Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Teachers can Learn from Batman

For my blog this week I'd like to share a post from the land down under. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a huge Batman fan. This post from Nick Brierley, part of team, shares how much we can learn from the caped crusader. Sounds kind of silly, right?  But there is some really good stuff here. enjoy!

Monday, February 2, 2015

How Do I Create Lifelong Learning?

I recently read a chapter part of a book titled “On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities” (Dufour, Eaker & Dufour, 2005).  One chapter by Roland S. Barth, titled “Turning Book Burners Into Lifelong Learners,” has caused me to reflect on the concept of lifelong learning.  It is something I have always sought for myself and wondered how I could instill this into my second graders.  Barth shares that he witnessed a group of seniors burning their books and notes one day at the end of the school year.  These were A and B students heading off to college.  However, it disappointed him in their educational experience that they had not been taught to be continual learners.  He saw this action as evidence of this lack of desire for lifelong learning.

This scenario left me wondering, what can we do to ensure that this doesn’t become our students.  Barth expresses his desire for students to develop an attitude of lifelong learning.  This leads me to my initial question that I’m sure can be shared by most teachers: how do I instill this attitude for lifelong learning within my students?

One suggestion that Barth gives is to “promote the qualities and dispositions of insatiable, lifelong learning in every member of the school community.”  How powerful would it be if every member of your school community were to exemplify and promote this lifelong learning?  As a teacher, you can set the example of lifelong learning.  If students observed their teachers continually asking questions, seeking new learning and problem solving, this will show students the power of lifelong learning.  Another suggestion given by Barth is to identify what is turning your students off to learning and discover what can turn them back on.  What a fabulous idea of getting to the root of what is impacting our students’ learning.  Once we know this, we can make plans for re-lighting their fire and love for learning.

The need to reduce didactic instruction is another suggestion for instilling this love for learning.  Barth stated that studies show 85% of what occurs in schools is teacher-directed didactic instruction.  This is something that we as teachers have control over.  If we can find ways to incorporate interaction and collaborative learning, then the ratio of talk can be more balanced between teachers and students.  This is one way to spark students’ interest in learning and develop the attitude of a lifelong learner.

One of Barth’s final statement sums it all up for me: “schools will succeed in promoting learning and lifelong learning when students find on a regular basis in their school experiences both pleasure and success.”  Let’s create this pleasure and success to ensure that our students are leaving our education system to move forward as lifelong learners in our society!

- Alisa Colton

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What is Finland's Secret?

by RDeen Reynolds

If you are like me, you wonder just what makes those higher-performing countries in the world so great…how is their education system different than ours?  What can we learn from them to help us be better?  What is their secret?

These are questions I want answered.  Recently, I looked at the statistics for the highest performing countries for the past few years.  I noticed that Finland is either number 1, or they are at the very least consistently in the top ten countries with education.  So I asked myself…what is their secret?

I came across a great article from Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond that gave me some answers (NEA Today, October/November 2010, They’re Number One).  Of course, it is not just one particular thing that makes the difference.  Rather, it is a system-wide approach to education with many areas of focus contributing to the whole.  But I was intrigued to find some innovations that really resonated with me, and I would like to share them with you. 
First, it is worth knowing that Finland was not always on top.  In the 1970s Finland was not doing well at all.  They had a long way to go.
Second, you should note that unlike popular perception, Finland’s population is NOT homogeneous…rather, immigration from other countries has risen sharply in recent years.  Some urban schools have upwards of 50% students whose mother tongue is not Finnish.  These new immigrants speak more than 60 different languages.
Here are some of the reforms Finland has implemented in recent years, and that contribute to their overall success:

1.      Finland uses a strategic approach to building teaching capacity.Pre-service training includes teaching diverse learners higher-order skills like problem-solving and critical thinking in research-based master’s degree programs.  Post-graduate degrees are entirely free of charge AND the teachers receive a living stipend while completing their graduate degrees.  Finland also pays teachers very well, and teachers are treated like other professionals.  At least one full year of clinical experience is required before entering the teaching profession.  Clinical experience happens at model schools attached to the universities, where teachers engage in cycles of planning, action, and reflection/evaluation that is reinforced throughout the teacher education program.  This same inquiry approach is incorporated in classrooms with students, who are expected to engage in their own action research-based learning. As a result of these innovations, teacher shortages are unheard of, and positions are highly coveted.

2.      Finland’s teachers are trained to tackle diverse populations of students, including students at risk due to poverty, learning disabilities, and language barriers.  Teachers are trained to become sophisticated diagnosticians who work collaboratively to design instruction that meets the demands of the subject matter as well as the needs of their students.  Time is provided during the workweek for professional development. Nearly half of a teacher’s school time is used to hone practice through school-based curriculum work, collaborative planning, and cooperation with parents.

3.      Finland’s teaching profession has undergone a mind shift.  Compulsory in-service training has disappeared, replaced with in-school continuous and long-term programs and professional development opportunities, with a shift to developing as a professional being seen as a right rather than an obligation.  Teachers and schools are responsible for their own work and they solve their own problems rather than shift them elsewhere.  Basically, the buck stops there…in their own schools, with their own teachers taking responsibility for the learning outcomes of all their students.

4.      Finland uses a student-centered approach with open-ended tasks embedded in the curriculum.  Students determine their own weekly targets with their teachers in specific areas and choose the tasks they will work on at their own pace.  The cultivation of independence and active learning allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them tackle and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways.

These are just a few of the innovations and reforms that Finland has implemented in recent years.  I share these ideas, not as a means of coming to any sort of conclusion, but rather to raise these questions…
1.      Wouldn’t it be great to be a highly sought-after professional, whose pay was commensurate with the kind of whole-hearted effort to be at the top of the teaching game? 
2.      Wouldn’t it be great to have our development as teachers so highly valued that post-graduate degrees are paid for and high quality long-term professional development happened in our own schools based on our own specific needs?
3.      Wouldn’t it be great if the logistics of time management were arranged in such a way to give us more TIME…HALF of our school time spent in collaboration with our team, improving our practices, and partnering with parents?
4.      Wouldn’t it be great if our students had ownership of their own learning?  If they planned strategically for their own improvement?  If they put into practice daily the kind of higher order thinking and depth of knowledge needed to manage their own education?

My final thought…imagine the possibilities! 

My final question…why can’t we make it happen here too?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Value of Reflection

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.
Mark Van Doren

"Teachers who promote reflective classrooms ensure that students are fully engaged in the process of making meaning. They organize instruction so that students are the producers, not just the consumers, of knowledge. To best guide children in the habits of reflection, these teachers approach their role as that of “facilitator of meaning making.”

To be reflective means to mentally wander through where we have been and to try to make some sense out of it. Most classrooms are oriented more to the present and the future than to the past. Such an orientation means that students (and teachers) find it easier to discard what has happened and to
move on without taking stock of the seemingly isolated experiences of the past.(Learning and Leading With Habits of Mind-Chapter 12—Arthur L. Costa & Bena Kallick)."

If we can learn (and teach our students) to reflect with meaning, it will make a tremendous improvement in our teaching and in student learning. No matter our jobs/careers, we would notice professional and personal growth if we take the time to think back, write our thoughts, and make a goal to improve our practice. That’s what we’re all about, improving and continually growing as educators.

        -- Barbara Hess

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


My five-year old grandson is intrigued with pirates. He is now the proud owner of two fancy pirate costumes, numerous toy ships, and other costly pirate paraphernalia. One can’t forget the treasure maps with promise for great adventure while discovering buried treasure.

According to my Dashboard Dictionary, the word “treasure” as a noun can mean “a very valuable object” or the informal meaning of “a person whom the speaker loves or who is valued for the assistance they can give.” While my grandson’s frame of reference for treasure fits the first definition, I want to focus on the later- “a person whom the speaker loves or who is valued for the assistance they can give.”

As an Instructional Coach I have come to value the treasure I overlooked while in the classroom. During my years as a classroom teacher I was surrounded by creative, knowledgeable, talented, effective, teachers. Regretfully, I didn’t take time to discover the treasure “buried” right under my nose. Not that I was totally unaware of this treasure’s whereabouts, I just didn’t create a way to tap into the opportunities around me like I would in hindsight.

Observation, feedback, and reflection create maps from which mastery is developed. Most teachers are more apt to take advantage of observation, feedback, and reflection opportunities during the first few years of teaching.  According to feedback we get from first year teachers, classroom observations are valued as turning points for growth. A few years ago, I was able to observe a lesson study session taking place with two of the teachers I coached and a member of their team. I was fascinated with what I saw and heard. These two first year teachers and their “experienced” team member, after planning a lesson together, observed each other teaching it, gave feedback, and reflected together. Creating maps to mastery! It was amazing to see.

