Sunday, October 24, 2021

Alternative Learning: Supporting Our At-Promise Students

Long gone are the days that a one-size-fits-all education program could even be considered an effective option to meet the needs of every student.  While an array of successful strategies associated with more traditional methodologies still have value today, we need to rethink how and when they are used.  What happens in the classroom will always be of utmost importance, but specific programs need to be in place that serves the diverse needs of all students who are the most vulnerable. While a standardized classroom setting could be for some, others need more individualized supports. Students who find themselves receiving many detentions, suspensions, expulsions, or even incarcerations still deserve a quality education. Alternative learning programs provide the differentiated support and help for students who might have lost their way.

So why at-promise? As opposed to “at-risk,” “at-promise” promotes a more positive approach and has the potential to change the outcomes for the most vulnerable students. It encourages educators and other adults interacting with them to empower them and treat them as people with the promise to succeed. 

The concept of alternative learning is not new by any means. Back when I was principal, we created “Knight School” to serve those kids who were either having consistent discipline issues or just couldn’t get up in the morning.  The school within a school model was housed in the same building they would have attended but ran after school hours from 3:00 – 7:00 PM.  We built a budget for Knight School, hired certified teachers for each content area, secured a program coordinator, and built-in a slew of counseling and transition services.  Everything was tied to the same curriculum and standards needed for graduation but in a modified setting that included smaller class sizes. The goal was for these learners to graduate on time with their peers while not cutting any academic corners. In the end, it was quite successful. 

The motivation for this post came from my longitudinal work with the ALPSS program within the HIDOE.  It got me thinking about the many challenges both educators and students face, but sometimes the needed support isn’t there to assist both groups.  While each alternative learning program is unique, consider the following as you either look to create or improve one in your district.  These main components have been slightly adapted based on the ALPSS program. 

Innovative Environment and Pedagogy

Provision of an effective and supportive learning environment that enables participating at-promise learners to improve their academic performance to attain applicable performance standards and graduate from high school.  Flexibility in terms of the learning environment is pivotal, including start times, small group settings, unique classroom design, work-study options, and virtual coursework. In terms of pedagogy, personalized learning strategies and project-based learning should be emphasized. 

SEL

There are reasons that these learners have not experienced success in traditional education settings.  Alternative learning programs emphasize services and supports that help at-promise students develop appropriate social and emotional competencies.

Behavioral Supports

While focusing on SEL is a priority, so is establishing an array of structures that address and remedy behavior issues that impact academic success while working to create a safe learning environment.  Well-structured alternative learning programs use various counseling services, including intensive 1:1 and research-based classroom strategies such as Response to Intervention (RTI) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

Transition Services 

While graduation is the goal, so is ensuring that these students have the competence and tools to succeed in life. Curriculum and standards attainment doesn’t equate to real-world preparedness.  Transitional support services to at-promise students begin as they move to/from school to alternative learning programs and should continue as they graduate from high school to ensure college, career, and citizenship readiness. 

Family Engagement 

As the African proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Family engagement is an essential component of any alternative learning program.  At the cornerstone is effective communication, something I emphasized extensively in Digital Leadership.  This involves providing routine information and educating families on how the program works, having them involved in counseling sessions, and encouraging their children to take advantage of the opportunity to move past mistakes. 

Community Partnerships 

Resources and opportunities are critical to assist at-promise students with reaching their potential.  The local community can offer a wealth of assets, including internships, mentoring, guest speakers, field trips, jobs, and financial backing that will aid in helping these learners get on a path to success.  Here is where other aspects of digital leadership come into play beyond communications.  Taking control of public relations and creating a positive brand presence will go a long way to securing and building community partnerships.  

We all make mistakes. We don’t want these to define us, and the same can be said for the learners we serve. Certain students need educators more than we even know. As I stated in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, “All learners have greatness hidden inside of them. It’s the job of an educator to help them find and unleash that greatness.” Alternative learning programs provide the tools and supports needed to fulfill the promise of a quality education for all kids. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Efficacy in Professional Learning

There are countless ways to grow and improve. At the individual level, intrinsic motivation drives educators to actively seek opportunities that support their diverse learning interests and needs. Social media has played a considerable role in this area over the years, demonstrating the power of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) with learning anytime, anywhere, and with anyone.  Speaking from experience, I have significantly benefited from not only engaging in digital spaces but taking what I have learned and applying it to my practice, which I can readily show when asked or communicate through my blog. Being a lifelong learner in the digital age is quite empowering.

