Thursday, December 6, 2012

Seeing Reading and Writing Through a New Lens

During a recent Instructional Improvement Block meeting, I had the staff read the first chapter of Katie Wood Ray's What You Know by Heart:  How to Develop Curriculum for Your Writing Workshop.  As we were all engrossed in our reading, I realized that what I know by heart today is a lot more than I knew a year ago.  Why?  I realized that I am seeing writing through a new lens.

I have found that as I have become a more avid reader and have begun to write, I am much more critical of the pieces I read and write.  I make mental notes as I read, such as thinking about the choices the writer made.  Things such as the use of words and descriptions that may transport me to another time and place or the point of view the person is writing from have begun to stand out.  I am beginning to focus more on the author's craft and style and the implications the choices have for the reader.  I have increased my reading tremendously over the course of the past year in an intentional attempt to become the lead reader in my building.  I wanted to become more knowledgeable about books so that I could make connections to curriculum and recommend books to my students and staff.  I also wanted to model good reading habits for them.  In the process, I have been inspired to become a writer as well--especially as we move toward creating a writing curriculum for our building. I am still a novice writer who continues to learn, but I am much more willing to take risks and put myself out there.  This comes from practicing writing more than I have ever done in my professional life.   All of these experiences have allowed me to see reading and writing in new ways.  Ways that I didn't notice before.  I am excited about this new lens and the implications of my improved vision as an instructional leader.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: Igniting a Passion for Reading

I recently read Steven Layne's book, Igniting a Passion for Reading:  Successful Strategies for Building Lifetime Readers.  It has been my quest this year to promote books and reading to the students and staff to see if I can make a direct impact on their reading lives.  So, you can imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Layne's book.  Layne's practical classroom experience, his unequivocal love of books, and his dry sense of humor shine through in this enjoyable and inspiring read.

Layne begins the book by outlining research and reporting that..."as a nation, we have more readers who can read and don't than we do readers who can't read at all" (p. 8).  He strongly suggests that we need to start paying attention to the affective elements of reading instruction in order to boost the number of Americans who read on a regular basis.  He cites that in 2002, only about 52% of Americans ages 18-24 reported reading books for pleasure.  I'm sure those numbers are still pretty accurate in 2012, and the percentage of disengaged readers may actually be a bit higher by now.

In this day and age, it is easy for educators to get wrapped up in the skill part of reading--am I teaching my students how to read?  It's true that this is a critical component.  We must teach the skills that good readers need to navigate all types of text.  However, we do our students a disservice if we neglect to focus on what Layne believes to be our true reading objective:  fostering a lifetime love of reading in our students (p13).  So what can we, as educators do to help ignite such a passion for reading that our students will read because they want to?

Some of the strategies Layne suggests for educators:
  • Target alliterate readers and find books that interest them.  Layne maintains that you must know your students and put books into their hands that are likely to strike a chord with them.  He includes several interest inventories in the book to assist educators in identifying what students are interested in.
  • Promote books through book chats.  As educators, it is our duty to be well-read and informed about books that may interest our students.  We must find time to do the "research" by reading many grade level appropriate books and also make time to advertise them to our students to help build interest and excitement.  Layne includes a book chat prep sheet that will assist teachers in preparing to advertise a book. 
  • Read aloud to students on a regular basis.  One of my favorite quotes in the book comes on page 54--"Reading aloud--a good book read well--is the number-one way to positively impact the disengaged reader."  Choosing high quality read alouds from a wide variety of genres exposes students to a multitude of books in a powerful and exciting way. It allows students to make affective connections with books.
  • Celebrate books and reading.  This can be done through book discussions, author visits, book advertisements, and in some cases schools have even created reading cafes or lounges that provide students with a comfortable place designated specifically for reading. 
My biggest take-away from Layne's book is that we, as educators, must go the extra mile to ignite the passion for reading within our students.  If we don't take that extra step, who will?

For more information about this book and the author, please visit this website.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Student Book Recommendations: Getting Students Excited About Reading

Today, as I was browsing Twitter, @donalynbooks posed a question that made me reflect on my practices as a principal.  She asked: What are principals doing to get students excited about reading?

In my post titled, Kicking Off the Year Promoting Reading, I outlined 5 steps I was taking to set the stage for a culture of reading at my school.  Today, I'd like to highlight one of the things that is happening as a result of some of the steps I have taken to become a major promoter of reading at my school.

Student Book Recommendations
As students became excited about my morning book reviews and recommendations as part of my 180 #bookaday challenge, I started having students come to me in passing and telling me about a book they were reading and that I "just had to read it" too.  I started having teachers have their classes share a book with me that they were really excited about as I went in to do walk-throughs, observations, or visits.  I thought, I'm onto something here.  So, I decided to have students begin making formal recommendations to me.  I gave teachers master copies of book recommendation forms and purchased a "magic book" for the students to drop the recommendations into.  (One of those decorative boxes that look like a book that you can find in any home decorating store.)  Then, I shared my "magic book" on the announcements and told the students they could choose to recommend books they were reading to me and I would select one student each week to join me on the morning announcements.  Another bonus here--they have to write and explain why the book is worthy of their recommendation!  I have posted all of the recommendations on the doors to my office. I am beginning to run out of space and plan to begin covering a bulletin board outside my office too.  The students are so excited to hear their name called as a presenter and their eyes light up when they see that I have their recommendation hanging in my office. 

We are becoming a school community that talks about books, recommends books to others, and views reading as an exciting component of our culture.  Through my daily reading challenge, I am reading some great books and feel better equipped to match readers with books.  I am trying to lead by example and show my students the joy of reading, and I am reaping the rewards of hearing the excitement in their voices or seeing it in their writing when they are recommending books to me. Just by reading and having a dialogue about books, we are well on our way to becoming a school where readers flourish.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Need for Early Childhood Education

One of the first things I read this morning stirred up my passion for early childhood education.  In an article titled, Our Children, Our City: In Indiana, we fail our children in thinking early learning is optional, not essential, Scott Ellison and Robert King once again highlight the need for our state to get on board with funding Pre-K programs. 

With Indiana's K-3 Reading Initiative to have all 3rd grade students pass a state reading assessment that will determine their readiness to move on to grade 4, you would think that there would be more urgency to help our students come to elementary school better prepared. Have we become so focused on college and career readiness that we are failing to recognize one of the most important times in our students' lives--what happens between birth and age 5?

If you step into any kindergarten classroom, you will quickly recognize that there is a vast range of abilities and school readiness among students. Some will know their alphabet, be able to count, have had experiences with books, and will be able to write their name. Others will not be able to recognize a single letter of the alphabet, have had little to no experiences with books, and may have never picked up a pencil or crayon.

This is my thirteenth year in education, and I can honestly tell you that school-readiness is one of the single-most important factors in determining a child's early and continued success in school.  Yet in Indiana children aren't even required by law to attend school until they are age 7, nor are they required to attend kindergarten.  These state statutes continue to blow my mind.  In the article, Ellis and King contrast the extreme gap in beliefs between an optional early childhood education in Indiana and South Korea's mandate that children begin preschool at age 3.  Why does Indiana continue to believe that early learning experiences--including kindergarten-- are optional? 

Most legislators will tell you that the answer is simple:  money.  This may be true, but it is hard to believe that there isn't something more that could be done.  After all, the state cut education funding by $300 million dollars a couple of years ago, causing many teachers to lose their jobs and quality educational programs to be cut.  Recently,  the government announced that they found out that this money was really there--it was an accounting error.  (Insert your own comment here.)  With that said, other states have been creative and have earmarked funding sources such as their state lottery revenue to help with educational needs--something that Indiana touted when first bringing the state lottery to Hoosiers in 1988.  Amazingly, 2012 was the first year that Indiana was able to up the ante on full day kindergarten funding--a one year grant that assisted school corporations enough to be able to offer full day kindergarten free of charge for our patrons--still not fully funding it as touted in the media.  In the past, we have charged parents tuition to have their child in a full day program to help offset the funding deficit.  Even with the funding increase, we still had to advertise the free full day kindergarten as optional.  Fortunately, all of my kindergarten students are full day this year--  something that has been a long time coming!  I am looking forward to seeing the payoff for them as they progress through elementary school.

Funding Pre-K will not alleviate all of the gaps in readiness and achievement, but it sure would be a great place to start.  If we could get all students at age 3 or 4 into a structured educational environment that allowed them to play, explore, learn, and have rich experiences with literacy and numeracy, I believe we would see an increase in not only the test scores our students are measured with, but in the output of educationally well-rounded and successful "college and career ready" citizens.  Shouldn't that be our goal?

Let's continue funding for full day kindergarten, require students to start school by age 5,  and find a way to make Pre-K happen, Indiana! Our children are our most valuable resources, and our future depends on it!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Sense of Belonging

Building a strong sense of community in the classroom is extremely important.  This year, as the staff begins making improvements in the area of writer's workshop, we are also emphasizing the importance of building a sense of belonging for our students.  If we want our students to feel comfortable speaking and writing about personal experiences, they need a safe and accepting environment in which to do so.  One way we are promoting community-building in our classrooms is through "morning meeting" or "community circle." 

Fortunately, we have a resident expert in this practice.  Our 4/5 High Ability teacher worked with the instructional coach to videotape her morning meeting and gave a highly informational presentation to the staff on what a morning meeting in her classroom consists of.  More importantly, she outlined all of the benefits of the morning meeting.  The most beneficial element, in my opinion, is the sense of belonging that students get from this daily interaction with their peers.  They learn that they are part of a classroom "family" and that they take care of each other, have fun together, and learn together. 

Teachers have a lot on their plates right now and may not  feel that they have time in their daily schedules to devote to a 15- 20 minute meeting with their class.  However, if they take just 15-20 minutes of their day to focus on creating a positive learning community within their classrooms, they may spend less time dealing with behavior issues and may see an increase teamwork, effort, pride, and perseverance. 

