Sunday, December 27, 2020

Top Posts of 2020

The year began like any other. From a blogging perspective, I kicked it off with a post on what could be as a means to pump up educators as they continued to move towards embracing innovative strategies and ideas.  In my opinion, January always represents an excellent opportunity to try something new. Personalized learning quickly became a focus area based on impressive outcomes from some of the schools I had been working within in an on-going and job-embedded fashion. It is always an honor to share the incredible work of educators in the field. Other pieces included topics that I traditionally cover but with new angles such as pedagogy, change leadership, and school culture.

Everything changed in March, not just for me, but the entire world.  The COVID-19 pandemic began to spread like wildfire across the globe. I vividly remember being on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when everything seemed to go downhill overnight.  Schools closed their physical buildings and shifted to remote learning as lockdowns went into effect worldwide.  My reaction was to take a break from vacation and churn out a blog post focusing on resources that educators could use right away. This happened on March 12, 2020. 

Who would have thought that nine months later, the pandemic would still have its tight grip on society? A powerful reminder and lesson, depending on how you look at things, came out of this mess. Even though educators were (and still are in many cases) flying the plane while building it, we learned that a virus could not stop their commitment to kids. If you get a chance to thank an educator today (or any day for that matter), please do. They are working their tails off and performing miracles in many cases. Their pay does not align with the effort, time, and stress they are dealing with during this pandemic. We are in their debt.

From March on, my blog posts focused on practical strategies in the areas of remote learning, hybrid models, and leadership in uncertain times. They were some of my most read pieces ever! What I learned was that educators were craving useable ideas aligned to the current reality. I used this time to learn and grow myself as I had to both adapt and evolve to improve as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and coach. You need to practice what you preach if it is going to have real value in today’s world, and I worked hard to do just that to better meet the needs of those reading my blog.

Without further ado, here are my most popular posts of 2020 in no particular order. Instead of sharing a summary of each, I have decided to include the unique image that was developed to accompany the content. 

A Pedagogical Framework for Managing Face-to-Face and Remote Learners at the Same Time

Strategies to Foster Discourse and Collaboration in Remote Learning Environments

Moving to a Hybrid Learning Model

10 Remote Learning Practices to Avoid

8 Non-Digital Remote Learning Ideas

In the face of adversity, resilient educators stepped up like never before. For this, we owe them our gratitude and heartfelt thanks.  Some valuable lessons were also learned along the way, with the main one being that the future is bright for education. The pandemic taught us all that needed change can happen more quickly than thought. In 2021 we need to use these lessons to drive systemic change.  

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Challenges Create Opportunities

 "Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful." - Joshua J. Marine

I love working with educators. Even though I am often the facilitator of learning, I always seek out opportunities to put myself into the shoes of those doing the day-to-day work and then use this as an opportunity to reflect on my practice. The other day I was working with Davis Schools in Utah on a hybrid learning model where educators would be teaching face-to-face and remote learners at the same time. My partner in crime was Belinda Kuck, who is the Director of Teaching and Learning. We have been working closely over the years on personalized learning support for teachers and administrators in the district. I learn so much from her every time we chat.

The premise of the work we kicked off was helping educators and districts manage time and utilize effective pedagogy during these challenging times. It is essential to recognize the fact that a hybrid model was never intended for K-12 education. Thus, providing support in the form of professional learning is something that all districts and schools should be investing in, whether internally or externally. Belinda began each session with an overview of the pilot program where educators would receive both a technology package (digital camera, laptop, microphone, tripod) and on-going professional learning from the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) facilitated by yours truly. The best part of this was how she told the educators that they would be empowered to provide feedback to the district on how to implement the hybrid model best. It's awesome when the voices and ideas of those doing the work are valued.

After the pilot program's premise was shared, there was one more piece that Belinda assigned before I rolled up my sleeves and got to work. She asked each person to share a "peach" and a "pit" from their experiences during the pandemic. At first, I wasn't really sure what she was trying to accomplish with this analogy, but there was some quick clarification. This was a good thing as I had visions of Beverly Hills 90210 in my head. For those of you who never indulged in this 90's classic, there was a restaurant called The Peach Pit that Brandon and the crew frequented. Don't judge me for enjoying the show.

The peach represented something sweet, such as a practice that evolved over the past couple of months. Many of the responses centered around integrating technology, utilizing Canvas more effectively, getting to know students better than in the past, and shifting to more personalized strategies.  The pit referred to hardships and challenges.  It wasn't surprising that there were more pit responses than sweet.  The most common challenges revolved around time, mental health, student engagement, and a learning curve when it came to the purposeful use of technology. 

After reflecting on the sessions, something dawned on me. If it weren't for the pit, we would never have the peach. As much as it can be an annoyance when we are enjoying eating the peach, the giant seed in the middle leads to the tree that will eventually bear the fruit. The point I am trying to make in all of this is that challenges, as much as they cause stress and anxiety, lead to opportunities to change for the better. In the face of adversity, educators have and continue to innovate in ways that will benefit learners for generations. It is vital to view challenges as the pit. When they are overcome, it will be such a sweet feeling and hopefully as satisfying as eating a peach. If you don't like eating peaches, then use this analogy with any fruit that has seeds.  Keep up the excellent work, everyone! 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Finding Balance in Today's Classroom

Balance has always been a challenge for teachers. I vividly remember this during my early years as a teacher. Each night I came home exhausted. Maybe the 45-minute commute had a little to do with it, but the main culprit was how I used available time in the classroom. Since I was not very open to risks and convinced that the most critical aspect of my job was to get through the curriculum, my sole focus was on direct instruction. Based on the feedback that I received during formal observations, the consensus was that I was pretty good at it. Nights and weekends were spent at the local office store getting transparencies made for the overhead projector, which was the primary technology tool at the time.

