All posts by Jen Munnerlyn

Jen Munnerlyn is the Elementary Principal at the American School of Warsaw. Her international experience began back in 1980 when her parents first started teaching overseas. Jen blogs about her own experiences as a Third Culture Kid, the adventures of being the mother of a TCK, and about elementary education in an international school setting. Her picture book The Adventure Begins, about the first day at an international school, is a favorite among adults and students abroad.

Hopes and Dreams- with Legs!

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein

This weekend was a busy one. I was invited to attend our regional organization’s professional planning annual session. The goal was to plan for next year’s (and beyond) professional development at NESA conferences- topics and speakers.

Sounds pretty cut and dry doesn’t it? And it would be too, except I was meeting with an exceptional group of people, working for an exceptional organization, trying to ensure exceptional offerings were in place for the teachers and schools out there depending on them. No small feat.

Previously a literacy coach, now as an administrator, before as a teacher and often as a parent, I am faced with the need to plan for action and outcomes. Like me, I’m sure many of you plan on a daily basis, for a variety of reasons. However, what I learned most over this weekend was the necessity of having a planning process that gives all of your hopes and dreams (which the best plans are reaching for) the “legs” to actually walk the path toward completion.

The more moving parts, or the bigger the plan or the goal, the more necessary it is to have a process in place which ensures things are covered, thought through, and allows for you to evaluate both the plan and the actual event you’ve planned for. In fact, without the plan and then the evaluation, there is really no way to know if plan was successful.

With the help of Joellen Killion from Learning Forward, (Professional Learning Organization) I learned, right alongside the planners at NESA, how to create and evaluate a plan for professional learning.  The evaluative piece is new for me. What I like about it, is that it allows a school or organization to learn from the work at the level of the idea and process, and not just from the product generated.

As I reflect on my learning at NESA this weekend, I’ve been thinking about how we often hear about the pendulum swinging back and forth in education. I’m beginning to wonder how much of that is due to a lack of precision in our planning, and/or the fact that we often do not return to the plan to evaluate if it worked. Add to that the fact that so many of us start plans and projects at one school and then move to another. What happens to that work when you leave? Might it be continued if there was a better plan and/or a way to evaluate that plan- left for the person filling your shoes?

We have so much to do, so many hopes and dreams for our learners, our schools, and ourselves. There are days when it is overwhelming and seems as if we are never going to get there. Putting your time and energy into the planning process is one way to ensure the end result you desire becomes a reality.

Here’s to better plans, which lead to intended outcomes. In other words, here’s to taking your hopes and dreams and giving them the legs they need to take off.

(Crossposted on www.literacybytes.com)

Just Joy

IMG_1198I’m sure many of you woke up this morning thinking about your next steps, journeys and outcomes. It is what we do at the start of a new year: plan for action, plan for making our best selves materialize in ways, which will make this the best year ever.

This New Year’s Day I’ve been thinking about how I want to feel this year as much as how I’m going to act or what I’m going to do. You see, at this exact time last year I was leaving the US to return to work overseas and had the heart-wrenching task of saying goodbye to my father who was dying. Having been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer just a few months before, we were certain he would transition before I could return for another break.

My 2013 focus became learning how to feel about continuing on in the face of that huge sadness. It wasn’t a planned resolution or a goal as much as it was a necessity. For me, it was also day-to-day work. Each day I had to remind myself that my father enjoyed every minute of his life (he was an international educator too); therefore his transition was a celebration of that life and I should be proud of him. I believed it, but often had to verbally remind myself of that fact lest I would sink into feeling badly that he was ill, or later on, so deeply sad that he was gone.

My best refuge last year was oddly enough- recess duty. I would wander outside and be with the kids during their playtime and just find myself relaxing into their joyful world of play, laughter, and movement. It was the 15-minute part of each day when I was reminded of what it can feel like to just be happy to be outside, moving, and with friends.

When I talk to people about this past year, I often mention how recess saved me because it allowed me to not think so much about this life, but to just see it and enjoy it for what it is. What I’ve been realizing as I enter this new year though is that it was as much the job (of which recess duty is a part) I was able to have and go to each day which helped me to feel happy and joyful in the face of such devastation.

