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Again, Again, Again, Full-time Mental Health Professionals Belong in our Schools Now!

Blog post arguing for mental health professional in our schools.
     I posted yesterday for the first time in a long while.  I was prompted to write based on one boy's story, but also the nationwide recurring story of mass shootings in our schools.  Yesterday, I argued for full-time mental health professionals in schools.  I remember coming across a post in one of my feeds about how arming teachers would not have prevented the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Aurora, Colorado, or Orlando, among many other places, since they didn't occur in schools.  Again, I don't have answers, but I know what I live every day as a teacher.  Let's just take today.  As I carry out lessons, observations, and conversations with teachers, I am in and out of the office all day long.  This morning, being a Monday morning, our office was flooded with children having problems.  Why are Monday mornings particularly troublesome?  Students are returning to school after a whole weekend at home immersed in their tumultuous lives.  Many of them enter our building, not at all ready to learn, but in need of some support, some talk, some diffusing.  Who do you think did that job this morning?  Our principal.  Our principal spent the first three hours of her day working with children in crisis, providing them with some TLC, coaxing students to settle in, go to class, and do their best.  Our principal is not a trained mental health worker, but over the course of her career, she's picked up on several techniques she uses on a regular basis.  Fortunately, she is able to help students.  Luckily, she can make up the time needed to take care of her other principal responsibilities by staying late after hours since she doesn't have young children at home.  Again, we need full-time mental health professionals.  Again, again, again.  If we have them in our elementary schools, maybe we can service students in need early on and maybe this will make a difference in their lives. That is not to say that mental health workers shouldn't also be in junior highs and high schools.  Of course they should be. 
     There is so much strife everywhere we look.   We need to address this head-on, in proactive ways.  Many of our children are in crisis.  Look at the teen suicide rate.  Again, again, again, full-time mental health professionals.  This would certainly help the ten year old boy I wrote about yesterday.  Doesn't he deserve help?  What will be the cost to our society if he doesn't get that help?  What about the students in our building today?  If the principal hadn't been there, if she was at a training, for example, who would have helped our students this morning?  Having full-time mental health workers is part of a solution that would affect our society as a whole, not just school shootings, but potentially mass shootings, as well.

"Yes, but..." Time to Get This Done!

     A few weeks ago,  I had the unique pleasure of presenting at an elementary school assembly as a visiting author.  It wasn't just any school; this school is my alma mater.  Behind me, you'll notice a picture of the school from 1974. I was in first grade at the time.  Whitesides Elementary has since become a Title I school and speaking to these students as a graduate who has gone on to be a lifelong teacher, write books, and present across the U.S. was particularly relevant.  My theme(s), of course:  "You can do anything!"  "Believe in your dreams!"  "Let nothing stop you!" "You can overcome (and reading and writing are key to getting there)!"  Do I believe everything I said?  Yes, but...
     I also teach in a Title I school.  In fact, I've spent almost half of my career working in these settings.  We can't do enough to encourage these students to love education, overcome adversity, and become people with purpose who contribute to society.  We are their role models and everything we model matters.  
     One of the great moments during the assembly was honoring one student in the crowd.  He lives right next door to my parents as they still reside in my childhood home.  I had him stand up and bow to his fellow students as they cheered and clapped.  This one minute of spotlight, this one minute of being praised and encouraged, is just a drop in the bucket for him.  This boy suffered the sudden death of his mother this year (she was only 40) and lost an older brother a year ago who is in prison for shooting and killing a teenager during a drug deal gone bad.  The shooting occurred right across the street from this student's (and my parents') home.  The struggles this little man has faced in his 10 years and those he will continue to face due to circumstances far beyond his control are immense.  My hope for him, and all his schoolmates, is to overcome.  But...
     Whitesides Elementary, like the school I currently teach in, doesn't have a full-time counselor, a full-time psychologist, or a full-time social worker to help families in crisis.  I don't know what support, if any, this young boy has received.  I know, given the caseload of the part-time professionals I work with in my school, if he's received help, it is not enough.  I wonder what the future holds for him and I pray he doesn't follow in his brother's footsteps.  As teachers, we do our best to support all students, and lend extra support and care to those in need.  But, we are not trained mental health professionals.  Given the current school climate and the talk of arming teachers to defend against mass shootings, I wonder what the future holds for us all.  We need common sense answers.  One thing is certain, we need more support.   I know where we can start.  We NEED full-time counselors.  We NEED full-time psychologists.  We NEED social workers in our schools.  No more, 'Yes, buts...'  Let's just get this done. 

