To Block or Not to Block?

That’s the question. Our middle school principal, Bill Caldwell, has been working with his grades 7 & 8 faculty and students all year to determine which is best, an A/B block schedule or a more traditional 42 minute period every day. Our high school is traditional with no interest in changing. This is a debate that schools across the nation have been having for over a decade now.

Personally, it seems to me that it’s just a way to configure time and it doesn’t much matter how it’s scheduled, what matters is what our teachers and students do with that time. What instructional strategies are the teachers using? Are our students actively engaged with content during the full block? Are teachers using 42 minutes of the block for instruction and then giving time to work on homework in class? Are they accomplishing much more because they can start something and sustain it for a longer time period?

I would challenge that our best teachers optimize the time they have, no matter how it’s configured. Most of the research on blocking time in a schedule speaks to this same thought–it doesn’t seem to make a significant difference in our achievement. Instead this question often comes down to likes/dislikes.

I’m not sure what our final decision will be as an administrative team. I’m interested to hear where Mr. Caldwell’s research led him and what his recommendation will be. We’ll have a great discussion on it Thursday at our admin meeting, which I love–through our analysis, discussion and debate, I think we come to better decisions.

What do you think? This blog is a great place for readers to weigh in on the ideas presented and so far, not many readers are doing so. If you have any thoughts on the topic that you want us to throw into the discussion, speak now. I’m listening.

Kids Generating Ideas and Creating Content

I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about the use of technology tools in schools for as long as I’ve been writing this blog–since July, 2006. Seldom have I seen first hand a teacher who uses the technology tools to allow students to create content.

Do you know what I mean by this? Students creating content means they are posting their own ideas in their own ways–through blogs, wikis, podcasts, videos or whatever–not just responding to a teacher prompt. It means they are generating the ideas, expanding on their own thoughts, sharing their own work. Kids are doing this every day on YouTube and MySpace, in Second Life and in ways I don’t even know about, it’s just not often connected to the learning they’re doing in school. And therein lies the problem for me. We should be connecting the two–we need our kids to think, to create, to problem solve. We need them to see that their ideas have merit, that their own thinking in collaboration with others can someday change the world.

In many cases, teachers who get excited about the technology tools end up using blogs and wikis to replicate activities that they normally do in class. They use the blog to ask kids to respond to a teacher prompt or they use a wiki to post their resources for students. That’s not asking kids to do anything more than before, just different. And I think our kids can bring more. I believe it because I see their creativity on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook and in the videos they post on YouTube.

So how cool is this? Here are a couple of the places at Randolph where RCS students ARE creating content on the web. I absolutely believe in the potential of our young people to think and create and solve problems, if we show them how. I’m grateful that we have Ms. Griffith, Mr. Halpainy, Mr. Olson, and Mr. Skudlarek, among others, making it happen at RCS!

IMAGINE what these second graders will be able to create as high school students some day! You can’t imagine it because no one knows what will be available to them. But we can be sure these students will believe in their own power to connect with others and to use this on-line world to share their ideas.  

Think for a moment about our middle school students and the capacity they are building that will empower them as college students and professionals.

And the possibilities are limitless for these high school living environment students as they learn to understand the world around them and to share their learning with others.

I love that we can’t even begin to imagine what our students will imagine, create, and share out here in the world that extends so far beyond our little town of Randolph–or how they’ll do it. That is a world so full of possibility that I hope I am alive a good long time to see as much of it as I can. And I’m especially glad that we’re giving our kids the tools and the opportunity to figure it all out, not just to listen to what we think it should be.

Who’s Learning at RCS?

Today, teachers are learning at RCS. We have a staff development day and our teachers and their learning are as much on my mind this morning as my students were in my head when I was teaching. I’m thinking about the 7-12 teachers who will be in a Tech Work Session from 8-11 and about the PreK-6 teachers I’ll be with during that time as we learn more about Thoughtful Classroom strategies. Then my mind goes straight to the afternoon sessions with PreK-6 in a Tech Work Session and 7-12 in data analysis.

For my 7-12 teachers, I hope they use the tech time effectively-at whatever point they may be at with technology. First, I hope they’ll realize how powerful a tool our school website can be in communicating who we are, what we’re about, and what’s happening at RCS. Much of the time teachers just want to do their thing without thinking about how they can communicate that to the school community. What’s lost in that idea is the incredible opportunity to showcase our kids and the powerful learning that goes on here every day. What’s left is the perception a community gets of a school with little direct communication about learning. Let’s use the website to illustrate the learning that’s happening, to remind our kids (and parents) of homework and tests, to link to our YouTube videos created in class of the pig dissections or whatever, to show the interviews our kids are conducting on “service” workers. Let’s turn it up Randolph teachers and strut your stuff on the website.

