Sunday, December 26, 2021

Top Posts of 2021

With 2020 in the rearview mirror, the consensus was that 2021 would be a much smoother ride.  Most people would agree that this was not the case.  During countless coaching visits, I saw and heard firsthand the myriad of challenges being faced in classrooms, schools, and districts.  Through it all, though, educators found a way to forge ahead in the midst of adversity.  It sure wasn’t an easy path, but the resilience, dedication, and determination of people who have committed their lives to serve children of all ages have and continue to be on display.  I, for one, cannot thank them enough for the sacrifices made and the resulting impact on kids.

Writing this past year has been bittersweet for me.  On the one hand, I continually empathized with educators as the struggle was, and continues to be, very real.  It is difficult to honestly know this feeling if you are just up on a stage and not in classrooms or buildings.  Context matters, especially when doling out advice.  On the flip side, I have witnessed some of the most extraordinary practices that have been implemented with fidelity.  This is no small feat considering the environment that a pandemic had and continues to create.  Through a coaching lens, I was able to generate topics for posts that I thought people would find value in and appreciate.  Writing provides me with an avenue to both reflect on my practice and celebrate that of others.

Speaking of celebrations, I had one on a personal level with the publishing of my latest book in April. Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms was one of my major pandemic projects, alongside with becoming a master at cooking charbroiled Gulf of Mexico oysters on the grill.  Since the book became available, I used this blog to create supplemental content while expanding on many of the concepts with additional insight.  All of these posts and accompanying original images have been curated on Pinterest.  In addition to these resources, there is also a comprehensive study guide and an impressive bulk order discount through ConnectEDD Publishing (email info@connecteddpublishing.com).

Without further ado, here are my most popular posts of 2021 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. 

How to Make Learning Stick

Pedagogical Leadership

8 Elements of Effective Coaching

Learning Recovery Through Acceleration

Making Headway with Remote and Hybrid Learning


Thanks for all you do, and wishing everyone the best in 2022!

Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Systematic Approach to Social and Emotional Support

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on youth across the world. While learning recovery remains a needed area of focus, virtually every educator I come in contact with explains that students are a year or two behind socially.  In some cases, the extended time at home during remote or hybrid learning has led to the development of concerning behaviors that weren’t prevalent at scale in the past.  All of this has led to a dramatic increase in discipline issues and a significant amount of time having to be spent on classroom management and establishing routines. It is frustrating for teachers and administrators alike.

To make matters even more complicated, the emotions of students are all over the place.  These stem from a variety of factors, including isolation, excessive time on social media, watching parents struggle financially, and the impact of the virus on the health of family members.  Uncontrolled or unchecked emotions lead to negative impacts on learning.  It’s tough to learn, let alone concentrate if the mind is being pulled in numerous directions.  The combined social and emotional hurdles are making a challenging year even more difficult. Truth be told, this isn’t an issue that is only impacting kids. Efforts need to be made, and an array of supports offered to ensure the well-being of staff, especially those on the front lines who are in direct contact with students daily.

Let’s start with students. For SEL to be more than a buzzword or fad, it needs to be embedded into school culture.  A focus is excellent, but it’s the actions that truly matter.  To begin, a relational foundation has to be established.  Here is a quote I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Schools:

“It all comes down to relationships. Without trust, there is no relationship. Without relationships, no real learning occurs.”

If we want to get students to open up to us, then efforts need to be made to build their trust. While this is important, it is also critical to embrace a practice strategy to identify, monitor, and support kids dealing with social and emotional issues impacting their learning and that of their peers.  My colleague Venola Mason developed a practical approach called Pause & React. Here are some of her thoughts:

What I’ve noticed in classrooms across the country is that educators are using the first days and weeks of school to build relationships and connect with students.  However, as the school year progresses and more attention is paid to academic content, there is less of an emphasis placed on maintaining these critical relationships. Oftentimes, students who experience trauma or other difficulties are overlooked until their situation becomes very severe, leaving teachers unsure of how to turn things around.    What I arrived at to help address this need is a practical and straightforward resource for approaching relationship-building—a tool I call, PAUSE & REACT. It’s meant to be simple—not another thing to add to a teacher’s plate, but an intuitive and structured way to leverage and strengthen relationships with students. 

Be sure to check out this article that outlines the specifics behind Venola’s Pause & React tool.


SEL has become an embedded coaching component in my own work with districts and schools.  Teachers and administrators are in need of practical strategies that can be easily implemented daily and across the curriculum. Below are some to consider:

Daily meeting: Many educators have heard of the Morning Meeting, where students engage in various SEL activities prior to the start of content-related lessons.  I love this strategy but feel that it should rotate throughout the day, so it isn’t occurring during the same time or period each day.  

Lesson planning/activities: While Daily Meeting is a great start, SEL should be emphasized across the curriculum.  HERE are some great ideas from the HMH Shaped blog.

Digital surveys – During a recent coaching visit with the Juab School district, I saw a teacher begin the day with a digital survey that included the following: How are you feeling today? Why do you feel that way? Do you need to conference with the teacher? While the rest of the class worked on a choice STEAM activity, the teacher conferenced with those kids who needed non-academic support. This is a great strategy that can be implemented in classrooms and across a school.

Personalized learning: Sound pedagogy can be the most proactive approach out there to meeting kids' social and emotional needs on a daily basis. In every personalized model, an opportunity for socialization or conferencing with the teacher can be included.

Family engagement: SEL should never be the sole responsibility of teachers.  Consistent programs and outreach to families highlighting strategies and resources that can be used at home to identify and support students are paramount.  

While students get most of the attention, educators are also in desperate need of social and emotional support.  Many teachers are at their wit's end, and who could blame them.  Sari Beth Rosenburg shared the following:

Teacher morale and mental health are suffering as school board meetings intensify and the pandemic rages on. They are facing renewed attacks on the very content that we teach while school shootings are becoming more frequent again after a respite during the pandemic. It should come as no surprise that teacher morale and mental health are suffering as a result. In fact, we are seeing a growing teacher shortage in America, bordering on a national crisis. It is crucial that we find ways to support teachers, especially as student mental health is also suffering as a result of the pandemic.

As someone who spends a great deal of time working side by side with teachers in schools, I couldn’t agree more.  In a previous post, I outlined an array of detailed strategies that administrators can leverage to lessen staff load, including mental health days, covering classes, getting rid of meetings, grading grace periods, and eliminating non-instructional duties. Grace and empathy can be shown through electronic polling to see what they need. Bigger lifts included finding ways to add additional time for planning or securing outside counseling services. At this point, it is critical to consistently show you care no matter your role in education. 

We cannot ignore the other educators who need social and emotional support, including counselors, coaches, instructional aides, administrators, or anyone else who serves students.  While they are typically more behind the scenes, some are suffering as well. Here is where Central Office, boards of education, families, and community members can step up.  Extending breaks, thank you cards, substituting, or food items can go a long way to help all educators cope a little bit better. 

A systematic approach employ’s a Maslow’s before everything else lens.  If we don’t take care of all of our people – students, teachers, support staff, administrators – our education system could be damaged in ways that will be felt for generations.  

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Unlocking the Potential of Students

What are you good at and why?  I am sure a list of things comes to mind. Now think about how this list of items plays out in your daily life. We all have strengths, and a common reaction is to leverage these as much as possible.  I see this a great deal in my work coaching leaders. While there are many approaches that have varying value depending on the situation, there is a natural tendency to stick with what one believes they are particularly strong. There is nothing inherently wrong with this per se, but by doing so, we run the risk of capping our potential when it comes to achieving goals and growing. Feedback and accountability for growth through a coaching cycle help to unlock strengths that we might never know existed. 

Learners in our classrooms are no different.  They all enter school at various grade levels with a perception of what they are strong at, which can cloud their ability to grow.  The same can be said with perceived weaknesses that act as a limit on their capacity to learn.  All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it so that they can find success in the classroom and beyond.  There is no one best way to unlock potential. Below are some ideas to try in your classroom, school, or district.



Clarity

Students want and deserve to know why they are learning something, how they will use what has been learned outside of school, and what tells them if they have successfully achieved the specified goal for the lesson, project, or assessment.  If they are unclear about the purpose of the task or how time is being used, it becomes more challenging to empower them. 

Passion surveys

Finding out what really motivates and inspires kids can be one of the best uses of time an educator or school engages in if the act sparks changes to practice.  These passions can be integrated into daily lessons through anticipatory sets and projects or dedicated genius hours at the school level.  They can also be leveraged to make changes to curriculum and course offerings.

Personalization

I have written a great deal on this topic and even included an entire chapter in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms.  These approaches focus on competencies such as time management and self-regulation to develop greater independence. Strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and flipped lessons allow students who are already competent in the standard to move ahead and engage in more challenging and relevant activities. They also enable the teacher to work with those students who need more support, which sets the stage for their potential to be unlocked. 

STEAM activities

Kids crave purposeful work grounded in interdisciplinary connections. When content is taught in isolation, a common outcome is students' lack of engagement, becoming either compliant or complacent. This inhibits potential.  When developing lessons, activities, and courses, think about how they will connect science, technology, arts, and math.

Portfolios 

Traditional assessments never tell the whole story and can mask what students actually know or can do. It is also common knowledge that not all kids respond to conventional summative assessments.  Portfolios are a great way to measure the growth of time while also allowing creative freedom by demonstrating what has been learned.  

Feedback

When it comes to unlocking the potential of all kids, feedback is a true gem when it is timely, practical, specific, and addresses progress towards a learning goal.  It can also be used to challenge kids to unleash their creativity or push them outside of their comfort zone.  How students analyze, discuss and act on feedback is as essential as the quality of the feedback itself. 

Pertinent resources

While the strategies above take some planning to integrate effectively, educators can also harness an array of resources to assist with unlocking the potential of learners. I'm pleased to be partnering with Verizon to share a resource that I highly recommend -  Verizon Innovative Learning HQ. The online portal offers an accessible, one-stop-shop of free resources such as AR/VR apps, immersive lesson plans, and professional development from Digital Promise. The sky is literally the limit while also saving precious time. 

In the words of Joyce Meyer, "Potential is a priceless treasure, like gold. All of us have gold hidden within, but we have to dig to get it out." It's time to lend kids the tools to unearth theirs. 

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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Time is the Best Resource You Have

These are challenging times, and I cannot express my gratitude enough to dedicated and resilient educators who continue to show up for kids and each other.  As someone who is in schools and classrooms on a weekly basis, I am tasked with validating the excellent practices taking place while also providing practical feedback for growth.  During my coaching work, I almost always recommend to administrators that they poll their staff to see what support they need. Educator voice is critical and even more so now as people are burnt out and emotionally drained. It’s no shock that their number one response is time.  I also hear this when I am facilitating targeted workshops.  While this is undoubtedly important, it is also vital to gather input on professional learning and resources that are needed— more of this down the road.

There is only one thing a teacher can control, and that is how time is used when students are in class. While there is always an innate need for more, it behooves us to think about opportunities that already exist to improve lesson effectiveness while also meeting the unique needs of learners that lead to better outcomes.  Personalized strategies such as station rotation, choice activities, playlists, and the flipped approach maximize the amount of time that is already available.  Data is used to group, regroup, provide targeted instruction, pull individuals for intensive one-on-one support, and differentiate to especially help at-risk learners.  These pedagogical techniques also naturally align with MTSS and RTI models, which you can read about in more detail HERE.

Now I know what some of you might be thinking.  Personalized learning sounds great in theory, but from a practical standpoint, it takes some time to plan when implementing for the first time.  I can’t argue with this point, but it is also a farce to say outright it can’t be done at all grade levels. Hence, the realist in me routinely recommends a modified approach to how time is used no matter the grade level.  Here is the strategy:

  • Facilitate a mini-lesson that chunks the content.
  • Provide the whole class with an activity that you would typically have already planned.
  • While the majority of the class works on the assignment, pull small groups of students or individuals for targeted support.
  • Close the lesson.

