Friday, November 30, 2012

Providing Feedback

We've collected walk through data for a few years now. Last year we had almost 1000 pieces of data for our roughly 50 member staff and the year before that we had almost 1500 pieces. We used a template through eWalk which we created. There were checkboxes, radio buttons, and places to type notes. Feedback from staff (after they were use to administrators being in their rooms frequently), "Yeah, those numbers don't really help me know what to improve in my classroom." And what teachers said they liked best? "You remember that little yellow sticky note you left me? I really appreciated your note about what you saw in my classroom."

How do you move from data collection to meaningful, personal feedback? My staff love receiving little quick sticky notes from me when I am in their rooms, but how does one keep track of the little personal notes of feedback to see growth over time? My staff have made it very clear to me that while they are comfortable with idea that I am in their rooms quite a bit, they don't feel walk through data is helpful for their personal growth. How can I make sure I'm giving each teacher the personal feedback?

Because I imagine these questions are on the minds of other administrators, I thought I'd share my latest idea for providing my staff with personal feedback while also being able to keep a record for myself of whose room I've been in and what types of comments I'm leaving. I am using my iPad app called Penultimate with a stylus to jot down notes and email them immediately to teachers. I can take pictures of things I see happening in the classroom and jot a quick little note with it too. This app allows me to organize the notes in notebooks, so I can keep track of them in any manner I wish. Right now, I am organizing them by date so I can keep track of whose room I'm in and when.

My next idea came after this Monday's professional development where our staff spent time focusing our instruction using the book, Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today's Lesson. There is an action tool for classroom walk throughs in that book that I scanned and saved as a picture in iPhoto. I clipped small sections of the photo and brought it into my app. See my note to Sue below.

Penultimate is certainly not the only note taking tool out there that can send notes via email. I like it best so far for two main reasons: 1) I can write on the pictures I take and photos I bring into my note and 2) I can rest my hand on the screen and still write.  I came across this blog post about different note taking apps and am sure there are more apps out there to meet this need.  Providing positive feedback with thought-provoking reflection questions is great feedback for students... and teachers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sustaining the Vision

I was asked to attend the ISTE Leadership Forum as a panelist discussing the steps our district has taken to share and sustain it's vision of what education needs to be for the students of Van Meter. I appreciated the opportunity to sit next to and learn from Patrick Larkin, Chris Lehman, and Sheryl Abshire. As each of us built on the five minute description the prior speaker gave sharing the vision in our own districts, a few common themes came to light.

First, the vision has to be something you live, not a mere statement you post. There are a variety of ways to do this, but for us it includes asking your staff and community, "What key points are part of who we are?" and "What do we want to see for our kids?" In this discussion common themes come to light and these common themes become part of the "elevator speech" that each staff member can give in 30 seconds or less describing what our district is striving towards. In Van Meter we want to empower kids so they can:

  • Communicate
  • Collaborate
  • Innovate
  • Solve Problems
  • Think Globally
  • Live Ethically

We also mentioned providing time and resources for staff to learn and collaborate. Van Meter embraced a Professional Learning Community (PLC) model for professional development three years ago to help teachers collaborate around meaningful, shared goals. Teams meet weekly and work towards their SMART goal tied directly to student learning. How can we best help students improve their learning? This question drives the use of technology in our district, not the other way around.

The most notable theme in our panel discussion was around administrators modeling the vision - walking the talk. For me to do this, I ask the question as I'm planning each professional development session, "Am I creating a learning experience for staff that mirrors the type of experiences we want to see for students?" Did I pick the best tools to make their learning happen at deep levels? Administrators model the fearless use of technology as tool. 

A brief discussion in the airport with a Canadian gentleman on my way home from the conference reminds me of our district's vision.
"How do you stay ahead of them with all that technology?" 
"I don't try to. I want them next to me when I have to find a solution to a problem."

Monday, September 10, 2012

Value of Walk Throughs

Feedback is a critical piece in the learning process. When the Iowa Core's Characteristics of Effective Instruction outlined "Assessment for Learning," educators just received a head nod to the long standing belief that teachers need to check for student understanding along the way instead of just at the end.

