Why Teachers Have to Keep Learning

Why do teachers have to keep learning? Why do they need to know more about the world of learning available on the Web? Why will our Professional Learning Communities (PLC) that focus on learning how to connect students to that Web in ways that make our content more meaningful work?

Will Richardson writes in his chapter in the new book 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn,

One thing is certain: although schools may continue to fundamentally look and act as they have for more than one hundred years, the way individuals learn has already been forever changed. Instead of learning from others who have the credentials to “teach” in this new networked world, we learn with others whom we seek (and who seek us) on our own and with whom we often share nothing more than a passion for knowing. In this global community, we are at once all teachers and learners—changing roles as required, contributing, collaborating, and maybe even working together to re-create the world, regardless of where we are at any given moment.

These learning transactions require a shifted understanding of traditional literacies and the skills they employ, as well as new literacies and practices that learning in networks and online social communities demands. For educators, acquiring these network literacies is a crucial first step in developing new pedagogies and, in turn, new classrooms and curricula that prepare students for the future.

It’s my plan and vision that at Randolph Central, we will be the educators who can lead learning by mastering the network literacies Will speaks of and by finding ways to connect the learning that happens within our walls to the learning that happens all over the world. In the next decade, learning opportunities will be available well beyond what we can even imagine today.

We have a simple choice. We can do nothing and live in denial that the world around us is changing as we become obsolete or we can re-imagine, re-invent, re-learn and continue to do what we all most want in our hearts: change the lives of children for the better. Fundamentally, that’s why we’re in it, right? To help, care for, love and teach our students. To make our little piece of the world, Randolph, better. To enrich lives. To equip our students for a successful future.

The future, heck the present, looks very different than ever before because of access to the thinking of others for every child. When I grew up, the only thinking that could influence my thinking was that of my family, my teachers, my friends and three television channels. The thinking that can influence our children today? Vast and Endless. We need to be plugged into all of it or our voices will just become smaller and smaller.

If we want to continue to influence our students, we have to understand their thinking and learning. We also have a responsibility to teach them how to be successful in a changing world, a world we can only understand if we’re learning in it too. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a part of that great BIG conversation and I want a strong voice in it. Most of all, I want our students to know how to develop their voices and how to succeed when they leave us.

Admin PLC

You may or may not realize that school administrators and many support staff work during the school breaks. What do we do without students or teachers around? For me, it’s time to catch up on big projects and most important, concentrate on my own learning. I had several projects I wanted to complete this week. I’m taking vacation days and spending time with my family next week. 🙂 I did the requisite paperwork, analyzed and updated several contracts, worked with the admin team two days, and then got down to the business of reading and learning. What’s influencing my thinking this week? Primarily three sources. We read District Leadership That Works by Robert J. Marzano and Timothy Waters and our curriculum coordinator, Tiffany Giannicchi, turned me on to the National Staff Development Council and their resources. As an admin team we worked with our school attorney, Jeff Swiatek, on learning the legalities and best practices in evaluating teachers and particularly, providing them with feedback if help is needed. I’m not sure we ever do that really well, either if the teacher is delivering stellar instruction and has remarkable student achievement or if the teacher is struggling. Our admin team has formed our own Professional Learning Community (PLC) in the same manner that we will ask our teachers to do so for the 2010-2011 school year.  We first sat and thought about what we would most like to learn about, study, improve upon as we work together next year and then we shared. Each of us had the same thought. During my “think” time and before our “share” time, I wrote in my learning journal:

What do I most need our administrators, including me, to do really well? Enhance how we give feedback to teachers and better communicate that student learning is more important than anything else people get hung up on.

I was impressed and pleased when we shared our thoughts (I went last) and found that each of our administrators said that they’d like to learn to give better, more meaningful feedback to our teachers and staff. This concept went hand in hand with what I learned in reading Marzano’s District Leadership That Works when he writes about the articles of Karl Weick,

Relative to the characteristic of interdependent components, he noted that districts and schools are “joined more loosely than is true for other organizations” (p. 673). To illustrate, in tightly coupled systems, a poorly performing individual attracts attention. In response, performance of the individual is brought up to an acceptable level or the individual is replaced since his or her behavior is jeopardizing the effectiveness of the entire system.