I thought I couldn’t live without the overhead projector and appreciated the fact that it limited my time using the chalkboard. No matter how hard I tried, I would always get chalk all over my sleeves. Then something magical happened in the early 2000s. The science department invested in mobile carts outfitted with television sets. Now, these weren’t your run of the mill flat screens as they hadn’t been invented yet. We were given lovely large box sets that were connected to our desktop computers. With the new tech technology in hand, my days of making transparencies were done, and the overhead projector was retired.  Now my time was spent creating PowerPoint presentations for direct instruction.

The short walk down memory lane reminds me of why I was exhausted during my beginning years of teaching. It took some self-reflection and honest feedback from my students to move away from being the sage on the stage and more of a facilitator of learning. Differentiated instruction and cooperative learning strategies became embedded in some form during each lesson. There was also an emphasis on moving to inquiry and project-based pedagogies. After all, I was a science teacher, and the fit was natural.  Direct instruction was still a component of most lessons, but it was now limited to no more than fifteen minutes.  When I shifted more responsibility to learners in class, a better balance was achieved, and I evolved into a more effective teacher.

I share this story because of what I have either seen or been told is happening in classrooms at this very moment. Advances in technology and the pandemic have placed a great deal of stress on teachers and schools, and the reaction has led to an imbalance in many cases. There has either been a reversion to mostly teacher-centered practices or an over-reliance on technology as a result of remote learning and hard to manage hybrid models. No one is at fault here. In these times, educators want to mitigate risk while keeping their sanity. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t broach the topic as I am frequently asked for feedback and ideas during coaching sessions.  

The key is to be reflective in terms of how the lesson is structured and how the time is used. If students are using tech or direct instruction is taking place 100% during the period or block, then there is both a need and opportunity to find some balance with other tasks or strategies.  Below are some ideas to balance out activities to ensure greater engagement and set the stage for empowerment through personalization.

  • Keep direct instruction or the mini-lesson between ten to fifteen minutes.
  • Use varied engagement strategies (click HERE for specific ideas).
  • Utilize digital breakout rooms for discourse and collaboration.
  • Add in movement and brain break activities.
  • Move to pedagogically-sound blended learning and provide a mix of tech and non-tech options.
  • Integrate asynchronous tasks (i.e., self-paced activities) when appropriate and provide individual or small group support to those learners who need the most help.
  • Seek out or ask for professional learning support on remote and hybrid pedagogy.
  • Use the flipped classroom approach and differentiate when you have all your learners live.

Please note that these are just ideas. Finding the right balance is a personal journey that considers available time, supports, and equity.  We can all agree that technology allows kids to learn in ways we could never have imagined. However, in times like this, it should not become a crutch. Its role during the pandemic is the same as prior, and that is as a means to support and enhance learning, not drive it. Always value the magic of teaching, something that technology can never replace.

For more remote and hybrid learning resources click HERE.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Feedback is Needed More Than Ever

I think we can all agree that this school year has been unlike any other and not for the best of reasons. The pandemic has upended the entire education system as schools have moved to remote, then hybrid, and back to remote in some cases with no end in sight. Even with the promising news of two potential vaccines, rising COVID-19 cases have resulted in a constant state of flux.  Continuity and consistency have been hard to come by and finding a groove have become an arduous task in many cases. Educators, students, and families have never been in a situation as challenging as what they are experiencing right now. 

The rapid state of uncertainty has caused a great deal of angst, and rightfully so. As a result, there have been increased levels of stress, anxiety, and fear amongst teachers, which has led to decreased motivation in some cases. It’s not that they don’t want to do a good job but more a battle to get through each day. The struggle is real. For students, a lack of engagement on their end has led to significant concerns across the globe. If they aren’t engaged, then the chances that meaningful learning is taking place are slim. Finally, administrators are searching frantically for answers while putting out fires and conducting contact tracing daily. 

With all these challenges, growth becomes an afterthought. However, it is a necessity in order to provide the best learning experience possible for kids, even in times of crisis.  Through adversity, some of the best ideas are developed and implemented with fidelity. The key to setting the stage for this to occur is a concerted effort to make feedback a daily phenomenon. While assessments, observations, and evaluations might have worked well in the past, a more sensitive approach is not only warranted but also a necessity right now. 

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 need is to seek it out from a variety of perspectives. Teachers can engage both students and families in conversations to elicit essential ideas on how to improve remote and hybrid learning experiences. Administrators can do the same with stakeholders and staff in order to gather intel on how to improve school culture immediately. In the classroom, providing regular feedback to learners might be the most critical key to engaging them.  

Everyone benefits if we are diligent and sensitive as to how it is implemented as a means both to inform and empower. Below are some aspects to consider regarding quality feedback:

  1. Facilitate with sincerity
  2. Ground in practicality and specificity
  3. Give in a timely manner
  4. Dialogue over monologue 
  5. Focus on positive delivery
  6. Use the right medium(s)
  7. Be consistent
  8. Align to advancement towards a goal(s)

Most people want to know how they are doing and what can be done to improve, even it is a small shift in practice or learning. Keep in mind the importance of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Feedback can be as simple as reassuring others that they are doing a great job in these trying times or using it as a way to find out what might be inhibiting motivation or engagement. The bottom line is that it is a great tool that can be used in a variety of ways. When it is all said and done, its best use might be that of relationship builder. After all, relationships are the foundation of learning and growth, no matter if we are in a pandemic or not.  

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Overcoming Engagement Hurdles with Remote Learners

In order to empower people at some level, you first need to engage them.  It is nearly impossible to create a culture of learning if there are elements of boredom, inactivity, and lack of relevance.  This is a lesson I learned most recently as a presenter and workshop facilitator. Early on, I used more traditional strategies since this was a new arena for me. The shift from principal to full-time consultant brought a certain amount of fear. Thus, I reverted back to what I was comfortable with in terms of what I could control and perceived that educators wanted. I basically became the sage on the stage and a master of direct instruction with little participant interaction. 

I thought I was doing a pretty good job as no one told me otherwise. There was consistent eye contact, and all of the feedback I received from surveys was mostly positive. It wasn’t until a presentation at a major conference where I got the kick in the butt that I desperately needed but wasn’t aware of until then. As I was reading tweets from the session, a participant basically told me that I spoke at them the entire time and didn’t provide ample opportunities for greater discourse, practical application, or reflection. 

It was at this point about four years ago, where I began to embrace and model the very same strategies that were being used at my high school when I was a principal. Multiple opportunities for discourse and collaboration were included as well as time to develop action steps. Engagement was amplified with a focus on the how, exemplars from all types of schools, and the use of digital tools to provide everyone with an opportunity to respond. In essence, my role is now more of a facilitator of learning.  Another fundamental change was intentionally developing ways to personalize the experience for those I am fortunate to work with in my role. For example, I really appreciate Michael Ford pushing me in this direction when he asked me to create a choice board as part of a professional learning date with his staff. 

These changes, combined with what I hope is a unique style grounded in relationships, have enabled me to better connect with educators. Now more than ever, I have benefitted from these changes in the current remote and hybrid world. As someone who currently supports educators and schools all over the world in this area, it is critical that I not only engage as many people as possible but also model the most effective strategies that can be implemented in the classroom. I recently saw the fruits of my labor in action during a keynote with over 2000 educators.  Using one of the strategies listed above, I was able to get over 1200 responses to a question part of the way through using Mentimeter.

The pandemic has created a myriad of issues for educators, with engagement being at the top of the list. Every day I am asked for suggestions, especially when it comes to remote learners, no matter whether or not you are hybrid at this point. In addition to some of the ideas that I shared above, I strongly encourage you to check out this post, where I outline six specific focus areas. Below are some additional ideas:

  • Begin each lesson with an anticipatory set to get kids excited and impart relevance.
  • Call on students who have their camera and microphone off. By doing this consistently, the stage will be set for increased attention and participation. 
  • Integrate breakout rooms for discourse and randomly pop into them. 
  • Utilize quick checks for understanding (1-3 questions max) throughout the lesson using Google or Canvas forms.
  • Leverage digital tools for voice and choice. It is also good to use these following any breakout room activity to get a grasp on engagement levels.
  • Use the Rigor Relevance Framework as a means to evaluate the level of relevance in questions, tasks, and assessments. 
  • Develop means for accountability through routine feedback and timely grading. I cringe when mentioning the latter, but we must look at any and all strategies during these difficult times.
  • Include closure at the end of each lesson or synchronous session.
  • Move to tasks and work that are more purposeful through blended strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, self-paced activities, and flipped approaches.
  • Assign less work while going deeper into concepts.

The above ideas are more teaching-facing. However, engaging learners is a shared responsibility. Administrators can assist with the above by providing teachers non-evaluative feedback during remote lesson drop-ins or using a walk-through process. Additionally, job-embedded and on-going professional learning is critical for all educators, regardless of position, to improve engagement in pedagogically-sound ways.  Another way that administrators can help out teachers in this area is through relentless communication with families. In Digital Leadership, I outline how a multi-faceted approach that meets stakeholders where they are is the most effective way.  It is essential not just to get out information, but also engage families in a dialogue during these unprecedented times. 

When it is all said and done, engagement is grounded in a learner’s sense of why they are learning something and how it will be used in the real world through their lens. It can be achieved through a combination of context and application. Think about what motivated you as a learner and what still does today. This might be the best starting point of all. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Upgrading the Remote Learning and Hybrid Classroom

These unprecedented and uncertain times have spawned a paradigm shift in the way teaching and learning are conducted. With many schools and districts struggling to not only maintain effective engagement with their students but to be able to quickly and easily adjust to changing and ambiguous guidelines is equally as challenging. The ability to swiftly and seamlessly adjust to the unknown, short- and long-term future of curriculum facilitation is essential for maintaining education continuity for all students whether they are remote, in-class, or a combination of both.  Furthermore, the unpredictability of where educators can actually teach at any given time adds another caveat to fostering engagement whether learning in class, from home, or a merger of the two depending on the current climate. 

With additional local, state, and federal funding available to help schools and districts build remote and hybrid learning programs, the opportunities to effectively support students and teachers are there. However, with so many products, solutions, and methods surrounding the distance learning concept, it can be difficult to determine which solutions maintain and maximize engagement in multiple classroom or remote scenarios, and which can be easily integrated into all options. The key is to understand what types of solutions can provide the foundation for effective distance and hybrid learning concepts.  

It is more important than ever to use innovative classroom technology to foster student engagement, effective curriculum delivery, increase discourse, and set the stage for empowerment through personalization. The right solutions can greatly assist educators as they navigate through the new and uncertain future of teaching and learning.

