Thursday, May 4, 2017

Meeting Students Where They Are

We have a philosophy at our school that anchors our work with kids, and that philosophy is pretty simple: meet students where they are and help them go as far as they possibly can. While the concept is simple, the implementation is complicated. Meeting students where they are requires a lot compassion, patience, learning, and an unwavering belief in student potential.  Because this philosophy drives us, we have made many changes over the past decade to ensure that there are systems of support in place for students. On the surface, it is possible to see these systems of support as a means of "making things easy" on kids, of requiring less of them so that they all succeed. The implication is that in this kind of system, the standards are so low, anybody can reach them. The reality is that these systems of support build a scaffold so that students can reach the high expectations we often talk about in education. So what are these systems of support?

One example is a practice we have that requires students to complete the work they are assigned. Some people call this a no zero policy, which can be misleading. We do not have a no zero policy, but we do require students to do the work they are assigned because it is meaningful and leads to an important learning goal. We do not let students opt out of important learning by simply recording a zero in the grade book for missing work. Rather, if a student fails to turn in work, he or she is assigned to one of several supports that are in place: WIN (What I Need, a during-the-school-day remediation time), Learning Lunch (eat with a teacher and do the work during lunch), or 8th Period (mandatory after-school homework completion). We heard an educational leader named Doug Reeves talk about this kind of system several years ago, and he said that we cannot allow adolescents to make decisions about their learning that could plague them for the rest of their lives--we must demand that our kids do the work it takes to learn. This is true accountability. Recording a zero in the grade book is a punishment; requiring students to give up their personal time to complete work is a logical consequence. Ultimately, if students refuse to do the work even in these settings, then they cannot earn credit for that work, but we have found that rarely happens. It makes a difference to students when we refuse to give up on them--they start to believe that maybe they really can succeed. This work is anything but easy.

Another critical change we have made in the past several years is our shift to standards-based reporting. Because we believe that our fundamental purpose as a school is student learning, we have to ensure that students actually learn the essential standards. When we took the journey to report student learning against measurable standards, it required us to substantially change the way we evaluate students. Not all students learn at the same rate, and not all lessons reach every student; therefore, when teachers learn through a test, quiz, paper or project that students are not yet at mastery of a skill, they give those students opportunities to keep learning and to demonstrate that learning. We reteach, give students time to practice, and reassess to see their progress. It would be easier on everyone to simply move on when students fail to learn, but then we would all fail in our mission. The best part is that it is working! Our students' outcome data, collected by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, shows consistently that Perry Central graduates are ready for the demands of college, outperforming the state average and doing as well or better than graduates from high-performing schools in our area.

Our teachers and students would say that implementing these systems of support demands time, effort and resiliency. It requires that we live out the philosophy of doing "whatever it takes" to help students. It requires us to believe the best in kids--to not just have high expectations of them but to teach them the skills it takes to meet those expectations. It is difficult and messy work, and it makes a huge difference in the lives of a lot of students. These systems of support light a path toward living out our philosophy: meet kids where they are and help them go as far as they possibly can.  It's simple, but it is definitely not easy.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Let It Fill Your Soul

Image result for new york is always a good idea

This quote resides on my Pinterest quote board and in my heart.   I have a difficult time expressing what it is about the city that tugs at me.  The energy, the diversity, the history--these are all part of it to be sure.  But some of it is difficult to express in words--it's a feeling, like hope and courage and longing all mixed together.  

Recently I was able to travel with good friends to New York for a short visit.  There are so many things about spending time there that I love, but nothing comes close to the experience of seeing a Broadway show.  The only thing way I can think to explain it requires another reference to Dead Poet's Society, the movie that keeps on giving.  Remember the scene when Mr. Keating plays classical music out on the football field and as the music plays, each boy reads a line of poetry and then kicks a ball?  (I really hope you have seen the movie because that just sounds weird!)  It's that moment when Charlie steps up to read his line, and Mr. Keating shouts, "Come on, Charlie!  Let it fill your soul!"  That is what Broadway and New York City do for me--they fill my soul with joy and hope and gratitude.  

