Thursday, February 28, 2008

What is Your Professional Dream?

Yesterday was Kindergarten WOW Day, nothing out of the ordinary for teachers at Chets Creek. However, something that happened within the day was unique. Literacy coach, dayle timmons, wrapped up the session sharing dreams for the future.

The lights dimmed, the video started, the music sounded, the room became silent. The fourteen kindergarten learning leaders listened attentively as she shared the Power of the Dream video. (Ok, it wasn't quite this perfect with the buffering time...but it is the idea!) Moreover, when the video ended, she asked them, “What is your professional dream?” “Where do you see yourself in five years from now?”

Individually, one by one, the teachers shared their professional dreams. They included dreams of completing National Board Certification, bridging the gap between college classrooms and our classrooms, inviting more educators into their classroom, finishing Master Degrees, mentoring interns, and joining an inner city school staff to help struggling students.

You see, all too often, it is easy to get consumed by the work and focus so inventively that we lose site of building relationships with our colleagues. Sometimes, to move forward, we have to stand back, assist teachers in reflecting, and ask those we coach, “What is your dream?” “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Providing these opportunities for teachers to vocalize their aspirations allows us to build a bond with them, and them with each other. We are all in this together, and knowing where they hope to go will create the avenue for us to understand them as people and assist them in achieving their goals.

Building Mathematical Thinkers

The majority of my decade long teaching journey has taken place in an intermediate math classroom. Sixth grade, fifth grade, third grade--all accountable years for state-wide standardized testing to measure my students’ progress and essentially my ability to teach mathematics. In fact, the measure of accountability for all teachers who have touched that child's learning before me.

A decade ago, our school followed a traditional math approach and truth be told our results weren't good. My students could solve a long division problem in their sleep, but didn't have number sense, weren't master problem solvers, and couldn't think critically. Thankfully a district math leader with a vision introduced us to Math Investigations. The transition wasn't an easy one, but it was the right one.

This year, the district added Math Counts to our curriculum to further develop our students’ skills, concepts, and problem solving. In tandem, these two curriculum resources, Math Investigations & Math Counts, offer teachers the vehicle to develop mathematicians.

Although, I am no longer a math teacher, I do get to observe and coach in classrooms across our school. Today, I had the privilege to observe the implementation of a Math Counts lesson in a Kindergarten classroom with a dedicated team of Kindergarten teachers. I could hardly believe the math knowledge that five and six year old children already knew. I saw the link at this foundational level that will ultimately lead to a student’s math knowledge and success in later grades.

The Math Counts lesson launched with students studying the calendar answering questions with ease as they placed today’s date in its place—February 27. They quickly transitioned into the Daily Depositor where they placed the number 117 on their number line signifying how many days they’ve been in school. A student went to the whiteboard to record the number 117 and the teacher placed another tally mark on the place value chart and added a paper clip to the Clip Collection. “How many clips do we have today?” “How many clips will we have tomorrow?” “How about Friday?” she questioned.

Next, came the Graph. Students identified a penny, Lincoln’s picture on the front, and the Lincoln Memorial on the back. Then, they delved into probability as they flipped the coin several times and added heads or tails on their bar graph. “What can you tell me about this graph?” the teacher asked. Students chimed in with an assortment of responses including Jeremiah who stated, “We have flipped the coin 19 times altogether.” Furthermore, students continued with Estimation and Measurement by looking at a tower of linked cubes answering questions including, “I had 10 cubes. I added 2 cubes. How many do I have now?” “What in the room is about 12 cubes long?” Students pointed out a water bottle, poster on the board, several size books.” The teacher continued to follow their suggestions and compared the objects to the cubes.

The lesson wrapped with a Domino Number Builder where students looked at a domino with three blue circles and two red circles. The teacher asked, “Can you tell me a story about 3 and 2 more.” Hands shot up and students shared word problems.

After the lesson, the team debriefed in the conference room. They also got to listen to a 1st grade teacher’s perspective on the similarities and differences between what she observed in the demo lesson and what she teaches in Math Counts on a daily basis. The Kindergarten group listened attentively. They even decided that they were going to observe a 2nd Grade Math Counts lesson during a Teacher Meeting to see what students will encounter as they move into later grades.

This whole process was reassuring for me. It allowed me a global view of where students begin their formal journey and where they end up when they are leaving elementary school. I feel at ease that with the tandem use of both curriculum tools we are preparing students for what awaits them in middle and high school, in fact, what awaits them in life. Our students are mathematical thinkers.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

It Matters To Each One

Thursday during regularly scheduled Teacher Meetings, Principal Phillips met with each teacher. The purpose was for Principal Phillips, the guidance councilor, and intermediate RTI representative to hear about the progress of all at-risk students.

