Monthly Archives: April 2014

Post CAS Panic

By Amanda Jonas April 30th, 2014 5:30 PM

One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is from Dumb and Dumber, when Harry and Lloyd come back to their ransacked apartment to find out that their bird Petey has “died of old age” (we all really know what happened to poor Petey though). Completely fed up his life and apartment, Lloyd starts screaming, “That’s it! I’ve had it with this dump! We’ve got no food, we’ve got no jobs, our pets heads are falling off!”

What I love about this clip is not only that Harry and Lloyd think that their bird’s head just fell off, but how honest Lloyd’s complete frustration feels. In all honestly, Lloyd’s speech reminds me of similar emotions I was feeling after the DC CAS, just before spring break. In order to make sure my scholars were as well prepared as possible for the CAS, I covered every fifth grade standard before the beginning of testing. When the test wrapped up during that second week of April, I felt excited and proud of my students. Then, all of the sudden, I felt as confused as Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber.

In my head, I was thinking, “Wait. Spring break is next week. When we come back…Wait. How? What will I teach my kids when I’ve already covered everything?” It also hit me that, when my kids came back to school, it would have been almost 3 weeks since they had normal classes. What was I going to do to keep them motivated?

At a loss at how I was going to keep students engaged, excited, and learning until that last day before summer break, I met with my math coach Mikel (any of you who have read any of my previous blogs know how fantastic she is) to try and figure out a plan. Mikel told me, “Listen. You’ve finished the CAS. Loosen up, get creative, get your kids ready for middle school.” I think her best advice was that the classroom should feel different post CAS for testing grades. Now, I’m not saying stop teaching, but what I am saying is stop teaching the way you’ve taught.

Mikel and I came up with the following solutions:

  • We picked out three sixth grade math objectives that I knew would interest my kids: probability, ratios and proportions. We then problem solved around creative ways to teach them. For example, my students would give out surveys to younger grades, exploring the odds of gambling and creating their own ratios based on data they collected themselves.
  • We decided that on Wednesdays we would have “Mathematical History” days where my City Year, Mr. Brendan, and I facilitated lessons on famous mathematicians and math discoveries throughout time (this week Mr. Brendan showed them how to find pi using string and a cut out of a circle).
  • I also started to partner with the second grade classes for a pretty intense unit on multiplication. I’m teaching my fifth graders new tutorial strategies, like how to create centers and help another student find the answer without telling it. In a few weeks, my kiddos and I are going to help the second graders become multiplication rock stars.
  • I’ve branched out of my comfort zone a bit to try new centers that I previously found too time consuming. That’s the best part of our post CAS classrooms; we have more time to do what we didn’t think we had time for before! Instead of being filled with panic, I was suddenly excited at the possibilities that the next test free weeks held in store for my classroom. I realized that, as long as I was teaching my students things that I was excited about, they would be too. Lets be honest, we teachers can all use a little more fun and excitement in the classroom too!

Are you in a testing grade? Are you done with the CAS? Are you unsure about what to do next? Here are some helpful tips from Mikel and I on how to beat those post- CAS blues…

  1. Look ahead! Check out next year’s standards, or better yet, chat with a teacher who teaches the grade ahead of you and find what the priority standards are. Start your kids on those this year and make sure they know what a competitive edge they’ll have on their peers when they start the next grade.
  2. Play! If you can, make it into a game. I have my kids make “word problem mad libs,” where they create or copy a bunch of word problems, leave a few blanks, and tell other students to insert funny nouns or adjectives (blended learning anyone?) to see who can make the silliest problem.
  3. Projects. Now is the perfect time to implement project based learning. Remember teaching that unit on area? Now you can have your students use what they know about area to build their “dream houses” using graph paper and a whole lot of imagination.
  4. Expand your students’ horizons! Why not buddy with a lower or higher grade and peer tutor? Not only does it help your students build valuable social skills, but they are gaining confidence in their academic abilities and reinforcing things they have already learned. Nothing helps students retain information more than having them teach it themselves.

