Monday, May 28, 2012

How Do You Create a School? (Part 1 of 2)

     (Part 1 of 2)
     The first question that hit me when I said I wanted this job was how do we transform an existing school, Decker Middle School in Manor Tx, from what it is to what it will become?

     I mean the school building is there.  There are students attending the school.  Heck, a lot of the students I was teaching came from that school.  But, the school it is about to become doesn't exist and the teachers, administrators, and I have the chance to mold the school in whatever fashion we desire.

     Luckily I am a teacher who has been trained by the New Tech Network (NTN) to use project based learning (PBL).  This is the ultimate PBL assignment.  I was given the entry event when I went to the job interview.  I know that a thriving middle school where teachers are using PBL as the means to teach their content is my final product.  It's time to create my Knows and Need to Knows.


  •      In August sixth graders will be coming through the doors expecting an education (THAT is the ultimate know).
  •      Some of the sixth graders will be coming from an elementary school where the teachers are using PBL in their classrooms very successfully.
  •      The 6th grade teachers I will be working with have been to a 4 day training on how to use PBL and have been working with the 5th grade teachers to see how it is being used at the elementary school.
  •      The 6th grade teachers will be attending the New Tech Network's Annual Conference (NTAC) in July with me.
  •      I will be attending the New Tech Network's Boot Camp (for trainers) in June.
  •      I will be attending the Buck Institute for Education's PBL 101 as a guest of White Oak (Tx) ISD's in early June.
  •      I have 20 years of teaching experience, a Masters in Education with emphasis on Middle School Math and Science, and 4 years of PBL teaching experience in a NTN school.
  •      There are NTN teachers and coaches available, all over the country, who I am connected with through Twitter.  They can and will help me with this process.  There are also Buck Institute National Faculty I am connected with on Twitter and they will help me too.
  •      No matter where we are on the opening day of school, we need to be ready to teach and we need to have a structure in place for our students to be successful learners.
  •      The principal may be new to PBL but he has a great reputation for putting structures in place to create a safe environment where students know they can take risks while being successful learners.
     This list of KNOWS is long but I could add many more.  But, by writing them down, I now know that there are safety nets in place for my successful journey through this learning process.  Just like our kids, it helps to reflect on what you DO know about something before you immediately take the negative stance of "I don't know anything about this!"

     No, I have never been an Instructional Coach.  No, I have never started a school.   But there are a lot of things about instruction that I know.  I have been a part of schools, all over the country, who are at some phase of reinventing themselves.  And, most importantly, there are dozens of people with various levels of knowledge ready to help me - and ultimately my school - be successful.  Next time we visit the Need to Knows.  It's a looooonnnnggg list!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Getting Organized For Change

     Last week I confirmed what I had known (kind of) for almost a month: I am to be the Instructional Coach for PBL at Decker Middle School in Manor TX -  GO Ravens!

     Decker M.S. will now be associated with the New Tech Network.  We will be transitioning at the 6th Grade level.  And we will add a grade level each year.  Decker M.S. receives students from a few different feeders but our main feeder school, Decker Elementary School, is already doing PBL at the 5th grade level and that means a large number of our students will be familiar with the process of having class in a PBL environment.

     So, where do I start with this job?   The most wonderful thing about taking this position is the fact that I will have the New Tech Network behind me.  It is comforting to know that these incredible people who have all kinds of experience with PBL will be there when I need assistance.  And so I contacted the person who oversees the middle school level schools in the nation to say hi and let her know that I will be taking this position.  The fact that we know each other and I won't be reporting to an unknown entity sure helps.

     Once I get below the NTN level, I need open communication lines with people in the district who I can contact in a time of need.  The main person here is a person I call my friend.  She's someone I have known for about 5 years and she is someone I can count on to not only help me but to also push me to do great things.  (She has really evil eyes when you are screwing up and I don't EVER want to see those things pointing at me!)

