Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teacher Voice: A Successful Meeting

I had the big meeting.  It went well.  It felt good to share so many ideas that I've had for a long time.  I learned a lot too.

This morning we had a great PLC meeting too--lots of thoughtful discussion and learning related to student writing.

The changes and new ideas today as well the promise and potential so many wonderful tools and strategies hold demand that educators have sufficient time to thoughtfully collaborate, plan and use their voices when it comes to system decisions and issues.  These meetings are always best if the centerpiece is student learning because that's the reason for our work and the common thread we all share in schools.

I'm glad I used my voice.  I have a new outlook on my work and direction.  There's always a bit of growing pain when you face the tough issues head-on, but with the growing pains come promise of enriched work and effect.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Education Ratios

Education can be thought of as ratios:

Time on Task:Time for Planning


Learning Gained:Time Invested

Passive Learning:Active Learning

"Sage on Stage": Coach

New Ideas: Old Ideas (is it the ratio that matters here or the quality of the ideas and their effect)

Learning that can be quantified: Learning that can't be quantified

Project Base Learning: Skills

Teachers: Leaders

Teachers: Students

Classrooms: Students

Time With Students: Time Not With Students

What ratios would you add to this list?

The Price of Innovation and Change

Innovation and change isn't free, but I believe the value is worth the cost.

For example, do you risk a broken computer by letting young children use them?  Or do you simply not purchase computers because you anticipate that children will break them? Computers break and accidents happen. It's true that we need protocols and routines that help to protect computers because computers cost money, and if we're spending all the money on broken computers, we won't have money for new tools and equipment.

Hence, how might we want to evaluate the problem. First, I'm interested in the typical ratio of computer use to  computer damage.  For example for 100 hours of typical computer use, what is the fraction of expected damage?  I'm sure technology folk have all kinds of data on that, and if you know it please share.

Next, I'm interested in how people deal with damaged equipment issues.  Obviously if you publicly humiliate those that accidentally break  the computers, others may fear trial or use--why risk it? It's not as if teachers instantly become wealthier, more beautiful or more popular for using tech.  In fact, quite the opposite is true, teachers who push the margins for new ideas and innovation often spend their own money and work late into the evening so they can keep pace with the expected work while innovating too.

Those who try new ideas pay the price of time.  Systems reluctant to support innovation may scrutinize standardized test scores, time on task and student performance to be ready to punish or dismiss a teacher who is innovating, but not making the grade with regard to traditional teaching/long-held classroom expectations.  Hence teachers in those systems have to work about twice as many hours to both try new ideas and do all the existing work too.  Many at higher education and industry are setting aside time for innovation incubation--open ended experimentation and entrepreneurship to solve existing problems or bring their organizations into the future.  In these places, it isn't expected that those trying out new ideas do all the old ones too. But in schools, it's often the case that new ideas cost the price of time.

Innovation creates failure more often than it creates promise, yet if no one tries anything new organizations won't move forward.  How failure is embraced and looked at makes a big difference when it comes to how innovation and change is met in an organization.  Innovation and change does cost mistakes, but we all know that mistakes are stepping stones to learning and success.

Innovation and change has a price and leads to the question, "How much are you willing to spend?"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why Rush? Project Planning

Sometimes it seems like people just want to rush initiatives to the finish line without careful thought.  That's frustrating as issues that are rushed along usually don't succeed.  Great initiatives usually follow these steps.

1. The dream. The desired outcome. The goal.

2. The plan.

3. Materials, people and places.

4. A timeline.

5. Published detailed project plan from start to finish with assessment points to review and revise.

6. Project Execution, revision and refinement. Regular updates to all impacted and involved with the project.

7. Project completion, assessment, presentation and celebration.

I know that not all projects can follow such a neat plan, but I actually believe that most projects that are not emergency events can come fairly close.

Elementary School Teacher: "Jack of All Trades, Master of None?"

As elementary school teachers, our roles are varied and diverse, yet our time to master single topics or expertise is minimal since we're called to keep up with a large number of content areas, teaching strategies, and cognitive research points.

As a leader of elementary school teachers, how do you direct your staff?  What do you think of this generalist role?  Is it the best way to teach children today, or should we move towards roles with greater definition?

Elementary teachers have the ability to be holistic and interdisciplinary--we can weave learning standards and student needs together in meaningful learning endeavor that builds community and investment, yet at times our lack of time or access puts some students' needs and desires on a waiting list for when time allows.  Currently my students who are hungry for greater invention and scientific discovery are on that list--this is an area of need and interest, yet one that is buried beneath many standards in math and ELA.

I will continue to think about this question as I set goals for future discovery, learning and mastery.  In the meantime, what are you thoughts about the questions posed?

A Big Meeting: Speaking Up

I have a big meeting planned to discuss ideas, questions and thoughts I have about our school system.  As I've mentioned before I see potential everywhere, and feel like I have to share my vision with leadership since while the system does great work, we hold potential for even greater growth and effect.

Some have advised me to accept what is, and do my best in the current environment.  I can't follow that advice as I know that small changes can lead to wonderful promise for students.  All that I read points to the fact that we must speak up when we see potential for positive growth and change, and I'm following that advice.

Others say, why don't you move to leadership if you have all those ideas.  I believe that the role of classroom educator can be a role that includes vision for systems, organization and betterment.  I believe that my best attributes are related to serving children well, yet I don't think that should put me in the position of follower--I believe that classroom teachers need to be "activators" as Hattie expresses in Making Learning Visible for Teachers; we need to have a voice with regard to the organizations we work in and the work we do.  The old notions of teachers as "assembly line workers" is not a notion that pushes education forward or teaches students well, yet it's a notion very much alive in schools both in the minds of educators and leaders.

Leaders who do not elicit teacher voice, share their ideas for change or collaborate with educators when planning new curriculum, support the factory model.  Similarly teachers who say, "Just tell me what to do," or "I'm dumb" (yes, I heard a teacher say that after a meeting where she was made to feel that way) also contribute to that model.  Instead new, dynamic systems for communication, decision making, innovation and education will redefine roles of educators and leaders in schools--ways that will serve to bring education forward in optimal ways.

It's difficult to speak up from my position as a classroom teacher in schools today, but I always look at things from the "whole life view" which makes me ask the question: "At the end of my life, will I be pleased that I spoke up, or will I wish I would have stayed quiet."  If speaking up respectfully and thoughtfully means that schools might improve, then it's worth the effort.  Surely, if I don't speak up, ideas that have the potential for positive change will not be considered.  Hence, I've made a choice to have a "big meeting" and speak up.  Let's see what happens.

Sick Day

If you're like me, you hate being sick.  You hate when your energy is depleted and you can't keep up with your typical level of work and effort.  Sickness happens and I caught something somewhere in the past few days hence my energy is depleted and my body aches.  It's days like this that make you wonder how you keep up with your typical daily routine.

Sick days for classroom teachers are especially challenging since we have to send a complete listing of plans to the school with all the lessons and materials for the day--essentially we do all the work for the day, then a substitute carries those plans out.  Luckily, just before our February break, I had prepared the work for the following week so it was ready to go--the hard part will be that the substitute doesn't really know the curriculum or my students so I'll have to reteach today's work in a different way tomorrow to make sure the lessons are learned.

Sickness happens, and we can only do what we can to get better and back on track.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Extraordinary Art

Our school art teacher, Christine Soeltz, does a wonderful job with children.  She provides students with a varied palette of art history, projects and expression.  Take a look at her wonderful portfolio via this link.

This is how a colleague defined Ms. Soeltz's wonderful work: "I have been lucky enough to be in your classroom and observe first hand your passion and creativity.  You create a positive, supportive, and safe environment where kids can take risks, develop their own voice and discover the artist within themselves."  

