Sunday, October 30, 2016

Students, Standards, and Finding the Switch


Recently I was honored that the people at The Learning Counsel asked me if I'd author their quote of the week. Inspired by my friend Dr. Robert Dillon's thinking in his recent post for them, I decided to focus the quote on a topic in which educators are getting mixed messages.


My fellow educators have commented with affirmations and encouragement to the posts on Twitter and Instagram showing the graphic above. I think there are a few reasons why the idea expressed in the quote is speaking to people.

They Know How to Find the Switch

Teachers are charged with helping students master new information and new skills day after day, year after year. Anyone can walk into a classroom, assign a reading passage and whip up a worksheet for a child to complete. Skilled creative teachers do much more than that. They take some time early in the school year to get to know each student. They know learning is more likely to happen when they remember to think of themselves as teaching children first, and teaching math/history/reading/science second. 

For example, if we need a 9th grader to truly understand the massive risk American leaders took when writing and publishing the Declaration of Independence, we need to help them link the emotions they've felt as an emboldened rebellious adolescent to that act of political rebellion that occurred in 1776. Great teachers are able to trigger these emotions and then unleash learning at the right moment, so the purpose and impact of the Declaration is something their students will never forget. Now this is just one example, but skilled teachers can create similar experiences for students when teaching algebra, poetry analysis, or music composition.

When it Comes to Students and Standards, Students Come First

While standards-based data collection and data analysis are essential to help teachers effectively respond to student strengths and weaknesses, it is even more essential that the teacher has established a healthy genuine relationship with that student. When students only receive feedback in the form of numbers and grades – data – they are less likely to be motivated to try again or improve on their own. Conversely, as Dan Pink explains in Drive, intrinsic motivation is a more effective driver. So when a teacher has taken the time to get to know a student and build that genuine relationship, the teacher knows what that student values and will be able to link those values to a standards-based learning task. 

The results: students and teachers enjoy learning together, teachers share both personal and data-driven feedback with their students, and students understand both the standards they need to meet and how to meet them.

While it is important for educators to have standards to help guide their practice, we must remember that even a thorough and clear set of standards will not help students learn on their own. Effective teachers – the ones who take the time to get to know their students and are creative enough to trigger that switch in them – are the key to student learning.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

4 Characteristics of Effective Education Leaders

I have worked for and with excellent education leaders who have improved morale and inspired students and teachers alike to accomplish much more than previously thought possible. I've also had a few experiences with some leaders who have caused damage to a school culture. There are four particular leadership characteristics that I appreciate most in the education leaders I encounter.

Communicate a clear vision with a clear "why."

In The Truth About Leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner explain what sets leaders apart from other team members:
The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. Leaders are custodians of the future. They are concerned about tomorrow's world and those who will inherit it. (p. 46)
In schools, administrators and curriculum leaders need to be able to imagine and articulate the future that students will face. Then they need to communicate how educators can help them practice and refine the skills and knowledge they'll need to be ready for that future. Here are some guiding questions:
  • Why are we here? While it may seem obvious why educators have chosen their careers, this question goes deeper. Why are you in this community? Why do we believe in this school and these specific students? What is the one thing we want our students to know or believe when they graduate?
  • What do we do? The answer to this question will help everyone in the school understand how they are going to accomplish the goals set out by the school leader. What is the path and what can we do – day-in and day-out – in our classrooms to continue on that path and reach that goal?
  • What do we need from one another and ourselves to do those things? Every member of the school community has strengths to contribute and areas where they need help from others. A great leader recognizes all the puzzle pieces and how they fit together to reveal the vision.

Empower the people around them to follow their passions for the benefit of all.

In The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Michael Fullan explains what motivates people to perform at their best:
Humans are fundamentally motivated by two factors: doing things that are intrinsically meaningful to themselves, and working with others–peers, for example–in accomplishing worthwhile goals never before reached. (p. 7)
Once everyone in a school or district community understands the vision and how they will get there, they need to determine how their special skills and passions will help them contribute to the community effort to reach that goal. Every teacher has a slightly different set of skills and expertise, but an education leader will know how to help teachers leverage them for the benefit of all. Here are some concrete strategies:
  • When an educator finds his/her passion and it is a passion that will benefit students' learning and well-being, a great leader will stop at nothing to remove barriers for that educator to pursue that passion.
  • Once you've identified your teachers' passions and talents, find out if they are willing to use them to help the school community work toward its larger goals. Make them team leaders, committee members, and encourage them to pilot new approaches and technologies with their students.

