Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Oh, We Don't Use Technology in My Classroom

A teacher in my building was excited to share some QR codes, that she had made, with her grade level team.  She did this during a team meeting, and afterwards gave each teacher a few copies for them to use in their classroom.  Her teammates were very excited to try out this new idea, save for one.  When she went to give it to this particular teammate, she was greeted with an upturned hand, and the response "Oh, we don't use technology in my classroom."

After hearing of this exchange, I let it roll around in my head for a few days.  I didn't react, didn't share it with anyone else, just let it kind of sit in my mind.

Then, it hit me.   This teacher was dismissing a new idea out of hand.  While it was directly related to technology in this case, it made me wonder what other new ideas did she dismiss?  If this teacher was so adamant about not using technology that she freely admitted, in front of her team, that 'we don't use technology in my classroom', surely this wasn't the first time she turned down a new idea.

Carrying this out a bit further, it really makes me wonder how she reacts to other new ideas?  What are her students missing out on, without even knowing it?   How can she, as a teacher, be so close-minded to new ideas?  What if a student made a suggestion for trying something in a different way?  Odds are, that student's idea will be dismissed as well.

Is this what we should be teaching our students?  To fear new ideas, without so much as a second thought?  Students often take cues from their teachers, and this is one that I would certainly not wanted copied by her students.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What My Students Need to Hear

This is a blog post that I am writing as part of the 2014 Teacher Leadership Challenge. The 2014 Teacher Leadership Challenge is a weekly installment activity that poses a prompt on an educational topic or issue. Your challenge is to respond to the prompt in 500 words or less via a post you publish to your blog. The aim is to get more teachers thinking globally about their classroom practice and their own connection to the wider education community.

The blogging challenge this week is to read Chase Mielke’s post entitled What Students Really Need to Hear, and then to craft your own blog post with a message about what your message would be to students.

There is a plan, contained inside the four walls of my classroom.  It may seem disjointed, rambling, and utterly hopeless.  But it isn't.  No, there is a methodical plan.

That is what my students need to hear.  They need to be reassured that behind the scenes, maybe WAY behind the scenes, there is a blueprint that lays everything out.  That everything we do in my class is done on purpose.  That I am not just throwing ideas against the wall and seeing if something sticks.  No, that's not how I decide what to do in my class.

You see, my plan is to create lifelong learners.  I can't come out and just tell you that in class, because that really isn't too inspiring.  Instead, I do the old head fake trick.  This way, you'll develop into lifelong learners without even realizing it, because then you won't have the chance to dismiss it as uncool, nerdy, or a waste of your time.

At this point of the year, it is too late.  I have already got you hooked, there’s no escaping. 

You thirst for knowledge constantly, as the result of being able to choose how you learn the content. 

You always take extra care in making sure your presentation is just so, because you decide how to share what you’re learning with us, and the world.

You always are asking more and more questions, because of the curiosity that runs rampant in the room.

You see, there is a plan.  A real good plan, if I must say so myself.  And, it has turned out pretty well. 

Do you see why I couldn't come out and tell you this?  Is it clear to you now why I had to hide it away, undercover? 

I worked on building up your trust, because I knew that if you trusted me that I would be able to push you beyond what you thought you could achieve.  I could enact my plan, carry it out to fruition, once I had your trust.

I understand if this makes you upset.  It won’t hurt my feelings if you want to throw me against the wall to see if I stick.  You see, after you throw me against the wall, you’ll have this need to figure out why I did or did not stick to the wall.  You will design a set of experiments, test out your hypotheses, and come to conclusions… all the while enjoying every step of the process.

You see, there is a plan…

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Can You Have a Culture of Learning Without Relationships?

I saw this quote from Charity Stephens (@differNtiated4u) on Twitter recently, and it made me think about the role of relationships in classrooms today. The job of the teacher has evolved,  it used to be that we were managers of the classroom, focused on organizational issues and maintained a distinct boundary between us and our students.

But, times have changed.  Whether you agree with the idea that we are asking more of our students today than teachers did 40 years ago is irrelevant.  What is relevant is the simple fact that behaving today as teachers did 40 years ago is misguided because our students are sitting in classrooms that are structured differently and are asked to interact in innovative ways with their learning environment.

Where teachers used to be managers, we now need to be relationship builders.  I am sure you have heard the quote that goes something like 'they won't care what you know until they know that you care.' This quote is appropriate when you consider the makeup of today's classroom.  In a student-centered classroom, a student assumes new roles and responsibilities that require them to be active participants.   It is imperative to develop a relationship with each and every one of your students that lets them know you care about them as a person.

In my classroom, I began each year crafting meaningful relationships with my students.  While other teachers may have dabbled in getting to know you activities for a day or two before jumping into the content, I spent weeks devoting at least some portion of each day to connecting with my students on a personal level.  The time that I 'wasted' on these activities invariably paid off later in the year when I was able to constructively criticize my students for their effort, work, or attitudes in class.  Their responses to this criticism was vastly different than what other teachers received.  Why?  Because they knew that I cared, that my criticism came from a place of love, and wanted them to be successful. Unbeknownst to them,  I was creating a culture of learning.

In a culture of learning, teachers are learners alongside their students, trying new things, failing, succeeding, reflecting, and growing in a continuous cycle.  When a classroom is built on strong relationships between teachers and students, these cycles are able to occur minus suspicions from either side.  No one questions the intent of criticism, for all are aware of the meaning behind it.

In this era of high stakes testing and increased data aggregation, it is imperative that teachers never lose sight of the benefits of connecting with our students.  For it is within those relationships that we are able to create a culture of learning and encourage our students to reach for new levels of learning!

