The Power of a PLN

If anyone you know out there questions the usefulness of Twitter, or may not appreciate how powerful it is to have a Professional Learning Network (PLN), please share this post with them.

Since I joined Twitter last October, I have found my learning to grow exponentially. I credit Curt Rees (@WiscPrincipal), Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ) and Todd Whitaker (@ToddWhitaker) for getting me started when they spoke at my state’s administrator conference. With each new person I follow, I have another source of fresh ideas to use in my school and with my staff. And with each new follower, my network of support has increased at least ten fold. Literally. If they retweet a post I have written or a question I have to their followers, my group of potential colleagues has increased beyond what I can measure. Exponential, right?

Case in point: This morning I wrote a rough schedule for a course I would like to teach this school year for district staff, titled “The Connected Educator”. Wanting some feedback on my progress, I sent out this tweet and attached screenshot:

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Here is a sampling of the response I received, my replies back not included:

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Is there any other tool or group out there that can provide this kind of quick and reliable learning support? If so, I haven’t found it yet.

Now that I have consulted members of my PLN, I have drastically changed how I am going to facilitate this course. For example, instead of teaching a list of technology tools, I am going to share with participants how and why I use these tools to create a better learning environment for students. In addition, Kathy Cassidy (@kathycassidy) astutely pointed out that the title of my proposed course is also the title of a book written by Sheryl NussbaumBeach (@snbeach). I now have a possible text to reference in my instruction and learning.

For the person that still wonders what all the fuss is about regarding Twitter and PLNs, this example should serve as a notice, that every day they neglect to use these powerful tools for learning is a day they may have failed to grow as much as they could.

Summarizing a Book Study with Prayer Cards

If you are Catholic, you may have recently noticed the changes in our prayers and responses. To help remember these changes, my church created double-sided laminated cards with the revised language.

In one of those rare moments when I was not totally focused on the homily, my mind began to wander back to these prayer cards, thinking, “Would something like this be useful after reading an educational resource?”. Everyone is different in how they curate the important information they glean from a worthy text. Some educators like me write in the margins while others highlight. A few people I know are so careful about leaving the book as they found it that you would not find one underline or a note in the entire volume. The difficulty I find with all of these methods is teachers have limited time to go back, look in a book and pull out what is needed for their instruction and planning.

What I believe matters most when doing a book study, either school wide or in a small group, is that we are applying what we learned as a group directly to the classroom. All staff should be making a concerted effort to improve as a whole building so that students receive consistently effective instruction year after year. As chance would have it, my school just recently finished the book Teaching Essentials by Regie Routman. Using my church's prayer card as a model, I lifted the most important/talked about/thought-provoking/necessary statements from Regie's book and put it in these cards. Much of what I took is based on the staff book discussions I observed, along with concepts we needed to keep at the forefront of our minds.

At one of our last staff gatherings, I distributed these “Prayer Cards” as a way to celebrate our learning.

I see a number of benefits to providing this document as part of our professional development book study. First, everyone has the important concepts at hand so they can be transferred from mind to action more easily. Learning lost is nothing gained. Second, staff know it is expected we apply this knowledge to the classroom. It's not enough to sign off on a plan saying we completed so many hours of professional development; we as educators need to put our plans into action. Lastly, I believe it is important that kids see these cards in the classroom. As an example, some of the teachers taped them down to their desk, while others posted them on their personal bulletin board or made bookmarks out of them for their lesson plan books. However they are visible, students seeing a product of their teacher's growth sends a strong message about how learning never stops.

 

Swimming Without Water

This weekend my family and I went to our weekly swim date at the Y. Unfortunately, I left my trunks at home, so I was relegated to sitting on the sidelines. As I sat back and watched my wife play with the kids in the pool, I wondered what it would be like to teach someone how to swim without water.

That’s weird, right? Why would anyone try to show someone how to swim without actually being in the pool? Yet this type of instruction takes place every day in classrooms. Instead of taking authentic literature and creating a reading lesson that fits with it, students are handed worksheets or a disconnected text that uses contrived language for students to work on, sometimes before they were even taught the concept. Many literacy programs purchased through district acquisition do not allow for reading and writing to occur in their native environment.

