Thursday, May 4, 2017

Counting Down #KidsDeserveIt

This post was co-written with Roman Nowak.

On social media, so often we see posts of countdowns to the weekend, Christmas, Spring Break, summer; it is usually accompanied by elation and celebration. As students and educators, we often can’t wait until there is a break from school. Why is that? We know it’s because we work HARD!  Education is a tireless job and the breaks are something we look forward to and desperately need.

This “tradition” has been around for many decades. We don’t know about you, but we can definitely remember our teachers keeping track of countdowns. In many cases it isn’t done with a negative intention; however this seemingly harmless practice can have profound consequences.  

You may have heard the phrase “perception is reality”; think about it, when someone online, who is not an educator, sees us gleefully posting about how much we can’t wait for a break, what message does that send? What about to the parents of the children we serve?  It sends a message of “these kids are driving me insane and I need a break” or “Woe is me, my job is so much harder than others so I deserve this break”.  Now don’t get us wrong, teachers do work hard. We work harder than most realize and with many unpaid hours.  But again, what message do we really want to be putting out there?

Let’s have a quick comparison with anyone who has ever trained a dog. We are taught with dogs to be conscious of our tone of voice. When disciplining a dog for a bad action, we should not use a pleasant voice, because a dog will associate that with good behavior. This of course is possible because of that pleasant tone we use to praise a dog. We are also taught to be repetitive with dogs. In order for behaviour to be learned, it must be constantly addressed.

Now let’s come back to school. Hypothetically, from a young age, teachers put down that innocent countdown on a blackboard or a bulletin board. Also regularly, when referring to that countdown, a pleasant and often exciting voice is used by the teacher. Students in turn mimic that pleasant voice and share their excitement from that break from school. We all need breaks because we feel tired, overworked, and uninspired. But we think that maybe instead we should be building up a pleasant tone with the amount of time we have left!

I don’t know about you, but we’ve had those teachers who talk about how they can’t wait to be out of this school.  How they deserve this break.  And as a student, I (Todd) remember a teacher once telling us just that, and somehow, in someway, I felt like the problem.  I felt like it was my fault the teacher was counting down the day until she could rid herself of me and my classmates.

I (Roman) also had a similar experience. As a child, I loved school. It was a place to learn new things, to meet new people and to escape reality that wasn’t always fun. I knew that no matter what, with the teachers that were there, I was in a safe place where I could shine and be recognized. Every time teachers would put up that countdown, I would always feel a sense of being weird and different. While most were like the teachers, happy to be escaping school, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be in my “fun place” for the summer. These made me feel inadequate. I couldn’t share what I felt because no one would understand. Unbeknownst to be, I kept this tradition alive in my early years of teaching.

This is where our disappointment comes in; disappointment for two reasons. First, we all have been guilty of this practice in our careers. Second, disappointment because the very job we chose out of love for learning and teaching has so many students and teachers celebrating the end moment instead of focusing on the here and now.

And that’s the kind of countdowns we now need to hold in our offices and classrooms.  Not countdowns that celebrate the moment we get to “escape”, but instead countdowns that celebrate the moments we have left. Even more, why not start a count up until the beginning of the next school year, where greater learning adventures and fun will take place? Where all of us, kids and adults alike, will grow together as a family.

Our world is so filled with turmoil and pain.  As educators we are held to a different (and sometimes unfair) standard.  So even though it may seem like a countdown to summer is innocent, we have to take a step back and evaluate.  What is the message we’re sending, even unintentionally?

We know that the message we want to send is that every moment matters.  That even though we look forward to time with our families and time to decompress, we know that at school, that is a child’s safe place.  A child’s place to feel valued, important, worthy, and get the best education possible.

Let’s not countdown the moments until we have a break, and instead starting today, let’s countdown the moments that we have left to make a difference in the lives before us.  Our #KidsDeserveIt.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Speaking Louder Than Words #KidsDeserveIt

Over the past year or so I've really been thinking about the messages we send.  Those things we do that speak louder than the words that are coming out of our mouths.  

Back in January of 2016, I wrote a post called "My Journey: Race, Economics, and White-Privilege".  That post was my first time to really dig into my thoughts, preconceptions, and my own upbringing and how that affects all that I do....even when I don't realize it.

And as I've worked with the students and teachers I work with now, and those I've met while traveling and presenting, I've seen so much.  I've learned so much.

I always talk about how social media changed my life.  How it got me out of my bubble and really opened me up to other ideas, beliefs, upbringings, and so much more. Even while traveling this week in Italy, my wife (who is not active on social media) made the comment of "Every time we travel I gain more of an understanding and appreciation of the way others live.  It's so different than us, but that's ok!".

When I was flying back this week I kept coming back to this thought of how sometimes all we consider when living our lives are the things with which we were brought up with.  Then I remembered this episode of the tv show "Switched at Birth" that aired a few weeks ago that dealt with racial bias.  And it got me thinking.  

There are so many messages that we send that speak louder than anything coming out of our mouths.  And sometimes we don't even realize those messages are being sent because we've never thought of the implications that are being expressed with our actions.  Here are a few that came to my mind....

