Saturday, December 28, 2013

If You Could Only Pick One (New Year's Resolution)

I just read a post by an educator, Tom Whitby, who I have known for about 6 years and have only met once. His post was entitled Year End Resolution Failure and, as the name implies, looked at why we so often fail at meeting our New Year's Resolutions.

His premise was that we should all just pick one thing that we commit to doing or changing this coming year. This makes it easier for us to be successful with our goal. So if I decide to follow his lead and only pick one thing to commit to this year, what would it be?

In 2014 I will be helping teachers, more than ever before, by sharing what I have learned about project based learning. I have several irons in the fire as I head in that direction. My possible goals, then, will be related to this mantle I carry.

The first is the completion of our 2nd year at Decker Middle School (DMS) with the New Tech Network (NTN). In their eyes, we haven't moved far enough in the direction they desired us to move. For this I could dedicate myself to being a stronger advocate for all things NTN.

The second is that I will be working in my first full year as a Buck Institute for Education (BIE) National Faculty member. I have tons to learn about facilitating groups of teachers new to PBL and who face obstacles of every shape and size in their path from conventional classroom teacher to facilitator of learning in the PBL classroom. For this I could strive to learn everything I can about how BIE's message is best conveyed.

Thirdly, I will be working with our teachers at DMS as their instructional coach. We want each of them completing PBL projects within the first month of school. To help with this, I could up my game and make sure I am in their classrooms more and offer to model classroom teaching for them as we try new and different teaching methods.

Fourthly, I will be working on, and hopefully completing, a book with Telannia Norfar this year. The book is PBL-based and we started working on it 6 months ago. I want to be near the 10,000 word mark when we go back to school on January 6th. That will be one fourth to one sixth of where we need to be when it is completed. To meet the completion goal, I could dedicate myself to writing, at least, 4 times a week. Or I could shoot for a word count of, say, 500 words a week.

Lastly, and not obviously related, I will be turning 56 next week. I'm obese. I'm starting to have health problems because of my weight. I need to lose about 60 pounds and I need to be physically active. I could dedicate myself to setting up a workout schedule and an eating plan to help me meet those goals. The only draw back I see is that EVERYONE says they want to lose weight and get in shape for their New Year's resolution. I hate doing things that everyone else is doing.

So, if I only had to pick one goal, which would it be? The obvious one, to me, is for me to regain my health and fitness. If I'm not able to help teachers or my family because I'm dealing with chronic health issues then I can't do any part of the first four items on my list. It's amazing how scary something as routine as working out can be when you've been a toad for a few years. I used to...(do a lot of things), but not anymore.

As I progress with my posts during the upcoming year, look for updates on my workout plan. There may be less educator stuff and more healthy habit stuff for a while but, hang in there and I'll be back to my old self in a matter of no time (or a few years - it took me years to put on this tonnage and it won't come off overnight).  I hope you all have a wonderful 2014 and that you learn a ton.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

7 Things I Learned This Year

For the last three weeks I've seen too many lists of things. The best of this and the worst of that. What I should be doing and what I shouldn't be doing.   What I should buy and what things are a waste of money. Everybody is an expert about something, it seems.

About the only thing I really know about is myself. I decided I would write down a list of things I learned this year. The first few items are some things I learned about myself and social media. This post is just something for me - like a diary entry. But I know a few might end up reading it. Maybe some of these things will resonate with readers. Maybe not.  I just hope that if you are still reading that you have a wonderful 2014, filled with good health and good cheer.

(1)  As with all things in life, I learned this year that there are some people who toot their own horn much too loudly. I know some who are great people with big, caring hearts and, yet, they are constantly tweeting all of the incredibly cool things they are doing. We hear about every person they interact with and every restaurant they eat in. We know their favorite drinks and how awesome they are physically.

At first I thought I was just being envious or, even, jealous. But then I heard some people that I really admire complaining about certain people getting away from who they really are. I wasn't alone in thinking that this was incredibly narcissistic. Sometimes I feel like I don't promote myself enough on Twitter. At those moments I step back and tell myself it's OK - I'm doing fine.

(2)  And with that... I don't get on Twitter much any more. I learned that keeping up with social media is incredibly time consuming. Over 5 years of being on Twitter and having over 2000 followers means that I get access to a ton of tweets. I use Tweetdeck to manage it all and I have my key Tweeps and hashtags that I follow in their own columns. But it still takes up too much time.

When you get away from Twitter for a few days (or weeks) you can really feel like the proverbial "third wheel" when you want to join in on a conversation. Most of the folks who follow me or I follow are good about welcoming me into their discussion but I still feel a bit awkward.

(3)  Facebook just isn't my thing.  I check it a few times each week but I rarely write anything on there more than about once a week. There's too much drama and too much politics and too much stuff that I was happy not knowing about. There's not much more to say about that.

(4)  Sometimes things aren't a good fit - and that's OK. I used to beat myself up if I wasn't a perfect fit in everything I attempted in life. At (nearly (next week)) 56 I now know that it doesn't always work like that. I wasn't a good fit at Manor New Tech H.S. but I made it through 4 years there because I felt I had to make it. When I moved on I felt like I had failed (and, in some ways, I had) but what was more true is that I didn't have the right personality for that place - I just didn't fit.

(5)  On a much more positive note, this year I started to write a book with my friend Telannia Norfar. And I learned that writing a book is incredibly demanding. We have tried several different incentive programs, with ourselves, and it is still difficult to put in the requisite time. We are about 6 months into writing and we haven't hit the 10,000 word mark yet. But we're going to finish in 2014.  Wish us luck (and the ability to stay strong).

(6)  I've written about this many times over the last 12 months, but I really am proud of what our teachers have achieved this year.  I learned that staying positive sure helps with that process.  When this school year started we put a lot of requirements on our teachers. From backward design in our planning process to creating a classroom culture for the gradual release of responsibility, our teachers met the challenge and (for the most part) have really put together powerful learning environments for our students.

I had to talk myself down a few times. Those 20 years of military life wanted to come barking through - (Just do it, damn it! Stop asking why! Grrrrr.....).  I can't wait until the beginning of next school year as we polish these processes up and make them shiny while adding only minimal (additional) requirements.

(7)  Finally, I learned that getting "back in shape" is easy to put on the back burner (doing something about it isn't). Being 56 and more than 56 pounds overweight do NOT go together well. Unless I do something about it I won't see 60. I have got to figure out how to get a schedule that I can maintain for more than two weeks. Once I can get into a habit of working out regularly then I will feel more compelled to do something about how awful I look and feel.  in 2014 I need to move it to the front burner and, pardon the pun, get hot!

Of course these weren't the only things I learned this year, but these were the first that came to mind. After looking over my list I have determined the following: I want to find more time to connect with Twitter but I want to concentrate on sharing good stuff.  I want to limit myself to even less time on Facebook - it's just not a place I enjoy going to.  I plan on doing more to help my teachers but I need to find a way to get more time for them and more time for myself during the work day. And, finally, I need to get out the door and start working out. If I don't have good health I won't be any help to anyone. I look forward to the new year. I hope to be able to write about some great things I learned this year at the end of next December.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

It's Great to Have Awesome Instructional Technology Specialists

This week I was sitting in on our ELA teachers as they were working with the Heart of Texas Writing Project. A discussion came up about publishing student work.  There was the usual talk about creating a newspaper or a magazine. But I instantly thought of online opportunities for sharing student work. That's because I am farther along the SAMR progression than many of our teachers. (To find out more about SAMR, I like to show people what Kathy Schrock wrote about it here.)

I spoke up and suggested that they think about doing something where the students can get their work out for a much larger audience. These teachers are great at what they do but they need to start thinking about the S (substitution) in the SAMR model - start substituting technology for that paper and pencil item.

I wished I had more time so I could walk these teachers through possible options when it occurred to me that we have incredible Instructional Technology folks in our district and this is exactly what they get paid to do - help teachers (and their students) create with technology. A short email to these talented folks and we had something set for when we return from the holiday break.

Do you have Instructional Technology people in your district? Do you utilize them the way they should ( and what they would like to ) be used? Do you ask them for help or to come in and model teach? All I have to say is use them, use them, use them.

We are very fortunate to have 3 awesome people: Jacob (@jacobtech), Stephanie (@Ms_Cerda), and Lacy (@whatifclass) who have come together and really made our district move in the right direction. I am thankful for a great school district who is starting to "get it" with technology integration. I'm thankful for many of our teachers who are starting to "get it" with technology and those other teachers who are out on "the tip of the spear" (to use my military terminology), pushing the limits on what their students are able to do in their 1:1 classrooms.

UPDATE: Since writing this post I found out that someone I knew was in the district, and is doing good things, is actually part of the IT world. She's mainly over at Manor High School which is why I wouldn't have thought of her. So feel free to say hi to Allison too.

Decker Middle School is a pretty darn good school. We have a long way to go to be where we want to be and to a level our community deserves, but we recognize that and we are moving in the right direction. Technology, "the hidden tool," is helping us with that movement. And our instructional technology specialists deserve some of the credit.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

When Is Your Teaching Practice "Good Enough?"

