Sunday, March 24, 2013

Not a Peep...

I hate Easter.

I cringe every time I see a jellybean, Peep or Cadbury egg and it has nothing to do with the religiousness of the holiday.

In 2006 my step dad, Stan, was finally going to retire from his job as an assistant manager at a restaurant that worked him too much and cared too little.  It was the night before Easter, and just hours before his shift was to end, he had a massive heart attack and died at work.

The weeks that followed were a blur of funeral arrangements, legal and financial paperwork and the emotional toll of sudden and tragic loss.  It was horrible, but what struck me most was that Stan had so many plans for after he retired, it was as if he had put his life on hold until that day.  He even had a countdown calendar to mark each day until his retirement, his freedom.  Little did he know...  Countdown calendars still unnerve me.   

Less than a month later, just as we were starting to redefine "normal", my grandmother died.  My mom, still reeling from the loss of her husband now had to deal with the loss of her mother as the cycle began all over and it felt like a little cloud descended and followed me around for the next year. 

The day I found out about my grandmother, it was too late to call a sub to cover for me at school, so I went.  The kids in my first block class had cut me a break since hearing about Stan, but when the principal came to my classroom that morning to tell me to go home, the kids heard why.   They were a tough group of juniors and seniors and we had good days and bad days as a class, but even they understood how deeply these tragedies affected me.

When I returned a week later, the class very cautiously presented me with a lovely silk flower arrangement and a card they all signed. I say very cautiously because they were unsure how to approach the topic, and me, in my very fragile state.  What do you say when someone has experienced that much loss?  Their empathy and compassion were so overwhelming that as they asked me questions  I broke one of the commandments of teaching, Thou shalt not cry. I lost it, and they surrounded me in a group hug that left many of them crying too.

I try to be the tough love teacher, and I am usually all business in the classroom, but the kids see right through me.  They know I have high standards and expectations, it is rumored I am one of the hardest teachers in the school, but it usually only takes a week or two before I hear one of them say after they have been reprimanded, "Yeah, but you love us Ms. D." I never deny it, because it is true, but I often wonder what it is that gives me away.  How do you teach without love?

From that point on, the class kept a close eye on me. There were times when I came to school with that cloud hanging overhead and just wanted to get to class without talking to anyone.  I couldn't get through the hallway without a "Good morning, Ms.D." just like I had done to them all year. The kids refused to let me ignore them.  If I wasn't standing at the door when the kids changed classes, they wanted to know why.  If I looked sad, I was hugged.  Even if I wasn't sad, I was hugged.  I can honestly say that they were the reason I made it through the rest of the school year.  They pulled me out of my funk and helped me to remember that when you teach, you have to leave your problems at the door. 

Was that my best year of teaching? Certainly not.  However, that year my students learned more about empathy, compassion and grit than they would have learned in one of my normal classes.  They realized that education is a team sport that requires both students and teacher to be invested and responsible for each other because teaching and learning are fluid concepts and on any given day students and teachers could be doing both.  However, before any content is taught, you have to deal with the other issues that may prevent teaching and learning from happening.  That year, my class learned that family is more than just DNA, and I was reminded that people often have much more going on underneath the surface than they let on.

Thank goodness for my students and their early intervention, because five months after losing my grandmother, right after the start of the new school year, my grandfather died.  Three deaths in six months left me wondering how much sadness a person could endure, but I realized that life was short and that I had a choice, stay miserable and let the cloud keep following me, or get busy living.  I loved my job and the kids, and couldn't imagine a more important and fulfilling profession, but I knew I was in a very comfortable rut and hadn't grown in a while.  I needed to challenge myself, because I didn't want to die without squeezing every drop out of life that I could.  That meant growing, so I went back to school so that I could continue to learn and explore.

The story has a somewhat happy ending, or maybe I should just say that we all learned some valuable lessons.   Even though it was years ago now and they say that time heals all wounds, I always feel a profound sense of sadness at this time of year and wish I could just hibernate until Easter is over.

