Monday, December 15, 2014

Academic FYI #8- Happy Holidays!!

In the Holiday spirit of giving I would like to invite everyone to take part in a fun little Holiday activity where I teach your class for a day and give you a much deserved period off.

Over the next four weeks I will have Diane pull one name each week from a hat of interested staff. Those teachers can then let me know what day and period they would like me to cover.

I can either cover the class in your room or take them somewhere else so you have access to your room. Makes no difference to me.

I look at this activity as a way of showing staff some appreciation and it doubles as a way for me to connect with kids. Each year as an administrator is another year away from the classroom. I believe it is important for me to constantly remember what it is truly like to be in a classroom for a full 58 minutes with students.

I do not look at this as a lost period of curriculum. I can either oversee an assessment period for you or I will bring in my own fun type of lesson that is cross curricular (preferred).

If you are interested in being a part of this please call or email Diane with your name. We will start drawing names next week.

This Week’s FYI:
One helpful app and two good articles: Hope you enjoy.

During walkthroughs this week I talked to 3 different students who each told me that they remembered to do their homework or an important due date because there teacher sent them a Remind text over the weekend. Remind is a safeway for teachers to text students. Check it out in the link below or come see me with any questions. I can point you in the direction of teachers who are having success with it.

Unleash the Power of Post-Its

This a short blog article with some great ideas for using simple Post-Its in your daily lesson. This is particularly a great idea for those quiet and shy students you may have.

11 Alternative to Round Robin Reading (RRR)

Reading in your classroom is a GREAT practice. However, Round Robin Reading has gotten a bad rap and has led to some serious debate in educational circles. At one time or another we have all run a classroom lesson where we choose individual students to read a passage from some textbook or book. This short article gives teachers some others alternatives for this practice. I particularly liked the idea of “Partner reading”. See the article below for some new ideas:

11 Alternatives to Round Robin Reading

Monday, November 24, 2014

Academic FYI #7- Happy Thanksgiving! Thoughts on Appreciation and Gratitude

A special Thanksgiving’s Day Academic FYI. A little bit on the touchy feely side but its a great time of year to reflect upon all the great parts of this profession.

Just two quick articles on the importance of Appreciation and Gratitude that all staff and students can benefit from….  

This is a nice and timely article around Thanksgiving. This is certainly the time of year with everyone working so hard where the Holiday break is a much needed time for relaxing and reenergizing yourself.

There are some great ideas here for increasing appreciation in your work life. And if I haven’t said it to you enough: Thank you for all you do.

Nothing is perfect but students and staff have a lot to be thankful for working at such a great school. At first I wondered if the article was too elementary but then realized gratitude is something that all students need to think about at all times. Here is another great idea for writing in your classroom which doubles as a fantastic way to start your class with positive thoughts and ideas:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

FYI #6 - Enjoy the Weekend & Happy Veteran's Day!

Had some great walkthroughs this week. It is encouraging to see staff doing more and more stuff with literacy in mind.

This week: A helpful lesson plan template, one video, one list of journal prompts, and one more short article on working with ELL students. Enjoy! Have a Great weekend!!

  1. We have been talking a lot about Unit Plans in terms of our Rubicon Atlas curriculum initiatives.

However, one thing that cannot be overlooked is a good, solid daily lesson plan. A lesson plan which has the most important components to running a good class:

Warm-ups, a good balance of teacher-centered and student-centered activities, reading and writing activities, formative assessment, and exit strategies is critical to every class.

I have been working on this lesson plan template which I hope to break down into one page. I think it is important for teachers to see the ideas below each section of the lesson plan. This is a 58 minute plan which hits upon the 5 classroom indicators Administrators are looking for. If you decided to use this template let me know how it goes:

  1. A quick little video on simple Exit Tickets. You should always end your lesson each day with a simple exit strategy to see if the students have learned the objectives you planned for:

  1. 180 Journal Prompts for every day of the school year. This is an excellent list for all teachers to use. Journals are a great DO NOW activity regardless of what you teach:

  1. Another excellent and short article on accommodating ELL students in your classroom:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Academic FYI #5 Reading- Classroom Management- Parent Chats

A very wet and at times dreary week for us here at the Valley. I would like to commend all of you for your professionalism and compassion this week as we dealt with some unfortunate issues.

