Saturday, December 12, 2015

What would it take to observe a Sabbath?

I have been reading Jacob Neusner's A Rabbi Talks with Jesus for my Daughters of Abraham book club. In one of his chapters Neusner exams the Jesus teaching about the Sabbath in light of his disciples gathering of grain on the Sabbath. Neusner reminds us that God created the universe and our earth in six days and on the seventh God rested.
As Neusner writes, we are like God when we too rest on the seventh day, on the Sabbath. To be like God we are to give over creating for enjoying and rejoicing, for resting and for prayer.

I have been thinking all day about what it would take for me to truly give over busyness and creating and working for only rest and being with creation. Would my Sabbath begin on Saturday evening and extend to sunset on Sunday? What about the joy I take in creating meals for my family on those evenings. These are  the two days a week when I have time to create something out of the ordinary, to try a new recipe, to look for something that takes longer than 30 minutes to get together. What about the projects I take on with my husband around the house and yard? I work from 8:00 to 4:30 or 5:00 most days. When would the house work and gardening and laundry get done? I would need to rethink what I do and make choices about what I don't do. A long walk outside feels in keeping with the Sabbath, but working out in the gym doesn't feel like it would fit. What about a bike ride on the Chester Valley Trail. Certainly, when I am biking on the trail I am enjoying the outdoors and being with my neighbors who have come outside. Of course Meeting for Worship makes sense, but what about reflecting and writing those reflections down? Driving out to pick up a gallon of milk might seem a stretch, but what about stopping in the library or Chester County Book Company to find another book to read and enjoy? What if it were another book by Jacob Neusner or one of the early Quakers? Does driving out to visit my mother-in-law or calling my mother on the phone constitute work, creation, or enjoying creation?

Then I began to wonder what it would take for my students to observe the Sabbath as something approaching a day of rest. We would have to adjust out expectations of them such that Saturday could be a day of recreation. This recreation would have to include  time for  errands, games, exercise and laundry .. and not homework! Their schoolwork and homework would have to fit into the work week--Monday through Friday only. And yet, by Friday afternoon every student (and adult) I know is ready for a break. I fear we haven't set their lives up to enjoy a true Sabbath. They do go to Meeting for Worship from 10:30 to 11:30. But after brunch we expect them to finish running any errands they might require or begin their homework. Sometimes we have Sunday evening lectures or performances. For these to happen, homework gets pushed into the afternoon. Is it possible for them to do no work, no sports practice, no performances from Saturday evening through sunset on Sunday or to set aside the whole day from sunrise to bed time on Sunday? I know we give our students time to pause; we have recess every morning (in high school no less). We require students to have a lunch period in their schedule. On Friday afternoons we pause for either an assembly or time to meet in advisee groups. All of these are times to catch our breath, to slow down, to consider and reflect, to catch up with a friend, to ask a question. And yet, what would we have to do for our students so that they might all observe the Sabbath, not fret about the paper due or test coming up on Monday, and not read their email?

Obviously, I don't have any answers for myself or my students and yet the questions won't let me go. What would it take, what choices would we make? Would we, would I choose a Sabbath? How would I achieve this enmeshed as I am in a busy community?

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day."

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Making a Changemaker: Five Ways to Help Kids Find Their Cause

NPR’s Planet Money recently ran a story about Madeline Messer, a 12 year old girl who wrote an op ed piece for the Washington Post about how unfair it was that she had to pay extra to play her favorite video game with a female character. She researched more than 50 games and found that very few of them had female characters available as the free starter character. In conducting her research and writing her letter, Madeline actively engaged in the public discourse about gender and equity.
I remember being about the same age and writing to my US Senator about the lack of movies being made for children. I think that year there were no G rated movies. Senator Lugar’s office wrote back to me. I remember thinking at that moment that what I thought mattered.

