Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Importance of Making Student-Work Public

In my last blog, I highlighted the Hardy Holiday Expo.  It was an incredible event that was student-led and showcased the students' beautiful work. Three other schools held school-wide expos in December: Georgie Tyler Middle School, Smithfield High School and Windsor High School.  All the events provided an opportunity for students to display and discuss their work with a audience beyond their classroom.  Making student work public is a very important component of  project based learning.  Below is an excerpt from the book, An Ethic of Excellence, by Ron Berger that explains why showcasing student work with a wider audience is significant.  At the end of the blog, I have a link to a brief video with highlights from the four school-wide expos.  I am very proud of the students, the teachers and administrators who coordinated these outstanding events.  If you haven't been to an expo yet, please monitor the website calendar for dates, times and locations of future events.  I hope to see you there. 

I had no audience while doing my work when I was a student and no sense that my work meant something to someone.  Actually, I did have a singular audience: my teacher.  I turned in my work to a teacher who returned it with a grade, occasionally a comment.  The importance of the work seemed to singular: pleasing, or at least satisfying, the teacher.  The larger world had no interest in or knowledge of my work.  My friends didn’t care about the quality of my work or even whether it was done.  My family cared simply that the grades on my report card be good.  The work I did was really a private affair.

There were rare occasions when my work was public and these moments carried an entirely different sense of pressure and importance.  Many decades later I still remember the times I worried about doing a good job: the time in second grade when I was chosen to paint a fish on the class ocean mural; the time in fourth grade when my friend and I sang a short solo in a Christmas concert; the times I was at bat in Little League baseball games; the times in high school I wrote articles for the school newspaper, played in soccer games, or acted in school plays. There was a reason to worry about quality in these settings: The world, or at least my world, was watching me. People cared about how well I did. I didn’t want to let them down.

Every final draft my students complete is done for an outside audience. It may be for a small audience of Kindergarten children or for a national audience on educational television.  Either way, my role as teacher is not as the sole judge of their work but rather similar to that of a sports coach or a play director: I am helping them to get their work ready for the public eye. There is a reason to do the work well and it’s not just because the teacher wants it that way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hardy Asks: Is it Better to Give than to Receive?

My wife and I had the privilege of attending Hardy Elementary School’s Holiday Extravaganza last week.  This was their first attempt at what we call an “exposition of learning”. It is an opportunity for students to share what they have learned with a wider audience. Students lined the foyer in front of the auditorium with the crafts they produced:  ornaments, holiday cards, cookbooks, brochures to advertise the show, etc. How does all of this relate to an authentic learning experience?

The essential question for students was, “Is it better to give than to receive?” Students chose to give all the proceeds from their work and their show to the Mission of Hope.   The students learned the gift of giving and empathy through this amazing project.  Students were eager to tell the adults about their work.  They used incredible communication skills to describe the project. The entire performance was student lead.  The faculty and staff of Hardy who went through the deeper learning training really understood the purpose of students owning their work and being proud to share it.  All of those in attendance were impressed with the work the students had done in a little over 9 weeks of school. 

I wanted to share a letter from one of the parents who attended the extravaganza.  Her comments were so powerful that I asked her permission to include the letter in my blog. 

Hardy's Holiday Extravaganza was such a meaningful experience for my child and myself.  I really felt the Hardy "family" feeling yesterday.  Watching everything come together and looking around at the auditorium and all the students had accomplished was an incredibly warm and proud feeling.  I kept seeing more and more posters and pictures of the authentic learning opportunities Hardy students had over the past 10+ weeks. This is something my child and my family will always remember.
I taught using Project Based Learning at a school that had been practicing it for several years.  This is new and I recognize how much work goes in to switching gears and trying something different.  There will always be challenges, but Hardy embraced this opportunity to do something different and the students have flourished.

Thank you for your support this year.

Congratulations to Hardy Elementary for an outstanding demonstration of student work.

