Tuesday, January 15, 2019

My Monthly Column – January 2019


Diversity an asset in education, business world

By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

Our nation’s top colleges and universities are working very hard to achieve something the Portland Public Schools already has: diversity. These institutions of higher learning aren’t trying to look more like us to be  “politically correct.” Instead, they know that diverse campuses are educationally beneficial for students.

BestColleges.com, a college-ranking site, sums up the benefits: “Studies have shown that interactions among racially and ethnically diverse groups result in positive learning outcomes. Effects include enhanced cognitive skills and self-motivation, a greater sense of purpose, and a higher measure of personal growth.”

Colleges and universities also know that experience with diversity helps prepare students for careers. Diversity is an asset in the business world, research shows. A Harvard Business Review article titled “WhyDiverse Teams Are Smarter,” says that “striving to increase workplace diversity is not an empty slogan – it is a good business decision.” The article states: “Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.”

At the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, we believe that learning in diverse groups prepares students to thrive in an increasingly diverse, complex, and connected world. In fact, that belief is the fifth of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning. 

I’m writing a series of columns about our Learning Beliefs, in collaboration with Melea Nalli, our Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning. This month we’re focusing on how our schools’ diverse learning environments benefit students.

One-third of our approximately 6,800 students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 67 languages. Nearly 44 percent of our students are students of color and about 56 percent are white. We’re also socio-economically diverse. Half our students qualify for free or reduced school lunch, while half do not.

Our students benefit from learning side by side with people who are different from them – who by their very presence challenge their assumptions and beliefs and help them see the world in a different way.

But diversity also can be an empty promise, if students don’t interact with classmates who are different from them. That is why we strive to ensure that our students interact with each other in meaningful ways throughout their academic lives.

At Riverton Elementary School, for example, first-graders learn to embrace their differences. Students are encouraged to share personal experiences, and greet one another in their native languages during Morning Meeting. The students also were visited by representatives from The Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness, who taught them about "abilities" and helped them begin to see each other from different perspectives.

A recent learning expedition at King Middle School, where about 25 percent of students were born in other countries, focused on immigration as a social and geographic phenomenon. Students explored the history and impact of immigration in this country and the voluntary and involuntary reasons people migrate. Students learned to take a deeper look at how people are different, but also how they’re alike.

Portland High School student leaders conduct school-wide courageous conversations on a variety of topics, including classroom experiences and social interactions with peers. These discussions create opportunities for students to share their perspectives in their diverse school community. That contributes to greater understanding and a broader awareness of the diversity of students’ experiences.

At the Portland Public Schools, we consider diversity one of our greatest assets as we strive to prepare and empower our students for success in college and career.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

My Monthly Column – December 2018


Student empowerment leads to better learning

By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

We’ve all been in a situation where we’re trying to learn something new – maybe a new sport, a new skill or even a new language. And we all know that if the first thing we tell ourselves is, “I can’t possibly succeed at this,” then we probably won’t.

At the Portland Public Schools we take the opposite approach with students, using positive motivation versus a concept of failure. We teach not by focusing on what students don’t know, but by encouraging them to focus on the skills and abilities they already have as they strive to master something new and then build up from there.

We do this because we believe students can learn better when they are empowered and feel capable. In fact, that belief is the fourth of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning. https://www.portlandschools.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_1094153/File/Academics/Beliefs%20and%20Core%20Teaching%20Practices.pdf

 Joined by Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, I’m writing a series of columns about our Learning Beliefs. This month, we’re writing about how the Portland Public Schools helps our students feel empowered and capable so that they can learn better.

We’ve found that when we affirm what students are good at doing rather than focus on what they’re doing wrong, students are more likely to feel empowered and capable and do their best work.

One way to help students feel capable when they encounter new material that is challenging or potentially overwhelming is to provide what we call "scaffolds.”

Scaffolds are strategies to help students access a learning task in different ways depending on the skills they already have. An example is when we teach students to understand where the formula for finding the area of a rectangle comes from. Some students may need more than an explanation to grasp the concept. A scaffold to help those students could be to provide grid paper so that students can count squares to get to the area of a shape. Like the scaffolding of a building, those scaffolds eventually come down and students learn to develop the formula on their own.

Another example of empowering students is through clear expectations and choice. This can be seen in the TEDMoore (TED Talks) that our Lyman Moore Middle School seventh-graders have been involved with for the past two years. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and TED Talks cover a broad range of topics.

Through the seventh-grade project, each student studies what makes TED Talks powerful, works to understand how to articulate their own voice through writing and presenting, and then chooses a topic that they are passionate about to research and present to classmates.  Topics have ranged from “Why Dog Ownership Brings Positivity to a Family” to “What it's like to be Muslim in Portland” to “Why Accepting Transgender Students is Important” to “Women's Rights.” Teachers have found that by empowering students to study their own passion on a topic they identify with, they were able to create “buy in” from students across the academic spectrum.

Another example can be seen at Presumpscot Elementary School, which seeks to empower students by making them leaders of their own learning – and potential future community leaders, said Principal Cynthia Loring. Presumpscot is a Credentialed School within the EL Education network (formerly Expeditionary Learning).

For instance, the school’s third graders study the impact of global warming on the lobstering industry in Portland. They research, analyze data and collaborate with experts to build their understanding of this complex issue. At the Atlantic Cup Kids Day this past June, Presumpscot students were empowered to present their learning and field questions regarding the importance of global warming and steps everyone can take to protect the environment and working waterfront.

Through such project-based learning, Presumpscot students realize that they are capable of impacting their community by using their own voices, which empowers them and deepens their learning.

At the Portland Public Schools, our goal is to provide our students with not only the knowledge and skills they need but also the supports necessary to empower them to succeed in college and career.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

My Monthly Column – November 2018


To succeed, students need more than academics

By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

Colleges look for good grades and test scores to assess whether students can handle the academic rigors of postsecondary education. Colleges also look beyond academics for well-rounded students who have other indicators of success. Have they shown initiative, for instance, or a sense of social responsibility?

At the Portland Public Schools, we know students need more than academics to prepare them for college and career. We believe that academics, work habits, and social-emotional skills are equally important in school and in life. In fact, that belief is the third of our district’s seven Core Beliefs about Learning. https://www.portlandschools.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_1094153/File/Academics/Beliefs%20and%20Core%20Teaching%20Practices.pdf

This is the third in our series of columns about our Learning Beliefs that I’m writing with Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning. This month, we’ll discuss how social-emotional learning and positive habits of work and learning are essential components of a well-rounded education, along with academics.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process by which we learn and apply skills needed for learning and life, such as identifying and managing emotions, building and maintaining relationships and solving problems. Research http://www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/2017-META-ANALYSIS-SUMMARY-final2.pdf shows that SEL programs improve mental health, social skills, and academic achievement in ways that are long-lasting.

Habits of work and learning (HOWLs) are performance character traits students must develop to succeed in school, college and career. In our work with Portland-area employers, they tell us they want employees who can problem solve and communicate and work productively with others. We teach our students such “soft skills” necessary to be successful.

SEL also is vitally important for success. Research shows that multiple adverse childhood experiences in students’ lives can impact the brain and learning. Students across all income and racial backgrounds can be impacted. That is why the Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, believes that SEL skills are important for ALL our students.

We are striving to build a full continuum of behavioral health supports that range from proactive development of SEL skills, such as responsible decision-making, to more responsive mental health supports for students with more significant needs.

Our schools are setting up structures and routines to facilitate this work, and we’re providing our teachers with SEL professional development to help them weave SEL into their instruction.

Here are some examples of what we are doing to support SEL and HOWLs development:

·      Proactive teaching: Most of our elementary schools use a curriculum called Second Step, https://www.secondstep.org/ that teaches students explicit skills around building positive relationships, making good decisions and working well with others. For example, students can learn skills involved in starting a conversation (give a compliment, ask a question, look the other person in the eye) or in coping with situations where they have mixed feelings, such as being excited and nervous about playing in a sporting event.

·      Giving students explicit feedback: At the middle-school level, teachers set learning targets that involve both academics and HOWLs. For instance, an academic lesson can include a HOWLs target of collaborative planning that is explicitly reinforced throughout the lesson.

·      Providing trauma-sensitive supports and structures for students who have greater needs: For example, in some schools we use mindfulness practices or “calm spaces” to help students manage their emotions. Also, in a handful of elementary schools, we run multicultural groups, in partnership with Spurwink, that are designed to be both trauma-sensitive and culturally responsive.

Also, through our free Parent University, we address SEL issues important to families. For instance, a Parent U session titled “Raising Powerful and Healthy Girls” is on Wednesday, Dec. 5, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School. This workshop focuses on how parents can partner with their daughters to challenge damaging messages and help them reach their full potential. Learn more about Parent U at http://parentu.portlandschools.org/

Our Portland Promise is built around the idea that our students graduate “Prepared and Empowered” for whatever is ahead. This requires that we not only give the students the academic skills that they need, but also the competencies, habits of mind and dispositions to succeed.  SEL and HOWLs are central components of preparation and empowerment in today’s world.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

My Monthly Column – October 2018


Different Strokes for Different Folks

By Xavier Botana, with Melea Nalli

The Portland Public Schools believes that learners have different strengths, needs and starting points, based on who they are and what they’ve experienced. They learn in different ways and time frames.

That belief is the second of our district’s seven CoreBeliefs about Learning

Joined by Melea Nalli, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, I’m writing a series of columns on our Learning Beliefs. This month, we focus on why differentiated instruction is important to help our students succeed.

Every parent knows that children learn and develop differently.

In my own case, for example, my elder son was a reluctant reader who didn’t really embrace reading until the fourth- or fifth-grade. He went on to earn a degree in history and anthropology and now is an avid reader who also enjoys writing. My younger son, by contrast, began to read early and has an amazing mathematical mind. Still in high school, his math skills put my abilities to shame.

Traditionally, many schools have approached teaching as though all students in a class are basically alike. That approach doesn’t take into account the learning needs of individual students. It doesn’t ensure that students with different learning skills – such as my sons have – achieve their maximum potential.

We’re Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. Our students come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and also from multiple countries and cultures. They bring diverse strengths and have different learning needs.

Some students may need little guidance and support to achieve mastery of a topic, while others may need significant background building and assistance to get to the same place. A traditional course-based learning structure can fall short by not differentiating those learning needs. That’s one reason why our district is moving toward proficiency-based diplomas.

In a proficiency-based system, some students might be able to satisfy the standards traditionally associated with demonstrating competency in a particular course through a final exam or capstone project instead of taking the full semester or yearlong course. However, other students taking a course might fall short in just a couple of areas. Under traditional credit-based systems, those students would have to retake that entire course, but with proficiency-based learning, students can work to demonstrate competency in the areas where they lag behind, and then move on when they achieve it.

The Portland Public Schools tailors teaching to meet the varied learning needs of students in a range of ways.

For example, our high schools have built flexibility into the school day by designing blocks of time that students can use to get additional support in areas where they need help – or to accelerate their learning beyond baseline expectations.

At Casco Bay High School, flexibility also is built into the calendar year to help students meet rigorous standards. CBHS offers a “Frost School” in December and a “Mud School” in late March. Those are opportunities for eligible students to meet any remaining course standards in a course or two from the first or second trimester, respectively.

CBHS also offers students the opportunity to exceed standards in all courses. For example, ninth- and 10th-graders can take an Exceeds Reading Seminar, where they explore literary theories while reading literature beyond what's required in Humanities courses.

At the elementary level, we use a “workshop” model for reading and writing in which all students learn the same grade-level content but get differential support as needed. Those supports can include visual cues such as a chart, speaking and auditory cues and an opportunity for independent time so students can progress at their own pace.

To fully master a concept, some students benefit from extended learning time via summer school. This summer, the district hosted a Middle School Summer Academy, a two-week experiential academic summer camp, funded by a grant of nearly $25,000 from Unum. Teachers collaborated with The Telling Room, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Sail Maine to develop engaging experiences to help selected students master challenging STEM and humanities standards.

In summary, our goal is to prepare and empower students to succeed in college and career, and we recognize that they need multiple pathways to reach the academic milestones that get them there.