Monday, February 20, 2017

A Different Approach to Story Time

I have four children under the age of 9 and both my wife and I work full time. I understand the “busyness” associated with raising children. There are only so many remaining hours left in the day to spend time with our children after work and school. These limited hours are often consumed by making dinner, helping our school-aged children with homework, and completing other odds and ends to prepare for the next day. Most parents like me hastily try to get through books like Pinkalicious or Llama Llama Misses Mama before we get our preschooler into bed. By the end of the night we are exhausted. The research is clear, I know it is important to read to my children, but I often wonder if my focus on “getting it done” due to lack of time actually develops a love of reading within them.

I read a recent research article from the Peabody Reflector at Vanderbilt University. Researchers found that if parents used a simple technique called dialogic questioning while reading, they would improve their children’s developing language and literacy skills at a much higher rate. Instead of reading the story straight through, the parent paused occasionally to ask their children open ended questions. Here are some examples provided by the researchers, “What’s going to happen next?” or “Why do you think that happened?” When we pause and ask them these types of questions we encourage a deeper understanding and mastery of language that may not have happened if we read straight through. This research has shifted how I read to my children and I feel like they appreciate the conversations that we have while we read. The researchers suggest that the primary goal is not to get to the end of the book, it is the about the engagement between the parent and the child. It’s not just about exposing children to a number of words, it’s more about engaging with them. Asking what happens next, and listening to their answers – that’s what brings about language development.

The researchers also studied the effects of shows like Baby Einstein, Dora the Explorer, and Blue’s Clues, on preschoolers’ learning and found that parents were an important part to their success as well. Each of the above mentioned shows have an element of dialogic questioning embedded within the program. Characters within each of these shows pause and ask children questions like, “where is the blue house?” During the study, children rarely engaged with the question being asked on the television unless a parent helped them. The researchers explained, “For preschoolers, it isn’t natural or easy for them to learn from screens. They’re going to learn a lot more if an adult is there with them, engaging them, just like you would with a book. A TV character or avatar may engage a child, but for learning purposes, nothing is as effective as a parent or caregiver.” When parents watched the show with them, their child’s vocabulary and comprehension were significantly higher than those who watched the show by themselves. Dialogic questioning is effective in developing early language and literacy skills in both reading and educational programming on television. It really comes down to engagement, how engaged are we in developing our child’s early literacy skills?

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Rugby Early Learning Center is now accepting applications.

This preschool program is for everyone. We plan to provide 40 preschool slots for ages 3-5 beginning next school year.  There will be free slots for families that qualify and a small fee for families that exceed that income level.  We will have a screening process for all students in case we exceed the slots that are available.

Applications can be picked up at Rugby High School, Ely Elementary, and Headstart.  They also can be found online at our district’s website.  The deadline for applications for the 2017-2018 school year is on April 7, 2017. The preschool will consist of four full days Monday through Thursday.  The hours of operation will be 8:30AM to 3:00PM and the duration of the program will be from September to May.  Please call Mike McNeff at (701) 776-5201 for more information.  We are excited to provide this excellent opportunity for preschool age children and parents!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

You should read: Fierce Conversations

I am reading Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott. This is an excellent read even for those that are able to have crucial conversations with ease. The ability to have quality conversations plays a large part in being an effective leader. Without positive conversations we cannot get our points across and move the organization forward. A fierce conversation seems like it would involve a lot of yelling and quite uncomfortable. According to Susan Scott, “a fierce conversation is one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real." How often do we have real conversations? I always feel better about our direction when I can get in and talk about what really matters. Many of our conversations only scratch the surface.

Principle 1: Master the courage to interrogate reality.
"Are my truths in the way?"
Scott suggests that we need the courage to interrogate reality. This reminds me of Good to Great by Jim Collins. Collins used the analogy of looking under the rocks for squiggly things which is similar to what Scott suggests. We cannot be afraid of what we uncover and we have to actively seek out reality. Reality is constantly changing and is often different from person to person. If we have a better idea of our reality it is much easier to make decisions that will move the organization forward.

Principle 2: Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.
"What are we pretending not to know?"
How do we get the unfiltered story? I think the challenge for me is finding the time and the space to have these types of conversations. In my role I find this difficult, because I am often only getting to surface conversations due to the busyness of the school day. I have found that I have to schedule these types of conversations to make them happen. I also believe being visible in both of my schools is extremely important. If I am out of the office I am more approachable, which may provide an opportunity to have a fierce conversation.

Principle 3: Be here, prepared to be nowhere else.
"While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship or a life – Any single conversation can."
"The conversation is the relationship. One conversation at a time, you are building, destroying, or flatlining your relationships."
It is flat out easier to connect with certain people. How do we connect with those that are wrapped in Teflon and carrying a shield? Connecting with all employees is difficult and takes constant work. We need to have a quality relationship with all coworkers and employees. Obviously it is much easier to connect with those that share the same views, but that will only take your school or organization so far.

