Wednesday, June 28, 2017

This I Believe

I was recently asked to compose my own This I Believe essay relating to Educational Leadership. This I Believe is an international organization engaging people in writing and sharing essays describing their core values that guide their daily lives. ( What good is a This I Believe essay if it can’t be shared? Enjoy. :)

Thirteen years after teaching my first class of fourth-grade students, one of my former students, now an adult with a teaching degree, asked if I would meet her at a local Starbucks to discuss tips for landing her first teaching job. While waiting to place our coffee orders, we noticed a familiar face as we approached the register at the front of the line. What a coincidence when we realized that the young man taking coffee orders was also a member of that very same fourth-grade class! Immediately, an impromptu reunion commenced as we joyfully reminisced about that year of fourth grade and many of our experiences together.

Moments later, as I sipped my cappuccino and shared advice with my former student, I happened to notice a small group of teenage girls seated at the other side of the coffee shop. As my eyes caught theirs, a few of them waved and smiled at me. Based on their age and their reaction to seeing me, I quickly realized that these girls were former students of mine from my brief stint teaching 6th-grade language arts at one of the district middle schools just a few years ago. Waving back at them, I wracked my brain for their names, but nothing came to me.

Thirteen years had passed, yet memories of students from my first 4th-grade class ran deep as I easily recalled details about my students’ lives, their families, and their classmates. Middle school students that I taught far more recently left only an ephemeral impression due to the small amount of time that we spent together each day. Why must our older students spend their school days drifting from teacher to teacher rather than have fewer teachers with whom they spend more time and get to know far better?

As an educational leader, I believe that strong relationships between students and teachers are critical for student success. Resources, technology, and funding are inconsequential without meaningful and lasting relationships between our students and their teachers. To further develop the teacher-student relationship, we must rethink how we use time in our schools. Rather than maintaining traditional school schedules where students scramble from classroom to classroom to account for the mandated hours of seat time in each core discipline, why can’t education look different? I believe that if we provide more contact hours between teachers and students, we increase the likelihood for more substantial relationships that impact student success. I believe that if we integrate courses together, teachers will find more opportunities to develop students’ skills rather than solely focus on content knowledge. I also believe that if teachers can view themselves as teachers of children rather than as teachers of a particular grade level or subject area, our students will all receive a personalized experience with the proper conditions for academic/social-emotional success.

Education is profoundly impacted by the experiences we have with our teachers. Insufficient time with a teacher will result in a missed opportunity to build a relationship that could make a significant impact on a student's life. It's time for more educational leaders to challenge status quo, rethinking how we use our time in schools to aid in the development of stronger student-teacher relationships that will impact learners for years to come.

My First 4th Grade Class, May 2004

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Space to Do Their Own Thing

At the beginning of this school year, I wrote a letter (okay, it was more of a plea) to my daughter's fourth-grade teacher asking her to refrain from assigning nightly homework. On Twitter, I received some harsh criticism for my letter, which I also published to my blog, suggesting that I was being confrontational. Luckily, my daughter's teacher could not have been more open to the #NoHomework conversation, telling me that she, too, had similar feelings about how students spend time outside of school.

Ironically, I think that my daughter did more learning this year without assigned homework than in any of her previous years in school. Certainly, we could argue that she is getting older and becoming a more independent human being, but upon careful reflection of her year as a fourth-grader, I am struck by how much I have seen her grow as a student and as a whole person. I asked my daughter about her year as a fourth-grader, and she told me that fourth-grade was her "best learning year." She explained that she felt that she was able to learn more this year because her teacher provided daily challenges inside the classroom but also gave her "space to do her own thing" when she went home every night.

