Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Our Meeting With Grant Wiggins

This past Tuesday, we had the great fortune to have Grant Wiggins at our faculty meeting.  He is doing some work with a couple of our teachers and as we were talking several months ago the topic of state assessments and how teachers prepare their students came up.  As we discussed the topic, I was thrilled that he would be willing to come to one of my faculty meetings to talk about how preparing students for assessments (all assessments) is a matter of instructional design.

Understanding by Design is a familiar concept to many educators.  On a very basic level it is about knowing where you want to go with learning and planning backward to achieve that.  This basic description doesn't begin to explain the nuances of the practices involved in UbD, but it is a starting point.  I felt as though I had a decent understanding of UbD until Grant Wiggins spent about 80 minutes with us and truly brought it to life!  I think the piece that I failed to fully reflect upon was the concept of "Teaching for Understanding."

It seems simple to say that we want our students to understand what we teach; however, our discussion of this topic was truly enlightening.  We explored the things that "a student who understands" can do and the things that "one who knows a lot, but doesn't understand" can do.  Take a step back and think about that for a moment.  It is a powerful distinction.  The examples that Grant Wiggins provided and the vibrant discussion of the staff helped to flesh out this concept.  I have to say that the level of interest, thought, and participation on the part of the faculty was inspiring; especially after teaching a full day!

This led to a discussion of the importance of transfer and what that means for children and assessment.  It is one thing to make sure things get covered and standards get checked off, but it is another to have proof that students understand what has been taught and can transfer that understanding to a variety of situations.  In particular, it is important to ensure that they can do this without the supports provided by the teacher or the scaffolding of a question that provides all of the information to answer the question.

Standardized assessments are not supportive.  They do not scaffold.  They ask students to transfer the things that they have learned in class (standards) to a situation or problem that is likely different and unfamiliar.

So, what does that mean for teaching, learning, and assessment?

I think one of the most powerful concepts that I took away from this meeting was that we must look at what it is we want our students to learn and understand, figure out the things that are getting in the way of them doing that, and design our instruction accordingly. As we do this, we must also gradually allow them to demonstrate their understanding with less scaffolding.  Once again, you may say that sounds like a simple concept, but if you take a step back and think about scope of that task, it is the hard work of planning that must go in to teaching.

This brief post does not do justice to the many ideas we discussed and that are floating around in my mind as I reflect upon the time with Grant Wiggins at that meeting; but, hopefully it will give readers a spark to revisit Understanding by Design.  I know that our staff will be looking at how we approach our units and lessons through this lens.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Twitter Connects and Expands - I've Got Proof!

I have been reflecting on how Twitter has changed the way I view professional development, professional connections, and learning in general.  This past Wednesday evening, I was able to truly feel the power of what Social Media has done to expand my professional horizons and open the doors to so many learning possibilities.  I participated in a Twitter chat (#BCCchat) with fellow learners from Australia.  Toward the end of the chat I posted this:

When I think about how I came to be a part of this chat, it really does seem unlikely that I would have imagined it a year ago.  Here is how it happened.

1.  On Saturday January 19th I participated in #satchat and someone mentioned Will Richardson's book, Why School?

2.  I was intrigued by the premise of the book, so I downloaded it and read it after the chat.

3.  After reading it, I wrote a blog post about it.

4. Soon after tweeting the post, I received a tweet from Melanie Spencer inviting me to join in a Twitter chat with the staff of Brindabella Christian College, Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory.  She gave the book to the staff and they were having a twitter chat about it on Thursday, January 24th in the morning (Australian time).

5.  She and I sent a few tweets back and forth verifying the time of the chat in New Jersey.  Then, Will Richardson tweeted saying that he would try to make it to the chat.

6. Wednesday evening arrived in NJ and I logged onto the chat.  As we discussed the book and reflected upon some great questions, Will Richardson chimed in and took part in some of the discussion.

7.  After the chat, I followed some wonderful educators from another side of the world.

Twitter has truly made professional development a global activity.  In the first post that I wrote on this blog, I talked about connections.  One of the points that I made was that when you only interact with those in your school or district you run the risk of homogenization of ideas.  I can't think of a better way to ensure that you are exploring new ideas and looking at things in different ways than to interact with educators from around the world in all different types of schools and settings.

