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

 

Putting an End to the Meaningless Agenda

We’ve all been there.

Sitting at a meeting or a grad school class where the agenda is ten miles long, broken up into either short little choppy increments or hour-long blocks without a break in sight.

Half of the items on the list seem to come from out of nowhere or could easily have been addressed in an email.

The absolute worst?  When the facilitators in no way honor the experience and talents the people at the meeting bring to the table, making everyone learn about the same things as if they have no understanding whatsoever.

When I was a teacher I loathed these experiences.  It felt like meetings were “being done to me” as opposed to inviting me to bring my talents and grow my strengths.

Many of our students feel the same way.  No matter how great of a student they are, they feel like they are showing up to the “school show,” expected to follow the rules and expectations set forth for them with little input as to how the day will proceed.

Can you imagine spending every day this way? I can’t.

We can and should do better.

When I became an administrator I vowed I would never bring this type of experience to my staff.  Am I perfect at it yet?  Definitely not, but here are a few things I try to do so that I’m not bringing a case of the meeting dreads to my staff:

  1. Ask for feedback.  Although I haven’t yet been able to start from scratch with my school leadership team in creating an agenda due to time constraints (we’re almost ahead of this), I do bring the agenda to the team and ask for feedback prior to our institute days or Wednesday late arrivals.
  2. Build on the expertise of the team.  What are they good at?  What are they passionate about?  What do they see as the greatest need that would make the meeting most valuable to all?  Stop being the only one who presents and let teacher leaders lead.  They’re the ones who know the kids the best.  We need to trust them!
  3. Tie everything back into the vision that was created as a staff.  Ours this year is #unlimitedgrowthandconnection.  We make sure that every agenda item is connected to this and explicitly stated.
  4. Include breaks and don’t make people turn off their technology.  We’re all adults.  If we’ve made the topics of the meeting meaningful then people won’t want to distract themselves with other things.  We should trust people to use their resources when they need/want to.
  5. Include something fun.  Meetings are an opportunity to build culture and camaraderie.  We added in a “Walk-Up Song” activity at the beginning of each staff meeting where we asked staff members to send us the song they would have played when they walk into the classroom like they do in Major League Baseball.  The rest of the staff has to guess whose song it is.  We even have prizes.  From the response at the last meeting, we might add in karaoke.  What does your staff enjoy?  Thankfully mine loves music and food, two of my favorite things so I also try to bring some sort of tasty treat.

If you’re a teacher, what might this look like in your classroom?  How often do you ask for feedback or build the day around goals students have set for themselves? How can you make each learning target meaningful to the students so they see a connected purpose in the work they are doing?  What would the day look like if more choice and voice were incorporated?

I love this question that George Couros poses to educators,

“Would you want to be a student in your own classroom?”

For me, this question has transitioned to, “Would you want to be a teacher in your staff meeting?” I hope as the year progresses the answer to this question becomes an emphatic yes!  Let’s stop “doing school to people” and start asking for meaning from our people.

Wildly Important Goals: Calm in the Chaos

This past Thursday I attended a training on evaluating administrators.  As much as I enjoyed talking with my peers and listening to the presenter, the part that was most meaningful was learning about a concept called, “Wildly Important Goals” from the book, The Four Disciplines of Execution by Covey, McChesney, & Huling.

The beginning of the year is hectic for educators, and it can make you feel like although you are working insanely hard and barely sitting every day, your ToDo List never seems to get any smaller.  When I was a teacher I had experience and routines in place that helped to counteract this, but as a new administrator I’m still figuring things out.  I’ve been questioning my ability to execute, much less ever be good at all of the tasks required of a principal.

So when the presenter played this video about the first discipline of the book, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm.  It was like someone had been reading my mind and had given me that plan of execution I had been experimenting with, but never really successfully accomplishing.

Like the title says, there are four disciplines that are key to exceptional leadership.  Discipline 1 is the Discipline of Focus.  Mastering it will make the whirlwind of tasks (expected or unexpected) that can be all-consuming to a leader (or teacher), become not only more manageable, but resulting in the achievement of our loftiest goals.   The authors argue that amazing results can only happen if we are clear on what matters most.

So how do we do this?

Start with creating a Wildly Important Goal (WIG).  Ask yourself, “If everything else remained, what one achievement would make everything else seem secondary?” It is way harder than you might think to come up with this goal, but once you do, you focus all of your effort on the tasks related to accomplishing it.  The other tasks you have to complete you are given permission to put forth minimal effort to complete.

I love the analogy given in the video of the jobs of an air traffic controller. It may seem like EVERYTHING is critical in this job, but really the laser focus must be on the plane that is trying to land so that it gets on the ground safely.  A much smaller amount of effort is spent on making sure the other planes do not crash.  As a lifelong perfectionist, this one analogy was the most calming and reassuring.

In creating my WIG, I thought about the goal we set as a staff on the first institute day this year of Unlimited Growth & Connection.  What was my role in this endeavor?  Where do I want to focus all of my efforts so that this goal is achieved by all stakeholders?  When I started breaking these two things down, I realized that in order for students & staff to have unlimited growth they need to know their strengths.  The only way this could happen was by me developing strong relationships with everyone involved in our school.

My Wildly Important Goal for this year is making sure that every learner (adult and child) in my school community ends the year knowing at least one strength they are incredibly talented at.  This is not going to be an effort that I can do alone.  It will definitely be a team effort including all staff members as well as our parent community.

To ensure that my WIG becomes a reality, I have the following action steps planned for the rest of the first trimester:

  1.  Unless I have a meeting, be outside talking with students both before and after school.  Be present at recess/lunch for the same reason.
  2. Block out time daily in my calendar to be in classrooms.  When I’m in classrooms give explicit feedback to students about what they are doing well.  When I leave, send a positive email to staff or tweet out their awesomeness.
  3. Create a lunch schedule where every student in the school is invited at some point throughout the year to eat lunch with the principal.
  4. Continue the “Positive Phone Calls Home” on Fridays where I call families to share with them the good news that their teacher nominated them to receive a phone call home based on something special they have done.
  5. Provide time for our staff during institute days and staff meetings to track how much they know about students both personally and academically and collaborate with their peers with action steps.  At our Late Arrival on Wednesday, teachers had time to fill out this template (or this one) and collaborate with peers to get the process started.
  6. Provide professional learning opportunities focused on giving feedback in both teacher to student and student to student.
  7. Before and after school walk around the building and check in with staff members to find out their successes, ideas and challenges that they may want assistance with.
  8. Ask for feedback from staff, students, and the community.  How well do they think I know them or their child?  How do they know?  What are suggestions for improvement?

The next three steps in the process involve tracking lead behaviors (action steps), making progress visible and having regular accountability talks.  For me, the lead behaviors I plan on tracking are how much I know about each staff member and how often have I given them positive feedback.  I also plan on keeping track of everything I know about students.  I have a dream of a giant wall in my office with a picture of each student and a place to record things I know, but I’m guessing a binder with a class list including pictures is more realistic.  At the end of each day, I’ll flip through the pages and jot a few notes.  For staff, I’m going to have a stapled packet of our staff list with one page for each week of school.  Every time I visit a classroom I’ll put a checkmark next to the staff members’ name followed by an email with positive feedback.  I have used this practice regularly in the past and it is a great tool to track how much I know about their strengths.