As building administrators (and I know because I was one for several years), we end up managing the building, solving problems, taking care of discipline. We get in to see our teachers when we can and we’re sometimes distracted by student behavior when we are in the classrooms. We have to find ways to do this better, to pay more attention, to make this a priority. We know it and we’re setting forth together to learn how to do it well. And you know what, the majority of our teachers and staff are quietly doing a phenomenal job each and every day–it’s only going to enhance motivation and commitment for them when we say, “we see you and we appreciate what you do for our kids every day.” Just one more way we can work together to enhance learning opportunities for our kids, working to make an RCS education the best it can be for every student. Leading to every child learning with passion, innovation and leadership.

Collegial Circles at North Collins Central

I had the opportunity to concentrate on my own learning today and it was fantastic–I am stoked about next year at RCS! Thank you to North Collins Principals Annie Metcalf and John Cataldo and their Curriculum Coordinator Theresa Gray for allowing me to trail around listening, asking questions and learning. A special thank you to the dynamic teachers of North Collins, who graciously welcomed a stranger in and shared their ideas with me—your enthusiasm and excitement about your own learning has me totally committed to move forward with teacher driven professional development at Randolph!

What’s this collegial circle business all about? North Collins teachers had the opportunity to design their own learning this year. They self selected groups based on the topics they wanted to study. I visited with groups who’ve just spent a year learning about something that they chose which would impact their kids in the classroom. What kinds of things did they choose to learn about/collaborate on/ research together? Everything from using IPODs in the classroom, to Creativity, to an Interactive Whiteboard group, to physical education teachers and guidance counselors and primary teachers working in small groups on their own curriculum. These more specific groups developed a district PE plan, a K-12 guidance plan, and analyzed assessment results to benchmarks for their kids. There was a middle level group talking about the Transition years, including motivating students, and a grades 3-5 group who was on fire about integrating technology into their classrooms.

I left feeling confident that we’re headed in the right direction at Randolph. Every teacher we talked to said that they prefer this kind of learning to the “traditional” staff development of ‘sit and get’. Teachers spoke with passion about how much they learned from each other through sharing ideas, how much more meaningful the learning was for their individual and specific needs than ever before, the valuable relationships that they formed and the resources that they learned about during the year. They said that the learning was simply more pertinent to them and they had an invaluable opportunity to work together that they seldom have otherwise.

I also learned much from them about the set-up, specifically about how to set our teachers up for success. For example, groups with a broad topic like creativity said that they will choose a more narrow topic next year. And the size of the groups seemed to be best at 3-6. They were planning today for a learning fair that they’re having in May in which they’ll present what they studied to each other. One teacher said that what they studied is something that they’re excited about and want to share with their kids so the presentation was no big deal. Another teacher was a bit more anxious about the presentation and honestly stated, “If you look like an idiot in front of your peers, there’s nothing worse.” I think the presentation is a good thing primarily because it may spark ideas for next year’s learning and because we don’t talk enough to each other about learning.  And isn’t this exactly what we ask kids to do in our classrooms? Take a risk, learn something new, share it with your peers. . . and grow. Together.

Thanks North Collins for reaffirming for me that we’re better together than we are alone. Our kids deserve our A game, every day—how better to improve and bring it to them than by capitalizing on what we know collectively? Randolph teachers are going do amazing things together next year—now if only I could figure out a way for them to collaborate with their colleagues in North Collins who seemed so much like us. . .

A great day away from budgets, contracts, lawyers, and problem solving to remind me what we’re here for—-LEARNING with passion, innovation and leadership!

Special Ed Staying Home

Today I welcome our Director of Pupil Services, Dr. Mary Rockey, to help readers better understand some changes we’re planning in special education. As you read, please consider that the changes are in the best interest of our children at the same time that we can make the changes with very little impact to our budget. I’m proud of the work that’s being done in this area by Mary and her entire staff. When we make decisions that benefit our kids in ways we haven’t tried before, decisions that expand learning exponentially, we do out best work.

Read on to see what Dr. Rockey says:

I would like to begin by thanking Mrs. Moritz for the opportunity to explain some of the changes that have been occurring at RCS regarding special education services.  While there are many reasons, I believe the most important one is that our children will be educated in our school.  In the past, we have sent children to other schools and paid these schools to educate our children.

The three big changes that are occurring are:

  1. increasing of special education programs at RCS instead of sending students to other schools
  2. having our own summer school for students with IEPs
  3. providing preschool special education services

1 – Special Education Classes at RCS

Let me give an example.  Suppose we have a student who has some problems.  Even though she is in fourth grade, she can’t identify the letters of the alphabet or write all of the letters in her name.  In the past, this child would have gone to a different school, perhaps in Salamanca or in Ashville.  She would have had to ride the bus for a very long time each day, going to school and coming home.  She would have been in class with children who live far away from her so it would be difficult for her family to help her get together with school friends to play.  Randolph Central School would pay for both the transportation and the school program, which for most of these programs is in excess of $3,000 per month. However, if this student comes to our school, and is in class here, the cost is far less than $3,000 each month.  And, the student has the advantage of being in the school and involved in the activities in her community.

2 – Summer School Special Education at RCS

The same example is true for our decision to have our own summer school program.  In past summers, we have sent children to Salamanca and Ashville.  The cost of these programs, in dollars, exceeds what we would pay if the classes were here at RCS.  But more than that, our students will be with us in the summer.  There will be no need to get used to a new teacher, new speech therapist, new counselor, for the six week summer session.  The students will already know these people and the staff knows these children.  This means that progress won’t stop for our children because there won’t be a “get to know” each other time period.  And the transition back to classes in September will also be easier for each of these children.

3 – Preschool Special Education Services at RCS

This is a bit different than the previous two changes that are occurring because preschool services are currently not provided at all by RCS employees for those with special needs.  Currently, other providers either come into the school or go to RCS children’s homes to provide preschool services and they receive the revenue for these services from the county of the child’s residence.  Sometimes, our three and four year olds are sent to Little Valley or Salamanca for school each day.  RCS is responsible through the New York State Education Department for these services, even though they don’t provide them.  Now that we are approved to provide these services, our children will be seeing our speech therapists, our teachers and RCS will receive the revenue for providing these services.

I want to assure everyone that a detailed analysis of each of these programs has been conducted and discussed at length with our BOE.  Each of these changes will benefit our children while reducing costs to RCS and our county taxpayers. If you have any questions, I am delighted to discuss any of these changes with you.

Dr. Mary Rockey

Facebook–to Filter or Not to Filter?

In November, 2009 we created a Randolph Facebook page and we opened Facebook in school for everyone. We’re four months in and there’s some good news and some bad news about Facebook and it’s use in our District.

So what do you want first, the good news or the bad news? The good news is that our RCS Facebook page is 540 members strong and has proven to be another route of communication within our community. We post everything from news about our students’ success to when and where to go for Little League sign-ups. There’s not been one single problem or inappropriate comment left. Our extended Randolph family has found a place to connect.

Some of our teachers also have Facebook pages where they’re communicating with their students and parents about homework and class news. Sure they have the school website but I commend those teachers for meeting our students and parents where they are, on Facebook. The FB pages should all link from the website and should ALWAYS include parent access.

Another good thing is that complaints about texting in class are almost non-existent now. We’ve somewhat replaced texting as the mode of communication with Facebook. As one of our teachers noted, “this is the modern day passing of notes.”

Here’s the bad news. Overwhelmingly, our teachers report that Facebook is consuming our kids. Our labs are overflowing with students who want to get in there to do Facebook, not class projects or research or homework–Facebook. We have students with some serious academic needs who aren’t using school time to get any work done because they’re on Facebook every possible moment.

