What Inspires You?

At the evening session of Communities for Learning, the question of “What Inspires You?” was posed. I sat listening as educators shared personal passions like photography and nature and Art and thinking that what inspires me is my work. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been really good at in my lifetime. The chance to make a difference for children? What could possibly be more inspiring?

School was an incredible experience for me as a child. Teachers are the people who took care of me in the sixth grade when my father was seriously injured in a coal mining cave-in and my mother was consumed with caring for him through rehab. Teachers are the people, along with my mom and my grandparents, who encouraged me to try everything from leadership roles in clubs to acting in the Sr. Class Play to competing in DECA. My father was very strict and not at all “inspiring”, I wasn’t permitted to date or to go anywhere but he allowed me to do anything that was school related. So I joined everything! School was the place where I began to learn what I was good at and what I was better off leaving to others with more ability and talent. I’m grateful for those experiences and I am compelled to recreate them for our students. It’s the reason we’ll be supporting two musicals next year, not just one for HS, but one for ES too. Look at the huge number of students who are touched by that experience!

I’m most inspired by those experiences that we create that touch students who aren’t connected to us through academic or athletic success. For those of you who will remember, it’s why I started the Randolph Rumble in 2002-03—to showcase the talents of an amazing group of young men who were disenfranchised in our system. In talking to them because they wouldn’t participate in gym class or for disciplinary reasons, I learned that they had a band called Post Mortem. At that point I asked them to perform at the Randolph Rumble–a culminating activity originally designed as a school wide behavior management program to improve attendance and school climate. They rocked that auditorium and from that day forward those boys were somebody in our school, they had an identity and a voice. And every one of them graduated and continues to be successful today. It’s one of the moments in my career that most inspired me and of which I’m most proud.

Another is Joe Tyler. When I arrived at Gowanda, Joe was in the 9th grade and his dad saw me in the hall one evening. At that point it didn’t look like Joe was headed for much academic success. His dad told me, “I need that boy to go to BOCES and learn a trade so he can get work some day”. Because Joe was technically a 9th grader and BOCES occurs in 11th-12th grade, it wasn’t typical to send him. I said, “I’ll send him to BOCES for a trade!” and handing Joe Tyler his HS diploma was one of the best moments of my whole life. He found what worked for him and graduated from HS.

Our kids and helping them find success and happiness, that’s what inspires me. Every time one of our students walks through my door to talk to me about something, that what fuels me. How about you?

Dive Duck, Dive

In our elementary school this morning, our PK-6 students attended a kick-off play for our six weeks of PARP (Parents as Reading Partners). Our talented Maura Morgante, kindergarten teacher and playwright extraordinaire, directed the cast which included a diving duck, cow, dog, horse, rabbit, hen, goat, sheep, pig, and Farmer Brown. I’m the goose in these shenanigans. I had the pleasure of joining a fantastic group of teachers willing to stretch and play and perform for our students.

Why do they do it? Because our teachers will do virtually anything to engage and inspire and love our kids. It was hot and sweaty in those costumes and if any of them are like me, they felt kind of silly dressing in an animal costume and performing on stage in front of their colleagues. But seeing the faces of our littlest ones and knowing that now  every teacher will focus our students on READING for pleasure, that’s definitely worth it.

Each grade chose an animal for whom they’ll be reading over the next six weeks. So I’ll be pulling on the bright orange tights and donning my feathers to rally our Pre-K students, encouraging them to read the most minutes with their parents so we can show that mean Farmer Brown that we can win the contest.

I love our students and teachers and the enthusiasm in which they embrace each precious day with our children. I’m so lucky to be here, on this day and in this job. It was only 30 minutes of the day, for some of those teachers the only 30 minute break they’ll have today, but it makes a difference. And for those classes that headed off to iReady testing right after the play–yes, our number one goal is improving student achievement and learning–-our number one job is loving every kid we’ve got at RCS. Thanks for doing that every day.

Spanish in the Valley

I taught Spanish and Business for ten years at Pine Valley Central, a little district that borders the one I’m in now.  Back in the day, I was able to obtain certification for the position after only 24 credit hours in Spanish. Business, I had to have 36 hours. I entered my Spanish classroom in 1990 clutching my college notes for dear life.

