Failure is Not an Option!

Well, I’m through my third week of school. Things are going well for the most part. Probably one of the best starts to a school year that I can recall. I have 20 WONDERFUL scholars who, in these first few weeks, have reminded me why I remain in the classroom.

Initially, I had 18 scholars on my roster. I had looked over my roster prior to the first day of school and was excited to see that I was apparently receiving a break this year from some of the customary behavior challenges I’d been used to. After working with some very challenging children in the recent past, including a visually impaired child with a sharp tongue and a tenacious attitude, I welcomed the break. Educators working on the front line will be able to relate to my exaggerated exaltation. However, as expected in the world of education, things change ever so quickly and as such; I received my nineteenth scholar on Meet the Teacher night. He is a returning student who is extremely excited to be back with us! He shares his love of school and especially reading with me on that evening! This is too good to be true!! I have to be the luckiest teacher of the year!

My twentieth scholar arrived bright and early Monday morning just after I began my introductory instruction. He is also a transfer from another school in the district. I have not received his permanent records as of yet, which is not uncommon with transfers, but in conversation, he shares with me, in a rather boisterous voice, that he is not good at math and he is very shy! This statement left me looking confused since he is far from shy and has displayed some mathematical problem solving skills. Yet, these observations, coupled with his over activeness and frequent off task behavior had now become an all too familiar scene to say the least. A prologue to the main event if you will. As the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. This scholar requires a lot of time and attention and I slowly realize, HE is my purpose this year.

On the first day of school, I read a book to my scholars, entitled “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day” by Dr. Seuss for our first morning meeting. I used to read this book to my own children when they were younger. I found it appropriate for my fifth graders because every year, a handful of scholars enter my class claiming they don’t know anything, much like my twentieth scholar. The story is about creative teaching and thinking. The tale celebrates originality, differences, and uniqueness, but also reassures that each of the scholars in the story has everything they need not only to be successful when taking high stakes assessments, but also to be successful in life. What an amazing way to begin the school year! We acknowledged each other’s differences but I also assured all of them that they too are bright, intelligent scholars that can and will be successful, but they had to trust me, trust each other, and most importantly, trust themselves.

In the days to follow, we would talk a lot about our school “PRIDE” (that is, Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Empathy) and our Scholar Statement. We would discuss in great length each attribute of PRIDE and each line of the Scholar Statement. This is my second year using the statement and I have found it to be a great guiding principle in my classroom. The statement reads as follows:

I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.
I CANNOT fail and WILL NOT fail,
because failure is not an option.
I am in control of my future and my destiny.

I had no idea what a powerful impact this would have on my scholars. I mean, last year, we (my colleagues and I) always spoke of the attributes of our PRIDE principles, however, most of us assumed our scholars inherently knew them, especially by fifth grade. We were very wrong in our thinking. This year, our PRIDE principles are more visible around the school and in each classroom. The attributes are discussed and modeled frequently throughout the day and school year. I have noticed this year that the school wide PRIDE attributes, coupled with my statement, had begun to do something amazing to my scholars. Something I didn’t see or hear last year and something I hadn’t seen coming this year at all. They instantly began holding each other accountable for displaying PRIDE and never giving up. I was in absolute awe the first time I heard it. Let me frame this for you by offering just one example.

Every afternoon, we do a spiral math review. This review is a culmination of skills previously learned and some newly introduced skills as well. Because math is so intimidating to most of my scholars, their initial reaction to any questioning of their knowledge results in a shrug of their shoulders and the response “Um, I don’t know.” Oh no. Here we go again! I think to myself, “I just wish these children would believe in themselves the way that I believe in them.” I proceeded to respond encouragingly when from the back of the room, I heard, “Don’t give up! Failure is not an option. Persevere!” I stopped in shock as I slowly looked to see who was speaking. Someone heard me! Someone understood me! It felt like for the first time, my scholars got it because they all chimed in to encourage their peer! Since that moment, when anyone gets stuck, including me, and we feel like giving up, we support each other by saying out loud…”failure is not an option”! This has become our daily reminder to keep trying.

This was a powerful moment for me. There are so many times I become discouraged concerning whether I am making a difference in the lives of my scholars. I wonder whether my expectations are too ambitious for them and whether I am doing everything I can do to help them succeed. How many times a year do you do the same thing? We do this all the time because we are passionate about what we do and we believe in the capabilities of our scholars. We don’t wake up in the morning thinking about who’s life we can screw up today. That is not the case at all. But on this day, at this moment, it was that voice. It was that very moment when that young scholar’s voice in the back of the room reminded me why I am still in this classroom. I actually knew exactly why that Monday morning, when that twentieth scholar entered my room. I still have some lives to change. We ALL have some lives to change! Our scholars believe in us and they depend on us. No matter what the obstacle, we need to remember not to EVER give up on them because their failure…our failure… Nope! Failure is just not an option!

From Deliberate Ignorance to Intentional Awareness

The bottom line is that most U.S. schools have no plan to provide the sorts of classroom instruction that at-risk kindergartners need. Neither high-quality, extensive professional development for kindergarten teachers nor expert tutorial instruction for at-risk kindergartners is on the agenda at this point. This means that most schools deliberately create a pool of students who will become struggling readers. I say deliberately because, unfortunately, that’s just what it is— deliberate ignorance of what we should do to address the problems of at-risk kindergartners. (Allington, 2011)

In a recent staff meeting, we read the article “What At-Risk Readers Need” by Richard Allington. The above quote stuck with me and elicited some great discussion among a group of us during the meeting. The article discussed the lack of instruction at-risk readers receive within the classroom. Allington asserts that children leaving kindergarten not knowing their letters and letter sounds will more than likely become struggling readers. In fact, at the time of this research, he stated that 66% of students were reading below grade level. Take a moment just to consider that. That means, two out of every three students in your classroom, are reading below grade level! Astounded by this realization, I had to stop and consider my own students and actually found the statement to be consistent with what is happening in my classroom!

My thoughts cling to these two words, “deliberate ignorance”. Who, in their right mind, would practice ignorance, on purpose?! Well, according to Allington, many of us tend to fall prey to this particular form of ignorance. You see, when we know that we don’t know a particular instructional process or strategy, we choose to deal with our ignorance by purposely overlooking those struggling students and focusing on those we know we can help instead. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to do! It’s just as compelling as it is true, isn’t it? It was for me and, after some thought, I found, and consequently owned the fact that I, myself, have apparently been practicing this “deliberate ignorance” for much of the year!

Okay, so, what exactly does this “deliberate ignorance” look like? I’ll explain by sharing my personal experience and perception of what it looks like in my own classroom. Earlier in the year, I acknowledged my fear of literacy instruction and development. I mean, I have enough knowledge of how to teach reading and comprehension skills to get by, but, when it comes to grammar, spelling patterns and conventions, this is a struggle for me. It has been for some time now, and although I continue to seek help and guidance, the mere thought of being responsible for the facilitation of my students’ literacy development, scares me to no end. If I fail, they fail, right? Well, with deliberate ignorance, that is exactly what I have already done…failed my struggling readers by providing surface level intervention.

Additionally, when it comes to guided reading groups, although I know and agree with the differentiation of instruction, the actual process of implementing 3-5 small reading groups a week, AND attending to my most bottom three readers, five times a week, during a separate intervention time during the day, along with collecting weekly data for all, has proven to be very overwhelming for me. Because of my overpowering insecurity, rather than attacking the issue, rather than researching, watching, and working to implement a new process, a new strategy, a new routine that would benefit my students…I did what benefited ME instead…and deliberately ignored the developmental needs of my lowest reading students. Listen, ignoring it was a lot easier than addressing it, so, I did what was comfortable. I KNOW I’m not alone in this, so I’m okay with this public admission. In fact, for me, this public realization and disclosure signifies my personal commitment to transform my deliberate ignorance into intentional awareness.

For me, choosing to become intentionally aware is a resolute, determined, uncompromising shift in paradigmatic thinking which will help me truly attend to the individual needs of my students. That means being intentionally aware of how students acquire and develop language, being intentionally aware of how students construct the meaning of vocabulary and being intentionally aware of how students construct meaning from what they are reading rather than simply labeling this with a quantified number or test score. It means tackling the areas of my practice that I fear so much with confidence and purpose. It means getting beyond the surface of my students learning and putting their needs ahead of my own, even when it feels uncomfortable. As I sit and reflect on my students and this year, I believe that becoming intentionally aware will do nothing less than further align my passion with my purpose. My students deserve nothing less than my all, especially when they so often feel that no one else will.

Well, there you have it. That’s my take on deliberate ignorance. What about you? Is there an area in your practice that you can admit to being deliberately ignorant? If so, turn it around, become intentionally aware instead, and further align your passion with your purpose. Two-thirds of our students depend on it!

Be Attentive, Be Supportive

In the now 14 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve never been told I was unsupportive and unavailable…that is…until this week. OUCH!!! It hurt me to the core! But, being the reflective person that I am, I had to take what I was given and respond to it. I had already been thinking that I’d dropped the ball; that I didn’t do everything I could have or SHOULD have, but I still found comfort in the fact that I had NEVER heard those words spoken to describe ME…until this week.

I am a leader in my school and in my district, I serve on several committees (all voluntarily), I am the identified grade level chair for my team, and I am a resident educator mentor. Quite a bit to handle in a year, but I thought I could handle it all. In fact, I needed every single one of those things to continue to build my leadership skills and in doing so; I probably neglected the most important responsibility of the year, the development of another educator. The exact place that holds my inner most passion at this particular moment in my life, I have fallen short. I came to the sudden realization that I may have taken on too much. I bit off more than I could chew. My plate is full. My cup runneth over! Well, you get the point. Nonetheless, I’ve been given this bit of information and now I need to do something with it!

I am not sure really, where this suddenly came from, but it didn’t matter at this point. All I knew was that I had to respond to it. It’s apparent that none of us is perfect. We wouldn’t be human if we were, right? But, I honestly believe that a sign of a great educator is to acknowledge his or her shortcomings when presented with them and then doing whatever is necessary to change them. When someone else points out a flaw in your leadership and/or your practice, if education is your true passion, it behooves you to correct that flaw. Assess yourself. What have you done well? What needs personal and/or professional attention? Did you contribute enough? Did you contribute too much? Did you ask enough questions? Did you ask questions at all? What will you do differently next time? In answering these many questions, maybe you will find that it means looking at your list of responsibilities and re-prioritizing them. Maybe it means clearing your plate. Maybe it means searching out professional development opportunities. Or, maybe it simply means being attentive and supportive…for someone else other than yourself.

SLO NO!! Now What?

I have been staring at this data for TWO days! CRAP!! What happened?? I am looking at my SLO data (student learning objectives) which were written by me as long-term, measurable academic growth targets for each of my students. I wrote two goals this year that made up my SLOs. Both written in the area of English Language Arts, more specifically in guided reading and writing, and admittedly my weakest areas of practice by far. I’ll take math over ANYTHING any day!! However, I digress…

Let me preface all of this by first explaining what SLOs are and how they have come to fruition. Student Learning Objectives are one of two components used to make up the new Ohio teacher evaluation system (OTES). The other component is the teacher’s performance, as determined by a written professional growth plan, formal observations, and administrative walkthroughs to name a few. Each component is weighted at 50% (50% for teacher performance and 50% for student academic growth), together, making up a final summative rating for the teacher at the end of the school year (Ohio Department of Education, 2014).

Now, while there are a few different ways to obtain student growth measures, there were only two options that really applied to me. They were shared attribution and SLOs. Different from the individually developed SLO, the Ohio Department of Education (2014) defines shared attribution as “an optional local student growth measure that can be attributed to a group of teachers. It encourages collaborative goals and may be used as data in the student growth component of teacher and principal evaluations”. Essentially, what this means, if I understand correctly, is that a school or district could decide, collaboratively, to base their SLO on, say, the success or value added measures of their fourth grade students’ state assessment results. If those fourth graders meet the state’s performance index and/or value added measures, the ENTIRE STAFF meets their student-learning objective for that year! Of course, in order for the shared attribution measure to be successful, you would need a completely invested staff that believes wholly in the mission and vision of the school and trusts one another without any doubt. To be frank, the staff would need to be fully acceptant of that old Three Musketeer mantra, “all for one and one for all”! Apparently, several surrounding districts do. I absolutely understand the reservation regarding putting your trust in someone else’s practice and progress. It is definitely a risk especially when your name is attached to your students’ scores. However, it is vitally important for teachers’ actions to support their spoken beliefs. Saying you understand the importance of vertical curriculum alignment and the effects each grade level has on the next, then closing your door to others, your mind to new knowledge, and losing all hope for the success of our students is a misalignment of practice. It just does not make sense! Shared attribution would not benefit a staff such as this.

Maybe there were others as confused as I was regarding the two. I have to admit that at the time of its roll out, this portion of the evaluation process was muddy/murky for me. I had some other things clouding my mind and impeding my ability, or better yet, my willingness to even try to comprehend any of this at all. I put it all on the back burner to attend to at a later date and time. Oh, but how quickly things have become very clear.

As stated earlier, I wrote two SLOs for English Language Arts. There were several reasons for doing this. The first reason is that part of the district’s improvement plan is a focus on writing. The other goal, established by our staff, focused on guided reading levels. In creating my goals, my team and I put a lot of thought into our student growth targets. We created them collaboratively in order to support each other and ensure consistency in our instructional practices. Using the SMART goal characteristics (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) to create my goals, I developed the following learning objectives for my students:

1) For guided reading, each student will be expected to demonstrate at least one-year’s growth minus one level based on the Fountas and Pinnell text gradient chart.

This essentially meant my students would increase their reading by 2 levels (0r 0ne year’s growth) by mid-March. As I said earlier, my focus was not on SLO development, so I may have made an error in the targets I set. Even still, an increase in two levels did not seem overly ambitious to me…at the time.

2) For writing, each student will be expected to demonstrate a 4-point, or 40%, growth over their original baseline data gathered in September using the district-adopted STOP rubric. For example, if a student scored 2 out of ten in September, he/she is expected to have 6 out of ten points on the rubric by March.

Now, as student scores increased, the growth target decreased. So, students that scored a 7 as a baseline only needed to demonstrate a 3-point growth over their original baseline and so on. Again, this target did not appear to be unattainable for my students over a 6-8 month period.

I have high expectations for my students, for which I am very proud. I will never change nor deviate from the expectations upheld for my students. For that, I may learn a potentially unfortunate lesson. Even though student growth is what schools, districts, and states desire to see over a year’s time, as with value added measures; and although many of my students made growth in both areas, the only student growth that mattered were those that either met or exceeded the student growth target I set for them. Those that made minute amounts of progress were not taken into consideration at all. Because of the high expectations and the ambitious hopes and dreams I have for my students, there is now a great possibility that I will be rated this year as a DEVELOPING teacher! That’s “developing”, as in one-step above ineffective and one step below proficient. “Developing” defined as undergoing development, growing, or evolving. My thought process eludes me. Let me get this straight. I am a teacher with 10 years of experience, a doctorate degree in education, a budding business, and the determination of becoming a premier leader in school improvement and educational reform. Yet, according to my student growth data, I could possibly be rated as a developing teacher!!! I am suddenly bothered, extremely annoyed, and incredibly disappointed.

Since I am undoubtedly aware of and acknowledge my areas of strength and weakness, I realize that there is always and will always be an opportunity to learn and grow. No way am I perfect, nor do I want to be. A developing expert in my field, perhaps? Yes, absolutely, but even experts continue to research and learn within their area of expertise. Identifying gaps in my practice is clearly not the issue. As I continue to sit and go over the lessons I’ve done, small groups I’ve facilitated, strategies I’ve taught, or even the things I didn’t quite do as effectively as I could have, I identify the real basis of my irritation.

My data clearly shows a gap in my instruction. It is true data. It communicates the areas of practice that need attention as data is intended to do. But, the longer I sit and stare, the more I begin to think about the ways in which this data will affect my future as an educator and any goals I have beyond the classroom. How could I possibly turn this data in as it is? This does not look good at all! I stop right there and shake off those thoughts as the leader within me emerges. It seems to me that the purpose of this process is to help teachers become more effective in their practice, right. However, the first thing I contemplated was falsifying my data to meet the needs of whom…MYSELF!! Immediately, I cast aside the needs of my students. I wonder how many teachers have had or will have the same thoughts if/when they see that their data is not up to par. I wonder how many will change their data to meet their own needs. It makes sense to me because none of us wants to receive a low summative rating. That is just human nature. We would all like to be rated as knowledgeable educators who understand their practice and are able to help every single one of their students grow every single year. No extraneous factors will ever get in the way. Our targets will always be set perfectly every year and our students will never fall short. That’s how we all want to be viewed. But, the reality is, the state of education is forever changing in practice and pedagogy. Therefore, those of us on the front line will fall short at some point because of the inevitable rate in which these changes occur. However, in this process, as it is right now, teachers will always benefit because we will all make certain that our rating will reflect proficient and accomplished performance. In the end, the students will be the ones that suffer because their instruction will not be at the top of our priority list. Meeting our SLO targets will. Now, that’s what I call fair! Um, not so much…

Needless to say, I could not and did not change my data. The moment I thought about doing that, the evaluation process lost is intended purpose. For me, the process no longer focused on instructing students, but rather on me making certain that I received the rating I needed to maintain my job. Now, the process was not promoting growth in effective instructional practices, but instead, effectiveness in falsifying documents and perfecting the practice of lying. The proverbial dog and pony show, more commonly known as the scheduled evaluation observation (we ALL put our best foot forward during those), along with the lowered expectation bar, which will soon convincingly be identified as the rigor I will claim to provide in my classroom, has the great potential of guiding my future in this field. How does that even make sense? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of this whole process? Thankfully, I would never shortchange my students by lowering my expectations for them. It just does not align with my personal or professional morals. They need to be challenged, want to be challenged, and should be challenged. However, in the meantime, there is clearly a flaw. In my opinion, whether student learning objectives or shared attributions, the process is ambiguous, inequitable, unreliable, and holds no validity in regards to teacher accountability. In fact, it only evokes this simple question; NOW what??

