Friday, December 30, 2011

Greer Mid-year Teacher Survey

Below is a copy of the survey we sent out to our teaching staff the week they returned from break. We used google forms to do it which was simple and easy. I have found that a mid year survey of staff is a great way to take stock of everyone's take on the various initiatives at our school. And after reading the responses, while sometimes hard to appreciate, I love the honesty and sense of community that is growing at our school. I hate nonsense in the education world, and leaders who make claims about their staff that they cannot stand by. For those who do, they should do an anonymous survey to see where their staff really is.

The survey really helps us (me) grow as a teacher and leader. And we share all of the answers with the entire staff so everyone can see it.

Mid-Year Greer Teacher Survey 2012

Please take some time this week to fill out this survey. We will close it out Monday, January 9. Because we believe the improvement and growth of our school is a collective process, all of the answers will be shared out with the staff.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Creating School Traditions- A few things we know for sure

We are creating new traditions as a school. Last year was the start with intensive learning expeditions at each grade level and student led conferences for every single student in the spring. We also took an older school tradition of visiting neighborhoods before the start of school and ramped it up a bit with pairs of teachers knocking on doors and visiting every single family before the start of school. Each child got a little bag of "back to school goodies" and if they weren't there it was left on the door. This "Stepping Out" day is quickly becoming once again a powerful school tradition. Our commitment is to visit and knock on every door. Last year, we met about 50% of our families face to face. This year I am guessing that figure is somewhere between 60-70%. Some students were woken up or still in their pajamas (and it was not that early). Other times teachers were invited in for tea, juice, or treats by the families.

A few things we know for sure. It took an incredible amount of work for teachers at Greer to pull it off. And it will help us build powerful connections with all of our families. A local television station did a good job covering one of the visits. Here's to another amazing school year at Mary Carr Greer Elementary School!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The different journeys we all take as educators

The New York Times this morning has an article about a new teacher training graduate program in New York City that was founded by three separate charter management organizations. The program prides itself on utilizing little to no reading or theorizing but instead an intense focus on practical classroom teaching strategies that raise student achievement. The founder is quoted as saying "if you think tests are evil... this is not the program for you." The program bases a lot of its pedagogy on the book, Teach like a Champion, whole class type teaching strategies.

When I was a beginning teacher in Baltimore in the early nineties, I struggled. My school noticed that pretty quickly and attached a master teacher to me for about three weeks. She modeled for me, co-taught with me, and finally just observed me teach. The strategies (a lot of positive reinforcement type stuff) she taught me brought order to my classroom and enabled me to start teaching the students. I used these strategies through my second year of teaching as well and got even better at them.

During my third, fourth, and fifth year of teaching though, I really started questioning myself:
  • Do I need to reward students with points for almost everything they do?
  • Shouldn't students have more choice in their daily life?
  • Shouldn't I be developing more of a supportive community of learners?
So, without much or any support, I struggled to implement some of these strategies and realized that kids I taught did not need points for everything they did and when they chose their own reading material they were infinitely more motivated to read. I would love to say that I became a master teacher but I did not, I struggled up until the last day of my teaching career. But I new there was something different that I could be doing in education and in my classroom.

The journey of an educator is hopefully more than just learning new strategies over the course of thirty years. The journey hopefully leads us to some semblance of what is real learning, what is truth, and what really prepared students for the real world out there.

This past year, I have stumbled upon two educators who have had some similar journeys. Marc Waxman, a former TFA teacher and KIPP teacher, is now heading up charter schools in Denver that utilize Responsive Classroom and a more constructivist teaching style. Eric Juli, a central office administrator in Massachusetts is taking on a new job of running a small, innovative high school in Cleveland. Both of their journey's appear to have taken place because of a great amount of reflection and thought. One aspect of Marc's journey that is interesting is that he started to question his teaching as he started to have his own children.

My own journey as I enter my 11th year of being an elementary school principal has me working with a staff that is embracing the core principles of Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning. I have learned more about myself, about learning, about children, and about people the past three years of implementing these principles than I have during any other aspect of my career.

So, in thinking back about the new teacher training program in New York, I probably could have used some of those strategies to survive and in some regards thrive as a new teacher years ago. Some of the new teachers I have worked with over the years could have used some of those strategies as well. I don't disdain them at all. But I also realize that there is a richness of thought and reflection when you try to go past test scores and develop a true learning community that I hope, hope, hope that those teachers in the program get at some point in their career but worry in the current reform climate, they never will.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

If your school teaches to the test, it’s not the test’s fault. It’s the leaders of your school.

