Sunday, December 8, 2019

A Good Plan Requires Great Execution

When we think about change, more often than not, a plan is developed, implemented, and evaluated with the goal being improvement. The journey to improve is a process that requires various strategies that are aligned to a specific focus as outlined in a mission statement or vision document that describes the why. Most schools, districts, and organizations have both. The details on how to achieve both the mission and vision come to fruition in the form of desired goals and outcomes supported by specific measures and targets. The final piece to a good plan is the results. No matter how good a plan for change and improvement is, the proof is in the pudding. Here is where execution comes into play.



For the updated edition of Digital Leadership, I created the image above, which outlines the critical elements of a sound strategic plan. In a previous post, I focused on the essential questions as a means to ensure efficacy when time and resources are needed to get the change or improvement process going. While these are undoubtedly important, it is incumbent upon all involved to always think about how the plan will unfold in relation to mission, vision, goals, desired outcomes, and results. 

Mission and Vision

These two planning elements are often used interchangeably or mistaken for one another. Schools, districts, and organizations summarize their goals and objectives under the guise of each of these. Both of these serve different purposes but are often confused with each other. While a mission statement describes what the institution wants to do now, a vision statement outlines what they want to be in the future. Consider this from Glenn Smith:
Mission answers the question, “Why do we exist?” Vision answers the question, “What will the future look like as we fulfill our mission? What will be different?” While mission is about today, vision is about the future, what we will become.
The mission statement outlines the motivation for helping all learners succeed with their education. It provides a basis for how the resulting strategic plan will be developed and implemented. The mission provides the starting point of the journey while the vision adds clarity as to how to arrive at the preferred destination. Both are pretty much pointless without action.

Desired Outcomes and Goals

The plan is all about meeting the unique and diverse needs of learners today, first and foremost. As society continues to change, so should our strategies that align with the vision and help make the mission a reality. Each desired outcome and goal provide a building block to help transform your school or district in a way that best prepares learners now and in the future. The University of Kansas outlines three types of objectives that can be referenced to develop outcomes and goals:

  1. Process - These provide the groundwork or implementation necessary to achieve everything specified in the plan.
  2. Behavioral - These look at changing the behaviors of people (what they are doing and saying) and the products (or results) of their behaviors.
  3. Community-level outcomes - These are often the product or result of behavior change in many people. They are focused on change at the school or district level instead of on an individual level.

The concept of a Return on Instruction (ROI) and the innovative change process can significantly assist in the development of desired outcomes and goals. Once established, following the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timed) protocol will go a long way to ensuring success.

Measures and Targets

The only way to determine if outcomes and goals have been achieved is through the development of specific criteria by which to measure and analyze progress. After these are in place, accountability structures have to be aligned to each. If not, then the chances of success in terms of scalable improvement diminish. How you hold yourself or others in the case of schools and districts accountable for meeting determined measures and targets are not for me or other outsiders to dictate. However, executing any plan in a way that leads to efficacy requires this commitment.  

Results

Success doesn’t come by way of just words, but instead through actions that lead to tangible results. While talk gets the mission, vision, goals, desired outcomes, measures, and targets in place, it’s the qualitative and quantitative evidence that will determine if the plan is a success or not. Great execution of a plan might never achieve the exact results you had hoped for. The key, however, is to determine if they can clearly show in some way that the mission and vision have become a reality.

As the plan is constructed and the time nears for execution consider the following to stay on track:

  • Clear expectations and communication are vital.
  • Consensus is important.
  • Benchmarks help pave the way.
  • Accountability is the glue that holds everything together.
  • Results either articulate success or provide an opportunity to reflect and start anew.

Planning for change takes time. Executing a plan takes even more time. In both cases, patience, diligence, and commitment will be necessary. A good plan becomes great when it is executed in a manner that leads to evidence that the mission and vision are more than just words, but reality.


