The Initiative to Inform Practice

I am totally excited to be winding down (ha!) my summer as an “ambassador” for the North Carolina Digital Learning Competencies!  For eight days across two weeks, approximately twenty-five NC educators are touring the state to provide opportunities for teachers and teacher leaders to familiarize themselves with the competencies and the instructional resources and practices that accompany their implementation.NCDLC Tweet

As we move into the “full implementation” phase of this initiative in 2017-2018, it will be imperative for teachers and administrators to understand all that these competencies encompass.  They go so much further than just asking students and/or teachers to “use a device”!  They are comprehensive, and if used as intended, they hold the power to truly “change how we do business” for the benefit of our learners.

So, as I “live” these competencies for the next few weeks (and months…and years…), it makes sense for me to address them through my monthly blog, as well.  Therefore, consider this to be the first in a series of four posts – one devoted to each of the “Focus Areas” of the NC Digital Learning Competencies for Classroom Teachers.

The first Focus Area described in the NC Digital Learning Competencies for Classroom Teachers is called, “Leadership in Digital Learning”.  While there are several indicators listed for this Focus Area, I will be sharing my thoughts around the indicator that states, “Take initiative with own professional growth to inform practice”.  This statement is so important, and clearly not as obvious as I may have thought at one point.  Teachers are busy – in both their personal and professional lives – and when they are able to work outside of school hours, it tends to be on tasks needed for the next school day or school week – not on long-term growth plans.  Although educators earn a college degree and often seek additional degrees and licenses, there is no program that could possibly teach a teacher everything he/she needs to know about content, pedagogy, and digital resources.  When I have spoken with teachers in my district about what learning opportunities they have engaged in as educators, they usually can only name the initiatives that their individual schools or that our district have undertaken.  Sometimes they do not seem to have even considered that they can or that they are expected to “take initiative with their own professional growth”!  So here are a few steps that a teacher can take to work towards implementation of the “Leadership in Digital Learning” Focus Area of the NC Digital Learning Competencies for Classroom Teachers:

  • Step 1: Seek
  • Step 2: Collaborate
  • Step 3: Plan
  • Step 4: Implement

Step 1: Seek

The first step teachers must take to grow professionally is to seek information.  This information may be about a specific content area, instructional practice, and/or digital tool.  Blogs and books are tools for “information seekers”.  These sources allow teachers to begin their learning process by identifying an area of need or interest, and then giving them the freedom to read independently, considering the new idea(s), processing unfamiliar lines of thought, and imagining what implementation could look like.

Step 2: Collaborate

Once a teacher has had an opportunity to independently process the new learning, it is time to collaborate! I believe Twitter and EdCamp are two great “locations” for this collaboration to occur!  Twitter allows educators to reach out to other teachers and quickly find some who are engaged in the same learning “journey”.  Ideas can be exchanged, examples provided, and questions answered quickly and easily through the anytime, anyplace environment.  EdCamps are designed for teacher learners, as participants arrive and set the agenda for the day based on their current interests and needs.  Collaboration is so important during this phase of the learning, as the teacher is clarifying his/her understanding, considering how to overcome potential challenges and maximize benefits, and, in some cases, working up the courage to step out of a comfort zone to try something new.

Step 3: Plan

Once a teacher has learned something new and collaborated around that learning, it is time to begin creating a solid plan of action!  I believe the following questions can be useful at this stage of the process:

 

  • What have I learned that will address a need that I/my students have?
  • What have I learned that I have the tools/resources to implement?
  • How will I make this idea work for me/my learners?
  • What resources (human/material) will I need?
  • What will success look like?

 

Notice that these questions force the focus to remain on student learning.  Sometimes teachers get really excited about a new tool or activity or idea and lose the most important driver for change – improved student learning!  The planning questions provided above can serve as a reminder that the teacher is seeking results that will appear through his/her students.

Step 4: Implement

Once a teacher has sought new information, collaborated around the information, and planned how to use the information, it is time for implementation!  Although Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan may come to mind, there are some guiding questions for this stage of the process as well:

 

  • What evidence of success do I have?
  • How will I get feedback for reflection/evaluation/revision?
  • What tweaks are necessary?
  • When/with what content can I try this again?
  • How/when/with whom will I share my learning?

