Sep 252012


It is funny watching what happens when people break things. Observations are made, insights are gained, comparisons happen, and lessons are learned. Launching ISP Lite, now called the “Learning Community at CCTS”, (Someone throw some siracha on this name – PLEASE!) has had a similar effect.

In this new system, we  schedule and roster students in a way that allows us to team teach across the curriculum. Generally, math pairs with science and history pairs with language arts but we have the freedom to shuffle these pairings. The experience has been eye-opening.

In just three weeks, we were stunned to discover just how often all four us teach the same skills but use different language and methods to do so. When classes were separate, the results were confusions for students, inefficiency for teachers, and frustration for everyone. Once we put our classes together, however, each lesson fed into the next. My lesson on making quantitative observations using the metric system became a math lesson on proportions and solving for X which became an English lesson on differentiating between summary and reaction. Topics that required a few days each were compressed into single lessons taught cross-curricularly in a more effective manner.

All of this was made possible by “breaking” the schedule and giving teachers the room to act as professionals. It showed that simply aligning the curriculum on paper is not enough. We are doing things differently and it is already making a difference.

Mar 282012

Being Intentional Networkers – Kira Baker-Doyle #ASCD12

What comes to mind when you hear the term “Social Network”? For most people, it is Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and dozens of other similar sites. Social Networks, however, are older than Web 2.0 and even the internet. They predate the telephone, the radio, and even the written word. As presenter Kira Baker-Doyle points out in her session, social networks are really a representation of how people interact with each other online or otherwise.

Leveraging social networks well has the potential for a strong, positive impact upon schools. Ms. Baker-Doyle shared the following roles that they play in a teacher’s practice:

  • Coping with change – Mediate understanding and use of new curriculum or pedagogical practices (Coburn, 2005)
  • Retention – Impacts teacher retention and job selection (Boyd, Lankford, Loeb, & Wycoff 2003; Thomas 2007)
  • Academic achievement – Impacts student academic outcomes (Leena & Pil 2006; Yasumoto, Uekawa & Bidwell 2010)
  • School reform – Dynamic relationship with district level school reforms (Daly et al. 2010)

Later in the presentation, we were shown case studies of Maria and Michael*. Both were individuals new to the teaching the profession. Both had their networks mapped as they applied to their new positions. The maps were tied to personal accounts of their individual experiences.

Maria had a network containing many educators and she quickly connected with a group of colleagues within the school. While she had many challenges, she felt safe in her environment because members of Maria’s network reassured her that they would not allow her to fail. (Subjects are the center point on each map)

Michael had a much different experience. He attempted to show his ability as a teacher by remaining independent, not asking for help nor accepting any offered. This led to frustration for Michael and a questioning of his career choice. About midway through his first year, he accepted a colleague as mentor. Things improved somewhat but he was still highly frustrated.

Online social networks are simply an extension of normal face-to-face human interactions. They create a broader opportunity to connect with like minded people, to find support, to test ideas. When perceived through the social network as human interaction lens, filtering and blocking no longer makes sense. It becomes hypocritical. Taken to its logical extreme, if a school is filtering these types of sites, why not control other types of interactions – talking in the hallway or faculty room, having lunch with colleagues, and meeting with students after school to provide extra help.

*The opposite of the real Eric Sheninger

Social networks already happen in schools because schools ARE social networks. The online part is simply another way of interacting, just like the conversation in the hallway, an email between colleagues, or a written letter home. Schools that mandate narrow and specific ways for human interaction also narrow their ability to bring the faculty together and form community. It is the school saying “We know what is best for you” rather than allowing individuals to meet their own needs as they see fit. Instead, by helping members of the school community develop meaningful networks, schools will empower members to solve challenges collaboratively. Fostering robust and purposeful social networks means fostering positive relationships. Relationships matter.

**Thanks David and Eric for the pics

 Posted by at 2:45 pm
Mar 262012

Professional Learning Communities are a well documented means of moving schools forward.  Ms. Easton warns us, however, that “The “learning” part of professional learning communities (PLCs) has all but faded as PLCs are required to respond to school, district, state, and federal initiatives”. This puts PLCs at risk of becoming just another initiative that will pass in time and increase cynicism within the faculty. By placing the “L”earning back into into PLC, Ms. Easton assures us that PLCs will remain relevant and vital.

