Friday, August 18, 2017

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 5

For years now, I imagined what I would say the first time I stepped in front of my staff as a principal. I had the chance this week, and while I'll leave what I said as a secret between my staff and me, I may or may not have been up on a table wearing neon colored 80's athletic gear while saying it.

Anyway, it was back to school for teachers this week and we finally had a chance to kick off this year! The energy was high, the morale is great, and we are ready to rumble! There are big plans in place to work hard this year on building positive culture, making great first impressions, and building student-leadership. We had a surprise visit from my buddy Michael Bonner on Thursday, and he was so gracious and humble with his words to my staff.

I am adjusting to what I consider the hardest part of being a principal so far - being able to switch content and conversations on the fly. On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, I had a meeting with the Exceptional Children's department about a compliance issue that involved maintenance, immediately followed by a meeting with Child Nutrition, immediately followed by a phone call with HR about an employee's paperwork, immediately followed by a meeting about the first day back for teachers, and then immediately followed by a call to the finance department. With each person I talk to (especially when it's back-to-back-to-back-to-back) the previous conversation's content is still in my head, so it's been a huge learning curve adjusting to the immediate switches that need to be made between conversations.

As teachers are back now, there are many, many conversations that happen as I pass someone in the hall. Most people just have quick questions, others need more planned sit-down meetings, but I am learning how to get people to write me a note or email so I don't forget. I am also learning how to delegate questions to others who can make decisions or complete tasks that I don't necessarily need to take of myself.

This coming week will bring Open House and final preparation for our first day of school! We're looking to go big! Many surprises to come for our scholars! Stay tuned!


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 4

Week 4 is in the books, and another busy week it was. This week was highlighted by a "Meet the Principal Night" at a local restaurant, where families were able to pop in and say hi to me and the many teachers who also joined. Meeting many of my scholars that night made this past month of endless work seem much more worth it. 

Friday morning was also a big undertaking, as Ms. Hart (my instructional facilitator) and I went around to almost 30 businesses to introduce ourselves and invite them to our "Community Day" that I will be hosting at the school in September. I am beyond fortunate that my school sits in the middle of what is one of the mostly densely populated areas for businesses in the city. We have literally hundreds of restaurants, stores, banks, organizations, and small businesses within two blocks. I still have many more places to visit, but this was a great start on Friday. The owners and managers who we met with were beyond friendly (it's a Southern thing) and I learned about businesses that I honestly would not have otherwise would have ever known about.

Thanks to my amazing custodians, I was able to invite the staff back in this week to set up their rooms. Many came in and began organizing, but I also realized the reality of having people in the building - it's hard to get anything done from start to finish since there is always someone who needs you. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I am going to need to learn to get things done in small chunks of time, since a sustained period where no one needs me does not appear to be a reality.

There are a number of dates that once seemed so far away that are now right around the corner, including this Thursday the 17th, which is when teachers officially come back. I am working on something special for the welcome back for my teachers! I just need a little magic to come through! I also have Open House and the first day of school just around the corner, which means it's "crunch time," and I am going to need all hands on deck to make many special things happen! Stay turned ...

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Inside the Trenches of the Principal: Week 3

Over 17 hours, 34 teachers and many conversations later, I now have a much better feeling on who the people are on the bus at Moore Magnet ES. I had the pleasure of listening to personal stories, dreams and wishes, and reflections from my teachers this week as I had these one-on-one meetings. It was their chance to let me know about themselves, ask me questions, but most importantly a chance for us to get to know each other.

While each person shared personal narratives, I couldn't help but to find threads that remained consistent through the conversations. I was pleased to hear the word "family" used time and time again as my teachers spoke about each other. I have been to many schools over the years that use that word loosely, almost as a lip service to what you're supposed to say when asked. But the use of the word "family" from my staff was unprompted. It was genuine. It was concrete as well. Several staff members shared stories how the Moore staff, at times, was the only sanity in their lives. I have a handful of teachers who have been there for 20+ years, and said that the staff was the reason they remain there year after year. How lucky am I that I get to walk into a place like that?!

Beyond the meetings this week, there was still much work that had to get done! From the Title 1 budget being completed to meetings with the Exceptional Children supervisors, things are coming together! I discovered that I have several artistically talented staff members, and there are a few who are doing special projects for me! At times I feel overwhelmed and I have definitely questioned if I am made for this job on several occasions already, but then there are the moments that I realize that there are great things going on and I'm having a blast in this new position. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Inside the Trenches as a Principal: Week 2

This past week can be summed up in one word: humbled.

I have interacted and worked alongside many principals over my career in a number of capacities. But ultimately, I was never the principal at the moment. This past week I took part in one day of a new principal training and then a three-day district leadership retreat with every principal and assistant principal in my county.

