Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year Reflections

When I think about classrooms that work I always come back to the importance of students being allowed opportunities to reflect on their learning.

I also tell people that they should always be learning. This year I learned a lot about myself.

So, in keeping with my beliefs, here are some thoughts about what I learned:

2014 will go down as the year I lost my big brother Rick. In many ways the time from diagnosis to death was short. And many people have said, "at least he didn't have to suffer too long." Having to deal with the death of a loved one taught me about myself and my family.

I learned that my sister-in-law is one of the strongest people I know. I learned that a few months of hell can feel like a few years of hell. But, a few hours of laughter, in the midst of this sadness, can feel like no better time in my life. When I went and visited for, what turned out to be, the last time - we laughed. I didn't learn the importance of laughter that day. But I sure did validate the necessity for finding humor in even the darkest moments.

2014 will go down as the year I had my "perfect school year" ruined by someone else's success.  Before anyone reads this and says that I'm not being very kind to my current school leadership team, I want to emphasize that when I left for the Summer I was looking forward to the 2014-2015 school year like no other time in my history of being involved with education.

Then my principal was given a promotion in our school district. Then they created a new leadership position at our school. Then our literacy coach got a promotion. Then they pulled one of our assistant principals and they replaced him with another from our district. Throughout this school year they kept hinting that they were going to be taking another one of our assistant principals too.

We went from a principal, three assistant principals, and a literacy coach (and me) who had been together and were ready to move forward with instruction like our district had never seen, to a new principal, a new associative principal, a new assistant principal, and a new literacy coach. EVERY one of these new people is competent and EVERY one of these people is great to work with - so what's my problem? The problem is that, with so many new faces, we needed to put all of our plans on hold. We had to learn how to work together. And, our students and teachers suffered from a less than perfect leadership team. Maybe that is the biggest thing I learned from this - the leadership team at any school must work as a cohesive unit if we want to have student success

2014 will go down as the year I really made a fool of myself. Making a fool of one's self is something that is not recoverable. The only answer is to move on to a different school district where there will be less people who ever want to cross those bridges I blew up - I didn't just burn bridges; I napalmed them! Ironically, my heart was never stronger. I did what I did because I truly believed (and still believe) that everyone should be treated fairly.

But sometimes, when you are just a peon, it is better to keep your thoughts and comments to yourself. Sometimes, people don't understand the facts. Sometimes we need to just let the big boys play the political ping-pong.  I certainly got paddled. And, worse than anything, I got other people hurt and I lost a ton of credibility.  I won't (and am not allowed to) say anything else on this subject. All I can say is, at 57 years of age, I don't plan on getting involved in political messes ever again.

2014 will go down as the year Sheila and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. 25 years of living with someone is a long time. But I can't imagine being with anyone else for the next 25 years. We've had some really great times, we've had some less than fun times, but we have survived all of these times together. So from this I have learned the importance of the expression "... till death us do part."  When two human beings make a vow like that in front of family, friends, and God - how can you NOT make that work. Relationships take time; they take constant tinkering; and they take the gentle touch of a baby.  I learned that we will make it another 25 years (and beyond).

Happy New Year. May each of you experience the beauty of a great relationship with someone. And may each of you avoid death and destroying your credibility. It WILL be a great 2015. There are many new experiences to be had and I am looking forward to my reflection at the end of December of next year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Take Time to be Thankful (even in a crappy year)

Via Smithsonian
There is so much going right in my world that I shouldn't dwell on the downer stuff - but the holidays push me towards that abyss. And no one would fault me for whining and complaining. But I'm going to try and take a different tack.

Tomorrow will be the first Thanksgiving that I won't get to talk with my big brother. There's been a lot of firsts since that sad day last Spring when cancer took his life. 

That's the mean thing about death. Those left mourning get to experience the first birthday, first pick-a-holiday, and first pick-a-season.  But what about those others who are living with this? Every day I read about another person who was wiped off of this planet by something tragic. There are a zillion people experiencing their own first______ since ______ died. 

I want to celebrate resiliency.  My brother had 2 sisters and me. [Our parents passed years ago.] He also had a wonderful wife,2 sons, and a daughter. Each of those people have their own family. If we call these folks the immediate family circle, then we have 15 individuals who all are dealing with this loss in different ways. And they are all going to be ok - we're all going to be ok. 

