Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Pedagogy of Blended Learning

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. - Eric Sheninger

I remember back in 2012 when we began to implement blended learning strategies at my former high school.  At the time the flipped approach was all the rage and best suited for the resources we had and the age group of our kids. The goal was to make the learning experience more personal for our students while better meeting their individual needs in the process.  In our case, this meant better using time during the school day to transfer the balance of power from instruction (teacher-centered) to learning (student-centered).  A great deal has changed since 2012 when it comes to blended learning. As technology has evolved so have many of the opportunities inherent in this strategy.  

Image credit:

As I work with more and more schools on blended learning, there is always a focus first and foremost on ensuring that sound pedagogical design serves as a foundation. Herein lies the impetus of the work at Wells Elementary school the past two years. For the purposes of this post, I am going to highlight strategies, elements, models, and supports (tools). Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive or indicative of a be-all or end-all approach.  Since my items are (or should) be common knowledge, there won’t be much elaboration.  Hyperlinks will be used in the cases where I feel additional context and information is beneficial. 


Below I identify some strategies that are widely accepted when it comes to sound pedagogy.  As you either create or evaluate blended activities are these included in some form or another?  If not, think about where there is an opportunity for growth. 
  • Small-group instruction while the rest of the class is engaged in other activities
  • Checking for understanding
  • Differentiation 
  • Assessment (formative and summative)
  • Feedback


The real power of pedagogically-sound blended activities is to empower kids to take more ownership over their learning while making the experience more personal in school. Many of these elements require increasing student agency, incorporating flexible learning spaces, and creating tasks that involve the purposeful use of technology to collaborate, communicate, and create. You will also notice that some are interchangeable. For example, many quality blended activities allow students a certain level of choice over their learning path. Keep in mind that one element might support or enhance another.


There are many mainstream models out there that can be used to blend effectively. HERE are a list and description of 12 that are very popular. In theory, these sound great but implementing them into practice is an entirely different animal. Below are some of the most popular models I see being actively utilized with a high level of efficacy in schools.
Below are some images to provide more insight as to what each of these looks like in practice. 

Station Rotation

Choice Board w/ individual learning targets


Flipped classroom


There is no shortage of tools available that can be used as part of the models listed above when a sound pedagogical foundation is in place. The key is not to get caught up in the blended instruction piece and move towards blended learning.  Popular tools that I have seen effectively utilized by kids include Go Formative, Flipgrid, Edpuzzle, and PlayPosit. These are all fantastic options that can be aligned with the strategies listed above. If you are looking to spread your wings, check out this list crowdsourced by Tom Murray. When it comes to differentiation and summative assessment I recommend the integration of adaptive learning tools. Yes, there is a cost to these. However, learners can be pushed based on ability level and the data gleaned can be used during small group to provide targeted instruction. 

It is important to remember that technology only has to be a small component of an effective blended learning activity when considering the strategies, elements, and models listed above. Autonomy is emphasized to better democratize the experience where learners explore and demonstrate high levels of understanding related to concepts and constructing new knowledge.  As for the technology part, when it is all said and done it’s what the kids do with tech to learn in ways that they couldn’t without it. Blended makes this a reality. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

12 Leadership Fundamentals

Leadership is leadership.  The same essential qualities and characteristics that exemplify what great leaders do have pretty much stayed the same.  What has changed are the tools, research, and societal shifts that impact the work.  Leadership is both an art and a science with the goal of moving the masses towards achieving a common goal.  Even though I have written extensively on the topic over the years, I am always on the lookout for more insight that can help others, including myself, excel in the role. Recently I came across the image below titled the Art of Leadersheep by it-agile. Not only does it align with what we know about effective leadership, but it also reminds us to keep our focus on the important stuff.

Using the image above as I springboard, I am going to try to add a little more context to the fundamentals highlighted.

Create a strong vision

A vision can undoubtedly change the culture of any organization if it is shared and co-created, but the real work and testament to great leadership is moving from the visioning process by developing a strategic plan to turn vision into reality. Whereas developing a shared vision is an attribute linked to all great leaders, the best leaders ensure that a strategic plan is formed and then meticulously implemented.  A vision has to result in a plan, which provides a focus for the change initiative.  The plan then has to be monitored and evaluated if the desired outcome is sustainable change that leads to transformation. 

Set the direction

When a ship sets sail a course is plotted, and different elements are used to arrive at the desired destination.  Leaders set the direction by developing achievable and practical goals that are clearly communicated. You will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator. If people are unclear where they are, or should be headed, the chances of success or limited. 

