Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Commitment to Professional Growth: Dr. Cheri Beth Fisher, Principal, Cold Harbor Elementary School

One by one, we file into the room and find a seat around the table. Within five minutes, our team is assembled, and we’re ready to do some of the most important work we’ll do all week. For the past two years, the fourth grade team, coaches and administrators have dedicated one 45 minute block of time to each other every week. In an elementary school where you only get 45 minutes without students each day, this is a sacrifice. What we’ve learned over time is that it’s also a deposit. Each time we meet, we invest in our team and our students. Based on this work, we’ve developed what educational researchers call collective teacher efficacy. Simply put, we believe that together we can and will have a positive impact on student learning. These dividends are extraordinary! In fact, a meta-analysis of educational research revealed that collective teacher efficacy has the most significant influence on student achievement-- and we’re seeing it.

Let me be clear. Collective teacher efficacy is not just saying, “Oh yeah, I know that we can get our students to learn.” It’s a belief that is built over time through trust, professional growth, shared success, shared struggles, and concrete results. It's a belief that can only develop in a collaborative team that focuses on student learning, the type of teams that comprise a school-wide professional learning community, or PLC

The fourth grade team at Cold Harbor- Matt Coleman, Courtney Peterson, Kim Webb and Kelsey Zeilinger- were the “guinea pigs” for our launch into establishing a professional learning community, so when asked to share what our journey toward becoming a PLC has entailed, I went to them because they can best describe how this journey feels as a teacher. Has it been smooth? No. Has it been easy? No. Have their opinions about PLCs changed over time? Yes.

Our initial meetings were awkward. Administrators and coaches would plan to lead a conversation, analyze data or lead professional learning, and the teachers would come to the meeting, participate and leave. The meetings didn’t always feel connected, and many of our tasks seemed to remain unfinished. When I asked the team how they felt at the beginning of our journey, one team member said, “I remember thinking, ‘What is this?’  We left meetings going, ‘Why did we do that?’ But, looking back on it, we started to realize why.” Once student data became the focus of our discussions, meetings became more comfortable and natural. Teachers started to talk more and trust one another, and we collectively gained professional expertise to address the needs we identified. When I asked team members to share advice for school teams who are just beginning to put structures in place to encourage more collaboration, they said, “Trust the process and be patient. Miracles don’t happen overnight. We didn’t really see the impact of our work until the end of the first year.”
As we embarked on our second year of this journey, it has been easier to establish our focus areas and see results. Every meeting is different, but they are all connected through the learning cycle of inquiry, research, development, data collection and debriefing. At the end of each meeting, our goals for the next meeting are identified so that we come prepared in order to be efficient. Unpacking standards and creating formative assessments as a team has allowed us to more effectively engage in backwards instructional design. We’ve also been able to more strategically use assessment data to guide interventions and share the responsibility for students across the grade level. 
The fourth grade teachers have found value in working with one another and now extend their collaboration beyond the collaborative team time to plan all instruction. When asked how the PLC structure has changed the way their team functions, teachers shared, “It keeps us aligned as a group and moving forward.” and “We are more cohesive with common goals.” One teacher said, “I feel like right now our team is stronger than it has been in years because we’ve had this chance every week to sit down and collaborate.”  As an administrator, the most exciting part of this process has been watching a team of teachers gain professional respect for one another and realize that they aren’t alone in their jobs. They have become attuned to their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses and aren’t afraid to have open dialogue as they problem solve. One teacher shared, “We know where each others’ gaps are, and we’ve been able to support each other. We aren’t afraid to ask, ‘What did you do to get this success with this specific skill? What are you doing differently?’” On this team where each teacher differs in their instructional approach, they came to realize that open-mindedness is critical. One teacher’s advice is, “We are all professionals. Each person has something to give. I may not match you in my style, but if we work together we create a more positive learning experience for kids.”
Our school's culture has begun shifting toward becoming a PLC-- our meetings aren’t perfect, and we have much to learn-- but the outcomes we’re already seeing make us excited to think about what lies ahead for this team, our students and our school.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Hanover Education Foundation 2019 Gala Remarks

Teacher of the Year's Remarks (Mara Lambert):

For those of you who don’t know, I teach middle school.
Yes, Middle school!

My students have energy.  
They are passionate.  
They are loving.
They are kind.
They are emotional at times.
They are moody.  

Some of them have such a positive attitude that they soar into the building.
Some of them are just overwhelmed with each day that their steps are heavy. 
They are upset over a lost pet.
They are sad because of a lost love.
They are emotional over a friendship situation.
They worry about the test coming.
They worry about passing.
They worry about deadlines.
They giggle at inappropriate things and during inappropriate times. 
They bicker with their peers.
They talk while I’m teaching and sneak peeks at their phones.

They can disagree.
The can be loud.
They can be withdrawn.
They can be frustrated.
They can be joyful.
They can be creative.

