Why Black Rockettes are Important

As a former musician and musical theater geek, the only award show I look forward to each year is the Tony’s. This year was no exception, even though, as one might say, “I had no horse in this race.” It wasn’t like the year when Phantom went up against Into the Woods, splitting awards for “Best Musical” and “Best Book of a Musical.” Or when Avenue Q so unrightly won “Best Musical” over Wicked (Wicked is still on Broadway after more than 20 years. Where are those damn puppets now? Old and moldy.) But this year had an interesting twist, one that seemed innocuous at first.

The 71st Tony Awards were held in Radio City Music Hall and included their famous “Rockettes.” They’re a marvel. Their talent and precision is mesmerizing, especially for an old band director. I actually got to see them live at an Easter show many years ago. Most of it was stupendous until…Rockettes…dressed as nuns…holding Easter lilies that lit up in the shape of a cross. That was surreal. But I’m not from New York. But then, neither is my nephew.

My youngest nephew lives in the country. I guess I’m close to the country now, but he lives in Summers County, West Virginia. It’s a small place, very rural, more country than where I live, and he’s an anomaly. Of mixed race, most people reasonably assume he’s black. He’s also quite accomplished, even at a very young age. He’s just finished the sixth grade and is moving to middle school. This year, again, he’s won many awards for his academic success. He also wins awards every year for his citizenship, for which his mother is most proud. So being black shouldn’t matter.

But it does. He’s grown up with a multi-age group of friends and relatives, which is not uncommon in rural areas. He has friends that are several years older as well as some that are younger than him, but he’s still usually the only black one. They’re a tight group of friends, and their parents are close, too. When you talk about “a village,” you’re talking about the folks who are raising my nephew and his friends. It’s what we want for our kids.

So, why should it matter that he’s black? He’s doing well in school, right? Well, I’m the uncle who gives him books as presents. I give him other presents, but my nephew was born the day before Christmas, so I try to mix it up with fun stuff for one celebration and books for the other. Don’t get me wrong, I love books! I think books are the fun stuff! But I’m not in the sixth grade (or the fifth, and fourth and every grade earlier to the point where he used to sit on my lap as a baby while I read to him). The trouble is, there are (almost) no books for him.

When I was growing up, I had already read all of Tolkein’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books. I read the Shanarra Chronicles and lots of classics, too. I was a voracious reader. My parents encouraged us to read, and most nights finished with Mom or Dad reading a chapter from some book to me and my little brother before bed. But that’s because I could see myself in those books. That’s not the case for my nephew.

Every year, as he gets older, it gets harder and harder to find books that have characters that look like my nephew, or have the same interests as my nephew. In the past, I’ve given him books about dinosaurs, mythology, superheroes, and sports. I also go for fantasy, but even then, a lot have been turned into movies and almost all the characters are white. At least the main characters. Or, like in the case of Percy Jackson, the black kid is a supporting character, and an animal to boot!

When I do find good books with strong black teenage characters, they’re usually inner city kids. Many are dealing with drugs and violence and broken families. That’s not my nephew, or his family. Yes, he likes playing basketball, and was just awarded “Best Camper” at his summer basketball camp, but he’s not dealing with kids shooting up or shooting each other. The only shooting he’s interested in is free throws. He’s not in the books I find at my local bookstore.

So, that’s why, when watching the Tony Awards tonight, I noticed that there was only one black Rockette. There were dozens of them on the stage, but only one black one. And they put her front and center. And then set that off with a vocal performance by Cynthia Erivo and Leslie Odom, two amazingly talented, and yes, black performers. I might not have noticed the irony before my nephew. But it was now, forgive me, bright as the celebrated neon lights of the “Great White Way.” So many puns in that sentence.

If we want kids to succeed in school (and life!), we need to give them stories they can relate to. They need to see themselves as the main characters—in books, movies, TV shows, games, and even awards shows. All kids, boys and girls of every race. They have to see possibilities for themselves. If a kid in rural West Virginia can turn on the TV and can’t see anyone who looks like him unless it’s a drug addict or a convict, what message is that sending? If I can’t find a single book with a positive role model for a young black kid, what are we telling him? I can’t even find books where a young black kid doing well is the main character.

Help me work on this. Yes, there are a few books out there for him to read. I’ve read a couple. I also work in schools across the country, so I ask teachers and visit school libraries. I’ll continue to look. But the operative word is few. There are a limited number of role models for him to relate to that may not be sports figures. I can’t solve this on my own, but I will keep working on it for him, and his friends, because I know some day he is going to be that role model for some other young, black kid in a rural area that needs someone to look up to. So maybe he’ll tell his story. And there will be Rockettes of every color.

 

What do you want to create today?

Transformers by Mary Kim SchreckMore than a few years ago I had the opportunity to dig deeper into the ideas of creativity and creative thinking thanks to the wonderful Mary Kim Schreck. She was thinking about, writing about, and sharing her ideas about creativity in her book, Transformers: Creative Teachers for the 21st Century. She had been thinking about creativity so much that she was about done with the book! But she asked me to contribute a chapter about technology in the creative classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been thinking about creativity most of my career! I taught music and most people segregate musicians into a small, select group of “creatives,” that includes visual artists, actors, dancers, writers and a few others. But creativity is not the purview of the few. Everyone can be creative, and in fact, we need more people to be creative in their lives and in their work, now more than ever. I appreciate that Mary Kim gave me a reason to dig deeper into my own ideas about creativity and to compare them to others. It was a valuable experience and, luckily, I get to keep thinking about creativity.