1.  The people we work with

I work in an environment that is 85% minority.  We have about 50% of our students who are Hispanic and about 35% who are African American.  But when I look at the staff that works at our school, it is not reflective of our student population at all.  And that bothers me.  And trust me, it's not from a lack of trying to diversify.

But when we only have 2 classroom teachers who are African American and only 6 classroom teachers who are Hispanic, out of 47, what message does that send to our students?  When our students walk down our halls they see the instructional aides or the cafeteria workers or the custodians as the only consistent faces of their culture.  It sends a message that "my race is less than".  That "white people" are the ones who will be teachers and leaders.

And we teach all of our students that they can be anything they want to be.  That they are capable of greatness.  But in my conversations with some of our older students, this racial inequality of our teaching staff has actually come up.  Our teachers "don't look like me, so they don't really understand me".

That's why it's so important that we consistently show students the faces and backgrounds of people from ALL cultures who are successful.  That we celebrate diversity (and not just during a month pre-determined by our government).  That we learn and grow ourselves in our understanding of all backgrounds.  That we bring in those from the community who come from different walks of life.  We can do better at this and we have to do better at this if we want to make a real difference.

2.  The way we treat each other professionally.

I can't tell you how many times I've had a student tell me that I know Mrs. So-And-So doesn't like Mrs. So-and-So.  Not because they've seen them fight, but because of their actions.

When I've asked kids how they knew that, they've mentioned seeing one teacher completely ignore another on purpose, or taking a different recess so they didn't have to be around them, or laughing behind their back when they say something, rolling their eyes in conversation, or even having a teacher talk bad about a teacher during class.

We tell kids to be nice, not to bully, and to find a way to work with their classmates.  But when they see the teachers they look up to do that exact thing, what are they supposed to believe?  So often we act like children are too young or ignorant to really pick up on things, but you'd be surprised at how much kids really do pick up on.  

3.  Language

With over 50% of our population being Hispanic, there's a lot of our students who speak Spanish. Because of that I've been very cognizant of the fact that everything I send home must be in Spanish.  But even more than that, I want the signs and things posted around our school to also be in Spanish and it's something I've been working on!

When parents walk into a school and see that everything is written in a language they don't speak or understand, I believe it sends a message of "our language is the only one that matters, learn it or too bad". I don't ever want our school to feel like that.  I want our parents to feel like they can navigate our halls and understand that different things that we have posted.

4.  Books we read

A few months ago I wrote a post for the Scholastic Reader Leader blog called "She Looked Like Me".  Even the books we choose to read ourselves, or read out loud to kids, or have on our bookshelves speak to our beliefs.

Think about the books you're reading or are reading to children.  Do they have the same type of characters every time. Is it always a male protagonist?  Is the girl always having to be saved? Does the boy have to succumb to male stereotypes? Are the characters always animals or pale complected? 

It is so important that we select books to read to our students that represent a variety of cultures and ideas.  That show characters in new lights.  That empower those who are typically placed on the sidelines.  

Reading builds empathy.  And we have to be reading books ourselves with characters unlike ourselves. AND we have to be filling our shelves with those books as well.  To give those options to our children, so that they can find characters that look like them, but also find characters they connect with that are nothing like them.

There are so many more things that we do that speaker louder than the words that escape our lips.  My hope with writing this post is that it makes you stop and reflect on some of the things you unintentionally do in your own life that may be sending a message you don't want to be sent.

Our kids are so impressionable.  They soak it all up.  Little ears are always listening and little eyes are always watching.

So today, let's break down more barriers and let's raise up kids who are not only told they are wonderful and unique but seen it reflected all around them.  Let's allow our actions to speaker louder than our words ever could.  Our #KidsDeserveIt

Friday, March 3, 2017

Blank Pages #KidsDeserveIt

"When we spill our emotions onto blank pages, we can see, through words, the problems that plague us. It is a unique way of healing"  Travis Crowder

Writing, and blogging specifically, have been such a great release for me. I still remember when I started my blog a few years ago. I was terrified to share my thoughts and ideas with anyone and to allow them to see my flaws as person, but also as a writer. I remember making my blog completely private so no one else could see.

As time passed I began to open my blog up for others to glance upon. And then as I became more comfortable in my writing skin, I even began to blog about personal things in my life. I blogged about my frustrations with my skill set at my job, the death of my grandparents, the struggles with students/parents, and more.

And it began to connect with others. But even more so than that, it helped me put my fears, thoughts, dreams, emotions onto a blank page, and work through them.

It taught me I wasn't as alone as I sometimes imagined myself to be. It allowed me to use my stories and experiences to help others understand their own. It connected me with people in ways I had never been connected before.

As I took this idea of writing from the heart, to my students, I watched their hearts pour onto the empty pages as well. I shared my stories with them and in turn they shared their stories with me.

Writing is scary. It opens you up to silent judgements and when you're honest in your writing it can allow you to bare your soul.

But writing also has the power to change lives. I've always felt that my thoughts and experiences were more deeply reflected in my writing than when I tried to tell them orally.

I read the quote at the top of this blog post, from Travis Crowder, last week. It moved me immensely. And I think it hits the nail on the head. Writing is the act of spilling emotions onto the page. It begins as a process for us to get our thoughts out, but when we share that writing it can lead to an even deeper experience.

Writing allows us to see our emotions instead of just feel them. And when we put that writing down on paper, and when we are brave enough to share that writing with others, it can also bring a sense of healing.

I absolutely love reading those heartfelt, honest, genuine, soul searching blog posts. Those ones that you know that person just had to put on paper or else their hearts would explode.

So today I encourage you to write. To put it all out there. But even more so I encourage you to share your stories. Stories are what unite us, they are what builds empathy, and they are what reminds us we aren't so much alone in what we're going through.

Fill those blank pages.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Ask Me #KidsDeserveIt

The closer we get to Spring it seems like the shorter our fuses get and the more rambunctious and misbehaving our kids become.

As a classroom teacher I loved having "those kids".  The ones that the teacher from the year before would warn you about.  The ones who pushed every single button you have, and those you didn't even know you had.  The ones who scream, who curse, who run, who say they hate you.  Those are "my kids".  Those are the ones I'm drawn to.

As teachers, we all have some of "those kids" in our class every year.  What I've learned though is that often we can let our own emotions over take us and the way we interact with students.

Time and time again, I've watched a teacher get upset with a child over a choice the child made.  The teacher would yell, or tell them they were a liar or loser, or send them out in the hall without another thought, or make them walk laps at recess, or sit at lunch detention, or more.  But sometimes, the piece I've seen missing has been this....actually talking with the child.

We work with kids who don't know how to control their emotions.  With kids who are taught at home that you scream back at someone when you're upset with them, that you shut down when someone is yelling at you so you can "hide" from the yelling, that you use your fists instead of your words, and more.

Oh how quickly we forget that.  Yes, we teach them otherwise at school.  We teach them school expectations. But they're children.  Those lessons are never "one and done" or even "twenty and done" lessons.  They are lessons we must teach again and again.

I worked with quite a few children this week in my office.  And this week, every single child that was brought to me, I sat down with the, spoke in a calm and quiet voice, and asked them what happened. Asked them to tell me their story.

And do you know what some of them said?

- This morning my mom told me I was her stupid child.  It made me so upset that all day I've been angry at everyone and can't figure out how not to be angry.

- He said something about my dad.  My dad is in the hospital and I haven't seen him in 3 days, so when he said that, all I could see was red.

- Yes, I made a bad decisions, but when my teacher saw, she screamed at me and told me she was sick of my behavior and brought me up here. She didn't even give me a chance to tell her I was sorry and that I knew better and wasn't thinking.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Will kids frustrate us? Yes!  Will they lie, manipulate, get angry, and disappoint us? HECK YES!

So what can we do?  We only have on choice.  We have to be the adult in the situation.  We have to put our own emotions away and stop and talk to them.  Not every poor choice from a child HAS to have a consequence.  Many times you can talk to a child and see they understand their choice, and then move on with the day!

I mean, come on, look at who we the kids who have lunch detention and are walking laps at recess?  If it's the same kids, it clearly isn't working as a consequence.

Will having a conversation with a child fix the problem overnight? No. But it's our jobs as educators to grow every part of a child. And getting angry at them and sending them straight to the office before you have even had an opportunity to calmly talks to them, destroys your relationship with that child because they see you as the one who's not really in charge, the office is.

Let's take time this week to stop and talk to our students.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Destructive Reading & Writing #KidsDeserveIt

This post was co-written with Travis Crowder.
You can follow him on Twitter HERE or his own blog HERE.

We’ve all been there at one point or another….that moment where a child needs a consequence and as educators we jump straight to “write this sentence 100 times” or “sit there and read your book in silence for 30 minutes”.  It’s an easy consequence.  But both of us have come to understand and realize that it truly isn’t what’s best for the child.

You see, when you make reading or writing a form of punishment you create a sense of dislike for those subject matters.  You create students whose memories of writing are not some kind of joyus experience of self-expression but instead a dreaded experience of annoyance, frustration, and punishment.  You create readers who dislike reading because of the memories of being forced to read because they were in trouble.

From Todd:

As the principal of an elementary campus, we’ve done after school detention as a form of punishment for students.  The whole concept of “you wasted your class time with poor choices, so I’m going to waste your time after school”.  When we started this consequence, we always had them write sentences.  For whatever reason we had this notion that making a child write “I will make better choices” would actually influence them on a deeper level.  What were we thinking!?!?

After having some of my writing teachers come to me concerned that this consequence was building a dislike for writing in students, I took a step back to reflect.  And those teachers were so right.  We WERE building an atmosphere of “writing = punishment”.  As a teacher I even remember “making” students read when the class was behaving poorly.

I guess it’s like they say, the first step to moving forward is understanding.  After realizing what we were doing to our students I knew I had to figure something else out as a punishment.

That’s when we moved to digging to the heart of the issues.  Now our after school detention is a place of meditation and mediation.  We have kids stop, evaluate, and think through their choices.  We work with them on understanding their emotions and how to react in situations.  And you know what? Our discipline has decreased.  It never decreased with the sentence writing.

