A Room Full of Giants


Brian Dassler
Deputy Chancellor for Educator Quality

For more than 25 years, the Florida Department of Education and Macy’s have celebrated teachers and teaching through the Florida Teacher of the Year program. Each school district and local education agency in the state nominates one Teacher of the Year to attend a recognition gala and professional development conference. From among these accomplished educators, Florida’s Teacher of the Year is named and on his or her way to a year-long mission to advocate for our state’s outstanding students and educators.

The department’s Commissioner of Education, Pam Stewart, challenged us this year to take our work with these phenomenal educators to the next level. She envisioned a year-long professional learning opportunity that would invite each district Teacher of the Year to take on the challenge of improving student outcomes in a classroom that is not his or her own. We invited this year’s honored educators to step out of their classrooms and become leaders within their community and across the state, something many were already doing.

Department staff partnered with the New Teacher Center, a national leader in the area of professional development and support, to give these teachers the tools and resources they need to lead their peers. Through the partnership, we created the LEAD network, a year-long program for the Florida’s district Teachers of the Year that included two in-person meetings and five online learning forums. During the program, each teacher created an action plan in one of two areas: leading a group of educators in a Professional Learning Community or individually coaching new teachers. With tools and blended staff support, our LEAD teachers are able to increase student achievement through helping their peers.

At our most recent in-person meeting, we learned many of our LEAD teachers have taken the work we started this summer developing “growth mindsets” back to their schools or districts. Several, for example, are leading year-long book studies with Carol Dweck’s Mindset as the key text.

We’ve also heard from many educators on how much they value the LEAD network. One participant commented that, as a result of this year’s LEAD Network, she has done “more sharing this year than all of her 26 years in education.” Another commented that she feels like she is “in a room full of giants,” every time the group comes together.

As a result of Commissioner’s Stewart vision, the department is changing its strategy for working with teachers, opting for deeper and more sustained communication so the impact of these educators can extend far beyond their own classrooms.

We are also modeling our programs so that local school districts and other organizations can see what teacher leadership means to the department and why it is important. Taking on the challenge of ensuring college- and career-readiness for every Florida student is an enormous challenge, a great opportunity and our moral responsibility. However, we cannot prepare students if we don’t acknowledge Florida’s teachers as our partners and as community leaders. The Teacher LEAD Network is our proud contribution to celebrating and advancing the profession of teaching.

Each time I work with these honored educators, I can’t help echoing the thoughts of one of our participants and feeling lucky to work with such educational giants.

Five Tips to Boost Your Family’s Health During National Nutrition Month

Good nutrition in childhood helps prevent many health problems, including obesity, tooth decay, osteoporosis and iron deficiency. National Nutrition Month is a wonderful time to adopt healthy eating and increase physical activity plans that are focused on consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices and getting daily exercise in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Here are five tips for you to try during the month of March to improve your family’s health and well-being.
1: Start Good Habits Early. According to the Florida Department of Health, one out of every three kids is now considered overweight or obese. Offering a variety of healthy foods and encouraging kids’ natural tendency to be active can help set them on a path to making healthy decisions throughout their whole lives.
2. Research Florida’s Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables. Eating healthy doesn’t have to break the bank. Choosing foods that are at their seasonal peak often cost less at the grocery store and taste better at the dinner table. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services created the Living Healthy in Florida initiative which highlights fresh Florida fruits and vegetables. To learn more about healthy, nutritious foods and how to access free resources, visit www.LivingHealthyinFlorida.com.
3. Model Good Eating Behavior. Children will be more likely to try new, healthier foods when they see their loved ones do so. Let your child see you pick out your favorite vegetables or fruits at the grocery store and make sure to describe the food’s taste, texture and smell. For more resources, visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/food-groups/downloads/TenTips/DGTipsheet12BeAHealthyRoleModel.pdf.
4. Make Better Beverage Choices. It is very easy to ruin a day of health eating with a high calorie, high sugar drink. Instead, try sipping water throughout the day or at mealtime. Sodas, sports drinks and even juice drinks usually contain a lot of added sugar, which contains additional, unneeded calories.
5. Find Out What Your Child is Learning about Nutrition in School. Nutrition is a required component of K-12 Health Education in Florida. To find out what your child is learning, talk to his or her teacher or school about the health curriculum and nutritional programs. There are also many free resources online that you can share with your child, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s parent-friendly website (http://www.choosemyplate.gov/) that offers tips and free materials to help parents and children make healthy choices while staying within your budget.
Each day, your food and physical activity choices affect your health and your children’s health today, tomorrow and in the future. To learn more about strategies and activities designed to help Florida’s children and adults make choices about healthy eating and active living, please visit http://www.healthiestweightflorida.com/children.html.

About the Author: Michelle L. Gaines serves as the Florida Department of Education’s Health Education Coordinator since 2012. The Arkansas native is a mentor, an avid community volunteer and an educator for 25 years. Michelle can be reached at Michelle.Gaines@fldoe.org.

Schoolgirl enjoying her lunch in a school cafeteria

FDLE Investigating Cyber-Attacks Against FSA Testing System

Today, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Rick Swearingen announced that FDLE is investigating testing delays caused by cyber-attacks on a server used to administer the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said, “While most Florida students are continuing to test successfully, we now know that some of the delays in testing late last week were due to cyber-attacks on our testing system operated by American Institutes for Research (AIR). The Department has been working with FDLE since last Thursday when we were notified about the problem and we will continue to provide them with any information possible to ensure they identify the bad actors and hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law. We are holding daily conference calls with AIR to ensure they immediately address any flaws or attacks on our system as we move forward in this second week of testing.

“Our highest priority is to make sure students can complete their tests and we will continue to work with AIR to ensure their system operates effectively. It is important to point out that AIR has reported that while access to the test has been delayed because of the cyber-attacks, no student data has been compromised. AIR is also working to capture any student writing responses that were reported lost and they believe the measures they have now put in place will prevent any future attacks from impacting testing. However, we know that we have to remain vigilant to ensure all our testing vendors protect students’ testing results and personal information at all times.”

FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said, “FDLE’s Tallahassee Cyber-Crimes Squad began working with the Department of Education on Thursday to determine where these attacks are coming from and to identify suspects. This investigation is to be a priority for our Cyber-Crime Squad and we consulted with our counterparts at the FBI. If suspects are identified, we will work with prosecutors to ensure the perpetrators are held accountable.”

On Monday, March 2, Florida’s eighth, ninth and 10th grade students began taking the computer-based writing component of the English language arts Florida Standards Assessment. At the start of the two-week testing window, districts experienced a number of technical difficulties unrelated to the cyber attack. This includes delays because test administrators could not log in, and students being logged out of the test prior to completion. This resulted in some responses being temporarily unavailable to the students.

Commissioner Stewart directed AIR, the organization delivering the tests, to determine the cause of the issue and immediately resolve it. AIR accepted full responsibility and concluded that an update it performed had inadvertently resulted in the delays. AIR has had success retrieving student responses and AIR is researching and resolving the remaining cases.

By Tuesday afternoon, the issue with the log on server was resolved. While there were some sporadic reports of denial of service on Monday and Tuesday, significant concerns of an attack did not occur until Thursday morning when DOE received widespread reports from a number of districts of “white screens” after logging in. By approximately 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the problem had subsided and the districts that continued were able to test successfully for the rest of the day. AIR confirmed the cause of this issue was a cyber-attack on the log on server.  Commissioner Stewart, upon learning about the cyber-attack, immediately contacted FDLE and requested the agency to investigate this issue and hold those responsible accountable.

According to AIR, the cyber-attack that caused a denial of service will not compromise student performance on the test or any personal student data. Despite these issues, in the first week of the two-week testing window, a total of 397,352 students completed the computer-based writing component, which represents more than 60 percent of students registered to take the test.

The Malleable Mind

Melanie WeitzAs I was reading the article Mind-Sets and Equitable Education by Dr. Carol Dweck, I was intrigued by a part in the student’s mind-sets section that discussed how we can change our mindset because our brain can actually grow, just like a muscle.

Each time we challenge ourselves and learn something new, the neurons in our brain make new connections and over time we become smarter.  Having a malleable mind is what makes us and our students capable of learning anything.

One of the ways we can encourage brain growth in our students is by teaching them how to process failures.  Failure does not need to be a negative experience, as it tends to be with many of our children.  Failure is a way for us to learn.

When my class would take a test I always gave the opportunity for them to make corrections on the problems they got incorrect.  They would take their graded test, open their notes, and show work to support a new answer with evidence. I would then take the new answers and rescore the test.  This gave my students the opportunity to continue learning and not give up when they saw their final grade.

If I could do this all over, the one thing I would change is putting a grade on the paper at all.  Instead, I would mark answers that were incorrect, but put no grade on the paper until after the corrections had been made.  I think this would have solidified the opportunity to grow.

When we share with our students that with a lot of practice and effort they can condition their brain to grow and strengthen new knowledge, we give them hope that they can learn, thus increasing their motivation to keep trying.

The short video clip on our growth mindset page dedicated to failure gives some great examples of our malleable mind.

About the author: Melanie Weitz serves as the Florida Department of Education’s teacher liaison. Before joining the department, Melanie taught fifth grade for seven years in the Tampa area. You can contact Melanie at Melanie.Weitz@fldoe.org or on Twitter at @MelanieWeitzFL

Just for Teachers Update: Two Mindsets

Growth Mindset Book by Dr. Carol DweckThis week, I would like to focus on the two different mindsets that we commonly see in our students.  Through her research, Dr. Carol Dweck noticed patterns between our students with fixed mindsets and students with growth mindsets.  Our students who choose a fixed mindset display feelings of frustration when they are confronted with challenges. Often times,  they will shut down and stop trying.  When students choose a growth mindset, they embrace challenges and persevere in solving problems.

