Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New 2011 Teacher Evaluation system

I hadn't thought much about the new teacher evaluation system in Florida... until Thanksgiving.

As I shared the holiday with my family, I sat around the table with my family, teachers from all parts of the state - kindergarten and first grade teachers, high school teachers, PE teachers and Guidance Counselors.  As the topic of the new state-wide teacher evaluation system came up in conversation, they were fairly unanimous in their opinion about how hurtful and painful the system has been in their individual schools.  One of the kinder teachers talked about veteran teachers who were in tears as they were told after 12 and 18 years of teaching that they were "beginning" and "developing".  They considered it a slap in the face after giving 110% for so many years.  This seemed to be pretty common experience across the conversation.  The kinder teacher said that her Principal told her faculty that it was impossible for a K-1-2 teacher to get "highly effective" because it was impossible for students of that age to meet the highest level expectation on the rubric.  In every single incidence, these usually dedicated, committed teachers agreed that the system was out to "get 'em" and was designed to have few teachers at the top so they wouldn't have to pay them the top dollar when performance pay comes into effect across the state.  One teacher said that Principals in her county had been told that there would be repercussions for Principals who scored too many teachers too high!  The older teachers in the group talked about retiring early - now - and looking for other work to "get out."   The younger teachers talked about other professional choices - these are the same teachers who have been so excited about a career in teaching just a year ago!

I could hardly participate or even listen to the conversations because my heart was breaking...

I haven't had my first informal evaluation yet - that's scheduled for next week - but I have looked briefly at the rubric.  After 40 years of teaching, how will I feel if I am scored as "beginning" or "developing" in any area?  Will the fact that the students I teach struggle with language be a consideration on the level of conversation that they have?  I'm actually having the Principal come during a combination third/fourth grade intervention group - a Phonics for Reading, Level 1 group with 5 students with special needs.  The lessons are scripted and according to the developer of the program, Anita Archer, every word is researched, so I do not veer much from the text.  In fact, my challenge is staying with the exact wording, knowing that it stands on the shoulders of research. It can be rather boring, I guess, but it is what I do with that particular group of students, and the program is effective.  So... should I develop a "dog and pony show" instead to meet the little blocks on the rubric or should I plan to do what I really do?  I have opted to do what I do and just take the evaluation with a grain of salt.  Whatever the outcome, it is what it is.  I will try not to feel defensive or personally attacked and be open enough to see the learning that is just under the clouded surface.  I doubt it's any easier on my Principal - who is over 20 years my junior (I could have birthed her!) - to have to evaluate me than it is for me to sit through someone discussing my shortcomings!  I actually feel sorry for my Principal.  We have over 20 Nationally Board Certified Teachers at our school and another huge block of teachers who go above and beyond every single day.  I am sure telling any of those teachers that they may not be "highly effective" will be very difficult, especially if it is tied to pay.  To her credit, I don't feel the same sense of doom and gloom that the rest of my family seems to be feeling, although we are only at the beginning of this process.  If the culture at our school is nervous, they are also still upbeat and unbelievably committed.  It will be interesting to see how this unfolds across our state...

From a young teacher's perspective...

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pow Wow 2011

Today was the culmination of our month long study of the great Native American Nations.  When Chets Creek opened, Chief Jumping Frog was a Kindergarten teacher and she brought the tradition of a Native American Powwow around the Thanksgiving holiday with her from another local elementary school.  Today Chief Jumping Frog Principal Susan Phillips and that tradition have evolved from one of teaching our children that Native Americans use bows and arrows to hunt buffalo and all live in tepees to an in-depth study of First Americantribes across this country.  As the years passed we became dissatisfied with our simple ceremony and began to delve into all of the differences among the First Americans that inhabited our land.  We learned that the Sioux really did live in tepees but the the great Iroquois Nation were people of the longhouses and the peaceful Lenape built wigwams and Inuits actually lived in igloos...  As each tribe researched the clothes that their tribes wore they found that many of the Natives used the skins and feathers of the animals that they hunted in their area and that the Seminoles of our native Florida used shells which were abundant along the shore and that each tribe had different traditional garb so the costumes of the Powwow took on different colors and shapes.

