Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Using a Framework to Look Toward the New Year

Alas, another year has come and gone and it has done so very quickly I might add. So far this year, I have been a graduate student, an administrative intern, an adjunct professor at local university, a teacher on special assignment as an administrator, and an assistant principal in a district that I have loved for fourteen years, and finally I became the principal of a UPK program as well as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction in a new district altogether. As one year ends and a new one begins most of us find ourselves thinking of new goals and ways in which we can identify and implement them. Whether these goals be personal or professional, or a combination of both, establishing goals and effective ways in which to reach them within a set time frame requires a great deal of personal reflection and strategic planning.

Reflection is hard work because it requires us to really look honestly and deeply at ourselves and our practices. Many do it when they have a minute or when they exercise, take a walk, mow the lawn, etc. One of things I like best about being a writer at heart and my connection to the web 2.0 world is that it has helped me to reflect in a much more powerful and lasting way-- in writing. I did weekly as a classroom teacher and I still do it weekly as an adminstrator. Sometimes it's not easy to find the time, but the professional growth I experience as a result is well worth it.

When we reflect, we must examine our personal strengths and weaknesses as well as things that we have accomplished and done well and things that we know or wish we could have done better, while all the while keeping in mind what is at the heart of all we do as educators and educational leaders, the students we serve. The number of students we directly affect varies according to our particular assignments, but the important thing to remember is that the social, emotional, and academic growth of our students is at the heart of all that we do. That being said, the first questions we should be asking ourselves when we reflect on the year that has passed are: How well did I serve my students? How do I know I was successful at serving them? What data can I reference to show that I have done my job well and have helped students to grow?

Other questions I'm considering in my dual roles are: How effective am I as a leader? How well am I supporting teachers and encouraging them to grow in their practices? In what ways am I modeling for teachers the practices and habits I feel support student achievement? What kind of data can I reference to prove my effectiveness?

Heavy stuff, huh? As I said, reflection is hard work because it requires us to be honest with ourselves. I'm going to start here, with these questions, and from there, identify some areas of improvement for the coming year. I will use a SMART goal format and document it all so that I can reflect on my progress at identified intervals throughout the year. In the best interest of the students and teachers I serve, I hope this is a successful year for all of us!

Happy New Year to you and yours! May you, too, find time to reflect on the passing year and have a happy, healthy, and successful 2009.

Monday, December 22, 2008

'Tis the Season!

The Christmas holidays always get me nostalgic. I remember Christmas Eves at my Grandma Wolfe's house with a coffee tin full of cookies and those huge peppermint sticks in my stocking. I remember the year we all got brand new crocheted afghans, and I still have mine today. I actually still have my sister's too. We always got homemade gifts for Christmas and those were some of the happiest times of my life.

My mom was an only child who grew up in this amazing house on Cayuga Island. Her father died when I was just five and my parents ended up buying the house and we, a family of 6 (four kids, me the youngest) moved in. It was the best house in the world...right on the Little River. In the summer, my grandmother rowed us in a boat across the river to Buffalo Avenue and in the winter we had a built-in ice skating rink. Each spring we would count the new families of baby ducks and take boat rides every chance we got. In fact, there were many times I remember my grandmother yelling after me as I was hopping in a boat and abandoning my lawn duties.

This season, I am missing my oldest brother who is living in CA where he is the head pro at the Nick Faldo Golf Institute at Shadow Ridge and I am missing my parents who are in The Villages in central Florida. Although used to not having the parents around for Christmas because they have always spent this holiday with my brother Mike and we at home have had them for every other holiday, it never gets easier not having them here. Thank God my sister and other brother and their kids live here and I get to spend time with them. Family is so important to me and I love that my sister lives eight blocks one way from my house and my brother lives thirteen blocks the other way. It is so nice to be so close to one another. My nieces and nephews are such joys in my life; all great kids and accomplished. It does a heart good to see them grow into such wonderful young people. I only wish that my other brother's kids were as close. They grow up so fast when they are right in front of your eyes, but seem to do it so much faster when they are far away. Thankfully I get to see them each summer, but somehow it is not enough. Each picture I get makes me cry because of how much they have grown in between.

