Thursday, January 31, 2013

Giving Kids Ferraris

I grew up in a family that had a car. 

This is not earth-shattering news.

I also sat in the car, rode in the car, watched my parents drive the car, read books in the car, ate ice cream in the car, had too many fights in the car with my brother.  Heck, I even washed the car.  To this day, if you asked me about our little Volkswagen, I could tell you an awful lot about it because we spent a lot of time in the car.

But when I began to drive, my father didn't simply hand me a set of keys to a Ferrari and tell me to be careful.

With the proliferation of social media and technology, students, teachers and administrators are being bombarded with a mind-bending array of tweets, Facebook status changes, apps, and hardware choices that have the ability to distract and engage us, depending on how we use them.  Yet one of the common misconceptions around our students and technology is that they are ‘digital natives’:  that they have grown up with technology and thus are able to seamlessly use technology and social media in their day-to-day lives.  But what we know now is that students do not have an innate ability to use technology to learn, and the highly public nature of social media demands a great deal of responsibility that we cannot simply assume that our students have.  Further complicating matters is the fact that many of the people who are charged with the responsibility to guide students to use technology to learn in a productive, efficient and safe manner are educators who have a wide range of technological interests and capabilities.  These abilities range from those who consistently and effectively using web applications, social media and technology to engage their students in acquiring skills for the 21st century, all the way to those whose technological experiences begin and end with the jiggling of a computer power cable, and everywhere in between.  

Given the enormous potential for both positive and negative with technology, web applications and social media, one can only think of lessons being given to a brand new driver by an instructor who may or may not have ever driven a car themselves.  

Enter the Ferrari.

Or in this case, the Smartphone, tablet, iPad, netbook, or whatever piece of technology that we put into students hands today.  Much like the Ferrari, technology is a very powerful tool, able to go very quickly and get an inexperienced operator into a great deal of difficulty in a hurry.

And yet 80-90% of our students have these pocket-sized Ferraris.


As educators, we need to get out front of this.  We need to be comfortable using technology and web tools.  We need to model positive use of social media.  And if we choose not to, we need to stop blaming kids for irresponsible behaviour when using technology because we are giving them keys to the Ferrari and expecting them not to go fast, not to push limits.  

Have you sat in a Ferrari?  Could you resist stomping the gas pedal at that age?

At our school, we are hoping to create responsible 'drivers' with a two-pronged approach.  

1.  Digital Dinners:  With our staff, we are going to create a critical mass of teachers that will excel at using technology to engage learners in their classes and role model its effective use.  We will seek out teachers to come to five evening sessions with outstanding technology leaders from around BC and North America in workshops that will be designed to increase their capacity to engage students in higher order thinking using technology in their classrooms.  And as a thanks for participating in these sessions, each volunteer will receive their choice of a laptop, tablet, or device that they can use to continue to model this technology leadership.  

2. Digital Citizenship 101:  We are going to look to bring in Darren Laur to speak to our students, staff, and parents about being a responsible digital citizen.  I have heard rave reviews about the program presented by this active police officer, and found this video clip which makes the presentation look pretty compelling:

We cannot just assume that students have all of the tools that they need to use technology effectively and responsibly just because they are growing up with technology all around them.  And while these steps for our school are just taking us farther along the pathway to make us better 'driving instructors', once we have completed this project, I will feel more confident in our students 'driving their Ferraris'. 

If you have other suggestions or ideas on how to move schools forward with the effective and responsible use of technology, please add them in the comments!

Monday, January 21, 2013

What Story Does Your Timetable Tell?

Start at 8:30.  Four blocks per day, frozen schedule.  80 minutes each. Nutrition break in the mid morning.  50 minute lunch.  End sometime around 3.  Monday to Friday.  Change courses at the end of January.

Start at 8:55.   9 periods per day, tumbling schedule.  45 minutes each.  Long break after third period.  Lunch after the 5th.  Gone at 3:30.  Change courses at the end of the year.

Start at 8:35.  Two periods per day, 2 hours and 35 minutes each.  Break half way through each period.  One hour lunch.  Gone at 3:20.  Change courses in November, January, and April.


I am sure that there are other permutations of the high school schedule, and others of elementary and middle schools, but I would guess that most timetables out there don't look too terribly different than one of these.  And tonight, I was reflecting on what each of our timetables tell us and our school communities about the priorities of our schools.  As I have blogged about in the last couple of weeks, we are going to be examining the structures in our school, and starting to confront some of the (artificial?) constructs that might exist in our own system.  But in thumbing through my latest educational must-read, Making Teamwork Meaningful by Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), I came across a very useful reproducible called What Are Our Scheduling Priorities that I am going to use with our staff.  This two-pager is partitioned into a few different sections:
What I like about this form is that it includes priorities, non-negotiables, and a reflection piece for me to understand better how some of our faculty might perceive our non-negotiables and perhaps have suggestions that might make them easier to understand and work with.  In Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, Rick Dufour talks about the concept of "loose-tight management", in which we are "tight" on our non-negotiable principles but "loose" on the methods by which we might accomplish those principles.  Because I am a firm believer in the research and the concepts of the Professional Learning Community, there are a couple of non-negotiables for me that I need to clearly articulate to our staff as the Principal of our school:
  1. We must have time within our timetable for our staff to work in collaborative, interdependent groups that continuously reflect on our practices with the goal of improving student and educator achievement
  2. We must have time within our timetable that allows teachers to differentiate so students can receive additional time and support to meet the collaboratively determined outcomes of our courses.
  3. We must have time that allows our students to be self-directed so that they may have a stake in and take responsibility for their own learning.
  4. We must have invitational and directive times to support our intervention system.
Our current timetable accommodates each of these priorities.  We have weekly collaborative time for our teachers.  Thanks to two teachers at our school who contacted staff at Rick Dufour's former school, Adlai Stevenson, we have a study block built in to third period each day that teachers can use at their discretion to have students accelerate or slow down in their courses, or catch up on their studies in other courses.  We have directed Academic Intervention that takes place each day after school for those students that need additional time to meet their outcomes.  And we have both directive and invitational time for our students to get targeted, subject-specific supports in their classes.  (A description of what we do is in this screencast).

However, there are issues that we need to look at.  Are these timetable modifications meeting our needs?  Our students needs?  In the development of our dynamic School Improvement Plan two years ago, we surveyed a sample of our students and staff (see down the left margin) so we could make good decisions about what we were doing and get some feedback on how the structures were working, but it's time to do it again.  Today, we met with our Department Coordinators and worked on the Google Survey to make sure that the questions are going to give us the information that we need to prepare for our PLC Structures Review in March, not only from a staff perspective, but from the student point of view as well.

But what I am most excited about is to work with the staff on possibilities.

Along with our structures that we want to support student and teacher achievement, can we introduce more flexibility to our timetable so that students can be more engaged in their learning?  Is there a way that we can examine the number of mandatory versus flexible periods for students in a week dependent on how they are doing, what supports they need, and their own learning interests?  Today, I got into contact with Grant Frend, (@GrantFrend) Principal at Garibaldi Secondary School about unique timetables.  He pointed me to the Alberta High School Flexibility Enhancement Pilot Project, an initiative that has the potential to set a gold standard for the use of a timetable to maximize student engagement and achievement.  I am truly excited at the ideas that are here, and can't wait to share them with my own staff to spark even more thoughts about what can work for our school.

And once we are complete, I hope that our timetable tells a significant part of the story about the priorities of our school.

What story does your timetable tell?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Preventative Maintenance

Recently, I had the joy of spending $1000 on my car.  It wasn't on a sound system.  It wasn't on some flashy set of rims.  It wasn't on a spoiler.  Nope, instead I spent that money on parts you can't see from the outside, but parts that are vital to the running and safety of my car (CV joints and axle shafts).  As much as I didn't love the idea of spending that money, the work was essential and I had it done to the car.

While I was there, the mechanic spoke to me about the timing belt on my vehicle.  An interesting part, the timing belt is, because it usually lasts for a relatively consistent number of miles/kilometers on a given vehicle.  From Wikipedia:

Timing belts must be replaced at the manufacturer's recommended distance and/or time periods. Failure to replace the belt can result in complete breakdown or catastrophic engine failure.

But the truth of the matter is, they CAN last longer.  They often DO last longer, mostly because people don't think to get them replaced.  There is no rattle, nor a convenient spot where you can have a good look at it, see wear in it, and predict that you have another 5000 miles left before you need it changed.  Not to mention, it will cost a few hundred dollars to get this mystery belt replaced.  Not going to break the bank to get it done, but it's not like replacing the washer fluid either.

A conundrum.  Spend a few hundred dollars and get that belt replaced as part of preventative maintenance, or roll the dice.  Hmmmm.

Recently, I read the latest outstanding book by one of my favourite authors and mentors, Bill Ferriter (a must follow at @plugusin).  Making Teamwork Meaningful is a book that takes the shiny cover, the bells and the whistles off of the Professional Learning Community.  With a series of authentic vignettes and examples, MTM describes a typical PLC journey:  curiousity, excitement, and euphoria followed by changes, confusion, frustration and exasperation.  From the book:

"Then everything seems to slow down. Teachers begin grumbling about indepen-
dence and standardization. PLC cheerleaders become disenchanted as skeptical col-
leagues fall off the collaboration bandwagon. New directives come down from the
central office, pulling away energy and resources. Teachers who know little about
the building’s core mission and vision or about the shift from a focus on teaching
to a focus on learning that defines successful PLCs come on board. Commitment to
the process wanes and then, as is so often the case in school reform, the PLC model
becomes just one more thing tried and left behind—another checked box on a dis-
carded school improvement plan: “We did our PLCs. Check.”

More than 6 years ago, we took our first team to a Professional Learning Communities Summit to look at whether we could be better meeting the needs of our students and our staff.  We developed a pilot project.  We crafted a new timetable to create collaborative time.  We created our Academic Intervention program to provide additional time and support to our students.  We confronted our assessment practices.  We sent more of our teacher leaders to conferences to help lead collaborative meetings.  We introduced a mandatory study block to augment our self-directed and invitational tutorial times.  We did a lot.

And after a period of confusion and frustration, we began to see success!  For four years in a row, our failure rates dropped, and surveys of our teachers reported that they were seeing significant changes in their practices and the achievement by the students in their classes as a result of our collaborative meetings.  Things were moving along.

Things ARE moving along.  But...

But as much we have collaborative groups that are firing on all cylinders, some of our team leaders are reporting that they are having some struggles in their weekly meetings.  And some of our teachers are saying that students are not using the tutorial time as effectively as they have.  And our failure rates have plateaued in some areas, or are increasing when we look at cohorts longitudinally.

I have been feeling like the timing belt may be going on our big car.

At our March staff meeting, we are going to be looking at a number of the key structures in our building.  It's time. It's time for us to tear some things apart and have a good look at whether they are still working for us.  And as much as I have really pushed to create and maintain these structures, I have to take a big step back and work with our staff to reflect on what we need to start doing.  On what we need to tweak and modify. 

But when I reflect upon how we came to where we are today with our collaborative model and intervention strategies, I realize that I drove a lot of the structures that were created.  I had a vision of what I thought we needed, and as much as we had a critical nucleus that was instrumental in moving us forward, the way some of our structures ended up were the result of me pushing my own ideas without truly involving our staff.

That is going to change.

And as much as it will be difficult for me (because I was so invested in some of our structures), I need to consider things that we might have to STOP doing in the way that we have done them to this point.

Making Teamwork Meaningful has dozens of practical tools that I will be adapting to help our staff do a thorough examination of our practices in developing our Professional Learning Community.  The Intervention Practice Reflection Template is excellent, and the Evolutionary Checklist for Professional Learning Teams is outstanding.  With a few tweaks, I think we can use documents such as these to begin to start some rich dialogue about how we can support each other and our students in improving student and teacher achievement.


My hope is that by doing this sort of preventative maintenance, we can avoid the "complete breakdown or catastrophic engine failure" that could be coming on our PLC journey if we chose not to do so.  We will keep you posted!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Confronting Constructs

With 2013 now upon us, it is that (in)famous time of the year in which many of us take a few moments to reflect on the year gone by.  We then create our list of attitudes and behaviors that we endeavor to change with this mystical date that we call a 'fresh start'.  Often times we put off making changes until this arbitrary date, and we even allow some of our actions in a particular area to degenerate further through the justification that "I will start ______ after New Year's" (enter 'eating differently', 'exercising' or whatever fits).  Yet regardless of the motivation for making a change, be it January 1st or otherwise, I think whatever it is that inspires us to reflect on our practices and make changes--it's probably a good thing.

A construct in the philosophy of science is an ideal object, where the existence of the thing may be said to depend upon a subject's mind. This, as opposed to a "real" object, where existence does not seem to depend on the existence of a mind.[1]

Over the last several months, I have begun to question why it is we do things the way we do in education.  I looked back at a post I wrote a couple of years ago called "The Knowing-Doing Gap", and realized that I need to investigate a number of things that seem to be 'constructs' as opposed to 'real' in our school system.  This is not to say that some of these concepts or practices may not be valid in a given context:  depending on the circumstance, one or all of these things might have some applicability in schools for kids.  However, I need to wrap my head around some things that seem to be rattling around in my brain so that I have a better rationale for them than "because that's how we've done it before".