I approached a former team member of mine and asked if I could come and observe her in her classroom teaching the components of balanced literacy. She agreed, only upon the condition that I give her feedback. That experience highlighted what I had missed out on as a classroom teacher on her team. She had gold. She was an amazing treasure right “under my nose” for two years. Although we had participated in professional development classes, read professional books and articles, collaborated, and had many academic problem solving conversations, I had never stepped foot into her classroom to observe.

So for those of you taking the time to read this (my first blog post ever), I challenge you to find the treasure right under your nose. Create maps to develop mastery through observation, feedback, and reflection! Be that treasure for others!

-Helen Carlton

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to Have Jedi-Like Classroom Management Power

At this time of year we often find ourselves exhausted, discouraged and just trying to keep up with the demands of day-to-day teaching.  As an Instructional Coach I have the privilege and opportunity to visit many classes every week.  I see teachers with smiles on their faces, trying a little harder each day to be the best they can be for their students.  One thing that can become discouraging and overwhelming is classroom management.  Here are some tips that can help make all of us into Jedi-Like classroom managers.

“There exists a quiet cadre of teachers who can take over any classroom--out-of-control, disrespectful, or otherwise--and get students under control and working within minutes.

They have a certain presence about them, a certain unmistakable quality or vibe that reverberates from one student to the next, signaling that business is no longer usual.

This powerful, Jedi-like presence can only be described as the force of their personality. It is an attitude, or state of mind, that elicits in students a strong desire to give their best!(Michael Linsin-Dream Class)" 

How do teachers with great classroom management think differently?

They Take Full Responsibility

"No matter where they teach, under what conditions they teach, or who their students are, these Jedi-teachers take responsibility for everything that happens in their classroom. They offer no excuses for themselves or their students."
They Have Unshakable Confidence

"Because they’re experts in effective classroom management, thoughts of failure, defeat, and uncertainty never enter their mind.  They have such confidence in their ability to manage behavior that it manifests itself in everything they do.
And it is this confidence that causes students to want to place their trust in them and follow them to the ends of the galaxy."

      What steps can we take to gain the confidence of our students?

They Believe in Their Students

"These remarkable effective teachers have a deeply entrenched belief in their students.
This isn’t just what these Jedi-teachers believe, but it’s part of who they are."

They Know Their Students will Behave.

"Teachers who struggle with classroom management often feel as if they’re one rainy day, one school assembly, or one fire drill from losing control of their class.  On most days, they merely hope their students will behave."

      As teachers, what procedures do we need to have in place for consistent classroom management to happen?


"Extraordinary classroom management isn’t the province of the lucky few.  You have to believe in yourself.  You have to be a student of effective classroom management.  You have to start thinking like the Jedi-Teacher you want to become."  (
Our profession requires us to wear many hats and be many things for those we have stewardship over.  Consistent classroom management can enhance and make our days just a little bit easier and enjoyable.  May the FORCE be with you!

Penny Gardner

Instructional Coach

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Teacher Presence: Gotta have it!!

As educators, we quickly learn that not everyone enjoys hearing our “teacher stories.”  It didn’t take long for me to realize that other people were not very excited to hear about the comings and goings of my school day.  I discovered that my husband and children didn’t want the “play by play” of my day complete with how cute my students were or how crazy their antics might be – not even the one about the boy who crouched under his chair all day barking like a dog and licking anyone who came near him.  I learned to temper my desire to share my school stories after my daughter decided she no longer wanted to be a teacher.  How could this be? 

As the years rolled along, however, I discovered that there was one group of people who loved hearing teaching stories; they even fed upon them.  This blessed group of listeners was none other than fellow teachers.  Aaahhh, we are a special breed aren’t we?  It was while listening to a fellow teacher tell me a story about herself that I heard this narrative.  She recounted her college days as a student in the elementary education department.  She told a tale of woe.  She was not the top student, and she was never the first one picked to partner up with on assignments.   She was not the one sought after for group projects, and she didn’t get much of a nod from her professors either.  When grades came out . . . she was “average”. 

