Category Archives: Uncategorized

The First Day of School

Like so many teachers, I nervously plan, re-plan, and then overplan the first few days of school.  I want my students to feel like this is their class, not my class.  This helps create a positive learning environment that is based on mutual respect and trust.  However, for most of my teaching career I’ve started the first day of school with the course syllabus.  When I left student teaching and landed my first high school teaching job I was told, “Don’t smile until November,” and “Set the rules on the first day so that there is no question as to who is in charge.”  Admittedly, I thought that I could do that.  I could easily tackle the rules part but the whole not smiling axiom just didn’t work for me.  A smile communicates warmth and I certainly didn’t want to create a classroom where students felt that I was cold and uninterested in them as individuals.  So I smiled and then went through the rules.  And I’ve continued to do just that for sixteen years of my teaching career.  Until this week…

On Wednesday, I’m changing it up.  Instead, we’re going to do some relationship building.  If our classroom is going to be focused on teaching and learning, then we’re going to have to build a classroom community based on trust and respect.  So instead of going through the rules immediately,  we’re going to focus less on the “how “ of this class and more on the “who” is in this class.  My high school students are going to be diagnosing their learning styles and committing to habits that support those styles.  The juniors in U.S. HIstory will be creating infographs that demonstrate key events in their lives and word clouds that depict who they are and the things they hold dear.  My goal is that together we will work to create products that depict who we are so that we can create the foundation to our classroom relationship.

If ever you’re in a job interview and you’re asked, “What is your greatest strength?” and you don’t answer, “My connection with students,” then it is entirely likely that you will not get the job.  I’ve sat on many interview committees over the years and admittedly, if I don’t hear that sometime during the interview, I’m not likely to recommend a candidate to be hired.  It’s not that I have a script that I want a prospective teacher to follow or that I am willing to overlook other issues with an interview once I hear that magic phrase, but ultimately, I believe that our connection with students is what allows teachers to access and activate student learning.  Teachers who focus on relationship building first, content, second will inherently find more success in helping that content stick.

 

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Best Teachers Ever

The first teacher I really remember was Mrs. Hester. She was absolutely rigorous, absolutely strict, and one of the most fun teachers I ever had. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. She was the first person who inspired me to be a teacher. I think I’m still channeling her.

The thing is, I was super lucky. I had multiple memorable teachers.

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Mrs. Garland in sixth grade not only taught me math but she read the most incredibly vivid stories, stories I still remember. Mr. Spivey in seventh grade made grammar and writing both comprehensible and fun. Besides teaching us how to speak Spanish, Sr. Isidro Jesus Maytorena y Robinson shared with us what it was like to grow up in rural Mexico. Our junior high librarian took us to the Stanford library and let us tour the rare book section.

Then came high school. Mr. Meredith and Mr. Rigley demanded higher and higher levels of writing. (When I got to college I tested out of most of the required composition classes because of what they taught me.) Mr. Bradburn taught my whole sophomore English class how to speak in public without fear. An amazing feat! Mr. Barley and the other geometry teachers team-taught a fluid set of three classes we could move up and down within; meanwhile the teachers wrote their own geometry textbook. M. Keplinger had us speaking French from the first day of school. Miss Allshouse ran the Model UN and the Asian History Club and let us make dinner at her house. Mr. Viera would NOT let me leave the room until I understood each day’s physics lesson.

Sir Isaac Newton said he saw further as a scientist because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I feel like I had a similar experience. I am a better teacher because I grew up in the classrooms of giants.

As I start school next week, I won’t begin the year alone. I will be accompanied by all the great teachers who laid the foundation for my own education.

Now seems like an ideal time to remember and thank them.

Second Tier Certification in Washington: A Year of Reckoning

Conroy DuringMy youngest son recently announced he was thinking about becoming a teacher. “What are all the steps you have to go through?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “First you need to get into college. Then you’ll spend your first two years taking general courses designed to give you a rounded education. After that you’ll apply to the college of education at your university. They’ll want you to have pretty good grades and they’ll make you take a basic skills test to make sure you have a decent foundation of knowledge and skills.”

“That sounds reasonable,” he said.

“And once you get into the program you’ll focus on classes that train you how to teach. You’ll learn about child development, lesson planning, classroom management and how to sequence instruction. You’ll also spend a lot of time out in classrooms observing and teaching small groups and short lessons. You’ll write a lot of reports on your observations and reflections. During your last semester you’ll take over someone’s classroom and teach full time. During all of this you’ll get lots of feedback and help from the teachers you work with as well as the faculty from your college.”