And who’s going to take an elective class when offered the option to go to a lab and talk to friends on Facebook instead? They’re teenagers. Social connections are more important to them than anything else, just as they were when we were in school. Sorry Teacher, but sometimes my friends are just way more interesting than your subject.

So how do we find any balance? We can’t easily filter by user. In other words, if you’re in good academic standing, you can be on Facebook during your study halls. If not, get to work. (Maybe that would be a great motivator!) We can’t filter by time of day–to have it open during the early morning and again at the end of the day. I’m thinking of this especially for our teachers who have no time at home to manage their school Facebook page due to family responsibilities. If we block it completely, they lose the time/convenience/ability to get on and update for their students and parents.

Teachers responded to my question of “how’s it going?” with endless comments about what a distraction Facebook has become. I think part of this is that our kids are able to work in multiple windows at the same time, working on a paper, checking Facebook for a few seconds, back to another source for the paper, back to writing and that’s hard for us to understand. The trouble seems to be that while some of our kids are really good at materials management—paper or on-line–others just aren’t. They’re not good at prioritizing or time management or work completion. Are we making it even harder for those students by offering them another distraction?

If we choose to block Facebook, you realize it’s a temporary “fix”, right? As our kids become more and more ‘wired’ with their own blackberries and ipods, they’ll be accessing Facebook and the web 24/7. At least when we battle the “no cell phones during my lesson” fight, we’re helping them learn that NOW is not the time. We have a lot of kids who aren’t figuring that out on their own.

Can’t wait to see the comments this post solicits. 😉 Our students will be leading a revolution over this–but you know what I suspect–most of them know that they or their friends are focusing way too much on Facebook and way too little on learning. What’s wrong with connecting on Facebook outside of the school day?

What is a prism?

You have to check out these 7th grade math videos and voice threads on Mr. Olson’s wiki! The voice threads are first, but don’t stop there, be sure to watch the videos too.  I’m not sure about you but I wish I had learned all of the terms of geometry in this way–looking for examples and creating a video. I visited Mr. Olson’s outstanding classes on the day they were watching the videos.  They had to peer grade their classmates’ presentations, looking for all 8 terms, with accurate definitions, examples and creativity. Think of the reinforcement of the content as the students watched with focus.

This is the kind of learning that will best prepare our students for the future: kids were collaborating, communicating, assessing and analyzing information, using their imagination and creating. And by the way, they were learning the content too, in meaningful ways that will stick with them.

If you’re wondering what’s happening with learning at RCS, I can assure you this is just one example of the amazing opportunities our students find every day. RCS Teachers and Students Rock!

What Drives Us?

Fred Deutsch is a school board member in South Dakota who I’ve been reading at School-of-Thought for a while now. I am usually struck by how much the same things are for Fred in his district as they are for us in ours. He posted yesterday about a presentation he attended at a conference he’s at in DC. The presentation was by Daniel Pink about the three levels of what drives us.

I’m particularly interested because we sometimes  hear teachers or parents complaining that a child just isn’t motivated. Fred recounts the first two levels of drive and I completely agree with Pink’s assessment of those two followed by his thoughts here,

But it’s the third drive that Pink spent most of the session discussing with us — the concept that people will do things because it’s interesting, because people want to get better at it, or because people inherently want to make a difference in the world.

Go read Fred’s whole post for more information. The first two levels are certainly nice, but the third is what pushes me to do my best every day. How about you? How about our kids? As a teacher, don’t you strive to provide learning opportunities to students that are interesting or that help them see their place in the world or that allow them to improve with 21st century skills? Aren’t those the lessons that most “grab” every kid, pushing him to learn more intensely?

I wonder, perhaps Pink’s book Drive might be a great book study for those teachers thinking about focusing on motivation in their Professional Learning Networks next year?  I bet our teachers working together can figure it out for our kids, even for our most reluctant learners.

Resistance to Change

During our staff development on Friday, I talked with teachers about our district vision of  learning with passion, innovation and leadership; about our commitment to focus time for teachers to learn though a different kind of opportunity next year; about how incredible we already are and how I know we are exactly the faculty to learn together, sharing ideas and finding our own way through Professional Learning Communities.

