Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Morning Exercises

It is often on my daily dog walks that I brainstorm ideas for a blog post.  At this time of year, the morning dog walk takes place in the dark with both me and the dog dressed in our finest Day-Glo gear so as to not get shot by a hunter.  It is shotgun deer hunting season here, and while we walk in a no hunting zone before hunting hours, the Day-Glo makes me feel a little bit safer.  But I digress.  This morning walk often triggers ideas because my brain is waking up.  On a recent visit to China to visit schools as part of the College Board’s Chinese Bridge Delegation for American Principals, morning exercises were in place for students at all schools.

In Chinese schools, students participate in some form of group morning exercises.  Whether that is an elaborate, synchronized dance routine, a jogging routine, or bouncing two basketballs at once for eye-hand coordination development, I observed morning exercises at each school I visited.  For the dance routines, think back to the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies for the summer games in Beijing.  It is impressive to see 1000 students all in sync with one another. 

As an aside, the opening ceremonies for the 2008 games were the most impressive I have seen in my lifetime.  I doubt they will be topped.  I had the opportunity to be in London for the 2012 games and the opening ceremonies there were just a bit weird and not nearly as impressive.  In China, 8 is a lucky number.  Actually, most numbers are considered lucky, except for the number 4.   I remember the Olympic games taking place on 08/08/08 and now I know why.  As long as I am continuing on this tangent, now is probably a good time to share my idea for the Olympics.  I think they should take place in Athens, Greece every four years.  Eliminate the controversial bid process and the billions spent in the host city. Instead return the games to their origin and save the Greek economy at the same time with each participating country contributing a fee to participate that will go towards maintaining the needed infrastructure in Athens. 

Back to the topic of morning exercises.  We have tried at our school to provide more opportunities for students to have more physical education classes in their schedule.  We created a Fitness for Life course and a Total Body Conditioning Class and are considering Yoga and/or Pilates for next year.  I think we would need to get creative to be able to do any kind of morning exercises as a whole school or at each grade level.  Perhaps we can incorporate it into the morning announcements.  Or, provide opportunities for students to participate in some structured before-school sports.  I recall having before-school sports when I was an elementary student, but I do not remember the logistics of it.  There is plenty of research out there supporting exercise to improve student achievement.  I think this is one lesson we can learn from China.  Morning exercises for all would be beneficial.  I’ll leave the school uniform issue alone for now, as it tends to be more controversial.  There would be benefits to uniforms  as well though, just saying. 

Do you have morning exercises at your school?  Please share the details.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Another Blog About Blogging

I may have covered this topic before.  The reason I can’t remember may be that I have yet to get into a routine with blog posts.  As I reflect on why I do not blog more often, I can come up with a few reasons.  I have yet to make it a priority, kind of like exercise for me.  Or maybe I communicate more via Twitter and email, so the blog post might be redundant.  While these may be factors, I think the real reason I do not blog often is a fear factor in sharing my thoughts on education related topics.  The fear that my blog post may spark controversy or lead teachers into a space where they think the blog post means some big changes are on the way.  Or maybe I fear that I will expose my differences in philosophy with other leaders in my district. I need to get over this fear, as I believe that blogs can be great conversation starters, even if some of those conversations end up being difficult conversations.  So, once again, I am going to try to blog more often.  Consider this a December head start on a new year’s resolution.  Maybe the exercise will happen too. 

I would love to write more on topics such as our experiences going 1:1 with Chromebooks, our attempt to have more teacher-driven professional development, or sharing my experiences on a recent trip to China.  I will shy away from my thoughts on gun control, religion, and politics, as this blog is not really intended to address topics outside of education.  I briefly posted and then deleted a blog post yesterday regarding the most recent mass shooting in America after our school went into “lockout” because of a report that there was a man with a long gun involved in a police standoff down the street from our school.  Fortunately, it ended up that he did not have a gun and it was a good test of our safety protocols.  I deleted the post because it touched on my thoughts about gun control and even linked to the Daily News cover that sparked so much debate.  I decided again, that this blog is not the forum for that.  That action of thinking I need to delete a post sparked this blog.  So, moving forward I will try to blog more frequently and still try to avoid stepping into too much controversy.  There will be some self-censorship without compromising on my values.