As I walked through the building last week and witnessed several classrooms having their meetings, it was clear that many of the teachers are seeing the benefits of this daily ritual.  I am anxious to see the positive impact on not only their classroom community but on the culture of the entire school.  We must continue to create the time to build a positive learning community and help all of our students feel a sense of belonging.  It is up to us to help our students find their voice, their role, and their significance in their school community.  It is time very well spent!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Choose Kind

We live in a world of put downs, reality shows that encourage name calling and fist fights, gossip magazines and television programs that highlight celebrities making poor choices. News reports highlight crime and wrongdoing. Negative headlines are the norm.  Even most comedy programming is based upon making fun of others.  Our kids are inundated on a daily basis with images of disrespect, violence, and generally uncouth behavior. So how are our youth supposed to view their world? How are they to determine how to treat others?

Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all made a conscious effort to "choose kind?"  As I reread RJ Palacio's Wonder this weekend, I hoped that Palacio's story would have a meaningful and positive impact on the students in our fifth grade classrooms. All of my fifth grade teachers chose to begin the year with one of my all-time favorite books as their first read aloud. 
In Wonder, Auggie Pullman's unique differences are a daily battle for him.  He experiences the stares, the name-calling, and the lack of tolerance first-hand.  This book is a portrayal of how cruel society can be when someone is viewed as "different."  It is my hope that this book can help our students learn that those who can look beyond appearances and choose to treat others with kindness will help make the world a better place. 

Each day in our building, we say our school pledge that includes "Today I will do the right thing and treat people right."  It is our hope that we can help our students internalize those beliefs and practice them daily.  I am proud of my fifth grade teachers for choosing such an inspiring story to start the year with.  As our fifth graders become familiar with the wonder of Wonder, I hope that they can begin to see the world from Auggie's perspective and make a conscious effort to "Choose Kind."
 Book Trailer for Wonder by RJ Palacio via


Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kicking Off the Year Promoting Reading

This summer,  as I was contemplating the goals I would set for myself for the new school year, one idea kept rising to the top.  I set my sights on becoming the lead reader and number one promoter of reading at my school.  Why?  I want my students and staff to love books and reading just as much as I do.  I want all of my students to be successful readers and lifelong learners.  If I am not the lead reader in the building and setting an example for others, how can I expect my staff and my students to be avid readers?

Here are 5 things I have done to kick off the school year promoting reading at Mayflower Mill.

1.  Summer Reading
This summer I decided that I was going to buckle down and do a lot of reading in preparation for the school year.  I had set a goal for myself to read at least 20 professional, children's, and young adult books.  I surpassed that goal, also reading some best selling "grown up"  novels.  I made reading a priority in my summer plans and was excited to share my summer reading picks with others.  When I returned to school in mid-July, I began creating a collage on the door to my office to advertise the books I read this summer.  It's been a hit with both students and staff, and I have great recommendations to pass along. 

2.  180 #bookaday Challenge
To get students excited about books and reading, I announced that I would be doing a 180 #bookaday challenge.  I will read one picture book a day for each day we are in school.  Each morning on our daily announcements,  I give a brief review of the book I read the day before.  I include the title and author of the book and end my review with some type of hook that I hope will make everyone else want to read the book too.  I created a bulletin board in my office for a monthly display of the books I am reading for my #bookaday challenge. I am also strategically placing myself in prime locations to read the books so that students see me reading.  One day I sat near the entrance to the lunchroom as my second graders were entering.  They got really excited, and I heard many whispers of, "Look!  Ms. Higgins is reading another book!" 

3.    Staff Book Study:  The Book Whisperer
One of the books that inspired me to be a bigger promoter of reading was The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller (@donalynbooks).  I was so inspired, in fact, that I purchased this book for all of my teachers.  We will be reading it and discussing it during our morning professional development time.  I am hoping that many of them will feel just as inspired as I did after reading it. 

Currently Reading: About the Authors: Writing Workshop with Our Youngest Writers by Katie Wood Ray

4.  Currently Reading:  Promoting Books Via Email
I saw this idea on Twitter.  I added a line at the end of my email signature that identifies what I'm currently reading.  I update my signature each time I begin a new professional book.  This is a great way to advertise to everyone I communicate with that reading is important to me. 

got stamina?

5.  Stamina Challenge
Mayflower Mill is a Daily 5/CAFE school.  Therefore, we begin each year with building our students' reading stamina.  "Read to Self" is the first component of Daily 5 that we teach to all students.  This is done by the teachers working with the students to identify what it should look like, feel like, and sound like during a time they are reading to themselves.  Then, teachers allow students to read independently and train them to increase their stamina so that they can build up the amount of time they can stay on task with their reading.  One way we promote increasing stamina is by having a Reading Stamina Challenge.  I have the teachers chart their students' daily stamina time and then collect the average number of minutes each class was able to read independently for the week.  I then announce their average reading stamina times on the morning announcements and congratulate them on their efforts.  This challenge is a fun way to get the students excited about being independent readers. 

So, there you have it!  5 ways that I am building excitement for reading this year.  There are many more plans in the works, so I will provide updates as the school year progresses. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Are You Ready?

"Are you ready for school to begin?"  It's one of the most popular questions we educators get asked by friends, relatives, acquaintances, students, parents--pretty much anyone who knows what we do. If I had a dollar for every time I had been asked this question, I would be well on my way to purchasing a second home in the South of France.   As I have been asked about this over and over again during the past few weeks, my answer has never wavered--Yes!  I am so ready for school to begin!  I can't wait!