Scott recommends the following:

  • Start with this question, “What is the most important thing you and I should be talking about?”
  • Listen and don’t do most of the talking. 
  • Don’t take the problem from them. 
  • Inquire about feelings. 
  • Be clear.
  • No cancellations, unless someone dies. 
  • Don’t allow interruptions (eye contact and disconnect from technology). 
  • Don’t run out of time, establish next steps.
  • Don’t assume the conversation went well. 

Principle 4: Tackle your toughest challenge today.
"Make it your job as a leader to give up mole whacking and take up grub hunting." 
I have a quote taped to my monitor that reads, “no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no blaming others, no I’ll do tomorrows, and no excuses.” Time is of the essence when issues arise. I find that I am less stressed when I have a fierce conversation as soon as possible. The conversation never goes as bad as you think it will go.

Common errors according to Scott:

  • Avoid starting with “So, How’s it going” this is an age-old lead-in to bad news. Get to the point quickly. 
  • Don’t use praise as a lead-in to a confrontation. 
  • Don’t put too many pillows around a message. Be clear and concise.

Principle 5: Obey your instincts
"All conversations are with myself and sometimes I involve others."
"The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said."
"A careful conversation is a failed conversation."
Principle 6: Take responsibility for your emotional wake
"Everything each of us says leaves an emotional wake. Positive or negative."  
"Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about each of us in the organization. It’s the story that’s told when we’re not in the room."
Hard feelings often remain after difficult conversations. It really comes down to how clear and compassionate we are in the moment. We all have to gauge the emotional wake that we have left behind, because that will impact our relationships down the road.
"The conversation is not about the relationship; the conversation is the relationship." 
Principle 7: Let silence do the heavy lifting.
"Silence makes us nervous. So do innovation, change, and genius."
"The more emotionally loaded the subject, the more silence is required."
It is difficult to include silence into conversations. We often want to fill that space between our words with talk, because silence is often uncomfortable. Silence is often one of the best techniques when having a difficult conversation. It allows both people to slow the conversation down and think about what needs to be said. 

Any insight on how you handle difficult conversations? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Quality professional learning comes in all shapes and sizes.

For the past four years we have used late-start Wednesdays, early outs, and full days for professional development. These various formats of professional development may be inconvenient for working families, but these days are imperative to the success of our teachers. During this time our teachers have worked hard to develop their craft within their subject areas and grade levels.

Teaching is a profession. All professionals need time and opportunities to update, to train, to interact with other professionals, to hone their craft, to reflect on their work, to get better. Effective professional development is distributed over time and not jammed into a single day. We offer a variety of learning opportunities for teachers. These opportunities range from full days, to early outs, and to our weekly late starts. These various structures provide opportunities to differentiate our professional development for teachers.

Professionals need opportunities to: become aware of best practices, observe others modeling new or different practices, have opportunities to practice, receive feedback, reflect and interact with others. Professional learning communities which meet on late-start Wednesday and at other times are opportunities for teachers to engage with one another to focus on each of these questions:

What do our students need to know and be able to do?

How will we know if they can do it? (How will we evaluate student work to measure their mastery?)

What we will we do for students who already can do what is expected?

What will we do to support and help students who have not achieved the standards?

When teachers are able to meet regularly to reflect on practice, examine student work, agree on
common outcomes, research best practice, observe others, share effective practices, everyone benefits. The traditional structure of the school day has not allowed for this type of practice. At RPS we have intentionally built time for teachers to improve their craft. Sometimes the lumberjack has to stop sawing to sharpen his blade to improve production. This is no different than the teaching profession, sometimes we need time away from teaching to improve teaching.

We are proud of the work of our teachers at Rugby Public School District!

Monday, December 5, 2016

Common beliefs about grading and reporting.

Our highest performing PLCs report out on the standard. With this in mind we need to have conversations about what our core beliefs are in relation to grading and reporting. We have pockets of teachers who report out on the standard. To continue our work in this area we need to develop some consistencies and core beliefs across the district. Our school improvement committees have helped to develop the survey questions below to help gain feedback from teachers.

We will be putting together a task force to meet over a period of time to review the survey results, review the research, have dialogue, gather input from stakeholders, and then create a set of beliefs that we share as a district in relation to grading and reporting.

The survey is broken down into four areas: Practice, Curricular Alignment, Behavior, and Multiple Opportunities. We believe these are the key areas for our task force to focus on.

Here's an example of how each question is setup on the Google Form:


Description: Homework is defined as additional practice beyond what is done in the classroom.

  1. I believe all homework that I assign is meaningful and supports the student's learning. 
  2. I believe homework should not be included in the final grade. 
  3. I believe formative assessment should not be used for grading purposes, only for feedback.
Curricular Alignment

Description: How aligned is your curriculum to your I Can Statements?
  1. I believe all classroom instruction and assessments should be aligned to my I Can Statements.
  2. I believe it is important to provide multiple learning opportunities for students to demonstrate growth for each I Can Statement.
  3. I believe it is important to regularly report progress to parents and students based on the I Can Statement.


Description: Behavior is defined as anything that would be included in the grade that changes the reporting of mastery. For example, late assignments, classroom behavior, poorly completed assignments, missing homework, zeros, and etc.

