Monday, March 24, 2014

"Rescue" Less, Learn More

This week, I had the opportunity to work with and learn along side of a group of teachers, learning coaches, curriculum and instruction coaches, and administrators in facilitating Instructional Rounds in Fort Worth, Texas. And while this was my second time doing Rounds at Richland Middle School, it was my first time working with this particular group of observers; I was eager to take another group through the process of ‘learning by doing’ at the school.

In and of itself, the concept of Rounds from City, Elmore, Fiarman and Teitel (2009) is intuitive: ideas such as ‘task predicts performance’, giving descriptive rather than judgemental feedback, observing through a specific lens, and even ‘staying low on the ladder of inference’ are quite readily understood. During the first session, the group gets time to work through these types concepts together, to contextualize them, and to apply and discuss them in a number of video simulations. As much as there is a great deal of ground that is covered, group members typically leave the initial session eager, confident, and ready to dive into classroom observations the following day. From my perspective as a presenter, groups seem happy with the approach that we have taken. I often get smiles, thanks, and a smattering of “looking forward to tomorrow”-style comments from the group.

On Day 2, that changes.

After doing a number of classroom observations, the groups return to a central gathering area and begin the process of vetting the data they have collected on their own, with their small group, and then with other groups. Through this process, circulate amongst the groups and smile when I hear comments such as “I don’t think this one is specific enough”, or “How does that relate to the problem of practice?”, or “stay low on the ladder”: participants respectfully challenge each other and stretch the thinking of the other members of the group. At this point, I notice the mental machinery starting to heat up, especially when group members say things such as “What is it that I am trying to say here? I just need a WORD!”. Heads get scratched, temples are rubbed, and people begin to pace. I will hear a “YES! Wait, what did you say? Someone write that down!” followed by a short sprint to find a sticky note and some form of writing implement. Inevitably the group struggles to remember a key piece of what was just said, or another person walks by and asks the playfully dreaded “What is your evidence for that?” followed shortly after by a collective groan as the group heads back to the drawing board.

After that, the learning gets even messier. The small groups start to make patterns of the observation data that they have collected. And while they are given a few samples of pattern statements, the questions begin to come:
“Is this right?”
“Should we be organizing our stickies this way?”
“Are other people doing it like we are ?”
“In which part of our diagram do you thihk this sticky fits?”
“Can you help us? Does what we have done make sense to you?”

Questions such as these are common from each table group. And much to their chagrin, groups are usually directed back to their work with questions like
“What does your evidence tell you?”
“How does that method of organization help you to find a pattern?”
“Why you feel that piece of data should be in different parts of your diagram?”
“Are you making a pattern and looking for evidence, or having your evidence lead you to a pattern?”

Without failure, the frustration level of each participant begins to increase. Red X’s are put through sentences, sticky notes are taken down, and papers are crumpled up. The smile frequency decreases. The amount of coffee and chocolate consumed is much higher. And this time, in one of my all-time favorite moments, one of the participants said “don’t call Cale over here, he’s just going to ask us what our evidence is!”. I laughed so hard I actually snorted.

This type of struggle continues for the remainder of the day, espcially as time runs short and the stakes get higher for the group to produce patterns and predictions that will guide the work the following day. And at the end of Day 2 when I do a survey of how the day went for them, there is a predictable number of comments that are less glowing than those on Day 1. Not specific to this latest session, these comments include things such as:
“this would have went faster with more examples”
“it would have been helpful to have more specific instructions”
“it was hard to know exactly what we were supposed to produce”
“we needed more guidance on how to…”
“my brain hurts”

In order to learn from the group that I am working with, I read and reflect upon every comment that is made on my presentations. And although it is getting less and less each time I work with people on Rounds, inevitably I have a nagging feeling as a presenter on Day Two.


As a teacher in the classroom, I was used to asking students questions that I already had the answer to. Or assigning problems that I could quickly flip through a textbook and direct them to where they could find the solution. I would give students assignments, and after an arbitrary level of struggle (determined by me, of course), I would jump in and rescue them. My lessons were much like an hour long sitcom: there would be an introduction to set the stage, an antagonistic problem with which the protagonist would wrestle, and then, since the hour was coming to an end, a neat and palatable solution just in time for the credits at the 58 minute mark. In my classes, I would get a couple of “See you later Mr. Birk”s and the occasional “that was kinda cool”, and I would feel quite good about myself as a teacher because the kids left happy. Bully for me.

The kids also left my classroom without really being pushed to their capacity. I had rescued them, and although personally I might have gotten a good feeling because the class came to a neat and convenient solution, I look back now and realize that I could have pushed them much farther than I did. I could have stretched them by responding to their questions with probing questions that would help them reflect on what they were doing and guide them to dig deeper. But instead, likely because it felt better for me, I would throw them a motorized life-ring that not only saved them from their struggle, it required very little effort on their part.

As Principal at my own school, I am working with our teachers and teacher leaders to bring deeper learning strategies to our classrooms. I am asking our staff to find and build upon ways to require students to stretch themselves in their thinking and demonstrate their learning in a variety of meaningful ways. We are going to collaborate to find essential questions to which we do not always know the answer to, or at the very least that have no single correct solution. I am excited that as a group, we are going to get messy with learning.

But I also have to be sensitive to the fact that we are going to be putting students into learning spaces where they are going to struggle. In some cases, they are REALLY going to struggle. And most would agree that when confronted with struggle, much like our students, most of us are not always happy about it. We push back. We want it to be easier. We want someone to help us, and for the solution to become evident as a result of our efforts. We don’t always want to truly push ourselves, only to realize that we have been digging an educational hole that is six feet deep but also six feet away from the place where we should have started. We want someone to tell us the hole we dug is 'good enough', or that some sort of backhoe is coming to dig ‘the real hole’. Like our students, we will get frustrated, even mad. And at times, our teachers will leave their classes feeling the same pangs guilt that I did leaving the Rounds session in Fort Worth on Day 2. Because they did the right thing by not rescuing their learners.

I want to help our faculty with that. And the best help I can give is to tell them about Day 3 in Fort Worth.

On Day 3, the group reconvened with their prediction statements ready and waiting for them at their tables. The participants rolled up their sleeves, did a “5 Whys” analysis, and began to create their ‘design and implement’ statements to determine the next level of work for the host school. They debated over words, looked back at their evidence, challenged eachother on ideas, and looked back at their evidence some more. They refined their statements, and then presented them to the rest of the group for a final round of vetting. And then it happened. People began to nod. People whispered and pointed in agreement. They elbowed eachother and smiled and said things like "we saw that too!". The results of their work were becoming clear. And when they finally presented their findings to the host team at Richland Middle, there were more even more smiles from the team and more nods of acknowledgement from the hosts. They got it.

In the de-brief with the observation team as we concluded, team members admitted they were frustrated, and that the process was incredibly challenging and intense. Yet we all had a good laugh when we looked at some of the recommendations for the next level of work that the team had made for the host school--things such as “designing tasks that require students to come up with multiple answers with built in wait time so students to can work through them”. We laughed because the very thing that the group wanted for the students--to be given complex tasks and the time to struggle through them--was exactly what the group of observers themselves found most challenging!

The observation team stayed after to congratulate the host Principal, Dr. Leeann Bartee. They commended her for the evidence-based, tangible actions she had taken on the recommendations for the next level of work from the last rounds session just five months ago. And in one of the most touching moments of my career, with tears in eyes, the group expressed their gratitude to Dr. Bartee and her staff for having the courage to lead their district in modeling Instructional Rounds. The group witnessed powerful and deep learning for the school and for the team. And so did I, the one who felt that tinge of guilt when the observation team left the session on Day 2.

When we see people struggle, we want to help. Inherently, I believe we feel good when we help others. And while sometimes it feels good to help learners, struggle is a good thing, even when we see learners getting frustrated with the task and sometimes with the teacher. With the right scaffolding and high expectations for the success for the group, I believe that we can push through that struggle and truly experience deep and meaningful learning.

And there is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than that.