The session began by conducting a KWL with the group, having everyone move and discuss what they know and would like to know about learning. She engaged the group quickly and immediately asked them to begin documenting what they were doing. Ms. Easton subtly demonstrated how PLCs work without overtly stating it. She had groups sharing what they know and asking extending questions, a skill at the heart of PLC work.

“If we don’t define learning within our PLCs first, how do we know if we are meeting our goals?”  

The session then moved to a Reader’s Theater, lasting nearly 30 minutes, modeling effective and ineffective PLC interactions with the audience critiquing each. While I understood the purpose, I feel that the method detracted from the session. It was something that could have been covered with 3 minutes worth of video, giving more opportunity for discussion and interaction. The session finished with a survey and discussion about the difference between PLCs used for learning and those simply used for implementation and the importance of embracing the former.

Ms. Easton stressed that all PLCs need to start with “Why”. Why are we meeting? Why are we here? “Why” leads to “What”. We now know why we are here and need to decide what we are going to do. The “How” takes care of itself.

In many schools, PLCs are at risk of becoming simple bureaucratic structures, especially in this era of tight budgets and reduced faculty and administration. Ms. Easton reminded us that the true intention of PLCs is to maintain the school as an organization of learning. Rather than maximize bus schedules, PLCs need to engage in action research, reflective reading, sharing, and disseminating knowledge throughout the school. When done well, the learning that PLCs engage in will be brought back to classrooms to maximize classroom practice. If the intention is to teach students how to learn, then their teachers need not be extensions of the bureaucracy, but rather effective learners themselves.

 Posted by at 11:38 am
May 232011

Edcamp elicits lots of emotions. For me, I love meeting members of my PLN in a casual setting. I have made personal and professional connections and even genuine friendships. Like so many others, I come away from an Edcamp day feeling energized and invigorated. I also have the added layer of pride seeing something that I helped to create grow at an almost exponential rate.

Map of Edcamps To Date

Map of Edcamps To Date

The thing that I really enjoyed about Edcamp Philly 2 was seeing how the topics have matured. I participated in a presentation by Brian Jeans, a trainer from Comcast, where he discussed how the company prepares its army of 100,000 technicians to install and troubleshoot equipment in a timely manner. Where trainers once adopted a top down, trainer driven, transference of knowledge approach, they now build peer-to-peer learning networks. Brian explained that does this because the trainer driven model did very little to prepare the technicians for the unique situations presented by each home that they entered. It gave me insight to how things are done in the private sector and re-assured me that what I had done with the Integrated Studies Program was the right thing to do. (Whew, I am not crazy!)

I then presented Integrated Studies to a group of about 20 folks. They asked tough questions. They made me defend my ideas and actions. They made me a better educator for it. I hope that I inspired some of them to take the leap into progressive education. At the very least, I made a number of connections and hope to the continue the conversation.

At the grand finale of Things That Suck, Dan Callahan facilitated a large group discussion centered upon sensitive school issues. We blew off steam, we commiserated, we challenged each others perceptions all in an open and respectful manner. Even though Dan has retired his series of Things That Suck, I hope that it becomes a staple of edcamps much like smackdowns.

I caught the tail end of David Timony’s talk on resident scholars. He discussed the need for schools to diversify the learning experience by providing space for outside experts to work on the campus while in exchange for working with the students. The example that I have heard him discuss in the past is the collaboration between Miro Dance Company and Girard College. It is a fantastic way for students to truly explore passions and also breaks the echo chamber that many schools become.

Finally, I listened to Kim Sivick share her amazing experiences in global learning through her collaborations with a small village in Uganda. She talked of the struggles, the conditions, and the strong community ties that people experience there. She told us about her one contact to whom she sends funds so that he may climb half way up a mountain for a few minutes of internet service to have conversations with her classroom. Her story is truly touching.

All and all, Edcamp Philly 2 was even better than the first. The conversations, connections, potential for future learning, and inspiring work of the attendees all give me hope for the future of schools. We have a long way to go but there are people pushing in the right direction. If you are considering attending an edcamp, DO IT! Go, bring a friend, and share your ideas. Put yourself out there. You won’t regret it.

