Oct 202012

Making mistakes is okay. It is part of the learning process. We all know this, yet we are compelled to treat the mistake as something wrong. It’s not. The mistake needs to happen. The learner needs to be made aware, given guidance in working through why, and then given the opportunity to build upon that new knowledge. This is not an easy thing to do, though, in the high stakes world that education has become. Too much is riding on the right answers, leading us to treat mistakes as wrong. Tell kids they are wrong too often,however, and they begin to tune out. “I’m not good at Math”. “Science is boring”. These are phrases we hear regularly. The solution can be simple. Acknowledge the mistake as the right thing, the thing that needed to happen. Saying “I am so glad you did it that way so I can show you x,y,z…” or “Thank you for giving us an opportunity to look at this another way” creates an environment that is safe for the imperfect, aka everyone in the room. No judgments are made. The lesson is learned. The skill is attained. Wrong becomes right and onward we go.

Sometimes the little things have the biggest impact.

Special thanks to my co-teacher, Nick, for teaching me this powerful little lesson

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 252012

“Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap” by Drs. Boykin and Noguera

The opening session that I attended was like being shot out of a cannon. Dr. Boykin framed the session around the idea that “school improvement often rests upon good intentions rather than evidence.” An information dense session flowed from there. Dr. Noguera went on to describe why the achievement gap persists: expectations – pre-NCLB we never expected all children to achieve, beliefs – a persistent belief that intelligence is innate rather than a thing to be cultivated, and a lack of skills and strategies to change expectations and beliefs. The system is self propagating and focused in the wrong way. Change the focus and the system can work to improve schools.

“ We disproportionately punish the students with the greatest needs, mostly because we do not meet their needs through exclusion” – Dr. Noguera

Dr. Noguera related stories about children who had disciplinary issues due to problems at home. What did the schools do? Suspend them and send them back in to fire. Children who struggle academically are later classified and sequestered in special education programs where they fall further behind. In his observations, many of the students suffered from ABT (Ain’t Been Taught), not real handicaps. English language learners are often perceived as deficient intellectually rather than simply dealing with the language barrier. Instead, schools should be building the capacity of these students to learn. They should be discipling in ways to teach students to do the right thing regardless of whether adults are present rather than simply removing them from the learning environment.

He referred to these issues as the normalization of failure. A school is suffering from this if:

  • The faculty is accustomed to the predictability of outcomes for different groups of students
  • The school points fingers at students, teachers, community for student failure
  • Believe that culture and biology dictate intelligence rather than opportunity and resources
  • No Sense of Urgency

This normalization of failure leads to a progression of disenfranchisement. It begins in the lower grades with task disengagement, progresses to subject disengagement (I’m not good at math), then school disengagement. Ultimately, the progression ends with structural disenfranchisement where the individual is no longer capable of working within the structure of society as a whole. It is the school to prison pipeline.

To overcome these, schools need to focus on peer support for educators and results oriented practices for students rather than compliance and punitive measures. Positive interactions and relationships are lacking for these students, referred to in the presentation as transactional solutions. Transactional solutions focus on the following three areas:

  • Self-efficacy – The confidence to do a task or participate in an activity
  • Self-regulation – The ability to plan, monitor, and self-assess
  • Belief Change – a shift from the belief that intelligence is innate and fixed to the belief that intelligence is incremental and malleable.

Drs. Boykin and Noguera explained that the three points above are best addressed through a constructivist learning environment that focuses on assets (what a student brings to the table and building from there) rather than a didactic approach focused on deficit reduction. Many failing schools are getting this wrong however. In a study by Deborah Stipek in 2004, the strongest predictor of whether a school engages in didactic methods over constructivist is the percentage of African American students present. These students are being given the opposite of what they need and failing because of it.

“There is a disconnect between academic achievement and child development” – Dr. Boykin

Dr. Noguera went on to discuss the paradigm shift that needs to happen in order for our schools to become places where children thrive. The old paradigm sees intelligence as innate, schools as places to sort and measure children, moves resources to the highest performing students, and uses discipline to weed out bad students. The new paradigm sees intelligence as tied to opportunity and resources, schools as places to draw out and cultivate talent, allocates resources equitably, and uses discipline to correct undesirable behavior. To get to this new paradigm, the conditions must be correct, including:

  • Diagnostic assessment
  • Early intervention
  • Quality control of resources (human, structural, strategic)
  • On-site and ongoing professional development
  • Supportive relationships between students and faculty
  • A faculty culture of sharing
  • An attitude of it’s “cool to be be smart”
  • Shared leadership
  • Partnerships with parents and community

The session was one of the most thought provoking I have ever attended and an indictment of the system as whole. They presenters held us all responsible but also gave us the direction in which we need to move. I will be chewing on this for months.

