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.

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?


It takes raptors at lunch.

Reflections on #mindshare16

After the first day of MACUL’s Leadership Mindshare, Mark Smith (@smithstem) and I reflected on the somewhat unique structure that was on display. “As they started unpacking their idea, I told them, ‘We’re not going to have another conference. We just don’t need another conference,” Mark told me. He didn’t explicitly describe what he was trying to avoid, but whatever it was, it worked.

The goals of the event were to bring experienced leaders together with novice and aspiring educational leaders and then make the open sharing of ideas, effective networking, problem-solving, and inspirational story-telling a built-in part of the experience. The designers of the two-day event predicted quite accurately that these were the things that folks would not need to be coerced into doing. These are things we attendees did with great enthusiasm.

There were some keynote-ish presentations from Mark Wilson (@markwilsonGA), Dr. Brad Gustafson (@GustafsonBrad), and Amber Teamann (@8amber8).

And between those short presentations, the presenters mingled among the breakout conversations, which were designed to revolve around the themes of the presentations.

The balance was a powerful piece. We’ve long since realized that PD’s where we sit and listen for extended periods of time, but at the same time, there was a limit on the productivity of the smaller 6-7 person breakout discussions. There was time when we needed to come back together and hear some stories and advice, laugh and think.

The structures were varied…

… and full use was made of the beautiful room we were in.


And in so doing, not only were we discussing in ways that were unusually high-engagement considering the standards of most educator PD, but we also saw some excellent strategies modeled — an important understanding for school leaders who have the stereotype of boring staff meetings.

Here’s a small version of Socratic circles I got to be a part of.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up, but in the end, there were many take- aways for me.

The value of influencing despite authority. My role currently includes ZERO authority, but many, many opportunities for influence. The goal is to be able to influence people toward powerful student-centered teaching and when growth is needed, I don’t have the ability to mandate anything like a traditional building leader would. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no opportunity. Do I believe in my ideas enough to sell them to people who could just as easily tell me to flake off?

We need to innovate the right way. Given the constant flow of new ideas, new structures, new devices and apps, there is a certain value to being able to reassess the experiences our students have in our schools. But innovation is an investment. And thereby a sacrifice. You sacrifice a known quantity for an unknown. You invest time and resources in hopes that there’s an improvement toward a greater goal. That makes it a risk. And you can’t simply rack up losses in the name of innovation. Innovation needs to be strategic, controlled, and focused on areas that serve to improve the school community.

Everywhere you are, someone’s been there before and been successful. Find them and learn from them. Everywhere you’ve been, someone’s there right now and could use someone to learn from. Let them find you.

In the end, I suspect there were a lot of folks whose feelings could be summed up pretty well in 140 characters or less.


Applying Growth Mindset to our Teachers

I enjoy reading/hearing discussions of education from the perspective of non-educators. Dan Carlin goes there occasionally as does Steve Dubner from Freakonomics and it was one of Dubner’s posts that captured my attention today.

The piece (entitled “Is America’s Education problem really just a teacher problem?”) explores the conjecture that has been expressed by a wide variety of people that the issue that our modern education system is dealing with really boils down to teachers. If teachers teach well, then the education goes well. If teachers don’t teach well, education doesn’t go well.

While I’m not prepared to validate the conjecture, I do think there is some value in exploring the power improved teacher performance might have to address some of our systems lingering issues. For example:

  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors we can control. Blaming the parent, the kid, the politician, the funding, etc. might be accurate and possibly satisfying, but we can’t control how those behave, so let’s not create solutions that require one of those “uncontrollables” to act a certain way.
  • By focusing on teaching, we stick to factors that are close to the students. Curricula, standards, college entrance tests, etc. are all going to have to be figured out eventually, but those are slow-burning solutions.
  • By focusing on teaching, we get a chance to explore a wide variety of the educational experience of the student. Instruction, assessment, feedback, engagement, classroom management, community relations, positive behavior supports, data collection and analysis all play a part in the work of the teacher. In addition, we can explore teacher training, recruitment and hiring, mentorship and development, pay, evaluation and union politics… I could keep going. That is an awful lot of the education sector that opens up when we start examining the work of the teacher.

And while I’m not in any position to put the salvation of the American public education system on the shoulders of the teaching profession, I would imagine if we give ourselves permission to examine the teaching profession, we might find some areas of improvement that would allow our system to better serve our young people.

