Monday, September 26, 2016

Let's Take a Breath

Let's all take a breath.  In through the nose and out through the mouth. Breathe. Repeat. Without the daily full team meetings, and the new schedule that has teachers teaching five periods a day, I sense that many of you are uncomfortable. The dis-ease of the staff is almost palpable.

Right now what we need to do is to model what we want our students to do. We always want our students to see their learning holistically and not as isolated knowledge.  We want them to be able to globalize their learning and to be able to apply it in new situations.

We have more than 540 years of teaching experience. We only have three weeks of experience with this new schedule and these new students. What we need to do is to globalize our experience to meet these new challenges. What we must  avoid at all costs is what Daniel Kahneman calls heuristic judgment. (2011) According to Kahneman, when a person or organization has a problem that they don't know how to solve, they turn it into a problem they can solve. Put another way, if you view every problem as a nail, the only tool you ever need is a hammer. Our challenge is to have the discipline to collaboratively find new solutions to new problems.

We need to keep the reasons why we are doing this fresh in our minds at all times. The only way to ensure our students can achieve at high levels is to increase the amount of instructional minutes and their opportunity to learn. Let's face it, teaching five periods a day is much more stressful than teaching four periods and workshop block. Add to that change having to teach in two grade levels, and for some people, teaching multiple content areas in two grade levels. That much change without the stability and comfort of a daily team meetings creates even more stress.  It's a significant adjustment, but it is absolutely the right thing to do for our students.

For far too long the annual apples and oranges  comparisons between Pawcatuck Middle, a Title I School, and that other middle school has discounted the great work we do here. My personal goal is to have a school where demographics doesn’t equal destiny, and right now we are on the cusp of greatness.

For the first time,  three out of four grade levels either met or exceeded the scores for English Language Arts of that other middle school in our region.  That is awesome. Let me say that another way -- Pawcatuck Middle School’s ELA achievement led the district for half of all students in the district’s middle schools. Perhaps even better than that, the gap between the two middle school’s students scoring at the highest level was closer than it ever has been before. Even in grade 8 ELA, where the overall gap at level 3 and above was 6 points lower than district average, we only missed district average at level 4 by 3 points. Three percentage points for that cohort of students is only two students. Two. We are making good progress in math too. Our seventh grade led the district in math by a wide margin. Even in eighth grade, where some of the numbers didn’t match up well, 31 percent of our students achieved level 3, which was right on district average.

That's quite an accomplishment for a Title I school. We know what our obstacles and challenges are with our demographics. For our teachers to achieve these results is nothing short of outstanding.  It's one of the many reasons why I don't want to work in any other middle school. We do good work here, and we achieve  results while taking really good care of our students.

We need to look at all of our problems and solve them creatively and keep moving forward by increasing opportunity to learn and protecting instructional minutes every opportunity we get.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

New Year's Revolution?

In keeping with the practices of good journalism, I'm not going to bury the lead. Here it is -- In the next few weeks we will be working together to change the workshop block into graded classes in reading, writing, and math. Students will be grouped homogeneously for these classes based on the Star360 data, and the Star360 instructional planning reports will drive the lessons. We will implement this change with the semester switch on January 25th.

Back in the fall, the Board of Education made some strong statements about the disparity in the SBAC scores, and student achievement in general, between the two middle schools. In the administrative meetings that followed, we had a great deal of discussion about how the number of teachers on a grade level team effect the number of instructional minutes that students spend in graded content classes. There is no magic in the concept that more instructional time produces more student learning. Higher test scores are a natural consequence of more instructional minutes per school day. I was directed to increase the number of graded instructional minutes, as part of the plan to reduce the disparity in student achievement. It was made clear that we can't sit in those same meetings next year without having taken steps in a new direction.

When there is a 5-teacher team, students are scheduled into 5 periods: math, science, social studies, LA, and an additional language arts class that focuses on writing. In this model every student gets all 5 of these classes every day. Here at Pawcatuck, with only 4 teachers or less per grade level, we have been scheduling 4 academic classes per day plus workshop.

The workshop here has its merits. Pawcatuck Middle School has a disproportionate number of students who receive supports. The workshop model has allowed us to offer a variety of remediation efforts without pulling these students out of academic or survey classes. Many of the teachers here have created wonderful, creative, and challenging enrichment activities for our higher performing students during workshop. With only 3-4 teachers in a team, there is no way to have all of the students in that grade have the same class for that 5th academic period. Workshop solved that problem.

