Friday, December 21, 2012

Governor McDonnell, Keep Guns out of Our Schools

Dear Governor McDonnell,

During a recent radio interview, you suggested arming and training school officials so they could respond in the event of a school shooting.

Unfortunately, your idea is misguided on two levels: it would not increase school safety and it conflicts with the very essence of why we teach.

Police officers have received countless hours of training and must constantly retrain to be recertified. Educators don’t have the training or the time for training. Our time would be better spent attending professional development to ensure we meet the mental and emotional needs of all of our students so they don’t become violent offenders.  Lacking the training, it would be far too easy for an angry student to wrestle a gun from a school official. As an educator, I don’t understand the intricacies associated with confronting an intruder. I don’t comprehend the dangers of crossfire or when deadly force should be used.

Looking at research about the availability of guns in homes for self-defense, we know that they are significantly more likely to be use for unintended purposes. I don’t want to read about an educator who erroneously shoots an unarmed, but threatening, student. We’ve all heard of suicide by cop, do we want this replaced by suicide by principal? (Teen suicide is the 3rd leading cause of adolescent death and for each completed suicide 25 are completed, we cannot make suicide 'easier'.) GovernNor do I want to read about an administrator who turns the gun on him/herself, a co-worker, or god-forbid a classroom of students.

Even if principals are willingly trained and armed, many recent mass shooters have been armed to the tilt with automatic, high-powered weapons and/or protective gear. Arming an administrator would simply make him/her the first target of a focused intruder leading to more gunfire and more death.

To the second issue, carrying a weapon in school conflicts with why I chose to teach. I entered teaching because I wanted to matter. Everything I do matters. I expand knowledge. But before teaching the mind, I must reach hearts and souls. I try to make the world a better place.

Carrying a firearm directly conflicts with why I teach.

Governor McDonnell, your suggestion of arming educators is defeatist.  Instead, we must proactively prevent these events through better mental health solutions—not to mention gun training and regulation.

Governor, your reaction was based on an unfortunate stimulus. Your suggestion reeks of desperation and helplessness.  Instead, we must consciously respond based on our values.  We must commit ourselves to improving our ability to provide the necessary mental and social services to our students. Instead of creating maximum-security schools, let’s make schools places of peace, harmony, thinking, and happiness.


Reed Gillespie...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Positive Referrals

Two years ago, when I first became an assistant principal, I instituted positive referrals, an idea that I unabashedly admit to stealing from Todd Whitaker and others. The premise behind the referrals is simple, I asked teachers to recommend any student who demonstrated Courage, Character, or Citizenship, which are the three principles on our school’s shield. 

Every other Thursday night, I bake some brownies in preparation for calling the students who received the positive referrals to my office. When beckoned to my office, I’m sure the students’ hearts race, trying to figure out what they could have done or witnessed. Upon entering my office, I explain to the student that he/she has received a positive referral for demonstrating courage, character or citizenship. Sometimes, I ask the student to identify what they did to receive the positive referral or which teacher “referred” them. Overwhelmed and confused, many students ask me to repeat what a positive referral is. Others have no clue what they’ve done to deserve a referral. 

After discussing the positive referral, I use the opportunity for some one-on-one conversation and offer the student a brownie. (Side note: this round of positive referrals, 3 males turned down the brownies, but all the females did accept one. In the future, I’ll be sure to have some fresh fruit.) Finally, I tell the student that I’d like to call their parent(s) to express my gratitude.
Several students have asked me not to call because they’d rather share the referral with them. Others, including one student, who is a frequent flyer to office for disciplinary reasons, have asked me to prank their parents. 

“Hi, Ms. Thompson. This is Reed Gillespie. I’m an assistant principal at Kettle Run and I have John in the office with me.”

[Silent Pause]

“I’d like to put you on speaker phone so John can explain what he did.” (further delaying the inevitable)

“Mom. I got a referral.” 

“What for this time?”

“Well I don’t know how to say it.”

“John! What did you do?!”

“It’s a positive referral. I told Mr. Gillespie about a girl who posted some suicidal stuff on Facebook”

As John’s mom fights back the tears, “I’m so proud of you.” She continued, “I know you’re such a good kid with such a big heart…”

My relationship with John and the students who have received positive referrals have improved dramatically. I’ve had students shed tears of joy. Others use the opportunity to express their gratitude towards the teacher who “referred” them. An unintended consequence—and I hope I’m not jinxing John—but he’s yet to receive a “real” referral since then. 

