Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Giving time to save time

After sharing my thoughts on how changing our assessment practices and eliminating time spent at the copier can provide us more time in our daily lives, let’s explore the biggest time killer in teaching today: how we communicate.

According to many teachers, the sheer amount of email we receive on a daily basis can be overwhelming and almost impossible to sift through. So how can we ease that pain? Here are a few tips: first, we can learn to create and use distribution lists ensuring that emails intended for the right people are only seen by those whom need to see them. By doing this, we also make sure that we get less email ourselves. We can also find ways to make our email more organized and efficient by organizing folders and creating rules.

Secondly, we need to consider the content of our email. Many emails I receive are of the sharing variety. I love these emails. But there are more efficient ways of sharing cool sites or great articles. Using social bookmarking tools such as diigo or delicious not only allow us to curate the web, they also allow us to build upon each others findings. Imagine finding a great article about the best instructional practices in a specific content area. In the past we have emailed it to each other and perhaps written a few responses back and forth. But using diigo and delicious, I can comment directly on the article, highlight what I think is important and share it with anyone (or entire groups of people) for their responses too. The articles or website becomes a living and breathing document in which we are learning alongside one another. Another bonus is that all of these articles and websites are searchable by keyword. No more wasting time going back into my email spending 15 minutes searching for that great link you sent me.

Another huge time waster is how we spend our time when we are face to face. In this post from the beginning of the year, Kristen Swanson shares “must haves” for faculty meetings. These “must haves” should apply to any PLC’s or teacher led meetings we have as well. Does your PLC or team meeting have:

  •  an agreed upon agenda created in the days/weeks prior to the meeting time 
  •  a defined start and end time 
  • agreed upon roles for each member of the group 
  • an agreed upon vision that focuses conversation 

But even beyond these structures, how well do we adhere to them? Does each member of the group commit to adding their ideas or questions prior to meeting time (using a shared Google Doc makes this MUCH easier). Does every member of the group come on time? Do members of the group leave early? How often do we get off topic instead of being focused on the tasks at hand? How often does the conversation devolve into complaints about a myriad of topics that do not lead to solutions to our problems? Teachers are often frustrated with the lack of time they are afforded to truly collaborate. Yet how much of our time is often wasted by any number of the factors above? How much of this do we, ourselves, own? My challenge to each and every one of us is to count the minutes we spend complaining instead of doing this week. Imagine how much more effective we could be if we spent that wasted time on any number of things: reflecting, working with struggling students, performing random acts of kindness for our colleagues, calling a parent to let them know how proud we are of their child, building and learning from our PLN.

Finally, the biggest time waster comes from our lack of willingness to truly collaborate and share. We live in an age where technologies afford us the ability to access and share unlimited content, collaborate in real time not only across the building or district but around the world, and we can expose ourselves to a diversity of opinions and perspectives. Yet we often revert back into a “closed-door and leave me alone to teach” mindset. This mindset prevents us from growing professionally and ultimately hurts our students.

A wise colleague once asked the question (in reference to professional development) “What can we do in a faculty meeting we wouldn’t normally be able to do? What can we do on a non-instructional day we wouldn’t normally be able to do?” We must ask this same question of the face to face collaboration time we are either afforded or create for ourselves. If it can be done a different way, an easier and less time consuming way, it should be. Ultimately though, we cannot complain about how little time we have and yet turn our backs on collaboration with peers. Anything we do together should not only save us time, but be better for our students. How can working together to design meaningful and authentic learning experiences be bad for us or for our students? How can sharing assessment results (ie. data) and developing a diverse and effective instructional tool belt to meet the needs of all of learners not be worth our time?

I realize that the structures of our school day here in America may not afford us the kind of time to collaborate we wish we had. Is this what really gets in the way? Our professional growth (which leads to student learning) is not something we should be waiting for others to provide for us. It’s not a once a month faculty meeting kind of thing. It’s not a four times a year non-instructional day kind of thing. It’s not even a once a week department or team meeting kind of thing. It’s a mindset. It’s a fundamental core belief that we are the architects of our own learning journey. And that in sharing that journey with others, we make the time to be effective and inspiring educators for all of our students. We collaborate because by learning alongside one another, we create opportunities for kids that we could never dream of on our own.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I'd like to push this photocopier right out the window

In this second post of a series on how we can re-claim time in our lives as classroom teachers, comes one of my least favorite waste of times: photocopying.  There is no bigger waste of time than waiting for copies to run (whether your own or a colleague's), or getting part way through a job only for it to break.  Thirty minutes later, you and the copier look like the guy above.  In moments like this, I want to re-enact the fax machine scene in "Office Space".  So how can we remove these daily or weekly exercises in time wasting and printer jam wrestling?

Here in QCSD we already have a multitude of ways  that traditional documents can be downloaded using Blackboard or Schoolwires. Blackboard also allows for students to submit their work (typed or other digital tools) through the grade center which organizes students submissions and allows for teachers to provide feedback to students relatively quickly and in a timely manner. We also have a suite of tools at our fingertips called Google Apps for Education in which all students grades 6-12 have access to email (they can only email teachers, not peer to peer) and the ability to create and share documents, presentations, and spreadsheets for real time collaboration.

Think of it this way. If I photocopy a graphic organizer for my students, even if I conference with students, move group to group asking questions and providing feedback, someone STILL loses access to the learning going on at the end of the time period we spend together in school.  If as a teacher I collect it to provide further feedback, the pressure is on me to return it quickly and the student might stop moving forward with their learning.  If as a teacher, the student keeps the graphic organizer, I might not have the solid evidence needed to continue to provide feedback.  Traditionally, evidence portfolio's exist in student notebooks or in a classroom spot guaranteeing someone always loses access to that evidence. Using google apps helps to make sure that the learning continues and it means that teacher and student always have access, allowing the feedback loop to continue.

  • Create a rubric that is shared by a student, a teacher, and at least one other peer for evaluation and reflection BEFORE a piece of evidence is submitted for final grading.
  • Create rough drafts that are shared by a student, a teacher, and at least one other peer for consistent feedback through each stage of the writing process.
  • Create student reflection and tracking sheets that are shared by a student and a teacher to continually monitor progress towards learning targets and promote continual reflection.
  • Create class (crowd-sourced) notes that allow for many ideas, contexts, and data points. 

And while there are certainly occasional exceptions to why we can't go 100% paperless yet, we are getting closer and closer to this being a reality.  By next year, QCHS will be 1:1 with the quality of the laptops rolling out at the Freshman Center only improving with each year.  At Milford and Strayer, we currently have a 2 student to 1 device ratio. And consider that we are a BYOD (Bring your own device) district.  If you look at the cost of a TI-83 calculator ($99) we often suggest middle school kids  purchase along with all of the other physical notebooks each year, does a parent purchasing a quality  $249 laptop  for use over several years look that expensive?  Would you rather a calculator and half written in notebooks or a laptop?

In what other ways can we avoid the dreaded photocopier? Students can take assessments via the tools inside Blackboard, SMART response or mimio vote clickers, google forms, and a plethora of web based formative assessment tools.  All of this data can be used to guide instruction and most times also allows for integration into excel or google spreadsheets (for those of you who LOVE to collect and look at numbers).  It should also save YOU time.

Many textbooks and/or curriculums are going digital these days too, meaning that we have to shift our thinking on reading. Not only by giving up physical hand held texts at times, but also at how students read on a screen vs traditional textbooks/ paperback literature.  There are advantages and disadvantages of this approach as well. Online texts tend to be dynamic, link filled, and full of images and video that can excite (and distract) at times.  I'm not advocating that we eliminate ALL traditional paperback books, only that we consider moving forward that there are additional literacies that must be considered and taught with the further integration of web-based texts.

Finally, there are other reasons why we should avoid the copy machine.  Less paper is more cost-effective, and better for the environment.  Going paperless should also drive opportunities for students and teachers to create digital portfolio's of their work and growth (ie. learning).  Already, several teachers in QCSD are exploring digital portfolio's with their students to provide students opportunities to meaningfully reflect, showcase their best work, and to show growth over time.

Of course, if we can avoid the photocopier, it also might deny us an integral part of the teaching profession: the water-cooler talk while waiting around at the copier.  For more on how to save time communicating with others, check out my next blog post coming soon.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Saving time to increase learning? (Part 1)

Let's all agree that teaching in 2013 is incredibly challenging and difficult. It requires consistent patience and effort. It feels like change is constant and that the requirements of our job continue to be piled on top of us.  Each teacher wears multiple hats during the day and despite the heroic efforts of most teachers, the profession is under attack.  There never seems to be enough hours in the day to accomplish what we want to accomplish. There is never enough time to make the parent contacts, plan engaging lessons,  provide meaningful feedback to our students on top of all of the other things we need to do to help make our schools run well.  Many of us have uttered the phrase "I just want to be able to close my door and do what I thought I  was hired to do: teach kids."

No one is going to dispute the lack of time and the immense energies required to be an effective educator these days. But what if many of the choices we make add to our misery? What if our choices actually add to our lack of time?  Three of the most common "time killers" are grading/assessing, photocopying, and communicating with others. If we are willing to reflect and address some of these issues, it's amazing how much time we can get back into our days ( and restore a sense of sanity).

In this first post,  let's look at grading or assessing students. One of the biggest misconceptions about assessing students is that we must "record" all of the information we  learn  about students in a gradebook (no matter what iteration or form it comes in) . But not every piece of information we have about what students know and can do is "recordable", at least not in a traditional way.  Technology affords us plenty of options. As more and more of us have mobile devices, we can use our cell phones, tablets, and laptops to record informal and formal conferences. We can take photographs of student work. We can video record student performance.  And we can do almost all of this without any additional time. Simply hit "record" or snap the picture. The evidence is there for us when we need to help students move closer towards proficiency.  It's there when a parent wants to better understand their child's strengths and weaknesses as a learner.

More importantly, shouldn't we shift the burden of responsibility to students themselves? Students can be recording their evidence and providing transparent feedback, making their thinking visible. Students can be organizing and categorizing and tracking and developing what they need to learn and grow.  Students can be creating their own digital portfolio's through google sites or a wiki or countless digital tools that are readily accessible to us and our students.  Students can be leading conferences with their parents, showing off their learning journeys. Rather than take the ownership of "assessing", perhaps we need to invite students into the equation much more often.

In the age of increased technological access, we can use classroom clickers, google forms or other online surveys, and a multitude of other digital tools that provide visible feedback of what students know, allowing us to move them towards application and other higher thinking opportunities.  Use SMART Response clickers to quiz, google forms as  tickets in/out, poll everywhere style quick checks in the middle of the class. All of them allow you to take the temperature of your class and each student and allow you to adapt as needed. If you let the technology do the scoring, it affords you time to support students and determine a personalized path to proficiency.

What about those pesky research papers, the ones where 150 of them come in all at once and you spend all weekend grading them? What if you used google docs and provided feedback throughout the writing process?  Students never have to "submit" anything to you nor do they have to wait for you to hand it back to them.  You can provide meaningful feedback throughout the process which ensures that when the finished product is ready for publishing, it has most likely met proficiency towards the learning targets and focus correction areas.  Perhaps it is just my personal preference, but a little bit of feedback each night is much more preferable to the 10 hours over the weekend. Not to mention, students are more likely to use and learn from your feedback in the formative stages.

Certainly, the critics among us will state that there is not enough consistent and reliable access to hardware, but this is becoming less and less of an excuse.  Others will mention that they don't have time (there it is again) to learn how to use all this stuff with everything else that's going on around them. Each of us must decide whether we are willing to give a little time learning to claim much more time back supporting students.

When I reflect on my past teaching practices, I realize that I made a lot of choices  that actually added work and time to the fixed amount of time I had both in and out of school.  Learning to use clickers, google docs and forms, poll everywhere, and recording student work while it was ongoing all gave me time back to focus on other more important things. Giving students ownership and some control as well as time (there it is again) to reflect also gave us a lot more time in the end as well. What worked for me isn't the be all-end all. I'm sure there are hundreds of time saving  assessment/grading tips out there and I'd love for you to share them.

What other assessment strategies have you used, (whether technology driven or not)that can help us to save time while increasing opportunities for student learning?

Next up: How do we save time and increase student learning by eliminating photocopying.