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Laura Varlas

From Kid to Young Adult

April 2011 EL

In the April Educational Leadership, veteran middle school teacher Cossondra George (you may remember her from "What Makes Math Meaningful?") shares several strategies for guiding the transition "From Kid to Young Adult." For example:

  • Create learning environments that provide order, structure, and consistency in their increasingly complex adolescent lives. George posts a daily list of materials needed for the class, coming assignments, and an outline of the day's lesson. She also uses "do now" or "starter" activities at the beginning of every class and has a common location for handing in homework, getting handouts, and missed assignments.
  • Seek out ways to make learning active, hands-on, and student directed. George often takes learners outside (or at least out of their seats) and has students manipulate data that's relevant to their lives and interests.
  • Establish a clean slate policy. George is fair and swift when enforcing consequences for misbehavior, but she also does not carry yesterday's sins into today. Every student starts the day with an opportunity to be successful.
  • Build community through informal interaction. George finds that opportunities for appropriate socialization, fun, and humor throughout the day help improve student behavior and teacher-student relations.

George loves teaching middle school for all the changes, awkwardness, and new experiences her students are navigating.

What do you love about teaching this age? What challenges you?

Laura Varlas

Five Mind-Sets to Ease the Middle School Transition

April 2011 Educational Leadership

The middle years are crucial to high school success, when students develop skills for navigating the larger world and discover the direction they want their lives to take. So why, asks noted middle school educator Rick Wormeli, would anyone leave the transition into this phase to chance? Five mind-sets can help educators guide their students on the path from elementary to middle school:

  • Understanding students' concern about belonging
  • Empathizing with students
  • Understanding the characteristics of the age group
  • Focusing on the positive
  • Building hope

Wormeli's article is full of strategies for easing students' transition from elementary school to middle school. One of the strategies that students say is most helpful:

If your middle school asks students to use lockers, take a locker door with a combination lock to feeder elementary schools in the last few months of school. Let students practice opening and closing the lock as much as they want for at least a week.

How are you helping students successfully navigate the move up to middle school?

Laura Varlas

What Does It Take to Lead a Successful Urban School?

The distinguished school leaders who convened for the Urban Panel at the 2011 ASCD Annual Conference answered this and other questions based on their work at leading thriving urban schools.

Invariably, their answers came back to school culture and climate.

"Our mission and vision give us our identity; all of our students and staff must know and champion them," said Baruti Kafele, principal of Newark Tech High in New Jersey. "A good leader must believe in the ability of every child to learn and that it is possible for each one of our students to succeed in college," said Tim King, founder of Chicago's Urban Prep Academies. "We've got to keep the mission and vision out front. It's got to be bigger than anything else," added Linda Nathan, headmaster of Boston Arts Academy.

Implicit in these answers is the importance of personal connection in school communities.

Nathan's school uses advisory programs and compelling honor roll assemblies, among other initiatives, where young men of color, in particular, are asked to share what made them successful and how they will influence their peers to achieve, as well.

"If we're going to get education right in this country, we must know our kids," said King. At Urban Prep, all students have school-issued cell phones that are instrumental in fostering communication between home and school. "We can tell by looking at kids if something is wrong, but if we don't look at the child, we'll never know," said King. Teacher evaluations at Urban Prep also include criteria for how well teachers develop relationships with students.

"There are some gaps we need to look at before we can address the achievement gap," noted Kafele. Attitude, relevance, and opportunity are among them, but the relationship gap is also crucial. "How can I teach you if I don't know you? Close these gaps, and you'll have the mechanisms in place so that students can learn."

The practices that support these healthy and high-achieving urban schools include lengthening the school day and year; clearly defining goals and expectations (and supports when those expectations aren't met); and instructional practices centered on student engagement, participation, and ownership of learning.

Professional learning is also key.

"If you can't meet together as faculty, you will not be able to shape your school's climate, culture, and instruction," said Nathan. "If there's not time in the schedule, then we redo the schedule. Our school is 13 years old, and we've had 15 schedules."

"If our staff doesn't know each other, how can they benefit from each other's expertise?" asked Kafele. "Principals, you don't have to do it all. There are folks in your building who can do it better. Get to know them."

