Archive for the ‘Classrooms’ Category

Investment to Action

November 13, 2008

The investment the community made in public schools on November 4 is leading to immediate action.  Specifically, action is being taken to reduce unreasonably large classes; restore lost courses; move forward on focus schools; implement pre-AP programs at Longs Peak and Erie Middle Schools, and begin the process of implementing capital improvement projects.

We will see the effects of these actions when school begins again in January.

For more details, here is the Times-Call article.  And, the source documents distributed at last nights school board meeting are here.  Download sb_class_size_reductions.pdf

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Conversation Themes – Teachers

May 2, 2008

Yesterday, I posted themes from conversations with parents.  Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a teacher who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential?Top of Form

Over arching theme:

Teachers are proud of what they are able to accomplish given the resources they have to work with.  They are concerned about the present as well as the future.

Most commonly mentioned issues:

Class Size (instruction time).  Teachers are extremely concerned on the impact of larger class sizes.  They list a number of ways in which larger class sizes will negatively impact their abilities to serve students.  Bottom line:  Teachers suggest that it is structurally not possible to close the achievement gap or stretch the high performers.  In effect, teachers say they are forced to choose between students.

High school teachers indicate that the total number of students they have in their combined sections makes it extremely difficult to have meaningful relationships with their students.

Also, teachers say they are, in essence, being asked to do more work in the same amount of time.

Technology.  Technology is an important issue to middle and high school teachers (it was not mentioned as often by elementary school teachers).  As one high school teacher said, “We are desperate for technology.”  There also are concerns about how difficult it is to utilize existing technology.

High school teachers, in particular, are able to enumerate many ways they would use smart board technology.  However, as Math teachers said at the last board meeting, laptops and projectors are the first priority.

Student Remediation.  Teachers express concern about the number of students who arrive unprepared for their grade level.  This concern is expressed at all grade levels.  It is most pronounced at the middle and high school levels.

Student Support.  Teachers are concerned about cutbacks in and/or the limited number of positions such as literacy teachers and counselors.    Teachers say that when students are not able to receive individualized attention when they need it the classroom environment is further compromised.

Equity.  Teachers at the higher income schools indicate that their work is far easier than at lower income schools.  “It changes everything,” said one middle school teacher.  Teachers at all buildings indicated concern about equity issues.  The equity issues they described focused primarily on teaching tools (e.g. technology, extra books, etc.)

Compensation.  Many teachers made it clear that they are looking at other school districts in the area.  The gap between St. Vrain’s base pay and that of nearby school districts is getting large enough that many teachers are willing to consider a change – though that’s not necessarily their first choice.

Prep Time.  Teachers indicate that they don’t have adequate time to meet in teams (especially vertical teams) and use assessment data to guide instruction.  Given this, some teacher question the merits of the number of assessments students are required to take.  If there’s not time to use the date, the teachers don’t gain any value added.  Other teachers see the assessments as highly valuable but say they need more time to make effective use of this data.  Teachers say, consistently, that they would like more PLC time to focus on horizontal and vertical team meetings to, as one teacher said, “Figure out how to make the curriculum we’re using work for my students in my classroom.”

Teachers would like the community to be more aware that other school districts provide far more prep time to teachers than does St. Vrain.

Vision?  Teachers in four of the five schools said they are unclear on the district’s long term vision.  They indicate that they are seldom part of conversations about the direction of the school district.  At the building level, many teachers recognize that principals are consumed with daily operations and have little time for big picture thinking.  At the district level, they indicate that they are hungry for more communications.

Schools I visited after the Public Policy presentations found the meetings to be extremely helpful.  People said those types of conversations are important to have on an ongoing basis.

Communications.  Teachers want to make sure people in leadership positions are doing the work that’s needed to convey the school district’s message and needs to the community.  They are concerned the stories about the good work in schools are not getting out.  They recognize that there is an important role for them to play in helping to communicate with the community. 

Another Glimpse Into the Future… Present

April 23, 2008

I have been corresponding with a friend recently regarding online education.  There are a growing number of online education options in the state of Colorado.

Perhaps the best known in Colorado is the Colorado Virtual Academy.  Douglas County School District has an online option.  In the St. Vrain Valley School District, Carbon Valley Charter Academy has the CVA Online Program.  The St. Vrain School District also allows students to take a small number of classes online – Mandarin Chinese is one example.

There are many more examples of online programs in Colorado and across the country.