That quote describes the learning experience we hope all children will enjoy in art and every other discipline.  Thanks Ms. Soeltz!

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Perhaps my lens is different from your's.

My lens is founded on the following beliefs.
  • Transparent knowledge and information leads to greater effort, engagement and success.
  • Streamlined, clearly defined systems, roles and responsibilities direct an organization with strength.
  • Thoughtful, collective vision shared is vision met.
  • Debate is critical and should be welcomed.
  • Regular, dynamic conversation with diverse voices will lead an organization forward.
  • Systems for assessment, revision and change should be at play at all times. 
  • Lead time is critical, and spontaneity is critical too.
  • Everyone in an organization is a dynamic component to that organization, and everyone's voice matters.
  • Innovation streams, research and creativity are essential to every organization.
  • Knowledge of the past and assessment of the past is integral--keep the best of traditional practice and effort while embracing the best of the new. 
  • Knowledge should not be viewed as power, but instead viewed as potential.
  • Ethics matter.
  • Truth matters.
  • Mission matters.
Both in my personal life and in my professional life, I believe that making time for what's most important leads one to the most meaningful, positive effect. Weeding our gardens of unnecessary efforts, old beliefs and misdirected notions have the potential to collectively move us in a positive direction.  That movement takes honest discourse and careful attention to one another with respect to our work, goals, mission and vision.

Is my lens different than yours?  If so, how?  I'd like to refine my scope for optimal performance and growth. What processes will lead me and others in that direction? 

Small Matters?

There are matters in school that are small matters, yet small matters gain increasing momentum over time.

Who has time during the day for planning? This varies a lot in a school system, and often represents structures that haven't been re-looked at for many, many years.

Who communicates?  Some communicate often, perhaps too often, but at least you know what they stand for and do, while others rarely or never communicate.

Time with students. In most cases, teachers are almost always with students while there are other educators who have little time with direct response or instruction.

Who's hired?

Where are we going? What is the path ahead for our collective growth and movement?

What are the current successes?  Needs?  Challenges?

With some matters, there is an ease related to questioning and discussion, yet with other matters there is an unwillingness to explore or discuss. It seems like moving towards transparency and streamlined systems will leave less time for unspoken matters and more time for forward movement.  Do you agree?

Math Revisited: Time and Priorities

In elementary classrooms today, there's a bit of a content war going on--a war between disciplines each vying for the hours available in the day.

In Massachusetts, the ELA tests are coming up so that gives reading and writing a bit of an edge in the battle.  Then in April and May, Math will have an edge with upcoming Math MCAS tests.  Also, thoughtful teachers will keep science and social studies alive even though the content, knowledge and skills in those areas are not tested (nor should be tested in my opinion), and those same teachers will have an eye on the future as they employ technology and other tools that foster the 4 C's: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking skills.

Some would argue that an even menu of each skill daily will bring all students ahead.  As a classroom teacher I know that equation doesn't work because the differential between where students enter the grade level and the skills they are supposed to attain is equal to far more than a year for most.  I also know that to teach well means you make time for engagement, passion/interest, response, meaningful content, student discourse, community building and fun, yes fun!

So where does that leave me with regards to the math curriculum.

It's been a wonderful year of math instruction so far.  My new Massachusetts' evaluation goals were focused on math instruction which included a terrific graduate school course related to the new math standards, the creation of a teaching/learning document focused on those standards and a student learning goal focused on facts. The evaluation goals prompted me to dig deep when it came to my own math knowledge and instruction and set me on a path of many varied instructional models and efforts including the following:
  • Quick-feedback online practice sites and assessments.
  • Engaging, social and competitive game based online math games.
  • Online models and games for class instruction and practice.
  • You Tube and other videos that explain concepts, skills and knowledge.
  • Paper/pencil practice.
  • Formative and summative assessments including GMADE, MCAS, That Quiz tests, content tests and others. 
  • Classroom Math Projects such as the Factor Card Project.
  • Problem solving efforts and practice.
  • Skill by skill, and content by content attention to standards in differentiated ways. 
  • RTI efforts (started strong, but compromised by staffing/support issues).
  • Student-to-student coaching.
  • Math Workshop.
  • Explicit Math Instruction.
So at this turning point in the year, where am I headed with math instruction.

It's imperative that I carve out enough time for math while not compromising students' performance in ELA.  That's tricky and will take careful planning.

Instructional Support
Making the most of specialists and teaching assistants' time and effort will support this effort.  For most math lessons, it is me and 25 students with diverse needs and ability, hence I have to make the most of my time.The assistants' schedule is sporadic and it's often the case that many assistants in elementary schools do not have substantial knowledge or experience with math education. We have a math coach, but he does not work with students--his only area of support is helping me plan lessons, so that's challenging when it comes to my need to teach so many diverse students at once.  As for our RTI approach in math, we started strong as we had a wonderful, experienced assistant working with us, but once we lost the assistant, our efforts became challenged due to the large numbers of students and need for extensive planning without added time. On a positive note, some specialists are planning for some students and beginning to take them on a regular basis so that should help. Also, I have a dedicated parent volunteer who helps out once a week. 

Family Support
Family support is critical.  Parents have been very supportive.  I've definitely over-communicated our weekly math goals and efforts to enlist their support and many have jumped onboard.  I've also offered coaching sessions for parents and students which have not been popular, but in the one case where a parent took me up on the offer, the child made incredible leaps in achievement. This is a new concept so I'm not surprised it hasn't not taken off yet.  Soon we will have parent conferences, and that will give me another chance to meet with families, share assessments and strategize together about students' needs and achievement.

Well-planned, differentiated, meaningful lessons and units are critical to math education.  There are so many wonderful tools available for thoughtful math education today so the key is to plan each unit well utilizing all the wonderful tools available.  Time is always an issue for classroom teachers since they are planning for a number of lessons each day, and to teach responsively means you are revising those lessons constantly to meet students' specific needs.  I'm about to embark on reviewing multiplication, teaching division and investigating models that demonstrate both division and multiplication in meaningful, project based ways.  That's the next unit for careful planning and execution, and there are many more units to follow once that unit is complete. 

Practice is also critical.  Many students lose their number knowledge and problem solving abilities quickly without regular practice.  Weekly practice and growth with online systems such as Symphony Math, That Quiz, Xtra Math, Sum Dog and others will aid this process.  Also weekly practice with algorithms, estimation and math skills will also help to keep knowledge current and fresh.

It's true that math will take a bit of a back seat in the weeks ahead as the ELA tests stand waiting, but that doesn't mean math won't get a fair share of the schedule.

How do you deal with the "content wars?"  What are the important criteria for math programs?  How do you best support and foster math learning and education in your classroom and your school?  Like every content area, the more you know, the better work you do. I look forward to your commentary. 

Education Today: Time? Priorities?

One of the greatest issues in schools today is that we run out of time to meet all the student standards, passions and interests that sit before us each day. As I've mentioned many times it's a brave new world of education--a world of limitless possibilities and paths.

Hence, as a classroom teacher I find myself wanting to meet current standards, respond to individual students' needs/passions and teach for the future as well.  Ideally the systems that exist would support my efforts by directing time and energy into direct student response, innovation exploration and pilots and revised systems of organization and communication.

Many would like to solve the education problem by adding time without dealing with the need for reorganization, prioritization and communication.  I always think of that as the "clothes in my drawers" problem which means that no matter how many ways I sort, fold or rearrange the clothes in my drawer, if there are too many clothes--they won't fit.  So it's best to rethink the "clothes and the drawers" rather than to simply look for ways to achieve the impossible.  The same is true for schools--simply put, students and teachers have limited energy and adding a few hours of school each day with same structures and added responsibility for students and teachers will not make the difference, the difference will come with reorganization of effort, communication and intent.