It follows the same logic that walk-throughs, quick 2-3 minutes of classroom observation, would serve a very similar purpose in a system's learning process then. Often misunderstood as part of the evaluation process, walk throughs are snapshots and data points that help inform planning and professional development. It allows the observer to see what's being implemented in the classroom.

In Van Meter, walk throughs take place in various forms. They can be conducted by administrators, master teachers, teams of teachers, and individual collaborative team members. The focus of the walk through depends on it's purpose, and there are a few distinct purposes when conducting walk throughs.
  • Giving Teacher Feedback: no real form used, often a sticky note to quick email to point out something positive and to leave the teacher with a reflection question. Observer looks for positive take aways. Leaves a non-judgmental question for further reflection.
  • Measuring Implementation: a quick snap shot that looks for one piece of data such as, "Are learning targets posted?" This is data collection allows me to follow-up with specific teachers, if needed, and share the team results. Observer looks for implementation of a particular strategy or concept from a recent professional development opportunity.
  • System Health: Using a locally developed template, this allows a survey of data to be collected and analyzed over time. "Are we getting better at...?" or "Have we seen a change in....?" This information can also inform professional development next steps. Observer looks for the characteristics necessary to attain the district/building vision and goals.
  • Quality Instructional Practices: Using the Instructional Practices Inventory (IPI) or other researched-based protocols, these walk throughs can help teachers analyze their building's data over time and compare it to the research base levels. Collaborative teams or even the entire building can set short term goals for improving instructional practices. Observer looks for local implementation of research-based practices aligned to district vision and goals.
While teachers have various methods for collecting information about how students are progressing in their learning, so too should the leaders of the school. Having people observe instruction should become part of the routine. Students rarely give visitors a second look upon entering their classroom in Van Meter, because they expect people to be in their room looking at what's happening and asking, "What are you learning today?"

Walk throughs are all about the learning.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Differentiated Learning for All

It surprises me from time to time how I am hit square in the face with the long standing idea that learning needs to be differentiated for adults just like students. Here was my latest reminder: I am serving on a state wide task force to study and bring forth recommendations to the legislature regarding Competency Based Education (CBE). As our group was struggling with tasks of subcommittees, we circled around a couple of phrases; "multiple entry points" and "continuum of learning". We were using these phrases to describe where districts throughout our state start from in regards to implementing a competency based system. Our charge to support all of the districts in our state had me leaving the room thinking, "We took too much time to get to the point that teaching this process (the move to CBE) needs to be differentiated."

Differentiating learning is hard work, but it starts with being clear about the end goal. For our teachers I describe this as identifying the learning targets of the unit or lesson and what it looks like when students can show you they learned them. For our work on the Competency Based Education Task Force, it's defining what we want the work to look like when we are done. Our committee was able to clarify a few points about our end goal. And we all know there is still work to be done just to clarify what we want for the state wide system. Grappling with the end is a fun, and yes sometimes frustrating, mountain of work. I'm thrilled no one district has to figure it out alone.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's work on Understanding by Design - begin with the end in mind - still makes my list of great educational resources for teaching and learning. Now, I'm going to have to use it for task force meetings as well. :-)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Supporting the "Positive Outliers"

I was asked to consider how we support teachers in their learning and increase the capacity of the system. One of my twitter friends, @b_wagoner forwarded me this blog from Seth Godin and as I was thinking about teachers, I started thinking about students. Let me share my connections for just a moment.

Positive Behaviors Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a behavior system that focuses on supporting the positives in student behavior rather than focusing on the consequences for negative behavior. Sure there are systems of consequence in PBIS, but it doesn't drive your focus or goal. The positive factors drive your planning, your thinking, your support. Are adults any different? Can professional support mirror this same philosophy? Why shouldn't we focus our planning, attention and support on the positive outliers instead of focusing on the ones that drag us down?

