Sunday, March 12, 2017

43 Things We Need To Stop Doing In Schools

This month I turned 43... that's right I have officially moved into my mid-40s and am a prime candidate for a mid-life crisis (does wearing funky socks & drinking Mountain Dew on the regular count?). Although getting older comes with some drawbacks (starting to sound like your parents, lamenting for the days of yore and feeling aches & pains on a daily basis when getting out of bed), the last few years have also been pretty awesome for me on a personal and professional level. Being in my 40s has been quite empowering and has given me the confidence to be true to who I am, be proud of what I believe in and make decisions based on my experiences (not just strong opinions). I have learned a lot about happiness (it comes from within), a lot about priorities (both personal & professional), a lot about balance in life (still not great at it but better than ever before) and a lot about the world of education, especially the current landscape of education, which continues to be an interesting one, especially as it intersects with the political landscape. 

I have been an educator for 20 years and I have learned more in the last few months when I embarked on a new professional journey as an Ass't Sup - the learning literally happens minute by minute - it is pretty awesome! In the past I have written posts to coincide with my birthday milestones (here and here) and I have decided that although I missed last year (not sure why), I felt strongly about sharing 43 things we need to stop doing in schools today. 

Is this list perfect? No. Will everyone agree with it? Probably not. Do I have research to back everything on the list? No. Am I right? I don't know but it is based on my experiences in the classroom, as a building leader, and now as a district leader so here is my list of 43 that we need to stop doing in education right now...


We need to stop... 

1) Making schools more about adults than kids - we can't primarily make decisions about what is easiest or more comfortable for the adults because we need to make decisions that are best for kids;

2) Giving HW (at least in elementary school and possibly in middle school). There is NO research that I have seen that speaks to a positive correlation between HW and academic achievement;

3) Giving grades... what is the point? Grades seem to bring the learning journey to an end, which goes against what most schools communicate when stating in their vision that they want to nurture life long learners! Life long learners need feedback, direction and space to fail as they evolve. My friend Starr has enlightened me on this one!

4) Blaming teachers for all that is wrong in our schools - the issues are much more systemic and pervasive and are rooted in a history that is plagued by racism, inefficiencies and misguided mandates; 

5) Making classroom management about compliance and obedience. Instead we should make it about engagement and choice;

6) Taking away recess as a punishment when kids do something wrong (unless they do something serious at recess) because our kids (like us) need a break to run around, have fun and socialize!

7) Using public behavior charts (red light, yellow light, green light, etc.) because all they do is humiliate kids and they generally don't change the behaviors of the kids who are struggling. My friend Pernille has really pushed my thinking on this point!

8) Confusing innovative or progressive environments with ones that have a lot of technology!

9) Mistaking technology for innovation; my friend George has taught me that innovation is rooted in strong relationships that allow for creative ways (that may fail) to solve our current problems! 

10) Blaming parents/families for our children who might struggle in school; it is partnership - not a blame game!

11) Keeping all the awesome things happening in our schools to ourselves - the four walls should not be barriers; instead, they should be transformed into glass and we should proudly share all the awesome things happening in our schools! My friend Amy (and her awesome teachers) did an amazing job at telling the school story!

12) Giving tests with fill in the blank or multiple choice answers; these might be easier to grade but they don't build our children's ability to think critically!

13) Killing the love of reading by making it about reading logs, assignments or jotting every 2 seconds;

14) Keeping technology out of the classroom because we, as the adults, are uncomfortable with it... that ship has sailed!

15) Confusing technology with engagement; yes, screens do engage our children immediately but that is "level 1 engagement" - we want to push them to be engaged at a higher level where they are collaborating, communicating, creating and thinking critically. I think engagement is about thinking not just sitting quietly and working!

16) Using mindless worksheets - you know the ones with word banks at the top or dozens of multiple choice questions. We don't want our kids to be masters of worksheets because that is not how they are going to change the world!

17) Confusing PROJECTS with Project Based Learning! Projects are about a product (that often looks the same for every learner) while PBL is about inquiry and process... often driven by the student after being framed by the teacher. My friends Ross and Erin have taught me a lot about this!

18) While we are on the topic of PROJECTS, we must stop sending projects home for families to complete. Our parents don't need to be doing book reports or tri-fold boards that look professionally done! If the project is that important, do it in school to level the playing field and make the learning collaborative.

19) Demanding that our kids work quietly throughout the school day; messy, noisy and collaborative classrooms are often more successful than the quiet ones. 

20) Just involving our families in school during special events (like the bake sale) and instead we should engage them in the learning. 

