On Unity Day, a new guide to fight bullying

As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, I remember what it was like to be bullied. Classmates pointed and stared at my awkward gate. Children and parents, whether out of fear or misunderstanding, said deeply hurtful things to me. It’s hard—being different.

I persevered for one reason: because of my friends—a core support system of classmates, coaches and teachers who were empathetic to the challenges I faced, who got to know me for me, and not for the surface physical differences between us.

October is National Bullying Awareness Month—and that’s good. Because we, as educators and community leaders, are in desperate need of some introspection on the topic. Across the country, students are struggling to overcome the sting and hurt of mental and physical abuse.

Our schools are supposed to be sanctuaries, safe havens where children are empowered to learn and grow and achieve uncommon success in spite of personal struggle. But when statistics tell us that nearly one in four children has been bullied in school or that 64 percent of schoolchildren who are bullied do not report the incident to a parent or educator out of fear, we know our schools are in need of a serious course correction.

Time to make change

That work starts with teaching students and parents and teachers to be kind to one another. As Rob Ellis, founder and chief executive of the national advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying poignantly reminds us, “If children are not taught empathy, then bullying will continue to be pervasive in our schools.”

To help in the fight against bullying, we recently released The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

In this brief guide, you’ll learn:

  • How school districts in states such as New York and South Carolina are amplifying student voice and feedback to beat back bullying in their local communities.
  • Signs to watch for when students feel threatened or are at risk of being bullied.
  • Practical solutions to help you systematically eradicate the plague of physical and verbal abuse in your schools.

It’s no coincidence that we chose to release the guide on Unity Day 2016. On this day, schools across the country stand together (in orange) to conquer bullying with kindness and inclusion. We hope this guide helps in that fight.

Let’s band to together to stop bullying this day—and every day. Are you with me?

Get The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to Bullying Prevention.

Instilling the skill, will, and thrill of learning in students

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

We all learn differently. Okay, so you already knew that.

Some of us are visual learners. Others learn better by reading or listening.

Over the past several years, educators have sought to identify their students’ singular learning styles, and then train them how to use their specific styles to their advantage.

While this approach is well intentioned, it’s also a mistake, says education expert, speaker, and author Peter DeWitt.

In a recent post on his Education Week blog “Finding Common Ground,” DeWitt argues that labelling students with one particular learning style unnecessarily discourages them from pursuing others, which in turn boxes them into one particular way of learning.

Instead, DeWitt posits, educators should focus on teaching students different learning strategies to make them more adaptable, and encourage them to grow in how they learn.

That, of course, will require teachers who understand effective learning strategies and a support system that encourages students to take a chance on new approaches.

Style vs. strategy

Labelling a student based on a learning style automatically places them in a box, says DeWitt.

As he writes in his post:

It’s not that we don’t have preferred methods of learning, but too often our students are boxed in by their learning styles as if they didn’t have more than one. … It became a big issue because students, and their parents and teachers, began to believe that students only had one way of preferred learning which prevented them from strengthening other styles of learning.

Instead of focusing solely on how a student learns and working from there, DeWitt says we should provide students with tools that encourage them to learn in different ways.

He identifies four types of strategies, based on the work of education experts John Hattie and Gregory Donoghue:

  • Cognitive: Strategies to deepen understanding of a subject. Think: Making students elaborate on what they’ve learned.
  • Metacognitive: Strategies to help students understand how they learn and what they need to do to be effective. Think: Helping students plan ahead.
  • Motivational: Strategies that motivate students to learn. Think: Instilling in students the confidence that they can accomplish a task.
  • Management: Strategies to make sure students work efficiently. Think: Finding the right resources for learning.

Of course, within each category, there are hundreds of ways to help students learn — and, students will have varying success using each one.

At their core, learning strategies instill in students what Hattie and Donoghue label the “skill, will, and thrill” of learning. That means that, before a new lesson, students have the skills they need, the proper mindset to make sure learning happens, and the motivation to deepen their understanding.

A community effort

New learning strategies don’t get adopted overnight.

But, if you do want to make a meaningful change in your students’ learning, consider focusing on strategies rather than style.

What does that mean for your district?

First, it means making sure your teachers are well-versed in the learning strategies that will help their students succeed. Do you cover the newest learning strategies in your professional development sessions?

Next, it means equipping parents to support the learning strategies at home. That means you need to better engage with parents about your new approach.

