Celebrating, Reflecting, and Sharing the Story of Riverside Elementary

Friday, September 12, 2014

Student Involved Conferences

We are very excited to announce that we are upgrading our conferences!

As we are continually working for our students to have more ownership of their learning, we think it is essential that they have a place at the table when conferences take place next week (Tuesday, September 23rd and Thursday, September 25th). What we are introducing is not a student led conference, but instead a student involved conference. The teacher will be the facilitator of the conversation, which will actively involve both the parent(s) and the student.

"Students - when given the chance - can prove remarkably insightful about the quality of their work and what they need to do to improve it."

- ‘Student Involved Conferences’ ASCD Education Update
"The conferences are about the children and their learning. They are about where the children have come from and where they are going. They are about how their parents and I can support their learning journey. It only makes sense for them to be there, too." 
- Kathy Cassidy, ‘Student-Led Parent Conferences: How They Work in My Primary Classroom”
We are encouraging parents to bring their child with them to his/her conference so that we can have a student involved conference.

The process for each conference will be as follows:

  1. The teacher will ask parents if they have any questions/comments.
  2. The teacher will review the process of the conference.
  3. The student, then the parent, then the teacher share three strengths the student has demonstrated as a learner.
  4. The student, then the parent, then the teacher share two areas the student needs to work on as a learner.
  5. The student articulates goals (no more than two or three) for future work (with assistance, as needed, from the parents and the teacher). Each party pledges specific kinds of support for the goals.
  6. The teacher answers questions, recaps, and concludes the conference.

Also, we ask that parents begin to give thought to the strengths and areas for growth that they feel their child has as a learner, as well as how to contribute to their academic improvement. As we finish-up benchmark testing in the areas of math, reading, and writing, expect those results to go home next Friday, September 19th. This will be information that may help parents when thinking about their child's strengths and areas for growth.

These conferences should take 15 minutes, and in an effort to respect everyone's time we will be vigilant of our time restrictions. If there are other "issues" that need addressed, we definitely want to offer the opportunity for a traditional meeting with the teacher. If, as a parent, this is the case, please let your child's teacher know.

This process will be new, and like anything new it will not be perfect from the onset. We appreciate patience as we implement this change, as we truly believe that it will benefit our students. Furthermore, we will invite parents the opportunity to give us feedback regarding their conference experience after conferences have taken place.

Thanks, and we look forward to this first round of conferences!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Student Leaders

Last February, my Superintendent gave all of the principals in our district a copy of Yong Zhao's World Class Learners. First of all, I would recommend this book in its entirety to anyone who has an interest in public education. However, my biggest take-away came from the following text as it became crystal clear to me that there was a need to establish some sort of leadership opportunity for our students at Riverside Elementary School.

"Student voice has a positive effect on the school culture, increased student engagement, and overall improvement in children's well-being." (Zhao, 2012, pp.183) 
"Students bring unique perspectives and knowledge that can help improve the school environment and academic quality. Students can point out structural and cultural obstacles in the school that may be overlooked by adult administrators and teachers. Thus students should be considered "capable and valuable members of a school community who can help initiate and implement educational change." (Zhao, 2012, pp.183)
"Students should be considered an integral part of the school leadership in the new education paradigm." (Zhao, 2012, pp.184)

Adding to my excitement, over the summer, I read a book, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, that a former principal that I'd worked with had given me. This is another book that I'd give high praise towards, as a resource with great strategies for engaging all students. The following two-passages, shared below, only heightened my sense of urgency to provide our students with a leadership role.

"How can I expect to keep kids invested in the process if I don't give them a piece of the action?" (Jensen, 2013, pp.76)
"Taking leadership roles and collaborating in teams increase student responsibility and help students become more confident. The more self-reliant students become, the more control they feel over their learning, and the more likely they are to actively engage as a matter of routine.
"Developing students' leadership skills begins with granting incremental increases in responsibility to students while providing relevant instruction in the skills they need to succeed, offering encouragement, and holding them accountable for the obligations they take on." (Jensen, 2013, pp.140)

After much reflecting over the summer months, and thinking aloud with colleagues, I started to draft a plan for this idea. I am excited to announce that we are going to create two Student Advisory Teams at Riverside Elementary School. We will have one team with a student representing each classroom from kindergarten through second grade, and we will have an additional team with a student representative from each classroom in grades three through five. Each team will meet weekly over their lunch time. Depending on how much interest students show, team members may rotate quarterly to maximize participation.

