Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Value of Building Community with Your Counselor Colleagues

One is the Loneliest Number
We are a solo act, performing a solitary job, many times in private, involving the confidential fears, feelings, and experiences of our students, their parents, and sometimes our teachers. These jobs performed in private are often misunderstood and misrepresented, leading to inaccurate assumptions about who we are and what we do.  There is a constant need to prove our worth and the value we add to the student, parents, and teachers at our schools. We have a job that is frustrating and satisfying, depressing and joyful, infuriating and uplifting.  The need for self-care and collaboration is great, but not always available or encouraged. Building a personal and professional resource network with your Counselor Colleagues through Professional Learning Communities (PLC) is one way to do just that.

Finding Your Lifeline
Building a PLC with your Counselor Colleagues, wherever you can find it, is the theme I want to encourage here.  Whether it is by joining the online community with a terrific resource like the Facebook group Elementary School Counselor Exchange, involving yourself with Twitter, #scchats, Google Hangout discussions,  following this blog, or one of many other active school counselor blogs, or developing a Professional Learning Community with the School Counselors in your own city, county or district, these groups are our lifeline.  In a profession that is largely misunderstood, these groups give us encouragement and perspective when we need it most. They give us a safe place to vent, but most importantly, allow us to encourage and give back to our Counselor Colleagues.

For many who live in rural areas or districts where School Counselors are few in number, the online options may be your only resource.  However don't let too few, be a deterrent to establishing your own PLC. The camaraderie, emotional support, problem solving, idea and resource exchange shared by meeting with others (whether virtually or online) who know what you do and why you do it is that lifeline to the lone School Counselor.  For those in urban school districts or cities or counties with multiple School Counselors, I strongly encourage to develop you own local Professional Learning Community (PLC).

The Birth of an Idea
I live in a large school district with nearly 50 elementary School Counselors.  In the last 5 years I have watched my friends, collaborators, and mentors retire one by one. People I use to call with questions or bounce ideas off of, or call about a student that had transferred from their school were all gone.  In their place, were names and faces I did not know very well and a feeling of a lost connection from years of working and sharing together.  If I was feeling disconnected, and I had been a part of the district counseling team for many years, how were my new colleagues feeling? It was evident when we met as a district for various meetings and workshops my new colleagues longed for the chance to talk and share with other School Counselors.  Our lunch breaks and after meeting conversations were filled with questions, ideas, and the support you only experience from others who "get" what you do. We wanted, no needed, more time together but the how and when was a problem.

One day I was talking with our Art teacher who mentioned meeting with her PLC.  I was curious and she explained she met with the other Art teachers in our district once a month to share lesson plans, work on curriculum maps, and share resources and ideas.  In addition to all this, they were able to arrange to receive professional development points towards certificate renewal and provide evidence for their evaluation of collaborating with peers. That's it! I was sold!  This is what my School Counselor Colleagues and I needed!

Creating a PLC
I started with my awesome Assistant Principal and floated the idea with her.  What did she think of the Counselors on our side of the county creating our own monthly PLC and did she think we could earn PD (professional development) points?  She was on board 100% and so were my Westside colleagues.  We chose a monthly meeting date and my AP created the PLC course description and registration sign-up through our county PD computer program.  Our first year was small, just the 8 of us on the "Westside"of the our county, including one Counselor who worked on the east side but lived on the west side.  We met faithfully every month, rotating the school host. Our meetings would last from 2-3 hours with sharing, consultation, some commiseration, and problem solving.  My desire was for this to be a positive, community building and personally enriching experience, and although this was never discussed, it clearly was the unstated purpose of our meetings.  In the end we earned more than 25 PD points towards re-certification.  But that was not the best part.

