What Makes a School Great?

Almost a month has past since the NAIS annual conference, and many of the ideas shared are still present in the back of my mind. The theme of the conference was “Think Big, Think Great,” and outgoing president Pat Bassett asked us to come up with our list of 25 factors that make schools great. His list is quite impressive, and it was hard to come up with 25 of my own. Instead, as I read each one, I began to see some commonalities among them all.

Relationships: Whether the focus is on students, teachers, families, administrators or the greater community, the things that make a great school on Mr. Bassett’s list all depend on forging strong relationships.

Communication: To achieve all those factors, a school needs to have excellent communication among all constituents.

Values: Whatever the values are for a particular school,  a school needs to be purposeful in its endeavors and have that work shaped by its values.

It’s hard to come up with a list of 25, but if you click on the link above and look at Mr. Bassett’s, I think you’ll see these three things woven throughout. Maybe you’ll see more.

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Reflecting on Presenting at #NAISAC13

One of the things I love best about learning is sharing that experience with my students. After all, learning is what I ask them to do each day. I learned so much from presenting at the National Association of Independent School’s (NAIS) Annual Conference, and it’s great to share the process with my second graders.

Today, for example, two of my students had to present something to the class. One shared with the class the adventure of her Flat Stanley, and the other presented a book report. It was important to let them know that what I am asking of them isn’t arbitrary, but something their own teacher engaged in last week. I didn’t talk about the topic of the presentation as that wasn’t pertinent to them, but I did briefly talk about the process.

The session at the conference was called “Revolutionize Your Professional Development.”

Description of session from conference program.

Description of session from conference program.

I presented with Kim Sivick, Liz Davis, and Shannon Montague. We all teach in different states, met initially through social media, and all had different reasons for wanting to present on this topic. One thing that we all had in common, though, was that we were passionate about this model of professional development, and wanted others to bring it to their schools.

Kim is a founding member of edcamps and on the edcamp foundation. Liz was instrumental in getting edcampIS to happen and has been involved in many other unconferences. Shannon and I have both helped organize edcamps, and Shannon recently organized PD in her school using the unconference format.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of risk involved when collaborating with four educators from four different parts of the country, but we trusted each other and we trusted the topic.

I remember that we all had this grand idea that we’d run a mini un-conference in order to inform, persuade, and have participants experience the process itself. The beauty of unconferences is that people get to partake in the conversation, not just sit and listen. We wanted to model good teaching practices and move away from the ‘sit and get’ lecture format that large conferences and other professional development workshops tend to favor.

During our first google hangout, about halfway through the meeting, after we had talked about resources, chart paper, and getting people moving out of their seats, we realized that we were possibly headed in the wrong direction. We needed to think about who our main audience was, and what our space would be like.

We all worked on what we thought our strengths were and started there. Liz suggested the framework: “What, So What, Now What.” We worked on our parts and played with google presentation, so that we could collaborate on the same document. Then once we were more or less agreed on our slide deck, we transferred them to Power Point and shared it through our dropbox accounts.

I was happy to give the ‘So What’ part of the presentation as I am a person who will dive head first into anything if there is a clear and meaningful purpose. I can list many reasons why I believe in this format of professional development, but I’m not an expert, so I pulled experts where I could. Daniel Pink for motivation, Carol Dweck for mindset, Roland Barth for collegiality, and Sir Ken Robinson for teacher leadership and bottom-up approaches to things (in which he used the word ‘revolution’). We couldn’t be happier. Just for good measure, I threw in a quote by Albert Camus for people to reflect upon when they were leaving. I knew it might have been a little much, but there are those who love philosophy. Besides, the quote fit, which was what was important.

“Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

I also agreed to try and go through our slide deck and try to give it a uniform look, while respecting the content of my colleagues. I’ll share my thoughts about Power Point in a later post, but all four of us came from the same place, so that was easy.

The four of us met several more times virtually, gave each other feedback, revised, edited, and finally met in person the day before to make our final tweaks.

I have to say, I was anxious. Public speaking is not my strength, but I believe strongly that I  have to push myself to do what I ask my students to do. I also believe that in order to get better at it, I have to do it.

Well, I’m glad I did it. To spread the word of something I believe in, to collaborate with such amazing educators, to push myself to try something new, to have my school recognized, and to learn, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’m glad to be back in my classroom, but glad to know when I say to my students, “I know what I’m asking you to do is hard, but it’s rewarding,” I can say so truthfully.

Thanks to Kim and Shannon for uploading our slides.

Hold Fast to Dreams

I was listening to Roland Barth, founder of the Principal’s Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Ed., Allison Gaines Pell, founding principal of The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters, and Irvin Scott, deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who were on a panel discussing the role of the principal today. While they all approached questions from different perspectives, there were many things they all felt strongly about.

