Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Educating the Whole Child: Karla Allen, Coordinator of Counseling Services

For most of us, when we were in school, we accessed the resources of our school guidance counselor, whose main focus was to help us select our classes, make sure we were on track to graduate, and talk to us about what we wanted to do after high school.  If we wanted to go to college, they would send a transcript to the college, and we would wait to hear that we got in, and then go along our merry way.  I don’t recall feeling any stress about the college process, or worrying about what classes I was taking, or even thinking that I may not get in.  I was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to the college I attended, and looking back on it now, I am not sure how that even happened! 

Fast forward to 2019.  Times have changed.  Students begin to stress about the college application process as early as late elementary school.  I have heard comments from sixth graders about community service opportunities and how they will look on a resume. There are record numbers of students applying to college with no more seats added over the years, which has made it even more difficult to get into a four-year school.   We add on to that the graduation requirements of SOL tests, verified credits, a virtual course, a credential exam, a sequential elective, an academic career plan, First Aid-CPR training, computer literacy, and what do you want to be when you grow up and how will you pay for it?   Students on at-risk lists are tested and retested multiple times in SOLs, and now the credential exam is added to that retest list, which is usually the same student who is already retesting SOLs.  All of this then results in stress and anxiety that sometimes escalates into mental health concerns. 

You may have seen the alarming statistics that mental health concerns are on the rise. According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year.  Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34.  More than two-thirds of children reported at least one traumatic event by age 16 according to SAMHSA, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“There’s somewhat of a stigma built up around mental health that prevents people from getting care,” said State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). “It’s important that mental health issues [are] given the same dignity as physical health issues.”

A recent publication, iGen, by Jean Twenge, asks the question, “Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy- and completely unprepared for adulthood?”  She drew her conclusions from over 11 million representative surveys and in-depth interviews.  In summary, with social media and texting replacing other activities, iGen spends less time with their friends in person – perhaps this is why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

As parents and educators, we must ask ourselves how are we adapting and adjusting to this generation of students.  We have to ensure their social-emotional needs are being met in order to meet their academic needs to enable them to be viable, productive citizens.  

The school counseling profession has changed dramatically over the past few years, mainly because of the changing needs of our student populations.  Below is a chart that demonstrates a few of the changes that have occurred. 

Our school counselors are experiencing a rise in working with students with mental health concerns.  In Hanover County, we have tracked our numbers over the past two years in several areas, including suicide assessments for those students who have presented as at risk, students on homebound, and student visits to the nurse’s office.  Our suicide assessments have risen, particularly at the elementary level.   We have also seen a rise in the number of imminent threats.  “Imminent threat” means that the student has the ability and a plan to follow through on their suicidal ideation.  The number of our students on homebound have risen, with nearly half of them related to social anxiety and depression.  The majority of visits to the school nurse are based on anxiety or physical symptoms that can be linked to anxiety.  

Hanover County Public Schools is working diligently to explore areas for best practice to provide students, parents, and staff the resources needed to assist with mental health concerns and to combat the stigma surrounding conversations about mental health.  This year, we are rolling out the Signs of Suicide program for all 7th and 10th grade students that will educate them on recognizing when they are others could be at-risk.  We are also exploring a Social-Emotional Curriculum to implement division-wide, K-12, with resources for faculty and parents imbedded.  This will be a two year roll out with the first year having a focus on teaching and modeling the importance of social-emotional care for staff, and the second year emphasizing the SEL model for students.   

Graduation requirements continue to change, sometimes yearly.  We have more students with greater needs every year.  Our task list gets longer, and we work tirelessly to try to meet all of our students’ needs.  We all have the passion and the heart to provide equitable resources for all of our students, but because of the nature of the job and the cavernous needs of our student populations, this will continue to be a significant challenge.  The only viable option is for us to do WHAT’S BEST FOR STUDENTS, and that is to offer resources and training for our families and teachers to assist us in training up the whole child in the areas of academics, careers, and SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL needs.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

P + R = T: A Lesson Learned from Finland

What I did this summer.” This classic thematic essay prompt could have been a fitting title for my first blog entry of the new school year.  Several months ago, I was ecstatic to learn that I was one of several educators from across the country selected to study the Finnish education system in and around Finland’s capital city, Helsinki.  I completed my trip in July, and it is an experience that was often at the forefront of my mind as I prepared for the coming school year. 