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Vet What You Buy

Teaching is tough. It might very well be one of the most challenging jobs on the planet when you consider the time that is put in both in and out of school. I, for one, would spend hours planning and grading in the evening, at night, and on weekends. The workload might have been exhausting, but I never second-guessed my career choice. As the years have passed, it seems like expectations and workload of teachers keeps increasing. What has resulted is a pursuit of ways to work smarter, not harder, while still improving outcomes for all learners. In the schools I have the honor of coaching in, I see more and more evidence of co-planning and sharing of resources both within the school and across the district as a means to lessen the load. I also see plenty of investments in materials from Teachers Pay Teachers. Herein lies the point of this post.

Let me be extremely clear. I am all for teachers selling lesson plans, assessments, support materials, and other resources to their peers. Pay for those who dedicate their lives to other people’s kids is totally inadequate not only in the United States but in other countries as well. I also feel that if the purchasing of quality resources can help lessen the burden of a teacher, then go for it. If something an educator created is pedagogically-sound, then, by all means, let’s get it in the hands of as many teachers as possible while making some cash in the process. Now here comes the rub. It is incumbent upon both teachers and administrators to ensure that what is being purchased and used with kids is actually good.



Now I am not saying there aren’t sound resources available on the site. However, I do question a great deal of what I see being used in classrooms across the country. Quite frankly, it’s not very good. Here is where educators have to be critical observers and consumers when something is purchased to support or enhance the curriculum in the classroom. Below you will see one of many examples that fall into the category of a resource that is not pedagogically sound. The assumption was that it was a rubric. You be the judge as to whether or not this is a quality resource that clearly conveys to the student or teacher what was learned.





When you think about a rubric, there have to be clear indicators as to what the student was able to demonstrate on their way to master a concept or standard. Let’s take a minute to process what a rubric really is and the role that it plays in assessment:
Rubrics are explicit schemes for classifying products or behaviors into categories that vary along a continuum. They can be used to classify virtually any product or behavior, such as essays, research reports, portfolios, works of art, recitals, oral presentations, performances, and group activities. Judgments can be self-assessments by students, or judgments can be made by others, such as faculty, other students, or field-work supervisors. Rubrics can be used to provide formative feedback to students, to grade students, and/or to assess programs.
There are no such categories in the example above, just the arbitrary awarding of points with no succinct rhyme or reasons. For example, what are the success criteria that justify the score? How does the number for each item or total score reflect what a student has really learned? Where is the connection to the standard(s) or concept? To put it bluntly, this is not a rubric, should not be advertised as such, and does not represent a pedagogically-sound way to assess students. Hence, the question must be raised as to why it was not only purchased but also used in numerous classrooms. In addition to “rubrics,” I also see a lot of worksheets. Again, I don’t have a problem with this. The issue arises when all, or the majority of the questions, are multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (i.e., recall, knowledge).

I have said my piece and will now provide a practical course forward. The burden of responsibility doesn’t just fall on teachers and administrators where purchased resources are used in class, but even more so on the creator and seller. Buyers need to vet what they purchase to make sure it is a quality resource. Creators need to be cognizant of what they put up for sale. In both cases, the litmus test should be whether or not the resource type (and there are tons of options) aligns with good pedagogy, what the research says about effective teaching and learning, and sound instructional design.

My post doesn’t just refer to just sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, but also a wide range of materials from a variety of sources. To assist with the vetting process, I suggest you take a look at the Digital Instructional Materials: Acquisitions Policies for States site from SETDA. Here you will find so many resources that can be used to make the best decision and help ensure that you get your bang for your buck.

In the end, it is incumbent upon all educators to vet what they plan to buy (or use if it is a free resource), as we owe this to our learners.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Stages of Innovative Change

Change isn't coming as it is already on our doorstep. Granted, this has been the case for thousands of years thanks to either discoveries such as fire and cultivated crops or inventions that led to the creation of electricity, manufacturing, and expeditious travel. No organization or system in any field is impervious to this fact when one looks at a myriad of disruptive forces at play in society. In the case of education, the choice is to either adapt or evolve in ways that lead to improved outcomes aligned to teaching, learning, and leadership. Just because something worked in the past doesn't necessarily mean it is still an effective strategy now.

