Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Where Do You Do Your Best Work?

Where do you do your best work?  I pondered this question as I sat down to write this blog post.  For me, and I am sure for many of you as well, it depends on what type of "work" I need to do.  When I wrote my book, I was most productive and inspired when I was writing at various hole-in-the-wall neighborhood coffee shops.  I wanted the quiet solitude of the study rooms at my local library when I needed to study for a grad school exam.  A brightly lit group fitness studio with loud music is most energizing to me when I am working on my physical fitness.  I realize, however, that others may have totally different preferences when it comes to creating the ideal learning and working environment.

Trung Le talks to D107 staff
about learning spaces on 8/22/17.
As educators, we must acknowledge the need for flexibility in our learning spaces as well, which is why Building Learning Environments is one of our three goal areas on our District 107 Strategic Blueprint.  Building flexible learning spaces means providing environments that can easily transform and shift based on the needs of the learners and the type of work that needs to be done.  At our district's opening institute day, one of the speakers we were lucky to learn with was Trung Le of Wonder Design Studio.  One of the key takeaways from his presentation was "making sure there are choices, and new choices, in learning spaces."  I also wrote about this in a post last year when I compared the thought process for designing learning spaces in our schools to designing our daughter's nursery.  Our learning spaces need to allow for flexibility as our learners grow and their needs change.  Learners should have space to collaborate, to work independently, to listen, and to speak.  They should have space to work with their hands, to work with technology, to move, and to be still.

Mrs. Georganas's Classroom
We have a few teachers exploring this in their own classrooms already this year, providing a variety of seating options and tablespaces.  As a school, we are also investigating other options for maximizing the potential of our learning spaces.  One idea is to re-purpose our computer lab into a more flexible learning space for innovation.  Since students have one-to-one devices, they no longer need to come to the computer lab to access such tools.  Possible ideas for this space include having a portable green screen, space to work with our two programmable Raspberry Pis and our Sphero, and movable furniture options to allow for collaboration.  Similarly, we are planning to transform one of our small classroom spaces to meet the needs of some of our students who may need a distraction-free environment for productively working or, conversely, may need a space to develop their senses through physical activity, lighting, and/or sound.

We are looking forward to investigating the possibilities that lie within our learning spaces in more detail this year and welcome ideas from our community of learners as we strive to create optimal learning spaces for all!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Building Human Capital

While the quote above refers to a company, I think it can be applied to a school district as well.  Last year, I wrote an introductory blog post about our philosophy on building human capital, one of our three goal areas for our strategic blueprint.  We believe the people are what make Pleasantdale such a wonderful place to learn, and developing the capacity of our staff will ensure it stays this way!

This year, much of our professional development will focus on the areas of differentiated instruction and subject-specific content, both of which will ultimately enhance the learning experience for our students.  This past Tuesday, we were able to provide our staff with a day dedicated to these priorities.  Our STEM, art, music, and PE teachers spent the day collaborating with their counterparts in other area school districts to discuss their curriculum and teaching strategies.  Meanwhile, the rest of our middle school staff spent time with Dr. Jessica Hockett, author of Differentiation in Middle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners.  Dr. Hockett modeled a variety of differentiation strategies for our teacher related to readiness, interest, and learner profile.  Our teachers had the time to share what they are already doing in their classrooms to differentiate to meet our students' needs, as well as time to plan for new ways to integrate many of Dr. Hockett's strategies into their classes.  In fact, I got an email from one of our teachers the following day stating, "I found yesterday to be a great use of my time...I appreciated her choices of activities and took a few ideas and implemented them today!"  

To me, this is validation that our staff is always willing to learn and improve.  We are fortunate we already have so many positive things happening in our classrooms, and we are committed to ensuring it remains this way!  
PMS Staff with Dr. Hockett

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ensuring Learning for All

Our fifth and final belief statement that guides our strategic blueprint really embodies the intent behind the George Evans quote above:

Belief 5: Students have dynamic teachers who utilize various teaching styles and have fun learning together.  Staff serves as an advocate for ALL children.  

Our Pleasantdale teachers strive to provide our students with regular opportunities to engage in a variety of learning activities while doing what is best for each individual learner. As a staff, we are taking the time to dig deeper into differentiation. At our staff meeting this afternoon, Pleasantdale Middle School teachers met as content areas to discuss what differentiation is and is not, a conversation started by reading this post. The teachers also had collaborative conversations about what they are already doing in their classrooms to differentiate the task, process, and product for their learners. They then had time to start digging into some of the data reports generated from our recent NWEA MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) testing and talk about how this data can be used for differentiation. Flexible groupings based on the intention of tasks, differentiated question sets, and targeted mini-lessons based on student need were just some of the ideas generated.