Whatever you decide to do after the CAS, remember one thing: your students see the value of education through your eyes. If you see these last several weeks as frustrating, they will as well. But, if you show them that learning doesn’t stop when the big tests are over, then your students will keep on adding and subtracting and reading and writing until that last dismissal bell rings on June 20th.


A Voice From Inside the Cabinet

By Sean McGrath April 17th, 2014 10:00 AM

The non-descript clock on the conference room wall clicks slowly towards five. From what I’ve heard, the Chancellor is notoriously prompt, as her packed schedule forces her to be. The murmurs from around the room blend together in an indistinguishable tongue; to me, it’s background noise. The sounds I focus on come from within: my beating heart, the surge of adrenaline, the slightly labored breathing. The last time I felt this nervous, I was standing in front of a room filled with eager students for the first time. I struggle to discern my feelings and wonder why my nerves seem to be getting the best of me. I search for an answer and it comes in the form of nineteen nametags lining the perimeter of an ovular table. Mine is number twenty. The Chancellor walks in promptly as expected and it’s then I realize: I’m a part of something really meaningful.

In 2008, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee created the Chancellor’s Teachers’ Cabinet as a way to “give teachers a stronger voice in shaping the future of DCPS.” Twenty teachers were selected to give the Chancellor feedback about what is and is not working in our schools. This was the first time that DC Public Schools had created an avenue for conversations between the person who, ultimately, makes the decisions that run our school district, and the people who are on the front lines of education.

This innovative idea shattered the barriers between “them” and “us” and strengthened the idea that we are all part of the same community. Among the reasons why teachers express job dissatisfaction is that they feel underappreciated and that they are kept in the dark while major policy decisions that affect their jobs are being made without their input. The pronoun “they” is crucial here. While there are myriad difficulties I face as a middle-school teacher in Washington, D.C., disengagement is not one of them. That’s because in DCPS, I have so many opportunities to have my voice heard and to express my opinions about the present and future of our profession.

DCPS recently rolled out a new program called the Leadership Initiatives for Teachers (LIFT). According to Chancellor Henderson, it “aims to guide outstanding teachers on the path to a long, fulfilling career in our district.” Indeed, on page 31 of this guidebook, the Chancellor lays out well over fifty leadership development opportunities for teachers. Among them being the very cabinet where I now sat, admiring the institutional knowledge Chancellor Henderson brings to DCPS.

A typical one-hour session with the Chancellor begins with Chancellor Henderson leading a quick ice-breaker, then telling us about upcoming initiatives or recent happenings within the District as it pertains to education. The last half-hour is dedicated solely to teachers voicing their opinions, concerns, or questions, and receiving honest feedback and earnest responses from someone who is in the position to make big ideas big realities. This cycle, called the feedback loop by Charles Duhigg, author of the transformational book, The Power of Habit, is important, because it breeds innovation and collaboration among teachers, but it also fosters a sense of dedication both to the profession and to the District. A teacher sitting across from me at the table listened intently to Chancellor Henderson as she responded to his query about the increased funding next year for middle schools. When it was his turn to speak, he cleared his throat, sat up straight, and summed up my experience in the cabinet thus far, “Kaya, the reason why I love these meetings is because I get straight, honest feedback and I know you are doing all you can for our students. I trust you.”

Exposing Students to the Common Core

By Earl Jones April 15th, 2014 1:15 PM

Common Core is easy enough for adults to understand, right? Okay, that’s partially untrue. But what would happen if we explicitly exposed younger students to the Common Core State Standards. Would they get them? Would they be invested? I introduced them to one student, and to my surprise, the answer to both questions was yes.

“Mr. Jones, what’s the Common Core?” A nine-year-old student of mine asked. My immediate thought was that he must have overheard me mention it to someone else. Simple curiosity.

“It’s the set of standards that let teachers know what students should be able to do by the end of the school year.” Simple enough explanation for a kid, right? Conversation done.

“Standards?” he said with a very confused face. I gave a quick response.