Barth began with this quote from E. B. White: “A man must have something to cling to. Without that he is a pea vine sprawling in search of a trellis.”

That trellis, according to Bart is learning. A principal shouldn’t be one who is learned, but one who learns. One who takes risks in order to find out better ways to do things. In order to find out how to better instruct, principals must also keep engaged in instruction. “Teaching is at the center of a principal’s role,” said Barth. “Effective teachers need to be supported by effective principals.”

On knowing, Pell stated that every principal needed to know the new common core standards. She herself admitted to be very “anti-standards”, but she said they were good, because they were simple (in terms of knowing them) and, for the first time standards in Washington would be the same as standards in New York.

When asked what was hurting education, Barth replied, accountability. Both he and Scott believe accountability was a good thing, but the way it is currently framed in education is “corrosive.” Basically the message from all the policy makers is “Learn or we will hurt you.” This doesn’t matter if you are a student or a superintendent, the message is the same. It is pernicious and extinguishes life long learning. It is pervasive throughout our profession. Instead, accountability should be framed as, “Learn or you will hurt yourself.”

On Saturday, I sat through a two-and-a-half hour lecture by Richard Felmore who basically said that teaching in the US is NOT a profession. He gave various reasons including how we compensate our teachers, fail to actively recruit bright young minds into the field, and many others. One thing teachers need to do is to start engaging in what he calls, “Instructional Rounds.” Like in the medical field, teachers observe each other instruct, give feedback by describing to each other what they see, and look for ways to improve their instruction. It’s not punitive and the only reward is improving your craft. What is needed, however, is a) the culture to change so that being observed isn’t always equated with being evaluated, and b) the structures and time for this to occur.

I just finished reading Elmore’s book Instructional Rounds in Education and believe there are a few ways I can engage in this even though the culture, time, and structures don’t yet exist at my school. I just have to find those already willing to change the culture, be creative with the time, and figure out my own structure for doing this. It is not the easiest read, but if you’re interested in the concept it’s not unlike coaching. In fact, a great article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande appeared a few weeks ago and addresses this idea really well. I highly recommend reading it.

Irvin Scott closed the panel discussion saying that people enter education for a reason. A good one. And he ended the evening by  quoting Lanston Hughes’ poem Dreams:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

What Are Teacher Leadership Standards?

It was a marathon of a day with little time between to take in all that I was learning between sessions. One session that resonated with me was the call for identifying teacher leaders and giving them various responsibilities – not as add-ons, but by providing them the structures to take on these responsibilities. According to Kathryn Boles, we lose too many of our best teachers and attrition rates are too high. Many teachers do not want to become a principal/head of school, but they aren’t given the opportunities to be the change agents they want to be while still in the classroom. There are seven domains/standards for teacher leaders that have been identified.

Domain I: Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Domain II: Accessing and Using Research to Improve Practice and Student Learning

Domain III: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement

Domain IV: Facilitating Improvements in Instruction and Student Learning

Domain V: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement

Domain VI: Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community

Domain VII: Advocating for Student Learning and the Profession

You can get a lot more information about all these standards at this site (still under construction, but already very good). Every administrator should know about this site. Not only have standards for teacher leaders been developed, but the supporting strategies to support these have also been identified.

  • Increase the capcity to create staffing models that include differentiated career options for teachers. It’s shouldn’t solely be just teacher ==> assistant principal ==> principal ==> superintendent.
  • Develop new structures for licensing and/or credentialing teacher leaders.
  • Engage stakeholders in developing criteria-based models for the selection of teachers to serve in formalized leadership roles.
  • Develop systems for reward and recognition of the contributions of teachers in formal and informal leadership roles.
  • Establish compensation systems that recognize teacher leadership roles, knowledge, and skills.
  • Establish a performance management and evaluation system that is consistent with the identified and varied roles of teacher leaders.

I’ve a lot more to add on this one topic alone, but as I mentioned, the schedule is packed solid – Fantastic, but full. In fact, I’m getting ready for another 12-hour day of learning which starts in 15 minutes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to break some of the things I’m learning down into little chunks and how they apply to the classroom. In the meantime, check out that link above.

Elite New York “Pressure Cooker” Schools are Rethinking Homework

An article about homework in this weekend’s nytimes couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time, as I continue to search and explore ways to make homework (now called “home learning” in our second grade classes) be meaningful.

Sending a worksheet home, so that it can be returned the next day for the sake of compliance is not the message I want students to get. If I have to assign it, and kids have to do it, it has to have purpose beyond that. Being prepared to share something in class with their peers is valuable.  So is practicing various skills as long as there is immediate and meaningful feedback. Unfortunately, over the course of a regular busy schoolday, one often doesn’t have a chance to check a child’s homework until after the end of the day, so by the time a child receives feedback, was the home learning task really that successful?