I would like to thank Melanie and all of the new members of my PLN from Canberra.  I am thrilled to be learning with you moving forward.  I would also like to thank Will Richardson for being a part of the discussion.  "In the old days" I would never have imagined the author of a book I was discussing just deciding to participate in the discussion; however, Twitter has made this a reality.

Like I said, Twitter connects and expands; I've got proof!  How has it helped to expand your professional learning network?
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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why School? - Worth the Read!

This morning during the #satchat Twitter chat, a tweet was posted that referenced a short book by Will Richardson entitled, Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere. I follow Will Richardson on Twitter and it sounded like an interesting read, so I quickly downloaded it to my nook and started reading after the chat.  It is amazing how a profound statement (or question) can be so eloquently presented in such a concise and thoughtful fashion.

After reading the book, I felt compelled to write a post about it because there are so many points in it that align with my thinking and that challenge it.  The book is DEFINITELY NOT meant to put the mind at ease.  If you are very resistant to change, I would not pick it up.  I suggest you find an old pedagogy textbook from your Foundations of Education class and sit back for a comforting evening of industrial model education. However, if you are interested in thinking about the future (and present) of education, then Richardson's book is for you.

One of the most powerful ideas for me is one of which I am acutely aware.  Schools and teaching cannot remain the same as we move through the 21st Century.  This seems fairly obvious; however, the system within which schools and teachers work does not allow for the kind of change that is needed.  In a competition based, high stakes testing environment, where those in charge of educating the young are evaluated by the number on a standardized test, it is difficult to foster the skills that will be needed to succeed in the world the children are creating and inheriting.

Will Richardson
One of my favorite lines from the book is, "In times of great change, learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will be beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists" (p. 47). This is a premise upon which I have been working for quite some time.  My version has been more of a question: Are we educating children for our past or their future?  I think that it comes down to figuring out what we truly want from schools.  If it is skills for success in the future then we need a fundamental shift in the way that we look at schooling.

Richardson truly hit home with his anecdote regarding the Friday Folder, the essential crux of which is a task completion based idea of education that can be sent home and forgotten in the folder vs. an authentic creation of meaning and skills that would better serve a real audience and the greater good.  These two types of learning are different in every way.  In an information abundant world we should no longer be expecting students to simply "complete" the learning we assign.  We should be learning with them and creating the learning as we move along.  This does not mean that we can throw out curriculum and the expectations that students will learn concepts and skills; but, it does mean that we may need to realize that the learning of information that is "Google-able" will not be enough in the world of the future.  The greater questions are: How do I discern which information is valid and useful? What do I do with the information once I have it?  How can I connect with others to use this information?

Connection with others is a key to the future of education.  We  are connected all the time.  At any moment I have every one of my connections in this world in the palm of my hand and accessible at the push of a button.  This is a resource that cannot and should not be squandered.  How do we effectively leverage that  technology and those human resources for learning?  I am fairly sure that it is not through a competition based model of education, but through a collaboration based model.

I could go on discussing each point in the book; however, I think Why School? is an important discussion starter in figuring out the direction of schools in the future.  If we ignore the message that Richardson is sending, we will find our schools obsolete and not able to educate children effectively for the world in which they must thrive.

I highly recommend this quick read and would love to dialogue with anyone about it here or on twitter @PrincipalArc.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Center of Learning - Parent Connection (Part 2: Article Study)

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase
Last week's PTO meeting proved to be a positive night of learning for all parents who attended.  As per my last post, The Center of Learning - Parent Connection (Part 1: Twitter Workshop), the evening began with a brief tutorial on how parents can set up a Twitter account and start following handles and hash tags that would be most beneficial to them.  The meeting went as normal, with the principal's and committees' reports.  A discussion was held regarding various methods that the PTO uses to communicate with families and how to continually improve in this area.  We had approximately 30 people at the meeting.  This was great!  We invited room parents to come to keep informed.  Many of them did; however, there were many who attended the meeting because of the article study we were holding.