Working with children is, if you are looking for it, witnessing joy.

It is my goal this year to approach each school day with the sense that I am indeed a lucky person to be able to work in such a joyful place. A place where learning to read (actually cracking that code!) is like getting to finally see over the mountain. A place, where conquering the monkey bars with one hand feels like winning a gold medal. A place where friendship comes with shared snacks, held hands and a chance to use our imaginations.

Joy is something that makes life worth living. Feeling joy on the job is my New Year’s resolution.

I hope you can join me.

Recruiting Right

Recruiting season is upon us. Having grown up in international schools and had parents who were teachers and administrators in this circuit, I have to admit, this time of year is nothing short of exciting for me. It is an opportunity to dream, (Where will I go next?!) a chance to reach and stretch yourself, (It never occurred to us to live there!) and a good way to stay connected to the transience so many of our students feel, (Packing, moving, making new friends… blah!).  To be honest, I love the hunt of the next job and the thrill of seeking out the new place. When March rolls around and the question marks are answered, I’m always a little sad.

That’s the candidate me.

Sitting on the other side of the table, acting as a recruiter, it is a different experience. Beginning as early as October, the puzzle of who might leave and who might want to come begins to form. As intentions (dreams) become clearer and we know which positions we need to fill, the race to find the right people with the right fit starts in earnest. There is so much to do and so little time. Combine that with the pressure to find great teachers who will inspire and motivate kids and colleagues, and suddenly things are very serious. That’s why I feel so fortunate to have learned some tips and tricks from veterans last year. Here is what make sense to me both as a recruiter and as a candidate:

Go fast to go slow– It is a race out there for the best people. Knowing what your school is looking for, and needs is a key place to start. Notice I said “what” and not “who”, that’s because this phase needs to happen before you ever get caught up in particular people. Just like good writers develop characters before they begin to write about them, recruiters need to have a sense of what kind of person they need to move the organization forward. From attitude to experience, determining the type of person who you are looking for helps a recruiter focus. (For a candidate, being able to clearly articulate the type of person you are, does the same. It helps us see you beyond the bulleted resume.)

Check references.  We all know what a small, small world it is in our international schools system. Six-degrees of separation often isn’t necessary to arrive at someone who knows someone who knows you on this circuit. As a candidate, having solid references which can speak both to your practice and attitude are vital to finding a good fit. For recruiters, taking the time provide those honest portraits are good for all of us.

Think like a human to find good people. Unlike many professions out there, we want people who can work with people. As recruiters, we have to model that every step of the way. Just as we ask teachers to look at the whole child, we need recruiters to look at the whole person sitting in front of them. Most candidates are on tight deadlines themselves, balancing current employers or family needs with a potential school’s recruiting schedule. Paying attention to the needs of a candidate is not just good business; it is the right thing to do. Communication is key. We are all busy. Bottom line, no school is so “good” you don’t need to be great at recruiting. Treating people well, even if it means helping them feel valued as you tell them they aren’t what your are looking for, matters.

Good luck to everyone this season.

Photo credit: http://www1.yorksolutions.net/Portals/115255/images/love%20my%20job.jpg

Mind the Gap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Crossposted on http://literacybytes.com/)

There is so much going on right now in schools and education in general. My strategy for coping with the onslaught is to sit down and make a plan. Larger than a to do list, more refined than a hopes and dreams paragraph, a good plan reaches for the stars while laying out “the build” or how to get from Point A to Point B. It helps me mind the gap between what is happening now and where I’m trying to head.

Often the biggest complaint I hear from teachers is that there isn’t enough time. I understand that. I feel the same. Especially if we are thinking of using our time to create, go deep, fully understand and get good at something. However, I think what we’re really feeling is that there isn’t enough time to run from thing to thing and still find the space to do the good stuff. That is what the people I work with- educators in general- want to do, the good BIG work of teaching and learning. It’s why we got into this gig in the first place!

