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Shaping stories

This morning my fellow #ASCD13 attendees and I had the opportunity to hear Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Maya Angelou. Both were spirited, frank women with amazing experiences and accomplishments in their lifetimes. As Maya Angelou was speaking, I got a text from my 9-year-old daughter saying she missed me and hoping I was having fun. In response, I told her I loved her and missed her, too. I told her that I was listening to a famous author (and so much more) named Maya Angelou, and that I would have to tell her about her when I got home. Sending her that simple message was a powerful moment for me. How do I support my daughters growing into strong, funny, confident women like the ladies I had the privilege of learning from this morning? What are a couple of quick themes I’ll take from the morning conversations as an educator and a mom?

Every person has a history.

Both women were intentional in sharing their their history. O’Connor as a cowgirl on a ranch and Angelou as a toddler taking the train near cross country have evolved into some of the most influential women we’ll ever know. We need children to know and be proud of their history as they grow. As a mom, I have two Ethiopian-born children and two biological children all with their own unique experiences. In our schools, every one of our children has an evolving story impacted by factors that impact their own perceptions and actions. As adults we model the value that history by sharing our own stories, including both successes and times of challenge.

As educators we have a responsibility to honor & respect that history.

My friends and I also discussed what might have happened if these women were consistently told they couldn’t do what they aspired to along the way or didn’t have anyone that gave them an opportunity. What might we all have missed if these women had been totally stifled? Transferring to our current context, what might happen to our students if their stories are not honored and respected? Often we are asked to make decisions about children that simply don’t take these stories into account. Other times our decisions are challenged by those who don’t know a child’s whole story or philosophically believe in one-size-fits all approach with regard to discipline and student learning. Regardless of our role, we simply can’t ascribe to that; we need to shape consciousness of those around us (Fowler) to move this mindset forward.

How have you found ways to honor student stories? How have your tried or seen others worked to promote a philosophical shift to consider those stories as we support our students? Maya Angelou talked about being rainbows in the clouds for each other. Let’s do that for our kids and consider it a great privilege to be part of who they become.

Celebrating creative superheroes

 The figures above were created by Mark, my very own 5th grade superhero, 
and evolved into puppets.

With a 5th grader, two 3rd graders, & a 1st grader all under my roof, I have enjoyed (understatement) seeing how my own children’s learning has developed within and beyond the walls of their schools. Further, from an academic programming standpoint, two of my daughters are English Language Learners, having joined our family three years ago from Ethiopia. Three of my children have participated in reading intervention, two in speech and language support, and one in academically talented services. As an educator and a mom, I understand how varied the needs of children can be and how much of a challenge it can be to both enrich and support.

I also know the incredible gift of seeing creative energy unfold in my own children aside from any of the ways we might describe their academic path; I believe all children have this within. In recent weeks, I read and commented on Day 5: Dreaming About Education by@stumpteacher #12DOD onBrett Clark‘s blog. Josh Stumpenhorst‘spost mentioned engaging children at school at the level they are engaged at home and the need for parents and teachers to come together, among many other points you I recommend you take time to read and consider. I considered these words as a mom rather than simply a school principal and shared this:

So many items here that I agree with as an educator and a mom, Josh. Wondering if I could do better as a mom to share out the engaged learning that happens in my home. Recently our basement has been transformed into ‘Hogwarts’ where my kids and their cousins created a class to teach one another. My son and his friends also took sidewalk chalk to the unfinished basement floor a different day to draw bases for their Star Wars ships as they mapped out what my son calls a figure battle. How do we share what happens unprompted in our homes with a larger community to demonstrate what can happen? I know as an educator, I’ve considered and reconsidered a lot from observing this in my own home coupled with my conversations with educator/parents like you.

So as educators and parents, how DO we harness this creative energy? How do we make that super power a way of being and not just a fleeting moment when they are very young? How do we know that the spirit we see in kindergarten can continue to shape them as learners beyond? While this can indeed lead into some complex conversations from homework to developmentally appropriate practice and beyond, start by thinking what you can do in your role whether it be parent, teacher, administrator, or teacher of teachers to promote and value student creativity; it is probably more than you realize.

I think back to visiting a class the last week before winter break that was being led by a substitute teacher. As the children prepared to color seals, the substitute talked about what color seals should be and what colors or patterns they are simply not. I couldn’t help but smile as I watched twenty-four little kindergarten heads shake back and forth in disagreement. One girl stated, “It is okay for my seal to have stripes if I want. My teacher said.”

Let’s pledge to encourage that creativity where we can, celebrate it when we see it, and be outspoken about “permission”. If you feel the same and are a teacher, do your students know you’re inspired by their creativity and want them to use that gift? If you’re an administrator and you agree, do your teachers know where you stand? Do they know creative sometimes trumps “right”? And back to the initial question I posed to Josh, how do we showcase that creativity so that its difference-making power shines through?

This post was originally written for Kinderchat, as part of NaPoBloMo, and published there this 3rd day of January.

The doctorate discussion

After 2 1/2 years of coursework, I’m currently preparing for my final semester of coursework at Northern Illinois University in the Educational Administration program and the writing of my dissertation that will follow. (And, yes, I am totally excited about the Orange Bowl! Go Huskies!) Being in a doctoral program, I’m always interested when conversations emerge about the merits and challenges of that pursuit. Just last night, I reread this post from Jason Markey about his own decision to part with his program. It prompted me to both reflect on and share my own choices on this path.

Why did I start?
As my husband worked on his doctorate in Religious Studies, I kidded that we weren’t going to have any of that “Dr. & Mrs.” business in our house. While I said that jokingly, I do acknowledge that I have a competitive spirit that prompts me to really challenge myself. I also knew that, despite many ways to simply continue my own learning, having a doctorate would allow me long term opportunities I wouldn’t be able to seek without it; a couple of those include serving on a central office administrative team or teaching future teachers or administrators.

How did I choose a program?
I had an interest in earning the Superintendent Certification, so I narrowed my focus to programs in Illinois that had those requirements embedded. As an aside, once in my program, I learned that I could dual-enroll in an Ed.S. program with parallel requirements to earn my certification prior to the completion of the the last 5 courses and the dissertation. I also looked at logistics such as distance, course, and schedule. NIU’s program is located on the University campus 45 minutes from home. Courses were held full days on Saturdays during the school year and moved to Tuesday/Thursday evenings in the summer. Other programs were split over a weekday and partial day Saturday or 2 weekdays. The cost of a state university was more manageable than some other options, too, as our district does not offer reimbursement. Finally, I talked to people I knew who were in or had completed all of the programs I was considering. At that time, I also hadn’t been a part of any online learning community and preferred a face-to-face program to keep me on track.

Any challenges?
First, I have to acknowledge that my husband has been a tremendous support, as we are parents to 4 elementary children. His willingness to work part-time and take on most household responsibilities has been so critical to pursuing my doctorate and becoming a principal during that same time frame. That said, it is still a challenge to coordinate schedules. Our extended family or friends step in to help from time to time if our kids have conflicting events or Jim does need to be out of town for his work. Likewise, there are many times where I feel bad that I’m not at a soccer game or family event. I only felt that would get harder as the kids got older, though, so I had to give myself permission to be okay with it now. I also had to come to terms with the cost of a program to my family now v. our needs now and the possible long term opportunity. Finally, balancing my academic life and my principal life has been challenging at times, as you might imagine, which leads right to my next question…

What are some unplanned benefits?
I came to greatly value my partners in this process, including the members of my cohort and the practitioners teaching some of our classes who had walked this path themselves. Before starting a PLN through Twitter, it helped me expand my learning community in real life. While I appreciate the many laughs with my friends in Cohort #20, I don’t think I realized how necessary it would be to lean on each other at times…such times when we were trying to balance a major paper and writing up teacher evaluations or when we were feeling that guilt from being away from home more than we’d like. I also underestimated how much my coursework and the professional discussions in class would positively impact my current role as a principal. While there were indeed times I needed to read or write about something I simply wouldn’t have chosen on my own, I have encountered frameworks, historical perspective, or theories that inform how I approach a situation like a curriculum implementation or identifying members of my team for different tasks. To me, this differs from knowing that I need to understand collective bargaining, for example, if I work as a district official; I fully expected that. Those nuances in between were sometimes missing pieces for me about the how or the why.

How does it work with my PLN?
I was nearly two years into my program when I seriously began exploring a PLN. Initially, I explored Twitter as a time saving tool since I couldn’t keep up with the journals and e-mail blasts that kept me informed of the larger educational sphere. (Guess that would also make it an unplanned benefit.) That, over time, evolved into learning with others in this space and projects that stem from it. My PLN also has given me a different perspective and different tools to take to my cohort. It has also influenced my dissertation topic related to school principals and technology, for sure. One afternoon, while researching, I encountered articles written by Scott McLeod and an instrument developed through CASTLE. I recognized his name right away as a member of my PLN and was able to connect with him through Twitter; that’s not something I would have thought possible even a year ago. Like is shared in Jason’s blog post and the comments that follow, both really work together allowing me to further personalize my learning and contribute to a greater degree.

I’m honestly grateful for (although sometimes frustrated by) both the benefits and the challenges that have impacted my professional growth and leadership development. All of it allows me, in turn, to impact my school community, other professionals, and even my own family. If you’re in the midst of this, too, what has your experience been? Although I bet common themes emerge, it’ll differ on some level for all of us. I think we can agree that, just like in all areas of our professional life, encouraging of one another and celebrating of successes along the way sure does help us move forward. And for that I am grateful, as well.