How Do You REALLY Feel?

“These kids…they just don’t get it! They have no respect and they just don’t want to learn! I don’t get paid enough for this!” I would venture to say that we all, at one time or another, have heard, spoken, or had similar thoughts. I’ll be honest…after this last week of school, I may have been liable for walking away from all of it at a moment’s notice. Spring fever has set in and these babies are rambunctious as ever! Is THIS what my life has come to? Several days during the past month, I have reflected on my practice and my approach with my scholars. At this moment, they appear cold and uncaring of their behavior, level of effort, and will to learn. I’ve lost them. They no longer care. “Well, then…if they don’t care…I don’t care.” I think to myself. Then, I question myself. Is this how I’m really feeling?

You see, for the last few weeks, I have been leaving my school and my scholars exhausted, agitated, frustrated, and discouraged. I admit these feelings hover above many of us as a desolate cloud around this time every year. Winter has been long and cold. The students have had no true release of their pent up energy other than however they release it at home or during their P.E. classes since temperatures have been too unbearably cold outside to take them. I would like to consider myself one who works diligently and desperately to make learning fun, but being confined to a classroom for several hours a day, every day, can unsettle even the most knowledgeable, creative teachers and their students. And right now…for me, I’ve thrown my hands up in accepted defeat, saying aloud to my husband, “I’m done! They’ve given up and I just don’t have the energy.” He shakes his head in disagreement, and says, “No. That’s not the type of person you are. That’s not the type of teacher you are. So, what is really going on? How do you really feel?” I look away to hide my frustration, unable to answer. the unconditional love I have for my own three children, I find myself wretched with guilt over my current emotional uncertainties and copiously overwhelmed with the amount of love and care I have for this particular group of scholars. I have love for every one of the students that has crossed my path, but this particular group is different for some reason. Different in ways I can explicitly identify, but also different in so many more ways I cannot. Differences in race and ethnicity are the most obvious the moment you walk in my classroom. Learning styles become apparent with daily instruction, which ultimately draws out the differences in students self esteem and self worth. It’s the unseen and unknown differences that probably make what we do the most challenging and, as I’ve come to realize, is the primary source of my current aggravations. As it goes, I am only in control of that which occurs within the walls of my classroom and the school environment, but, oh, how I wish I could control more.

While they are in my presence, I talk to them about hard work, challenging themselves, settling for nothing, changing their thinking, and believing in themselves. I show them what empathy for others looks like, good manners and respect as well. We are a family, so we practice lifting each other with supportive words and gestures, as well as further strengthening our bond by not only learning, but by having fun in every aspect of our instructional day. I guess this is why seeing them out of sorts, rejecting everything I have worked so hard to instill in them, hurts so very much. You heard me refer to this earlier as “Spring fever”, as most educators do, but my humanness calls it disrespectful and inconsiderate! This past week, they have shown nothing but ungratefulness and I, for one, have had enough! I am done! I have other things I could be doing and focusing on rather than going the extra mile for a group of unappreciative “other people’s children”! This…I don’t need it! And…yet…I can’t get any one of them off my mind, out of my every thought, or the depths of my beating heart. I just cannot shake them.
Ok. Fine! You want to know how I really feel? Alright then, I’ll tell you.

I am in complete and total awe of the growing potential I see in each of my scholars, not only as individuals, but also as an entire group. I believe that every child has a gift and that every child can learn. I take full responsibility for making certain that each one of those babies, my scholars, believes the same before they leave me at the end of the year. I have tough love for them, but also a gentle love that some of them may feel only when I give it to them. Reprimanding or strong correction, strong encouragement, fist pumps, pats on the shoulder, or even a hug are just some of the ways I show just how much I love and care for my scholars. State and local policies strongly discourage physical contact between teachers and students for reasons I am aware and do understand. However, when mine may be the only source of love and nurturing my scholars receive; there is no question about whether or not to relinquish the gestures. Quite frankly, the thought never persisted very long. Simply put, I will not be an added source of rejection for my scholars.

How do I feel? When my students are upset, it makes me upset, especially when I am unable to determine the root of the problem. When they are crying or someone hurts their feelings, I respond very much like a mother bear with every intention of protecting them from all hurt and harm, in and out of school. I feel strongly that my scholars’ circumstances, whatever they may currently be, do not have to be the determining factors of the future they wish for themselves. My passion for my scholars runs deeper than it has any year prior. So, even on the days I want to throw up my hands and give it all up, I know that my inability to get them off my mind tells me that I need them as much as they need me. It is confirmation that for this particular moment in my life, at this particular moment in time, on this particular day, I am right where I am supposed to be, and really…I would not change a thing. And that, my friends, is how I really feel.

That’s INSANE!!

By now, you have gotten to know your students pretty well. You know when they are sick, when they are happy or sad, when they have mastered a skill, and certainly, when they are struggling. By now, you should know their areas of strength and their areas of weakness. You are also probably looking at your own instruction and comparing the predicted success of this year’s class with that of your last year’s class. Ok, well…maybe that’s just me, but it seems to never fail. I always seem to compare my current practice and outcomes with past practice and outcomes.

You may be looking at this side-eyed, thinking this isn’t you at all. You might be thinking that there is no need to compare because you are doing what you have always done and, well…that is precisely my point. I know you have heard the saying, “you need to work smarter, not harder” at some point during your training. Don’t you remember the half-day teacher in-service you attended to help you put together your instructional strategy “tool box”? Or the professional development suggesting that you refrain from “reinventing the wheel” because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” I have heard them more often than not! I have always interpreted these phrases to mean, do nothing more and do nothing less. Use what you already have and don’t tarry too long on any one skill.  How incredibly insane is that thinking?

For the life of me, I cannot see how any of that makes any sense. I’d like to think it was the many opportunities I had to obtain an array of practical, constructivist approaches and experiences that helped me to realize how truly insane those phrases were. In the end, I learned that there is no growth, personal or professional, in this complacent way of thinking.  Every year, we receive a new group of students. They look different. They act different. They learn and process differently. Yet, we reach into our bag of “tricks” and teach these different students the SAME WAY we always do, expecting different learning outcomes. This IS the definition of insanity as defined by Albert Einstein. If our students continuously change, why wouldn’t we change our instructional practices right along with them? We think it is because using what we already have and what we already know makes what we do easier, don’t we? But, how easy is this really?

When I think about “easy” and not “reinventing the wheel”, two skills come to mind that my students seem to struggle with every year and the tools I use every year to address them. The first skill that comes to mind is making an inference. When practicing inference, I have always used a set of inference cards I obtained from my time working in my previous district. The cards provide a short scenario and then a few guiding questions which allow students to infer (guess or draw a conclusion) what the scenario is really about. For example, a card may describe a scenario similar to the following:

Three brothers lived in the same town not far from each other, each with their own residence. They each built their own homes, but they each had different tastes in design and only one built his home with the best of the best materials. The brothers worked hard every day to outsmart the town bully who would never leave them alone. The bully always followed them around trying to ransack their homes.

Now, you may recognize this short piece as a rendition of the fairy tale, “Three Little Pigs”, but I found out quite quickly that when students have not been exposed to these early literature pieces (and there are many that have not…you would be surprised!), my inference cards are no longer useful. Yet and still, these cards make the list of activities to do every year! Why is that? If kids are unfamiliar with the literature and the cards bring confusion, why do they continue to make the list? That’s insane, right? Using the same strategy, with a different group of students; using the same instruction, with different learning styles and experiences; expecting a different outcome from the lesson when it is clear that following through with the lesson in this manner does nothing but further cloud students’ understanding. It is, by all appearances, a never-ending and all too familiar cycle.

The second skill that comes to mind is teaching fractions. During this unit, I generally have each of my students color and cut out fraction bars to use as a resource. I use them to teach equivalency and comparing fractions. It has proven to be an excellent resource for students to have. Well, that is…when students cut them out accurately and are able to keep up with them in their desks. Yet, every year, I have those few students who lose their fraction bars or cut them out inaccurately. And, every year, this fraction bar activity makes the list of things to do for the fraction unit. Even though it causes me unnecessary stress and tends to be more of a waste of time, I continue to use this activity thinking it will be better this time around. When really, it is just…insane!!

Here is another example of insanity. Every year, prior to state testing, teachers in the testing grades practiced test-taking strategies by teaching to the test. It is, again, what we have always done. Many of you have probably done something similar. For my school though, lack of supplemental funding to pay teachers stifled any hope of an after school program. Therefore, it was necessary to use the time provided during school in an attempt to close the achievement gap that inherently existed in our school. The teachers practiced with their individual classes and the principal practiced with entire grade levels. Now, don’t get me wrong, this strategy has been successful in the past, but more recently, not so much. Even with the effort we put towards preparing our students for the state assessment, our scores have not met adequate yearly progress and as a result, we have been at the “Academic Watch” designation level for years. Placed on a school improvement plan, the approach to close our achievement gap has not deviated very far from what has typically been done, until this current school year. Year after year, state assessment practice and preparation has looked the same…teaching to the test. Well, it turns out that this process, for us…drove us insane! We were doing the same thing, every year, but still were not able to get ourselves out of Academic Watch! Have we made some progress? Well, yes, I acknowledge that we have. But, not enough to be recognized by the state, let alone our own district.

So, how do you avoid going insane? You commit to making a conscious change. We often complain that change is so difficult, but I submit to you that this is only the case when we are not committed to the change. When you get tired of wearing your hair a certain way, you change it and wear it differently. When you get tired of eating hamburgers, you eat something different. When you get tired of watching television, you turn it off and do something different! When your workout becomes too normal and monotonous, you change it up and do something different! When it is something that matters to you, you change for your own benefit. We have committed ourselves to the lives of children and to the field of education. When we took those classes, completed our student teaching, and passed that test, we vowed that educating children was our passion. Why, then, have we fallen prey to the stagnated mindset of “why reinvent the wheel”? Metaphorically speaking, we “reinvent the wheel” in order to acknowledge and accept students’ differences and to meet them where they are when they come to us. Therefore, we are essentially making changes in order to refine our wheel, making it better and more suitable for our current needs, rather than reinventing it.

The fact of the matter is, the state of education is constantly changing. We see this with the transition from state benchmarks and indicators to the new Common Core State Standards Initiative. We see this in the shift from the two-year field experience/student teaching of old to the 3-year Resident Educator and Mentoring program requirements of new. Even the teacher evaluation process has changed. There are always changes. Difficult or not, we have chosen this field of education and committed to educating all children. So let us get recommitted. Let us take a closer look at our “tool boxes”. Are the contents of your box providing rigorous learning opportunities for ALL students? Is it really preparing our students for college? Are the skills meaningful and necessary for life? If the answer is no, then it is our job to change what we are doing! Change your instruction. Change your approach. Educators…commit to a change. Anything else is simply INSANE!

