Finish the year well!

This year at school we chose the theme “Running the Race”. The students memorized several verses of scripture about running the race for Christ. I Cor. 9:24 states, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” Each week we discussed how we should run the race – with patience, love, endurance, strength, etc. Songs, devotions, specials, and messages all encouraged the teachers and the students to run the Christian race for Christ effectively and fervently.

During chapel the kids would sing “The Race” at the top of their lungs!

Before I was born into history and time, 
You planned creation with me in mind.
You formed my heart; you saw my face.
I was made in your image; I’m no mistake.

You chose my family, the place of my birth.
You knew all about me; you thought I had worth.
I was called out to serve you doing your kingdom work,
And all of my days are written down in your book.

I’ve fallen down in this race of life,
But you came to my rescue time after time.
You told me you loved me, you weren’t counting my sin.
In you I found courage to rise up again.

I know you are for me you want me to win.
I give you my soul till the very end.
Out there before me I see the prize.
Jesus is standing at the finish line.

I’m running the race down to the last minute.
Mercy and grace are keeping me in it.
There’s a fire in my soul. I’m fully committed.
I’m running the race, and I’m gonna finish!

Each week as we all sang the song, I found myself mentally reaffirming my fervor to run the race and serve the Lord.

School is almost out for the year! 180 days have come and gone. Did you do your best? Did you accomplish all your goals? With just a few short days left, evaluate your school year to see if anything else needs to be accomplished before the end. Phil 3:14 encourages the believer to press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Do not finish early! One last time – encourage the single parent, work with the struggling child, have patience with the naughty child, make one more phone call, present the gospel to a lost parent, and so on. Gal 6:9 encourages us to “not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” Finish well!

The Top 10 To-Do List for Summer

I was recently reading a professional journal when I ran across an article that shares the same title with this article. It was written by a head of school from the Midwest.  He had several interesting ideas which sparked my thinking.

While my list might be a bit different than yours, it would be good for you to prepare your own list as we head into the summer months. You might borrow some of my thoughts and blend them with your own (like I did with my list).

So, what items make my Top 10 Summer To-Do List?

  1. Read. Effective leaders must block time to read. The mind needs re-invigorated with new ideas and perspectives. Don’t succumb to the temptation to “pleasure” read only.
  2. Send surveys—to parents, to faculty! Ask purposeful questions to discover areas of strength and weakness.
  3. Plan. Someone has well said that “if you fail to plan, you must plan to fail.” Effective planning time in the summer months will bring success during the school year.
  4. Turn off the world. Try to find at least two different 2-3 day spans where you can “disconnect” from your email, twitter, facebook, etc. No fair counting Saturdays and Sundays.
  5. Review. Look back over this past year. What worked? What did not? Learn from both the success and failures.
  6. Listen. Spend some time talking with faculty and parents. Ask them to complete the statement, “To improve our school, the leader should ___________.”
  7. Expand your horizons. That’s right! Do something new. Maybe something that you have wanted to do but have not taken time to pursue. Look for something that will allow you to relax without great expense or time demand.
  8. Grow. Whether taking a grad class, developing new tech skills, or pursuing mastery of some skill or subject, don’t see summer as a time to “veg out.” Growth makes you stronger and pays great dividends during the long months ahead.
  9. Write. Maybe begin with something small—an article on the school’s website, a blogpost (be a guest writer). Part of leaving a mark is making a mark (literally). Writing is an exercise that can benefit both the doer and hearer. Take the plunge and write.
  10. Chill. Can’t believe I said it, not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I don’t normally use that term. It is very important that educators use the summer break to enjoy a vacation time with family. Even if you do not travel to some far away land, take time to “Chill!”

Now, what did I forget? What would you add to my list to make it more complete?

Constructive Criticism – Being Lovingly Honest

The following suggestions are offered to guide the educator needing to offer constructive criticism to students, co-workers, or employees.  Because most educators seem to not enjoy an activity that feels confrontational, constructive criticism is often avoided to the detriment of the student(s), co-worker, or employee.

