark 
  11. Don Miller  
My 11 Questions for You
  1. If you could redo one thing in your life, what would it be?
  2. What magical/super power would you choose and why?
  3. If your life was turned into a movie, who would play you?
  4. If you could be anyone else in the world, who would it be and why?
  5. Which do you choose: milkshake, ice cream sundae, or ice cream cone.
  6. What are you most proud of?
  7. Who most influenced you?
  8. Your house is on fire and you’re family, including pets, have made it out. What is the one thing you save?
  9. Would you rather go 50 years into the past or go 50 years into the future?
  10. What was the best part about your senior year of high school?
  11. Why did you start blogging?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Meaningful Professional Development

Inspired by our school’s 2012 edcamp, we organized a group of teacher leaders last spring to create our School Improvement Planning Team.

In prior years, we offered little in terms of true professional development. Our PD lacked focus. When it had focus, it didn’t directly relate to instructional goals. Like many educators, despite 20 years of experience at 4 different schools, I can count one hand the number of quality PD sessions I’ve participated in. In my third year as an administrator, I’d done little to create quality PD within our school.

It was time for a change!

With a dedicated group of a dozen educators who formed our School Improvement Team, we set out to create professional development that was:
1.     Teacher-led

2.     Student-driven

3.     Research-based

After an initial brainstorming session, members of the School Improvement Team took to the classrooms, hallways and break rooms, and asked their peers, “What do we want to focus on for the 2013-2014 year?”

After whittling down the list, we decided to narrow our focus to ensuring instructional engagement for the entire class period (90 minutes).

We set out to equip teachers with an arsenal of resources, something that each educator will be able to use immediately. At the very least, we want to move our school in a unified direction by developing a common vocabulary and clear expectations. Ultimately, we wanted each of us to challenge ourselves to become an even better educator.

Our Process

We broke our faculty into 6 heterogeneous teams. Each team consists of approximately 15 teachers from a variety of disciplines, varied expertise and, of course, their own experiences. At least two members from the School Improvement Team were on each committee. Administrators would rotate between the six sessions.

With the ever-changing monthly focus (September’s focus was on beginning and ending class, November’s was on cooperative learning), we’ve sought volunteer teachers to serve as facilitators for the monthly sessions. For example, for our Cooperative Learning sessions, we sought out expert teachers volunteered to lead this session.

Each teacher is to take away at least one method from each of the monthly meetings to use it in his/her classroom. We’ve developed reflection sheets for purpose. At the beginning of each monthly meeting, teachers will be asked to reflect and share their experiences.

So how’s it worked?

The good
1.     We don’t need to pay high-priced presenters. Our teachers understand our students, our strengths and our problems and are experts.
2.     It’s grown teacher leadership. 
3.     It’s sparked collaboration and communication between teachers.
4.     It’s not the same-old-same-old lecture to the teachers format.
5.     The meetings themselves include solid instructional strategies that teachers can implement and use in their classes

If professional development intends to improve ALL teachers’ instruction, we must tweak our current process. Improvements include: 
1.     We must develop, measurable objectives for each meeting. These objectives must clearly define, “At the end of this session, each teacher will be able to…”
2.     Our focus must be on instructional strategies that will have the biggest bang for their buck.  PD sessions must focus on areas that will improve student learning.
3.     We must encourage further teacher reflection and projection.
4.     We must make sure that our PD goes beyond simple conversations. Talk is cheap. We must make sure it genuinely changes classroom practice.
5.     Individualize and differentiate future PD.

Even with room for improvement, our current approach to PD has produced exciting results. The first step in achieving this success: entrusting our teachers to develop, organize, and lead our professional development meetings. 

Looking forward, our dedicated members of the School Improvement Team will continue to push the envelope to ensure our professional development is meaningful and ensures improved teaching and learning. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Eight Non-Negotiable Expectations for All Educators

During Sunday's (December 8) #iaedchat on What Matters Most in Successful Schools, moderator Jimmy Casas asked, "Should schools establish certain "non-negotiables" in terms of expectations for all staff? If so, what examples"

After the establishment of a vision statement, I can't think of anything more important to the success of a school than establishing clear expectations. Successful leaders make their expectations clear. Within their organization everyone understands the "non-negotiables." 

Like all great twitter conversations, this one inspired reflection and projection, "What are my non-negotiables?"

1. Believe in every student.

 2. Be positive and optimistic.

3. Be caring. Show compassion and generosity.
4. Don't accept or make excuses. Do whatever it takes.
Attitude is just as important as aptitude.

