Because For Educators and Parents, Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Chez Pitch

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Chez Pitch

“Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes,” a teacher I had never met and will will unlikely ever meet again shared with me at the recent NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education) conference. We were at a session on Creating a New Learning Culture in schools. The presenter, Dr. Billie McConnell, was informative, even inspirational, sharing the need for change, compellingly presenting statistics about how unprepared our children are for the world they are inheriting, and sharing a vision, replete with videos of some of the most creative, insightful student-centered, individualized learning experiences I have ever witnessed. He outlined a problem, a significant problem with schooling today, and showed us a profound solution.

And, then, came the question I wait for at conferences; the question I hope somebody will be brave enough to ask in a setting in which we do not know each other, do not need to work with one another for more than a few hours, and consequently, sometimes, when courageous or frustrated enough, can express what is truly on our minds. I must paraphrase, yet nontheless share the essence of the words spoken. “This is all well and good, but it takes a tremendous amount of work, way beyond expectations in our contracts,” a teacher boldly stated. “I am a teacher and in my early years in the classroom I would have aspired to teaching as you show. Yet, now I am also a father of two young children and the demands to teach the way they do in those videos are way too high. It takes much more time to prepare than we have. What do you expect for us to do?”

Dr. McConnell respectfully validated the question and moved on with his presentation. In fairness, Dr. McConnell was showing us through his presentation what a new learning culture can be. He was wise, experienced and insightful, relaying a profound vision and a substantial amount of  information to us in a very short time. I appreciated and respected the learning. And yet, I longed to engage in further conversation with this outspoken, articulate teacher and the other educators who had chosen to come to a session on Creating a New Learning Culture. I longed to delve into dialogue beyond making a case for what is needed in schools, beyond a vision for what is possible in schools, to an honest sharing of what creating that culture is like in the trenches, in real schools and in real classrooms, with the multitude of demands and challenges that exist.

I raised my hand and myself blurted out, with more urgency in my voice than I had intended, a request to pause and speak further about what this teacher had shared, to open the conversation with others in the room about how we can work with the limited resources of time and funding available, and yet make progress. How can we engage with teachers open enough to attend conferences and speak their minds, passionate about helping students, yet skeptical about what is possible in their own classrooms and schools? How can we support teachers honest about how very challenging and demanding changing a culture of learning is? Was Dr. McConnell showing in his videos a few outlier teachers, particularly wise and resourceful, or could the remarkable accomplishments of these superb educators be replicated in classrooms and schools throughout the country? Again, respectfully, Dr. McConnell validated my participation and moved on. I admire Dr. McConnell’s ability to remain focused in the face of participants, primarily me, attempting to shift the focus of his well thought out, well received, important presentation. Looking back, I appreciate that he remained focused and moved on. And yet, I continue to long for a venue in which to discuss the truth from the trenches of our classrooms and our schools; the demands and complexity that envisioning our efforts anew will entail.

As the presentation ended and I stood to leave, the woman sitting next to me turned to me and said, “I am a teacher and I can tell you what I would like from my administrators.” “Please do,” I replied, “that would be so helpful.”  “Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes.” With that, as participants for the next session began to file into the room and we both needed to leave, I thanked her and bid her good-bye, realizing that in a conference boasting many experts, numerous of them nationally reknowned, this wise and honest teacher had just offered me the greatest gift and insight I had received during the entire three days of the conference. We can only risk growth in environments in which we feel safe and protected. This is true for our students and is true for our teachers as well.

Can we hold the bar high with a vision of learning that is compelling, meaningful, and relevant for our students? Can we support teachers facing a plethora of demands and seeking to make progress with limited resources, time as well as funding? Can we empower teachers to make progress while still attaining a healthy work-life balance, grounded and present for their students as well as their families and themselves? Can we enable teachers to feel safe and protected as we venture forward with approaches requiring risk?

 How can we help make risk-taking safe and progress manageable? How can we help our teachers’ hearts sing?

 

 

 

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Screen Shot 2014-08-17 at 9.53.12 AMWhat if we could untether our strategic planning processes from typical constraints? What if we looked at building on our strengths and capitalizing on our opportunities rather than fixing our weaknesses and responding to threats? What if we unlocked our potential to grow, thrive, and evolve? What if rather than sustainability and stability we focused on transformative possibility?

Members of Solomon Schechter School of Queens’ professional development team and Board of Trustees spent a day and a half with Charles Cohen and Ray Levi of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) in imaginative exploration of the possible.  Piloting a generative, creative planning process known as “asset optimization”, we began with a few “rules”:
* No silos allowed – multiple voices identify disparate assets, including human assets, to unleash new potential.
* Thinking must be interactive.
* Change and success must find common ground. We must not view change as an end unto itself, but rather as a vehicle for achieving success. Similarly, we must challenge the potential constraints of success, which can lead us to being stuck in what has worked even though our world is rapidly changing around us.
* The power of imagination must be embraced.
* In order to “connect the dots” in new, innovative ways we must identify dots we might not have even realized existed.
* The Head of School must accept not being the expert.
* The Board must support innovative thinking.

From there, we played. Using a model created by Shattuck-ST. Mary’s School’s President Nick Stoneman as a means of sharing the creative process that transformed his school over the span of a decade of innovation, we first engaged in two rounds of asset optimization using assets from schools other than our own. We worked with a very specific asset in each of six areas: Physical Plant, Faculty and Staff, Brand Recognition, External Relationships, Geography and Region, and Program Offered. Our task was to optimize potential by intertwining assets in these six disparate areas, finding opportunity previously unrecognized by connecting and combining asset categories in new and innovative ways in order to improve in seven specific areas: Faculty Engagement, Student Retention, Increased Enrollment, Facility Expansion, Endowment Growth, Additional Programs, and Alternative Revenue.

Charles Cohen and Ray Levi functioned as our coaches, activating our learning by observing, asking reflective questions to stretch our thinking, and offering feedback on what we might consider. They challenged us to be more specific and less “neat”, freeing us to resist the impulse to tie loose ends together quickly and instead to consider as many possibilities for building on strengths as we could. Working in two separate groups, we strove to optimize assets for two fictional schools, each with seemingly unconnected assets. Through the brainstorming, we crafted narratives of meaning, building on strengths to create schools that are world class – one emphasizing community and character; the other science and social policy. Inspiring us to live with the inherent messiness of creativity, at least for awhile, our facilitators sent us off on round two with two new schools and two new sets of assets to consider. To the delight of our facilitators, we emerged with “messier” packages of potential, and multiple potential directions for the schools presented to us – one a girls’ school emphasizing the arts and expanding into wellness programing and therapeutic arts for students and the broader community, and the other a struggling school in need of substantial intervention with a plethora of possibilities for improvement based on strengths, some of them initially hidden.

With the experience of imagining the possible in connection to fictional schools, with fictional assets, we were ready to identify real assets in our own school; dots we might not have yet even recognized in order to then connect those dots in new, innovative ways. Feedback from our coaches Charles Cohen and Ray Levi on our identification of our own assets was consistent with the feedback they offered in relation to our efforts at optimizing assets in the fictional schools which which we had practiced: be more specific. And so, we went back to work – identifying with much greater specificity faculty members, alumni, programs, and opportunities made possible by our physical plant. Those assets became the raw material with which we returned the next day to engage in multiple rounds of the asset optimization exercise using real assets of our own school.

Prompted by our coaches to think more expansively, more ambitiously, more creatively, more flexibly, and more specifically, we imagined a world class school. We envisioned signature programs and strategic partnerships enabling us to be ever more relevant to our students, preparing them in concrete, innovative ways for the rapidly changing world of work with emphasis in technology, science, and entrepreneurial ventures; infused with commitment to being socially responsible; deeply grounded in the enduring values and texts of our Jewish religious tradition. We described potential ways to build upon global connections stemming from our own multi-national, multi-lingual student and family population. Considering museums, universities, libraries, businesses, organizations, and individuals with whom to develop strategic partnerships, we recognized ways of cultivating connections to benefit our students. We imagined expansive potential for recruitment and facility expansion based on a virtuous cycle of optimizing assets.