For those not very familiar with this Nordic country, here are a few quick facts for you in order to become better acquainted:

1.     Yes, they actually eat reindeer (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it).

2.     No, they are not actually Scandinavian. They have more in common with Russia and Estonia than with neighboring Sweden or the other Scandinavian countries.

3.     They invented the sauna, and there are an estimated two million of them in the country.

4.     They just won the ice hockey world championship, and it is a source of national pride.

5.     And…year after year, they are regarded as the best public education system in the world.

Of course, the final factoid compelled me to take a trip to this nation nestled along the Baltic Sea.  I was eager to unlock the secrets of their success and return home to put a Hanover spin on them.  What I found though is that there was no real secret at all.  In fact, the first thing that stood out to me was just how similar they are to us.  Their school day length was comparable, class sizes were nearly identical, they have their summers off, teacher and administrator responsibilities were very similar, right down to “duty periods,” and the students complain about the cafeteria food despite it being quite good.  I could relate to all of these things perfectly, of course.  In fact, at times, it felt more as if I had traveled to a neighboring state rather than to another country.

Certainly, there were some differences as well. For instance, they begin elementary school typically a year or two later than we do, and they completely destigmatize trades-based education.  In addition, all students select their high school by area of interest and aptitude (e.g., fine arts high schools, trades high schools, and even sports-based high schools), somewhat like our specialty centers.  While these differences were notable, they were not individually or collectively responsible for their success from what I could gather.  As I continued to try to decipher what set them apart from the world, I realized that it was not a particular thing that they did but areas they emphasized in every area of public education.  After further contemplation on the matter, I jotted down a simple equation in my notebook:

P + R = T

The “P” in the equation stands for Professionalism.  No matter his or her role, every educator we spoke with took tremendous pride in being a part of the education system.  There is little doubt that professionalism is part of the national culture as well.  Being a teacher is one of the most highly regarded professions.  They accept approximately the top 10% into the education programs in Finnish universities, and all certified teachers must hold at least a master’s degree in education.  Even more impressive though was that they discussed brain-based learning, neuroscience, and pedagogy every day.  It was as if they were saying, “How can we effectively educate students if we do not understand the science behind how they learn?”  When a student struggled, whether behaviorally or academically, it became an opportunity for a teacher to showcase his or her skill, similar to how a skilled physician might successfully diagnose and remedy an ailment.  They did not need to mention the word “professionalism,” specifically.  Rather, it was simply the expectation of all.

The “R” stands for Relationships.  We often talk about getting to know our students more authentically.  However, with all that we must accomplish by the end of the school year, it often feels like an impossible task.  The Finns have a different interpretation.  They maintain that learning cannot begin in earnest until the relationship is established.  Studies of how the brain learns have proven that when a student has a positive relationship with the instructor, engagement increases considerably, which maximizes retention.  Using this premise, they assert that forming authentic relationships is not an add-on to teaching—it is the very foundation of teaching.

The final component of the equation is a word that was mentioned by every educator we encountered.  Unlike the word “professionalism,” the Finns mentioned this word more times than I could tally.  They will say that if any single word describes their education, it is “trust.”  It permeates all that they do.  Teachers are trusted to be curriculum and pedagogical experts.  Administrators are trusted to foster nurturing learning environments and set teachers up for success.  Policymakers are trusted to govern with the students’ best interest in mind.  Students and the community as a whole trust everyone in our profession to prepare the next generation by providing them with a truly world-class education.  This yields a system where the prestige of working in education becomes very attractive.

