30 January 2014

January 2014 Reads

Since December doesn't count for my 52 books in 52 weeks reading journey, I'll begin my notations and reflections about the books I read this month.  You can read more about my decision to begin this journey here.

The first book I read in 2014 was 46 Days:  Keeping Up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail by Brew Davis, and really my decision for it being the first book to read came from my impatience in waiting for Called Again to arrive in the mail.  You see, while I was visiting my family in Western North Carolina during Christmas break, I learned about Jennifer Pharr Davis from my sister, Beth (who is also a hiker).  While we were in North Carolina I finished reading Wild and talked to Beth about how much I was enjoyed Strayed's journey of her thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Beth grew more interested in the memoir and then told me that she heard of a woman from the Asheville area who had hiked the entire Applachain Trail in 46 days. Naturally, I was intrigued, so Beth and I spent the next hour or so searching the internet for information about this woman who hiked the AT in 46 days.  I found her blog, and since I'm a blogger and hiker, too, I added it to my regular reading list. This month there was even a post by her husband who compared his wife's first book Becoming Odyssa to Cheryl Strayed's Wild.  I encourage you to check it out.

Upon returning home to Lexington, I immediately checked our local Lexington libraries for copies of Called Again, but they were all checked out, and I didn't want to wait, so I used a gift card I received at Christmas to order the book.  Still impatient to read about her story, I looked for an e-version, and that's when I learned about the book written by her husband.  I promptly purchased, downloaded, and proceeded to read 46 days in its entirety in a single evening.  I appreciated the details about the amount of calories she consumed per day, the number of miles she hiked, and the lack of sleep she endured all to accomplish her goal of setting the record for fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

When Called AgainA Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis arrived in the mail a few days later, I felt already familiar with the story and the details and was able to enjoy the author's writing and reflection of the journey.  I relished in the descriptions of the places along the trail because I have hiked sections of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina.  I read this book in exactly one week.

Knowing I was leaving for a week long work related trip, I decided to grab a longer book to enjoy on the plane and in the evenings at my hotel.  A friend had previously recommended The Aviator's Wife to me, so that was next on my January reading list.  I started reading it the Saturday before leaving on my trip, and honestly, spent the entire day struggling to enjoy it.  I kept talking about it with my husband who reminded me--"you know--it's okay not to like a book!"  I decided to give it a few more chapters before setting it aside in search of something I would enjoy more.  I'm glad I kept with it because by the half way point, it became much more interesting and engaging to me.  I still wouldn't rank it at the top of my personal favorites, but I'm glad I read it, and I did enjoy it by the end because I liked the characters and the time period.  This book took me a week and half, and I finished it right after returning home from my week in Colorado.

Yet another trip was on my calendar, so I checked our bookshelves at home for books I hadn't yet read.  Luckily, my husband is also a reader, so there's always something waiting on the shelves for me.  I pulled Girl Interrupted for my plane ride to Washington D.C..  By the first night I had finished this short (and excellent) memoir by Susanna Kaysen.  Topics of mental health have been intersesting to me since my college days and all my psyhology/counseloing courses.

Obviously, I couldn't be on a trip and out of reading material, so I purused my saved New York Times articles and book reviews for something I might enjoy.  Cheryl Strayed's review of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala immediately caught my interest, so I decided to give my e-reader another try on this one.  The rich and powerful story of Deraniyagla losing her entire family in the 2004 tsunami was beautifully written, taking me into the author's thoughts and life for the past 9-10 years.  Her sons were just slightly older than mine at the time of their death, and her husband, an academic, only slightly older than mine.  The story was heart wrenching, but I couldn't put it down.  Something inside me needed to know Deraniyagala would work through her grief and that she would share that process in the memoir. 

27 January 2014

EQUIP: Educators Evaluating Quality Instructional Products

The Opportunity
 Since leaving the high school classroom a few years ago,  I have worked in jobs where I have been facilitating workgroups and convening people for the creation of collaborative products and/or processes, so when I learned of an opportunity to be part of a workgroup myself, I decided to apply. A few months ago, Achieve's EQuIP initiative placed a national call for reviewers to serve on a panel that would review Common Core aligned lessons and units.  I decided to apply and am certainly glad I spent the time and brain power to do so.  The application process required me to use EQuIP's rubrics to review CCSS lessons and units and provide feedback to the unit developers.  I submitted my review and feedback which was then double-blind scored for effectiveness and accuracy according to previously established norms.  A few weeks later, I received an invitation to sit on the Educators Evaluating Quality Instructional Products Peer Review Panel.

