Finding the good: awesome teachers and excellent opportunities

Today I was watching the most recent Board Meeting (Jan 23), and I was reminded that I wanted to write a post (several posts, actually). Aside from the important-but-dry communications about legal issues, bonds, finances, “construction management at risk” (it sounds worse than it is, lol), etc etc, I have been very impressed by the Staff Spotlights, not to mention the occasional report about some really cool things at various schools, like what was hinted by the Kenwood presentation.

 

At this last board meeting, there was a double dose of Staff Spotlights, honoring three outstanding individuals – from the Jan 23rd 8A agenda item:

Ms. [Lindsay] Green sees her students as people. She wants them to be successful both academically and personally. She was recently touched by the tragedy of a student suicide. She has since looked at her curriculum and how she can wrap around students as people and as students. She uses literature to help students be successful and active members of our society. She creates a space where students are heard, valued, and helped. Her students know and recognize her as a person who can be easily identified for support and advocacy. She is a teacher that I frequently use as a model to emulate. She is a teacher that all of us hope to be. She is a life changer. She is a safe space. She is an excellent teacher.

Every day, regardless of any outside factors or variables, both Tami [Fisher] and Iyana [Jones] show up to work with an attitude that puts what is best for our students first. They are experienced, confident, and understand how to work with students at baseline as well as those in crisis. The most amazing thing about these two is the work they put in outside of school hours to benefit our students. Be it service projects, going to see student sporting events, helping gather donations for students whose families are in need, or just always keeping their eyes open for rewards/prizes/snacks that students have stated they like, their devotion to our students never seems to diminish.

 

We are blessed to have people like this serving in our schools. Likewise, a shout out to Nicole Lafond for having a weekly teacher highlight in the News-Gazette; I would encourage you to check those out as well. Nicole seems to range all over looking for stand-out teachers.

 

In addition to the Staff Spotlight this past Monday, the Board was also treated to a presentation, via four students, about the computational work going on at Kenwood. These kids are being exposed to some really fantastic opportunities at such a young age, not to mention the enviable partnership with the University MTSE via CTRL-Shift. On top of that, while it is not in the limelight, for several years students have been able to attend the renowned Students Involved with Technology (SIT) conference; just as one other example of how doors are being opened. There is obviously a synergy happening, especially when you have folks like Wendy Maa, Kära Tanaka and Trevor Nadrozny, all of whom were supporting the students at the board meeting (there are of course many others, Kenwood has quite an impressive cast).

 

At one point during the meeting, Board President Chris Kloeppel praised the Choice program – and I believe he was very much right in that Unit 4 has a lot of exciting schools to choose from.

 

I don’t know about you, but these things warm my heart. Yes, there are still many challenges to address. But I believe we can and we will address them. If Unit 4 is full of such amazing people, how can we not? 🙂

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The 21st Century has arrived

According to wikipedia, the 21st Century “began on January 1, 2001.” So when I hear talk of a “21st Century Education” and ask people what that means, I am always a little amused that we are still grappling with how to define it and figure out what it looks like almost 15 years into the century.

 

CTRL-Shift has been doing a lot to make that a reality in Unit 4 schools. Granted, there are a ton of efforts and teachers all over that are working on ushering forward these changes, but I am going to highlight just a couple that I have some knowledge of.

 

First, there is Unit 4’s Innovate page, which opens the first page of this book and was discussed at the October 27th board meeting. Additionally, Kerris Lee (U4 Board member), along with many others like Todd Lash, has been working with district administration and staff to further integrate these concepts into district-wide curriculum and pursue funding via grants for crucial staff Professional Developement (PD), inviting partnerships with the University of Illinois MTSE and even code.org. Last Wednesday, WCIA interviewed Trevor Nadrozny and Wendy Maa of Kenwood and gave us a look inside how they are approacing “21st Century Education”:

http://www.illinoishomepage.net/story/current/d/story/u4innovate/21401/YB6a6AonCk-jBLATimYngA

 

Another example is Mrs. Slifer’s class at Carrie Busey, where I have been helping once a week. Just this past Friday, they produced a classroom video showing how students are actively using these skills to collaborate and work together on common goals.

 

The main idea is to get kids thinking about how to solve problems, no matter what the context is. These efforts encourage and immerse children in an environment where they ask each other questions, work together online (for example, using Google Docs or Google Classroom), and explore many different ways to answer questions about the world around them. They are developing critical thinking skills by being assigned a project and analyzing, conceptualizing and researching their way to a conclusion. Whether they use a tool like code.org, eToys, Scratch, google, wikipedia or something else entirely, the tool itself is not the object of the lesson, but rather just one of many possible venues to help guide the learner.