CC licensed image shared by flickr user Slipp D. Thompson

The toothpaste is out of the tube! CC licensed image shared by flickr user Slipp D. Thompson

Beyond the imaginative ideas, we experienced important shifting of mindset. Possibilities requiring effort, risk, and courage were shared aloud as possible, leading not to a sense of anxiety or outright dismissal, but instead to openness to further exploration. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” one participant playfully remarked, in reference to our rapidly changing world as well as the possibilities we together imagined.

Ready to leave the limitless world of potential and possibility and return to the more mundane day to day world of the operational and the tactical, we considered next steps that would enable us to build on positive momentum generated. Members of the professional leadership team considered concrete actions we could take to actualize some of the more manageable suggestions offered as well as to lay the groundwork for more ambitious innovation. Most significantly, we considered ways of bringing others who had not participated in the training into the process, primarily our Trustees and our faculty. Recognizing that at this time two days of learning combining theory and imaginative play with a purpose would not yet be achievable or even advisable for our very busy Trustees, or our very busy faculty members, we considered specific ways to infuse the language and thinking behind asset optimization into our work as we seek to shift our school’s mind set to a focus on identifying, cultivating, celebrating, and building on strength and opportunity. While much remains to be done, the conversation and learning has already had a potent impact. The toothpaste is out of the tube!

 

Career Ready

 

cc licensed image shared by flickr user huppypie

cc licensed image shared by flickr user huppypie

With so much conversation about preparing children for the rapidly changing world they will inherit, I have wondered why there is so little programming yet available in schools related to careers or vocations. Yes, there are high schools with work study programs or vocational training, but very little in K-8 schools.

Striving to take  seriously a commitment to  making learning relevant, my school has designed a career related electives program for seventh an eighth graders, aimed at enabling our students to consider their possible future work lives in an interactive, engaging manner. Electives will be taught twice a week by teachers in our own school.  Each elective will involve students in collaborative projects utilizing skills needed for the particular career about which they have chosen to learn and will include a social action component helping students consider ways the skills of the career can be used to make a positive impact for others.

Our career related electives are (in alphabetical order): Business; Education; Graphic Design; Health and Fitness Science; Medicine; Psychology/Social Work; Technology: Making, Tinkering, and Innovating; and Theater/Entertainment Industry. Descriptions of each course are provided below.

 Business

This course will focus on the area of Marketing and bring in the financial implications relating to the goods and service being marketed. Marketing focuses on the methods,policies and institutions involved in the flow of goods and service from the producer to the consumer. Activities such as product development,research,communication,distribution,pricing and service are core marketing activities.During the school year we will study each if these activities. As mentioned the cost of the development of the product and it’s financial implication will be discussed. Students will develop an understanding as to why items are distributed and marketed the way they are. They will understand the challenges of competition in the marketplace.

The class will be divided into a number of groups for a project where each group will introduce a new product and they will develop the marketing plan for this product from the research and development stage through distribution.

Related subjects studied will include Finance, Advertising and Consumer Behavior.

 

Education

Our own school will serve as our lab as we explore the field of education. Students will have the opportunity to participate in “learning walks”, a professional learning approach in which educators, in this case our own students, observe learning in classrooms and then reflect together on what they observe. Prior to the learning walk foci to explore are selected from a range of potential areas including student engagement, physical design of the classroom, opportunities for individualized learning, opportunities for collaborative learning, integration of technology, evidence of student learning, and more. Students will learn techniques of observation, reflection, and lesson planning. They will provide individual or small group support in classes with younger children and receive feedback on their work. Students will collaboratively prepare a lesson, using a professional learning approach called lesson study, which originated in Japan. Each student will then teach the lesson they have created collaboratively in one of our younger grades. Students will observe each other teaching the lesson and offer feedback to one another using a professionally designed protocol to promote respectful, professional reflection and learning.