Model risk-taking, reflection, and growth.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains the qualities that school leaders should nurture in the teachers they work with:
[Growth-minded teachers] are not entirely selfless. They love to learn. And teaching is a wonderful way to learn. About people and how they tick. About what you teach. About yourself. And about life. (p. 201)
School leaders who want to stimulate and nurture these characteristics in their teachers should first model the behaviors of a lifelong learner. Get started with a few of these strategies:
  • Take risks when designing professional learning, be open about those risks, and encourage teachers to do the same with their own lesson designs. Here are some ideas for how to modle risk-taking from a previous blog post and an article I co-authored for EdSurge.
  • Involve teachers and students in decision-making while still being decisive. If using surveys, share the data openly with your faculty and staff and explain how it is being used. When creating committees, be sure they truly have some say over the decisions they are charged with.

Build positive and honest relationships

In order to build a community of trust in which everyone knows they will be both lifted up and held accountable, leaders must be willing to have difficult conversations at the right times. In Managing Difficult Conversations, Fred Kofman explains how to remain true to yourself and open to your counterpart so you can arrive at a fair conclusion:
You want three things out of these conversations: Feel good about yourself, relate to the other person positively, and achieve your shared goals. Instead of jumping into a the problem, remember that how the other person feels is primary in order to make the conversation successful.
When education leaders can model how to manage the process of a difficult conversation with their faculty it will lead to a more honest and positive culture throughout the school. Here are a few things to remember:
  • Tough conversations don't have to be adversarial. All parties are involved in the conversation because they have a goal. If they can figure out what aspects those goals are shared then they can move forward together.
  • Critical friends are possible. Consider learning and utilizing structure to help with particularly difficult conversations. Protocols can help provide that structure and lay some ground rules that will ensure the conversation will not stray from its intended purpose.

These four characteristics are not meant to be an exhaustive list. What characteristics have you encountered in the effective leaders you've worked with? If you are a leader, what characteristics do you strive to improve?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The shocking things teens are doing online

When we write or talk about #edtech, we are often referring to the role of technology in teaching and learning. How can technology help teachers collect more data on their students? How can it help students be more creative? How can technology facilitate personalized learning? How can it connect learners with high quality resources and experts from beyond their classrooms?

These are noble pursuits, but we would be wise to remember that social media is perhaps the most popular way that our students use the technology they hold in their hands both inside and outside of our schools. There are many websites, videos, and speakers out there who do their best to warn teens about the dangers and pitfalls of social media. And there are many dangers.

But what if we approached it differently? What if we encouraged and lifted up our teens so that they truly believed it is within their power to make great and positive change through their use of social media?

Most recently my school, St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts, described people who choose to act to make positive change as UPSTANDERS. This short but powerful and honest video explains what an upstander is.

#StandUpForGood from Ben Cormier on Vimeo.

Not sure how to broach the possibility of taking action through social media? There are plenty of examples to draw inspiration from. If the teens in these examples can make change, why can't your students?


Hannah Alper is a 13 year old social media activist who calls herself a Kindraiser. Her website and Facebook page have thousands of followers because she keeps them updated with good news about people who are upstanders. Just read a few stories. They are simple, inspiring, and will leave you feeling like you can make a difference. If a middle schooler can spread positive stories and create her own movement, what can your amazing students do?


Ziad Ahmend started redefy at age 14, but he has grown his team significantly in the 3 years that have followed. With the mission to "boldly defy stereotypes, embrace acceptance and tolerance, redefine our perspectives positively, and create an active community" his team – which includes too many for this blogger to count – is comprised entirely of high school students from throughout the country. The stories page of his website is filled with true and raw stories of teens coping with stereotyping from around the globe. How can your students give others a voice when they deserve to be heard?


Trish Prabhus, now 16, read a news story in the fall of 2013 about an 11-year-old Florida girl who took her own life after facing repeated cyberbullying from her classmates. Trish was 13 at the time and immediately took action. She created an app called Rethink that is free, easy to install on iOS or Android, and asks social media users to think carefully about what they post by detecting potentially harmful words and phrases that are typed. It is nonintrusive and has been found in studies to reduce overall willingness to publish harmful posts from 71% to 4%.

Let's start changing the conversation with our students. Let's engage them by asking how they are using social media and how it makes them feel. Let's empower them by sharing the stories of their peers from all over the country and globe who choose to use the internet to be upstanders. Then, let's let them explore – with our encouragement and guidance – as they find their own path to make positive change using the powerful tools ate their fingertips.

Find out how to start these conversations in my recent post for ConnectSafely: Engage, Empower, Explore.