Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stay Calm and...

Down time? Free time? What are these things to an educator? We spend countless hours thinking/discussing/analyzing everything from lessons to posts that will help us improve our craft. We are looking for anything that will help us create a classroom that our students want to visit daily. And when they do, we're hoping they don't want to leave.

My "down time" anymore revolves around my children. I have been coaching their sports' teams ever since they started playing seven years ago. I enjoy working with the players in soccer, basketball and baseball. Just so happens, they were the three sports I played in high school. I was fortunate to play soccer in college as well.

My daughter's basketball team played last night in a Christmas tournament that we were using as a "preseason" before our season starts after New Year's Day. If you were listening to the parents sitting in the stands, you might have thought these 12 years old were playing for the National Championship!

As soon as the game got tight, you could sense the anxiety level of the fans increase dramatically. Many began yelling at the refs for their calls, or lack of calls. They began to frantically yell instructions to the players on the court. These poor girls did not know what to do with themselves.

Needless to say, their play suffered. They began to make mistakes. As coaches, we attempted to talk during time-outs in a calming voice. We did our best to remain as calm as possible, even as fans were yelling "motivational" phrases around us.

That got me thinking about the calming effect educators must have on our students. We need to create an environment that is a distraction from their everyday hustle and bustle. Our students need to see us as the calming influence in their lives. They are watching how we handle the student(s) that just won't listen. They are watching how we handle frustrated parents. They are watching how we handle our coworkers when they come to us complaining about something.

Our students have a lot of things to deal with during the day. Changing classes. Peer pressure. Forgotten homework. Sports. Clubs. Family Responsibilities. Jobs. College applications/acceptances...

It is our classrooms that should be an escape from all of that stuff. We need to be the calming force in their lives. Students are just kids, regardless of their ages, and kids learn best when they are in a setting that is as calming as possible. Please do not confuse my use of calming to mean we should not challenge them academically. Just the opposite! We should constantly try to improve our students. I believe there is a difference between a student being uncomfortable intellectually and having anxiety. Anxious students are generally poor performing students...

Which brings me back to my daughter's game. We ended up losing that game last night. I was proud of how they battled in a hostile environment. We have things to work on during our next couple of practices. We will use that time to make minor adjustments so we do not repeat those errors. With this extra practice, my hope is they will be calmer when faced with the same pressures in the future.

What strategies/techniques do you use to help stay calm when things get hectic? Just remember, a kid somewhere is watching how you react. Be the change...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Tagged by Barry Saide...Update for Rik Rowe

I am updating this post for my Twitter-Friend Rik Rowe. Even though I have never met him face to face, Rik is someone I like to seek out to discuss a variety of educational topics. Rik has provided me with tremendous advice and guidance through our discussions on the phone and/or our twitter conversations. His guidance has helped me dramatically improve both my instruction and grading practices. I am eternally grateful that Rik is a part of Professional Learning Network.

Here are my answers posed to me by Rik:
Who has impacted your life most significantly and how?

I am going to give the cliche answer, but my parents have had the greatest impact. As I get older, I am realizing how tough it is to raise a family with good values and morals. This is something I am working very hard to continue with my own children.

What specifically do you do to have a reasonable work and life balance? 

I am at the gym 4 or 5 times a week lifting weights and running. I also volunteer in my kids' sports.

Share any event in your life that was life-changing. 

I have two: I almost lost both my wife (complications from childbirth) and my Dad. Going through these things changes a man. I would not wish it on anyone.

If you were offered the opportunity to speak to hundreds of young people, what would you say?

Quite simply: Do what you love. Be the person you want your children to become. Respect and love your wife. Everyday.

What legacy do you plan to leave and to whom? 

I want my kids to know I loved and honored their mother everyday we were married.

What foreign country have you visited that was memorable? 

When I was 15, I traveled to Europe (Holland, Denmark and Sweden) to play soccer. Amsterdam was a culture shock for a 15 year old, needless to say.

What have you learned in the past year that has impacted you? 

That my children are growing quickly into compassionate, intelligent and hard-working young people. Parenting is the hardest job around. If you do it right.

Describe your happiest childhood memory.

When my brother and I were young, we would sleep in the same room on Christmas Eve. Hands down, the best memories I have as a kid.

What is the nicest or most thoughtful gift you have ever received?

I have had several, but I had a "tough" student shake my hand after 8th grade graduation, look me in the eye, and thank me for not giving up on him. Great gift!

What famous person would you most like to dine with and why? 

My childhood hero Wayne Gretzky. I loved how he played the game of hockey; he always did it with so much class.

What are your favorite Twitter chats? 

My two favorite chats are #satchat (Saturday mornings at 7:30) and #sbgchat (Wednesdays at 9:00)

Thanks, Rik, for thinking of me.

I met Barry Saide face to face during edcampNJ in November. I have to admit, it felt like I had known him for years. I found him extremely easy to talk to. Barry has a contagiousness about him that spreads to anyone he comes in contact with. I have been fortunate to be able bounce several ideas off him since meeting him. His advice is always timely and practical.

Needless to say, I am extremely honored to be tagged by Barry for this meme. I am actually shocked that anyone finds what I have to say or write even remotely interesting. In sticking with the protocol of the meme, here are 11 facts about me you may not know:

1. I played Winthrop in my church's play the "Music Man" when I was in the second grade. I had to sing/talk with a lisp. Apparently, I was convincing enough because several people after commented that I must have a lot of confidence to do that in front of several hundreds of people.

2. I mocked my brother for months for joining "that Twitter thing." Boy, was I dead wrong about that. I have to thank him for even jumping into this Social Medium. I do not know where I would be as an educator without it.

3. I have a fear of snakes. I do not like them. Can't stand looking at them. Yet, if they are on Animal Planet, I can not change the channel...go figure!

4. I have been with my wife for almost 25 years. We are high school sweethearts. I got lucky and found her early. I have been holding on with both hands ever since.

5. Writing anything about my wife makes me teary.

6. I always wanted to be a teacher. My brother and I use to play school with our stuff animals when we were little. I am not ashamed to admit that.

7. I know the words to too many Milli Vanilli songs. If I am alone in the car, I do not change the channel.

8. I still do not like the way I write. It never sounds as intelligent as I want it to. And I think I end too many sentences with a participle...that's bad grammar, right?

9. I almost lost my Dad about 2 years ago. I never want anyone to have to go through what my family went through.

10. I have a very bad habit of judging people based on my own personal code of ethics. I am trying to be more compassionate...it is a work in progress.

11. I can not remember what my life was like before my children came along. And, you know what? I am perfectly okay with that.

Barry's Eleven Questions for me:
1. I am currently reading "The First World War" by Hew Strachan.

2. I eat a cheese omelet with toast for breakfast just about every morning. I wash it down with a protein shake. This is my first meal after a very early morning workout.

3. I am guilty of giving someone the finger once as I passed before realizing it was childhood neighbor. Example of road rage making us do dumb things!

4. My non-educational dream I always have is dunking a basketball. Being under 5'8", it will remain a dream!

5. I am not a fan of The Walking Dead. I guess I can not say that, I have never seen the show.

6. I was making some bad choices during my 1st semester at college. My Dad said to me, "You left a leader and returned a follower." Needless to say, it was a punch in the gut.

7. A few years ago, I shoveled my elderly neighbor's driveway. Actually, I did it with my kids to show them helping someone without credit or recognition is a cool thing.

8. The most disturbing thing I saw was the near death of my wife from complications during the birth of my son. Being helpless like that changes a man...

9. My wife and I sometimes "do halves" at a restaurant, but it is usually at my request. Especially if it is for breakfast. I love breakfast food.

10. I do not go to bars that much, but there is a diner by my school that we go to every Friday. The waitress knows what we are ordering. She does not even come to the table, just asks, "Getting the usual?"

11. The most mind blowing statement I ever heard was a man questioning if there is a God while holding his new born child. Almost knocked me over.

Here is my list of 11 Bloggers: (in no particular order)
1. Rik Rowe
2. Jasper Fox
3. Shawn Storm
4. Garnet Hillman
5. Jon Harper
6. Ben Gilpin
7. Tom Whitford
8. Justin Aion
9. Starr Sackstein
10. Scott Rocco
11. David Hochheiser

My Eleven Questions:
1. If you were not in education, what would be your career choice?

2. What is your favorite book?

3. What is your favorite meal?

4. What song do you not want people to know you secretly sing in the car?

5. What is your favorite movie or TV show?

6. If you were ever stranded on a deserted island, what 3 things would you want with you?

7. If you could invite any 3 people (dead or living) to dinner, who would it be and why?

8. Where would love to visit if money was no object?

9. Do you prefer eating appetizers or do you save room for dessert?

10.How do you wind down when work gets stressful?

11.What is your favorite musical band?

Thanks for asking me to do this, Barry. I had a lot of fun. To those I nominated, I thoroughly enjoy interacting with you and reading your tweets and/or blogs. Your inspiration can not be put into words. Be the change you want to see in the world...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Here's Your Report Card

Last week before break was a very busy time. Teachers were preparing their classes for end of chapter assessments prior to break. This is a common occurrence so as to not have to carry any chapters/units over the Holiday Break.

In addition to my classes winding down Chapter 4, I asked them to complete a Teacher Report Card through Google Forms. Here are the questions I asked with my thoughts on each...

1. Does my teacher hold me accountable for my actions?

I was not sure how this question was going to be perceived when I wrote it because I was not sure if my students would assume this was geared towards their behavior. I believe I solved that problem by gearing their choices around being accountable for their work.

This is an area I was confident I would score high in. My classroom is structured towards working to understand concepts. I want my students to be okay with failure and be expected to work towards understanding concepts if they do not understand something. In addition, I push students' learning by introducing "the next step" even if this might be a grade level or two above them.

89 of my 90 Students agreed that they are accountable for work in my class.

2. Does my teacher do his/her best to make class interesting?

Again, I was unsure how things would pan out. I do feel I try to bring a lesson that is both interesting and relevant. I will admit, I do not spend a lot of time creating lessons that are heavy on technology. I believe students learn math by practicing as much as possible while in my room. I work hard at giving them chances to do just that.

85 out of my 90 Students agreed that I do my best to make class interesting.

3. Does my teacher help me when I am struggling?

This was the area I felt the strongest. I have worked hard over the last several years creating a culture of learning in my classroom. Because of that culture, I give up part of my lunch time to take students that are looking to complete retakes on a variety of standards. In addition, some students use that time to get some individual tutoring. I feel this change has had the greatest impact on the culture in our classroom. I am glad to see most of the students agreed.

88 out of my 90 Students agree I help them when struggling.

4. Does my teacher allow me to regularly participate in lessons?

This was the area I was expecting the worst "score". Between reviewing the previous day's lesson, reviewing homework, introducing the next lesson and assigning homework, I know there are days I do not give my students enough opportunity to participate. I am fully aware of this and have worked on altering my instruction to allow for more participation. I am focusing post break on a more student centered classroom. I am tired of being the hardest working person in the room.

The numbers supported my previous belief: 72 out of 90 said yes; 14 said sometimes; 4 said no.

5. Does my teacher treat me with respect?

I have a confession. I do not yell at my students. I am a firm believer that yelling at middle schoolers will only lead to one massive headache for the teacher. They tune out all yelling. As a result, I use jokes and/or laughter to make my point. I do think some may see it as sarcasm. I do not use this by any means to humiliate or embarrass my students. My experience tells me students are more likely to alter their behavior while smiling than angry.

I was rather surprised to see that 88 of the 90 students felt I was respectful. Glad to see they understand my "sarcasm."

6. Does my teacher enjoy teaching?

I love my job. I thoroughly enjoy what I do. I could not imagine working in any other profession. I am confident that my students see that everyday from me. I work hard to not allow my personal life to impact what goes on in our classroom.

88 out of the 90 agree.

7. Is my teacher a good role model for me?

This one is tricky with middle schoolers. I know I push my students. I know I make them uncomfortable at times because I want them to get better. I know that pushing them can create friction between us at times. I work hard at trying to model hard work and a love for learning with my students. I share books that I have read. I have shared my blog with them as well. I want them to see learning as something that never ends.

74 out of the 90 students believe I am a good role model.

8. One thing I really like about this class is...

Here are some quotes from my students:

The work!

One thing that I really like about this class is that Mr. Cordery is always trying to get a gooo laugh for his student and try the best for us to suceed.

I always am able to improve at areas I am/ was unsure about.

its fun and he makes it easier for all of us to understand in a quick and easy way

i like how he is helpful if we dont finish something, he lets us do corrections, and he is responsible with our work
The teacher is goofy and makes class fun. He dosen't suck the fun out of everything I want to learn about. It's easier to pay attention with him teaching us.

9. Do I feel successful in this class? If not, what could my teacher do to make me feel more successful?

Again, here are some quotes:

yes he tries his best to make us fell like great students

I am successful in this class mainly because my teacher makes sure we all understand each lesson.

kind of, i could go up for recess and get help from him


I am glad I took the time to do this report card. I believe as I spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the results even more, I will learn some more insights on how to provide a better classroom experience to my students.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

You Can Jump Right In...

That's it. I am jumping into the deep end of the pool. After some reflection, discussion with colleagues and enough reading about the subject to make my eyes sore, I am turning my classroom into a student-driven classroom after break. Here are my changes:

* I am going to conference with each student individually every week and a half to two weeks. At this time, students will need to demonstrate their understanding of the standards we have covered.

* Conferencing will allow me to really determine if the student understands what they are working on. They will be assessed based on how well they demonstrate that knowledge.

* I will distribute I Can Statements for each chapter. This is so the students know exactly what they are expected to know for the conference.

* I will still allow redoes/retakes, but they must RE-CONFERENCE for this to happen.

* I am hoping the conferences are a preparation for real life: either a job interview, college interview or presentation at work.

* I am wondering how my students who "play school well" will handle this change. Hopefully, they adjust quickly to this new procedure.

* I am hoping by doing this, I will no longer be the hardest working person in the room.

*Many thanks to @mssackstein @barrykid1 @WHSrowe @jsprfox for your constant feedback and support. I know I ask a lot of questions. Thank you for your patience and time.

I hate when I do this...now I am looking forward to January...and we have not yet left for break.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Teacher Report Card Time!

It is that time of the year again. The hustle and bustle of the holiday season. The frantic search for the perfect gift (which is rarely in a store for me anymore). Also, it is the time of year for making sure you wrap up your chapter before break. We all know that the students will not remember a thing when they get back; might as well make sure you are starting on new material.

In addition, it is report card time. Time for the students to see where their learning currently is for their classes. It always surprises me that some honestly do not know what grade they have. They always act like they had no idea that lack of demonstrating understanding would result in a lower grade.

However, this time, I am changing things up. I am asking my students to complete an evaluation on me. That is right! I am asking them to complete a Google Form giving me an evaluation in several different areas. I came across this great idea in a book from @ToddWhitaker over the summer. I thought this would be a great opportunity to receive an honest evaluation from the students I interact with everyday.

