Protocols? What protocols?

I have mentioned this to a number of families over the past week, but I don’t know that I have used the world protocol more than I have this year in our return to campus.  There are so many processes and procedures in place that to ensure the safety and health of each individual; yet, I remain in wonder of our devoted faculty who have done so much to transcend the limitations placed upon their pedagogy and relationship-building in order to make the day fun, challenging, and most certainly engaging.  There are a lot of changes in our daily program, and we are constantly analyzing the way we do things in order to consider improvements and alternatives.  I think of the phrase “final draft” when considering our middle school program.  In truth, these two words are oxymorons.  There is nothing final about a draft; there is always an opportunity to enhance or adjust even the smallest component of the schedule or program to make things better for the benefit of the child(ren) we teach.

As we all negotiate the reshaping and restructuring of this school year, I recognize that there are diverse approaches to managing the inevitable (yet sometimes unforeseeable) changes.  How does your household manage change? This week, I read through an article that serves as a support to the journal and calendar that I keep (BestSelf – it’s awesome, by the way).  That journal offered an intriguing graphic on the different ways that people manage change as it appears in the day to day.

As you can see, this graphic approaches the ability to manage change based on the ability to see beyond the comfortable.  Sometimes, we find that living into the uncomfortable can get us to a level of growth far beyond imagination. The benefits for stretching into new places in order to try new things allows us to live into that best version of ourselves that my school calls confidence in every child. The ability for an individual to move “into the green” of the above graphic requires significant trust in the constructs and people that care for us. This trust, for some more than others, may be easier in a challenging assignment or project. Everyone that I know is living through their first pandemic; thus, moving “into the orange” can prove incredibly daunting. The maximum amount of trust in each other to follow those previously mentioned protocols (temperature checks at home, masks that fit properly, hand washing, social distancing whenever possible) will allow us to tiptoe into new zones of comfort and growth.  It is my hope that my school can remain a dependable place with practices that allow you and your child to come to school with confidence and a willingness to grow. I am grateful for the trust that our families have in our institution. Our team of educators continues to work hard and remain transparent with regard to changes or adjustments. We will confidently provide an innovative, fulfilling experience for each student.

Reframing the Vision: Online Learning

This blogpost was created by me with the editing assistance of Dr. Mark Carleton.

There has never been a more interesting time to assess and improve the way learning occurs in the hearts and minds of every child. Many schools already succeed in developing school-wide programs that imbue intrepid, independent learners with confidence and passion. The secret to these inventive opportunities rests in the hearts and minds of experienced teachers working to shape the wonder and creativity of eager students.  Today, Online Learning programs have been designed by these teachers with these students in mind.  Through its growth and evolution, we seek to tap into the wonder and creativity of our children, in different but no less lasting ways.  Below you will find lessons learned from that experience as well as a glimpse of how we must commit to improve every child’s day-to-day experiences. 

In full disclosure, much of this blog post is credited to the thinking and development of vision inspired by Jennifer Gonzalez’s most recent post, 9 Ways Online Teaching Should be Different from Face-to-Face. If you haven’t yet read or listened to this installment, stop reading my blog and move to that one first. The whole blog/podcast, and specifically this single post, is gold on paper.

Teacher will begin to create moments that allow for sharing stories, interests, and dreams so that we can begin to know, love, and challenge each child to become more than ever before.

A Trusting and Inspired Environment

Above all else, teachers value the relationship a child and family will cultivate with caring, charismatic educators.  Especially in Online Learning, we must ensure that the teacher-student relationship remains at the heart of every interaction.  This year, in the days before Online Learning begins, teachers will reach out and make contact with every child. Whether it’s a phone call or a drive-through-and-wave event at school, I expect that our teachers will invest in building a positive, constructive relationship with their students and families. They will begin to create moments that allow for sharing stories, interests, and dreams so that we can begin to know, love, and challenge each child to become more than ever before.

Direct instruction—things like brief video lessons and readings—will happen mostly in asynchronous (anytime) form, using checks for understanding like embedded questions or what educators call “exit slips.” These “flipped lessons” will lay the groundwork needed to build something that is truly inspiring. Further, this asynchronous approach allows us to use synchronous (real time) meetings for more interactive, engaging work that is focused on capturing the attention of the learner with practical activities to enrich their understanding.  Working creatively with class material, categorizing it, organizing it, sharing further thoughts on it, having a discussion about it–all of these are great things to do live and even in small groups.