Laura Varlas

The King of Ish-ful Thinking

Peter Reynolds - 2011 ASCD Annual Conference

When Peter Reynolds' teachers dared him to teach others, through art and storytelling, they uncorked the genie of Ish-ful thinking.

At the second general session of ASCD's 2011 Annual Conference in San Francisco, the award-winning children's book author, illustrator, and software designer (FableVision), shared some of the backstory to Dot and Ish, and how educators can incorporate the maxims from these books into their classroom culture and practices.

Dot encourages readers to "make their mark and see where it takes you." Ish builds on this theme, advocating that there are no prescribed "right" ways of imagining and creating.

How well do all schools reflect these values of creating something meaningful to yourself and the world and breaking free of conformity and standardized thinking?

Reynolds suggested six essentials for classrooms that support creative ideals:

  • Environmental Cues: How does the physical space of our schools encourage creativity?
  • Open-Ended Invitations: A blank page, or a blank screen, invites creative thinkers. Let the good stuff come from you and your students, not scripted curriculum, said Reynolds. "Bottled-up creativity leads us to consume, not create. We need to make more."
  • Expressive Tools in the Hands of Students: Reynolds demonstrated a digital drawing tablet that turns a computer mouse into a pen. "Technology lets us explore and share ideas, and see what else is possible."
  • Time and Freedom: Reynolds said teachers need more time and freedom to dive more deeply into learning. "We're much more creative than standardized testing. Standardized testing is like dial-up in a broadband world."
  • Visionary, Enlightened, and Engaged Leaders: Reynolds aimed this appeal not just at school leaders, but political leaders who need to "get it" that creativity is not just a once-a-week art class. It's every day, across curriculum. Art can connect the dots between the subjects and fun.
  • Love: Let every child know they exist and they matter. Ask students, who are you? Where have you been, where are you going, and how will you get there? Reynolds' middle school math teacher noticed him and connected the dots between doodling in class to using art to teach lessons through stories. Know that you change the lives of your students for the better, and let that prompt you to do it even more.

ASCD's Annual Conference is an "opportunity to stop and imagine what next year could be like," noted Reynolds. He called on educators to express themselves bravely; to be kind, creative, and generous and to "let no one squish your ish or the ishes of the ish-ful thinkers around you."


Laura Varlas

Getting Everyone to Graduation (Parents, Too)

If you hand a high school transcript to a parent who's never had it explained to them, you're making a big leap that they're going to know why their kid's not on track to graduate, principal Ben Shuldiner said in his Saturday session "How to Get All Students to Graduate."

He and guidance counselor Sarah Kornhauser discussed the High School for Public Service's extensive outreach plan to the families of its 400 students. Founded in 2003, the school, where 90 percent of students ar on free and reduced lunch, was recently named the number-one Titl I school in New York State.

The school organizes several informative and fun parent outreach sessions throughout the four years of high school—from 8th grade orientation to 12th grade sessions on navigating FAFSA and other financial aid forms.

It's important to bring parents in early, give them the tools to navigate and decipher school—speak and processes, and make sure that parents and teachers are on the same page. Show respect for parents by bringing them in to the graduation goal as partners. We can't be successful without spelling out each and every part of the process to parents, Kornhauser said.

But what happens when, despite an entrenched college-going culture at the school, parents don't show up to 12th grade college-planning night or 10th and 11th grade on-track-to-graduate night?

"We love parents, we want them to be there, but don't wait for them," said Shuldiner. Parents shouldn't be an excuse for giving up on a kid. If parents can't be there, the kids should still be there.


Laura Varlas

Give Boys Reading Role Models

What's with boys and reading?

In "The Boy Factor in Special Education: Overrepresented or Misguided Pedagogy?," one of yesterday's sessions at ASCD's Annual Conference in San Francisco, presenters talked about ways to make instruction more accessible to boys. And really, the strategies discussed—more active learning environments, less emphasis on conformity, more student choice—are tools that work with all genders and are about the overall goal to make learning more engaging.

The strategy that really stood out relates to the question above: how can we hook more boys into reading? Presenter Gail Choice observed that we need to provide boys with male reading role models.

