Sunday, March 13, 2016

Five Loaves & Two Fish: Making the Most of Our Talents

 A devotional I read this week is lingering in my mind and heart:

Sometimes our bread and fish (skills, talents, resources) don't seem all that impressive when held in our hands. However, when we give the Lord all what we are and all that we have, He can multiply our offering beyond comprehension....

So what are my loaves and fishes? 
Have I given my loaves and fishes to the One who can multiply them for use in His Kingdom?

This is my prayer: Use me, Lord, to bless the people you've entrusted to my care and leadership. Reveal my loaves and fish to me, and use my skills, my talents, and my resources to unleash a mighty work in our midst, that You might be glorified in every word and action.


photo source: Five Loaves & Two Fish



Saturday, February 27, 2016

On Becoming Indispensable

Seth Godin's Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? provided me a thought-provoking opportunity to take stock of my own contribution to my school and our students.  As with any good read, my underlining pen nearly went dry - there were so many points I wanted to mark for future reference.

We live in a world that leverages talent; there is little room for cogs, trained to complete a rote job. So I have to ask myself, am I leveraging my talent to become indispensable?

Are we, as a school, training cogs, those who will be "merely good, merely obedient, and merely reliable?"  Are we training cooks, those who can follow a recipe, or are we developing chefs, those who will create the recipe? The Georgia Standards of Excellence, and their predecessor, Common Core, aim for the latter; the creative genius in our students can be realized only with significant instructional shifts in the classroom.

Godin writes, "Yesterday's remarkable is today's really good and tomorrow's mediocre." In the case of a charter school, accountability is existence.  Remaining on the cutting edge - being remarkable - is a necessity.  Losing traction is an open door to defeat.

He continues, "The only way to succeed is to be remarkable, to be talked about."  With the recent renewal of our charter, these thoughts resonate with me, and I hope they resonate with our faculty. The path to excellence is not static; it is ever-changing, and we must be ever-growing to meet the challenge of educating our students for a 21st century global economy.  What worked last year, or five years ago, simply isn't enough anymore.

Do we {I} possess the passion, the "desire, insistence and willingness ...  relentless[ness for] doing important work?"  Linchpins, he writes, "embrace the lack of structure and find a new path, one that works" and as a troubleshooter, "steps in when everyone else has given up, puts himself on the line, and donates the energy and the risk to the cause."

It's time to adjust the sails, to right the ship.  The challenge lies ahead. Let's tackle it full speed.

Will our school become a linchpin, an indispensable entity in the educational landscape?






Friday, July 18, 2014

Whose Failure Is It?

I’m guilty.  Guilty of failing students.

Oh yeah, I’ve said it many times in my teaching career, “You earned those grades.  I didn’t give them to you.”  At the time, I thought I was right.  Students did the work, I checked the work, and assigned the grade accordingly, but I didn’t give the student a grade. In my mind, they earned the grade.  Whether it was a good grade or a bad grade, the student earned it by the quality and timeliness of the work s/he turned in.

In recent years as I have reconsidered teaching and grading practices, I have come to realize how flawed my position I was.

I chose my grading scale.  For the most part, I used the 100% scale, which is how most of my own school work was graded and how most of my colleagues graded.  At some point, I began to use a point system, assigning points to each assignment according to the value or weight I believed it to be worth.  Each class and each term differed in the number of assignments and points available.  I controlled this; my students did not.  Their job was “to do the work.”  In terms when there were many grades available, a low grade affected a student’s average less than when there were fewer assignments. 

Like many teachers, I believed in the worth of my assignments and in the veracity of the grades entered into my gradebook.  Some earned high marks; others posted low scores.  All were an accurate picture of a student’s performance in my class each quarter. 

Hmmm.  Really?  What a terribly supremacist view of teaching and grading practices!  Arrogance, no less.

Thankfully, I’ve evolved from that flawed perception to realize that teaching and grading is not a one-size-fits-all operation. 

Perhaps my grading practices were satisfactory for those who earned passing grades, though I recognize that there is significant room for improvement with every aspect of my grading. But looking at some student data this week has drawn my focus to the failures.

Failing a student is relatively easy and far more common than I once realized.  Just give assignments, take up and score the ones students turn in, and assign zeroes for those whose papers aren’t in the stack.  When the work is of poor quality, assign poor grades. You can even ask the student multiple times to turn in the missing assignment.  Then teach the next lesson and repeat the assignment cycle.

