Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Inspiration from a Friend

The following was written by a friend and was shared with his staff in an email. John O'Brien serves as the principal at Rabiner Treatment Center. In many ways, what John has written applies to our work with all students at some level in relation to our aspirations for them.

The more I ponder the more I’m realizing that these children we work with are children without much hope. The Lord knows that we all have high hopes for them, but do they have the same aspirations that we have for them? The difference here is that we can loosely throw around the hopes we have for them, for in our view, the hopes are as plentiful as the grains of sand on an ocean beach, but is that a shared vision? I believe they are holding tightly to the small handful of sand they were able to grab just before they were carried away in the turbulence of their young life and they are not so willing to share their small portion.

We spend many moments attempting to convince them that the future holds wonderful possibilities for them, especially if they would just buckle down and concentrate on the concepts we lay before them. Then when they reject our efforts to help them, and acknowledging here that rejection hurts, we experience frustration. What does frustration look like? What does it sound like? Is your neighbor frustrated? How do you know this? How do you deal with the frustration in you and in others?

I truly believe the answer to that is in our ability to understand who we work with, kids without much hope. So how can we instill hope in the hopeless? Maybe we should start at their level, to where they cling to what little hope they have left. You may think I’ve really lost it but I have seen it work, I just didn’t know what to name it.

If you want to know what they hope for just ask them, not in some superficial way, but in those special moments you have with a kid. You all do it, it’s that time when things are real with these kids and they trust you. Can hope be drawn with a pencil? Can it be written down? Can it be taken through the lens of a camera? Can it be shared through a song by a favorite artist? Can it be discussed in the proper moment? Sharing their small portion is not something any of us can take lightly and it is truly a gift when given. Treat it with all the dignity and humility that you can for it happens rarely, but be ready for it for if we ask, they may answer.

Once they share their hopes with us we also get a glimpse of their fears. Think of the fears that these kids have in their life, it’s frightening. Do you think that the void left by the hope that has been torn from them is replaced by fear? I believe it has.

We see the outward sign of those fears daily and wonder why that kid is running from our room, or out the building. Do they trust us enough to come back on their own or do we add to their fear by threatening or humiliating them when they return, or do we welcome them back? That difference says a lot about you in the eyes of these children.

Let’s all work in helping these kids find their own hope so while with us they can reflect, sometime in their own future, back to the time spent with us as a significant moment in their life’s journey.

Staff, thanks for all you do for the children entrusted to our care, job

John J. O'Brien
Principal, Manson Northwest Webster
Rabiner Treatment Center
1762 Johnson Ave.
Ft. Dodge, IA 50501

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Future Is Now.... For Education

There has been much talk within and outside the walls of Manson Northwest Webster about what education should look like. Many within the community experienced education that looks like the picture below. Straight rows, lecture based, listening to the “all knowing teacher.” That was the education that many of us grew up in. So what should education look like, sound like, feel like? This becomes the debate for many.

Jeff Utech, the blogger of gave his viewpoint after being posed this question by an educator, “will teachers ever be replaced by machines.” His response was. We are not going to be replaced by machines, but individual teachers will be replaced by communities of learners. In those communities everyone will be a teacher and everyone will be a learner. Wow, a community of learners, what a concept! What does this community look like? In my mind it feels and looks more “work-like.” Many of us everyday go to work as part of a “community of learners” working collaboratively for a common goal or working to solve a common problem. (Additional information on this subject can be found at! )

Curtis Wong, from the website writes about the future school day. Curtis says the following about what education should look like: The teacher is more of a coach and provides suggestions for areas to explore rather than giving answers to questions. Students are challenged and seek out resources to help themselves to understand and build the solutions that help them make progress to understanding bigger problems. This is a great vision of what a community of learners would look like. Is the teacher important in this environment? Heck yes, very important, very needed, but very much part of the learning community but as a lead learner.

I also want to take a minute to reference a blog post from Jeff Dicks, Superintendent of Schools for Newell Fonda, which turned into a sophomore English class project. Jeff blogged on MLK and What is Your Dream? All of Jeff’s statements pertained to education, I have included some his highlights. Moving At The Speed of Change blog can be viewed at
•That people stop others when they begin to talk negative about education while not knowing facts
•That students embrace and excel with the tools we provide
•That our students can connect with learners from all over the United States
•That business and industry connect with schools to move change

