Monday, March 24, 2014

Recognizing the Quiet Gifts of the Other Half

Earlier this year, our Intro to Leadership teachers put together a very well attended Recognition Breakfast for our staff and students. Each staff member could invite one student who they felt was deserving of the honor. I left the criteria somewhat vague, although I did push for the students who may not always be selected and recognized by their peers and school for their positive efforts. We called it the Pawsitive Breakfast; after all, we are the Union Tigers.

This past weekend, I received a very timely and warm email from a parent where I was reminded of why we make these extra efforts to give every student a chance to be recognized. Despite amazing efforts by our staff in and out of the classrooms to support all students, there are always more opportunities to recognize those students who often fly slightly under the radar at our schools. 

Here is the email:

Last night at the dinner table (our student) enthusiastically shared with us what he is learning in Journalism. It seems he's quite passionate about Photo Shop. The fact is, it's the first time we have heard him excited about anything school related! 

You see, (our student) loves beauty and he loves design. He's probably the only (middle school) boy I know who snaps pictures of everything he sees as breathtaking. Clouds, trees, anything outdoors. 

He's also gifted verbally and has quite a knack for arguing. He's extremely empathetic towards people and animals. He has trouble sleeping if we passed a homeless person without giving him food from our car supply of goods. He's a negotiator - not just for personal gain - but loves to help resolve conflicts between people. His infectious enthusiasm and leadership is a delight to many. Enduring, overcoming and continuing to battle the anxiety he has endured has taken more resolve than most adults would be able to handle. 

Sadly there's no award for those things at school. Instead he continues to compare himself to his sister and friends who happen have strengths in math, science and language arts, the subjects regarded as markers of intelligence and a prosperous future in our school system.  

This article really struck a chord with me. This is more of an observation than an actual request for anything. 

Please note as well that in my gut I believe that you are doing everything, within your restricted system, to discover and celebrate the various gifts of all of your students. I'm like (my student), or maybe (my student) is like me, always rooting for the underdog, gravitating towards the students who are quiet, awkward, not so popular in this culture. Recently he's stood up twice for kids who were made fun of - a boy with a back brace and a lonely boy who sits by the gym everyday. 

As a parent, this carries more weight to me than the good grade. I'm confident (my student) will find his way and we will encourage and support him on his journey that will probably not be "traditional". If I could wave a magic wand, I just wish the school, in general, was a place where all teachers and staff celebrated and recognized the quiet gifts of the other half. 

Thank you for recognizing and taking action when you let (our student) pick an elective. You have always been his advocate and gone above and beyond for him. You are great at what you do. 

Have a great weekend.

What this parent did not know is that I tested out Google Forms with my staff last Wednesday. One of the questions on the Google Form was "what student has impressed you the most this year?" As I scrolled through all of the responses, I was impressed that the above parent's son was mentioned by a staff member as having impressed them the most throughout the year. Truthfully, he is a worthy candidate. We do have staff members who recognize these students; the goal is to make sure our students hear our voices of support and approval.

All of our students have strengths. They are all "gifted & talented" whether it be socially, athletically, academically, emotionally, or otherwise. Sometimes, the focus in middle school is solely on academics; other times, especially in our high schools, our athletes receive a disproportionate amount of attention and recognition. The strong push to being academically college ready ignores the skills our students will need when they're at college, living alone, and interacting with other 18-22 year-old student of varied backgrounds. 

Thus, my goal: let's find ways to realize the awesomeness in all of our students. Yes, the education setting can be a "restrictive system" at times, but this doesn't mean we can't create opportunities to celebrate and recognize the varied gifts of all our students. Build a master schedule that includes electives like Journalism where all students can be successful. Don't wait for the next Pawsitive Assembly to celebrate the gifts of your students, whether it be singing, sharing, or even Photoshop. I guarantee that you will be impressed.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

New Teachers and Talking Technology

The past few days on Twitter have been extremely challenging for me. The majority of my Professional Learning Network (PLN) departed for the Palm Springs Annual Cue Conference on Wednesday. They then spent the next 72 hours listening to amazing keynote speakers, being inspired by various session presenters, and having hundreds of informal educational conversations on how to augment the learning of today's students. Many of their discoveries were then shared via Twitter, providing those who could not attend with a glimpse of the past weekend and just enough jealousy to last until the Fall Cue Conference.

While there were more than a few reasons why I couldn't fit the weekend trip to Palm Springs into my schedule, the main reason was my desire to attend today's Teacher Recruitment Fair (TRF) at the Santa Clara County Office. I've attended for the past three years along with various other administrators in my district. At the TRF, you have a chance to meet eager individuals who could one day join your staff. In fact, I've met more than a few now-hired Union Middle teachers at this event; it's a great place to start the conversation, sometimes rather informally, with prospective employees.

At the TRF, I've found that there are usually four types of teacher participants. First, you have your "I'm finishing my student teaching this semester" individuals. They are often, but not always, just a few years removed from college and quite eager to start in their own classroom. Second, you have your "I just moved to the area from Texas/Colorado/Florida" group. These individuals usually have spouses who have relocated to the Bay Area and are experienced, talented educators. Third, you have your "I've had my teaching credential but just haven't landed in the right spot" contingent. These educators often have unique stories and are just looking for that one chance to prove they're the right fit for your school. Last, you have the "currently employed but just looking..." subset. Often, these individuals won't attend a TRF but may choose to with the intent on speaking with one or two key districts on the possibility of jumping to a new school.

Collectively, it was one of the most impressive groups of educators I've had the pleasure of speaking with. Many of the conversations centered around how other schools are implementing (or fighting not to implement) Common Core and the difficulties therein. As I stood listening to the various stories, I quickly scanned numerous amazing letters of references about the capabilities and talents of the applicants. There was only one thing that was missing from the majority of the conversations and applications today: examples of blended classrooms and how these applicants integrate technology into their daily practice.

Perhaps it's the specifics of the various groups; after all, many of them have only student-taught in the past. Perhaps it's their lack of opportunities to attend CUE-like conferences. Out of the 30-40 candidates I spoke with today, only two applications mentioned anything Google, one of whom just mentioned they enjoy using Google Forms as a hobby. The other application was stacked with examples of instructional technology, conferences attended, and presentations held. Perhaps not surprisingly, this candidate was at the top of my list for any future openings at our school.

So why aren't more teacher applicants highlighting their experiences and talents with technology in the classroom? An educator who can speak confidently about incorporating technology, whether it's 1:1 ChromeBooks, the participation recording of Class Dojo, or student-created Weebly websites, is an educator who administrators will want on their staff. Almost every teacher I spoke with today was very confident about teaching within their subject area. Assuming they all are, what separates one applicant from the next? It's how you deliver the content and how you encourage your students to explore in the classroom. Technology (and the professional development therein) is the key.

My advice for all current and future teacher applicants: Attend the Google PlayDates. Look into local (and perhaps not too local) EdCamps. Sign up for GAFE. Show up at  BrewCue and talk shop. Get a Twitter account and expand your PLN... And perhaps most importantly, don't get left behind when CUE 2015 rolls around. You can follow it on your new Twitter account, but trust me... It won't be the same.

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