‘Me, Myself, and I’ – Blonde (feat. Bryn Christopher)

Public educators are currently living a very outspoken existence. With our current unqualified national leadership and the strike in Oklahoma, it seems we are in a place where more teachers are clapping back when we are criticized, unappreciated, or unseen. Yes! Let ’em know!

However, it appears that we have gotten a little too sensitive when it comes to professional development. In starting this blog, I have seen individuals on social media light into well-intentioned educational specialists for providing them with next level strategies to engage kids and inspire learning. It’s time we focus on why these tools and tricks are being shared with us, rather than jumping down people’s throats the first time someone suggests a paperless classroom.

The kids that take up residence in our classrooms for 180 days are the why. They come to us as empty vessels waiting to be poured into. It’s pretty powerful when you think that some nugget of lifelong wisdom may be imparted to a child by one singularly influential teacher.

One unforgettable piece of knowledge I still remember from Mrs. Debbie Mihalic’s third grade class is when things get hot they expand, and when they get cold they contract. I don’t remember this because of a textbook or a worksheet I did, but because she had us out of our seats with our arms out at our sides expanding; after we would say, “Expand,” we would wipe our brows and exhale as if we were sweating. We’d then say, “Contract,” in chorus and wrap our arms around our bodies and feign teeth chattering and shivering.

Mrs. Mihalic was an unforgettable teacher who poured into all of us in portable 3 at Brushy Creek Elementary a love of learning that I’m sure was imparted using all the most engaging strategies 1991 had to offer. We used textbooks, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and probably listened to her just lecture several times. The point is, regardless of any tool she used, traditional or cutting edge, the way she used them could only be attributed to her.

Teacher friend, when concerned with what’s really going to make the most impact on your children, quiet the noise of those around you and say it’s “Me, Myself, and I.”

No one can do what you do for those kids for those 180 days. OWN IT. You may have a fantastic way of presenting engaging guided instruction using a textbook. That doesn’t mean that when the big wigs of education suggest never using a textbook, you lock yours away with your confiscated fidget spinners and Pokémon cards. You do what’s right by those children. Maybe you have amazing skill at writing deep, probing, higher level questions–it would seem then, that a task-based assessment may simply be just an option for testing your kids. Conjure up that paper-pencil test and watch your students soar.

Understanding our own personal strengths in the way we deliver instruction to our students is twofold, however. It’s important that we acknowledge when we need to be poured into as well. Often I say, “For the sake of our students.” This is when we have to carry our burden and take time researching new strategies, learning about new techniques, and being uncomfortable trying something new in our classrooms. No one thinks you suck. Point blank. It’s just you have to be open to continuously bettering yourself so that your students can get the most out of you before June. Wouldn’t it be great if one day, they’re sitting somewhere at age 34 understanding that their back door always gets stuck in the summer because, “Expand” (arms outstretched, wiping brow)?

We’ve got it. When we answered the call to teach, there was a gift in all of us that ensured we could develop the amazing way in which we deliver information to our students. No one can take that away from us. But if our why is truly our kiddos, we will seek out good counsel and innovative ideas that will help us get better for the sake of our students.

‘Swagga’ – Excision & Datsik

(see swagger)

noun

a very confident and typically arrogant or aggressive gait or manner.

I went to the Upstate Technology Conference (UTC) this week put on by Greenville County Schools. I am always fascinated by the ever growing myriad of tools that are available to help reach our students. Since I became an administrator, I’ve been torn about the types of sessions to attend at conferences, seeing how I am not directly in the classroom anymore. I still believe that I have the ability to trickle the knowledge I gain down to teachers and empower them to put these tools in place for the sake of their students.

I found myself, however, in two sessions specifically for administrators and coaches in what was called The Leader’s Lounge. Both of these sessions centered a lot around using social media to tell the story of a school.

I’ll stop here for a moment because this is where swagger is important.

My role as an instructional coach (IC) was at A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering (AJ). It opened in 2010 as South Carolina’s only elementary school for with a curriculum designed around teaching engineering principals 4K-5th grade. When it opened, parents in the upstate went bonkers. With a teeny tiny attendance area in the low-wealth area of West Greenville, the rest of the school’s enrollment was first come first served to students around the district. There were literally parents lined up camping out to get their kids into the school a whole week before they started accepting enrollment for the next school year. Take a look at a news article I’ve provided here.

