Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Multi-Tiered Supports for Student-Centered Learning

This article was cross-published in Iowa ASCD The Source Vol. 18, number 5. March 2, 2018
Written by Jen Sigrist

In Iowa, we implement a Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) to meet learner needs.
This system level work is a great entry point into personalized, competency-based learning.
While many think these are two separate initiatives, the work is parallel in the belief that
learning is the focus, not the amount of time a student is in the seat. Learning isn’t the same
for each child and both MTSS and personalized, competency-based approaches recognize
that truth.

For a variety of reasons including the state’s work to support the focus on learning through
MTSS, classroom practices are shifting to a focus on learning - “What do my students need?”
- instead of the traditional focus on teaching - “What am I going to do today?” Done alone
and in isolation, the focus on what each student needs can be overwhelming for a teacher.
So the system has to respond to support this more personalized, learning-focused approach
we ask teachers to take in their classrooms.

“If there is no consistency in how teachers approach differentiated support, your
school is not going to be effective at responding to the individual learning needs of
each student. In effective schools, it doesn’t matter which teacher a students is
assigned to; all students receive differentiated support” (Stack and Vander Els, 2018).

One of the five principles of Competency-based Education (CBE) is that “Students receive
rapid, personalized support based on individual learning needs” (Iowa Department of
Education, 2016). MTSS is a decision-making framework that operates “...by examining
data on the educational system as well as identifying students who need additional
supports” (“Iowa's Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)”). What’s similar? A focus on
supporting individual students showing need in a responsive way--not waiting until they
fail--is a keystone of both MTSS and CBE.

Individual teachers can make big strides in providing the type of personalized supports
students need. Yet, they cannot sustain the effort and do it well on their own. When the
system responds as a whole, a student can be ensured of supports that are timely and
personalized to his/her needs.

MTSS is a great entry point into the work of CBE. It’s not the only one, but it’s a common
entry point. Often systems that start to operationalize MTSS well start to ask the question,
“How well am I growing the proficient students?” or, “What interventions can I provide around
other local indicators of success (those beyond reading and math)? How do I handle the
classroom when I have so many students needing different things from me? These questions
are the same questions thata personalized, competency-based approach to instruction can

MTSS and CBE are not synonymous, rather MTSS can lead one into furthering the system level
work where students are at the center of everything we do. Furthering the IDE’s and LEAs’
priority of developing robust Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) through shifts educators
make in assessment practices and just-in-time supports is a reality with learner-centered
approaches. Rapid, personalized support using learner-centered approaches rather than
school-centric ones places the focus squarely on growth mindset, goal setting, self-direction,
reassessment, and customized enrichment and remediation, where students and teachers are
partners in the design and demonstration of learning.

Iowa Department of Education. 2016. Iowa Department of Education guidelines for PK-12
competency-based education. Retrieved from https://www.educateiowa.gov/sites/

“Iowa's Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).” Iowa Department of Education, 2018,

Stack, Brian M., and Vander Els Jonathan G. Breaking with Tradition: the Shift to
Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work. Solution Tree Press, 2018.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Leadership for Personalized Learning

In a predictable future with a steady set of employment opportunities, the statement coming from in front of the classroom, "Now listen up; you'll need to know this for the test." doesn't seem out of place. From our children's view point, what they see as their future, however, makes this scenario seem like ancient history.

But we know teacher-centered, one-size-fits-all instruction is current reality for most students. Supporting teachers to change their practices - the practices they probably learned just fine with as students themselves - is an awesome opportunity for school leaders. But how? 

