Category: Education


Currently, I am enrolled in a graduate program where I am working toward a master’s degree in school administration. A couple of weeks ago I had an assignment to write a letter to my administrative role model. The intent of the letter was to tell that person the significance they have had on my decision to become an administrator. My administrative role model is actually the person who convinced me I might be qualified to take this path toward administration.

Leigh Jones (@lajRCSdirector) was my principal for two years. During those two years I worked harder than I ever have in my life, but I absolutely loved getting up and going to work every single day. She pushed me beyond my comfort zone and I grew tremendously as a teacher and a leader. She is currently a high school principal in Rockingham County, NC where she was recently named that district’s principal of the year.  Last week she was recognized as North Carolina Region 5 principal of the year. The letter I wrote to her is below. In it, I explain why I feel she is completely deserving of this award. Thank you Leigh for being a great leader!

February 6, 2013

Dear Leigh,
For one of my classes, I have been asked to write a letter to my administrative role model. It didn’t take me a second thought to decide who that person would be. From our first meeting, I knew you were going to be an influence on my career and in my life. There are so many things I have learned from you that it’s difficult to narrow it down to just a few, but in order to maintain the brevity of this letter, that’s what I will do.

First and foremost, you have taught me that it’s important to take risks. You are an innovator and never fail to challenge the status quo. Through careful planning and methodical approaches, you have been able to bring about change in the schools where you have worked. Your ability to establish and maintain relationships with your staff creates an environment where teachers will support both you and your initiatives. When you know something is what’s best for kids, you will fight until implementation occurs. Under your leadership, I was able to take risks both in and out of my classroom. Because of this, I grew as a teacher and a leader.

From the first article you placed in the staff mailboxes, you modeled the importance of being a learner. Your willingness to stretch and to continually be a learner yourself, sets the tone for the staff and creates a culture of learning within the school. From pedagogy to technology, you push people to stay on top of current trends and issues in education. Teachers realize the importance of learning for themselves which directly benefits the students.

You told me once that the most important quality of an effective leader is humility. Without a doubt, you are one of the most humble people I know. Through you I have seen that humility in a school leader is exhibited in a constant focus on the team. Whenever praise is directed at you, it is typical for you to redirect the focus toward the staff and students. It is never about you. So much so that when you recently were in a car accident, you were shocked that the staff and students at McMichael missed you so much.

I’m not sure if you remember this, but the night before your first day of school at McMichael, I sent you an email. In that email, I had written a letter to your students where I let them know a little about their new principal. None of the students ever actually saw the letter. In fact, until now, you and I are the only ones who have seen it. In deciding what to include in this letter to you, I realized that message contained my thoughts on your leadership with students. You build relationships with students and make a difference without even realizing the effect you have. Here is that email:

August 14, 2011
Dear Students of McMichael High School,

On Monday morning you will begin a new school year and at the same time, encounter a new principal. There are a few things you should know about your new principal. She will greet you loudly every morning with an enthusiastic, “GOOD MORNING!!!” If your pants sag, she will assist you in pulling them up. She will expect you to come to school and be there on time. If you don’t come, you can expect her to show up at your door or to send someone else to get you. She will hold you accountable for your actions. She will impart discipline…fairly & consistently. She will get in your face and be all up in your business. She might make you cry. She will probably make you mad. She will definitely make you want to cuss.

There are some other things she’ll do that you need to be aware of as well. She’ll make you laugh. She’ll fight for you no matter what. She’ll treat you with respect and expect others to do so as well. Her first priority will be to do what’s best for you. She’ll fight like crazy to remove the barriers that stand in the way of your learning. She’ll create an environment that makes school a fun, welcoming, safe place to be. She’ll love you like you’re her own. She’ll be your number one fan, your advocate, your coach and your mentor.

I hope you quickly realize just how lucky you are to have her! Good luck!

