Celebrating, Reflecting, and Sharing the Story of Riverside Elementary

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Student Involved Conferences - Feedback

As most of you know, this fall, we upgraded the format of our conferences to a student-involved parent-teacher conference. Allowing our students a seat at the table - giving them a voice and then allowing them to hear the expectations, feedback, etc. of his/her teacher and parent(s) is a big shift. This change came with some negative feedback, but overall the response that I received was very positive. Personally, I feel as though our conferences were a huge success.

What follows is the data that was compiled from the feedback that we received after our conferences.

At the time of conferences, our K-5 student population was 198 students
The teachers at Riverside Elementary School conducted 194 conferences this fall

  • 98% of our students had a conference

Of the 194 conferences, our students were involved in 183 conferences

  • 94% of our conferences involved the student

12 teachers provided me with feedback after our fall student-involved parent-teacher conferences.
Of those teachers that provided feedback...


  • 92% felt that having students at the conference was better
  • 100% felt that the process for the new conference format was both clear and effective
  • 50% felt that 15-minutes was an adequate amount of time for each conference
  • 50% felt that more than 15-minutes was needed for each conference

62 parents provided me with feedback after our fall student-involved parent-teacher conferences.
Of those parents that provided feedback...
  • 98% had their child attend his/her student-involved parent-teacher conference


  • 60% felt that having students at the conference was better
  • 25% felt that having students at the conference was no different
  • 15% felt that having students at the conference was no worse
  • 100% felt that the process for the new conference format was clear
  • 89% felt that the process for the new conference format was effective
  • 56% felt that 15-minutes was an adequate amount of time for each conference
  • 44% felt that more than 15-minutes was needed for each conference
This process was new, and like anything that is new it was not perfect. Some of the things that we plan to take into consideration as we plan conferences for the future (based off of feedback received as well as personal reflection) include:

  • Extending the length of the conference
  • Holding conferences at an earlier time of night, especially for our younger students
  • Increasing vigilance regarding the conference schedule
  • Increasing vigilance regarding the length of the conference
  • Including a transition time before and after each conference
  • Clarifying the strengths, areas to improve upon, goals document that was sent home prior to conferences
  • Giving parents more of a voice in regards to scheduling their conferences
  • Providing some form of childcare during conference times

Each conference was an opportunity for everyone to practice this new format. Over time, practice leads to improvement. We are confident that this process will continue to improve as teachers, students, and parents continue to gain experience being involved in these conferences. Your patience through the growing pains is appreciated. This is something that we truly believe will benefit our students.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Student Leaders pt.2 - A Place at the Table

Our newly established Student Advisory Teams have met twice. (A reminder that we have one team comprised of kindergarten through second grade students, and another team that is third-fifth grade students - see 'Student Leaders,' which I originally blogged about on September 1st.) While we haven't accomplished much, yet, we have had some really good discussion and the students have generated some great ideas. These teams are literally giving our students a place at the table.

When I first informed the students that they had been selected for these teams, I gave them the assignment of beginning to think about what they would change about our school if they had a magic wand with such powers. At our first official meeting, we brainstormed ideas of the things that they wanted to see changed. We didn't rule anything out. All of their ideas were left on the table.

After two meetings, the first one spent brainstorming and the second one dedicated to narrowing down their list, the 3rd-5th grade team's list includes:

  • Reducing  the restrictions that students have re. conversing with their peers during lunch
  • Improving their lunch procedures/schedule
  • Raising money for new playground equipment and more technology 
  • Announcing birthdays, as well as other important events/reminders at the end of the day
  • Desire for more assemblies that their Student Advisory Team will help plan/lead

It was so neat to listen to their ideas, as almost all of them were things that were already in the works!

Now I would be lying if I said that the Kindergarten-2nd grade team was being as productive as our 3rd-5th grade team. Nonetheless, I believe that the process is valuable for these students that are involved. It is beneficial for them to know that they have a voice when it comes to improving our school. It is beneficial for them to think about the things that they can do to improve our school. And it is beneficial for them to see how change is a process that takes time and work.

With all of that being said, this group of kindergarteners, first, and second graders has decided to focus on limiting the amount of distractions that occur inside our classrooms from outside (the major distraction being other kids playing at recess near classroom windows). I'm fairly impressed.

I realize that this is, unfortunately, a small percentage of our students that we are enabling with student voice. However, it is a starting point; a starting point that I hope to build upon. After all, Rome was not built in one day. Nonetheless, the excitement that I see from the involved students leads to my growing belief that this may, in fact, be an optimal method for beginning to increase our students' sense of ownership for what happens within the walls of their school.

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

Focus

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.