Last week, I visited each classroom to explain the leadership opportunity that students will have by being a part of our Student Advisory Team. The conversation covered logistics, and the following slides were shown as talking points re. leadership.
Student Advisory Team - Leadership images/slides.

Older students, grades 3-5, who expressed interest in the idea of having a leadership role were asked to answer the attached questions. Younger students, kindergarten-2nd graders, who showed interest in the leadership opportunity had the option of drawing a picture or writing about what leadership looks like at Riverside Elementary School. 

My goal is for these teams to be formed and begin to meet by mid-September. Hopefully, these meetings will give students the opportunity to identify things that have the potential to be improved at Riverside Elementary School and then brainstorm solutions for how to make these improvements a reality. I think this will be really exciting for two main reasons: 1) I am excited to witness our students flourish when given a leadership role, and 2) I am excited to explore implementing the ideas that our students have to improve their school. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

What Did I Do All Summer?

It's August! My "new year" has kicked-off; many teachers, school staff, students, and parents will start their "new year" within the next few days and weeks. Where did summer go? What did I do all summer?

Now before I answer that question, I want to give appropriate credit to Nick Proud who is a principal in the Iowa City Community School District for inspiring this blog. Earlier this summer, he posted a blog where he answered the question, "What do you do all summer?" I, like him and every other educator, am also frequently asked that question throughout June and July.

Olivia, almost two months old
Olivia, as a newborn
Now this summer has been a little...a lot different from past summers because on June 7th my wife, Amy, and I welcomed our new daughter, Olivia, into the world. Despite the shortage of sleep that we are experiencing as new parents, Olivia's addition into our lives has been pure joy. And the timing of her birth was ideal as it allowed me to spend extra time at home with my newborn daughter, as well as help Amy with various things.

Olivia and Ryne looking out the top of The Arch
Ryne and I at Wrigley Field
With the birth of a new baby, we weren't allowed to do nearly the amount of traveling that we like to do as a family (my wife is a teacher, too) over the summer months. However, I did find time to sneak-in to Chicago (twice) to catch a couple of Cubs games with my son, Ryne. We also, as a family, managed to drive to St. Louis in late July to spend a day/night with my brother who lives down there.

Professionally, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present at a conference for the first time in my professional career. Our Grant Wood Area Educational Agency technology consultant had asked me to be a part of Grant Wood's #iPadU, a three day course in July covering all things iPads in education. The breakout session that I led explained how our Elementary Support Organization (ESO) purchased iPads for all of our teachers, and then how we rolled those iPads out to our teachers and provided them with professional development regarding their new iPads. It was very flattering to see a room full of other educators that wanted to hear our story.

I also took a team of teachers to a two-day training to learn about FAST. FAST is the new universal screener that we will use for our students, kindergarteners through fifth graders, which will replace DIBELS. This is the literacy screener that the State of Iowa is sponsoring. My favorite thing about moving to FAST is that very little changes for our students with this new assessment. An additional thing to like about this new assessment include the fact that because the teachers are using a computer to assess the students, all of the data is uploaded and available immediately upon testing. We will be sure to share more information regarding FAST as we move forward throughout the school year.

With what little remaining time that I had, I spent some time enjoying two of my preferred hobbies - reading and running. Over the summer, I read (for both pleasure and professional growth): Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, The Advantage, The Perfect Mile, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and World Class Learners. In regards to running, I've been preparing myself to run another half-marathon in Madison later this month.