The desire or imperative to change depends on a combination of perspective, culture, and achievement. Neither is more important than the other, in my opinion, but all are informed in some way or another by results. Hence the pursuit of innovative practices to usher in needed change. More often than not, there is a will to innovate through the pursuit of new and different practices that aim to improve what our learners and we do inherent in our respective position. Just because we try something different doesn't mean that we or the practice is actually innovative. This is proven or disproven by a tangible result in the form of qualitative or quantitative evidence. To debate this fact takes away from the real power that innovation can have in education.

Now let's focus more on the process of innovative change. It begins with one person and his or her actions to move the needle on a specific practice. As I always say, don't expect others to do what you have not or have been unwilling to do yourself. Now don't get me wrong, this is a fantastic and needed start. However, change in the context of an entire school, district, organization, or system relies on moving the masses so that all learners, staff, or stakeholders benefit. Herein lies both the challenge and the opportunity inherent in the process. In Digital Leadership (2nd Edition), I provided the following image that highlights six common stages that schools work through in order to successfully implement innovative change that impacts the entire culture.





Status Quo

The rationale that leads to both a conversation and a need for change begins here. It is here where the most dangerous phrase in education typically rears its ugly head – That's the way we have always done it (TTWWADI). What results is either a sense of comfort (i.e., high test scores) or fear (what if we try something different and it doesn't work). In both cases, the pursuit of innovative practices either stops or never even begins. Acknowledging that the status quo is holding your system back and that something has to be done differently to improve outcomes gets the ball rolling.

Struggle

News flash – many people don't like change as the status quo presents cover from failure. With any new idea or strategy, there will always be a sense of personal and collaborative struggle. It's the latter that the majority of our energy has to focus on. Moving towards systematic transformation requires an understanding that the journey is rarely easy and seamless. The struggle is also defined by what seems like never-ending challenges such as time, money, support, infrastructure, inadequate professional learning, mindset, and colleagues who fill either the role of antagonist or naysayer. The struggle is real people, and to scale change, you must be prepared upfront.

Dissonance

The stage is characterized by a lack of agreement typically defined by inconsistencies between the beliefs one holds or between one's actions and one's beliefs. Dwight Mihalicz provides this great synopsis on the importance of this stage.
Discord is all around us. And conflict in organizations is nothing new. Why is conflict so pervasive in most organizations, to the extent that some organizations are dysfunctional by any definition? And yet employees tolerate the conditions. This has to do with the concept of dissonance. Dissonance has less to do with conflict and more to do with understanding how and when conflict incites change, and what needs to take place for change to happen seamlessly. 
Dissonance only comes into play when the system breaks down unpredictably and doesn't work. In this state, people are no longer willing to put up with it because there is now unpredictability with results causing discomfort, prompting the desire to change.
The main takeaway here is to embrace dissonance and use it as the fuel for innovative ideas.

Innovative Idea(s)

The foundation is now set for the stage where an innovative idea or strategy can be discussed, implemented, sustained, and evaluated for success based on a tangible result. When developing or presenting an innovative idea, keep these questions in mind:

  • Why will it improve what you or your learners do as well as the culture? 
  • How do you (or will) know it has led to an improvement? 
  • How do others determine if it has led to an improvement? 
  • What is needed to scale the effort(s)? 

Assimilation

In this stage, the innovative idea becomes absorbed into the very fabric of a school or district's cultural DNA. It isn't about one educator, classroom, or isolated practice. The idea takes form and is both embraced and implemented at scale. The key point here is while it is great to experience success at the individual level, real change that impacts the majority is assimilated across all aspects of teaching, learning, and leadership.

New Status Quo

The final stage is what the end goal of any innovative change effort should be, and that is the creation of a new status quo. It is at this point where you can hear and see through multifaceted evidence that new and different has actually led to a better result. What this ultimately looks and feels like will vary from school to school or system to system, but the fact remains that the change effort has been embraced and sustained.   

Innovation is a collective endeavor geared at not only individual but, more importantly, system improvement.  Research can be used to inform and influence the process but does not need to drive it. What is important is to show how innovative practices can, and will, improve our work.  Evidence that illustrates efficacy helps move innovation from an isolated practice focusing on small pockets to scalable change that impacts an entire culture. Start small, but think and plan for big while referring to the stages presented above. 