Set boundaries

Leaders know that a free for all will not necessitate needed change. Boundaries need to be established to keep everyone in tune with the vision and agreed upon course of action.  The best way to accomplish this is to set some norms and stick to them. Just make sure these are not too restrictive as you want your people to be open to taking risks. Boundaries are crucial to establishing and sustaining relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. If there is no relationship, no real learning or change will occur.

Forget carrots & sticks 

If you have not read Drive by Dan Pink, I suggest you do.  The problem with extrinsic rewards is that people will always expect them, and they rarely result in sustained changes to culture.  As Pink revealed, the keys unlocking and sustaining intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Great leaders help others see the value in the work and change in terms of how it will help to improve their practice. 

Be a teacher

The best leaders are the best teachers according to research by Sydney Finkelstein who spent ten years studying the difference between world-class and typical people in leadership positions. She found that the stars emphasized ongoing, intensive one-on-one tutoring of the people who worked for and with them, either in person or virtually, in the course of daily work. This personalized approach is what we see from highly effective teachers who work tirelessly to meet the needs of all their students. Finklestein shares the following, “The best leaders routinely spent time in the trenches with employees, passing on technical skills, general tactics, business principles, and life lessons. Their teaching was informal and organic, flowing out of the tasks at hand. And it had an unmistakable impact: Their teams and organizations were some of the highest-performing in their sectors.

Admit mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. However, by not admitting or owning up to this fact, a culture of trust is hard to come by.  Being human means that you will screw up once in a while. Own your mistakes, but don’t let them own you. One final thought. Don’t dwell on the mistake. Remember what you learned from it.

Lead by example

Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do or have not done yourself. Leadership is about action - not position, title or power. When it is all said and done effective leaders, don’t tell others what to do, but instead take them to where they need to be. You get what you model. 

Encourage leadership at all levels

One woman or man does not sustain change.  Think about this for a second. Have you ever seen a leader personally implement the vision or every idea he or she comes up with? Sure, an individual can begin the process, but it takes a collective effort to make change stick.  Building capacity through delegation and trust empowers others to be an active part of the process. Leadership is a team sport.

Address the elephant in the room

The elephant can come in many shapes and sizes. In some cases, it is the 5% of the people in the system that give you 95% of the problems.  In other situations, it can be an unpopular decision, lack of resources, or dwindling support. Regardless of what the issue is, the most effective leaders don’t shy away from addressing them. Leadership is not a popularity contest. 

Improve the system

Leaders sink or swim based on how well they can help their organization find and sustain success.  It is a calling and a responsibility to move a culture forward in a way that achieves better results. The best leaders are all about ensuring efficacy in any idea, strategy, decision, or program. They also embrace accountability as part of the process.

Be prepared for a long journey

Leadership is not a race or event. It is a process. Meaningful change rarely happens quickly.  Transforming culture takes time, so patience is a virtue here. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be a sense of urgency with some aspects. The fact of the matter is that results and achievement success system-wide take time. Set expectations and goals knowing full well that they might not fully materialize for a few years.  

What fundamentals would you add to this list?

Leading is not easy and being effective at it is easier said than done. You don’t have to be perfect nor always on your game.  You do, however, have to help others achieve a common goal that gets results.  Are you up for the challenge?

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Innovation is More Than an Idea or Tool

What makes something innovative? There is no shortage of debate on this topic in the least bit. From articles to blog posts to books, that subject has been covered in great detail. One can look at numerous companies and develop his or her conclusions.  Take Uber and Airbnb for example. Each in their own right came up with a new and different idea aligned to technology with the goal of creating something that consumers would embrace while making money in the process. Not only did both of these companies disrupt their respective industries, but both have evidence in the form of users and revenue to validate that their solutions were genuinely innovative. The convergence of an idea, tool and strategy have led to ultimate success for both Uber and Airbnb.

In education, there is always an affinity to jump on board the latest tool or idea and automatically stamp the word innovation on it. Now, this isn’t to say that everything in both of these categories is representative of a better means to accomplish a task or to improve professional practice.  The key is the criteria that are used to make such a determination or claim.  Let’s first begin by evaluating the efficacy of both using the following questions:

  • How are kids learning with technology in ways that they couldn’t without it?
  • What observable evidence is there that an idea or strategy represents a fundamental improvement over what has been done traditionally in the past?

I, for one, don’t shy away from the fact that both research and evidence should be part of the conversation.  A mix of qualitative and quantitative measures goes a long way to validating whether or not something is actually innovative.  A push for efficacy benefits everyone who is championing better approaches to improve student learning and professional practice.  Whether to innovate or not should be driven by a challenge or problem that can be overcome in a way that leads to a better outcome.  Achievement can undoubtedly fall into one of these categories, but there is so much more to learning and kids than a score. When it comes to innovation, I see digital leadership and blended learning as two of many ideas, concepts, or strategies where there is research and evidence to support these innovative practices.  

