Saturday, October 27, 2012

Innovation and a Hard Head

Last night, I was flipping through the channels and happened across the movie Moneyball.  I had seen the movie before, and in fact had written a blog about it several months ago called Moneyball and Education. However, I tend to watch movies more than once, and even though it was about half way through, I decided to tune in for the last 45 minutes.

Near the conclusion of the movie, Oakland General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is being interviewed by Tom Werner, one of the owners of the Boston RedSox. Werner is trying to woo Beane to Boston:  he believed that the revolutionary (and highly controversial and opposed) way that Billy Beane was using statistical research rather the more traditional 'eye of the talent scout' and 'gut feeling' approach taken in the past. While the clip starts out with a bit of a tour of Fenway Park (which is of special interest to me), the part that really struck me begins right around the two minute mark:

Specifically, the piece where Tom Werner refers to the struggles that Beane was having with the traditionalists in Baseball and says:

"I know you're taking it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall....he ALWAYS gets bloody.  It's a threat.  Not only to the way of doing business, but a threat to the game.  Which ultimately is a threat to their livelihood.  Their jobs.  They way that they do things."

Over the past six years that I have been at my school, we have made numerous changes.  We have changed our timetable.  We have introduced collaborative time for our teachers.  We have created invitational tutorial time.  We have made directive intervention time. We have confronted and changed grading practices, and provide students with multiple opportunities to meet learning outcomes.  We have changed the way we approach school improvement plans.  We have created free wi-fi.  We have unblocked social media sites.  We encourage BYOD.  We are changing faculty and leadership team meetings.  We are changing our library to a learning hub.  And there are still more things that we will look at in the future.

Some would believe that these changes are for the better.  Some would think that the changes have had little impact on our school.  And some would think that these changes have made our school sub-standard in comparison to what it was in the past.  But regardless of the perceptions of the impact of these changes, one thing is for sure: change is not easy, especially if there are not instant results to help ameliorate some of the challenges come with change. Examining and confronting 'the way we do things around here' can cause a great deal of angst and dyspepsia, even for highly supportive people in our organization. And I have seen it first hand.

As much as I am proud of the changes that we have made, I look back at the way that I went about engineering some of those changes early on in my time at our school with regret.  I could have done things differently, and more specifically, I could have done things better.  I could have went slower.  I could have done a more thorough job of creating meaning and a sense of urgency.  I could have involved more people.  I could have listened more and spoken less.  Hindsight has provided me endless opportunities to fret about and reflect upon what I could have done better.  To borrow from Tom Werner, I might not have went 'first', but I went through the wall early with some of the things we did.  I took it in the teeth whenever there was a negative that could be attributed to the changes that were made.  I definitely got bloody. 

But that's change, isn't it?  I have read more books and articles on change than I care to remember.  Different ideas from theoreticians and practitioners, from colleagues and from my PLN.  Building trust.  Developing relationships.  Engaging stakeholders.  Creating urgency.  Pressure and support.  There are so many phrases that go along with change.

But at the end of the day, I find change to be challenging.  Messy.  Controversial.  But then it happens, and we adapt. And as much as I wish that I could have done a number of things differently, over the last 6 years we have changed.  And I believe in the changes that we have made, because our students are more successful than they ever have been.  Our high achieving students still achieve at a high level, and our promising learners are more engaged and successful than they ever have been.  And I believe that as a staff, we have grown together through the changes.  I know that I have learned much from our teachers--I always learn from our teachers.

In the end, I guess what I appreciate about Billy Beane and the concepts of sabermetrics that he took from Bill James and adopted for his team is that he knew it would be challenging.  Messy.  Controversial.  He got bloody.  But in the end, he stuck with it, his team adapted, and now, so has all of baseball.  Because it was the right thing to do.

Change is difficult, but if we stay focused on the idea that the innovation that we are advancing is sound in its rationale and research and ultimately the right thing to do, I think it makes our collective foreheads a little bit harder for when we hit that wall similar to the one that Beane did in Moneyball.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Don't Get In To Classrooms Enough? Create 'Windows'!

"I wish I could get into classrooms more than I do right now".

While likely not a hundred percent of administrators, I am sure that most Principals and Vice-Principals have had this phrase pass through their lips at one point or another during the course of their career.  With the demands of student dealings, teacher questions, parent conferences, meetings with district personnel, break and lunch supervision, and the seemingly endless avalanche of paperwork that falls on to their desks, administrators can easily be crushed under the weight of day-to-day operations in their schools.  I am not complaining--it's just a reality sometimes.  Like many teachers and administrators in education, I often find myself creating a 'to-do list' before the day starts, and by the time the day ends, I not only have accomplished exactly none of my must-do tasks for the day, I actually have a few new ones tacked on.  And suddenly getting into classrooms, one of my favourite and most important pieces of my job as an administrator, falls off of the side of my desk.

But there are some different ways that I try to 'get into the classroom' that don't involve my physically being there.  I can do some things later in the evening, once my kids have gone to bed.  One of these ways I try to create a 'window' into the classrooms of our 80 teachers is through reading and providing feedback on the syllabus for their courses, or course outlines.  "Course outlines?", you say, "Aren't they those boring one sheeters that tend to be the first thing to rip out of a student's binder?  No one pays attention to those.".  I grant you that in the past, I might have agreed with that.  However, that was my fault.  I rarely looked at them unless there was some sort of issue in the classroom, and I certainly never discussed them with the teacher.  But four years ago, I decided that if I was going to request them, and teachers were going to go through the effort of doing them, they deserved my feedback.

I believe that course outlines need to serve a number of purposes for students and parents:
  • They need to inform the student and the parent, in student-friendly language
    • the specific skills and outcomes that they will have learned by the end of the course
    • the methods by which the outcomes will be evaluated
    • the supports and interventions that will be in place should they struggle with learning those outcomes
    • the means by which students can accelerate should they master the outcomes
  • They need to detail a communication protocol with the student and the parent that demonstrates frequent, two-way dialogue
    • with the teacher's email provided, and the parent's email sought so that asynchronous communication can take place, rather than the dreaded 'telephone tag'
    • with an indication of regular progress updates to regularly inform students and parents about how a student is meeting the learning outcomes of the course
    • with suggestions about how parents can be positively involved in supporting their student.
  • They need to get the student and the parent excited about the course!  I like to think that we never see our courses as 'mandatory'.  We should approach our courses as electives, where we are 'marketing' our course to students in a way that gets them pumped up and engaged before they even start the class!
But course outlines also serve several purposes for me in terms of starting a conversation with the teacher in a number of areas:
  • Learning Outcomes:  By looking at the outline and outlines of other members of a department, I can start the conversation with the teacher about whether they have used collaboratively agreed upon outcomes for their course that will prepare students for success at subsequent levels of that subject area.  We can talk about designing down and scaffolding.  We can discuss the concept of assignments versus outcomes.  We can look at how the outcomes that they have listed match up with not only the department, but with the curriculum guidelines laid out by the provincial government.  We can look at the number of outcomes that the teacher is trying to cover.  We can discuss resources that will help them engage their students.  We can dialogue about 'struggle points'--those outcomes that students tend to struggle with and ways to ameliorate those problem areas to ensure student success.
  • Assessment Practices:  The course outline indicates how students will be assessed.  When reading the outline, I can start a conversation about assessing by outcome/skill rather than assessment tool.  It is always a lively discussion when we chat about 'tests worth 60%' rather than 'oral expression skills worth 40%, written language expression worth 40%, etc' in a language course.  Or to talk about the '40% Term 1, 40% for Term 2, 20% Final Exam' model versus a model that recognizes that students learn at different rates.  Or about toxic grading practices such as late marks.  We can also talk about how the staff member uses the assessments that they give to students to inform their practice.  These are just a few of the endless rich conversations that can take place around assessment.
  • Interventions and Accommodations:  By looking at the course outlines, I can get a sense of how our teachers ensure student success.  Whether it is through methods that they have created to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate outcomes, or if it is utilizing one the many mechanisms in our timetable, I can work with the teacher to help them support the students who learn at different rates in their classrooms.
And these are just some of the conversations we can have!

