Do We Need Grade Level Standards Any More?

I’m writing this post as a question, not a statement for a reason.  I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’m honestly not sure.  Writing this post is an effort to organize my thoughts.

This struggle is mostly connected to the conviction I have that students are all individuals who have a variety of strengths and talents.  The primary function of education should be to help students to recognize and develop these strengths and talents to their fullest capacity.  Saying that students must reach the same standards at the end of the year based solely on their birth year seems counterintuitive to this notion.  It’s giving the message that everyone can and should grow at the same exact rate each year.  It is rare that I have found this to be true.

Additionally, most grade-level standards are broken into different subject areas.   This places emphasis in school on mostly academic learning areas like math, literacy, science, and social studies.   Students whose strengths lie in areas outside of these traditional subjects seldom get an opportunity to shine in school because of this.   

Breaking standards into different subject areas also sets up the false dichotomy that subjects are always separate from one another.  In the world outside of school, new ideas and solutions are overwhelmingly created using interdisciplinary work.

Finally, no matter how much we tell ourselves that grade level standards-based reporting is better than traditional grades, it still communicates to parents and students that the purpose of education is to get some sort of score.   We can share the descriptor for the grade level standard, and continue to give them feedback towards mastery, but when a number is factored in, it still shifts motivation towards a number instead of the reward of progress and learning.  

What If…

Instead of using grade-level standards, what if we looked at learning as a continuum?  Instead of breaking this continuum into subject areas, it would incorporate broader, ideas.  Asking questions, constructing ideas with viable support, collaborating with others, creating plans and executing long-term projects are just some of the ideas that would incorporate multiple subject areas.  

Instead of using numbers or letters to communicate progress to students in report-like format, what if we met with students weekly in conferences to discuss their progress on the learning continuum.  At the beginning of a cycle, we would set goals with students on areas they wanted to work on based on the continuum.  We decided with them artifacts that would show they had progressed to the next stage in the continuum.   We gave them time to work on the standards individually as well as in groups.  These conferences would be recorded and shared with parents.  Parents could even electronically be a part of the conference through a digital tool like Google Hangout.  This would make education truly a collaborative effort between home and school.

Instead of putting students into classrooms based on age, what if we put them in multi-age classrooms? We developed their leadership and collaborative skills at all ages.   We celebrated mentorship and the ability to help others, instead of placing a focus on being better than others.  Better yet, what if we grouped students into classrooms based on areas they wanted to explore more deeply?  We put kids who had mutual passions in the same classroom who were passionate about the same things and empowered them to explore these ideas.  What might happen to kids’ perceptions of the purpose of school then?

But…

What about time?

What about college?  

What about basic foundational learning that everyone needs to know?

Setting up school this way would definitely require a different way of looking at the way we organize the school day.  Instead of teaching in subject blocks, students would need to work for longer periods of time.   

I recognize that colleges currently select students based on their grades and ability to score highly on standardized tests.   Getting rid of grades and grade-level standards definitely muddies the water on this, but should we really never change what we are doing solely based on a system that colleges set up hundreds of years ago?  The world is changing exponentially each day.  Colleges need to change as well.  If we continue to keep our system the same, there is no motivation for colleges to change either.  We need to stop viewing change as an unwanted thing and embrace it for its possibilities.

There is no reason that this shift would abolish foundational knowledge.  When learning is seen as a continuum, any type of knowledge can be included.  Learning to read, write, draw, perform, code and build foundational skills for math (the list could go on) would all be included.  


Using grade-level standards is an easy way for us to communicate progress to parents because it is a system that most people have experienced and understand.  As a principal, I see student success in a variety of standards on a daily basis.  I also see students struggle.  I hear conversations about meeting standards.  I see kids celebrated and I see kids defeated.  I am wondering what the shift in the percentage of celebrated success might be if we looked at education differently.  Ultimately, is ease of communication really the standard we want to use in deciding how we give feedback to students and structure our schools?  

 

The Phrase in Education That Needs to Go

Teach with Fidelity.

If you want to get me riled up, tell me I need to do anything with this as the standard.

I remember when I first started teaching almost 20 years ago, I was told by a colleague that the first year we implemented a new curriculum we had to, “teach it with fidelity.”  After that, we could maybe make changes, but the first year we had to do every single lesson exactly the way that it was written in the exact order that it was written.  The thought behind this was that by teaching every lesson we would have a better understanding of how the program worked.  If we didn’t teach it exactly as the curriculum said, it was our fault that kids weren’t learning.

This philosophy made sense at the time.  It was the era of No Child Left Behind where there was a heavy focus on “research-based programming.”  According to the rhetoric (being propagated by politicians), our schools were failing and we had to do something about it.  Curriculum written by mythical education gurus was suddenly the answer to everything.  Teacher weren’t the experts.  Curriculum writers were.  And so began the fallacy that curriculum has all the answers.

Teaching With Fidelity is an archaic phrase that needs to disappear.   I might argue it’s actually one of the most harmful phrases in education today.     

If educators are told that they cannot change any lesson and must teach it exactly in the order it is written, it nullifies their ability to respond to the learners in their classroom.  This is counterintuitive to responsive instruction, an effective instructional practice that results in growth in students because it meets them where they are and grows their abilities from there.   When we teach every student every lesson exactly the same way we are harming both kids who can go beyond the curriculum as well as the ones who are not yet ready for the lesson.  It takes away the ability of educators to select lessons that are connected to students’ lives and interests which takes away their ability to make lessons meaningful.  The result is boredom, frustration or even apathy in students.  

