Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Last Lecture

Randy Pausch died this week. He first caught my attention when his lecture made the YouTube circuit and then as a Diane Sawyer interview. He gave a "last lecture" which is billed as everything you would want to say if you had one last time to teach. In his case, he knew that it really would be his last lecture because he had been told he only had months to live - that he was dying of pancreatic cancer that had spread - no cure. Randy was a professor at Carnegie Mellon who is probably most remembered for developing the Alice project - a system that teaches students programming while they are having fun. Just the fact that he figured out that students will do really hard work when they are enjoying it, is a lesson that we all need to be reminded.

His lecture is the basis for his book, The Last Lecture, which is on the bestseller list. I bought it the day I found out he had died because I wanted to contribute in some small way to his legacy and in a tangible way to his three small children. I read it in a single day - it's an easy read. I was impressed once again with the idea that we need to spend time with children encouraging them to articulate their dreams because dreams can fuel the passion that turns those dreams into reality. I think one of the great "head fakes" in life - head fakes is a football turn that means someone thinks you are going to do one thing and then you do something different - is that if you follow your passion your dreams will come true because the journey becomes engaging and fun and worth the hard work. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone had a chance to base their life's work on something they were passionate about?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

School Leadership that Works

"A vision without a plan is just a dream. A plan without a vision is just drudgery. But a vision with a plan can change the world."

School Leadership that Works by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters, and Brian McNulty has actually been sitting on my bedside stand for the better part of this year. However, summer time is catch up time and, let's face it, anything by Marzano is worth reading. The meat of this book is in Part 2: Practical Applications. Marzano begins by discussing the 21 Responsibilities of the School Leader: Affirmation, Change Agent, Contingent Rewards, Communication, Culture, Discipline, Flexibility, Focus, Ideals/Beliefs, Input, Intellectual Stimulation, Involvement in and Knowledge of Curriculum/ Instruction/ Assessment, Monitoring/ Evaluating, Optimizer, Order, Outreach, Relationships, Resources, Situational Awareness, and Visibility. As I was reading through the exhaustive list, I was feeling a little sorry for my own principal. As remarkable as she is, no one person could actually cover all of those responsibilities. I was relieved to see that as Marzano recommended a plan, he was quick to say that no one person can exhibit all of the responsibilities so the first order of business for a school leader is to develop a strong leadership team and distribute some of the responsibilities throughout that team. All the responsibilities have to be covered but not all by a single person.

Marzano discusses two different types of change - one of continuous improvement and the other an actual reform. I was the most interested in the continuous improvement model, because I believe at Chets Creek we have already weathered the changes of a reform quite successfully. We are now managing and maintaining as we reach for a little bit better day-by-day. In the case of continuous improvement Marzano identifies 9 of the 21 responsibilities that must be taken on by the principal for establishing a purposeful community. The others 12 he believes can be distributed to the Leadership Team. Seems like this list would easily provide focus for any principal. What was interesting to me was a list of action steps for the Leadership Team to support the responsibilities of the principal. I think we are always wondering exactly what our responsibilities are and how we should be helping so this list gives each member of the Leadership Team a list for thought and self-assessment.

The book also offers a great framework of 39 questions to help Leadership Teams identify the "right work" to make sure they are working smart, and not just working hard. Marzano notes that it's not difficult to get people to do the work, but if it's not the "right work," it won't improve the bottom line - student achievement. Teachers can work very hard and not see the outcome that they expect. The key is in identifying the "right work" from the beginning. The final step in his plan is to make sure that the selected work and the behaviors of the leadership are aligned.

For new Leadership Teams, this is a road map to laying out a plan and for an established Leadership Team, like the one that I am a member, it's an opportunity to reassess and realign the work of the team so that they focus and move ahead with shared vision and action. It's really one of the first books I have read about leadership that is really aligned with what I am actually doing!

Monday, July 14, 2008


 Who would have dreamed that technology could drive a Presidential election? But look how it is happening right now in front of our eyes. Think about the conversations that must be happening as political advisers, especially those that have been around for a while, maneuver in this uncharted landscape - especially with what they have at stake. It makes me smile as I imagine the arguing that must be going on! Some advisers who see the chaos as possibility and potential must be energizing their creative juices. Others who see the chaos that technology has created as simply chaos must feel like anything would be better than the uncertainty that it raises. It's no more business as usual.

I think the same is true of technology in education. The role that technology will play, even though it seems to be coming to us so slowly as compared to what's happening in politics, will change our lives... forever. So... in order for teachers to see through the fog to this new uncharted path, I think they will have to have courage. They will have to be BOLD. They will have to be brave. That's at the center of what I believe it will take to make a difference with this generation of children. We have to stop floundering around in the past and open our eyes to the future. Wow - it takes a whole lot of courage to stop and get out of your car and really imagine a path in the landscape without a map to guide you. It also takes a mountain of courage to realize that as long as we continue along the same path, we can't expect to make the kind of difference that will improve things for the next generation - changes that will close the achievement gap and prepare our young learners with 21st century skills. For some of us, the risk-takers, it's okay to walk an uncharted path. But for far too many of us, it's simply unfathomable.