The grade level of teachers each took a seat at the conference table with their data notebooks in hand, and the principal asked about individual students one by one using her retention list and progress monitoring plans. The teachers shared student’s diagnostic growth, implemented interventions and safety nets, and the successes and weaknesses of each student. Many times during the conversation teachers from across the table would chime in and suggest other interventions the teacher had not yet tried. This collegial dialogue was not laden with excuses rather informative and upbeat. The teachers were thankful that their principal was interested in hearing about their hard work with students that at times offered significant challenges, and were grateful for additional suggestions when they had exhausted their own strategies.

The principal was taking notes and creating lists of students who needed a motivation boost, who needed a parent phone call, who needed a “talking to,” who needed additional interventions. All of this in an effort to have the entire school, as a community, embrace each struggling student to ensure their success.
The process reminded me of the starfish analogy--You’ve heard it.

A grandfather and grandson are walking on the beach and, every so often, the young man leans over, picks up a starfish and throws it into the ocean. "Why are you doing that," the grandfather asks. "There are far too many starfish on the
beach and you can't save them all. What difference does it make?" "It matters to that one," the youngster responds as he bends over to pick up another
You see, the majority of our students are succeeding. In fact, we are in the 90% range in almost all subject areas for students achieving their grade level standards. However, with a school of almost 1,200 students, even having 10% of our students at-risk still leaves about 120 students we haven't yet saved. 120 stranded on the beach waiting for the right intervention, the right "youngester" to come along and throw them back into the ocean. As a school community, we are going to continue walking the beach, continue reaching out and helping the stranded make it back into the water. We embrace this as our moral obligation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Launch of Book Study

Every other Wednesday, as a district, we release students an hour and a half early from school to provide on-the-clock professional development time for teachers. Schools make site based decisions on their topic of development based on school need.

At Chets Creek, we've used this time in a variety of ways to focus on academic instruction. On Wednesday, we started my favorite cycle of Early Release --Book Study. A variety of texts were introduced months ago and a copy of each was left in the front office for teachers to peruse. Teachers signed up for their book of choice, and the principal purchased the text for each teacher. With much anticipation, texts were handed out at this Wednesday’s Early Release, and new book clubs emerged throughout the building.

I selected the text, Faking It, by Christopher Lee; the story of a young man plagued with decades of school frustrations who faked it to make it through. My book team consists of a diverse mix of learning leaders from various grade levels and content areas, and includes teachers in regular education, special education, and art education. As well, we have a mix of experience levels from a teacher who joined the staff just months ago to a veteran teacher who has been at this for decades. What a great learning opportunity this will be with such a diverse group of learning leaders!

Our first meeting was a short one, just 30 minutes long. It gave us time enough to reintroduce ourselves and share our background, and decide on a plan for readng and discussing over the book study cycle. Next time, we meet we will have read the introduction and first few chapters, and I'm sure our new learning will springboard into deep collegial conversation.

Book Study was born at The Creek last year when teachers selected from one of twelve different content texts offered across subject areas. Book Study was a way for teachers to deepen their content knowledge, have dialogue about professional literature, make connections to their own work, and live the life of a reader. It did those things, but exceeded even our expectations, as it also blossomed into vertical relationships with teachers across many grade levels and content areas. You know those kindergarten teachers don’t often make it up to the second floor to observe fifth grade teachers in action!! So this common time, this common text, this common purpose laid the platform to accomplish our common goal--to further enhance classroom instruction to promote student achievement. Happy Reading!

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Feedback Loop--How Do You Do It?

I’ve often struggled with the most appropriate way to give feedback to a teacher once I’ve visited their classroom. Questions I grapple with include:

  • Should I ask the teacher to reflect on my observation before I give feedback?
  • When I give feedback what is more effective verbal or written?
  • How should I deliver the feedback?
  • What balance do I strike between positive uplifting comments and next steps?

This month, as I’m coaching two second grade teachers during Writers’ Workshop, I’m trying two different feedback loops.

One teacher’s classroom, I visit four days a week during the one hour Writers’ Workshop. I observe the mini-lesson, work period, and closing session, and offer written feedback. The written feedback is done that day and gets emailed to the teacher. The written feedback allows the teacher to read and reflect on the feedback, and look for patterns. She also has the ability to reply and ask questions at her convenience without having to sit and formally meet with me. I structure the feedback in three parts:

  • Factual Observation Notes
  • Things to Continue
  • Things to Think About

In the first, I simply record factual observations rather than opinions or suggestions. In part two, I suggest best practice ideas to continue. I list as many things as possible. In the third section, I focus on next steps in the form of a question giving the teacher the opportunity to reflect and adjust instruction accordingly. I list no more than three questions in this section, and really prefer to keep it to two questions if possible. At any given time, there may be a list of things I could ask the teacher to think about, however just like a teacher selects a teaching point while conferring with a student, I too, must pick teaching points that will most effectively move the teacher forward.

