Six Credits Shy

As soon as I sat down for the session at an administrator conference, I knew I was going to be disappointed. The PowerPoint was all words and no visuals. The presenter, although a knowledgeable educator, informed everyone that he was going to “talk to us” about his experiences. There was no website or handouts in which to access the information being presented, either at that time or in the future. Within five minutes, I had left the session. The only thing I found out was the wireless in that room was pretty spotty.

I bring this up because I am undecided about going back to graduate school. I have been six credits shy of my Director of Instruction license for over a year now. There is nothing holding me back, except the concern that I will have the same experience as I did at the conference. Another textbook published by Pearson to read, providing a general overview of everything. A prescribed schedule that is not conducive with my personal and professional calendar. Slideshow upon slideshow to sit through, something that I could easily read online prior to the class on my own time. I think I can empathize a little with students in today’s world. Too many of them are 21st century learners still stuck in a 20th century learning environment.

Since becoming a connected educator last October, I feel like I have become spoiled. I can direct my own learning based on my interests and my current needs. If I have a question, I don’t have to wait until the next class to try and get it answered. Information can be accessed at a moment’s notice in resources that take a specific topic to a deeper understanding. This way of learning is in stark contrast to digging around in a textbook that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Yes, there will be times where I need to buckle down and read what is handed to me. At the same time, I can enhance these assignments by tapping into my personal learning network.

For your students lucky enough to have been immersed in instruction that is problem- and interest-based, that allows for direction of one’s own learning using the best tools available, how would they react if you told them tomorrow that you were going back to lecturing and the one-size-fits-all method of teaching?  It is not that I believe I have little to learn within the traditional method anymore. The university I attended had great professors who brought a wealth of experience to discussions. I just feel like the genie has been let out of the bottle and it is not going back in, even if I wanted it to.

Instructional Walkthrough Template

(This is what I am sending to my Instructional Leadership Team to discuss on Tuesday. We previously had discussed measuring levels of instruction occurring in classrooms with a simple tally sheet.)
I have given some thought to tallying how frequently components of the Optimal Learning Model are observed in classrooms. First, my understanding of how we are being assessed in 2014 has changed. Narrative feedback is welcomed. Also, I think I might feel like a bean counter, breaking down the teaching process into a series of boxes to be checked. And I don’t know what you would get out of it as a teacher. Therefore, I am proposing a second draft. Here is a snapshot of it: Tally
I will still try to track how often a teacher is using different levels of the Optimal Learning Model. As you know, one of our goals is to make sure the students are doing the work and therefore the learning. The difference will be, I will spend more than just a minute in each classroom. This should allow me to see a more comprehensive slice of instruction.

I will enter the data in a spreadsheet. The data we aggregate and share with the building will be anonymous as planned. My initial goal is to observe around three to four teachers per day as unplanned visits.

I want teachers to be able to receive immediate, formative feedback that helps them think about their practice, recognize what they do well and consider how they can continue to grow as educators. Right now, I plan to choose one or more areas of focus on the left and circle it/them. In the blank space, I will write a narrative of what I observe in the classroom. It will be objective in nature. I may also post open ended questions about the instruction. The purpose of the questions would be to help the teacher reflect on what they do and why they do it. This process should be positive and constructive in nature.

My Comments
After I email each teacher the completed instructional walk form and then touch base with them afterward, I plan to make a few comments on the bottom for myself and what I saw. This would be similar to how you might write down observations after conferring with a reader. I don’t plan to share these in the form I email to the teacher. These are primarily for my reflection process. However, if a teacher ever wanted to see what I had written in the comments box, I would be happy to share what I wrote with him or her.

Where to go from here? I suggest you take a look at the form through two different lenses: That of the teacher being observed and the observer. Let me know your thoughts on Tuesday.

Examples of Practice: iPads in the Primary Classroom

In a recent post in Education Week, Justin Reich (@bjfr) strongly encourages teachers who have iPads in their classrooms to make their teaching visible. He recognizes that schools are quickly adopting this tool for instruction, but is concerned that teachers are not sharing what they are doing with others through social media. Justin goes on to say that in order to develop a vision of how iPads can be effectively used in schools, we need to see how other teachers are augmenting their instruction and then discuss these strategies.

I couldn’t agree more. Even though I love my iPad, I have been somewhat hesitant to just throw them in classrooms and see what happens. (I recently wrote a post about my experience piloting these devices last year.) We are somewhere in the middle on technology integration; our school is not 1:1, but all teachers have an iPad and more are possibly on the way for students in the form of a mobile lab and classroom workstations. The approach I have taken in my school is to teach the teachers first on how to use them, in addition to encouraging them to explore the possibilities. You could break this learning process down into two categories: Model It and Celebrate It.

Model It

I recently discovered the app Felt Board and instantly recognized the potential it has in the primary literacy classroom. I could share this app through email, or even download it specially for teachers whom I think would benefit from using it in their instruction. However, the best approach I have found for introducing technology tools to teachers is through interactive modeling.

For example, I recently used part of my regular read aloud time in my kindergarten classrooms to recreate a part of a story I just shared. I used a document camera and asked students to help me develop the scene, incorporating both visuals and words. Once completed, I snapped a photo of it to the Camera Roll. Then we used iMovie to record one of the students reading the text from the board. Picture and audio were uploaded to Vimeo and we were then able to share it with parents at home through the web link. Here are three we created so far.

I Must Have Bobo! by Eileen Rosenthal
Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
I have also used iMovie on the iPad to create book trailers. Here is my son sharing one of his favorite books and why he likes it.

For more information, Matt Gomez (@Matt_Gomez) wrote a post about Felt Board and how he uses it in his kindergarten classroom. Like the app, it is well worth a look.

Celebrate It
My staff are starting to use these devices in highly effective ways, without a lot of support from me. It is exciting to see what they come up with. For example, when I walked into my school’s library this morning, I saw a display set up by one of my second grade teachers, Mrs. Heyroth (@MrsHeyroth). She and her students wrote a classroom book based on the story There Was an Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything. Better yet, she used GarageBand and iMovie on her device to create a digital version of their book. Each student was recorded reading one of the pages. I recognized her efforts by pulling some pictures together and sending her a collage using Frame Magic.
I also plan to share this with the rest of my staff. They can see what is possible with mobile devices such as iPads and apply this example to their own classroom.

Best Read Aloud You’ve Never Heard Of: The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Shea

My school’s population is approximately 8% Hmong American. When I select books to read aloud in classrooms, I am intentional in choosing literature that accurately reflects my school’s diversity. If I only shared stories that primarily featured one race or culture, I would not be giving my minority students quality opportunities to put themselves within the context or characters of the book. Also, students from a different culture can add unique perspectives to these types of stories that would otherwise be undiscovered. It allows them to be the experts in the classroom.

One of my favorite books about the Hmong culture and their history is The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Shea. Here is how I have shared this story with 3rd graders in the past.

Before Reading Aloud

I begin by sharing the backdrop for this story. One of the first pages has a small map of Southeast Asia. I explain that America went to war with Northern Vietnam, fighting alongside the Southern Vietnamese. I do my best to explain the concept of “communism” when I answer the inevitable question, “Why were they fighting each other?” I finish the one minute history lesson by concluding that American troops eventually pulled out of Vietnam, leaving the Southern Vietnamese at the mercy of their enemies to the north. This led to many being forced from their homes to find another place to live, namely America. When I consider whether this may be a little over their heads, I go back to a quote by Regie Routman: “I have never been in a classroom where the expectations were too high.”

During the Read Aloud

This historical fiction everybody book is about a girl and her grandmother in the 1970s, both refugees living in a camp. To pass the time and to make money in order to purchase plane tickets to America, they make story cloths called pa’ndau. This is their culture’s way of sharing their history.

As I read, the story switches from the present day to the past, when the main character dreams about the death of her parents. At this point, the illustrations switch from watercolors to stitching, just like the pa’ndau. I ask the class, “What do you notice on this page?” If the students don’t initially see it, I rephrase with, “What is different about this page when compared to the previous pages? Why do you think the author make this change?” 3rd graders’ typical responses are a) the setting is now in the past and b) the main character is starting to think about her own story cloth.

After Reading Aloud

If there are Hmong students in the classroom, I try to solicit some responses from them. They usually have at least a little knowledge about what a pa’ndau is. They may even share their experiences observing a story cloth being made. At this time, I point out that we has a story cloth in our school.

I encourage the students to take a few moments at a later time to “read” it and see if they can understand this family’s journey from Southeast Asia to America. To extend the story, I could take this photo and post it on the SmartBoard. We could zoom in on different aspects of the pa’ndau and jot some ideas down about what we think is trying to be conveyed. From there we could do a shared writing activity that tells this story in words based on our observations. If you are trying to address the Common Core, using primary resources like this is a great way to go.

Related recommended read aloud: Dia’s Story Cloth by Dia Cha

Why I Became a Principal

I have been asked why I became an elementary school principal, by educators in the classroom and by prospective administrators curious about my position. Here are a few reasons off the top of my head:

1. I Didn’t Have to Leave the Classroom

When I began teaching, I fully intended to end my educational career as a teacher. That is, until my principal read aloud in my classroom. Watching him share his favorite literature with my students, interacting with them not as the authority figure but rather as a knowledgeable and caring adult, opened my eyes to the concept that a principal isn’t necessarily a suit sitting behind a desk. It was an “Ah ha” moment for me, probably similar to when students see their teacher at Wal-Mart and realize he or she doesn’t live at school. I am proud to say that I continue this practice of reading aloud to students on a regular basis.

2. I Had Some Great Principals

I am very fortunate to have had three terrific administrators to work for, as an intern, as a teacher, and as an assistant principal. All three had a unique way of leading, which helped me determine what kind of principal I wanted to be. What did they all had in common?

  • They put students first.
  • They made decisions based on what was best for student learning.
  • They didn’t lose their cool when problems came up.
  • They always had time to listen.
  • They were honest and forthright. I knew where I stood with them at all times.

I definitely was not the perfect staff member; I made several mistakes along the way toward my current position. However, they allowed me to deal with those situations and help reflect upon how I could have done things differently, rather than step in and try to prevent struggles. I was allowed to learn from my mistakes.

3. I Was a Good Teacher

One of my former administrators once asked me, “What type of teacher is most suited for the principalship?” I didn’t know, I said. “The best teacher in the building,” he replied. At first, I questioned this logic. Why would a great teacher step out of the classroom and give up the opportunity to make an impact on kids? As I found out, I continue to make a difference. I do this by falling back on what I know great teaching looks like. I use this knowledge to guide my staff on the path of constant growth.

I believe I was successful as a teacher, and I became better every year. This gives me the experience, validity and respect to observe in any classroom and determine the effectiveness of the instruction. If I wasn’t a good teacher, how could I ever possibly be an instructional leader in my school? If you are a teacher, I encourage you to find out what your principal did before his or her current position. You may be surprised. Most if not all administrators do not let their teaching licenses expire. Many continue to teach, even if it isn’t always in the classroom.

4. It Is a Challenge

I am not saying that teaching is any less challenging. It is just a different type of challenge. Instead of keeping 25 students focused on the activity for the day, I am expected to help that one student who doesn’t want to participate to turn it around and get back into class.

One of the first ways I experienced this new kind of challenge was when I participated in building and district committees. These activities gave me the opportunity to see what it was like to lead an initiative and work with teachers on buy-in for an upcoming change. I found that I enjoyed collaborating with adults in this capacity, even if it was sometimes a struggle. The success we achieved together validated the effort and made the process that much more rewarding.

5. It Is a Change

One colleague of mine described entering the principalship as taking on an entirely new profession. This is very true in many ways. For example, no longer are you beholden to the almighty school schedule. For the most part, I am able to allocate time that I feel best benefits my students and aligns with my building’s goals.

I started to feel the urge to venture out into new territory in the latter part of my teaching career. I was very happy in the classroom, don’t get me wrong.  At the same time I saw the opportunity to become a building administrator as a way to make a positive impact on student learning in a broader sense.  I am able to be a part of more learning endeavors and participate in the entire school experience with everyone in the building.

For current principals, what would you add to this list? For prospective principals, how are you learning more about this great profession? Please share in the comments.

Left To Their Own Devices

(To note: When I initially came up with the title for this post, I thought I was pretty clever. Then I did a Google search and found out that several other people had already used it to headline their own posts and articles. Original or not, I’m keeping it.)

A year ago I wrote and received a grant to purchase two iPad 2s. I wanted to test this technology in school and find out if they would help affect student achievement. My hypothesis: Handing iPads to students would increase engagement and improve learning.

Round 1 – Fall 2011

I was right on one of the two predicted outcomes. The two students I initially worked with in the fall were enamored with this new technology. However, the device alone did necessarily increase their achievement. Even though I preinstalled engaging academic apps such as WordWit, Solar Walk and Rocket Math on the devices, they regularly bypassed these in favor of searching for funny videos on YouTube and playing Angry Birds.

I tried not to jump in and direct their learning initially. These kids are digital natives, I thought. Who am I to interfere with their natural ability to create digital content independently? Pretty soon they will be teaching me how to use these technology tools.

But that didn’t happen. They just wanted to keep playing Angry Birds (After a while I deleted this app from the iPads). I am not against these games, but I failed to see the relevance to school. To try and guide their learning a little bit more, I found out what they were interested in and then developed some potentially engaging reading and writing projects. When I introduced the activities, I could almost see the excitement draining from their faces. Not to say they weren’t good about doing what I asked of them, which included writing a comparative essay about a topic of their choice and recording a book talk to share with the peers. At the same time, we all knew who was in charge of their learning, and it wasn’t them.

Round 2 – Spring 2012

I submitted my mid-year report to the grant providers with some thoughtful reflections and a renewed sense of purpose. I now believed that technology alone would not necessarily lead to high levels of learning itself without some form of framework in which to learn. I decided to recruit two new students, both 5th graders again, with the purpose of using Web 2.0 tools on the iPad to increase reading engagement. I was now allowing the curriculum and student interests to drive the learning instead of the technology.

I observed that when I initially kept the students limited to a few apps in the beginning, they tended to dig a little deeper into the components of each tool. For example, they used Edmodo to post interesting comments about what they were reading, respond to an interesting part of their story, ask each other questions, or just say “Hi!”. It helped that I participated with them, sharing my own thoughts about books I enjoyed. From there the students took off. Other apps were discovered and explored responsibly. They posted a profile picture on their own with little instruction.  Both were able to submit assignments with only the briefest of explanation. They even participated from home. Progress!

Round 3 – The Next Steps

Today I had a conversation with two administrative colleagues about implementing iPads into every classroom, possibly as soon as February. Teachers have received similar training in using these devices. We are being strategic about phasing this technology into our instruction. Our purpose is still to enhance learning and increase student engagement, but within the context of effective pedagogy.

We arrived at this point by trial and error. There isn’t a lot out there in terms of research and evidence to support using these tools, other than our own experiences and professional judgments. I am happy that we aren’t just throwing technology at students without lots of consideration about why we are implementing it in the first place. The only mistake I think we could make now is not continuing to pursue these innovative and exciting methods for learning. Will my thinking change even more as I continue to work with teachers and students on leveraging this technology? I hope so. I still have a lot to learn.


Beliefs vs. Values

My school is at a point of transition. We are nearing the completion of a three year professional development plan involving the Reading-Writing Connection, developed by Regie Routman. We have seen evidence that the instructional framework we have incorporated into our classrooms, the Optimal Learning Model, has helped increase student achievement. Our core literacy beliefs grew from only two the first year to eight this year. The staff participated in many different professional development activities over the three year period to arrive at this point.

So where do we go from here? Are beliefs alone enough? These were a few thoughts that have recently come to mind.  As a leader, I think it is okay to sometimes have more questions than answers. To seek more information and consider the next steps, I started learning more about professional learning communities. Over the summer, I read Professional Learning Communities at Work by Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker. This is a great place to start the journey toward developing collaborative teams with a singular focus of student learning.

However, one section of the resource touched on beliefs in a way that was different than what I had previously understood. The authors stated that beliefs alone were not enough. You needed to have values. The authors define values as core statements that clarify how a shared vision, or a list of beliefs, becomes a reality. It was made clear that as leaders, we need to focus on behaviors, not beliefs.

Okay, this is a problem, I initially thought. How can two highly respected educators such as Regie Routman and Rick DuFour be on opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue? Confused, I went back into the resources my school team received at a literacy and leadership institute.

I found my answer. Judy Wallis, a literacy consultant, explained that beliefs and values (also called “practices”) are part of a continuum for a school in change. She explained that schools can develop their shared beliefs first. These are the principles that, as Judy put it, you would be willing to fall on your sword for. An example she shared was, “We believe students should have wide access to books they can and want to read.” Would any educator worth their salt disagree with this belief?

Once beliefs are established, schools can then consider their practices, or values. Judy defined these practices as beliefs in action. Reading the previous paragraph, a value for the example belief could be, “A sufficient amount of time will be allocated for independent reading every day”.  This makes sense to me now. You cannot have one without the other. A common language is required if we are expected to implement common practices. This is especially needed in today’s educational world where the initiative du jour can cause a school to lose their focus on best practices and student learning.

Does your school have a set of common beliefs and practices that you all adhere to? How did you get to this point? Please share in the comments, as my school is very much still on the pathway toward becoming a community of learners. If your building has not started discussing your shared beliefs and you are not sure where to begin, I highly recommend Richard Allington’s Educational Leadership article Every Child, Every Day. My staff read it and discussed it briefly, but we only touched on a few aspects. I believe a school could take this one article and spend an entire year discussing the six elements and how they fit with current literacy practices.