Friday, September 11, 2015

When parents model poor social media behavior

Our school is now a 1:1 Chromebook school. It is so exciting to kick off the year knowing that access to technology is no longer an issue for any of our students at school or at home.  We required every student to attend an information/distribution meeting with a parent to ensure that we sent a clear message about appropriate use and care of the Chromebooks.  Part of the presentation was on digital citizenship.  We sent a clear message about thinking carefully before posting photos, videos, or comments on any social media sites and we continue to reinforce the message regularly.  Students appeared to get it and parents were seen nodding in agreement.

Interestingly, it has been parents, not students who have exhibited poor etiquette when it comes to social media.  We have a few (very few) parents who have the pattern of posting complaints about the school on Facebook.  Others then comment on their post. This is such poor modeling that it is, I'll admit, exasperating to me.  Here was my weekly email to parents to address this concern:

Good Afternoon CPS Parents/Guardians,

Welcome back to what we hope will be another wonderful year at CPS.  Each Thursday throughout the school year I will send out an email with updates of all things CPS.  Please be sure to share this with your friends who also have children at CPS and ask them to notify us if they are not receiving these email updates.

The start of the year has been exciting for us at the middle school.  Last week, the teachers had four days of professional development activities culminating in a full day workshop with Dave Burgess, author of Teach Like a Pirate.  Dave inspired our faculty with his inspirational keynote address.  He then worked with the CPS faculty sharing strategies to hook student interest and keep them engaged. We hope to tap into his amazing energy and work to expand our instructional strategies as we strive to continuously improve.

Following the long weekend, we welcomed 333 students to the middle school.  As you know, every student now has a Chromebook to use.  Students and teachers are excited about this access to technology that we have not had in the past.  If you have not yet read the 1:1 handbook, please do so.

On Friday we will have summer reading book groups to kick off the day.  Everyone read the book Wonder.  If you have an opportunity to read the book, I highly recommend it.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you will come away with the amazing takeaway to “choose kind.”  This book will be revisited throughout the year as we encourage students to treat everyone with kindness.  Read the book; you will love it!

With the combination of the 1:1 Chromebook initiative and everyone reading Wonder, there is a clear connection to digital citizenship.  As many of you heard me say at the Chromebook distribution meetings, we need our students to be educated on how to appropriately use technology and social media.  I encourage you to check your child’s Chromebook and their cell phone regularly and randomly.  Over the summer we have heard about inappropriate Instagram posts and Snapchat messages.  Please remind students to “choose kind” and avoid some of the mean spirited pictures, videos and comments that have been shared in the past.  As adults, we need to model this.  Too frequently I am being alerted to Facebook posts by parents who are complaining about school supplies or the school lockers, for example.  While you may have legitimate concerns or even complaints about our school, Facebook is not an appropriate forum.  Please call me or make an appointment to meet with me to discuss your concerns rather than post your frustration on Facebook.  I appreciate your consideration of this.

Let me briefly address the two concerns posted on Facebook recently.  We do anticipate that the school supply lists will be reduced in the future now that we are 1:1 Chromebooks.  In this first year, teachers did not make changes to the supply lists until they have had an opportunity to experience teaching in a 1:1 environment.  Due to the student population continuing to grow, we have run out of lockers.  We are working on a solution and we ask for patience.  Again, moving forward, if you have any questions, concerns, or even complaints, please know that I am always open to discussing any issue.  We truly are striving to make CPS the best it can be, one step at a time.

We are off to a terrific start despite the heat and humidity we have been experiencing this week.  I encourage you to stay informed, get involved, and team up with us to ensure every child’s academic and social success in middle school.  I look forward to seeing many of you at our first principal’s coffee next week.

Have a great weekend and welcome to the 2015-2016 CPS school year.

Students succeed when the adults at school and home work together.  I am hopeful that this trend of airing grievances on social media will stop and that parents will instead model more positive conflict resolution strategies like having a conversation with the school prior to ranting on Facebook.

What strategies have you used to combat this issue?  

Fortunately, we have a wonderful school and amazing parent community.  The actions of the few in this case do not represent the majority here.  

