My New Mantra

I had a lot of fun yesterday when we were off from school for a snow day. I wasn’t at home playing video games. I wasn’t outside sledding. I was at work…and on Twitter. To help pass the time, I decided to create a little River Hill trivia contest and run it through social media. Over the course of the day, I got to talk to three different students on the phone when they called in with a response, tweeted with current students, alumni, and staff members, and ultimately had a blast doing it. I mean, how can you not enjoy posting Dikembe Mutombo pics?

Why can’t work be enjoyable? Why can’t school be enjoyable? This year, my mantra has been “if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.” Every day, I am looking for ways to have a good time. Maybe it’s visiting a classroom and seeing a cool lesson or having a deep conversation with a student or a teacher about the latest Dr. Who episode. Perhaps I have the chance to sit in on a lecture and learn something new or hear a sneak preview of the big finale piece for the upcoming concert. Some of the normal aspects of my job really do give me great pleasure (I’m kind of sick like that). I love talking to parents about the awesome things happening at River Hill; I derive great satisfaction from developing solutions to problems at the school; and I could spend hours in a midyear conference with a teacher talking about the innovative activities he/she has designed to promote student learning.

My “work” is trying to make it a great day to be a Hawk. I am usually successful in making that a reality for myself, but my true goal is for students and staff to feel the same way as I do. I remember when we used to give the HCPSS climate survey to students every year and one particular question always stood out to me–“I like going to school.” This question, above any other, was probably the most important question on the survey. If students don’t enjoy their classes, if they don’t like at least one teacher or staff member at the school, then all of our efforts are for naught.

We need to make sure that students are enjoying themselves, that they are having a chance at least once, hopefully more than once a day, to HAVE FUN! And that is only possible if we all commit to it. If you’re a teacher reading this, think about what is fun about your job and do it everyday. If you’re a parent reading this, encourage your child to think about what is fun about school and do it everyday. And if you’re a student reading this, think about what is fun about school and do it everyday. Just remember–if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong!

The 21st Century Pen Pal

“Several technological and political forces have converged, and that has produced a global, Web-enabled playing field that allows for multiple forms of collaboration without regard to geography or distance – or soon, even language.”

–Thomas Friedman

When I was in 4th grade, my teacher thought it would be great to learn about world geography by assigning everyone pen pals from countries like Norway, China, and Mexico. I remember my excitement every time I found a letter from my pen pal Octavio in the mailbox and getting a chance to read about his sister’s quinceañera and holidays like Dia de los Muertos.

Fast forward to the 21st century and correspondence between students in different countries is more conveniently handled through email or better yet through video conferencing programs like Skype or Google Hangout. One of the first uses of Skype I remember seeing at River Hill was when social studies teacher Callie Casper connected with a class in Australia so students could discuss voting laws in the country. As she recalls, “my students were able to have direct contact and dialogue with students in Australia about politics and voting. It was so much more real than me just saying, ‘In Australia voting is a requirement’. They got to ask students about what that meant in their culture and the impact.

Mrs. Casper’s class did this several years ago, so Skype was still relatively new and River Hill didn’t have wireless at the time. Our computers here did have that ability, so Casper’s students had to bring their laptops with cameras and hardwire into the internet. Also, because they were skyping with a class on the other side of the world, they had to work out the timing. As expected, her students loved it. The teacher in Australia arranged with the RSPCA to bring a baby wallaby to school and they brought it around to each camera so the students could see it.

After Callie Casper broke the ice, many teachers have followed in her footsteps to include videoconferencing as a regular part of instruction. I checked with our teachers this year about what they were using Skype and Google Hangout for and here’s what they said:

Business- Teresa Waters and Michael Ahr did a Skype session with the founder and owner of TV Talk for Teresa’s entrepreneurship class last year. It’s on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_6A928gjxI

Career and Research Development-Just last week Angela Johnson and Katie Noecker skyped with a former River Hill student who is now doing contract work with Google. Students had a chance to discuss her education and career path.

Computer Science-Team Rocket, River Hill’s Zero Robotics tean, used Google Hangout to have several long meetings during class with their alliance teams in both Spain and Italy. They also communicated using shared Google docs, Google Chat, a private Facebook group and email. They discussed strategies, and shared code with each other. The last few minutes before the deadline they were in the classroom at 5:00 chatting with Italy and speaking to two kids from home on various platforms.

English-Kristin Mitchell’s students used Google Hangout to discuss their Enterprise in Literature project with personnel at the Ayn Rand institute. This is a cross-curricular project that Teresa Waters’ Marketing class and Kristin’s Leadership class are working on.