Thank you Leigh, for being a mentor and for encouraging me to push myself into this next step in my career. If not for you, I would not be in the Principal Fellows Program. Since I now realize I don’t have to actually work in the same building in order to learn from you, I look forward to many more years of you teaching, challenging and encouraging me.

Melanie

With all of the continued discussion over the importance of teaching algebra, I felt compelled to share some thoughts. It seems to me the conversation is centered around the wrong topic. Instead of asking if algebra is relevant (of course it is),  we should be asking, “Is the way we are teaching algebra relevant?”

Algebra, or any other math strand for that matter, is relevant to building well rounded, successful citizens. The content isn’t the problem… the pedagogy is. The problem is found in classrooms where the students sit silently, listening to the teacher deliver his or her math knowledge while demonstrating a series of algorithmic steps. Those teachers then require the students to follow exactly the same steps when solving equation after equation after equation. It’s how most of us experienced math – direct instruction, then 25 or so problems using the steps just demonstrated. Heaven forbid, you miss a step or in a moment of true rebellion, solve the problem in a different way. My own children have been forced to follow this stifling way of learning math. One weekend, my oldest son brought home a packet of 80 problems for his algebra 2 class. Since he was able to solve them without all of the steps the teacher required, he did so. (He’s a rebel.) His grade on that assignment…a 54%. Why? The reason I was given when I asked was that he didn’t show all of his work. Yes, he did. His work just required fewer steps.

One of the most frustrating things I experienced as a teacher was when parents would tell me they had horrible math experiences in school, yet they were upset when I didn’t teach their children the same way they had experienced. Math hasn’t changed. Math instruction needs to. Teachers need to stop expecting students to “do math” and start letting them experience math.

A few years ago, my school system transitioned to a student centered, problem focused approach to teaching math. We moved from the traditional algebra 1-geometry-algebra 2 sequence to an Integrated Math sequence. Since I had already been using this approach in my class, I was thrilled. Others were not. The role of the teacher was expected to change. No longer the “sage on the stage,” teachers were encouraged to introduce problem situations, then allow students to work together to reach conclusions.  I loved it and so did my students. Don’t get me wrong, it was difficult for them at first. Students are good at working side by side, but many students need to be explicitly taught how to have productive mathematical discourse. It was up to me to teach them, through questioning how to discuss math. The teachers who embraced this pedagogy saw great results. Teachers were questioning students and students were asking probing questions of each other. They were searching for answers and quickly realized that many paths can lead to the same solution. Math became relevant. One question became obsolete, “Why do I have to know this?” Students were free to explore mathematical ideas. They solved real world problems and in doing so, actually learned some algebra.

As a math teacher, I began every year by challenging myself to help the students assigned to me fear math less, take more risks and see how math is and will be relevant to them regardless of the path they choose. We need to change the conversation. Let’s stop spending so much time arguing whether or not algebra is necessary and spend some time discussing what’s happening in math class.

Here is the link to the presentation and resources from our NCTIES session last Thursday. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. Thanks to those who attended!

NCTIES 2012: Creating a Culture of Learning within a District and a School Using PLNs and Social Media

All. By. My. SELF! When my middle child was three years old, those were his favorite words. He was experimenting with his independence and wanted to do everything by his self. He was quick to announce to anyone who would listen that help was not needed. Why is it that we teachers do the same thing? We feel we must do everything all by ourselves. We talk about how our students need to learn to collaborate, yet do we model that skill? Are we really doing all we can to learn from each other and help each other grow?

Last summer while at ISTE in Philadelphia, I attended a session led by Will Richardson. During his presentation, he discussed the importance of educators connecting and collaborating with each other. He stated that if we are not sharing the best of ourselves then we really aren’t doing anything to counteract all the negativity directed toward our profession. His comments really caused me to think about my own habits. When I am designing work for my students, I typically go to the web and see what I can find that others have already done. I had to stop and ask myself how much I was giving back. I’m thankful there are teachers out there willing to share the best of their ideas. I am now trying harder to do the same.

