Commentary - UVEI - Upper Valley Educators Institute

  • Interviewing

    Last weekend, UVEI held mock interviews.  I was one of three volunteers to go in front of the panel and receive feedback.  Here are some general tips from the panel arising out of all three mock interview sessions about what to do during an interview:

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  • Keys to Classroom Management

    New and seasoned teachers think a lot about classroom management. In order for students to be able to engage deeply with the curriculum, the classroom environment must be orderly; the atmosphere must feel business-like and productive, without being authoritarian. In a productive classroom, standards of conduct are clear to students; they know what they are permitted to do and what they can expect of their classmates. Even when their behavior is being corrected, students feel respected; their dignity is not undermined. Skilled teachers regard positive student behavior not as an end in itself, but as a prerequisite to high levels of engagement in content.

    The first step towards creating a classroom environment as described above, is to develop meaningful relationships with students. While this may seem obvious, teachers can forget the importance and power of good relationships when faced with challenging behavior.

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  • Learning by Doing

    When we ask participants why they choose UVEI, the top answer, consistently, is that they are attracted to “learning by doing.” Experiential learning has been at the heart of UVEI programs since our founding in 1969, and full immersion in practice, working together with colleagues and coaches, remains the core of our approach. As Laurie Greenberg, Assistant Principal at Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School in Vermont and a graduate of the Principal Intern Program, put it, “You are expected to do the real work...” In other words, this is not a drill.

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  • Meagan Leddy and Ted Pogacar

    Learning From My Intern: A Mentor's Story

    When Meagan Leddy arrived at Oxbow High School in August, I was beginning my twenty-sixth year teaching English and had agreed to be her mentor teacher.  To appreciate this story, you’ve got to picture Meagan.  She is a diminutive Dartmouth grad with a sweet voice and a smiling face.   Her glasses are bigger than her head. She dresses unlike any millennial I had ever encountered.  Let's call her style "throwback schoolmarm cool." 

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  • Meagan Leddy and Ted Pogacar

    Learning From My Intern: A Mentor's Story Revisited

    When Meagan Leddy arrived at Oxbow High School in August, I was beginning my twenty-sixth year teaching English and had agreed to be her mentor teacher.  To appreciate this story, you’ve got to picture Meagan.  She is a diminutive Dartmouth grad with a sweet voice and a smiling face.   Her glasses are bigger than her head. She dresses unlike any millennial I had ever encountered.  Let's call her style "throwback schoolmarm cool." 

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  • Learning from the Finland Experience: Part I

    When I served as a high school principal, I was frequently asked by faculty members why standardized testing was necessary for our students when students in Finland did not participate in the same kind and frequency of testing and ranked among the highest in international standings. The question seems simple on the surface, but is actually quite complex.

    To build a context for thinking about the question of standardized testing differences in Finland and in the United States, I began with a review the evolution of Finland’s current educational system. It is clear that Finland’s educational journey has been a complicated process characterized by deliberate practice that continues today:  development of a problem of practice, research review, implementation of an intervention, review of the data, reflection, and adjust intervention(s). Repeat, repeat and repeat again for decades.

    Here is a brief historical view timeline of Finland’s process toward continuous improvement through educational reform:

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  • Lessons from the Co-Teaching Trenches

    This year, I have the pleasure to work closely with a dedicated group of teachers from the Fall Mountain Regional High School (FMRHS) as they begin their journey as co-teachers in their classrooms. General Education teachers co-teach with Special Education teachers in groups where identified and general education students learn together to meet the Common Core State Standards for in the subject area.

    It has been an amazing year that has been filled with challenges and successes for both students and teachers. Because I am in FMRHS coaching teachers at least twice a month, I have a bird’s eye view of the process of forming co-teaching teams. I’ve learned a number of lessons from this journey.

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  • Math Is Fun. No Kidding!

    Like many elementary educators, I entered teaching with little preparation or experience teaching math. My focus in grad school was on literacy education and that has remained my comfort zone ever since. This fall I wanted to tackle my area of weakness and joined Chris Ward in attending two math-focused workshops led by mathematics consultant This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., one of the developers of the Primary Number and Operation Assessment (PNOA). Loree’s work explores the parallels between how children construct an understanding of language and how they construct number sense. I spoke with Loree about her experiences with math and what advice she has for elementary teachers as they approach math in their classrooms.

    Becky Wipfler (BW): What drew you to math?

    Loree Silvas (LS): As an elementary school teacher, my initial focus was on literacy. I then became an informal math specialist and started helping with assessments. A few years ago, I received a four-year grant from UVM, which gave the gift of time to research with other math educators in the state.

    BW:  In your workshops you stress the importance of dedicating the same time and energy to math that has historically been dedicated to literacy. Why do you think there is often more of a focus on literacy than on math?