Much like our staff does with our students, I like to give guidelines for our teachers to work with each June when they are preparing their course outlines for the following year.  I use this Course Outline Checklist as a set of statements for teachers to reflect upon their outlines and modify them for the next school year.  At the beginning of our semesters in September and February, I collect the outlines, and try to give feedback on them in the first few weeks of the year.  I use the same form to give feedback (here is a sample), as well as making comments and using colors to indicate strengths and areas for improvement. 

With 80 teachers, many of whom teach different courses in multiple departments, this process can take a long time. Furthermore, many of our staff members have created their own blogs, which takes the course outline to another level, and I love giving feedback on those as well, but not all of our teachers are there yet.  But the conversations that I can have with our staff as a result of their course outlines can be incredibly rich and worthwhile.  Not a visit to the classroom, I grant you, but certainly meaningful nonetheless.

In the final analysis, if you (like me) feel like you are not in classrooms as much as you like, take the opportunity to create your own 'windows' into classrooms.  You will be pleasantly surprised at what you see!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Being Connected Doesn't Matter

It is coming up to the two year anniversary of when I decided to 'get connected'.  In October of 2010, I attended the 21st Century Learning Conference in Chicago.  Two weekends after I returned, I decided to go "all in".  I got on to Twitter.  I began a personal blog. I created a LiveBinder account.  I began to use Diigo.  I found an application that synced all of my stuff to my Google Drive in the cloud. I was using Screenr and Jing.   I tried other things such as Gett and Dropbox.  Polleverywhere seemed like a cool thing. I began to create all sorts of different things in Google Docs. I'm on Facebook.  I connect to people with Google Plus.  I host chats.  I give Elluminate sessions.  And now, let's be honest, I am hooked UP.  (Drip, drip...sarcasm). 

With my decidedly Canadian accent (or at least that's what I have been told--I don't believe it), I could puff my chest out and say..."Pretty impressive, eh?".  I could, I guess.  But I won't.

I think that we need to be cautious when we "get connected".  I believe that it is pretty easy to feel an air of superiority, of being 'more enlightened' than our colleagues who have yet to connect.  In fact, I find that the tone of some chats on Twitter, a number of blog posts, and other online spaces can have a pontificating and even condescending tenor surrounding them because of their being 'hooked up'.  A teacher who is not connected is becoming less relevant.  An administrator who is not connected can't possibly innovate in this exponentially-changing society.  An @ in front of your last name means more than the letters that come after it.  It's as though they have seen the light, and those who are less or disconnected are completely in the dark.

Well, I am a person who is somewhat 'connected'.  Not nearly as 'connected' as others, but definitely connected.  And as 'connected' as I am, I firmly believe in one thing:

I believe that being connected doesn't matter.*

There are outstanding teachers that develop positive relationships with their students and parents, create engaging lessons that maximize interactions between students, and have tremendous skills in developing creativity, critical thinking, collaborative skills, and any number of 'c's that we can think of.  And they don't know a Twitter account from a Blockbuster membership.

There are excellent administrators that create dynamic cultures of inquiry and reflection in their buildings, that engage partners in the process of student learning, that flatten out hierarchies and demonstrably support teachers and students in all facets curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  And to them, a Google circle is something that Mrs. James used for reading in the Kindergarten class.

They are certainly better than I am at what they do.  They may even be better than you.  And we need to be very careful when we begin to judge educators on their degree of 'connectedness'.  If you are on your high horse because you are more connected than someone else you know, I cordially invite you to get off.

Because being connected doesn't matter as an educator.  Not one bit.  There are many 'disconnected' educators that are continuously reflecting upon and finding new ways to meet the needs of their students and teachers simply because they want to do so.  They are introspective, and have the humility to admit that they don't know all of the answers.  They are courageous, and are willing to start things that need to be started, and perhaps more challenging, they are willing to confront and stop practices that need to be stopped.  They consistently ensure that they have the student at the center of the work that they do.  You don't get that from having a Twitter account.

Back to my asterisk...

*Where being connected absolutely matters is when you DO something with the knowledge that you have gained from your Personal Learning Network.  If you think that being simply being on Twitter makes you a better administrator, a better teacher, I disagree.  It is my feeling that is you are connected to a PLN,  you should be able to demonstrate HOW it has made you better.  Others should be able to articulate how you have become better at what you do.  Your students, your parents, your teachers, your colleagues--each of them should have seen some tangible difference in your practices or the way things are done in your school.  Whether it is something that you have learned from a colleague about altering the way you assess a lesson, or using a web tool to do something more efficiently, having a PLN makes you better when you actually do something differently.  Simply having a Facebook account and being on Google Plus does not make any of us better than anyone else.

For people who are connected:

  1. Being connected affords us access to an infinite number of ideas about all things education. We have a responsibility to use this knowledge to make positive changes for the learners in our schools. If we are reading and collaborating and learning about different pieces of assessment, instruction, and curriculum, we need to take the bits that fit and apply them in our own learning situation.  DO something, don't just talk about it.
  2. Looking down upon people who are not connected is both rude and counterproductive.  It is about what you DO, not what you are connected to.  And what is worse, someone who is disconnected and is not changing their practice, or someone who IS connected and is not changing their practice? Something to consider.
One day in the not too distant future, Twitter will be gone and Facebook will be a thing of the past, replaced by the next thing that kids find cool and we adults later occupy.  Regardless of the platform or technology, for me it will never be about how or what we are connected to, it will be how we USE this connectivity to make us better at improving learning in our schools.

At the point at which we move from knowing to doing, only then does our being connected truly matter.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Co-Creating Staff Development

Recently, I wrote a post called "Owning Staff Meetings" in which I detailed the process by which we are trying to increase the engagement of our staff in our faculty meetings.  From that process, we determined the format of our staff meetings for 2012-2013.

Pre-Meeting:  We ensure that any information that can be communicated through email is put into a Google Doc for staff meeting information (we call this SMINFO) to be read prior to the meeting or at another time.

Good News: We chose to make sure that we start with a staff member collecting good news from around the school over the previous month.  (This month, our School Improvement Leader also took the time to introduce Wallwisher to our staff so that teachers can add notes of encouragement or congratulations to each of us in real time at staff meetings).

Collegial Conversations:  This is second to last piece of our meeting in which staff votes on a topic (this month with a show of hands, next month using Google Forms so that staff can again touch technology) for a whole-group discussion governed by meeting norms created by all staff members and in a circular format derived from our work with socratic circles .

Reflection: We then chose to finish each staff meeting by reflecting on what we have learned and our conduct towards another so that we can improve for the next meeting.

But one of the largest pieces that we make sure that we include in our staff meetings is Staff Development. We get into Staff Development right after Good News so that people are fresh and energized for the activities that we want to work through.   Staff development during staff meetings can often be seen as a departure from the norm of 'traditional' staff meetings.  People are tired at the end of their day of teaching, and without proper planning and a concentrated effort to make the improvement of teaching and learning a co-created endeavor, staff development can be seen as a disconnected add-on to an already busy schedule for staff members and administrators.

At our school, we have a School Improvement Leader and Learning Coach (who is the same person - @edubuemann - a must follow) who works directly with me to find and implement methods to improve teacher achievement and student learning.  It is my belief that we will improve student achievement through our collective, continuous improvement as educators.  However, if I truly believe in this improvement, I know I need to tangibly demonstrate that I value continuous educator improvement.  Through the creation of the SIL/Learning Coach, and dedicated time to Staff Development (along with our Collaboration Time Model), I feel that we are moving in a positive direction.  Each month, the SIL spend hours together planning our staff activities so that they are meaningful and match the demands of departmental and school-wide goals.  But one thing we knew for sure, if the Staff Development portion of the staff meeting was going to be successful
  • it needed to be 'threaded' to be effective--the research is clear that any sort of teacher or staff development must be at least 14 hours in order to effect change--this meant 'one off', one-time 'flavor of the month' staff development was out
  • it needed to have the staff's footprints all over it in terms engagement through co-authorship and ownership.
One of the cornerstones to effective teacher practice is good assessment.  It is my belief that if we find creative ways to assess to help us learn students' strengths and areas for improvement while using student feedback to inform our practice, we will become better in our curriculum design and instruction.  As a result, the area for Staff Development for this year is going to be around Assessment.  However, we have teachers of differing strengths and areas of interest when it comes to learning about varied types of assessment.  So, in order to tailor-make Staff Development in Assessment for this year, we began by reading an article on 8 Big Ideas of Assessment by Damian Cooper.  However, we didn't just want staff to read it, we wanted to introduce them to a literacy strategy while they were reading it.  So, we used "Bank on It", a literacy exercise that staff could use not only read the article, but to have an immediate 'take away' to use in their classrooms.  We then started brainstorming topics that we wanted to learn about around assessment by using a small groups, a Google Doc, and a basic focus question:

"If you were walking in the front door of a conference on Assessment, which topics would you want to go and see"

I used Jing to capture a screencast of the group collaborating on the Google Doc.  I was really happy to see the level of engagement in the activity, the comfort level with using a Google Doc, and ultimately, the tremendous number of ideas that staff generated for areas of focus for assessment.  But the ownership piece will not stop there.  This group of ideas will be taken to our leadership unit: the Coordinators from each department, our School Improvement Leader and our admin team will use Coordinators Meetings to develop mini-lessons on assessment that are applicable to staff in each subject area. 

I know that people are busy.  I know that people are tired at the end of a day of working with students and giving their all to their lessons.  But by valuing teacher achievement and student learning through the creation of time during faculty meetings to work together on staff development and co-creating threaded staff development units, I believe that we will continue to be successful in modeling learning and improving the success of our staff and our students.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Do You "Better the Ball"?

I don't try to hide it, I am a huge sports fan.  I like to play, I love to go to sports events, and our PVR is glowing red hot with games that I still need to watch.  I like watching almost any sport, but really love watching golf, college basketball and football, and Big 10 volleyball.

Recently, I was watching Nebraska play Penn State in volleyball, and the commentator kept using a phrase that stuck with me.  She kept talking about how the setter for Nebraska would "better the ball" that was given to her: if the pass to her was bad, she would turn the pass into a good play with her set.  If the pass was good, she would turn the play into something great, even spectacular, with her set.  She consistently made every effort to 'better the ball'.

I love this phrase because I think it has all sorts of applicability in education.  In each of our schools, I would guess that there are things about our job that are not ideal.  Maybe we envision a newer school.  Perhaps it is more visionary leadership from a Principal.  Maybe it is more money for better technology, more spacious classrooms, and to provide more choices for kids.  It could be for more committed students, teachers, administrators, or district staff.  We might see a less bloated curriculum.  It could be a combination of a few of these, or perhaps we are hoping or waiting for all of them.

But back to the analogy, in each instance that the setter for Nebraska gets a pass from one of her teammates, they are giving her the best pass they could have given at the time. The moment that pass leaves the arms of her teammate on a less than desirable trajectory, she has a choice. She can kind of jog after it, slop it up somewhere high in the air and hope that one of her hitters does something with it:  the pass was junky anyhow, so who would fault her?  Let's just try to get the ball over and hope the other team makes a mistake.

Or she could do something special.  She could sprint to the ball, get her feet set underneath it, square up and snap a laser out to one of her hitters, who now can surprise the other team. The opponents were expecting something sloppy and out of system, but now must deal with something precise and very much 'in' system.  They likely were not expecting someone to "better the ball".

I think it is very important for us to take a step back and realize that our situation is very much what we make of it.  If we choose to get mired down in all the things that are wrong in what we do and turn those in to barriers for us moving forward, I think the days would get very long and unsatisfying for each of is.  But if we try to "better the ball" ourselves, and find ways to empower those around us to see each "pass" (challenge posed to us by our students, staffs, facilities, resources, district staff, etc) as an opportunity to "better the ball", we can make the experience for ourselves and our partners something special.

So, "bettering the ball" is something I must continue to work to do.  How do you "better the ball" and empower others to do so with you?