Collaboration = Convergence of Ideas

I have written about Convergence before. It’s a 2-day professional development conference sponsored by my current school district, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS). The name is not happenstance.

Dictionary.com defines the act of converging as meeting “in a point or line; inclin[ing] towards each other, as lines that are not parallel.”   WCPSS Convergence brings together library media and technology teachers across the vast school system to share with and learn from each other. It is clear Spring Convergence 2017 is focused on collaboration.

Almost every session I attended today used collaboration as its core whether the collaboration was virtual (Google Drive & Classroom) or the keynote address by Chris Barton and Don Tate about their collaborative efforts in creating the book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions.

I, too, presented about collaboration with my “batty” partner-in-crime, Krista Brinchek. Krista and I collaborated on a unit with 4th and 5th graders. Students learned about bat conversation and white nose syndrome in Science specials class with Mrs. Brinchek. In library, students learned how to conduct research, determine important information, cite resources, and use Google Classroom while researching general information about bats and their habitats. Our unit hit the next level when Christy Bigelow, technology teacher, incorporated 3-D modeling having students create 3-D models of bats using geometric shapes.

Today’s presentation, titled “Does Collaboration Make You ‘Batty’?” was fun to create and present because my collaborative partners make it so. We allow each other to dream an idea then help one another bring the idea to fruition. Part of today’s session allowed attendees the opportunity to think about and note drivers and barriers to collaboration. It is clear collaboration can happen within any organization if adults allow it.   Teachers are not silos. They work best in groups holding each other accountable and pushing one another outside of comfortable spaces. The session ended with an opportunity for attendees to share their successful collaboration stories. This was my chance to learn from those to whom I had been presenting. I now have ideas to implement!

As the name implies, I believe Convergence is about building relationships, trusting others, and bending my instruction to others’ best practices and successes. My presentation is linked here for you to view. If you have any collaboration ideas, and especially if you have success stories to share or how you overcame barriers, please share in the comments below. I want to continue my learning.

Photo credit:  @stacydarwin

Happy School = Successful School?

One of the key processes for our School Improvement Plan involves cultivating a more positive and welcoming school environment for all stakeholders (students, parents, staff, and community). I started contemplating that key process while sitting in our latest School Improvement Team (SIT) meeting reviewing our school data.

Last week, our school celebrated Read Across America with a weeklong Dr. Seuss spirit week. Each day had a different book and theme for spirit wear. The hallways were covered in handmade Seuss inspired decorations and student work. It was a week filled with laughter, reading, Seuss related silliness, and good times. Our school always seems like a happy place but last week, the happiness ratcheted up to an eleven!

While the SIT members talked numbers and data, I pondered if happy schools equate to successful schools.

The answer relies on one’s definition of success and how that success is measured.

Dictionary.com attributes success to attaining honors or achieving favorable accomplishments of goals. Given this definition than our school is successful in that key process based upon the events of last week. Our school was certainly inviting and welcoming. Community members served as mystery guest readers. Parents and family members attended the end of week Dr. Seuss Book Character Parade. Students and staff dressed in a variety of silly (and sometimes head shaking) wardrobe choices. It was hard to find a student, staff member, or visitor not smiling last week. Thus, our happy school equaled a successful school.

But is that enough? Have we created a truly sustaining welcoming, positive climate? I wanted to know more.   During my research I did not find any articles similar in scope to how I think our SIT interprets the key process of cultivating a more positive and welcoming environment. I think I found blog posts that could provide us a clear direction. However, I am not sure. We are still a new school that is crafting traditions. We enjoyed a honeymoon period last year and are settling into our routines and persona this year. Maybe our school is well beyond the articles I read. Or maybe we can glean some wisdom and apply their suggestions to our shared vision of what a positive school culture is at our school. I do not know. I enjoy learning from others. Some this advice comes from principals, some advice is not entirely earth shatteringly new, but I found these articles to be insightful and worthy of documenting for later use.

Focused on relationships, these 8 processes are based on the Boys Town educational model.

Edutopia (you know I am a big fan) gives us this article addressing the power of optimism and its effects on school climate and student success.

Connected Principals focuses this post on tips educational leaders can do to create a happy work climate for all staff.

Finally, Education World looks at what a school can do to create a “welcoming” environment from the moment one steps onto the school grounds.

Each of these articles looks at different aspects of culture. As I currently sit and reflect typing this post, I realize we are meeting our key process. But I also know we need to do more. Each of these posts, and for that matter, all we have done as a school so far has been directed to what happens at school and from those who come into our building. But a positive and welcoming school environment involves meeting families where they are. Many times that is in their neighborhoods, church and community centers, and other areas outside school grounds.