    LS:  Teachers of young children often get into teaching because they want to teach literacy. They tend to be math-phobic, uncomfortable with the subject themselves. They have math anxiety and tend to stick to methods and areas in which they are comfortable.

    BW: What is an important shift in teaching math that teachers should make?

    LS: Instead of teaching kids how to just get the answer, we need to allow the time for them to understand the concept. Kids need time to grapple with problems and problem solving.There needs to be systemic change and that takes time.

    BW:  What does an ideal elementary math classroom look like?

    LS:  Full of open-ended questions and exploration with lots of communication, filled with math conversations about multiple strategies. Kids should be encouraged to take ownership of their math learning.  We should use the techniques we use to teach literacy, such as the workshop model. Students could have math boxes, just like we do with book bins, to practice automaticity or fluency. There should be problem solving of bigger tasks, as well as math games. The teacher can work with small groups, as we do with guided reading. Parallel what we do in literacy. Kids need the encouragement to think of math as investigation, inquiry-based, like we do with science. As students explore or investigate big ideas, they prove what they know.

    BW:  What are your final words of wisdom to elementary math teachers?

    LS:  Talk less and listen more. Let students do the thinking. Learn from your students.

    Commentary by Becky Wipfler

    Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of our Program Faculty.  

    Other commentaries by Becky, can be found at:
    http://uvei.edu/blog/322-school-district-partnerships-reinvigorate-teaching-practices
    http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters
    http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach
    http://uvei.edu/blog/328-differentiation-how-and-why-it-works
    http://uvei.edu/blog/339-partnering-for-school-change

    You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIwipfler

     

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  • Most Likely to Succeed

    In November, I finally found the opportunity and time to view the acclaimed educational film Most Likely to Succeed.I was surrounded by education majors and a few education professors in a darkened amphitheater at a fairly traditional university -- although presently in the process of positive disruption -- that is searching for the answers on how students succeed. Discussion after the film was facilitated by then- Commissioner of Education, Dr. Virginia Barry.

    Watching the film brought to mind a quip a former colleague of mine made her personal mantra: “Education is endlessly fascinating.” This film certainly did not disappoint in the area of fascinating, but for me, I did not find the silver bullet to education in the 21st century. Instead, I found a source of additional questions to add to my ever-expanding list of questions I have about just what kind of educational experience is best for all students to be successful. What I walked away with is a reminder that education is complex and never as simple as presented by anyone in any medium.

    Greg Whitely, the producer of the film, creates a catalyst for the discussion, beginning with his educationally disenfranchised daughter’s experience during her fourth grade year. I believe Mr. Whitely’s thesis is that if educators would just facilitate the personalization of learning, students would increase their capacity for creativity and innovation, thus increasing engagement in learning. He makes no claims in the film about student outcomes. The film’s clear message is that public schools are not teaching what students need to know to be successful in the 21st century.

    The executive producer, Ted Dintersmith, eludes to a simple solution:  If content is readily available, then developing “critical skills” is the answer to the needs of the 21st century student and employee; specifically, collaboration, creativity, problem solving, analysis and communication. The film is also clear in its view that this is not the solution for all children and that parents, even those who choose to send their children to the film’s focus school, High Tech High in California, still question the limited focus on content over the significant focus on problem-based learning and critical skills. They are also concerned whether their children will do well on traditional measures (think SATs) in order to get into the college of their choice.

    I wonder if emphasizing Dintersmith’s critical skills over content will prepare our students for the future they face. By creating such a singular focus on his identified critical skills, perhaps another skill goes missing:  What knowledge, not information, does the student bring to the group that he or she is collaborating in?

    The parents’ perceptions on the lack of content appear to be based in deep levels of learning in one content area versus shallow levels of learning in many areas of content. Dithersmith would argue that having a degree or multiple degrees, does not necessarily mean competence and a pathway to success. It means they may have content knowledge only without the ability to analyze, synthesize and apply that knowledge. If statistics were the only measure of success, High Tech High students perform 10% above the state average and 98% of students get into college.

    The question I wonder about is how do we create an environment of innovation for our students? Tony Wagner (2015), an educational researcher and author of the book the film was based on, argues that “if we are to remain globally competitive in today’s world, we need to produce more than just a few entrepreneurs and innovators. We need to develop the creative and enterprising capacities of all our students” (p. 4). Dithersmith recognizes that there is not one approach for every student. Real education is messy and any attempt to standardize it through federal and state regulations will lead to a compliance-based mindset. Humans are complicated and making change in education is also complicated. A High Tech High teacher explains the process as one where “we need to grow, evolve, and change as a school and as people. The industrial model is about standardization. Education is much more like gardening than engineering. If you create the right conditions the thing grows itself.”