Last week I left the snow and frigid temperatures of Lexington, Kentucky and flew to Washington National Airport where it was actually just slightly warmer than it was when I left Lexington.  I headed to the Westin Arlington Gateway and an evening reception where I met some of the educators from across the country with whom I would work for the next two days.  I met classroom teachers as well as other people like me who support teachers (my day job) and teach teachers (my adjunct gig).

The Process   

Our meeting objectives
  • Norm the use of the EQuIP Rubrics and Quality Review Process 
  • Deepen the ability of peer reviewers to write constructive and criterion-based feedback
  • Calibrate overall ratings among peer reviewers in each content area grade-band cohort
  • Review CCSS aligned instructional materials

We began working toward these objectives early on the first full day, and we engaged in rich and meaningful conversations about the Common Core and constructive feedback.  For those of us familiar with providing this type of feedback to students, the feedback Achieve was seeking for us to provide on the unit reviews made complete sense.  After these conversations, we reviewed a common unit and used the EQuIP rubrics and feedback forms to evaluate the unit and practice providing constructive feedback. 

Prior to attending the meeting we each used the tools and rubrics to evaluate a unit.  When we came together, we then calibrated ourselves with our table groups and the whole group to ensure norming as well as deep understanding of the rubric. This led to robust conversations about how we understand the rubrics.  We practiced again on two additional units; each time the conversations after our individual evaluations were essential to the overall process.

The Achieve team formatively assessed our progress and adjusted the meeting goals as the two days progressed.  By the time we left at the end of the second day, I felt extremely confident in the forthcoming work.  We will work individually to evaluate and provide feedback on units that are sent to us in the coming months, and then we will conference call with a small group to discuss our evaluations and work toward a collective feedback form.  Therefore, anyone receiving feedback on units will know their work has been reviewed using a highly calibrated model by multiple individuals collectively.

The Tools

We used the EQuIP rubrics and learned about training materials available if we wish to use them in our own states, districts, and schools.  The rubrics and the feedback forms are organized around four dimensions.

I.     Alignment to the Depth of the CCSS
II.    Key Shifts in the CCSS
III.   Instructional Supports
IV.   Assessment


The Takeaways

The tools, processes and experiences will be useful to me in my day job leading the Common Assignment Study for Kentucky as well as in my work with future English teachers from our local university.  I see us using these tools to engage in discussion and to make professional judgments about the products we create.

Two intense days of conversation were a good reminder of how teachers I support might feel when they are working collaboratively with other educators from across the country.  We certainly all have Core standards in common as well as an understanding of Key Instructional Shifts that came with the CCSS, but we also all have our own professional judgment and expertise.  I was pleased to hear our Achieve facilitators say "This is not scientific; it requires professional judgment."  I appreciate this statement because I feel it honors teachers as professionals, especially when teachers are the ones developing units or lessons. 

25 January 2014

Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching in Kentucky

Just under a year ago, a few educator colleagues and I had a dream, and it all started with my friend, Sherri, telling us about what we were about to experience as we prepared to attend the national ECET2 conference in California. At this national conference, I met a fellow Kentucky educator whom I had never before met because he was from another part of the state.  When we returned home to Kentucky, many of the Kentucky ECET attendees began a twitter campaign and tweeted our hearts out because of Sherri's inspiration before we even attended the conference.  Sherri had a dream that we would put on a similar conference here in Kentucky for our teacher friends.  Today, that dream became a reality.  Even in the midst of a Kentucky snowstorm, teachers braved the elements to come together in Lexington to elevate and celebrate our profession.

Classroom teachers led our day, from our Master of Ceremonies (a high school social studies teacher) to our opening keynote (Sherri) to our breakout sessions (teachers from all subjects and grade levels), to our colleague circle groups (teachers from all grades and subjects) to our lunch keynote speaker (Florida 2010 Teacher of the Year, Megan Allen) to our closing speaker, a 6-12 science teacher from Robertson County, Kentucky.

