Don’t underestimate the power of a teacher

I spent the morning working with educators from two school districts and with representatives of the Seneca Nation regarding drop out prevention. The group was formed after an initial meeting with school superintendents and Seneca Nation representatives about the consideration of an alternative school on the Cattaraugus territory. The intent was to provide another opportunity, another way for our Native American students who are not succeeding in our public schools. 

I should mention that approximately 27% of our students are Native American and too many are lost to us before graduation. Not only is it of paramount interest to me as the principal, but also to our teachers, superintendent, BOE members, and community. It’s a fight we can’t afford to lose. 

At the initial meeting, there were those of us who said, “Wait a minute”. Before we consider the evolution of an alternative setting, let’s talk about how we’re currently serving our students. Or more to the point, let’s talk about how we may be falling down. My hope would be that we could be that alternative school, that place where all students can find success. And before we look for another way, let’s make sure that we’re getting it right for as many students as possible. 

This led us to the thought that we should form focus groups and listen to the students. While several studies have been conducted over the past ten years, not much ever seems to change as a result. What if we started to think differently? What if we ask our students questions directly about curriculum and instruction? Questions like what works for you in school; what is keeping you from doing well in class; which is the best way for you to learn; with which teachers do you do the best and what is it that they do that makes that happen; in what classes are you always willing to participate; what challenges you the most; what are the characteristics of the adults who matter most to you; do you feel emotionally safe in school–why or why not; what kinds of things would you like to do in the classroom?

So that’s how we’ll proceed. There are a lot of other details I haven’t mentioned like the group or individual interview formats chosen, the communication with parents and community members, the formulation of a meaningful action plan, and the students we’ll involve. But there’s something about the whole process that keeps playing over and over in my mind. They are all items that are within our realm of control and responsibility. I’m reminded again of the power of a teacher. The teacher is the variable in the classroom, he is the only person who can effectively change what happens based on what our students tell us. She has the incredible power to make a difference. If we only listen and endeavor to connect, to adapt and to constantly strive for engagement. 

We acknowledge that there may be circumstances in students’ lives that are overwhelming to any school experience we may provide. We know some of our students have huge obstacles to overcome. We also know we employ some of the best teachers in the state. I hope they come back in September rejuvenated, hopeful, and willing to assume responsibility for instruction. When they come back, I’ll be hopeful that they’re willing to listen and that we can get past any ideas that it’s “these kids and we’re doing the best we can with them”, ideas which only deflect responsibility. Because while I acknowledge that some of the needs seem insurmountable at times, “these kids” are entrusted to us, they need education, and we’re what they’re given. They deserve everything we’ve got and more.




Does blogging enhance or replace?

I’ve been thinking about comments posted by Carol as a response to my previous post entitled “What’s education got to do with it?” She poses some interesting questions about the effects of technology on traditional pedagogy. Should it replace traditional instruction? Is it necessary to always stimulate the student? How can blogging be used effectively in the classroom?

I’m struck by the feeling of “in with the new, out with the old”. I would hope that no classroom teacher would ever feel it necessary to abandon effective, time proven strategies that engage students. I certainly remember the teaching experience of taking a lesson from a pen and paper exercise to a technology driven exercise, and realizing I’d spent much more time and students had gained nothing more. Every effective teacher I know switches things up in the classroom. And some of the best lessons I’ve observed have been student centered lectures where teachers effectively weave thought provoking questions and connections into the fabric of the lesson. That can be very good teaching.

So the question remains do we always have to stimulate the student? I answer with a resounding yes. Good instruction is meaningful, it makes connections, it engages students in the learning, it sparks curiosity, it stays with a student and it is the teacher’s responsibility. Why would engagement, or stimulation, be considered to be in conflict with academics?

How do I think blogging can be used effectively in the classroom? I think we allow students to research a passion or a content specific topic thoroughly, to consider the ideas of others, to respond in an intelligent, thoughtful manner in a blog, and to look forward to the comments received.  If students have real choice in what they want to study and to read critically about, especially in the subject area of ELA, and if they are allowed to write about that topic and to look for input from others who are experts, it will have more meaning than when they complete a project which is of interest to the teacher.

High school should be a place where students get something to say about what they’re studying. In New York State, much of that has been taken away through the requirements for graduation. Why not add blogging to the mix in teaching critical analysis with meaningful reading and writing?

Blogging as Professional Growth

Here’s the amazing thing about blogging for me. When I go home to my family or talk to friends, noone really wants to talk about education, or my ideas, or drop out prevention, or student achievement. My standard response to “how was your day?” is “great” and that’s about it. But I still have my students, school and it’s challenges swirling around in my head a substantial percentage of the time. So now I find blogging and it’s an instant connection to others who are interested in the same thing.

My primary responsibility at work is to solve problems. Some small, some big. And I don’t have all of the answers. Some days I wonder if I have any of the answers. But I now have a place to post the questions and amazingly, answers come back to me. Thoughtful, helpful answers. How great is that?

With a minimal budget for my own professional growth, I now have an ongoing source for creative ideas and I don’t even have to leave school. Now if I can just think of ways to get my teachers hooked, building their own professional learning communities. And then if I can think of ways to get my students hooked, where they actually care about what they’re writing and get excited about the responses.