    It appears that if we continue on our present path of first order change by essentially keeping our schools the same, but making small tweaks in an attempt to improve student outcomes, our students will struggle to become the learners, innovators and leaders we need today and in the future. If we attempt to create second order change in education, it will be a complicated process. As Hyland and Wong (2013) make clear in their analysis of change, “It is futile…to change just one aspect of a national policy, institutional plan, classroom approach or beliefs of one group. Stakeholders need to ‘learn change’ together” (p. 3).

    In facilitating the conversation at the end of the film, Dr. Barry responded to a question about the barriers to innovation in schools with the following statement:  “We are removing policies that create barriers. Schools that are focused on performance and interdisciplinary systems are going to far exceed what and how we are assessing today. The survival of an institution will be based on its ability to show proof points that their graduates are able to succeed in the real world.”  She closed with the comment:  “We must change the conditions of learning.”  Well said, Dr. Barry, but we cannot mandate those conditions, nor can we mandate change. We have tried for decades with limited success.

    For me, one of the most thoughtful questions that came up in the film is what do we want to be held accountable to --  test scores or high quality work? If Dintersmith’s goal is to create a conversation, he certainly has most likely succeeded. Continuing the conversation, whether you agree with Dintersmith’s thesis or not, is our only hope to foster continuous improvement in education.

    Cited sources

    Hyland, K., & Wong, L. L. (2013). Innovation and change in English language education. Routledge.

    Wagner, T., & Compton, R. A. (2015). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. Simon and Schuster.

    Commentary by Nan Parsons

    Nan Parsons is UVEI's Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of the Program Faculty.  Nan's other commentaries can be fuond on the UVEI.edu website at:
    http://uvei.edu/blog/319-get-smart
    http://uvei.edu/blog/325-more-than-dollars-and-cents
    http://uvei.edu/blog/335-from-both-sides-of-the-table

     

     

     

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  • New Year's Resolutions: Plan With the End in Mind

    New Years is typically a time when people reflect on their lifestyle choices of the past year, and turn towards thoughts of reform. “I need to lose weight!” “I want to donate more money to charity this year,” or “It’s time to read those books I’ve told people I’ve read but really haven’t.” I’m just kidding about that last one. Really. I totally read The Fountainhead.

    For me, New Year’s marks the time I begin to review the literature on Understanding by Design (UbD), also known as backwards planning-- a way for teachers to think about unit design. We just wrapped up UbD week last Friday.  

    This year, however, I began to think about the possible connections between resolutions and backwards planning.

    UbD can be confusing and a little heavy on jargon (Essential Questions, Enduring Understandings), but the heart of backwards planning is really common sense: Plan with the end in mind. What can students do or know if they really understand? How will you, the teacher, really know that students “get it?”

    I think these questions might easily apply to New Year’s resolutions, and the tenants of UbD might help to achieve those nebulous resolutions.

    Let’s walk through an example. And let’s take one of the most popular (and most commonly broken) NYE resolutions: Lose weight and get fit.

    Understanding by Design dictates that we first envision the end result. In our example, to weigh less and be in better shape/health. Next, we might decide on the Essential Question and Enduring Understandings of the resolution. Essential questions are provocative, open-ended, and can be applied across lots of different topics.  

    For this example, here’s a proposed Essential Question: How do we feel good in the skin we’re in?

    This question in an Essential Question because it could be answered in different ways. People might feel good in the skin they’re in by spending more time with family. Or by mastering that craft they’ve only dabbled in for years. Or by learning to love their body just the way it is.

    But for some, the answer is to lose weight and get fit.

    UbD also asks that we think about the necessary skills and knowledge one would need to be able to demonstrate true understanding.

    This might be crucial to actually keeping that resolution. Do I need to learn more about meal planning and nutrition? Do I need to have a trainer help with with an exercise routine? Do I need to learn how to cook vegetables? Simply resolving to eat less or exercise more isn’t specific enough and may leave critical knowledge and skills off the table.

    Understanding by Design is a framework for increasing student achievement, but it might also increase resolution achievement. Here’s a basic template. Try plugging in a resolution. Let me know how it goes!

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen is UVEI's Asssociate Director for Teacher Education.  You can follow her on Twitter @UVEIconnect.

     

     

     

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  • Observing a Balanced Literacy Program in Action

    On March 22, in lieu of our usual Tuesday seminar, seven interns with an endorsement in elementary education participated in a professional development day at Woodstock Elementary School (WES). The purpose of the visit was to observe, critique and understand the many components of a balanced literacy program. Aimee Toth, UVEI’s Associate Director of Elementary Education, was our guide.

