Sunday, September 27, 2015

It Really is All About our Students

It's a buzz word that nearly every educator says, and I would argue, almost every single one believes. I have yet to meet a teacher that does not believe in the power each student has within him or her, and who works tirelessly throughout the year (yes, during the summer as well) to ensure that each student is growing to his or her potential.  We are student centered, learner focused, and driven by differentiation.  It all goes to say that we are about our students.

This past week I had a chance to see these words in action, with three students from Montpelier Public Schools - in a group where they were "outnumbered" by adults from Montpelier Public Schools.  Let me explain...

MPS, along with Addison Northwest Supervisory Union and Lamoille South Supervisory Union will take part in the first Integrated Field Review pilot, as part of the assessment of Vermont's Education Quality Standards.  All three school systems took part in a two day training with the Agency of Education this past week in Burlington.  Each school system brought a number of adults - but critical to the work were the students.  

We spent the days in groups, sometimes mixed with other adults and students from the other supervisory unions and that was important to hear their perspectives on the work we were all about to undertake.  Still for me, the time that was the most valuable was when were were in our MPS Team, listening to our students.  

We spent the majority of our time as a team discussing climate, academics and high quality staffing in MPS, how we were proud of ourselves and the areas we want feedback.  The adults in our team were the consummate professionals, shared their expertise and were open to the diversity of ideas.  And the most powerful voices were those of our students.  Their thoughtful and candid nature became the rudder for our work.  Ideas they brought to the table were unique, insightful, and relevant.  
More importantly, the students input shaped our work.  It is a credit to the entire team - adults & students - that we were all open to the ideas that were shared.  It would have been easy to simply invite adults to participate in this work.  However, if we are going to say that we are student centered and learner focused, then we do need to have students at the table in a substantially meaningful way.  Not as lip service, window dressing, or worst, to just "say" we have student feedback.  The students are the consumers of our educational delivery - it is imperative that we walk with them, ask them questions, and make course corrections based on what they say.  

Whether as a part of the Integrated Field Review pilot, the development of Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements, implementation of Personalized Learning Plans, or simply checking in to find out how a lesson went, we need our students.  This is how we maintain the statements that we are student centered and learner focused.  By asking the hard questions and having the courage to make changes based on what they tell us.  How can we create safe places for our students to tell us what we need to hear?  This week, MPS took a big step in that direction.  

My sincere thanks to our three students: Faith Bolques (MSMS), Delaney Goodman and Anders Heyerdahl (MHS) for leading our work on the Integrated Field Review this week.

I am also grateful to the adults in MPS who came along on this journey, leaving their usual workloads behind for two days, and were open to listening and responding to our students ideas: Rachel Aldrich-Whalen (UES), Pam Arnold (MSMS), Cathy Clements (UES & MSMS), Carrie Cook (MHS), Chris Hennessey (UES), Elisabeth Kahn (MSMS), Mary Lundeen (CO), Mike Martin (CO), and Dan Miller-Arsenault (MHS).  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Have a Conversation

In an effort to be more present this year, I am trying a new concept in MPS.  Each week I make myself available in each building for an hour.  Anyone - faculty, staff, facilities, food service, leadership - can stop in and sit down with me.  The goal is for me to be present and to listen.  I'm calling it office hours. 

I started this two weeks ago and thus far I have seen a nice variety of people coming by.  Some come in to say hi, some have questions about things that are going on in MPS, some have ideas about ways to move our district forward.  What is so important about this for me, is that this is happening in person.  We are having a conversation, reading each other's body language, able to hear intonation in each other's voices, making eye contact.

In one case, a teacher came to speak to me about a decision that was made that s/he needed clarification on.  First, I thanked this teacher emphatically and sincerely - I had been copied on some e-mail messages on this issue - and then I explained my thinking on this issue.  I was better able to understand this teacher's perspective and this teacher was able to understand the "why," so then was better able to understand the "what" and the "how" of this decision.  We both came away better people for having this conversation because we both left with a better understanding of the other. 

E-mail is a wonderful tool to communicate with - but it pales in comparison to a real, in-person conversation.  Even a phone call is better than relying on e-mail to convey a message, especially if it is important or involves something that someone feels strongly about.  We are all busy - make the effort if it is that important to you. 

Relationships are critical in our families, in education, and in life.  Maintaining relationships means making the time to ensure that our we understand each other.  We won't always agree, and honestly that is not critical.  What is important is hearing the other person, listening to the other person, understanding the other person.  I am committed to doing just this in person.

It is 2015 and we will continue to rely on e-mail.  So when it comes to something important, I encourage you to use e-mail; use it to set up a time to speak in person and have a conversation. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

What Did you Learn on YouTube Today?

This past weekend, I replaced the door handle on our back door.  No problem, right?  I went to the hardware store and got another one, came home all set to replace it.  I grabbed a screwdriver and headed to the door thinking this would be as easy as all the other ones I have replaced in the past.

As I knelt down in front of the door, screwdriver in hand, I stopped.  There were no screws visible on the door handle itself.  I had no idea where to start because on every other door handle that I've replaced, there were screws on the outside of the handle.

I opened the replacement package and tried to see where the screws would go eventually.  Even though it was clear from the instructions where the screws were supposed to go, I also saw there was a cover.  The question was, how do I remove that cover?

At first, I tried just jamming the screwdriver between the cover and the handle and creating some leverage.  The cover moved slightly, but nothing even remotely close to giving me access to the screws.  I took a closer look at the handle and saw a very small opening but didn't think it was anything important.  More on that later.

After several failed attempts at "leveraging" the cover off, and growing frustration, I took a step back.  I tried to think about who I could call to help me.  Many of my friends are very handy and would know how to do this.  As I was thinking about who to call, I saw our laptop sitting open across the kitchen.

I walked over, went to Google, and typed in "How to remove a door handle when the screws are not visible?"  Much to my delight, several "how to" YouTube videos were on the first page and after scanning a couple of them, I found my answer: an allen wrench!

That small opening I referenced earlier was just the right size for the second smallest allen wrench I owned.  With a couple of counter-clockwise turns, the cover came off and there were the screws!  I was able to replace the handle pretty quickly.

Previous to this situation, I had not thought of YouTube as a resource.  Don Taylor (@dtaylor60 & @msms_teamsummit) has consistently encouraged us in #MPSVT to create our own YouTube channel.  It is easy to think of YouTube as only for music videos and celebrities.  However, there is so much more.  If you don't believe me, I challenge you to use it the next time you run into a dead end in a do-it-yourself project at home.  Share your stories in the comments below!

Monday, September 7, 2015

He Looked Me in the Eye

Sue Abrams has been teaching at Montpelier High School since 1996.  She is in her 34th year teaching and has taught in France, Arizona, Oregon and Vermont.  This past July, she was honored as one of two Vermont recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math & Science Teaching.  This is her story.

After an anonymous nomination, letters of reference from colleagues, administrators, and colleagues, Sue completed a 20 page portfolio, comprising her different dimensions of teaching.  A committee of former award winners, leaders in the country in math and science, nominates finalists.  Sue found out in the summer of 2013 - that is not a typo - that she was a finalist.

The portfolio then goes to the National Science Foundation and with the use of a rubric, three people evaluate the submission.  That committee sends an ordered list of recommendations to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.  The presidential committee in that office chooses the top two teaching professionals (not necessarily one Math and one Science).

A year ago Sue was notified that she was under consideration, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated a background check.  She was under strict orders to tell no one but her immediate family.  This past March, Sue submitted to another background check by the FBI and was asked for district contact information.

I can tell you that Sue did not tell anyone - including me - about this notification.  I received an e-mail from her, asking for press and media release information for MPS.  When I asked Sue who was requesting this, she declined to tell me.  "Integrity is doing the right thing when no one else is looking."  (M. Krzyzewski, Duke University Mens' Basketball Coach)

On July 1 of this year, while studying Spanish in Spain (yes, Sue has earned dual certification in Math & Spanish), Sue was notified that she was one of the two Vermont teachers to earn this award.  The other winner is Stewart Williamson, from Peoples Academy.  So on July 28, she and the other winners went to the White House and after enduring a substantial amount of protocol review, they were ushered into a room to wait for President Obama.

When I asked her about our President, she remarked, "He's a really funny guy.  He led off by asking us; 'How're y'all doing?' "  His remarks emphasized the importance of strong teachers and noted that the lack of a strong teacher has long-term ramifications for a student.

When it came time to shake hands, Sue noted "He looks you right in the eye when he shakes your hand.  It's really something to meet the sitting president, have him look you in the eye and say 'Congratulations!' "

With all due respect to President Obama, he took the words right out of my mouth.  Congratulations Sue - we could not be prouder of you, your accomplishment, your humility, and your commitment to the profession of teaching.  Montpelier Public Schools is a better place because of you!