That meant I always felt inadequate in the content. When I finished my course work my professor said, “and now you go to Madrid.” My reply? “What should I do with the 2 year old who lives in my house?” Obviously, I couldn’t leave my daughter and husband for a year abroad.

I loved teaching in every imaginable way, but mostly I just loved my students. I always felt like a fraud, not fluent enough, not good enough. My students did very well on the State exams, but I never got over that feeling that I should be fluent. When I became a principal, it was a relief. I could just focus on the parts of the work that I knew I was good at, without feeling so inadequate.

Now we have the wonders of Facebook and other social media and I’m reconnecting with all of these amazing students who I taught in the nineties and the feedback I get from them is so positive and warm and caring that I wonder, if my Spanish had been perfect would I have been a better teacher?

Cause honestly, I’m thinking no matter how perfect my Spanish had been, my students wouldn’t likely remember any more of it than they do now. But they do remember me and how I treated them, how I listened to them, how I cared about them. We do our best with the content, what’s more important is that we do our best with the kids.

Closing School For Freezing Temperatures

We closed school today because of freezing cold temperatures. The noon news is reporting these are the coldest temps since 1996. I don’t know about that but at -13 to -14 plus a wind chill that put us at -24, it seemed like a smart decision today.

I hate to close school for two reasons. One, it’s a lost day of instruction. Two, it’s a real hardship for working parents. It is a very involved decision when there’s snow but in the case of freezing temps, we actually have some guidelines from the National Weather Service that we can use. A temperature of -10 degrees is enough to cause frostbite within 15 minutes.

You might argue that our kids aren’t waiting outside for the buses that long or required to walk far to school. Do you know what the problem with that argument is? Watch our students getting on or off the buses some day. MANY of them, particularly our older students, come to school ill equipped for the weather–wearing only a hooded sweatshirt or less. The picture of our kids without hats, gloves, boots or in many cases, a proper winter coat, definitely affected my decision this morning. If you’re a working parent like me and you leave for work before your kid leaves for school, take the time to talk to your child about what he or she is wearing to and from school. You might be surprised!

Two Weeks in April

Just want to mention while it’s fresh in my mind: the week before a break is NOT EASY for lots of kids. The anticipation of two weeks away from school, out of the routine, sometimes on their own. . . causes huge anxiety. This should be considered in the debate over one week in February and one week in April–it just means twice as much anxiety.

I know this is always a complicated issue and this is just one factor, but in this regard—keeping it at one longer break as opposed to two shorter makes the most sense.

I hope all of our families have a safe Spring Break, filled with lots of family time together, reading and fun!

Taking Care of Our Kids

As a superintendent, I make sure that I have opportunities to interact with students. I visit classrooms weekly, I have students who stop by my office, I attend extra-curricular and sporting events. What I don’t get much of is one on one time, working with a student who is struggling through an issue or two. Listening to a kid and then trying to be a positive influence.

I was reminded this week of one of the primary reasons I moved into education in the first place. As a teacher at Pine Valley Central, way back in 1990, I recognized that some of our students, particularly the girls, didn’t always see a future. I knew I needed to be a woman that they could look to and think, “If Mrs. Moritz can do it, I can”. I knew even then that some girls just need to see that it is possible to stand on your own two feet, strong and independent, and happy.

Throughout my career, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with a great number of students. I’m consumed when I spend time with someone in whom I see so much strength because of the life experiences she’s already had but so little hope. A kid who just can’t see a way out of everything that surrounds her, despite the fact that she knows she wants out, and can’t figure out how to get there. A kid with brains and strength and fire, but no one to reach over and give her a hand up.

If we do nothing else right in our daily walk with the students at Randolph, this is what we must get right. Each of us, in our individual roles of teacher, bus driver, secretary, administrator, teaching aide, cafeteria worker or cleaner, must look for those opportunities to give a kid a hand up. To be the positive influence that he’s lacking anywhere else, to show her that it is possible to be a happy, fully functioning adult. Because maybe this is the only place the kid gets to see it.

If we don’t notice that child or at least acknowledge that maybe she’s behaving so badly because everyone else in her life behaves just that way too and it’s up to us to show her another way-–to help her find hope, it’ll be as if we did nothing here.