The demand for the school (and the kids having to walk through tent city to get to the front door) was so insane that the school district put in place a policy that prospective parents couldn’t step foot on school grounds until a certain time on the day they started accepting new enrollments. Then this happened:

Needless to say, the school had something that the people wanted. And when I left my role as IC in the spring of 2017, it had just been named a Palmetto’s Finest Finalist school. The school had something the current principal, Dr. Susan Stevens, calls swagger.

I had the privilege of sitting with Dr. Stevens and some of AJ’s stakeholders when the district was looking to fill the principal vacancy. When asked why she was so interested in leading the school she said, “AJ kind of has this sort of… swagger.”

That stuck with me–mainly because I worked so hard to coach and support teachers in creating a remarkable, incomparable learning experience for the kids whose parents literally weathered the elements or fought to get them enrolled. When people heard the two letters, “AJ”, they knew what was up.

That brings me back to using social media to tell the story of a school. Let me lay out 3 certainties:

  1. No one wants to go to a school with a bad rep.
  2. A school’s reputation is created by the people in the community with ties to the school.
  3. “If you don’t share your story, they’ll create it.” –P. Sloan Joseph

If we are going to use social media to give people the inside scoop on our schools, we’ve got to be expecting swagger in our schools. All the stops have got to be pulled out on a daily basis. It’s not enough to do something cute and exciting every now and then–the school has got to be full of overwhelming engagement every single day. That means kids need to be doing more than seat work–more than worksheets, and dare I say more than Google Forms. Creating a school that kids want to go to begins with creating engaging opportunities in every classroom and on every hall. Every day. The reason AJ caused a riot? The promise of something incredible.

Once the school is cranking out the swag, everyone in the school is responsible for getting the word out. Why are we so humble when it comes to talking about how awesome we are at educating kids? It’s something that not everyone can do! And if we do it with swagger, we need to be telling everyone about it! This type of reputation is not exclusive to A.J. Whittenberg, it’s merely a benchmark to which everyone should strive. We created hashtags that articulated our mission statement there, and one of them was #WeOwnWow. I remember thinking how brazen it was when we came up with it, but it was something that every student, parent, teacher, and staff member proudly spoke into the universe when they boasted about their school. Was it bold? Absolutely! But you can’t argue with the truth. Kids went flying down hallways in homemade hover boards, models of entire cities were created out of legos, the first grade hall was transformed into a food court with classrooms that were transformed into restaurants, second graders created an entire carnival where they engineered their own games, and fifth graders created roller coasters and turned their classrooms into amusement parks. The hype was definitely there, as one of our t-shirts proudly boasted. I recounted all of that to say, if the swag is in the building and everyone is witness to it, let the people know! We can’t be modest for the sake of “doing too much.” Please…

This brings me to the quote so eloquently shared by my friend Sloan in her session for administrators at UTC.

If you don’t share your story, they’ll create it.

There are too many things stacked against public schools for us to sit silently and not share how awesome we are. People need to understand that we pave the way for every career there is: every doctor was once in kindergarten, every lawyer was once a third grader, every senator once sat in the fifth grade. The child of every parent in our schools was once in school themselves–their experience and their knowledge as students is all that they have about school. Who knows what kind of story they had that might be painting their picture of school? It’s up to us as educators to let them know school has changed, and we’re in the business of student achievement through rocking kids’ socks off. We’ve got to be taking pictures and videos of all those swaggalicious things going on in our schools and posting them to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and every other social media outlet we can. We’ve got to call the news and let them know about the good stuff that is continuously happening (because they will surely find their way to the bad stuff).

Our schools have got to have swagger; it’s as mandatory as the essential questions on the whiteboards. It’s time that teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators alike understand that the time for humility has come and gone. We’re doing big things and we’ve got to say it loud.

Worried you’re low on the swag?…

‘Lordly’ – Feder (feat. Alex Aiono)

In my ‘Finest Hour’ post, I likened teachers to kings, queens, presidents, governors, and mayors.

Well, before anyone’s head gets too big, consider the throne of the proverbial classroom kingdom: the teacher’s desk.