The Value of Performance

I cringe a bit when I see or hear the directions “be creative” in an assignment, because usually this is followed up by using crayons, markers, or different backgrounds in a slide deck. Students are encouraged to “be creative” without ever teaching them what that means. And what does that mean in, say, science? Or math? It’s not the same as in my class. What few teachers realize is that we folks in the creative fields had content standards we had to address, and just like every other class, some of our standards promoted creative thinking, some did not. The important message here is, yes, science, math, and all the others have standards that promote creative thinking.

As a former high school band director I often reflect back on what was then a somewhat routine conversation that has turned out to have significant impact on my life. I had been through my annual observation with my principal, something all teachers go through. My principal, Dr. Barry Beers, was great to work with and full of ideas that pushed and stretched his teachers. I didn’t realize how valuable that was at the time. During our follow-up conference he said to me, “John, I really appreciate how you move from whole group, small group, to individuals, and back and forth whenever you need to. You’re customizing your instruction to the needs of each student.”

I replied to him, hopefully not too snarkily, something like, “Dr. Beers (I still have a hard time calling him Barry), I was just doing a rehearsal. That’s what musicians to do get ready for a performance. Nothing special.”

He tried to help me see the importance of what was going on, but I didn’t really understand his statement until later. Because everything my students did in my class eventually led to a performance, he tried to help me understand how a performance can only be successful when all of the students can play their part, literally. He reminded me that by working with all of the students individually and in groups during rehearsal that I knew who was ready and who still needed work. Then he challenged me.

Learning-Driven Schools by Barry BeersDr. Beers asked me to help teachers in other content areas understand how they can help their students learn how to “perform” their content. Whether math, science, English or whatever, Barry wanted me to help other teachers in other content areas understand how to help their students rehearse so they’d be better prepared to perform in a more authentic context. He enlisted all the Fine Arts staff, and I collaborated with a social studies teacher one year, English the next. It was a challenge, but it helped me to see connections I hadn’t seen before. So, thanks Barry, for thinking creatively about teaching and learning back then.

You can find out more about Barry’s work in his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.

Performance in All Classrooms

Recently, perhaps in reaction to the horribly mind-numbing compliance mentality promoted by federal education policy, the education community is once again seeing the value of performance. I saw this in the release of new college-and-career standards both at the national and state level. New standards in the core areas and the arts definitely push students to work towards levels of creative thinking in their domains. And now, in many states, students demonstrate higher levels of learning through performance.

The best performances are not compliance. They’re not mechanical. They’re not simply the replication of what someone has done before. They’re not multiple choice. The best performances give people a chance to be creative—to pull their knowledge and skills together—to address a real problem or situation in or across content domains.

In this way, creativity is a cumulative skill. I liken it to the top level of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. You can’t get to the top without working you’re way up. You have to have the foundational knowledge and skills of any domain you plan to be creative in—whether that’s writing, speaking, visual or performing arts, or science, or engineering, or even legislation. You have to know what the accepted strategies and processes are before you can change them. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break them.You have to understand what work has come before and to analyze and evaluate information in order to provide a creative solution to address a problem.

Revised Bloom's Taxonomy

One interpretation of the cognitive process dimension from the revised Taxonomy of Learning by Anderson & Krathwohl (2001)

Ideas that don’t build on a foundation are not creative. They’re simply novelty. And novelty wears thin fast and falls apart. Creativity has weight, value, and lasting appeal.

The most creative ideas can live a long time—in an individual, a group, or society, but everyone can be creative as we are all faced with authentic problems that are routinely found in the real world. We need creative solutions for providing affordable housing to everyone no matter where they live. We need creative solutions on how to ensure our planet will be able to sustain us. We also need creative solutions to simply provide the best education to each generation of students.

Creativity: Imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.

Sir Ken Robinson
“Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative” (2001)

What do you want to create today?

I’ve been given another chance to continue my musings about creativity. I’m very honored that Dell and Advanced Learning Partnerships have asked me to share my ideas and some of the work we’ve done in districts across the nation around promoting instruction and assessments that encourage creative thinking. Dell is calling these events, appropriately enough, “What do you want to create today?”

We’ll talk a bit about creativity and why it’s important, but the main plan is to co-create ideas of how creative thinking can be promoted in all classrooms—not just a few. We’ll explore performance tasks—something I’ve been immersed in for years (like this one a creative teacher from Lake Travis ISD just Tweeted out), but we’ll also explore how preparing kids to perform (in math, or English, or whatever) has deep implications for all curricula.

At these events I’m looking forward to hearing from district leaders from across the country who are promoting creative thinking in their own schools, and we’ll share ideas on how we can help every student in every classroom experience learning that helps them develop critical and creative thinking and perform what they’ve learned. I look forward to hearing your ideas whether you can attend one of these events or not.

 

 

 

 

Common Language: The Power of a Good Continuum

Like I said last week, I love a good continuum, but while SAMR has good intentions, I’m not convinced of how helpful it is to truly impact the ultimate goal of schooling–improving student learning. But since my Mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice…” I decided this week to share a continuum that I believe does help impact student learning. It’s from my friends at Henrico County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA, and it’s the Technology Innovation Progression, or TIP Chart.

Developed under the guidance of professional friends and colleagues Tom Woodward, Debbie Roethke, Gaynell Lyman, and others, the continuum does many things to improve the interactions teachers and students have with technology. It’s also the centerpiece of two national recognitions for excellence from the American Libraries Association and the Consortium for School Networking. Despite the awards, it’s creators will be the first to admit it’s not the “be all and end all,” but it has done more to promote quality conversations about teaching and learning with technology in many of the school districts I have worked with. That’s something that a simpler continuum often does not do.

