Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of posts I started for Middleweb. You can read the first parts of our story herehere and here. This fourth post is being published here on Teach 'n' Life for the first time.

Brighter Skies

In some ways the middle point of the school year can seem very much like the beginning of the new year. While the floors aren’t sparkling and you already have a tremendous amount of knowledge about your kids, there’s still something special. Maybe it’s that the kids have finally started to trust us, maybe it’s the fact that things are finally starting to “click” for them. Whatever the reason, I find the middle of the year to be a really exciting time because I’m anticipating all of the growth that can happen and the goals that can be achieved over the next 4.5 months.

Even as we’ve been teaching, the three of us have each spent a great deal of time researching ideas about how we could do things differently in our classrooms and what we could do to transform learning for our students. Some of these ideas have been tremendously successful, and some have been epic failures. But even in those failures we’ve been able to pick up the pieces, learn from what didn’t work, and prepare even better ideas for “the next time we try this” whether that’s this year or during the 2013-2014 school year.

And yet, even with all of the successes we’ve had this year and even though so much time has passed, the clouds are still here, and the thunder still rumbles.

We’ve been labeled by some. You’re “the low team” and “nothing good is going to happen when parents figure that out,” they say. They can talk all they want. My teammates and I took on this issue head on at our Parent Night in August. We explained why our team looked different, and our feelings about why the other type of team set-up didn’t work well for all students. One point that we made is that our team was not just about academic levels; students were also placed on our team because their third grade teachers felt they could benefit from fewer transitions or opportunities to be positive leaders. We tried to fight fire with fire, and by being open and honest with the parents about our team and the many reasons students were on it, we took the rumor-mongering power away from the nay-sayers.

There’s anger from those who teaching assignments were changed and disdain from individuals who wanted to stay in the same place but now have to work with “those people.” This can be especially frustrating, because as you’ve read, we wanted teachers to have a voice. Our co-workers chose not to speak up and left the assignments to the administrators. We’ve grown to accept their anger and unkind words. We’ve found our own spot to each lunch, we spend time with those who are positive and avoid those who are negative, and most importantly, we focus on the kids. Truly these angry people are simply looking for attention and by not giving it to them, we come out on top.

In addition to the clouds and the thunder, there is some rain. We’re officially on school improvement due to the scores of our subgroups, and this label coupled with our district’s stated focus on having a growth mindset has presented presents numerous challenges in terms of instruction, intervention, and reporting.
  • Here - look at the test results from last year’s state tests, see what areas your kids need to work on, and create an instructional growth plan to meet those areas of weakness.
  • But here’s the new progress report with the skills greyed out in certain marking period. So no matter what your instructional growth plan said, here’s what you’ll be teaching each marking period.
  • This year we’re all going to have a growth mindset about our students and our learning. We’re going to focus on student strengths and how we can help them be successful.
  • But wait, your students will be grouped based on single sets of test scores. And here are the tests that your students won’t pass, but they need to take them anyway even if it makes them cry. Oh, and they’re required to graph their scores so they can see how they do. Don’t worry if they only get 7 or 8 right and that upsets them. If their scores go up 4 points total on reading and math, we’ll give them a pencil and that will make everything all better.

While there is a tremendous focus on test scores and our hands are seemingly tied, we have chosen to continue to make our priority the emotional well-being and growth of our kids. It can be fairly risky to fly in the face of guidelines to use specific scripted programs for guided reading groups, but we have the data to show that our students’ needs are beyond the needs of those scripted programs. And we also have the data to show what we are doing, strategy and skill based groups, is allowing our students to make progress with both their fluency, decoding, and comprehension.

In addition to all of the outside storms we are weathering, we’re creating a few of our own clouds. Because we know people are waiting (hoping?) for us to fail, we realize that we are putting a lot of pressure on our own shoulders. The realization that you’ve asked to work with the most struggling learners during these times of warning lists and evaluation by student achievement is a scary prospect. But scarier than that is knowing the situations from which these kids come from. Some sad, sad situations. The thought of creating a loving, caring, growth focused environment for a student who has never known one is far more daunting than making sure they pass the test. We want to do what’s best for the kids, and we want to show all of those people who’ve doubted us that they were wrong. That our kids CAN be successful when given the opportunity to do so. Using a strength based approach to planning has really helped the three of us share those pressures, and since “All of us are always better than one of us,” we have been able to share insight about the kids so we can come up with plans that will meet all of our students’ needs.

Despite the fact that I seem to be sharing a lot of challenges, there is blue sky filled with white, puffy, fair-weather clouds. And sunlight. These are our kids. Kids who refused to try at the beginning of the year are running up to the board to solve problems, even if they aren’t sure they actually have the right answer. These are the kids who are raising their hands, sharing their thoughts, and taking risks even when their ideas are different from others. And these are the families. Consistent, open lines of communication have allowed us to develop relationships with parents and guardians to help the kids complete homework, address concerns, and talk through problems. We’ve also got several parents coming in and volunteering their time in the classroom to make the students’ learning experiences even better.

And it’s the three of us becoming better teachers. We are constantly questioning what we are doing, why we are doing it, and if there’s a different strategy or tool we could us to help our students make connections and apply the information they’re learning.

I think this meme I found on Facebook really sums up the crazy “weather” we’ve had these last 5 months:

Just like the actual weather, we know there will be bright beautiful days, and there will be challenging stormy days as the year goes on. In the end, if we continue to focus on the kids, work with their parents as partners in learning, and continue to be open and honest with our communication with our team we will be able to hold our heads high and be proud of what we have accomplished for our kids.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Letter to Mom

I don't usually make a big deal about making Mother's Day presents. It's not that I don't think the kids should do something special for their moms. With so many different circumstances in families we spend a lot of time throughout the year thinking of and recognizing my students' caregivers so it's not so difficult on that one day for my kids who don't have moms or aren't allowed to live with their moms.

Today we had a variety of projects going on: some students were working on writing pieces, some on Google presentations, some on Social Studies research - it was the usual organized chaos of my room. A neighboring teacher dropped off a "Letter to My Mother" paper so I told the kids if they were finished with their required assignments they could work on a letter for their mom if they wanted. I also offered to edit if anybody needed help.

About 15 minutes later Mr. B. walked up to me. Mr. B told me in his dry sense of humor, very early in the year, that he was "not a writer" and has stuck with that despite the great pieces he has written throughout the year.

So I was all ready to edit his piece and send him on my way. I read his letter. And fought back the tears. And showed it to my teammates and the TSS across the hall. This young man, who was adopted at birth wrote the most beautiful letter to his mom that I have ever read in my entire life.

Part of me wishes I had made a copy for myself so I could reread the amazing way how he described how thankful he was that she took him into her arms and promised to love him and take care of him and laugh with him. How he treasures her and is thankful she is his mom. And then the other part of me is glad that the two of them have that letter to share just between the two of them forever.

For somebody who is "not a writer" this sweet and caring young man put the most eloquent words onto paper to show his mom how much he loves her.

It was the perfect ending to teacher appreciation week. I don't teach so my kids do well on tests. THIS is why I teach.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Reflecting on Change - Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts I started for Middleweb. You can read the first parts of our story here and here. This is part three that originally appeared on Middleweb.

Change in the Forecast

When my two teammates and I made the original proposal to our administrative team and our grade level team, the key to our proposal was that teachers would have a voice. We really wanted all the fourth grade teachers to look at their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a teaming plan that matched teachers with those students they felt best prepared to teach.
It’s well documented how challenging the change process can be for some people at every organizational level. But it was an eye-opening experience to live through it first hand. We could not understand why everything was being done so secretively at the decision-making levels, and we really weren’t sure which stories or which people to believe. Our plan for teachers having a voice backfired, and it seemed that the same thing was happening with our desire for open and honest communication.
As the 2012-13 school year came to a close, my teammates and I still didn’t know if our suggested plan was actually going to be acted upon in some way, with or without teacher voice. We didn’t know what our teaching assignments were going to be; we didn’t know if 4th grade teacher teams would be reorganized, and we didn’t know how our students would be placed on teams.
It was only after a confrontational discussion that we finally found out that the three of us would be teaching all four subjects as we requested in our proposal. And while the intent behind the changes was never officially announced to all of the fourth grade teachers, our administration did take the step to reassign teams and the subjects some were teaching in order to make the proposal work.
People are angry

As school started this fall, it was clear that people were angry about that. People are also angry that we shoved our fourth-grade teacher community out of its happy place and into rough and murky waters. And I know people are chomping at the bit for us to fail this year so they can say, “See, I TOLD you that would never work!” All of this is simply motivating us to work harder to make a successful year for our students.
Change will never happen unless people are willing to take all of the wonderful discussions happening among teachers in the virtual world, bring them into face-to-face settings and start putting them into practice in real classrooms. After reading this you’re probably wondering, “Why? Why would any teacher continue forward trying to lead change in his or her school after going through these experiences?” Two words: THE KIDS.
Some lessons we’re learning
We have to be strong enough to stand up and do what is right, even though it may make us unpopular. Our kids deserve that much. If you relate in some way to our story — and you probably do if you’ve stuck with this narrative to this point — then you might be looking for ideas or advice about pushing for change in your building. Here are some of the lessons we have learned. And we’re still learning!
 Make sure you put the kids’ best interests first and keep coming back to that commitment when the going gets stormy.
 Research, research, research. Make sure there is a substantial amount of support for (or a lack of research against) your proposal for change. People need to see that you are truly prepared and are not just coming to them with a random idea that you think sounds good.
 Ask for opposing viewpoints and actually listen to them. Change what doesn’t work and advocate for the points about which you feel strongly. Do this very early and at a personal level. If you’ve read our story, you know that we could have done this sooner.
 Be willing to compromise. While you may love your idea, it might be improved. It may be too big a step for your organization. A baby step is better than no step at all.
 Develop a tough skin and be prepared for some storming. It’s inevitable when you suggest pushing people out of their comfort zones. Some “colleagues” will insult you, your idea and your teaching style. The good news: most will grow over time and continue to move through the process. If your change proposal is sound, many will come to see its wisdom.
 Continue to seek out those who haven’t been willing to change and push them to be open and honest about their concerns. If they don’t have any foundation for their negative behaviors, calling them on it repeated times will bring most of it to a stop.
 Finally, and this is a hard one, if your organization is so strongly entrenched in the old ways of doing things or in always putting adult interests ahead of children’s needs, then it may be time to find a place to work that’s a better fit for you.
Weathering the storms
My teammates and I have had some really awful days. We have often questioned why we think we can make a difference. But each time these doubts creep into our minds, we focus on the real reason for this change. A little more than a month into the new arrangement and the new school year, our 4th graders are already benefiting tremendously from the changes we’ve pushed for. The kids are the ones who matter. That’s why we are here. That’s why this school is here.
For the past month, we’ve encouraged our grade-level team to move forward — to realize that every meaningful change process includes a storming phase. We continue to assure them that the storms produced by climate shift will help us all grow and become more focused on our students’ successes academically, emotionally and socially.