Thursday, May 24, 2012

Be SAFE; Be RESPONSIBLE; RESPECT others, yourself, & your school

These standards are a component of all school guideposts.  We want our children to feel safe and to be safe.  We strive to encourage personal and group responsibility.  We cherish the moments when respect is observed.  When any of these are diminutive, the entirety of the school is affected. 

Being developmentally responsive to the needs of our students is something that AAK has received recognition for through our Schools to Watch status.  The need for our response was seldom more important than recently as Mr. Saber and I presented “Let’s Talk: Bullying, Harassment, and Our Children” to the parents of our fifth graders.  Once again our students’ demonstrated need for assistance was answered by the diligence of our professionals.  Safety, responsibility, and ultimately the respect of our students were queried.   

During “Let’s Talk” we discussed the difference between normal relational conflict, harassment, and bullying.  We looked at relational conflict as opportunities for teachable moments both in the school and at home.  The parents understood that overreacting could be just as detrimental to their child as underreacting.  Our children need to develop their skills during these difficult times so that they can learn to navigate adult relationships.  Children need assistance and occasional advice, especially when they feel that things are moving out of their control. 

We transitioned our discussion into the more sensitive area of harassment.  Negative comments, racial slurs, and put-downs are examples of harassing behaviors.  SED recently provided additional guidance as they defined characteristics of harassment when actions were based on race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, or gender (identity or expression).  These areas cannot be used in a negative manner against another child.  It’s simply not allowed and the parents agreed. 

What appears to be a wide, grey line between harassing behavior and bullying is clarified through the SED’s guidance document.  Bullying is a hostile activity which harms or induces fear through the threat of further aggression and/or creates terror.  It can be a subtle act or very obvious.  It can be a single person or a group.  For a harassing act to be considered bullying, four distinct features are present.  A power imbalance, either physical or social, exists.  There has to be a proven intent to harm.  This can be a physical attack or an attack on the social-emotional psyche of the victim.  There is a threat of further aggression and both the victim and perpetrator know that this action will continue.  Finally, the victim experiences terror.   

While schools continuously look to the basic guideposts to dictate decorum, it’s important to recognize that respect is paramount and a basic component of safety and responsibility.  Respect for self is diligence, hard-work, and a conscientious attitude.  Respect for others is empathy and a tolerance of ideas that are different from our own and that the sum of the whole is greater than any one part.  Respect for the school is singular in purpose and comes from the relationships of its people and intention of its mission.  I’m proud of AAK’s response to the needs of the children.  Parental collaboration is crucial for a successful mission and “Let’s Talk” completed the circle for this involvement.  I appreciate the work completed by Mr. Saber towards this mission.  Moreover, his willingness to be involved demonstrated that we believe in our mission and that AAK is truly a School to Watch. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

ENGAGING the learner

This week I brought a writing done a couple of years ago our of the file cabinet. It talks about ENGAGING the learner.
I hope you enjoy and find new motivation in this previous writing.
Essential Question

How does one teach so that every student is valued and can develop a meaningful understanding?

As I try to write meaningful thoughts for the Friday Focus, oftentimes I’m confronted with writers-block; a common ailment for many would-be writers.  To forge through this dilemma, I began to formulate the above Essential Question on which to focus my reflections.  Essential Questions are used in most of your classrooms and serve in much the same way as I’ve used this one – to focus the instructional message.  Writing a quality question is almost an art form, but it goes to the heart of the issue of projected outcomes for the instructional lesson.  While this is not quite to the level of a “backwards design” as described by Wiggins and McTighe in their book, Understanding by Design (a must read for lesson/unit development), it does set the expectation for the learning outcome.
To address this Essential Question, I turned to Dr. Paul Vermette, Professor at Niagara University, author, and Constructivist Conference attendee.  As many of you know, Paul is an expert at developing meaningful understanding and valuing the learner.  I have taken a number of workshops and classes from him, and always come away with furthering my own personal knowledge.  In a recent publication, he states that teachers can tap into student interests, strengths, passions, and concerns by focusing on eight factors.
Entice effort and build community.  We should take every opportunity to motivate, encourage, and support students.
Negotiate meaning.  Students must develop their own understanding of important ideas; they are never expected to memorize without meaning nor are they to claim understanding without their own examination.  This “constructivist” ideal has been supported through much of the current brain-based research.
Group collaboratively.  Students work in and out of partnerships; consequently, they must be respectful of everyone else and accept the responsibility of honoring a community of diverse individuals.  Brain-based research also indicates that a social component strengthens the permanency of a learned concept.
Active learning and authentic assessment.  Learning is seen as the result of thinking and is demonstrated by a performance of understanding.  Learning is doing and is always visible and audible; “tests” mean providing evidence of understanding by skilled use of ideas in a new and realistic situation.
Graphic organizers.  A simplistic but powerful tool, these are used regularly to examine information, record thinking, and to document relationships.  Students think visually on a regular basis and keep these as other people keep computer files.
Intelligence interventions.  Diversity is the norm, so differentiated instruction has also become the norm.  Teachers and students utilize a myriad set of strategies, ideas, and practices to find ones that work for specific individuals.
Note making.  Unlike most classrooms in which every student is expected to develop a set of “notes” that are identical to the teacher’s, note making expects each student to record his or her own ideas as they happen and as questions are being answered.  Like a “captain’s log,” those notes explicate the musings, the analogies, the partial answers, and the insights gathered as students navigate the realities of their investigations.
Grade wisely.  Grading practices stand as the real belief system of a teacher.  In every case, the teacher should give the benefit of the doubt to the thinker-learner and use the grades as motivators for continued work.  The approach to grading a project, and assignment, a homework, or an interaction becomes the vehicle by which a teacher defines his or her philosophy and sends messages to students about their own expectations for success in that class.       
In a way that speaks volumes about the teaching style of Paul Vermette, he has produced a simple and easy to understand message.  ENGAGING the learner in the content is critical in developing meaningful understanding.  During the past two summers, I have had the opportunity to sit and talk with Dr. Vermette about AAK.  We’ve discussed many of the factors which led to his message of the ENGAGING classroom.  I think he would be proud of how AAK teachers conduct their learning activities.  In each classroom, I see components of his philosophy.  We have students that are constructing their knowledge and feel valued by the teachers and their classmates.  AAK is more than just another middle school…for that…thank you.                                                                     

                                                                        Have a great weekend.

Source:  Engaging Students in Their Own Learning, Paul Vermette. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Fairy Tale Land

Please enjoy this guest blogger, my wife Kate, who wrote a fairy tale of the SINI, SQR, QIP, etc., etc. process that a Title funded school goes through.  She did this for a graduate class, in hopes of simply explaining this process.  I found much humor in her story.  (Many of you may not fully understand all the names in the story unless you're familiar with the Potsdam Central District.)  Enjoy.

Once upon a time, there was a land called Stoney AAKers.  It was beautifully diverse, and rich in knowledge.  Lord James had been chosen to govern this land, this honor bestowed upon him after many successful years among the ranks of the scholarly.  Stoney AAKers was known for its commitment to being developmentally responsive to the academic, social, and emotional needs of their young, middle-level apprentices.  All their young apprentices were held in the highest esteem, with expectations set above the norm on all occasions.  Why, Stoney AAKers was even recognized as an “Institution to Watch” by the State of York’s educational system, one of only few in that state and one of simply hundreds country-wide.  Newcomers traveled from reaches unknown simply to experience Stoney AAKers and the impeccable scholars contained herein to tutor their young.

All was well within the province.  Lord James was a fortunate leader.  For he had master teachers of the highest degree enriching his youngest subjects the topics of the utmost importance and world-relevance:  mathematics and reading.  The tutelage of young subjects was successful, with nary a failure to be spoken of.  (Of course, there were exceptions, but very few.)      

One fine day, many years ago, before the rule of Lord James, the king of the country, King SED, had declared that “All young subjects enrolled in the lands of York shall be assessed in the utmost important and world-relevant contents of mathematics and reading, as to compare ourselves with the rest of the State of York, the entire country and beyond.”  King SED was convinced the assessments would benefit the people of his kingdoms.  And so it began…the tests!

Now, although Lord James and King SED had not always seen eye-to-eye, and apprentices had always been subjected to one form of yearly testing or another, Lord James and his master teachers had confidence in their work, and confidence in their King SED.  How could these assessments possibly affect the apprentices in anyway but positive?  Surely, their work and creative instructing would pay off, and prove to King SED the high caliber institution Stoney AAKers had proven itself to be for so many years.