What can we do to ease the feeling of needing to run, run, run while still getting over the gap and on to what is next and maybe more important?

As an administrator, I believe it is my job to control the floodgates and to help keep the unnecessaries or low priorities from gobbling people up. To do that, the organizational leaders need to know and be focused on those vital few top priorities. Three is enough. From there we need to work to make sure everyone gets a chance to focus on those too. As leaders, I believe our job is to hack a path through the grass with our “three top things” machete so everyone else can move through with ease. This is good work for a leadership team. It is playing defense to win the game (always less glamorous than shooting all the shots) but essentially more effective in the long run.

As teachers, I think it is imperative to find and focus on those three big things too. Whether it is dictated by organizational goals or by a personal focus, knowing what is most important and then being able to sink thought and time into it and really get good at doing it… well that might just be a luxury in some schools. The thing is, when the organization is moving quickly and doesn’t have a set sense of priorities; it is difficult for teachers to grow, learn and change while (and this is the important part) keeping up with the day-to-day needs of their students.

As people: parents, spouses, colleagues and friends- I think we need to support each other as we negotiate this world full of work and distractions. I watch my daughter juggling that balance on a daily basis. She can Skype with her best friend Hannah in Shanghai as easily as she can tweet out to her followers about Taylor Swift’s newest song, however she is also still asked to follow the school path of my generation. I don’t see these two aspects of her life as being in opposition exactly, but it does mean she is navigating two ways of work, and that isn’t efficient. When time is of the essence, efficiently moving toward your goals is important. We need to help those around us navigate all that is part of the work now. (Strengthfinders 2.0 being my newest obsession, I wonder if taking the time to develop strengths might ease the need to do it all.)

Instead of being bumped around by all that is out there, it is time to grab on and get going on the most important “three” we can see. Change will take time, of course. But the longer we wait to begin, the larger the gap seems to be growing. It’s one thing to know it’s there; it’s another to be actively working to get across.

Photo Credit: http://preducationblog.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/mind-the-gap.jpg

Connected Educators, Connected Education

8210762750_7642b21e39_nAre you a connected educator? I am. Or I thought I was. Who knew there was a real, formal club out there? Welcome to connectededucators.org, a site where you can become more connected and engaged with online content and the vast network of people out there thinking and talking about education. I might be late to this party, but I’m absolutely feeling the groove.

Connected Educators Month is in October. So, I’ve pretty much missed it. However what’s best about the web is that there is no set-in-stone start and finish to things. I’m planning to use the links they have provided on the site to continue my own learning both now, and in the future. The whole idea behind Connected Educators is interesting because they are helping schools and school districts in the US ensure teachers are able to develop their connectedness and learning at a pace and in a community which suits them. It really is differentiated for each learner. It’s also updated constantly during the CEM (Connected Educators Month) by all of those folks out on the web generating content. I love this idea. So much so that I’ve been considering ways to use their system in other contexts. For example:

The connectededucators.org site allows learners to move through the different themes for the year (learning goals) at their own pace, but as they do, the learner earns badges to demonstrate they have participated. Those badges are important to earn because:

“Your badges can provide a digital “transcript” of your participation in Connected Educator Month. They can show:

  • How much time you’ve invested in participating in professional learning and collaboration activities throughout the month,
  • The actions you’ve taken to sharpen your connected learning skills, and
  • The impact you’ve had on your peers’ practice.”

(http://connectededucators.org/cem-digital-badges-faq/#whydistrict)

How useful would this be for educators in the context of other professional development? At this very moment, I’m searching for a program that would let me design my own learning to best suit my needs both as an administrator/leader and someone who is interested in 21st Century teaching. (Notice I didn’t use the word Doctorate- the programs I’m finding are so… stiff.) If I only I could earn badges based on reading, discussing, and creating content in this same way, on topics which could be updated and made ever more relevant to me and my needs. THAT would actually interest and encourage me. Instead I feel like my only choice is to go through the motions of traditional schooling- even “traditional” online schooling: me in a room or in front of my computer with the teacher telling me what to learn and testing me on how well I’ve done. Sigh.

