Back to the Blog

This post is week 1 of 8 in the #8WeeksofSummer Blog Challenge for educators sponsored by a member of my PLN, Penny Christensen. It’s about time I get back to my blog. It’s not that I didn’t have things to write about. With The World Turned Upside Down (an appropriate homage to my days teaching in Yorktown and my junior high fife and drum corps turn), I thought I’d have lots of time on my hands.

Last March, I was helping chaperone Virginia Tech students to Iceland on a study abroad trip when the border was about to close and we had to rush home early. I stockpiled paper and canned goods and filled up the freezer and thought I’d have plenty of time to do things like blog, work around the house, garden…anything but work. That was not the case, however. I would’ve never predicted back in the 90s that when I started working in online learning, that there would be a period of such demand. What an interesting year it has been, and with almost non-stop work with states, districts, and schools.

Describe relationships with those you taught this year.

This is this week’s prompt from Penny. I’m going to take some leeway and use those I’ve “taught, coached, or worked with” as my focus. A year ago, any of those was a challenging proposition. As educators across the world got thrown into remote learning and tried to figure it out on their own, many were reluctant to share. As a consequence of the tremendous stress they were facing, many of the teachers I worked with often acted like the students they complained about. “My students won’t turn on their camera.” “My students won’t engage online.” It was actually an opportunity for adult educators to put themselves in the place of the students they were working with and to build some empathy for what we were asking them to do.

It just took some time. I work with a cadre of coaches in a statewide network. In early March, we had just met our division teams and were gearing up for a year of promoting innovation in each district. Then, almost over night, radio silence. Who can blame them? Everything was new. My fellow coaches and I would meet every Friday morning, and all were facing similar issues. We just waited. Offer help, and when you’re ready, we’re here to help.

By the Fall, people were more prepared to interact. Many of my districts started reaching out again in the late Summer and early Fall. Summer was full of helping educators across multiple states hone their skills for the inevitability of working with at least some, if not all, of their students from a distance. Some took every webinar they could fit into their schedule. Others took things in then went off to process.

It was during that time that I updated the norms I use in these situations. I try to set norms for all of the groups I work with. Sometimes we have time to create norms together, but in some of these webinars, I just had to offer some and move on. It was during the Summer/Fall that I added the norm, “Acknowledge our reality,” to the mix, and I think people seemed to appreciate it. None of us were in a normal situation. We might have kids, or pets, or even adults that we were trying to take care of while still teaching or learning. Many couldn’t be in their offices or their classrooms, and so I think it helped many people to know that we were all in this together, and if something comes up, you’re free to go take care of it and then get back to us.

Several times, people had turn off their microphones or cameras, to go check in on a child or a pet, or to take care of something pressing and come back when they could focus. My favorite example was when I lost my Internet connection in the middle of a webinar and had to restart my router. About eight minutes later, I checked back in, and because I had shared my agenda, slides, and resources, the group had just kept on going. I’m not sure that would’ve happened in March, but it was nice to see that by late Summer, people were back on track.

There are a lot of other good stories to share, but I’m waiting to see what Penny has on tap for next week. Wish me luck! I hope to keep this up.

Deeper Assessment: Why don’t we practice what we know we should do?

As part of my work as an innovation coach with the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network, I collaborated with Julie Foss to present a four-part series on Deeper Assessment. This post is cross-posted with Advanced Learning Partnerships (ALP), a partner in the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network who has graciously asked me to participate as a coach.

Driving Questions: What do we really want students to know and be able to do? How do we determine what’s important? To them? To us? To our subject areas? To our communities?

The four-part series on Deeper Assessment began with a high-level overview of using backwards design to decide what we really want students to know and do. Prioritizing learning outcomes is a common first step in designing a guaranteed and viable curriculum that prepares students beyond “the test.” Prioritizing standards helps determine vertical scope to prepare students for future courses in their sequence as well as to develop transferable skills across courses and subject areas. Ultimately, the highest priority standards help prepare students for “life,” whatever that may look like now, a month from now, or years from now.

The session started with a short clip from Ted Dintersmith’s Most Likely to Succeed of Linda Darling-Hammond sharing research on how fleeting inert knowledge is. Inert knowledge is information we memorize and repeat but never really use, and we lose about 90% of all inert knowledge we are exposed to. The clip from Dintersmith’s Innovation Playlist reports findings from a study conducted at the Lawrenceville Academy in New Jersey, where over two years, students were re-tested in the fall on their final science exams. Average scores went from a B+ to an F. Most students failed their exams after just three months. Moderator Julie Foss asked the 20+ participants in the session whether they might expect these same outcomes in their own divisions.

