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How Do You Refuel?

We’re in it, now… It’s “that time of year.” I like to call this time of year, particularly, the month of October, “Shocktober.” Shocktober is followed by “Blovember.” I’m sure you can figure out why that is.

At this point in the school year, we’re all coming to the realization that the school year has indeed started, and we’re working our way into the second quarter. For many, that beginning-of-the-year excitement, the buzz that circulates the school as we get our classrooms/offices ready is starting to wane. Also, not sure if you’ve noticed, but the days are getting shorter. It’s PITCH BLACK out in the mornings. Soon enough, we’ll be driving to work in the dark, and driving home from work in the dark. All of which is pretty depressing. Welcome to Shocktober!

Then, after Halloween passes, we enter Blovember. Maybe you’ve noticed this phenomenon as well. November flies by. With all the school events, parent/teacher conference preparations, and fall break/Thanksgiving Break, November just BLOWS by!

All that being said, I’m trying to think about all the ways I stay motivated during these particularly difficult/trying/crazy months of the school year. For me, in order to maintain balance and motivation, I MUST spend time with family and friends (and my dog!), exercise, eat healthy, make/play music, read (for fun and for work), see movies, and make/enjoy art. All these strategies help me stay fueled up and keep going for my students, teachers, and parents.

I just I realized another strategy that helps me stay fueled up, and it may be one of the most beneficial strategies: connecting with the people who inspire me. While at an educational conference today, I got to see so many familiar faces and meet so many new ones. Yet, the biggest impact came when I ran into my high school Spanish teacher, Mr. Rockaitis! At first, I couldn’t believe it was him! He teaches way up north. What would he be doing at this conference “down south?” But, he reminded me that he lives in the city, which wasn’t too far away. We chatted for a bit. He introduced me to some of his colleagues. I found myself giving him advice on a doctoral program. DEFINITELY never thought I’d be giving Mr. Rockaitis advice! Overall, running into Mr. Rockaitis reminded me of my “why.” I mean, this educator hit me at my core. Besides my Mom, he was the biggest influence on me deciding to become a teacher. His passion for learning and for teaching was contagious. He spread that passion to many, including myself. Though our reconnection was brief, it reminded me of my purpose. It reenergized me. It brought clarity.

As we get to this point in the school year, I think it’s important to remember, this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Stay fueled up. We still got a ways to go.

How do you refuel? Like/comment/share!

October House Day Success!

If you don’t know, we’re in the process of implementing a House System at my elementary school (read for more info). We plan to host a House Activity Day once a month. Last Wednesday, we hosted our October House Day.

During the time allotted for our House Activity Day, students and staff in each House created a banner that displayed their House animal and House color. Students and staff personalized the banners by putting their painted hand prints on them. The banners look incredible! Even our superintendent came by and made his mark on each House Banner!

Yet, the thing I noticed most about this exciting day = how palpable the energy was in the gym as I began to introduce the day and lay out our expectations for the activity. It was incredible! Seeing all students sitting together with their Houses, wearing their House colors, doing their House chants… it was riveting! As soon as I walked into the gym, I got goosebumps! They were pumped to be with their Houses, and excited about creating their House Banners! The pride and excitement on their faces was contagious. I loved it!

Since Wednesday, I’ve been reflecting on this experience, and can only imagine how it’s been for our students. I’ve had parents calling me about how they and their children love this new initiative! During arrival/dismissal, I’ve had parents and/or guardians running up to me gushing about the Houses, the animals, and the colors! Teachers and staff have talked to me about how they’re so excited to come to work on House Days because of the reaction they see in their students! At the end of the year, I plan to interview and film students regarding their experiences with the House System, and collect any suggestions they may have for improvements.

So far, it’s been an incredible experience, especially for our kids! I can’t wait to continue with this endeavor!

The House System

So, last Friday, my school waded into new territory. We began the implementation of a House System. If you’ve ever seen/read Harry Potter, you may be familiar with this system. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, students are sorted into one of four houses: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff. In these houses, students get together to participate in activities and compete in certain events.

Students at the Ron Clark Academy (RCA) in Atlanta, Georgia engage in a similar system. Students at the RCA are sorted into four houses, which are like unique communities all to themselves. Students join the Altruismo (Black), Amistad (Red), Isibindi (Green), or Reveur (Blue).

At my school, because of its size and number of students, my team and I decided to develop a House System with six (6) different houses. The Houses include the Dolphin House (Blue), Turtle House (Green), Bear House (Black), Wolf House (Purple), Eagle House (Yellow), and the Lion House (Red). Each House has an associated character trait and a particular color. In our Houses, students will meet once a month and engage in a lesson/activity that allows them to connect, communicate, collaborate, problem—solve, and have fun. I will be working with my older students to emphasize the importance of leadership, support, and kindness. I want them to support all the smaller/younger students in their Houses.

