A few loose thoughts from the past week

Firstly, I want to thank those who have encouraged me to write more and share more of the issues in education that I learn about as I work with students and teachers. It seems that as I’ve made more of an effort to write, I’ve found more opportunities. Here are three different thoughts I’ve put to writing this week that I’ll share here.

“It’s a great day for a ball game; let’s play two!”

Last week the baseball player, Ernie Banks passed away. Here’s what I felt compelled to write the next day after being reminded about his legacy during a radio report:

If you aren’t familiar with this former baseball player, please find any brief obituary. Here’s what I’d like to celebrate about him: Win or lose Ernie loved his job and made an effort to share his optimism with those around him- fans, teammates, or reporters. I think this is a legacy I can aspire to. I’m going to make an effort, and I encourage each of you, to show up for work with Ernie’s level of enthusiasm and gratitude. I am very lucky that everyday I can be with compassionate and committed co-workers and endlessly fascinating students, and I will do what I can to let those around me on our campus that no matter how exciting or mundane the task at hand we are at the forefront of excitement and innovation in education.

The following Monday, Banks’ legacy was summed up this way: He was one of the all-time greatest ball players, among baseball’s inner circle of the best of the best. Yet, he will be remembered as a great person who did what he could to bring joy to those around him.

Want Relevance and Rigor? Immerse your school in current global affairs and global competency

I had an opportunity to apply for a scholarship to travel abroad for a week. The application gave me the opportunity to write about the importance of global competency and 21st century skills (which I hope to further define in future posts). In 400 words or less, here’s what I had to say about this.

Two of my roles in the school are instructional coach and classroom teacher and I use both roles to promote global competency and teach 21st century skills. In my AP Physics and AP Statistics classrooms I seek to have students investigate issues from around the globe. For example, in Physics we can study the use of rolling water containers to prevent women from needing to carry water for hours every day. In Statistics, we regularly use global data such as education levels or public health to learn about concepts like linear regression, finding summary statistics, and testing for statistical significance. In addition to understanding about the world, I want my students to be confident problem solvers who can direct their own inquiry, recognize the impact of multiple perspectives, communicate to a diverse audience, and be empowered that they can use their skills to take actions to improve their community. An important part of developing global competency is using technology and collaboration. For this I use Google Docs and Google Sheets to help students collaborate online with each other and learn how to share scientific data. I have introduced flipped classroom resources so that students understand that learning does not have to be confined to when they are in a school.

As an instructional leader I’ve made an effort to empower our school faculty to teach 21st century skills and promote global competency in their own classrooms. We have a school-wide focus on global citizenship and I make an effort to support teachers in making their lessons better in the following four ways: Include student choice, make the student task authentic to the work real professionals do, include a significant global issue, and require students to present or exhibit their work to a real-world audience.

Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom

Our campus faculty is reading the Rick Wormeli book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal in anticipation for his visit to San Antonio February 18th. The principal and I have worked together to help teachers process the book and in our next faculty meeting I will be facilitating our discussion of Chapter’s 5 and 6 about tiering assessments and designing good test questions. As a way of pre-thinking each faculty member is bringing three ideas they learned, two ideas they found interesting, and 1 question they still have. As a way of giving you a glimpse into how I am currently thinking about my classroom practice here’s my response to the three prompts:

3 Things I found out:

1. For tiering to be effective, it is best to stay focused on one concept or task for students to learn. When there are multiple learning objectives then it is harder to understand what level different students need to be working at and to make the objectives and purpose of tiering clear to students.

“To avoid a potential pitfall with tiering, be sure to stay focused on one concept or task” pg 57

2. Because feedback is so important to students and a key skill for differentiated instruction it is better to have shorter assessments more frequently instead of longer assessments over time. For one thing, longer, more complex assessments take more time to grade, thus making the feedback less immediate and useful to students. Additionally, shorter assessments make it easier to zero in on what students know and do not know. This in turn, makes the learning objectives clearer to students and makes it easier to know what to do next to reach the targeted level of mastery.

“In order to get an accurate rendering of students’ mastery and support the emphasis on formative assessment mentioned earlier, smart teachers give multiple, smaller, and focused tests over the course of the grading period…” pg 84

 3. For tests to be valid measures of understanding, students must have a clear idea of the format. For example if students are going to be asked to identify if a math problem is impossible to solve using only the given information, then students should have been exposed to this possibility leading up to the assessment and be familiar with how to recognize and respond to it. This aligns to the idea presented earlier in the book that to be clear about the objectives assessed, give students a blank copy of the test at the beginning of the unit and ask them to look it over to see what is coming next.

“We don’t call for an approach on a test question that wasn’t practiced by students extensively during our lessons” pg. 83

2 Interesting Things:

1. Frank Williams’s Taxonomy of Creativity immediately made me think of ways my classes may be boring to students, and ways that I could make it more engaging. I firmly believe that the best scientists are creative individuals and creativity is necessary for using the tools of math and science to their fullest potential. The go-tool method I use for increasing engagement is puzzling or challenging lab setups, but I would really enjoy having my students work their way through the taxonomy after a complex topic like conservation of energy has been introduced.

2. The discussion questions at the end of Chapter 5 were really interesting to me. I think I struggle with delivering the right amount of rigor to each student. The AP objectives are rigorous, but sometimes I feel that students are left behind as a topic is introduced and developed, and then half the class is stuck waiting, while I loop back to catch up those students who are struggling. While there’s intent to differentiate, often as I try to respond to the needs of some of my students, I pull the whole class into work that they aren’t ready for or already have learned.

1 Question I still have:

Is it best for students that I impose a uniform time limit (except for those with disabilities) under the justification that they need to be prepared for the time limits of the AP test, even though some students would be able to earn higher scores if I let them stay in class to finish the test? Will they cheat if I let them go to their next two classes and then come back at lunch or after school to finish a test?

 

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Unpacking from SRI’s Winter Meeting

I’m on the airplane from Tucson to San Antonio as I begin this, and if all goes well I’ll be done before I’m told to “stow electronic devices.” However for this entry that may not be possible. What I would like to do is capture how my time was spent at SRI’s Winter Meeting: what I talked with others about, what I learned, and what I’m now aspiring to (in CFG work we call this What, So What, and Now What).

In general, I want my entries on this web site to help other educators think about their practice and share the ideas and actions that make a difference for students. For that to happen I understand that my writing should be brief and to the point. 20 or more paragraphs chronicling two and half days of learning is not likely to lead those who find this to urge friends and colleagues to come read what I’ve written and join the conversation in comments. So this post is for me- and maybe any supervisors who are wondering if it was a good idea to allow me to be off campus for two days to participate in the Winter Meeting.

Place

We began our conference by hearing from the principal of a charter high school in downtown Tucson. Carrie welcomed us to the meeting, shared our meeting’s theme, and encouraged us use our time well. What stood out to me from her opening remarks was her enjoyment at having so many (200? 400? 800? I couldn’t really count) of us gathered together in her hometown. She shared 5 words whose usage and meaning illuminate the Place where we were gathered. By introducing Place as a theme for our meeting a couple of big ideas about people and society were able to surface in my mind. The five words she shared with us to help us understand Tucson were mariachi, Sonoran, saguaro, roadrunner, and border.

The first big idea is that people want to be a part of a community. By this, I mean that I believe that people want to unify with those who they have something in common for the purpose of friendship, support, and inspiration. There are few things more natural for communities to form around than proximity. Though we don’t always form a community with those we live near as adults, the majority of the student population in schools is defined solely by geography. I think this point is important because it reminds me that even when students seem to have little in common and seem to be incapable of learning together there may be a common bond through the idea of Place that can be a starting point for building a classroom culture.

Secondly, the idea of Place reminded me of something I believe to be at the root of transformational education. I think transformational education is a fascinating concept to explore further, and since it likely means something different to me than it does to you, I think I should explain it a little bit more. The basic idea is that no matter what our role in the education system we all we want to make a change in a student, in a teacher, or in a system. For the change to take place it is necessary to understand the context that we want to make a change in. The discussion of Place at the opening of our conference reminded me that learning about the Place our students live and learn is essential to effectively enacting any changes.

