The thing about technology…

My mind is in this place because a technological tool that I’m working on today has made my workday somewhat frustrating and largely unproductive (at least in the area that this tool is needed). Here are my thoughts on this issue:

For me, it’s easy to forget that learning happens through tools.

Pencils, books, sheets of paper, raising your hand, desks, chairs, crayons, etc. These are all tools. Tools that have become ubiquitous. They are practically synonymous with the classroom. At one point or another students have to learn how to use these tools, but the mechanisms we have for teaching their use is pretty standard fare.

Modern technology has the ability to change that, but we mustn’t rest behind the often erroneous assumption that young people are just naturally good at using technology. It’s likely true that most 14-year-olds would be more comfortable navigating an iPhone than most 75-year-olds, but let’s not translate that into 14-year-olds naturally being equipped to adapt to a learning management system like Moodle or a application like Desmos. They might not be.

Educational leaders need to remember the same thing about their instructional staffs. If there are tools that we are asking teachers to use, there needs to be time, support, and feedback dedicated to learning the tool in addition to learning the function that the tool serves.

Assessment and data analysis are two separate areas of understanding (despite the fact that they often get talked about together) and the tool(s) through which those get done might add one or more separate areas of understanding.

If we are asking teachers to use a tool (like Data Director or Illuminate Education) to create assessments to gather data for the sake of analyzing it later, we are asking teachers to perform in three distinct areas: gathering data, analyzing data, and using the tech tool.

It’s no different if we are asking the students to complete a learning activity on Desmos that they will explore on an iPad. It’s important for a teacher to be very clear about the number of distinct understandings that will serve as prerequisites to the mathematical knowledge at the end of that lesson.

The game of teaching and learning is changing. I talk to a lot of teachers that are intimidated by technology. It makes sense. There is plenty enough to try to manage and understand as it is. If we could stick to pencils and paper at least the tools will be familiar.

And I work to help make instructional and assessment technology seem more realistic. And I feel like It is important to make memories of the frustration I’m feeling right now to remind me that for some teachers and students, this is actually a pretty normal feeling.

We’re not just teaching math…

The old adage goes “I don’t teach math. I teach children.” That line typically gets used when an educator’s focus is a bit out of balance with respect to empathetic student-centered attitudes and content-driven, fidelity-to-curriculum attitudes. There needs to be a balance and it can be tricky to find sometimes.

In addition to that, there is another balance that needs to be struck. The balance between the math content in a curriculum and the other skills the students are going to need to learn the math content. Some of these skills are considered “soft skills” by some. These are things like communication skills, presentations, research, teamwork. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “soft skills”. (We can talk more about that another time if you want).

Beyond those, there are some “hard” skills that some math teachers just feel isn’t their job to teach. These are things like technology skills, reading, writing, and supplementary (often much lower-level) math skills. I’ve been in a variety of math classrooms talking to teachers of high school math who feel like they just shouldn’t have to teach fractions, long division, and reading.

Yet, increasingly math classes are starting to look like this.

2014-02-20 10.41.53

We’re not just teaching math…

And those skills, be them “soft” or “hard” will directly impact our students’ ability to learn the math content that we are hoping they’ll learn. I think it is important that we math teachers simply expect to have to teach our students to do everything we need them to do to be successful in our math classes.

And this includes remembering that teaching and learning have some recurring patterns when done successfully: teacher modeling, student exploration, student individual practice, formative assessment, feedback. These are things that exist in every successful math class I’ve seen. (Depending on teacher philosophy, the order of the steps might not be the same in every classroom, but the steps are all still there.)

Very few teachers will tell you that you can skip that teaching-and-learning process for the math content.

Many more will skip that teaching-and-learning process with the “softer” parts of their curriculum.

Perhaps, I should back up and discuss how I see “curriculum”. From the teacher perspective, curriculum includes both the “what” of the learning, but also the “how”. And if a math teacher has students whose math experience looks like this…

2013-10-24 13.04.22

… as is increasingly becoming the case, then the curriculum probably includes three fairly broad categories.