Teachers will continue to focus on the individual needs of each child. However, Online Learning doesn’t universally connect in consistent or even beneficial ways with each student.  In that of that imbalance, we must build creative assessments that demonstrate applied and practical learning, we should explore new technologies so that children have improved access to their adult mentors; and we need to reflect and offer feedback as essential components of the learning environment so that teachers can analyze how a student has learned and what he or she can do to improve.  We must retool our grading practices to focus on growth and grace as we acknowledge the demands on children who are trying to succeed in a socially constrained environment.

Consistent Communication and Active, Productive Dialogue

Whether a child is in Kindergarten, 4th grade, or somewhere in the Middle School, families should expect easy access to the following: (1) ready knowledge of the learning opportunities children will explore, (2) ease of access to these opportunities, and (3) an up-to-date understanding of each teacher’s vision for assessing growth through these opportunities along the way.  We will devote the resources and time needed to educate families on how to use the learning management systems associated with our school so that children know where to find their online school community and parents know what to expect when they get there.

With regard to internal communication, the setting has changed the way we must execute our collaborative effort. In the years before the pandemic, teachers would have frequent structured and unstructured meetings throughout the day. These in-person conversations developed our curriculum, allowed for course corrections, and ultimately enhanced the teacher-student relationship.  With Online Learning, those collaborative meetings can be challenging to schedule, so when we are in this platform, we will be intentional about carving out time for teachers to use their collective experiences in and out of their virtual classrooms to hone and develop authentic, high-quality learning opportunities. 

Strong partnerships are developed through transparency and trust.

Lastly, and with equal importance, is the extrinsic and essential value of including family feedback in as much of our program as possible. When it comes to setting goals for a school year, the opportunity to finish on target depends greatly on our ability to make course corrections along the way. By keeping a predictable line of communication open, students and their families can have a voice throughout the learning experience. We will encourage every person in the community to contribute when called upon to offer feedback as we bravely navigate this new path together. Strong partnerships are developed through transparency and trust.

In conclusion, faculty and leadership in my school have spent considerable time reflecting on the program we offered last spring. Throughout all our discussions, one expectation is clear: a school is a place of innovators that should offer a truly unique experience for the learner. In order to do this, we must work harder and build a united mindset. When we can achieve this effort, we will take control of this pandemic narrative, harness our collective intellectual capital and create a phenomenal learning experience for every student, parent, and teacher. We are determined to make tomorrow better than today, so we must continue to learn from our past decisions to make the coming year more meaningful, valuable, and joyful.

Throughout all our discussions, one expectation is clear: a school is a place of innovators that should offer a truly unique experience for the learner.

Featured image created by nurun

Heartfelt Moments at School

I will fight for you…I always do.

Sometimes I hear a song that tugs on my heartstrings. I’m a fan of Andy Grammer’s music, but I was shell shocked when I heard his song “Don’t Give Up on Me” which he wrote for a movie called Five Feet Apart. While the content of the movie itself is moving and heartbreaking, I was particularly moved when watching this video from his website. Please take a moment and listen.


I love to see PASSION and JOY coming from students, no matter if they are here at Presbyterian School, or if they come from somewhere else. The kids in this video are from PS22, a public elementary school on Staten Island. Not only can you hear the joy these students have in sharing their musical talent, but you can feel the emotion when looking at their faces. I am sure that this video was taken after a number of practice rounds. Further, I am confident that there were plenty of mistakes made along the way.

How much rehearsal time do you think the kids in this video experienced before they got to perform with Andy Grammer? Think about the various expressions on the faces throughout the performance. How much practice does it take to look genuinely emotional while singing? You’ve really got to feel the music and believe in the lines you are singing. For you all who participate in choir here at School, think about the number of times you have practiced a song before finally performing it. How many times has Ms. Holt or Mr. Harrison drilled you all on a single measure, over and over, to make sure that the sound is juuuust right? I’m sure you can relate to the happiness these kids show when performing. After all, the road is long, but it’s worth it. I mean…they got to sing with a rock star! That’s pretty cool.