Yes, I have received one from the administration through Danielson. Honestly, I looked at that for maybe 30 seconds. I checked to make sure I had either 3s or 4s checked off, signed it and put it away. I wanted something that carried more weight, in my opinion. I am going to my students to get feedback from them.

I put together a survey through Google Forms with the help of three people: @mssackstein @jsprfox and @WHSRowe. I am grateful for being able to bounce ideas off of these three great educators. I was able to get a better survey by taking their advice on word choice and/or survey structure.

I am anxious to see the results. I am anticipating positive "scores" in classroom environment. I believe that is a strong point of mine. The area I could score low in is "respect" because I tend to use sarcasm or jokes with the students instead of yelling at them. I never use the sarcasm to embarrass a student, or at least that is my intent. I do not know if it is perceived that way. Only time will tell if I am correct.

I am planning on completing this survey next week with my students. I will then sort through the data and share the conclusions in another blog. I have to be honest, I am more anxious about the feedback I get from this survey than any administrative observation. Here's to jumping into the deep end of the pool...I only hope I am prepared for what the results may show about me.

I can't change unless I know what needs to be changed. The feedback from my students should give me enough material!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Have You Been "Edcamped"?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending EdCampNJ at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, New Jersey. I had been anticipating this event for several weeks. I was looking forward to the great conversations I would have with like-minded educators. I could not wait to get a look at the schedule of "workshops" that were created after registering. That's right, all of the presentations were attendee-driven. There were no pre-assigned workshops. If there was something you did not see that you liked, attendees were encouraged to start their own. Talk about complete control of your own learning...

Needless to say, I arrived early to participate in the great #satchat conversation prior to EdcampNJ starting. The conversation was focused around free Professional Learning for Educators. The moderators did a great job of keeping the conversation moving along for an extremely fast-paced hour. It was during this time that I found myself "listening in" on conversations around me. I was not eavesdropping, per se, but drawn to the tone of the conversations. I could not get over the professionalism and passion that these conversations possessed. It was unlike any other workshop I had ever attended. There were educators from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and yes, I believe Wisconsin, passionately discussing issues and I found myself listening to them more than what was going on in #satchat (sorry Billy, Brad and Scott!). I automatically felt connected to these fellow educators simply due to the enthusiasm by which they talked about their roles in education.

Shortly after #satchat concluded, I had the privilege of meeting up with a Twitter friend of mine, @jsprfox. We immediately broke into a conversation about topics each of us had blogged about. We fired questions back and forth about how things were going with Standards Based Grading to preparing students for state exams. Upon reflection, this conversation came naturally with a person I had just met face to face for the first time. Why is that? Without a doubt, it was due to our prior connections through #sbgchat. We were talking as if we had been friends for years. I was officially "EdCamped".

The morning was filled with more learning. I attended two great sessions on Standards Based Grading (more on this in a later post) and Flipping Lessons. I rushed to lunch to meet up with Jasper to continue our conversation from earlier. While at the table, I met up with another Twitter friend, @sstorm01. Again, the conversations we had waiting in line for lunch continued to the table was full of as much professionalism as any of the sessions I attended. The connections the three of us had through our discussions on Twitter provided us with a common ground that promoted a great conversation with two other passionate, dedicated educators.

That is the best way I can describe "Being Edcamped". You quickly get wrapped up in an environment that promotes professionalism and passion about education. You can not help yourself but leave completely rejuvenated after spending 8 hours with enthusiastic educators. I really do think Edcamp is what Jimi Hendrix had in mind when he asked the question, "Are You Experienced?" I can not wait until next year.

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Educational Philosophy

Twenty years ago, I had the privilege of being assigned to an Eighth Grade Civics teacher for one of my Education classes at Elizabethtown College. I had the opportunity to sit in his class twice a week and observe his classes. I had the chance to see how he organized a lesson, dealt with classroom disruptions and interacted with the children in his classroom. Hanging above the chalkboard was a sign: "No One of Us is as Smart as All of Us." This slogan was the cornerstone of the culture in his classroom. He used this strategy to engage students in discussions from the voting process to The Bill of Rights.

After some reflection, I realized I have not strayed too far from this same slogan. I do believe, however, I have taken a slightly different spin on it. I have used this slogan to constantly push for a Growth Mindset in my classroom. I passionately believe that ALL students can succeed. I believe that ALL students can learn. How is this possible? By creating an environment where all students are encouraged to complete retakes and redoes if they failed in their first attempt at learning. With this mindset, students do not give up because they understand that their teacher has created a system that allows for improvement in everything they do. Persistency is a key ingredient to a life-long learner.

Standards Based Grading (SBG) has been a huge help in creating this environment in my classroom as well. Here, students are "graded" on how they demonstrate their knowledge of the standards in the curriculum, excluding everything that is linked to behavior or habits. Do not get me wrong, behavior and habits are important, but they are on-going skills for my students to learn. I can not in good conscience punish a student with a lower grade because he or she does not have the home environment that is conducive to completing homework. Therefore, I must find other ways to let him or her show their understanding.

Administratively, I would apply this same Growth Mindset with my staff as well. Specifically, Teacher Observations are an excellent way to work with the teachers to reflect on the areas they do well and the topics they can show growth on. I believe that if this relationship is done correctly, teachers will be more open to frequent observations as long as the feedback is relevant, timely and concise. Creating an environment where teachers are eagerly looking to reflect and improve on their craft is a critical role of an administrator.

In the above paragraph, I have mentioned another key ingredient to my educational philosophy: Making and Maintaining Connections.  The culture I have created in my room would not be possible if I did not take the time to talk and learn from my students. I spend extra time engaging them in conversations to find out things about them. I ask questions about a sports game, a play they acted in, a concert they sang or played in or a trip they recently took. I honestly believe taking this extra time to get to know my students sends the message that I think they are a key member of a classroom. My experience tells me students are more likely to work for a teacher who has taken the time to get to know them.

Social Media is another way I have made and maintained connections. I am a better educator now because of the connections I have made through Twitter. I am able to connect with educators from around the world to discuss things from Increasing Parental Involvement to Taking Steps to Eliminate Bullying in our Schools. Through these connections, I have been able to take control of my own Professional Learning. This is the most attractive feature of Twitter, the fact that I do not have to wait until a certain day on the school calendar when I can join a Twitter chat several times a week.

Lastly, I would also push for connecting with the families of our students. I would reach out to let them know I think they are a critical part of our school community. I would seek their feedback on ways to improve our school, while maintaining high academic standards. These connections might have to be done at PTO meetings, sporting events, band recitals or theater productions. Being visible is a great way to increase the chance of making a connection.

I am excited to see how my philosophy changes over the last half of my career. What new technology will allow me to keep growing and connecting with new people? Regardless of what the future might bring, I am looking forward to the challenges that I may face. My connections have allowed me to see that it truly takes a village, because "No One of Us is as Smart as All of Us."!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Really a Risk-Taker?

If you did not follow #satchat this morning, you really missed a great discussion on Autonomy and the Learning Process in Education. The moderators did a great job posing questions that challenged conventional thinking on Professional Learning for Educators to creating a challenging environment for students as well.

The part of the hour that really hit home for me was a side conversation I had with Dea Conrad-Curry (@doctordea) about the impact of testing on teacher risk-taking. I started with a statement about state testing crippling the risk-taking of educators. I stated without these tests, teachers would feel freer to take risks in their classrooms. We would be able to create a culture for learning that we know should exist in every classroom.

This was followed up with a thought from Dea: "On Twitter we talk risk taking because we are risk takers. Reality: we are a minority. On the whole, educators not risk takers."

I immediately responded with: "I just do not know how much risk taking we will get when state tests are about half of teachers' evaluations."

Dr. Conrad-Curry followed with the statement that is the thesis of this post: "But before Educators can control they must become learners who apply their learning for change. Right now too many avoid stretching."

This statement hit me like a ton of bricks. The reason why? I AM ONE OF THOSE EDUCATORS! I have attempted to make adjustments in my instruction/assessment (many thanks to @WHSRowe, @garnet_hillman and @jsprfox for your continued conversations in this area). I have made changes in my availability to my parents and community by joining Twitter and starting this blog. I have started making myself available for mentoring at school to assist new teachers on their journey to improve their craft...

That sounds good, but after honest reflection, I AM NOT FULLY COMMITTED! I read what @ScottCapro is doing in his classes with both project based learning and flipped lessons, and think to myself: this guy is really pushing the envelope!

Also, I read about @mssackstein using Twitter in her high school classes to create engaged students in a student driven learning environment and think to myself: Why can't I do that?

The bottom line? I can. The problem is, I can not break myself away from those state assessments. I am still holding on to the excuse that my students are not going to do well unless I follow the same script from the past several years. They will not grow unless I keep doing things the same way because my test scores are good...

I need to get fully committed. I need to jump into the deep end of the pool. Currently, I am in the part of the pool where it is just deep enough that I can use my tippy toes to stay above water. This is not an educational deviant. The social deviant would be in the deep end of the pool showing everyone else that it is a great place to swim. Encouraging both colleagues and students to join them where the learning is engaging, beneficial and relevant.

Thank you, Dr. Conrad-Curry for lighting the fire. I am hopeful we can do that research project we discussed. I believe that is just the work I need to do to get me into the deep end of the pool. My students deserve that bit of risk-taking from me.

How have you gained the confidence to jump into the deep end of the educational pool?

Monday, October 14, 2013

"When am I suppose to find time to teach?"

A couple of years ago, my school started treating Columbus Day as a day for Professional Learning for our staff. Prior to this, we typically treated it as a normal school day. The decision to switch this was voted on by our Association to give us a day of professional learning before January. As a group, we decided to give our staff a chance to learn some great new methods or strategies while the school year was still young, instead of waiting until it was half over.

Today, we focused on Student Growth Objectives and Tier 1 Interventions. I do feel these are two very important elements to not only a well run classroom, but a highly achieving school as well. Both of these areas are also very important for impacting instruction and achievement in every classroom. We were given a lot great information on how to help us write effective SGOs along with ways to implement Tier 1 Interventions for struggling students.

Even with all of this new information, I was having trouble quieting the voice in my head that was screaming, "When am I suppose to find time to teach?" See, each of these areas have a lot of paperwork to complete. Not just a sheet or two, but pages upon pages to complete during my "free time." This is time I am taking away from what is the most important part of my job: creating high quality, engaging lessons!

The implementation of our new RTI program includes a new computer program to learn that will help us document all of the ways we interact with our students. I know this is a critical component to creating a culture of learning in our classrooms. I know this will ultimately help me reach a number of students that maybe before I may have missed. But...

"When am I suppose to find time to teach?"

My main complaint is that all good teachers do this already. We take the time to pre-assess our students to determine their current level of understanding. We constantly provide formative assessments that assist us in adjusting our instruction. We reach out constantly to struggling students to find ways to get them involved in the learning that is going on in our rooms. But...

"When am I suppose to find time to teach?"

I am insulted that now we need to document all of the things that we do naturally. I do not like that I have to take time to fill out forms on how I am helping Johnny instead of actually helping Johnny! I am now expected to use a checklist to document my conversations or actions with a number of my students to show my effectiveness as a teacher. Yes, I am offended...because..."When am I suppose to find time to teach?"

Where on these forms is the place to check off that through my relationship with a struggling 8th grader, I convinced him to sign up for the school newspaper because I know he likes to write his own rap lyrics? Where on the form is the spot to check off that shows I can now hold a conversation with a student that last year grunted at me with his head always down? Yes, I am offended...because..."When am I suppose to find time to teach?"

Good teachers do these things naturally. Not because we want to fill out forms, but because we genuinely care about the people that occupy those desks. I did not become a teacher to fill out forms. I became a teacher to make a difference. I hope making teachers complete these forms does not have a negative effect, our students do not deserve that!

Thank you for giving me a chance to vent my frustrations...now to get started on my lessons...because... "When am I suppose to find time to teach?"

Monday, September 30, 2013

Another Instructional Change

I have spent the last several weeks unhappy with my lessons. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what I need to change in my presentation. Over the years, I have created the following routine during all of my lessons: I review with the students a concept from the previous lesson. Then, I provide an overview of how this skill will connect to the skills we will learn today and tomorrow. Next, I present the new skill for that day. Throughout the lesson, I provide several forms of evaluations to determine if the students are learning what I am teaching. Lastly, I summarize the key points that I want my students to take away from the lesson.

After some reflection, I realized my concern was centered on the number of students not completing assignments for homework. Several of those students claimed they "did not get it." Do not get me wrong, I know some of them just did not complete it and used that excuse. My worry was an increasing number of students being truthful about not understanding the lesson. I could not figure out why, since I provided several examples in class prior to assigning the practice at home.

My "light bulb" moment occurred during a recent conversation with @WHSRowe. During our conversation, Rik mentioned he delays homework until at least three days after introducing a new topic. During this time, he provides examples over a few days to help students become familiar enough with the topic to attempt the practice on their own. Sorry for the pun, but it was a very enlightening conversation for me.

Since our conversation, I have intentionally delayed home practice on topics until three days after introducing a new topic. In addition, I have made a commitment to starting each class with a student centered review where they can work in groups. This delaying concept has made several noticeable changes in my classes:

1. There is an increase in practice completion
2. I am able to provide more examples for the students to work through
3. There is an increase in students' grades for the practice
4. There has been a noticeable decrease in students claiming "I did not get it."

It has taken me a little bit of time to get use to the structural change of my lesson, but I am very pleased with the changes I have mentioned above over the last week. I have grown accustomed to integrating two problems from each of the last two days prior to introducing the new topic. It was a little tricky at first, but I have gotten use to it.

I think I have found the answer to my lesson dilemma. I am happy with the changes I have made. I am glad I gave Rik a call. He helped connect a lot of dots for me.

Please let me know if you made any lesson changes that increased student engagement or achievement...

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Monday, September 23, 2013

SGOs and SBG, Perfect Together!

The new school year is off and running. We are beginning to dig deeper into the CCSS in my math classes, along with attempting to blend technology into my lessons when appropriate. Also, we are continuing to learn more about the implementation of the new PARCC assessments. Lastly, our district is beginning to implement the state required Student Growth Objectives (SGOs) for all teachers. It can all seem like a big bowl of alphabet soup after awhile.

The addition that will impact instruction the most, in my opinion, is teachers starting to use SGOs. The idea behind the SGOs is for teachers to focus on the growth of the students towards a particular objective or standard. First, teachers are asked to provide a pre-assessment to determine where the students currently are with their understanding of the concept. Once the teacher has scored the pre-assessment, he or she can begin to create a growth scale to get the class moving in the right direction. The role of the teacher is to now focus on the  instruction to reach the above mentioned goal. The teacher can determine the current level of the class by providing frequent formative assessments. Still need to improve? Challenge yourself to use alternate methods to improve student achievement.

The great part of this is that the teacher is focused solely on learning. The teacher can not stick with the old school view of "I taught it, so they should understand it." Since the teacher is focused on the learning of the students, he or she will attempt several methods of instruction to guarantee the students are reaching proficient on the standard. All the teacher is concerned with is the success of the students. This sounds exactly like the  kind of classroom I would like my own kids to be members of.

I believe the impact SGOs will have on instruction in the classroom will lead to more teachers heading towards Standards Based Grading. The framework for SBG is imbedded in the SGO process: Teachers must focus solely on the students learning, not what their percent grade is currently. If the students are not getting it, the teachers must try alternate methods to get the students to grow. This is the main concept behind SGB as well. How do teachers determine if the students are getting the concept? Simply put, we must use formative assessments more. This will provide feedback for teachers to gauge the growth of the students. Ideally, this information can provide areas or students to focus on to maximize the growth of each individual student. Getting the students to actually get a concept, what a novel idea!

What better way to have students work towards mastering a concept than to provide multiple attempts at learning? The idea of retakes and redoes is at the core of SBG. These retakes give students a chance to learn from their mistakes and make corrections to improve. The idea behind this is that students must continually work on improving towards a specific goal or standard. It is almost like these two were made for each other.

I do not know if the state thought about this when requiring SGOs in every class, but I think they have made a huge impact on changing teachers' instruction. Focusing on if the students are learning should be the only thing we pay attention to. If done correctly, the usage of SGOs could have greatest impact on instruction in my career. I wonder if the state knew what they were doing...

Anyone else have thoughts on this? Please let me know...

Friday, September 6, 2013

Hitting the Ground Running

I am in my classroom on and off all summer long. I go in for a couple of hours a few times a week for a variety of things. My two kids like it because they get some freedom and can head to the gym to play basketball while Dad works in his room. I like it because I feel like I can prepare better for September. I could not be the person who leaves in June, never setting foot again in their class until September. I like heading to school, it gives me peace of mind for the new school year.

Then why did it feel like I was sprinting all week long? Between meeting my new students (and several I already knew from teaching them the year before), IEP meetings, SIP meetings, review of policies and procedures, assisting the new teacher two doors down and getting involved in our District Improvement Plan, it was tough knowing which end was up.

A couple of real positives: I was able to discuss a new grading policy with the Special Ed Teacher that co-teaches in my room. I believe we are looking at focusing on Standards Based Grading for those classes. We are focusing on measuring them against a standard using a 0-4 point scale. We have not come up with what we are labeling each number in the scale, maybe we will leave that to the students next week. We are hoping that this new approach will increase their interest in learning the topics instead of concentrating on their grade percentages (regardless of how low or high they were). Bye-bye traditional percentage grades!

The second positive is getting involved in our District Improvement Plan. During our QSAC audit last spring, we did not reach the required 80% in a couple of categories. I have been the "data person" for our small district the past few years and was asked to join the team. I am looking forward to finding solutions that will help both the teachers' instruction in the classroom and student achievement. It is going to be tough work, but one benefit is our school is finally looking into creating a school-wide Response to Intervention (RTI) Program. We will be responsible in the Math Professional Learning Community for finding Level 1 Instructional Strategies that we can use to begin working on improving student achievement. It will be challenging and fun all at the same time.

Needless to say, I am ready for the weekend. A chance to regroup and recharge...now, let's get ready for soccer games both Saturday and Sunday along with a sleepover for my son's birthday. Yeah, I should be well rested for Monday!

Friday, August 16, 2013

How Being a Coach Made Me a Better Teacher

I love sports. I have been involved in sports since I first started playing t-ball in the late 1970s. I played sports during every season of the year. Sometimes, I played on multiple teams in different sports during the same season. I honestly do not know how my parents did it. I love the competitive nature of sports as well. I love how it makes you focus on improving your skills. Along with having a pet, I believe every kid should be on one sport team during their lifetime!

Not only do I love playing, I love watching sports as well. I will watch any game that is on television. ESPN has made this easier for me since they have about six different channels with games on all of them! I would prefer to watch a game over a drama/comedy any day.

I am thrilled that I get to continue my love for sports since both of my kids are very athletic. I have enjoyed helping to coach their teams for the last six years. We do soccer in the Fall, basketball in the Winter and baseball for one, Soccer for the other in the Spring. On the occasional free weekend, I honestly do not know what to do with myself.

Now, how has working with these kids on the playing field improved me in the classroom? First, teaching the players a particular skill requires breaking down the movement into steps they can understand and replicate. It may be dribbling a soccer ball, completing a layup in basketball or turning a double play in baseball. Each of these have several smaller steps involved in them. Missing one step makes it difficult to compete at a high level.


This is exactly the approach I take while explaining a complicated topic in my math classes. When covering polynomials with my 8th graders, I simplify the steps to make sure that everyone can follow them. It is the best way I have found for students to succeed.

What do you do with a player that is not doing something correctly? What do you do with a player whose missing something with his or her fundamentals that it is keeping them from raising their play to the next level? Of course, you tell them: "That's too bad, I showed you. Now you are on your own!" No, you watch them complete the skill. As long as it takes to see what the problem is. Once we find it, I need to be specific with how they can improve. I just can not say, "You need to start making your jump shots." Instead, I need to inform them that their elbow is sticking out when they shoot. It really needs to be tucked in before you release the ball.


I know this is the one area I really need to improve on in my classroom. I typically wrote "Good job!" at the end of a writing assignment. There might be some suggestions from me about writing a better opening, but that was it. I have realized recently that I need to be specific with my feedback while in the classroom. I need to tell them that they are getting the equations wrong because they are confusing the Distributive Property, not just put an 80% at the top of the paper. I need to challenge my students and tell them that there are 5 incorrect problems on the paper, without showing them which ones they are!

In sports, you can not remove a position from the field if no one can play it well. In soccer, we can not remove our goal because we do not have a person good enough to play that position. In basketball, we can not ignore the fact that we do not have a good point guard. As a coach, I need to make sure I give extra attention to the players who want to play that position, but struggle initially. I need to be extremely patient while we work and work until we have a quality player at that position.


I apply that same concept in my classroom as well. I know I am not the smartest person in our building. I know there are a lot of teachers that are more creative, more organized and better with tech that I am. The one thing I can give my students is my time. I work with them during any free time we might have: free periods, lunch time, recess time and/or after school. My students know that I value hard work because they see me walking the walk everyday as I work right next to them. I see each class I teach as a team, and I am not happy until the entire team is working at their highest potential. My job is to constantly challenge them, push them, make them better. I have been known to push too far at times, but they see me pushing myself just as hard as I am pushing them!

I had a great mentor with coaching: my Dad. I realized one day that my Dad coached me in every sport but basketball between the ages of 8 and 15. I have modeled a lot of how I coach after what I saw my Dad do. People often commented that he got kids to play at such a high level. Those same kids did not play that well for other coaches. My Dad had a tremendous ability to get everyone playing well, even the not so athletic players. He never yelled. He never screamed. He just expected hard work and fair play. It took the adult me to realize my best teacher was my Dad!

I am not nearly the coach my Dad was, but I am improving. I enjoy being involved in coaching my kids because it has made me an improved teacher. But, the biggest win for me is I get to spend extra time with my kids. It's a win all around!

How has your hobbies/interests improved you as an educator? Please comment below!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How Being A Father Has Changed Me As A Teacher

I have two children, ages 11 and (almost) 9. My 11 year old girl is heading into middle school in a couple of weeks. My son is 9 and entering the 4th grade. I can honestly say that I am not the same person before these two came along. The additional grey hairs are a testament to that. Besides, the physical differences, I believe my two children have made me a better teacher. Many thanks to @plugusin for inspiration.