Teaching with Fidelity is harmful to school culture as well.  It sends a message to teachers that I don’t trust you and your expertise and experience in teaching.  Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy of “us vs. them” with teachers and admin in some schools and this phrase only adds to that tension.  We have to trust our teachers.  They are the ones who work with students daily.  They know the students’ strengths and the intricacies of the next steps in instruction because of the relationships they work hard at building.  Because of this, we need to empower them to make instructional decisions, not undermine their competence by expecting them to follow a box.

This phrase also results in a system where the ability to confirm is more highly valued than innovative ideas.  It tells both students and teachers that there is only one right path to learning.  If I cannot teach or learn exactly the way someone else tells me then there is something wrong with me.  This is the complete opposite of the world outside of school where creativity and innovation are sought out and celebrated.  We need to provide learners with school experiences that empower them to own their learning so they are prepared for the multitude of experiences they have outside of school.  I struggle to see how teaching with fidelity does that.  

I’ve seen this quote from Maya Angelou quite a bit lately on social media.  

“Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”

We know better than Teaching with Fidelity.  We know that getting to know our learners and building on their strengths and talents as is the best teaching practice to help them continue to grow.  The idea that there is one program that can reach all learners is archaic and misleadingJohn Hattie names Collective Teacher Efficacy as the number one factor being strongly correlated with student achievement.  We need to empower our teachers, not take away their ability to make informed instructional decisions.

We know better.  Let’s do better.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Empowered Learning Experiences

I recently finished, Innovate Inside the Box: Empowering Learners through UDL by George Couros and Kative Novak.  Full of inspiring anecdotes as well as thought-provoking ideas, the book is split into three sections:  

  1. The Core of Innovative Teaching & Learning
  2. Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset
  3. You are the Change You Seek

One of my favorite things about the book is the reflective questions that come at the end of each chapter.   Every chapter was meaningful, but the one that has felt most meaningful for me to reflect on today is Creating Empowering Learning Experiences from the Core of Innovative Teaching & Learning section.  When I was in the classroom as both a teacher and instructional coach, my main focus was how to best engage learners.  I thought that if I could plan highly engaging lessons then I would be fully meeting the needs of my learners.  

Previous work of George’s as well as this chapter has helped me to realize, if I am not providing empowering learning experiences, I am not adequately preparing them for the world outside of school.  When we engage students we are the ones who make learning meaningful and interesting to students, but when we empower them, they get to “develop the skills and motivation to solve meaningful problems.”  They are learning as a result of an internal drive which creates a cycle of perpetual learning, a skill that is incredibly important in the quickly changing world we live in.

Empowered Learning involves choice, developing better questions, as well as finding & solving meaningful problems with the opportunity to create.  At the end of this chapter, the following questions is asked, 

What are some examples of “empowered learning” in your classrooms for students and in your school/organization as professionals?  How are you empowered as an educator, and how does that empower students in learning?

It got me thinking about how I was empowering learners when I was in the classroom as well as steps I would take if I were still in the classroom to create more empowered learning experiences.

Empowered Learning Experiences

Previous Classroom Literacy Practice:  When I was in the classroom I tried to offer as much choice as possible to students.  In literacy, they received a weekly schedule with options that they could choose from to plan out their time that included things like read to self, blog post, meet with the teacher, responding to reading, or talk with a partner about their book.   They got to choose the books they were reading as well as the order they wanted to accomplish the tasks.  When we met 1:1 or in a small group, I would give them positive feedback as well as goals for their next steps in learning.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I offered a lot of choice to students, the activities were dictated by me.  Empowered learning involves giving students opportunities to create learning experiences that are meaningful to them.  If I were in the classroom, I would also include an option for them to choose what they wanted to explore in literacy.  I would also try to balance the amount of feedback I was giving to the students with the number of questions I was asking them about how they felt about their progress in literacy and the new goals they wanted to set.  I would give them more opportunities to set goals for themselves as opposed to their goals being dictated by me.  In elementary this would involve giving students a choice board of goals and letting them pick so that I could support them in becoming independent in goal selection.

Previous Classroom Research Practice:  I used to give students a broader topic to study and let them pick which aspect they wanted to research.  The students learned how to ask questions, take notes, and write a research paper with headings for each section.  Usually, these research papers would involve some sort of creative expression at the end that they could choose from that ranged from making a diorama to creating some sort of video.  

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I taught students to ask deep questions during the research process, it was limited to when we were doing research.  If I went back into the classroom I would include asking questions as a part of daily practice woven throughout the day.  I might start a lesson showing a picture or with a short passage or even just projecting the learning target and have students ask questions that they are curious about.  We would have a Wonder Wall and I would give students opportunities to explore these wonderings.  Another problem with the research I was having students do was that the end product was solely connected to me, the final product reader.  If I was having students research now, I would want them to look for problems in the community, school or world around them and come up with solutions.  The end product that they create would be related to solving that problem.  I would provide opportunities and encourage students to connect with “experts in the field” to get more ideas.  We would share our ideas beyond our classroom by putting them in a blog, inviting the community in or asking meaningful stakeholders for feedback on our ideas.  I could still evaluate all the standards I was covering in this process, it would just take a different process on my part.

Previous Math Practice:  I love math and have always loved teaching it.  One of my frustrations as a kid was that I always had to go at the same pace as everyone else when I was ready to move on so I wanted to make sure that my students never had that frustration.  When I first started teaching this looked like me assigning all of the same problems to the students after I had taught a lesson and then students could come up and check their work with myself or my assistant when they were ready and could then move on to choice activities like games or projects.   In my last years of teaching, I would pretest the students on the upcoming standards on Friday.  On Monday they would get a sheet with the list of standards that they had already mastered and a schedule for the week that included activities like meet with the teacher, a web-based self-paced program or more problems in our workbook.  There was also a column for how they would know they had mastered the standards they hadn’t yet by the end of the week.

Empowered Learning Upgrade:  Although I provided choice for my students and gave them feedback on their progress as well as expected them to monitor their understanding, a lot of the math was dictated by me or the program my district had provided for enrichment.  To improve on this process I would provide students time to explore questions they have related to math.  In my last years of coaching we had students explore questions like, “How is math related to gymnastics?” or “How is math related to animals?”  It would be anything that students were interested in.  They would have time to research and then present their findings.  To make this even better I would stop teaching math as a subject on its own and look for ways to incorporate it into the questions that students were asking in class.  I would give them time to explore these ideas and create meaningful products. (like mentioned above) 

Instead of putting students on a web-based program, I would give them opportunities to create videos to help other students in math using applications like WeVideo or Explain Everything or Seesaw.   They could create games based on the standards or I would give them opportunities to work on math projects that solved problems connected to meaningful topics.  They could create problems or projects for other students to solve as well.  I would give them time to explore math-related problems and see what math they could use to solve these problems.

Final Thoughts

I am in no way criticizing the teaching that I did in the past.  I provided my students with many engaging as well as empowering (and even compliant) learning experiences.  I am proud of the work I did and loved every minute I got to spend in the classroom with my amazing students.  I am also not saying that it is possible to empower learners every minute of the day in the classroom.  As discussed in this chapter, there is a time for every type of learning in the classroom: compliant, engaged or empowered.  

The purpose of this reflection was to help me to be a better leader as we move to give students more empowered learning experiences in the classroom.   By reflecting on what my next steps would be, I can further clarify what types of learning experiences I am looking for as I go into classrooms.  This will enhance my ability to have a deep discussion and mentor anyone who is looking to empower learners.  My next steps will be working on my own practice as a leader who empowers her staff.  I am looking forward to talking to my teachers about their thoughts on empowered learning and to co-create our idea of best practice in learning experiences at Jefferson School.   

“Empowered learning experiences should be something that we, as educators, create with our students for our schools and classrooms.” – Innovate Inside the Box, Chapter 3

The Paralyzing Effect of Stress

This week was not a stellar one for me.  I found myself in the familiar place of adulthood where there is too much to do and not enough time to do it.  I followed none of the advice I know is best and instead retreated into my office for large portions of the day, worked marathon hours at home and caffeinated enough to fly a jet plane around the world.

I thought that if I scheduled every minute of my day I could get it all done, the presentations, the phone calls, the observations, the projects.  Sleeping less, and planning out the day to the finite minute would give me ultimate control resulting in maximum efficiency and total calm in the chaos.  At least that’s what I had convinced myself.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

By Wednesday afternoon, I had reached my breaking point.  I had been on all day for three days straight and was working on finishing, (ok honestly just starting) a presentation I was giving that night at a PTA meeting about our school improvement plan.  Prior to this week, I had been looking forward to giving it because I sincerely love our PTA and couldn’t wait to share the wonderful work my staff has been doing.  I had even invited my superintendent to come as an informal evaluation because I was so excited to share the work. 

Instead of excitedly starting the presentation, I felt sheer terror.  I started thinking about the numerous other projects I would have to complete even after the presentation tonight and it just seemed utterly impossible.  To make matters worse, I realized around this same time that a portion of the Jefferson Family Project, which was debuting at the all-school Thanksgiving Feast the next day had disappeared.  I had no idea where the slides had gone and hadn’t scheduled time in the day to find them.  If that wasn’t enough, it was also my day to pick up my daughter from school and take her to her School of Rock lessons followed by dinner together and it was almost time for me to leave.  Life felt like a ticking time bomb. 

I froze.  My mind went blank and I started tearing up.    My inner thoughts jumped from, “You are terrible at this job.  You are not good enough to be an administrator.  How could anyone ever give you this position?” to “How can you even call yourself a mom? You’re never home.  Other moms can do it all.  Why can’t you?  What’s wrong with you?”  I told myself things that I would never ever say to anyone, but for some reason felt free to shame myself with.  

Lessons Learned

Spoiler alert.  None of the horrible thoughts I had during those moments ever came to fruition.  The Jefferson Family Project got fixed.  I gave my finished presentation to PTA and got wonderful feedback from both the community and my superintendent.  I didn’t end up getting to take my daughter to her class that night, but we spent the entire day together today and she still loves me unconditionally.  All of the projects that I needed to complete, the phone calls, the meetings, they all happened and went well.  

So am I writing this post to tell you not to be stressed because it will all work out?  

Nope.

I wrote that post in August.  It clearly didn’t work for me so I obviously need to readjust.  

Really I’m writing this post because I learned something about myself as a leader, a human, a mother, and a friend.   I want to avoid getting into that awful mental space of overwhelmed feelings and self-doubt and shame and am hoping that what I share might help you too.  (Especially if you an overthinking stressosaurus like me.)

1.  You Can’t Do it All

Nor should you.  One of the best things I did in this was to go and seek out my instructional coach.  She was more than happy to be a thinking partner in the work I was doing.  Her help not only took some of the overwhelmed feelings I was having away, but also made the work I was doing 10 times better than if I would have done it myself.  Besides helping think, she also helped with style and made the presentation look professional.  Once I had a partner in the work it was amazing how much easier it was to get my thoughts together.   I can’t believe I didn’t go to her right away with this, and will definitely remember to do so in the future.  

You know the saying, “It takes a village?”  Well, I ended up getting help from my assistant principal, coach, secretary, PTA President and wife, 5th-grade students, and teachers to finish the Jefferson Family Project and get it ready for the next day.   They all did different components and every time I pass by it I smile.  I am grateful for their help and the lesson learned.

This whole experience has made me start re-evaluating a lot of the tasks I am doing. Do I really need to complete them on my own?  Which ones can I delegate?  Who can be a thinking partner in my work?  I work with some incredible staff.  It is clear that I have been missing out on some opportunities to use them to their full capacity.

2.  Get out of Your Head, Go Be With People

The best parts of this week, and another reason my work ended up going well, were conversations I had with staff, students, and friends.  On Wednesday night, two of my staff members stopped by my office just to chat.  It wasn’t about a need, it was about life or to share a funny story, one that I’m still laughing about.  One of those staff members surprised me with chips and salsa from my new favorite restaurant because when she was with me, the company that was delivering my food had brought me the wrong kind.  Her unexpected kindness made my day, my week honestly and got my mind in the right space. 

On Thursday, knowing this is a busy time of year, in place of a staff meeting, I organized a wellness event.  We got to pick from yoga, cardio or a cooking class.  At the end, there were other optional things to choose from.  My favorite memory was sitting with staff in a circle in the library, with acupuncture needles stuck in our various limbs telling stories about our lives.  During the day we had our all-school Thanksgiving Feast, run by the PTA where we all eat lunch together.  Because of this, I got to spend about two hours connecting with students, staff and parents.   I left school feeling invigorated as opposed to deflated.  What a difference 24 hours can make!

When you spend your day talking only to people about work-related items it can be draining, but when you connect on a personal level it is invigorating and incredibly important.  I need to remember that as I go about my day.   

3.  Stop Scheduling Everything

I am not a “Type A” person in many aspects of my life.  My house is often a mess.  It doesn’t stress me out to be late to social events.  I am happy to go on vacation without planning out every minute detail.   When I feel overwhelmed by something though, “Type A” tendencies often take over and I over plan to the point of taking the joy out of things I love.  

I have also written about this before, but this time I am committing.  Because I am going to get better delegating and partnering on work, I am much more confident that it will actually happen.  Each day is going to include a half-hour of think time that I can use as I like to reflect, close my door and be by myself if needed or catch up.  I am going to try to give myself more grace if I don’t finish “all the things” in the timeframe that I thought I would as well. 

I also need to make more time for family.  This week I failed terribly at the work/home balance.  I committed at the beginning of the year to focus Saturdays on family and friends only, but in reality that hasn’t always happened.  I am recommitting to that promise.




When I get stressed, I tend to go internal and reach for some sort of inner strength or answer.  What I’m realizing is that it is better to get out of myself and connect with and learn from the strength of others.  I also need to be kinder in my self-talk when I am feeling overwhelmed.  Mostly, I am incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me this week for the lessons learned, the help given and the love I felt as a result.  

keller quote

 

 

The Evolution of Parent Communication

I’ve been reflecting this week a lot about some conversations I’ve had recently with staff about parent communication.  In Elmhurst, we have something called, “Acceleration Block.”  It is a time when we group students based on a specific learning standard or need and plan learning experiences to accelerate their growth in that area.  In previous years we had focused solely on literacy, but this year I have opened up Acceleration Block to include any area that the teachers think would benefit students. 

Because this was something new, last week I secured 1/2 day subs for my staff so that they would have time to reflect on our first round of Acceleration Block and plan for the next six-week interval.   Part of the planning was creating parent communication regarding how students progressed in the last round and how we would communicate progress during this round.

I have to confess that when I was in the classroom, I was a pretty basic communicator.  I had a weekly parent newsletter that shared what we were working on as well as a few highlights of students who had demonstrated great character that week.  I made sure to grade papers in a timely manner and send them home with a few comments or feedback.  If students were not meeting my expectations academically or behaviorally I made sure to email, send a handwritten note, or call depending on the severity.  About halfway through each trimester, I sent home a progress report in addition to sending home a report card at the end of the trimester.  If parents wanted to communicate with me they could email, call, or write a note in their child’s assignment notebook. 

As we talked about different ways that teachers communicate with parents, I realized that as much as the need for communication has stayed the same, the medium in which it happens has expanded greatly.   The tiny world of email, notes, and phone calls has expanded into texts, video messages, class websites, blogging, social media, student self-assessment,  and on-demand access to student work.  There are so many options that it can get a little bit overwhelming at times.  Some of our questions became:

  1. What information should we be communicating with parents? 
  2. What is the frequency that we should communicate?
  3. What mediums make the most sense to communicate with?

In looking at these questions I decided to refer back to guidelines that Christine Trendel, a colleague whom I greatly respect created for her staff at the beginning of the year.  She starts by explaining that the overall purpose of any parent communication is to build relationships and to keep parents informed.   She then breaks communication into two groups: Global & Personal.   Also included are timelines, purpose and examples for both.  

Global Communication

Purpose:  To communicate grade-level standards students will be working on, learning experiences happening in the classroom and resources that parents might find helpful

Frequency:  Once a week

Examples:  

  • Newsletter Created by Teacher:  Gives a general summary of what is happening in each subject with links to resources.  Teachers can choose to do a written version or record themselves in video format.  These can be sent to parents by email, in paper or through social media such as Seesaw, Class Instagram or Facebook page or text message using an app like Remind.    
  • Newsletter Created by Students:  Students can create the content at the end of the week by either writing a newsletter or recording themselves using a web-based service like WeVideo where they can edit together different clips and turn it into a show.  
  • Class Website or Blog:  Using Google Sites or another service like Weebly, Kidblog, Edublog etc.  teachers or students create different pages based on what has been taught or will be taught in upcoming units.  If a blog is included there can be additional narrative and reflection included by anyone in the classroom.  This gives parents an additional window into the work that has been done
  • Social Media:  Teachers can create a class Instagram, Twitter or Facebook account.  They can use this to create stories or posts about different learning experiences happening in the classroom.  This keeps parents informed in real-time.  The account can be controlled solely by the teacher or students can be assigned as a class job for the week to document learning occurring.

Individual Communication

Purpose:  To communicate individual student progress towards meeting standards,  celebrate success, or communicate concern in all aspects of the classroom

Frequency:  Varies based on student, but at a minimum once a month

Examples: 

  • Student Work With Feedback Attached:  Students are more likely to learn from the work if it is in the form of feedback as opposed to a grade.  At Jefferson, we love the single-point rubric for this reason.  Making sure the feedback given is specific and timely is key.  
  • Progress Report:  Giving parents an update on their child’s progress between report cards is important.   This can be a simple one-page sheet with the standards you are working on along with executive functioning or SEL goals.  Sitting down with students and having them give feedback on where they think they are will make this process even more effective.
  • Student Goal Setting & Reflection:  As mentioned in the previous bullet, involving students in reflecting on their progress and setting goals is a meaningful way to help them grow.  Having students share their goals with parents is a great way to increase home/school communication as well as collaboration.  Some of my teachers have students write about them and others have kids do a video reflection like a Vlog.  
  • Parent Access to Google Drive:  Giving parents access to their child’s Google Drive or inviting them to your Google Classroom is another easy way to communicate with families.  Even if you are not writing comments on their work, it allows parents to see what students are working on so they can talk with their students about it at home.  
  • Seesaw:  This is such a great tool for parent communication.  Students can record videos, take pictures with voice-over, fill-out templates, create demonstrations of their learning and more in this application.  Parents can comment on their child’s work as well or simply click a heart to like it.  Some of my teachers use this with their students almost daily and the parent response has been incredibly positive.
  • Report Card:  No explanation needed on this one. (I think) 
  • Phone Call, Email, or Note to Celebrate or Voice Concern:  One of the mistakes I made my first years of teaching was only communicating when I had concerns about students.  As I got more experienced I realized that positive communication is just as important as expressing concerns.  I recommend creating a schedule of when you plan on sending a quick note, email or phone call about each student in your classroom.  As a principal I have teachers nominate a positive phone call of the week.  The students then get called down to the office and we call their parents and celebrate the good news!
  •  Assignment Notebook:  Students can write down a daily reflection in their assignment notebook or set a goal or celebrate an accomplishment.  Assignment notebooks can also be used as communication logs back and forth between parents and school.  

As we talk about parent communication it’s also important to remember that it shouldn’t be one-sided.  We should be just as proactive in reaching out to parents with celebrations/concerns as we are in asking them for feedback.  Requesting information on their child’s strengths and interests as well as discussing the goals they have for their child can only strengthen our ability to help every student in our classroom to grow.  Giving parents an opportunity to give feedback regularly will also strengthen our efficacy as educators.


School has changed greatly since many of our parents were in school.  (For the better I think!)  The trends that I have seen are less formal paper and pencil assignments where students receive concrete grades as well as less formal assessing overall.  The volume of assignments has decreased because we are placing greater importance on giving students more meaningful long-term projects and explorations and/or assessing students informally through observation and conversation.  Many elementary schools have decided to give homework only if it is necessary and meaningful for learning.  The unintended consequence of this is that parents have less of a sense of what their child is working on as well as how they are progressing in all subject areas.  We have to start thinking differently about how we communicate with our families.

Just like we design our learning experiences to meet the needs of our students, we need to create communication plans that meet the needs of our families.  I would recommend sending home a survey at the beginning of the year (or now) and then building a plan of action from there.  Do most families have older children in the school or is this their first year?  How do they prefer to be communicated with?  Email? Text?  Social Media?  What do they know about the learning in the grade that you teach?   As a general rule, the more communication the better.  No parents have ever complained to me their teacher overcommunicates with them, but I have definitely gotten feedback when parents feel that communication is lacking.  

The changes to the way that we communicate with parents can be overwhelming, but can also be a game-changer when it comes to partnering with parents and building a shared vision of what we want our school to be.   

 

How Administrators Can Support Teacher Leaders in Their Schools

Jeffery E. Frieden, an educator, and blogger I greatly admire put out this tweet in February:

Friedman quote

I have to admit the first time I read it I thought to myself, what on earth would cause an administrator to not support the efforts of a staff member to create meaningful change for students?? Since I began my administrative career in Elmhurst District 205 innovation has been at the forefront of what we do.  Our belief statement about curriculum and instruction literally says,

“Students learn through innovative, engaged teaching methodologies taught by highly qualified, dedicated and inspiring professionals.” -Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205

For me, supporting innovative ideas of educators is one of my absolute favorite parts of my job.  (Not to be completely lame, but my tagline on Twitter literally reads, “You had me at, “I’ve got this idea.”)  Doesn’t every administrator feel that way?

As the responses began to unfold I realized the naivete of that thought.  There were valid questions and points brought up from both teachers and administrators demonstrating varying perspectives on the topic.  It was a rich discussion that ultimately left me evaluating and reflecting on my own perspective and approach.