What do you think about relationships?  How are they connected to creating, and maintaining, a culture of learning?

Friday, April 25, 2014

Goodbye Twitter?

I was disgruntled with Twitter. I was ready to walk away from it all!  No more tweets, no more little blue bird taking up residence on my home screen.  It wasn't working for me, and I felt it was the time for me to leave.  Sure, occasionally I would find some great resource, or hear a quote that moved me.  But, it wasn't enough. It was decision time, should I stay or go?

As I thought about my decision, debating the pros and cons, all I kept hearing in my head was people extolling the virtues of Twitter and how it had revolutionized their teaching and learning.  It really made me think, if it has this superpower for others, why was I questioning it?  What was I missing?  Clearly, I was doing something wrong, or not doing something right.  But, what was it?  I needed to figure it out.

So, I decided to stick it out with Twitter.  I gave myself one month to see if I changed my mind.  I also decided that I needed to make some changes to my Twitter-self.

Here's what I did...

Go Both Ways
Before this experiment, I only read what others were posting.  I rarely tweeted anything out, and if I did it was to ask for something.  I never received a response, which only furthered my frustration with Twitter.

After my Twitter rebirth, I became more active on Twitter.  I started retweeting great ideas from others, commenting on what others tweeted, and just turning Twitter into a two-way street of communication.

Joined in the Conversations
Up until a month ago, I had only participated in a few #byotchats.  My participation in that chat was due to the fact that I knew, and respected, one of the moderators of the chat.  Other than that, I did not participate in any chats, mostly because I didn't see a great benefit from my participation.

During the month of April, I made a point to regularly join Twitter chats.  I even went so far as to put them on my Outlook calendar.  I searched for chats, using the Weekly Twitter Chat schedule on Cybraryman's website.  I participated in so many, here's a partial list:
Some of these chats were better than others, to be honest!  But, what I found when I joined these   chats was a plethora of expertise!  These chats opened my eyes to new perspectives, fabulous resources, and connections with so many talented educators around the world that I can't imagine what I did before I started participating in chats.

The Findings
So, what did I find?  I found that my disgruntled feelings with Twitter were misplaced.  The lack of professional growth on my part from Twitter were a direct result of how I was interacting via Twitter.  

Since I instituted these two simple changes, I have been amazed at the results.  I have made connections with numerous educators around the world.  I have had my own thoughts questioned, causing me to re-examine them, and either solidifying my thoughts or resulting in a shift in my thinking.  I have heard different perspectives on many topics of great importance, perspectives that I would not have been exposed to would I have walked away from Twitter.  I have engaged in thoughtful discussions with other passionate educators about the current state of education, and how we can act to make improvements from a grassroots level.

In essence, as I write this, I am proud of my decision to not walk away from Twitter.  That, by taking these two simple steps, I have been able to grow my own PLN, and expand my wealth of resources available to me as I continue to grow.  For this, I am thankful, and hope others can find similar benefits from Twitter!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Where Do You Get All These Great Ideas?

This is the fourth in a series of posts about a movement that I am starting in my school.  My school predominantly instructs in a teacher-centered model, and my aim is to shift that to a student-centered instruction model.  This series will serve as a means to flesh out my ideas as I plan for professional development during the 2014-15 school year.

Today's post will share the resources available to help in planning for professional development.  You can read my previous posts in the series here. A future post will focus on an outline of how I intend to structure my professional development sessions.  In the fall, I will revisit this series to assess how the professional learning is going, identify areas that I need to address, and share any lessons that I have learned.

When researching resources that I could use during this professional development, I tried to identify tools that would meet the varied needs of my teachers.  There is a mix of styles included on this list.  

For example, some teachers prefer to watch videos of a student-centered classroom in action, so I have identified some sources for real-life video examples. Other teachers may prefer talking with teachers that are currently working in a student-centered classroom, so I included a list of Twitter chats for those teachers.  I have also included resources that have tutorials that will walk the teachers through the planning of lessons for a student-centered classroom.  

At this point, you may be wondering why I have done this when I will be leading the teachers as they learn this material.  Simply put, I want teachers to have a source of go-to resources for when they are not learning with me.  This will provide an added advantage of on-demand PD, places where they can go to learn more that fits their schedule.  

One more thing before you get to the list, this list by no means is all of the resources available for teachers.  It is a comprehensive list that I feel provides a great starting point for you to use when planning your own student centered classroom professional development. Please feel free to add more suggestions in the comments, and I will gladly add them to the list!

EdTEchTeacher focuses on inquiry-based learning in a student-centered environment.  They offer many resources for professional development, including conferences, keynote presentations, and a webinar series. Their free, live webinars focus on effective integration of technology in the classroom.

Created by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) (another great resource for project-based learning)  to help provide more deeper learning opportunities for teachers and students. PBLU includes exciting new projects from partner organizations and sponsored classes by BIE, allowing for teachers to learn different facets of PBL on their own terms.

There are chats for just about any topic you can think of.  Search for some of these chats-
#PBLchat- Project-Based Learning chat (Tuesdays @ 8:00 pm EST)
#21stEdchat- 21st Century Education chat (Sundays @ 8:00 pm EST)
#TLAP- Teaching Like a Pirate (Mondays @ 8:00 pm CST)
#EdTechchat- Educational Technology Chat (Mondays @ 8:00 pm EST)
#byotchat- Bring Your Own Technology Chat (Thursdays @ 9:00 pm EST)
#edchat- Education Chat (Tuesdays @ 12:00 and 7:00 pm EST)

The goal of TeacherTube is to provide an online community for sharing instructional videos. It fills a need for a more educationally focused, safe venue for teachers and schools. It is a site to provide anytime, anywhere professional development with teachers teaching teachers. As well, it is a site where teachers can post videos designed for students to view in order to learn a concept or skill. 

Galileo Educational Network is dedicated to improving student, teacher and leaders learning through creating and researching 21st century learning environments. Galileo is about teaching for deep understanding. The site supports teachers to design inquiry-based projects in which students use the digital technologies of their time in creative and thoughtful ways.

Learning Styles Inventory

Monday, April 21, 2014

Rethinking Our Roles

This is the third in a series of posts about a movement that I am starting in my school.  My school predominantly instructs in a teacher-centered model, and my aim is to shift that to a student-centered instruction model.  This series will serve as a means to flesh out my ideas as I plan for professional development during the 2014-15 school year.

Today's post will examine the characteristics associated with a student-centered classroom. The first post focused on the reasons behind the movement.  The second post identified key characteristics of student-centered classrooms.  Future posts will focus on the resources available to help in planning for professional development and an outline of how I intend to structure my professional development sessions.  In the fall, I will revisit this series to assess how the professional learning is going, identify areas that I need to address, and share any lessons that I have learned.

Redefining Roles

Making the shift to a student-centered classroom requires redefining the roles of the teacher and the students.  As a result of the substantial change in the classroom structure and functionality, the roles that many are used to, and often comfortable with, playing will not be sufficient in the new model. Below, I have identified some of the roles that both teachers and students will need to assume as part of the shift to a student-centered environment.  Some of these new roles will be easy to adapt to, others less so.  While redefining their roles is crucial to successfully making this change, some of these roles will take longer to master than others.  All participants need to remain cognizant of this fact, and keep themselves from becoming easily dismayed as they make this monumental shift in their learning environment.

Teacher Roles

  1. Learning Alongside StudentsThe teacher no longer is the expert in the room, but one that is learning along with the students.  It is okay, even desirable, for teachers to utter the words 'I don't know' when presented with a question that stumps them!
  2. Establishing Positive Classroom CommunityThe student-centered classroom may get messy at times.  There may be some  disagreements between learners as they collaborate and grow together. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as the teacher has established a 'we' mentality in the classroom. If students can view their class as a community of supporters, they will be able to bounce back quicker from disruptions.
  3. Identifying How Their Students LearnA crucial component to the success in any student-centered classroom is for the teacher to identify how their students enjoy learning and learn best, then applying that information when structuring lessons.  The student-centered classroom is along a continuum that is headed towards personalized learning.  This is just step one!
  4. Varying Methods of InstructionWhile direct instruction may be dominant form of instruction in a teacher-centered classroom, variety is the spice of life inside a student-centered classroom.  Teachers need to use different methods of instruction- project based learning, cooperative learning, inquiry based learning- and make those decisions based on the content being studied and preferences of the students.
  5. Providing Constructive, not Punitive, FeedbackStudents in a student-centered classroom are provided plentiful practice opportunities, again depending on their individual needs.  As part of this practice routine, the feedback that they receive during the process needs to be focused on growth, not grading where they are at that moment.  By utilizing constructive feedback that the students can build off, teachers allow the students to move towards mastery.
  6. ReflectingThis is not going to be an easy shift to make.  There are going to be lots of challenges, mistakes, and frustrations.  But, those events should be viewed as learning opportunities, and if the teacher is reflective along the way, then they can use that information for future learning!  This will also allow the teachers to model reflection for the students.

Student Roles

  1. Asking QuestionsCuriosity is at the root of of student-centered classrooms, and a natural by-product of that is asking questions.  Along with curiosity, the focus on personalized learning demands students to ask their own questions as they interact with the content. Since they are in charge of their learning, students should be asking good questions to guide learning process.
  2. Active Participation
    I think this one is pretty straight forward.  PBL, inquiry-based learning, and cooperative learning will all require more activity from the students than sit and get does! 
  3. Accepting Feedback as Vehicle for Growth
    This role may be a bit more challenging for students to become accustomed to.  In many classrooms, the majority of feedback that students receive is in the form of a grade.  This will be vastly different in a student-centered classroom as the teacher will be asked to provide consistent, constructive feedback for learning.  The students may continue looking for their grade at first, but they'll get used to, and begin to appreciate, the change.
  4. Open Minded About Learning
    Many of our students are 'conditioned' in their learning while in school.  They will need to develop an open-mind about learning in new, active ways.  Something is telling me that this should not be hard for them to do!
  5. Accepting New Responsibilities and Roles
    The student-centered classroom will typically enable students to actively participate in their learning in ways that they prefer.  They will also, however, be asked to assume more responsibility for learning the content and, in turn, redistributing the information to their fellow classmates.
  6. Reflecting
    This will be a similar experience for the students and the teachers.  Some of the students will adapt to a student-centered learning environment quickly and effortlessly.  For others, it may be a bit difficult.  Regardless, part of any learning process must include quality time spent reflecting on what happened, and examining the process for lessons learned and experience gained.  For the students that are able to consistently self-reflect, they will have learned a lifelong skill that they can use to continue to grow well into adulthood!

image attributed to icanread

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The DNA of a Student-Centered Classroom

This is the second in a series of posts about a movement that I am starting in my school.  My school predominantly instructs in a teacher-centered model, and my aim is to shift that to a student-centered instruction model.  This series will serve as a means to flesh out my ideas as I plan for professional development during the 2014-15 school year.

Today's post will examine the characteristics associated with a student-centered classroom. The first post focused on the reasons behind the movement.  Future posts will focus on the roles of teachers and students in student-centered classrooms, resources available to help in planning for professional development, and an outline of how I intend to structure my professional development sessions.  In the fall, I will revisit this series to assess how the professional learning is going, identify areas that I need to address, and share any lessons that I have learned.