The education issues today hold great promise for new structures and organization to best meet students' needs. As the issues are debated, I'll keep working to synthesize the three areas of intent mentioned above as I work with colleagues, students and parents to direct our energy in the most fruitful, promising and engaging ways.

Close Reading: Reading Response

As noted earlier, I'm about to embark on significant, targeted work with regard to close reading and reading response both in preparation for upcoming MCAS tests and for students' continued development of specific reading and response understanding and effort.

I will follow a tailored approach with the rationale that knowing how to read and respond to content with detail and specificity helps one in his/her life when it comes to complex documents, forms, actions and applications--a skill that if missed could result in lost opportunity or incorrectly informed decisions.

Though this teaching can be tedious, I do think that an early start in this endeavor can help to foster students' attention to detail and care when it comes to reading with understanding.  The key is to keep the rationale forefront, and to support students with clarity, attention and response.  Interesting enough, last year when I embarked on a similar test-prep, close reading unit of study, a number of students demonstrated keen attention and interest, students who have an inclination towards detail, perhaps our future lawyers and surgeons.

I plan to utilize the approach outlined here.  If you have thoughts or ideas to add, please share.  No matter how you feel about standardized tests, the tests are here and I hope this unit helps your efforts in that regard.

Related Posts
Close Reading by Kathy Perret

A Learning Journey: Writing Wonderful Essays

Every project we embark on in fourth grade becomes a learning adventure--a path of both expected and unexpected twists and turns.

Currently my students are embarking on the personal essay path as they write opinion essays about special local places they visit--places they think that others should visit too. There are a number of landmarks as we meander this learning path.

Prior to vacation we did some brainstorming and established audience.  We decided that our audience would be parents and children who are looking for great local day-trip destinations.  To bring our essays to our audience we also decided that we would try to publish some of our completed essays in local online and offline newspapers and magazines.

Next we started our paper-cut pre-write projects to awaken our memories and focus our efforts on three distinct reasons for visiting the chosen place. We'll continue those paper-cut illustrations in-school and at home during the following week.

Meanwhile in class we'll start crafting our essays with audience and topic in mind. We'll connect our independent reading and read aloud activities to this writing journey as well.

Introductory/Lead Paragraphs
Students will think about lead sentences and introductory paragraphs.  In keeping with my practice of completing projects first, I wrote a number of lead paragraphs that the students will read, vote on,  discuss and edit in class.  Then students will write three lead paragraphs, share those paragraphs with their project partners and choose one for their essay.

Detailed, Descriptive Paragraphs
The next day we'll discuss paragraph writing.  In preparation, I'll write three distinct paragraphs about my special place and have students edit and discuss those paragraphs.  Then students will write their paragraphs, and again edit with their project partner.  At this point we'll review the editing process and the craft that contributes to wonderful writing such as specific nouns, vibrant verbs, adjectives, similes and dialogue--craft that enables the writer to "draw pictures and make movies" in the readers' minds with words.

Summary/End Paragraph
Following that effort, we'll discuss and write end paragraphs which summarize the essay and leave the readers with something to think about.  We'll ask the following questions as we re-look at the essays?
  • Would this essay convince others to visit my special place?
  • Does the reader get a vivid, detailed portrait or movie of the place when reading this essay?
  • Do the sentences and words make sense?  Is my essay easy to understand and well organized?
Once we've spent considerable time on the draft, students will type up their essays on Google docs and import scans of their paper-cut illustrations.  After that we'll choose publications we'd like to publish our essays in, receive parent permission and send our essays with letters to the publications online or off depending on the publication's directions. 

Laying out the learning journey at the start enables the students to travel the learning path with as much independence and fluidity as possible.  This preparation also allows teacher-coaches and parents to support children's work, learning and success.  The path needs to be looked as a guiding direction since unexpected twists and turns in learning will occur throughout the process, twists and turns that good teacher-parent coaches will respond to with care and attention.  

Thoughtful learning journeys are wonderful adventures for teachers, parents and students when met with a spirit of shared exploration, discovery and growth.  In what ways do you embark on learning journeys similar to this, and how do your learning adventures differ?  What would you add to this journey to enliven the learning and quest?  Would you delete any aspects of this learning path?  As always I look forward to your insights and ideas. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I Don't Know What To Do?

What do you do when you don't know what to do?

I advise students to "ask questions and don't stay stuck."

Sometimes I fear that some educators or students who don't know what to do choose inaction instead.  For example recently a volunteer offered an educational service to a colleague.  The colleague asked for the necessary tools to make this happen, and was met with a lack of a response.  Hence, the volunteer has not received a response and a good idea waits.

Sometimes even if you don't know what to do, it's best to communicate the fact that you don't know and the steps you are taking to find out and respond.

Learning streams become more fluent and responsive when everyone involved responds to questions, rather than choose not to respond because they "don't know."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Engagement Trumps Discipline

We spent a long time in years past discussing classroom management.

Now we realize engagement trumps discipline, and when students are positively engaged, management becomes an old notion.  There's no longer a need to "manage," but instead a calling to coach.

That's an exciting new direction in education. Don't you agree?

Summer Study 2013

While I'm pulled in the direction of STEAM, lesson design calls me with greater intensity.  How can I design learning endeavor that engages and empowers students in positive, dynamic ways?

That's the question I'll pursue this summer, and this list will lead the way.  Stay tuned.
Student Voice/PLC

How Do Children Learn?

 "Congratulations," my colleague smiled and said, "They're so quiet.  You're doing a good job!"  My first reaction was to think, She hasn't read Hattie's book, Making Learning Visible for Teachers.  If she had she would know that quiet doesn't necessarily equal learning. I had similar thoughts when another colleague suggested students had too much screen time inferring that using the computers meant that students were simply staring at the screens the whole time.

Those comments and more make me wonder how much educators today really know and understand the research-based reality of student engagement and learning.  I myself have a lot to learn about the latest theories and research related to cognition, brain-friendly lessons, memory and engagement.  I do know that learning is not the linear ladder of obedient response that many think of.  Instead learning is a multi-faceted dynamic web-like process of connection making that looks to and thrives in positive, friendly environments.

I want to make a 21st century list of learning-friendly environmental attributes and actions--a short list to guide my work and the work of others.  I'll study this during the summer months as well as in the weeks to come.  In the meantime, I'm wondering what you would add to the list, and what resources you believe bring the most relevant data and information to this discussion.

Today's Lesson Plan: MA Educator Evaluation System

Today's Boston Globe article reminded me of Massachusetts' new teacher evaluation system, a system I am piloting with a number of other educators in my system.  Reading about the system from the view point of teachers and leaders outside of my school system awakened my thoughts about the many ways lessons and lesson planning have changed and remained the same over time.

Lesson plans of old often had the teacher at the front of the room for most of the lesson while students listened.  Praise was related more to student behavior than student learning.  Today the focus is on student learning and lesson plans that can travel many more positive paths given the tools and research we have available.  Also, lesson plans today don't represent discrete learning moments, but instead a piece of an overall in-school/out-of-school learning stream meant to take a student from unknowing to knowing in specific areas.

Hence, what do today's lesson plans look like?

Objective: The objective for today's lesson is focused on students' needs, interests and passions.  The lesson takes into account students' collective learning history, current standards, neurodiversity, cultural backgrounds and academic need.  The objective is clearly shared with the students at the start of the lesson with clarity i.e. written and verbal.

Engagement: Through story, rationale and paradox, educators awaken and engage students in the lesson objective.  Essentially the educator wets the learner's appetite for what's to come.

