Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Before Abandoning a Resource

I had the most enjoyable time watching my 3rd grade ELA team this year reflect on a new resource that they implemented this year. When they implemented the resource, they made norms to implement it with fidelity. Now that a year has passed, they took time to review everything about the resource and its impact on instruction. The conversation was fantastic.

How many times do we buy a new resource, try it out, and then wonder 3 years later where it went. All too often resources are discarded simply because teachers didn't have enough time and support to implement the resource with fidelity. Questions about the resource turned into frustration and finally bias about the resource all together. A recipe for abandonment.

To prevent turning a resource into one more dust-collector, teacher teams must spend time reviewing its effectiveness in helping students learn standards and determine teachers' next steps to increase its instructional efficacy. Here are some key points to consider when having a resource reflection meeting.

Teachers should take time to review what they really liked about the resource and how it impacted instruction. Which parts of the resource helped teachers do a better job delivering instruction? Which activities and supports helped students learn the content at a deeper and more meaningful level?

Review parts of the resource that teachers struggled with. Were there activities that teachers had difficulty presenting to students? Where did ambiguity surface when the resource was used? What parts of the resource created frustration for students? How did the resource affect the pacing of instruction?

What questions did teachers wrestle with throughout the year? Even though they tried to answer these questions, they continued to struggle no matter what problem-solving strategies they tried. Teams must make a list of questions that must be answered about the resource before next year begins.

Non-Negotiables for Next Year
Once teams isolate the strengths, weaknesses and questions, teams must create norms to use the resource more effectively for the next year. Identify what parts they will commit to implement better next year.

Resource Recommitment
Let's face it. Resources are rather expensive. They are complex to understand; thus easy to abandon if we don't like the way it works for us. Teams must take time to review resources, their benefits and drawbacks. By making a list of pros and cons about the resource, teams can effectively determine how to more effectively utilize a resource instead of relegating it to the fraternity of dust-collectors.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Angry Bird Learning

Angry Birds was an instant hit when it came out on the app store several years ago. The addictive seduction of the game was based on trying to get three stars at each level. I could get through a level with one star, but that wasn't good enough for me. I had to get the most points and the most stars before I would allow myself to move to the next level. Experimenting with the trajectory of my shot as well as where to place the birds to destroy the pigs' lair fed my addiction.

So why can't learning be that way?
The traditional way of learning motivates students to strive to solve easy problems and avoid difficult ones to get the most points. Knowing that mindset was the challenge for most students, we decided to flip this paradigm on its head. Our teacher teams in mathematics created three levels of difficulty for each math concept that all students needed to master:  1-Star, 2-Star, 3-Star. 

1 Star Problems

Level 1 challenges students to master the skill in its most basic form.  The good thing about having level 1 problems is that it helps teachers drive intervention.  If students fail to understand the basic concept in its simplest form, teachers know that remediation begins at the basic level of understanding. 

2 Star Problems 

Once students master level one problems, they move on to 2-Star Problems. These problems challenge students to master the skill in problem-solving situations that are limited to one or two steps. The idea behind 2-Star is that students apply their basic knowledge with more challenging problems.  If students master 2-Star problems for that skill, the student earns a blue star where they write their name and the skill on the star. The star is then posted on the wall in the grade level hall for all students and staff to see. Again, the great thing about 2-star problems is that teachers can focus their interventions on guiding students to understand how to apply their knowledge of the skill in basic problem-solving situations. 

But two stars isn't good enough for our students.   They are hungry for 3 star problems. 

3 Star Problems

Once students master 2-Star problems, they now solve the most difficult problems at level 3. 3-Star problems involve the highest level of rigor, and exceed the complexity that students will see on state standardized test (STAAR). Now, most students groan when they see challenging problems, but this is where the Angry Birds philosophy transforms students into learners. Because the students are motivated to do their personal best on one particular skill and they want their name posted in the hall, they do not see challenging problems as an obstacle but an opportunity they tackle with their mental dexterity. To be honest, it's pretty amazing to watch the students jump up and down with excitement when they have mastered the third level. Moaning is transformed into motivation. 

