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.