Sunday, March 7, 2021

Digitally-Enhanced Exit Tickets

I love coaching as it provides a lens to see how teachers and administrators act on feedback to grow and improve. It also provides evidence that strategies aligned to research and sound instructional design are implemented in practical ways. Even though this year has been dramatically different as a result of the pandemic, I have found myself even more busy supporting districts through job-embedded and on-going professional learning.  Whether face-to-face, hybrid or remote, the elements of learning and good teaching remain the same.  

No matter where I am, one aspect of instructional design that I often identify as an area for growth is closure.   I have written in the past how important including this strategy is, no matter the grade level of students or the content being addressed.  Closure draws attention to the end of the lesson, helps students organize their learning, reinforces the significant aspects of the concepts explored, allows students to practice what was learned, and provides an opportunity for feedback, review, and reflective thinking. It is hard to determine the effectiveness of a lesson or whether learners understood the concepts presented without some form of closure.  

While there are many strategies out there, the exit ticket is probably the one that is utilized the most. While learners can solve problems or answer specific questions related to the content or concepts addressed, more general prompts can also be used, such as:

  • What exactly did I learn?
  • Why did we learn this?
  • How will I use what was learned today outside of school, and how does it connect to the real world?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Dr. Nathan Hall, the Corinth Middle School principal in Mississippi.  I have been coaching in the district for over two years now and have written extensively about how the schools' staff have been open to innovative change with the evidence to back it up.  Below is a message that Lori Snyder, one of his 7/8th grade math teachers, sent him regarding using exit tickets for closure:

I had asked about a program for my exit tickets.  I need something like Padlet that allows them to enter their answer anonymously but will not show everyone's answer until I am ready.  I want to use it for real-time feedback. The trouble with Padlet is that they can see everyone's responses as they are posted, and some are copying others' answers instead of doing their own work. Mentimeter won't let them type in numbers. Canvas discussion is not anonymous. You had said something about asking Mr. Sheninger before he came for his next visit.

After thinking about it, I suggested GoSoapBox.  Dr. Hall then passed this along to Ms. Snyder, and her feedback is below:

When they are online answering, the barometer at the top tells me if they need help.  After seeing that some require the problem worked out, I add it to the exit ticket page.

It is always a great day when a teacher or administrator shoots me an email looking for ways to improve.  Little did I know that I would see the GoSoapBox exit ticket in action a few weeks later.  As I conducted my monthly coaching visit at Corinth Middle School, here is what I saw in Ms. Snyder's class:

  • Students solved math problems on dry-erase desks and then submitted their answers.
  • Their work was added to their notebook, which both they and the teacher could refer to see where issues were.
  • The teacher was able to see where misconceptions were immediately.
  • Names were removed from public view, so students weren't embarrassed.
  • The teacher was able to address issues that the majority of the class was having right away by modeling or re-teaching.
  • Individual students who had misconceptions were emailed after school to maximize class time.

I am so proud of this teacher for looking for ways to implement exit tickets using technology.  From the bullets above, you can see the many positive outcomes one small, yet significant, change made.  The key lesson here is that there are always elements of practice that can be tweaked, adapted, or changed in order to improve.  Great educators never stop chasing growth. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Extending Grace to Yourself

The shift to remote and hybrid learning has not been easy, and I don't think anyone would claim that the journey was smooth sailing.  As I continue to work with districts and schools on an on-going basis, I try my best to help them overcome continuous challenges and frustrations. Through it all, educators have risen to the occasion and have innovated their practice at a more frequent pace than any time in history. At least, that is the way I see it, but as the pandemic wears on, educators are still trying to figure things out.  I am here to tell you that you are not alone. Virtually everyone, no matter the profession, has and continues to experience challenges during this unique time.  Just take a look below at what this lawyer went through.

I can't help but laugh every time I watch the video above and never even knew that there were avatar filters available in Zoom. However, there is a fundamental lesson here. We are still in a constant state of flux.  So much of what we are attempting to do is new, or other challenges materialize out of the blue.  Professional learning can most certainly help, but that has been placed on the back burner in many cases.  Thus, it often falls on educators themselves to figure things out.  Then there is the fact that students and colleagues are in desperate need of support so that natural reaction is to put individual needs on the back burner to help others.  While this is admirable and the right thing to do, it is imperative that educators extend some grace to themselves. 

It seems simple, but the reality is that extending grace to yourself isn't easy or something one aspires to do because it just doesn't feel right. Nancy Fulkerson explains why it is essential to do so.

When you feel like your day is unraveling or you've been hard on yourself for whatever reason, "giving yourself grace" is about giving yourself that kindness you often deserve. Sounds awesome. The type of thing you'd want your best friend to do for herself because you don't want to see her breakdown.

The fact of the matter is that what you have done and will continue to do matters. During tough times giving yourself some grace can make all the difference. Here are five ways to do this:

  1. Dedicate an hour doing something you are passionate about.
  2. Give yourself a pat on the back or even look in the mirror while stating that you did well today.
  3. Engage in something that is all about YOU.
  4. Close your eyes and take a deep breath when something doesn't go right.
  5. Begin and conclude your workday with self-affirmations.

Things will not always go as planned, and adversity will always be around the corner.  Continue to always show grace to others while remembering that you need it as well. It is more than ok to give yourself a pick-me-up when needed.  Please know that your dedication and commitment are truly appreciated. 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Adapting Ideas to Drive Real Change

One of the joys and challenges of blogging regularly is trying to come up with original content that has substance. I can tell you firsthand that this is no easy feat as it seems like virtually everything has been written about in some form or another.  In many cases, content and ideas are remixed into something that is or seems, new. My angle has always been to use coaching experiences in classrooms and schools to illustrate how specific strategies are successfully integrated resulting in changes to practice.  Without these opportunities of working side by side with educators, I would have run out of things to write about years ago.  However, this doesn’t imply that it is still easy to come up with blog ideas. 

With the onset of the pandemic, new ideas began to percolate as remote and hybrid learning quickly became the norm.  These were foreign areas for most of us, especially in relation to PreK-12 education.  Thus, since March 2020, almost all of my posts have been dedicated to this topic because, quite frankly, there weren’t really any applicable content or practical strategies out there.  While I have focused on sound pedagogical techniques that have just as much value now as they did before COVID-19, I explored emerging aspects of personalization to provide a relevant angle that could help educators implement remote and hybrid learning with fidelity. In particular, one post addressed the challenge of managing face-to-face and remote learners at the same time.  As a result of my work with a school, I developed a template for educators to use or adapt as they see fit.  Below is what I created.

It has been fantastic to hear how the above image is being used in classrooms around the world.  The other day I received a message from Kate Tinguely on Twitter, which led to a conversation on how she adapted it for a recent lesson. Here is her take:

This year has been so full of change, adjustment, and anticipation of the unknown due to COVID-19. As a specialist, I have had to completely change the way I approach my lesson planning due to the frequency of times the classes come to me, the arrangement of my space & materials (for social distancing), being new to the school, and keeping in mind how I can foster connections with my students.  Your template and ideas were so helpful and inspired me to act on what I was hoping would be a change for the better. 

I was humbled, to say the least, by what Kate shared, so I asked for a visual as to how she tweaked the template.  You can see what she created below:

Here is how the lesson was structured in her words:

  • Beginning Connection: I always begin class with a question to help connect with my students, give them a chance to share, and learn all of their names. The question was to name one animal they know that hibernates in the winter (first grade). They can answer or say pass.
  • Then I read Bear Snores On (with the Novel Effects app)
  • Station one: Seesaw activity (Animals in the Winter)
  • Station two: Polar Bear Arctic Virtual Field Trip    
  • Wrap up: Think-Pair-Share one fun fact they learned about winter animals or polar bears.
  • The lesson the day before was all about algorithms and coding, so the stations had to do with those concepts involving Kodable and a Seesaw Activity.

It is great to see how educators like Kate are innovating their practice during these difficult times.  Information was used to construct new knowledge and then actively apply it to practice. Since this is what we want from our learners, it is critical that adults model this as well.  On a personal note, her message about why and how the template was used provided validation for why I blog consistently in an attempt to share valuable information.  The lesson learned here is that ideas are great, but it’s what we do with them aligned to effective strategies that truly matters.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Lengths Teachers Will Go For Kids

While the challenges schools have faced during the pandemic are often portrayed in the media, some notable changes to practice have occurred. Each day I am in awe as I see innovation in action shared on social media, especially in the areas of blended, remote, and hybrid pedagogy.  It goes without saying that there has also been a significant uptick in the purposeful use of technology. All successes, big and small, should be celebrated.  In my work with school leaders, one of my goals is to push them to unearth these exemplars while also supporting teachers to grow and improve.  