The PLC Benefits
As a result of our time together we grew personally and professionally in our relationships with each other. Our familiarity and comfort with one another created a trusted support system for emailing and calling each other to consult in difficult situations whether with students, parents, faculty, or administration. The feeling of isolation was diminished and the sharing of resources and knowledge was increased.  Each meeting we focused on our lessons and school-wide programming as it pertained to our curriculum map.  We shared resources, lesson plans, books, activities, websites, ideas, and more. We discussed our evaluation system and supported one another with ideas for improving our evaluation lessons and discussed various interpretations of the evaluation rubric.  We compared how our various administrators used the evaluation tools and how to effectively write up our personal growth plans.  But best of all, these once unfamiliar faces were now not only my trusted colleagues, but my friends.

PLC Year 2
A lot has happened to improve our PLC in the past 2 years!
  • We have grown in numbers!  Another PLC in our county has teamed up with us for a group of about 20 members.  
  • We have "offspring."  Our "eastsider" from earlier in the year left us to create an east side group who now meets monthly as well.
  • We have gone to a monthly agenda (see samples here and here), with members submitting ideas, volunteering to present information, class or group lessons, and technology tips.
  • There is greater administrative support in year 2.  A member suggested when we send out our agenda for the upcoming meeting we should include all the Principals of our PLC members.  This has helped immensely with administrative support  and School Counselors being free to leave school (after dismissal) to attend monthly meetings.  
  • PLC minutes are now copied to our Principals and District Guidance Specialist.  This seems to have really done the most for legitimizing what we do and what we are trying to do for our students and our schools.  One of my Counselor Colleagues said her Principal commented after reading our minutes,"Wow, you all really packed a lot in that agenda!" 
  • We are nurturing and supporting the newest School Counselors in our district and they tell us how much this group has meant to them. Our group is a safe place to ask questions, try new ideas, and get nonjudgmental help if needed.
  • Our support base has grown professionally and personally as we add new members and spend more time together sharing, consulting, collaborating, and problem solving.  We have so many gifted School Counselors with a variety of backgrounds and experiences from private practice to all levels of counseling from preK to college. We have former classroom teachers who provide a teacher's perspective, a former behavior analyst and mental health therapist, tech geeks, and an entire group who will freely share any resource or idea they have.   
What sort of PLC, PLN, School Counselor support groups, or networking activities are you involved with?  I would love to hear your ideas for building community among School Counselors.  Any suggestions for ways we can continue to grow and improve our PLC would also be appreciated. I would be glad to feature your PLC or share your ideas here as well.

If you don't have a PLC and are interested in starting one with the School Counselors in your area, comment below or send me an email.  I would be happy to discuss how to start your own PLC.

I can't begin to express what the time with my School Counselor Colleagues has meant to me.  They offer comfort in difficult situations and challenge and inspire me to be the best I can be.  My wish for 2015 is for each of you to find a way to experience this too!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Contemplating this special season of celebration I wanted to share a poem that has meant so much to me and in many ways defines why I am a School Counselor.  This poem, which many of you may already know, is called  A Prayer for Children  and was written in the 90's by columnist Ina J. Hughes for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
Thank you for all you do for all the children.  Never underestimate how your caring words and the time you spend may impact their young lives.  I pray this poem touches your heart as it has touched mine.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka, and Happy Kwanzaa! Many blessings on you and yours as you celebrate with those you love.

A Prayer for  Children by Ina J. Hughes

We pray for children
who give us sticky kisses,
who hop rocks and chase butterflies,
who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants,
who sneak Popsicles before supper,
who erase holes in math workbooks,
who can never find their shoes.
And we pray for those
who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire,
who’ve never squeaked across the floor in new sneakers,
who never "counted potatoes",
who are born in places we wouldn’t be caught dead,
who never go to the circus,
who live in an X-rated world.
We pray for children
who bring us fistfuls of dandelions and sing-off key,
who have goldfish funerals, build card-table forts,
who slurp their cereal on purpose,
who get gum in their hair, put sugar in their milk
who spit toothpaste all over the sink,
who hug us for no reason, who bless us each night,
And we pray for those
who never get dessert,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind,
who can’t find any bread to steal,
who don’t have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren’t on anybody’s dresser,
whose monsters are real.
We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store
and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed,
who never rinse out the tub,
who get quarters from the tooth fairy,
who don't like to be kissed in front of the car pool,
who squirm in church and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at
and whose smiles can make us cry.
And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren't spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.
We pray for children
who want to be carried,
and for those who must.
For those we never give up on,
and for those who don't have a chance.
For those we smother,
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody
kind enough to offer.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Marshmallow Challenge

Looking for a great activity, good anytime, but especially great as we all try to survive these last few days to Christmas break?  I recently participated in The Marshmallow Challenge at a district School Counselor meeting and knew right away I had to take it back to school to share with my boys and girls.  The Marshmallow Challenge is an awesome way to actively engage your students while teaching teamwork, cooperation, thinking skills, sportsmanship, perseverance, kindness, planning ahead, problem solving, peer pressure, inclusion, consensus, fairness, time management and more.

The Marshmallow Challenge is simple.  Teams of 4 are challenged to build the tallest, free-standing structure using 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string or yarn, and a marshmallow (regular size, not mini or jumbo) in 18 minutes and the marshmallow must be on top.  I played a Christmas Party Mix CD and used a digital countdown clock I found on the internet to keep give the students a visual of their remaining time.  The excitement, frustration, and collaboration was amazing.  After 18 minutes, I walked around with my yardstick measuring any completed, free standing structures with the marshmallow on top. The height of the winning structure was recorded on my chalkboard for all the classes who followed to see.

When I started The Marshmallow Challenge this past week  I had no idea what to expect as my students participated in this activity, but as the week progressed several scenarios repeated themselves.  In this challenge I saw surprising leaders emerge. Students I had considered quiet or passive and students who struggled academically were taking the lead in successful planning and building. I observed groups who were slow, methodical, precise, and conservative with materials and some who were too scared to start. Then there were the groups who started cutting tape and string and pasta without an inkling of a plan or any conversation with their team. These were usually my students with ADHD and even though they had used all their materials and created nothing with still 10 minutes to go they were perfectly happy.  I had teams who successfully created a free-standing structure with plenty of time to spare, but had leftover materials and just couldn't leave well enough alone.  They continued to touch, manipulate and add to their structure until it fell over.  I had tables of individuals who all set out to create their own  individual structure without referring to their team. There were the usual complaints of they won't listen to my ideas or they won't let me do anything. As these complaints came up I reminded the boys and girls just because the group didn't build it your way doesn't mean they didn't listen to your ideas.  And just because you are not the one holding the spaghetti does not mean you are not doing anything.  What are you doing to participate?

My students loved this activity and we have generated some excellent discussions as we processed our experiences at the conclusion.  We rated ourselves and our team on cooperation, discussed what type of group member we were,  the problems we encountered with construction, what contributed to our success or failure as a group, the biggest surprise or most unexpected thing about the activity, and what they learned about themselves. Their insights astounded me.  Check out my lesson plan here.

As I reflected on the week there were a couple of important changes I made along the way.  At first, I randomly seated students when they entered my room, but after the first day of classes, I started carefully selecting my groups of students.  I was interested to discover what types of groups had the greatest success.  I created single gender groups and mixed gender groups, groups with all dominant personalities and all students with ADHD.   I found single gender groups of girls had more relationship issues and the guys just went all in and didn't have one person that tried to run the show. The mixed gender groups were more dependent on the individual leadership of the student rather than gender.  My SLD students were usually the best builders and idea people and my poor little guys and gals with ADHD ended up with a pile of wadded up tape and dozens of little chopped up pieces of string and pasta.  Another change I made was to stop announcing there would be a prize for the group with the tallest structure.  The idea of a prize seemed to cause too much stress and ill-will for those who were super competitive and were bent on winning. The focus was more on, "We're not going to win!" rather than on trying to build something as a team.  Instead, I said nothing about prizes, but as each class left I would offer a candy cane or Christmas pencil to the winning team.

To find out more about  The Marshmallow Challenge  check out their website and watch the TED talk video embedded there.  You will learn how this challenge began and has since been used with people from Kindergarteners to CEOs.  Have you ever used The Marshmallow Challenge or similar team building activities?  If so, please share your experiences with me.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Making Data Collection Fun with Kahoot!

I can't even remember when or where I first heard about Kahoot! but I've used it with my students  in the classroom and with my faculty with wonderful results. Kahoot! combines a game based format with leader or student created quizzes,challenging participants to be the first to answer questions correctly by awarding points and showing the top 5 participants on the leader board. Surveys and discussion questions can also be designed without the competitive atmosphere created by the timed quizzes and awarding of points.

Kahoot! (getkahoot.com) is a free website that can be accessed with a laptop, tablet, ipod, or smart phone.  My intern used Kahoot! with my students on our class set of ipods as a post test for a lesson she created for Red Ribbon Week.  I used it as a pre-test with my faculty before an important faculty meeting about behavior (they all brought their smart phones). Both resulted in lots of active engagement and the students were so excited, they even begged  to do the quiz again!

Not only can teachers and School Counselors write quizzes, pre/post tests and surveys for students, but students can create a Kahoot! account and make quizzes or review activities for each other.  Creating a  Kahoot! is easy and the website has lots of public Kahoots! you can copy or use as an idea for creating your own.  Your Kahoot! can have pictures or videos attached to each question and questions can be multiple choice or  true/false.  At the end of each Kahoot! is a player rating of how much they liked the Kahoot! and how much they learned. Also available to the Kahoot! creator is a download listing the names of all the participants and how they answered each question.  What a great way for School Counselors to collect some perception data!

Game pin 
Student log in with game pin

Student log in with name and ready to play.

Once you have created your Kahoot! and are ready for your students to play,  you will go to getkahoot.com, log in and select your quiz.  A screen will display giving students the game pin (the pin is not always the same).  Students must go to kahoot.it to log in and participate.  When they do, a screen will ask for the game pin and their nick name.  We had some problems with super silly  and inappropriate nicknames, so much so that it became a competition as to who could have the most ridiculous or questionable nickname. As a result we had to insist on using real names, which we needed anyway to get individual student data.  There is also a great feature with Kahoot! that allows the School Counselor the option of "kicking out" any inappropriate name. The student must then enter a more suitable name to re-join the game.  When all students have reached  the "You're in!" screen you are ready for your Kahoot! to begin.

Student screen view

Questions as they appear on the projected screen.

Students see the  class answers and the correct answer(s).

Each question will appear at the top of the projected screen with red, yellow, blue and green bars with shapes and answer choices inside.  Students will  have to read the answer choices off the screen as they only see the colored bars with shapes on their screen.The object of course is to answer as quickly and correctly as you can to earn the most Kahoots! points.  After each question the question and correct answers and the number of students selecting each answer is displayed.  The leader board  comes after each question  response summary and shows the top 5 scores so students can see how they are doing compared to their classmates.  At the end of the quiz,  the final Kahoot! scores are shown and  students give a "learning" and "fun rating."  I'm pretty sure though you will already know how much they enjoyed playing Kahoots! without the ratings screen.  And to make this fun learning experience even better, you can download results  of your Kahoot! giving you a spread sheet with student names and how they responded to each question.

The final scoreboard lets students see how their top five classmates performed.
Button to download results is at the bottom of this screen.

 My students LOVED Kahoot! and my teachers were eager to try it in their own classroom.  If you are lucky enough to have laptops, tablets, or ipods in your school then this is definitely something I recommend you try.  If your technology is limited you could have students answer questions as teams or if your school is a BYOT (bring your own technology) like ours, students can bring their own devices to use. 

My mind is spinning with ideas about how I can use Kahoot! to collect process, perception, and outcome data.  The new semester will provide a number of opportunities to follow-up on programs and lessons conducted earlier in the year.
Have you ever tried Kahoot!?   I would love to hear about your Kahoot! experiences and how you are using the data.  Please share in the comments section below.  Thanks for stopping by!