Most of my nieces and nephews are in their twenties or late teens and although I desperately miss those two nephews who are miles and states away from me, I am so thankful for those three nieces and two nephews that I have right here with me in my own neighborhood. One niece and one nephew are my godchildren and the others are just as special. It is so nice to have them so mileage as well as just a text away. It is them who have taught me the meaning of a "143" message (I Love You, referring to the number of letters in each word of the message) and I cherish each one I receive. Naturally I have a special affinity with my two godchildren; one is a TA in my district and the other is, well, without sounding biased, the most polite and kind young man I have ever met...and in my career I have met thousands of teenagers who have not come close to this young man.

At this time of holiday cheer and family celebration, I wish you and your family the very best for the coming year. May you have the opportunity to spend some quality time with those who mean the most to you and find some way to give to others less fortunate. If you are looking for ideas to do the latter, please see this wonderful blog written by an amazing 11-year old, the daughter of a friend I am thankful to have in my life. Please visit Twentyfivedays to find simple ways to give back to your community. And if you're looking for cost-effective ways to give in meaningful ways to your families, see this post by Angela. 'Tis the season to find ways to give from your heart! Happy Holidays to you and your families!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Leading With Heart

Why is it that so many school leaders or administrators are viewed as being far removed from the classroom and children? If you ask the teachers "in the trenches," many have the perspective that administrators have long forgotten what it is like to be in a real classroom with kids. Sadly, administrators are viewed as being leaders who are not grounded in what is the true reality of teaching kids in today's world. Whether they seem to impose impossible goals and objectives for teaching learners who are far different from those of ten or even five years ago, or they are seen as the omniscient voice who imposes regulations from a lofty existence, many leaders are viewed by both teachers and students alike as people who have no idea what it is like to be a student in today's world.

Faye Wattleton, the first African American and youngest president of Planned Parenthood, once said, "Whoever is providing leadership needs to be as fresh and thoughtful and reflective as possible to make the very best fight." This is an important aspect to address in regards to educational leadership today as, in schools, many leaders are so occupied with the immediacy of things that take place on a daily basis that they have little time to devote to true leadership. Sadly, the nature of educational leadership, especially for those in building leader positions, is often occupied with "putting out fires" or managing crises that arise at any given moment.

However, the recent focus in educational leadership is for those in building and in district office positions to become instructional leaders. Lord knows that instructional leaders are what is needed in schools today, but finding and managing the time to devote to being a true instructional leader is something that many administrators, including myself, struggle with on a daily basis. How does one find that balance in being a manager of operations and being an inspirational and effective leader?

A friend and educational leader from Western New York, Theresa Gray, has written a recent post that is very provocative which addresses this concept of leadership being a difficult balance between leader, manager, and mentor. It is this balance that I struggle with each and every day in my new position. I need to manage the curriculum, departments, and grade levels among several buildings while building relationships with school administrators and teachers along the way. I must inspire all staff and leaders to reflect on their practices and help them to find new ways to be open and willing to learn new approaches that will challenge the status quo in order to improve student engagement and achievement. I must find ways to help others see the value in analyzing data to improve daily classroom practices in effective ways that result in real world applications for kids who can see the relevance of their classroom learning that applies to their own lives.

