Classroom Practices, Education, Leadership, Learning, PLC, PLN, Uncategorized

Big Little Things

LittleThe sign you see here hangs in my living room. It greets me every morning as I stumble past on my way to the kitchen to get the coffee that starts my day. It welcomes me home every evening, that sign. Watches over us as we hang out, watching TV or eating or talking or reading. It hangs there, that sign. Right there it hangs as I start to do a little work or think about the things at school that I didn’t quite have time to do today. Or those big things I have coming up…..Yeah, like that thing. I really have to block off some time for that one tomorrow.

Where does it go, our time? I wonder that a lot. And as I wonder, that sign hangs, still and quiet. Reminding me to slow down. To notice the little things. The little things that hide inside our days, like tiny glass spheres filled with big, magnificent moments that we can only discover if we look for those little things first. And sometimes, when we are super busy or pressed for time and we just don’t stop to think about those little things….well, sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes one of those little things happens by, right smack dab in the middle of something there it is, right in front of us. And then just like that, right before our eyes, we see it. And we see the big, magnificent moment that is hidden right there…hidden just inside that one little thing. This is about one of those big little things.

I sat down at the desk just inside her classroom, paper and pen in hand as I prepared to take notes and capture data for this teacher’s annual evaluation. As I observed, this teacher let students know that for this particular activity, they would be using nonfiction text. That they would be selecting their own text from the stack of books and magazines that had been placed on the back table. Stacks and piles about all kinds of things, written at all kinds of levels. The students were to use their strategy for selecting a “just right” book and to find one that appealed to them, one that sparked their interest. And then off they went, these excited kids. Off they went to rummage through the piles looking, searching, hoping to find that one interesting book … that “just right” book…that book that fits them.  And then…..he found it. I watched as this student grabbed up a book, opened and scanned the pages to make sure it wasn’t too easy or too hard and then….once he discovered that this book was indeed just right for him, he clutched it to his chest and headed back to his desk, just to the right of where I sat. And as he walked toward his desk, clutching that book, I heard that teacher call after him, “Did you find one you liked?” As he excitedly held it up that teacher smiled and said, “Ah, yes! Wonderful! I thought of you as I was picking that one out.”

And as he turned back around to sit at his desk, I saw his face. And his whole face was smiling. Smiling because he had found a book on a favorite topic. Smiling because that book was just right for him, which meant he could take it.  Smiling, because his teacher had specifically thought of him when choosing that book to bring to the table for this ordinary lesson, on this ordinary day. Smiling, because his teacher had thought of him, period.

In the midst of the day, the life, the 20 other kids. In that moment, that “I thought of you when I did that” moment….his teacher didn’t just pick a book. His teacher picked a book for him. His teacher had said, “You matter”.  “You are important”. “You are unique”. “I know you”. “I love you”.

This teacher did much more than just choose a book. And that, I have a feeling, was the real reason behind that smile….that big, can’t hide it smile that was on his face as he returned to his seat and dove right into that book.  His book.  Chosen for him.

I think we educators have the greatest job in the world. We are surrounded by big opportunities that like to hide themselves inside all our little moments. And these moments, they move quickly. They weave in and out of our classrooms, up and down the halls, around and around our days like those fast moving hands that circle the clocks on our walls. The clocks that count off those little moments, one by one. Around and around they go, minute by minute. Hour by hour. Sometimes, we get so caught up in how fast those hands move past those little moments. In all those things we have to do, all those things our kids must accomplish and yes, indeed. Those moments do move fast. Time marches on and we march with it. We are stretched thin by big things like curriculum and TEKS and STAAR testing and standards and PLCs and parent conferences and meetings and … well, you know the rest. We have such. little. time. to accomplish all that we must accomplish. To make sure that which is supposed to happen, happens. Those moments go by so fast and there are so many things and… we just don’t have time. We just don’t have time, with all the big things on our plates, we just don’t have time to make sure they all happen. There just isn’t time.

Or … is there?

“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you will look back and realize they were the big things.”