5. Establish and maintain high expectations for you and your students. 
"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim so high that we miss it, but in setting our aim so low that we reach it." ~Michelangelo

6. Commit yourself to excellence. Never stop learning. Share your ideas, thoughts and concerns openly with others. Constantly reflect.

Do the following excite you? Getting the newest edition of Educational Leadership, reading a great blog, attending an educational conference or tweeting all night. If not, they should. Teaching requires continuous growth. Improvement cannot occur in isolation; true growth only happens when one challenges oneself.

A good educator continues to be a student. Whether it's learning from a book, a blog, or peers, never stop learning.

7. Be a team player. Nothing is done in isolation.
As Vince Lombardi said, "Individual commitment to a group effort. That's what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work."

8. Love your job. Passion. 
What are your non-negotiables? 


Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Power of Apolgoizing and Forgiveness: A Lesson From Nelson Mandela

Watching students walk down the hallways, students will occasionally bump into each other; most often these minor incidents are followed with a quick but sincere, “I’m sorry.”

But when students make tremendously hurtful comments or--even worse--when confrontation becomes physical, they are much less likely to apologize. As a school administrator, I’m sure the aggressor’s refusal to apologize often may be because they don’t want to admit responsibility and be held accountable. But more often I think it’s something greater: Admitting wrongdoing requires tremendous strength, courage and character. The easier choice is to rationalize and frame their actions in a different manner.

So, instead of apologizing for a series of hurtful comments, it’s easier to say, “People joke around like that all of the time.” “It’s not my fault she’s so sensitive,” or “How was I supposed to know he’d react that way?”

The student who starts a physical confrontation will rationalize his/her actions, “I had no choice.” “It was his fault.”  “She started it, I just finished it,” or “If I didn’t hit him…”

As educators, we cannot force students to apologize or to forgive. Both require tremendous compassion, courage, and character. The student targeted by hurtful comments or actions must believe that people make poor choices. A bullied student often relives the event in his/her mind, unable to push it out of their consciousness.

Herein lies the powerful lesson from Nelson Mandela’s life. A man that was imprisoned and tortured for twenty-seven years has every reason to be filled with hate and revenge. Upon his release from prison, however, Mandela called for forgiveness and reconciliation. While doing so endured him to many on the world scene, within South Africa his actions were not fully supported. 

This year our school has started to implement restorative justice practices. While restorative justice never requires forgiveness, by providing students with an opportunity to achieve a shared understanding of how everyone has been affected by the incident often leads to forgiveness. 

Through restorative justice, we create opportunities for students to become aware of the impact of their behavior, to take responsibility for their actions, and to make things right. For the person being harmed, it provides the opportunity to forgive. 

In restorative conferencing, the person making the apology can no longer take the easy way out. He/she can no longer deflect blame or place the blame on someone else. In the traditional punitive system, the student could blame the other student and/or the school for the punishment. Restorative conferencing requires the person making the apology to identify the behavior for which they are apologizing and to explain why it was wrong and how it impacted others. Finally, he/she must commit to changing his/her behavior to ensure that it never happens again. 

As a school leader, by reintegrating the harmer into the community as a valuable member of our school’s society, we model the power of forgiveness. Furthermore, restorative practices encourage accountability and responsibility—including apologizing and forgiving—through personal reflection. 

Nelson Mandela embodied the ideals of restorative justice and forgiveness. As educators, we must strive to emulate these principles.

7 Statements We Cannot Accept in Education

Seven, fingers-down-the-blackboard, cringe-worthy statements that we cannot accept from any educator. 
1: That’s how I’ve always done it.
The best teachers constantly reflect on their professional practice by asking themselves, “How can I do this better?” As education reformer John Dewey stated, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

As teachers, we must constantly reflect and adapt. We must harness the power of reflection in our daily practices. Failing to reflect leaves the teacher—and thus the students—in the dark. Oppositely, reflective teachers constantly question their choices so they can become more effective.

2: I’ve taught it, they just don’t get it.
Highly effective teachers create a positive atmosphere in their classrooms. Carol Dweck categorized teachers into two categories, those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed mindset. Those with a fixed mindset immediately and permanently place students into preset categories with the responsibility for meeting their unique learning challenges on the students. Those teachers with the growth mindset viewed learning as a shared responsibility. Needless to say, in classrooms where teachers have a growth mindset, student gains are significantly higher with even the lowest-performing students making significant gains.