While this may seem like a chicken and egg conversation, I have come to believe that the first two components have to be present first.  When combined together, professionalism and relationships produce trust.  Thus, P + R = T.  It is, of course, relatively simple to list all of the reasons why this approach would not work in the U.S.A. and how culturally we would be comparing the proverbial apples to oranges.  Admittedly, there are factors that are very much beyond our control.  However, the key ingredients are very much within reach. 

Every one of us can commit ourselves to high professional standards in our work.  When I hear that someone is a professional or has turned pro, it conjures up images of someone who is at the very top of their game or area of focus.  Perhaps like me, your mind may go to a professional athlete or an incredibly skilled musician when you hear that term.  In any case, it means that a professional is among a very skilled few, and it is a good reminder to me that educators are no different.  We ARE the ones charged to have a unique skillset unlike any others when it comes to educating young minds.  We have a duty of care to continue honing our craft in order to be “on top of our game” at all times.  The classrooms, buses, and hallways are our stage where five-star performances occur on a daily basis.  Professionalism IS within our control.

Perhaps more than any other profession, we are in a very human business.  Anytime that humans interact with one another, relationships matter.  In the most human of all professions, it stands to reason that relationships matter most in education.  I wonder what would occur if every one of us made cultivating positive relationships with students our first priority.  Would engagement increase?  Would achievement increase?  Would discipline decrease?  Would it also lead to better adult relationships?  My gut says “yes” to all of these questions, and I’d love to find out the answer.  I challenge everyone (myself included) to remember why we entered into this incredible profession—to serve.  Fostering relationships is within our control.

If my theory is correct, then focusing on the “P” and the “R” will begin to yield a greater “T.”  No, I do not intend for this to be a rose-colored glasses narrative where I am trying to convince you that if you do these things, then society will suddenly embrace educators and never question your expertise.  Nor am I trying to suggest that by simply concentrating on professionalism and relationships that every building will become a utopia without issues and that suddenly we will vault to #1 on all of the world rankings.  What I am trying to suggest is that there is no secret to success.  Like anything worth achieving, it takes hard work.  It takes constant study and investment in building relationships, even when the person on the other end may be resistant.  I do believe that trust can grow.  I am also suggesting that I wholeheartedly believe that all of us are well within our capabilities as professionals to make an incredible impact, and if there is anything worth that effort, it is the future of our children.  I trust each of you to do exactly that.  I also trust that this is going to be an incredible year because of you.  Let’s get to work!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

2019 Commencement Address

Good morning/afternoon/evening parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, distinguished guests, and most importantly, Class of 2019!  I’m honored to share in this special day of celebration and accomplishment with you.

For some time, I imagine you have counted the days, weeks, or perhaps even months until the moment you will experience very shortly.  Now, you can countdown the time until you reach the culmination of your high school career in mere minutes.  As is the case when one nears any noteworthy milestone, it is typical to reflect upon the many accomplishments, as well as obstacles that you have faced along the way.  Perhaps your mind has drifted back to when you met your best friend, a favorite memory from homecoming, the nervousness of your first exam, or maybe even further back to lunchtime conversations in middle school, or even stepping onto the bus for the first time in kindergarten.  Parents, I know that undoubtedly you have reminisced as well, shocked at where the time has gone, but bursting with pride at the young men and women your children have become.

Like you, I have reflected on past events that have brought us here today and shaped our journey along the way.  While preparing my remarks, my mind did not go back to an event at one of our schools, but strangely enough, to an email that I received just five days before the start of this school year.  That date was August 31st, and with the author’s permission, I will read a portion of that email to you:

Good morning Dr. Gill,
My name is Gini Bonnell, I live in Richmond, VA, and since the beginning of the year I have been hand-making and giving away "Be Kind" signs and to date have delivered over 850 signs all across the country.  And I am so pleased to report that there are signs up in 239 schools in Virginia!

I just watched the HCPS video and saw one of my signs in it!  I currently have signs in 13 schools in Hanover County plus I have supplied your bus drivers with signs to go on the school buses starting next week (photos attached).  