From Travis:

I have been passionate about reading and writing since childhood, and one of my goals, as an educator, is to build the same passion for those subjects in my students.  I want them to see reading as a lifestyle, writing as a means of expression, and watch them grow to love the artistry of both.  A rich reading and writing life will carry our students far in life, providing them with skills that will sustain them academically.  While I have them, I want the year to be full of rewarding experiences, both in their reading and writing lives.  There is an exquisite joy when a self-proclaimed non-reader falls in love with a book; when a student who has despised language arts writes a thoughtful poem related to a book he has read; and when hyperactive teenagers silence each other as they prepare for independent reading during class.  These are noteworthy, indelible moments, and I treasure them deeply.

Not long ago, I found myself engaged in a conversation with several co-workers, both planning a reward day for their classes.  One teacher had told her students that “if they were not eligible to participate in the reward, they would be going into another classroom and would have to read.”  Those words stung me.  If not participating in the reward, they would be reading, implying that reading was a punishment.  I mentioned to this teacher that a room devoted to reading would be a reward for many young people, and it was wrong to vilify books by representing them as activities for punishment.  The teacher chuckled and walked from the room.  

I structure my classes to give students time to write and read every day, experimenting with different genres and mentor texts that will guide them to be better readers and writers.  I always use positive language when I discuss the act of reading because I know that my attitude will affect my students’.  I never issue punishments for a refusal to read or when I notice that students are not reading outside of class.  When I note those behaviors, I know a conversation is necessary, and I target those students during independent reading time.  I want to know why they aren’t reading, if the book is not interesting to them, if they are confused by the events in the book, if the characters or situations do not reflect their interests, and so on.  I have never (*knocks on wood*) been unable to get a student invested in a book after such a conversation.  It takes some work, but it is well worth the time spent in discussion with the student.     

My classes are structured in a way to give students time to read, study, craft, and share.  I devote a specific 20-minute space of time each day to independent reading.  Students have a chance to read something of interest to them, most of them choosing something from my classroom library.  Afterward, we spend time sharing what we read, writing about something that resonated with us, or picking our favorite scenes and describing them.  In conferences, I ask students to think about books they have loved, knowing that the tone associated with the word love is one of warmth and comfort.  That’s what I want students to experience when they read books they adore.  This is book love.   

Unfortunately, we have heard the conversations many times from educators about the tendency to engage students in reading and writing as a punitive measure.  Some students have learned to loathe any kind of reading and writing because these beautiful activities have been reduced to worksheets and comprehension exercises.  When we use language that belittles the act of reading, we do a disservice to our kids.  We showcase, with our words, how little we value literature and written expression, and we do so to the detriment of the learning process.  No student will develop a love of books and writing if we represent them this way.     

As educators it is our responsibility to truly build a love of learning within our students.  To have them fall in love with books, dive deep into equations, explore scientific experiments, express themselves and their learning through writing, walk through history lessons, and so much more.  We want students to yearn for books, to establish reading habits that take them beyond the classroom.  Learning to love education stems from developing a love of reading, and as teachers, as educators, and as thinkers, we have a responsibility to engage our students with fascinating books, where we can see them fall in love with books.  

But that love of learning can never be built if we as educators take the easy way out and use any form of education as a punishment.  We’ll lose our students, one by one, if we destroy any love they could develop for these subjects.  What’s truly important is getting to the heart of the issue.  And you can only do that by truly connecting with others and learning who they really are.

8 Educators Worth Following on Twitter #KidsDeserveIt

Every so often I love to write a post sharing with you some people on social media who have been inspiring me.  I am connected with, and inspired by, so many!  So this is in NO WAY the complete list!  But these are a few that I've come to find in the last month or so who are doing some incredible work!  So connect with them, follow them, and let's learn together!

Eli is an Elementary administrator in New Mexico.  I love Eli's passion for education and his tireless work to do what's best for kids. Eli is great at pushing your thinking, encouraging others, and really looking at things with a unique perspective.  Eli is never one to let any excuses get in the way of doing what's best for kids. I have learned so much from Eli in the short time I've been connected with him and he pushes me to grow more every day!

Travis is a middle school teacher in North Carolina.  Travis is one of the most incredible writers I've ever met.  His posts always contain such depth, information, and passion.  He is an avid reader, but even more so he's an advocate for all children.  He is incredibly giving of his time to kids and other educators and is always up-lifting.  Travis has really pushed my thinking about independent reading, poetry, and student led projects.

Onica is an Elementary principal in Texas.  I absolutely love Onica's energy and passion.  She is always encouraging her staff and pushing herself to be better.  She is outgoing and incredibly focused.  I have loved following Onica (and stealing a few of her ideas along the way!)

Serjio is 4th grade Teacher in Texas.  I love Serjio's ideas that he pushes into the classroom with his students.  Serjio is great at sharing his learning (in person and online) and is really passionate on providing a high quality education to every student regardless of their backgrounds.

Jorge is a 3rd grade teacher in Texas.  I have been blown away by Jorge's creativity and ideas.  He works tirelessly to provide new and exciting ideas for his students. I am thankful there are leaders like Jorge who are sharing their ideas online so that I can keep passing them along to my teachers.  

Catherine is a teacher in Australia.  I have absolutely loved following Catherine's tweets and seeing the work she's doing.  Catherine is super encouraging and someone who is always working to do better for her students and school.  She's an avid learner and is active on social media and connecting with others.