 

In light of all the controversy and talk (ad nauseam *grin*) of the Unit 4 referendum, I would absolutely love for the district administration to assign “the problem” of overcapacity schools and decades of deferred maintenance to our school children as a critical thinking project (*). What if students, parents and community members used an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking’s definition of critical thinking) to address these issues? I cannot help but wonder how many core curriculum concepts can be applied to such a case study; you pull in math, social studies, social science, history and language arts. And probably others as well.

(*) sidebar: I have traded emails with Ms. Stephanie Brown, a local AICP Project Planner with MSA Professional Services, Inc who sits on the board of the Illinois chapter of the American Planner Association (aka, ISS-APA), on the topic of conducting charrettes within the schools. The resources are there if only we can bring them together.

 

This got me to thinking, what does a “21st Century” classroom really require to accomplish these goals? Kenwood, the Unit 4 leader of the “computational thinking” crowd, is currently squished into the old Carrie Busey building on Kirby, along with the International Prep Academy. Even prior to moving to this temporary location, they had already opened the doors of the 21st Century at their pre-renovated home building at 1001 South Stratford. To me, it is fascinating that they are making all this “21st Century education” happen in a 20th century physical environment. Along that line, here is one infographic of a “21st Century Classroom”:

 

How will this change the face of classrooms? How will this change pedagogy and how we “do” education? The “Lewis and Clark” explorers of Kenwood, Carrie Busey and even Westview (as mentioned in the WCIA interview) are finding out.

 

One reader also asked how all this is being rolled into the current HS “programming” that is going on in regards to the new Central. I have asked around and so far the answer is “no”. Which absolutely boggles my mind.

 

A parting thought – only 85 more years until the 22nd Century…..

More about Common Core

I recently had a good talk about Common Core with Trevor Nadrozny, the Director of Curriculum with Unit 4. I initiated the conversation by leaving a couple messages with questions about how and what data on my child is being collected. We found a time to chat on the phone, and here is what I learned.

First, Common Core is a very broad, very vague set of guidelines. If I may make a gross analogy, it is like saying you have to weigh 100 pounds in 6 months. “Pounds” and “months” have standard definitions so we can all measure them the same way, but the path to get to “100 pounds” in “6 months” is totally ambiguous. Aside from the fact that everyone starts at a different place, there are different ways to get there. Maybe one person will use the path of “liposuction”, maybe another will use the “Atkins Diet”, another may use a “ketogenic diet”. Maybe one person will take the journey of “working out for 3 hours a day”. Common Core doesn’t really care how you get there, as long as you get there. The hidden problem with this approach is that it makes it hard to reward those that tried really hard and just didn’t meet the goal – maybe they lost 29 pounds, but just couldn’t get the last one off. For the record, I am not a big fan of the Body Mass Index (BMI) – maybe this is what taints my own view of Common Core – everyone is different, so we cannot all possibly fit into the same pigeon hole. But Common Core, like BMI, allows us to all talk with the same measurements, and there is some utility in that alone.

To implement the goals of Common Core, Unit 4 is piloting 3 separate programs at the elementary schools:

  • Wonders – Carrie Busey, Stratton, Bottenfield
  • Journeys – Robeson, Westview
  • Reading Street – Dr. Howard, Kenwood

I did some digging; while I could not find any relevant information on the Unit 4 website (I have a note into Stephanie Stuart and Trevor about that), I did find some vendor information:

Trevor mentioned that he did not have enough budget dollars to pilot these programs at every grade level, so I am not certain exactly which grades at the aforementioned schools are actually going through this exercise.

In an earlier thread, Karen talked about the critical need for grammar. When I mentioned this to Trevor, he said grammar is actually actively taught right now. He used a Kindergarten class teaching Wonders as an example, where students were learning about nouns and pronouns. So obviously, it seems that grammar is indeed being taught at least in one situation – I am not familiar enough with each of the three pilots to know what importance or priority grammar takes, but a brief glance through the vendor pages (links above) indicate that each pilot program at least touches on grammar.

Trevor also explain to me how there are different levels of collecting metrics. On the one hand, the district uses generic literacy screeners by way of aimsweb. Trevor compared this to taking your pulse and blood pressure when you visit the doctor’s office – it doesn’t really tell you about any root issues, but it is a way of tracking general health. He also told me about “DRA”, which has been used in previous years; I didn’t catch what the acronym meant, but it was something about “diagnostic assessments”. Doing a search on the Unit 4 website, I see that DRAs have been talked about several times in board meetings – other than that, I am not finding much information (will keep looking & asking, and will update here when I find more). Trevor compares DRAs to being like a comprehensive blood test – much more thorough than aimsweb. Apparently, DRAs are used on an “as needed” basis.

Additionally, I learned that Wonders has assessments built in. It is foremost a reading curriculum aligned to Common Core, but assessments are kind of like a “bonus feature”. I did not ask, but I would assume that Journeys and Reading Street also have built in assessments.

A relatively new thing is something called “progress monitoring”, which is essentially a screener (taking pulse and blood pressure) on a weekly basis. I did not ask how this was implement or for how many students.

