Four questions to consider when communicating with parents
Schools and school systems have to work hard to balance the needs of creating student-centered learning environments, leading efforts to shift teacher mindsets and skills, and understanding and implementing efforts to prepare students to be productive contributors to society.
New initiatives come from multiple sources: the federal government, district offices, and building leaders. While all stakeholders have the best intentions, these efforts can compound work and frustrate teachers who have to implement them on a daily basis.
We devote significant energy to helping teachers and students know and understand these new initiatives. We educate staff members about these requirements during professional development experiences, revised faculty meetings, and informal conversations.
While we have the benefit of hands-on time with staff, with parents, our opportunities for communication are limited to the resources of outreach we use and the number of opportunities we create for parents to visit our building.
Digital tools make outreach messaging convenient and potentially powerful. Tools like Remind, blogging, and social media help make connections meaningful, reach groups through creative means, and provide real-world examples of our accomplishments.
Though digital tools can be a consistent and frequent means of communicating, face-to-face communication is even more critical. We have to do our best to ensure that our face-to-face time is impactful. These four guiding questions can help you introducing new educational initiatives to parents:
How can a new initiative be presented in a way a parent (or guardian) will understand? We should communicate with parents in plain language. Parents are often intimidated by educational lexicon, similar to when you visit the doctor and she explains what afflicts you using medical vocabulary. Try to eliminate the education jargon or be clear in your explanation of the educational jargon
Why is the initiative important? Parents are more likely to buy into a new initiative if they have a concrete understanding of the initiative. Help parents understand the benefits or rationale for the new initiative. The most practical means of accomplishing this is to provide real-world examples of the relevance of the initiative. For example, if there is a new 1:1 rollout in your school, be sure to show pictures of students appropriately using the devices and tie in why this is important for their future in the workforce.
What does class look like today? Being able to see a new initiative in action can be a powerful strategy when teaching parents about the initiative. Provide examples of what the initiative looks like in a classroom. For example, upload a model lesson to YouTube and annotate the important things about the lesson that stand out. Create ways in which parents can experience the new initiative during activity nights for specific content areas (e.g., Algebra Night, STEM Night, Technology Night). Schools can readily create simulations for parents to experience a day in a middle school English/Language Arts class
How can social media/digital tools be used to illustrate a new initiative? This is your opportunity to be more transparent in your efforts to connect with parents. Parents are using social media more to connect and stay informed. Showcase evidence of the success your school is having with digital tools. As you visit classrooms capture images and video to communicate the needs and rationale for the program or change—choose your language carefully—and how it is changing learning and teaching in the school. Messages to your community should be purposefully succinct, but offer a picture and a descriptive caption to help them know that your efforts are deliberate and making progress.
Derek McCoy is the principal of West Rowan Middle School in Salisbury, North Carolina and a 2014 Digital Principal of the Year.
Norman Edwards is assistant principal of Blake High School, Silver Spring, Maryland.
The following is an excerpt from the newly released book titled Is It Working in Your Middle School? I highly encourage any middle level educator to access the book and use it as tool for ensuring the success of any program, strategy, or initiative that your middle school is implementing. Continuous improvement in our middle schools is essential.
I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
—Leonardo Da Vinci
Middle level education is critical to the success of a child's development and progress. Some call it the "critical middle" due to the importance of this time in a child's development. With increased accountability and expectations, most middle schools have implemented programs and initiatives to support achievement and overall development of the middle level child. If 100 middle school educators were asked to make a list of the programs and initiatives that they have implemented at their schools, they could probably easily create that list. Although some of the lists would be long and others short, every educator would likely be able to develop a list. However, if we asked the same 100 middle school educators what the effectiveness was of those programs and initiatives after implementation, the percentage of those able to answer likely would drop significantly.
Planning for and deciding on improvement programs and initiatives is fairly easy if a school strives to understand the root cause of failure to meet targeted standards. Deployment of those plans is more difficult, and measuring the effectiveness of the deployment is usually overlooked. In many middle schools, the district, state, or federal government mandates the initiative or program. The program title or implementation area alone is not necessarily as important as the process to review improvements with fidelity and determine the program's effectiveness. Middle school educators know how to monitor the progress of students when they implement a particular individualized instructional strategy—they use a variety of tracking tools, professional learning community meetings, and various tiers of support to specifically monitor the students' progress. Educators should follow the same improvement process to monitor system progress of programs implemented in schools. Think of the difference between a football coach watching the scoreboard during a game hoping that the score will change and coaches who constantly monitor the blocking, tackling, and other efforts during a game. Rather than implanting a new program and hoping it will improve achievement, educators must continually and effectively monitor the progress of the programs they implement.
The purpose of this personalized system is to provide school administrators and teachers the process and tools needed to ensure continuous improvement of student learning. This system will not give specific instructional strategies or programs for schools to implement. Each school must determine the instructional practices that will have the greatest impact on teaching and learning based on research and experience. The focus of this workbook is on continuous improvement and accountability. The objective is to provide schools with a system to identify improvements and support areas of growth that can be applied to any initiative, strategy, or program that has been implemented.
This book will guide you through a system of planning, implementation, and evaluation of programs step-by-step. Although designed to be used by middle level educators, the same system or framework works for any grade level or school. Each chapter has the same format. First, an idea or background information is shared so it can be discussed for educator learning and professional growth. This is followed by a Case Study example from a middle school. Finally, and most important, the Personalized Reflection section is your opportunity to personalize the learning and conduct your own program evaluation as you progress through the book.