Mr. Richman’s sophomore English class piggybacked off of this post with the following, “I Have A Dream” statements.
•I have a dream that one day cancer will no longer exist. -Maranda Olson
•I have a dream that someday people will stop abusing kids. -Miranda Simpson
•I have a dream that people won’t be afraid to be themselves, instead of being what other people want them to be. - Callie Paterson
•I have a dream that school bullying will end completely. - Garret Carman
•I have a dream that when a little girl is born, no matter where she is born, no matter what nationality she is, no matter if she can see or can't, can hear or can't, she will be treated as an equal and not placed in a category and judged. - Melissa Johnson
•I have a dream that happiness will rain over all the unhappy people in the world. - Drake Harman
•The rest of the I Have a Dream statements from this sophomore class can be viewed at

How has education changed within the walls of Manson Northwest Webster. Below are some links to learning that is taking or has taken place. These projects show a shift away from random facts, lecture based experiences, where students are sitting and getting, to learning experiences that are more a “community of learners” in nature, to learning experiences where the students are more in charge of their learning. Has Manson Northwest Webster mastered this? Are we at the end of our journey? NO, but we are most certainly off to a good start. The Future Is Now!

As Lilies Fade, blog
What evers NEW!, blog
Imported Beef, video project
Newton’s Laws of Motion, video project
7th Grade Symbaloo
7th Grade Symbaloo
Modern Warfare, website
Euthanasia, video project
Something Eargasmic!, blog
Virtual Reality images,

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Homework Done Right"

Each month the staff at Manson Northwest Webster meets in Learning Team Groups to discuss educational topics, most of which go hand in hand with our professional development focus. This month our staff examined the Article Homework Done Right. A couple of questions that might be asked by my staff, other educators, or parents: Why this article and why the emphasis on “meaningful work” and “homework”?

As our professional development focus moves to learning about the Characteristics of Effective Instruction, the concept of Teaching for Understanding along with Student Centered Classrooms. When the concept of teaching for understanding is present within a classroom many of the other Characteristics of Effective Instruction fall in line. As we focus on Teaching for Understanding, taking a look at the types of homework assignments we give and the reasons behind them is also necessary. This article, in my opinion, is a nice starting place for future conversations we will have about the Iowa Core Effective Instruction characteristic, Teaching for Understanding

Teaching for Understanding is a Characteristic of Effective Instruction and is an essential component of the Iowa Core Curriculum. It shifts instruction from a paradigm of memorizing and practicing to one of understanding and applying. It is through Teaching for Understanding that students develop the ability to think and act flexibly with their deep conceptual and procedural knowledge. In Teaching for Understanding, teaching is less about what the teacher does, and more about how the teacher engages students in thinking and demonstrating understanding. This performance view focuses on the ways in which students use what they know to demonstrate their understanding and operate in the real world. In other words, we know that students understand when they can carry out a variety of “performances” concerning a topic, such as explaining, interpreting, analyzing, relating, comparing, and making analogies (Perkins, 1993, Wiske, 1998).

After reading the article Homework Done Right our staff examined the following questions. Should all educators have a clear answer to the questions below?

1. Moving from less meaningful “fact based” work to more meaningful application of knowledge seems like a simple concept but is it? Do you ask yourself the following questions when planning a unit or lesson? Talk about them as a group.
*Why am I teaching this particular concept/topic/unit the way I am?
*What is my learning goal or goals for the unit?
*How else could the learning goals be achieved?
*What assessments are in place to help students meet the learning goals?
*Are any assessments being used that don’t help students meet the learning goals?
*Why am I using these assessments?
*Why am I doing this? Do I believe its important? Can I convey that to kids? Not just because it’s the next lesson or because it comes from the textbook.

2. Using the Continuum of Meaningful Homework from the article, think back on your last unit of study and in your own mind, discuss where your assignments/assessments would fall. Discuss as a learning team.

3. Using the Continuum of Meaningful Homework from the article, think about your Trimester One exam or final project. Was it fact based memorization of information, or application of knowledge? Discuss the differences as a learning team.

Do educators think about units/lessons/concepts in this way before teaching? Is there a clear learning goal in place prior to organizing the details of the unit? How do our assessments help meet the goal? I would like to hear what others have to say.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Characteristics of Effective Instruction

What is effective instruction? How about ineffective instruction? How does effective instruction impact student learning? What about ineffective instruction? Does effective instruction increase student engagement? Does a classroom that follows the Iowa Core’s Characteristics of Effective Instruction prepare students for the 21st century work environment?

