Sharing ideas on Education, Leadership and Life

Monday, September 27, 2010

We Need To Change Our Focus

I am sitting here writing this blog during The Sukkot holiday. We don’t have any school this week and during the holiday I have had the pleasure of spending time with my family and last night we had Phillip Cummings and his family for diner. Philip is a member of my PLN that I developed through Twitter and we all had a great time. It has given me some time to reflect what has been going lately on Twitter.
I have to tell you I am a bit frustrated. I understand the negative impact that all of these latest talk shows have had plus the release of the movie “Waiting for Superman”. I have also said that since I work in the Private sector some of the issues don’t affect me as they do some of my colleagues. That being said from my own informal poll and by reading some recent Tweets it would seem there are a large number of educators that I haven’t heard of the movie and are unaware of what has been happening in the media and on Twitter.

This leads to my frustration. I as well as many others have tried to shift the focus from what the media wants to talk about to what we as educators should be talking and thinking about.
Here are some of my ideas:
• We need to be highlighting the great things many of us are doing in our classrooms
• We need to be thinking of ways we can meet the needs of our students more often
• Administrators need to be educational leaders and help teachers grow
• Teachers need to willing to let go and accept change
• We need fair and appropriate ways to measure and make sure our students are learning
• We need a system that holds all stakeholders accountable for student learning
• We need to be talking and communicating with other educators. We all should have a PLN.

We should not be:
• Blaming and pointing the finger at others
• We should not be just focusing on the negative
• We should not be finding only problems without any discussion about solutions

The things we need to be doing to improve education and improve student learning existed way before the Movie and Oprah. We need to focus on what matters; Our Students and stop focusing on things we have no control over.
Let’s change the focus to what We as Educators Need to do from reacting to what others say we do or don’t do


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Enough is Enough

Before I begin I must make a disclaimer that I work in a Private school and we don’t have a union and we don’t have tenure either.Much of the debate doesn’t affect me as it effects many of the members of my PLN. That being said I think all educators need to speak up when something is wrong.
I just read the article from CBS News “Are Teachers making the Grade” and my reaction was Enough is Enough.
Teaching like any profession needs to have accountability and benchmarks to evaluate teacher performance. In my school we are using Kim Marshall’s rubric which is very detailed and allows for teacher growth at any level. After all isn’t our goal that we should all improve.
Just as mentioned in my last blog there are some Super Teachers, there are also some teachers that refuse to change and meet the needs of our students, and they are not willing to grow. Yes that is a bad thing and I believe everyone agrees there needs to be education reform.
In my opinion as a bit of an outsider the issue is not that teachers need to be accountable but to link that accountability to Standardized test scores is not only wrong but foolish.

1. Standardized Tests usually test memory and not learning. Good teachers want their students to learn, not only the material but skills for life and often those students who are actually learning what counts for life may not do as well on standardized tests
2. What do these test scores measure? What does 100 mean? Is anyone perfect? Again therefore it is flawed
3. Would you rather have your child in the class where the teacher cares about his/ her needs and meets them ( even at the risk of test scores) or would rather a teacher who just teaches the material to everyone so that they can do well on the Test
4. The tests to the best of my knowledge don’t take into account the different socio-economic background of the students.
I could go on.

No one believes that there doesn’t have to be reform but there are other ways that are fair and provide opportunity for growth that we could use to measure teacher performance.
Yes everyone needs accountability but rather than looking for the negative let’s find a way to recognize the excellent teachers that are out there and at the same time motivate and encourage all teachers to grow.

As the saying goes you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

For me enough is enough. Let’s think about where we would all be today without the teachers we had and let’s stop bashing a profession of dedicated individuals and look for some real ways to make significant changes in the system.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Don't let others define who you are!

On Twitter tonight there has been a lot of chatter about Oprah and “Waiting for Superman” To be honest I didn’t listen to Oprah nor would I let her define who I am. I know who I am. Do you want to know who I am; I have the best job in the world and impact the lives of my students every single day. There was a YouTube video where a teacher was asked “what do you make” The teacher goes on to say all the things that teachers do and the bottom line is (I hope this is right) he ends off by saying;”I make a difference what about you.” My message tonight on Twitter as it has been on my blog is that we can only control what goes on in our classroom. Yes there is a lot that needs to be changed and improved and it is going to take some real out of the box thinking and rather than blaming everyone we just need to work together to make those changes. Until that happens, or perhaps to facilitate that change, we can make those improvements and changes in our own classrooms. I know we are still limited since we have to adhere to school or district standards but where we can we need to be doing what we know is right for our students.