21) Making professional development for teachers an afterthought - our teachers need to have the opportunity to learn throughout the school year! And the PD does not have to be a workshop or conference; the PD can be led by the principal, by teachers and even by kids! And, our teachers should have the choice to log PD hours by doing things like reading (or writing) blog posts, participating in Twitter chats and watching webinars. 

22) Making professional development for building leaders (this one goes to you superintendents) almost nonexistent because we don't want them leaving the building - that is not ok! We need to support our leaders in their learning - they should be encouraged to go to conferences, EdCamps, take courses, watch webinars, etc. because if they stay current, the chances increase that our schools will continue to iterate and get better!

23) Ignoring the fact that school leaders have the greatest singular influence on the culture of a school. Todd Whitaker taught me that if the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold and after 10 years as a principal, I can wholeheartedly say that is TRUE!

24) Removing "soft data" from our data walls, data meetings or whatever you call them in your school! We cannot just look at test scores as THE data point; instead we should consider observations, conference notes and relationships because they all influence how our kids perform!

25) Hiding our smile from kids till December - that is just silly! We need to smile for kids from DAY ONE! Smiling teachers and kids lead to happy teachers and kids and that leads to positive relationships and those are the key to active learning!

26) Ignoring the fact that relationships influence everything that happens in a school. Our schools need to be built on positive and healthy relationships rooted in trust and respect!

27) Ignoring the reality that culture is about a lot more than spirit days and parties; culture is about trust, respect and a common vision!

28) Forgetting how important our school secretaries are in the sustainability of culture; these people are the faces of our schools so they need to be AWESOME and they should be recognized for their awesomeness!

29) Forgetting how important our school custodians are in the daily running of our buildings; these hard workers make sure our schools are healthy and safe for our kids and teachers!

30) Ignoring the reality that, in general, our schools haven't evolved much since the one room schoolhouse yet we, as humans and thinkers, have evolved tremendously. It is time for our schools to start moving forward!

31) Focusing, solely, on "forward thinking" or "progressive methods" because then we are working towards something that doesn't exist - something abstract. Instead, let's focus on building the capacity of our educators so that the current instructional methods being used are sound, robust and best for kids!

32) Putting pressure on kids to perform on high stakes testing (or any testing for that matter). If we support our kids and differentiate instruction (and assessment) to meet their needs, they will perform and show us what they know!

33) Focusing on the "cool" or "trendy" stuff (iPads, Chromebooks, etc.) in isolation; instead we must focus on the people... the stuff is only as good as the people using it!

34) Going towards a total self-directed PD model for teachers. While I do believe choice for teachers in what they learn about and how (passion projects, PLCs, etc.) is incredibly important, there also need to be some district-wide goals and focal points that we are all working on. That is how we move an entire community forward as opposed to just perpetuating pockets of awesome within our schools. 

35) Trying to force educators to get on Twitter (or some other SM platform) because the truth is, it does not work for everyone. That being said, we do need to expose people to the power of collaboration (possibly through communities of practice or PLCs) so educators can break out of their silos! 

36) Making school more about teaching - school should be about learning first! Learning for kids, families and educators should always be at the core of our work!

37) Punishing educators through ridiculous federal or state mandates that have nothing to do with kids; instead, these mandates reduce educators to a number and that is not what will improve education in this country!

38) While I love trends like Genius Hour, Makerspaces and PBL (we did a lot of this awesome learning at Cantiague) those go much deeper than just blocking out time in a schedule to make them happen. If we want things like Genius Hour or PBL to be sustainable, we must change the way we teach - these can't just be special events that happen once a week (that is a fine starting point though); instead, they should help us change our daily approaches so learning is filled with more student centered and student driven inquiry opportunities!

39) Using sarcasm in the classroom - especially with our elementary and middle school kids; even if it is funny most of the times, the one time it is embarrassing to a child is enough of a reason to stop!

40) Making all teachers write in plan books (you know, the ones with all those little boxes). We need to let our teachers plan however it makes sense for them and their kids!

41) Ignoring the reality that common planning time is critical to the success and sustainability of a school community - our teachers and leaders need time together to share ideas, resources and materials!

42) Having meetings just for the sake of having meetings! Come on people... if it can be put in an email or newsletter, then put it there and use the meeting for some professional or personal development! My friends Jennifer, Peter and Mark taught about re-imagining meetings. 

43) Finally, we need to stop making decisions that feel good or are easier for the adults within the learning community and instead make all decisions in the best interest of children. While this approach may not always be easy, it will always be right.

Clearly the list could go on and on but in the end, I think these 43 points are critical to the success of any learning organization and are in the best interest of children. Do you agree? Which one stands out most? Why? What do you think should be the next thing on this list? 

Please leave a comment below!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Turn Key Thursday: A HW Alternative

While recently visiting a #WeArePlainedge Grade 4 classroom, the teacher, Cara Newman, and her students excitedly started telling me about all the exciting things happening in their classroom. They told me about the book talks they were having, the literary essays they were about to begin writing, the independent reading books they were immersed in, the Genius Hour projects they were just starting and how excited they were to share their HW. 

Excited about HW? Excited to show off HW? Hmmmm.... Needless to say, I didn't want to squash their enthusiasm with my own personal feelings about HW so I just smiled. If anyone has read my blog posts (here and here), seen my social media posts or just spoken to me in person, you know my position on HW... I'm not necessarily the biggest fan. That being said, I wanted to hear more from these kids - I needed to know why they were so excited about doing their HW. That is when they told me all about Turnkey Thursday!

What is Turnkey Thursday you ask? Well, I could never do it justice so I asked the kids to write a guest post for me where they explained it and here is what they generated... their first ever blog post...

What is TurnKey Thursday? How does it work? Why do you do it? Can students really teach others? Have you ever wanted homework that was fun? Or to be able to create a keynote, song, scratch game, or maybe even a dance about the material you learned in class? All of this is possible with TurnKey Thursday. All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because kids can teach their family members, it is fun, and most of all it helps students to become better learners.

All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday. All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because kids can teach their parents so they stop saying, “I don’t know what that is!” Mrs. Stella is a parent who said, “As a parent it is very hard for us to help our children because they are learning so differently than we did. We stayed in box, kids today learn outside the box.” This shows it is very hard for parents to help their children with homework. Instead kids can help their parents! Alec says, “You could teach your parents the way your teachers teach you. Also, you could make a test or quiz for them at the beginning or end of every new chapter.” If you teach your parents, they will understand the concept that you are learning so in the future your parents will be able to help you. It would be great to teach your parents so they don’t say, “I didn’t learn this way when I was younger.” As kids it is hard to learn differently that our parents did. When we ask for help they can’t help us and get frustrated. Having Turn Key Thursday takes this frustration away!

All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because it is fun! TurnKey Thursday is fun because you can use your imagination and creativity. For example, when learning about Prime and Composite numbers students made a song about it. The two students changed the “Cup” song into a prime and composite song. They used their imagination and even gave the lyrics to the class! Now the class is having fun as well. This shows that Turn Key Thursday is fun!

Ryan said, “It is fun because you get to be a teacher just like Mrs. Newman and Dr. Sinanis. You also have to remember what you learned that week. It is pretty much fun homework even though you have to remember the work learned. You don’t realize it but you are really learning.”

All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because it helps students to become better learners. It helps students to become better learners because they have to know the material, to teach the material. It helps students to become better learners because they want to pay attention so they can be a good teacher themselves. It helps students to become better learners because they need to practice what they are going to teach. While they are practicing, they are learning. Gino feels its makes him a better student because it makes him study harder, so he can teach someone else.

In conclusion, children should have Turn Key Thursday because family members can learn from them, it is fun, and most of all children become better learners. We hope you try Turn Key Thursday and explore all its possibilities!

So, what do you think about Turnkey Thursday? Are you convinced that it is worth a try? Leave a comment below and let us know! 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Yes, I Love To Read

The last blog post I published, Let's Not Kill The Love Of Reading, seemed to really resonate with other parents and educators based on the responses and comments that were shared. While the post was inspired by my son Paul, he didn't actually read the post until the other day. After reading it, he thanked me writing it and then asked if he could write a guest post for me so he could share things from his perspective. Needless to say, I loved the idea and am honored to feature my awesome son as a guest writer on my blog. After much discussion, a drafting of some notes and a shared Google Doc to review ideas, here is Paul's take on reading and his plea to allow him to keep his love of reading... 

My Reading Journey
As a seventh grader in middle school, I spend a lot of time reading. I read in all my classes - from math class to newspaper club, I am always reading something. Fortunately for me, I am a good reader and have always loved to read. From what my parents tell me, I was reading before I was even 2 years old and although I may not remember those first reading experiences, I do know that I have always loved to read. Whether it was the hysterical My Weird School books by Dan Gutman that spoke to my sense of humor or the powerful All American Boys, which helped me develop a better understanding of race and social justice in our country, I have always loved sitting on the couch and getting lost in a great book. Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was going to our local Barnes & Noble because I knew I'd get to go home with a few new books and experiences. I could literally spend hours in the store checking out books, reading some books and making piles of the books I wanted to take home. Yes, I also loved going to places like Toys R Us but Barnes & Noble was my go-to because no matter what I was into (Star Wars, superheroes, video games, etc.) there was always a book I could find that I could learn more about the topic. 

