Matt Glover’s Visit!

Oh joy! You know how much I like to follow and learn from my personal professional heroes!

Matt Glover is a speaker, author, teacher and leader.  He is an expert in the field of early-childhood literacy, having worked with Katie Wood Ray on the classic professional book: Already Ready (2008), and more recently the books: Engaging Young Writers, Preschool to Grade 1 and Projecting Possibilities: The How, What and Why of Designing Units of Study, K-5.

A few years ago I read Already Ready, and found the practical, yet inspirational work to challenge my idea of both what good teaching was and how to go about it with our youngest learners. The notion of “making books” for little ones was new to me. However, through Matt and Katie’s teaching in that book, I quickly learned that young children were ready (already ready) to write and with a “gentle nudge” could do so with age-appropriate stamina and technique.

It was with that lens I welcomed Matt Glover to our school for a 1-day teacher workshop with our KG2 (Kinder) and Grade 1 teachers last week. (Our KG1 teachers were on their way to Muscat where they would take part in Matt’s 2-day workshop Nurturing the Intellectual Life of Young Children.) Our goal for the day? To get as much done as possible in a very short amount of time!

Our day began with Matt presenting his thinking around making books, studying and teaching into and through illustrations, and nudging children through conferences and small group work. Matt presented to our eager group of 7 (3 KG2 teachers and 3 G1 teachers and myself) for two hours. Days before, the team sat to think through questions we wanted to ask, and Matt kept those in his periphery during the morning presentation. Following the workshop, we moved into a KG2 and a G1 class to watch Matt teach. This was where the real magic occurred, as our classroom teachers were able to watch Matt work (with our real kids- no safety net), and think aloud as he was coaching us. Following the in-class demonstration teaching, the teachers returned to an afternoon meeting where Matt fielded our questions and walked us through best practice scenarios.

To say he was an excellent presenter is to miss the main point, and that is that Matt is a real presenter. Everything he told us, he showed us. Every question we asked, he didn’t just answer, he had experienced. The times when he couldn’t offer advice, he reminded us that some students, parents, and schools have to dig through and find the answers. But we were on the path, and that was worth something.

All in all, our 8 hours with Matt (not counting the time I got to spend with him on the bus to the airport or the terminal waiting in Immigration- the real perk of having a “guru” come to you is that you can capture them and really think with them!) was valuable and a sure catalyst for future work.

I’ve honestly not been able to process all of what I learned, or plan for what I need to do next, but I’m working on it, including, the desire to be a more teaching-focused leader. (See my post here.) What I can say though, is that there is a world out there focused on our littlest learners. A world vital to a whole-school picture and deserves as much attention as anything happening in our schools.

Hopes and Dreams- with Legs!

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein

This weekend was a busy one. I was invited to attend our regional organization’s professional planning annual session. The goal was to plan for next year’s (and beyond) professional development at NESA conferences- topics and speakers.

Sounds pretty cut and dry doesn’t it? And it would be too, except I was meeting with an exceptional group of people, working for an exceptional organization, trying to ensure exceptional offerings were in place for the teachers and schools out there depending on them. No small feat.

Previously a literacy coach, now as an administrator, before as a teacher and often as a parent, I am faced with the need to plan for action and outcomes. Like me, I’m sure many of you plan on a daily basis, for a variety of reasons. However, what I learned most over this weekend was the necessity of having a planning process that gives all of your hopes and dreams (which the best plans are reaching for) the “legs” to actually walk the path toward completion.

The more moving parts, or the bigger the plan or the goal, the more necessary it is to have a process in place which ensures things are covered, thought through, and allows for you to evaluate both the plan and the actual event you’ve planned for. In fact, without the plan and then the evaluation, there is really no way to know if the plan was successful.

With the help of Joellen Killion from Learning Forward (National Staff Development Counsel) I learned, right alongside the planners at NESA, how to create and evaluate a plan for professional learning.  The evaluative piece is new for me. What I like about it, is that it allows a school or organization to learn from the work at the level of the idea and process, and not just from the product generated.

As I reflect on my learning at NESA this weekend, I’ve been thinking about how we often hear about the pendulum swinging back and forth in education. I’m beginning to wonder how much of that is due to a lack of precision in our planning, and/or the fact that we often do not return to the plan to evaluate if it worked. Add to that the fact that so many of us start plans and projects at one school and then move to another. What happens to that work when you leave? Might it be continued if there was a better plan and/or a way to evaluate that plan- left for the person filling your shoes?

