... to support teachers. Over the past six months, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of teachers, principals and central office administrators from all over Massachusetts. Our conversations focus primarily on using technology to implement the new educator evaluation system and how to foster a culture of trust and collaboration while doing so. Over these many conversations themes surface and I find them quite interesting (and concerning at times).
Yesterday afternoon, I read a great post by John Spencer (@johntspencer) on Education Rethink. John discussed student choice in the classroom through a conversation he had with his son. Through their dialog, his son articulated that (my interpretation here) there were some situations in which he had choices in school and others in which he did not. As I read the post, I was reminded of all of the thinking, reflection, and internal debate that the role student choice in the classroom has caused for me.
As I thought more about the post and the words of John’s son, I was struck by how insightful he was. He nailed something I have seen many times over in my classrooms and schools. The perception of choice. Through different instructional models, we have constructed situations in which children have choices between predetermined stations. In reality, they do not have a choice, they get to pick from a menu we have set up for them.
Interestingly enough, I survey my students at the end of each school year to get a sense of their perceptions about school and learning. The questions on the survey ask students to rate the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements describing feelings or stances towards school. The results of the surveys are always validating and give me a big “you are doing a good job” feeling. Except when it comes to students’ perception of choice during their day. When asked if they feel like they have choices in what they learn, they reliably respond that they have little to no choice.
The question I have always ask myself is, “How do we provide for meaningful student choice during the school day while ensuring that all students come away with the skills, strategies and concepts that they need?”
Students must have choice in their lives. Conversation, choice, compromise; these are some of the basics of functional, trusting relationships. Learning can happen without strong student-teacher relationships , but it is a shadow of what can happen for a student when they trust their teacher and believe that the teacher understands and cares about them.
As a teacher and administrator I have experimented with student choice at the elementary level for years. Here is what I think. The “what” of school is not really negotiable at the elementary level. Kids need to learn the basics that will allow them to explore their passions and interests in life and find success in whatever way they define that. For me, the choice comes in the how. How we structure learning environments and how students demonstrate their learning.
Structure the environment to allow for discussion and variety in how students demonstrate their learning. Ask students, “How might we show that we know how to ______?” or “How might we show that we understand ______?”
Minor adjustments to practice and, more importantly, organizational language can foster a climate in which we find the balance between true student choice and ensuring that students master the skills they need to find success in life.
There is no question that thoughtful, strategic implementation of technology can enhance and accelerate student learning. Unfortunately those two qualifiers, thoughtful and strategic, often get lost in the rush to bring new devices and practices in to school systems and classrooms. Time, energy, and patience are often in short supply. This often leads to implementation that lacks purpose and support. Beyond the fact that the technologies never have the opportunity to truly sink in and enhance learning, these rushed implementations leave a bad taste in the mouths of the practitioners who most need to be excited by and engaged with that technology.
I have seen the scenario over and over. Teachers and classrooms are equipped with every tool necessary to run a 21st century learning environment and the technology is underutilized if at all. Teachers cite lack of training or problems with devices, applications, or internet connectivity. With all of the roadblocks that seem to pop up, I see teachers in pockets around my school and district who have figured it out. The problems that plague others don’t seem to phase them or get in their way. The lack of training just doesn’t seem to limit the degree to which they effectively integrate technology.
Matt and I were talking about this phenomenon earlier this year and the same themes kept coming up. How do we spread what we see in these classrooms? and How do we connect these teachers and others who might be interested in their ideas? This conversation and many others generated the Natick Techstravaganza; a blog dedicated to sharing best practices showcasing the integration of 21st century learning on classrooms across our elementary schools.
The examples posted showcase the great work of our teachers and hi-light the simple solutions they have found to common problems that often impede robust, sustainable implementation. While it is always a work in progress, Matt and I have both seen growth in our schools as a result of the sharing through the Techstravaganza. Take a look, maybe something like this could help as you move to continue implementation of 21st century tools and practices.
Ian P. Kelly, M.Ed.
Cross posted at MA Elementary Principal’s Techstravaganza
This Tuesday’s evening #edchat focused on the concept of lifelong learning. As I participated in and listened to the conversation I tried to pull out the themes that answered the question, “What are the conditions that support lifelong learning?”
I focused on answering this question because I believe that human beings are, by nature, lifelong learners. I believe that, along the way, the desire to learn for the duration of a lifetime can be stifled. Anything can get in the way, it depends on the person and the circumstances in which they learn and grow.
I suspect that everyone, if they critically and honestly reflected on their lives, could identify a time in which their desire to continue learning was diminished. I believe that the return of that desire and the degree to which that desire returns are, primarily, a function of the conditions in which that person lives and works. If the conditions are optimal for learners then there is a strong probability that we will maintain momentum for lifelong learning and help those who are stifled reengage in the process of lifelong learning.
As a leader, the conditions (culture and climate) that I shape in my school are my very first priority. I am a firm believer in the power of culture and climate to have a lasting, positive impact on students and teachers. This being the case, coming to a deeper understanding of the conditions that support lifelong learning is important to me.
Conditions that Support and Facilitate Lifelong Learning (Some ideas from #edchat, some from my experience):
- To think
- To create
- To collaborate
- To focus on teaching and learning
- To innovate
- Principals and district level administrators need to demonstrate they they themselves are lifelong learners.