I have failed many of my students. 
I failed to recognize their individual needs.
I failed to differentiate my teaching so each one could learn the material most effectively. 
I failed to offer an alternative assessment method to allow each one to demonstrate the depth and breadth of his/her learning.

Instead, I grouped them all together, taught them the same lesson at the same time in the same way, assigned them the same assessment at the same time, and expected that each individual would achieve his maximum potential. After all, there’s only one way to teach and to assess, and that is my way, the teacher’s way.  I trust you hear the sarcasm in my voice in that last statement.  Yikes!

Therein lies the problem – we trust our own selves too much!  So much so that we assign zeroes to those who don’t turn in the work and we assign low grades to poor work.  And then blame the students for not studying the notes we gave them, or for being unmotivated to do schoolwork, or for ….

Sadly, failure becomes a cycle, a downward spiral, often unrecoverable. 
Failure damages a child’s reputation with other teachers & administrators.
Failure damages a child’s relationship with his/her family.
Failure damages a child’s social status with classmates and friends. 
Failure damages a child’s self-concept.

Yet, we teachers don’t just allow failure, we sometimes cause it and perpetuate it.

OUCH!  That’s a strong statement and one that is difficult for a teacher to swallow.

I, along with many teachers, deeply care about students and try repeatedly, often unsuccessfully, sometimes successfully, to change the course of a students’ performance.  I also know that sometimes we give up the fight, for our efforts seem fruitless or the year comes to an end and the student moves on.

I generally believe that students who come to my class desire to succeed.  They may not express that desire in the same ways as some of their high-achieving classmates do, but deep inside they want to please their teachers and to succeed in school.

Some students fear failure.  A common mindset these students adopt is that it is easier to look lazy by not doing the work than it is to look dumb by doing the work incorrectly.

Some students lack relationships.  Connecting with students individually opens the door to better understand their behaviors.  What makes this student tick?  What interests does s/he have that I can link to our coursework to stimulate his motivation to learn? How does this student react to feedback?

Of course, there are many things we can to do build better relationships with our students, to get inside their hearts and minds to better understand their motivation (or lack of), to increase their academic skills, to teach better and to assess better.

For now, we need to take a critical look at how we assess our students.  Are we using a one-size-fits-all, my way or the highway, assessment protocol?  How valid and reliable are our assessments? Are our gradebooks truly reflective of students’ performance and mastery of the content in our courses?  What are we doing when students fail?  Have we answered the question of WHY is this student failing with a response deeper than “he doesn’t care” or “he won’t do the work”?

If the answer doesn’t involve working individually with the student to determine the root cause of failure, establishing a plan of action to remedy the failure, following through, or reassessing & revising the plan until the student has learned, we have failed the student.  If we do not design instruction and assessment in multiple ways to meet the varying needs of each student in our class, we will fail our students.  That’s our failure.  Not the student’s. 


As we approach a new school year, let’s endeavor to fail no more.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Rejuvenation & Reunion: A Girls' Getaway

After years of building our careers and rearing our children in separate states, we realized we had gone too long without quality “girl” time.  A spa retreat was just the reunion we needed!

Climbing the stairs to Unit 32, I was clueless to the charm that awaited me on the other side of the door.  A lodge setting exceeding all my expectations.  Three bedrooms, three baths, a fully stocked kitchen and living area.  Well-appointed furnishings all in upscale lodge style.  Honey stained paneling. Shingled rooftops on the outcroppings.  Calm, cozy, comfortably serene.

 A bottle of wine, a fruit tray overflowing with grapes, cheese, and chocolate covered strawberries, and a selection of breakfast treats from Mercier Orchards including fruit tarts, apple donuts, and an apple cinnamon loaf whispered “Welcome to Blue Ridge. We’re glad you’re here.”

Mmmm.  I couldn’t resist just one chocolate covered strawberry.  And then another. And another.  Gosh, that tray was so full we feasted on giant-sized chocolate covered strawberries the entire weekend!

The next morning our greeter whisked us away to the locker room where we doffed our clothes and donned spa robes and flip flops.  A plush leather rocker in the Relaxation Room made the brief wait pleasurable, while the sounds of birds chirping and wind rustling through the trees soothed our ears. 