Math Content: This would include the primary learning targets for the course, but also the prerequisite math knowledge that the students need to advance successfully to the new content.

Learning Tools: Depending on the class this might include a couple of devices (calculators, iOS devices, laptops, Chromebooks) and any other manipulatives (Alge-blocks, patty paper, compasses, protractors, etc.). If the learning will require the use of these tools, then the learning of these tools is every bit as much a learning objective as the math content.

Classroom Procedures: Where will the schedule be posted? Where will handouts be made available? How does a student turn in assignments? Where should a student look when he/she has been absent? What does a student do when they are trying to work at home and find themselves paralyzed by confusion?

If a student struggles to learn well the content in any of those three areas, that student will start riding the struggle bus pretty quickly. The first step to avoid this is to recognize that we are going to have to actively teach all of the things students need to know to be successful in our class. How many of us run a formative assessment where the learning target of the assessment is “Students will be able to use a compass”? How many of us give feedback on the learning target “students will know how to create table with ordered pairs on Desmos”?

Remember, we don’t teach math. We teach children to learn math. And that requires us math teachers to remember that there’s actually a lot more than math knowledge that students will need to be successful in our classes.

Have you seen Desmos Polygraph?

Most of us are  old enough to remember the game Guess Who, right? It looked like this:

Guess Who

It went like this: You and an opponent each had a board in front of you that looked like this. Then you had a card with a face on it. So did your partner. By asking only questions that could be answered by “yes” or “no”, you needed to eliminate all the faces that were not on your opponent’s card in fewer turns than your opponent.

So you might ask “Does your person have glasses?” or “Is your person wearing a hat?” Based on the answered, you could flip some faces down because you knew they couldn’t be correct.

Okay. Now apply that to math. Imagine instead of human faces, it’s parabolas.

Polygraph Parabolas

They also have one for lines, hexagons, rational functions, quadrilaterals (both basic and advanced).

Still yes or no questions. Students still have to determine which pictures to eliminate based on the answer to the yes or no questions. Set-up is incredibly easy.

As if that wasn’t cool enough, if you can think of a set of pictures you’d like to see, you can create your own Polygraph activity.

I thought it would be cool if there was one for systems of linear functions.

If you haven’t taken the time to explore Desmos yet, I’d say it’s about time.

Maybe it’s not that simple

I encourage you to explore the following website:

You’ll find some of the coolest, dynamic, interactive data representations representing… of all things… selfies. And the characteristic differences that reveal themselves when you look at more than 650,000 Instagram photos from major cities on 4 continents.  As you can imagine, there were some fairly predictable conclusions. For starters, given that the median estimated age was between 20 and 30 in every city for both males and females, it seems that as selfie frequency in adults decreases with age. But some conclusions were, perhaps, less predictable (at least to me). For example, only 4% of the randomly-selected Instragram photos were selfies. The other 96% were of other things. I encourage you to explore the incredible amount of really, really cool stuff the researchers discovered.

Of course, this served as a reminder to me that even the most seemingly simple expressions are often quite complex and can have some very important reasons guiding them.

As a teacher, I’d often get frustrated with why I couldn’t seem to change fairly easy-to-understand problems like students not wanting to study for tests or students failing to complete homework assignments. These seem easy to explain (or so I thought). The kids didn’t have enough time to study. The assignments weren’t worth enough points. The kids didn’t care.

But, like the selfie, those simple observations are much, much more complex that it would appear at first. And my attempts to solve those problems with correspondingly simple fixes revealed that there was more going on than I originally thought.

That assignment was worth 25 points and they STILL didn’t do their homework? (Because your homework assignment is designed completely wrong and they didn’t know how to do it. Make it work 1,000 points. That won’t change the assignment.)

I gave them a week’s notice and they STILL didn’t study for their test? (Because you never explicitly stated your learning goals, so they flipped aimlessly through their textbook. Give them a month. That won’t fix the fact that they don’t know what they are going to be tested on.)