I fully expected that when the meeting ended a number of parents would leave and we would be left with about half of the group for the article discussion.  I would have been very happy with this turnout for our first one.  But, to my surprise almost no one got up to leave when we said we were going to hold our discussion. This was encouraging!

Dr. Robert Brooks (bio)
The prior week we sent out the article with the following invitation:

Join the PTO at our next PTO meeting where we will discuss PTO business followed by a more detailed discussion and study of an article by Dr. Robert Brooks, entitled: Mistakes: What Parents Can do to Help Their Children be Less Fearful about Mistakes and Setbacks, a few minutes to read the article and come ready to share and learn as members from the BT community explore this topic in greater detail.
I began the discussion by explaining that we all have success stories and not-so-successful stories about our parenting skills and practices.  The discussion was designed to draw upon the cumulative knowledge of the group while using Dr. Brooks' article as a guide for the conversation.

I must say that I was very nervous when I threw out the first topic and no one said anything.  Who could blame them.  With thirty parents in the room, who was going to be the first person to share a potentially embarrassing comment about how they handle mistakes and what they model for their children?  So, I started and as I talked what began to happen was a gradual increase in the comfort level in the group.

I am not sure if they expected me to only talk about all of the amazing things that I do as a parent to raise the perfect principal's children, but that was not the case.  I shared things of which I was proud AND things that were my mistakes.  I think it was important that the parents understood that this was not going to be a lecture about good parenting.  It was going to be an honest discussion of a topic with which we all struggle as parents.  After about 15 minutes people were chiming in and adding to the conversation in wonderful ways!

More than the learning that we gained from the discussion of the article, I was most proud of the way this group of parents (many of whom did not know one another) came together to talk as a community about raising our children.  Fears were shared, hopes were shared, tips were shared, pitfalls were shared; but, most of all a connection was shared.  None of us have all of the answers, but together we can help and support one another.  This fits in very well with our school theme, which is: Better Together.

I know that this is not ground breaking in any way; however, I feel as though it was wall-breaking in some ways. Parents opened up with one another, they got to see the parenting side of their principal (for good, bad, or indifferent), and we learned a thing or two about making mistakes.

Hopefully we are making strides in the direction I mentioned in my previous post:

"I want Bear Tavern to be the center of learning for the whole community."

I can't wait for our next discussion!

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Center of Learning - Parent Connection! (Part 1: Twitter Workshop)

This past Wednesday night we had our monthly PTO meeting.  It was a bit different from most of our meetings.  We have been discussing how to increase attendance at the meetings because often it is simply the PTO board, myself, and a few other parents who attend.  During a brainstorming session we talked about the idea of the principal providing an educational experience for parents, in order to make it a more interactive and positive experience.

You see, just as faculty meetings can become "verbal memos," so can Parent Teacher Organization meetings!  I have started to flip my faculty meetings by putting out all announcements and minutia in a weekly staff newsletter and using the faculty meeting for professional learning of some sort.  As I explained this to our PTO president, it became clear that we could do something similar with our PTO meetings.
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

We decided to try a couple of things in this month's meeting.  First, I held a "pre-workshop" for parents before the PTO meeting.  This was just a 30 minute workshop to get parents involved in doing something rather than sitting and just receiving committee reports.  Since our school has a Twitter feed (@BearTavernES) and I am always trying to increase our following, it seemed logical to give a brief workshop on parental use of Twitter.

I was very clear that this was not a workshop about protecting your children online and safeguarding accounts (that is fodder for a different workshop).  This was a brief introduction to using Twitter that basically started with creating your own account!  Here is the blurb from the flyer that we put out prior to the workshop:

*Come early (6:30 PM) for Mr. Arcurio’s Twitter Workshop - Mr. Arcurio will give a workshop on the use of Twitter and the benefits to parents.  Those who attend will have the opportunity to set up a free account and start following Bear Tavern and others of interest.  Most of us think that Twitter is a frivolous waste of time when we first hear about or even try it, but with the right direction it can be a great source of information on education, parenting, schools, and any other topic in which you have an interest.  Additionally, for those who do not wish to start an account there will instruction on how to keep up with HVRSD twitter feeds without having an account.
 At 6:25 I was worried because I only had one parent sitting in the computer lab at school; however, by 6:30 I had 5 parents and then by 6:40 I had 12 parents.  Since these parents were not our typical group of meeting attendees, we already accomplished a goal.  The workshop was very basic.  I helped participants create an account and then I began to show them how to search for interests.  I provided them with several twitter handles from which I felt they would benefit.  These included:
We also went through how to look at the posts of someone you may want to follow and discern whether they are an appropriate follow for your needs. Additionally, I showed them how to search through someone's followers to find other appropriate matches.  I also exposed them to the idea of Twitter Chats by showing them the hashtag #PTchat (Parent Teacher Chat) The parents were receptive and very interested in this tool.
Some parents did not create an account and watched as others did.  I handed out a two resources for everyone to take with them: How to Sign Up for Twitter and A Parent's Guide to Twitter and Education.

Although brief, I feel that the workshop was successful in both providing an educational experience for the parents and helping to boost PTO meeting attendance (they all stayed for the meeting). It was on this evening that I truly began to see the power of something I have been thinking for a while and articulated at this meeting,

"I want Bear Tavern to be the center of learning for the whole community."
In part two of this post, I will discuss the article study that we conducted at the end of the meeting.  By the way, we had approximately 30 parents at the meeting and most of them stayed for the article study!
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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Principals' Walk n' Talk

During last week's #satchat the topic was helping struggling teachers.  During the discussion I posted the following tweet:

I got several retweets and responses (see some below) and felt I should share a little more about it

This past summer as the four elementary school principals and coordinator of elementary curriculum in my district were discussing issues of alignment among schools we ventured into the areas of teaching methods, educational practices, general school atmosphere, and culture.  Our district is constantly working toward alignment of the elementary schools.  It is important to all of us that our schools maintain their proud traditions and distinct character; however, it became very clear that we did not really know much about each other's schools!  As we talked an idea arose.  Why not meet every other week at a different school and walk through the building together visiting classes and discussing what we see.  Additionally, we are piloting use of an electronic walk-through tool (Teachscape) to help us hone our observation skills.  It made perfect sense.

I know this sounds scary; five official looking people walking into classrooms, hanging around for a few minutes and then leaving to talk in the hall.  It was for some teachers and students; however, now that we have been doing these visits for several months, people seem to have settled in and we aren't quite that big of a deal anymore.  I posted the following early on in my staff newsletter to help explain Walk n' Talk:
"Principals’ Walk N’ Talk Walkthroughs
People have asked for some clarifications about the Principal’s Walkthroughs, so I decided to answer some questions that have been asked.
What is the purpose of the Walkthroughs?
Currently the walkthroughs are being used to help the administration fine tune how we see instruction and classroom practices.  When we go out in the hall and talk with each other, we are discussing if we saw the same components of the lesson.  This is why we all come in together.
Are we being rated or graded?
No.  The checklist that we are looking at is essentially factual.  I can show anyone who wants to see on my phone.  Basically, one screen says, “Whole Group, Small Group, Pairs, Individual.”  All of these are valid forms of instruction; we are simply noting which one.  The same goes for instructional practices, environment, etc. We are looking at what practice(s) are happening, not what level.
Can we tell our children why you are coming in?
Yes, feel free to have a conversation with your children about what we are doing.  It is okay to let them know that teachers and principals continue learning even when we grow up.  I would rather you have the conversation than have students get nervous."
I have to say that these visits have been phenomenal opportunities for our group  to work collaboratively.  We are gaining a greater understanding of all four schools and the things that make them all wonderful.  Our discussions of instruction are rich.  It is amazing how five people can watch the same thing, yet see it differently.  This is where the real learning has been taking place for us.

A great side benefit of this practice is that we have truly come together as an elementary school team.  We have greater communication than we have ever had.  Our discussions go far beyond classroom practices and we are able to solve problems as we talk about issues in our schools and communities.  Additionally, we share resources, materials, and ideas with one another so that all of our schools can benefit from the collective expertise of the group.  I must say that I am truly enjoying this live, in-person PLN.  It complements my online PLN nicely!

If anyone has a question about Walk n' Talk or does something similar I would love to hear about it.  Please leave a comment.
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