Don't get me wrong, I love my summer vacation.  It is a time for me to relax, reflect, and re-energize.  However, by the end of July I start getting antsy.  I come down with "Back-to-School-itis."  I begin to get excited about all of the promising possibilities a new school year brings.  I begin thinking about my wonderful students and staff and long to be back with all of them, witnessing the miracle of learning.  For me, this is the most exciting time of the year. 

I do you answer that question?  Regardless of how you answer, the first day of school is just around the corner.  You have the power to set the tone for your school year by being excited it's here. Or you can choose to begin the year feeling depressed that summer has come to a close.  I choose to set myself, my staff, and my students up for the best school year ever--because I truly am ready!  I hope you feel the same sense of joy and excitement as I do!

I can't wait! Let's do this!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

To the Twitterverse and Beyond! (A Tweep is Born)

I guess you could say I am still a Social Media "infant."  I've only existed in the "Twitterverse" for 6 months.  Why did it take me so long to get on board?   Well, I was one of the many Twitter hold-outs.  I just couldn't understand how Twitter could possibly be useful to me at age 40+.  Heck, I'm not even on Facebook!  Wasn't Twitter the younger generation's "thing?"  Well, according to two of my teachers, Twitter was becoming a great source of professional development for them.  It was giving them inspiration, and they began encouraging me to check it out.  Still, I was hesitant to put myself out there.  I had no clue how to "Tweet!" However, seeing their excitement began peaking my curiosity.  So one evening last February, I finally decided I was going to give it a go. 

Much to my surprise, I found setting up my Twitter account to be fairly easy.  The site walks you through a simple step-by-step process.  I had heard that picking your screen name was pretty important.  Since I knew that I was going to use this account as a professional tool, I decided to go with the handle @MMEPrincipal.  Knowing a few of my teachers and principal colleagues were already connected helped me begin choosing who to add to my PLN.  (Personal Learning Network,  for you newbies!)  Once I got all set up and sent out my first official tweet, I was welcomed into a whole new world that would transform me in ways I could never have imagined.  It took me a while to get the hang of mentions, hashtags, and chats, but it's like anything else--you learn by doing!

Though I've only been on Twitter for 6 months, in that short time frame I feel like I have been reborn.  A whole new world of learning has opened up to me.  I have learned so much from other people all over the world.  Not only have I made connections with fellow principals and teachers, but I have also connected with Twitter friends who are authors, bloggers, librarians--and generally just very smart people!  I have become a voracious reader--of blogs, of books, of ideas being streamed non-stop through my Twitter-feed.  Most importantly, I feel I have truly become the lead learner in my building.  Social media has inspired me and given me the vehicle to navigate this important role!

One of the first smart people I followed was @PrincipalJ.  One of my fifth grade teachers, @MMEGrade5, had forwarded something to me that she had written about her school's  journey into implementing Daily 5 and CAFE school-wide.  This really resonated with me because we were doing the same thing at my school.  It was a great feeling to know there was someone else out their leading her building through this process.  As soon as I realized @PrincipalJ also shared many of her other ideas and reflections via a blog, I decided I wanted a piece of that action as well!  I caught the blogging bug,  and A Principal's Pensieve was born. 

I will say that I have done a much better job keeping up with my Twitter account than my blog.   After over 1,000 Tweets and having the very surprising honor of being named one of 48 Indiana Educators to Follow by @StateImpactIN, I'm  feeling pretty comfortable within the confines of 140 characters.  However, I am less confident in my ability to write with enough finesse to attract readers to my blog.  And I thought I was putting myself out there via Twitter!  I had no idea how daunting writing lengthier pieces for the entire world to read can be.  Blogging really exposes you and makes you feel extremely vulnerable.  However, I'm happy to say that I've finally come to the realization that I just need to get over it!  I realize that I need to have this outlet to reflect and write about things that are important to me.  My posts do not look like they are professionally written , but they do contain my thoughts, my reflections, my opinions, my hopes and dreams, and they also help express who I am. As you are reading this,  I hope there will be a small part of this born-again social media geek that will resonate with you, just as so many terrific bloggers have done for me.  (A small sample of some great blogs is listed on my homepage.) 

If you are one of the hold-outs who has been hearing the buzz about Twitter or other social media outlets but you're still afraid to give it a try, I urge you get out of your comfort zone and just dive in!  If I can do it, anyone can!  You will not regret granting yourself access to a professional development portal that is open 24 hours a day/7 days a week.  There are great minds out there who love to share their knowledge and continue to help all of us remain a committed and cohesive group of lifelong learners.  So don't miss out--get connected!  You'll be glad you did!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Preparing Classrooms for Another Year of Learning

I started back to work this week, and I am impressed with the number of teachers who have already begun working in their classrooms.  We had quite a bit of construction in the building over the summer, and many of them have been chomping at the bit to get into their classrooms and begin setting up for the big day--August 14.  It will be here before we know it! 

This is an exciting time for me too because in addition to preparing the school for students and staff to return, I also have a classroom to prepare.  I am fortunate to have an extra room in which I can hold all of my Instructional Improvement Blocks (IIBs).  IIB is a daily time block in which we meet as an entire elementary staff for a 30 minute professional development session.  This summer all of our textbook deliveries were placed in this room, which meant I spent the entire day on Tuesday unpacking boxes and delivering books to the classrooms--I lost count after box number 124.  Yes, that's a lot of books!  Now that the books and cardboard boxes are out of there, it is up to me to create a welcoming environment in my classroom.  Hmm...what to do?

Last year, I put up a CAFE board and Daily 5 choice chart as focal points in the classroom.  We are school-wide with both, and I wanted to keep the staff focused on them throughout the year. I created cute little strategy cards for the bulletin board and hung them under each letter of CAFE, thinking it would be a great visual.  I referenced the board a few times during our IIBs, but I didn't give my teachers any ownership in this display.  There were countless days that we spent honing our skills in D5 and CAFE in which I would show videos, share teaching strategies and expectations, teachers would share ideas and collaborate, and we would discuss our progress.  However, I kept forgetting about that wall!

This year, I plan to have the teachers create the strategy cards as we are focusing on them in our sessions.  Just as the teachers have the students create them as they are taught, I feel it would be meaningful to do the same with my teachers.  I have devoted one day per week to CAFE/D5 so that we stay up to date and current in our instructional practices.   Just as I expect my teachers to refer to their interactive CAFE boards during instruction and have their students take ownership, I will be doing the same with them.

So, in setting up my classroom, I will have the CAFE board and Daily 5 choices posted, but I will wait for my "students" to take this journey with me and record our learning as we go.  Even though we have been doing CAFE and Daily 5 school-wide for more than a year, there is always room to grow.  Plus this year we have 5 new teachers that will take this journey with us! 

As far as the rest of the room's decor?  Well, I have decided to leave the rest of the bulletin boards "bare" so that my teachers will have opportunities to show ownership of this classroom.  My goal will be to have them create items based on what we work on throughout the year.  I want it to be OUR classroom, not MY classroom.  As you reflect on decorating your classrooms this summer in preparation for the beginning of school, I urge you to think about whose classroom it is and how you can create a sense of ownership and community with your students. 

Will any of your bulletin boards be bare?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Visit To Wonderland: The Ron Clark Academy

When I signed up to attend teacher training at the Ron Clark Academy, I had no idea how much this visit would impact me.  I wasn't sure what to expect.  I mean, I knew who Ron Clark was-- I'd read The Essential 55 (several years ago), and I had seen news clips of his students performing on various news programs.  I knew there had been a movie made about him.  I even followed @ronclarkacademy on Twitter.  However, I was completely unprepared for the pure joy I felt the moment I entered RCA and the lasting effect this visit has had on me.  I felt as if I had stepped into a magic wonderland--the type of school we educators can only dream of.

My day began by driving into what appeared to be a sketchy area of Atlanta.  I pulled into the parking lot across the road from the school at 7:45.  We had been instructed to wait until 8:15 to approach the gate of the school, so I sat patiently waiting in my car.  This school looked incredibly out of place for the area.  The large wrought iron entry gate was topped by an iron archway that read "Altruismo, Isibindi, Nukumori, Reveur, Pinal, and Amistad."  Intriguing, I thought.  I wondered what those words represented.

I continued sitting in my car and observed students dressed in their school uniforms piling out of their parents' vehicles rushing to get inside.  I observed the security guard  happily opening the large gate for staff members as they arrived and parked inside the compound.  I also began to see other educators arriving for our first day of training.  As I sat there waiting, I began to wonder...What would this day be like?  What will they possibly have us do over the course of 2 days?  What impact will this experience have on me?  I really hoped that there would be something I could take from this training that would have a meaningful impact.  I had no idea what was in store for me!

At 8:15, our facilitator told us we could enter the gate.  We were given name tags and instructed to go inside the building that houses the school library.  Upon entering, I knew this was not going to be your typical school, your typical training, your typical anything--and I was pumped!  Students were lined around the perimeter of the library.  In the center, there was a giant trampoline, complete with a hydraulic harness.  I instantly recognized Kim Bearden (whom I also follow on Twitter @kimbearden).  She is the co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy.  Kim was standing on the trampoline, hand on the trigger of the harness as a student enthusiastically jumped high in the air.  Music blared from the sound system, students were singing and dancing, every single person had a huge smile on their face.  Two students instantly came up to me and shook my hand, introduced themselves, asked my name, where I was from, and what brought me to their school.  Each of the students was beaming and made me feel like they were waiting for me to arrive--that they had a genuine interest in me. They carried on a great conversation with me, and as we talked I noticed that some of the other educators had been coaxed into getting into the contraption and jump to the music.  One of the students I was chatting with took me by the hand and said, "C'mon, you just have to try out our trampoline.  It is the best."  I said, "I don't know if I really want to do that."  However, the look on her face sold me and the next thing I knew I was kicking off my pumps, getting strapped into the harness, jumping to the beat of the music, and having a BLAST!

