What Would You Do If You Could Break the Rules?

imagesI’ve been blessed with an incredible PLN (Professional Learning Network). Through applications such as Voxer, Blab, Google+ and Twitter I enjoy daily doses of inspiration, insights into the behind the scenes thinking of some very successful school administrators, professional development providers, teachers and influencers. Two of the strongest influences on my professional practice are Jon Corippo and my absolutely fabulous LeadWild group. You can find most of us under #LeadWild on Twitter.

Last November, we started a conversation about grants which led to Jon throwing out the idea, “What if we were able to get a grant, not for money, but for one that gave us permission to break the rules?” Ooooooooh, what if? Then I realized, as both the Superintendent and the Principal of our school and district, I can do this. I can give staff permission to break the rules. Well, a lot of the rules.

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First SketchNote by Jeremiah Blackwell – @Teach_MrBwell

The first Monday of every month in our district is an early release Monday which allows for a couple of hours of monthly professional development. For today’s early release time, I chose to take a flipped approach to part of our professional learning and sent out some links to all staff, yes this includes all classified staff as well, about 20 Percent Time and Genius Hour. I asked them to read the articles, talk to each other and come up with ideas on what they would do if they could be given time to work on a project of their own choosing with the idea of doing something that would have a positive impact on the school in some way. Come up with something you feel passionate about that would improve the school for students, for employees, for the community, for yourself. Think about what you would do if you were not limited by your job description, a bell schedule, grade levels or any of the rules you think apply. I have to say it was really fun to watch the faces as I said I would like to give them a grant in which the rules don’t apply and you were given on the clock time to complete the project. Well, again, most of the rules.

Some of the ideas that came forth were building an outdoor sensory gym, creating a peace garden, creating a Minecraft Lab, getting a 3D printer to use with students, redesigning classroom learning spaces and from the custodian – working with the middle school art class to paint a mural in honor of those who serve our Country. As a school that serves military families, this project incorporates community, students, teachers and classified staff.

The staff meeting ended at 3:30. I thought we had a great conversation, came up with some great ideas, had clear parameters for next steps and had wrapped up nicely. Half an hour later, I looked up at the clock and noticed in was 4:00. No one had left! We were all still talking, brainstorming, making plans and encouraging one another. Another half an hour later most of the staff was still on campus in different classrooms continuing their sharing of ideas and plans.

I’m ready to say yes to their ideas, to connect them with resources and to give them the time they need to make their ideas a reality. Here’s to seeing what happens next. It’s hard to start breaking the rules after a lifetime of following the rules. As the culture adapts to the flexibility that allows staff time and resources to make their thoughts and dreams a reality, it will be exciting to see what they come up with.



Developing Fluency in “New Literacies”

slide-1-638The growth of Information and communication technologies (ICT) is causing a shift in what are and will be deemed best instructional practices in our schools. Many of today’s educators participated in a school system that was based on the printed text and have had to adjust their own learning and teaching practices to incorporate “new literacies.” New literacies such as blogs, wikis, Snapchat, SnapStories, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram are a part of the learning, employment and social realms of the students in our classrooms today. Add to this that new forms of communication continue to develop and enter mainstream society and we see a real need to prepare our students to be literate in a wide array of forums ranging from the traditional textbook to being able to access and analyze online content to participating in Twitter chats, Snap Chats, Instagram and discussion boards as well as wikis and blogs. The list is open ended. As ICTs continue to develop, our school systems will have to stay current and incorporate responsible and effective communication skills in the varying platforms. It is therefore necessary to instill traditional literacy skills in our students as well as newer digital information and communication skills, and to be able to adapt to and fluent in yet to be developed literacies.

The question arises, “How do we provide on-going systematic professional development that allows teachers and school administrators to stay current with continually developing literacies?” The need for an open mind set ,as characterized by Carol Dweck in her book Mind Set, and job embedded professional development have taken on a new level of importance. Consider that students entering preschool this year will be retiring around 2080. The skills these students will need to navigate jobs that may not even exist yet are challenging to imagine. We can however work with the business industry to stay knowledgeable about the types of literacies skills they are looking for in their employees. It is also important that we teach our students to be good digital citizens, that we teach them how to use social digital literacies in a way that reflects their individuality while presenting themselves to be of sound of character.

