Saturday, November 17, 2012

Maintaining a Blog is Hard!

     Watching the US Grand Prix practice rounds this morning and then opening my blog to see if there were any comments I had to respond to, I realized that I was attempting to maintain my blog so that it was functioning at it's highest level.

     Not quite like maintaining a F1 car like this Lotus team to the left.  Still, if I want to get the most from my writing, and I want my readers to get the most from my writing, I need to keep my hand in on the process.

     Before taking this tack with this post I went through my posts from November and December of last year.  What was I looking for?  I'm not really sure.  But last year was my most successful, as far as number of posts, and I know I had some posts that really resonated with some readers.  There were a few trends I noticed.  For one, beating my self up over not writing as consistently as I wanted.  I have been really hard on myself for not posting more because my "numbers" weren't at the level they were last year.

    Number of posts doesn't always go hand-in-hand with quality.  But, being a math guy, I do see the numbers and when I finished my 52nd post last year I was very excited because I had suddenly met my post-a-week goal.  And, this year, when I was behind my pace from last year I started getting mad at myself.  I really wanted to get posts up so I could meet my mark again.  Well, that aint gonna happen.  I am NOT going to write 52 posts this year.

   So why maintain a blog at all?  I write, mainly, to reflect on things going through my head.  I blame that on being a PBL teacher.  In Project Based Learning we are always having our students reflect on their learning.  We have them do journal entries and "tickets out" telling us what they learned or are still confused about as they leave the classroom, during the project.  Then we ask our students to critique themselves, their group partners, the project as a whole, and their teachers at the end of a project.  Reflection and learning go hand-in-hand.

     It naturally follows that I reflect on every aspect of what I do as an instructional coach and a teacher.  How could things have gone differently?  Notice I didn't say better.  That was by design.  It's easy to look at the negatives that come to the front when you reflect.  It's a better idea to look at every aspect, good and bad.  If I narrow my scope of reflection I can say that as a New Tech Network trained teacher I use a critical friends protocol when I examine how things have gone.  This protocol asks you to look at things you "liked," things you "wonder" about, and "next steps" you can take for future work.

    My next steps, in life, are to reflect upon what has occurred and write them down in this blog.  I like the fact that I do this.  I like the fact that a handful of people will read what I wrote.  I like the fact that 1 or 2 of the readers might leave a comment.  And, I like the fact that I do this on a regular basis.

     I wonder if I can ever get over looking at the stats for this blog.  I wonder if I will ever write a post that is suddenly read by hundreds of people with dozens of comments.  I wonder if I can be stronger with my content of my posts.  And, I wonder how many years I will keep this blog going.

     My next step is to hit publish on this post and not worry about what happens next..... PUBLISH....

Monday, November 12, 2012

Keeping a Focus on Learning

     At Decker Middle School I have a principal who understands the difference between a focus on teaching and a focus on learning.  And, I don't have to say that because I want a raise - I am being sincere.

     He has really opened my eyes to the difference between these two and now he is starting to get through to our staff on how they are different.

    This afternoon he met with the department heads and we discussed how things are going so far this year.  I won't get into their responses here but I would like to make some observations:  (1) he is new to the school,  (2) I (the only instructional coach and a rookie at that) am new to the school,  (3) the superintendent and a large percentage of his curriculum and instructional staff are new to the district, and (4)  there are a lot of new systems and technologies in place to work with curriculum.

    All of this newness has added to what would normally be a stressful part of any school year - the first 90 days.  The biggest "new" expectation would be in our cycle of instruction.  First we look at the core curriculum in 3-week bundles.  Next we look at what the district pacing guide says should be taught during those 3 weeks and we look at those standards that should be included in the 3 weeks.  Finally we select a few standards that are considered the most important and we label them our Power Standards. (See my earlier posts on this: here and here )

    After we select our power standards we lay out our 3 weeks with what standards will be addressed each day of the 3 weeks.  Next we plan a 10 question formative assessment that is given towards the end of the 3 weeks.  This is so the teachers will be able to see how our students have done on the power standards and to set up plans for any reteaching that will need to be accomplished during the week after the assessment.  Once the test is given our teachers are expected to analyze the data and write down a plan about reteaching skills that were not mastered.  They are also expected to discuss, with others in their subject area, the successes or failures that other teachers may have had so that instruction can be modified for success.