My Edcamp Reflections Part 2 – Dirty Little Secrets coming shortly.

May 042011

Cross-posted at RE:School
Recently, I was part of great conversation on twitter with @8Amber8 @ToddWhitaker @Matt_Gomez @kylepace on rules in school and their implications for individual classrooms. An area upon which we all agreed was that good teachers tend to stretch the rules. They recognize the difference between equal and equitable and equitable treatment for students but they also recognize the need to justify the stretching.
The second area of agreement was upon the need for consistency. Predictable environments are safe and students need that in order to learn effectively. The juxtaposition of these two ideas led to a question – what happens when individual teachers stretch rules in different ways? The consensus was that teachers need to communicate with one another to maintain consistency, but does this really solve the problem? It is impossible for a teacher to know how all of his or her colleagues are doing something unless it can be witnessed regularly. After kicking the idea around for awhile, this tweet summed up the conversation up perfectly:
via @Toddwhitaker

via @Toddwhitaker

My assertion through the entire conversation was this: Inconsistency is created by the organization of the school environment (schedule, content area classrooms, students scattered across multiple teachers). Isolated classrooms allow for derivations of behavior to occur. This, in turn, creates frustrations for students because there are different expectations in every class and breeds behavioral problems.

To overcome the challenge of consistency, schools have adopted a number of strategies. The Professional Learning Community (PLCs) creates a more formal system of collaboration for the faculty ensuring greater continuity of practice. Small Learning Communities (SLCs) extend the concept of PLCs to the students. Each PLC is now responsible for a common group of children making it easier for teachers to agree upon common practice and maintain consistency.

In my personal practice, my colleagues and went beyond the PLC and SLC structure in our Integrated Studies Program by also placing students and teachers in a common space. By grouping everyone together and working asynchronously, the teachers were able to observe each other on a daily basis. We adopted each other’s methods, created a common classroom language, and promoted the principles of the classroom in similar ways. The asynchronicity and common space also allowed us to involve students more deeply in developing common practice. We invited them to form advisory and judiciary communities, giving students a strong voice. A socially constructed learning community sprang forth because of one change – shared physical space. Inconsistencies and the need to “stretch the rules” evaporated because the community dictated the principles of classroom process and behavior for students and adults alike. It does not get any more consistent than that.

Apr 082011

Cross posted at RE:School
sparadrap by dimitridf via Flickr

sparadrap by dimitridf via Flickr

”Research concurs. Collaborative time for teachers to undertake and then sustain school improvement may be more important than equipment or facilities or even staff development (Fullan and Miles 1992, Louis 1992, Rosenholtz 1989).” – From Finding Time for Collaboration – Mary Anne Raywid –
Nobody will question the fact that collaboration is a key component of all successful schools; so important that one would think that creating environments conducive to collaboration would be a guiding principle of most decisions made in such institutions. Sadly, however, this is not true. For most schools, collaboration time is treated as secondary to the needs of rigid classroom schedules. It is something treated as extra beyond the scope of the normal workday or squeezed into the schedule and treated as an inconvenience.
“ the National Staff Development Council released a report, “Professional Learning in the Learning Profession.” As the report points out, the United States “is far behind in providing public school teachers with opportunities to participate in extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities.” – From Making Time for Teacher Collaboration Is Crucial Suzie Boss – Edutopia
For schools that do collaboration well, the majority still engage in scheduling yoga. They are mandating dedicated times for engagement and collaboration rather than structuring the environment to encourage collegial behavior naturally. This form of collaboration also misses a teaching opportunity because students are not involved or even witness the process.


In creating the Integrated Studies Program, we did not build in specific collaboration time. We felt that it was contrived and artificial. Instead, we created a cohort of students, gave them all common teachers, and put everyone in the same space with the majority of content delivered asynchronously. When inspiration hit or help was needed, the teachers talked and collaborated immediately, in full view of students, rather than wait until 2pm every other Tuesday and when students were gone. Rather than tell people to work  harder, we removed many of the impediments to collaborating – rigid schedules, one teacher per class period, and having students spread across multiple teachers.   The end result was a group of faculty who operated as a unit, with collaboration as the norm rather than an additional duty, because that is what the environment encouraged. This allowed us to put in less effort and yet achieve so much more.