“Is that it?” Continue reading

Surprised by your summative TPEP score? You shouldn’t be…

It’s that time of year again when school comes to a close and seniors are waiting for graduation. As I think about that final report card, I know that the grades that my students will see will be of little surprise to them. We’ve been communicating all semester long about their progress towards the learning goals and standards. They’ve been assessed throughout the semester and I’ve offered significant feedback to them about their work and skill development. I’ve met with students routinely throughout the year to discuss learning strategies and how to overcome their perceived weaknesses. Now, as the year culminates, students should be pretty clear as to where they stand academically in my class.

So as teachers come to the end of this year’s TPEP (Teacher/Principal Evaluation Project) cycle, do all teachers know how they’ve been assessed? Have they had the opportunity to receive feedback about their teaching throughout the year? Will they be surprised when they see that summative TPEP score on their final evaluation?

For the past three months I’ve been engaged in pre-bargaining contract language to formally transition TPEP from a LOA (Letter of Agreement) into a more permanent place in our CBA (collective bargaining agreement). Part of the pre-bargaining process includes research. I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to teachers from other districts and looking over contracts from districts across the state. What I’ve learned is that TPEP implementation and annual process operates different depending on where a teacher works. My biggest take away: teachers and evaluators might be meeting routinely, but districts have distinct operating definitions of what “routine” looks like.

TPEP has been part of our state for the past six years. My district began implementation of the project during the 2013-2014 school year. Our implementation was fairly democratic. A committee of teachers and administrators selected the Danielson Framework. Core principles and beliefs were drafted and a game plan was put into place. At the core of our work was a belief that TPEP was to be a growth model for our teachers; a process by which teachers and administrators are constantly working to refine teaching and learning in and out of the classroom.

As implementation began, we (both teachers and evaluators) quickly found that the Comprehensive model was cumbersome if we wanted to be good stewards of our core beliefs and principles. Because our local union and administration agreed to meet once a month to discuss TPEP related issues/concerns, teachers asked to make a change to the district TPEP procedure. Beginning in November 2013, teachers on TPEP began meeting once every two weeks with their evaluators. The meetings became a time where teachers could present artifacts and materials to evidence evaluative criteria. Because I chose to be an early adopter, I met with my evaluators once every two weeks from November until April. During that time I was truly challenged. I don’t mean this negatively, whatsoever. I was the one who decided what evidence would be examined and I was the one who began the conversation about how I wanted the evidence scored. This did not mean that I always got my way or that my administrators were push overs. Instead, I was asked questions and given feedback about my practice in a way that I had not received in the past. If I disagreed with the score, I had an opportunity two weeks later to offer additional evidence. I was able to refine my student growth goals, carefully analyze student success towards those goals, and discuss that success or lack thereof, with my evaluators. That format, adopted nearly three years, with some minimal adjustments, remains in place today. It provides teachers with constant feedback. As a result, teachers are encouraged to think differently about their practice. Teachers are now taking risks in engaging learners with new techniques and strategies and seeking assistance from their coach (that’s me!).

Now we are wrapping up our third year on the cycle and transitioning TPEP into our contract. All of our veteran teachers (as well as new teachers) have completed Comprehensive. Although it is no longer feasible for our evaluators to meet once every two weeks with every teacher on Comprehensive, both evaluators in my building set a goal to meet once every three weeks. It doesn’t always happen– after all parent meetings come up, teachers or administrators are sick, but I hold firm in my belief that meeting routinely, throughout the school year, is the best way for an evaluator and a teacher to manage this process. Routine meetings offer the opportunity for teachers to talk about their work, show off when things are going well, and ask for help when they aren’t. When the meetings are routine, they become low risk and less stressful, thus leading to genuine conversations about teaching and learning. When the meetings are routine, the final summative assessment at the end of the year isn’t a surprise, instead it’s confirmation.

But here’s the problem. This isn’t happening everywhere. Teachers in districts across the state tell me that they rarely meet with their evaluator to discuss their practice. Teachers aren’t given the opportunity to routinely reflect and gather feedback about their practice. Danielson (whose model is one of the three approved in the state) points to the fact that routine meetings need to take place in order to see real growth in teaching (Educational Leadership, Vol. 68, No. 4). Many teachers have no idea what final score they will receive until they attend the year end summative meeting. Qutie frankly, this is unacceptable. It is time for teachers to question what “routine” meetings are and to ask that language and practice match intent and goals. A teacher’s summative score should not be a surprise. When teachers feel disconnected to the process and administrators don’t meet with teachers regularly to discuss progress, the entire evaluation process invalidates and undermines the growth model mindset. What could teaching and learning look like if all teachers benefited from this regular, intentional feedback?