What about our students? Couldn’t this type of system be used in current courses to allow flexibility, ownership of learning, and creativity? Khan Academy uses badges. I’m wondering if a badge-system might be used in a more traditional classroom? Say 4th or 7th grade, where the curriculum is designated into a series of badges that students navigate and earn by doing online research/work, or even activities from the textbook. They could even design their own badges.

I can easily envision a high school student for example, moving through badges on biology concepts, reading, participating, and questioning the most up-to-date content on the web, and then creating and contributing her own information. Imagine the engagement!

Thank you connectededucators.org. You’ve “connected me” to much more than what you intended. Or maybe, that was the point all along?

PS- Right before hitting the publish button on this post, I came across this blog which demonstrates some of what I was thinking about. Check it out! http://elementaryedtech.com/2013/10/29/making-a-makerspace-peek-inside-my-plans/

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/86530412@N02/8210762750/in/photostream/

The Importance of Regional Conferences

IMG_1591Over the past few days I’ve been attending the NESA Fall Leadership Conference in Katmandu, Nepal. This conference is mainly intended to support leaders in international schools in this region of the world. However, at this conference in particular, there are folks from all over, including leaders from international schools in Asia and Europe. To me, the premise of a globally diverse and globally relevant conference was realized simply in the make-up of the attendees.

There are three important take-aways I gain from attending one of these regional conferences:

  1. A high level of learning which is timely and relevant to me. Over this 4-day period I was fortunate to learn about the importance of institutional and leadership generated focus from Doug Reeves, I learned how to plan for recruiting the best teachers using James Stronge’s Teacher Recruitment Index, Mary Ehrenworth showed me how to lift the level of close reading in our already established reading and writing workshops, and finally, Ian Jukes reminded me of the need for our schools to think about the future, rather than our past. This many top presenters all in one place make coming worth my time and effort.
  2. Networking opportunities with other leaders from other schools. Between the workshops, the coffee breaks and lunches, and the cultural events in the evenings, I found myself meeting and talking about international living and work with people from many different schools. Even though this is one, 4-day conference, what I’ve learned is that these connections follow me to other conferences and other schools. These connections could never happen if I attended a US-based conference.
  3. Being pushed out of my current thinking, into new ideas. Besides the money spent on souvenirs from Nepal, I’ve spent a great deal on new books mentioned by the different presenters and new friends. (My Kindle account was busy!) I want to better be able to deal with change, so Antifragile by Nassim Taleb has been recommended as a new and important read. Similarly, I was reminded more than once that I need to read the books Flow and Thinking Fast and Slow, and the literacy professional development text Pathways to the Common Core. I know it’s been a good conference when I leave with my head full and my brow furrowed, thinking about how to use what I’ve learned.

Regional conferences connect our schools both in sharing what we are doing and in helping us shape where we want to go. These large group contexts provide links which allow us to come together as professionals, maintaining a connection not only to best practices in education, but also to best practices in international education.

In addition, attending this conference allows me time to connect with my immediate school-based leadership team in ways we couldn’t do from school. Taking this time together has allowed us not only to get to know each other as educators, but we are also able to find our common connections as people.

Namaste from Nepal.

Classroom Management 2.0

Today on my Twitter feed I read a quick bit about a new book soon-to-be-released by Harry Wong. Does that bring back memories? When I was in teacher training  The First Days of School, How to be an Effective Teacher, Harry’s famous classroom management book was the go-to text for understanding how to prepare and what it would be like, inside a real classroom.

Fast-forward 20 years and although an elementary class of students is still primarily sitting inside 4-walls, the “management” is far from the same, and yet so vital to the success of the children. For me, it is the first and sometimes most important item I notice when I observe teachers. When the management of the classroom environment breaks down, kids are unengaged, the tools and systems they need to access aren’t readily available, and the teacher is increasingly ineffective at reining them in and helping them learn. Add to that our new classroom design: readily available technology access, an emphasis on independent work time instead of whole class lectures, and a classroom environment which often sees students sitting where they are most comfortable so they can best learn, and you have a whole new model to manage.

