The ABC’s of Improving Home-School Partnerships

By Angelique Kwabenah May 27th, 2014 3:00 PM

Students do better in school and in life when their families are engaged. A strong body of evidence clearly points to the fact that, from birth through adolescence, family engagement contributes to a range of positive student outcomes. Parent engagement looks different depending on the school, but one of the ways that parent engagement is addressed in alternative school settings is through home visits. Home visits can be a valuable way to engage parents in their child’s education, but they sometimes present challenges as well. Keeping in mind this simple “ABC Framework” will help schools to engage parents more effectively and move students to greater levels of academic proficiency.

Accommodate: Being accommodating to parents schedules and needs is critical to fostering a cohesive partnership. When scheduling a home visit, it is advisable to give parents options in terms of a meeting location. For example, our school meets with parents at the Anacostia Library instead of meeting them in the home if that is more convenient or closer to their workplace. Accept that parents may have valid reasons for wanting to meet in an alternate location and be open to that, not oppositional.

Break down: It is also critical to break down any barriers that might prevent a positive meeting experience. Parents may have perceptions about us as teachers and we may have our own personal views about the parents, as well, that could negatively impact a meeting if they are not openly and transparently discussed. Get any pre-conceived notions out in the open and clear the air so that the parameters have been set for both sides to have a positive and productive meeting. Building bridges that can be crossed by everyone will help to establish a more amicable environment in which parents and teachers feel valued and respected.

Collaborate: Collaborating with parents encourages cultural awareness and respect and has been an important aspect of the success of our home visits. Our parents are appreciative of the fact that that they are included in the decision making process, particularly when it relates to developing transition plans for our students that will help to ensure their continued success when they return to the community. Overwhelmingly, the consensus is that parents want their voices heard and that they feel more engaged when we make them an integral part of the planning process and don’t just impose an idea.

Although many challenges may arise when attempting to conduct home visits in an alternative school setting, benefits like increased student achievement, a decrease in student behavior infractions, and a more cohesive home-school partnership make the efforts well worth it in the long run. Students do better in school and in life when their families and schools are working together in work that truly matters.

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Sunshine, Ocean Breezes, and Lesson Planning

By Sean McGrath May 22nd, 2014 5:30 PM

The sun taunts me from the frosted windows of my classroom. The birds chirp an openly-mocking song and the voices from the sidewalks in front of my school have a sardonic lilt to them. May is officially here, which means June is right around the corner, which means it’s time to cue up that Alice Cooper classic, bust down the front doors, speed home and never return… for two months.

During my first year as a teacher, I couldn’t wait for the summer. I was considered lucky by my friends and peers for having two months to seemingly relax. After all, the common assumption is that teachers not only work fewer hours per day than their colleagues but get to enjoy the lazy days of summer, too. What kind of scam is the Department of Education running here?

To answer that question, I hearken back to my days as a novice educator with rose-colored glasses and a lack of depth and full understanding about the roles and responsibilities of the nuances of the teaching position. June 18th arrived faster than I thought possible, and by June 19th, I was sleeping until 11am, catching up on reading, and lounging by the pool I had at the time. My first year, unsurprisingly, was quite difficult, and I believed that I owed it to myself to spend some time not even thinking about the classroom.

By the time I came back in August, I was rested, refreshed, and eager to begin the school year. But, I was far from ready. Typical middle school behaviors: talking back, sarcastic comments, tossing paper into garbage cans at inappropriate times all caught me off-guard. Additionally, the lessons that I had planned in my first year remained the unrefined lessons of a first-year teacher. Although I had gained confidence over the summer, I had not grown as an educator. Taking those two months off proved to be a huge mistake, and I spent most of that year staying up late fixing lesson plans and altering worksheets, not to mention creating new lessons, assessments, and grading rubrics.