A special thanks to Staci Hammer (@stacihammer) for inspiring this post, to the tremendous group of observers from Birdville ISD, and to Richland Middle School Principal Leeann Bartee (@LeeannBartee) and her staff for being so willing and eager to receive and act upon feedback from Instructional Rounds observation teams.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Do You Spend Enough Time on the "Why"?

As part of my own professional development and to further my understanding of how massive, open, online courses work, I signed up for the Deeper Learning MOOC offered by a series of experts from High Tech High and a variety of other organizations noted for their work in deeper learning.  And while I have not done every task associated with the course, I have made it a priority to watch the archives of the panel discussions each week after my little ones head off to bed.  The discussions are engrossing and invigorating, and as I have felt like my motor has needed a bit of a jump start this week, I was particularly excited about Monday night's topic of 'Assessing Deeper Learning'.

Right now at our school, we are investigating how we can 'dig deeper' into deeper learning in each of our classrooms in our school.  We are being deliberate in our steps to lay the ground work for digging into deeper learning through:
  • creating a set of attributes that we want for our graduates (September)
  • refining those attributes with the help of our students, parents and community (October-March)
  • examining the 'whys' of why we need to have students learn deeply in our classes (Jan/Feb)
  • beginning to develop a common language around effective practices that require deeper learning (March)
  • co-creating a mechanism for every staff member to go into other classrooms to co-plan and observe deeper learning practices (March)
  • creating a culture of 'learning to see, unlearning to judge' so that we can observe and describe the deeper learning that is taking place (April)
  • inviting deeper learning practitioners to work with members of our district and our staff (May)
  • visiting schools that are requiring deeper learning of their students (June)
However, as much as we are now in March and have taken the initial steps listed above, my participation in the DL MOOC coupled with the conversations with teachers at our school has changed my thinking about this plan.

In Monday night's panel discussion on 'Assessing Deeper Learning', moderator Rob Riordan asked a question of the panel from the audience which was "Can you talk about the transition of schools that might have a more traditional, 'no excuses' type approach in their pedagogy moving to deeper learning?".  This question was interesting to me, because we are just beginning our journey to more pervasive, deeper learning in our classes.

Bob Lenz of Envision talked about data and the importance of using data to guide discussions, and of particular note to him was about the examining the resiliency of a school's graduates in college.  In his opinion, by looking at this resiliency data, schools who were moving in the right direction were seeing data that suggests students had not acquired the skills to be independent learners, and were at least asking the right questions as to why this was occurring. 

Interesting.  I do not have this data.  I would like to get such data.

Megan Pacheco from New Tech Network then spoke about how schools who are being successful in making such a shift have spent a great deal of time on the WHY, and understanding and making sense of the outcomes that will help develop this common why. She went on to discuss how we often jump to new instructional approaches such as problem based learning without spending enough time on the WHY, and that it was more important to spend the time developing a commitment to the vision of your graduate and the types of skills that you want to develop.

Even more interesting.  And as a result, I think I need to work with our staff to alter our plan.  I think it needs to look more like this:
  • creating a set of attributes that we want for our graduates (September)
  • refining those attributes with the help of our students, parents and community (October-March)
  • examining the 'whys' of why we need to have students learn deeply in our classes (Jan/Feb)
  • begin to develop a common language around effective practices that require deeper learning (March)
  • re-visit the WHY, and find ways to encourage people to speak, to tell stories and construct their own contexts and meaning around why deeper learning for students is important;
    • after re-visiting the why, co-create a mechanism for every staff member to go into other classrooms to co-plan and observe deeper learning practices (March)
  • again, re-visit the WHY, and find ways to encourage more and different people to speak, and find examples, data and research to allow the WHY to become even more authentic on a variety of different fronts
    • then, create a culture of 'learning to see, unlearning to judge' so that we can observe and describe the deeper learning that is taking place (April)
  • continue to re-visit the WHY, with teachers and students bringing back examples of how they demonstrate deeper learning as exemplars
    • then, invite deeper learning practitioners to work with members of our district and our staff (May)
And really, I think we will find ways to re-visit why until we find ourselves are asking ourselves "Why are we still talking about why?" because we are so committed to the attributes and the vision that we have for our students. 

We aren't in this spot yet---quite far from it, in fact.  And too often my implementation scale is tipped towards the 'how' as opposed to the 'why'.  Thanks to the conversations that I have had with our teachers at the school and the panel in the DLMOOC, I look forward to finding new and innovative ways to contextualize the why with and for our school.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Shame of Classroom Visits

Coming to my new school this year, I made a concentrated commitment to be in classrooms more that I have ever been before.  Quite often, skepticism and eye-rolling tend to follow statements such as these, and rightfully so.  Each of us knows the typical pattern: the Principal makes these ambitious proclamations, does in fact show up in classrooms for the first few of weeks, and then steadily fades into the managerial quagmire that can consume school administration.  I know this because I have both seen this in my own administrators when I was a teacher, and followed this cadence as a Vice-Principal and Principal myself.  However, save for our monthly District Administrator Meeting that happens one Thursday per month and a couple of scattered meetings here and there, I have stuck to my regimen of being in classrooms during Period 2 each day.

And each day that I am in classrooms, I have the very same thought as I walk back to my office:  what a shame.

The shame comes not from what is going on in the classroom--quite the contrary, in fact.  The shame comes from the idea that the only person who really gets to see what is going on in our classrooms is, well, ME.  ME being the person who does not teach students on a daily basis.  ME being the person who does not regularly design lessons (except for faculty and team leader meetings) that are engaging, meaningful, and require the deep learning of our students.  ME being the person who does not develop and execute flexible, authentic assessments that allow students choice in demonstrating what it is they know in their courses.

This situation is going to change.  Not for me, because I still want to be in classrooms.  This situation is going to change for our staff.

Right now at our school, we are beginning our investigation  into how we require students to learn deeply in our classes.  Thanks to the hard work of our students and our staff, our results were very strong last semester--we had a 98.2% success rate in course instances in our school from September to January.  74% of our students achieved a "B" or "A" in each of those course instances.  And while not perfect, and while these are only gross, macro reference points, for the most part our students experience success.   However, as a staff, we want to probe deeper and look at things such as:
  • what tasks are we asking students to do?
  • what are students learning as a result of these tasks?
  • is that which students are learning in our classes preparing them for life in 2020, 2030, 2040, and beyond?
But if WE want get a better understanding of the answers to these questions, then WE need to have a chance to experience what it is that students and teachers are doing in other classes, not just our own.

Not just me.

However, going into other classrooms requires a number of different things (not just the release time) to take place so that we make the best use of that time.  These include:
  • Creating multiple entry points:  not everyone will comfortable having people into their classroom right off the bat.  We all know that when we have another adult in the room, we notice them.  Why? Because it happens so rarely!  However, others are very comfortable, and we don't want to neglect them either. Therefore, we need to recognize that there will be differing levels of comfort for everyone.  However, we don't want to have some of our faculty in classrooms observing and working with different teachers and not others.  So how are we going to do this? We will have three levels of observers and hosts so that people can move through this at their own pace.
    • Level 1:  Observer
    • Level 2:  Observer and Sa-Hali staff host.
    • Level 3:  Observer, Sa-Hali staff host and outside host(other district staff, Thompson Rivers University staff/student teachers)
  • Creating a Non-Threatening, Non-Judgmental Environment:  this is not evaluation, not at all. This is giving us a chance to get out of our classrooms and work with someone in our department, or another area altogether that is interesting to us!  Educators need to know that when a colleague is coming into their class, the colleagues are not judging, they are just seeing.  How do we do this?  Practice, of course.
    • Developing a common language of 'learning to see and unlearning to judge'
    • Developing our skills of descriptive observation using non-judgmental language
      • "when the teacher moved from Activity A to Activity B, 5 of the 17 students were able to move to Activity B" (descriptive) instead of "the pace was fast" (judgement)
    • Starting with video analysis from resources such as The Teaching Channel
  • Honing our skills of task analysis: we want to make sure that we have a clear idea of what students are actually doing (the task) as opposed to the activity that they have been given (the assignment).  We will begin to look at examples (here is a brief presentation that we will use to get started).
  • Being deliberate in our mechanism: we need to co-create a schedule that works for people and accommodates people, but it needs to happen.  The sooner we pre-load the activities above, the better so we can get started!
Yes, there will be some release time involved.  Yes, there will be some of my own time involved when I cover some classes for people.  But by being deliberate about getting educators in other educators classes, we will actually create powerful, meaningful and sustained professional development that is research-based in terms of its level of effect on student (and adult) learning (see below from John Hattie's 'Visible Learning').