Why is that most teachers, parents, and, sadly, our students think that educational leaders have forgotten that what we do is ultimately about kids? How can leaders like myself impress upon teachers, parents, and students that we have not forgotten that what we do is in the best interest of our students? I vow to work to re-establish this ideal in the minds and hearts of those I serve...the teachers, the parents, and most especially the students. Albus Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, "A child's voice, however honest and true, is meaningless to those who have forgotten how to listen." Well, it is high time we started listening to children and begin to identify their needs and meaningful ways to address them. My New Year's Resolution is to listen more closely to children, parents, and teachers in an effort to understand their needs as learners and how to serve them best.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poetry is All Around Us

I'm starting a New Year's Resolution early...I'm vowing to write shorter posts! Gosh, I'm wordy; so wordy in fact that I feel bad asking people to read my posts because they're so lengthy. I focus on making effective word choices and letting my voice come through, but I'm trying to figure out why I feel the need to explain every last detail when fewer will do. I do this when composing a poem, so why can't I in a blogpost? I've asked for tips from some other blogger friends whose posts are suscinct and provocative, so I'm going to give it whirl. After all, Shakespeare, one of my favorite poets, said that brevity is the soul of wit and I am fairly witty, if I do say so myself!

This past week, the recurring topic of conversation in my social network seems to be about poetry. I LOVE this genre; I love reading it, watching it being performed, creating it from magnets, and writing it. I love classic poets like Hardy and Housman, modern poets like Tupac Shakur and Taylor Mali, and def poets like Twin Poets and Shihan. In fact, I really love performance poetry. If you have never seen a poem being performed, it is a powerful experience. Poetry is built from emotions so the true meaning behind the words really leaps off the page when watching a passionate poet perform. And this is how I used to get kids to shed their hatred of reading poetry...I'd show them poetry instead.

Using this approach, I inspired students to write their own poetry and to analyze poetry for deeper meaning. I even got boys to stop complaining and moaning in disgust whenever I mentioned poetry. Performance poetry helped my students to see poetry in the world around them and helped them to connect poetry to other things they have experienced or read. They were inspired by simple things and my seniors loved the dramatic performance piece I assigned in my Speech and Communications class after watching selected def poets. Below are some of my favorites that I used to inspire my students. I hope you find them inspirational as well.

Where do you see poetry? Right now I see it in the snow that won't stop falling. And I hear it the wind whistling through my fireplace. And I feel it every time I walk into a classroom full of kids. Excuse me, but I feel a poem coming on!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Are Teacher Prep Programs Preparing Students for the Reality of Teaching Today?

Another semester at my Alma Mater, Niagara University, has come to an end. Overall, I feel it was another successful semester with my pre-service, aspiring secondary English teachers. Located on the US/Canadian border, NU has a unique mix of American and Canadian students. In addition, my class, English Methods, also usually has a mix of both graduate and undergraduate students as well. This semester the class was evenly split by both nationality and program. Meeting the needs of all of my students presents a very unique and rewarding experience for me as a teacher.

All students in my class are required by the university program to log 30 "Learn and Serve" hours, wherein they observe an assigned area teacher in practice and then teach a minimum of one lesson. Here, I require students to videotape themselves teaching a lesson and have them watch it and write a reflection, turning in both for a grade. I do NOT score the lesson or teaching itself; rather, I assess their ability to honestly and critically assess their performance as well as provide them with both warm and cool feedback to offer suggestions for improvement. The entire semester, and the teacher prep program itself, stresses the importance of self reflection so that by the time students are in my class, they are fairly proficient at this important aspect of teaching. In addition, beyond the required reading of Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids, I also require that students read a text that specifically explores teaching secondary English called The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom and write Learning Log Reflections about what made sense and what they might try to use in their own classroom practice.

For the major project required for my course, students are charged with designing an entire unit plan based on the UbD model that includes many components (see unit plan link). I assign the unit plan along with the rubric for assessment and a model unit on day two of the semester and for the rest of the semester I model each piece or component along with strategies and best practices. In addition, I provide students with a variety of helpful links, tools, and my wikispace to review and pull ideas for their own unit.