Innovate with a purpose, but make sure the venture extends well beyond an individual level. In the end, it's not about how much you innovate in education, but the resulting impact of the changes on the collective. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Great Leaders Embrace Multiple Styles

We have all heard the saying don’t put all your eggs in one basket. It represents a sound piece of advice for any leader, especially in the field of education.  The reason being is that a person in a position of power or influence should not concentrate all efforts in one area since initiating and sustaining change requires a dynamic mashup of strategies. The bottom line here is that if all of your resources and energy focus on just one thing, the chances of empowering the masses to embrace new ways of thinking or initiatives will be severely hampered.

As styles go, they are numerous, and in many cases, we, or others, often place us in one or another. This can be both good or bad, depending on perspective. Different people respond to different styles. What works for one might not for another and vice versa. Hence the imperative not to conform to one specific style. This is not to say that a leader can’t or shouldn’t excel in a particular style. However, a convergence of styles separates generalists from specialists when it comes to leadership. In terms of the successful implementation of innovative ideas, those who embrace a more general mindset get better results. Consider this perspective from Ideas for Leaders:
The core reason that generalists inspire and create greater innovation is their courage to make mistakes; this courage, in turn, is explained by the knowledge that they have skills that can be applied elsewhere. This is a major advantage for generalists. Innovation is risky. An additional factor contributing to the innovation success of generalists is that they have a perspective that allows them to look beyond assumptions and ‘think outside the box.’ As a result, the innovation they push is original and impactful.



Below are some common styles prevalent in leadership today.

Managerial

Whether we like it or not, management plays a pivotal role in leadership. Mark Miller provides this insight:
Great leaders ultimately must rely on a holistic approach to leadership—they must be both a visionary and a manager. They must know the strategy and the big-picture and know how to put it to work and ensure it gets done. They must inspire and connect to people individually. Great leaders are managers because they understand the specific ways that work needs to get done to be efficient and effective. Great managers are leaders because they take the tasks that need to get done and know how their talents fit and, more importantly, how to bring out the talents of others to gain even greater results.
Managing might not be flashy, but it certainly helps achieve results. Important aspects include establishing rules, meeting goals, having efficient operations, improving performance, setting priorities, and executing the strategic plan.  The truth is the best leaders and managers are interchangeable. Too often, however, people are one or the other. These leaders will miss vital tasks that ultimately drive team success.

Instructional

Successful schools and districts have leaders who prioritize instructional strategies that lead to improved learning outcomes. They possess keen insight and knowledge on both traditional and innovative pedagogical techniques that empower learners to think critically, construct new knowledge, and apply what has been learned in a variety of ways.  Instructional leaders roll up their sleeves and make the time to get into the trenches. Getting in classrooms and providing timely feedback to teachers is prioritized. Additionally, they engage in ongoing learning conversations with fellow administrators while seeking out the best professional development opportunities for staff.

Inspirational

Virtually everyone either wants or likes to work with a leader who inspires. These people not only help to establish a shared vision and plan for action but more importantly, they create an environment that motivates and empowers people to be their best.  Inspiring leaders take this a step further by demonstrating passion and commitment to the implementation of all aspects of the vision and resulting strategic plan for improvement. He or she talks the talk, walks the walk, and motivates everyone else to do the same. Eric Garton provides this take:
Inspiring leaders are those who use their unique combination of strengths to motivate individuals and teams to take on bold missions – and hold them accountable for results. And they unlock higher performance through empowerment, not command and control. Leaders who both inspire people and generate results find ways to constructively disrupt established behaviors to help employees break out of culture-weakening routines.
In the end, it is actions that ultimately inspire, not pie in the sky, and fluffy talk.

Transformational

Transformational leadership is based on a theory where a leader works with teams of educators to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through innovative ideas, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a school, district, or organization. It is a collaborative responsibility for taking action to reach future-oriented goals while meeting the intellectual, emotional, and physical needs of each student. Transformational leaders consistently make observations, listen intently, leverage a growth mindset, and, most importantly, take action to improve the organization.