“Yeah. Like skills, things that readers and mathematicians actually do in each grade.” Conversation really done, now.

“What’s everything we need to do in fourth grade?” I paused for a second. It dawned on me that this is one of my students who loves order, structure, plans, agendas, etc. He thrives when things are consistent, predictable, and systematic. Of course he would be interested in knowing all the specific grade-level expectations for the end of the year.

So, I decided to show him my Common Core guidebook. Yes, I actually sat with a fourth grader and we dug into the standards together. I put them all into kid-friendly terms. We gave examples to each other of what each reading and math standard (for third and fourth grades) would actually look like in practice. I even mentioned the vertical progression of skills from grade to grade. It was mid-year and he started placing tiny check marks next to the ones we had covered so far in class that year.

Afterward, I noticed a change in this student. He seemed to focus more on meeting each daily objective because he knew that they led to mastery of the standard. His overall performance increased because he had the end goal in mind.

Then, many “what ifs” popped into my head. What if I did this for all of my students? What if at the beginning of the year I told students what the fourth grade standards are? What if we put them in kid-friendly terms together? Would kids want to track it and check them off as we moved through the school year?

Now, I’ve given myself a challenge. Next school year, I will do this. I will create activities at the beginning of the year to introduce standards to students. Each student will get a personal checklist to track themselves as we move through each standard.  After all, younger students should have a full understanding of the goals and expectations for the end of the year. We will also share a class tracker to increase accountability for everyone.

I encourage other teachers to try this as well. Give it a shot. Be sure to tweet me @Mathophile_DC and let me know how it turns out!

Device Management 101

By Tanesha Dixon April 10th, 2014 4:45 PM

Some teachers see laptops or the iPad cart as the Holy Grail, a silver bullet that will somehow magically solve their differentiation, efficiency, and engagement problems in one fell swoop.  There are others who see technology integration as the bane of their existence, either because it distracts from learning or is another item on their To-Do List to address and master to be deemed competent.  Whether you look at educational technology with delight or dread, one thing is certain given the demands of the Common Core State Standards. You (or someone who works closely with you), will have to develop, learn, practice, and perfect your device management strategy.

For the last two years, my classroom has been a 1:1 environment.  I recognize that each school and classroom is different, but I want to give you Tanesha’s Top Ten Checklist for device management. Whether you have just a few devices in your room or you’re lucky enough to be 1:1, consider these topics, and most importantly, customize a plan that suits the needs of you and your learners.

#1 Institute a check in/check out procedure.

What is the procedure in your classroom for students to retrieve and return devices? Will you do it, or will you task this to students? How long will this process take? In my classroom, I use a template with student’s names in a report cover as a sign out sheet.  Two extremely helpful and responsible students are in charge of calling no more than 4 students at a time to the cart to retrieve/return their device.  One student is responsible for the checklist and the other manages and oversees the handling of the devices.  As their teacher, this is also my time to model and let students practice the expectations around carrying devices.

#2 Assign devices to students (for each class).

Worried that something inappropriate may happen on a device? Use your check in/check out list to assign devices to students.  This limits confusion and allows students to take ownership over “their” devices.

Ms. Dixon's Checkout List

                Ms. Dixon’s Checkout List

Send me an email or message on twitter for a soft copy of this document.

#3 (Re)configure devices.

If there is no IT department at your school, you will need professional development on how to network, configure and/or manage the software or applications on the devices.  How do you plan to update/install software or push applications to the devices? Believe it or not, YouTube and Apple have really good videos on these topics.  If you are totally clueless about the terms in this section, contact your District IT support and they will guide you to the appropriate resources.

Examples of this software can be found at Cult of Mac or Google Chrome

#4 Protect your devices from scratches, dust, or other wear and tear.

Hardware is a huge investment, not only in your student’s learning, but also financially. Consider if, or how, you will protect your investment.  Training your students on how to carry and properly handle their devices is a great start, but what about those “Oops” and accidental moments? While a bit pricey, hard shell cases are a good investment to protect your devices from scratches, dust, or other wear and tear.  Skins can also serve both a fashion and functional purpose. 