These early experiences small, like mine, or larger like Madeline’s provide first forays into our civic spaces. There are easy things we can do to help our children find their voice and follow their interests into the public sphere.
  1. First and foremost eat dinner together and use it as a time to discuss your children’s interests. Where appropriate help them see how their interests fit into a larger community. For instance, a child who loves to skateboard will be interested to know about efforts to create a skate park or curtail skateboarding in a favorite place. Growing up, the dinner table was where I learned about the issues my parents cared about; why my mother helped start a recycling campaign in our city and why my father took a leave from his job to help manage a gubernatorial campaign.
  2. In age appropriate ways discuss what is going on in your community,state, nation, even the world. Obviously, not every current event is right for young children, and yet we do our children a disservice in completely insulating them from the world around them. With young children, seek out good news, developments in science and technology, events and topics that are happening close to home. Share these with your children.There are a number of age appropriate news sources that can serve as a basis for what you discuss. When children have a question about something they have overheard, ask them what they know. Answer their questions simply and with age appropriate information. Correct misconceptions and share with them what you think. As they grow older, your conversations will deepen.
  3. Model civic engagement for your children. Our children are always watching us. What we do is as instructive to them as what we say to them. Whether you are involved in protecting your local watershed, helping to choose a new pastor at your church, serving on a board of directors, or preserving a historic building, speak openly with your children about your involvement and why it matters to you.
  4. Talk about politics and our system of government. While civic engagement is broader than partisan politics, our system of government works best when we are actively involved in the important discussions of the time.  Local, state and national election cycles provide us with wonderful opportunities to help our children get beyond the impossible to ignore campaign advertising and understand the underlying issues. The ability to think critically and deeply about campaign topics are important skills to cultivate. Encouraging our children to listen respectfully to the opinions of others while developing their own opinions takes practice. As they get older, encourage them to write to their representatives and their local news sources.
  5. Take your children with you out into public spaces. Volunteering in local service organizations, participating in groups like Girl Scouts, attending rallies, town hall meetings and other events are all opportunities for us as parents to help our children see themselves as active participants in their communities. The Chester County Community Foundation website is just one of many resources for finding family friendly volunteer opportunities. The spring and fall are full of family friendly events. Every weekend any number of worthy causes sponsors walks, runs, and swims to raise awareness and money for everything from Multiple Sclerosis, to Breast Cancer, to AIDS, to Autism. These events need walkers, runners, AND volunteers. One way to connect with an event is to choose something that touches a friend or family member. Another way is to give your children a few choices and let them pick what you as a family will do together.

It's not enough to vote and pay taxes; democracies need citizens actively engaged in public discourse in all areas. Our children have a stake in a healthy, functioning civil society. Helping children see themselves as agents of change, as actors in their communities encourages their growth into a sense of responsibility for their communities and their neighbors. Giving them opportunities to talk with us and have early civic experiences with us, fosters their understanding of how to be generally informed and how to choose specific areas for their particular involvement.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

From Beginner to Master Teacher -- year two-- the importance of mentors
Teachers in their second year are ready to focus more intentionally on their practice. Ideally, they finish their first year with a formal review with their divisional principal. At this meeting the principal should provide the teacher with a set of clear commendations and recommendations for improvement. Directional in nature these recommendations become the basis for the second year teacher's professional goals. At Westtown School teachers gather in their evaluation cycle cohorts in opening of school meetings to write their goals for the year. Second year teachers meet as a group, discuss their plans for the year and share their written plans. Second year teachers' goals must address the recommendations growing out of the first year review.

The best way to insure successful implementation of these goals is to provide second year teachers with a mentor, time and other resources as needed. We work to put the meeting with the mentor in our teacher's schedules. The dedicated time, every other week, signals the importance the school places on teachers realizing their goals.

Mentor selection in the second year is a mix of teacher request and administrative direction. In some cases, teachers want to work with their mentor from the previous year. In other situations, a teacher may request a new mentor based on relationships developed over the first year or a desire to work with a particular colleague. Administrators may also have a specific mentor in mind for a teacher. Usually, this happens when a teacher has a particular area of weakness that needs remediation in order for the teacher to be offered a contract for a third year. However the match is made, both teachers must commit to working together. We do a regular check in with mentors and with second year teachers each month to insure they are meeting and that they are working towards achieving the goals. All of our mentors have attended training sessions of effective peer mentoring and peer coaching. The mentors check in with the mentor program faculty leaders. The mentors need support too!