After getting over the initial shock of receiving a phone call from an assistant principal, they express their gratitude and appreciation. “It’s so nice to hear from a school for something positive.” “That’s great that you take the time to recognize students for their good deeds.” “She’s a wonderful person and I’m so glad that the school recognizes this.” 

Recently, I’ve used the opportunity to solicit feedback from the parents on how we an improve Kettle Run High School. 

Finally, I know the referrals positively impact the relationship between the teacher who wrote the referral and the receiving student. Teachers tell me that the students enter class the next day, thanking the teacher and sharing how his/her parents received the news. 

The simple act of writing a positive referral improves teacher-student, teacher-parent, student-parent, and parent-school relationships. A simple investment with great pay-offs. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Lesson I Learned From a Sleeping Student

During my early years of teaching, I had a student (I’ll call him John) who often put his head down in my class. I had cajoled and spoken to him too many times to count, when one day as soon as class began he began to sleep before the tardy bell even rang. The nerve! I went over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder and flatly stated, “You need to stay awake.” I turned my attention to beginning class.

As the students worked on their bell ringer, I began to take attendance. By the time I had gotten to John’s name, he was already dozing off. How was that possible? I had spoken to him less than three minutes ago.

As a relatively novice teacher, I was furious. I took it personally. I walked over to his desk, tapped him on the shoulder. No response. I leaned down to him and whispered, “You have work to do.” Again to no avail. My frustration mounted. Many of his classmates were now watching. As a young teacher, I felt I had to prove myself. I couldn’t let a fifteen-year-old show me up.

I knocked—maybe even pounded—hard on his desk.

He shot up! In one fluid motion, he pushed his books off his desk and shouted “Leave me the **** alone you ****!”

Any eyes that weren’t on us before, now surely were. I was stunned. Silence came over the room.

I stood speechless as he stormed out and slammed the door.

I’m sure I stumbled over my next words as I tried to regain my composure and the class. I was furious that a student had just cussed me out, but I knew I couldn’t let my emotions get the better of me (although in hindsight, they already had).

I managed to teach the next portion of the lesson before I stepped into the hall to confront John. John sat on the floor, curled into a cocoon. Stunned, I searched for words, “John…”

He looked up, tears rolled down his face. I stood speechless. How could he go from this maniac who just cussed me out to a timid, fear-ridden young boy?

Changing tactics, I bent next to him. “What’s going on?”

“Mr. G. I’m sorry. I’ve had a horrible night. I shouldn’t have cussed.”

I paused. Again, unsure of what to say.

John opened up, “Last night my mom’s boyfriend was over. They started arguing. My younger brother and sister were scared. The argument grew worse and worse.”

He continued, “He started beating her. Right in front of us! We're in the kitchen and they were in the living room. I tried to pretend not to be scared. But my mom was crying. My brother and my sister were crying. I didn’t know what to do. I just held my brother and sister. I held them tight. I took them to my room.”

“My mom’s boyfriend, he’s such an ***. He's drinking. My mom’s crying. Everyone except him is crying. I’ve talked to her about him, but she says they love each other.”

I stammered, “I’m sorry.”

“He yelled at her all night. He beat her up good. My sister and I never fell asleep. All three of us cuddled up in one bed for the entire night. My mom didn’t get up in the morning to send us off to school. I was scared to check on her when I left. I did though. She got beat up good.”

“John, I’m sorry. Let’s go to guidance.”

Another teacher, walking towards the teacher workroom, crossed our paths and asked, “Everything alright?”

Immediately I experienced an epiphany. If only I had started off the class by asking John, “Everything alright?” 

The entire confrontation would have been avoided, but more importantly John would have known that I was there for him.

Instead of my unwieldy attempt to demonstrate power, I needed to open up my heart and soul.

I had succumbed to thoughts of revenge, when my thoughts should have been of compassion and mercy.

As teachers, before we reach our students minds, we must reach their hearts and souls.


John, the guidance counselor and I spent the remainder of the period talking while the teacher who passed me in the hall covered my class.

Social services and the police were contacted.

