July 19, 2013

#Beachweek2013 Analogies to Edu and Leadership

The next few series of posts will be reflections and personal sharings from our annual extended family vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Yes, there will be some personal stories and photos but I will try to make them connected to either education of leadership.  Or at least in a real loose sense of the connected.

This was after taking out our baggage for the hotel.
So, this morning starts with the adventure of packing.  One of the drawbacks to being the only one in the family to own a Chevy Suburban (besides terrible gas mileage) is that the rest of your family just assumes you are always willing to haul everything that doesn't fit in their vehicles.  So as the kind brother and son that I am.........I do.  My vehicle is packed full (although no car top cargo carrier this year is nice) and while my son & daughter could each have their own bench seat they instead will have to share the 2nd row bench seat and the third row is folded up so that we can haul more stuff.  This will inevitably end up in a few of those, "Jack won't stay on his side," squabbles each day.....but for the most part they get along well, especially if they can each get in a fair share of Minecraft on their iPads.  We are nearing the Hotel in Indianapolis for the first leg of the drive. I am getting a short break from driving and wanted to add a little to my post before I wrap it up at the hotel.  I know, I know....."where's the analogy?"  I'll get to that now.

Being a leader can often be like being the sibling with the big suburban.  The people that work with you look to you to carry the extra load sometimes.  They are hoping you have the "shoulders" to do it or the "space" to help pick up the bigger than ever burdens that have been hoist upon them.  Teaching is challenging enough, but now with all the initiatives and pressure to be "everything" to our students.....well it can be overwhelming, and often all our staff is looking for is someone to take just a bit of the load.  I posted a short while back about how sometimes it seems like everyone is expecting answers of their leaders, and it is easy to understand why.  As a leader we are usually paid more for the knowledge and responsibility we carry, but we also must remember we are an integral part of a team, and while we may not be as hands on with the students anymore, we definitely want to make sure we are lightening the load for our teachers who are.  While I may not get to be as hands on as I once was with students, I truly love my role as the Lead Learner of a school.  Working with the teachers, parents and the occasional chance to work with kids is awesome!! One of my favorite leaders (@casas_jimmy) likes to use Ghandi's quote, "Be the change you want to see in the World." I guess that comes down to stepping up, and walking the talk.  So, while it is annoying that I can't see out of my back window, and that I have to carry a lot of things that are not mine on this trip, I will still be the good brother/son and haul what I can for my family to help make this trip go smoothly and safely for all...........it would be nice if they paid me more though.  :-) 

July 17, 2013

Teacher Autonomy & Experimentation in a PLC

So, I have some great discussions with numerous educators on Twitter and they have a wide variety of opinions.  I love hearing the varying opinions, ideas and experiences. They make me stronger and better for soaking up all of the insights they share.  One of the topics that has been discussed repeatedly is that of teacher autonomy and the need for experimentation in instructional strategies without the fear of failure or worse losing your job due to poor student performance on standardized tests.  

Of course, one of the many chats I participate in is the #atplc chat that focuses on the use, implementation and best practices of Professional Learning Communities.  I have heard concerns that teacher autonomy and experimentation cannot exist in a PLC as the idea of a PLC is to create a uniform curriculum and delivery method in each classroom (of the same grade or subject area).  

Now, I'm not sure where this idea came from, but I can honestly say I have never heard any of the PLC "gurus" utter that phrase.  I have never read anything like that in my, too numerous to count, books about PLCs.  While I know PLCs are very much about using common formative and common summative assessments, I don't recall reading that each teacher needs to deliver instruction or curriculum in an identical manner.  Sure, we may want to discuss methods that seem to be very successful according to assessment data, but no where does it say we "need" to be teaching identically; using all the same books, strategies, technologies or whatever else.  I do believe we all need to teach the same standards, and using common assessments helps to ensure that students are (or are not) learning those standards.  But my experience has been mostly at the Elementary and Middle School level where I believe students need the same skills at a basic level to be successful in a variety of careers or to prepare them for college success.  When students get to high school, maybe there is another side to this coin.....Career paths? Topic for another day......

The graphic above actually lays out the PLC cycle fairly simply. The opportunity for staff to come together and examine student data will allow teachers to determine which practices are working better than others. Again, this doesn't force teaching style changes, or even resource changes, but it could surely lead to that if the team has become comfortable with that shift. Most importantly it brings the team together and these conversations can take place.  

I suppose my passion and belief in the Professional Learning Community model is evident from many of my previous posts and if you happen to follow me on Twitter I know you have heard me encourage its use in schools.  Part of that support and belief comes from my strong experiences with teams.  I have always greatly enjoyed working in teams, whether it be in sports or in education, there is something supportive, strengthening, and secure in working toward a common goal with a group of like minded individuals.  It builds on the experiences and strengths of the group and it is based on relationships of the team members.  I guess that is why I view my Twitter PLN as my "other PLC."  I feel very close with the people that I have connected with on Twitter.  Not all of them teach or lead like I do or would....but they each come with great strengths, experiences and passion for educating our students to the highest levels, and if I can glean something from them I will.  We can argue and disagree, but when it's over, what is important is that have we learned something from it.  I know I have.  

So, I'm unclear where the idea came from that a viable curriculum and common assessments somehow equals cloned teaching practices, or that everyone must use the same resources.  Maybe it began with the fears of the Common Core State Standards.  I know some people feel that the CCSS will put limits on student learning and teaching, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Finland.  I'd also add that the standards aren't meant to limit, but instead to raise the bar, provide a common goal, and give us some consistency from state to state.   The standards don't say, "You must stop here."  They do not declare that you can only teach these skills.  But I know those fears exist and that somehow it feels that the CCSS will take away autonomy and experimentation.  Truthfully, I think the opposite is true.  However, I can easily say this....if you were in my idea of a PLC, I would highly encourage a variety of strategies, resources and yes even some experimentation taking place in our classrooms.  How can we be sure we are using the best possible instructional methods or resources, if we are all using the same resources and methods?  At best, we will just be sure that we are doing the best at what we know and do already.  That concept would seem to inhibit growth.  I am always in search of growth.  For myself, my staff and my students.  I believe the conversations that take place in PLCs help make that growth possible, and eventually strengthen everyone in the community.  Am I wrong on this?  Is there a perspective on PLCs that I'm missing out on? If so, please leave me your thoughts in the comments below. 

July 14, 2013

Don't Hate the Hammer

I had an excellent discussion with a great group of friends on Twitter recently.  I wandered into the conversation a little late as I saw a topic that caught my eye and with some educators that I really respect.  The discussion was focused on the use of technology to track student behaviours.  I jumped in after I read this blog post shared by my friend George Couros.  Then I saw another great educator I respect mention a little push back. Now when Dean Shareski is offering push back to George my ears perk up.  Not that I am looking for George to be wrong about something, I just know I am about to hear some great discussion and may learn a thing or two.  Of course, when George and Dean start a discussion....well people pay attention and start to join in.  This lead to a great conversation on the use of tech tools as extrinsic motivators, badge systems, tracking behaviour data and poor decisions we sometimes make in education, including not knowing everything Dan Pink has tried to teach us in his book "Drive" or in his legendary Ted Talk.  

I knew this may get interesting as I was aware of what George thought about this subject already from his blog post here and various conversations we've shared.  But Dean had raised an interesting point.  He asked if we used technology to track learning behaviours? (sorry for any confusion about the spelling of behaviours for my US friends, I'm just trying to get in good with my Canadian pals and besides, I already ticked George off for arguing with him.)  So, I thought about what Dean said and I knew that many, many districts use tech tools like that already. Collecting data on academic performance helps us to recognize where students need support or additional time to develop skills. 

Could Class Dojo or other tools be used this way?  Sure.  But the argument started to go that it could not, or at least it wasn't intended for that use.  "It was never designed to do that." "It was created to be a carrot and stick."  "Would you make teachers use a badge system for their learning?"  Lots of passionate arguing taking place.  I liked it, nay I loved it.  Now, I could see the points of both sides, and I even had a friend jump in that shared the successful use of the tool in his classroom.  Then another great Ed Leader I respected joined the conversation.  I knew how Chris Wejr would feel about how this tool might be used.  He is no fan of extrinsic motivational tools and I have read many of his blog posts to be aware of that. Chris also shared a video of how the tool could be used poorly to create an environment where students are pushed into compliance while the teacher is walking around tallying behaviour points.  As you can see there were some differing opinions although for the most part we agreed that using a public badge system for sharing student behaviour and motivating student behaviour was a poor idea.  However, this also wasn't getting to my concern in the discussion.

My concern was that some were blaming the tool for how it was being used.  Was it possible to use this tool in a positive way?  Was it possible to use it in a different way than many people think it was created to be used?  Basically I wanted to know, "was the tool evil?"  Or, is it possible, that it was just a tool and that it could be used in a way that created unintended consequences thanks to people using it in a negative fashion?  I had already had a fellow Tweep share that he had used it with success in his classroom.  So much so, that he ended up not needing to use the tool anymore. Then another good friend, Matt Renwick, shared a blog post he had made with Six Ways to use Classroom Dojo for Meaningful Learning.  Then the next morning another great friend and amazing educator, Erin Klein, shared some of her blog posts, here and here,  that described how she has used Classroom Dojo.  So I felt a little more confident in my belief. No, it probably isn't the tool to blame when it is used by someone that ends up creating a negative learning environment.  My guess is that has happened long before this tool was created.  I am guessing that some students were made to feel ashamed, or called out in front of their peers for negative behaviours prior to the use of tech tools.  To me, this just sounds like the idea of blaming Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for bullying.  Bullying was around long before any tech tools.  Now, unfortunately, tech tools just make it easier to bully....heck you don't even need to be face to face to do it.  However, I don't think technology is causing bullying.

I don't think any teacher intends to create fear, submissiveness, or even to demean a student in front of their peers.  I know it happens, and far too often, but I don't think that is the intent.  I think there are ways and tools that can be used to help inspire students to become motivated. Maybe its just a latent motivation that the student hasn't activated yet, but the tool can help set it loose.  I know this begins to sound like a carrot and stick, but I know I liked earning badges when I was in Boy Scouts, but more importantly I enjoyed the learning experiences that came along with it.  I gained a confidence in the skills I would need to become a better scout.  I didn't get jealous that other scouts had more badges than me, after all it was my responsibility to earn them.  I didn't get embarrassed that some scouts had more badges than me, some were even younger than me, they just worked harder to earn more.  When I wanted more badges I worked to earn them.  However, maybe this was because my scoutmaster didn't present these badges, these learning opportunities, as a competition.  They were just skills.  They were skills I could earn to move myself up the boy scout ladder of mastery.  Could this have been twisted into some kind of competition.....yep. It could have and possibly is, in some scout troops, made to embarrass scouts so that they will become motivated by peer pressure to earn more badges, or so that they can be the troop with the most badges at a Jamboree. So, I guess I am trying to say that I don't think it is badges, stickers, or tech sites that are the problem.

The conundrum I have been contemplating is that I believe that it is often how a tool is used, that can make it seem like a useful or harmful tool.  Therefore, it is the person using the tool that makes it useful, harmful, good, or bad.  A hammer was created to pound nails, but that isn't all it can do.  It can remove nails as well.  It can also also crack open a walnut or a skull.  Smash a finger or build a birdhouse. So do we outlaw hammers?  Do we label them as dangerous tools?  I think the beauty and artistry of any tool is not in the tool itself, but how it is wielded by the person using it.  So when a hammer is used as a weapon or to build a cage for an animal, well, let's not hate the hammer.  Maybe I am wrong on this.....  What are your thoughts?

July 9, 2013

What do you want kids to do with Technology?

Thanks to Twitter, I found this infographic shared by Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) and retweeted by almost everyone. Of course, before I could finish up my previous post, George Couros (@gcouros) beat me to posting this on my blog. Of course, I didn't have anything to do with creating this graphic but completely agree with what it says.  I hope you enjoy it and learn from it as well.

UPDATE - Bill (@plugusin) has now gone on to share an additional post on this graphic as it has received a lot of attention and even some scrutiny.  In case you wanted to keep up with the discussion his post can be found here.

Which "one thing"?

As I read the Good to Great book, I was struck by the idea of getting good at just one thing. You know, when Jim Collins refers to the Hedgehog being great at defending itself by curling up into a ball and using its spines to protect itself.  It seemed ingenious at the time.  Getting to Great at just one thing seemed like the approach that needed to be taken.  Teachers were getting overwhelmed with all of the changes that we were asking to be implemented.  They were all great things, things that would benefit our students, our staff, our school and community.  So my question was......which one?

Do we go with PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports), RTI was pretty much a must do since we have to have that in place to replace the defecit model for Special Education identification, but since we were already mostly finished with the planning and implementation for that, I scratched it off the list as already done (which you are never really done with RTI).  Then we were looking at improving our reading instructional strategies with the implementation of a focused and consistent use of Reading/Writing Workshop in grades K-5. This was very important also.  It would show an immediate impact.  But we also wanted to map our curriculum, align to Common Core, expand use of and deepen knowledge of standards based grading, implement the Leader in Me program, learn more about Tech integration, roll out 1:1 iPad minis in another grade level, improve utilization of our GAFE (Google Apps For Education) initiative, more training on our Math Expressions resource, developing and using Common Formative Assessments and Common Summative Assessments and how to use that data to drive instruction, and so on and so on.  It was easy for me to get a good grasp on why the teachers were feeling a little overwhelmed.  I may be understating that a little.

Then it occurred to me.  One of the main attractions to their hiring me as their Lead Learner, was that I was pretty experienced and knowledgeable in developing Professional Learning Communities.    Yeah, this was another thing that was on our list to accomplish.  I had worked closely with the Building Leadership Team all year, sharing what I had learned about PLCs, teamwork, trust, and having crucial conversations.  We had done book reads together, watched videos and even went on a site visit to Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois to improve our understanding of what and how PLCs operate.  As I thought about it more and more, knowing the true nature of a good PLC, it was plain to see where we needed to focus.  If we became solid in being a high quality Professional Learning Community, then the other initiatives would fall into place.  After all, when you are a PLC, Learning is in the middle of all you do.

When you become focused on teacher learning as well as student learning, the other high quality strategies and practices become part of the day to day conversation and don't seem to be something that was added on or pushed down, but instead becomes part of the natural quest to improve student learning.  Yeah, there is a lot of change taking place in education, but I would have to say that these changes are positive and focused on building positive learning environments for students and teachers. They are geared toward creating deeper student understanding and increasing their engagement in their own learning.  I'm not talking about the push for more and tougher standardized tests, I'm not talking about greater accountability and student testing data on teacher evaluations.  I'm talking about changes like the Common Core State Standards, Technology Integration, Individualized Learning Plans, School Choice, Project Based Learning, and more.  I believe PLCs will help us get there with the best chance of helping educators feel like we owned and controlled many of the changes we believe will benefit students.  What do you think? Do you have another plan to face the changes that are hurtling toward us? 

July 6, 2013

Expecting Answers.....

I have been doing the administration gig for 10 years now and my understanding of the role and its expectations have evolved over the years.  I have greatly enjoyed and embraced the role, yeah it has its challenges and there are definitely some days that I would rather be back in the classroom, but for the most part it is a great job and I love the day to day interactions with students, staff, parents and the community.  One of the things that has evolved for me is the expectation that I have all the answers to the plethora of questions I receive.  The funny thing is, the expectation from myself is what has evolved, not necessarily the expectation from others.  When I first started in administration, I believed I needed to have all the answers.  I worked hard & read voraciously to learn all I could.  Sometimes this ended in foolish decisions that revealed my inexperience, but thankfully, more often than not, I was able to make sound decisions and pass along good advice.
This shouldn't be a surprise, the idea is that when you are the building leader, you have the answers to the questions parents, students and staff have.  What I have discovered, and maybe it is a recent change due to the incredible rate of change in education right now, is that I often do not have the answers, or I am aware that the previous answer to that question is evolving.

This is one of the many reasons I stay "connected" as an educator.  By attending workshops, conferences, #edcamps, reading blogs, and staying active on Twitter, I have been able to check in and learn from educators all over the world.  Thanks to these Social Media tools, I have been able to ask questions of the authors of the many professional books I read or listen to when attending conferences.  So now that I have access to these many well informed, well researched, well written, and experienced educators and authors, am I expected to keep all of their knowledge in my head?  Do we expect our teachers to remember everything they have heard and read? Do we expect them to get it right the first time?  Do we expect that of our students? Unfortunately sometimes I do think some people expect that of our students, but I know I don't.  I have heard a great many people share how we are now in the information age, and that the amount of information available has grown exponentially in just the last decade and the rate keeps increasing.  There is an ever increasing amount of information, strategies for teaching, brain research and technology tools to improve all we do.  So, why is it I see people talking about it being okay that principals don't have all the answers, but teachers keep coming in and asking for the answers and wanting it now (or even preferably yesterday).  Is there a double standard?  I don't think so.  I'm not looking to point fingers at teachers, they are under incredible scrutiny at this time, and many feel like all of the initiatives to improve education are being crammed down their throat and they have been given no time (and very little financial support) to learn about them.  The common approach I see and hear about has been, "implement this now so we are ahead of the game, and if we make a mistake.....we still have another year to fix it."

I'm not looking to make excuses, we definitely have things we need to change in our schools. We all needed to raise our standards.  But this also means we have much to learn, and if that is the case, then we need time to learn it.  We are in a bit of a Research & Development stage right now in education, and that is a good thing.  Some of the research on best practice has never gone out of date, but there are new ways and tools to implement those strategies with now.  I know that idea doesn't exactly jive with the current hysterical call for accountability and the push for easy to use & implement standardized test scores, but we have to find a way to avoid the fear those political tools create, and get focused on student learning which means teacher learning must come first.  We have to stop expecting everyone to know the answers, and we have to start connecting with each other and learning from each other, including learning from each others mistakes.
The only way to do this is to connect, share, ask questions, try something new and share how it goes. Then.....repeat the process.  Put yourself out there, and give it a try.  Don't be afraid to fail, don't expect someone to have all the answers, and we won't expect it of you.  Share your experiences, and let's all grow together.