So I want to think about things I am thankful for, such as:

  • 25 years of marriage
  • a great wife who keeps the ship heading fair
  • a great daughter and son who are heading in the right direction and, by all accounts, will be people others will look up to in life
  • wonderful sisters (MaryAnn, Janice, Alice) 
  • incredibly gifted nephews/nieces - 6 amazingly talented people.
  • a job with a good salary - I get to work with some great professionals
  • good health - I haven't had to spend time in a hospital since losing my appendix back in 1987.  
  • ready to go somewhere else to work - and there are options out there!

It's Thanksgiving. I have so much to be thankful for and I am already looking forward to Thanksgiving 2015 - because it won't be 2014!

My best to each and every one of you. Take time to find at least one thing you are thankful for - and then hold on tight to that one item. Keep a vision of that one thing with you for all of those bad times that are waiting out there for you. Here's to resiliency - cheers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

There Was Gold In Them There Colorado Hills

A Gold standard for PBL - that's what the folks at BIE.org are trying to define. And we are reaching out to all of you who are practicing this in your classrooms and schools. This past week the National Faculty (NF) met for our Fall summit and we had some rich, deep discussions on the topic. My takeaways:

(A). Many people refer to our 8 Essential Elements for PBL. If we are defining the Gold Standard then we need to determine whether we keep these as they are; we change them all; or, we just change key elements. For our summit we decided to start here and we were shown a proposed new look that is far from the finished product. The original 8 elements will probably be changing slightly. For example, Public Audience might be replaced with  Public Product.

Outside of the original hexagon there might be a new layer of teacher/facilitator practices. The idea here is that the teachers will now have specific things to think about as they create,facilitate, and assess projects. My question on this layer is the shape - do we keep it hexagonal or do we use a circular or rectangular shape to show how this layer envelops all of the 8 essential elements.

Look for more on this as we go through the next few months and follow #goldstandardpbl on Twitter.

(B). In our signature PBL 101's we concentrate on helping teachers create projects and we refer to the importance of them taking their students' learning deeper. Who are we educating in these sessions? Adults, of course. 

We acknowledged that we need to do better at educating these teachers. To do this we need to increase our knowledge of adult learners. This was our next focus for our summit - the adult learner. As with all summits I was amazed by the level of knowledge of my fellow NF's. 

We looked at various aspects of learning and we had a very informed discussion from our own Jennifer Klein on the Male and Female Brain. She even gave us a diagram of the 8 essential elements with how each type of brain interacts with that element.

(C) Another key topic in our summit was the idea of PBL Sustainability. As one NF put it, for true sustainability we need to work ourselves out of a job. We want our clients creating a culture of collaboration on their campus. We want our clients growing their own PBL "experts." And, we want our clients creating a culture of learning for all of the stakeholders. Teachers should be co-creating projects with community members and students should be interacting with local companies.

When we have a sustained "gold standard" of PBL in a community or school we will truly have reached the gold standard for education. Then, in fact, we will have worked ourselves out of a job at BIE. And I'd be OK with that.

(D) With each summit I attend I find myself increasingly excited about working with this incredible group of NF's. They come from diverse education backgrounds and experiences and we push each other by questioning accepted norms.  

When you see the book on Gold Standard PBL come out (next Summer?), you can bet that it will have been discussed, analyzed, and vetted by some of the greatest minds in education. And, some of those minds will be BIE's own National Faculty. Feel free to add your thoughts via Twitter. Remember the hashtag: #goldstandardpbl.  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Monday, September 22, 2014

20 Thoughts on Instructional Coaching

Thursday and Friday I attended an incredible training by Steve Barkley. If you haven't heard of him, get to know him. If you have heard of him and haven't attended one of his sessions then get going and attend one. As a coach, this is one of those must attend events.

What I learned is forever going to change how I look at the coaching process and teaching, in general. I know this is true and, from talking to the other coaches in attendance, I know others felt the same.

 Here are 20 things mentioned in these two days that caused me to stop and ponder:

  1. How can your teachers trust each other if they've never been in each others' classrooms?
  2. Are your teachers a franchise or are they a team?
  3. Department Heads should be the model classroom.   
  4. When using rubrics have the "top" line be created by the students.
  5. Students cause student achievement. Teachers do not cause student achievement. Therefore, coaches need to focus on students when they observe.  
  6. You can't teach a student math. You teach a student how to learn math.
  7. Teachers should use their inclusion teachers to model expected behaviors, thinking, and discussions.
  8. Schools should do Emotional Walkthroughs. On a 1 - 5 scale what is the emotional level of each classroom?
  9. When you walk through your school, how many Wow!'s to you get?
  10. If students complete the exact work assigned they should get a "C." Go Beyond that for a "B" and go above B-work for an "A."
  11. A student's major work shouldn't be graded until the end of semester or year and students should have multiple opportunities to revise/edit.
  12. Students should be exposed to more book options. One teacher put 5 books on each of 20 tables at beginning of the school year. Students rotated, table to table, and scored the books based upon interest. At the end of one class period they had seen 100 books and should have seen a few that met with their satisfaction.
  13. The hardest part of teaching is when the students aren't there.
  14. Coaches, you have been hired by your school to change kid's behaviors.
  15. Homework should never be the same for the entire class.
  16. Teachers should have a 3 year commitment to kids: Spend time with them the year before they come to you. Spend time with all of the students on your grade level. Then spend time with them the year after you have them to see how they are doing.
  17. We tend to do vertical alignment without the students.
  18. Instructional coaches should be evaluated on the teacher growth during the year.
  19. We were hired to bring discomfort to our school. We want a culture where our teachers are comfortable with discomfort.
  20. The biggest coaching mistake is to let teachers know what the coach is thinking before the coach knows what the teacher is thinking.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Google Apps - Someone Needs To Be In Charge

Labor Day weekend. Time to take a break from our first week with students. Time to relax, have a cook out, watch some football. And, time to organize my folders for the semester planning sessions that are about to roll into full swing this week.

Our school district uses Google Apps and, therefore, we have the ability to collaborate with people - in real time- from wherever they may be. And, we can share documents - placing them into folders accessible to our coworkers at any hour of the day and, even on holidays!

Today I organized our school's folders. In particular, there is a general "Planning" folder and inside that folder are folders for the four testable content areas. Inside each of these four folders are folders for each of the grade levels. Going to the next level we have Assessments, Lesson Plans, and other resource folders. And, eventually each of those will have folders within them.

The TRICKY part is the sharing of these folders. If you, for example, share the main Planning folder with everyone and allow them all editing rights, then everyone will be able to go down to the smallest file in the deepest folder and edit it. So someone, with no malicious thoughts, goes in and finds a file and starts editing it. Then they decide they want to move the file into their personal folder (a folder with no sharing rights). Suddenly, poof!, no other teachers see this file any more. It happens. Quite a bit.

After 6 years of using Google Apps, I know to go in and make the outer most folder "View Only." Teachers can make copies of any file they want and make it their own - leaving the original undisturbed.  But what about this collaboration that is so great with Google Docs? That's where I go in and make conscious decisions about the rights of every folder - from the outside, in.

For example, if my 6th grade math teachers go inside the math folder and then open up the 6th grade folder they will find they have editing rights to everything inside of that folder. My 7th grade math folks have view only to the 6th grade folders - we don't want them accidentally removing or destroying an important file for the other teachers.

Google Docs are an incredibly great tool for teachers to use. Having someone in charge of the overall rights to the folders makes everyone a LOT happier.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Which Came First PBL or Small Group Instruction?

Ye Olde Chicken-Egg story. Why am I wrestling with this? Because many consider me pretty smart about Project Based Learning(PBL). And, our school which calls itself a PBL school, is pushing small group instruction.

So, is PBL just a version of small group instruction? Not sure. And when you infuse a very structured form of small group instruction will teachers feel that they can't do PBL any more? Yes, unfortunately.

True confession. The title doesn't really align with what you are about to read but, hey, it got you to click on the link and start reading this, didn't it?

Right now our school is in its third year of using PBL as its primary mode of instruction. Now, primary is a funny word. Two years ago we started with our 6th grade teachers and many of them struggled to understand how to do a project. Many, however, excelled and became known for their expertise.

Last year we pushed PBL out in all three grades and also insisted upon having small group instruction. The same 6th grade teachers, who had success in the first year, continued to do well and incorporated a rotation to a teacher table into their daily process. A few additional 6th grade teachers took on "a project" during each semester. And, many teachers created projects during each semester. Almost all of the ELA teachers and most of the Social Studies teachers created classrooms with good to great small group rotations.

So, at the end of year two we had a large group of teachers doing good small group instruction. And, we had a large group of teachers who had run at least two projects during the year with varying levels of success. The best news was that we had teachers in both sets: a win-win situation! We decided to minimize change for year three and the word we used was "enhance." As in we will enhance our instruction.

Then we discovered Glenna Tabor and her Tabor Rotations process for small group instruction. If you get nothing else out of this post, go look at Glenna Tabor's stuff and, better yet, figure out how to get ALL of your math teachers to one of her trainings (or get her to come to your district). A day with her was one of the best PD's I have ever attended (if not the best ever).

Tabor Rotations is a VERY structured plan for small group instruction. And, that is its biggest strength. I held a half day training with math and math-inclusion teachers yesterday for our school district. We will be sending nearly 40 people to a Tabor Rotation training day in Dallas next month and I wanted to pre-teach some of the concepts and give them an overall view of the process. Our inclusion teachers summed it up best - "With Tabor Rotations you get all of the best practices for SPED and ELL students rolled into one package."

So, here's the dilemma - Tabor Rotations is very structured and many of our best PBL teachers are in the math department. Why is that a problem? Several felt that the structure doesn't work with what they do. With Tabor Rotations we have 4 heterogeneous groups for part of the week and 4 homogeneous groups the remainder of the week and these teachers are used to project groups of 3 to 4 students in each group. When you have a class of 30 students that means 7 to 10 groups for projects. Do we have 8 groups of students who are working on a project; a different set of 8 students working in their Tabor Rotation groups for a couple of days; and, a third set of 8 students working in their Tabor Rotation groups for the other days of the week?

And how do we do Tabor Rotations with research days and presentation days?

All of these questions are now fully engulfing my brain. Our teachers will be going to the training in two weeks and then I'll have other brains to help me figure this out. Because we will figure this out. PBL will work in every environment. PBL will help your students go deeper with their learning. Tabor Rotations will help your students go deeper with their learning too. The marriage of the two will be a truly magnificent thing. Just give us time to perfect it - because our teachers can, and will, figure this out.

Things That Piqued My Interest This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Sometimes Words Do Hurt (My Brain)

When you are over 50 years old and have been in a profession for a couple of decades, you see periods where certain buzz words are all the rage.

I googled "education buzzwords" and found a list of some words I have heard a ton within the last few years but the following is a list of words that I feel are use wayyyyy too much.

The list, in no particular order, includes: Rigor, Grit, Agency, Influencer, and the phrase "allow to fail." If you notice, with the exception of Influencer, they all deal with getting students to work through their problems. We want them to have stick-to-itiveness and not give up until they have exhausted all options. Or, most commonly, to persevere: To keep steadily on in doing or striving; persist 
So why can't we just say we want them to work hard and not give up? Instead we talk about increasing the "rigor" - does that mean they have to work harder to understand? Well last time I checked the ol' Funk and Wagnalls, rigor meant: Stiffness of opinion; Strictness; Harshness; Austerity . That definition doesn't make me want to do that to anyone. So why would we do it to our students? Intuitively I knew that someone must have the same issue with this word and so I started searching.

Having heard Alfie Kohn talk about his dislike for the word rigor I wasn't surprised to see his name linked to many posts on this word. But the best post I found was by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach from a few years ago. It is called In Defense of Rigor and she has already done the legwork on this topic. Take the time to read through the comments left there before you decide what side you are on. In the end I still feel the same.  Why should I use a word that has so many meanings to so many people? It just renders it meaningless in the end. Head aching....

When I was 11 years old John Wayne starred in a movie called True Grit. I also helped my Dad a lot and I knew it was important to have the right sandpaper grit for the job that you were working on. Since I was young I took the word grit to be synonymous with the word tough. I was happy to go through life keeping those two words together in my mind. They remade the movie in 2010 and I went and saw it and liked it as much as the first one. It was different but still great. And I never had to think about the word grit because I already had my definition.

Suddenly I'm hearing that we want our students to have grit. The vision I had for 50 years of a stern, driven, and not so nice person wasn't what I wanted my students to turn into. But I do remember hearing the adage "grit and determination." As in he did the task with grit and determination.  It couldn't be that bad. Maybe, just maybe, it had more to do with perseverance than being a tough old goat.  Having to shift my definition of the word meant more headache.

About the same time the new version of True Grit was coming out I heard the New Tech Network talk about a new learning outcome. It was all about perseverance and the word they were using was agency. Like a travel agency? An acting agency? No, I was told, agency meaning students being resourceful and continuing to work on a project exploring all options rather than giving up.  Ummmm, isn't that perseverance?

I have been completely happy using the word perseverance all of my life. Why then, can't we use this word? It seems that "real" academicians use the word agency because it is better than perseverance. I'm sorry. Even though the word has grown on me I still prefer my own words and you won't hear be using agency in a sentence describing our students. That would just add more pain to my growing headache.

The expression "allow to fail" is used when you say that you want students to persist even if things aren't going well. We don't want teachers telling the students how to solve the problem, directly. We do want teachers guiding the students to find the answer though. I don't have a problem with this concept. But I do have a problem with the word fail. Allow students to struggle? I can live with that. I just don't want to have students who are so tied to academics to think it is ever OK to fail. So I won't be using that with my teachers. I will be asking them to get away from giving the students the answer quickly however. I want the students to struggle and then persevere.

So, out of the first 4 things I've talked about I only plan on using one of them. I will now add grit to my lexicon. As for the last word, influencer, you won't see me ever using it. I haven't really seen this word used in the education world, yet. But it is used in business all of the time. Anybody who is influential is an influencer. Well, duh, why don't we just call that person an influential person. Why do we have to make up a word?

So, if you have finished this post and I have swayed you in any way, please feel free to consider me an influencer. Just don't make me describe myself that way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Yes There IS a Right Way to "Do PBL"

It started when I was contacted by some friends who were attending the Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) conference this past February.  "What is your principal saying about PBL here - do you REALLY do this at your campus?" What they were talking about was someone who was filling our spot because we had to cancel at the last minute. And, what that person was saying was, "We do PBL at our campus and here's the issues we have had..."

"Doing PBL." I really, really hate that expression. You do NOT "do PBL." That's like saying you do teaching, or you do coaching, or you do directing music. If you are using PBL as a method of instruction then what you are doing is - wait for it.... - teaching. You are a teacher and you teach. I know, crazy, right?

When you teach do you use various forms of assessment? Do you randomize selecting students? Do you have warm-ups or do-nows? Do you pull students into small groups? Do you flip your class? I could go on and on. These are things that you "DO" in your classroom to be a better teacher and each of these things that you do are things that you feel comfortable doing and you feel that (or, even better, KNOW that) your students are getting a better education because of these processes.

Project Based Learning (PBL) incorporates any and all of the things I have just mentioned. That's because PBL wants us all to use best teaching practices. So, if you are a teacher using PBL in your classroom, then you DO great teaching. And, based upon who you are and who your students are, each PBL classroom might look very different.

If I go into a PBL classroom I will see students working collectively. Even if the teacher is doing a whole group lecture or all of the students are engaged with electronic devices, I can see that they are grouped.  Collaboration is a key element and I want to see the students working together towards a common goal.

If I spend time in a PBL classroom I should hear academic discussions and questioning.  I should see students doing some sort of reflection on their learning. I should see students assessing their personal and group progress and assigning future tasks. Like a good company, their groups should be working towards a common goal.

If I spend time in a PBL school I should hear and see everything I just stated in every classroom. And, because of the varying time requirements for projects, I should be able to see every stage of a project happening in the classrooms. I should see projects starting with entry events. I should see lectures and group work. I should see students preparing for their presentations. And, I should see presentations.

If you think you want to "do PBL," then the first thing you need "to do" is your homework. You are probably a beginner and you need to get a deeper understanding of how the PBL process works. Google "PBL" and you'll see hundreds (thousands?) of possibilities. On the first page of these you will see BIE.org and Edutopia.org. Both are incredible places to get knowledgeable about what PBL is and how to do it.

If you want to go deeper you can attend PBLU (a BIE product) remotely or you could get BIE to come to your school or district and train a group of you by attending a PBL 101. A PBL 101 is three days of helping you design one project while learning about how to plan projects and manage the process.

Once you have been trained; you have done a dozen or so projects; and you have been frustrated by not feeling like you are doing it right for the first 4 or so of those projects, then, and only then will you be allowed to say "I do PBL." I'll still think you're a rube for saying that but I won't correct you because you will now be beyond the beginner stage of practicing the PBL process.  So if you want to be incorrect go ahead - you've earned it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Things That Piqued My Interest This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.