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?

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Teacher Voice and Agency, Part III

"Teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling."
and this... 
and this...
Students of high-ability teachers outperformed those of low-ability teachers, but gains were highest among students whose teachers were both high ability (high human capital) and had stronger ties with their colleagues (strong social capital). Importantly, this work also found that even lower-ability teachers could perform as well as teachers of average ability if they had strong social capital.

and finally, this... 
"How do these highly effective teachers do it?  How do they manage these daunting tasks in a context where high-stakes testing and accountability have many educators frustrated and panicked?  They do it by staying focused on the things that they can control.  They know that fragmented learning and missing skills must be addressed before moving students on to the next skill....They understand that every positive instructional experience moves every student one step closer to graduation." Cathy Buryn

These findings support both collaboration and strong instruction as the keys to student achievement.

As teacher teams work together in an inquiry cycle or other improvement venue, at some point each teacher is back in their own room, teaching the students in front of them. It is time to implement the hunch or the plan, and this is the time that teachers are on their own. Using the art of teaching to deliver effective instruction that results in bell-to-bell learning, this is where each teacher employs his or her professional expertise to move every student forward, every day, no matter the size of the increment. And then, these teachers meet back together in their collaborative team, to review evidence of learning, and continue the cycle of inquiry.

This individual classroom agency, built on collaborative foundation, is crucial. As each team comes to macro decisions, it is up to each teacher to make micro decisions, based on the uniqueness of their own students. What might that look like? On a macro level, let's say the math team decides that everyone will use the Notice and Wonder protocol to determine its impact on the problem-solving abilities of students. On the micro level, each individual teacher will decide how to group students, and will also respond to students during the learning in different ways, depending on each situation. No one is teaching exactly the same way as anyone else, but certain aspects of instruction have become common based on consensus. When the team reconvenes, a discussion of those artful moves ensues as the team reviews evidence of student learning. 

Collaborative inquiry boosts teacher voice, teacher agency, and teacher effectiveness. As teachers innovate and try out new ideas in their classrooms, their team has their back.

Join the conversation...
What are your experiences experimenting with team decisions in your individual classroom? How does the inquiry cycle blend the art and science of teaching and learning?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Formative Assessment For Innovation

Any time teachers seek to innovate an aspect of education, professionalism compels them to be sure that it actually enhances learning in the intended way. Collaborative teams spend an inordinate amount of time planning, and once implementation occurs, an intentional, well-designed formative assessment process that actively includes students is the next step.

Think about it in terms of buying a new car. The items we believe are crucial for a good driving experience are akin to essential learning standards: automatic transmission, power windows, all-wheel drive, leather seats, etc. There are many cars that might make the first cut. However, until you actually go take the car for a test drive, in different conditions and at different speeds, you don't know how it's actually going to feel or perform. You might drive two different sedans from two different manufacturers, with nearly identical accessory packages. Chances are, one is going to just going to be a better fit, and you only know it from the test drives. You may also realize that something you believed was crucial in the car is now just not as important.

That's the way the formative assessment process works: it gives teachers real time information about and from students and their learning that can be used right now. With evidence of student learning in hand from an on-going formative assessment process, teacher teams are able to collectively check in with each other and figure out if the team is making the intended difference. "Looking back brings intellectual discipline to our inquiry work." Is it enough? If not, what has the team learned? In either case, what is the next step? 

And how might a team bring their learners into the process, to obtain evidence and plan the next step? Consider this thought:
"In many schools, learning how to give learners agency through formative assessment can be transformational for those who previously thought their main job was to deliver content."
Teacher voice and student voice, combined, is a powerful force! 

Checking in with students is not only vital to the inquiry cycle, but it also models curiosity for them. And curiosity is key for innovation.

Join the conversation...
How does your team use the formative assessment process? 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Essential Learning Standards -- The Gateway to Innovation

How do we move away from Carnegie Units or other methods of equating the quantity of time spent with learning content? Even the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching now asserts that
"at best, the Carnegie Unit is a crude proxy for student learning." 
State content standards are based on the Carnegie Unit, in that teachers are expected to teach (and students are expected to learn) "X" amount of content within "X" amount of time. Variables such as learning levels, class size, and resources are irrelevant. All standards are created equal.

Enter essential learning standards. These are the skills and knowledge that are essential for a student's progression to the next level of learning. They are derived from the state content standards and identified by teacher teams through a sustained collaborative effort. Instead of each standard receiving the same amount of time, teacher teams, using their professional expertise, determine which standards are essential. This then allows teachers to zoom in and ensure that every single student learns and is able to demonstrate proficiency in the essential standards, thus readying them for the next level of learning. It doesn't mean the other standards are ignored, but rather, actually sets students up for long-term success.

Identifying essential learning standards is not for the faint-hearted. It requires a team dedicated to success for each and every student, and a willingness to engage in uncomfortable or protracted discussion about differing views on the standards. What one teacher views as essential, another may not. It requires a deep, sustained dive into the standards, and probing meaning. It absolutely needs a principal dedicated to support, professional learning, and allocation of resources. Sometimes, it means a teacher has to compromise and relent on spending a week teaching his or her favorite topic, because the consensus is that it is not essential for the next level of learning. That is hard, because we are so invested in our content. It also means that when we leave the collaborative sessions, I carry out the work of the team with my students, and bring evidence of learning back to our next session. Even though it is hard, it is the right work. And in the end, when we see student success, it is satisfying work.

Once teacher teams have identified essential learning standards, and taken them for a test drive through the cycle of inquiry one or more times, the learning begins to become portable. We can begin to imagine a world where combining portions of the biology and history essential learning standards to create a real-world experience in disease migration is possible, and students still are meeting state graduation requirements. We can free up time during the tight master schedule to allow all students to discover and pursue their passions. Heck, we might even be able to lose the hourly bells that theoretically signal the beginning and end of learning! The possibilities are immense.

Join the conversation...
What are your experiences with the identification of essential learning standards? What possibilities for innovation do you see with them?

Thursday, August 3, 2017

How Professional Learning Communities Can Innovate Through Inquiry

Professional Learning Communities -- or PLCs -- are structures through which teacher teams collaboratively learn and work to improve practice and increase student achievement. While we use the term "PLC" in our district, it's not the name but the teamwork that defines us.

When school starts in a few weeks, FHPS teachers will be re-engaging in our inquiry cycle:

Across our district, all teacher teams formally began using this inquiry cycle during 2016-17, although many had already used some variation in prior years.

So, how does this work lead to innovation? Here are a few excerpts from the research of Timperley, Kaser & Halbert (A Framework for Transforming Learning in Schools: Innovation and the Spiral of Inquiry, 2014):

"Although reformers like to argue the relative merits of improvement, innovation and accountability, these distinctions are not relevant to practitioners struggling to make learning more engaging at this moment in their particular context."
*          *          * 
"What works in one setting does not always work in another. There are nearly always competing demands -- creativity or strong basic skills -- sometimes set up as dichotomies when they are best integrated because both are important. This is why we are inviting educators to engage in a process of systematic and disciplined inquiry that results in real changes to practice that helps address these challenges. As educators we all want to engage with ideas and work that makes a big difference."
*          *          * 
"[A]s teachers become more confident with the inquiry process, and with co-creating their own learning, they become increasingly curious about other strategies and approaches to meet the needs of their learners more effectively. From new learning comes new action -- and innovative practices begin to multiply."

As we begin year two as a collective whole, the experience and confidence of each of our PLCs within the inquiry cycle continues to grow. And, as our teachers progress with exploring the impact of changes in practice on student learning, their collective expertise and successive iterations will lead to more and more innovative practices that are real and contextualized for learners. As the authors note, once educators "experience the power of inquiry to change their learning environments and make education a more rewarding experience, it is impossible to stop. Inquiry is not a 'project', an 'initiative' or an 'innovation' but a professional way of being."

Join the conversation...
How has the inquiry cycle led to innovative practices in your teacher team?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Teacher Voice and Agency, Part II

The slide is from Russ Quaglia's presentation that I wrote about last week, in which I discussed teacher voice as a prerequisite for student voice. For me, the visual poses a question: how do we balance innovation with the standard operating structures and procedures (SOPs) in our schools to provide equilibrium? In Russ's visual, there needs to be a fairly stable balance in order for teacher voice to be heard. In other words, tipping too much toward innovation or too much toward SOPs may have the impact of muting teacher voice.