I have created a framework for the plan to change workshop, but we need to collaborate to make it work. The framework places students into two types of classes, foundations and topics. In math and language arts, the foundational classes will have three levels. The levels will be  taught by a special education teacher, Title I tutor, or content teacher for students in the Urgent Intervention, Intervention, and On Watch groups respectively. Students in the At/Above Benchmark groups in both math and language arts will be scheduled with social studies and science teachers for "topics" classes. The focus of these classes will be non-fiction reading and writing in those subjects. We will be meeting together to further develop this plan. Nothing is written in stone yet, and I look forward to everyone contributing their ideas.

To make this work, we will have to make a few technical adjustments to the period schedule, changing the workshop in some grades from 60 minutes to a standard 50 minute class. Change is hard. I hate to make schedule changes midstream, but is an opportunity to take a step forward in student achievement that we can't afford not to take.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

From Whom the Bell Tolls

It's time to put our jackets on. Before we return, I'd like to address a topic that has been weighing on our minds. Shortly after the last school year ended, we lost one of our 7th grade students. As a school, we provided support to students and families. We also came together to offer support for ourselves. Throughout the summer, Stonington Police conducted an investigation into this untimely death. The details of her death remain unclear and unresolved. Although everyone strives for understanding and tries to make meaning when tragic events occur, sometimes that is just not possible.

As we return the school, the question is what, if anything, should we do for our students? This question spawns two additional questions: 1) How to we honor Shelbi without reliving and reviving the trauma? (2) How do we address an issue that is undefined? (The issues of accidental death, suicide, peer pressure, and bullying have all been examined in this case without any resolution.)

For many of us, this has weighed heavy on us all summer. After long and serious consideration, I believe the best plan of action is to open school as normal without any formal programs or assistance. Only a few students and parents sought our help in the direct aftermath of the incident. This makes it reasonable to assume that parents and families did their work in assisting their children to deal with the untimely death of a peer. This is as it should be. Every family is different. It is not only the school's responsibility to teach and support the whole child, but also to create the space for parents to parent and honor the individuality of that process. We need to trust and honor the work parents and families have done.

I believe the best course of action is to proceed as normal, and start the business of school right from the opening bell. At the same time, we do need to stay vigilant in assisting individual students whose return to school may trigger another step in the grieving process. To that end, I trust in all of you as teaching professionals to accomplish this a refer those students to our mental health professionals. As we monitor the start of the school year, we will react to any larger needs that arise. Throughout the year, opportunities to honor Shelbi may rise organically from her family and classmates. We will take those as they come. Reverend Roger Bertschausen had this to say about grief, "Grief can awaken us to new values and new and deeper appreciations. Grief can cause us to reprioritize things in our lives, to recognize what's really important and put it first. Grief can heighten our gratitude as we cease taking the gifts life bestows on us for granted. Grief can give us the wisdom of being with death. Grief can make death the companion on our left who guides us and gives us advice. None of this growth makes the loss good and worthwhile, but it is the good that comes out of the bad." I know that the staff at Pawcatuck Middle has a lasting positive effect on our students. We are about to start a new school year with both new and returning students. They all need you, the teaching professional to be present and to guide and teach them.

At the service for Shelbi, the Reverend Dr. Wayne C. Eberly read John Donne's poem, "No Man is an Island." While Pawcatuck Middle School has been diminished by this loss, we are neither defeated, nor deterred. When the bell tolls to open the 2015-16 school year, it tolls for us the professional teachers. Put your jackets on.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Schedule for the 2015-16 School Year

Change is hard. It really is, but we need to move forward. The schedule for this year is radically different from what we have done in the past. I believe it is a step forward towards where we will ultimately need to be three years from now when the two remodeled elementary schools open.

The main framework of the schedule is a 7-period school day. All class periods are 50 minutes long. Students and teachers are assigned to classes in the 7 periods. The school day is divided into 7 blocks of time, Block A through Block G. The new terminology may take some getting used to, but it is straightforward. In order to standardize lunches and workshop blocks, class periods 4 and 5 do not rotate. These periods always meet during Blocks D and E. The other 5 class periods rotate around them.

