Setting the Stage for RTI

I must preface this lengthy analogy with the assertion that I am not an RTI expert, and I write completely based upon my own informal, independent research on the subject within my experience as both a regular high school classroom educator and an elementary school administrator.

Having been a theater teacher and school theater director in the past, it occurred to me today the similarities between the RTI provided during the rehearsals for a production and the RTI provided in our general education programs.

Too often, we consider effective RTI too difficult a requirement to incorporate into what we are already doing to support our students. To be quite frank, I think what intimidates us most is the re-prioritizing and re-organizing of what we have held onto for many years because we naturally teach how we were taught or through the lens by which we experienced education, and the unnatural integration of some other support system is uncomfortable, and skeptically, we doubt its effectiveness since it is neither what worked for us nor what we think has been working for our students in years past.

To break down RTI into what I see as the same process as preparation for a theatrical production, it is important to set forth some disclaimers. RTI requires that all students have a role on stage in the final production and that all students are expected to perform their roles so that the “show must go on.” Though the federal “No Child Left Behind” program faced much scrutiny for being somewhat idealistic and for its flawed and inconsistent support for implementation, insistence that all students receive support academically such that they will be best equipped within their cognitive means to perform successfully is both equitable and imperative. No child will should be or will be hidden in an effective RTI implementation. With this being overtly mentioned, RTI should not set out to be a Comedy of Errors or Love’s Labours Lost; instead, the production should reflect more of an end that All’s Well that Ends well.

Before tackling the Tiers of tears, it is important that RTI be systematically organized, especially to handle the uncertainties of the implementation and to establish and maintain momentum throughout the process for all students. The cast must be committed to an excellent production at all levels and must not intend to ride on the merits of previous productions nor be discouraged by the previous failures.

As with any production, a director must fully engage and monitor fidelity within RTI, but a plethora of other experts must be consistently involved in orchestrating what the director has designed. The director (oftentimes a school administrator) must always be receptive to the concerns and difficulties expressed by those orchestrating the plans and responsive by adjusting resources and strategies to best equip the cast members for the final production. Costumers, a stage director, stagehands, set designers, and various “behind the scenes” personnel must be working collaboratively with the director(s) throughout the stages of preparation for the production. Every angle of the production must be considered analytically so that even unexpected mishaps can be averted.

Another element that must be clear is a script, schedule, and date of production that reveals the full scope of the timeline and rationale for RTI. Without a coherent sense of the date of production or the script beforehand, the backstage staff will wander aimlessly from one standard to another without a clear sense of the overall goal.

Once the vision is clear for all participating, other pieces need to be set in place and appropriately adjusted during rehearsals or intervention/extension times. The prop master is perhaps one of the most important roles in tier two and three interventions. This person ensures that the appropriate tools are available to the teachers and students for effective “performance.” One can not expect to place the same props in the same place for everyone and to see all roles performed with proficiency. Every student plays a different role in his or her aspiration to be part of a successful production. This is important, too, that each student recognizes his or her individual performance as a critical component of the school performance.

In implementation, RTI must continue to focus on specific hindrances from the conveyance of a coherent message, both by its individual constituents and as a production company. One of the sharpest criticisms that I have made of my own analogy here is that it focuses too heavily on an end product or comparison of the performance to the assessment; however, it is important that the assessment is seen formatively in the same way that theatrical performances are seen as formative assessments of whether or not preparation for the production was appropriate.

If we were to extend this analogy too far, certainly it would fall apart on multiple other levels, but my reason for explicating it in this way is primarily to demonstrate that RTI is not simply a one size fits all program, nor is it possible without multiple levels of support. Its primary purpose should be student learning irrespective of an assessment-based production, but those who know that the show will go on in spite of any difficulties that may arise may use this analogy and develop it more coherently such that they can reveal the need for meticulous planning and attention to detail. I have attended and have been a part of both dynamic and flat performances, and having been responsible for producing plays myself, I know that the attention paid to the initial schedule and during rehearsals to the details of each individual’s performance in the form of progress monitoring makes the difference in what we will see when students are expected to perform.

Reflections on the Spiral vs. Linear Approach with Common Core

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It is very difficult to try to fit the square peg into the circular hole. Likewise, it is difficult to fit a framework for pedagogy that is inherently driven by rigor and depth into a linear pattern of execution which is characterized by completion of standards and expectations and a checklist of “covered material.” This is one of my fundamental concerns about our transition to the Common Core standards. We must come to grips with the paramount paradigm shift that must take place in order to truly prepare students for new expectations in what will continue to be a high-stakes testing environment, which aims to hold both teachers and students accountable in its idealistic approach.