Unfortunately, Lord James and his master teachers were mistaken.  Although most of their young apprentices had successfully completed the assessments, King SED had other ideas.  He decided he needed to change the cut scores of the examinations, ultimately altering the final scores of Lord James’ young apprentices (done after the tests were actually given…over the summer).  As a result, many of Stoney AAKers’ most needy students had failed to meet the minimum requirements set forth by King SED.  Alas, Stoney AAKers would now be labeled a School in Need of Improvement (SINI), much to the dismay of Lord James and his master teachers.

Upon receiving the news of Stoney AAKers’ designation as a SINI, Lord James was well into the next year of apprenticeship.  He was completely unprepared for the news that a small portion of his neediest students did not perform satisfactorily on King SED’s assessments during the previous year of apprenticeship.   This had never happened during Lord James’ habitation in York or during his tenure as Stoney AAKers’ leader.  However, Lord James would soon find out how costly the cut score shift would be.  To begin, Stoney AAKers was considered a Title l institution.  This meant each year, Lord James had to complete a Consolidated Application to receive Title l funding from the State of York. This was usually done in the summers, when the young subjects of Stoney AAKers were on summer hiatus.  Unfortunately, when Lord James was notified of his institution’s SINI designation, it was well into the fall semester of instruction.   This meant he had to redo the entire Consolidation Application, which included collecting all new information regarding the subpar performance of his neediest subjects.  This process took at least 20 hours to complete.  Lord James was not compensated monetarily for these extra efforts and was still expected to perform his duties as a loyal servant to King SED in his role as the leader of Stoney AAKers.

Just when Lord James thought matters could not get worse, he was informed that due to the fact Stoney AAKers was a Title l funded institution and was now on the dreaded SINI list, his institution was mandated to provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES) (additional tutoring to needy subjects after school hours – in addition to the extra tutelage they received during the school day;  AIS did not count, nosiree) to any of his poorest subjects performing at all levels on King SED’s yearly assessments, not simply those scoring below the king’s standards.  As one can imagine, this could be a costly venture.  King SED required Lord James to set aside monies equaling 20% of his total Title l funds he had received from his King.  Now, those monies were not to come from the Title l funds themselves, since they had already been designated to be used elsewhere in the budget.  Lord James would have to be creative and find those funds from somewhere unknown to him or King SED.  For King SED had no intention to defray the cost of the extra tutoring of SES to Stoney AAKers’ poorest subjects.   King SED simply expected full cooperation from Lord James and his master teachers, despite what it may cost them.

In order to comply with King SED’s expensive and seemingly ruthless commands, Lord James found himself contacting scholarly tutoring vendors near and far (as far as the complete opposite side of the country) in multiple ways (this, all according to King SED’s handy-dandy rule book) including email, phone and snail mail.  In turn, Lord James also had to inform parents of his young subjects attending Stoney AAKers of the institution’s SINI designation.  (No, it was not like the “Institution to Watch” distinction…this was the “bad list”.)  Once all vendors and parents had been initially contacted, again, Lord James found himself contacting  the scholarly tutoring vendors interested in attending the Scholarly Tutoring Vendor Ball, informing them of the date of said ball, using the same multiple contacting devices previously used for initial contacts.  Next, Lord James was mandated to inform all parents in the land (you guessed it, in MULTIPLE ways – email, phone and snail mail) as to the date of the Scholarly Tutoring Vendor Ball.  Out of 76 possible vendors (all from King SED’s royal list of vendors), only ONE vendor agreed to attend this ball, stating Lord James’ Stoney AAKers was too far off the beaten path for them to travel.  One vendor was within two hours distance, but since parents were responsible for transporting their offspring to and from SES provided services, said parents opted out of using that vendor.  (The vendor, by the way, had offered computers for every student.  This is against the rules King SED has set forth pertaining to SES services for the State of York – and the vendor did not even know it).  Luckily, for Lord James and the young subjects of Stoney AAKers, the local BOCES agreed upon servicing the neediest students in the land.

