Archive for February, 2008

Romeo & Juliet in WWI

February 19, 2008

I had a fun morning at Silver Creek High School earlier this month.  I sat in on an integrated English-History course taught by Jamie Neufeld and Justelle Grandsaert.  I want to thank Ms. Neufeld for inviting me to attend.

The morning I attended, students were acting out scenes from Romeo & Juliet set in WWI Belgium and France.  Ms. Neufeld and Ms. Grandsaert have put a great deal of thought into this course and assignment.  The criteria by which they evaluate students requires students to demonstrate they understand historical details of the period and the meaning of Shakespeare’s text.

What I observed is an example of what’s going well in our schools as well as challenges we face.

The students were terrific.  It was clear they spent time with the assigned material.  I noticed little things, too – the nuanced details in one of the stage performances; working in teams; the attentiveness and respect for one another’s performances; the courtesy of students who stopped by to tell me thanks for coming, and the normal high school tactic of angling for just a bit more time from student’s who may have been nervous about their readiness to perform.

Some of the students chose to video record their performances.  Some of these productions were complete with titles, credits and other production features.  The skills required to do this type of video production has nothing to do with English or History per se but are highly relevant.

In my consulting practice, client expectations for multi-media reports are growing.  A simple text report is no longer sufficient.  I am having to try to develop new skills (a challenge for someone who learned to type on a manual typewriter).  I am glad to see our students developing these skills at an early age.  This is the type of learning experience I hear parents say they crave for their children.

This also brings into focus one of our challenges.  It is my understanding that students used their own technology to make their video productions.  If a student comes from a family lacking a certain threshold of resources, they are excluded from such opportunities.

The teachers of the class are terrific, too.  A good deal of thought and planning go into a course of this type.  Beyond the content, I was impressed by the teachers’ rapport with the students.  I found the group of students to be highly respectful with a normal does of squirrelyness.  I was an instigator of orneriness when I was a student.  Now, I’m wound a little too tight and this normal energy sometimes gets on my nerves (how did that happen?).  Not Ms. Neufeld or Ms. Grandsaert.  They went with the flow without compromising on expectations.  I’m glad they are working in our classrooms.

In my conversation with Ms. Neufeld, she indicated that the integrated course led by two teachers opens up a multitude of possibilities that aren’t conceivable when working alone.

This observation points to another challenge we face – class size.  To maximize the benefits of a learning experience such as I observed requires the opportunity for detailed feedback – from teacher to student and students to students.  Individual and group discussion would be beneficial, too.

I did not count the students in this class.  I have since learned that it is more than 40.  If a teacher spends 5 to 10 minutes per student developing feedback (which isn’t much), that’s at least five hours of time for one assignment in one class.  As class sizes increase, the math is not complicated to conclude that detailed feedback becomes a challenge.

Perhaps class sizes don’t move the needle on standardized tests.  The size of a group does change the learning experience.

We have a choice as a community.  Will we provide our young people and our teachers with the bare minimum or will be provide the tools and the time to allow for rigor, creativity and fun so that we can stoke students’ passion for learning?

We have good teachers and students with great potential.  They are waiting to see what we decide.


Public Opinion Research

February 18, 2008

Here is some interesting public opinion research from Lake Research Associates.  I have attached a press release (Download LakeResearchPressReleaseFinal.pdf ) and a power point )Download LakeResearchPowerPoint.ppt).

The overarching message: many people crave for more creativity in our schools.  This research tracks with what I hear in may parent discussions here in St. Vrain and other school districts.  This survey data suggests that American voters believe U.S. schools are behind other nations in stoking imagination.  That is a difference from what I hear in conversations.  Parents whom I’ve talked to believe that America’s competitive advantage is creativity.  They don’t want to lose that and, in fact, want a greater emphasis on curriculum that will draw out students’ imagination.