I knew that, come the following summer, I couldn’t afford to lounge by my pool and play video games. Since my second year, I have willingly spent 3 – 4 hours per day altering my entire units of study, taking advantage of the growth opportunities that availed themselves over the course of 180 days. I have replaced entire lessons, prepared my classroom, planned the first two weeks of the school year, and sent emails to incoming eighth grade parents so that they, like me, are prepared for the fall. I find that each year I engage in this process, I enter the classroom with a confidence completely unlike the kind I thought I had after my first year. The swagger that comes with being just-about fully planned for most of the year is incomparable. It frees up time that I would have used planning for engaging in other school-based ventures: this blog, for one, but also groups like the Chancellor’s Cabinet, the personnel committee, student government advisor, and the culture and leadership team committee. Ultimately, it is by participating in these extracurricular activities that my knowledge base (and resume) grows. This not only means that I evolve as an educator, but that, best of all, my students benefit from my acquired abilities.

So, this summer, I will absolutely spend time traveling, catching up on reading, and lounging by the pool, but I will just as absolutely have my lesson plans with me.

Formulas to Make Math More Engaging

By Earl Jones May 20th, 2014 10:00 AM

Raise your hand if you have ever had a student say math is boring. Keep it raised if you want students to be captivated by math and engrossed in activities.

Any mathematics teacher will tell you that many students struggle with staying engaged and interested in class. Math can sometimes become a chore, boring, or monotonous for kids. It takes a lot of effort and planning on the part of teachers to make math class and exciting time. Check out four ideas that have worked for me.  

  1. Make it applicable to everyday life. I know all teachers have heard this before. We are very aware that as adults we use math everyday, but it has to be made very transparent to students how math is all around us. When a student complains that time is going slowly and they’re waiting for recess, have him or her subtract and tell the class how many minutes there are until recess. If a kid mentions that they went to the movies with his family this weekend, ask the total price of the tickets. Try mentioning that you were using a recipe and had to convert from cups to pints. At first for me, it seemed a bit disingenuous to be this candid and explicit about mathematics, but soon after, I witnessed students becoming more aware of mathematics in their environment. They heard me speak about it many times a day and it opened their eyes.
  2. Turn boring activities into games and competitions. At one point or another, all math teachers have given a worksheet or some independent activity that is on the dry side. Try finding a way to make activities fun. Use dice, spinners, number cards, and other simple “game” materials when students are doing basic operations. Sometimes the simple act of infusing a game-like element into an activity gets students excited to participate. Better yet, make activities into a friendly competition. Young students love to outdo one another. Competitions I have tried include: challenging teams to give the most precise answer, allowing students to race against each other and the clock when practicing basic facts, and creating challenging problems for classmates. More competition equals more engagement.
  3. Let students lend a hand in the teaching. Students are obviously more invested when they or their peers have personally contributed to a task. Try allowing students to make anchor charts and posters. Have a small group of students explain a concept to the rest of the class. I have even let students make up class songs that we used to find perimeter and area of geometric shapes. You would be surprised at the creativity and collaborative skills I have seen when kind feel as though they are a part of the instruction that is occurring.
  4. Make very small, but obvious errors. I know this goes against everything you may be thinking and doing. The catch is that students must feel competent enough to correct a teacher. This must be done with skills and concepts that students have had significant exposure to already in school. I have said things such as “The fraction three-fourths means I need to divide each whole into three equal parts.” Not surprisingly, I heard 25 different voices saying, “No. Four equal parts.” Young students love to correct their teachers, and this improves their listening skills. Most importantly, it builds their confidence. When a young child knows that he has the ability to find errors in someone else’s work, it lets him know that he is very capable in his own right. This leads to increased effort and participation.

I encourage teachers to try at least one my suggestions before the end of the school year (maybe even try all four!). Let me know what works, or if you have any other suggestions for keeping students engaged and interested in math. Tweet me @Mathophile_DC.

Teaching to Life: Building Leadership through Clubs

By Nicole Bell May 14th, 2014 3:00 PM

People say that leaders are made, not born, and that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot as my school’s robotics season comes to a close. Back in August when I set goals as the team’s coach, I was mostly focused on supporting my students’ growth in critical thought and engineering, and on exposing them to the excitement of robotics and STEM careers. As I think back on this robotics season, however, I realized that I played a third, equally critical role – that of building leadership skills amongst my students.

Teachers are often called upon to teach topics outside of their content area. Chemistry teachers may need to re-teach decimals, while math teachers review reading comprehension strategies. Beyond these academic skills, teachers of all subjects end up teaching social skills: anger management, time management, interpersonal skills, and leadership, to name a few. These skills can be hard to teach, since many teachers were never trained in how to teach them.