I recognize that this sounds like I have just given myself a TON of extra work to do, but what it has really done is prioritized what is important each day.  It’s not that I won’t do the other logistical things that are required to make the building work well or if a crisis arises I won’t help out, but I’m not going to expend the majority of my energy on them.

Prior to this training I used a methodology I learned from James Clear (check out his website here -it is awesome) where you prioritize three main tasks of the day and start each day putting forth all of your energy towards them.  I liked this approach because it helped me feel a sense of accomplishment each day.  However, many times I struggled with prioritizing what were the 3 most important things.

Layering in this new approach is going to elevate this process and give me the confidence I need to execute my Wildly Important Goal.  I look forward to sharing with you the progress along the way of every learner at Jefferson knowing his or her strength.  Thanks in advance for being my regular accountability check-in. 🙂

Unlimited Growth & Connection: Creating a Common Vision

“It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.” – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Now maybe I’m being a bit dramatic using the opening line of a book about the dichotomy of people’s lives during the French revolution to describe my inner turmoil as I drove to work on the opening institute day of the year, but I honestly don’t think I could describe it any better.  Never in my life have I been so insanely excited about something while also so completely terrified at the same time.

As a former instructional coach, I know that trust starts day one. It’s not one thing you do, but a collection over time that builds up.  Brene Brown tells a story in Daring Greatly of a time that her daughter lost trust in one of her friends who hurt her deeply.  Her daughter’s description of how trust works has become one of my favorites.  (I actually used it on the opening slide of my keynote that day.) 

“Trust is like a marble jar. You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends who over time you’ve filled up their marble jar. They’ve done thing after thing after thing where you know you can trust this person.” 

I had started building a few marbles of trust with my staff over the summer, meeting in coffee shops individually or in groups to get to know them better, but this was the first time I would be addressing them as a whole, sharing my hopes, my fears, my dreams and promises to them as a leader.  The importance of vulnerability is another concept I learned from Brene.  This felt like vulnerability on extra strength steroids. On this day not only was I was going to be incredibly vulnerable, but in one of our activities, I was asking my staff to also be vulnerable as well.  It was a perfect storm for complete success or epic failure.  

I learned from Katie Martin visiting our school last year the power that sharing your why can have in creating connection as well as a direction for the vision of the school.  With this in mind, my instructional leadership team (myself, assistant principal & coach) planned out an activity where staff members were asked to bring two objects, one representing their personal why and one their professional why of everything they do.  They then were asked to get into groups of four with people they don’t normally interact with and share the stories behind them.  Finally, they had to create a visual that represented the common theme among them.  They had about an hour to do this and then were instructed to come back to our Multi-Purpose Room to share what they had created.

Our greatest hope was that we would find a common thread among them that would focus everything we did for the year.  Our greatest fear was that nothing would be connected and we would be coming up with an artificial idea that some people would get on board with, but others would find greater disconnection.  

My assistant principal and I spent the hour walking around classrooms listening in to the powerful conversations that groups were having with one another.  Many shared stories of people, adults and children, who had had a great impact on them.  The positive energy was flowing as smiles and memories lit up the faces of everyone involved.  It appeared that although each story was unique, there were definitely common themes emerging.

At around 10:00 the moment of truth arrived and we asked the groups to return to our MPR to share their common threads.  As each group stood and shared their creation, it was truly amazing to hear the ideas that each group shared and the inspired ways they chose to represent them.  You can see a picture of what they made below, but one group made a chain with important words connected together.  Another group drew a puzzle with different pieces connected.  Another team talked used Buzz Lightyear in their image to represent that students need to know that they have infinite possibility.  A couple groups used nature to demonstrate how as educators we want students to grow to their full potential.

It was completely inspiring to see how much we had in common.  I deeply appreciate the vulnerability it took to have these conversations in sharing their passions and beliefs.  It was because of this that our vision for the year emerged easily:  Unlimited Growth and Connection, applying to both our staff and students.  

We spent the next hour sharing ideas for how we could better connect with students at the beginning of the year and throughout.  Splitting up the ideas into the four categories of:  Classroom Community, Community of Learners, Sense of Belonging and Student Strengths teams, we created a chart that could be referred back to throughout the year.  Each staff member selected one to two ideas of something new to try this year and created a plan of action.  

The week and a half following our opening day has been nothing short of amazing.  As I have been in classrooms and around the building I have seen our focus unfolding and evolving as each person has been connecting with our students in inspired and inventive ways.  Yesterday one of our staff members shared an idea with me that she and another staff member have for our entire staff for Unlimited Growth and Connection that totally blew my mind.  They are hashing out the plan for it this weekend and I sincerely cannot wait to talk to them about it on Monday.  

We have decided to use #unlimitedgrowthandconnection in our social media posts for the year to share our journey with others.  

Poehler

This is another quote that I shared on my first day to describe the best team I have ever been a part of.  It was truly the best time in my teaching career and I thought it would be impossible to duplicate.  As I have begun to build relationships, I am seeing this same quality emerge in my Jefferson staff, students, and community.  That sheer and utter terror I had on the first day has turned to delight, pure joy and excitement for the great work we will do together.  

As always, thanks for reading!  Christina

Sometimes Small Wins add up to Big Losses

Just got done with my almost four year old having an epic tantrum at gymnastics class.

The cause?

I made her put on her shoes and socks when she came out of class before she did anything else.

I know.  I’m the worst.

That’s not what actually caused the epic tantrum.  That was more of a prequel to the disaster.  A foreshock if you will.

What actually caused the “drop on the floor, red in the face, screaming at decibels heard by two towns over tantrum” was the fact that I was unaware of the magical lady who hands out lollipops to all of the good little boys and girls who have stamps on their hands after class.

So, if you tell your daughter to put on her shoes and socks on before she does anything else she is inevitably going to miss the magical lollipop fairy lady because:

  1.  Asking a toddler to do anything will take ten times longer than anyone could ever imagine is humanly possible.
  2. When you were a kid at some point you threw temper tantrums and your mom said the stereotypical phrase, “I hope one day you have a kid just like you!” (Which at the time you blew off, but now as an adult you are wondering if she has some sort of voodoo power that you were not aware of.)

So here I am standing in the vestibule, trying to rationalize with a toddler that missing the magical lollipop that she “earned” is “No Big Deal” while her screams keep getting louder and her stomping is reaching epic proportions.  Minus her face turning purple I’d say she was pretty close to a direct reenactment of Turtle Throws a Tantrum.  (Side Note: DO NOT laugh at this point.  It is apparently not funny.)

People are staring.  Dogs are barking.  I’m about to pick her up and put her in the car kicking and screaming when guess who comes out of her office?  The magical ninja lollipop lady.

And do you know what she did?

SHE ASKS MY FULL ON TANTRUM CHILD IIF SHE WANTS A LOLLIPOP.

