Sunday, October 13, 2019

Where is Your Learning Culture?

There are many factors that inhibit change. In some cases, comfort is the enemy of growth. We teach the way we were taught or lead the way we were led. Now I am not saying that this is bad per se, but the bottom line is whether or not the practice is effective. The same could be said for the status quo. Doing what we have always done might seem like a sound path forward if the results you are judged on are good or increasing. Herein lies one of the most prominent challenges schools and educators face, and that is perceived success based on traditional metrics and methodologies. 

Achievement is great, but it is one piece of the puzzle. How the structure and function of a learning culture lead to improvements in achievement and outcomes is where change efforts should be focused. This leads to the point of my post. Where is your learning culture? Think about this question in the context of the world where your learners will need to thrive and survive. Will they have not just the skills, but the competencies to succeed in a world that is in constant flux? 

New jobs and fields require learners to be both dynamic thinkers and doers where they have the competence to think in complex ways and to readily apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, learners can use extensive experience and expertise to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge. As I have written in the past, we are well into the 4th Industrial Revolution characterized by automation, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and disruptive innovation. Seismic shifts in the society and the world of work compel us to take a critical lens to our practice, as improvement is a never-ending endeavor.

So how do we begin to transform culture? The journey starts with being honest about where you are in order to chart a path forward to get to the place you want to be. Reflection is a powerful tool for growth. Take a look at the image below and reflect on it for a minute or two.

Image credit: Awaken Group Revolutions

Where does the culture of your school fit into these categories, and why? Think about what needs to happen to make needed shifts to practice that aligns with the 4th Industrial Revolution. Success, in terms of achievement only, can, at times, be a mirage. A learning culture should best prepare kids to meet the demands inherent in the new world of work. The first leg of the process is being honest about where you are.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Questions to Guide a Reflective Conversation on Learning

Most educators desire meaningful feedback that can be used as a catalyst for growth. When it comes to improving learning, criticism will rarely, if ever at all, lead to changes to professional practice. Here is the main difference between the two:
Feedback - information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.

Criticism - the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.
As you reflect on the two definitions above, what pathway would you prefer? Successful feedback lies in a variety of factors such as delivery in a timely manner, detailing practical or specific strategies for improvement, ensuring the delivery is positive, consistently providing it, and at times choosing the right medium to convey the message. However, one of the most important considerations is to ensure that a two-way conversation takes place where there is a dialogue, not a monologue. Virtually no educator wants to have suggestions dictated to him or her.

A recent coaching visit with Corinth Elementary School placed me in a position to model all of the above. Over the course of the year, I have been working with the district on building pedagogical capacity both with and without technology. After visiting numerous classrooms, I met with a grade-level team and the administrators to facilitate a dialogue as part of a more meaningful feedback conversation. Instead of just telling them what I saw and thought, I instead had them pair up and discuss their lessons using the following question prompts:

  • How do you think the lesson or activity went?
  • What would you have done differently?

The point here was for them to begin to reflect on both the positive outcomes as well as the challenges that might have been experienced. Lasting improvement comes from our own realizations as to what can be done to grow and improve rather than just being told. After some volunteers shared how they thought the lesson went, I then challenged them with the following questions to facilitate a more in-depth analysis of the effectiveness of the lesson from their lens:

  • How do you know your kids learned?
  • Where was the level of thinking?
  • How did kids apply their thinking in relevant and meaningful ways?
  • How did you push all kids regardless of where they were?
  • What role did technology have in the process?
  • What accountability structures were put in place?
  • What do you think your kids thought of the lesson?

These questions really got both the teachers and administrators in the room to think more critically about whether or not the lesson or activity achieved the desired outcome in relation to the aligned goal. What was powerful from my seat was that most of the feedback I had written down didn't have to be delivered verbally by me as the educators offered it up themselves upon critical analysis of their lessons. This is not to say that I didn't add more detail or provide specific strategies to improve. I most certainly did, but the culture that was created through the use of all the above questions was more empowering and designed to impart a great sense of ownership amongst everyone present.

Whether peer to peer or from a supervisory position, engage in a collaborative dialogue during any feedback conversation. Then provide time to process, further reflect, and develop action steps for improvement. I hope you find the questions in this post as useful as I have.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

6 Ways to Improve Professional Learning

No matter your position in education, you have gone through some form of professional development. In many cases, the act of being “developed” comes in a variety of standard types such as workshops, mandated PD days, presentations, conferences, book studies, or keynotes. Many of these are often the one and done variety or conducted in a drive-by manner. Now, don’t get me wrong; some educators find value in the experiences I have outlined above and have gone on to change their respective practice for the better. However, I would say an equal amount have found little to no benefit. The bottom line is that all educators yearn for quality professional learning as opposed to development that leads to sustained improvements in teaching, learning, and leadership. The image below from Katie Martin sums up nicely what educators want out of professional learning. 

So where is the disconnect when looking at the typical professional development offerings? Some recent research provides great insight into this issue (Darling et al., 2017):
Research has noted that many professional development initiatives appear ineffective in supporting changes in teachers’ practices and student learning. Accordingly, we set out to discover the features of effective professional development. We define effective PD as structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes. Through a review of 35 studies, we found seven widely shared features of effective professional development. Such professional development:
  1. Is content focused
  2. Incorporates active learning, utilizing adult learning theory
  3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
  4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice
  5. Provides coaching and expert support
  6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
  7. Is of sustained duration 
The same focus areas listed above apply to people in leadership positions just as much as teachers, as supported by research. Leaders need consistent support and feedback on all aspects of the position to continually grow and improve, but the most emphasis should be on issues related to instructional leadership that leads to pedagogical change.