Recently during a coaching visit at Sandshore Elementary School, a part of the Mt. Olive Township School District in NJ, I saw one of the best examples of innovation in practice.  As I was in a second-grade classroom, I saw an odd-looking contraption that I had never seen in a school before, but I also heard a voice coming from it. When I inquired as to what it was, Nicole Musarra, the principal, told me that it was a VGo robotic telepresence for a student who was unable to attend school for health reasons.  Below is a description of the device from the company:
For some students, attending school isn’t possible. 
Injuries, extended illnesses, immune deficiencies, and other physical challenges prevent a student from physically being able to attend school. School districts try to accommodate these special needs by working providing online courses, in-home tutors, special busing, video conferencing and more. But these are expensive and very limiting since students miss out on the classroom experience and social life that comes with attending school.  Now, they can participate in classroom discussions and share in the social aspects of locker-side chats, lunch period and moving from class to class.  VGo gets the student back to the traditional schooling environment by providing a physical device that replicates the student while away from school.  It is operated in real-time by the student (not the teacher or an aid), so they feel empowered with their independence.   VGo enables students to:
  • Receive the same instruction as their peers
  • Move around/between classrooms independently
  • Socialize with friends in the hallways and at lunch
  • Participate in a full school day with their classmates

It was purely amazing to see and hear this student be part of the class even though she wasn’t there physically. As the kids in class rotated from small group to stations so did the student who was at home. In addition to full participation during the lesson, the VGo device was able to move throughout the building so the student could go to gym, lunch, and move about the hallway with her peers. I learned that the kids in school would often dress up the robotic device to add a more humanistic element to it. The only limitation was that the VGo was limited in movement and functionality based on an available WiFi signal. This meant that the homebound student couldn’t go outside to recess. However, I suggested to the principal that hotspots be installed on the outside of the building to solve this challenge in the future. 

The VGo device is a prime example of what innovation really looks like in terms of how it improves what the student is to do.  Without the device, the learning experience, and more importantly the relationships it helps to create, would not be possible. The example above checks all the boxes when it comes to the two questions I posed earlier in the post as well as a fundamental improvement in terms of outcomes. Innovation should not be a buzz word nor something that is thrown around in an attempt to add credence to an idea or strategy.  In addition to the most commonly associated words “new” and “better,” a third term should always follow – RESULT. The key to scaling innovation, in my opinion, is not just to tell how we are, or that we should be, pursuing innovative methods, but actually show the impact in terms of improvements to learning outcomes and professional practice. 

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Utilizing Augmented Reality as an Impetus for Learning

Technology continues to make inroads in classrooms across the world at a dizzying pace. This makes complete sense as every learner in our classrooms at this point have known nothing but a digital world. In many cases, they’ve grown up with access to incredibly immersive technology practically since birth. As a result, it can be difficult at times to compete for attention using traditional teaching methods like whiteboards, worksheets, and extended direct instruction. When the experience is mostly passive relying on strategies that might have worked well in the past, it’s no surprise that classroom engagement learning to meaningful learning has been negatively impacted. In Learning Transformed, Tom Murray and I showcased some compelling data from Gallop that emphasizes this point. 

As I have written extensively in the past the digital world that we are now all apart of provides so much promise with paired with sound pedagogy. Instead of fighting the use of tech in the classroom and schools’ educators should not only embrace it embrace but look to expand their toolbox to better empower learners. With so many options to choose from it can be both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. It seems that every day I’m introduced to a new tech tool that promises to change education.  While the premise of many possesses potential, the challenge is to determine which tools are or will have a real impact on education. Research has shown that educational technology has the most effect on learners when it is part of an interactive experience, uses to explore and create as opposed to drill and kill, and consists of the right blend of teachers and technology. 

To improve outcomes student agency has to be at the forefront. I’ve always preferred tools that let students take control of their learning by turning passive consumers into creators because it allows them to tap into their imagination, while the learning happens naturally. I was blown away when I discovered Metaverse and seeing it utilized in a classroom during a recent coaching visit. It is a platform that makes it easy for anyone to create augmented reality experiences without having to code. I have not seen any other tools come close when it comes to ease of use and student engagement.

So, what is augmented reality (AR)? Using the camera on a mobile device (phone, tablet) AR overlays images/media over the real world. It is a social experience, as opposed to virtual reality (VR) where a single student would wear goggles that would obstruct them from their surroundings. AR might have started out as a novelty but has now become a fantastic way to engage students through authentic learning experiences. There are many reasons to incorporate AR in the classroom. A short list includes letting students experience characters/imagery that would not otherwise be accessible (historical figures), new places (enhanced field trips), added interactivity to classroom materials, gamified learning, and more immersive opportunities aligned to the curriculum.

As mentioned previously, I was first introduced to Metaverse during a coaching visit where students were creating AR projects for their peers to review ELA concepts. Since then it’s been fascinating to see Metaverse being embraced by educators in large numbers. What sets Metaverse apart from other AR tools is that anyone can create their own experiences quickly and easily. Metaverse consists of two components; Metaverse Studio where experiences are built in and the Metaverse app (iOS, Android and Chromebooks) where the can be subsequently viewed. Experiences are created by combining components on a storyboard (think digital Lego’s). Building your first AR Experience takes minutes. Here’s a quick tutorial.

Whether you are an educator or a student there are so many tasks you can create in Metaverse including:

  • AR quizzes
  • Games
  • Choose your own adventure
  • Field trips
  • Digital breakout puzzles (AR Breakout EDU)
  • Scavenger hunts/tours (experiences can be placed at GPS locations, similar to Pokemon GO)
  • Audio games
  • Interactive stories

Metaverse is free for anyone to create and view AR Experiences (you can create as many as you like). The collections feature is a premium addition to Metaverse Studio that is geared towards teachers who have students creating their own experiences. For more information check out the Metaverse blog to see what teachers are creating and check them out on Twitter

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Two Most Important Questions to Ask to Determine if Learning is Taking Place

There are so many thoughts and ideas as to what learning really looks and feels like. From these conversations, educators form their own perspectives and opinions that best align with the vision, mission, and goals of their classroom, school or district.  However, a consensus is critical if the goal is scalable change that results in improved learning outcomes. As I have written extensively in the past, research and evidence should play a significant role in what learning can and should be as well as whether or not it is actually taking place.  Common vision, language, expectations, and look-fors go a long way to creating a vibrant learning culture.

Recently I posted the following tweet. 

It seemed to resonate with many educators.  I decided to post this update when I saw my friend Greg Bagby share an image of the Rigor Relevance Framework where technology is considered. Thus, my tweet referenced a digital angle.  In hindsight though, I should have written the tweet to align with what I genuinely believe in.  Some of the commentary I received reinforced what I always speak and write about as well as coach on; that the two questions I posed are important both with and without technology.  So, when it comes to learning, the two most important questions are:

  1. Are kids thinking at increasing levels of knowledge taxonomy?
  2. How are kids applying their thinking in relevant ways?

The Rigor Relevance Framework provides a practical way to determine the answers to both of these questions by looking at the level of questioning and the tasks that kids are engaged in.  

Consider it a litmus test of sorts. Where do the instruction (what the teacher does) and the learning (what the kid does) fall in terms of the four quads?  Good instruction can, and should, lead to empowered learning, with movement along both the thinking and application continuums. The point here is to not reside in Quad D as that is a place you visit once and a while, but it should be an area that learners are moved to at some point during a unit of study. When technology is added to the mix, it should be utilized purposefully by the learner in ways that address the two questions posed above.

The image above conveys a critical point.  We should never look at technology as a distinct element separate from curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  Each of these in their own right intersects in ways to support and enhance learning. It is essential to understand that the role of any digital tool or experience is to empower learners to think in ways that represent a fundamental improvement over traditional practice. The use of technology leads to yet another critical question – How are kids using technology to learn in ways that they couldn’t without it? 

All in all, learning has to be the focus. It’s up to you to determine if it is, in fact, taking place and if not what can be done to ensure that it is. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Are Students Off-Task in Class on Phones? There's an App for That!

As teachers and administrators, grappling with off-task behaviors and distractions when it comes to student phones in the classroom has occurred at some point. Recently I recently learned about Pocket Points, an app that educators are using to promote better decision-making amongst students with the goal of keeping them off their phones when not being used to achieve learning outcomes associated with the class. More on this in a little bit. 

I am a huge proponent of harnessing and leveraging mobile technology in the classroom. As the principal, I decided to implement Bring Your Own Device back in 2010 as a way to not only take advantage of student-owned devices but to also improve the learning culture through more empowerment and ownership.  In Uncommon Learning, I detailed the necessary steps we took to ensure success. The key, whether 1:1 or BYOD, is to thoroughly plan and put learning at the forefront for kids, teachers, and administrators.  