Over the remainder of the year, John and I had an uneasy relationship. If I saw his name on the absentee list, I worried. I’d check with the attendance office and if they knew nothing, I’d call home.

In class, I tried to comfort John; to be there for him. He never opened up, and I never  pursued/pushed the issue. I told him many times that I was always there for him and would talk whenever and wherever. He never took me up on the offer.

Sadly, I don’t know what happened to John and his family. During the summer, they moved to another county.

I doubt I positively impacted John’s life, but John forever changed my approach to teaching and to life. To this day, I wish it were the other way around.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What Educators Can Learn From Gordon Ramsay

What can we learn from Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares?

Watching the BBC America version of Kitchen Nightmares one morning, I asked myself, “Why do I watch this show?”

I don’t watch a lot of television and I don’t like most reality shows, but for some reason I’m drawn to Kitchen Nightmares.

Then it hit me; Gordon Ramsay is in essence a teacher with high expectations. He expects and accepts nothing but the best from everyone.

After a brief conversation with the restaurateurs, Ramsay sits down for a meal—one that he will undoubtedly rip to pieces. This initial meal serves as a pre-assessment, enabling him to accurately assess the kitchen’s strengths and weaknesses.

After eating, Ramsay interviews the staff, soliciting feedback on the restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses. Their frankness and honesty often brings the owners to tears, but the information gleaned from the process enables Ramsay to further pinpoint what he needs to teach.

Most every episode includes a kitchen inspection that invariably reveals a disgusting and unsatisfactory kitchen. He emphasizes the importance of organization and cleanliness; much like a teacher who teaches, emphasizes and models organization. 

Within the first 30 minutes of the show, Ramsay has accurately assessed the wait staff, the cooking, the management and the infrastructure. As a teacher, he can’t just go to each restaurant with a uniform blueprint for success. Each restaurant is unique. Instead, Ramsay differentiates based on each restaurant’s needs. Like a teacher, he must meet the restaurant where they are and progress from there.

After the initial assessment, Ramsay tailors his instruction to meet the restaurant’s needs. Often, one of the first things he does is simplify the menu. Much like teachers who narrow their instruction to ensure mastery of key material (depth over breadth), Ramsay takes a multiple page menu and whittles it down to one page to ensure the kitchen can get each meal perfect.

Like great teachers, Ramsay insists on the restaurant’s best. He implores chefs not to serve anything that does not meet minimum standards. When a chef says, “The rest of the meals [for a table] were being sent out. We needed to send it out too.” Ramsay goes off.

His message: only serve your best, accept nothing less. Do your best or don’t do it at all.  Redo the meal until you get it right.

This message resonates with teachers. We cannot accept anything but our students’ best efforts. If we focus only on performance, that is getting the meal/assignment done, the restaurant or teacher is cheating its customers or students.  On the other hand, restaurants and teachers with a mastery orientation constantly seek to improve their competence. Restaurants and classrooms with a mastery orientation will constantly improve because people will believe they have control over their learning.  

Ramsay maintains high standards and strives for perfection. As educators, we must do the same.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Should Students Evaluate Their Teachers

“I don’t like history. I never will. But I liked this class.”

“You’re loud (in a good way).”

“Too much lecturing.”

“The homework was too hard. Took too much time.”

The above comments came from the student evaluations from my last year of teaching.

As I poured over the results and comments, I felt a sense of satisfaction. The complements reaffirmed why I entered teaching. 

Their criticisms made me think. How could I improve my teaching? How can I become a better teacher? Not only did I find their criticisms legitimate, they indeed were areas of weakness. Most importantly their opinions shaped how I planned for the future (less lecturing, better homework assignments, relate the class to their lives).

On Monday’s #vachat, the question was asked, “Should students be involved in the evaluation of teachers?”

Unanimously respondents agreed that students should evaluate teachers.

Joe Posick @posickj
Students are in front of teacher more than we are so they see them at their best and worst.

Michael Craddock @mpcraddock
Why wouldn’t you ask students? Besides, the teacher, how many other people really know what goes on in the classroom day to day?

Jessica Cromer@BuffVeeP
Student voice should be heard; it’s all about the way it is presented and worded.

Rob Donatelli @NL_MrD
Absolutely. They are our clients. Don’t we in bus. ask our customers to rate/review us?

Brian Kayser @bkayser11
Students definitely need to be involved, any teacher that says no already knows what their students will say, and it’s probably bad.

Of course, student evaluations should only be part of the whole picture. Critics of student evaluations claim that anonymous student evaluations enable students to settle personal grievances against teachers. While this indeed may be the case, the best teachers usually don’t make enemies. Most students respect their teachers and appreciate their efforts and commitment.

Critics also believe that knowing students will be evaluating them, teachers would inflate grades. From my own teaching experiences—I was known for being relatively difficult—I consistently earned excellent marks on classroom environment and personality. Even when asked, “Does the teacher grades fairly?”  students responded favorably (although not as high as other questions). 

The benefits of student evaluations of teachers far outweigh any potential problems. So much so, that teachers should constantly be seeking student input, not just at the end of the year. The best teachers constantly reflect on their performance. Student evaluations facilitate reflection by soliciting feedback. Feedback need not be formal, but can instead be done informally at the end of every class or every unit.
  • How could I have done a better job?
  • What did you find most difficult?
  • What are you most confused about?
  • As a teacher, what could I have done better today?

Seeking constant feedback sends a message to  students that teachers value their opinions; that we are not above them. Seeking input opens teachers' eyes to strategies for improvement. Imagine how students would respond when they see their teachers making adjustments based on their feedback! Imagine how this would improve teaching and learning! 

I've shared a couple of my year-end evaluations through google drive. 

Monday's #vachat 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Creativity Matters and What We Can Do About It

Yesterday, Eric Sheninger posted a blog entitled Creativity and Why it Matters. The Adobe Education study suggests creative thinking should be made a higher priority  in education. Based on a survey of 1,000 college-educated adults, 85% agree creative thinking is critical for problem solving in their careers.

Some other survey findings:
  • 82% wish they had more exposure to creative thinking as students
  • 91% agree that there is more to success in school than focusing on course material
  • 71% say creative thinking should be taught as a stand-alone class

In my 20 years as an educator, I can honestly say I’ve seen a deterioration of higher-level skills or creative thinking. While standardized tests don’t deserve all of the blame, it’s not purely coincidental that the increase in standardization correlates with decreased creativity.

I know standardized tests are here to stay—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—so what can be done to expose more students to creative thinking?
  • We must recognize that standards are just a framework and we must not limit our teachings because of them.
  • Creativity should be taught in all classes
  • When possible adopt project-based learning
  • Limit lectures and talking to the students
  • Increase student accessibility to fine art and career-technical education classes
  • Ask questions that don’t have answers 
  • Embrace 21st-century skills

What should we do to increase creative thinking? 

In addition to the study's press release Adobe released an infographic summarizing the study's findings.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

My 2012 Edublog Nominations

After much deliberation here are my edublog nominations. My professional life has been greatly influenced by all of these amazing teachers, administrators, and bloggers. 

Best Individual Blog: Learning in Burlington by Patrick Larkin  

Best Group Blog: Connected Principals
Best Ed Tech/Resource Sharing Blog: Richard Byrne's Free Technology for Teachers
Best Administrator Blog: George Couros' The Principal of Change
Most Influential Blog Post:  

Best Individual Tweeter: @ShellTerrell
Best Twitter Hashtag: #ptchat 
Best Free Web Tool: Evernote
Best Educational Use of Audio/Video/Visual/Podcast: Teachercast 
Best Open PD/Unconference/Webinar: Edcamp
Best Mobile App: Remind101 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Making Homework Purposeful

Homework’s value and purpose has spawned several personal conversations/debates in the last couple of months—too many to count. Some of the notable ones: #vachat conversation, a great post by Patrick Larkin (there are several articles in links to hw in his must-read blog), and my own conversations with staff, parents, and students. My first blog post was even about the issue. But, the issue of homework is worth revisiting as my opinions have been shaped by these recent conversations.

First, let me get my get this out of the way. In high school, homework can serve a valuable academic purpose. Homework should never be assigned just for the sake of assigning something, and I’m not even sure it’s effective to assign homework to teach responsibility, self-discipline, and time management. 