Over the years, I have been blessed to be a part of several long-term professional learning projects in schools and districts across the United States. Even though each project is different, each contains an assortment of classroom observations, strategic planning, coaching, and loads of feedback. Through each experience, I open myself to learn, unlearn, and relearn with the educators that I am working with shoulder to shoulder in the trenches. Below are a few lessons learned.

Model what you expect

Adult learners don’t like to be spoken at. Many want to see what a strategy actually looks like in practice and then have the time to apply it. The also really want to see how it can be successfully implanted when aligned with the realities they face. A focus on the why might get educators all excited, but that typically fades when they need more of the how in terms of what the strategy actually looks like in practice. After you model, give people time to apply what they have learned.

Share exemplars

I am always asked for examples of innovative practices in action and what they look like at various grade levels. It is important for many educators to see success through the lens of their peers. By doing so, the task of change becomes more doable in the eyes of those engaged in the professional learning experience. Thanks to being in different schools each week, I have been able to curate so many artifacts that are then used to help others see how a strategy or idea has been implemented successfully (especially from Wells Elementary). Once an exemplar is shared, give educators time to reflect and then plan their activities.

Feedback and more feedback 

Virtually every educator wants feedback, and when delivered the right way, it can lead to powerful improvements to practice. When it comes to ongoing support in the form of job-embedded coaching, timeliness and specificity are critical in the eyes of the receiver. During year two of my continuing work with Wells Elementary, the administrative team asked me to develop videos for each grade level. For example, after conducting walk-throughs of all third-grade teachers time was built into the schedule for me to create a video emphasizing commendations and areas for growth. By the end of the day, six different videos were reviewed by the teachers during grade-level meetings. The goal was then to act on the feedback prior to my next visit.  Always make time for feedback.

Get Creative 

Doing the same old thing the same old way becomes boring not only for those engaged in professional learning but also for the facilitator. That’s why I am always open to ideas from the schools and districts I work with to spice it up. Recently Cheryl Fisher, the principal of Wells Elementary, asked me to create a scavenger hunt. I am so glad she did, as it was a huge success. Here is some more context. The school opened up three years ago, and I have been engaged with them since the beginning.

In an effort to differentiate on this particular day, I was to work with all first-year teachers. After a hands-on workshop with time to reflect and apply what had been learned, I sent them all on a digital scavenger hunt using Goosechase. Several missions were developed where they had to go find evidence of the practice being implemented by one of their peers. Not only did they have a blast, but also we were all able to see how innovative methods have become the standard at this school. Getting creative with professional learning will take a little time on your part, but in the end, it is worth it.

Add some personalization

There is nothing better in my opinion than putting teachers and administrators in charge of their professional learning. I see personalization as a move from “what” to “who” to emphasize a shift to ownership on the part of the educator. For example, I have been working this year with the Corinth School District in Mississippi in a job-embedded coaching role. After spending an entire day visiting classrooms and providing feedback, I then empowered the teachers and administrators to collaboratively plan out their next day with me based on agreed focus areas.

When I was the principal at New Milford High School, I created the Professional Growth Period (PGP). By giving my teachers time during the school day, I let them choose their own path and pace to work on innovative practices. Feedback on what they had accomplished was provided at each end of year conference. In the end, I gave up my time to cover duties, so my teachers could learn.


Time is critical to success, no matter what professional learning pathway is pursued. As you think about what you want to accomplish in your school, organization, or district, think carefully about how time will be provided. As you have seen above, time is a crucial element in each strategy above.

When it comes to professional learning, either advocate for what you feel you need and deserve, or work to create the types of experiences that educators will find value in.

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M., & Espinoza, D. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Opening Lessons With a Bang

It seems like ages ago that I was taking courses to become a teacher at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. My professors were huge proponents of the Instructional Theory into Practice (ITIP) model developed by Madeline Hunter. Thus, once I had a classroom of my own, I implemented what I was taught to create effective lessons. Virtually all of the facets of the ITIP model still have value today, although by no means do all seven steps have to be a part of every lesson. I will say though, that in addition to closure, the inclusion of an anticipatory set is of utmost importance. Below is a description of the strategy:
Anticipatory set is used to prepare students for the lesson by setting the students' minds for instruction. This is achieved by asking a question or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, focus student attention, and initiate the learning process. 

The first couple minutes of every lesson is critical to its success, and a pedagogically sound anticipatory set that meets the criteria outlined in the picture above is well worth the time when it comes to planning lessons. I get the fact that some educators might question the validity of this strategy that dates back to the 1960s. It is also understandable to have concerns when considering the demands that some districts place on getting through the curriculum, so kids are ready for standardized tests.

The fact remains that anticipatory sets not only matter for the reasons already outlined above but also for the fact that inclusion in lessons is supported by research. Jennifer Gonzalez highlighted four separate pieces of research that link to achievement gains. I encourage you to read the entire post as she not only highlights research but also provides some examples and creation tips.

Creating an anticipatory set is not labor-intensive. During some recent coaching visits with the Corinth School District in Mississippi, I was able to observe two great examples. In an elementary classroom as class started the kids responded to the following prompt during an ELA block – “If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?” In a middle school classroom, a teacher used a picture prompt, which you can see below.

Anticipatory sets should not be a time sap when it comes to planning. Below are just a few quick ideas that can be implemented quickly:

  • Picture prompt
  • Real-world problem of the day
  • Current event or personal story
  • Open-ended writing prompt that sparks inquiry and creativity
  • Riddle
  • Short, engaging video followed by a turn and talk
  • Sensory exploration 

Be sure to take advantage of the opening minutes of each class. Starting lessons off with a bang not only makes sense but will pay dividends both in and out of class.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Bringing Out the Best in Others

It’s no secret that great cultures bring out the best in people and in turn, this leads to systemwide success. Success is a fickle thing, though. There might be specific indicators that are used to quantify whether an organization is good or even great, but there is no set recipe that I know of as to how to accomplish this feat. What I do know is that it is not the result of one person or department. When change happens and leads to improved outcomes, it is the result of the collective. One person, however, can be the catalyst for this type of change through a variety of strategies that empower the masses to be more than they feel they can be. Lolly Daskal outlines eight realistic ways to bring out the best in people you either work with or serve.

  1. Appraise them carefully
  2. Model the way
  3. Believe in their success
  4. Provide feedback
  5. Give them power
  6. Offer public praise
  7. Give autonomy
  8. Lead from within

The above advice is spot on and can serve both teachers with their students and administrators with their staff. Each strategy leads into some much more significant elements of school culture. Thus, I decided to create an acronym that outlines how to bring out the best in others.


Belief is a superpower, in my opinion. Empowering others to believe in something bigger than themselves leads to the embracement of new ideas and strategies. Without it, the chances of implementing and sustaining change are net to zero. Belief in our learners also goes a long way to getting them to willingly engage in more challenging thinking and application of learning.

Empathy means, quite simply, showing to others that you genuinely understand what they are going through. It is vital for us to imagine ourselves in the position of our students, staff, and community members. This gives us a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those we are tasked to serve. Better, more informed decisions can result from “walking in the shoes” of those who will be most impacted by the choices that we make. A culture of excellence is created through relationships built on trust and sustained through empathy.

Selflessness means putting others before yourself through both talk and actions. It is about helping those around us or within our care and not looking for any type of favor to be returned or recognition. The messages sent through selfless behaviors build people up in more ways than you will ever know. By selflessly serving others, a culture of respect and admiration will be created. Even if you are in a position to hold others accountable, remember that you are just as accountable to them. Selfish behaviors, on the other hand, do everything but bring out the best in others. Nobody is willing to give themselves up or work harder for someone who is only about themselves.

Trust might be the most critical element when it comes to bringing out the best in others. In the words of Brian Racy, “The glue that holds all relationships together — including the relationship between the leader and the led — is trust, and trust is based on integrity.” Without trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, no real learning or change will occur. It is critical to reflect on how we not only improve but also develop trust in and with the people with whom we work.

As you reflect on your role as either an administrator or teacher, think about how your actions bring out the best in staff and students respectively. More importantly, where is there an opportunity for growth?

Sunday, September 8, 2019

10 Ways to Empower Educators

What motivates you to be your best, take risks, and seek out opportunities to improve?  I’d be willing to wager that there are an array of responses you would give to this question. As such, I am going to try to sum it all up with one word or concept, depending on how you look at the actions that create this feeling.  Empowerment is the secret sauce.  I genuinely believe that you get more out of people by building them up as opposed to knocking them down. I love the following quote from Laura Garnett:
Leadership is shifting from telling everyone what to do to empowering others to come up with the best and brightest ideas that have either never been thought of before or implemented and acted upon in a respective environment. It’s about caring for and instilling a sense of belief in others that leads to greater confidence in one’s abilities as well as the place where he/she works or learns. This is how you empower people to be their best.
Empowerment isn’t just about making people feel good but more importantly valued.  It’s in this state where a vision, mission, and goals can actually become a reality as there is a unified desire to succeed.  Consider this from Brian Tracy:
Once you empower people by learning how to motivate and inspire them, they will want to work with you to help you achieve your goals in everything you do. Your ability to enlist the knowledge, energy, and resources of others enables you to become a multiplication sign, to leverage yourself so that you accomplish far more than the average person and in a considerably shorter period of time. 
So how can you empower others? It’s not as hard as you think. Below are some simple ways to create a culture of empowerment:
  • Be present during conversations (eye contact, body language, devices away)
  • Provide timely, meaningful, and specific feedback
  • Say thank you when the opportunity arises
  • Distribute praise equitably and away from yourself
  • Model what you expect
  • Speak less and listen more
  • Provide the autonomy to take risks
  • When making decisions utilize consensus as much as possible
  • Exhibit sincerity when complimenting others
  • Co-develop professional learning opportunities that best meet the needs of all

Never underestimate the impact that the above strategies can have.  Consider this thought from Archie Snowden:
To empower someone is to give them the means to achieve something.” It makes them stronger and more confident, ready to take control of their life and to also be an advocate for themselves. 
In the end, it is all about giving the people you work with (educators) or for (learners) a greater sense of purpose in what they do.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

It Won't Work...Or Will It?

When we look at various aspects of society, there is always an innate desire to improve through innovation. However, there seems always to be impediments to this process. Perhaps it is the little voice in your head that says any new idea or strategy is a waste of time, as it has no chance to succeed. Maybe it is the collective voices of colleagues pushing you to abide by the status quo and not rock the boat. Throw in fear, complacency, or a myriad of other excuses and the pursuit of innovative practices either wane or never transpires. You will never know what could have been if you don’t take the chance to try something new. Don’t just take my word for it. Check out all of the innovations that people thought wouldn’t work below.

Pretty interesting right? At one point, all of the ideas above were deemed crazy or doomed to fail. Each has been a disruptive force that has changed how people watch movies, book hotels, listen to music, access information, get assistance, store files, or get from one place to another. Many lessons can be learned from past innovations that have reshaped culture and society. For starters, you need to believe in an idea or strategy that might be obscure or shunned upon now. Sure, it might not work, but history has taught us that some of the greatest successes of all time resulted from failure. Always base any decision to try something new on the premise that is it better for your learners and will ultimately improve professional practice.

