Success! (indeed)

The principals, department heads, registrars, and other such luminaries met this past week and solidified the scheduling matrices for the Junior High.  After five months, countless meetings, and several compromises, it’s on the books and official.  Sometime this spring or summer I will hand over the keys to the Language Lab, return to the classroom as a full-time teacher, and I will co-facilitate a PLT for teachers of Spanish in the Junior High.

I’m sad to leave a position that I’ve held for seven years.  When I came in to the lab, our (a colleague and i took over the lab from the previous director, hence “our”) main responsibility was training.  The digital language learning environment was foreign to all and frightening to most.  We spent much of our time cooking up instructional “how-to’s” on everything from basic lab functions to advanced operations, converting audio files to mp3, burning files to CD, creating clip-art, you name it.

As years went by, the language lab became less foreign, even to the newly arriving faculty members.  Given the increasing autonomy of the average user, we spent less time training and more time developing projects and activities using language learning technology.  We also somehow became ad hoc A/V coordinators, warehousing mp3 players, DV and digital cameras, digital voice recorders, and laptop computers.  Teachers often checked out these items for use with their class or in their abroad travel, and brought back the product to us to create an artifact of the classroom or abroad experience.  PowerPoint was considered the domain of intermediate techie while video editing was the zenith of tech savvy.  Although I was not as heavily involved in the front-loading of these activities, I was needed as a knowledge source in the post-production of these materials.

Gradually, as cameras and portable devices became ubiquitous, the need for these items diminished. And my role as back-door peddler of electronics eroded.  Just about this time came Web 2.0.  The term was around for a year or two before I paid any attention to it.  The first time I saw a class experiment with blogging I was somewhat unimpressed.  It turns out, as I now understand, the technology was new, but the methodology (print it out and hand it in) was the same old-same old.  As so often happens, technology changes much more quickly than our approach to it.  So, after another year or so, I started seeing the collaboration take form.  Students engaged in more peer review.  Teachers allowed students to create the lesson, and in some cases assess it (with a guiding hand).  And as of two years ago or so, a new application emerged every few weeks.  Sometimes I would find them on my own or in collaboration with a colleague from this network or that.  But just as often, a teacher at my school would come across something and ask me if I ever heard of…

This represents my most recent, and as it turns out most fulfilling permutation of my job as Lab Director.  I became the department’s Research and Development bloodhound.  I goofed around with some of the most inane and some of the most powerful tools around.  From this period of experimentation I found Voicethread, the wiki, and Jing/Screencast.  Rather than teach teachers how to teach with a piece of software that resides in our lab, I learned how to learn new tools and explore innovative uses for tools.  I would spend hours getting battered and bloodied in an online app so that a teacher could hop on, get started, and skip all the experimentation and frustration.

The only thing I’d do differently is I would have worked harder to incorporate this spirit of experimentation in my own classes.  Just this year, through things I’ve learned from my Dobbs Cohorts am I beginning a regimen of systematic failure and adjustment.  And it’s been my best teaching year in a long time.

Over this period of seven year the computer hasn’t changed much (other than how big and how fast they are), but the ways in which we use it has changed drastically.  Which, in essence, is why the PLC model has become such a necessity.  The role of Lab Director has evolved from “all-knowing teacher” to “electronics dealer,” to “R & D guy.”  My job became less teaching and more about learning and modeling.  And isn’t that what we’ve been discussing all this time?  Isn’t that what a PLC is all about?  (Actually, no, it’s about much more.  But the notion of a “team of learners” versus “group of teachers” is a foundational distinction.)

So, I’m off to my next assignment.  One about which I am very excited.  And as my job in the lab seemed to shift every two years or so, I imagine that my thinking will be challenged and my “job” as facilitator will change as quickly as the weeks pass.  I’m ignoring the temptation to get nervous about faciliating a PLT.  This summer I’m taking the two CFT Summer Institute workshops on PLC facilitation, so I hope that those two workshops, plus my involvement as participant in this PLC will help to shape my vision for the JHSPLT.

In other words, I’m sure the Golden Plunger will get a good workout next year.

