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?

The Librarian without a Voice 😷

Earlier this week, I succumbed to the “ick”. That is the technical term that I, without one day of medical training, have given the virus going around. The ick is not quite the flu virus but something different from a cold. For me, it felt between a head cold with cough and springtime allergies. I never felt sick or tired. I just would have coughing fits and a runny now. The worse symptom of all was a weak voice.

So there I was at school Thursday morning with a pocketful of Ricola cough drops. I thought I was doing well until I opened my mouth to welcome students entering the school.   The sound I emitted was not quite a squeak but certainly not a voice I’ve heard before. Throughout the morning I sounded as if I were once again experiencing the vocal change of my early teen years.

I learned a few things about my instruction on Thursday.

  1. Students want teachers to level with them and speak with them not to them.

I was honest about my voice and told my students that if I spoke quietly, all was good. I reminded them of the procedures and expectations then asked for their help. They all spoke quietly and regrouped immediately when asked.

  1. PBIS works!

For those who do not know, PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. My school has taught and practiced the procedures and expectations. After winter break, we retaught and practiced again. I admit that I have spoken negatively about the focus on the extrinsic rewards earning PBIS tickets (ours are called Gator bites). But when it comes to being a community following expectations, PBIS works amazingly. My students knew when to raise their hands, how to move safely throughout the library, and most importantly, how to show respect for each other, themselves, and me.

  1. My lessons do not work well without me leading them.

This is a tough lesson to learn. I want students to be at the center of their instruction. That is the reason for instituting the 20Time project. Yet, this project is new to my students and me. This week, we were at the pivotal step of selecting projects and determining timelines and strategies. I tried to plan around my speaking by typing directions and guiding questions for students to discuss in groups. This worked well but I could tell my students kept waiting for me to lead the discussion. I have not instituted enough student led discussions for them to yet have ownership. I need to do so for their sake and mine. I resisted the urge to interrupt and take over the conversations. Instead, I put another Ricola in my mouth and pointed to the timer and guiding questions for discussions. After a few minutes of awkward conversations, little by little table groups began having true discussions.

The day wasn’t pretty and I certainly did not teach my best lessons. But I got through it. All teachers have experienced this day before. It’s what we do with the lessons learned that matters. I learned that while my voice is back, next week, I plan to point to the timer and guiding questions again as students start their work. I want to step back and give my students ownership of their projects. Although weakly voiced, I think the best thing I said on Thursday was this: “I can’t answer that question or give you advice. Students, what do you think? I’m afraid if I say anything it will be exactly what the project should be or what I think it should be. And that will be what he does. It’s his project. What ideas do you have for him? He needs to hear from you, not me.”

Thanking a Teacher

A recent Twitter trend is reaching out to a former teacher who made a positive impact on you and saying “Thank You”.   I often thank back to those who taught me and wonder how they influenced my journey becoming a teacher myself. Reflecting, I think about which teachers I would have enjoyed working with and which ones I would want my son to have a teacher if he could time travel to do so. I contemplate which ones I would want to avoid. Then the memories swirl and blur leaving me with less an impression on each teacher individually rather becoming focused on specific experiences, lessons, activities, and field trips.

While I can name almost all of my teachers and have great admiration for each of them, I am uniquely drawn to two for various yet eerily similar reasons. The impression of both teachers that has stuck with me over some 30+ years is focusing on each learner individually.

I will start with Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary. I cannot tell you how she looked, how old she probably was, or even much of the relationship we shared. I was a good student in her class earning all As and one solitary B (why did I get THAT ONE B to ruin a perfect run?). But I do remember she allowed us to work at our own pace.   Early finishers always had additional learning experiences in which to choose. And depending on the weather and I’m sure other factors, early finishers could play. Yes, we could actually play.   Most of the time, the play was outside because our classroom opened directly onto our school’s small wooden playground. Imagine the motivation to complete work quickly in order to earn extra recess time! But it wasn’t finishing the assignments quickly. I remember always taking my work to Mrs. King and talking with her about it as she looked over it. If the work was not completed correctly, I returned to my desk to figure out where I went wrong and how I should redo it.

Sure there was some competition in the class and as one of the students earning really high marks, I didn’t always have to watch my classmates go outside one by one. But I do remember when I did not complete an assignment correctly by myself the first try being encouraged by Mrs. King to work with others, compare answers, discuss, and try again. As I sit here, I realize we, the students, must have talked a lot in her class. We talked to her about our work. We talked to each other about our work. And as students came outside to play, we talked about how easy or how difficult the assignment was and which part we needed to do again to be able to get outside. So while my motivator was playing on the tire swing, I actually learned through collaboration and communication long before they were part of the 21st Century 4Cs!