It’s Not Easy Being Simple

I understand that simplicity has it’s appeal, and that since technology integration is a complex issue that a simple framework reaches some people. But I find the SAMR too simplistic and results in oversimplified conversations about what teachers–not to mention students–should know and be able to do to improve student learning. The ultimate goal of technology integration is improved student learning, remember, so we need a continuum that helps students understand what that looks like. SAMR does not do that. The TIP Chart does.

The TIP Chart covers four categories (only one of which is presented above. Follow the link to the full chart on Henrico County’s website). The four categories are based on the 2007 National Educational Technology Standards for Students from ISTE. They include:

  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Innovation

A single post is not the place for a detailed exploration of each. What is possible is spending time reviewing the structure of the TIP Chart to better understand how it can be used. I use it as a foundation for conversations with educators at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s cabinet. In fact, after initial use in one district, the director of secondary schools said to the gathered group, “for the first time, I feel like I have the language to talk with a teacher about what creativity and innovation is, and is not, and what they can do to work on it.” The TIP chart, while addressing complex and sometimes misunderstood concepts like creativity and innovation, uses simple language to make these concepts tangible.

It wasn’t easy to distill these complex concepts down to the simple language that now exists. The TIP chart has and will likely continue to evolve. In fact, several of my districts have started by using the TIP chart to have conversations about technology integration and moved on to create their own continuua that sometimes address the same concepts and sometimes include other concepts they value (e.g., curiosity, imagination, flexible learning environments, global citizenship, etc.).

The following graphic provides an overview of the structure of the chart. For each category, you’ll find more teacher-centric activities described on the left. As you move to the right, you’ll find descriptors of more student-centered learning activities. It’s not that the left is bad and the right is good, or vice versa, it’s just a way to interpret those types of instruction. Many teachers move back and forth from one side to the next, sometimes during a lesson or across a unit. One of the greatest benefits many teachers find with the chart is that while the top row describes what teachers do–in a way that is far less punitive than most state teacher evaluation instruments–it also describes what students are doing (in the bottom row) for the simple reason that if students are to take greater ownership of their learning, the actions students take to do so have to be understood and described.

Tip Chart structure

By academic, I’m referring to those simplified, well-structured activities all teachers use to teach concepts and allow students to practice skills (e.g., five-paragraph essay, proofs, scales, etc.). Authentic implies the instruction incorporates problems or phenomena that students will find outside of school–whether actual problems or problems with a real-world context. I’m not just saying “word problems,” which are usually still simplified academic problems. Authentic problems are complex, also referred to as ill-structured, and may have more than one correct answer or no correct answers. Academic exercises are used to train students. Authentic problems require students to perform new skills.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a good start. Please take time to review the full TIP Chart from Henrico County and consider how it might support teaching and learning in your own school or district. I’ll dig into it in subsequent posts.

SAMR: Have we missed the point?

I’m a big proponent of continua theories of change simply because change is complex and doesn’t happen quickly. We progress and grow in stages over time. It’s not like today I’m not fluent at Spanish but tomorrow I will be. Or bowling. Or particle physics. Developing expertise with anything takes time, especially technology.

Different continua have been used to describe the ways teachers and other educators develop technology proficiencies. Probably the first, or at least one of the most well-known early continua theories, was developed through the original ACOT (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow) project (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholtz, 1991). In the late 80s and 90s, teachers were observed learning to use the new Apple personal computers, and the observers described patterns of how teachers routinely developed proficiency across five stages.

To date, I believe the ACOT project resulted in the only continua of proficiency based on evidence from practice. It was observational evidence, which is not like conducting a research experiment, but there was still sufficient evidence to make generalizations about how teachers develop proficiency.

And I use the word continua, not continuum, because the ACOT researchers developed a multi-dimensional look at technology proficiency. The ACOT continua describes ways that technology proficiency can develop across five stages by considering

  • What the teacher is doing
  • What resources are being used
  • What the students are doing
  • And the learning environment

ISTE (the International Society of Technology in Education) has also published continua related to their National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers. While not based on observations of a known set of teachers, the standards and the continua are based on expert practitioner advice. In ISTE’s case, that’s 10s if not 100s of thousands of expert practitioners across the globe. It’s still not an experiment, but pretty good advice.

And ISTE took the continua idea to a new level, developing continua for all five of its NETS for Teachers and the substandards that support them. The ISTE continua also describe how teachers use technology to help promote student learning—and learning in complex ways—like communication and collaboration, and critical and creative thinking. Again, the focus is not just technology, but how teacher use of technology supports student learning.

These standards are under revision and will be announced this summer at ISTE’s annual conference. I look forward to see what the new continua look like as they will have to address the new NETS for Students released last year.

Sometimes, Simple is Not Best

This brings me to the current fascination with a popular continuum: SAMR. It’s the current darling of the EdTech world, especially for EdTech departments in districts and teacher preparation programs. I have no personal vendetta against SAMR, but I’ve come to realize why I don’t find it very helpful. One of those reasons is, perhaps, the primary reason for its appeal: it’s simple. For me, it’s too simplistic. Or perhaps the way we interpret is.

The acronym stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. So, on the surface, it’s a continuum, right? Yes, but a continuum of what? What’s the focus? During conversations I’ve had in the districts that have adopted SAMR, usually the focus is the technology. The most common interpretation is that Modification is better than Augmentation is better than Substitution because of the technology teachers use.