Success! (maybe)

Just last week I recounted my anxiety at awaiting the answer from the Business Office about new hiring.  Things looked rather bleak on that end, so I began the week preparing myself to be told that the PLC would not be feasible this year.  Returning 7th and 8th grade course registration is now complete and we’re about finished with 6th grade and new 7th and 8th grade registration.  After a preliminary headcount, it appears that there is ample leg room to start a PL-something.  I’ll explain, but first, the lingo:

The PLC has undergone dozens of common permutations as schools around the country take a stab at collaborative culture.  DuFour and Eaker have a somewhat rigid definition of the characteristics of a PLC, but just who the participants are is never addressed.  The assumption, therefore, is that any collection of contributors constitutes a PLC.  My school, in an effort to scaffold degrees of collaboration, prefers to address the who as well as the what.  So, in brief, here is what my school has cooked up for definitions regarding professional learning structures (ooh, I just made up a new phrase):

PLC – A professional learning community consists of groups of educators from varying departments, divisions, or grade level teams.

PLT – A professional learning team consists of educators from a single department, division, or grade level.  When different PLT’s work together, it would then be considered a PLC.

After careful noodling, it looks 90% possible that the Junior High will be able to implement a Junior High Spanish PLT consisting of JH Spanish teachers, with me and Kristen (French teacher and one of the best people I know) facilitating.  As a result, I will step down from the Lab Director role and assume a full course load (with the course transition for the PLT).  This being my 7th year in that role, it’s a good time for me to move on to something new.

So, the work continues with reading, planning, and learning.  Let’s hope this thing really comes together.

Algebra, root canals, and Satan’s squirrels

Brief synopsis of the last few months:

  • Proposed PLC
  • Met with Principal (P); was asked to look at teacher schedule (TS) to assess feasibility (F); determined it was feasible, but would require larger avg class size (CS)
  • Met with P and Dept Chair (DC); DC disliked CS hike; asked for other options
  • Met with P; generated other PLC models, took two or three more looks at TS to assess feasibility; realized it would require one or two full-time hires (FT) to meet everyone’s requirements
  • Met with P and DC; proposed Plans A, B, and C, where Plan A=JH PLC, Plan B=JH & HS combined PLC, and Plan C=status quo.
  • P and I (in this case “I” is not an acronym, rather the first person subject pronoun…am I starting to make you angry?) obviously prefer A; DC would take A, B, or C, as long as the CS isn’t affected.  With expectations clear, P took A, B, and C to the Director of Business & Finance ($).  Did I mention we’re in a hiring freeze?

Where does that leave us?  P & DC are interviewing FT.  $ is considering the F of FT re: the budget.  And Ted (I), now seeing the TS imprinted on his eyelids when he goes to sleep at night, wonders how his JHFLPLC turned into an algebra equation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that my would-be co-facilitator Kristen has done the lion’s share of the work with teacher schedules.  I tried to help early on in the process, but it turns out I was the equivalent of the young nephew that tries to help you put together a puzzle during your Thanksgiving visit, but succeeds only in scattering puzzle pieces all over the floor, or trying to wedge puzzle pieces into improbable parts of the puzzle.  All this to say, she is largely responsible for the success of the conclusions to which we have arrived in this four month process.

So, now we await the results of the hiring process, that is if they are to hire anyone at all.  In the meantime, I find myself fidgeting uncomfortably, feeling very much like I do at the dentist’s office before a costly and/or painful procedure is to take place.  And like I normally do in those occasions, I look for some light reading.  PeopleNewsweekHighlights magazine, perhaps?  I never get tired of looking at two pictures and asking myself “how is this one different from that?”.  But thanks to my own learning network here at school, I’ve come across some much more germaine reading, and some names that I’ve heard repeated often or referenced in other readings.  Therefore, I’d like to share them with you, my fellow supplicants in the waiting room:

Sparks and Loucks-Horsley, Five Models of Staff Development. Journal of Staff Development, Fall 1989 (Vol. 10, No. 4)

It turns out, I wasted 1.5 years in college taking education classes when all I really had to do was read this article.  It is comprehensive, and therefore a bit weighty.  But my Lord does it spell out the basics!

Eaker and Keating, Deeply Embedded, Fully Committed. National Staff Development Council.  December, 2009. vol. 30, no. 5.

Bob Eaker, who co-wrote the DuFour book that I’m now finishing, explores with Keating the result of White River School District’s experiences with professional learning communities.  Of particular impact to me were the sections on the changing role of the Principal and conclusion titled “What has White River learned.”  If you’re looking for bullet points on how to get a PLC started, you could do a lot worse than this last section.

Lee, From Group to Team. National Staff Development Council.  December, 2009. vol. 30, no. 5

A few months ago, when we began on this journey, my principal handed me this article.  Although we have yet to have a conversation about the article, I assume that his message to me is “It’s harder than it looks, bub.”  Judging by some of the common assumptions and misteps made by aspiring facilitators that are expressed in the article, it’s a GOOD THING that I read this one.

So, that’s that.  I’ll just keep reading until my name is called.  Oh, I forgot to mention that some squirrels came to live in my attic, chewed through my phone, internet, and alarm wiring, and tore a hole in my roof which caused water to seep into the soffit, leading to wood rot and possible chimney replacement.

K.O. by Paradigm Shift

I have a confession.  Up until recently, for the last 12 years of my teaching career, I was one of those people sitting in the lounge chugging medium-grade coffee and decrying school reform.  I mocked the many attempts that have been made to “shift my paradigm” and “write across my curriculum.”  I did it for two reasons: one legitimate and one not.

First, when I arrived in education I took my cues in the classroom from the energetic, innovative teachers whose faces beamed positivity.  I took my teachers’ lounge posture from the jaded, frustrated teachers who constantly roll their eyes at the next school reform topic to come across the bend.  I followed the crowd at chow time, so to speak.

The legitimate reason is this.  We have drastically over-complicated our mission, in part because of the “experts'” tendency to tie jingles, metaphors, and brands to their particular elixir for school change.  Another reason is that in order to put their imprimatur on school reform, they devise complicated process to the very simple process of teaching and learning.

I alluded to the following in a previous post, but I’d like to elaborate this week.  In their book Professional Learning Communities at Work, DuFour and Eaker boil the process of teaching and learning down to the following essential questions:

1. What should all students learn?
2. How do we know they are learning?
3. What will we do if they don’t learn?
4. What will we do if they already know it?

Give a group of teachers these four questions, enough time and enough coffee, and they’ll build a relevant, results-oriented curriculum that addresses individual learner needs and paves a successful path to the next step in the learning process.  I submit a process that was undertaken by some math teachers in our class.

In their PLC, math teachers decided upon essential learnings for the chapter and wrote a summative assessment designed to demonstrate student learning in those areas.  I will call them Essential Learnings (EL) A, B, C, and D, for our purposes (but imagine EL A is factoring binomials, B is graphing equations, etc.)  The PLC members made sure that they could ascribe one of the essential learnings to each question.  In other words, there wasn’t any “filler.” They also built an assessment instrument with fidelity to Question 1 above.

Based on the assessment that they wrote, they wrote a series of lessons with several formative assessments along the way to determine whether or not they learned the material.  Teachers discussed and modified the lessons, then set about executing them in their classes.  After the summative assessment, they asked all students to identify which questions they got wrong. The teachers entered the student feedback into a shared Excel spreadsheet.  Since each question was carefully crafted to demonstrate EL A, B, C, or D, the math teachers had a clear answer to Question 2. Here comes the brilliant part.

The spreadsheet demonstrated that Susie did well with EL A, B, and D, but she struggled with EL C.  While Darren bombed EL B, he scored superb marks on the other ELs.  In Office Hours during the following week, each teacher was assigned one of the Essential Learnings, and students demonstrating difficulty in that EL attended Office Hours with that particular teacher.  As a result, several students from several different math teachers received instruction in the one area in which they struggled on the assessment.  The teacher, rather than catering to 15 different needs during Office Hours, was able to explore one EL with a group of students in need of the same type of instruction.  Question 3, asked and answered.

Although this scenario did not address Question 4, I’m still amazed at what this PLC accomplished.  They implemented a co-created curriculum in which each step was scrutinized in its fidelity to the Essential Learnings. Teachers got a sense of what their students are and are not learning, and they worked together on a targeted approach to ensure that students who didn’t learn it the first time, did.

Now, let’s contrast this with how I do things.

I usually plan my classes a week in advance (projects usually have a wider birth, as front-loading is sometimes required) and write the lesson plans the weekend before I teach them.  I try to vary the learning styles, sprinkling in healthy doses of the four traditional FL competencies (read, write, speak, listen). I incorporate home-grown activities as well as those from the textbook materials. Several days later I write quizzes, a few weeks later I write the test.  When I write the quizzes/tests, I never look at my lesson plans from throughout the unit.  After all, I’m the one who taught it.  And although I am careful to only test on what I cover, I have never asked myself “What Essential Learning does this question address?”  I grade tests and quizzes, and when students perform poorly I go over the test with them, and if they demonstrate substantial need, I give them alternative activities for reinforcement.

After I grade tests, my grasp of what remediation my students need is vague at best and clueless at worst.  My findings would typically come in two forms:

  • Johnny is having trouble with verb conjugation/agreement/morphology/syntax/vocabulary. (circle one)
  • Johnny’s errors are all over the place.

The first statement is fair, and could lead to productive discussions between me and my students.  However, it could be better.  A lot better.  The second statement is unacceptable and needs to change.  Rather than saying “his errors are all over the place,” I suspect that the truth is that my test questions are all over the place.

If I were in a PLC, I would have already had this conversation with my cohorts.  If I’m lucky, they would prescribe alternative testing methods, help me on lesson study and backward design implementation.  They would help me interpret the results from my future tests and help me craft a plan for addressing gaps in understanding.

I’m a good teacher.  I can say that with confidence.  My talent, however, lies more in my intentions than in my methods.  While some may fear that PLCs are for looking over the shoulder of “bad” teachers, I believe that PLCs are all about making good teachers great—giving them time to reflect, with an informed audience and sufficient time to create meaningful, RESULTS-ORIENTED (not intention-oriented) educational experiences for our kids.

I believe all this because it is a truth to which there are scarcely few (if any) contradicting realities.  You can’t say that constructive, clearly defined collaboration impedes good teaching.  You can’t say that tying assessment questions to specific learning objectives leads to obfuscated testing.  And you can’t say that building lessons that prepare students to demonstrate mastery of specific skills results in chaotic, ineffective learning.

More importantly, the message isn’t overshadowed by a sales pitch, metaphor, or glossy but bankrupt philosophy.  So, after being obstinately skeptical about reform initiatives in the past, whether because they offend my sensibilities or because I was simply riding the wave of prevailing opinion, I have finally encountered a paradigm worth shifting to!  Although if I ever call it that again, you have my permission to deliver a rabbit punch to my abdomen.

If a tree falls in the classroom…

[Web 2.0 tools] are specifically designed to support communitites in completing shared tasks.  Wikipedia survives on a small number of paid employees because the contributors have a shared sense of mission.  Educators need to build a similar sense of shared purpose[…] Schools and universities have the potential to become communities of learning, but educators and administrators must rethink teaching and learning in the context of new social trends and the technologies that support them. (p. 6)

What’s your shared purpose in class?

If you, like I, didn’t establish one in August, what you’re doing in April might not matter.  Forgive me if it seems like I’m taking massive steps backward in my understanding of 21st century competencies, but I think I just realized that emerging technologies don’t just fit nicely with student learning; they often reflect it. And if youth gravitate toward technology that is interactive in nature, why are we still cultivating transactional relationships in our classroom?

Earlier in the article, the authors referred to the old model as “teaching as transmission.”  Until recently, most technology was transactional in nature–enter data, receive a product.  At some point, transactional technology became interactive and networked.  Web searches became wikis, e-mails became blogs.  Perhaps this is a chicken/egg question, but which came first, the networked application or the networked student?

And why are kids so inextricably networked?  Is it so that they can master a foreign language?  Ha!  Because each of their networks, no matter how trivial achieves a shared purpose.  The burgeoning guitarist goes to to share his music with the world, and to learn from others.  Facebookers join communities that allow the user to cultivate a virtual farm or build an ersatz criminal empire and update their friends about it.  Others join communities called “I don’t care about your farm, your fish, your park, or your mafia!!” (active member since 2009).  The point is, they all join one constituency or another because they want to feel connected to something.

Teachers have become proficient at utilizing transactional technology in their classrooms.  Microsoft Office is ablaze in schools across America.  But I’m willing to bet that the percentage of teachers using Web 2.0 tools is still in the single digits.  I’m not suggesting that we all chase each fad technology that comes around (imagine if my teachers based their lessons on the tenets of Colecovision?), but if our teaching more closely reflects the ways in which students interact outside of the classroom, perhaps we would see more interaction inside the classroom.

And can I get an “Amen” for the coolest use of the word “disruptive” that I’ve ever encountered?