Roughly halfway through the semester, students are also required to teach a lesson from their unit to their peers. This exercise allows them to try out their ideas and receive feedback from their peers as well as turn in a completed lesson plan and associated handouts to me for feedback as well. Students then have five days to email me a reflection of their teaching; I promptly assess all pieces and return to them the following class so that they can polish it and submit it as one of their required two lesson plans in the unit.

I must say that each semester I am impressed with the majority of units that students design and submit for their final grade. However, what concerns me is that some are fantastic designers of learning experiences but not so great at implementing them or developing realistic timelines for doing so and some are not so great at designing the unit but do a great job at teaching that one lesson from it. How do I address this in a way that everyone can benefit? How do I help these passionate young adults to see the importance of the parts equaling the effectiveness of the whole? Your comments and ideas are most welcome here.

Now for the BIG question...Are teacher prep programs truly preparing students for the realities of teaching today?

The final two sessions of my class address (1) designing a course syllabus and devising a grading policy and (2) discussing student teaching concerns and interview questions at a place off campus where we also have a bite to eat and a beverage. For this last class, we first discuss all their many concerns about student teaching, which seems to be very overwhelming for them. I try to offer practical advice and quell their nerves as much as possible. As for the interview questions, I provide them with an actual form from my former district used by interview panel members for a secondary English position and go through each while allowing time for students to ask questions and make notes to use in preparation for thmeselves. Then, I have a magic envelope in which are roughly 25 other likely questions they will encounter in their quest for a position. Each student is to pick a question and read it aloud, posing it to the person on their right. Here, they become so flustered and don't know where to start; it's painful to watch and I can't tell you how many interview candidates I have seen with the same reaction in the interview process. Although I offer suggestions, discuss the use of buzz words without actual examples, and a million other facets of being on "the hot seat," I still see young teachers much like my students fumble through first interviews. I completely understand that they will get better once they build confidence and a repertoire of experiences through student teaching, but somehow I feel as if I am still not preparing them for the reality of what they face in finding their first job.

What are your thoughts on this? How do we better prepare and mentor young teachers to take the reins? What can we as teachers do and what should teacher prep programs be doing differently in order to serve our students better? As a side note, beyond the required NYS teacher certification requirements, my university also gives a comprehensive exam to all students; sadly, there is over a 40% failure rate on this assessment. I have not seen it; I am not permitted. But students have told me about it and I am befuddled at what is being assessed on it.

So, this is my current classroom practice and I'm asking you, reader, how do I challenge the bureaucracy and thereby provide my students with practical and meaningful experiences that mirror the reality of teaching today?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

RIF--Reading is Fundamental

Gosh, I love to read. I read so many different things and love to discuss those readings with other like-minded and well-read individuals. This may be because of the former English teacher in me, but I also like to read other things besides just novels. I've always felt that reading new things provides great power to the taking in new knowledge from a book, you create a bigger world for yourself. And sharing that world with others creates even more powerful opportunities to learn new things. Interestingly, however, I have never belonged to a book club.

The one thing I miss about grad school is keeping up-to-date on the latest readings in regards to teaching, best practices, and educational leadership. However, I am thankful for having two great PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) that I converse with regularly to help me in this regard. My first group is an online social network of educators that I interact with daily through Twitter. With this group I share more resources than I can keep up with, literally. Thank God for bookmarking tools like Del.ic.ious, which I use to keep up on resources shared. However, the local folks in my twitterverse have also taken the next step in our network and have devoted time once a month to meet in person. We call a PD or Professional Development Party and we gather at one another's houses; this month, I get to host and I am really looking forward to it.

Another group I gather with monthly is a very intimate group of four, that's including myself, with whom I developed very close personal relationships during grad school. We always opted to work together on group assignments and met to work on other major projects or assignments even if they weren't "group work" per se just to share resources. During one of our last meetings as grad students, one friend suggested that we get together for dinner each month and to set a date right then for fear that "life would happen in between" (see earlier post "Hello, Old Friend") and that we'd run into each other in the grocery store three years later. As a result, we meet each month and bring our calendars so that we pick our next date before leaving that gathering. As with my other PLN we, too, have dinner at a designated member's house and share our personal experiences as relatively new administrators. The resounding element missing from this group, however, is that we are all behind on reading the latest and greatest in professional literature because we are immersed in our new positions. It is, therefore, our belief that we start a book study to ensure our continued professional growth. At our next gathering, we will decide on which book to read and I'm excited to have a purpose and make the time to read professional literature again.