That’s it in a nutshell.  No extra time is spent planning, but support within the period is provided to those who need more help, especially at the secondary level, where the physical space might not cater to station rotation. If the goal is to improve learning and close achievement gaps, it is essential to reflect on how time is spent during class, something that I emphasize with a great amount of detail in Disruptive Thinking. From here, specific requests can be made for professional learning support on personalized strategies. 

While easier said than done, administrators can look for ways to provide time to teachers for planning and professional learning aligned to some of the ideas shared in this post.  

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What it Means to Be an Equitable Leader

So, what is the secret sauce when it comes to effective leadership? This is a tricky question to answer as there is no definitive right way to lead and no shortage of advice available that you can weed through.  Just go on a trip to your local bookstore or visit Amazon, and you can quickly be immersed in a wealth of knowledge and perspective on the topic.  While the ideas and strategies might seem valuable on the surface, it is critical to align each with the context in which you lead to determine practicality. Just because it sounds good doesn’t imply it will work for you. In many cases, you must find the style that works best for you while also being flexible that this might fluctuate based on the needs of those you serve or the initiative you are trying to move to scale.  

I shared the following in Digital Leadership

Leadership isn’t telling people what to do but instead taking them where they need to be.

The phrase above is what I feel epitomizes the equitable leader.  There isn’t one blanket approach that has the magical ability to empower staff. Instead, it is all about a diversified strategy that works to meet both collective and individual needs.  Minal Bopaiah and Jessica Zucal shared what people truly want from a leader:

They want an equitable leader. Someone who sees the system. Someone who is not tolerant of difference but rather so comfortable with it that they are willing to embrace it and make it a feature, not a bug of the workplace. They want someone who understands that great organizations encourage everyone to play to their strengths instead of insecurely asking everyone to fit into a mold of the “ideal” employee.

Equitable leaders:

  1. Justify decisions using research and evidence
  2. Look through the lens of staff to better understand their point of view, overcome personal bias, and develop a more inclusive perspective
  3. Seek consensus whenever possible by involving others in the decision-making process to increase embracement
  4. Clearly communicate why, how, and what when it comes to change
  5. Show openness to other pathways, ideas, and strategies
  6. Offer unwavering support that is differentiated in areas such as time, resources, and professional learning
  7. Model expectations to illustrate a commitment to the change process
  8. Exhibit vulnerability by admitting mistakes or when they don’t know something

Equitable leadership is all about understanding the needs of those you serve in order to accomplish collective goals. It hinges on providing people with what they need, when and where they need it, to ensure success. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Experience Can Be the Best Teacher

The earliest known version of the proverb that serves as the title for this post is attributed to Julius Caesar.  You might have noticed that I tweaked it a little bit by replacing “is” with “can” to prove a point in a little bit. While knowledge is undoubtedly essential, the act of using it effectively to implement shared and individual goals is what truly matters.  Through experience, we hone our craft and grow. At least, this is what the end goal should be if we are to learn from it to continually get better. 

I vividly remember an experience a few years back that radically changed my trajectory as a facilitator of learning. During a breakout session at a large national conference, I had a packed room, which is something most presenters yearn for, and I was no different.  Since I was relatively new in this space, I reverted to what I was comfortable with and talked at them for seventy minutes. Quite frankly, my thinking was that this is what they actually wanted at a conference.  In my mind, I was doing exceptionally well as only a few people left during the session.  When it was all over, I felt pretty good.

Later that evening, I pulled up Twitter to see if there was any chatter about my session. At the time, I wish I hadn’t, as I got skewered by numerous attendees. In a nutshell, I was told that I talked at them the entire time, provided no opportunities for discourse, and didn’t allow for needed reflection on the concepts presented.  As much as the critical feedback stung, it became a catalyst for my growth in the professional learning space. I had veered away from the strategies that I had championed as a principal with my staff and needed to make concerted efforts to increase agency across any type of session I facilitated.  In this case, experience was the best teacher, but only because I acted on feedback in order to grow. 