Teacher Two, I will call Ms. Algebra. Ashamedly, I cannot remember her name at all. Part of me wants to call her Mrs. King but really what are the odds? Ms. Algebra taught my 10th grade Algebra II class at Garinger High School. It was somewhat a remedial Algebra II class because we did not have Trigonometry included. I was one of a handful 10th graders in the class. Mostly it was comprised of upperclassmen. Our classroom was too small for the number of students. Some students sat at the extra tables and at least one student sat at her desk. Ms. Algebra always stood at the overhead (do you remember that piece of historic technology?). What stands out in my mind about her is every Friday she wore the school’s sweatshirt. She always celebrated and encouraged school spirit. But more than her spirit, I remember a speech and subsequent change in her teaching style. The memory is vague on the specific assessment or assignments leading up to the speech.

Yet, I remember her sitting on a stool with the overhead turned off. She apologized. That is how she started her speech. She apologized to us. She said she had neglected to teach us correctly because we were not showing any understanding of algebra. She said something was wrong and together we would fix it. She told us that beginning that day, we were starting the school year over in her class. We were going back to the first lesson and get as far as we could by the end of the year. But math is foundational and we needed the foundation of algebra before continuing. She forced us to commit to her we would do our best.

Ms. Algebra assigned us seats and put us in heterogeneous groups. She would present part of the lesson or teach a mathematical skill/step. Then we had to teach each other. Those in the groups who were stronger with the skill retaught the group first. I was that person for my group. Then we listened as others in the group taught the skill. We clarified for each other misconceptions. I can only speak for me. The previous two school years I struggled through advanced math classes and felt very uncomfortable and unsure about math ability. Yet, in Ms. Algebra’s class, I found my voice. We did not finish the textbook that year. But I thoroughly understood what I had learned and it set me to have two remaining successful years of advanced math in 11th and 12th grades.

These two teachers forced their students to talk. Through communication, I became a better student. This challenges me now.   I do not believe in a quiet library and am often met with side eyes and uncertain glances from more traditional teachers and parents. But I am a talker and I want my students talking. But I realize I have been allowing talking for talking’s sake. Mrs. King and Ms. Algebra allowed talking for understanding’s sake. I need to remember and set my practice on these two teacher’s example. Maybe in 30+ years, one of my students will not remember my name but remember the communication I required in the library forcing deeper learning and understanding.

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.

Rosie Revere, Engineer…It’s a Boy Book Too!

Books should not be labeled.   This is not about categorizing for easy access; it is about defining books by who should read them. Teachers, parents, librarians, booksellers, and publishers are all at fault. I am guilty too. I have labeled a book a “boy book” or a “book perfect for girls.” I have said that is a “older book” or “book just for Kindergarteners”.

Each label assigned to a book limits the audience.   This limits a connection between the book and a potential reader who does not fit the assigned label. Rosie Revere, Engineer written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts is a perfect example. The main character, Rosie, is a young girl. She is a dreamer, innovator, and engineer. Because a family member laughed at one of her inventions, she builds in secret hiding her talent. Through the love, guidance, and even laughter from another family member, she learns that failure is good because it leads to success. She comes out of hiding as an engineer and creates openly once again.

Tonight, my preschool aged son asked to read this book at bedtime. He clapped and giggled at each invention. When Rosie began to build in secret he was upset. As she built her cheese-helicopter (Really, you need to read this book. It has a cheese-helicopter!), he smiled in anticipation.   It flew, then wobbled, and then fell to the ground.  My son cheered!  He screamed, “It flew!” After Rosie learned it was ok to fail but keep going, my son yelled, “She’s awesome!”

we_can_do_it_3678696585If I prescribed to labels, this would be a “girl book.” With a main character paying homage to the iconic character Rosie the Riveter, this book is not a natural pick up for boys. With its rhyming cadence and relatively large font, most upper elementary students would not read this book. But this book is for everyone! The story is about failing forward. It’s about preserving even when you are down on yourself or when others mock you.   It’s about seeing everyday objects for unintended purposes.

In light of political movements gaining much needed attention, we need to be careful when labeling books. Books are for everyone. Rosie’s story is applicable to us all. So are the many other books on shelves to which we try to attach unnecessary labels. Recently, I have been trying to begin my book talks by identifying a character’s trait rather than the character’s gender or age. I believe students are more inclined to try a book about someone who does not look like them when they can identify with the trait first.

After all, Rosie Revere, Engineer is a “boy book” too!

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.