I struggled with my own teaching when I was at Manor New Tech High School (MNTHS). It never seemed that I was doing enough to have my projects sparkle with students eagerly learning. There were other teachers, there, who I thought I'd never be as good as when it came to project management. The rest of us, then, must just not be very good teachers, right?

Now that I've been away from there I know that not every teacher at MNTHS was a superstar at everything. As a matter of fact there were pockets of awesomeness in just about every classroom. But only a rare few were really great at everything. Why? Because PBL requires best practices. And most of us get really good at a few best practices and we struggle with other practices.

Take classroom management. There are some teachers who I call the "organizers." They color code and they number and they have every minute of every class period filled with activity. Students rarely have time to be off task because the next task is already in place. Then there are the "Mommy" teachers. They are the ones who get their classroom culture to a point where every student knows what is expected and they rarely are off task because "that's not how it's done in this class." I call them the Mommy teachers because students don't want to upset them. They love this teacher.

The Organizers are that way in real life and they don't worry about the upfront time required to make sure everything is color coded and sequenced. The Mommies are that way in real life too. They just like routines in place and they want their students to be collaborators. The students know what the classroom environment needs to feel like to be a safe working experience.

The teachers who are filled with awesome sauce possess each of these qualities. They work hard at the beginning of the year creating a safe workplace. And they work hard, every day, to keep the environment safe while being incredibly orderly. It takes a rare teacher to get to this level and that is something I beat myself up for never attaining. Why was I so hard on myself?

Teaching in a collaborative and reflective environment creates teachers who are very reflective in their practice.  Being reflective allows teachers to strive for doing better. And when you are surrounded by teachers who all possess some outstanding qualities it is hard for a reflective teacher to not want to do everything at the highest level. This results in one of two things: a teacher who never feels like they're good enough (like me), or, a teacher who works seven days a week to attain the highest level of perfection.

So is there a point where a teacher can say, "that's good enough?"  In my opinion there are two answers to this; the long term answer and the short term answer.  In the long term, even though it is hard to be reflective and do this, there are some things that a person must accept that, if they are going to improve, it will be at a very slow pace. This is usually because, whatever it is, just isn't second nature to the teacher. And, gasp, this may be something that the teacher decides just isn't going to be in their repertoire. What they are doing now is good enough!

In the short term instance it is ok to just say "I'm not going to do that this school year." That statement will probably be followed up by saying, "Next year I need to get together with Ms. Jones because she really is awesome at doing that."  Don't look back. Don't second guess yourself. This thing that you have decided to remove from your goal for the year really can wait. And let your administrator know that you will continue to do x,y, and z but this other thing is not attainable this school year. What you are doing, right now, is good enough.

Looking at the parts of a project, we can apply this to every step of the way. First, in project planning, make sure you DO plan each part of the project from entry event to scaffolding to assessment to final product and presentation.  Some teachers may routinely have incredible entry events. Your students come in all excited about this project that they are embarking upon in your neighbor's classroom. Well up your game! But just because that teacher makes Academy Award winning videos as her entry events doesn't mean you have to beat yourself up because you're not good at iMovie.

Reflecting on your daily routine, do you have an opening activity? Do you review Need to Knows, have time for a lecture, have time for research or other work, and have a closing activity?  Maybe your neighbor has each group color coded and they submit their group status updates via some app that you've heard is incredible. And there is a class status board in that room that gives a quick visual of where each group is in the process. If you don't feel comfortable incorporating all of this in your room, pick something that works well as a daily process. Then you can decide if you want to make changes later in this year or over the Summer before next school year begins. What you are doing is good enough.

The bottom line to all of this are these questions: "Are your students learning at a deep level?" Is your class routine organized with a beginning, middle, and end? Do your students feel safe taking chances where they may be wrong? Are your administrator, parents, and community members aware of the great things happening in your classroom?  If you can answer yes to all of these things then your practice is good enough.

Being reflective, you might start thinking about what you can easily improve so that your student's learning is an even greater experience? Darn, maybe we never are good enough. What do you think? Are you good enough?

Monday, December 9, 2013

21st Century Skills Must Be Taught and Assessed

It's been a while since I wrote a PBL post and the timing is right because I am creating a PD for our teachers on teaching and assessing school-wide learning outcomes (SWLO's). SWLO's are those things we want our students to know how to do outside of the content specific knowledge.

To many these are just the 21st Century Skills identified by business as important for all of their employees to possess.  These skills can be district specific, school specific, or even classroom specific. In Manor ISD, where I work and play, our school board has identified 5 that are part of our Graduate Profile. They are Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Digital Citizenship, Communication, and Work Ethic.

At Decker Middle School we have adopted the graduate profile as our SWLO's. And that means that within every project we want our teachers assessing one, or more, of the learning outcomes. But, as they always say, we shouldn't assess what we haven't taught. Therefore, if we are to assess collaboration we need to be teaching our students how to collaborate. And before we can have our teachers teach collaboration we need to make sure the teachers understand what collaboration looks like for a middle school student. And before that....

As you can see we can really dive down into the minutiae to ensure this is done properly. Where do we start then? Our first step is to make sure our teachers understand what we expect of them. What we expect of them is that they will schedule days that are specifically devoted to teaching one or more of the learning outcomes.

Our next two school PD's will encompass exploring these learning outcomes. We will look at what Manor New Tech High School uses for learning outcomes and what that school expects of their 9th graders for each of these. That level of expectation needs to be what we expect from our 8th graders as they leave us to head to 9th grade. Then we will break each one down to specifics that we will expect from our 6th graders and our 7th graders.

When students come to us (from their elementary schools) we will teach them what we expect our students to be able to do with the 21st Century skills. Then we will increase our expectations each year so that the average student entering high school will be at a level that our high schools can then hone as the students mature and become working members of society.

Once our students have been taught what they should be demonstrating it will be time for our teachers to assess how well our students are doing with these skills. Rubrics will need to be created. And teachers will want to create anchor charts or other visual aids for students to see every day.

We are focused on creating a culture of collaboration and reflection at DMS. Each of our learning outcomes is a part of this foundational culture. The difficulty is helping the teachers understand this so that they are able to build the culture within their students. We will be exploring how other New Tech Network schools teach and assess their learning outcomes.

This process will take time. We will put something in place this Spring and tweak it over the Summer. Reflection will lead to refinement and we will revisit these often over the years. Within a few years all of our current students will be populating our high schools. And when the class of 2020 graduates and heads to college, students from Manor will be well positioned to be leaders in the classroom and in the workforce.

Monday, December 2, 2013

You Can (and Should?) Have Your Own Blog

I have averaged better than fifty posts per year for three straight years. I'm proud of myself. And, yet, I feel like I don't write posts nearly often enough.

I write for me. I use the writing as therapy; as a reflective process; and as a way to document things I have done or learned. And this has been incredibly therapeutic.

There are days, like today, when I look at the link to my blog and wonder, "when did I last put up a post?" Or, "I have nothing to write but I need to put up a post." It feels like pressure but it's more of a gentle nudge to get off of my butt and start putting down words.

As a matter of fact, today I'm using this post as a reason to not do something I need to do for work tomorrow. So I guess you could add that as a reason I write. It's a lot more fun playing with words that are my own than coming up with words and ideas that I need to have for others to use or read.

There are lots of different places you can go to to create a blog. I chose Blogger almost 4 years ago because it was simpler to use than Wordpress and more professional than some of the educator-related blog sites. If I were to do it again today, I would probably set up on Wordpress or Edublogs. My friends over at Edublogs are awesome and it is a very easy place to set up shop. I opened an Edublogs blog when I moved over to Decker Middle School but I've never put up a post there.

Since I am only writing with myself as the target audience I don't have to worry about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). And neither will you, if that will be your goal. If you want to drive people to your site so you can make some money from the blog then you will need to be able to do analytics and Wordpress will be the way to go. I can do a lot of analysis in the back end of my blog, with Blogger, but I really don't worry about where people have come from before they opened my latest post. And, I don't spend time using the right words in the title or in the searchable title. It's just not important to me.

If you are worried about having something to say, then create your posts and don't tell anyone until you feel like you've written something meaningful. Or, you can do like I do and just publish it out there and not worry about what other people are thinking. The important thing is that you are writing down your thoughts, periodically, so that these ideas can leave your brain. When you can read what you have written you will feel better about life - I promise. As a matter of fact I'm smiling right now -
- just knowing that I'm getting this post done.  Of course I have that work to do for tomorrow. Better stop here and deal with it. But I refuse to stop smiling!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Writing - Enjoyable Pastime or Annoying Burden

I love to write. I'm not very good at it. I ramble a bit and I use too many commas. For example, I love starting sentences with "for example,." I also like to start sentences with "then,." But, the bottom line is, I like to write and I write what words/sentences appear in my head as I'm typing.

So, (there's that comma again) I opened my laptop this morning to work on my book. Actually it's a book I am co-authoring with a wonderful BIE pal - Telannia Norfar.  I opened my Google Drive and opened the doc. But I just didn't feel like writing.

Instead I opened this blog and started typing away. I wasn't (still aren't) sure what I will produce. But I know it will be about writing.  It's kind of like St. Patty's Day in 2009 when I wrote my first post: Happy St. Patty's Day . I created my Blogger account and just created a post from whatever popped into my head. As a matter of fact, I rarely know what I'm going to write before I write. That's because I know that once I start it will all just come together.

There are times that I have a topic that I really want to write about. And there are times when I'd like to write about a topic but I'm worried I'll offend my handful of readers. I'm still living my life as a tight-lipped Yankee with the additional pressure of being a retired military guy and a current teacher. I can't wait until I get to about 62 years old. I want to relax about what I say and what I do. Ironically, with 62 years of leading this life I may not be able to open up then.

I just paused and I have produced 4 paragraphs and this post is rolling along. Why,then, did the idea of writing in my book cause me such anxiety? I think because I feel pressured to: a) write a good book, b) do a good job so my partner is happy with what I write, and c) I need to finish this book - there's a deadline.

Deadlines and worrying about what you write are real cripplers. Instead of sitting with a glass of bourbon in a rustic cabin with a fire crackling, I'm sitting in my middle class, cookie cutter house, with the need to produce a masterpiece. The first visual reminded me of my ski condo in Tahoe in 1986. Sitting in a hot tub with the snow coming down all around me. And the glow of the fireplace showing through the window. Ahhhh....those were the days......

Sorry, I drifted off......Writing can be a real burden. So how then do you create great works if you are sitting with the weight of the world on your fingers? You need to find that place in your heart or head where you produce great things.  For me, I'm writing this to stir up my creative juices prior to working on my next chapter in the book. I'm writing so that I can write.

You shouldn't let writing become a burden. And, neither should we make writing a burden for our students. Let them have time to write whatever they want to write. Have them write in every content area - including P.E. and Music. Create a time for spontaneous writing: "For the next 15 minutes I want you to write about what you did this morning prior to walking into my classroom." And let them make up things. If it's close to being realistic then it really doesn't matter what they write. And what if they write that they rode a dinosaur to school this morning? Commend them on being such great thinkers - and writers.

Many of our students will never get to the point where writing is fun because of their experience in school. My daughter was an awesome writer in middle school and she loved writing stories for Fanfiction. Talking with her during her senior year she stated that all of the fun was taken out of writing because she "only knew how to write in AP-style."  She, literally, didn't think she could write for fun any more! What the heck happened? School happened.

I love to write. I'm not very good at it. I ramble a bit and I use too many commas. For example, I love starting sentences with "for example,." I also like to start sentences with "then,." But, the bottom line is, I like to write and I write what words/sentences appear in my head as I'm typing. And, sometimes, I find strange ways to end a post. Thank you for reading this. Now back to "work." Or will it be back to "some fun."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Teachers Using PBL Need to Model Critical Elements of the Process

There may only be 20 or so regular readers of this blog but because anybody can read it I'll need to keep this as generic as possible.  The reason is because of some trials and tribulations I've had this semester with helping teachers reach their full potential.

To start with, our school is extremely fortunate to have some really awesome teachers. And I'm being totally sincere and I'm not writing that just so I can build them up before I chop them down. I'd put our teachers up against any other middle school in Texas. It wouldn't even be a contest.

Now, are there better teachers at other schools? And do I know dozens of teachers who are better than teachers at our school? Absolutely. But most schools I know have to deal with some major issues with teachers who are dead wood.  They're collecting a paycheck but that's about it. We don't have that problem. And it's pretty nice.

So, what's the problem? Well, we're trying to create a school that is using PBL as its primary mode of instruction. And only a handful of our teachers are where they need to be. Ironically, that's not the issue! The issue is with a few teachers who are doing great things, individually, and are teaching with PBL. But they bristle whenever we push them to up their game.

PBL is all about collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. There are other 21st century skills that people throw in all of the time like work ethic and agency and digital citizenship. But the first three I mentioned are incredibly important for TEACHERS to demonstrate by their interactions with other teachers and administrators.

Collaboration takes on many hats. Teachers have to collaborate with the other teachers in their subject area and grade level. They have to collaborate with administrators and with instructional coaches. And, they have to collaborate with others, outside of the school, who might come on campus to visit. These visitors may be regulars, like district curriculum, or they may come from other institutions.

Critical thinking may not be as obvious as collaboration. But teachers have to think critically about how they will create a project idea and how they will incorporate real world authenticity into the project. They need to think about group dynamics. They need to think about scaffolding content and they must anticipate questions students will ask.

And, most importantly, teachers have to be able to communicate their ideas and plans. They need to create written plans and they must find ways to communicate project ideas to their students. They need to communicate issues or concerns to their administrators, the parents of their students, and to instructional help such as coaches at the school level or the district level.

Beyond these obvious three, there is something that is often overlooked as an important skill - reflection. People who are reflective in their practice are usually better at what they do. I don't have a scientific study to point you to that proves the point, but I'm sure it would be easy to find one. As a teacher in a PBL classroom we want our students to be reflective in all that they do. They critique their own work and the work of other students throughout the project. And, when it ends, students will critique the project as a whole. This gives the teacher valuable feedback on how things went and allows for corrections, should the teacher want to run a similar project in the future.

Similarly, in a PBL school we want our teachers to be reflective in all that they do. One of the elements of project ideation that is a focus with both the New Tech Network and with BIE is the Critical Friends Protocol. This protocol allows teachers to be reflective in a safe environment. In this protocol the presenter (in this case the teacher creating the project) presents the project idea and any supporting documents such as rubrics or a project calendar. The presenter then removes themselves from the conversation.

The audience discusses what they have heard. They first discuss things they like about what they heard. Then they discuss things they are wondering about. This is not the time to interject improvements. Instead it should be something like, "I wonder if they have considered the prerequisite skills needed for student success?" Finally the audience provides next steps that might be considered. These might be critical things that the presenter should do immediately or it might be something that is more of a suggestion that the presenter takes into consideration.

Critical Friends is not happening at our campus. There just isn't a system in place for that to take place. When I visited a New Tech middle school outside of Napa California last year I got to see a school that has a routine in place where teachers meet and are ready to listen to presentations and then give feedback via critical friends. It was awesome. I had critical friend envy. I truly expected that our teachers would be doing things just like that this year. They're not, and this falls squarely on my shoulders to fix.

Without something as structured as critical friends, I fear that there is little to no reflection going on within our teacher ranks. But when I start to bring this up it's either fended off as "one more thing for us to do" or it is seen as touchy-feely. These awesome teachers that I mentioned earlier in the post need to do more collaborative reflection. They need to hear constructive criticism. They need to start thinking about authenticity in their projects. They need to take their craft to a higher level. That, in turn, would bring up the level of the teachers around them.

If that happened, it wouldn't be long before all of our teachers would be running projects and we would have a regularly scheduled critical friends time. And we would have a more collaborative and reflective mindset in our school. We have really pushed our teachers this year and they have responded with everything we have asked of them. They are in the November slump and I know it. But when January comes around we'll need to re look at where we are and where we want to go. This needs to happen with each teacher, with each content area, with each grade level and with the entire campus.

Our teachers need to be collaborative, communicative, critical thinkers who are reflective in their practice. It's not like we're asking a lot of them. Well, actually, it is. We are asking a lot of them because they're that good. Our students deserve the best and it is my job to show our teachers their full potential. Ah, the life of an instructional coach. Wish us luck.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I Write For Me - Who Do You Write For?

Last week I attended Edcamp Austin. Then I sat down and started writing a post about my day. I didn't get very far because I wasn't feeling well and the creative juices just weren't flowing. So, the next day I started again. I re-read what I had written, fixed typos, wrote a few more sentences and called it a day.

A few days later I was starting to feel better and so I opened up the blog and re-read (yet again) what I had written. I rewrote a few sentences and maybe added two more sentences and then stopped. Later that night I read a really great AND INFORMATIVE blog post and I realized that I write, almost entirely, for myself. I don't try and write a great "how-to" post. I don't write posts about "20 Great blah, blah blahs.." And, not that I can't be deep, I don't write a post that makes the whole world take notice. I write for me.

Now, is that a bad thing? No, definitely not. The best educators, business people, and politicians take time to reflect on their work and on their thinking. Reflection is a key element in the PBL process and is a key difference between a great teacher and a pretty good teacher. I like to write reflective pieces.

And so tonight I started beating myself up because I hadn't finished the post I had started a week ago. But darn it - I'm not on commission. I don't get paid to write posts. My only deadlines are self imposed. So you know what I did? I opened up a new post and started writing. And what you are reading is what I ended up writing.

The other post? I'm about to go in and hit "delete" on that post. It was about Edcamp Austin and there will be another edcamp in my future. I didn't do anything Earth shattering in my session there. As a matter of fact I didn't do much at all because I felt pretty darn sick and only did a session because my friend asked me if I would. No biggie..

I can now finish this post up and hit "publish."  It may not get any views and that's OK. I'm writing this to remind myself that it's OK to just write for, well, myself.  And I hope that if you actually have gotten this far in this post that you stop and, just this once, write a post (or a journal entry or diary entry) just for yourself. You can even use the same title. But write down your thoughts and think about something you did this month, this week, or maybe this weekend or today.

When you finish it go ahead and post it - if you have a blog. No blog? Then attach it here in my comments section. Or, if you aren't ready to let others read it - put it somewhere with a set date that you intend to re-read it. And when you re-read it write another post or entry about what you're thinking about at that point. Before you know it, you might have created a blog that others stumble upon and decide that, maybe, they can write posts too.  Thank you for reading - and writing.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Am I Really Going To Do An Edcamp Again?

I'm thinking about doing the whole edcamp thing again.  There, I said it.  After my last foray into running an Edcamp (Edcamp Manor) two years ago, I vowed I'd just attend them and never try putting one on again.

I wrote about creating the edcamp in an early blog post. Then, I wrote about my frustrations with how awful it went here. So, after re-reading those posts now, I really am amazed that I can say that I'm thinking about doing it again.

Maybe it was attending Edcamp Waller.  Maybe it was having to miss Edcamp San Antonio and Edcamp Dallas.  Maybe it's looking forward to Edcamp Austin (next week).  All I know is there are about 20 educators who attended most (if not all) of these edcamps and these folks really represent the best educators here in the United States. OK, so that's a bold statement. But I happen to know, or have talked with, some really awesome educators over the last 5 years. And these Texas edu-pros are the real deal.

So, if I ran another edcamp what would it look like?  First, it would be PBL themed. I would want presenters to lead discussions on all phases of a PBL unit.  There would be cool ways to do an entry event. There would be teachers who have connected with their community to create opportunities for authentic learning. There would be teachers who have found creative ways to use technology for scaffolding. And there would be students actually presenting their projects.

But will a themed edcamp still be an edcamp?  Here's what they say in the wiki page and at the Edcamp.org webpage about that. "Educational technology is a common topic area for edcamps, as are pedagogy, practical examples in instructional use of modern tools, and solving the problems technology can introduce in the classroom environment." And, "Anyone who attends an Edcamp is able to be a presenter. All teachers and educational stakeholders are viewed as professionals worthy of sharing their expertise in a collaborative setting."

So, as long as I allow attendees to be presenters and as long as they are including technology or pedagogy (or both), then it can be an edcamp!  I can do it! And...I can do it.  This time there will be some differences though.

I'll get my district experts involved early in the planning.  I'll hit my twitter experts and pbl network early to encourage people to come to it. And I'll ask them to bring ideas and/or presentations. Most importantly, I'll ask students to come and be a part of the process. 

The students coming is the part that worries me when it comes to being faithful to the edcamp process. Session sign up should be first come, first served to really meet the mark. Then again, if the edcamp sessions were set up like that, I could have student sessions going all day that would be open to anyone who wants to come and watch.

There are a lot of details to work out but my goal is to complete the planning by the time the school year ends and to have the edcamp during the fall of 2014.  Have a date in mind? Leave it in the comments. Remember we have to work around the University of Texas football schedule. 

This is exciting and scary.  That's what I like about it. Care to help a guy out? Let me know - I'll put you to work.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

When The End Creates the Beginning

From Planning Meeting
Last post I talked about keeping the end in mind. And I mentioned that we need to keep our standards in mind if having highly accredited schools is our true end product. This should be considered a follow on piece to the last post.

When we left our fearless teachers they had looked at the standards and they had come up with roles for their students, potential products, and a possible driving question.

I think it's important to remember that this is their first full-blown project. So when we met this week I had set my expectations fairly low. I wanted them to have thought about an entry event, their calendar, possible real-world connections, and maybe an outline of a rubric.

The information they brought to me included the student roles, the end products, and a driving question. As you can see in the image at the top, they are having students be historians with either a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist bent. They are going to have each student produce either a rap, a poem, or a prologue to a book. Each group will produce a cover  for the collections of raps or poems, or a cover for the book that the epilogue will be a part of. And, their audience will be 5th grade students in our feeder schools. 5th grade and 8th grade are assessed years for U.S. History.

Let's take a quick look at the standards they are attempting to cover:  
            8.15C: Identify colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and explain how those grievances were addressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  
           8.15D: Analyze how the U.S. Constitution reflects the principles of limited government, republicanism, checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and individual rights.

When we start doing project ideation we want to always have these standards in the back of our minds. When the students are creating their products we need to see them Identifying grievances and Explaining how these were addressed. And they need to Analyze parts of the constitution.  These are the things we want our rubric(s) to address and our products, as well. We want to be totally overt with what it is we want our students to learn.

As we started the planning one of the major items to create was the entry event. The teachers had decided to create a letter from our former principal, and now assistant superintendent, who was very personable and well liked by our 8th grade class.  I, offhandedly, said "it's too bad he wasn't here to do a video request." Not 15 minutes later I saw him walk into the office. I asked; He accepted; The video was shot: Entry event completed.

Other items they worked on that day included: identifying groups and laying out the calendar with content and with student products. The project kicked off. Teachers are happy and students are engaged.  Next post I'll look at how the middle of the project is progressing. What ways are the teachers scaffolding content? What formative assessments are they doing? What obstacles have they had to overcome? Stay tuned...

Monday, October 21, 2013

Keeping the End in Mind

Courtesy http://www.flickr.com/commons/
If you have been trained by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) or by the New Tech Network (NTN), or by another group that might have been originally trained by BIE or NTN, then you are familiar with the phrase "begin with the end in mind."  You also might have heard this if you have watched Edutopia videos or read their blog posts on PBL.

When you ask someone what that expression means, you may hear different answers. Is it the product you want your students to create?  Is it the knowledge the students have to explain to an audience?  Or, is it that you want your students to successfully pass a state driven standardized test?

More and more it is the latter.  If you are at a normal school in a normal district in the USA, then the pressure of performing well on the state's standardized test can be overwhelming.  And when you decide that you want to start teaching with PBL as your mode of instruction, you will hear from someone asking the question, "But will this help students perform at a higher level on the test?"

I like to think that the end goal needs to be that students are achieving a deeper understanding of the standards that are going to be assessed on the test. In other words, have the standards be the "End" that we keep in mind. Let's look at an example of this thinking from an 8th grade U.S. History course. This is a state tested course in Texas.  I recently met with our 8th grade teachers to start planning for a project.

The two standards they wanted to focus on for this project were (Texas) 8.15C and 8.15D.  8.15C states: Identify colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and explain how those grievances were addressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  8.15D states: Analyze how the U.S. Constitution reflects the principles of limited government, republicanism, checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and individual rights.

In addition to the content we like our teachers to examine certain 21st Century Skills. In our district these skills include Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Digital Citizenship, and Work Ethic. I want our teachers to focus on one or two of these skills when they plan a project. So, our two teachers decided that they wanted to focus on Critical Thinking and Collaboration for this project.

The next step was to look at what role they wanted the students to take. A quick brainstorm gave us the following possible roles: writer/poet, historian, federalist, citizen, and delegate. Then we started looking at how the verbs in the standards, the role the students will play, and the 21st century skill work together for project planning.

Now we were ready for the final step: Using the 21st Century Skills to look at the standards. For example, I suggested the following sentence stem: How do federalists think critically about convincing the public about (something)? The teachers added the following question - "How have (or will) lives change(d) because of this?"

Suddenly our brainstorming for project ideation was really flowing. We could visualize the students in the role of colonial people. We could see them interacting and conversing about this huge change that was coming. Once the teachers could visualize what they wanted their students to experience during the project the rest fell into place.

Beginning with the end in mind can mean different things to different people. I want our teachers totally focused on the standards we are told to teach. That should not hamper the project planning and should not limit the scope of our projects.  Instead, the standards should be a catalyst for discussion and project planning.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Loving What I See At Our School

Today I was able to get into a few of our math classes. I started with two of our 6th grade classes. Since they plan with me and we all plan together, I knew that they would be teaching the exact same concept but we really push the idea that every teacher is their own person and can teach in whatever way they feel comfortable.

The concept: Finding Greatest Common Factors and Least Common Multiples with Venn Diagrams

In the first room our teacher was starting with a video rap about multiples. His surround sound system with max base had the class rocking. Then he projected a blank venn diagram and asked for students to explain how a venn diagram worked. With this still projected he brought up a video explanation with the video venn right where the other had been.

The students, meanwhile, were taking notes and following along with the videos that were embedded in our LMS (Learning Management System) called ECHO.  When I left, the students were engaged and actively working on this:

Across the hall I went to the other classroom where I found the teacher engaged in an explanation of accessing something on the iPad - in Spanish. We are happy to have many bilingual teachers in 6th grade and with dozens of students who have Spanish as their primary language, it sure helps.

As I entered the room I couldn't help but notice that the activity (above) was up on the board.  The students had their iPads open and were busy working.  As I scanned the room I noticed some QR codes on a board for each period with "Answers to Friday's Quiz" written about them. Since I was in 3rd period I scanned the 3rd period QR and it took me to a Padlet that was blank.

The teacher told me I should scan the ones for 1st and 2nd since they had worked on this and so I scanned the QR's.  There I found students had placed the problems from the quiz that they had worked out using Educreations.

Two different classes. Two different teachers. But the same content. Both classes were steeped in technology use but were using different apps and/or sites. I went to these classes randomly and I left feeling really good about the math instruction our 6th graders are getting. A teacher, new to the school, asked me as I walked back to my office, "Would you have your kids at this school?"  That's a resounding YES!