We have so much to do, so many hopes and dreams for our learners, our schools, and ourselves. There are days when it is overwhelming and seems as if we are never going to get there. Putting your time and energy into the planning process is one way to ensure the end result you desire becomes a reality.

Here’s to better plans, which lead to intended outcomes. In other words, here’s to taking your hopes and dreams and giving them the legs they need to take off.

(Crossposted on at: Teaching Your Way Around the World)

Teaching TCKs About TCKs

As you might already know, I am interested in third-culture kids. Not only am I one (my husband too) but I’m raising one and work with them every day at school. TCKs are children who “spend their formative years” outside their home culture, but will eventually return there to live. Our international schools are full of TCKs, but as much as we mean too, I don’t think we talk to kids enough about how they are connected to each other and therefore have a linked, important community of understanding. My position has always been that elementary students are the perfect age to begin the dialogue about how we are connected in our uniqueness. It is with the youngest that I see potential for them to begin viewing their experiences as opportunities rather than burdens. Even with the connections the internet provides our kids, we all know it is one thing to be an American or Australian or Italian living and learning in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, or Russia and another to never leave your home country. You can’t prevent kids from comparing those lives and learning from them. For some, they will feel lost. For others, and this is where I think teachers and schools come in, they can feel a sense of strength and connection knowing there are a lot of us out there living this way, and we are positioned to help shape the world.

It is a small idea. One you are welcome to share with your own students. To help me, I wrote a children’s picture book years ago which is available on Amazon. The follow-up has not made it out of my computer to the publisher (Trafford) because my own life and interests have gotten in the way. However, it is available on Slideshare for you to download and use with your students if you are interested. Enjoy!

Mind the Gap

There is so much going on right now in schools and education in general. My strategy for coping with the onslaught is to sit down and make a plan. Larger than a to do list, more refined than a hopes and dreams paragraph, a good plan reaches for the stars while laying out “the build” or how to get from Point A to Point B. It helps me mind the gap between what is happening now and where I’m trying to head.

Often the biggest complaint I hear from teachers is that there isn’t enough time. I understand that. I feel the same. Especially if we are thinking of using our time to create, go deep, fully understand and get good at something. However, I think what we’re really feeling is that there isn’t enough time to run from thing to thing and still find the space to do the good stuff. That is what the people I work with- educators in general- want to do, the good BIG work of teaching and learning. It’s why we got into this gig in the first place!

What can we do to ease the feeling of needing to run, run, run while still getting over the gap and on to what is next and maybe more important?

As an administrator, I believe it is my job to control the floodgates and to help keep the unnecessaries or low priorities from gobbling people up. To do that, the organizational leaders need to know and be focused on those vital few top priorities. Three is enough. From there we need to work to make sure everyone gets a chance to focus on those too. As leaders, I believe our job is to hack a path through the grass with our “three top things” machete so everyone else can move through with ease. This is good work for a leadership team. It is playing defense to win the game (always less glamorous than shooting all the shots) but essentially more effective in the long run.

As teachers, I think it is imperative to find and focus on those three big things too. Whether it is dictated by organizational goals or by a personal focus, knowing what is most important and then being able to sink thought and time into it and really get good at doing it… well that might just be a luxury in some schools. The thing is, when the organization is moving quickly and doesn’t have a set sense of priorities; it is difficult for teachers to grow, learn and change while (and this is the important part) keeping up with the day-to-day needs of their students.

As people: parents, spouses, colleagues and friends- I think we need to support each other as we negotiate this world full of work and distractions. I watch my daughter juggling that balance on a daily basis. She can Skype with her best friend Hannah in Shanghai as easily as she can tweet out to her followers about Taylor Swift’s newest song, however she is also still asked to follow the school path of my generation. I don’t see these two aspects of her life as being in opposition exactly, but it does mean she is navigating two ways of work, and that isn’t efficient. When time is of the essence, efficiently moving toward your goals is important. We need to help those around us navigate all that is part of the work now. (Strengthfinders 2.0 being my newest obsession, I wonder if taking the time to develop strengths might ease the need to do it all.)

Instead of being bumped around by all that is out there, it is time to grab on and get going on the most important “three” we can see. Change will take time, of course. But the longer we wait to begin, the larger the gap seems to be growing. It’s one thing to know it’s there; it’s another to be actively working to get across.

Photo Credit: http://preducationblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/mind-the-gap.jpg

Reading/Writing Workshops 2.0

Last week I was in heaven. No, it wasn’t the spiritual setting of Nepal which did it, although I was in Katmandu at the NESA Fall Leadership conference. Heaven for me was being in a room with super-teacher Mary Ehrenworth while she schooled us all on next steps in teaching Reading and Writing Workshops with a shot in the arm from the Common Core. Just awesome. Truly.

For me, as both a practitioner and as a staff developer, the words of wisdom which have always come from Mary and her friends at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project have made me better at what I do. Period. No other source of PD has challenged my thinking and my practice as a teacher of core subjects like reading and writing as the work from this group. Now, with the launch of the CCSS as a guide, the pieces are truly coming together. Mary’s two 3-hour sessions showed us how.

My favorite quote was probably from a colleague who said, “I have studied the CCSS, but now after seeing Mary work with them, I feel I understand them even more.” I think that’s how we all felt as Mary showed us (show, not tell) how to actually do the work these new standards are asking us to do. She made it not only look easy (a trick they must teach at TC) but she also made the work seem fun, challenging and vital. Here are my 3 BIG Take-aways from Mary’s sessions:

  1. The work of the leaders at Teacher’s College is not going away. If anything, they will be leading the way to answering the higher expectations of the CCSS. I’m relieved by that because it further validates the work we’ve been doing for the past several years. In education, where the pendulum swings back and forth with some regularity, it is nice to feel like the time and effort we’ve already spent is sustainable.
  2. There are changes on the horizon to our current units in the elementary and probably middle school. Where TCRWP started and built, the CCSS has extended. It is a bit of a chicken and an egg thing for me as I think our work with Lucy and her group has put us in a great position for answering the call of the Common Core. However, I’m also seeing that we are in no way… done. (When your done you’ve really just begun.)
  3. First steps we can take right away? A rethink on our use of “On-Demand” writing. We need to do more and assess it in different ways. Similarly, we need to evaluate the texts we have in both our leveled library and in our classrooms which can help teachers teach into the new standards on nonfiction.

If you haven’t done so lately, be sure to check the TCRWP website. They have done a lot of work in recent months to provide tools for schools who have waded into the TC Reading and Writing Workshops, but are still learning. From videos to writing exemplars, there is a lot there to utilize.

I would love to hear how your school is moving to lift the level of your teaching to address the new CCSS. What does our school need to do next?

Time Well Spent

Four years, 7 books, 8 movies. Today my 7th grade daughter and I finished reading the Harry Potter series. What an amazing ride on a Nimbus 2000 Quidditch broomstick it has been!

When she was in third grade, the Harry Potter phenomena was in full swing. The books and movies were still being released and the reading public was still in awe of the power (money makers) of these heavy, thick books about “The Boy Who Lived.” My daughter was caught up in the hoopla just like all the others. She wanted to read the books, but more than that, she wanted to carry them around and look like she was reading them. So her mother stepped in with a compromise. We will read them, aloud, together. And we did. For four years…

Knowing your child as a reader, is knowing your child as a thinker and a feeler. Not only was my daughter not yet ready to handle the level of the first book in the series, she has always been heavily impacted by content. Harry Potter’s story was quite frankly going to scare her: A small child, attacked by a grown-up monster, now living with an Aunt and Uncle who hate him… not the Princess Fairy books which were her regular fare. However, I knew she was ready to journey into the world of Albus Dumbledore holding my hand. So we began.

As an educator interested in how children best learn to read and comprehend, I have always known that reading aloud to a young person is similar to giving them auditory reading vitamins. When a child hears you read, with the pauses, phrasing, self-correcting, and thinking/questioning out loud, he or she has a firm model to emulate. Read aloud with enough frequency, and the child can’t help but mimic and try what you are showing. That certainly happened for my daughter. In the beginning, she would lean on my shoulder as I read, following along with her eyes and mind. Eventually, she would read too. Working through the ever more difficult paragraphs JK Rowling wrote.

For me, reading aloud most evenings for the past four years (we’ve read other books together between Harry Potter tales: A Wrinkle in Time, Jenny of the Tetons, The Tale of Despereaux…) has helped me become a better reader too. I’m not excellent at doing different, British accents, however, I can make you stop and listen harder with a pause or a shift in my voice. I’ve learned how to vary my pace, reading faster through parts that are more detail oriented, and slowing on the most important bits for emphasis.

There were tears when we finished today. My daughter said, “Can you believe we’ve been with him for so long?” She’s right. It has been a long, eventful journey. One which neither of us wanted to end.

So the logical next question for two reading warriors is of course: What should we read next?

#teachlikeapirate*

*Part of my job as a learner is to know how the kids are doing it. My teenage daughter hashtags everything. It is how she quotes and promotes different sayings. Thus- the title. If you are interested in downloading the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, check out BookRix where you can get a free ebook copy.

One of the best parts of my week is when I’m with kids and in classrooms. For the past few weeks, I’ve been offering an ASRP (After School Recreation Program) for 5th graders. Our goal- to create a weekly news program written and produced solely by fifth graders for the whole school to see. This concept replaces an idea we used to have, a weekly newsish video with grade 5 as “hosts”. The difference? This is much, much harder to get off the ground because I’m asking the kids to do all the work. I’m just there as a facilitator. However, it is also an incredibly authentic learning environment, where magic might just happen.

Not only have I never done this, we don’t have any formal tools. Not a concern for these kids. “Do you have an iphone Mrs. Munnerlyn? An ipad? A computer?” they asked me. “We can do this!”

The students and I determined we want this to be a show with real news events, not silly stories. I manage their time (start this, end this) and officially sign off on their ideas. That’s about it. The kids are off running to learn: pitching topics, writing stories, and filming outside on the stairwell where we will hang up a sheet so it doesn’t look like school.

Their learning is hidden in the excitement, the engagement and the fun they are having. But here is what I can tell you professionally is occurring: cooperative and collaborative groups are happening authentically, students are finding answers to their real problems, and they are using technology as they might in the real world. Those who are writing stories want them to be right. They are pouring over their words and editing for clarity so the audience understands. Feedback is part of the natural, necessary process; with a constant question from one 10 year old to another being “What do you think?” and the other answering honestly and with a vested interest in helping his fellow reporter improve. It is everything you would want to see happen in school.

So, I can’t help but ask myself: Why don’t we do this more often? Why doesn’t school seem more like real life?

Well the truth is, it is getting harder to do so when we walk the tight-rope of defining, tracking, and determining growth on finite standards and skills for all subject areas. While I believe in using standards to measure both student achievement and our work as a school, I don’t find them to be… fun. Standards don’t get me out of bed and make me want to be with kids.

To me, the big work for educators moving forward isn’t identifying the standards, finding ways to track them, or to report on them at pre-determined intervals across the year. The real work is for us to find ways to keep the excitement and the passion in what we do while being able to measure how our kids are improving.

Without the passion, why are any of us here?

#teachlikeapirate

Photo credit: http://rovingfiddlehead.com/kidlit/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Pirate-Ship0001.jpg

Who Are We?

This summer, several of the books I read about leadership and change were focused on business, not education. Although I could apply much of the advice and some of the scenarios to my life as an administrator, there were times when it was a stretch. Part of that was because we in education aren’t a traditional business, but it also had to do with the fact that we often don’t think strategically about our work and how it is conveyed and received by the outside world.

When I first started teaching- 18 years ago(ish)- being an elementary teacher meant: having good classroom management, being able to declare the objective from the textbook and keep pace with the basal reader. I was there to help kids learn many of the things I had been taught myself: cursive handwriting, multiplication tables (memorized through completion of many, many problems), and the names of the states in the union. It was exhausting but happy work. After school the kids played outside and the parents didn’t worry too much about what was happening at school unless I brought it up.

Life was simpler with a basal reader. Not better…but simpler. As education has become more defined by what kids need to learn (standards) and how we should teach it (instructional practices like Reading and Writing Workshop or inquiry-based units) it has become more complex to actually do the teaching and learning part.

The requirements on elementary teachers now are heavy. Not only do they have the most important jobs of keeping kids safe and making school fun, but the emphasis on content delivery, record keeping and the tracking of student progress is intense. The job is intense. I don’t think there is a school out there who isn’t feeling this pressure.

However, what I think helps some schools manage all that they need to do, is their clearly defined and almost business-like focus on defining and delivering on “who we are”. To me, this is more than a mission/vision statement (how many of those look the exactly the same these days- when schools can be such varied places?) Sure it’s marketing, which can be flashy and untrue. But I’ve also seen schools out there who promise, and deliver, on something more than an adjective-filled mission.

What I’m looking for I think, is a move from the “what” of our mission statement to the “how” of our school’s practice around key elements. How are we ensuring students are life long learnersHow are we giving students opportunities to be leaders? How are we making sure they add content to the internet and not simply consume it? And of course, why are we doing all of this for our kids? Why is it important?

Who are we?

Who are you? I’d love to hear from you on this.

