It’s been a bit over a year since my last blog post. In that year, I have completed my first full year as principal and finished my doctoral dissertation. I am reminded of Catlin Tucker’s end of year blog post as I sit here in my quiet, empty office feeling a mix of guilt, exhaustion, and anticipation. I feel guilty about the things I didn’t get to, and the students and parents who left the school year feeling unconnected to the school. I am exhausted, fighting a cold that has been exacerbated by the emotional and physical energy that goes into closing out a school year. And yet I also feel stirrings of anticipation, with hope and resolve to address things that didn’t work out as well as I would have liked this year. I’m ready to reflect on what I learned this year and plan for ways that my learning will benefit the students, teachers, and community at my site in the 2017-2018 school year.
In order to tackle the unmet challenges and support staff, students, and families in new way, I will focus in 2017-2018 on two key areas:
- Data. For me, data-driven decision-making is not about CAASPP scores. It’s about using data to identify strengths and challenges for students, both individually and collectively, and then using our strong instructional strategies and collaborative planning to find ways to best build upon those strengths and address gaps. It’s about facing the reality of which students are currently being left behind, and then building the institutional resolve to meet that challenge head-on. I have committed to building weekly time for grade level teams to meet to talk about data and design appropriate supports for students.
- Relationships. PBIS starts with the word Positive, and our relationships with students and families must start on the positive as well. At the end of the school year I brought in a team to review and revise our systems of behavior expectations, student recognition, and consequences. We will be implementing Morning Meetings across all grade levels when we return in August as a way to support positive relationships and build readiness for learning. I am committed to finding more ways to recognize staff for the amazing things they do, since a positive environment is not limited to just the classroom.
The 2017-2018 school year will be here before I know it. I’ve got a couple of weeks of vacation to renew and rejuvenate, and then it will be back to the best job in the world at the best place in the world – principal of Victoriano.
One of the most challenging pieces of site administration is the dizzying volume and array of issues that bombard you on a weekly, if not daily basis. I find that these issues, most of which are urgent, important, or both, diffuse my focus and dilute my attention from the critical vision that guides my work. Summer is a great opportunity to refocus on what matters – the vision, learning goals, and leadership priorities that will frame my daily work in the upcoming school year.
Schools make it clear what they value by where they spend money. This past year, I invested heavily in conceptual math manipulatives that will give our students the ability to deeply process the mathematical practices needed to meet the CCSS and be successful in a 21st Century world. This year, I need to invest in the time, coaching, and support that will enable my teachers to masterfully implement these tools.
Our district has invested in the AVID Elementary program, and we are sending more than 50% of the teachers at my site to the Summer Institute for training. In order to maximize that investment, I need to ensure that we maintain a focus on AVID strategies and tools throughout the year, with regular AVID team meetings and ongoing professional development.
Finally, and most importantly, our district focus in on reading by 3rd grade. We have purchased a new ELA adoption, along with an intervention curriculum. Like with math, my investment in collaboration time and coaching support will enable my staff to successfully implement the ELA curriculum. In addition, I need to continue to invest time and energy in running and analyzing reports; it is said that what gets measured gets done, so it must be crystal clear to my staff that I am examining these reports. I need to know which students are intensive, so that I can have conversations with teachers about the interventions we are offering. I must be able to talk with students and parents about goal-setting and success strategies. And I want to identify and celebrate best intervention and differentiation practices that occur at the site.
As I write this, I realize there is an additional layer of priorities and goals that are important to me – school culture, engaged learning, family involvement. Those “below the green line” priorities will be the subject of a future post!
As we approach the end of the school year, it’s important to remember that these last 20 days of school represent more than 10% of the learning time a student gets in a school year. Every day we must continue to focus on the academic and social skills that will allow our students to be successful in the future. In that spirit, here is a countdown of the last four weeks, and what we need to address:
Week 4 (May 2-6)
20 days left to change a child’s life
- Try a 30-day trial of a tool or app.
- Experiment with a passion project, virtual field trip or personalized learning
Week 3 (May 9-13)
15 days left to get students ready for next year
- Hit (again) those key things the next grade thinks are critical.
- Give students ideas about what they can work on over the summer.
Week 2 (May 16-20)
10 days left to build a love of learning
- Let students design an activity or project.
- Read a great book to your students every day.
Week 1 (May 23-27)
5 days left to make sure our students have had the most amazing school year possible!
- Celebrate learning by looking at goals they have attained over the year.
- Celebrate social successes by giving them time to be social.
There are no greater natural scientists and engineers than young children, inquisitive learners who learn STEM concepts through play. ~JD Chesloff 2012
Webster’s defines play as an “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.” Piaget suggests that play can form the foundation of formal logic, as students experiment with cause and effect. In psychoanalytic literature, play is thought to facilitate the learning of identity and encourage the development of self-regulated behavior. The beautiful thing about STEM and design thinking are that they represent processes that are natural for children. Outside of school walls, children build, experiment, observe results, and build again. They collaborate, solve problems, discover relationships and patterns, and construct models. There is risk-taking and failure inherent in these experiences, yet they are joyful expressions of discovery and adventure, grounded in children’s intense curiosity about the world and how it works. Outside of school walls, these experiences in STEM and design thinking are called “play.”