Less of us (educators), More of them: Unlike the "sage on the stage" lessons of old, in today's lessons the educator introduces the lesson with a short focus lesson (5-15 minutes) engaging students in dialogue along the way.  Then, most of the lesson is spent in active, collaborative learning endeavor where students are learning in multi-sensory, thought-provoking ways.

Differentiated: Rarely is a lesson one-size-fits-all today.  Typically lessons have many levels of achievement available from review to grade level to enrichment levels.  Educators craft the lessons so that the lesson flow leads students in an engaging and just-right challenging path to learning.

Voice and Choice: Where possible, educators leave room in lessons for student choice and voice, thus giving students ownership during the lesson and the chance to develop independent learning skills.  Choice can be as simple as who to work with or where to work or as complex as choosing the question or topic to research as they learn research skills.

Blended: Lessons today use tools in engaging, blended ways.  Typically lessons have a menu approach where students have many learning options and tools available  Often these menus will be computer menus where students have the choice amongst many links for learning.

Technology: Lessons today weave technology into the learning in dynamic ways.  For example fact worksheets of old are much better replaced by quick-feedback fact practice on the computer, or better yet engaging, multi-player games that excite students' competitive gaming instincts while also solidifying number or content fact knowledge--knowledge that can sometimes be tiresome to attain.  Similarly using digital tools to compose stories and solve problems can offer students less drudgery and the potential for more advanced, professional work.

Coaching: Good lessons today find that students coach students and teachers coach students.  Unlike lessons of old where it was expected that some would succeed and others would not, today's educators seek to bring all students to mastery one step at a time.  Hence after a short, targeted focus lesson, teachers will spend their time coaching individuals and small groups in specific learning endeavor.

Feedback: Feedback throughout the lesson is targeted, forward-moving and based on observation and objective.

Learning Environment: The environment is positive, happy and conducive to learning.  A quiet environment is not necessarily the most positive learning environment, yet a raucous, wild environment will also not lead to optimal learning.

Preparation: Optimal lessons show evidence of planning and preparation related to students' needs, interests and passions.

As I embark on my "explain-it" theme for the next 6-8 weeks of learning, I'll also make optimal lesson design and implementation a focus in an effort to move students forward with engagement and intent. Similarly during summer study, I'll develop this list so it better matches what we know today about engaging, effective learning design.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Plans: Intent and Balance!

We're past the half-way mark of the school year, and I'm thinking about where we are going.

First, we'll spend the next leg of the year focussing on "explain-it" skills in reading, writing and math as we problem solve, write essays, and read and respond to text.

Next, we'll engage in a wonderful period of exploration, research and writing as we learn about United States geography, habitats, endangered species and plate tectonics.  There will be a chance to broaden these topics to include students' interests, needs and passions utilizing multiple tools and learning endeavor.

Meanwhile, I'll start to prep for next year's class by listing optimal tools, engaging with Edmodo, learning more about SumDog Math and English (engaging learning games) and mapping out the year to come.

As for summer study, I'm in a quandary as there is so much I'd like to learn about yet I can't learn it all. Which area will win out with regard to my time and intent? I have some wonderful conversations, edcamps and reading to come so that might lead me to the decision I'm looking for.

Then of course, I do have a personal life and that requires time too. And, life has a way of presenting new paths too.

New Ideas: Innovation Incubation

How do you grow new ideas in your school system?

Yesterday I had a great talk with an education-business consultant and professor who has his fingers on the pulse of the wonderful new changes in learning, organization and communication.  He talked of the need for innovation incubation--the essential free flowing ability for individuals to go for it with respect to new ideas and research--an "IDEO" like event.

Our talk reminded me of the ways a neighboring system readily supports pilots for new ideas and endeavor as their system leaps forward with innovation and change.

I have had to advocate a lot to try out new ideas.  I've had to climb many mountains and hurdle multiple obstacles.  This has been a troubling process, but I persist looking for optimal streams of innovation and change to forward education for my students and my work.

Yesterday's discussion gave me the energy to persist in this regard--to find ways to safeguard the best of the traditional ways to teach and also embrace new and enlightening methods of learning and teaching.

Today's educational landscape offers tremendous potential for optimal growth and change, and to hinder that progress is to block promise and possibility for children today.

A Tech Tool For Every Child Now!

The day is here to provide every child with a tech tool.

Don't waste time.  If your school is not providing your child with good exposure and time with apt tech devices, then save the money and buy a good computer for  your home--I suggest a flexible laptop or iPad-like device, a device that your child can use to access the Internet, download books and literature, engage in age-appropriate social media, play positive learning games and learn.

And together with your children, learn.  Learn to use the tech tool well.  Connect with family members and friends.  Write stories and collect pictures.  Find games and learning resources to grow knowledge, skill and passion.

A tech tool does not equal screen time, today's tech tool is yesterday's pencil--you need it and it will bring your life forward in wonderful ways--integrated ways that use the tools as it's meant to be, a resource.

Don't wait for schools, buy a good tech tool for your family today and get Internet access.  Find the best deals--the deals are out there, and if you can't find them write to the most influential tech companies and ask them for a deal--a tool you can afford.  Do the same with Internet access too.

Then, if you want to support your local schools and tech, help those schools to get the tools they need, and then promote apt use and access.  Take down the bans, most walls and rules and allow teachers and students to use tech tools to grow their learning in age-friendly, open minded, forward thinking, inventive, artistic ways.

Tech tools are here to stay, and the key is to design learning and home endeavor that optimizes use of these tools to forward individual, family and learning community intent with engagement, depth and breadth.  Learning no longer belongs to schools alone (actually optimal learning never did just belong to schools).  Learning belongs to every aspect of our lives so be resourceful and access the best tools and activities that will optimize your life of learning. You won't look back.

I Can't Learn it All

As I think about my school environment and our tremendous potential for continued, optimal growth, I mainly seek streamline systems because I can't learn it all.

As I read post after post, I'm so aware of the potential out there for engaging learning design and student investment and growth, yet I know when everyone in the organization has the same, long "to-do" list our efforts become diluted.  In this age of information excess, it's essential that we share the responsibility for research and development; decide on areas that we'll study to forward in our places of work, and share that information in timely, efficient ways.

Some may say that we already do that with regard to discipline strands such as music, art, math and more.  Yet, I'm thinking more about 21st century knowledge streams--areas of research and development that are essential for students today.  Areas such as STEAM, cognition, social media/communication, global studies/exchange, multimedia composition and outdoor exploration/study.

Personally, I'm interested in the following areas when it comes to school change and advancement:

1. Restructuring schools for best effect.

2. STEAM: The intersection of science, tech, engineering, art and math in creative, meaningful ways with apt tools, labs and learning design.

3. Multimedia Composition to present and share learning and thought across disciplines and throughout the globe.

4. Global Studies: The development of students' repertoire when it comes to understanding and interacting with the global environment in meaningful, respectful and productive ways.

5. Cognition: Learning about the latest research when it comes to the brain and learning and applying the related mindsets, habits and routines to optimally match learning to brain function.

6. Community: Creating policy and structure that supports the development of optimal, child-friendly communities--communities with wonderful schools, beautiful natural environments, bountiful gardens, sports and recreation facilities, the arts and safety.

7. The Outdoor Classroom: Commitment to outdoor study, exploration, design and experimentation.

8. Learning Design: Designing optimal, child-friendly, interdisciplinary learning design for best effect.

Another area that I enjoy interacting with, but less interested in researching is data collection and analysis--if you talk to anyone in the broader world of work, you'll find that data collection is at the center of their work.  The key in education is to continually look for the best sources of data and streamline that collection and use so that it is targeted to the most important results and direction.