Based on my initial research on House Systems, the benefits include:

• Opportunities to connect with different/more staff members

• Breaking down traditional, systematic barriers in our education system associated with grade and age. The House System gives students the chance to meet and connect with students they may not normally have a chance to interact with.

• Building/cultivating more UNITY (which is our school word this year)

• Positively changes/uplifts school culture

• Makes schools seem more personal and connected

• Helps generate a sense of pride in self and in the House

• Cultivates leadership in many students, especially older students

For this adventure to work, you MUST have a highly dedicated team of educators in your building. My team is comprised of educators with a wide variety of expertise: social work, elementary, middle school, special education, curriculum coach, paraprofessional, and interventionist. Luckily, for my school, this team is extremely committed, kind, intelligent, punctilious, open, respectful, resourceful, logistical, flexible, and well-planned. I can’t thank these teachers enough for all the planning and effort they put forth with this adventure!

I’m super excited to see where this new adventure takes us! I’ll continue to update the blog as we progress through this journey!

Do you have any experience with a House System? If so, what’s it been like? I’d love to hear from you!

Restorative Practices for the Win!

This year, I transitioned from a more traditional disciplinary approach to Restorative Practices. As a side note, when I first started this transition, I referred to the approach as Restorative Discipline/Restorative Justice. But, I recently attended a conference on Restorative Practices where the speaker explained that Restorative Practices focus more on relationships/relationship building, as opposed to rules, discipline, and consequences. Therefore, we should refer to them as “practices”, rather than some set of disciplinary procedures to follow.

Initially, I think this is what interested me most about Restorative Practices. I was drawn to the notion that, sure, rules, expectations, consequences, and traditional disciplinary measures help. In fact, I’ve worked with students for whom a detention and a parent phone call home suffice and are the only disciplinary measures necessary. However, as I continue in my career in education and meet more and more students, I’ve noticed that traditional disciplinary approaches and consequences are only a band-aid. Traditional disciplinary measures don’t seek to understand the underlying causes of behavioral issues. In order for me to truly understand my students and the underlying causes for their behaviors, I have to build relationships with them. After all, it’s not the right rules that make a classroom or a school an amazing place to be for kids; it’s the right relationships (Maynard and Weinstein, 2019).

Anyways, things started off slowly with the transition to Restorative Practices. By no means are restorative practices time-efficient. Truthfully, Restorative Practices require more time, patience, and energy as opposed to more traditional disciplinary measures. What is more, the transition is often confusing for both teachers and students. I recall working through an issue with a student in my office who proclaimed, “I don’t want to do another circle. Just give me the stupid detention so I can get out of here.” To be honest, a few students shared this sentiment. Nevertheless, I kept at it throughout the year.

At the end of the year, I received a pleasant surprise from one of the students who so eloquently expressed her disdain for Restorative Practices, particularly Restorative Circles. She’d been in my office multiple times throughout the year. She had difficulty understanding emotions (hers and other students’ emotions) and seeing things through other students’ eyes. At first, I remember her being dead silent during a circle I was facilitating with her and another student. Yet, as we worked through her issues in circles throughout the year, she really started to come out of her shell and express herself. I used different circle techniques and questions to get her to think about her actions from other perspectives. I encouraged her to dialogue with me and her peers about how her actions harmed herself, her friends/classmates, and the school community. In our circles, we analyzed the harm of our actions, discussed ways to repair the harm, and dialogued about how we could prevent future harm. Eventually, she became a leader in some of our circles. Going from not saying anything to actually helping to facilitate our conversations was eye opening for me. She truly began to understand the importance of relationships and their importance to herself and the school community.

On the last day of school, she gave me a card (see the image above). There wasn’t much to the card. However, like I said before, we started out in a pretty rocky relationship. She didn’t like me and she didn’t want to work through her issues in our circles. She saw traditional disciplinary measures as a way to get out of talking and working through her problems with others. But, as we talked and built relationships, she really began to blossom. She built relationships, started to see how her actions impacted others, and began to empathize with her classmates. For me, that’s a big win for the relationship building power of Restorative Practices!

Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

STEM Challenges: The Importance of Prior Knowledge and Continued Learning

Sorry for the delay in blog posts!   I’ve been pretty busy lately! Anyways…

If you search “STEM Challenges” on Twitter, Youtube, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Pinterest, you will see some of the most exciting and engaging looking activities.