As a STEM school, our goal at Victoriano Elementary is to unleash that sense of curiosity, and to nurture student willingness to continue to play as they get older. At all ages, it is difficult to resist the opportunity to make something interesting happen. Hands-on science and engineering experiences allow students to generate and test hypotheses, but also to create new questions of their own. “What would happen if…” is a powerful question stem, and one that children at play ask repeatedly. One critical difference between schoolwork and play is the genesis of the question – it is far more powerful and a greater indicator of student understanding when students ask the question.When students are given the freedom to explore and build, create and test, a spark ignites that can lead to the flame of inquiry. So, whenever possible, we let students take the lead and decide how to adapt, test, and reinvent projects.
At Victoriano, we believe that play is a critical component of creativity, a cornerstone of risk-taking, and vital to a love of learning. We find opportunities to ask students to wonder, to make predictions, and to try something different. Our goal is to operate at the nexus of play and STEM learning, both as teachers and as learners. In the words of philosopher Alan Watts, “This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”
We are a nation of tinkerers, and dreamers, believers in a better tomorrow…
President Barack Obama
This April, President Obama hosts his final White House Science Fair. During his time in office, he has invited students to share their passion for science with him, and with the nation. In his words, “If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too.” The students who attend the White House Science Fair remind me of our students – they are diverse, creative, intelligent, earnest, and humorous. They have the communication skills to explain their work, their learning, and the questions that they still have.
The reason I am so passionate about STEM, about project-based learning, about meaningful inquiry, is reflected in the words of President Obama in his opening remarks this year; “All of you are showing the rest of us that it’s never too early in life to make a difference.” As we continue our journey to incorporate design-thinking, as we implement new initiatives designed to support student success, it’s important to remember that, even more than the knowledge and skills, it’s the love of learning, joy of discovery and power of giving back that will stay with our students and make them the leaders of the future.
Maker spaces are big right now. Everyone wants one, and no one seems to be quite sure what it means! Whether it includes a 3D printer, robotics components, or cardboard and duct tape, a maker space is really about what kids DO there.
We are in the process of building a maker space in our library. As a STEM school, we already have many areas in which students participate in hands-on learning experiences – an aquaponics lab, student garden, and of course in the classrooms. But a maker space in the library would ensure that all students have opportunities for hands-on STEM learning with equipment that can be shared across the school. Our challenge is determining what that consists of.
At our site, we have Little Bits, Lego Mindstorms NXT, and GoldiBlocks. But until last month, our teachers had limited hands-on experience with any of those tools! In order to start building comfort and familiarity, we spent an hour during our last staff meeting building, deconstructing, and exploring. Teachers got to experience the joy of setting off a buzzer when I was talking, the excitement of customizing a model to do something it wasn’t intended to do, and the sense of satisfaction in building something that does something. Our staff meeting became a maker space, and the teachers were the learners, builders, and do-ers. I know they had fun, but more importantly, they got to experience being a maker.
Next steps – moving that experience to our students in a meaningful way!
As we move into the third trimester, it feels increasingly important to ensure that our primary students can read. Parent teacher conferences are coming up in 2 weeks, so it seems like a good time to remind families what they can do to support literacy.
Some ideas of what you can do as a parent to encourage students’ love of reading, from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project:
- Let your children see you read for pleasure. Share vocabulary and ideas from the books you read with your children as you read.
- Read thematic stories to and with your children: holiday stories at holiday time, about a location before a trip, or about something they have expressed interest or curiosity about in prior days.
- Create a “reading spot” at your home.
- Visit bookstores and libraries. Make predictions about books based on the title or cover, and help children select books at their reading level.
- Play word games with your child such as Scrabble Jr, Boggle, or even Word with Friends!
- Encourage your child to read aloud to siblings, friends, you, or even stuffed animals.
Students who read 20 minutes per night at home read an additional 1.8 million words per year which results in improved fluency, better decoding, and a stronger vocabulary. And that correlates to a lifelong love of reading!
The new year is a time for resolutions – to exercise more, to eat more healthy meals, to balance work and home life, to finish my dissertation. But having a large number of well-meaning resolutions lead to a lack of focus and thus a lack of success. A number of websites promote the idea of focus through selecting one word to guide change throughout an upcoming year. As oneword365 says, “our words are meant to guide us, help us make decisions, set priorities and improve our lives.” So for this year, my word to help me guide decisions for my school community is empower.
