Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Most Innovative Schools - A Checklist?

A few days ago, I came across an article entitled Wild and Thoughtful Innovation. Intrigued, I tore through it, and then immediately shared it with our superintendent and assistant superintendent for instruction. Why? First of all, it fully supports our ongoing work around implementation of an instructional framework with fidelity, and second, it fully supports the iterative inquiry cycle we are engaged in with essential learning standards.

The authors researched and visited more than 100 "innovative" schools across the globe, and while differences abounded, there were emergent themes that arose from all of them. While I am hesitant in describing them as a checklist for innovation as it may infer compliance, what we can learn from those emergent themes outweighs the risk. 

First, the visits identified these common themes for both innovation and learning excellence in terms of teacher moves:
• took collective responsibility for learning;
• actively collaborated;
• used laser-like learning targets;
• established common expectations for learning;
• provided timely feedback;
• acted on the information from formative assessments to differentiate learning through intervention and acceleration strategies; and
• used varied instructional strategies to meet the needs of all students.
As I look down that list, it is the exact intentional work we are engaged with as administrators and teachers in our district. We may not be there yet, but it is the vision we are working toward. 

Second, anyone who had read this blog in the past or had discussions with me knows of my advocacy for student voice. The visits in the article identified student voice as a common theme for innovation and excellence in the 100+ school visits:
[T]eachers developed partnerships with students in the learning process. Students had a voice in what they learned and could produce an expected plan for their learning that included how they would demonstrate their proficiency. Teachers honored their students’ unique attributes, developed positive relationships focused on each child’s strengths and passions, and provided personalized learning structures.
Student voice lives within our instructional framework, the state school improvement framework, and our inquiry cycle.

Now I'm wondering how the schools and teachers in our district would view themselves if we used the bullet points and statements from the articles as a formative assessment on our journey to become more innovative and excellent. Any takers?

I've only scratched the surface here with what's in the article. I encourage you to read it in its entirety, especially if you're interested in how the concept of disruptive innovation meshes with continuous school improvement. I'll leave you with one teaser from the article: "We decided to throw off some shackles. Wisely, we also chose to keep some core tenets that serve the present and the future. This includes professional learning communities as our foundational collaborative structure and an institutional commitment: a way to keep us honest about student learning and educator growth."

Join the conversation...
Whether you're in our district or not, does this resonate? What measures would you recommend to know if your classroom, school, or district is on the right track to achieve its goals?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Cooper's Treasure

No, not the show on the Discovery Channel. I'm talking about the recent treasure I discovered sorting through stacks of articles and notes from my dissertation. 

About two years ago, I took a class with Dr. Kristy Cooper, titled "Organizing for Learning." Each week, steeped in the learning sciences, she would have us partake in meta-cognitive reflection, using these four questions:
  1. What have you learned this week?
  2. How have you learned this week?
  3. What is your current state of knowledge on this week's concepts?
  4. How does your learning this week apply to your current and future work?
Not only are these great questions as we support both student and adult learners in more structured settings, I'm also considering how they might help me in my own growth. What if I took time at the end of each week to answer those questions?

Trying it out for last week, I reflected as follows:

  1. Much of it was focused around personalized learning and competency-based education. What if we graduated to a system where students were learning and accelerating based on mastery, not seat time? What conditions would need to be in place for success? Where are we in our own unique journey vis-a-vis culture, transparency, and vision? We would really need to think differently, as it is a huge paradigm shift and pushes on both educator and student identities. It's not a "program," it's a second order change.
  2. Attending conference work sessions with leaders from Kenowa Hills and Virgel Hammonds, taking handwritten notes, and then having time to dialogue with learning partners about the ideas.
  3. I still have a lot to learn, and I need to seek out additional sources. Perhaps a visit to Kenowa Hills might help. I do feel like I have a good starting base of knowledge.
  4. As we look for ways to re-imagine the secondary experience, this idea has potential. It would have to be a multi-year inquiry process to assess all stakeholder group perceptions and readiness, engage in learning, and develop an implementation plan. My one burning question right now is: what do students think about it, especially if post-secondary institutions are not yet on board?
I allotted myself 15 minutes to reflect, and that seemed like enough. I went back afterward and inserted the hyperlinks. 

More importantly, it has deepened my own thinking around the concepts. Without it, I might have just put my notes into a file folder and called it good. Now, I am more invested in discovering additional "treasure" around competency-based education.

Reflection is key to learning. If I were back in a classroom, I would use these four questions to help deepen my learners' knowledge about themselves as learners and around concepts. That would be an innovative move on my part. As for now, I am committing to doing it for myself each week.

Monday, May 1, 2017

#StudentVoice in History - Birmingham, Alabama

As much as I am a proponent of student voice, I do worry that it is seen as a fad, or the next "new thing" in education. Frankly, student voice has been rooted in education and our country for more than fifty years.

In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, student voice was in the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically through what is now known as the Children's Crusade or March, during the first week of May. Thousands of students walked out of their schools and prepared to march through downtown Birmingham:

Of course, what happened to them during the march is seared into our collective conscience:

The willingness of those students to use their voices, suffer brutality at the hands of the police and fire departments, and go to jail, was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement.

When we talk about student voice today, it is usually not in these same sort of circumstances. But, we do discuss it within the same theme: democracy.

The bravery of these students in 1963 changed our country, for the better. Our students today want to use their voices as change agents, too. How will we respond, both in our schools and in our society?

Join the conversation...
How do students use their voice in school and society today? What are your experiences?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Add Clarity

I've been staring at this post-it note on my desk, which encompasses some to-dos for an upcoming professional learning session. If part of school innovation is introducing new methods, might "add clarity" be a great innovation for just about every single thing we do or say?

Clarity is a critical component of how we plan and deliver instruction, how we create and implement initiatives to enhance student learning, and generally how we communicate. Another way to think about it is the term "sensemaking," which meets the human need to create order and make sense of what has and is occurring.

To be intentional about it, what if we consider "add clarity" as we focus on problems of practice in our collaborative teams? It fits perfectly within a collaborative cycle of inquiry. Our district has an inquiry cycle graphic we designed to fit our specific needs, and maybe yours does too, but if not, many examples exist. Here's one I found in less than a minute through a Google search:

My current "add clarity" opportunity sits within the green pie piece, although because the cycle is fluid, it might very well shift over time. And most certainly, other "add clarity" opportunities will touch every single pie piece many times over.

Join the conversation...
Where in the pie do your current "add clarity" opportunities exist?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Giraffe Cam

I'll confess: I am obsessed with the live stream of April the giraffe, beamed live from the Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, NY. She is a media sensation. For those of you who have not heard about it, April is a giraffe that is on the verge of giving birth to a baby calf. She has viewers all over the world anxiously awaiting "the moment". Given the length of gestation (15 months or so) and other unknowns, the animal keepers and vet are not able to predict a due date. In addition, labor is only confirmed when the calf's hooves begin to appear. I told you I was obsessed. Thank goodness I am on vacation this week, and can afford to be sleep deprived.

As I watch April pace her space and watch for any tell-tale signs like the amateur vet I've become, it strikes me how incredible a live stream out of a classroom might be. Like the giraffe cam, there might be things you see and don't understand, and there are also routines that you pick up on quickly. April never really mugs for the camera unless there is a carrot or piece of lettuce in it for her, and I suspect students and teachers would quickly forget the cam in the corner.

Just like we are all watching and waiting for the big event, never knowing when it might appear, how might that also be true watching a classroom? Many times the "lightbulb" or "flow" moments occur in a classroom when we least expect it. As teachers, we plan for those moments, but just like April's vet, our ability to predict the actual timing is speculative at best. 

In addition, just like I've learned more about giraffes in the last few weeks than I ever thought I would, how much might non-educators learn if they could just put on the live stream of a classroom at random times during a day? How might we draw back the curtain on teaching and learning for millions of people across the globe?

Certainly, it would take a brave teacher and willing students to make it a reality. There are times I see April do things that I wish I could wipe from my mind's eye (chewing her cud in a regurgitative cycle quickly comes to mind). Not everything that happens in a classroom is pretty, and it is certainly not perfect. However, the moments when everything is clicking and learning is in the "flow" are pure joy to watch and experience, and people outside of education rarely get to see that.

You might think everyone will stop watching April once the birth occurs. I don't think so. First, we'll have 6-12 months to watch her with her calf. Second, I believe it has created an awareness and appreciation for learning new things in real time. Yes, there are people who watch and make less than positive comments. And we already have that in education; but how might a live classroom cam help educate those who don't yet have a full understanding of what happens in a classroom day in and day out? We will never get rid of all of our critics, but we can build more allies.

Join the conversation...
How might we build a brave space in one classroom to install a teaching and learning cam? 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

You Can Call Me Al

If you're familiar with '80s music, the title of this post likely sounds familiar. It is the title of a Paul Simon song, whose meaning is briefly described here: 

In the documentary Under African Skies, Simon explained: "'You Can Call Me Al' is really the story of somebody like me, who goes to Africa with no idea and ends up having an extraordinary spiritual experience."

Over the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure and the privilege of engaging with students in three schools outside of our district. I interviewed students at Detroit Country Day School and Orchard View Middle School around student voice, and I spent an hour with students at Novi High School in their AP Seminar class to learn what this new class looks and sounds like. 

Like the song character, I went into these three experiences with little to no idea of what I would experience, and wound up having an extraordinary experience in each. Moreover, I approached each setting with something I've been very purposeful with in the last 7 or 8 months -- introducing myself to students by my first name -- "you can call me Judy," so to speak.

It started when I visited a secondary school in Australia. I found myself introducing myself to the adults I was meeting, and then it came to a student. My self-talk in my head went something like this: "You're here to learn about student voice. They don't know you. Make a connection!!!" So, I fumbled with something like, "hi, I'm Judy Walton from the U.S.," as I shook each person's hand. Eloquent? No. Sufficient? Yes. And extraordinary experiences ensued.

Then, I did the same thing with students at Forest Hills Northern High School when we embarked on our student voice project. And extraordinary experiences ensued.

My intent is simple: to level the playing field. A title, such as Ms. or Dr., is only one measure of respect. We have a lot of hierarchy in education, and I believe it can sometimes get it in the way of conversations, authenticity, and innovation. My unscientific research leads me to believe, or at least sense, that interactions with students are more relaxed and free-flowing when we call each other by first names. Never once have I felt disrespected.

In meeting the 30 or so students from the three school visits over the last few weeks, I found the same thing. It really seemed to put students at ease, especially when I was this stranger who was spending time with them and trying to learn from them. It was not the only condition conducive to learning, but it certainly helped.

I will note that it's not easy for some students to take to. It goes against everything they know in school. Some students prefer to use a title and last name, which is also fine by me. I offer the option of being on a first-name basis, and they make a choice.

I also know this is not something every teacher feels comfortable with, and many teachers successfully create a great learning environment without it. It's just one idea to consider.

Join the conversation...
What is your opinion? How do you create conducive environments in your learning space?

P.S. For any of you who want to look, listen, and have an ear worm for the rest of the day, here you go:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

This One Day, In Sixth Grade...

Back in 1973, I started 6th grade at Guardian Angels School in Clawson, Michigan. My teacher was Miss Schaldenbrand, and I was the luckiest kid in the world. You see, she had been my 5th grade teacher, too, and because our class was so big, she moved up to 6th grade with us. Miss Schaldenbrand was the young, cool, hip teacher who actually listened to us, and took us on learning adventures outside of our classroom and school walls.

Yesterday, I spent the day shadowing a 6th grade student at Knapp Forest Elementary as part of the national Shadow a Student Challenge initiated by School Retool. The purpose is to develop empathy for students, and to drive action for improvement in our schools.

My host student (let's call her Phoebe) was so welcoming and included me in everything, even the bus ride to school:


My school did not have school buses, so in 6th grade, just like the years before, my mom drove us to school. Phoebe's mom actually works in the district, so she doesn't have to take the bus, but as she shared with me, "I love riding the bus!"

Well, that was a good thing, because once we got to KF, we didn't even get to go inside. We waited outside for another bus, one that would take us to the middle school for music. We had a little fun during the wait:

Thankfully, I had the right cold weather gear. Not as colorful as that of the other kids, but hey, at 54, I'm all about not freezing to death.

You might think that Phoebe plays the violin. Nope, one of her buddies had his violin out and played while we waited, and then let her take a try. This scene did not last long; we were asked to put the instruments away. In hindsight, perhaps not a good idea to be passing the violin around on a concrete area. In the moment, I was disappointed, and almost started with "why"? However, sensing that I had not yet acquired enough allies for a full-blown musical revolt, I bit my tongue.

Phoebe is a flute player, and really seemed to enjoy the moments of making music:


Once music was over, we boarded the bus and went back to KF. As we entered the classroom, it was like 1973 all over again: I was the luckiest kid in the world -- I was in Miss Kittridge's class. I say that with only a slight smirk on my face; the parallels between Miss Schaldenbrand and Miss Kittridge (as well as the other members of the 6th grade teaching team) are plentiful. 
[Side note: not so much between my principal, Sister Margaret Moran, and KF's Scott Haid.]
Miss Kittridge made me feel most welcome. I had my own desk, right next to Phoebe, and materials for Language Arts:

At this point, the 44 year gap in my 6th grade education became evident: I was not sitting in a row, and I was not in the back of the class because my last name begins with "W". I was in a quad, 
[Side note: would "squad" be appropriate here? Somewhere, my daughter just cringed.]
and when we lined up, I was #8.5 in line! No more last or near last (always grateful for the Zalenski family).

And we did line up pretty quickly -- it was time to go to Spanish. Hola -- didn't we just get here??? So, we went to Spanish. Here's a big change. We had no foreign language in my 6th grade. Well, except for the Latin we heard in our weekly school mass.  And of course, the pig Latin we all were fluent in. During Spanish, I had to use the restroom. I asked Phoebe where it was, and if I had to ask permission. Phoebe directed me to Senora Neely's handy poster ("Puedo ir al bano"), I raised my hand and tentatively uttered the words. Whether or not I was clear, she responded with "si." 

After Spanish, we headed back to Miss Kittridge's classroom. Finally, a little time to relax! We sat on the floor for read-aloud, and enjoyed a snack. I forgot my snack, but Phoebe graciously gave me a box of Nerds. We listened to Miss Kittridge read from So B. It, and just like my classmates, I was devastated when she stopped. I wanted to know more! But before she stopped for good, she did stop earlier, and let us process our learning with a partner. Such rich conversations! We then moved into Language Arts, and worked on finding evidence to support our third body paragraph in that great debate of whether school be year-round.

Next, it was time for Science. 
[Side note: the Nerds made me hungry. When is lunch? An hour from now???]
I appreciated that in making our individual brainstorming chart, Miss Kittridge gave us several choices. I got right down to work, and I also found myself giving Phoebe some ideas on our two big questions: 1) How does the world around us impact my daily life? and 2) How does my daily life impact the world around us? A few minutes in, my (s)quad mates complimented me on my nice printing. Take that, Mrs. Leinenberger.

We finished up Science, and it was time for lunch. Hooray! Seriously, hooray! I never went to a school with hot lunch. This was my time. Spicy chicken patty sandwich and baked tater tots. Yes! As we were going through the line, we got to the salad and vegetable bar. Phoebe clued me in: "you have to take a vegetable, but you don't have to eat it." Good to know. I chose carrots and cucumber slices. By the time I got to the table, serious eating was already in progress. See, the faster you eat, the more time you have outside for recess. Unsure if I even chewed, the food and chocolate milk were consumed by me. I also wondered if perhaps Phoebe needed a break from her shadow at this point. I offered to let she and her friends just do whatever at recess without me, and quicker than a 6th grader eats lunch, she said okay. I needed to massage my esophagus anyway.

After lunch, the rest of the day was spent in Mrs. Stiles' room for math and social studies. Phoebe told me that math is her favorite subject. She asked mine. I replied "sociaI studies." Phoebe and the others gave me the look. Apparently, one does not just say that in 6th grade. So I quickly added, "I like Language Arts, too!" Heads began nodding. I'm ok.

In math, I experienced our new math curriculum (CMP3), and for the first time in my life, really "talked" math with others. As my two partners and I grappled with questions around surface area and volume in rectangular prisms, I found myself using my hands to create a shape to help us talk about the formulas. Pretty darn cool.

As social studies started, Miss Boles brought her class in, for a joint review for the micro-entrepreneur test. After directions were given, we broke up into groups of 5. 
[Side note: why did it have to be economics? I'm a social studies teacher, but that is the one thing I never taught. Seriously? Throw me a bone here. Ahhh, looking at gender disparities in certain African countries. Now I have a shot at pulling my weight.]
Here is what our group came up with:

Each group presented some information to the large group. Time for a confession: I totally sprawled out on Mrs. Stiles' bean bags. Exhausted! Mrs. Stiles and Miss Boles took pictures of each group's board, and shared them on the 6th grade website so that everyone could study from all work. I'd like to think that if we had such technology back in 1973-74, Miss Schaldenbrand would have done the same. Perhaps not Sister Agnes, but you never know.

Oh my gosh. It's the end of the day. 
[Side note: Phoebe looks excited to go to her after school civic theatre activity. Me, I plan on begging a ride from Miss Kittridge to get back to my car so I can go home and collapse. If I take the bus (Phoebe tells me it's 45 minutes on the way home), I will slump to the floor and wake up at 2am in the bus garage.]

A big thank-you to Phoebe, her classmates, Miss Kittridge, Senora Neely, Mrs. Stiles, Miss Boles, Mr. Haid, and everyone else at KF who made this experience possible and awesome. I cannot wait to debrief with the other district-level administrators who shadowed in different schools, and then take next steps!

Join the conversation...
Did you or anyone in your school take the SAS Challenge this year? If yes, what did you learn? If not, what are you waiting for?