In addition to seeing many old friends and making even more new ones, I was humbled at the expertise and wisdom that my colleagues shared at all levels. We learned from each other. We shared ideas. We collaborated and grew. It was inspiring.

We also had fun. I was always told that "principals talk" and to never burn a bridge because your new principal is probably friends with your old one. I now see why this is absolutely true. Being in this group of principals now, it feels like a small community. A fraternity of sorts. Yes. we are all vying for the best teachers and all want to have our school be recognized, but ultimately, we are looking out for each other as well, and want to find ways to support each other.

The most common sentence I heard this past week was "Let me know how I can help you." That was refreshing to hear and I appreciated the immense support that my new colleagues gave to me and the other new principals.

This week was not all just learning though. It was action too! I was able to hire, continue transforming my office, working on my Title 1 budget, meeting with my admin team, working on back to school items, planning secret events (in case one of my teachers is reading this, I can't give it away!), organizing meetings, and much more.

Next week I have one-on-one meetings with my staff planned. I also meet with my PTA and many other district personnel who I will be interacting with throughout the year. I'm excited to start putting faces with names as we get closer to the start of the year!


Friday, July 21, 2017

Inside the Trenches: Being a Principal - Week 1

July 17, 2017, 12:30PM

Ms. Smith, the outgoing principal at Moore Magnet puts the master key into my hand. And I stood there for a second, frozen. I was officially principal.

I had dreamed of that moment for a long time, and wondered how it would feel. I found out quickly, as a sudden rush of excitement, confusion, and nerves set in. I had spent the morning going over a pile of forms, budgets, documents, data, to-do lists, and directories with Ms. Smith, and now it felt like I needed to tackle everything at once.

I didn't have much time to consider what needed to be done, though, since phone calls started coming in and I needed to start to meet with people. Tuesday came around, and the pile still sat on my table, untouched. The outgoing principal kindly and thankfully made me a detailed list of items that needed to be addressed most urgently, so I started studying that. By Wednesday, I finally had the time to start organizing my life and getting settled in, and most importantly, getting things done.

It felt good getting things checked off: meeting with my financial secretary to go over budget, finalizing the agenda, sitting down with my AP and Instructional Facilitator to go through resumes for the four positions I have to hire, making calls to Exceptional Children and Title 1 offices, unpacking my boxes of stuff, joining a webinar on the new hiring system in the district, calling in grade chairs to help reflect upon the schedule and finalizing it, hiring a counselor position, learning the school system's programs and tools, setting up meetings with teachers, making a video to welcome the staff and inviting them in to meet with me, learning the school halls and rooms, and so on.

I am learning that I need to rely on the people around me to make this all happen. I have always been a "I'll just do it" kind of person, but this job requires depending on my team to truly be successful. My AP, IF, lead secretary, central office staff, and teacher-leaders have all been so supportive, welcoming, and eager this week to get the ball rolling (even though most of them are technically on summer break), and if that's a sign of things to come, I can't wait to see what happens when we're all back together!

When I wrote Inside the Trenches, I shared stories of amazing principals and leaders I had met along the way in my travels. I spent many moments with these leaders, not always appreciating the behind the scenes work that went on, even though it was evident that it had happened. This first week on the job has given me an unprecedented appreciation for that work, and I am already looking forward to what next week will bring.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Rethinking Morning Work

The days of being an elementary school student, walking into class in the morning, completing a worksheet silently, and pulling out a book to read when you're done are over.

Wait. No they're not.

This age old practice continues in classrooms across the country and I am curious as to why. Teachers (including yours truly) have expressed frustration as a teacher with this routine:

- Students who always do their work complete it quickly and find it easy. Those who need practice the most either don't do it or can't do it.
- Students who come in late are either rushing to finish morning work or don't have time to do it.
- Even though students complete the work, you don't have time to review it.
- Students are talking to each other or are distracting each other when it is supposed to be quiet.
- The routine of morning work is boring and does not increase rigor since it's frequently comprehension or knowledge based problems.
- If you photocopy morning work you're battling for copy machine space. If you have a problem on the board, kids are finding gum-wrapper sized pieces of paper that they're solving the problems on.

.... and so on.

What if we were to rethink our mornings? What if mornings were a time where students were excited to come into class? What if students were doing activities that involved collaboration, strategy, creativity, rigor, problem-solving, critical thinking, or addressing various learning styles?

I first saw the idea of "Morning Choice" floating around on social media, but then saw it implemented in a basic version in one of my student teacher's classrooms last fall. Naturally, I was curious what it would look like in a true, full blown fashion!