Wow!  This was and remains such a simple but profoundly beautiful message and positive reminder for us all—be kind!  Ms. Bonnell generously offered to donate additional signs for the remainder of our schools, and as I hope many of you have noticed, we graciously accepted.  Each sign has an accompanying note from Gini that reads, "I started making the ‘Be Kind’ signs as a way to cope with all the negativity and polarizing messages that exist today. What began as a simple sign in my front yard has spread across the country.”  Signs are now on display in schools, businesses, as well as in the front yards of friends and strangers as a way to remind people to simply be kind.  The movement has taken off in ways I’m sure she could not have imagined and, in fact, now her signs can be found literally all over the globe. 

Her two-word message does indeed seem in stark contrast to the divisive times in which we live. Unfortunately, one of the casualties of contemporary society seems to be the ability of individuals who may have opposing views to sit down face-to-face and have a productive dialogue—to take the time to understand those with differing opinions and work despite them for the common good.  It is far easier to point fingers, to shout with the aid of social media, and to point out other people’s flaws while denying our own.

The fact is, though, that while saying “be kind” is relatively easy, actually being kind is far more difficult than other actions prevalent in our culture.  The Random Acts of Kindness website paraphrases Teddy Roosevelt by commenting that kindness is, “doing what you can, where you are, with what you have.”  While an individual act, random or otherwise, should never be devalued, I submit to you that kindness is not a singular event.  Rather, it is a commitment and a way in which you live your life.  The word “doing” in Roosevelt’s definition implies that one who is kind does so not only in words but by sustained actions.

As we celebrate the compilation of thirteen years of your formal education today, it is fair to ask: Where does this lesson on kindness fit into the curriculum you have just completed?  Which Standards of Learning best correlate to kindness?  How does kindness relate to the diploma that will soon rest in your hands? 

During the entirety of this school year, a dedicated group of educators pondered similar questions and built upon work that began last year to create a guiding document entitled, Profile of a Hanover Graduate.  Their goal was to define specifically what your diploma represents.  It, of course, symbolizes the passing of various tests and thousands of hours of school attendance, but we wanted to go further by explicitly stating the knowledge, skills, and abilities that you, as graduates, will possess when you embark on your post-secondary plans.  In short, we want that piece of paper that you have worked so hard for to hold significant meaning.  We want to say to the world that a Hanover County graduate is life-ready!

The document has four overarching domains:
1.    Empowered Learner
2.    Globally Engaged Communicator
3.    Resilient Individual &
4.    Responsible Citizen

Each of these domains includes a series of grade-level-appropriate “I can” statements, such as:
“I can connect, assess, and extract relevant information,” in the empowered learner domain, or “I can use positive coping strategies to address life stressors,” in the resilient individual domain.
The totality of these statements embodies the commitment we are making to go beyond the basic curriculum to ensure the relevance of your education.  Again, however, it is fair to ask, “Where does kindness fit into the domains that we now outwardly say will ensure a successful Hanover County graduate?”

The answer, quite simply, is all of them.  You see, the knowledge that you have gleaned since kindergarten will empower you to make a greater impact in the world.  However, when kindness and knowledge act in unison, you will make a more meaningful impact.  To look at it through Roosevelt’s lens, it allows your “where you are” in life not to simply be a physical place, but rather the potential that you have for influencing those around you.  Similarly, your “what you have” refers not to physical possessions, but the wisdom that you have to impart.  The work you have done that led you here today, your profile as a graduate if you will, is strong and will forever change your impact potential.

As the old saying goes though, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.  Too often, there are those who have good intentions but mistakenly believe that acts of kindness may compromise their stature or even make others question their beliefs when they show kindness to those who may be somehow different from themselves.  Do not be fearful of doing what is right.  I believe that those who are most secure and grounded in their own beliefs are the most willing to be kind to those who have different perspectives than their own.

Similarly, living a life of kindness does not somehow prohibit one from acknowledging the very human emotions of anger, hurt, or loneliness.  Unfortunately, you will continue to experience every one of those emotions, and many more, during your life.  However, kindness is the strength to persevere in a way that makes a positive impact on others, even when we are hurting inside ourselves.  And, by doing good for others, we often experience cathartic healing.