Civil Discourse

February 18, 2008

I would like begin this post with a passage from page 24 of Civility: Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter.  This book has become a reference manual for me, dog-eared and tattered, especially when I’m feeling snide or unruly.  Carter writes:

Democracy demands dialogue, and dialogue flows from disagreement.  But we can, and maybe must, be relentlessly partisan without being actively uncivil.  Indeed, the more passionate our certainty that we are right, the more urgent our need to practice the art of civility – otherwise, we make dialogue impossible, and the possibility of dialogue is the reason democracy values disagreement in the first place.  For those who believe in dialogue, then, hypocrisy lies in the pretense that we can discuss our differences seriously without the aid of civility.

I would like to encourage more comments and comments from more people on this blog.  It is my hope that this can be one place for dialogue about public schools, public education and St. Vrain schools in particular.

I would encourage everyone who posts comments to consider Carter’s advice.  Consider, too, these questions when you do post:  How will this add to the discussion?  Will it add new knowledge or a different perspective?  Will the tenor of the comment invite others to join in?

I would like this to be a place in which we can engage on disagreements, even sharp disagreements.  I believe that sorting through disagreements is the best way to learn and discover better ways to do things.  I do not want this to be a place where people feel a license to be mean spirited.  Snide remarks typically shut conversation down.  As Carter says, we cannot discuss our differences seriously without the aid of civility.

I am confident that people who read this blog know the difference between constructive disagreement and being rude.  I hope many people will comment and comment often in this spirit.

Pet Peeve in the Cafeteria

February 16, 2008

The school board heard a report from Shelly Allen, director of nutrition services.  See Victoria Camron’s story in the Times Call.

The nutrition services group is doing great work.  They are making improvements in nutrition and the efficiency of services.  I am impressed with their efforts.

I do have a pet peeve when it comes to what transpires in our school’s cafeterias.  It is not high on my priority list.  Our district administrator and board have far bigger issues to manage.  I’d still like to see changes.

I ate lunch with my Kindergarten daughter not too long ago.  I was disappointed when I saw her classmates choose strawberry milk rather than plain milk, including my daughter.  I looked at the label on the strawberry milk.  It’s full of high fructose corn syrup.  I was dismayed when a high proportion of her classmates purchase a “fruit” roll up a la carte.  Best I can tell is these things are corn syrup and gelatin.  I told my daughter no on the fruit roll up.

When we sat down to eat, the kids went for the strawberry milk and fruit roll ups before the entrée.   I tried to nag the kids near me to make better choices.  But, I held little sway.  Some of the kids ended up consuming nothing but the junk.

We allow our children to eat this crap from time to time.  I’m only a borderline prude.  We occasionally allow them to buy these items at school.  Still, I don’t think it should even be an option.  If parents want their kids to eat junk then they can choose to send it to school with them.

Here’s the problem.  It forces the school to be a parent when they shouldn’t have to be.  Parents can monitor their children’s purchases by tracking the balance of their child’s lunch account.  If the child is purchasing junk food against parent wishes, parents can ask the lunchroom cashier to restrict further purchases.  The lunchroom clerk who we work with is great.  But why should she have to be our police officer?  And, there simply are not enough adults in cafeterias to ensure that children eat their entrée before they eat the crap.

The best option is to restrict sales altogether.  That way, parents don’t have to have the fight, “Can I buy…” and school staff doesn’t get settled with one more parental duty.

I have asked, through Randy Zila, the nutrition services team to re-evaluate the policy of these types of sales.  An exemplary school district would make this change.


February 16, 2008

Check out this new education website,  It is an outgrowth of the city’s Focus on Longmont and Education Summit.

February Calendar

February 15, 2008

I am clearly woefully behind on my blog given that I’m just now posting my February calendar.  None-the-less, here it is.

2 – St. Vrain Technology Fair (I attended as a parent)

6 – Board work session (I was absent due to a business trip)

11 – Longmont Multicultural Action Group – Community Involvement; Rocky Mountain Elementary School

       Eagle Crest PTO Listening Session

12 – Silver Creek High School Integrated History and English – Romeo & Juliet Scenes set in WWI

       K-12 Online Conference – Teachers learning together to use online tools in their classrooms

       District Accountability and Accreditation Committee meeting

13 – Latino Education Task Force Meeting

       Community Listening Session (prior to board meeting)

       Schoool Board Meeting

20 – Central Elementary Teacher & Staff Listening Session

       School Board Work Session

26 – District Accountability and Accreditation Committee meeting

27 – School Board Meeting

28 – Longmont Education Task Force

Eagle Crest PTO Listening Session

February 15, 2008

I had the opportunity to visit with about 15 parents at Eagle Crest Elementary School on Monday, February 11 – I got home just in time to see KU blow its lead against Texas.  Alas.