I was thinking after returning home from the trip how grateful I am to have found something that makes me feel a little bit new again.  Those who work in education have the privilege of serving children and young adults, and we carry their stories--the good and the bad--with us all the time. Sometimes it gets pretty heavy.  So whether it is sitting in the silence of the woods or watching a baby sleep or listening to Broadway show tunes on Pandora, my wish for all of you, especially the Commodore family, is that your soul be filled this Thanksgiving.  I am so very grateful for you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Living Our Core Values

The first person I heard speak about "core values" was Dr. Todd Whitaker, several years ago when he came to Perry Central to speak.  He talked about defining our core values and how all of our decisions really stem from those. I held core values that guided my actions before Dr. Whitaker's speech--I just had not called them by that name or written them down on paper.  Since that time, we have gone through several iterations of school improvement plans where we are required to articulate our school's mission, vision, beliefs and values. There is one in particular that always makes the list.  

All students can learn.

That seems like a simple enough statement, yet if we really believe it--if it is a core value--then it drives our actions in significant ways. It changes the expectations we have of students, and it is no longer good enough that the only best and brightest students achieve. If all students can learn, then we play a part in all of them achieving academic goals. If they can learn, but they do not, we are called to respond.

The writers and researchers of a school improvement approach called "Professional Learning Communities" (PLCs) advocate for a "whatever it takes" system in which clear learning goals are identified, student performance is measured against those goals, and then a system is in place that provides support to ensure that students meet or exceed the goals. Proponents of a PLC assert that if we say we believe that all students can learn, then we had better walk that talk with systems of support to ensure that students do, indeed, learn.

Robert Marzano, a leading educational researcher, talks about highly reliable organizations--ones that achieve their mission--and their laser-like focus that mission. He uses this analogy. Imagine if a company's payroll software stopped working the day before checks were issued. Pretty much everything in the organization would stop, and all systems would wrap support around fixing the payroll software because people have to be paid. Now imagine if we reacted the same way when students struggle to learn. In a highly reliable organization, that is exactly what happens--there are systems in place to ensure that the mission of the organization is accomplished no matter what.  

Our school corporation has taken this approach to heart. Each day, students are asked to persevere in their learning. If they do not understand something the first time, or if they do not succeed on an assessment, there is time built into their day for additional learning and support. If seven hours a day is not enough time, then after the student gets a snack and goes outside to play for awhile, he or she can come back to Lights On or CIA and get tutoring from a certified teacher. This approach requires deep commitment from students and their teachers. It demands that we act on our belief that all students can learn, and I continually marvel at how our school community rises to the challenge. Commodores are walking the talk every single day.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Fresh Start

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird -
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never in Extremity -
It asked a crumb of me.
                                        --Emily Dickinson

Today is the first day of school for students! Is there anything more hopeful than a new beginning? For me, one of the best things about working in schools is that each year brings an opportunity for a fresh start.  While some measure time by the calendar year, most "school people" mark its passage each August and May.  As I looked at my three children this morning (grades 2, 7 and 11 this year), I marveled at the quick passage of time and felt such gratitude that Luke, Andy and Mia are part of a caring school community where they are pushed to be their best and loved for who they are.  Yes, it's the first day of school, and anything is possible.  Here's to a great 2016-2017!  May hope strengthen you throughout the year.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Thanking Those Who Make a Difference