My feedback to Teacher #1 as shown through this link, is written, delivered same day, and has the advantage of not consuming teacher planning time. However, the disadvantage must be weighed of not having face to face dialogue.

On the other hand, the other second grade teacher I am coaching has asked me to visit during her Writers’ Workshop work period. She wanted me to model how I confer with students, and wanted my feedback on how her students were doing compared to other second graders.

While I confer with students, I record my conferring notes on a sticky pad so she can easily transfer them to her anecdotal notes. She and I have informal conversation about my teaching points with students. This gives her a good idea of whether she would confer with them on the same teaching point. She also has the opportunity to have me watch her confer with students.

With this teacher, we’ve had the opportunity to have verbal dialogue and written correspondences. We talk for about two minutes as we come toward the end of the work period, she reads my sticky notes, and often stops by during her planning time to touch base. We also use email to ask and answer questions.

In addition, I’ve pulled professional literature on writing conferences and reminded her that a teacher teaches the writer and not the writing, and that you have to give the student the one next step to move their work forward, and not try to help them improve on all weak areas.

These are two different examples feedback loops I use. Both seem to work based on the purpose, the teacher, and the situation. I'd love to hear how you give feedback as a coach.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dreaming is the Beginning

In our ten journey as a learning community thousands have visited. Most offer compliments, but for one reason or another, some feel that what is built here cannot be replicated in their own schools. When I hear this undertone, I swiftly intercede. I remind them of our data story. We started a decade ago with only 21% of our students achieving the standard in mathematics, and 54% in reading. We left nearly every student behind in math and half of all students behind in reading. This certainly is the same place that some others may have to start if they want to replicate some of the best practices. But, it is worth it, and it can be done.

What we’ve built hasn’t been easy. Where did we start? We started dreaming, dreaming of a school where success was for every student, where learning leaders would never underestimate what students could do. We took charge, allowed our mind to envision possibilities rather than getting hung up on the obstacles. At first, our dreams did seem improbable even impossible, but as we worked hard and set wildly high expectations, our dreams became a reality. So, when asked, “Where did you start?” I reply, “We dreamed.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Virtual Tour of Chets Creek Elementary

At Chets, one of my roles as the instructional coach is to host visitors. Visitor groups tend to include a mix of teachers, administrators, coaches, business leaders, school board members, and/or parents. They come from near and far. In fact, this year the majority have come from distant states including Texas and Arkansas. One visitor this year even came from China!

I enjoy hosting visitor groups and sharing our learning journey. The experience gives me the opportuntity to articulate our work, reflect on our practice, visit an assortment of classrooms in a focus walk, and answer visitor questions. The part of the day I most anticipate is lunch. No, not just because I love food, but because this is a time that the group relaxes and we enjoy good conversation. These are the times that I listen carefully, because often times they offer unique suggestions that can make our work even better. And, we are always embracing new ideas.

Of course, nothing is quite as good as an actual visit, but if you haven't had the opportunity, you may enjoy this virtual tour of our school hosted by Principal Susan Phillips. In a particular part of the movie, Susan invites you into a kindergarten classroom--that is not yet loaded into the movie. During an America's Choice Conference presentation when Susan got to this point in the movie, Mrs. Mallon's Kindergarten classroom videostreamed a live Writers' Workshop lesson from Jacksonville, Florida to Hollywood, California. The experience was inspiring! As soon as we (or should I say Melanie and Eric) figure out how to get it on, I'll be posting the taped version of the live lesson. Stay Tuned... And, enjoy your virtual visit to Chets Creek Elementary!

Compliments to the movie creators: Melanie Holtsman and Eric Blair.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

If You Build It, They Will Come

Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005

Every educator, and most certainly every instructional coach, ought to watch this compelling commencement speech. As I listened I drew reference back to my work as a coach. How looking back I can connect the dots and how critical it is that I am passionate about my career.

