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!

Teaching Like a Coach – Part One

I’ve had a lot of great conversations since starting this blog about teaching and coaching and how the two are intertwined.  Two of the questions that have come up a lot are 

How do you ACTUALLY teach like a coach? 

What does that look like in real practice?  

This has gotten me to reflect about my own practice in a variety of roles in education as well as how for many of us, our schooling did not prepare us for teaching this way.  As many of you are doing your own reflecting and planning over Winter Break for changes and refinements you want to make in 2019, I thought that a series of posts dedicated to answering these two questions would be timely and hopefully useful. 🙂

It All Starts With…

Knowing your team.  I’m not going to try to pretend that I am the greatest basketball fan of all time, but I’ve learned a lot from Phil Jackson’s leadership philosophies via Dr. Marc Pinto.  He was a hockey coach and geneticist turned chiropractor whom I would have the most amazing conversations at our weekly appointments.  Dr. Pinto had read Phil Jackson’s books cover to cover hundreds of times and no matter what we were discussing his philosophies seemed to always creep into our conversation, especially when I was applying for the learning support coach position in Naperville.  One of the quotes from his book 11 Rings: The Soul of Success that really resonates with being a coach in the classroom is: 

“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.” – Phil Jackson

I love that Phil Jackson’s goal wasn’t just to create amazing basketball players, it was to build on the strengths of his players overall and in that action he created a dynasty.  Our main job as educators is to help learners to know their strengths, develop their passions and help them to develop new abilities that sometimes feel outside their grasp.  In order to be effective at this you have to essentially know your team inside and out.   

Deciding what skills you will be looking for is a critical first step.  There are so many options that it is easy to get stuck here, weighing the options.  If the thought of that is already making your head spin, here are some ideas to start with:

1.  The 6 C’sCommunication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Character, Citizenship

This is helpful for:  Promoting more global skills in your students that will transfer to a variety of contexts, subjects, and ages.

Something to think about:  Because these are broad skills you might want to have a conversation with others or your PLC about what each of these look like at the age of students you teach to create a specific definition of each.

2.  The Standards – The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), College, Career & Civic Life (C3), ISTE Standards for Students

This is helpful for:  Collecting information that is more related to academic achievement in different subject areas (with the exception of the ISTE standards that are more global like the 6C’s)

Something to think about:  If your school uses standards based reporting, this is a great place to start.  Because the standards are vast, it might be good to see how the broader ideas from each of the subject standards are connected.  This document from NGSS does a nice job of making this connection already.

3.  Student Interests & PassionsThis one is pretty self-explanatory.  You are collecting information on things your students are interested in, especially the topics they are passionate about!  These interests and passions are often strengths we overlook because they may not be subjects we teach in school.

This is helpful for:  Diversifying the definition of what a good student is.  Helping students to be able to name a wide variety of skills they have that aren’t necessarily taught in school, but still incredibly valuable.  Creating engaging lessons connected to your students’ interests and passions.  

Something to think about:  You may find that your students have a broad range of interests and passions.  If you are overwhelmed in how to honor these strengths or incorporate them into the curriculum, ask the students what they think.  I am always blown away by the ideas my students come up with when I can’t seem to find a solution.  

So How Do I Organize All This Stuff?

You probably have your own way of keeping data on your students.  I know I certainly tried it a million different ways as an educator, coach, and now administrator.  What I found was there are basically two different ways you can go about this: individual or whole group.  Regardless, you are going to need a system that works for you, the simpler the better. 

Individual

As an instructional coach I started with OneNote for keeping notes on each of my meetings with teachers and eventually moved to a Google folder per teacher.  If I was back in the classroom I would most likely the Google.  Here’s what I would do:

Idea #1

  •  Create a Google form for the data I would like to create.  (Like this one that tracks the 6C’s) 
  •  Use the Doc-Appender Add-on so that the data I collected would automatically populate into individual Google folders for each student.  (Here is a video of how to use it if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.) 
    • On a side note, this add-on is amazing because now you have a Google doc for each student that can be shared easily with other teachers working with the student or parents.  It’s great for conferring notes as well. 🙂
  • As I was walking around and talking to students use my phone to use the form to quickly jot down notes.

Idea #2

  • Create a chart for each student using Google docs like this one.  
  • Print out each of these sheets and keep them in binder.  Create a new sheet for each student per week. (Or if you’re not a fan of paper, you could also do something similar with a folder for each student, but this might be difficult to manage as you are walking around throughout the day.)
  • Keep the binder with me throughout the day.  As I am noticing strengths, ideas etc. about students jot down a quick note in their tab. 

Benefits of Individual Data:  Great for looking at students as a whole.  Also easy to share with students, parents and other staff members because your forms are per individual student.  

Drawbacks of Individual Data:  When planning for groups or looking for patterns based on the information you have collected you may be doing a lot of flipping back and forth or scrolling to find commonalities.  This can be more time consuming.  However, if you use Idea #1 Google forms will allow you to sort the spreadsheet that the form creates which solves this problem.

Group

Sometimes I found keeping individual data overwhelming and found it easier to keep track of the entire class at one time.   When taking this approach you are having the descriptors at the top of the chart while the student names go down the side of the chart.  Here is an example of what I mean by keeping track of the class’ strengths.   One of the reasons that I like this chart is the ability to write down goals for students directly in the chart so that they are all in one place. (The student can formulate these goals as well)  This makes it easy when you are reflecting at the end of the week for next steps for the following week.

Another way you might do this is by using an old plan book and assigning student names to each box.  You can then use post-its to take notes through-out the week and stick them to the boxes.   

Benefits of Group Data:  All of your data is in one place.  It is easy to create groups and see overall how your class is doing.  You can make plans for next steps without having to look back and forth at individual students.  

Drawbacks of Individual Data:  It takes an extra step to share this data with individuals because you will have to transfer the information to individual forms.  It’s not as easy to see individual progress from week to to week as it is with individual data.

When deciding how to collect your learner data think about your personal preference for collection as well as your purpose.  I would recommend starting small.  Select one type of data you wish to collect and try out different methodologies until you find one that works best for you.  You can then transfer that protocol to the other information you are keeping on your students.  

R-E-F-L-E-C-T

Even if you find the ultimate way to collect information on your students there will never be any impact if you don’t take the time to analyze and reflect upon this data.  You might find that reflecting at the end of each day is better for you or perhaps weekly is more preferable.  Again, it’s your preference, there is no perfect methodology.  Here are some questions to consider when you are reflecting each week.

  1. What are patterns I am noticing in my classroom? (passions, interests, strengths, abilities that need strengthening)’
  2. Who stood out as a leader? Who struggled?  What is my plan for celebrating or intervening?
  3. What lessons should I plan based on this information?  
  4. What groupings or partnerships might I plan as a result of the patterns I am noticing? Who might work together best?  

If you are a fan of forms, here is a Google doc with these questions that you can use in your reflection.  Another simple way to reflect is to create a daily list of 3 accomplishments that you would like to achieve by the end of the day based on the observations and patterns you are seeing.  This could be individual or as a class.

It is powerful to share your reflections with students or to even do the reflecting side by side with the student.  Share with them what you have observed and create goals together.  By involving them in the process and citing specifically their talents or skills they need to work on you are empowering them to own the next steps.  


Recognizing and developing strengths, passions and talents in our students is not something new or revolutionary to education.  It’s what we do with this knowledge that makes the difference, positively affecting students and creating innovation in our schools.  Approaching the classroom as a coach creates a deeper understanding and connection to students because you are purposefully connecting with each student daily and reflecting upon, not what EVERY student should know and be able to do, but what is best for the individual learners.  This creates a classroom culture where students are energized to build on their strengths and empowered to learn in ways they may have thought previously was beyond their grasp.  

Part 2 of this series will be focused on the next step:  instructional practices.  I look forward to hearing your feedback!  Christina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When You’ve Had One Too Many Google Slides

My Post (6)Audio version of this post.

Email at 9:30 p.m. Sunday night.  Tomorrow school is cancelled due to inclement weather.  (Cue the cheering)

Email at 9:45 p.m.  All admin must still report to fulfill their contractual obligation. (Cue the booing)

Not gonna lie.  That last email didn’t exactly make my night, BUT it did lead to an amazing meeting Monday.  So, one might argue that the 9:45 email was actually better than the 9:30 one.  Let me explain.

When I got to school I sent an email to my staff saying I was available if anyone needed anything.  About 20 minutes later I received a response from a teacher asking if I would like to meet.  We had been trying to officially talk for weeks about an idea she had, but up until this point it was all hallway conversations here and there.  Turns out her power was out so this was a great opportunity for us to actually create a plan as well as a warm place to be.  Win. Win.

The teacher was planning out a social science inquiry unit about the Age of Exploration.  Her problem was twofold:

  1.  She frequently offered her students choice in how they would demonstrate their learning, but they ALWAYS seemed to use Google slides.
  2. Finding good resources for the students to explore in the Hyperdoc she was creating was super time consuming.

Enter two of my favorite things:  Curation & Meaningful Content.   I learned about curation when listening to a podcast from Jennifer Gonzalez’ Cult of Pedagogy website when I was an instructional coach.  (Sidenote: If you do not listen to her podcasts or at least check out her website periodically you are missing out on a WEALTH of tools, strategies, and just plain good stuff.)

There are many different ways to approach it, but basically curation is taking the concept of a museum curator and giving it a classroom context.   Students might create a playlist of videos that are all relevant to a topic they are studying, make a list of articles, images, and videos that answer a question or even a create Top 10 list.  The idea is that they are sifting through a wide range of information and choosing the best items to fit.  In addition to giving them a purpose for watching and reading numerous content, it also causes them to have to apply critical thinking skills such as determining importance and synthesis.  Check out her post for many more ideas for curation applications.

Curation fit perfectly into the explorer unit.  Students are first going to create their own question under the larger umbrella question of, “Is exploration always a good thing?”  After reading and watching a few common texts and videos, the students will next be tasked with curating their own list of videos, texts and images that answer their personal question.  The only requirement is that each resource on the list must be summarized with reasons for why it is included.  These curations will then be reviewed by their peers (creating even more shared ideas) and inevitably be used in future years as well.  Genius.

Books Make a Great Foundation, But…

Which led us to our our next dilemma.  What kinds of resources did we really want students going through?  Where would we start?  When we first started chatting it was suggested that we take the students to the public library to find texts to use as their primary sources.  Although I am a super fan of the library and will always believe in the power of a physical book, I thought we should also ponder digital content like YouTube, Blogs, and websites.  This would give them an opportunity to explore media resources that they were already regularly consuming outside of school, but with a critical lens.

As I brought this idea up to the teacher she said she loved it, but wasn’t sure where to find blogs that would be useful.  She had a few websites that she liked and a couple of videos, but hadn’t seen much else.  I did a quick search of,Social Studies Blogsand found a treasure of resources created by history teachers for other teachers to use with students.  (#sschat on Twitter is also a great place to look) I assured her that the beauty of curation was that we didn’t have to be the sole experts finding resources, it was up to the students.  My guess was that they would surprise us with what they knew or were able to find.  Just in case though we planned to make a list of a few good blogs and websites as well as some YouTube channels. (Crash Course Kids is one of my fave’s.)

Slide to the Left…Slide to the Right…

All of this curation led us back to problem number one:  What were the students going to do with all of this knowledge that they had curated and synthesized?  Although this teacher had offered choice in a variety of other units most students defaulted to the ever popular Google slides presentation.  It’s not that Google slides aren’t a good way to present information, but if students are always demonstrating their learning in the exact same way are we really helping them to be prepared to contribute to the world outside of school?

Knowing that with their friends they spend a lot of time on YouTube we decided to start there.  Students would come to class prepared to talk about their favorite YouTube videos that they have learned something from.  They would present their videos in small groups and work to answer the question, “What makes a good presentation?” From this small group discussion the students will create a list as a class of qualities that make a presentation engaging as well as informational.  These qualities will become what the students use to assess themselves on their work.

After this class collaboration the students would then get to work in stations to learn about some other options they could use to answer their individual questions including:

  • Adobe Spark – Students can use this to create videos with narration, creative graphics or scrolling webpages.  It’s a pretty intuitive site if you have not used it previously.  
  • WeVideoThis is an online platform for creating videos.  I have to give a huge shout out to Jennifer Leban (@mrsleban), our creative technology teacher at one of our middle schools for teaching me how to use this super fun tool! (I have a future post dedicated to my learning with this one coming soon!)
  • SeesawThis is a great tool for student creation, reflection, and collaboration.  It can be used in so many different ways.  One of the best parts is that it is easy to share with parents.  

Students still have the option to use Google slides for their presentations. They just need to make sure that they meet the requirements that the class had come up with together.  By doing this it will hopefully shift their presentations into more complex and engaging content as opposed to just bullet points and fun transitions with a few graphics.  Or, they don’t have to use technology at all if they don’t want to.  They have the option to create their own idea or use one from their teacher’s list like creating a book or a live interview.  

This entire plan is designed to spark not only curiosity, but to also develop four of the six C’s of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking. The teacher plans on using reading, writing, science and social studies as part of the interdisciplinary unit giving students an opportunity to see education as a connected process as opposed to independent ideas.  After the students learn about historical exploration they are also going to be learning about space exploration to ponder how we can use the past to help us to understand or better create the future.


The two problems discussed in this post are not unique to the teacher I was speaking with.  As a teacher and a coach I would sometimes spend hours on end looking for the best resources to use with students.  This process would many times leave me frustrated blaming “the district” for not providing me with everything I need.   However, when I reflect on what skills students truly need to be successful in school and beyond I think we are doing a disservice to students if we are always the ones providing them with the content they should be reading.  We need to teach them not only how to find information that answers their bigger questions, but also how to evaluate the quality and validity of the information they find. 

I truly applaud this teacher for reflecting on the needs of her students and taking the risk of trying something new with a unit that could easily be taught in a very traditional way.  Moving forward she will be working mostly with our instructional coach, but it was such a treat to have time to talk this out with her on Monday.  I cannot wait to see the creative ideas and projects that evolve as a result!  #greatfulforasnowday