Teachers, departments, school improvement committees, administrators, and central office administrators can benefit from suggestions in this book. Certainly there is power in teamwork as group thinking yields deeper reflections, but individual teachers can use the framework described in this book to determine the effectiveness of programs or strategies they have implemented in their classrooms, too.
This book is unique because it offers perspectives from both educational and business project management experts, yielding a value-added process of evaluating school programs. Dr. Woodson's educational expertise and Mr. Frakes' quality assurance expertise have combined to develop a framework that educators in any school setting can use to raise student achievement levels. They have shown that the very actions non-educational organizations have used to ensure quality and become successful, when applied with fidelity, can work in schools, too.
The book is not laden with technical language or hard-to-grasp concepts. In reality, you will notice processes and actions that are familiar to you; there is data gathering, problem solving, and formative and summative assessment to name a few. Achieving success using quality assurance principles is about discipline—putting in time and effort to
Determine root causes of problems rather than treating symptoms
Set clear and measurable goals
Interpret data/draw conclusions
Create plans with specific, measurable actions
Monitor progress and provide support where needed
- Hold individuals accountable for implementation
As you can see, these reflect actions you routinely perform as educators accountable for student achievement. The aim of this book is to provide you with tools for each step of the process to make your goal setting, strategizing, data collecting, and ultimately communicating to staff about how to focus on what will make a difference in their students' performance—to help them narrow in on what matters.
I hope you embark on this important journey of continuous improvement through the tools available in this book. Please visit the AMLE website for more details: www.amle.org/books/woodson.
Nikki Woodson, Ph.D., is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan school district of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.
A day in the life of an interim assistant principal.
Eleven years. That is the number of years I taught seventh grade before even thinking about delving into administration. The thought of moving my home base out of the classroom and into the office had always given me a similar reaction to that of eating one of my least favorite foods. However, a myriad of events occurred that created an assistant principal opening in my building.
Teaching is difficult, and I know there are many areas of my practice in which I need to improve. For me, this is what makes teaching so exciting—it is an art that is never perfected. This assistant principal opening sparked an interest in me because it was a way to "test the waters" of administration without making a permanent commitment that took me away from teaching.
From day one, what struck me the most was how people reacted to me. Simply having a different title made everyone (students, teachers, parents, secretaries, etc.) react to me differently than they had more than over a decade. I was deemed an expert without being tested; the real test would come in the months to follow.
As a teacher, each day was filled with new experiences yet my class schedule remained the same. I knew how the day would progress (basically) before I even went to work. As an administrator, this is not always the case.
While I had a set schedule (passing time between classes, cafeteria duty, etc.) the activities of the day would determine how my time was spent. Some days I spent hours as Nancy Drew investigating who flushed the teddy bear in the toilet or as Dr. Phil counseling a group of "Mean Girls" on the error of their ways. Other days, however, how I spent my time was completely in my control- this is what I believe separates excellent administrators from average or ineffective ones. Do they choose to make their office "home base" and wait for issues to come to them? Or do they roam the school to interact with students and staff in an effort to form relationships? A teacher does not have the luxury of simply closing her office door and hiding if she doesn't feel well or is tired, and an effective administrator shouldn't either.
One unforeseen benefit of my different role as an administrator took place during my interactions with fellow teachers, many of whom I had worked with for a decade. Acting as an administrator allowed me to view another side of them that had not previously been visible. Many times I was able to hear the good things going on in our middle school and the kindness teachers had shown directly from students. The young adolescents who came in my office were more than willing to have a frank conversation about how their school year and classes were going at any given moment. It became apparent to me which teachers were the most passionate about their jobs and their students. On the flip side, it also became glaringly obvious which teachers were frustrated, tired, and showing up each day simply to collect a paycheck. This forced me to reflect upon my practice and my interactions with students. This also helped me realize that, as teachers, we sometimes do not understand administrators' actions due to a lack of communication, access to information, or limited viewpoints.
As any seasoned middle school teacher knows, taking yourself (or life) too seriously with this age group will not get you very far. This holds true not only for teachers, but administrators as well. Due to the serious nature of what I dealt with at times—from CPS visits and paperwork to bullying and angry parents to name a few—I felt a strong urge to control every aspect of the day. No surprises seemed like the best possible scenario to me. Quiet lunches meant no drama. Two people near the air hockey table meant no flying pucks. One trip to the lunch line. Walking feet … you get the point.
I soon realized that by controlling every aspect of the school I would be taking away the very parts of working with middle schoolers that I loved the most – the unpredictability, humor, and numerous opportunities to help develop young adolescents. While they may look more grown up than they act at times, middle schoolers are continually questioning, observing, and finding their place in the world around them. A dictatorship would not successfully foster learning both in and out of the classroom. At the end of my tenure, as I was getting pies thrown in my face by sixth graders who met their goals, I believe I fully learned this lesson.
When the school year concluded I returned to a position as a teacher, but I know that I am a much better one because of those eight months. At some point I might decide that administration is for me and pursue opportunities as they present themselves or I might stay might stay in the classroom for the rest of my career. Either way, I encourage anyone who is presented with an opportunity to "try out" administration to do so because the value of such an experience cannot be quantified. Whatever position we hold, it is our responsibility to ensure that each student attends a safe, caring, innovative, and challenging middle school where they can make mistakes, learn from others, and continually grow.
Sarah Taylor is a mathematics intervention teacher of grades 6-8 for Comstock Public Schools in Michigan.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Practices to support teachers.