How do you grow as a professional? How do you keep abreast of the latest and greatest best practices in regard to teaching and leading? What books have you read lately? I'd love to hear from you. Please take a moment to respond.

Friday, December 5, 2008

UPK --A Unique Universe

I have been a secondary teacher all my life, certified grades 5-12. The only grade I have not taught is 5. So this new school year and new job has been a great deal of change for me. I am now not only the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for a WNY city school district, but I am also the principal of an elementary building that houses three different Universal Pre-K programs. Only one of these programs is mine, or connected with my district; the other two are county programs to which we basically rent space in the building.

My district-funded UPK program is THE highlight of my day. I absolutely love these kids and the teachers and aides who have a great deal more patience than I have ever had in my entire life. The adults in each classroom work tirelessly at not only providing academic content for the kids, but also at behavior and socialization skills like manners and being a good friend. It's great to see the changes in them each day. One little boy struggled in the beginning at simply coming to school; he cried each day his grandpa left and often sat alone, too afraid to socialize. Each day I made an effort to talk to him and ask how he was doing. I'd touch his face or poke at his belly trying to get him to react to me. He is just the cutest little thing with big saucer-like blue eyes and although I tried to break the ice and his teacher and classroom tried too, he was very introverted. Thankfully, he has made great strides since then. Now, he talks to me and smiles when I ask how he's doing or compliment his work and he no longer cries when grandpa leaves. He is a changed little boy and it does my heart good to see him this way.

Outside the classrooms, the hallway is decorated with crafts the kids have made. Everyday I enter it, I marvel at the improvement in coloring, cutting, and the writing of their names. Each month, teachers take a writing sample of the student's names. One little girl has made such improvements that when she saw her sample from the previous month she said, "What happened here?" Out of the mouths of babes!

During the month of November, we planned a Family Fun Night and invited parents, grandparents, and siblings to the school for an evening of games, face-painting, popcorn, music and sing-alongs. In addition we had "The Reptile Guy" from Nickle City Reptiles address the crowd of over 250 attendees and teach us about some exotic animals. The parents and kids loved this performance. The presenter was funny and the animals were so cool. He took volunteers from the audience to come on stage and help with some of the animals. A 9 year-old brother of one of our students helped with hissing cockroaches and one of our students, a shy 4 year-old girl, eagerly went on stage and helped to hold an enormous snake! It. Was. AWESOME. It was such a wonderful experience to meet our students' families and enjoy some fun together outside of the classroom.

Things have been getting pretty exciting this month with Christmas right around the corner. We have many plans in the works for the kids. Glenn Colton will be giving a concert, students from Niagara University's theatre program will be coming to give a holiday performance, and Santa will be visiting as well. The kids are so excited to come to school, but they are also a bit more difficult to settle down as well. Next week, I will begin calling the classrooms each week as one of Santa's Elves and talking with the teacher about her naughty and nice lists. Hopefully, this will help to make it a bit easier on the teachers and aides.