Schools that change and move forward will continue a play a positive role in our society, and schools that sit still will become obsolete.  The more I read, the more I realize this is true. Do you agree?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Plan Ahead: Effective Learning Design

Sometimes a spontaneous lesson direction is perfect and meets the needs of students with breadth and depth, but typically last minute lesson plans are not the best.

There's lots to think about as we design and plan learning endeavor for students, and there are many steps involved when it comes to that design, implementation, communication, revision and assessment.  The best learning endeavors are endeavors that are thoughtful and full-circle following Hattie's suggestion for moving students from unknowing to knowing by setting a responsive, success criteria, establishing strategies, revising as necessary, assessment and next steps.

Hence, to move systems and classrooms ahead, this is actually the time to think about next year.  Making plans and thinking about next year's teams, curriculum, schedule and supplies has the potential to optimize learning in the following ways:
  • time to connect and plan.
  • summer study, plan and organization.
  • optimized ordering processes (possibly saving money.)
  • a quick start to student services in the start of the new year.
  • curriculum assessment: what's working now and what needs to be changed to better effect student learning.
In a sense, the final months of school become a parallel platform.  On one hand educators are focused on the day-to-day efforts of implementing the current curriculum and meeting students' needs, and on the other hand they are looking ahead to better effect learning in the following year.

As educators look ahead, some of the issues they might think about include the following:
  • Roles and responsibilities: Do current roles and responsibilities best meet student needs. What are the direct service/planning ratios--could those ratios be changed so that more educators are spending more time in direct service to students in thoughtful, focused ways.
  • Scheduling: What scheduling efforts are working, and what scheduling efforts could be changed for the better.
  • Curriculum: Does the curriculum meet students' needs, interests and passions?  Is there room in the curriculum plan to teach well or are we rushing through units?  In what ways does the curriculum allow both apt skill building and project/problem base learning?  Where is there room for interdisciplinary and student-centered learning?
  • Communication: What are the best ways to communicate?  How does the communication stream work--who is in charge of what, and how will that be communicated in a timely manner?
  • Tools and Supplies: What tools are we currently using?  What tools and supplies do we need?  
  • Professional Development:  What areas are we well-versed in, and for what areas do we need greater professional development collectively or individually?  How will we meet these needs in-house, during the summer or out-of-house?
Traditionally, late August or September marks the start of the new year. The challenge with that is that once the year starts classroom teachers are mostly on task all the time with little time to think about, plan for or learn new strategies and schedules.  With a late spring start to the new year, there's a better chance that the new year will start with strength, and that initiatives will be implemented with care, full-circle attention and teacher voice--all attributes that provide the potential to teach children with greater effect.

How does your system plan ahead with care, team and communication?  How do you balance the efforts for today and tomorrow with intent, but not in overwhelming ways? In what ways do you include student and teacher voice in learning design and the evolution of ideas and action in schools today?  

Focused, thoughtful planning will direct the efforts of all educators towards meaningful attention to student learning and engagement, and also leave time to respond to unexpected events.  The best plans will acknowledge "success criteria," outline multiple paths, leave room for response and evolution, and prepare the learning environment (schedules, physical structure and organization) so that we can do our best work. 

Today is the time to start thinking about tomorrow while also teaching well in the present.  I believe this routine will create better effect in school systems.  What do you think?

Restructuring Schools: Roles and Responsibilities Audit

School systems are challenged today by the changing landscape of education.

Where is the starting point for restructuring school organizations for best effect?

I'm in favor of the "students-up" approach.  This is an approach that begins with the questions:

  • Who are our students?  
  • What are their needs, interests and passions?  
  • How can we meet those needs in effective, engaging and empowering ways?

New system organization has to be created with the future in mind.

Once the learning community decides what their students need, then it is time to build teams that circle those students with apt learning design and tools, optimal organizational and physical structure, and efficient communication systems.

The key in this design is to create systems so that most time and energy is spent on direct student service, and less time is spent on efforts that are inefficient and time consuming with little positive effect for students.

How can we begin to look at the effects of our collective work with respect to the impact on students' learning and engagement. One action I advocate for is a roles and responsibilities audit.  That audit could be both macro and micro. The promise in this practice is that we could restructure so that more roles and efforts are directed with positive impact, yet the problem in this action could be that assessment without clear understanding and goals related to optimal learning design and cognition would cause misinterpretation.

The macro audit might look like this:

The evidence collected would have to be both qualitative and quantitative.  For example, a leader in my building spends extensive time with families and students.  He's created a happy, positive attitude throughout our building--an engaged learning community.  This is difficult to quantify, yet the quality this affect provides is extraordinary.

A micro-audit might be a week in time for any educator, and could look like this:

For example if an academic professional's time is mainly spent on "secretarial-like" tasks, it might be better for a secretary to take over those responsibilities leaving time for that professional to engage in activities that better affect student learning in his/her professional expertise area.  

Again, an audit would have to leave space for professionals to act with good judgement and response. For example, at the end of the day yesterday, I showed my students the wonderful film, "The Little Princess."  I don't typically show full-length films in class, but it was the last day before vacation, and students and I were tired and disgruntled after a very busy week with many special learning events--events that demanded extra effort. The movie was the perfect choice as it opened their eyes to history and the human condition and provided a common positive experience for all students--a perfect way to end that leg of the school year.  As students watched the film, I organized the classroom, caught up on last minute student questions and little problems, and prepared for the next leg of the year.  

Most educators in most schools work tirelessly each day with their time and efforts directed towards optimal student learning, but in this time of change in education, I believe we can re-look at roles and responsibilities to better effect student learning.  Do you agree? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Time Card?

Do you chart the time you spend on work endeavor?

In days of old, many of us punched time cards to start and end our work days.

The work of educators has the potential to be limitless, and it's up to educators to set limits.

Yet, some don't realize the time you invest each day.  With this in mind, a colleague suggested that I start charting the time spent for the following activities:
  • Unit design and research.
  • Email response.
  • Newsletters and website updates.
  • After hours conferences including family conferences, professional development events and leadership events.
  • Student response.
  • Other categories?
As the colleague shared this idea with me, she alerted me to the notion that some may not understand what it takes to create an awesome unit, respond to student stories or have a meaningful coaching meeting with colleagues or families.

I think this is a good idea.  As you know, I enjoy my work and see education as more of a lifestyle than a job, but as an effective communication piece, it might be worthwhile to understand where I invest my professional time each day.

Skill Building Leg of the Year

We develop skills all year in fourth grade, but the next leg of the year will be focused heavily on skill development with regard to reading, writing and math.

Yes, in part, this is fostered by upcoming standardized tests, but this effort is also supported by the need to develop essential skills with some intensity.

Students will develop reading response, essay writing and math problem solving skills with strength and intent.

That means I have to be very thoughtful about the schedule and supports available by crafting a solid routine with time for practice, focus lessons, coaching and editing--lots of editing.

Rather than the serendipity that happens with project/problem base learning, this leg of the year will be much more like training for a triathlon or prepping for the LSATS.  It will be a deliberate, targeted and goal oriented time.

I'll guide the students in seeing this for what it is: an intense skill building time, one that will be rewarded by the ability to use newly developed skills during the end-of-the-year mostly project base learning period as we focus on endangered species research projects.

Hence, I'll use the February vacation to rest and prep for the intense period to come--a period that has the potential to move students forward with pride and strength.  I'll likely write often during that period to coach myself on and seek feedback as I encounter all the small, but important snags that occur when delving into deep, detailed instruction and focus.

How Do You Make Your School a Better Place?

Educators bring their gifts to the schools each day.

We bring our challenges, dreams and vision too.

The key is to take the time now and then to think about the best gifts you bring to your place of work, and make sure that you're making time to share and develop those gifts.

When everyone brings their strengths to the table, the entire organization profits, and in schools that means students develop with engagement and success.

What are your gifts?