Here are 5 ideas for leaders to consider as they help educators implement personalized learning:
  • Believe in your teachers. How many times to you make small, subtle comments that indicate you don't really think they can meet the challenge? They can do it. They have to. You will help them. You will succeed.
  • Don't take resistance as, "I will not." It's more likely to be, "I don't know how," or "I don't want to make a mistake."
  • Show your belief in innovation and risk-taking. Highlight the work of teachers willing to try new things.
  • Communicate the vision. Live and breathe the vision. Understanding and believing in the "why" behind personalized learning makes the "what" so much easier to do.
  • Be ready to help find resources (and I'm not talking big bucks). Help teachers find articles, videos, things they can try in their classroom on personalized learning. Cover a teacher's class, so they can see a colleague in action.
Where do you start? Start by personalizing professional learning. Show your staff you are doing it too. Run professional development like you are the teacher you want each of them to be (but you want them to be even better). Get their feedback and have them co-design it with you. Once they experience it, they can do it. Be a risk-taker. You can do it. You believe in this. You have a great team. You will succeed.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Note to Self - Wellness is not Selfish

I'm sitting in my office after another great SAI Conference thinking about all that I've learned. A common theme in this year's "Reimagine" conference is to take care of your well-being, so you can take care of those around you (and be a better leader). It reminds me of the airline safety demonstrations regarding oxygen masks:

I'm reimagining my outlook that personal wellness time is time spent selfishly. I'm reimagining how a healthier me can positively impact my work, my life, and my school district.

I know my attitude affects the culture of the building. I believe myself to be a positive person and consider my dedication to my work as a plus. It's that dedication and busy-ness that has helped me let my workouts and nutrition slide a bit. They hadn't seemed as important as getting that email sent, creating a graphic for a presentation coming up, or getting my kids' bags organized or room cleaned.

The closing keynote speaker, Anese Cavanaugh, helped me see something from a new perspective. I had never considered my lack of self-care as a negative toward all the things I care about: my ability to be a good mom and wife, my ability to lead, my role in creating a positive environment. I hadn't considered that giving more to the organization at the expense of my health and well being could actually be negatively impacting the people and the place that I care so much about.

Big Idea #1: If I show up tired and lacking energy, I create a culture around me that reflects that.

At the opening keynote, Eric Wahl encouraged us all to "UNthink" schooling. Creativity isn't reserved for the Picasso's of the world; traditional school makes us think so. Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk on the subject a few years ago gave me some background to that idea. Hearing and seeing the presentation by Eric Wahl made me think about my role in encouraging and supporting our teachers to be creative themselves. How can our organization have the kind of climate for the adults that we want to foster for our students? Just as I know I have to support each teacher in their role in creating this environment, I was able to see that I have a role in it for myself too.

Big Idea #2: If I believe in supporting teachers to be creative, innovative leaders in our work of educating children and if I believe that they do that better if they are healthy and surrounded by a positive environment, I must also believe that for myself.

Even SAI had a message directly to administrators to support this message of personal wellness. SAI's catch life program operates on the belief that to be the best leaders we can be, we need to have a work-life balance that focuses on our personal wellness as a way to support our organizational wellness.

Ok, I'm in.

So, here's the the little note I'm writing to myself to re-read throughout the year to remind me of the energy, excitement, belief and commitment I have in the 2016-2017 school year:

Dear Jen,
Today you recognized your personal role in impacting culture. You see how you are as important in the culture of the district as the teachers you are working to support. Your health and well-being allow you to come to work energized and to be present for the people who look to you for resources, guidance, and support. You believe the greatest resource this district has are the teachers within it; these adults are the ones that make a child's day - your two boys' day - be what it is going to be. You are not more or less important than they are. You are as important. Your health and well being are important to the work you believe in so much. You are not giving the best of yourself to anyone if you don't take care of yourself first. 
 Choose to make this a great year!
-- Signed your inner voice

Monday, March 21, 2016

Moving Towards Badges - Not so fast!

Google "badges" and a variety of images appear
Let's bring in a badging system to recognize all the great work going on! 

I thought I had this great, quick little idea to generate some celebrations in our school. There are so many teachers doing so many great things that badging seemed like an idea that could really support our culture of continuous improvement and add in some celebration and recognition. More importantly to me, it would be a way to share those great things with others, so great ideas could spread more rapidly.

