What's best for kids?

“It’s what’s best for kids.”

Have you heard an administrator use this phrase to justify decisions? Did you think, “Cliche.” Or, “Easy for her to say.” Or, “How convenient, no one can argue with the merits of We do what’s best for kids.”

Well, it’s true! Who can argue with it? No right-minded educator, that’s for sure.

Administrators who say this, and mean it, stay focused on student needs and make students the center of the decision-making process. Those of you that are parents, or who have a child in their personal lives in any capacity (here’s where I gush about my sweet, sweet new nephew who was born today!) exist in a reality where in their family, children are the centers of their lives.

Children are, and should always be, our focus. Our schools should be families. What are some ways to transform your school into a family of learners?

Include parents. Often. Always. See David Truss’s thoughts on doing so. At our school, we held our first Moms & Muffins and Dads & Donuts mornings this year. All extended family members invited, too! We had an amaaazing turnout. It was unreal! I have never seen so many people packed into our cafeteria. I met Dads and Moms I’d never met before. Parents walked their children to homerooms after our breakfast. Some stayed to volunteer for the day. What a beautiful thing!

Build morale, the subject of recent posts by Dave Bircher and Janet Avery by making connections and building relationships with staff and community members. Show them videos of your dogs. Ask them about their families and their summer vacations. To start our opening day, we’re doing a round of “speed dating”-esque reconnect time where we’ll get in two circles, and every 2 minutes, the people in the inside people will move to the left. Two minutes, introduce yourself and tell them all about your summer/life. Tell your partner one goal you have for the school year. We had a difficult year last year, when a colleague passed away from breast cancer. This year will continue to be about healing. As the principal, I need to support my colleagues in their grief and help build relationships, because the success of our students depends on it.

Get to know, and love, your students. When I hear teachers say, “I don’t have to like all of my students, I just have to act like I do,” I get really tense and uncomfortable and a whole list of other adjectives. There are students who will always push your buttons. I was one of them, I know I was. Get to know each and every child on a personal level. Find out what they’re all about. How else can you possible expect them to respect you? Because you’re the teacher? Because you’re the principal? Children respect those that show them respect. They’re children.  Know your students on a personal level, because doing so will make discussions about behavior that much easier. George Couros often explores the importance of developing rapport with his students and the positive impacts this has on his practices.

I will conclude with just one example of when I was convinced that the children I serve are indeed part of my family. A  young man in an intermediate grade made some unwise choices, and was spending the day in my office. He was getting a bad rap around the school (and frankly, the community) for his behaviors, and it seemed as though the whole world was against him. His classmates were in the hallway outside of my office en route to the library, and not only did every single one of them crane their necks to see how he was doing in my office, several of them said, “Hi, buddy!” and “How are you, friend?” from their place in line. One boy in his class, a boy who was also known for lapses in judgment, asked to come inside my office and see his friend. He walked over to the boy, put his arm around his shoulder, and quietly, almost in a whisper, encouragingly said, “It’s okay, buddy. We all make bad choices sometimes. We know you’re a good kid.” And he turned on his heel and headed back to the line.

My heart burst.

We do what’s best for kids. They’re our family. Their teachers and parents are family. As educational leaders, we’re the head of this family, and we have to commit to making it the best it can be.

Charting Your Course

2975263607_4c6429075c
From Flickr user yachtfan

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Seneca

For many, the new school year has already begun. For others, we are in the final planning stages before teachers and students return. Where will you lead your school this year? How do you determine to which “port” you are sailing? How do you chart your course for success, and how will you use your resources to make it happen?

As a newbie principal in the state of Pennsylvania, I am required to complete coursework through the National Institute for School Leadership. In our introductory course we considered the role of principal as “strategic thinker.” We took a good look at vision and how leaders develop and sustain meaningful vision, referencing The Principal Challenge: Leading And Managing Schools in an Era of Accountability (Tucker and Codding, editors).

Our facilitator asked us to come to class prepared with our district’s vision and mission statements in hand. Before class, he randomly organized and posted them so our districts could not be identified, and the “dissection” began! What were we looking for? We assessed each statement by asking the following questions. Is/does the vision….

Achievable? Why include statements in a vision statement that are unattainable? Doing so will frustrate the organization, and the vision will not be realized.

