Achieving big dreams of reptiles and amphibians

In my visits to schools and classrooms throughout our district, I get to spend a lot of time talking with school leaders and teachers. But some of my favorite conversations are the ones I have with students. I think of these conversations as “mission moments” – experiences that remind me of why I love working in public education.

During one of my school visits last year, I met a student named Tairahn. I will probably never forget meeting Tairahn because in our conversation, he shared that his dream in life is become a herpetologist. A herpetologist – from the Greek “herpien” meaning “to creep” – is a person who studies reptiles and amphibians, and Tairahn is fascinated by them.

Let’s think for a moment about what it takes to achieve this dream.

  • He’ll need to graduate from high school and be accepted into a 4-year university.
  • He’ll need to major in something like biology, ecology, or zoology.
  • He’ll need to be sure that his course of study includes mathematics – so he can do things like project population growth and decline.
  • He’ll probably also need to study genetics to help with species classification.
  • And then once he graduates, he’ll need to stay on top of new developments in the field. He’d probably attend conferences and workshops. He might even work one on one with a mentor. Of course, he’d also be doing a lot of research on a regular basis, so he’d need a strong background in English composition.

I have no doubt that Tairahn has the drive to achieve his dream, and a strong education – provided by our amazing school teams – will be the vehicle to get him there. Education opens up countless pathways for opportunity, and those pathways start in Tulsa schools and classrooms.

 

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A reminder about who we are at Tulsa Public Schools

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At  Tulsa Public Schools, we live by our values: equity, character, excellence, team, and joy. We believe that our diversity is a community treasure, and that we must foster an inclusive environment by examining biases and resolving unfair practices. We are honest, trustworthy and have high standards of behavior, and while we do not always agree, we treat one another with kindness and respect. We do the right thing even when it is hard. We face difficulty with courage and have the moral fortitude to act in accordance with our beliefs. We care for one another, support one another, and work together to improve our community. We ensure that our schools and classrooms are places where children feel safe, supported, affirmed, and appreciated.

In the wake of the results of our presidential election, our children may have questions, concerns, and fears about the future of our country and the safety and security of their families and friends. Our children hear and see the same things on television that we do, and they are looking to us for answers, reassurance, and support. As educators, we have to do our best to assuage their fears and address their concerns, but we must also acknowledge the kernels of truth in what they may be hearing and give them the support and tools they need to process the information they’re receiving. We also need to make sure our kids know that no matter what, they are safe with us – that their homes, schools, classrooms, and communities are still safe spaces, that we are watching out for them, and that we will do all that we can to keep them safe.

As a city, we mirror the country in diversity of opinion and political leanings, but I know that we are united in our commitment to the best interests of our children. We must be vigilant in preventing and addressing bullying and harassment in our learning communities – both real and virtual. Equity, character, excellence, team, and joy are the values and intentions that guide how we live, work, and interact with each other and with our community. Regardless of what’s happening in our larger world, Tulsa Public Schools is still a place where everyone is valued, celebrated, appreciated, and affirmed, and that has not changed. We must continue to model these values for our children and set the expectation that they strive to live these values with us.

A message to the dedicated team at Tulsa Public Schools

Dear team,

It has certainly been an eventful week both here in Oklahoma and throughout our country. On Tuesday, we went to the polls and exercised the fundamental right and responsibility of voting. While our state ballot included questions on a number of important issues, the penny sales tax proposed by state question 779 had the potential to benefit every teacher and student in Oklahoma. This tax would have created a new permanent revenue stream to give each of our teachers a $5,000 pay increase and generate an estimated $25 million for education in Tulsa. The proposal was an opportunity to begin to lessen the financial difficulties that Oklahoma teachers face every day. Unfortunately, as you know, by late Tuesday evening it became clear that the majority of Oklahomans voted against the proposed sales tax.

On Wednesday morning, thousands of educators woke up well before dawn to start another day of great teaching and learning in Tulsa and throughout the state. Many of these teachers were heartbroken, devastated, frustrated, angry, and feeling like Oklahomans just didn’t care about them – but nonetheless, they returned to their classrooms ready to make magic happen for their students.