While the idea was met with support, it was also met with caution. What will this do to the culture of our district? Will it be a competition with a leader board? Will this be another hoop to jump through? "I don't want people to think I'm bragging. What will I have to do to get one?"

To start, I read what higher ed institutions were doing as well as organizations in the world of work. I wanted to see how others were addressing some of the same questions we had as we started creating this system. I enjoyed the resources found here from the educators in Auburn, Maine. I also read an article on the University of Indiana's badging pilot. There are many other sites out there. These are just a couple I found helpful. There are some local districts in Iowa who have used badges too. 

Nevada Community Schools - http://badges.nevadacubs.org/
Bettendorf Community Schools - Technology badges (as they moved to 1:1)
Waverly - Shell Rock Technology Integration

There are cultural considerations to take into account as we proceeded with the idea. Here are a series of questions and steps we took as we've started to implement badges. My hope, like with all posts, is that maybe by sharing I can help others learn and avoid the mistakes already made. Make new ones!

What's the purpose? What will we gain by doing this?
  • Recognize: We have teachers doing amazing things and they don't always get the recognition they deserve. Most don't care about that recognition, but we all know that being told you are doing great work matters.
  • Celebrate: We want to bring ideas into our culture that support the positive, continuous learning environment. Badges seem like a way we can create winners in our organization for work they are already doing.
  • Share: Even though we are small and operate as a K-12 culture, teachers are often reluctant to share with other teachers the great things they are doing because they don't want to come off as bragging or boastful. In their modesty, we lose out on ideas spreading more quickly. If someone earns a badge, their idea/work is shared on a Google Site we created to house our instructional framework. Badges help colleagues see that they have a colleague they can go to for more information, ideas and support related to a particular topic.

What is badge-worthy?
  • We had to define what we expect for all teachers before we could say what was above and beyond. We created, "Learning Targets for All Van Meter Teachers" as a way to define what we expect from everyone (and that PD will directly support).
  • Badges are for work toward our district vision that is above and beyond the learning targets we expect from all teachers. See examples of badges here. 
    • Big Discussion Item: Badges aren't required in our district.
How will this tie into performance reviews, evaluations, Iowa Teaching standards and Individual Professional Development Plan's?
  • In our learning targets for all teachers document (linked above), we showed how each of the Van Meter specific items relate to the Iowa Teaching Standards. We listed suggestions for artifacts in a teacher's portfolio as well. 
  • Big Discussion Item: Badges are not part of our evaluation process.
What process will we use to submit work for consideration?
  • We created a Google form to use when a person or team was ready to submit work for a badge. This formal process is a little long yet and is something we are still refining. We want it to be quick yet thorough.
What will a badge look like? Who can create it?
Sample badge created by Basno.com
  • I started out by trying to create my own. Clip Art is pretty amazing. Then, I realized I needed a system to help organize and track the badges.
    • Big Discussion Item: We want to get the great work communicated out to a larger audience. How will we track badges and why do we want to? For us, getting the names and work of our teachers out to a larger audience was an important piece.
  • There are a variety of systems to help. We used Basno.com (fee based) for the creation of the badges, digital presence and ability to track a badges traffic online. There are others that are free and can do much of the same. Basno was the only one I found that tracks online analytics though. I investigated credly.com, classbadges.com, openbadges.org
  • We want our badges to be digital so staff can link them on their webpages and email signature lines if they wanted. 
How will we communicate with our staff about this?
  • Our teacher leaders were critical in sharing information with staff and bringing back ideas for us to consider as a leadership team. It was from their work that the Learning Targets for All Van Meter Teachers was created. 
  • Administration had to communicate to all staff on more that one occasion the true purpose of the badges. We wanted to be sure it didn't come across as "one more thing". Teacher leaders commented on how they benefited from the administration taking lead on the communication and then they followed up with reassurance and ideas.
    • Big Discussion Item: We don't want this to feel like a competition. At one point we did consider a leader board so everyone could see the badges of their colleagues in one place. Instead, we are using our intranet to highlight the work submitted, not the badge. This way we are sharing the examples of changes in instruction and student learning as the focus.
How will we hand-out the badges so it is seen as a celebration? 
  • An idea we picked up from Waverly - Shell Rock folks was to hand the badges out to teachers in front of their students, instead of in front of other staff members. The idea of being recognized in front of peers was a little more embarrassing, while recognizing a teacher's work in front of their own students seems more rewarding and celebration-like.
What expectations do we have for people once they earn a badge?
  • Share your learning with others. Keep on learning. That's it.
How will we know that it is impacting the things we want it to?
  • We have collected data for the past 5 years on Tracking and Assessing Cultural Shifts as we implement the PLC model. The celebration section of the data has been consistently our lowest category, while others have improved over time. We decided we had enough of the other pieces in place to address this part of the data. 
We hope that implementing badges will make a significant contribution to our positive culture. We are just in our initial phases and I look forward to sharing more about how the work of our teachers is making this such a great place to be!