Photo Credit: http://www.photographyblogger.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/question-mark-6.jpg

Artistic Response

At the start of this new year, I’m hearing myself saying many things to many people about curriculum and our beliefs about student learning. However, as I reflect on what we are trying to do, I can see where it might be confusing. Here’s what I mean.

  • Standardized testing is important. We will ensure our test-taking environments are sound, our kids feel ready to do their best, and our teachers understand and value the assessment. On the other hand…standardized tests are only one measure. They are a snapshot of one day and one time and we shouldn’t read so much into them.
  • We need to teach our curriculum and are accountable for knowing how students measure up and what students can do in relation to the standards and benchmarks. However…the curriculum isn’t a box in which you are locked. Be creative, do what you think your kids need. Make learning fun! It isn’t about coverage, it is about kids.
  • We are aligned philosophically and use a “program” throughout the school to teach certain subjects. This ensures consistency and continuity across the grades. That said…we don’t teach programs, we teach people. You have to know who is in front of you and respond to their needs. Look up from the paper provided by the program and really see who the learners are you are charged with leading.
  •  We want students to progress and grow. We need them to push themselves and always do their best. There are expectations for what students at different grades should be doing. It’s also true however… that “childhood is a journey, not a race.” We need to let children grow and develop at their own pace. Everyone will get there with the proper support and guidance.

Why is it so hard to answer the questions we receive as educators in a consistent frame? Why can’t it be more black and white. The student is 5. Five-year olds do this. Period. If they are not, we will do this. If they are, we won’t. Etc.? Because the “answers” are based on human interaction and development, something which is a unique and ever-changing. We are all different.

Years ago I was supposedly “rescued” as an early educator by a program introduced in the public school I was working at in the US. This program, which had all the “research” and all the “answers” and would produce “results” was also pitched as “dummy proof,” meaning anyone could walk kids through it and get the same results. As you can imagine, those of us handed the program and assured of its success if we just did what it told us to do, (you dummy) were offended.

To stand in front of 20 (in the US 30) first grade students and move them each forward is not the work of a dummy. Instead, it is the highly honed, extremely delicate and nuanced work of an artist.

Art is rarely black and white, and never one size fits all. You have to work through it, trying and deciding and changing until you get what you were looking for.

Photo Credit: http://www.santacruz.k12.ca.us/images/cac2009_3.jpg

Fitting In, Figuring It Out- New Families in Transition

It is that time of year when there are new faces at every turn. These faces contain looks, which run the gamut of excitement to trepidation. I’m referring to both the parents and students of new families transitioning to our schools. Some are overseas for the first time and overwhelmed by the differences living in this, a new country. For them oftentimes, school offers a reminder of what they came from. A comforting constant they can be reassured by and feel good about.  For others, the newness is the school. Either the move to a new system of education- ours being an American, college-preparatory system, or a school where their child’s native language isn’t the main language of instruction. For all new families, it is paramount we understand their worries and fears, while assisting them in moving through the inevitable stages of newness.

How best can we help though?

I believe the most effective solution is to make sure we listen to these families and children. Encourage them to tell us how they are doing, listen to their responses, then reassure, reassure, reassure. While this seems simple, it is actually the hardest for me to do at the start of the year, because of the shear pace of the first weeks of school.  We try though. This week alone, we’ve had a new parent coffee, a new family dinner, and the counselor has been visiting with students who are new to check in on how they are feeling.

One idea I’ve been tossing around on reflection of how we receive and support new families, is to have a team of parents, teachers, and students ready to just be listeners. What if a member of this team called every new family on day 2, day 10 and day 30 to check in? What if we had a table set up in outside the office where members of this team were stationed to answer questions? Any question. What if we developed questionnaires to give to new families to help hone the response from this team so we were able to meet their needs directly? I would much rather over respond than under respond.

From there, how might we help families as they move into the stage when the newness wears off and the worry sets in? Predictably this happens around the 3-4 month of school. By then, I find as an administrator I’m off and running and assume everything is fine for these new folks. (No news is good news.) However, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t reschedule our new family events: coffee morning, dinner, etc. to directly coincide with when we know the honeymoon feeling is fading.

Finally, I would like to have a system for reminding our teachers and families who have been here for years just what it is like to be new. Without that empathy, we can’t really provide the support necessary. We’ve all been through it, however, it is easy to forget what it means to uproot your family, bring them to a new country and school, and to settle into the routine of life.

Developing a transition plan is an excellent way to reach out to the new community, while tightening the bonds of the existing families and our teachers. After all, are on this adventure together.

Cross-posted on blog.tieonline.com