I looked at Alexandra.  I looked at the lady.  I looked at the faces of the moms ( totally not judging) staring at me.  I swear time froze.

I knew I had two options.  I could tell her no, that the way she was behaving did not merit a lollipop or any reward for that matter and endure the escalation that would ensue or I could let her have the lollipop ending the campaign of torture.

So, what did I do?

I totally caved.  I told her that if she would apologize to me for her behavior that she could have one.  I was worried about getting to her next activity on the other side of town on time and was honestly sick of listening to the tantrum that seemed to last for all eternity.

She apologized, instantly calmed, got her lollipop and merrily skipped to the car like nothing happened.  We made it to Little Actors Club on time and the rest of the day was great.

It appears that I made the right choice right.  But did I?  The entire car ride home I kept thinking all she is going to remember from this event was that a tantrum equals candy.  I chose the easy way out simply because of my fears of getting to our next activity on time (and yes of being judged) and now the next time I was going to have to start all over again with how we behave when we don’t get our way.

My short little win was most likely setting me up for defeat later on.

Choosing What’s Easy in Education

This longwinded story got me thinking about when I was in the classroom and the times I would choose what was easy over what would be a better learning experience for students.

How many times did I choose to teach whole class rather than differentiate because it was easier for me to cover the content that way?  I could say I covered the objectives, but were ALL of my students really learning from the lesson that day?

How many times did I teach something just because it was in the curriculum guide even though I knew that many of my students had mastered the objective already?

How many times did I make decisions based on what was easy for me, not on what was right for the students and then end up teaching it all over again?

I’d say the answer to these questions was more than I’d like to admit.  For a variety of reasons, (pressure from administration, district assessment deadlines, anxiety about keeping up with peers, inner drive to teach it all) educators feel a huge pressure to cover content over teaching the students in front of them.  None of these reasons are illegitimate reasons.  The expectations put on teachers are astronomical.  It is completely reasonable to feel like covering content should take priority.

Unfortunately, this dynamic causes many of us (myself included) to plan learning experiences and lessons that do simply that, cover content instead of creating learning that sticks with engaging in-depth experiences like we know we should.  Many times we end up reteaching these lessons because the learning was not meaningful to students.  Taking the time to prioritize and go deeper at the beginning would actually save us time in the end.

If I could be a classroom teacher again (one day maybe I will), I would stop placing the greatest importance on content and start with relationships.  I’d find out what was important to my students, learn their strengths and build from there.  I know there are many constraints with time in the school day, but I’d try to plan my schedule with longer blocks of time so that I could plan out integrated lessons that include time to ask questions, interact with peers, and causes students to engage in the learning.

I’d take the time to make it stick as opposed to getting it done.

Of course, I’m not a classroom teacher this year.  I’m an administrator and a mom.  So here’s my effort to choose differently than I have in the past.

  1.  If you work in my school I will support you 100% in teaching the students in front of you, not covering vast amounts of the curriculum.
  2. I will set up a schedule where you have flexible time to integrate subjects and plan deeper learning experiences.
  3. I will set up structures so you can coteach, collaborate, and reflect regularly with your peers to learn from one another and build upon one another’s strengths.
  4. I will plan engaging learning experiences that meet your needs as opposed to the God awful “Sit & Get” institute days.
  5. When you come to me with innovative ideas I will be your cheerleader, your support system and do anything in my power to make your idea a success.
  6. I will not take the easy way out and spend time in my office doing clerical tasks.  I will be present in the building getting to know the culture of the school so that I can contribute and elevate the great work being done.
  7. I will listen to what you need, not try to force my agenda on you.
  8. When there is an issue (anything, including missing a magical lollipop lady), I will listen, reflect and work to solve the problem with you.

At the end of the day, it is better that we have contributed to creating amazing humans  than to have taught a vast curriculum.  Is teaching knowledge to students part of that formula? 

Absolutely.

But if you ask me what to prioritize in your school I’d choose deeper learning and relationships over being able to say I covered all the content any day.

dyer quote 2

(Quote by Wayne Dyer)

Making the Last Days of School Meaningful

Busy. Busy. Busy.

That one word has permeated my vocabulary since I took over as interim principal a few months ago at Emerson Elementary School.  I’m not just talking about myself.  With state and district testing, about a million end of the year activities as well as normal teaching responsibilities I’ve watched my staff and students move at a frenetic pace making sure that all of the things are done. 

This upcoming Friday is our last day of school making this the last week I will spend with this wonderful group.  Planning out our all school assembly for the last day of school has gotten me thinking about the activities I used to plan with my students at the end of the year as well as reflecting on what I would do now with these last precious moments if I were still in the classroom.

Questions

A good reflection always starts with a great question.  I believe the purpose of school is to grow curious learners and build on their unique talents as well as help them to discover new ones.  I want kids to leave my classroom knowing how much I appreciate their uniqueness and believe in them.  With that in mind, the following questions made me think a little deeper about what I would plan for the last week.

  1.  What do I most want students to remember from this year?  or What was most meaningful from our learning?
  2. How can I continue to shine a spotlight on the talents of my students so they leave my classroom confident in their abilities and native genius?
  3. How do I continue to spark the curiosity of learning in students in my classroom beyond this year?  

Ideas

As a teacher of 10+ years prior to becoming an instructional coach and now administrator I have ended the school year in a variety of ways with my students.  In thinking about previous activities I had done with students as well as new ones I might try, here are some thoughts on how I might end the year now that fit with the questions I just posed.

Celebrate Learning Fair.  Have students think about how they have grown this year.  They can think about academic as well as personally.  I might have students include a quote that they create or choose from someone else.  I honestly wouldn’t give them too many parameters and create what is most meaningful for them.  On the day of the fair students would set up their area and other kids would come and talk to one another about their memories and growth for the year.  I would invite families to come in as well and share in our celebration.

Personal Memory Book.   Similar to the learning fair students think about how they have grown and what they want to remember most.  This can be an actual paper book or digital.  Like the Celebrate Learning Fair I wouldn’t want to give kids too many parameters, but would let them create what was most meaningful to them.  They could choose to focus on the personal aspects or academic or both.  If students wanted to share, I would give them time to meet in small groups or partnerships to share their ideas.  

Students as Teachers.  One of my good friends used to end the year with kids creating lessons about something they were passionate about.  I loved this idea and actually think it’s important to do throughout the year.  It allows students to see that we have just as much to learn from them as they have from us and also shines a spotlight on their talents.  The students would sign-up for a time that they would teach the class a 45 minute to an hour lesson to the class.  The things they taught varied from all sorts of things from cooking to sports to art to math tricks to photography.  

Academy Awards of Books.  When I was in the classroom I would have students create book trailer recommendations for books that they loved.  We then compiled these in a doc with links in our classroom.  With this activity I might have kids think about their favorite book they read that they would recommend to friends for the summer and come up with a category they would nominate it for.  They would then create some way of pitching the book to their class with an award given to the book at the end.  This would expose kids to new titles as well as encourage them to keep reading over the summer.