Most importantly, students need to understand that implementing new strategies will take time, and they might get frustrated.

Before you introduce anything new, make sure parents and students know why the changes are being made—and that they see the potential benefits.

Have you recently implemented new learning strategies in your classroom? How’d it go? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to introduce new learning approaches in your school? Make sure your teachers have the support they need.

Would you hire IBM’s Watson as a teacher’s aide?

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

Does being a “Jeopardy!” champion make you an education expert? Not necessarily.

But, in the case of Watson, the IBM computer platform that famously knocked-off trivia phenom Ken Jennings from his record-breaking quiz show pedestal, the notoriety doesn’t hurt.

According to a recent New York Times report, Watson’s next role could be as a virtual assistant to America’s school teachers.

Over the past two years, the IBM Foundation has worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build Teacher Advisor, a program that uses Watson’s artificial intelligence to answer teacher questions and help them develop personalized lesson plans.

The IBM Foundation plans to release a version of the program for third-grade math teachers by the end of this year.

Proponents say the program marks a big step toward strengthening the relationship between technology and teachers, some of who are still reluctant to embrace new innovations in the classroom.

As the relationship between technology and teaching evolves over time, school district leaders must strike a balance between the pressure for change and the due diligence needed to ensure that every investment has a positive desired impact on student learning.

Teaching coach of the future?
The hope is that IBM’s Teacher Advisor and other fringe AI innovations will help teachers navigate the vast amounts of available education information for different grade-levels and subject areas and help them craft customized lesson plans that fit students’ needs.

As IBM Foundation President Stanley S. Litow told the New York Times:

The idea was to build a personal adviser, so a teacher would be able to find the best lesson and then customize the lesson based upon their classroom needs. By loading a massive amount of content, of teaching strategies, lesson plans, you’d actually make Watson the teacher coach.

In some cases, educators and administrators say the new technology could aid teachers in complying with their state’s Common Core standards.

Remember, before the Common Core became a pariah to…pretty much everyone, it was, at its core, a set of standards for the lessons that students need to learn at the end of every grade level. Watson aims to not only help teachers understand what skills they’re required to teach, but also what prerequisite lessons students will need to foster those skills.

Teachers who’ve piloted the program tout its time-saving potential and its ability to constantly adapt, the New York Times reports.

As more teachers use the platform, the Teacher Advisor algorithm will adapt to better answer teachers’ questions and to provide more customized content. In other words, Watson learns.

Make an informed decision
It’s an exciting time for education technology. New initiatives like Teacher Advisor give us an eager glimpse into the future.

But no matter how exciting the possibilities, it’s important to step back and ask that all-important question: In the end, will Teacher Advisor and other solutions like it help students learn?

As you consider the answer to that question, don’t forget to ask students and teachers and parents what they think of the idea.

Do they think it’s worth it? Are parents equipped to support students when it comes to integrating these solutions in schools? What does your staff think about being asked to embrace an entirely new way of working?

Once you have made an informed decision, make sure your students, parents, and staff understand the path you’ve selected and they have the skills and resources to make it work.

That means comprehensive training for each new program as well as ongoing support from content experts.

There’s great technology on the horizon. Watson is one shining example. The question is now: “Are we ready to move forward?”

How do you engage your community before high stakes technology deployments? Tell us in the comments.

Planning a digital transformation in your schools? Here are a few ideas to consider first.

Battling the ‘creepy clown’ frenzy in schools

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

It sounds like the plot of a B-rated horror movie.

In the run up to Halloween, people dressed as creepy clowns stalk small-town streets and threaten children and families. Schools receive online threats of violence from people purporting to be clowns. And police work to tamp down the frenzy before it envelopes their worried community.

Except, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know this isn’t a movie. It’s happening.

Since August, when the first clown sightings were reported in South Carolina, there have been more than 100 clown sightings or threats made by people dressed as clowns across the United States. The offbeat social news site Atlas Obscura made an interactive map to track the phenomena in real time. Really.

Recent reports have spread beyond the United States to Canada and Europe.

While the vast majority of clown-related threats have been exposed as hoaxes, people dressed as clowns have been captured on video stalking houses and cemeteries and several arrests have been made for direct threats against citizens and schools, according to NBC News.

As absurd and not funny as this all seems, schools throughout the country are working to keep students protected from threats, both real and perceived.