"I hope it stays…"

I can’t imagine a parent or an educator who didn’t think of the families in Newtown, Connecticut at some point this holiday season. For me, those times came both at school and at home; in both cases, amidst real disbelief, came near equal awe from some of the good that has come forth. Then this morning, I was reading a post on Ed Week where teacher Connie Sullivan talked about the special place Sandy Hook Elementary was long before the events of December 14th. She concluded her thoughts speaking to the people that have stepped up to help the community move forward, saying, “We obviously live in a state, we live in a country, that wants to help…If this is what comes out of this, I hope it stays.”

What do I hope stays?? My mind first goes to student arrival on Monday, December 17th. Having been scheduled to be at a conference, I simply decided my school was where I needed to be that morning. The night prior, I sent my families a letter via e-mail, as I thought it important that they hear from me before they sent their children to us that Monday morning. Likewise, rather than my normal spot in the foyer where I could greet both bussed students and those transported by parents, I headed outdoors to the parent drop-off line where I could greet and reassure our moms and dads. That was among the most emotional, memorable experiences I’ve encountered as a school administrator. Our kindergarten children, most of them unaware of the tragedy that had taken place, came bounding in to school as if it were any other day. My staff put their own worries, fears, and sadness aside in preparation for the day ahead, starting with those morning duties. The most vivid images before me, however, were of parents walking their children to the front door or letting them out in the car line. In really its most simple form, that love from parents to children was never so evident. Rather than the normal rush and routine, I saw many extra hugs and longer-than-normal looks as students headed into school. There really wasn’t any need for those parents to say what they were thinking and what their own worries might be. What I wasn’t prepared for, though, were the expressions of appreciation from our school families that came both in writing and in spoken words; for the acknowledgement of the tremendous responsibility we feel for their children’s future and present; for the loyalty and conviction spoken by some when doubters questioned our district or public schools in general; and for the patience with one another as we revisit and adjust procedures.

I’m not saying the terrible images of what happened in Newtown have left my memory as a principal or a parent, nor that I haven’t looked at my own kids, my school kids, and my staff in a different light. I’m not saying I can even begin to understand how those parents, educators, first responders, and community members move forward. I do hope, however, that open expression of love from parents to kids stays. I hope patience with one another stays. I hope the understanding that my staff and I place student safety in the highest regard and protect these children as our own stays. I hope as school leaders, we continue to check in on and support one another in this challenging work. I hope consideration for what is best for children continues to take priority over adult convenience. I hope we remember that as parents and schools, we are on the same team and can accomplish so much more when we work together.

What do you hope stays? How can we multiply the good in the teachers and the students lost and honor them through gains in our own school communities?

My letter to families in the wake of tragedy

Below is the letter I shared with my school families this evening. Thank you to Joe Mazza, Bill Powers, Tony Sinanis, Dr. Spike Cook, Patrick Larkin and the countless others in my PLN who shared resources and ideas as we prepare to both lead our schools and send our own children to school. Best wishes for a Monday that focuses on the goodness of your school’s children, the dedication of your staff and support from your greater school community.

Dear East View Families,
Like you, I am spending part of my Sunday evening preparing to send my children to school tomorrow with my heart heavy from Friday’s events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. While the district will issue a formal statement regarding this horrific tragedy, I wanted to connect with you as your child’s principal and as a parent before you send your much loved children our way to reinforce the following:
  • Thank you for trusting us with your children every day. Know that keeping your children safe is the single most important piece of our work at school and that your children are diligently cared for by our school staff.
  • The main office will continue to be the only point of entrance to school during the day, and we will continue the sign-in process for visitors.
  • I have instructed all staff to refrain from discussing Friday’s tragedy with students or with one another in the presence of students. We respect your role as a kindergarten parent on what you feel is appropriate to share with your child. If it is brought up by a student, the teacher will take that student aside to talk or involve me, Mrs. Schafermeyer, Mrs. Noll (our social worker), or another member of our team to ensure his or her needs are addressed. If your child needs to speak with someone outside of the classroom, you will be notified in the interest of working together. If you know your child is having a tough time, please feel free to contact his or her teacher, the office staff, or Mrs. Noll so we can support him or her.
  • Know that we conduct drills in partnership with local first responders to aid in our preparation for weather related or other events that may compromise the safety of our school community. Through those drills and ongoing conversation, we continue to revisit our plans and policies. Likewise, teachers and substitute teachers all have copies of our emergency procedures and know their role within those plans.
  • Mrs. Noll will be at our Home & School Organization meeting on Tuesday, December 18th at 7 p.m. to highlight how to talk to your children about this situation and answer any questions you might have from a social-emotional perspective.  You may also access the following resources to assist you :  ( ).
Please don’t hesitate to contact any member of the East View team if we can support you or your children or if you have questions or feedback.
Kathy Melton