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Rumble of Thunder – Aligning what we do with what students need

January 12, 2017Photo of Dr. Hughes

Happy New Year! We are almost halfway through the first month of the year with Mother Nature being unable to decide if it’s winter or early spring. No matter the weather outside, there is plenty of action happening within our schools.

We are about to reach the half point for the school year. That means many of our Thunder will take a combination of Regents exams, locally teacher-created benchmarks or those created by a partner company such as i-Ready. While the Regents exams act as exit exams for our high school students, all the testing we are doing is meant to determine what skills our Thunder have mastered and what areas we need to tweak in order to prepare them better for their future.

In my last letter I mentioned the never-ending cycle of curriculum development and alignment. The incredible work all of our teachers and administrators are doing to build a rigorous and relevant curriculum is a monumental task and must be commended. Educators are sure to have differing opinions as to how curriculum is developed, altered, used, rewritten and further developed. This partly comes from our own depth of knowledge and ideas, but also comes from the fact that every child is inherently different from one another. What works well for one student is not guaranteed to work for another. That is why it is critical that we use data to constantly inform our instruction.

The mere mention of data often creates visions of students sitting in rows to take state assessments. This is only one small part of the picture. NYS 3-8 assessments and Regents exams are examples of ‘big’ data. ‘Big’ data comes from large-scale standardized tests. These are meant to provide schools with general guidance for curriculum modifications and for accountability measures at the local, state, and federal level. Most grade levels and/or content areas are administering benchmarks to check student progress throughout the school year. This is an example of ‘medium’ data. ‘Medium’ data helps teams of teachers and administrators work collaboratively to plan instructional units and lessons built from the curriculum. ‘Small’ data is the most critical form of data. This type of data is formative in nature and collected at predetermined points in the lesson to determine whether students are learning the content that is actively being taught. Exit tickets are one example of ‘small’ data as they are used to directly inform the next instructional steps and provide personal attention based on individual student needs. Our teachers are also constantly gathering ‘in-the moment’ data based on the hundreds of spoken and unspoken cues students give during instruction. Anything from a student raising a hand to looking away when a question is posed can help inform the teacher if a student is learning.

So I’m willing to bet some of you are asking, why is he talking about data? Besides the conversations with teachers, administrators, departments and committees, data helps the district inform the path we should take to improve student learning and achievement. In the end, we want our Thunder to be well prepared for career and/or college with both a strong educational and social foundation. One area that has been highlighted as an area of focus is our writing. Whether it was from anecdotal comments from teachers regarding ‘in-the moment’ data or writing benchmarks with ‘medium’ data or ‘big’ data from state assessments, improving writing across all curricula is needed. Over the summer, a team of teachers worked swiftly to create a writing handbook for Central Valley. The handbook is meant as a guide to depict where we expect our students to be at each grade level. The reality is many of our students are not quite there yet. This necessitates us to take a step back and determine the intermediate steps we can take over the next few years to get our students to that higher expected level of application and performance. As with any curriculum it takes time to develop, refine and align.

We are seeing growth in the math curriculum work that continues. Many teachers expressed how they had to rush through the math program provided by Envisions instead of focusing on the students truly mastering the material. Many grade levels over the summer worked to weed out peripheral topics so the focus would be on five power standards with embedded fluency practice and spiral review. The teachers and grade levels that have fully adopted this approach are seeing huge gains with their students. Many of them have made comments about the students being further ahead than ever before and being able to perform skills from the beginning of the school year. As an example, in 5th grade there are 52 students in the accelerated math program split between two sections. One third of the grade level has already completed and mastered the 5th grade material and are now getting into the 6th grade curriculum because of the focus on the most important foundational standards.

A number of teachers have asked us to slow down and work to get it right. I couldn’t agree more. Based on all your feedback, why don’t we take the same approach with writing and all curricular areas? Going forward we need everyone’s input to help us determine what skills and knowledge each of our students need to enter and exit each grade level. Anyone who wants to be a part of this effort can and should be included. At the same time, we also have to be cognizant that each educator will have differing opinions of developmental appropriateness, rigor, relevance, and the speed of development and implementation for each grade level. While it’s likely impossible there will be absolute agreement, the conversation and final consensus will provide a path for vertical curriculum alignment, and ultimately greater success for each of our Thunder. Let’s focus on quality over quantity in everything we do. Our administrators, curriculum and department chairs will be critical in helping us to organize this inclusive effort. Some of the work has already begun while most of it will start with our January 30th conference day in building, grade level and department meetings.

Teachers’ plates are already filled with trying to meet all students’ educational and social needs. And teachers have lives and families of their own. This cannot be viewed as simply another burden in our already overwhelming lives. If properly implemented, these changes will help eliminate some learning roadblocks. Imagine if every student came into your classroom with the basic skills to tackle your grade-level curriculum. Imagine what it would mean to your fellow teachers if students exiting your classroom were fully prepared for the next grade. Imagine what parents, community members and potential residents would think if that were our model. And imagine what colleges, trade schools, and employers would think if our Thunder graduated fully ready to take that next step. Will it work for every child? Likely not. But we can make it work for many, if not most. That is our ambitious goal.

To help improve communication and to hear each of your concerns directly, I will start meeting with each and every employee in our great school district later this month. With 400 employees, it will take some time. At this time, the plan is to work backwards through the alphabet at each building to schedule meetings. Too often those at the end of the alphabet are the last to go so let’s flip that so they are now the first. I prefer to come to each of you for the individual meetings but if you would rather meet elsewhere, please say so as we put the schedule together. As always, please let me know if you have a question or concern at either, or 894-9934. Keep up the great work and push to improve each day for our Thunder. I look forward to speaking to each and every one of you real soon!

Dr. Hughes