The creepy clown epidemic makes for a good headline—and some people might think it’s overblown. But the attention presents a great opportunity to evaluate student and campus security. Here’s three things every school leader should do to keep students and teachers safe from outside threats.

Take threats seriously
No matter if it’s a student prank or something worse, assume every threat is real until proven otherwise.

Instances of clown threats against schools have run the gamut from texts to phone calls to social media posts.

Others instances have been more sinister.

Esquire reports that an Ohio woman was grabbed on her porch by a man in a clown costume. The man told the woman that attacks on local schools were imminent. Schools were closed the next day as a precaution.

Schools who’ve dealt with the phenomenon have had to walk a fine line between overblowing what might seem to some like a childish prank and seriously vetting potentially serious credible threats.

At Manassas City Public Schools (MCPS) in Virginia, administrators recently fielded concerns from parents on both sides of the debate. Some felt the district was taking the threats too seriously. Others said they appreciated the district’s diligence in investigating and communicating about the problem.

“We thought it was better to err on the side of too much information,” Almeta Radford, director of public communications at MCPS told TrustED.

The district sent social media, phone, and email messages along with letters updating parents and students on the situation and the district’s actions moving forward.

When you face a potential threat, even if it sounds absurd, don’t rule out the possibility of school delays or closures. Make sure your community understands the threat, your rationale for closing your schools, and your plan for dealing with threats moving forward.

Support students and families
The creepy clown phenomenon plays on a real fear of many children (and adults).

In Manassas City, Radford tells TrustED, “Students were coming in very anxious from middle school and down. There was a lot of anxiety with the students.”

When facing a potential threat in your schools, do you provide counseling and psychological support for students and staff?

Can you identify ways to use thwarted pranks and headline news stories as teachable moments?

Sarasota County School District in Florida recently offered counseling opportunities for all students after a series of prank clown threats against local schools there.

“We were trying to assure parents that there was no real threat from the clown issue that’s been happening,” district communications specialist Scott Ferguson told Your Observer. “We just wanted them to talk to their students and say that what kids do on social media does matter.”

Prevent frenzy through engagement
With so many clown sightings throughout the country, districts are looking for ways to prevent unnecessary panic.

Nothing stirs a frenzy like poor communication.

Before, during, and after these incidents, make sure your community understands your planning and what steps you are taking to improve safety and satisfy public concern.

Let community members vent if they need to and provide feedback on your approach. Stomp out unsubstantiated rumors on social media and elsewhere by keeping community members informed and engaged.

Have you dealt with creepy clown threats in your schools this fall? Share your stories in the comments.

Don’t let pranks turn into controversies. Here’s one way to help encourage authentic two-way communication in your schools.

The link between school climate and bullying

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

Every school leader knows how detrimental bullying is to the learning environment.

Emotive conversations on social media and in our classrooms are clear evidence that awareness campaigns, such as National Bullying Prevention Month (happening now), are vital to efforts to make schools safer and stronger.

When a student is harassed or belittled, be it in school or online, that abuse not only affects their personal outlook, it also often impacts the climate of the entire school or school district.

Often a poor school environment becomes a breeding ground for bullying and other safety and discipline challenges.

The key to making schools safer, starts with empowering students to embrace a strong sense of personal identity, posits Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of the anti-bullying group Not In Our Schools, in Edutopia.

Cohn-Vargas recommends creating an identity safe environment for students—basically, a place where all students feel welcomed and empowered to engage in learning and social activities in schools, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

It sounds like common sense. But the reality in a lot of schools is that students do not feel empowered, whether out of fear or some other reason.

Several school districts have great systems for dealing with bullying incidents once they’ve happened. The difference is that an identity-safe approach helps prevent incidents from even starting, writes Cohn-Vargas:

If bullying is handled only at the disciplinary level, underlying biases and attitudes about the kids who are perceived as different persist. Getting to a deeper level that truly leads to change goes beyond a bullying assembly, specific lessons, or disciplinary practices in response to bullying. It requires looking at the whole school environment.

So how do you transform your school into one that fosters inclusion and empowers personal identity?

Cohn-Vargas outlines four tips to transform your school climate to prevent bullying before it starts:

Make identity safety part of your curriculum
Encouraging inclusion should be an integral part of your educational philosophy.

“Foster identity safety in an environment of respect, empathy, and kindness by modeling it all day long through classroom and school-wide learning activities,” writes Cohn-Vargas.