Great leaders don’t pigeonhole themselves into one specific style. They openly embrace the benefits and rewards of being a generalist through convergence. In the end, leadership is not about telling people what to do but instead taking them where they need to be. It is challenging to accomplish this goal if all of the eggs are placed in the same basket.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

How to Improve Checks for Understanding

A great deal of time is spent developing and providing feedback on lessons with the goal being student learning. Regardless of the terminology that is used, virtually every plan follows a format to help achieve this outcome. As I have discussed previously, the anticipatory set at the beginning and closure at the end are critical strategies that can assist any teacher or administrator in determining the efficacy of a lesson. More importantly, both serve the needs of learners in terms of overreaching purpose. As much as these elements are critical to effective instructional design, what’s more vital are continuous checks to determine if students understand.



Checking for understanding consists of specific points during the lesson or task when the teacher checks to see if the students understand the concept or steps and how to enact them to achieve the target. It clarifies the purpose of the learning, can be leveraged as a mechanism for feedback and can provide valuable information that can be used to modify the lesson. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey offer the following thoughts on why this strategy is pivotal to lesson success:
Checking for understanding is an important step in the teaching and learning process. The background knowledge that students bring into the classroom influences how they understand the material you share and the lessons or learning opportunities you provide. Unless you check for understanding, it is difficult to know exactly what students are getting out of the lesson. In fact, checking for understanding is part of a formative assessment system in which teachers identify learning goals, provide students feedback, and then plan instruction based on students' errors and misconceptions. Hattie and Timperley (2007) identified these phases as feed-up, feedback, and feed-forward. Note that checking for understanding is an important link between feed-up and the feedback students receive as well as the future lessons teachers plan.
Why does checking for understanding matter so much? Consider this from Dylan William:
"Does the teacher find out whether students have understood something when they [students] are still in the class, when there is time to do something about it?" 
Now let's talk about some sound strategies. Formative assessment at the end of the lesson is a no-brainer. This can be incorporated as a part of a closure, monitoring during cooperative learning or individual work, independent practice (worksheet questions, problem-set, writing task), or through the use of technology. One of my favorite edtech tools to accomplish this, where higher levels of thinking can be measured, is Formative. While all of these are great options to determine whether or not learning has occurred by the end of a class, I want to focus on some simple and easy to implement ideas that can help check for understanding throughout a lesson.

Questions, questions, and more questions are a rule of thumb. Asking, working with, and answering questions is at the heart of facilitating learning. Learning must be an active process. Asking a question is an action. In my role as I coach, I almost always see teachers asking questions. The key here, though, is to make sure that they are focused not just on the recall of knowledge and facts, but whether kids genuinely understand the concept being addressed. 


Posing verbal questions to students throughout a lesson goes without saying and should be done consistently. Some students will raise their hands while others will be randomly called upon. In other cases, a few might be selected to go to the board and solve problems while the others watch. However, how does one know if all the kids actually understand? Below are three easy to implement strategies to improve checks for understanding in ways that ensure all kids have the opportunity to respond to verbal questions:

  • Provide each student with access to an individual dry-erase whiteboard to respond.
  • Purchase desks or tables that have a dry-erase surface
  • Use available technology. Some of my favorite tools include Pear Deck, Nearpod, and Padlet, where the teacher can see each individual student's response. They also cater to the answering or open-ended questions.  Then there are game-based options such as Kahoot, Quizizz, QuizWhizzer, and Gimkit. Other tools such as Menitmeter and AnswerGarden, allow for whole-class participation in a more informal manner. If there is not equitable access to technology, then Plickers is your best bet.  

The above strategies represent three practical options to improve checks for understanding that involve all learners. Therein lies the key point of this post. All means all. 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Insecure Leaders Point Blame Everywhere but Themselves

There are many opinions as to what constitutes effective leadership, something that I have written about extensively over the years. However, my perspective is just from one lens. I often pose a question on what is it that great leaders do in the workshops I facilitate, and many consistent characteristics emerge. Some of the top responses where there is consensus include communicate, listen, innovate, have a vision, risk-taking, and focus on relationships. It is tough to argue that any of these are not necessary when it comes to successfully implementing change. Success, however, lies in a leader's confidence and execution to move people where they need to be through empowerment.