On our October 11 institute day, Pleasantdale Middle School teachers will dig into differentiation yet again with Dr. Jessica Hockett, author of Differentiation in MIddle and High School: Strategies to Engage All Learners. Our staff is looking forward to another day of learning together as we strive to provide every single learner with the optimal conditions for growth and success!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

If At First You Don't Succeed...

We have all heard the adage, "If at first you don't succeed, try try again."  Well, the more I read about Carol Dweck's research on Growth Mindset and Angela Duckworth's research on grit, the more I think the phrase needs to be tweaked.  Something along the lines of, "If at first you don't succeed, get feedback, try something different, repeat as necessary."  This coincides well with the fourth belief statement that guides our District 107 Strategic Blueprint:

Belief 4: Students receive effective feedback that fuels their natural desire to do better in a try, fail, and try again in a growth mindset environment.

Last year, I wrote a post about fostering a Growth Mindset at home. However, fostering a growth mindset in our Pleasantdale schools is a critical component in "creating a community of inspired learners." Yes, effort is valued, and yes, mistakes are okay! But the key to truly fostering a growth mindset is in providing specific, timely feedback to learners so they can make adjustments after a failure. In this article, Dweck makes the important point that "a growth mindset isn't just about effort" but that learners also need to "try new strategies and seek input from others when they're stuck." Similarly, Duckworth reinforces this idea in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance when she points out that more practice and more refinement are essential in order to be successful. Even our visiting author Jordan Sonnenblick told a story about how he was writing a book for a particular young man named Jack, and he emailed the working draft of the book to Jack, a high school student, to get his feedback.

Mrs. Truesdale gives students feedback on frisbee skills in PE.
So how are we giving feedback to our learners in our schools? Walking into classrooms, I see teachers conferencing with students to provide them feedback on their writing, their problem-solving, and their creative processes. Google Docs and Schoology provide opportunities for teachers and learners to provide each other with feedback digitally, extending the opportunities for feedback beyond school hours. In many classrooms, there are posters reminding students of how to use feedback to try a different approach, and teachers are working with students on adjusting their vocabularies to include the word "yet"... You haven't done it yet. So let's think about what didn't work and what you can do differently next time.

The more feedback is received, the more the learner can hone in on what improvements are necessary because, in the words of Jan Chappuis, "effective feedback occurs during the learning, while there is still time to act on it"!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Fearless Learners

Think about a time when you felt comfortable taking a risk. You needed to feel confident and supported to take that leap, whether it is personally or professionally, and you needed to feel safe in some capacity in order to push boundaries elsewhere. This is why the next belief statement in our strategic blueprint is so critical.

Belief 3: Students feel physically, socially, and emotionally safe; their sense of control is high and judgement from others is low. Students are fearless with the right support.
Prepping lockers at ROAR day!

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs explains how basic physiological needs must be met first before psychological needs can be met; self-actualization is only achievable once all other needs have been satisfied. Our goal is to create physically, socially, and emotionally safe spaces for Pleasantdale learners so their needs are met and they are able to achieve their full potential.

One new step we took this year to demonstrate this belief was revising the 5th grade transition day. This year for the first time we invited all incoming 5th grade students to join us for "Tiger R.O.A.R.S." day, a full day of fun activities designed to help our students (and parents!) feel more prepared and comfortable with starting middle school. Parents/guardians were encouraged to attend the first half of the day as students and parents met our outstanding staff and learned together about lockers, iPad usage/expectations, and the fifth-grade curriculum. The parents/guardians left as our incoming fifth graders enjoyed a pizza lunch, and then the fun really began! Students got to partake in a variety of team building games from relay races to kickball, and they also were able to enjoy the epic lunar eclipse together. These bonding experiences set the stage for a positive school year together since students were able to get to know each other and their teachers prior to the first day of school. While I am sure there were still some first day jitters, I can confidently say our students were not nearly as nervous as they would have been without attending this transition day. A huge thank you goes out to the fifth grade staff for all the time and effort they put into making this a special day for our incoming middle schoolers. ROAR day helped start the community building process, which will allow our students to feel safe and take risks. We continuously strive to create more opportunities to help our students feel safe in a variety of ways so they are comfortable being fearless in their learning!
Welcome to PMS, 5th graders!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Choice and Voice in Learning

I am an avid reader of blogs, articles, and books related to the ever-changing landscape of education. This week, the opening sentences of Seth Godin's blog really struck a chord with me. "Effective education is rarely done TO people. It's done with them." What a perfect connection to the second belief statement that frames our district goals related to our strategic blueprint.