In no particular order...

The daily timetable:  At our school, we have a semestered timetable based on a rotation of 4 subjects in 70-80 minute blocks for half of the year.  Of course there are linear timetables, trimesters, 50 minute blocks, and a number of other permutations that schools use all across North America.  But have we adopted these timetables for the convenience of organizing students and faculty, or because they are best for learning?
  • Question:  Is the timetable that you have at your school meeting the needs of your students?  Is there a better way?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Francis Kelsey Secondary is a school in British Columbia that is organized in a way that makes more sense to me.  The school has a timetable which gives students choice and flexibility based on their needs and on their interests.  For example, if a student is struggling in Math but doing well in Social Studies, they can spend more time in Math that week in order to caught up or get additional support.  There is also flexible time built in so that students have greater choice in and responsibility for their learning.  This bears more investigation for me.
Final exams/high stakes tests:  I don't need to go into a great deal of detail about the implications around summative, high-stakes testing--this is something that is the subject of much debate in educational jurisdictions everywhere.  To this end, a number of educators in classrooms everywhere have chosen to find different ways of assessing what their students know.  But there are still final exams and Ministry exams that can significantly skew not only the level of student achievement, but the way that a teacher goes about their business in the classroom--the material that they cover and the pace at which they cover it.
  • Question:  Does the assessment occurring in classrooms at your school truly reveal the learning that has occurred by the students?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Portfolio assessment still interests me.  Any method of assessment in which students can be guided to collect and then determine which artifacts represent their learning and then present them in a method that they are comfortable with seems so much more authentic.  And if the assessment by the teacher requires more time, then perhaps we need to find ways to make that time so that we can really dig in and discover what it is that kids know.
This year, my goal is to begin to investigate and confront a number of these (artificial) constructs that we have, and to work with my staff to find others and see if we can't come up with interesting and viable alternatives:

Parent-Teacher Interviews:  Our PT interviews tend to be traditional:  parents are invited to come, they sign up for appointments on classroom doors, they meet our teachers and discuss their students progress to that point, and they leave.  Brownies and coffee cap off a pleasant evening. For a variety of reasons, some parents are unable to make it:  people are busy, they work, and many times have good communication with the teacher and find the whole process to be redundant.
  • Question:  Does the format of your parent teacher interviews meet the needs of your parents and your students?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Why do nearly all parents of elementary school children attend the Christmas Concert?  Because they really want to see their children perform.  To show their stuff.  Because it is so cute, and they wouldn't miss it for the world.  How can we make PT interviews like this?  Can we make them self-directed (many schools do this).  Can we make them a showcase of student work?  Can we make them so important for parents and students that it is NOT mandatory, but rather so cool that everyone wants to come, to bring their video cameras, and to share the scene on Facebook and Twitter?  

Report Cards:  The BC Ministry of Education and the School Act mandate the parameters within which we report to our students and parents.  86% is an "A", we have to do formal reports a set number of times per year, and we need to generate a transcript for our students.   But with the advent of computer programs that generate progress reports with a few keystrokes, email, and technological solutions such as texting programs that we can use to send homework to students and parents, we can, should, and do keep parents more informed than ever before.  Not to mention, parents often ask me "What does C+ and 'Satisfactory progress' tell me about how my child needs to improve in their class?".  Hmm, pretty good question.
  • Question:  Does the format and timing of your report card meet the needs of your parents and your students, and does it truly tell the story of what is happening in the classroom?
  • An interesting alternative to this construct:  Many teachers in our school have nearly 120 students in their four classes.  Without question, to provide an anecdotal report for each student would take a great deal of time.  But if that gave a more accurate picture that improved the learning of the student, could we not justify the time?  If we truly value the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity, is there a way that we can report these to parents in a way that is meaningful and acts as a vehicle to improve such skills?

This is not an exhaustive list.  As well, I don't want to purport that I know all of the alternatives to the constructs that we have created in our schools, nor do I feel that there is a be-all, end-all solution to any of these issues.  But what I do know is that there are things that each of us do in our learning situations that are constructs, that have been put in place that do not have to remain the way they are.

And my New Year's Resolution is to work with my staff to find and examine these and other constructs so that we can best meet the needs of the students in our school.

What are the constructs that you are going to confront?