However, planning can only get you so far. Building pedagogical capacity both with and without technology must be prioritized.  Mobile technology is more accessible than it has ever been. The urge to go on a personal device in schools, with and without mobile learning initiatives, has grown exponentially.  Up until recently, there have been two main deterrents:
  1. Well-designed lessons that are relevant to kids combined with sound classroom management
  2. A school culture that empowers kids to use their devices responsibly
Now the above strategies might still work well, but in my experience working in schools as a job-embedded coach, I have seen more and more students off-task. No matter how well we plan or work to develop a positive school culture, off-task behavior still occurs. Enter a third deterrent mentioned at the beginning of this post called Pocket Points. 

Pocket Points was founded in 2014 by two college students who noticed a disturbing trend among their classmates in that too many kids were spending class glued to their phones, ignoring their professors' best attempts to teach them. They had the idea to create an app that would reward students for paying attention in class. They got local businesses to agree to offer free and discounted food as rewards on Pocket Points, and it spread through the campus like wildfire. Within a few weeks, half of the student body was using the app. 

The developers spent the next few years spreading Pocket Points to every college in the country as well as high schools. Through their growth, they came to the realization that the problem was even more prevalent at the high school level than college, and these teachers felt the impact more than anyone. As a result, a Teacher Rewards program was developed. This program allows teachers to directly offer rewards to their students on Pocket Points for staying focused in class. The hope is that it will act as a support tool that teachers can use to help their students develop healthy phone habits while maintaining engagement on learning tasks in the classroom. In the near future teachers will have the ability to "whitelist" certain educational apps, meaning students could continue to earn rewards while using these as part of the learning process. This should help teachers who integrate phones as educational tools keep their students on task.

Getting started is easy. Students can download the Pocket Points app for free from the app store. They sign up, select their school, and they can begin earning rewards. Here they will find a gift page on the app full of rewards provided by companies, including Redbox, Panda Express, and Papa Johns on the national level. There's a variety of online companies that are available to all students as well. In many areas, partnerships with local restaurants and retailers provide even more rewards, all of which cost points.

Points can be earned in a variety of ways. Initially, they could only be earned when a student had his or her phone out of sight when not being used as part of the teaching and learning process. Now kids can earn points when they are not in school, though they need to set and successfully complete a time off phone goal to get the points. There is also a great feature where the app automatically tracks when a student is driving and gives points if he or she remains undistracted.

Schools and teachers can leverage this app to provide positive reinforcement while combatting the issue of off-task cell phone behaviors, which cause a distraction in the classroom. This issue has become pervasive in many cases while frustrating teachers and administrators alike. It's a battle that most are tired of fighting. 

Empowering kids to use devices as tools to support and enhance their learning is, and always will be, the goal. However, balance is critical, and technology will not improve every lesson or task. In either case, Pocket Points might be an option to help overcome battles with phones to create a school culture that sets up students for success now and in the future. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Blending with Playlists

In an effort to personalize learning more and more educators are turning to blended learning strategies. Before getting into the specifics of this post, it is important to flesh out each concept to ensure the efficacy of these shifts in pedagogy.  When it comes to personalized learning, the “personal” should be emphasized.  Putting all kids in front of a device and having them engaged in an adaptive learning tool all at the same time is not personalized.  Here is my take on the strategy:
Personalized learning represents a movement from the “what” to the “who” as a means to facilitate student ownership of the learning process.  It considers the tailoring of pedagogy, curriculum, and environments by or for learners to meet their different learning needs and passions. In many cases, but not all, technology is a catalyst to facilitate the personalization of the learning environment.
The lofty outcomes listed above can be accomplished using a variety of innovative strategies.  The key is to shift the balance of power and time from instruction (what the teacher does) to learning (what the kid does).  Blended learning, as a means to personalize, is one way to accomplish this. However, there still seems to be a great deal of confusion as to what this really entails.  Many times, blended instruction is confused with blended learning. Here is the difference. 

See the difference? The transfer of power and time is apparent as the learner is in the driver’s seat. This is not to say that a teacher using a variety of tools as part of daily instruction isn’t effective, but this is not blended learning.  Content and process matter if the goal is to move to a more personalized approach through increased student agency. Wells Elementary School in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD) is one of the best examples I have seen when it comes to effective blended learning at school. Up until recently station rotation and choice boards where preferred strategies utilized by the teachers here. However, during my recent coaching visit, I began to see the implementation of playlists across all grade levels. 