Show our students through kindness and understanding and compassion and love and expectations. Show them that even if they don’t believe in themselves, we are going to believe enough for all of us.

I don’t get enough chance to do this any more. I’m too immersed in budgets and negotiations and contracts and the business of school, tasks I didn’t even think about before taking the job.  I’m not complaining. I just need to know you’re all out there taking care of our kids, each and every day, all of them. Especially the hardest ones–they need us the most.

Thank you to each of you who knows what I’m talking about, for every parent in the community who reaches out to someone else’s kid too. Thank you for showing our students what it is to be an adult who has expectations for himself, who’s dedicated, successful, happy and who’s not so different from that child.

Special Ed Staying Home

Today I welcome our Director of Pupil Services, Dr. Mary Rockey, to help readers better understand some changes we’re planning in special education. As you read, please consider that the changes are in the best interest of our children at the same time that we can make the changes with very little impact to our budget. I’m proud of the work that’s being done in this area by Mary and her entire staff. When we make decisions that benefit our kids in ways we haven’t tried before, decisions that expand learning exponentially, we do out best work.

Read on to see what Dr. Rockey says:

I would like to begin by thanking Mrs. Moritz for the opportunity to explain some of the changes that have been occurring at RCS regarding special education services.  While there are many reasons, I believe the most important one is that our children will be educated in our school.  In the past, we have sent children to other schools and paid these schools to educate our children.

The three big changes that are occurring are:

  1. increasing of special education programs at RCS instead of sending students to other schools
  2. having our own summer school for students with IEPs
  3. providing preschool special education services

1 – Special Education Classes at RCS

Let me give an example.  Suppose we have a student who has some problems.  Even though she is in fourth grade, she can’t identify the letters of the alphabet or write all of the letters in her name.  In the past, this child would have gone to a different school, perhaps in Salamanca or in Ashville.  She would have had to ride the bus for a very long time each day, going to school and coming home.  She would have been in class with children who live far away from her so it would be difficult for her family to help her get together with school friends to play.  Randolph Central School would pay for both the transportation and the school program, which for most of these programs is in excess of $3,000 per month. However, if this student comes to our school, and is in class here, the cost is far less than $3,000 each month.  And, the student has the advantage of being in the school and involved in the activities in her community.

2 – Summer School Special Education at RCS

The same example is true for our decision to have our own summer school program.  In past summers, we have sent children to Salamanca and Ashville.  The cost of these programs, in dollars, exceeds what we would pay if the classes were here at RCS.  But more than that, our students will be with us in the summer.  There will be no need to get used to a new teacher, new speech therapist, new counselor, for the six week summer session.  The students will already know these people and the staff knows these children.  This means that progress won’t stop for our children because there won’t be a “get to know” each other time period.  And the transition back to classes in September will also be easier for each of these children.

3 – Preschool Special Education Services at RCS

This is a bit different than the previous two changes that are occurring because preschool services are currently not provided at all by RCS employees for those with special needs.  Currently, other providers either come into the school or go to RCS children’s homes to provide preschool services and they receive the revenue for these services from the county of the child’s residence.  Sometimes, our three and four year olds are sent to Little Valley or Salamanca for school each day.  RCS is responsible through the New York State Education Department for these services, even though they don’t provide them.  Now that we are approved to provide these services, our children will be seeing our speech therapists, our teachers and RCS will receive the revenue for providing these services.

I want to assure everyone that a detailed analysis of each of these programs has been conducted and discussed at length with our BOE.  Each of these changes will benefit our children while reducing costs to RCS and our county taxpayers. If you have any questions, I am delighted to discuss any of these changes with you.

Dr. Mary Rockey

Comparing Attendance

Our attendance rate for the district is up, I would say considerably—96.14 in February of this year as compared to 92.76 last year and 92.93 the previous year. And 96.65 in January as compared to 95.13 last year and 93.95 in 2007-08.  95.38 in December as compared to 93.83 last year–you get the picture. That’s wonderful!

It’s not easy to increase this number. I know, as a principal I analyzed my attendance data, incorporated positive school-wide programs to increase it, believed the climate and our relationships with kids made a difference. Still I saw incremental improvement.

So what’s going on at Randolph? What’s different this year? What factor can we point to? We need to know so that we can make sure it continues and further support the change. Any ideas?