I am fortunate to have many opportunities to talk to community members about public education, and time and time again, I hear stories of transformational teachers and school communities that feel like families. Oklahomans value educators – they know that great teachers change lives.

In a state where it is common for professional educators to work second and third jobs and still struggle to make ends meet, it is well past time to fix the ongoing problem of Oklahoma’s teacher salaries. The conversation about doing right by our teachers did not end with state question 779. This fight is not over, and I will do everything I can to keep this critical issue in front of our legislators. I hope you will join me in calling on our state leaders to find a sustainable solution to improve public education funding and pay our teachers the salaries they deserve.

As a district, we mirror the country in diversity of opinion and political leanings, but I know that we are united in our commitment to serving the best interests of Tulsa students and families. I am so grateful for all that you do, and I am proud that we are on this bold journey to Destination Excellence together.

Your fan,
Deborah

How teachers can use uncertainty to spark innovation

Tomorrow, students of all ages will celebrate Halloween, roaming their neighborhoods for treats and some spooky fun. At this time of year, it’s never hard to find a scary movie on television, or come across the “Monster Mash” on the radio during your morning commute. There is something fun about the uncertainty of fear when you know that only thing at stake is possible embarrassment. In the classroom, however, uncertainty can inspire either thoughtful curiosity or confusion and discomfort. We know that curiosity can be a great motivator for learning, so how do we make it comfortable to be uncertain?

I recently came across this great article by Linda Flanagan called “How to Spark Curiosity in Children through Embracing Uncertainty.” Flanagan’s article discusses recent research and writing about the power of uncertainty in an academic setting: “If students can be made to feel comfortable with uncertainty — if they’re learning in an environment where ambiguity is welcome and they are encouraged to question facts — then they are more apt to be curious and innovative in their thinking.” For example, if a student asks how clocks work, you can give them the definitive answer with diagrams on your whiteboard, or you can invite them to take a clock apart and share their findings with their peers. Both approaches might answer the question, but only one fosters curiosity and critical thinking.

In her article, Flanagan shares recommendations for student activities that are easily adaptable for teachers:

  • Assign projects that provoke uncertainty. Review your lesson plans from the points of view of their students. It might be uncomfortable to step into the student perspective, but it could be an invaluable exercise that help you refocus your practice.
  • Emphasize the current topics of debate in a field. Everybody has an opinion on education, and exploring “hot” topics may lead you to new ideas and practices.
  • Show how the process of discovery is often messy and non-linear. I have whiteboards in my office at the ESC that are filled with notes, ideas, and plans. These are great visuals of the ways that district leadership is working to support our school leaders, students, and teachers, and the team is always welcome to add to the “conversation.” Try keeping an “idea parking lot” in your classroom and see what kind of collaborative ideas might grow from it!

Accepting uncertainty in the learning process allows us to look past the facts and ask our questions anyway. Remember, just because “it’s always been that way” doesn’t mean it can’t be a different way that might be better!

Celebrating National Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day, a celebration of the ideas and words that inspire us, make us think, laugh, smile, and pause to reflect on the world around us. I spent my classroom years teaching in the early childhood and primary grades, so I have many favorite children’s poems that encourage readers to dream big:

Shel Silverstein: “Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me…Anything can happen child,anything can be.”
 
Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”
 
Jack Prelutsky: “I am flying! I am flying! I am climbing unconfined, I am swifter than the falcon, and I leave the wind behind…”

As teachers, our words have the capacity to transform the young people in our care. With our support and encouragement, students will reach higher and strive for excellence. If this sounds like a great responsibility, well…that’s because it is! But it is also the absolute best job in the world.

I adore children’s poems, but for National Poetry Day, I’d like to share a “grown up” poem that is close to my heart. It’s called “To Be of Use” by Marge Piercy:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
 
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again

 I want to be with people who submergegirls-reading
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

These are words that inspire me and remind me of the phenomenal teachers we have at each of our schools. Teachers are, by nature, “people who submerge in the task” and “move in common rhythm” to help our students succeed. I am grateful to work alongside them each day.