When my kids started coming home with homework, I was hit with the first eye opener: we will complete every assignment that comes home, but please do not make it busywork. I do not want to spend a couple of hours battling with my children to complete an assignment that I notice NEVER gets graded or even marked as checked. Even the month long Social Studies project my child had to do one time that had no connection to what they were covering at the time!


As a Teacher, I have always been very conscious of giving my students busy work. I have never liked it, especially as a student myself. I constantly tell my students, "If you take the time to complete it, I will take the time to grade/mark it." I believe that creates the atmosphere that everything they do has a purpose. Most importantly, we do not waste time.

Speaking of grading, as a parent I find myself asking my kids about certain marks on their report cards that I use to not pay attention to as a teacher BC (before children!). I asking them why their participation in a class is just a check instead of a check plus. I ask them why didn't they get an Outstanding instead of the Satisfactory grade on the report card? Lastly, if they bring home a grade that was lower than we expected, I want to see comments to clarify the lower grade.


As a BC teacher, I was guilty of putting in the obligatory Satisfactory grade in behavior or organization for the entire class, knowing not everyone was really on the same level. Now, I spend probably way too much time providing comments for parents either on the report card or through email. However, I honestly believe the parents want to know as much information about the progress of their child as possible. It is my job to give that information.

The biggest realization for me as a parent was that I am not going to win every battle. Somedays, there are just too many of them. Before kids, I would mentally criticize parents for letting their kids get away with certain things. It did not take me long to after having both of mine that somedays you need to do this out of survival skills. If you do not let them win, someone may blow a gasket!


I have taken this slogan to heart in my classroom since having my kids. I now handle interactions with students very differently. Before children, I was determined that the student was not going to win. I had to "win" every disagreement or discussion. Period. It took the addition of my own children to realize how bad this strategy actually is.

Now, I am able to address students with the a lot more patience. Do not get me wrong, our classroom is a well-run environment. Nowadays, I believe it runs this way because of the mutual respect in the classroom between myself and my students than their fear of getting yelled at. I talk to them constantly about trust. I can handle a lot of things: forgotten homework, accidentally breaking materials, even an occasional foul word muttered out of frustration. However, do not break my trust. This is nonnegotiable! I tell my students that if this happens, I will still help work with you when you have questions, but I will not trust you. So, if you want to leave the room, you will be escorted by a responsible student. Trust can be repaired, but it takes a while. My students (and children) are aware this.

I am a very different teacher now that I have children, and I believe my students are better for it!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

If I Could Go Back in Time

I wish I could see a video of myself from my first couple years of teaching. I honestly think I could have won America's Funniest Home Videos. I remember feeling as if I was making everything up. Fortunately, I had several great mentors along the way. I had four years of college preparation classes in Education, and I still felt like a nervous wreck. If I had a chance to travel back in time and give myself some much needed advice, it would be this:

1. It is far better to be respected than liked. Your students do not want a pushover. They really do want someone who will respectfully challenge them to improve.
2. Ask to be observed more. By anyone that will take the time. Have people come in your room to see what you do and discuss things with you. This is the best way for you to improve. I do request more observations from my Principal every year. It never happens, but I request it.
3. To go along with that, get in other people's rooms. If no one will watch you, go watch other people.  This will serve possibly two purposes: you may see things you won't do, or you'll see things you want to replicate.
4. Read as much as possible. Read anything you can get your hands on in regards to teaching and instruction.
5. Ask questions. To as many people as possible. You may think you are being annoying, but veteran teachers enjoy sharing their wisdom.
6. Avoid negative people. Surround yourself with positive, hard working people. The "Negative Nellies" will deplete all of your energy. They thrive on this. Fight the urge to join them. This may mean eating lunch by yourself, but you have papers to grade anyway.
7. Find a way to incorporate your passion into your classroom. Love to read? Start a book club. Love playing guitar? Teach kids during your lunch hour. Love to run? Start a running club. One way to love what you do is to do what you love.
8. Making a mistake is not the end of the world. Apologize, correct it, and move on. Your students will like the fact that you do make mistakes. They will learn how to handle them by watching you.
9. Handle all parental conversations with professionalism. Do not get caught in criticizing another teacher, the school or a program. Never criticize the place you work in public. It can not be that bad, they hired you, didn't they?
10.Try not to let what happens in your personal life affect the environment in your classroom. Do your best to mask the drama. The students are there to learn, not listen to you rant.

If I only knew this in the beginning of my journey. I probably wouldn't have listened anyway, I thought I knew it all!

Did I forget anything? Please continue to conversation by leaving a comment or reach out me on Twitter: @jcordery

Monday, August 5, 2013

What the CCSS taught me...No, really!

For the last few years, an acronym has been dancing around every school in the country. This acronym has created great excitement or tremendous skepticism, depending on your exposure to it. I also believe the level of anxiety one feels towards this collection of letters is directly proportional to the professional development supplied by your district on the topic. This change in curriculum is heralded as "the great leveler", so students can get an equal shot at mastering content from Washington state to Florida. This is the solution to all of public education's problems, just give it time. So they say.

No, I am not referring to HIB, AchieveNJ, SGOs, SGPs, RTTT or ASK. I am actually referring to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In short, these new standards are going to change what students need to know for each grade level by changing from the old way of "A mile wide and an inch deep" to "An inch wide and a mile deep." If it works, we shall see. That discussion will be left for another day.

What made me sit down to write was how the above two statements mirrored how I have been feeling in my classroom lately. I have started experimenting with a lot of different methods/techniques during the day: from project based learning to flipping classes to bringing technology into as many lessons as possible. Add to that my extreme interest in continuing to blog and learn from the great educators on Twitter, and I feel like a highly skilled juggler trying to keep everything in the air. By the way, I am a horrible juggler. No, it's bad!

That is when it hit me. Be like the CCSS. Focus on a couple of things this year (inch wide). I am going to pick what interests me the most and allow myself time to dig deep and learn as much as I can (mile deep). After some thought, I am focusing this year on two main goals: One, I am focusing on students learning more and state test preparation less. I would like to create portfolios for my students to monitor their own learning. I think by doing this, they will become engaged more in the classroom. They control what they learn. I want to see if by doing this, I can increase the involvement of my students in their learning.

The second area I am focusing on for this year is improving as a connected learner. As I mentioned above, I am going to continue to blog and participate in Twitter chats, but I am going to involve both my students and parents on my journey as well. In addition, I would like to seek out alternate ways of reaching out to parents. I would like to use Skype and Google hangouts for conferences. I want to make it as easy as possible for the parents to stay informed about their child's growth.

Do not get me wrong. I am not abandoning everything else I do in my classroom. Also, I do not plan on dismissing the two goals above with new ones next year, but merely replace them. By the end of this school year, I am hopeful that my two goals will be established routines for me during the day. That will give me an opportunity to bring in two more goals or strategies the following year.

This suggestion may not be for everyone, but I am sick of being a "Jack of all trades, master of none." I would really like to hear from you. Please feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me on Twitter: @jcordery.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good is the Enemy of Great

The latest book I have been reading has sparked another series of thoughts that after bouncing around in my head for a few days, I have garnered enough nerve to finally sit down and write. The book is by Jim Collins titled: "Good to Great". Collins and a group of researchers spent several years studying how good companies became great. This is a business centered book, but I found several parallels between his intended audience and education.

The very first chapter hit me like a ton of bricks: GOOD IS THE ENEMY OF GREAT. Now, I consider myself a pretty good teacher, so I was slightly offended by the title. What is wrong with being good? I work very hard at my craft and do not feel being "just good" is a negative. I almost closed the book and gave it back to my brother, whom I borrowed the book from.

I am glad I continued reading. I began to realize that when people settle for just being good, it prevents them from reaching their fullest potential. They become stagnant and okay with the status quo. How many times have we heard our fellow teachers utter the phrase, "Why do I need (insert latest educational pedagogy, tech program or buzz word here), my test scores are good enough? I do not need it." These teachers are not willing (or maybe able) to push themselves to go to the next level. I believe these are the people that Mr. Collins was referencing with his statement above.

"Just being" good is a disease that may be incurable. After some reflection, these are the people that we need to keep our young teachers away from. Do not get me wrong, many times good teachers are successful for a few years, maybe even several. I believe this is the group that begins to flounder when there is a paradigm shift, or new way of thinking. These individuals resolutely stand their ground, resting on past successes, refusing to change or modify. Little do they realize, everyone else is passing them by.

As a side note, there is nothing wrong with being a good teacher. I am proud to say my kids have had several good teachers at school, and they both learned a lot from these dedicated individuals. Their classes were always fun and educational. My kids raved about these teachers, mad when we "forced" them to stay home because they were sick.

So, what about the group of us that works hard at running a successful, organized, engaging classroom? We subscribe to blogs to stay fresh on new methods to reach more students. We are involved in Social Media to connect with educators from around the world. We thrive on conversations that challenge our way of thinking, either changing our minds about a topic or reaffirming our original thoughts. We secretly want to be observed by administrators more to encourage discussion about what we may need to improve upon.

That, I believe, is the difference. If you are trying to find ways to improve your craft, I believe you are on the road to Greatness. I do not think Greatness is a destination. I do not know if you ever get there. But, that might be the subliminal message Mr. Collins is conveying: do not settle...keep seeking out ways to improve...keep working hard. The path to greatness is lined with it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How Time Made Me Better

I was struck by a Twitter comment yesterday by @Urban_Teacher: "Teacher Tip: Sometimes it's better to soak the pot, then scrubbing away. It avoids you damaging the pot and wasting energy." I laughed out loud at the simplicity of this statement. How many times have we left a "soaker" on the stove to be able to clean it easier tomorrow? Without fail, the dirt and grime is easily cleaned off with little effort. All the pot needed was some time to get rid of its grime before becoming shiny and new again. I immediately began to connect this to how time has helped me improve as a teacher. This was the spark I needed for a post...

I have modified my list down to three main improvements I made over the years to fine-tune my classroom environment: One, the time I give a student to answer a question after he or she was called on in class, Two, the time I give a situation or problem involving a disruptive student. Lastly, and the one I think is the most important: MY OWN TIME. I believe these three changes over the years have made me a better leader in the classroom.

For starters, giving students time to answer a question in math class is very important. The student may be flustered after being called without raising their hand. Giving them time allows them to compose themselves and minimized the chance of embarrassment. No student wants to look foolish in front of his or her peers. The way you handle this with middle schoolers could depend on the number of hands that go up the next time you ask a question. Combined with this is how I have handled the student that says, "I did not get that one," or "I skipped that one." I use to just skip right over that and pick the next student. That changed several years ago. Now, I either ask them to try it now while continuing to go over the homework with the rest of the class, or I ask a classmate to walk the student through the problem while I go on with the rest of the students. I found this to be much more beneficial than skipping over them. The students learned they had to know the work, and I was going to give them time to do that.

Just as important is the way I have started handling situations in my classroom that are a distraction to the learning environment. We have all had the student that will not pick their head up, stop tapping their pencil or anything else imaginable to just get attention. The younger me would have directly handled this situation, distracting the other students, getting off the daily objective and giving me a monster headache. I have learned over time (sorry, the puns keep happening!) that the behaviors change quicker if I allow politeness and subtlety to "soak-in" for a while. This keeps the flow of the class moving along, and the students does not get the satisfaction of disrupting class. Do not get me wrong, this may need to happen over several days before the pot becomes clean again, but I have found if I try to scrub too soon, I end up wasting a lot of energy!

Lastly, I started giving more of my own time. Several years ago, I began taking students to my room during recess time so they could work on retakes/redoes on various math assignments. This gives my students chances to learn the material at their own pace outside of the normal classroom structure. In addition, I am there to provide extra instruction when needed. I can not say enough about how this additional time helped create the "never settle" attitude in my classroom. I never want students to feel that they have lost the chance to improve their understanding of math concepts. The additional time of face to face interaction is what most of these kids need to shine. Regardless of the latest tech fad, or state driven "buzz words", kids just want some old school face to face interaction and communication to fully understand tough problems. Ronnie Burt has an excellent post on this very concept.

How has "allowing the pot to soak" helped you as an educator? I would love to continue the conversation...
Thanks for giving me your "time." Okay, I had to throw in one more!!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Real Talk for Real Teachers

I am not embarrassed to share that I read a book in a little over 24 hours. Now, the book was not a 1,000 pages, but for someone like me who is an extremely slow reader, this was quite an accomplishment. I discovered this book while searching Amazon for a new title. To my astonishment, there was a title that slapped me in the face: Real Talk for Real Teachers. After that got my attention, I noticed the author: Rafe Esquith. Rafe Esquith! I have read his three previous books about teaching, and loved each one. Talk about Christmas in July!

For those who may not know Rafe, he is a teacher from Los Angeles California. Rafe has been at his craft for thirty years. He has been recognized by Oprah Winfrey for his excellence in education. He tours the country sharing what happens in his small classroom (Room 56). His books should be required reading for every educator.

Briefly, the book is broken into three sections: The first part is for New Teachers. This section is full of accurate and real information that was probably not shared during any college/university education class. The second part is for teachers with more than five years on the job. His main message: You could probably now begin to coast, but provides several reasons why you should not. Lastly, the third part is for the veteran teacher (which just this year I quickly realized I now fit that category at my school!). He commends the veteran teacher for their years of sacrifice. It is truly inspirational.

The part of the book that struck home for me was his discussion on No Child Left Behind. To put it bluntly, Rafe believes that some children should be left behind. FOR NOW! I have to admit, I agree. Now, I do not believe anyone should be denied the chance to succeed. Policies should not be created that refuses a group of children the opportunity at a quality education. What I am afraid is starting to happen is teachers are expected to not only leave the door open for the child, but CARRY HIM OR HER AS WELL. This is where, as educators, we need to realize the difference. The sad part about what we do is no matter how many opportunities we create for our students, some will still choose to not walk through that door. That does not make us bad teachers, because our job is to create an environment where the door is left open, but the student walks through himself.

For example, I created a Lunchtime Club for my math classes where students can come up to my room during lunch to do corrections or retake a quiz or test. When I first created this club several years ago, I made it a requirement that anyone with a low grade had to attend. There was no discussion about it. I would go down to the cafeteria escort the group back to my room. Of course there were several students that I had to "force" to show up. What I did not realize at the time was how many problems this created in my room during my lunch hour.

The students that were forced to attend were not productive. I wasted a lot of energy trying to get them to work, while missing several opportunities to connect with the students that voluntarily attended the session. In addition, I ended the lunch hour very frustrated. Normally, it took the rest of the afternoon to get rid of the headache I received from this lunch hour work session.

After some thought, and reading one of Rafe's first books, I realized the session should be strictly voluntary. I still went down to the cafeteria to escort the group to my room, but I only brought back the students that wanted to attend. What a difference this made! The sessions were productive, quiet and fun. I was able to connect with the students by giving them time to work through math problems they found challenging. Not surprisingly, my headaches went away as well. I never proclaimed to be a "quick learner"...

The unforeseen bonus was that some of those students that initially were disgruntled about being there, volunteered to show up soon after. When they attended, their work was of higher quality, and they were easier to work with. All I did was keep the door open, but I allowed them to walk through themselves.

Believe it or not, this was a tougher sell for the parents. I have to repeatedly remind parents that their son or daughter is more than welcome to attend, but I will not make them. I have actually had parents go to my principal to complain that I do not work with their child during my lunch hour! Again, I calmly remind them I will be there tomorrow to pick up the group. Your child is more than welcome to attend, but it must remain voluntary.

That is a tough balance for teachers. We want to naturally "save" all of our struggling students. We feel their pain and struggles as our own. The "Real Talk" is sometimes we can not. We need to be patient, keep the door open, and hope the student passes through themselves. When that happens now, I am the first one to greet them with a handshake on the other side of the door. It is at that time the real learning begins. And it was simply because I did not force them to walk through before they were ready.

Thanks, Rafe, for another extremely inspirational book. THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS!!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Six Important Traits of a Leader

The past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to add several administrative tasks to my regular teaching assignment. These added tasks have ranged from completing our district's No Child Left Behind grant and writing our Professional Development Plan to Leading our Teacher Evaluation Committee and Leading Professional Development on the following items: AchieveNJ, SGOs, SGPs and PARRC. This additional work has provided me with a lot of great opportunities to learn about the administrative side of schools. I am confident that this work will give me a solid foundation when the opportunity arises to be the Lead Learner of my own school.

In addition to these opportunities, I have learned a lot from the following authors: Todd Whitaker, Thomas Guskey, Robert Marzano and Will Richardson. Through my readings and experiences, I have noticed six common behaviors/characteristics of an effective leader. I am taking a different approach in this post, because I am going to attempt to show how these characteristics changed me professionally.

Lead Learner: Without a doubt, this is an important skill for a school's leader. This person must always be looking for new trends in education to share with his or her staff. He or she must model the behavior to be followed by the staff and students. My journey started with setting up a Personal Learning Network. I have created a Twitter account that has connected me with a lot of very intelligent and innovative people. I have started sharing these connections with my colleagues, hoping to share the impact this social medium has had on my learning.

Enthusiastic: This is a trait that ebbs and flows during the year. But, as the leader, it is important that this is modeled everyday. Enthusiasm is highly contagious. Your staff will look to you for the pick-me-up they need during those down times of the year. A leader that senses this and can do it effectively will keep the morale high all year long. Personally, this trait was critical when I started guiding my colleagues through several changes over the past couple of years: a new teacher evaluation model, Student Growth Objectives, Student Growth Percentiles and PAARC. I intentionally developed training sessions that were different (but informative) to keep a positive environment. I knew these changes were going to be tough, but I presented it in a way that was upbeat and positive.

Active Listener: We are all busy. We are constantly trying to juggle several things at one time. But, I have learned the hard way that not actively listening to a colleague creates more problems in the end. I have really tried to stop whatever I am doing and listen to whomever comes into my room to speak to me. Do not get me wrong, I still need a lot of work in this area, but I am working hard at improving. Not only does a Leader need to hear what is said, but he or she needs to hear what is not being said. An effective leader needs to be highly skilled at "hearing" things even when no one is speaking. The ability to read body language and facial expressions allows a leader to take stock of how the atmosphere in the builind is, and handle things accordingly.

Dedicated: As mentioned above, we are all busy. In addition, there are endless state mandates and programs that need implementation. Let us not forget about handling phone calls, meetings, emails and discipline problems. Nonetheless, an effective Leader must be dedicated to their vision for the school. Are we on the right track? Are we still providing our students with a rigorous and challenging curriculum? Are we offering this in a safe and friendly environment? State mandates and programs are important, but an effective Leader finds a way to blend these changes into the current school climate. Personally, I worked very hard this year finding creative ways of blending all of the changes facing my colleagues into small, bite sized sessions. I found this was the best way to keep them focused througout the meeting.

Empathetic: Education is always moving a hundred miles an hour. Our days are stuffed from beginning to end. That is why sometimes an effective Leader has to know when to take his or her foot off of the gas pedal. Give people a break sometimes. I experienced this early in my career when my Principal sensed a lesson was not going well. Two thirds of my class did not do their homework. As a result, the activities I had planned were fumbling along, to say the least. Thanks goodness, my Principal put herself in my shoes and left a note on my desk that simply read, "I'll be back tomorrow for your observation." I have always remembered that event through my career. I would have run through a wall for her after that day. I am glad, however, she never did ask.

Resourceful: The leader of a 21st century school has a lot on his or her plate. The leader is usually bombarded with a great number of questions/requests. Where do you direct them? What information do you provide them? The 21st century Leader's job, very much like his or her teachers, is not necessarily to have all of the answers, but to know what roads/avenues to take to get them. What better way to do that than by an ever-expanding PLN. This is one area that has saved me tremendously the last year. Because of the great people in my PLN, I have been able to reach out and get answers or suggestions to a variety questions/problems. I am constantly forwarding my colleagues these very helpful resources. Now, if I can just get them to start blogging and joining Twitter...

I have been teaching for 18 years. I have had the unique opportunity of adding several administrator roles over the last few years. I am also an aspiring Administrator. I have spent the past year working very hard at expanding my PLN. Please follow me on Twitter @jcordery. Also, he link address to my blog is jcorderyteacher.blogspot.com
Did I forget any important traits or qualities that start with these letters? Please share your ideas...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Professionalism Is as Professionalism Does"

I have just finished reading "The 10 Minute Inservice" by @ToddWhitaker and @AnnetteBreaux. If you have not read this book, it has a lot of great resources for both administrators and teacher leaders. I have already emailed a few suggestions to my colleagues from this book. I highly recommend getting your hands on this very practical approach to quality PD for a school staff.

The one part of the book that really has me thinking is the chapter entitled "Professionalism Is as Professionalism Does". The authors do a great job of describing ways to handle "Negative Nellies" in a school environment. Of course, their approach is that there are not any in our school, but if you ever were to run into one...here is what you do. Very tricky approach to addressing the elephant in the room without calling it by name!

What made me sit down and write was the impact that simple title had on me. How easy is it to complain about a student, a class, a lesson or program instead of buckling down to improve the situation? How easy is it to "pile on" when a colleague starts this kind of a session? We need to remember we are professionals.

This should be magnified, in my opinion, when we are talking to people outside of the school building. The conversations we have about our profession need to be positive. I constantly have conversations with several friends during the school year that are not in education. I have noticed how the tone of the conversations has changed since I forced myself to remain as positive as possible. This change was considered after I had a friend comment: "Yeah, but you get summers off, so a tough class isn't that bad, right?" That comment hit me like a ton of bricks!

That is when it dawned on me that educators need to be positive about our profession all of the time. It can not be limited to just school hours, or while we are in the building. We need to work very hard at keeping a positive spin on what we do.

I am not naive. I know we all have days, weeks or months where we want to pull our hair out. With every passing year, my hair is getting greyer and greyer. We have students, classes or parents that just make us want to scream. Go ahead and scream. Get it out. IN PRIVATE! After you do that, get back to being positive. The public needs to know that our job is tough, but there is no place else we would rather be!

Like I mentioned earlier, being professional all of the time is tough. There are days when we do not feel like being positive. We are tired. Our programs are underfunded. We have ridiculous mandates passed down from our state legislatures. But, you know what? My experience has shown me most of the public does not care. If we want to be seen as professionals, we need to act professionallly. All of the time. Every day. Don't our students deserve the effort?