Sunday, December 29, 2019

Top Posts of 2019

Well, another year of writing has passed, and it was a big one as 2019 marked ten years since I began my blogging journey. To still be churning out posts on a weekly basis is quite the accomplishment for a guy who never wrote nor intended to write for a public audience. For me, the push I needed came from Ken Royal, who, after hearing what we were doing at New Milford High School and then visiting, stated unequivocally that I had to share our story. Well, after begrudgingly agreeing to pen some guest posts for him, I built up my confidence and launched my blog in March of 2019. After that, the rest is history.

Blogging has certainly changed over the past ten years. Back in the day, a typical post would garner numerous comments. They would also serve as a catalyst for vibrant Twitter conversations. Another change has come in the form of developing unique topics or spins on what is already out in cyberspace. For me, in particular, I have experienced a great deal of difficulty trying to determine what I want to write about in that I want each piece to either add to existing conversations or be an entirely new take. Often ideas pop into my head when I am sleeping, and I immediately wake up to type them into a note file I have on my iPhone. However, the best ideas for blog posts I get come from coaching in schools. Here I get to experience firsthand how many of the ideas that are talked about on social media and at conferences are successfully implemented into practice.

Without further ado, here are my top posts of 2019.

The Pedagogy of Blended Learning

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. There should always a focus first and foremost on ensuring that sound pedagogical design serves as a foundation. In this post, I pull on extensive observations and work with schools to identify instructional strategies, essential elements, most successful models, and effective technology solutions that work to create pedagogically sound blended learning experiences.

The Problem with Zeros

To say that this post generated some buzz on Twitter would be quite the understatement. Punishing learners with zeros destroys both morale and a love of learning by digging a hole that many cannot recover from (nor do they have any aspirations to do so). They also create a mirage in terms of what was actually learned. If a grade does not reflect learning, then what’s the point? We owe it to our students to pave a better path forward. 

The Future of Work

Change is not only on our doorstep, but it is about to kick the darn door in. The future of work requires new skills, and it is up to K-12 education to lead the charge in this area. Skills are not enough, in my opinion. Yes, we want learners to have the requisite skills to meet the needs and demands inherent in the 4th Industrial Revolution. More importantly, it is our duty and the role of education to ensure that they are competent. Empowering our learners to think critically and solve real-world problems is paramount.

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

Keep it simple stupid. Are kids thinking? How are kids applying their thinking in relevant ways? This post explores how the Rigor Relevance Framework can be used as 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. 

Digital Leadership: Leading Change from Where You Are

Leading change is about identifying intended outcomes, applying an innovative lens, and arriving at outcomes in better, more effective ways no matter your position or title. The Pillars of Digital Leadership represents a framework for all educators to initiate and sustain innovative change that aligns with the core work that already serves as the foundation for every school or district learning culture. The premise is to do what we already do better by working smarter, not harder.

Here's to an amazing 2020 everyone. Thanks for all that you do for kids.  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Mitigating #EdTech Issues in the Classroom

With all the promise that educational technology holds, several pitfalls are always on the minds of educators. The top two issues that commonly come up in my talks with educators are the technology (Internet, hardware, devices, apps) not working or off-task behavior on the part of students.  While there are some serious challenges that can derail any lesson, there are some strategic ways to mitigate them ground in instructional design. Here are some of the most commonly implemented strategies, which I will describe in more detail in this post.
  • Classroom Management
  • Pedagogically sound lessons
  • Monitoring
  • Accountability for learning
  • Feedback
  • Assessment
Classroom Management

It is tough to argue the fact that many learners will quickly go off and remain off task if a classroom is not managed effectively. The key above all else is to build positive relationships with kids. One great way to do this is to co-construct rules with them as well as ramifications if they are not followed or broken. Addressing issues immediately as they arise, re-directing adverse behaviors, and utilizing positive reinforcement at opportune times all aid in creating a classroom conducive to learning.

Pedagogically Sound Lessons

If you are a reader of this blog, then you know that this is one area that I focus on extensively with my writing. Instructional design is one of the best deterrents to off-task behavior. If a student, or adult for that matter, is bored, then we better accept what might happen. It is critical to get kids so immersed in their learning that they don’t think about surfing the web aimlessly, texting their friends, or accessing social media. Sound pedagogy consists of effective instructional strategies that involve all learners, a focus on higher-order thinking skills, scaffolding techniques, construction of new knowledge, and relevant application of thinking. Mitigating edtech related issues rests on authentically engaging as many learners as possible.


If kids are given a task to complete on a device, whether independently, in cooperative groups, or as a part of many different blended learning models, sitting or standing in the same place in the front of the room might lead to unintended consequences. During situations like this is when I commonly observe kids focused on anything but the learning at hand. It is vital to move about the room to not only look at what is on a learner’s screen but to also be in a position to either re-direct any off-task behavior or provide needed guidance. 

Accountability for learning

When I say accountability, I am not talking about grades. I can go on and on about the fact that many grading practices are outdated, ineffective, and do not adequately reflect what a student has learned. What I am referring to are specific strategies that keep kids focused on the task at hand while ensuring that his or her part in the learning process is completed. Some ways to accomplish this include assigning equitable roles to each individual student in a cooperative group, handing in an assignment, developing performance tasks where a product is created, or using digital tools in a way where every student can report out using his/her real name.


