Resisting What We Need the Most

I recently ran across some terrific posts by Christine Comaford, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, about growth and change. Although she puts her advice in the context of business, her writing is very applicable for Educational CEOs (otherwise known as administrators).

For instance, in her post How Change Fails: CEOs Focus on Symptoms NOT the System, she explains that for organizations to be successful, leaders need to explicitly explain to their staff that experiencing friction when growing is a normal part of the change process. Christine also points out that when these issues arise, as leaders we need to look at the system to find a solution rather than focusing on the problems. She includes a nice visual in her post:

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Image Credit: Christine Comaford Associates, LLC (c) 2011

As school leaders, imagine all the fires we put out in a day, yet don’t take the time to reflect on how they started in the first place. Consider the following:

– There have been several instances of physical aggression on the playground between students (hypothetically speaking, of course). Are we serving the students best by suspending them repeatedly every time it happens, or by taking the time to listen to concerns and help them solve the problem in a more socially acceptable way?
– The noise level in the cafeteria is too high. Do we split the students up and take away their social time, or do we reteach everyone what an acceptable volume of talking sounds like?
– You introduce technology to staff with the goal of using it to augment instruction and increase student engagement and learning. When teachers express concerns that they don’t have the time to put one more thing into their day, should we dismiss their worries as just complaints, or should we offer opportunities for discussion about these legitimate issues?

I think most of us know the answers to these scenarios. Yet we as leaders don’t always react as we want and should. We can chalk it up to forgetfulness, lack of time, or just taking an easier yet temporary path to peace once again. But the easier path is also the status quo. Change is hard. At the same time, we have to follow that path if schools expect to stay relevant for students today and in the future. And that requires vision, based on a school’s beliefs, values and mindset. Going back to our foundation is the best and probably only way to continue growing as a community of learners.

Reflections After Introducing Writing ePortfolios to Staff

(This is a communication I sent to my faculty this afternoon. Last night they were all trained on how to use iPads to develop writing ePortfolios.)

Staff,

Thanks again for your willingness to take a step forward in integrating the iPad and Dropbox technology into your instruction and assessment. Just like the students, we need to extend ourselves sometimes and feel some “uncomfortableness” to become better at our profession.

Vertical teams for writing start tomorrow. Please communicate with your team where you will be meeting at 8 A.M before tomorrow arrives. If you can communicate these locations I will post them. The team assignments can be found on our Howe Teacher Site: https://sites.google.com/a/wrps.net/howe-elementary-bulldogs/pd/contact

What will you do tomorrow and at future vertical team collaborations? Our goal for all of our collaboration time is to improve student learning. Here are some possibilities:

– Develop norms, like you did as grade level teams.
– Discuss best practices in writing instruction.
– Use the ePortfolios, take one sample from each grade level, and compare across the building K-5 to analyze levels of academic expectations.
– Support each other in learning these new technologies.
– Celebrate your successes.
– Watch Regie videos and discuss samples/examples of exemplary student writing found at http://www.regieroutman.com.
– Use the writing rubric resource books and develop common assessments to share with the rest of building.

I am very proud of everyone for continuing to open your doors to your colleagues. Revealing our needs and identifying where we could improve our instruction collectively is the best way to increasing student achievement and learning. Remember: “Good schools are collections of good classrooms” (Richard Allington). This definitely describes us. We all do excellent things in our classrooms. You are the greatest learning resource for your colleagues.

-Matt

The Writing Principal: Tips for Administrators Considering Blogging

Before You Start Blogging…

  • Read other administrators’ posts. Go to badgeradmins.wikispaces.com for a comprehensive list of recommended blogs. Emulate their style and structure when developing your own voice.
  • Determine your purpose for blogging. Do you want to communicate with families? Reflect on your own practices? Connect with colleagues? All of the above?
  • Think about what you want to say and/or jot down your ideas on paper first. Doing this prior to writing a post helps organize your thinking.
  • Connect with educators on Twitter to build your professional learning network. You will want feedback on your posts. This social media tool is a great way to share your writing with others.
  • Write, type, then blog. At least initially, write your post on a word processor and copy/paste your writing into your blog.
  • Choose your tool. Determine which blog service you want to use. I prefer WordPress. Google Blogger is also popular.