So I will continue my classroom visits, but I believe that if we get our staff into each other's classes, not only will we learn, it will be meaningful, fun, enjoyable, and create a new culture of wall-less staff development.  And when I walk back to my office, I will no longer be thinking that it is a shame that more of our faculty do not get to see other classes and work with their colleagues.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Anti-Bubble Sheet

"By looking closely at student work with students and with adults, it sends the message that the quality of student work matters - Ron Berger, Chief Program Officer, Expeditionary Learning in DLMOOC Week #2 Google Hangout

This evening Mr. Justin DeVries, one of our outstanding teachers at Sa-Hali Secondary, was proudly watching students in his Digipen Academy do their first Presentations of Learning at our theatre.  Each of the six groups of students from his class were showcasing the different video games they had made to a crowd of more than 80 people that included teachers, parents, trustees, administrators, fellow students, and a panel of video game designers.  Although I could not be able to be there in person, through the miracle of technology, I was able to watch a live stream through a web feed, ask questions and give feedback.

Each of the groups went on stage and described the ideas and tools that led to the design of things such as the characters, the flow and play of the game, the sounds, the math, the artwork and the psychology behind their creations.  They then played the game for a few minutes to show the results of their hard work, and answered questions at the end.  As much as there were some fascinating technical questions that the groups fielded with amazing depth and clarity, the questions that I found most interesting were the ones around what the students had learned as a result of the experience of working together to design their projects.  These were just some of the (unfiltered) responses that I could jot down:
  • team work
  • communication
  • importance of a team
  • working at home--we wanted to do it at home
  • it was more up to us
  • homework is just one thing, like math or english or socials, in this its everything, math, art, group work, cooperation
  • it was more of a challenge, all the puzzles and I love puzzles
  • I loved all of the math
  • I loved working with my team
  • knowing what it is like to work in a group
  • we grouped together every week--we would meet every Friday and fix out all the bugs
  • cannot do well just being one guy not working well with other people
  • this is good for me, because I didn't used to like working with people
  • I don't like doing presentations - this is hard, way more stressful than a math test


This evening, I watched students proudly display their collaboratively created projects that required them to use math, physics, art, psychology, and logic as tools to help them do something that was meaningful to them.  They needed to work together, delegate duties, create their own timelines, and keep each other on task.  They had to communicate with each other, evaluate themselves, give constructive feedback and accept constructive criticism.  And then they had to create a presentation, decide on what they needed to show and how best they could communicate their accomplishments in an interesting and coherent manner.  And they needed to present in an environment that had an incredibly high level of accountability--to a group of their peers, their parents and experts in the field.   

The kids were proud.  The teacher was proud.  The parents were proud.  I am so proud to have these students, Mr. DeVries, and this program at our school.  And after watching the Presentations of Learning tonight, I have never been more motivated or determined: I truly feel that the Digipen Program will be a touchstone for our staff, students and parents as we begin to move towards deeper, problem-based learning and authentic presentations of learning at our school.  To paraphrase Ron from the DL MOOC, we looked closely at the work, and we sent the message that the quality of work matters.  And our students responded with quality work.

Coincidentally, today was the end of our examination period for provincial exams in the first semester.  The Science 10 final exam had sixty multiple choice questions that required students to bubble in answers on a white, 8 1/2 x 11" sheet of paper.

I think it is time for us to think differently.   

Thank you so much to Mr. DeVries and his amazing students from the Digipen Academy.  We watched you learn so much, and yet through your learning, you have taught the rest of us so much more.