After our initial welcome, Ms. Bearden dismissed the students and then proceeded to welcome us to the school and tell us a little bit about what they stood for and what we could expect over the course of our training.  Then we were directed to head over to the main building.  She didn't have to tell me twice!  I quickly walked outside and ended up being the very first person to go in.  Again, I was not expecting what awaited.  Rihanna's "We Found Love" was blaring from the sound system, all RCA students were in the lobby clapping, dancing, singing and smiling.  As I made my way in, a beautiful young lady came and took me by the hand.  We danced our way through the lobby and standing in the center of the lobby was none other than Ron Clark, also clapping, singing, and smiling.  We made eye contact, I waved to him like a starstruck school girl, and joined the cluster of students.  As everyone entered, we all continued singing and clapping.  It was a grand entrance!  They really know how to make you feel welcome!

Then it was Ron's turn to welcome us to his school.  He jumped up on the counter and began to speak to us about his passion for teaching, his school, and his desire to revolutionize education.  He made us feel like we were about to be a part of something magical.  And believe me, he did not disappoint!

Over the course of two days, I got to observe Ron Clark, Kim Bearden, Adam Dovico, Gina Coss, Sarah Hildebrand, and Ken Townsel teach their classes.  I participated in a "Blues" workshop with Susan Barnes.  And each of the aforementioned teachers also did breakout workshops with us on how to implement some of the creative ideas at RCA in our own classrooms and schools.  I was thoroughly inspired by each of these educator's creativity, their commitment to excellence, their high standards, and their love for their students. They all teach with passion, integrity, and a desire to see each of their students achieve to their highest potential.  I absolutely fell in love with each and every staff member and student I came into contact with.  I even became "slide certified" at the end of the first day, complete with a huge ceremony that involved music, dancing, cheering, and one speedy blue slide.  (Yes, each of us educators got to take a ride on "big blue.")   It truly felt like "Wonderland."

I also learned what the words on the iron gate represented--four of the words were the names of the "Houses" that each RCA student belongs to.  At RCA, when students are welcomed to school, they are selected randomly into a House.  Altruismo, Amistad, Isibindi, and Reveur are the four houses.  Each house holds special meaning and serves as an instant family for the students at RCA.  The houses compete for house championship points by earning points for academics, behavior, manners, and accomplishments.  A video screen in the main hallway keeps score for each team, with one team being crowned House Champions at the end of the school year.  Students in each house proudly wear the crest of their house on their uniforms and are proud to tell you all about their house, what it represents, and where they are in regard to the House Championship.

At the end of the second day of training, we were given the opportunity to have Ron sign books, posters, t-shirts, etc. and have our photos taken with him.  I was thrilled to be able to interact with him personally.  As I approached him, I felt the inner starstruck schoolgirl again, but I kept my composure.  As I introduced myself to him again, he was so genuine and kind.  He signed my copy of The End of Molasses Classes, and his final message to me is inscribed on the inside of my treasured book-- "Lead with passion."  I plan to do just that!  (And, by the way, I plan to someday cross paths with Mr. Clark again.  I am  making it my personal goal to work with him in some capacity in the future.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Comparison:The Daily Five and Writer's Workshop

Overall objective
Improve Writing Instruction

Today's Learning Objective
Teachers will be able to identify similarities and differences betwen D5  practices and the Writer's Workshop approach.

Marzano's research in best practices has identified comparing and contrasting as a highly successful instructional strategy.  My goal in utilizing this best practice with the staff today was to help them recognize that they already have many of the tools to take our writing instruction to a new level.
Teachers list the similarities and differences between
D5/CAFE and their current Writer's Workshop

The Task 
Each grade level team was given a sheet of paper to make a comparison chart between Daily 5 and Writer's Workshop.  They could come up with a chart, a Venn diagram, or any other visual means to show the similarities and differences.  After each team completed the task, we discussed and recorded some of their ideas.

After each grade level made their own comparison charts, I recorded some of their ideas
for the whole group to see
It became quite apparent that there were far more similarities than differences.  The middle column shows how D5/CAFE and Writer's Workshop are similar.  Some of the similarities listed included:  conferencing, mini-lessons, building stamina, modeling, independent practice, read-alouds, and sharing.  Some of the differences included the amount of time built into their schedules for each--90 minutes for reading vs. 60 minutes for writing and during D5 the writing the students do is in response to texts.

It was my goal for the staff to see that many of the procedures they have taught their students and the practices they employ each day during their reading block will transfer quite nicely to the writer's workshop.  Realizing we have been on a 2.5 year journey to school-wide Daily 5 and CAFE, I know that there is still some work to do-- professional development, support and encouragement.  However, after today's comparison, I feel the staff believes that improving our writing block will be an easier path due to the foundation the D5/CAFE has provided.  Just one more reason to thank the sisters.  Thank you Gail and Joan! 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Kindergarten, Here I Come!

Last week, our school held it's second annual Kindergarten, Here I Come! event for incoming kindergarten students and their families.  This evening is dedicated to meeting our new students and their families and providing them with readiness activities that they can do over the summer to help prepare for kindergarten.  We began the event last year as a way to build a bridge between students' preschool experience and Kindergarten.  We have found that the outreach has proven to be a successful way of welcoming our students and their families and making them feel comfortable with our school. 

Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. M. explains a fine-motor activity
the families will complete in her classroom

We begin the event by having a meal in the cafeteria.  Families are encouraged to buddy up and sit with each other to network and get to know others.  We feel this relationship-building time is a key to helping our families meet others and develop friendships.  We then send siblings to the daycare room--another bonus for our families!  After all siblings are out of the cafeteria, we then dismiss our families to the first of four rotations through each of our four kindergarten classrooms.  Each rotation lasts approximately fifteen minutes.

During their visits to each classroom, the families have the opportunity to learn about our curriculum and complete activities with their child.  Some of the things we introduce are Daily 5 and CAFE--our school-wide philosophy and structure for teaching reading, fine-motor activities, counting, letter naming, writing, and other expectations of what their child should be able to do upon entering kindergarten.  Families leave with a file folder full of activities and several books for their child.

Mrs. B. explains a counting activity parents
can do with their child

We end the evening by having our parents complete an exit survey so that we can improve the event from year to year.  The majority of parents request more time with each rotation--a good indicator they are enjoying each activity!

We were very proud to note that over 2/3 of our future kindergarteners were in attendance at this year's event.  Building strong partnerships with the families now will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the students and their academic success.  What a fun and productive night!

Common Core Math Standards

Teachers learn more about
the common core math standards

The learning objective of our professional development time this week was to begin to understand the common core math standards with an emphasis on seeing the vertical alignment of the domains in grades K-5.  We began our sessions with a short video that gave some background on the common core standards and why they were developed.  As a staff, we discussed our current Indiana State Standards in Math and how difficult it is to "cover" everything.  Reflecting upon that last statement, I believe the word "cover" says a lot.  In the past, we have tried to "cover" all of the requirements of our state due to the high demands of standardized testing and the weight those scores carry.  It became a race to see if we could make it "through the textbook" or "through the entire set of standards."  Unfortunately, with an exceptionally high number of concepts to teach, not enough time was given to develop a deep understanding of the concepts before it would be time to move on to the next standard on the checklist.  This has led to our instruction becoming more about how many standards/concepts we can teach during our 36 week school year versus how much our students truly understand the mathematical concepts before moving on to the next topic. 

Through the process of unpacking the common core math standards, it became apparent that many of the concepts we are currently teaching at each grade level will remain the same.  However, it also became very apparent that we are going to need to kick our instruction up a few notches.  As someone in the video mentioned, the way our past state standards were written, they led to us to teaching "an inch deep and a mile wide."  With the move to the common core, the goal is to slow down and spend the time to really develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts so that we are creating a solid foundation of mathematical reasoning.  We will need to focus our efforts on developing units of learning that will put more emphasis on the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy.

Each standard was written on a sentence
strip and added to our standards chart to
create a visual of the progression of
learning from grades K-5
We also learned that it is going to be important for teachers to not only collaborate with their grade level teams, but for teams to collaborate across grade levels to ensure that students are able to build upon their learning from year to year.  The level of understanding that is expected with the new common core standards has definitely raised the bar for all educators.  We look forward to the challenge of developing ways to take our students to the next level.  We also look forward to the challenge of taking our instruction to the next level as well.  It's time to slow the pace and deepen the knowledge.  We are all in this together!

Creating a visual chart of standards from grades K-5 and
having each team present their standards with an explanation allowed the entire staff to see the vertical alignment of each domain

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Strengthening Our Writing Muscle

5th grade teachers
"Writing taught once or twice a week is just frequently enough to remind children that they cannot write.  They are like athletes who never get in condition, yet have to play the game before cynical spectators." -- Donald Graves

This quote spoke volumes to me.  I ran across it as I was preparing an instructional improvement session for my staff.  I immediately began thinking about how we  "condition" our students and build their writing "muscle."  Any fitness enthusiast or coach would agree that a good conditioning program takes time, energy, practice, concerted effort, application, dedication, and consistency to build strength, stamina, and muscle.

Imagine the following scenario.

Bodybuilder A:  This bodybuilder lifts weights only once or twice a week and learns just the basic mechanics of weightlifting.  In isolation, she uses proper form but does not apply the moves in a cohesive, logical format.  There is no authentic feedback given to the bodybuilder, and she has no real purpose for her workouts.  She often gets distracted and off track and is inconsistent in her routine.   She hasn't spoken to anyone about her trips to the gym and does not interact with others while there. 

Bodybuilder B:  This bodybuilder has a purpose.  She is training for a competition and is excited about her journey.  She trains 5 days a week, pre-plans each day's workout, and learns not only the mechanics/techniques of effective lifting but applies them with concerted effort.  She gets constructive feedback from her peers and self-reflects.  She tells her friends about her workouts and reads the latest fitness magazines for inspiration and ideas.  She revises and edits her program based on what is working and the areas that need improvement.  She analyzes the effectiveness of her training regimen and begins to see incredible results. When it comes time for the competition, she has gone through many phases of preparation and gets the opportunity to share the fruits of her labor.  Whether she wins or not, she feels confident in her work and gets a great deal of satisfaction from reaching her goals.

Just imagine the strength, stamina, and muscle Bodybuilder B would gain from this type of conditioning!  The same holds true for our students.  In order to build their strength, increase their stamina, and gain muscle in their writing, they must follow a well-designed daily regimen. 