The group of parents who I met with is thoughtful, enthusiastic and extraordinarily supportive of their children’s school.  The group is a role model PTO.  Every time I visit I get ideas to pass along to the Central Elementary PTO (where my children attend).  I want to thank the group for allowing me to attend.

I posed the following questions to the group of parents.  We had a non-linear discussion.

1.      What skills and experiences do you want to make sure your children are developing as they move through school in the district?

2.      What is needed to help St. Vrain on the path toward being an exemplary school district?

3.      What is the school and school district already doing well?

4.      What does school accountability look like to you?

Here are the themes from our conversation.

Creativity.  The group emphasized the need for creative thinking to be part of every subject.  There is concern that preparation for standardized tests undermines creativity.  A specific example mentioned by the group is they would like to see far more emphasis on the fine arts.

I asked the group about how U.S. students compare to other nations, for instance, in math.  The group suggested that creativity is our competitive advantage and we must not lose our focus on developing this attribute in our children.  One parent talked about working with people all over the globe.  Another shared an experience teaching in Japan.  Both said that they don’t want their children to be like the children from other countries.  They perceive that other countries do not support creativity the way we do/should here.

Critical thinking.  Eagle Crest parents would like their children to have more experiences dealing with ambiguous problems in which there are not clear right and wrong answers but in which judgment is required.

Experiential learning.  Parents would like their children to have more hands on learning experiences especially in the area of science.  They also would like to see their children learning outdoors from time to time.  For instance, parents said, learning about the environment from a book or screen is not the same as being in the environment.

Preserve recess.  As the need for instruction time grows, Eagle Crest parents say that it is essential to balance this with time to move and play.

Alternative methods of assessment.  Parents question the validity of a single test as the way to assess a student or a school.  Parents in this discussion would prefer that student’s have a portfolio of work evaluated over the course of a year.  These parents say they measure the success of a school based on the growth of individual students – are children making at least a year’s growth.

Second language instruction at an earlier age.  Parents in our discussion say that we are doing a disservice to children by not making language instruction part of an elementary education – especially in today’s global society.  They see educational value beyond just learning a language.

Math and writing.  Parents had good things to say about the math and writing programs at Eagle Crest.  The math approach does stimulate creative and critical thinking, parents said.  And, the writing program is helping students develop and organize detailed thoughts.

Technology.  Parents said that it is important for St. Vrain schools to beef up technology; and to make sure that technology is standard (equitable) across the district.  One parent cautioned not to become overly enamored with technology – it’s not a substitute for learning, she said.

School calendar.  Parents are open to some type of modified year round calendar with more frequent breaks between segments of the year.  Most of the parents in the group do want to preserve a significant chunk of time in the summer for families and to let kids be kids.

Neighborhood schools.  The group of parents who attended this session are concerned about preserving neighborhood schools.  They believe too many families leave their community in search of a “focus” school.  Some of the parents in the group don’t see the wisdom in developing focus schools within the district that might contribute to more fragmentation.

Equity concerns.  Many students who attend Eagle Crest will attend Blue Mountain elementary next year.  Blue Mountain is considered the sister school.  Blue Mountain is considering some form of a math, science and technology focus for the school.  That is an exciting prospect to parents.  But, parents whose children will continue to attend Eagle Crest are concerned about the equity between the two schools.  And, some parents expressed concern that they are learning about this focus after the open enrollment process.

Note: It is still possible for parents to open enroll their children in other schools but students who open enroll now will be lower on the priority list once the open enrollment slots are known and filled.

I am sending the link to this blog entry to the Eagle Crest PTO president so that he can send to others.  It would be great if parents who took part in the conversation added comments – in particular if there are items I missed or if members of the group heard different themes.