Thursday, December 4, 2014

Are we talking or planning in our PLCs?

This week as I visited a campus, a teacher shared something that really resonated with me.  As we discussed the strengths of her campus she talked about how far her particular team had come in the area of planning lessons together.  She was proud of her PLC and shared that they had realized that last year they were “just talking” but when they really focused on things that mattered, like planning for the learning by looking at data that included student work and results from classroom formatives.  She also talked of studying the content and talking about what the expectations for students will be for the lesson.

What a genuine moment!!  And what I loved most about it was the real connection she had made from focused lesson planning to student learning. 

She was excited and so was I!! 

On many campuses this year, I have spoken with teacher teams about four characteristics of effective schools outlined in Jim Knight’s book, Impact Schools.  These traits provide a focus for campuses as they strive for increased student achievement.

1.       Content Planning- Do the teachers know exactly what is supposed to be taught and how they are planning to teach it?  Are they planning collaboratively or in isolation?  Are they just “talking” or are they designing lessons together?

2.       Instruction- How are the plans being implemented? Having an effective PLC is like having an effective game plan, but teachers still must execute the plan.  If teachers cannot effectively facilitate the learning, they will not have near the impact that they could have.

3.       Assessing for Learning- How do we know the students have actually acquired the knowledge that was expected?  Maybe the most difficult thing a teacher does is correctly diagnose students’ learning, but it is also the most important.  How well we assess our students learning is the ultimate measure of a school’s success.

4.       Community Building- This can be defined in a variety of ways.  Relationships among students, parents, teachers, etc. can define a school and have a great impact on the learning.  The best schools capitalize on positive relationships to make their planning and instructions stronger.

I have no doubts that the teacher I spoke to this week was part of a school that had all four of these traits.  I also have no doubts that it didn’t come easy….she talked about going through the motions of compliance and spinning the wheels of mediocrity, but once it clicked and “talking” turned to “planning” the sky is now the limit!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Managing a Baseball Team is Alot like Managing a Classroom

1954 World Series
Those that know me best know that I am a huge baseball fan.  I don’t follow it day to day like I used to, but after years of playing it as a kid, I have always been fascinated by the game.   I actually credit baseball for my love of reading.  I can still remember reading “The Baseball Life of Willie Mays” over and over when I was in third grade.  I remain convinced he was and is the best baseball player that ever lived and the main reason I was rooting for the Giants in World Series this year.  Once in college, I was fortunate enough to take a class called, “Baseball as a Metaphor for Life”.  It didn’t matter that it was an 8:00 AM class, I never missed it. It is with this theme that I will share my view of baseball with my passion for education.

Besides being fun to play and great to watch, real fans know there are two distinct philosophies  that separate baseball from other sports.  The first is “the book”.  You can’t really define “the book” but in your gut, you know what is right and what is wrong.  If you are around the game for any length of time you will hear someone talk about “playing by the book” and what they really mean is they are doing things that have been commonly accepted and therefore their decisions would not be questioned by others even if they don’t work.  Many teams and managers have been quite successful over time, by playing by the book.  Their decisions are sound because they are based on their own experiences and those around them.  They make decisions with their gut.  Many of our schools function in the same exact way….we do things because we have, over time, been successful and gained experience that allows us to make decisions because “we know best.”  However, there are times when our gut feeling or doing something the way it has always been done does not produce the best results.  For baseball traditionalists, this can be hard to swallow…it can be hard for educators to swallow too.

A second way of looking at the game, some call it “moneyball”, is to strictly look at the game through a numbers lens. Advocates of “moneyball” constantly look at data to make decisions. They do not base their decisions on their own experiences or gut feelings, but instead use numerical data trends to determine which players to use and when.  True disciples of this philosophy trust statistics rather than instincts to make decisions.  Sometimes these decisions go against traditional baseball moves (“the book”) and therefore many hardcore baseball people find them difficult to depend on.  Many would argue this approach has depersonalized the game and taken away the human side of decision making. Schools face the same dilemma. Teachers and Administrators are faced with an enormous amount of data and are asked/forced to make decisions in their classrooms and schools based on numbers rather than relationships. Sometimes the data forces us to admit that decisions and beliefs we have appear to be less effective than we would like to admit.

Thus a struggle between the two philosophies exists. In fact, it has torn apart organizations that trust one version over another and can’t seem to find a way to reconcile the two.  The truth is, the most successful baseball teams and the most successful classrooms must use both!!  We can’t forget about “playing by the book” because we are teaching kids, not robots. People bring variables that numbers just can’t predict.  However, gone are the days when numbers don’t matter.  It would be foolish for a baseball manager or an educator to not access the data that is available to them to help them make the  best decisions for their students.  The best and most successful baseball managers and teachers are the ones that can balance the humans as well as the numbers. 

I encourage educators everywhere….use your instincts and experience to make great teaching decisions, but don’t ignore the trends and results in your data.  We all owe ALL our students that….

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Who Expects You To Be Somebody?

“Nobody Rises to Low Expectations”

As we close the end of the first six weeks of school, it is amazing to think that the school year is one-sixth of the way complete.  It may feel like it just started, but in truth we have learned a lot about ourselves and our students already.  Of course our students have learned a lot about us too!  They know what we will and will not accept, both in behaviors and with assignments (even in kindergarten!).  They have a pretty good idea of who the teachers’ pets are and where the popular kids sit at lunch. And above all, they have already decided if their teachers care about them or not.  I am not questioning if teachers care about their students.  I can honestly say I have never met a teacher that didn’t, but I do believe there are students that come to school every day that aren’t sure if their teacher cares about them and their success.  The point is, it doesn’t matter how you feel about someone, if THEY don’t know how you feel, they are left to their own perceptions and some of our students may not perceive the best.

A recent “Student Voice” survey of over 65,000 students conducted by the Quaglia Institute ( showed that only 34%  of students believed that their teachers knew “their hopes, dreams, and aspirations”!  What a discouraging number!!  A lot of research has also been conducted about the value of high expectations as a vital tool for success. They have shown it will push us to do things we were not sure we were capable.  How and Why do we do this? Often we do it because someone else is counting on us. The question I have posed to kids as I have traveled to schools the last couple of weeks is one I read about in a story of highly successful people that came from less than stellar backgrounds.  It is a simple question:  Who Expects You to Be Somebody? 

As you can imagine, many students pick their family members, but often it is one of their teachers that students tell me about as the person that expects the most out of them.  I had one student tell me that they try to do their best because they don’t want to let their teacher down.  That is a huge impact. Our Superintendent recently showed the District Leadership team a short video clip of a brain surgeon who credits his middle school science teacher with “inspiring” him to be a doctor just by telling him he had “the hands for it”.  It was one comment to one child, but it had an enormous impact on him and his future.  Watch the video here:

So as we near the end of the first six weeks, stop and reflect about the students you see every day.  Some of them are already behind the class academically. Some are struggling to fit in and belong. Some you have identified which ones need extra attention. No matter what you think you know about your students already, ask yourself: Who expects them to be somebody?  Is it you?  Do they know it?

“Teachers effect eternity, no one can tell where their influence stops.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What is a “dynamic learning experience”?

Middle school dance!!  Hands to yourself!

Middle Schools sharing thoughts on 9/11
Sometimes we get so busy doing our “school work” that it can be easy to miss all the wonderful things going on around us every single day.  Don’t!!  Stop and think about the many great things your campus and teachers are doing every day to create a “dynamic learning experience” for your students. In the past week, I have seen or heard about so many wonderful experiences for our kids that I have lost count.  My own daughter “experienced” her first middle school dance, while also completing her summer reading project as well as the joys of math and science tests.  Later she got to watch as some of her friends performed in the District’s middle school musical “The Little Mermaid”.  Somewhere in the middle of all that, she got feedback from one of her teachers about a writing assignment and the opportunity to make corrections!  If engagement is part of the school experience, she is getting it!  Fortunately, it is not just my own children that are receiving a dynamic learning experience.  Did you hear about STEM kids at the OLC? Check out their blog:

5th grade student learning 7th PAP math
via Skype
All over NISD, authentic learning is taking place daily.  Teachers and students working together to create an instructional culture that is pushing them past their previous best!  I received a picture this week from a teacher whose students were selecting their own learning targets and working towards mastery.  In the high schools: two of our high school students at BNHS were recognized at a national advertising competition, the NHS Debate team recently took home numerous recognitions at a regional meet that involved over 100 teams from 14 states, and don’t forget to make an appointment at the salon at SteeleAccelerated High School to get your nails and hair done!

