Monday, August 31, 2015

Establishing Patterns - Week Three

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle


Teaching is a grind. Every day has a cadence to it that includes an eclectic mix of action: greet students, take attendance, go over drill, begin the lesson, close the lesson, dismiss students. Then, lather, rinse and repeat either two times or six for the remainder of the day. After students leave, the second shift begins. After grading more papers and running off more copies, we prepare for Tuesday through Friday. Only those who love the process and children will ever commit to teaching and leading teachers for a lifetime. Teaching is what love looks like in practice.

One of the hallmarks of anything that we love, is that we evaluate what we do. A colleague of mine once said that she asks herself "did I do anything to benefit children today?" That's a good starting question. A good place to start with that question may be the daily lesson plan.

Each and every instructional period, we ask students to go through a battery of skills and practices. What may be instructive is to look at what students are physically doing on a daily basis and asking whether, if those tasks were practiced for the next 180 days, it would result in mastery for each student. If my lesson consists of students listening (mostly to the teacher), copying (mostly what the teacher models) and watching (the teacher or the 'called upon' extroverted students), then at the end of a typical school year, I can expect them to ace a test on listening, copying and watching. Just not an SAT, PSAT, PARCC exam or anything else that requires real skill application.

Therefore, it seems most beneficial for us to ask students to engage in critical thinking exercises that promote the acquisition of skills that will be needed to pass tests, as well as enhance their quality of life. As an English teacher, my focus should certainly be on standards-based instruction that assesses skills. I also should include, however, opportunities for students to continue to become skilled and strategic readers. There should be moments in each class where there is sustained composition. Whatever the content area, students seem to benefit most when teachers ask them to establish patterns of excellence that are embedded in each lesson and practiced every day.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Of Dreams - Week Two

"Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life." 
Proverbs 13:12 (NLT)

Most people who work in schools are a bundle nerves the night before students return. 

"Do I have my room together?"
"Is my computer hooked up properly?"
"Will the buses arrive on time?"

These are just a few of the questions bouncing around the heads of eager principals, faculty and staff. All of these frantic thoughts point to logistical concerns, but there are deeper questions that can steal sleep.

In the classic play 'Les Miserables,' one of the most piercing songs is 'I Dreamed a Dream.' The character Fantine, is reflecting on a situation that finds her in deep despair. She remembers better days and almost cries when she sings the concluding lyric - "life has killed the dream I dreamed." 

I believe dreams are the most potent attack against urban violence, societal mayhem and generational poverty. Langston Hughes based much of his poetry on dreams. Dr. King used the theme of dreams to usher in the zenith of the greatest social movement of the 20th century. One of the greatest hip-hop songs begins - "It was all a dream." Dreams are life.

They are especially important to the children who will line our halls and fill our seats this school year. Students grow up dreamers. Then, schooling happens. High-stakes tests, benchmarks, report-cards and the pressure of being the right kind of data coalesce to sometimes choke hope out of the voices of our most school dependent children. Too many students aren't dreaming any more. 


Teachers are not immune to this phenomena. Years of stagnant scores, emotional teacher-student exchanges and public teacher shaming can really turn the heart of a teacher. Then come questions of a different kind.

"Will it work this time?"

"Am I able to turn these scores around?"

"What if I commit myself to the work and the scores don't move?"

Although these questions can weigh heavily on the collective consciousness of teachers and administrators, I believe this year can be different. Teachers and administrators have the unique opportunity to model the words and work that will make a difference in teaching and learning so that students can dream again. It all starts with the belief in work. Great results are wrapped in hard work. The work matures when we collaborate. All of us is better than one of us. Finally, dreams happen when there is a shared vision between teachers, administrators, students and families. When we know where we are going and what it's going to look like, we can hope again. 

So, what is your work strategy for this year? How are you going to collaborate within your own educational community? What is the shared vision for which you and your students are aiming?

What dreams do you have for your students?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Moving Forward - Week One

"The righteous keep moving forward, and those with clean hands become stronger and stronger." 
Job 17:9 (NLT)

Happy new (school) year! 

You are going to do amazing work in your classroom, school and community for the next 180+ days. Get excited. In fact, a year from today, you will marvel at the all of the success you accomplished with your school community. This success will grow from the learning and planning done over this all-to-quick summer, but also because of what is in your heart and in your history. 

You will deeply believe in the potential of every student and staff member you encounter. You will take the time to hear every story and have the courage to empathize with each child and teacher. Your heart will fuel  the diligence, consistency and attention to detail it takes to make incredible growth happen.

As you start your new steps, you will remember the path you have already started. Whether it is a new position, placement or environment, what you have learned in the past has set the foundation for what you will now build. You are going to make a difference because of your experience. Your school-house life and career up to this point - the pitfalls, promotions and everything in between - has prepared you for this moment. 

Every new face will remind you of a past one. Every new aha! moment will feel familiar. Most importantly, every child and adult you interact with will be yet another life you have made matter by the value you communicated to them about their culture, contribution and creativity. Even the problems you see in this new space will be solved by virtue of the knowledge gained from similar past tests you may have failed. You will pass every test this time. 

You are ready for this year.

Success in any endeavor is as much about progression as anything else. In that sense, winning is walking. Warring. Working. You will win this year. And everyone you come in contact with will have no other choice but to walk with you. Forward.