Recently I was facilitating some longitudinal coaching work with administrators from Paterson Public Schools in NJ. Leaders had been broken up into four different cohorts (elementary, middle, high school, and district supervisors).  During a previous session, I assigned each leader some meaningful homework, which consisted of bringing an artifact to share with the group that showed growth in the area. During each conversation, it was empowering to see and hear the progress educators made in their schools.  Therein lies what separates effective vs. ineffective professional learning.  The latter is defined by one-and-done and drive-by touchpoints, while the former is ongoing, job-embedded, laden with feedback, and substantiated with evidence.

While each group shared amazing artifacts, I was blown away by the supervisor cohort. In particular, those who oversee Pre-K teaching and learning shared as a team with concrete examples. Then Stephanie Wright, the Supervisor of Early Education, provided us all with a bird's eye view of what Sofia Kadrmas was doing with her pre-K class.  In a nutshell, she had replicated her real classroom in terms of how it looked and felt before the pandemic into a vibrant virtual environment. As I immersed myself in the experience, it was like I was in the classroom myself. I immediately begged Stephanie to get me permission from Sofia to view and share.  Below you can see her work of art. The interactive classroom can be accessed HERE

I was blown away and feel that this is the best example of a remote learning environment that I have seen in the field.  Once I got access to it, I immediately set up a call with Sofia to ask her some questions and commend her on her efforts.  My first question was in regard to how she learned to create this in Google Slides. She explained that she taught herself and always had a knack for technology.  The other, probably obvious, question was how she had the time to create such a masterpiece.  Her response was invigorating and the essence behind why teachers do what they do for kids.  Sofia explained that she is passionate and motivated to help her students in any way that she can.  Her goal was, and is, to create a fantastic experience for kids during this difficult time. She saw an opportunity during the pandemic and ran with it.

Below is Sofia's story in her own words:

When it was announced that our school district would begin the 2020-2021 school year fully remote, I knew it would be a challenge to engage my Pre-K students remotely while still adhering to developmentally appropriate practices and maintaining fidelity to our curriculum. One day I woke up with the idea that I could convert my physical classroom into a virtual format. As you will see in the Slides that have been shared with you, I've created a virtual classroom that accurately resembles Room #204 of Paterson Public School #28, complete with the same area rug, furniture, and interactive whiteboard. It also features a replica of the Tri-Fold Choice Time "Planning Board" I created last year. Clicking on it will redirect the viewer to an enlarged version of the board, including visual representations of the Interest Areas (or "centers"), which contain images of most of the same toys and materials that can be found in my classroom. The realistic aspect of my virtual classroom was intended to provide my students with a sense of familiarity with the physical classroom that they would hopefully someday enter in person.

My goal from the beginning was to create a virtual learning environment that would not only engage my students but also give them a reason to look forward to logging on for class each day. I do feel that I have accomplished this goal, as I have had several parents reach out to me in the last five months to express how much their child loves the resources I post daily. One of my students begs his mother to help him play the "games" that I post on my Daily Google Classroom Agenda almost immediately after the end of our live sessions. These are activities aligned with our curriculum that I have converted into Google Slides to draw my students into the lesson. I use them daily as my primary method of instruction so that both students and parents can efficiently utilize them outside of our live sessions as an extension of learning. I also heavily rely on the Google Translate Chrome extension to make these Slides equally accessible to my bilingual students' families and have posted many of my Google Classroom resources in three different languages. 

It is essential to remind ourselves that these are unprecedented times we are living in currently. It's during times like these, especially when we must open ourselves up to the possibility that continuing to teach in the way "we have always done" may not be what's in the best interests of our students.  Our profession is one that requires us to be lifelong learners. That includes the willingness to adapt to, as well as adopt new teaching practices as the world continues to transform around us. That is precisely what I set forth to accomplish this school year. I adapted. 

My final piece of advice to all teachers in my position is this: Don't resist the change. Face your fears. Ask for help when you need it. It's never too late to learn a new skill, and you will never truly know the extent to which that newly acquired skill could benefit your students until you try it. The last several months have proven to me, beyond any doubt, that my "new way" of teaching is highly effective. My students are learning and growing every day, but most importantly, their smiles and laughter show me that they are having FUN in the process! That's more than enough motivation for me to keep pushing forward. 