When You Start Blogging….

  • Focus on being a writer first, the writing second. This is a great tip from Regie Routman. What it means to me is, without being engaging, thoughtful and to the point, it doesn’t matter what I am saying because no one will want read it. The messenger is just as important as the message.
  • Get your ideas down. Worry about conventions later.
  • Save it before you publish. I reread and revise my posts many times before publishing. Barry Lane’s five steps for the writing process are revision, revision, revision, revision and revision.
  • Share your post with someone you trust before sharing it with the world.
  • You can be critical, but always be kind.
  • Add lots of tags. These are the breadcrumbs that allow others online to find your great ideas.
  • When you have ideas, get them down. Save your thoughts as a draft and come back to it later when ready. I have a draft I have been sitting on since August. It won’t be ready to publish until May.
  • Put yourself in your writing. People respond to humor, questions you have and anecdotes.
  • Share your posts out on Twitter and other social media tools.

After You Have Started Blogging…

  • Thank those who retweet and recommend your posts to others. Reciprocate by reading and sharing their posts.
  • Check out your statistics and allow comments. This is precious feedback to help you get better at writing.
  • Don’t change older posts. I have come around on this. I used to think that as my thoughts changed after unlearning and relearning, I should also change what I have written. However, unless there are glaring grammatical errors or a poor choice of words, it is important to leave your previous thinking as is. Add a comment to your post to clear up confusion or address questions. There is nothing wrong with saying, “This is what I thought then, and now I think…”.
  • Share your posts with your staff, colleagues and boss. Can you think of a better way of modeling writing and sharing yourself as a learner?
  • Write posts in front of students. It can be as simple as writing a review after sharing a favorite book with them. Kelly Gallagher (@KellyGtoGo) said it best: “You are the best writer in your classroom.”
  • Have fun. I hope I have not made blogging sound like you are writing a term paper. As Alan Levine states in his terrific post The Question Should Be: Why Are You NOT Blogging: “Blogging should be conversational. It is your own personal thinking, shared out loud”. Thank you to Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) for sharing this.

I would go into the rationale for why you should blog, except that Superintendent Christopher Smeaton already did this so well in his post Why Blog?. I know there are many more ideas and tips out there. Please share in the comments.

My Teachers’ Checklist for the Beginning of the Year

I am sharing this checklist with my staff on Wednesday, six days before students arrive.

Within First Day

Give students a tour of the school
Know all their names and get to know each other
Explain school expectations and start to build classroom rules
Provide a classroom environment conducive for learning and success
– Physical (light, temperature, space, noise)
– Adequate Planning
– Structure
– Scheduling

By Friday of First Week

Build a community of learners (RC, Tribes, other team builders)
Teach Cool Tools, fire and tornado drill, Code Red and Yellow
Ensure success for all students on first academic activity
Set academic goals with students and/or families
Identify students’ strengths, interests, needs (Maslow)
Start content area instruction with pre-assessments

Before End of First Month

Post learning targets as a grade level
Structure classroom so kids are reading and writing 50% of the time
Differentiate instruction as needed so all students can be successful
Observe and practice collaboration skills (whole staff)
Communicate positively, two-way with your families
Plan to meet regularly on building teams (grade level and vertical)
Start developing classroom look-fors for literacy and numeracy
Build relationships with students, knowing their motivations and triggers
Develop a Plan B when students don’t respond to regular instruction
Read “Six Elements for Every Child” by Richard Allington

Questions I Have

What is missing?

What have I left out that should be missing?

Are my expectations too high?

Are my expectations not high enough?

What should be added?

What should be subtracted?

The Garden as a Classroom

This summer was the first time I involved my two kids in one of my favorite pastimes: gardening. Knowing how their personalities and interests vary, I decided to help my son raise a vegetable garden and my daughter to arrange a pot of annuals.

My son really wanted to grow a pizza garden. After we cleared up some misconceptions about where crust and pepperoni came from, we decided that our pizza garden would have peppers, three different types of tomatoes, some lettuce and onions (the last vegetable being my addition against his better judgment). To ensure everything grew well, we used a unique container and placed it by the front door.

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My daughter did not need as much of her dad’s guidance as she planned her arrangement. She took what she needed from the flats of flowers I had laying around and went right to work. In no time, a very nice combination of dusty miller, impatiens and cosmos was created. Where did she learn how to do that? My guess is she had watched me use the same steps planting other beds, and either followed my lead or learned what not to do. My daughter also was integral in keeping the other backyard plantings watered during a very dry July.

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I also found some time this summer to garden for myself. The best results I got were from my flower bed in the front of the house. The nasturtium (orange flowers, circular leaves) self-sowed from last year, coming back this spring to climb the wall once more. When deciding what to plant with it, a local expert at a greenhouse informed me that nasturtium do not like to grow in healthy soil. In fact, the poorer the better. She directed me to some companion plants such as verbena and marigolds, which prefer similar conditions. This saved me a lot of work in tilling the bed and adding fertilizers.

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Having over an acre to work with where I live, there is always room for new ideas and innovation. Opportunity knocked when my wife decided that the old raspberry patch had to go. After we cleared out the plot, I decided to prepare the soil for next year (vegetables are going there and would require better soil). To remediate the barren earth, I planted clover seed. This ground cover would serve as “green manure”, by putting nitrogen back into the soil as it grew. In the spring, I’ll till the clover into the bed.

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The Garden as a Classroom

The way we approach our favorite hobby and share it with others seems similar to how effective teachers help their students learn. For example, we understand that students come with different backgrounds, interests and abilities. Just as I tailored the gardening activity for my kids, teachers also find different ways for everyone to be successful. The goal we had didn’t change (to plant and care for a garden, and to find joy in the activity). The same is true for the students in our classrooms. The learning target is visible and attainable, and we differentiate our instruction so everyone can attain mastery. However, we don’t alter our instruction so much that we lose sight of what we set out to accomplish. And like a hobby, learning should be an engaging experience, something our students will enjoy so much that they will pursue it independently.

As the growing season starts to wind down, my family and I are enjoying our harvest of fresh veggies and blooms. My kids know they were successful by the literal fruits of their labor. Teachers also consider more authentic ways to check for understanding beyond the paper and pencil test. This concept applies to formative assessment as well as summative assessment. During the summer, if the plants would wilt, we would water them. I didn’t probe the soil to measure the water content to determine how much moisture is needed. We could tell we needed to water because we saw the immediate symptoms of something wrong. Teachers also know when their students need support, and they respond strategically even if a diagnostic assessment isn’t readily available or timely.

Summers are like mini-sabbaticals for me, getting out of school to take time for myself, to be with family and friends, to think, to recharge. Time spent on other interests also helps me gain perspective and make connections between the classroom and other endeavors. A good example is my flower bed. I could have said, “The soil is poor, so I need to fix it and grow the plants I want”. However, this was the path of most resistance. Instead, I took what nature gave me and found success with the hand I was dealt. I connect this concept to some of the kids who come to our schools, those whose soil is also poor (i.e. lack of background knowledge, basic needs not met, etc.). We shouldn’t try to “fix them”, and then throw in the towel with sympathy and excuses when they don’t respond to our mismatched instruction. Teachers take them from where they are at and constantly try to move them forward, doing whatever it takes to ensure learning success.

Educators continuously reflect on current practices and search for better ways to teach to keep their skills sharp. Just as I am trying out green manure, I consider new ideas learned from others that might replace my present day strategies for teaching. One example that has been around for a while is integrated units of study. Taking different subject areas and creating concept-based curriculum units that ties it all together is more authentic and puts the learning in a real-world context. Plus, it seems like a more efficient way to address the Common Core State Standards.

Back in the spring I encouraged my staff to read a few books, take time for themselves and think about ways to better their instruction. As a leader, I need to follow my own advice and lead by example.