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Classroom Practices, Education, Leadership, Learning, PLC, PLN, Uncategorized

Putting PLCs Into Practice

Putting Professional Learning Communities Into Practice on an Elementary Campus

*Note: This post includes downloadable templates and videos of some artifacts I created, feel free to use anything you see!

img_2589This year, we are focusing on PLC work. Focusing, as in, starting them up. Yes, we have had PLC time on the calendar. Yes, our teachers have “met” during that time. But would I say we had strong Professional Learning Communities engaged in purposeful PLC-ish type work? Work that drove our instruction and informed our practice as a learning organization? No. And I don’t feel ashamed telling you that. For one thing, I know every educator on my campus would agree. But most importantly, because I believe that if you want to grow and improve in anything, you have to call it like it is. So this year, we took on the task of designing and establishing a vision and framework for supporting PLC work on our campus. To say this was a big, heavy goal would be an understatement. In this post, I am going to reflect on what we have done so far, and where we hope to go on this first leg of our PLC journey.

Developing our Vision

The first thing that my principal and I did was decide on what impactful PLC work would look like for us. We consulted many resources. Our district PLC framework was the guiding focus. It establishes the 3 district PLC principles and some ideas that might fall within each. We consulted  books, web resources, journals, people and blog posts  which helped tighten up our ideas and inform our processes. Our amazing Director of Professional Learning, Shawna Miller, provided our staff with an introductory PLC training to get us up and going. Finally, we dropped into the #atplc (All Things PLC) weekly Twitter chat where we were able to deepen our understanding of PLC work from some amazing educators. Chats focus on what works, what doesn’t, and latest ideas / trends / practices that are building capacity in educators and administrators. FYI: This chat happens every Thursday at 8:00 pm central time, and is facilitated by Solution Tree. Here is an archive of these chats.

Our guiding focus is on our students and our teachers. What is the work we need to focus on in order to drive high-level achievement at our campus? How could PLCs transform us from a community of learners into a campus-wide learning organization, made up of student and adult learners, focused on a shared vision and common goals?  Those were the type questions that drove our dialogue and from which our PLC development began to take shape.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 2.28.10 PMPLC Campus Handbook 

Following those ideas and conversations, I sat down to create our campus PLC Handbook. The purpose was to give our staff (and us) a structure for beginning this process. My principal and I are both big proponents of teacher autonomy and we try to be mindful of creating space for teachers to be self-directed. But sometimes, our teachers want a structured system in which to operate as they begin, explore, and get a feel for something new.

Our PLC Handbook is purposefully brief because we are just beginning and the last thing we want to do is make it bigger and more complicated than it has to be. The handbook briefly outlines our purpose and vision for campus PLC teams. We then define six “Focus Areas” which establish the type of work that will be done in the meetings. These six areas fit very nicely into our district PLC Framework and it’s three driving components. Within each Focus Area, I gave some examples of the type of work teachers might be doing. I also included resources that would help facilitate that work.  You can see the six areas by looking at our PLC handbook, linked above. We feel these areas provide the most opportunity for growth and meaningful work on our campus and also reflect both the strength and needs of our staff and students. You can see where each of the six areas would fall under the district PLC principles of Collaborative Culture, Focus on Learning, and Results Driven.

Using Current Resources
My district provided me with the opportunity to go through training sessions with School Reform Initiative last year and I learned about some great protocals which school communities can use to accomplish various tasks. I realized those protocals would be very helpful if embedded in our new PLC system! And to be very transparent, although I loved this training and saw the benefit, I had yet to use any of it with the staff. So I grabbed my manual from the shelf, read back through my notes and the resources within, and then for each Focus Area I identified protocals that would best support the work and facilitate meaningful dialogue. I really enjoyed being able to line up PLC focus area tasks with these protocols. At this point, we started to see something really great taking shape. Not only were we mapping out our PLC vision, but also we were making purposeful use of tools that we already had by embedding them within the system. At the end of the handbook I tossed in a few resources that might be helpful for teachers, such as the master schedule, school calendar, rubrics,  norm development tools,  agenda and minutes template, and ideas for potential PLC roles and responsibilities.