Back to Nick Proud's blog...as he said, "Summer is key to setting the stage for the upcoming school year." Fact. I, like all principals, have spent ample time planning, preparing, reflecting and reenergizing for the upcoming school year. That work is now done (or at least very close to being done). The school has been much too quiet for too long. It is now time for staff and students to come back to work and resume growing and learning from and with one another. This is one of my favorite times of year. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


This past school year, our Building Leadership Team, as a book study, read Finding Your Leadership Focus by Doug Reeves (@DouglasReeves of @LeadAndLearn). A real short and simple synopsis of this book is that schools try to do too many things. And when schools try do a lot of things, they usually end up doing them no better than adequately. Schools need to "weed their gardens." They need to eliminate some of the things that they are trying to do, but not doing with fidelity due to a lack of time and resources. Schools should focus on no more than six areas to really implement well.

After on-going discussions throughout the year, last month, I created a Google Form to see what common areas needed to have our focus at Riverside Elementary School. Of all the responses, there were four that rose to the top:
  1. Flex teams/Flex time, which is what we call our Response to Intervention (RtI) block of time. This is something that I've talked about in two previous blog posts ('Things that I am proud of and are worth celebrating' and 'Flex'). After hearing RtI guru, Mike Mattos (@mikemattos65) of Solution Tree (@SolutionTree), in Cedar Rapids at an event put-on by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency (@GrantWoodAEA) this past September for two days, we created this Flex system that we implemented while hitting the ground running. Overall, it seems to be beneficial. However, there is a desire to focus on how to improve the initial system that we have put in place.
  2. Student data binders - To some degree we have used student data binders for at least a couple of years now. However, they are still more of a teacher resource and they have yet to really become a tool that students are using to monitor their own learning. This is our task - to increase our students' ownership of their own learning. We think that we can help ourselves in this area based off of some ideas that we have for how to use our student data binders more effectively.
  3. Data meetings - Again, this is something that we already do. School staff is having regularly scheduled meetings where we are spending time talking about what is working well with our instruction for students and what needs improving. The system is in place, but how can we enhance our system so that we are maximizing the impact that this can have on student learning?
  4. Data walls - These have started to pop-up in various classrooms, the data room that we've created as a place for teachers to meet and center our discussions around data, and in the front entryway of our school. We want to be transparent with our data (the good, and even the not so good). There are two mains reasons that we see this as beneficial - 1) when it is visible for students, it helps increase their ownership of their learning, and 2) for school staff it is about our accountability and our sense of urgency in regards to student learning.
We'll keep you posted as we focus our improvements on these areas, next year, in an effort to enhance student learning at Riverside Elementary School. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Things that I am proud of and are worth celebrating

The March/April 2014 issue of Principal magazine highlights three practices for schools to implement in-order to overcome difficulties - 
  1. Compile electronic data binders for each classroom that are updated on an ongoing basis with new scores. These can help principals keep track of their students’ and teachers’ progress.
  2. Give students their own data binders to track their own achievement data. This gives students greater autonomy and a sense of accomplishment.
  3. Create a "data room" for teachers to help them visualize and better track key measures of student success.
This was especially exciting to me because all three of these things were implemented this year, at Riverside Elementary School. Now I'm not naive enough to think that we have mastered any of these three, but we have created the framework and we are committed to improvement. Nonetheless, these are three accomplishments that I'm proud of and that I think are worth celebrating from this school year.

Recently, I asked that question, "What are three things that you are proud of/worth celebrating from this school year?" at the end of a staff meeting, via a Google Form. As you can tell from the following responses (below), a lot of our teachers are very proud of our flex. (Flex is our systematic Response to Intervention (RtI) block of time. I posted about our Flex implementation on this blog on October 28, 2013.) This is relevant because our "data room" and our electronic data are both tools that we use to help us monitor our implementation of flex.
  • Starting flex teams and experiencing success with the flex teams.
  • I think my students made tremendous growth in reading - whether it was fluency, accuracy, retell, or just an increased interest in reading. I feel like that was a result of our flex team work, our classroom work, and also in making good connections with my students and showing an interest in not only how they were reading, but what they were reading as well.
  • Flex groups and data teams affected student growth tremendously with open and honest conversations about what the data showed and what students needed.
  • The implementation of our flex teams. This has been very beneficial for the students. It has also helped bring our culture to an "our student" focus.
  • I am excited about our flex groups. It was a learning process, and I think next year will be even better!
  • I feel like we really came together as a staff this year. The whole staff seemed willing to do whatever they could for every single student in the building. I also think people were more willing to try new things and keep an open mind. It really felt like I was working on a team.
  • Flex Groups - Not only did my students enjoy working with multiple teachers, I enjoyed having the chance to collaborate with others to improve student learning.
  • I feel like flex teams have really helped us focus on what our students need and provide that to them.
  • All staff working together and being willing to try new things. We implemented many new things this year such as flex teams, safety procedures, a new lunch schedule, etc.
  • The kids are taking more responsibility in their learning. 
That last bullet is an area that we really want to commit to as being an area of focus for next year. One of the ways that we are planning to do this is through some enhancements that we are planning to make to our student data binders. We've used student data binders in the past, but it is a definite area for us to upgrade in-order to support students' learning at Riverside Elementary School.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