During my transition to a 1:1 environment this year, one of the challenges I faced was how to effectively integrate technology into a math classroom. I was determined to use the laptops I now had access to as more than word processing tools. I just wasn’t sure how to do that. So, I went to my favorite PD and lesson planning tool…Twitter. Sure enough, little by little, I began to find math teachers willing to share their best. I’ve found lessons and ideas created by other teachers. Sometimes I add to them or otherwise adapt them to meet the needs of my students, and sometimes I use them just as they are. I am thankful to these educators for their willingness to share.

We don’t have to do this alone. In these days when teachers are constantly under attack, we must support each other, build each other up, and do our best to not let anyone feel they are all by themselves. Are you sharing your best? If you aren’t, I hope you will!

Here are some of the best I have found… Yummy Math, Utah Education Network, Adams County School District 50, Bridgeport School System, Ohio Resource Center, Curriki. There are so many more. Please share some you have found!

Just ask the children

Earlier this week I was part of a team that led professional development for all of the secondary math teachers, some EC & ESL teachers and a handful of administrators in our district. The session was the first of three that are meant to prepare our staff as we move toward implementation of the Common Core State Standards next school year. For this first session, we decided to focus on the standards themselves and the mathematical practices that are part of the CCSS. As an introduction to the practices, the groups of teachers and administrators were asked to respond to the following: “Write a few words or phrases that describe an excellent mathematics classroom.” We allowed them a few minutes to discuss, then we asked them to share out. The responses were pretty much as we predicted. Many mentioned motivation, students listening and working together, students trying and not giving up too easily. Some mentioned technology. Almost all focused on student behaviors.

After all of the groups had shared, we revealed that the three of us who were facilitating the discussion, had asked our students to respond to the same prompt. We shared a few of the student responses. (The complete list of responses can be found here http://goo.gl/6WYtc) The reaction of the teachers was interesting to watch. Some were surprised, some were shocked. Some couldn’t believe students could so clearly articulate what they felt an excellent mathematics classroom should look like. While many of the teacher responses focused on student behaviors, most of the student responses focused on the learning environment. Almost all of the students mentioned working in groups, collaboration, or teamwork. Practice 3 states that mathematically proficient students “justify their conclusions, communicate them to others and respond to the arguments of others.” In addition, this same practice says, “Students at all grades can listen or read the arguments of others, decide whether they make sense, and ask useful questions to clarify or improve the arguments.” It is interesting to me that what the CCSS says we NEED to do in order to produce mathematically proficient students is exactly what the children are telling us they WANT to do in math.

The content is important. The standards are necessary. However, the learning environment we establish is what leads to student engagement and thus learning. We say we want the children involved in their learning, yet we remain convinced we know what the best learning environment is. If we really want to know what an excellent mathematics (or any other) classroom looks like, we just need to ask the children!

Storytime…in math?

I love to read. I always have. I cannot remember a time as a child when I didn’t have a book with me. My parents read all the time and it was just a way of life in our home. As an adult, I still love to read. Granted, the things I read have changed. I read more articles and blog posts than I do books, but I am still always reading.

When I had my children, I read to them constantly. If I remember correctly, I read to my oldest child until he was in middle school. I love children’s literature and I was thankful for the “excuse” to read and re-read some great books. As a sixth grade teacher, I read on occasion to my students. I didn’t fit it into our day as much as I would have liked, but I tried to read to them periodically. Currently, I am in my second year teaching 8th grade and until a week ago, I had never read to my 8th graders. I guess I thought they wouldn’t enjoy being read to. Boy, was I wrong.

Last week we had benchmark testing which caused our schedule to be altered slightly. My class time was cut short. Since we were at the end of a unit on Pythagorean Theorem I figured I would use the abbreviated class period, to read the book “What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras?” to my students. I could not have predicted their reaction. When I told them I was going to read a story to them, they were so excited. They asked if they could come to the front of the room and sit on the (uncarpeted) floor. They gathered around and sat silently as I read. It was the most still and attentive they had been in weeks, maybe all year! I was shocked!