Are we out of the box thinkers?
For those educators who are holding back, we must understand the courage that it will take for them to step up and, I don't know about you, but I don't really see teachers as a courageous bunch, fighting for the front of the line. It seems to me teachers, as a group, are nurturing and kind and have a "wait and see" mentality They want to get along, be liked. Confrontation is out of their comfort zone. They like the idea of all of us being equal - being paid the same - working on the same page of a curriculum - and don't really celebrate their colleagues who think outside of the box. They seem threatened by an individual teacher's success. I'm not talking about embracing change just for the sake of change, but opening the possibility of technology as a new tool for saving time and engaging students and enhancing curriculum, helping us think through things that we have never even imagined. It also means not being afraid to make mistakes and to know when to hold the course and when to change course. That means if we are really going to use technology in a way that will be meaningful to our students, we have to learn a set of skills that don't even exist in our thinking right now. How's that for mind boggling! But... I'm thrilled - excited - energized about the challenge and possibilities. How about you?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Welcome New Teachers!

Once again it is time for Summer Orientation for "New to Chets" teachers. This year is a little different than other years because for the first time in many years, we have a more seasoned group of "new" teachers. Of the five "new" teachers, two are returning to Chets Creek from the "mommy track" - both have previous experience teaching kindergarten and first grade at Chets Creek. Two are transferring to Chets from other Duval County schools and one is a first year teacher but did her internship at Chets Creek. As always there is no money to pay these teachers for their time, but they are usually anxious to get a feel for their new home, so they never seem to mind. This year, as in every year, they seem genuinely excited for a peek into their new assignments and new colleagues.

Susan Phillips, the Principal, begins with an entire day of getting to know the new teachers. She gives them a tour of the facilities, but she also gives them a tour of the school's philosophy, its rituals and routines, its traditions, and its rich history. She explains why there is an urgency to our teaching, our data story, what it means to be immersed in standards-based education, and what it means to thrive in a collaborative professional learning community. This year's overview was shortened in respect to the experience of this group.

After the day of "getting to know you," the teachers are invited to the Principal's home for an evening social with the Leadership Team. The group enjoyed dinner and fellowship together and this year, Media Specialist KK Cherney was skyped (using a video conferencing feature) into the meeting!! The group was then given a demonstration of Second Life, which is a 3-D virtual world that some of the Leadership Team learned about at a recent technology conference. What a hoot! The evening ended with a game of "tell us one thing nobody in the room knows about you!" What was told at Susan's house, stays at Susan's house!

All of this fun and fellowship provides the new teacher with the essential elements of knowing other new teachers as her own cohort and also getting to know teacher leaders, but it also reiterates for the new teachers the important part that relationships play in the culture at Chets Creek. We work hard, but we play hard. We depend on each other. We like each other.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Creating Robust Vocabulary

When I saw that Isabell Beck and Margaret McKeown had written a follow up book to their highly successful Bringing Words to Life, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. When it finally came in the mail, I sat right down and began reading. The book answers frequently asked questions about their original vocabulary strategies, but it is of such interest to me right now because I have joined with with a group of primary teachers to write our own vocabulary activities based on books we already had in our classrooms.  After spending the last year writing, field testing, assessing, and rewriting activities, I was interested to see if the book answered any of the questions that we have had over the last year. It did!

I do feel like I have an even better grasp of Tier Two words and understand which ones provide "mileage" and should or shouldn't be included for robust instruction. I realize that we have a few words in our unit that don't really meet the criteria for "robust" instruction (such as rumpus from Where the Wild Things Are which is NOT a word that meets the "mileage" criteria), but that's what makes the experiences of the last year so interesting.

I guess my biggest "a-ha" was realizing that most Science words are Tier Three words and would not be good choices for the type of robust instruction that is contained in Beck and McKeown's work. Most Science words are specific to that genre and are not words with mileage across curriculum areas. I had thought that we might incorporate Science vocabulary into our vocabulary instruction but am now rethinking that.

I have also broadened my ideas about ways to assess vocabulary. Of course, we don't have vocabulary grades in Kindergarten, so our reason for assessment would be simply to see if the children are internalizing the words. I guess one of the things that I realized is that I CAN depend on how the children are reacting to the words and examples as I teach. "Reading the room" as I go is a great way to assess along with beginning to see the words used in the children's writing as ways to evaluate the quality of instruction. We may not need anything additional in assessment in Kindergarten.

The only unanswered question that I still have is that Beck and McKeown really never mentioned using picture cards to associate with the words. This is something that teachers really seemed to like and feel was important. I would be interested to know Beck and McKeown's take on using picture cards paired with the words...

All in all, this book is a quick read, has an excellent section of examples for teaching vocabulary as professional development to specific grade level teachers, has a great list of possible activities for teaching new words through literature, includes lots of intermediate activities and was validating that we are indeed on the right track!