Another element to consider is moving beyond the misconception that innovation in education has to do with technology. I often look at two ideas that were implemented during my time as a principal that had very little to do with tools or gadgets and everything about improving either school culture or the learning experience for our kids. From a cultural end, we developed learning academies, a school within a school model, to move away from an environment where we continued to do what we had always done. The result was three distinct academies, open to all learners regardless of GPA or label, where they not only pursued a distinct area of study of interest to them but also ultimately graduated with ten to fifteen more credits than the state of New Jersey required.

Grading is another entity that is ingrained in many schools and districts. Some have gone so far as to get rid of grades, which in my opinion, is both innovative and disruptive. Sometimes learning is devalued by a number or letter. We tackled the grading culture when it became apparent that we were failing too many kids. After looking at the research and forming a committee, a new policy was put in place. The result was a 75% decrease in failures over three years, increased achievement gains, and a graduation rate that was one of the tops in the state. Both the academies and grading example are not to say that technology doesn’t play a role. The true innovative nature of tech isn’t to tool or program, but instead how the teacher uses it in a way to improve learning outcomes for all kids.

As I have written in the past, innovation is more than an idea that purports to be new or better. The differentiator is that there is an actual result to substantiate a claim. When looking at the examples in the image, or the ones I provided, there is clear evidence that an idea morphed into something that led to improved results or even a new status quo. There should always be a willingness to innovate that is substantiated with significant changes to learning.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Return on Instruction (ROI) Revisited

The pursuit to improve never ends and nor should it. With all of the disruption we see as a result of the 4th Industrial Revolution, changes to how we educate kids have to be considered. The result has been districts, schools, and educators making a great deal of investment in an array of ideas, strategies, and solutions with the goal of improving learning for all kids. Obviously, this makes sense, and I am all for it. However, caution must be exerted when there is an urge to purchase the next “silver bullet” or embrace ideas that sound great on the surface but have little to show in terms of evidence of improvement at scale. Results, both qualitative and quantitative, matter, and this is something that everyone should be mindful of.

Over the years, I have not shied away from discussing the need to align ideas and strategies to research as well as evidence that shows in some way that there is an improvement in student outcomes. Seems fair and reasonable, right? You would think so as the teacher and principal in me know full well that results matter, especially when dealing with increased mandates, initiative overload, limited time, and lack of money. Herein lies why the allure of the “next best thing” is so compelling, and everyone is so quick to jump on the bandwagon. Just because something sounds or looks good doesn’t mean that it is, plain and simple. This applies to what is seen on social media, in marketing assets, and at conferences. Being a critical consumer is more important than ever. I’d even go as far as to say that it is our duty, something I elaborate greatly on in Digital Leadership

However, it is essential to go beyond just the consumption aspect as outlined above and be just as critical during the implementation phase. A sound strategic plan, not online focus, on where you want to go and how you will get there, but also a set of measures for success and a determination of how things went. A few years back I tackled this through strictly a technology lens and brought forward the concept of a Return on Instruction (ROI); borrowing from the term “return on investment” synonymous with virtually every profession.  In retrospect, this was shortsighted and not encompassing of all the many competing and complementing elements that are pursued simultaneously. Below is my evolved take:
 "When investing in technology, programs, professional development, and innovative ideas, there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes." 
If you take a look at my original post, you will see that evidence comes in many forms, not just data. The bottom line is why make an investment to improve teaching, learning, and leadership but have nothing to show for it? That would prove to be quite frustrating, to say the least. To be clear, I am not talking about fluffy ideas or opinions, but actually substantive changes to practice that lead to real change. So how can you determine an ROI? Some guiding questions that might help are below:

  • How have instructional design and pedagogy changed?
  • How has the scaffolding of both questions and tasks changed?
  • How have student work and products changed?
  • How has assessment changed?
  • How has feedback changed?
  • How has the use of data changed?
  • How has the learning culture changed?
  • How has leadership changed?
  • How has meeting the needs of students who need specialized supports changed?
  • How has professional learning changed? 

The questions above will be answered differently as each district, school, and educator is unique as well as the respective culture. The key is to think broadly about financial and time investments to determine if in fact, they are paying off. Both are important. Another aspect to consider is realism. In the end, results matter.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Buncee and Immersive Reader: A Winning Combination for Assistive Learning

I am a huge fan of Buncee. The following is a guest post by Rachelle Dene Poth (@Rdene915), Spanish and STEAM Teacher at Riverview High School in PA.

For several years, Buncee has been one of my favorite creation tools; both for personal use and for classroom instruction. While there are many digital tools to choose from when it comes to teaching and having our students create, Buncee’s versatility and ease-of-use make it a go-to tool for all creative needs. Now, Buncee’s recent integration with Microsoft’s Immersive Reader makes the platform even more accessible for students of diverse ages, backgrounds, and abilities to learn 21st-Century Skills and express themselves. What my students love the most is that Buncee offers something for everyone, and I love that they love it.

Always keeping a finger on the pulse of their community’s needs, the Buncee team consistently listens to their community and refines the platform based on this! Their integration with Immersive Reader is a perfect example of this.

Immersive Reader: It’s About Opportunities For ALL Students 

This summer, Buncee integrated with Microsoft’s Immersive Reader, increasing accessibility for students and offering a robust environment to build literacy skills. Immersive Reader is a full-screen accessibility tool, supporting the readability of text in Buncees for language learners and their families and students with dyslexia or visual impairments. Any text added into a Buncee can be translated and read aloud in over 60 languages.

There are many ways Immersive Reader can enhance learning opportunities for students. It can help to build their confidence and create an inclusive classroom environment. Educators can use this integration to create lessons, make interactive flashcards for students, and communicate with families. Inclusive learning and providing for students and families from different backgrounds is something that the Buncee and the Microsoft team are definitely passionate about, making this integration a natural fit.

Imagine the possibilities for reaching students and their families of non-native English speaking homes, or supporting students who are just learning to read. The use of Immersive Reader in Buncee enables students to do more than just create multimedia content, it helps them improve reading and language learning skills as they engage with the content in authentic and meaningful ways. 

How Does Immersive Reader Work in Buncee? 

There are several ways to help students build their skills through the different options available within Buncee and using Immersive Reader. Getting started with Immersive Reader in Buncee is easy.

By clicking on the Immersive Reader icon when viewing a Buncee, a personalized reading and learning experience for students appears. Immersive Reader accesses the text in the Buncee, offering a multitude of options. Families can access these features at home as well, without having to log into or need any specific account. 

Navigating the Immersive Reader Functionality In Buncee

I decided to create a Buncee using some of the new 3D objects and also explore the options available through Immersive Reader. For first time users, it is easy to figure out how to adjust the settings. 

First, I clicked on the speaker symbol at the bottom to listen to the text read aloud. Students could use this as a way to practice their own pronunciation, especially when using it for language learning, by repeating after the speaker. Students can also build listening comprehension skills by focusing on written words and making connections with the audio. 


By clicking on text preferences, I can choose the text size, increase spacing, and select from three choices in font style. These are great options to help with readability for students. There are also 21 color choices for the background on the screen. I find this to be very useful, especially as someone who can be sensitive to certain colors when reading. I've also had students experience difficulty with reading on certain colored backgrounds, so this is a definite plus. 

The grammar options enable you to break words up by syllables and also color code the different parts of speech. Being able to use the color codes to help with the identification of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs will help students to build their grammar skills. These labels can be turned on or off, which means that families can work with their children and use it as a teaching tool for review. 

Just to experiment, I turned everything off except for the verbs. Displayed on the screen were the two verbs in the sentence both highlighted in red. I then selected a different color for each part of speech, I chose purple to identify nouns and green for the adjectives. I was amazed at how quickly this could be set up and the possibilities for helping students with reading comprehension and language skills. Using this as a way to further engage students with identifying parts of speech and making the visual connection is another option for more interactive learning.

Under reading preferences, you can focus on one line or on the entire text.

When you focus on a line, it closes the screen down to that one specific sentence, which you can also make narrower or thicker depending on your choice. 

There are more than 60 languages available for translation. I decided to try French first, and when I clicked on a word, it showed me the word in French and in English. I also explored other languages, including Spanish and was impressed with how much it offered to reinforce the content and to provide a more personalized learning experience for students. There is also a picture dictionary to visually reinforce vocabulary acquisition. You can choose the voice and speed of reading, so it provides a great way to reinforce speaking skills as well as listening, reading and writing. 

In his book, Digital Leadership, Eric Sheninger talks about the critical competencies needed by learners for success in today’s world. These competencies are in alignment with the ISTE standards for students and teachers and can be addressed through the use of Buncee. Now with the Immersive Reader integration, the possibilities to address these standards are open to all learners. Beyond the potential for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication, students using Buncee can build skills in digital media literacy, entrepreneurship, technological proficiency, and digital citizenship. Students have the opportunity to use technology as a tool for solving real-world problems and making real-world connections. We have to look beyond simply using digital tools to engage students in learning and instead, empower them through opportunities to apply what they have learned in unique ways. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Learning and Reflecting with Video

I remember like it was yesterday when I began blogging back in 2009. To think that I would still be writing a post a week many years later is a vast understatement, coming from someone who had every excuse not to start in the first place. Trust when I say that it’s a struggle these days to either come up with new ideas or to add a unique angle to what has already been written. If it’s important to you, then you’ll find a way. If not, then you will make an excuse. I am by no means a great writer, but I’d like to think that this is only one driving force that keeps me writing. If you were to ask me why I really write, my response would be to reflect and learn openly.

Part of my evolution has been to explore new pathways to reach my professional goals while attempting to give something back in return to educators. In my quest to practice what I preach and grow, I have begun to utilize video as a means to articulate ideas, share my learning, and openly reflect. When you think about the potential video has to articulate a message, it makes sense to harness its power. YouTube is now the world’s second-largest search engine, and a one-minute video equates to almost 1.8 million words per minute. No wonder more and more educators have begun to use this medium to connect with other people.

Not only has it pushed me outside my comfort zone, but I can now go into more depth on the topics I am passionate about.  The result has been the creation of a vlog (video blog) in the form of a YouTube Channel, which you can access HERE. As I am always looking for feedback, I hope you will take a look and let me know what you think. My vlog is nothing fancy. In order to preserve the essence of learning and reflecting, I record a live, unrehearsed video using Periscope about once every two weeks.  I like using this tool because it syncs with and simultaneously broadcasts across Twitter.

Since I am human many finished products have me babbling, tripping over my own words, and at times losing my train of thought. With learning not being a perfect science and reflecting a very personal experience, I want my videos to be as realistic as possible. I begin with Periscope, a live streaming app. Once the live video on Periscope ends it archives on my phone. From here I upload it to both IGTV (Instagram TV) and YouTube. Why all three you ask? Different people prefer different mediums when it comes to consumption and engagement. One of my hopes is that my video musings might be able to help out other educators as they work through ideas, strategies, or even their reflections in their preferred space. Choice matters for both kids and adults.

