Monday, February 26, 2018

Maintaining Our Focus: Why are we teaching?

While I know that educators go into our noble profession for many different reasons, in all the educators that I've had the privilege of meeting over the years, I think it all boils down to this one basic idea: 

Educators are in the business of changing children's lives.

That may look differently from classroom to classroom, school to school, or country to country. But, it's important that we always remember that every choice we make, we are the ones ultimately responsible for positively impacting their learning each and every day. If our choices aren't focused on that one goal, we really need to stop and ask ourselves (and those around us) why? Why are we devoting valuable hours to a new initiative or program if it isn't empowering our learners? Why are we placing more value on one practice or one piece of data than on the real needs of our unique learners?

So as we begin a new week, let's all remember why we are in classrooms every day...our students. They deserve the best that we can give them, every single day.

Wishing you a great student-centered week!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Hosting your Own "Bring a Legislator to School Day"

As educators, most of us pursued a career in education because we love our students, we love learning and sharing knowledge, we love seeing our learners' growth and empowering them with the skills necessary to make a difference in the world. In my experience, most educators love the world of teaching and leave politics to others. While politics and policy writing is a totally different world, it is one that can greatly impact the work that we do with students. It is crucial that we, as the educational experts, reach out to policymakers to build long-term relationships built on respect and educate them on the reality of today's classrooms and schools.

In previous posts, I've recommended inviting elected officials and community leaders to participate in school events or as volunteer readers. However, have you ever thought about hosting an entire day where these officials could actually participate in a typical school day to gain firsthand experience of the life of a student in today's schools? This year, my colleague, Laren Hammonds (@_clayr_), and I did just that. Honestly, it wasn't that much work (even with both of us being full-time classroom teachers), but it had a huge impact on both our students and all of our invited guests.

Here are some of the most asked questions about setting up a day like this:

  • When do you host "Bring a Legislator to School Day?" Timing is crucial. If you want legislators to attend, you need to know when they are in session as they won't be available during this time period. When do they hold committee meetings; this impacts the availability of school board members, city council and chamber of commerce. While there is a national "Bring a Legislator to School Day," the timing didn't align with our needs. We knew there were a couple of key players we wanted to attend. We confirmed a day with them and then set that as our date.
  • Who do you invite? How do you invite them? Invite anyone who writes, frames, or makes decisions regarding education. We decided to cast a wide net. We sent out emails customized for each group: local school board members, state board members, district-level administrators, city council members, our mayor, and all state legislators in our region (and a little beyond).
  • How do you know who is coming? We created a Google Form and requested that each individual respond there. It was very quick and simple: name, email address, and time slot (we included two-hour time slots and they could click on as many as they wanted). For planning purposes, we found it very helpful to include a deadline for their response so that we could plan the schedule of that day.
  • How do you advertise your day? We contacted our district's public relations department who reached out to local media. In addition, we sent out a similar invitation to well-known education writers and bloggers in our state. For some elected officials, this can make the difference in them attending or not. Our tech coach took the time to find the Twitter and Instagram accounts for each of guests and the counselor posted photos on our school's social media accounts throughout the day.
  • What was going on at school during "Bring a Legislator to School Day?" For us, it was important that our guests saw a real school day. We stressed that we were not putting on a dog and pony show. That will not help them reframe their ideas about education. Laren and I believe that by participating alongside students, our elected officials gain a new perspective of what education is like today....not when they were students. On our "Bring a Legislator to School Day," they participated in Socratic circles, dissected frogs, solved complex math problems, composed solid argument based on credible evidence, designed and tested roller coasters, and debated the credibility of urban legends (plus much more). 
  • How were the students involved? We both really wanted as much of this day to be student owned and student-run. Our student council with students who have served in a variety of leadership roles, met together to discuss the day and the expectations we all wanted from the day. They volunteered to fulfill different roles. Some served in our hospitality suite while others greeted our elected officials when they arrived and took them to visit classrooms. These students also took candid photos to be posted via social media. When a guest arrived in a classroom, a student in that classroom, greeted him/her, gave an explanation of what was taking place and encouraged them to actively participate in the learning. Also, I had my students write letters to each of our elected officials, thanking them for visiting our school and participating in learning with them. They also shared some of their ideas on ways they could help them make changes in our communities and continue to support their education. (Personally, this part had an incredible impact on my students. Our conversations about advocacy and their experience in having their eleven-year-old voices heard were so powerful. Talk about authentic learning!)
  • How did you get faculty "buy-in?"We started by getting support from our building administrator. She gave us the opportunity to speak briefly at our faculty meeting about "Bring a Legislator to School Day." We gave teachers the opportunity to volunteer to have visitors join their class on that day. We had more teachers volunteer than we could actually use. I attribute that to the fact that it was completely voluntary. They knew it was important to open their classroom door to guests, but they were just going to have a "regular" school day with a couple of extra participants.
This day was overwhelmingly successful. Our guests thanked us and continue to have conversations with us about teaching, learning, and growing accomplished teaching in our area and beyond. Although I had spoken with many of these elected officials many times before this day, we saw that there is a big difference between hearing about it from a teacher and actually living it alongside students. Will we host another "Bring a Legislator to School Day?" Without a doubt! Are you interested in hosting one yourself? Let us know! We are happy to answer questions and share our resources with you!

Here is a piece written about our "Bring a Legislator to School Day:"

Here are a few other pieces that I've written on the importance of using our voice: