19 August 2011

My Final Duty

Putnam City has a tradition in which the previous Teacher of the Year speaks to the district faculty on opening day. Ive got to say, I was really looking forward to this. There's something very exhilarating about standing up in front of a captive audience of about 1200 professionals and telling them what's on your mind. I think my experience at IgniteOKC gave me a taste of public speaking and I like it! I'm not saying I'm good at it, but I enjoy it. When you have people clapping (even if you told them to) or laughing or even cheering, it gets the adrenaline going. It was a great experience.

I talked about the Common Core and I'm afraid I stole some (or a lot) of the superintendent's thunder. I felt pretty bad about that, but much better when several people asked if they could have a copy of my speech. So here you go: (it's long - as usual) I just cut and pasted from my notes, so please forgive any grammar and punctuation errors. I write just like I talk.

By the way, I sitting in Logan Airport in Boston, on my way home from a STEM plan learning lab. I'll debrief on that in another post. It was an enlightening experience in so many ways.

I’d like to start out by saying thank you to Mr. Hurst and the rest of the administration for the opportunity to speak to you all today. I was honored to be chosen as your Teacher of the Year for 2011. Being selected as a State Teacher of the Year finalist made my decision to take the Science Director job a very difficult one. In fact, I can easily say it was one of the most difficult decisions ever. I’m so proud to be a part of the Putnam City Schools family and I wanted so badly to represent each of you at the state level. Thank you so much for the opportunity to do so and I’m sorry I had to drop out of the competition because of this new responsibility.

Now if you’ve never spoken to a group this large, know that it can make you a bit nervous. I’ll just say that if I say something you agree with or that resonates with you, or even if I just mention your school, to let me know you are listening, you can clap or say something like woo-hoo!

15 years ago, I applied to be a bus driver in Putnam City Schools. I was hired and drove off and on for 10 years until I finally finished my undergraduate degree at SNU in 2007. During those years, I came into contact with what I believe to be the greatest faculty in the State of Oklahoma. As a bus driver, you certainly get a different perspective of the students and faculty. My time as a bus driver allowed me to learn what caring about students means and I learned that from you guys. One of the schools I drove out of was Tulakes Elementary (anyone here from there?) Every day the teachers would bring the students to the bus. They would get on the bus with the students and they showed me what an example of a caring teacher looked like. If a student was having a bad day or if they knew of some particular difficulty at home, the teachers made sure I knew about it. I have no doubt that this type of thing continues across the district in other schools and on other buses.  Little did I know back then, that I would get the privilege to join the faculty of Putnam City, a fantastic group of educators and that I would be afforded the opportunity to teach the best students in the state.

Speaking of great students, my own kids, Jessica and JC, have been in Putnam City their entire lives and I’d like to publicly thank each of you who influenced them during their time here. When I first started driving a bus, I applied for a transfer into the district so Jess could begin Kindergarten at Overholser Elementary. About that time, we moved into the district and the kids attended Rollingwood, Capps, and most recently, Putnam City High School. Jess graduated last year and JC will be a Senior this year. We were purposeful about purchasing a home in the district so our kids could attend school in Putnam City because we believed then, and still do, that the district offers the best academic and extra-curricular opportunities in Oklahoma. Because of the relationships I’ve built and the quality of education my children have received, I will always consider Putnam City Schools my home.

For those of you who are new to Putnam City this year, I want you to know that this is a special place. If I were to go into all the reasons for making such a broad statement, we would be here all day and I doubt any of you want that. (that is an appropriate place for applause) I’ll just say that there is a sense of family among the teachers in each building that I’ve not experienced in any other workplace. I’m thankful for the community that teachers and administrators work hard to build. If you don’t feel that in your building, I hope you do whatever it takes to treat your colleagues as family (or in some cases, better than family). It creates an environment of support and makes Putnam City a great place for students to learn.

The faculty members in this district have challenged me to grow and the members of the administration have given me opportunities to facilitate that growth. I have been fortunate to have leaders who allowed me the chance to try new things in my classroom. This led to an enriching teaching experience for me and hopefully a positive learning environment for my students. I hope the administrators in the district will continue to allow teachers to innovate in the classroom. Principals, if you aren’t already doing that, I’d challenge you to give your teachers some slack and see just what kind of excitement they can generate in their classes.

As I have begun to transition into the job of Science Director at the State Department of Education, I am beginning to realize that the change we’ve all been looking for in education is here. I doubt you’ve been able to read any journal or website without hearing about the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m not here to tell you that the Common Core standards are the saviour of education, but I do think they are common ground with which we can all start to increase the rigor and relevancy of our classes. If you don’t know about the Common Core, you should get informed. You can find information on the State Department of Education’s website or at corestandards.org. I thought I might share just a little of my understanding of the Standards (I’m talking to you as a teacher as a teacher, not as the State Science Director, give me a little slack, I’ve only been on the job for 3 weeks!)

The major components of the Common Core are this:

Include more reading and writing of informational texts in all content areas. - This isn’t really anything new. We’ve been talking about having students read and write for quite a while. Yes, you CAN have students in an English class learning to read and interpret a historical document. In fact, that is just the kind of thing the core standards encourage you to do. Literacy is everyone’s job. Think about it, if a student cannot read or write at grade level, how can they interact with the rest of their education? I guarantee you can connect literacy strategies to every single subject area in every single grade. If not, you are probably doing it wrong.

Provide opportunities for students to practice the 3 modes of rhetorical writing (narrative, argument, and informational) I can tell you from experience, when students enter college, they are going to have to do each of these three kinds of writing, probably in their first composition class. It doesn’t mean they have to be able to do them perfectly, but they should have already been exposed to this kind of writing, at a minimum. This isn’t just at the secondary level, either. Elementary students should be practicing their writing skills. How about having them write out the directions on how to accomplish a task and then let another student follow those directions?  