In the classroom, or even outside of it, video is one of the most powerful learning tools there is. Educators can utilize tools such as Edpuzzle, Playposit, and Viza where pre-selected videos are inserted for students to not only watch but also answer questions along the way. The days of passive viewing while taking up valuable instructional time can now be a thing of the past. What I love about all of these tools is the ability of teachers to insert questions that can empower learners to think and apply their thinking at various levels of knowledge taxonomy. In the case of Edpuzzle and Playposit, the responses can go straight to an LMS (learning management system) such as Google Classroom or Schoology. The self-directed nature and accountability components make all of these tools fantastic elements as part of pedagogically sound blended learning strategies.

Educators can also harness video to create flipped lessons. In addition to those mentioned above, teachers can create their own videos using tools such as Educreations or Adobe Captivate. In lieu of homework, students watch these five to ten-minute mini-lessons that cover new material that would typically be covered in class. Kids can control pace (pause, re-watch) and place (where they watch). This strategy then frees up the teacher to differentiate instruction and work with students to actively apply concepts during class time.

There is a slew of other tools that kids can use not only to demonstrate but also reflect on learning. Two of my favorites are Padlet and Flipgrid. Each tool allows for the creation of a short video that is then added to either an open digital board (Padlet) or grid (Flipgrid). Think about how powerful it is to have kids solve a problem on whiteboards and then explain how they solved it by creating a short video to get both peer and teacher feedback. When it comes to reflecting, both of these tools, as well as Seesaw, can be used for students to articulate not just what they learned, but why they learned it and how what was learned will be used outside of school. Regardless of the method used, it is essential that reflection time is built into every lesson.

Whether as an adult learner or creating a culture that empowers your students, video can serve as an essential means to help you and others reach their goals. The key with any change to practice is to see the value in it and make the time to figure out ways to integrate it into what you do. In the end, it is less about the tool and all about improving outcomes.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

If It's Easy Then it Probably Isn't Learning

What is the purpose of education? To many, this might seem like a ridiculous question with the answer being quite obvious. Or is it? For this post at least, let’s go with learning. Some might equate this with the successful ability to be able to recall or memorize facts and information. The casual observer might then anoint anyone who is able to do this effectively as smart or intelligent. Perhaps he or she is. Is being able to ace a standardized test an accurate indication of what someone knows, can do or both? My opinion on this is no.

For each person, there is a particular path to acquire, apply, and construct new knowledge.  It is much more challenging to accomplish this as some might think, and the journey is often convoluted. The fact remains that learning is anything but linear. It is more about the process than it is getting to a particular destination. Herein lies what I really want to discuss.  When you think about the greatest minds in our society, perception is rarely reality. If you take a close look and peel away the layers, you will see a path fraught with challenges, frustration, and failure. The same can be said about any person who actively solves problems on a day to day basis such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and auto mechanics. What do they all have in common? Each and every one has been able to utilize divergent thinking to apply what he or she knows and solve problems.  

Regardless of where a student is at in their learning, it is incumbent to challenge him or her through relevant experiences. The Rigor Relevance Framework is a great tool that can provide teachers and administrators with the context to create and evaluate both questions and tasks that empower both thinking and application while fostering relationships in the process. So, what does this look like?  One of my favorite images that illustrate what the process should look like is the learning pit.  Take a look at the image below to see what I mean.

The questions throughout the journey are key, in my opinion.  If learning is not rigorous and relevant, then students can most likely jump right over the pit. That’s what I mean when I say if it is easy, then it probably isn’t learning. What this ultimately equates to are questions and tasks that don’t challenge kids to think and apply what they are learning across multiple disciplines or to solve either real-world predictable to unpredictable problems.  When all of these elements are part of a lesson or project, what results is the development of cognitive flexibility in students.  

Nothing comes easy in life. There is no better way to teach this life-long lesson than getting kids into the learning pit and experience the RRR (rigor, relevance, relationship) dip where they come out more confident and capable. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Flexible Spaces Need to Lead to Flexible Learning

Do you remember the classrooms that you learned in as a child?  I sure do and not for many positive reasons. Each room was a carbon copy of one another, where you would have as many uncomfortable desks lined up in cute little neat rows.  The exception was science classrooms flush with lab tables. However, there still was the issue of sitting in chairs for long periods of time that killed our backs. Uncomfortable seating options and a lack of movement not only led to discomfort, but it also had a negative impact on engagement. Now don’t get me wrong; some lessons were extremely engaging.  The issue, however, was that the conditions under which learning was supposed to take place were not conducive to the process at all. Little did we know at the time that classroom design could be something different. It was what we always knew and came to expect and never thought twice about it.
"School should be a place that learners want to come to….not run away from." 
Evolving research on the importance of classroom design and routine movement has begun to uplift the status quo.  Some fantastic changes are being implemented in schools across the world. For some, typical classrooms with desks in rows are now a thing of the past. They have been replaced by more contemporary furniture that is not only comfortable but also modular.  Flexibility, choice, and movement are all being incorporated to make the school experience more enjoyable while setting the stage for increased engagement. The key is to create the conditions for our learners where we, as the adults, would want to learn. 

Here is the rub.  As spaces change has pedagogy as well? In some cases, the answer is no. Now I am not trying to be negative, just honest. If kids are comfortable while receiving direct instruction or all completing an activity at the same time, then what’s the point of new furniture or updated spaces? As the saying goes, if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. As precious funds are used to upgrade classrooms and entire schools, improvements to learning must be at the forefront, something Tom Murray and I emphasize in our book Learning Transformed.  Flexible spaces need to lead to flexible learning. 