Let’s also get out of the way right now that there aren’t any simple explanations to this problem and, as such, there aren’t any simple solutions. Also, let’s get on the same page about something else. From the article:

“When we say that U.S. students aren’t doing very well, and that U.S. teachers aren’t the best and brightest, let’s remember that we’re talking about averages. There are of course millions of American kids who get a great education in public school. There are of course many, many excellent teachers. We should also note that just because a future teacher finishes near the top of their high-school or college class doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a great classroom teacher.”

American schools aren’t universally awful and it can also be a little tricky to predict what kind of student will end up becoming an excellent teacher. And while the system is complex and there’s a lot of moving parts, the teacher plays a central role in designing the experiences that students have during the school day. From the article (this quote is from David Levin):

When you think about the most important people in a kid’s life outside of their family it starts with their teacher. I mean for the obvious reason, right? You leave home, you go to school, and the teacher is the determinant of how that day goes. And even as the kids get older, when all the research says the peer effect is so essential, teachers have a huge impact on how peers interact in the classroom.

So, perhaps the most reasonable next step would be to make sure that each classroom has a talent teacher in it. Get rid of the lousy teachers and replace them with better ones. Right?

From the article (this quote is from Dana Goldstein):

And what I found is that this pair of solutions, driving people out, bringing new people in, it’s not enough. Because the demand for teachers is so high — we do need 100,000 new teachers every year to satisfy the labor market. So, what I suggest is, instead of starting with our fear of bad teaching, we look at teachers who are excellent at what they do right here in the United States, and we ask about how to create systems where we can replicate their best practices.

That’s a lot of teachers. 100,000 new employees every year? That’s a ton. And as far as best practices go, there are a couple of pretty approachable frameworks that are becoming pretty common place (Bob Marzano and John Hattie are becoming household names for a reason), so choosing a framework around the teacher development programs in school districts shouldn’t be the hard part. So what is the hard part?

Perhaps the hard part is that many schools envision their roles as developers of young people. (I don’t disagree with this, by the way…) Schools are in the human growth business. I suspect every single school in the country has a mission/vision statement that includes a lot of student-centered language about growth, development, and the like.

At the same time, I reckon hardly ANY of those districts see themselves as TEACHER development institutions.

But why not? If the data, research, and logic trail all point to excellent teaching being a huge indicator of overall district excellence (read “district excellence” as lots and lots of young people learning lots and lots and lots of good stuff), then wouldn’t a constantly improving teaching staff be a pretty reliable pathway toward improvement?

But what might that look like?

  • Schools subscribing to professional journals on behalf of their teachers and developing norms that the articles are read and discussed.
  • Real, effective mentorship programs that nurture the growth of their young teachers instead dumping them into classes and schedules that veterans would NEVER stand for.
  • open door policies where teachers are expected to visit each other’s classrooms to support, watch and then ask questions about what they saw and heard.
  • peer observation and feedback sessions with the intention of supporting the growth of a teacher who is struggling in an identified way. (Perhaps learning walks a la Kevin Feldman.)
  • teachers who are taking college course work getting opportunities to showcase their projects, discuss the texts that they are reading, and lead discussion in staff meetings.
  • high school math teachers (for example) being invited into an art teacher’s classroom so that the art teacher can demonstrate a really effective technique. (I am not a big fan of “only a math teacher can help/support/advise/understand another math teacher.)
  • a principal making sure that as many possible people on staff are qualified to lead a classroom of students for an hour so if a teacher needs to observe, discuss, consult, or brainstorm there is a variety of paraprofessionals, interventionists, guidance counselors, administrators, and other personnel who can stand in and let the growth process happen. (I can remember one school I worked at where even the athletic director could manage a classroom.)

This mindset see schools as the last part of the teacher training process. What if we saw the schools as the place that completed the training? (Not unlike teaching hospitals that openly have developing doctors learning their craft with real patients.) Not only will you be serving to improving the skill set of the teaching staff, but when professionals are cared for, have a sense of ownership and autonomy, their motivation and morale tend to improve.

Schools have long understood their role in developing humans, but perhaps they’ve fallen short because they’ve behaved as though their only task was to develop the minors. Perhaps if we get to the place where our schools understand their role in developing the adults as well, then we’d start to see the improvement that we’ve been seeking for so long.

Upcoming Public Presentations

The age of online social and professional networking has often provides opportunities for people separated by hundreds of miles to feel like they know each other, even though they’ve never met face-to-face.

(It has happened several times that I’ve received hugs from people that I’m ACTUALLY meeting for the first time. But it feels like we’re embracing a friend because we’ve been digital collaborators on lessons or brain-storm sessions for years.)

So, when I give public presentations and learning sessions, I look forward to meeting people who, up until now, I’ve only known in 140-character snippets.

So, here’s where you can find me in the upcoming weeks. You’ll notice that these are all in Grand Rapids. That’s actually by coincidence.

February 20Michigan Flip and Blended Teaching and Learning Conference – Steelcase Learning Center in Grand Rapids, MI

I will be co-presenting a 1-hour session on using instructional technology to approach the goals of Universal Design for Learning. Our lens will be the secondary math classroom, but I believe the content will be applicable to teachers of any content area.

March 3Michigan Center for Exceptional Children Conference – Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI

I will be co-presenting a 1-hour session describing two teachers’ story of how they enhanced the learning experiences for their students with significant disabilities by strategic use of instructional technology.

March 9-10 – MACUL Conference – Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids, MI

March 9 -I will be co-presenting a half-day preconference workshop on effective blending of technology in classroom assessment. Topics discussed will be effective methods and tools for good formative assessment including giving meaningful and effective feedback.

March 10 – I will be leading a two-hour hands-on workshop for teachers to come and learn how to use Desmos.

March 10 – We will be rebooting the aforementioned one-hour session on instructional tech supporting Universal Design for Learning from February 20 (see above)


I hope you’ll come to learn with us. I look forward to collaborating with you!

Great Conversations and Important Lessons – Reflections on #MACUL15

Chance to Surprise you

#MACUL15 is over and yet it feels like it’s just begun. The conference ended after Two Guys (@2GuysShow) finished their closing keynote, but there were a lot of conversations that were just beginning at that same point. Some excellent conversations among some excellent educators. These conversations aren’t ending because the conference is. These conversations are just getting started.

Just like everyone else, I’m having my own conversations that I’m looking to keep going. And these conversations seem to have a few recurring themes.

The young people in our classes are capable of so, so much.

Often, the reason we are disappointed with our students’ performance isn’t because our expectations are too high, but instead because they are too low. Improved curriculum, classroom management, and updated assignments can play significant play roles in helping students achieve and #macul15 offered lots of chances to discuss this. Have you seen The Literacy Shed? Explore it and consider what it might do for our struggling writers. Videos with no dialogue that the students can watch, discuss, and then write the story for. Sometimes they just need help finding the words. There’s a math version, too.

But there’s more to it than that. Many of the presenters that I heard communicated a consistent message: Releasing the incredible potential inside of every kid requires meaningful relationships with caring adults. The kids need to know that they matter. That the community is richer because they are a part of it and weaker when they are missing. That each individual contribution has value because it reflects a perspective that is unique. Many kids have parents and coaches who fill those roles. Many do not. The teacher can be that caring adult. In the world of education, where so much is out of the teacher’s control, each teacher can control one thing: That they value each student in their class. As Amber Fante (@AmberFante) said, “When you believe, you teach differently… the underdog can become the hero.” If you haven’t watched her Lightning Session, you probably should.

There are few things as powerful as connecting our classroom to the outside world. 

Our students are getting more and more used to a world without walls. There’s a reason for that: Being connected to that world is really friggin’ cool. I met the two teachers in the picture below (who refer to themselves as Two Sassy Apples). They were honored on stage before Friday’s keynote. They wanted their second graders to be able to be there and see it. So… Facetime.

Sassy Apples Facetime2

It was such a wonderful moment. The students cheered and laughed through the phone. They shhhhhhh’ed at each other vigorously while the MC was introducing their teachers. I know this, of course, because I got the honor of holding the phone so the kids could watch. (It happened to be hat day in their class. They loved that I was wearing a hat, too.)

Sassy Apples Facetime

Consider what those kids are learning from experiences like these? Those students are learning that their classroom’s walls are really only there to keep them out of the wind and rain. Those walls don’t have to be barriers to things that were previously too expensive, too distant, or logistically impossible to bring to them. The awesome and exciting things that are outside those walls can totally come into their classroom. We have the tools to go and get them.

If you want to teach effectively with technology, real student growth MUST be the primary focus. And real student growth is a messy process. It takes mistakes, retries, feedback, patience. The timeline is indefinite.

2guys - success

And while we’re on the subject, the same is true for teachers updating their practice. Brooke Mulartrick (@brookem1015) did a great job of modeling a differentiated learning process in her session by creating experiences like these in her half-day Wednesday session. Something to challenge people at all levels. A chance to collaborate and get instruction. And a chance to contribute to a single product that serves both as feedback to the teacher and learner, but also a reference that the learners can take with them going forward. Just an excellent design.

Learning is learning. And learners are learners. Given similar conditions, adult learners look a lot like young learners. See?

These are adults on Thursday exploring Dan Meyer’s (@ddmeyer) Magic Octagon:

MACUL Octagon

And these are my students this past fall exploring The Magic Octagon in class:

2014-10-06 12.53.28

Those of us who primarily teach adults shouldn’t prepare for differentiation any differently than teachers who teach young people.

Couros Quote

With all learners, it’s less about the final goal and more about the process of learning.

And finally, anyone who says that secondary math teachers aren’t flexible, curious, or interested in learning new things? I would encourage you to reconsider. There are a lot of us who want to get better. You see why I’m not that concerned about the future of math education? We turn out quite nicely when given the opportunity to discuss it.

MACUL Selfie

And then I went to check out my #miched colleague Zach Cresswell’s (@z_cress) math session…

Zcress Full

Thanks for everything #macul15. Let’s keep these conversation going and see where they’ll take us.

My Thoughts on #MiFlip15

Today, I attended the MiFlip Conference at Steelcase University in Grand Rapids, MI.

I was going for a variety of reasons. I need people to explain flipped learning to me. I need skeptics to be skeptics. I like to fly-on-the-wall discussions where advocates and skeptics collide. Not because I enjoy confrontation, but because Michigan has some wonderful educators (check out #miched if you want to get a taste) and I figured that this particular collection would be unmasked, open, and willing to both be skeptics and advocates.

I was not disappointed.

First, I want to mention Matt Roberts (@mmcr) from Grand Valley State University who brought this with him as part of his presentation.


This is “The Hype Cycle”, which I recognize from a variety of innovations over my relatively short career in education. I’m certainly not trying to talk down the people who are excitedly sharing their experiences and enthusiasm about flipped learning. It’s just that there’s some things that have always made me hesitant about fully advocating flipped learning and Matt helped me make sense of some of them.

I feel like he did a nice job of expressing why he think flipped learning needs to be looked at holistically. He led an awesome session on the realities of learning in a flipped model and understanding what we are asking these students to do… which is, in some cases, something they’ve never been asked to do before. When we lead students through a flipped learning model, we are asking them to take ownership of their learning in ways that might be new to them. They need to self-regulate. They need to recognize their confusion and use that sense of mental discomfort as a motivation to get that issue resolved with the variety of resources the teacher has made available or that the internet as a whole has to offer. This goes even further when we push blended learning to the next level and start (as was so excellently described by Anne Thorp (@athorp) ) expanding the options to include flexibility in assignment contexts, due dates, and formats. There will be an adjustment period if students have only known educational worlds of note-taking, rigid due dates, and common assignments.

That forces us to help the students become comfortable with the learning process. And many of them will need help. The try-fail-improve-try-again model can be a frustrating one for kids who aren’t really accustomed to failing. Besides that, as Matt brought up in his discussion, things like sleep, nutrition, and exercise play a pretty significant role as well. Regular review, making connections and effective practice have to become things that get built into the curriculum. Flipped learning is more holistic than other instructional models because it so often looks at the hour that the class spends together as merely an important part of a larger learning process.

Many students are raised in education looking at the hour that the class spends together as the whole class. Effectively managing that transition is vital to ensuring that students are experiencing the best that flipped learning has to offer.

The teacher looking to embrace the flipped learning model needs to recognize that they are taking on more than simply restructuring their assignments. They are likely redefining learning to students who may not have entered their class expecting that type of experience.

A few additional notes.

  • Thanks to Dan Spencer (@runfardvs) for giving me a one-on-one tutorial on Camtasia. Totally needed it and it totally worked.
  • I appreciate the energy that Anne Thorp brought to the table. (I’m not the only one that is saying that, either, by the way.) Our paths are going to cross a number of times in the future and I am very excited about that.
  • And, in a much less academic way, I’m thankful to Tara Becker-Utess (@t_becker10) for being willing to drive the carpool from Dimondale, MI (about an hour east of Grand Rapids).