Rising Tide!!

It’s been a couple weeks since the last student day of our summer project.  It’s not quite time for reflection, as we have our public event on August 29th at 5:30pm (Lions Club Pavilion, Krull Park). More appropriate though are some comments about the program’s culmination–

The Product(s)

The books have been ordered.  Covering the rising waters levels, causes, possible solutions and other pertinent issues related to the connection between land, water, industry and population, the creation of this book serves as the capstone to the experience for our 20 students.  It will be available in local stores, and each student will receive a copy.  Every student was involved in at a portion of the creation of the work, and their names are featured on the corresponding page.  It’s the idea that the kids have a concrete reminder of the work that they did, individually and collaboratively, that is most exciting.  The work is important.  A keepsake is important.  In quiet moments, away from school, this work will remind them of what kind of work they can do, and the type of students they can be.

The time capsule has been created.  It’s being stored at Newfane Middle School, in a model of the lighthouse in Olcott, NY.  Donated by an admitted fan of these students and this project, the kids painted it to match the look of our local light, and inside is contained reminders of our work this summer, both in picture and in word.  Not to be opened until 2041, we’re looking forward to seeing the class open it at their 20th HS reunion.  We hope we’re invited and can attend!

The presentation, as referenced above, will celebrate the work, and let our audience (you are all more than welcome) know about the issues, our concerns, and solutions.

More to come in future days–


The Thread

Whether planned or not, there is a common thread running through the work of the past two summers, and what I’m seeing in our summer project at the middle school. The umbrella question is essentially, “Who is doing the work?” I’ve participated in a few final interviews that our superintendent has with prospective hires. His message to them in terms of performance and evaluation is this: Years ago, observers would enter a classroom and focus on what the teacher was doing. Now, their notes reflect what the kids are doing more than the instructor.  Such a distinction.

Our professional development work in math that began last summer helped to put my mind on that path.  Starting the class (math in this case, but true for all)  with something that ALL kids can do is key…and not impossible.  The name of the consultant company working with us, Access Mathematics, makes sense. It’s about making this subject open to all.  Accessible.  So, rather than starting the class with a word problem as a warm-up and having the students answer it, start by having them read, think, notice, and wonder about it. All can do that. Then share those thoughts with a partner. Take off the question stem so they’re not so focused on the answer. Have them develop their own questions. Listen to their answers, and use that info (plus a little of your own expertise) to drive the lesson forward.  As work turns to paper and pencil (other tools of expression ok as well), resist the urge to take the pencil from the students hands and instead, ask questions…wait…letting the students grapple with an answer.   There’s so much more than that, but at its essence, it’s about what the kids are doing.

Fast forward a year to this summer.  In addition to work with Access Mathematics, we’ve had the opportunity to again learn the fine art of Writers Workshop with Amy Ludwig Vanderwater.  A foundational element of the workshop is convincing the kids that they are all writers, and to treat them as such.  Maybe it’s really about treating them as writers in order to convince them that they are.  Anyway, the conferring aspect is huge.  The one-on-one conversations between teacher and writer…powerful.  Similar to the math anecdote above, the adult needs to fight the urge to take the writer’s pencil.  Keep it in the kid’s hand…ask questions to probe their thinking.  Don’t tell them what a great conclusion would be but give them strategies to develop one on their own.  Waiting is ok.  Silence is ok.  Independence is being built, even though the work is not perfect.  Accept the fact that growth of independence comes in stops and starts…but for it to be the learner’s growth, we can’t do the growing for them.

Which brings me to the summer program (the Rising Tide entries).  I just had a 40 minute or so discussion with the program’s coordinator.  The struggle with uncertainty…our desire that kids grow…the competing desire to direct the kids’ time…what does growth look like?  What does a finished product look like?

The thread that connects us in all that we’re doing is the specific desire to have the kids own more of their learning.  And they own it by doing it.  By doing the math, doing the writing, doing the thinking, their connection with learning and their capacity for learning will increase.  There are all sorts of subjects in any school…the connecting thread is “who is doing the work,” because the one who does the work is the one who will grow.  So instead of giving answers, ask questions.  Instead of the passive acquisition of knowledge, it’s the active use and application of that knowledge.

This week, like for so many of you, has been busy.  Interviews, conferences…our summer program has been in the caring hands of other adults, but not one. I did stop up for a bit today.  Here’s what I witnessed.


