Sunday, April 20, 2014

Leadership: Enlarging My Territory

And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.     1 Chronicles 4:10

Spring is a time for reflection in education, and I typically begin to look forward to the opportunities of next school year.  This morning I am reminded of something that profoundly affected my life and my career.

It is Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez and the sequel Beyond Jabez.  Many of you may have these books at some time in the past.  I read the Prayer in 2001 or 2002 and began to pray the Prayer of Jabez.  That happened at a time when I was transitioning into a leadership role and it made a significant difference in my life and in my work.  Then in 2007 I was drawn to Beyond Jabez during a Leadership class at Liberty University and it caused me to revisit the ideas contained in that prayer. It’s been a while since I’ve read that book or even prayed that prayer, but today as I ponder the possibilities of again enlarging my territory, I feel compelled to reconnect with this scripture.

Though I joined our school the very first year it opened, I didn’t plan to become any type of school leader or administrator.  I was just a classroom teacher doing my best to shape the lives of 20 third graders.  Those first two years were difficult in that we were involved in lawsuits and legal battles with the county school board just to maintain our existence. 

Sometime during the second or third year, I read the Prayer of Jabez and I began to pray for the Lord to enlarge my territory.  I knew that I was touching 20 lives each day, but somehow that didn’t seem to be all I was called to do.  As I prayed that prayer for weeks, and months, I began to realize the changes that would need to be made in our school as we continued to expand each year.

We were growing by leaps and bounds.  We started with 140 students in PreK through 5th grade, added sixth and seventh grades the next year, and eighth and ninth the following year, increasing to 225, 350, 400, and now that we are through twelfth grade, we have over 750 students. 

Not only did I take on more responsibilities, such as mentoring and coaching other teachers, but I also returned to school to earn a master’s in school counseling and become our school’s only counselor.   As these things began to take place, my territory was enlarging, I became responsible for many more than my 20 students.  My task load increased and my sphere of influence multiplied.   

I continued my education, eventually earning an Educational Leadership degree, and I have continued to enlarge my sphere of influence, using my skills to build capacity with our faculty. As I begin to plan for next year, I am reminded once again of why I prayed it in the first place, and why I should still be asking for God’s blessings each day.

Sometimes, we get so busy, so unbalanced, in our day to day operations that we lose sight of what we’re really here for.  I knew from the moment that God laid his hand on me back in the spring of 2000 telling me to go to work at the charter school that this school was a mission field for me.  A home mission field.  But I get busy and I forget to treat it like it is a ministry and I treat it like a job.  But it’s so much more.  Our kids need the role models that we’ve gathered on our campus. 

The four phrases of this prayer are distinct requests to God, and each of them has an impact on what God can do in our lives.  But the one that continues to stand out so much for me is that of enlarging my territory.  My territory has been enlarged – from one elementary classroom, to that of our staff, to our entire school of 700 plus students, and their parents, to even teachers in other schools whom I’ve had the opportunity to train.  The territory is there.  It’s what we do with it that sets us apart.

Some notes I took while reading the chapter on enlarging my territory in Beyond Jabez remind me of the important implications of this prayer:
  •          “to abundantly increase” -- a huge expansion
  •          sphere of influence/expanding ministry (service)
  •          Whose territory?  God’s!
  •          Prayer for territory involves change, risks; not comfort
  •          “remember that God will never expand your territory beyond where He knows the two of you can achieve his goals.”
  •          “When you realize and embrace your share of the responsibility for increasing  fruitfulness in your life, you will discover new motivation to pray the prayer of     Jabez!”
  •          “He will provide all the supernatural resources necessary to enlarge your territory, but you are the one who must decide to break out of your comfort zone.”
  •          “Taking new territory involves all of God and all of you. And if you leave out either part of this equation, your efforts will be ineffectual.”

How does He do it?
1.       “by increasing its size, enabling you to do something different or new.”
2.       “by extending its scope, enabling you to do something new.”
3.       “by sharpening your skills, enabling you to do what you do, better.”
4.       “by improving your strategy, enabling you to do something more effectively.”
5.       “by deepening its significance, enabling you to do something more influential.”

Wilkinson encourages us, and I am re-energized and recommitted to “rekindle the habit of praying the prayer of Jabez” and to “catch the vision for what God wants to do in your life, that you will experience incredible fulfillment and produce results of eternal value.”  

As I rekindle this habit, I am seeking all parts of this scriptural verse: Blessing, Territory, the Hand of God and His Protection:
  • The Prayer for Blessing:  “spiritual or material or both
  • The Prayer for Territory: “not primarily for yourself, but for Him and His purpose
  • The Hand of God: “to enable you to steward the responsibility well”
  • The Prayer for Protection:  “so that you might pursue His best for your life without hindrance”

I believe He has a great expansion in store for me, a departure from my comfort zone.  My skills have been sharpening, my strategies evolving.  Significance is on the horizon.  Use me to influence others.

What is your prayer?

Friday, April 11, 2014


On a recent blog post, @JohnWink90 declared April 11 as #LoveMySchoolDay and challenged others to share through social media what they love about their school.  I passed along the challenge to our faculty and students to speak about all the good going on at our school.

Some of my colleagues have shared:
“Here is what I love:  smiling math teachers coming in feeling good about the test!!!!”
“I love that we are a family at BCCS.  Our school environment is positive, safe and nurturing.  It’s a great place to come each day.”

Here’s a sampling of what some of our students shared:
“Our teachers have taught us well this year.”
 “If we need help, we can ask any teacher here.”
“We get to wear uniforms instead of whatever.” 
“I love that we got new buildings for middle and high school.”
“I love that the teachers will take time out of the day to make sure you know what you need to know.”
“My study skills class!”
 “I love Mrs. Jennifer and all that she has helped me with during the years.”
“I love how close-knit our school is and how everyone is always so supportive when something happens to one of our Blazer families.”
“The freedom that students have to show their own personality.”
“Mrs. Rackley is just a great teacher with a wonderful personality.”
“The teachers’ attitudes towards the students; they actually care about the students.”
“I love how small it is.”
“The dedicated teachers and faculty at our school. Specifically, Mrs. Luke.  I don’t know of many teachers who would return after officially retiring to teach again.”
“How small the school is, and that everyone is like your family, especially the teachers.”
“I love Mrs. Luke because she truly cares about her students.  She helps us with any problems in life.”
“Having a small enough school that everyone knows everyone else.”
“Because the school is small, anyone who wants to participate on a team is able to (isn't eliminated by try-outs).”
“The personal interaction between faculty and students, and the relaxed atmosphere.”

Here are some things I love about our school:
*We are small enough to feel like a family, and large enough to serve our students’ needs.
*We encourage parent volunteerism in every aspect of our school.
*Our people love kids, and our students know every person here cares about them.
*Our students are regular and generous charitable contributors, collecting money for a classmate whose home burned, for faculty members experiencing extreme medical costs, for kids whose families cannot buy Christmas gifts…
*Our kids have learned how to lose and how to win. Winning is so much more fun, especially state championships, like Academic Team and Girls Tennis.
*My commute, when I’m on time or early, is less than 2 minutes; when I’m running late and getting stuck in morning traffic, it’s only 8 minutes. I love the small town location.
*I love how quickly our students will volunteer to do a chore when asked.
*Everyone multi-tasks to enhance the school experience for students – teaching, coaching, sponsoring clubs, fundraising …
*My colleagues
*& that at least one colleague has joined Twitter today! 

 It is genuinely wonderful to work in a place where you look forward to going every morning, and where working overtime is even enjoyable.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Have They Read the Standards?

The anti-Common Core sentiment is rampant.  I just wonder if these people have read the standards.  What do they think Common Core is? 

Common Core does not tell teachers what to teach.  
It offers some exemplar texts that demonstrate the expected complexity of text, but it does not require these texts.   

Common Core does not tell teachers how to teach.
 Teachers are free to select strategies and materials to meet the performance demands of the standards.  