What this time of year does is remind about the importance of building relationships, because those who take the time to really see you, and not just the fa├žade you present to the world, are priceless beyond measure.  As a teacher, I know that my students face challenges outside the classroom that are difficult to deal with no matter what your age, including divorce, homelessness, abuse, illness, death and hunger.  As adults, we need to remember that kids brains are wired differently, and for teenagers whose brains aren't fully developed with hormones that are running rampant,  these issues are magnified.  Poverty and tragedy are not disabilities and we should have high expectations for all of our students, we just need to remember that some of them are just going to need a little more help to get there.  You can't teach them until you reach them.   


Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Elephant in the Room- CCSS

      This week in NJ, new regulations were rolled out concerning teacher evaluation, which caused great angst across the state.  Districts are attempting to put new evaluation tools in place this year and give them a "test drive" before they become official.  This involves a lot of professional development time, in some districts all of the professional development time, in order to understand the evaluation tool and data management system and become well versed with them before state wide implementation in 2013-14.  All this work on evaluation takes time away from other valuable professional development and causes stress over the implications of evaluation outcomes.  Adding to this stress is poor communication, caused by the the lack of a shared language and limited understanding, which has put both teachers and administrators on edge. 
      Let me say here that I believe new evaluations are necessary, and if implemented properly, can help guide teachers in their development as practitioners. They are a good thing, and it is about time someone gave me some real analysis of my teaching and not just a narration of what they saw in class.
     However, evaluation reform has received so much press because of the high stakes attached to it that the flash-bang created by media coverage has blinded people from seeing the elephant in the room, Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and their implementation. 
     I like the CCSS and think there is merit in mastering the skills needed to be proficient or advanced proficient in any standard.  In NJ, we have rolled out CCSS implementation this year and not in a gradual way.  We didn't adopt the standards grade by grade as some states have, or even by subject area.  We went whole hog, and therein lies the rub.  With so much time spent trying to learn the new evaluation systems, we are seriously lacking in professional development for CCSS.  How many media centers have sufficient non-fiction resources to be able to have 30 students at a time compare several texts and identify central ideas?  How many math departments have enough manipulatives to give each class member enough so they can demonstrate their answers through modeling?  How many districts have reading specialists (an area of shortage) to help teachers in areas like social studies, science and CTE teach their students close reading strategies?  How many districts have looked at vertical articulation between grades to determine what your students should know when they get to you and what they will be learning in the next grade level?

      CCSS implementation with fewer and deeper standards require a shift in the way we teach, the curriculum we use, the time we spend and the materials we need to be successful.  It is not something that can be mastered in a half-day inservice's worth of professional development. It takes time, collaboration, support and resources.  In a recent EdWeek article from February 27th, Teachers Feel Unprepared for the Common Core Standards,  by EPE Research Center, it finds that teachers are unprepared to teach some of our students who need the most help including, low income, English language learners and students with disabilities.  Our teachers have many of the same concerns.

     In NJ, there is a belief that CCSS have been implemented and are being used with fidelity throughout the state, but that is just not true.  Teachers have questions and want to know in their content-specific areas what the CCSS look like when implemented cohesively and comprehensively.  Can you identify the level of work that makes a student proficient or advanced proficient in your content area?  How about proficient versus partially proficient?  I know at this point I cannot, and I am a Teacher of the Year.  Can your administrators tell the difference between the varying levels of proficiency in student work?  Do they know what advanced proficient looks like in physics, art, music, or physical education?  What about welding, auto mechanics, health occupations, cosmetology or entertainment technology?  Last time I checked, cosmetology and CNA licensing were not based on the CCSS.  Can your administration tell what it looks like to teach a CCSS aligned lesson where the students will need to work independently without the teacher directing all parts of the lesson,  or collaborate, which may often look like chaos in the classroom? 

Here is why I am worried. 

      Our new evaluations for non-tested grades and subjects are 85% observation and 15% Student Growth Objectives (SGO).  What is being observed and measured?   The answer is how well you are implementing the CCSS, because that is what the evaluation instruments are aligning to.  When you set your student growth objective, what is it based on?  Either students passing an assessment, which should be Common Core aligned, or the ability to measure how proficient your students are on a particular Common Core standard.

     If you are in a tested area, 50% of your evaluation is based on observation, 35% is Student Growth Percentiles (SGP) based on the NJASK,  and the final 15% is based on SGOs.   The NJASK will soon be replaced by the PARCC assessment, which is based on CCSS, your observation will be based on CCSS and your SGO will be based on CCSS. 

Do you start to see the problem?  We are measuring something that most teachers have not been adequately trained to do, and do not have the proper supports and resources in place to be successful. 

We have been so blinded by the flash-bang of evaluation that we are worrying more about how we will be evaluated than the content we will be evaluated on. Big mistake. 

Ready, fire, aim. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

I Feel Good- James Brown

Well, it has been a while and I apologize for my extended absence.  The last you heard from me, I was helping with cleanup from Sandy and had just started a new adventure with a slight job detour for this school year.  I thought things would slow down from the frenetic pace of last year, but that is not the case.  Although I would not have believed it possible, my life has become busier.
Let's start with the aftermath of Sandy and the ongoing work of my friends and colleagues "down the shore." I am sad to say that things are far from fixed, and most of those displaced by the devastation that caused their homes to be ripped down to the studs, are still displaced.  The kids are still suffering both physically and mentally and it is evident in the schools. The teachers and counselors are dealing with much more of the soft skills as they address issues of grit, perseverance and growth mindsets before they can ever tackle content area information.  Besides that emotional support that schools and teachers can provide, the kids still need hats, gloves, coats, and will soon need new spring and summer clothes.  Just because a few pylons have been sunk to rebuild the boardwalk in Seaside does not mean that things are back to normal.  The people who make up the heart of these communities and live there year-round still need your help.  Thank you to my friends and STOY community for your generous donations to the schools along the NJ coast, they are much appreciated. However, major rebuilding needs to be done in people's homes and the recovery process will be ongoing.  If you would like to help, whatever your skill set might be, let me know and I will try to connect you to the schools or communities that need you. 

If you remember, this year I am on loan to my Dept of Education working as the Educator Outreach Coordinator.  I have missed the classroom and the connection to my students, but still hear from them often as they ask me for help with essays or advice or comment on my most recent adventure as they follow me on Twitter (@NJTOYMsD).  Working in a little pink cubicle is not the best setting for someone whose talents lie in working with people rather than computers.  However, things have been moving along in the world of educator outreach.  With a newsletter now going out monthly and Teacher Advisory Panels underway, communication is finally flowing and it is making a difference.

What the last year did for me, with the crazy schedule of speaking engagements, meetings and committees, was to get my foot in the door.  The question was, did I want to be brave and  pry that door open to go through to the great unknown, or was I comfortable and content where I was?  Well, it wouldn't be me if there weren't some adventure.  You never grow if you always do what you have always done.  I don't know what the future holds, but for now, I am going to go with the flow and see where it takes me. Can one person affect change on a different level in education? I don't know, but I am going to give it my best shot.
There have been a few speaking engagements since I began life in my cubicle.  After all, educator outreach involves being an ambassador of sorts who goes out to speak to people and put a human face on the teaching profession.  Two of the events had a profound impact on me.
The first was the Future Educators Association Conference that took place in January at The College of NJ.  I was the keynote speaker for a group of over 650 high school students who wanted to become teachers. What an opportunity!  The conference had been rescheduled because of Sandy, and on that cold January morning the students in that auditorium were bundled up against the chill like mummies after travelling across the state, many having left home in the very early hours of the morning to be there.  If I didn't connect with them quickly, they would soon enter the zombie-like state that happens when the temps are cold and the kids are tired.  I don't like to lecture when I speak, and find it is much better to have a conversation, although that can be difficult with 650+.  We laughed, sang, clapped, as we interacted and honestly got a little teary as I challenged them to find the person they considered to be their best teacher and say thank you.  We all need mentors who can serve as our Yoda or Zen master.  I never got the chance to thank one of my early influences who died before I got the chance to let her know the impact of the lessons she taught me in my earliest days of student teaching.  Not thanking her is something I regret not doing sooner, because thank you is a powerful statement.