Each team has a binder. The tabs are:

  • Handbook
  • Minutes & Agenda
  • Collaborative Culture
  • Focus on Learning
  • Results Driven
  • RtI
  • Admin
  • Resources

As you can see, I chose to use the 3 district PLC principles rather than our 6 campus Focus Areas. I did that because we want our staff to be see how our campus work with PLCs fits within the district’s overarching framework and to be fluent in that framework. I also put together an admin PLC binder for myself and my principal.  Here are a couple of videos that I made to give you a quick tour of a PLC team binder and an admin team binder.

 

Time To Meet

The next thing I did was to create a schedule for our PLC meetings. My principal developed a master schedule which allows teachers one extra planning period every other week– students go to “Shine” time with our wonderful fine arts staff. So for example, week one PLCs are: Tuesday Kinder, Wednesday 1st grade, Thursday 2nd grade. The following week, PLCs are Tuesday 3rd grade, Wednesday 4th, and Thursday 5th. And then the two week cycle starts over. Monday and Friday is an additional planning for our Fine Arts team as they develop relevant and engaging learning experiences for our students’ Shine Time and to engage in their own PLC meetings. We feel it is very important to carve out time in the master schedule for this important work.

Screen Shot 2017-09-28 at 2.26.00 PMPlanning the Meetings

Here was a tricky situation: We want to create space for teacher autonomy and grade level empowerment. We want teams to be in charge of their own learning and their own PLC tasks based on needs they identify. Teachers are professionals and they know their students best. But we also know that our teachers sometimes need more of a structure in the beginning so that they get a feel for each focus area and the work we are going to be doing. Additionally, we wanted to model some of the protocals for them so that they could use them comfortably. So we decided that for the first semester, we would identify the focus area and task ahead of time. By Christmas break, our teachers will most if not all of our 6 focus areas and a few protocals as well. So in developing the PLC calendar, our first semester is mostly already planned; after that, PLC teams will decide which Focus Area they need to work in each time. We are acting as facilitators now, but with the goal of slowly moving toward teacher ownership — we will be there to listen, support, ask questions…but teachers will be planning and running their own meetings. We were very purposeful in mapping out the PLC calendar so that it flows with campus and district calendars — for example, when district benchmarks are given, the following PLC week would be a great opportunity to engage with data and intervention, and so forth.

We identified PLC Leads for each grade level (a grade level teacher). Those leads will be attending School Reform Initiative training so that they are comfortable leading protocals. They keep the team binder and manage materials. If we need to send something out (such as an article or maybe set of data) for the team to engage with in a future PLC meeting, we will send it to the PLC Lead. We are really excited about the opportunity to develop teacher leadership skills through this experience!

Reflections After Round One

Our first round of PLCs just concluded today on my campus and it was so incredible to feel the excitement as we kick off this new system! We made sure to plan the first activity for development of roles and norms, as this will help set the tone for future meetings. The teams did an outstanding job and everyone was involved and eager to establish their framework and norms. Based on the conversations I observed in these first meetings, I know that some incredible work and dialogue is going to be taking place on our campus through these grade level PLC teams.  I can’t wait to see how their work will impact the experiences our students have, and the high level of learning at which we all will be operating.

If you are currently engaged in PLC meetings at your campus, I would love to hear how you have designed and supported them! If you are just starting out like us, feel free to use any of the resources provided here, and please connect with me @Fearless_Teach so we can swap ideas, insights and feedback!

Classroom Practices, Education, Leadership, Learning, PLN, Uncategorized

Building Strong Supports

nails2As the 2017-18 school year begins, I have been thinking about the idea of serving others. I wear many hats and each day finds me responding to the needs of many different people.  I am fortunate in that I get to work with students, parents, teachers and staff, fellow administrators, district personnel and community members — all with a common goal of building an incredible and productive school year – of building futures. What an awesome gift we have of being a part of such a magnificent journey!  But that also means that on some days we are all sdpread pretty thin. I begin each day with the goal of serving others, but if I’m honest I will tell you that I often fall short. I can serve some of the people, some of the time, but it is a challenge to be consistent in that with all stakeholders, day in and day out.