More to follow. My goal is to learn more about Common Core and what it means for our school district. I am hunting for facts. *grin* Call me narrow-minded, but I am focusing on facts that are relevant to Unit 4 and the Champaign community – broad, overarching details about the pros and cons of Common Core are less interesting to me at the moment.

To me, there is still a big issue revolving around how to prepare and move students from grade to grade. I have learned, via Voices for Illinois Children’s “Great at 8” initiative, the most critical years for building an educational scaffolding from which to hang the rest of ones educational progress occurs before a child reaches 8 years of age. The Champaign Federation of Teachers (aka, teacher’s union) recently promoted a video highlighting the “Word Gap” between the rich and the poor, and how some privileged kids have a 30 million word advantage over unprivileged kids by the time they enter kindergarten. That bothers me. I think our schools have a huge challenge to tackle that gap – I don’t know how we are going to do it.

Trevor Nadrozny’s Prezi presentation on Common Core State Standards

The Jefferson PTSA was scheduled to host a Common Core (CCSS) presentation this past week, but it got snowed out. I asked Trevor for the presentation materials, and now I have a link to the online Prezi presentation:

http://prezi.com/yad_dmfe0dfm/common-core-in-unit-4/

 

The bulk of the presentation is an RSA-like whiteboard animated drawing from CommonCoreWorks.org. (not exaclty sure how to embed that here in WordPress). The transcript is also included below the flash animation.

 

Buried in the Prezi (you won’t see it if you just click through) is a blurb from Mary Crego of State Farm (http://www.corestandards.org/voices-of-support/watch/15), and another blurb from an unidentified woman, both trying to share the positive aspects of Common Core. Also included are two screen shots of web pages that look like progress charts, ala Khan Academy.

 

For those that would like to attend the presentation in person, it has been rescheduled for Tuesday February 11th 6-7pm (at Jefferson).

 

Other links:

http://www.corestandards.org/

http://www.pta.org/3816.htm [broken]

 

July 9th Board Meeting: review

To be honest, I was kinda surprised by how few “role-less” community people showed up for the Board Meeting tonight; I think I was one of two when the meeting started, and one other joined us later. The other 15 or 20 people seemed to have an official role, whether it be building staff, District official/administrator, CFT, Channel 15, architects or legal types.

 

To start things off, a list of Recognitions was read by each board member. And there were quite a few – most are the “good news” that have been showcased on the U4 website and Facebook page, with a few extra that I had not yet heard. Strange how the entire list is not online (not even on BoardDocs).

 

For Public Comment, I was the only one to say anything and I again urged the Board to consider ways to do community engagement, using the recent news paper articles about Urbana as a negative example and what Wheaton is doing as a positive example (based off a previous post). I sure wish I was eloquent. *grin* But at least I got the message across – I had also emailed the information to the Board so they can always look back on that if I communicated poorly.

 

During “Communications from Board Members”, Board Member Chalifoux (and somebody else?) Read the rest of this entry »

Two items: Upcoming Board "retreat" and expansion of classes

I was informed that the Board has set the date and time of their next retreat, which I am told is open to the public.

When: June 21st, 8:am – 12:pm

Where: Mellon Center (??)

In the past, Board Members have told me that these retreats are very helpful and they got a lot of out of them. In fact, Greg Novak had this to say of the last retreat:

BEST   –  BOARD   –   MEETING   –   EVER  !!!!      Got a great view of the district and its issues and strengths from an experienced outsider it was the Superintendent – seven board members – no one else – serious and open discussion (in open session no less) of issues facing the school district today – including lack of district engagement with the community.

I have never been to one before and I am not sure if many members of the public have been either. It is not exactly the most convenient time for those of that work, but the same goes for the existing Board Members as most (if not all) of them will have to take time off work.

Not seeing anything on the District homepage yet, but I would expect them to post a formal, if brief, agenda.

Secondly, concerning all the new classrooms and teacher shuffling going on, Trevor has finally come out and laid out the cards:

http://will.illinois.edu/news/spotstory/unit-4-prepares-for-influx-of-students/

However, I would still like to hear more from the district. For instance, Robeson is getting a ESL class. What about all the support structures that go along with ESL? Where are the new teachers coming from? This makes me wonder what else is happening beyond the mere mention of “adding classes”. Another thought I have, it seems just a tad odd that these decisions were discussed and completed internally with little communication with the public. And perhaps little communication with the Board? I have heard a number of parents who were affected by these changes; for instance several Latino parents were told they were moving to Robeson. They were not asked, they were not included in any of the decision-making. The picture that was painted to me was that this was quite abrupt and disruptive for those affected. To give the District a little credit, I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they were in a rush to make some big decisions. Certainly, they need to do something about the larger Kindergarten and First Grade classes. I am hoping that in the future there is a bit more of a collaborative effort between the District and the community to address larger issues like this.