See the kids in the back?  They’re working on invitations for the evening program to present their findings on Lake Ontario water levels. The kids in the front?  Their learning the software needed to put their book/final project together. In another room, a third group is making a sign and flyers advertising our presentation. Another is creating a time capsule of this year when the lake levels reached such epic heights. See the bulletin board? That’s the rough draft of the book which will be (self) published. Two of the students shown have struggled mightily with growth.  Others have been amazing on a daily basis. The thread goes through this room too.  We’ll walk out of this room next week knowing that many of the kids have done the work. Some have demonstrated this by being here every day.  Some have shown it by  responding to correction positively.  Some have stumbled, some have moved forward each day. The focus has consistently been on the kids….the kids doing the work…the kids asking the questions…and finding ways to answer.

There’s nothing perfect about the work being done.  It’s a nervous group of learners and adults, riding a wobbly tandem bicycle, tentatively trying, failing, and succeeding.   The thread runs through each subject and skill, and each of us who engage in this work.

#RisingTide…Week 2 Concludes

We are eight days into our experiment.  Turn summer school into an enrichment project.  Wrap it around a topic that connects with kids and community…build relationships between students, between adults, between adults and students…and something remarkable can happen.  Or at least, something beyond compliance can happen.

This was a big week as the idea of the project gradually morphed into specifics of what the end product would look like.  That gets difficult.  The educators working alongside the students gradually provided more support and strategies for students to use.  In a perfect world, the ideas would ALL be student generated, and I think that as work like this increases, students will become better at devising their own questions and pursuing the answers.  The support give here though is necessary, patient, and helpful.

Lots of documentation for the week.  A better weather day for our on site visit to Krull Park, and a myriad of pictures taken.  The task of choosing which ones to use…how to caption…how to cite.  The artistic meets the technical.  Taking a captivating picture and turning it into something beyond the “wow” factor and into an eminently useful tool for telling a story, making a claim.  An unplanned for but hugely effective near debate as students heard from a climate change researcher as well as a county legislator…discussion of causes, of what our response should be…there are good people with very different views.  Our students see (and adults) that we can have civil discourse.

A few anecdotes.  One student told a teacher on Wednesday that his dad wasn’t impressed with the program.  “How’s this helping me get better in math?”  Our initial reaction was stifled…questions were asked regarding the two graphs the class attacked on Monday–the discharge rates, the lake level measurements, the comparisons of the two.  What wasn’t stated to the student was that we’ve seen this young man more alert, smiling and connected to others than we have in 4 years.  In another case, a student who has made it a yearly mission to state his disapproval for homework and is at times the both the giver and receiver of hurtful comments with classmates, can’t seem to believe how much he’s enjoying this work.  He’s been a absolute rock…just incredible work, insight, care.  One of our guests even remarked to him that he sees him as a future scientist.  The young man was beaming, and presumably is this morning as well.

Another student seems to be willing us to remove him from the program.  So much of what he does seems to indicate that.  But more strategic minds than mine have prevailed.  Trying to identify root causes has been the theme…what’s he searching for….what does this behavior indicate…how can we work with him in a way that gives him some power.  A call home may have added to the change, but Thursday’s class was the best we’ve seen.

One teacher, in talking with the students on Thursday, said that “we can debate the causes, we can debate the solutions…be we cannot debate the impact,” of the water levels and erosion.  The same could be said for these students and this program.  We can argue why these students are here…we can argue what will help them become better learners…but we cannot argue the impact that these classes, this project, and these relationships have had on the learners…adults included.

See you next week.

Rising Tide…Day 5

IMG_4314July 17, 2017

Today we more clearly began the move from ideal to reality.  Last week saw an accumulation of background knowledge, development of questions, hearing from an expert in the field as well.  It also featured a fair amount of freedom.  An enrichment program…students treated as students who could grapple with information and create their own question, pursuing answers.

In the teacher role as guide, today we began the process of narrowing the focus, and setting more clear expectations with regard to productivity.  Because of the environment created, these expectations seemed almost thirsted for by the students. Groups were re-sorted today based on interest in various questions.  End results amounting to three products were introduced: filming of the process, creation of a book telling the story we’re pursuing (“Good Morning, Olcott Beach”), and a culminating creation of a time capsule.

Students put pen to paper more today…pictures taken at our Krull Park day last Thursday were printed, posted on a bulletin board.  The messiness of this process is there…and that’s good.  The act of creation has begun in earnest.

An anecdote.  One student seemed intent on not being there today.  He quietly resisted the imploring to collaborate, contribute.  His language was poor.  He spoke of attending another school next year.  At post class staff meeting, the overarching theme among our educators was one of explanation and refusal.  Explanation of the myriad possible causes for his more strident negative behavior…and a refusal to allow him to quit.  The sense was…don’t you dare kick him out.  We’re not giving up on him.  That…is what’s happening here.

Thanks for reading.