Belief 2: Students have voice/choice and work alongside peers and teachers in collaborative environments.

To me, this means that education is a collaborative effort and that in schools we meet students where they are in terms of their needs and interests. We intentionally provide opportunities for student agency in their learning, which means students are regularly given choice in how they learn and how they express their learning. Daniel Pink in his book Drive delves deeply into the topic of motivation, and as this relates to schools, he makes the point that humans are born with natural curiosity and an intrinsic motivation to learn. As we move forward in Pleasantdale District 107, we are working to create more opportunities for our learners to tap into their natural curiosities and express their learning in a variety of ways. The Continuum of Choice is one such model that can be employed as we search for ways to provide students with agency in their learning. To start, teachers can provide students with a menu of options and choices related to their learning, and gradually as students are prepared to take more ownership of their learning, they are able to design their own learning experiences, advocate to solve problems, and ultimately regulate their learning based on their passions.

Teachers will be crucial in this evolution as guides and facilitators of the types of experiences that promote independence and critical thinking. Mrs. Lewellyan is giving this a try this year in 5th grade STEM lab as she is starting to have students work on passion projects, an idea that been embraced by many schools after learning about Google's Genius Hour concept where the company encourages its employees to spend 20% of their time on a research-driven project of their choice. With these types of learning opportunities, often times teachers, parents, friends, and siblings get to learn something new, too, as topics are explored together and learning is enthusiastically shared! We welcome our "community of inspired learners" to join us on this journey as we strive to learn and pursue our passions together.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What Do You Believe About Learning?

There are some questions that carry a lot of weight. When I am asked at a restaurant I want for dinner, I am generally able to answer that question pretty quickly, and even if I don't love what I ordered, I know the decision is of little consequence. However, when the Future Planning Committee and I were asked what we believe is true about deep and meaningful learning, we knew this required careful thought and consideration and that the implications of our answers would have a significant impact on the future of learning in Pleasantdale. When you pause to think about your own learning beyond the scope of school, often times learning revolves around topics that make you feel impassioned and purposeful. It was this sentiment that many of us were able to recall as we deliberated over what we believe about deep and meaningful learning. After engaging in spirited conversation, the committee came up with five belief statements that would guide us as we work "to create a community of inspired learners".

Belief 1: Students are passionately engaged in topics that examine world issues, where they feel a sense of purpose and in which they make a difference.

There was a perfect example of this belief statement in action this week at Pleasantdale Middle School. Our Student Council members immediately brought up the hard times brought upon Texas residents with the recent touchdown of Hurricane Harvey, and they wanted to help. They passionately wanted to help, so they established a quick two-day drive to collect clothing, toiletries, and a variety of other supplies that will be sent down to Houston. In addition, they came up with the idea to host "Hats for Houston" where students were able to donate $1 to benefit recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey in order to be able to wear a hat to school on Friday, September 8. While this was not for a class, there was certainly learning that occurred as the students advertised, wrote announcements, and coordinated the collection of donations to ensure they will end up benefiting the victims of Hurricane Harvey. They felt a sense of purpose and know they will make a difference. Mrs. Driscoll and Mr. Ratcliff, the Student Council sponsors, facilitated and guided the students throughout the process, but the ownership belonged to the students, which is what leads to deep and meaningful learning!

Similarly, last year Mrs. Lauermann's (formerly Mrs. Carnes's) class adopted an alligator snapping turtle, an endangered species. The students felt compelled to save Spikey, as he was affectionately named, and other endangered species. They hosted fundraisers throughout the year to "Save Spikey" and wrote letters to other animal activist organizations to learn more about other endangered species and how they could help preserve these populations. Again, Mrs. Lauermann was a guide and facilitator of the learning, but the students were driven by their passions, felt a strong purpose and wanted to make a difference!

It is opportunities for these types of learning experiences that we want to create for Pleasantdale students, staff, and families on a regular basis as we strive "to create a community of inspired learners". We believe we can do it, and we are excited to have you all along for the ride. If you have ideas to get our community of learners involved in other ways which empower our learners to make a difference, please do not hesitate to reach out to us!