So, let's "choose kind" and model positive online behavior for our students.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Recruiting Teachers to an Island

The school year begins in one month. At the risk of jinxing it, we are fully staffed as of today.  When your school is on an island 30 miles out to sea, this is no small accomplishment.  Teacher recruitment can be challenging in many districts.  Here on the island, I believe we face added challenges with teacher recruitment that other districts on the mainland may not experience.  Unlike other cities and towns, you cannot commute to the island.  You must live here in order to teach here.  While you theoretically could commute and take a flight or ferry back and forth every day, you would be challenged to get here on time and it would cost a fortune. Additionally, if the boats and planes are not running due to weather, you would be unable to make it to school at all. So, commuting is not a viable option. The biggest challenge to relocating here in order to teach is the shortage of affordable housing on the island.  Not only are housing costs unbelievably expensive, rentals are in high demand and short supply.  There is just not a lot of inventory for available year-round rentals.  Many of our teachers end up in a school-year rental and then do the "shuffle" to another apartment/cottage for the summer or move off-island for the summer. For some perspective, a rental that is around $1500/month during the school year, may go for as much as $3000/week in the summer or more! Simply unaffordable for most.

So, what does this mean for teacher recruitment.  Unfortunately, it makes it all that much harder to attract the best of the best.  Teaching simply does not have the compensation that will attract students who finish in the top of their college class. This is true everywhere. While our salary and benefit package is better than most to offset some of the cost of living impacts of living on an island, it is still difficult to relocate here unless you have some connection to housing.

We probably need to start thinking out of the box for how we find the best of the best teachers.  Here are some creative ways we could do this. Some of these are applicable to all school districts and some are island specific.

1) Offer a signing bonus that must be used for housing/moving expenses in the first year.
2) Purchase and/or build staff housing.
3) Become the school version of a teaching hospital. Offer residencies for teachers to learn from experienced teachers to later fill open positions.
4) Establish partnerships with colleges and universities that could help offset some of the cost for this residency model.
5) Instead of going to job fairs where we struggle to compete with districts on the mainland, set up our own job fair and/or college visits to specifically meet with and recruit teachers.

While all of the above may not be possible in the short term, we will continue to think about creative ways that we can not only attract, but retain the best educators.

Another blog for another time - teacher preparation... Why teacher prep schools should be more like medical schools and why compensation for teachers should be more in line with the medical profession.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reflections on Year Number Two

I have spent the month of July working on scheduling, preparing for the launch of our 1:1 Chromebook initiative, and reflecting on my second year as principal.  This is my second principal position.  So while last year was my second year here, I have now completed nine years as a middle school principal.  I have a theory, that year number two presents the most challenges. Here's why.  In year number one, there is a honeymoon period.  The faculty wants you to succeed and, as a new principal, hopefully you are putting focus on listening, learning, building relationships, and earning trust.  The first year goes by quickly and then the work truly begins.  That is not to say that work was not done in year number one.  It is just that in year number two, any improvements or ideas that are being implemented begin to take some people out of their comfort zone and either into a learning zone (great) or a panic zone (trouble). Words like "improvements" and "ideas" to a principal are often interpreted as "change" and "initiatives" by teachers with both of those words having negative connotations.

This is the balancing act that a principal must play out and why the time spent building trust and relationships in year number one is so crucial.  It is also why deciding on a path and developing a vision and a timeline for this vision cannot be done in isolation.  The vision needs to truly be shared by key stakeholders and be developed based on conversations and input from the faculty.  There is a chart about change in schools that is often used in leadership workshops.  It shows five factors for change: vision, skills, incentives, resources, and an action plan that all need to be in place in order for true change to take place successfully.  If any of these one factors is missing you end up falling short of success. No vision and there is confusion. No training to build up skills and there is anxiety. No incentive for how this change will improve things and there is resistance. No resources to make the change happen and there is frustration. No action plan and there is the feeling of being stuck on a treadmill.

After completing an entry plan and learning about your new school, there is a tendency to want to make many changes.  If you try to do too much too fast you end up in a situation with factions being formed and the classic division between teachers and administrators. The other issue that principals can become victim to is the death by initiatives that so many schools face and that I have blogged about in the past.  This is when you try to implement too many initiatives in one year. Leaders in schools must fight the pressure from federal, state, and local powers to do it all at once.

As I reflect on year number two for me personally, I end up with much room for improvement.  The year started off poorly due to the many initiatives.  We were transitioning from MCAS to PARCC for state assessments (another blog would be needed to share thoughts on this #lesstestingmorelearning). We had a new student information system for attendance, scheduling, grade books, etc.  We had a new software program for teacher evaluation and the evaluation system was only in its second year. We had a new assistant principal.  Not only a new person, it was a new position. We were implementing a new master schedule. While the schedule was developed by a committee of teachers, it was still new. Wow - talk about death by initiative.  This created the perfect storm.  Too many things pushing people way out of comfort zones and into a panic zone.  The bottom line was many felt overwhelmed.  I did too. We were missing the factors of skills, incentives, and a clear action plan. The vision was murky and not yet shared and while we had the resources, that certainly was not enough to lead to success. I heard myself doing two things frequently - apologizing and saying "if only we could press a reset button" and start the year again.

By early spring my focus turned to rebuilding trust, strengthening relationships, and facilitating discussions with the faculty about the year ahead.  What could we do to ensure that we were more focused, had fewer initiatives, and could take advantage of time we have to implement teacher-driven professional development that is focused on collectively improving instruction. I think we are truly on to something.

Year two was a challenge.  I think year two in any leadership position will always be a challenge. And, one can navigate that challenge and be set up for a successful third year.  As I reflect back on my most recent year number two, there is much I would do differently and there are also great lessons learned that will set us up to have the five factors in place for successful improvement.  One key is to try to connect initiatives rather than have so many different things that are not connected.  The umbrella of improving instruction is our focus. The required course to improve addressing the needs of English Language Learners and the 1:1 Chromebook initiative are directly connected to improving instruction.  With less focus on the PARCC assessment and all of our focus on improving instruction, we still meet the need to improve test scores as one measure of our work.

Year three begins and the lessons from year two are clear.  Less is more.  Focus is key. Teacher-driven professional development works. And away we go...

Friday, May 1, 2015

Resisting Spring Fever & Summer Anticipation

We turn the calendar to May today.  I recently sent out to the faculty and parents a calendar of events from now to the end of the year. I do this so that everyone is aware and can mark their calendars and save the dates for the many special events coming up from testing to awards ceremonies to school dances. In compiling this list of events, I realized that we have just eight weeks left in this school year.  There is so much to do to finish this year strong and also prepare for next year with scheduling and staffing.

Living on an island that is a vacation destination for many (The population increases from about 12,000 year round residents to 65,000 summer residents) this last two months of school presents a challenge.  At all schools, when the weather starts to improve, students and staff start to get spring fever or summer anticipation.  It becomes challenging to stay focused on the work that we need to accomplish.  On an island, the added challenge is we look outside our windows and more and more people are here on vacation while we are still at work. So, collectively, we need to work together to stay on task and finish strong.  There is so much to do, so the time will pass by quickly.  Let's keep our eye on the moment and resist the temptation to be on summer vacation prematurely.  For students in particular, this is challenging.  As educators we need to work doubly hard to keep students engaged right up until the end of school.  Eight weeks.  We can do it!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Focus on Improving Instruction - Connecting PD to Practice

As educators, we have all experienced professional development sessions that inspire us and other sessions that fall flat.  Too often there are so many competing initiatives, that activities planned for professional development days throughout the year feel disjointed without clear connections to the work in the classroom.  This lack of focused PD that is planned and facilitated in a top-down way rarely helps schools or school districts move forward and improve.  Is there another way?  Can a plan be developed for professional development in a school that is focused, and yet still provides opportunities for teachers to provide input and drive the direction of the school?  I think the answer to all of the above is yes. Here's how.  First, one theme is selected as the area of focus for the year (or ideally two or three years).  Let's take improving instruction as the big umbrella theme.  Next, teachers and administrators work together to develop a menu of instructional strategies that they want to learn more about.  From that menu, each individual teacher selects their top choices.  Teachers connect with colleagues with similar areas of interest.  In our school, we are blessed with a designated one hour block of time every week for this work.  In week one, teachers could research their instructional strategy of choice and share out current practices.  Prior to the next meeting, teachers try out this strategy, observe peers, and then reconvene to debrief.  At this meeting, teachers share observation feedback - successes and failures - and leave with adjusted/improved strategies in hand.  They try out these strategies and do another round of peer observations.  They then meet again to debrief and can now decide to either continue to refine their work with this strategy or move on to another instructional strategy with potentially another group of colleagues.  Interspersed with this learning cycle are opportunities to learn about new technologies or address the items that end up competing for our time - the new technology for teacher evaluations or the new online grade book.  The potential here, I believe, is great.  Teacher driven professional development with opportunities to immediately try out what you learn, observe peers as well as be observed by peers, and receive feedback without the weight of evaluation.  It is like combining the concepts of EdCamps with Instructional Rounds. I think this can work - do you? Anyone doing/have done something similar?