Great leaders who empower those they work with are confident. Poor ones are insecure. Lolly Daskal wrote a fascinating article highlighting the characteristics that embody the insecure leader. She identified the following seven characteristics:
  • Shying away from challenges
  • Positioning yourself to look good
  • Aversion to helping others grow
  • Disrespect for others
  • Being a know-it-all
  • Staying behind a closed door
  • Refusing to handle conflicts


After reading the article, I reflected on a story that an educator recently shared with me. The gist of it was about a statement that was made by his principal, where a shot was taken at the predecessor. During a meeting with the staff to open up the new school year a statement was made something to this effect (disclosure – I am not using the real name), "I am not going to throw many things up against the wall like Mr. Smith did and see what sticks." Not a very motivational way to open up the school year, in my opinion. What was more troubling was how the statement made the educator and his colleagues feel as the consensus was that the statement portrayed the principal's lack of ability to implement his own agenda. Comments like this that either place blame or undermine previous administrators bring to light leadership insecurities.

A confident leader would not have made a statement like that. The story above falls into the know-it-all and disrespect category. Here are som of Daskal's thoughts.
Insecure leaders are petrified of coming across as insignificant or incompetent, so they overcompensate by pretending they know it all. They rarely ask questions--and when they do, they almost never wait for the answer.

When you're insecure, you work hard to gain respect for yourself--sometimes even by belittling others to put yourself ahead. If you feel inadequate, disrespecting others can help elevate your own status. 
The bottom line here is that insecure leaders point blame everywhere but themselves. If change doesn't stick or is not embraced by staff, the insecure leader then passes the blame to others both internally and externally.  Needless to say, this is not healthy for school culture. How a leader deals with a lack of confidence speaks volumes about his or her ability to inspire, motivate, and empower staff as well as to lead sustainable change. There are practical ways to build confidence. The Vantage Consulting blog highlights the following dispositions that leaders should practice to accomplish a confidence boost:

  • Courage
  • Humility
  • Teachableness
  • Clarity
  • Engaging conflict
  • Being a facilitator of others' success 


When it is all said and done, the buck stops with the leader. Confident leaders help to build the confidence of the staff. When times get tough, it's easy to point the blame elsewhere. Real leaders own their culture, for better or for worse. If it is the latter, then they take the needed actions to get the ship right.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Don't Forget Closure

There are many pedagogical techniques that run the gambit when it comes to instruction and learning. In a previous post, I discussed the importance of opening lessons with a bang, using an anticipatory set. Whether you call it a set, hook, or bell ringer is not the issue. What is, though, is the value the strategy has as part of a comprehensive lesson. Here’s why:
The anticipatory set is used to prepare learners for the lesson or task by setting their minds for instruction or learning. This is achieved by asking a question, adding a relevant context, or making statements to pique interest, create mental images, review information, and initiate the learning process. A good do-now activity can accomplish this.
While the opening moments with students are crucial, so are the final minutes. Think about this for a second. What’s the point of an objective or learning target, whether stated, on the board, or students have the opportunity to later discover for themselves, if there is no opportunity at the end to determine if it was met or reflected upon? Closure matters, yet virtually every lesson I observe in schools across the country are missing the crucial component. Here’s why. Learning increases when lessons are concluded in a manner that helps students organize and remember the point of the lesson. Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the lesson, allows students to practice what is learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback, review, and reflective thinking.



Kathy Ganske provides this take.
As in a puzzle, an effective lesson has many pieces that must fit together. We typically give considerable thought to how we initiate lessons: activate or build background knowledge, teach essential vocabulary, engage learners, and set a purpose for the lesson. And we carefully select tasks or activities and texts for use during the lesson. But closure is often given short shrift or omitted entirely. We need to be sure we plan time to cycle back to the what, why, and how of students’ learning to help them actively synthesize the parts into a whole. Lesson closure provides space for students to digest and assimilate their learning and to realize why it all matters. Closure is a component of planning and teaching that we can't afford to leave out.
A Google search will turn up a slew of ideas on how to close lessons. I prefer to keep it simple. First, make sure it is planned for and that at least three to five minutes are set-aside at the end of every period or block. Second, consider the following questions that students should answer or reflect upon in relation to the objective or learning target.

  • What exactly did I learn?
  • Why did we learn this?
  • How will I use what was learned today outside of school, and how does it connect to the real world?

