Moving from “Why” to “Will This Be on the Test?” – Keeping the Curiosity Alive

As CSD gets deeper and deeper into our five year accreditation renewal process, we have been spending significant time, both as an admin team and also as a school, reflecting on best practices in education, more specifically on how our current CSD practices impact the students we serve.  This type of deep reflection affords us the opportunity to revisit our school’s mission and vision and determine our strengths as well as our areas for growth.  It also begs us to answer the question, “Why are we doing what we are doing?”  This morning during a CSD Lottery Open House, we alluded to something Dr. Boyer once said in one of his very eloquent public speeches.  He was referring to the importance of intrinsic motivation and commented that sadly in our schools, students often shift from asking “Why?” to asking “Will this be on the test?” somewhere around the fourth grade.  The first time I heard this it stopped me in my tracks, partly because it made me so sad and partly because I knew from my own personal experiences as an educator that it was true.  So my response to Dr. Boyer’s observation is the most obvious one – “Why?” Continue reading

Feel the Love

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, a very special CSD tradition was born.  The year was 2001.  Picture a quaint little learning cottage (aka – trailer) at the Lake Norman Baptist Church filled with 18 bright-eyed little people.  As is the case for most of the elementary school years, sacred and secular holidays are cause for great excitement and celebration.  These small milestones mark the passage of time, and through their celebrations, we close out old chapters and begin new ones.  For teachers and students, Valentine’s Day is such a Holiday – a little bite of fun sandwiched in-between the post-Christmas/Hanukkah lag and the longing of a deeply desired Spring.  As Mrs. Tomko (formerly known as Miss Dearmin) began to ponder how she would celebrate this holiday with her students, she reflected on her own experiences as a child.  And the story goes like this…   Continue reading

So That Each May Learn

As you all know, CSD is committed to continual improvement.  Each year at our annual staff retreat and throughout the summer, we examine our current practices and programs and look for ways we can improve as an organization.  We use staff, student, and parent input along with our observations as administrators to help set school improvement goals for the coming year.

Last year, we identified several school improvement goals, one of which included keeping our most academically advanced students challenged and showing growth.  Most any educator would agree that this goal represents a hefty task, perhaps one of the most daunting challenges we face.  Please consider this blog an effort to keep parents informed as to our progress regarding this goal.   While we are doing much well with our academically advanced students, we continue to reflect upon and evaluate how we can best meet their learning needs.  As we consider strategies,  it is essential that we continue to keep this particular population of students engaged in what Carol Ann Tomlinson (DI expert and guru) often refers to as “respectful tasks.”


Part of this school improvement goal involves taking the 2015-2016 school year to assess our current practices and renew our knowledge around the educational research and best practices associated with academically gifted education.  CSD has always been committed to current research and trends in our field so we will definitely spend the entire year studying the most current research on this topic.  As we were re-reading some prominent literature on differentiated instruction, we were struck by something profound – something that we hadn’t thought of in quite some time.  Differentiated instruction is also known as “responsive teaching.”  When we think of it in these terms – responsive teaching rather than differentiated instruction – we immediately start to conjure up more authentic approaches to assessment and instruction.  Remember, education is not something we are “doing” to children.  Education is something that occurs from within the developing student.  Therefore, as educators, our job is to truly know our students and match learning tasks to them, not vice versa.  We should not expect our kids to conform to our teaching, but we should tailor our instruction to meet the needs of the child.  And if we stop and think about it, the only way this can happen is if we, as educators, are engaged in a continuous cycle of assessment.  Assessment informs instruction, and without assessing critical factors such as who the children are (socially, emotionally, physically, etc… – the whole child), how the children learn (learning styles, personality type, cognitive construct, etc…), and what the children know (background knowledge related to content), then there is no way we can effectively succeed in the act of responsive teaching.  Without the ongoing assessment (both formal and informal) that occurs daily in our practice, we are nothing more than distributors of knowledge, which may or may not reach our intended audience.  

So as we’ve reflected on what we’re currently doing, much has been affirmed by our reading:

Practices/Strategies Affirmed and Continued:

  •      Human Resources:  (Our adult to child ratio for the entire K-12 program is 1:6!)

As stated earlier, we expect teachers to know their students deeply and thoroughly.  This level of “knowing” is intense and challenging.  And it is one of many reasons that while schools around our state cut assistants and special programs, CSD has hunkered down in the storm to make sure that our student to adult ratio is far better than any public school (and most private schools) in the state.  Let us be explicit here; human resources allow us the time to converse with and coach our students as individual learners in a variety of different disciplines.