Of course, as my dad mentioned in his post, when I started school and had to read for my teachers, my love of reading started to change. I felt like every single time we read something in school, there had to be some sort of writing assignment or activity connected to the reading so we could prove to our teachers that we actually read. Now don't get me wrong, I have had some amazing teachers over the years but as I got older, reading in school became more about the teachers and less about the students. Yes, there are many things I like about reading but there are some things I wish could change about reading in school. 

Things I Like About Reading

Reading has been one of my favorite things to do for many years. There are many positive attributes to reading that I really appreciate, especially as I get older. For example... 

1) As a reader, I can get so captured inside of a book, that I would literally end up finishing it in one sitting. That is the sign of a great book - I literally could not put it down!

2) I love reading because I can choose any book that fits my style of reading and my interests. Whether it is nonfiction interests or realistic fiction that connects to my life, I can always find a great book.

3) I have learned lots of great life lessons from books. One of my favorite books of all time is Wonder and there are so many life lessons in that book but the one that still sticks with me is the importance of being kinder than necessary. 

Things My Teachers Do/Did That I Like

Even though sometimes it feels like a specific class (or maybe just school in general) has been slowly destroying my love of reading, there are some great things my teachers still do, or used to do, that I really enjoy as a reader and learner. For example...

1) Some of our teachers let us choose our own book to read on the side in addition the book we are reading in class. I like this because I get to choose what I want to read and what fits my interests at the time!

2) I used to love when my teachers would confer with individual children and talk to us about what we were reading. I loved this because I got to share with my teacher what I had been reading at the time and why I was enjoying my book. Truth is, one of my favorite things about reading conferences is that I had I a chance to talk with my teacher - 1:1 time with my teachers was always a good thing. 

3) I like the opportunity to showcase the books that I have read with my classmates. Sometimes I have read a really awesome book and I want to share that book love with someone else. I like to do this because it lets me feature what I read or am currently reading with my friends and classmates and book talks are a great way to do this in school!

Things My Teachers Do/Did That I Don't Really Like

The truth is that even though I love to read in my free time, and always have, there are also many so called “activities” that I do in school (or have done in the past) that have been crushing my love of reading since elementary school. I don't blame my teachers because I have had many amazing teachers - I think they either doing what the principal is telling them to do or what they think is best (that's what my dad says). Unfortunately, some of the reading activities we do in school are not awesome. Now, you might notice that there are many things I have written about that my dad also wrote about in his blog post but I am writing about them from my perspective as a student. For example... 

1) Summaries/Written Responses. I don’t feel the need to write down what I have read throughout the book, I'd rather just explain it verbally to someone in class the next day. Sometimes, I know I have to write a summary because my teacher needs to understand what I am thinking but the truth is, I just want to share with my classmates to make the experience more interactive.

2) Book Reports/Five Paragraph Essays. I really don’t enjoy writing these because they are a long and exhausting process and there are usually so many boundaries that I can’t write what I want to write. If I have to write about a book, at least let me share the things that I think are most important without so many boundaries.

3) Gist Taking. For those of you who don’t know, gist taking is when you constantly have to stop in the middle of reading and jot down the main idea of the last couple of pages. I feel that this is unnecessary and excessive because it disrupts my reading and thinking. I just want to read my book without disruptions from other people. 

4) Extended Readings. I really do not like these because it takes a book that can be done in a few days or a week, and stretches it out over 3 to 4 months of reading and all we seem to do is answer text based questions. What reader does that? Readers want to read and think and maybe talk about a book and then move on - not read the same book for months and write about it a thousand times. 

5) Reading Logs. Yes, I know how my dad feels about reading logs but the truth is, I don't love them either. The thing I don't like about these charts is that I feel like my teachers do not trust me enough to read without logging it. I do also recognize that reading logs do need to be used with some kids, but other kids (including me, an avid reader) do not need to use them because I generally read on a daily basis because I love to read!

Yes, I Love To Read

Reading has been one of my favorite things to do for my entire life. I am sure I am not the only kid who loves to read - I am guessing there are a lot of us out there. So, to all the educators out there who are reading this, please try one of my recommendations because I think your students will enjoy the reading experience more. Remember, readers should want to read for themselves, not for someone else!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Let's Not Kill The Love Of Reading

Kelly Gallagher via Pinterest

To all my fellow educators, especially those who are in leadership positions and/or the teachers of reading, literacy, ELA (or whatever it's called today), please take note that some of the practices we are employing in our schools, specifically as they relate to student reading, are actually killing the love of reading in our kids. It's true - in our effort to "educate" kids and to make sure they are "college and career ready," we may be indirectly killing the love of reading that many of our children come to school having nurtured (with the help of family members, other readers, etc.) through their own book readings and explorations. 