English- Rachael Schultz used Skype to give her students an opportunity to talk to a climber who had scaled Mt. Kiliminjaro. As one of her students indicated, “It gave more insight than just reading the book (Into Thin Air)—a personal account was helpful and easier to relate to.”

English- Lin Storey is trying to promote connections between her students and professionals throughout the nation. Because of the expense for travel and lodging, it is often impossible for writers to visit River Hill. Therefore, skyping is the perfect alternative. Students really enjoy this experience. Ms. Storey makes sure they have well-prepared questions and get to practice their speaking and listening skills.

Journalism-During Dave Vitalgliano’s podcast projects, the students connect/discuss via Skype while recording the conversation with other software.

Math- Roger Demaree uses neither Skype nor Google Hangout; however, he does use videoconferencing for daily instruction. As the teacher of the county’s digital learning differential equations course, Mr. Demaree connects online with students from around the county who watch Mr. Demaree’s class online and participate virtually through their computers.

Music-Richard McCready used Skype so he didn’t have to travel to give a lecture. This saved UMiami a lot of money, and him a lot of time. He was able to use the front and rear facing cameras to switch between a view of him talking to the students and views of computers with student examples.

One Book, One River Hill- English instructional team leader Diane Curry set up a Skype session with Gene Yang, the author of American Born Chinese. Student and staff got to hear first-hand about the choices they made while writing the graphic novel.

Spanish-Norda Hodgson-Clopein’s Spanish 5 AST students skyped with the AP students at Archbishop Spalding High School last year.

Theater Arts-Pam Land’s theater arts class was able to hear from an expert in the field who was not able to come to us, nor were we able to come to him. Students asked questions in real time and the guest speaker was able to walk us through the set he was working on. They loved it. It was like going on a field trip, but we never left the classroom.

Countless other teachers indicated they were planning on using Skype or Google Hangout later this year. How fantastic that so many people are incorporating this great technology into their lessons? What once seemed impossible is now just a normal aspect of 21st century teaching and learning!

Course Registration for 2015-2016

Student schedule requests for the 2015-2016 school year are being collected today and throughout the week. However, counselors will be meeting with each student and there is still time to make changes. Please read the following Words of Wisdom from the Student Services Department:

1) Make sure the courses you select help meet graduation requirements? You need to fulfill your fine arts, technology, and “program choice” completer requirement. Check these courses off of your four-year plan.

2) Pick courses that match your interests. Take courses that excite you; don’t take courses solely for the purpose of building a competitive transcript. Which course would you rather be in—the one you WANT to be in or the one you HAVE to be in?

3) Think about what college majors or careers you are interested in exploring and select courses that are best-suited to meet your goals. Also, look at the career academies. There are many great career programs offered here at River Hill and over at the Applications Research Laboratory.

4) Teachers put a great deal of thought into recommendations; if you do not agree with the recommendation please speak with the teacher. Making recommendations in January can be difficult, but teachers will often revisit recommendations later in the year if your grades, work ethic, etc improve in the second semester.

5) Take full advantage of the knowledge and help of your school counselor. He or she knows what college admissions officers are looking for as well as what the expectations are for the courses you may be interested in. Having a discussion NOW about the courses that might help prepare you for Pre-Law programs is better than waiting until next school year when you might not be able to change your schedule.

6) Take the most rigorous courses you can handle while maintaining an A or B average. Colleges and universities do like to see Honors, GT, and AP courses on your transcript, but not when you’re earning C’s or D’s. Push yourself, but be sure not to get in over your head.

7) Remember the amount of time you spend doing extracurricular and social activities when determining the rigor of your courses. Use the homework minutes sheet as a guide for planning your course selection. You might want to take four AP classes, but do you have the time in your after school schedule to complete at least two hours of homework just for those classes. Start with your bedtime (hopefully no later than 11pm), then subtract 2:30pm (end of the school day). That’s the time you have to work with. When you factor in dinner time, practices, activities, etc, you’ll be left with how much time you can dedicate to homework.

8) Make sure there is balance in your course selection. Take at least one “fun” course. If your schedule is filled with rigorous, homework heavy classes, you will most likely struggle at some point. Pick a class or two that is fun, lighter on the homework, and something you’re interested in. You might consider being a peer assistant or a student aide.

9) Although graduation requirements state that students must take two years of world languages at the high school level, most colleges prefer students to complete at least level 3 of a world language. If you start with level 1 in high school, you should also take levels 2 and 3.