During the pandemic, so many teachers like Sofia have gone to great lengths for their kids.  They have persevered in the face of adversity while embracing innovative approaches. Their example is to be celebrated. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Tips for the Socially Distanced Classroom

Schools have either made or are about to make the transition to some sort of hybrid model. The transition is not an easy one. Just ask those who have already been through it. In the midst of adversity and limited training, educators have valiantly risen to the occasion like they always have.  With the proper safety measures in place, students have been welcomed back into classrooms.  For many, this was desperately needed as the distractions and challenges at home impacted their learning.  They wanted and needed their teachers. I would also wager that the adults felt the same about them.

Depending on the hybrid model selected, different challenges arise.  However, no matter the path taken, one consistent element is the need to social distance to keep everyone safe. I have noticed in several schools where I am coaching that a natural reaction has been an emphasis on the whole group. Desks are arranged in rows to take precautions, while the primary strategy is direct instruction. Under the current circumstances, I am not saying this is an ineffective means to facilitate a lesson. However, there is a need to ensure that learners are both engaged and empowered during whole group.  Getting all students involved, both face-to-face (F2F) and remote, is essential.

Below are some strategies that can be implemented right away when using direct instruction:

  • Facilitate checks for understanding or closure through the use of mini-whiteboards or technology. Students would need access to one or the other, but this is a great way to foster student voice as a high-agency strategy. Some excellent digital options are PearDeck, Nearpod, and Mentimeter.  You can even use self-graded Google or Canvas Forms.
  • Randomly call on kids (both F2F and virtual).
  • Integrate movement using tools like Go-Noodle. F2F students can stay by their desks while remote learners can dance away in the comfort of their own homes.  Keeping kids distanced doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to get them up and moving.
  • Utilize conversational strategies such as think-pair-share and turn & talk facilitated through videoconference breakout rooms.  Even in a hybrid model, getting kids to talk to one another through essential questions is critical.  The use of breakout rooms keeps kids socially distanced while also creating an equitable environment where remote kids get the same experience. After the activity, digital tools can be used where all kids can share their responses.

While there is a tendency to rely more heavily on one-size-fits-all methodologies, educators can still use effective pedagogies that were commonplace prior to the pandemic. Once whole group elements are finetuned, educators can begin to integrate more personalized options to empower learners while keeping them safe. While most will be done independently, the digital space provides the environment for cooperative experiences. Here are some ideas to consider.

  • Differentiate tasks to meet the needs of each learner while moving away from a blanket approach.
  • Facilitate collaboration through the use of digital tools.  There are so many options out there, but Padlet, Jamboard, and Google Docs are always good choices.
  • Develop pedagogically-sound blended learning through either choice boards or playlists. These can be used to differentiate but also free up the teacher to provide targeted instruction or one-on-one support. Both strategies allow learners to work in a self-paced format.
  • Leverage any adaptive learning tools that have been purchased. Look at some free options. HERE you can find a list.

Social distancing does place an added stress on teachers. The good news is that many effective practices that were used before the pandemic have just as much value, if not more, in the current environment.  Engaging learners and ensuring they are all actively involved during direct instruction will mitigate off-task behavior while setting the stage for increased motivation.  From here, the stage is set to implement some personalized strategies that support various learning modalities and needs.

Stay safe, everyone, and keep up the great work.  Your efforts are appreciated.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Message to School Leaders

A great deal has been written on the heroic efforts of teachers during the pandemic. I, for one, have penned my fair share of posts that highlight the exceptional work they have and continue to do under extraordinarily challenging conditions.  They continue to overcome daily obstacles as every day feels like a trial by fire ordeal. It’s tough to understand the challenges they are going through unless you walk in their shoes for a day. We owe them all a debt of gratitude that should extend well into the future after the virus has been controlled.

Flying under the radar in many cases are school leaders.  The pandemic has also placed immense stress on them as they balance support for teachers and meeting the demands of stakeholders. As I work with schools on hybrid learning, I see firsthand the immense pressure on leaders to solve what seems like endless challenges that come from every direction.  During a recent coaching visit, the time was spent strategizing ways to support students who are struggling as well as figuring out how to get remote learners to attend classes. These issues are not new by any means but have been amplified as the pandemic has worn on over time.