I had the idea of “serving others” in my mind as I sat down and wrote out my goals for the upcoming school year. This year, my goals include:

  • Getting into classrooms daily
  • Attending PLC meetings regularly
  • Giving consistent and effective feedback to teachers
  • Analyzing/reflecting on classroom data frequently
  • Making a few positive calls home to parents daily

I started thinking about what type of impact I can make if I work hard toward meeting these goals.  By getting into classrooms daily and giving consistent feedback to teachers, I am supporting students and teachers. I am also supporting the campus mission and district vision for each student. By reflecting on data, I am supporting campus needs, goals and decisions going forward as they relate to student achievement. By making regular contact with parents, I am supporting my campus’ core values and through my attendance at PLC meetings I can help to support the learning and teaching environment.

What I noticed when I wrote this out, is that the word “support” comes up again and again. I realized that “serving others” does not just fasten itself to my job, to anyone’s job, without the nails of support. It takes a consistent mental focus on goals, along with the flexibility to adapt to the ongoing needs of others, in order to support the learning organization and ultimately serve an entire community of learners.

I am reminded of a quote by Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt: “People don’t want a quarter inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.” Taken a step further, it isn’t the hole they are after, either. It’s an end result. This past month I moved and during the fixing up of my new house, I drilled a hole in my bathroom. But I didn’t want a drill or a hole. I wanted a shelf.

When applying this same thought to our roles this year, we can say that our daily tasks, everything from meetings to bus duty to classroom visits, these things are the “nails” that will help build our capacity to support and ultimately to serve, our campuses and districts. To serve our communities.

I am excited about the upcoming year and I have a renewed appreciation for the many hats I wear – because I know that each one serves a very important purpose.  Each act, each function of my job, will be another nail of support in my overarching desire to serve others and build a strong school  year.

I wish you all a wonderful year as you, too, strive to support, serve others and build strong futures.

Classroom Practices, Education, Uncategorized

So You’re Starting Reading Workshop!

books in stairwellThis year our curriculum team has revamped the curriculum with a reading workshop framework. I am thrilled to see this! I truly believe in the power of a reading workshop classroom and have seen so many kids thrive in this type of environment. While there is no one program or method that is the “end all, be all” of reading instruction, I think it is an awesome move on the part of the district literacy team to spread the workshop model throughout the district.

When I first starting teaching reading workshop, it was a big change and I will admit I did not like it. I really felt like I was not truly teaching because I wasn’t up in front of the room instructing. It took me quite a while to realize that letting students read was the most important reading instruction I could give! Small group and individual conferencing took a while to get the hang of, as well. But once I did, I saw the powerful results of students having ownership of their goals and taking charge of their own progress as readers. Ten minute mini-lessons replaced whole class lessons…another big change that was a bit scary at first! I learned how to use read aloud picture books to kick off my openings and wrap up my closings. They soon became my most favorite times of the day! But the most important things I noticed with this change in teaching style were that my students became lovers of reading, and I became much more knowledgable of them as readers. By the end of that first year, I fell in love with Reading Workshop.

Below are some resources I used which helped me start building my own Reading Workshop classroom.

Using Ipads in Guided Reading

Beth Newingham Videos

Complex Texts: Guiding Readers

Level Your Classroom Books

Units of Study / Mini Lesson Videos

If you are moving to a Reading Workshop format or have been engaged with this style of reading instruction for a while, please share your ideas, thoughts, questions and suggestions so that we can all continue to grow together!

Classroom Practices, Education, Leadership, Learning, Uncategorized

Your School’s Vibe

IMG_2387Have you ever noticed how certain places just give you a good feeling when you walk in? Some places just feel good. It’s nothing you can see, or touch, or even point to and say, “Yes, that right there. That is what’s making this a positive environment”. No, that kind of vibe can’t be artificially created. It comes from the feelings and the morale contained within that particular place.

In a school, it will come from the collective community: the students, the teachers, the office workers, the custodians, the administrators and the paraprofessionals. It comes from all kinds of places and it floats through the building and it gives away all the secrets that place holds. The “vibe” of the school is felt by visitors when they walk in. Depending on the culture, that vibe can be one of our most important treasures, or it can be one of our most troublesome symptoms. But either way, each school has its own unique vibe–one we all hope is positive and palpable.

We hear a lot about how schools need to tell their stories. Our stories are told on Twitter, and Facebook, and at the grocery store, and PTA meetings, and at baseball games. But a school’s story is also told through that vibe you get when you enter the place. What’s your school’s vibe? Do you know? Can you feel it?

We are very fortunate to have had many visitors over the last couple of years who have commented about the positive vibe they get when they visit our school. Educators from other schools, parents, delivery people, you name it. They tell us how the place just “feels happy“. We love to hear this! I’m not saying this to brag (ok, maybe a little). I’m saying this because Monday is #LoveMySchoolDay on Twitter (more info on that further down). We have encouraged our school community to participate by sharing out what they love about our school throughout the day on the #LoveMySchoolDay hashtag.

We have also tailored this week’s staff blog to this theme. The principal shared what she loves about our school. Our teachers wrote their thoughts via an online staff poll that we created and have included in the blog. You can view our poll responses here. Even our students got into the spirit and created a video giving our school and teachers a big shout out and sharing all the wonderful things that make us who we are.  We put that into our staff blog this week as well. You can view the blog for this week here. We roll our blog out on Fridays and this week it all leads up to Monday’s big Twitter movement, #LoveMySchoolDay. So in honor of this fun event, I jotted down a few things that I think go into making a school an awesome place to be.  Not surprisingly, they are all important components in our school’s student and teacher Core Values documents, which we created and adopted this year. If you’d like to read those, the links are included below. So here are what I consider to be some important things that come together to create a school’s vibe–in no particular order:

  1. Relationships. The staff is very close. They feel like a family and they treat one another like family. How does this happen? Well, there are some things I think leaders can do to help their staff build these relationships. Providing opportunities to collaborate, to have fun together, and finding a variety of ways to encourage teamwork are all important in helping the staff come together. They respect one another as professionals and they like one another as people. That does not happen just because we hire a bunch of people and throw them together in a building. Leaders have to purposefully plan for and allow team building,collaboration, and teacher leadership to flourish. Building relationships is at the center of our school’s Core Values, which we recently designed. Our Teacher Core Values are here and our Student Core Values are here.
  2. Autonomy. Many reported that they feel empowered to design learning experiences and take risks that they feel are important for their class/team. They are not micro managed, but rather they are seen as and treated like valuable and knowledgable professionals. They are held accountable while also being trusted. As administrators, our role is more of guiding rather than directing. We share our own thoughts, mistakes, ideas, and concerns. We are not afraid to admit that we don’t know something or to seek input from our staff. I think they appreciate this and it definitely goes to our Core Values.
  3. Purpose. What is our purpose? To sum it up in two words: teach kids and have fun. (Let me credit our district Asst. Supt. Buddy Bonner with that bit of awesome!) We hire teachers who love kids and love teaching. And whatever else they may not be experienced with, we teach them. And we have fun every day. That’s mandatory. 🙂
  4. Prioritize Happy. We prioritize happy. Walk into our lounge on any given day and you might see a bulletin board asking teachers to share some awesome quotes from kids that they have heard lately. You might see a hall display of Acts of Kindness that a student has randomly put up and onto which others have started adding. We love being happy and we think it is important to teaching. And learning. And living.
  5. Gratitude. The entire school community shares with others what they are grateful for. Our parents. Our students. Our teachers. We are grateful and we express that gratitude often. And that just makes people feel good. Gratitude is purposefully written into our student and teacher Core Values document.

These are just a few things, but I think they are very important things. What are some of your thoughts? What makes up your school’s vibe? If you are interested in learning more about the #LoveMySchoolDay Twitter event, scheduled for April 11, 2016, you can find all the information here.