Eighth graders: think about the hours and months of rehearsals for the three shows you performed. When did you finally see the pieces start to come together, and how awesome was it to perform in front of a large crowd of people, the largest group ever to watch a PS event. They stood and cheered for you! Like the choral director in this video, think of the teachers, directors, and so many others present at every rehearsal – never giving up on what you could do when you put your heart and souls into your work. It makes me think of the line from the song:

‘Cause I’m not givin’ up, I’m not givin’ up, givin’ up, no, not yet
Even when I’m down to my last breath
Even when they say there’s nothing left.

What is my foundation?

Take a moment to think about your greatest work throughout the year. Was it the Old West production that you fifth graders accomplished last week? Sixth graders, will it be that special thing you will present during the upcoming Genius Hour? Seventh graders, perhaps it was the Westing Game activity or science research paper, or the Talent Show? Eighth graders, I would like to think that every activity, from the musical, to the trip, to your RIDEE project, and even today’s Manifesto Museum is the product of great work, lots of practice, and learning.

I’m not givin’ up, I’m not givin’ up, givin’ up, no, not me
Even when nobody else believes
I’m not goin down that easily.

This year, countless times, all of you reached towards something that was there…but you just couldn’t see it yet. You trusted, you took a leap, and you found your footing…somewhere – maybe exactly where you had hoped, or, maybe not. But you stood up and presented, sang, spoke, defended, competed, or whatever the verb needed to demonstrate your guts, your passion, and your capability. As we have been using all year, the Essential Question, What is my foundation?, was apparent in each effort and every day…whether you realized it or not.

Matthew 7:24

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Of course, the Bible got it right when Jesus proclaimed that His words serve as the foundation for which all other things can stand. I hope your trust and your sure footing finds a home in His words. I’m certain that there were times when you felt like you were in free fall without any sign of support. But but support is always there – it just takes a little trust, and a lot of patience. So let’s talk about both the free fall, and the foundation in further detail.

And I will hold, I’ll hold onto you
No matter what this world will throw
it won’t shake me loose

Failure and Support

When you think about something from the year that you are proud to share with classmates, family, and community, I want you to think about two key concepts surrounding that effort: failure, and support. Let’s walk through these two compenents.

Failure

How many times have you tried and messed up, received a school paper that was all marked up with red pen, or worked as hard as you could only to come up short? I got to see an example of this type of effort when our varsity lacrosse team competed in their semifinal playoff game. They had never worked as hard as they did in that game. In the second half, the players fought tooth and nail for every goal, cutting into the lead before running out of time and falling short. But what I saw that day, what I hope that they have gained, was the experience of lifting each other off of the ground and showing true grit as they competed. Sure, the outcome was not in their favor – but the effort was. Another coach from the later game came up to me and commended our team on their effort – he said he’d never seen a team fight so hard. That acknowledgement is worth its weight in gold because it’s laced with respect – and respect is life’s most valuable commodity.

Support

In all you have accomplished this year, how many teachers have stood behind you or next to you, for better or for worse? Who has challenged you to give it one more try, or take one more risk to accomplish something you’ve never done before? How many times have you heard a teacher talk about “next time,” or the fact that success is not about the grade, but the effort to get that grade. How often are you encouraged to achieve more, extend that lead, or improve your results? Your teachers will always be there for you. This group of educators will never stop encouraging and celebrating you. It’s not only their job; it’s their mission. In the moment, you won’t always like what you hear…but when you stop to reflect, I’m confident that you will see the true intention of your teachers – because their expertise isn’t in math, or history, or some other content area. Their true gift is seeing your potential – and getting you to see it, too.

I will fight.
I will fight for you.
I always do until my heart is black and blue.

To close, please remember the struggles, successes, and failures you have experienced this year. Think of the magical moments, and the awful ones. Think of the people from Presbyterian School who stood by you, fighting until their hearts were black and blue. Let’s start with the very beginning – you are known…your are loved…and you are wonderfully made. Thank you for a fantastic school year. Let’s finish strong, making beautiful music, until that last breath; until there’s nothing left.