In conducting my research on student-centered classrooms, certain characteristics continually showed up.  I have listed the ideas that I found most often below, see if you notice any patterns.

  1. Relationships Matter
    The building of a strong relationship between a teacher and student to take greater risks, ask questions, and make mistakes.  This is essential in a student-centered classroom as the students will be called upon to take a more active role in their learning.
  2. Students Ask the Questions (More of the questions)
    At the root of a student-centered classroom is curiosity.  Students that ask good questions and are curious about the material are able to interact with the subject matter at a deeper level.  If students are not interested enough to ask questions, odds are that they are not making connections with the material.  Teachers play a pivotal role in crafting good questions through modeling and guiding the students in learning this valuable skill.
  3. Instructional Methods are Varied
    Cooperative learning, inquiry-based learning, project based learning, peer-to-peer learning, occasional direct instruction, are just some of the instructional methods that are used in a student-centered classroom.  With the vast amount of content, one single instructional method is not sufficient to achieve the learning goals of the students.  Students can even engage in selecting
  4. Learning is Personalized
    Teachers take the time to learn about the best ways that their students learn in a student-centered classroom.  While this is hopefully done in all classes, it is imperative in a student-centered classroom because it allows teachers to tailor their instruction in ways that their students learn best.  The future of education will largely be focused on personalized learning, and it currently is a key component of student-centered learning environments.
  5. Assessment is Varied
    Assessments in a student centered classroom come in all shapes and sizes.  Formal, informal, projects, demonstrations, and observations are just a few of the types of assessments that are utilized in a student-centered classroom.  Again, allowing the students to provide input on the type of assessment used, or to even create the assessment, is a possible option.
  6. Ideas Come from a Variety of Places
    Ideas for lessons, projects, etc. come from a variety of places.  This prevents the classroom from becoming stale and predictable for the students.  The variety of sources- colleagues, mentors, Twitter/PLN, students, to name a few, increase the likelihood that the work that is done in the classroom will appeal to the students.
  7. Ample Opportunities for Practice
    Given a multitude of opportunities to work with a specific topic or skill gives the students more opportunities to learn, make mistakes, and demonstrate their mastery of the content.  The key here is for the feedback to not be punitive in nature, practice needs to be provided for learning purposes.
  8. Student Choice
    This is a large component of a student-centered classroom.  Instead of dictating what the end product will look like for any given task, teachers allow the students to utilize their own creativity to decide how best to demonstrate their learning of a specific topic or skill.  This goes along with the personalization of the students' learning.
  9. Feedback is Prevalent
    The teacher in a student-centered classroom spends less of class time lecturing or giving direct instruction.  This frees up more time for the teacher to be interacting with their students while they work, and increases the amount of formative feedback - not grades- that the students can use to grow.
  10. Students Set Learning Goals
    In a student-centered classroom, students set their own learning goals.  This act further personalizes the learning for the students because they are working towards goals that they have identified as important for them.  This activity is something that the teacher will need to demonstrate and guide the students in for the early part of the year, as the year progresses the students will become better equipped at setting their own learning goals.

image attribution flickr user Michael Knowles

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Beginning of a Shift

This is the second in a series of posts about a movement that I am starting in my school.  My school predominantly instructs in a teacher-centered model, and my aim is to shift that to a student-centered instruction model.  This series will serve as a means to flesh out my ideas as I plan for professional development during the 2014-15 school year.

Today's post will focus on why I feel it is important to make this transition in our classrooms.  Future posts will include an examination of characteristics associated with a student-centered classroom, resources available to help in planning for professional development, and finally, an outline of how I intend to structure my professional development sessions.  In the fall, I will revisit this series to assess how the professional learning is going, identify areas that I need to address, and share any lessons that I have learned.

Why I Feel This Change is Needed

The students of today are changing, and we need to change our methods of instruction to meet them where they are. Students in schools today are accustomed to being in control of their learning while away from school.  With the ubiquitous nature of information today, students can learn what they want, how they want, when they want.  It is imperative that educators make a shift in how we structure our classrooms to give the students what they are seeking.

The prevalence of digital devices in our classrooms has offered teachers an opportunity to harness the powers of these devices to take our students to new heights.  Unfortunately, what I have found during my observations in my school is that the addition of technology has not changed the manner in which the students are learning.  This is not a surprise to me, as one should not expect that just because you add an iPad to a classroom, that all of a sudden the teacher will make this fundamental shift in their instructional practices.

It is the confluence of these two developments- an altering of our students' needs and desires as they relate to learning, and teachers unsure of how best to integrate digital devices to effectively meet the needs of our changing students- that has led me to believe that my goal for professional development needs to focus on developing a student-centered environment in classrooms.  By leading teachers in learning the different options available to personalize a student's learning environment effectively, and following up with classroom observations throughout the year, I strongly believe that my teachers will be able to make the shift in the direction of a student-centered classroom.  

Do you feel it is imperative that teachers move towards a student-centered model in their classrooms? Why or why not?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What If No One Follows Me?

Have you seen this video?  It is one of my favorites about starting and sustaining a movement!

I am starting a movement at my school, encouraging teachers to make a shift to a more student-centered classroom.  I need followers, as is important as any movement begins in order to pick up speed or else it will die a fiery death.

Having utilized a student-centric model in my classroom, I am inherently aware of the benefits to using this model in the classroom. Benefits include increased student motivation, engagement, and self-confidence by achieving success when assuming new responsibilities.  But, teachers have been lukewarm to my proclamations about these benefits.  Teachers have difficulty abdicating the throne, so to speak, and making the shift to being a facilitator in a student-centered classroom.

Many teachers were trained in educator prep programs that featured the teacher as the expert in the room.  It was a different era in schools, and times have changed with the constant connection to information that our students possess today.  Teachers are no longer required to be the expert in the room, and students are yearning for the opportunity to craft their own learning experiences utilizing tools of their choosing, and demonstrate their learning in ways that appeal to them.

In my next post I will focus on the steps that I am taking with my teachers to help make the transition from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered model.  In the meantime, let me know of any suggestions that you may have for making this transition as seamless as possible for teachers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Are We Measuring Anxiety?

When I transferred to a new school for my new position, my son came with me for fourth grade.  To say it was a culture shock for him might be an understatement.  The new school is a Title 1 school with a large proportion of ELL students.  The year has gone pretty smoothly for him, he's made some great friends, joined different school clubs, and been really happy with his decision to change schools.  Recently, however, he began expressing a desire to return to his old school, but could never explain why he had changed his tune about his current school.  My wife and I tried in earnest to identify any potential problems, we even talked to his teachers to see if anything had happened at school that may have led to this about face.  There were no incidents that his teachers could point to that would lead to this change... but then it hit us!

It was... the test!

Last year, as the testing season approached, there was an uptick in focus on testing strategies and the like. Not a dramatic increase, but enough for him to become aware of the change.  This year, however, has been completely different.  There is a higher proportion of students that require this type of instruction (personally, I disagree with this type of instruction) and that has added substantial anxiety for my son.  He is a strong student that really does not need this type of focus in order to be successful on the state test.  He is, though, chock full of anxiety and this increased focus has left a mark on him.

Just over the weekend, he was given a thick packet of practice tests that he had to complete.  Again, let me reiterate that I do not feel this is beneficial for any student, not just my son.  He dreaded the entire activity, and to be honest it appeared to be nothing more than busy work to my wife and me.  There were a total of 120 questions for him to answer, and as a teacher, I had a hard time finding the worthiness of this assignment.  He completed the activity over the course of the weekend, but along with that came an increase in his anxiety level.  There were lots of tears, worries, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping.  I did not conduct any scientific experiments, but I think it is pretty clear where these developments came from.

I have tried understand the rationale behind the teacher's thinking in assigning this packet, but I have been unable to find anything redeeming.  Besides this packet, there have been similar incidents during the school day that have raised his anxiety level about the upcoming tests.  This whole environment is new to my son and me, and it really raises some questions about what we are doing in education by placing such an emphasis on a one-time test to evaluate a student's growth over the course of a school year.  How does this standardized test, comprised of multiple choice questions, given on one day in April, truly assess a student's growth?  In my eyes, it is far from authentic, and only provides a partial snapshot of a student's abilities, if that.  Making matters worse, the results of this test are utilized to make decisions for these students' future educational placement.

I have tried to remain supportive of my son's teachers throughout his time in school, because I know how hard teaching can be, and did not think it would be beneficial for me to question decisions that his teachers made.  Being an educator myself, I am aware of the multitude of decisions that we make each and every single day in the classroom, and accept that sometimes teachers make decisions that they may later regret.

That being said, I do not feel as though I can remain quiet on this specific topic anymore.  It has now hit home, and I have seen firsthand the effects of being consumed with test prep.  There has to be a better way to assess our students without creating this heightened level of anxiety in them.  In this day and age of rapid technology development, somewhere there is a better answer.  It might be that the students develop e-portfolios throughout the year, focused on specific standards, that can highlight their learning and growth. Of course, I am aware of the inherent challenges that this type of system could present, but I wonder if they are as potentially damaging to students as the current system.  Based on what I have seen over the past few weeks, I think not...

Have you experienced a similar reaction to standardized testing?  How can we assess our students' growth in more authentic ways?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


                                                    Steven Depolo
I participated in an inspiring #AspiringAdmin Twitter chat on Sunday evening about feedback.  Kevin Floyd shared the term reflaction, and I really think it hits at the heart of feedback.  The goal of feedback is to encourage growth of the evaluatee by purposefully reflecting, setting goals, and taking appropriate actions to achieve your goals. Reflaction combines those two key components of feedback succinctly.

We have all given and received feedback in our careers as educators.  But, not all feedback is created equally.  There are some key components of effective feedback that can help the receiver turn the feedback into a growth experience.

  • Timely 
          In order for feedback to be effective, it must be timely.  As the distance grows between the                              observation and the reception of feedback, the impact of the feedback on the observation                              decreases.

  • Constructive 
         Feedback that is punitive in nature, and not originating from a desire for growth for the evaluatee                       will not lead to an opportunity for growth.
  • Specific 
        Feedback full of generalities does not provide the evaluatee with specifics regarding what the                            evaluator observed will not provide anything to work on future growth.

  • Actionable 
       The feedback needs to contain items for the evaluatee to act upon.  Simply telling them that they                        did a good job, or their demeanor was unprofessional does not provide them with anything to act               on.  When combined with specifics, providing specific areas for the evaluatee to improve will                        improve the quality of the feedback.

The career of an educator is one of consistent growth.  This growth can result from many activities that the educator embarks on, and receiving effective feedback can be the impetus to start the educator on their upward trajectory.  It is the job of the evaluator to provide effective feedback to the educator, and utilizing these components can be a great place to start.

Are any of these components more important than others? Are there other components of effective feedback that I have left out?  Please add to the conversation in the comments section below.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Stealing Hubcaps

Stealing the hubcaps off of wheels is really okay.  Honest, it is!  I know it may sound odd for a teacher to encourage stealing.  But, hear me out and you may encourage it as well!

Teachers never have enough time.  Between planning lessons, preparing for lessons, grading papers, communicating with parents etc, there are never enough hours in the day.  It is that very reason that we must identify ways to work more efficiently.  

Stealing the hubcaps might just be the answer.

Planning effective lessons takes time.  It can be time well spent because the payoff can be immense. But, it doesn't always have to be time intensive.  Instead, focus on making connections.  There are so many ways to connect with other teachers that teach the same content as you do... colleagues in your building and members of your PLN on Twitter are just two options available to you.  If they teach the same content, odds are they are writing similar lesson plans.  Unfortunately, while they may teach the same content, they don't teach the same students, which can make it difficult to incorporate their ideas.  But, what if you just stole the hubcaps, instead of the entire wheel?

You know your students, and are acutely aware of effective ways to tailor your instruction for maximum impact.  On the other hand, your colleagues and PLN do not know what makes your students tick.  This is why you need to take just the hubcaps, and mold the most effective wheel around those hubcaps.  It's not stealing, actually, for teachers do not actually steal.  They just find ideas that work for their class, and tweak them to make them fit. 

Embracing this concept will take some humility, because it means admitting that some of these ideas are not your own.  Would you be willing to admit this fact instead of spending countless hours trying to reinvent the wheel?  I know I would!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Teacher Without a Class

I do not have any students. I work in a school of over 900 students, but none of them are mine.   I am an Instructional Technology Specialist, which means that I am not assigned any students.  This is my first year in this role, and it has been a whirlwind year to say the least.  There are so many differences from when I was a 4th grade teacher last year, some positive and some negative.  I love my role, and have thoroughly enjoyed learning how to teach adults and help them grow as educators.  But, something has been gnawing at me since we came back from winter break.  Something was missing, and I just couldn't figure it out.  Then, it hit me...

I do not have any students.

Sure, you could say that every student in my school is now my student, and you would be right.  Sort of.  However, it is not that simple.  I am missing something, and I think it is the close relationships that I developed each year with my students.  I was a classroom teacher for 11 years, and relationship building was one of my favorite parts about it.  I loved getting to know my students, and learning everything that I could about them.  It was so important to me because this knowledge really helped me accomplish so much with them.

I firmly believe that students won't care what you know until they know that you care.  I can't remember where I heard that saying first, but I truly embraced the concept in my classroom.  By taking the time to get to know the students, not only at the beginning of the year, but also throughout the year- on the playground, in the cafeteria, as they rolled in in the morning; I fostered a relationship with each and every student that reinforced the idea that I cared about them as a person.  For some students, it was more challenging to develop that relationship, but I still worked at it until I was successful.

It was because of that strong connection that I believe I was able to accomplish so much with my students. Because they knew that I cared, they would trust me when I came up with some crazy idea- which was pretty often.  Because I cared enough to learn all about my students, I was able to zero in on what each student would need to succeed at any given moment.  Because I cared, the focus was always on the students and what they needed; it was never about me or what I needed.  Because my students knew that I cared, they believed in themselves and knew they could accomplish whatever they set out to achieve.  Because I cared about my students, I didn't care about making mistakes in front of them.

Now, I do not have those students anymore.  Sure, I have connections with some students as I work with them in their classes.  But, it is not my class, I am now a visitor in their class.  This is a different dynamic, and it is a challenge for me.  The things that I used to do with my students in our class may not be acceptable in another teacher's classroom.  I have had a difficult time restraining myself at times because I was so used to it being our class.

What do I do now?  How can I fill in this gap that is missing from my professional life?  I haven't figured it out, obviously, or else I would not be writing this post.  I am reaching out to educators that have gone through this type of 'loss' to see what you did.  I do not want to return to the classroom because I really love my new role, and I am beginning to wonder if this is just something that I need to accept and move on from...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Effect of a Fixed Mindset in the Classroom

I just received Mindset, written by Carol Dweck, in the mail this week.  I finally began reading it today and have not been able to put it down.  So far, I have been struck by the potential for using the concepts that she outlines in the classroom.  If you are unsure of the premise of this book, Dweck proposes that we primarily are composed of one of two mindsets- either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.  As Maria Popova eloquently explains the concept in her blog post "Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives",

           A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.

As I think of the ramifications of this concept in schools, I immediately return to classes of students that I have taught in the past to try to see if I could find examples of these mindsets.  (In my current role as an Instructional Technology Specialist, I do not have a class of my own.) It didn't take me long to find examples of both mindsets in my students, but that isn't what I want to focus on here.  Instead, I would like to review my interactions with students of either mindset.  How did I respond to the students that displayed the fixed mindset?  More importantly, how could I have better supported those students to achieve greater success?  Should I have handled them differently than I did?  I'd like to think, that as a parent, I would prefer for each student to display a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset.  Carol Dweck does point out that it is not inherently bad to display one mindset over the other, but I have to wonder if some of my students that displayed tendencies of a fixed mindset would have been more successful if I had the tools at the time to help them develop a growth mindset.  I know I am dealing in hypotheticals here because I am no longer the teacher of these students, but it still makes me wonder. 

As mentioned previously, I am still in the early stages of reading this book, and I am certain that with more reading that some of my questions may be answered.  In the meantime, I'd appreciate any comments from educators that have experience with teaching students about these concepts.  Did it make a difference in your students?  How did you teach the concepts to your students, and of equal importance, how was it received by your students? 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Role of Grit in the Classroom

I recently viewed Angela Duckworth's TED Talk on Grit and it started me thinking about the role of grit in today's classroom.  So many skills are being bandied about that are considered essential for students in the 21st Century... critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, problem solving, but I haven't heard a lot about grit.  Then, I came across a blog post from Jennifer Brown that referenced an article written by Alfie Kohn, the "Downside of Grit".  So, after reading the blog post, I had to go and read the article.  Then, I had to go back and watch Angela's talk again.  After watching it again, and reading the article again, I was determined to figure out if grit is really something that our kids need to develop.  Is it a fixed entity, either you have it or you don't?  Or, is it something you can employ from time to time when appropriate?  Alfie Kohn seems to say that it isn't the end all be all for our kids, but Angela Duckworth seems to point to it as an essential skill for success in education.
I am writing this blog post as a way to flesh out my own ideas on grit, and hope it will serve as a mechanism for me to learn more about it as the conversation evolves.  Angela Duckworth defines grit as  "the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals".  This definition contains two distinct parts.  The first part, the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion, seems to focus on the actions of the person involved.  The rest of the definition, for challenging long-term goals, refers more to choice in what the person is showing grit in doing. 

If that is true, then I would argue with Alfie Kohn's assertion that the mere presence of grit is not an important development for our students.  If grit means not only persevering, but also being able to identify challenging long-term goals, then grit definitely has a place in today's schools.

As a classroom teacher for more than ten years, I definitely can agree with Angela's idea that the best performers in the class aren't always the ones with the most intelligence as measured using IQ.  I have seen firsthand the payoff some students can receive from displaying grit, or a hard work, never give up attitude.  Conversely, I have seen students that stuck with a problem too long, to the point that it became an exercise in futility for them.  However, if we can teach our kids how to persevere in the right situations, then grit becomes a much more piece of a student's overall development.

My take on it is that instead of focusing solely on the development of one's grit, we need to provide our students with challenging learning opportunities in the classroom that will lead to overall growth.  Alfie Kohn raises many valid points about grit, or persistence, and if it is really what we should be focusing on in education.  Besides the fact that it is not a novel idea, Kohn states the development of grit relates to maintaining a singular focus on a task that was prescribed by someone else. Kohn writes, " In other words, those who do what they've been told,  regardless of whether it's satisfying or sensible, are rewarded by those who told them to do it."  

But, to me, it comes back to the instruction that is occurring in the classroom, and whether students are given the choice to display their mastery of new information in a manner that fits with the child's long-term goals.

What do you think about the role of grit in our classrooms today?  Is it an essential skill for our students to develop, or is it a misguided ideal that serves no purpose in our classrooms?   As I stated previously, I am only beginning to hash out my ideas on this subject and would greatly appreciate your thoughts as I continue to make sense of the role of grit in our schools.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What I Am Thinking for April 5th


Sometimes, I have ideas or thoughts that I would like to share.  If you ask my wife, it may be more than sometimes!  Often times, though, these are not long enough to constitute a full-length blog post.  They seem more fitting for a What I Am Thinking type of post.

  • I participated (I use the term participated loosely here) this week about gaming in education.  It was a combination of chats, called #1BigChat, that brought together four separate chats- #byotchat, #patue, #isedchat, and #leveluped.  I was excited for this chat, however, soon after it started, I realized that I was in the dark on this subject.  Sure, I know what Minecraft was, and I have played games on my own time, but it quickly became apparent that I had a lot to learn during this chat.  I had a choice to make, should I give up and look for a different chat to participate in, or should I stay and learn all that I could from these talented educators?  Hmmm, tough decision... in the end, I decided to stay.  Even though I shared with a colleague of mine that I felt like a fish out of water, I knew that this was a topic that I did not know much about, and that by staying, I would be able to learn some new ideas for utilizing gaming in the classroom.  Throughout the rest of the chat, I mainly lurked and tried to learn as much as I could!  It worked as I learned about Kahoot, Kodable, and Quizup.  I am excited to learn more about these resources, and in turn, share them with the teachers at my school!

  • I am in my first year as an Instructional Technology Specialist, and I am learning new things all the time.  One thing that I am wondering about is the upcoming 'post-testing' season at my school.  In years past, it has always seemed as though once the testing is finished for the year, teachers 'open' up their classroom more (I will share my feelings on this subject at another time) and bring in more projects for their students to create.  This inevitably has led to a 'run' on the laptop carts that were in my building.  This typically had no effect on me as I never had to 'open' up my class after testing, and most of my students had their own devices to use in class.  But, this year, I am thinking that there may be more of an impact on me as the ITS at the school.  I can foresee emails from teachers about other teachers hogging the laptops, how the laptops are not being utilized appropriately, or how slow the laptops are.  I am preparing myself for these discussions, and am asking you for help.  How best is it to handle these conversations?  Do you have any suggestions for policies that would stem the tide of these types of concerns?  I look forward to your suggestions in the comments section!

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Creative Way to Remediate

I participated in a webinar yesterday about Transforming Spaces to Transform Learning from the Alliance For Excellent Education.  The webinar featured the Assistant Superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District, Dr. Todd Keruskin.  This small rural school district in Southwestern Pennsylvania is at the forefront of effective technology integration.  I could go on and on about the fascinating resources that they have embedded into their schools, but I was really struck by how they use one of these learning spaces.  During the webinar, Dr. Keruskin was sitting in the SMALLab inside one of the schools in the district.  This room was outfitted with an interactive mat on the floor!  It was amazing to see how it worked with a projector up above, and motion capture technology cameras all around the room.  But, what was even more amazing was how the room was used.  It really struck me when Dr. Keruskin explained how the staff have created games for the students to play, even games for remediation purposes.  This was such a fascinating concept to me, because when I think of remediation, it typically involves more worksheets and teacher lectures/demonstrations.  But, at this school, they have turned the concept of remediation on its head by instantly engaging the students by incorporating this revolutionary gaming floor.  For example, if a student is struggling with the vocabulary acquisition,  instead of filling out more low-level worksheets, the students actively engaged in game playing that directly relates to their area of struggle.

