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.