Angry Bird Learning 

The beauty of the Angry Birds philosophy is that it is not a massive change in the task, but a massive change in the mindset. By converting the problem into the prize, students are hungry and eager to demonstrate their learning quickly, so they can have their name on a star posted in the hall.  Excitement about learning gets harder as the year goes on, but if you build new and different extrinsic motivators into your learning, intrinsic motivation will follow. This spring, tie your learning to the philosophy of one of the best selling games of all time, and then watch the students get fired up to master skills and become intrinsically motivated to excel at learning.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Getting Teams out of the Intellectual Echo Chamber

Bill Ferriter, Parry Graham & Matt Wight's book,  Making Teamwork Meaningful, is a great resource to guide leaders in building great teams.  I particularly enjoyed their thoughts with respect to balancing the diverse philosophies with compatible personalities. 
When considering personnel combinations, there are two extremes to avoid.  At one end is the intellectual echo chamber, where members of a PLT all share identical pedagogical philosophies and practices. (Ferriter et al.)

Do you have Professional Learning Communities or Professional Echo Chambers?  Here are some thoughts on the differences between echo chambers and learning communities.

Echo Chambers have:

  • 1 voice that is repeated multiple times.
  • Many voices that do not offer new ideas.
  • 1 belief about instruction
  • A natural apprehension about new instructional ideas
  • A desire to keep things safe and calm for the group.

Learning Communities have:

  • Many voices that contribute to build one big idea.
  • Meaningful discourse about different ways to tackle new problems
  • A melting pot of beliefs about instruction. 
  • A natural desire to try new instructional practices
  • A deep rooted commitment to put kids' needs above their own.
When I process this idea of echo chamber, I think of a Gregorian Chant in the Catholic church.  The chant is unified as everyone must sound like one voice.  But, the purpose of PLT's is not to be unified in voice but in its purpose, serving all kids.  This requires all ideas, all voices and all people to come together to create the ultimate unified action.  Teams cannot serve all kids by following one voice or one philosophy.

The brilliance of team is found in the diversity of ideas, the menutia of meaningful dialogue and empowerment through experimentation.  Echo chambers don't possess any of these qualities. If teams want to move to the next level, they must embrace the messiness that it takes to be creative.  To get out of the vacuum of an echo chamber, individuals must move beyond echoing the words, whatever it takes, and truly do whatever it takes to meet the needs of all kids.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

April Appreciation: Donut Fret Friday

Every month on the last Friday, we have a little tradition called "Donut Fret Friday".  It is a little play on words that I like to use to celebrate the end of a great month.  With the stress of student achievement, teachers must know that we appreciate them.  Keeping in mind with the phrase, "If you don't feed the teachers, they'll eat the children", I like to provide a great breakfast for them each month to say thank you.

The message is simple.
  • Thank you for your hard work this month. 
  • Thank you for all that you do for kids.
  • Don't fret about all the things going on right now.  It'll all work out in the end.

Donut Fret Friday takes one thing of their plate for the day, making their own breakfast.  They feel appreciated and the end their week and their month on a positive.  Try it and see if you agree.  Donut Fret Friday builds culture.

The Leadership.Fog

There are days when leaders just aren't with it.  Their mind is clouded with so many things that they can't seem to find their way.  Pressure and stress cloud the leader's vision and blind him or her to the upcoming obstacles that would normally be seen.  To make matters worse, difficult people or situations can make the leader's path virtually disappear, thus slowing down progress.

Let's be realistic.  Fog is a natural phenomenon.  We are amazed each time that this cloud comes to our level and frustrated when it slows us down on our journey down the road.  Fog will come.  It will slow us down, but it will eventually disappear.  So there's no need to freak out when fog enters our leadership world.

What can we do to get through the fog?

Focus on your Vision

When their view is obscured, leaders must reflect on what their purpose for leading is.  Reminding yourself of what you are really trying to accomplish will help you push through the fog toward your destination.  Focusing on your own vision is like turning your headlights on low, slowing down your car and concentrating on the road directly in front of you.

Own your Reality

 When problems abound, leaders often lose sight of where they are on their journey.  They forget how far they have come, and the fog of problems can cause negativity and cynicism.  Relax.  Life is really not that bad.  These problems will eventually evaporate as long as you wait for the sun to come up.  Own the reality of your progress, and believe in the work that has brought you and your leadership to this current location on your path of success.

Give Thought to Causal Factors

Fog is a great thing because it forces travelers to slow down.  In leadership, we need to slow down.  Use the fog to analyze the cause of its arrival.  What were the precipitating factors that caused the fog in the first place?  Was there a communication break-down?  Was a key person left out?  Is this situation something that has not been addressed in your policy?  By giving thought to causal factors of the fog, leaders can pinpoint the source of the fog and eliminate it from occuring in the future.

Fog is a natural necessity in our world.  It is something that we learn to live with.  But as leaders, we should move beyond that to make it something that we learn to learn from.  I hope you slow down and enjoy the fog the next time you encounter it in your work.