Continuous feedback is essential on so many levels. It helps to justify a grade, establishes criteria for improvement, provides motivation for the next assessment, reinforces good work, and serves a catalyst for reflection. Blended learning strategies lend themselves to providing continuous feedback during class time, which in turn helps to keep kids on task. Keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be just a teacher to teacher pathway. Creating opportunities for learners to give each other peer feedback is just as valuable.


I would be remised if I didn’t include this strategy.  Assessment determines whether learning occurred, what learning occurred, and if the learning relates to stated targets, standards, and objectives. For many learners knowing that they will ultimately be assessed based on the activities and tasks they have engaged in increases attentive behavior. A variety of strategies beyond traditional tests can be used, such as performance-based activities, portfolios, and rubrics.

The reality is that no matter how well you implement the above strategies, the chances are that a few students might still go off task.  I am a realist. It is extremely challenging, no matter how great the lesson is, to engage each and every learner. What I do know is that the strategies listed above will help to mitigate common issues that arise when technology is utilized in the classroom. So, what did I miss? Please share any other successful strategies that you have successfully implemented.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Model What You Preach: Pedagogy at the Heart of Professional Learning

When I began speaking ten years ago, almost all of my keynotes and presentations consisted of me just speaking at the audience. I was still a high school principal and not a trained speaker and presenter. Thus, I basically just shared what my teachers and students were doing at New Milford High School (NJ) and the evidence that showed how our implementations of innovative ideas were improving student outcomes as well as teaching, learning, and leadership practices. Basically, I felt very comfortable delivering a lecture and talking at people for up to an hour and sometimes more. I even received validation and praise, which only led to me becoming even more comfortable with both my preparation and delivery.

My style remained unchanged for a few years until I began to receive excellent feedback, some of which was critical, that pushed me to rethink how I planned and organized my presentations. Part of this shift came when I started to facilitate workshops that consisted of anywhere from a half-day to multiple days. The bottom line is that I had to go back to my teacher roots and view the adults as learners in a classroom. If the expectation is for teachers and administrators to leave a learning experience with practical, ready to use strategies, then anyone who is leading the professional learning should incorporate a mix of modeling, hands-on activities, and performance tasks (i.e., developing assessments, creating an action plan, learning how to use edtech tools, etc.) in settings that emulate a classroom or school.

Now, I still enjoy the opportunity to keynote. Over the years, I have tried really hard to combine varying emotions, and evidence-based practices all weaved into a coherent story that leaves attendees with tangible action steps. However, this type of presentation doesn’t really emulate what we want to see take place in classrooms or online spaces. Its primary purpose is to articulate why we need to either rethink our practice or embrace new ideas. So, what am I trying to get at? The “why” gets people fired up, but the “how” actually empowers educators to transform their practice. The latter is where anyone who talks the talk relishes the opportunity to walk the walk in the form facilitating professional learning that is not only reflective of what educators in the trenches face.

It all comes down to the importance and power of modeling. When you think about the most impactful presentations and workshops, what they typically have in common is a facilitator who models to a certain extent the pedagogy, instructional strategies, and conditions that a teacher or administrator will experience. I try really hard to do this. For example, in virtually every workshop on digital pedagogy, I outline the following strategies that are tried and true:
  • Anticipatory set
  • Do-Now
  • Review of prior learning
  • Checking for understanding
  • Guided and independent practice
  • Monitoring
  • Application of learning
  • Assessment
  • Feedback
  • Closure
With all of the above items, I either model the practice or show a specific example from one of my former teachers or one of the many classrooms I work in as a coach. In other cases, I give the participants time to discuss and then use a digital tool to respond. With longer presentations and workshops, opportunities are provided to create lessons, activities, action plans, and assessments, or learn how to use specific technology resources. Learning happens with the right combination of content, instruction, time to apply to practice what has been learned, feedback, and reflection.

Recently I was facilitating a session that was set up as a cooperative learning activity using the jigsaw method, which is described below.
The jigsaw technique is a method of organizing classroom activity that makes students dependent on each other to succeed. It breaks everyone into groups and breaks assignments into pieces that the group assembles to complete the (jigsaw) puzzle. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle, each piece — each learner’s part — is essential for the completion and full understanding of the final product.
The participants were broken up into four different groups, where each had a specific task to complete. Roles were assigned within each group, a timeframe for completion was established, and accountability structures were put in place. For the latter, I used the tool Lino where each group was assigned a different colored digital Post-It in order to report on their responses to a specific question. The combination of sound pedagogy with the purposeful use of technology replicated what the teachers and students alike could experience in the classroom. Below you can see what the participants created.

Pedagogy should be at the heart of all professional learning, in my opinion. It is hard for some people to change if they don’t experience firsthand what the change looks and feels like. It is hard to accomplish the goal of transforming practice with just a keynote or breakout session. If you lead the learning regardless of your position, take the time to model what you believe in or preach. In the end, if we can’t do this, then maybe we shouldn’t be leading the learning after all.

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.  


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.