However I think we all need to take comfort in knowing that there is no need to wait and that there are some Supermen and Superwomen already in the classrooms.At the risk of leaving some out I would like to mention a few that I have come to respect through my PLN on Twitter. There are many others but here a just a few:
@wmchamberlain @Philip_Cummings
@ktenkely @tomaltepeter
@tcash @amandacdykes
@michellek107 @Becky_Ellis_

Not to mention all the principals associated with Connected Principals who are trying to bring about change and @tomwhitby and @ShellTerrell for their work with the EDU PLN and many others. I guess the wait is over the Super teachers are here

Therefore we need to hold our heads up and know that we can’t and won’t be defined by others and no matter what they say WE DO AND ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Putting Our Students First

If you asked to me what have been the main topics on Twitter this week (at least for me) I would say that it boils down to three.
1. The problem with teaching to the test and the fact that in some cases the tests we give set up kids to fail before they even begin
2. A related topic is that we should be focused student growth and not a number grade or a letter grade. What does a 100 or an A mean anyway. I don’t think it means you are perfect.
3. The use of technology. That technology is a tool for learning but the learning is still the key or the focus.

I believe that all three of these ideas while very important and need to be addressed can be boiled down further. The one person we need to focus on is our students.

1. What is my student going to gain from taking this test? Does his/ her success on this test show me that they learned or are there other ways that I can make sure that my students learned the material? Since we are not going to change the system overnight and you may need to give tests I urge to make them tests that incorporate critical thinking and other important skills and not just memorization.
2. Who Benefits from a grade or a number maybe in the short term the student but in the long term what does it tell them. You have a good memory and know 90% of the work. The last time I checked you need a bunch of other skills in the “real world”. It doesn’t say if you have taken risks, how well you can think, analyze and solve a problem, or any other worthwhile skill. Does 100 mean you can stop learning? Well we know that isn’t true or sound advice. Imagine every student who got a 100 in Third grade, we would be in worse shop compared to the world than we already are.
I believe grades are to make us feel good and the us I am talking about is more often than not are the parents. What is a report card was an anecdotal comment describing the whole child. The child’s weaknesses, strengths, and areas for growth wouldn’t our students benefit much more from that.
3. I just sent a Tweet if the focus is learning than we should use any and all tools available to help us accomplish our goal. Technology being one of those tools but we can never lose focus that the goal is Student learning

There are many things wrong and we may not to be able to change everything. However if at least in our classrooms we can make our decision based on putting the needs of our students first then we can be assured we are one step closer to making some real significant changes.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Differentiating for our Teachers/Goals vs. Curriculum

There has been a lot of talk on Twitter lately about assessing schools and coming up with goals for our schools. I had one of those eye opening experiences yesterday at a faculty meeting. (Note: This is not to be understood in a negative way but the same way we have to differentiate for our students we have to differentiate for our teachers and I misread or misjudged their readiness) As a school we have defined two areas of growth; one being technology and the other incorporating more 21st Century skills. To that end each of our classroom is equipped with a projector some had Smart boards and others have the Smart software but use a Smart slate. Using Hebrew with the Smart software is a bit tricky and at our faculty meeting I showed my teachers a Web site that has created Judaic Smart lesson plans in Hebrew ( there aren’t a lot but where we don’t have to recreate the wheel why should we) My presentation was followed by a discussion. The discussion had two themes:
1. Technology doesn’t fit in with the Hebrew Language curriculum we use. (We use a Hebrew immersion program which has a certain style and uses a unique approach. Also they have no Smart software available)
2. The focus needs to be the learning not the Technology.
It was clear to me two things from this conversation. That my teachers don’t know the vast benefits that using technology can have on student interest, engagement, and ultimately learning, and that there is some confusion about between curriculum and goals.
The first point is going to take time and practice on their part to become more comfortable with technology and to see the benefits of it. I did point out some immediate benefits but as an educational leader it is something that I will be working on with them during the course of the year.
To me the second point was more telling that to some they saw the curriculum as the be all and end all. To help deal with this problem I sent out the following email:

Dear Faculty,

At yesterday’s faculty meeting we spoke about the importance of using technology. The discussion that followed was about using technology given the Tal Am curriculum (Hebrew Language curriculum) and shouldn’t the goal be learning. Yes the goal should absolutely be learning and at the bottom of this email I have copied something a posted on my blog about that very point.
However what became clear to me is that we don’t have clear goals about what we want from our students. I know we are working on benchmarks but I think this discussion is just as important if not more important.
The goal we have for ourselves and our students Cannot be to teach the Tal Am Curriculum. Curriculum is a means to an end. For example if we want our students to be lifelong learners and be able to read and understand the Tannach (Bible) and mifarshim (commentaries on the Bible) in the original text, then we accomplish that by having an Ivrit (Hebrew) curriculum. If preparing our students for the skills they need for life means using technology than the same way we use to Tal Am to accomplish one goal we use technology to accomplish another goal.
Here is a quote about curriculum: More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given”- Bertrand Russell

I believe what Russell is saying is that more important than the curriculum is how we are teaching and what methods we are using to convey the material to the students.

What should our goals be and what drives that decision. The answer to that is our mission statement. The mission statement is something we need to use as a guide to school policies and what drives the decisions we make in the classroom. I will be sending you a Google Doc. with the mission statement and what I my goals are for our students based on the statement. I have bolded what I think are the key phrases in the statement. I would ask that over the next few weeks you add what you think should be our goals for our students based on the mission statement. I would like this to be the focus of our faculty meeting on October 19th.
As a reminder I would like your personal goals for the year after sukkot (Jewish Holiday).

Here is the piece about Technology

Technology A Means but Not an End
Today our in-service was devoted to learning about incorporating more technology into the classroom. We learned about using Jing, Voxi, Kerpoof, Google squared, as well as using Smart software in our classrooms more effectively.
The in-service as a whole was very informative and productive. Technology is very important in a 21st Century classroom. Technology helps with having the students more engaged and active participants in the learning process. Technology also allows us to make learning more relevant and tap into student interest.
My fear or concern is that certain teachers may see this as not only a means but an end.
What do I mean?
I have been in classrooms where the teachers use the Smart board and Smart board software as well as other technological tools in their classrooms but they still use assessments that test only memory as opposed to critical thinking skills. Or they use the technology but don't differentiate in other areas.
My previous post spoke about what makes a great teacher, in all the different answers that the faculty gave no one said that "using technology" is a quality needed to be a great teacher.
Rather technology is a means. Technology allows you to connect with your students, which is a quality of a great teacher. Technology allows you to differentiate to meet student needs, which again is a quality of a great teacher. Technology shows a willingness on the part of the teacher to grow as an educator, again a quality of a great teacher.
Therefore with all this talk about technology we need to remember that it is only a means to improving education but not an end. The focus must always be on the learning

Gmar Tov

P.S. I thought this was just a nice quote
If a child can't learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

Ignacio Estrada quotes

End of email

This taught me two very important lessons:
1. We need to differentiate for our teachers just like we differentiate for our students
2. I wonder how many other teachers confuse curriculum with goals. I think we as administrators need to make clear to all our teachers that we need to be teaching,and our students need to learning the skills that we fell are important and meeting the goals that we as a school have established for our students. We accomplish that by using our curriculum but in no way should finishing a booklet as part of a curriculum or finishing a math unit be the goals we want for our students.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Sharing a successful moment

Over the last few years I have been pushing my teachers to focus more on learning than on teaching, and by doing so creating a child centered classroom rather than a teacher centered classroom. My teachers know that one on my pet peeves is when they give an assessment that is pure memorization without any type of thinking involved. This year the focus has been on technology and 21st century skills (not that those differ from child centered or critical thinking). To be honest it has been an uphill battle getting teacher buy in. They see and understand the benefits but as I mentioned in my previous post change is very hard, and until now I haven’t been using the term “to improve” but rather was focusing on change which was met with resistance and some skepticism.

However today I had a moment when it all seemed worth it. I walked into a first grade class and saw an engaged group of students learning, using whiteboards so that each student was engaged, and the use of the Smart Board. I sent an email to the teacher letting her know how I felt and to thank her.