I had the opportunity to read a couple of articles on the development of New Literacies and how they can impact instruction. In the April 2004, fifth edition of Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading published by the International Reading Association, Leu, Kinzer, Coiro and Cammack in their work entitled “Toward a Theory of New Literacies Emerging From the Internet and Other Information and Communication Technologies,” offer strong historical background on the development of various literacies throughout history and how society has adapted to and adopted new methods of communication. Challenging to our society today is the rapid rate in which new technologies are influencing our knowledge and communication.

Part of the answer to the question, “How do we provide on-going systemic professional development that allows teachers and school administrators to stay current with continually developing literacies?,” can be found in David Warlick’s article “The New Literacy.” Warlick offers a nice foundation of knowledge about what are being referred to as “New Literacies” as well as an outline of to develop a strong instructional program that supports the development of these skills among our students. I’ve started to read his book Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century. In his introduction which he also refers to as a User’s Guide, Warlick provides an excellent word of caution as we look to modernize our classrooms for 21st Century learning. While redesigning our classrooms and curriculum to integrate technology has become a national, if not international focus, many of us have the process of modernization backwards. We should really be focusing on redefining what 21st Century is, what it looks like and then using technology to integrate these skills.

It is incumbent on each of us in the field of education to stay current with the types of communication being used by society. It is also important to keep in mind the historical contexts that have brought about different types of literacies as well as the reasons different groups and leaders have chosen to suppress the knowledge that allows a society to become literate. What will the impact on society be if we do not clearly define what 21st Century literacy is and teach students how to use these skills responsibly? It falls upon education leaders, teachers, administrators, politicians, parents and community members to work together to create a culture that embraces professional development that supports teacher expertise with information and communication technologies that allow the field of education to maintain current literacy practices as they evolve.


An Observation: A Key Difference between a Son’s E-learning and his Mom’s E-learning

imgres-1My own e-learning begins fairly early in the morning and is often a large part of my overall day. I get up before the rest of my family every morning, grab coffee and dive into my email. My inbox is filled with professional articles, blogs and ed. tech resources. Some of my favorites include: Edutopia, EdReach, Seth Godin, Emerging EdTech and Ron Edmondson. I throw in a little morning humor in there with Andertoons as well.

I’m an education “learning nerd.” Not only do I love the profession of being an educator, but I love to learn! The advent of the internet, online courses, learning modules and articles, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and email have been a blessing to my learning habit. On the flip side of my joy in having learning just a click or couple of taps away is the need to find balance in life. I make a concentrated effort to put my digital tools aside when my family gets up or the clock lets me know it’s time to get ready for work. I do however look forward to when I can get back to my inbox and click on the next article to read, persuse the posts in my Twitter feed or take a look at what has been posted in the various Google+ communities I subscribe to.

There have been times when I’ve reflected on the idea of the learning being somewhat superficial or cursory and not “good learning.”  However, the topics I am really interested in are ones that I spend dedicated time with, studying deeper and accessing further resources. The cursory learning is a bonus as it gives me an idea of what else is out there that is of interest to others and also gives me a conversational knowledge that is good for connecting with others.

I suspect that other adult learners who engage in online learning would have similar responses to this type of a reflection regarding their online learning experiences. I also suspect our school age students are more likely to get distracted though. While I may sometimes veer towards a game of Jelly Splash

IMG_2109to take a break, my lives tend to run out quickly and I am able to refocus.

My son however, is taking an online driver’s education course. I noticed him working intently this afternoon, took a look at the computer screen, saw the module he was working on and made sure not to bother him so he could concentrate. Yet, when I returned to the computer to do some work for my Leading Edge Certification in online/blended learning,I was greeted by the following image:

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It turns out he had finished the unit we had agreed he would complete by the end of the day, but being at the computer gave him quick and easy access to playing games while his parents thought he was studying. He is a pretty typical teenager and I suspect most students his age would do the same thing. It’s not such a big deal over the summer, but as it gets later into a school night, the temptation to reward oneself for finishing an assignment could, and I know has in our home, result in some unintended late nights.