Many leaders are desperate for ideas that can help their staff and students.  You might not see it, but many are at a breaking point. Here are both a message and recommendations based on what I have witnessed and learned firsthand in schools since the onset of COVID-19:

  • Don’t think you need to do it all yourself.
  • Prioritize time, standards, and SEL needs.
  • Continue to advance learning and equity in your schools with professional development.
  • Know and appreciate the impact you have.

No one has all the answers or even the best ones.  Keep in mind that strong leaders ask for help and admit when they don’t know something. In this day and age, it is critical to rely on our best resource – each other.  Leveraging other leaders, both externally and internally, to assist with overcoming challenges just makes plain sense.  Consider tapping into the expertise of a global network through a Personal Learning Network (PLN). When appropriate, delegate tasks to build capacity on others while lessening the load on yourself. Finally, focus energy on the most vital tasks.

Keeping our sanity while reducing both stress and anxiety are paramount.  Prioritizing what is truly important sends a powerful message to teachers.  In a recent post, I outlined specific give and take strategies that can be used to free up time, focus on the most critical standards students need right now, and address mental health concerns.  The latter is so important for teachers and students.  When looking out for others, please don’t forget to address your own social and emotional needs.  Taking care of yourself allows you to do the same for others, but your own family will greatly thank you for it.

In the midst of adversity, opportunity arises.  We have seen so many educators innovative their practice in such a short period of time, especially regarding the purposeful use of technology.  Many valuable lessons have been learned during the pandemic that has set the stage for scalable change that benefits all learners. One of those is the embracement of more personalized approaches to ensure equity where all learners get what they need, when and where they need it.  While progress has been made in many schools, there is always a desire and a need for job-embedded professional learning that is practical and on-going, something that I emphasize in Digital Leadership.  Learning is the fuel of leadership. Effective leaders engage in it continually while also providing options for their staff to do the same.

Finally, it is difficult at times to realize the impact that a leader has when every decision either doesn’t feel right or is second-guessed.  There are no easy or straightforward solutions.  Focus first and foremost on creating a nurturing environment for all kids.  Ensure you are there for your staff by listening to concerns and addressing them to the best of your ability.  Take needed action on behalf of those who you serve.  Showing up and trying is more important than you know.  Believe in your abilities and the impact that you have. You might not see it, but the rest of us do.  Thanks for your efforts, and keep up the great work.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

All Hands On Deck Approach to Connecting with Families

The pandemic has brought to light numerous challenges, many of which were known prior to the rapid spread of COVID-19, that have rocked our world.  Equity, primarily digital, might be at the top of the list. More than ever, schools realize that to facilitate learning in equitable ways, they must provide all learners with personalized supports.  Another pressing challenge is engagement both in and out of the classroom.  Having the right pedagogy in place is a critical step in keeping those who are attending classes, either remote or face-to-face, engaged. However, it is impossible to overlook the need to assist further those who are currently failing or not showing up at all. 

A great deal has been researched on this topic over the years and has provided some crucial aspects to remember. Regardless of family income or background, students whose parents are involved in their schooling are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have better social skills, show improved behavior, and adapt well to school (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Engagement strategies need to start early and be sustained. During elementary school years, parent partnerships build a strong foundation for student success and future engagement opportunities (Dearing et al., 2006). The goal is to have kids engaged in class, but we need to ensure that they are actually attending.  Even after accounting for grade level and previous absences, students with engaged parents report fewer days of school missed overall.

There is a great deal more research out there that makes the connection between student outcomes and family engagement.  As leaders are experiencing difficulty with engaging families across the globe, an “all hands on deck” mentality in terms of the strategies utilized should be embraced.  In a recent post, I provided some detail on ideas that have gained traction during the pandemic.  While these are definitely useful, I am always on the lookout for even more to assist the district and schools I work with on an on-going basis.  Below are some additional strategies to employ for your consideration:

  • Houses of worship
  • Parent-Teacher Organizations (PTO’s)
  • Local businesses
  • Alumni networks
  • Mainstream media
  • Tips from learners who are thriving

Houses of worship are an untapped resource. While many families are not engaging with their schools, they are still attending religious services. Herein lies a great opportunity to provide important messages for families that the leader of the service can read. This idea also solves a problem with language barriers as many houses of worship speak in the native language depending on the denomination.  Another community resource is local businesses.  When I was a principal, I always left paper flyers on the checkout counter and even asked to display some in the windows.  If you have not tapped into these two resources, I hope you now will.