An Ever-Evolving State

The uncertainty of the progression or digression of the current pandemic climate requires that schools and districts be ready for multiple scenarios during a given school year. Schools may start off the year online-only, but with the intent of having students back in the classroom at a certain point. Some may engage in a hybrid model where higher-risk students are able to continue learning from home while in-class instruction occurs simultaneously. However, changes in the pandemic status may require that schools go full online again to maintain the safety of all students. It is necessary for schools and districts to prepare for quick and seamless direction changes so teaching and learning continuity is maintained. 

Keeping students on-task and engaged can be a challenge regardless of which scenario is being used at the time. Remote students relying on video collaboration technologies can be additionally difficult without solutions specifically designed for these environments. Web cameras can be used as an inexpensive and temporary vehicle to maintain visuals between teachers and students in a virtual environment, however since many web cameras were originally designed for person-to-person and casual video communication, some limitations are apparent.  Some of these constraints include a static field of view where teachers are not able to move around the classroom, lower or choppy video quality, and out of sync video and audio which can all contribute to remote students losing focus and engagement. 

Therefore, building a foundation where virtual students can have a similar interactive and engaging experience with a clear and real-time connection with the teacher is important in maintaining effective communication and collaboration. Utilizing video collaboration technology specifically designed to enhance effective communication and information sharing is essential for maintaining a near-to-life connection to students not able to attend a physical class. Other essential classroom tools such as document cameras can be easily utilized in multi-purpose remote, hybrid learning, and even remote teaching situations. Finally, safe and secure charging solutions for in-class student devices are equally as important once students do return to class to ensure their technologies are enabled to support the in-class curriculum. Here we will explore the uses, benefits, and real-life applications of these foundational solutions to best provide equal opportunity education for all learners, regardless of physical location. 

During my time as a principal, I worked with EdTech organizations such as AVer Information in order to help ensure their solutions are relevant, up to date, and effective. Way back in 2010, my school was part of their national AverAcademy program where I became very knowledgeable as to how their solutions could support good teaching and learning. Tools and solutions need to address the current climate, as well as align with future scenarios and possibilities. Their distance learning solutions are not only a natural fit into the present environment but will continue to be effective as conditions change. 

New-Age Tools Can be a Solution 

As opposed to basic web cameras, auto-tracking distance learning cameras give your remote students a real, in-class experience while they learn from home, maintaining a real-time connection with both the teacher and fellow classmates. With a variety of features and functions, these professional-grade video collaboration solutions can take engagement to new levels while setting the stage for empowering tasks. The offer enhancements such as pan tilt zoom, auto-tracking, optical zoom, compatibility with popular video conference tools (Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meets), and free software.

Document cameras are time-tested classroom tools originally designed to clearly and immediately display physical objects and demonstrations on the fly without needing digital representations. Whether students are learning from home or in-class, document cameras have emerged as a multi-faceted solution to add real-life curriculum examples no matter where teaching is happening. Clearly display your physical lesson material to both in-class and remote students simultaneously. They can also connect with an auto-tracking camera so your remote students will experience your instruction and demonstration material in real-time, without missing a beat. 

With students returning to classrooms, device charge and storage solutions are more necessary than ever. With unknown variables such as the number of students in a classroom as well as potential part-time in-class students, charge and storage carts need to be available for charging and security as students are in-class. With some students using these devices both at home and in the class, additional safety and cleaning measures should be in place to keep devices clean. Storage and charging carts have now been updated with UV sanitation, adaptive intelligent charging, configurable and customizable slots, and individual AC adaptor compartments. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Competencies for a Post-COVID World

It seems as of late that we are always in the midst of difficult times. As I am writing this post, the world is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases. The challenges that this is placing on society goes without saying.  In classrooms, educators continue to grapple with the impacts this is having on both remote and hybrid learning models. It's not easy, and many people are at a breaking point, but who could blame them.  The silver lining here is that we will get the pandemic under control at some point through more stringent social distancing requirements and a vaccine.

When the dust settles, we need to look carefully at critical lessons learned. The world of work has, and continues to, fundamentally change. There is a necessary shift emerging right before our eyes. More and more employers are moving away from physical spaces and embracing remote environments while providing greater levels of trust. What this equates to is less of a focus on the number of hours put into a day and more on getting the work done at a high level.

In my view, the future is bright, and these changes will be welcomed by many. The fact of the matter is that reporting to an office or being required to put in a set number of hours each day doesn't necessarily result in success. So, what does this mean for education? A greater emphasis on productivity in the future of work will require our learners to have a refined set of competencies. It is important not to get caught up in the hoopla about needed "skills." While these are important, they focus on the "what" in terms of the abilities a learner needs to perform a specific task or activity. Competencies outline "how" goals and objectives will be accomplished. They are more detailed and define the requirements for success in broader, more inclusive ways. In a previous post, I shared this:

Competencies, therefore, may incorporate a skill but are much more than the skill. They include a dynamic combination of abilities, attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge that is fundamental to the use of a skill aligned to a learning outcome. 

Now, and in the future, our learners will most likely need to be competent in the following areas to succeed.