In her book, A Passion for Kindness, Hanover County teacher Tamara Letter discusses her kindness journey, as well as how tragedy and heartache brought her to a crossroads in her life.  She could have remained mired in the hurt, lashed out at the world, or taken a different path.  Fortunately, she chose the latter.  As she explains in her own words, “That’s the beauty of kindness; it doesn’t have boundaries. It isn’t limited to race, religion, gender or location. It can be small. It can be grandiose. It’s a characteristic of the soul, a universal language of the heart. It’s a mindset you either embrace, or you don’t. It’s a choice.”

You do indeed have a choice, graduates, and I implore you today and every day that follows to choose wisely.  You don’t need to undergo a ceremony, make a public profession, or post on Instagram or Snapchat in order to begin.  As Mrs. Letter explains later in her book, “Kindness is being the best version of you every chance you get.”  That’s it—nothing secret or out of the ordinary.  The best version of you is more than adequate to make a tremendous impact in this life.  Your profile as a graduate is strong.  You now have tremendous powers.  Use your powers for good!
Congratulations Class of 2019, I could not be more proud of you.  The world awaits your impact.  Go, and make it a kinder place.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Design Thinking - More Than Just A Project: Charles Stevens, Principal, Lee-Davis High School

In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Dominica. It was regarded as the worst natural disaster on record to affect the islands and the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 2004: over 3,000 fatalities.

This event hit home as some of our students had family on the islands and for me personally as I have friends that live in San Juan.

So what does this have to do with education?

Mrs. Jao, Spanish teacher at Lee-Davis, collaborated with our Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, Mrs. Calder, on a unit using the design thinking process for her Spanish III classes. Design thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. At the heart of design thinking is empathy. According to the Institute of Design at Stanford University, empathy is also the foundation of a human-centered design process; by deeply understanding people we are better able to design for them.

One of the thematic units in the Spanish III curriculum addresses the environment and the community. In the curriculum, students are expected to recognize, discuss, and talk about environmental issues and eco-friendly solutions in the target language. They chose Hurricane Maria as the focal point for this unit and used the design thinking principles of empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test for the assignment: What can we do for Puerto Rico?

The Design Thinking Process

Empathy:  To start, the students were immersed in a hurricane simulation of Hurricane Maria, which was rated as category 5. They turned off the lights for several minutes, played strong hurricane winds for sound effect and projected images of the island after the storm to immerse the students as much as possible. Students were not allowed to use cell phones either as they would have been unusable during and after the storm. Using Spanish vocabulary and tenses they learned, the students shared their feelings and emotions after the experience. According to the teachers, it was quite emotional experience for some students.

Define:  After this discussion, they collaborated in small groups to define the problem area they wanted to address. They had to keep in mind the original assignment: What can we do for Puerto Rico? Two of the primary areas the groups addressed were housing and nutrition.

Ideate:  The assignment was open-ended and students could choose to develop any product or service they desired to fill the need they defined. The students researched essential information, available resources, and discussed ideas to others before developing their product or service. They used concept maps to draw out their thoughts and ideas. Throughout this process students spoke using the targeted language and used vocabulary and tenses from this unit.

Prototype: During this phase of the process, students began creating their product or service. There were a wide range of products created to provide assistance for the people of Puerto Rico: a 3-D model of a solar powered generator, a vegetarian survival kit, waterproof pillows, various forms of temporary housing like a bunker inside a mountain to shield people from the elements.

To incorporate more use of the language, students also had to create a video advertisement and bilingual brochure to promote or sell their products.

Test:  The final phase of the process was to present or test the usefulness and practicality of the products. The student audience could ask questions of the product or offer suggestions for improvement.

When reflecting with the students, every single student gave a thumbs up on the experience and indicated they want more learning experiences such as this. As one senior stated, “I actually like things like this. I have to figure out something that could actually help someone.”

This greatest takeaway from the teachers was how immersed the students were in this assignment. This went beyond engagement. Their learning and application of that learning had a purpose beyond a grade. This experience gave them an opportunity to not only empathize with other people, but to put that empathy into action. The assignment became more than a project, it became a mission.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

From Ordinary to Extraordinary: Tamara Letter, ITRT

One of my favorite things to do over spring break is to catch up on a “must read” book recommended by other educators. While it’s sometimes difficult to carve out reading time in the midst of other activities with my three children, I make it a priority for my self-care.

This year I dove into The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The title alone intrigued me because I am passionate about making memories in and out of the classroom, as I’m sure many of you are as well. How is it that some moments have a greater impact than others? I couldn’t wait to find out.

Early in the book, I was struck by a story where relevance and innovation took center stage in transforming a previously apprehensive situation into one that created a long-lasting positive experience for a child.

Doug Dietz, a General Electric industrial designer, had worked tirelessly to design a new MRI machine for a children’s hospital. After two years of preparation and iteration, he eagerly awaited the day when his machine would be put into use.

There was only one problem that Dietz didn’t anticipate: the machine he designed and the environment in which it was used were downright horrifying to a child walking through the door. The machine was menacing, the room was sterile, and no amount of coercion could convince the child that the experience would be pleasant.

In his quest to make an efficient machine, Dietz had focused solely on the content - the MRI machine - not the big picture of the experience itself. He regrouped and formed a panel of stakeholders who could offer a child’s perspective. This “design thinking” team offered suggestions to make the experience of getting an MRI more positive, even fun, for children of all ages.

This process resulted in the creation of the GE “Adventure Series” where rooms were transformed into jungles or islands and MRI machines were customized to play off a child’s imagination, either as a canoe or pirate ship. Great efforts were made to create an engaging experience for children and the data showed positive results with the number of children needing sedation for the MRI dropping from 80% to 27%.

“You can be the architect of moments that matter.” This quote jumped off the page as I reflected about my own teaching practice and collaborations with teachers across the district. As we enter the final quarter of the school year, are we creating moments that matter or simply going through the motions? How are we designing our lessons to create an atmosphere of wonder and intrigue? Is it possible to weave in the elements of intentional surprise while still staying true to our academic expectations for student achievement?

In one word: Yes!

When we make things a priority, they get done. When we brainstorm and collaborate with others, they get done even better. Take a moment and think about a lesson you teach or an initiative you lead from a student or parent perspective. Does this insight shift your planning to create an experience your students won’t forget?  

In my recently published book, A Passion for Kindness: Making the World a Better Place to Lead, Love, and Learn, I shine a spotlight on dozens of teachers and school leaders who are creating memorable moments for their students through the lens of kindness. Teachers like Kate Lapetino, a fourth grade teacher in Wheeling, Illinois whose students practice their written and oral communication by creating kindness videos for others, show how we can take ordinary elements of instruction and make them extraordinary moments to remember.

When we reflect on our teaching practice, and dig deep to evaluate our efficiency and success, we realize the power we have to create equitable learning experiences for our students that soar above the typical and mundane. We truly can create moments that matter!

Today, I encourage you to embrace the purpose that pulled you into education. Wrap your heart around those you serve and remember that you were chosen by Hanover County Public Schools to make a monumental impact on each and every student who walks through the doors of your classroom and school.

Become a maker of moments. Celebrate not only the goal achievements, but the great strides made along the way. Rework a standard lesson into something students never want to end. Join together with those who uplift and inspire and create moments of elevation for your students.

Together we can achieve the unimaginable and lead by example for our students and staff. Let’s dive back into our work with renewed exhilaration and end the year as strong as it began!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fun Friday-Lessons from a Kindergarten Classroom: Courtney Goodloe, Kersey Creek Elementary

Vivian pulls me to the side during recess on Thursday and whispers, “Ms. Goodloe, I can’t wait for you to see my fancy dress tomorrow for Fun Friday!” Nothing about Fun Friday requires extravagant attire, but Vivian’s excitement points to the special event it has become in our classroom. We abandon the regularity of our routines, stepping outside of normalcy with cross-curricular activities that spark creativity, joy, and usually a little bit of a mess. I often hear from colleagues and friends that I’m lucky to be able to teach Kindergarten because we have so much more time and freedom for fun. Although I adore the open minds and unfettered excitement of Kindergarteners, I don’t think that having fun at school is just for our youngest learners. Let me take you through a Fun Friday in hopes that you might find a way to join us in the joy. 