May 102011

Easy going attitude

Easy going attitude By pierre pouliquin

While optimizing my site tonight, I learned a new method for making the posts accessible to wide a cross-section of people. I did this by adding two plug-ins, odiogo and wptouch, to wordpress. The result is a blog that can be easily read on a mobile device, be read out loud to a person on any device, or saved as an mp3 and taken offline. Admittedly, there is a high geek factor here but what is important is the underlying philosophy – How do we build learning environments that are accessible to all learners? How do we create systems that are adaptable to the needs of every individual within the system?

Try looking at your classroom from this perspective. I bet it looks quite different.

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 – ASCD.org
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.

Mar 292011

 Cross posted at RE:School 
Image by Zen Sutherland

Image by Zen Sutherland

In building the Integrated Studies Program (ISP), we considered all aspects of the learning environment. One that stood out significantly was the idea of the 40 minute class period. In a traditional high school setting, students generally meet for roughly 200 minutes per week per class regardless of what is to be learned and regardless of whether the learner is struggling with the material or mastering it readily. No matter what, the 200 minutes are sacred; teachers are forced to create lessons that fit neatly into 40 minute chunks while meeting the needs of all learners in the room.

We rejected the sanctity of the weekly 200 minutes. We reduced formal class time to 20 – 80 minutes per week per content area dependent upon the needs of the learners (ie – support for a large group project, addressing a common misconception as seen in the data, addressing a state standard being neglected by a group of students, labs). We achieved this by adopting a project based approach tied to standards with the standards tied to online learning modules. This allowed everyone to work asynchronously which, in turn, created time for teachers to work more closely, even one to one, with struggling learners for extended periods of time. The more advanced learners could then move ahead without growing frustrated and bored by the pace of the class. We recognized that formal class time is an aspect of, not the entirety of, the learning environment.

By eliminating the constraint of a rigid schedule, we created an environment where students have the autonomy to advocate for their own learning; the students are now participants in the learning rather than recipients of information. In moving the learning to a more asynchronous environment, school is redefined for the student. The classroom is more student driven as opposed to teacher driven b/c the student now gets to decide how and when to move through the curriculum rather than be directed. Students recognized this change quickly, saying “I am no longer held back by my classes” and “I can do my work when I want”. Moving from equal class time to equitable class time causes a significant change in the class environment.

Mar 062011

Cross posted at Re:School

Several years ago, my colleagues and I recognized that students and teachers in our school were being done a disservice. In response to changing expectations in a high-accountability landscape, members of the school community were being  pressed to work harder without any consideration given towards updating the necessary tools or supporting structures. Pressure to achieve higher test scores stressed individual efforts over overall school environment. By taking the broadest look at the actual roadblocks to success, we articulated the Integrated Studies Program (ISP).

The most noticeable feature of ISP is the 3,500 square foot, freely-configurable room. Around the perimeter are cubicles equipped with desktop computers. Laptops are available for mobile computing. Students may arrange tables and chairs however they see fit. At any given moment, there are students working on and offline, independently or in small groups, and with or without adult direction. There are two conventional classrooms associated with the program where teachers and students perform large group instruction and presentations or work on projects that require a controlled environment outside the main area. The intention of this is to make an immanently flexible space that may be adapted to the needs of the learning community rather than force individuals to adapt to the artificial constraints imposed by the space. Removing the physical barriers between the classrooms allows the faculty to create a cohesive community with a common language and expectations with little expense of effort. It happens naturally because that is what the environment encourages. Isolation breeds inconsistency between classrooms and that isolation no longer existed.

Rethinking curriculum, schedule, and learning spaces created the opportunity for a number of notable outcomes. Replacing closed classrooms as the centers of activity with an open working environment allowed learning to be social and collaborative for students and teachers, better representing the professional environments students will encounter as adults. Eliminating the schedule and pacing guides, we were more able to teach literacy skills throughout the curriculum. By blending math with science instruction we were better able to make abstract concepts more concrete. Situating science within historical context helped students connect esoteric content to their world. By removing the barriers among content areas, students create deeper meaning for the topics they are studying.

By changing the conditions of the classroom, we changed as teachers in fundamental ways. We developed as professionals at an extraordinary rate. We observed, we collaborated, we provided constant feedback to one another, we held each other accountable, we picked each other up when one of us had an off day. Even the best administration could not have promoted the type of growth that we promoted in each other. The students witnessed all of this and the interpersonal interactions between them improved greatly because of it.

The key to our success is that ISP is classroom driven. We can better meet the individual needs of all children because we are no longer restricted by what are, ultimately, arbitrary structures put in place for managerial convenience. Even though teacher leadership at this depth has a tendency to make those in administration uncomfortable, the feeling can be overcome by each side recognizing that meeting the needs of children is the ultimate goal and meaningful work towards that end is sometimes difficult yet always worthwhile.