Focused on results that lead to accountability? Educators need to be held accountable for the work that they do. A vision that articulates a focus on results will help drive the organization to routinely assess the impact of their actions.

Measurable? How will the school know when their vision is achieved? How will it know when it’s veering from the intended course?

Simple and clear? How many of us can actually recite our district’s vision statements verbatim? (Or even recall where we have last seen it?!) This is not to say the statement should be short, sweet, and without substance, nor are long, eloquently written vision statements any more meaningful. Simple, clear language is necessary to make the vision…

Actionable? To achieve this vision, what will we DO to achieve it? What is our strategy? Who are the key players involved? What is the timeline? What resources do we need?

Lead to hard choices? In order to achieve the goals of the organization, sacrifices in other areas must be made. In accordance with our vision, where do we focus our efforts to ensure it is realized?

Worth fighting for? Above all else, if a school’s stakeholders don’t believe the vision is worth fighting for,  it is not likely to be attained. And what is more worth fighting for than the education of our children?

It turns out, most of our example vision statements met at least two or more of the criteria, but not a single one would be considered an exemplary vision for a school. Many were almost poetic, yet not actionable. Others were vague and unmeasurable.

The start of a new school year is the perfect time to re-focus our efforts where they matter most. As educational leaders, we need to be able to identify our school’s/district’s vision and priorities. We need to keep The End in mind – our goals. We need to formulate The Ways – strategies for achieving our goals. We need to develop The Means– our people and resources that will help us meet our goals and realize our vision.

Sail on!

Leading with Walkthroughs

istock_5943646

Walkthrough observations take many forms in the elementary, middle, and secondary levels. This practice typically involves the principal or other supervisor spending a few minutes observing a classroom to take a quick pulse of the teaching and learning occurring. Some districts tie walkthrough reports into the formal teacher evaluation system. Others use walkthrough forms to provide informal feedback to teachers. No matter what system is used, there are several characteristics of walkthroughs that in my experience have made them more effective in changing teacher practice.

1. Decide on your “look-fors,” and be sure teachers are well-versed in this content.

Our district utilizes the iObservation system for walkthrough observations. iObservation provides a variety of comprehensive walkthrough forms based on the works of Marzano and Danielson. Many of the qualities of Learning Focused Schools are also represented on the forms, and since our teachers are expected to utilize these strategies in their instruction, the iObservation system provides us with many look-for options in the classroom. The forms I used most frequently last year were the Research-Based Instructional Strategies K-12, Research-Based Classroom Management K-12, and Teaching Authentic forms. Our district also has the option of accessing our state’s formal evaluation forms through this system. We use tablet PCs to visit classrooms, complete the checklist forms of the strategies we see in, and can add narratives when needed. iObservation includes banks of coaching questions to help lead discussions with teachers, as well as rubrics that identify teachers as Beginning through Innovating on specific strategies. The rubrics are probably the most powerful aspect of the program, as teachers can identify where they are on the rubric, and using the descriptors provided, work to improve to the Innovating level. For many strategies, there are embedded “Best Practices” videos that teachers can watch to see a master teacher execute the strategy in the classroom. It’s a comprehensive program that we have not yet used to its fullest potential.

The article Classroom walkthroughs: Learning to see the trees and the forest by Howard Pitler with Bryan Goodwin provides solid examples of look-fors in the classroom. They suggest principals ask these six questions to guide their classroom observations: Are teachers using research-based teaching strategies? Do student grouping patterns support learning? Are teachers and students using technology to support student learning? Do students understand their learning goals? Are students learning both basic and higher order levels of knowledge? Do student achievement data correlate with walkthrough data? The authors conclude with their thoughts that walkthrough observations should be used for coaching, not evaluation. Walkthroughs can be used to measure the school’s staff development efforts as well.

iObservation is an instructional and leadership improvement system. It collects, manages and reports longitudinal data from classroom walkthroughs and teacher observations. Teacher growth and leadership practices inform professional development differentiated to individual learning needs for every teacher and leader to increase his/her effectiveness each year.