Coaching a school team brings with it an even greater expectation to teach leadership, and at times I’ve found myself intimidated by this tall order. As I think back on this past year, I’m glad I was able to enrich my students’ experiences with resources like donated mechanics kits and the opportunity to attend three competitions instead of our usual one competition. Where my mind lingers, however, is on the ways I pushed my students as leaders and on the ways I could have pushed them even further. Reflecting on what worked, I realized that many of those leadership-building strategies weren’t elusive new methods – they were the same strategies I was using in my classroom each day to teach chemistry. Below is the advice I wish I could have had last August, and that I would offer to any teacher/coach planning for next year:

Step 1: Planning What and How to Teach

  • Break it down: When I plan for my chemistry class, I start by figuring out what I want my students to be able to do at the end of the year, unit, or lesson, and then I break down the specific skills and knowledge students would need to accomplish those goals. With robotics, however, I started with the broad goal of “teaching leadership” and it led me to build leadership skills in a more ad hoc manner. I think it’s more powerful to instead start by thinking about what leadership looks like in the context of your club, and then cohesively build the skills needed for that leadership. In the case of robotics, that would have been a large focus on how to train and direct peers clearly and respectfully, and how to identify what’s needed in a situation and be proactive about making it happen. Different teams might require a different focus, but having a comprehensive vision of leadership will make it easier to address the most important skills and pick the most appropriate methods to teach those skills.
  • Figure out where your students are: Differentiation is just as important for teaching soft skills as it is for teaching hard skills. Getting a sense of the team’s existing skill sets helps you figure out where to go next, so coaches should try to gauge students’ comfort and ability with taking charge, suggesting courses of action, and mediating conflicts. In robotics this year, I mostly gleaned this information through informal observations and interactions. However, I think it would have been valuable to also use self-assessment surveys like the learning style surveys I’ve used in class. I would recommend asking students to rank their own strength and comfort level on key skills, along with how they think others view them and where they’d most like to grow (which can sometimes produce a more honest self-assessment).
  • Address misconceptions: Part of the typical planning process involves addressing up front the misconceptions that students typically have for a topic. With leadership, a lot of people assume that leadership means ordering people around. This can lead some students to avoid leadership positions at all costs, while others order teammates around in an unproductive way. When I assigned students to leadership roles like safety captain this year, I had to be explicit about the types of interactions that were – and were not – expected of them, and I would recommend that any coach directly address key misconceptions up front as well.

Step 2: Teaching Leadership Day-to-Day within the Club

  • Teach the language: Academic vocabulary can often be a stumbling block to understanding concepts. If you don’t understand bonds or valence electrons, it’s very hard to think about what it means when atoms transfer valence electrons to form ionic bonds. Being able to own words and use those words to explain themselves gives students power, while a lack of certitude about how to say things often keeps students from saying them at all. My school’s instructional coach once gave me great advice on building leadership in labs – give students a specific role (like making sure all steps are followed), and then give them the exact language they should use to keep their teammates on track. I’ve been applying this advice with the robotics team, and I’ve given some students specific things they can say to advocate for themselves when they don’t understand something. I’d recommend that club leaders be even more proactive about this – instead of doing it ad hoc when moments arise, it’d be great to give students written language they can consult to prepare for hard conversations like correcting a peer when they’re doing something wrong.
  • Model behaviors for your students: A key part of learning a new skill is watching other people do it. Teachers often lead by example in social skills, but we don’t always speak aloud the thoughts that are guiding our actions. When modeling a math problem, we say things like, “I’m not sure what the formula is, so I check my notes to find the formula. Then I plug these numbers into the formula…” When acting as a leader, however, we rarely say things like, “I’m going to ask Cydney how she feels, because I value her opinions as part of this team. Now that she has spoken, I’ll nod so she knows she was heard…” To be honest, most of my explicit leadership instruction has been talking students through situations and role playing; I haven’t done much direct modeling of my own thought processes. I think there could be added value, however, in figuring out an appropriate way to show students that teachers aren’t born leaders — they actively think about how to best lead. 