Often we see and look at what is wrong with education; NCLB,RTTT,teaching for the test, teachers who force things on their students, testing for memory and not for skills, to name but a few. Yes there is a lot that needs to be fixed and I still have a lot of work to do in my own school, but I think every once in a while we need to share our success and know that we as administrators do make a difference and that we as educators are making a difference it may be one student, or one teacher at a time but we are succeeding.
Have a Great Day!
I encourage you to share your success stories

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Perhaps we need to improve and not change

I just finished reading “The Six Secrets of Change” by Michael Fullan. Before that I read “Who Killed Change” by Ken Blanchard. If you look at my bookshelves you will find books about leadership, education, and change. I would say that one of my goals is to be an educational change agent leader. I am not sure if that is the correct title but I think you get my drift. One of my first administrative positions was in a small Jewish Day school in Calgary Alberta. I was young and relatively new to administration and I wanted to come in and leave my mark on the school. As a staff project we read and discussed the book “Who moved my Cheese”, I thought that by reading that I could help them cope and understand the value to the changes I wanted to make. Now almost 10 years later I have learned that change is difficult and it takes more than reading a book together to even begin the process.

Here are Fullan’s Six Secrets

1. Love your employees
2. Connect peers with purpose
3. Capacity Building prevails
4. Learning is work
5. Transparency Rules
6. Systems learn

Based on this list I would like to offer a slight variation for educators. I will call my list

“Six Improvements we can make as educators”

1. Teachers need to love their students and administrators need to show teachers that they care about them
2. Everyone in the school needs to know the mission and vision of the school and buy into it
3. All stakeholders need to be motivated to work together for the ultimate good ( meeting the needs of our students)
4. We always be improving. We wouldn't want a surgeon using 20 year old techniques so why should we be using 20 year old techniques in the classroom
5. Teachers need to be open and honest with students. It is OK for a teacher not to know something. We need to do away with the top down approach to rules in the classroom. Administrators need to be open and honest with teachers.
6. We need to create a school culture that is focused on learning and the culture defines the organization regardless of who the current leader is.

Except for number six I think numbers 1-5 are doable and should be the goal for all teachers and administrators.

Truth be told I didn’t change very much of Fullan’s six secrets but just boiled them down a bit to be more practical.

If you look closer there is one important difference. I used the word improvement rather than change. If you ask someone do you want to improve at something the overwhelming majority of people would like to improve who wouldn’t? To use a sports analogy who wouldn’t want to improve their batting average by 200 points. However ask if you want to change you get a very different answer. Ask the same baseball player does he want to change his swing even though it will improve his batting average you will probably get a very different response.

I would consider myself a change agent, perhaps we need to change what words we use in order to achieve our goal. What if we used the word IMPROVE instead of Change.
Those are my thoughts. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A New Year's Resolution- My Personal Oath as an Educator

A while ago I was reading a blog post from Mr. Rice entitled “My Educator's Oath" he ends his blog with the following "I challenge each of you to write your own educator’s oath. Forever consider it to be a work in progress. Revise it often. Throw it away and start over. As you evolve, it should too."

Therefore as tonight is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New, I thought it would be appropriate for me to make my New Year’s resolution today in the form of “My Personal Oath as an Educator”.

(Please note that the list is no particular order of importance since I believe that each point is important)

As an Educator I promise that I will:
1. Develop a close relationship with my students. I will know my students strengths and weaknesses and I will meet the needs of my students to the best of my ability and help each one realize and maximize his/her potential
2. I will love my students and treat each one fairly. Fairly but not necessarily equally. (I once heard a lecture on the concept of fair but not equal.)
3. I will have a student centered classroom that engages students and pushes them to think and question.
4. I will incorporate technology in my classroom to help engage them and bring the learning we do to life.
5. My classroom will be a safe place for students to learn and students will feel comfortable taking risks. Failure will be seen as a learning opportunity and not as a cause to be down on one's self
6. I will incorporate 21st Century skills and Differentiated instruction to meet the needs of more of my students
7. I will act as role model for my students and that my students will learn that I don’t know everything and it is OK to make mistakes and ask for help.
8. I will commit myself to always be growing and constantly learning
9. I will develop a PLN to help me grow.
10. I will be flexible and be willing to change and grow. I will also be flexible in my teaching approach knowing that at times I may need to change my lesson based on my students’ readiness.
As Mr. Rice` said I will be flexible in knowing that this oath will need to change as I grow and change.

As I enter into the days of Awe on the Jewish calendar I hope that I am able to fulfill my oath and that G-D gives me the strength, wisdom, and insight to continue to have a positive effect on the lives of the children that I teach.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Rosh Hashanah (New Year's) Message to Educators

This week Jews across the world will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I have been looking for an inspirational message for this time of year. The following is based on the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth. Rabbi Saks explains that even though Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world and of man, the portion we read from the Torah (the Bible) is about the birth of Isaac. Rabbi Sacks comments that on this day one would think that we would read about G-D’s creation mainly creating the world and not about our creation (mans) in the birth of a child. We see from here that our relationship with G-D on this day is not as a creator but as a parent.