Facebook–to Filter or Not to Filter?

In November, 2009 we created a Randolph Facebook page and we opened Facebook in school for everyone. We’re four months in and there’s some good news and some bad news about Facebook and it’s use in our District.

So what do you want first, the good news or the bad news? The good news is that our RCS Facebook page is 540 members strong and has proven to be another route of communication within our community. We post everything from news about our students’ success to when and where to go for Little League sign-ups. There’s not been one single problem or inappropriate comment left. Our extended Randolph family has found a place to connect.

Some of our teachers also have Facebook pages where they’re communicating with their students and parents about homework and class news. Sure they have the school website but I commend those teachers for meeting our students and parents where they are, on Facebook. The FB pages should all link from the website and should ALWAYS include parent access.

Another good thing is that complaints about texting in class are almost non-existent now. We’ve somewhat replaced texting as the mode of communication with Facebook. As one of our teachers noted, “this is the modern day passing of notes.”

Here’s the bad news. Overwhelmingly, our teachers report that Facebook is consuming our kids. Our labs are overflowing with students who want to get in there to do Facebook, not class projects or research or homework–Facebook. We have students with some serious academic needs who aren’t using school time to get any work done because they’re on Facebook every possible moment.

And who’s going to take an elective class when offered the option to go to a lab and talk to friends on Facebook instead? They’re teenagers. Social connections are more important to them than anything else, just as they were when we were in school. Sorry Teacher, but sometimes my friends are just way more interesting than your subject.

So how do we find any balance? We can’t easily filter by user. In other words, if you’re in good academic standing, you can be on Facebook during your study halls. If not, get to work. (Maybe that would be a great motivator!) We can’t filter by time of day–to have it open during the early morning and again at the end of the day. I’m thinking of this especially for our teachers who have no time at home to manage their school Facebook page due to family responsibilities. If we block it completely, they lose the time/convenience/ability to get on and update for their students and parents.

Teachers responded to my question of “how’s it going?” with endless comments about what a distraction Facebook has become. I think part of this is that our kids are able to work in multiple windows at the same time, working on a paper, checking Facebook for a few seconds, back to another source for the paper, back to writing and that’s hard for us to understand. The trouble seems to be that while some of our kids are really good at materials management—paper or on-line–others just aren’t. They’re not good at prioritizing or time management or work completion. Are we making it even harder for those students by offering them another distraction?

If we choose to block Facebook, you realize it’s a temporary “fix”, right? As our kids become more and more ‘wired’ with their own blackberries and ipods, they’ll be accessing Facebook and the web 24/7. At least when we battle the “no cell phones during my lesson” fight, we’re helping them learn that NOW is not the time. We have a lot of kids who aren’t figuring that out on their own.

Can’t wait to see the comments this post solicits. 😉 Our students will be leading a revolution over this–but you know what I suspect–most of them know that they or their friends are focusing way too much on Facebook and way too little on learning. What’s wrong with connecting on Facebook outside of the school day?

What Drives Us?

Fred Deutsch is a school board member in South Dakota who I’ve been reading at School-of-Thought for a while now. I am usually struck by how much the same things are for Fred in his district as they are for us in ours. He posted yesterday about a presentation he attended at a conference he’s at in DC. The presentation was by Daniel Pink about the three levels of what drives us.

I’m particularly interested because we sometimes  hear teachers or parents complaining that a child just isn’t motivated. Fred recounts the first two levels of drive and I completely agree with Pink’s assessment of those two followed by his thoughts here,

But it’s the third drive that Pink spent most of the session discussing with us — the concept that people will do things because it’s interesting, because people want to get better at it, or because people inherently want to make a difference in the world.

Go read Fred’s whole post for more information. The first two levels are certainly nice, but the third is what pushes me to do my best every day. How about you? How about our kids? As a teacher, don’t you strive to provide learning opportunities to students that are interesting or that help them see their place in the world or that allow them to improve with 21st century skills? Aren’t those the lessons that most “grab” every kid, pushing him to learn more intensely?

I wonder, perhaps Pink’s book Drive might be a great book study for those teachers thinking about focusing on motivation in their Professional Learning Networks next year?  I bet our teachers working together can figure it out for our kids, even for our most reluctant learners.