Step 3: Building a Lasting Impact Beyond the Club

  • For students to succeed in a class, they need a sense of “I can” (they feel they’re capable of the work) and “I want” (they care about doing well in the class). I believe the same is true for leadership, making it critical to build the “I can” and “I want.” Without students feeling like they can and want to be a leader, any leadership habits that you build during the club season might not continue beyond it.
  • I can: With any type of skill, it’s helpful to build students’ confidence with small successes. For students who aren’t sure they’re capable of leading, having them complete small leadership activities and then noting their success can be useful. In particular, I’ve found it’s helpful to specifically point out what students did well. As with academics, general praise is nice but specific praise on things like using academic vocabulary can be much better for reinforcing what’s important. On the robotics team, for example, I like to keep an eye out for when a student explains something clearly to a teammate, sees a need and makes sure it was taken care of, delegates a task well, or doesn’t give up on a frustrating problem.
  • I want: At the end of the day, it’s not enough for students to believe that leadership is important and to be told that they can be leaders. They need to believe that they are leaders. A lot of people I’ve known didn’t think of themselves as leaders, but rather as people who got stuff done. When they were told often enough that they were a leader, however, they eventually started to believe it. At times, it can be important to make your confidence in your students’ leadership a matter of fact statement, not just encouragement for what they could become. I want each of my students to not just believe they are a leader, but to know it.

National Board Certified: To Be or Not To Be?

By Jennifer Krystopowicz May 13th, 2014 10:15 AM

National Board Certification. Perhaps you’ve thought about it, researched it on the Internet, or even thought about registering for more information. However, something held you back: money, time, requirements, etc. These feelings are absolutely normal, especially when you are thinking about embarking on any certificate or degree program in your professional career. The unknown can be scary and intimidating, so I hope that my experience will help you in your decision.

When I was first presented with the opportunity to earn my National Board Certification, I felt many of the same emotions discussed above. I had heard about the certificate, but didn’t really know much about the process or whether I wanted to commit to writing more papers after already completing my Masters degree. Not to mention, balancing life as a student and full time teacher was challenging. As a result, I was hesitant to jump back into that lifestyle to earn my Boards. I also didn’t know how much I would benefit from this process, since I planned to complete the boards on my own without the guidance and support of classmates or a professor. However, after much consideration and research, I decided to move forward and become a candidate for National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist.

The defining factor that led me to make this decision came from the mission of the National Board. According to the website, “The mission of the National Board is to advance student learning and achievement by establishing the definitive standards and systems for certifying accomplished educators, providing programs and advocating policies that support excellence in teaching and leading and engaging National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) and leaders in that process.” I loved the idea that I could be a part of a systematic process where one could honor excellent teaching though a rigorous professional certification process. For the first time in my career, I felt like I would be able to be a part of what expert teachers share in their craft and be amongst a select group of teachers who are advancing student achievement.

Perhaps you are still on the fence as to why you should become board certified. Besides becoming part of an organization that is deeply respected and valued by leading educators, the Department of Education, and our Secretary of Education, completing the national board process will give you a profound understanding of your practice, thorough time for self-reflection, and an opportunity to celebrate your success.

To become Nationally Board Certified, I had to complete four entries that comprised of data analysis, reports, analyzing artifacts, self-reflection, and a video submission. I also had to complete a computer-based exam. The road to earning my certification was not an easy one, and I had to commit one day a week to my “board work” to complete the process (much like being back in graduate school!).  If I could offer one piece of advice to anyone who is thinking of or in the process of preparing for writing their entries, I would tell you to have someone else, outside of the education field, read your work.  This person preferably has a graduate or writing degree and experience editing work, and can serve as a lens from outside of the education field. A close friend of mine read my work and gave me great insight into what I was missing in my entries. For example, she told me that I was not “selling” myself enough in my accomplishments, and as a result I was cutting myself short. I truly believe that her support in meeting with me countless times to read my paper played a huge role in my successful completion!

As a National Board Certified teacher, I walked away from this experience with a new set of skills that now defines me as an educator and helps me stand out in my profession. Most importantly, this was a time of true self-reflection and analysis of my success and challenges as a teacher. This was a time that was dedicated to my own growth, which is something that, as teachers, we don’t do enough. This process has taught me to take the time to celebrate my work and even the smallest of successes! Still thinking about the process? National Board Certification… To be!