I have had many, many hours of conversations with parents and teachers about education here in the St. Vrain Valley.  People are not clamoring for online programs.  It is only a small fraction of people who raise this topic.  People do think it is important to integrate technology into instruction but people are not anxious for more online instruction programs at the k-12 level.

Having said this, I am convinced that online instruction is going to transform education as we know it today.  It holds tremendous potential to help students accelerate their learning and to leverage teacher time.  It holds the potential to reduce costs for capital infrastructure (i.e. building school buildings) because students will be able to learn anywhere.

People are not clamoring for online instruction now but they will.  People did not did people clamor for laptop computers or in-car GPS systems, either.

How quickly will demand for online instruction grow?  How quickly will it transform education as we know it?  When I think about questions like this, I’m reminded of a Bill Gates quote regarding the internet.  He remarked about a decade ago to the effect of, “All the predictions about how the internet will change the world in 5 years are overblown and all the predictions about how the internet will change the world in 10 to 15 years are understated.”

I am equally convinced that there will always be demand for physical places – school buildings – that bring together students and teachers for face-to-face interaction.  I do a good deal of professional development.  More and more of it via web and phone.  But, there is just no way to replace face-to-face interactions.

What’s more, young people need opportunities to come together with peers as part of their development process.  Young people need opportunities to escape the controlling influence of their parents so they can stretch and grow.  It is an essential part of growing up.  And, parents need time away from their kids.  I’ll let parents tell you why.

Too often we allow ourselves to get bogged down by the tyranny of the “or.”  We think the world has to be this way OR that; rather than this way AND that.

Education in the future will be “online” much of the time.

Education in the future also will continue to be a physical place.

Other school districts are ahead of St. Vrain when it comes to offering online programs.  We need to become more diligent in investigating and implementing possibilities.  The good news is that many teachers already are experimenting with the possibilities.  The time for a bold step forward is ripening.

I’m not overly concerned that we’re not doing more yet with online instruction.  But we can’t be tentative for too much longer.

We won’t move quickly enough for some people within our school district and they will go elsewhere.  Many other people we will have to cajole to move forward each step of the way.  That is a normal part of the process of change.

I am excited and uncertain about what the future holds for education.  I imagine the possibilities our children have to learn anywhere, anytime to be enthralling.  At the same time, as Joe Mehsling said to me recently, “We have no idea what we’re doing to our kids.”  That’s because we’ve never done this before.

Not every generation must deal with the transformational change that we are experiencing today.  It’s unsettling.  But isn’t that the fun of it?

A Glimpse of the Future… Present

April 23, 2008

Earlier this month, the school district adopted new math curriculums and text books for middle and high school.  The teachers who were part of the process are enthusiastic about the new materials.  Part of the conversation with the school board revolved around the use of electronic resources.

I was struck when the math teachers described having “electronic lectures” on various subjects that students can use when they need more support on a particular topic and/or when they miss class due to an absence.  This is a glimpse at the future, which already is here.

Long term, we need to achieve productivity gains in education.  That is difficult in a people driven enterprise.  Electronic lectures is one way to leverage teachers’ time.  In effect, increasing the number of students a teacher can reach so their time is freed up to provide one-on-one or small group support to those students who need it.

I am scheduling meetings with people who know a lot more about how to use technology to leverage teacher time than I do.  This is part of my summer learning agenda.

Larger Class Sizes

April 21, 2008

I’ve had hundreds of hours of conversation with parents and teachers regarding education and schools.  One theme is consistent.  Parents and teachers want smaller class sizes.  We’re headed the opposite direction here in St. Vrain.  It’s a matter of economics not good pedagogy. 

We can debate at length about whether or not class size has an impact on student achievement.  If we take the time to look, we can find a study that reinforces our point of view – no matter what that point of view might be.  Here is a good summary of a range of studies.

Whether or not one can prove that class size impacts performances on tests, it does change the learning experience for students and the teaching experience for teachers – both for the worse.  Here are a few examples of the impact of larger class sizes based on my conversations with teachers over the past few weeks:

          Less differentiated instruction.  As numbers of students go up a teachers abilities to assess, discern and design tailored instruction goes down

          Easier for kids to hide.  Middle and high school students, teachers say, become increasingly proficient at hiding their weaknesses.  In larger classes, it takes longer for teachers to find the students that are making a concerted effort to hide.

          Less and less timely feedback.  As the number of students increase the time that a teacher has to provide feedback is diminished.  A teacher must grade more work in the same amount of time.  This is of particular important on written work.  I know from experience that rigorous feedback is essential to the process of becoming a better writer.  Feedback keeps students motivated, too.  In large classes, that’s less likely to happen.

          Diminished relationships.  Education gurus tend to agree that strong student-teacher (student-adult) relationships are an essential element of a quality learning experience.  There is research that suggests as human beings, we’re able to manage about 150 relationships at any given time.  We have high school teachers who are likely to have 180 students each semester.  As my personal development blog suggests, I would have a hard time remembering that many names.  How can teachers and students have a quality relationship if the teachers can’t even remember all their students’ names?

          Less rigorous parent-teacher partnerships.  A quality parent-teacher relationship takes time.  Often these relationships turn on the ability of teachers to prepare quality information about each student for parents.  As class sizes go up, the time to provide parents with quality information

I can go on but, test scores aside, I think you get the picture.

Read Across America Day

March 3, 2008

Monday, March 3 is Read Across America Day sponsored by the National Education Association.

The day is held in conjunction with Dr. Seuss‘ birthday.  He would have been 104, yesterday, on March 2.  Like many families my family are fans of Dr. Seuss.  He has helped our children learn to read.

I read to a class of second graders (including my son) today to celebrate.  I chose one of my favorite stories, The Sneetches, a tale of the foolish costs of division within communities and learning lessons the hard way.  I had a blast.

I hope you have time to read with your children, grandchildren or children of friends today – or sometime soon.

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.

Will children experience fun, play and good relationships?

September 11, 2007

I had the opportunity to attend an Eagle Crest Elementary PTO meeting last night.  The group of parents at Eagle Crest are doing a fantastic amount of work to support their children’s school.  By my crude back of the envelope calculations they are raising nearly $100 per student.  Principal Ryan Ball would be the first to tell you that the dollars contributed by parents enable he and the teachers to accomplish a host of school goals that would be difficult without these extra dollars.

What struck me most about the meeting – and conversations with parents after the meeting – is the types of issues important to parents.  Field trips and class sizes generated the most enthusiastic conversation.  Parents who talked to me after the meeting discussed arts and music programs.  Conversations about CSAP scores generated very little conversation – except for a query about where creative writing fits in the CSAP regimen.

I have been part of more parent conversations than I can count over the past 15 years – both as a parent at my children’s schools and in my work doing public opinion research.  Parents care about the whole experience their children will have as part of a school community.

There is no doubt that parents care about academic rigor.  They want their children to be challenged and engaged.  But they also want their children to have fun at school and to have opportunities to be creative – even just play from time to time.  Schools feel pressure to limit "play" because they need to maximize instruction time.  There is a tension there.

Here’s another tension.  Parents want their children in small classes.  Several of the classes at Eagle Crest are 27 or 28 students.  You could see the parents bristle when they saw those numbers.  Questions followed about the prospects of reducing class size.  Parents reluctantly accepted the Principal’s explanation for why things are as they are.  But, it was clear parents would prefer smaller classes.

Here’s the thing.  There’s no conclusive evidence that small classes make any meaningful difference in how children score on standardized tests.  Eagle Crest’s CSAP scores are high.  So, are parents idiots?  Are they selfish to want schools and school districts to reduce class sizes? (My experience is that any class over 20 starts to make parents nervous.)

Perhaps parents believe that small class sizes are important for reasons that have little to do with proficiency on standardized tests.  When I ask parents this question, they say that they want to make sure that classroom teachers have time to pay attention to and build relationships with all the children.  We all know from personal experience that it’s more difficult to build personal relationships in large groups than it is in small.  This holds true for teacher-parent relationships, too.  It is only common sense that a teacher would have an easier time building relationships with parents of 20 students than he or she would with parents of 28 students.  Relationships are important to people and they want time for good relationships to form.

This reminds me of a story told by the former North Carolina women’s soccer coach – Mia Hamm’s coach.  He is one of the most successful coaches of all time.  He tells about the team’s soccer practices.  Before each practice, the women would spend 15 – 20 minutes dribbling balls around the perimeter of the field and chat.  The coach said it was a big waste of time so he nixed it from the schedule.  The team kept winning. The bottom line for the team hadn’t changed. But the quality of the women’s play declined and no one was having fun.  The coach allowed the pre-practice gab fest to return as part of the daily ritual and everything seemed right again.  He said (paraphrasing), "I still thought it was a huge waste of time but it was important to the team."

Some things don’t make sense if all we do is look at data and statistics.  But sometimes the good things in life – like building quality relationships – can’t be measured.