"What's the point, Mrs. Adams?" asked Brian.
I will never forget the confused yet honest look on my 8th grade student's face when he asked me this question after I had concluded my riveting lecture about the causes of the Civil War.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Brian again repeated, "What's the point … of our lesson?"
To be honest, his question both irritated and baffled me, as I wasn't sure how to answer it. I shrugged and told him the point was for him to know the information because it would be on the test.
It was 20 years ago and I was in my second year of teaching 8th grade Core, a three-period Humanities block of reading, English, and U.S. History in California. I began my teaching career for the same reason many other educators do – I wanted to inspire and teach students to reach their fullest potentials. The only problem was that I had shelves of textbooks filled with educational theory but still a nearly empty toolkit with which to accomplish my goal.
"What's the point, Mrs. Adams?"
To this day, Brian's provocative yet earnest question lingers in my mind. However, his question provided the impetus that pushed me to seek wisdom from Instructional Leaders (ILs) and examine and build my instructional philosophy and repertoire.
Teacher leadership comes in many forms and among the most influential in promoting student success and positive school culture are those educators who serve as Instructional Leaders. It has been said that great leaders do not set out to be leaders, they set out to make a difference; and that is particularly true when it comes to ILs.
Studies show that student achievement is directly related to the effectiveness of the classroom teacher but the million-dollar question is, "How does a teacher become effective?"
The golden rule in any leadership position is to develop and nurture positive relationships. Perhaps Ghandi said it best, "I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people." People do not want to collaborate with someone who is negative, confrontational, or critical, and successful ILs quickly learn that principle. First and foremost, they work to establish positive relationships with colleagues so learning and growth are possible.
Instructional Leaders also provide clarity, support, and resources for teachers to identify "the point" in our instruction and in our students' learning, thereby increasing effective teaching.
Since I have had the privilege of working with many skilled ILs, I know there are several habits they have in common that cultivate an environment that is conducive to learning, reflection, and growth for both students and teachers.
Habit #1—Instructional Leaders Understand Neuroscience
The young brain is very different from the mature brain and we see examples of it all the time in the learning environment. When Jeremiah makes a bad choice and we ask him why he made that choice, he almost always responds with a shoulder shrug and an, "I don't know."
The brain develops from the stem forward, with the last area of the brain to activate called the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC, otherwise known as the Executive Functioning Center, is in charge of processing cause and effect, impulse control, attention span, organizational skills, and emotional stability.
Experts believe the PFC fully activates in the female around 20 years old. The male PFC often takes a little longer, fully activating in the mid-twenties. This has serious implications for educators as we sometimes place the same expectations on the young brain that we have for the mature brain, which sets our students up for failure.
The good news is that we can accelerate healthy brain development and help students develop the skills they need for success. When we provide students explicit instruction in literacy, communication and critical thinking strategies, reflection, social-emotional learning, and growth mindset, the neural connections in the PFC increase.
Instructional Leaders are knowledgeable in neuroscience and they provide professional development opportunities and resources to ensure routines, expectations, learning experiences, and assignments are developmentally appropriate, while simultaneously fostering healthy brain development.
Habit #2—Instructional Leaders Are Connected Lead Learners
As society changes, student and teacher needs change. From Standards Based Report Cards to PBL to 1:1 deployment, education is an evolving entity. It is imperative that educators evolve as well. To remain current, effective ILs model and demonstrate the importance of continued learning.
Instructional Leaders are often involved in one or more professional education organizations, such as AMLE, and are also connected to other educators via social media, such as Twitter. They may also facilitate staff book studies, Tech Tuesdays, webinars, and collaborative analysis of student work. These opportunities provide continued growth, collaboration, and networking with others in and outside our districts and maximize our resources and learning capacity.
Habit #3—Instructional Leaders Support Content AND Comprehension Instruction
Instructional Leaders know that effective teaching is not rocket science … it is far more complicated.
Making school relevant to our students requires that we teach students both content AND comprehension. Many educators have heard a teacher lament, "I don't have time to teach comprehension because I'm too busy covering math standards." If a teacher believes his only role is to cover content, the teacher is doing a disservice to his students because authentic learning requires comprehension.
An IL's expertise and instructional resources are invaluable in helping others develop the knowledge and skills needed to increase student achievement and independence.
For example, an IL may provide training and resources in how to teach note-taking, analysis, or supporting a claim with evidence. A few strategies that I am often asked to share are PDP Cornell Notes, Somebody Wanted But So, Close Reading, Episodic Notes and Exit Tickets. All of these strategies work well across the content areas and with all skill levels. More importantly, when students are explicitly taught how to use strategies, they develop competence and confidence and retain the comprehension strategies, resulting in more self-reliance and less teacher dependence.
Effective teaching and learning requires competence, confidence, and comprehension. Instructional leaders provide the support in which to meet those goals.
Habit #4—Instructional Leaders STOP, Collaborate and Listen
Instructional leader develop instructional leadership capacity in others by investing the time and effort to meet with novices and veterans to clarify what is needed for success to occur. They also provide the resources and support in order to encourage continual growth.
Habit #5—Instructional Leaders Promote Peer Coaching & Observation Opportunities
An effective way to evaluate and develop our skill sets is to participate in peer coaching. Unlike evaluative observations performed by administration, peer coaching focuses on colleagues observing each other a few times per year and analyzing data to encourage reflection and growth.
Peer coaches do not act as evaluators; they simply observe a lesson and collect data based on what the observed teacher requests. For example, Mrs. Smith has an instructional goal of incorporating more multi-leveled questions and 50-50 teacher/student talk time in class. She asks her colleague to serve as a peer coach to observe her class and collect data on levels of questioning used and the percentage of time both she and her students spend discussing the content. The peer coach will observe and collect that data and then give it to the observed teacher so she can reflect and make adjustments in order to meet her goals.
This peer coaching structure is not a formal observation that is evaluative or punitive; it is a collegial way to collect classroom data to determine if an instructional goal is being met. Instructional leaders provide the support to facilitate this learning opportunity.
Habit #6—Instructional Leaders Encourage Growth Mindset through Reflection
In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck shares the importance of developing a growth mindset in our students by reflecting on mistakes and persevering to make adjustments to increase success.
Instructional Leaders foster a growth mindset in colleagues by modeling and practicing reflection. Some valuable reflection questions include:
What was the content objective of the lesson?
What was the critical thinking objective for the lesson?
Were the objectives met? If so, what did students do throughout the lesson to meet those objectives?
What changes would you make to the lesson? Why these changes?
What are your teaching strengths and what would you like to improve?
How do you differentiate to meet the needs of both struggling and advanced students?
How do you promote positive relationships with students and colleagues?
- How do you encourage students to learn from mistakes?
Instructional Leaders encourage the development of a growth mindset by helping colleagues to reflect on what works and what does not and then use that data to guide their thinking and instruction.
Habit #7—Instructional Leaders Adjust Support Based on Need
In her book, The Instructional Leader's Guide to Strategic Conversations with Teachers, author Robyn Jackson categorizes the four types of teachers as:
high will/high skill
high will/low skill
low will/high skill
low will/low skill
Just as we wouldn't use the same approach for each student, based on a teacher's will/skill level, an IL coaches a teacher to develop goals and provide the proper support based on the educator's needs.
For example, a high will/low skill teacher is often a new(er) teacher who has the desire to increase student proficiency yet may lack the knowledge or skills to do so at such an early stage in his/her career.
An IL crafts a personalized plan that includes learning experiences, training, and mentoring to help this teacher move into the high will/high skill range. Realizing the need to differentiate, an IL adjusts support based on a teacher's will and skill levels to increase teacher effectiveness.
After working with skilled Instructional Leaders, I better understand what my role is as a teacher. I am not a gatekeeper of information but a conduit who promotes content comprehension through critical thinking, debate, analysis, role-playing, synthesis, and reflection.
Upon reflection, I would teach my Civil War lesson from 20 years ago differently, and I would also answer Brian's question differently. Instead of lecturing about the causes of the war, I would have students read, write, act out, listen, draw, view, and speak about it and then provide them assessment choices to demonstrate their knowledge. I would begin by clarifying both the content and critical thinking objectives so that students understood "the point" of the learning experience. Most important, I would involve them in the experience itself and not relegate them to being passive bystanders to my "sage on the stage" delivery.
Instructional Leaders use many (or all) of these 7 Habits to provide resources, promote collaboration, encourage reflection, and support opportunities that cultivate instructional expertise, which positively influences student and teacher learning and effectiveness.
How many of these habits do you have?
Julie Adams is an NBCT and Educator of the Year who specializes in neuroscience, content area literacy, critical thinking, instructional leadership, and digital literacy trainings. Her most recent book is titled,
Game Changers—7 Instructional Practices that Catapult Student Achievement.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Teacher collaboration and shared decision-making.
In the midst of monumental changes and innovative learning strategies, raising the degree of teacher voice in our schools is needed now more than ever. While many improvement processes and strategies have come on the scene to support schools in leadership growth and student achievement, a vital component is to flatten the leadership hierarchy through collaboration and shared decision-making for sustained change. The implementation of the Teacher-Based Team (TBT) process has allowed the voice of teachers to be a dynamic game changer in school improvement.
Almost a decade ago, I was on the original writing team as a district administrator, along with representatives from various leadership groups across the state of Ohio, developing the Ohio Leadership Advisory Council’s Ohio Improvement Process (OIP). A hallmark in the creation of the process was to develop leadership capacity throughout the schools in a systematic way. The research from educational leaders, including Brian McNulty, Doug Reeves, and Bob Marzano, built on the practice of professional learning communities and data teams. In the same context, TBTs collaborate to: (1) establish common learning targets, (2) create and use common classroom formative assessments aligned to the targets, and (3) analyze the results collaboratively to monitor progress and share promising practices. In order to provide support and monitor implementation, Building Leadership Teams (BLTs), composed of building administrators, teachers, and support staff representatives, are also necessary.
That Was Then
AMLE talks with author Neil Gupta about Teacher-Based Teams
When the OIP framework and TBT process were initially released across the entire state, I participated in team implementation of both initiatives in a rural school district. While we were trailblazers in regard to implementing a framework without much personal guidance or other districts to help us in our journey, our District Leadership Team saw the benefits in building the support system. As with any new process, we used the newly-released documents and resources offered in creating the TBT structure. Looking back, we created structures by copying others rather than seeking to understand the foundational concepts along with our needs in order
to integrate them into our culture.
In addition, we spent too much time creating forms and processes instead of explaining the reason for the process or how to systematically participate in collegial dialogue. While many of the key leaders understood the “why,” we did not invest the proper time to bring everyone together to define the need for this change.
Although we established Building Leadership Teams in our district prior to the implementation of TBTs, we didn’t provide sufficient training on how to support them. The BLTs went through the motions in gathering updates, sharing data, and creating plans, but we rarely provided true support and guidance on how to use the data to identify strategies and create plans for student growth.