So I guess I am back to my original question. We are a happy school. Does that automatically mean we are successful one too?

SeussicalACES

Abbotts Creek Elementary School (ACES) has gone full Seussical! The level of excitement among the teachers reminds me of when I was a kid the week leading up to Christmas. Every day, turning the Advent calendar date one day closer to December 25 I felt anticipation growing. I felt lighter and happier. I now have this same feeling leading up to our Dr. Seuss Spirit Week.

ACES is still new—just opening last school year. We are still creating traditions. Last year, prior to Read Across America coinciding with Dr. Seuss’ birthday, I asked for a committee to help plan a few events. My previous schools have had guest readers and a focus on reading books written by Seuss. My last school always had a Dr. Seuss character parade. So I was expecting something along those lines when the committee first met.

But they surprised me! They wanted more. It was a mesh of traditions and ideas from the various past schools for which we all worked. The day became a weeklong celebration of reading, fun, and silliness. It was a true spirit week dressing up each day. Classes created beautiful, amazing hallway displays of work relating to Dr. Seuss and his books.

This year, that tradition continues but it has grown. Teachers are competing for the best class displays. Each day, our spirit days pair with a Dr. Seuss book. Students will read an excerpt from each book during the school news. I am not sure how the parade can get “bigger and better” than last year’s but I feel like it just might. I overhear students and teachers whisper about their Dr. Seuss character. Facebook is full of staff tagging each other as they find Dr. Seuss themed items at stores. By the number of trips teachers are making, ACES may single-handedly help the nearest Michael’s and Party City make their rents this month.

The Dr. Seuss books are gone! And better than that is students coming to the library asking for some of the less famous Dr. Seuss books that we do not own. “Why don’t we?” is often the reply when I tell them we do not have the requested book.

Tomorrow morning, students and parents will arrive at ACESville. Each day, we will laugh, play, learn, and celebrate the silly. We will read. We will connect books and learning to our daily lives. We will celebrate the life’s work of a talented author/illustrator. We will have fun. This is how school should be. We are #SeussicalACES!

Parent Volunteers: They are your extra arms.

handsCommon fact: Parental involvement in schools is directly correlated to a school’s success. Most educators reading this statement are nodding in agreement. My library operation is centered on parent volunteers. I do not have a library assistant—neither full nor part time. In my over 16-year career, this is the first school I have worked in that does not have additional library staffing. Without these volunteers, my day-to-day operations suffer.

I lean HEAVILY on my volunteers. They check in and shelve nearly all the library books. They copy catalog and clean up records. They repair books, apply stickers, and pull books for displays. (And there is always at least one volunteer who loves to shelf read. That volunteer is always a hero!)

My volunteers work in the library because they wish to help out the school. They are rarely thanked or shown appropriate appreciation. Most days, they arrive, work an hour or 5, and leave without even a word spoken between us. Some days, when I am teaching in classrooms or otherwise out of the library, without seeing my return shelves empty, books on tops of shelves face front, and/or the parent signature in my library sign-in sheet, I would not even know anyone has been there. My parents are that good! They are library volunteer ninjas!*

But it has not always been so throughout my career. I started my career young and with a library assistant. I did not know nor had a mentor teach me how to reach out to parent volunteers. After a few years in the classroom, I began to understand a parent’s role INSIDE the school. But when I went back in the library, I was at a school with complicated parental politics. I wanted volunteers but did not want to embroil myself in battles that were not mine to fight. So I mistakenly and feebly reached out to a few parents who could not spend time in the library. So I thought that was how it would always be.

Then I went to Taylor Elementary were the expectation from parents was they were involved within the school building. I had no choice. It was imperative that I learned to accept their presence and how to harness parental volunteer power. Luckily, I had an awesome library assistant who had been in that library for over 20 years. She showed me the ropes. She taught me.

I quickly understood that parents can do the tasks that I love doing: shelving, cataloging, book repair. It was hard for me to give that up. But by doing so, I found more time to create better book displays and bulletin boards. Tapping into the power of creative parents for bulletin boards freed me up to focus on more library programming.

Suddenly, I had time to focus on collection development. I have a reputation as a “ruthless weeder.” I took Taylor’s library collection from 21,000 books with an average collection age of +20 years to a stable 15,000 books and average collection age of +9 years. Circulation improved drastically!

Parent volunteers see what happens in the library while they are there. They see the circulation. They see which books are well loved. They understand the librarian’s actions.   They become an advocate for more funding to improve the library collection or get another author to visit. I believe this advocacy is the greatest asset of parent volunteers. They become a much greater megaphone than I could be. But they also champion me to speak up when necessary.

As stated, I do not currently have a library assistant. Naturally, I gain strength through collaboration and conversation. Last year, as I learned the new school, new students, and worked on opening the library, I did not actively seek out parent volunteers. I suffered. The library program suffered. Circulation suffered. I needed adult conversation within the library. I needed help.

This year is completely different! I have a dedicated crew of awesome parent volunteers. I started a program having a parent to help with check out (and another adult body in the library) during open check out each morning. I have my superstar shelvers, cataloging extraordinaires, shelf reading phenoms, and otherwise awesome parent volunteers!   Because of their support, their dedication, their thankless help, I am focusing on programming and circulation.

Little by little, the library is becoming what I want it to be—what it should be. It’s all because of parent volunteers. They are my arms doing heavy lifting.

*Total aside: Stat! Someone make a logo, bumper sticker, t-shirt with that moniker. My parent volunteers deserve it.

Relationships Matter Series

Relationships are key to functioning civilizations. Schools focus on PLCs and other teaming factors to help teachers grow and increase educational effectiveness. Throughout my career I have always built relationships with teaming partners, administrators, parents, and students. These relationships challenged me and made me a better educator. I want to take time to highlight some of my key relationships. Within this series I will not address student to teacher or teacher to administrator relationships. These topics are well covered within the educational world. They matter and have mattered to me. However, I want to focus on the relationship teams I have purposefully sought so I could be a better teacher.

These relationships came both naturally and were forced. I have always found the best relationships to teeter on the edge between comfort and chaos. In that small space is growth, learning, and excelling. Relationships take work to survive. Without these relationships, I would not be where I am in my career: physically and emotionally.

The relationships I will highlight have all come during my time as a librarian. My relationships as a classroom teacher were—and still are—important. I feel like they transcended into the relationships within this series.

I look forward to learning about others’ professional relationships. Leave a comment or find me online to drop a note.

A Look into My Library

“A picture is worth a 1,000 words” is an old idiom. For some people, it holds true. For others, it might not. Sharing pictures of my library, allows others to see what the space looks like and gives me a chance to reflect on what I see within the pictures.

img_0543At first glance, I notice how colorful the library is. The orange columns, yellow, green, and white walls, and the intricately student created butterflies cheerfully welcome visitors. In addition, the forward facing books, brightly colored furniture, and signage visually stimulate students. The library is beautiful.

But it should be. Only two years old, it represents a newer tradition in school library design. But trends change over time. Like all design trends, library spaces being built today have a more mix-use and multi-purposed furniture. A trend that I have seen in many journals is curved shelves that can be arranged and rearranged into different patterns and shelving structures.

Everything in my library is moveable—including the shelving. Everything in my library has been moved at least once!   I started the second year of the library with the third library arrangement. It now has the flow and feel that I prefer and makes for ease of student access, several instructional areas, and can easily moved to open floor space for large assemblies. I really like the design and circulation is higher than last year.

However, as awesome as the space is, the pictures do reflect something missing. Where
are the kids? Where are the parents? Where are the teachers? We have open check out all day long. Students may come and go throughout the day to circulate books. But the majority of check out is first thing in the morning. For the first 30 minutes of the school day, I typically average about 50 students looking for books. It is a fast paced and often noisy time but I love starting the day listening to students talk about books, runaround hoping to get a book from the “Popular Series” bimg_0537efore anyone else, or checking to see if their holds are ready. During this time, a few parents come in to speak about their child’s books or sign up on the school volunteer registry. Usually, there are 1 or 2 library parent volunteers helping out in the mornings. But I need to find ways to invite and better welcome parents throughout the day. As for teachers, I am missing the mark entirely. Other than getting books for reading groups, I rarely see teachers using the library collection or space. Somehow over the past year and a half, I must have created a sense of teachers not welcomes or needed in the library. Yet, I want and wish for teachers to come in, hang out, and use the library everyday. Now that independent student check out is higher, my focus next year should be on adults using the library space.

img_0539But no adequate reflection of my library is complete without mentioning what I see
missing everyday. The library does not have a library assistant. I am writing a series titled Relationships Matter for this blog. One of the posts will feature my former library assistant and why I believe assistants are vital to daily operations of all school library programs. So I will leave my thoughts on this subject for another day. However, I want to say here and now, (and again in a later post), I could not do what I do only a daily basis, circulate as well, instruct as effectively, or work as hard as a do without the help of my awesome library parent volunteers. Their relationship matters also. I lean on them immensely and plan to celebrate them in the upcoming series as well.