I was presenting at a STEM conference three years ago (not sure why this hit me now. I should have blogged about it way sooner, LOL).   I was excited to attend a session that focused on “Learning through STEM Challenges.” Initially, I thought the presenter would speak on how STEM Challenges promote long-lasting/durable learning in the brain, or at least the impact of STEM Challenges on learning and/or the brain. Instead, when we walked into the room, we had a plethora of materials/supplies at our tables and the presenter walked the audience through the completion of two STEM Challenges. After we completed the challenges, the presenter concluded the session (not for lack of time, but because that was the end of the lesson).

While on Twitter, Youtube, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Pinterest, I started noticing a similar trend in classrooms. Multiple videos I saw showed teachers and their classes engaging in STEM Challenges. Much like my experience as a participant at the conference, the students would walk into their classroom to find supplies and an engaging invitation for them to solve some type of challenge.  Then, after building the tower or constructing the roller coaster, the lesson would culminate.

I saw one video where the teacher showed a compelling clip from the movie Apollo 11, where the astronauts were forced to adapt to a life or death situation and solve the dilemma with only materials found on board. Though inspiring, I thought using the video in this way was somewhat misleading. Like I said, it’s compelling. But, it’s essential to remember that those highly trained astronauts have years upon years of prior knowledge to pull from when they solved their dilemma. They all thoroughly understood the concepts and underpinnings (physics, math, engineering, etc.) behind the dilemma.

Don’t get me wrong… The movie clip was inspiring and the challenges were fun, exciting, engaging, and encouraged participants to work together. The supplies were neatly organized. The presenter and the teachers are always amazingly prepared and dynamic.

Yet, this got me thinking. With STEM Challenges, is the focus more on the engaging activity, rather than the actual learning? Often times with STEM Challenges, the engaging activity can overshadow the actual learning that should be occurring or the actual concepts that should be taught. Remember, with STEM Challenges, it’s important to first leverage students’ prior knowledge (KWL, anticipatory set, etc). Then, it’s also essential to expand upon the concepts within the challenge. For instance, a popular challenge has students build towers with sticky notes. During the challenge, it’s vital to address the various math and engineering concepts at play. What is more, to create long-lasting, durable learning, it’s important to revisit the challenge and the concepts after some time has passed.

Feeling the Teacher Shortage

As we’re gearing up for another school year, I can’t help but notice the copious amount of open teaching positions. I’m currently trying to fill a special education position. I had  3 people apply for the position (only two actually held the required certification). I’ve recently spoken with other principal/superintendent friends of mine who serve economically disadvantaged areas. All I can say is… wow. They are being hit hard by this shortage (that’s usually how it is. The disadvantaged areas get hit hardest). One principal friend of mine still has 5 or 6 openings and has received minimal interest. An assistant superintendent friend of mine in a disadvantaged area stated that this shortage has plagued her entire district. It’s widespread. School starts in a week or two! This is getting real!

Teacher shortages aren’t new. However, what’s most startling about this issue is that the number of shortages keeps increasing. States that weren’t experiencing shortages are now experiencing shortages and the majority of states/districts that were already experiencing shortages are now experiencing even worse shortages. Essentially, it comes down to this: it’s getting worse and it will continue to get worse before it gets better. Why? Well, let’s take a brief look.

It appears that years of ragging on the teaching profession, rising dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the profession, fear over unjust pension reform, the constant pummel of school initiatives and uninformed reforms, the punitive accountability movement (mostly related to constant standardized testing and questionable teacher evaluation methods such as Value-Added Measures), and increased work loads are really starting to leave their mark. There are entire books and dissertations written on almost every single one of the aforementioned issues (see almost anything written by Diane Ravitch between the years 2000 and 2018 for more information on these issues that have spurred an increasing teacher shortage).

If you were to analyze education history, you’d see an interesting trend. For instance, take project-based learning (PBL). PBL has been around since the 1600s in Italy when architecture students wanted more meaning and relevance in their learning. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, John Dewey brought PBL and experiential learning into focus. And now, in the 21st century, PBL is a major focus for many “innovative” schools. Though a seemingly unrelated topic, I mention PBL to demonstrate the cyclical nature of things in education. To combat the teacher shortage, I see politicians enacting some type of band-aid legislation that will help in the short term. For a time, we’ll see fluctuations in the nationwide teacher shortage. For a time, we’ll see more students entering college to become teachers. For a time, we’ll have copious amounts of candidates applying for our open positions. But, in the long run, band-aid legislation won’t help.

On both a micro and macro scale, how do we effectively combat the teacher shortage?

Comment/Like/Share! I’d love to hear your input on the matter!

When’s the Last Time You Experienced “Flow”?

I talk a lot about the importance of engaging in professional learning opportunities outside the classroom/workplace, such as reading a professional book, joining a Twitter chat regarding your profession, engaging in a book club/book study, writing about your learning (blogging, journaling, etc.), and attending conferences. For educators, summer is the perfect time to engage in these types of activities. This summer, I read a professional book, attended a conference, and engaged in a plethora of conversations concerning the field of education.