This experience reminded me of the importance of reading to our students. Apparently, even 8th graders appreciate having someone read to them. I’ve had my students read articles and short stories that go along with math activities. But to actually read TO them is something I just have not done. It doesn’t matter that I am a math teacher. I need to make time to do this because it is important to them. And because it’s important to them, it’s important to me!

Who’s behind the mask?

I have to admit I have been working on this post for several weeks. I am not sure why it has been such a difficult one to write. The topic is one we all know well, but it’s not really something we talk about as much. It all started with a conversation I had with some friends. That’s what usually happens. I have a conversation about something not related to school and while reflecting, I ask myself if the situation applies to me as a teacher. Typically, it does!

We were talking about someone who had gone through a difficult time personally. Through the whole thing, she never let on that anything was wrong. We discussed how surprised everyone was to learn about the struggle mostly because she hid everything so well that no one knew. She wore a mask of sorts. When she went to work or was out with friends, she had her mask on so that no one could see what was really going on. As I thought about it, I realized we all wear masks to some degree.

We wear the “put on a smile and be happy” mask on days when things aren’t going well. We wear the “I’m full of energy” mask when we didn’t sleep well the night before, but we still have students to motivate. We wear the “I feel great” mask when we are sick but toughing it out so as not to miss a day of instruction.

I started thinking about my students. A colleague once told me, “You only THINK you know your students. You really don’t.” It occurred to me that I might need to look behind their masks. After all, kids wear them too, especially in middle school. There’s the “I act out in class to hide the fact that I really don’t understand” mask. Then there’s the “I criticize others because that’s how I am treated at home” mask. And, of course, there are those masks that say, “you will only know what I want you to know.” When I am having a hard time reaching a student I have to remind myself they might have on a mask. Sometimes, it’s impossible to get the mask off, but if I can at least pull it away a little so I can look behind, then I might be able to get a glimpse of what’s really going on.

Our students deal with so much outside of school. They face stresses and family situations that are hard for some of us to imagine. I want to create an environment in my class that makes school a relaxing, safe, fun place to learn, socialize and feel valued as a person. If we learn some math in the process, then that’s great. I truly believe if I create that environment for all of my students, they will feel good about themselves, at least while they are with me. I know when I feel good about myself, I am more motivated and productive. Maybe, just maybe, that will happen with my students as well.

Are you listening?

It’s funny how some memories are very clear and some not so much. One of my most clear memories from elementary school is something one of my teachers said to our class one day. I don’t remember the teacher, or the class, or the circumstances, but I remember what she said.

She told us there was a difference between hearing and listening. She said we hear with our ears but listen with our brains. I found myself this week having a similar discussion with one of my classes. On this particular day, I was certain many of them just weren’t listening to me or to each other so I posed the question, “What is the difference between hearing and listening?” I was shocked with how fast they raised their hands wanting to respond. They had several good answers, but I especially liked the way one boy put it. He said, “Hearing is when it goes in one ear, passes right on through and out the other side. Listening is when it sticks around in your brain for a while.” I love that description!

I’ve really been working hard lately to do more listening. Sometimes I’m a great listener, but sometimes I am only hearing while I start thinking about my response to what’s being said. I am fortunate to have several good friends who model listening with me. I need to do the same for my students. I need to listen to them so, hopefully they will begin to listen to each other.

One thing that’s important for us as teachers though is to spend just as much time listening to what our students aren’t saying as we do listening to what they are saying. When a student said to me that he didn’t care about math it didn’t take me long to realize he was really saying, “I don’t understand and I need your help.” The words left unspoken are sometimes more powerful than the ones said out loud. We hear with our ears, but we have to listen with our heads and our hearts.