    Aimee, who has also been leading professional education workshops for WES teachers, began with an overview of what we should expect from the day’s experience, and we reviewed the 5Ws (who?, what?, where?, when?, why?) that pertain to a balanced literacy program.  From there, our day of observation began. We watched a third grade literacy circle, guided reading in kindergarten, a small group book walk back in kindergarten, and a second grade read aloud and book shopping (students go to book buckets or book shelves and select five books (at their appropriate reading level) to read the following week.  We also watched expert teachers take running records to assess the reading levels of their students. It was especially nice to visit the classroom of a UVEI alumnus who is now teaching at WES

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  • Partnering for School Change

    How do we strive to lead schools in a good direction, from whatever starting point?  That is the central question of school change, and it’s a complicated one!  

     

    School change is cultural change.  It is challenging work; work, which includes the following elements (Tompkins, 2014):

    • Compelling, shared, positive vision

    • Supportive and distributed leadership

    • Goals focused on teaching and learning

    • Involvement of learners (teachers)

    • Cultivating professional community

    • Formal and informal training

    • Practice, coaching, and feedback

    • Models and exemplars

    • Aligned incentives

    • Sustained over time

    • Evaluation

    Although there is no one right way to go about fostering school change, district partnerships can be a vehicle for this work.

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  • PD at UVEI

    As a classroom teacher and instructional leader, I LOVED professional development workshops. Generally, this meant a trip somewhere for a day or more, soaking up the latest trend in education with a room full of like-minded educators. The energy in the room was palpable. I would leave those workshops full of energy and ideas. However, as we all dispersed to go back to our classrooms, much of the intention of applying what I had just learned slowly fizzled away.

    What was missing? Why is traditional professional development unsuccessful in making the jump from theory to application? At UVEI, we’ve thought a lot about that question and that’s why professional development at UVEI is different from traditional workshops. At UVEI, there is no one-day delivery of content. PD at UVEI takes the form of collaborative inquiry put into practice. You might be wondering, What does this mean?

    UVEI works with cohorts of educators over time to learn through experience supported by collaboration, practice in the field with coaching, and examinations of evidence from practice, all leading to more effective action. This work includes several integrated components:

    Collaborative Inquiry:  UVEI facilitates groups of educators gathered in professional community. Our coaches seek to support educator inquiry through reflective dialogue, analyzing student work, peer coaching, self-assessment, analyzing examples and models, and providing access to expertise. The intention of this approach is to support teachers’ growth in target areas consistent with their goals and building on their expertise.  The collaborative inquiry delves into a particular problem of practice related to teaching or leadership. Participants examine relevant standards and/or frameworks, collectively delve into literature on a problem of practice, and engage in inquiry -- based on the “action researcher’s mindset”-- and a clearly developed theory of action: identifying problems of practice, developing responses, and evaluating the results. Fieldwork  includes designing, teaching, analyzing, and peer reviewing of instructional plans, instruction, and/or student work.

    Peer and Instructional Coaching: Practice and feedback are the heart of learning and honing advanced skills and expertise. It is impossible to learn a complex skill in one setting (a workshop, for example), and then to implement the skill effectively in a different setting (the classroom). This is the reason that elite performers in virtually every field receive coaching. UVEI coaching includes, based on each teacher's needs and goals: observation and conferencing, modeling, collaborative planning, analyzing student work, and self-assessment.

    Through the Upper Valley Graduate School of Education (UVGSE), we offer a suite of inquiry course topics such as:

    Teaching:
    Lesson Study
    Analysis of Student Work
    Teaching for Understanding (Understanding by Design)
    Project-Based Learning

      Leadership:
      Instructional Coaching and Mentoring
      Data-Based Curricular Leadership
      Teacher Facilitation
      Inquiry into School Change

    Through UVGSE, inquiries are offered in many ways:  
    - individuals may participate through open enrollment with the Masters cohort
    - professional learning opportunities can be customized for a school’s needs and are offered on-site with a
       school partnership agreement
    - personalized plans can be developed on an individual needs-basis

    Examples of school-based opportunities include any of the above topics, as well as differentiated instruction, co-teaching, standards-based assessment, subject-specific pedagogy, writing across disciplines, workshop model, authentic assessment of competency-based instruction, and more!

    What participants in professional development opportunities have to say about UVEI’s approach:

    A passion for authentic student inquiry permeates every aspect of UVEI. What sets UVEI's inquiries apart from other professional development is the Institute's commitment to modeling best practices. All too often, PD involves listening, reading, and talking about what should happen in the classroom. At UVEI, you experience those practices. During the Inquiry into Project-Based     Learning, I created a actual project based learning unit that helped me envision how PBL would work in my own classroom.    