PTOs and alumni groups are also excellent pathways to get information out. Since each group has unique relationships with families, I leveraged them to distribute emails, paper flyers, and social media posts.  While each group was impactful in its own way, the mainstream media had a different type of influence that could not be overlooked. As such, I was always reaching out to newspapers, radio stations, and televised news networks to get powerful stories out there that would improve connections with families.  Do you know what makes a great story that can be shared with the media and through your own channels? Tips and ideas from learners who have excelled during the pandemic!  Getting their insight is invaluable, in my opinion.

Digital leadership calls for a multi-faceted approach to engage families where they are the leads to some form of two-way communication.  Please don’t discount any strategy that can help make a connection, as the impact could be priceless if it helps our learners. I hope you will consider sharing in the comments below specific actions that you have taken that have led to a positive outcome with families.  Stay safe, everyone, and know that your work really matters. 

Epstein, J.L., & Sheldon, S.B. (2004) Getting Students to School: Using Family and Community Involvement to Reduce Chronic Absenteeism. School Community Journal, 14, pp 39-56.

Dearing, E., Kreider, H., Simpkins, S., & Weiss, H. B. (2006). Family involvement in school and low-income children’s literacy performance: Longitudinal associations between and within families. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 653-664.

Henderson, A. T., & Mapp, K. L. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Modeling Hybrid Learning to Support Educators

Hybrid learning continues to be on the minds of schools and districts.  Either they are beginning to get ready to shift from remote learning, or challenges have arisen after meticulously planning for a smooth rollout. In either case, I commend them for seeking out assistance for staff to ease concerns and ensure sound pedagogical practices are in place.  These models were never meant for K-12 education, and there is no definitive playbook available as things seem to be in a constant state of flux during the pandemic.  Educators have admirably risen to the occasion, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve continuous support, practical strategies, and timely resources. Investments now will serve to provide needed assistance while paving the way for sustainable changes to pedagogy in the future. 

To this end, I hit the ground running to begin the new year by traveling to Oklahoma to work with Sapulpa Public Schools. Like virtually every district and school, educators were experiencing some challenges with hybrid learning. During my first session of the day, I worked with administrators to best support their teachers.  As I was on-sight with them in a socially distanced cafeteria, I facilitated a more traditional workshop.  I combined practical strategies aligned to the current situation combined with multiple opportunities to discuss essential questions and then share responses using digital tools. However, something was off as I felt that I really wasn’t showing them the reality of what their teachers were expected to do in their classroom with remote and face-to-face students simultaneously. Thankfully this changed for my next session.

I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to work with all district teachers on hybrid learning and encouraged them to attend the session as well. In my mind, this was the perfect opportunity to model pedagogically-sound hybrid learning in a way that was manageable yet effective. The scenario turned out to be perfect as I had approximately 200 teachers join remotely on Zoom and had another 50 or so socially distanced in the auditorium. I was pumped to do my best to replicate what teachers experience currently in their classrooms with hybrid learning in order to address challenges and lessen anxiety.  I cannot overstate the importance of modeling strategies for teachers and administrators under the same conditions that they deal with daily.

Using a toolbox of ideas and strategies developed during the pandemic in my work with schools, I facilitated the workshop using effective instructional strategies, essential questions, breakout rooms, and digital tools in ways that I outlined in my last post.  I stressed how I wasn’t doing anything radically different from what successful teachers did prior to the pandemic throughout each activity. For example, I chunked the content shared and infused numerous interactive tasks for discourse and collaboration. As they worked in groups, I moved about the room and monitored progress physically while also checking in on the remote learners.  After a set amount of time, all of the attendees shared their responses and reflections using various digital tools. After focusing on practical pedagogy, we ended with some ideas on transitioning to more personalized approaches through blended learning.

The feedback afterward presented validation for how I structured the workshop.  First and foremost, I wanted everyone to understand that the key to any hybrid learning model is creating an equitable learning experience.  Whether an attendee was with me remotely or face-to-face, they all were engaged and empowered through the same activities.  I can state how critical this is for our learners. We need to make them feel a part of the lesson. The second takeaway was not to overthink things but to keep it simple, as outlined in this post.

