A voice at the table

Think about the last school leadership team meeting that took place in your school building.  This can be any kind of a meeting where the voices of leaders from your building/district were present, representing key stakeholders.  Who did you see sitting around the table?  You may have seen: a grade level teacher from each grade in your building, a representative from special education, a representative from the PE department, art, music, technology, a social worker, a psychologist, a speech pathologist, a teacher’s aide, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver, a resource officer, a secretary, etc.  If the aforementioned voices were not present at your leadership meeting, (you are not alone, there are a lot of stakeholder voices that schools are notorious for leaving out of leadership meetings) this would be a great opportunity for you and your team to consider inviting any one or all of these important voices to your next leadership meeting that takes place.  However, with that said, there is still a key stakeholder that has been left out of this list — students. Although students are our participants, clients, customers, consumers, teammates, etc. they are often one of the first voices to be left without a seat at the leadership table for collaboration, decision-making, assessing needs, planning, creating action plans, etc.

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Why are the youth who fill our hallways everyday, who receive our curriculum that we worked on tirelessly all summer, who motivate us to be better educators and people ourselves, not sitting at the table next to us?  Although our youth know our classrooms inside and out, understand the nuances of many of the individual teachers and staff at large, live and breathe the school climate and culture, why do we still think that they will not be able to contribute to our critical conversations?

Not only do our youth need to be at the table while we are developing systems, analyzing school data, and implementing academic and behavioral practices to help support them, but they need to be asked their opinions, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives every step of the way.  It is important to ask not one or two students (often pulled from student council or student leadership), but ALL students.  There are several different ways to create a larger student voice at the table and involved in the critical decision-making that is taking place in our schools.  Here are a few to consider:

  • Invite students to be leaders on leadership teams throughout the school, where their voice is equal to others on the team.
  • Send out student surveys throughout the year regarding items such as school safety, discipline, acknowledgments, etc.  Share the results with the staff and students throughout the year.
  • Create a student voice committee.  Invite students from all different corners of the building to be on this committee.  Try to make sure that all the different voices of the youth in the building are represented, not just the faces that are typically seen.  Ask this committee for their opinions regarding all different kinds of decisions being made in the building.
  • Ask a forum/roundtable of students to give their feedback on the student handbook.  Use their feedback to make appropriate adaptations in the handbook, and let the staff and student body know that this took place.

Now, imagine your next school leadership team meeting.  You are sitting next to the principal on one side and a student from the building on the other side.  Which student will you choose to be at the table with you?

 

Teach ALL: Think positive.  Be proactive.  Nurture partnerships.

Create a school culture that embraces technology

Picture this: You’ve built a great PLN (Professional Learning Network) using social media. You have lots of ideas about how you can use technology in your classroom. You’ve tried some new activities and want to share them with other teachers in your school… but they aren’t interested. What can you do to create a school culture that embraces technology?

Use Technology

This may seem obvious, but using technology is the single most important way to foster a culture of technology in your school. Lead by example! When other teachers see you successfully using the interactive whiteboard, the iPad, or online tools, they start to understand both the power and the pedagogical benefits of the technology. Then when they have questions or issues, they know there is someone who has gone through this before.

Talk to Each Other

This is related to the “Use Technology” bit. If you’re a big tech user, talk to your fellow teachers about what you use in the classroom and why. And not just about successes—be vocal about your failures and how you plan to work around those issues. Talk to teachers who don’t use technology in their classrooms. Why don’t they use the technology that’s available to them? Is it a solvable issue that could be fixed with more training or more support? Or is it an endemic issue, such as not enough bandwidth or devices to go around? Then take these conversations to the administration. They are the ones who invested in the technology for the school. They want you to use it!

Set Dedicated Technology PD Time

I’m not talking about a brief mention of a technology tool in a PD session about other school or teaching issues. I’m talking about a dedicated edtech day over the summer or afternoon on an institute day that is 100% devoted to integrating technology in class. This session needs to be specific to your school’s technology and how that technology can be an integral part of your curriculum goals. A broad overview without usable applications doesn’t help anyone. Then follow up! Create technology PLCs—professional learning communities. A PLC can provide teachers with an ongoing support group, a go-to group for technology questions, and a higher level of accountability.

Students mirror teacher behavior — are you setting a good example?

Years ago, I worked in a school where faculty members routinely brought laptops to meetings. Everyone would gather in desks facing the front of the room, screens up, fingers furiously typing, while the facilitator spoke.  At first, I was determined to sit near the front, maintain eye-contact with the facilitator, and participate meaningfully in discussion.  Eventually, though, I gave up. It became clear what my colleagues thought of our meetings: this time was better spent preparing lessons, checking email, or even comparing Fantasy Football stats.

The way faculty meetings were run at this particular school was indicative of a larger, more pervasive problem: a lack of established norms and behavioral standards for everyone. If an outsider were to walk into any classroom, they would see students demonstrating similar behaviors and mirroring this same disengagement.

So what can administrators and teachers do to establish behavioral norms in classroom and school environments?

Step away from the situation

When a teacher comes to me again and again with the same behavioral concerns — students not using tablets or smartphones appropriately, calling out of turn, arriving to class late, using disrespectful language — I will often set the teacher to the task of observing and taking notes on the students in question while I get their class started for the period. This serves a dual purpose: teachers have the opportunity to step away from the situation and observe student behaviors objectively, as an outsider. In addition, the whole class is given a chance to reflect upon and re-establish behavioral expectations. As any effective teacher knows, the first thing you do when you walk into a classroom full of students whom you have never taught, is set norms through student input and empowerment. It’s amazing what happens when they are given the opportunity to reflect upon, and even make adjustments to their classroom behavior guidelines.

Walk in their shoes

Benjy was incredibly bright, intellectually curious, intrinsically motivated, and autistic. He also got kicked out of class a lot. One of the main reasons why this happened was because he couldn’t keep from punching holes in teachers’ logic. His brain was wired in such a way that it literally “itched” (his words) when a storyline contained flaws or loose ends, a complex math problem didn’t add up correctly, or a teacher gave out inaccurate or wholly incorrect information. Once teachers gave credence, and even respect to his practical natures (and supported his social development by teaching him how to properly address “itchy situations”) Benjy was able to stay in the classroom and really add to the intellectual value of discussions. Our brightest students will always be the first to disengage if we don’t make time for empathy and afford them the respect and validation they deserve.

Model academic risk-taking

A colleague recently told me about a social experiment of sorts that his high school conducted a few years back. Everyone swapped classes for one period of the day. English teachers taught Physics, Physics taught History, Math teachers taught English. What started out as nearly a practical joke, morphed into something slightly intimidating, and eventually, became an incredible learning experience not only for teachers, but also for students. Teachers found that they had to deliver instruction much more creatively using what schema they could access. They got really excited about uncovering new ideas and making intellectual breakthroughs (I think we call this “learning”). Their enthusiasm spread like wildfire. Students felt that teachers were as much their guides as they were their intellectual peers on an unexpected adventure in learning. When we allow students to see our humanity – our capacity to make mistakes and willingness to admit to our own lack of knowledge — they’re less likely to push back.

Follow your own rules

Speaking of mistakes, I made one this year. Just one. I covered for a teacher at the last minute when a family emergency arose, and in a hurry, I carried the remainder of my lunch into his classroom and ate it while the kids worked on a quiz.  About 5 minutes in, I heard a crinkle. Then a rustle. Then crunch, crunch. Before I knew it, this class of highly-distractible students (all of whom are diagnosed with ADHD by the way) began calling out:

“Can I have a chip?”

“Where’d you get that Rockstar?”

“I don’t like the Cool Ranch Doritos. The orange cheese powder is awesome….”

“You guys, you can’t eat food in there!” I said through mouthfuls of sandwich.

To their credit, they all put the food away and got back to their quiz. But it’s not always this way. It may seem almost too simple to state, but follow your own rules. Don’t pull out your phone in class, speak respectfully to students, arrive on time, and contribute meaningfully to creating a culture of positivity and support.

Changing the way students behave in classrooms, or the way faculty attend to their work, starts with brainstorming and buy-in. If we want to create this environment, we must model key expectations and be flexible and humble enough to reflect and revise when necessary.

“Gold nugget” tips for educational leaders

After a year of giving up our Saturdays, we were cranky and our heads felt stuffed with information. Many of us were bogged down in job hunting, interviewing, and finishing our field-study projects as we prepared to complete our administrative credentials. Bill Tschida came in to teach our very last class, and he opened the session by handing out Hershey’s Kisses, representative of what he called “gold nugget” tips. The chocolate perked us up immediately and the advice that Bill gave us was applicable not only to administrators, but to teachers – our most important educational leaders.

The following are Bill’s “gold nugget” tips for educational leaders:

1. If it’s not in writing, it doesn’t exist

Whether it’s a complete change of job position, title, responsibilities, and salary, or important information you want to pass onto colleagues and parents, words aren’t enough. Even when we trust our employers, it’s details of your employment should be put into writing for clarification and permanence.

2. Whenever you write anything, pretend it will be on the front page of your daily newspaper

We constantly remind our students about the pitfalls of social media, warning them against “sexting”, racy photos, or inflammatory statements on Facebook and Instagram. We need to heed this same advice. Whether it’s a picture or an off-color email, our jobs and reputation can become irreparably tarnished with the push of the “send” button.

3. Treat all people with respect at all times

Students should be respected. They do not deserve to endure unnecessarily harsh criticism because we are in a rotten mood. Our school custodians, classroom aides, security guards, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers are just as intrinsic to students’ educational experience as teachers and administrators are.

4. Make sure that all confidential matters remain confidential

This is a no-brainer when it comes to IEP documentation and personnel files. However, this also applies to conversations between admin, educators, parents, and in some cases, even students. When in doubt, just ask.

5. Be proactive, not reactive

Great leaders in organizations and classrooms are visionaries. They always look ahead and anticipate small issues before they become unsurmountable problems. It’s not sustainable or professional for anyone to spend their day putting out fires.

6. Listen to what your staff and colleagues have to say, even if it’s hard to hear

Squeaky wheel staff members can be a challenge for everyone, but effective leaders know how to uncover the kernels of truth in their criticism and take away valuable information. We can’t make everyone happy all the time, but we can and should always strive to grow and improve.

7. Be genuine and honest in all of your interactions with others

Leaders assume a great deal of personal responsibility. Owning your words is a huge part of this. Your colleagues, students, and parents will always forgive you for making mistakes, but once we breach trust, that’s incredibly difficult to remedy. Tell the truth even when it hurts.

8. Sleep on important decisions

We save everyone time when we delay decisions by a few hours and think about our options, rather than giving a knee-jerk response and having to backtrack and fix mistakes. Take your time. Nothing is ever so dire that it can’t wait for full consideration.

9. Follow through

People are capable of inspiring and driving innovation. But sometimes people stall or even jump ship when faced with the details. As effective leaders we should harness this creative energy and support all staff to ensure that timelines are established and goals are met. When they make a pledge they keep it. Strong leaders display commitment, ownership, and reliability.

 

Teaching organization through Interactive Notebooks!

Many students are cursed with what I like to call “Black Hole Syndrome.“ If you’ve dared to look into a middle schooler’s backpack you know just what I’m talking about. Incomplete homework from 6 months ago, notes passed in math class, remnants of what should have been used for their science project, and a few stale Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I think we can all agree that the majority of students need a bit of guidance as far as organization goes. Enter the “Interactive Science Notebook”! (this can also work for other subjects, of course)

Important details for implementing a successful Interactive Science Notebook:

  • Notebook size: 8 ½ x 11” spiral notebook. This will allow you to paste worksheets in the notebook perfectly. If notebooks are any smaller students will need to cut the edges off worksheets – total nightmare. Trust me on this.
  • Cover: Students decorate the cover of their notebook to make it “special” — something creative and unique to who they are! I encourage students to go over their cover with packaging tape to ensure it won’t fall apart after 2 months.
  • Title Page: Name of class, teacher’s name, name of student, period number, and school year.
  • Table of Contents: You will probably need two full pages worth of Table of Contents. Set-up should look like this:

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It is imperative that you update the table of contents together as a class before you paste anything in the notebook (updating might occur every day).

  • Numbering Pages: Page 1 should be your first blank left-hand page, page 2 will be your first right-hand page. This keeps all odd pages on the left and all even pages on the right, just like the table of contents lay-out.
  • Right-Hand Page Activities: Right-hand page activities are always done first. These activities generally involve students learning new information, taking notes, etc.
  • Left-Hand Page Activities: Left-hand page activities are for reinforcement activities, such as labs, projects, thinking maps, etc. This is where you can get creative and make your notebook as ‘interactive’ as you wish! I’ve done everything from simple foldables to paper pockets, where students can place their CD recordings of the “Photosynthesis Rap” they created.
  • Color: I ask students to “color” their notes on the right-hand page. After taking notes they grab a highlighter or colored pencil and color any words they think are important or could possibly be on the test. For left-hand page activities students are required to have at least 5 colors on the page (could be as minimal as underlining or as extensive as drawing in the margins). This may sound elementary, but coloring your work requires students to look at what they have done for a longer period of time, essentially studying their own work.
  • Grading: When students enter class and work on their warm-up activity, students should open their notebooks to look at their work from the prior day . Give students a stamp if work is complete. At the end of the unit you can collect all of the student notebooks and give them 10/10 for a page with a stamp, 5/10 for a page that is complete but has no stamp, and 0/10 for an empty page. This can be adjusted based on your own grading system.
  • Parent communication: At the end of each unit leave a page for parent communication. This is where you write the grade the student received. Parents can then comment underneath on the students work and write any questions or concerns they might have.

There are far too many benefits to Interactive Science Notebooks, it would be silly not to try it out this school year. Students lacking organizational skills master a tool that will be useful for years to come. Students will no longer lose their assignments in their black hole backpacks. You will have more interaction with parents, which is imperative to student success. The best part is, you will save so much time grading you might even start having some time for yourself! 😀

Happy notebooking!