I think I've just made a slight mental shift in my PD plans :-).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Complexity in ELA Common Core Standards

I've been in curriculum roles for close to a decade. I was raised professionally in a state that embraced state standards in the late 90's. I read the Common Core Standards; I understood them. As well as I thought I knew the standards, Dr. Tim Shanahan spoke and transformed my understanding of the ELA standards. As you read my post, you may be surprised at what was new learning to me. Even so, it may be helpful to see what this social studies teacher took away from the day on "Really Terrific Instruction in English Language Arts" (RTI is a big topic here in Iowa :-).

#1 - Text Complexity is where it is at! Standard 10 in the Common Core is the standard that makes all of the rest of the standards work at high levels. It should be present, along with standard 1 on making meaning from text, throughout all instruction. It won't help a student be college and career ready if they only understand main idea of texts that are grade levels below them. Concentrating on easier texts, like below grade level text books or abridged versions of classics, miss much of the vocabulary and deeper levels of topical understanding. They can also miss the original author's word choice, text structure and true intent. There are reasons to use easier level texts as a scaffolded approach to understanding more complex text. That leads us to the next point.

#2 - Learning to read is like lifting weights; you need to challenge yourself with really hard reading, and balance it with more reps at lighter weights. Students need to read at a level that they can handle independently, but this shouldn't be the place they stay. Challenge students with text; support them as they struggle to make meaning of complex passages (see appendix B of the Common Core Standards for a list of sample texts). According to Dr. Shanahan, we've done a disservice to our students by "dumbing down" the reading selections to an adapted versions and cliff note versions of texts. It's a good idea to bring in apprentice texts to build background knowledge, but use it to make the harder text more accessible not to replace the harder text altogether.

! Read more on Shanahan's website about what this means for instructional levels.

#3 - Item Analysis of a standardized assessment should be around the text complexity of the passages students struggled with instead of the skill, as a first look. More than likely, students struggled understanding the text because of it's level of complexity. It's not an author's craft problem or vocabulary problem or text structure problem. It starts with the complexity of the text. If they missed questions around one idea on easier texts as well, then there may be a skill deficit, but start with the look at the complexity of the passages.

#4 - The standards were written from the top down. Looking at the reading expectations for college and in careers, the authors of the Common Core created standards for high school graduates and then back mapped it to what would then be necessary in kindergarten. This is important to understand when looking at the document as a whole. In addition, the progressions that are part of the structure of the standards can help teachers differentiate instruction to get students to grade level expectations and consider next steps for each child's learning.
"I keep looking and I keep finding studies that suggest that kids can learn from text written at very different levels" Dr. Tim Shanahan's blog post August 2011.

I know the conversation about text complexity is not new. I was in the right place at the right time to have the conversation make new meaning for me. I see the importance in making complex text physically available and cognitively accessible to students. If I have the opportunity to learn from Dr. Tim Shanahan again, I will definitely take advantage of it.

Additional Resources:
ASCD published an article in April 2012 about the reason for the focus on text complexity in the Common Core.
New York has a resource that shows 6 shifts in the Common Core Standards that may be helpful.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Creating the Best Place for Learning

I'm in a new, dual role for the 2012-2013 school year, elementary principal; I'll continue my work as Director of Teaching and Learning. It's exciting to continue to help my district move towards its vision of transforming education and I couldn't be more excited about my new role as principal.

When stepping up to the helm of a new leadership role, one has a great opportunity to have people reflect on what great things are already happening, areas we can improve, and supports people need to accomplish the lofty expectations of improving student learning for all. From the reflections, we can chart a path that meets the needs of each learner. I see students and teachers as learners in our building and I believe supporting teachers as learners results in improved student learning.

So to start off my summer of transition into my new role, I am asking our staff simple questions. What are we doing well? Where can prioritize our focus for improvement to make the biggest impact for students? How can your principal help support you?

Besides staff interviews, I plan on using a questionnaire I tweaked using Breaking Ranks work. This survey will be given in the fall and the baseline data will help our staff plan for the areas we see as biggest need. Our PLC's are already well in place, so using the data to determine action steps will be a process with which most staff are very familiar.

I look forward to the conversations with each and every elementary staff member over the summer and at the start of the school year. I look forward to the new challenge and am thrilled to be part of the Van Meter Schools in this new role.