This past year, the hours of time no longer occupied by homework became a blank canvas for my daughter to fill with her own ideas, passions, interests, and choices. Because she never had to race home after basketball or softball practice to complete nightly homework assignments, she had opportunities to talk to me about what went well at practice and what areas needed more attention. Because she did not have a single reading log sucking the joy out of nightly reading, I found that she actually read more often and more willingly than in years past. Because math worksheets were absent from our home, she spent hours of time on Khan Academy, learning JavaScript and other math concepts that pushed her thinking and piqued her curiosity. And because not a single book report or poster board was ever assigned to be completed outside of school, my daughter began a passion project where she recorded original digital music that she published onto her own YouTube channel. At the end of the year, my daughter's assessment results proved what I had hoped for...academic growth despite no assigned homework from her fourth-grade teacher.

Parents of elementary-aged students, we cannot be afraid to stand up for our children and advocate to reclaim their limited free time. If homework has caused tension in your home, stress among your children, or an intrusion on your child's sleep, remember that you can say no to homework. Try it!

If you are a teacher, please trust that you make a tremendous impact inside of the classroom where you are physically available to challenge, nurture and guide your learners to reach new heights. The skills and experiences your students gain from inside your classroom will be used outside of your classroom in ways you may never have imagined.

After an entire school year of homework-free, stress-free evenings in my household,  I want to publically thank this very special fourth-grade teacher who provided a rigorous classroom experience balanced with time and space for self-discovery. I am hopeful that future academic years prove to be as fruitful as this past year has been for my child, and I hope that other parents and educators will continue the conversation about what our kids really need to be successful learners in today's world.

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Letter to My Child's Teacher Regarding Homework

Ever since a picture of 2nd-grade teacher, Brandy Young's homework policy went viral this week on Facebook, the anti-homework movement for young students has attracted more and more attention. Resharing a Facebook post is a great start, but I believe we can do more to move the needle on this important issue.

Rather than relying on social media to spread a message that I am passionate about, I decided to take my own advice from my recent blog post and actually speak up about my concerns with homework. Below, I am sharing a version of a letter that I recently sent to my child's teacher regarding my perspective on homework and the ways I hope to support my child's learning this year. (Feel free to borrow it, by the way.)

Thankfully, my child's teacher immediately responded to my letter, saying that she was happy to see that we share very similar ideas about homework. I knew we struck gold with this teacher when my daughter came home from school saying, "Homework can be anything this year, Mom! Playing Monopoly or even making a YouTube video can be our homework!"

Here's hoping that many other educators in my child's future have her mindset.


To My Child’s Teacher,

I want to begin by thanking you for playing a role in my child’s education. Without your support and guidance, my child could not reach her full potential, and I am grateful to have you as a partner in her education this year.

I am writing to share my perspective on homework and to respectfully ask that you avoid sending home homework assignments or incomplete work from the school day. Much of the research on the topic of homework suggests that there is little to no proven benefit, and I worry that homework is negatively impacting my child’s view of school.

One of my primary goals for my child is to ensure that her after-school hours are spent in a meaningful, productive way to foster responsibility and a love of learning. Rather than encourage the completion of traditional homework assignments, I hope to support her growth and development by pledging to do the following:

  1. I will talk to her about what she is learning about in school on a daily basis.
  2. I will establish a routine for her that supports nightly reading.
  3. I will foster authentic learning experiences in our home (cooking together, sharing household responsibilities, problem-solving through life’s challenges)
  4. I will encourage her to be active outside of school by either playing outdoors or participating in an activity that promotes physical health.
  5. I will support the development of her talents and interests by giving her time for experimentation and practice.
  6. I will respect that she is still a kid who deserves downtime and free-time to keep her feeling revived and enthusiastic about school.

By removing the nightly obligation of homework completion, I believe that my child will have an opportunity to develop her character, talents, and interests. My hope is for her to be excited to go to a place of learning each day and equally as excited to come home to a stress-free, loving home environment for continued learning each night.

Thank you for your support in protecting our family’s quality time together.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Speaking Up about Homework

Thirteen years ago, I began my teaching career as a fourth-grade teacher. I was young and idealistic, believing that I could make a difference, not just in the lives of my students, but in the profession of education. I distinctly remember presenting to a room filled with skeptical faces at my very first Open House. As I welcomed my students’ parents to what would be an exciting school year for their children, I proclaimed that I would not be giving very much homework to my students because I wanted kids to be kids. I explained that after spending nearly seven hours a day learning in school, homework would be limited to nightly reading and nothing more.

I thought the parents of my students were going to be relieved since fourth grade was known as the grade level where teachers really ramped up the homework. A funny thing happened, though. The parents were not relieved. They were disappointed; some even angry. As the first few weeks of school passed, my students’ parents questioned whether or not I was cut out to be a teacher in a high performing school district.
“Doesn’t she realize that she has to prepare our kids for the next grade level? How will she teach them responsibility without nightly homework? Our kids are going to fall behind if she does not increase the amount of homework she assigns!”
My principal at the time, hearing the complaints, called me into his office to explain that I needed to align myself with the other teachers on my grade level team. He also suggested that I abide by the 10-minute rule and assign 40 minutes of homework each night. (10 minutes of nightly homework multiplied by the grade level I taught.) Being new, inexperienced, and afraid of losing my first teaching job, I complied.

John Hattie
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Today, over a decade later, we know so much more about homework. John Hattie, a renowned education researcher who spent more than fifteen years studying the influences of achievement in school-age students, suggests that five to ten minutes of homework can have the same effect as one to two hours of homework. While Hattie does not recommend getting rid of homework altogether, since it does have an effect on students at the high school level, he proposes that primary schools (grades K-8) consider whether or not the homework assigned is truly making a difference in student learning, especially when his research indicates that that homework in grades K-3 has no effect at all.

Yet even without knowing about Hattie’s research, as a young educator, my gut told me that homework was not entirely necessary, especially the amount of homework I was pressured to assign. Still, I let the practice of homework continue because it’s what everyone else was doing and it’s what the parents were expecting me to do, too. It seemed to my students’ parents that I was teaching their children responsibility, even though the responsibility fell on them to ensure that the homework was completed each night. Parents reported that they were glad their children were becoming better conditioned to complete larger amounts of homework in preparation for the next grade level, nevermind the amount of stress that I was inflicting upon them on a nightly basis. And since our test scores remained high compared to much of the state, it seemed that the homework must be contributing to student learning, even though the low-level skills practiced at home were hardly ever assessed on the state tests. Because parents believed that homework was improving their child’s education, I found it difficult to challenge the status quo on nightly homework.

Fast forward to today, and now I find myself cast in a new role. As a parent of a 2nd-grade and a 4th-grade child, I am anxious that my child’s teacher will assign homework due to pressures from other parents or longstanding traditions in their school. I want to respect each teacher's professional judgment about the work assigned outside of school, but in my experience, even the best teachers seem to fall victim to this antiquated practice. I worry that the assignments will be mindless and time-consuming, stripping my children of their curiosity and sense of wonder. I worry that the amount of stress added to our household over homework completion will affect my relationship with my children
when I have so few hours that I get to spend at home with them each day. I worry that the homework will be too difficult, and while I may be able to help my children overcome challenging assignments, what about children whose parents are not able to help? I worry that bedtime reading, which arguably fosters the most important set of skills in young children, will often be neglected because lengthy homework assignments that are due the very next day will take precedence.

Life is short, so rather than continue to worry, I have decided that I must continue speaking out by sharing my concerns in an effort to challenge all educators to rethink homework. Last fall, I co-authored a blog post with my colleague, Jeff Zoul, about giving homework purpose or eliminating it altogether. While I continue to support everything in that original post, I hope educators will also consider reducing the time students are spending on homework, because even purposeful assignments can become too time-consuming for young learners.

If this post resonated with you and you are a parent with concerns about homework, speak up! If you are a teacher catering to parent expectations, speak up! If you are a student stressed out by homework, speak up! If you are an administrator caught in between all of these stakeholder groups, speak up! Though I am not quite as young as I once was when I first began my teaching career, I am still an idealistic educator who believes that she can make a difference, which is why I will continue to speak up about homework and its effect on all of us.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Doing Things DiFfeReNtLy

I love to do things differently. Sometimes it is because I truly believe there is a better way. Sometimes it is to make a point. Mostly, it's because doing things differently keeps me energized and engaged with life. I notice that I do things differently after trying them out in spurts, and then just as I have gotten into a nice rhythm, I depart for something else. Luckily for my husband, he is an exception to this rule. But he will tell you that it is very much a part of who I am. For example, my Starbucks order will be consistent for several months (right now it's a grande blonde roast with a splash of coconut milk + 1 Splenda) and then it completely changes for several months more. My exercise routine, eating habits, leisure activities, and even career will stay consistent for awhile and then suddenly, I seek a change.

In my role as a school district administrator, I notice the same trend. I find that I don't do the same things for too long before I break away to try doing something else. Perhaps, this is why I am able to adapt to new ideas so easily. I anticipate change and welcome it wholeheartedly. I lean into the fear of the unknown and accept that it will be different for awhile. Until it's not anymore. 

When I work with teachers, I notice that they often hold onto something old as we make shifts toward trying something new. It's their security blanket protecting them against something they are not quite sure about.

"I'm excited to teach the new curriculum, but I want to find a place for some of my old lessons, too."

"I want to start using Google Docs, but first let me upload all of my old Word documents into Google Drive." 

"I want to begin implementing standards-based grading into my teaching, but I still plan to give a midterm exam."

Holding on to what we have always done is comfortable and familiar. Even when change is knocking down our door, we hold onto what we know. But somehow, as a community of educators, we need to work on letting go. Just like when you are cleaning out your closet or your email inbox, sometimes you have to just purge much of the old to make room for the new. When we open our minds up to change and let go, we have the freedom to be creative, innovative thinkers. The more we hold on to doing things the same, the harder we find it is to move forward.

So, my challenge to those who are reading this post is to think about what you might start doing differently. As 2015 draws to a close, think about ways to change something about yourself, your work, or your life. Maybe you will find that doing things differently leads to small changes. And small changes, I have come to realize, can make a very big difference.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reflections from a First Year Administrator

A year ago, I left my classroom. In my career in education, this was not the first time I chose to leave. A number of years earlier, I left my 5th grade classroom to become a technology coach for several years, but eventually I began feeling rusty and knew it was time to revisit my roots so that I could refine my skills as a practitioner.

When I returned to the classroom this most recent time, I felt vulnerable and afraid. So much had changed in such a short period of time...could I keep up with the demands of the classroom? Common Core Standards, Standards Based Grading, 1:1 Technology...all of this was foreign to me, yet I had been an educator for nearly a decade. Surprisingly, muddling through the experience of starting over and teaching something completely new taught me more than I ever expected. These lessons have become even more apparent now that I have been gone from my classroom for a full year, and I can reflect back on what that last year as a classroom teacher taught me. I hope that my lessons can be shared with other educators who are questioning their own journey in the ever-changing, constantly evolving field of education.

Never Say Never
There seems to be an unwritten rule in education that once you take a role in administration, you don't go back into the classroom. I suppose this is true the majority of the time, but I will never say that I'll never go back. Maybe it's because I believe that my heart will always be in the classroom. Or maybe it's because ever since I was very young, my mother always told me to "never say never." While my next classroom may look a little different, with different learners or a different environment, I often find myself thinking about what it might be like to teach again in some capacity. So, in the spirit of my mother's wisdom, I say to all educators: never say never. Be open to possibilities. Be open to change. Change makes you better - even when you are already pretty darn great!

It's Not About You
Our job as educators is to teach kids to be engaged in their learning and inspired to do great things with their lives. Our job is not about grading fewer papers or having more plan time. It is not about finding a shortcut to make our lives easier. Granted, I loved finding ways to work smarter not harder, but I always kept those students at the center of my craft. Sure, a multiple choice quiz would have been much faster to grade, but those extended response questions gave me much more information about what my students knew and were able to do! Yes, stepping away from the front of the room and letting each student work on a different project at the same time was a management nightmare, but it was not about what would be more manageable for me. It was about making the learning rich and meaningful to my students. Let's make an effort to focus on what really matters in education. It's not about us; it's about our students. 