Today is Teacher Appreciation Day.  An educator I greatly admire, Dr. Todd Whitaker, always says that everyone who works in a school is a teacher because young eyes are watching them all the time. At Perry Central, we agree with that statement so we celebrate "Appreciation Week" and honor all of our employees with small gestures that cannot adequately express our gratitude. (Mostly, we feed them!)  I am deeply thankful for the love and compassion teachers and staff show to children every day in this school and in schools across the world.  In honor of Appreciation Week, I want to share a few stories that touched my heart.    
  • At recess, some children have a difficult time getting along with others or finding friends to play with so a group of staff members started a kickball team and invited the children to play. There was joy on those faces, both the children and adults.  
  • Our high school principal and teachers are in the process of buying a car for a student who has no parents and lives independently. The student has big dreams and a plan to achieve them but needs a job and a way to get there.  They searched and found an affordable, dependable car. The funds are almost raised to make the car a reality!
  • A teacher encouraged her students to explore their interests and passions, and when students asked for support in their endeavors, she stayed after school to host make-over sessions and cooking classes, and she met them at school on spring break to help them complete projects they volunteered to do.  
  • Our bus drivers sincerely care about the children they transport.  Never is this more clear than when listening to radio chatter at the end of a school day.  They do their best to ensure that students get where they are supposed to be (no easy task) and even ask the office to call home to be sure parents are at home before dropping off a young child.  
  • Recently a young person was in a bit of trouble, and things at home had been difficult. A teacher wrote the child a note, offering to support him in any way she could and promising to be there for him.  They worked out a signal he could use to communicate that he needed the teacher, and he wrote her a note back to say how much it meant to know that someone cared.
  • A teacher wanted to connect with the students and help them achieve their goals so she wrote each child in the class a personal letter outlining his or her strengths and identifying some areas for improvement.  She met with each child individually and read the letter to him or her. She is writing the students another letter for the end of the year to honor their growth.
There are so many stories like this--small things done with great love. Saying thank you is a simple, powerful act.  Perhaps today, you might consider picking up the phone to thank someone who works in a school who made a difference for you. Maybe your kind words will fill the hearts of those who work with our children and give them renewed commitment and energy to continue this important work.  

Happy Teacher Appreciation Day and Staff Appreciation Week!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

All the Other Days

Many of you know that my dad was recently diagnosed with lung cancer.  The months of December and January have been filled with doctor visits and x-rays and worry and prayer. My dad is really lucky because his cancer was found early and could be treated with surgery. He is at home recovering, and while the healing process will take some time, Dad is effectively cancer-free. Gratitude and immense relief have replaced the worry. At some point during these last weeks, I saw this Charlie Brown cartoon on Facebook, and it resonated.  It has probably been around forever, but I have repeated the message to everyone I know lately! Coming from a long line of superstar worriers, I think that what this little message drove home for me is the value of today. This day. This opportunity to live.

Someday, hopefully in the very distant future, my father will leave this earth. But likely, he will not today. Today we are both still here where I can give him a hug and tell him the latest funny thing my daughter said. Today my dad can watch Family Feud on TV and make a joke with Mom and eat Uncle Marty's famous ham on homemade bread. Today we get to live.

As we move out from under the fog of worry of the past few weeks, I endeavor to let go of the worry of what is to come.  I want to be more Snoopy and less Charlie Brown. "All the other days" are flying by, and I don't want to waste a single one.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Coffee and Conversation

I have always believed that what unites us as human beings is far greater than anything that divides us.  It seems like we are often confronted with our differences and asked to choose between one idea, or belief, or "side" than another.  In this kind of thinking, there are winners and losers; there is acceptance or rejection; there are divides that seem impossible to cross.  Over the past week, I have been thinking about how we are all one people in the world, united by our humanity, and wishing for bridges that could help us reconnect. In a small way, my wish came true last night.

Yesterday evening, our school hosted an event called Coffee and Conversation. This began as a Fed Ex day idea last year (thanks to Euriah Bryant), and it is being carried on this year by Mrs. Jennifer Ball and our students.  At Coffee and Conversation, a diverse group comes together to share a bit of their humanity with each other.  Students from all walks of life and from vastly different peer groups converge on the elementary commons area, and they perform.  Students recited original poetry, played original songs, sang song covers, performed comedy skits, prepared wonderful food, shared their blogs, and exhibited their artwork.  It was a really beautiful thing to see.

As I looked out at the crowd in attendance, I saw looks of love and hope and encouragement and joy on the faces of the audience.  They clapped and cheered, and if they felt like I did, they marveled at the bravery of the kids.  For two hours, we were one people, bound by our hope for these students and their impact on the world.  My heart today is filled with gratitude, as it so often is, for the opportunity to be part of this school community where we are united in service of young people.