Summer Bucket List.  Bucket lists are currently very popular and I know many of my friends have their kids create these for summertime fun activities.  Why not do the same thing, but in the classroom?  It could include things they are curious about, but also ways they want to recharge over the summer.  When they come back in the fall they could come back and share all they have accomplished with you.  It would be a great way to touch base when school starts again.

Wall of Curiosity.  What are your students still curious about?  Create a question board using Padlet or another technology and tell students they can continue to add content to their questions or their classmates as the summer progresses.

Classroom Awards.  I did this every year when I was in the classroom on the last day of school.  I used to think about what was unique about each student and create an award for that student based on that unique quality.  It was so much fun seeing their eyes light up on the last day knowing that their uniqueness was cherished and appreciated.  If I was in the classroom now I think I would also ask for ideas from their classmates so they could also contribute.

Individual Conferences with Kids.  This is a great way to continue to build relationships with students as well as help them to see their unique talents and abilities.  While the rest of the class is working schedule 15-minute conferences with each student to talk about the year with them.  Name their strengths, ask them for their thoughts and create a plan for their dreams.  Keep track of what they said and touch base with them on it next year.  

Conclusions

With so many activities at the end of the year it would be impossible to do all of these things.  I would encourage you to think about what do you want students to look back and remember and what impact do you most want to have moving forward?  For me, it’s no longer about the knowledge I’m imparting, but the relationships I’m building that I want to last. 

angelou quote

Coaching for Innovation

This post originally appeared here on the LaunchPad: Official Blog of TeachBoost.

Over the past decade, innovation has become one of the more popular buzzwords in education. Thought by many as a path to make students successful or “future ready,” innovative teaching practices are highly sought after by leadership at all levels. The problem is, when many educators hear the word “innovation,” images of technological grandeur and unimaginable teaching strategies are often conjured up, instead of something that can be as simple as a small shift in practice.

George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset, defines innovation as “something that is new and better.” I love this definition because it recognizes that innovation isn’t changing things just for the sake of change. If something is to be innovative, it needs to be not only new but better for students. In order for innovation to thrive in our schools we have to build school environments that foster idea generation, collaboration, reflection, and risk-taking without fear of repudiation if something doesn’t go as planned.

So where does the role of a coach come in? To strategically enhance these key elements.

Laying the Foundation: Assessing Needs and Trends

It starts with foundational best practices for anyone in a school: build relationships, be present, and get to know those you serve. In this way a coach finds out the needs, interests, and strengths of both students and staff. Not only does this lay the foundation of a great relationship built on trust, it also gives the coach an idea of current practice around the building. If we want “new and better” practices to flourish then we have to first be experts in the great work that is currently happening with students and build from there.

One of the things that I did as a learning support coach was meet with every teacher both at the beginning of each school year and halfway through. We would discuss what they loved most about teaching, areas they were interested in, ideas they were working on, puzzles they just couldn’t figure out, what they enjoyed most outside of school, as well as areas they might want to work with me on.

In addition to meeting with them in person, I’d send out a Survey and a Needs Assessment to get to know the staff a bit better. Over the years, these tools have been modified to meet our school’s improvement plan, previous work we had done, conversations, and coaching cycles I was regularly involved in.

After my meetings, I compiled all of the information I gathered into one large document and looked for trends. From this information, I was able to personalize my coaching and create strategic groupings and partnerships based on the needs or interests of teachers, plus send them articles or videos as resources. As a result, innovative practices spread more quickly, teachers began to collaborate, and relationships built on trust flourished.

Being Vulnerable Through Modeling

An integral, and often scary, part of innovation is the possibility of failure that leads to risk-taking. In order to encourage others to take risks, we need to first model it ourselves. One way to do this is by being vulnerable and to share both your success and setbacks of a new strategy or idea you’re trying out.

In my fourth year of coaching, I found a lot of teachers asking me about the difference between compliance and engagement: “What does it look like in practice?” or “How do we know if students are truly engaged or just complying?” From these conversations the “Student Engagement Inquiry Group” was born. The purpose of this group was to define student engagement versus compliance and then explore teaching practices that would enhance student engagement during lessons. Knowing that a large part of engagement is offering choice, during the first few meetings staff members explored a hyperdoc—a master document with links to various resources.

Using Video

After creating a deeper understanding of student engagement, as well as teaching practices needed to support it, we (the student engagement inquiry group) created an observation template with student engagement “look-fors” when in a classroom.

Knowing that it’s difficult to be judged in front of one’s peers, I offered to teach and record lesson and then have the group evaluate me using our template. Afterward, we used our next meeting to evaluate how engaged the students were. This led to some great discussions and increased the learning process because teachers could focus on what the students were doing. Ultimately, the video process led our group to eventually observe and provide feedback to one another—which supported a shift in an innovative process throughout the building.

Going Further: Building Teacher Leaders

One of the greatest discoveries in my first year as a coach was that teachers who loved the work we were doing together would go back to their team and share. This would cause a ripple effect and the innovation would spread!

Coaches looking to spread innovative practices need to be adept at building up teacher leaders in their schools. Educators love learning from their peers because they’re literally “in the trenches” doing the work daily with the multitude of outside factors that might affect how successful or unsuccessful an idea might be.

Co-Presenting

There are a variety of ways to build leaders of innovation in schools. Besides selecting leaders at each grade level to work with, another great way to build leadership in innovation is to ask a staff member to co-present with you at a staff meeting or professional learning day on an idea you have worked on together in their classroom. This highlights great instruction but also takes away some of the pressure a staff member feel when they have to present by themselves.

Edcamps

Another way to build up teacher leaders is to offer an “Edcamp”-style professional learning day where teachers can learn from their peers. Teachers can present on their own or with a peer or group. The other teachers who are not presenting get to select sessions that they would like to attend. Oftentimes this results to more learning beyond the day because teachers will continue to reach out to that staff member after the event. Check out #hawthorneignites on Twitter for some examples of how this has been successful in one of the buildings I am currently an administrator at.

Making Innovation Visible

I read a recent blog post by AJ Juliani where he talked about the importance of highlighting the instruction we want to see in our schools. As a coach, I created a biweekly newsletter that I send out to staff; in this example, I organized the newsletter into different categories, all related to the practices we wanted to see in our classrooms. Additionally, I’d provide examples of the work that I was doing with staff to spark interest in new ideas as well as show cohesion in our work. Even if someone only briefly glanced at the newsletter they could see the focus of the work being done for the year.

Social media is another great way to spread innovative practices. Tweeting, or posting to Instagram, videos and pictures of instructional practices that you see in classrooms is a simple way to make practice visible. A fantastic way to enhance this is by tagging other teachers who you think might be interested in the post.

Final Thought

Innovation for the sake of doing something new is meaningless and leads to frustration by others. However, once we get to know the strengths of those we serve and connect new ideas to the needs of the building, we can truly create something new and better benefits all parties!