Are you bringing those gifts to school each day?

And, are your students and the collective learning community profiting from what you do?

As I move forward with this in mind, my goal will be to bring the following gifts to school each day:
  • An inspiring, targeted, student-centered classroom environment.
  • Creativity in all we do.
  • Learning for life.
  • Finding your gifts, meeting your challenges.
  • Coaching students well.
What will you bring?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Collaborative Coaching?

What is collaborative coaching?

Collaborative coaching occurs when educators from two diverse departments get together to plan, implement, revise and assess engaging, learning endeavor that integrates knowledge, concept and skill goals of a diverse set of content/process areas or expertise.

For example if a tech specialist and a classroom teacher engaged in collaborative coaching, the tech specialist would bring his/her experience and knowledge of technology while the classroom teacher  shares experience and knowledge of content and specific students. The two would work together to design, implement and assess learning focused on best effect for student learning.

In collaborative coaching, one is not the expert and the other the follower--instead the two or more coaches working together share knowledge and skill as the team plans and implements learning endeavor.

At times current coaching models are ineffective because one person may be seen as the consultant while the other person feels like they are doing all the work.  Friends of mine in a system other than my system comment about this often--the coach visits infrequently and brings a long list of "should's" and "have-to's" without any regard to what's really happening in the classroom or the teacher's level of knowledge, expertise and need.  It's an ineffective, costly coaching model.  Another friend told me a story of a coach who confided in her that the job was "much easier" than classroom teaching as he/she doesn't have to grade papers, bring work home or worry about the day-to-day teaching efforts.  Those kinds of attitudes don't engender respect or collaboration.

Instead, a collaborative coaching model would require all involved to be active in all aspects of learning endeavor from start to finish--all coaches would plan, implement, revise, assess, share, debate and plan next steps.  It would not be a leader-worker model, but instead a collaborative teaching model where the focus for all is moving students forward with learning success.

Where does a collaborative coaching model better replace the coaching models you have in place? Where does this not work as I know of coaches who devote considerable effort to build student skill and educator voice and choice--those are models that might not need change at all?

I continue to believe that most professionals in the school environment should have regular, direct responsibility for student learning.  Working with students regularly is what demands your best practice, thoughtful efforts and timely research and work--too much time away from students and their daily needs often makes one's efforts remote, ineffective and outdated. Collaborative coaching is one way to prevent this, and perhaps PLCs are the best venue for developing a collaborative coaching model.

Growing Educators?

What does it mean to grow an educator?

To me, it means nurturing the educators in your organization for best effect.

A long time ago I went to a workshop where an administrator discussed his system's efforts to "grow teachers."  I found that interesting and kept an eye on articles and information related to that system in years since.  Not surprisingly since then that school system has risen to the ranks of the most respected with regard to test scores and school reform. Though I haven't delved deeper, I assume that the system's investment in "growing teachers" had something to do with their rise in the ranks of "best schools."

How do you grow educators? What efforts are in place to do this with intent and focus? Do those who are assigned to the task have the time and/or experience to do the job well?  Are your efforts based on system-wide goals and vision? What attitudes do you bring to this process?

To grow educators well, you might consider these actions:
  • Know an educator well.  Assign leaders to a team of educators--a number that the leader can truly know well.
  • Understand educators' strengths through conversation, interest and investment.
  • Work with educators to match strengths and challenges with optimal professional development opportunities and system vision.
  • Look for opportunities for growth and leadership with regard to educators, and provide responsive resources, encouragement and skill for this growth.
Growing educators well will prove to significantly strengthen and develop a school system.  Just as we seek to develop students' strengths and meet students' challenges with care, thought and investment, we should make the time to grow and develop all educators too with a focus shift from content and curriculum to those that carry out the learning endeavor.


In every work place, cliques form.

It is natural that in large organizations that like-minded people will embrace each other in friendship and care. At all times in our life that will happen and in many cases those friendship circles will prove to support growth, happiness, and care.

At times, cliques can become a destructive force in an organization. That's particularly true if the systems' decisions and work are influenced by one clique or group in ways that are secretive or lack transparency. That's why it's important to find the optimal personal-professional divide in the work you do, a personal-professional divide that's more difficult to navigate in a world of FaceBook, working from home, and numerous other personal-professional intersections that exist today (and frankly, have always existed).

Hence what are the protocols that lead your personal-professional connections?  What are the systematic values and ethics that you subscribe to in this regard?  How can we support one another in this regard so that we maintain positive, professional environments as well as caring, kind friendships?  It's a sensitive area of work life, one that I'll be thinking about with greater depth.

Screen Time?

Some use "screen time" to describe the time spent with digital devices.  They use the term to limit and deny computer use.

I'm a fan of a balanced, multi-sensory education, particularly during the early years, but I think that some believe that computer time in classrooms is a kind of "screen time" where students are glued to a screen?

Computer use in classrooms is much more than that.  Mainly, in the best circumstances, the computers are used as an integrated tool in classroom life.  Like a pencil, the computer is used to assist, complement and present learning--it's not the sole tool or event in the learning endeavor.

Often, a collaborative group of students will create together.  Seated on bean bag chairs or positioned around a table, students will work together with paper, pencil, computers, conversation and debate to create and learn.

Hence, the discussion about computer use with young children is much deeper than a discussion about screen time.  Instead it should be a discussion about learning design--facilitating learning endeavor that develops students skills, knowledge and concept in meaningful, engaging and empowering ways.

Teacher: Servant Leader?

I like the Tuesday night #leadfromwithin chat because it opens my eyes to promising, positive avenues of leadership and work.

One night I was introduced to the idea of servant leadership.  Wikipedia defines servant leadership in the following way:

Servant leadership is both a leadership philosophy and set of leadership practices. Traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

As a teacher, I see myself as a "servant leader" who first serves my students and their families.  As a "servant leader" it is my job to build a strong, collaborative learning community--a learning community that includes positive, engaging learning endeavor, communication and care.

Wikipedia further explains that Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase, "servant leadership," and provides this explanation of service leadership:

Robert Greenleaf recognized that organizations as well as individuals could be servant-leaders. Indeed, he had great faith that servant-leader organizations could change the world. In his second major essay, The Institution as Servant, Greenleaf articulated what is often called the “credo.” There he said:
“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.” [1]

Greenleaf's words and research support what research today shows: caring, engaging and supportive environments promote success and a "good society."

Do you believe the role of teacher is a "servant leadership" role?

If so, as a "servant leader" who do you serve?

What does "servant leadership" look like in your classroom, work and school?

I tell students, I am here to serve you and help you learn all you can.  It's your job to ask questions, speak up and help me help you.  Those words put a new spin on classroom life--a positive, team spin that puts learners in the driver's seat of their education.


I've been looking for the snags in order to streamline the systems that support the work I do.

I want to find the snags so that most of my time and effort are centered on my professional practice with student learning and engagement as the focus.

Through a number of face-to-face conversations I'm getting a better understanding of communication, innovation and learning design streams.  I'm understanding better how to communicate a problem, share an idea and design learning for best effect in this new age of ready information access and awesome tools.

When you read this, you probably think I'm a new teacher in a new system, but instead I'm a veteran teacher in a top-notch system.  However, schools are changing and with that change comes snags.  As old systems innovate and change, there will naturally be a need to change roles, responsibilities and systems for best effect, and with those changes there will be a need to effectively communicate the change so that people understand how the system works and the system's process for change and evolution.

In the face of the dramatic changes in education today, it is essential that we all understand the following with transparency:
  • Roles and responsibilities.
  • Vision and Mission.
  • Communication systems and protocols.
  • Goals and Assessment.
I like the way the system I work in is embracing new ideas and innovation, and I'm looking forward to the understanding these face-to-face conversations will bring to better understand the elements above. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Promoting Positive Change?