So What if the Kids are Smarter Than You
Teachers don't need to be the keeper of all knowledge anymore. We have Google for that. Instead, teachers must view themselves as a facilitator of learning to equip all kids with the skills to communicate, collaborate, think critically, and create. A student may have access to incalculable amounts of information in the palm of his hand, but his chances of becoming a successful human being depend on the support of the adults around him. Kids still need teachers, so don't worry if your students are smarter than you! They may be smart, but teachers have wisdom and experience, and that's something that can't be Googled.

Love it or Leave it
Teacher tenure is a blessing and a curse in the field of education. For teachers, it provides job security and financial stability, but it can also keep teachers feeling trapped in a job that they don't want to be doing anymore. I'm not interested in starting a tenure debate, but I do wish more teachers took the "love it or leave it" approach to their careers. If you love it, then by all means, teach as long as you can so that you continue making a difference in the lives of children. But if you don't love it, it's okay to leave it behind and find something new to do. Life is short. We should all do what we love and love what we do...especially when we have the potential to touch the lives of children.

It's amazing what you learn from deep reflection of past experiences, and the summertime is a natural time for reflection for educators. If you are winding down from one school year and preparing for another, take the time to look back, to pause, to reflect. Looking back brings clarity to the future.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Reflections from the Leyden 1:1 Symposium

I was lucky enough to be one of the 400 participants at the Leyden High School District 212 1:1 Symposium from July 30-August 1. Honestly, this was hands-down, the best PD I have received in years. From the moment I arrived and was greeted by the exceptional Leyden students, I could sense that this event would be special. You cannot help but feel #LeydenPride just by walking through the hallways. The leadership team behind the 1:1 Symposium truly tailored this event to every individual in attendance from teachers to administrators. The entire experience left me feeling motivated and inspired, which is exactly what you need on August 1st when the upcoming school year is staring you dead in the face.

Since the event was capped at only 400 participants, I feel a responsibility to share my major takeaways with others. (Seriously, if Jason Markey, Bryan Weinert or Mikkel Storaasli are reading, you guys are going to have to open this up to more people next year!)

So, here are my four favorite takeaways that I am borrowing from the brilliant minds that came together to share their passion about 1:1 learning in today's classrooms.

1. Start Small
This idea was really well stated by Jennie Magiera who suggested to start with one focus for the school year instead of trying to do everything all at once. Jennie also reminded participants not to "put the technology ahead of the pedagogical horse." In other words, the way we teach is more important than the device alone. If we start small with only one focus that is about teaching rather than the technology, we will be more successful in our classrooms.

2. New is not always Better
This was another idea by the inspiring Jennie Magiera, who shared that just because you have all of those shiny new devices in your classroom does not necessarily mean that you need to use all of that technology 100% of the time. Sometimes the old tech-free way you teach students is even more effective than with tech in hand. I think this is very poignant for any teacher who is about to begin the school year teaching in a 1:1 Learning Environment. 

3. Listen to the Students
At Leyden, the students have a voice. Whether it be through Twitter, blogging, or by asking students to share their thoughts during the Leyden student panel at the closing session, those students have an opportunity to share what's on their minds. Naturally, when you give students a voice, those voices are heard. This is an important reminder to all educators that students want to be heard and we have a responsibility to listen!

4. Find Joy
The opening keynote speaker at the Leyden 1:1 Symposium, Dean Shareski, shared how important it is that we all cultivate a more joyful experience in our schools. One of the ways for us to make this condition possible is for all of us to be a little more grateful. I think we need to keep this in mind as we all prepare for a new school year. Let's be grateful and remember to say thank you to acknowledge the greatness within one another. 

Getting started on a 1:1 journey will surely be filled with roadblocks and speed bumps along the way, but after spending three days at Leyden and hearing of their successes, I am certain that anyone going 1:1 in their school district is on the right track!