While PLNs have grown in popularity, the most popular form of professional learning embraced by schools and districts still consists of more traditional pathways, such as bringing in guest speakers, workshops, or holding annual events.  The investment in these options makes sense as variables such as time and cost can be absorbed through various funding sources while ensuring the entire staff is receives the training.  Professional development days, mostly packed into the beginning of the academic year, are still the preferred mode to support staff while adhering to specific mandates.  Everyone should be asking: Do these current pathways actually lead to changes in practice at scale?

I have written in the past about the need to move from professional development (PD) to professional learning.  Any investment made should lead to efficacy. While mandate-focused trainings do very little to inspire the masses, one-and-done and drive-by events likewise do very little to provide educators with strategies to effectively implement the ideas or show what they look like in practice. Inspiration packed into one day typically fades when reality sets in shortly after.  Motivation does matter, and I am all for keynote speakers or conference-like events as long as there is an underlying plan to ensure educators get what they need to succeed throughout the year. This is what leads to change—not a single person or standalone PD day.

Efficacy is about showing the impact of investments made in professional learning.  It can be broken down into two different categories: planning and implementation.  To set the stage for efficacy, we need to be cognizant of the rationale for why a particular initiative or strategy is being invested in and how it will benefit learners through improved outcomes.  


A solid professional learning plan is:

  • Research-aligned
  • Ongoing
  • Job-embedded

A plan is only as good as its implementation. In Digital Leadership, I shared a strategic planning process that can help set the stage for impactful professional learning.  The visual provides key guiding questions and essential elements to consider to help determine efficacy.  Now the challenge and opportunity are to make it happen. 

Effective implementation relies on:

  • Continuous feedback
  • Accountability for growth
  • Evidence of impact

Coaching is a critical component as it provides continual support for teachers and administrators while addressing all the essential planning and implementation components. The key is to remember that coaching alone will not lead to sustainable and scalable change. That requires each school or district to build in their own feedback and accountability measures while curating evidence to show impact over time in relation to improved learner outcomes, both qualitative and quantitative.

Recently I have been involved in several ongoing projects where districts have not only made the pertinent investments but have also integrated the planning and implementation components.  For example, I partnered with Jackson County School System in Georgia to work with all their school leaders over the summer on Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms.  Over the course of the year, I am on-site in the role of coach to provide ongoing and job-embedded feedback to show efficacy. While I saw many amazing examples of innovative practices at scale, I was very impressed with East Jackson Elementary School.  Through many classroom visits, I was able to see direct evidence of how the leadership team took personalized learning strategies that I presented over the summer, formulated a plan, and implemented them with fidelity. Below are a few examples. 




The same can be said for the Juab School District in Utah.  Well over a year ago, I facilitated a district-wide workshop on personalized learning, followed up with job-embedded coaching and targeted sessions.  Recently I was back again, visiting classrooms to provide feedback. There was so much growth, and I can’t begin to explain how proud I am of these teachers and administrators. Below are a few highlights.


It is essential to understand the underlying principles of effective professional learning. Whether you are a teacher or administrator, you must advocate for supports that will help you succeed. I always advise schools and districts to poll their staff and then develop a comprehensive plan that will lead to efficacy, either internally or with external help. An outside lens can overcome internal bias and provide an honest assessment of where you truly are while guiding you to your desired destination. No matter the path chosen, the key is to get it right. 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Seeking Out Feedback

Growth is a never-ending journey. While there is no one best way to get better at what we do, I think we can all agree that feedback is a necessity no matter the path taken. For it to impact practice, it should be practical, specific, timely, and facilitated in a positive fashion.  While we know how important feedback is to our growth, the question becomes how often do we receive it in some form?  I shared the following in a past post:

Feedback can be a catalyst for motivation, engagement, and finding answers to questions or problems. First and foremost, we must be open to it in some form. One way to move the needle is to seek it out from a variety of perspectives. 

If you are not receiving enough feedback to either spark or sustain your growth, how are you seek it out?  I can definitely improve in this area, and I really didn’t think about it much until an experience with Jackson County Schools in Georgia.  One of the site visits took us to East Jackson Comprehensive High School, where I observed one of the best math lessons ever.  In a nutshell, the teacher created a courtroom experience where students dove into the concepts in a relevant way. Various roles were assigned, such as jury members, prosecution, and defense, where the class used evidence to determine whether or not math problems were solved correctly. The teacher was thoroughly immersed in the lesson himself as the judge with a wig and all.  As part of my notes, I wrote that this was an experience students would remember for a very long time.

