Unity – Acceptance, Attentiveness, Acknowledgement

In the wake of the recent election many highly charged emotional reactions have emerged.  Protesters are lining the streets while others are eager for “change.”  Regardless of your beliefs with the election results, I hope we can all agree that our focus and energy need to be directed toward unity – bringing everyone together.  As a school leader I have heard of, and experienced, an increase in just the past month of incidences of singling out those individuals who are different.  As educational professionals we must not turn a blind eye to these behaviors.  We owe it to all our students to address their concerns and ensure they know that they matter and that we want them in our school family.  Easier said than done, right?  What are some ideas we as educators implement to promote unity and acceptance?

Recently our school held a student panel on implicit bias during one of our breakout sessions on a professional development day for teachers.  Six students from various grades with different backgrounds, experiences and identities were asked to join the panel.  The insight these students shared was powerful and took immense courage.  Many of these same students participated in a video answering questions regarding their observations and experiences in and out of school regarding students who look, act, think and feel different than the majority.  Below are some of the takeaways of what they shared, as well as some of my personal insight.

Do not ignore the action.  I have observed this far too many times during my educational tenure, both as a student and as an adult.  If a student says or does something questionable to another student based solely on the way the student looks, how the student identifies, or because of their beliefs, as an educator we need to speak up for these students.  Silence is a synonym for acceptance of the negative behavior.   I want to be associated with an institution that embraces diversity, even if a student or adult believes in something differently than what I do.  This is how we grow and learn as a community.

Provide learning opportunities about cultures, customs, people and experiences.  We have an immense opportunity in our field to highlight differences and learn from these variances.  Based on my experiences, ignorance is the driving factor of inappropriate comments, actions and exclusion.  Educating students and adults provide us with an opportunity to find commonalities and bridge gaps.  Through these opportunities we soon realize we have a lot more in common as humans than we have differences.

Teach tolerance, patience and forgiveness.  This is a valuable life lesson that I have grown to realize is not as common as I would hope to see in the world.  These lessons are threads that run throughout the fabric of our life.  While some would argue that schools cannot teach students everything, these do not always need to be formal lessons in class.  Students and adults pay attention to the actions and words of those to whom they look up to.

Listen to students – avoid dismissal, invalidation or defensive responses.  It takes a lot of courage for students to share their feelings regarding actions that make them feel excluded.  Students need to know that as an adult you are there to listen, and willing to work to make the situation better.  It is important that educators realize that they do not always need to respond immediately.  It is OK to simply listen and not immediately provide the response you feel should occur.  Ask the student what ideas they have to improve the situation.  Regardless, it is most important that the adult or educator does not react in a dismissive or defensive way.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  I will never forget these words on the banner that hung above the chalkboard in my third-grade classroom.  Such simple words with so much power and meaning – no explanation needed here.

As a building we are going to continue learning and teaching what our students and parents share about implicit bias and building unity.  We must acknowledge the issues and address the concerns each and every day if we truly hope to build a community that is inclusive, caring and tolerant.  Unity should not be an initiative, but a mindset and expectation for our community both globally and locally.

Personalized Learning – What is Holding You Back?

From my first day in the teaching profession student test scores dominated discussions and guided professional development.  In Ohio I began my career with the proficiency tests, and then the OGTs came into play, and now we are moving into the Next Generation Assessments.  Yet each time I would sit down and look at my students’ data there were only a few students who surprised me with their results from the last year’s assessments.  Early in my career pride would lead me to the conclusion “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  Of course in collaboration I would look for better ways to present a lesson, or track students’ learning, but I nearly always found myself teaching to three distinct groups: the lower, middle and high.  Regardless if I was teaching an inclusion, regular or honors class, I would predominantly revert back to planning for these three tiers of student performers.  My students’ achievement scores were above average, I knew my students were learning at high levels, and our school and district was always in the top in the state and nation.  So why would I change anything?  Why fix something that is not broken?