Building Strength
Too often, writing instruction is reduced to teaching mechanics and grammar in isolation.  While these skills are necessary and must be taught, they are sometimes reduced to worksheet-driven learning.  We can help build a writer's strength through exposure to rich meaningful texts and multiple genres that demonstrate the skills and strategies we are teaching.  Lessons should be followed by opportunities that allow students to apply what is being learned via their writing--authentic practice!

3rd grade teachers
Increasing Stamina
Imagine a beginning runner training for a marathon.  She will not be able to run the entire distance on day one, and it will take many days of conditioning to prepare and build the stamina necessary to endure the rigorous challenge.  Students also need to build their endurance in writing --their writing stamina.  This is the independent component of writer's workshop.  Students are encouraged to build their stamina by writing independently for 30-45 minutes a day. If this opportunity does not exist for our students, we are not giving them the chance to go the distance.

Gaining Muscle
As hard as it may be at times to convince myself to get up and get moving after a long day at work, I have never regretted a workout once it has been completed.  When I leave the gym, I feel amazing!  The endorphins are coursing through my veins.   Some of our students may also be tough to convince to "get moving" with their writing.  They may need extra encouragement and support.  However, once they begin writing and practice and improve,  they will feel the endorphins after sharing their piece of writing.  They will be so glad they began moving!  They will be gaining the muscle that is needed to express themselves via the written word.

Kindergarten teachers 
As my staff diligently worked on writing about one of their favorite memories, I was busy crafting my own piece.  The memory I chose was the moment I got the call from my superintendent offering me the position as principal.  It was truly a life-changing moment.  It was a moment that led me here--leading my amazing staff through another learning opportunity.  At the end of "class," some of my teachers shared their writing by reading it aloud to the group.  It became evident to me that I was in a room full of writers with incredible stories to share.  It is my hope that as we continue this journey of learning they will inspire their students to become writers through meaningful daily instruction. 

Students, get ready!  Your teachers are preparing to help you build the strength, stamina, and writing muscle we all know is lying beneath the surface.  Let's work out!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Destination: Building a Community of Writers

Now that I am feeling confident that our school-wide efforts with Daily 5 and CAFE are fully up and running smoothly, it is time to focus on our next area of improvement--writing instruction.  With the Common Core standards staring us directly in the eye, there will be much more emphasis placed on students applying their learning through writing.  In researching what may be the best path to take with our professional development, all roads continue to bring me back to Lucy Calkins' work.  The writer's workshop is a direct reflection of the philosophy and structure we have embraced in regard to our reading instruction.  Teachers are comfortable teaching mini-lessons, modeling strategies through read alouds, meeting with students in small groups or one-on-one, and setting up a structured environment in which students become independent learners and are actively practicing reading and writing on a daily basis.  It just makes sense that we would apply this philosophy to teaching writing.

In our district, we are fortunate to have daily staff development built into our schedule.  Our day begins with a 30 minute instructional improvement block.  I am able to schedule specific staff development topics that are pertinent to our overall instructional improvement.  Two weeks ago, I shared Lucy Calkins' philosophy for writing workshop by reading an excerpt from Launching the Writing Workshop in her Units of Study.  We then talked about the perceived roadblocks that were preventing us from providing the type of writing instruction we dreamed of.  Many of the roadblocks were related to time--not enough time/ the time of day we have to teach writing is not optimal.  However, one roadblock that I found to be particularly challenging as an admininstrator is that not all teachers are confident in their ability to teach writing.  Why?  Most teachers do not view themselves as writers.  Imagine trying to teach reading if you didn't see yourself as a reader.  Wouldn't that be difficult?

So how do I get more of my teachers to see themselves as writers?  The same way we would expect to develop this belief in our students.  I am planning on doing some writing instruction with them and letting them practice writing during our instructional improvement block.  We will delve into the format of writer's workshop and how it looks, sounds, and feels.  We will build our writing stamina and create I-Charts to assist us in creating an independent learning environment. We will practice writing our thoughts on paper, revising our writing, and sharing.  

Last week, I purchased composition notebooks for each teacher and had them bring personal items to decorate their writer's notebooks.  I give Beth Newingham credit for this idea.  The teacher resources section of her website has been a delightful find!  This week, my teachers will be bringing their writer's notebooks to instructional improvement block and will be delving into the world of writing.  I must say that I am extremely excited to begin this journey with them.  I'm ready to start moving some of those roadblocks! 

This blog will also provide me with an outlet to begin to see myself as a writer and lead my staff toward realizing their potential as writers.  Once they begin to see themselves as writers, we can begin to move toward our ultimate destination--building a school-wide community of writers!

Share your favorite writer's workshop resources with me via Twitter!  @MMEPrincipal

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Welcome to my Blog!

I am a first year principal who has been toying with the notion of creating my own blog.  The idea first crossed my mind when some of my teachers shared their blogs with me.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading their reflections and felt that a blog would provide me an outlet to reflect upon my first year as a principal.  I chose to name my blog "A Principal's Pensieve" because a pensieve (in the world of Harry Potter) is an object used to review memories.  It will be my goal to not only review my memories and experiences via this blog, but to reflect upon them in order to learn and grow.  Thank you for visiting!  I look forward to sharing my experiences!