As in all of our supports for our teachers, we use a mix of requirements and offered supports. Our institutional goal is to provide intentional, sustained support for our faculty over the first four years of their careers. As a school we are investing in our teachers' success and through them serving our students. In the second year, we want to address specific areas in a teacher's practice and continue to foster a growth mindset.

Friday, November 28, 2014

New Teacher Seminar:The Best Classroom Observations --Third in a series on developing new teachers

A great deal of my week is spent in teachers' classrooms observing them teach. I do this work at their invitation, as a part of our school's evaluation process, or at the request of a divisional principal or department chair. This past week I watched an experienced teacher guide his sixth grade instrumentalists through their rehearsal, an intern lead a discussion on Antigone,  a first year teacher review three verbs in a high school Spanish class, a veteran choral teacher work with 7th and 8th grade boys, a second year teacher introduce the Buddha to a high school religion class, and an intern teach math to primary circle students.  In each case, I was struck by the passion and care each brought to his or her work.
DKNG Studios

As teachers in our classrooms we assume that our students are always watching us, they have to be in order for the classroom to work.  Having an adult observer in our classroom while we are teaching is something else entirely. It changes the dynamic, students behave differently, we are more self-conscious. When the observer is an invited peer or a young teacher wanting to observe a more experienced teacher, the experience is more low key. When the observer is a supervisor the stakes feel higher, even when the administrator is there by invitation. Though the act of observation changes what is being observed, observation and constructive growth oriented feedback are essential for every teacher, especially for a new teacher.
Photo by @Doug8888

  • The best observations begin with my asking the teacher what they want me to watch for. Young teachers in particular need to develop the habit of self-evaluation: what went well in the lesson, where did I lose the kids, did they learn what I hoped or something else entirely, how did this lesson fit into my plan for this unit, am I reaching every student, what am I not seeing or doing? These are only some of the questions we need to consider. Given our overfull days, creating space for asking and answering these questions is challenging. Observations by others and the conversations they foster create the time and space for this reflection.
  • While not always possible, I like to arrive before the students. I want to see how they transition from the minute they cross the threshold. I often keep a running record of what I see within a time frame. I have found this helps me stay focused on the observation. I like to record the time in three to five minute intervals. Time is the commodity of schools. We never have enough and we have to use what we have effectively. Young teachers should be asking questions about their management of time as well as of students
  • I also like to look at the physical classroom and how well teachers are utilizing their spaces. While Lower School teachers understand the importance of well-designed spaces, most Upper School teachers think little of their spaces except as containers for teenage bodies. Often, a small tweak in classroom set up can solve a much larger classroom management challenge.  In comparison to his other classes, the religion teacher found this group of students' energy to be flat and and that individuals were easily distracted. After observing his class I asked him to think about how he moved around the classroom and how he wanted students to interact. After listening to him, I asked what would happen if he abandoned his current set-up and experimented with something that made it easier for him to move and that placed his students in closer proximity to each other. Later in the week, he told me that he had moved two tables. Rather than sitting in a large u around the room's perimeter, now the students sat across from each other at the tables. The tables were in two rows running the length of the room. He had easy access to the boards on every wall and he could move easily down the middle of the room. As they were sitting closer to each other, the majority of his students who were engaged and focused, helped the few who faded in and out stay in the learning. 
  • During any observation I focus on the teachers' questions about their practice. If I have learned what the students have learned, then I have failed as an observer. I need to watch the teacher and see what she is doing and saying. At the same time I need to watch her students and see how they are reacting and acting. Do they understand what they are supposed to be doing? Do they know the class routine such that the learning is the focus of what happens not the mechanics to make it happen (what should have been prepared for class, what happens as students walk into the room, how quickly is the sheet music passed out, how quickly does the lesson begin, how are class discussions constructed, etc) 
  • Most importantly I want to gauge student engagement. I take as a given that engagement goes up the safer the classroom is for students. In a school like Westtown, I take physical safety as the norm, I am looking for something more subtle, what Claude Steele would call the absence of stereotype threat. Often student intellectual and spiritual safety isn't the thing a young teacher is asking about directly. Focusing on this yields greater returns than almost any other tool a teacher might develop.
After the class if I am not meeting with the teacher within an hour or so, I send an email with quick questions and concrete "this is what I saw." Nothing replaces a good follow up discussion. With young teachers, I provide both directive feedback-- "You need to tighten up how class begins", "you tend to call on girls more frequently than boys", "your questions were too basic to encourage thoughtful discussion"-- and ask questions. The questions always take into account what they have wanted me to think about. But the questions also come out of my own wondering about what I have seen. With the intern leading a discussion on Antigone, I wanted to understand how she had planned her questions. I wanted her to think about other ways the discussion might have progressed. I asked "I wonder what would have happened if you had asked a few of the students to tell you more about their answers?" After a few moments of reflection she began to think of how this might have stretched her students' thinking. I asked about specific students. She was worried she might not have gotten them to the conclusion she wanted them to reach, that they would have gone off on a tangent. We discussed the trade offs of moving through her prepared series of questions versus asking follow-up questions and following her students's leadings. There were no right answers, only learning possibilities for my intern.
"I wonder. . ." may well be my favorite question!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The New Teacher Seminar:books that work - Second in Series on Developing New Teachers