    I have been able to attend a couple of PD's with our 6th grade teachers and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there is another person in the system that I can count on.  She is with the New Tech Network and she is working with the district as we bring PBL to scale.  I had met her before and knew her name but during these training sessions I was able to spend some time with her observing PBL classrooms at our feeder elementary school.  She is another incredible source.

     When you take on a job of this scope it helps to have people in a position of authority on your side.  I met with the Superintendent and he is the one that encouraged me to take the job and he encouraged the principal to take a leap of faith and take me on without knowing me.  When the principal and I met, finally, we were both pleasantly surprised at how we both could feel that we would be a great pair and were totally focused on making the learning environment for "his babies"  the best that we could make it.

     The final piece to this puzzle is the teachers who I will be working with.   The neat thing about them is that I was able to see them in action as they participated in a 4 day workshop on PBL held at our school the week before I met with my new principal.  They were active in the workshop and they stayed late to ask questions.  I knew, slightly, a couple of them from previous years and when it became apparent that I was about to join them they made me feel right at home.  We are going to be an awesome team!

     And so I leave Manor New Technology High School (MNTHS) after 4 years.  I taught Geometry by myself, I taught in a co-taught Algebra/Geometry class, and I taught two years of Project Lead the Way (PLTW) classes: Introduction to Engineering Design and Digital Electronics.  I learned a ton about Project Based Learning and how to teach in a PBL environment.

     I know that MNTHS will be regrouping as they go into their 6th year of existence and I know that they will thrive with a new focus on taking what they are doing to "the next level." I hope that in three years my students, who have been with Decker M.S., come to MNTHS with such awesome collaboration and work ethic skills that it gives MNTHS another kick forward towards awesomeness.  Then I will feel that I have demonstrated to the MNTHS teachers and to myself that I really do know the art of teaching PBL.

     Look for posts this summer on how we are creating this PBL middle school from an existing traditional middle school.  I'll talk about what obstacles I faced, how I was able to overcome the obstacles, what training sessions I attended and what training sessions I had our teachers attend, and how we created a school culture worthy of being called a New Tech school.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's That Time of Year, Again

     I had a conversation with a teacher today that was very refreshing and revealing.  It seems I'm not alone in feeling like I am giving up on some of my students.  The last few years I have really just gotten tired around the first of May and there are some students who I just don't want to deal with any more.

     My liberal, help-the-world, brain feels incredibly guilty about this.  And the advice given to me by my father-in-law when I went into education, "you can't save them all," seems to make more sense every day.

     I wrestle with myself as I write my agenda for the next day - will Jimmy be able to understand and will he do his work with his group, or will I have to deal with his off task behaviors (again)?  And will I just give up and let him be off task - as long as he isn't disturbing anyone else?

     This mental state is especially acute this year as I sit between jobs.  I'm 90 (98?) % sure that I will not be back at Manor New Technology High School in the fall.  The students feel that I'm 100% gone and they are yelling at me for not being there for them next year.  With 10 school days left I am really getting, what we would call in the Navy, a short timer's attitude.  "I'm so short I can barely see over my shoe laces;" "I'm so short I need help getting up to each rung on the ladder," etc..

     I'm convinced that this happens more these days because of all of the standardized testing.  (It's NOT because I'm getting old!)  Once the testing is done the teachers are tired and the students have decided that there isn't anything else to work for.  It is really bad for AP students who, literally, are finished with their classes and have taken their AP exams.

     And so my wish for these last 10 days is additional energy.  A little more positive attitude on my part would be nice as well.  I have my students for 180 days.  They deserve my attention for all of those days.  I can rest in the 2 or 3 days between the end of the school year and the start of my new job that might, just maybe, be happening.  Wish me luck.

     If this new job happens I will be filling the pages of this blog with information from my experiences there.  And, yes, it will be a PBL environment.  Once you have taught with PBL you won't ever go back to the regular classroom.