Second, if teachers are alreading rocking the website, I hope they focus on their own learning today. Set up RSS feeds, edit the ones you already have, look for new sources of learning, new voices to read. Try Twitter and see if that works for you, or Ning, or any of the other tools Mark Carls and Mike Frame help you with today. We grow as teachers and get better when we spend time listening and learning and hearing someone’s voice besides our own.

And we’re learning strategies for working with children with autism today from Mary Rockey and meeting with colleagues about our curriculum on teams. I hope our PreK-6 teachers walk away from our Thoughtful Classroom session with a better understanding of how our kids learn and some strategies to change it up a bit in their own classrooms tomorrow. And for just a little while, I get to be a teacher again.

Teachers Learning about Learning. Gotta love it.

Trying Twitter

I’m trying Twitter  this week and I’m not sure it’s going to work for me. Who has a conversation like that? It’s random and quick. It feels disconnected instead of connected. If you don’t know much about Twitter, you’re going to have to go check it out because I certainly am not going to be able to explain something I don’t understand. And who are these people who sign up to “follow” me? Random people who I can’t imagine would really care what I write in 140 keystrokes or less.

When I’m writing for this blog, I have a purpose and an audience in mind at all times. I try to convey some idea or message about education, sometimes just to get it out of my head and other times to try to influence thinking. Instead this “twittering” feels schizophrenic. Maybe I’m too old to get it with this one. With blogging, I’m communicating, getting feedback, trying to get my thoughts across to a wider audience. With twitter, I’m not sure what the heck I’m trying to do. 

The Tech Driver Ed Program

There is a ton of “stuff” here at the NYSCATE conference: gadgets, interactive whiteboards, clickers for student response, hardware, software, laptops, mini notebooks, document cameras, and on and on. Lots of ideas circulating about how to use it all, the need to take a stand on where we’re going as districts, the difference between what the kids are doing inside our walls and outside with technology.

The biggest idea I’m walking away from this conference with is the same one I’ve been reading about for the four years I’ve been reading/blogging now. I have to be a mom for a moment to explain it because I think many of my best decisions as a school leader are made when I consider, “what do I want for my own son?”

Our son Tallon is sixteen years old. He’s learning how to drive a car. We ride with him. I make suggestions that are sometimes more urgent than at other times. He listens, he adjusts. He’s learning to make good decisions behind the wheel. I’ve included conversation about how much we love him and how potentially dangerous his decisions can be and how important he is to us and therefore how important those decisions are to us. Follow? We’re taking at least six months, countless hours of practice, and further restrictions until he gains lots of experience even once he has the license.

I know that ultimately, he’s a sixteen year old boy and in the time of his life when he may make decisions that have consequences beyond his immediate consideration. I remember being fearless at his age, driving way too fast, getting pulled over and then the police officer/judge working to correct my behavior. I remember listening to my parents, I knew what was right or wrong, I made decisions for better or worse.

In my son’s use of technology, who’s doing all of the above? Many of his friends’ parents, my peers, know a lot less about technology than I do. Who’s talking to them, boys and girls, about the way they look on-line? About the social connections they’re making, the information about themselves that they’re giving away, the light in which they portray themselves, the bullying that’s taking place, the websites that expose them to content they don’t need to see, the future potential consequences of their decisions? Who’s helping him to understand this: “while you may not care now that your full name is on that YouTube video you created with your cousin, someday you might when a college admissions counselor says no, or a potential employer.”

See the point for me isn’t that we prohibit him from EVER doing anything wrong. I’m not delusional, I know that’s impossible. I just want him to know the consequences and to make a more informed decision. Even when our kids know the consequences, they still take risks. But right now, I’m fairly certain that our students don’t even understand the risks or long term implications of their on-line identity or of cyber bullying or of the importance of limiting what’s out there for others to see. Do they?

I know he’s going to figure out the how of using technology, in incredible ways that I couldn’t even imagine. I just want to be there to talk about it, to reason it through with him, to be a parent (and how many of our parents don’t have a clue on this topic?) and to help him understand. I totally want him to go for it with his creativity and connections–just want it to be in a smart, responsible way.