Students need to be able to wade into language and play. This require lots of books in classroom libraries to try out their developing reading skills and have fun. Richard Allington found through observing successful schools for a decade that students should be actually reading and writing 50% of the school day. He emphasizes the word actually because he doesn’t include the before and after activities associated with reading, although they can be important. This means that a lot of the activities in science, social studies and mathematics should also be incorporating reading and writing.

Kids learn how to swim in the water. Swimming instructors don’t lecture out of the pool; they bring the kids into the water to model a skill, guide and give feedback, and then allow the students to try it on their own when deemed ready. They are side by side with the students, sometimes taking their hands and making the motions for them. The students are not spending a lot of time talking about swimming with each other. They are not watching a video the previous night about swimming and talking about it the next day. They are not watching someone else swim the majority of the time with only a little bit of time to practice. The students are swimming.

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

The Principal as a Writer

As much as I love technology, nothing replaces putting pen to paper. I may be revealing myself as a digital immigrant. Regardless, whenever I am in a book store I find myself walking over to the journal section. In the bigger book stores, Moleskine journals have their own shelf.

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The draw for me is each one of these notebooks are a blank slate, new territory in which to be filled up with fresh ideas. With Moleskine, they tailor some of their journals for specific areas of interest, such as recipes, travel, wellness and music.

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Here is the link to the Moleskine website: http://www.moleskineus.com/

As you can see, the sky is the limit for different purposes for writing. For me, I regularly use three Moleskine notebooks to help me document my thinking for later review and to reflect on actions I have made.

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Red Moleskine: Read Alouds

I spend about 10% of my day reading aloud in classrooms. I find it to be a great way to connect with kids, to be more present in the classroom and to share great literature. To help me recall how each read aloud went, I write out a brief lesson plan for the book. I follow the basic format a teacher would use for guided reading: Before Reading Aloud; During the Read Aloud; After Reading Aloud. On the back of each page, I mark which classrooms I read a book to and when, so I don’t repeat (although rereads aren’t a bad thing, especially when the book is good).

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To better aid my organization, I keep my K-2 read alouds in the first half of the notebook and my grade 3-5 read alouds in the second half. I also “tag” the read alouds with special themes on the upper left hand corner, along with an approximate duration to read each book.

Black Moleskine: Book Reviews

Some of the classrooms in my building regularly post student book reviews on their bulletin boards. Great practice! To connect with classroom instruction, after I read aloud a title I write a review of said book in my review journal for the students. I model this type of persuasive writing using the document camera.

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This is not the best example, as this was our first entry and we didn’t actually write a review. Still, these 4th graders had lots of memorable quotes that they wanted to share and get documented in the book journal page we completed together via the document camera. To wrap things up, we voted on how good the book was based on our evidence and thinking. I was not surprised that Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein got five out of five stars.

Moleskine Knock-Off: Memorable Quotes

I got this calendar journal at a local book store around the time I signed up with Twitter last fall. Once I saw the amount and the quality of educational information that this social media helped send my way, I realized I needed a way to curate it before I lost it. It is not a Moleskine, but my wife was kind enough to spruce it up with a Moleskine pen.

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Anything and everything goes into this journal. The only criteria is that it is interesting and important enough to remember. Many of my PLN’s tweets have taken up space in this journal. As with all my journals, I regularly refer back to what I wrote to help current and future writing and decision-making.

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Digital Journals

Moleskine does have a journal app for the iPad and iPod Touch, but it is as bad as their paper
journals are good. I do journal using a variety of digital tools, all with slightly different purposes.

Evernote – Not so much a journal as a tool to store and organize information, such as conference notes with audio. This application has lots of potential for student portfolios.
Notability – Somewhat similar to Evernote, but information is stored via Dropbox. Doesn’t have the same accessibility as Evernote, but you can draw and handwrite within each note.
One Day – A very simple yet effective eJournal app for the iPad. I keep more confidential information here because it is password protected. If anything I write had to be considered a diary, this would be it.
WordPress – No description needed

What’s My Point?

I hope I have not wrote a post without much purpose.