I believe that the teacher’s desk is probably the most useless thing in the classroom. As the purveyors of student engagement, most teachers today find themselves estranged from their desks. They are often at a small group kidney or U-shaped table delivering differentiated instruction. Sometimes they are at a podium with a computer in order to present information on an interactive whiteboard. They can even be found carefully maneuvering between student’s desks, coaching, having conversations, and supporting individual students all day long. All the while, the teacher’s desk sits unoccupied in a corner taking up at least 16 valuable square feet of classroom real estate.

It’s important, when looking at the value of the teacher’s desk, to consider the culture within a school, however. In walking the halls and peering into classrooms, are the teacher’s like those previously mentioned? Or is the teacher’s desk the place of extended periods of lordly perching?

In these types of environments, the teacher’s desk is often serving more like a ball and chain than a throne. The teacher is bound to her desk, rather than actively engaging with her students. I mean, how effective is a principal that runs a school solely from his office?

I also sometimes think of television and movie characterizations of teachers, and in most cases, they are always seen waging classroom warfare behind their battle station, the desk.

Miss Shields in A Christmas Story is the quintessential lordly teacher. The only time she is seen out from behind her desk is when she ventures to the flagpole to rescue Flick from his “sticky situation”.

Just like we no longer place our teacher desks in the center of the front of the classroom, it may be time to consider doing away with them altogether. There are too many times when teachers must be up and actively engaged with their students, and it simply takes up valuable space.

Because I understand that completely abdicating a throne is not easy, We Are Teachers offers 5 alternatives to the teacher’s desk, instead of getting rid of it entirely.

‘Finest Hour’ – Cash Cash (feat. Abir)

This ain’t my finest hour…

This tweet received immense scrutiny this week. A very good friend of mine even posted an article that served as a rebuttal to this tweet, claiming, “My job is not to entertain my students.” Knowing her, she does a great job entertaining her kids. She is masterful at weaving solid, rigorous instruction with advanced levels of engagement. Sadly, however, I think the author of the article she shared (and the horde of pissed off twitterers) missed Dr. Marzano’s point. I want to very gingerly address this tweet with my personal understanding of it.

First of all, yes: “Students’ attention and engagement are directly under the control of the classroom teacher.” I approach this with the caveat that circumstances outside of the classroom are excluded. Many teachers bemoaned things like home life, ADHD, and outside distractions that often get in the way of students’ attention. I will be the first one to agree. I taught for 5 years in a Title I school where I had elementary students pressured by gangs, misplaced by homelessness, and fed only while they were at school. These things are outside of the teacher’s circle of control. It would be ridiculous to think that a child would be able to operate with unwavering attention with these types of stresses haunting them. Does this mean that the teacher is powerless to reaching this child? No. Engagement is not just creating lessons that activate multiple modalities and bring forth learning through unconventional means–part of engagement is creating a classroom environment and culture that nurtures learners where they are and provides them with an outlet to express their feelings in order to maximize acquisition of knowledge. This is done through creating relationships with our students and doing just what many of these teachers so boldly shared: understanding their needs.

The second sentence of Dr. Marzano’s tweet is the kicker, and the place were I truly feel many teachers missed the mark: “There is no reason any student should be systematically bored, inattentive, or disengaged in any class at any grade level.” Keyword here being systematically. The New Oxford dictionary defines the word systematically as “according to a fixed plan or system; methodically”. So if we take away the distractions which are out of our control as teachers (mainly because we have built relationships and have a crystal clear understanding of our students’ needs) we are left with the time and space of the classroom. Here, teachers are the kings, queens, presidents, governors, mayors–they dictate what is shared and how it is delivered. This is done through a series of systems or a structure that is solely up to the teacher. There is even room, within a state or district mandated framework, for the teacher to develop his or her own flavor to season that instruction. This is not shaming teachers or pointing fingers at them–this is empowering them! The ability turn a lackluster science standard written by folks who haven’t been in a classroom in a number of years into a hands on laboratory experience with colorful bubbles, fizz, sparks, and pops belongs only to the teacher. I daresay the student that has come to school still climbing up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would find some enjoyment in this type of adventure; this would be the ultimate escape from her reality that seeks to divert her attention from school.