When students don’t get it, instead of saying, “I’ve taught it, it’s on them now,” we must instead ask ourselves, “What do I do now to make sure they’ve learned it?”

3: I don’t believe in redos and retakes. They’ve had their chance.
Again, I’ll go to the seminal work of Dweck. If we teach students that their intelligence can increase, they’ll do better in school. Failure is part of the learning process and provides an opportunity to improve. We must teach our students to rise to the challenge of our high expectations, to continuously learn, and we must reward students for their sustained efforts.

4: My responsibility is to teach the content.
Before reaching our students’ minds, we must reach their hearts and souls. Great teaching starts with building personal relationships with our students. Each student enters our classrooms with unique needs, strengths and differences.

Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We must take the whole student into account to ensure the success of each student.

We cannot ignore these differences if we want students to reach their potential.

5: The student doesn’t have the prerequisite skills.
We must take the time to pre-assess and teach students and prerequisite skills they lack. Assessing and addressing student performance must occur prior to full-blown instruction.

Doing so requires additional and creative planning and often it requires a school-wide effort. Whether it’s through differentiation or devoting extra time, energy or resources, plowing ahead without ensuring students possess the prerequisite skills is futile.

6: The student has no support outside of school.
While impactful, we can’t use lack of support, socio-economic status, or a student’s family situation derail what we do. We have tremendous ability to overcome these obstacles simply by believing in our students and their abilities. Equally important we must believe in our abilities as teachers to make a difference.

7: I can’t be held accountable for each student.
We ARE responsible for each student in each of our classes. It’s an incredible responsibility, but one the best teachers embrace.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Never Allow Students To Teach Class

In my early years of teaching, occasionally I divided units up and assigned each mini-unit to a group of students who would later be required to teach the class.  My directions were pretty simple: Your job is to present your material to your classmates in an engaging and exciting way and to create an assignment and an assessment to ensure they understand it. The student-led lessons usually took up the entire 45-minute class period.

Undoubtedly, some of the presentations were great, some were average, and some left much to be desired. But did the best student-taught lessons equal what I was capable of?

I surely hope not.

As a teacher, I—not the students—am the curriculum and pedagogical expert.

To teach, one must know.

We must be to translate our expertise and understanding of the subject matter into classroom practice so that it understood by our students. Terms like gradual release of responsibility, formative assessments, differentiation, and check for understanding are foreign to our students. As experts, we’re able to anticipate, diagnose and adjust our teaching to the fluid nature of our classrooms.

If teaching truly requires expertise—it does—we can’t relinquish that responsibility to our students. Surgeons, mechanics, CEO's, etc. never allow laypersons to take over, so why do teachers? It devalues our profession and cripples student learning.

This is not to say that students shouldn’t make presentations, nor am I saying that students shouldn’t work collaboratively to teach other.  Both have tremendous value. I’m simply saying that delegating the responsibility to students to teach an portion of a unit should never occur.

When we delegate the responsibility of teaching to students, we diminish our value as educators and student learning suffers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ten Time-Saving Tips That Maximize Feedback and Learning

Increasing class sizes, adopting new standards, and rigorous, new teacher evaluation requirements all add to the daily requirements of today's teachers.

With limited time, teachers are constantly looking for ways to maximize their efforts; ways of getting the most bang for the buck. 

Knowing feedback is integral to the learning process, teachers can save time without sacrificing feedback's value by using the following strategies.

Ten Time-Saving Grading Tips That Maximize Feedback

1.     Selective commenting. Focus on only a couple of things per essay
2.     Minimize your writing/comments. Require any student who scores below a B to see you (before/after school, during non-teacher directed class time, etc) and/or rewrite and/or defend their writing
3.     Color-coded grading in which you use different highlighters to signify different look-fors or another system (*, circle, underline)
4.     Peer editing
5.     Group work in which the students collectively start the writing process and work together to improve their own writing
6.     Have students write online (blogs, discussions, etc) and comment on each others' posts
7.     Have students grade their own work using the rubric. This is tremendously valuable in so many aspects (metacognition, feedback, increase understanding, time-saver, etc).  
8.     If students disagree with a grade (and because feedback may be limited) give them 48 hours to defend their paper to you. Limit their defense to a couple of minutes.
9.     3-column grading. Using a class or teacher created rubric (column 1), students grade themselves according to the rubric (column 2), and the teacher records his/her grade in third column. Using this method, the teacher can more intently focus on areas where the student and teacher disagree.

 What suggestions do you have?