If we ask our students to engage in learning with a growth mindset and we use regular feedback to build reflection for our students, shouldn’t our teacher evaluation system mirror that same practice? I completely understand that TPEP is a lot of work for teachers and evaluators. It’s supposed to be. Accomplished teaching requires constant reflection based on feedback and assessment in order to refine goals and practice. If we expect our teachers to provide feedback to students, shouldn’t we ask the same of our teacher evaluators?

Teacher Preparation – A Shared Responsibility

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This guest blog post is courtesy of Amanda Ward, who is a National Board Certified teacher from Bainbridge High School (BHS) where she has taught Social Studies for 15 years. This year Amanda is serving as a part-time teacher and part-time instructional coach at BHS.  She also is a National Teacher Fellow for Hope Street Group, focusing on teacher preparation issues in the U.S. 

Last year, if someone had asked me about my thoughts on Teacher Prep, I likely would not have had much to say. I completed my teacher preparation program nearly twenty years ago and it really is a distant memory. The job of a teacher has changed in those twenty years and I have evolved as an educator to meet those new demands. Frankly I really hadn’t thought much about my training and early development, until recently. Now, after a number of new experiences this year, I have a lot to say about this topic and the need for all teachers, particularly experienced teachers, to take active roles in teacher preparation.

For the past year I have served as a National Teacher Fellow for the nonpartisan nonprofit Hope Street Group. One of the primary responsibilities of that position was participating in a national research project on teacher prep. Over six weeks, the 17 other fellows and I conducted in-person focus groups and distributed surveys in order to gather the opinions of nearly 2,000 teachers in 49 states about how they were prepared and their wishes for aspiring educators. We produced a report called On Deck: Preparing the Next Generation of Teachers that features the findings and recommendations from our research. What is not surprising was that teachers emphasized the importance of deep clinical experience as well as training in how to effectively work with high-needs populations. But this research also reminded me that practicing teachers need to take an active role in both assisting in the training of teachers as well as demanding that universities and school districts provide the preparation and support needed for individuals to be successful entering this incredibly challenging job.

Continue reading

Gifted Isn’t Good

There, I’ve said it. The startling. The scandalous. Or maybe just the incomprehensible. But gifted isn’t good. It isn’t bad either. “Gifted” isn’t a value statement.

Gifted education is not a privilege or a prize. It is not an elite club.

Believe it or not, “gifted” is not a label to aspire to.

Changing the mindset of the public on this issue is difficult. I worked in a district years ago where I not only tested students for the gifted program, but I contacted the parents with the results of the testing. At first I followed the district protocol of mailing letters home, but I got so many questioning phone calls and unhappy letters I finally decided it was more efficient just to call every parent to talk them through the results before mailing the official results.

“Mrs. Brown, your daughter’s scores were really great,” I’d say and read the scores to her. “But she didn’t make it into the gifted program.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.” I could feel her disappointment.

“Well, tell me about your daughter. Does she like school?”

“Yes.”

“Does she get along with her peers? Her teacher? Does she do well? Get good grades?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, Mrs. Brown, thank God. You have a bright child. They are so much easier to raise than a gifted child! For a gifted child, very often the answers to those questions is no.”

I don’t notify parents any more, but I still encounter parents who crave the label. The trouble is, if parents’ aspirations exceed their children’s capabilities, it can harm the children academically, according to the American Psychological Association. Encouraging children to do well is helpful, but pushing too hard is counterproductive. It’s a fine balance, and it’s sometimes hard to strike that balance. In conferences, I sometimes need to counsel parents gently that their child is swimming as hard as they can, but they can’t keep their head above the water. A gifted program is not for everyone.

On the other hand, a general education program is not for everyone either.

Imagine observing a swimming program one summer. Some children test into guppies, some into minnows, some into fish. As soon as they master the skills at one level, the students move to the next. They can advance rapidly or take their time moving through classes over the course of the summer.