While the weather looks to be breaking it is still a good time to remember the relaxation a good book brings. Whether it be alone or in the classroom reading is critical to all our success as individuals and the district.

Happy Friday! Enjoy your weekend!

This week in the FYI:
  • A simple 6 traits Writing Rubric any teacher can use regardless of their discipline can use
  • A helpful and quick article on dealing with difficult students: 5 Tips for Teaching the Tough Kids
  • And just in time for sending progress reports home: one article on creating Positive Parent Conferences and one quick article on The Power of the Positive Phone Call Home

A simple, easy and time tested writing rubric for all teachers in any disciplines:

A helpful  and to the point article on dealing with some of the more challenging (I don’t love the term “tough” ) students in your classes in a very positive way:

We just sent Progress reports home and 1st term grades will be closing November 21st. You can expect that some parents will contact you or you will contact them well before the January 29th Parent’s Nights. Keep some of these tips in mind during your phone calls and Face to Face conversations:

Finally don’t forget to call or email home for the students who are doing great things. Those conversations go along way too.  Sometimes we are so preoccupied with the students who are doing the wrong things that we tend to forget about praising the ones who are doing things right:

Friday, October 3, 2014

London: A mixed bag of education

5am wake-up.. quick shuttle to Finnish airport... 3 hour flight to London... made a huge decision to hit the "check available seats" button at the check-in kiosk. Got the last window seat available in the last row with no-one in between me and aisle seat person. This was a small victory.

Shuttle from airport in London to hotel took nearly 1 hour and 30 minutes yet was only 20 miles away. As our guide pointed out, "the traffic in London is hideous." He was right.

Hotel rooms are extremely small. Wifi is slow and I need to buy yet another phone charger adapter because European outlets are so very different and less powerful then ours.

The schools we visited and the Department of Education in London:

Saw three very different schools:

  • one high poverty urban charter high school
  • one K-6 urban public school 
  • arguably the most elite private school in the country 
The inequalities in London schools was striking. 

Evelyn Grace Academy

This charter school in Brixton; one of the poorest and highest crimes areas in London does have an very impressive charter school going for it.

We were greeted by the staff here and given high school students as guides who were some of the most articulate young people I have met in a long time. 

The biggest take away here was the painted and stenciled statements I saw throughout the building. I was wondering if these statements plastered everywhere actually had a daily affect on students and if the staff were really behind them. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the student who took me around let me know that these statements all work to enhance the administration's effort to push forward 4 common values they look to instill in students upon graduation: integrity, responsibility, accountability, and perseverance. 

The lightbulb moment for me was the fact that we work very hard on mission statements and goals for admin and teachers but what goals do the students we have for themselves. Imagine we had some specific statements plastered everywhere: in the lunchroom, on the way up to the 3rd floor, outside the gym, etc... that pushed the goals we want for our students. This is something I hope we can discuss more when we update our interior in blue and gold everywhere.

Here are some examples of the environment at Evelyn Grace Academy:

Statements like this posted throughout the school help to remind students of the larger goals of the school beyond just testing and grades. 

This was a device that read students fingerprints and let them know what they had in their school accounts for lunch. 

Student posters like this are strewn about the school. These are much like the ones we did for PAC night. This is a great concept to expand upon. 

I will discuss the other two schools we saw tomorrow along with my visit to the Department of Education and a very good debate we had between two of the top educational thinkers in the UK.

As a precursor here is a picture I took in the chamber at the most elite private school in England. This is my best impression of Winston Churchill who attended here. Same room they filmed parts of Harry Potter.

A striking resemblance. I don't know if that's a good thing. 
Feel free to insert joke in comments section! 

Thanks for reading! Enjoy your weekend! 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Day 2 - Visiting Schools: Some great things but some things missing

Up bright and early this morning. 45 minute bus ride to our first school visit. Very windy. Very cold.

Have had some internet connect issues. That said the first rule of blogging is:  to make sure you are blogging. Everyday!  Easier said then done but I am back.