If you are implementing badges at your school, I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Physical Space Makes a Difference

Empowered Collaborative Learners
One of the things we believe in for our students is the need to be collaborative learners.  Problem solving and creativity rarely happen as solely an individual pursuit. We are social creatures who depend on others for so many things including our learning.  Our vision for learning requires a different kind of space to support the interactive, messy, sometimes chaotic, always changing, and noisy process that is learning. So, how do we support this type of student learning?

Team-Based Professional Development
Professional development, is certainly part of changing the learning environment.  Learning for adults mirrors the type of learning we want for students. We are team based with 3 hours of collaborative PD time in each week. K-12 teams and grade level/content area teams meet weekly. This supports our professional learning community (PLC) model where teachers own the learning and decide the direction they need to take to work towards our district vision.

Setting team goals, viewing and giving feedback on instruction and discussing articles and student work require a collaborative space. As our PD model has become more entrenched, teacher teams naturally started gravitating to rooms where there were tables instead of desks. They went where there were comfortable chairs on wheels and spaces that were more open.  They started asking for different types of furniture in their own rooms. Now, all our team meetings happen in rooms with no student desks (and we still have plenty of rooms that have student desks yet - finances are still a reality).

The Difference Furniture Can Make
The furniture in a learning space says a lot about what you believe learning should look like. If desks are all placed in rows, it says, "No talking. Be Quiet. Listen" Likewise, when furniture is arranged in groups, it communicates something about cooperative learning. What does it say when there are a variety of types of furniture that are easily movable for students? We believe it says, "You have a choice. What type of setting is best for what you need to learn and accomplish?"

When it's a chore to move furniture, it rarely gets moved. If it does get moved, it is usually through a planned lesson on the teacher part where he/she allows the furniture to be moved. It's a chore and rarely spontaneous.

As we encourage students to take more ownership in their learning, to become empowered learners, it seem contradictory to say, "Now do it quietly in these nice rows of desks." Instead, flexibility in space and furniture has become key. Sometimes we need to sit and listen; sometimes we need to sit and work alone; many times we need to talk with others to do our best work. Our space design tried to take into account flexibility. We planned a variety of learning spaces with a variety of furniture to support student choice, comfort and need. The picture below is the furniture design for a collaboration space in our building.

Here's the actual picture of the collaboration space. Campfire seating (circular) lends itself to conversation. You should have heard these students (left) when they walked in the collaboration room as they prepared for the technology class. They were so excited to enter the room and they raced to the middle area seating where they just started talking about their projects. No one wanted to be left out. Some pulled up chairs to join. Besides this campfire seating there is a high top table with 8 seats, three white board tables that can be grouped to seat 6, there are two soft seating groupings in the room, bean bags and easily movable stools.