With the NJ FEA state officers.

You don't often know the impact of what you do as a teacher, and when you do have those students who come back and tell you about the difference you made in your lives, it is like winning an Academy Award.  One thank you can provide the energy source to keep your batteries charged and make it through the tough times. I have a collection of  just such an assorted "love notes" from students including the first picture I ever received from a student while working as a substitute which cemented my decision to become a teacher.
That cold January morning, I expected to give my speech, have some lunch and head back to my cubicle, but honestly had no idea the impact my "conversation" would have on the students in the audience.  I always make it a habit of posting my contact information on the last slide of my presentation, and these digitally connected kids reached out immediately.  My Twitter feed blew up as students thanked me, but the best part came later.  Letter after letter came in to my email account talking about how unsure they were before about becoming educators, but now they knew they could hold their heads up proudly as they proclaimed "I am going to be a teacher."  One young lady,  even called me her Yoda.  Back in my cubicle, I cried like a baby, and hung all of the letters to remind me on the difficult days when dealing with adults is not as easy as dealing with students, that educators make a difference. 
The second event occurred just this past week, but let me give you some background first. After a competitive application process, I am now one of twelve Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellows (HSG).  The organization strives to bring practitioners together with other policy makers and stakeholders to make the best decisions in areas such as education, health care and jobs.  While the fellows focus on education only, we strive to have teacher voice heard, especially in evaluation reform.  As a State TOY, I also belong to another teacher voice organization, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSOTY) who advocate for career continuums and distributed leadership so that teachers can lead without having to leave the classroom.  I have found a new calling with these two groups, to get teacher voice heard from the local level to the national level and  to help teachers who are great teachers become great teacher leaders.  You would think that great teaching and great leading were synonymous, but sometimes teachers don't know what steps to take to develop as leaders because there are many obstacles. 

With STOYs, Kristie Martorelli (AZ2012), Sarah Brown Wessling (IA and NTOY 2010) and Tim Dove OH 2011-12
With the HSG crew and Tim

With HSG Fellow and co-presenter Doug Hodum


I found myself at the Gates Foundation Conference Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET²) presenting a workshop on teacher leadership and representing both groups.  Our workshop was packed, interactive, and by all accounts went well.  My HSG co-presenter, Doug, shared personal stories, gave people a toolkit to help them get started no matter what their level of leadership experience was and had them all devise plans for their return to their districts on Monday.  We also had them exchange contact info with a neighbor who would hold them accountable and contact them in a week.
The next morning, I was stopped by a teacher from Pittsburgh who was in our session.  With her voice cracking, she was visibly choked up as she proceeded to thank me for the inspiration we provided the day before.  With tears in her eyes, she explained that the children of color in her district were not being heard, and although she could help them in her classroom, she had no idea what else to do.  She credited our session with giving her concrete examples of how to move forward and now she knew exactly what she was going to do on Monday.  The conversation went on, but now I was choked up too as I gave her my card and told her to keep in touch and let me know if I could help. As I wrote the story down at the airport, I am sure people were wondering why there were tears running down my cheeks. 
I realized that making a difference happens both in an out of the classroom and it is no less powerful coming from an adult than from a student.  I may not have had a physical "love note" like I often get with my students, the memory of that teacher is one I will always treasure.  In the words of James Brown, "I feel good"