  •      Pre-Assessment:

Pre-assessment truly is the cornerstone of all differentiated instruction.  Of course, teachers must always remember to “begin with the end in mind” through backwards design planning to pre-assess.   The assessment for any unit should be available and ready for students before instruction begins and that assessment should not be a secret.  We WANT our students to know where they are headed with their learning and what we expect at the end to show mastery and understanding.  From pre-assessment data, teachers can devise groups and develop tiered assignments.   

  •   Responsive Teaching:

As the unit progresses, teachers anticipate that different students will master the material at different rates.  Therefore, lesson plans must comprise the following layers:

o   Re-teaching for students who struggle with the content

o   Compacting for students who learn quickly and need to jump to a higher level assignment

o   Enrichment (alternate assignments) for students who already display content mastery

*Note – Please keep in mind that flexible grouping is the means by which teachers accomplish meeting the needs of diverse learners.  These groups are not static and may change throughout the year and among the disciplines.

  •      Gifted Curriculum Accessible to All:

When we examine gifted curriculum in the typical school setting, it tends to include the following: problem-based learning, critical and divergent thinking exercises, student choice, multi-disciplinary experiences, etc.  Typically these opportunities are available on a limited timeframe to a select group of students.  At CSD, we believe these types of quality curricular opportunities should be accessible to all students throughout the entire school day, which is precisely why we allocate 75% of our total school budget to human resources so that teachers are empowered to differentiate instruction and respond to the individual learning needs of their students.

  •      Internships, Independent Studies: In high school, students have the opportunity to work one on one with an administrator to identify academic and vocational areas of high interest and to develop a credited, honors-level internship or independent study. All students pursuing self-directed study follow a detailed syllabus designed to help students reflect upon, adjust and adapt to, and document their learning. An administrator meets regularly with these students to re-frame and revise the structure and learning goals for the internship or independent study to assess student performance and progress.
  •      Heavy Emphasis on K-12 Arts, including Performances and Programs
  •      8th Grade Practicum: Students participate in a year-long course that focuses on identifying challenges in the community and bringing skills learned in the classroom to bear on real-world issues. Students work in small groups, led by a faculty or staff mentor, to partner with a local organization or community leader to examine a timely issue and identify and pursue a response to that issue.
  •      AP Course Offerings

New Pilot Programs and Targeted Improvements:

  •      Virtual HS Math 1 for 7th Graders
  •      Increased literacy facilitator time to target advanced math students
  • Using test prep resources to better meet the needs of our most advanced learners; for example using Study Island resources at advanced levels as appropriate (ex: advanced math 7th graders using study island grade 8 level) to promote more growth at all academic levels
  •      ACT/SAT test analysis to better compact HS math instruction for advanced math students
  •      Senior level math classes give time and attention to challenging mathematical thinking, problem-solving, and application
  •      Word Study and Vocabulary Development – We are analyzing individual student accountability for spelling and vocabulary development in grades K-12.
  •      MS Robotics Team (both competitive and instructional levels)
  •      Advanced High School Spanish 1 option (in addition to existing Math 1 option) for 8th Graders
  •      8th Grade iCreate class
  •      Science Olympiad (Grades 4/5)

In conclusion, we would like to offer a quote from Rick Wormeli’s book Differentiation.

“Mental dexterity is the new currency.  A country’s most important exports include its citizens’ ability to innovate and solve problems.  Today’s students must learn how to continually manage, critique, and increase their knowledge.  To cultivate these capacities in all students, including those who are ready to move beyond the regular education standards, we will need to adapt and expand our own practices as well.” (pg. 3, Differentiation: From Planning to Practice by Rick Wormeli)  

While we cannot promise perfection, we can promise that we, as educators, are committed to giving all children the best education humanly possible.  We are committed to educating both the heart and the mind, for one without the other surely falls short of being complete.  We are committed to staying abreast of current research and trends in the field of education so we are equipped to meet students where they are and personalize their learning in a way that affects their overall growth and achievement.  And as always, we are committed to working with the parents, our partners in education, in accomplishing our mission of providing a stimulating environment where educational tasks are meaningful, purposeful, and relevant.  As we head into the winter season, please know your questions and feedback as parents are valued.  These young people are incredibly special to all of us, and by working together towards a common goal, the sky truly is the limit.

Rainy Days – Look on the Bright Side

By the time you’ll be reading this, the weekend’s dreariness will be long gone, but I decided to capitalize on this occurrence nonetheless. Rainy days, especially when they fall on the weekends, can certainly seem like a bummer at first, but upon second glance, they just might be a blessing in disguise. Last Saturday afternoon, as I was scooting around in the soggy mess running a few errands, I was able to catch an old NPR re-run of Sir Ken Robinson’s interview about creativity. In listening to him speak (in his charmingly eloquent British accent, I might add) I really began to think about the creative development of our children. If you haven’t heard Sir Ken’s Ted Talks, I highly recommend them. He is a very innovative, out-of-the-box thinker with progressive ideas on ways our outdated schools are no longer serving our current population of students. One of his most compelling arguments is that our schools’ overall “set up” tends to produce convergent thinkers as opposed to divergent thinkers. In convergent thinking, there is typically one right answer and a fairly mainstream way to arrive Continue reading

“Be” With Your Kids – The Power of Reading

being-and-doingFor those of you who know me, you know that I will be facing a pretty major milestone in the next few weeks. My only child, Jack, is about to complete his final day of elementary school. While I’ve been living in the world of middle school professionally for quite some time, this is my first (and only) foray into this world as a parent. Like all of you, I have mixed emotions about this. While I am 100% certain he is ready for this next leg of his journey, I am also sad to see this chapter of his childhood come to a close. I find myself walking in that emotionally complex place where one foot is planted in sappy nostalgia and the other is dancing the edge of eager anticipation. While I’m sure all of this is completely normal, I know that the true secret to happiness is pulling both feet together and using them to tow the line of the “here and now.”  Continue reading

The “Secret” Everyone Should Know

I don’t know how this is even possible, but here we are…entering the last stretch of this school year. This year marks a very special point in my career. It was eight years ago that I joined the CSD family as a very eager 4/5 lead teacher. I remember everything so vividly, from my interview, to my first staff retreat, to my first set of Covenant Conferences, to the first day those angels walked in mine and Mrs. Aichele’s 4th grade classroom. I can see the room plain as day. I can smell the “back to school” smells of new markers, new glue sticks, and freshly laminated name tags. I can see the new backpacks hanging on their hooks, and I can hear the sound of the children’s laughter as we shared stories over Morning Meeting. I can vividly recall each and every face –sometimes filled with wonder and awe, sometimes filled with happiness and joy, sometimes filled with anxiety and fear. Continue reading

The Quest for “Normal”

Last weekend, CSD hosted our third annual Fresh Take Conference. As in years past, it proved to be a wonderful event filled with sharing, learning, reflecting, and dreaming. It is very powerful and affirming to be surrounded by educators from other walks of education, yet being tied together by a passion for kids and learning! While I had many “aha” moments during the conference, one of my most meaningful realizations occurred during Michelle Icard’s keynote speech. For those of you who don’t know Icard’s work (also known as “Michelle in the Middle”), she is a wealth of information on the topic of pre-adolescent development during the formative middle school years. Her book, Middle School Makeover is a wonderful resource for parents. I highly recommend it!   Back to my “aha”…. Michelle refers to this stage of development as the “Middle School Construction Project” wherein middle school students are building the following three things:

  • a mature brain
  • a grown-up body
  • a unique identity

Continue reading

What You Focus on Expands

I’m sure at some point in your life you’ve heard this expression. As is the case with many familiar concepts, this is much easier said and done. For example, I can recount numerous episodwhat-you-focus-on-expandses in my career where I encountered criticism from either a parent, a student, or a colleague, and rather than focusing on the 98% of people who were happy and satisfied with my performance,I poured a tremendous amount of energy fretting about that other 2%. Now…if this concept holds true, and I do believe it does, think of how my focus changed my reality. Rather than concentrating on all the things I was doing well, I put the majority of my focus on how I was not living up to someone else’s expectations, and before I knew it, my whole reality became about my shortcomings – or even worse – other people’s perceptions of my shortcomings. Crazy, huh? Especially if those percentages are accurate! But here’s what I’ve learned. I’m not the only one who does this. In fact, I think this is a fairly common occurrence. So I’ve spent some time thinking about why that is. Why are we humans so inclined to focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right? Continue reading

When It’s All Said and Done…

Dear Parents,

Tis the season of report cards and “grades,” so I thought I would take this opportunity to revisit a core, fundamental component of the CSD philosophy. Much research has been done around the notion of ‘motivation,’ and a few glaring truths tend to surface in each study. When people are motivated by external factors (grades being an example of this), not only is the desired outcome compromised, but the ‘motivation’ tends to wane over Continue reading

Education: It’s Not Broken!

I am continuously disappointed and disturbed by what the media says about education. Each day I walk through classes and am amazed by what our students say and do. I promise that if you could walk in my shoes, you too, would be impressed. Last week I witnessed Socratic seminars in the English classes at high school that astounded me. Students were asking tough questions and thinking about important issues. I watched students pound through some complex science and math concepts that I am certain none of us faced until college. Connie and I have daily conversations with high school students Continue reading