As I was talking I was thinking about the teachers and teaching aides and administrators before me. What were they thinking? Did they understand where we want to go? How could I help them realize that what I say is what I mean and there isn’t some covert, hidden agenda? How can we best support and encourage them in their own learning?

And I was thinking about resistance to change. I was wondering if I had any teachers who were thinking, “please just leave me alone in my room!”

But where positive energy and enthusiasm for learning and leading sometimes end, is at the point in time when we start focusing our plans on the 2-5% who are negative and critical, no matter the plan.

We have an incredible faculty who at their core want to do what’s best for kids, who want to inspire and lead and teach with meaning. This is a faculty who does their best each and every day, whether or not anyone is watching. This is the faculty I’m focusing on as we set out to form Professional Learning Networks where teachers will learn together, in self selected groups on topics of their choice that enhance learning with passion, innovation and leadership. I refuse to lead by thinking about the one or two potential nay-sayers to any plan.

And when I read Seth Godin’s post about the lizard brain, it made me think about brain chemistry and general human nature. Here’s the post, in its entirety.  Seth says,

Lizard image linchpin istockHow can I explain the never-ending irrationality of human behavior?

We say we want one thing, then we do another. We say we want to be successful but we sabotage the job interview. We say we want a product to come to market, but we sandbag the shipping schedule. We say we want to be thin but we eat too much. We say we want to be smart but we skip class or don’t read that book the boss lent us.

The contradictions never end. When someone shows up and acts without contradiction, we’re amazed. When an athlete just does the sport, or when a writer just writes the words, we can’t help but watch, astonished at the purity of their actions. Why is it so difficult to do what we say we’re going to do?

The lizard brain.

Or as Steven Pressfield describes it, the resistance. The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise. The resistance is writer’s block and putting jitters and every project that ever shipped late because people couldn’t stay on the same page long enough to get something out the door.

The resistance grows in strength as we get closer to shipping, as we get closer to an insight, as we get closer to the truth of what we really want. That’s because the lizard hates change and achievement and risk.

The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because her lizard brain told her to.

Want to know why so many companies can’t keep up with Apple? It’s because they compromise, have meetings, work to fit in, fear the critics and generally work to appease the lizard. Meetings are just one symptom of an organization run by the lizard brain. Late launches, middle of the road products and the rationalization that goes with them are others.

The amygdala isn’t going away. Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it. This is so important, I wanted to put it on the cover of my new book. We realized, though, that the lizard brain is freaked out by a picture of itself, and if you want to sell books to someone struggling with the resistance (that would be all of us) best to keep it a little more on the down low.

Now you’ve seen the icon and you know its name. What are you going to do about it?

Let’s work together to keep the lizard part of our brains from slowing us down. I’m game, how about you?

School Calendar for 2010-11

Here’s something that comes up every year as a topic of discussion—the school calendar. As you probably know, it always comes down to the question of a two week break in April or a week in February and a week in April (better known as the split break). There are all kinds of arguments that people make in support of or against one or the other.

The most significant argument of late surrounds the concern over our grades 3-8 state testing which is scheduled for late April through May. Opponents to the two week break are concerned that it’s bad for our kids—two weeks away and then start the NYS testing cycle?

What’s my 2 cents? I hate to think that our students won’t do well on the NYS assessments because they’re away from us for two weeks. The last thing all this state testing should have resulted in was months of test prep, so I like to think that we’re preparing our students to do well throughout the school year, to be good thinkers and readers and writers, and that a week prior to the test of “test taking strategies” should suffice.

I also think the break in February is a needless break in learning. If I had my way, we’d take a week in April and end a week sooner in June but last I checked SED isn’t asking my opinion on the Regents testing schedule. Better yet, let’s go year round in four quarters with two weeks in between each quarter.

The BOE members here elected to keep the two weeks together for next year, but we’re keeping them near the beginning of the month to coincide with the week in April that the “split break” schools take. We need to do that because districts  aren’t independent entities on islands–we send students to other locations and to BOCES for programs and the more we can do the same with our schedules, the better for those Randolph students attending classes at other schools or BOCES.

We haven’t approved the final calendar yet, but we’re close. We also have to start the Friday before Labor Day with students again–whenever it falls a bit later in the month, that happens. It’s either that day for students or the day before Thanksgiving in order to get in all of our student days.

The only other change that I’ll write more about here in the future is in line with our vision of Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership. We want to focus more on our teachers as learners too and so are planning for collegial circles or learning clubs next year–where teachers will work in groups over the course of the school year to learn more about topics like project based learning, improving student writing, Thoughtful Classroom strategies, technology integration—topics that they will choose to study that align with our vision—and will allow them to learn and grow as educators.

Research has proven time and again that there is no more significant factor in your child’s success than the teacher in front of him or her in the classroom. Investing in our teachers, in their learning and further developing their expertise, is one of the best investments we can make.  Therefore, we’re planning for one Friday per month when students will be dismissed early so that we can work with our teachers as we focus on learning how to be the best educators we can be— as we learn with passion, innovation and leadership.

Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership

When my time in education is done and I’m ready for a second act during retirement (teaching again? writing that book?), I want to know that I’ve made a significant positive difference. To know that I’ve left the place BETTER than I found it, that we’re learning more and that it’s significant learning for everyone. I want to knock the heck out of the status quo.

I think that’s  how most BOE members feel when they serve on a board of education. So it’s with much excitement that I met with our administrators and teachers to talk about the vision/mission set by our BOE at it’s Fall Retreat–Learning with Passion, Innovation and Leadership.

If you think about it, isn’t that what we want for everyone? For every student, every teacher, every athlete—meaningful learning experiences when they can feel passionate about what it is they’re learning. Meaningful learning experiences which they can approach with a curiosity about all that’s in the world today and where they can lead with influence.

Think about your own child. When she goes forward from Randolph Central, what do you want for her? Do you want to know that he can ask good questions, pursuing the life of his dreams with passion and leading with influence and collaboration? Do you want to know that she can communicate her ideas effectively and to think well?

When I think of my own children, I want this for them. It’s nice to know that they did  well in school—as we’ve always measured that anyway–they both achieved honor or high honor roll every quarter, did well on Regents exams, graduate in the top of their classes. But what good will that do them if they can’t THINK through the situations they face, if they can’t advocate for themselves or ask good questions? If they have no flexibility and can’t work with others? If they aren’t curious about everything that’s so amazing in this world? If they just accept everything the world throws at them as their lot in life?

I don’t want my own kids to go quietly through their lives. And I don’t want that for our RCS students either. I hope we’re graduating students who can research and analyze and take the initiative. I hope we’re graduating students who can help to solve the many problems that our world faces–making it a better place than it is today. I want our graduates to know that they have the power to do so. And so I’m always wondering, what are we doing to prepare them to be good thinkers? To let them practice these things?

Time will tell if my own kids can do more than be good students in school. I’m hopeful and optimistic, but I’m not sure that the ability to score well on the Global exam or Earth Science Regents or the 8th grade Math exam shows much more than an ability to memorize, study and take a test well.  Does this success indicate an ability to critically think, to problem solve, to collaborate, lead, initiate, communicate, analyze? To really understand the world around them and their places in it? I’m not sure. I’ve got a daughter who’s an adult and a son with his foot firmly planted on that threshold. It’s largely up to them now.

And our RCS students? Well that’s entirely within our grasp, isn’t it? We determine what happens here every day for our kids. I, for one, along with our teachers, administrators, staff and BOE members, am setting out to change the world. Seriously. I believe that if we truly focus on learning with passion, innovation and leadership, we can prepare our students to be innovative problem solvers who live their lives with purpose and passion. And just for the record, I’ll bet that when we do all of this–they’ll still get good marks on the state assessments, probably better.

Let’s get to it.