As we teach our students how to learn using the internet and Web 2.0 tools as well as how to become good digital citizens, we also need to guide them and teach them how to create balance in their lives to be sure they eat their meals away from the computer, engage in regular exercise, get together with friends face to face, and moderate their online gaming and socialization. These have the potential to turn into a battle of wills on the home front as watching too much tv was for my generation. Yet as educators, we can support our students and their families by sharing models of guidelines for home use of the computer for learning and entertainment. As the learning environment continues to shift towards increased use of digital resources, guidelines will need to be adjusted, but they are an important part of the overall education of our children as well as adult learners.


Implementing a Blended Learning Approach to Professional Development

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 1.05.00 PMAs an administrator with responsibility for providing professional development (PD) for certificated and classified staff,  I had the opportunity to be part of a team that implemented a blended model approach to PD the last few years. Working with a county office of education, I had staff located throughout a 50 mile radius. In addition to the challenges that come with being separated by so many miles, staff also had different areas of expertise. While there are many similarities to good teaching across specific student populations, there are also distinct differences to be found in best practices for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, visually impaired, emotionally disturbed or diagnosed with autism. By implementing a blended learning approach to professional development, staff were able to engage in more personalized learning focusing on skills and curriculum that would best support the success of their students. Additionally, this provided staff with greater flexibility to engage in learning and developing their individual areas of expertise at times that worked best for them. It also provided staff who were interested in engaging in further development, resources to guide their learning.

This blended model of professional development incorporated the study of online modules, video, Google presentations, Google forms and Google documents. Teachers and classified staff whose expertise was being developed in supporting students with moderate to severe handicaps chose evidence based practices to study from AIM (Autism Internet Modules. Teachers chose two practices a year that all staff would study and one to two evidence based practices (EBPs) that they would study individually. This course of professional development was supported by two monthly in person meetings.

One meeting was a presentation style lecture led by a guest speaker, expert in developmental disabilities, and the other meeting was a small group gathering with a specific monthly format that allowed teachers to share what was working and not working within their practice in addition to sharing examples and materials from EBPs being used in their classrooms. This approach allowed for a shared base of instructional knowledge on the part of all staff while also allowing teachers the opportunity to develop expertise in areas that were of specific interest to them. Classified staff were provided with the access to the same materials as certificated staff, were invited to the larger monthly meetings and were provided with follow up training by the classroom teacher that focused on the specific implementation of evidence based practices that supported their classroom instruction.

As individual teacher expertise began to grow, a coaching component was added to this model. When a teacher would develop an interest in an area that a colleague had expertise in or encountered a student or situation that would benefit from a another teacher’s area of expertise, release time would be provided for the two staff members to conduct observations of each other’s classrooms and to work together to incorporate the new evidence based practice into the classroom’s instructional model.

In addition to the internet modules, Google presentations and videos were created and presented via an online format. For example, staff studied the evidence based practice of video modeling this past year. The video modeling presentation was was made available for all staff to view and review as per their preference. The presentation  was easily modified to offer suggestions applicable to general education classroom instruction and to provide a guide to consider when creating video models. This presentation was supported with researched based articles for staff to read as well as steps to guide the process of creating a video model for students. The unit ended with a brief reflective assessment and submission of videos that were shared with all staff to use as fit their needs.

The outcome of implementing a blended learning model was a highly skilled and motivated staff who had confidence in their specific areas of expertise, foundational knowledge in over 30 evidence based instructional practices as well as in person and digital resources to access to supplement further learning. Teachers engaged in higher order thinking skills as they evaluated which evidence based practices their students would benefit from the most. They synthesized their knowledge to design instructional programs that incorporated these strategies into the curriculum while creating materials based on the practices they had learned. Additionally, staff began to create video models to support increased student learning.

The blended approach solved several of the logistical challenges of having staff spread across such a significant geographical area. It engaged staff as adult learners, provided flexibility for staff to engage in learning at their convenience while also capitalizing on their professional knowledge of their students’ needs and interests. This supported the implementation of instructional strategies to maximize student’s individual success. Added bonuses to using 2.0 tools and having materials available on the web were that parents and substitute teachers started to access the resources as well. This allowed for greater than expected fidelity of instruction when substitute teachers were in the classroom, particularly when staff was out for coaching. All in all, the implementation of the blended learning model to support professional development proved to be a resounding success with a positive impact on student learning.