School is another matter entirely. In September we take five-year-olds and put them in the same classroom, no matter their skill level. And we keep them in the same room all year, no matter how quickly they advance through learning their skills. We have students in classes where most of their classmates are, so to speak, learning to hold their faces under water and blow bubbles while they should be perfecting their strokes as they swim laps—in the deep pool. Some of them should be diving and thinking of training for the Olympics!

I have an obligation to go diving regularly with my students. Last week’s fifth grade Time for Kids suggested debating whether or not sugary drinks should be taxed. Instead my students debated life-extensionism. Some thought the search for immortality a great idea, but one boy demurred. “Every day of your life now has value because it’s a fraction of your whole life. But if your whole life is forever, then each day is a fraction of that, and its value is nothing.” I’m not sure they’re considering that argument at MIT!

One thing I really appreciate about the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is that it talks about identifying “students with specific learning needs, particularly

  • children with disabilities,
  • English learners,
  • students who are gifted and talented, and
  • students with low literacy levels” (page 328, bullets mine).

Notice how the ESSA considers gifted students to be “students with specific learning needs” and it groups gifted students with children with disabilities, children who are learning English, and children who are having difficulty learning to read. In another section it again lists gifted students with children with disabilities and English learners (page 336, lines 6-12).

I am so pleased with this level of understanding on the part of the legislators who wrote this law. Gifted students are one group among many with “specific learning needs”—different educational needs.

I would love it if I could help people shift their mental construct. No more imagining a vertical framework with gifted education being at the top or the best or only for the elite. Instead picture a horizontal framework. Ask yourself, how far are students from the center, from the middle, from the norm? The students at both extremes are exceptional students who need a qualitatively different education.

So gifted students aren’t good/better/best. They’re needy/needier/neediest. And for those who do need it, gifted education is a necessity—a necessity designed to meet the unique educational needs of an outlier group.

Washington State’s Cursive Bill

roachSenator Pam Roach introduced a bill last week in Olympia that would require schools to teach cursive writing. According to her, reading and writing in cursive is “part of being an American.” I don’t know about that, but as a third and fourth grade teacher with over thirty years’ experience, I do know a lot about cursive writing.

And what I know tells me that this bill is doomed. At least I hope it is. Continue reading

Mathphilic

Recently I read a New Yorker article about Brian Greene’s multimedia project, which paid tribute to some of Albert Einstein’s discoveries. It was launched on the centennial celebration of his general theory of relativity. Brian Greene is one of the more famous string theorists due to the popularity of his books which have included Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe among others. He is a brilliant physicist and mathematician. In the article the author relates a story about Greene being set to the task of figuring out how many inches it is from here to the Andromeda galaxy by his father… when he was five. Not typical five-year-old work. Which then segues into a “consolation” for mathphobics that even Greene struggles to comprehend the homework assigned to his children in third and fifth grade.

“It’s all about strategies—‘Come up with a strategy’— and my kids are, like, ‘I don’t have a strategy, I just know it.’” Really? He has time for infinity, but can’t seem to piece together strategies for how students can learn to work with numbers? Continue reading

Secrets Student Share Help Me to Help Them

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This guest post comes courtesy of Irene Smith, an EA ELA NBCT in Yakima, Washington, who teaches English Language Arts, Social Studies and more to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at the Discovery Lab School.  She and her students produce a full length Shakespeare play every year, and she is currently writing a companion text for The Tempest.

You may find this strange.

I collect students’ notes that they pass to each other. Sometimes I catch them passing their little missives and keep them. Sometimes I find them left on a desk or floor, tucked into a drawer or left on a filing cabinet. My students are aware of my fixation with their notes. Sometimes they even purposefully pass one in class in hopes that I’ll collect it in order to find the “Hi Mrs. Smith!” folded up inside. Some students purposefully intercept or find notes to bring to me.

I never read the notes aloud. I just save them until I’m alone to see what the message is. Mostly they are of relative unimportance- I m bored L. But not infrequently, they are full of mystery and angst.

Middle school students are careless, but I suspect they may sometimes leave these notes in order to let me in on their secret communications, to become more closely acquainted with their private worlds, and to help me understand them better.

Dear people at my school, I’m so sorry I’m weird. I’m sorry I don’t fit in. I’m sorry I don’t look pretty like all of you.

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Welcome to the dark side. . .

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We are thrilled to have guest bloggers from time to time at Stories from School, and this offering is from Michelle Carpenter who is a MC-Gen National Certified Board teacher in Walla Walla, Washington. She teaches fifth grade and blogs about teaching, running and motherhood.