With 5 periods rotating we must use a 5-Day cycle. This is one of the big changes. Instead of the old 4-day cycle, we will now have Day1, Day2, Day3, Day4, and Day5. Most survey classes will still operate on every other day cycle. We need to keep track of this alternating cycle separately as A-Days and B-Days. Although the name has changed, the game is the same. Students who have Band period 6 on A-Days will have PE period 6 on B-Days. Here is the cycle of days: Day1-A, Day2-B, Day3-A, Day4-B, Day5-A, Day1-B, Day2-A, Day 3-B, Day4-A, Day5-B. The cycle repeats after that. You can see that since Day5 is followed by Day1, using "Odd" and "Even" to refer to the alternation of survey classes would be confusing. Grades 5 & 6 has an additional wrinkle in the survey rotation that includes digital literacy, but rather than go into that here, I'll address it with the teachers involved.

Blocks D and E are a combination of three things: (1) Lunch, (2) Workshop, (3) a 50-minute class period. Each grade level has the three elements in a slightly different configuration in order to rotate the grades through the lunch times. Grades 5 and 8 will always have their period 5 class during Block E and their workshop and lunch time during Block D. Grades 6 & 7 will always have class period 4 during Block D, and have lunch and workshop during Block E.

There was a wide variety of variables and considerations in the construction of this schedule. I believe it moves us in the right direction. My ultimate goal in creating a standard 7-period schedule for all is to be able to move scheduling into PowerSchool, automating much of this work. I think we can quickly get to the point where teachers can walk out of the building on the last day of the school year with next year's schedule and rosters in hand.

Here's the Podcast Version:

Friday, July 24, 2015

PawPrints Podcast sound check

I have been toying with the idea of creating a podcast for a few years now. With all of the projects we have going on this year, I thought that this was a good time to actually start one. My plan is to publish both a blog post and a podcast to regularly update everyone with project and school improvement updates. You can choose to read the blog or listen to the podcasts. Both with have virtually the same information.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What's The Plan Stan?

Welcome to Paw Prints the blog. We have a great deal of really exciting work to, and we have lots of great teachers here. One of our big challenges is finding the time to work together and share our ideas.  I see so many great little things happening in our classrooms. The challenge is, how can we share these strategies to leverage our school improvement efforts?

Clearly, we can't wait for more resources and more time. That's just not going to happen at the scale needed. We could wallow in that, but let's not. Wallowing doesn't do anything to move us forward. We do good work here. We need to leverage it to scale up the effect of our good work.

The solution lies in using the time and resources we do have. Our biggest resource is team planning time. In the 170 or so full days of school each year, we have more than 7,650 minutes of team planning time. That's 1,275 hours. I know that time time is already packed with work that teams do with planning, with whole child supports, and with meaningful instructional improvement discussions. I also know that lots of these minutes are consumed by PPT, 504, and RtI meetings.

That's where the payoff lives. If we invest some time in working together to improve our delivery of challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction, then we can reduce the amount of time spent in remediation and the burden of progress monitoring paperwork and meetings.

Using team planning time to develop these PLC's around this work, also makes sense with the new CCT and teacher evaluation process. We all know that one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get PD is dreadful. My goal here is to provide the structure of each team, and each individual teacher to create his or her individual plan and professional goals. Next year, I want more of our PD days to follow the "Unconference" style, which will allow teachers to individualize professional growth.

Our school improvement plan is firmly grounded in consistently providing challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction, and this blog will be one way of sharing our ideas, and communicating our progress. The three-pronged plan includes, McREL instructional strategies, Learning Targets, and Strategies from Teach Like a Champion (TLaC).

Here's my Theory of Action (ToA) for this effort: If I provide teachers with effective teaching strategies that support the delivery of challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction and closely monitor the use of those strategies through walkthroughs and team meetings, then student engagement and student achievement will increase and referrals for both discipline and intervention will decrease.

As a subset, this is the ToA for Learning Targets: If teachers design the right learning target for “Today’s Lesson,” and use it along with their students to aim for and assess understanding, then the most effective teaching and the most meaningful student learning will happen.

In the very near future, I will be around to the team meetings to talk with you about these plans.

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Paw Prints by Timothy B. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.