We have two half-day programs of a.m. and p.m. classes and each day I visit every class for a few minutes. Simply walking in the door is a wonderful experience for me. As I enter I say, "Good morning/afternoon, boys and girls!" and I get a resounding response each time. I just love it! They completely light up and are truly happy to see me and share with me what they have done. Interestingly, the moms of two of our students are former students of my own. It is so nice to see how they have grown into being wonderful, caring parents and have happy, loving families of their own. However, it is hard not let my connection to their children show in the classroom. I have to love each and every little boy and girl equally; the ones I have special connections with, the ones who struggle academically or socially, and the ones who have difficult home lives. I often find myself thinking about these students at home and I am so thankful to have been given this responsibility of ensuring the safety and educational programs for our most precious of learners.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hello, Old Friend

Two things that have played a big role in my life are music and writing, whether it be the actual act of writing or reading the writing of others. My dad turned me on to John Lennon when I was a kid, and I mean John Lennon, without the Beatles. John Lennon once sang, "life is just what happens to you while you are busy making other plans" and this lyric has resonated with me for quite a while in my adult life even though I first heard it when I was just a young kid.

We have all had the experience of having the best intentions of doing something for someone or getting in touch with someone with whom we haven't found time to touch base with in a long time. In the past six years, this lyric has rung true for me more often than I would like to admit. During this short time I have: been a middle school English teacher and took on the role of the department chair; moved from the middle school to be a high school English teacher where I learned even more about myself as an educator and again took on the role of department chair; entered into the next phase of my professional career and enrolled in grad school for the second time; studied educational leadership and earned two administrative certificates; interned as a building administrator and worked as an administrator in the area of curriculum and instruction; took on a new role as an adjunct professor in a teacher education program at Niagara University; and left a district and its students and teachers that I loved very much for 14 years to become an administrator in a district with which, thankfully, I have had some familiarity. It was a sad day in my life to leave such a place, but it was definitely the best move I have made professionally in a long, long time. My former district and its leaders helped to prepare me for the position I have today, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and I am so thankful for the experiences I have had there that I would not know where to begin to describe it.

So, during this period when I had plans and good intentions of doing meaningful things for others but my life was busy happening in between, I wish I had taken the time to do many other things. At the top of the list is, of course, to spend more quality time with my family, specifically my grandmother who just celebrated her 90th birthday. My sister, I joke, has earned her get-into-Heaven-free card because she has taken time out of her busy life as a local merchant to take Gram to the doctor and run errands or just plain visit with her. During these times with Gram, my sister has learned some of the more intimate details of her life that I have never learned. Although I am glad to learn about them second-hand, it does not replace the experience of learning about them through my grandmother herself. Although not the warmest or most outgoing person while I was a young and impressionable kid, my gram has many life experiences I would love to learn about and be able to share with others in my life.

Another thing I had always loved, but found little time to devote to while my life was busy happening these last few years, is writing. As a kid, I loved to read; books have always had the power to take me to places I have never been and to experience things I was unable to experience in real life. And when I was kid in ninth grade, I found my poetic side; I wrote poems nearly every day and continued to do so for most of my high school years. Poetry and writing helped me to express myself in ways that a young teenager finds hard to do in everyday life. I still have a weathered notebook full of poems and the beginnings of stories I attempted to write back then. It was cathartic. And you know what, it still is today. As a teacher, a few years back, I began taking time to reflect in writing each week about my practices; I wrote about what went well, what didn't, what I wanted to change, what I wanted to keep, what felt good for me, and what I know felt for good for kids. In this blog, I have continued that practice and I am thankful for my educator friends for inspiring me to establish this space to do so.

Thank God my life is not so busy now that I found the perfect job for me and I have taken the time again to WRITE. This blog is the place I come to when my brain is swirling with ideas about my practice and about life in general. And it is here that I want to take the time to thank my family for helping me to become the person I am today and to thank those friends and mentors who have helped me to grow in ways I never thought possible. If you are reading this blog because you fall into one of those categories, THANK YOU for being in my life. And if you are reading this blog because you too want to grow as person or a professional, I challenge you to take the time to write about your life experiences and share them with others. You may not think that what you have to say is important, but, speaking from experience, your writing can have a transformative effect on others.

So, here it is, some advice: Don't get bogged down in the minute details of everyday life. Take time to reflect and share what your life with others has brought you. Just BLOG it!