As I write this the next phase of Israeli- Arab peace talks are about to begin, the situation in Iran and how that will affect Israel and for that matter the entire world is very tenuous, not to mention the issues with the economy. How are we supposed to deal with and understand all of these complex issues? Rabbi Sacks says that the message that on Rosh Hashanah we read about the birth of Isaac gives of an insight of how we should approach these world issues. He says the following; “Don’t think about the past; or even present calculations of political interest or economic gain. Ask what impact this will have on future generation. Have in front of you the image of a single human child. The message of Rosh Hashanah is that greater than an understanding of creation is the ability to hear the cry of a child.”

I don’t think Rabbi Sacks wrote these words with educators in mind but as I read these powerful words I got my inspiration as an educator. As teachers we always have to have the image of our students in front of us at all times.

What important skills are we teaching our students?
How will the connection we make with our students change the rest of their lives?
What effect can we have on our students’ future?
Will we be able to hear the cries of our students?

As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah or as we begin the New School Year let us remember that we may not be able to deal with all or the global issues that we face nor do we have the capability of changing the past but we as educators do have the ability to think about what effect we have on future generations. May we always keep the image of our students on our minds and may we always be able to hear the cries of the children that need us.

Wishing you all a Happy and Healthy New Year (or School Year)

Friday, September 3, 2010

What I have Learned from Twitter

Over the last few months I have had many people comment about how much I am on Twitter. I think it especially freaks out my two teenage daughters. I am not sure if they are surprised since I am Orthodox Rabbi or if it is because many people think Twitter is about Justin Beeber or Britney Spears, and what would I be doing on Twitter. So I thought that I would blog about what I have learned from being on Twitter for almost four months.

1. It has made me a better educator- The amount of resources and ideas shared back in fourth in just four months is overwhelming. So much so that there are times I don’t know how I can keep up with it.

2. It has inspired me to push myself into areas that I would have never dreamed of. The whole concept of this blog came out of my experience on Twitter. I would have never thought about blogging before.

I don’t know if this should be number 3 so I will call it 2a- Encouragement- Through my PLN and my Twitter BFF’s I have been encouraged to blog more and tweet more about my views on life and education. Being an Orthodox Rabbi living in Memphis TN I don’t have much exposure to other educators from across the world and when people who have been doing this for much longer than I have comment about what I have to say it is encouraging.

4. The ability to constantly be learning from experts in the field.

If you look at my list we see the following Twitter has provided an opportunity for me to enhance my skills of being a lifelong learner, it has provided a safe environment for me to share ideas, it had inspired and encouraged me to push myself and take risks, and I have built up a network of friends (collaboration).

In essence twitter mirrors many of the skills that we want to provide for our students. We all know that experiencing learning is the goal so the next time someone asks me why I am on Twitter so much I will tell them so that I can experience the learning that I want to provide to my students.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I am Learning Together With You

Many people in my PLN on Twitter, including me , have written about the importance of making a connection with your students. In the past the connection I have made with my students has been through talking about sports, playing with them at recess, or having them over to my house for different occasions. All of which were very beneficial and made our learning experience together that much more enriched. However this year I have made a different connection with my students.

This year we have either Smart Boards or a Smart slate in every classroom. I have a Smart slate in my classroom. It takes time and skill to learn how to use a Smart board effectively, add to that learning how to write and use the slate effectively is even harder and more time consuming and now add to that trying to use the Smart slate and Smart software technology for Hebrew and you are talking about a whole new ball game. My challenge both as a teacher and as an educational leader in the school is to use and incorporate the Smart slate and the technology into a Judaic Studies class with the main language being Hebrew. I walked into class on the first day and told my class that when it comes to the Smart slate we are learning together. I wrote something on the slate and then I passed the slate around to each student. Some wrote diagonally the first time, some moved the cursor and got the eraser instead of the pen etc. I think you get the basic idea. We have been in school now for two weeks and I am happy to say that we have all gotten better but there are still those glitches that even I still have and all of us, teacher and students, in a nice way laugh and encourage one another. Every time I use the slate one student will say do you remember when student X did this or when Rabbi Greenblatt did that and we all chuckle and move on.

Education today is about connecting with students, and creating an atmosphere where students feel comfortable to learn. What better way is there to accomplish that than to learn together with your students