Another tool I’m looking forward to using this year is ISTE’s Classroom Observation Tool (ICOT). This is a free online tool that helps administrators and observers look for key components of technology integration in the classroom. What I appreciate about this tool is that it does not focus strictly on technology use, but also on student grouping practices, varied learning activities, and NETS Teachers Standards observed.

Look-fors will vary from school to school, but it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable about what supervisors will be observing on their visits, and that they are supported in using these strategies in the classroom.

2. Follow-up conversations are crucial.

Our teachers truly desire constructive feedback about their practice. Though it might not always be easy to hear, a teacher cannot possibly seek to improve without input from a supervisor or colleague. A walkthrough observation is not complete without some type of follow-up conversation. This can be as informal as making sure you drop into the teacher’s room after school to comment on the positive practices you saw, to offer suggestions for improvements, and to share your walkthrough paperwork. In our iObservation system, our teachers log in to access their completed forms. They can start an online conference in a confidential message-board-type-forum with the observer to answer any questions that were posed, or interactions can occur via the iObservation email system. The reflective practice component of walkthroughs is vital.

3. Talk to students!

I do not complete a walkthrough without talking to at least one student in the classroom. Questions I typically ask include, What is your essential question for this lesson? What do you think your teacher wants you to learn as a result of completing this activity? How will you know that  you have learned (insert objective here). How do you know your work meets the standards set for you? I also enjoy when students read their writing to me or show me their latest project work. If I am observing learning centers, I like to join in the fun!

Walkthrough observations were recently the topic of discussion on the #cpchat and #edadmin hashtag on Twitter, so be sure to check out the meaningful discussions to learn more. This year, I hope to expand the use of iObservation for peer-peer learning walks and observations. Administrators and teachers, please consider commenting on this post with walkthrough practices you’ve found to be most effective, or most ineffective.

It's people, not programs

One of the most positive aspects of interacting with other educators via social media, whether it be Twitter, Ning communities, or a meeting of the minds such as the Reform Symposium, is the array of talented individuals working in education today. It is quite apparent to me that there are extraordinary teachers and administrators participating and sharing their ideas in these forums. What makes these teachers stand out from the rest? What qualities do these administrators have that make us want to follow, want to emulate, their lead?

Todd Whitaker’s What Great Principals Do Differently was on my summer reading list. Whitaker examines 14 qualities of “Great Principals.” This is a fast read, but a compelling one. As a principal I could envision a real-life scenario of every aspect of quality leadership Whitaker described. His points caused me to pause and reflect about how I could have handled a situation differently, how I could have approached a teacher’s behavior rather than her belief, and how I needed to serve as the “filter” for my school. I hope to elaborate on these points in my next several posts.

It’s people, not programs.

Isn’t this the truth? How often do schools, teachers, and administrators buy into a program or tool, thinking (hoping, praying) it will be the golden ticket to improved reading scores, or math fact fluency, or a more positive school climate? Too often. This year we tried a new math fact fluency program. After hearing from our teachers at grade level meetings that our students could use a boost in fact fluency, I researched various programs. I read reviews and consulted with former colleagues who used the program, so I thought it would be the perfect fit. I provided teachers with the program framework and all necessary documents and folders, and also showed examples of how “real live teachers” included it into their daily routine. The results were definitely mixed. Some teachers embraced the program and integrated it seamlessly into their math instruction. Others struggled with the maintenance of the student folders, tasks, and how to include it in their schedules. The program was the same for all teachers- what varied was how the teachers approached this new idea, and that was because I needed to abandon the “one size fits all” approach to implementing this program. Instead I should have provided varied levels of support to teachers to accommodate the different levels of understanding and comfort with the new tool.

As you prepare to start your new school year, consider the changes your teachers will face with curriculum transitions, new programs, and updated procedures. Focus your efforts on the people, not the programs, for the greatest benefit to students.

The best part about learning through social media? Not the tools or the programs. It’s the people!

Hands together

Leadership Day 2010

leadershipday2010

Are you an educational leader, formal or informal? Are you a blogger? If so, participate in Leadership Day 2010, the brainchild (one of many) of Scott McLeod. Today’s post is my contribution to this valuable endeavor.

Last night I passively participated in my first Open Mic Night sponsored by the PLP Network/Will Richardson & Friends, where the topic was “Rethinking Leadership.” This is my third year as elementary principal, and almost from the start, people started identifying me as the “technology” person or in conversations acknowledging, “We know you’re a fan of technology…” and I wonder, How did that come to be? Is it because I spent my last year of teaching as the K-5 Computer Education teacher? Doubtful. Perhaps it’s because I:

  • would rather send daily updates via email rather than waste everyone’s time before or after school in a meeting
  • developed a wiki for the building to share information, online resources, and shared documents
  • encouraged and supported my teachers in utilizing their classroom websites and keep my school district website up and running
  • presented to the school board the wonderful things our faculty was doing with new technologies in the classroom and to communicate with families
  • utilize Google docs for most of our surveys and “paperwork” tasks
  • created a school Twitter account (still only 5 followers, but after my planned introductory Twitter work with parents next year, I expect more!)
  • shared with administrators our wiki and my principal’s blog
  • post videos of students and their work on our website
  • advocated for the purchase of new technologies for the buildings and go head-to-head with the IT supervisor (only when necessary, of course!) to ensure our teachers and students have what they need, and that their equipment is functional
  • model the use of Wallwisher and Prezi and other tools in my presentations with staff members
  • agreed to serve as the district K-6 technology integrator and coach and have been working on infusing 21st century standards into the curriculum and designing professional development opportunities for teachers

As I type these accomplishments, I feel like I’m bragging, but truthfully, I am intrinsically motivated to keep learning. I want to help others learn. How can you be a part of such an amazing PLN and not want to spread the wealth?!

I am amazed to find that I created my first Twitter account in February 2008 while attending the Pete & C conference. I had two followers, one of which was my husband! For about one year the account went forgotten. I can’t exactly recall what sparked my newfound interest in Twitter last fall, but I am pretty sure it was #edchat. Once I realized there was a growing network of experienced, innovative, inspirational educators that gathered together every Tuesday night to discuss current educational practices and issues, I was hooked. I installed Tweetdeck, and the rest is history. Sometimes I wonder why in the world one person would want to follow me, let alone 792 people, but then I realize- we ALL have something to contribute. And that is the message I bring to Leadership Day 2010.

Many of last night’s “Rethinking Leadership” discussions focused on leaders as visionaries, and how to inspire staff members and other administrators to transform their practices to include changing technologies and methodologies. I think the title of the discussion says it all, and will be the focus of my work with staff this year.

RETHINK.

Reconsider ONE THING (to start) that you do that could be done DIFFERENTLY. Consider new literacies. Consider new modalities. TRY something NEW. Take RISKS. I will SUPPORT you. Together, we will help our children learn and love to learn. It will be hard! It will be scary! But as long as we rethink and reflect upon our practices on a daily basis, and as long as we ACT in order to better ourselves and our work with students, we will see amazing transformations in our school.

No, I don’t think leaders need to be adept with every single new technology out there. How is that even possible? I feel strongly that they do need to be the “pulse” of what’s available, however. How can you do that? Join Twitter and develop a PLN. Start locating blogs and get your Google Reader up and running. Read, read, read. And if a teacher comes to you with a new idea, for heaven’s sake, research the tool/idea, determine how it meets your students’ needs, and support them. Advocate for change. Get your teachers on board. Start small, celebrate successes, and great things will happen!

Happy Leadership Day!

Collaboration Inspiration

How do you focus change efforts to create a more collaborative and mentoring culture for both educators and students? This was the topic of the 7/13 #edchat, and it sparked quality conversation among participants.

I have worked in both self-contained elementary and middle school team teaching environments, and I truly believe that I developed as a professional, took more risks with my teaching, and became a more skilled communicator when I was a member of a teaching team. It is far too easy for educators to fall into their own, safe routines without much considering how things could be done differently. The scary this is, this routine and sense of complacency can continue for years upon end.

We embarked on the PLC journey last year in our school, and it of course was not without its bumps along the road. We got creative and ran a whole new master schedule, where grade level teams now had “specials” at the same times throughout the cycle. This allowed for two days out of six that could be earmarked as “common” planning times. Within the confines of the contracted teacher day, there was not a lot of flexibility to provide teachers with additional collaboration time. We learned about the characteristics of PLCs, developed team norms, discussed what collaboration looks like, developed team feedback sheets, etc.

In the first year, I felt as though teachers did embrace the “idea” of collaboration, and many commented that they appreciated having common planning times so they could “touch base” with one another during the day, but very few teams experienced true collaboration during these times.

Our school’s leadership team noticed this, and the reasons became clear that from the teachers’ perspective, their planning time was “theirs” and they should not be held accountable for meeting with others during that time.

While, in my opinion, there are just so many things wrong with that line of thinking, I have already addressed that concern in a prior post, so instead I ponder ways of righting that situation in a hopes of helping my teachers create a new mentality and attitude about collaborative planning. The first thing our admin team did was to schedule PLC time for each grade level team, once per month, for 1 hour at the end of the day, where two support specialists and myself covered their classes for that time. This tactic proved successful, and many of the teams truly immersed themselves in student data and planning for instruction to help meet the needs of students. The downside to this plan is that I could not be a participant in these meetings, nor could my support team.

A realization made through an interaction with Michelle Sumner @edtechdhh during #edchat was that some teachers would rather just close their doors to collaboration due to all of the personal “planning” they feel needs to get accomplished, however if they engaged in the team approach to planning, the time spent on clerical/mundane “planning” tasks would decrease significantly. I have to help them see the benefit of collaboration!

The purpose of this post is to encourage those building leaders and teachers who thrive for collaborative opportunities to keep searching outside-the-box for solutions to the lack of time and opportunities that typically plague, in particular, an elementary teacher’s schedule and resources. I established a wiki for our school to encourage collaboration within the first few months on the job- I believe we had one post. My teachers aren’t ready to collaborate in that type of environment… yet. I think as their comfort with the tools grows, we can make it work. As teachers see the value in collaborating among themselves, my sincere hope is that they will infuse the power of team thinking and doing in their classrooms with students.

Thanks for reading! I leave you with a little collaboration inspiration and please comment as to how you have achieved success with all forms of collaboration in your schools!

All Things PLC

Classroom 2.0

The Educator’s PLN

The Lesson Study Project

The Benefits of Teacher Collaboration

What is Teacher Collaboration?

Teacher Collaboration on WikiEducator

Leading the Net Gen., Part 2, Will Richardson

Will Richardson’s words, whether presented via a live session or found on his blog, Weblogg-ed, always inspire me to rethink.

Richardson stressed that we have to start rethinking our linear way of doing things. Education is in a moment of severe transition. My absolute favorite words of the day?

“Buckle up: you’re going to have to be open to the changes and shifts no matter how uncomfortable they make you.”

Richardson made the point that the shift in education is not around technology;  it’s around curriculum.  Consider the following:  if we know reading and writing are changing, what are we doing about it to change what our students are doing differently? He encouraged the educational leaders in the room to stop talking only about technology and reflect upon current curricular and instructional practices. How are we getting our students where they need to be?

As I tuned into Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ live Elluminate session last night, I realize she echos this sentiment as well. Her book, Curriculum 21, is currently sitting on my desk, waiting to be devoured.

This summer I will work to brainstorm and plan K-6 professional development opportunities for teachers in the areas of curriculum and technology, thus I appreciated Richardson’s remarks on offering PD to teachers: Don’t schedule how-to workshops; make it a prerequisite for teachers to learn the skill/tool BEFORE the workshop. At the workshop, make connections to curriculum, develop skills, and collaborate to produce meaningful, actionable plans for student learning. This recent blog post by Terry Freedman explores professional development in technology and highlights quality resources for those in tech integrator and admin roles to consult.

On a personal note, I appreciated having the chance to showcase this blog and be featured in a take-a-look-at-what-Twitter-is-all-about session in the afternoon. Richardson asked for a show of hands from those who blogged, and my lonely hand sloooowly went into the air. 🙂 I was glad it did, although at first the shock of seeing your blog plastered on three giant screens in front of hundreds of administrators is a tad bit intimidating. He offered compliments on my use of linked text and some of the content of my posts. We examined my ClustrMap, and it was affirming to see the diversity of visitors that read my blog!

The day’s take-away ideas from Richardson are that the most important aspects of successfully infusing 21st century skills into our classrooms are to model, emulate, and show the shifts in your schools. Consider your classrooms to be laboratories for learning, and realize that  in every lab, there is failure. Expect failure, yet try to mitigate it to yield positive student learning experiences.