 

Graphic Design

Graphic Design is about how you interpret your visual world.  It is problem solving and sometimes making something really cool in the process. Everything that is not made by nature is designed by an artist. Graphic designers produce the labels on every product from shampoo bottles to a carton of milk.   In this course we will design book covers, tee shirts, street signs, posters and logos, while incorporating color, form and symmetry in the designs. We will plan together ways in which our creations can be donated in order to benefit others.

 

Health and Fitness Science

Combining physical therapy, neurology, and martial arts, students will explore the way in which health and fitness science can positively impact the lives of individuals living with illness and disability. Students will explore therapeutic physical fitness, with emphasis on the martial arts. They will apply their learning through organizing martial arts therapeutic programming for children with a range of illnesses and disabilities.

 

Medicine  

This course will begin with the history of medicine, from ancient (Egyptian) times to the present, including the difference between today’s conventional medicine and holistic medicine. We will continue with a brief introduction to the two main areas of medicine we will be discussing (Nursing and Medical Physician), including the education necessary, different degrees available, and specialties. We will additionally discuss ways in which medical professionals make a positive impact in their communities and consider volunteer opportunities in the medical field.

 

The following are some of the items we will discuss:

Nursing:  LPN, RN, NP

Medical/Surgical Nursing, Psychiatric Nursing, School Nurse, Public Health Nurse, Private Duty

Nurse

Physician: MD, DO, PA

Private Practice, Public Health, Doctors Without Borders

 

Specialties we will explore for both Nursing and Physician: Medical/Surgical,Trauma, Obstetrics, Pediatrics, Geriatrics, Internal Medicine, Dermatology, Orthopedics, Hematology, Oncology, ICU & CCU, Pulmonary Medicine, and Psychiatry (and how it differs from Psychology).

 

Psychology/Social Work

This course is designed to provide students with an initial exposure to the field of psychology. Students will learn the diagnostic criteria presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V for several mental health diagnoses. We will use media, literature and other sources to assess portrayals of these mental health illnesses. Examples of this may include TV shows such as Monk, Seinfeld, and Private Practice as well as books. Students will assess the accuracy of these media portrayals. Additionally, we will discuss the mind-body connection and how one’s mental health impacts physical health/performance. This will include how it impacts learning as well as a section exploring the impact of psychology on athletic performance (sports psychology). We will use real life examples to illustrate these points and will bring in guest lecturers as well.

 

Technology: Making, Tinkering, and Innovating

In this course, students will have access to the latest hands-on technologies and the opportunity to invent something that interests them.  Students will be given the chance to transform from passive receivers of knowledge to real-world makers who are empowered to design, build, and share their own amazing artifacts. They will consider ways their inventions can be used to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

 

Theater/Entertainment Industry

 The industry has a wide variety of career opportunities including specific areas of theater production, performance and management.

 Theater production is collaborative work that brings together many different skills from the playwrights, performers, stage manager, directors, producers, and set designers including costume design, sound and lighting,

 This course will include theater history, a closer  look at Broadway and the many different theater career opportunities that exist today. This course will culminate in a collaboration of writing and producing an original short play that will be performed and enjoyed by an audience that would benefit from its presentation.

CC Licensed Image Shared by Flickr User Steve Heath

CC Licensed Image Shared by Flickr User Steve Heath

What is the purpose of K-12 schooling?

Think for a moment before coming up with an answer. Consider what you believe truly matters. Is it preparation for college? Preparation for a career? Support in growing to be an individual who is morally and ethically grounded? Is it guidance in the development of core skills and habits of being needed to successfully navigate the complex, rapidly changing realities of the world our children will inherit? Is it all of the above?

While I venture most educators would answer “all of the above” and even share additional goals, most K-12 schools seem in practice to focus almost exclusively on college preparation or perhaps college preparation and character development. While many schools are grappling with ways of personalizing learning to meet students’ individualized needs and supporting students to set and strive for their own goals, so much more is possible.

Early in the year, my first year as Head of School at Solomon Schechter School of Queens, a father of a child in our middle school challenged me, stretching my thinking and sending me on a quest to consider ways of making learning more relevant. Why is it, he asked, that schools don’t teach financial literacy? He explained that to him, the need for finanical literacy in any profession or vocation a child might choose is self evident. He questioned me as to why financial literacy skills are not a staple of K-12 education. I didn’t have a good answer or a ready solution. And so I began to explore, learn, and imagine. I wondered ways to prepare children for responsibly managing their own finances, and beyond that goal I wondered  ways of helping children consider and prepare for the complex, rapidly changing world of work. I wondered ways of helping children recognize their own strengths, talents, and interests and consider careers or vocations that might be meaningful to them. In time, I came up with what I feel is a start; a two pronged approach to making learning more relevant and taking “career readiness” seriously: a financial literacy curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade and a career related electives program for  seventh and eighth grade. The complementary programs aim to instill both the critical thinking and critical action skills essential to setting life goals, as well as the motivation, self-discipline, adaptability, resilience, and courage necessary to put ideas into action in order to achieve life goals. These two cornerstone programs are, I hope, just a beginning; first steps to implement, assess, evaluate, and build upon.

Financial Literacy Curriculum for Kindergarten through Eighth Grade
Our school’s Financial Literacy curriculum, to be implemented next year, is modeled after a program created at the Ariel Community Academy in Chicago through the efforts of then Chicago Public Schools CEO and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and John Rogers, CEO and founder of Ariel Investments, featured in Edutopia’s Schools That Work. Surprisingly, despite the tremendous success of the program at Ariel Community Academy, in the almost two decades since the program’s inauguration very few schools nationally have adopted similar learning experiences for their students.

While our school’s financial literacy approach is based on Ariel Community Academy’s experience, we have substantially modified the curriculum in order to meet the needs of our student population.  Our financial literacy curriculum includes five primary components:

  • Economics
  • Personal Finance
  • Entrepreneurial Skills
  • Investing
  • Philanthropic Giving

Students in kindergarten, first, and second grades will gain a basic understanding of economics and personal finance including earning income, saving, spending, credit, and money management. Their learning will be supplemented by an interactive classroom economy including jobs in which students earn “salaries” (consisting of play money), ‘bonuses”, have required expenses, and have choices of ways to spend their discretionary income remaining after their expenses have been paid. Philanthropic giving will be among the choices for spending discretionary earnings and students will be required to consider ways their earnings can make a positive impact for others.

Students in third and fourth grades will delve deeper into a foundation in economics. Third grade students will explore public finance, taxes, and ways that communities and municipalities make spending choices. They will have the opportunity to speak with local politicians about the ways in which public funding is utilized and they will determine a project in which they can be involved to enhance quality of life within the local community. In fourth grade students will learn about currency and monetary policy, exploring what the Federal Reserve system is and its role in helping currency circulate throughout the United States as well as the value of different currencies. Students will collaboratively determine a fundraising/social action project that impacts an international community of their choice.

In fifth grade, students will engage in substantive learning about investing. The grade will receive $20,000 in an imaginary portfolio, which they will manage through the end of eighth grade. We hope in the future to potentially be able to secure actual funds for the students to manage as is done at Ariel Community Academy. Students will be actively involved in making investment decisions for their portfolio and will receive mentoring from an investment professional. When the students are in eighth grade, they will analyze how their portfolio has done and collaboratively determine among themselves and with the school administration the way in which they would want their funds to be spent to enhance the quality of the school. If in the future, these are ever actual rather than imaginary funds, even in a smaller amount, the funds will truly go to the project designed by our students. Students will present their funding proposal, offering a compelling case for the ways in which their contribution will improve the school. They will also describe and analyze what is happening in the stock market, sharing what they have learned through the experience of investing  funds over the course of the four years of managing a stock portfolio.

Middle school students will explore world economic issues and engage in learning entrepreneurial skills. They will analyze current events of economic import and consider the impact of economics within local, national, and international arenas. Students will have numerous opportunities for ongoing learning about investment as they continue to manage their grade’s stock portfolio. They will also gain knowledge and understanding of entrepreneurial skills and will have the opportunity to create their own business plans. Each year of middle school, students will determine a worthy philanthropic project to which they can contribute based on economic needs they identify through their study of current events. Integral to their project will be a business plan outlining ways they will raise the funds they will donate.