My last two years in the classroom I began to notice that while something was not broken maybe it could be improved.  While my approaches worked for the majority of my students, not all students learned in the traditional lecture based, desk and row classroom.  Perhaps my class, school and district was one of the best in a system that is good but could still be great.   Why was I looking at teaching to different groups of students?  My experience and common sense told me that each student was unique and each have different needs.  Why was I not looking at finding a way of delivering instruction that allowed me to meet the needs of each student individually?  I started using much more self-assessment in the classroom.  From experience I knew students performed better when they took ownership in their learning and could identify specifically what they knew and did not know.  I could then target these gaps and more efficiently ensure each student was learning the material.  I quickly noticed my accelerated students were moving more quickly through the material so I provided extension activities or encouraged them to explore concepts within topics at a deeper level.  I also was provided more time to work individually with students who struggled with material.  Lastly, I quickly noticed that this was hard…really hard, and took A LOT of time.  Although I did not realize it at the time I was dipping my toe in the personalized learning pool.  However, I had no idea how to most effectively and efficiently implement these approaches.

That winter I was offered a position as a teacher on special assignment, which turned into a full-time assistant principal position the following year.  Implementing personalized  personalized learning was going to look much different.  However, I was excited and energized to work with teachers in this area.  My first year was a complete whirl-wind learning all the things one needed to know for the role as an assistant principal which you are not taught in your Master’s program (a MUCH bigger chunk of information than I thought I would have to learn).  As a result, I did not have much time to dive into personalized learning with the teachers in my building.  The summer after my first full year as an assistant principal I attended a blended learning conference and everything seemed to click.  Finally, I thought, this was a way to better personalize learning!  I could not wait to take my learning back to the building and share it with anyone who would listen!

At the beginning of the following year I was eager and excited to slowly begin pushing the envelope and introducing pieces of personalized learning to the teachers with whom I worked.  To my surprise, the new ideas were met with skepticism and uncertainty from many.  I have to admit I felt deflated at first.  But it was an opportunity to reflect and realize I was exactly where they were a few years ago.  These teachers had some of the highest scores in the district, state and nation.  Why would they want to change something that was not broken?  How would they be able to personalize learning using blended learning approaches when not all students had access to technology every day?  Where would they find the time to complete all this work?

I knew I did not have the answers to all of these questions.  But I was eager to find teachers who were willing to take risks and challenge the status quo.  Maybe this was how we take good or great teaching practices and make them even better.  I used blended learning as the backbone to begin discussions centered on personalized learning approaches.  However, I realize now that we should drop the word blended as the focus really is on learning.  I also realize that I may have scared some teachers off using the term blended learning, as some were less comfortable with the technology component and erroneously thought this simply meant flipping the classroom.  Regardless, many teachers during evaluation season were open to learning more about personalizing student learning, but wanted additional resources and to see examples of what it looked like in practice and how they could begin infusing parts of this into their classroom.  Here are a few tips I gave them from my experiences in the classroom and observing other teachers in my new role.

  1. Start small.  Start with just one unit, part of a unit or even a lesson.  Be sure not to overwhelm yourself or the students.  Ask and listen for their ideas and feedback.
  2. Find a buddy.  While it may be better to find someone who teaches the same course(s) that you do to share the workload and materials, anyone who is willing to try these approaches will be a great resource to share/bounce ideas off one another.
  3. Gather resources focused on instructional delivery and assessment.  I  shared resources provided by other teachers and admin to give them some ideas of ways to deliver instruction diffidently (SchoolTube, Schoology, articles I found on Twitter, Khan Academy to name just a few).  I encouraged them to consider recording certain parts of their lesson – preferably the introductory parts in which most students do not struggle.  This would allow them time to focus on students who were struggling with prior material, or allow them to work with students who were accelerated beyond their peers.
  4. Use the resources that work best in your classroom.  Not everything that works in one teacher’s classroom will work in another.  However, gaining a bank of resources will all allow you to personalize student learning even more.  Using a platform for formative assessments that require students to demonstrate their learning before moving on will truly allow you to personalize learning and allow students to progress at their own rate.  While it may look messy at times, as not all students will be doing the same thing at the same time, this is where some of the best learning can occur.
  5. Not every approach needs to be driven by technology. There are times when direct instruction may still the best approach for the class, and video lessons are not quite as effective.  This is ok and part of the learning curve.  Determine which parts of the lesson/units can be pre-assessed to continue to the next topic, flipped, re-taught, small grouped, extended when mastered, assessed in alternative ways, etc. Find what works best for the students in the classroom, not necessarily what works best for the teacher in the classroom.
  6. Give students additional resources if they do not understand the material.  Classroom learning opportunities should be a buffet and we should re-stock it with what students want and need to maximize their learning.  When teaching AP Calc BC I often had students who would find videos on YouTube to re-explain the information or explain the concept slightly different than I had.  Perhaps they just needed to hear it repeated 2, 3 or 4 times before it clicked for them.  Nine out of ten times, THAT IS OK!  And the information they are learning is correct, perhaps it was just explained slightly different than my explanation.  My goal is that students are learning the material, not that I must be the only one teaching it to them.  I want them to use their resources, just like they will have to in life.  Such as, when I had to use YouTube when changing the garbage disposal.
  7. Take a risk – Make the jump!  Use different learning approaches/models, have a backup plan in place and do not get discouraged if it does not work perfectly the first, second or third time.  This will allow teachers to reach the needs of more students yet leave them prepared in case the lesson is a flop.  All great teachers have experienced this in some capacity.  Just as students best learn through their mistakes, so do teachers.  Learn what works and does not work, but do not get discouraged if the plan does not go exactly as you had hoped.  Meet resistance with positivity from all stakeholders.
  8. Share your knowledge.  Let me and others come into your class to learn and experience the journey with you.  Not everything will work the first time and it may not always be pretty.  That is ok.  I am not looking for a “gotcha” moment to use on evaluations.  Let your buddy come in and get ideas and provide you feedback. Return the favor and observe others’ classrooms to continue to refine the classroom experience for all. 