With the mood set for ultimate relaxation, the classical massage relieved the built-up tension in my neck and shoulders and revived every muscle from head to toe.  A tingling tea tree & peppermint conditioner ensured my scalp got some much need massage attention, also.

Returning to the Relaxation Room, I sipped a flute of sparking peach cider. The deep cleansing facial that followed was the best ever!  Several rounds of cleansing and masks, plus a Vitamin C serum treatment, and my face both looked and felt better.  At home two days later my daughter noticed:  “You must have had a facial.  Your face looks better!”  What a compliment!

A pedicure & manicure rounded out our treatment.  Next time – yes, there will be a next time -- I’ll pass on these in favor of one of the other treatments the Spa offers. (I can’t wait to try a Body Wrap and the Dry Float.)

We capped off our Spa Day with a tasty lunch served in an equally relaxing dining area.  And, there again, were those scrumptious chocolate covered strawberries.  Couldn’t resist.

Checking out, I booked a return visit.  I will be back.  Soon.

Serenity in the Mountains provided both an emotionally and physically therapeutic experience.  Just what this teacher-mother-wife-volunteer needed.

Yes, teacher friends, I booked a suite large enough to accommodate you, too!  Who's in?


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Participatory Learning Activities: They're Not Just for Elementary Students

I love when I come across a new resource that squares with my thinking.  It backs up what I already believe.

In a conversation this week with my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Winfree, she shared a text she had read recently, Himmele & Himmele’s (2011) Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner.

The question we were discussing centered on the need for, and absence of, frequent participatory learning activities in high school and post-secondary educational settings.  So much of the instruction students receive can best be described, as Himmele & Himmele term it, stand-and-deliver instruction.  Too much lecture.  Too much teacher talking.

We teachers need to rethink our instructional practices to reduce the teacher talk and to increase students’ active engagement, both physically & cognitively, in the classroom. 

I particularly appreciate a Himmele & Himmele assertion that supports my instructional decisions; they write, “Good teaching results in student learning.  And if glue sticks and scissors are a way to get students to learn more effectively, then you are never too old to use them” (p. 30).  They offer Cut-and Pastes as one of their Total Participation Techniques for all ages, writing, “With adults, for example, we use Cut-and Pastes to better understand things like Bloom’s taxonomy, assessment concepts, and linguistic concepts” (p. 74).

Confirmation.  I’m not alone in my thinking.  

Make every learning opportunity a memorable experience.  Involve learners in hands-on, minds-on activities.

What participatory learning activities have you found to be most successful with your students?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Summer Reading Titles for Personalized Professional Development

The school year has ended.  A few weeks of rest are ahead.  Summer projects loom large.  Somewhere in the midst of all that I always make time for some professional summer reading.

Some of the best professional development I’ve had has come in the form of dynamic reads that ignite my passion for becoming a better educator.

It's no secret:  I have to read with a highlighter, an ink pen, and a few sticky notes handy.  Not only do I want what I read to sink in at the moment, but also I like to return to my books later to reread the highlights and marginalia to refresh my memory and to check off the changes I’ve incorporated into my teaching practice as a result of having read.  That’s just one way I measure my professional growth over time. 

As I thumbed back through several favorites, I thought I’d share some with you.  After all, if they’ve made a difference for me, perhaps they may also speak to you.

What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker (2004).  I first read this book in 2009, and I return to it frequently.  Whitaker says what I feel:  “No matter how good we are, we still want to be better.”  Self-reflection drives our need to improve.  Throughout the book, I noted descriptions that sounded as if he were describing me and some of my fellow teachers at some point in the past (those of us who needed to make vast improvements) or in the present (as evolving teachers), as well as painting a picture of the ideal, effective teacher  I and my colleagues want to become.  Whitaker provides example after example of behaviors that characterize both ineffective and effective teachers, examples so familiar they must be all too common. For example, he writes, “Ineffective teachers want students to be upset when they leave the office.  Effective teachers want students to be better when they leave.” You know that ineffective teacher, don’t you? Whitaker consistently describes both ends of the spectrum, allowing us to benefit from his wisdom and providing us with an alternative mindset that leads to effectiveness.  This book is a must-read and a regular must-review.

Differentiation:From Planning to Practice Grades 6-12 by Rick Wormeli (2007).  The argument that every student must do the same work and be assessed the same way no longer holds true.  One-size-fits-all is out the door.  This book will help you shift your mindset and provide you with tools to better implement differentiation in your classroom.  Wormeli asserts, “It’s in the undifferentiated classes that students can coast along, rarely challenged, rationalizing that teachers don’t care or that struggling in school implies stupidity.  In the undifferentiated classes, teachers present material, then test and document students’ deficiencies. In the differentiated classes … they make learning so compelling that students have no choice but to become engaged.” If you are ready to teach each student, to meet them where they are and to move them forward in learning, this book will provide a guide for you.

If you need to be convinced of the necessity for differentiation, read Sousa & Tomlinson’s Differentiation & the Brain (2011). Brimming with practical information and rationales, I think I’ve underlined or highlighted on nearly every page!  And the sticky notes are quite numerous. In a section on managing the differentiated classroom, the authors describe a classroom in which the focus is on meaning and understanding.  They write: “Learners have to grapple with ideas, try them out, make mistakes, and dispel misunderstandings if they are to really grasp and own what we ask them to learn.” To that, I added in the margin:  “We must move to focus on meaning & understanding school wide for CCGPS.”   Differentiating instruction and assessment can put us on the right track for creating meaning & understanding with our students.

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess (2012).  This is a newly acquired title for me, but, WOW!  A quick read with a powerful message.  I’d love to be a student in Burgess’s classroom.  Energy, enthusiasm, passion … ideas abound for hooking and holding students throughout a lesson, to make every lesson a memorable learning experience.  As for self-reflection, try this on for size:  Burgess writes, “An enthusiastic teacher can learn technique, method, and strategy, but it is almost impossible to light a fire inside the charred heart of a burned-out teacher.” Applying the principles in this book will reinvigorate your teaching.

And here are some of the yet-to-be-read titles stacked beside my chair awaiting their turn:


Here's to Happy Summer Reading and Personalized Professional Learning!

What are you reading this summer?  Share your favorite titles.




Saturday, May 3, 2014

Overcoming Giants

In one of my Amazon addiction frenzies in recent months, I ordered Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.  Although I skimmed several chapters upon its arrival, I just got around to reading it cover to cover.  I grabbed it on my way out the door for a cross-country plane trip, thinking I could read it without a highlighter and ink pen in my hand.  Good thought, but I just don’t seem to be able to read without utensils at the ready.

After all, good writing resonates with the reader.  And because I read through the lens of an educator, I relate most of a writer’s points to teaching and learning. Thoughts must be captured.

So now, a week after this good read, I’ve returned to the highlights and added sticky note tags to some of the ideas that triggered my thinking.  Habits of a non-fiction bibliomaniac. 

Citing numerous examples, Gladwell posits that underdogs often overcome giants through unheralded means.  Such was the case when our fledgling charter school launched in the fall of 2000.  Few people believed the doors would ever open to students, and skeptics doubted it would last.  Despite many hurdles that threatened its very existence, and including being such a new phenomenon that an employee in the state’s Department of Education insisted that charters were private schools (yes, that really happened!), the school is completing its 14th year of operation and will be sending its ninth graduating class off to college in the fall.  No small accomplishment. The underdog has survived, meeting challenge after challenge. 

As Gladwell writes, “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”  He goes further to say, “the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

In shaping and building this charter school from vision to reality to durable fixture in the educational landscape I have experienced what Gladwell describes as compensation learning: “what is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.”

Perhaps that is one reason that I continue to be perplexed when someone suggests that my background as a charter school employee is underappreciated by traditional school leaders. (“Charters are just an experiment.  You don’t have the same kind of students we have.”) Hmmm. 

Are we that shallow in education that we cannot accept that one-size-fits-all is an inappropriate educational model?  Every child deserves a quality education in an environment conducive to his/her learning style and needs; different children thrive in different environments.  For some, independent schools are the right match; for others, charter schools, traditional public schools, parochial, Montessori, or home schools are the right match.  Regrettably, many have limited family resources, as well as limited options available in their communities.

By opening our hearts and minds to other models of schooling and encouraging leaders to cross from one model to another, we can bring together the best aspects and strategies of a variety of models.  And what better way to meet the needs of all children? 

We continue to have to overcome giants.