Jun 072014

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Community, above everything else, is the goal for which our schools should strive. Every conversation I experienced at #EdcampUSA looped back to the idea that schools need be communities of practice. Having a community focus creates more opportunities for student achievement, better professional learning, and truly progressive and innovative practice because the environment is safe, supportive, and focused upon the needs of the community members. A strong community is resilient against the shocks of individuals leaving and is better equipped to accept and assimilate newcomers.


The first session I attended was facilitated by Susan Bearden entitled How Should Schools be Evaluated. The group spent most of the time, however, defining what schools should value. It was a necessary first step to a huge topic. I honestly wish we had all day to discuss it for both the importance of the idea and because Susan is a great facilitator. As we defined what a school should be and evaluated upon, it became apparent that many of the suggestions were trying to overcome the problems with the way we do education now, but wouldn’t exist if we did it differently. If schools were judged upon their ability to foster community, many of the other concerns – student engagement, staff buy-in, behavioral issues – would fall away naturally. This was supported by a number of personal experiences shared throughout the conversation.


Session two, facilitated by Jared Wastler, was all about innovation in school. What does it look like and how do we foster it? There was a recognition that innovation is scary because it “destroys” as much as it “creates”, especially if it is happening above the classroom level. Innovation renders practices and positions obsolete while creating new opportunities. Again, community is the foundation upon which innovations may be built. The community supports innovators both when they succeed and fail, provides feedback for better outcomes, and mitigates the destructive effects of innovation by finding new roles for people affected in a secondary / tertiary manner. You want innovation? Build a strong community of trust first.


During block 3, I facilitated a session called Scheduling: The Only Technology that Matters. It was a cheeky title aimed at a group that places high value in electronics but, a topic that I feel carries significant truth. The schedule, more than anything else, facilitates or hinders a group’s ability to build a community. The schedule determines who is with whom, where ,and when. Look at a traditional schedule from the people perspective – One teacher, with disparate groups of students for specific periods of time, all day long. It makes collaborating a hassle to be overcome. As a point of comparison, I shared the schedule for a program my colleagues and I built called simply The Learning Community (LC for short, in the link above). Typically in the upper grades, the schedule is organized, with near ubiquity, around content delivery  – Algebra, English, World History, Biology, etc. Everything after that requires serious contortions of the schedule to achieve. Our system, however, focused upon the types of social interactions we wanted to see – inquiry, collaboration, and above all, community. We achieved this through cross curricular team teaching and a daily, community wide, 20% time called Advisory. Through this we achieved a system that is nimble and flexible to meet the needs of all community members. Students have a significant safety net with at least 2 and sometimes as many as 5 adults to lean on at any time. Advisory affords time for peer teaching, small group instruction, and processing time. Having all of the adults together created a level of consistency in methods, curriculum, and expectations that would be impossible to achieve otherwise. The team teaching also created all day opportunities for peer coaching and over 6 hours a week for PLC type activities all within the contracted work day. Community flourished all because we committed to one change – rethinking the schedule.


For the final session, David Timony facilitated a session called Kicking Against the Goads or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rebellion. The premise of this session was to find ways to encourage people to do the right thing even though it may be personally painful or damaging, in other words, to kick back against the piercing goads that are driving us towards malpractice. Let’s be honest, there really is a lot of bad ideas, damaging ideas, coming from legislatures, “advocacy” groups, and various Departments of Education from around country. Rather than push back, many districts choose acquiescence. Individuals who instead, choose to reject these bad practices to protect students, the profession, and in some cases, democracy in general, find themselves alienated within their own districts, maybe even fired. Again, the one thing we kept touching upon was the need for strong community. It provides support and empowers individual to stand against the nonsense that is being imposed around the country.


So, in summary, my big takeaway from Edcamp USDOE is that if we want to move schools forward, then we need to focus on building schools into communities first!

 Posted by at 12:17 pm
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
Oct 232011

New evaluation methods are being tested that could have a significant impact upon tenure, pay, and seniority rights here in New Jersey where I teach. The pilot program embraces many of the ideas in vogue right now. Up to half of the evaluation would be based on “student performance” aka proficiency on standardized testing. Merit payis also a possibility.The new methods are well rooted in the Waiting for Superman school of thought; that an effective teacher is the most important factor, maybe the only factor that matters, in a child’s success in school.

“When you see a great teacher, you are seeing a work of art “ – Geoffrey Canada

The Superman mindset is a seductive one. Who doesn’t want superhuman beings to just walk in and be able to fix any situation because they are, well, just super? It places all of the burden for a child’s success squarely in the lap of the classroom teachers while absolving all decision makers of responsibility. This mentality makes it possible to slash school budgets, to remove resources, to cause class sizes to balloon while at the same time allowing schools to stagnate
without any repercussions. For those expected to be super, it is all accountability with little autonomy. Why should we change anything? You’re super, deal with it.

Never mind that Superman is from another planet. I guess none of us are qualified to teach under this paradigm.

As a model for education, maybe we should look to a superhero that could actually exist – Ironman. Where Superman’s abilities are innate, Ironman’s are cultivated through a combination of creativity, imagination, and resources. The Ironman mindset is one where challenges are identified and solutions are engineered. If parental involvement is a problem, adopt systems that actually make them part of the learning process rather than simple recipients of information. If collaboration and consistency are issues, rethink how students are rostered to teachers. If attendance is a problem, find ways to make common time and place less important.Where the Superman mindset places blame, the Ironman mindset requires work. It places responsibility upon the keepers of the system. It requires initiative and a will to change.  It requires significant investments in time and effort from all stakeholders. It is a commitment to ongoing improvement, of identifying challenges and building systems to overcome them, and taking personal responsibility. Ultimately, however, it is a mindset that will reap rewards because anybody can be an Ironman.

Getting back to the new evaluation pilots, there is little to do with the organization’s responsibility to build capacity. It focuses almost completely upon teaching “better, faster, more”. The only systems that are being revamped serve as sticks to punish poor performance. It tells teachers to play it safe lest they risk loosing their jobs. It is a BE super mindset. There is little to build that capacity to improve.
Superman is an alien who was super. Ironman created the capacity to be super. Who are we really waiting for?
Jul 282011

Which better represents the organization of your school?

“You Need…”


“I need…”

Perspective is everything here.