I am always eager to learn and gain more resources to share with teachers to improve their craft and ultimately increase student learning.  Therefore, I welcome anyone to share any resources that I can also pass along to teachers as it pertains to personalized learning.  I sincerely believe students learn differently than I did; yet many classrooms look identical to my elementary, middle and high school classrooms.  I charge all educators to challenge the status quo and transform classrooms to meet student needs.  Change not only how we are delivering instruction but also what your classroom looks like!  I truly believe this can help shift the focus to learning, curiosity, exploration, and authentic learning opportunities as it also reduces the focus on points and letter grades in classrooms.  Just because what we are doing is good and sometimes great, it does not mean that it cannot always be improved.  Is that not a part of why each of us went into education?

Grateful for a Wonderful Summer & Excited for the Upcoming School Year!

As students begin returning from summer break, entering the building for extracurricular events, and teachers slowly begin to trickle in to work in their classrooms to prepare for the first day of school, I am beginning to feel the excitement on the eve of another school year. This summer has provided me with time to reflect, learn, and travel, as well as a few days to relax. I began the summer with a service-learning trip through @EFtours with some of our wonderful students to the Dominican Republic. Here we worked with students through the DREAM Project (@TheDREAMProject http://dominicandream.org) in a local elementary school. During our time we introduced them to some basics of the English language, helped clean-up, paint and organize their school, and of course enjoyed the sights, learning about their customs and traditions within the culture. The experience was rewarding for everyone involved, and we all had a memorable time!

I was next fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit several European countries. The journey began in Venice, Italy, and continued on a cruise to Montenegro, Corfu, Athens (which got me pumped for the upcoming Olympics), Mykonos and Argostoli. At the conclusion of the cruise we then visited Dubrovnik, Croatia before touring a large portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina by car, stopping in Sarajevo. This was an incredible experience as I watched the war in this region on television growing up. The last stop on this incredible vacation was four days in Santorini. I must admit the older I get the more I appreciate seeing different parts of the world and experiencing all the different customs and cultures each area has to offer. Upon returning I also realized I needed a vacation from my vacation!

While on my trip I also was able to read multiple guide books on Greece and Croatia, some “non-school” books “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger, as well as our common school read “The Other Wes Moore,” by Wes Moore. I found our common school read insightful and eye opening. With the majority of our students not exposed to the experiences shared in the non-fiction novel, I believe it will be an invaluable catalyst to begin conversations within the classroom and throughout the school. I was also able to re-read “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek, which provided me the opportunity to reflect on my “why,” but also began sparking different ideas for “what” and “how” we do what we do. Many of these ideas focused on how to utilize our most recent addition to the building, the “Learning Center,” which is replacing our library.