So if kids don’t know how to participate in a smart, responsible way and parents don’t know how, what the heck are we waiting for as teachers? Kids have the keys to a car that no one else in the family may know how to drive and we haven’t designed our driver’s ed programs yet. Or should I say “still”?

What Do I Know For Sure?

We need a consistent, coordinated K-6 reading program. That’s what headed us down the path of piloting four different series/approaches in our district this year. And that’s what we heard over and over again from our reading pilot teachers today. Our decision making group of eight invited our pilot teachers to talk about what they absolutely need us to know about the series they’re piloting.

We had a hefty agenda of questions to answer and intermittently, we had pilot teachers talking to us. They let us know what they like/dislike about their pilots, what’s working for their kids and what’s not working. Some told us what they liked about the other pilots. A few endorsed a program they’d used previously.

This decision making group has an onerous task ahead of us. We have compiled monthly feedback assessments from the pilot teachers, we’ve looked at the DIEBELS data from fall and winter assessments, we’ve brought in an Orton Gillingham expert to talk to us. I’ve visited pilot classrooms and observed teaching/learning.  We’ve consulted the research. We’ve listened to pilot teachers. And now we will develop a GCS K-6 consistent reading program.

Here’s what I know for certain. We will build a program based on what we know about the way children learn to read. We will build it with components that best prepare our students in reading and writing. We will have a planned, consistent K-6 program and we will require all teachers to teach the components of the program. We will deliver solid staff development, opportunities for coaching, and lots of support. We will go in as administrators and ensure that everyone is following the program, in the correct way. If we see the fidelity of the program compromised, we will bring in additional support.

I know for certain that every child who enters kindergarten through sixth grade in 2008 will have an articulated, consistent, coordinated reading program. I know for certain we will have stronger readers and more student success. I know we are actively engaged in the key effective practices that research has shown time and again to be present in successful schools. I know this emphasis on literacy is the key to it all.

From the Tedious to the Titillating

We have a snow day today so my reading meeting is postponed until Wednesday. That leaves me with an unexpected “bonus” day to get some work done. I am spending the day researching grants. Not that I’m a grant writer. Not by any stretch. But I did attend a 1/2 day workshop and it is on my list of duties. I have no particular expertise, just this niggling reminder that’s constantly in the back of my brain that it’s the one thing on the list of duties in my assistant superintendent position to which I’ve not attended. I guess I put off that which least appeals to me?

I wade through pages and pages of possible grants only to find out we don’t qualify because we need a poverty rate of 20% and ours is only 16.95%. Or we need to fund 50% and I know we won’t make that commitment for that specific initiative. Or the grant application is so HUGE that I realize I’ll have to chuck all the things I’m most committed to in my work, just to work on a grant that I might not win anyway. I guess this is why people make a full time job out of grant writing, they’re qualified and expert in the job. Anyway, enough complaining, I’m writing this for a brief break from the grueling grant search, no sense talking about it the entire break.

This brings me to something that is really exciting. Check out the incredible questions our 6th grade Science students are asking on their teacher, Mrs. Phillip’s, new blog.

Is the balck hole another name for the galaxy? how many stars are in the galaxy?

do you know if there is globle warming on any other planet besides earth?

 some people say that if you go in the black hole its like a time portal.If scientists find a nother planet or living organisms what will we do?

hello…….i wonder if there is any other planets we dont know about????

when they say planets have rings around them what are the ring made up of?

how come we dont have rings around are planet?

Mrs.Phillips are there any living organisms out in space like aliens or parasites or even protists,fungis,monerans,human,and animals?

are stars reproducible?

How do scientists kno so much about other plants wen they never been there?and becuz its so far away they cant send anythin in space!! its weird

when there are star clusters what is the reason for that to happen?Do they cluster at a sertain time?are we going to be talking about how star clusters form?I think it would be a very interesting thing to do?GTG bye

Tell me those questions aren’t the springboard for an entire unit?! Tell me that kids aren’t as inquisitive as they once were or that they’re only interested in XBOX and television. Hogwash! These kids are stoked about learning, they’re asking questions that show some deep thinking, and they have a teacher who shows enough innovation and initiative to let them ask the questions and direct the lesson flow. Very cool stuff indeed. Much cooler than grant writing.

Kindergarten Totally Rocks

So I don’t get in on the action in the high school any more. When a student refused to comply with a reasonable request to go to Internal Suspension, I didn’t hear about it until hours later. Where was I? In a kindergarten classroom, on chairs too small for my 6′ frame, getting hugs and having a blast.

