Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Our Absence

I will be out of the classroom for the month of April (a medical procedure that really can't wait). Spring break will take up one of the weeks, but it still equates to me being out of the classroom for three weeks. As we draw closer to April, the feeling of anxiety is building. I have done my best to set my students, my teammates and the teacher who will be in for me, up for success. Long range plans are ready, materials are gathered, a newsletter informing families went home Friday, and I've spoken with my students. My teammates and administrators couldn't be more supportive, and yet I'm still filled with a great deal of angst, and guilt. Have I done enough to prepare for the transition? Will the transition be a smooth one?

If we have done our jobs right, our students should continue to learn and to flourish as much in our absence, as in our presence. If we have given them the tools to help them ask the right questions, if we have given them the opportunity to lead their learning, if we have taken the time to establish the norms of collaboration in a learning community and encouraged students to share expertise and learn from one another, we should feel confident that our students can perform as well in our absence as they would in our presence. As educators we must cultivate independent learners. Too often classrooms are teacher centered, and we end up creating dependent learners. Dependent learners, that when the teacher is busy or removed from the activity, become anxious, intimidated, distracted or easily deterred when tasks appear complex or require a novel approach. What we must insure that we do is foster independent learners; learners that are curious, confident, willing to take risks and flexible in their thinking.

Until right now, I'm not sure I reflected enough on how well I have prepared my students to truly lead their own learning. I value persistence, and perseverance in problem solving certainly; but how often have I jumped in too soon?  Did I let them struggle, yes struggle, and wrestle with a problem before jumping in? How often have I encouraged them to tap into the expertise of their peers? Have I encouraged students to reflect on how they know what they know? I adore the curiosity of this group of third graders, but have I given them ample opportunity to indulge their curiosity, and see where it leads? Have I included self-reflection and self-assessment enough for them to be acutely aware of their strengths and their weaknesses?

It will be difficult to be out of the classroom, but having this happen has provided me an opportunity for some meaningful reflection, and the chance to perhaps tweak some things when I return. Fostering independent learners is important, particularly if we are looking to promote life-long learning. Students should continue to learn and to flourish as much in our absence, as in our presence.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Professional Learning - It Is Ours!

I love having the opportunity to get together with colleagues and to share what is working, and what's not. There is such power in having opportunities to learn from one another and to share best practices, and yet, it seems that we don't make the time to do it as often as we could, or we should. We don't connect with colleagues in neighboring schools or districts, and miss the occasion to tap into our collective intelligence. There is so much that we can learn from one another! If you have ever attended an Edcamp you know exactly what I mean. If you have not experienced an Edcamp, do yourself a favor and find one. It will be some of the most rewarding professional learning that you engage in.

This morning I was able to participate in professional learning with colleagues in a neighboring district (West Genesee). I was asked, by Keith Newvine, to facilitate a discussion on blogging for educators and students (you can access the slide deck here). We had great discussions about the purpose of blogging in education, the many benefits that blogging has for both educators and students, and how we might overcome possible obstacles or roadblocks. While I was facilitating this discussion, two others were taking place, one on the use of Twitter in education (facilitated by Vicki Day) and another on GAFE (facilitated by Rob Leo). As we wrapped up the first session, it was clear that while the participants were interested and eager to learn both about Twitter and blogging, there was a real desire to go deeper with GAFE. It was at this point that one of the organizers approached Vicki and I about sharing our experiences with GAFE, and specifically Google Classroom, at the elementary level. It made sense to differentiate the GAFE session so that secondary and elementary participants would be better able to get precisely what they needed. It was such a positive experience. We were able to have meaningful, focused discussions, and participants were able to ask questions of us, and the group. We were able to share what we have learned, refine our thinking, and think about what next steps might be. It really was the perfect example of what professional learning could, and should be.

All too often professional learning is not driven by the learner, and their needs, and this is unfortunate. In my experience, the most influential and powerful learning comes when you have more organic learning and collaboration opportunities, and the reason is pretty simple - one size does not fit all. So, this is where educators need to take some ownership and responsibility. We need to advocate for our own professional learning, and we need to stop waiting for PD to be done for us, or to us. There are many easy ways for us to do this. We can connect on Social Media, and create dynamic Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). We can encourage small moment PD sessions in our buildings, in which we share our expertise and empower one another (read more about these in Pernille Ripp's book, Empowered Schools, Empowered Students). We can facilitate, and actively participate in Edcamps. We can blog and share our learning and reflection with others. Finally, we must be vocal in our respective districts, and let our administrators know what we feel we need to grow professionally. Now is the time for a professional learning revolution!


Want a seriously great read on leading professional learning? Order Leading Professional Learning: Tools to Connect and Empower Teachers by Tom Murray and Jeff Zoul.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Power of Relationships - Part III

For the past couple of weeks I have been blogging about the power of relationships in education. This post will focus on the relationships that we forge with our colleagues. I believe that the relationships that exist amongst colleagues have a tremendous impact on the functioning of the school as a whole. The presence of trusting, collaborative and caring relationships amongst the adults in the building, will have a ripple effect that will touch all aspects of life within the school community.

While the relationships of the adults in a highly functioning school community is critical, it seems that it is often something that can be largely ignored, or at least not discussed publicly. Who wants to admit that we might prefer to live in isolation, or that we're having a hard time getting along or even that there is blatant conflict? We can either be too polite to discuss it, or may fear confronting it. The reality is, unless we do, our learning communities can't be all that they could be.

How do we begin to focus on building relationships with our colleagues? It isn't unlike the previous posts. When it comes to building relationships and promoting collegiality, the starting points are pretty similar:

  • Be present and listen. We are all busy, we all have a laundry list of both professional and personal responsibilities, but this is important work, and worth our time. We need to take the time for frequent and informal interaction, giving our colleagues our undivided attention.  Developing and cultivating collegial relationships will lead us to greater overall satisfaction, as we reduce stress and increase enthusiasm for the work that we share. 
  • Mutual respect. We need to respect the diverse roles that we play in our learning communities. Before we can do that though, we need to understand the nuances of one another's roles. This happens when we remove isolation, encourage open door policies and engage in dialogue with one another about our educational practices.
  • Open communication. Good relationships are dependent on it. But in my experience, you have to invest heavily in the first two elements above to get to it. We communicate all day long, in a variety of modes and formats, but open communication is much more than that. Open communication occurs when individuals are able to express ideas, and engage in meaningful and even tough conversations, and feel that they have been heard. The benefit of open communication is less gossip, and "out in the parking-lot" conversations, and greater transparency, problem solving and conflict resolution.
  • Be positive. A positive attitude is contagious. People enjoy being around positive people. Look for the good around you, and appreciate the good in others. This doesn't mean that we skirt disagreements, but we can disagree in an agreeable way. It is possible to be honest with one another without engaging in negativity, and we can do this by presuming positive intentions.

When we grow in positive relationship with our colleagues its impacts are felt throughout the school community. Please share your tips for improving collegial relationships in the comments below. This is something that affects us all, and can benefit us all.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Power of Relationships - Part II

Last week I blogged about how exceptional building and district leaders understand that leadership is larger than themselves, and that one of their greatest responsibilities is to develop the leadership qualities of others in their organizations. This blog post builds on that first one, by looking at the role of classroom teachers and support or related services staff in a school building. I argue what exceptional faculty, and by faculty I really mean all of the adults that come in contact with students, do differently is that they develop leadership qualities in the students with which they interact. Just as I argued in my previous piece, related to building and district leaders, I believe that the critical first step to developing the leadership capital in students is engaging, developing and cultivating relationships.

How does a faculty member go about forging meaningful relationships with students? Here are some starting points:

  • Listen. Our students love to share stories with us. Your interest in the stories they share matter. What often begins as the sharing of the happenings at home over the weekend, or what took place during an extracurricular event, or during the ride into school, can lead to them opening up about their hopes, their fears, and their passions. This can be tremendously informative in figuring out how to best meet an individual child's needs, but also in finding ways to tap into talents and interests, and to encourage the leader inside that child.
  • Be present. We are busy. There is hardly a moment to just sit and to think, or to contemplate, and we often find ourselves dashing from one thing to the next. Children are acutely aware of this. We need to be present to our children. They know when they have 100% of our attention, or just a fraction of it. This isn't to say that we have to continually drop everything we are doing to address a child's need immediately, but we do need to acknowledge it, arrange a mutually acceptable time to address it, and then we must address it and be fully present. We have to be consistent. Children need to know that if we say we are going to listen, and/or act we will, and in a timely fashion.
  • Validate and Elevate Student Voice. There are many ways to validate and elevate student voice throughout the day, in small ways and in big ways. I will never forget the advice of a professor of mine, Dr. Barry Bennett (OISE/UT). He said something to the effect of; never repeat an answer that was provided by a student because when you do, you subconsciously tell your students that your voice is the voice that matters, the one that carries all of the authority. When we provide opportunities for peer coaching or mentoring we tap into the leadership potential of our students. When we allow students to teach adults, we not only show that as adults we can be vulnerable and admit to our weaknesses, but that we are also dedicated to learning, and that learning is not hierarchical. You may be asking what this has to do specifically with building relationships; I would argue that by validating and elevating student voice you are building trust and respect which are critical to meaningful relationships.
  • Be friendly. Smile and greet students each day when they arrive. Let them know you're happy to have them there. We all prefer spending time with positive and upbeat people. Negative people drain our energy; conversely positive, upbeat people can increase our energy. Our positive attitude sets the tone for the day. It is also important to consider that more of our children are coming to us hurting and in need. School is a place of refuge, and we have an opportunity to nurture and provide an environment where healing can take place. 
Clearly this is not a comprehensive list, there are many more points that could be added, and I would encourage you, if you have something that comes to mind, to added it in the comments below. This is critical work and there is much that we can learn from one another. Much the same as when leaders take the time to invest in others, having meaningful relationships develop which ultimately increase a leader's sphere of influence, when faculty take the time to invest in engaging and cultivating relationships with students, the result is a population of students that feel valued, who look forward to coming to school, who will take risks and build each other up.