Saturday, July 23, 2022

So You Want to be a Presenter? Part 1

Over the past dozen years, I have had the opportunity to travel across the country and do something that I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be able to do as an educator: make money presenting and speaking. What started as a part of my job working at the Ron Clark Academy (since professional development is offered weekly to visiting educators), branched off into an amazing ride by delivering presentations, workshops, model lessons, and keynotes at schools, districts, convocations, and conferences. 

Without fail, after any presentation, I will meet someone who asks "How do I get into this?" There are certain people who thrive on stage, and they are hungry to share knowledge, experience, and insight into the profession. If you are reading this and think "this might be me," then here are five tips for getting into the presenting world:

1) Discover your content: If you're going to present, you need content to present on. Figure out what you are most passionate and informed about. Simultaneously, keep an ear out for topics and areas that educators are interested in at the moment. If you can combine your experiences with topics that are pertinent, it will make you marketable and engage an audience. A few "hot" topics at the moment that I have witnessed: school culture, running small groups (math and reading), technology integration, culturally responsive instruction, science of reading, classroom management, and restorative practices.

2) Start simple: It can be tempting to want to start speaking in front of hundreds or thousands of people right away. While there are some people who may be ready for that, I suggest starting local. Presenting in front of your own staff or at a local/regional/state conference is a great way to try out your material, learn how to work an audience, and test out timing. Once you gain experience and confidence in your presenting, start applying to national conferences.  

3) Network: When you are at a conference, talk to people. Take pictures. Exchange information. By connecting with people, you are building a network, which could potentially lead to more opportunities to present. 

4) Build a brand: Let's say you meet someone and they are interested in bringing you to present, there is a good chance they will Google you. If the only thing that pops up is your picture and bio from your school's webpage, they are not learning much about you. If you are serious about presenting, you need to give people a way to get to know you. Building a brand may include having a professional webpage, social media accounts, or a YouTube channel with clips of you presenting. 

5) Study: As important as it is to have your own style, you can learn a lot about presenting by watching those who excel. When you find presenters who engage you (either in person or on video), study them. Take note of what they do. There are many subtle presenting tricks (as will be discussed in part 2) that you can learn by watching those who are professional speakers. 

The presenting world can be enthralling and energizing, but it can also be vicious. Thick skin is important to develop. Think of the presentations you've sat through over the years. Did you enjoy each one? Probably not. So it is important to remember that not everyone who listens to you is going to like you. Not everyone is going to agree with you. When you receive survey results back, be reflective, but don't let one negative comment demoralize you - because it can if you let it. Remember that you have been given the stage by someone who believes in you, so believe in yourself.

If this motivated you to think more about the world of presenting, part 2 of this will talk more about the nitty gritty of being up on stage. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Human Battleship

Back in about 2016, "giant" games were all the rage in classrooms. Giant Jenga, Giant Kerplunk, Giant Checkers, and so on. Traditional games were coming to life in larger sizes, and I got on the bandwagon with a twist on a fun pasttime for one of my student teachers. I was a clinical professor at this time and she was finishing up her student teaching. I asked her if she wanted to go in on a game of Human Battleship with me, and she gladly accepted. 

It was a blast to do in her class all those years ago, and for some reason I just hadn't done it since. Until now. As my classrooms at school are reviewing the year's content, I wanted to offer them an alternative way to make review fun. If you're interested in learning how to set up and play, here's how I did it:

1) Went to Lowes Hardware and purchased a blue/green tarp that can be found in the lawn and garden section. I got 10' x 12' for about $15.

2) Also bought bright yellow duct tape and painters tape. 

3) Laid out the tarp flat on the ground and taped down a 5 by 5 grid with the yellow duct tape on both sides of the tarp.

4) Made "hit" (explosion graphic) and "miss" (a red X graphic) cards that could be used during the game. Laminated them and placed Velcro dots on the back. The other half of the Velcro dot goes inside the 5 by 5 grid you made on the tarp.  

5) Hang up the tarp in the classroom where this will be played. If your tarp has grommets (eyelets) and you have a drop ceiling, you can open up paper clips and attach it to the cross sections of the ceiling. You may need to get more creative if you have less traditional classroom ceilings or you are not given permission to hang from the ceiling. 

6) On the floor of the classroom, make a 90" x 90" grid on each side of the tarp using the painter's tape. 

7) Make four sets of A-E and 1-5 cards. Two sets go on the tarp grid, and two sets go on the floor grid. 

How to play:

Materials: Dry erase board, marker, and eraser per student; questions to ask students

1) Students break into two teams. Depending on how many students, determine how many "ships" you want to have and of how many. For example, if you have 20 students, you would have 10 on each side. From there you need 1 captain, and then the remaining 9 can make one ship of 4, one of three, and one of 2. Alternatively, you can have three ships of 3. It's up to you. 

2) The "ships" find a place on the floor grid. Be sure they arrange either horizontally or vertically. 

3) The captain can move around, but must stay within the floor grid.

4) Teacher asks a question. Every single student works out the problem.

