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!