10) Every student applying to college should attempt at least one AP course. The best way to prepare for the rigor of college is to see what the expectations are now. You don’t need to load up on APs if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, but find the area you are strongest in and push yourself in that content area.

Let’s Make Snow Days E-Learning Days

From Yeterday's Snow in DC! Thank goodness HCPSS closed schools!

From Yeterday’s Snow in DC! Thank goodness HCPSS closed schools!

Schools across Maryland, including Howard County, were closed on Tuesday January 6th, so we will have an additional day to make up…in June. Let’s be honest-nobody is looking forward to that (except maybe the seniors who celebrate each snow day as a day they won’t have to make up). And, if we’re being honest, let’s recognize that a day in June doesn’t really help that much. A student may be reading The Great Gatsby this week, but will probably be preparing for finals in June. An extra day to review doesn’t help much-what the student and teacher needs is more time for Gatsby.

Now you may say, why not just shift everything back a day? Okay, yes that does work when it’s just ONE day, but what happens when there are multiple days lost for inclement weather? Interrupting the continuity of a unit plan is extremely frustrating and days missed can’t always be added back at a later date. Invariably, things get cut out of the curriculum and students end up missing out. In some cases, such as AP courses for which the exam date is fixed, adding dates later in the year doesn’t help because those lessons and course content are needed before the exam not after it.

Many teachers have already started getting students accustomed to checking the class website or Edmodo page on snow days so they can keep up with class activities. Wouldn’t it be nice if the work that students and teachers were doing on these days “off” actually counted? I think it’s time that we scrapped snow days in favor of E-Learning days. I’ve mentioned the concept through various venues–coffee with the principal, PTSA meetings, I may have even wrote about it in a previous post. The idea is really taking off in districts across the United States; check out what’s happening out in Indiana.

We have some work to do as a county to ensure that all students have access to the internet and a device, but with a new learning management system on the way, the time is coming when we can sit at home and sing “Let It Snow” as we meet up in virtual classrooms. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!

PSAT Results Are In . . . Now What?

PSAT-608x300

It’s been a couple of months since students took the PSAT, but results just came in this week. Students received their reports on Monday and now the questions from both students and parents begin. Whether you/your student is a sophomore or a junior (or perhaps one of the freshmen who tested), you’re probably wondering what should I do now? Here are some helpful hints you might want to consider:

* If you want more information about understanding your PSAT results, HCPSS is holding info nights on January 13th (Wilde Lake HS) and January 14th (Marriotts Ridge HS). Both sessions begin at 7pm. You are also welcome to talk to your/your child’s counselor about the results.

* PSAT scores are fairly good predictors for performance on the SAT. Juniors should register for a Spring administration of the SAT, especially if they did pretty well on the PSAT.

* Don’t take the SAT before you prepare in some way. PSAT score reports include answers to questions and categories of questions missed. Use this information in conjunction with the My College Quickstart program (address on score report) to develop a plan of action for addressing areas for improvement.

*Scores could reveal the need for additional test prep classes. Options through River Hill include after school or Saturday classes sponsored by the PTSA or a year long for credit course students can take during the school day.

* Score reports include information about AP Potential. Based on your PSAT scores, you could be a good candidate to enroll in one or more AP courses at River Hill. Take a look at the courses that are recommended and discuss your options with your teachers and your counselor. They will help you select courses that challenge you without overwhelming you.

* Sophomores who scored at the highest levels of performance may be invited to participate in a special PSAT prep course over the summer. This program helps improve students’ chances of qualifying as a National Merit Semifinalist in their junior year. Counselors will inform students whose scores qualify them for this summer program.

* Juniors who scored at the highest levels of performance may qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist, depending on the Selection Index for this administration. Notification won’t take place until the Fall of your senior year.

If you have any questions about this topic or any other, feel free to shoot me an email at nnovak@hcpss.org!

Finding Our Place in the World

When it comes to academics, we’ve seen River Hill standout in county rankings. We’ve fared pretty well in State rankings too. In National comparisons, River Hill has managed to make a name for itself in publications like Newsweek and US News and World Report. But how well do we stack up on the international stage? That’s the question HCPSS sought to answer when it signed on to administer the OECD test for schools last year (actually HCPSS was interested in all 12 high schools, but I’m just focused on our results).

As Dr. Foose wrote on her blog, she:

“decided to implement the OECD test at Howard County because we want our graduates to have a competitive edge, not just in the United States, but globally. This test provides the first real opportunity for individual schools to compare their performance against that of the PISA-ranked nations.  The results give us meaningful feedback about how well we are preparing our students in reading, math, and science as compared to their peers in Korea, Finland, and other world-leaders in education.”