You have a choice.

You can promote positive change, or you can stand in the way like a brick wall.

You can embrace innovation and invention, or you can stall the process.

History shows, change finds its way to move forward.

Change that is supported by thoughtful care and intent moves with strength and promise while change that is met with strife and fear has the potential to hurt and hinder.

Life moves forward. Get onboard and support change with care, thought and intent making the way for positive and productive learning. Don't waste time trying to hinder what will be.

Ask, Receive

We are familiar with that wonderful notion through our religious backgrounds and family ties.  How often though during points of conflict or problems do you take the time to ask--ask for guidance, understanding or clarification.

Recently I made a point of asking and I received.  I received the affirmation that someone I trusted really did earn my trust with regard to that person's level of care, focus and prioritization.  I also received direction with respect to my work, communication and efforts, and finally I received a greater sense of team.

We can conjecture about intent and effort, but until we ask, we won't understand another individual's effort, decision and direction.  Hence ask, receive and act with greater understanding.

Tech Communicate

As technology becomes more and more integrated into the daily lives of students and teachers, it's essential that patterns of tech communication and change evolve.

What might that look like?  Many of the ideas below are ideas that people in my school system have put into place.  I've marked those ideas with an *.  Other ideas are ideas I've read about or constructed to meet tech communication and change goals.

  • A Published Vision for Technology Integration: With the help of all in the learning community, draft, discuss, revise and publish the vision to all i.e. families, students, educators, staff, administrators and community members. (our school is putting this process into place)
  • Professional Development and Curriculum Planning and Design Options
    • Interdisciplinary "edcamp-like" PD Sessions*
    • Tech Tuesdays (time with tech leaders and colleagues to learn, share ideas)*
    • Attendance at Workshops--my school system supports this readily.*
    • Professional Sharing Blogs*
    • Regular updates with information related to vision, opportunities, current events and successes shared both with a predictable schedule of newsletters and a spontaneous feed such as Twitter. (Don't forget to credit people too as lack of credit creates an untrusting environment.)
    • An efficient, dynamic process for sharing new ideas, piloting tech efforts, and accessing current practice with dynamic conversation, positive protocols and diverse voices. It may be that educators need consultation and learning when it comes to dynamic conversation.  Old time "factory model" schools did not support this kind of conversation. 
    • One-to-one coaching.*  (While this is currently in place in my system, I believe our current tech integration model could be changed to foster greater collaborative coaching when it comes to tech integration related to teaching and learning. Collaborative could point to many models including teacher-teacher, admin-teacher, student-teacher, community member/family-educator. . .)
    • Professional Development Run By Staff *: Educators in my system are welcome to provide courses for other staff members.  They earn a small stipend and pd points.  Also the educators that attend the courses can earn pd credits.
    • System Institutes *: Our system hosts two institutes to build learning within and outside of our system.  Educators are invited to attend as well as lead workshops.  A noted expert or experts in the field is invited to present at these events as well. 
    • A greater collaborative effort towards learning design that integrates best practice, research and tools.  This could be done, in part, with our current PLC model.  The model would have to be expanded for best effect. 
    • An efficient, timely purchasing system that allows educators to spend money wisely with attention to student needs, current standards and future vision.
    • Assessment of efforts and practice through use of surveys, conversations and written reports.  Assessment results should be shared with all as a way of growing our practice and efforts with student learning as the focus. 
In days of old when information was slow moving and many educators and students were not involved in technology, the model looked more like a top-down, factory model--that's how all leadership models in schools of the past looked.  Today research points us to the direction of "autonomy, mastery and purpose" (Pink's book, Drive), and that demands new processes of leadership, communication and collaboration as the learning landscape evolves. Also, ready access to information and information-everywhere presents a situation that calls for streamline systems and prioritization. How do we all move forward with this vision in mind? 

Communication Full Circle

I've been thinking a lot about communication as schools develop and change.

What should communication protocols and practice look like in schools today?

I like the way many of our school leaders publish their words to all in the learning community--the information is posted via email and in the local news at the same time.  That builds trust and transparency and an inclusive culture since everyone gets the same message at the same time.

One of the greatest issues in communication is communication that doesn't move full circle. That would be information that stops before response or doesn't relay the outcome, essential facts or updated news.  Also a lack of communication patterns can hinder communication.  When meeting notes, agendas and news are shared regularly, the community comes to look for, expect and take note of that information.

The more I think about communication in schools today, the more I desire protocols and full circle communication--communication that moves from beginning to end of an issue, endeavor, vision or idea.

I definitely over-communicate with my learning community.  I don't want to overwhelm, but as systems change I also don't want members of the learning community to miss out on an essential change, research point, effort or possibility.  I have a great PLN that feeds my practice daily with essential facts, stories and challenges.  I value that information as it has served to affect my practice in wonderful, enriching ways.  Hence, I'll choose over-communication for a while until systems of communication catch up with the changing landscape of schools.

What will our new communication systems and protocols look like?  How will we regularly assess and revise those systems so that we keep-up with the evolving education landscape around us?  These are wonderful problems to think about and solve.

Writing a Convincing Essay

Our PLC is embarking on a collective effort to motivate, education and engage students with the process of writing a convincing essay.

During my multiple years of teaching, I have read many articles and books about writing.  I've also written a lot, and coached students with writing.  It's one of my favorite areas of the curriculum, an area where you can also continue to grow and develop your skill and repertoire.

As I think about this unit, the first issue is how can I engage students in this effort.  I will start with an introduction and rationale.  I'll foster a short discussion about the reasons why it is important to be able to write a convincing essay.  Then, I'll introduce students to the common 5-paragraph format for an essay. I'll note that this isn't the only way to write a convincing essay, but it is a well received format that is a good match for organizing information in a brain-friendly way. One of my favorite resources for this work is Barbara Mariconda's books and work--she's a classroom-friendly teacher-leader when it comes to teaching children well.

Next, I'll give students the grade-wide assessment prompt, and let them "show off" their essay writing skills.  After that, our ELA director and a consultant will study and score the essays for our upcoming PLC discussion (we won't share those scores with students).  I'll keep a copy to review myself.  I'm looking forward to our PLC discussions as I know that our collective experience, knowledge and skill will develop our grade-wide approach to coaching student writing with strength and intent.

After that, I'll start the special place writing unit.  I'll embed the notes and information we discuss and learn at our PLCs and also respond to students' interests and needs.  Students will publish their special place essays in print and with voice.  I'm finding that the addition of an audio recording with all written work contributes to developing a strong speaking and writing voice as well as reading fluency.

Following the special place essay, we'll write essays about special people in our lives and special events.  We'll also give students a day-long practice test day to get ready for the MCAS test.  We've done that in years past and it helps us to coach students through little issues they might face when they take the MCAS tests. Teachers are not allowed to help out at all during MCAS day (that's a painful aspect of the tests) so the practice tests gives us a chance to thwart possible test day anxieties, questions and distractions.

At the end of this unit, it is my hope that students will write with greater voice, organization, craft and interest. I welcome your thoughts.  I find that laying out the path to a learning event a week or two before we start the unit gets my mind, and the minds of the learning community (children, families, educators, staff and administrators) ready for the vibrant learning events ahead.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Paper-Cut Illustrations to Inform Writing

Kyle's paper-cut of his summer camp. 
The connection between image and writing is powerful.  I noticed that as students and I created digital stories last month.  In a couple of weeks students will begin writing organized essays about their favorite places--essays to convince others that "their favorite place" is a place one should visit.