An Approach to Blended Learning That Works! #boldschool

Blog post on blended learning based on the work of Weston Kieschnick's Bold School.

If not, you don't want to miss it!

     Our school has wrestled with the idea of implementing blended learning all year long.  It’s caused a lot of heartburn over the uncertainty of what ‘blended learning’ should look like.  Yes, we’ve been told blended learning can take many forms and, in fact, we have several teachers who already expertly integrate technological tools into their lessons to improve learning outcomes.  Still, there are some who are thinking of leaving education altogether, given their fears of inadequacy and the ‘stories’ they’ve heard of what will be ‘mandated’ in the name of ‘blended learning.’  This past week, a bright gleam of light lit up our district in the form of a former high-school history teacher.  His name is Weston Kieschnick, author of the book Bold School.  Weston brought with him messages that, I believe, will lift the heavy feeling many of our teachers have over the idea of implementing some form of blended learning.

     During his presentation, he highlighted many critical points.  Below are a few.  I am waiting to receive a copy of his book, so I won’t be quoting from that source, however he told us much of what he was sharing is represented there.  (I’m going from memory here, sharing points that stood out to me.)
1. “Technology is awesome; teachers are better.”  Weston emphasized the importance of relationships in classrooms and how we, as teachers, are the one key ingredient research shows makes all the difference for student success.  There is nothing, NOTHING, that can outdo the performance of a knowledgeable, motivated, relationship-minded educator.  Take that technology!
2. Tech tools are “really cool,” but we shouldn’t be distracted by them and they shouldn’t lead our thinking when it comes to planning.  Rather than thinking, “What am I going to do with _______  (insert tech tool here) today?,” we should be designing great instruction the way we have in the past, with outcomes in mind FIRST.  Once we know what outcomes we’re going for, we need to look at what teaching strategies are most effective to achieve these outcomes.  Weston emphasized the use of John Hattie’s research, as many before him have, to lead the way in helping educators decide which strategies are the most effective given their effect size.  (Sounds like Weston’s book will be very helpful in that regard, since he’s paired the most common and most effective teaching strategies with tech tools he thinks will augment their implementation.)  Once the outcomes and the strategies are planned, only then should the educator start to consider which tech tools might be useful.  The tech isn’t leading the way…good instruction is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  He also reminded us that rigor and relevance should be part of our planning.  Sounds like a well-rounded approach, does it not?  Sounds like something we can handle, yes?
3. He quoted Harry Wong as saying something like, “Teachers should never work harder than their students.”  Agreed.  Using a blended learning approach in a classroom or grade level shouldn’t take a Herculean effort.  This is a VERY welcome idea; one our teachers will receive with great enthusiasm.  He proceeded to model a lesson using Reciprocal Teaching (.74 effect size, if I remember correctly), seamlessly integrating a slew of great engagement strategies as well as tech tools.  He used Poll Everywhere, Google Images, and Todaysmeet (all FREE tools) as we worked to preview, clarify, question and summarize a text.  As learners, we did most of the work, he simply expertly questioned and engaged us throughout and the technology served as a useful tool for us to give him feedback about our learning, thus helping guide the process.  This was the best language arts lesson I’ve seen a secondary teacher EVER model, and Weston isn’t even from an English department (hooray for the message that ALL teachers should be skillful teachers of reading and writing).  What made it so successful?  It didn’t focus on the tech, it focused on great teaching.  Weston emphasized that creating a poll, having US (the learners) search Google Images to clarify vocabulary, and posting a question in Todaysmeet took him minimal time and effort.  Yippee!  This is an approach that fits everything I believe in.  
4. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Weston emphasizes that blended learning should not be part of another huge educational pendulum swing.  We are not throwing everything out in favor of technology.  Instead, we need to keep in place proven teaching strategies (many of them ‘old’) and integrate the use of tech tools in places that make sense as we continue to seek optimum learning outcomes for our students.  Indeed, this is just what he modeled.
     I can’t wait to get my hands on his book and, based on what I heard and saw, I highly recommend it.  Additionally, if you ever get a chance to hear Weston Kieschnick speak,* jump on it.  Besides being extremely entertaining and sharing information educators can act on immediately, he is an example of what all master teachers strive to be—real and relevant!
*You can find Weston on Twitter @Wes_Kieschnick  

As always, I welcome your comments.  Best to you on your blended learning journey!

Top of My List: Empower Writers + a Second Grader's Letter to Donald Trump

Blog post about empowering student writers by Janiel Wagstaff
Top of my list of writing objectives: empowering writers.  How do we do that?  Make student-learning relevant, honor students' ideas and thinking beyond how things look on the page, and share their writing outside the classroom walls as much as possible.  

Case in point: read the letter below to Donald Trump written by second grader, Claire, who wants him to declare unicorns are real.  In her matter-of-fact way, she expects her writing will be sent and received by the President.  She clearly expects response.  What makes this little writer so confident?

First of all, from kindergarten, Claire has written.  Her pictures and words on the page were received as joyful stories, captivating poems, important information or opinions.  Yes, her teacher also taught the skills she and her classmates needed to grow as writers.  But, first and foremost, her writing was received with the same passion with which it was written.

Claire was in her own mother's classroom for first grade. The writing emphasis continued, and so did the excitement around the writing, the import, the declaration that those first graders had important stories to tell and information and opinions to share.  Yes, the teacher also taught skills and strategies to improve the abilities of her writers as they grew.  In fact, a lot of the teaching she did came from the use of her own students' writing as mentor texts for explicit instruction (read more posts on this topic here:  http://www.janielwagstaff.com/2016/08/blog-series-using-student-writing-as.html 
and here http://www.janielwagstaff.com/2017/09/when-teachers-say-students-dont-want-to.html ). 

Now, Claire is in second grade.  And, she's writing to Donald Trump.  Best of all, her current teacher didn't ask her to do this writing; she did it in her free time after finishing another class writing assignment.  She did her own research using her iPad.  Now, she is ready to hear from the President.  More importantly, this writer continues to develop confidence as the instruction in her classroom and the response from home is positive, enthusiastic, and encouraging.  

I'll let you know if Donald Trump responds.  In the meantime, if you'd like to leave any comments for Claire, feel free.  She'd love to read what you think about her research and appeal.

Here's to all of her teachers, her family, and to all teachers who spend time contemplating response, designing relevant instruction, and, in any and all ways, EMPOWERING WRITERS!
Blog post about empowering student writers by Janiel Wagstaff

Blog post about empowering student writers by Janiel Wagstaff

Blog picture fonts by Artsy Fonts

"Receiving" Student Writing: Why Does It Matter?

When a student walks up to you with a piece of writing, what is the first thing you think about?  How we receive students' writing affects everything in our writing classrooms.

Is the notion of receiving students' writing different than responding to students' writing?  I believe it is.  It comes before we respond.  It's the attitude we take when we approach a piece of writing from a student.  It's the aura around our reception.  Do we receive writing with curiosity, with genuine interest, and care?  Do we approach the piece with an eagerness to discover the ideas the student is trying to convey?  Or do we receive writing as a means to an end focused on questions like: does this complete the school assignment?  Is the standard met?  Would this writing pass the end-of-year, on-demand, high-stakes test?  Obviously, our mindset as we receive writing from students makes a big difference in the climate of the classroom, the way we respond, the instruction we offer, and the very writing opportunities we afford our students. 

