Friday, May 17, 2019

“Teacher, Teacher, how do I do this?” ... or ... “What are you going to do when I’m not here to help you?”

Ever wonder how to help your students know what to do when they don’t know what to do? Me too. I like to give a lot of lip service to how important it is to support success skills (four C’s, soft skills, life skills...call them what you will), but I’ll admit it: They can be overwhelming. I mean, seriously, critical thinking?! What does that even look like?

One thing that is clear, though, is that they are a critical component of our picture of a successful BPS graduate. Our parents and community want our students to develop them. Our school board monitors student engagement with them. And, if that’s not enough for you, do a Google search for “top job skills for 2020.” They need to be a focus in every classroom...every day. (That’s right, I said it: “erryday!” If I had a microphone, here is where I’d drop it.)


Yeah, yeah, yeah...you still haven’t told us what they look like, sound like, feel like.” O.K., O.K., I hear ya. Honestly, I’d tell you if I knew. It’s not like there is a rubric out there for creativity or collaboration (ahem)...and here we are again...OVERWHELMING!

These are just a few reasons that teachers at BPS have been participating in an opt-in professional development project called “Success Skills in Action.” The goal: focus on and learn what success skills look like in our classrooms. When do our students use them? How do our students use them? What does it look like when students aren’t using them? What does it look like when they’re learning to use them?

How are we doing this? With success skills, of course. We are thinking critically about the specific behaviors (both explicit and implicit) in the BPS success skills rubrics (if you haven’t found them yet, drive your web browser to www.bismarckschools.org -> Teaching Practices -> Success Skills). We are thinking creatively about what types of experiences and opportunities students need in order to apply these skills. We are working collaboratively by sharing our desired student behaviors and visiting each others’ classrooms to help each other observe which behaviors students are and aren’t demonstrating. We are communicating that information back to teachers and students in those classrooms to build our collective understanding of these important skills.

What are we finding out? Well, take a look at what some participants have said:

“Watching the teacher push these students' critical thinking really reminded me of the importance of creating experiences where the kids are required to find the answers themselves and where I am a facilitator of their learning. Students teaching one another was so powerful, which shows the significance of collaboration.”

“As I read the feedback, I realized how all the work on teaching the 4 C’s throughout the year really paid off.”

“ I was pleased to hear that they were problem solving and helping each other to stay on task.”

“I am so happy I participated in Success Skills in Action because having extra ears and eyes in the classroom was helpful to determine if the behaviors I wanted were achieved.”

“I believe I can impact student ability to think critically more than I used to. I believe teaching the process of critical thinking and modeling it is very important to help students deconstruct problems and ideas.”

We’re still learning how to best support these important skills, but one thing we can say for sure is: success skills aren’t an outcome...they’re an action!

Twitter Tuesday Questions:


  1. What types of behaviors do you look for to indicate student engagement with success skills?
  2. What relationship to you think success skills have with social-emotional learning?
  3. How do success skills allow students to engage in deeper learning?
  4. What do you do to support and encourage communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking?

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Turning Student’s Minds On To Math



In February, I had the opportunity to attend a math conference led by Wendy Ward Hoffer and focused around her book titled Minds on Mathematics Using Math Workshop to Develop Deep Understanding.  I was fortunate to go with a team from the district, many of whom I recognized, but hardly knew.  My skepticism was turned up high and my willingness to try something new unfortunately was lower than I would like to admit as I boarded the plane.  It was a mixture of excitement and anxiousness that we feel before attending professional development training.  The fear that you’ve just left your classroom and family for multiple days and the hope that what you learn at the conference will make it worth it.

Within the first thirty minutes of the conference all anxiousness was quickly washed away by pure excitement, and it wasn’t just because of the killer cowboy boots and fabulous earthy styled hair the speaker, Wendy Ward Hoffer, was rocking.  It was because the words she spoke about the learning of mathematics were so simple, so honest, and so spot on.  She introduced what she has identified as the key beliefs around the learning of mathematics, which included:
1.      Math is about making sense.
2.      Students are capable of brilliance.
3.      Understanding takes time.
4.      There is more than one way to solve a problem.
5.      All students are capable of doing the math.
           