But I counter, what’s the purpose of school? Why do teachers get up every day and go to work? Why do we send a nation of young people to school every year? Why is schooling a core expectation for the citizens of our country? Ask these questions and most people will say, “it’s for the kids.” Which, for me, is the best answer. We have schools so our kids can reach their potential, academically and otherwise. It’s not about the technology.

It’s not that the continuum idea is a bad one, and I’m sure the intentions were well meant. But you can oversimplify complex concepts and lose sight of the real purpose of promoting student learning. Any one technology is likely to have very little impact on changing practice and impacting student learning without some work on building teacher capacity. This can often mean tackling deep-seated philosophies of a teacher’s role and even the role of students in the learning process. No technology alone is going to do that.

Consider the level of Substitution. Many of my tech compatriots suggest that teachers replacing paper-based worksheets or multiple-choice tests with word processing or quizzing software represents Substitution. But not for a veteran user of PBL, or expeditionary learning, or inquiry-based learning who never used worksheets or multiple-choice tests. I never did. What does Substitution look like at that level of student-centered teaching? Interpreting that Augmentation is better in some way because the teacher used a different tool misses the point.

I highly support the use of a continuum of proficiency—or tech proficiency development. Let’s just be careful of what they really mean and keep our sights set on what’s important: improved student learning. Tech is cool. Tech is fun. But tech is not what it’s all about. In the words of one of my favorite quotes by organizational theorist and professor Russell Ackoff…

“You can’t simplify a complex problem or complex situation into a simple situation with a simple solution. Solutions must address the complex parameters of the situation.”

References

Dwyer, D. C, Ringstaff, C, & Sandholtz, J. H. (1991). Changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48(8), 45–52.

 

Scaffolding Coaching Conversations

I thought I was through with the coaching thread, but I’ve been doing a lot of coaching this month, so I’m going to continue for a while. Plus I’ve joined ISTE’s ETcoaches in a slow Twitter Chat (#ETCoaches) and book study about coaching. There’s still time to join in.

I take an eclectic approach to coaching. I use the best from what I’ve read, workshops I’ve attended, and from working with some great colleagues. All of this morphs into my own approach to coaching, but even that’s not final. I keep learning new things, especially from the coaches I work with, and so I keep tweaking and hopefully improve the approach I take. One piece I’ve been working on recently is providing a visual scaffold to support a coaching conversation. This winter I developed a Coaching Conversation Placemat that some of my coaches have been experimenting with. They and some colleagues are also giving me feedback on the tool, and I’d be glad for any additional ideas.

Coaching Conversation Placemat

Coaching Conversation Placemat

A Road Map for Conversation

A roadmap is a guide. It provides options. It doesn’t suggest you have to take the same route every time to get where you want to go. You might hang out along the way and see some new things, or zoom right through parts to save time, but in the end you want to reach your destination. I give my coaches different handouts and guidelines for supporting their conversations, but I wanted one that matches my approach.

Currently, I suggest coaching conversations be fairly focused in scope and explicit in terms of outcomes. But those outcomes are determined at the onset of each conversation. For me, coaches begin by determining a goal for the conversation with their colleague and take explicit steps to move towards some tangible action steps each can take following the conversation. This conversation is influenced by the different types of conversations common to cognitive coaching, but throws in a few other ideas, as well. One of the greatest benefits of having a structure is that it helps to address one of the major challenges teachers face, and that’s a lack of time. Keeping focus saves you time.

The focus of this type of coaching conversation is reflection–allowing educators to reflect on their practice in a safe environment with a non-judgmental peer. Holding back judgment and not jumping to a “quick fix” is a critical part of the conversation. In fact, this type of conversation may be one of the only times that master teachers have an opportunity to truly reflect on their practice rather than struggling to find time to learn some new strategy or resource. Many teachers tell me reflection is valuable, but they don’t often have time to do it. This held true this past week.

Putting the Placemat into Practice

It can be difficult to coach a strong, veteran teacher. In fact, one of the teachers this week commented at the beginning, “I’m not really sure why I need to be coached.” But through the conversation with her friend and newly appointed coach, she reported the conversation was extremely helpful. All of our volunteer teachers commented on how helpful it was to take time to reflect on what was going well and working on their own goals rather than having an evaluative conversation that often takes a deficit approach.

Having a goal for the conversation helped teachers to focus their reflection and comments. When asked to describe their goals, these veteran teachers often had a lot of ideas. They had ideas of how they’d like their lessons to unfold and shared several different strategies and resources they’d like to try to get there–sometimes many different resources. Having a coach keep the conversation focused helped these teachers cut through some of the noise in their thinking and have a deeper conversation about the most important aspects of their goal, again, making the most of their brief time together. It also allowed the pair to determine if there were any underlying factors that might influence the teacher’s motivation or thinking (see last week’s entry on first- and second-order barriers for more on this topic).

This conversation is not about learning a new resource or strategy. That’s a different type of conversation and any skill-building training, exploration, or collaborating on a lesson can occur later as an action step after this conversation. The coach goes into the coaching conversation without any preconceived ideas of potential outcomes, because the first idea may not be the best idea. The coaching conversation helps to determine the educator’s specific goals prior to seeking out any particular strategy, approach, or technology to use. Too often, we present resources first–especially technology resources–and then teachers have to figure out how to use them. And since being back in the classroom can be so hectic with little time to practice, new resources often just don’t get used. Having coaching conversations first saves teachers time and effort as resource selection is more goal-oriented and practical.