That said, I know I was never given guidance in how best to manage this new environment. What I learned I took from others because I knew what I was doing wasn’t working. (Thank you Sarah Toa.) I watched, I tried and I stole ideas. I believed organizing and managing the room in a way that provided the best possible learning environment was the necessary, professional thing for me to do. But I can promise you, professional development on the subject would have been helpful.

The question is, does classroom management require PD? Is it PD? To me, the answer is an easy yes. Developing as a professional is not just learning the “what” of your subject area or grade level. It is also learning the “how” of teaching. The practice of organizing and effectively managing a classroom environment is a huge piece of the puzzle. Especially when there are teachers who we know struggle with creating a classroom environment conducive to student learning.

There is often talk about the classroom of the future. I have no idea if we will ever actually get there. However, what is true is that the classroom of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore. Four rows of desks, the teacher at the front of the blackboard talking, me sitting still and listening or opening the same book as everyone else and working. That’s my memory of school and to a large extent, what I learned how to manage from Mr. Wong’s first book.

I’m glad you are back Harry Wong. It’s time to reemphasize classroom management for today’s teachers.

Are you interested in learning more about effective classroom management in today’s 21st Century classroom? Until Mr. Wong’s book comes out, here is a set of links via Education Week. You will need to sign up, but they are worth checking out.

#teachlikeapirate*

*Part of my job as a learner is to know how the kids are doing it. My teenage daughter hashtags everything. It is how she quotes and promotes different sayings. Thus- the title. If you are interested in downloading the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, check out BookRix where you can get a free ebook copy.

One of the best parts of my week is when I’m with kids and in classrooms. For the past few weeks, I’ve been offering an ASRP (After School Recreation Program) for 5th graders. Our goal- to create a weekly news program written and produced solely by fifth graders for the whole school to see. This concept replaces an idea we used to have, a weekly newsish video with grade 5 as “hosts”. The difference? This is much, much harder to get off the ground because I’m asking the kids to do all the work. I’m just there as a facilitator. However, it is also an incredibly authentic learning environment, where magic might just happen.

Not only have I never done this, we don’t have any formal tools. Not a concern for these kids. “Do you have an iphone Mrs. Munnerlyn? An ipad? A computer?” they asked me. “We can do this!”

The students and I determined we want this to be a show with real news events, not silly stories. I manage their time (start this, end this) and officially sign off on their ideas. That’s about it. The kids are off running to learn: pitching topics, writing stories, and filming outside on the stairwell where we will hang up a sheet so it doesn’t look like school.

Their learning is hidden in the excitement, the engagement and the fun they are having. But here is what I can tell you professionally is occurring: cooperative and collaborative groups are happening authentically, students are finding answers to their real problems, and they are using technology as they might in the real world. Those who are writing stories want them to be right. They are pouring over their words and editing for clarity so the audience understands. Feedback is part of the natural, necessary process; with a constant question from one 10 year old to another being “What do you think?” and the other answering honestly and with a vested interest in helping his fellow reporter improve. It is everything you would want to see happen in school.

So, I can’t help but ask myself: Why don’t we do this more often? Why doesn’t school seem more like real life?

Well the truth is, it is getting harder to do so when we walk the tight-rope of defining, tracking, and determining growth on finite standards and skills for all subject areas. While I believe in using standards to measure both student achievement and our work as a school, I don’t find them to be… fun. Standards don’t get me out of bed and make me want to be with kids.

To me, the big work for educators moving forward isn’t identifying the standards, finding ways to track them, or to report on them at pre-determined intervals across the year. The real work is for us to find ways to keep the excitement and the passion in what we do while being able to measure how our kids are improving.

Without the passion, why are any of us here?

#teachlikeapirate

(Crossposted on www.literacybytes.com)

Photo credit: http://rovingfiddlehead.com/kidlit/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Pirate-Ship0001.jpg

Speed Transitioning

We’ve just completed our first PD day of the year. As a staff- new and returning- we’ve now been together for 30 days. DAYS.