An Online/Blended Teaching Approach to Staff Meetings and Professional Development

teacher_cartoon-257x300After spending seventeen years of my career as a classroom teacher, four years ago, I was hired for my first administrative position. Nevertheless, I continue to find that at the core of my being, I am a teacher. Having had the chance to mentor both new and experienced teachers in my administrative role, I have become aware of the skills and insights that I have as a part of my repertoire and how to share these with other educators. I am also highly cognizant of the fact, that once out of the classroom we, as educators, must stay knowledgeable with current as well as innovative practices that have the potential to be “disruptive” to our profession. Disruptive is used here to reference the work of both Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, both of the Christensen Institute, who have collaborated to explain how new technologies can enter a market such as education. Through success with a previously untapped base, “disruptive” technologies and practices can grow to introduce effective innovations in a market that previously may have been inaccessible.

Online and blended teaching models have been a “disruptive” force in education. These models have tapped into students who have experienced struggles with the more traditional brick and mortar school system and traditional lecture style approaches to education. Online programs tapped into the market of students requiring credit recovery to graduate from high school. Given the opportunity to learn at their own pace, at a time that worked for them and with access to a computer and the internet, online learning made a significant impact in assisting students to earn their high school diplomas. This same approach was used by students who were receiving home school instruction or who required accelerated course work.

The successes did not go unnoticed and educators began to incorporate online learning within the more traditional education structure. Thus the blended learning model was born. As I reflect on how I might incorporate a blended model of instruction into my own practice as an administrator in the field of education, I see the opportunity to use this pedagogical structure to enhance professional development opportunities for staff and model how to incorporate a blended approach to a previously more traditional classroom.

Let the days of boring staff meetings be gone. Let those of feelings of our time as educators being wasted disappear. Welcome, the blended model of teacher professional development and staff meetings. I believe face to face time with staff and as a group continue to be essential components of site based communication and identity, however, using a blended approach, similar to the rotation model of a blended learning environment, could allow staff to more effectively use their preparation and professional development time. Let’s give staff access to announcements via video (and let’s make those videos entertaining), engage in discussions through a Google+ Community and focus on personalized learning to enhance individual teaching practice via internet modules and readings. In-person meetings and professional development or guest speakers via Skype or Google Hangout can be enhanced through back-channeling via Twitter discussions or by using Today’s Meet to comment and ask questions. Staff can comment, ask and answer questions for one another and share resources without ever interrupting the flow of a presentation. The level of engagement increases dramatically when the learner has the opportunity to actively engage in a presentation. These approaches offer a more effective method than the previous, “Write your question down on a piece of paper so you don’t forget it and wait until the end of the presentation,” expectation.

In order to engage staff in a blended approach to staff meetings and professional development, it is essential that the staff know how to access and use each of the technologies that will be incorporated. This requires planning and training in addition to well prepared materials to present to staff. It was not uncommon in my teaching experience to hear from the principal during lunch on a staff meeting day that the agenda for the afternoon had not yet been set. This led to the perception that administration did not place a high value on the opportunity to meet with the staff which was often reinforced by overly general agendas with a lot of “discussion” topics being made available at the time of the meeting. By incorporating a blended approach to staff meetings and PD, administration has to engage in thoughtful planning. Creating a rotation to include activities such as meeting as a large group, taking on online courses, creating an innovative lesson to share in an online community or reading an article and discussing it in a community create opportunities for increased engagement and personally relevant PD.

The intention would be that by modeling the skills and strategies used in an effective blended model of staff development and communication, staff would feel positive about their higher level of engagement as well as feel increased respect for their personal expertise within the profession. This would allow for discussion on how students could share in the same experience. Using the tools of the blended model, part  of the PD would be to learn, discuss, create and share lessons and ideas for relevant, rigorous and engaging learning.


Investing in Motivated Lead Learners

Screen Shot 2013-10-12 at 2.44.34 PMInvesting in teachers, support staff and their professional development is one of the most important responsibilities of the educational leader. I have been blessed to work in an organization that believes in people in the number one resource for student success and when hiring uses the motto, “Hire for character, teach for skill.” This philosophy has created a culture of motivated adult learners who continually seek to improve their professional practice and knowledge base.

Four  years ago, under the vision of a gifted program specialist and assistant superintendent who believed in investing in employees as professionals, what is now referred to as the Core 7 Professional Development Model began. The goal was to develop teacher expertise in evidence-based practices for students on the autism spectrum. (See the National Professional Development’s Center AIM Resources – http://www.autisminternetmodules.org/user_mod.php). Since the onset of this vision, the program has grown to include one full release day per month for morning teacher collaboration directed by the teachers themselves. This is followed by an afternoon of group training which includes the expectation that management staff participate in the learning of the practice being focused on for the month. In addition, monthly staff meeting time has become a focused professional development session on the topic of the month. Parents, community members and educators from other districts are invited to attend as well as classified staff who are paid for their time.

One of the greatest discoveries of diving into these practices was finding out that these effective strategies are not limited to success with students on the spectrum. Rather, these practices are a foundation for good teaching in general. For example, looking at classroom structure as an antecedent based intervention to support positive student behaviors is effective in all educational environments. We see evidence of video-modeling across skill and subject matters as the Flipped Classroom grows in popularity, not to mention how often youtube videos are used on a daily basis by the average learner to support picking up skills such as learning how to tie a tie.

It is now the fourth year of implementation of the Core 7 Model. The results are a certificated and classified staff of motivated adult learners, as well as the ability to attract highly motivated applicants for open positions. During the interview process, when we begin with the question, “Tell us about why you are interested in this position?” it is not uncommon to hear responses such, “I’ve heard that you in invest in the professional development of your people and they’re trained to be successful.” “I want to work with children and I heard you have good training that would be help me do a good job.” These results and responses serve as a powerful testimonial of the importance of investing in our educators as Lead Learners who are than able to collaborate, coach and train with each to become expert educators.


Building Trust – The First Step

ImageI recently had an experience in which my trust relationship with an employee was broken. The experience has been cause for a significant amount of reflection in which I’ve been asking myself what was missing in the foundation of the expectations. How could I have responded differently to the situation? The trust wasn’t just broken from my perspective. I feel comfortable that the employee feels the same way. Knowing this has led me to ask several reflective questions: How do I lead in repairing the relationship? Why is it important to repair the relationship? What was missing to start with that allowed the event to occur? The more thought I give the situation, the more I see that there is a crack in the foundation.

The Crack in the Foundation

ImageAs a principal and instructional leader, there is an inherent responsibility to provide staff with a clear understanding of the organization’s foundational values and vision. The larger vision on which our education system is built is to teach students to become independent citizens. In this case the instructional goal that supports that vision was to have students with severe handicaps participate in a general education lunch while developing skills to be able to transition to participating in this activity independently. Yet, as I reflect on the practice that was occurring, it strikes me that the goal wasn’t clearly communicated, the steps provided in the training weren’t being implemented and the materials to support the training weren’t available. There is a huge crack in this foundation.

The “glitch” in the goal was the difference in understanding that the expectation for achieving independence is expected in all activities on campus, not just the classroom. Directions have been given over a series of years that support a generalized concept of taking students to lunch which is very different from, “Use the prompting model and visual supports (training and materials provided to meet expectations) to support students in walking to the cafeteria, getting their lunch, sitting at the assigned table and taking in their meal with 100% independence by the beginning of February.” This goal than needed to be broken into clearly defined objectives to provide staff with an understanding of the process that it will take to get there. For example, an objective such as, “Support students in getting their food by using visual and gestural prompts after oral directions have been given. Provide 5 seconds of wait time in between prompts.” In clearly defining the goal and the objectives, staff would have had more knowledge on how to apply the training they have received in this specific situation. Clear expectations go a long way toward building trust.

In this particular situation, I noticed that staff didn’t have the visual prompts that have been created to support the prompting model built into the training they have received on how to support students with both receptive and expressive communication. It struck me that staff may not be clear that these materials are to be used at all times and not just during specific curricular activities. Again, clear expectations go a long way toward building trust. Staff need to understand what is expected of them at all times in order to be successful.

The situation has turned out to be blessing in disguise. We continuously look at how to improve programs and while the situation was incredibly uncomfortable, it has allowed for the realization that there are cracks in the foundation. The expectations were not as clear to staff as management thought they were. We’ll side step for a moment, fix the crack in the foundation, continue to build trust and grow strong programs for students.