So David Brooks wrote a column in the NY Times the other day about the school reform debates. This is not my attempt to add to the debate. I don't have the time to add to the fray. He ended his column though with a rather enticing line though: "If your school teaches to the test, it's not the test's fault. It's the leaders of your school."

The line invoked in me the most irritating response, I both agreed wholeheartedly to it and wholeheartedly was aggravated by it in the same moment.

I am a principal of an elementary school in a high pressure, high stakes environment. 70% of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch. We are the most ethnically/racially diverse school in our school division and in the entire region. If you just look at AYP during my tenure at the school, the results are mixed. One year, we did not make it, one year we did, one year we just barely missed it, the the jury is still out on this past year. We are in our second year of formal school improvement with the state. We are a public school choice school and have mandated outside tutoring as part of the NCLB law. I attend monthly meetings with the state department of ed and turn in data reports to them on a regular basis. Everything in this world tells me as a leader to lead a school that teaches to the test. Every meeting, every statement, every webinar, every powerpoint. The words teach to the test are never used, but it is always implied.

The past two years, however, we have embarked on a different journey. Along with a focus on data and results, we have implemented different strategies through our intensive work with Responsive Classroom and Expeditionary Learning:
  • Intensive community building through classroom and school-wide morning meetings
  • Student led parent conferences for every single student, Prek-5
  • Learning expeditions (you can see them here) at every single grade level
  • Instructional rounds for all teachers (learn about them here)
  • Extensive use of formative assessment strategies
Now, I know many good educators would look at that list and say or think that those strategies would increase student achievement for everyone. I agree. But, the prevailing wisdom in the world in which I partially inhabit (the high stakes world) does not push or even nudge school leaders in that direction. We do the right thing at Greer because we have a culture of professionals who value the strategies above. The does not mean we never doubt ourselves, or worry we are doing the right thing. But we have held the course. We also have a superintendent (@pammoran) and a school board who support our work as well.

Our school is going in the right direction with both our school culture and yes, student achievement, slowly but surely. The school has a vastly more positive and learner supported feel than it did four years ago. But David Brooks, and most other policy wonks, would look at our data and label us as failing. We are not failing, and I would argue we are improving in a more authentic way than most other schools.

What David Brooks fails to realize is that for a school leader to swim up the fast flowing stream of "not teaching to the test", it takes an incredible amount of support, collective courage, and belief in children to accomplish doing things the right way. Most people in education right now, because they are in schools that don't face these issues or they simply refuse to face the issues themselves, don't really have an idea of how tough it is.

David Brooks certainly does not. He is pretty darn clueless.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Red Shouldered Hawk Visits Mary Carr Greer Elementary and We Have a Hawk Party

A little interesting thing happened at school today. I was out on the playground watching some fourth graders play basketball at recess (it was a very nice day in Central Virginia). Suddenly, my walkie talkie crackled to life. Usually it is Dorothy, our office associate, telling me about a phone call or a classroom I need to visit. Instead, I heard this "Mr. Landahl, there is a hawk on top of the flag pole. You should go take a picture of it with your phone." Despite my shock, I hustled to the front of the building as fast as I could to see this hawk.

It was magnificent and was sitting as still as can be on top of our flag pole. Our fifth graders were about fifty feet away running the mile in our bus loop and it was them and our PE teacher Mrs. Bond who first saw it.

So, naturally the next step was that more people needed to get invited to this hawk party. Our fourth graders are in the middle of a learning expedition exploring the return of the bald eagle to Virgina as part of a intensive study of our local ecosystem. I decided to use the walkie talkie again and called to one of the teachers at recess and said, "we have this enormous hawk on the flag pole and it is not really going anywhere. You might want to bring the fourth graders to see it." The response I got was, "ok".

A few minutes later I received another communication from a fourth grade teacher, "is it still there?"

Indeed it was. So, our fifth graders are still running the mile in front of the school and our fourth graders are now walking very quietly to stand and sit in front of the flag pole to watch the hawk.

The above picture only captures a fraction of the kids watching the hawk. As we stood there looking at it, I am sure all of the adults, me included, were starting to wonder, "how long do we stand here looking at this hawk?" The kids were all well behaved and seemed genuinely interesting in this rather majestic creature perched on top of our flag. But shouldn't we get back inside and start doing some work, I am sure crossed more people's minds. Finally, one teacher said," maybe we should wait until the hawk flies away so the kids can see its wingspan in flight."

So we waited some more. Kids still looking at the hawk. A pair of nesting mockingbirds began to fly at the hawk in an attempt to scare it away. We got to watch that for a while.