What’s education got to do with it?

Let me get this straight. I spent three days learning about wikis, blogs, RSS feeds, and various websites that I found totally intriguing and NEW. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been blown away by a new idea. Now I’ll admit, I usually don’t have time for those who will tell me why something won’t work. And there are plenty of people happy to see every change and new idea from that perspective. I’ve learned to at least listen to them, because they often help me to avoid some problems. But I’m not listening now. That’s right, I’m looking this whole fear issue, call it cautiousness if you like, and staring it down. Because that’s what it is when schools filter everything and avoid, it’s fear of the unknown, it’s ignorance, and it’s cowardice.

This technology was all new to me less than a week ago. Granted, it takes more to trouble me than some, but I’m a parent and a principal and I can’t think of a better way for our students to learn about the new opportunities on the web than from us. I’m honestly wondering why we’re not teaching kids in our computer apps classes exactly what I just learned from Will. Look, I’ve got a 14 year old son and a 19 year old daughter and I’m pretty sure they’re going to find out about the big bad blogging world one way or the other. I’d just rather it be openly and honestly from me with thoughtful discussion about what to do when confronted with what (if I’ve done a decent job at all) they’ll know they shouldn’t be looking at in the first place.

I hope we raise smart, curious kids who want to know what’s available, and who read and compose thoughtful blogs, sharing meaningful ideas with peers. I also hope this helps every high school student who feels like no one understands him (!) connect with someone out there who does, who shares her passion for horses or guitar or whatever, and can engage him in a thoughtful discussion. How many times does a student have a passion, an interest, a hobby that he learns to abandon in high school because his peers deem it uncool? Blogging provides a place to meet others with the same interests.

Will Richardson said –“The biggest shift is not the technology, not the practice, not even the implementation. It’s the cultural, social shift that moves us from the idea that we must prevent our kids from seeing and engaging with this “stuff” to the idea that says, look…it’s a different world…they’re going to find sex and porn and bad stuff and bad people no matter how hard we try to keep them from it, but when we weigh that fact against the incredible learning potential that the Web provides, we’re going to choose to educate rather try to block and filter it all.”

If schools say no way to all of this, if we block it, who are we kidding? It’s still there, kids are still curious (thank goodness) and we’re left out of the equation. Bring it on blogging world. If I have anything to say about it, G-Town will be open to it, will talk about it, will teach it. And our students will be better prepared for the workforce and better able to compete against all of the students coming out of the dark districts that forbid it. Education has everything to do with it. Keep teaching the teachers Will, it’s the only way we’re going to get there. Thank you for teaching me.

Huck Finn

I’m wondering about the use of Huck Finn as a novel for tenth grade students. Our English teacher is committed to the use of the novel, spends approximately ten weeks teaching it, and has limited success. Approximately 32% of the students fail the class during this marking period, many refusing to participate for the duration of the unit. They HATE it. Honestly, he works hard and tries multiple methods to reach all students, feels it’s absolutely a necessary classic for this class. As the principal, I struggle with supporting the teacher’s right to make decisions about content and novels and rigor and the failure rate.

 Is this an appropriate novel? Are there other classics that are better suited to our more reluctant learners? Are the difficulties with literacy in our student population compounded on a novel such as Huck Finn? How do I respond to my teacher’s total commitment to this novel if it’s not the best choice? Do I just support him and continue to force the novel for all students? This tenth grade course literally becomes a stumbling block to graduation for a number of students. I clearly support the high expectations for our students, but am not sure Huck Finn is worth the fight.

Cell phones, etc. in schools

Thinking about the students in our schools, their MP3 players, cell phones, and PSP’s that teachers are forever confiscating and turning into my office for “discipline”, I’m imagining there must be a better solution. Couple this question with the idea that my personal opinion on the subject is that students will always use the gadgets that they love and what’s wrong with that anyway? How do we reconcile the students’ desire to text and connect to friends 24/7 with the teachers’ need to engage the student? Maybe that’s the answer. If the students are engaged and interested in the learning, they won’t be more interested in the next text message. Is good teaching alone the answer? I think it certainly helps but why can’t we figure out a way to engage students using the technology that they are so comfortable with in a meaningful way that furthers our educational goals?

How do we embrace that which we cannot nor should not eliminate? How do we use it to our educational advantage in engaging students with our content?

About Kimberly Moritz

I am the proud superintendent of schools for the Randolph Central School District, with about 1000 of the greatest students on the planet. We are improving every year, with a supportive and caring climate, wonderful teachers, and a strong administrative team and Board of Education. Randolph is in rural Western New York and includes my favorite place in the world, the Allegany Reservoir, aka Kinzua.

I am also the happily married mother of two, Bryna who is our beautiful daughter and Tallon who is our wonderful son. Bryna is studying education at SUNY Fredonia and Tallon is a junior in high school. My husband of many years, Derek, is a major motor head and enjoys fast boats, fast cars, and fast snowmobiles. Me? I like our big old houseboat better, where I can sit quietly with a book and watch the fast boat go by.