Here are some questions to consider when it comes to space redesign:

  • How will it support more movement and application of knowledge or competencies?
  • How will it promote higher levels of student agency?
  • How will pedagogy change in ways that emphasize path, pace, and place?
  • How will assessment and feedback change or improve?
  • What will be the role of technology?
  • What professional learning support is needed to maximize the use of flexible spaces?

If you have already invested in flexible seating, think about the questions above in terms of what has changed.  One strategy that addresses all of the questions I posed is a move towards pedagogically-sound blended learning.  It is important not to confuse this with the use of technology to support or enhance instruction. Here is the difference. 
"Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace."
The three “P’s” in the description above combined with choice are what allow flexible seating to live up to both the hype and potential to improve learning for kids.  In my work with schools on implementing blended learning to maximize the investment in innovative spaces, I typically showcase several models that I have found to be most effective. These include station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and flipped lessons. I highly suggest you check out this post, which goes into detail on the pedagogy of blended learning. 

Educators are now inundated with ideas on how to better design classrooms and schools. It is always prudent to take a critical lens to both the work and the investments that are made to determine if there are improvements to learning and school culture.  It is ok to be skeptical of what you might see shared on social media when it comes to learning spaces (or anything for that matter).  We need to move away from classroom design that is “Pinterest pretty” and use research, design thinking, and innovative pedagogy guide the work. The space will not improve outcomes all on its own. It’s how the space is used in ways that better prepare learners for now and the future that will. 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Right Questions

We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not answered, we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its answer on its back as a snail carries its shell.”  - James Stephens

Questioning techniques are one of the easiest areas of instructional design that can be improved, at least in my opinion.  By looking at the question stems, one can determine the level of thinking our learners are expected to demonstrate.  Low-level examples almost always begin with who, what, where, when. These aren’t bad per se as you need knowledge to move up any knowledge taxonomy chart.  The problem is when questions reside here and don’t push kids to think and apply their thinking in more complex ways.  Learners also don’t find much purpose with these beyond just getting them right. 

Herein lies one of my major issues with how I see many digital game tools used in the classroom as typically comprised of low-level, multiple-choice options.  As I mentioned before, there is a time and place for this. However, it goes without saying that an emphasis on recall and memorization will not prepare kids adequately to thrive now and in the future.  Disruption caused by the 4th Industrial Revolution, and living in a knowledge economy, continues to teach us this lesson. If a student can easily Google the answer, then it goes without saying that the question isn’t very challenging.  In the end, questions are more important than answers if learning is the goal. More on this later. 

The image above provides a great visual to look at the types of questions that are asked in classrooms or on assignments and scaffold them in ways that empower learners to demonstrate high-level thinking as well as mastery of concepts.  It is important to note that each and every question doesn’t have to be at the uppermost levels of knowledge taxonomy.  The key is to try to bump them up when warranted, especially if they are at the foundational knowledge level.   If question stems begin with who, what, where, or when then there is a natural opportunity to tweak them in a way to get up to at least the understanding level.

Now don’t get me wrong; developing great questions that get kids thinking is excellent. However, the real goal should be the creation of performance tasks where learners are applying their thinking in relevant ways.  This is where the role of instructional design is critical.  When challenging learners through an authentic application where there is an underlying purpose, what results is natural inquiry.  During numerous coaching visits with schools across the country, I have seen this play out over and over again.  Students are so immersed in an activity that collaboration, creativity, and collaboration converge with thinking while they work to solve real-world predictable and unpredictable problems.  What results is that the students then develop and answer their own questions. 

The Rigor Relevance Framework, of which an iteration is pictured above, is a great tool that can assist teachers and administrators develop better questioning techniques and learning tasks to engage kids with a higher purpose.  What results is the process of inquiry, which fuels the learning process.  The right question isn’t necessarily about arriving at an answer per se, but instead it acts as a catalyst for the development of more questions.  

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Ascent to Growth

I genuinely believe that most people want to get better in their professional role and they find comfort in growth. Who doesn’t want to make a difference while moving up the career ladder?  However, I say most because complacency, lack of motivation, or not being passionate about the work or the job can inhibit a drive to seek ways to improve.  Since the minority falls in this category, let’s focus on the majority.  For many of us, we are continually seeking out ways to grow and improve professional practice.  Even though the desire is there, and efforts are made, challenges arise.  These come in two primary forms: excuses and people. Let me elaborate on both.

People are our greatest asset, and when we invest in them, success likely follows.  There is no “I” in team, and to achieve goals as a system, the support of many is crucial.  Sometimes though people can play a role that works counter to what we set out to accomplish either at the individual or organizational level.  As much as they are essential in any culture, there are times when they can also impede growth. For reasons that vary, some people are not happy where they are or with the success of others.  What results are concerted efforts to undermine and derail the pursuit of improvement.  

It is essential to recognize both subtle and not so subtle behaviors exhibited by others as you strive to grow. These might be masked by platitudes that get you to rethink putting in the needed time and effort to improve your craft or to move a culture forward. Be confident in who you are and where you want to go. Don’t fall victim to the insecurities, fears, and unhappiness that other people might be grappling with as you work to get better. Even as you strive to learn and improve, a true leader also helps others do the same.  It is okay to focus on yourself when the situation calls, but in the end, helping the people we work with grow is just as important as what we do for ourselves. The process of achieving goals is much more fulfilling when it is a collaborative effort. 