Thinking About Unique Learning Spaces
When you envision a place for your teachers to collaborate and learn, how does the furniture support that?  This space pictured to the right was too small to be a classroom, and is just off the collaboration space pictured above. This became a perfect place for adult learning resources. You might not notice the technology access in the space. An interactive whiteboard, Apple TV, mobile devices, and Swivl recording devices are all housed here. Yes, there's a treadmill in the PLC Room for teachers to use while they watch video, read, learn or just have down time (desk for it is being designed by our high school shop class). The furniture can be easily moved from the sofa look to a campfire look.

The lobby space has had a variety of furniture in it over the past 7 years I've been here. It has always been a congregation place for students. Various pieces of furniture have come and gone in the space. As students gave input on the types of furniture they preferred, one high top table seating 8-10 students (instead of shorter, smaller tables) is the main seating area in our lobby. Along with a long sofa piece and a smaller grouping of soft chairs, the lobby is a hub for student learning throughout the day.

When thinking about the types of learning experiences students need to be regularly engaging with as 21st century learners, collaborative problem solvers is surely part of the mix. With just a couple of furniture changes made in these existing spaces, we are already starting to see our students gravitating toward these spaces. It supports the feel of our building that learning happens everywhere.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My Learning on Dyslexia

The state of Iowa added a definition of dyslexia into code last spring, and it's bringing attention to the learning disability in public schools.  Really I'd liken it to an awareness similar to that of recognizing how many cars of a particular type are on the road once I bought one. Now that there is a definition in code for it, I'm surprised by how many resources there are (and aren't, in most cases) for dyslexia.

My journey started a couple of months ago when I attended a Decoding Dyslexia Iowa evening event. I was an educator-listener attending with my friend who has a dyslexic child; I was support for her. I was also prepared to be in defender of public schools. While there were moments that I felt those hairs on the back of my neck stand up, most of the evening was spent sharing information and seeing schools as partners (yay!). It was helping parents understand that schools had no training in specific strategies to use with dyslexic students and that information and training was a key part in helping the child.

While I believe strongly in partnerships between home and school, I left that meeting thinking that it shouldn't be on parents to educate me or my teachers. As an instructional leader, I should take on the responsibility of understanding it more and deciding how I can best help my team to address the learning needs of students who may be dyslexic. So that's what really started my journey. I didn't want to be the school leader that told some parent, "Because your child learns in different ways, we can't help him/her."

While this post is far from a complete, all-you-need-to-know description of dyslexia, I hope that sharing my learning may help someone else in their journey. There are students we know are there, but aren't reaching well enough. Understanding dyslexia may help some of those students.

To start, these two videos have been helpful for me to understand what dyslexia is and why I should care. This short video explains the brain research behind dyslexia. It doesn't get overly complicated, even though it talks about the neurology behind the disability. Another much longer video (50 minutes), is a documentary that does a nice job of putting faces, families and feelings to the learning struggles. It also talks about what it is and what we can do to make a difference.

I also appreciate simple FAQ's for starting to understand a topic. The International Dyslexia Association offers this set of questions and answers to help. The response to my burning question about how do I help students with dyslexia comes in a simple and extremely complex answer, "multi-sensory approach to teaching." That's my next step in this journey to understand dyslexia.

More to come...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

K-12 Writing Resource

Teaching writing is never a quick and easy process. One idea that may help teachers and students can be found in collaborative conversations around student work using a common tool. Achievethecore.org has a series of writing samples annotated with the language of the standards. Teachers and students at various grade levels can read the student work samples and see the notes left by experts in the field highlighting examples and non-examples of the standards in action. Teachers and students alike can discuss what makes some pieces of writing better than another. Collaboration amongst teachers around these tools could really help transfer the learning from discussions into instructional changes that could be made to help students avoid common pitfalls. It could also help infuse the language of the standards into writing instruction with samples of work to support the conversation as models.