Our School’s 21st Century PD Plan

After much thought, lots of professional reading, and many conversations with practitioners and experts, I felt ready to put together this coming year’s professional development plan. I find it helpful to create a visual of the goals. Using Grafio on the iPad, I was able to develop a snapshot of what this year’s learning will look like:

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What I Feel Good About
“Year 3” in the middle just signifies that we are in the third year of our three year professional development cycle. We are using the Regie Routman in Residence series Reading-Writing Connection. The Optimal Learning Model (OLM) is a framework of instruction similar to the gradual release of responsibility process. (Last year our main focus was implementing the OLM; the year before was an introduction of the OLM).

The three main components of the plan are continuations of where we are at and where we want to be. Example: Last year half the staff had iPads for instruction and intervention; this year all staff will be using them. If we don’t set aside time to learn how to effectively use these powerful teaching tools, we aren’t tapping into their true potential.

I also like that all learning is supported by our foundation, the Optimal Learning Model. Anything we set out to learn as a staff, as a grade level team or as an individual comes back to this framework. It is the coatrack that we can hang our instructional hats on. Teachers have autonomy within this framework to pursue specific interests they believe will best address their students’ needs. At the same time, we all move together toward the same vision of ensuring students receive the best learning experience possible.

The Unknown
At first glance, it looks as if this plan does not address some of the pressing topics out there in education, such as Common Core and Response to Intervention (RtI). However, as Prego states, “It’s in there.” We will address the new standards when we agree as a group what is essential to see in the classroom during instructional walkthroughs. Likewise, RtI is embedded in our plan, whether through PBIS or strengthening our core instruction.

A new shift to note is giving technology as much of a focus as it has, being one of the three main goals for the building. We have allocated a significant amount of our Title I dollars into purchasing iPads and apps. It’s a bit scary when I think about investing in this yet-to-be proven tool for instruction as we have. However, the potential that this technology has to engage students and make the learning tasks more relevant for them is too strong to ignore.

What are your thoughts? Have I missed anything, or have I given something too much focus? Your feedback is appreciated.

Should Twitter Replace Professional Development?

I have been on Twitter for nine months and I love it. The network of colleagues I have developed has been instrumental in my success as a first year elementary principal. I hope I have done the same for others through my feed and blog posts. It is one of my go-to resources for learning.

That said, I have a few concerns about some of the comments made in this article from The Huffington Post.

-“Many times professional development is like herding cattle: We’re taking everybody in the same direction. We’re going to learn the same thing.”

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I am not referring to what professionals do differently as teams to address specific student learning. Teachers should have autonomy and freedom to make instructional decisions and use the best tools both they and evidence deem most effective. They are closest to the kids and have the vantage point. What I am looking at is the overarching teaching framework a school or district is using to guide their own development. At my school, we use the Optimal Learning Model developed by Regie Routman. All of our instruction, curriculum and assessment go back to this powerful process for teaching all students. We are moving forward as a team, but we still have room to be creative.

– “Little research exists on what types of professional development for teachers work best.”

Actually, a lot of research exists on what works best for teachers and professional development. For example, Linda Darling-Hammond summarized what the three best professional development activities are based on research, in her resource The Right to Learn: PD must center on the critical areas of teaching and learning, investigations of personal and local practice must predominate, and substantial and sustained conversations about these investigations must take place. Twitter definitely has a place in this discussion, but it is only one way to communicate and not the preferred way for some educators. I would also reference Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker’s Professional Learning Communities At Work, which bases a lot of their evidence-based practices on research by Peter Senge, Michael Fullan and Peter Drucker.

– “Twitter And Facebook Might Soon Replace Traditional Teacher Professional Development”

Going back to the prior statement, Twitter actually lacks the definitive research to make assertions like this, even though others and I find it very helpful. Education and educators (including me) are notorious for jumping on the next big thing without thinking it through first. Does anyone’s school have their house so in order that professionals having in-person conversations about their own students would be trumped by a 140 character discussion with someone with a different community, population of kids and building dynamic? Eric did end the article by stating that he values his face-to-face conversations more than his virtual ones. I appreciate his perspective as he is a leader in 21st Century learning. My kids would be fortunate to attend his school.

Education always seems to be looking for the magic bullet, when in fact it comes back to the same concepts: best instructional practices, collaboration, formative assessment and accountability, among others. I would hate to see Twitter made to be more than what it is – an excellent tool for learning.