All in all, we get what we model.  Educators desperately want and need support with hybrid learning. The best way to get results is to model both expectations and strategies while also creating norms to ease anxiety levels. If you need additional support here in the United States, look no further than available Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Title II and IV funds. The criteria stipulate the use of technology to improve learning outcomes. Feel free to reach out at any time ( to discuss the work I have been doing with schools and what I can do for you. Keep up the excellent work, everyone! 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Making Headway with Remote and Hybrid Learning

With 2020 in the rearview mirror, it is now time to focus on the present with an eye to the future. Many difficult lessons were learned during the pandemic, and a few more are sure to materialize over the next couple of months.  Even though educators have been challenged like never before, they faced adversity and stepped up to the plate admirably for their learners.  While a great deal can be written about the challenges experienced and those still prevalent, I want to focus on some of the good that has come out of the COVID-19 nightmare. Remote and hybrid learning at scale was never meant for K-12 education, but the fact remains that each has been a catalyst for some exciting changes that have long been overdue.

As I recently worked with leaders from Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey, during a coaching session, I asked them to take a few minutes, and each share something positive that came about as a result of the pandemic.  Too often, we tend to dwell on overcoming hardships that we forget to celebrate both small and large wins. With morale at a breaking point now more than ever, teachers and administrators need validation for all they have done recently. These can become critical building blocks for sustainable change. 

As each leader presented their views on positive shifts to practice, you could see their pride swell.  They shared how teachers got better using technology, reached out more for feedback, collaborated more, and improved classroom management. They also shared that the facilitation of professional learning improved, a greater reach was achieved thanks to technology, previously unknown teacher strengths were unearthed, and there was the ability to get into more classrooms. All in all, these are all great examples of progress in difficult times. How has your practice or those in your school/district changed for the better?

As the new year begins, schools, for the most part, are still where they were in 2020. That is why it is imperative to celebrate success in any form and provide further support for teachers and administrators. Instead of dwelling on all that hasn't worked, energy should be spent on all that has during the pandemic. Consider these questions from your lens. What are your exemplars of effective remote or hybrid teaching and learning, and why? How are you sharing these with colleagues and staff or using them for professional learning and feedback? While these provide ample opportunities to reflect, further headway can be made by focusing on the following:

  1. Continuity and consistency – Keep it as simple as possible. Embrace a learning management system (LMS), settle on a video conference solution that has breakout rooms and integrate one digital tool that aligns with effective instructional strategies. Then be sure to use consistency and ensure there are continuities either across your school or K-12.
  2. Lesson structure – The key here is to ensure there is a balance between synchronous and asynchronous activities both with and without technology.  Other considerations include chunking how content is presented, utilizing routine checks for understanding, providing brain breaks, and incorporating movement activities. Engagement issues arise when it is entirely direct instruction, or learners are expected to be on technology the entire time. HERE are some ideas on how to balance things out.
  3. Relevance – Learners need purpose. Without this, the willingness and desire to learn dwindles. An anticipatory set at the beginning of every lesson is a great start, but they're also should be at least one opportunity to apply thinking in a relevant way.  Kids become intrinsically motivated when they know why they are learning something and how they will use what has been learned outside of school.
  4. Rigor – Any remote or hybrid experience should challenge students to think. Consider how questions are scaffolded and the way in which knowledge will be applied to solve complex problems.  The ability to think, pandemic or not, is the best way to future-proof learning for all students while setting them up for success.  
  5. Purposeful use – Technology has played a considerable role during the pandemic and will continue to well after.  However, just using Zoom to "deliver" instruction should not be the goal and does not constitute effective use. Now is the time to focus on purposeful use aligned to sound instructional strategies (review of prior learning, checks for understanding, closure, assessment).  From here, it is about empowering students to use technology to learn in ways that they couldn't without it.
  6. Blended learning – One of the best ways to incorporate all of the above is through blended pedagogies.  Often, though, there is confusion as to what this really is. Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace while also having voice and choice. Consider practical strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and flipped lessons.
  7. Leverage your superstars – There is no better way to make headway with remote and hybrid learning than to put the work of your trailblazers' front and center. Consider sharing what they are doing in email blasts and through social media. Not only can they serve as motivation for teachers who yearn for practical strategies, but their work can also be shared with stakeholders to showcase what is working. Your superstars can also lead professional learning.