As a 21st Century Exemplar school, one of our most strongly held beliefs is in the concept of student agency. Most teachers at Victoriano provide learning experiences that develop student agency through decision-making, goal setting, growth mindset, public speaking, and/or self-reflection. The school community is very good at creating a sense of belonging, with most students identifying strongly with the school and their classroom. There is plenty of room for growth – strategies for developing student agency are more sporadic than consistent, project-based learning and real-world connections occur for only a subset of students, and there are far too many students who lack a sense of self-efficacy.
I believe the most important thing I can do as a leader is to empower my staff to “step out fearlessly,” to adopt a phrase from Pope John Paul II. Available research indicates that high levels of student agency take place in high-agency environments, systems in which every component is designed to empower those within it. Just like their students, teachers need the opportunity to think, question, pursue and create. Every meeting must be planned with the goal of empowering teachers, moving from “passive detachment to active engagement and challenge-seeking” (UnBoxed, 2013). If I am to model coherence in growth mindset, self-efficacy, sense of belonging and relevance, I must use that lens to make decisions about professional development, staff meetings, and initiatives we pursue in the school. While I don’t yet have the answers for what that looks like, I am confident that a focus on my #oneword of empower will help me find or develop the resources needed.
I am one month into my new job as Principal of Victoriano Elementary, and I have so much to be thankful for. I work for a district that puts students first, not just as a slogan but as a foundational way of being. It’s a district that values innovation – the district LCAP includes phrases like “empower sites to…” and it’s not just passing the buck. I have already found that the district office does everything they can to support and celebrate site goals and accomplishments. My school has a culture of innovation and exploration; for many years the site has presented its STEM program at a variety of conferences and invited others onto campus to learn from and with the teachers here.
I am thankful to have somehow found myself in such an amazing school, with high-functioning teachers and dedicated support staff. I am particularly thankful for my instructional coach and my secretary, who have answered questions I didn’t even know I had, and helped me understand the culture of the school. Starting a new job in a new district can be daunting, but these 2 ladies have made sure I felt welcome, supported, and encouraged. My entire staff has been welcoming, and many have just jumped in and extended trust, giving me the opportunity to know them, their passions, and their deep love of teaching and learning.
I am thankful for the families and community at Victoriano. The PTO has been so welcoming, and has helped introduce me to the community. The PTO president stops by my office regularly with uplifting statements and words of encouragement. Families have gone out of their way to say hello, whether it’s from their car windows in the pickup line, while dropping off their student at the gate, or just coming into the office to check in. And the students – amazing is indeed an appropriate description.
Last, but never least, I am thankful to my family for their love and support, and most especially to my husband. Being a principal is a tough job for the family, with long hours, late nights, and a fair amount of unpredictability. Dennis has been there for all of it, from encouraging me to apply, to celebrating with me when I got the job, to talking me off the ledge when I wondered what I had gotten myself into! He smiles at my constant talk of my school, and shares my delight in the little things that make this job so amazing. He talks me through challenges, picks up dinners on my late nights, attends school events, and even helps decorate my office. I am blessed in so many ways, and grateful for all of it.
This Thanksgiving week is giving me a little bit of time to reflect, and time to really own the joy I am feeling in this job at this school. Thankful just barely begins to scratch the surface of the gratitude and love
There is a longstanding debate about the purpose of teacher evaluation. Is the purpose to improve teacher practice through reflective conversation and expert advice? Is it to measure teacher competence? Or is it somewhere between those two, reflecting elements of both? An Educational Leadership article from a couple of years ago addressed the question by asking practitioners what they thought to be the purpose of teacher evaluation. The vast majority of respondents said that evaluation was both improvement of practice and measurement, with an emphasis on improving practice.
As I begin my first formal teacher observations of the year, I couldn’t agree more. It is critical to have standards of professional practice, and a clear understanding of what those standards look like. In my district, we have expectations about the types of instruction that will take place, the need for a variety of engagement strategies, requirements on ELD support, and a vision of what classroom environment should include. Those are the items we use to measure teacher competence. But it is the informal and formal observations that happen at least a couple of times a month, and the short reflective conversations those observations provoke, that drive teacher improvement. As I visit classrooms, I focus on one or two areas, looking for evidence of proficiency. Often I find it. Part of the conversation I have with teachers afterwards asks how or why they made the choices they did, and reinforcing that their decision-making was sound. Sometimes I don’t find the evidence I’m looking for. So the conversation starts with whether I just missed the evidence, as I ask them to describe what that practice or strategy looks like in their classroom.
In general, I try to be careful with directives. It seems to me that a first step for teachers who have gaps in their confidence or their skills is to make sure they are exposed to best practices, so having them observe a strategy in a team-member’s classroom is a good fit. I can then talk with the teachers as they identify what steps they will take, and the mandate comes from within. I have found that I rarely need to apply directives; the best intervention is one they pick for themselves.
I believe that my role as a teacher evaluator is to help teachers realize their best student-focused, research-driven, multi-faceted selves. As I do evaluations this year, I need to keep in mind what success in the process looks like from my end – I am doing my job well if teachers are more closely aligned to the expected competencies and are more reflective practitioners by the end of the year.