In the meantime, enjoy looking at my library. I always welcome others’ thoughts and opinions. Please reach out to me in the comment section below each post. Let me know what you think of my library space or what you hope to learn about in the Relationships Matter series.

Day 2–For the love of the game: Breakout EDU

I love games. Growing up, my family’s summer beach trips were spent playing in the ocean all day and then playing games all night back at the house.   The games were often card based. My family had an affinity to “Spoons” where you pass cards around from person to person and then someone stealthily (or not so) takes a spoon from the middle of the table. Once a spoon has been taken, it is important to quickly grab a spoon before everyone else. It’s almost a card version of musical chairs. The last person without a spoon gets a letter. Once a person has spelled the word SPOONS, that person is out of the game.

Family beach week was also when I learned how to play Rook. Rook involves bidding on hands, relying on partners, and winning rounds. It’s important to win the points you need but not to carry around points you don’t. Much like Spades or Hearts, Rook involves trump cards with the ultimate trump card of the Rook itself. It is fun. It is strategic. And at midnight, it can be downright funny.

As a fan of games, especially those that involve strategy, solving puzzles, and unraveling mysteries, I have always wanted to participate in a “break out room.” Getting locked in a giant puzzle room, working with others to solve the mystery to get out, sounds like the geeky, crazy fun that I would enjoy and probably laugh until I spewed Diet Dr. Pepper or hyperventilate (whichever comes first). So when I first started noticing so many teachers Tweeting about Breakout EDU boxes, I was immediately intrigued.

Breakout EDU is a boxed version of break out rooms. There are a series of locks—some keyed, some combination—to unlock. Finding the clues to the combinations is the trick to breaking out of, or in reality breaking into, the box. On the welcome page to their website, Breakout EDU states:

Breakout EDU games teach critical thinking, teamwork, complex problem solving, and can be used in all content areas. We created this Breakout EDU Kit to get you going and hopefully answer questions you might have.

Over the past year, I have read about the box, watched videos of teachers setting up their rooms, and followed teachers Tweeting about their experiences. Recently, I asked my principal if we could purchase a few boxes for our school. The awesome administrator she is not only responded with a “Yes!” but upped my request by many more boxes!

The boxes arrived just after Winter Break. I dug through the website, found a scenario I wanted to try with my 4th grade students and set to work. So far, I am halfway through using this scenario with all 4th grade classes and I’ve learned a lot from just two experiences. First, I learned that while some puzzles seem easy to me because I have all the knowledge, even if the solution is blatantly obvious, the locks themselves could be tricky for students to navigate. Due to my class schedule, I have attempted to teach about the box and run a breakout within one 45-minute session. Having no prior experience with Breakout EDU or other break out games is the first real hurdle students must overcome. Thus secondly, I have learned to adapt some puzzles to make them easier for students. Understanding your students is essential when using a set of banked games and scenarios.

Most importantly, I learned that it really does work best when the groups are smaller but not too small. So far, all the groups that have successfully broken out have been comprised of 5 members. My four member groups seem to get stuck at the beginning seemingly overwhelmed where to start. My six, seven, and eight person groups have all spiraled into battles for control struggling to listen or not listen to all members’ viewpoints. But the 5 member groups rarely breakdown. When they have, it’s been quick. Maybe it is because there are short balances of power. Even with human nature wanting to break into dyads, there is a middle person swinging back and forth serving as fulcrum for groupthink.

But based on my very limited experience with Breakout EDU so far, the best part is witnessing students take control of their learning. I set up the scenario, stage the room, and assemble the locks. But once the box and materials are in their hands, they literally control their destiny. I walk around listening and observing. I offer a hint when the group unanimously agrees to hand in a “Hint Card”. But the teaching and learning is all theirs.   The most significant piece is observing groups that did not successfully break out still talking afterwards about the scenario and stating facts discovered and learned. Even today, one student made a connection between the scenario used for Breakout EDU over a week ago and a television show he watched last night. He sought me out today to share with me his connection. I have not been as successful building a relationship with this student as I have with many of his classmates. His excitement today was infectious and I feel like he and I will have a better relationship going forward. I know he is a leader and has great potential. I was trying to find a common connection between us. Now, I see that Breakout EDU has laid the groundwork for our connection.

The 30-day blog challenge recommends day two’s blog posting focus on technology I hope to incorporate into my teaching. Some people may not view Breakout EDU as technology because it’s not a computer or digital. However, it can incorporate devices and it can easily be used online in digital Breakout EDU format.

Breakout EDU looks like a game. And maybe it really is just a game at its core. But it is much more. It is engaging. It is challenging. It is rooted in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. It is any curriculum you need it to be. But mostly, it is fun.