Crystal is a Math Specialist in North Carolina.  I love the things that Crystal shares on social media and how she's always highlighting the work of others.  She is full of energy and incredibly passionate.  She shares great ideas and always has me wanting to be and do better!

Robert is a Superintendent in Florida.  I love Robert's passion for showing of his students and schools.  He is super positive and encouraging and one who is a great resource of tons of ideas shared through his twitter!

So there ya go! Just a few more people to check out on social media that you may or may not have already been connected with!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Look Down #KidsDeserveIt

This week has been a week of deep reflection for me.  Every one of us goes through periods where we doubt our gifts, where we wonder if the place we find ourselves in is the place we're best suited.  And for whatever reason I've always felt that February is by far the most difficult month of the school year.  It's that period where we're over the Christmas Break honeymoon, spring break looms around the corner but so does testing, and the kids (and adults) can sometimes act like it's their first time ever in a school setting.

It wears on us, it tears us apart.  I know I am so blessed to work at a campus with 81 staff members.  I work hard to connect with each of them, to spend time in each of their spaces.  I know I could do it better, we always could.  I know I am blessed to work at a campus with over 750 students.  I work hard to get to know each of them, to spend some face to face time connecting with each of them.  I know I could do better, I always can.

I was informed in late December and early January, by several staff, that this year they felt under appreciated.  They felt like I could be doing a better job to bring us all together.  That I could do much better at providing feedback.  That I could be more encouraging.  That I could find more ways to recognize more staff.  And you know what? They were right.  And that kind of feedback keeps me growing.  It led to me (and the rest of the admin team) sending emails every time we do a 10-15 min walkthrough to give more consistent feedback.  It led to the creation of a weekly workout, weekly bible study, and a monthly staff get together.  And it's helped me adjust other ideas I've had too.

When I took a position as a principal, I had high hopes.  I wanted to be the best there ever was.  And though I am not anywhere near where I want to be, I still work at it.  I look at Webb and the growth we've seen over the last two years.  The decrease in ISS/OSS placements, the increase in males being involved on campus, the increase in love for reading, the staff retention, and more.  I'm so proud of our work.  Of the work everyone has done, because this is by NO means a reflection of me or my leadership.  Everything this campus accomplishes is because of the hard work they all put in.

The one thing I never expected when taking a principal position was the constant barrage of anger, disappointment, and frustration.  I want to be very careful how I express this because I LOVE my job and am not complaining by any means.  One thing I never knew as a teacher, that I now know as a principal, is that every day no matter how scheduled and organized I am, is filled with unexpectedness.  On a daily basis I have several parents who tell me how I am the worst leader, I have staff who come in to tell me what I need to fix and how I should be doing things better, I have upper administration who reprimand me for making a decision I felt was best for kids, I have students who are hurt and lashing out, I have the state asking me to do more or making sure we're on the right track, and more.

I look at the work left to do before me and at times it feels overwhelming.  It feels too much. I feel I'm not qualified enough, that someone could do it better.  That someone else should be doing my job.

It's one of the reasons I really don't like winning awards or being recognized for things.  I know I am not "the best".  I know I have a lot of work to do to even be half of what I want to be.

I am always looking at growth.  I push all of my team to keep growing and trying.  I see the hard work they're putting in and I'm blown away every day that I get to even share the same building space as them.  They are the game changers, they are the rockstars, and I am the one who is here just to clear the path for them and carry some of their load so they can shine brighter.

I don't share this story as a "woe is me" moment.  I share this to let you know that every one of us deals with doubt.  I love my school so much and want to create the best environment for these kids because they deserve it.  They have enough going wrong in many of their lives that they deserve to come into a building filled with love and the best education ever.

So when it seems too much, when you wonder if you were meant for this, take a moment to look down. Look down into the eyes of the children we serve every day. And remember, you may be the only adult in their life who shows up every day for them.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Read Me A Story #KidsDeserveIt

If you take just a minute to turn on the television or pull up a news article, you are bombarded with news and information.  Much of which has become a stream of gasp-inducing executive orders, mean-spirited Tweets/Facebook posts, or worse.
One of my favorite things about being a principal is the opportunity to go into classrooms and read stories.  There is nothing better than walking into a classroom and having a kindergarten student tug on my pants leg and ask me, "Mr Nesloney will you read me a story?".  

And I've read stories to classrooms since my first year as a Principal.  A few months ago, I wrote an article for Scholastic's Reader Leader Blog called "She Looked Like Me".  That post came from a new season of my life I had entered.  A season where now I feel so much more educated about providing opportunities for children to read and have stories read to them that include characters and storylines that are personal to them.  No longer do I ignorantly read stories that include predominantly white and/or male characters.

I know stories teach empathy, understanding, and acceptance. Stories can teach you how to deal with your emotions, handle difficult circumstances, and remind you that you're not alone.  And as a Principal I know the importance it is to introduce children to those stories.  And I'm not just talking elementary aged children either.  High School students are EQUALLY as important!

The month of January I read to every PreK-5th Grade classroom and my Life Skills classes.  But I didn't just choose a story randomly off my shelf.  A month or so ago I was able to visit an incredible bookstore in Minnesota.  Instead of having all the picture books organized on one large shelf, it had shelves that were sorted by what country the author or story was from.  And the books were fantastically eye opening.  The distinct artistic and storyline differences.  The concepts, cultures, characters were vibrant and reflective of people from all over the world.

So I chose a variety of stories. I chose books from all over the world and spent way too much money. But I knew it'd be worth it.

This month I read "Seven Blind Mice" written and illustrated by Ed Young to all of my PreK and Life Skills classes.  A simple story of what seven blind mice THINK they are encountering at their pond.  Ed Young is a Chinese born illustrator and author and his story is filled with beautiful pictures and brief, but powerful story about understanding the whole picture before you make an assumption.

Then I read "My Name is Yoon" written by Helen Recorvits and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska to my Kinder-5th grade classes. Gabi is a Polish born artist and Helen's parents were immigrants.  "My Name is Yoon" is a WONDERFUL story of a little Korean girl just moving to America and trying to find her place in an English filled world where she feels alone and can't stand the English version of her name.

I read the stories to the children.  We talked about what they meant, the characters, the lessons.  Did it change their lives? Maybe not.  But what it did do was introduce them to characters that didn't look exactly like them, that didn't sound like them, or necessarily think like them.

Building empathy in children is about letting them see we all go through different things and handle things differently, but in the end we are so very much alike.

We live in a world where people feel more bold than ever before to scream out "illegal", or "learn english!" or "go back where you came from".  A world where 6 year olds stop me in the hall and ask if mommy will be here today to pick her up or if she is going to be deported before she gets home.  A world where a 4th grader stands up and says "I am more than the gangs and drugs you see on my streets".  A world where a 3rd grade girl asks me "Girls can do that too, right?".

As educators we can't waste a moment.  We must use books to teach stories and introduce children to a vast variety of characters and experiences.  Our future depends on it.

Go through your classroom books, seek to diversify and add new stories, and when that child looks up at you and says "will you read me a story?", find a story that will only add to their experiences.  It's easier than you think, but it will take an effort on all of us.

**What are some of your favorite stories to use in class? Share in the comments below!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

We All Need Growth #KidsDeserveIt

Something we talk about quite often is growing.  Growing as professionals and personally as well.  Not one of us has reached that pinnacle of knowing everything.  Though sometimes we all like to act (yes, even me) like we do!

As campus leaders part of our job is to work with teachers to help them grow.  We send them to (and bring in) PD, we do walk throughs of their class, sit with some of them one on one, and use the T-TESS process to help us along the way.

We're always pushing you to help teachers grow.  Sometimes it's uncomfortable, sometimes it's fun, and sometimes it's hard and makes them want to cry or walk away. But one of my favorite lines to think about is, "How dare we ask our students to come to school every day and learn, if we're not willing to keep learning ourselves".

But one thing I never want to do, is I never want to ask my team to do something I wouldn't do myself.  That's why I'm passionate about reading to classes, doing morning/lunch/afternoon duty, helping plan lessons, team teaching, modeling lessons, sitting in PLCs, working with our PSP coach, and more.

I know for me that I have a lot of growing to do as well.  I make it a point to do a self inventory every week to remind myself of things I'm working on, ways I'm growing or trying to, and things I need to do to continue my growth.

One of the most dangerous phrases in education is "we've always done it that way".  But I'd like to say another phrase that's dangerous is "what I'm doing is working better than others, why do I need to grow?"

One way that I've tried to share this with my team is through our Swivl Recordings.  We have a Swivl robot and it's amazing. The teacher wears a marker/microphone around their neck and the robot turns and follows the teacher as they move around the room and speak.

Since we finished all our teacher evaluations before Christmas, during January we wanted to continue growing. So we're recording every teacher for 30 minutes in January and the teacher then will watch their recording and submit a written reflection over what they see and how they're addressing the two areas of refinement we identified in December.

Yes, recording yourself, much less watching it, is scary.  I hate hearing my voice, seeing the way I move, etc.  But I know when I did it as a teacher, there were GREAT things I learned.  But since we asked our teachers to do it, my admin team felt we needed to do the same.  So over the last two weeks myself, as well as my admin team, went into classrooms and taught a lesson and recorded ourselves.

Then during our staff meeting this week, the teachers will get to choose which admin lesson they want to watch, and THEY will rate US using our T-TESS (State of Texas) evaluation system.  Then myself, and my admin team, will spend the spring semester working on our areas of refinement based on how the teachers rated us.

Was/Am I terrified to do this? Of course!!  But as campus leaders we must also be growing, learning, and modeling. Plus I view myself as an INSTRUCTIONAL leader.  How can I call myself that if I'm not actively teaching, growing, and bettering THAT craft??

Growth is something we're all doing, or should be doing.  So let's remember to keep pushing, keep trying, and keep growing this week.  It's when we go through something and DON'T use it as a lesson to learn that things become dangerous for us as professionals.

But, when we talk about growth, one thing I think we also have to think about is our growth in learning and understanding different cultures, backgrounds, stereotypes, and more.  I saw the video below earlier this week and couldn't stop the tears from flowing.  How many lies do we believe, not only about our kiddos, but about people in general.  Let's take the time to learn about and truly work to understand and respect everyone.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Self Negativity #KidsDeserveIt

I know that each of us has worked on a team or campus where people complain.  Where people are negative.  They don't like a certain person and talk about it all the time.  They don't like a decision that was made and complain to you about it for hours (or sometimes days).  The parents are annoying. The kids are annoying. The curriculum, the school board, the central office, the principal, the cafeteria workers, and so on.  If we look for just a few minutes it is very easy to find something to be negative about.

But often, what I think is even more dangerous is when we begin to talk negatively about ourselves.

I have a few educator friends that I talk to on a regular basis.  One of those friends, every time I will compliment him or say something was impressive, he will shoot me down. Tell me it's not that big of a deal, that everyone does it.  Or that others do much greater/cooler things than him. 

I have another friend who every time I compliment or encourage him, he ignores it and flips it on me and how I do something well.  And I am constantly trying to get him to accept the compliment.  To feel worthy.

And I have one more who with every compliment, he says "yes, but I have lots of growing to do" or "well I'm not as great as __________".

I get so frustrated when trying to build them up because it seems like they don't even believe in their own greatness.

And then I find myself doing the exact same thing when I am complimented or encouraged. I deflect the compliment. I say I'm not as good as someone else.  I claim you just "caught me on a good day".

Why is it so hard, for us as educators, to take a compliment?  Why do we have to be so hard on ourselves and negative about what we are doing right.  We're all in this profession because there is something great that we do.  And though it's hard to remember that, we must.

I will always remember what Angela Maiers told me... she said "Why aren't you sharing your genius with others? When you sit there and don't ever share your great ideas or what you do in your class/school, you're doing a disservice to others in our field, because then no one gets to learn from you and you bring great things to the table"

I see every team member on our campus do something incredible on a daily basis.  It's why I'm always pushing them to share out their class activities on Social Media, I want the rest of the world to see!!

So this week my challenge to you is, try and make it a point to accept any compliments that come your way and take some time to share your brilliant ideas with others.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

It's Time to Speak Up #KidsDeserveIt


On Friday, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) released information on a new Texas Rating system.  It's a very simplified rating system that gives every school and district in Texas ratings on a A-F scale.  Even though this system will not officially go into effect until August of 2018 (yes, 2018), the state released preliminary ratings to the public at large on Friday.

If you've been following the news at all lately you've seen the outcry for educators and districts alike at the disdain for this new system.  For the first time in all my years in education, I see districts rising up with one voice to stand against this injustice.

What's the injustice you might ask?

In my opinion, the injustice is the misunderstanding of education.  

There has been much research released lately that discusses the simple fact that schools that have higher minority and poverty stricken families, score lower than their counterparts.  That if you remove the standardized testing from the equation completely, you would be able to figure out school ratings based on minority groups and socioeconomic status alone.

And that's the problem. The people who are making decisions concerning our schools and our students have often never stepped foot into a public education classroom since they themselves were students.

So how does this happen?  It's partly because of us.  Of educators.  We haven't stood up or spoke up.  We haven't stood TOGETHER to speak out against injustice.  Not enough of us have called legislatures, written letters, marched to Austin, wrote about it, or spoke about it.  We complain at our schools. We say they just don't get it. But I'm tired of doing just that.  I'm ready.  I'm going to use my voice this year and I'm going to speak up.

But why is it important to speak up now?

Because our schools are so much more than a A-F rating.  Out of 4 domains, my campus (Webb Elementary) received three "F" ratings and a "C" ratings.  How does that make a parent or community member feel? How does that make our kids feel?

I know for me, even though I know the great work we do, the "F" ratings hurt, and cut deep.  I know they're not reflective of the work we ARE doing at our school, but still I know the scores are out there in the public conversation.

What does this rating system not take into account?

It doesn't measure the progress we've made in connecting with families.  It doesn't measure that we had over 350 families come to our Hot Dog Cookout at a local apartment complex every semester.

It doesn't measure that we had over 580 MEN come to or our Dinner with a Gentleman with their child.  

It doesn't show how excited our students are to come to school.  

It doesn't measure those children we have connected with and helped find success in an area for the first time in their life.  

It doesn't measure the fact that our nurse has spent over $500 of her own money this year to buy students deodorant, toothpaste, or even clothes because they couldn't afford it themselves and were too embarrassed to ask for it. 

It doesn't show the excitement our students have for our new "house system" (from the Ron Clark Academy) that has brought everyone together, taught about teamwork, and is helping kids learn character traits and grow into better citizens.

It doesn't measure the child who spent the entire day in her kindergarten classroom for the first time this year, because she's been working with her teacher on self-control and finally went a day without hitting another child.

It doesn't measure the little boy who's crying in the office, because he doesn't want to go home this weekend and is begging to stay with one of us.  As we consol him and teach him how to live through difficult things.

It doesn't measure that many of our teachers spend HOURS a week attending Little League football, baseball, soccer, and T-Ball games.  Or the dance recitals.  Or the kickboxing competitions. Or the cheer and gymnastics events.

