Thursday, October 25, 2012

A "How To" Manual for Middle Schools

I was most impressed when I found out that Potsdam Central was named the top school in the North Country by Business First magazine.  The rankings were based on student academic outcomes and were developed as a comparison to the thirty three schools in three North Country counties.  The students, teachers, and community should be proud of this ranking.  The primary, intermediate, middle, and high school programs contain excellent teachers, dedicated staff, hard-working students, and supportive parents.  This collaboration is a key to this academic acknowledgement. 
However, I see no irony that this recognition comes on the heels of AAK’s Re-Designation as a School to Watch by the New York State Education Department and the New York State Middle School Association.  This designation is based on the Regent’s Policy on middle-level programing; the Essential Elements.  These Essential Elements provide for strategies and programming which lead to success in the middle, an oft misunderstood component to the K – 12 continuum.  The basic tenants in the Essential Elements are to provide an academically rich curriculum in an organizational structure that cares for the social emotional needs of each child.  The Essential Elements Rubric is an extraordinary guide to finding success in the middle.  Therefore, if you want improvement in the middle-level, then look to the Essential Elements as a guide.
One aspect which sets the Essential Elements apart from many of the other program enhancing evaluative structures is that the student need comes to the forefront.  A child’s social and emotional necessities have to be addressed if we are to expect a child to thrive.  We can look towards Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to demonstrate this import; if a child is hungry – the deep-belly hunger that many of our students of poverty experience – then they won’t be thinking of algebra during math class.  If they’re not sure where “home” will be tonight, then the science lesson loses effect.  If a child’s basic needs are not met, then we cannot assume they will be able to learn.  This idea is demonstrated in the recent DASA regulations, which ensure that our children feel safe when they are at school, another basic need.  At AAK, our faculty and staff have excelled in helping these children transition from elementary to high school – addressing the individual need each child demonstrates.  A strong middle-level which defines their programming based on the Essential Elements will find their students academically successful.  I see significance between our two recent designations.  Overall academic success cannot exist without excellence in all key components in the K – 12 continuum, involving the entire school community. 
I congratulate the Potsdam Educational Community for their commitment to excellence.  I would encourage all middle-level practitioners to use the guide that SED provided, the Essential Elements.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Effectively Delivering Negative Feedback

There are times when we need to provide constructive feedback to others.  As a coach, I often found my players tuning me out or becoming defensive when I was attempting to better their performance.  I found that this occurred many times in the classroom, too.  My advice was usually accurate, but the message was seldom heard.  For a principal, teacher, coach, or parent, sometimes the process of delivery is just as important as the message.

During the early years of my coaching, I was fortunate to watch an interview with legendary coach John Wooden.  He explained his process of sandwiching constructive criticism between two positive comments.  I found this practice valuable.  My comments to the children were the same as before; but after employing this strategy I found that my comments were heard.  Providing a positive opening statement allows the listener to drop any defenses so that the feedback may be provided.  Allowing time for the listener to process the constructive feedback is important.  The final, and often overlooked, piece to “the sandwich” is the final comment; which ends the conversation on a psychological upswing.  This final comment is the motivation for the listener to modify their approach and to accept the feedback. 

To simplify this strategy, think of a well-constructed letter.  There is an introduction and greeting.  Traditionally these are written in a welcoming tone.  The body of the letter is the substance and the closing marks the writer’s appreciation and sincerity.  The sandwich strategy is very similar in nature. 

Enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Questioning as an Instructional Strategy

The most basic way teachers have to stimulate interactive thinking and learning in the classroom is through the use of questions.                                                (Rice & Taylor, 2000)

As a classroom teacher, I often reminded myself that my lessons should be effective, efficient, and relevant. By incorporating focused questioning techniques, teachers can help to ensure effectiveness, efficiency, and relevancy. At AAK, I have enjoyed observing various questioning strategies employed by our skillful teaching staff. Too often, however, questioning becomes an overlooked component of the lesson.

Obviously, through questioning, we check for individual and whole-group understanding (Rice & Taylor, 2000). Questioning indi­vidual students is most effective; questioning the whole group is most efficient. At times, it is appropriate to opt for efficiency. When so doing, you might consider using signal responses (teaching students to show” the answer by a predetermined signal). Questioning individual students is more common and therefore requires greater teacher attention. In questioning, all students should believe that they are as likely to be called on as any other student. In questioning individual students, I find it more effective to utilize an ask-pause-call method as opposed to a call-ask-wait technique. In the first case, the teacher phrases a question, giving all students time to formulate a potential response. Then, she calls on a random student to provide an answer. Example: “I’m going to ask you a ques­tion, and I want everyone to think of an answer. From what you read in our text, what were some causes of the Civil War?

When calling on an individual for a response, allow ample wait time. Research suggests we should wait 3–5 seconds after asking the question before calling on any individual student (Rice & Taylor, 2000). We should then allow at least 5 seconds for a response and another 3–5 seconds after obtaining a response before reacting. If, after waiting, the student initially does not provide an answer, you might entice a response by offering a clue and restating the ques­tion. If, after this, the student still had no answer, I would often reply, Thats okay, Suzanne, but pay attention, because I’m coming back to you. Then, I might call on another student to provide the correct answer. Once I received the correct answer, I would return to the original student, getting her to verbalize the correct answer.

On the other hand, by employing a call-ask-wait technique (e.g., Suzanne, what is a noun?), the resulting effect is that the anxiety level is raised for one student while everyone else is off the hook and not accountable for responding or even attending (Rice & Taylor, 2000). As a teacher, I often found myself reluctant to call on those struggling students who I feared would not be able to respond cor­rectly. By employing an ask-pause-call method of questioning, allow­ing ample wait time, providing additional clues, and—ulti­mately—coming back to students who dont initially know the correct answer, I felt that I was able to engage all learners more effectively.

I am pleased, therefore, to note that teachers at AAK are skilled in questioning techniques and avoid capricious patterns of checking for individual and whole-group understanding. Josef Albers stated with perceptiveness, Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers. Thanks for taking the time to reflect on your daily questioning techniques. More importantly, thanks for Teaching with Passion each day!

                                                                                     Have a Great Weekend!