Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What a Difference a Year Makes

The 2012-2013 school year was the most trying year of my 20+ years in education. Yet, I also had a great year and learned a ton. I don't intend to dwell on the past so if you want to get some background feel free to look at my posts starting in June of 2012 and follow my journey to today.

This year is going to be better. I want to say "It has to be better," but that implies that I was really miserable this past year and I definitely don't want to make any such implications. Instead here are some things that are in place in my school and my life that are going to ensure I can safely say the word "better."

I want to lead this off by saying that I am working for a pretty darn good leader. Believe me, I spent over 20 years around the military and I've had quite a few school principals who I've worked for since then. There are few who can compare. He is careful not to make rash decisions. He makes himself smart and enjoys surrounding himself with smart people. And he is open to change. I won't say any more because I don't want to sound like I'm sucking up. I don't have to - I'm almost old enough to be his dad.

But a year ago I was just meeting the man - in this capacity. I had already met him. I had also met his wife. I just happened to be his daughter's engineering teacher during the year leading up to us joining forces. So I wasn't sure what to expect. I only knew that, together, we were going to start an adventure into creating a school that was a member of the New Tech Network (NTN). We were also attempting to do something the Network had never attempted - putting PBL and the NTN culture together in a comprehensive middle school of over 800 students. Oh, and we were rolling out a 1:1 iPad initiative just for fun.

A year ago I didn't know my assistant principals. One was supposed to be one of our 6th grade teachers. She was going to be one of my PBL pros. A week after meeting her I found out she was moving up to be an assistant principal. Another I had met while touring and he showed me the work out facilities. When I met him he was the athletic director. Two weeks later he was moved up to be another one of the assistant principals.  The third I had only briefly spoken to and had no idea of his leadership and academic knowledge when the school year started. He was the only administrator left in the building from the previous school year.

This year we only lost one of the administrators. And she moved up to a bigger role in the district so who could blame her for leaving. Her replacement is coming to us from an elementary school where they did PBL and, best of all, she was an instructional coach. I've already been working with her and we are ready to kick some curriculum butt! Best of all, we now have someone else for me to play with. We now have a literacy coach. I've met her and she seems incredible.

Tomorrow is August 1st. This week we had nearly 40 of our faculty in for a two day PD on building school culture and, specifically, building a culture of collaboration. On Friday of this week our leadership team will be having a principal-led "retreat." All of our parts are in place. We have a common goal. We will tune our common vision. And we are ready to provide for our students. This year our students will find a more student-centered school with concrete boundaries and expectations. They will be encouraged and pushed and they will achieve.

I'm hoping that a year from now I'm writing - "The 2013-2014 school year was the best school year of my career."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Professional Development Planners Need Our Help

On Wednesday I was able to sit through (survive) the first day of a three day professional development about literacy.

Thursday morning, prior to walking to the PD,  I put up a post about not being negative and helping teachers instead of being angry with them.

How are these two events connected? Well, I really wanted to write an entire blog post about just how bad the day's PD was. Then I was reconnected with one of my favorite Depeche Mode songs, Blasphemous Rumours, and the line about God having a sick sense of humor.

Oh sure, I could have talked about the exchange that had us all shaking our heads: "Have any of you ever heard of Prezi? It's a way to do presentations. This particular Prezi will be riveting." But I won't.

I could have talked about "sitting and getting" for over 3 hours. But I won't. Nope. Not me. I want to analyze what was done to us today and offer other ways that this PD could have happened. Because I don't complain without offering a solution.

First, whenever you have a 3 hour block of time to present topics, especially dry but important topics, you have to deliver the information in chunks.  And, in between the chunks, there should be time for activity and movement. Just like in working with our students we need to have cooperative group activities that enhance the learning.

Some suggestions: What if tables were given certain parts of the learning and we held a jigsaw with tables presenting what they learned? What if there was a simulation of exploring standards and we used a socrative discussion or a fishbowl of the  process? There are dozens of possibilities for handling this part of the session.

Alternatively, we could have been assigned a reading to have been completed prior to the first day and we could have immediately gotten into groups to discuss what we read and to come up with questions that we still need answered.

What if, instead of not providing wifi, there was a purposeful use of internet sites to help us better understand the point of the learning. And, instead of asking us to share the information we got with our fellow teachers and then asking us to not use our technology, we were given a hashtag and were asked to share our favorite links that we found.

More and more of our teachers are entering classrooms that are 1:1 with chrome books, iPads, or other technology. We are expecting our teachers to use the technology to help our students go deeper with the information provided. We want our classrooms filled with activities and to no longer have our desks in rows. We want instruction differentiated and engaging. We use rules of thumb like "lecture for no more than the the equivalent number of minutes that coincide with the age of the student."

Why then would we expect less of the educators who are presenting material in professional development?  Presenters should be asking us to use technology to help us go deeper with the material. There should be activities and ways to differentiate. And the "sit and git" portion should never be more than 15 or 20 minutes.

In the past 2 years I have been to many professional developments and many conferences and un-conferences. In order of "amount learned" I would put them like this: Educon Philly, NTAC, Edcamps (at multiple sites), Margaret Kilgo's Unpacking the Standard's training, my own district's PD sessions, ISTE, TCEA, and SXSWEdu. Somewhere after that would be the other PD's I have had to attend.

What keeps the first three (Educon, NTAC, Edcamps) above the rest? First, at all three, I can choose what I want to learn. And, if there are multiple sessions at the same time, I can ask someone else to go to the other one and let me know what they learned.  Second, all three of those have a large on line presence. If I'm not in a session I can hear about it by checking my Twitter feed on the hashtag for the event. And the bigger/better known conferences will even have teachers who can't be there, with their own hashtag, such as #noneducon, where information is also flowing. The information is being shared instantaneously.

Where should these larger PD's start? They need to look at the "standards" that they want us to learn. Unpack them and do some backward design. Plan for activities and workshops where teachers can go deeper with the content. Think of ways to provide reflection at various points during the day. Give the teachers an opportunity to teach or lead a discussion on what they've learned. Oh, and make it fun...with food and coffee if possible.

Professional development needs to be done by people who understand proper facilitation of training.  It needs to be handled by people who understand how to teach in the 21st century. It needs to be handled by teachers. 21st century teachers. Because that's what we are, teachers in the 21st century.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sometimes I Take Care of My Teachers

Sometimes teachers can make me really cranky. Sometimes teachers come across as real babies. Sometimes I am so disappointed in teachers who won't try something new. Sometimes I question why I've been able to stay in this profession for over 20 years when I've had to hold teachers' hands since that very first Summer PD in 1992 with the Apple IIE - "Just push some buttons you won't break it and I'll help you if you get stuck."  Sometimes......

But sometimes I meet teachers like Jon Samuelson, known as @ipadsammy , who broke out of the classroom so he could truly help teachers. At first he tried new things in his classroom and then he would help his fellow teachers. He truly cares about teachers learning and being successful.

Sometimes I meet teachers like Todd Nesloney, known as @techninjatodd , who appears fearless in his passion for technology. He, along with his partner in crime Stacey Huffine, known as @techninjastacey, desire to help teachers be the best they can be and go out of their way to show teachers exactly what they need to do to be awesome teachers.  And they also blatantly state that all of this is so that their students can be the best they can be. Their website is awesome.

Sometimes I open up my Tweetdeck and just watch the Twitter stream flow by with hundreds of great teachers sharing their knowledge of technology and how it can be used in the classroom. And on those days I feel uplifted and happy. I think, "Darn it! We CAN make a difference in the educational world."

And then I think about my teachers at my school. And you know what? Sometimes they can make me really cranky.  And sometimes they can come across as real babies. And there are times when I am frustrated and disappointed with them when they won't try something new.

But I want to also tell you that I have some pretty darn great teachers at my school. And I also want to say that Decker Middle School is now a New Tech Network School and we're pretty darn good at what we do - which is educating students in both life and in academics.

So this year, when I start to get frustrated or disappointed I need to ask myself, "What is it that is frustrating me?" And I need to immediately analyze how I can make this frustration into some positive energy so that I can help my teachers even be better. Because, sometimes, I can really act like a baby and not take that extra step to help out a teacher with a really tough problem. And that can really be frustrating to my teachers who are looking for help - sometimes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Post NTAC 13 Reflection

The New Tech Network Annual Conference (NTAC) is where I come to recharge my battery, eat a few brains, and fill my sea bag. And everyone looks like these folks to the left:

When Day One arrives, each year, I am allowed to take a much-needed break from the hectic pace of teacher trainings and conferences. Places where I find myself on both sides of the dais. 

It feels like I’m heading home to my brothers and sisters who have adopted me over the years. There are hugs, handshakes, and smiles everywhere. It is truly a perfect setting to refresh and recharge.

And some (many? most?) of these people, who I am hugging and shaking hands with, are incredibly SMART! Oh-my-god type smart. So I get to spend a couple of days immersing myself in their knowledge and eating their brains. Yum! There will be so much knowledge flowing that I will be drunk with the stuff and my head will throb from my failed data relief valve. (It’s NOLA, I had to use the food and drink visual.)

Much of what I hear and learn will be in the form of ideas for my own teaching practice, practices that I will be sharing with my teachers, and practices that I will suggest be included in our district professional development. I barely have room for the myriad concepts I find myself stuffing into my professional sea bag. But I will persevere. And come July 2014, I’ll be back to plug in once more.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Everyone Knows New Orleans

Cafe Du Monde
I just finished up my first 24 hours in New Orleans and I'm getting ready for the New Tech Network's annual conference ( NTAC 13 ) to start tomorrow morning.

When I knew I was coming I started looking at some guides to the city and I started asking my twitter folks, who live in the area, where I should go while I was here.

My first objective was to find a place to eat that would handle a business-type client, that gave a real New Orleans feel, and was open on Mondays.

The two gentlemen I asked were quick to respond and gave me some specific and varied possibilities. And, combined with some Yelp.com reviews, persuaded me to make a reservation at Tujaques.

Now, I have lived in this area in the past and I always liked Tujaques. And, it has been around since, virtually, forever. So I made reservations even though I ended up getting more and more recommendations that steered me towards "better" restaurants or "more modern" restaurants.

And that's the point of this post. In the end I must have had recommendations for 20 different restaurants.  There were even recommendations for a few others, "but I'd have to drive a little."  New Orleans does not have a dearth of places to eat. And everyone has their favorites.

So when you come here - because, eventually, everyone comes here - you should ask people for recommendations. But you should realize that there's a better restaurant than the one you're eating at in the next block over.

     The following is a sampling of restaurants recommended to me with a link to their Yelp.com info:

Central Grocery
Court of Two Sisters
Camellia Grill
Red Fish Grill
Muriel's at Jackson Square
Bon Ton Cafe
Dickie B's Steak House

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Ninth Essential Element of PBL

I am about to work in my last co-facilitation with the Buck Institute for Education (BIE.org) doing what they call a PBL 101. A basic, 3-day, course in the planning, managing and assessing of a PBL project.

Within a project most people can agree that there are certain items that make it successful and BIE has narrowed the list down to 8 items that they call the 8 Essential Elements of PBL (see the diagram to the left).

Anyone who has truly done PBL knows that there must some sort of significant content, there must have been a way to establish a desire for inquiry (in this case by having a driving question and by overtly discussing what it is the students will need to know), and there must be a public audience so students feel an added desire to do their best.

Through group work, research, and the inquiry process students end up having to do, what most people call, 21st century skills.  These skills include, but are not limited to, collaboration, critical thinking, communication (orally and in writing), and creativity. Finally, there must be a chance for students to have their work assessed. At that point, they must be allowed to revise their work and reflect on their assessment. This ensures the final product is something the students are proud of and the product demonstrates the knowledge that the students have gained during the project.

As I said, most people can agree that these 8 elements are key components of a classroom or school that uses PBL as the primary mode of instruction. But these elements are not as connected as the diagram might suggest. The glue that holds these 8 elements together is the classroom, school, or even district culture. Culture is the 9th Essential Element. Without a proper culture students might not be allowed to have voice and choice in the products they work on. Without a proper culture students might not be willing to do revisions of their work or they may not feel a need to reflect on their learning.

Even the 21st century skills can be restricted when there is not a culture of collaboration; students aren't encouraged to think critically; student communication is not allowed or shown as unimportant; or when students have no outlet to show their creative side. Each of these issues with students comes directly from the way teachers and administrators interact.  If the teachers don't collaborate, communicate, or get a chance to try creative things in the classroom then there is a shadow upon the entire school culture that can't be ignored.

So, teachers, as you finish your PBL 101,  your New Teacher training with the New Tech Network, or some other PBL training this summer, remember to work hard and stay positive. You can do this. But get your fellow teachers and administrators involved in what you are doing. Get the PTA or other parent organization involved too. It is time to work on the entire educational system so that you and, more importantly, your students can be successful pursuers of inquiry.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

We Need To Avoid the Calculus Syndrome, Thoughts After ISTE 13

The post-ISTE13 comments and blog posts I've been seeing have me worried.  There are many educators who are now questioning how basic some of the sessions were and how we need to ensure there are discussions and not just presentations in the sessions.  I think it's time for a quick reminder of where we have come from and how, extremely, far we need to go with conferences and educational "events" like edcamps.

When I hear some of the brightest education stars making these comments I am reminded about how most schools treat their calculus teacher. The best and most experienced math teacher on campus earns the right to teach calculus. And, because of this, the students who need to have the best teachers miss out on quality instruction. What needs to happen is that the best teachers need to be teaching Algebra 1 so that the foundation of math for the high school years is set.

Similarly I see the best educators, with the greatest ideas on ways to improve education, hanging around with the other best educators. Those teachers who need to hear great ideas and might be wavering on staying in the profession aren't hearing from these great teachers. We need to be increasing the number of edcamp-style events, shifting professional developments to a more conference or edcamp feel, and we need to be creating financial incentives to get teachers to the more expensive conferences.

ISTE13 was my first ISTE conference. I have been to NCTM conferences (both national and regional), I have been to a FETC conference when I was living in Florida, I have been to TCEA conferences,  I have been to an EDUCON in Philadelphia, and I have both put on and attended edcamps.  In addition, as a teacher in the New Tech Network I have attended their annual conference, NTAC, each year.

Almost all of those conferences, with the exception of the NTAC's, I have had to pay the bill or have had to sneak into the event to be able to be around what was going on.  Yes, I have found ways to get around the entrance fee at some of these events. I'm not really proud of that but I do what I have to do to be able to afford the conferences. Once inside, I am able to stay in the areas where people hangout and I can be a part of the conversations.

For me, the conversations at conferences and edcamps are where I get the biggest bang for my buck.  There are many educators who are discovering this and are finding great value in the discussions going on in areas set up as Blogger Lounges or some other catchy name.  There are usually comfortable chairs, good wifi, and power plugs. And the people who congregate here will usually have interesting things to talk about.

But that is exactly the problem and the reason for me writing this post. The most "famous" and knowledgeable educators are hanging out together in the blogger lounge. New teachers can feel intimidated by the number of people and the feeling that everybody knows everybody else "in there." Believe me, I am just as guilty as everyone else. At ISTE13 I stayed in the blogger cafe almost throughout but I was also at the conference on my own dime and so I was in on a free vendor-area badge.

We need to remember that the majority of teachers have not heard of ISTE, or FETC, or Educon. And a majority of those who have heard of the conferences, I just mentioned, won't attempt to go unless it is nearby to where they live. The cost is too much or they just have better things to do like spend time with their families. So we get down to the small percentage of educators who are, not only, familiar with the conferences but they have ways to fund attending the conferences. Again, we are talking about a very tiny percentage of educators attending these events.

So, when someone attends their first ISTE, FETC, or Educon we need to have plans in place to make them feel as comfortable as possible. ISTE has the Newbie area and they start the conference with an overview of what will be going on each day.  That is a huge help. Then we need to have more of the power hitters attending some of the basic sessions to help with the discussions. Of course some of the presenters in these sessions might be presenting for the first time. They may not be comfortable, yet, in this setting and the last thing they need is someone hijacking their session.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I think conferences and edcamps need to start thinking about having a nice blend of both basic level sessions and "advanced" sessions which are more discussion-like with the session leader being more of a facilitator than a presenter. I know I hope to do a session at the next Edcamp on PBL with the discussion topic of "So PBL is the answer to all of our needs.  Is it really?" Or I'll come up with something better by then. But I know that someone will come up to me and ask me to do a "PBL Session" and I know that what they mean is I need to go through what the PBL process looks like. It will be very basic and it will be Standing Room Only - guaranteed.