Monday, February 6, 2017

Weekly Wonderings: What Are Our Non-Negotiables?

What are our non-negotiables?

This past week I took part in the Shadow a Student Challenge where school leaders are encouraged to walk in the shoes of one of their students for a day. I shadowed a student in the past and was looking forward to this experience once again. The selection process was a random draw of student who had volunteered, and this year's lucky winner was a 7th grader named Sydney who was very excited about the opportunity. Throughout the day, I was able to talk with students about their thoughts about school, what they liked, and what they wished was different. The whole day was very positive and insightful and, even though I got pulled away for about an hour and a half due to a power outage, I was able to see some of the things I appreciate about our school and which were validated by students I talked with throughout our day.  

Recently I came upon a blog post by George Couros, Principal of Change. In this particular post he gave his top four non-negotiables upon which a school should base its work and which very closely match those traits I hold dear. Though not intended to be evaluative in nature, the Shadow a Student Challenge gave me an opportunity to step back and see through the eyes of our students, providing me with feedback about our school. As I reflected upon my day as a student, I used these four traits as a framework to summarize my observations to share with our staff in our Weekly Wonderings.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Weekly Wonderings: Is Technology "Just" a Tool?

Is Technology "Just" a Tool?

This seems like a silly question I am sure.  This post is meant to celebrate the progress that we have made the past few years in regard to technology integration and look toward the next phase or phases that will come as we find new ways and purposes for the tools at our fingertips.  We have gotten past the skepticism and fear that can be linked to technology and its usefulness and/or distraction in the hands of kids. This has been a great accomplishment. We then conquered the next phase of finding the tools that can help us as teachers be more efficient while at the same time teaching our students to use the technology appropriately. Now that this phase has been completed, our next steps, may be the most challenging.  How do we use technology as a tool to both accomplish the work we need them to and to raise authentic engagement through its use?

Back to the question at hand, is technology "just" a tool?  By definition a tool is something that gets a particular job done. Using paper and pencil gets the job done on writing an essay.  Paper and pencil are basic tools used to accomplish the task and we have learned that we can easily replicate this by having a student write an essay using Google Docs. Same task just different tool, the use of technology has not changed the original task of writing an essay, though it definitely opens the door to expanding the possibilities.  Tools like Google Docs can open the door to many other valuable skills like collaboration, peer review and perhaps creativity which will be valuable for our students in their future endeavors.

Another question that we should be asking is how do we jazz things up a bit? How do we make the experience for kids a bit more personal in accomplishing the tasks we are asking them to do? Most of our experiences with kids and their motivation would tell us that a standard format (essay using Google Docs) assigned to all students often bares similar results as we are used to getting from an older form of technology, the pencil and paper. Though using Google Docs has allowed us to advance in the jazziness of how we accomplish the task, it would probably rate very low on the creativity scale.  What if we allowed students to figure out alternate creative ways to do the same task with perhaps with a slightly different tool to boost their creative-problem-solving abilities which also drew upon their strengths and interests? It's a bit intimidating, I know!

Weekly Wonderings: Is Technology "Just" a Tool?

Technology can be "just" a tool to get a job done, this is a fact.  From my own experience I have only been limited by my own comfort level and knowledge of this subject.  I will admit this has not always been easy.  For me, a light bulb erupted, when I saw students take a pretty average task and with permission take it to the next level in ways I never could have imagined and they were excited about it! When students are allowed to work to their interests and strengths, their confidence goes up which also raises investment and engagement. Having seen this from students who struggle with standard tasks lead me to question what is most important, the task or the process? I think we can all come up with examples why this is not always possible and I would agree with many of them, but perhaps we believe things are not possible because like me, I was limited by what I was familiar with and the way I had always done it. I know we can learn to be creative in our approach to teaching kids, through working together and sharing different methods and tools I know we can look at technology as much more than a standard tool. We can look at technology as something that will help us tap into the potential of our kids.

I believe this a good direction toward which we should travel and look forward to the journey!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Inside the Box Thinking?

Layers upon layers, upon layers!

In education we could come up with many reasons to not stray from the way we have always done things. Policies and regulations can leave us feeling trapped, like we live in one of those  never-ending nesting dolls. As soon as we open up one doll, there is another, and then another, fiendishly winking at us. It’s no wonder that many educators become frustrated working within this sort of system.  

Recently, I had a chance to begin diving into The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros, which has helped to solidify many thoughts that have never quite made their way out of my head. Part one of the book talks about change in how we approach education, the need for it, and how hard it can be for some people because, as human beings, many of us just don't like change, period.  He poses a few questions that are important to consider.

Do we as teachers want something different for ourselves?
Do we want to be innovative?
Do we know how to be innovative?

I have become a believer of what is referred to as “inside the box thinking.” Understandably, it’s a fact of life that in most situations we encounter there are rules or guidelines that dictate how to operate. I believe, though, that there is still room inside the box for creativity and innovation and we are only limited by our own thinking and perception as we work toward finding ways to benefit our kids.

"Vision without execution is just hallucination" - Thomas Edison

I often wonder how many teachers are not motivated by what they feel they are being asked to teach, and that leads me to examine the culture within our school. Do our teachers feel free to take risks for the sake of the kids? Have we created a vision that is clear and meets our kids' needs?  Our job as school leaders is to help teachers navigate this not-so-comfortable, but important, thing we call “change.” I have heard from a number of teachers who say, “I wish we could be more innovative!”  So, this is where we all get to decide if we want something better and, if we do, are we willing to ask for help? Answering these questions for ourselves will be important for our future success!

Message to Staff: Empowered?

In school we stress creativity and critical thinking, we ask our students to problem solve, and we stress that these are important skills for their future success. We need to give ourselves the flexibility and freedom to explore in the same kinds of ways. We owe it to our kids to continue to be thinkers and problem solvers on their behalf.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Building a Culture of Learning, Easy Right?

Teachers' roles in Project Based Learning.
We are already into a month of school, and the start of this school year has been unique and, I would say, great in an important way! The word “great” to some might mean that students arrived and compliantly adapted to our rules, all of which give the impression of orderly classrooms where students sit quietly listening to their teachers. Now mind you, we live in middle school, so orderly might be a stretch. In contrast, what I have observed is something a bit more unique from previous years! From the first day, our kids were thrown into groups doing collaborative activities, getting to know each other, establishing group norms, and accomplishing group goals. It was noisy, and it was messy, and it was awesome!

I am constantly amazed and am very proud of our staff and their work with kids, due largely in part to their willingness to take risks in order to better serve our kids' best interest. There has been a lot of talk about developing 21st century skills and creating thinkers and doers as opposed to teaching strictly content and compliance. Our staff has been learning together about how to incorporate strategies and tools such as Project Based Learning and Design Thinking to teach the content standards differently. We have found that it has required us to think differently and, in most cases, it means almost starting from scratch. We have been fortunate in that a group of us had the opportunity to work together over the summer to create these kinds of experiences for kids with the goal of deepening learning.

Teaching tool for a focus on teamwork.
This week I got to see first-hand some challenges among students working in groups, communicating with one another, and struggling to learn together. It’s much different than watching them struggle independently with solving a math problem or finishing up an essay.  What makes deeper learning experiences different, and perhaps the most difficult, is creating a culture of learning where students have a much larger role and responsibility. As in just about every other aspect of life, without exposure to a variety of situations or opportunity to practice skills, we will most likely not become proficient in our endeavors. Working in groups has been the bane for many teachers as students struggle managing time and sharing the workload. Despite student inexperience or lagging skill, though, our teachers are reporting great success stemming from activities designed to teach kids about working in groups and managing roles as the key learning outcome. Just like anything, we have learned that we cannot expect a skill such as collaboration to simply exist within our kids; we have to be purposeful and guide them along the way. The work our staff has done relates to the perceived messiness at the start of the school year, which I believe has paid off for our students. Starting the school year with high expectations has caused our students to settle in and get going with a clear focus and a set of tools with which to practice.

I am fortunate to be a part of an organization that values kids. As teachers, we do not want our kids to fail. This year I have watched our teachers work very hard, yet struggle, with being ok with failure in the sense that it is a very important part of the learning process. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we are finding with students working in a project-based world. Once our kids have established a direction, the level of maintenance required through continual coaching is relentless in some cases.

It is here where we have to work to stay the course, staying positive, adding guidance to each unique situation, and focusing on the teaching of a lagging skill like self-management. It would be really easy to fall back on natural consequence as a teaching tool; but if our students are to learn to be successful, it will be much more likely in a supportive environment, as opposed to a hands-off approach, where failure is accepted as a natural part of learning for both the student and the teacher. To some kids, failure is unfortunately ok and it marks the end of their work, which typically means no work at all, and that is not the failure we should be OK with. Though there are times that, despite the scaffolded levels of structure and supports we put in place for kids, they will ultimately choose whether they are motivated to try, which lends itself to a future exploration about student voice and choice and adding authenticity to learning as a means to motivation.

Being reflective, in my opinion, is one of the premiere skills a person can possess. It is especially important for teaching and guiding developing young humans who are creating their sense of identity as learners. As teachers, using projects that are collaborative in nature can put us into some pretty unfamiliar territory as our kids take a much more active role in their education. I am excited that our staff has begun conversations around learning from each other as professionals and understands that we are sometimes our best resource since we share some of the same experiences. Creating opportunities to share questions, ideas, strategies, successes, and, yes, even failures is what a healthy learning environment is about. We have much important work to do, and I am excited to have the opportunity to retool our school’s strategies together with an amazing, creative staff, and I am really looking forward to the positive impact that is surely to come from our efforts.