I let them work in groups and they STILL are disengaged? (Because your assignment presented barriers to the 35% of your students who read below grade level and another 45% who didn’t do the homework last night. You have to lower the entry point so that every student can AT LEAST get started.)

Go ahead and explore the selfie data and remind yourself that most things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.

The effective leader has all the right… questions.

effective leader

There’s plenty that’s been said about effective school leadership. (Here, I’ll save you a couple of key strokes.) I don’t think that I am going to share anything revolutionary here.

But I want to share an anecdote that I heard recently from a trusted colleague that I thought spoke very clearly to the power of an effective leader. As he reflected aloud on his first couple of years teaching, he made a couple of statements that I found to be very powerful. (I’m using quotes, but this is certainly paraphrased.)

“I was blessed to have a principal that asked a lot of questions. It wasn’t that I was doing wrong things or bad things, but it showed me that I was doing a lot of things without having a very good reason.”

It was an outstanding summary of the role of mentoring a new teacher. Teacher prep programs in most universities fall short of their goals. It isn’t necessarily their fault. The teaching profession largely sets new teachers up to be steamrolled and as the model currently exists (a ton of content courses, a few professional prep courses, a short internship and go forth and prosper), it would be pert-near impossible for any new teacher to enter fully prepared.

So, most teachers fall back on what “teachers do.” But why? And if you don’t know why, then (at the very least) leaders need to make sure they can get that far. It might be that talking at the board is the right move for that young math teacher. It could also being fully blended with instructional technology would be better. But the teacher needs to know why. What goals will that meet? What content will that work best for? How are you making sure it’s effective in meeting its goals?

We should all be blessed to have leaders that ask a lot of questions. I don’t think it’s enough to have everyone doing the right things. It’s good. But people who do the right things without knowing why can’t reflect on their effectiveness, they can’t be flexible within the systems, they can’t roll with the punches when the results don’t appear as perfectly as they should.

There are a lot of excellent teachers making a lot of excellent innovations and building a lot of excellent systems in their classrooms and in their school communities. What makes them excellent is that they know what problem they are trying to address and they have the means to verify whether or not the innovation is solving the problem. It’s effective because they know the why.

And rather than instructional skills or techniques, perhaps it’s more important that leaders lead their people to be able to think about their classrooms like that.

And reminding myself that teachers are the leader of their classrooms, if instilling this thought process is so powerful for young, developing teachers, what would it look like for teachers to instill this in young, developing students?

Teachers: At what are you an expert?

This is the second in a series of reflections that came out of a fantastic sit-down with #MichED -ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller). Melody asked a question that followed up by mentioning that teachers have a really, really hard time answering: What parts of your professional work would you consider yourself to be an expert?

You see, the teaching profession makes it’s members uneasy by self-promotion. And it’s understandable. Teaching is a complex skill set. Teachers are renowned for having very, very broad sets of abilities as posters like this indicate:

Just a teacher

Technology adds even more lines to this poster. So, with so many different nooks and angles to the work, it can be very understandable that teaching is a profession that makes it’s practitioners feel as though their efforts are stretched a mile wide and an inch thick. It’s hard to feel like an expert at anything under those circumstances.

But we need to. We need our expert teachers to not only be aware of their areas of expertise, but also be willing to advertise it. There’s a lot of teachers in this state. Lots. Like… tens of thousands. It shouldn’t scandalize us that each teacher has strengths and weaknesses. And some teachers have lots and lots of strengths. Every profession has it’s hall-of-famers. I could name a few that I’d nominate for a public school teaching hall-of-fame. Duane Seastrom… Eileen Slider… (Did you just think of a couple that you’d nominate?)

And teachers have a darn good perspective on this. They know who the good ones are and what they are so good at. “Kids never act out for her.” “The projects they do for him are amazing.” “She gets amazing growth out of students with disabilities.” But chances are, those teachers aren’t blogging about it. Chances are they don’t have business cards that say, “Mrs. Taylor, instructional designer, classroom manager.” Chances are they aren’t promoting the practices that they use that work. Chances are they aren’t standing up in staff meetings showing 5-min video clips of the awesome things their students are doing. Because teachers don’t do that.