"Boys don't see reading as a masculine activity," Choice said. She suggested getting male volunteers to come into school to read to or with classes and individual boys, providing boys with reading role models.

Along with male literacy role models, let all students self-select some of their reading, choose nonfiction, participate in readers theater, have time to practice before reading aloud, and joyfully experiment with the writing process with topics they are comfortable writing about (in other words, let kids be gross, weird, and funny).

To read more about gender and learning, check out Inservice blog posts: Stop Pseudoscience of Gender Differences in Learning and Science and Education Need to Work Together for Boys & Girls.


Laura Varlas

Annual Conference Swings into Action

The force was with attendees at the open of ASCD's 2011 Annual Conference in San Francisco! Film legend and Edutopia founder George Lucas opened the conference with a video address, asking educators to consider the purpose of school. Factual knowledge is important, but it's what we do with that learning that is meaningful, Lucas confirmed.

ASCD President Sara Shubel acknowledged that many in attendance are already doing something to support the relief efforts in disaster-struck Japan, as well as recovering communities around the world. For more ways to help, consult the digital program book for a list of charitable organizations.

OYEA winner Luis Torres receives his award from Global Scholar sponsor Rob Kilgarriff and ASCD Executive Director Dr. Gene R. Carter.

In fact, a common characteristic of ASCD members and conference attendees is that they take action, and what better place to celebrate these change agents than at the Annual Conference? In particular, ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter recognized the work of the 2011 Outstanding Young Educator honorees, teacher Brad Kuntz of at Gladstone High in Gladstone, Oregon, and Principal Luis Torres of PS 55 elementary in the Bronx, New York.

Kuntz described his whole child approach to teaching and emphasized the importance of engaging students in learning beyond the traditional definition of schooling. True to his word, Kuntz was addressing the audience via video, as he is currently leading students on a spring break expedition in Peru, exploring the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.

Ultimately, Kuntz said, we must empower students to own their own learning and futures. "We will guide them, we will trust them, and we will witness the actualization of their dreams," he concluded.

Torres shared a similar philosophy, approaching the principalship not just as a school leader, but also as a community leader. I want my students to know, he explained, that "we do not need to leave our communities to find a better life; we need to improve our communities so that we don't have to leave." Torres resists recognition as "that principal at that oasis in the Bronx."

"We must view our communities as rain forests, not isolated oases. It can no longer just fall on the shoulders of schools; we have to consider the whole ecosystem and come together as a community to educate and improve the lives of kids."

Come together indeed—it's what ASCD's Annual Conference is all about.


Laura Varlas

Can Big Schools Support the Whole Child?

With class sizes rising significantly for the first time in decades, now is a good time to continue to lobby for better funding and supports in education and to also look at how some big schools manage to tend to individual student needs despite high enrollment.

Big schools can present big opportunities for bringing the whole child tenets to scale, but they must draw on their larger community as a resource—strengthening parent and community partnerships, activating student voice and interest, and empowering teacher leaders.

In the March issue of Education Update newsletter ("Big Schools Present Big Opportunities for Whole Child Education"), I discuss some of the strategies applied at the district level, or in high-enrollment schools, to support whole child education. For example,

  • Iroquois Ridge High in Oakville, Ont., has one common lunch hour for all students, uses extensive peer mentoring, and puts the best teachers in 9th grade.
  • Brockton High in Brockton, Mass., where teacher leadership spearheaded a turnaround effort that's taken the school's student achievement from one of the state's worst to one of the best.
  • Wando High in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., where students choose from over 250 course options and multiple clubs and activities, and learn in smaller, career-based academies within the school.
  • Norfolk Public Schools, in Virginia, where community engagement is included as a performance indicator in the district's accountability system.
  • Aldine Independent School District, in Texas, where data is used to identify students' strengths and weaknesses and match them with teachers particularly effective their areas of weakness.
  • South Kitsap School District, in Washington, where despite devastating budget cuts, the school has expanded arts, extracurricular, and advanced learning opportunities.

While smaller teaching and learning environments are ideal, these schools show that teacher leadership, student empowerment, and community engagement can drive whole child education on a large scale.

If your school community is growing, how is your school adapting?

Laura Varlas

Family Acceptance Protects LGBTQ Youth

Today more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth start the process of coming out in adolescence. These brave youngsters challenge us to build more inclusive, equitable societies, and many who provide services to LGBTQ youth still exclude a hugely influential basis for support: their families.

"Typically, we think of protecting LGBTQ youth from their families," said Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, speaking at a forum on the Critical Role of Family Support of LGBT Youth.

Instead of removing LGBTQ youth from their home environments, Ryan's organization looks for ways to keep these families together. Their strongest tool is information that appeals to a family's fundamental desire to protect their children from harm. Most families want to stay together and want their children to be happy, Ryan said. Often, families act in ways that they assume will benefit their children, help them better fit in, and help them lead healthy lives.

In a rigorously developed study, Ryan and her team of researchers identified more than 50 accepting and rejecting behaviors experienced by LGBTQ youth in adolescence and tied these behaviors to specific mental health and wellness outcomes for LGBTQ young adults.

Ryan's research shows that rejecting behaviors lead to outcomes like higher rates of depression, suicide, substance abuse, HIV infection, and homelessness. Conversely, LGBTQ youth who experienced accepting families showed higher rates of self-esteem, social support, and general health.

Engagement tools developed from Ryan's research can be used with all families, regardless of background. "We can't see families as the problem," Ryan said. The key is to approach families with respect and compassion and from their cultural experience. "If we don't see families as a potential ally to support the well-being of young people, we're not going to be able to create a bridge to help them," Ryan said.

Ryan spoke in particular about her work with Mormon families with LGBTQ children. How could she promote acceptance within a group that has so publicly shunned LGBTQ individuals?

Again, Ryan emphasized a harm-reduction approach: "The goal is not necessarily to make caregivers political allies for their LGBTQ children but to teach behaviors that will protect their children and help them lead healthy lives."

Laura Varlas

Challenging Islamophobia

"Google the terms Muslim or Islam, and the results aren't pretty," said Haris Tarin during a panel at the Center for American Progress on "Challenging Islamophobia."

How could 1.5 billion people and a faith that's thousands of years old be so easily felled in one search? When 60 percent of Americans do not know another Muslim, why are many Americans afraid of Muslims?

It's precisely this ignorance, not necessarily bigotry, that's opened the door for fear-mongering from extremists of all stripes. For Americans, it's a familiar story. Substitute the terms "black," "Jewish," "Japanese," or "gay" for Muslim, and you know what comes next—an often small but powerful group attempts to narrowly define the American experience in mutually exclusive terms (i.e., you can't be Muslim and American; to be one is to be opposed to the other).

To dismantle Islamophobia, playwright and humorist Wajahat Ali says we need a plurality of voices, more storytelling—the Muslim-American equivalent to Angels in America or The Cosby Show. Ali reminded the audience that 25 percent of the people brought to the United States as slaves were Muslim and that African-American Muslim experiences also get short shrift in conversations about Islam.

The reality is, there are tons of unglamorous stories of Muslims living in America, said Reverend Chloe Breyer: "There are the mosques on 161st Street that run HIV/AIDS outreach, the Catholics and Muslims working together in the Bronx to run halal soup kitchens. It's these very practical and mundane things that are moving groups out of isolation and into the broader community."

The panel suggested non-Muslims need to seek personal, everyday connections with Muslim-Americans and encouraged more Muslim-Americans  to share their stories and engage civically. Public engagement may be a challenge to Muslim-Americans, Tarin noted, in part because many of those first-generationers left countries intolerant to civic action. As a school community, this might mean considering more direct outreach and invitations for Muslim families to participate in PTA or other activities. 

For anyone interested in challenging Islamaophobia, or just wanting to better know their fellow Americans, you don't have to wait for information about Muslim-Americans from secondary sources. October 17–24 is open mosque week—an opportunity for coalition building that can really be flexed at any time (you need not be Muslim to visit your local mosque).

In conclusion, the panel urged openness to a plurality of Muslim-American stories, voices, and identities. Reach out to Muslims in your community, and never accept a singular vision of the American experience. In the words of Muslim-American Muhammed Ali, "Me, we."

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