A good friend of mine in the US has been teaching with the same person- her grade 3 partner- for 12 years.

Reflecting on this, it has occurred to me that there are times when international teaching is very much like speed dating. From the interview process to orientation and the first days of school, we are rapidly getting to know and getting used to each other. The necessity to be able to “know” rather quickly is a skill I believe most of my colleagues have, and need.

From the initial, “I want to work at your school and live in this new country- I’m up for an adventure,” to the reality of living and working in a new place, there is so much transition. Some people, (regular people, my daughter calls them, meaning not superheroes like us) don’t go through a “life transition” such as moving or changing jobs. They stay where they are and do what they do. That consistency roots them to a place and a community. Others only transition when they must. For some of us though, the scenario of new job, new school, new country is a familiar one, occurring every two to six years.

Right now, I’m working with a new admin team. Of the eight of us, six are new to the school and country. In my division, we have 13 new teachers. Unlike a business where we could spend weeks, months even, getting everyone up to speed on the project at hand, we have to be ready to work with kids from day one. That requires people be quick to come together, fast to plan, and most importantly immediately ready to trust.

That is where the speed dating turns into more of a shotgun marriage. The immediacy of the “I dos” (and maybe some I don’ts) are what allow us to get moving, so we can serve our students and families.  We sort out the details as we go.

While I can’t imagine having the luxury of teaching with the same person for 12+ years, I do know there must be a sense of safety with that consistency. However, I also know that for our transitioning population, there are lessons to be learned from teachers and leaders who can quickly get up to speed. It is a life skill. One we can model because we are living it.

Here’s to the unique few who can transition, adapt and thrive. All in record time.

Photo credit: http://spark.utah.edu/images/ideas/581/images/large/timer-icon.png?1349198229

Fitting In, Figuring It Out- New Families in Transition

It is that time of year when there are new faces at every turn. These faces contain looks, which run the gamut of excitement to trepidation. I’m referring to both the parents and students of new families transitioning to our schools. Some are overseas for the first time and overwhelmed by the differences living in this, a new country. For them oftentimes, school offers a reminder of what they came from. A comforting constant they can be reassured by and feel good about.  For others, the newness is the school. Either the move to a new system of education- ours being an American, college-preparatory system, or a school where their child’s native language isn’t the main language of instruction. For all new families, it is paramount we understand their worries and fears, while assisting them in moving through the inevitable stages of newness.

How best can we help though?

I believe the most effective solution is to make sure we listen to these families and children. Encourage them to tell us how they are doing, listen to their responses, then reassure, reassure, reassure. While this seems simple, it is actually the hardest for me to do at the start of the year, because of the shear pace of the first weeks of school.  We try though. This week alone, we’ve had a new parent coffee, a new family dinner, and the counselor has been visiting with students who are new to check in on how they are feeling.

One idea I’ve been tossing around on reflection of how we receive and support new families, is to have a team of parents, teachers, and students ready to just be listeners. What if a member of this team called every new family on day 2, day 10 and day 30 to check in? What if we had a table set up in outside the office where members of this team were stationed to answer questions? Any question. What if we developed questionnaires to give to new families to help hone the response from this team so we were able to meet their needs directly? I would much rather over respond than under respond.

From there, how might we help families as they move into the stage when the newness wears off and the worry sets in? Predictably this happens around the 3-4 month of school. By then, I find as an administrator I’m off and running and assume everything is fine for these new folks. (No news is good news.) However, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t reschedule our new family events: coffee morning, dinner, etc. to directly coincide with when we know the honeymoon feeling is fading.

Finally, I would like to have a system for reminding our teachers and families who have been here for years just what it is like to be new. Without that empathy, we can’t really provide the support necessary. We’ve all been through it, however, it is easy to forget what it means to uproot your family, bring them to a new country and school, and to settle into the routine of life.

Developing a transition plan is an excellent way to reach out to the new community, while tightening the bonds of the existing families and our teachers. After all, are on this adventure together.