What a great decision that was because, as a result of the test, we have copious data about students’ proficiency in reading, math, and science. Let’s explore how River Hill did by taking a look at the data shared on the HCPSS website.

On the reading section of the exam, River Hill students earned a mean score of 548, which places them behind Shanghai-China, but ahead of Korea, Finland, Hong Kong-China, and many other successful countries. As the chart below illustrates, 20% of our test takers scored at level 5 proficiency, which is considered “world class” for PISA comparisons. In the United States, only 10% of test takers score at level 5 or 6. Although more than half of the test takers scored at level 4 or above, 10% of students were below the level 2 threshold which PISA considers to be a baseline level of proficiency. Clearly, there is work to be done.

Reading Proficiency

Reading Proficiency

A mean score of 574 for the math section puts River Hill once again behind Shanghai-China, but ahead of Asian powerhouses Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei. The proficiency level breakdown is pretty impressive here as 40% of student test takers reached either level 5 or level 6 proficiency. For the 2009 PISA administration, only 10% of students in the United States reached that “world-class” threshold. Only 6% of River Hill test takers were below level 2 proficiency, which is less than the national average, but still not where we want to be.

Math Proficiency

Math Proficiency

Finally, for the science section of the exam, River Hill’s mean score of 562 places us ahead of Finland, Hong Kong-China, and Singapore, but behind…you guessed it, Shanghai-China. 17% of River Hill students reached level 5 proficiency and another 37% were at level 4. Once again, River Hill outpaced the US score of 9% of students at level 5 or 6. Only 4% of students were below the level 2 threshold, which is the lowest percentage for any subsection, but is nevertheless an area we want to improve on.

Science Proficiency

Science Proficiency

Today, I had an opportunity to work with all of the middle school and high school principals in a workshop to dig deeper into our data and explore high-leverage strategies we might implement to improve our school’s performance. One of the observations that consistently came up was how much we have already seen instruction change over the last few years. Teachers are working extremely hard to incorporate the State’s college and career ready standards into the daily instruction. In addition, class activities are more student-centered with greater emphasis given to using evidence to support assertions and connect to real world problems/scenarios. Middle school students are already starting to engage in the type of complex and challenging tasks that they will eventually encounter on the PARCC exam, SAT, AP, and the OECD test for high schools. The future is certainly bright and I look forward to seeing how we do next time around.

 

For more information, check out the following websites:

America Achieves

OECD-PISA

Giving Thanks

One of my fondest memories of Thanksgiving from “back in the day” is the annual Trivial Pursuit game held after we ate dinner. Dishes were cleared and, as we decided whether to have apple or pumpkin pie, we also competed in teams for “pie pieces” in the six different categories on the board. The yearly contests were epic battles that changed each Thanksgiving depending on who was in attendance that year, but one thing remained consistent–the Trivial Pursuit tradition was always a part of the holiday celebration.

Everyone has some kind of time-honored tradition with Thanksgiving–going to Aunt Bertha’s, attending the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, saying to heck with cooking and going out for dinner. Maybe your tradition is that you do nothing special for Thanksgiving? As far as traditions go, Thanksgiving has been an opportunity to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. Not many of us are farmers any more (or ever were for that matter), so it’s more about sharing appreciation for the people and things in our life for which we are grateful.

Last year, I shared why I am thankful, so I figured that it was someone else’s turn this time around. To encourage the trend of expressing appreciation, I went around the school last week asking students to give staff members a shout out for a video I was making. It was fantastic to hear all of the great things River Hill staff is doing and all of the great reasons River Hill students appreciate their teachers, counselors, etc. The video appears below (apologies for the out-of-focus segments; there was some shoddy equipment, but the sentiments are sincere and powerful, so I didn’t want to delete them).

I hope you enjoy watching. Once you’re done, promise me two things:

1) You will contribute your own “giving thanks” moment by emailing, calling, or telling a staff member in person how/why you appreciate them.

2) You will remember how powerful it is to adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” Thanksgiving is once a year, but kind words and appreciation can be given at any time.

I certainly thank you for reading and for continuing to support the wonderful staff here at River Hill High school!

How Do I Help My High Schooler with Math?

One of the greatest frustrations I hear from parents is that once their child is in high school helping out with homework may no longer be possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since students should be doing the work, not parents, but I get where you’re coming from. Your son is confused about Precalculus, but you don’t even know where to begin, having only studied up through Algebra 2 when you were in high school. All you want to know is “how do I help my high schooler with math?”

As Maryland has adopted the College and Career Standards based on the Common Core Standards, how to help your child becomes more of a mystery since, in many ways, students aren’t learning mathematics like you did back in the day. (I’ll let you in on a secret…I’ve seen your students learning and they are learning better than you did [maybe it’s the phenomenal teachers?]). Even if you know a bit about math, you may be somewhat confused with some of the changes in math instruction, but fret not–you have some great resources at your disposal.

The first resource to consult is your child’s teacher. He or she is getting the latest and greatest professional development on curricular changes, which puts him/her in the best position to assist your child with any struggles he/she encounters. With conferences coming up in a couple of weeks, talking to your child’s math teacher about how you help support your child’s learning could be one of the most valuable conversations you have that night.

The other resource that you might not necessarily be aware of is a website created by the HCPSS Math Office. Dubbed the HCPSS Family Mathematics Support Center, the site provides FAQs from the Maryland State Department of Education and a wealth of information about Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2. You might just get what you’re looking for–at the very least, you’ll learn more about what your child is learning in math!

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

 

This past weekend I attended my high school reunion and, as alumni typically do when they get together, I reminisced with my friends about the good old days. Invariably, someone poses the question of “if you could go back and do it again, would you?” or someone suggests how different high school would be if we knew then what we know now.

One of the realizations I had this weekend was that although high school was a great time in my life, there is no better time than right now. Being a principal, a husband, a father is fantastic and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I hope that River Hill students also feel that there is no better time than right now. If you understand the “carpe diem” theme of Herrick’s poem above, you know how important it is to make every moment count. You don’t want to graduate high school and look back at all the regrets that could fill your locker. Take my advice and follow these five suggestions for making the most of your high school years:

  • If it’s happening, you should go. Homecoming, prom, the school play, a dance-a-thon fundraiser—so much going on and you should be a part of as much of it as you can.
  • There are more than a thousand people at River Hill; get to know as many of them as you can. Your high school experience is enhanced by the people you share it with. Increase the odds that it will be awesome by hanging out with lots of different people. The variety will help shape your perspective.
  • It’s okay to be an activist AND a musician, an artist AND a entrepreneur, an academic AND an athlete. Don’t feel like you need to be pigeonholed into just one of the things you do and definitely don’t just do one thing. You can be as complex and intriguing as you want to be.
  • You won’t always realize it now, but the teachers, counselors, coaches, and administrators you work with are amazing people. Thank them for everything they do to help you during your high school career.
  • If you discover that you have feelings for someone, act on those feelings. Twenty-five years later, you don’t want to hear about the huge crush someone had on you and wonder why you never asked him/her to homecoming. (But don’t be crushed if it doesn’t work out. The cliché is correct: There are lots of fish in the sea.

Think about my suggestions. Act on a few of them, maybe all of them, and you’ll have a pretty good high school career. For now, I’ll leave you with the words of my school’s alma mater. We don’t have one here at River Hill, but I’m sure you’ll agree that the words and sentiment could just as easily apply to River Hill.

 

On a hill in Maryland,

Stands our alma mater.

Grandest place in all the land

To every son and daughter.

Though our school days soon will pass

Classmates say goodbye.

We will never forget our class

And Oxon Hill High!

A Test is Just a Test

As students took  the PSAT today, I took time to reflect for a moment on our testing culture (both here at River Hill and in general). High-stakes testing has become a regular component of our educational system and for many students high-stakes result in high anxiety. One might think that the PSAT is just practice and isn’t as important as the actual SAT or an exam tied to graduation like the HSA or PARCC, but for juniors the test is also a qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship program. And let’s be honest, lots of sophomores and even freshmen who take the PSAT put a lot of weight into the test results.

Every year when I congratulate students on being a commended student (top 3% nationally on the PSAT), I always see a few dejected faces because they weren’t National Merit Semifinalists. Don’t get me wrong–I admire students’ drive for success and want every student to work hard and achieve the best possible score. However, I also want to make sure that students realize that is only that—a test score.

My thoughts on the matter were framed quite well in this article I read over the summer about a Head of a school In Lancashire, England who sent her students a touching letter about what tests mean and what they don’t. You can check out the article here, but read the letter below and remember that the PSAT and any other test is just a test. It’s important, but so is a lot of other stuff in life.

RACHEL TOMLINSON’S LETTER:

Please find your end of KS2 test results. We are very proud of you as you demonstrated huge amounts of commitment and tried your best during this tricky week.

However, we are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you—the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have travelled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best…the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.

So enjoy your results and be very proud of these, but remember there are many ways of being smart.