They collaborate.
They compete fiercely.
They support each other.
They have life problems that not everyone can see or even  know about.
They have another whole world of activities and adventures when they leave school. 
They laugh.
They cry.
Yes, I teach middle school, and I love it.

I love it when you can see when connections are made with the content they are learning and then actually apply their learning.  
There is nothing better than to see them succeed and I have a sense of pride in their accomplishments.
My students  get excited about their learning and then share it with others. It is then that  I feel that I am making a difference in their lives.  
I love my job.
I teach at a middle school.
And I teach the teachers.

As an instructional technology resource teacher, my goal every day is to let my teachers know that they are loved, that they are heard and that they are supported.  I spend many days troubleshooting their problems, teaching at the point of error, and helping them plan lessons.  The largest part of my job as their coach is helping them to develop professionally.  What I have seen over the last decade is that we as teachers, don’t always take the time or are given the time to take care of our own professional needs. 

Would you ever want your own students to stop being curious?  To stop searching for answers?  To stop trying and take a risk?  But yet, as adults we do that.  We become bogged down with the day to day chores of our job that we forget the love of learning that brought us here. 

GOOD professional development helps YOU, the teachers take your learning and apply it, not next school year, not next summer when you are revamping their lesson plans, but today. You may have learning that doesn’t fit your needs, you may have learning that isn’t content specific, but I encourage you to look for that learning, ask for that learning, advocate for the learning that will make you teachers of the year, not just this year, but every year. 

Do you remember when you were young?  That excitement of going to school? I can remember some specific thoughts.
What will I learn today? 
I wonder if I am going to take care of the class bunny this week.
I can’t wait to finish that book we started yesterday.
Will I get to finish that science project on the solar system?
Will it be my day to play Oregon trail and will I die of dysentery?
I am so excited to see my teacher.  

What are your happy learning memories?  Think about them for a moment.  Do you have a memory in your mind.  Now, do me a favor and hold those thoughts and excitement  in your heart  when you are told that “tomorrow will be a professional development day.” Remind your colleagues of the same feelings and skip happily to the library for your learning with your teammates.  Remember what it means to be a lifelong learner. 

When you hear people say, “I don’t have the money for a class”, then introduce them to Twitter.  Show them how a simple hashtag can give them quick and easy things to learn each day that are content specific.  Introduce them to a community of people who will support them and help them along their way.

When you hear people say, “ I don’t have the time for this.”  Remind them that they would hate to hear their students say that to them in their own classrooms.  Remind them of why they became a teacher in the first place. Don’t forget your own love of learning that brought you here. 

What is best for students is what is best for us. Learn online with free webinars, Learn with your peers and create your own professional learning network, read books that engage your mind and expand your thinking.  Don’t forget your own love of learning that brought you here.

Advocate for yourself with your administration.  Ask for opportunities instead of assuming they may not “let you go” Advocate for your teams to have time to collaborate, to share ideas, and most importantly reflect upon what worked and what didn’t.  

I always hear that education isn’t the same as it was 20 + years ago when some of us first started out. It’s better.  I know more.  I’m a teacher which means I know more.  I’m a lifelong learner. The children haven’t changed. They are still here to learn.  The schools haven’t changed.  They are still a safe haven for our children.  Teachers haven’t changed.  We are still here to shape and mold young thinkers to be better than we are, to reach further than we did, and to change the world. 

Hold on to what you believe in, continue learning for your own growth and the growth of your students.  You are NEVER too old to learn something new and don’t forget your own love of learning that has brought you here.

I teach middle school and I love it.

Thank you again, each of you for your time and dedication to our children of Hanover county.  Thank you Hanover Educational Foundation and everyone there for your hard work on this amazing evening.  We all are grateful for everything you do for all of us in Hanover Schools.  

Happiest of Holidays and a restful break for each of you. May you all find time to rejuvenate and renew for the coming year ahead.

Superintendent's Remarks:

Last month, former President, George W. Bush, and television personality, Ellen DeGeneres, were seen on camera in the owner’s box at a Dallas Cowboys game laughing and joking with one another.  Bush, of course, has a conservative perspective and DeGeneres has a more liberal perspective.  In the hours and days that followed, both were criticized by their respective supporters on how they could possibly stand to be in the same place with one another, much less get along so well.  As is unfortunately the nature of dialogue via social media, some of the comments were quite harsh in reference to both individuals, to put it mildly.  So, did either buckle under the negative pressure?  Absolutely not.  Ellen responded, "Here’s the thing, I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we've forgotten that that’s okay."  She went on to explain that kindness is not something that should only be given to those with whom you agree.  For President Bush’s part, he wholeheartedly agreed, supporting Ellen’s statements.

At our commencement ceremony this past June, we celebrated those who have made kindness, like the type that DeGeneres described, a priority.  Through the efforts of those like Gini Bonnell, who crafts all of the Be Kind signs that are seen throughout our schools and community, by hand, or our own ITRT, Tamara Letter, author of A Passion for Kindness and one who lives by the motto that the time is always right to be kind, acts of kindness and entire kindness themed initiatives have become pervasive throughout Hanover County Public Schools.

Those that we celebrate here tonight are recognized for being among the very best educators that Hanover County has to offer.  They shape young minds and prepare students for the world in which they will live and work.  In the process, they ensure the very economic security of our community.  But…they do more than that.  As we are in the business of education, it is easy to equate the work that goes inside of our school buildings with academic pursuits.  The truth is though that the best educators know that it is the whole child who must be developed, not simply tests that must be passed.

The teachers here this evening do not teach Geometry or English, Physical Education or 4th grade.  Yes, those subjects may be covered in their classrooms, but they do not define the limitations of their professional capabilities.  They teach students—they teach human beings.  They teach kindness, both intentionally and in the natural way they approach their daily interactions. They provide for the development of the whole child and model for our students that the way in which we treat one another will always be just as important, and perhaps much more so, than the learning that any textbook can provide.

In doing so, our students are not taught to compromise their own values, rather to not shy away from dialogue from those who appear different than ourselves.  Students often find that they have many things in common, and often those things far outweigh the perceived differences.  For instance, in the case of DeGeneres and President Bush, they both have equally terrible taste in NFL teams (Hail to the Redskins!).  All jokes aside, in the most human-centric of all professions, it should warm all of our hearts that we have so many who concentrate on human qualities.

If you ever doubted the importance of these skills, just ask our local business leaders.  I recently met with my Business Advisory Council who routinely provides me with helpful insights on workforce trends, as well as how we might use these trends to better prepare our students.  At our last meeting, a presentation highlighted the projected effects of artificial intelligence on future employment opportunities.  While fascinating, and often scary, the largest take-away that our group had was that whether in school or in business, we must have a laser-like focus on developing the so-called “soft-skills,” or rather human only skills, because if an algorithm can be written for a job, it may soon be converted to automated production.  However, qualities like empathy, collaboration, innovation, and kindness are hard if not impossible to replicate by a machine.

Those we celebrate here tonight recognize that and are doing yeoman’s work on behalf of our students, but really on behalf of our entire community.  They know that there is absolutely nothing soft about soft skills.  They know that developing students outside of the academic isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s the right thing to do, and while a single individual may benefit from an act of kindness, in the end we all benefit when the world becomes a kinder place.
I offer my sincere congratulations and gratitude to all whom we celebrate tonight, and congratulations as well to those of you who are here in support of their efforts.  This support helps Hanover maintain our celebrated Tradition of Excellence.

I wish you all very safe and enjoyable holiday season.  Enjoy the rest of your evening!

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Thank You Letter: Catherine Ciucci, English/Language Arts Teacher, Chickahominy Middle School

Right before it was time to start applying for my very first teaching job, my professor scheduled one-on-one conferences with my class to prepare us for the next step in our careers. When my turn came, I sat down with my portfolio and résumé in hand, anxiously awaiting the first question.

“Where do you plan to apply for a teaching position?”

I immediately smiled in relief, because I had known the answer to this question since I was in kindergarten. “Hanover County,” I replied.

My professor looked up at me, as though expecting me to continue. When I didn’t, she followed up.  “Only one county?”

“Absolutely,” I answered.

I could tell she was perplexed and I wasn’t surprised. How do you explain the essence of Hanover County Public Schools to someone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand? Looking at the county objectively, it is evident that it ranks competitively among the Virginia district schools.  Even when segmented into individual schools, there isn’t a facility that doesn’t uphold the standard of excellence set throughout the county. However, the statistics do not even begin to skim the surface of what makes Hanover County so special. It is a place where innovation and creativity reside in every classroom. Where every student not only has a name, but a voice, an advocate, and a chance. Where words like ‘kindness’ and ‘respect’ are emphasized more than ‘assessment’ and ‘scores’. A place where every teacher, administrator, and staff member works to their fullest potential; not because of a need to be the best, but to ​do what’s best for our students. The accolades and awards are just an external sign of an intrinsic motivation.

I first decided to pursue a career in teaching because I fully understood the immeasurable impact of a quality education. I became a Hanover County teacher because I fully understand the immeasurable influence of having someone who cares. From my very first steps into Washington-Henry to my final steps across the stage at the Siegel Center, every single one of my teachers made an effort to get to know me, not only as a student, but as a person as well. They helped define my character during the most impressionable days of my life. Although our time together was only a small fraction of my lifetime, they made a significant difference that could not easily be erased and could never be forgotten. Teaching in Hanover County is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to all of the teachers who first taught me.

As I transitioned from student to colleague, I discovered a whole new side of Hanover County Public Schools. My previous teachers became my mentors and continued my education on a professional level. Following in their footsteps while forging my own path, I fully understand the impact and influence of a teacher. Every day is an opportunity to shape minds as well as hearts. Now, I look to my students and not only see my legacy as a teacher but the future of our community.

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.