Ipad Skins

             Ipad Skins

#5 Find a secure place to store devices when not in use.

School districts are doing a better job of installing tracking software on their devices, but you can prevent theft yourself by using taking a few simple measures. Consider using a cart with a padlock or storing your cart in a secure location like a locked closet.

#6 Have a (re)charging schedule for your devices.

The vast majority of devices on the market will purport to have a battery that will seemingly last an entire school day.  However, with frequent use by students, the reality is that the devices will need to charge at some point during the school day.  When will you charge the devices so students will have a fully functional device? If you have the budget, you can splurge on a cart that charges the devices on a timer.  Those of us working with a tight budget can plan to use lunch, planning period, or morning duty to give devices a quick charge.

#7 Invest in materials to properly clean and disinfect devices/peripherals.

Shout out to the germophobes.  With all of the hands (including yours from time to time) that will handle a device within the span of a school day, you want to make sure your hardware doesn’t become a haven for things that could potentially make someone ill.  Please, invest in proper cleaning materials for your hardware! This will not only maintain the aesthetic quality of your devices, but also ensure they remain safe for student use.  Looking for a way to engage your students?  Recruit student helpers and put them on a schedule to clean and disinfect your devices and/or peripherals.

#8 Have a Fair Use or Acceptable Use Policy Agreement.

No need to reinvent the wheel here.  If your district or school already has a Fair or Acceptable Use Policy Agreement for students, be sure your learners have read, understood and signed this document.  I use an electronic form in my class using resources from various sources to give students practice filling in forms and to introduce Google Drive. I know in real time and have an electronic copy of student responses.

#9 Student training on established classroom management terminology.

There are a few key moments in class where you may need to establish classroom management terminology.  My advice: be consistent, teach, and model procedures.  For example, you may develop an “attention” or “quiet” signal.  If it is a tablet, you may come up with something like, “Screens down.” For laptops, I use the directive “Clamshell”.

#10 Communicate this plan to stakeholders.

Last but definitely not least, share your plan with the stakeholders in your school community.  They may have additional topics or tips for you to consider.  Additionally, with all of the great work you will be doing in your classroom, the work will undoubtedly scale throughout the school and everyone should speak a common language and be on one accord to ensure the proper care is taken to maintain and extend the life of your devices. 

What is your best device management advice? Send your tips or comments to Tanesha’s Top Ten.  You can also follow Tanesha on Twitter @i143ss.

Innovation is Not an Option, It is a Must!

 By Sara Arranz April 9th, 2014 5:30 PM

As my former principal used to say: “Success is not an option, it is a must. I’ve carried this mindset with me to my current position, and I feel that I have to and I can do much more for DCPS. We need all students to be successful, and I believe that innovation is the answer.

When I went to California for my first trip as an Education Innovation Fellow, I kept the following lines from the DCPS Capital Commitment in my mind:

“Our five-year strategic plan, A Capital Commitment, provides a roadmap for building DCPS into a high-quality, vibrant school district that earns the confidence of our community. With this strategic plan, we recommit DCPS to providing every student with a safe, academically challenging, and inspiring learning experience by 2017.”

In California, we were exposed to teachers, leaders, schools, and communities who are changing their practice in order to improve results. We saw teachers who are creating well-organized and planned stations to personalize student learning. We talked and listened to leaders who are modeling teaching for their staff so that they can improve their teaching practices and reach new levels of leadership. We met with families who are involved in their schools so their investment can positively impact their children’s progress.

Been able to observe, listen, and live the innovation experience that I just described was enlightening and empowering. In fact, it was probably the best experience of my educational career. Now I am ready to see how our strategic plan at DCPS can take place in my own school.

Here are a few ways that I want to innovate in my practice to help my school achieve these goals:

1. Provide students with a safe place and develop a shared vision for our children. In our school community, both parents and educators want their children to be safe and free from harm. We want them to have a permanent family who will be there for them for the rest of their lives.