Common Fears, Beliefs & Questions

It was clear from the responses that everyone was on the same page as far as the focus should always be on helping students. However, there appeared to be a major dichotomy from many teachers and administrators as to how to why innovative ideas weren’t flourishing.

From the administrator perspective, many responses included a desire to have data to back up the idea, a well thought out plan of execution and a connection to the district or school goals.  Making sure that educators had support or research behind their ideas was a theme that popped up repeatedly.  When they said no to an idea it was because it wasn’t clearly thought out or didn’t have a connection to district outcomes.  

Teachers who responded wanted to feel heard by their administrators.  Many expressed that they felt like innovation was a defeated effort before they started because their administrator was not open to new ideas.  They wanted their ideas to be met with enthusiasm, support and thoughtful questions that helped them bring their idea to life.  They wanted a leader that not only says we support innovative ideas, but also supports the words with action.

The Plan

Reflecting on the comments made in this thread I realize that I have been lucky in my teacher/administrator relationships.  I had administrators who either left me to my own accord to do what I knew was best for kids or leaders who regularly gave me the green light on my ideas.  As a result, I felt trusted, empowered, and inspired in the places I worked.  

As a new administrator, I hope to continue this approach to supporting innovation, but also think that based on some of the tweets I read I might be missing some structural pieces.  By incorporating these pieces, my hope is that the innovation started by one becomes more widespread leading to more success in students.

1. The Why

Tell me why you want to implement the idea you are bringing.  Is it based on the interests of your students?  A problem you are seeing in your classroom that you’d like to solve?  Something related to our mission and vision? An article you read?  Where is the idea coming from?

2.  The Plan

This is more of an overall plan as opposed to a step by step.  How do you plan on bringing your idea to life?  Who will this idea impact in your class?  What’s an estimated timeline?  Tell me about your idea so I can share in your enthusiasm. 🙂

3.  What You Need from Me

Is there anything I can do to support you?  Do you need extra materials?  Feedback on your idea?  A partner to implement it with?  Reassurance from me that it’s ok if it doesn’t go according to plan?

4.  How You’re Going to Evaluate it

How will you know if it’s a success?  This part is more about thinking about the outcomes and how we’ll know if the students have met them.  Sometimes it’s anecdotal notes with specific behaviors or mindsets to be observed, student reflections on the work or even a project of some sort.  I don’t mean that you have to give every student a formal assessment, unless that makes sense for the idea you’ve created.

5.  How You’re Going to Share it With Others

One of the problems that I’ve seen happen over and over is that we amazing things going on all over our building on a daily basis, but administrators or coaches are the only ones who get to witness it.  How are you going to share your brilliance with our staff?  It could be something as simple as sharing it on social media and tagging it with our school # or as involved as presenting about it at a staff meeting or Late Arrival.  

Final Thoughts

Innovation in schools is critical to the success of our students.  Our kids are constantly changing and we need to make sure that we are regularly reflecting and shifting instruction to ensure their needs are met and their strengths are grown.  This starts with administrators supporting staff in taking risks.  This is more than saying we are innovative, it’s taken action steps and following through by supporting them through the process.  

I was lucky enough to be able to speak to Jeff directly about this idea in his podcast, Dear Teacher Don’t Give Up! If you’d like to hear more regarding both of our thoughts on the topic of teacher leadership and innovation, please click here.  (As a side note, both his podcast and blog are chalked full of inspiration and great ideas to use in the classroom. If this topic doesn’t interest you, I’d highly recommend checking out others.)

Goals Groupies: Synergizing the Passions of Staff

Last year, I read this post by John Spencer about the importance of being in a “Mastermind Group” with other educators.   It’s basically a group of teachers that meet regularly to explore and share ideas and also give one another feedback.  Because the members get to know each other well they can push one another in ways that would not be possible with other groups.

This idea has always stuck with me as something that would be great to implement with staff.  So when we started exploring options for our monthly staff meetings as an instructional leadership team, I brought this up as a possibility for a way to structure our time.  After talking through a variety of options, including a focus on the 6C’s or differentiated choices aligned to our School Improvement Plan, we ultimately decided on having staff finding a group of people who had written similar personal goals for the year.

The purpose behind this was twofold:

  1.  It gave people time to delve more deeply into something they were already personally invested in.
  2. It made our goal writing process more meaningful because staff would have dedicated time to continually work on them.  This is in contrast to past practice, where many educators (myself included) would wait until it was time to have a follow-up conference on their goals later in the year.  

At our first meeting in September, we had staff members do a “speed date” activity where they moved around the room talking about their goals for the year with different people.  Their goal was to find others who had similar interests or their “Goals Groupies.”  When they found a “match,” they would write that person’s name down on an index card.  At the end of the meeting, they met up with the people on their card and came up with an official focus for their group.  

Although I had met with staff members on their goals for the year prior to this meeting, it was fun to see how groupies ended up evolving and what they ultimately chose to focus on.  We had 5th-grade teachers working with first-grade and even kindergarten teachers.  There were groups of specials teachers mixed with grade-level teachers.  The goals chosen were just as diverse and included:  SEL, critical thinking, parent communication, inquiry-based and real-world projects, reading fluency and accuracy, and facilitated IEP and collaboration.  

This past Thursday was our second meeting.  Our Goals Groupies were given time to explore their work more fully setting specific outcomes for their impact on students, creating a plan of action and agreeing on what they would bring to share at the next meeting.  We gave them this template with guiding questions to help them to further think through their ideas.  As I walked around the room, I listened to rich conversations and genuine enthusiasm for the work they were doing.  It was a Thursday after school, but everyone was just as energized as if we were starting a fresh day.  