Multiplying the Talents of Students

Every morning I have about a thirty-minute commute to work from my home in Wheaton.  Most mornings my routine is pretty similar.  After giving Alexandra a big hug and a kiss (sometimes 4 or 5 depending on what mood she’s in), I hop in my car, order my morning coffee and listen to whatever music I happen to be in the mood for.  I let my mind wander to nonsense during this time, but after I get my coffee (Americano, 2 sugars) it’s “Go Time.”

I turn on a podcast, listen to a book on Audible or spend the next twenty minutes reflecting on my practice.  This week has gotten me reflecting about one of the quotes I discussed from my last post about building a strength-based culture in our schools, (Making the Positives so Loud)

“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” – The Multiplier Effect & Multipliers

Instead of thinking about it in the context of building leader to teacher, I have been reflecting more on the implications within the classroom and how teachers can unleash the talents of their students.  In Chapter 2 of Wiseman’s original book on the same topic: Multipliers:  How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter she discusses a three-step process called, “Name the Genius” that is connected to this same quote. 

Like the title alludes to, “Name the Genius” is the process of finding what individuals are innately good at with the purpose of multiplying the ability.  The first part of this process involves reflecting on an individual’s strengths.  The book offers four questions to help leaders to define the native talents in others:

• What do they do better than anything else they do?
• What do they do better than the people around them?
• What do they do easily (without effort or even awareness)?
• What do they do freely (without being asked or being paid)?

In the context of education I might simplify these questions to the following:

  • What does the student excel in at school? (What comes easy for the student – NOT just academics)
  • What does the student choose to do when he or she is given choice in the classroom?
  • What do the other students tend to come to this student for help with?

Step 2 in the process is literally putting a label on it.  Some examples given are, “synthesizing complex ideas,” or “building bridges.”  I think the labels in school would depend greatly on the age and the different students comprised of the classroom each year, but some of the ideas I have are:

Category Student Description
Natural Leader This is a student who naturally takes the lead when working in partnerships or groups.  The other students tend to look to him or her for leadership in the classroom.
Organizational Ninja This is a student whose desk, locker, all materials are always organized. He or she has a system for everything.  This may transfer over into other subjects like writing.
Idea Generator This is the student who is always coming to you with an idea for something they want to work on in class or out of class.  When you ask questions, this student almost always raises their hand and has a unique answer. They love to talk and share ideas.
Creative Artist This is the student who the other students are always coming to to draw things for them.  They are always drawing or doodling something in class.
Creative Writer This is the student who excels in creativity in writing.  Whether they are designing new worlds or interesting characters their mind thinks creatively when putting pen to paper.
Tech Guru This is the kid who loves working on their computer.  When something breaks down in the classroom this student can usually figure out a way to make it work again.
Voracious Reader This is the student who reads volumes of books in school and out.  He or she has favorite authors or genres and can be found reading whenever freetime is given.
Mathematical Mind This is a student who can find an answer to even the most complex math in the classroom with what appears to be little effort.  Many times the student has different strategies for solving as well or can combine numbers in unique ways.
Kindness Coordinator This is a student whose empathy runs deep.  He or she works well with any student in the classroom and can often be found helping other students to solve problems.
Performance Artist This is a student who when given choice is always creating a play, song or dance related to the topic.  He or she loves to perform in front of any audience.

The final step in the process is the most critical, share with the student what you’ve noticed as their native genius and then look for ways to multiply it or put it to use in the classroom.  

There are a variety of ways I might do this in the classroom.  I would first schedule individual conferences with each student where my conversation might sound like this…

“I’ve been looking for the unique talents of each student in our classroom and I’ve noticed that you are an Idea Generator.  When I ask questions in the classroom your hand is almost always raised.  When you are working with other kids I’ve noticed that you are the one who comes up with unique ideas or are often the first to share.  You frequently come to me with ideas about our classroom or things you’d like to try outside of school.  This is a true talent and gift that will make you very successful both inside and outside of school because you come up with ideas that others may have never thought of before.  I’d like to use your unique talent in our classroom more.  Here are some ideas I have…What do you think?  Do you have more?”  

Just like in a literacy or math conference, name the observation and then give examples to the student of this trait.  By sharing the native genius with the student he or she is more likely to focus on this talent and use it more often in the classroom and beyond.  

The next thing I would do is incorporate ways to enhance students’ native genius into my planning.  If I’ve got a classroom of students who thrive on creativity then I want to plan lessons that are going to give opportunities for that genius to flourish.  Many times the answer will be obvious like offering choice in how students demonstrate mastery with creative options.  Sometimes though the creative answer is not always apparent to us as educators because that may not be our native genius.  This is an opportunity to ask the students how they would incorporate creativity into the lesson.  The more we give students opportunities to contribute, the more not only their talents will grow, but the ideas that we have for future practice will increase as well.

Planning for small groups or partnerships is another way that strategically planning with the students’ native genius is a benefit.  When planning for small group collaboration I might put students together who have very different strengths, but together would create a much better synergy than if they had worked in a homogeneous group.  For example, in a group of four, I’d look to have a leader, an organizer, a creative student and a student who is incredibly kind.  Depending on the type of work I might also put an Idea Generator, a Tech Guru, and a Creative Artist together.  At the end of the collaboration, I would have students reflect on what worked well, what they learned from the other students and what they might want to try to emulate.  I would use this information to plan for future groups.  

The final action I would take is to create something called, “Mastermind Groups” in my classroom.  These groups would be comprised of students with similar talents.  They would meet once a week and get to work on the things they loved most together.  It would kind of be similar to a passion project or genius hour, but with a group of like-minded individuals who could push one another due to their similar strengths.  I might also use this time as a brainstorming session with students to get more of their ideas of how our classroom could be enhanced by posing questions like the following?

  • When is learning best for you in my classroom?  
  • What problems do you see in our classroom or school?  How do you recommend we solve those problems?
  • What suggestions do you have for making learning better in our classroom?

The ideas and feedback could then be incorporated into future planning for learning experiences or classroom procedures.


The actual title of Chapter 2 in Multipliers is The Talent Magnet.  I have relistened to this chapter on my way to and from work probably 3 to 4 times, each time grasping something new.  Essentially, great leaders who are Talent Magnets draw talented people to them because they not only recognize the talent in others, but are able to take that talent and increase it exponentially.  

The longer I am in education the more I realize that it’s not the standards or content that is the most important thing, it’s the relationships I build with students and the way that I help them to grow and become the best possible version of themselves.  The role of the teacher (as well as leaders) is truly one of a Talent Magnet. 

“Multipliers not only access people’s current capability, they stretch it. They get more from people than they knew they had to give. People reported actually getting smarter around Multipliers. The implication is that intelligence itself can grow.” – Liz Wiseman, Greg McKeown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making the Positives So Loud

I’ll admit it.

George Couros is one of my favourite (spelling intended) people in education.  Not only is he skilled at telling a captivating story that can cause both tears and inexplicable laughter, but his ideas about education are thought-provoking and real, grounded in his own experience or ideas he has recently read about or seen.

Since being introduced to his work and hearing him speak at a conference last year, I’ve been influenced by not only his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, but also his regular blog posts, podcasts, and tweets.

When I originally encountered his popular quote, “We need to make the positives so loud so that the negatives are almost impossible to hear,” I quickly connected it, as many people do, to the context of making sure that the positive voices are heard so loudly in the school that they outweigh any negativity from the naysayers.  In a year of rapid changes in my district, this quote resonated with me as a great strategy to build a positive school culture.

What I realized recently though is that although that interpretation is completely valid, it actually has a variety of meaningful contexts that relate to not only students and staff, but to education as a whole.  Administrators need to regularly share the strengths of their team and teachers need to do the same with students.

In one of the studies mentioned in Paul Tough’s book, Helping Children Succeed he discusses a strategy that social workers used with parents of toddlers to improve their parenting skills.  Instead of focusing on what they were doing wrong after each visit, the social worker gave feedback explicitly naming what the parents were doing correctly. The impact of this study was profound, elevating not only the overall confidence of the parents, but their parenting skills as well.

At first as an instructional coach, and now an administrator, I have tried a variety of strategies to emulate this philosophy and grow a positive culture.  

  1. Every time I visit a classroom I send an email to the staff member explicitly stating positive observations related to their instruction, interaction with students or even classroom environment.  
  2. “Bite-Sized Feedback” cycles are also an awesome way to highlight great instruction.  First, we talk about something they would like me to observe and then we set up a 15-minute time slot each week for me to come into their classroom. Afterward, we talk for 10-15 minutes about the laundry list of awesome things they are doing followed by me offering a tip for how to enhance one of their strengths.  I have seen more impact on instruction as a result of this practice than any traditional observation.
  3. I regularly tweet out pictures and videos of the amazing instruction I see when I pop into classrooms.  Sometimes it is a student, sometimes a staff, and sometimes me reflecting on what I saw and the impact it had on students. 
  4. This year we have started a podcast at one of my buildings where we interview one of our staff members about their instructional practices.  This helps our staff to get to know one another’s strengths, and also gives us an avenue to share the amazing learning happening in our building.
  5. Involve students in telling the positive story of the school. This year I am working with groups of students in both of my buildings to do this.  At one of my buildings this developed into creating a documentary about our entire school and in the other building, the students have been creating short videos about individual classrooms.  

In the book, The Multiplier Effect:  Tapping The Genius Inside Our Schools, authors Wiseman, Allen & Foster agree with the importance of not only recognizing, but sharing strengths with those whom we serve.

“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” 

Walking through classrooms or in conversations with students & staff, I am amazed daily in the creative genius that surrounds me.  Telling them their brilliance shines a spotlight on their talents and says, “DO THIS MORE!” This builds not only confidence and a positive school culture, but causes even brighter ideas and more innovation to spread in our school.  

Please know that by saying we should highlight the positive, I am not saying that we should never have reflective conversations about shifts that may need to be made in instructional practice. It has been my experience that when I focus on sharing strengths instead of telling a list of changes to be made, that we end up actually having even more of these types of conversations.  This is because when people know that you see them for their unique strengths and talents as opposed to a project that needs to be fixed a greater trust is built.  Staff members often come to me with ideas asking for feedback or I am able to ask reflective questions resulting in instructional shifts. When change comes from within, it is deeper and more likely to last.  

Educators don’t always see the amazing strengths within themselves.  As leaders, the more we recognize and celebrate the strengths of those we lead, the more we create a positive culture that drowns out negativity and grows the innate talents of our school community. 

A Million Dreams: Creating a Shared Vision with Students, Parents, & Teachers

I wouldn’t really describe myself as someone who cries easily, but as the closing melody of “A Million Dreams” began to play I found myself overcome with emotion, unable to hold back tears.  Looking out across the audience of parents, students, and teachers I realized that the moment that we had been planning for months had arrived and the true journey was about to begin.

The Spark

It all started last fall when author Katie Martin visited our school to talk with our teachers about her amazing book Learner-Centered Innovation. (Side Note:  If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it.  Check it out here.)  As part of the day she held a workshop with our parents that included conversations about our own school experiences, what we really want for our children, current success indicators vs. what we truly value and messages from parents to the teachers.

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There were tears at this event as well as many participants realized that the message they were sending in their language and actions didn’t match the future that they deeply wanted for their children.  Our community found connections in shared memories of their own school experiences, dreams for their kids, and what they valued most in education.  They created new language stems to use with their children that better matched their desired outcome of a growth mindset, kindness, and empathy.

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What I found to be most powerful about the workshop evolved out of one of the last questions:  What do you want to share with the teachers?  Smiles ensued as parents wrote down positive messages of support, a desire to be a collaborative partner, and deep admiration for the work that they do.  They also discussed a need for increased communication due to the recent changes including a no homework policy, Standards-Based Reporting and a workshop approach to the classroom.

I walked away from that day with my mind brimming with ideas.  We collected a lot of great information, but I knew the conversation couldn’t stop there.  We needed to engage more people, collect more feedback and continue the dialogue started that day. The result could be a shared vision that went beyond just our district or school by integrating all of the stakeholders in our community.  This would pervade everything we did and shape the culture of our school.

Beginning Stages of the Work

Knowing that a great way to engage the parent community was to first go through our PTA, I reached out to Erin Stratton, our dynamic PTA president.  An organizational ninja, filled with ideas and always willing to lend a helping hand, she has been such an asset to our school both inside and out.

When I initially proposed the idea of engaging families in creating a shared vision of the school she agreed with me that this was a great idea, but posed a really great question:

How are you going to engage all stakeholders?  Not just the ones who come to all of the meetings.  How will you ensure that all voices are heard?

This question literally drove the rest of our conversation for the meeting as we brainstormed ways to get more people to come.  We talked about typical ideas like making it fun, including food and maybe even holding it off school property so that we could include an adult beverage or two.  What really struck me though was Erin’s honest conversation with me about the need to open up the school, give parents a window into what was happening in the classroom.  Parents will always come if it is somehow connected to the kids and they can gain a greater understanding of how their children are learning.

This got the wheels turning in my mind again.  I thought about doing a learning fair where we opened up the entire school and students could pick any sort of way they wanted to demonstrate their learning.  Parents could move around the school, talk to the teachers and students, and get a sense of what learning looked like.  After they did this we would have break out rooms to discuss what they saw and talk about what resonated and also other ideas they had.

The biggest obstacle I saw with this was time.   When would students work on these projects?  If it was going to be during the school day how would teachers feel about giving up some of their instructional time to facilitate these projects?  The other tricky component would be asking teachers to give up a night for essentially another Open House at our school.

At the end of the meeting, we talked about building excitement for the event and advertising it to our community.  I don’t remember whose idea it initially was, but we decided that some sort of promotional video that involved students would be a great idea to spark conversation and get people interested.  It would include snippets of instruction as well as some sound bites.  I told Erin I would reach out to Kate Allt in our communications department to help produce it.

We also sketched out some questions that we wanted to ask parents at the event to spark the conversation and decided that we would have a sign-up that night for parents to join a Shared Vision Committee that would do the work of putting the vision into action.  The questions we initially thought we would ask were:

What resonated with you about what you saw in the video?

What was your experience like in school?  What do you still use now?

What do you wish they would have learned in school?

What do you most value for their children in school?

What is your vision for your child’s future?  

Hawthorne wishes for the school…

As Erin left the meeting I was excited about the work that was before me, but nervous about how it would actually all play out.  The idea of a movie about our school really resonated with me and I started thinking it could go beyond just the promo and be the focus of the evening.  I decided to reach out to Katie Martin to get her feedback on the idea and sent her an email with an outline of the plan.  She liked the idea of inviting the community to a movie night that would spark conversation about a shared vision for our school, but added one piece of advice that ended up changing the trajectory of the film:

“I think you should definitely invite students to the movie night and see if a few of them can help you out the movie together. Their insights throughout the process would be valuable.”

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered this.  I was currently working with a group of 5th grade students, The Hawthorne Hawkeye (YouTube Club as the kids affectionately named it), who were learning about video production with the goal of creating 5-10 minute videos about each classroom in our school.  We had spent most of the year working on building their skills and understanding of film, but hadn’t actually started creating the mini-documentaries yet.  They would be the perfect group to do the work of telling our school’s story.

Excited (yes, I know I get excited a lot), I reached back out to Erin to meet up again and talk to her about the slight shift in plans.  She was in agreement that this was a good plan and we sketched out a tentative agenda for a “Movie Premiere Night” complete with popcorn, tickets to the event and maybe even a red carpet.  The attendees (parents & teachers & involved students) would first watch the film and then meet in break-out sessions to discuss the questions listed above.  After this, groups would carousel around to read other groups responses and we would create a list of themes.  There would be a sign-up sheet for anyone who was interested in continuing the conversation and actually putting the vision into action. We decided to replace the PTA meeting on February 19th with the premiere which was a little over 3 months away.

Getting the Students Involved

Creating the video with the students was a three-step process with many intricate details and nuances along the way.  I sincerely wish that I could say that the students drove the entire process, but with the time crunch and the fact that I could only meet with them once a week, I did take control of facilitating and designing of the structure and process.

Because asking good questions was going to be key to building a great film we started there, brainstorming questions for both our teachers and parents.  Based on what we captured in interviews, it was our intention to then go in and capture “B Roll Footage” of classroom instruction that matched what the interviewees said.

In designing the questions I told the students that we wanted to capture what was positive about learning at our school, what made Hawthorne unique and what are some hopes for the future.  After working in partnerships to come up with ideas, our teacher questions ended up as the following:

  1. How long have you been teaching at Hawthorne and why did you become a teacher?
  2. What is your favorite thing about teaching or What’s your favorite teaching moment?
  3. What are attributes that you think a good learner should have?
  4. What is your favorite thing about Hawthorne school?
  5. What do you expect from your students?
  6. Is there something that you want your kids to learn that you don’t teach? If so, what is it?
  7. Did you like school when you were a kid?  If so, what was your favorite subject?
  8. What is your favorite subject to teach?  Why?
  9. What is your ideal classroom or school?

We then set up a schedule for teachers to sign-up to be interviewed during their lunch hour in our library and TRC.  The students worked in teams of two to interview each teacher, one working the camera and the other being the interviewer.  Mr. Chambers was kind enough to send over York High School students from Ytv to mentor the students prior to this in how to use the cameras and tips for capturing the best shots.  I could see from the way that the students operated behind the camera as well as performed in front of it that this had a lasting effect on their work.

We did not have every teacher sign-up, but I did have teachers reach out to say they would have participated if all the slots weren’t already full.  Our staff is amazing at jumping in and contributing to a variety of opportunities in our building.  If we ever did this again, I would try to accommodate them all.

After Winter Break, we began the grueling process of interviewing students and collecting classroom footage.  For the classroom work, we had the teachers sign up over a period of three days for 1-2 students plus myself to come in and record in their classroom for about an hour.  We didn’t give them any specific parameters, only that it should represent learning in your classroom and that it didn’t have to be fancy.   We ended up with at least one teacher volunteering in every grade level and even had a few specials sign up.

When it came to the actual recording, one of the students would man the stationary camera while another would capture more candid footage.  At about halfway through the time the students would move outside of the classroom and would pull students to be interviewed to find out what was happening in the lesson from their perspective.  They also asked them the following questions that the group had developed during one of our meetings:

  1.  How do you learn best?
  2. What do you wish you got to do more of in school?
  3. What do you want to be when you grow up or what problem do you want to solve in the world around you?
  4. What is your favorite subject and why?
  5. What is the best thing about your grade level and why?
  6. What is one thing you would change about Hawthorne?

We also interviewed students during lunch and recess time with these same questions either individually, in a partnership or in a small group.

Although I had initially wanted the students to be involved in the parent interview portion as well, scheduling and time got in the way and I ended up creating the questions with feedback from Erin Stratton.  We decided it would be best to send out a Google forms survey to the parents to pull quotes from first.  The last question asked participants if they would be willing to be interviewed on camera answering these questions.  We used responses to that question to invite parents in to ask them some of the same questions, plus a few more.

  1. How would you describe learning at Hawthorne School?
  2. What does Hawthorne School do really well?
  3. What is your greatest dream for your children?
  4. How does Hawthorne help your child to reach that dream?
  5. What do you want to share with the teachers at Hawthorne?
  6. When you imagine the ideal school experience for your child, what does that look like?
  7. My favorite moment or favorite experience at Hawthorne School is…
  8. How do you think Hawthorne is different from other schools in or out of District 205?
  9. What do you wish Hawthorne did more of?
  10. What was school like for you growing up?

One of the things I learned in conducting the parent interviews was how amazing it is to sit 1:1 with a parent and talk about their experience in the school.  I met with parents who had children at Hawthorne from 1 year to 15!  It was incredibly insightful to hear either viewpoint and moving forward I would like to start scheduling these annually to get an idea of where we’ve been and also where we want to go.  If I was still a teacher, I would do the same practice, but with parents of students in my classroom.  Surveys are great, but you miss out on some of the nuances and ability to probe more deeply.

The Editing Process

The editing process went through several iterations.  The students quickly discovered that looking through film to find interesting quotes and clips was not as fun as doing the recording itself.  These meetings tended to drag and I was honestly a little worried that we would ever finish based on this progress.

What made a huge difference was the way that we ended up organizing the way that we took notes on the clips.  Instead of the original template that looked like this:

chart 1

 

I ended up making a specific template for each group we interviewed with a section for each question.  The students then signed up for the question they would be paying attention to as they listened to the interviews.  (Try to picture the example below with a section for each question as well as the stakeholder.)

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This expedited the process significantly because it gave students something to focus on.  I also made a copy of the questions for each of the groups for writing down specific quotes that we might turn into quote slides in the documentary.

When it came time to decide on the structure of the video itself we went through and looked for themes in the questions and decided to organize the documentary that way. Here are a few examples of where we started:

 

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By organizing all of our ideas ahead of time we were able to put the actual video together in much less time than if we had just input all of the videos into WeVideo and tried pulling clips as we went.

One huge obstacle to consider if you are considering having students do something like this with WeVideo is that the students can’t all simultaneously work on the same project at one time, even if it is in collaboration mode.  To solve this problem and not waste students time during lunch I had them each sign up for individual times they would come down to my office throughout the day to work on the project importing clips or adding in design style like transitions, music etc.   I am sincerely grateful for one student in particular who I am pretty much convinced is the next Steven Spielberg with his creative genius and ability to figure out any video creation obstacle that we needed to overcome.

The Premiere

If I thought Erin Stratton was a creative and organizational ninja before this process started, working with her on this project only reinforced that idea tenfold.   Leading up to the event she dropped everything to come in, talk on the phone or even text about ideas.  Her questions and ideas added incredible value to the focus of the evening as well as the smooth organization.

While OUT OF TOWN, she continued to work behind the scenes to ensure that this event was a success.  She helped organize parent volunteers to facilitate the post-film discussion, recruited PTA President-Elect Jennie Beal to help with set-up and coordination for the night including assigning tables, decorations and food, and somehow managed to get back to help set up for the evening.

The final plan for the night ended up being the following:

Facilitation Guide

Prior to the event starting, I met with the 10 table leaders to discuss how they would facilitate the discussion based on the guide.  We were expecting around 100 people who RSVP’d including parents, teachers and students who were involved in the making of the film.  We ended up with less than this number, but the conversation had by those involved was a powerful one.

After watching the documentary (huge applause, happy tears), tables started out talking about what resonated with them from the film.  Many agreed with the positive messages about our school being one that focuses on the needs of the students.  They smiled as they shared stories of the impact that particular teachers had had on their children and even discussed behaviors of teachers who had the opposite effect (I did not hear specific names used).  I overheard conversations about liking our workshop model approach and how their children come home happy with school.

What sparked an interesting debate was our recent “No Homework” policy.  Some parents thought that this was a great new policy because their children have so much they’re involved in after school and this gave them back more family time.  On the flip side, parents who also had middle school and high school students were concerned that this wasn’t preparing students to develop organizational structures and responsibility when they start getting homework again as they are older.

Another interesting conversation that occurred at one of the tables came out of a conversation about bringing in more experts from the community to talk about the work they were doing.  Some parents thought that we needed to do more of this because it would expose students to career ideas for their future.  Another parent brought up the point that we spend a lot of time focusing on preparing students to be “career and college ready,” but we are missing out on the development of the whole child if we only focus our efforts there.  It was an interesting conversation for sure and one that I would like to continue.

The cumulating work of each table was to create two posters based on the following:

Imagine a school where…

Then we need leaders who…

Then we need teachers who…

Then we need parents who…

I loved hearing tables debate back and forth about what was essential for our students and what we might need to make that happen.  It was also amazing to hear families say, well, we already do a lot of these things.  I want to make sure you know that this is not a criticism, but just our best ideas.  A few of the posters created:

I had many amazing conversations that night with parents.  One of my favorites came from a parent who was teaching a religion class and had started reading every Smokey Daniels book she could get her hands on.  It was so fun talking to her about inquiry and how passionate she had become about instruction through this process.  She jokingly mentioned that maybe parents could come to some of the staff development workshops that we did.  I seriously thought this was a fantastic idea and wasn’t sure why we didn’t do this more!  (Side note:  I already picked up Upstanders and am enjoying it immensely)

After the Shared Vision Night, I took the posters and typed them up into this document.  The starred items are ones that had additional markings on the posters indicating that more than just one group agreed with that statement when they did the gallery walk.  Just like the day that Katie Martin visited our school, the themes that stood out were more greatly related to students truly enjoying learning, developing character and strong relationships being created among all parties.

The Work is Just Beginning

As much fun as it was working with the students to create the school documentary, the true work begins now.  As you can see from the charts from the evening there are so many ideas for what our ideal school might look like and what teachers, parents, and leaders might need to do to achieve that dream.  The Shared Vision Committee will be meeting soon to discuss:

  1. What are the common themes from each of the sections?
  2. What do we already do well?
  3. What are areas for growth?
  4. What are our next steps in achieving our goals?

My greatest takeaway from this work is the importance of everyone having a voice in what goes on in our schools.  In Learner-Centered Innovation, Katie Martin articulates

“If we want to better align our schools with the world we live in and develop the type of learners and people that will be productive citizens, administrators, teachers, families, and the greater community must work together to develop a shared understanding of the desired outcomes for students and align the vision, policies, and practices.”

Schools are the center of the community.  They have great potential to connect those who might not otherwise connect, to bridge differences thought perhaps previously impossible, to create unimaginable and limitless possibilities for those they serve. As educational leaders, we can no longer sit behind the walls of our building developing plans based solely on academic outcomes related to levels of achievement.  When we engage all voices, we go beyond academics and get to the dreams of the human beings we serve and start the journey towards the world we want to create.

If you are interested in watching either of the videos you can see them here:

Full Documentary (40 minutes)

5 Minute Ending “A Million Dreams” Song (5 minutes)

A Few More Shout-Outs

You may have already surmised this from the rest of the story, but a key component of this process was generating help from others, sometimes by asking, and other times being the grateful benefactor of an awesome human being who hears a need and reaches out.

The first part I am referring to is our awesome music teacher, Ms. Cunanan.  She is seriously one of the most generous and creative human beings I have come into contact with in education.  Last year she helped myself and our instructional coach out when we were creating an end of the year video for the staff by having the choir record a song that we had written a parody to about all of the amazing instruction our teachers were doing.  What’s even more amazing she didn’t ask any questions, she just said yes and did it.  This year was no different.

I think I asked her in January if she thought that the choir would be able to learn the song, “A Million Dreams” and be ready to record it by February she didn’t hesitate.  She found a lead singer, practiced regularly with the students, organized permission slips for the kids to record at York High School one morning and essentially took it over.  I honestly couldn’t have organized it any better.  I definitely couldn’t have gotten 40 students ready to record in the record time that she did.  THANK YOU Ms. Cunanan and the Hawthorne choir for practicing relentlessly during your lunch recess to produce such a beautiful tune!

This brings me to my next musical genius, Mr. Chris Gemkow, the music production teacher at York High School.  Last year he helped myself and a group of students to record a song for our “21st Century Learning” video for teachers at Lincoln at the end of the year.  It was such a wonderful experience and I was excited for the opportunity to work with him again.  The morning of the recording he gave up his own time to set up the sound booth to record almost 40 students plus one soloist.  After this he produced the song and got it back to me within a week!  Seriously blown away by his kindness!

Finally, there is ZERO way this video would have happened if it weren’t for the amazing and incredibly talented, Mrs. Leban, our creative tech teacher at Sandburg, one of our middle schools.  (Side Note:  If you do not follow her on YouTube you are missing out!)  She actually reached out to me about WeVideo after hearing me talk about my technology dilemma with students using the Chromebooks in this process.  I had been talking about it on one of the SuperCharged Learning podcasts and she emailed me to get together. We met during her lunch/plan time one day and I am sincerely grateful for her help!