Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Morning Mentors" Before School

At Chets Creek we have almost a hundred patrols in fifth grade.  I know- who has 100 patrols?  But the philosophy has always been that we should have as many patrols as qualify.  The bigger question is - who volunteers to be the patrol sponsors!!?  Believe it or not, there always seem to be two people on staff that do volunteer... and take the job very seriously.  Often it's staff members that have a 5th grader of their own so they have a vested interest in the success of the program and the final trip to Washington, D.C... or they are "volun-told."  Anyway, this blog is not about the patrols (I am in total admiration of the patrol program at Chets!)  This blog is about the non-patrols.

Even with 100 patrols, that still leaves about 150 fifth graders that are not patrols.  Some, of course, don't qualify for the patrol program, but others have scheduling problems that make it difficult to come early or stay late every single day and some just aren't interested in the job.  In years past those students congregated in the Media Center or the Dining Room. But this year, Jane Szerba, 5th Grade lead teacher, wondered if these students might do something different - if they might live the idea of servant leaders?

Our K-4 students sit in the hallways in the morning and read quietly, so Jane's thought was to pair the 5th graders who are not patrols with kindergartners and have them read together.  This is not a totally new concept, of course, but one that we have never done successfully on so large a scale.  We have had younger and older classes that paired together as reading buddies and we have had teachers try to get smaller projects of paired reading going in the mornings but  nothing that involved this many students.

Jane has many of her fellow 5th grade teachers on board, so on the first day they spanned out and placed 5th graders with kindergartners.  In a large school, like ours, 5th grade teachers don't always know kindergarten teachers well so this was an uncommon, although mutually welcoming, collaboration. Oh, there have been plenty of glitches and details to work out (such as asking the Principal to move some of the adult morning coverage to make sure we had extra coverage where the kinders sit, making room in the halls for the additional 5th graders, getting the Media Center to agree to take the handful of students who might not be successful with this collaborative reading for some extra computer time and making sure that they too have positive role models...), but I think people just naturally understand the possible positive implications of the program, if we can make it work.

Jane even suggested that we pair some second language kinders with same language 5th grade partners.  We currently have about 14 different second languages spoken at our school and we seem to have more and more students that come with limited exposure to English every year.  How much better it would be for a second language kindergartner to start his/her day with a personal language interpreter who could answer questions and become an advocate... and what an empowering job for the fifth grader?

This program will require continued vigilance from the fifth grade teachers past this honeymoon period for monitoring.  Fifth grade students and their kindergartner partners will have to invest in relationships and see the value for the program to have a prolonged impact.
So... stay tuned to see how this initiative of  "morning mentors" works out!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Positive Postcards

Since Dr. Stahlman's first year at Chets Creek, positive postcards have been a part of our practice.  A postcard, "News from School," is placed in your school mailbox on Wednesday morning.  You choose something incredible that has happened during the week, write a short note to a student, and then drop the postcard in the Principal's box sometime during the day. I think the Principal has always enjoyed reading the cards (it keeps her up on things that are going on in the building)  and she adds the stamp.  Of course, recognizing that each of us has a different style and pace, I'm sure the Principal knew that all of the postcards wouldn't all appear in her box by the end of the day!  For those of us that were slow to get postcards written, at the mid-term she would usually send a friendly reminder that you owed her some postcards and that this would be a good time to catch up.  She sent another reminder at the end of the year and sometimes highlighted a list of teachers who were keeping up with their postcards or occasionally highlighted well-written postcards in her weekly Memo.  Although the expectation was that teachers would write the postcards, there has never really been a penalty for non-compliance.

The idea originally was that over the year you would send at least one positive postcard to every child in your class.  A few teachers made once-a-year labels for their entire class that were a "you're gonna do great on the big test" booster that they sent right before testing time that met the expectation but certainly not the spirit of the practice.  Over the years, teachers also began to send cards to parents and to their colleagues.  I know I was always delighted to get a postcard at home and both the children and parents at school would remark how excited they were for their child to get a postcard. It was just such a small, but effective way, to highlight individual successes and to promote positive communication.

As luck would have it, last year the Union negotiated a paperwork reduction and like lots of other good and bad practices, positive postcards came under fire.  Principals were no longer able to "require" teachers to write positive postcards.  So the idea came to our Shared Decision Making Group to decide if this was a practice that was worth continuing or one to let go.  I'd like to say that the group decided that it was such a worthwhile practice that we unanimously decided that we couldn't possibly live without it.  But...that's not what happened...  While some teachers hardily endorsed the practice and gave many examples of how postcards boosted self-esteem with individual students and positively affected communication, some teachers just didn't see the value added for the time they required.  The decision was made that the postcards would continue to be placed in every box and then put in the Principal's box to read and stamp but that she wouldn't hold teachers accountable.

The Principal has often remarked that the teachers that are diligent about postcards and communication in general, are the ones most likely NOT to have problems with parents!  But it's more than that.  Can you imagine the household pride when a postcard arrives in the mailbox?  I can just imagine the child's chest swelling with pride and parents who show off the card to each other and anyone else that will listen.  I have had parents come back years later and tell me that their child kept a postcard that I wrote for years tucked in the mirror in their bedroom or put it in a picture book to keep for always.  I know I have kept every single postcard that I have ever received in a bowl with other "feel good" notes from parents and children, and when I'm feeling particularly down, I go through and read every note and card. It's an immediate "pick me up" and reminds me why I do what I do.

I guess I'm writing this blog to the teachers who don't write post cards to their students and colleagues because I want them to carefully reconsider this practice as one of those "tried and true" activities that is well worth the effort. I know that not every teacher is a writer and they would argue that they do other things to boost self-esteem and to work on relationships, and I am sure that is true. But I would also like to think that there are many other teachers and administrators who have written notes and cards to their students and colleagues on a regular basis and see the immediate benefits and also see the benefit for years to come. Would love to know if you have ever tried this practice and if it's made a difference for you!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Third Week Noticings

It's the third week of school and I realize that as I think about the beginning of this year, there are scenes that I cannot shake from my conscious.

... As I was walking through the office, I noticed a line of parents and students registering.  It looked like a line you might see at the United Nations with its varying nationalities.  And there was Lori Linkous, our CRT,  with a Mom, Dad, and two little girls that looked scared to death, patiently answering their every question.  Their English was very broken as they searched for each word, but Lori so patiently was telling them how much they were going to love Chets Creek. I wonder how many times this scene has been repeated as Lori has welcomed new families to Chets Creek these first few weeks?  She counsels.  She consoles.  She walks each family to class and when the child closes the door to the classroom, she reassures the parents as she walks with them all the way back to the front.  How reassured they must be to have Lori's quiet smile and assurance on that first day.

..."Miss Julie" (Middleton) works the front desk and is our face to the community.  She is so kind, so welcoming. She also dispenses all the medicine.  I took one of my students down to get his medicine before lunch and while I was waiting he was in the Clinic talking to Julie.  He is new to Chets and he was telling her that his little brother had been cleared for free lunch for several days.  His dad had filled out the form the first day for free lunch but every day they told him when he walked through the lunch line that he needed money.  He is naturally very anxious and he was telling her that he was worried because he didn't have any money that day and he was afraid they were not going to let him eat lunch.  She could have just assured him that everything was going to be all right and sent him back to class. It's not her job to worry about his lunch money, but she recognized his anxieties and so she went to the Dining Room herself.  She checked and he was right.  He should have been eating free, but she was afraid it wouldn't be worked out before lunch.  She called the dad to make sure that he called to get it straightened out and then gave the child an envelope with money for lunch in case they asked him for it, so he wouldn't worry.

...The county decided that we need to level all the books in our classroom libraries.  In fifth grade this is a very big deal because their books are in baskets by genres and topics and authors.  They know their collections so well and are such master teachers that they have not needed levels in quite a while.  Not only is it something that they don't really think they need, it is a huge task.  As I was trying to find a way to get it done, I asked Lourdes Smith, our Dean and resident problem solver, if she had any volunteers.  The next day a volunteer showed up at my door.  We show her the app we wanted to use for leveling, requested labels from teachers in the building, had a teacher volunteer to do all the labels and before I knew it, the volunteer was sitting writing levels on books.

...Angela Hopfe is a longtime para that works with my struggling students.  Today she was sitting by one of my students quietly urging him to write in his reading response notebook as the teacher read out loud. After a few urgings, he leaned close to her and whispered, "I don't know how to tell you this, but you are annoying!" I laughed out loud!  Angela has had a different schedule every day as we have worked to get her in the right place with the right students and teachers.  She is so flexible, so talented and so over qualified for the work that we have her doing.

...Lauren Werch is my ESE counterpart.  Today was the first day of her "girls lunch."  She teaches "social skills" each day during lunch sessions. She doesn't take a personal lunch, but uses the time to invite different students in to eat lunch with her.  The girls were so excited.  They were giddy.  As they settled down and began to eat, Lauren addressed one of the girls from last year that she had fought to retain in 5th grade.  She asked her how her year was going so far.  The young lady replied, "Last year I was just a shy little girl afraid to talk to anyone. I got left out a lot, but this year I am a social butterfly.  I have friends and I can talk to anyone."

...I had a visit  from a former student and his mom. He's now a 2nd grader and his mom said his grandma called him on the first day of school to ask how it went. "You're not going to believe this Grandma, but this girl in my class is named a cuss word." His mom leaned a little closer to listen in on the conversation. "Yeah, it's a cuss word all right... with an 'n' at the end... Helen!" I couldn't stop laughing.  In all the years I've heard the name Helen, I've never thought of it as a cuss word with an "n" at the end!

...Today we had a computer training for our new complex grade book system.  I  was lost after the first five minutes so I did what all good struggling students do when things get tough, I went to the bathroom.  It wasn't frustrating for everyone but certainly to a good percentage of us, but when I got home, Karen Morris, a second grade teacher, had posted a Facebook message that said something to the effect of "even though technology can be frustrating, I love my school."  She could post that because she knows that we are a school where those that "got it" will be helping those of us that didn't.  We'll never be left alone.

I'm just thankful.  Thankful to be at Chets Creek.