Proverbs says much about dealing with others, even in difficult or contentious situations. For example, Solomon says that “a friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity (17:17).”  Later he reminds us that “faithful are the wounds of a friend (27:6);” so even in tense times when we must offer constructive criticism, we should be faithful to honestly and lovingly critique students, co-workers (if we are responsible to do so), and employees.

Several years ago I shared some notes that I jotted down nearly three decades ago about this topic. Through the years I have leaned on these principles to help me.  I share them below as

10 Commandments for Constructive Criticism

  • Constructive criticism is both a positive and negative evaluation.
  • Constructive criticism is motivated by love for and desire to build up a student. 
  • Constructive criticism is built on a foundation of a previous relationship.
  • Constructive criticism does not label students.
  • Constructive criticism must be designed to fit the individual—one size does not fit all.
  • Constructive criticism should be given at the right time and place.
  • Constructive criticism needs effective interaction. 
  • Constructive criticism offers solutions rather than only identifying problems.
  • Constructive criticism is calm and caring, not confrontational.
  • Constructive criticism assumes an ongoing relationship that will continue to nurture.

Successful teachers learn quickly that the privilege of criticism must be earned; a student must trust a teacher before criticism is accepted. Successful teachers come to understand that the ability to teach requires the ability to critique, both positively and negatively.

So, effective teachers are either building a trust relationship so that criticism is accepted or they have already established a trust relationship and are using criticism to advance student learning.

Perhaps you have had to complete the phrase “constructive criticism….” Take a moment and share an idea to add to the list.

Presentation Does Matter! Go for the Garnish!

Kids growing up today live in a…600-channel television universe, 10,000-station radio universe, 1,000,000,000,000 page internet.

“Constant exposure to digital media has changed the way the digital generation processes, interacts, and uses information. As a result, they think and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation” (Jukes, McCain, Crockett 2010). How have teachers adjusted their teaching style to engage this new type of student? Many teachers still teach and assess the same way they always have. “As a result, the digital generation, who are accustom to the twitch-speed, multitasking, random-access, graphics-first, active, connected, fun, fantasy, quick-payoff world of their video games, MTV, and the internet, are incredibly bored by most of today’s education” (Jukes, McCain, Crockett 2010).

Each teacher has a style. A teacher is in complete control of his or her teaching style; therefore, a teaching style can be changed. Take a look at the teaching style of Jesus. Jesus’ messages were “common yet classic, plain yet complex, simple yet revolutionary, childlike yet ageless, ordinary yet multifaceted, and familiar yet unforgettable” (Scarborough, 2007). How do your lessons match up to His?

Presentation matters! Students need to be engaged in the lessons. Every lesson needs a lure to ensure a student is attracted and lured into the lesson. Lesson lures include …

  • chants
  • songs
  • startling statements
  • questions
  • visuals
  • props
  • pictures
  • stories
  • involvement
  • humor
  • role play
  • games
  • writing.

Incorporate as many of these elements as possible into your lessons. Many teachers are consumed with following and finishing a curriculum that they forget to add lures to their presentations. Lesson lures help students engage in the lesson and then remember the material when test time comes. With the use of the internet, teachers can find these lesson lures for every topic. A teacher must be willing to take the time to work them in to each lesson. The more lesson lures are used, the greater the student recall.  Check your lesson presentation. Do you need a style change?

Promoting Literacy in School Culture

"You get what you honor"

The disheartening truth is that as students grow up they read less.  For a teacher this should sound an ear-splitting alarm.  As a teacher desiring that students mature spiritually, the shock of the alarm must be even greater.

As far back as I can remember in my professional life, educators have advocated and emphasized programs for literacy; writing across the curriculum; targeting reading “drop outs,” especially male students in junior high and secondary grades; as well as informal journeys led by educators seeking raise the educational bar for their students.

But alas, the days are jam packed with curricular activities and other worthy endeavors.  So what’s a teacher to do?  I recently read an article that provided some ideas to promote reading in all classrooms.  While some of the suggestions were obvious and perhaps already done in your classroom, some of the other suggestions could be used as tools to “build skills and joy in literacy” (Gilmore).

Help build excitement about reading!

  • Publicly celebrate reading

Reflecting on the adage “you get what you honor,” teachers should give significance to reading.  This can be done by posting student reading lists, helping students develop lists of books that they want to read, or perhaps asking students to write brief book reviews.  Model and teach students to share things learned from reading.  Excitement is always contagious!

  • Share word walls

Keep words walls dynamic and as interactive as possible.  Word walls provide a model for high frequency words as well as help students see patterns and relationships in words.  Word walls provide reference support for students during reading and writing activities.  Make sure that students contribute and use the word wall regularly.

  • Read and write across content areas/Value disciplinary literacy

It is important that students learn to write in all content areas.  Do not fall into the rut of having all writing done in a language arts class.  Keep students reading and writing in every academic discipline. Teachers can help their cohorts, especially those teachers that struggle to assist students with writing.

  • Provide authentic writing experiences

Help students escape the tendency to write for the audience of one.  Students that write just for the teacher soon lose a love for reading and writing.  Provide students with opportunities to write for different audiences—letters, op-eds, book reviews, information captions for graphics, etc.  Teaching literacy greatly improves when we “keep it real.”

  • Promote reflection and goal setting

Reading success is not measured by how many books a student reads or even complexity of the book that is selected.  Reading success is seeing the student use the reading—support writing, improve critical thinking, etc—to enhance overall literacy.  Students must be taught to habitually reflect on their reading and develop greater aspirations as a result.  Praise reflection and goal setting and it will flourish.

Are you doing everything that you can do to improve the overall literacy of your school’s culture?  Can you use some of the above ideas to make your classroom a better development ground for literacy?

If you have other ideas that you have found effective, please share them in the comments section below.

 

Gilmore, B.  (2017, February). 10 ways to promote a culture of literacy.  Educational Leadership, 74(5).  ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

 

Can They Hear Us Now?

A lesson from Charlie Brown.

“Mwaaahh, mwahhh, mwaahh  mwwahh, mwahhh, mwahhh.”  That’s all Charlie Brown and his classmates hear when their teacher talks.  Poor Sally falls face first onto her desk in slumber and Charlie Brown looks perpetually confused.

This scene might give us a chuckle, but sadly it may be an accurate description of what many of our students hear when we are talking.

Instead of asking our students, “Why weren’t you listening?”, let’s consider four ways that we can get out of the way of our message so that our students can really hear what we are saying.

Four ways we can help students listen

  • “Lean in” – Students are more likely to listen to us when they feel that we are genuinely listening to them. We need to move toward our students – to “lean in” expectantly and listen to what they are saying if we want them to value our message.  We bless our students by paying attention to them.  As we bless them, they become more open to “leaning in” to hear us as well.
  • Affirm well and often – Remember the old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”? That may be true, but we can make that horse thirsty!  Leaning in toward our students leads them to the “water” of our instruction, but affirming our students’ growth, God-given gifts, and interests makes them thirsty for what we say.
  • Avoid “overtalk” – Often the urgency of our message causes us to “overtalk” a situation. Address the issue, yes, but avoid belaboring the point and exasperating the hearer.  Most of the time, “less is more.”
  • Say something worth listening to – Whether we teach math, writing, science, art, or Latin, the key to getting students to listen is to say something worth hearing. The things most worth hearing fall outside the content of a class, but rather lie in the character of the teacher.  Is our life – our habits, our attitudes, our actions – speaking something our students want to hear?
  • Encourage often – While affirmation looks to the past, encouragement focuses on the future. Words like “You can do it!”  or “I am confident in you” open a student’s ears to hear instruction on how to accomplish the goal.
  • Criticize/correct intentionally – No one likes to receive criticism or correction, yet often teachers fall into the trap of correcting in the name of “instruction.” Good instruction does require correction – possibly even admonition.  But if we want our students to hear us, we need to make sure that we are correcting strategically and separate from any affirmation or encouragement.  Only then will students be able to really hear our message.

As we consider our place in the classroom, we don’t need to ask our students, “Are you listening?”  We need to ask ourselves, “Can they hear us now?”

Extra! Extra! Read All About It

As I was perusing a recent issue in Education Week (March 1, 2017), a terrifying thought kept racing through my mind—the front page had five articles that were competing for my attention and only one of them was related to the educational process of students.  I reviewed the page to make sure that my eyes were not deceiving me.  Alas, my initial concerns were verified.

The front page introduced two articles that focused on social issues, one as it related to teachers and one as it related to students.  The top article on the page centered on the angst among many educators about the “scrapping” of the Affordable Care Act.  Yet another prominent front-page feature was devoted to efforts to prevent laws that could allow school staff to carry firearms on campus. The most obscure of the front-page articles featured the implementation of technology into civics instruction.

The cumulative effect of these attention-grabbers got me to thinking about what is really going on in a Christian school today.  More specifically, what is going on in each classroom within the school.  How about your classroom?  If a newspaper recounted the top five things that are happening in your classroom today, what would be the focus of the articles?  What kind of graphics would grab the reader?

Below are several considerations that might help as we edit a weekly front page for the classroom.

  • Academic Instruction – When I recently asked one teacher about his lesson plans, his response was “Overrated!” In other words, he did not value lesson planning.  However, lesson plans give a snapshot of what is going on in the classroom.  A group of these “photos” makes up each school day.  These lesson plans provide insight about what is important for that particular day.  After all, classrooms are epicenters of a school.  Schools should be focused on instruction—well-planned, sequential, rigorous instruction.
  • Biblical Worldview—Would a front-page review of your educational plan for this week include intentional inclusion of worldview instruction? Are you relying too heavily on the textbook for worldview instruction? Have you fallen into the trap of environmental worldview, believing like many parents that a change of environment is enough to significantly impact a student’s worldview? Research indicates that just placing students in Christian school classrooms does not make a significant difference.
  • Character Development—The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines education as “the bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners.” However, Webster did not stop here.  A further explanation is included that reads:

Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations.  To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

What article about character development is included on the front page for you this week?  A good teacher not only instructs the mind but also trains the will.

  • Innovation—That’s right! What are you doing that is fresh and new in the classroom this week.  I spoke with a teacher recently that complained that after many years of teaching the same grade level that her job had become mundane. Yep, just plain ole’ stale! As teachers it is our responsibility to not allow the classroom to become a rut (heard one person describe a rut as a “grave with the ends kicked out”).  I hope that your classroom’s front page would include some article or graphic showing excitement and a love for learning.

As you consider what would be included on your classroom’s weekly front page, spend a moment to measure the impact on the reader.  Parents, as well as other stakeholders, are looking and reading every week to see what your classroom is all about.  Does your front page make the reader exclaim Extra! Extra! Read All About It!?

A Teacher’s Soliloquy

“To be or not to be, that is the question”

This is the initial line in the third act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The soliloquy is the most famous verbalization of a character thought used by the Bard of Avon, perhaps the most famous of all soliloquys.

Hey, teacher, do you recall your most recent soliloquy?  Perhaps no fellow laborer was within earshot or maybe even your verbalization was muddled and barely audible.  Perhaps you have not even found time to stop and re-think the musings of that moment.

So take a minute to review what might have been or not have been your most recent soliloquy.  Whether it was the most recent or perhaps some previous verbalization, every teacher grapples with motivating students.  Motivation is a common theme of teacher soliloquys—motivated or not motivated, that is the question.

I was reading recently in Kingdom Living in Your Classroom (McCullough, 2008).  The author presented a thought-provoking challenge for the reader (teacher)—is our focus on controlling students’ performance or stimulating students’ motivation?  While effective classroom teaching necessitates a measure of classroom “control,” the author suggests that often the teacher soliloquy does not ask the right question—am I effectively motivating my students?

Principles for Motivating Students

McCullough suggests eight (8) principles for motivating students; a brief summary indicates that teachers should:

After reviewing the suggestions of the author and considering her challenge to re-think the approach that most teachers take into the classroom, I am sure that many times the teacher soliloquy could be different if the approach to classroom management were different.

1)  Consider what motivates students to behave a certain way.

2)  Manage their classrooms to be efficient learning communities.

3)  Provide opportunities for student success at tasks they view as valuable and challenging.

4)  Focus learning activities around worthwhile academic objectives.

5)  Systematically encourage students to replace negative thinking about themselves with positive truths about themselves.

6)  Help students recognize the relationship between effort and outcome.

7)  Show moderation and variation when using motivational strategies.

8)  Develop lessons that are relative to students, model enthusiastic learning, and provide a variety of learning strategies.

A Motivating Soliloquy

So the next time you find yourself “talking to yourself” after a long day in the classroom, ask yourself if you were over-focused on classroom control to the detriment of student motivation.  Let me suggest that a healthy balance of these two will go a long way towards making your next soliloquy one you want to remember.  To control or to motivate, that is the questionHopefully the answer is a resounding YES!

McCullough, J. D.  (2008).  Kingdom living in your classroom.  Purposeful Design Publications:  Colorado Springs, CO.

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 1 of 4

We have already defined the characteristics of an excellent teacher and one might assume that a great school is simply a collection of great teachers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many great teachers do NOT a great school make, and some great schools have few great teachers.  So, what are the unique qualities all great schools share?

Schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  That being said, we can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers.  For our school, it is simply “Equipping Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders”.

We believe in the depths of our soul that almost all the leaders of the church 20 years from now are sitting in Christian school classrooms and home school study areas today.  For decades our churches, colleges, missionary force,  and day schools have been aging and decreasing in size and number. If we fail to train our students to lead, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will cease to matter very much.

So we teach them that there is no difference whatever in the value of God’s calling to churchplace vis-à-vis workplace ministry.  We show them this principle in the Bible from the lives of Moses, Daniel, and many others.  We model it by having church members in business and the professions speak in our chapels. We also invite school parents in the professions, and sometimes believers not connected organically with the school, to inspire the kids.  When Christians exercise political influence, we have a much better chance of living quiet and peaceable lives.

Training the next generation of leaders

The next mayor of North Charleston has to go to high school somewhere.  Why not this school?  So does the governor, congressmen and senators, supreme court justices – listen, the president of the United States will go to high school somewhere.  Why not my school?  How literally awesome would it be to have dozens of men and women like Asa Hutchinson in Washington!  The faculty must live and breathe this high expectation for every student, and the kids must embrace it.  This is the first hallmark of a great school.

Great Expectations

3 R’s of a Positive Classroom Culture

Creating a positive classroom culture goes beyond classroom management.  Even the word “management” implies handling or controlling.  However, as teachers, our job is not merely to manage our students while they are in our classrooms but to prepare them to leave our classrooms ready for the next challenge.  If we only manage our students, we do them a disservice.  Our classroom culture should be one that equips our students for life-long learning and success.

It’s always a great moment on the first day of school each year when I announce to my sixth graders that there are no rules in our sixth grade classroom.  The boys’ eyes widen, and they begin to cheer.  The girls look somewhat terrified, and their face belies their belief that I am, indeed, the craziest teacher they have ever had.

It’s true, I tell them.  Our classroom will have no rules.

Rather, we will operate by three guiding principles – three “Great Expectations”
that apply to us all.  Everything we do (and how we do it!) will be filtered through these three principles: Respect, Responsibility, Restraint.

Respect

As teachers, we tend to see disrespect when it is directed toward authority, particularly our authority.  However, it is vital that we help our students learn respect not only for authority, but also for truth, others, property, boundaries, human life, beauty, goodness, and everything that God holds as worthy of respect.

Responsibility

Responsibility is the hallmark of maturity.  Responsibility comes from a proper understanding of our place in God’s world and an ability to see the long-term consequences of short-term decisions.  At an age-appropriate level, we need to foster responsibility in our students.

Restraint

This elusive quality naturally flows out of respect and responsibility.  Too often, however, we teachers correct lack of restraint but ignore the underlying lack of respect and responsibility.  As students begin to internalize a proper respect for their place in the world, they will begin to exhibit self-restraint, not mere conformity to a list of rules on the classroom wall.

“Great expectations can lead to great opportunities as we seek to instill in our students principles that will equip them to find their identity in Christ, esteem others higher than themselves, and fulfill the purposes God has for them.

What “Great Expectations” do you have for your students?