Now, one must understand…Stoney AAKers was mandated to set aside approximately $75,000 to offset the cost of SES services mandated by the King.  Remember, that money could not come from the Title l monies granted to Stoney AAKers by King SED.   So, Lord James found himself scrambling desperately for coffers to borrow from.  He decided to withdraw money from his Fund Balance to cover the expenses of SES as mandated by his King.  In his royal rule book set forth upon the SINI designation of Stoney AAKers, King SED guaranteed that any unused monies from the $75,000 could be reinstated to the fund it was borrowed from…so long as Lord James fulfilled his duty of preparing the waiver needed to do so.  (Unfortunately, for Lord James and his subjects, some of the due dates and deadlines for the waiver process happened to fall BEFORE the SINI designation of his institution.  As a result, any extra monies from the $75,000 in the first year of SINI designation is, for all intended purposes….lost to poor Lord James and his subjects.)  Since a SINI designation by King SED lasts a minimum of two years, maybe Lord James and Stoney AAKers will get some monies back after their second year of the SES implementation, provided they follow the process for a waiver to move the funds.

The next challenge Lord James faced was the King’s mandated School Quality Review (SQR).  For this, a Stoney AAKers team reviewed the entire institution.  This process took almost three solid weeks during the early winter months.  While Lord James’ master teachers and their subjects were on Winter Holiday, Lord James seized the time to complete yet another step in King SED’s SINI Process called the Comprehensive Educational Plan (CEP).  In order to do so, Lord James depended on the work he had done for the Consolidated Application, SES plan, as well as the SQR.  This took the entire week to complete. 

Lord James wished to be certain his efforts and the efforts of his master teachers were in the best interest of his young subjects.  He also wanted to investigate all possible reasons for the subpar performance of his young subjects on the King’s reading assessment.  In order to do that, Lord James ordered a Quality Improvement Process (QIP) be completed.  This committee process is run by Prince SESIS (Special Education School Improvement Specialist).  Prince SESIS’ task was to lend unbiased, constructive criticism of Stoney AAKers (as well as Larryland, where the very youngest subjects begin their fine apprenticeship in the State of York), offering research-based solutions to the areas of concern based on data and student outcomes of Stoney AAKers middle level apprentices on the King SED’s reading assessment.  It is Lord James’ hope the QIP will afford all young subjects of York the opportunity for a comprehensive and consistent educational plan district-wide (in Larryland, Stoney AAKers and The Chambers – where the eldest apprentices are instructed).  The majority of Lord James’ young subjects had met or exceeded King SED’s expectations and Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).  So long as the subgroup of special needs subjects continues to make AYP (as seen fit by King SED) for two consecutive years, Lord James and Stoney AAKers will no longer be designated a SINI school.

If Stoney AAKers does not make AYP (as seen fit by King SED – who knows where those cut scores will go next?), Lord James and his master teachers will continue to have their work cut out for them to prove that, despite the subpar performance of only the neediest of middle level subjects, Stoney AAKers is still, indeed an “Institute to Watch.”

It was now early May.  Spring had sprung…along with King SED’s yearly assessments once again.  Only time will tell if SES efforts at Stoney AAKers will close the gap of subpar scoring of the neediest subjects attending this fine institution.  Lord James was about ¼ of the way through King SED’s lengthy two-year process and found himself questioning:  Is it worth it to Stoney AAKers to be subject to all the extra unfunded efforts of SES mandated by King SED in order to receive his Title l funding?  After little deliberation, however, Lord James had to admit, despite the exhausting SINI process, King SED’s Title l funds were well worth the extra time and effort.  Where else would he find almost $400,000 in the tough economic times of the day to hire extra master teachers to enlighten his young subjects in the content areas of mathematics and reading?  (And he was going to need them more than ever now.)   

As fairytales go, this one is fractured, I know.  However, Stoney AAKers remains beautifully diverse and rich in knowledge, just as it had always been.  Lord James and his band of dedicated, master teachers remain steadfast in their mission to being developmentally responsive to the academic, social and emotional needs of their middle level apprentices.  That is not to say they have not been left dazed and confused by King SED’s latest decisions.   No matter, they will strive for the excellence they have always sought, improving and changing whatever necessary to meet their goal.  Most fairy tales end with Happily Ever After…but for Stoney AAKers we must wait and see for sure.