Keep in mind the Essential Questions to the trip:

What can be learned about the success of Finnish education and actually applied to the current learning structure we have at Assabet Valley to better student learning?

In discussions with colleagues from Massachusetts what are the possible parameters and ideas in setting up a Global studies program/academy for students at AV?

Arrived at first actual school. The Itakeskus Comprehensive School.  Grades 3-9. The first thing that catches my attention is the amount of students who ride their bikes to school. This is a lost art in the US. Not many kids ride their bikes anymore to school.

We are first greeted by the Principal and led to a very large teachers room. --- lots of action in here-- cubicles--- locked mail boxes --- seating-- --- lots of different teachers working amongst each other. The one take away here is that it lends itself to more collaboration simply for the fact that all teachers regardless of dept. are working in the same office area. However, I like the fact that our core depts. each have their own home base. I would like to work on the furniture in the teacher room in D200 though. The small table and chair set-ups could create a nice space for teachers who want to get out their own depts. or are out of their rooms due to other teachers in them. Definitely something to consider after the renovation project is over.

Teachers office above and teacher common area. Good opportunities for general inter-department discussions and collaboration here. Certainly some good ideas for updating room D-200. 

Teachers were very open to talking to all of us. Said they had little motivation or discipline issues overall. However, they were very honest about the pains of grading day after day. What thing that really stuck out was that they are called by their first name by students. I really couldn't imagine a 9th grade student saying "Hey Rob, can you help me with #7?"  That just sounds very strange to me. I think we in the US look at it as a sign of respect to be called Mr. and Mrs.

Which is interesting because teachers here are more respected as any other profession in the country. In fact, the common theme to both the schools I visited today was about respect, trust, and responsibility. The respect and trust between the teachers themselves, teachers and students, and admin and teachers was quite evident and obviously a big part of their success.


Keep in mind that while I am most concerned about take-aways (that is the whole point of Professional Development IMO; (To take something away that you can build upon in your own work situation) there are certainly things that I have learned here that I will leave.

I am very happy to report that a lot of the things we are doing and trying to do at Assabet Valley work just as well if not better then the Finnish schools.

Meeting the students 

We talked with 12 8th and 9th grade students at our first school in Finland. We were all immediately impressed by their english and calm and laid back way about them. But it was clear that they are just kids like anyone else.

I think a big part of their success relies in the fact that they are heavily involved in learning foreign languages at a very young age. Finnish students are learning german, swedish, and english starting in 3rd grade. Its impressive.

Side note: Finnish is one of the most impossible languages to learn and understand. Tons of consonants. I learned the word "kiitos"-- Thank you. That is all I needed.

Finnish kids view of americans? Originally they said we are sometimes perceived as arrogant because we "think we are the best." Yet when we asked about thief heroes and style they quickly said they learn everything from america and everything here is cool.  I had the opportunity to speak with some very intelligent 9th grade students at lunch.

Speaking of lunch this was another major difference and another sign of that respect and trust example they talked about so much.

Lunch was served in a cafe much like ours but students served themselves. Probably a scary thought to most of us in the US. All students in Finland receive free lunch. There were two main courses today: fish stew and a beet based soup (see below). There was also bread with butter, cucumbers, water, and skim or 1% milk.

 My lunch. Healthiest thing I've eaten in 3 years minus the large clump of the tastiest butter I have ever had. 

Students serving themselves in a Helsinki High School 

Again, all students served themselves and could get seconds or thirds if they wanted to.

After our visit with the 8th and 9th graders we moved to the upper school with 10,11, and 12th graders. Spoke with three students about a wide range of topics.

Some highlights:

  • classes meet for 45 minutes on average in the lower school with 15 minute breaks in between (students noted that they sometimes catch up on homework during these breaks) 
  • on average students stated that they have 1 hour of homework per night: some less, some more... I could not accurately say that they are any different from us 
  • students mentioned that they would like a dress code.. would cause less bullying and be easier day to day... I agree but was shocked to hear that 
  • students who move onto vocational schools do get a stigma attached to them-- this is something we continue to deal with back home 
  • boys are outpacing girls in English in Finland -- this is the ONLY subject they are doing better then girls in--- this is something we are seeing at AV too. Our female students are outpacing our males---- it is interesting to note that our QCC course taught by MJ has 11 total students (10 of which are females). Our new engineering program has 20 students (10 of which are females in the  once male dominated are of engineering.) 
  • In ten years at the high school the Principal said they have had ZERO issues with drugs with students.  
Some major take-aways from today:
- there is no magic bullet just learning the Finnish model
- Finnish schools are doing great things but so are we 
- while I attempted to look at Finnish schools in the light of being like Massachusetts there is no comparison with diversity we have 
- the biggest and most important take away is to continue to build trust between students and teachers and teachers and administrators. This is critical. 
- making students responsible for their learning is also huge. 