This Is Now
More than five years later, I recently completed my first year at Worthington City Schools during which I implemented the TBT. A lot of lessons were learned at the state and district levels since the inception of the OIP.
First, there was a deep level of leadership focus on formative instructional practices in the areas of identifying and communicating clear learning targets and formative feedback prior to the implementation of TBTs. This caused alignment to occur as well as deep understanding of the content standards. It also helped teachers to understand effective forms of feedback predicated on data analysis with specific actions for student growth.
Second, comprehensive school-wide training was conducted providing specific actions and steps in the TBT process. From examples learned in previous districts, a set of non-negotiables were established regarding the TBT process based on the foundational steps in the process. At the same time, the leaders provided options in how often, when, and how the TBTs met and communicated the progress to the BLTs and each other. Providing a set of tight and loose guidelines allowed for ownership, creativity, and clarity in the process.
Third, ongoing support was provided at the district level by coaches, directors, and administrators, to attend BLT meetings to offer coaching feedback. In addition, this also allowed the district level members to come together in a District Leadership Team setting to share BLT updates as well as determine systemic and systematic professional development needs.
Finally, the use of technology has helped to identify, collect, and store information in order to maximize efficiency and impact. Sharing information within each TBT and with the BLT has been essential in maximizing the time TBT members are together to engage in meaningful dialogue and make decisions on student needs instead of filling out forms or being buried in printed handouts and spreadsheets.
Where Do We Go From Here
As we continue our journey in the TBT process, we will continue to provide district-level focus through professional development and monitoring of data for support. In addition, based on feedback gathered from the TBT and BLT level, professional development is being provided in this area to help clarify and bring consistency to the data collection and monitoring processes. Finally, we will also continue to create opportunities for staff to interact with one another across TBTs and BLTs to share effective practices.
The implementation of TBTs has been a vital opportunity to provide a much-needed space for teacher voice at the center of learning. As districts provide the fidelity in implementing the TBT process, it has the potential to raise student achievement while also building a collaborative learning community for all involved.
Neil Gupta is the Director of Secondary Education for Worthington City Schools in Worthington, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Sometimes teaching can cause tunnel vision. Teachers often look inside their school district, building, or classroom for resources to help their students learn, neglecting the partnerships outside the immediate school community that can provide invaluable resources.
One such partnership was forged between a school district, a local park district, and a university.
In the Beginning
The partnership began at the university, where the middle childhood teacher education program applied to the Cleveland Foundation for grant money available to foster relationships between organizations within the community.
The next step was to find a partner in the community. The university teacher education program personnel approached the local park district because it had an Educational Learning Center (ELC) with classrooms and hosted school groups for field trips. The partnership made sense.
The park district had recently unearthed a set of artifacts from an old chair factory located along Jordan Creek and wanted to incorporate it into a learning experience for students visiting the park. Having established this initial partnership, the program and park district asked a local school district to participate in this project as well.
The curriculum director and all of the fourth grade teachers and students in the district agreed to be partners on this project. The park district then invited these teachers and students to a day-long visit to the ELC as part of their curriculum.
Goals and Project Overview
Each organization involved had the same overarching mission: to help students learn. However, each organization also brought its own goals to the table.
The school district is a large, suburban, high-poverty, highly diverse district, and its students don't often have the opportunity to experience other environments. The primary goal of the school district, then, was to provide its students with a learning experience outside the classroom.
The goals of the park district were to expose students to the resources available in the parks and educate them about the history of the community.
The university teaching program's goals were to give its students the opportunity to work with a different student population and learn to incorporate learning experiences outside the classroom into lesson plans.
Once each organization was on board with the project and the goals were established, the multifaceted, year-long project began.
First, the university students who would be planning and teaching the lessons took their science methods courses at the park's ELC, where they could immerse themselves in the park setting and access the resources provided by park staff.
Using these resources, the university students developed an interdisciplinary unit based on the artifacts discovered at the site of the chair factory. The theme of this unit was how "place" shapes society, and it highlighted how the creek and local environment affected settlements, factories, and transportation using artifacts to draw conclusions. The unit included three sets of lessons for the fourth grade students to complete before, during, and after they visited the park.
In the spring, all the fourth grade teachers from the school district received a copy of the lesson plans created by the university students and park staff along with a kit that included all the necessary materials for the unit. Teachers were asked to use the lessons and materials to prepare their students with foundational knowledge before they arrived at the ELC.
After the teachers had adequate time to use the kits, all of the fourth grade students (approximately 300 students) took a field trip to the park where park staff and university students led class for the day. After the visits, the fourth grade teachers completed the post-visit lessons with their students and took a survey about their experience with the project.
Types of Lessons
The unit as a whole covered multiple content areas and topics, but all material related back to the artifacts found at the chair factory. For example, students created their own water wheel models to discover how a water wheel produces energy. The university students and park staff then expanded on this experience to explore the difference between kinetic and potential energy.
Another lesson involved students reading actual letters written by a young girl who lived near the factory when it was in operation. This lesson gave clues to her daily life and social perspective. Students made ink using crushed berries which they loaded into fountain pens to write their own letters.
To explore the evolution of transportation, university students and park staff had the fourth-graders solve "movement scenarios." For example, students had to create solutions to a scenario in which a tall tree falls over railroad tracks and blocks the train. After all the scenarios had solutions, students weighed the pros and cons of different modes of transportation and compared them to each other.