So how can teachers make homework purposeful?
1.     Homework should be started in class. This ensures that the students are capable of completing it successfully. Additionally, beginning the assignment in class enables the teacher to explain the purpose of the assignment to the students.
2.     Students must understand the value of the homework. Homework can serve different purposes: pre-assessing, checking for understanding, or practicing. Regardless of the purpose, students must see the value in it.
3.     If homework is assigned as practice, it’s important that students practice correctly.
As a basketball coach, I know the most difficult coaching task was to re-teach/correct a player whose shooting form was incorrect. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it can make permanent. The same applies with homework. This is especially important in math classes, so why not provide the students with the answers—even the steps—for each question (not just the odd-numbered). By providing the students with answers, feedback is instantaneous and learning is reinforced.  
4.     Returning to the basketball analogy; one of the reasons so many players developed bad shooting techniques was because as youngsters they were forced to heave the ball at a ten-foot rim. A task too hard for little kids. I’m sure many children, like my daughter, became frustrated with their inability to get the ball to the rim and simply give up, while those who experienced initial success continued playing. Quality homework assignments must be doable so students can feel positive about their learning and themselves.
5.     Students should be held accountable for homework. If it’s worth assigning, it should be worth doing. If the student has already mastered the concept, why give them an assignment that will be seen—rightfully so—as busy work? In cases like this, we have an opportunity to differentiate our assignments. Failing students for not completing homework, despite their mastery of the material, is unfair. 
      Accountability doesn’t necessarily mean attaching a grade to the assignment, and it doesn’t mean that late work shouldn’t be accepted.
How can students be held accountable without coercing them with grades?
·      Provide students choices
·      Require students to self-assess and check for their own understanding
·      Check instead of grade.
·      Use homework for formative assessment purposes.
·      Ensure students see the value of the homework to their learning success.

 We've been fortunate to have conversations at our school about our homework policies. I look forward to hearing your opinions.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Edcamp Baltimore: A Great Day of Sharing and Learning

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending my 3rd edcamp; this one in Baltimore. Approximately, 70 educators from as far south as Virginia and as far north as New York (maybe even New Hampshire) attended the unconference at Digital Harbor High School. As with all edcamps, the passion and energy were high—as one would expected when 70 committed educators come together on a Saturday.

Of the attendees, several I regularly communicate with on twitter. Despite being limited to 140 characters, I felt as if I knew these people already, but I relished the opportunity to have in-person conversations with them.

Conversation and ideas flowed from the initial gathering through the morning sessions, through lunch and until I left for the trip back to Virginia. I attended 4 great sessions.
1.     Flipped classrooms. Flipping is about much more than just providing direct instruction through video. For a flipped classroom to be effective, what occurs in class is even more important.
2.     The power of collaboration. Most educators that attend edcamps are pretty connected and see the value of twitter and other means of being connected. We must do more to bring more teachers onboard to increase their PLNs.
3.     Social media in the classroom. As teachers, we have a responsibility to model safe use of social media to our students. Doing so, however, requires that students, parents, administrators, trust teachers to do what’s right.
4.     PD and meet. Seeing the power of edcamps, each participant in this session agreed that we must continue our learning and participation by involving more teachers and administrators in the edcamp philosophy.

Despite the nearly 2:30 hour trip home (Washington even has rush hour on Saturday afternoons), I returned home energized and wanting more. The committed and passionate professionals I met today inspired me and represent some of the best-and-brightest in education.

A special shout out to the great organizers and sponsors of Edcamp Baltimore.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Students Want From Their Teachers

Inspired by Angela Maier’s posting on 12 Things Kids Wantfrom Their Teachers and her participation in a recent #ptchat  , I decided to see what students at my high school want from their teachers.

So over the course of several lunch periods, I went from table-to-table, asking, “What qualities do you look for in the best teachers? The best teachers (blank)…”

While my methodology will cause my college statistics professor to cringe, the students were remarkably honest. I interviewed about 200 students and fewer than 5 answered “no work” or “allows us to sleep in class.” The answers reaffirmed that students really do want to learn and be challenged. Not surprisingly, the answers didn’t differ much from Angela’s list either.

To the best of my abilities I grouped the answers together and they are listed by frequency of response.

We want teachers who make class engaging, interesting, captivating and fun.
This was the run-away winner with more than the next three responses combined.

Students used words like variety, creative, hands on, participation, fun, and real to describe the best lessons.

