Parents Expected

In front of my church there is a sign that reads “Visitors Expected.” There is no sign that reads “Having Visitors would be Nice,” or “Come Visit us if You Want.” The expectation has been set. We expect you to visit us. Although we do not have a sign in front of our school that reads, “Parents Expected,” the nonverbal message is clear. We want and need parents to be a part of our community school if we expect student achievement to increase. (Although a sign outside our door would not be a bad idea, either.)

Typically, schools with high poverty struggle with parent involvement. The 1970’s model of parents volunteering in classrooms for Valentine and Halloween parties with room mothers organizing the annual celebrations do not work. Furthermore, these kinds of involvement activities have very effect on student achievement.

Our school staff has worked very hard to send the message to our parents that they are expected to be a part of their child’s educational experience. We do not let the fact that our school’s poverty index is slightly above 90% or that more than half of our parent’s first language is one other than English to alter our message: Parents Expected. Two simple words. One powerful message.

How are parents involved at our school and how do we keep them involved? I believe the second part of the question is more important than the first. We can structure the best parent activities, but if they do not feel comfortable, then they will not return. First, since more of our parents speak Spanish, newsletters and most all notices that are sent home are in English and Spanish. We recognize that some of our parents may not read the notices; we also send an automatic phone message in English and Spanish. Building relationships with our parents is also important. The office staff has been trained in customer service. Since the office is the hub and frontline for any school, this is where first impressions occur. If parents immediately sense they feel welcomed, then they will leave believing that parents are expected.

We provide many opportunities for parent involvement. Below is a description of most of them.
* Monthly Meetings. Every month, I lead a meeting of parents to discuss any concerns or questions they may have. Parents plan some of our school-wide events at their meetings as well. Our instructional coach presents easy ways for parents can help their child improve their math and reading abilities by recommending some hands-on learning activities. The parents are engaged in the activities and can take home materials to practice with their child. Refreshments are always served and children from a guest classroom always present what they are learning.
* Books on the Beach. During the cold months of winter, we bring the sunny days of summer into our school by hosting Books on the Beach. During lunch, parents are encouraged to come and have lunch with their child…on the beach absent the sand. We have beach towels and beach music softly playing and books to give away as parents eat lunch with their child.
* Writer’s Celebration. Several times during the year, we have students submit their writing to be recognized at Writer’s Celebration. Parents are invited to join us listen to our young authors from all grades read their latest manuscript from the stage.
* Family Book Club. Parents are invited to bring their child for Book Club. Parents and children are separated into different rooms. Parents receive a short presentation on a reading strategy that will help their child become a better reader which includes a video of a teacher and child practicing the strategy. In the meantime, the children are receiving free books to read to their parents. When we bring the parents and children together, magic happens. Children read to parents and parents practice the targeted strategy together. Then we share in a meal.
* Family Math Night. Parents and children come to school to learn how to play math games together that will help in their math development. We set up 3 centers in the school using different materials. When the families leave for the evening, they walk away with a bag of materials so they can play the same games at home.
* Family BINGO Night. Our parents make the dinner of tamales and nachos from donations. Our community partners and staff volunteers set up, are callers, and clean up crew. The prizes are donated themed baskets of goods that anyone would love to win. We all come together as a team to provide our families with a fun-filled evening of Bingo. This is also a fund-raiser for our school and usually brings in around 400 family members.
* Carnival of Cultures. Every spring, we celebrate our diverse community with a carnival. Parents, staff, and community members plan and organize a culminating event for the year which includes ethnic foods, games, live music, dancers, and a good time.

This list is not complete by any means. We have parents involved as volunteers in the classroom, parents that help deliver food to our students on Fridays from the local foodbank as many of our children do not have healthy foods during the weekend. In addition, we have parents that volunteer for our kindergarten registration.

Parents are expected and welcomed at our school. Our school belongs to parents, students and the community; by working together as partners parents will feel confident knowing their child will receive the best education because they are an essential component of their child’s education.

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Why I Love Being a Principal

The last couple weeks have been hard on me for several reasons (some have nothing to do with my job). The weather has been cold and gray which can then make my attitude cold and gray. Then all of a sudden, as if the clouds start to separate letting in some rays of sun, I become reawakened to why I love my job.

1. The Kids. This is the number one reason I do what I do. I am the luckiest person to be able to go to work everyday and be greeted by 700 young children. Currently, I am working with little kindergarten girl on improving her behavior in class. The teacher sends her down to my office if she has a good day. Today she came bouncing into my office declaring, “I am green!” I knew exactly what she was talking about. The teacher has a discipline program where all students have a green card and as they display misbehaviors during the day, they change their colors. The goal is to stay on green. This comes from a girl that had her cards changed to the worse color nearly every day. I gave her a pencil that says, “My Principal is Proud of Me.” I truly was.

2. The Teachers. My day is filled with drifting in and out of classrooms during the day. Nearly all days I am so impressed with the professionalism and superb teaching. There is not a doubt in my mind that our teachers work hard for our children. All I have to do is look at the faces of the children and teachers; then I know good teaching and happy learners (teachers included) go hand in hand. But today, I was in a classroom and watched a beginning teacher masterfully lead her classroom as if she was the conductor of the Boston Pops. I sat there in awe and admiration. How can a first year teacher be so good? I was truly proud to be her principal.

3. My Colleagues. I had lunch with a friend and colleague. Someone I don’t get to see very often anymore, sadly. But we meet once a month just to stay connected. Being a principal of a large urban school has it’s stresses and challenges. Unfortunately, it can also be a very lonely job. I was refreshed after meeting with my friend. It’s amazing how much we cover in one hour…our families, work, children, church, and anything else we wish to discuss. I walked out of the restaurant feeling like I just got a massage — got all my knots out of my attitude and ready for the rest of the week.

Well, it’s still cold out there, but my heart is warmed knowing all I have to do is walk through the halls of my school to remind me how much I love my job.

If you are a principal out there, I would love to hear what you love about your job.

Rich

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The Superbowl in Education

Did you enjoy the Superbowl? One of my personal highlights is watching the commercials. I am always fascinated by the creativity and amazed by the amount of money companies spend on a 30 second advertisement. Sometimes the quarterback tries for one of those “Hail Mary” throws into the end zone to score a touchdown. I always thought it was an act of desperation that usually does not work, but when it does – it sure pays off.

The Superbowl is a good analogy for us in education when it comes to high-stakes tests. When we are methodical with our instruction transfer our knowledge in meaningful PD, and continually collect formative data from the students, we are making good decisions based upon students’ needs. We are, in essence, making our way toward the end zone yard-by-yard. It will pay off in the long run. In our panic, it seems some schools might disregard the “game-plan” and make last minutes decisions right before the test, such as drill and kill test-prep, happy assemblies, and distribution of test-taking tips.

This year, we are doing both. I am proud to be associated with a school that has a “game plan.” We are making yard-by-yard advances, but this year, we are also throwing a “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone. I am hoping that by doing both will not only score a touchdown, but win the game as well. Our kids depend on us to do both.

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Avoiding Failure: the Importance of Skill Transfer

Transfer and application of new knowledge is the challenge for any teacher. Am I speaking of the challenge of student’s applying their newly learned spelling words from Friday’s test to their journal writing? Not really. Am I referring to student’s lack of retention of the facts for the geography final? Definitely not. If students get an A on the test, but all is forgotten 2 hours later, the exercise was futile. In essence, the student has failed in learning.

I speak of the transfer of new knowledge or skill of the pedagogical nature. I am not speaking of student’s transferring new knowledge, but the teacher’s. Teachers (and principals) work hard to do the best they can for their students on a daily basis, but none of us are perfect and we all can use another teaching tool on our ever expanding tool belt. However, when it comes to school improvement initiatives, they are best implemented on a school-wide (or department) approach based on school-wide needs. For example, if we conclude from assessment results that our students need to improve in reading comprehension, then the school as a whole, or anyone that teaches in the school, needs additional effective pedagogical skills to improve their teaching of reading.

How does a principal help teachers attain these skills and ensure the skills transfer from professional development training to the classrooms so students are the beneficiaries? It is our job to support teacher to this end.

After several weeks of professional development in a focused area (laser-like) which include plenty of demonstrations, an abundance of practice, collaboration between colleagues, and a spoonful of theory, teachers complete lesson templates that are designed for the skill or strategy specifically. (This process was developed by Emily Calhoun and Bruce Joyce.)

The completed lesson plan templates are analyzed by our leadership team to determine the future professional development needs of the staff. The implementation data is shared with the rest of the staff as feedback. What additional supports do they need? What aspects of the strategy is their strength? Does professional development need to be differentiated? These questions are addressed as a result of analyzing these data.

Many schools are adept at collecting and analyzing student performance data, but measuring teacher implementation data is the flip side of the coin in school improvement. Skill transfer is difficult and needs to be monitored whether you are a teacher expecting students to apply what they are learning in the classroom or a principal expecting teachers to transfer and deliver research-proven instructional strategies to every student in the classroom. As teachers become skillful practitioners by expanding their repertoire of effective teaching strategies, student achievement will increase.

If the newly learned skills are not applied (by the student or teacher), then we all fail.

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Technology Integration: More Than Playing Games

Principal Missing in Action (at least from Blogging)

Lately, I have been on a mission to help support my teachers to integrate technology into the content. I do not mean the games in which math facts are flashed on the monitor and if students get 10 correct, they can play some meaningless video preventing the little man from getting hit by a spray of explosive drops falling from the sky. Boy, those things irritate me. But it wasn’t long ago (ok, it was…15 years ago), I brought my 25 students to the computer lab and let them go at these sites, feeling good about how I was integrating technology into the content. Look, we are doing math!

These sites are still available with many more bells and whistles. But, do they prepare our students for the future? Are they preparing our students to problem solve and collaborate with others? A simple, resounding, NO, will do. Thank you very much.

Back to my mission…(technology integration into the content). As a principal, how do I best support teachers in using the limited technology most effectively so students actually learn the content better and faster? I wish I had the proverbial magic bullet. Sadly, I don’t. But I have a few ideas.

  1. Teachers do not have a lot of time. After all they are teaching for better part of the day and I do not want them sitting at their desks figuring this stuff out when students are sitting there waiting to be educated. With the few bucks I have in my budget, I hire a sub to relieve a teacher or two – those that have the interest and want to explore the wild west of Cyberland. They will be my leaders. Those that will implement fairly quickly and fearless: willing to share without fear of being ostracized by their peers for being the principal’s favorites (ridiculous unspoken cultural school norms, but a topic for another blog).
  2. Modeling, modeling, modeling. We expect our teachers to do it, so should we. Professional development provides an opportune time to, you guessed it, integrate technology! Technology should not be a special event in itself, but a tool to teach. So, whatever the content of your professional development, use technology as a means to teach it. There is a whole array of web 2.0 tools to use. The more its modeled, the more you will see it cropping up its pretty face (technology’s face not mine – although, I’m not bad looking).
  3. Recognition! EVERYONE likes a little recognition – including teachers. Unfortunately, many principals do not recognize their teachers’ good deeds. Some like private recognition. I go to them privately. Call them at home. Send them a note. Go see them in their classroom. Then others like public recognition. There is nothing wrong with a public service announcement now and then at the beginning of professional development. I recognize staff by name in my weekly staff newsletter. No matter private or public, a little sincere recognition will go a long way. What does this have to do with technology integration? Easy! When I see someone trying to use technology to integrate content, I get very excited! I have found more teachers using technology the more I use my spotlight.
  4. Occasionally, I will bring out the dreaded R word. A few people love it. More like it, but it has been my experience that most could take small doses at a time. Drum roll, please. RESEARCH! I will bring out an article for the staff to read. Empirical studies that suggest effective uses of technology integration are helpful. If we do not know why we do what we do, then it just becomes a fad. If we want to change children’s lives then we need to take teaching seriously and not follow fads like the latest fashion styles.

That’s my list. Wish I had more because our school has not arrived, but on we are on our way. I would like to increase my students’ accessibility to technology. For some reason ($$$$), this has become difficult. My goal is to provide each student in grades 3-5 a netbook computer, and then we can really work on paperless classrooms. Imagine a classroom, where students are journaling by blogging and creating stories without a pencil and reading comments and feedback from students across the world. Or where students are describing their thinking in a math problem using voicethread and then listening to other students sharing how they solved the problem differently.

Throw away the computer games where the student is the receiver of colorful nothings. Embrace the world of true technology integration where students are interactive and prepare for the future. Students will learn the skills and content better than ever!

Thank you to Kathy Perret for helping me get back up on the blogging horse (http://learningisgrowing.wordpress.com/).

Sources: www.voicethread.com, Florida Center for Instructional Technology, and Jerry Blumengarten (aka, cybraryman).

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Can or should ELL students Podcast?

I think this slideshow answers this question.

ESL Podcasting

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Thinking about Second Language Learners

Our school has a Dual Language program where children learn Spanish and English from Kindergarten through fourth grade. This program “grows” each year with the same cohort of students progressing through the grades. Some students’ first language is English and others is Spanish. This students have “double duty” in learning content and language. During a recent ESL conference, Dr. Leo Gomez, explained that our second language learners need to focus on content and not language. The language will transfer, but content keeps on moving with each grade. Content should be taught in native language in addition to English, so they do not get further behind academically. Next question: How can technology be used to facility this?

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