Fun Friday always kicks off with a visit from our 4th-grade book buddies. We squeeze in tight to fit all 47 students on the carpet. We read Strictly No Elephants, a heart-warming story about a little boy and his pet elephant who are rejected from the neighborhood pet club. He bands together with the other kids who have misfit animals to create their own pet club, open to all. As we read, Melanie noticed how the illustrator used darker colors when the character felt left out and brighter colors when he was happy. Tucker noticed that the story structure offered both a problem and a solution when he commented that the boy helped all the misfit animals by creating a new pet club. Sebastian understood the author’s purpose as he observed that we can be friends with people who are different from us.

Then, we sent the book buddy pairs off to their STEM challenge: create your own pet club tree-house. As I tiptoe around the pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks covering the floor, I am amazed how Melanie and Stacy apply their knowledge of animal habitats to create a slide for their seal to exit the tree-house. Danna, a language learner, tries out new vocabulary as she tells me about the pool they built on the roof for their octopus. As I talk with each pair, I see strengths and skills in my students that I would not have seen had we spent the morning in our usual Daily five centers. I see them strategizing, building and problem solving, skills that sound more like a resume than a report card. 

Next on the schedule is our guest reader! Sutton’s mom reads The Pink Refrigerator. As she reads this family favorite, Shaye notices an onomatopoeia. Mason notices the elements of fiction as he comments that it is a magical refrigerator because a refrigerator can’t fill up with different supplies by itself. Most of all, students end the read aloud with a round of applause and a booming “Thank you!”. We’ve engaged literacy skills, practiced respectful listening skills, and built a love for reading. 
In math, we complete the Oreo Challenge. Small groups of students work together to create the tallest, free-standing stack of Oreos. As each tower falls, students count and record the number of Oreos their team was able to stack. A few students start talking strategy about balanced placement and a straight stack. I hear Marcos defending his group’s tower as the tallest because he knows that 16 is greater than 12. Many students are comparing quantities and practicing writing their teen numbers. It is also a great opportunity for students to practice one-to-one correspondence as they push and count their Oreos. All students, regardless of their level of experience, have the opportunity to engage in mathematical thinking. Fun Friday activities like this give all students an access point and a successful learning experience. 

We wrap up our Fun Friday by rewriting the end of our shared reading text, The Wheels on the Bike. We giggle as we brainstorm all the ways we could end this story about a ragtag group of animals on their way to the circus. Jayden comes up to add his newly acquired sight word into our interactive writing piece. Bayleigh adds “way” to our text, noticing that it has the “ay” vowel team, just like her name! Then, we pull out the paints, and each student creates an animal or a piece of the setting to add to our mural. We proudly hang our writing on the wall and re-read it together,
solidifying our collective identity as authors and illustrators. As we walk out to buses, I hear students continuing to generate more verses for the wheels on the bike, mimicking the familiar pattern of the wheels on the bus song. These students have not only applied their letter-sound knowledge in writing but also transferred their understanding of a patterned text to create their own verses. Even after the bell has rung, these students are choosing to engage in learning. That’s exactly why Fun Friday matters. When learning is fun, it isn’t something that is contained in the four walls of our classroom.