When one of our own is going into administration, we’ve all said it. “You’re going to the dark side?” “You are switching teams?” “You’re going to become THEM?” I’m just as guilty as the next.

For years, I have been told, “You would make a great administrator.” Not only did I not know what that meant, I didn’t know to ask, “What do you mean by that?” Normally, I just smiled and carried on, assuming that my organization and Type A personality was what they were referring to. I was always the one willing to take on any given task.

The fact is, when I started to continue my education, I felt a shift inside. I know that we need to view teachers as the experts; even when they might not see themselves as such. We need teachers to step up to leadership roles and be the voice for our students. We need to reach beyond our comfort zones and start having conversations with school board members, legislators and community members. They must be in our schools to understand the demands facing education today at the grass roots level. I knew I could do this and was feeling more and more confident in my ability to do so.
When I earned my Masters Degree and Professional Certification, I did a lot of reading, research and paper writing. I gained useful knowledge from that experience. It was when I earned my National Board Certification, that I felt the true change in me and how I positively impacted the teaching profession.

I was being asked to look deeply at my teaching. To question how I was affecting student’s learning and to think about how I could improve. I couldn’t do it alone. I needed colleagues, mentors and supervisors to help me understand the right questions to ask. I suddenly realized that there wasn’t one right answer, but there were a TON of right questions available to ask! During this time, I found myself in the position to do the same for my fellow colleagues pursuing their National Board Certification. I knew that I didn’t have the answer to their queries, but I could certainly offer some questions to help them seek an answer. I felt more “professional.” I knew that I had skills to share. And I felt more confident taking on district leadership roles.

One of my high school teachers, who I had remained friends with, kept planting the seed in my ear. “You are a great leader. You should take it to the next level.” I thought that meant chairing committees, mentoring teachers and continuing to earn those clock hours. I did all of those things. I enjoyed all of those things. But still, I just didn’t want to become one of “them.”

I’ve been doing this long enough (20+ years) that I have seen a lot of demonstrations of what administration means. I take the good and leave the rest. In fact, I’ll be honest. For the first 10 years of my career, I thought I knew what was best. And I did — for my lil’ class of 25 students. But I certainly wasn’t considering the larger picture or the players involved. That’s what time on your feet and in front of those eyes does for you. I have had administrators who were heavy handed, who were more bosses than leaders and controlling. I’ve had administrators who stayed in their office, didn’t have a voice and avoided the hard conversations. I knew education was changing and that none of the above were making a positive change in education.

And then we got a new principal in our building, and I felt, well … INSPIRED. Inspired to push my limits, to look deeply at my teaching with colleagues and to dream big. I spent the summer listening to and talking with a wide network of people — people who work at the community college, people who work at universities and people within our own district. The picture was becoming more and more clear. Education needs leaders who empower others; who weren’t afraid of tough conversations and who have a vision of change they are willing to sustain. National Board Certified teachers have been trained to do this.

I took advantage of leadership seminars, started reading books and looked into administrative programs. I earned scholarships to pay for my continuing education and I am currently enrolled at Gonzaga University moving full steam ahead. I know that the certificate at the end is going to be awesome. But this journey–right now–is pretty amazing in and of itself. I am meeting new people, seeing things from a new perspective and am taking this experience straight back into my classroom each and every day. I am using my skills from the National Board certification process with purpose. I reflect on conversations I’ve had, think about how it impacts student learning and am finding my voice in this changing role. Teachers need advocates. Teachers need to feel empowered. I can do this.

I may be going to the “dark side,” but it’s my plan to light that side up with clarity, inspiration and hope. What started out as a flashlight, has gained power and is becoming a flood light. At whatever level I work at, I know I can be the change and continue to provide the best education possible for students. Because at the end of the day, we are only at our best when we are on the same team with clear goals, reflective practices in place and effective communication.

I know I am going to make mistakes along this journey. How I learn from those and improve from those experiences are what count. It’s going to be hard. I’m sure there will be disappointments, frustrations and pure exhaustion. However, I feel the responsibility to my four sons; my current 24 students; and the thousands of students I’ve had and that are coming in the future. Ensuring the best education possible and having staff members that share the same vision because they are believed in, makes this calling even more important to me.

So as I heard this fall, “You’re going to the dark side?” I said, “There is no dark side. I will always be a teacher, no matter what the title. I’m following my heart. We are all in this together. The only way to change is to have people who are willing to light up this team. When administrators and teachers are leaders, students will always prevail. I’m in. Are you?”