Towards the end of last year, I thought I’d give Kahn Academy a try, and while it worked for some, it didn’t achieve what I was hoping. What I did like was the immediate feedback kids were getting at home. Sal Kahn spoke at our regional conference this year and I was surprised how novel his ideas seemed to many teachers.  He isn’t the only one who’s been trying new things, but he’s been endorsed by Bill Gates and has also done a TED talk, so he’s definitely more visible.

So this year, my teaching partner suggested some other online tools which were more age appropriate than Kahn’s, covered multiple subjects so that kids could have some choice in their learning, used tech in a way that allowed for immediate feedback, and allowed us to still included elements that required kids to be prepared to share as well as take some responsibility to bring certain things back to school (even though it might not be daily).

Well, I wouldn’t call it a complete success after the first month. There were a lot of elements to consider, and some we have reconsidered.  Many things, however did work. There are elements that really seem to be doing what we hoped, and they just need to be revised and tweaked. In the classroom, my students have begun to start appreciating the idea of process and revision and not always about getting it right on the first try. It’s great that I can show kids that it is also how adults learn. We didn’t get it right on the first try, but we’ll see how the adjustments go, and report back. Thanks to all my students’ parents who provided excellent feedback in helping us refine it.

It’s nice, though, to know the most elite independent schools in New York (not that it should be a measure of anything) are also working on similar issues. We too, will be giving a “Home Learning” holiday on October 31st!

Begin With Ourselves

Diversity can be a touchy subject. It can make people uncomfortable. Diversity, however cannot be ignored. We need to talk about it.

Today, as part of our in-service days, we had a facilitator guide us on beginning that conversation. It was a great start because it wasn’t a session led by someone who had all the answers, but because it was someone who helped us talk, begin to refine, and help us agree on how we define various terms. She started us out with 7 terms:

  • Diversity
  • Cultural Competency
  • Multicultural Curriculum
  • Inclusivity
  • Privilege
  • Equity
  • Multiple Perspectives
All of these can have multiple meanings, and all are important in beginning an honest, safe talk on diversity. An example that came up was a possible hiring practice in an independent school. If it says on the job description: Masters degree and 5 years of independent school experience recommended, is the school potentially ruling out diverse voices that come from a public or parochial school?
For some, diversity brings up the notion of “been there, done that,” but really, diversity is an ongoing endeavor. It promotes social justice, takes away assumptions and prejudices, and teaches us that there is value in what is different. Our school values states that we “actively cultivate and awareness and respect for diversity in all its forms.” Before we can do that with our students, our families, and our greater community, we need to begin with ourselves.
Our facilitator began with an excellent TED talk which I’ve included below. It really is worth the 18 minutes.

5 Things I Did for PD this Summer

An indepentdent school IT director from CT,  Lorri Caroll is another educator who blogs. I also found her through twitter as I continue to try to grow my professional learning network. I’d recommended reading her blog from time to time as she has some amazing insights. She also runs the weekly #isedchat on twitter every Thursday 6pm on twitter. Her recent blog post titld 5 Awesome things I did for PD this Summer inspired me to do the same.

If you want kids to be life-long learners, I believe you have to model it yourself. Summer is a great time for relaxation, but I also managed to find some good PD in that time.

1. Taught summer school. I’ve read about problem/project based learning, 90 minute class periods, multi-aged classes and such, but never tried it. So I took a three week teaching gig with the Summe Institute for the Gifted and boy, did I learn a lot. Some of which I’m going to try and incorporate in my classroom this school year.

2. Attended the ISTE conference. I was blown away by the shear size of it, let a lone the incredible amount of learning that took place.

3. Participated in our school’s Summer Plannng Institute. It was incredible. Change is hard, but I believe our school, through this institute hit critical mass interms of developing a culture of professional learners who share, are clear, trust one another, and want to get better all the time. I love it!

4. Read A New Culture of Learning which is one I highly recommend (it reframes how one might look at things). Short easy read, but powerful insights. Partook in the twitter book club for this book, and looking forward to a follow up webinar by the author.

5. Learning how to use social media responsibly. The riots in London last week were sobering, but a good reminder about how we need to teach responsible use to our children. How can we do this if we don’t engage in social media, blogging, etc. ourselves. A silly post I made had almost 15,000 hits. Then I got a call from cnn.com for an interview. I said yes, because even if they misquoted me to sound ridiculous. I would have learned something. I think I played it too safe. They did not use any of our conversation. Still a good learning experience.

But wait… there’s more. Maybe another time.