This process has only reinforced my belief that when we empower staff to take the lead, we embolden change that impacts students far greater than any mandated initiative ever will.  When staff is given dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues who have a common passion, we capitalize on our strengths as a school as well as build capacity in multiple grade levels. The goals the groups have chosen to work on have far surpassed my wildest dreams of what we could work on this year as a staff.   I am beyond excited to see the impact on students as the year unfolds.

 

A Culture of Inquiry Vs. A Culture of Learning

We were discussing data at an EC-12 meeting this week when one of my colleagues posed a question I had never really considered before:

Would you rather have a culture of learning or a culture of inquiry in your building?

He had recently gone to a training for a grant he was a part of and the trainer had focused part of the day on this question.  The discussion that evolved from this question ended up being the most meaningful part of the day.

This got me thinking about how I might answer that question and its implications for education.  I’d say traditionally most schools have focused on the former. Mission statements of educational institutions across the country frequently include phrases like, “to create lifelong learners” or “develop a love of learning.”  Since we want learning to continue way past students’ school days this focus makes sense to me.

But what if we instead focused on building a culture of inquiry in both our staff and students?  What might that look like?  What would the benefits be?

In their new book, Inquiry Illuminated, Goodvis, Harvey & Buhrow spend their first chapter making a case for an inquiry-based culture in classrooms.  They postulate that students who are supported by teachers in inquiry:

  • Live a life full of wonder and curiosity
  • Explore ideas and topics and issues that are central to their interests and concerns, linking these to the wider world
  • Read and respond inquisitively with an inquisitive mind and a skeptical stance
  • Think creatively to express and share new learning

To me, this means that in an inquiry-based culture, learners (both staff and students) are encouraged to ponder & discover problems or issues, ask deep questions about their cause, and spend time researching and exploring a variety of possible solutions.

From an educator stance, an inquiry-based culture would mean that we would take the time to ponder the why first before jumping into solutions.  For example, my kindergarten team was recently meeting in a PLC discussing how many of their students have been struggling to formulate questions about basically anything in class.  Instead of jumping right to, “let’s give them questions stems and organizers to help them to better formulate questions,” they spent the first part of the meeting talking about the root causes of the issue.  A variety of ideas were offered, but what they realized was that students were lacking in curiosity, not the ability to produce questions themselves.

From this realization, they designed a variety of activities to be done at home and at school including a Wonder Wall, “See, Think, Wonder, Talk” activity with pictures, question cards and more.  After the meeting one of the teachers even sent out a link to this article from ASCD about cultivating curiosity in students to further spark ideas.

Professional learning opportunities for staff could also look different from a culture of inquiry stance.  Instead of starting with outcomes for the day, participants might be asked to first think about a problem of practice.  They would then be given time to talk about its root causes with peers and finally have time to develop solutions to be implemented in the school or classroom.  At the next professional learning opportunity, staff members could talk about the results of their work in teams and then either problem-solve another issue they were pondering or go more deeply into the first issue.

In education, many times we are quick to jump to solutions before thinking about what might actually be causing the issue in the first place. Sometimes this fixes the problem, but other times it makes us appear like we are a “squirrel-based” culture, jumping from one new best practice to another.  This results in frustration from many parties, and in many cases does not actually fix the issue.

I do not think that we should go full forward into developing a “Culture of Inquiry” over a “Culture of Learning,” but rather the two seem to be intertwined and necessary for success in our schools.  If educators and students are going to be able to come up with plausible viable solutions for the problems they find then they have to be skilled at learning.   Having a voracious desire for knowledge can only lead to curiosity and asking questions.

I am definitely interested in exploring this topic further.  I plan on creating a bulletin board in the staff lounge or by the copy machine with the questions,

“What does a culture of inquiry mean to you?”

“What does a culture of learning mean to you?”

“Which do you think is more important in our school? Why?”

Their answers will determine the next steps we take as a staff, but at a bare minimum, I hope to spark the curiosity that these questions evoked in me.

If you are interested in developing more inquiry in your classroom or school I highly recommend reading Inquiry Illuminated by Anne Goudvis, Stephanie Harvey & Brad Buhrow or Comprehension & Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey & Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.  They give a great framework as well as a multitude of examples and strategies that can be applied to any grade.  I have to give a huge shout out to my EL teacher, Kory Curcio for recommending the latter.

I would love to hear any other ideas or resources you have enjoyed related to this topic! Christina

 

 

Putting a Stop to the Right Way of Education

I recently saw this tweet by Dr. Brad Johnson: 

teaching different ways

I liked this post for several reasons, but mostly because it goes against what is frequently heard in education, that there is only one right way to teach children.  I’m guessing this has stemmed from the No Child Left Behind era that we are all still suffering PTSD from, but it needs to stop.  

I have spent the past seven years working in classrooms, observing teachers or partnering with them on lessons.  Not once have I seen highly effective teaching demonstrated in the exact same manner.  I cannot tell you how many teachers I have spoken with, in a variety of capacities, who have asked me, “Am I doing this right?” “Is this okay?”  When we tell people there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” we are setting up our educators for self-doubt as opposed to empowering them to make instructional decisions based on the needs of their students.  

We set up a similar dynamic when we give students limited ways or one way of demonstrating their learning.  This cartoon is a great illustration of this idea:

animal test.jpg

Making kids read a book and fill out the same template after they read, complete a problem set after a math lesson, or write a five-paragraph essay on the same topic are all examples of ways we tell students that there is a right way and wrong way of demonstrating learning.  We give students assignments like this because it is an easy way for us to see if students have reached proficiency.  However, the unintended consequences of this approach might be:

  1.  We create a classroom dynamic where students constantly ask us, “Am I done?”  “Did I do this right?” (I don’t know about you, but these type of questions personally drive me crazy.)
  2.  We aren’t really getting an accurate gauge of student understanding.  When given choice in demonstrating their learning, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach,  many students will actually show they can go way beyond the target.  On the flip side of this, students who struggle with the way we are asking them to demonstrate learning (think elephant, fish, seal above), may show us they don’t know how to do something that they actually do.

Please know I am not advocating for zero expectations or standards in the classroom.  I do believe strongly that there are strategies and structures we can use that are more effective than others depending on the learners in front of you.  I also know that students are not going to be able to set goals and reflect on their progress if there is never an expectation to be reached even with choice provided.    

We need to start thinking more of teaching and learning as a limitless continuum as opposed to an endpoint to be reached.  When we provide professional learning experiences we should have educators experience and explore a variety of high leverage instructional practices and then trust them to make the right choices for their learners.  We need to have high expectations, but broaden our definition of what this means and recognize this might look different depending on students and the target for learning in the classroom.  

At our Late Arrival on Wednesday we focused on microshifts in practice in math workshop.  We gave teachers a continuum with three options of what it might look like in the classroom with descriptors. (Thank you to our amazing coach Pia for creating it!)  Instead of saying, your goal is to get to the last option, empowering students, we asked teachers to reflect on times when they had been in each of the options.  They thought about when it made sense to use each of these types of models and then set a goal for one new strategy they would implement over the next few weeks. 

I have already seen the impact of this approach in the classrooms I have visited.  I’ve seen examples from the continuum as well as ideas that have far surpassed it.  No one has asked me for permission or questioned whether they are doing it right.  Each classroom has been uniquely amazing in its own way and I look forward to keeping it that way. 

Thanks for reading.  Christina

 

Slowing Down

“Why are you so mad at that driver mama?” asked my daughter Alexandra on the way home from the grocery store last Saturday.  I wanted to say in my most indignant voice, “Because he is driving slower than molasses and deserves to be yelled at,” but something about the way she asked the question snapped me out of my crazy road rage.  Instead, I took a breath, paused, and wondered…

What was I so mad at?

It was by all accounts a gorgeous day.  One of those beautiful days where you open the windows, breathe deep and smile at the luck you’re having on a September weekend in Chicago.

Except I wasn’t.  Not one bit.  The night before I had painstakingly mapped out every waking moment that day from my 5:30 a.m. workout all the way to Alexandra’s birthday party that night.  I went to sleep that night thinking I was a genius of time management and that I was going to avoid any stress because I was so prepared.  What I ended up doing was spending the day jumping from one activity without a moment for pause.  The anxiety I was trying so hard to avoid had escalated to monstrous proportions.   

What I realize now is that in my brilliant timetable, I had neglected to schedule a time for a pause in my day.  A time to just do whatever I wanted to do.  A moment of quiet or catching one of my favorite shows or reading a book or even just talking to a friend.  Because of this, I was walking through the day feeling on edge.

I remember feeling this way many times throughout the years when I was a teacher. As the list of important objectives grew, the time in the school day remained the same. The only way to get everything done was to over-schedule every subject down to the minute leaving no time for pause, a teachable moment or connection to something not already planned in the day. Each day blended with the next, and although I had accomplished everything on my list I grew more and more overwhelmed.

Kids feel the anxiety as much as we do. Even when they are offered choice and voice, the purpose is still determined by the teacher. They spend 6-7 hours of their day doing essentially what someone else is asking them to do. When we do give them a moment away from the academic schedule, it’s usually a “brain break” where we dictate exactly what they will be doing to “relax.”  What message does that send to them?

 Google, “the effect of breaks on the brain” or “taking time for ourselves” and you’ll find a plethora of research and articles that support the idea that taking periodic breaks are actually better for learning.  In a recent article from Edutopia, the authors posit that taking periodic breaks (including brain breaks) actually decreases stress and increases productivity.  One of the most interesting studies they reference showed that when the brain is at rest it is actually highly active with different areas lighting up.  “Breaks keep our brains healthy and play a key role in cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking.”  

If you’re still not convinced that learners need more downtime in school, think about the increase in mental health issues we have seen over the past few decades.  According to the CDC, “1 in 6 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (17.4%) have a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.” Behavior disorders are greatest in students ages 6-11 while rates of depression and anxiety rise as children age, peaking at ages 12-17.  

I have to believe that some of this is a result of the fast-paced world the students are a part of.  At school, with the exception of lunch and recess, the content and schedule of their day are chosen for them.  Many students continue this pace when they leave school moving from one activity to another.  Even though most of these after school activities are chosen and preferred by the student, it still doesn’t leave time to just be present and reap the benefits of having time to pause.  

If we want learners to be cognitively flexible and creative thinkers then we have to start giving everyone more breaks in their day.  I’m not saying we need more brain breaks, or even more recess.   Just some time broken up throughout the day when everyone in the room gets a moment to choose something that he or she wants to do that is not tied to a standard or a demand of another human being.  The research seems to show that if we can do this, we’ll not only be better learners but happier humans overall.   

So I’m starting with me.  Next week I’m blocking out time in my day for myself.  I’m talking to my teachers about doing this for not only the students, but themselves as well.  We all work insanely hard inside and outside of school.  Let’s give ourselves some grace and slow down the pace of the day.  I don’t know where the quote below came from, but I’m going to end with it as a kind reminder.