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.