This goes well beyond the occasional student assembly or guidance meeting. Schools need to engage students every day through revamped lesson plans, and collaborative decision-making. Faculty need to be specially trained and encouraged to foster that engagement.

Talk about the issues that divide students
No one likes a controversy, and tackling the hairy issue of student identity does not always make for an easy conversation. But real talk is the only way to root out the underlying issues that allow bullying and other forms of abuse to fester.

When students understand the experiences and struggles of their classmates, they’re much more likely to show empathy, says Cohn-Vargas.

Go beyond simple discipline
There will always be bullies in schools.

Your goal should be to discourage abusive behavior, to root it out, and teach against it.

What support do you provide students after they’ve been bullied? What kind of interventions besides punishment do you offer to bullies? Do you engage these students  in discussions about bad behavior and choices in school? Do you have any program to help students report and advocate against bullying or abusive behavior in school or online?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it’s time to rethink your approach.

Empower student voice
A positive school culture is a tough match for most bullies.

Giving students a platform to express themselves and their concerns encourages them to take ownership of their educations, inspires them to engage in school-related discussions, and equips them to stand up to bullying when it happens to them or to their friends.

How do you encourage students to express their identity and engage in school decision-making? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for ways to assess your school climate and make sure it’s working for everyone?  Don’t miss tomorrow’s webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality. Space is limited, so sign up now!

Room for improvement: High-performing schools can do better

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“Nobody’s perfect.” Cliché? Yes. True? Also, yes.

 Need proof? Look no farther than America’s public schools.

New analytics and specialized data enable educators to more easily track where our school districts are excelling—and where they still need work.

Even the best-performing schools have their share of poor-performing students.

Enter the turnaround schools model, a progressive approach to resource allocation and education funding that focuses education investment on targeted areas of weakness, as opposed to across-the-board spending.

Every school, no matter its graduation rate or average test score, has groups of students who require special attention. In high-performing schools, it’s often easy for these students to get overlooked. The challenge is to identify those students and develop strategies for pulling them up, as this article in Education Week explains.

While no one strategy will work for every district, the article outlines some areas where high-performing school districts should consider focusing their attention. Here are three that stand out:

School leadership
New learning strategies only work provided you first identify the problem.

This can prove difficult, especially when a school performs well on holistic indicators, such as graduation or class attendance.

The federal Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA) focuses heavily on using aggregated data to recognize subgroups of students who are underperforming, as Education Week points out.

The idea: to close achievement gaps along socio-economic lines in all schools, rather than focus solely on under-performing schools.

With new definitions of school and student success and better access to data, it’s up to school and district leaders to identify those students who need help and provide solutions to effectively level the academic playing field.

Instructional transformation
Schools that are most successful at closing achievement gaps customize teaching approaches for struggling students.

Case in point: When Brimhall Elementary School outside Minneapolis set out to tackle its widening achievement gap, principal Penny Bidne and her staff knew they had to rethink their instructional approach.

“We put our heads together,” Bidne told Education Week, “and we really work hard at figuring things out and what we need to have in place for all of our students to be achievers.”

That included the development of grade-level staff teams who discuss specific student performance and new ways to engage struggling students. The school also instituted small-group instruction to give struggling students more focused attention. And it implemented a 1-to-1 instructional program for students falling behind in reading.

So far, those efforts are paying off. In four short years, the school has been designated a “reward school” for the progress it has made to close the achievement gap in Minnesota.

Culture shift
Closing student achievement gaps requires more than new program and initiatives. In many high-performing schools, it requires a culture shift.

High-performing schools get used to trumpeting success. That’s good. But it doesn’t preclude them from also admitting weaknesses.

The worst mistake a strong school can make is to overlook or undervalue vital support and resources that lagging students need to succeed.

Peers and parents can play a vital role in this change.

For example, as Education Week reports, Brimhall Elementary implemented a buddy system that empowers successful students to help their struggling peers.

School leadership also held fairs that encouraged student achievement as well as parent nights to make sure parents were equipped to aid their children at home.

Note: Parent and student engagement is vital to the type of student turnarounds we’re talking about here.

Does your school or district provide different ways for struggling students and their families to reach out in search of help when and where they need it? Giving students and parents a voice will help you identify weak spots early and prescribe interventions before students fall off the pace.

Do you work in a high-performing school or district? What approaches do you take to encourage student improvement? Tell us in the comments. Want to give students and parents a way to help you identify and close weak spots in your schools? Start by asking for their feedback.