There are three expos the week of December 5:  Georgie Tyler Middle School, Smithfield High and Windsor High.  Look for highlights from those schools in next week’s blog.

students waiting for expo

expo donations

girls at expo

talking to parents at expo

selling cookbooks

Sunday, November 20, 2016


No, this isn't the latest educational acronym.  It's a Twitter hashtag several of our schools have started using that stands for "I See 5 C's".  In my last blog, I wrote about the 5 C's and the importance of incorporating them into the classroom.  Many of our teachers are testing the waters this year with lessons, activities and projects that emphasize critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration and citizenship--the 5 C's.  Our schools have scheduled expos and exhibitions to showcase their students' work.  Carrollton Elementary just held their Heroes Hall of Fame, where their 3rd graders presented their research and stories about a hero in their life.  Their tagline was "Heroes don't Wear Capes".  The student work was shared with the public and students were available to discuss their project with those in attendance.  What a great opportunity for both the students and the adults!
In December, we have expos scheduled for Hardy Elementary, Smithfield High and Windsor High. Other schools will be hosting their exhibitions throughout second semester.  I encourage you to follow the calendar on our website.  The dates for all of these events have already been added to the calendar.

I've put together a video that shows the 5 C's in action since school started in September. I hope you will enjoy seeing the 5 C's for yourself.

Every Child, Every Day.

I See 5 C's  (video)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Give Me the 5 C's!

I want you to imagine what would happen if a student’s report card were organized by critical skills, not subject matter. Students would be assessed on their progress on the 5 C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and citizenship. Suppose subjects, content, and standards were a means of enabling students to make progress on the critical skills with the appropriate steps taken to ensure students were exposed to important areas of content. Imagine that each student’s progress was evaluated with constructive feedback to enable students to create craftsman like work through multiple drafts. I can imagine students discovering their gifts and talents given this type of learning environment, and then setting out on a path across a broad range of careers.

I fully recognize the importance of exposing our students to the fundamental building blocks, important concepts, historical figures and events, and inspiring literature. However, to my knowledge, no one has come up with what content knowledge is absolutely essential. Our students now live in a world that is globally competitive and rewards excellence and punishes mediocrity. Young people pursuing a career for which they have no passion will certainly find themselves unsuccessful, unhappy, or both. Our goal at all levels should be to expose students to a wide array of pursuits and assist them in finding their gifts, talents, or passion. When I enter a kindergarten class, I see kids full of curiosity, exploration, and passion. But unfortunately, it’s a rare high school student who demonstrates any joy for something related to his or her education. This is the real issue. A student in high school who is just going through the motions and “playing the game” at school is a  young adult who isn’t learning or developing skills to be prepared for college, career, or life.

As we implement our strategic plan, which includes the 5 C’s and deeper learning opportunities, students will be getting an education that will prepare them for their world after high school. They will be learning how to learn. And just because students and teachers may be having fun at school shouldn’t cause you to conclude they are not learning. While this might sound too ambitious to be achievable, it is in fact, possible for students and teachers to experience a learning environment in which standards and content are covered while developing the critical skills our children will need to succeed.

Every Child, Every Day.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Vision and Mission for Our Schools

Our vision for Isle of Wight County Schools is to create a learning environment that will enable every child to discover his or her unique gifts and talents. Our mission as educators is to enhance and expand on each child’s gifts and talents to ensure every child is college, career, and life ready. This is simple and to the point. Somehow legislators, administrators, and teachers over the last 20 years seemed to have lost their way. If you ask most of these well intentioned groups of people, they will probably tell you the purpose of education is to teach students cognitive and social skills, prepare students to be contributing citizens, build character, assist students in self-discovery, inspire students and prepare students for productive careers.  If we look closely in most schools, do the classroom experiences match the purpose? Most schools struggle with getting past the teaching of cognitive skills.