And then finally the hawk flew away and all the kids cheered for it. It was really quite an unusual, special fifteen minutes.

I am not going to overdo trying to attach some sort of significance to these fifteen minutes. But, the more we get interested in the world outside, the more ready we are to investigate and explore this incredible world outside the school door, the more hawk parties we are probably going to have.

Author's note: when our neighborhood black bear makes his annual visit, we are not going to do the same.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The power of listening

I recently was exposed to two slightly different takes on communication from a leadership position and both involve one on one meetings with people.

The first was from a Corner Office interview in the NY Times a few weeks ago. In this interview of Doreen Lorenzo, she talks at length about the power of one on one meetings with people in her design and innovation firm. In these meetings, she lets each person guide the conversation and spends most of the time listening. She also uses this time to communicate the mission of the company, because she feels strongly that people need to hear it from her.

The second exposure is a short video from The Learning Community School in Rhode Island. The co-directors two times a year sit down with every person in the school and just listen. They then do an interesting next step and track all of the things people say, take notes on it, and then share it with everyone in the school, and finally try to facilitate some action steps from the data.

I have done bits and pieces of this as a leader over the years and I value this type of data probably more than any others.

But I need to improve on:
  • Communicating the vision one on one with everyone.
  • Truly listening to people and letting them guide the conversation.
  • Doing it in a systematic way and finding the time to implement that system
It is powerful stuff. The best thing I know I could probably ever say about a boss is that I really felt listened to. I hope I can improve in that area as a leader myself.

A good Sunday morning

The Sunday morning paper is a ritual in our house. Since moving to the east coast years ago, it has become the New York Times. But, this morning, I was filled with a bit of dread when I saw that education was a focus of the magazine section. Dread, because, so often I have found that anything written about education, seemingly almost anywhere, seems to miss the nuances behind what actually happens in a school. So, I had to make a decision, read it right away and work the rest of my Sunday on not being annoyed by it, or just push it off. I decided to read it.

And, I could not believe it. It was one of the best articles about a city school that I have ever read, especially in the context of the current state of reform. It is a good article because it is real. The principal, Ramon Gonzalez, seems amazing and he struggles with many things: the encroachment of charter schools, the inexperience with Teach for America teachers, kids with a lot of needs moving into the school any day of the year, finding funding to the extra things, lack of support from central office. What is great about the article is that it seems to have no "angle". Teachers unions are not the enemy at the school, they copy strategies from some charter schools but ignore others, and they go all out for kids and do not always find success because of their own fault or the circumstances of the child's life. Really an amazing read and I hope that folks in the policy field, because their own experience in actual schools was most likely rather fleeting, give it a read. It would help them understand what impact certain policies have in a real school trying hard to improve.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Our Planned Learning Expeditions at Greer for this Spring

Listed below are summaries of the learning expeditions that our grade level teams have put together for the very first time. Some are being implemented right now and others later this spring. The summaries are in the words of our teachers and instructional coaches. I know we have a lot more hard work to accomplish but we are proud of getting this far.


Kindergarteners will investigate and understand the basic needs and life processes of plants and animals. They will explain how living things change as they grow and describe what living things need to survive. Each class will study one animal in depth as a case study that they relate to other living things. The product of this expedition will be a ‘how to’ care manual that will be developed by students for an animal fostered by each Kindergarten class from the SPCA. The manual will include photographs of the animal in the classroom and in-depth information on its behaviors, habits and needs, as studied by the students. The manual will be available to the SPCA and prospective families for future use when caring for this species. Students will investigate how the SPCA supports our community and will gather resources needed for the animals such as cleaning supplies, blankets, animal food, and volunteer support.

First Grade: Souper Soup

First grade is currently in the middle of our first expedition, Super Soup. Through the lens of soup, we are tackling a variety of standards, while providing authentic learning experiences that are relevant to our students. Integrated standards and topics include:

  • Science: states of matter and dissolving, seasons, and the needs of living things
  • Math: volume, measurement, and fractions
  • Writing: functional and non-fiction writing, revision, writing with clarity, and publishing
  • Social studies: community service

Students are developing is a grade-wide cookbook, which will include a recipe from each student. By cooking a variety of soups in class, reading about different cultural soups, experimenting with vegetables, talking to expert nutritionists, and visiting farms, we are building background knowledge so that students can successfully write soup recipes. We are formatively assessing their learning through each step of the process and meeting individual needs through modeling and one-on-one conversation. We are keeping an Expedition Journal to record our work and students actively use previous pages to find and write vocabulary words, add more details to drawings and record their thinking.

