Monday, August 8, 2016

The Half-Truths of Collaboration in Education

In a healthy collaborative situation, I know I can create better work and deliver a higher quality product to teachers and students. This might be the reason that my favorite part of the writing process is going through edits, feedback, and revision. If a person I trust can read through a piece with fresh eyes and perspectives, I am eager to consider their ideas, concerns, and even the most minor wordsmithing. Notice, however, that I prefaced that last statement with the caveat that it must be a person a trust.

Taking the time to build a relationship of trust must occur before healthy honest collaboration that challenges all individuals and improves the collective results. Without building that trust, we are left with "half-truths" about collaboration.

In Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work, Dufour, Dufour, and Eaker explore these half-truths.

1. "First, educators often substitute congeniality for collaboration (Barth, 2006; Segiovanni, 2005). If the members of a group get along with one another or perhaps read and discuss the same book, they are satisfied they are a collaborative team. They are not–just as good friends or the members of Oprah's Book Club ar not collaborative teams." (p. 182)

Classmates and colleagues who have similar personalities or interests might end up becoming friends. We might be able to laugh together about happenings in our classrooms and we might even share exciting or discouraging moments with one another. Perhaps we gather at a local establishment on Thursday or Friday afternoons to talk about topics outside of education. All of this is helping to build trust, but it does not mean we are collaborating.

2. "The second half-truth asserts that 'collaboration is good.' But there is nothing inherently 'good' about collaboration (Fullan, 2007; Little, 1990). It represents a means to an end rather than an end itself. Collaboration can serve to perpetuate the status quo rather than improve it, to reinforce the negative aspects of the culture rather than subject them to collective inquiry." (p. 183)

A quick conversation by the copy machine about a difficult student is a great way to relieve stress, but it isn't collaboration. A laugh over lunch about one of those moments in class that should go into your "someday" comedic book about the real life of a classroom teacher is fun, but it isn't collaboration. Again, these conversations help establish trust and build relationships with colleagues. They are the building blocks for potential future collaboration. But they, alone, do not constitute collaboration.

To me, collaboration means that all parties are willing to give, receive, and respond to both critical and positive feedback. It isn't about being best friends, although everyone should be positive and professional. It isn't about coming together to vent about standards or students. It means all parties are committed to using their dedicated collaborative time to improving themselves, helping their colleagues, and improving their students' results.

Barth, R. (2006). Improving relationships within the schoolhouse. Education Leadership, 63(6), 8-13.
Fullan, M. (2007). The new meaning of educational change (4th ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Little, J. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers' professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509-536.
Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the heartbeat: Leading and learning together in schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Four Elements of Paperless Learning

My journey to the paperless classroom started years ago. Even then there was both excitement and criticism around the concept of eliminating paper from our learners' academic experiences. Now that we are in an era where technology is a given, and no longer something special, is "going paperless" still worth discussing? What does "going paperless" really mean, anyway?

Here's my definition:
Paperless Classroom: Students and teachers use all available tools to access resources, record and organize information, communicate among themselves and with the outside world, and create original products as evidence of learning. As with all other resources and materials, paper is only used when the learning process or final product requires paper as a necessary element. Paper does not drive the process.

There are obvious economic reasons for going paperless:

  • Economy of costs: Paper is a significant percentage of every school's budget each year. If teachers and students use less of it, then schools save money.
  • Economy of time: Teachers use big chunks of their prep time standing at copy machines waiting for packets to assemble and appear in the output tray. Distributing and collecting paper worksheets also takes time away from learning during class time. Instant digital distribution and collection eliminates these time sucks.
  • Economy of convenience: It is quicker and easier to find, curate, and send resources to students, parents, and colleagues using paperless means. For instance, it is quicker and easier to send an email home with links to missed readings, videos, and activity instructions than it is to pull together a folder of class work and deliver it to a family.
While these are the reasons some educators have started on the path to going paperless, the truth is that a paperless learning environment can be truly transformational. Even if some teachers make the leap for the three reasons above, they should be moving toward these four game-changing elements of the paperless learning environment:

1. Open Doors to Open Education Resources

About a year ago I wrote an piece for EdSurge and said that Open Education Resources (OER) were one of 4 top trends for the coming school year. OERs are more than a trend. OERs can fundamentally change they way teachers design their students' learning experiences. What's more, they help students understand that they, like their teachers, can feel empowered to find their own high-quality sources of information. OERs include primary sources, documentary videos, audio podcasts, lesson and project plans, hands-on activities, infographics, artwork, and a whole lot more. Why not unlock all of the potential that OERs make possible for your students? Committing to a paperless method can help lead your teachers and learners away from prepackaged curricula and texts. Encourage them toward the instructional design and powerful potential that OERs make possible.

2. Smoother Collaboration

There is more to collaboration than co-writing a Google Doc. So much more.

Ask yourself and your students, "How can technology bring us together and help us connect with the people we want to learn from?"

3. Create More and Varied Final Products

The funny thing about all the tests we take in school, both in K-12 and higher ed, is that they are the only tests we take in our lives. Once gaining my licenses and certifications at the end of my schooling, I have never taken a test since. Instead of measuring learning with a test, why not invite students to create like they will as professionals? Here are a few ideas:

If my students and I can dream up those projects, imagine what your students will do when you give them permission to be creative.

4. Practice and Refine Real World Skills

As you might be thinking already, students are using many real-world skills to create the products listed above. They have to clearly define their questions and goals, research pertinent high-quality information, organize the data, make a plan, problem-solve when things don't go as planned, give and take constructive feedback from their teacher and peers, and then figure out how to best share their final work.

These are skills professionals in all industries at all levels utilize daily. When we give students experiences like these, we are preparing them more thoroughly than any test could.


A digital worksheet is still a worksheet and going paperless should not happen for economic reasons alone. These four elements can be a guide to help shape your conversations with students and teachers about why paperless should still be top of mind. If your school or classroom is going to go paperless, why not leverage the opportunity and transform the way learning happens?

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Good, Better, Best of School Culture

It seems the universe wants me to think more deeply about school culture this week. So, I'm asking myself:

How can we achieve the best school culture?

I attended Edcamp Leadership Massachusetts on Monday (see #edcampldrma for the live tweets from the day) and the dominating theme was school culture to promote positive change and to address the current climate of unrest and inequity nationally and globally. The participants there asked themselves and one another what responsibilities schools have to intentionally shape their culture so that our students have a healthy environment to ask tough questions.

Then, of course, I read a few chapters in Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work as part of my summer learning with a few colleagues at school and the focus was on school culture. As I read, I found myself returning to the Cultural Shifts table in Chapter 3.

This and other reproducibles from PLC books can be found here.
Overall, the trend I noticed throughout the table is the quest to give all stakeholders a seat at the table. This means that administrators are working closely with faculty; teachers are constantly sharing, celebrating, and critiquing their work together; and students receive and are able to respond to formative feedback frequently. A school culture that promotes this kind of transparency will always be improving because every student, teacher, and leader has plenty of colleagues who willingly share their work for the betterment of the community.

It got me thinking about what this looks like at the classroom level and as part of that relationship between students and teacher. The work of Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey on personalized learning immediately came to mind. They also provide a chart, updated in their recent book Making Learning Personal, to help educators understand how to make the shift to a classroom culture that respects the personal learning needs of their students and promotes a healthier classroom community.

When a classroom community strives for personalization, the each learner is a stakeholder who has a clear voice in his/her own learning. While the table in the first book emphasizes the formation of a culture among the adults in the school, the table in the second book emphasizes the formation of a culture in the classroom. Why not tell our students we are working on building this kind of community and include them in it using the personalized learning table? Any time we can be transparent with both our colleagues and our students we are strengthening our school as a whole.

School culture is good when school leaders keep talking about it. School culture is better when school leaders and faculty come together. In the end, we will achieve the best of school culture when we involve our students in building that culture.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Best Personalized PD I've Ever Experienced

Over the past 4 months I've had two incredible opportunities and each of them could easily qualify as the best personalized professional learning I've ever experienced. In fact, they were so powerful that I am planning to propose that a similar experience and format become a part of the professional learning we offer at my school. Here is my proposal:

Open or close faculty meetings, PD days, PTO gatherings, and even student class meetings with a TEDx-style or Ignite-style talk from a member of your community.
Why was it powerful? Well, there are a few reasons:

From the Speaker's Perspective

On April 30 I had the opportunity to give a TEDx Talk as part of TEDxYouth@BHS in Burlington, Massachusetts and on June 26 I was able to give an Ignite Talk (twice!) at ISTE's 2016 national conference in Denver, Colorado. The format and preparation requirements for each event forced me to examine my pedagogy, classroom activities, students' projects, and many pictures of my classroom and students in action. Throughout this process, I developed a clear understanding of who I am as an educator and what I believe an educational experience should look and feel like for my students. Now that I'm on the other side of these events, I feel like a more confident and sure-footed teacher who knows my strengths and is eager to learn more on the topics where I need to grow.

From the Audience Perspective

Lucky for me, I was able to sit in the audience and watch my fellow speakers do their thing. Every talk I heard got me thinking in a different way about what my students could do and how they could be learning. Even though every member of that audience heard the same talks, they touched each of us differently. I've started to consider in detail how I can teach my colleagues and students to tell the story of our school through just about any social media platform, and Bill Selak's Ignite Talk about Snapchat is helping me bring another tool into the fold. My husband, who is not an educator, took Eric Johnson's TEDx Talk to heart, has mentioned his Erase Meanness ideas to others since, and still wears the green bracelet often. The colleagues from my school who witnessed Starr Sackstein's TEDx Talk about grades and grading in education have started to rethink the way they design projects and rubrics for their students. Adding these short but inspiring talks to the typical gatherings in any school community can bring people together and get them thinking and talking differently about what they do.

My Ignite talk about how I got rid of some parts
of my students' typical classroom experience and
helped them feel more empowered and engaged.

Get to Know the TEDx and Ignite Formats

Both TEDx and Ignite have strict formats. For instance, a TEDx talk cannot be longer than 18 minutes and is based on an idea that is new, is surprising, or challenges commonly held beliefs. An Ignite talk is propelled forward by 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. The speaker has 5 minutes to communicate their message in a fast but entertaining way that ends with a call to action.

How to Get Started

If you are thinking of trying out talks, it will take a little planning. Identify people in your school community who are taking risks and have something to share that everyone else can learn from. The speakers will need a couple of weeks to prepare. Here is the process I went through to prepare for both events:

1. Find your purpose. Examine your own creations (in the form of lessons, offerings for your teachers, or anything else), students' products, and photos from your school or classrooms. What is a common thread or big idea that you can share when you look at all of it as a body of work? What is the message or meaning you want to share about that work? How can your work inspire the people in your community to think differently about their work?

2. Write the transcript and create slides. I suppose this one step could be divided into two, but I did both simultaneously. I intended for the slides to emphasize the points I was making in the transcript through photos of my students and their work and VERY brief questions/quotes. When it comes to the words in your transcript and on your slides, less is more. Use simple clear language.

3. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Whether you are planning to do your talk from memory or with the help of some notes rehearsal is important for emphasis, timing, and clarity. I rehearsed in front of a mirror, my husband, and even my 7 year old daughter. I recommend rehearsing 2-3 times a day for the 4-5 days before the actual event. By the time your talk date arrives, you'll be confident and perform it well.

Organizers and colleagues can support speakers by reading transcripts and looking through slides (like Jenn Scheffer for my TEDx and Ross Cooper for my Ignite). Offering classroom space for rehearsals is helpful too.

It might make sense to start by modeling as a speaker yourself. Then go with speakers who are teachers, but don't limit yourself. If it goes well, invite parents to do talks for teacher groups or invite students to do talks for administrator groups. Anyone who has something to share should be teaching everyone who has something to learn.

Adding talks to regularly scheduled monthly meetings and gatherings can serve as a way to honor people who are taking risks, inspire others, and share the good that is happening in your school community. It can also be the best personalized PD every speaker and audience member has ever experienced.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Key to Revolutionizing Education

    As I was reading the first few chapters of Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work I found this statement about how policymakers view education and the role teachers have in improving our schools.

    Conservatives may contend that educators won't improve their schools, while liberals argue that educators can't improve their schools; but both groups seem increasingly resigned to the fact that efforts to reform schools are doomed to fail. (p. 51)

    The data the authors cite is positive,
    but it is largely based on test scores
    and graduation rates.
    Something is missing.
    Of course, the authors go on to use statistics to argue that there is evidence of widespread school improvement, despite the hopeless outlook many policymakers have. While these statistics are upbeat and fun to read, they are based on assessments: test scores, graduation rates, and how they measure up to socioeconomic data. There is something missing here: the human element. The biggest reason education continues to move forward is because of the determination of educators themselves. There is no single reform movement, technology tool, law, or regulation that is going to "revolutionize" education. Education will continue to grow, reexamine itself, make adjustments, and move forward because that is what good educators do every single day as they step into their classrooms.

    I do think there is a deeper message here about PLCs. The authors define a PLC this way:

    Educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. Professional learning communities operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous, job-embedded learning for educators. (p. 14)

    Educators who are focused on learning, their students' and their own, are the reason education continues to improve. We aren't satisfied to use a lesson that worked once, in the same way, year after year because we know we won't have the same students year after year. We design, implement, reflect, tinker, and redesign all over again to meet our students' needs. As a result, each year we get better.

    PLCs can help that forward progress of education because it provides an opportunity to go through this continuous process of self-improvement with other educators. Teaching is a lonely profession, and PLCs provide an opportunity to change that,

    Here's one of my favorite YouTube videos about the role of technology in education reform. I think it helps explain why PLCs are a good approach to improving teacher quality. The video, like the assumption behind PLCs, insists that teachers are the most important factor for any student. We should provide teachers with the policies and tools they need, but we must remember that teachers are the element of education every student really needs. Enjoy.

    Author's Note: As I mentioned in a previous post, I am engaging in my own personalized summer PD that includes books, conferences, online engagement, and more. This is a reflection based on the first chapters of one of my summer reads. A cohort of my colleagues and I are studying professional learning communities (PLCs). This post is a part of my participation in that summer work.

    Thursday, June 16, 2016

    The 5 Secrets to Personalized Summer PD

    Summer is an opportunity for educators to recharge both their mental and emotional energy and their enthusiasm for their profession. Indulge in a few hours in the sun, a dip or two in the pool, and an icy beverage. Then consider how you can use what is left of summer to prime you for the rebirth that next school year offers. Here are my 5 approaches to summer professional growth.

    1. Read

    Educators should read books that were written for educators, but should also read books that were not written with education in mind specifically. Education books, whether they are written by researchers or practitioners, can have a direct impact on day-to-day practice and can provide the inspiration you might need to inject the next school year with some new energy.

    Books that were written to inspire entrepreneurs or innovators can also apply to classrooms and schools. How can teachers and administrators think creatively about budgets, schedules, and spaces to bring more to their learners every day?

    What about novels that our students can read and that inspire all of us to examine other perspectives? My school has provided a few options for the summer community read and all of them ask students to honor differences, consider the bravery that is required of leaders, and think of how to spread goodness in our world.

    Want to know more about the titles I'm reading this summer? Click here to see the full list.

    What are you planning to read this summer? How are you hoping it will influence your classroom and your work as an educator?

    2. Watch

    Need a quick dose of inspiration? Turn to TED Talks. There are plenty out there to inspire educators. Here are a few places to start:

    • Ken Robinson, whose TED Talk is the most popular of all time, created his own list of 10 talks on education. Some of my favorites are on the list and I'm planning to make time to watch the ones I haven't yet viewed.
    • The 20 most popular TED Talks of all time also includes Susan Cain's talk on introverts and Simon Sinek's talk on leadership. Both talks have definitely influenced the way I work in my classroom and with my colleagues. I'm looking forward to watching the talks on the list that I haven't seen yet.
    • This playlist is full of talks from inspiring teachers. Topics range from best ways to teach maths and sciences to keeping the Taliban from shutting down a school.
    • Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend my own talk. As an advocate for the power of technology in education, I encourage to watch and ask yourself, "What if?"

    3. Attend

    In person connections are a powerful force for learning. When I attend conferences (or unconferences) I'm there for the keynotes, workshops, sessions, and hands-on opportunities. But mostly I'm there for the face-to-face connections I can make, the conversations we can have, and the stories we can share to both empathize and inspire one another.

    Make time for education events that are structured and formal like conferences. Look for the organizations that focus on your content area, on technology, on leadership, or on any other focus you have in your own professional growth. When you are there, be sure to make the keynote and featured speakers' talks. Look at the schedule ahead of time and pick your sessions to personalize your conference experience. Take notes using Evernote or Google Docs so you can refer back to them and share them with your colleagues later.

    Remember to make time, also, for events that are more participant driven, less scheduled, and way more affordable. Edcamps, which are FREE, and CUE Rock Star Camps, perhaps the best bargain in education, are my favorites. In both cases, the rule of two feet applies. Since there is no formal conference etiquette, participants are free to contribute to sessions, ask questions, or even leave for another offering if a particular session isn't meeting their needs. I love the culture of empowerment and choice that comes with that kind of learning environment.

    Each of the events I'm attending this summer will provide me with an opportunity to connect with a slightly different population in education.

    Want to know where to find me? Click here to see the list.

    What professional learning events are going planning to participate in? Who are you hoping to learn from while you're there?

    4. Engage

    If you want to continue the conversations you started at events or reach out to the authors of the books you've read, look no further than social media. Look them up and give them a shout out. Don't be surprised when nearly everyone responds and engages with you.

    Still haven't taken the dive into Twitter chats? Now is the time. Summer nights are relaxed, your mind is open, and your kitchen table isn't covered with lesson plans and tests to correct. Open your laptop and give Twitter chats a try. First, download TweetDeck to help you manage the chat hashtag better. Then, read 140 Twitter Tips for Educators to get yourself familiar with the etiquette and best practices. Take a look at this website with Education Chats organized on a calendar that is easy to reference anytime you are looking for inspiration for fabulous colleagues all over the globe. If you are intimidated and don't want to dive in, watch a chat or two first. Then go ahead and introduce yourself. You'll be hooked to the energy and the learning soon enough.

    Twitter is perhaps the most common medium educators use to connect, but it is far from the only social media platform. I also recommend Voxer for more personal discussions, Facebook for groups of educators, and Periscope for a live peek into the day-to-day of your teacher friends from far away. You can find more details on all of these tools and how you can use them in the Educator's Guide to Social Media from ConnectSafely.

    5. Plan

    The best part of my summer learning plan is that, in many cases, I'm reading or attending with colleagues from my school. We have already scheduled debriefs meet ups, both virtual and in person, throughout July and August. We are also working toward planning our own school-wide mini-conference just before school starts so we can share our learning with others. We want to have a solid plan for how we will use all of this inspiration for the benefit of our school and our students.

    Once you have mapped out your own professional learning, be sure to set aside time to figure out how you will apply what you've learned to your classroom, school or district.


    Of course, between chapters, TED Talks, conferences, and Twitter chats be sure to take a nap or a sip of a cold glass of lemonade now and then. Summer is for reigniting your teacher passion and recharging your teacher batteries. With some planning, you can do both.

    Thursday, June 2, 2016

    Response: Educators Have Many Roles

    Over this past weekend a handful of educators posted on their blogs about "pretend leaders," "mystics," and "EduCelebs."

    The posts seemed to target people who work in the field of education – as researchers, consultants, authors, and speakers – but are no longer working in a school or classroom daily. It is important to note: Each blogger acknowledged that these folks did work in schools earlier in their careers.

    There were two common themes across all posts:
    1. A person who claims to have experience or expertise but doesn’t is not a reliable resource in their profession.
    2. A person must presently work as a practitioner in a school or classroom in order to have any credibility in the education space.

    I agree with the first point.

    I disagree with the second.

    While it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to disagree with a book author’s premise or a keynote speaker’s thesis, it is not helpful to disagree with that same person simply because he/she has chosen a different career path than I have chosen in the same field.

    For instance, in the field of medicine, physicians who see patients day-in and day-out do not categorically discount the work of physicians who are researchers merely because they do not see patients. The research leads to breakthroughs in treatments that can help the practitioner physicians perform better for their patients. The news of this research is disseminated by authors of journal articles and speakers at conferences. Also, the data that practitioners provide to researchers informs how they prioritize time and funding to investigate solutions.

    Practitioners and researchers in the medical community need one another. This is also true in education.

    Thanks to educators who have chosen to work outside schools and classrooms, we have improved practices to use inside schools and classrooms. Here are some examples:

    These are just a handful of examples and there are more, but you get the idea.

    Educators in schools and classrooms around the country have improved their teaching practices because of the researchers, authors, and speakers who are part of these organizations. Teachers and administrators should continue to provide feedback to those researchers, authors, and speakers and that feedback should be based on the content of their work. 

    Education is not a race. When we encourage one another education moves forward.