    UVEI attracts positive, passionate, and intelligent people, and one of the great benefits of the Institute is the chance to work with such committed individuals. The culture UVEI creates is such that you have an opportunity to share your particular areas of expertise -- and others share with you.
             Matt McCormick, 7th Grade ELA/SS teacher, Woodstock Middle School, Woodstock, VT
             Inquiry into Project Based Learning  (Open Enrollment Participant)

    The PBL inquiry was the nudge that my team and I needed to take unit planning and implementation to the next level. We had dabbled in PBL in the past but wanted to dedicate time and energy to  creating a interdisciplinary unit of study that would deeply engage learners with a real-world issue.
             Melissa Fellows, 7th Grade Science Teacher, Woodstock Middle School, Woodstock, VT
             Inquiry into Project Based Learning (Open Enrollment Participant)

    UVEI has been a different experience from other PD sessions I have attended because of the coaching and support model that has accompanied the course. So many professional learning sessions   provide wonderful information, but teachers are left with the impossible task of trying to find time to build this new-found knowledge into their classrooms. Not with UVEI! I strongly believe their model strengthened my teaching as much as it did due to the immediate application of new skills and support from our instructor. I would most definitely recommend UVEI to a colleague because the coursework has enhanced my teaching practices in a way that has allowed me to find the fun and joy in teaching again.  My students love the inquiry and units we have developed. They are continuously talking about past units we've explored and reflect back to the fun they had while learning.
             Sabrina Keller, 4th-6th Grade Teacher, Holland Elementary School, Holland, VT
             Inquiry into Project Based Learning: Advanced Participant (through a School-Based Partnership)|

    I had became frustrated as I kept trying to make what I wanted fit into the usual professional development opportunities provided locally. Though many classes sounded interesting, they were not   exactly what I was looking for. When I shared with Becky that I was interested in the quality professional development UVEI provides (but the timing of current offerings did not match my needs), she   suggested a personalized inquiry instead. I really liked this option because I could make the professional development work for me and get exactly what I wanted for feedback and growth. The inquiry is different in that my coach and I work together to direct the path we take for improving instruction. My coach provided productive pre- and post-conferences that involved quality questioning techniques to help me reflect on my teaching and that helped to meet my personal goals.
             Heather Lepene, 7th Grade Math Teacher, Richmond Middle School, Hanover, NH
             Inquiry into Teaching (personalized plan)

    As our school tries to move towards more innovative modes of instruction that are more relevant to our students, we had a number of staff members who wanted to learn more about project-based learning. For me, I was attracted to UVEI's cohort model, where a team of teachers at our school work together to learn and build a common understanding of effective project-based learning approaches. That, coupled with the fact that UVEI would come to us, made it a very attractive option for our school.|

    UVEI uses an inquiry model. After learning a framework or model for effective instruction, we try out those approaches on our own and come back to the group for feedback, tuning, and deeper learning. While many educational PD models are practicum-based, I would go out and try something ,but not get any feedback on it. This led to it feeling like a one-shot deal as opposed to UVEI’s sustaining inquiry approach.

             Michael Rupple, Instructional Coach, Springfield High School, Springfield, VT
             Inquiry into Project-Based Learning (District-based Partnership)

    Commentary by Becky Wipfler

    Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of our Program Faculty.  

    Other commentaries by Becky, can be found at:
    http://uvei.edu/blog/322-school-district-partnerships-reinvigorate-teaching-practices
    http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters
    http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach
    http://uvei.edu/blog/328-differentiation-how-and-why-it-works
    http://uvei.edu/blog/339-partnering-for-school-change
    http://uvei.edu/blog/359-math-is-fun-no-kidding
    http://uvei.edu/blog/379-becoming-a-teacher-leader

     

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  • Preparing Principals to Lead

    The value of the principal in a school has been examined closely and well-articulated over the past 50 years. During that time, there has been a  move, from defining the principal as manager -- the person focused on policies, procedures, and the day-to-day operation of a school -- to viewing the principal as the instructional leader, resulting in a positive impact on school improvement (Hallinger, 2011).

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  • Preparing Principals to Lead (2)

    The value of the principal in a school has been examined closely and well-articulated over the past 50 years. During that time, there has been a  move, from defining the principal as manager -- the person focused on policies, procedures, and the day-to-day operation of a school -- to viewing the principal as the instructional leader, resulting in a positive impact on school improvement (Hallinger, 2011).

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  • Project-Based Learning: Why it Matters

    Holland Elementary is a small K-6 school located in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The five classroom teachers here serve forty-two students, so they get to know their kids well. After visiting the King Middle in Maine to see project based teaching practices and project-based learning in action, the Holland teachers began to implement the model in their school.  