Imagine for a moment the length of a Slinky if it were to be entirely straightened without any kinks. This is representative of many teachers’ instruction based on our previous and, in many cases, current model. I include myself among the “many” in this statement. When the Slinky is returned to its original length and structure, it better represents the model for instruction that we aim to achieve with the Common Core. While the straight model allowed us to cover a breadth of material that was admirable, the depth was often very difficult to achieve. The idea of re-visiting fewer standards is theoretically quite relieving, but if we simply re-visit the standards on the same level, we are not spiraling in a way that deepens understanding. How do we break free from our straight path to a corkscrew pattern that truly gives students more leverage to engage their understanding on deeper levels?

I propose the following (although somewhat prematurely) as steps to be taken in making this shift:

1) Define levels of depth for each standard. Provide mathematical practices and clear representations of levels of understanding. The more tangible these are, the more clearly they can be represented to the students and teachers, alike.

2) Design a scope and sequence which allows for multiple checkboxes, with each addressing a deeper level of understanding with respect to each standard. Ideally, this would occur for every student, as well.

3) Provide public recognition for achievement on multiple levels. This is likely to be most observable in the form of PBL and multi-faceted products.

4) Backward-build tasks based upon student response exemplars. Struggle to determine what questions and prompts elicit complex responses. This may be very difficult at first, but it will force the empathy with the student. This also helps to disrupt the linear pattern of problem-solving to look at desired results before designing the prompt which brings it forth.

5) Create academic tools that can be used on multiple levels and can engage multiple intelligences so that familiar material can be viewed in a new light each time it is encountered.

The Common Core standards are still quite unfamiliar, and the integration of these standards can not simply be a content shift. In fact, much of the content is not significantly different in its core from what many states may have vaguely prescribed before this adoption of more consistent standards. It is the approach that must change, which will force teachers to delve into more comprehensive questioning and facilitation of learning after foundational knowledge is present with all learners.

The corkscrew method of teaching is not a carousel on which the same standards are re-visited with the same approach, tools, and scenery. It is more like an archaeological dig, in which each removed layer reveals a more comprehensive understanding. The linear model, though very familiar both in our culture and our frame of understanding, I am afraid, is no longer going to suffice as the model for evoking the types of responses desired in our impending PARCC assessments and our efforts to be increasingly competitive in a global sense.

Do not misunderstand me. I think that a clear, linear, logical approach is essential for foundational skill-building, especially in lower elementary education, and I am concerned about the emphasis on Common Core obfuscating the importance of such cognitive development, and I hope that we will not depart entirely from tried and true practices that are supported by brain development research.

In full consideration of the new ride, however, I think it is important to remember that every ride needs time for rest and reflection, so I sincerely hope that we will take time for these without feeling that we will ever be able to witness every spectacle along the way. The spiral ride will hopefully build efficacy through gained familiarity and empowerment rather than a sense of one-time accomplishment that leaves us wondering at the end, what exactly did we learn?

My Choices for Extra-Classroom Collaboration

I think it is important for educational conversation to extend well beyond classroom walls, whether you are an educator, administrator, or student. Following are links to some of my favorite ways to extend beyond the walls into the web:

TitanPad – I love using this super-simple shared space for text-based collaboration. I also like the slider that allows one to see real-time edits of the document and possibilities for multiple file format exports.

Skype – This is well-known as a means for connecting video between two parties and more with a desktop version. This can be an expert with a class, a class to another class, or even simply two colleagues in various geographical locations.

Twitter – One can use this venue for various types of connections. Certainly, the most obvious is the option of following others with whom you share interests, but hashtags and lists open up great opportunities for organizing tweets. By searching certain hashtags, one can access many resources linked by others with similar interests, but one can also participate in live chats by hashtagging alongside others at prescribed times. I list certain individuals who are associated in some way, as well, so that I can keep up with certain topics about which they tweet without the restriction of a particular hashtag. I find that students also engage in conversation on Twitter when those leading them to do so become especially energetic about the collaboration.

Twiddla – What I particularly like about this website is its similarity to TitanPad and the capabilities that extend beyond text. I can see how this could get messy occasionally, but the possibilities outweigh the potential messiness. You can choose to annotate a web page, operate in an EtherPad environment, or use the least restrictive whiteboard. Many of the options are available for free unless you want to save or personalize a profile.

VoiceThread – I love the integration of the audio/visual elements in this particular venue for setting up a non-threatening environment for student and colleague response to video or still prompts. There is now a cost associated with this, but if all possible people are involved in the conversations with effective use of technology, it may well be worth the cost.

TodaysMeet – This is somewhat similar to Twitter but allows for text and hyperlinks and much simpler backchanneling without any need for account setup, and the whole conversation can be easily accessed in the present and the future (temporarily).

UStream – This is a nice video broadcaster that allows for text responses and archiving. I am still learning the possibilities, but I have enjoyed attending events via UStream that I could otherwise not attend.