Before students write these essays they have to take the time to remember their special places with detail and strength.  I've been thinking about how to motivate detailed memory, and I've decided we'll use paper cut design.  If you've created a paper-cut illustration, you know that this medium takes time, thought and attention to detail.  It's also a forgiving venue since you can simply cover up an error or add additional shapes to change the design. Paper-cut design enlivens the senses too since you're using many colors, textures, shapes and patterns to relay a message and image.

As usual, I'll try this out before fostering students' work.  Here's what we'll do.
  • List a number of places that you've been to that you really like, want to tell the world about and think others should visit too.
  • Choose a place that you'll enjoy writing about, and one that you remember well. If it will help look at images online and in your photo collection.
  • List what's special about that place.  Then study your list and name three distinct categories that describe that place--three distinct reasons why your place is a great place.
  • Take three 8 1/2 X 11 white pieces of paper (easy to scan) and create a scene that represents each distinct reason why your place is a great place. Use paper, fabric, cut-out images/photos and other materials to create your paper-cut illustrations.
  • Scan your images, then mount the images in a thoughtful order on a large piece of paper.  
  • Use the images to inform and illustrate your writing. 
Once students complete their paper-cut illustrations, we'll share the work with each other, and then we'll get busy writing those wonderful essays--essays that we hope to publish in a local newspaper or magazine. The paper-cut illustrates will be displayed on our hall bulletin board for all to see.

Oliver's Winter Fun Paper-Cut
We won't spend this much time on every essay, but giving the first essay of the year considerable time and thought helps to pave the path to greater writing success as we write a number of essays in the coming weeks.

Project Time Line/Checklist

Project Note:  Paper-cuts proved to be challenging for students so in the future I would hope to work with the art teacher in this endeavor.  I did find though that the task did elicit memory and detail.

Culture Celebration 2013

Tonight we had our culture celebration, and it was a big success.

As I spoke to parents I shared two powerful quotes that provide a wonderful rationale for this project:

"It is time for parents (and teachers) to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength." - Maya Angelou

"A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." - Marcus Garvey

This is the third year we've facilitated this project as a grade-level team.  I've written a lot about the event, and hope to connect all the posts soon.

As I noted earlier, this year's project presented some new challenges, but at tonight's celebration, I realized once again that the project is worthwhile for all.

Attributes of the project include the following:
  • Students are engaged.
  • It's a chance to guide research and writing with a meaningful topic.
  • Students practice speaking with a "headline" introduction to their exhibit at the celebration.
  • Students learn from each other as they visit each other's classrooms and study exhibits.
  • The project fosters community and cultural exchange as family members, educators and students celebrate and learn together.
  • The project broadens students' world view and understanding.
This year's project benefitted from the following efforts:
  • Our PLC revised the project, and we had lots of help from special educators, teaching assistants and specialists.
  • We added many research resources to the project website to assist with all aspects of the project.  This is an area we still have to improve further.
  • Like last year we provided students with the trifold posters, letter making machine, colored paper and other special exhibit materials. Everyone completed a terrific poster.
  • Students practiced their headline announcements with videotaping, and that helped to foster stronger speaking skills. Parents remarked on students' ease and skill at public speaking.  I believe this is due to our increased use of digital tools and the inclusion of voice in most projects. 
Future considerations include:
  • Should we move the event away from the snowy winter months--the big storm presented some complications for the project and parking?
  • We need to give more thought and efforts related to guided research and the inclusion of new standards.
  • How much time should we set aside for the project?  For some of us, this year's project was a bit rushed due to the fact that we had other projects going on too.
It's always a lot of work to do an extra project or celebration, but once the event is over and you look back you realize that the extra effort is worth it because events like this one develop the learning community with confidence, pride, respect and engagement. 


There are some in education that trust teachers.  They ask, "What do you need to do the job well." and "How can I help."  Those leaders are very interested in student learning and know that teachers care about doing their best work, and that teachers are the ones that know themselves well when it comes to their needs and practice.

There are others in education that say, "This is what you need." and "This is what I'm going to do to help you."  There's little to no room for teacher voice with those leaders, and usually the focus with those leaders is more about what they are and can do, than what students or teachers really need.

It's the same with teachers and students.  Teachers who trust students look for ways to help those students grow and develop, and conversation is a big part of the process.  Those teachers ask students, "How can I help you." and "What do you need?"  There are also teachers that don't make time for the conversation and say to students "I know what you need." and "You have to do this."

Teachers and leaders are all probably somewhere on the trust continuum--I hope to be in the place that moves me closer and closer to trust as that trust builds relationships and relationships build growth and growth truly impacts student learning in ways that matter.

Who Spends the Money?

In the past, I wasn't that concerned with budget.  Most of my lessons needed paper, pencil, makers and a nice collection of books--I had those at my fingertips so I didn't think a lot about the other materials bought or not bought.  The only materials debate I remember was when I asked for clipboards, and was told they weren't worthy of budget dollars, but that was a long time ago and I have plenty of clipboards now.

Today, however, with dollars tight and education changing, I find myself thinking about the budget.  There are materials I want for my students, and materials that I find no longer that important.

I still want paper, pencils, markers, creative materials and manipulatives.

I also want comfy bean bag chairs, rugs, easels, tables and chairs (I have all of that, but I'll need to replenish the bean bag supply).

And, I want tech.  Ideally I'd like 50% lap tops (class set shared with another class) and 25% iPads (class set shared with 4 other classes).  I still like the laptops because there are so many tools available on the laptops including creation tools.  I like the iPads, but I don't like the fact that you have to pay for everything, and some of the tools don't necessarily have a lasting affect, yet some do.  Down the road I want a great device for every student, and I encourage parents to buy their children a wonderful device now such as an iPad, lap top or other Internet-connected, streamlined multi-tool device.

I want tech because it makes education accessible, targeted and engaging.  I want it for young children because childhood is the time when people are the most open minded to learning about new tools and processes. I want to help develop independent, confident learners and tech is a tool that strengthens that journey.

So, as we look to teacher voice, I think it's important that teachers understand the budget too, and that they know where the dollars are going. Understanding limitations and having a voice about how dollars are spent will lead to more thoughtful care with regard to using tools and strategies to best promote student learning. Though that will require possible shifting of roles and upfront activity, the long term benefit will make it worthwhile since teachers will be teaching with the best tools--tools that they've collectively chosen based on research, experience and intent related to teaching students well.

Update 6/2015:
This post was written a long time ago. Now I believe in one-to-one for every child in a school. Ideally schools should host class sets of a number of different tech tools as well. New testing requirements and the advantage of having technology as a "guide on the side" tool during almost all learning events has made me change my ideal in this regard.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Who Supports Schools and Learning?

Who in your environment supports schools and learning?

Who volunteers their time with focus, knowledge and best intent for student learning and engagemet?

What are their values when it comes to schools, and how do they see the school's role with regard to the community at large?

What is their past history like?  Have they devoted time and effort when it comes to positive action and investment?

We're at an evolutionary time in school life--private endeavor is focused on education in ways we've never seen before.  Their motives and foundation with regard to education are various--some affirming, and others worrisome.

It is a critical time in the United States when it comes to education--a time when it is important for every citizen to be cognizant of the changes around them.  I believe we should embrace positive change, but make sure that our governments and leadership authorities have their focus set on what's best for children--all children.

Private industry is usually focused on profit motive, and while that motive has the potential to motivate and energize innovation and invention, it also has the potential to forget about humanity and children's best interests. Remember children don't vote, pay taxes or make money, hence their collective voice is small.  So it's up to us, the citizenry, to be alert and vigilant that education continue to serve children well with best invention and intent, and that those we choose to lead education in any way focus their attention in that direction first.

Be aware, vocal, and thoughtful through this change--we don't want to see what happened in the mortgage industry happen in education due to a lack of oversight, values or properly focused intent.  Do you agree?