When teachers receive student writing with genuine interest in their content, their voice, and their ideas... everything changes.  The climate of the classroom is open and inviting.  The conversations center around ideas, concepts, building knowledge together, extending knowledge, taking ideas in unique directions, figuring out the "so whats," and finding and telling our own stories.  Responding flows naturally, like a conversation, back and forth about what the student is saying, or trying to say.  How it is said certainly must be addressed, but the content is received first.  The instruction we offer focuses on meaning making, using writing as a tool to that end across genres, and the opportunities we afford our writers are much broader than if we receive writing only through a standards-based or passing-the-test-based lens.  With those lenses, our focus narrows and our talk and instruction leans toward the elements of writing, the structures, the conventions, the 'right way.'  As a K-6 literacy coach, the requests I receive from teachers are primarily for academic writing, with a heavy dose of effective prompt analysis, citing evidence, elaborating on that evidence, inclusion of all the necessary elements of the genre, and structure and organization (opinion/argumentation and informational only please, after all, narrative isn't on the test).* Yes, all of this certainly does matter.  But, when we limit writers only to these opportunities for growth, the way we receive their writing tends to be limited, as well.  Being college and career ready doesn't have to mean writing to a formula and having one's writing received only in light of that formula.  Yet, I see and hear this time and time again.  There may be thoughts inside the piece that are nuggets of greatness, but we have to be open to receiving them.  Widen the lens.  Listen deeply.  Receive the writer and the content before anything else.  

*Do I believe in standards-based instruction like this?  Yes, I do.  In fact, I recently wrote a K-2 book about integrating standards-based reading and writing instruction that is purposeful and joyful.  It's pretty easy to genuinely receive student writing that is purposeful and joyful and, with a little ingenuity, we can integrate the academic standards right in! (See a post about this here.) Yet another book I wrote this year gets at standards through the use of student writing as mentor texts for teaching (opinion, informational, narrative, and other forms of writing.  See a post on this here or here and a short video here).  But, I believe standard-based instruction must take place within a balanced approach to writing...read on for more.

The notion of balance in the opportunities we give writers is critical.  If we view the way we receive student writing as important, if we are eager to truly discover their unique ideas, understandings, and stories, our writing communities are places where a plethora of writing types are studied and tried on.  Who knows what will fit right now for this or that student?  And, who knows what will be discovered because we had the sensibility to try a wide range of opportunities rather than working from a narrow focus.

Think of our youngest writers.  Obviously, their work will be an approximation of the conventional.  If we approach a youngster thinking, "This child has something to say, and I want to hear it," our response to the piece, in whatever form it appears on the page, will be very different than if we are thinking something like, "I've got to move my writers forward and this student is really behind."  Imagine the difference in the response the same child would receive based on these two ways of receiving the writing.  How do you think the responding that ensues affects that child's writing identity and motivation?  Yes, we definitely do need to move writers forward and we have to study their work carefully to see what it is they are doing well, what they need to work on, and think deeply about what might be the best next possible steps to help the individual or group of individuals move ahead.  But, before all that, the writer, the little human, the person, comes first.  Before all that, the thoughts this writer has must be honored, acknowledged, and given an equal amount of deep attention.  The writing must be received in a thoughtful, genuine way.

Still today, in some classrooms, kindergartners don't have opportunities to write because, "they're not ready."  This is a very old notion of writing and writing development since writing is, at its core, simply a form of communication. If I have a different mindset and I receive students' writing just like I receive their speech, with interest in their ideas, with joy and curiosity, then I respond in kind and we write from day one. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts about "receiving student writing."  I've been kicking these ideas around in my head for quite some time and I still have miles to go to reach clarity.  I hope my thinking inspires your thinking. #happywriting!

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