Feel free to download the Coaching Conversation Placemat (PowerPoint or Google Doc) and use it or modify it for your coaching needs. I’m especially open to suggestions on how to improve it. (I’m working on a more linear representation for some of my coaches thanks to their feedback.) I created this at the end of December, but it has been tweaked after being reviewed by some of my coaching colleagues and my new coaches. Please let me know if you use it, if it’s helpful, and how you’ve changed it to make it better.

MVUSD Dell Mentors round 2

Congratulations to the second round of Dell-Certified Mentors from Moreno Valley USD, CA!

 

Lessons Learned from Coaching, the Finale

This final post in this three-part series is a celebration of the great educators I get to work with in the Dell Mentor Certification process. We’ve had some rewarding moments together, and my current cohorts are no exception. In Jim Knight’s book he notes, “Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.” It’s sad that many teachers don’t get that time to reflect with someone, because it’s really powerful when teachers do have that time.

“Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.”

Jim Knight

First-Order Challenges Often Mask Second-Order Barriers

I’ve been a fan of Peg Ertmer’s work for a while, so you should know how great it is to be able to work with her on our technology integration textbook (under revision for the third edition, by the way). One of my favorite pieces of Peg’s is a think piece she published a while ago in ETR&D (1999) about how second-order barriers often underlie the more often mentioned first-order barriers, and are the true barriers to effective change. First-order barriers are extrinsic barriers that are often relatively easy to address. They can be perceived as things like a lack of time, limited access to devices or support, or lack of professional development. I agree with Karen Cator, the former EdTech Director for the U.S. Department of Education, when she said at an ISTE conference that there are lots of ways schools can and do address these types of barriers. First-order barriers can be and often are overcome through simple strategies of resource allocation, scheduling, and varied modes of services.

Time is one of the most often cited first-order barriers; however, it’s easy to observe and catalog where teachers spend their time and find ways to help them better organize their time to get a bigger payoff. They can even use technology to save time, as technology can easily perform routine teaching duties, like taking attendance, assessing knowledge comprehension, and recording evidence of student work. Even limited access to devices and PD can be overcome through strategic—and sometimes creative—use of resources (time, people, and money) and getting people across a school or district to work together rather than in silos. But once that happens, technology initiatives often have to deal with the underlying intrinsic barriers to change, or second-order barriers.

These barriers often relate to our very own philosophies and perceptions of who we are and how we think people should act, especially ourselves. Since I work in education, second-order barriers often relate to a teacher’s basic understanding of what a teacher should be, how they manage a classroom, and how students should behave in that classroom. In other words, second-order barriers can be challenges to our foundational understanding of what we think and know to be true about ourselves and our profession. Pretty heady stuff.

The Power of Coaching

During a visit this school year with one of my Dell Mentor cohorts, the candidates observed classrooms and then participated in a role play exercise to practice their coaching conversation skills. Some had the option to pretend to be one of the teachers we observed or they could choose a professional issue they were working on as the focus of their conversation with their peer. What resulted, literally every time, was magic.

In one, a young teacher worked with one of the other coaches on what to do with students who complete their work early in class. He noted that some of his students rushed through their work and would begin socializing at the end of class and it became disruptive. He wanted them to remain quiet and busy. When questioned, he noted that the students that finished their work early also often did well on their assignments, so he didn’t have the leverage of poor performance to get them working. After some conversation, and working through our summarizing and clarifying questioning techniques, I asked, “Does it upset you that they finish early, even though they’re doing well?”

His response was a vehement, “YES! They don’t act the way I did in school! They don’t push themselves to do more.” At this point, it may be obvious, but we went from discussing the first-order barrier of keeping student busy during class to the underlying, second-order barrier of a perception that his students have different motivations or possibly work ethics when it comes to a topic this teacher is passionate about. It was really quite a breakthrough facilitated primarily by his conversation with a colleague. What resulted afterward changed the direction of the conversation and the types of support he was offered.

That type of breakthrough seemed to happen each time one of my groups completed their role play. At another school, one of the coaches pretended to be a teacher we observed and started out asking for help on using a technology, but her colleague helped uncover that the teacher was really seeking approval from her students. In another, a veteran teacher had a conversation with her younger colleague that began with frustration with students and parents. She had been trained in and was trying more student-centered pedagogies and her students were pushing back. They “just wanted to know” what to do without having to take on so much responsibility for their own learning. The underlying challenge her colleague uncovered was that this new approach changed her role in the classroom so much that she was feeling a bit uncomfortable. It was very different from what she, and her students, had done in the past, but she felt the gains in learning were well worth it. In all of these conversations, having someone—a trained someone—to share concerns and open up became a great catharsis.

These teachers are lucky because they had someone to talk with. Upon completion, these newly certified Dell Mentors will be additional resources for the school district to support more collegial conversations. Having a trusted someone to talk with about your teaching–whether a coach, an administrator, or another teacher–is an important component for helping teachers feel and be successful. I appreciate the honor of working with so many coaches and teachers and look forward to learning more from them in the future.

Please note: Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. 

Resources

Ertmer, P. A. (199). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 47(4), 47-61.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.

Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 2: Assumptions

This is the second in a three-part series on my reflections of coaching teachers. In 2016, I helped develop and launch the Dell Certification process for Mentors through my work with Advanced Learning Partnerships. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their goals. The first lesson learned was about what I see as the true role of coaches—to build the capacity of others to reach their goals. This second takes a nod from coaching expert Jim Knight.