The components within a math workshop are always the same.  They include teaching for understanding by identifying thinking strategies, using the workshop model, and including lots of student discourse.  Wendy repeatedly stressed the importance of two-thirds of the workshop time being student focused and lead, along with the encouragement of student talk

While quickly clarifying that math workshop is not a station rotation model, it was clearly defined that it is a structure for lesson planning and a framework for thinking about math instruction.  The math workshop framework consists of four essential components including a,
1.      Cognitive hook
2.      Mini-lesson
3.      Student work time (independently, with partners, and in groups)
4.      And a Reflection

The cognitive hook is used to gain the attention of your mathematicians.  The hook is followed by a mini lesson which begins to frame the thinking of the day’s learning.  Then comes the best part, student work time.  Work time is focused around rich mathematical tasks.  It is during this time the teacher will intentionally insert a moment to pause the thinking of students to catch them based on the needs observed and then release them back to the learning.  The work time should consist of a balance of independent, partner, and group time.  As always, student discourse is truly at the heart of math workshop.  Students being allowed and encouraged to think about the problems and then talk about the math.  It is during these conversations they gain confidence, new math knowledge, solidify their thinking, and showcase their math thinking in a way that it could be shared, justified, and discussed with others.  The final and critical component of the math workshop model is student reflection.

I remember thinking the simplistic idea behind the shifting of thinking about the learning of mathematics was genius!  The professional development received had provided a framework that would blend beautifully within the curriculum, tools, and other resources with which the district has already provided.  I left the conference ready to go back into my classroom and turn all of my students’ minds on to mathematics. 

In honesty, however, it took me over two weeks of dragging my feet, figuring out some of the small details, and getting over the general fear of disrupting the flow of our math time for me to try it.  But jump I finally did, okay the first time was more like a belly flop, but I was in the water and it felt about as good as a belly flop does.  I muddled my way through the hour.  The quality and quantity of student work was okay, and their understanding of the concept progressing, but it was their reflections in their math notebooks that ultimately got my teaching partner and I.  Comments such as, “Math was fun today.”  “I didn’t get it right away, but my partner showed me their way and then I got it.”  The next day, we tried it again and using the workshop model felt a little better!  And today I can tell you, that more days than not, using the math workshop model within our math block is as exciting as jumping off of the high diving board into the deep end of the pool.  

The students’ engagement has gone up, their feelings about math have changed for the better, their critical thinking has increased, and they started to feel like the mathematicians they truly are.  They no longer fear failure within mathematics, but instead look at it as a stepping stone to get to true understanding.  They finally look at all math as something they CAN DO and if they cannot quite wrap their brain around the concept yet, they look at it as a puzzle they are going to try to figure out.

Throughout this learning journey, I have again been reminded of my role as a teacher.  I am here to pose a challenge, make students think for themselves, encourage them to persevere, catch them at just-in-time moments to support their thinking/learning (this step may be repeated multiple times dependent on the student you are working with) and celebrate them for success and willingness to be risk-takers.  It’s truly what teaching is all about! 

It became evident very very quickly to me that this was the exact professional development that I didn’t even know I needed, and I’m so grateful for having had the learning experience.  As you take a plunge this summer into deeper learning, why not try the high dive?  It may just be the exact refresher you are looking for.


Twitter Tuesday Questions-

Q1:  How do you encourage student discourse within your lessons/classroom?

Q2: What are some creative ways you have students reflect on their learning?

Q3:  What profession development are you excited to be digging into this summer?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Live Your Excellence




What are you good at?  What do you feel confident doing?  Maybe it’s something you’re naturally good at, maybe it’s something you’ve put in hours of practice learning how to do and now it’s something other people come to you for your expertise on, or maybe it’s something you never thought you were good at, but thanks to the encouragement from others you’ve pursued it and has now become a strength of yours.  Teachers are humble people, but for just ten seconds pause and reflect on you.  What is your IT?

My seven year old son, Coen, is awesome.  He teaches me so much more than I can even begin to tell you.  I recently asked him if he could tell me what he’s good at.  He smiled and proceeded to tell me all about the things he’s good at: baseball, riding his bike, writing stories, drawing pictures, and being a brother.  He then told me he was going to practice baseball every day so he could be the best on his team.  Coen knows his strengths and he knows what he has to do to get better at them.  He knows that with practice and hard work, he’ll become a better baseball player just like I know that by practicing teaching writing, I’ll become a better writing teacher.  Last week I had the opportunity to read in his classroom.  On the board were notes from students to each other.  One of Coen’s friends wrote a note to him that said, “I like how you are so focused at the carpet.”  FIRST GRADERS are taking the time to notice their classmates and are giving each other shout outs.  His teacher, Mrs. Fleck, gets it.  She is intentional on creating a class culture that focuses on student strengths.  She is setting up a system for students to notice their peers and allowing them to positively showcase them for all to see.

