My Prayer for Newtown

Father, I’m not even sure what to say.  I know you grieve over what happened yesterday – I know that you are a good God and that you took no pleasure in watching this happen.  I also know that you are sovereign and you are in control – even though the world seems out of control.  I believe you are strong enough to have stopped this from happening, and I don’t know why you didn’t.  But I believe you are big enough to handle that question without being offended.

I also know that I’ll probably never get an answer to that question, at least on this side of heaven.  And, for some strange reason, I’m okay with that.  So I don’t want to talk about the why, I don’t want to try to understand, because, at the end of the day, there are 20 dead kids up there in Connecticut and 6 dead adults just from that school.  That’s a lot of families that are hurting right now because their loved ones didn’t come home last night; those parents weren’t able to snuggle with their sons and daughters and tuck them in last night, they didn’t get to see them take a nap in someone’s arms today, nor did those kids wake up to discover “the elves” had returned.  And those families are hurting.

They need help, Jesus.  They need love, they need peace, they need hope – in short, Lord, they need you.  So I’m praying right now that you would supernaturally rain down on them – do something, Lord, to bring peace to chaos, hope to despair, and love to the hurting.  Father, move your people who live in Newtown to pour out your love to these hurting people.  There are no answers, there are no explanations, there are just hurts – hurts that seem beyond healing.  Hurts that never should have been.

I can’t fix this, Jesus – none of us can.  We can’t bring these kids back from the dead, we can’t undo the madness of yesterday.  In fact, we can’t even do anything to prevent this from happening again.  We’ll try – I’ll try – but at the end of the day it seems that if evil wants to rear it’s ugly head then evil will rear it’s ugly head.  And that, quite honestly Lord, just down-right sucks.  I know in the end you win – I get that; I know and believe with all my heart that one day you will “wipe away every tear” from our eyes, but right now there are hurting people, people who have lots of tears and lots of holes in their hearts, and that promise you gave has yet to be completely fulfilled.

And it’s not just those who lost a loved one, Lord – it’s everyone up there that was affected by this tragedy.  There were over 600 kids at that school – SIX HUNDRED KIDS, Lord!  That’s 600 kids whose lives will forever be changed, six hundred kids whose innocence has been shattered.  Every one of their families will now fear sending their kids to school, wondering, “Will it happen again?”  I’ve read the comments on the blogs, on Facebook, and even on the news stations.  People are scared.

And you know better than I do that when we get scared we do only a couple of things.  One is to react irrationally and do crazy things.  Another is run away from you because, well, we’re mad that this happened and questioned how you could allow it.  The other is run to you and just collapse in your arms.  Father, I pray for each of the families that are affected by this tragedy that they would run to you, Lord.  Let them know that you are crying, too – that you hurt because what happened is bad and evil and it was never in your plan.  Let them know, Lord, that this is not something you did or wanted to happen, that this is an example of something happening on this fallen world that is outside your will.

And, Father, I also pray (and perhaps I’m praying this even more than anything else), that you’d smack your people upside the head so we don’t say or do anything stupid.  I read in horror what people write about you – people who claim to believe, know, and follow you.  The things they say about you and this situation break my heart (and I have to believe they break yours).  They blame you, they say you caused it.  They’re so busy arguing over your involvement (or lack there-of) in this tragedy that they’re forgetting to reach out to those who are hurting.  They’re not listening to the broken-hearted, Lord, too many of your people are preaching at them, complaining about things like video-game violence, R-rated movies, ease of obtaining a gun, and the like.  It’s not that those things are unimportant, Lord, it’s just that right now is not the time to discuss them.  You told us in your word that for everything there is a season, and the season for those conversations will come – but right now, Father, is the time to weep.  To weep over the fact that these little kids were murdered in cold blood; to weep over the loss of innocent lives of teachers and administrators at an elementary school.  It’s time to weep and mourn, Lord.  Use this, somehow, to bring your people back to you.  There are people weeping right now and we’re supposed to weep with them, Father, but too many Christians are, well, just worried about other things. Let them weep, Lord.  Don’t wipe the tears away just yet because the tears of those who are affected are still there, so ours need to be present too.

And, finally, Father, I pray for those who, tomorrow, will preach your word in churches across this nation.  I know that it’s going to come up in sermons; I know people will go to church tomorrow that haven’t ever darkened the door of one before.  And they’re going to be looking for answers, answers to questions they’re asking, answers that none of us have.  Give those pastors and leaders the courage to say, “I don’t know” when they need to; give them the wisdom to know how to communicate your love and your brokenheartedness to those who hurting.  Don’t let them get distracted, Father, by politics or theological arguments.  Lord, help them just love people and communicate your love to tomorrow.

Jesus, we need you.  We need you because right now we’ve got nothing.  We’re sitting down here, two weeks before Christmas (a time that’s supposed to be about peace and joy and happiness), and we’re crying because laying in front of us are the bodies of 20 murdered kids and six murdered adults and there’s nothing we can do to bring them back.

I take that back, Lord, we do have something – we have you; I have you.  Give me the courage to share you with a hurting world; give me the courage to talk about you and lift you up, to point to you and acknowledge you.  Give me the words to say when I’m asked questions where clearly the only answer is you.  Give me the courage to love those around me and share your love with them, to shower people with the good news that even when I’ve got nothing I really have everything.  Dear God we need you.  My country needs you; all those people up there in Connecticut need you, Lord.  Show us how to share you.  Soften their hearts – somehow, some way – to be open to receive you and know you and be filled by you, because what they’re looking for they will never find outside of you.  Show us, your church, how to share you.


PLC Training: Day 2

Professional Learning Communities at Work – Day 2

(this is part two of a two-day series summarizing training I attended with a team from across the district. For day 1’s recap click here)

It’s really pretty simple, when you think about it. It’s all about the kids. That pretty much sums up what our representatives learned over the past two days.

Today’s session focused on addressing some of the nuts-and-bolts, so to speak, of implementing PLCs. We spent a good deal of time reinforcing the basic concepts we were exposed to yesterday, which was actually really good because it helped us all keep our focus. Here are some key points that will be used to drive discussion over the next several months (perhaps I’ll actually do a blog post on each of these!):

The Big Ideas of a PLC

  1. We accept learning as the fundamental purpose of our school and therefore are willing to examine all practices in light of their impact on learning;
  2. We are committed to working together to achieve our collective purpose. We cultivate a collaborative culture though development of high performing teams;
  3. We assess our effectiveness on the basis of results rather than intentions. Individuals, teams, and schools seek relevant data and information and use that information to promote continuous improvement.

Because PLCs function as a team, we also identified the Seven Keys to Effective Teams:

  1. Embed collaboration in routine practices of the school with focus on learning (the entire school is a team);
  2. Schedule time for collaboration into the school day and calendar;
  3. Focus teams on critical questions;
  4. Make products of collaboration explicit;
  5. Establish team norms to guide collaboration;
  6. Pursue specific and measurable team performance goals (SMART goals);
  7. Provide teams with frequent access to relevant information.

When you take all that information, you get this basic picture of a PLC: it’s a team who spends time meeting regularly to identify goals for their students and then uses formative assessment to monitor student performance, making adjustments along the way based on the information they receive from those assessments. They also examine the data of these common assessments to look for trends in terms of student performance (who’s weak and strong across the board) as well as teacher performance so teachers can help teachers. It has nothing to do with student or teacher evaluation but with teacher and student growth. The Dufours summed it up this way:

“The heart of work in a PLC is when educators collectively analyze evidence of student learning to (1) inform individual performance practice, (2) improve a team’s ability to achieve it’s SMART goals, and (3) intervene on behalf of individual students. The other steps on the PLC journey (ie, identifying essential goals, establishing norms, creating common formative assessments, etc), are designed to help teams engage in this essential work.”