What is it about teaching that makes it’s practitioners uncomfortable declaring their strengths and advertising them?

I have my own half-baked ideas. (Comment opportunities for dissent, if you’re in the mood.) For one, teacher evaluations are really time-consuming and we really haven’t figured out how to do it yet. What are the best practices? How important is student achievement? How do you measure positive impact of a teacher on an unsuccessful student? These are really, really tough things to measure. This is a symptom of our inability to collectively agree on the exact role that the teacher plays in the education industry. I can all think of the teacher whose in-class practice is pretty good, but it completely uninvolved in the community. I can also think of teachers whose instructional and assessment practices aren’t stellar, but they do a wonderful, wonderful job of reaching out to the marginalized students and keep them coming to school. I can also think of teachers who are inept in supporting the struggling students in their classroom, but because they coach three sports help keep an different population of struggling students eligible so that they can stay active on their teams. All three of those teachers are playing roles that are tough to evaluate. Obviously, we want every teacher to be hall-of-fame quality at instruction and assessment, but how do you isolate the “mandatory” skill set?

From the other side, collective bargaining has put pressure on teachers to not really separate themselves in any major way. If we find ourselves with a handful of teachers who are exemplary teachers, it’s very short logical leap to those teachers deserving some sort of reward for being so good at what they do. Naturally, there’s a very reasonable desire on a whole lot of different levels to shield the teaching profession from this. We want this field to become more collaborative. Not more competitive. So, to protect against that the unions have stayed far, far away from emphasizing outspoken greatness of individual teachers.

That doesn’t mean that greatness doesn’t exist. It just means that greatness is staying contained. We don’t want that. We want greatness to spread. And given the technology, given the pressure, given the difficulty of being a teacher, it is becoming more and more reasonable for teachers to begin identifying the exemplary practitioners and trying to figure out what of their skills can be displayed and transferred.

There are three things that I believe to be true. 1. It’s possible for every teacher to be a great teacher. 2. Not every teacher is currently a great teacher. And 3. It is in the best interest of every student in America to be in the classroom of a great teacher just as often as possible.

So, I’ll ask again: What parts of your professional practice would you consider yourself to be an expert at? What do you do really, really well that you could demonstrate to mentor up a young or struggling teacher? What are the things you do that are so good that you’d be willing to share them on the open educational marketplace of ideas? Feel free to reply in the comments section. That way if you have a weakness in the area that matches with a person’s stated strength, you can reach out to them and open that conversation.

Reflections on the teaching profession and the potential for leadership

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with #MichED-ucators Melody Arabo (@melodyarabo) and Jeremy Tuller (@jertuller) to discuss (among other things) the teaching profession along with it’s potential for leadership and advancement.

I’ve learned a ton this year in my new role at Ingham, and that work has helped me become knowledgeable in maybe a dozen districts, in addition to the four I’ve been involved with already in my career. I’m starting to get a sense that there are some patterns to the teaching profession that aren’t specific to a single district. Sitting with Jeremy and Melody for a 90-minute discussion brings the knowledge of the experience of scores of other educators in districts all over the state. After that conversation, it seems there are definitely patterns.

1. There are very, very few distinctions that separate rookies from veterans. The job of someone with 50 clock hours of classroom experience is remarkably similar to the job of someone with 50,000. The expectations are the same. The workloads are the same. The evaluations are the same. The professional development is the same.

2. There are remarkably few advancement opportunities within the field of teaching. Don’t confuse this with the education industry as a whole. There are lots of career pathways within education. But if someone is an exemplary talent in teaching (Every field has its hall-of-famers. Teaching is no different…), the field doesn’t offer much in the way of advancing in the field WITHOUT having to leave the classroom. Which is a little risky because…

3. … teachers trust the advice of teacher far above and beyond the advice of non-teachers. This is why #MichED and it’s motivated leadership have done such important work. Teachers need to be connected to other teachers. The masters of this craft need to be able to share their work with others. They need to be able to advertise their expertise. Which used to be difficult because the technology didn’t allow for it. Not so much anymore.

Flexibility holds the key to the solution to a lot of these problems. I have a series of what-ifs…

1. What if each leadership position in a school district included a teaching component? The superintendent, the directors of curriculum, technology, grounds, special education, athletics, the building principals and assistants all could teach one hour per day. Anyone who is certified to teach will. This would have several positives.

First, it would keep all the decisions very close to the classroom (and that means close to the students who should ALWAYS be the main focus.)

Second, it would force collaboration because a full-time job like curriculum director needs full-time attention, but with the director also being a part-time teacher, then those decisions would all get made in committee with the curriculum director as the chair.

Third, it not only frees up hours for teacher fluidity, but also opens up committee positions to build in leadership capacity among the teaching staff. Now, we are expecting exemplary, veteran teachers to contribute to district-wide decisions. And that would be built into the day. This wouldn’t be after-school work that endlessly interferes with their down time. When the curriculum leadership team needs to meet, the building principal can cover for the teacher in that building that needs to be out. After all, they teach too.

Fourth, it would make decisions coming down from the central office more likely to be accepted by the teaching staff (which can be a contentious issue in schools.)

2. What if we increase teacher “fluidity”? I don’t think we take advantage of our teachers who can teach multiple subjects nearly well enough. Having a teacher that is able to teach any math class and any science class from grades 6-12 is not an uncommon skill set. Having the finance director coming to your school every day to teach a math class not only frees up that math teacher for an hour, but imagine if that math teacher (who can also teach science) is now free-lance. This isn’t necessarily an additional prep hour, this is an hour when that teacher can step into another teacher’s classroom. Perhaps because they have a cool cross-curricular project they want to have their students experience. Perhaps that teacher is going to cover for a colleague who is at a conference or professional learning activity. How about all of these benefits?

First, curriculum would need to be coherent, clear, and consistent. That math teacher wouldn’t be coming into the science teacher’s classroom to be a place-holder. She is teaching that class that hour. That means she needs to be able to step into the flow of the unit.

Second, how much better of an understanding would teachers have of each other’s practice, classroom experiences, struggles, and strengths? Imagine if a teacher whose classes are regularly rowdy and difficult to control goes into their colleague’s classroom and sees those same kids quiet, focused, and attentive? There’d be some powerful observation and discussion happening.

Finally, this flexibility would allow for my third “What-if…”

3. What if we completely rethought new teacher mentorship? I get so discouraged when I hear of the lousy workloads and complete lack of support that new teachers receive. I’ve seen fresh-out-of-college teachers given 4 and 5 brand new preps with daily travel between buildings without full-time pay. I’ve seen new teachers (when they should still be working on their classroom management and assessment/feedback of student work) asked to build new classes into the curriculum because the rest of the veterans in the department wanted it done and didn’t want to do it themselves. I’ve asked brand new teachers “who is your mentor?” in December of their first school year and watched them not know the answer.

This is madness. At some point, we have to stop allowing veterans to look at new teachers the way seniors look at freshman.

In combination with my other two What-Ifs, we can completely overhaul the idea of teacher development around a few premises.

1. New teachers teach a full-day no more than two days a week their first semester in the classroom.

2. New teachers co-teach a lesson with their mentor (either in the new teacher’s classroom or in the mentor’s) at least two hours per week for the first semester. One hour a week for the second semester. Two hours per month for the second year.

3. New teachers and mentors have built into their schedules one hour per week of collaboration/discussion/mentorship time.

4. Building leadership will observe new teachers at least two separate half-hours per month.

5. Each department will designate the two most difficult classes to teach well in terms of student behavior and struggle to learn the material. No teacher in the first three school years out of college will be allowed to teach these classes.

These are all things that can be address if we just rethink the idea of leadership and the teaching profession. Everyone in our district who is certified to teach will. This will add opportunities for teachers to grow into leadership roles. This will also create chances for teachers to become active members of the school community in different ways that was previously possible. It will give a better chance for our exemplary teachers to support the improvements of everyone.