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.

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.

Writing Apps for Principals and Coaches

There are so many apps out there for different purposes when using the iPad. It is exciting and daunting at the same time. Specifically for writing about instruction observed in the classroom, a few apps at first glance seem to be great tools for providing feedback for staff and documenting evidence of learning.

Evernote (free)

What I like best about this tool is a) you can document what you observe audibly, visually and by typing, and b) this information can be accessed anywhere. What would this look like? Maybe you are doing instructional walkthroughs. A checklist of four main areas focusing on teacher and student language could be the template. After checking off what you see, language used by students and the teacher can be typed up to record more qualitative feedback. In addition, a photo of what you are seeing related to classroom dialogue could be taken with your iPad and added to the note. Once completed, the entire note can be emailed to the teacher or shared during a subsequent discussion. Simple instructions on how to create a checklist can be found here.

When you want to find a note, they are organized by notebooks or by tags for easy searching.

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There are a few limitations I see with using Evernote for this purpose. First, I cannot find a way to easily export the checklist data to an Excel form. If you are looking for trends over time, it would be hard to use this data in Evernote’s format. Using Google Forms might be a better tool for this purpose. If there is a way to do this, my guess is either Bec Spink or Rob van Nood would have the answer.

Second, I wish there was a way to actually write using a stylus within Evernote, which leads into…

Penultimate ($0.99)

This app allows the user to write in notebooks using a finger or a stylus (I recommend a stylus such as Bamboo to avoid the smudges on the screen). You can write, sketch and erase plus add a picture in notebooks. Multiple notebooks can be created for individual classrooms. To share and read these notebooks, you can either email them out as a PDF or open them in another app such as GoodReader, iBooks or Kindle reader. More importantly, books or single pages can be sent to Evernote as their own note. What this means is you could combine your writing, text, audio and visuals all in one note on Evernote, albeit with a few preliminary steps. Check out this link on how to export Penultimate notebooks to Evernote using an iPad.

Notability ($0.99)

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If you want to keep things simple and be able to house audio, visuals, text and writing all in one file when documenting classroom activities, Notability is the way to go. What it has that Evernote doesn’t is the ability to sketch and write within the note as well as typing text, adding visuals and recording sound. Also, the layout and controls are more user-friendly than Evernote and Penultimate. Notebooks are color coded and the notes themselves seem to be easier to read.

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What could be improved with Notability is the ability to share notes with others. Right now, you can upload notes to Dropbox, but the audio and the rest of the note end up as two separate files. In addition, to share a note with audio right from Notability via email is difficult because the memory size of the audio may be too large. Evernote is better in this area because you can share notes as a web link. It stays as one file.

Conclusions

If you are just starting out, like me, in documenting learning experiences in the classroom, Notability may be the best choice. I know one school district in Wisconsin uses this app to document the amount of time ELL students are given to talk with peers about their understanding. However, if sharing notes is essential to the walkthrough and coaching process, Evernote + Penultimate would be the best tool. The ability to have access to these notes from anywhere is also key. In addition, Evernote just acquired Penultimate. If these two apps eventually meld into one, it might be the perfect tool for principals and coaches to write on the iPad.

My Students’ Favorite Read Alouds

In a previous post The Principal as a Writer, I described how I used Moleskine journals and a document camera to write book reviews with students. These reviews are based on a book I just read aloud to them. Here were their favorites from 2011-2012:

Best of the Year (five out of five stars)

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th Grade): “I love that dog?? I love this book! It’s great because there were a lot of good poems to feel happy when feeling bad.”

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Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farms by Jon Katz

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Review (2nd Grade): “This is one of the best books we have read because the different dogs had different jobs. For example, one dog makes people feel better and another dog herds the sheep.”

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Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

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Review (1st Grade): “Owl Moon is a five star book because the pictures are colored in really nicely. Also, lots of details helped us know what they mean. It was awesome!”

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Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

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Review (Kindergarten): “We thought this was the best book ever because it was funny. Pete kept stepping in colored things like fruit.”

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A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

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Review (5th grade): “Really interesting, hard to put down. Edge of your seat and intriguing story. Amazing.”

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Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

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Review (3rd grade): “This book was excellent because it was funny, like when Fudge ate Peter’s turtle. These funny events remind us of silly things kids do that we know.”

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

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Review (4th grade): “The good, rhyming words and his voice made you want to read more.”

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Honorable Mentions (four out of five stars)

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was very good because in the end, the girls’ father came back. The author gave different personalities to each person.”