What educator couldn’t agree that this “vision” for PLCs isn’t the exact same vision we have for our schools in general? Doesn’t every decent educator strive to do the best they can to help the students do the best they can? That’s what PLCs are all about. We’ve gotten distracted and lost our focus (as we often do as humans) and made PLCs into book studies, team meetings, PD sessions, and gripe sessions. But that’s not what PLCs are. “The heart of work in a PLC is when educators collectively analyze evidence of student learning to (1) inform individual performance practice, (2) improve a team’s ability to achieve it’s SMART goals, and (3) intervene on behalf of individual students.”

Over the next couple of months I’ll begin to dig deeper into PLCs in both trainings throughout the district as well as posts on this blog, but for now ask yourself this question: Is the team I’m currently working on functioning as a PLC (as defined above) or are we doing other duties? If the answer is “other duties” then I challenge you to reflect on your work and figure out if you could be more focused on what’s important. If you are serving on a functioning PLC as defined above, please contact me because as we venture down this path as a district we’re going to need people to serve as models and supports for the rest of us – and you could fill that role.

PLC Training: Day 1

Professional Learning Communities at Work – Day 1

At the October 28 district-wide PD day we introduced the whole idea of PLCs, or Professional Learning Communities. During the morning training that day all schools conducted a three hour training answering the basic questions “What does a PLC look like?” and “How should a PLC function?” Then in the afternoon teachers were divided into PLCs to begin walking through the new standards documents as they learned how the Revised Blooms’ Taxonomy (RBT) aligns with the new NC Essential Standards.

This week a team of over 40 teachers, administrators, and instructional coaches are attending a two-day training in Raleigh entitled Professional Learning Communities at Work: Bringing the Big Ideas to Life, led by Dr. Rick and Becky Dufour (the training is Wednesday, December 14 and Thursday, December 15). The next several blog posts will serve as summaries of our work there, as well as how this will impact our work here in Pitt County Schools. If you want to follow live updates of the training I’ll be tweeting highlights each day.

Wednesday’s sessions focused on addressing this issue of “What does a PLC look like?” and then began laying the groundwork for “How do we do that here?” Before I give a definition of what a PLC is, however, let’s take a moment to talk about what a PLC is not. When educators hear the term PLC a broad variety of mental images come to mind – and many are not correct. Most schools in Pitt County will report they have PLCs at their schools, but when asked to describe their “PLC” the answers range from what is essentially a team meeting covering the latest information from the previous SIT meeting, planning time to discuss the upcoming parent curriculum night, to something more along the lines of a book study. While these things are not in-and-of-themselves bad things (and they are needed in order to ensure a school functions effectively), they are not a PLC.

PLCs are not a program or event, they are not a team meeting, nor are they something that is short-term. PLCs are an “on-going process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” They operate under “the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators.”

As we transition into the new NCSCOS (the Common Core & Essential Standards), PCS has invested a lot of time and money into using PLCs as a key component to school-improvement. PLCs will form the backbone of professional development in the new standards for the next several years, so it’s important that we have a firm understanding of what that means both theoretically and practically. As our work on the district-wide PD days has demonstrated, much of our work learning and applying the new standards will happen in PLCs.

Some of the Theory

PLCs will need to operate in what Marzano and Waters refer to as “defined autonomy” – meaning that teachers will have freedom to act within clearly articulated boundaries. These boundaries should be established by building and district-level administrators and may include expectations such as how often PLCs meet, deadlines for creation of common assessments, etc. But perhaps the most important “theory” line for us to understand in regards to PLCs is that PLCs “accept learning” (as opposed to “covering” or “teaching”) “as the fundamental purpose of school”, meaning that if students aren’t learning educators must answer the question “Why not?”, even if the answer to that question indicates a deficiency on the side of the teacher (which then leads to teachers working together to grow out of that deficiency). Educators who embrace this principle (or one of several “big ideas”) are “committed to working together to achieve the collective purpose [by] cultivating a collaborative culture” and assessing teachers’ (both individually and collectively) “effectiveness on the basis of results rather than intentions.”