5) After an appropriate amount of time (try to keep it brief), the "human ships" show the captain their dry erase boards. The captain then must decide if their answer is affirmed, or if it may need to be changed. The captain's answer is the only answer that counts for the team.

6) If a captain gets the answer correct, they get to "fire" over to the other side by calling out coordinates. If both teams get the question right, both teams get to fire. If the "fire" is a miss, the captain places the miss card onto the tarp grid. If the fire is a hit, they place the hit card on the tarp grid.
6a) In addition, if there is a hit, the person who was hit switches with the captain and becomes the new captain. The person who was the captain sits down in the spot that was hit. This is so more people get to be the captain. Remember, everyone still participates with each question, even if they are sitting because of a hit.

7) The game continues until you run out of time or all ships have been sunk. I would recommend throughout the game marking questions that a large portion of students miss so they can be reviewed afterwards. 

That's the general overview of how I've played the game. You can, of course, modify to meet your needs, but a few final tips:

1) Keep the pace moving. Not everyone needs to finish every problem in order for you to have them show their boards to the captain.

2) Make sure students stay in their square. When students start moving around it makes it hard to say hit or miss.

3) Only allow the captain to "fire" coordinates and to place the hit and miss cards on the tarp. Otherwise you will have too many hands in the pot, so to speak. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

5 Daily Rituals as a Principal

There is no silver bullet for how to be an effective principal. If you ask 100 principals what is their strategy in running a school, you'll likely get 100 different answers. Styles vary, but quality doesn't. Be the best principal you know how to be, and then add strategies to your repertoire as you learn from others. For me, my mantra was being pro-active. I wanted to be ahead of the curve at my school, and I used these five daily rituals that I held close to my heart to help reach that goal:

1) Greet each morning: If you ever needed me in the morning, you would find me at the car rider line greeting students as they walked in. As my safety patrol opened doors, students got out of the car and shook my hand as they walked into the building. It allowed me to quickly assess if there were any students possibly having an off morning and then follow up later. My assistant principal did the same at buses.

2) Every classroom, every day: I spent the first part of my morning visiting (even if for a few seconds) every classroom. Visibility matters, and students and staff knowing that you are there for them was important to me. It was an easy way to get a pulse for how everyone was doing that day. 

3) Assistant principal check-in: My AP and I checked in with each other at least once (usually way more) daily. This allowed us to discuss any tasks, issues, updates, events, and so on that were happening in the school. Sometimes it was just for a few seconds, sometimes minutes, but it was important to us to be on the same page with everything going on.

4) Reward the positive: There are no shortage of negative situations that come across your desk. Student behavior can get the best of your day, and before you know it, all you've done is discipline. While I have yet to meet an administrator who learned how to completely eliminate that from their school, I wanted to make sure I took the time to reward the positive behaviors first. If you school has any type of positive reward system (we had Houses and students earned points for them), be on the lookout for the great things going on. I realized that when my mindset was looking for the positive, I did not get as overwhelmed by the negative. 

5) Inbox scan: Before I left for the day, I made sure that I had viewed every email that had come through that day. That doesn't mean I responded or had taken action on them all, but if there was an urgent action or pressing situation, it would not be sitting unaddressed overnight. The rest of them would be fine to take care of later.

Having these five daily rituals helped me get through the tough days and make most days easier. What are some of your daily rituals as an administrator? 

Sunday, February 6, 2022

The Idiots Guide to How Your Kids Are Learning to Read in School

Over the course of my first decade or so in education, I admittedly had little knowledge on what was happening with the little friends down the hall from me in the Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade classrooms when it came to reading instruction. I later realized that those primary teachers are building the foundations for reading instruction that would later benefit me as an upper grades reading teacher. 

For the past decade now, I have had the opportunity to learn, grow, and experience the foundational literacy instruction that once was so foreign to me. I am still learning new elements every day, as my state (North Carolina) has introduced a statewide training for all K-5 teachers on what is called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. But what I want to share here is a simple guide for all my friends who are not educators, or not primary teachers, about what your child is learning (or not learning) in K-2 literacy. Hopefully this helps demystify things a bit, but also may help better support your children at home. I am going to approach this from a Q&A format, that way I can add more things later on as people read and discuss this. 

What is literacy instruction?

 A lot of things. In the K-2 realm, which is what we are focusing on, it can include skills like holding a book properly, reading left to right, identifying letter names and sounds (including phonics, or the smallest unit of sound in speech), breaking down words into their smallest units of meaning, spelling, rhyming words, consonant blends, vowel teams, vocabulary, listening to stories, identifying text features (e.g. title, author, illustrator. table of contents), writing (which includes things like pencil grips, letter formation, punctuation, forming sentences, writing left to right, etc.), just to name a few!

Does my kid have a reading program at their school?

There's a good chance they do. The benefit of having a schoolwide or districtwide reading program is that it can provide consistency and spiraling in literacy instruction over the course of many years. The downside is that an ineffective program or a teacher who is ineffective at differentiating the program for their students may struggle with teaching it, ultimately stunting the reading growth of the child.

There are many, many reading programs that all claim to teach students how to read. The way it works is these companies make pitches to schools and school districts to convince them to adapt their program. They will present every bit of "research" that went into their program, which may or may not be based on actual research or science. Eventually, a program director, principal, or decision maker agrees to bring the program to the school. Typically the program will come with some combination of text books, teacher manuals, supplemental readers, and workbooks. This is probably what most parents see from their children and remember from their own childhood. The reality is that when new leadership comes in, oftentimes that means new textbook or program adoptions take place. This ultimately makes fidelity of a program hard to accomplish.

But wait, my child does a bunch of reading on the computer too!

Yes, ed-tech companies realized that there is money to be made in the digital world, so your child or your child's teacher may have a subscription to online programs like Reading A-Z, Prodigy, EPIC, Starfall, ABCYa, ReadWorks, Newsela, just to name a few. Some of these programs have been gamified, making them attractive to students. Ultimately, there is likely a healthy mix of core reading instruction that can be done in the classroom, supplemented by these online literacy programs for students. These programs should not be used as the primary means of teaching students how to read or relied upon to serve as a core reading program.

So when I was young I remember the blue birds and red robin groups. Do those still exist?

It's a complex answer. Do teachers still pull small groups of students to a table? Yes. Does it mean that there are low readers and the high readers separated into groups? It depends on how you look at it. Most primary teachers do differentiate reading groups based on the need of the students. The best teachers will use data to determine common needs among a small group of students and pull them to focus on that specific skill. These groups should be be fluid, and based on specific need, so a "high reader" may be struggling with a foundational skill, so they can be pulled in a group that day with other students who may or may not be high readers. Ultimately, the effectiveness of a small group will be on the ability of the teacher to reach the students on their areas of need using sound literacy instruction strategies. 

I also saw something on Facebook about this argument between science of reading and whole language teaching. Is the beef real?

Not really. You know how people like to argue about anything these days. Essentially, there are different opinions (I know, shocking) about the best way to teach reading. As I mentioned above, my state has moved towards the science of reading since it is based in well, science. That's not to say the others are wrong, but there have certainly been holes punched in other previously accepted methods of reading instruction. Instead of me trying to rehash what others have done, here's a nice blog about the science of reading if you're interested.

My 5-year old's teacher said that they can read on a 5th grade level. Should they skip grades? 

No. What the teacher may be implying is that your kid has the fluency skills to read the words of a fifth grade text. What they are unlikely to do in 99% of the cases I've seen of this is understand the context and content of the text. For example, if I asked you to read this passage below, I bet you could pretty easily read the words. But would you be able to engage in an interactive conversation about it with others? If the answer is no, then you have realized the difference between a 5 year old reading a 5th grade level passage and fully understanding it.

They took a score of three in the second when Dodds missed a chance to promote a guard stone, and did the same in the fourth to lead 6-3 at the halfway stage. A fluffed take-out shot set up Dodds to clinch three and level the match at 7-7 heading into the last end, but Switzerland took one to seal victory. Earlier, Canada had the final-stone advantage against GB, only for Dodds to punish a mistake and pinch the point that made sure of the win.

You get the point. And by the way, this is a curling article from the Winter Olympics.

I'm worried my kid is not reading well, but the teacher doesn't seem worried. Should I be worried? I think I should be worried.

We live in a society obsessed with comparisons, and so if you are talking to your best friend and their kid is reading independently before kindergarten, you may think my kid must be behind. They're not. Don't worry. Every kid picks things up at different rates. Some kids pick up reading at an earlier age. Once your child starts school, you may start seeing reports sent home about their reading levels...

What do these reading reports actually mean?

In some schools, you will have teachers who do what is called progress monitoring, which is literally monitoring the progress of the student's literacy skills. Sometimes this is done on paper and pencil, other times it is electronic or through a software that computes nationally normed percentages. At the end of the day, what you're looking for from data point to data point is growth. For example, if your kindergartener recognized 7 letters in August, 9 in September, 14 in October, they're making progress. Now the conversation you would want to have with the teacher is whether or not the rate of progress is sufficient enough so they do not fall behind later on. If you are concerned about the progress of your child, there are ways to help. 

So what can I do at home to help support my child?

First and foremost, have books in the home. There are studies that show even the presence of books in the home increase literacy rates. If you need assistance getting books, ask your child's teacher or school counselor, who is likely to have resources to help obtain books. Next, read to your child each day. Model good reading habits and engage in discourse around what you read. You can also support the more refined literacy instruction in the classroom by practicing letter names and sounds, Once your child becomes comfortable reading independently, have them read to you, or do a shared reading (taking turns). If there is a specific concern or skill that the teacher has shared with you that your child can work on, there are plenty of resources on the internet that can help supplement the need. It may be as simple as flashcards.

Is that it? That's everything I need to know?

Absolutely not. There are a thousand variables that go into how and when a child learns to read. Far too much to be written in a single blog. Here's my final advice:

Have open and honest lines of communication with your child's teacher. Work with them to support your child's reading progress and build a love for reading in your household. Accept that reading comes in many forms, including comics, graphic novels, and audio books. The foundations of reading are vital to the success of a skilled reader later on, so early exposure to books and literacy skills are a great way to set your child up for a lifetime of reading enjoyment.