Listen for Contradictions to Your Assumptions

The above is a piece of wisdom hidden in the work of Jim Knight’s (2007) popular book on instructional coaching. Most coaches I’ve met have read the book, many completing book studies on it. I’ve participated in several book studies with it myself, sometimes as a participant and sometimes as a facilitator. There are a lot of great ideas in the book and in the work of the Kansas Coaching Project (now the Instructional Coaching Project). Some day I may write about the value of Knight’s “Big 4,” which provide a hierarchical framework for beginning coaching conversations, but the idea of assumptions is one that deserves a bit of exploration.

“But first…a story.” (If you’re one of my former students, this is where you’d insert a groan.) After the classroom, I’ve been coaching different groups of educators for the better part of a decade. If you count back to the beginning of my teaching career, when some of my middle school boys referred to me as “the band coach,” then I’ve been doing it all my career. I was working with a new district this past year that had me literally running from one coaching visit at one school to the next over a series of 3-4 days. Luckily, the district have some excellent EdTech coaches that were able to build a stronger coaching bond with their teachers and could continue the coaching conversations in person when I couldn’t be there. It’s a tough model to implement—the outside expert—but it works well when there is someone on the ground between visits.

I tried to see each of the 30 or so teachers I was working with three times over a period of a few months. The goal was to help each teacher develop a personal goal for the coaching visits and to ultimately help them implement new skills in their classrooms, either with my help or having me observe at the end. As might be expected, the teachers ranged in their levels of technology proficiency and willingness to collaborate. One in particular seemed reluctant to meet, often finding last-minute scheduling conflicts, so I had to be persistent and flexible in order to get into her classroom.

At our last session, I watched as this English teacher led her students through a traditional grammar lesson followed by the exploration of a text in which students explored a website she had given them to explain historical references or figurative examples in a text they were reading. The students had to find specific examples and describe their genesis using the website and hand write their responses on paper. I was very underwhelmed. This was technology coaching, after all. There was very limited technology use, despite all the students having access to their own laptop and a district Google account with all the resources that provides.

In our debrief, I walked in with my assumptions clouding my vision. I assumed this teacher just didn’t want to try new technologies, didn’t trust me, and wasn’t going to make any progress on her goal. She had skipped our last session, after all, and this class just wasn’t what I had hoped to see. What unfolded, was just the opposite.

When I asked about the very traditional grammar lesson and whether she had tried other—perhaps technology-based—alternatives she commented enthusiastically that “Yes” indeed she had! She had picked up on the mention of an online grammar resource in our initial training sessions and said her kids had really enjoyed it, but they had exhausted the limits of the free version. She had convinced her principal to seek funds to provide access to the site for all teachers in the school. Wow.

When I asked about whether the kids might possibly find and record information in another way, perhaps using a shared Google doc and perhaps the research tools, as we had gone over earlier in the year (Harumph!), she commented that again, “Yes, they had been using Google docs.” But this lesson was more about building background knowledge and knowing her kids and some of their challenges simply with keyboarding and using the new resources, she thought the paper-based route would help them get through this foundational lesson quickly so she could apply that knowledge in a more substantial matter later when the tools would have greater benefit.

She thanked me for the resources that had been introduced and for the opportunity to work through some of them. Most of all she enjoyed collaborating with other teachers across the district and having the time to share ideas. She said the whole experience had really been beneficial to her. Just because what I saw that day didn’t set my little techno heart ablaze, it didn’t mean that this particular teacher hadn’t been pursuing her own goals for technology use. Again, it was a good lesson for me. I had to step back and refrain from imposing what may have been my goals for her. Not all teachers are going to be as enthusiastic about technology the way I am, but that doesn’t mean they can find ways to support teaching and learning in their classroom. As a coach, I need to remember to keep helping people move forward by making progress on their own goals, not necessarily to the same place I want to be, and especially to not assume that if I don’t see something that it’s not happening.

RESOURCES

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.

Lessons Learned from Coaching, Part 1: Building Capacity

Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. The process helped me to reflect upon and energize my own coaching skills, and reminded me of a few ideas I need to keep focused on. This post is a first in a series about lessons I learned–or had to re-learn–during my coaching work this past year. I’ll keep returning to them in my own work and hope you find them helpful, too.

In the Dell Certification process for Mentors I use an eclectic approach. I include ideas from the work of Jim Knight, Elena Aguilar, cognitive coaching, from my mentor and friend Dr. Sharon Harsh, along with other tidbits I’ve picked up along the way. The focus is to help new coaches develop skills to help others reach their own goals. Despite the certification from a company known for technology, we practice listening and questioning and step back a little from jumping on the technology bandwagon to have deeper conversations about what educators need and want.

Coaches build the capacity of others to reach their goals.

John Ross (channeling Sharon Harsh)

My friend and mentor, Sharon Harsh, taught me more about capacity building through her own actions than I could find in any book. Working with her was a real highpoint in my career, because she helped me to understand the ultimate way coaches help build capacity—whether the capacity of individuals or organizations—and that’s through helping others reach their goals. We did this work formally through a contract with the U.S. Department of Education in the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center. I’ve taken that philosophy with me in my own coaching and try to help new coaches understand how that can impact their work.

Just a note of caution: This is my philosophy of what coaches do. In every school and district I work with, we have conversations about what is expected of coaches. We also talk about what coaches should not do. Those are interesting lists. I haven’t found one yet in which this philosophy doesn’t fit, but you should know where I’m coming from. That’s a good ELA strategy, know the author’s bias. This is mine.