Be Kind

Our keynote speaker was Jeanette Maré who founded Ben’s Bells Project and works to sustain and grow the project. Ben’s Bells is a project unique to Tucson that was created as Jeanette was coping with the loss of her son, Ben. As the anniversary of his passing approach she and her friends and family decided to honor Ben by creating chimes made of a bell and painted ceramic patterns that could be placed around Tucson. The bells included the phrase “Be Kind” and those who received them were asked to perform an act of kindness for another in the community and pass the kindness on. Over the years, Jennifer and Tucson have come to discuss and learn what it means to be kind. How it is an expression of love and a way to show unity that goes beyond being nice. Indeed sometimes being kind means offering critical feedback or helping someone make a better choice.

The most important piece of her talk to us was that she has found in both her work and her research on the mind that kindness is a skill to be learned and practiced. We don’t automatically know how to be kind to each other but we can learn if we have kindness modeled for us and are provided a trusting environment to practice kindness. It was fascinating to consider kindness in the context of schools. If we all aspire to have a school where students are kind to each other then what steps do we need to take to teach them how to do it?

Here are six additional points about kindness she wanted us to take away:

  • Kindness is within our power
  • Kindness honors personality and honors connection
  • Kindness builds trusts
  • Kindness is fierce
  • Kindness is intentional, it is a way of responding rather than reacting
  • Kindness is selfish, it changes us first

And finally, 3 questions for us to bring back to our schools. She began with these questions to help us focus on her presentation and make meaning of it. If you are with me still, consider answering one or more of these questions with a comment below.

  1. Is my school a kind place for all?
  2. What steps can I take for my students to be kind?
  3. What can I do to restore hope?

Who we are and what we do best

Our small group was eager to work together. From the start it was noticeable how enthusiastic the participants were to be learning from each other. A simple activity like going around the circle introducing ourselves led to praise being tossed around our table like a beach ball at an Angels’ baseball game. The affirmation continued as we moved into a norming process, discussed CFG work and protocols and prepared to have our first structured conversation- a tuning of adult work for a school leader preparing to lead her school community in a revision of the school mission statement.

The old mission statement had been created 10 years ago as the school was created. It was successful and useful for shaping and guiding the board, faculty and students who were building a community. And now that the school was ten years old its leader believed that it was time to reevaluate if the mission was still saying the right thing. Our group used a process of examining the mission statement, asking clarifying questions, comparing the mission statement to six goals and values for the school community and providing warm and cool feedback. Finally we were able to hear from the school leader and what next steps she was considering.

One of the outstanding phrases that arose from this discussion was that she wanted a mission statement that could show the community “who we are and what we do best.” Another participant in the group later used the idea of a mission statement being a gate to the community. These two ideas clicked in my mind as I thought of my classroom communities and my broader school community. My aspiration from this discussion was to try to come up with a way to succinctly summarize what takes place in my classroom. I feel like my classrooms have been lacking clarity around what the purpose for our learning is. I have a long list of performance outcomes, AP objectives and the goal that I “want students to be prepared when you take these classes in college.” But how much more powerful and useful would it be if we could have a single statement that we can point to each day that reminds us that I should take pride in the tasks I ask my students to complete and students should take pride that they are not just getting new facts in their head but are changing themselves into better mathematicians, better scientists and better citizens. This point was significantly emphasized in our closing keynote and I hope to articulate more about it.

To close this section, I love the ideas behind the school’s mission and I’d like to leave the complete statement and the goals/values here as well:

We strive to be a community of learners in which all members use their minds well and care about one another. We engage with challenging academics and the unique resources of our city and region in order to become active citizens and responsible stewards of our work.

School Goals/Values (I’ll use the school’s headings, and then give a brief statement in my own words of what it represents.)

  1. Personalization– every individual on our community matters and we will all treat each other accordingly.
  2. Challenging academic curriculum– Students will engage in meaningful tasks to learn important content
  3. Community connections– students will understand the community around them and engage in it responsibly
  4. Student leadership– students will take responsibility and show initiative to improve the school and community
  5. Diversity– we will honor the multiple perspectives that our diverse population brings and our curriculum will reflect our cultural diversity
  6. Institutional advancement– our school will use resources responsibly in a manner that supports growth and innovation.

The Issaquah

Following a brief break after our discussion using the Tuning protocol we next decided to look at school leader’s dilemma using the Issaquah protocol. I love this protocol because of a wonderful CFG leader I met in Boston last year who loved this protocol and sold me on it. Now, anytime this protocol comes up in CFG work I remember how much I enjoyed my small group in Boston 2014. So naturally when our small group facilitator asked for a volunteer to facilitate the Issaquah I volunteered.