Weekend Interlude

Separation of church and state be darned, at least for this post.  The chosen verses at the service I attended on Sunday included the parable of the sower from the book of Matthew.  It goes like this (from the New International Version):

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

Looking at the parable through the lens of education, it’s a story that could be used to justify almost anything.

A surface interpretation could look like this: Some kids can learn, some can’t.  With some, the seeds of learning take root.  Others, not so much.  Some students, based on their behavior and performance in class, might seem a lot like the seed falling on the path.  The most brilliant of lessons wasted, for lack of interest, lack of care, or lack of ability.  Other students might initially show engagement…but the thin layer of soil is merely hiding the rocks, and there’s little lasting learning that comes after the initial enthusiasm.  Then there are the “good soil” students, who soak up teaching, embedding it in their own lives, and growing strong.

A better interpretation is goes like this: It’s our responsibility to make sure all the seeds find rich soil.  In the words of educator and psychologist Haim Ginott,

It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.

In other words, we make the environment…we make the soil.  Some kids come to us ready for learning.  Others take more time.  It’s up to us to intentionally work on adding depth and removing obstacles.  It’s up to us to sweep them off the stony path and on to the rich ground where learning can take root.

How this can happen is different for every student.   Our daily mission, our daily struggle, our daily miracle, is to connect our kids with those people, things and ideas that allow their roots to grow.

All our students can learn.  Seeds can take root in all of them.  Our work must never be evidence that we’ve forgotten that.  We must add to the soil of their lives.

Rising Tide, Day 4

July 13, 2017

We met at Krull Park this morning.  Rain in forecast; and the rains came.  Flash floods hit areas of Western NY and the rainfall in the area neared 3 inches.  Record setting.  We knew it was coming, just not this bad.  We heard later that the conference being given in our gymnasium was met by water pouring in from the ceiling.  Bless the capital project coming soon.

But when we met at 8:15, a mere mist is what we experienced.  The kids gathered in the Lions Club shelter, wandered towards the shoreline…saw firsthand the non-beach…some who hadn’t been here since last summer marveled at the loss.  Even picturing where the Polar Bear Swim is held annually in March was difficult.

We saw the formed concrete barriers which just a couple months ago formed clean, solid lines, were now tossed around the beach like so many rocks or stones.  Seeing something and trying to capture the gravity of it…it’s a difficult thing.  Trying to get our younger learners to all see…to feel…to wonder…they’re good people, but many are not feeling the weight of what they’re seeing  quite yet.  But…seeds.  They’re growing…I believe that…I need to believe that.

I wonder about the grouping.  I read somewhere recently (Mike Schmoker, education  icon) that pairs work better than larger groups.  You can’t hide in a pair, while in a group of four or five you can.  I question the 5th-8th grade set up at times as well…our younger students are struggling with the learner behaviors they need.  The quiet corrections that bring a 6th-8th grader back to focus aren’t working as well for others…I need to find a way to either bring our youngest in the fold, or find another way for them to be successful.  I need to fight the urge to say, “they’re just not ready,” and all that entails.

We’re met at the park by the Deputy Commissioner (in charge of highway, bridges and structures) of the County’s Dep’t of Public Works.  Dean Lapp II is an unassuming, knowledgeable, giving and quietly passionate public servant.  He joined us quietly, leading our crew to the water via an access road that was almost lost this spring.  He described for us the way in which he and his team built the area back up to save the road…to save access which is so necessary to do anything else.  Concrete, rocks, soil vegetation…a newly formed slope which helps keep the road intact.  He then led us to the remains of the beach–waves truly crashing.  The mist turning to rain.  “Stop throwing rocks.”  How can I say that…there’s nothing but rocks here…next time I’ll give them time to throw/skip stones.  This learner needs to grow as well.  We see the barriers that couldn’t withstand the constant surges.  We greet a student who made his way to us a bit late; his sidekick to follow in another 20 minutes.  The adult learners are welcoming…glad they’re here…frustration with lateness is muted; perhaps it’s just enough that at this point, the effort was made to be here.

We head back to the shelter.  Landon’s brownies are excellent, as is Colin’s popcorn.  Joe’s Sprite and Andy Capp fries don’t rest much.  We sit in quasi groups at picnic tables, and Mr. Lapp shares with us his work.  His passion for the property of the county, of his privilege that comes with protecting that property.  He speaks of the importance of the parents of our learners, of how their stake in the county matters.  He talks of prevention, of judicious use of sandbags in the county, of how we need to take note of the high water marks of this season, and modify our current and build our new structures with this in mind.  We talk about earthen barriers, of floating docks.  He talks candidly of the limits his department faces: financial limits, and enviromenmental ones.  He references the high waters of ’73…that prevention measures then would cost so much more today.  He speaks of the Department of Conservation’s noble quest for clean water, but notes the delays that it causes his own work.  He is a conservative in the non-political sense of the term…he shares with us what it’s like to try to conserve what we have; and how that is done through adapting to present realities.