Mysteriously, something happened to change all that.  She graduated and became a teacher.  She entered her first classroom and got her first set of squirrely students.  And then . . . she soared!  There was something magical about the way she interacted with her students each day.  She caught their attention with engaging lessons, she moved around the room like a momma hen leading her chicks to a delicious feast, she made her students laugh, she used her voice to capture every kid in the class, and she had amazing management skills.  It wasn’t long before other people started noticing this teacher’s skills too.  Since that first year in the classroom, hundreds of new teachers have come to observe my friend as a model classroom teacher.   She had become the teacher that parents requested and that every kid hoped for, the person that new teachers tried to emulate, and the one whom principals adored.

So what was it that she had?  What great skill suddenly burst out of her that hadn’t been completely evident in her college years?  She had discovered her TEACHER PRESENCE!  She was the master of her ship, and she had “With-it-ness.”  This type of skill set is hard to teach, it is hard to coach, and it is even harder to explain.  But when you see it, you know it! 

As a teacher, it is critical to have teacher presence.  Without it, the students won’t view the teacher as being in control of or effectively running the class.  A teacher can be eaten alive if students catch wind of a weakness.  It isn’t long before the students are running things, and this, my friends, is not good.  I would like to suggest three small things that have been proven to yield great outcomes in effectively managing a class and which are critical characteristics of teacher presence:  With-it-ness, Credible Voice, and Proximity. 

Let’s look closer at the first characteristic of teacher presence – “With-it-ness.”  It is easy to identify someone who is not with-it, but what about with-it-ness?  Teachers that have with-it-ness are constantly aware of what is going on in their class.  They are in charge, they manage their class, and they continually help to direct the flow of student interaction and instruction.  Teachers that have with-it-ness state clear expectations throughout the many aspects of a given day.  Even when students are doing group work, working with a partner, or working individually, with-it teachers are still present as they help support the learning.  Furthermore, these type of teachers check in, bounce ideas off the students, listen in on their conversations, check for understanding, conference, and monitor who gets it and who doesn’t.  These amazing teachers never sit idly at their desks oblivious to what students are conversing about, or doing around them.  Teachers that have “with-it-ness” know how to effectively manage the many tasks and interactions that they face on a daily basis.   

Then there is the importance of exhibiting a credible voice with students.  A credible voice is strong and clear.  It does not show weakness or timidity, but instead is demonstrated in how teachers use posture and voice level to show confidence and to let the class know that they are smart capable educators.  Even if a teacher isn’t imbued with total confidence, she acts like she has it, and she lets this show in her voice.  Teachers with a credible voice do not ask permission about what is happening in the class, and they do not phrase expectations in a questioning type of format (ie:  “We are going to read another story, Okay?” or “Let’s do our math okay?”  They are prepared from the minute the students step in the door until the end of the day when students depart.  When teachers are ready and prepared, and when they use their voice to show strength and resolve, they will have students who sit up and pay attention to what is being said and taught.  A credible voice can be loud or soft, but it must be believable. 

Finally, the third characteristic of teacher presence is how proximity is used in the classroom.  Another way of describing proximity is positioning.  Positioning is how teachers use their physical stance, how they move around the room, and how they use nonverbal connections with their students, including eye contact.  Teachers with effective proximity move with intent around the classroom in anticipation of student needs and problems.  They visually gaze and scan the faces of all their students with regularity.  This is done with the intent to monitor the student’s attention and to elicit interactions.  Proximity is a powerful motivator for keeping students engaged in a lesson and for better meeting each child’s needs.  It is also a powerful tool to anticipate and extinguish student problems or misbehavior.  By constantly monitoring a class through use of proximity, a teacher can scan and notice what the students are doing, easily identify a student that is being disruptive or tuning out, and then step in through one of the following ways: 1) The Teacher Look = Catching the eyes of the students, 2) The Walk Towards = Moving closer to a student or table, 3) The Stand By = Standing alongside a student, and 4) The Gentle Tap = Gently placing a hand on a students shoulder or softly tapping their arm, table, etc.   Great teachers know that proximity is a secret weapon that can curtail negative behavior and enhance important relationships as they interact with their students.

No matter the age of your students, the subject you teach, how many years you’ve been in the classroom, or what your personality is like, in order to be an effective educator, you must have teacher presence.   So study the core, plan engaging lessons, follow your classroom management plan, and get ready for the best job in the world.  But don’t forget that in order to soar, you’d better fine-tune that teacher presence of yours.  It’s the golden ticket—even if your college professor thinks you are average.

                     -- Kirsten Arnold