Archive for July, 2010

Educational Leaders Must Be Self-directed Learners

July 31, 2010

Thinking about blogging for Leadership Day, I have had hundreds of titles running through my brain.  The common point of all of these titles is that you cannot simultaneously be a leader and be waiting for someone to tell you what to do.  “Nobody told me I had to…” is not an excuse for a leader.  Leaders must be on the look out for new things to learn and do.  This includes learning about technology.

I recently heard a story about a room full of educational leaders with smart phones being asked to text a response to a Poll Everywhere poll and not knowing how to do this.  Leaders do not accept the next new shiny toy without making a commitment to learn how to use it to accelerate their work.  Some might argue that an organization shouldn’t deploy the next new shiny toy without a training and implementation plan.  Should an organization really have to have a “training plan” for everything in this day and age?  How many hours of instruction do you think it would take to teach a 50 something principal what a 5th grader can figure out on his own? 

This train of thought makes me think of one of my favorite books, Counting on Frank.  The first page says something like, “My dad says, ‘If you have a brain then use it.’ So I do.” 

Here’s a worn out school scenario:  a student brings a device to school and starts pulling it out during “full frontal teaching” episodes or worksheeting activities.  The teacher is disturbed by the fact the student is “not paying attention in class,” collects the device and sends the kid to the office.  The principal fusses at the kid for “not paying attention in class” and informs the kid that the parent has to come to school to pick the device up.  The parent comes in the next day to pick the device up and the principal talks about how important it is for parents to support the school in these discipline matters.

Where in this scenario does anyone other than the student think about the quality of the classroom experience the student was opting out of?  Where in this scenario does anyone other than the student realize the potential power of this “device”?  Educational leaders do not think of new ways to keep school like it has always been.  Leaders must be on the look out for new things to learn and do.  This includes learning about technology.

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Rare next-day posting: a tribute to my fourth grade teacher

July 26, 2010

I never thought of the relationship my second grade teacher and my fourth grade teacher had until today, but they taught together in a small elementary school (2 teachers per grade level) for years, so they must have known each other.  Why did I think about it today?  Because the day after I blogged about the death and life of my second grade teacher, my mother called to inform me that my fourth grade teacher had died on the same day.  I am amazed that these two women who so influenced me and hundreds of others they taught would die on the same day.  If God does not play dice with the universe (Albert Einstein), what happened?

I have blogged a number of times about Mrs. Belle Bing and I will attempt to link those blogs within this tribute.  My mother enjoyed reading my tribute to Mrs. Milton and remembering the stories as I retold them, so as we talked today she offered a few of her memories about Mrs. Bing.  The thing that stood out to my mom the most is the fact that Mrs. Bing, a widow, invited all of the girls in her class to spend the night (in 3s and 4s) at her house.  This impressed my mother.  I added a detail as my mother was recounting this – the boys (in 3s or 4s) came over to dinner on the same nights the girls were sleeping over.  We all helped with dinner, cleaned up and played at our teacher’s house.  There was no homework that night, as I recall, and it was the first night I remember wondering what happens when a husband or a wife dies.  What did Mrs. Bing do on the nights she didn’t have her students over?

My mom also reminded me of a story Mrs. Bing told that I have re-told over the years.  “Once upon a time, a young Indian boy named Falling Rock set out to prove himself worthy of becoming a brave.  He went over the river and through the woods to gather all of the food he could gather to take back to his small village.  Hours passed by and Falling Rock had not returned.  Days turned in to weeks turned in to months and years and still no Falling Rock.  The story of Falling Rock passed through many lips just as it is passing through mine right now.  Certain that Falling Rock would emerge from the mountainside one day, workers building a grand road through the mountain wanted to warn the travelers.  So, whenever you see the sign ‘Watch for Falling Rock,’ you will know you are traveling through old Indian lands.”

Mrs. Bing had a way of telling a story within a story like no one else I have ever known.  Shortly after hearing this story from her lips, we went to visit my grandparents in WV.  We set out on I-64 W and I saw the sign.  I wondered as a 10 year old if the story was true.  We saw the sign again and again on that trip, and each time I paid more and more attention to the destruction of the mountains in service of the road construction.  I was devastated that Falling Rock’s homeland had been cut out, and stripped, and paved.  On Monday morning, I went to Mrs. Bing and asked her if the story was true.  She asked me if I had seen Falling Rock come out of the woods on my trip and encouraged me to keep looking for him.  I retold this story to a group of fifth graders I assisted on a project about the displacement of the mountain people for the construction of the Shenandoah National Park.  Those kids got it!

Mrs. Bing was a storyteller.  She was the kind of teacher who could make you feel like you knew a ton one minute and had so much to learn the next that you were overwhelmed by the prospects.  Perhaps my fondest memories of Mrs. Bing come from the field trips we took.  This piece was originally posted by me in another blog:

Mrs. Belle Bing is an amazing teacher.  She is a storyteller with a commanding presence.  We learned about the Civil War by loading on to a school bus and taking a trip to sit on an old lady’s front porch.  She told us stories passed down by her grandfather and ate lemon cookies.  I remember this day like it was yesterday and it’s going on 36 years ago!  We went back to school and devoured everything we could find on the Civil War so we could come to terms with a question the old lady asked us – “What would make Americans go to war against America?”

How would Mrs. Bing teach in the 21st century?  Would she use an interactive whiteboard or her old chalkboard with her old chalk?  Would she stand at the front of the room and tell us stories or would she deliver high-tech presentations?  Would we go on field trips in a yellow school bus or on the Internet?  Would we pursue essential questions or would we respond to random blog entries?

On one of our field trips, we stopped by the location of an old country store where our principal, who Mrs. Bing had taught, had worked as a young boy.  Talk about an anticipatory set!  We got out of the bus and walked over towards the railroad tracks away from the store and there it was – The Greenwood Tunnel.  Mrs. Bing told the story about Claudius Crozet, a French engineer, who designed and oversaw the construction of four railroad tunnels through the Blue Ridge Mountains in the days before dynamite.  She spun a tale that told of the technology of transportation and mesmerized me, thinking about life before automobiles and heavy machinery.  The day my older brother got his car and we had our first joy ride, I had him take me back to this location.  We walked around and touched the sealed tunnel entrance and talked about how they just knocked out the mountain beside the tunnel when the trains got too big for the tunnel.

I have since read everything I could get my hands on about Crozet and his tunnels, traveling to Elkins, WV to take a picture of a historical marker in Crozet’s honor, visiting related museum exhibitions in Richmond and Lexington, VA and eventually finding each of the three tunnels that still exist.  I took great pleasure in creating a presentation (done most recently via Google Earth) to deliver to fourth grade classes around the county where I attended school and now work.  Every time I think about the tunnels, I think about Mrs. Bing.

I hope Mrs. Bing and Mrs. Milton have seen each other a lot since last Friday when they both died.  I hope they have reminisced a lot about “the good old days” and have reconnected with their husbands and other loved ones.  Both of these women influenced me greatly in life and in my classroom.  I am thankful for my time with them and look forward to seeing them both again some day.   For now, my thoughts and prayers are with their families and loved ones.

When words aren’t enough but you want to write any way: in memory of my second grade teacher

July 25, 2010

A friend sent an email to me on Friday that announced the death of a local hero who was also known as my second grade teacher.  I immediately shared this information with another friend who encouraged me to blog about it.  My response was, “I mentioned her in a blog post a while back, but I will think about it.”  In re-reading my blog and now reading my teacher’s obituary, I am compelled to write more in an attempt to tell the story of one of my education heroes.

Coming off of a nasty first grade experience, I had hopes of getting Mrs. Milton for second grade.  Some of my friends thought I was crazy – she was hard and strict, why would anyone want her as a teacher? I wanted her as a teacher because she was hard and strict and always said hello to my parents and me when we saw her at the post office or grocery store – she was nice.  That’s something I felt I had missed in first grade.

At this point in my life, our next door neighbor was dying of cancer.  My life goal was to find a cure and I was sure being in Mrs. Milton’s very hard second grade class would help me.  I begged my mom to buy me a college-ruled notebook so I could be prepared for Mrs. Milton’s rigor and look like I knew what I was talking about when I took all of my cancer research to my doctor.

All summer long, I read everything I could on cancer and made notes in my college-ruled notebook as I witnessed my next door neighbor dying despite my best research efforts and I looked forward to second grade.  When I went to my doctor for a summer checkup, I took my notebook and asked all of the questions I had about cancer at that point.  I was 7 years old.

Mrs. Milton did not disappoint. She was hard and strict.  She allowed me to use my college-ruled notebook for science just in case we talked about anything that would help me find a cure for cancer and she helped me understand some of the words I encountered in my cancer research.

In addition to learning about cancer as a second grader, I learned about being a community member others could respect and about giving back to the community.  Mrs. Milton’s classroom was desks in rows as I recall, but it did not feel like the classroom of an isolationist.  It felt like a place for collaboration and shared learning.  When Mrs. Milton read aloud to us or told us a story, the room was silent.  But when we were working on something else, there were a lot of voices other than hers.  It was not a room to goof off in, though.

I graduated second grade a better person because of my good fortune of spending time with Mrs. Milton.  I was disappointed in myself for not having found a cure for cancer, but I had begun a campaign to have everyone drink more orange juice (partially because I hate milk and wanted the school cafeteria to serve an alternative to whole white milk, and partially because I had encountered vitamin C in so much of my research).

My connection with Mrs. Milton didn’t end when I graduated from her class, though.  Once a student of Mrs. Milton’s, always a student of Mrs. Milton’s.  I had my tonsils out the summer between second and third grade (summer of 1973).  I remember my mother saying, “Someone just pulled in to the driveway.”  I heard a knock on the door and mom letting the person in, not having the energy to go see.  It was Mrs. Milton.  She brought me a jar of the world’s best pickled watermelon rind and a hug.

She asked how I was feeling and told me I would be up and about in no time because she knew I wouldn’t let a little thing like getting my tonsils out keep me down.  She asked about my cancer research.  I watched her as she walked to her car and wondered if all teachers went to see their students when they were sick.  I had mom open the pickled watermelon rind and I had a little snack that turned in to a big snack – those things were awesome!  I was up and out of the house the next day because that’s what Mrs. Milton expected.

Over the years, I have sampled 50 other pickled watermelon rinds and have never tasted any as good as Mrs. Milton’s.  My mom suggested about 10 years ago that I just go and knock on her door and ask her if she had any more!

I haven’t found a cure for cancer, but I know Mrs. Milton is still proud of me for the work I have done in education.  How do I know?  Every time my father would see Mrs. Milton at the Post Office, she would ask about me and talk about how proud she was of me and how lucky my students were to have me in their lives.  Dad kept her informed about my teaching career and my work in central office and she would always end with, “Becky can do anything she wants to do, that is for sure.”  To know someone you respect so much has that opinion of you is humbling.  I find myself sometimes asking, ‘What would Mrs. Milton do?”

My thoughts and prayers are with Mrs. Milton’s family as they go through this difficult time.  I am fortunate to have had her in my life and will always remember her as a kind, strong, strict woman with high expectations.  The best I can hope for is to continue to do Mrs. Milton proud as a former student of hers.

“Make good choices, or I will make them for you” should apply to grown ups as well as kids!

July 15, 2010

I taught in a Glasser-driven school that became a Quality School in the years after I left the classroom.  It’s a great place and the lessons I learned there about life, living, happiness, truth, passion, faith, love, and choices have served me well.  One of the fundamental purposes of Murray High School is to help its students navigate the waters of life by equipping them with the skills necessary to make deliberate and informed choices.  

One of the points of confusion with choice theory is around the potential choices.  Students do not have the ability to create choices from thin air.  If the cafeteria only offers chocolate and white milk, you cannot choose orange juice IF you are buying lunch.  If you want orange juice with your lunch, you must make the commitment to bring it to school with you.  Makes sense, doesn’t it?

One of the key outcomes of practicing choice theory is a shift in language.  Students learn “I have to” and “he made me” don’t go very far and will change over time to “I chose to.”  “I have to go to lunch detention” is very different from “I chose to go to lunch detention.”  Ok, so nobody chooses lunch detention DIRECTLY but they may make other choices that result in lunch detention and connecting these choices leads to ownership of the choices.

What if the adults in your school were held accountable for the choices they make just as the kids in a Quality School are?  What if we were ALL reminded we don’t have to teach Johnny to read, we choose to teach Johnny to read OR NOT?  What if we had to PUBLICLY case study some of our “bad” choices, much like kids in a Quality School do when they are working things out (in “time out”)?

I used centers in my high school math classroom roughly 30% of the time.  Some kids got to choose which centers they went to and some kids did not based on specific learning needs I inferred from multiple sources of performance data.  Regardless, kids were to self-monitor and self-adjust for the number of people at any given center at any given time and the likelihood that the mix of people would result in learning taking place.  My reminder phrase to the kids as we moved in to center work was, “Make good choices, or I will make them for you.”  What if adults in your school were held accountable to this as well?

“You cannot choose to give a 150 item multiple choice test.  So, here’s the performance task you have to give next week…oh, your kids don’t know how to do these things?  Then, you better do some serious work between now and next Thursday.  By the way, I will help you score the performances!”  What if your administrators and teacher leaders chose to take this sort of position with your “reluctant” or “resistant” teachers?

As I reflect on another year gone by and look forward to a new year with new work, I am realizing that most everything I know about setting kids up to achieve more than they ever thought they could, more than likely applies to adults as well.  The most powerful strategies I know are encompassed in the practicing of choice theory.