Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Living and growing in the classrooms we aspire to have.

As part of a  teacher driven PLC to improve instructional practices through peer coaching, several of us engaged in a book study of "Evocative Coaching" by Bob and Megan Tschannen Moran.  Although our task was to read the book through the lens of peer coaching, there are massive implications for our work with students.

 The overall premise of the book is that the best coaches are the ones who "evoke" understanding through empathy, trust, and deep questioning. One of the shifts in evocative coaching is appreciative inquiry in which we focus on what our strengths are and build upon them. It is a powerful book and I highly recommend several deep readings of it. I am on my third.

In Evocative Coaching, Barbara Frederickson's research  is referenced (see Frederickson's book: Positivity) as a gateway to being transformational in our relationships with others.

"Research points to four ways to build high-quality connections. The first is respectful engagement. Be present, attentive, and affirming. The second is to support what the other person is doing. Do what you can to help her succeed. The third is trust. Believe you can depend on this person to meet your expectations,and let it show. The fourth way is play. Allow time simply to goof off, with no particular outcomes in mind"

Now, re-read that again. This time, think about what this says about your classroom. 

When I think about the classroom environment I want to create with my students, I have to ask myself if the opportunities I create are respectful of ALL of my students as individuals.

Am I present at all times? Do I truly listen to what my students need from me as learners? Do I affirm their needs? Do I truly understand what their strengths are as a person and learner? Do I differentiate for learning styles and assessments? Do I engage students in the process of determining their own learning path? Do I support my students, doing everything I can to help EACH of them to succeed in ways that works for them? Have I established fair and reasonable expectations that ALL of my students can learn and make those expectations transparent and visible? Do I take the time to get to know them as individuals? Do I conference with them? Do I show them I care, each day? Do I create opportunities for learning to be messy, fun,  and unstructured, to learn from the unintended outcomes which can ultimately be more powerful than the intentional ones? Do we take time to PLAY?

In the standards driven, high stakes testing environment in which  focus is often on knowledge acquisition and curriculum has been interpreted as mostly about coverage (as opposed to un-coverage), many of us are struggling with classrooms that look and feel nothing like what we want them to be. I'm not proud of the fact that at times,  I have participated in many conversations  that  have placed blame for a lack of student learning at the feet of  parents not doing their jobs, administration not providing the right supports, and sadly, that students just don't care.  The truth is, it's not about what I teach. It's about what they learn. 

What I have realized is that while I have been busy blaming everyone else, I haven't been a good enough teacher (or colleague for that matter).  It has been very convenient and easy blaming the world because admitting that what I was doing  (or not doing) was not good enough would mean that I would have to change. It would mean admitting that I have failed at times. It would mean that I would  have to work harder. It would mean that I would have to learn and grow.  This doesn't mean that I am not a good teacher or colleague. But it does reflect a choice, that I'm not done. That I'm never done. That I will never be done. 

Next year, I want to build an emotionally rewarding, intellectually stimulating, and individually respectful learning environment for students and teachers. 

At some point in the 4th Century BCE, Socrates stated: "I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing". He also stated "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel".  Admitting that we don't know as much as we think we do, and recognizing that our job is not  to teach, but to create personal connections and opportunities for our students to learn and grow would be a start.  Establishing high quality relationships with every one of our students and "coaching" them in their own pursuits of deeper understanding would go a long way to living and growing alongside our students inside the classrooms we all aspire to have. The same is true of our relationships with our colleagues.

In the fading moments of this school year, I have my goal for next year. What is yours? 


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Is there a right way to do Professional Development?

       On Saturday I had an opportunity to attend my first edcamp at #edcampphilly. Although the principles of an "un-conference" were completely familiar to me, being a part of it is something I highly recommend to any educator looking to engage in the big conversations around education with a completely diverse group of people. For more about edcamps and edcamphilly, please click on the links. I'm sure there is an edcamp organizing around you, and if one isn't, your job is to help get one started.

       The second half of my day @edcampphilly found myself co-facilitating with Kristen Swanson and Tom Murray around Professional Development in education. Notes from the session can be found here. There was incredibly rich discussion about the kinds of professional development we as teachers want and deserve.  The last session of the day, facilitated by Mike Ritzius also ended up in the PD direction as well. Even more rich discussion about the balance of traditional and Non- Traditional PD occurred within that session. Teacher professional development and the value of it will always be paramount for educators because the same individualized and differentiated approaches we seek to provide for our students, we wish to be evident in our own learning experiences as well.

      Kristen Swanson shared an insight that resonated with me, that #edcamp is like the "cherry on top of the learning  ice cream sundae".  For a long time, I have been convinced that "un" conferences were the ideal, that every educator should want to show up on a PD day, self organize and get to work sharing and learning. And maybe that IS the ideal, but I don't know that every educator wants to learn in this way or even CAN learn in this way. Perhaps those of us who love to learn in this venue, who are desperate for these kinds of conversations miss the point we are trying to make: the one size fits all model doesn't work regardless of which end of the spectrum you are on.

       If you contrast Kristen's culinary insight with my own which was that sometimes the content/tasks associated with district level Professional Development is something akin to "eating your vegetables: you don't like them, but you know they will make you stronger", you get a bit of an insight into the conundrum districts often struggle with in planning the time teachers spend together on these days.  For every educator who hates being told what to do, there are those who will say "Just tell me what to do and I'll get busy doing it." For every teacher who says "Let me own my own learning" there are just as many who just want to accomplish the tasks ahead of them.  Gerald Aungst added "As administrators, while we may be stuck serving  a can of vegetables, we need to do everything we can to make them as appetizing as possible."

     Yesterday in my school district, we had our third professional development day of the year. I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a core planning team of teachers and administrators this year. The day was divided into three sessions. The first session was entitled "Learning by Sharing" in which  all teachers and administrators K-12 (almost 500 people)  were randomly organized into 40 groups and were given 3-5 minutes each to share a new learning, the work of their PLC, highlight student success, or just share whatever they wanted to. It was the first time we did something like this, but the goal of bringing Elementary and Secondary Teachers and Administrators together to share was met. Early indicators from tweets and hallway comments were that this time was both valuable and enjoyable. Check out the twitter feed for the day: #qcsd521

       The second session was entitled "Learning through Work" and had teachers organized into department level groups by district administration. Tasks and conversations were determined by department co-ordinators and there were varying amounts of tasks being accomplished and dependent on each group's needs. There have been tremendous efforts to identify the unique needs of each department and trying to bring those needs in alignment vertically and horizontally as well as trying to align district curriculum with the Common Core Standards in PA.  Although this time might have been akin to "eating your vegetables", there were efforts by administrators to make that time as valuable and efficient as possible.  In the session that I co-facilitated, we left with a "ticket-out" that set our goals for next year as well as provide some direction to district office about our professional needs for next year. A colleague (and my wife) Jessica Evans noted "What I liked best about my session was that Dr. Holler provided us the flint and steel, but let us start the fire" in reference to the amount of work Dr. Holler did prior to the session to allow them to engage in deep discussions instead of seeking out resources.

     The third session was entitled "Learning through Choice". About a month prior to the day, teachers submitted proposals of sessions they wanted to facilitate. Those choices were entered into MyLearningPlan and teachers then had two weeks to sign up for the session that they wanted to engage and learn in. The types of sessions were as diverse as the types of teachers we have in the district. And while we can't yet determine the effectiveness of the sessions, we do believe that the choices provided for teachers were big steps towards differentiated and individualized learning opportunities. The only "rule" for the session was that you couldn't learn alone.

     While I am incredibly proud of being a part of a team who helped plan this time, I don't think we are done figuring out the right model. Mostly because our needs as educators (like our students) will always be changing. Attending #edcampphilly provided me insights into what we are doing right and what we need to improve. It also provided me a ton of ideas. In the end, what I believe about professional development mirrors what I believe about learning: it needs to be relevant, purposeful, individualized as much as possible , and a call to action.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why should I bother with this homework?

Dear Teacher,

In this standards based grading system, my classmates tell me that homework doesn't count, that I don't get any "credit" for doing it.  Why should I bother doing it or doing it well the first time if I just get to re-do it?

Your Student

Dear Student,

     Thank you for your question and your openness. I'd like to help you change a misconception you have about homework not "counting" and share some perspectives I have about the role of homework in my class and in learning.  My hope for you is that in a few years you will graduate and maybe go to college. If you don't go to to college, that's ok too, but I want you to find a job or career that brings you success and happiness.  In most jobs and careers there will not be homework. There will only be the job or tasks that need to be accomplished. Your boss will care mostly about results.  You will need to ask yourself "Have I done the work that I needed to do to help  the company achieve their goals in the most efficient way possible? Have I done enough to keep my job or even advance into new challenging ones?"  The kinds of skills you will need will be hard work, perseverance, adaptability, collaboration, communication and a willingness to learn new skills and content on your own time.  At its simplest level, your motivation will be to maintain your job and earn a secure paycheck. At a more sophisticated  level, I hope your motivation will be to push yourself harder and further than you ever can in reaching your goals and dreams.

      Back to the issue of homework. I don’t like to give homework and I often feel that if we have both done our job in class together, there may not be a need for any at all. However,  in my class , if and when I  give you homework, there will be four kinds with four very different purposes. The first will be preview. I might ask you to explore the kinds of things that will help you to build some basic background knowledge. It might be a bit of reading, it might be a few problems to try, it might be to watch a brief video. The purpose will be to help you have a context for learning either the next day in class or somewhere down the road. This homework shouldn't take you a long time to do. It's purpose is to "prime the pump" so to speak.  Typically, everyone in the class will be given this homework (if my pre-assessments tell me that most students do not understand the concept or have the background knowledge yet). I won't be assessing this work but you will absolutely be expected to use this new information in class the next day during discussions with peers and within the activities we do together.  If you don’t do them,  you might  feel like you might have missed something during the class discussion. But you will still have time to catch up with us. I might ask you to do the reading or watch the video while the rest of us are doing something else together. This is not a punishment. It is laying a foundation you will need to be more successful.  Remember, when you have a job someday, you will need to begin to learn new things on your own to stay up to date with new technologies, new information, and new ideas to bring back to your company.

      The next kind of homework I will sometimes give you is practice.  At home practice is needed when the evidence you provide me in class shows me that you need to try it a few more times to truly "get it". I will do my best to help you in class, give you time to work with peers and practice with them. I will also do my best to make sure you understand a concept at a basic level before asking you to go home and practice it some more.  When I ask you to practice something, chances are, not everyone in class will have the same type of practice as you. And some students may not need the practice at all.  There will be times when you will not need the practice either. This is not a punishment. It is meant to help you become better at something you might not be very good at yet.  And sometimes, you might already understand and can do it, but I want to challenge you to reach beyond what you think you know and can do. Don't shy away from this challenge. Embrace it.
   If you show proficiency in the practice homework, it will always be considered as evidence in  your overall "grade" for that learning target, but it's ok to struggle and it's ok to not get it the first time.We know that the best kinds of practice are those in which we practice something we can not yet do well.  To FAIL means  your First Attempt In Learning and it wouldn't be fair of me to lump the first, second, or even third attempts as "evidence". I am going to use all of these attempts (both inside and outside) to help you get to where you need to go and to do what you need to be able to do. When I give you practice types of homework, they will be respectful of you as a learner. I promise to give you practice that is both at your individual level of need as well as not overbearing on your time at home. We will use this practice together to help you become proficient at the skills you need to shore up.  I will provide you feedback that is timely, actionable, and respectful to you as a learner.   Remember, when you have a job someday, you will need to practice the skills, learn new skills, and improve upon them to help make your company grow and achieve their goals.

     The next kind of homework will be performance or evidence. This homework will require you to apply all of the practice in a new way. It will prove to me that you understand and can do the work. Typically, this homework won't be given very often, but it will help me to see you as a learner in a new way if I do not have enough evidence in class. This kind of work will ask you to think critically and creatively. It will help me to see if all of the preview and practice has paid off. It will be a piece of evidence we use to help us decide together whether you truly understand and can do the target we set before you.  Not everyone in class will have the same type of performance task as you. And some students may not have an outside of class performance task at all.  There will be times when you will not need to do a performance task out of class either. This is not a punishment. It is intended to give you another opportunity and for me to collect more evidence of what you know and can do.  Part of this process will involve you assessing yourself and reflecting on what you know and can do. I will provide you feedback that is timely,  actionable, and respectful of you as learner so that you can improve upon future learning.  If you have done the hard work in class and on the occasional practice I have asked you to do at home, performance based homework should confirm what we both know about you as a learner. It should tell us that you are proficient or advanced.  If it doesn't, we will need to go back and practice some more. And this is ok, because I will never stop helping you, and I will never allow you to quit.  Remember, when you have a job someday, you will be asked to perform. You will be asked to see a process through until the very end. You will be evaluated on it and given feedback on how you can improve. But if you don't use the grit, perseverance, and passion to learn throughout the entire process, the final piece will show that you did not use all of the right tools in your toolbox to achieve the goal. This is why we need to give our maximum effort at all times, to try our hardest the first time.  We can never be our personal best if we hold back at any point in the process.

     The last kind of homework in my class will be the homework that I never assign to you. My hope for you is that on a daily basis you will be engaging in personally meaningful and challenging learning experiences and that you will want to continue doing that when you leave my class. My hope is that you will talk to your friends and family about what you are learning and the challenges you are facing. My hope is that you will seek out new information from other experts and from the internet to help support the learning you are doing in my class. My hope is that each night you will review your notes and/or reflect on the learning we did in class to help prepare you for the next day's challenges. My hope is that you will recognize the need to continuously improve and learn and that your opportunities for learning will never stop, even when traditional schooling ends.

     In the end, the most important thing for you to understand is that I will not allow you to take the easy way out. I will not allow you to settle. You will work hard and you will struggle at times. I will never let you stop and I will always demand your very best. I will do my very best to make every "at home" assignment I choose to give you,  relevant to you and worth your time commitment. In return, I expect you to complete them to the best of your ability. When you don't, I will give them back to you and demand a better effort. I will not give you feedback for improvement until you do. When you do not turn things in or do not turn them in on time, there will be consequences, such as pulling you from lunch or requiring you to stay after school with me to show me evidence of your learning. This will not be detention. It will be time we will spend together to talk about your choices and help you make the best choices for your learning in the future. My goal is to ensure you are learning and reaching your maximum potential. You may get more "homework" from me than in the past or you may get less than you are used to. No matter what, my goal will always be to help you be successful and learn to your greatest potential.

Your Teacher

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What do you want your classroom to be like?

       A colleague of mine likes to ask the question: "What do you want your classroom to be like?"  It would be easy for most teachers to answer this question rather reflexively. At the same time,  challenge yourself to let it simmer before responding. Reflect. Dig deep. Don't focus on what it currently looks and feels like. Don't focus on what it isn't. Don't get stuck thinking about what is getting in the way.  Focus on what you dream it could be like. Create a vision for your classroom. What do you want your classroom to be like? 

My rough draft looked like this:

I want my classroom to be more

  • risk taking and mistake making and less playing it safe 
  • collaboration and connectivity and less isolation
  • questions and less answers
  • student autonomy and less teacher directed
  • growth mindset and less fixed mindset
  • passion and interest driven and less standardized 
  • personalized and less whole group 
  • authentic and like the real world and less like school
  • fun and less boring 
  • creating and less consuming
  • thinking critically and less recall
  • about effort, persistence and grit and less giving up
  • transparent and less behind closed door
  • feedback and less grading
  • caring for one another and less selfishness
  • evidence than opinion

I'm sure I could add to this list and while all of these are important and integral as my personal philosophies as a teacher, I also believe that they could all be summed up in one statement: 

I want my classroom to be a place where each and every student has an opportunity to learn and grow in whatever ways they need. 

 Disclaimer: For those who know me well, you might be surprised that I did not  include a statement  about a classroom rich with technology. Consciously, I left that off my list because the classroom I envision cannot be effectively or efficiently created or sustained without technology embedded and integrated into everything we do.  We are 13 years into the 21st Century and we keep referencing 21st century skills and technology as illusive and disconnected goals in learning (ie. How do I have time to teach all this other stuff?) Technology in education  is not about a laptop or tablet or SMART board or clicker. It is not about a web tool or skype or social media . It is about matching the right learning tool with the right child at the right time to guarantee that that child has learned.  Settling for anything else is just an excuse.