The Phrase in Education That Needs to Go

Teach with Fidelity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We know better.  Let’s do better.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Evolution of Parent Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global Communication

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

Frequency:  Once a week

Examples:  

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

Individual Communication

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

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

Examples: 

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

 

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