As with any collaborative venture, it is important to use etiquette and perhaps set some ground rules before rolling out the venue. I have experienced the aftermath of not bringing others along in doing so, and our digital citizenship requires respect and responsibility if we are to grow in our collaboration. I am very willing to consider other venues for collaboration beyond our school walls and welcome comments in response to this blog post that introduce your favorites.

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School Circuitry: What is Your Function?

While brushing up a bit on my knowledge of electronic circuitry thanks to the Electric Circuits app on my iPod Touch, I considered the analogy of electric circuitry to roles played in a school. I thought about this as a point of reflection both as an administrator and for educators who are encountering a number of changes that could potentially adversely impact the electricity of our schools. Consider which, if any, of these roles you play in your school. For the illustration, I consider a simple circuit with the potential to power multiple lights.

1. Power Source: Are you one of those in your building to whom others turn to find answers and inspiration? When others are feeling overwhelmed, are you still providing a reason for others to persevere?

2. Switch: Do you have the ability and difficult responsibility at times of either maintaining the electrical flow or bringing it to a complete stop? It is often a switch who dictates whether or not the power sources are effectively translating power to other members of the school.

3. Wire: Are you making the connections that allow the power sources to be accessed by others in such a way that they illuminate student learning? Are you bringing the resources to others that allow them to shine?

4. Resistor: Are you reducing the energy flow due to your reluctance to adapt or because of your misgivings about educational reform without translating the energy positively? I think it is important to have some resistors who discern the danger of pushing new initiatives too quickly, but a resistor who drains all of the energy from the circuit can be quite detrimental to a school.

5. Light: Are you the person who uses the power given to you to truly shine? When others look at your contributions to the school, is it clear that you are “making a difference” and putting the school’s electricity to good use? How brightly is your light shining with students?

I think it is important to play all roles in the circuitry of the school when they are necessary to the school’s electricity, especially in a climate of changing expectations and a number of potential circuit interrupters. If one considers the importance of each of the parts of the circuit, it is clear that the lights only shine if all parts are used to complete the circuit. Furthermore, the strength of the light is contingent upon the voltage of the power source and the limited number of resistors without switches disconnecting power.

Therapeutic Haiku for Educators

In the past, I have found writing haiku a therapeutic activity that allows me to express frustrations and realizations as terse verse. Following are some haiku that I hope will help me and others to find camaraderie in our shared experiences in education:

Common Core headaches
Persist until familiar
With new assessment.

Students’ apathy?
Try ambitious strategies:
I wish they would work.

Time with family
Limited by new demands;
I must balance both.

PLCs can work
When all understand and strive;
If not, they frustrate.

School security
Not just found in more handguns;
We can’t learn in fear.

Books still change our lives,
Video games are more fun;
Why not enjoy both?

Loving our children
In spite of their very worst:
True education.

Teachers need a break
Students should appreciate:
Obedience helps.

Differentiate
Recognize student’s struggle
Accentuate strengths.

Safety in numbers
Once meant to group together.
Now data-driven?

Evaluation
Paired with teacher confusion:
Is this objective?

Perhaps, I am alone in these sentiments, but I do feel that these brief three-line poems express some of the challenges I face in education right now and areas in which I want to grow. I do find the process of writing the poems therapeutic because it helps me to better isolate the challenges, and it also simplifies them such that I feel more empowered to address them. Enjoy!

What I Miss Now That I Don’t Have My Own Classroom

Though I have loved the journey so far this year as a school administrator, I realized some of the things I miss that were a part of my being a classroom teacher for ten years.

1. Discussion with colleagues about classroom successes
There is something about sharing the classroom successes with those who are also working in that environment. I see teachers sharing their successes with me in much the same way that I shared my successes with administrators, with some reservation about what to share because I knew they couldn’t completely understand. I miss the candid conversations in which I could talk to my colleague across the hallway and feel that she really appreciated the success because she too spent her day teaching children.

2. Planning periods and predictable schedules
It can become quite difficult to schedule tasks and meetings throughout the day, and I have no idea what my true schedule will be when I enter the school each day. Though I enjoy the excitement of this, I remember how a daily scheduled planning period allowed me to have some sense of regularity and allowed me to focus with far less frequent interruption. Again, I enjoy my new unpredictable schedule and do not complain, but I do recall enjoying predictability, as well.

3. Witnessing children’s epiphanies
Unfortunately, I do not get to experience the children coming to realizations and getting excited about learning nearly as often now. I think that my new sort of administrator presence in a classroom typically stifles these moments as children try to be on their best behavior and take fewer risks in my presence.

4. Rare notes of encouragement from students touched by my influence
I am privileged to work with colleagues who do express their gratitude and appreciation for one another, but I still have a folder which contains the sincere and thoughtful notes from students who thanked me for making some difference in their lives. My students also show appreciation for their principal, but my relationship with them as an administrator sadly keeps me from getting to know them quite as well as those students I had in the classroom.

5. Before- and after-school activities with students
Because my responsibilities as an administrator begin much earlier and often extend later than student dismissal, it has been difficult not to be a sponsor of clubs for students. I do help to coach a girls’ junior pro basketball team, but I miss the opportunities I once had to be more involved in these types of activities.

6. Fun classroom activities
I now benefit from the fact that most teachers welcome me into their classrooms to be a part of these activities, but getting to plan them with students and orchestrate them is something that I nostalgically recall fondly.

7. Opportunities to showcase technology to a welcoming audience
I will admit that many teachers in my building are interested in technology integration and want to see new and innovative ways to use it in their classrooms, but I loved the Wow! factor when I somehow managed to introduce some technology to students with which they were not previously familiar, and I loved watching their projects that they developed for class that put my level of technology integration to shame.

8. Learning with and from students
This is perhaps one of the elements of the classroom experience that I miss most. I really want to develop some venues in our school that will allow me to be a part of this again.

9. Administrative appreciation
Because I worked with some great principals in the past, I miss the support and encouragement that they once gave me. I do work with some great encouraging colleagues from our central office, and I work daily with an amazing assistant principal, but I have to remember that the type of encouragement I once received it is now my responsibility to provide to the educators in my building.

10. Territorial classroom features
My office is not considered by most students (or parents) to be a very positive place. Despite my efforts to make it one, I miss the inviting climate that I had the opportunity to create in my classroom, where there was less of the perception that disciplinary issues were the main event, so to speak. I remember students crowded around the Scrabble board to strategize ways to submit a word that would put my score to shame in an open-face teacher-student Scrabble competition. I especially miss the door decorations that I once had the opportunity to generate during Homecoming weeks.

11. My own attention to great writing
I do miss that while I was an English teacher, I was continually refining my writing craft and seeking to present my students with models of strong voice and descriptive writing elements. As much of my communication throughout the day deals with recording certain details quickly and concise messages, I have found that my writing is suffering.

I love being a principal, and I truly enjoy the opportunities that I do have to leave my office and learn from everyone else in our building, but I also appreciate what I had as a classroom teacher and hope that other classroom teachers are still provided the opportunities to enjoy these things in spite of the many demands that increasingly compete for their time and energy. I aim to protect this for my teachers because I think that their love of teaching depends on it.

Seussial Media Poem

The following is a poem I have written with inspiration from the late Dr. Seuss and my own experienced reservations expressed by colleagues about the use of social media, especially in education:

“Hello, my tech-unsavvy friend,
I have some time I’d like to spend
Teaching you about the Net
You’ll like its uses I will bet.”

“I do not like your Internet,
It makes me nervous and I fret.
I wonder why you like it so.
Please leave me now, and let me go.”

“But would you, could you send a tweet?”

“Not with my hands nor with my feet.
It’s silly and it’s much too brief.
Besides, what’s wrong with my looseleaf?”

“Perhaps you’d rather write a blog?”

“Not even with my favorite dog.
It takes too long; what would I say?
Please just stop now, and go away!”

“Have you considered trying a wiki?”

“And edit a page? That sounds too tricky.
And why would I write on a page
That others could change and fuel my rage?”

“Surely you are on Facebook?”

“Now listen here, and take a look.
I’ve got too many tests to grade.
Besides I’m greatly underpaid.
I can’t spend all my time online.
That is just the bottom line!
I will not Facebook or tweet, you twit.
And I don’t know how…”

“Oh, that’s just it.
Just give me a minute of your time.
I’m sure you’ll find it quite sublime.
Just click and choose a username.
Forget the wealth, enjoy some fame
If others like what you do share.
You’ll find that other teachers care.
Look for a link, or read a post
From someone on the other coast.
You might inspire some, as well,
By what you share or what you tell.
Just try it once, and I will go.
Try it, and you’ll enjoy it, I know.”

“I’ll try it once if you stand by.
Yes, I suppose that I will try.
I click and choose a username,
And now that I’m on, it’s not the same.
It’s kind of nice, seeing others write.
And some post even late at night.
I think I like this edublog, and
I can read it with my dog.
I think I’ll add some to this wiki;
I don’t need to be so picky.
I think I’ll tweet what I just read,
Instead of lying awake in bed.
And if Facebook lets me join this group,
It will warm my heart like chicken soup.
You’re right, this stuff has application.
I might even use it on vacation.”

And so this tale of wonder and worry
Turned out quite well, but you needn’t scurry
To try out every online site.
Instead I think that you just might
Try out one venue for awhile
And if you like them, you might smile.
But if you don’t, we love you too
And appreciate all that you do.

Thank you, educators and educational professionals, for your dedication and commitment to our children. Whatever you do, do not forget about the reason we do what we do, to benefit our children.