I employed one of my former students at Wake Forest, now a first year teacher in Atlanta, to test this out. Here is her story:



When I first introduced the idea of Morning Choice to my class, the students’ faces lit up with excitement. The thought of coming into school and having the opportunity to work with their peers while doing something enjoyable was incredible to them. The thought of not having to come in silently, unpack, and be forced to complete a worksheet was a dream and unlike anything they had ever experienced! But, first thing’s first – clear expectations had to be established for this new morning routine to be successful!
I explained to my students that the goal of Morning Choice would be to provide them with alternative morning “work” that would promote critical 21st century skills, such as teamwork and collaboration. Ideally, after a few weeks of mastering the routine, they would be able to come in and choose a choice to go to independently each day. However, to start it off, they would be assigned to a choice each week until the routine and expectations were mastered. I gave my students the opportunity to complete a survey and rank their preferable choices. Then, I created a master schedule based on these preferences each week that listed the choices and which students were assigned to that specific choice. This was posted on the board and the choices were labeled around the room, making it very clear to each student where they were supposed to go and who they were working with for the week. At the elementary school I teach at, there is a five minute countdown until the announcements are on and the day officially begins. My students know that their choice station has to be cleaned up and they must be seated and ready to go by the time the countdown reaches zero and the announcements begin.
What if a student fails to meet the expectations or is not on task during Morning Choice? Well, in this class discussion, I also allowed the students to communicate and decide on consequences. By allowing the students to devise the consequences, I felt that they would be more likely to take ownership of their actions. The consequences my class agreed upon for being off task was eliminating the choice for the next morning and silently reading at their desk.
With the expectations set and the consequences established, Morning Choice was ready to go! I have 24 students in my classroom with six different “choice” options. These options provide for the students to demonstrate independent critical thinking skills, collaboration, artistic expression, communication, leadership, and problem solving. With only four students per group, it eliminates chaos and provides an opportunity for all students to work together and foster relationships with one another in a small group setting. The groups change weekly, as the student locations at each choice also change weekly. This provides for variation and allows students to constantly be working with different classmates. Additionally, all groups can function with one person at a time, so when the other students arrive they can join right in and the first person is not dependent upon the arrival of their classmates.
Here’s a look at the choices in my classroom:
Choice 1 – Artistic Expression. The students have the option to paint, draw, or color at this choice. Students will have the entire week to complete their creation, or two. At the end of the week, their artwork is framed and hung up on a wall in our classroom, giving the students a sense of ownership of their learning space and they are proud that everyone who enters the classroom gets to observe their success!
Choice 2 – Problem Solving. There are a variety of different problem solving activities at this choice for students to choose from and can be completed independently or together. These activities include, Balance Beans, mazes, and Jigsaw puzzles. All activities encourage students to challenge themselves and use critical thinking skills to complete a task or create a design.    
Choice 3 – Computer Time. As students are assigned this choice, they enhance their math fluency skills by supporting our school wide program – FirstInMath. Within this program, students compete against one another in the class, in the grade level, in the school, and in the district with different math fluency games and problem solving activities. For each grade level, there is a “Player of the Week” and a “Team of the Week.” Students are motivated to come in and get to work to win for our grade level and help our classroom be the team of the week!


 


Choice 4 – Collaboration. At this choice, students use Legos to design and build different structures. Students can either create their own or look at a task card and complete the task to the best of their ability. Sometimes students will also challenge each other and race to see who can be the first to successfully complete the task.  The students are very excited about this station and often want me to photograph what they have created!
Choice 5 – Leadership. One goal I had for my students this year, as they are in their final year of elementary school, is to feel a sense of leadership. They are the oldest students in the building and I strive for the rest of the students, faculty, and staff to view them as leaders as well. One way this has been achieved is by teaming up with a kindergarten classroom to have some of my students review sight words with them or read them stories in the morning. Not only does this help the kindergartners grow and learn, but my students are challenged with devising creative ways to help them reach their success! They love having the younger classes look up to them and wave at them in the hallways as we pass by!
Choice 6 – Game Time.  This choice promotes good old fashioned fun and team work by playing games with one another. There is an independent game for the first student that arrives. However, once more classmates arrive, students will engage in games such as Headbanz, Guess Who, and Trouble - all games in which critical thinking and problem solving are required for winning.
Overall, Morning Choice has drastically transformed the culture and classroom atmosphere early in the morning to start the day! Students rush to unpack their things so they can get to their choice for the morning. They appreciate beginning their day completing a task they enjoy without the stress of having to ensure they complete a worksheet or something that will count as a grade. From a teacher’s perspective, it is a much more enjoyable start to the day to have students come in and working together. It provides for much opportunity to build relationships with the students, communicate with them, and help them work on skills that are essential in the 21st century.  This positive classroom environment early in the morning sets the stage for a successful rest of the day! 
Thank you to Ms. Siragusa and her 5th grade class for sharing her Morning Choice!

For more ideas for your classroom, check out my book Inside the Trenches! You can also follow Adam on Twitter and Instagram @adamdovico.

New pictures from Ms. Siragusa's classroom during Morning Choice! (It was mustache day, so don't be alarmed, they're still regular 5th graders!)