Teaching how students learn best needs to be the focus for educators. Some of the questions posed in the above section seem obvious. Are they obvious? Do all of our children consistently receive effective instruction? The Iowa Core Curriculum is three fold: content, instruction, and assessment. The professional development focus for Jr/Sr high school staff in the coming months will be on the instruction piece. The characteristics of effective instruction (CEI) are used within the Iowa Core to help school districts guide how their students learn and teachers teach. By focusing on the characteristics of effect instruction the end goal is to provide quality effective instruction for all our students. Using the Iowa Core’s characteristics of effective instruction will facilitate our journey.

There are five elements to effective instruction, the below information come from definitions produced by the Iowa Department of Education
1. Student Centered Classrooms: In Student-centered Classrooms, students are directly involved and invested in the discovery of their own knowledge. Through collaboration and cooperation with others, students engage in experiential learning which is authentic, holistic, and challenging. Students use prior knowledge to construct new learning. Through the development of the metacognitive process, students reflect on their thinking. Curriculum and assessment are centered on meaningful performances in real-world contexts. As a partner in learning, teachers intentionally create organized and cohesive experiences to assist students to make connections to key concepts.
2. Teaching for Understanding: Leading students to engage in a variety of thought-provoking activities such as explaining, finding evidence and examples, generalizing, applying, making analogies, and representing the topic in new ways. Teachers assist students in making connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge to develop understanding of a concept. Teachers who teach for understanding: 1) make learning a long-term, thinking-centered process, 2) engage students in assessment for learning processes, 3) support learning with representations conceptual models, 4) teach for learner differences 5) induct students into the discipline, and 6) teach for transfer (Perkins, 1993).
3. Assessment for Learning: Formative Assessment is a process used by teachers and students as part of instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of core content. As assessment for learning, formative assessment practices provide students with clear learning targets, examples and models of strong and weak work, regular descriptive feedback, and the ability to self-assess, track learning, and set goals. (Adapted from Council of Chief State School Officers, FAST SCASS)
4. Rigor and Relevance: A rigorous and relevant curriculum is one that contains a high cognitive demand and is challenging to the student as they apply the essential concepts and skills to real world, complex and open-ended situations.
5. Teaching for Learner Differences: Planning for and responding to variances among learners in the classroom in order to create the best learning experience possible. It also includes processes for determining the effectiveness of instruction, using data to guide instructional decision-making, and ensuring access to/success with regard to the core curriculum for all students.

How are these characteristics of effective instruction used at Manson Northwest Webster? In a nutshell teachers will be evaluated based on the characteristics of effect instruction. During the first trimester baseline walkthrough data was collected on the 7-12 staff. This data was used to determine areas of strength and weaknesses within our teaching staff. Based on the baseline data it was decided that winter and spring professional development will focus on Student Centered Classrooms and Teaching for Understanding. Professional development time will be used to learn about and implement teaching strategies that are consistent with CEI. Teacher walkthroughs will continue to be used to monitor teaching strategies.

The following links can also be found on my blog page:

For more information on the characteristics of effective instruction:

MNW 7-12 Walkthrough Form:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

McLeod's blogs used for #mnwcougars Learning Teams

Once a month our staff meets in Learning Teams to discuss educational topics. The goal is to get teachers thinking about their thinking. Scott McLeod's blog Dangerously ! Irrelevant is a great thought provoking site for conversation starters. Below is our Learning Team Agenda for October.

The following is a post on Scott McLeod’s blog,
Dangerously ! Irrelevant
Our students want better work, not less workSEPTEMBER 14, 2010

Chris Guillebeau says:
Many people believe that the key to an improved lifestyle is less work. I think it’s better work. I believe that most of us want to work hard, but we want to do the kind of work that energizes us and makes a positive impact on others. That kind of work is worth working for, and the other kind of work is worth letting go of, finished or not. (The Art of Non-Conformity, p. 10)

I think that pretty much sums it up for our students, doesn’t it? It’s not that they don’t want to work hard. It’s that they don’t want to expend too much energy on work that isn’t meaningful. When we see reports of rampant plagiarism or tales of students who want to do as little as possible in order to get a grade, isn’t that an indication that they’re doing work that’s not meaningful to them? When students are working on something that they’re passionate about, rather than apathetic, don’t most of these so-called generational ‘values’ or ‘character’ issues disappear? Contrary to what many believe, our students don’t want to just get by. They just want better work.

As a Learning Team please discuss the following questions as a group

1. In the context of your classroom, what do you consider is meaningful work?

2. Is the work you just described in number 1, meaningful for you or for your students?

3. How can you change the climate of your classroom to offer students more chances at engaging in meaningful work?

4. Discuss examples of the most meaningful work completed in your classroom this year.