Why do people become coaches? We’re in education, so it’s not really about the money. It’s also not because of the power. What power?!? Any coach would heartily laugh at that one. Teachers (and others) become coaches probably for many of the same reasons they become teachers—to help others. And like when we were new teachers, new coaches are excited about the potential. We’re eager to get into other peoples’ classrooms and get to work. To “fix” things.

I see that often with new coaches, including myself. And since I work with technology, I used to often lead with the technology solution. Learn this gadget, or try this resource. But very quickly we learn that not everyone comes to the coaching partnership with the same eagerness and interest in using technology. They may be open to some ideas, but new coaches have to realize the people they work with have their own interests and motivations. You can’t build their capacity without knowing what these are. So coaching relationships often start with setting goals and then working to help people achieve those goals.

Capacity can be measured by goals achieved

One of the first things coaches can do is to help others write reasonable goals. There are very few educators who have not heard of the SMART goal-setting process (Wikipedia has more about SMART goals), but I’ve run across fewer still that can actually use it to set reasonable goals for their own growth. When goals are about something you’re already doing, those are accomplishments, not goals. When they’re so large you can’t reasonably accomplish them, those are aspirations (not to mention frustration). One of the first steps a coach can take is to spend time—repeatedly—to set and monitor reasonable goals with the educators with whom they work.

Tech cart before the horseA well-written goal is like a roadmap. It tells me where you want to go, and as a coach, I then have a guide of how we might get there—together. That’s tough for a new coach, especially if you’ve been hired to help a school or district integrate a bunch of new and expensive technology. You want to lead with the tech cart. You want to share all the great things you did in your classroom! But it’s not your classroom any longer. You’re a guest, and if you keep your colleague’s goals in mind, you’ll become an integral part of that classroom.

Goal Example 1: In order to foster creative and innovative thinking in my schools, I will explore digital storytelling to present information found with online research tools. I will monitor my progress toward this goal by using the TIP Chart to self-reflect, guide my planning, self-evaluate my progress to ensure that I am moving toward the next step on the chart. Goal Example 2: In order for students to compare and contrast Plains and Woodland Indians, students will create a Google presentation on the lives, living conditions, food, clothing, and tools of the Native Americans.
Which of these would you want to coach to?

 

No coach is intentionally going to go in and try to take control, but being problem solvers, we tend to want to “fix” things, sometimes working on things that others don’t even think need fixing. So, there’s more I’ve learned from working with coaches, and I’ll share them. Next time.

 

Resolutions for a New Year

It’s that time of year. Time to make resolutions, hopefully ones I can keep. I got to add a big checkmark on my ToDo list today and check off one of those resolutions—one a year in the making. I updated my website! That was a personal resolution for 2016, so I made it just under the wire. I’ve been doing better this year Tweeting out from my visits to schools, but my poor blog has sat lonely and untouched for the past year. I hope promoting WordPress up as the primary framework for my website will make it much easier for me to update what’s happening while I’m on the road visiting schools.

My goal this year is to share out at least one post from every trip I make to districts across the country. I have such a good time visiting different school districts, but as I tell most of them—unfortunately for the—I’m usually the one who learns the most from my visits. I get to see how authentic instruction or new technology integration resources or a myriad of other strategies and tools play out in classrooms in districts across the country. I try to bring as much value as possible to the districts I visit. This is usually through the conversations we have—whether easy or not. But I have to admit that ultimately I learn the most visiting district after district.

So, for this year, my resolution is to share more of what I learn here. Moving my WordPress blog to my primary site should help. It’ll be easier to share from hotels across the country. Wish me luck on my resolution and hope it doesn’t take another year to come to fruition.

Personalizing Professional Development

Many of the schools I work with are riding the personalized learning wave. In fact, in response to a recent question in one of my districts, “Yes, this is probably the most common education trend I’m asked to work on in my districts.” In addition to working in schools and districts, some of my work includes collaborating with state education agencies that are also championing personalized learning and are trying to determine a state’s role in supporting districts and schools as they take efforts to personalize learning.

Personalized learning receives significant emphasis in the new National Educational Technology Plan. It’s the focus of the very first goal of the plan which encourages that “learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings…” (p. 7) and specifically calls out personalized learning as a means for supporting this goal. The release of the new plan was eclipsed by the signing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—on the very same day(!)—but proponents of personalized learning suggest it also plays a role in this new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Recently, personalized learning got a boost from the report Continued Progress from the Gates Foundation. Researchers found that students in the schools included in the study showed significant growth in math and reading when involved in personalized learning programs. This growth appears to be substantially larger than a national sample of students that do not participate in personalized learning, and—most promising—students that started out at lower achievement levels showed the greatest gain.

With all this positive momentum, and a growing body of research encouraging personalized learning, what’s the next step? To again quote some of the educators I work with, “If we want teachers to personalize learning for students, we also need to personalize professional development for teachers.” Great idea! How do we do that?

Personalized Learning Framework

I like to start the personalized learning conversation by trying to figure out exactly what people mean when the use the term personalized learning. Like many terms in education, it means different things to different people. And it’s not a clear dichotomy. It’s not like you do or don’t personalize learning. Many teachers personalize aspects of learning, to varying degrees. I often use these three scenarios, which are based on a review of literature and practice and perhaps a few actual teachers I know. Every time I use them, the scenarios help educators realize the variety of components that can be personalized as well as the range of ways these components can be personalized.