Looking back, I definitely could have done more. Instead, I composed new music (which I haven’t done in 6 years because of the demands of my doctoral coursework), I wrote lyrics to multiple songs, I recorded and produced my own songs, I built home décor items such as a framed chalkboard and a sign, I traveled to a few places, and I enjoyed time with family and friends.

To be honest, these activities were exactly what I needed. I was experiencing “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow refers to an optimal psychological state that people experience when they feel they are guided by purpose and are fully immersed in the experience itself. During a flow experience, we are so concentrated on the activity that we often lose track of time. In addition, we lose track of other problems and stressors from our daily lives. Some benefits of flow include alleviating stress, learning more about yourself, helping you gain more control over aspects of your life, and assisting in diminishing self-consciousness.

While reading about this concept in Daniel Pink’s Drive, I couldn’t help but relate it to the way a painter, sculptor, or music composer (like myself) gets “in the zone.” For me, flow is when I unleash my creativity while composing new music or building/creating new home décor. During these experiences, I’m hyper focused on making a new beat/coming up with a new guitar riff/writing new lyrics/sketching and developing new home décor ideas/etc. These “in the zone” moments where I’m enveloped in creativity really help me detach from other issues and stay focused on creating something meaningful. It’s an amazing feeling.

Though, these weren’t necessarily “professional” learning opportunities, they were certainly “personal” learning opportunities for me.

How do you experience “flow”? What types of activities do you engage in that put you in a state of “flow”?

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This School Year, Prioritize Teacher Clarity to Maximize Student Learning

I heard an awesome quote today… “Clarity is the antidote to anxiety.” I can truly attest to the accuracy of this quote. We all want clarity in our lives. Guess what? Students really want clarity as well, especially in school and in class.

In regards to John Hattie’s influences and effect sizes, you can’t focus on any other influences or effects without first addressing teacher clarity. You can’t have effective teacher feedback with students without first addressing teacher clarity. You won’t have solid RtI practices for students without first addressing teacher clarity. Teaching practices such as direct instruction and reciprocal teaching will not be successful for students without first addressing teacher clarity.

Feedback has an effect size of .7. RtI has an effect size of 1.29. Reciprocal teaching has an effect size of .74. Direct instruction has an effect size of .60. Those are all solid effect sizes. However, remember… you must first prioritize teacher clarity (effect size of .8) in order to reap the benefits of any of those teacher practices. Clarity is paramount.

One way to focus on enhancing teacher clarity is through the clear and consistent utilization of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria. Learning Intentions are general statements about what we intend our students to learn. Success Criteria let us know if the desired learning (learning intentions) have been successfully or unsuccessfully achieved. Success Criteria help students understand what their work should include.

Sounds easy enough. And, many think, “I’m already doing this with my ‘learning objectives’/’learning targets’ and ‘I Can’ statements.” I don’t deny this. However, it’s the refinement that’s important. It’s the consistency that’s important. It’s more than simply posting these targets, objectives, or intentions.

In my own practice as an administrator, I’m also going to work to provide clarity from my standpoint as well. This will certainly help teachers, students, parents, and community members.

How do you work to improve and increase teacher clarity?

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Detainment: Thinking About the Future of Our Young and Innocent

This school year, I learned about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study (Felitti et al., 1998), which examined survey data from a questionnaire and found that both positive and negative childhood experiences have an immense impact on lifelong health. The survey included questions such as: did a parent in the household swear at you, put you down, humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt?; did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?; did you often feel that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?; did a household member go to prison?

The survey can be found here.

Based on the answers to the aforementioned questions, responses were tallied and correlated with future health outcomes. Some ACEs have been linked to future negative health outcomes such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk of negative health outcomes. ACEs were later categorized as an experience related to abuse, an experience related to neglect, or an experience related to household dysfunction. (This is a very brief summation of the study and is in no way exhaustive of the study methodology, results, discussion, etc.)

Since I learned about ACEs, I’ve been extremely interested in how ACEs impact physical and mental health throughout the rest of a child’s life. I am truly intrigued by how an adverse or traumatic experience during childhood can impact physical and cognitive development. While watching the news lately, I couldn’t help but ask myself how child detainment will impact the physical and cognitive development of all the children taken away from their parents. I’m no scholar when it comes to ACEs, but I’d venture to say that a child being detained and taken away from his/her parents is probably one of the most traumatic things he/she could ever experience.

From this perspective, I feel that any approach to solving a country’s myriad of problems that perniciously harms children obviously does more harm than good. In the immediate sense, this is clearly true. But, based on what we know about adverse child experiences and trauma and the lifelong harm they do, this harm will surely be long-lasting and impact these children for the rest of their lives.

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