    Project-based learning (PBL) allows students to work collaboratively in teams or independently to answer abstract questions and solve problems or design challenges that are authentic. An authentic unit is relevant to students’ lives, is realistic, or involves real-world tasks and processes. It meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products students create are used by real people. Inquiry is central in PBL classrooms. Project-based teaching involves carefully planned scaffolding (structure and modeling to help all students make progress towards the goal), coaching and assessment. Rather than content driving the curriculum, a project-based learning model is driven by student interest.

    Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alumni, shared her thoughts on why the North Country Supervisory Union, especially Holland Elementary, has taken on PBL as an approach to teaching and learning.

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  • Promoting Powerful Relationships with Postcards

    During my first in-service as a real teacher, one of the principals in my district gave this advice: “They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There have been times in my career when I have fought against this. Why should they work for me? Aren’t they working for themselves? But research bears out this quote. According to John Hattie’s Visible Learning, teacher credibility -- gained through trusting and respectful relationship building -- is one of the top ten influences on student learning.

    It was in the spirit of building this credibility that I began writing students postcards. Some years I wrote them during the first quarter. Other times I wrote them at the beginning of the second semester. During particularly ambitious years, I’ve sent cards home in the fall and spring. But whatever the time of year, the idea was the same:  If I let students know I valued them, they would trust me more, and be more invested in their learning in my classroom.

    And it certainly has worked. One parent wrote me: “When we returned from Florida yesterday, we received the postcard you wrote...Wow. [My son], all your students, are lucky to have you as a teacher and role model. I’ve always strived to express to others the exceptional or amazing things I notice about them. Many people think but not all speak...Thank you very much for providing him with a role model who also expresses what you notice. I will save this special post card for [him].”  Students are often eager to share that they’ve received my note. And even if they don’t explicitly say “Thank you,” I can tell by the smile with which they inform me of their mail that they appreciate them

    But this year, I’ve realized that the postcards I write home do as much for me as they do for my students.

    I am, after all, human. I don’t think I’m the only teacher who, after an unsuccessful day -- or maybe a string of unsuccessful days -- begins to project his negative feelings upon his students. “It’s not me,” I’ve thought, “it’s them.”

    It is in these moments, the ones I am ashamed to admit I have, that I have found it most helpful to write postcards home about the positive contributions students have made to my classroom. And I don’t mean re-labeling negative behaviors as positive ones: “I really appreciate the ‘energy’ that Johnny brings to the classroom.” I mean genuinely reflecting upon the positive qualities that my students share with me every day. There’s the student who struggles to work independently but who is a leader in the best sense of the word during Socratic Seminars. The student who struggles to follow multi-step directions but is unafraid to voice confusion that many other peers are reluctant to express. The student who shows up prepared for each and every class. The student who you think is not learning but whose reflections knock your socks off. The student who seems disengaged but greets you every morning with a polite and enthusiastic “Hello!” The student who at home listens to the latest pop but in class explicitly asks to hear your favorite jazz.

    Picking up a postcard forces me to think about what I like about my students. And it doesn’t take long to realize that I like them a lot. It reframes my thinking about my students, my practice, and my profession. It can shift my thinking away from what has gone wrong in my classroom to what is possible in my classroom. In other words, it increases my sense of efficacy -- another factor that, according to Hattie, can have a big influence on student achievement.

    As I’ve invested more time into writing postcards, I’ve developed a few rules that guide me:

    1) Every Student Receives a Postcard.  This can be daunting, but it is vital. Students will talk about their postcards.  If someone does not receive one, then the whole practice is counterproductive. If you work with a large group of students, consider dividing names among your colleagues.

    2) Write to the Student.  In years past, I’ve addressed my notes home to parents and informed them of the positive qualities I see in their student. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. But I think it is more personal to write to students directly. And chances are, the student will show their parents anyway.

    3) Be Positive.  In the past, I’ve been tempted to use the postcards as a way of urging students to be them best selves (as in: “I really appreciated your contributions to class today.  I would like to see that more often!”)  But students know a backhanded compliment when they see one. There is a place for goal setting -- but a thank you note isn’t one of them.

    4) Be Specific.  I do my best to include a specific example of a trait or quality I am writing about.  I also try to send the postcard home as close to when that example occurred as possible.  It helps that I keep a stack of postcards on my desk.  Writing a postcard is a great way to end the day.

    Without a doubt, writing postcards is time consuming. It is hard to find a way to work them into an already-overburdened schedule. But, for me, they have paid dividends, both in my relationships with my students and in my relationship to my profession.