So I very humbly understand the shock that some teachers experienced when they opened up Twitter on Wednesday morning. “This man is saying that despite all the crap these kids have going on in their lives, I am solely responsible for whether they are paying attention or not in my classroom?” Breathe easy, teacher friend: the crap is not your battle, the classroom is. And you’ve got mad skills when it comes to making those concepts jump off pages and dance across your students’ desks.

So this was probably not Robert Marzano’s finest hour, but I was drinking the Kool-Aid for sure. I am confident that my colleagues are capable of captivating kids’ minds in the sacred spaces of their classrooms. There they have the ability to foster safe, caring relationships that will bring forth magic through sensational instruction that leaves no room for boredom, inattentiveness, or disengagement.

‘The Upside Down’ – Wolfgang Gartner & JayKode

Check out my post about depth of knowledge (DOK) before reading this post. Before turning assessments upside down, it’s important to understand how to truly assess students’ learning at its deepest level.

It’s time to overturn the apple cart. When considering “assessments”, my brain immediately rushes to tests and quizzes. It’s interesting because as an adult, I don’t take tests and quizzes, but I am continuously assessed.

This morning, I sat in my living room and participated in interviewing a potential teacher with my principal and fellow assistant principal (they weren’t in my living room, it was a videoconference meeting we held using Zoom software). While I sat in my button up shirt and pajama bottoms, I had to successfully connect to the meeting and listen critically and attentively for the skills and characteristics that would make the applicant a good fit for either our 2nd or 5th grade vacancy. After my principal finished leading the interview, we dismissed the applicant and stayed online to chat about her qualifications. I had to share reasons why I felt this teacher would be a good addition for our school community or not, which meant I had to take into consideration testimony about her technology skills, communication with parents, collaboration with other teachers, classroom management techniques, and strategies for engagement (of course).

This was the furthest thing from a test or quiz, but it assessed my skills as an administrator and instructional leader. During the school year, I am regularly assessed as well. In these assessments, I am usually working with students, teachers, my co-administrators, and parents. None of these assessments are tests or quizzes. Would my knowledge of school leadership, curriculum, and instruction be better assessed with a test or quiz? How many teachers would be content with working for an administrator whose abilities have only been proven by a test or quiz? Ironically, I had to take quite a lengthy test for certification, but no one outside of the state department seemed to be too concerned with my score.

Our students have been assessed with tests and quizzes for years, but a lot of what they are proving is only their ability to take those tests. It’s time to turn assessment upside down; this means providing opportunities for kids to demonstrate their mastery of content and skills through tasks and exercises. Demonstration takes assessment into higher levels of DOK where students can create, prove, design, argue, and construct. Traditional testing methods mostly require students to tell, identify, and show.

For example, one of the indicators for 5th grade social studies in South Carolina states that students should be able to “Summarize the aims and course of Reconstruction, including the effects of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Southern resistance to the rights of freedmen, and the agenda of the Radical Republicans” (SC Social Studies Standard 5-1.1). An example test question to assess this standard might be, “What was the most important contribution of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and why did it meet so much resistance from many Southerners?” While this question is not multiple choice and it requires explanation, its DOK could be increased by having students create and perform a monologue of a newly freedman, celebrating the most important benefits he’s received from the efforts of the Freedmen’s bureau. The student would also have to address the climate of their community which includes other freedmen as well as plantation owners. This task enables students to prove the same knowledge, however it requires them to apply their knowledge of Freedmen’s rights and think critically about why those rights were received with resistance from some southerners. Not to mention, this writing assignment allows the opportunity for interdisciplinary assessment through writing. By performing the monologue, students who do not always take tests successfully can have a chance to exhibit their knowledge through another means. Assessing in this manner requires a shift in grading however, as a rubric with exemplars would be most appropriate.

Providing students the opportunity to perform in order to display their learning is just one way to turn assessment upside down. Below are a few more ways to assess without using traditional tests and quizzes:

  • Build
  • Create
  • Produce a video
  • Compose a song
  • Draw
  • Debate

If schools want to rise to the challenge of creating 21st Century learners who can perform successfully in society, students need to be challenged similarly to the way professionals are in the workplace. Assessing in this manner takes learning from recall to relevance.