- Building schedules that support collaboration
- Providing time for teachers to work together and learn
- Structure PD opportunities that allow for teacher discretion and choice
- Hiring Practices
- Searching for and retaining lifelong learners
- Teachers with teachers
- Teachers with administrators
- Teachers are self-directed learners, allow them choice in what they focus on and learn
I know that this list is by no means exhaustive or fleshed out in a way that would really provide a comprehensive look at the conditions that foster lifelong learning, but I am interested in moving it in that direction. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts. Post them in the comments or use this google doc. Looking forward to your contributions.
Over the weekend I was able to tune into EduCon here and there. Each time I tuned in three things happened.
1. I became more jealous of everyone who was there.
2. I learned something or had my thinking pushed in some new, interesting direction.
3. My concept of professional learning shifted.
I will spare you a rant on my jealousy and focus on experience #3, my shifting concept of professional learning. Over the past few months I have developed a broad network of professionals through my PLN. They have exposed me to new ideas, strategies, and tools and I have learned more in these months than in many years of coursework and seminars. I have used Twitter and TweetDeck to access this network and I have started my own blog as a place to reflect upon and share my learning. I have been gaining proficiency with these and other tools and I have been eager to really try them out in a more structured, “conferencelike” setting. This morning I had that opportunity.
At 10:30, I joined a session at EduCon facilitated by Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) and George Couros (@gcouros), A Call for all Educators: How do we get more “connected” principals? I connected to the session via LiveStream and booted up TweetDeck so that I could follow everyone’s thoughts and questions during the conversation. My desktop looked like this:
A few minutes into the session Lyn Hilt (@l_hilt) posted a google doc for everyone to use and share notes during the conversation. Now my screen looked like this:
So at this point I am really excited. I am using all of these amazing tools to actively participate in a conversation happening over 300 miles away. I am so excited that I decide to use one more of my new tools, Jing, to capture a video of all this happening so that I can share it with my colleagues. Here is the video:
Once the conversation was over, I sat back and thought:
“That was awesome.”
“I am going to EduCon next year.”
“This is really the kind of learning that everyone (teachers, students, and administrators) should have the opportunity to engage in.”
“This was really a socially mediated learning experience. I learned more today because I was able to construct knowledge through questioning and dialog.”
“Why aren’t there more opportunities like this for me, my teachers, and my students?”
“How do I bring these types of learning opportunities to my elementary school?”
Now. I am tired and I know that I missed a lot of what I should have thought as a result of this experience. So, what should I have thought? What should I be thinking moving forward?
When I was teaching, my friends would always ask me what it was like to be a teacher. I always had a hard time capturing it, but over the years the conversations evolved into something like this:
Friend, “Ian, what’s it like being a teacher?”
Reply, “It’s like this. Everything is calm in the morning. I get my materials ready, run through all of my plans one more time, shoot off a few emails, you know. Then the kids come. 23 little people ready to learn and grow. I make about a million decisions each and every day, constantly check the progress of my students, retune my lessons all day long, get them to lunch, get them to music, get them ready to go home, get them out the door safely, and then I collapse.”
Friend, “What did you have for lunch?”
Reply, I shake my head and laugh.
The point that I illustrate with my story is that teaching is an incredibly complex and demanding field. Teachers need to be on their toes, up to date, and dynamic like no one else in the world. They are skilled at so many things across so many domains and it takes a high degree of focus and energy to execute with skill each and every day in the classroom. Further complicating matters for teachers is the pace at which the days, weeks, and years move.
The pace and complexity I describe create a situation in which high levels of professional success and satisfaction depend, more than ever, upon collaboration amongst colleagues. Sharing ideas, methods, and resources is critical. Developing curriculum, generating common assessments, and looking at student work as a team are essential practices that lead to success. In theory, collaboration is key; in practice, time rules the day.
Daily 40 minute planning periods are enough to catch your breath, respond to a phone call or e-mail, go to the bathroom, and get back to your class. These periods do not provide the kind of time teachers need to collaborate meaningfully on topics and issues that matter and improve teaching and learning. For many reasons, the ability to provide collaborative time for teachers that goes beyond the 40 minutes daily model has eluded me. I have wrestled with this issue over the course of my career as both a teacher and administrator.This year things changed.
During a faculty meeting a few months ago, I was engaged in a conversation with our faculty about common assessments and looking at student work. Many teachers expressed their desire to engage in this work while simultaneously expressing the fact that there just wasn’t time in the day. After the conversation ended and we concluded the meeting, one of my fourth grade teachers approached and suggested that me and my assistant principal, Ben Gatto, take each grade level for half a day so that teams of teachers could collaborate for substantial periods of time. As soon as she said it, the lightbulb went on and I knew we had the answer.
It took a few weeks, but Ben and I figured out the scheduling and planned a morning full of activities that we could do with the various grade levels. Over the past two weeks we have executed a release day for both our 3rd and 4th grade teams. K, 1, and 2 will follow in the coming weeks. The response from everyone involved so far has been really positive. Our teachers are excited to have collaborative time built into their days. The students are having a blast getting special time with the principal and assistant principal. Ben and I are feeling like satisfied leaders because we are getting quality time with our students and freeing up our teachers to work with their teams, support one another, and, ultimately, support high levels of student learning and growth.