When we first entered the America’s Choice School Design, we had training on the design piece by piece. For some, the part to whole individuals, this was a most effective roll out strategy. For others, like me, the whole to part people, it could be somewhat challenging to know where the piece fit into the entire design. But, despite the roll out, I reflect back 9 years and find that I have connected the dots. I know the whys and hows, and can coach effectively because I see where all the pieces fit into the overall design. If you are a coach just beginning your journey, never, too, down the road will be able to connect the dots. For now, hang on and enjoy the ride, and make sense of the work as you go. (I remember a few detours along the way!)

Steve Jobs, in this speech, speaks of not settling, of living passionately in your career and your personal life. This is true of my coaching role because I am passionate and self-directed. I am a life-long learner who embraces learning far beyond school house hours because I am driven with the hunger to know more. I keep this in mind as I surround myself with colleagues who push me beyond my comfort zone. I truly learn something new every day.

I also return the favor by coaching those that want to reshape their practice. Those that want to learn and grow, and not those that come with their arms crossed. I embrace those 20% at the top that are ready to be pushed, that ask to be pushed, and I leave the rest alone. When enough stars get in the game, the others will follow. Luckily, I’m at the point in coaching now, believe it or not, that there is 100% teacher buy-in. The culture got to the point that it pushes out those who are reluctant. They self-select out because in my world, instruction is transparent, and it becomes too uncomfortable to stay. Hard to believe? Trust me, if you build it, they will come.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Four Walls Have Fallen--Our work is Transparent

My digital epiphany, thanks to colleagues, started in early October and has reformed the way I look at professional growth and communication. The epiphany has me thinking about the endless possibilities of virtually bringing educators from across our globe together to watch live lessons and share best practices. The four walls of our classroom have finally fallen--our work is transparent. This shift in thinking was clearly evident in our school's work at the America's Choice Conference in Hollywood, California last week.

Three firsts were the highlight of the conference for me. For the first time ever, my colleagues and I live blogged the conference to our peers at The Creek and to participants. (Of course, live took new meaning because the hotel didn't offer free wireless connections, so we hurdled the obstacle by writing in Word and pasting in blogger during the evening.) Our learning leaders didn’t have to wait for us to return to share information, rather they simply logged on and got the updates-- in far more detail than they would have received if we hadn’t mutually blogged the conference. In fact, one of our learning leaders back in Jacksonville made 22 comments on Live from the Creek—she definitely deserved her Supporting Actress Oscar!

Also a first, during our Chets Creek Virtual Tour, we (with the outstanding technical assistance of the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership) video conferenced a live lesson from Mrs. Mallon’s Kindergarten Classroom in Jacksonville, Florida to the session in Hollywood, California. The “Virtual” label in the title came alive with this session and had the conference a buzz. Afterall, educators in this school design from across our nation observed a Writers' Workshop lesson where the teacher taught kindergarteners to self-assess their work based on a rubric, and where another colleague, Mrs. Alvarado, toured them through the classroom during work period! Then, the conference participants got to interact live with the teachers in Jacksonville and ask them questions about their practice and classroom. I sat in awe as this unfolded and dialogue from the audience indicated that they, like me, where envisioning new possibilities.

Another highlight, and a first, our own dayle timmons, special education teacher and primary literacy coach gave the closing keynote. The 1,500 + conference participants listened intently as she shared her journey in a Cohort 2 America's Choice school. The neat thing about this--in the past, the CCE teachers attending the conference would have bragged about her when we returned but no one else would have gotten the experience. This year, the keynote will be posted on our Live from the Creek blog (as soon as we figure out the technical end of how to do this) and all learning leaders including the Chets Creek Faculty will have the opportunity to watch this keynote. They, too, will be deeply moved by her words of wisdom.

We are envisioning new horizons, thinking about all the possibilities, changing practice. From this conference forward, each time a teacher attends a conference, they, too, will add to the Live from the Creek blog. Their learning will be brought back live to us all. In addition, we've already begun to plan for future presentations at the conferences we attend. We think all presenters from Chets should include a live conference session as part of their presentation. In fact, next year at the America's Choice Conference in Orlando, Florida, we'd like to live conference in a Readers', Writers', Math, and Science lesson, as well as a Mathematics Navigator and Literacy Navigator saftey net session. (Are you ready for that Dave?) Dreaming was only the beginning, now, thanks to the hard work of my colleagues at this conference, we see that the sky is the limit!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Our Themes

Walking down memory lane to celebrate a decade of learning and growing together at Chets Creek has me reflecting on the school themes that have lead our way. Each year, the school’s leaders reflect on where we’ve been and where we have yet to go. A grasp of the present with a foot into the future, they decide on the theme that will define our year.

1997-1998 Building a 21st Century Learning Community
1998-1999 Team Up for Success
1999-2000 Aim High Take Flight
2000-2001 Hitch Your Wagon to a Rising Star
2001-2002 Putting the Pieces Together...Puzzle Paradise
2002-2003 To Infinity and Beyond
2003-2004 Mission Possible
2004-2005 Lights, Camera, Action...It’s Showtime!
2005-2006 Blazing the Trail... 100% or Bust
2006-2007 Performance Drives Success... The Race is On
2007-2008 Dreams Begin Here

The theme weaves its way as an integral part of everything we do. From the teacher’s first day back which focuses on a theme based relationship building celebration to the student’s first wow day back after a long summer break, to the PTA family night themes, to decoration adorned classrooms, to communication tool headers, titles and themes. Embedded in all we do, you’ll find our theme.

Each new year, we embrace the opportunity to touch the lives of the children we teach and to prepare them for the 21st century global marketplace. We have 180 days, not a day longer, to make this vision a reality.

In year one, we focused on creating the 21st Century Learning Community we would want our own children to be part of and one in which we would ideally want to teach. The teaching staff collaboratively labored over our school’s vision, mission, and learner expectations, one that would prepare our students to compete in this fiercely competitive global marketplace.

To make it all happen we had to Team Up for Success. It would take every stakeholder in this community to prepare our students. Our founding leader began by building horizontal and vertical learning teams who met weekly to articulate and implement our vision, mission, and leaner expectations. We teamed up to create diagnostic assessment that we used to prescriptively plan whole group and small group instruction which continues to be a cornerstone of our success. The communication tools included the Memo to staff each Friday with public celebrations, theConnection, our parent communication tool from the principal each Friday, the classroom newsletters sent home each Monday from the teacher to the parent, and our positive postcards. We had created quite an extraordinary team.

We were a good school. But, we wanted to be great. We formed a Leadership Team and studied Jim Collins text, From Good to Great. We had to Aim High and Take Flight into the America’s Choice School Design to study, implement, and reflect on best practices in education. We had a moral obligation to make sure that not a single child would be left behind. We were preparing each student to meet the standard, and our expectations for student learning were high. We would soar into the future.

After becoming an America’s Choice School setting up a Leadership Team, establishing coaching positions, and implementing Writers’ Workshop, we knew we had Hitched Our Wagon to a Rising Star. Each teacher arrived back on the first day to a brand new red Radio Flyer wagon full of books to refocus on living life as a reader. Students and teachers each read and reflected on 25 books.

The America’s Choice components were all being implemented. Now, we had to Put all the Pieces Together in Paradise. We worked to hone our skills and align all instructional practices. We concentrated on meeting the Zones of Proximal Development for every student. We had the pieces that others wanted to see; we had become a flagship school who could be a model for others.

We were inundated with visitors--just the way we like it--as we went to Infinity and Beyond. We were sharing our best practices with educators across our nation. But, in this year, we were saddened to lose approximately 300 students as a new school opened in our community. This eased our overcrowding a bit but affected our overall hearts and scores. We slipped a few percentage points in reading and writing and knew we would have to recommit and refocus as we started a new year.

Our Mission was Possible. We could make sure that every student succeeded—that every student could attain mastery. We had 180 days to make this happen, and we knew that this was no dress rehearsal. We put all assessment scores under the spyglass and refocused on getting students appropriate internal and external safety nets. By the end of the year, we were showing gains once again. Mission accomplished!
In the spring of 2004, our America’s Choice National Conference was held in Hollywood, California. Before weeks end, our theme had been decided, it was time for Lights, Camera, Action...It’s Showtime. Rolling out the red carpet, we focused on building relationships, having fun, bringing joyfulness into our classrooms. We celebrated the people who were behind the scenes, all the cast members, and the stars. We had an Oscar winning year!

We galloped into an amazing new year as we were going to Blaze the Trail...100% or Bust! We were set to lasso in the small percentage of students that had not yet reached mastery on the state standards and we were going to continue to analyze data, dig our heals in deeper to content learning and instruction, and focus on safety nets. We weren’t going to rest until we had 100% of our students at standard.

We were reaching more of our learners, ready to race into the future--Performance Drives Success...The Race is On. We rallied around relationships, revved up the risk-taking, and raced toward radical results. We crossed the finish line with great success.

Over the last decade, our learning community had created a magical kingdom, Dreams Begin Here. Our imagineer learning leaders had created a cast of students that were self-directed learners, complex thinkers, effective communicators, collaborative workers, quality producers, and community contributors. Our dreams had become a reality! It's been a magical decade of learning and growing and I can’t wait to see what’s in store as the next decade begins. I know it will be the journey of a lifetime!