We're Going to Have a 5K/1-mile Color Run/Walk!

This past Monday, shortly after 11am (central time), Meb Keflezighi won the 118th annual Boston Marathon. Several hours later, almost 1200 miles to the west of the Boylston Street finish line in Boston, a group of individuals met in Riverside, Iowa to work on organizing and planning a run associated with our elementary school.

Along with the Washington County YMCA (a special thanks to Marcus Hall and Becky Harkema for helping us plan and host this event) we will be putting-on a 5K and a one-mile color walk/run in Riverside on Sunday, June 22nd. A note with more specific sign-up information should be coming home via Friday folders this Friday, April 25th. If you are from outside the Highland CSD and are interested in learning more about this race, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Hosting a run through the school is very exciting for me because running is a personal passion of mine. That wasn't always the case, however. I ran in high school (track and field) for two reasons - 1) to stay in shape for the other sports that I was more invested in, and 2) to spend time with my friends who at the time were more serious about running than me. After high school I would run occasionally, but it was not my preferred method of exercise. Once I became fully employed and time started to stretch thin, I started to choose running as a form of exercise that could be accomplished relatively quickly. One thing led to another and several years later I now thoroughly enjoying the training for and the running of half-marathons. It's funny how things change.

Anyways, this run that we are producing will be a great opportunity for our school to promote fitness and good health through an activity that can be done throughout one's life. Furthermore, it is a nice extension of the walk-a-thon that or Elementary Support Organization (ESO) has put-on for our students each of the past two falls. It also connects very nicely to the laps that Mr. Jaspering has his PE students run as a warm-up at the beginning of each class period. The students keep track of their laps, turn the laps into miles, and monitor their progress as the year progresses. As of April 23rd, the leading student at Riverside Elementary is just shy of having tallied 25 miles this school year!

All 3rd - 5th grade students received a shoe to decorate after they ran/walked one-mile. They also sign a poster documenting that they've ran/walked one, five, ten, fifteen, and twenty miles. This is posted in the gym. All 3rd - 5th grade students have recorded at least 10 miles this school year during PE.

Proceeds raised from this event will be split between the Washington Co. YMCA and our ESO. Our ESO uses their funds on things that will benefit our school. This year, we were fortunate to receive iPads and accessories for all of our teachers from our ESO. We are extremely thankful for the influx in technology that you have provided us with, as well as all of the things that you provide for our teachers, our students, and our school. Nonetheless, this event is not about raising funds; we are planning this event because it will be a fun, nice thing to do this summer with your family and the school community. We hope to see you there!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

This Email Made Me Smile

This seems like a fitting time to post this as we just sent home our students' Iowa Assessment scores, last week.

The italicized text below was sent to me via email a few weeks ago. In following-up on the email that I received, I was pointed to the blog of the the principal at Amana Elementary of the Clear Creek Amana Community School District's blog (http://benmacumber.blogspot.com). Amana Elementary's principal, Mr. Ben Macumber, does not appear to have authored these thoughts, but he does share the same note in his entry titled, 'I didn't think of this, but I sure wish I had...'

My daughter's new elementary school principal sent this to all the students as they received their state standardized testing scores this week:

"We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you-- the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do...They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best... the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart."