Sunday, November 15, 2015

How do you bake a cake?

Recently, I was chatting with someone I consider a true expert in our field.  We were talking about what seems to be missing in today’s classrooms.  Don’t get me wrong, it was not a cri

tical conversation about today’s classrooms.  In fact, it was an acknowledgement that teaching today is harder than it has ever been….students are more diverse, parents more difficult, the content has increased as have the expectations.  Another variable that has greatly increased for teacher is the access and availability of resources. There are so many “researched based” ideas out there that a quick search of the internet or even the classroom bookshelf gives a teacher an abundance of great lesson ideas or quick fix strategies.  Here is where my wise friend struck me with an interesting observation.  She asked how many teachers know how to cook from scratch? And how many bake cakes from a box?
The premise was simple.  I have had some excellent cakes made from a box (even made a few myself).  I dump the contents in, add an egg or two, a little milk and PRESTO!  I have a cake….actually, I have a pretty good cake.  One that I would even serve guests and be proud.  The problem is, I have no idea how to bake nor the first thing about what goes into making a homemade cake.  There is also no way I could teach someone else how to bake because I don’t understand the process, I just follow the recipe.  When an expert baker begins a cake, they know what ingredients to add, they put a little extra here and a little less there based on personal taste.  Because of their experience and their knowledge, they know how to make the cake a little lighter or sweeter or whatever they want.  They are designing it as they go and if you stopped them to ask, they could explain the why behind each ingredient and the order in which they should be added. 
Teaching is no difference.  The true experts (the bakers) can design a perfect lesson because they understand the content and their students (what flavors do they like?).  They know what order to present the information. They know when to add something extra and when to leave out something out that is not needed.  They know what is important.  

Box cakes lessons and resources are very necessary and can be very good.  They help us be more efficient and feed our students.  In a day and age when everything is so busy, it is important to have tools that save us time and energy.  It is equally important to have someone that knows the ingredients (the process) and can make adjustments as needed. We need teachers that are bakers!!!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Do you have any Sleepers in your classroom?

"To raise achievement, schools may need to work as hard on the social-emotional aspect of learning as they do on the academic aspect." -Deborah D. Brennan

After only the first week of school, chances are most teachers are already getting a feel for their students.  In any given class, there are teacher pleasers, those that test our patience, probably some students that know the material you are presenting already, and some that may never truly understand it.  The challenge of teaching a room full of students with different interests, backgrounds, and motivations is part of what make teaching one of the most difficult professions in the world.
The start of the school year is also when educators everywhere annually proclaim their job is about “building relationships”.  It is true!  A teacher that doesn’t love students and do what they can to get to know them is in the business for the wrong reasons.  However, getting to know them isn’t enough.  From a teaching standpoint, the whole purpose of building relationships is so that we can figure out what makes a kid “tick”.  How can we teach them better?  How might we design our classrooms and our lessons to make them more engaging and fulfilling for our students?  Building a relationship with a student should be the very first formative assessment of the year.  The question remains, just like with any other formative assessment, what will you do with the information about the student once you have it?  With so many kids and so many styles, it is difficult to know them all.  It takes time, experience, and expertise.  It also takes a teacher that is willing to change the way they do things when needed. 
Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State University, created a great video about a student he referred to as “The Sleeper”.  This student made him question the way he taught his class, and it also taught him a lesson in building relationships with student. 

Watch and see….the student didn’t change until the teacher’s classroom changed! Nobody said teaching would be easy….but it is worth it!  Get to know your kids and then use it to make their learning experience dynamic!!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Chapter 6- Coach’s Guide to Facilitation Protocols and Activities

As we near the end of the book (and unfortunately summer), we come to an often overlooked or at least underestimated part of the PLC process….training and supporting the leader of the team.  Most PLCs are led by a grade level chairperson or a content department chair.  Generally these people have earned such a title because they are great teachers and probably have also shown the ability to lead around the campus.  However, leading a PLC can be a challenging process for anyone and some of the protocols and activities outlined in Chapter 6 can go a long way in helping a PLC leader prepare. 

While I will not go through the specific activities outlined in this chapter (you can read them yourself), I can’t emphasis enough how important it is for the leaders of the building to set the tone for professional learning on the campus.  The question Venables’ poses on pg. 111 is highly valuable and should be asked over and over again:  Why does this activity have to do with being part of an authentic PLC? While this question is used as part of the Traffic Jam protocol, it should be used as the basis for any agenda for a PLC.

Another important component in successful PLC’s is setting up the expectations.  In Chapter 2 we discussed norms and the need to take the time to discuss and create them as a team. In our own curriculum with students, it has become common place to take time within the “First 30 Days” to set up rituals and routines in the classroom with our students.  We emphasize building relationships between students and teachers and we should do the same with our PLCs.  The first few weeks can and be used to understand the purpose of the meetings, agree upon agendas, expectations, and even practice some of the proposed protocols or activities.  While we may think we don’t have time to “set up” our PLCs, I would argue that we don’t have time not to. 

Although the entire PLC is responsible for student learning and the overall culture of the PLC, everyone will look to the leader to set the tone. When PLC leaders ask difficult questions that challenge the status quo, they are pushing the entire team to get better.  By using protocols, it can help everyone involved, especially the leader, to become more comfortable challenging each other and improving over time.  Richard Elmore, co-author of Instructional Rounds, shared that Schools that show the greatest improvement, generally do so under their own devices”.  This takes leadership from teachers, innovation, and a willingness to challenge each other.  When your PLC has acquired these characteristics on a consistent basis, you will have arrived as an “Authentic PLC”.

Reflective Questions:
·       What has our campus done for PLC leaders to prepare them to move their team’s work forward?
·       What protocol in the chapter, or elsewhere, are you looking forward to using in your PLC this year?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Chapter 5: Reviewing and Responding to Data

 “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data”

Throughout the summer, as we have read Venables’s book, The Practice of Authentic PLC’s, a constant has been the reminder of the three purposes of a Professional Learning Community. Very simply, PLCs should do the following:  Look at student and teacher work; design quality common formative assessments, and review/respond to data.  This week’s chapter discusses the last of the three and perhaps the one that is the most misused.  

There are so many versions, variables and ways of looking at data, that one of the biggest challenges individual educators, much less PLC’s, have is to determine what data to use and how to use it.  On page 92, Venables uses a quote from James Popham’s book, Transformative Assessment to sum up the use of data about as well as it can be.  “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they’re currently doing.”  Looking at data in a PLC must be a planned process (intentional).  What common assignment are we going to look at? Why did we pick this particular assignment (high leverage? Readiness standard?) And what is the learning criteria/standard we expect of the students?  If the PLC answers these types of questions in their PLC (see chapter 4), the type of data they collect will be much more valuable and therefore can be used to guide learning in the immediate future.  If, on the other hand, they bring in random pieces of student work that are not designed around the most important learning standards, is the data (or time used doing it) worth using to assess how a group of students are progressing?   Part of this process may be the need within our PLC to develop common “Assessment Literacy”.  Does everyone in the group know the purpose of the assessment, what they are looking for, and how it is aligned to larger learning standards? If they do not, it can cause misalignment, inaccurate data, or both.

Besides the planning process of looking at data, the value in collecting data only comes from using it correctly. In NISD, our grading policy categorizes assignments/assessments into two categories:  Formative and Summative.  The concept seems sound, formative grades are used to help monitor and prepare students for the larger summative assessments that culminate a unit of study.  However, the reality is that the differentiation between formative and summative has more to do with how the student and teacher use the information than what goes in the gradebook.  

When your PLC looks at data, they should be very intentional about what data they want to look at to assess their own progress as well as individual students.  You should also confront the brutal facts about what pieces of data truly effect your teaching and learning.  The chart below has been modified from the one on pg. 95 to fit the NISD terms for assessments.  It is an excellent visual to show the types of assessments that can, and should be, the most impactful on instruction.  

It is my hope that our PLCs during this coming school year can be curious learners when it comes to looking at student data. No matter if the initial results are good or bad, if we take an “inquiry” approach to looking at data and take out the personal side of it, we are better able to find the trends and answers we are seeking.  And, if we can connect all three “purposes” of a PLC together we can do the following outlined on page 103:

Connecting Learning Gaps to Instructional Gaps
“All too often, teachers use data to discover where their students are weak or to indentify skills and concepts their students have not mastered, and then they stop there. In these instances, teachers are seeing only half of the issue. Unless and until teachers link these student weaknesses to teacher practice, that is, to instructional weaknesses, they cannot move forward in fixing the problem.”

This short video from the Data Wise project at Harvard University does a great job of outlining the purpose of data to instruction and the effect of  intentionally collaborating on data in a PLC.

Harvard University: ACE Habits of Mind (Action, Collaboration, Evidence)

Reflective Questions:
  • What evidence do you collect (more data) that shows a response to data improves student achievement? How do you know?
  • What is the hardest part of looking at data with a PLC?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Chapter 4- Designing Quality Common Formative Assessments"

"Great team members hold each other accountable to the high standards and excellence their culture expects and demands." 
-Jon Gordon
Of all the things that make teaching both challenging and worthwhile, assessing students learning may be the most difficult.  The responsibility of monitoring student progress is far from an exact science, but it can be made easier through collaboration and calibration with other educators.  One of the main areas of focus for our PLCs should be designing quality common formative assessments.  It sounds simple enough, but as Venables points out, creating quality formative assessments are not easy.  This is why is it so important that teachers work together to determine what they want students to know and how they will assess if they do.
First, we must remember be clear about the difference between formative and summative assessment. In NISD, we have a collection of Curriculum Based Assessments (CBAs) that are summative in nature. They are given after a unit of learning and generally speaking should give us information about which students did or did not learn the key points within the curriculum.  STAAR tests, EOCs, AP exams, should all be considered forms of summative assessment as well.  They come near the end of the year and are “suppose” to inform us about what students have learned, but they do very little to guide instruction or help students improve.  To truly know how students are progressing, teachers must use various forms of formative assessment (daily, weekly, etc.) to frequently monitor how and what students are learning so they can tailor their instruction to meet both class and individual needs.  Great teachers do this either through experience or second nature, but the power of sharing connected knowledge is developing these types of assessments through collaboration in PLCs. 

In Chapter 4, Venables spends a lot of time addressing the sometimes negative perception of “teaching to the test”.  As he mentions, and I agree, if it is a well-constructed assessment, there should be no problem with teachers instructing to the level of the test.  However, if the assessment or task a student is to be given is at a low-level, it is likely the instruction will match that as well.  This is why it is essential that teachers work together to create the best formative assessments possible which also allows for consistency and calibration within the school.  The word “common” should not be underestimated. Several campuses use protocols or systems such as "State of the Class" each week that is based on a common assignment. Activities such as this allow for identification of needs, both for the whole class and individuals. If  teachers work together to determine the learning target for the lesson and unpack the standard to decide the level of rigor in which that standard will be assessed then the instruction is much more likely to be on point.  It also gives valuable information when using the protocols to assess student work (chapter 3) and student/class data (chapter 5).  Pages 64-66 in the book do a great job of explaining some ways in which PLCs can begin to identify standards to assess.  Another excellent resource for this work is Learning Targets, because it forces teachers to determine what and how a student will meet the learning criteria.  There are numerous protocols and ways to break down standards, the key is to use the PLC to work together so that all members have the same understanding before beginning instruction.
If you are looking for some great PLC resources, I suggest these books.  All have protocols and ideas to help jumpstart even the most experiences of PLC groups!!

Have your students ever done really well on all the formatives leading up to a summative and then “bombed” the test?  The most common reason for that is misalignment between the two.  In an era in which we are trying desperately to have kids “think” and the assessments to be more “authentic” it is imperative that what they experience daily is rigorous and standards-based.  Pages 67-71 do an excellent job of explaining the rationale for standards-based formative assessment, including a chart on page 71 highlighting some of the differences.  However,  to produce the most authentic forms of assessment (and also the most time consuming), Venables offers a section of “Alternative forms of Common Assessment” starting on page 72 that should prove both challenging and essential in an NISD classroom.  PLCs should be discussing ways students show their learning beyond multiple choice tests, but in doing so, they must keep several key components in mind:
·       Alternative forms of assessment should be rigorous and content-rich
·       Alternative forms of assessment should align to the ELO’s (not merely assess other related skills and concepts).
·       Alternative forms of assessments should be evaluated with a standards-based rubric.  Pg. 72
For the purposes of this blog and space, there are too many implications to the statements above, but I hope that all the readers will take time to reflect on the types of projects and rubrics in use by their PLCs or in their own classrooms.  The author points out several common misconceptions in their design that often lead to misalignment or improper assessment of learning (read: the project becomes a waste of time).    The essential question to keep in mind:  Where in what the student did is there evidence of learning?
Finally, there are two other areas addressed by Venables in Chapter 4.  Grading and Intervention.  While grading is a necessary component to our daily jobs, they key takeaway for me is the need for calibration among the PLC members.  We must design quality formatives and then we must grade them consistently in order to make the valid and informative.  The intervention component of common formative assessments is the lifeblood of why we would do formatives at all. If we do not do anything to inform our instruction or assist students in need, the purpose of the formative is lost.  We will explore this subject in greater detail next week as we look at how data can be used in a PLC.

Reflective questions:
- How does your PLC respond to "teaching to the test" comments?
-How often do my students experience a common formative assessment created by my PLC? And what do we do to ensure it is a high-quality assessment?
- What are the pros and cons of using alternative formative assessments on a regular basis?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Chapter 3- Looking at Student and Teacher Work

If you want to assess how effective your PLC’s have become, one of the most valuable places to start is the level of student work and how it has improved over time.  This is one of the most used activities in a PLC, but often used inefficiently in terms of formatively assessing practice and making improvements.  The reasons it can be ineffective are simple and two major factors contribute greatly to it.  The first is competence and the second is trust.  Our author, Daniel Venables, discusses building trust through norms and protocols in Chapter 2, but extends the discussion through several examples of protocols that could be used to look at student/teacher work during a PLC.  On page 46, the author mentions feedback as “the lifeblood on nearly every aspect of PLC work, most notably, the lifeblood of looking at student and teacher work.”  However, the word of caution remains that the quality of the feedback is dependent on the willingness of the groups to give and receive honest feedback regarding the quality of the work.  At the very bottom of pg. 46, Venables offers reasoning for why teachers do not give critical feedback and quite frankly, it stings a little bit.  It is because the often not thinking deeply enough about the work and going through a series of compliance steps to satisfy administrative requirements and they are not truly invested in the process.  If that is the case we have not done a sufficient enough job of establishing a learning culture in the PLC.   The protocols will help, but teachers must have the trust and the willingness to make them thrive.  The second reason, competence, is not specifically addressed by the author in Chapter 3, but one that must be addressed to reach the end goal of increased teacher and student performance.  If the participants, especially the facilitator, of the PLC are not competent in their knowledge of both curriculum and instruction, the protocols and the activities become a well-intended activity without the desired results.  While it is true that the PLC in itself is embedded professional learning, when examining both teacher and student work there must be a standard of excellence in which the group is striving.  If that is not the case, it makes it difficult for the critical feedback to occur. One of the first things a facilitator of a PLC must assess, are the individuals in the group “willing and able”, “willing but unable”, or in the worse-case scenario “able, but unwilling.” 
Besides the protocols for looking at student work, Chapter 3 also offers several examples of looking at “teacher work”.  Figure 3:10 on pg. 58 is a great list of the various forms of teacher work that can be completed during a PLC.  While it is hopeful that many of the activities listed would not be done in isolation, but rather as a group, the protocols listed in the book do call for some individual  presentations and accountability.  Too often we sit and plan lessons, assessments, rubrics, etc. together but never take the time to put them through any sort of “quality control” check to make sure they are meeting the objectives we want them to.  In our District, we have used some protocols such as “pre-lesson shares” or the “Targeted Planning Process”, however it those are “events” rather than embedded as part of the culture or don’t have the trust and feedback noted above, they will not push the limits of new learning and progress.
The final piece on teacher learning that Venables discusses in Chapter 3 is Peer Observation.  Perhaps nothing has the potential to be more beneficial to teachers than feedback on the implementation of their planning than respected peers observing them teach and offering honest feedback.  There are so many models of this, including the use of video, that are popular right now, that it is hard to imagine a teacher in NISD that hasn’t participated in peer observation in some form or fashion.  Let’s take two of the more established protocols, Instructional Rounds and Focused Walkthroughs.  Both of these provide time for structured observation however they come with very different purposes.  Instructional Rounds are less about individual teachers and more about determining trends of instruction around the campus.  Our focused-walks have several specific protocols that determine the type of feedback the individual teacher is to be given.  Both of these protocols can be very helpful, IF: They are used on a regular basis and not every once in a while, and IF all the participants understand the purpose and are willing to give critical feedback.  Again, the challenge lies in the instructional culture of building.  Other effective examples of peer observation are when the receiving teacher identifies and asks for observers to look for specific areas in which they hope to improve or focus.  This allows the teacher to “own” the learning and can be more beneficial to individual growth.  The worse thing we can do has have teachers “go watch” a great teacher and expect results!  They most observe with a purpose.
Chapter 3 is full of ideas (some old and some new) of ways to improve our PLC culture and the craft of improvement.  However, never is the skill of the facilitator nor the trust of the PLC put more to the challenge then when looking at student and teacher work.  Remember the lessons from the first two chapters…it won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without intentional planning.
1.     Picture the PLC in which you spend the most time, are the participants both “willing and able” to do the work necessary?  If the answer is no to either “willing” or “able”, what steps will be necessary to build capacity for the team?
2.     When you “plan” as a team in your PLC, could you or would  you use a protocol that allows for some sort of “quality control” before the lesson is ever presented to students? 

3.     When participating in “peer observation” what protocols do you feel are most beneficial and why?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Chapter 2- What to do First: Building a Foundation for Collaboration

       “Your team doesn’t care if you are a superstar.  They care if you are a super teammate.” – Jon Gordon
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make, no matter the profession, it not investing the time it takes up front to build a great team.  The military has “basic training” and most sports team participate in pre-season rituals, each of which is designed to bring teammates together and force the group to work together.  As a result, there are countless stories and examples from these groups in which individuals put their own needs behind what is good for the group and as a result, their feats far outweigh what may have been achieved otherwise.  Unfortunately, the reality is, many organizations do not follow this example.  They collect the most talented people they can find, and then expect them to be able to work together and collaborate. It doesn’t always work out that way.
Our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are built on the concept that all members are active participants willing to speak up and share their talents, but as Daniel Venables shares in Chapter 2 without intentional planning on the part of the leaders on the campus, PLCs focus and effectiveness can be compromised. Several key points Venables makes early in the chapter are the way schools establish their teams and their leaders.  What do the PLCs look like at your school and what are the expected outcomes?  Most secondary PLCs are compartmentalized by subject area which make sense because they are writing common assessments and looking at data, but if schools value the “whole child” and also “cross curricular” discussions Venables encourages intentional time with subject-diverse PLCs whose primary focus is looking at student work.  Teachers can learn a lot from reviewing the types of assignments other subject areas are giving as well as the way students respond.  So is there a need for both? How often?  At the elementary level, most teachers teach more than one subject and PLCs are often by grade level with some vertical discussion by subject.  It would be interesting to hear from teachers which type they find more beneficial to improving their craft.
I was also impressed with the way Venables addressed the elephant in the room that is our “elective” or “specials” teachers.  These teachers are some of the most important in the building.  They know students from a perspective that often gets overlooked and can add valuable insight into campus PLCs if they are intentionally used in this way.  I encourage all the readers (especially those charged with setting up the PLCs on a campus) to review pgs 20-21 for examples about how “related arts” teachers might be used in PLCs.
The next section in Chapter 2 discussed the importance of selecting the right leader/facilitator for the PLC and also the importance of training them.  This is imperative and could easily be modeled on a weekly basis.  Do your instructional leader meetings follow a similar agenda to what the grade level/dept. PLCs are expected to use?  Remember the objectives Venables set forth in Chapter 1 for PLCs: 1. Looking a student and teacher work; 2. Designing quality common assessments; and 3. Reviewing and responding to data.  If the leaders of the building do not spend the majority of their time  balanced between these 3 objectives, how can they expect the rest of the PLCs to do so?  In addition, the constant modeling will help all the PLC facilitators improve their skills and understand the expectations.
The author spends a great deal of time to discussing the importance and process of setting NORMS and Team Building for your PLC. As he shares, often times we set norms with good intentions, but do not follow through or revisit them nearly enough.  I believe sometimes the teams that have been together the longest may be the ones that need norms the most.  The familiarity allows for complacency if we are not careful.  While Venables shares several examples of activities to bring teams together, we will offer more examples at our District’s Leadership Academy in July.  A huge takeaway from this section for me was the intentional design of team building activities.  It is not just about “fun”…was there a purpose or a task the group had to accomplish while “bonding”.  Again, getting along and having everyone be happy is not the same thing as an authentic PLC.  It helps, but it doesn’t guarantee the end goal.
As the chapter closes, the section on pg. 31 entitled “Constructing Community Knowledge” was a perfect reminder for PLC facilitators (and all of us really).  Everyone comes to the table with different background, talents, and experiences.  The most effective PLCs find ways to bring the best out in everyone.  Thus the need for norms, protocols, etc.  A skilled facilitators will capitalize on the talents and wisdom of the group to make everyone more effective.  Building common knowledge of the group is important, but utilizing each member’s strengths is imperative.
Reflective Questions:
·       What are the many different PLCs on your campus? How were they organized?  Is there a place for everyone?
·       What have you done in the past to intentionally set norms or team building strategies? Did they have a specific purpose and were they effective?
·       When you think about the PLC in which you will spend the most time next year, what are the strengths of each member? What can you do to find out?
·       How might some of the ideas in Chapter 2 help your PLC moving forward?

Leave your comments here or on twitter #impactNISD

“If we all simply nod our heads in agreement and never ask questions or disagree, then we are wasting the wonderful ability to think.” – Justin Tarte

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Chapter 1: The Business of PLC’s

"On many teams people are committed to their individual goals but on great teams they're also committed to each other." -Jon Gordon

When I started to select a book for our District’s Leadership Academy this year, it took me quite a while to decide which title would have the most impact.  There are so many wonderful books on teaching and learning that it wasn’t hard to find plenty of relevant topics, but I chose The Practice of Authentic PLCs by Daniel Venables for three very distinct reasons: 1. As we like to say in our District, “we learn best, with and through others!” 2. Last summer at the Leadership Academy and throughout the school year, we focused in on John Hattie’s research and the impact that teachers evaluating each other’s work can have on overall student learning in a school.  3. Finally, this Spring, our School Board adopted our “Profile of an NISD Educator”.  This document sets forth our not only our aspirations, but also our expectations for educators in our District.  Highlighted in the document is the key word “committed” but also throughout, it shares words like collaborate and shared responsibility.  These three reasons and countless others we will find in the book, demand that we all work together in the process of getting better.  It’s the growth mindset, so let’s get started.
Profile of an NISD Educator - Adopted 2015
In Chapter 1, Venables sets the stage by sharing some of the research behind PLCs and their purpose.   The definition on page 10 probably states the purpose of our PLC’s as well as any I have read…. “PLCs exist to improve student learning by making teachers more effective in the work of teaching.”  That is really the bottom line.  If your PLC is not making you and your teammate’s better teachers, then they are a waste of time.  How does that happen?  The author suggests that a narrow focus within a PLC that provides for specific tasks to occur will be the most effective: 
  • Looking at student and teacher work; 
  • Designing common formative assessments; and 
  • Reviewing and responding to data.  
Later this summer, as we continue to work through the book, we will share different ways to do these things together in perhaps more effective ways than we have in the past. 
As you read through Chapter 1 this week, please pay attention the chart on page 13 and reflect on your own PLCs from this past school year.  My guess is you did many of the things the book will advocate, but as we stretch our own thinking and learning, I hope we will all work together to make ourselves a better Professional Learning Community!!!
Reflective Questions:
1.       Who is the lead facilitator in your PLC?
2.       Where did your PLC spend most of its time? What items were on the agenda on a regular basis?
3.       What training or understanding does your team need?

4.       For the good of the group, please share some of the most effective activities you do in your PLC’s?

You can share here or feel free to share at #impactNISD

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A letter to NISD Teacher...Thanks!!