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The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skeene Catling

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Review (3rd grade): “I like how the book teaches you a lesson, of eating too much chocolate being a bad thing.”

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The 500 Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was really good because it had math in it. For example, it was interesting when the squire was keeping track of the hats as they fell off.”

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Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th grade): “It only had Jack’s voice; wish we could have heard from someone else. We liked how he changed from hating to loving cats.”

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The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

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Our Poem (Kindergarten): “The most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder. It is on wheels. It is red. But the most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder.”

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Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

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Review (5th grade): “We really liked this book because it was humorous. For instance, we laughed whenever the grandma spoke nonsense.”

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

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Review (4th grade): “We really like this book. The models of the buildings, the way the pictures described the story, and the way Ben’s and Rose’s story relate made this a unique and intriguing book.”

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Book Reviews as Book Marks

I was recently strolling through my local super department store when I came across these notecards.

They are book mark cards.

 

 

As you can see, they have a flap on top. It allows you to slide the card onto a book jacket or a page.

 

They come in five colors, fifteen cards in each color.

 

 

 

I think these book mark cards would be great for writing book reviews. Students could get blank cards from their school librarian or from their teacher.

Before they had a card in their hands, it would be wise to model how to write a book review. For me, I like to keep reviews short and reveal just enough to tempt the potential reader. Brevity is a virtue.

My present format for a quick book review:

  • I (liked, really liked, loved) the book (the title) because (give reason to support opinion).
  • For instance, (use evidence from the book to support your opinion).

To differentiate for students who struggle with writing, the bolded words could be provided on the cards as prompts.

Here is an example of what a book review could look like on one of these cards, using the excellent Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

 

Books with attached student reviews coud be displayed on the top of the book cases. Featured books could also have their own shelf in the library or classroom. It would be similar to how book stores designate an area for staff to attach reviews for their favorite reads.

How do you a) encourage students to recommend what they read, and b) celebrate your students' writing? Your comments are appreciated!

 

Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs

I recently attended the Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI. It was hosted by Regie Routman, creator of the Reading-Writing Connection professional development series (which my building uses). This may have been the best conference I have attended. Everything was connected to best practices. A lot of what the presenters at this conference shared is based on research and publications by Richard Allignton and Peter Johnston.

Summarizing all that I learned into one post would be like trying to stuff an elephant into a foot locker. Instead, I attempted to synthesize my thinking by creating a walkthrough checklist connected to best literacy practices. It is based on an article published by Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan in 2002, titled “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” (a straightforward if not catchy title). I condensed his findings about what exemplary teachers do into twelve statements.

 

Time

  • Students are actually reading and writing around 50% of the time.
  • Students are reading independently, meeting with the teacher for guided reading, and/or reading and writing in the content areas.

Texts

  • Students are reading texts that allow for high levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • Classroom texts reflect a broad range of interests, diversity and levels.

Teaching

  • Teacher gives direct, explicit demonstrations of thinking strategies that good readers and writers use when they read and write.
  • Teacher assigns work that is responsive to students' needs and fosters a transition of thinking strategies to independent use.

Talk

  • Teacher facilitates lots of purposeful dialogue – both teacher/student and student/student.
  • Classroom talk is more conversational than interrogational.

Tasks

  • Teacher assigns activities that are substantial, challenging and complex.
  • Students are allowed some choice and autonomy in work to promote ownership and engagement.

Testing

  • Teacher evaluates student work based on effort and growth rather than just achievement.
  • Students take responsibility for their scores with the help of clear and visible academic expectations.

Using this checklist as a Google Form on my iPad, I could walk through classrooms and document how often best practices are occurring. Teachers are already used to me being in the classroom to read aloud or just observe. Is this a logical next step? It was suggested that if a checklist is used to document frequency of best practices, it needs to be sandwiched with positive feedback, probably in the form of a written note and verbal praise before leaving the classroom. I will defintiely need to reference Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston often as I begin providing feedback. A hybrid of both a checklist and a written narrative may work best for my staff and me.

If I was the teacher, would this checklist along with a short observational narrative have the potential to help me improve my own practices? Would I feel defensive and nervous, or wonder what my principal's motivation is?

As the principal, will this type of walkthrough give me a reliable set of data to help determine where we are growing and where we need to grow? Could I eventually expect the teachers to use this process and observe each other, using a peer coaching format?

 

I need to sit on this draft of an idea and come back to it later. I would welcome any feedback!