Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The first days of school

Harry K. and Rosemary T. Wong's book, The First Days of School, is a masterful text that describes successful teacher behavior. It emphasizes how to create an environment, establish behavioral and learning standards, and professionalism of teaching. This would be a fantastic book for people entering the field. It is also, however, an affirming text for veteran teachers that provides insights to perfecting their skills.

Frequently cited in the literature is the low emphasis in teaching training on classroom management, but this is the single item that determines learning in a classroom. As a consultant teacher, I have walked into classrooms that were oases of calm, not because students were silently working at their desks, but because they knew what they needed to do, the learning objective was well established, procedures were in place and the focus was on the task at hand- learning. This may involve talking with groups, collecting and distributing materials and laughter. Conversely, I have also been in classes of chaos that inhibit learning in me, not just the students around me. Teachers trying to be their student's friends never are successful instructors. As a profession it behooves us to step up the training in classroom management and the work on developing such skills in our preservice experiences. This book provides guidance, but in trench observation, mentoring and practice are required to get it right.

What I found particularly meaningful was the final unit of the book: Future Understandings- The Professional. It rang true of much of what I believe and echos current trends in the field, but not in the harsh, negative view that politicians and the media often like to portray. The authors identify that 80% of teachers are affiliation-oriented and 20% are achievement oriented. Affiliation -oriented people see their pay, benefits and happiness an exchange for the dues they pay. Achievement-oriented people's "dues are the opportunities they look for in life" (p 287). They are self-driven contributors to their communities who enhance the people around them.

All too often in my experiences, I have run into clock puncher teachers. These are teachers who show up only for the minimum time required. Sometimes they make a habit of being late in or early to leave. They give to their profession only what they are required to give, bringing nothing additional to game.  On the other hand, I have encountered many professionals who are early in and late out, who give extra support to peers who need it, who readily volunteer to work on committees and give presentations, who independently belong to professional organizations such as ASCD, IRA, NCTE, NCTM, NTSA, etc., and who generally see their role as one of continuous development. My employer has instituted a system where the professional staff is required to use a time clock to punch in and out. If there was ever a motivator against professionalism, this is it. If you want your staff to behave like professionals, treat them as such. Give them the opportunity and support to improve their weaknesses, and if they do not rise to expectations, invite them to find another job. As a profession, we cannot afford to protect poor performance. As individuals we must fight the easy slide into mediocrity and coasting through the day. We can be greater than we were ever led to believe, if we strive for it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Crucial Conversations

Over the weekend I drove to Albany for PTA's Legislation Convention. During the drive I again listened to Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. The target audience of the book is clearly business leaders, but it is very appropriate for all people.

The authors define a crucial conversation as one in which stakes are high, the outcome will impact your life, and one in which emotions are also likely to be involved. We all have these conversations with our co-workers, spouses and family members and the people with whom we interact. Sometimes we handle them well, others not. This book provides tools to help us handle the conversations well.

An on-going marker of conversational risk described in the book, occurs when someone does not feel safe. He or she resorts to silence or violence- refraining from talking or going for the throat. For various reasons we engage in these behaviors, but if the issue is important, it is essential that we work to personally avoid them as they are pitfalls to progress and that we work to reduce them in others for the same reason. The authors reason that good decision making occurs when the pool of information is large and held by the entire group. Silence, refusing to add your input, restricts information and limits the quality of decision making. Violence, such as sarcasm, intimidation and name calling reduce others willingness to participate in decision making. If high quality decision making and relationships are the goal, neither approach is desirable. When we recognize that these behaviors are going on, safety has been threatened. Pursuit of a safe environment becomes paramount. The book does not address how to deal with bullies in a robust manner. They are out there and do impact us, but perhaps they can be worked around.

One of my favorite tool discussed was contrasting. They presented this in terms of Don't ... Do... For example, I don't want to seem ungrateful, but when you step in and pick up my space without asking me, it makes me feel like my space has been violated. Please talk to me about it next time. Recognizing the feelings, viewpoints and concerns of other parties becomes important just as stating your feelings, viewpoints and concerns.

This is an occasion I would like a hard copy of my audio book because I know that I need to go back and review portions of the text, something that I will find far easier and more comfortable with a paper copy than an ephemeral one. I wonder how our kids who regularly use audiobooks or ebooks feel about that concept.

Friday, March 22, 2013

NYS PTA legislation education 2013 conference

This year’s New York State PTA Legislation Education Convention (Leg. Ed.) once again met expectations with presenting a plethora of information about a variety of current education topics ranging from the state budget to grassroots advocacy efforts and from the impact of sequestration to common core standards and the SAVE and DASA laws. The first step of any advocacy effort is information. Leg. Ed. delivers it in spades.

One of the presentations was by Michael Rubell, the Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity. Previously he led the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) which was involved in a lengthy lawsuit about funding for education. The CFE lawsuit was settled in 2006 declaring that New York’s Constitution requires the provision of a sound basic education to all students. The courts defined a sound basic education as a high school education as determined by the state regents.  Michael’s presentation focused on fixing state funding to provide a sound basic education. In light of our current state fiscal situation, we need to figure out how educate our students more effectively and efficiently. Rubell’s proposal has five action steps for achieving constitutional compliance. These steps are:

1.       Identify the specific essential resources and services

2.       Reduce costs by eliminating unnecessary requirements and mandates

3.       Determine the cost of providing a sound basic education

4.       Revise funding formulas to provide a sound basic education

5.       Annually analyze the impact of budget changes.

 It is up to us, the people- parents, students, teachers and administrators and the community at large- to work to get the legislature to achieve these steps and ensure that students across the state receive a sound basic education.

Another presenter, Bob Lowry, from the New York State Council of School Superintendents, presented information indicating that 51% of school districts will be educationally insolvent within the next four years. This means that the districts will be unable to provide the state mandated programs. We cannot continue the way we are. More requirements and less funding is a recipe for educational disaster. Efficiencies must be found, sensible and adequate funding must be provided and educational quality must be protected. Although not an easy package, it is essential if we are to move ahead.

We need our representatives to understand the imminent problems and needs of our students and to help local districts provide for them. As a PTA we need to advocate for these steps to help our schools. We can write our representatives, governor and regents and to ask to them to support our children by completing the steps above to ensure all students have access to a sound basic education.


Campaign for Educational Equity website:    

Information about the campaign for fiscal education:

NYS PTA’s website:

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Inclusion: 450 Strategies for Success

Peggy A. Hammeken has penned a useful book entitled Inclusion: 450 Strategies for Success. While the first 59 "strategies" are really steps to take in order to implement an inclusion program, the remainder of the book does list in an easy to reference manner a wide assortment of strategies, most of which would be easy to implement.

The spelling part of the test offers common activities to spelling programs that do not focus on spelling- producing the word in writing. Bingo, word finds, synonyms/antonyms/homonyms and silly pictures (p. 85) may be good ways to fill time and review vocabulary, but they do not practice spelling. Combining spelling with handwriting practice, limiting spelling rules taught, and writing the words in various multi-sensory formats like finger paint are good examples of how to incorporate spelling practice for all students.

When I work with trying to develop ways to help include a child in a classroom, I like to focus on strategies that improve instruction for all students. Depending on the classroom teacher and nature of the students, these strategies vary. This text provides access to an easily searchable list of activities that may need to be tweaked to fit the specific child and setting. It is a good jumping point for a team looking to improve inclusion for a student.