As I reflect on my position as an elementary principal, I can think of a variety of reasons why I write and why all educators should be doing the same.

– Writing is a reflective act. It helps me coalesce seemingly disconnected ideas into one focus.
– All educators need to be modeling writing if they expect students to write. Kelly Gallagher, author of Write Like This, aptly stated that the teacher is the best writer in the classroom. To model this skill, we need to keep our own skills honed.
– Writing is thinking made evident. Concrete thoughts such as goals and opinions are much harder to ignore than thinking alone.
– With the Common Core State Standards, writing is expected to be taught across the curriculum. It’s about time.
– The medium for writing is not as important as the act itself. Some students are more motivated by pen to paper, while others prefer blogging. Ideas are ideas and should be shared regardless of the format. If technology can enhance this experience, I say go for it.
– Writing needs to be regarded with the same level of reverence as reading and math. As an example, many schools (including mine) annually spend thousands of dollars on books but expect students to bring a $1 notebook for writing.
– It is okay that different forms of writing demand different formats and mediums.
– Writing is meant to be shared.

What reflections do you have regarding writing in education? Please share in the comments as I am always looking for new ideas.

How Do You Eat an Elephant? Reflections from Grant Writing

I feel like I have been neglecting my blog lately (because I have;). Besides all the normal spring duties of a principal, it is also grant writing season. I don’t profess to have all the answers in this area. In fact, I won’t know until later this spring if any of our grants will be awarded (our school has three applications out there and one more to write). What I do know has been discovered through trial and error plus listening to others more knowledgable than myself.

Consider the Building’s Needs

I don’t ask for funding or resources just because it is available. Throwing money at something does not necessarily improve student learning, which should be the focus of any school improvement initiative. For me, I am a new staff member in my school this year. I needed to watch, listen and talk with everyone for a good six months before I really had a strong understanding of our needs. For Howe, we could use support in math intervention, technology, parent literacy education and collaboration.

Apply for the Grants You Think You Can Win

If your inbox is anything like mine, you are bombarded with emails from consultants announcing new grants available. While I appreciate this service, the types of grants can range across the educational spectrum. Knowing the needs of my building, I can now filter through the sea of opportunities and select the grants that best meet the needs of my school.

I also apply for grants closer to home. Half of our applications are for opportunities in my own county. The other two are through my state’s department of instruction. We can put a name with a face with the organizations offering resources. At the very least, I can make a phone call to the funding coordinator with questions about the grant. When they receive our application, the hope is we will stand out because of the personal contact we made.

Ask for Permission Rather than Forgiveness

The resources we are requesting will affect everyone involved with my school. Not being in the know can make others upset, even if the request is for something as benign as more books. I recently made the mistake of not informing my staff about pursuing a large grant before I put myself on a school board agenda to receive approval. To fix this, I now announce any intentions to my staff prior to pursuing a grant. If there are any reservations, communicating with other grant recipients about the pros and cons has helped.

During the grant writing process, I give unfinished drafts of the grant to those interested in reading and revising it. For larger grants, I do this once a week. Their suggestions are invaluable because it provides multiple perspectives. Once completed, I throw a copy of the application in the staff lounge for faculty to peruse. We also share our pursuits at PTO meetings with parents. The buy-in is better because there has been a process for everyone to provide input.

Pace Yourself

The grant opportunities that have been popping up lately have a shorter window for writing them. What has helped me “eat the elephant” is to complete the application one bite at a time. For example, if there are 30 days to complete a 30 page form, simple math says how much to complete per day. When does this get done? I either block some time during the school day or bring the laptop home. I also try to get these applications done ahead of time. For one grant, I set a deadline one week before the actual due date. This allowed for time to add district codes and get appropriate signatures.

Read the Fine Print

I am only guessing, but I would bet a number of applications that get denied are because the writers didn’t follow directions. For example, one grant asked for four copies of the application when submitting it. To help, most grants have a companion guiding document. I refer to it often. Some guides even provide the rubric the grant approval team will use when deciding which schools receive funding. I read each section of the guiding document before completing the corresponding section of the grant application. Very similar to showing our students a rubric before starting their writing in class!