Leaving for England tomorrow bright and early. Got to be up at 5:45am. Seeing two schools in London and visiting the Department of Education tomorrow.

Good stuff to come. Thanks for reading.

Off to London tomorrow. Hopefully better wifi.

Some interesting pictures and thoughts....

 About 50% of the students in this Finnish High School drove their motorcycles to school ... 

The three Finnish students who were extremely open and honest with us regarding their studies and thoughts.... Very laid back, very low stress, kids just like any others. Biggest take away were that a lot of kids we talked to wanted to be teachers.  

 Even in Finland teachers have concerns about cell phone use. An interesting anti-communist historical poster in a German language classroom. 

Found this sticker on a teacher's classroom door. I wonder how this would be interpreted back home. 

   An Art class in this Finnish school. Several computers in the room for access to important art concepts and pictures. A simple yet important addition we can make at AV. 

A Finnish common area for students and teachers with a snack and beverage bar. We started something like this in the library a few years back. Something to look at. This was a good meeting spot for both staff and students. 

Although we are discussing education there can be no debate on just how different of a society we live in as this picture. This is one man without any fence, gate, etc... who solely guards the residency of the President of Finland. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Finally made it! Finland Day 1 @ the University of Helsinki

Arrived at Logan Airport at 5pm on Saturday night for a 7:30pm flight. All told this wound up being 12 hours of travel time and 10 actual hours in the sky. With the 7 hour time change this basically took away a day of my life.

Flight was long. Unfortunately got stuck in the middle seat. Nothing like being squished in a middle seat for 10 hours that makes you realize it is time to really hit the gym and start eating better. Ha.

Finally landed in Helsinki at 1:20pm on Sunday morning. We were promptly greeted by our international tour director Aidan (originally from England) and two members of EF tours.

Our group of administrators from MA included Supts.; Asst. Supts., Principals, and Asst. Principals from Weston, Holliston, Groton, Needham, Wrentham, Whitman-Hanson, Chelmsford,  Tyngsboro, Wellesley, and of course Assabet Valley. It feels good to be sharing ideas and rubbing elbows with educators from some of the highest performing schools in Massachusetts. I was very happy to say that all of my colleagues were very interested in our structure at Assabet yet I was surprised at how little they really knew about the structure of vocational education in general. They all had a positive picture of vocational education in general.

Had reindeer for dinner Sunday night. That was a bad choice. If you haven't had reindeer yet consider yourself lucky.

Monday Morning 
University of Helsinki
Najat Ouakrim-Solvio- Counselor of Education

Something interesting: every baby born in Finland gets to go home with this special "baby basket" as a gift from the government. This is the first step in Finland's goal to set-up all children and families for success. Kind of neat. I would have liked to have a baby basket for Rob!

After the two minutes we discussed the baby basket we learned about the central features of Finnish education policy. While some things are much different then the US the important things I took away were this:

We shouldn't just chalk it up that the US is so very different then Finland so we can't possibly do what they do.

Don't compare Finland vs. the US in terms of overall population (5.5 million vs. 300 million) but look at Finland in terms of comparison with Massachusetts. This makes sense in terms that the majority of educational policy comes from the state level. This was a very important note.

Teacher Preparation

Another critical point was the rigor of teacher education in the United States. Teacher education in Finland more closely mirrors that of those receiving law degrees in the US. You must have a Master's degree to start teaching. There are only 8 universities in the entire country who have teacher preparation programs. Admittance to teacher educator programs are extremely competitive and many prospective educators are simply turned away (in 2013 only 453 prospective teachers out of 766 gained entry into teacher education programs).