I recently gave a presentation at the PAIS Biennial Conference titled "From Hiring to Mastery: A Comprehensive Induction Process." Mentorship was one of the themes I stressed. However, good mentors are only a portion of what new teachers need. As a part of our support for our teachers, Westtown requires all of its new to teaching folks to participate in our New Teacher Seminar. Where once I led 10th graders through US History,  now I teach a curriculum intended to help interns and first year teachers take successful first steps towards a career in education. There is very little theory in this curriculum, instead we focus on practical ideas for the next class. The class is a mix of discussing books, sharing successes, asking questions, meeting with seasoned teachers and support staff, and building a personal learning network.

First and foremost the sessions are designed to provide ideas new teachers can implement now. When our group is largely teachers who will have their own classroom we begin with two intensive sessions of mapping out units of study and writing the first two weeks of lesson plans. When the group is weighted towards interns or assistant teachers we focus on classroom management. One of the best tools for rapid improvement in classroom management is Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion. While Lemov's audience is teachers working in school's with at risk students, his techniques translate to Westtown's independent school culture. The beauty of this book is its focus on concrete techniques easily implemented in the classroom. Such things as "100 percent", "no opt out", and "post it" provide our newest teachers with a means of achieving high classroom expectations. Furthermore, and this is most important for young teachers, these techniques provide a means of helping young teachers get over their fear of not being liked. The specific techniques take the practice of teaching out of "I want them to like me", and put the focus squarely where it needs to be on the students and their success. I follow up on our class discussions with direct classroom observations. In my post observation meetings, I am able to speak directly to how well I see them implementing something like "Right is right" or "Stretch It." We talk about what worked, what didn't and how they might adjust to make it better the next day. At some point, these teachers will need to better understand the theory underlying their practice, but in their first year, they need to do, to get feedback, and do it again.

Later this year we will read Peter Gow's The Intentional Teacher, which is focused on teaching in independent schools. Mid-year Gow's book fits well with that moment in which new teachers find themselves wondering if this is the right setting for their aspirations. His is one of the few books for new teachers that is geared towards independent schools. Most importantly, his book helps to provide new teachers with a context for understanding their work in terms of Westtown's Mission. We will finish the year with Mary Cowey's Black Ants and Buddhists. I use this book as a means of transitioning from surviving the first year to thinking creatively about their next year. Cowey's classroom serves as a model for where these young teachers should aspire to go in creating a student centered approach to teaching.

These texts were selected with specific outcomes in mind:

  • day to day success in classroom management and student learning
  • developing a sense of what it means to be a professional in an independent school
  • creative planning for year two

Monday, October 6, 2014

So your child’s teacher is new to teaching. . .