It doesn't measure that we've decreased our ISS and OSS rates by over 90% in less than a year because we've been teaching students how to manage their emotions and react in different situations with respect.

It doesn't measure that we've built a love of reading in our students where teachers are advertising what they're reading, students are sharing book recommendations on campus, checking out library books at unprecdented rates, and reading in during dismissal and arrival (because they WANT to).

It doesn't measure that our Counselor worked with many different families this Christmas season to surprise them with groceries or Christmas gifts so that way they could actually celebrate the season with a little less stress.,

It doesn't measure the countless CPS calls, parent counseling, drug and alcohol lessons/counseling, or sexual abuse that we help kids and families work through.

It doesn't celebrate our innovate teachers who are trying flexible seating, classroom transformations, cross grade-level collaborations, lessons with Olympic Athletes, Skype with classes from across the world, and so much more.

No, what the system judges us on is one test.  One day for some kids.

Does it take into consideration that maybe that morning two of our students were dealing with their father being shot the night before in a fight over drugs and they are having trouble focusing? No.

Does it take into consideration that despite the work we've done to teach them otherwise, a group of 3rd graders are overwhelmed by the pressure put on them by the state to preform for their underperforming school? No.

Does it take into consideration the immense stress our teachers feel to get out of "Improvement Required" or "F" ratings, even though deep down we know we are more than that and we ARE providing a good education? No.

What this system does is create environments that are demeaning to teachers and families. Teachers who are fearful of their jobs because they are doing everything they can to improve scores, but fighting the poverty and emotional battle is just as important.   

The system adds extra pressure on school boards and Superintendent to "fix" schools.

How do I convince my teachers that they are working their butts of and doing a great job of filling in gaps and raising up children, when the state just told them their school is failing?

How do I convince my parents that the school their sending their children too is a school that is truly changing lives AND educating their children at higher ways than we have every done before, when the state just told them their school is failing?

How do I convince my students that they are NOT the cause of our low test scores.  That they are not failures.  That instead they are inquisitive, bright, energetic, world-changing kids who despite their home challenges still come to school every day ready to learn, even though the state just told them their school is failing?

It's a battle.  A battle every day to not define the work our school is doing because of a standardized exam.  An exam that doesn't truly measure the work we do. 

But fight on I will.  And fight on WE must.

We have to speak up and share the greatness that goes on in behind our school walls, even when the state says we're a failure.

We have to rise up and show up every day to give our kids and parents the best education they could ever dream or hope for.

When you work in an environment that is overcome by poverty, you realize what these ratings do to a community.

And I will not be silent.  I will not complain behind school walls or in small groups of educators.

What I will do is I will shout from the rooftops and in every forum I can find, about the INCREDIBLE work my team does on a daily basis.
What I will do is write my state legislatures.  I will call them.  I will march to Austin if I have to.
What I will do remind my students that they are wonderful.  That they are more than ANY test score will ever tell them they are.
What I will do is tell my team, as often as I can, the wonderful work they do and that the countless hours they put in are not wasted.
What I will do is continually share with our parents how hard their children, and the staff at our school, are working, in a broken system, to give their children the best education possible.

My question is though, will you join me?

Fear #KidsDeserveIt

Fear. When you think about that word I think we all have something different we think of.  Some have a fear of snakes or spiders.  Others may fear the thought of losing someone or dying alone. And in the education system we have fears too.

The fear of failure is one. We work in a system where someone is always judging us. They watch our classroom management, our understanding of the standards, our interactions with our students, our interactions with our peers, our curriculum planning and more.  We all handle fear in different ways too.

Some of us do what is minimally expected without getting in trouble so that we can coast by and make things easier on ourselves and limit the possibility of failure.  Some of our are so controlled by our fear that it can stop us in our tracks and make us perform worse than we could have imagined.  Some of us are good at facing our fears and we tackle each one as they come.

The thing to realize is that all of us has fears in our professional careers.  But what we can't ever do is let that fear control us and the decisions we make.

We have to not only find ways within ourselves to face our fears BUT we also have to continually lean on those around us to help us face our fears.

I think about the things I've faced, and am still facing in my career.  There have been countless times where I convinced myself that I could fix it on my own.  That I could face it on my own.  And every time I come back to the realization that we weren't meant to do this alone.

And yes it's scary asking someone for help or even allowing them to see that I'm not strong enough to do it on my own.  But time and time again, when I allow those walls of insecurity to come down, I find that there's someone on the other side who connects with my fear, or understands it, or is willing to help me through it because they care.

Fear can control us if we let it.  But what we have to remember is that we're all growing.  We're all facing struggles and battles and our own insecurities.  Some of us are really good at sharing those, while others aren't.  But when fear begins to creep into our lives. When it begins to cause us to stumble or lose our breath, or doubt our gifts and abilities, that is just the moment where we find our people and lean on them to remind us.

And if you're struggling finding your people, reach out to those online.  We're all in this together and if you can't find someone who can help you, maybe we can.  Or maybe we can help you find that person.  The only true weakness is when we don't seek out the compassion and help of others.

My friend, Brad Montague (who also just happened to create Kid President) filmed this beautiful story about facing his own fear. I love it so much and share it everywhere. Could be great to share with your students too.  The world is a scary place. Share anyway.