Experience can be the best teacher when it leads to:

  • Construction of new knowledge
  • Reflection to improve 
  • Openness to and acting on feedback 
  • Seeking out different perspectives
  • Regularly engaging in opportunities to improve 
  • Knowing that growth is a never-ending journey

As the saying goes, experience is the best teacher. This isn’t necessarily true, although it can be if the outcomes listed above are embraced.  It is critical that we reflect on our experience and continually grow. Doing something the same way for twenty years doesn’t mean someone is effective. If our practice doesn’t change or improve, then experience doesn’t mean very much.  

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Curiosity: The Ultimate Learning Trigger

When I reflect on my childhood there were numerous profound experiences that impacted my trajectory. I still vividly remember spending my summers in Ocean City, NJ where one set of my grandparents resided.  To this day there is just something magical about the beach.  My grandfather Robert Lewis had many hobbies that intrigued me and my brothers.  One of them was making jewelry. While could craft any stone into something beautiful, he often chose amethyst as purple was my grandmother’s favorite color.  He was also fond of using opals, which my mom really loved.  It was so interesting that we asked for a rock polishing machine so that we could attempt to make our own jewelry. Though not as successful as him, we did create some interesting pieces. 

There was another hobby of his that captured my attention even more and that was surf fishing.  I really didn’t care if he even caught anything as long as I was able to venture with him to the beach and look for shells or sea creatures. On successful days I would bring back live sea stars and hermit crabs in a bucket. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I discovered this wasn’t the best of ideas. When my grandfather did catch fish, he would put them in either a bucket or a small gully for us to watch.  Even though his intended target was flounder he always seemed more successful hooking either sand sharks or blue-clawed crabs. Nonetheless, I got my parents to buy a field guide so I could learn more about local marine life. While my time with him was much too short, his influence on me was and still is strong. I eventually pursued and received a degree in marine biology.

Each example above shows the power of curiosity as a trigger for learning. Whether it was the hobbies of my grandfather or just being on the beach, each experience entailed observations and questions, which led to further exploration fueled by intrinsic motivation. Brain research validates how critical curiosity can be when it comes to learning. Here is an excerpt from a 2014 article in Scientific American by Daisy Yuhas:

“Researchers asked 19 participants to review more than 100 questions, rating each in terms of how curious they were about the answer. Next, each subject revisited 112 of the questions—half of which strongly intrigued them whereas the rest they found uninteresting—while the researchers scanned their brain activity. During the scanning session participants would view a question then wait 14 seconds and view a photograph of a face totally unrelated to the trivia before seeing the answer. Afterward the researchers tested participants to see how well they could recall and retain both the trivia answers and the faces they had seen. 

They discovered that greater interest in a question would predict not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it. A follow-up test one day later found the same results—people could better remember a face if it had been preceded by an intriguing question. Somehow curiosity could prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory more broadly. This, it can be concluded that Curiosity boosts people's ability to learn and retain new information, thanks to key reward and memory centers in the brain. ... For questions that they were curious about, participants remembered answers better than for questions in which they were less interested.”

Here are some ways to seamlessly infuse curiosity across the curriculum:

There is also a great, free resource that can assist with all the above in the form of Verizon Innovative Learning HQ.  Packed with lesson ideas, AR/VR apps, and professional development this next-generation online portal can help all educators unleash creativity to trigger meaningful learning amongst all learners. In the words of Ken Robinson, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.”

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Upgrading the KWL Chart

There are many strategies at the disposal of a teacher to help students learn.  The anticipatory set functions as a hook at the beginning of the lesson for motivation, while closure ties everything together. Routine checks for understanding provide valuable feedback as to whether or not instruction is hitting the mark. Turn and talk allows for needed discourse.  While all of these are pedagogically sound, they don’t matter much if kids are unsure of where the lesson is going.  Learning targets provide valuable clarity on expectations.

  1. Why did we learn this and what will I be able to do when I’ve finished this lesson?
  2. What idea, topic, or subject is important for me to learn and understand so that I can do this?
  3. How will I show that I can do this, and how well will I have to do it to demonstrate that I have learned something new?

Here is something I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

Developing learning targets does not go far enough, though. Learners need to understand the point of a lesson just as much as a teacher or administrator. Imparting relevance through a specific context and appli¬cation helps achieve this. However, everything must be tied together from the learner’s point of view. This is why closure and reflection at the end of the lesson are crucial. Either or both of these elements can be tied to the use of a KWL chart. 

There are variations of this resource, but for the most part, it is commonly structured in the following way:

K – What I know.

W – What I want to know or what I wonder.

L – What I learned.

There is always an opportunity to build upon existing resources to make them more effective and meaningful.  Hence the evolution of the KWL to KWHLAQ. Below, you will see what this chart looks like as presented in the book and the various question stems to spark and cultivate disruptive thinking. While I have developed some question stems for each category, educators can expand on them to align with local curriculum. 

From a pedagogical standpoint, it is essential to build reflection into daily learning activities to bring the learning process full circle. Bottom line: everyone—especially our students—should understand the point of a lesson. The KWHLAQ chart not only connects to prior learning and interests but also provides the means to showcase learning.  

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Different Ways to Show Learning

For many of us, our preparation to become teachers consisted of courses focusing on classroom management, lesson design, grading, and proven strategies that had withstood the test of time.  We were also exposed to learning style theory and the many benefits it had on meeting the diverse needs of students. To this day, it is still heavily referenced, even though it has been debunked extensively.  Cindi May shared the following in Scientific American:

Just because a notion is popular, however, doesn't make it accurate. A recent review of the scientific literature on learning styles found scant evidence to clearly support the idea that outcomes are best when instructional techniques align with individuals' learning styles. In fact, several studies contradict this belief. It is clear that people have a strong sense of their own learning preferences (e.g., visual, kinesthetic, intuitive), but it is less clear that these preferences matter.

There is little scientific support for this fashionable idea—and stronger evidence for other learning strategies.

Research continues to provide further evidence that the conventional wisdom about learning styles should be rejected by educators and students alike (Kirschner, 2017; Husmann & O'Loughlin, 2018; Riener & Willingham, 2010).  While this challenge to conventional wisdom might be hard to swallow, some good news comes in the form of a silver lining. There isn't one best way to learn as the path and preference are different for everyone. Hence the need to incorporate an array of strategies that pull on the strengths of some learners while addressing weaknesses in others.  

In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I laid out an array of personalized strategies that can be implemented after a mini-lesson is facilitated.  While these take some planning upfront, there are some simpler techniques that can be readily integrated into any lesson in the form of voice and choice.  When reviewing prior learning, checking for understanding, or closing lessons, allow students to choose how to show what they have learned through the following means:

  • Writing (digital tools, individual whiteboards)
  • Video (Flipgrid, Padlet, Seesaw)
  • Audio (Padlet, Seesaw)
  • Images (Padlet Jamboard)
  • Drawing (Nearpod, Pear Deck, Padlet, individual whiteboards)

While tech presents a myriad of options for students to show learning, traditional mini-whiteboards can also be used in some cases. None of the pathways above are meant to replace summative assessments, but using varied formative means caters to a learner's preference by giving them the best opportunity to show what they have learned. It builds confidence, fosters creativity, and empowers students during lessons. 

Husmann, P.R., and V.D. O'Loughlin. 2019. "Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles? Disparities among Undergraduate Anatomy Students' Study Strategies, Class Performance, and Reported Vark Learning Styles." Anatomical Sciences Education 12, 6–19. 

Kirschner, P. 2017. "Stop Propagating the Learning Styles Myth." Computers and Education 106, 166–171.