Keep It Movin!!!

Conferences never cease to amaze me.  Typically, we spend two nights a year meeting with parents to discuss plans for the year, student behavior, and student progress.  The conversation generally starts with a highlight of the student’s grades and their academic performance.  I work hard to keep things as positive as possible, unless there is an imperative need to discuss the negative in more detail.  Most of the time, parents whose student requires a greater focus on negative behavior never show up anyway, which I still struggle to understand.  The only thing I can determine is that these parents just don’t want to hear one more negative thing about their child. As a parent, I guess I understand that. As an educator, I want to work with parents to make positive changes in their child’s life.

As I contemplate on that, I think about my Victor. You may remember Victor from a previous blog post. I spoke to him about changing his behavior to demonstrate the greatness inside of him rather than the behavior his friends and even some adults expected of him.  I talked with him about being confident with regard to his academic ability as well as his leadership ability.  I assured him that it was okay to be a positive role model rather than a negative one and that in doing so; he could be just as popular.  Well, Victor has made great strides since that conversation in December.  Don’t get me wrong, he still has some work to do, but what is certain is that he needs someone to continuously remind him of his greatness and to keep it movin after every accomplishment he makes, otherwise, he will lose sight of his objective. Therefore, when Victor is off task or pulled in the opposite direction of his greater ability, all I have to do is say, “Greatness”, and he responds appropriately.  Since our conversation prior to winter break, Victor remains on task during instruction most of the time.  I rarely see any pouting when he is working in class and he even completed his winter break homework.  He has not been sent to the office for disruptive behavior and has even joined the school’s Safety Patrol program.  His potential is more than apparent but my hope for him is to just remember that he has to keep pushing.  He has to…keep it movin!

More recently during conferences, I met with a father who, first, was not required to conference for his child, and second, had not confirmed a time to conference for his child, so I wasn’t expecting him.  Murray’s father, who speaks limited English, came to see me simply to check on his son’s academic and behavioral progress.  Murray is far from the typical description of a “behavior problem”. In fact, he has made the Merit Roll this quarter and has become very detailed in his work. He does however enjoy socializing quite a bit, which does become a distraction to his learning.  For the most part, though, Murray is right on track. His father expresses how proud he is of his boy, then looks at me and tells me that he always tells his son that he can be whatever he wants to be and that he wants him to do better than he did himself. Of course he does.  It’s what every parent wants for their child, right?

Murray has three other siblings, two older and one younger. They are all performing at or above grade level academically, so father is extremely proud, as he should be.  Murray is listening to his father proudly and intently.  I look at him and confirm that we are all so very proud of his accomplishments this quarter, but explained that he still has work to do.  Even though he has worked hard to earn these grades, I explained, “You have to keep it movin!” It’s at this time I ask Murray to recite a couple of lines from our Scholar Statement. I ask, “With hard work, you can do what?” “Anything.”, he responds. “With hard work, you can be what?” “Anything.”, he responds. “And who is in control of your future?” I ask.  He responds, “I am!”  I add that it is not too early to begin thinking of his future and that he cannot get comfortable with the success he has made this quarter.  I tell him he has to keep it movin. I maintain that he has to continue working hard to make the grade, so, “You have to keep it movin!” I tell him. His dad nodded in agreement and appreciation for the reiteration as our conference ended.

What is ironic about this entire conversation is that my pastor had just spoken on the topic of “keeping it movin” in that past Sunday’s sermon. He explained that attaining success in anything does not stop once you reach a set goal.  Once you reach your goal, you keep it movin and set a new goal!  How profound is that? You see, in the past, “keep it movin” meant, go away, get a life, get to steppin’, and leave me alone! But, now, in a more positive connotation, these few words could have powerful implications on us as educators as well as on our students. This phrase has helped me to define perseverance for my students in a different way. In a way they seem to better understand!

As educators, we face many challenges. We are charged with the task of determining the academic needs of anywhere between 20-30 students. We assess each one, individually or as a group, frequently, at their individual level, at many times throughout the year.  We assess and monitor our students in a variety of methods in order to predict their possible success on the state assessment.  Sometimes, the things we do work.  Sometimes they don’t.  The fact of the matter is, however, that regardless of the outcome, it is at that point that we make the conscious decision whether to keep it movin or not, when in reality, there should be no decision to make. As they say, it is what it is. When our students master a skill, keep it movin and challenge them to master the next.  Even when they don’t master the skill, we need not give up on their ability to succeed, nor should we focus on what may appear, at that particular time, to be our inability to reach our students. Instead, we need to keep it movin! Remain focused on our purpose. Remember the commitment we made to children the moment we decided to become educators. Check your approach, change your instruction, and keep it movin! Students inability to master a skill does not indicate an unwillingness to learn, but rather necessitates a different way of teaching in order for them to receive it, process it, and finally, to master it.  It is an opportunity to define our instruction and make it better. So, instead of giving up, keep it movin! When students master skills beyond their ability, it does not mean your job is complete. What it does mean, is that you have more work to do! So, keep it movin! It’s our duty and obligation to push our students beyond their seemingly confined limits. It is our job as educators to determine just how far we can push. Therefore, you have to keep it movin!

Listen, no matter the level of success, no matter how big or small their dream, we have to help our students see that even when they reach one goal, another goal is waiting in the ranks. Once you acquire one accomplishment, keep it movin…on to the next one! In like fashion, we as educators need to model how to set goals and persevere through barriers in order to reach them.  We need to show our students what can happen when they keep it movin.  So, get out there and get busy.  There is no time to waste. There is still much work to be done. So, go ahead! What are you waiting for? Keep it movin!!

Chalkboard Reflection vs. Smart Board Reflection

Happy New Year . . . to you!

Happy New Year! Out with the old, in with the new! Right? I imagine many of you have made some sort of resolution(s) or set some goal(s) for the year 2014 whether it is to increase your physical, mental, or spiritual health, or some other personal/professional goal. I, too, have identified a couple of areas of focus for the New Year.  I am hesitant to refer to these as resolutions due to the typical inability to sustain them.  I’ve found, in my mature age, that my goals haven’t changed much, so I just need some simple modifications, a new approach, or a change in my instructional processes/strategies perhaps. Whatever the case, I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on 2013 and all that I have accomplished, all that has disappointed me, and all that is still yet to be done in order to determine my next step(s).

It has been an interesting year to say the least. As I scrolled through the many resolutions of friends, family, and associates on one social media site, I came across a post that really spoke to my spirit.  A wise friend of mine wrote encouragingly and metaphorically, of a focus on spiritual growth moving into the New Year.  My interpretation of his writing suggested, learning from decisions and choices made over the last year, then releasing them while making conscious decisions not to repeat anything that had a negative impact on ones spirit or prevented one from moving forward in any aspect of their life. I found this statement to be profound, to say the least, and it has resonated with me since the conversation occurred.  My response was that I agreed with his prolific statement and committed to reflect, release, and renew going into the New Year.

At that moment, another friend of ours, whom I have grown to respect a great deal over the last few years, chimed in with a question that read in part reflect? For what?”  My initial thought was, depending on the focus of your reflection, it could potentially yield beneficial rewards.  As we continued in our gentle opposition with one another, he wrote something that really stuck with me.  While I described myself as a self professed “analytical reflecter”, he described himself as a “chalkboard”, erasing  things of insignificance and moving forward with that which brought him not only growth and development, but also peace and joy. Wow! A chalkboard, huh? This really struck a chord. I began to think about “reflection” differently (You do realize I am reflecting about this thought provoking conversation concerning reflection, right? I really can’t help it.).

You are probably wondering how this is relevant to us as educators.  The relevance will reveal itself shortly.  Continuing on, I’d like to focus in on this word, “reflection”.  A “reflection” is defined in part as “a fixing of the thoughts on something or [taking] careful consideration”. Now, let’s add this idea of a chalkboard. A chalkboard is a black or green board that is written on with chalk.  All you need to convey information is a piece of chalk and an eraser.  If you write something on the chalkboard that is incorrect, you erase it, change it, and move forward. You may or may not recall what was once written, but there is clear evidence that something was there, as dust is left behind. Sometimes it gets dusty and messy from erasing so much, but a little residual dust does not impede the ability to move forward with conveying further information.  It’s quite basic and simple.  I’m going to call this a chalkboard reflection.  Converse to its partial definition, a chalkboard reflection may require only minimal consideration of some thoughts and/or ideas, as represented by the residual chalk dust (evidence that considerations did exist and were taken), but the fixation on thoughts is not there .  What has been said and done is just that, said and done. Erase it and move forward. There is no time for fixation, or preoccupation with matters that are out of our control. My wise friend’s analogy suddenly begins to make sense.

Now, let me take this further and add the idea of the more sophisticated Smart Board to our reflection.  The Smart Board is an interactive whiteboard, which has capabilities to operate as not only a whiteboard to write on, but also a computer and a projector, which means that files may be saved for later use.  Each component of the Smart Board is connected to the other through wireless connections or via USB/serial cables. There are so many additional components and capabilities that I cannot begin to name them all, nor is elaboration about them necessary amid this interpretation. I can say with confidence, however, that Smart Boards are indeed much more detailed and complicated than chalkboards. Now, we have what I’ll call a Smart Board reflection.  A Smart Board reflection may be described as a fixation on thoughts and a reiteration of considerations (since several files are saved and can be referred to over and over again). While information may be erased in order to create, recreate, upload, and/or retrieve new information, those erasures can be undone, much like a word document, allowing us to go back over our decisions as many times as we feel they should be revisited and reconsidered.  Well now…it appears that Smart Board reflections have the greater potential of becoming frustration, worry, and stress.  Funny, I didn’t feel that way when speaking about his chalkboard reflections earlier.

Here’s the relevance to educators. Research shows us that reflection may have altering effects on our instructional practice.  The degree to which we reflect and the center of our reflection is a choice we make.  Why fixate on something that has happened for which the outcome cannot be changed? Why preoccupy ourselves with circumstances that are out of our control? Yes, we all would like to save the world. We all would like to protect and nurture our students. We all would like each of our students to come from the ideal home, with the ideal parental involvement, with the ideal learning environment. We all would like that however, this is unrealistic.  This fixation and preoccupation, this Smart Board reflection, is what ultimately impedes our ability to instruct our students effectively because of our displaced focus.

Why not get back to the basics.  No, I don’t mean to get rid of the 21st century technology we have longed for all these many years. But what I do mean is, let’s refrain from over thinking our every move. Some things that happen, just happen. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. It is what it is. Let’s not read into a colleagues question about why you chose a specific strategy for instruction. It doesn’t mean they discredit you. In fact, maybe it means they are inspired by you. Let’s not over analyze every suggestion our administrators make to mean we’re not cut out for teaching. Consider this instead, if you don’t over think it, what is suggested may just make sense. Yes, reflect on your practice for growth and development. But choose the degree to which you will reflect.  Will you choose to be a Smart Board reflecter, fixated on every single thought you have chosen to save in your mental database?  Think about it. You, yourself, have complicated certain considerations to the point of frustration, worry, and stress, by thinking about it, thinking about it, and thinking about it some more.  I know I have. Or, on the other hand, will you choose to be a chalkboard reflecter, erasing what is irrelevant but allowing yourself to learn from the residual dust left behind?  You see, you can’t fixate on something that is not there. The dust, however, is evidence that there was some sort of lesson to be learned.  Take the dust that is now on your hands and move forward into your next moment…your next lesson…your next venture.   The degree of reflection and the focus of your reflection is a choice…and the choice is all yours.

I wish you all the best, my fellow educators, for the New Year! Reflect, release, renew, recharge.

2014 happy New Year reflection

Even the BEST have Room to Grow

Room to Grow is proud to

Many of us have completed the first round of the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES) by now, with seemingly mixed emotions about the process, I’m sure.  During this process, I have reflected on my practice, identified my instructional strengths and weaknesses, and written my Professional Growth Plan defining my personal goals for this school year.  I’ve found myself in reflection quite a bit in recent days because no matter what I do, it is my incessant goal to be the “best”!  However, this time, the outcome is a bit…different. Let me continue by explaining in a little more detail.

Once my growth plan and goals were firmly in place, I began focusing on determining the needs of my students.  After identifying one or two areas of academic need, I wrote learning objectives for each of my students in order to focus their learning.  Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) are used to guide instruction and interventions for individual students and/or small groups.  It is yet another tool for educators to utilize in order to assist in becoming more well crafted in this practice; to become better…or even…the “best”.

After students’ outcomes were set, I began to think about the lesson I would choose for my observation.  To be clear, my strength is in the area of mathematics, so it would seem logical that I would want to be observed in that area.  HOWEVER, after speaking in depth with my principal regarding my areas of weakness, literacy was identified as the area of choice for my observation.  I wasn’t discouraged by this at all because in my mind, the “best” teachers want to focus on their weaknesses in order to grow. Right?  I consider myself a great teacher and am always looking for opportunities for professional growth. I guess I would classify myself as one of the “best”… Keep in mind that the adjective “BEST”, in this context, is defined by my own perceptions and interpretations and by all intents and purposes is defined correctly and accurately. Now that THAT’S cleared up…:-)

I spent hours upon hours planning for my observation.  I even tried something new because I really wanted to receive feedback regarding how to strengthen this area of my instruction. So, I took on using the Daily 5 structure during my literacy block to teach reading.  The Daily 5 structure is  “a series of literacy tasks [including embedded mini lessons] which students complete daily while the teacher meets with small groups and/or confers with individual students” (received from, December 11, 2013). I LOVE this process because it provides such a great deal of structure for me and my students. So, I thought…I’d try it.

Everything started well, at least in my mind.  My first mini lesson included a short grammar lesson. I was really up for the challenge since my principal is a literacy guru!  Wait…why did I choose this again? Oh yeah, that’s right…for growth in an area of weakness. Grammar was the absolute right choice for THAT, that’s for certain! My lesson consisted of a short review on verb tenses.  When I reviewed the lesson the night prior, I asked myself some questions that I KNEW my students would ask. I looked through the reading curriculum only to find no in depth explanations or reasoning behind when and why verb tenses change. All I had was my general knowledge, which was not nearly enough. So, instead of investigating further, I convinced myself that since it was merely a mini lesson, I must be over analyzing this thing.  I had to be over thinking all of this.  I told myself to stick to the basics for this one and if necessary, go deeper later. My second mini lesson for the Daily 5 structure was the real lesson I was focusing on, so that’s really where I placed all of my time and attention.

So, why was I so surprised when the “guru” interrupted my lesson to correct my remedial reasoning during the lesson? Well, I guess it’s because I have never had a principal interrupt a lesson in a corrective manner, at least that I can remember.  No, no, no, please do not misunderstand…it was in no way done in a negative manner, nor was it done with malicious intent. Actually, in hindsight, I now know that it was intended to serve the purpose I was seeking, for professional growth.  Oh…but at that particular moment, I was crushed. I expected my administrator, my educational leader, to come in, sit down, and…observe. I mean, seriously…it’s called an “observation” for goodness sake!

Here is what I have come to conclude. It has been six years since my last instructional observation.  All evaluations in between have consisted of some sort of action research project. Prior to that, there was only one lesson that I felt I truly bombed, and that was early in my teaching career.  Any, and all, evaluations I have received subsequent to that have been very good.  Administrators have complimented my instructional practice and pedagogical knowledge and thinking, which I attributed to my most recent degree pursuit. I found it most beneficial to define my purpose and philosophy of education during that time. It really helped me to focus my practice. I can easily determine students’ needs, I am very familiar with how to analyze data and how to use it, and I am a doctored practitioner of educational research in the school/classroom environment.  Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve stated in posts prior, I KNOW that I do NOT know it all, nor do I claim to, but there is something about receiving that message in the middle of an evaluative lesson that is quite humbling.

Nope! No way! I do NOT know it all! It is important for me to restate this fact aloud during times such as this. The permeable pores of my mind had become clogged with complacency, gone unnoticed due to my complete satisfaction with past reviews and with my current level of educational knowledge. I absolutely believe that I challenge my practice and my students, but I found through this experience that I have been challenging my practice only in the areas that I have determined to be comfortable and safe.  Conversely, in the particular content or instructional areas that I know fall outside of my comfort zone, I settle for “good enough”! What a realization and admittedly a tough pill to swallow.

You can rest assured that even the “best” educators find themselves in a rut sometimes, but does that minimize their level of instructional practice?  Does this make them now the worst teacher EVER? Not at all!  What it does mean is that there is always something new to learn or old to relearn.  It affirms the progressive changes that continuously occur within our student population, as well as within our instructional practice.  It is indicative of the substantial need for ongoing professional growth and development. It ascertains that even the “best” educators have room to grow.

Let me end by offering this… Be aware of the web that complacency attempts to weave. It is so easy for even the most effective teachers to find themselves trapped in it. Know that effective educational leaders will be a model of excellence, not of mediocrity.  Effective educational leaders, those that have an enormous passion for teaching and learning (not only for students, but also for you, the educator) have transformational ability. While I have yet to receive the post conference to complete my evaluation, the process thus far has afforded me a great deal of reflective opportunity.  I have known for quite some time that learning is an ongoing, continuous process, but I absolutely appreciate the interruption that occurred that day and the reminder that for even the “best”, there is ALWAYS…room to grow.