  • Self-regulation: Process by which people plan for a task, monitor performance, and reflect on the outcome.
  • Remote collaboration: People work together, regardless of their geographic location, to achieve organizational goals using a variety of digital tools.
  • Critical thinking and problem-solving: The ability to think in complex ways and apply knowledge and skills acquired in relevant ways. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, people are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.
  • Emotional intelligence (EI) – A person's capacity to be aware of, control, express one's emotions and handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. A person who is competent in EI can understand, manage, and use their own emotions to communicate effectively, relieve stress, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict in positive ways.
  • Time management: Process of organizing and planning how to divide the time you have available between specific activities or delegate tasks to others depending on organizational structure. In a nutshell, it's about working smarter, not harder, to achieve goals.
  • Creativity – The ability to develop and successfully implement innovative ideas to develop solutions to complex problems while connecting seemingly unrelated phenomena.

It is essential for educators to develop their own sense of what is critical for learners going forward. The curriculum might dictate what has to be taught, but the art of teaching is all about how we teach in ways that inspire meaningful learning. As the world continues to change in ways that we could never have imagined, it is imperative that learners have what they need to succeed.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Professional Learning Sweet Spot

For the better part of my educational career, I always referred to any type of learning to assist me as a teacher or administrator as professional development (PD).  It was always referred to like this, so who was I to argue.  For the most part, this consisted of attending mandatory district “PD” days, professional learning communities (PLC)’s or approved off-site experiences such as conferences, workshops, or webinars.  The experiences where I had some level of choice were the most meaningful to me and resulted in real changes to my educational practice. I think the same can be said when it comes to the learners we serve.

In March of 2009, I began to use Twitter, and it was at this time that I began to create a Personal Learning Network (PLN). Through the use of social media, I realized that I didn’t really need to be “developed.” What I craved were experiences that I valued and could pursue that would help my school and district achieve collective goals. Thus, my thinking changed. Up until this point, professional development was always done to me as opposed to something that I wanted to be an active part of. Intrinsic motivation should always be the focal point of any experience geared at improving professional practice. If we find and see value, the emphasis becomes embracement as opposed to buy-in.

With a PLN, I was able to learn anytime, anywhere, from anyone I wanted for free. I now had access to a human-generated search engine where I gleaned the best resources, ideas, supports, and advice. Questions became a more prized commodity than answers. No longer did I have to continually fret about reinventing the wheel or coming up with the next most fantastic innovative idea.  I was both enlightened and empowered. It was at this time that I began to shift away from PD and instead embrace a culture of professional learning. There is a big difference in my mind.

Learning should be a personal experience, deeply rooted in purpose, meaning, authenticity, practicality, and relevance.  If the goal is to provide this for our students, then the same must be emphasized for teachers, administrators, and support staff. Personalization emphasizes high-agency approaches such as voice, choice, path, pace, and place, perfect for both kids and adults. Even though the individual level is the most important in my mind, we cannot discount our organization, district, or school needs. 

In order for a mission, vision, and goals to become a reality, it takes a collective effort to learn and grow together. The professional learning sweet spot evolves through a balancing act, as depicted by the image below.

In Digital Leadership I emphasized how input from educators is crucial to the success of any professional learning experience, as is time. When you think about the image above, take a critical lens to what you currently engage in and what is provided to you by your organization, school, or district.  On-going and job-embedded experiences lead to sustained changes to practice and improve student outcomes when it comes to results. A dynamic mash-up of workshops and coaching definitely falls into the sweet spot. It is crucial always to align any professional learning with current trends and needs. The COVID19 pandemic has brought a few of these to the forefront, such as social-emotional, remote, personalized, and blended learning. As schools begin to develop plans for student and staff re-entry, pertinent professional learning supports will need to be emphasized.

Below are some pathways to consider that are more personal and focus on the unique needs of educators:

  • Personal Learning Network
  • Asynchronous, self-directed opportunities (i.e., Professional Growth Period, flipped sessions, webinars, open courseware, digital badges/micro-credentials)
  • Edcamps and Teachmeets
  • Professional Learning Communities where educators determine the focus
  • Blended approaches
  • Peer observation
  • School and site visits

Effective and meaningful professional learning is all about striving for the sweet spot. At times there will have to be concessions in terms of time, choice, and available funding. 

That’s just how it goes. The key takeaway that I hope you leave with is developing professional learning opportunities through consensus and ensuring mechanisms in place lead to improved outcomes.  In the event that you are not satisfied with what is provided to you through your organization, district, or school, then there is a myriad of options that you can pursue.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Supporting Mental Health in Schools

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on students’ mental health, from coping with stress and anxiety about their health or the health of loved ones, isolation from friends, and now, a school year that, in many cases, looks very different than any they’ve experienced in the past. 

All of these issues have a very real impact on students’ ability to succeed in school this year. I wrote in detail recently about the need for schools to be proactive about supporting students’ social-emotional health. However, our current environment presents some challenges such as:

1. Identifying mental health issues in a remote learning environment

As a former principal, I know that teachers and administrators are often the first line of defense to spot warning signs that students are suffering from mental health concerns. As we get deeper into the school year and the pandemic continues and many students remain in a distance learning environment, it will be more and more difficult to identify students who might be in need of help.  For example, if a student is engaging in self-harm, it’s easier for them to hide it by simply turning off their camera. When teachers don’t see peer groups together, it is more difficult to detect if there are situations of bullying occurring. 

Joe Laramie and Holly Kelly recently shared several things teachers should watch for, including: 
  • Significant changes in attendance, such as only showing up for certain hours of class, or not showing up at all
  • Significant changes in how the student is attending class. For example, if they typically have their video on, and then suddenly start keeping it off
  • Increased attention-seeking behavior during class such as clicking their mute button on and off during a session
2. Use of paper-based systems 

Many schools still rely on paper-based systems to record concerns, which is an antiquated way to do business and also can prevent timely intervention. After all, it does no one any good if a teacher notices a concern and wants more background, but the student’s records are locked in a filing cabinet and the school is shut down due to COVID. This is a serious problem and one that we can address fairly easily simply by adopting the right technology.