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts specify the performances that students must be capable of performing at the end of each grade level.

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “determine a theme or central idea of a text”?  It doesn’t matter which text you select … the point is that students develop the skill of reading carefully enough to figure out what the central idea is in a text.

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text”, or “evaluate the argument and specific claims in  a text, assessing whether  the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims?”

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation”?

Who wouldn’t want their students to be able to “evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence, assessing the stance, premises, links among ideas, word choice, points of emphasis, and tone used”?

Standards provide the framework for the understanding, knowledge, and skills that students need.  When teachers use these standards as a starting point, they can design effective instruction using materials of their choosing to facilitate student learning.

Teachers also must take care not to leave out important instructional components that may be assumed by the standards.  Some basic skills may not be listed as a standard, but that does not mean that the skill is unnecessary; some skills lay a foundation on which additional skills build.  Unpacking each standard allows teachers to see where they must add these components.

There are likely some well-meaning administrators who have specified particular curriculum materials and methodologies to be used within their schools, but those choices are not specified by Common Core.  Don’t confuse a school’s choices for implementation of standards with the standards themselves.

I, for one, want students to develop skills to understand and evaluate the rhetoric they see, hear, and read.  Whether advertising, political persuasion, news media, social media, literature, or their friends, students need these skills in order to make informed decisions.

Perhaps, Common Core dissenters lack these skills.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Guidance for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

“Think harder,” I sometimes hear a teacher say, and I, too, have said it many times.

What I’ve come to realize, though, is that students have already retrieved their answer, and if they’ve given me an incorrect response, they don’t know the answer, so all I’m getting at this point from them is a guess. 

In truth, the question must not have been much of a thinking question if there was a single correct answer.  That question most likely only required recall. 

We need recall; there’s a good bit of information that we need to be able to retrieve instantly so we store it in our brains to be able to recall it at just the right times to support our thinking.  There are also lots of facts that don’t have to be stored in our brains; thanks to resources like Google, we can look up information on the go. 

More importantly, we must teach students higher order thinking skills; teaching critical thinking involves more than asking a question.  Not only must we move toward asking students to do higher level thinking, but also we must teach them how to think. 

Webb’s Depth of Knowledge classifies the ability to recall facts, information, and procedures as a Level 1 skill, namely Recall & Reproduction.  Much of what we ask students to do fall into DOK1:  define vocabulary, list information given in class, match terms, answer the 5Ws & H.  We repeatedly find these exercises in workbooks, worksheets, oral discussions, and on assessments.

A common misconception is that all open ended responses require critical thinking.  Not so.  Questions requiring students to fill in the blank to define a term or to list the steps of a procedure are DOK1.  The questions may be difficult because the student has to remember the information, but the question does not require critical thinking; those questions may not even require understanding.

Avoid the trap of believing that difficult questions require critical thinking and easy questions do not.  Difficulty does not equal rigor.  Rigor comes about from the mental processing required to produce a response. Similarly, an easy question could require critical thinking. 

When we ask students to apply what they’ve learned, we move up the ladder to DOK2.  Determining cause and effect (versus listing causes & effects memorized from notes), comparing and contrasting ideas, interpreting passages, making observations in a science lab, summarizing, and using context clues to gain meaning are examples of work at this level.

With strategic thinking, DOK3, students develop logical arguments, support their positions with evidence, critique others, draw conclusions, analyze, hypothesize, and use their knowledge to solve unusual problems. 

Extended Thinking, DOK4, occurs when students investigate problems, synthesize ideas from multiple sources, make connections, evaluate claims, and compose or create original works.

In a previous blog, I wrote about the skill of analysis, and I provided an example of breaking down the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate analysis.  We cannot tell students to analyze something without giving them the instruction that teaches them how to analyze. To do so would be assigning, not teaching. 

Increasing the rigor of our courses necessitates requiring critical thinking from students.  How often do you assess the quality of your questions?  Are you asking students to think critically?  Revisit your most recent test to label each item as DOK1, DOK2, DOK3, or DOK4.  List the questions you will ask in a class discussion and label their DOK levels.

I challenge you to increase the amount of critical thinking you ask students to do in your discussion and on your next assessment. But before you do so, make sure you teach them how.

For example, if we ask students to evaluate, they will need to first establish the criteria against which they will evaluate the subject.  What evidence will be used to determine the subject’s value? How well does the subject measure up to the established criteria?  Teaching students to work through the various steps of the process is necessary if students are to perform the critical thinking skill of evaluation. 

Likewise, students need to be taught how to explain.  An explanation includes a statement of the big idea supported by details in order to make the topic clear and understandable. Provide students with an explanation of an explanation.  Show them the elements that constitute a good explanation and offer models of explanations to help them learn this skill. 

Effective teachers teach thinking skills and provide a plethora of opportunities for students to practice these skills.
 *  *  *

There are some helpful resources available to help teachers better understand thinking.  Bellanca, Fogarty & Pete’s How to Teach Thinking Skills within the Common Core offers numerous teaching ideas.  Their text provides an analysis of several essential skills to help teachers understand the necessary elements of each.  Making Thinking Visible is Reinhardt, Church & Morrison’s  contribution.  This book provides exercises to teach thinking skills. Brookhart’s How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom provides some additional fodder to deepen teachers’ understanding and expand their skill base.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

If There Were No Tests in April, What Would Instruction Look Like in March?

Testing season is here.  I loathe this annual occasion; not because I am anti-testing, but because my philosophy differs from some of the practices I see.

Teachers have been in “test review” mode for several weeks.  Intensity and anxiety abound.  Fact reviews, lengthy word list handouts, multiple choice practice questions … these are the norm in so many classrooms in the weeks leading up to the CRCT.  

While I want our students to shine on their tests, I also harbor deep concern that the weeks spent in review are detrimental to real learning.  Sure, teachers mean well; the review sessions are intended to help students remember all that they’ve learned during the year so they can perform well on the tests.  

But this is what I’d really like to know:

If there were no tests in April, what would instruction look like in March? 

I hope teachers would continue teaching. I hope they would introduce new material and delve deeper into their content.  I hope they would teach for understanding more than for recall, and they would have students write more than bubble.

Are we missing out on moving our students forward with deeper learning by drilling the facts that we’ve already taught them?  How could “review” be structured to give as good as or better results than the current practices do?

Please don’t misunderstand: I am not against testing.  I believe in accountability.  I believe that standardized tests provide a useful snapshot of students’ academic performance.  

I am bothered by the popularity that test preparation has in school.  When I began teaching third grade, test prep consisted of teaching students how to bubble their answer document.  That took a few minutes a day for a few days.  We didn’t do the kind of stop-and-review that occurs in many classrooms now.  I believe the all-encompassing test review mindset is a result of the high stakes attached to the tests, and that is the real problem of the tests – testing stops instruction.

When review replaces instruction for weeks, we’ve lost sight of the true goal of education: learning.

I wish that teachers felt confident enough in their instruction throughout the year to avoid March Madness in their quest to squelch their April Anxiety.

How can we move teachers toward confident, competent instruction that rises above the necessity of lengthy test review? 

Perhaps developing a deeper understanding of standards, focusing consistently on standards based instruction, and assessing student proficiency on each standard could pave a clearer path. Standards based assessment throughout the year would yield useful information about student mastery and provide specific content indicators against which students can improve.

Our current system of grading does not hold students fully accountable for mastering the content.  They get a pass on material when they score in the 60s or 70s, or they get high marks for turning in homework or getting a parent signature that will increase their quarterly average to the passing range.  Follow-up instruction to bring the student to mastery rarely occurs.

So that means, in March students get a dose of fact review from frantic teachers anxious to post acceptable test scores.

Are you  a March Madness – April Anxiety crammer? Or do you have another approach to testing season?

How can teachers avoid March Madness?  How can teachers better approach April Anxiety?  How much and what kind of test prep is acceptable?