Why DCPS?

By Rabiah Harris May 7th, 2014 3:00 PM

“But why, Ms. Harris, why?” one student pleaded. I can still remember the day I told my chemistry students that I was preparing to leave Wilson High School to move to New Orleans.  It was a gut-wrenching day, as this was the first time since student teaching where I was leaving a group of students before they graduated high school. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that five years later, I would return to DCPS as a middle school teacher. However, I couldn’t be more excited about my decision.

My reasons for coming back to DCPS this school year were clear, but I will note that it was not an easy decision. I was a leader and hard working teacher at a DC charter middle school, and I had developed great relationships with the families of students I taught. Yet, there were still some things I felt were missing. In spite of the year’s challenges, I am happy with my decision and still see it as an opportunity to grow.

As one of only three science teachers at my past school and five total in the charter network, I sought to be a part of a larger network of teachers who taught similar subject areas and grade levels to my own.  I have found that in DCPS.  From New Teacher Orientation to district-wide professional development, I thoroughly enjoy networking with other science teachers in the District. I was also recently picked to be a part of the STEM Master Teacher Corps, where I get to connect with other teachers in DCPS on a the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) alignment for the District.  All of these opportunities provide professional growth that is incomparable to what is available at a small school with a smaller network.

I receive specialized coaching around leadership development for my school’s science vertical teamThis resource, provided through a partnership with TeachPlus, enables me to receive weekly coaching personalized to my growth. For instance, I needed to get a group of teachers (including myself) aligned around the work of science and scientific inquiry.  At my school, science teachers were allowed to work in silos when it came to the day-to-day work and my coach assisted me with tools and techniques to work at bringing my team together on a common goal. While my former schools were whole-heartedly invested in my growth, they just didn’t have a large enough staff to make that a reality. I still have a long way to go before I feel like I am a phenomenal leader, but I am happy to continue working towards that goal. Through this experience, I know I have made more growth with the assistance of a coach than without.

Lastly, I am a product of public schools across the country (I lived in 7 places by the time I was 18). I wholeheartedly believe in neighborhood schools and that every school in the city should be great. I have returned to DCPS because I want to be a part of the growth of schools and the work of so many other talented educators.  I also want to do my part in making sure that every student gets great educators- and that those great educators help to ensure that students, regardless of whether they attend a neighborhood school, get a great education.

40/40 Led Me to 20/20

By Destinee Hodge May 5th, 2014 5:00 PM

Almost three years ago, I stepped through the doors of Kelly Miller Middle School having little idea what to expect. I had heard the good, the bad, and the ugly during my training about individual teacher’s experiences working in one of DC’s lowest 40 performing schools. Going into an environment with many underperforming students and wanting to see them succeed was a very daunting task. I remember wanting to approach my students and new school community with an optimistic yet realistic mentality. How could I have high expectations while not being naïve toward possible student behaviors and mindsets? It seemed like an impossible balance to strike. Whether or not I acknowledged it then, I had pre-conceived notions about how this journey would go.  These mind-sets were based on my past education experiences and what other people told me to expect.

If I had the chance to go back three years and give myself some advice, I’d share what I understand now more than ever— at the end of the day, my students and I are both human beings. That mutual humanity is what brings me back each morning. Are there days where students are disrespectful? Yes. Have I ever witnessed inappropriate behavior from students? Yes. Have my students thrown me a surprise birthday party? Yes. Have they shown an incredible enthusiasm and tenacity for learning a new language? Absolutely.

This duality is my daily experience. As many frustrations as I may have about student behaviors and administrative expectations, I have enough positive experiences by virtue of student relationships to create a harmonious balance in my life. The bond I have with my current eighth graders is an excellent example of how both the positive and negative elements in a low-performing school environment can balance out. Over time, the relationships I’ve built with my students have contributed to a better classroom environment. There is a shared understanding that my classroom is not just Srta. Hodge’s room, but rather a place where foreign language instruction lives in the minds and voices of every student I teach.

I now see it as my duty to pass this perspective to people who are considering working in one of the District’s 40/40 schools or those who are already on their way there. No single story, experience or viewpoint should shape your mindset going into this position. In your classroom, there will be difficulty and there will be beauty— focus on the latter and you will have a positive experience overall.