Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Ugly Sweaters of Education

The ugly sweater. No matter your faith, it is a recognizable holiday phenomenon. Some wear them proudly, and yet it is only because they are messy, loud, and noticeable. The time when they were fashionable has past (decades ago) but there are some trends that stick around because they are hard to forget.

There are certain teaching and learning strategies that are no longer en vogue, but are so valuable they have quietly lasted decades in many classrooms. In many cases, the tools used to carry them out and the names used to describe them have changed.


Yes, I said it. Even as a teacher who has criticized the practice of lecturing quite often, I do believe it is a tried a true practice that can be effective –– if done well. Educators who are masterful lecturers understand that a quality lecture is interactive, thought-provoking, and entertaining for all participants. Great lectures are not solo performances, they are engaging experiences.

Pear Deck is one platform that allows educators to thoughtfully plan for personalized and collaborative learning activities that are built into the lecture slide deck. Another option is to offer for participants to engage in a backchannel using TodaysMeet. Then review the transcript and respond to ideas periodically during the lecture. Finally, if you want to take specific questions live from your audience, consider using Google Slides and it's kind-of-new Q&A feature.

Daily Quizzes and Exit Tickets

These strategies are worthwhile because they are frequent check-ins on student progress, but any teacher who really actually used them daily is superhuman.  I don't know about you, but I had between 120 and 130 teenagers walk over that classroom threshold on a daily basis. Is it possible for a mere mortal to create, read, and assess that many exit tickets every 24 hours (especially when you consider the daily lesson/project planning, summative assessment creation and correction, and 6-7 hours of sleep that are also required to function)? These tried and true formative assessments were too much work before, but digital tools have changed that.

Poll Everywhere offers a live survey-style effect to close out your class period. Formative offers a variety of questions types that can remain private or can be displayed live, based on teacher preference. Socrative even has an exit ticket built in their dashboard for teachers to use spur-of-the-moment.

Bell Ringers or Bell Work

I like to call them "activators" because I like to think they activate the kind of thinking needed for a particular activity (and also because some schools no longer mark time with bells). The truth is they are just as much a class management tool – designed to get students to engage in classwork and resist messing around as soon as they enter the classroom with their friends – as they are an opportunity for learning.

Steal from the project based learning playbook and make your activator about a real world problem that connects with the topic of class for that day. For instance:

  • About to embark on a long term research project? Invite students to try to solve A Google a Day. The exercise teaches them the valuable of un-Google-able questions and includes hints on how to properly navigate search engines. They will be better prepared to author their own research question and to find the sources they need to complete their research.
  • Planning to introduce students to the concept of velocity and how to calculate it? Start by showing them this downhill skateboard racing video. Start by reminding your students that these racers are professionals (or reckless at the very least) and they shouldn't attempt such a stunt. But then appeal to their curiosity. How might we figure out how fast they are going? What information would we need? Are there clues in the video – like the regular dashes on the side of the road and the ticking seconds in the YouTube timer – that might help? 
Opening class with activities like these will surely result in a room full or students who are more invested in mastering the skills and content at hand.

While lectures, daily quizzes, exit tickets, and bell work might be old fashioned ugly sweaters to modern connected educators, they are methods that have been around for decades. They might not fit in today's classroom in their original form, but when the best edtech tools and resources are used to make them more engaging, manageable, and powerful... they're back! Just as with fashion, what is old can be new again, and we need to remember that great teaching and learning should never be pushed aside and replaced by a new trend "just because."

Ugly sweater photo from flickr

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Be Honest About PD

My favorite way to learn as a professional is to find opportunities for my colleagues and I to have the time and structure for the conversations we aren't having at school. When at school educators are limited by scheduling, the defined boundaries of titles and roles, and cultural norms or routines for "how things are done" day to day. This is why you'll often find me at regional or national conferences with my colleagues. Sometimes we are co-presenting, but more often we are eager to talk with other teachers, curriculum and technology coaches, and administrators so that we can learn from them and bring inspiring ideas back to our teachers and students.

I realized this is the most effective form of professional learning for me because I was asked to intentionally think about it today.

This week I had the opportunity to work with a team of teachers and administrators from my school at the Future Ready Summit in Boston. We worked together as a team, and also learned from leadership teams from schools and districts throughout Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

In one activity we analyzed the best and worst of our own professional learning experiences. These are some common examples I heard from participants on my team and on other district teams:

What was your worst professional learning experience?

  • The presenter did a data dump without carving out an opportunity for my colleagues and I to reflect on that data or use it to develop a plan.
  • I was forced to have conversations that required vulnerability with people I'd never met as part of "turn and talk" activities throughout the day.
  • There wasn't enough time to process the information before moving on to another topic.
What was your most effective professional learning experience?
  • The organization/trainer took the time to learn about our school, develop data, and then create an experience that was customized to the needs of our school and our students.
  • Expectations were set from the beginning to allow for us to make mistakes, iterate, and then learn from that experience.
  • We were able to work in small groups to apply the information we had just learned to concrete situations and real-life classroom scenarios. Then we could take it all with us and use it the very next day.
  • The school encouraged peer observations and I saw colleagues from across content areas applying pedagogical practices I'd never considered. It changed the way I think of using classroom space, balancing noise and quiet, and handing over learning ownership to students.
Without even referencing the research, the educators in the room had identified some of the key elements from Linda Darling-Hammond's work as they discussed effective PD:
  • genuinely collaborative
  • concretely connected to student interactions and student work
  • customized and ongoing, not one-and-done
So, what's next? Well, the education leaders in the room had to face reality and consider the professional learning experiences of their district's teachers in the past year or two. If asked to rate them, would teachers classify those experiences closer to worst or closer to most effective? What changes could be made to provide more effective professional learning for teachers in the future?

The activity concluded with more detailed discussions in district teams and some groups developed plans. Many shared their existing personalized professional learning models in this document so that everyone could benefit.

Here's the point of this post: Have you asked yourself these questions recently? Which professional learning experiences were the worst for you? Which were the most effective? What kinds of experiences are you creating for your colleagues? Have you asked your colleagues for their feedback on those experiences?

If we are going to make real positive progress in our schools, we have to have real honest conversations with our colleagues and with ourselves. These two questions are one place to start.

For more great questions that will trigger district reflection and change, take a look at the Future Ready Framework and consider using their dashboard to complete the self evaluation with your own district team.