The final lesson involved using a bed sheet to represent an area of land. Students threw pom-poms into the air to simulate rain drops, observed where they landed on the sheet, and discussed where the water would drain and the role watersheds play in the environment.
Benefits of the Project
When the project was complete, university faculty collected the evaluations from the fourth grade teachers and surveyed the university students to evaluate the benefits of the project.
Overall, feedback on the project was positive and all partners reported that their initial goals were met. The fourth grade teachers said that the experience in the park and the accompanying lessons were a great opportunity for their students to make connections between the community and what they were studying in the classroom. They appreciated that the pre- and post-field trip lesson plans were accompanied by all necessary materials.
Feedback from the park district was also positive: the activities that were created based on the artifacts are now part of their permanent catalog of field trip options for other school districts. However, their greatest accomplishment was exposing students to the resources that the park has to offer.
The university students involved in the project also reported benefits, including the opportunity to work alongside park staff in an out-of-class environment while learning how to create opportunities for students to build upon in the traditional classroom. This dispelled their previously held beliefs that subjects such as science and social studies are best taught in a classroom that is teacher-led and based on a textbook.
The university students also reported that working with this diverse student population helped them better understand how students' backgrounds can affect their learning.
Just the Beginning
An overarching result of this project was the relationships formed. Before this project, interactions among the participating groups were either nonexistent or limited in scope. During the experience of working together, each organization learned first hand about the resources the other had to offer and how to use these resources to meet their own individual goals.
A framework has been created to establish future partnerships with other organizations. As this network of community members continues to grow, so will the positive outcomes on student learning!
Robin Dever is assistant professor/program coordinator at Kent State University-Geauga, Burton, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
In the midst of a busy morning arrival time, a few middle school students greeted me as I walked through the crowded hallway toward the room in which my meeting was being held. "Sup Dr. W. Are you coming to our classes today?" one student asked.
I replied that I would try if I had time, but that I was there for a meeting. The student went on to tell me that he didn't understand what we do in meetings all the time. When I explained that we meet so we can try to improve teaching and learning, he responded, "Ah man, Dr. W, you don't need to have a meeting on that. Just ask me!"
Sitting in my meeting I reflected on this brief and casual conversation. I got excited at the thought of asking kids about their school experience, and decided to talk with students during their lunch period—the most informal part of their day.
I visited three different middle school lunchrooms, and although I blocked off a short amount of time for each visit, ended up staying longer than I expected. Not only did they provide me with rich information, they also asked me some very powerful questions about the process of teaching and learning.
My conversations with these amazing students in their own unfiltered middle school voices, shared here, offers much middle school leaders can learn from. However, the most meaningful learning for leaders comes if they replicate this activity in their own schools.
Question: What makes a middle school awesome? Describe the ideal middle school.
- Freedom to be who I want to be.
- Teachers who let us be in charge of our own learning, they aren't too teacher-like.
- Nice teachers who respect that we are going through things, just like they are as adults.
- Fun in the class, but not crazy. Teachers have to be sorta strict when needed.
- Choices at lunch.
- Down time during the day so my brain doesn't overload.
- When we can use our technology as a part of learning, just like a textbook.
- Snacks in class. I can't focus when I'm hungry and I'm a growing adolescent so I'm always hungry.
- No bullies. Everyone just respects each other even if they don't like everyone.
- Modified class times for those of us who learn differently.
- Sports at all grades.
- Staff would understand the power of play.
Question: What is your favorite part of middle school?
- All the activities I can get involved in.
- Meeting new friends.
- Lockers instead of cubbies like in elementary school.
- When it is time to go to my favorite class during the day.
- Down time at lunch.
- Moving classes instead of staying in just one all day like elementary school.
- Times when I can be social with my friends.
- Learning something new.
- Getting my brain ready for high school.
Question: What is one thing you would change about middle school?
- Lunch times. Some start too early and some go too late.
- More time during passing period.
- Ease up on the dress code. We are just expressing ourselves.
- Add in more opportunities for free time.
- Allow us to design the lunch menu sometimes with the cafeteria staff.
- Overall use more technology in classroom.
- It's how we are wired.
Question: What do you wish all middle school teachers knew about how you learn best?
- We don't always say when we don't understand so we don't look dumb in front of our friends. Give us other private ways to say we don't understand.
- Our minds move quick. Keep the activities changing all the time.
- We learn at different paces.
- We feel things and have valid emotions that impact our work.
- We need to talk to learn.
- Fun is required.
- Different kids connect in different ways.
- Group work like the real world.
Question: What advice would you give middle school administrators?
- Give kids a clean slate coming from elementary school.
- Change up the lunch food and make it reflect our cultures.
- More community-building activities between staff and students could make learning better in the classroom.
- Try more peer-led class activities.
- Community service during school as a regular part for everyone, not only during certain parts of the year or as a punishment.
- When you have to deal with a situation, stay on both sides until you hear everyone out.
- Take care of mean kids.
- Find and hire more teachers who look like me (African American).
- Don't give up on us.
- Take it easy on the fifth graders; thelearning curve is high
Question: What advice would you give an incoming six grader?
- Just do the homework.
- Stay out of drama with friends.
- Practice lockers before school starts.
- Come prepared.
- Make good choices. They will find out if you didn't anyway.
- Know your way around the school.
- Get involved right away with some activity that is of interest to you.
- Be aware of bullies, and know that someone hurt them before they hurt others.
- Meet new people.
- Don't get on teachers' bad sides; it never ends well when you do.
- Be ready for the work.
- Help out others around you.
- Make the best of it, you are only a few yearsaway from the big beast, HIGH SCHOOL.
Nikki Woodson is superintendent of schools for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the AMLE Leadership Institute faculty, serves on the board of governors for International Baccalaureate, and is a co-founder of Change Makers International.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
How can you determine if your decisions are colored by emotion?
Have you ever:
Made a decision that backfired?
Thought that hindsight is 20/20?
- Wished you had made a different decision?
As they share in their February 3, 2009, Harvard Business Review article "Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions," Andrew Campbell, Jo Whitehead, and Sydney Finkelstein, researchers in the field of decision neuroscience, contend that the brain uses pattern recognition and "emotional tagging" to make decisions.
Pattern recognition integrates information from many parts of the brain and helps the brain make quick decisions. For example, "grandmaster" chess players can recognize almost 25,000 patterns—almost simultaneously—quickly sort them, then determine the best move.
However, when the pattern recognition is emotionally tagged, decisions can go horribly wrong. According to Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein, "Emotional tagging is the process by which emotional information attaches itself to the thoughts and experiences stored in our memories. This emotional information tells us whether to pay attention to something or not, and it tells us what sort of action we should be contemplating (immediate or postponed, fight or flight)."
Let's take a quick look at examples of the three types of emotional tags (names and situations have been fictionalized):
1. Inappropriate Self-Interest.
John was a new middle school principal, much younger than most of his staff. He realized that he didn't have the expertise that many of his staff members did, yet none of them had expressed interest in the position when it opened.
The school counselor had been there many years and was an expert in setting up the schedule. John knew cognitively that whoever made the master schedule basically controlled the instructional program, but emotionally his first loves were the sports program and student engagement. Because he believed strongly that leaders should focus on their strengths and expertise, and because he knew he didn't have time to do everything, he was delighted that the counselor agreed to create the schedule.
The Math Department had hired a new young teacher to teach Algebra I, and unlike the students in the other Algebra I class, her students excelled. However, the counselor disliked the new Algebra I teacher and scheduled her Algebra I class at the same time as PE and chorus. The other Algebra I class was taught by a very poor teacher. There were multiple complaints from parents about the schedule. At the end of the year, the school's passing rate in Algebra I was 15%.
2. Presence of Distorting Attachments
John was grateful to one of his mentors who was a teacher in the building. Sally was his best friend's mother, and she knew how difficult John's home life had been. It was because of her that he went into teaching. Sally had coached him as a beginning teacher and he relied heavily her advice.
When Sally's husband died unexpectedly about a year after John became the principal, her performance dropped significantly. Her absences increased, her classroom was chaotic, and she did not do formative assessments.
John was at a loss. He felt that he owed Sally so much that he covered for her and made excuses. One day there was a fight in her classroom in which a student was badly hurt. Sally had gone to the lounge for lunch, was late getting back, and had left the classroom unattended.
3. Misleading Memories
TJ had been a "pistol" when he was in middle school. Difficult, cocky, risk-taking, he always "pushed the envelope." He'd had a coach who mentored him, helped him meet the norms and expectations for behavior, and basically challenged him to channel his energy into high academic expectations and sports performance.
Fast-forward several years. TJ is now a winning coach. He has a student, Gary, who reminds him of himself at that age. He is mentoring Gary. One day TJ came into his office and Gary was lying on the floor, seemingly asleep. When TJ tried to wake him, he realized Gary was drunk. TJ closed the door to his office to let Gary sleep it off. TJ did not report it to the principal.
The next day, Gary bragged to some of his friends that he had come to school drunk and that TJ had let him sleep it off in his office. The principal called TJ in for a conversation and explained that TJ could lose his teaching certification.
These are all examples of how emotional tagging can disrupt effective decision making.
Recognizing the Emotional Tags
How can you determine if your decisions are colored by emotional tags? Campbell and colleagues recommend the following:
Inject fresh experience and/or analysis.
Introduce further debate and challenge.
Lay out the range of options.
- Require some decisions to be finalized at a level above the person.
You might also consider whether your decisions are affected by your role in the Karpman Triangle (Figure 1). Your role can change with the situation. In one setting you may be a bully, in another setting a rescuer, and in another setting a victim. Once you are in the triangle in a situation, you will eventually take on all three roles—boundaries will disappear because nobody will take ownership.
To stay out of the triangle, ask probing questions. Here's an example of using questions to avoid the triangle and the emotional tags associated with being in the triangle:
When my son was in second grade, he came home from school and told me he was "bored." I asked him, "Whose problem is that?" He replied, "The teacher's."
He was presenting himself as a victim and asking me to go to school and "rescue" him. So I asked him, "Is the teacher bored?" He said, "No, I am." So I said, "Then it isn't the teacher's problem. It's your problem. Since it's your problem, how can you solve it?"
Had I gone to the school and "bullied" the teacher in order to "rescue" my son who was a "victim," chances would have been very good that the teacher would have felt like a "victim" and gone to the principal to be "rescued." The principal likely would have called me and "bullied" me for being so insensitive to the teacher and blaming the teacher for my son's problems. And then I would have felt like a "victim" and told my husband so that he would "rescue" me and go to school and "bully" the principal. The cycle would continue.
My recommendation is to ask yourself these four questions as you make a decision:
Regarding the individuals involved, am I in a triangle with any of them?
Do I have an attachment to any of the individuals involved? If so, is the attachment distorted in any way (I feel sorry for him, I owe her, she is my friend, I know he has a rough situation, etc.)?
Does this situation remind me of something that happened before? Am I seeing this as a pattern rather than as a unique situation?
- Is there some sort of personal gain for me in this situation (someone else will do something I hate to do, I will get promoted, I will not have to deal with this person, I have something else I would rather spend my time doing, etc.)?
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," find someone who is not involved at all, whose advice you value, and lay out the situation for him or her. Listen to the advice. Also consider the four actions that Campbell and colleagues recommend.
Fewer Flawed Decisions
John Maxwell said, "Each success gives you an admission ticket to a bigger problem." If I had a dollar for every decision I've made that had an emotional tag on it that I (at least initially) wasn't aware of, I'd be a millionaire!
The big problem with flawed decisions is that they take so much time to "clean up." Time is a precious commodity. Fewer flawed decisions, therefore, give you more time to do what you love to do and want to focus on.
Ruby K. Payne is an educator, author, and founder of aha! Process, Inc.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
Every one and every school has a story made up of ingredients. When I taught Basic English in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I often had food on my mind. It wasn't because I was particularly hungry or because I was creating elaborate food-related units for my young adolescent scholars.
Food became a constant part of my life because every day after school, I drove home to go cook in a restaurant. In that culinary work, I found a great way to serve others and practice the art of dicing, sautéing, and shrimp deveining; I also discovered the perfect metaphor for education. And the questions started to simmer as I realized the education–food connection. If lesson planning was a food, what kind of food would it be? If larger school reform was like food prep, what kind of food prep would it be?
I still practice this cognitive exercise and often encourage other people to give it a shot—for two reasons. First, I believe in the power of metaphors and creative thinking. Second, I think that the huge, abstract notion of middle level education can be better understood when we try to connect it to something tangible and concrete.
This is definitely the case for the 16 Characteristics of an Effective Middle School that we find in This We Believe. What would happen if we engaged with each of the 16 characteristics and connected them with the culinary world? What would we learn? What would we gain? What dishes would we cook up in the critical middle level kitchen?
To get to the heart of it all, perhaps this query should be our start: If the 16 Characteristics of an Effective Middle School from This We Believe were a food for middle level education, what would they be?
The best restaurants begin and flourish when all of their cooks create stellar dishes with the same ingredients—and with a shared appreciation of those they serve. The most effective and amazing middle grades schools grow in the same manner. When taken together, the 16 characteristics create a compelling set of ingredients for the entire recipe of middle level education. With these essential ingredients, we can create a great educational meal to meet the cognitive, behavioral, and social-emotional diets of the young adolescents we serve.
In addition, because we value and understand our students, we can also tailor those ingredients so the meal can change and evolve to meet their unique needs as they, too, change and evolve.
Having a common set of ingredients not only helps us respond consistently to students' shifting realities, it also provides a framework that provides room for teacher creativity and for administrative collaboration—so each school can see what's missing and can cook up the meal that its students deserve.
So if students need more active learning, a school can add a cup of student choice out of the Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment part of the edu-pantry and watch its classroom menus come alive! If school leaders need to work on organizational structures, they can reach into the Leadership and Organization section and add a twist of creativity to its master bell schedule. If school culture needs to be safer, more inclusive, and more supportive, a school can look in the Culture and Community shelf and stir in a tablespoon of advisory and observe how it positively changes the climate and the overall recipe.
As educational cooks in the middle grades kitchen, we can create great schools for our students, but it means we need to reach up to the top shelf and grab the best ingredients—the 16 characteristics that make an effective and amazing middle grades school. It's the meal our students deserve.
Dru Tomlin is director of middle level services for AMLE.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
The conflict between doing more with less and doing what is right and just for young adolescents is a difficult one for middle level educators to confront. For example, when district leaders determine that program cuts must be made, many often propose eliminating teaming at the middle level. They don't understand what teaming is and how important it is to the education of young adolescents.
And that's where we come in. We need to make our case at the district level for putting financial support into true teaming. We need to explain why it is so important. We need to be able to support our case for teaming when others ask, "Can't we just show kids we care about them?"
We need to share the research about how the young adolescent brain learns. For example, research shows that students struggle to learn when their brain is overloaded with negative emotions. As Lori Desautels, assistant professor in the school of education at Marian University explains, "When a continuous stream of negative emotions hijacks our frontal lobes, our brain's architecture changes, leaving us in a heightened stress-response state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness take over our thinking, logical brains."
Two strategies that educators can use to help stave off these negative emotions for middle level learners are teaming and advisory.
When I was a middle level principal, the staff spent countless hours in teams discussing the emotional needs of their students. They believed that by getting to know each student and providing a positive learning environment, they were doing what was best for kids.
Also, as teams, they were able to develop learning activities that helped students make connections to what they were learning across the curriculum. Our former students often reflect about how well they understood ancient cultures because of the Egypt Day that one team planned. The day helped students take separate pieces of knowledge and synthesize them into coherent learning that encompassed all academic areas. They also had a chance to be creative, creating costumes and artwork that was appropriate to the time period.
The advisory relationship is another core tenet of effective middle level education. The opportunity to develop a positive relationship with a concerned and caring adult is critical for young adolescents. Knowing that they have an advocate who cares about them is important when negative thoughts are flowing through their brains, overwhelming them with feelings of doubt.
True teaming and a high-quality relationship between advisor and advisee are core concepts in effective middle level schools.
Tom Burton, is associate superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2016.