  • Justin Roerink, principal of the Hanover Center for Trades & Technology speculated that the trend might be found in a lot of classrooms. He queried, “How important is the material we are asking students to learn?” He further questioned the value of material we present to students if they don’t remember it a day, a week, or a month later. He encouraged increased use of hands-on assessments.
  • Stephanie Haskins from Staunton City Schools, noted that for a long time teachers have been caught up in the details of what needs to be taught rather than the big ideas of, “what is the important concept here?” She suggested that now is a good time to back up and forget about “all the details and all the bullets” and focus on the big ideas we really want students to understand. These big ideas will be far more memorable.
Priority Standards: You get what you aim for.

Moderator John Ross shared an overview of a backwards design process, one that many educators hear about but few use in practice, at least according to his experience. In that process, prioritized standards lead to those big ideas Stephanie Haskins references. Then assessments are developed first, based on those big ideas, and prior to considering any instructional materials or activities. That’s the crux of backwards design: design the assessment first. Using a “Fist to Five” formative protocol, participants were asked “How does this backwards design process resonate with current practice in your division?” The most common responses were 2s and 3s. 

  • Stephen Castle from Hanover County acknowledged “4 in theory…2 or 3 in practice” further noting that it’s important to dedicate time to build a truly collaborative PLC structure where teachers can do the work of prioritizing standards and determining a systematic and structured approach to addressing them. He acknowledged that despite these efforts, some teachers may still be reluctant to trust that taking a mastery-based approach is going to yield the results they want on “the test” at the end of the year. He suggested many teachers pull back from more authentic instruction prior to testing and rely on “drill-and-kill” to get information pushed into students’ inert knowledge, which we know from Linda Darling-Hammond, doesn’t stick.
  • Andrea Hand from Fairfax County Public Schools concurred with Castle and shared the idea of the tension between “have to have versus nice to have syndrome.” Some educators believe that one thing they “have to have” is good test scores at the end of the year, so they focus on that. Once they feel comfortable that will happen they can then work on the more authentic learning and others which, to them, fall under the category of “nice to have.” She suggests that the more we can advocate and align the “have to haves” with our collective beliefs around authentic learning it would guarantee students more of those experiences. 

This tension is real, but many of the participants felt that our unique circumstances have given us reason to get back to what we know works to provide more authentic instruction that prioritizes learning outcomes to the needs of students, not just trying to cram in inert knowledge students will likely soon forget. Many of the participants continued through the rest of the week with additional sessions on designing performance-based tasks, creating learning progressions that lead to standards-based rubrics, and exploring portfolios and other resources to capture evidence of student learning.

Check out the conversation at this YouTube link, as well as the agenda with downloadable resources, a link to the slide deck, and links to resources from the other three sessions.

Designing Online Learning

As a coach with Advanced Learning Partnerships, I have the privilege of working school divisions participating in the Virginia is for Learners Innovative Network (#VA4LIN). If you live in Virginia you may have heard about this sweeping initiative launched by the Virginia Department of Education with support from VaSCL, JMU, and Ted Dintersmith. ALP coaches are working with the schools and divisions in the network who have identified their own priorities for promoting innovation.

One of the divisions I’m working with, Bedford County Public Schools, has already initiated efforts related to personalized learning prior to joining the network and asked for some support with developing online and blended learning. Division staff want to leverage online technologies to provide more personalized support for both learning opportunities for students and professional development for adults in the system. I met with a group of ITRTs (Instructional Technology Resource Teachers), library/media specialists, and others in Bedford County on May 9 to review instructional design for online and blended learning. Our goal was to develop design specifications for educators in Bedford County to refer to when designing their own learning materials.

Educators from Bedford County Public Schools discuss designing powerful online learning.

I provided access to materials based on my book, Online Professional Development, Design, Deliver, Succeed! and subsequent publications. We reviewed key instructional design principles, considered how staff are currently addressing them, and considered how these principles might be presented in the first draft of a design specifications document. The key ideas we reviewed include:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Define your learning outcomes.
  3. Assess your learning outcomes.
  4. Consider your visual design.
  5. Match media to your outcomes.
  6. Evaluate your learning.

You can access the slide deck with links to handouts and templates on Google Drive. Let me know if it’s helpful. Next steps for the, the participants include returning to existing online professional learning to review what has already been developed and determine how the specifications might impact that work.

Considering implications of instructional design principles on practice.