Early December 2008, and a group of eager participants from the Loddon Mallee Region of Education in Victoria, left Australia to visit schools in New York City. The goals: To learn about Instructional Leadership, to look at ICT integration that can lower the gap between schools of different socio-economic backgrounds (e.g. from Hell’s Kitchen and The Bronx to The Upper East Side of Manhattan), and to form links and networks with coaches working in schools in New York.
The 23 hour trip on the plane was an adventure in itself: From being high on adrenaline and wide awake, to being absolutely flat and floppy by the end of it. Of course, going through the mega-security at Los Angeles Airport is another story, perhaps one that could fill a blog page all on its own! (Picture this: A mother carrying her baby in a kangaroo pouch had to strip the pouch, baby and all, handing the baby to a security guard with a dog, so the mother could get rid of her jumper, revealing her milk stained T-shirt underneath, because she could potentially be carrying suspicious weapons…?)
Finally, we landed. New York! The Big Apple! The Whoop-Dee-Doo! First, getting some American Dollars (Panic moment: Will my card work in the American ATM?) They had a dire forcast of a snow dump for weeks before our arrival, so I packed two suitcases (for two weeks) full of woollies and thermals… (But wait, isn’t New York THE shopping centre of the world? Wouldn’t it have been wiser to just take my Credit Card? But I digress…) The Shuttle Bus from the airport took almost two hours to get to our hotel (we stayed in Jersey City, just over the river, but apparently a foreign country for New Yorkers. Our NY bus driver had no idea where to go, and we passed our hotel several times, finally relying on our of our troup members’ memory of Google Maps that she visited before leaving Australia, to get us to our destination. We were very glad to see our hotel: Candlewood Suites, Jersey City.)
We immediately dumped our luggage, and went on a stroll through the streets and followed our noses to find a suitable eating spot: Chilly Bar. To our delight, they served BIG American hamburgers.
Sunday morning, and we all met early in the hotel foyer to try our first trip on the subway/Path trains (you go down deep underground, and it will take you anywhere you want to go, even places you don’t want to go – especially if you miss your stop! There are legends of people still roaming the city, forever caught in the time loop of the Path train…)
People just hop in the train and stand around, no one really talking. IPods are the rage on the trains: Everyone in their own little world. People even take their bikes on board. One of the most disturbing things is that homeless people sleep in the stations, as it is a warm and relatively safe spot. But there are fun elements as well: Buskers and dancers entertain you in the stations.
A Sunday afternoon
And guess what? Maccas deliver in New York! We also experienced the wonders of StarBucks hot chocolate, with about a pound of fresh cream on top of the BIG take away cups. And also learnt that you need to learn quickly where you can find a toilet in New York, or else it can be a very stiff-legged eye-watering experience.
Lunch: A huge Chinese restaurant, with dish after dish of steaming hot food served to our table. The restaurant was about 400 square metres, and people came and went the whole time. And it was packed. No empty tables anywhere. We had to wait for about forty minutes to get a table ourselves.
First Day: Introduction to the Blueprint that drove school reform
On the Monday morning, we started working. We again travelled on the Path train to the Aussie Consultants rooms in the middle of New York. We were introduced to some of the Aussie coaches, and started to realize the big job they have done since starting to work in the New York schools. The conversation swung from the importance of Literacy as a “gate keeper skill”, to how principals can lead from the front by serving staff in their classrooms with instructional leadership about effective teaching.
“Blueprint for Success in a Standards-Based System,” the $49 million initiative is set to take effect in the fall. Bersin convinces the school board and the U.S. Department of Education to redirect Title I federal funding to pay for the program. Under this plan, most Title I money is no longer at the discretion of local schools, giving more flexibility and control to the central office.
- Expanded teacher-training programs (peer coaches) and massive increases in professional development spending.
- 600 classroom assistants are laid off to pay for 200 teaching coaches.
- Students who don’t meet academic standards will be held back in small classes. Some must repeat grades.
- Intense and explicit literacy and math instruction (three-hour lessons for struggling students).
- Daily: a required 3-hour reading and writing period in elementary schools.
- Lengthened school year for some students to include intensive summer sessions.
- Extended days for some students.
- More money for books and materials.
- School libraries a priority.
- Source: http://www.pbs.org/makingschoolswork/dwr/ca/chronology.html
One school district (District 2) was driven by an inspiring leader named Tony Alvarado. He believed in actively headhunting and training leaders, that would have a “granular” knowledge of pedagogy, numeracy and literacy. He expected his school leaders to visit classrooms, support teachers, and employ coaches that could support the teachers through an intervention strategy in schools, that would see sustained and embedded changes in areas of effective teaching, literacy and numeracy. His motto was: “The best behaviour management plan comes from the best lesson plan.”
If you would like to learn more about some of Alvarado’s initiatives, please refer to the resources listed below:
- Transcripts of Interviews with Tony Alvarado (view links on the left hand side of the page)
- What is Instructional Leadership? (The New York Way)
- Principals invited into classrooms, doing walk-throughs in the school
- Importance of Continuous Professional Development for Teachers
- Maths Reform in New York
Great educational ideas
- Principals visiting classrooms Principals see themselves as true instructional leaders. (For more information, please refer to the “What is Instructional Leadership?” article, listed just above this dot point.) They have a deep understanding and knowledge of pedagogy. They visit classrooms often (The seated lady with the brown hair in the photo below, is the principal observing the lesson and taking notes on her computer, so she can reflect with the teacher later in the week.) Principals will use the observations they make during their classroom visits, to give feedback on a one to one basis with the staff member involved, and in collaboration with that staff member, determine future goals for that staff member. On a Big Picture scale, the principal will use the different classroom observations to determine school wide needs and goals in terms of Professional Development for groups of staff or the whole staff, and then either present that PD him/herself, or source appropriate outside experts to deliver the PD to the staff. From these PD sessions, school wide goals are promoted.
- Interesting fact: In New York, all staff members that attend a PD, get paid for their time! (Only in New York!)
- Community: School Culture of Inclusiveness: A tree with photos of all the students in the school, and their hands on the ceiling of the foyer where you first walk in
- Just to show kids are the same everywhere…
- Focus on wellbeing: Inside x Ouside In a school with a high percentage of Spanish and other non-English speaking students, the school introduced the following: Every year each student gets a doll with a removable “skin” on the outside and a blue stuffed body on the inside. The removable skin has to be decorated to resemble the student creating it, so the skin colour, eye colour, hair colour etc. have to be the same as the student creating the doll. Each student puts his/her name on the back of his outer “skin”. The inside (blue stuffed) body, now gets organs, every doll in the school gets the same organs on the inside of the doll. Students draw the heart, stomach, etc. on the blue material on the inside of the doll. Now the outer skin is pulled over the stuffed blue body. This symbolizes that although every student looks different on the outside, everyone is the same on the inside. The dolls are displayed everywhere in the school, symbolizing the students’ ownership of the environment.
- Focus on wellbeing: What is in a name? (Student Name acrostic poems, with pictures of the students, to enhance students’ ownership of the learning spaces)
- Contracts between the teachers and the students (signed by all parties), e.g. The teacher is expected to “work hard” (model appropriate work ethic), “Have humour”, “Teach more math and writing”, “be cool” and “Give more challenging work”. It is signed by all the students as well as the teacher!
- Interesting Word Walls, e.g. Literacy: “Said is dead” (continually adding new words to use instead of ‘said”), and a Numeracy: Maths Word Wall (Big, Visual Maths ‘dictionary’, always bringing the focus back to the links between Numeracy and Literacy). Student wellbeing: One school focused on “positive words” in their wordwalls, e.g. laughter, winning, pride, kindness, etc.
- Maths Concepts in as many ways as possible, e.g. Factor Tree: Students practice and represent Maths Concepts and Maths Language in as many ways as possible, to enhance the learning of Maths concepts through visuals and Maths Language development.
- Explicit links between Literacy and Numeracy, and using it as a focus for every classroom display: For example “Hands on Maths”: Students write their own Maths problems relating to situations they may experience in the real world (in their own words), then ‘translating’ their problems into Maths symbols and solving it, writing out the facts about numbers and using it as classroom displays, and showing clock faces indicating the times of the daily schedule
- Students taught to make the classroom displays (authentic learning). Please note that even this display is written on a lined paper background, and the letters are written inside the lines as the students would be doing it in their written work. No opportunity for teaching is forgotten.
- Classroom management through a management wall: The wall contains the daily schedule, a job chart and a traffic light tool. The students’ names are written on clothes pegs. The pegs are attached to the jobs on the job chart. The students’ names on the pegs are also attached daily to the Green, Yellow or Red Paper plate traffic light, to indicate whether their behaviour and work ethic has been “outstanding, on track, working independently” (Green), “Not all work finished, may need some assistance” (Yellow) or “Lots of work not finished, come see the teacher” (Red).
- Teacher feedback on sticky notes: Teachers give feedback on students work on sticky notes. Most feedback notes contain a positive (“I liked how…”) and something to try and improve on (“Next time, try to…”). These notes are even displayed with the student work samples on the classroom walls.
- Explicit focus on Maths: Display space dedicated to Maths, with Math related books in book boxes, resources like dice, rulers, protractors, games etc., a listening post with Maths related songs and rhymes available, number lines, posters, Maths word wall, etc.
- My favourite Reading Tool: The Five Finger Test: A simple tool to help students pick the correct book to read and enjoy.
- Explicit teaching of the processes involved in Literacy: All the high performing schools had a specific focus on explictly teaching the skills involved in the various aspects of Literacy. They have a “Balanced Literacy” approach, where Reading and Writing feature in equal amounts. Spelling is also taught explicitly, and spelling words linked to concepts (e.g. Maths concepts) form part of the word walls. Students are taught how to pick books, write essays, draft and finalize pieces of written work, look for resources etc.
- Reggio: Learn through play: Please go to the page New York, NY Cont. for information on Reggio and further educational ideas…
Other fun things we did: