A Learning Observation

I have pledged to make myself spend two half days a week (at a minimum) doing nothing but visiting classrooms.  I want to connect with students, see the work that they are doing, watch my staff and highlight the exemplary practices I see, and do everthing I can to promote a positive learning environment.   I have found that by watching the students  I get a much quicker read on what learning is taking place.  I remember that as a teacher, I felt good when there was a lot of interaction amongst the students and interaction between them and myself as we went through the day’s lesson.  I was sure that I was keeping students engaged and that we were making good progress.  The problem that I did not realize was that I was only really interacting with a few students in each class and that many students were only partly engaged at best and at worst, completely unengaged.  I did not get an objective view of what was going on in my classroom until several of my colleagues and myself started a peer observation program.  We watched each other teach and gave each other feedback without the fear of the “sumative” evaluaton of an adminstator’s authority.  I learned from my peers that my students were more engaged when I did student centered activities, only lectured for short periods of time, and used a seating chart to help me determine questioning patterns.  I think I also learned more about being a better teacher by watching my colleagues teach and interact with their students.  I learned a lot about using Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Socratic Method of questioning by watching excellent teachers who taught in the rooms down the hall.  I know time is a premium for teachers, but if there is any way that you can find time to step into the room of a colleague, you may find that some of the best professional development is being demonstrated right around the corner.

Photo courtesy of the  Jordanhill School D&T Dept photostream on Flickr

Getting into the Gap

One of the most important things I feel I must do this year is to understand the gap that exists between where we are and where we want to be. We have identified that we want to build strong relationships with our students. To create a caring learning community where all of the students feel safe enough to take the risks needed to experience true growth. We want to make our learning environment more learner centered with students taking on an active role in that environment as opposed to a passive one. The learning experiences need to be engaging and tied to real problems where students are actively seeking real solutions. We want to create strong relationships with parents in such a way that they are partners with us in this journey. We want to build partnerships with local and regional resources so that we can connect our learning community with expertise that will impact the everyday learning experience. The hardest part for me is trying to get an objective picture of where we are and what the true gap is. Staff, students, parents, I need your help. Where are we in relation to these goals? Are these goals realistic? I need your help to “get into the gap”!

Photo courtesy of Meckert75’s photo stream on Flickr

You Can’t Afford Not to Become a Digital Leader!

Do you ever Google yourself?  If you don’t, why not?  If you do, what do you see?  If something about you does not come up on the first page, something is wrong.  Your learning community needs to know what you believe is important.  Your voice and ideas need to be read and heard!  If you are not blogging or putting out a digital newsletter on your school or district website, you are missing golden opportunity to communicate with staff, parents, students, and the stakeholders of your community.  Most students and parents are using digital media to communicate with friends and family using websites like Facebook or Google +.  If you or your school community are not using these digital mediums to communicate your story, you are missing out, and what is worse, people may be telling your story for you and you might not like their version!  As a leader, you have to plug yourself into these networks, to build your school’s brand, to keep your stakeholders informed, and to model good communication for your staff. 

If you lead a school or district today, you are a busy person!  Phone calls, paperwork, meetings, classroom visits, building budgets, curriculum…etc. fill your day and it is hard to stay ahead of the latest trends and news in our field.  It is essential that you be informed on national and state policy and keep up with what your neighboring districts are doing to improve their schools.  How do you do it?  Digital tools are are available to bring you the latest news and trends, cut down on desk time, and keep you connected to your staff and administrative teams.  You can have a tool that brings you the latest education news right on your desktop, customized with just the content you want (try Google Reader).  You can have educators all over the world sending you ideas and resources directly to you on your computer or phone (try Twitter).  You can collaborate with staff and teams virtually without having to physically meet (try Skype, Google Docs, or Google +).  Evaluations and data about observations can be collected, stored and distributed digitally by using a smartphone, iPad, or laptop and a form created in Google Docs.

The examples above are just a small sampling of the ever growing number of digital and social media that are available for school administrators to make communicating and dealing with data easier.  What is probably just as important as using these tools to make work more collaborative and less time consuming is to model for the learning community modern tools that today’s students and teachers need to be using daily to continue to learn and prepare themselves for the future.  You may be saying to yourself, “I can’t afford the time to figure all this stuff out.”  I say, “You can’t afford not to find the time to become a digital leader!”

Time To Go All In!

The dawn of the 2011-12 school year is just days away, hard to believe!  This year will mark my fifth as an “edublogger” and a crusader for the use of web 2.0 tools, interactive technologies, and social media in our class rooms. I have pushed my staff to use Twitter, we have Facebook pages for our library, student services and several classrooms, and I have used Youtube as a way to address issues in the school community.  We have classes creating content collaboratively using Google docs, Blogging to write to a wider audience, Skyping with experts outside of the school, and digitally connecting with the National Center for Super Computing at the University of Illinois for chemistry applications.  We were successful in obtaining a EETT grant to procure multiple laptop labs and IWB’s for classrooms.  The grant also allowed us to provide many hours of professional development for our staff about using the new equipment.   On the face of it, it seems like we have done a lot to change the way try to engage our students at PCHS, but there is so much more we can do to give the learners (students and teachers) self direction and further engage them.  As I reflect about what has changed in the past four years, I am pleased to know that we have tried to embrace what many schools still have not yet begun to explore.  I have a great staff that is trying very hard to make a learning environment that is personally connected and engaging.  We have nurtured several teacher leaders to get out in front and lead by example with the use of social media and other technologies.  My charge this year is make these practices more systemic. I have to find more ways to say yes to innovative ideas. Sometimes I will need to simply get out of the way and let my staff do the leading. We need to make the above practices the norm not the exception.  I have to continue to find ways to provide the necessary tools and exposure for our staff to make our school more geared toward student centered learning. The biggest barriers to getting to where we need to be is the need to get more tools in the hands of students and the absence of adequate bandwidth to access the information and services that are essential for engaging today’s learners.  In a sense we have dipped our toes in the water, we have been dealt a good hand, NOW IT IS TIME TO GO ALL IN!

Photo by Banspy on Flickr

Golf, a Metaphor for School (and life)

I have been golfing a lot lately.  It is a way to recharge my batteries in the summer, and besides, it is good exercise.  My golf game is a lot like everything else in my life, I like to analyze it and try to make it better (my poor children).  I have been tweaking my swing and have really concentrated on rolling my wrists and occasionally “slapping my wrists” for more power.  Now, when I mess with my swing, inevitably I end up really struggling with my game for awhile and the other day was no exception.  My brother-in-law (bless him for putting up with me) and I went on a all-you-can-play-for-one-price outing the other day.  The day started bad and got worse.  I was lucky to hit the ball in the right direction and more than 40 yards.  We analyzed what was wrong and decided I was leaving the face of my club open on every shot.  Simple fix.  Close the face. Turn the wrists.  I did this, over and over and over, to the point where I was taking a 1/4 swing at the ball and was still missing for the most part.  Very aggravating to say the least!  I struggled for 34 straight holes.  Then, by some minor miracle, or as my brother-in-law says, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while,” I started realizing that my problem was my take away and back swing, not how I was holding my club at the point of contact.  I had been short arming my shots all day as a by product of the latest tweak to my swing.  The last two holes I hit the ball well (for me anyway).   I was happy to be hitting the ball well, but frustrated to have spent 34 holes doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.  What is my point you ask?  We are doing the same thing with our education system.  We have over analyzed what we are doing and are concentrating on doing things that will not really make our system better.  When our test scores are not good, we decide to spend more time prepping for tests and to take more tests.  Sounds like me trying to make sure my club head was straight at impact when it really did not matter what I did until I fixed my back-swing.  We have to fix what we are doing with our students before measuring how they do matters.  We can get “on par” with where we want to be, but we need find the real issue that is causing our schools to fail.  Focusing on student engagement, using the tools available today and creating a community of learners matter much more than test prep and testing.

Picture courtesy of kulicki on Flickr

There is no “Easy Button”, “Just Do It” Anyway!

First I apologize to Staples and Nike for the title (a nod to the Principalspage legal department).  Now, on to the business of this post…. I have been accused of being a big talker.  Full of ideas, little action.  Well, that might have been true in the past, but I am moving on from that characterization.  Public education is in a precarious yet unique point in its existence.  Some folks feel like it is under attack and feel the need to defend it.  In my view, we are in a time when there is more freedom to try new things than ever before.  I think we have more to lose by defending the status quo than we do by experimenting with doing “school” differently.  Listen, I have something that I have to admit, the reformers that have grabbed hold of agenda in public education are right, what we are doing now in most schools is not working well.  If we choose to continue to do what we do without change and expect different results, we are going to make what they want to do easy.  Change is not easy, change is not clean, it is messy and it is hard.  But, there is a window of opportunity for us to sieze the agenda and transform what we do and prove those who would test our students into a stupor wrong.  We must move to challenge our students in relevant and engaging ways and make sure that they are exposed to the skill building experiences that will transform them into active citizens and contributors to our way of life.

Listening

Have you really ever tried to listen? Not just attend to. Not just look at, nod the head and verbalize an affirmative to someone. To really listen you have to consider what is being said, try to understand from the others point of view what the issues are. This is hard. Hard for anyone who deals with as many people as educators do on a daily basis, but it is essential. If we do not listen, we do not know where we are, and if we do not know where we are, we have no idea how to get to where it is we are going. Today my goal was to listen. I had a few failures where I got caught up in how the story affected me and had to react. I ended up following one teacher and apologizing for not listening and in the end I think we learned a little bit about each other. It was a good thing. In a couple of other instances I heard teachers who are struggling with their art. I say art because I consider these two teachers artists. They command their craft in such a way that they create as they teach. As artists they create learning situations for their students that are born of experience and a deep understanding that they teach students, not a subject. I will not go into details about their stories, but I will say that these two teachers are canaries. Ones that need to be watched when they are struggling because it is likely there is something foul spoiling the environment in the building because they normally do not have a hard time with teaching on a daily basis. It could be the fact that we have had a really disjointed second semester with six snow days in the last two weeks, or it could be that we have not seen the sun since October (seems that way anyway).  There may be lots of reasons for what I observed today, the one thing I know is that I sure need to spend more time listening when I can. Solutions in education leadership are not usually easy to come up with, but they are impossible to fashion if you do not know there is a problem. What I have learned by listening is that I need to listen more.

Balancing Act…A Note to Myself

It is hard to believe that the first semester is over and spring is little more than a month away.  After a little reflection, I am finding it is an important time for me to find more balance in my day.  Some traps I have identified to avoid:  always finding something to complain about, not giving positive feedback, not finding time to get out into the classrooms, thinking work is the most important thing I do, spending too much time online; not making time for family; skipping daily exercise… and the list could go on.  If you have read my blog, (hi Mom!) you have probably come to the conclusion that I am hopelessly looking for the magic pill that will make all teaching relevant and all students actively engaged.  I need to find balance here too.  Not everything I do is related to trying to reform education and finding the answer to “how do we make it better?”  I have to make time to tell our story here at school and make sure everyone understands the incredible effort that is put forth here everyday by both students and teachers.  We have an incredibly compassionate staff that cares for our students and works to make a difference for all different types of students and that fact needs to be accentuated!  I need to make sure that I realize that not everyone believes that Twitter and blogging are the best way to connect and share ideas(yet).  I have to be careful to leverage my online presence to find resources and ideas for staff and students and to demonstrate that life long learning is my main pursuit.