Kinder Students at Granger using QR codes
Recently, each campus created a bulletin board around the simple theme, “Tell Your Story”.  I have been fascinated and impressed with the numerous activities that our students experience and the opportunities our teachers give them. Some schools chose to show their history; while others designed a presentation with their eyes on the future.  No matter what school you attend or what your interests may be, there is no doubt NISD campuses have a dynamic experience waiting for you!!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Is it a choice to be “Great” at your school?

Middle School Self-Assessment
on a Learning Target!
Self-Assessment in 3rd grade!
One of the wonderful things about the start of the school year is the many new ideas and concepts teacher are trying in their classrooms.  Many of you spent the summer in professional development or at the very least thinking of ways to make your classrooms more exciting and engaging for your students.  Around our District (not to mention on twitter), I have been encouraged to see many of our teachers speaking a common language about student learning.  You don’t have to go very far into any of our schools to see authentic examples of students using technology, self-assessing their work, and giving each other feedback.  In addition, teachers are introducing the concept of learning targets, setting up rituals and routines, and working with each other to design lessons for their students.  All of these things have us well on our way to a wonderful school year.

CTMS PLC "learning with and through others"
At our Administrator Academy this year, a focus was the importance of developing an effective school rather than just an effective classroom.  Campus leadership teams were challenged to insist upon structures that allowed everyone to improve. The point was obvious, a great teacher can have a huge influence on students, but schools that surround students with many great teachers have a sustaining impact on every student, every day. 

In class "twitter"
So as we move through the first portion of the school year and the ideas are fresh and the possibilities are endless, I can’t help but ask, is being “great” at your school a choice? When new, effective things are rolled out on campus, are they presented as “try this you might like it” or “we need to do this”? Is professional learning and participation optional?  Is expanding your teaching toolkit necessary to keep up? How many out there are going through the motions in PLCs and faculty meetings only to return to their rooms and teach in isolation?  My hope is that the numbers are very low, but truthfully it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a good teacher and a great one. What I hope we all aspire to, is working in a place where “great” is not a choice…A place where if you are not “great” you stand out as an outlier.  In Jim Collins book, “Good to Great” he talks about how there is no way to “fake it” in effective organizations because the climate won’t stand for it. 

Does this mean that everyone should teach exactly the same? NO!  We are not wired that way.  However, if we are truly striving to be the best and believe that continuous learning is part of that process, then being “great” everyday cannot be a choice.  It must be an expectation for all!

Are we on target? You bet we are!!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thermometer or a Thermostat?

“We can never predict with absolute certainty the future but we are always in control of how we prepare for it.”

Most organizations, successful or not, have two types of people: Thermometers and Thermostats. How do you know which one you are?  That is easy, what do you do to contribute to the success of your organization?  Are you one of the leaders that help set the tone, or do you sit back and wait to see what happens?  The difference is much like the difference between a thermometer and a thermostat.  A thermometer is a very useful tool.  It measures the temperature and can tell you if something is too hot or too cold. However, it is limited in its usefulness…it does nothing to effect a change of temperature when needed.  There are many people that play this role in an organization.  They are useful, very good at what they do, and even necessary to provide valuable information in making decisions, but they are not the small percentage of movers and shakers needed to keep an organization on the cutting edge.

Thermostats are much different.  Thermostats can tell you the temperature, but perhaps more importantly, they have the ability to control the temperature.  They make the climate comfortable or uncomfortable, hot or cold.  They have the power and ability to change the climate to a more desirable or effective one! These people have the unique ability to adapt the climate to what it needs to be for a given situation.

 Most successful schools share a common thread at the center of all they do…an effective instructional climate guided by highly engaged instructional leaders.  This is often the principal, but the principal can’t be the only thermostat. The climate is different in every classroom and they can’t be everywhere so it also takes assistant principals, teacher leaders, instructional coaches, or just someone willing to step up and be a leader.  These leaders must be thermostats.  They need to be able to gauge the temperature and effect change as needed.  Without them, the status quo will remain and only fluctuate by chance…just like the temperature.

So the question remains, are you a thermometer that just measures the temperature of your classroom or your school?  Or are you a thermostat that controls the climate and makes the necessary changes that are needed? Everyone has the power to be both.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Chapter 9- Learning Targets

“When you make an observation, you have an obligation.” – M.K. Asante

First, let me share that I have enjoyed my little summer project.  I got to read a great book and share it with my friends….last time I checked the stats, the Learning Targets blog had been viewed over 6,000 times.  I realize that may not be much in the virtual world, but I have to believe it is better than me reading it alone.  So what happens next?  Well, I guess the point of doing this to begin with was to help teachers plan better lessons so that students would understand what they are learning.  That is the goal…to design dynamic learning experiences for students. However, as this last chapter suggests, teachers can’t do it alone.  Effective schools call for effective leadership.

Principals and others placed in the role of observing in classrooms all enter with certain beliefs about what is important.  As Moss and Brookhart share, principals use typical lists of “best practices” to create “look-fors” in the classroom.  The danger in this is that too often these lists are only centered on what the teacher is doing.  We focus on teacher actions, occasionally even scripting every question they ask, or strategy they use. Sometimes we look for “student engagement”, but how do you really determine if a student is engaged? No, the “jugular” question, as the authors put it, is “Engaged in what?”.  Too often we have students working on well intend, but poorly designed lessons and they become meaningless in pushing students’ learning forward.  Someone has to provide support to ensure this doesn’t happen.

250+ of NISD's best!
Last week, our District held its annual “Administrators’ Academy” and each campus brought together their leadership teams for two days of intense learning.  This year, the focus was very much about moving toward becoming a more effective school by improving the instructional culture.  In this chapter, Moss and Brookhart discussed the value of leadership teams in a school and the power they possess to improve instruction.  However, it is not easy.  The leaders of the school, be it the principal or a group of leaders, send a very clear message about what is important, by what they focus on.  If a leadership team values what the students are doing in the lesson rather than simply what the teacher is doing, a transformational shift can occur in the culture of the building. 

On page 151, perhaps my favorite quote of the whole book arrives:

“There are virtually no documented instances of turning a troubled school around without intervention from talented leaders.  Although there are many factors….leadership is the catalyst.”

Intentional Planning!!

At our Admin. Academy, we talked about the influence of the teacher and how important he/she is for their class, but study after study has shown that an effective school, lead by effective leadership teams, have a larger impact on a student’s educational career.  What this means, is that while the teacher matters most for that individual school year, students make the m
ost gains in a school with strong leadership over time.

So what type of leadership is important?  The term “instructional leader” by the authors’ estimation has become a watered-down term with varied definitions and expectations. A few characteristics of an effective instructional leader that I took from the chapter:

·      Instructional leaders create a common language about what they consider evidence of effective teaching and meaningful learning. These shared beliefs allow a campus to know what is working, what is not working, and do something about it.
·      Instructional leaders engage in targeted professional development WITH teachers about improving what happens in the classroom.
·      Instructional leaders ensure that strategic instructional practices that raise student achievement are embedded in each lesson.
·      Instructional leaders conduct strategic observations, provide targeted feedback to teachers, and forge strong learning partnerships between teachers and students.

I hope those of you that have been reading along this summer have enjoyed the book as much as I have.  I found a ton of helpful reminders about the importance of students being partners in their learning and it reinforced my belief on the value of good lesson planning as the key to high student achievement.

One final question:

·      What does your campus leadership do to support the instructional culture of your building?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chapter 8: Using Learning Targets to Guide Summative Assessments and Grading

Grading is one of the most laborious tasks a teacher endures as part of his/her job description.  However, if done correctly, it can provide a useful tool to help teachers and students know where they are in the scope of larger learning standards.   The authors take a pretty firm stance on the practice of grading such things as effort and behavior.  They advocate that feedback on such things should be kept separate from actual grading practices, but I believe that this is one area that makes grading so difficult.  Most teachers naturally feel for a student that works really hard and is trying his/her best to learn a new concept or complete an activity.  However, giving credit for effort does a complete disservice to the learning targets process.  The process, in its purest form, calls for student self-regulation against a target.  If grades are inflated, a student (and their parents) may get a false sense of where they are in the learning progression.  Honest feedback is key to student self-regulation against any performance of understanding.

The other common error we make in grading is a misalignment of the task to the true learning target.   If the target asks for a student to learn or demonstrate a particular skill, but the activity does not align with those expectations, it is difficult to determine if the student met the learning goal.  This is why pre-planning of the lesson becomes essential.

When creating a summative assessment, teachers following a true learning targets process should find it fairly straightforward to create their assessments.  First, if you are using the learning targets process, then there should be multiple opportunities within a unit of study to assess student progress.  This also allows a student to know exactly what to expect on the summative and have support measures built in throughout the unit.  The Assessment blueprint on pg. 137, gives a great example about how a well-planned unit with multiple learning targets can easily form an aligned summative assessment.  In my District, our assessment blue print this year will rely on Supporting and Readiness Standards as prescribed by the state.  However, a challenge for teachers will be making sure their daily learning targets align with the written curriculum but also the assessment.

Reflective Questions:

1.     How do you feel about students having an opportunity to re-do an assignment in which they received a poor grade?
2.     What is your opinion on grading students on effort? Or Progress?

3.     How confident are you that the grades you give students on their report cards truly reflect what they have learned?

Friday, August 1, 2014

Ch. 7: Using Learning Targets to Foster Higher-Order Thinking

"Our schools are not teaching students to think. It is astonishing how many young people have difficulty in putting their brains definitely and systematically to work
-Thomas Edison

One of the most difficult things teachers face is the ongoing quest to teach and assess higher-level, critical thinking skills.  It challenges us in many ways: First, teachers’ content knowledge and understanding of the concepts must be at an extremely high level.  Second, the lesson design that includes thinking skills must include the use of a taxonomy level.  The most popular, Bloom’s, is often used by teachers as a way to measure their lessons, but embedding ‘thinking-skills’ and assessing them remains challenging on a day to day basis.

As, I read this chapter and thought of its implications I was reminded of the opening portion of the book when Moss and Brookhart discussed the idea of an “espoused theory of action” vs. an actual theory of action.  We often say we believe that higher-order thinking skills are important and we want to improve them for our students. However, the assignments we require of students many times do not align with those beliefs.  A stroll down a hallway in almost any school will reveal a “learning objective” posted on a bulletin board or whiteboard that uses statements such as, “Students will investigate, analyze, and interpret…” , but when you really examine the task or activity, students get by without doing any of those things.  Why?  Is it a lack of knowledge on the part of the teachers?  Is it a deficit within our curriculum that does not provide appropriate activities? Is it that our students are ready for these types of activities, so we change them?  Any of these answers may be partially true. 

How does the learning target process change that?  Well, maybe it doesn’t, however I believe it has the potential to help.  Misalignment is a huge issue with curriculum writing and lesson planning.  Teachers must establish the instructional objectives in such a way that students have to apply thinking skills within the assignments.  This involves flexibility and the use of formative assessment throughout a lesson. If the tasks that we give to students do not ask them to utilize their thinking skills, we are not challenging their thinking as we should.  Differentation (see Chapter 6) is the key to successful implementation. As the authors note,  “Not all students will learn exactly the same content details and processing skills, but at the end of the lesson , they should all be able to say “I can do those three things.  If not, they should be able to say, “I cannot do this yet, so here’s what I need to know.” (pg. 120)

Reflective Questions:

·      How do you measure thinking skills and/or creativity in  your classroom?

·      How often do you use rubrics, not for content knowledge, but to assess higher-order thinking?