The discussion for changing our library to the Learning Center began with our instructional technology supervisor, library media specialist and admin team. Our instructional technology supervisor shared that her goal was to use library media specialists in the district more as instructional coaches to support students and teachers in the building. We are grateful to have a library media specialist in our building who saw the value and opportunity in this change, and immediately was on board. She began running with the concept bringing us different ideas of how to transform the space. We moved our Academic Success Center (our main hub for Tier 2 intervention in the building) as well as our peer tutors to this area the last quarter of the 2015-2016 school year. We created a form for students to sign up for tutoring which allowed for tracking of data as well as providing these students with volunteer hours for their required NHS or service club hours. This upcoming school year my wonderful counter-part @jessicaslocum3, our mindful principal @BravesPrincipal  and I worked together to generate more ideas of how to best utilize the Learning Center. Although the concept and is new to our building, we are excited to continue utilizing the space for our Academic Success Center, housing our peer tutoring program, utilizing our teachers for departmental tutoring one day a week during their collaboration period, and increasing opportunities for students to use the area to work collaboratively on projects or extension assignments using the technology resources it houses. We are going to introduce the Learning Center to our Building Leadership Team next week to gain their ideas and input on how we can maximize the space and its resources. Our hope is that it will be a place where students and teachers are excited to visit. We will continually seek input from students and staff throughout the year to ensure to the area evolves to meet the needs of the building. Although the Learning Center is in its introductory phase I am most excited about the possibilities of this space for the upcoming school year. The next step is to get the building as excited as we are for its unveiling!

Prioritizing – Sitting in Fewer Meetings!

In the wake of returning from summer break I find myself with a long list of tasks to complete prior to the start of the school year. Some items on this list were left over from when I left in June, others I had to wait until our schedule rolled over to the new school year from our technology support partner to begin cleaning up the final loose ends of scheduling. Amidst the widely varied list of tasks I was not sure where to start. Our admin team sat down and discussed the goals and expectations we each had for the year and for me it quickly boiled down to sitting in fewer meetings!

From experience I knew this was going to be a lofty challenge. As an admin team we meet with so many different vital groups: building and district admin meetings, guidance teams to discuss academic and social emotional concerns, departmental collaboration, principal’s advisory, RTI, and the list just goes on, and on. Simply considering the number of students on IEPs and 504s in our building attending these meetings alone average at least a meeting a day. With only a few administrators to cover these meetings I realized that as an admin team we would have to get creative and learn to truly prioritize. Upon reviewing the traditional established meetings it was evident to me that the focus should be on protecting the meetings that directly impacted students, or those that would genuinely move the building, and restructuring or eliminate those that did not. To avoid the pitfalls of meetings that drag on, creating agendas and ensuring there was a clear purpose in these meetings needs to be established. Last year we flipped our new teacher and Building Leadership Team meetings, allowing us to video record the “nuts & bolts” prior to the meeting. This allowed time for the sharing of ideas and resources, delivering PD and reflecting on best practices, including what worked and what needed improvement.   We were excited to continue these practices to get the most out of our time.

After identifying some of the basic ideas to trim the amount and duration of meetings we attend, we also realized we wanted to focus on being in the classroom more often. For the past several years this has been an area that is always a goal of mine, but the amount of time slowly erodes with surprise meetings being called or teachers, parents, community members stopping in unannounced, etc. Last year I took the advice of a colleague and, armed with my laptop, staked out at various locations around the building to get out of the office, allowing me the opportunity to interact with more students and staff. Inevitably I would get a text, a call or a “walkie radio call” with someone who wanted to see me, thus interrupting this time, but more often than not they were situations that required relatively immediate attention.

Upon returning home from chaperoning a service-learning trip to the Dominican Republic I knew I needed to make some changes. When we first left on the trip a couple of the students shared they did not know my name, and a few days later others shared I intimidated them prior to getting to know me on this trip. I was completely befuddled. None of these students were in my office for discipline reasons. Nor did they have friends who were discipline issues either. Where was this coming from? When in the halls, cafeteria or in classrooms I was always smiling and interacting with students. I decided to swallow my pride and ask these students why they felt that way on the last day. What they shared shaped my goal for this school year. “When we see you in the halls you are always walking around in such a hurry and look so busy that we do not want to bother you. When you come in classrooms you are only there for a short time on your laptop and then you leave. We were afraid to interrupt.” I immediately thought to myself, PLEASE interrupt me.   However, after reflecting I realized they were right. While there will never be enough time in the school day I needed to take a serious look at how I prioritize my time. So much of my time was taken from sitting in meetings, many of which I did not call, some of which I truly did not need to be a part of. I knew then that my number one priority and goal for the upcoming school year was to get into classrooms more. This would not only allow me to gain exposure to instructional strategies and approaches to share with other teachers, but more importantly to interact more with students, get my hands dirty and learn right along with them. During this time in classrooms I want to ensure that it does not turn into more evaluative time, but that I truly serve as another resource for the students and staff in the room and learn along side them.

Over the past two years I realized a trick to protecting the time to attend events that were important – put it on my calendar!  When I put events on my calendar I am booked, and therefore cannot be pulled into meetings, or stopped to chat, etc. unless it was an emergency.  As an admin team we discussed these obstacles and realized we needed to protect this time and put it on our calendar. As a result we are going to begin implementing “days out of the office.” Each administrator will have an assigned day out of the office, while the remaining administrators will cover any pop-up meetings or drop-ins that may arise. During this time we will be out in classrooms interacting with students in various capacities, but will not be available unless there is a true emergency. Although I realize this is an ambitious goal, I truly hope these days remain protected and focused on getting into the classrooms to build stronger relationships and learning opportunities for everyone. I do not want this time to slip away or be used for meetings, evaluative purposes or interruptions with unscheduled drop-ins that are not emergencies. Many leaders say their goal is to be in the classroom but my goal this year is to make this a genuine reality.

Are EdCamps Worth the Hype?

Questioning whether or not you should attend an EdCamp leadership event? Today I attended my first EdCampLdr “unconference” and can without a hesitation encourage you to attend one near you. I heard about EdCamps from a fellow colleague for whom I have great respect. After researching the concept and structure of the day a bit more, I have to admit I was a little unsure of what to expect. Could educators really generate ideas THAT morning and then immediately facilitate discussions to share best practices without falling into the pitfalls of complaining without solutions? Could I really just get up a leave a session if I was not finding value in it, or because there were two sessions at the same time that both interested me without it being offensive? Would I leave with new innovative ideas and truly feel inspired? I can without a doubt say that the answer to each of these questions is a resounding YES!

The day opened with meeting a few colleagues from my area who I followed on Twitter, but had not yet met in person. It continued with a keynote from the rock star @LaVonnaRoth.   After sharing her energizing message and guiding each of us to find our personal way to SHINE, I felt ready to tackle any challenge. @drneilgupta gave a quick explanation of concept and structure of the EdCamp and then shared the Google doc to begin the selection of session topics. Everyone quickly began filling in sessions that were focused on topics over which we were interested to share or gain more information. My colleagues @zachpeterson3 and @jessicaslocum3 asked me to join in facilitating a discussion on how Twitter can impact an educator’s professional learning. I accepted and was excited and curious to see how the session would go and who would attend.

The options for the first session left me stuck between two choices, both of which intrigued me. I choose one and left ready to learn and share. About 20-30 minutes into the discussion the focus did not take the path of providing solutions or sharing best practices, yet turned more toward what was not working. I was disappointed but not discouraged. I was a little nervous yet excited to get up and leave to check out the other session, which also struck me as interesting. I was quite surprised that I did not feel rude. On the contrary I felt empowered after getting up and leaving; I genuinely felt that I had control on my learning and professional development. I thought to myself, this is exactly how professional development should be structured. I was extremely pleased I made the choice to leave as the next session was invigorating and provided me with multiple ideas centered on collaboration.

The second session @Vroom6 led a discussion and shared insights about “Global Collaboration – How being connected impacts how you lead and how you learn.” Again, I left with a list of notes and inspired ideas of how I could use different platforms to enhance my professional growth (this session was also the direct catalyst for this…my first blog post). After session two we broke for lunch, leaving us with time to sit down to continue conversations and build new relationships with fellow passionate educators. After lunch we facilitated our session on “Twitter?! Engaging your district and building!” to a crowd of participants with varying levels of Twitter usage and understanding. I did more listening during the session, but the entire process felt entirely organic. Not a forced or canned conversation, yet one with candid questions and feedback, attended by those who were truly interested in improving their professional learning and their PLN.

Despite my uncertainty at the start of the day I can say without reservation that the format and concept of this professional learning should be implemented much more often than it is. I am already looking for more EdCamps to expand my educational ideas and grow my PLN. @drneilgupta put in a lot of time into planning and running an extremely organized and productive camp.   If you are skeptical or nervous to attend an EdCamp I can assure you there is no reason to delay attending one. I know I left feeling empowered and full of ideas.