Our youngest learners are still struggling to stay with us.  Following a bus ride back to school (Ridge Road Express…the finest in the land), I take a pair of students, while the rest go to our regular classroom.  Their discussion looked rich…erosion sparked interest…use of natural materials like clay were considered.  In my room we struggled initially…but after about 5 minutes, one student and I were able to work on an idea.  The second student eventually joined.  We decided to come up with a solution for one group to start: boat owners.  Each student made their design of a dock that adapt to changing conditions.  One student’s was a two tiered system, while another’s was a floating model.  Each idea was recorded on video; model making will begin on Monday (what a value it is to talk with other educators after class!).  I will never consider my “teaching” on this day to be my best, nor was it the best learning day for the two students with whom I spent the latter portion of the day.  But it was a day where understandings were made, and a product created.  The leaving was on good terms, and I think there’s reason for hope.  Hope is a good thing, as was once said beautifully in film.

Roberta, Sal, Michele, and Steve have been stars.  So have the kids.

Energy is building…but so are the nerves.  How do we continue to make this real.  How do we support them in their growth as students, as learners.  We want engagement…but at times…it starts with compliance.  For the few who struggle with that…how do we proceed?  That’s my question, among others, to wrestle with over the next days.

Week one in the books.  On to week two.  Thanks for reading.



Rising Tide–Day 3

July 12, 2017

I missed out on yesterday’s session due to interviews.  That’s ok…the kids didn’t, and neither did the other adult learners.

Any concerns I had that day one was a fluke were allayed by a brief visit to the teachers as they met following student dismissal on 7/11.  Causes of the high water level of Lake Ontario were brought further into the light.  The role of discharge rates of a dam on the St. Lawrence Seaway brought interest…dawning of recognition.  Labeling of a map which included the Welland Canal allowed the class to make more sense of “our” Lake and its geographic position and significance.

A comment by a student was overheard…”this is better than real school…”  Not that that is the goal, but it does make me consider why this seems better.  More teachers? Different subject matter? Not sure…and we are mindful always of the “implementation dip;” as in, that great, energizing idea which becomes all the more challenging to put into actual practice.

30 minutes before showtime on day three, I saw from my desk three of our learners following one of our teachers–instead of biding their time in the aud, they went upstairs to the classroom to prep for the day.  Maybe not through study, but through making coffee, pouring juice, arranging the tray of cookies.  Small things perhaps, but the makings of a culture.  Throughout next 15 minutes, more and more came by my door, heading upstairs.  I soon joined them.

Day three we tackled an article.  Our ELA teacher led the work.  The Seaway…boon or bust? was the gist.  We chunked the article…numbered paragraphs, each group responsible for three of them.  Three compelling facts, one question from each.  Each group shared with class; we practiced the necessary learner behaviors (all ages) of listening…thinking of other questions.  The issues we found didn’t help us focus our research, but rather gave us a multitude of perspectives.  Maybe even confused us.  Great Lakes shipping.  History of the seaway system.  The shipping channels and canals…needing widening and more depth to handle modern ocean vessels…zebra mussels…rise of hydro power…clean right?  But not really as pollution from nearby industries (attracted by the cheap power) harms the land…its people…its animals.  The Moses Saunders Power Dam…discharge rates.  The competing desires—high water for shipping and hydro power, low water for southern shore homeowners and communities, just right for marina owners (don’t flood the parking lot, but let me get to my boat!).  This 45 year old mind tries to grapple with all this information…St. Lawrence Seaway…opening trade to the ocean of the Atlantic, rise of dams, introduction of power plants, growth of industry, increased pollution, cheap trade…invasive species…water levels…who benefits?  Who gets hurt?  Who decides?

Our learners are nibbling around the edges of these questions.  Pollution–bad.  Jobs–good.  What a contradiction…how to wrestle with these stubborn facts.

Our elementary principal guided us through the process of gmail account creation, use of google docs, and spent time with us and connected with learners.  That’s the mark of a learning community too; guidance and care from others…respect for the knowledge of others…we’ll see more of that in the days before us…

On site at Krull Park tomorrow.  Our first foray into documentary making; research.  The students in this class…they’re being asked to “bring it,” to be researchers, and debaters of points.  There were blips today, there was downtime, but the seeds planted are starting to grow.

More to come tomorrow.  Thanks for reading–