Use Key Words and Phrases

Reading and discussing the latest topics in education, thanks to Twitter and other forms of social media, has helped me stay current with best practices. Many of the grant reviewers are also looking for these same practices in initiatives to be funded. Here are examples along with the key word or phrase translation:

Collaborating with Families = Parent Partnership
Increasing Math Understanding = Numeracy
Integrating Science and Technology = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Making Learning Relevant = Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Budget for a Coordinator
Most grants have lots of paperwork required. I don’t plan to clone myself, so I budget for a coordinator to handle the administrative tasks associated with the grant. This person should be organized, a self-starter and someone not working in my school. Having a teacher or office staff member handle this load along with their regular duties may lead to burn out. In one school we have been communicating with, they hired a capable parent as their coordinator. They state this allows the faculty to focus on the learning activities that is supported by the grant.

These ideas are not original or necessarily my own. Again, it takes a team to crank these out and considerable buy-in from staff for a possible grant award to lead to success in school. I’ll revisit this post at some point in the future, revising my thinking as I continue to learn on the job.

Guest Post: “We’ve Got the Greener Grass”

What’s the answer to America’s educational woes? Two Harvard PhDs suggest that American public schools are the answer to Japan’s economic woes, that American schools are the gold standard when it comes to graduating innovators and risk takers. I edited the dissertations of these two Japanese scholars ten years ago. Both argued that Japan couldn’t extricate itself from ten years of recession, then known as the Lost Decade, because its school system didn’t produce the creative class that America’s schools did. Since then, there’s been another ten consecutive years of recession. These scholars noted that America enters and exits recessions. They attributed the exits to America’s creativity and they credited America’s schools for engendering that creativity.

There was a recent article in the New Yorker where Chinese people wondered why China hasn’t been an innovator for thousands of years. They recognized that China is quite clever in copying Western inventions, but bemoaned the lack of homegrown innovation. I urge you to look at the list of things invented in America at Wikipedia. It’s a staggering list. The Egyptians beat us to paper because they were around four thousand years ago and we weren’t, but the vast majority of the things that constitute modern living were first made in America. If those two Harvard PhDs are right, then America’s push to standardized testing and standardized schools could eventually be our economic undoing.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of people who collectively oversee millions of American workers. One is an M.I.T. PhD graduate who works at I.B.M.

“Whom do you hire?” I asked.

“I’m not real concerned with GPAs,” she replied. “I look for people who can recover from failure since 95% of what we do at I.B.M. is fail.”

I’ve had other corporate executives tell me that they too don’t chase those with high GPAs, for they’ve learned that many of them are grade chasers, avoiding the tough courses and the possibility of failure for the luster of a number. These executives told me that they look for someone who took the tough courses. If a candidate earned something other than an A, but took another hard course, that person is that much more attractive.

Executives also tell me that they need people who can collaborate, that “the systems and challenges are so complex that no one is brilliant enough to work alone anymore.”

So, if we’re to prepare our students for the professional challenges that await them, rather than chase higher test scores, we should continue to nurture creativity and provide opportunities to collaborate and fail. “Fail” might seem harsh, but failure sets up the opportunity to rebound from failure.

Lastly, the PhD at IBM, a woman who oversees 800 employees and has hired scores of them, said that if she had to choose between hiring a software engineer with a full focus on software engineering and a software engineer with an art minor, all other factors being equal, she’d hire the engineer with the art minor. “That engineer is more likely to consider a problem from a different perspective.”

Looking across the Pacific, the grass of higher test scores seems greener to America’s politicians who determine pedagogical policy. However, the view from Asia is one of a lush and creative America, one that extricates itself from recession again and again through the verve of its creative graduates, and one that has leveraged diverse education into world class innovation.

Katie McKy might just be the most booked children’s book author for school visits in the upper Midwest. She visits about 100 schools a year and has taught and entertained more than 300,000 children in the last decade. She also writes for many business magazines and so has had the opportunity to have CEOs, VPs, and COOs go off the record and truly say what they like and don’t like about America’s graduates. Read about Katie at http://www.katiemcky.com.