So what is a playlist exactly? I pulled the following from the blog of Jennifer Gonzalez, who profiled the work of Tracy Enos in this area:
A playlist, an individualized digital assignment chart that students work through at their own pace. With playlists, the responsibility for executing the learning plan shifts: Students are given the unit plan, including access to all the lessons (in text or video form), ahead of time. With the learning plan in hand, students work through the lessons and assignments at their own pace. And because each student has their own digital copy of the playlist (delivered through a system like Google Classroom), the teacher can customize the list to meet each student’s needs.
As I visited classrooms, I saw many different versions of the playlist, but the overall goals associated with path, pace, and place remained the same. Andrew Huckeba created a playlist for his 5th-grade math students where they worked through various activities on multiplying and diving fractions.  As they finished a task, they colored in the corresponding box next to their name.  While the majority of the class progressed through the playlist, Andrew worked one-on-one with students that needed the most assistance. Herein lies one of the most essential elements of any personalized experience – kids getting help who need it the most.

First-grade teacher Anna Fisher has also implemented playlists in her classroom along with many of her colleagues. After hearing about how she improved the strategy following feedback I provided as part of the coaching process I asked her to share what she was doing.  Below is her take on the use of a playlist for reading (you can see the entire activity HERE).
Here’s how it works.  Each 'village' is one of my reading groups that are grouped by reading/skill level. The barrels at the bottom, fish and steak, go along with corresponding reading task cards that are grouped by skill level/skills being targeted. I'm currently working on how to make it even more differentiated. They fill in their responses in their reading journals which they take to partner reading to share. I got these cards from Teachers Pay Teachers and added some of my own. The student looks at how many of each barrel they need to complete that day and then fill in that amount with snowballs on their igloo. The barrel in the back is a work in progress.  On a rotation, one group each day completes one task on the Lego board I showed you. The students have the opportunity throughout the week to record their responses on Class Dojo and share with me during group time. 
Playlists can provide a true path to personalization.  Michael Putman provides this take:
Imagine a school where students arrive at their classroom and start their day by using their mobile device to scan a unique QR code posted on the door. The QR code points the students to a website that includes a series of activities aligned with their individual learning needs. As the teacher enters the room a short time later, she briefly conferences with each student regarding his or her progress, while the rest of the class continues to engage with their tasks.
Ownership of learning requires a more personal approach. From differentiating instruction to maximizing the impact of flexible learning spaces, the use of playlists aligned to sound pedagogy can add more purpose in the eyes of kids as they engage in tasks while developing independence and self-management competencies. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Kid-Centric Schools: When There's a Will There's a Way

When I wrote Uncommon Learning back in 2015, the premise was to set the stage as to how we could create schools that work for kids. A good deal of the strategies presented came from what we successfully implemented at New Milford High School where I was the former principal. To get a better gist of the main focus areas check out my TEDx talk. As I have since transitioned from school principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), my work now focuses on helping schools transform teaching, learning, and leadership to create vibrant cultures that kids want to be a part of. Through the lens of an instructional and leadership coach, I have been able to see firsthand how schools across the country and world are implementing innovative change with this goal in mind.

There are many isolated pockets of excellence that all of us see or experience.  It is these examples that we can use to form the foundation as to where we eventually want to move towards. However, the goal should be sustainable changes that impact all students in a school, district, or system.  In the past, I have written extensively of how Wells Elementary in Cypress, TX has evolved into a prime example of what’s possible when teachers, building leaders, and district administrators work together to move from vision to action.  I encourage you to check out the numerous posts that showcase their efforts leading to efficacy.  It is now my honor to share some insights from a high school that has accomplished some equally impressive achievements in this area.

As a lead up to some long-term, job-embedded work with all schools in the Mount Olive Schools District in NJ, I had the honor of delivering a keynote to the entire staff on Learning Transformed.  After giving the message, I was able to visit with Kevin Stansberry, the High School Principal, and Susan Breton, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction.  Both of these leaders had been in the district for many years and were able to shed some insight as to where the high school was a decade ago and the innovative changes that had been implemented over the years since.  It was a fascinating story focusing on so many challenges that were in dire need of attention.  Quite frankly, that school resembled and functioned like virtually every other high school across the country. Then, changes were made. 

The prior superintendent, with overhwleming support from the Board of Education, was a genius when it came to finances and the budget.  Not only did Kevin and Susan emphasize this, but I saw it with my own eyes as I toured the building. More on what I saw in a bit. Through numerous revenue-generating programs and decisions, money began to flow into the facility and programs.  It is still flowing into the district today and I can’t wait to see how Robert Zywicki, the new superintendent and an innovative leader in his own right, leverage these financial resources to move the district even further. The premise of what was put in place is as simple as it is brilliant – put as many resources and opportunities into the hands of ALL kids to let them flourish.  