This idea makes so much sense to me!  For one, they are meeting the students in their comfort zone- engaging with technology.  As Eric Sheninger wrote in Digital Leadership, this generation of students is very comfortable using multi-modal resources.  Also, it is commonplace for students to have a negative attitude towards work that involves areas in which they struggle.  By altering the remediation model to include active interactions with the content using the interactive floor, this results in the removal of the angst the student feels about working with material that challenges them.

As I mentioned previously, this school district is a very forward thinking district, and I have included a video from YouTube below that highlights many of their digital learning spaces, including the SMALLab.  More important than the shiny tech tools though, is the instruction that is occurring in this district.  As shown with their ideas on remediation practices, this district has the shiny tools and the innovative instructional practices!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Moving towards a Student-Centered Classroom

In trying to change a prevailing teacher-centric classroom to a more student-centric model, what are the steps that are required?  How best to help the teacher make this change?  If the teacher is willing, and able, to make the change then the first step is taken care of.  But, what if the teacher doesn't want to make the change, or can't see why a change is necessary?  How do you begin the process with that teacher without completely alienating them from the whole process?

                                                       image from Bill Ferriter

I suggest you focus on the students.  Paint a picture for the teacher of the world the students in the class are living in. Information at their fingertips, multi-modal resources to choose from, learning in ways that appeal to them, demonstrating their new learning in a method of their choosing.  Introduce the requisite skills that these students will need to possess in order to be successful in the real world.  To name but a few... critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity, resiliency.  There are plenty more to be sure, but whatever is on your list, continue to engage with the teacher about the possibilities of acquiring those skills in a teacher-centric classroom.  Refrain from making this teacher specific, even though they may try to personalize the focus.  Instead, keep the focus on the students.

In a teacher-centric classroom, the information is typically delivered in a stand and deliver method, with the students receiving the information, and demonstrating their learning in a standard form of assessment chosen by someone else.  Under those conditions, is it even realistic to believe that the students will gain experience in any of the aforementioned skills? Most likely not.  

This is when you can begin to share the benefits of a student-centric classroom.  Share with the teacher the ways in a which a student in that type of classroom environment can develop those important skills.  Here is a brief list of suggestions:

  • Point out that when students participate in the creation of new knowledge by actively learning the information instead of being spoon-fed what the teacher chooses to share, that students are required to develop critical thinking abilities.  It falls to the students to decipher new information and make a decision as to whether this is relevant and pertinent to what they are learning.  Explain how the students will develop resiliency by not stopping at the first source of information, but rather, having to continue on until they have located what they are looking for.
  • Incorporating a real world problem into the mix and allowing the students the opportunity to research the background information required to understand the nature of the problem strengthens their critical thinking and resiliency abilities.  
  • Allowing the students to collaborate with others, both inside and outside of the classroom, will improve their communication skills along with their ability to collaborate.
  • Allowing the students the freedom to share their findings in a way that they feel best fits the situation will allow for their natural creativity to shine through.  As Dave Burgess puts it in Teach Like A Pirate, creativity is something that we can hone by practice- this is one way to provide opportunities for students to put in the practice.  Sure, there will be times that it doesn’t turn out how you had hoped, but this is about the students.  Besides, learning from mistakes is a sound practice.  It is recommended by many, as failure is something that helps us grow and improve.  Why wouldn’t that be okay in a classroom?  As a teacher, I know I have made countless errors in my classroom, all that has happened is that I have learned to be reflective and improve for the next time.  
These are but a few ideas that I have used this year working with teachers at my school that are making the switch to a more student-centric classroom.  What are some other ways to help teachers with this paradigm shift?  How else can we encourage teachers to make this important change for our students?  I look forward to hearing some more great ideas!

Review of Eric Sheninger's Digital Leadership

Digital Leadership, by Eric Sheninger, is a comprehensive examination of what being a connected leader in today's school looks and sounds like.  Throughout the book, he provides clear examples of leaders that have made the transition, utilizing many of the 7 Pillars of Digital Leadership that Sheninger discusses in his book. These tools all incorporate the use of free social media to engage stakeholders related to schools- students, staff, parents, and community members.  Sheninger details how he utilizes Twitter, Facebook, blogs and more to communicate the stories from his school, New Milford High School, to the public. As he states in the book, if you don't tell your story then someone else will, and it might not be the story you want told.

The world of our students has changed with the instant information available to them via the multitude of devices on which they spend a great amount of time.  This shift, Sheninger argues, needs to carry over to our schools.  He posits that our schools are still functioning as if we were still in the age of Frederick Taylor's assembly line, which is a far cry from the world that our students currently inhabit.  If we are professing to be in the business of preparing our students for the real world, it naturally follows to wonder why it is that our schools are still operating in an outdated paradigm.  After reading this book, I came away with many questions about the way that we are educating our students.

Thankfully, contained in the book are examples of current practicing leaders that have begun to make the switch inside their schools and districts.  These stories provide an insight into how it can be done, all using the aforementioned free social media tools, along with shifting instruction to increasingly engage our students in much the same way that they are engaged during their own time.  Most reassuring is that these examples show the possibilities that exist within all of us, as many of the leaders documented- including Eric Sheninger himself- were once unaware, or unapproving, of this shift towards instant information allowed by the growth of the internet.

I highly recommend this book for all educators in a position of leadership, as its straight forward style is easy to follow, without having to research vague techno-terms!  It provides easy-to-follow examples of how our schools can effectively tell our story and engage our students in this digital age!