Embracing technology

We live in an increasingly technology-driven world and schools should take advantage of the tech tools available to support student mental health.  I recently discovered a great new free tool from Impero Software called Impero back:drop that helps schools keep track of concerns. Impero back:drop allows authorized school staff members to record any concerns they have about student wellbeing. They can also access and share histories for each student in order to get a full picture of that student’s health and wellbeing. It eliminates the need for paper-based reporting systems and can be used whether students are learning at school or at home.

While Impero offers Impero back:drop free, they also offer a premium suite of student safety tools, including tools that let teachers view the students’ screens and tools that will alert school officials if students are typing certain keywords that could indicate concerns about self-harm, cyberbullying or other safety issues.

We live in an increasingly technology-driven world – made even more so with the advent of COVID-19  – and it’s important to have digital tools to support all aspects of education, including mental health and wellness so we can address any concerns in a timely manner and help students be successful in this very different school year and beyond, whatever the future holds. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

3 Ways to Streamline Expectations While Making Things Easier for Educators

It seems like every day presents a new challenge or adventure, depending on how you view the current landscape. Educators are stressed, worn-out, and constantly wondering when the pandemic will end. There are no easy answers or solutions that will work for everyone. The fact remains that there was no professional learning to prepare for the reality that everyone is facing nor a plan for something like COVID19. Through it all, though, educators have risen to the occasion like never before. In the midst of adversity, we see daily empathy, selflessness, commitment, and innovation.

I always like to focus on the small wins when I am facilitating professional learning with schools and districts. We can’t discount even the smallest success during these trying times as it is imperative to build people up. Over time these small wins can morph into catalysts for more extensive change efforts. During workshops and coaching sessions, I am always asked what advice I have to help teachers and administrators make things as easy as possible while ensuring quality learning is taking place. In this case, the goal is trying to achieve more systematic change that all educators can embrace. The bottom line is that it has to make sense and not require a great deal of effort to implement.

Below are the three recommendations I have been providing to help districts and schools persevere during the pandemic. You will see they are relatively straightforward, but each in its own right requires a certain level of continuity and consistency. I tend to refer to these as norms that everyone can get behind.  

  1. Embrace a learning management system (LMS) K-12
  2. Settle on a video conference platform with breakout rooms
  3. Use one digital tool for engagement and empowerment

The consistent use of an LMS such as Google Classroom, Schoology, or Canvas works to create a more equitable learning environment for all kids and families provided there is access in school and at home. It can become the hub for all lessons, videos, activities, assessments, and student work. A foundation can then be established for more personalized approaches such as pedagogically-sound blended learning or self-paced activities.  Students and families win as they have on-demand access to resources.  Building capacity now benefits all educators through vertical articulation and provides a foundation to build upon in subsequent years.

Whether remote or hybrid, many schools have relied on a video conference platform for synchronous instruction and learning. Like the LMS, consistent use across a district or school helps develop continuity, especially in upper-grade levels. For discourse and collaboration, selecting a video conference platform that has breakout room capability is a must, in my opinion. Thus, the options are Zoom, Webex, and Google Meets. No matter the platform selected, it is crucial to follow guidelines established by FERPA to protect student identity and information.

There are many digital tools available to educators these days, which often creates an overwhelming feeling. It’s not how many tools you use that matters, but instead the degree to which they are employed to facilitate engaging and empowering experiences. Hence, my advice is to master one tool and use it consistently to review prior learning and check for understanding and closure. The key here is establishing a comfort level amongst both the teacher and student. There are many great tools out there to use. My advice is to pick the one that allows for student responses to be used in different ways. My favorites are Mentimeter and Padlet.

The success of each suggestion above hinges upon providing professional learning support on using the tool or platform, as well as sound pedagogy. This represents a great starting point to help educators manage expectations during the pandemic. The recommendations can set the stage for more structured synchronous and asynchronous experiences that empower learners in different ways. They can also be a springboard for future change.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Give and Take Ideas to Support Teachers

The pandemic has really put a strain on educators, yet they continue to rise to the occasion on behalf of kids. This has come at a cost both mentally, socially, and physically. Something has to give. There has been a great deal of conversation lately about what can be taken off the plates of teachers.  I have to commend those administrators who are working to find ways to put their staff more at ease in these challenging times. While removing specific responsibilities to reduce stress and anxiety is a great start, we must also consider what can be given to them to provide multifaceted support. Giving can be just as, if not more, powerful than taking away, which is typically the more straightforward option. 

Below are some ideas that I have. Some are more doable than others, but all are realistic.


If there is one thing that teachers consistently ask for, it is time to plan, create videos, grade, conference with remote students, update the LMS, etc. I don't want to belabor this point as I recently wrote about the topic. You can view the post HERE. The main takeaway with time though is to develop ways to give it unconditionally to teachers and not schedule or mandate anything else in its place, such as meetings or PLC's. 

Eliminating Meetings

Let's be honest for a minute. No one truly likes meetings, and the value of them is open to interpretation. I, for one, did not find value in them when I was a principal and eliminated most while reducing the time of the ones that were kept. Now I am not saying that all meetings don't have value, but while the pandemic rages on minutes and essential information can be emailed to staff or made part of a collaborative Google Doc. 