This post is not directed at any specific teacher, school or leader because I know everyone is working hard and that most are doing what they think is best for kids. This post is not an attack on ELA or reading teachers because I know they are trying to help kids grow as readers. Instead, this post is a plea from me, Tony the dad, who has watched his son's love of reading be pushed to the brink of extinction. I am not blaming any specific teacher or practice I am just pleading my son's case. You see, Paul has always loved reading - from the time he was 18 months old - and he could literally get lost in a book for hours at a time. He would sit, curled up on the couch, and get so immersed in book that all we would hear is laughter, oooohhhs or aaaaahhhs based on what he was reading. He would zip through entire series in a matter of days and would beg for trips to Barnes and Noble or the library. He would tell us all about the characters and their adventures. But as he progressed in school, that love for reading started to change. Yes, at some point he did receive his first iPad and iPhone and those screens pulled him away from his books but the battle to read started when reading was associated with an activity/assignment/expectation that was being done to meet someone else's reading expectations - not his own. Some of those activities included...

1. Reading logs... ugh... the dreadful reading logs that we would eventually just signed off on even if Paul hadn't read because they become more of a chore than anything else;

2. Written responses... that were never checked or responded to. Yes, I do recognize that children should write about their reading but that writing should be used to give us insight into their thinking as readers so we can help them grow.

3. Summaries... ugh... 5-8 sentences where Paul summarized a book he had read just so a teacher could hold him accountable. It became such a chore that Paul always wrote the minimum and sometimes found a summary using Google that he could paraphrase because it didn't matter to him. 

4. Book reports... the dreaded book reports that really became more about drawing some amazing picture to go on the cover of the report than anything else. They were also so formulaic that little thought went into completing them - it was like mindlessly following a recipe.

5. Reading passages just to answer multiple choice questions... why are we doing this to our kids? Paul got to the point where he would just read the questions and the multiple choice answers and then scan the passage for the correct answer - no reading really involved there.

6. Close readings have turned into reading the same book for months and doing endless assignments around that one book... that doesn't work for every kid.

The list could go on and on but the point is that somewhere along the line the reading Paul was doing became more about meeting someone else's expectations than they were about nurturing and growing his love for reading. I saw it last night when doing a homework assignment related to reading became a challenge that he just wanted to finish and move on. Yet, when the time came for him to read before bed (we agreed to 15 minutes) he literally begged me to stay up to read because he wanted to see what happened at the end of the book. 15 minutes quickly turned into 45 minutes and in the end I had to wrestle the book out of his hands because he needed to sleep.

Why do I share this? Not to shame any educators or schools (Paul has had some of the most amazing and talented teachers I have ever seen) but to just point out that we must rethink our practices as they relate to reading because they might be having the opposite impact - not creating better readers but instead creating resentful readers.

Yes, I recognize that some of our students don't love to read like Paul loves to read; and yes, a handful of those children may have not loved reading before they even walked into a school building, but I do believe that some of our instructional practices (many of which I was guilty of using as a teacher myself) are actually killing the love of reading instead of nurturing it. When did we stop reading for the joy of reading? Although I am not a literacy expert or reading specialist myself I do think there are some things we could do to help grow a love of reading...

1) Let kids just read what they want to read; choice is a powerful incentive.

2) Let kids talk about what they are reading... book talks are awesome ways to hook other readers and spread book love.

3) Don't attach an assignment to every reading activity.

4) Books don't have to be the only thing kids read.

5) If an assignment has to be attached to a reading activity (for accountability purposes), give the kids choices about what they might do.

6) Confer with kids - talk to them about what they are reading and use that data to help our kids set their own reading goals so they get better.

7) Don't make kids read one novel for months at a time and if you must do this, make it engaging!

Again, the list can go on and on and there are educators who are much more skilled than I am who could offer much better insight but this is just a plea from a dad who wants his son to continue to love to read. No, this is not a new plea as it has been written about here in the Washington Post, and here by Pernille Ripp, and here by Mark Barnes, and even here (there are dozens of pieces actually - just visit the Google). Educators have been talking about killing the love of reading for years yet we are still employing many of the questionable practices and I think we are doing it all in the name of accountability, test preparation and standards. While I recognize that those are our realities, and we must work within them, I hope we (all educators) can pause and reflect on the practices we are employing to ensure we are not indirectly killing the love of reading in our kids and instead we are helping grow that love of books and reading!