Monday, February 5, 2018

Going For The Gold

A 2014 Olympics video popped up in my social media feed this morning, and I clicked play. I've always been a sucker for the Olympics -- as a kid, I watched the Cold War play out in sports every four years, as we tallied our USA gold medal count against that of the USSR. The winter and summer Olympics were held in the same year, and there were only three TV channels competing for our attention, with only one of them (I remember ABC) carrying the Olympic coverage.

Nowadays, the Cold War is over, we've separated winter events from summer events in the same year, there is 24/7 coverage from a myriad of outlets, and the definition of an "amateur" has changed. Yet, the Olympics still mesmerize us. We love a good story, especially if it's an underdog. Much like education, a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same.

During my second or third view of this short piece, I began to see a metaphor for our innovation efforts:

Here are my initial takeaways:

  • Hard work, dedication, and falling down are crucial to achieving a vision. 
  • There are no shortcuts. 
  • You need a lot of support and cheerleaders, in both down and up moments. 
  • You cannot allow setbacks to stop you. 
  • You cannot allow shortcuts to seduce you.
  • If you need diagnostics and different training to overcome an obstacle, seek out professionals beyond your original team. 
  • There will be times you want to give up - don't. 
  • Have a plan and stick with it.
  • When you finally achieve your vision, no feeling in the world can compare.

Join the conversation...
Does the video resonate with you? What are your thoughts about how it may relate to our efforts in education?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


Scientific American defines turbulence as:

a phenomenon in which the orderly flow of a fluid (a liquid or a gas) disintegrates into seemingly unpredictable swirls, such as when a river flows round a rock, or when milk mixes with coffee.

Image result for turbulence milk coffee

Someone very smart (Dr. BetsAnn Smith) taught me that education also endures its own forms of turbulence, from multiple touch points:

  • Environments that we may respond to, and/or choose to ignore
    • political (power)
    • economic (resources)
    • social (status)
    • cognitive (identity)
  • Goals around our very existence 
  • Work in design, instruction, and data analysis
  • Formal "rules" that structure roles, schedules, classrooms, assessments, etc.
  • Informal climate and culture that involve networks, norms, and collaboration
  • People's knowledge, skills, dispositions, and values

The most effective strategies to deal with both expected and unexpected turbulence are coordination and coherence. However, some see those as "tightening," also known in education as "coupling," with a negative connotation that such strategies stifle creativity and innovation.

I would assert that like many things, it's about balance and strategic planning. Knowing that we can't coordinate or make sense about everything, we need to think and design around these questions:
  • How do we differentiate between symptoms and underlying problems?
  • What is most important to coordinate -- where do we place our emphasis and resources?
  • Is more coordination even possible? 
  • Are we comfortable with inconsistency as a reflection of rapid changes in demands and expectations?
  • Is it us? Do we need to learn to see more possibility in the turbulence?
As we seek to innovate, we need to enhance and deepen our understanding of what is happening and why. It is that analysis that will begin to transform us and our systems.

Join the conversation...
What other questions would you add to the list?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Exhaustive Joy

Image result for learning web

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting with several colleagues and we were talking about content standards. More out of ignorance than intention, I posed a question about the relationship between standards, curriculum, and textbooks that changed the whole course of our discussion and led us to diagramming the relationship on a whiteboard.

While the relationship is certainly complex, our first attempt sketched it out as somewhat linear, in five steps. As I outline it below, I'm reflecting on where the greatest opportunities for innovation lie. *Spoiler alert* -- I'm currently thinking numbers 3 and 5:

1. Teachers are hired to teach...students

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I am confident that I spent too many years teaching history, not historians. Regardless of schedule, grade level, or school assignment, first and foremost we teach students. Living, breathing, complex individuals, no two who are exactly alike. That is the exhaustive joy of teaching and learning.

Students are at the center of everything we do, and should be the center of every decision we make, large or small. Without them, we have no purpose and we don't exist as an organization.

2. Teachers are hired to teach students...state academic standards

Back in 2014, I wrote an instructional coaching post entitled "Romancing the Standards". It was a superficial look at getting back in touch with our content standards. Since then, I've had the good fortune to spend time diving into social studies standards, and really examining the word choice (especially verbs) with the lens of assessment blueprinting. In other words, in order to write more authentic, standards-based assessments, I needed to better understand exactly what the standards called for.

When we view academic standards as expected outcomes for all students, and continously review the actual language of our standards to refresh and deepen our own understanding, it is time well spent to increase student learning. Another benefit is that when the state changes some (or even all) of the academic standards, our ability to process and execute upon those changes is greatly enhanced because we are used to being immersed in the standards themselves.

One final note: since the academic standards are legislated by the state, we do not get the option of ignoring them. However, keep reading to see what control we do have, and think about how it lends itself to innovation.

3. Teachers are hired to teach students state academic standards...using a district curriculum structure developed collaboratively by teachers and other instructional leaders

The line between standards and curriculum can be very, very fuzzy. The Michigan Department of Education distinguishes them as follows:
The state academic standards...serve to outline learning expectations for Michigan’s students and are intended to guide local curriculum development. They should be used as a framework by schools for curriculum development with the curriculum itself prescribing instructional resources, methods, progressions, and additional knowledge valued by the local community. Furthermore, these standards provide a platform for state assessments, which are used to measure how well schools are providing opportunities for all students to learn the content outlined by the standards.
A more succinct difference is offered by Karin Chenoweth, albeit not in a Michigan-specific context:
[A]n important distinction needs to be made between standards — which outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level — and curriculum — which is what happens day to day and week to week in classrooms. Standards remain constant, but curriculum can be altered year to year or classroom to classroom to ensure students are meeting the learning goals.
So, while the academic standards are the "what," the locally-developed curriculum is the global "how."

Within our district, instruction office personnel, including coaches, have or currently are working with representative K-12 ELA, math, science, and social studies teachers and principals to update/create district curriculum documents. In individual schools, teacher teams use their collective expertise and an inquiry cycle to tailor the curriculum for their specific students. We also provide professional learning to support teams in doing their best work with students.

4. Teachers are hired to teach students state academic standards, using a district curriculum structure developed collaboratively by teachers and other instructional leaders...supplemented by district-purchased curriculum resources (e.g., textbooks, software, sample assessments, etc.)

These resources are flexible, yet imperfect. Since they are not locally-created, we always have to be on the lookout for alignment issues (even when the resources claim they are aligned!). Nonetheless, these resources provide teachers with potential tools to help implement the curriculum. 

What is clear is that the textbook (or any other resource) is NOT the teacher, nor is it the curriculum. That challenges the thinking of some (parents, teachers, etc.) who were taught during a time that the textbook was the end-all, be-all. When in doubt, the academic standards and approved curriculum are what we can always rely on to guide the path.

5. Teachers are hired to teach students state academic standards, using a district curriculum structure developed collaboratively by teachers and other instructional leaders, supplemented by district-purchased resources...all of which teachers draw upon to intentionally plan and implement high-quality, differentiated instruction.

No resource or document will ever replace the impact of a highly-effective teacher. The art of teaching is just that -- an art. Utilizing professional judgment, and research-based practices such as those found in our Instructional Framework, teachers plan and implement learning experiences intended to result in deep learning for all students.

This is really hard work, and while teachers are usually alone with students during daily teaching and learning, the work leading up to implementation (and reflection afterward) is best done within teams. It is why our district professional learning goal for 2017-18 is exactly the same as it was for 2016-17: "To improve instruction every day for every student through collaborative and continuous learning for all educators." 

It is within this team approach that teachers continue to improve their craft, whether it be around prioritizing state academic standards, investing in the formative assessment process, providing high quality instruction, or beginning down the road to using evidence to differentiate. Our profession means too much, and is too hard to go it alone.

It is within teams and the cycle of inquiry that I believe innovative methods can more quickly be tried and measured for success. If five of us work on an idea together, implement it for a trial run, and then meet to discuss the measured results, students are the winners. Together, we can tweak the idea and try it again, continuing to improve our craft and elevating learning for all students. And together we experience that exhaustive joy that is at the core of all we do.

Join the conversation...
Where do you see the the greatest opportunities for innovation? What are we not yet considering?

Friday, December 1, 2017

"It's Bigger Than Me"

(Matt Meyer, Heather Martin, Emiko Conroy, Tim Greenlee)

On November 16th, Forest Hills Public Schools acknowledged the collaborative achievements of Knapp Forest's fifth grade teachers with its first-ever "Teacher Team of the Year" award. The next week, I sat down with the team to record this podcast (check it out -- run time is 18:40).

Highlights from the podcast...
The team's journey began in earnest about four years ago, when they took a deeper look at the DuFour PLC questions:

1. What is it we expect all of our students to learn?
2.  How will we know if they have learned it?
3. How will we respond when one or more of them don't learn it?
4. How will we respond when one or more of them already know it? 
(In our district, these four questions underpin our inquiry cycle)

Beginning with one unit in math, and with some self-acknowledged skepticism, they decided to try grouping all of the kids based on what they needed around fractions -- or as the team described it, the "fifth grade nemesis."  The students were given a pretest, and each teacher took a different tier of students. When the team analyzed the data at the end of the unit, Heather said they were "blown away" at the growth exhibited by every single student. She adamantly noted, "we couldn't turn our backs on that data."

The team continued the new model for math, and at end of the school year, they decided to go all in with language arts as well. They planned together over the summer, and launched the next fall with reading, writing, and math. 

The teachers change growth groups unit by unit, and year by year. The team believes that this grows their teaching practice, and continues to push them to learn. It also breathes life into the idea articulated by Tim, that "these are all our students, and we're going to find a way to work with all of them, and get all of them to grow." It shows students that it doesn't matter which homeroom teacher they are assigned to at the beginning of the year - they have four teachers, all committed to each of them.

The model also enhances student engagement. As Emi shared, "I think that they look forward to coming to school. I look forward to coming to school, too, you know, and working with all of these individuals. And the kids, they come into school ready to learn, and I think it's attributed to having teammates like this."

As we wound up our conversation, Matt voiced advice that his teammates wholeheartedly agreed with: "Accept that the job is bigger than one person. That it's okay to blow up the model. And we're all products of the model...but you gotta have the trust to say, 'it's bigger than me. I need help to do it better for the kids.'"

Join the conversation...
As suggested in the podcast, what's the "one small bite" your team could take as its next step? Wondering how this might look in high school? Check out this article that explains how a school changed its master schedule to growth-group in English 10.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Re-Thinking the High School Schedule

Recently, someone shared a report with me, entitled The Student-Centered, Data-Driven Master Schedule. During my first read, I gleaned several nuggets:
"...redesigning the school day to improve how instructional time is used."
"...the needs of the student should determine the scope of the master schedule."
"The use of multiple data points to accurately describe a learner's needs will empower the school leader to schedule students in a way that ensures all students reach their highest potential."
"...all decisions are based on student needs."
This all seemed quite different from what I have previously read about rethinking the high school schedule, which was squarely based on moving the starting time back. It made me realize that if we don't review and improve how instructional time is used, all directly 
related to learner needs, changing the starting time is likely irrelevant.

As the authors note, this type of systemic change takes time, and input from all stakeholders. I recently heard Julia Putnam say something to the effect that our misconception that systemic change can happen fast is what exhausts and disillusions us as educators. While within the system, how might we make change that is not "of" the system? If all schedule decisions are made based on student needs, what about the teacher whose teaching assignment drastically changes? Are we ready for the potential of making some adults uncomfortable? This quote resonated:
"Teachers are already encouraged to work in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in order to ensure the needs of students are being met....The change process has a similar aim in mind -- the student's welfare. Initially, teachers may feel worried or even apathetic to change....Keeping discussions focused on the school's mission and vision is the key to easing these concerns."
While I don't endorse the authors' change process as the only one possible, or that its goals are identical to the goals of every school or district, it is steeped in the work of both Michael Fullan and Richard Elmore. And it does encourage us to ask ourselves if our current master schedule mirrors our vision, mission, and instructional focus on meeting the individual needs of all students.

Join the conversation...
What are your thoughts about entering into a change process around the high school master schedule? What might be some of the challenges?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hard Conversations That Lead To Innovation

"We need to speak up for the field, advocate for the democratic ideals upon which our profession was based, speak for students who don't have a voice, for the best teaching possible for all students, for the professional cultures we deserve to work in and for the next generation of educators."

These words are found in the preface of Jennifer Abrams' book Hard Conversations Unpacked. Although the book is not written with education innovation in mind, her premise -- "We all need to learn how to speak up skillfully around what matters" -- is key to moving the work forward.

Of course, there must first be a foundation of trust. As Megan Tschannen-Moran writes: "Trust is one's willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent." And trust begins with each one of us asking ourselves questions such as:
  • Am I fully invested in the work of our PLC?
  • Do I adhere, in spirit and in practice, to the agreements our PLC makes?
  • Do I embody our district guiding principles in my interactions?
  • Am I willing to embrace feedback with a student-centered lens?
Once we have answered those questions for ourselves, and shared our thinking with our colleagues in a norms-based environment, we can begin to build a culture that elevates hard conversations as a means of educational innovation.

Abrams' book provides templates and practical ideas for most of the "what ifs" that can deter us from starting a hard conversation. They're called "hard" conversations for the obvious reason -- they are hard. And, I would offer, our students are worth it.

Image result for not easy but worth it quote

Join the conversation...
Are we having enough hard conversations to move teaching and learning forward? What's helping us? What's in our way?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Building a Culture of Evidence-Based Inquiry

"[H]igh-quality teaching maximizes the time that learners are engaged with and successful in the learning of important outcomes."

The past few blog posts have explored the cycle of inquiry as a key component of education innovation. This post dives in deeper, around building a culture of evidence-based inquiry. The quote above is from Viviane Robinson's book, Student-Centered Leadership.

We would be hard-pressed to find a school that lacks evidence of student learning. From teacher observations to homework to test scores to class work and beyond, our schools are full of evidence. As Robinson points out:
"Quality teaching is developed through cycles of inquiry and action designed to increase the impact of teaching on the engagement and success of students. Although evidence about student achievement is an essential resource for such inquiry, the challenge for most school leaders is not the availability of such evidence but creating a culture in which it is used for the purpose of improvement."
As we look at evidence of student learning in an inquiry cycle, what lens are we using? Are we looking to confirm what we already believe, or are we willing to use the evidence to critically challenge ourselves?

Many principals and teachers are not yet steeped in critical analysis of evidence of student learning for improvement. One *free* resource that can help is the Introduction to Data Wise MOOC from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is a self-paced, eight-hour learning that is best done in teams.

One example in both Robinson's book and the MOOC that help shift from confirmation to disruption is the use of the ladder of inference:

How we interpret evidence, and then use it to make decisions, is a critical part of the inquiry cycle. As we innovate for improvement, we can use this process to disrupt traditional confirmation patterns that are normal in human interactions.

Join the conversation...
How does your teacher team approach analysis of evidence in the cycle of inquiry?