Another perspective is offered in Suzie Boss's new book, All Together Now: How to Engage Your Stakeholders in Reimagining School:
Even in this current era of rapid change, educators have good reason to be cautious about adopting the next new thing. No one wants to gamble on our students' futures. Seasoned teachers who have seen previous initiatives come and go can't be blamed for keeping their heads down, waiting for this storm to pass.
If you're keeping your head down, we probably can't hear your voice. This is where Timperley, Kaser & Halbert (A Framework for Transforming Learning in Schools: Innovation and the Spiral of Inquiry, 2014) offer sage advice:

We said earlier that it is important to 'get started'. However, it is also important to avoid the temptation at this stage to rush into 'doing something'. The 'let's just get going' spirit needs to be resisted -- not forever but for long enough to increase the odds that our actions will have the impact we desire. We need to have the courage and patience to slow down and develop a deeper understanding of what is worth spending time on before moving to hasty action. Focusing well will lead to informed action.
The authors also highlight the concept that "engaging in inquiry is a process of developing collective professional agency either within a school or across a cluster of schools."

So, how might teacher voice and collective professional agency look in a balanced system? Here is an example from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership:

Image result for collective professional agency

The highlighted terms -- processes, knowledge, culture, relationships, resources, and context -- elevate teacher voice and agency. When teacher voice is elevated, student voice will be elevated. And when that happens, the conditions for meaningful change are ripe.
Image result for linchpin 

In conclusion, I'll leave you with this statement from Boss: "Teachers are the linchpins of school change."

Join the conversation...
How would you balance innovation and SOPs to ensure equilibrium?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Teacher Voice and Agency

So, I'll never be mistaken for a professional photographer, but I share this picture of Russ Quaglia because I learned something very valuable from him last week: there is no student voice without teacher voice.
"We have been encouraging teachers for years to foster student voice—to guide students in using their voice to build relationships, become engaged in learning and life, and develop a sense of purpose and responsibility. We have come to understand that this cannot be fully realized without teachers themselves experiencing the very same thing: opportunities to develop and utilize their own voices in an environment that respects and supports the process. It is like asking someone who has never been under water to teach someone how to scuba dive!... It is being able to speak openly about your opinions, ideas, and suggestions in an environment that is driven by trust, collaboration, and responsibility. Teacher voice is about listening to others, learning from what is being said, and leading by taking action together." (Quaglia & Lande, 2017, pp. 12-13)
Wow. So, how much are we promoting teacher voice? As with many things, it likely varies on time and place. But it did get me thinking about if/how we support teacher voice in our district.

For those of you outside of our district, a little history: in early 2016 we decided to leverage the professional knowledge and skills of our teachers in a new way, based on overwhelming teacher feedback received after a day of learning with Kenneth C. Williams, represented here:

"Teachers are leaders. It is our responsibility to continue to seek best practice, and in that, evaluate the result of implementing the practices - is it working?"
"I would like to work with my department to identify the standards that all students will meet."
"Collaboration is key. We need to support and help each other and also can learn new things from one another."
"I am looking forward to sitting with my team to discuss standards, create assessments and analyze student learning and teacher practice."  
"It's important for teachers to discuss the essentials. I also liked that Williams emphasized that you have individual creativity in how you approach teaching those essential items." 

Through our contract negotiations, we established a handful of 1/2 day "teacher collaboration" times for this work, and many principals were able to re-work schedules to fashion common planning times for their teams. Two of our three high schools use bi-weekly one-hour delays for the work to supplement monthly team meetings. Once thing is certain, though -- there never seems to be enough time for all of the great work teachers want to do.

Our principals engaged in two full days of learning and planning once school was out, and in fall of 2016, they launched a multiyear professional learning and inquiry cycle journey in their schools, encapsulated here around the DuFour Four Questions:

We didn't label it "teacher voice," but is it teacher voice in practice? 

And I'm really asking that question -- if you are reading this blog and teach in our district, is this inquiry cycle promoting and supporting teacher voice? If yes, share your story. If not, why not? How else might we do it?

If you have experiences with other environments that promote teacher voice, I'd love to hear about them, too.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Common (Mis)Understandings About Innovation

In the article Becoming a Learning Organization, Chris Bigenho describes one team's journey to talk about innovation across schools and organizations. The difficulty they encountered, one which is likely familiar to many, was the lack of a common definition of "innovation."

After some learning, Bigenho's group landed on a definition from John Kao: "a set of capabilities that are possessed by individuals, teams, countries, or geographies that allow the continuous realization of a desired future."  Using that as a lens, the team continued its learning journey, and found many common attributes of meaningful school innovation:

  • deliberateness in approach, with the innovation visible as systemic change
  • knowing thyself first (embodying the mission and vision, and knowing the school's place and role in the market and society)
  • accepting and participating in the tension that innovation creates, through active communication and building of social capital
  • utilizing diverse, functional teams with a prescribed purpose
  • active and supportive school leadership
  • hiring for innovation to support growth toward the desired future
If you choose to read the article, three different schools are highlighted for their efforts toward systemic change. In case you don't have the time right now to read the full piece, I will highlight two quotes from Bigenho that I am still contemplating:

"If a school has the funding, it's fine to construct new STEM/STEAM buildings or find new ways to use technology in the classroom. But I want to make it clear that a tight focus on adding more technology into a school program isn't, in and of itself, innovation. It may represent a movement toward innovation within the organization but is not innovation as an organization. The latter should be the goal."
"I often ask schools: Is your school an institution of learning or a learning institution? Schools with a strong sense of identity and with systemic programs that move the school toward some desired state are schools that are getting smarter as organizations. These schools are learning organizations. And in the era of such quick and constant change, they are the schools most likely to thrive over time."

Join the conversation...
What do you think about using the Kao definition for school innovation? Should innovation be thought of as systemic change? Anything in the last two quotes resonate with you?

Monday, June 5, 2017

This Book Will Change Your Life

Aspire High

My friend (and student voice research colleague) lent this book to me. I've been meaning to read it, but it has sat on my desk for a few weeks. This morning, I started thumbing through it and read so many nuggets of truth. Here are just five:

  • "Students are neither your customers nor your clients; they are your partners...their points of view on your classrooms, school, and district provide vital information if you are to improve their education."
  • "[T]here is no 'color-blindness'...race is a factor in students' experiences of the world, as are other physical attributes such as gender or being differently abled. As a result, students can teach their teachers a great deal about how their backgrounds, thoughts, feelings, and worldviews are shaped by race, particularly if student and teacher come from different racial backgrounds."
  • "In nearly every learning situation, point of view matters. One student may count the paragraphs in eager anticipation of his turn to read aloud, whereas another may dread the very thought of speaking in front of others."
  • "[A]dults are the school's 'leading learners." They are learning role models, continually curious, constantly questioning, wondering, probing, failing, and pushing themselves and the young people in their classes to go further, deeper, and broader."
  • "[T]he focus is not on evaluation in this sense, but rather on teacher growth and formation based on what the teacher is consistently , constantly learning and applying. Teacher learning, in turn, is directed by the teacher and is informed by the school's goals. Teachers are not just learning for learning's sake, but for their students' sakes -- more to the point, for their students' aspirations' sakes. Obviously, students are integral to this growth process. Teachers are held accountable for their learning as it applies to student learning and outcomes."
This book has and continues to change my thinking (if not my life). Any of you out there want to join in a book study this summer? We could engage in a chapter-by-chapter discussion through technology. 

Join the conversation...
Have you read the book? What are your thoughts on the bulleted items? Interested in the book study?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Without The Why We Just Comply

Back in 2014, under an instructional coaching blog, I wrote about the importance of understanding the Why behind any program or initiative we are engaged in. A lot of it was based on Simon Sinek's TEDTalk. if you haven't seen it, or watched it lately, click the link.

As much as I believe we need the "why" to innovate, I still see a lot in education that is about compliance. Sometimes that comes from government entities when we fill out reports, and sometimes that comes from within, in the form of "please just tell me what to do."

This is why (pun intended) I was hesitant in the last post to talk about checklists. Compliance and innovation are antithetical. Here is my wondering: does a tendency toward compliance arise because we as leaders fall short on building a consensus around the "why"? It reminds me of the stereotypical answer of a parent to the child's question of "why" -- "because I said so." I'll admit that as an exhausted parent, I dreamed of compliance! But our teachers  deserve so much more from us. They are intelligent adults who have the capacity to not only understand the why, but to embrace it, make it their own, and enrich student learning from it. After all, we all went into education because we are passionate about kids learning.

In terms of students, they also deserve a "why" to avoid compliance (memorizing for the sake of test regurgitation only). I've seen teachers do it masterfully in the unpacking of a well-crafted learning target, or using students' passions to drive teaching and learning around the standards.

But with compliance having such a long life in education, and the traditional roles of principal, teacher, and student being so deeply embedded, it is really hard for many to move beyond compliance. That is why the "why" is so desperately important.

If I could only pick one "why" around education innovation, it would probably be that we need to prepare and empower our kids to be change agents in multiple fields (see earlier post on the T Profile). The "what" and "how" must also be generated, but this is my "why" because the world is not organized into neat categories.  

Join the conversation...
What is your "why"?

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?