   This process repeats every 3 weeks.  This week was the week for re-teaching from the third cycle.  But it also is the point where they are planning the assessment for the fifth cycle.  Next week they will be giving the assessment for the fourth cycle.  At the end of the sixth cycle they will also have to give their semester exam - a summative assessment that coincides with the cycle assessment.  Oh, and by the way, our teachers also have to turn in lesson plans each Monday for the week.  This is definitely NOT like it was when I first started teaching in 1992!

   All of these data driven decisions are for one reason - to help our students learn.  It really is all about their success as learners.  Our teachers would not be working this hard if all they wanted to do was be good at teaching.  I know a lot of teachers who can give awesome lectures and tests that make you think.  But how many of them really know how much each of their students learned?  They can tell you how many A's, and B's they gave though.

    At our school we are all about how our students are learning (or not learning).  And, we are all about improving on successes and stopping failures during our process of analyzing results.   This, in a nutshell, is a LOT of work for our teachers.  It has also been a lot of work for our administrators and our lone instructional coach (me).  But we are banking on this being a very successful year - followed by another, even more, successful year next year.  We owe that to our students and we owe that to our future leaders.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Where Do I Find Project Ideas?

I'm just not a creative person.  I never had a big imagination.  I can never think of great ideas.  How do you come up with these project ideas?

I hear this all of the time from people new to PBL.  They really think that there will be a dearth of ideas and they will struggle when it comes to planning a PBL unit.  In fact, when you have standards that you are trying to plan from there will be ideas.

Standards are the key.  Until you have taught at least one school year with standards based PBL then I do not recommend creating a project followed by adding standards to it.  And, even then, the majority of your PBL units should be standards based.

There are several reasons I could list for this but the main two reasons are, first,  that by starting with the standards teachers guarantee that they have thought about the curriculum and, second, this is where the ideas are going to come from.

Teachers have been creating problems in mathematics, labs in science, writing themes in English, and the same type of things in every other course since we have had teachers.  The idea here is that teachers are good about taking standards and creating tasks for students to do in the classroom.  With PBL, teachers take that up a notch and they add an inquiry based atmosphere to the classroom.  That's really all it is to this stuff.

For example, I had to teach parallel lines with a transversal in geometry class.  I just happened to see an article about the rice business in South Texas and the canals that are used.  Suddenly I envisioned parallel canals with crossing canals.  So to take that to the next step I had the students design barges to carry rice through the canal system.  They got to be creative and design barges and these barges had to be able to turn a certain number of degrees so they could navigate from any canal to any other canal.

Another example: my co-teacher and I had seen where a teacher had created pieces of art with her algebra classes using basic algebraic functions.  We had to teach the idea of functions and suddenly we had a project where students had to take parent functions and create artwork.

In each of these examples there was a need to teach certain standards and the project idea came from that requirement.  Here is a post I wrote a year ago that talks about getting started.  It is one of a four part series on jumping into PBL for the new year.  Feel free to read that series if you are thinking about getting started in this process.   You can do it and, with the standards as your guide, you will have project ideas to work from.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

PBL Should Not be Done in A Vacuum

One of the most important skills students learn in PBL is collaboration.  It only follows that PBL teachers work best when they collaborate with their fellow teachers; with their friends; with their family; with social media friends; or with their students.

Each phase of the project planning works best with a partner.  For example, let's use the following list of project steps from the Buck Institute for Education:

   - Select your standards
   - Develop a Project Idea
   - Decide the scope of the project
   - Decide the 21st Century Skills to be taught/assessed  
   - Decide the Culminating Product

When you look at your standards that are coming up in your curriculum, what other subjects might have standards that are related?  If you are teaching Parent Functions, for example, maybe you could have your students create artwork from them and maybe one of your art teachers might have some standards related to that.  Or, maybe there is a school-wide art show that your students could enter their finished products.

Maybe your Science standards are related to alternative energy.  Can you enlist the help of your English  Language Arts teacher to help your students write editorials to your town's newspaper or to an alternative energy website?

Suppose you are planning to have your students create a "market" with your students buying and selling food using their Spanish (or other language) skills.  Do you have a culinary arts teacher to work with on this?  Or is there a farmer's market in town that you could actually set up a booth to make and sell foods from this country?  You could raise money for the Spanish Club or some charity organization.

The bottom line is don't do this alone.  Bounce ideas off of someone.  Brainstorm, as I tell my students, without any constraints.  Go wild with your ideas.  Then pull in the constraints that will affect every project: time, knowledge/skill level required, cost, and time.  Yes, time is an (the?) important constraint and can be the one key item that can kill an, otherwise, well thought out idea.  What are you waiting for?  Invite a friend to your local coffee shop and start brainstorming.