"I like how focused you are at the carpet."
Compliments to classmates on display in Mrs. Fleck's 1st grade classroom. 
We are surrounded by family members, co-workers, and friends each day that each bring their own set of unique strengths to various situations each and every day.  Do we highlight the strengths of those around us and allow them to shine?  What if we took ten seconds each day to let someone know that you’ve noticed them?  Let’s get ourselves in the habit of using our own strengths, but let’s also help cultivate the strengths of others.  My son knows his strengths and with encouragement from myself, his dad, his grandparents, his teachers, his coaches...he’ll grow into an even better him.  We want that for all kids, right?  I’d go even further to say that we also want it for each other as well.

Jimmy Casas believes in being a champion for students-it’s one of his core beliefs.  In his book Culturize he offers a couple culture-building ideas that you can implement in your classroom or your building right away that will make a difference for your students or your staff:
  1. Recognize What’s Going Well-take a minute or two to reflect on the work you do and how it cultivates a positive culture in their classroom or school.  Share WHY IT MATTERS!
  2. Change Student Behavior by Changing Adult Behavior-I can’t even tell you how many times I wrote down “We get what we model” in my notes from listening to Mr. Casas speak at our March Staff Development Day!  He says, “If you want to improve student behavior in your school, you must change the way the adults in your school interact with students and with each other.”  If we model appreciating each other’s strengths, it will become habit. 
  3. Reach Out and Call Someone-If it’s not a phone call or text, trying emailing or leaving a sticky note of encouragement on someone’s classroom door.  
What if you don’t know what is a strength of yours?  Tap into those who are closest to you!  Ask your friends, family, spouse, best friend, a teaching partner.  Chances are, if you asked them, they would be able to list a plethora of strengths they notice in you!  We’re all busy and we all have a million reasons excuses not to live our excellence.  Find an accountability partner (an accountabilibuddy!) to encourage and hold accountable when the busy sneaks in.  So...let’s start living our excellence RIGHT NOW.  If we model a life of living our excellence and encourage others to do the same, we will have develop a CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE!  

Speaking of strengths...I couldn’t have wrote this blog post by myself.  A HUGE shout-out to these AWESOMIZERS:
  • Mr. Brady Gudgel, music teacher at Sunrise, created the graphic at the top.  Mr. G is crazy talented and aside from being a champion for kids, he is fantastic at graphic design.  
  • Mrs. Kelsi Fleck, first grade teacher at Lincoln, you are a champion of relationships.  Thank you for sharing pictures of your students work.  We are lucky to know you. 
  •  Missy Hurt, Instructional Coach at Murphy, is a champion for teachers.  Without you, this piece would have had many, MANY more commas and misspelled words I’m sure.
  • Sarah Morrow, third grade teacher at Sunrise, is queen of calm.  Thank you for reminding me to take each day “Bird by Bird.” 
Twitter Tuesday Questions:
Q1: How are you living your excellence each day?
Q2: How are you encouraging others to live their excellence each day? Or how can you start?
Q3: What are you doing in your classroom or in your building to cultivate a culture of excellence?  
Q4: How are you making the most of each day and opportunity you have for the remainder of this school year?
#learnbps

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Relationships First, Everything Else Second



“We may not get to decide which kids to serve, but we do get to decide the kind of climate in which we want to serve them” - Jimmy Casas

Each fall, educators spend the first 30 days of each school year getting to know their new students. Team building activities, interest surveys, and partner learning are fun and help us better understand the lives of our mini humans. Beyond those first 30 days, as we all know, life in a school gets busy and we tend to focus more on curriculum and content than on enhancing the relationships we have started with our students.
I have always been interested in promoting a strong culture and positive interactions with the kids in my classroom. I have wondered how we could bring the excitement and happiness of the first 30 days of school every day. How could that mindset affect the relationships I have with my students, they have with one another, and their interactions with others in the school?
One way that I have incorporated consistent relationship building into my classroom starts at 8:30 am each morning. Soft starts are nothing new. Harvey “Smokey” Daniels dedicates a chapter to them in his wonderful book, The Curious Classroom. A calming music playlist greets the children at our door and so do I - greeting everyone by name and with our “secret handshake” that we developed at our open house in August. They come in ready to stretch their brain or prepare it for a day of learning.
Once our morning jobs and procedures are complete, my kids have some voice and choice in how they spend the first 10-15 minutes of their school day. These choice activities give us time to connect with friends, share stories, get work help from a friend, settle in, expand our creativity, collaboration and critical thinking skills and get ready for the day! We work together to change many choices monthly (but not the procedures of our morning choices) to keep interest high.
The best part? After MY morning procedures are complete (So the office does not need to *gently* remind me to take attendance!), I get to join in! While kids are coloring together or completing a puzzle or writing a story, I can work on an activity while we have conversations about our busy and important lives.