Sherri encouraged us to get up, team up, and speak up because our profession depends upon it.  As
educators in all capacities, we do what we do for the sake of students, and it's important that we not do it in isolation.  By collaborating and using our voices, we can make a difference.
Sherri Presenting.  Photo by Amanda Riley

Irvin Scott led us in song, and together we began the togetherness Sherri mentioned in her speech.  Imagine a room full of teachers singing (to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas song--I've got a feeling) "I've got a feeling that I'm making a difference in kids' lives."

Venturing into colleague circle groups, teachers from around the state gathered in small groups of eight to discuss important issues around education in our state right now.

  • What obstacles have you as teachers faced in becoming a leader in your school or district?
  • What successes have you achieved in teacher leadership recently?
  • What can be accomplished in your school, district, and/or state to encourage teacher leadership?
  • What steps can you take in order to help more teachers become leaders?
  • What and how will you share materials from this conference with those in your school/district?
  • What does teacher leadership mean to you?
  • What does teacher engagement look like in your classroom/district?
  • What are the best mechanisms/social media outlets to continue the discussions/interactions/work of the Colleague Circles?
Not all of these questions were discussed at once, obviously.  In between break out sessions, teachers returned to their colleague circle groups to talk, network, and collaborate on building one another up as a teacher.

Break out sessions (led by teachers) included
  1. Learning and Improving Practice Through Collaboration
  2. Leveraging your Voice
  3. Teacher Leadership that Transforms
  4. Fireside Chat:  Personal Journeys in Teacher Leadership
  5. Your Voice Matters:  Reimagining Teacher Preparation
  6. Google Apps in Education (cancelled due to a new baby being born by the presenter's wife)
At each breakout session we attended we met new colleagues and actively participated in the conversations around each of the presented topics.  These were led by teachers; they were not "sit and get" PD sessions.

We sang, we laughed, we grew teary eyed from stories, we shared and collaborated, and we left feeling inspired with our teaching souls nourished.

21 January 2014

Kentucky Educators Collaborating with Colorado Educators to Implement Common Core

After an amazing week in Colorado, I can honestly say I'm completely grateful for my job and the opportunities I have to work with educators in Kentucky and across the country.  Each morning last week as I drove to the beautiful Thompson School District Training facility, I drove toward the Rocky Mountains and past a beautiful lake.  The scenery wasn't the only amazing aspect of the week, I worked with excellent educators who all desire the same thing for all students--an equitable opportunity to learn and grow.

This meeting was exceptional because after one face-to-face workshop last summer and a full semester of virtual collaboration on the creation of a unit, teachers were again face-to-face to create new units for the spring semester.  They are creating common units around common content standards, but not scripted step-by step standardized units.  Each teacher contributes to the lessons and makes appropriate adjustments to meet the needs of individual learners in each class.  Teachers are encouraged to think beyond multiple choice tests and toward performance based assessments that will measure deeper learning.   Importantly, teachers lead the unit design and make decisions about the units; their work is facilitated by content experts from Stanford's Center for Assessment Learning and Equity. 

The groups begin by creating Enduring Understandings as learned in our work over the years with Understanding by Design.  These guiding questions serve as a driving force for the the unit of study.  The focus on larger concepts, principles, and ideas keeps us away from a focus on discrete skills alone and helps us consider ideas that will be more engaging to students.  For example, the high school English Language Arts group is looking at the impact of social media on language, and the high school science group is thinking about how humans affect biodiversity. 

Within these larger units of study Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) modules are embedded.  LDC offers an instructional ladder (with mini tasks developed by teachers) designed to help students attain and surpass the demands of the Common Core literacy standards in each subject area.  Effective implementation is vital with both LDC and larger units for teaching the Common Core State Standards.   That's why our Common Assignment Study is exciting.  We have selected top notch teachers who know how to meet the needs of their students and who are always seeking to grow as learners and professionals.

As a former teacher, I know I would have enjoyed an experience like this, so to be there in a support and leadership capacity, was interesting and invigorating in a new way.  I collaborated as a leader because leaders also have to be willing to work together to create the systems and structures we need in schools, districts, and states to support the work of teachers and the learning of students.

07 January 2014

Why Must Children be Quiet at School?

