Embrace the Mess!

The picture below is a picture of my work pants from today. At first glance, I was mortified, afraid of what parents and family members would think when they came to pick up their little ones. But then I quickly realized that I am not ashamed of these pants but rather proud. As I greeted families at the door, I used my pants as a guide to share our adventures and lessons learned for the day.

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What a mess!

See, these pants represent what our preschool classroom is all about. Our preschool classroom is messy. Students exploring colors at the art center with paint, students measuring and calculating how much sand and water fits into a cup at the sensory table, students practicing writing their name in shaving cream. It is chaotic. Students weaving in and out of centers, finding a baby in the dramatic play area and then quickly heading to the block area to pull out just the right blocks to build this baby a house or bed. Students eagerly listening to a story read, and jumping up when they hear something that they can relate to such as a birthday cake or even a bed (“baby bear’s bed is small. My bed is small too!”) Our preschool classroom is all encompassing, just like the stains on these pants. There is no start and end to a lesson in our room, rather an ongoing adventure, led by the students, that we are so lucky to get to be a part of.

Today’s adventure, that led to the spotted pants, was an experiment to make our own bubbles, after having read the book “Soapy Scientists” earlier in the week. But not just any bubbles, we wanted to make BIG bubbles. We had made small bubbles all week using traditional bubbles and bubble wands but learned that the opposite of small is big and the challenge was on. Our classroom friend, Ms. P found a recipe and we got to incorporate our letter of the week as we “s”tirred our mixture of dish soap, water, cornstarch, baking soda, and glycerin.

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“S”tirring our bubble mixture

From there, we headed outside, where we used “s”traws and “s”tring to make big bubble wands and the rest is history. We ended up a little messy and spotted but our “s”oapy “s”cientists were successful, creating bubbles as big as they were! The best s word of all was seen throughout this lesson: “s”miles as the students saw their experiment in action, achieving what they had set out to do.

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Big bubbles!

I challenge you to embrace the mess and chaos that your classroom may bring and if you don’t see chaos and mess, I challenge you to incorporate a little bit of mess and chaos at some point in your day. Students learn best when they can get their hands (or pants) dirty, both hypothetically and literally. Whether it be paint, shaving cream, or a concoction that the students are testing out, let the mess happen. Pants, hands, desks can be washed but the memories made and experiences had will last a lifetime!

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“S”miling “s”tudents

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“S”oapy “S”cientists

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Teacher Leadership: Taking the first step

Martin Luther King Jr. said “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” This quote sums up my experience as a teacher leader. I have taken a series of steps, never quite sure where the next one will take me, but having faith that as long as I continue to move forward, these steps will make me a better educator, stronger teacher leader, and project my voice for my students, colleagues, and profession.

My teacher leadership staircase started with a gentle nudge in 2013 when I was nominated for the Rodel Exemplary Teacher award by my administrator, Dr. Williams. It was my second year in preschool and she believed in me, when I did not yet fully believe in myself. I went through an observation and interview before receiving word that I had received the award and would have the distinct opportunity to work with student teachers in my classroom through the program, sharing the knowledge and expertise I brought to the table. And just like that, I took the first step…

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“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”- John Quincy Adams

Being a part of the Rodel family shed light on the next few stairs of my teacher leadership staircase. I had the opportunity to take part in events like ECET2, Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers, a conference that seeks to lift teachers up, by celebrating the profession and then empowering teachers to find their passion and speak out. I first became a part of this event as an attendee and the following year came back as a presenter. Talk about inspiring! Hearing teachers present on their leadership journeys and what makes them stick with the profession was amazing!

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Privileged to be a part of such a powerful group of Teacher Leaders!

After finding my passion, I took a few more steps, applying for Teach to Lead, where I was able to work on my own idea (with a team of course!) and come up with my own solution. This was one of the biggest steps of all, taking the leap from my own classroom, in my own community and branching out onto a national platform. Teachers from Alabama, Michigan, Florida all coming together to bring their ideas to life. I left feeling like I could do anything!

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Our own teacher leader army ready to conquer issues in our classrooms, schools, districts, and beyond!

And so I tried… I applied for and received the Teacher Impact Grant, one of 17 in the country. I applied/interviewed for the Arizona Hope Street Group Fellowship and was one of 27 selected. I stood in front of 200 teachers at the Teacher Leadership Institute last month and shared my story. Where I once stood at the top of the staircase, and thought “what if?”, I have now begun to jog up the staircase, like the stadium drill we used to do in high school and think “what next?”

I encourage you to take the first step. Whether that be starting the National Board process (Arizona teachers, AZ K12 has a pre candidacy class starting soon!),  applying for a Teach to Lead summit (there’s one coming up in Austin!) with your idea to solve a problem, or finding your own path, I challenge you to become a teacher leader. You are an expert and you hold valuable knowledge that can be used to better education! I can’t wait to see what the world looks like when all of America’s teachers start taking steps up their staircases, beginning their teacher leadership journeys! The sky is truly the limit.

National Board Certification: Journey to Becoming an Accomplished Teacher!

In the Fall of 2014, I hit a fork in the road. No longer a new teacher, with 4 years of teaching under my belt, I wanted to take the first step in becoming a lifelong learner. I looked into two options: working towards a Masters degree or obtaining National Board Certification. Both would allow me to obtain additional knowledge that would benefit me in my classroom, provide a pay increase, and require time, effort and hard work to be successful. But after attending an informational meeting held by our district and the Arizona K12 Center, I realized only one would allow me to reflect on my current practices, identify the strengths I already used on a daily basis in my classroom, and most importantly, truly grow as an educator. And with that, I began my journey to becoming an accomplished teacher by obtaining National Board Certification.

I have had the unique opportunity of being in the first group of “guinea pigs”, teachers who have been completing the certification process under the new rollout. Rather than being a year long process cramming in four components, we have been completing the components as they have been rereleasing them, in a more user friendly, attainable format. (Another post to come on that!). I have been appreciative for this as it has allowed me to truly reflect on my practices and make subtle changes within my classroom based off of these reflections and the standards for accomplished teaching within my field.

These standards outline what accomplished teaching looks like in all areas including literacy, mathematics, science, language, etc. in terms of Early Childhood Education, or ages 0-8. At first, that sounds scary but I quickly realized this was a valuable tool. Reading through them, I identified many things that I was already doing in my classroom. Incorporating play into instructional time? Check. Providing hands on experiences with math concepts to solidify the learning? Check. Front loading target vocabulary for our English Language Learners? Check! Of course there were some things that I wasn’t yet doing, but it was nice to have clear, specific examples of what I could do to become better and more effective within my classroom. An instant guide to growing as an educator!

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No better feeling than clicking submit after spending the year analyzing your practices and finding evidence to support your accomplished teaching!

Beyond the benefit of growth as an educator, pursuing NB  has also opened up avenues for teacher leadership and networking. Through the AZ K12 Center NB candidate events such as Coaching Saturdays, National Board Workshops and Institutes, I have had the distinct pleasure of meeting many other amazing educators who are doing outstanding things around the state of Arizona. Another common thread amongst these teachers aside from NB Candidacy? Positivity! All of these educators love their jobs and their students. There are several policies, regulations, mandates, etc. that we would love to change and may not necessarily like but at the end of the day, we love what we do and are seeking NB distinction to help build up the profession and show that Arizona has an artillery of teachers, hard at work behind the scenes, working to improve the lives of our students.

On that note, candidacy also lit the flame in me to make changes beyond just my classroom. Previous posts about the Parent Empowerment Project, Teach to Lead, Tea with Teachers, all of these things happened after my decision to pursue NB certification! As I reflect on my practices and work to better things within the four walls of my classroom, I also have started to identify areas that are passions of mine, things that I do well and can share with other educators to promote change on a bigger level.

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Reflecting on my practices at one of AZ K12 Center’s many NB support events, NB Workshop in Tubac, AZ!

This process, that I entered as a quest to become an accomplished teacher has taught me that, in so many ways, I already was an accomplished teacher and it has provided a map towards becoming an even better educator in the future through ongoing reflection. National Board Certification is truly a rewarding process and I highly recommend it to educators out there who are looking for something more, either through growth or through confirmation. It is such an honor but it is also an opportunity for you to highlight the amazing things you do in your classroom and that is something the education field needs more of. Go for it and bring a friend with you!

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My colleagues and NB partners in crime!

Parent Empowerment Project: Parents are their child’s first and best teacher!

In my previous posts, I have mentioned the Parent Empowerment Project. This is my baby, an idea that has grown from a “what if?” within the tiny four walls of my classroom as a response to requests from families to have a better idea of what their students needed to be able to do prior to kinder and how they could best support at home, into a pilot program featuring monthly collaborations between our preschool team and our preschool families. It has been my leap into teacher leadership, my chance to be the change I want to see in education. It has been a whirlwind of a ride in just one short year and I have enjoyed every minute of it so far!

Back at the Teach to Lead Summit I posted about last week, we put together a plan on how we could support our families and build their confidence levels in working with students at home. Collaboration with district kindergarten teachers started the process  to determine what students needed to know to be kinder ready (Power Standards), using assessment data to identify students’ present levels  in relation to these areas, and then planning developmentally appropriate, hands on activities based on students’ present levels that are easy to implement and efficient for parents to use to work with their students at home.

Once these tasks were complete, we would be ready to hold our monthly trainings (8 in all throughout a school year), including dinner and childcare for the families, where we would choose one area to focus on for the month and present the activities as well as provide the resources in the form of a resource kit for the families, specific to their student’s present level, so that the families leave feeling prepared and confident to work with their student at home. These resources would be inexpensive and easy to find (Think: Dollar Tree!) so that the families could easily replace them as they used them. At the end of each meeting, the families would then fill out a goal form, where they would identify a goal for their student in the target area and how we could work together to get their student there.

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Collaboration time!

Thanks to a Teacher Impact Grant provided by ASCD that we were one of only 17 chosen throughout the country for, we were able to bring this idea to life! My team, including myself, my colleague Brenda Thomas, and two amazing paraprofessionals Ms. Jen and Ms. Reyna along with the support of many others has held three family learning nights so far this year, targeting the areas of letter recognition, number recognition, and most recently, name writing. This particular meeting was near and dear to my heart, as I am a strong advocate of natural development of writing vs. learning through name tracing and worksheets. It was so exciting to share with the parents different activities using fun materials such as salt, shaving cream, qtips, etc. We also provide the families a book related to the topic we are covering, to help build their family’s library at home. This month’s book is one of my all-time favorites: Harold and the Purple Crayon!

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Name writing practice can be fun!

At this meeting, we also asked the families for feedback on how they feel the program is going so far and if they feel it has been beneficial to them and their student. The responses were heartwarming.

“I like that you all provide different methods for us to be able to share with our kids so we can help them improve in their education…”

“I feel like these meetings help us parents be more involved with our student’s learning growth…”

“As a dad, makes me think how great this would have been if it would have happened in my childhood…”

“…I really feel she will accomplish this goal with the tools provided!”

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Valuable feedback from our families!

Because this is a pilot year for the program, we have to wait and see the progress but we are already seeing the benefits in our classroom. We have students who were tested in October and were unable to recognize their name who are now not only recognizing their name, but know all of the letters that are in their name. When asked how they learned it, the student said “my mommy worked with me at home!” Earlier this week, while  completing our question of the day writing practice activity, a student brought up her name, written correctly to vote on whether or not she liked vegetable soup. She added her name to the chart and when I looked at it again, I realized that this time last month, she had not been able to write her name. I pulled out her assessment to confirm and the results were tremendous!

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“I worked with my mom and my magic marker!”

In a month, this student jumped 4 levels and was now able to write her name recognizably! Did we use tedious, time consuming name tracing worksheets? Hand over hand techniques to show her the proper way to form each letter? No. We used the most powerful tool an educator has in their toolbox: the student’s family! Can’t wait to see what our end of the year results show but if this is any indication, the Parent Empowerment Project is a success!

Teach to Lead Summit: Taking the Plunge

As teachers, we see things every day that we would love to fix. Broken policies, outdated curriculum, systems that are not working, usually put in place from the top down by people with little to no classroom experience. Teach to Lead flips that narrative completely, and focuses on a teacher-led mentality. Teachers are the ones in the classroom each day, living and breathing the educational system and if anyone’s going to fix it, it will be us!

I found Teach to Lead (TTL) through a Facebook post in November 2015. It was perfect timing, as I had just completed Parent Teacher conferences and the overwhelming feedback from families was that they wanted to know how to support their students at home and ensure kinder readiness. It was then I realized a need for training for our families. We had general trainings we did each year, typical to preschool (letter recognition, counting, etc.)  that were not meeting the needs of all of our families or building them up to feel confident in their role as their student’s first and best teacher. We needed something more!

With that, the Parent Empowerment Project was born. I filled out the TTL application with little to no expectations and was very surprised to get the congratulatory email saying that our team had been selected as one of 25 to travel to Baltimore and bring our idea to life. When we flew out, our team was small but mighty, containing myself and Brenda Thomas, a National Board Certified Special Education teacher and Early Childhood Support Specialist in our district but we were ready to hit the ground running!

Upon arrival in Baltimore, on a cold snowy evening, we met up with our Critical Friend. One of the best parts of TTL is that you don’t have to go it alone. They provide you with a mentor who is invested in your field. Our critical friend was Steven Hicks, a Senior Policy Advisor at the US Dept. of Ed. in the Early Childhood Dept. As a former teacher who lived and breathed preschool just like us, it was a perfect match. We spent our time with Mr. Hicks, talking out our idea. Personalized, engaging, relevant collaborations between teachers and families with the goal of increasing confidence in our parents, strengthening the home school connection, and ensuring school readiness for our learners. Piece of cake, right?

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Steven Hicks, Critical Friend and one of Early Childhood Education’s biggest advocates! So lucky to work with him!

On our first full day at TTL, we hit the ground running. As teachers,  we are working from the moment we walk into the classroom, often late at night from home. So finding time to combat issues in addition to what’s already required, can be difficult and near impossible. Having several hours set aside, specifically to brainstorm, organize and solidify our idea was amazing! The best part of this day however, came when one of the organizers stopped by and placed her hand on our backs and said “Secretary King will be here shortly.” Mr. Hicks quickly filled us in, that Secretary King was Secretary of Education John King, whom he works with in his role at the USDOE and we would be sharing the Parent Empowerment Project, in a 2-3 minute briefing when he joined us at our table. No pressure!

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Getting feedback about our idea from Secretary of Education John King!

Secretary King  could have easily smiled and nodded and moved on to the next table. Instead, he listened and then provided helpful feedback in relation to making our program useful for all of our families. I teach in a primarily Hispanic community and Sec. King suggested the use of bilingual materials, literacy, etc. as well as interpreters to support our ESL families. We shook hands and continued on with our day, working on our project, incorporating Sec. King’s input. Later on that day, we hopped on Twitter to share out pictures and discovered this very exciting tweet from Sec. King  speaking with us!

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That’s us!

We left TTL with a finished project, a complete logic model and game plan of how to get the Parent Empowerment Project-a set of parent trainings designed to be purposeful, engaging, and safe to work towards building their confidence in working with their students at home towards school readiness- off and running. Little did we know what the future held for our idea! More to come on that later…

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Thanks Teach to Lead for giving us the tools and time to make a plan!

Teach to Lead has been the catalyst for my jump as a preschool teacher in a small district in Arizona to a teacher leader, sharing my ideas, my visions for change in the education field. AZ ASCD and the Arizona K12 Center will be holding a Powered by Teach to Lead summit here in Arizona in June and if you are a teacher who has ever wanted to take the plunge into teacher leadership or just have a issue in your classroom, school, district, etc. that you think you may have an idea on how to fix, I encourage you to apply at this link: http://svy.mk/2khSran. You can do it. You can make a difference. You do know what’s best for your students and your profession and your voice and opinion matter! hope to see you there!

Tea with Teachers: A Literal Seat at the Table for Educators

I recently had the tremendous opportunity to travel to Washington D.C. to meet with a phenomenal group of educators, the Teacher Impact Grantees, of which I am a member. This group consists of only 17 educators (talk about a huge honor!) from across the country who were chosen to receive funding for their projects, all geared towards improving the field of education and promoting teacher leadership. We spent the day discussing current events and issues in education in the US Department of Education’s library. Like I said, tremendous opportunity to say the least! The highlight of this day though, was Tea with Teachers, an event that placed us, educators from around the country in the same room with Secretary of Education, John King, for a panel discussion.

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Literal seat at the table!

The event started out with introductions and presentations of our projects. It was intriguing to hear all of the different ideas that our group was working on. It was even more interesting to hear the similarities in issues that educators are running into. Things like teacher retention, professional development, staff morale, student engagement, family involvement; these are not singular issues that are only being seen in our district or state.

When it came time to present our project, The Parent Empowerment Project, a project geared towards increasing family involvement, I nervously introduced myself and what we were working on. The really exciting part was that Secretary King was not only interested in what I was saying but remembered us. We had the unique experience of attending the Baltimore Teach to Lead Summit, back in February (more information about this to come in a later post!) and present our idea to Secretary King then. He had even given us feedback regarding the bilingual component, seeing as how our population is primarily Spanish speaking. At that time, it was just that an idea and a short 9 months later, thanks to ASCD and the US Dept. of Education providing the Teacher Impact Grant, our idea was up and running. Secretary King said he remembered our project and furthermore, had mentioned us in one of his speeches. It was amazing to be able to share with him the progress we had made and the growth and positive feedback we were already receiving from families as well as the fact that we had taken his comments as far as bilingual materials and translation into consideration as we started the program this year. Talk about coming full circle!

After we were finished introducing our projects, Secretary King spent time asking us questions related to current events and issues, such as diversity in our classrooms, teacher retention, and teacher leadership. It was refreshing to know that someone who holds such an important role in policy-making in education values teachers’ opinions. He took notes, responded back, and was genuinely engaged in conversation for the duration of our time with him. I left the day feeling empowered and hopeful as an educator and a parent of students in the public school system. So many times, as teachers, we can feel alone, unheard, insignificant but days like this remind me that we hold the most important role there is and the key to change lies within us!  I truly believe this is so important to remember heading into the upcoming weeks and years. No one knows our profession better than we do and we must take our seat at the table any chance we can get, and if the chance does not present itself, we owe it to our students to make a seat and get our voices heard!

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Such an unforgettable day!