It was not long before we knew that we wanted to involve parents more heavily into our study so homework for the month became family projects.  Families were asked to tell their children stories of their own childhood and their child's early days and to make knots in a counting rope as they told each story just like the beautiful Iroquois story of a Grandfather who tells the story of the birth and childhood to his blind grandson in the beautifully written and former Book-of-the-Month Knots on a Counting Rope. Children bring their ropes back to school and share one of their favorite stories with the class. 

A cardboard gingerbread shape is sent home and families are asked to decorate the native child after researching how their child's tribe might dress.  These colorful First Americans hang in our hallways.
Parents are invited in Tuesday before Powwow for a night of fun as each tribe gathers their families to make replicas of the types of houses that their tribe might have lived in and then these are also displayed in the hallways.  You can walk through the halls and see Seminole  chickees,  Hopi adobe homes, and plank houses with totem poles from the Nootkas...

Several years ago we decided to keep all the information together on a Native American wiki.  Not only is there space for each of the tribes to upload information but on the home page there is a copy of every letter sent to parents, lists of materials to gather for the many projects, invitation sent to first graders, and a million of the other little details that help to keep us all organized!  What a gift each year as we recreate this tradition at our school.  This is a HUGE project and is only accomplished because the work stands on the shoulders of the teachers who came before.

It wasn't long before we began to worry that we were sending our children from Chets Creek with many stereotypes about Native Americans because we were only talking about how Native Americans used to be, but we knew that our five years olds were too young to take on the rich, but sometimes difficult histories, of our tribes, so we decided to bring the tribes alive again in Social Studies in fifth grade.  Our older students do projects that include "compare and contrast" and then do models and PowerPoint's and include many different kinds of technology.  They join us on the night that we have kindergarten parents in for "Make 'n' Take" and make their presentations to the kindergarten children and their families.  Each child gets a "passport" at the beginning of the night and has it stamped at each stop.  When they fill their passport, they can collect a Native American bracelet from Chief Jumping Frog as they leave for the night.  This addition to our curriculum brings our study full circle.

Today was the great Powwow celebration.  Fifth graders joined us by helping to give out programs, holding authentic Native American flags, dressing with colorful tribe-related sashes and roping off the Powwow area and performing a million different chores.  Kindergartners performed Native dances and songs in Native tongues, dressed in their Native costumes.  Chief Chets Creek performed a traditional grass dance that is actually performed to stomp the grass flat before a Powwow.  He had researched, not only the dance and specific dance steps, but the costume, which was replicated by a parent. Parents and children enjoyed the entire Powwow presentation, led by Chief Jumping Frog, of course, and snapped a gazillion pictures.
But that is just the start of the day.  The kindergarten children visit centers throughout the day, led by our Resource Team and each one teaches something important about the tribes.  A real tepee is erected around the flagpole (amazing to behold).  The children enter in disbelief and look up at the beautiful paintings on the inside wall of the tepee.  This is one of the most anticipated and meaningful stops of the day.   Peaceful Waters (Media Specialist KK Cherney) tells stories about the "three sisters."  Each child leaves with seeds of corn, beans, and squash to plant at home.  As she tells the stories Drawing Hands paints a picture.  Peaceful Waters then tells of the native tradition of a talking stick and as she passes the stick to each child and adult, she asks them to tell of one thing they are thankful.  Many of the children are thankful for family and friends - Daddy coming home from Iraq, a grandmother that has been sick, a new baby brother.  A few are thankful for their teachers (thank goodness) and a few are also thankful for dinosaurs and videogames and toys!  The adults always seemed surprised when Peaceful Waters asks each of them to name the thing they are most thankful, but it is not unusual to sometimes see grown men cry.

Next the children visit Colorful Wind (Art Teacher Jen Snead) and she teaches them about the natural dyes used to paint and communicate.  Children are surprised to learn that the Native Americans so long ago could not run to Walmart for paint and brushes!  Then the children experiment by painting with such things as beets and blueberries and spices.  At another art center the children mold clay into balls and then discs and use shapes of native designs to make a keepsake that will be fired and returned. Some of these will be used on necklaces and some will find their way onto Christmas trees commemorating the child's first Powwow.  At that same center each child is given a piece of animal hide (or crumpled brown paper bag) and encouraged to use some of the Native American designs from a chart to write a story. 

Chief Sing um Song invited the children in and taught them a Native song.  They got to beat the steady beat on drums and then used paddles pretending to row boats to the beat of the paddle song.  Today my class visited this center as the last one of the day and Music teacher, DeeDee Tamburrino, was just as upbeat and excited to teach this last group as she had been to teach that first group so much earlier in the day. 
The children always need a break to run and play so the PE teachers divide the tribe into groups and let them compete, much like the Native American kids did.  They have a list of things that they can find in the elements on a picture list and have to find each of the items in the wooded area of our property.  Some of the items are planted such as bird eggs and nests and animal fur and others are found in the natural surroundings such as rocks, sticks, bark, and pine cones.  As they come with their treasures, the teachers discuss how the Native American's used each of these items from their environment. Today, because it was a little blustery, the children gathered around the natural fire heat, much like children must have done in days gone by.

The tasting center is always a fun break.  The children get to taste carrots, dried fruit and apple slices.  They enjoy corn muffins and popcorn and even a taste of beef jerky.  Our Speech Teacher, Moe Dygan, a true hunter, also prepares venison from one of his catches, pork from a wild bore and turkey.  Many of the children make their first connections to the game that the Natives hunted and our own food supply.  Moe also brings in many artifacts of his hunting days for the children to see.  He shows the children real horns and hooves, reinforcing vocabulary we learned during The Three Billy Goats Gruff.  The children, and parents, sit spell bound as he speaks.
I don't even know how to explain how I feel about this day or this entire unit.  It has evolved over time, but there is just so much to be proud of as we complete this unit.  I am so proud of my colleagues and our parents who give and give and give - all who really put out the extra effort to make it such a rich learning experience for our children. Am I tired? EXHAUSTED!  But it is so worth it... The learning, the fun, the collegiality...  It just makes me proud to be a Creeker!

P.S-  Oh, and did I mention that my daughter-in-law helped lead the great Iroquois Nation and my granddaughter was with the peaceful Lenape tribe?  Yes, Kallyn I know that is is Lena-PAY and not Lena-PEE!  So-o-o-o proud to be a Creeker and have the opportunity to watch this tradition pass through the generations of my own family!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Million Word Pay Off

Each nine weeks we ask our students to be responsible for reading 25-30 books with the goal of reading a million words each year.  In Kindergarten we log the books during class and also begin to teach the parents and students to begin the lifelong habit of reading each day by requiring them to log at least one book each day that they read at home.  If 90% of the students in the entire school meet the goal, the Principal does something outrageous or fun with the students.  She has been slimed, kissed a pig, treated the kids to Bingo and even invited them to a carnival.  This year she was taped to a wall and read for two hours.  She says she would do anything to get kids to read.  I guess this is her way of walking the talk!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The End of Molasses Classes, Part 3: Community Connections

The final part of Ron Clark's book is Reaching Out Beyond the Classroom.  He talks about traveling around the world with his students and all of the creative and innovative things that he has done at the Ron Clark Academy.  One of the things that I love is #85 where he suggests always watching a applicant teach before you hire them.  He suggests that you can't always tell from an interview how a teacher is going to do with real live kids.  I remember a Teacher of the Year finalist a few years ago that knocked my socks off in the interview and had a resume that was one of the most accomplished I think we had ever seen.  Then we went to watch her teach and what a disappointment.  She had a marvelous lesson planned but the students were totally disengaged.  One was even asleep on his desk and she just went on teaching, as if every student was actively engaged.  She never stopped.  When she asked a question and not a single hand was raised, she just answered the question and went right ahead.  The problem was that there was no learning going on in that room.  That's the kind of scenario that Clark suggests that administrators avoid by watching the teacher BEFORE they are under contract.

Ron Clark also talks about what it has taken to get and to keep the Ron Clark Academy going.  He has worked 24/7 and has given up many things for his success, including a family. As much as I love his enthusiasm, dedication and commitment to our profession and I see dozens of things that he is doing that I can infuse into my own daily teaching life, I don't think we should ask teachers to lay it all on the line to be successful with children.  I am glad that there are educators like Ron Clark, but we must find a way to have his success without risking the other, balanced parts of our lives.  We will only have global success if we can find that balance.

The End of Molasses Classes, Post 2: Parents

The Role of the Parent in the Success of the Child
Ron Clark spends time talking about a parent's accountability in Part 2 of his book.  There are so many of his points that I would like to turn into little articles for parents and even for teacher parents with their own children! 

I really like #26 where he talks about not being a helicopter parent.  He reminds parents that they can't always come to the rescue and bail their children out of trouble.  It is sometimes better that the child deal with the natural consequences.  That is the better lesson, but as parents we want to save our children from the hurt and pain.  But... it's the hurt and pain that are the lasting lesson and change the behavior- something we call learning!

 He also cautions against buying a video game system unless you want to police what the child is playing.  I love this because I don't think parents always realize that a gaming system can become a lifelong addiction and can fill too many hours that are meant for play and fun.

My all-time favorite - #32: Realize that even very good children will sometimes lie!  How many times have you heard a parent say, "My child does not lie!"  But the reality is that even the best of children will sometimes lie to get out of trouble.  Think about your own childhood.  Can't you remember at least one time that you lied. because the lie was easier than accepting the consequence?  The point to this section of the book is that parents are the long term answer to a child's success.  We, as teachers, can touch a child - maybe even change a child or save a child - but long after we have come and gone in a child's life, the parent will be there.  Ron implores parent to be the difference in their own child's life.  Right on, Ron!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Taking a Look at the Data

We are so fortunate in Duval County to have Early Release Wednesdays every other Wednesday of the month.  These days give us an extra hour and a half for professional development every other week.  Usually we spend the time with our grade level and work on the work, but this past Wednesday the entire school worked on data.  The county has finally figured out a way to give us data that is user friendly.  Of course for 3-4-5, it's based on benchmarks that, in my opinion, are still questionable.  I would hate to see us put ALL of our faith in those tests but at least it's a starting point.  
In K-1-2 we had state-wide FAIR data to peruse. This past Wednesday we looked at the data against our lists of free and reduced lunch, lists of second language children, Hispanic students (which will probably be a high stakes assessment sub group or us for the first time this year) and other identifiers.  

So what did I learn?  Of course I know who my strugglers are by now (it's the end of the first nine weeks!) and I already had small groups and specific interventions in place.  I did notice that a much higher percentage of my strugglers are also on free and reduced lunch.  That has long been a trend but it just means that I have to work harder to make sure that they catch up in these early years.  It means that many of them are in homes where they are in survival mode and the children don't have the same type of support as their more financially comfortable peers have day in and day out.  That group continues to grow as our economy struggles and I want to give each child a fighting chance. 

I also identified which of my strugglers that I can touch at our tutoring center and want to make sure to  target those children and get them there for the extra service after school every week.  I also realize that I have a pocket of my Special Education students that have strong academic skills and will need to continue to be challenged at a more advanced level! Nice problem to have.  There is a responsibility to make sure that they continue to grow even though they are working above the aim line.  All in all it was a good reflection time - something that all teachers need on a regular basis.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Outstanding Kindergarten Teacher

I am not surprised that Kindergarten teacher Haley Alvarado was selected to be a feature teacher on Channel 12.  She was nominated by two former students.  Haley is one of those teachers that is the whole package.  She is an amazing teacher in the classroom.  When you watch her teach you are mesmerized by her ability to teach content and manners and respect all at the same time.  She has a way of talking to kids that lets them know that she cares about them but that she also holds them responsible for their own behavior.  She is the one that you will often see at the tee-ball game or the dance recital or the soccer games, cheering on one of her students after school hours.  I know she is all those things because I worked in her room for an entire year, day in and day out.  She was simply magic.

Haley is a master at organization and regularly shares the lessons and artifacts that she works so hard to provide for her own class with the rest of her grade level.  She is always the one that takes the new teacher under her wing and takes the time to answer questions and check to make sure everything is going smoothly.  Any time I ask her to respond to an e-mail from a colleague from out of town, she responds with cheerful suggestions and insight.  She gives unselfishly of her time to her colleagues.

The thing about Haley is that she is also a wonderful mother who keeps her family time sacred.  She manages a nuclear family with several children of her own and even has time for foster children.  She is, in every way, a model of what teachers today offer to their children in the classroom and to our society in general.  It is such an honor to teach and learn beside teachers like Haley, who make me proud to be an educator.