This all boils down to one simply statement shared by the Dufours during the training: “Professional learning communities always attempt to answer critical questions by BUILDING SHARED KNOWLEDGE – engaging in collective inquiry – LEARNING TOGETHER.” Remember our earlier definition? PLCs are an “on-going process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” They operate under “the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators.”

Now all that theory is great, but it still begs the question, “What does this look like for me?” So let’s get practical!

Practical Implications

Every teacher in the district will be involved in a PLC, and the make-up of that PLC may be content or grade level focused, or perhaps it could address vertical articulation from grade to grade. But the point is that educators in our district will continue investing in themselves and each other through the PLC process. PLCs will meet not just this year, but throughout the coming years to answer the question (by examining the standards):

  • What are the essential learning outcomes students need to master by the time they complete this grade/course?
  • How will I know they have mastered these learning outcomes?
  • What common formative assessments can we as teachers develop so we can track not only student growth but also teacher effectiveness (not for evaluation sake, but for the purpose of bettering our instruction so students achieve more)?
  • What do these common formative assessments tell me and my colleagues about where students are weak and strong? What do they tell me I need to improve on as a teacher?
  • What do I need to address these deficits?
  • How can I use my strengths to help other teachers who may be weak where I am strong?

Wow! That’s a lot of stuff to cover – much more than I can address in just one blog post; which means the answers will be given over multiple posts, but also in trainings offered over the next several months throughout the district.

Check back tomorrow for more on what our team is learning from the Dufours!

Lesson Mastery Part I: Having a Clearly Defined Destination

Back in August I did a post in regards to establishing procedures for students as a basis for a successful school year – today’s post will be part II of the time Harry Wong spent speaking to our teachers.  Remember that he identified three characteristics of effective teachers:

  1. Good Classroom Management (note, this is not the same as discipline)
  2. Lesson Mastery
  3. Positive Expectations

I ended that previous post with this question:

[F]or now answer this question for yourself, “What’s my procedure for _________?”  If you don’t have one, create one.  And once you have it, teach it, model it, reinforce it, and require your students to demonstrate it.

I trust that at this point in the school year – approximately 30 days into the year – you have your procedures established and you have progressed beyond teaching procedures in your classroom to actually teaching your students the content they need to learn.  One reminder the Wong’s made on August 17th is that “Learning has nothing to do with what a teacher covers but with what a student accomplishes.”  So let’s look at that a little bit.

You should begin all your lesson planning by asking the question “What do I want my students to do as a result of this lesson?”  Answering that simple question will make the difference between planning an engaging learning experience for students and an entertainment show that students watch.  If you begin your planning by asking, “What will I do on?” you have missed the boat.  Begin by asking “What do I want my students to be able to do on?” and then ask yourself, “So now what do I need to do to make sure that happens?”

There is a major emphasis in education right now – partly as a result of the Race to the Top grant – on Teacher Effectiveness.  And everyone is asking, “What makes an effective teacher?”  Others are asking, “How do we measure effective teaching?”  And, let’s just be honest, a lot of people are making a lot of money by examining this question.  The Wong’s gave one of the best definitions of the word “effective” I’ve heard yet: To be effective is to produce the intended results.  Which begs the question, what is our objective (our intended results)?  And, do students know the intended results (objective)?  Are you aware that telling students their learning target for the lesson can increase students’ learning by as much as 27% (a statistic shared during the presentation)?

Yet something so simple is so rarely found in classrooms.  This past week I was out visiting schools and meeting with teachers and administrators from across my district.  As I was walking around one building I noticed that of all the classrooms I entered not a single one had a daily objective posted and not once did a teacher communicate to the students what the learning objective was (and when the students were asked by an observer what the objective was they couldn’t answer the question!)  My question is, “Why?”  Why don’t students know what they are supposed to learn?  Why don’t they know what they are supposed to do to show they have mastered the objective for the day?  We as adults want to know how we will be evaluated (which is one reason we have such a lengthy evaluation document), and we want specific examples of what it is we are expected to do.  Yet too often – far too often – we fail to give our students the same level of specificity in regards to their objectives.  Just like we do better when we know where we are going and what is expected of us, our students perform better (learn more) when they know where they are going.