Every teacher has to have a first year of teaching. Over the course of her school years, your child will have a first year teacher or two. Very few professions expect someone to show up the first day and be ready to take full responsibility for the success of a group. Teachers have to know their content, implement best pedagogical practices to deliver that content, and manage a group of young people in such a way that every student learns to his or her full potential. There are steps you can take to ensure that your child has a great learning experience.

First and foremost, find out what supports are in place for the new teacher.
  • You should expect your school to provide every new teacher with a mentor and strong mentoring program. If your school doesn’t have this support, work with administrators to set up a program linking experienced teachers with new teachers.
  • First year teachers need ongoing education. Some schools offer a first year teacher’s seminar. This provides directed professional development in the areas new teachers most need.
  • Every teacher needs regular, formal evaluative feedback from supervisors. Make sure new teachers receive this several times in their first few years.
Second, assume that the new teacher is the best candidate for this position. Hiring great teachers is as much art as science. Young adults are choosing careers in education out of a paired love of working with young people and passion for content areas.
  • When you meet with your child’s teacher connect your wisdom about your child with the teacher’s passion for teaching.
  • If your child has complaints or concerns in the first two weeks, it may be that the complaints are simple things common in any new situation and will be corrected through the ongoing support of mentors, colleagues and supervisors.
  • Ask your child to tell you what he likes about the new teacher, what the new teacher does well.  You want to help your child discern an honest, correctable rookie mistake from something bigger.
  • Even a ten year teacher veteran has to learn a new school culture.

Third, when things don’t seem to be working reach out quickly and directly to your child’s divisional director or Principal.
  • Principals are responsible for teacher quality and student success.
  • Ask for an indication that action has been taken. While you won’t know what has been done, its fair for you to know that your concern has been heard and that appropriate action (as determined by the Principal) is in process.
  • Be persistent and patient . . . to a point. You don’t want your child to lose a year, but you need to give the new teacher time to make whatever adjustments a supervisor may deem warranted.

Fourth, let your child’s teacher know when things are going well.
  • The best teachers are life-long learners. Knowing a lesson or a practice inspired a child, helped a student solve a problem, or understand himself better as a learner is valuable information for  a new teacher.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Beginner to Master Teacher -- year one -- the importance of mentors

1994, my first year of teaching, I had a two day orientation focused on school policies. I was given a text by my department chair and invited to ask questions if I had any. I had a wonderful faculty go to person (not a mentor) to help me understand school policies. What happened in the classroom was up to me. It was assumed (I guess) that since I had a PhD in history, I could teach history.

Elizabeth Green is just the most recent expert to talk about what new teachers need to thrive and grow into a master teacher. For our first year teachers we combine our New Teacher Seminar and regular support by supervisors with a mentoring program. The mentor program serves as the foundation of our system for taking promising young hires and helping them grown into great teachers. The mentor program, under the direction of two faculty leaders, pairs experienced teachers with our new teachers, includes a week of orientation before school starts, and holds retreats during the year. Most critically, mentors meet with their mentees regularly.

Most of our mentors have had training as mentors and peer coaches. Whereas peer coaches help their coachees find answers for themselves, mentors (especially in the first year)  answer questions--often in very directive even prescriptive ways.  First year teachers need a peer mentor, a go to person who is a safe, low bar resource for any and all answers. The mentors, as a group, meet with their faculty leaders to discuss supporting their mentees. This collegial system provides a forum for exchanging ideas and serves as important professional development for the mentors. Mentors are often the first to see when and where a new teacher most needs support. Last year, a mentor brought to a supervisor, a particular challenge a new teacher was experiencing. The mentor couldn't fix the problem but knew that the right administrator could. New teachers can come to their mentors with questions about pedagogy, class management, content, grading, really anything and know that they will get practical, timely answers. Mentors also become friendly class observers. Having a mentor observe you teach is much less stressful that having a supervisor observe.

Mentors are able to support our new to teaching teachers (and just new to Westtown) because they see themselves as being in partnership with other mentors, the new teachers, and administrators. Helping new teachers succeed becomes an extension of our school's mission and promise to our students.  While not the shokuin shitsu of Japan, our program incorporates the important element of teacher leaders taking on responsibility for the success of new teachers.