  1. I believe behavior should be reported separately from the student's academic grade.
  2. I believe zeros teach students responsibility.
  3. I believe zeros cloud the reporting about what a student knows and is able to do. 
  4. I believe students should always receive full credit when they turn in their late or missing assignments.
  5. I believe it is acceptable to use bonus points/extra credit in a student's grade. 

Multiple Opportunities:

  1. I believe reiteration of a skill or concept is a significant part of competence. Redos and retakes are important to determine mastery.
  2. I believe redos and retakes should replace the grade and not be subject to reduced points. 
  3. I believe the latest grade should be used and not the average when determining mastery. 
More to come....

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

College remediation rate...a moving target


Like most school leaders I am concerned with the remediation rates reported by the different entities within our state. Remediation refers to the percentage of college freshman students that take remedial courses due to low ACT scores. This article isn't about directing blame, it is more about the inconsistency in reporting this data. Higher education naturally could blame K-12 for lack of preparation which led to remediation and K-12 could blame higher education for not providing a better atmosphere for individual students to succeed. Who's problem is remediation anyway? I personally think it is a shared problem and one that needs a shared solution. 

Recently, I began to research this topic. I started by contacting our community colleges, regional colleges, and our two research institutions within our state. I also reached out to approximately 15 other states and requested their remediation rates for incoming freshman. Finally, I reached out to the North Dakota University System.

This is what I learned…

Remediation may not impact on-time degree completion like previously thought.

When we compare a student that needs remediation versus those who do not, it appears it may take longer for degree completion for those that take remedial courses. Remediation may lead to higher student loan amounts for a student and a higher likelihood of not completing their degree program. As I researched this topic I found that this may not be true. This study focused on North Dakota community colleges and whether remediation courses increased the length of their degree completion. The data was generated from the North Dakota Statewide Longitudinal Data System. Based on the findings it does not appear that the act of taking a remedial Mathematics and/or English course at an NDUS Community College negatively affects a student’s likelihood of completing an Associate Degree on-time. The study found that delayed degree completion had more to do with the academic differences of the student than the required remedial classes. To say remediation automatically increases the time to complete a degree may not be entirely correct.

North Dakota does pretty well when compared to states within our region. 

As mentioned previously, I contacted 15 different states and asked for their overall percentage of students that needed some level of remediation. I received information from five different states so far. I think the Iowa Department of Education said it best, "Unfortunately, there is no uniform approach to remedial education and no standardized remedial data." As you review the remediation rates below, please know that each state calculates remediation differently and I would make the argument that each college in their state may determine remediation differently. Adding to the confusion, agencies within the state may determine remediation differently. For example, in North Dakota, the North Dakota University System has a different percentage than the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. So, long story short, I am not sure about the accuracy of the data found below.

Minnesota Remediation Rate: 26%
(Based on 2013 data)
Montana Remediation Rate: 26%
(Based on 2015 fall data)
South Dakota Remediation Rate: 26%
(Based on 2014 data)
North Dakota Remediation Rate: NDUS: 25.31% and ND DPI: >40%
(NDUS based on 2016 fall data, unsure of ND DPI data)
Iowa Remediation Rates: 23.2%
(Based on 2012-2014 cohorts)

Inconsistent reporting may be occurring throughout our state. 

After contacting colleges and universities throughout the state of North Dakota it appears that there may be some inconsistencies when determining who qualifies for remediation and who does not. The two regional colleges I contacted have consistent cut scores for remediation. They follow recommended cut scores established by NDUS to determine remediation. Students who are unable to score an 18 on the English sub test and a 21 on the math sub test of the ACT can take the Compass test to avoid remediation. The cut scores for the Compass test at the regional colleges are a 49 in math and a 77 in writing. If the student is unable to get the required ACT and Compass score they are placed in remedial courses. The courses vary depending on the level of the ACT score. One of the research institutions in our state follows the similar ACT cut scores, but varied on the Compass cut score and used a different test for English. The cut score to avoid remediation was a 41 on the English Compass test and a 50 on the math Compass test. Therefore this research institution is using a different test for English and a higher cut score for math to determine remediation. If these conflicting data points get thrown into the same pot to determine North Dakota’s remediation rate, how will we compare apples to apples?

More questions.

If we are going to quantify our remediation rates across the state shouldn’t they be standardized for each institution?

Currently, ND DPI reports over 40% and NDUS reports 25.31% for overall remediation in North Dakota. If we report our remediation rates shouldn’t ND DPI and NDUS report the same data?

Compass will be phased out for Accuplacer within the next few months, but not all colleges may use Accuplacer according to school representatives. This may create further differences.


Here is our own data from the 2008-2013 cohort. It is broken down by the type of school.

Community College: 21.2%
Regional College: 24.3%
Research Institution: 4.2%

Check out this article from the Washington Post:

How college remediation rates are distorted - and why.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Climate and culture

During our early out last week I was able to spend some time with all support staff at RPS. Our discussion focused primarily on the climate and culture within our schools. We also spent some time discussing The Fred Factor (this year's book read for all support staff). Here is my PowerPoint: