Rediscovering Modeling in Professional Learning

Teachers? How many of your PD presenters were willing to come into your classroom and demonstrate what you’re learning live with students in their natural element?

Principals? If a teacher you’re evaluating needs support in instructional or classroom management strategies, do you feel equipped to show them how it’s done?

PD Presenters? Do you ever get the opportunity to teach alongside someone who is learning from you?

These are the moves that make a difference. I’ve recently been reminded of this.

Since September, I’ve been involved in a new professional learning model that is built around job-embedded learning opportunities for one main reason.

To see if it works better. And it does.

Bad professional development is the worst-kept secret in education. I’ve attended them. Heck, I’ve given them. I’ve been called in to present some tech tool for a half-day to some captive staff and never heard from any of them again. Now, I’ve been told I put on a pretty good show. We laughed some. I used some fancy strategies.

But, I doubt they learned a thing. And what’s worse? Everyone seemed cool with that.

Well, our team stopped being cool with that. If it’s worth training, it’s worth putting a structure in place that will actually impact teacher and student experiences. And it required re-discovering modeling in the classroom.

And so, the former HS geometry teacher who’s last year in the classroom was 2014 with mostly 10th and 11th graders is going into early elementary classrooms and teaching math.

I promise, the students aren’t the only one learning something. Because I’ve discovered a paradox. In many ways, good teaching is good teaching. And in other ways, the early elementary classroom is a whole different world than the 10th grade classroom.

It isn’t always pretty. It is NEVER perfect. But it is almost always productive. And that is a massive step in the right direction from the standard remembrances of PD’s past.

Because here’s the reality. Can an elementary teacher learn from a HS teacher? Yes. But talk only goes so far. The PD presenter might say, “Your students need more opportunities to respond during your whole group time”. It is perfectly reasonable for the learner to say, “Can you show me what that looks like?” And instead of a cheeky demo on-the-spot, you make an appointment and a plan and go and teach that teacher’s students.

The feedback has been overwhelming. And the impact on teacher practice has followed suit.

And the stated difference in the feedback is the modeling. That has changed the game.

So, PD presenters: What options do you have to connect with folks you are presenting to? How might you get into classrooms to demonstrate?

Principals: How does your credibility spike when you can own a classroom for a half-hour to demonstrate good practice?

Teachers: If you have a trouble area in your practice, invite someone in.

It’s high time we start holding our professional learning to a higher standard.

Effective collaboration means embracing dissent

As professionals, we give ourselves and each other a lot of credit for being good collaborators.

We do this because there is a notion that collaboration is what professionals do. It’s the Law of Detachment, right? If we are professionals, then we collaborate. We are professionals. Therefore, we collaborate.

Except that, as with most things, it isn’t that simple. For starters, basic professionalism requires that people play nice with each other which is related to, but different than from effective collaboration. Second, collaboration is a skill. It must be practiced. There’s explicit expectations. It’s more than just sharing space while working.

Finally, and most important, collaboration is going to require people to be faced with dissent — or at least be willing to do so.

And not simply because it’s polite to do so, but because the dissent makes your final product better. And the goal of collaboration is to allow multiple people to create a product that is better. By better, I mean a product that will have be more effective, efficient, more smoothly implemented and long-term sustainable.

And the stakes are rising. These last six months here in the US have ramped up a lot of frustration among educators of all kinds. The election and related sound bites matched with different changes at the state levels (here is Michigan, we’ve got state-level assessment changes, new science standards, new student literacy laws… just for starters) are generating many, many, many opportunities for meaningful collaboration.

The tricky part is that when we are frustrated and stressed (and many of us are), we don’t want dissent. It FEELS a heck of a lot more productive to knock out a plan amidst conversation where everyone is (more-or-less) on the same page to begin with.

But, in so doing, we lose the chance for the dissent (which shows up in the form of “yeah, but”). And the dissent is how the thoughts go from ideas to effective solutions.

Put another way, Michael Fullan says:

“Defining effective leadership as appreciating resistance is another one of those remarkable discoveries: dissent is seen as a potential source of new ideas and breakthroughs. The absence of conflict can be a sign of decay.”

– Michael Fullan (From Leading In A Culture of Change, 2001, pg 74.)

Groups of like-minded people are often biased. They often have blind spots built around their common appreciation of the issue in question. They often have a hard time empathizing with people who either disagree or are agnostic to the issue in question. This is generally true regardless of the group or their nature of their agreement.

Put specifically, folks problem-solving around inquiry and PBL need explicit instruction advocates on their team to create effective solutions. Standards-based grading folks need to keep their traditional-grading colleagues at an arm’s reach. You want to do a better job of supporting those unrepresented students, your problem-solving group better include some folks who think those kinds of supports shouldn’t exist. You want to create that maker space, go find the person who thinks makerspaces are a waste of time and resources. Progressives and conservatives need each other to navigate these modern issues (that extends beyond the realm of education, by the way).

It’s not the most comfortable, particularly when the issues are charged with emotion. It may not even be productive at first. We need to learn to frame these conversations differently.

Statements like “we want to create a makerspace” might need to become “We want to create a more effective use of the media center. Here are some ideas we have.”

There will be misunderstandings, some of those will be ongoing, and possibly loud. But in the end, it opens the door for a better solution. A solution with more roadblocks anticipated and prepared for. A solution with a broader embrace of the realities of the implementation. A solution that wider appreciation for the struggles of a diverse group of people who will be operating within the solution.

In short, a better solution.

And it begins with embracing each other for the value we bring to the solution, particularly the folks who say and think things we disagree with because you want those folks to show us all of the ways our plan is ineffective. Expose our bias. Reveal our blind spots. We all have them. And if they don’t get exposed during the planning process, chances are when the solutions are rolled out, they will be exposed then. And your window for that solution might close with the problem still the problem.

And once we’ve made the decision that our chief goal is creating meaningful, lasting solutions we’ll need to learn to identify those who disagree with you not as folks to be avoided, but rather folks who are essential to the problem-solving process.

Guiding student voice

Every parent that I know goes through this see-saw moment with their babies. There is such excitement, anticipation, and drive to get that baby to start talking with real words.

Then inevitably, there comes a time (somewhat quickly after) when the parent wishes that the child would learn to not talk so much. This usually occurs sometime during stretch of hearing the word “Mama” loudly… and on repeat… for minutes at a time.

It’s common. It’s real. And it prepares us well for this new era that we’ve embarked upon where capturing student voice is becoming a goal that is gaining popularity as a way to make the learning experience for students more personalized and relevant. I’ve seen this work well. I’ve seen students who otherwise were detached reengage because they were given a chance to more authentically speak, think, and create. (It also did wonders for my ability to effectively teach proofs in Geometry.)

But, just like literally everything else in education, it only works when it’s done right. This is true of instructional tech, explicit instruction and inquiry instruction, standardized assessments, etc. The better the execution, the better the results regardless of how well-meaning we might be.

Capturing student voice to personalize the educational experience and give students more ownership is not different in this respect. If you want your students to realize the full benefit of this, you’re going to want to figure out how to do it right.

Case-in-point: Let’s travel to Barrington High in Rhode Island where a few dozen students gathered on a fall Friday to lend their voice to a decision that the district was considering to delay start times at the secondary level to better align their schools to research that suggests quite strongly that starting school at 7:30 AM is a bad idea for adolescent learners. (stuff like this and this and… there’s more.)

Read the article, of course. But, in short: a district committee had made a motion to move secondary start times back a half-hour to support student achievement. This group of students organized a rally to voice their dissent in hopes of influencing the decision.

According the article “[The junior class president and lead organizer of the rally] and others said that pushing back the start of the school day would be far more disruptive to their lives, noting that it would cause all sorts of scheduling problems for extracurricular activities, including sports.”

So, here we go. We are capturing student voice. We have an authentic audience. The article was written in The Providence Journal which is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

But now we are forced to show our students the authentic response to individual voice. Capturing student voice in authentic ways is only part of the story. Once the voice is captured and shared, the response is authentically assigned as well. And, like we all have learned, when you speak, sometimes your voice gets honored. Sometimes ignored. Sometimes corrected.

This is for lots of reasons. Sometimes your voice isn’t loud enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s too loud. Sometimes your voice isn’t well-informed enough. Sometimes it is. Sometimes your voice doesn’t doesn’t reflect a perspective that decision-makers find valuable. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does, but you have to convince people of that.

And often, you don’t have control of those factors unless you are a decision-maker. So it goes. And that’s okay.

And the student group has chosen to chime in on quite an essential question for us as educators: If later start times for our secondary students produce higher levels of academic success while at the same time putting strain on our extra-curriculars (Montgomery County (Md.) reported a 30% drop in after-school activity participation the year it rolled back start times), is that something that school leaders see as a reasonable trade off? Will their communities agree with them?

It’s not cut and dry. Schools don’t exist to create sports teams, but sports teams are good for kids. Many schools have struggled to create viable robotics and maker-space curriculum pieces, so many places have those as extra-curricular pieces.

And the short article juxtaposes two conflicting perspectives. From the end of the article:

“School Principal Joseph Hurley said the students were asked to stay on the sidewalk — not school property — and to not disrupt the flow of traffic as students arrived for school.

“They’re exercising their rights,” he said. “They are being so respectful.”

“It’s not fair,” said junior Kannetha Brown. “They should have come to the people this issue affects the most. They still haven’t listened to us.”

There’s all sorts of interested nooks to explore about this situation. Including the statement by Brown, “They should have to come to the people this issue affects the most.” There is plenty to explore about that statement alone. Also, a student who is having a statement printed in a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper feeling like she’s not being listened to.

But regardless of the outcome or the level of satisfaction, isn’t this what student voice, authenticity and personalized learning is all about? To get these situations out of the textbook and in the hearts and minds of the students? Are these students fully engaged in their school community? Are they organizing? Leading? Collaborating with each other?

Absolutely. And what should their reward be for their efforts? Not a guarantee of success in their endeavor. And as this situation drags on, (the article cites an agreement to delay implementation of a time change) the students will learn perhaps the most valuable of lessons moving forward.

Not working this time doesn’t mean not working forever. If it doesn’t work this time, analyze why not. Make an update. And try again. That’s the heart of maker thinking, the NextGen Science, the Common Core SMPs, and more I’m sure. Students, if this doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, then remember to fail forward.

And should that disappointment come, let’s just hope the school has adults who are ready to guide these young people in turning their frustration into productive reflection. For in that is the essence of turning immature voices into productive ones.

The Value of Opening Your Doors

Have you ever heard a teacher say something like “Yeah, you know administrators make all these rules and policies, then I close my door and do whatever I think is best”?

Ever heard that? Or something that basically means the same thing?

There’s a lot of different directions that could take, of course, with that as a starting point, but I want to focus on “closing the doors”.

Let’s look at this at several levels. Often “closing the doors” represents an attitude as much as it describes a physical state-of-being. “Closed doors” implies that we don’t want people seeing us do what we do. (Or perhaps, at least, only certain people.)

But it also creates risk. “Closed door” teachers often don’t see their classroom practice compared to other teachers. This stifles innovation, collaboration, public relations and other essential components of schools in search of consistent improvement.

It follows, then, that one good first step toward improving innovation, collaboration and public relations in a school is to open the doors. Let teachers explore each others work, let the community see what goes on. And not just see, but explore, participate, and engage.

Yesterday I saw that attitude on display at Cavanuagh STEAM in Lansing, MI (follow them on Twitter @CavanaughSTEAM ).

 

School hasn’t started yet. It begins the Tuesday after Labor Day, but already the doors were open, the teachers were ready to give the community a chance to explore their classrooms.  Parents were given a chance help shape the direction of the projects their students will be completing and provide opportunities for authentic audiences for student work. One kindergarten teacher had a small block-based  maker activity ready for the incoming kindergartners. She reminded me as I chatted with her prior to the event that this was many of her students’ first school experience. She clearly wanted to make a good first impression.

The event, “Family STEAM night” gets repeated 4 times per year. After the first one, subsequent evenings have a strong emphasis on showcasing excellent student work and giving each teacher a chance to highlight some of the outstanding experiences their students explore in the classrooms.

Their doors are open and they invite the community to come in and join them. Sadly, I had to leave before I got to see what it looks like when they do. I look forward to the next Family STEAM night when I can see the halls filled with parents and students getting to see first hand what it means to be a student at @CavanaughSTEAM.

Birds at an #EdTech Conference

One thing you certainly can’t say about #TeamJXN (Made up of Kellie DeLosSantos, Alaina Sharp and Ann Smart) is that they aren’t outside-the-box thinkers.

“Outside-the-box” is certainly well on it’s way to cliche status these days, but despite that, it still has a perfectly functional and relevant meaning. And at an EdTech conference, where so much of what we are learning about is touted as “outside-the-box”, what does it actually take to live up to that?

Birds.

It takes raptors at lunch.

Simple Leadership Advice

I’m going to attempt to model this my internalization of a bit of advice that I received recently.

Leadership is about trust. You want your people to trust you?

Speak plainly and keep your word.

By speak plainly, I mean say what you mean in a way that designed to be heard and fully-processed by those who hear it. Trust corrodes when those you are leading feel the need to constantly read between the lines of your statements.

By keep your word, I mean if you commit to doing something, then do it.

The advice I received was from Mark Wilson, but his was directed at goal-setting. Goals should be simple and easily understood. He didn’t mean that they should be low-level goals. But they should be able to be stated simply.

All of our students will be safe in our school.

All of our freshman will successfully complete all of their classes.

All of our new students will get a complete orientation to our school community before they attend a single class.

These are not-simple goals, but they are stated simply. That makes them easier to follow. Easier to implement. Easier to assess.

And it also makes it easier to keep your word. Here’s what I said I would do. Did I do it?

Well, if your goals sound more like this…

“To support the ever-dynamic pressures of a 21st century global economy, we will consistently find new and innovative learning experiences to blend with classical best practices to provide the highest-quality academic pathways for our diverse learners to produce successful work- and college-ready graduates.”

… then it becomes quite a challenge to evaluate whether or not you did what you said you do. This goal is not necessarily more complicated than “All of our freshman will successfully complete all of their classes”, but it is much less likely to become the unifying slogan around which we focus our energy. And isn’t that the point of stating the goal?

 

To close, all of this talk about speaking plainly has me thinking of this delightful scene from Shrek the Third

 

 

The Transfigurative Work of Schools

TeacherandStudent

Photo credit: Deviant Art artist Jeixnox – used under Creative Commons

 

I know that not everyone places as much stock in the teachings of The Bible as I do. I also know that there are some risks with teachers interpreting their role as classroom leader as overly similar to the role Jesus played in his time on earth. All of that being said, I was recently moved to reflect on how the role of our Lord as teacher could provide some lessons to us as we engage the work of educating young people.

This reflection needs a story.

I had a student some years back who struggled his way through geometry… twice. The first time it didn’t work (for a variety of different reasons). He was a pleasant boy. Fully engaged in the social aspects of class. He was a willing partner or group mate, didn’t mind talking in front of the class and practically ALWAYS listened to the words I was saying. He came to me first as a 10th grader and a struggling math learner. His skill set wasn’t strong. His perseverance also wasn’t strong. He had scraped by in math classes before he made it to geometry. Geometry seemed to be where he hit his limit.

As his struggles mounted, he began to disengage. The absences started to become more frequent. Then he got sick. I spoke to his mom. We made a plan. He eventually got better and started coming back to school, but the plan didn’t stick. By June, he had mastered barely half of the learning targets for Geometry and it became clear that I couldn’t recommend him for credit. He understood. His mom understood. I never liked having to do that.

And, due to the limitations of our system, he ended up back with me, right back where we started the next fall. This time he, as a junior, was a bit more out of his element. His other friends had advanced to the next course. And a fresh batch of last year’s freshman (now sophomores) mixed with this year’s freshman were now surrounding him. He parked into the back corner. Sat by himself. Would rock back in his chair. Still paying attention to every word I said.

As was my custom with all of the students who I have to see a second time, I like to go back and talk to him. See, I misspoke earlier. We weren’t exactly right back where we started. In addition to the half-ish of learning targets he’d once mastered, he and I knew each other. I knew his mother. I remembered him telling me what his summer was going to look like. I followed up on that. He knew I had young kids. He followed up on that. It wasn’t like last fall. It was different.

So, he sat in the back. We agreed that the absences were the primary problem last year. That my goal was, for as much as I enjoyed having him around, to never have him in my class again. And in order for that to happen, he needed to be in school. He committed to that and to his credit, he kept his word. He came to school a lot more, missing a few days here or there. There weren’t too many gimmicks or cheesy incentive programs. (although, he became one of the guys I could really count on. There is a benefit to having a kid who doesn’t mind being tardy to his next class. When the bell sneaks up on you and you need someone to help rearrange desks and clean up construction paper scraps, a guy like him was handy to have around. Don’t worry. I wrote him late passes to keep him out of trouble.)

But he continued to sit in the back and keep to himself. Eventually, that changed some. I paired him up for think-pair-shares with some fairly safe partners. And he kept learning geometry. A “C” here, a “B-” there, a “D+” somewhere else. Most of the time he was passing. Sometimes he wasn’t. Some quizzes or tests he needed to try twice, but he did. Sometimes he couldn’t stay after school, so he’d go in the hallway to do it. No big deal really. I was just happy he was coming to school.

Then, in late May, I was able to show him that he was mathematically in the clear. He had learned enough geometry to pass and could prove it to anyone who asked. We high-fived and I called his mom to make sure she knew. She was excited. He shrugged it off. Mostly, it seemed he wanted to verify that this meant that he didn’t have to study for the final (as was his custom). I rolled my eyes at him and told him that he should see it as a chance to show off how different this year was to last (as was my custom).

In reality, it was a compromise. He tried a few problems. The ones that were easy for him. Left the harder ones blank. But, on the last problem of the test, he wrote something that I’ll never forget.

“It’s been a great two years. Thank you for not giving up on me.”

He put it at the very end. Last question after about a dozen that he’d skipped. He knew that I’d look at every single question. (I told you. He listened to everything I said. After two years, he probably knew me as a teacher better than I knew myself. He probably could have written my evaluation more accurately than me.)

I didn’t expect that. What if I told you that a kid would fail geometry, have the same teacher the second year, just barely pass, and would THANK the teacher at the end? I didn’t get many thanks from those students. Heck, I didn’t get many thanks from students who had great experiences in my classes.

But it helped me to realize something. Teaching isn’t about accepting students as they are and leaving them be. It’s about accepting the reality of where a kid is and helping them become more and better versions of themselves. Perhaps our job is to help transfigure our students.

Eastern Christianity commemorates the feast of the Transfiguration of the Christ in late summer. You can read about it if you’re unfamiliar. It’s in Matthew, chapter 17. In a nutshell, Christ takes His three closest disciples up to the top of a desolate mountain and begins to radiate a light brighter than any of them had ever seen. Moses and Elijah appear also. He did this for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason was that this light wasn’t new. It wasn’t something that Christ had only recently found, acquired, or learned. This was something that was always inside of Him, it was always a part of Him. He needed His disciples to understand that. They needed a full understanding of the reality of their situation. One commentary considers it “a foreshadowing of His future glory.”

When the disciples came down, their resolve was set. They had (quite literally) seen the top of the mountain and knew that their goal was to get back there again. They’d seen the glory of Him whom they were following and knew that if He was willing to share it, they were willing to work to receive it.

As I was reflecting on the story of the transfiguration as I read it today, I noticed some connections to the way that teachers relate to the students in their classrooms.

Each of these children has “a future glory” built into them. There’s a potential that is always there. It’s a part of them, built into the very fabric of their humanness. Our job is to give them a chance to see a foreshadowing of that future glory. To give them a view of the potential they have. To help them to see that it exists and is worth fighting for, worth working for, worth sacrificing for, worth struggling for.

It would have been easier for me leave that boy to his struggles, move him on (either by flimsily passing him or casting him off to another teacher). It would have been easier for him to simply quit the second year as he did the first year. The struggles build up. There were times he wasn’t passing, even in the second year. At those moments, he needed to decide why year two was going to be different than year one. Not me. Him. He needed to know.

And while I didn’t know it at the time, he knew it was different because there was an adult who, as he put it, wasn’t giving up on him. Who believed not in what he was, but in what he could become. Who was able to foreshadow his future glory. Quite literally, there was a portion of that student who was transfigured during geometry class. And I didn’t know it was happening. The day-to-day becomes ordinary and the students are numerous enough that you don’t recognize what is happening moment-by-moment. But when he had a moment to reflect, he recognized what had happened. And I’m glad he did because now, I do, too.

That’s our role. We are in a human development industry. There is an often-unspoken understanding that development means that at the beginning, people aren’t what they should be. And they need guides to become fully developed. Many of our students don’t come to our rooms as their best selves. They’ve become convinced of things that aren’t true. They’ve drawn conclusions from experiences that are interpreted through blurry lenses. As a result, they are confused. They look to the world around them and they often don’t find help. Many of the modern social messages are contradictory and confusing. 140-character answers are plentiful, but real help often takes much more time. The messages from the media don’t help. What helps are caring adults who, as my student put it, won’t give up on them.

That’s where our job begins. We get these young people and we need to take them up the mountain. Show them why their future selves are worth struggling, fighting, and sacrificing for. We need to foreshadow their future glory. Because in so doing, we accept that our task is no less than to transfigure these students a little bit at a time.