We have made a lot of progress on these goals in DCPS. Engaged parents are essential to eliminating the achievement gap, and we work with our parents to help them become powerful advocates for their children and their communities. As teachers, we can do more work directly with parents, helping them become leaders at home, in the school, and in their communities. I have seen different methods of this, and every teacher and school can find the one that fits their reality.

Ultimately, the parents in California and my parents at Cleveland have something in common: They love helping in the school because they feel they are showing their children they care about their success.

2. Keep course work academically challenging. Every student sees challenge differently and it is my job as their teacher to respond to what they need. By innovating with the methodology and personalizing the experience, I am able to teach to 20 students at their own pace. It sounds ambitious, but let me share one of my models that works: In a classroom, students rotate across differentiated learning stations on a specific schedule. Stations often include: (a) small group instruction by the teacher, (b) collaborative or independent practice, and (c) self- directed, online activities. There are programs online where students can find activities adapted to their level and follow their own progress by the offered data.

3. Utilize new online learning programs! Online programming takes us to the “inspiring” part of the learning experience that we want to achieve at DCPS. There are many companies working on these online tools, and they are creating data-based effective programs that will empower us, the teachers. A parent/care giver can educate his/herself and know more about his/her child’s learning. A teacher along with parents can present the world to his students by using the online resources available both at home and at school. This is why, again, coordination and communication with families is key.  If we are excited and responsible in how we use technology for learning, the future of education is ours to create.

How to Best Meet the Needs of All Students

By Jennifer Krystopowicz April 8th 2014 5:00 PM

Inclusion is a defining principle of special education: ensuring that students with special needs participate in a general education setting for 100% of the school day. However, I must admit that when I hear an educator, administrator, policy maker, or parent make the statement that all students with special needs should learn in an inclusive environment, a wave of anxiety ripples through my body.  I understand that, as a National Board certified special education teacher with experience in both a general education and self-contained classroom, I should be advocating for full inclusion since this seems to be “the way” schools are heading. However, my experience as a special educator has given me a new understanding that inclusion does not meet the needs of all special education students.

When I first learned about the idea of inclusion in 2007, and extensively studied the various models while earning my Master’s degree, I openly embraced the idea of 100% inclusion for all students with disabilities. The models that were presented seemed promising: Parallel teaching, Station Teaching, Alternative Teaching, etc. Seven years later, there have been advancements of knowledge and programs in the special education field, yet the same inclusion models remain. Classrooms are still “testing” or “figuring out” what model best works for their students. Is this fair to continue to test the same models when it is at the expense of our students with special needs?

I began questioning inclusion during my first year of teaching when I became immersed in my career as a self-contained special education teacher in a non-categorical classroom. Questions such as: Could some of my students function 100% of the day in inclusion? Would they receive as much attention and support as they were receiving in my self-contained setting? How would these supports be delivered when the teacher to student ratio is much higher in a general education setting and there is limited support from para professionals?

As these questions were buzzing in my mind, I came to one conclusion: It is nearly impossible for a general education teacher, who has the demanding responsibility of teaching over 25 students, to be expected to teach students who cannot write, speak, or express wants and needs. These students benefit from specialized programs where they will receive specialized instruction, such as self-contained classrooms.

According to The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), least restrictive environment is defined as ensuring that “…children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

As stated, if the general education classroom cannot provide the necessary means to ensure a student with special needs is having all of his or her goals, needs, and requirements met according to their Individual Education Plan (IEP), then another placement is appropriate. Another setting, such as a self-contained classroom or resource room, is considered his or her Least Restrictive Environment. Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity work with countless students with autism, intellectual disabilities, and emotional disabilities. Some of these students were considered high functioning since they read and performed work close to grade level. However, because of their short attention span, sensitivity to stimulus, or emotional imbalances, these students required an environment that had a small teacher to student ratio. If there were no self-contained classrooms available, how will we nurture these students and their peers in the public school system?