Whether exit tickets, journals, whiteboards, or technology are used doesn’t really matter. What does is that closure is prioritized.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Blueprint for a Great Story

Storytelling has quickly become a vital leadership tool in the digital age, something that I have written extensively about in Digital Leadership. Social media and a variety of other technologies allow for the mash-up of text, hyperlinks, audio, images, and video to craft compelling narratives that showcase all that is great in education. The tools we now have available allow for the creation of supercharged stories that can be shared with a vast audience near and far. For these reasons, it is crucial for educators to become the storyteller-in-chief to not only share but, more importantly, to celebrate the work that is done in schools across the globe.

So, what makes a great story? There are many pieces of advice out there that one can peruse through a Google search. However, I believe the image below captures the essence of what not only makes a good story but one that also effectively conveys a powerful message that caters to your stakeholders or a specific group you are targeting.


Let’s take a look at each of these elements that together create a blueprint for a great story.

Audience

It is essential to know for whom you are writing. Depending on your position, this will vary, of course. I like this point from Crystaline Randazzo:
But the truth is you have to give people the kind of content they want in order to keep their attention. And in order to give them what they want, you need to get to know them better. Once you start giving your target audience content they want, they are more inclined to engage with your other content.
Knowing what your audience cares about or is interested in is key, but it is equally as important to listen and understand what they want to hear and how they want to engage in the story. The act of listening will allow you to create a message that has more meaning. Consider their goals and priorities, not just yours. Doing some research on who you are trying to reach and why will also go a long way to crafting an impactful story.

Subtlety 

How you tell a story will make or break it. No one likes bragging — even those who humblebrag stick out like a sore thumb. The key to a great story in education is to make sure the message resonates in a way that doesn’t turn the audience off. To avoid this, make sure you follow the golden rule, which is “show, not tell” from multiple perspectives. Subtleness creates the conditions for more two-way dialogue

Inspiration

It goes without saying that for a story to be remembered and have an impact, it should be inspirational. Tapping into emotions is part art and part science that dramatically impacts not only a connection to the message but also more of a willingness to share it. An article in Scientific American sums it up nicely:
Stories stimulating positive emotions are more widely shared than those eliciting negative feelings, and content that produces greater emotional arousal (making your heart race) is more likely to go viral. This means that content that makes readers or viewers feel a positive emotion like awe or wonder is more likely to take off online than content that makes people feel sad or angry.
Truth

It is easy in today’s digital world to vet anything, including the content, ideas, points, and strategies inherent in any story. Honesty is a virtue, and a lack thereof will discredit both the message and the person conveying it. In other cases, many stories in education just share a positive outcome or point. While this definitely caters to a particular audience, being truthful about the journey and the challenges that are overcome along the will only strengthen the narrative. Substance and results matter in education, and stories should convey as much. 

Promise

In BrandED, we discuss the importance of delivering on a promise to those we serve, most notably our learners. We define this as a compelling core connection to the value educators, school, or district guarantees to their community.  It’s about benefits, not features, that have a unique value and that work to develop pivotal connections with your target audience. So, what does this really mean? Below is an excellent synopsis from Emotive Brand that I have edited slightly:
A contemporary promise articulates an idea that goes beyond the rational benefits that worked in the past and extols a higher-order emotional reward. It’s not a slogan, logo, or headline. It is not, by definition, a public statement (though it can be as long as you and the work truly live up to it). Indeed, its uniqueness and differentiating power comes not from what it says, but how it transforms the way you or your school creates strong and meaningful connections with people.
What the above statement conveys is the blueprint of a great story and how the promise establishes and sustains relationships. The best way to integrate this is to dive into your vision and think about how you can combine mission, goals, personality, values, and results in a deliverable story for stakeholders. 

As you begin to embrace or improve in your role as storyteller-in-chief, I hope this blueprint helps. In the words of the America Press Institute:
A good story is about something the audience decides is interesting or important. A great story often does both by using storytelling to make important news, information, ideas, and events interesting. A good story, however, does more than inform or amplify. It adds value to the topic.
You build relationships by making good stories great. 

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 

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
Empathy
Selflessness
Trust

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?