I don’t have similar scenarios for professional development. I guess that’s something for my New Year’s resolutions. But you can think about the components of personalized learning that undergird these scenarios for personalizing learning for students and tackle one or more as you personalize professional development for teachers. Below are just some suggestions based on my work. (By the way, the report from the Gates Foundation describes 5 components that support personalized learning if you’re interested in a different framework.)

Personalized Learning Framework Component What this can look like for educators
Learning Targets Educators work with their administration, PLC, a mentor teacher or others to develop personal learning targets for their personal and professional growth plan.
Curriculum Educators access a range of relevant artifacts and resources with guidance from teachers, coaches, or experts in the field. They may complete some anchor or foundational activities but are given flexibility in terms of accessing content and developing skills and knowledge.
Pedagogies Educators rely on PD providers, PLC members, and colleagues as learning experts who use resources, technologies, and methods that are relevant to the content areas being studied but may vary by the need of each educator.
Resources Used Educators use a range of personal and school-provided devices, accessing a range of print and digital resources from school, home, and elsewhere. Schools and districts may provide a minimum of devices and resources but allow educators choice in terms of using external resources if their relevance is justified.
Assessment Educators engage in ongoing series of pre-, formative, and post-assessment opportunities to determine their current levels of proficiency and monitor and adjust their own learning goals. Pre-assessments help educators determine appropriate learning paths and summative assessments occur on-demand at the time educators feel they have completed requisite activities or feel confident about their skills and knowledge.
Pace Educators make decisions about what is learned when, advancing through content at their own pace and spending more time on topics of interest or those in which they feel they need more practice. Educators have a contract or individual learning plan (e.g., professional growth plan) that guides their overall progress and work in concert with PD providers to ensure they’re moving at an appropriate pace and utilizing the best resources.
Place Educators access content and complete activities from any place at any time. The school is still likely a center of support where educators can schedule or contract with PD providers to guide their learning, receive explicit instruction when needed, or seek consultation about what they have (or haven’t) mastered.
Grouping Educators self-select team members to participate in learning based on the skills, expertise, and experiences of others. Grouping may be similar to workforce grouping in which teams of individuals with diverse expertise work together to address problems. Group members use a range of synchronous and asynchronous tools embedded in or connected to a learning platform to organize, conduct, and share their work.
Learner Characteristics Individuals’ abilities, prior content knowledge, and content experiences are known, monitored and leveraged in PD activities, as are their interests, emotions, life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and other unique needs and characteristics.
Voice & Choice Educators are given a good deal of choice but have to justify their selections. A learning platform links to or provides access to a variety of technologies and resources in varied formats that educators use to monitor and regulate their own learning. Educators learn at their own pace to complete discrete units and receive credit based upon completion, not time spent.
Facilitator’s Role Student learning is activated by facilitators or experts and supported by the use of a learning platform. Educators work collaboratively within and across grade levels and departments, depending on the desired outcomes. Facilitators focus on helping educators develop skills for lifelong learning and developing self-directed learning skills. Facilitators interact with educators in person and through the learning platform to provide equitable access to high-quality resources and interactions.
Interaction with Learning Platform A learning platform plays a key role in providing access to high-quality resources and professional growth opportunities. Educators access the platform independently to identify activities and resources vetted by PD providers or master teachers to help them achieve their learning goals, perhaps rating resources based on how helpful they are. They use the platform to create their own learning journeys and share their learning, such as through a dynamic e-portfolio. They use the reporting tools to monitor their progress and share their status with administrators and PD providers.

Many of these components make sense and are indeed being employed by PD departments in districts across the country. For example, many teachers create their own learning goals for their personal professional development plan and there are many opportunities for educators to access professional learning from any place on their own time. There are a few key ideas, however, that I believe make this framework unique—especially compared to the type of professional learning I participated in as a teacher. I suggest the following should occur to move to the most mature levels of personalized professional development. Let me know what you think.

  1. Device neutrality. Educators should be able to access professional learning using whatever device they feel comfortable with and have access to. They shouldn’t be limited to accessing professional learning only at school within a restricted online environment; although, those educators who want to access PD at school (and many do) should be supported through the provision of resources and the opportunity to collaborate with others.
  2. Increased reliance on pre-assessments. Just as students are increasingly encountering pre-assessments that help place them within a relevant learning path and giving them credit for skills and knowledge they already possess, personalized PD incorporates pre-assessments that honor educators’ existing skills and puts them within a path that is appropriately relevant and challenging.
  3. Technology supports personalization. In our current place in time, there’s almost no way to manage personalization for a range of teachers, whether a school faculty of a dozen teachers or a district with thousands, without using technology. For the most part, this is done through a learning management system (LMS) that can automate many processes, like enrollment; pre-, post- and ongoing assessment; generating and managing portfolios and other artifacts; recording completion and certification; as well as the ongoing interactions between educators and PD providers. The LMS can also provide access to content resources and activities that educators can explore independently or in groups. There are a lot of LMS out there, the trick is finding the right one for you. That’s a topic for another post.

We know that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning doesn’t work, yet it’s still a common approach to professional development. There’s no reason to continue that ineffective process and leverage what we know about personalized learning with students to generate high-quality PD for teachers. Let me know how you’re doing this in your own schools and districts. I’d also be interested in any questions you may have or examples you can share.

Note: I’d like to thank one of my former principals, Dr. Barry Beers, for originally suggesting this topic, which has come up over and over recently in the schools in which I’m working. To learn more about Barry’s work check out his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.