In the words of Jim Rohn, “Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure.” Now this quote might seem a bit harsh at first read, but if you view it with an open mind, you will see that it is quite accurate. In many cases, we believe we can’t accomplish a task or implement an idea because of the perception that a challenge is too difficult to overcome, or the idea might have failed in the past.  In either case, our mind starts to develop a myriad of excuses as to why something won’t or can’t work.  Common impediments include not enough time, lack of money, or too many mandates and directives. Guess what…these are never going away. Growth will never occur if the will to tackle these, and many other impediments aren’t there. If it’s important to you, then you will find a way. If not, then you will make an excuse. The key here is to focus on solutions, even in the face of some difficult challenges.  

Change is hard at both the individual and organizational level. The ascent to growth will not always be easy.  Maybe it’s not people or excuses that get in your way. Perhaps it is your own mind, which can be the fiercest adversary you face on the path to getting better. Confidence and belief are two of the most powerful forces that help to keep us focused on achieving goals.  Just remember this.  You are only limited by the barriers you develop for yourself. 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Path to Efficacy

Organizations, schools, and districts that are successful all lead with efficacy in mind.  The same can be said for teachers and administrators who can effectively implement ideas and strategies in ways that result in improved learner outcomes. To put it simply, efficacy can best be defined as the degree to which set goals are achieved.  The path to achieving it begins with a belief in oneself.  Albert Bandura is one of the most famous researchers in the area of self-efficacy, which can best be described as an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.  To put it bluntly, if people don't believe in themselves, then achieving goals will be near impossible.  Thriving cultures focus on empowerment, support, feedback, and autonomy to take risks to build self-efficacy.

The next logical step is to move from an individual belief to one that is embraced by the majority.  This is referred to as collective efficacy, which Bandura defined as "a group's shared belief in its conjoint capability to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given levels of attainment" (Bandura, 1997). It cannot be overstated how much this element contributes to student achievement. Below is a summary from an article by Jenni Donohoo, John Hattie, and Rachel Eells. 
Rachel Eells's (2011) meta-analysis of studies related to collective efficacy and achievement in education demonstrated that the beliefs teachers hold about the ability of the school as a whole are "strongly and positively associated with student achievement across subject areas and in multiple locations" (p. 110). Based on Eells's research, John Hattie positioned collective efficacy at the top of the list of factors that influence student achievement (Hattie, 2016). According to his Visible Learning research, based on a synthesis of more than 1,500 meta-analyses, collective teacher efficacy is three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status. It is more than double the effect of prior achievement and more than triple the effect of home environment and parental involvement. It is also greater than three times more predictive of student achievement than student motivation and concentration, persistence, and engagement.
Understanding the critical role self and collective efficacy play in determining the successful attainment of goals lays out a path for achieving efficacy as a whole, something that I expand greatly on in my book Digital Leadership.  Achievement is important, but there are many other facets of school culture that can be improved.  The process can be best articulated through the strategic planning cycle pictured below.

Begin with the end in mind (i.e., goals) while aligning to a shared vision and collective mission. It is then essential to determine specific outcomes, strategies, and measures & targets.  Professional learning, funding, and an array of other supports are crucial to not only stay on the path but also to arrive at the intended destination. The final piece to the puzzle is the results, which can be determined through both qualitative and quantitative means. It cannot be overstated that in the end, it's the degree to which goals have been achieved that ultimately leads to efficacy.

The strategic planning process provides a logical path forward, but there are also many other elements that come into play. In a previous post, I highlighted items in terms of digital initiatives, but upon further reflection, I feel they are worth revisiting as each is important whether or not technology is involved. For anyone that has led change efforts from the trenches, you will more than likely be able to relate to the following.

Questions should lead to more questions

Questions provide context for where we want to go, how we'll get there, and whether or not success is achieved.  Having more questions than answers is a natural part of the initial change process. Consider the following in this order:
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How will we get there?
  • How do we measure success?
  • How did we do?
  • How can we improve?
Research fuels the "why"

Having a foundation and a compelling reason to change is where research plays a pivotal role. It provides a baseline as to what has been found to really work when it comes to student learning and improving culture. We can look to the past in order to inform current practice. If efficacy is the goal, embracing a scholarly mindset to inform and influence our work, not drive it, is critical.

Practicality leads to embracement

It is hard to move any initiative or idea forward if people can't see how it seamlessly aligns with what they already do. The key here is embracement as opposed to buy-in.  If it's not practical, the drive to implement new ideas and practices wanes or never materializes.  

Evidence provides validation

The only way to determine if goals have been met is through evidence. To discount this shows a lack of understanding as to what real change looks and feels like in education.  Evidence can come in many forms, but in the end, it should clearly paint a picture that the ideas and strategies implemented have resulted in a better, more improved outcome.  A combination of data and artifacts will tell you and anyone else whether or not goals were met. 

Accountability ensures success

What's measured gets done, plain and simple. Accountability is prevalent in every profession and is not something that should be feared or loathed in education.  The key is to establish protocols (checkpoints, check-ins, walk-throughs, observations, evaluations, portfolios) that ensure everyone is doing their part and is provided feedback on the way leading to accountability for growth.

Reflection propels growth

I love the last question that comes at the end of the strategic planning cycle, and that is how can we improve.  Since there is no perfection in education, this is a question we should always be asking and reflecting on. 

The path to efficacy can be an arduous and frustrating journey.  No one likes to spend time coming up with goals, and associated action plans only to have them not come to fruition.  Developing a strategic plan and following through based on the elements described above will help get you there, but staying on the path also requires teamwork, communication, patience, and professional learning.  In the end, when success is achieved, the journey and time spent are well worth it. 

For more on the topic of efficacy check out the short video below.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Eells, R. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective efficacy and student achievement. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Loyola University of Chicago.

Hattie, J. (2016, July). Mindframes and Maximizers. 3rd Annual Visible Learning Conference held in Washington, DC.