As you plan your instruction, plan it so that if an observer were to ask the questions listed below any student in the room could answer them appropriately (thanks to Jake Burks, a consultant I met this summer, for sharing these with me):

  1. How will you be asked to show the teacher that you really understand and can use this learning?
  2. Why do you think it is important to learn this today?
  3. How will you use this learning?
  4. If you do not understand or use this knowledge well, what will that mean for you?
  5. How will you be asked to use this learning tomorrow or in the future?
  6. Can you teach me what you are learning right now?

Trust me, if your students can answer those questions when asked then they are authentically engaged in the learning experience you have planned – and you have empowered them by giving them a clear objective.

What’s the Deal with the Arts?

Warning: if you are breathing, something in this post will most likely offend you…

Arts In Education Week was established as the second week in September back in 2010 by a declaration from the US House of Representatives, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to share my feelings on the arts in education.

I’ll make it short and simple: it’s important.  No, it’s vital. (okay, now I’ve probably offended all those non-arts people!)

Here’s the next truth: too many arts teachers (and when I say “arts teachers” I am referring to all disciplines we teach in the schools: visual art, music, theatre, dance, etc) put too much emphasis in the wrong area in regards to the students they teach – and that needs to change (okay, now I’ve offended everyone that’s an arts teacher and was all excited about my first point – so I’ve kept my word to offend everyone!)

I’ll start by traveling back in time a little so you know my background and view on this subject.  Not only did the arts, specifically music and theatre, consume my childhood but they also directed the path for just about everything I did after I graduated high school.  I attended college on both music and drama scholarships, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in K-12 Music Education with a minor in musical theatre, and to this day I am still heavily involved in the arts as a music director for two different organizations.  My professional arts experience includes work at amateur, community, and professional levels in theatre (both musical and non-musical), opera, solo singing, directing, arranging, and conducting.  I’ve conducted choirs, handbells, and string orchestras; I’ve served as a clinician in Florida, and obtained certifications in Orff and World Music Drumming.  Believe me, I love the arts.  My daughters both started ballet when they were two, my oldest daughter has been taking violin since she was three (my youngest daughter hasn’t started yet  because she’s only 2!), my wife has a masters degree in accompanying and vocal coaching, and I spent 9 years in the classroom as a music teacher before making the switch to administration.  When I talk about the arts I feel as if I have some understanding and perspective on it.

So here’s the thing: all that brain research you read (or hear about) that says the arts improve cognitive function, reasoning skills, creativity, innovation, people skills, etc, etc, etc, is absolutely spot-on.  The bottom line is research indicates students who study the arts do better in school – I know of no reputable research out there that would disagree with this statement.

And for those people out there who think arts teachers aren’t “real teachers” you need to re-examine what they do.  As a arts teacher I can tell you that these are some of the best teachers in the building to speak to in regards to issues such as differentiated instruction, mastery learning, classroom management, adapting instruction for EC students, student engagement, or higher-order thinking skills.  Students in the arts are constantly asked to create and evaluate (at least if they are being taught well), and teachers in the arts often have to reach every student (even the ones that are allowed in “regular” classrooms), they have to engage and motivate students (since their grades “don’t count”), and they have to constantly fight the never-ending battle to justify their jobs and their responsibilities when funding is tight.  These teachers deserve not just out thanks, but our respect as professionals. (okay, now I’ve really offended the non-arts teachers, so I guess I need to offend someone else).

But here’s where too many arts teachers go wrong: too many (though not all) of them forgot that the most important class they teach is not Honors Chorus and Advanced Photography or Modern Dance IV.  No, the thing that the regular education teacher gets all too well and the arts teachers forget all too quickly is that we can not put all our emphasis on the “chosen few”.  Too many choir directors I know have said they don’t want students in their choir who have never learned to sing or read music; too many visual art teachers don’t want students in their studio who have no talent.  And what they do is turn off the vast majority of the population that will never be on a stage or have an exhibit on a wall.  Yet in so doing we forget that without the people to attend the stage performance or visit the gallery there would be no reason to be on stage or hang something on a wall.  The truth many of us (myself included) need to remember about arts education is that perhaps the most important class we teach is the basic appreciation course for the content area itself.  Why don’t people like listening to symphonies?  Because they don’t understand them.  Why don’t people like to visit the art gallery?  Because they don’t understand what they see on the wall.  And that, fellow arts educators, is the problem.  Too much of our “art for arts sake” is incomprehensible to the general population because we have not done an adequate job of explaining to them how to understand it.  When I taught I constantly reminded myself that the most important class I taught was General Music; it wasn’t my guitar class, my handbells, or my choir.  It was the class where I had to teach the music consumers what it was they were consuming so that the music creators would have someone for whom to create.

So in honor of Arts of Education Week I challenge the consumers to take the time to thank the teachers who empowered and taught the creators how to create.  And to the arts teachers I challenge you to not forget the arts consumers who are the ones for whom you create – both are needed, and when we lose sight of that fact we fail at that which we work so hard to achieve.

Arts education is important – actually, it’s vital – but it’s not just vital for artists.  It’s vital for everyone.

Book Review: Already Compromised by Ken Ham & Greg Hall

The subtitle of Already Compromised reads, “Christian colleges took a test on the state of their faith and the final exam is in.”  As a graduate of a Christian college I can’t say the results of the study were surprising or eye-opening in the least.  In fact, it was exactly what I have said for years (for the record, I graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic College in 1999 (now Palm Beach Atlantic University)).

The thesis of the book is found very early in the first chapter: “The compromise that we’re seeing in Christian colleges always centers on this: what we believe about the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture.  This is the issue.  The authority of Scripture is a central point of faith.  If you don’t get the first two chapters of the sacred text right, you cannot get the rest right either.”  The authors follow up this observation with a stern warning to parents just a few pages later, “Please understand this: if you send your students to a Christian college or institution, three out of four times they will stand in front of teachers who have a degraded view and interpretation of Scripture.”

I guess too many Christians have their heads in buried in the sand on this issue, but the fact that these authors were surprised by the issue to me is shocking.  I attended Christian school from Pre-K all the way through my undergraduate degree, and one thing I learned is that just because someone teaches at a Christian school doesn’t mean they believe what Scripture says (just like attending church and Sunday school doesn’t mean someone’s a Christian).  I encountered professors in my undergraduate degree who had a very strong Christian faith, and then I encountered others with whom I debated (argued) vigorously because their view of Scripture and Jesus was just flat-out wrong.  But I never once fooled myself into thinking that every teacher at my institution was a believer.

After dissecting the results of their study the authors set forth some suggestions for parents and students in how to prepare for life at a Christian school that may not be fully Christian. I thought they were great suggestions and I found their questions to ask a great place to start, but, again, isn’t this what good parents already do?  I know my father visited every college I was applying to and met with professors and administrators while I was meeting with people , making sure that the decision I made was one he could support (one of my professors always joked that my dad was the first parent to ever “interview” him before sending his child there!)  I know my parents are great parents and I’m very blessed to have them, but I also have other friends whose parents were (and are) just as involved in their lives, preparing them for the world.  The fact the authors have to make the suggestions they do is more a sad state on parenting in the church than it is the state of the colleges themselves.  Shoot, even if not for the noble purpose of watching out for their kids, why wouldn’t parents take significant time investigating and studying where they are going to spend more money than just about any place else – maybe even their home?!

If you have children getting ready for college this book may be worth your time to read, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend it.  The study results confirm what we already know about the state of higher education: that it is generally liberal and that just by slapping the word “Christian” on something one doesn’t ensure it aligns with true Christianity (or the parent’s beliefs, for that matter).

Overall, I’ll give it 1.5/5 stars – the only reason it’s not lower is I try to reserve my lowest ratings for those books that are just down right theologically false.  For the record, I did receive a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.