We are piloting three reading series in our K-6 classrooms right now. In addition, we have all teachers trained in Orton Gillingham and teachers who aren’t piloting are using Orton Gillingham. We are right in the middle of evaluation and heading toward decision making. I entered this pilot year completely opposed to Orton Gillingham as a component in our developed reading program (I saw it as only an intervention). I can tell you that there is certain success happening in those K-2 classrooms, with OG, that cannot be denied.

Like today. With five year old students who were EXCITED about reading paragraphs and writing six word sentences. Five year olds who know rules like “C or K and sometimes both”. Students who entered our classroom in September recognizing only 9 letters of the alphabet and now are reading multiple sentences with ease. And I stopped the students who read to me at the end of every line, asking comprehension questions that they nailed. Had they seen the passage before today? Nope, they just read it through independently once before reading it to me.

I know there’s doubt about it out there. That some wonder if it kills any joy of reading we could possibly foster. And I have to say I’ve not liked it at the 3-4 grades, it seems painful. But that’s because those kids are old enough to know they should be reading already. They are already a bit embarassed when they can’t. Five year olds are rocking the house with the knowledge that they are READING and tackling new passages with ease. I’m loving what I see because it’s building confidence and that’s what fosters a love of reading.

Tomorrow we’ll work all day to evaluate all of the teacher feedback, the Dibels results, the interviews with teachers and start to come to a decision. We’ll realize that a reading program, consistently taught by all K-6 teachers, including a planned writing program and great children’s literature will take our students to greater success.

I don’t know what the committee will determine as its final recommendation. There are teachers who have fallen in love with their pilots and who advocate strongly for adoption. But I have to say, those kindergarten and first grade students will be in my mind all day long.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There’s nothing better that we can do for our students than teach them to read, write, speak and listen well–to see the written word as their personal ticket to the world. To discover reading and writing and all that it can do for them.

Journey to the Other Side

While I’ve worked at the middle school level, teaching 7th and 8th grade for ten years and as an assistant principal for a year and a half, I’ve spent the majority of my career at the high school, which I’ve loved. I’m certified in elementary education, but I only taught there my first year of teaching: science, literature and Spanish at a local private school, St. Joe’s. That was many years ago.

Today I spent a couple of hours in our elementary school and it was an incredible experience for me. What did I learn? First of all, those elementary teachers work their butts off, non-stop. Second, they spend a lot of time talking about behavior cues and expectations with students. I assume this is because it’s only the second full week of school and the children are learning the routines of their new teacher. I don’t know yet if it was a typical day, but I was struck by how well-behaved the students were.

The incredible part for me was realizing how varied the reading level is in a second grade classroom. I know this may seem like an obvious observation to many readers, but high school kids are pretty skilled at hiding their stuff–they figure out how to keep us from knowing what their problems are. Everything from poverty to home problems to reading levels. High school kids figure out how to keep that below level. What I observed today was something very different.

With elementary students, it’s all out there. One group of students read from a book that had only one sentence on a page while another group had four to five sentence paragraphs. I would not have guessed that the abilities of a group of second graders were that disparate. I wanted to sit and help them read all day–I still believe there is no more critical skill on which we spend our time. This integrated classroom was cooking, the teacher, consultant teacher and teaching assistant were working like clockwork to maximize learning for their students.

I also saw a new teacher work with first graders who looked like she was born to teach that class. And a special needs teacher who was working with five students on journal writing, building patterns, reading and testing one–all at the same time. I defy anyone to spend time in that classroom without falling in love with those kids.

There was an overwhelming positive atmosphere, one in which I wanted to stay. I imagine and hope that our children and staff feel the same exact way.

The Book I’m Reading Now

I’ve written here about how much I read, especially during the summer. I’m not sure I’ve ever posted about a book before, but I’ve got to say how much I’m enjoying Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  It’s the kind of book I want to read slowly, underlining and making notations. I’m looking at the copyright date of 2005 and figuring I missed any blog conversation that went around when it came out. However, I have added the rss feed to my bloglines account–seems these authors maintain a current New York Times blog. Nice.

One of my teachers gave the book to me at the beginning of the summer and said that he thought I’d really like it. Well, he was right. I’m fascinated by the chapter, What Makes a Perfect Parent?, in which the authors look at the correlation between a child’s personal circumstances and his school performance. Made me sit back and think about our school improvement efforts and the impact they may or may not have on achievement.

It’s a thought provoking, interesting read. . . if you’re looking for something this summer.