What we have and continue to learn during the pandemic will pave the way for sustainable changes to practice that will positively impact kids. Don't sell yourselves short. In the midst of immense challenges and struggles, you have all stepped up in ways that illustrate how amazing educators are. Remote and hybrid learning can work because of your efforts. Continue to keep things manageable while also looking for opportunities to reflect and grow.  You don't have to have all the answers or solutions. It is a sign of strength to admit that you don't know or need help in these cases. If this is your situation, please feel free to reach out as I am more than happy to help in any way that I can.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Strategies to Accelerate Family Engagement

With all its challenges, the pandemic brought to light the need to either rethink or improve various aspects of practice.  When it comes to leadership, the importance of effective communication skills to engage and empower families moved to the forefront.  There are many reasons for this, but the most pressing was the need for information related to COVID-19, especially during the early months of the outbreak.  The move to remote learning, then a hybrid model, and frequent back-and-forth changes necessitated the need for timely and accessible information. 

Over time the emphasis shifted to getting messages to families that student engagement had become a critical issue as the pandemic raged on, even with the approval of two vaccines.  Headline after headline acknowledged that tens of thousands of students had yet to log on to any remote classes during the school year.  Overall attendance was a major issue as concerns over increasing learning gaps grew. If things weren’t challenging enough, the added stress of a lack of engagement by remote learners on video calls compounded things further.  As I write this post, leaders are still currently dealing with these issues. 

There is a need to embrace an all-hands-on-deck approach to engaging families right now.  A focus on solely traditional methods will not cut it, unfortunately.  The same old thinking typically leads to the same old results. Right now, time is of the essence, which is why leaders need to critically reflect on their actions in order to improve the outcomes of any messaging strategy.  Below is a quick list of ideas to consider:

  • Social media
  • Video streaming (i.e., Facebook Live)
  • Notifications (SIS, email, Remind, LMS)
  • Virtual events
  • Games
  • Flyers 
  • Infomercials and public service announcements
  • Yard signs
  • Town Halls
  • Testimonials

In Digital Leadership, I wrote about the fundamental need to meet stakeholders where they are and engage them where they are using a multi-faceted approach.  Herein lies why social media has to be a critical component of any strategy. However, leaders must also look beyond Twitter and Facebook and begin to utilize more popular tools now being used by families such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and Pinterest.  Each of these has the ability to harness the power of images and videos to capture attention while delivering powerful messages. Any tool with video capacity can be used to push out infomercials that highlight both positive aspects of current school culture or pain points.  Consider having students help you create these. Many leaders have turned to live video to not only get information out but to engage families on a weekly basis through the facilitation of town halls where questions are answered. 

Testimonials from students and parents on successful remote or hybrid learning practices can also be shared using social media. With virtual events, leaders can provide insight into how remote and hybrid learning is just as meaningful and challenging as face-to-face. Consider using this strategy as an open house of sorts. Another tried, and true technology option is messages sent through both your student information system (SIS) and learning management system (LMS) as well as Remind. Each can be set up to send out both email and text messages. Back when I was a principal, we embedded critical information on student report cards using our SIS. 

The list above also includes some non-tech options to engage families. It is important to note that digital equity is still an issue, and we cannot assume that everyone can be reached using email or social media.  Paper flyers still have value. Sending them through the mail is always an option, but those whose students continue to either not attend school or be disengaged try taping them to the front door. I know this might seem a bit unconventional and a hassle. However, the fact remains that all options need to be on the table. Some schools have gone as far as installing yard signs to hammer the point home that kids need to attend classes and complete schoolwork. Another idea is to use games such as bingo with incentives such as school swag for families that participate. The example below could be adapted in such away. 

The list I provided outlines a variety of strategies leaders can use at any time to improve family engagement.  Keep in mind the importance of creating messages that resonate. In BrandED, we outlined the importance of promise, result, and image when developing an engagement strategy.


... A compelling core connection to the value we guarantee to our community


...A consistent reason to believe by our community 


...Identity that grows awareness of the good we accomplish 

As you work to craft both a communications and public relations plan that includes the above elements remember to use the power of stories. Storytelling impacts the brain in ways that make it easier to remember critical messages by tapping into emotions. It also aids in getting important information out to diverse audiences. Beyond the emotional connectivity, strategic thinking about messages shared enables leaders to set measurable goals that establish and ensure long-term trust. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. There is no better time than now to become the storyteller-in-chief!

As I work with leaders across the globe, family engagement is consistently one of the top challenges that they face.  The ideas in this piece are only suggestions.  When it is all said and done, it’s how these and other practical ideas are put into practice and lead to success.  For more strategies, consider getting your hands on both Digital Leadership and BrandED