Even though the lesson was amazing, it was not the best part.  Near the end, the teacher took off his wig and, as a form of closure, asked the students for feedback to improve the activity in the future.  The responses were fantastic and included more challenging problems, finding ways to get the jury more involved during deliberation, and finding ways for all students to report out.  I couldn’t applaud enough the teacher’s willingness to be vulnerable coupled with a sincere desire to improve. To top it all off, this was also a great example of using student voice to personalize the learning experience without technology.

There are so many valuable lessons that each of us can take away from the teacher above related to effective teaching and learning, but also practical ways to seek out feedback and act on it routinely. Here are six ideas to consider:


  1. Seize every opportunity: Don’t wait for someone else to provide you with feedback. If you do, there is a chance you might be waiting for a while. 
  2. Listen intently: After asking for feedback, take in all that is provided to you. Make sure your body language clearly shows that you are paying attention and genuinely care about what is said. It goes without saying that being “present” is vital.
  3. Clarify points: After listening, verbalize what has been suggested to you while using questions to make sure that the points that have been made are clear. Doing so also shows that you were listening.
  4. Be appreciative: If you want honest feedback on a regular basis, people need to know you care. It is also essential to understand that sometimes providing ways to improve to a peer or superior in position isn’t easy for some to provide. By showing appreciation, it sets the stage for others to make efforts to seek you out to engage in feedback conversations instead of the other way around
  5. Write usable points down: You don’t have to agree with everything that is provided to you. Write everything down, process, and then reflect on what has value.
  6. Take action: The value of feedback lies in how it is used to grow and improve.  If it is given and nothing changes, then don’t be surprised if people stop providing it or, worse yet, turn to criticism.

Seeking out feedback is a simple act that anyone can engage in to grow. Always look to seize the moment. The real work begins once you use it to be the best iteration of yourself for those you serve.

 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Setting the Stage for Current and Future Learner Success

The traditional goal of any education system is to prepare students for either college or careers. Over the years, I would say that while this view still holds value, the context has changed dramatically.  The world has radically evolved as a result of constantly advancing technology and the COVID-19 pandemic.  With knowledge readily available and the means to seamlessly engage in digital spaces now the norm, educators need to keep pace and ensure that the strategies they use will serve learners well into the future. While this might seem like a monumental task, it is not as difficult as one might think. 

While preparation for college and careers might remain a focus, it is important to understand that there is no uniform recipe for success as this varies significantly between different learners.  Herein lies both a challenge and opportunity for educators.  As I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, our world needs students who have the competencies to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems. There are many different pathways to accomplish this goal that I discuss in detail in the book. However, a more holistic approach can be taken to set the stage for developing a learner’s ability to accomplish any aim or purpose they set out to achieve.

When designing lessons, projects, or assessments, consider whether or not they empower learners to:

  • Engage in problem-solving
  • Collaborate with peers
  • Think critically and creatively 
  • Communicate clearly and accurately 
  • Develop open-mindedness 
  • Make real-world applications
  • Reflect on learning
  • Analyze, reason, and evaluate

Setting the stage for learner success requires a commitment beyond just the people that have direct contact with students.  It is important to note that administrators play a crucial role in how they support their teachers with feedback on the elements listed above.  Pedagogical leadership can pave the way.

While the elements above are undoubtedly essential, it should be noted that not every lesson, assignment, or assessment will include all of these.  Hence the need to develop a system of norms that can be implemented routinely that will either directly address or set the stage for disruptive thinking.  Below is a checklist of sorts containing questions that can be used to reflect on daily practice and serve as a means for growth:


  • Rigor – How are all learners being challenged to think through scaffolded questions and tasks? Is the work that they engage in thoughtful and providing an opportunity for discourse and collaboration? 
  • Relevance – How are learners applying their thinking in meaningful and purposeful ways? Are they afforded the opportunity to leverage authentic resources and make interdisciplinary connections between various concepts?
  • Empowerment – Do learners own their experience in the classroom or school through personalized strategies that promote voice, choice, path, pace, and place? Are they able to access and use a variety of tools to construct new knowledge and demonstrate what they have learned? How has the learning environment changed to respond to individual strengths and weaknesses? 

Ensuring current and future learner success doesn’t rely on a technology tool or a passing fad.  It is achieved through a dynamic combination of strategies that future-proof learning for all kids so that they can thrive in a disruptive world.  Try not to overthink things. Even though the world will continue to change rapidly, you have the knowledge, tools, and mindset to equip kids and put them all on a path towards success.