In essence the dilemma we discussed was this. How do you give support to those educators who need it, but are already stretched to their limits and beyond in terms of time and workload? Two wonderful things happened during our discussion. First, I made a mistake in the protocol. Others in the group would probably just say that I made a choice in facilitating to depart from the protocol as written, but it wasn’t intentional and I regretted making that departure. This was wonderful for multiple reasons. I’ve learned something from this mistake. I’ve talked about it, reflected upon it and I will be more careful in reading protocols so that if I depart from how it’s written it will be a deliberate choice. Additionally, this mistake gave us a chance to talk as a group about facilitating and mistakes and to hopefully support others as they take risks in facilitating discussion.

My second wonderful thing from the discussion was the group’s kindness as I received praise from others in the group. I wasn’t sure if I would share publicly that it made me feel good for others to tell me they thought I was an excellent facilitator. It seems a little bit vain and it’s not really a surprising insight to say that telling people they did something well makes them happy. But I think there’s further implications that make me want to include it in this too-long reflection. The kind words of my group are what are giving me the courage to make my thoughts public. I want to sustain a conversation about transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence and spread the value of CFG to those who may have never heard of it. It is because of the support of those I worked with this week that I believe that I can use Complementarity to do this.

As for the dilemma we discussed, I am taking two thoughts on this back to San Antonio. The first is that even if someone is out of time, it’s worth it to force the time to be carved out if the conversation and support is authentic, collaborative, and transformational. The other thought is that as an instructional leader I need to be more sensitive to the needs of the teachers around me. Perhaps they aren’t knocking on my office door asking for help, but if I can be a greater presence in their classrooms and have a better understanding of their strengths and weakness then I can offer the right kind of support for them.

Our first day of work together ended after we discussed this dilemma, and though I’d love to share the learning that took place as a cohort of us from San Antonio ate, walked, and talked together, I’ll save it for a second reflection on the other day and half of Winter Meeting.

An Opportunity

I spent the weekend at a meeting of educators from around the country in Tucson, Arizona. The meeting was organized by the School Reform Initiative, a national organization that “creates transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.” It is hard to explain to people who are used to conferences and workshops how the experience of educators at Winter Meeting is essentially different from those types of professional development. The essential structure of our two and a half days together is a group of 10 to 12 professionals who represent a diverse range of age, experience, ethnicity and roles in our education system. I happened to be in a group of 11 with educators from Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, New York, and Massachusetts.

In addition to the time spent in this group, I heard from two keynote speakers at the open and close of the meeting and spent Friday morning visiting City High School and learning about how they use Community Day to connect students to the city around them and encourage students to collaborate across grade levels outside of the usual classroom structure. What’s further remarkable about the Winter Meeting is that the scheduled time to meet is not nearly enough to contain the questions and conversation that my colleagues and I wanted to have. An apparently innocuous question to someone I’ve just met like, “how did you become a teacher?” lead to a pretty significant conversation about school culture and expectations for our students.

As our small group finished our last session together we each took turns sharing how our weekend has affected or changed us. My response:

I used to think that because I worked with fantastic colleagues who shared my vision of serving students through empathy, innovation, and collaboration I did not needed a wider network of support during the year. Now I think that connecting with individuals from other parts of the country has the potential to push my thinking in a way that will make me a more effective classroom teacher and instructional leader. I think there is an opportunity to use technology and social media to make this much more likely.

So my first action based off this closing thought is to write about my learning and my commitment to share it. My second action is to invite more people to visit this site and continue the conversation. My hope is that as I try to regularly highlight the questions and answers that my job raises for me there will be a positive ripple that moves out from me, to the students and teachers at my school, to educators around the country who can be renewed and excited by conversations about equity and excellence in education.

Websites about teaching and learning that are good and powerful have the following traits I aspire for Complementarity to develop. They give an honest description of what happens in the school or classroom and the emotions that those events evoke, and yet, do not violate anyone’s right to privacy. All of the writing is infused with a sense of joy about being paid to spend time with students and learning new things about the world together. Finally there is a space for a community to have conversations and for people to give and receive critical feedback. Feel free to share my writing and leave comments in any way that furthers the conversation about teaching and learning. I hope that this site can become a useful addition to the many conversations taking place online.