Specialized programs, such as self-contained classrooms, can serve as a bridge between participating in a specialized and general education setting. Here at Tyler Elementary, we have classes to serve as that bridge. Our special education classrooms service a wide range of disabilities including, but not limited to, students with Intellectual Disabilities, Learning Disabilities, Autism, Multiple Disabilities, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Students with IEPs who can function in the general education setting are provided support through an Inclusion Special Education Teacher that in most cases rotates to different classrooms to service the students on his or her caseload. Students who require more assistance and smaller class size are placed in self-contained classrooms. Students in these classes are with peers close to their age and academic level, a Special Education Teacher, and paraprofessional for additional support. Each classroom contains its own set of diverse learners that require the curriculum to be tailored to their needs.

Last year, I started the concept of reverse inclusion where I provided the necessary support for my two highest functioning students with disability to participate in the Literacy Block in the 5th grade general education class. In reverse, the four lowest performing students in the general class came to me in the self-contain setting for a reading intervention program. This model of inclusion was successful because of the environment of the self-contained classroom where these four students greatly benefited from specialized instruction for part of the day. As a result, reading levels increased and overall student morale improved.

The District of Columbia Public Schools is aware of these differences and has many schools that contain specialized programs to meet the needs of all students. 100% inclusion in the general education setting is ideal for many students with disabilities, but it is not a fit for all. It is our job as special educators to accept this reality and create environments that will benefit all learners.

STEM in Any Classroom!

By Rabiah Harris April 7th, 2014 7:00 PM

“I finally think I’ve got it!” a student exclaimed as she figured out how to configure the wires in the shell to power her circuit.

“Ms. Harris! Ms. Harris! We got it!” Exclaimed another group of students in the back of the classroom.

As a teacher in a project-based learning classroom, it’s tremendous to watch a student struggle and then come to a conclusion after successfully creating a project. I admit, there are few things I enjoy more than the epiphanies of my students during individual and team collaborative hard work.

You often hear from non-English teachers that “everybody is an English teacher.” This is true!  However, it should also be true that everybody is a STEM teacher. This is because STEM instruction is an effective way to engage students in initial forays into critical thinking, one of the most important skills we teach at school. STEM instruction utilizes pathways that don’t traditionally make students think they are thinking critically, even when they are.

For instance, let’s say that you are a social studies teacher focusing on the Civil War.  You begin your lesson by showing a layout of the battlefield or the area where the Civil War was fought.  You then have students brainstorm ideas or tools that may have been used in combat by opposing sides.  As they are completing this activity, you bring in primary source evidence that describes what actually happened during the war to see if students can recreate those same scenarios.  At the very end, you introduce a final primary source that tells the “whole” story of a particular battle.  As a result of this lesson, students receive a short foray into engineering and engineering design while also learning the social studies content.

A DCPS colleague of mine at Stanton Elementary School has a great Kindergarten example.   Ms. Samples-Wright has her students create houses as they read The Three Little Pigs.  During the project, students go through the stages of the engineering design process and get to share their ideas with real engineers for observation and feedback.  Find this project, and more like it, on Ms. Samples-Wright’s website:

Another great DCPS example comes from Mrs. Ford at Maury Elementary School.   Mrs. Ford teaches a “Think Tank” class where students get to experience a lot of STEM lessons with Mrs. Ford as their instructor. Most recently, budding 4th grade architects are being cultivated at Maury Elementary with a partnership with District Architect Center’s “Architects in the Schools” program. Check out more of Mrs. Ford’s projects here:

Interesting in trying out STEM in your classroom? Follow these key steps to implementation!

Start small, with only one lesson or one activity.  This will prevent you from becoming overburdened with supporting STEM.

Find one aspect of STEM to focus on and plan to do that well.  Whether it is science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, find a way to focus on one topic.  This will help you later, especially when you are trying to evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson.

Emphasize the path over the answer.  Many of the STEM process skills that we are attempting to highlight for students are more about the process of inquiry and not about the actual answer or product.  The key is to make sure that students understand (and maybe even journal about) the process for creation, data collection or analysis.