I was in awe by what I saw, and this says a lot as I spend so much time working in schools across the United States and the world.  Ove the past ten years Mount Olive High School has designed and built with relevant learning experiences and kids in mind.  As a parent, I would love for my kids to go there and I can’t even begin to imagine how proud the community is of what has been accomplished.  To give you some insight I will now share pictures of what I saw with some brief captions in an attempt to add context from a learning perspective.  

Professional TV studio

Science classrooms outfitted with dry-erase boards on the walls.

Giant-sized Scrabble board on a wall in the library for kids to play the game. 

Drunk-driving vehicle simulators that are used in PE/Health.

A room dedicated to a biological habitat focusing on numerous different ecosystems.  I loved seeing a giant tortoise that had free range of the entire room. Students use this room for turtle rehabilitation. How cool is that?

Marine robotics lab (M.A.T.E. - Marine Advanced Technology Education) where kids design and test their inventions in a large water tank purchased by the board of education. Not only do the kids develop robots that have received national acclaim, but they also create marketing and branding for their creations. I loved seeing the unique logo they designed for the class on the wall.

Robotics lab that has a machine (dual CnC mill and CnC plasma cutter) where kids create their own parts to either fix or build their robots.

Music studio that looks and feels like the real thing because it is.  I loved seeing all of the electric guitars that the Rock and Roll Academy class uses as well as all the periphery seating to accommodate performances. 

A makerspace, referred to as "The Mill" (The The Marauder Innovation Learning Lab), inspired by some of the most innovative company workspaces across the globe.  In addition to the space itself, resources for tinkering, inventing, creating, and making were available everywhere. One of my favorite rooms was the one that housed thirty-six 3D printers. The outside of the room also contained an inspirational slogan to motivate learners to think forward.

A seasonal, climate-controlled dome (Maurader Dome) is set up for physical education classes and athletics. You can't miss the large white bubble when you pull up to the campus.  It covers a large turf practice field during the colder months and then is taken down when the temperature warms.  From 6:00 PM on the facility is leased out to local organizations for use as a great revenue-generator. 

I cannot stress enough that leadership from every level made this transformation happen and epitomizes a shift from “yeah but” to “what if.” Central office administrators worked to make funds available using creative approaches that continually generate revenue outside the budget.  Kevin, as the building principal, worked with his assistants to develop a culture of risk-taking, support, and inclusiveness.  Every room we visited he made sure to state that what I saw is open to every student.  It was awesome speaking to teachers and hear how Kevin is always open to and supportive of their ideas, no matter how crazy. Finally, I was equally impressed with the teacher leadership. Their willingness to push the envelope and make learning relevant while challenging kids to think was apparent in all that I saw and the many conversations we had.

My job allows me to see first-hand how innovative practices, ideas, and strategies are being implemented with a high level of efficacy. My role is to share all of the awesome work they are doing, but also push and guide them down a path of continuous improvement. I can’t wait to return as a job-embedded coach when the kids are present with the goal of further scaling research and evidence-based practices.

We can learn a great deal from the successful outcomes at Mount Olive High School to empower other districts and systems to design and build schools that kids appreciate and want to attend. How have you worked to make your school(s) more kid-centric and what would you like to pursue? Please share in the comments below. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Are You a Critical Consumer?

Digital literacy is more important now than it has ever been.  The exponential evolution if the Internet and social media tools have allowed for the quick sharing of knowledge, ideas, images, videos, and opinions.  The result has been a double-edged sword.  In one respect everyone with a  smartphone has instant access to information at any time and from anywhere. I for one love the fact that I can get up to the minute news, sports scores, and weather in the palm of my hand. However, there is a downside that is beginning to plague society. We have seen an influx of misinformation, claims of “fake” news, inaccurate facts, distortion of the truth, broad claims, doctored results, and opinions with not much substance behind them.  Now more than ever we must not only teach our kids to be critical consumers of digital content, but we must also model the same. 

The education space is not immune to some of the prevalent issues and challenges described above.  This is not to say that amazing ideas and strategies aren’t being shared. In fact, I for one benefitted greatly as a principal when I learned about something shared on social media and then either implemented or adapted it in a way that bolstered the transformation efforts at my school.  Case in point.  As we explored moving towards Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) in 2010, I was able to glean powerful insights and evidence of efficacy from the Forsyth County School District in Georgia. The content they shared included policies, procedures, pedagogical techniques, and professional development, but more importantly, tangible improvement results.  Motivated and inspired I then began to seek out research and more examples of successful implementation that aligned with our goals while addressing specific challenges.