The teaching profession is equivalent to doctors in prestige. Wouldn't that be nice?! While I was encouraged to hear this I realized how disappointing it is in the US that teachers are not looked at as important as they should be and certainly not paid what they are worth.

Take away: while we cannot oversee higher education teacher preparation programs we can make sure that we hire educators who have gone through respected teacher preparation programs and have initial and professional licensure. For those that only have preliminary licensure we can work with them to make sure they are taking additional coursework.

More importantly we can continue to structure our new teacher program around teaching strategies and pedagogy discussion. We have started this. We have already had a session discussing formative assessment. However, building a full curriculum for new teacher meetings is a great idea. Our teacher mentor liaison and Dean overseeing the new teachers have begun this. We are going in the right direction.

Other ideas: Use in-service days to put new teachers into specific trainings on classroom management, pedagogy, differentiation, formative assessment, etc. Create a year long list of PD opportunities for new teachers that you do every single year. We do this in pockets now but a more streamlined approach would make more sense.

Discussion about a reduced course load for new staff: adding that one period for training and observation of veteran staff would be beneficial. This would be a major change but it makes sense. The MA Tells Survey actually had a question about a reduced course load for new teachers. A drastic change but worth discussing.

Another idea would be to have a summer program for new teachers. Structure 3-4 days over the summer taught by current staff or admin on different pedagogical topics. This would be a great way to set-up new hires for success.

Standardized Testing

Another major difference is their relative disinterest in standardized testing. They highlight the importance of growth and autonomy in teaching  vs. the US model where we are basically obsessed and driven by standardized testing results.

Take away: unfortunately in Massachusetts standardized testing is published, school levels are based upon standardized testing, and students not passing standardized tests cannot graduate. This is not going away anytime soon.
There is no doubt that teachers and students at AV feel a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety when it comes to standardized testing. It is critical for administrators and teachers to discuss and find ways to give additional time to math and literacy for our students. More time dedicated to reading, writing, and problem solving will allow for less time to be spent on specific standardized testing strategies. Having more time to teach the critical reading and writing standards will certainly alleviate the need to "jam" everything in so quickly. Discussions have started on looking into ways of doing this at AV.
Most importantly we as a district need to come to a conclusion on how important the scores are to us. Obviously we want our students to pass and move onto bigger and better things in life. However, should we be talking more about growth scores vs. overall achievement? That would really change our focus on standardized testing and put less pressure on the students and teachers.

Monday afternoon
Primary teacher education: towards professional autonomy
Dr. Heidi Kryzwacki

Visited Dr. HeidI Kyzywacki at Helsinki U. She went more in-depth about teacher training. Explained that the autonomy given to teachers comes from the understanding that  all teachers have already gone though a serious, rigorous teacher practicum. They do not evaluate teachers in Finland like the US does.

Take away: Trust and autonomy are crucial to the admin-teacher relationship and morale of a school. The issue is the US model has teachers coming from a variety of undergraduate schools and many times from the private sector. We really don't know what they truly know and don't know based only on an interview or two and a 30 minute mini-lesson.
This is critical. Again this is why it may be worth looking into a full year curriculum for new staff. Setting them up for success is critical. A person coming from the private sector may become a great teacher (we have several examples of this currently in our building) but its going to take them some time to adjust to the classroom. How can we help this process more?

All teacher training in Finnish Universities is Research based. Education for all prospective teachers is based on research. Again another big change to what we see at the majority of US college and universities.

Monday evening
Dr. Kirsi Kettula- University of Helsinki
- discussion on continued professional development and education for Finnish teachers

Finnish educators are life long learners but due to the rigorous undergraduate training most teachers have choices of professional development. Admin are not as concerned about PD because they know the universities have covered everything.

  • in the US a lot of teachers have the idea that PD is done to you vs. a model of asking what PD do you need? Or having PD start from the ground up or being taught by teachers. 
  • We are getting better at this at AV as shown in the most recent TELLS survey numbers by staff on our PD. We are nearly 30 percentage points above the state average on PD satisfaction from staff.

A note on vocational education: After 9th grade school students choose their path: vocational or academic academies. 