The graphic on our new growth mindset home page in the Just For Teachers Community is a great illustration of how our students respond to different situations with each mindset.  So many times we will hear: “She is just lazy” or “He just doesn’t care.”  While that may seem so, as we look at the graphic, we realize that it’s a mindset and it can be changed.

A video that I would like to share with you that really helped me understand the two mindsets is “The Power of Belief.”  This is a Ted Talk video by Eduardo Briceño, the CEO of Mindset Works. I hope you find this as powerful as “The Power of Yet”.

Please feel free to leave comments on this message and video.

About the author: Melanie Weitz serves as the Florida Department of Education’s teacher liaison. Before joining the department, Melanie taught fifth grade for seven years in the Tampa area.      

What I Know About Teaching Struggling Students (Part Two)

My final six observations of working with struggling students:

Image of dedicated eucator teaching a high school class.Struggling students need more modeling and practice than other students.  

This should go without saying, but I think in the era of academic rigor, we are trying so hard to get students to think for themselves, that we forget we have to teach them too. With struggling students it is very important to model skills and give them amble time to practice those skills. It is more beneficial to work with a struggling student for 10 minutes every day, than for 15 minutes three times a week. Because of memory and attention issues, they will retain information better if given in small but frequent sessions.

Struggling students become overwhelmed easily.

Just as we know to teach struggling students more complex material in smaller more manageable chunks, we need to remember not to overwhelm them in other areas as well. Struggling students may feel overwhelmed when given too much information at once, visual or oral. When explaining or displaying information, stick to the point, don’t ramble or add unnecessary information. Additionally, schedule physical breaks and provide incentives for students. Use preferred activities as a reward for getting work done.

Struggling students need consistent schedules and rules.

Because they are already struggling with learning difficulties, it becomes even more stressful if the game plan changes. Obviously there are some changes that cannot be avoided, but the more consistent you can keep your classroom and your expectations, the better they will do academically and emotionally. When they know they can count on working with you, or doing a preferred activity at a certain time, they are much more likely to become engaged in other areas.

Struggling students, (and others as well), learn best when learning is fun.

You would be amazed at how many learning activities can be done in a fun and interesting way.

I use or make up games, chants, and songs to teach and practice just about everything. The teacher internet sites have tons of suggestions. You can make any lesson into a fun activity.

Struggling students need to know you care about them.

I am always reminded of something one of my administrators said: “Remember to greet your students with a happy smile every morning; it may be the first smile they’ve seen that day.” Their parent may have yelled at them, the bus driver may have been grumpy, the kid next to them on the bus may have said something mean. You may be the one to start their day on a positive note. If you show you care about them, they will develop a better attitude about learning. And remember, many of their behavior issues may be due to the embarrassment they feel at being “behind” the other kids. “It’s better to be the bad kid than the dumb kid” is a frequent feeling. Knowing you care can make a big difference.

Struggling students need explicit directions on how to complete work and take tests.

Because of attention and processing issues, struggling students often have a difficult time with classwork and tests. They may need small group instruction on how to look for and find the correct answer. Often times they are overwhelmed with the amount of text on the paper, so they mark anything just to be finished. Improving their confidence with test taking, will in turn boost their achievement and increase motivation.

About the author: Penny Fish is a kindergarten and first grade ESE inclusion teacher at Triangle Elementary School in Mt. Dora, Florida.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood and Elementary Education as well as a Master’s Degree in Special Education and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. To read part one of “What I Know About Teaching Struggling Students” visit https://educatorsfl.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/what-i-know-about-struggling-students-part-one/

The Power of Yet

Melanie WeitzRecently, I received the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck. The philosophy behind Dr. Dweck’s work has changed my life both personally and professionally. While the profession of teaching is one of the most rewarding, it is also one of the most evolving, always leaving room for us to grow. One of Dr. Dweck’s findings that challenges me to grow as a teacher is the power of “yet”.

After learning of the power of “yet” I wish that I took a bit more time before grading my papers. I wish that instead of a grade that has such finality, I gave only feedback and the opportunity for students to correct their papers. In the subject of writing this is common practice, but I wish I had done it in math and science as well.

Our students should know that just because they don’t understand a specific concept now, does not mean they never will. Dr. Dweck does a remarkable job of explaining how powerful one simple change in our classroom practice can be. “The Power of Yet” gives our students the motivation to keep learning and not give up. I invite you to take the time to watch this short video and consider how you will incorporate “The Power of Yet” in your classroom.

If you would like to share any thoughts or experiences with using the power of “yet” in your classroom, please leave a comment or email me at Melanie.Weitz@fldoe.org.

To read the January edition of the department’s Just For Teachers newsletter, visit http://fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/7718/urlt/jftnews-feb515.pdf.

About the author: Melanie Weitz serves as the Florida Department of Education’s teacher liaison. Before joining the department, Melanie taught fifth grade for seven years in the Tampa area.