Sometimes You Just Need to Go All Gerry Brooks

Roses are red.

Violets are blue.

I need a break, how about you?

It’s February.  As much as routines are in place and students are usually flying academically this time of year, it can also be an extra stressful time with second-trimester report cards around the corner, summative evaluation meetings, and students pushing limits with unusual behaviors.

Knowing this, my instructional leadership team and I decided to dedicate our staff meeting this week to the connection part of our #unlimitedgrowthandconnection goal of the year at Jefferson.  Using an app called, Goosechase (Thanks Cult of Pedagogy! 6 Ed Tech Tools You Should Try in 2020), we created a scavenger hunt game for our staff to play in teams of three around our school.  The prize?  A duty-free hour lunch on me at a restaurant and day of their choosing.  

Titled, The Big Game of Awesome, the scavenger hunt involved teachers taking either a picture or video of them completing a wide variety of challenges worth anywhere from 400 to 2000 points.  The app includes a leaderboard that teams can check on as they compete upping the fun of the game.   As teams complete challenges, their pictures and videos are added to a feed as well.  

We decided to plan a variety of challenges for the staff that would include an opportunity to laugh, connect with one another and learn from each other.  Below is a slideshow of the challenges (called missions in the app) we created:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As I started talking at the staff meeting on Thursday, a twinge of nervousness and self-doubt hit my mind and I thought, Are people going to be mad?  Will they think we are wasting their time?  Would they have preferred time to just work?  Thankfully that feeling ended up being completely quelled as I watched the teams race out of the library to start the missions.

My two favorite challenges ended up being Sing a Song of Jefferson and Go All Gerry Brooks.  The song mission showed people’s creativity and it warmed my heart to see our teams making up songs about our school’s mission.  The Gerry Brooks mission gave people permission to be irreverent and brought a levity to some of the things we take so seriously.  When teams came back to the library at the end I played most of them for the staff causing everyone to break out in uproarious laughter. This one, making fun of the actual challenge itself I’ve watched about 10 times since and it makes me laugh every time. 

This experience reminded me we don’t always have to be so serious in education.  The game gave our staff an opportunity to get into one another’s classrooms, learn from one another, build each other up, laugh and grow our community as a whole.  The feedback received was incredibly positive and all of this took less than an hour.  It was just what we all needed.

On a final note, next time you’re considering a structure for a PL or staff meeting or lesson with students, I highly recommend the GooseChase app.  It’s free and super easy to set up.  ūüôā  If you want to play the same game we created, you can search for The Big Game of Awesome in the app.  (And I swear they didn’t pay me to say any of this)  

 

 

 

 

How Administrators Can Support Teacher Leaders in Their Schools

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

Friedman quote

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

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

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

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

Common Fears, Beliefs & Questions

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

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

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

The Plan

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

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

1. The Why

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

2.  The Plan

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

3.  What You Need from Me

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

4.  How You’re Going to Evaluate it

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

A Culture of Inquiry Vs. A Culture of Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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, ‚ÄúWe need to make the positives so loud so that the negatives are almost impossible to hear,‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúBite-Sized Feedback‚ÄĚ 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.

‚ÄúBut if people aren‚Äôt 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.‚Ä̬†

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.¬†