Universities educate the vocational educators specifically - there are specific programs and schools just for vocational teachers. Interesting. More on Voc-Ed tomorrow.

Lots of things to think about. Currently on education overload. Going to two schools tomorrow to speak with admin, teachers and students!

I hope to discuss some of the most important parts of the PD on October 14th with academic staff. Thanks for reading!

P.S. Luckily there is a 7 hour time change here and I was unable to watch the Patriots. I heard it was painful! This is how I felt when I found out I didn't have an aisle or window seat. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

MA Administrative Delegation to Finland/England - Series of Blog posts

As part of my involvement in GS-21; a group of administrators in Massachusetts who meets bi-monthly to discuss global education practices/curriculum, I am taking a professional development trip to Finland/England with 20 other administrators to learn about and discuss their education systems. I will be blogging a series of posts about not only the schools here but also my discussions with other MA administrators on the possibilities of a global studies program here at Assabet Valley and ideas on better evaluation and teacher training opportunities.

Why Finland? Finland has been internationally recognized as one of the best educational systems (academically and vocationally) in the world. The majority of their reputation rests upon their scoring in an international assessment called the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). < click link to learn more about PISA

This is a 5 day trip where we will visit 9 different schooling systems and discuss education with students, teachers, administrators, and people as a high up as the Minister of Education Pasi Sahlberg.

The essential questions I will be attempting to answer during this trip are:

What can be learned about the success of Finnish education and actually applied to the current learning structure we have at Assabet Valley?

In discussions with colleagues from Massachusetts what are the possible parameters and ideas in setting up a Global studies program/academy at AV?

I hope you enjoy the blog. More specific information to follow daily. Please feel free to follow and comment.

Academic FYI: Great teachers & Assessment for Student Motivation

Academic Staff:

Happy Friday! Another great week. Great to see so many people using the learning commons and so much action going on in there.

I will be out next week but please feel free to contact me via email on anything you need. I am going on a professional development tour to Europe to explore some school systems there. I will be blogging my trip and sending updates if anyone is interested.

Two great tweets and two quick thought provoking articles this week on student motivation and great teachers…. Enjoy!  

Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher)
Say thank you to the teachers, principals, parapros, & ppl who keep your child's school going. It is a tough job.

edutopia (@edutopia)

A couple good, quick articles you may be interested in this week:

Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher

Seven Ways Assessments Can Build Student Motivation

(Originally titled “Can Assessments Motivate?)
        “Many educators believe that success breeds success – that achievement leads to motivation,” says Richard Curwin (David Yellin Academic College of Education, Jerusalem) in this Educational Leadership article. “However, that’s backward. Motivation or effort leads to success, not the other way around. Cheating, luck, and easy work can all lead to success, but they do not increase motivation.” Tests, unfortunately, often kill motivation, says Curwin. Test scores and other extrinsic rewards may keep students working, but they create finishers, not learners.
        Curwin believes certain assessment practices spur effort and motivation in students. Here are some examples:
        Never fail a student who tries, and never give top grades to one who doesn’t. Effort should be counted as part of grades, he says – improvement should count, as should asking for help, offering to help others, and extra work. And students who coast to good grades should be seeking out (or given) more-challenging assignments.
        Start with the positive. Commend students on what they got right before correcting what they got wrong.
        See mistakes as learning opportunities. “In every life situation, from building relationships to playing computer games, except school, mistakes are important in the learning process,” says Curwin. Mistakes in school should be used as diagnostic tools.
        Give do-overs. Students should be able to learn from their mistakes and try assessments again.  
        Show students the final test as they begin a unit. “This way, they can see what they need to learn, what the teacher’s priorities are, and how to organize their learning,” says Curwin.
        Prioritize corrections. Too much red ink overwhelms students and makes it more likely that the corrected paper will be thrown away. “Tell students you’ll give them a chance to fix those two most important mistakes, which you’ve marked, before moving on to two more,” he suggests.
        Do not compare students. Grades should be given based on standards, not how other students are doing, says Curwin.
“Can Assessments Motivate?” by Richard Curwin in Educational Leadership, September 2014 (Vol. 72, #1, p. 38-40),; Curwin is at