Let’s discuss why this is happening and whether can we make a change here in Isle of Wight. The cognitive skills are defined by the Standards of Learning and accessed by the SOL tests. Therefore, we understand how to do this and how to measure the progress. When we start to address the other areas such as building character and self-discovery, we start asking ourselves, “How do we do that, and how do we know if we are making progress?” This is why we frequently have these goals in our priorities but we often do not take the time to incorporate them into our curriculum and common language.

How will we ensure that every child has the opportunity to discover his or her unique gifts or talents? The answer is: it has to become more than a slogan; it has to become integral to the culture in our schools. Students need time to explore and discover. For this to happen, schools have to look at their practices that are in direct conflict with self-discovery for students. Far too often school divisions articulate a vision for their schools, but, when the rubber hits the road, the way students are taught and evaluated demonstrates a priority to meticulously cover the specified content in a skill and drill type format. This leaves no room for self-discovery, communication skills, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and citizenship.

We will continue to provide training for teachers, administrators, and support staff to prepare them for opening new doors for our students. Teachers will be free to teach the Standards of Learning in innovative ways that will give students an opportunity to explore, discover, and create. I was inspired this summer by our staff’s commitment to improve instruction for our students during the training sessions held on deeper learning. After walking through all of our schools these first few weeks, I am more convinced that Isle of Wight County Schools will fulfill our promise to our students. Our teachers’ willingness to take risks and fail is a great model for our students.  If we do not let our students take risks, explore, and fail, then they will not discover who they are or how far they can go.  As we journey down this path, please get involved and ask questions.  We are definitely stronger when we all collaborate and communicate with each other.

Every Child, Every Day.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Safety of our Students and Staff is no Laughing Matter

There is a very disturbing trend going around through social media that is affecting schools across the country.  Individuals posing as clowns are making threats and warning of attacks on schools.  Unfortunately, Isle of Wight County is not immune to this sick behavior. 

Please know that we take all threats seriously and will continue to work closely with local law enforcement to examine any that mention harming students or staff.  Even though the Sheriff’s Department has not deemed any of these online statements as credible, we will continue to follow our safety procedures and protocols to ensure your children are protected while they are in our care.  We also appreciate those parents and students who have shared information with us so it can be investigated thoroughly. 

I encourage parents to have conversations with their children about the importance of reporting to an adult any situation that jeopardize student safety.  We will continue to share information with families and staff through our Connect 5 Alert system, as well as other outlets, such as our website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. 
I sincerely hope this disturbing trend will end soon.  Regardless, we will continue stay vigilant with our safety procedures in all of our schools.  If you have any questions about the security measures in your child’s school, please contact the building principal.  You can also contact my office if you need more information. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Supporting Struggling Learners

I am pleased to share that Isle of Wight County Schools is undertaking a three-year effort to improve the effectiveness and equity of services for supporting struggling students both with and without disabilities.
 While we are proud of the quality of services provided to struggling students and the hard work of our staff who help all children achieve at high levels, ever-higher expectations require us to look for ways to further increase student learning and improve the way we deliver services to our students. The division has engaged the District Management Council, a Boston based organization, to assist with this project.

 This systematic study will examine our current regular and special education services, programs, procedures, and staffing for serving struggling students through the use of quantitative (both in-division and benchmark division information) and qualitative data gathering (using focus groups, stakeholder interviews and classroom observations). The review will also help the division understand how various categories of staff use their time as they serve struggling students. With this information, the division will be able to make thoughtful and informed decisions to ensure all of our students receive appropriate support. Later in the process, DMC will help codify practices that will best serve students in the division as well as help with the development of staffing guidelines in accordance with these practices.

The result should be a better picture of what is working well in the division, a better understanding of what the appropriate level of staff and services are, and overall improved delivery of services to struggling students and parents, and better utilization of division resources.

 We are excited to be undertaking this study, and appreciate your support in this process. I will be sure to keep you updated as the project achieves key milestones. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions. For more information contact: Mr. Thomas Chelgren at

Jim Thornton, Ed.D.