I want the subject to connect to my life.
I like the classes where we (students and teachers) are equals and share the responsibility for learning.
Allow us to participate in the learning.
Make the class fun. Allow us to move around and be active.
I like the classes where we play games that help us learn.
Let us use technology.

We want teachers who are chill and lenient
I was initially surprised by how many students used the word “chill” to describe their best teachers and I initially discounted the answer wrongly assuming that students meant teachers who allow them to sleep in class, don’t have high expectations, or are easy. After hearing chill mentioned several times by several different students, I pressed the students further for what they meant.
Teachers need to realize that we have our own lives and their class is not the only one we take.
Like, if we can’t complete a homework assignment for a good reason, the teacher should understand and not just give us a zero.
Ms. XYZ looks at her tests and if a bunch of students miss the same question, she doesn’t count it against us. She teaches it again. I wish all teachers did this.
Chill teachers work with us

We want teachers who are enthusiastic.
While this answer definitely correlates to the top answer, it seemed as if students were referring as much to the teacher’s personality as they were to the lesson.
Students used words like passionate, energetic, exciting and committed to describe enthusiastic teachers.
We can tell when a teacher doesn’t want to be here.
Teachers who love their subject.
Ms. XYZ meets us at the door with a smile. She’s excited to see us and teach us. 

We want teachers who relate to us
This differed from relating the subject to the students’ lives and instead focused on the relationship between students and teachers.
Understand who we are
Ask about me
Teachers who take the time to get to know who I am

We want teachers who make sure we learn
Students used words like helpful, clear, and feedback.
Teachers need to be patient.
Show us, take the time to explain and if necessary re-explain.
Make sure we get it before moving on.
Let us know how we’re doing
Wants us to do well and is willing to make sure we do well
Work with us

We want teachers who are respectful
Students referred to respectful teachers as those who listen, care, communicate, positive, approachable and nice.

We want teachers who are knowledgeable of the subject matter.
Teachers who have the knowledge bring the subject alive.
Ms. XYZ can explain it so well because she is so knowledgeable.
Ms. XYZ knows [her subject] inside-out

Several of the students who answered this answered it negatively, referring to teachers who do NOT know their subject matter. This answer surprised me. I guess I was naïve. 8 students mentioned it, so it’s not an insignificant number. I pressed the students on this one a little—without wanting to know whom the teachers were.
You can tell when they don’t know because they can’t answer your questions and they just read from their textbook.
She always is correcting herself the next day.

Other answers mentioned by more than 4 students:
Stays focused
Admits their faults
Values our time
Good class management

We want teachers who don’t lecture.
Several students also answered with what the best teachers don’t do: lecture. As a matter of fact, avoid excessive lecturing would have been the 3rd ranked answer. While the students recognized the role of direct instruction in learning, they differentiated between the good and the bad.

Teachers can lecture, but they can’t lecture for the entire class (our classes our 90 minutes) and expect us to learn.
We want to be taught. Don’t just worksheet and read off of a PowerPoint.
The worst is when a teacher just uses a pre-made PowerPoint.
Teacher X lectures a lot, but she involves us in the lecture. It’s lively and she uses lots of stories. She makes it real.
I hate the cookie-cutter lessons. Lecture, worksheet, read from the book, answer questions from the book. Repeat.

What would you add to the list?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Parent Engagement

As part of our Kettle Run edcamp (read: prior posts) , we created a hour-long parent-teacher roundtable. As the organizer of the roundtable, I tried to include a diverse parent panel. The roundtable was well-attended by approximately 2 dozen teachers. Although we only had an hour together, I learned a lot and I believe the others in attendance did as well.

Four Take-Aways

1. We all want what's best for the students/children. 
Teachers want their students to thrive in their classroom and beyond. Parents, of course, want the same. One teacher put it simply, "We're in this together. We need your support."

2. Communication is a shared responsibility. 
One parent sheepishly admitted she wasn't sure if it was OK to email teachers with comments and concerns. Reflecting the views of all the teachers present, a veteran teacher begged, "Please, please email us. We want to communicate with you."

Another remarked, "If you have a concern, please let us know. We [want an opportunity] to address your concern and fix it if necessary."

Expressing the delicate nature of the balance between communicating with parents and allowing students to learn on their own, a teacher commented, "I want my students to take responsibility for their actions. You (parents) won't always be there and it's important for students to learn on their own from their own failures."