Require students to supply evidence and/or reasoning to justify their position. This can be mathematical reasoning, evidence from a text when analyzing literature, or scientific evidence from observation or experimentation. It doesn’t really matter what the topic is, but students must be able to give a reason for why they think a certain way or believe something. In this case, the process by which a student arrives at an answer is just as important as what their answer is. This may mean that you put students in a position in which there is either more than one right answer, or (heaven forbid) a situation in which you, as the teacher, do not know the right answer.
Expose students to grade-appropriate texts (which may be more complex than they have been in the past). The core standards are very explicit in giving examples of the kinds of texts students should be reading and at what level they should do so. Notice I said examples, I didn’t say mandates.

Use student work from each grade level to show proficiency (This is clearly a situation in which a series of GoogleDocs would work great as an e-portfolio!) This is a big part of the Common Core: being able to show that students are proficient at a particular skill. Just as the students should be able to give evidence of their reasoning, you as teachers should be able to give reasoning that supports your assertion that students are proficient in a particular area. We must be purposeful in causing opportunities for students to create artifacts that will demonstrate proficiency.

Teach using real world examples.  I’ll talk more about this shortly. I’m really passionate about this one, and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

Integrate technology into instruction. Yes, the Common Core is very explicit on this one. The students Quote “use technology and digital media strategically and capably.” end quote. And they are not just using technology just to be using it. They quote “employ technology thoughtfully to enhance their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language use.” end quote Ha! Some of you thought technology would decrease their language skills! Try having your students summarize a story or a semester-long project into 140 characters or less (maybe using twitter or polleverywhere). You will see some students writing more creatively and being more excited about what they are doing than ever before. Innovation like this will require training for students and teachers, I recognize that. In fact, it will probably require you as educators to begin doing some independent research into the use of technology in your classroom. I won’t lie. It’s not going to be easy. But then nothing worth doing ever is. If you need help with technology, I know of several people in the Putnam City technology department who are more than willing to help, you just need to ask. I’ve also heard there are some new instructional coaches who will be able to provide you with some much needed innovation assistance, as well.

Enough of what the Common Core is. Let me tell you what it is not.

The standards are NOT a national curriculum. They do not tell you how to teach your content. You should rely on your own professionalism, your district curriculum directors, and the collective wisdom and experience of your colleagues to help guide you in this area.

PThe Standards are not a comprehensive guide as to what should be taught, they are the minimum of what students should know and be able to do. However, those minimum guidelines are pretty explicit. For example, if you have students who cannot use the words their, there, and they’re correctly, they haven’t shown proficiency for what they should be able to do by the end of the 4th grade. Yes, I did choose that one because its a pet-peeve of mine.

The Standards do NOT include interventions for students below grade level and English Language Learners. However, PLCs can provide assistance with below-grade level interventions and I’m sure the ELL teachers are happy to help, as well. You have resources, but you have to ask for help!
Finally, the Standards do not define every single thing students need in order to be college and career ready. Teachers, districts, and states have some leeway on considerations as to what else is needed for students.

After stepping into the shallow end of the pool with the Standards I can tell you this: As an educator, there’s nothing in the Common Core I have seen that we shouldn’t already be doing.

My wife teaches at a local university, so you can imagine that we spend a significant amount of time talking about students, about teaching, and about our own learning. There is one thing she talks alot about that is a common struggle for many students arriving at college: the ability to think critically. The skill of analyzing a text or a situation and being able to cite specific evidence to support their position is something with which many students struggle. That’s a significant part of what Common Core is about: critical thinking. At the college level, students can still learn new content, but if they come in without the ability to think critically, they have a significantly smaller chance of academic success, no matter what their major is. Additionally, when students enter a workplace, they can learn how to run a cash register, but the ability to deal with a new situation requires problem-solving!

As a science teacher, I get really excited when I read anything that says students should be able to quote “evaluate the argument... including the validity of the reasoning... and sufficiency of the evidence”! end quote.  I heard someone on NPR the other day talking about gas wells and how they have a new method of getting more gas out of those old wells. If you were my family, I’d explain exactly how they do that, but suffice to say, there is a large group of people who are concerned about the contamination of ground water because of this new practice. The group is pushing for full disclosure of chemical levels in ground water before and after the drilling process. The host said, and I quote “The public needs some evidence so they will know the practice is safe.” end quote.  Really? How many average people in this country would be willing or capable of looking at evidence and drawing a reasonable conclusion? I suspect the average person would be willing to let some reporter interpret the evidence and tell them what to think. Consider that when you would rather let your students memorize facts instead of putting them into critical thinking situations.

I give this example because another significant part of the Common Core is relevance. I told you earlier I would get back to “Teach Using Real Life Examples”  As teachers, we owe it to our students to show that what they are required to learn is going to be useful later in life (or at least in a later class). In my physics classes, you cannot imagine the excitement on students’ faces when we would take some algebra or trig function and leverage that to actually learn about the position of an object or some force being applied! If you can’t make your subject relevant to students, you should reconsider what you are teaching. I’m not saying its easy to make your class relevant to students’ lives (unless you teach physics), I’m just saying you owe it to them to be explicit in that relevancy. This is especially important as students get into late elementary and middle school and begin to wonder, “What am I even doing in school anyway? What’s the point of all of this?” If we wait until students begin their high school years to introduce the relevance of learning, school may be so irrelevant by that point, they won’t be inclined to listen.

I’m so proud of each of you and I know this year is going to be better than the last. I hope if there is anything I can do to help you, (especially in science) that you will contact me. I’ll be looking forward to hearing about the exciting things going on in Putnam City. I hope you have a great year and I appreciate you giving me the chance to speak today.

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