    Images:
    Top right:  A Note Home
    Middle:  Our interdisciplinary team -- The Pathfinders -- ordered postcards adorned with our logo
      

    Commentary by Matt McCormick

    Matt teaches English and Global Studies at Woodstock Union Middle School

    For more written by Matt

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  • Quit Your Job & Start a Teaching Career Without Fear

    You’ve always thought about teaching. You have a career right now that’s, well, fine, but teaching has always been in the back of your mind. The appeal of teaching is not hard to imagine: teaching makes a difference in kids’ lives. Sounds cliche? It’s not.  

    But it’s natural to worry about what such a career change can mean for you and your family. It can seem unrealistic or risky. If you want to quit your job to pursue teaching, but you’re afraid of the unknowns, here are a few pieces of advice.

    Acknowledge That Your Current Job Doesn’t Bring You Joy

    Although American workers are happier than they have been in years, many still struggle to find joy and meaning in work. It’s not uncommon to begin a career (or a second or third) and realize a few years later that it’s just not the kind of work that will sustain you over time. Although making a change can seem daunting and scary, the scarier choice is staying in a job that doesn’t bring you happiness.

    Find Out What Jobs Are Available in Your Area

    One of the biggest fears of career changers is that they’ll spend a year learning to teach and won’t find a job in the spring. It’s a good idea to start researching now what sort of teaching jobs are being advertised in your area. SchoolSpring.com is the place to find out about job postings. Almost every school posts job openings here, and you can receive email alerts straight to your inbox. You can even start the process today by uploading your resume and other job search documents so that you’ll be ready to apply when the right job presents itself.

    Your Life and Career Experiences are a Value-Add

    Principals tell us all the time that they want teachers who bring rich life and career experience to the classroom. The goal of teaching isn’t to help kids be good at school-- it’s to help kids succeed in the real-world, and your work in that real world informs your teaching and interactions with your students. Have you travelled? Had a career in the field in which you want to teach? Started your own business? Raised your own children? It’s a boon to schools when teachers have had experiences outside the microcosm of education.

    Considering a career change naturally produces anxiety. However, with support and information, it’s doable, and possibly even advisable (see above section about joy). But don’t take our word for it. Drop us a line and we can put you in touch with other career changes who took the teaching plunge. Let us know what questions you have about this important decision, and we’re happy to respond.

    Commentary by Kristen Downey

    Kristen Downey is UVEI’s Associate Director for Teacher Education.  Her other blogs can be found at:

    http://uvei.edu/blog/332-plan-with-the-end-in-mind
    http://uvei.edu/blog/324-why-we-forget-and-why-it-matters-to-teachers
    http://uvei.edu/blog/333-get-that-job
    http://uvei.edu/blog/345-inspired-teaching-5-reasons-we-belong-in-the-classroom

    You can follow Kristen on Twitter @UVEIconnect

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  • School/District Partnerships Reinvigorate Teaching Practices

    As a classroom teacher, one of my favorite pastimes was participating in professional development.  I visited other schools, attended workshops and took online courses.  I especially enjoyed workshops, since they were a chance to connect with professionals from all over the country.  The resources and excitement in those days, weeks or weekends were reinvigorating, especially in the middle of the New Hampshire winter. However after returning to my classroom, the afterglow soon wore off.  Although it was better to attend with a colleague (with whom I could bounce ideas off later), the lack of sustained focus and follow-up led to, more often than not, the materials and energy quickly fading from view.

    At UVEI, we approach professional education differently.  How is it different?  Through sustained coaching and inquiry cycles, educators immersed in their practice receive feedback and reflect with the help of a coach.  Cycles last several weeks, months or even a full year.  Instead of a “one and done” course, we spend time in each school to observe, model, debrief, plan and facilitate peer coaching and reflection.  We are currently partnering with several school districts, bringing coaching and inquiry cycles to a team or an entire school, where teachers and administrators engage in inquiries such as balanced literacy, differentiated instruction, and project based learning.

    One of our current partnerships is with Holland Elementary School, which is as close to the Canadian border as you can get without going through customs.  Each week, I make the drive north to work with the teachers and students at this tiny pre-K through sixth grade school.  Through weekly observations and coaching sessions, teachers aim to move their practice closer to “gold standard” project-based learning.  Principal Kelli Dean, a UVEI Principal Intern Program alum (and current UVEI Curriculum and Instruction candidate), helped bring our faculty into a district-wide partnership focused on project-based learning.  By the second meeting with teachers, I was already feeling new energy and momentum building as these educators brainstormed new units and approaches.  As we journey forward together, our shared goal is to reinvigorate teaching practices that are valuable and sustainable.  

    This photo of Kate Underwood and her K-1 class was taken by Becky at Holland Elementary School earlier this fall.

