Thursday, November 8, 2018

Hope to See You at the Game

In most Iowa schools when one of the athletic teams begin a deep run into the playoffs it is a pretty big deal, not only in the school itself, but the entire community. Inevitably, not everyone can play their games at 7:00 in the evening; so athletic associations are forced to schedule contests during the day. So the decision must be made as to whether or not to hold classes as normally scheduled, or to cancel classes so as many people as possible can participate. While these decisions can be subject to great scrutiny, my stance has been events and experiences like these are rare opportunities for a school community to celebrate, build positive momentum, and improve climate and culture. Indeed it is a rare occurrence: in my nine years at Hudson, we have had the privilege of participating in the state tournament three times where the school day has been impacted: girls basketball, and football the last two seasons. Relying on this precedence, the decision to cancel classes on November 9th was relatively straight forward.

So I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate pride for your school and community by joining us for this state tournament game on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. Research shows us that students who have a strong connection to their schools do better in classes. Those who have pride in their schools are less likely to cause a disruption or become behavior concerns. It doesn't matter if you are a member of the team or a spectator in the stands. Your involvement allows us to share in the excitement that comes with winning a close game; or the disappointment of falling just short. It builds character in our students and the camaraderie builds lifelong skills that transfer to the workplace. Some of my fondest memories from high school are going to the state tournament as a spectator.

But the loss of academic time, you state! I agree, the whole point of our existence as a school is the academic component of our program. Whether we are teaching our youngsters to read or do advanced trigonometry, ultimately we are preparing them for the next challenge they will face. But that challenge will be not be met with an understanding of statistical variability alone! All of the other components that go into the recipe: athletics, drama, music, student council are secondary and even tertiary characteristics of our school that are vitally important as well. They are part of the American public education experience, and are why we have one of the best educational systems in the world.

So, I hope to see you on Friday. And in case you are wondering, we haven't really cancelled classes. They are just postponed. This day will be mad up on May 28th, 2019!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ensuring Relevancy in Professional Development

Improving instruction in our classrooms is the key to ensuring better outcomes for our students. Just like any professional, continually learning new techniques and strategies not only makes us better at our craft, but provides an array of tools that can be used to meet new challenges in our work. We have long recognized the importance of professional development and have striven to ensure the experiences provided to our faculty are not only relevant to what is going on in the classroom, but do in fact provide our employees with the resources needed to successfully navigate the myriad of 'problems of practice' in classrooms. Since 2013 our district has deployed an academic calendar that incorporates an early dismissal every Wednesday afternoon. So how then, is that time used? 

First we have to recognize that challenges vary across grade level[s]. Strategies employed in classroom management at first grade will likely not be transferable to sixth grade. Second, each content area is obviously different not only in pedagogy, but in some cases as different as apples and oranges. This then, is why we have begun to take a more personalized approach to professional development. Why? Consider the relevancy of a balanced literacy framework within the confines of physical education. While there are ways in which a physical education teacher can incorporate components of literacy in class, it is undoubtedly a stretch, likened to fitting a round peg in a square hole. Or even more prevalent in small schools is a 'one size fits all' professional development program that encompasses the entire PK-12 system. Yet schools did (and many still do) continue to offer these types of in-service regimens. From a practical standpoint it is efficient. It also ensures accountability to the system. After all, when everyone is in the same room you can be sure they are not off doing something that is a waste of time (as if having a physical education teacher participate in a balanced literacy training isn't). And let's not even begin to contemplate the engagement of faculty in training that holds very little relevance to the work they are doing in classrooms.

A personalized approach permits teachers to work independently, as a grade level, or as content area specialists on a topic or 'problem of practice' that has been identified by the practitioner. Once a topic has been selected, a set of guardrails help steer the practitioner through the process while at the same time ensuring a level of accountability for that work, which of course includes a direct linkage to district established initiatives and priorities. This process includes researching the topic, implementing the strategies that have been studied, and reflecting on their work. Ultimately at the end of the cycle this learning is shared with a larger audience. With a primary focus on instructional strategies, three hours a month are dedicated to this process; which is equivalent to one and a half of our Wednesday early dismissals. 

Abandoning a system that relies on a standardized approach requires a paradigm shift. Most notably, it puts our practitioners in the drivers seat to determine what professional learning is going to look like. Instead of relying on the principal to determine what strategies should be implemented (for example), the teacher is in control. Using data they collect through formative assessment, observation, and instruction; teachers are empowered to make instructional decisions and design their own career development in ways that are powerful, engaging, and have real impact in the classroom. We are now in our second year of this delivery model and have expanded it to encompass faculty across the district. So far the response has been positive. Further, the linchpin to our success can be attributed to our teacher leadership system. These teacher leaders, coaches and model teachers alike are able to serve as an additional resource and coach for practitioners in their journey.