3. We have the same concerns. 
While parents want what's best for their children, they also want what's best for all of the children. During the roundtable one parent brought up the widespread cheating that seems to occur, a sentiment shared by most of the teachers present. As a result, at least partially, cheating was brought up in later edcamp discussions and administratively we're looking at what actions we should take. Parents thanked us for creating a safe and nurturing environment and they expressed a concern/understanding over high stakes testing and their impact on learning. 

4. Parents want to be heard. 
Well over half of the parents I invited couldn't attend the parent-teacher roundtable because of prior commitments. Almost every parent who declined the invitation encouraged me to invite them to future parent-teacher roundtables and many took the time to email me their concerns and feelings.

Moving forward with the goal of increasing parent engagement
While none of the points above is earth-shattering, the conversation reaffirmed my beliefs that we must actively engage parents.

I'm hoping to offer future parent-teacher and parent-administrator roundtables in the future because this truly was a valuable experience for all involved. While much of communication between parents and school officials takes place informally (on the sidelines of children's games, at churches, at the grocery stores), we must find ways to ensure parents are heard.

Immediate ways to increase parent-school engagement:
  • Expand our social media presence (Remind101, Twitter, school website)
  • Friday Five: randomly call five parents on Friday to discuss school affairs 
  • Offer parent/community trainings (in person and online) once a month on what we're doing at Kettle Run. Possible sessions include: AngelLearning (our course management software), Twitter, book clubs, bullying, cyber-citizenship. 
  • Increase attendance at Parent-Teacher Conference nights by showcasing student work, staging live performances, etc.
Ideas for the future:
  • Offer roundtables and gatherings in the community (coffee shop, local Pizza parlor, etc.)
  • Create a school blog allowing parents to communicate with school officials
  • Community service day involving students, parents and school staff
Parents, teachers, administrators, what are your ideas for increasing parent engagement? 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Kettle Run's First Edcamp: A Reflection

A special thanks to Kim Ritter, for co-writing this article and for co-organizing the edcamp.
On the Monday, October 8th In-Service Day, Kettle Run High School teachers and administrators participated in their first Edcamp or KRHS Unconference.  After beginning the day with a quick greeting and orientation, schedules for the day were distributed. From this evolving menu, each staff member chose to go to 2 one-hour long sessions and 3 thirty-minute sessions.  At the conclusion of the workshops, faculty gathered in their departments for a focused discussion on the day followed by an entire staff debriefing in the auditorium.
Signs that it was a great day of professional development:  
·      Teachers were actively engaged, asking questions and taking notes as opposed to the traditional PD where teachers are grading papers, reading books, playing on their cell phones, crocheting, etc.
·      Conversations continued past the bell. Walking around the cafeteria, discussions regarding morning sessions continued.
·      The edcamp reflections completed at the end of the day also reflected that each session offered valuable insight and information.

Feedback received from teachers:
·      “I was glad to see the faculty members break out of their departments and attend workshops by other disciplines. This helps to encourage cross curricular activities that can incorporate today’s technology…It was also very helpful to have an end of the day department meeting to exchange ideas and information.”
·      “The day gave us a chance to learn what innovative ideas other teachers are using in their classrooms.  We get so caught up in our own rooms that we forget to access all of the talent that is around us every day.”
·      “[The day] was a wonderful opportunity for staff to engage in conversation about what is happening in their classrooms and to share those resources with each other.”
·      “Let’s make sure we do this again next year. I’m definitely leading a session next year.”
·      “It’s too bad we don’t have the opportunity to do this more often.”

Changes for next year:
·      Because there was no pre-signing up for sessions, several facilitators/session leaders expressed frustration with not knowing how many copies to run-off. Next year, we’ll make better use of online storage options (Google drive, Dropbox, our course management software). One of the problems I foresee, however, is teachers may not have real-time access to these because many of our school provided laptops don’t keep sufficient battery charge.
·      Expanding and improving the parent-teacher roundtable and student-teacher roundtable.

Science department chair Tammy Hagan led one of the more popular sessions on creating foldables. Because of the session’s popularity it was repeated in the afternoon. 
Twenty-eight staff members led 33 sessions over the course of the day. Truly a school-wide experience, one popular session incorporated a parent/teacher roundtable and another a student/teacher roundtable.