    Commentary by Becky Wipfler

    Becky Wipfler is UVEI’s Elementary Education Coordinator and a member of the faculty.  You can follow her on Twitter @bmwipfler. Other commentaries by Becky can be found at http://uvei.edu/blog/318-project-based-learning-why-it-matters and http://uvei.edu/blog/287-my-evolution-as-a-literacy-coach

     

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  • Schools Need to Grow Their Own Coaches

     

    Commentary published in the Valley News on April 26, 2016:  With the passing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, there has been much discussion about the end of the No Child Left Behind era and the shifting of policy prerogatives back towards state and local decision makers. This gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves a fundamental question anew: What might lead to the schools we hope for and want? In many ways, traditional arguments about the right state or national policy levers for improving schools fail to answer this question satisfactorily. State-driven accountability and top-down mandates have not (and are not likely to) lead to better schools for kids. In fact, a growing body of evidence indicates that while policies may aid or hinder improvement efforts, they are not the main event at all.

    It turns out that in the complex world of teaching and learning, school improvement is the result of building the capacity, skills, and judgement of teachers through ongoing and deliberate practice at the school level (to many of us working in schools, this is not exactly a shock). Improvement efforts that start with and are steered by the people in the building simultaneously respect the professionalism of teachers, and depend on it. Teachers, and particularly teacher leaders, are the key to success.

    One form of teacher leadership that is particularly promising is coaching. Many people think of coaching in terms of sports, and intuitively understand coaches importance for improvement. Outside of the realm of sports, coaching is usually understood as job-embedded support that aids in deliberate practice; providing suggestions and feedback for improvement. Drawing on his experience in the medical field, author and surgeon Atul Gawande has persuasively argued that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” Many local educators agree, and apply this idea to teaching. Jeff Moreno, principal at Hartland Elementary School, views teacher leadership generally, and coaching specifically, as an important strategy for achieving his school’s goals. Following an extensive period of planning based on careful analysis of school data, Hartland Elementary has developed focused goals in the areas of math, literacy and positive student behavior. Jeff indicated that “creating the position and identifying coaches is a critical strategy for all three goals. Coaches are key to fostering the discussion of ‘how can I get better’ or ‘how can I reach more kids?’” Jeff went on to say that having coaches drawn from the ranks of the effective and respected teachers at his school “provides a safe framework for these important reflective conversations to happen.” Carefully selected coaches, particularly coaches who continue to teach, are able to “use what they are learning in their own classes, and that can serve as a lab setting” for testing new approaches and providing examples for other teachers to study. Coaches’ grounding in the real, local work and culture of the school also, as Jeff put it, “provides credibility for the teacher with whom the coach is working.”

    The good news is that many of our schools are already full of coaches or potential coaches (sometimes with that title, and other times in the form of mentors, department chairs, professional development coordinators, grade level leads, subject matter experts, and more). The challenge is that many people in coaching roles have little training or support. Being an effective teacher does not guarantee that someone will be an effective coach. To be good, coaches must match their knowledge of classroom teaching and subject matter with the skills required to be an adult educator. The Hartland effort, in Jeff’s view, requires at least a five year commitment, in part because “coaches need to develop into their role over time.”  Becky Wipfler, a reading specialist and literacy coordinator at Hanover’s Richmond Middle School, whose role includes literacy coaching, echoed this sentiment. “Coaching teachers is a complex undertaking which I hesitated to jump into until I more fully understood the many facets of coaching.” Skills like carefully observing instruction, questioning and listening techniques, and relationship building are particularly important. Coaches need to learn these skills through training, practice, and feedback. In other words, coaches need coaching. Specialized training  in these areas, including opportunities to practice and get feedback, helped Becky feel more comfortable working with colleagues to improve their teaching practice.

    Identifying and developing teacher leaders as coaches is a good investment, positively impacting teachers and their students. Amy Arnold, a second year teacher at Bradford Elementary School who received coaching as part of a district wide literacy initiative, said, “When you first start teaching, it's kind of like feeling your way through a darkened hallway. You bump into things, and you are never quite sure you're actually going in the right direction. Having a coach is like having a flashlight. Coaches come into your room and observe and model, reaffirming or correcting your teaching strategies. Not only does it benefit student learning by making you a more effective educator, it helps you feel more confident in what you are doing. I also think it is great for students to see that teachers are always learning, too. When your coach comes into the room, you take on a dual role: teacher and student- and the kids are fascinated by that. It really sends a message of lifelong learning.”

    The solution to developing our schools lies in investing in the people on whom effective schooling depends. Policy should be directed at supporting and developing teachers as learners and leaders at the local level.

    By R Page Tompkins, EdD

    Page is UVEI's Executive Director.  For more information about Page, see:  http://uvei.edu/about-uvei/staff-and-faculty?id=294

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