Additional plans include a return visit to the farm to see how it changes in spring, consultation with the nutritionist to make sure our soups are healthy, a visit to the food bank to see how soup can help our community, and a calendar to show people, plants, animals, and the weather in each season.

Second Grade: From Seed to Plate - the Cycle of Waste

We are looking at 3 separate investigations: How do plants grow? What happens to food waste? How does weather affect growth? Our product will be a public service announcement. This expedition will involve science (life processes, living systems, weather, scientific inquiry), math (measurement, estimation, data collection/graphing, calendars) and literacy (oral, reading, writing).

Student projects along the way will include planting and caring for vegetables, as well as keeping an observation journal. We are beginning seeds in the classroom and will plant outside in a school garden as weather permits. The Local tennis club has pitched in with a grant to revamp existing garden beds as they explore “Healthy bodies, healthy eating.” They will also be involved in measuring cafeteria trash and various composting projects as they learn about the cycle of waste. Some classes are creating in-class compost bins, others are participating in vermiculture, and everyone is contributing to the grade level compost bin for long-term use. Students will create, maintain, and document various weather stations. Also, classes will complete case studies with animals to compare life cycles and systems. For fieldwork we will visit a compost business, a local farm for hands-on experiences with where food comes from, as well as others opportunities not yet scheduled. Our hope is that students will be able to make a difference in the amount of food that is sent to trash.

Third Grade: Into the WIld
Third grade’s Spring expedition is based on animals. The guiding question for the first case study, entitled What’s For Dinner is “How do animals meet their basic needs?” The students distinguish between predator and prey, create a food chain, design a plate showing what omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores eat, and describe the importance of producers, consumers, and decomposers. They also perform research and write a report based on an animal of their choice.

The second case study entitled, “Survival of the Fittest” has the guiding question, “How do animals adapt to their environment?” The students begin with a gallery walk of animals that showcase their physical adaptations. They move on to read a common text on animal adaptations and then expert texts on hibernations, mimicry, migration, and camouflage. The students continue to their animal research reports in this case study. In art class they make their own paper which will be used to make “Animal Fact Cards” as a product. We had a guest speaker from the VMNH outreach program talk to us about animal adaptations, with objects for the kids to explore hands-on. The students will perform a mimicry experiment and hide butterflies to exemplify camouflage.

There is a third case study that will be finalized for next year. It will deal with the human impact on animals and conservation. Throughout the expedition we are using quick checks, graphic organizers, art projects, drawings, and note taking to assess the children. As each item is completed we are displaying the work, along with the Learning Targets, in our community.

Fourth Grade – Through the Eyes of Eagles

The Through the Eyes of Eagles learning expedition will allow 4th graders to explore the interdependence of every part of ecosystems by studying the purpose and importance of each aspect of the ecosystem of the bald eagle in Central Virginia. Learning experiences are designed to help students form answers to the questions: Can eagles survive in Charlottesville or Central Virginia or Albemarle County? Is survival enough?

Each student will choose one part of the bald eagle’s ecosystem to draw (scientific, museum quality). They’ll include a short explanation of what would happen to the ecosystem if their part were to disappear. The final draft of their drawings will be displayed along with other student panels to show the interrelationships within the ecosystem. The final gallery presentation will be hosted offsite with an audience of parents and community members.

Their study of the eagle’s ecosystem will bring students to the water sources in our area that are shared by all of the plants and animals in our ecosystem. Students will test water at four different local locations and produce a water quality report analyzing the health of the watershed. They will also research and suggest action steps for community members to take that can reduce water pollution.

Fifth Grade

As a part of our study of Virginia History, we are taking a very local focus on Charlottesville/Albemarle from the end of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement. Specifically, we’re learning about our school’s namesake – Mary Carr Greer. Our project has three main parts:

1. Who was Mary Carr Greer?

Students will follow the Carr/Greer family from emancipation through Mrs. Greer’s principalship in Albemarle County. We are working with Mrs. Greer’s descendents to learn more about her as a person and why our school was named for her. We’ll ultimately rededicate our school in her memory at the end of the school year.

2. Virginia History Timeline

We’ll be working to expose our students to a variety of primary source documents and recordings to help them build a timeline of our local area – from the end of the Civil War through the present – with attention to issues of rights, freedom, and equality in education.

3. Community Biographies

Students will interview local community members about their experiences during school desegregation and Massive Resistance here in Virginia. Small groups of students will interview their subjects and produce a biography that we’ll ultimately display as a gallery for our interview subjects and other community members to view.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What do we do next?

Our school just completed our mid year review in the form of a "gallery walk". Each team reflected on their progress with their students both in terms of student achievement but also in use of instructional strategies (a big focus for us is assessment for learning) and then created a display for all of the other teachers to take a look at and give feedback.

We have a professional learning day in a week so this year we decided that we did not want the mid year review to seem like an isolated event but instead wanted to build on this major information sharing on February 21st. At the gallery, we asked for each teacher to do some reflecting and provide some idea of an area or areas we could focus on for our conversations. After reviewing this reflective data over the past few days, it is a hard call. We know in our journey as a school that we need to be more consistent in our language and instructional practice. Should we use the day to build on what we are already working on this year? Should we introduce something new? Should we do a little of both?

I always find analyzing this kind of feedback from every staff member to be a fascinating process. We often share it all right back to the staff so they can see where everyone is coming from. Sometimes though, when receiving all of these ideas and feedback, it is hard to stay focused. I don't want to seem to slow moving as a leader, and ignore the call for faster change, but I also don't want to go to fast, and pretend that everything has changed when it hasn't.

So, what will we do. We probably will try to do some sharing and consistency development around our initiatives for this year, but also try to spend some time honoring where we want to go in the future.

I find myself thinking all of the time about the next step. I find these reflective moments are more challenging yet more fruitful when I ask the entire staff to weigh in on the decision as well.

Why is the Edreform world having trouble finding turnaround principals?

There were two fascinating pieces in the New York Times last week that centered on issues in the principalship. I don't often get my education news from the times but the juxtaposition of these two articles just one day apart was too much to resist.

The first article centered on the national effort to use different turnaround models for the most struggling schools in each state. Quick summary, these schools often leave the same principal in place that they had before or they really struggle finding people to take the positions. Not a real surprise to me because the turnaround principal job has got to be one of the hardest in education and for the people who take on the positions, there is absolutely no guarantee of success.

The second article focused on New York City Public Schools effort to collect unpaid lunch bills by charging school principals with the collection duties or else the money comes out of their individual school budget. Which, as a principal, seemed to me a completely insane policy. If you want principals to be instructional leaders in schools, it seems obvious to not saddle them with even more non-instructional duties.

How are these two things related? The reason we have a turnaround school principal shortage is that we keep putting up roadblocks to principals who are put in these positions. If we want more people to go after these jobs, they have to be given a ton of support, and not lunch bill collection duties to complete. It may seem like an absurd policy, but probably most districts in this country expect principal to be superheroes, to be strong instructional leaders, manage everything in the building, and make sure all policies are followed.

The principalship is a very unglamorous position. I happen to love it, and I embrace that element of the job. But if you are trying to turnaround a school, you better not have to collect lunch money too.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Collaboration Kills says Joe Klein.

I tried really hard to stay digitally away from the Teach for America summit this weekend. Both the TFA is the enemy and TFA is the answer tweets and blog posts make me weary. As a TFA alum, I too have mixed feelings about the organization. So I stayed away, except when working on making some revisions to Chapter 3 of my dissertation, I accidentally just clicked on the video of this morning's panel and hopped around for literally two minutes before I stumbled upon this quote from Joe Klein: "Don't buy into this notion that if all the adults just collaborate, it will be just fine for the kids, the adults have been collaborating for a long time, and the kids are getting screwed." It is about 1 hour and 18 minutes into the panel and after the quote many cheered.

I get it to some extent. I am now just a small city, elementary school principal and have no ideas about big city battles between administration and unions.  So, I am not one that will pretend I know the answers.

But, to go back to the quote, if you mess with collaboration, you really make me angry. The sound bite about collaboration got applause from the TFA audience because it conjured up images of union teachers collaborating only around how little they were going work the next day or something.

What worries me about all of this is the notion of leadership that TFA seems to engender. Just tell people what to do, blast them if they don't follow the mandate, and if they question things they don't have the best interests of the children in mind.

What if there is another way? What if there are school leaders out there, TFA alum like myself included, that fully believe in collaboration. That believe that involving all of the voices in a school in the slow and messy process of improving and building a dynamic learning environment. That believe that test scores measure some things but not every thing. That seek out feedback and input at every step of the process, no matter how difficult and time consuming.
I don't think our kids are getting screwed either.

I know, I know, I am just a principal of a little elementary school. What could I possibly know about leadership and change and human behavior? I think I had spent more time both teaching and leading a school than anyone else on the panel, except maybe one. I guess I know that much more than them.