Riener, C., and D.T. Willingham, 2010. "The Myth of Learning Styles." Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 42(5), 32–35.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Alternative Learning: Supporting Our At-Promise Students

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

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

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

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

Innovative Environment and Pedagogy

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

SEL

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

Behavioral Supports

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

Transition Services 

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

Family Engagement 

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

Community Partnerships 

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

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

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Efficacy in Professional Learning

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

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

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

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


A solid professional learning plan is:

  • Research-aligned
  • Ongoing
  • Job-embedded

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

Effective implementation relies on:

  • Continuous feedback
  • Accountability for growth
  • Evidence of impact

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

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




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


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

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Seeking Out Feedback

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Setting the Stage for Current and Future Learner Success

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Five-Step Process for Resolving Conflict

When it comes to a thriving school culture, many factors can derail progress. While lack of resources, too many mandates, unclear vision, and a lack of accountability might be at the top of the list, I feel that conflict, especially internal, possesses the greatest threat to achieving goals and improving outcomes.  While this has always been a part of human nature, it is interesting to observe how it plays out at an individual level. Some people avoid conflict at all costs, while others actively look to incite it for reasons that don't make much sense. Regardless of one's stance on the issue, the result can erode culture. 

I wish I could say that conflict is avoidable, but the fact of the matter is that it is not. Conflict materializes when one person or group perceives that someone else or others have taken actions to adversely affect something that is cared about. The adverse effects can include lapses in productivity, leaving for another position, work disruptions, falling behind on deadlines, absenteeism, and emotional stress. It goes without saying that none of these potential outcomes are positive. Thus, it is crucial for all educators to have a plan to address conflict using a proactive approach. While the purpose of this post focuses on adult interactions, the same methodology explained below can be used to help resolve issues between students. 

"When you have a conflict, that means that there are truths that have to be addressed on each side of the conflict. And when you have a conflict, then it's an educational process to try to resolve the conflict. And to resolve that, you have to get people on both sides of the conflict involved so that they can dialogue." - Dolores Huerta

Here is a simple five-step process that can be used to resolve conflict.

Identify the issue or problem: Typical catalysts include gossip, unclear communication, insensitivity, bullying, misunderstandings, and poor work ethic. As mentioned previously, some people live to start and sustaining conflict. If this is the case, it is vital to be proactive in dealing with these people so that they don't constantly erode culture.  Sometimes the best resolution, in this case, is termination. 

Determine the feelings at play – Every catalyst that sparks conflict is fueled by various feelings such as anger, animosity, hurt, embarrassment, fear, and frustration. Knowing what feelings are being triggered is critical for the next step.

Figure out the impact of the issue or problem – Earlier in this post, I identified some general negative impacts associated with conflict. Other topics such as individual performance, group dynamics, relationships with students and families can materialize. Once the specific issue or problem is identified, a course of action can be put in place. 

Facilitate a mediation: Once all pertinent information is gathered, get people in a room, allow them to air their concerns, ensure there is equity in terms of speaking time, and listen intently without passing judgment. Mediation is about both parties airing their grievances to set up reconciliation through an agreed-upon resolution.  

Work to a resolution – Here is where you need to be actively involved and embrace the role of negotiator.  A solid first step is to help the parties understand their way of dealing with conflict.  Only then can a resolution be achieved.  Consider using the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI).  There are five major styles of conflict management—collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising. The end goal is to have each party agree on a resolution where they see a mutual benefit and the impediment to a positive culture is removed.

Effectively identifying, understanding, and managing conflict is critical to both organization and individual success.  In the end, the overall goal is to control issues that can spiral out of control. However, conflict resolution can also lead to setting up more positive outcomes related to culture once people or groups learn to understand and appreciate one another more. After all, some of the best ideas materialize through conflict. 


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Closing the Digital Divide with an Emphasis on Learning

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Bridging the digital divide is a monumental task. It begins with providing learners with access to devices and high-quality Internet. For all the challenges it has placed on school systems, the pandemic managed to close the gap in this area significantly.  I watched some districts go 1:1 in a matter of days while also providing mobile hotspots for disadvantaged students.  While this represents a good start, there is much more to the process if the goal is to impact learning. With access to technology, there needs to be an equal focus on supporting educators on how to use it in a purposeful way that leads to improved outcomes.  Here is where Verizon is stepping up.

Connectivity is a lifeline to progress these days for students. Verizon is not only working to increase access to close the digital divide, but they are also providing critical support to improve learning. To that end, they recently launched Verizon Innovative Learning HQ, an amazing next-generation learning portal that is completely FREE! Highlights include the following:

  • Standards-aligned lesson plans across an array of content areas: There is a great deal to explore here. Each lesson contains an estimated time for completion, materials, technology to be used, and appropriate grade level. There are also learning outcomes aligned to Common Core, ISTE, and Next Generation Science Standards. As I explored, I also discovered full-length courses that students can take.
  • Augmented and virtual reality apps (AR/VR) – Engagement is always on the minds of educators. With these tools, students can dive deeper into concepts while also collaborating with their peers. Using the camera on a mobile device, augmented reality overlays images/media over the real world. It is a social experience, as opposed to virtual reality, where a single student would wear goggles that would obstruct them from their surroundings. There is so much potential for these tools to engage and empower learners.
  • Professional development – Through a partnership with Digital Promise, Verizon Innovative Learning HQ provides self-paced courses that educators can take on topics such as remote learning, hybrid instruction, digital inclusion, and blended learning. If the relevancy of the topics wasn’t enough, there is also an option for educators to be recognized for their learning. A unique aspect provided by Digital Promise is the ability to earn micro-credentials for certain completed sessions.  These asynchronous learning opportunities offer much-needed flexibility to educators. For more resources on remote and hybrid learning, be sure to check out my collection HERE.

As the world continues to change, learners need equitable access while educators require the tools and support to create powerful learning experiences.  These disruptive times have taught us not to prepare learners for something but to prepare them for anything! To accomplish this task, they will need technology and the means to use it in a purposeful way that develops critical competencies.  As I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, learners need to be empowered to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems. Hence the need to close the digital divide while making sure both learners and educators have the tools to support this goal.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Four Practical Ways to Blend

When it comes to blended learning, it is essential first to have an underlying understanding as to why this pedagogical strategy is valuable in the classroom. Let’s take a step back before diving into the nuts and bolts. Over the years, I have written a great deal about personalization, which is basically a shift from “what” to “who” as a means for students to demonstrate more ownership over their learning.  What is taught or on the test has little value if the diverse needs of learners aren’t addressed. The same could be said if all kids are learning the same thing at the same time in the same way.  

The path to equity begins with a vision where all learners get what they need when and where they need it, regardless of the learning environment.  This is the essence of personalization. While there are many strategies to personalize, blended pedagogies represent the most practical means.  While you don’t need technology to personalize, it is required to blend. Here is my definition shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms that makes a distinction between instruction:

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

Over time through my extensive work with schools, I have identified the four most practical ways to personalize through blended learning.  These include station rotation, choice activities, playlists, and the flipped approach. While each has unique benefits, they all help move teaching and learning from a state of equality to equity. The image below is my attempt to capture these significant changes.

I realized that I have separate posts and images on all four of these blended learning strategies and thought it might be a good idea to curate this information that educators have found valuable to create a resource. Below I have briefly summarized each approach and encourage you to click on the link for more detailed information.  

Station Rotation 

Students are grouped based on data and move through a variety of set activities typically consisting of targeted instruction with the teacher, collaborative exercises, independent work, and online tasks that are personalized for individual learners. The teacher establishes a block of time for each station, and students visit each one during a class period followed by some sort of forma¬tive assessment.


Choice Activities 

These allow students to select a set number of activities to complete from numerous options. Typically, they are arranged in a choice board or must-do/may-do format. Often a teacher will differentiate by having different versions. Students do not complete all of the activities.


Playlists 

A series of individualized assignments that students work through at their own pace while following the path of their choice. As students complete a task, they either color in the corre¬sponding box on a digital sheet next to their name or check off each box on a paper worksheet. Unlike choice activities, all tasks are completed. 


Flipped Approach

Students watch a short, direct instruction video or consume other forms of content outside of school at their own pace while communicating with peers and teachers using online tools. While in school, students work to actively apply what they have learned through concept engagement and empowering learning activities with assistance from the teacher.


All the blended learning strategies listed above allow educators to better use their time with students while opening the door to more significant equity through personalization.  It is important to remember that instruction still plays an important role, especially in terms of setting up the blended pathway of choice. It is up to the teacher to determine when and the extent to which each strategy is implemented.