Monthly Archives: July 2014

The clean plate club

This week I had the fortunate experience of speaking with the Power of ICU team in Nashville, Tennessee. We were at John Early Museum Magnet Middle School in the heart of the city. Our team of Danny Hill, Jayson Nave, Sherri Nelson, and Cory Crosnoe were fabulous to work with as we talked about building a Brick House culture within a school where students complete quality assignments, have plenty of support throughout the process, and teachers move toward healthier grading practices.

In our opening session, one focus area for Danny was the idea of clearing our plates. This was a moment of great reflection for me. There are so many things we put on our plates that we have no control over. However, the only item that should remain is student learning. It is a decision that is very difficult to make when so many other things loom over us, especially at the beginning of the school year. Our time is so valuable and pulled in so many directions, we have to be careful what we spend it on. But we must keep one vital thing in mind – student learning is the most important feature in our lives as educators. Our concentration must center on forming those key relationships with kids and bringing our passion to school every day.

Because here’s the thing…the kids are coming!

The kids need us to clear our plates for them. The kids are coming regardless of whether the school is ready. The kids are coming no matter what initiatives we are handed or what curriculum we were given to write at the last minute. The kids are coming even though we have not had enough time to plan or get our classrooms ready. The kids are coming…

As I reflect on past school years, this was a constant battle. Things outside my control kept working their way onto my plate and I had to fight to remove them. I didn’t control that I had 32 kids in my room with extremely varied readiness and 45 minutes to work with them. I couldn’t control all the federal and state mandates that attempted to weigh me down. I couldn’t control the fact that it was 95 degrees and humid outside and for many years I didn’t have air conditioning. The list could go on and on. But what I realized as I thought back was when I walked into my classroom, I cleared my plate. I set the stage for learning and left everything else by the wayside. This was what I had control over, and I wasn’t going to sacrifice anything for my kids. In a sense, I felt very protective of our environment and couldn’t allow anything to deter us from learning.

So let go of it all. Don’t let outside factors get in the way of forming essential relationships with our kids and bringing passion to our classrooms. Decide what you do have control over and own it. Remember…

…the kids are coming!

A special thank you goes out to Danny Hill for inspiring this post.



Onward and upward…but never forgotten

Don’t cry because it is over, smile because it happened.                                        -Dr. Seuss

This quote helped me close this past school year. I had incredible students who motivated me to learn, challenged me to bring my best each day, and surprised me with their perseverance and positive attitude in regard to learning. I missed them as soon as they walked out the door, and tried to remind myself how fortunate I was to have spent the year with them. I knew I would have another wonderful group enter my classroom in the fall and shifted my thinking to reflection and revisions to be made over the summer. But then this happened…

Little did I know that this quote would mean so much more as the summer progressed. June started as it usually does for me. I coordinate our summer bridge program for the 8th graders becoming freshmen. I had 300 new students grace my presence for three weeks and enjoyed getting to know them. But during the middle of the program, I was made aware of a possible job opportunity. To be honest, this was the first year in the past five when I hadn’t considered looking for a new position. I had decided during the spring that I would focus on other things and find contentment with my current role.

After learning more about the job, I felt that this was a chance I couldn’t pass up. The position was for an instructional coach, something I have wanted to explore for several years. So, I applied, interviewed, and was offered the job! All of the sudden my ‘normal’ summer was turned upside down. I was going to leave my school of fourteen years and embark on a new adventure.

But this change is bittersweet. I have to leave behind my district, school, and colleagues. I have to move out of the place where I honed my skills as an educator. The relationships I have formed over the years will begin a new phase. Most importantly, I will give up having ‘my kids’ each year. With this happening over the summer, I feel like there are unsaid goodbyes, and ends that are still unfinished. I will miss Lockport Township High School and will forever be indebted to the organization.

All this said, there is of course a very bright side to the change. I will make an impact on a much larger number of kids by working with a phenomenal group of teachers at Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, IL. I am walking out of my classroom to walk into so many more. Learning a new culture, meeting new colleagues, and forming new relationships are of utmost importance to me as I begin. I am ready to listen, learn, and dive into the challenges this position brings. I am thrilled to work with a staff committed to growing their instructional practices to ensure they are FOR learning.

So as I transition, I can’t say that there won’t be a few tears. It is the end of an era and I must honor it. But when I walk through the doors of my new school in August, there will be joy. I will smile bringing my experiences forward. So here is another quote that I will keep in mind…

I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy – I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.                                                                                                                                    -Art Williams


Feedback – the essential component of learning

It gets said over and over again – kids need meaningful feedback in order to learn. I believe this to my core as an educator. It is essential to learning and a non-threatening way to guide students to improve. Feedback is not high stakes, it is simply a part of the journey to check on progress and guide next steps.

Students appreciate feedback because it communicates so much more than a number or a letter. It is a call to action rather than something that signifies an end to learning. When kids are given specific descriptive feedback, they are motivated by the challenge to grow. No student is lumped into a letter grade category or label…everyone is on the road to success.

As teachers, I believe we want this same type of feedback. I definitely do not want to be assigned a number or letter to guide my progress and development as an instructor. I frequently talk with my students about their learning experiences, what I can do to best serve their needs, as well as how I can improve. If I am to model the behaviors that I seek, growth and change are indispensable for me. I gather additional feedback from observers in my room, whether they be administrators or colleagues. Varied points of view are the best way to chart the course forward with my kids.

One of the reflective activities we completed this year happened when we returned from winter break. I had my students give adjectives that they expected from me in order to improve their learning. I was most surprised when one student asked me for honesty. It is not that I wouldn’t be honest with my students at all times, but he went on to explain. He wanted honesty in feedback. He said that I was one of the only teachers in his experience who ‘told it like it was’. He knew exactly what needed improvement and areas of strength in his work. Sometimes I don’t think educators believe that kids want to know the truth. We sugar coat things to make sure we aren’t hurting anyone’s feelings or inviting a difficult conversation. This was such a great example of how less than accurate or nondescript feedback can be detrimental to our students. I also knew at that moment that we had created a safe environment with a growth mindset.

I am frequently asked how I have enough time to provide feedback to my students. I have a couple of thoughts on this. First of all, I have taken back the time I used to spend calculating points, categories, and weights for countless formative practice grades. This was wasted time for me that is currently spent in a very productive manner. My other consideration is this: If feedback is the most important piece we give our students for their learning, how can I not find the time to do it? Don’t worry, I am human too. I am a wife and mother to a couple of wonderful boys. I drive to soccer practice, help with homework, and put dinner on the table. I do not spend every waking hour of my life giving feedback, but I have found that the time I devote to school now is more worthwhile and rewarding.