Dialogue, debate and excitement in the classroom should obviously be the goals of all educators. “Once I was about to visit a principal,” Ms. Fariña said, “who told me, ‘You’re going to love coming here because you can hear a pin drop.’ I said, ‘I better not come because that isn’t going to make me happy.’ ”    
                                                                 Carmen Fariña as quoted in The New York Times

This quote reminds me of the year my oldest son started kindergarten.  I'll never forget that day seven years ago when I walked him to school for the first day.  I had found someone to teach my first period high school English class, so I could arrive late to the school where I taught after taking my own child to school.  The administrators guided us into the gymnasium where all the students were sitting cross-legged on the floor one behind the next with their backpacks and lunch boxes on their tiny laps.  You could have heard a pin drop in that gymnasium.  They only let parents stay a few minutes before ushering us out.  I couldn't help but ask what would happen next.  The kind lady informed me that the children would sit queitly like this every morning from the time we dropped them off until the time their teacher picked them up and walked them to the classroom (approximately 30 minutes each day since I had to drop him off in time to get to my own school on time on other days).  I asked what they were supposed to do while they were sitting their quietly.  "Can they interact with one another?"
  "No, you can imagine how loud it would get if they were all talking."

Coming from a high school background, I was appalled at the reply.  I cried on my way to school that day, and I probably would have cried anyway since my first born child was going to kindergarten, but
happy & playful boys
I couldn't stop thinking about how these young children were not allowed to engage with one another each morning.  They couldn't play or explore.  They couldn't do anything but sit quietly and wait for school to start each day.

For years I've asked if quietness must be the goal in elementary schools, and I've always felt like I just didn't know better since I come from a secondary background.  Kindergarten teacher, Pernille Ripp who teaches in Wisconsin, has been asking some of these same questions as evidenced in her blog post What Is Our Obsession With Quiet Kids?  Ripp's commentary encapsulates much of my thinking about quietness and nosiness in school.  There's a time and a place for both, but we should certainly let children have conversations with one another.  This week I'm encouraged to know from another highly regarded veteran educator, quietness in a school doesn't have to be our top goal.

02 January 2014

5 Things I've Learned In Two Years of Blogging

On a similar winter day two years ago, I started this blog as a way to reflect and voice my thoughts on
Our backyard in Lexington, KY

education, teaching, and learning.  I selected the title--Learning to Muse--with great thought and consideration about my mission.  My mission is not only to reflect but also to encourage conversation about education re-design, to share thoughts about learning and teaching, and to encourage parents and community members to be involved in public education.

1.  Optimism is essential.   The blogs I most enjoy reading are those that look at life through a positive lens, so I aim to stay as optimistic as possible when I blog too.  An ongoing post I try to write (but haven't been able to complete yet) is about being an idealist who's also an optimist.  Nevertheless, I have written multiple times this past year about dealing with negative people, about looking past complacent people in the workplace, and about staying positive about the work teachers are doing to educate children

2.  Writing takes commitment.  I guess I didn't learn this only through blogging, but the persistence required to maintain a blog has been more readily revealed to me.  I've read many other bloggers who write about the importance of a blogging schedule (I'm still working on that one).  The first year I always made sure to post at least one new blog entry per week.  This year I let a few weeks slip by without posting something new, and I always felt a twinge of guilt because I really wanted to write and had plenty of topics, but neglected to follow through every week.

3.  Collaboration beats isolation.  From teaching ideas to parenting tips, any time I can collaborate my life improves.  Sure, collaboration is messy and sometimes difficult, but the benefits far outweigh working or living in isolation.  This past year I had numerous opportunities to collaborate with colleagues on a number of projects, and I even started a new job focused on collaboration between Kentucky and Colorado educators.  This year also marked a turning point in my social media use and the building of my online professional learning community (PLN).  In 2013 I also had more time with my little family of four, and this made the collaborative parenting approach my husband and I enjoy all the better.

4.  Teaching and leading can happen together.  My post about leaving teaching continues to be one of the most popular posts on this blog.  This year, in particular, I spent a lot of time thinking about teaching and leading and how they can happen together.  I also made my foray back into the classroom, only this time at the university level teaching future teachers (part-time--love it!). 

5.  Lexington is a cool place to live.  This year marked our ten year anniversary of living in Kentucky, USA.  As you will read in this popular post, I was never really excited about moving here.   Becoming involved in my community is what changed my view, and this year a highlight of my involvement was when I served as Movie Captain for Girl Rising and gathered nearly 200 people from Lexington and the surrounding areas together at the historic Kentucky Theatre for a viewing of this important film about girls' education.  Now, I can't imagine leaving Lexington, and I find myself hoping my husband might miraculously find full-time work here.