 

The final question is especially important.  Remember that we are seeking ways for teachers to demonstrate “Leadership in Digital Learning”.  Each teacher has the power to serve as a catalyst for other teachers to begin their growth process.  Sharing new learning (and the process that accompanied it) with other teachers is a necessary and fulfilling practice!

Any teacher who has sought information about teaching and learning, reached out to other educators to engage in collaboration, refined a purposeful plan for implementation, and engaged in reflection and revision has truly met the call to “take initiative with own professional growth to inform practice”!  Celebrate these accomplishments – for yourself and for those with whom you work!

Yes, I Am Really Going To Write About the H-Word…

As a relative newcomer to educational blogging, I keep a list of topics that I would like to write about at some point in time.  The list is a positive one, including things like “celebrating teachers’ successes”.  I’m afraid when I hear the H-word, I don’t feel positive at all – but I do feel passionate about this topic, so I’m going to do it…I’m really going to write about homework.

I was never a big fan of assigning homework when I was a classroom teacher.  There always seemed to be too many inequities for it to serve any real instructional purpose.  Some of my students did not go home to an environment that fostered learning.  Some of my students were involved in valuable extracurricular activities in the evenings.  Some of my students had parents that contributed just a little bit too much, so I was never able to ascertain the child’s true understanding of the concepts.  Admittedly, I was also a bit of control freak.  If I was teaching the students one multiplication strategy, I did not want other well-meaning adults to muddy the instructional waters with algorithms that were beyond the students’ conceptual understandings.  So, for me, homework was usually to read a self-selected book, and perhaps review a few basic math facts.  On rare occasions, it might be a scavenger hunt, such as to find as many examples of inclined planes or three-dimensional figures as they could within their home.

Now that I am the parent of school-age children, I have discovered that not all teachers Kelly Homeworkfeel the same about homework as I do.  I have also discovered that these teachers do not at all wish to be enlightened by my views.  They truly seem to believe that their homework assignments are meaningful and appropriate, and that they will teach my children not only the prescribed curriculum, but also life skills such as responsibility.

Despite the fact that there is little evidence to support these long-standing practices, and despite plenty of research to the contrary, homework is still a reality for students today.  So for those teachers who must persist in this nightly ritual, please at least adhere to a few guidelines.

    1. Please ensure that assignments are aligned to at least some content-area standard.  Some teachers like to assign homework to support daily instruction and some teachers like to use homework to review previously taught concepts.  I can accept either of these approaches, but I insist that assignments be specifically linked to learning goals.  I know my state’s standards well, and I know that there are NO standards that ask students to write words backwards or draw perfect square boxes for crossword puzzles.  If an adult were ever asked to do either of these tasks, he/she would laugh out loud and refuse, but for some reason these activities are deemed valuable for our students by some teachers.  
    2. Homework must be at the correct level of difficulty.  This means a given assignment may not be appropriate for every student (hmmm…isn’t that already true during the school day?).  If a teacher does not have evidence that a student can accurately complete an assignment independently, that assignment should not be sent home.  There is clear research that incorrect rehearsal is counterproductive to the learning process.  
    3. Every homework assignment should not be graded.  As a teacher, can you imagine being evaluated every time you practiced a new teaching technique?  Homework was designed to be independent practice.  Peer conferencing, feedback, and opportunities for revision (also known as learning) are perfect matches for completed (or even attempted) homework assignments.
    4. Students should be given the opportunity and flexibility to schedule their homework completion.  Many teachers (and administrators and parents) argue that homework is necessary to teach skills such as responsibility.  To a very small extent, I don’t disagree, but if that is to be the case, let’s actually Carson homeworkteach them something.  Time/project management is a skill that can be modeled and taught.  When I go to work on a Monday, in general, I know that certain tasks will need to be completed by the end of the week.  If I know I have several meetings on one day, I plan to work on my projects more another day.  If I am going to be out of town for a day, I know I will need to do extra work another day to keep up. Students and families do have lives outside of school.  When students never know what assignments will be issued for any given day, what do they do if they have doctors’ appointments, extracurricular activities, and/or other family obligations on a day when every one of their teachers’ has assigned an hour (or more) of homework?  If students have at least a weekly schedule for assignments, they can learn how to prioritize and manage work around the busy lives that we all lead.
    5. Homework should be designed to encourage further learning, or cultivate curiosity.  Carefully crafted assignments can lead students to research without being asked.  They can raise questions in students’ minds that can spark meaningful class discussion.  They can help students and teachers identify and nurture individual talents.  Too often, our students’ homework assignments are dull, repetitive, and require very low levels of thinking.  Homework assignments need to be considered deeply and planned purposefully.