Next year my elementary school is taking a cohort of admin and teachers to participate in Powerful Learning Practice,  “an ongoing, job-embedded opportunity built around emerging social Web technologies.” The great minds behind this endeavor are Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  I have confidence that the cohort I’ve selected has the enthusiasm, energy, and desire to be the catalyst for positive changes and will work collaboratively to set the stage for rethinking teaching and learning in our school. Read about the Year 1 experiences that await us.

Many thanks to both Jason Ohler and Will Richardson for an amazing day of reflection and inspiration.

Leading the Net Generation, Part I, Jason Ohler

Last week I attended a conference at IU13 – “Leading the Net Generation” – featuring Will Richardson and Jason Ohler. The conference was designed to be a two-day experience with several different presenters, but due to snow days and the school year extending into the original conference dates for most of the schools in the county, it was reconfigured into one day of immersion into the minds of Richardson and Ohler. Not too shabby! This post highlights the information shared by Jason Ohler.

Ohler began the morning with his keynote, asking us to consider, “How do we open doors for our students?” He remarked that his most meaningful teachers opened doors for him to engage in new types of learning.  Ohler also defined

Literacy- consuming and producing the media forms of the day, whatever they are

In the past, students were simply consumers of information. Now, students have Screasals (screen+easels); what some adults consider a simple phone for communication or a laptop for consumption of information, students use these tools to create! Students need to be able to write well whatever they read! Ohler goes on to explain the differences between Web 2.0, Web 2.1 (read, write, paint) and the evolving Web 3.0 – read, write, paint, THINK.

Ohler emphasized ensuring our students understand and create with visually differentiated text (from large blocks of text to collage) and need command of  the DAOW of Literacy:

DAOW-4circles2

Ohler also made a convincing argument for storytelling in the classroom. Since infancy, children have been engaged with story. They want information delivered in story format and respond emotionally when done so. Teachers should strive to incorporate story elements and storytelling into instruction and student initiatives. This will result in more meaningful learning!

This conference was for administrators, so naturally, we wanted to know how we can best support our teachers in these endeavors. Ohler presented the acronym CARES in summary of what administrators need to do to help teachers and students in their digital literacy and learning journeys:

Compensation – pretty straightforward (not always possible monetarily) but provide other types of compensation that make taking risks worthwhile for teachers
Assistance – provide needed resources and personal assistance; research grants and other opportunities to bring new resources to your schools
Recognition – celebrate those teachers who are taking risks with learning and literacy!
Extra time – get creative with schedules, provide opportunities for teachers and teacher teams to work on projects on company time
Support risk, pilots – if a teacher comes to you with an idea, support that risk; encourage teachers to participate in pilot programs; allow them to show you what learning opportunities are out there!

I enjoyed learning from Ohler last week and encourage all of you to explore his blog, which contains plentiful resources for educators.

We can all list reasons why not to branch out and take risks in the classrooms. Ohler’s final words:

Turn your concerns into goals.

Develop capacity in your teachers, administrative teams, students, and school community, and you can attack the concerns in a productive manner. Go forth and open doors!

Here is what we are doing right.

Started reading Leading Change in Your School by Doug Reeves on Friday. Figured I’d skim the content and garner some inspiration for the upcoming new year…. I started on page 1 and only a mere 75 pages later did I finally pause for an iced tea break.

Picture 2

One of the most meaningful concepts I’ve encountered in Reeves’ early chapters is this: Don’t start a change initiative with mighty, charismatic speeches about what will change… instead, address with your faculty those things that will not change, because they are non-negotiable pieces of educational goodness that should not change.

What does your school do well? What things must be maintained in order to bring about positive changes in your organization?

I created a Wordle showcasing the qualities of my organization that are top-notch. We are so lucky to have phenomenal students, and though improvement in certain areas is needed, we will have no problems continuing on the journey to improved academic success for students due to these qualities and skills we already possess as a faculty.

Picture 3

So the next time you need to introduce a change initiative in your school, be sure to complement your team, and encourage them to consider that the new change is not a result of all that they have been doing wrong, but rather a way to build upon all that they are doing right.