There is little independence and lots of energy in a kindergarten classroom. I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t tired by the end of the week, but Fun Fridays refresh and revive all of us. Students enter with the expectation of excitement and engagement. As a teacher, it challenges me each week to plan activities for them that allow them to apply their learning in a variety of contexts. But, all of the preparation is worthwhile as I see five-year-olds engaging in the skills they will need as 25-year-olds. Armed with qualities like flexibility, creativity, and cooperation, I know these little humans will make tremendous impacts on our world. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Directly from our Students: Dr. Bob Staley and Mr. Michael Mudd, Directors of Secondary and Elementary Education

Prior to the Grand Opening of the 2018-2019 school, we facilitated a panel discussion for our new teachers consisting of students representing K-12.  The activity was unscripted and unfolded very organically – As you can imagine, our students were a hit!  More importantly, they provided our new teachers with outstanding guidance to help them prepare for the Grand Opening of the 2018-2019 school.   

The themes that emerged during our time with the students are as follows:

1.       Students like teachers that are nice – The students explained that “nice” teachers are those that smile, care about them, get to know them, make sure that all students are learning, and are passionate about teaching and their subject area.  Many of the students provided examples of teachers who went “above and beyond” to build trust and ensure that they were successful.  Simply put, our students want strong relationships with their teachers.       

2.       Our students want to be engaged in and make connections with their learning – Students want rigorous experiences and expect our teachers to challenge them and support them throughout the learning process.  Specifically, students want teachers to “get to know them” and to provide them with individualized and equitable learning experiences.  Simply put, our students expect us to serve them in a way that addresses their unique learning needs.   
3.       Students want learning to be fun – A few examples include incorporating movement, using outside learning spaces, lots of hands-on activities, and opportunities to engage in experiences that will prepare them for real-life.  In their own way, the students shared that they want a variety of activities, better use of technology, more opportunities to collaborate with their classmates, and to stretch their learning.  Simply put, students want learning to be relevant and engaging.   
4.       Students expect teachers to be professionals – We repeatedly heard from students that the learning expectations should be clear, that assessments should be graded in a timely fashion and include meaningful feedback, and that teachers need to address behaviors that impact the learning environment.  Simply put, our students expect teachers to be organized, communicate effectively, and to provide an amazing learning environment. 
5.       Students expect us to serve them using the best practices and learning tools available – Closely linked with 1, 2, 3, and 4, the “nuance” is that students expect those that serve them to be “up to date” as professional educators.  Simply put, our students expect all of us to be innovative in our approaches to teaching and learning.  In other words, we can’t keep “doing what we’ve always done.”
It is important to recognize that the student voices echoed those that served on the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Panel, aligned with the findings articulated in Dr. Gill’s Post-Immersion Report and the goals of our Long Range Plan, and support and validate our continued division focus on Relevance, Equity, and Innovation

Why are we sharing student perceptions with you, and why are we sharing them now?  As we begin the second half of our school year, it is important for each of us to reflect on our practices and our impact on student learning and outcomes.  Therefore, as we engage in continuous growth as professional educators and as a member of a learning community, we encourage you to reflect on the following questions:

·         How do we hold ourselves accountable for teaching in more Relevant, Equitable, and Innovative ways?         
·         What opportunities are we providing for student voice and choice, for students to conduct authentic presentations, and for students to engage in meaningful collaboration?
·         How can we best continue learning from each other through peer observations, debriefings, and reflections?
·         What does our data tell us?  What are the trends?  How do we get “better” at analyzing and interpreting our student performance data? 

The answers to those questions are uniquely personal, but also involve conversation and collaboration as a member of a team (grade level, subject area, school improvement, VTSS, department, etc.) and collectively as a member of a school community. 

Finally, what is our answer to the question, What if every child had a champion or a hero?”  Some may argue that it isn’t our job to be a “champion” or a “hero” for our students.  Others take great pride in being a hero or a champion for the children that they serve.  If you are unsure of your answer or you want to learn more about the impact we can have on our students, then we encourage you to take 8 minutes and watch the TEDTalk “Every Kid Needs a Champion” by Rita Pierson: https://www.ted.com/talks/rita_pierson_every_kid_needs_a_champion  

Thank you for all you do to provide Relevant, Equitable, and Innovative learning experiences for our students and your focus on continuous professional growth and school improvement.

We wish each of you a wonderful second half of the school year!

Michael and Bob