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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Does Our Team Foster Future-Ready Skills and Abilities?

As I continue to reflect on the wealth of information in Empowered Educators, I'm struck with the question, Does our team develop and utilize future-ready skills and abilities? Using the list the book provides, I assessed each element.

Understand content deeply and flexibly
We all put considerable effort into this element, yet I believe that our professional learning efforts within our system can better use time and modern-day approaches to forward this critical component of teaching well. Still, many of our systemwide professional learning endeavors are top-down, one-size-fits-all affairs with little to no teacher voice, choice or leadership and this is troubling to me. Our on-our-own professional work seems to be rich overall, yet I believe our evaluation system can be better tied to development and personal learning and application tracks rather than focused on simply completing the evaluation tasks and checking the boxes. Further I believe that we can use better systematic processes with regard to identifying and carrying out both personal and collective content learning--often I think we rely on past structures, data points, and vision rather than asking and discussing critical questions that could inform our professional learning paths with greater depth, utilizing questions such as:
  • Where are we doing a great job in helping children succeed?
  • Where are we missing the mark?
  • How are we targeting our professional learning, both individually and collectively, towards areas of concern?
  • How can we identify optimal learning efforts to develop our repertoire and capabilities to do better in targeted areas?
Understand the science of learning
Educators where I work are reading and studying all the time, but we have little opportunity to meaningfully share what we are learning with good process. This lack of share means that we are learning in silos and our learning is not getting the traction and having the impact that it could have if we had better streams of share, debate and discussion related to new learning. This is a missed opportunity, and an area where we can develop our collective work well. With regard to the science of learning, we are all reading and studying a lot, and what we need to do is find avenues to direct our collective practice in ways that mirror new research through dynamic share, debate and discussion. This will help us to better reflect the science of learning with regard to cultural contexts and across discipline areas.

Strategically support language acquisition
In Massachusetts almost all educators had to be trained in Sheltered English Immersion (SEI). This has helped us to support language acquisition. We also emphasize vocabulary teaching/learning across all disciplines and foster rich multi-modal engaging learning experiences with lots of conversation and discussion to foster language acquisition and development for all. We have English Language Learner (ELL) programs and fidelity to those programs will help in this regard too. We use technology strategically to support this work as well. 

Research, create and develop teaching strategies that foster analysis, reasoning and creativity
Teaching and learning strategies and efforts are too top-down to foster rich creativity, research and development in this area. Too often teachers' ideas and questions are chided and/or ignored and this serves to dwarf the great potential that exists amongst our extraordinary educators. This happens much more at the elementary level than middle school or high school where teachers have greater autonomy. I am not in favor of top-down decrees that include little teacher voice, choice, expertise, experience or leadership since these directives are made with distance from the students and often don't respond to the needs, challenges and opportunities educators research, notice and want to work on daily. in Empowered Educators, the authors note that successful systems use curriculums as guides not "straitjackets" and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards' research, practice and community emphasizes that educators need to lead their work in systematic ways by managing and monitoring student learning. In the best of circumstances educators, administrators, students, family members and community members make data informed, student-driven decisions in systematic, empowered ways to well-serve and educate all students. We have room for growth in this area.

Incorporate appropriate technologies into their teaching
Again, like the area above, most technologies are chosen for us, but not with us. This has been very frustrating to teachers like me who work a lot in the tech arena. Fortunately we have a good number of tools available at school and students at fifth grade enjoy one-to-one. This is positive. We are a Google school, and in general, Google serves teachers and students quite well (perhaps with the exception of the fact that their mining our data/creativity--but I'll leave that debate for another time). I am also able to work creatively with outside agencies to extend my tech use and embed that work into classroom endeavor. I have worked with tech companies in exchange for use of their software. We have a number of good technologies in place which I use with my team to forward student learning. As in all areas, I certainly don't have all the answers, but I'd like to see more streamlined, inclusive, authentic, transparent, dynamic systems of decision-making that readily include teacher voice, choice, and leadership in transparent ways that don't shy away from good discourse and debate.

Engage students in applied learning
I feel we have room for growth in this area too. Much of the top-down curriculum directives we're asked to follow are two-dimensional when most applied learning is hands-on and three-dimensional. The time spent on paper/pencil tasks, in my opinion, is too great. I feel that we need to incorporate more hands-on, floor-to-ceiling explorations and projects to develop more future-ready, engaged students. We do employ some terrific floor-to-ceiling explorations and projects, but we can extend this more, particularly in the areas of math and science. One obstruction in this effort is the fact that we have many, many standards to cover and to cover those standards in ways that result in good test scores and meet systemwide directives makes us have to efficiently rush through the curriculum, and it's often faster to teach in "chalk and talk" ways to meet these expectations. This year I'll work to incorporate some of Boaler's research into the math program to elevate applied learning in math. I also hope to incorporate our Global Cardboard Challenge effort into a mid-year math unit to develop a worthy, engaging, standards-based STEAM event. Further, I hope to continue to advocate for more local connections and real-world, meaningful learning in our STEAM efforts. We have the smarts and experience as a system to develop greater applied learning at the elementary level and beyond, but we need to change some of our systemwide decision making and hierarchical leadership paths in order to do this. Restructuring the ways we do school, I believe, will buy us capacity with regard to targeted focus, growth and impact. 

Collect/analyze a range of assessment data
Yes, we analyze many data points, but there are remains data that is not transparently and openly shared so we can't do the kind of analyses that would be more helpful, rich, deep and informative. So I'm a fan of greater, sensitive, open and transparent data share. I also think that we have to reach for a more holistic teaching/learning programs that includes a broader set of assessments in order to teach students well. Our PLCs afford us good time for analysis of data, but sometimes the processes are directives rather than teacher-created. For example last year as we started talking about students with a holistic lens, and were told to focus only on the scores. This resulted in lots of tension and frustration since as classroom educators we are accustom to thinking about the whole child and research supports that lens. In hindsight, I think we should have created a systematic approach for analysis together as educators and administrators rather than simply adopting one created by people other than our whole team. Further, I think our system can make better use of the metrics presented by our state, metrics that hold value particularly when it comes to looking closely at who are students at risk are and what we might do to help them. The state's Early Warning Indicator System (EWIS) is a valuable resource in this regard. 

Differentiated teaching
Our team takes both an individual and collective approach when it comes to teaching every child well. We work collectively to create flexible groups and teaching/learning opportunities that match students' needs and interests. Our regular meetings both at PLCs and as a grade-level team help us to do this well. Thankfully we have had a really good teaching/learning schedule and a fair amount of time for these meetings. Our collaborative approach where each teacher takes the lead in particular subject areas and project efforts has helped us to buy time for more collaboration and deliberate practice with multiple face-to-face meetings each week and substantial use of technology to support our collaboration and student focus. I believe that if we work on more streamlined and effective communication, decision making and share systems within our organization, we will elevate our abilities to differentiate well as we'll get rid of the stress that no voice, choice and leadership brings to educators in the field and increase the amount of share related to good ideas, inclusive/transparent systematic data analysis that informs practice, and support for one another with a greater distributive or "teams within teams" approach to learning and teaching. 

So, in many ways we are preparing students for their futures, but we still have some individual, team and systematic work to do in order to do this even better. I'll continue to think on this and discuss the topic with others in the organization where I work and beyond. I'm thankful to Darling-Hammond and her team for their research in Empowered Educators since that is informing my analyses, advocacy and better teaching/learning in the days ahead.