To all NISD teachers,
Last Friday night, I had the wonderful privilege of introducing our newest NISD Teachers of the Year at our INSPIRE Celebration.  The room was full of exemplar educators from all over our District, and the winners, Maggie Walsh from Beck Elementary and Joanna Kysar from Chisholm Trail Middle School are both well deserving of such an honor.  Besides recognizing each school’s own Teacher of the Year, we said good-bye to our retirees that have served our District so well for so long.  It was quite a night and everyone there was worthy of recognition.
On the eve of “Teacher Appreciation Week”, I can’t help but believe that everyone that was recognized at INSPIRE would tell you that there are many more back on their campus that are just as deserving, if not more.  Part of that comes from the selfless nature of so many teachers, but part of it also comes from the high quality people we work with in NISD. 
We started the year with a goal of providing “dynamic learning experiences” for our students and I believe we have succeeded greatly.  From my perspective, I get to see and hear about so many wonderful experiences and accomplishments of our students and there are great teachers behind every single one of them.  This year our students have traveled all over the country, from New York to California, because their teachers have pushed them and provided them opportunities beyond many of their wildest dreams. NISD teachers do more than a job, NISD teachers change the world! You should be appreciated!  Not just this week, but every day!
Teaching is a hard job.  One of the hardest you can find. People leave our profession at an alarming rate. I know many of you quite well and others I do not know at all, but one thing I hope we all have in common is the desire to make the daily lives of our students better. Otherwise, this would really be a thankless occupation. Many people outside of education don’t appreciate the difference you make, but as a parent with three children in NISD, I know how much you mean. The “dynamic experiences” my kids have lived this year are countless and their growth is amazing.  I believe there are 20,000 others just like them….kids that love their school and love their teachers. 
This week, as much as any other, I hope you feel appreciated.  I hope that one of those students that looks up to you everyday finds a way to let you know just how much you have meant to them.  Or maybe that parent that hasn’t quite been happy all year finally sends an email just to say “thanks”. Even if neither happens and you go through the week just as you would any other….please remember that you are making a huge impact on a future you many never see. I hope that is enough and I hope you know you are appreciated.   Thanks for all you do!


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Learning Targets UPDATE: Where are you?

Last summer over 250 Learning Targets books were given out to our campus administrators and teacher leaders in NISD.  The purpose was to continue to enhance our teachers lesson planning while promoting the partnership between teachers and students.  The authors stress the fact that Learning Targets must share a common language, focus, and goal between learner and facilitator. Otherwise they are useless. 

The weekly twitter chat in our district, #nisdchat (Sunday’s at 8:30 pm) has spent a few different sessions with teachers talking about how they are using Learning Targets in their classrooms this year and more importantly, how students are responding to them.  If you missed the chat, here are the questions…leave a comment below or search the chat on twitter and join the discussion.  Pictures are welcome! 

1.     How have LTs helped you as a teacher this year?
2.     What success have you had with learning targets in your classroom?
3.     How do you work to make sure students “own their learning”?
4.     How have LTs helped you communicate expectations to parents?
5.     How might your targets change between now and the end of the year?

If you would like to see more about the Learning Targets discussion in NISD, please review the blog post below from the summer of 2014.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Are High-Stakes Tests Becoming Dinosaurs?

About a year ago on this blog, I wrote a piece  entitled 364 > 1, in which I tried to emphasize the importance of high quality instruction day in and day out rather that placing all the importance on a one day, high stakes test.  To this day, it remains my most read post.  I assume that meant that many of the educators that read it agreed with me.  However, since that time, the emphasis and pressure for students and campuses to produce on a given assessment has increased even more if that is possible.  Our state’s accountability system found a way to disregard the many other data sources available (and mandated such as House Bill 5) to recognize schools that were “perpetually underperforming”.  In some cases, “perpetual” has meant that schools with traditionally high student achievement scores that took a ONE year dip and found themselves on the state’s “most wanted” list.  There are documented cases of schools with pass rates over 90% that made the list because they didn’t make enough progress based on a complicated series of statistics.  Seriously?

My grandfather, who was about as wise a man as I have ever known, never failed to make simple points with strange analogies. He grew up poor in West Texas but became, by all measures a successful business man, husband, and father.  I will never forget him telling me, “Dinosaurs are extinct, but jackrabbits still run wild.” When I asked him what he meant, he talked about how too many people become frustrated reaching for the one “big event” that will prove they are successful that they lose sight of all the small things that mean so much.  I can’t help but think that we have somehow turned high-stakes tests into Dinosaurs….big, bad, and scary.  However, if we remain focused on the little, day to day, activities that improves student learning, we will not only survive, we will thrive…just like the jackrabbits in West Texas.

Daniel Venables, in his book “The Practice of Authentic PLCs” creates a data triangle that highlights the importance of daily lesson planning, formative assessment, and feedback that have the largest impact on student achievement.  The message is clear.  The results of an End of Course exam or STAAR tests, while important, do little to change teaching and learning.  It is the attention to daily results based on learning targets, formative assessment, and observations with feedback that have the potential to change results.   In addition, if we don’t use the daily information we gather to change and adapt our own skills, we will, like the dinosaurs, become extinct. 

From bottom to top: What a teacher and students do on a consistent basis has more impact than any high-stakes test!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Never forget why you started…..

At a training this week, the facilitator asked us to share an elevator speech on “Why you do what you do?”  It sounded simple enough, but as I fumbled through the one minute time limit I realized what a challenge that really was for me to articulate.  I’d like to believe that a bunch of baseball scouts missed the chance of a lifetime by overlooking me in high school and that is why I went into education, but the reality is that I decided to be a teacher much earlier.  When I was in second grade, in a private school in New Orleans, I can distinctly remember thinking to myself day after day, “I could teach better than Ms. ______” (name omitted to protect the guilty).  I had a few detentions and even a couple of “licks” that year to prove that she thought otherwise, but I survived.  The next three years, I had male teachers.  For me, that was the perfect scenario.  They were great teachers and role models for me. I don’t know where any of them are now, but I know they impacted my life a great deal and confirmed that I wanted to be a teacher! A series of circumstances caused us to move a great deal when I was a kid (10 schools in 12 grades), but what I always remember is that it was a teacher or a coach that made me feel comfortable and kept me on track.  How I wish I could go back and thank all of them. Later, while in college I got a job one summer working at a camp for diabetic kids. One summer turned into nine and I loved every minute of it.  Living in a cabin with 20 kids for 3 weeks at a time is only for someone that truly loves it!!  Making their lives better was my passion. When it came time to "grow up" and get a full time job, I intentionally found a place where I could teach a self-contained classroom because I wanted to have my “own” kids each and every day in hopes of helping them in the way so many helped me.  I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives.  That is why I started! One of the most rewarding things in my career is the number of them that are now teachers themselves!!

Fast forward a few years and I find myself farther away from students than I ever dreamed. The same second grader that thought he could do better than his teacher also couldn’t keep his mouth shut about how things should be done better and was eventually asked to prove it in a series of "promotions".  If I have learned anything in my first year in a new job, it is that I don’t have all the answers.  That is humbling experience for sure, but one that has challenged me to remember even more why I started.  I have to keep that in perspective and believe that while I no longer interact with students on a daily basis, my role now is to do the best I can to support the adults that do touch their lives.
Simon Sinek, has a wonderful TED talk describing what he calls “The Golden Ring”.  (see the link below) The premise of his talk for organizations and its leaders is “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  My hope for teachers everywhere is that you never forget “why” you do it.  I know my story is not unique...we all had teachers that impacted our lives, but more and more, we are “selling” education to kids and parents. Today's students are more skeptical and/or curious than ever before. They must know why learning is relevant and that starts with your passion for what you do.  It shows in all your actions and impacts students and their parents.  Again, they don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it!

I became an educator because I loved being with kids and because of the many teachers that helped me during my life...I figure, I owe them.  So there you have it, my elevator speech.  Why do you do what you do?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Don't Be a CRAB!!

Have you ever worked with people that go out of their way to make sure new things don’t work?  They don’t want to put in the extra effort it might take to get ahead, either because they are afraid of failure or they are content to do things the way they have always been done.  I have worked on campuses, where teachers were actually ostracized for going “above and beyond”!  Simple things like gaining praise for a great newsletter, an extra parent call, or even enthusiastically participating in professional development can sometimes make others jealous or even resentful.  In some places, this is called the “Crab Mentality”.  The crab mentality is a natural phenomenon that even scientists can’t explain, but it almost never fails.  You see, if you have a bucket of crabs, they easily have the capability to climb out of the bucket and save themselves, especially if they work together.  But they will not.  Sometimes the crabs seem almost malicious. They climb over one another and even work to pull those that appear to be making progress towards success downward to the group.  They are not interested in others success. 

We should all be on guard for the Crab Mentality. Even at schools with great culture and climate, it can creep in and pull others down.  Look around your own campus and your peers….I am willing to bet that everyone there is working hard and trying their best.  However, I am also believe that there are a few that stand out. Maybe it’s the way they teach a lesson with a smile, they make even lunch duty fun, or they have a way of getting along with that student/parent than no one else can seem to reach.  The question is, what is keeping them from falling into the crab mentality?  And more importantly are you one that is pushing them upward or pulling them down.

 The crab mentality is a reflection of the famous saying “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead.” Learning to recognize the crab mentality in yourself and others is a very good idea, especially in schools.  Our schools need teachers that “get out of the bucket” to seek adventure and try new things, not groups that are holding them back.  Don’t be a crab!!