Coaching and Feedback

There is a difference between wanting to be left alone and a desire to grow. The majority of educators fall into the latter. Even in the midst of challenging times, growth is necessary to meet the needs of diverse learners. Now is not the time to revert back to traditional observation and evaluation protocols because, quite frankly, they will not result in improved outcomes.  Taking this away and replacing with non-evaluative strategies consisting of coaching and feedback will go a long way towards creating an empathetic environment.  

Prioritize standards

It is unrealistic to try to cover the entire curriculum as educators are implementing hybrid models for the first time, and increasing COVID cases is forcing some schools back to remote learning. An emphasis on priority standards can significantly reduce teachers' burden while streamlining other pedagogy aspects, such as assessment. Other elements to consider are aligning formative tasks and checks for understanding to those prioritized standards so teachers can monitor the learning of students. In the end, more manageable conditions are created for teachers. 

Grading grace periods

There is inequity when it comes to grading, as some subject areas require a great deal more time because of the nature of the content. Additionally, many teachers are still getting used to tasks and assessments in a hybrid environment. Even though deadlines are needed showing a little grace will always be appreciated.

Cover classes

Some districts and schools are hiring substitutes. Others are seeing their administrators offer their time and that of other non-teaching staff members. No matter the route taken, this strategy is sure to build up morale. There should be no catch when a class is covered, and it should be up to the teacher as to how he or she will use this opportunity to either grade, prepare lessons, attend professional learning, observe peers, or just put up their feet and relax. 

Eliminate non-instructional duties 

Many contracts have teachers assume a duty either during the school day or after. These can include cafeteria, hall, in-school suspension, extracurricular, or athletics, where there is no compensation. If possible, try to eliminate all of these. If you can't, consider developing a schedule where administrators and other support staff can fill them in lieu of teachers. 

Choice in professional learning

Forcing educators to engage in one-size-fits-all professional development at this time will tend to be hit or miss depending on the person. Mostly miss as there is a definite need for practical strategies in the areas of remote, hybrid, and blended learning facilitated in practical ways. Growth and improvement are of vital importance, but it needs to be something that educators want to engage in at a time when there are so many challenges. Consider providing different choices such as face-to-face, virtual, blended, or asynchronous options. It is also wise to gather input from staff to determine what they feel is needed. 

Communicate norms to families

One of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers when I am coaching is that they can't keep up with all parent emails that come in after school hours, mostly from remote learners and parents. I have gone as far as to recommend that teachers state they're out of office on their email each evening from 5:00 PM until 7:00 AM. Establishment of, and then clear communication of, norms can go a long way towards taking away some emails and messages, especially late at night and early in the morning. In Digital Leadership, I lay out the importance of using a multifaceted approach to meet stakeholders where they are while reinforcing the vital message at hand. Develop the norms with teachers and then "pound the pavement" with digital communications. 

Mental health days

With a substitute shortage, this could be a bit dicey, but the overall impact far outweighs the short-lived frustration of covering classes in a pinch. Based on the size of a district or school, a determination can be made as to how many of these days can be realistically given to each teacher. 

Empathetic leadership is critical to helping staff get through challenging times. Using a give and take strategy and lessening the burden will create a culture of empowerment.  As people have different needs, it is crucial to consider various options as there is no one right way to help people at any point in time. Work to take things off educators' plates, but also consider what you can personally give. In the end, powerful relationships will be formed, and that benefits everyone.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Important Lessons Learned During the Pandemic and How They Can Drive Needed Change

There is no shortage of challenges that have been leveled on schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. After some time, we have seen an initial move to all remote learning, depending on where you live, a shift to some sort of hybrid model.  A spike in cases has led to buildings being closed again and a resumption of remote learning in some locations.  Uncertainty and a lack of continuity have had a heavy toll on teachers, administrators, students, and parents. 

As educators continue to grapple with these challenges, lessons have materialized that can pave the way for needed change. Even though it is difficult at the moment to provide the time and energy to focus on these, it is essential to begin to lay the foundation. One day the pandemic will be over. Education can ill afford to revert back to the way things were done in many districts and schools. If the pandemic has taught us one major lesson, it’s that the system has not worked for many learners. The time is now to seize on the opportunity to do something about it while it is fresh on everyone’s minds.  

Below are some topics where vital lessons have been learned. Even though some have been prevalent prior to the pandemic, there should be a renewed sense of urgency to right the ship sooner rather than later.


The lesson here is that many learners have suffered from inequity because of socioeconomic status, inefficient resources, or insufficient pedagogy. If all kids are doing the same thing, at the same time, the same way, and in the same place, a red flag should be raised. Equity is about providing learners what they need when and where they need it. A move to real personalized learning at scale is the most logical step. At the same time, the digital divide has to be tackled where all learners have equitable access to a device, reliable WIFI, and quality resources.  


Health and safety are of utmost concern right now. When the dust settles, long term planning should commence to install or upgrade air filtration systems and make hand sanitizer stations permanent. New classroom furniture that is flexible should be considered that can be arranged in ways to support collaboration and blended pedagogies that were implemented remotely.  As many schools decided to purchase devices for students as a means to ensure equity during remote learning, investments will likely need to be made to boost WIFI throughout buildings.  

Humans Crave Social Interaction

Social distancing and remote learning shined a light on the importance of interaction.  It is the foundation of which relationships are built and sustained.  A lesson learned is how critical it is to develop virtual experiences that incorporate discourse and collaboration.  We must also look for opportunities to increase human interaction in face-to-face settings.

Use of time

One of the biggest challenges for educators during the pandemic was time, especially when it came to implementing a hybrid model.  A lesson learned through this ordeal as we advance is to rethink how time is used in the classroom and innovative ways to give educators more of it during the workday. Both pathways require taking a critical lens to current practice and reflect on potential improvements. It is also vital to think about moving from traditional requirements such as the school calendar, seat time, and Carnegie Units (first rolled out in 1906, by the way) to competency models.  

That’s the way we’ve always done it (TTWWADI) inhibits change

Everyone has been presented with a clean slate. In the midst of an unprecedented period in education, the pursuit of innovative practices that break from the mold of what has always been done should be the imperative. Now, this is not to say that some “traditional” methods won’t still have value. It is up to each school system to determine what should be continued, which particular practices need to be shelved, and areas of focus that will benefit all learners. This includes digital pedagogy that consists of purposeful use, a move to personalized learning through blended strategies, use of data to differentiate, innovative assessment, and performance tasks. The big shift overall is to make a move from low to high agency methodologies. 

Importance of a learning management system (LMS)

Before the pandemic, many districts had an LMS (Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom), but its uses varied greatly.  Many have realized how vital they were to continuity in learning, whether it was remote or hybrid. The key is to continue to ensure systemic use K-12 to support pedagogically-sound blended learning, self-paced activities, and the continuation of quality learning during extended school closures. It can also set the state to the creation of a viable virtual learning option for students who prefer this model.

More relevant professional learning

If there was ever a time to transform professional learning, it is now. The majority of educators will agree that one and done, as well as drive-by days or events, don’t lead to meaningful changes to practice at scale. One important lesson learned is the shift from this to job-embedded and on-going experiences. Another critical change is how professional learning is structured as well as the areas of focus. On the first point, there is a need to create or replicate the conditions that are reflective of the environments teachers and administrators work in currently. This should then be connected to relevant ideas and strategies that can be implemented in a practical way.  

SEL and our own well being

Social and emotional learning was a hot topic prior to the pandemic. It is even more imperative now as learners are grappling with social isolation, parents losing jobs, family members becoming sick, and a great deal of time spent on technology. We might not know for years, or ever, the full impact all of this has had on learners, which is why a proactive approach is needed that focuses on SEL competencies. Professional learning can fill this void. We can’t forget about the adults and what they are currently dealing with, especially teachers and the time being put in to manage and implement hybrid learning.  Although not directly tied to pedagogy, consistent efforts need to be made in the areas of mindfulness and health for all. 

I am confident that many of you reading this post could add numerous more lessons. Please consider adding them in the comments section below. You will also notice there is not much depth above. I only added a few suggestions in each category where vital lessons have been learned. It is up to you in your role to reflect on each and begin to take the required action in relation to your current situation. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

How to Create Effective Learning Playlists

Educators have been working valiantly to make either remote or hybrid learning work. In the midst of this challenging time, we have seen innovative practices embraced more at scale. These represent new methodologies for some, while others are now applying what they had already been doing to the current situation in the form of blended learning. It is essential for me to reiterate what I have been saying for years as there is still some confusion as to what this actually entails:

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

Thus, just using Zoom or Google Meet is not blended learning if content is just being shared. The same could be said if all learners are using Kahoot of Quizizz as part of a synchronous lesson. Another critical aspect of pedagogically-sound blended learning is some form of personalization. If all learners are doing the same thing at the same time the same way, then one can deduce that this is not a personal experience. If equity is the goal, it’s time to flip the script by giving students what they need when and where they need it.

Past posts have explored blended strategies like station rotation and choice boards, which make learning more personal in remote and hybrid environments. Playlists represent another great option, but I have yet to elaborate on how educators can implement these effectively, until now. The premise behind these is quite simple, as learners are presented with a series of tasks that they complete in any order they want. Personalization occurs through path and pace. Unlike choice boards, where only a set number of options have to be completed, learners are accountable for every playlist activity.

The following guidelines outline some best practices for creating effective learning playlists:

  • Provide direct instruction prior to introducing new content either through a mini-lesson or flipped approach.
  • List tasks in a learning management system (Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom) and use a Google Sheet for students to color in once a task has been completed. In cases where digital equity is an issue, these can be listed on paper for distribution, while any activities involving technology would need to be replaced.
  • Scaffold questions and activities to bump up thinking.
  • Build-in relevant problem-solving to instill a greater purpose while providing an appropriate challenge.
  • Use data to provide one-on-one or small group support.
  • Ensure there is a balance between tech and no-tech options.
  • Integrate adaptive tools that respond to strengths and weaknesses while providing data that can be used for groupings and shifts to instruction. 
  • If possible, differentiate by providing multiple versions that address the specific needs of learners while provided different paths.
  • Create a simple formative assessment for learners to complete after they have finished all activities in the playlist. This could consist simply of 3 scaffolded questions. Not only does this provide closure, but it will also provide insight as to whether the kids engaged in all the tasks.

The image above provides an example of what a well-structured playlist looks like, as it includes an array of activities that challenge students to think and play what they have learned in different ways. It also affords the teacher an opportunity to work with kids that need the most support. Once a task is completed, the learner colors in the cell under their name in a Google Sheet.

Playlists are a fantastic blended learning strategy that can be used to personalize learning, differentiate instruction, and free up the teacher during class time. They also represent a viable option for both remote and hybrid learning environments.  The key to remember is that there is no one right way to create them. It is up to the teacher to determine the right number of tasks and the overall length of time that learners will have to complete them. This could range from a single period or block to a few days or even a week. When all is said and done, the goal is to use time more effectively while developing a more equitable learning experience for all kids.