Creating relationships involves “creating an environment where the students get to know one another. Only by intentionally taking time to invest in activities that allow students to regularly interact with one another can we ever achieve the classroom culture of excellence we all aspire to attain: An atmosphere where all students understand, appreciate, respect, and empathize with one another.”      - Jimmy Casas

When my students are able to spend the start of their morning collaborating with their friends and teacher, our other interactions throughout the day are more positive and focused. There is genuine care and concern when “our class is not complete” (in 3rd grade words...that means someone is away from school that day). Their attention is sincere when their friends share stories later at Morning Meeting. If someone needs help, they know they can confidently ask 21 people for guidance. If we need help being assertive with a situation (because we are all human and things happen…), we feel secure in knowing our friends will listen to our words and respect our needs better moving forward.
In his book, Culturize, Jimmy Casas repeatedly shares how important it is for people to model and focus on what you want more of. If I want our classroom to be a welcoming and caring and safe place to be, then I need to make time in our day to model and focus on welcoming and caring interaction opportunities with my students. Then it is the kids’ turn to model and engage in welcoming and caring interactions with the many other people they interact with during their day. And it all begins again the next day...


Q1: What is the morning routine like in your classroom or school?
Q2: How do you encourage and maintain positive relationships with students throughout the year?
Q3: How does your classroom or school promote a positive culture in the first 30 days? Throughout the school year?
Q4: What are fun and unique ways that you or your school encourage positive (adult to adult - adult to student - student to student) interactions?
#learnbps



Thursday, March 21, 2019

Work With an Instructional Coach? Whoa...Talk About Vulnerability!





It was my seventh year teaching, but my first year as a second grade teacher.  To me,
this was just like being a brand new teacher. I was teaching in a very low socioeconomic
building in the District and the sense of urgency for me to give students a rich learning
experience was extremely high.  I had every bit of confidence that I could rise to the
occasion, but I was also realistic enough to know that if I wanted to meet the level of
expectation I set for myself, I would need to learn a whole lot more and have support in
doing so.  

I remember my first “coaching cycle” was with my literacy coach.  New to second grade,
it first real experience in teaching phonics.  I wanted support with connecting the little
understanding I had around phonics instruction and the scope and sequence within the
resource we had at the time.  I asked her questions and she asked me questions. Both
of us realizing we didn’t have all the answers, but together we would figure it out. We
looked at the resource, planned, co-taught, and through the gradual release model, she
eventually stepped back to let me do my thing.  The best part is, even though this little bird
was flying on her own, I knew that my coach was always there to be a thinking partner
with me along the way. I knew I was never truly alone in my work.
Fast forward eight years...on the other side of this story as an elementary instructional
coach. What I’ve learned is coaching and creating a culture of coaching in a school relies
heavily on relationships, trust, honesty, and a whole lot of vulnerability.  Vulnerability...very
tricky and truthfully, quite challenging.

As a coach, I have worked with teachers who don’t seem to be nervous about showing
vulnerability. They have been eager to learn as much as they possibly can for their
students. I have also been able to witness other colleagues who appear to be protecting
themselves from vulnerability. Perhaps our need to seem confident, skillful, and in control
prevents us from taking risks. In fact, Dr. Brene Brown, a research professor who has
spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy says, “You can’t
get to courage without walking through vulnerability.”  


The question then becomes, how can we ask our students to be vulnerable if we aren’t
modeling it ourselves? I have always been an honest person (perhaps too honest at
times). I modeled honesty and vulnerability with my students. Without a doubt, there are
limits; as educators, in the classroom we can not overshare, and we need to be sensitive
to the personal experiences of our students and colleagues. But, it is not beyond our
capability to be courageous and take risks.  The same is true in the context of being a
lifelong learner. It takes courage and vulnerability to reach out and say, “I need to learn
more about this and I think I need support in doing so.” In her Ted Talk,
Listening to Shame, Brown shares, “Vulnerability is not weakness.  It is our most accurate
measure of courage.”

Education is a very difficult profession.  The demands to deliver high quality instruction
using research based best practices, understand the continuum of learning, be diagnostic
for our students across all content areas, and so much more are simply daunting.  The
bottom line...we need each other. We need a culture of coaching. We need to know and
understand that we do not have to go it alone. The urgency is too great and the
responsibility is too high.




Twitter Tuesday Questions:
Q1:  How can you embrace vulnerability within yourself?
Q2:  How are you authentic and vulnerable with your students? Colleagues?
Q3:  What are some ways you’ve modeled vulnerability with your students?
Q4:  What are some ways you’ve been vulnerable with your colleagues or instructional
coach?
Q5:  Think about a time when you noticed someone showing vulnerability. How did you
feel during that situation? To what extent do you view them as brave or courageous?