I don’t think homework will disappear completely before my children have completed school.  Perhaps considering the points I have described above, there is one question  that can allow a homework assignment to meet all of my criteria.  “What might my students learn as a result of this assignment?”  If there is a chance the assignment could reinforce a content standard and lead a student to want to learn more, this teacher mom might smile a little more when she hears the H- word.

Building Teacher Capacity: The True Role of Instructional Coaches

I believe that I work with some of “the industry’s” best instructional coaches!  They are hard-working, positive and focused on improving learning experiences for children.  But they are also often pulled in many directions, and I listened carefully as they began describing what “a day in the life” really looked like.  After several of these conversations, I realized that their daily tasks were falling into three categories:

  • Coaching tasks that build teacher capacity
  • Tasks by coaches that make the lives of teachers easier
  • Tasks that are administrative in nature or otherwise unconnected to coaching

This realization led to a natural conversation to help the coaches prioritize their many tasks.

Defining “building teacher capacity”

It is always helpful to come to a shared understanding of terms that are frequently used in the world of teaching and coaching.  Many of the coaches would quickly respond, “My job is to build teacher capacity”, if asked.  But what does that mean, and what does that look like in practice?  

At our next coach gathering, I reiterated that the job of an instructional coach is to build teacher capacity.  Heads nodded.   I continued, stating that “building teacher capacity” does not necessarily mean making the lives of teachers easier.  Leaving the last statement hanging, the coaches were asked to think about all of the tasks that they work on during the course of a typical school day.  They were to write each task on a separate sticky note.  After several minutes of furious scribbling, the coaches were then asked to individually sort their sticky notes into the three categories previously mentioned: tasks that build teacher capacity; tasks that make teachers’ lives easier; and tasks that are administrative and/or unrelated to coaching.  The coaches were then invited to share their discoveries with each other.  The discussion was powerful!  One coach exclaimed in dismay, “Oh, no!  I am an enabler!”  Others talked about how they form initial relationships with teachers.  We concluded that sometimes “making the lives of teachers easier” is an appropriate strategy to demonstrate servant leadership and to establish positive relationships with new and/or resistant teachers.  We agreed, however, that this approach must be followed by a “gradual release of responsibility” so that we are soon returned to a focus on developing instructional strategies in teachers that will allow them to independently foster student success.

Role of coach 2

Establishing priorities

With their daily tasks still in front of them on the sticky notes, coaches were offered an opportunity to establish priorities.  They collaborated to brainstorm ways to empower other teacher leaders in their buildings as they considered the tasks that fell into the third category; tasks that were either administrative in nature and/or unrelated to coaching.  Some tasks in the “making lives easier” category were determined to be simply unnecessary, and others were carefully analyzed to consider whether they may still be necessary with some teachers, and if so, which teachers and for how long.  As coaches either shifted or eliminated tasks, their energy around the work of truly building teacher capacity soared!

Team effort

Our coaches left this meeting with a fresh outlook on their role and with many ideas of how they could return to their schools and empower other teacher leaders, while narrowing the focus of their own work.  An instructional coach, however, is just one member of a site-based instructional leadership team.  Recognizing this, building administrators were given the opportunity to engage in the same reflective experience.  Role of coach 1This served several purposes.  First, it allowed for informal review of our district’s expectations for instructional coaching.  Second, it highlighted the  somewhat untapped potential of other great teacher leaders in the buildings.  Third, it opened the door for the instructional coaches and principals to engage in conversation about what coaching actions really need to be the focus to build teacher capacity in each school.

Instructional coaches are dedicated to creating opportunities for others to experience success.  When a shared understanding of “building teacher capacity” exists, focused coaching can lead to teacher and student growth!