Going BYOD sounded like a great idea based on what I had either read or saw online. However, not everything I consumed addressed the realities we faced as a school. Some of were too “fluffy” or not practical.  It is important when reading a blog post or article to look beyond what in theory sounds good, but in practice might not lead to improvement.  Going beyond surface level opinions and ideas is really at the heart of critical consumption.  Since many of my queries when out through Twitter at the time that is how I received the majority of the information for consumption. As more and more tools and pathways have emerged to allow educators to share it is incumbent upon all of us to take a more in-depth look so that something isn’t done just for the sake of doing it or because it sounds really good.  
“Just because something sounds good on Twitter or looks good on Pinterest doesn’t mean it is an effective practice.”
The quote above has really helped ground my approach to what I consume and then ultimately use to improve professional practice.  It also extends well beyond social media to articles, books, keynotes, workshops, and presentations. We must acknowledge that with all of the great ideas and strategies there is an equal amount that just isn’t very good regardless of the hype surrounding them. By not good I mean that there will be difficulties in either implementing at scale or showing, not just talking about, better results.  To assist in taking a critical lens to what we see or hear consider the following questions:
  • Why is this idea or strategy good for my classroom, school, district, organization or professional growth?
  • How will it positively impact learners beyond just engagement?
  • Does it align to peer-reviewed research?
  • Is it realistic given culture, budgetary, demographic, socioeconomic, and facility challenges?
  • What qualitative and quantitative measures can be used as evidence to validate whether or not it is effective at improving outcomes? 
  • How can it be sustained and scaled?

Sharing will not and should not stop. Becoming a connected educator changed my entire trajectory thanks to what I was and continue to be able to glean from my Personal Learning Network (PLN) in addition an array of other means to get information discussed in this post. It is up to you to be a critical consumer to separate quality from what in theory seems like a great idea, but in practice won’t get the results that learners and educators are seeking. Sounding good just doesn’t cut it when the bold new world demands more from our learners.  

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Know Thyself

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” - Lao Tzu

Do you know who you are?  In one sense most of us respond with a resounding yes.  However, deep down many of us, including myself, are always questioning our purpose.  By the way, this is indeed ok.  Throughout our lives, we are continually discovering and reassessing who we are. Experiences, feedback, and the environment in which we live and work shape this process in a way that ultimately helps us to realize our strengths and weaknesses.  Taking all of this into account helps us come to the realization of why we are the way we are.  It is at this point that we must continually consider changes that can be made to better ourselves and those around us.  

Quote from Andrew Murphy/image credit

Herein lies my point.  How open to change are we really? The key, in my opinion, comes down to knowing thyself. So why is this so important?  Take this view from Annalisa Coliva:
Presumably, it means to know, first and foremost, one’s character and it is crucial because only by understanding one’s character can one be aware of one’s limitations and avoid likening oneself to the gods. But, more simply, it is only by knowing one’s character that one can try and improve from a moral point of view, or make the right decisions in one’s life.
In a world where people are seemingly always trying to figure out what makes others tick it might be prudent to reflect on the very nature of why we do what we do (or what we don’t).  Understanding our own drive and resistance to change goes a long way in helping others to embrace new and different ideas with the goal of improving practice.  Your ability to define who you are and how you will make decisions can help catapult you to a level of professional practice that will continually be grounded by your sense purpose. It is your prior experiences, roles, and the people that influence your work that will help to develop enough awareness to determine and define what truly matters.  Having a greater purpose than oneself becomes a catalyst for initiating needed change. 

Let the past inform your present.  We can learn a great deal by taking a critical lens to past mistakes and failures. These can teach us to make better choices now and in the future.

Dig deep to unearth your core values. Knowing what you stand for and why you believe in certain things will provide fantastic insight as to why you make the decisions you do.

Seek out, listen to, and gain perspective from the works of other educators, leaders, and authors. Hang out with people you know have developed a strong sense of self-awareness.

Don’t’ discount your fears. These manifest themselves in many ways and ultimately dictate your actions, which in turn impact everyone with whom you come in contact. By tackling your fears head on you will be more prone to make empowered choices.

Have an open mind when it comes to change as it is a constant.  Over time you will accumulate an array of experiences, which will color your perspective. Move beyond your comfort zone, take calculated risks, and expand your outlook.

Developing a better understanding of yourself is a never-ending journey, which will help you to better understand your strengths, weaknesses, fears, and aspirations.  If you want to help others either overcome or address these areas, then it makes perfect sense to do so ourselves. Only then will the stage be set to initiating meaningful change that sticks

Take some time to get to know yourself better.