Some of the resource materials we may use for our financial literacy curriculum include, but are by no means limited to:

Financial Fitness for Life

My Classroom Economy

The Secret Millionaires Club  financial literacy and entrepeneurship resouces and learning activities

Money As You Learn

Financial Education In The Math Classroom

Online Economic Lessons

Lessons To Include Financial Literacy In Math

Lessons on Entrepreneurship

A Mobile App Lesson on Financial Capability

Games To Support Financial Literacy

Free online and mobile games to improve financial capability, confidence, and knowledge

Financial Educational Games

Genirevolution: online Personal Finance Game and Genirevolution supplemental materials for teachers

Banking Game

Lesson Ideas and Games on Financial Literacy

Career Related Electives Program

Our school’s career related electives program will give our seventh and eighth grade students the opportunity to explore the world of work in an interactive, engaging manner. Each semester students will choose between a range of elective courses, focused on a particular career. In each course, students will learn about the career and participate in a collaborative project, completed during class time, incorporating skills needed for the career and focused on making a positive impact for others. Electives will be taught two periods a week. The courses will be pass, fail, or pass with distinction. Students can stay with one course for the entire two years, or switch each semester. Offering a range of course options will both enable us to provide a variety of choices for students to explore, while also keeping each course small thereby providing substantial attention and mentoring to each child. Our career related electives, are (in alphabetical order): Business, Education, Graphic Design, Health and Fitness Science, Medicine, Psychology/Social Work, Technology, and Theater. In the future, we will seek to add even more options.

The combination of a financial literacy curriculum and our career related electives offer an opportunity for our students to achieve far more than the foundation for success in high school and college. We hope these learning experiences will inspire our students to set potential goals for themselves, and to gain skills, understanding, and positive habits and qualities needed to achieve their goals.

What else might we consider as we seek to make learning ever more relevant? 

 

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Colin_K

cc licensed image shared by flickr user Colin_K

I notice. I wonder. What if? How might?

These four nonjudgemental prompts guide me as I share feedback with teachers. In the past, when I began my journey toward routinely and nonjudgmentally offering formative feedback to teachers in lieu of formal evaluations I avoided compliment as much as critique. What I like is, after all, as judgmental as what I don’t like. Yet, refraining from complimenting felt cold and detached. We all deserve appreciation.

The prompts (I notice. I wonder. What if? How might?) serve as  a valuable lens, shifting the way in which I see teaching and learning  during classroom visits, helping me to look with humility and openness. I have no “look fors” and no forms. I don’t carry my ipad with me or write feedback on the spot. Instead, I strive to engage in teaching and learning, being present with teachers and students in learning experiences. Later I write brief feedback for teachers: a compliment and four sentences (sometimes indulging in a bit more than four sentences, with potentially more than one sentence per prompt.) The sentences begin: I notice. I wonder. What if? How might? Teachers can embrace the feedback or question and refute it. They can engage in conversation about it with me, with colleagues, or with anyone they choose or they can elect not to speak about it with anyone. The feedback is not evaluative, and once given, belongs to the teacher as one of many venues through which to reflect, to learn, and to grow. It is a component of my efforts at supervision focused on professional learning rather than evaluation.

I consider myself lucky. As Head of an independent school, I have no state or district mandate on how I must evaluate teachers. That does not mean I have no one to whom I must answer. There is my school’s mission – the ultimate “boss” in mission driven independent schools, my Board of Trustees, parents who are electing to send their children to our school and are paying tuition, and ultimately to our students themselves. In addition, I must answer to our teachers. Although I am their supervisor, it is my responsibility to support them to succeed and to excel. The demands are high. To truly be effective, we need to remain open and honest about our impact; flexible and agile.

An example of feedback very recently offered; this one after visiting an upper elementary school math class is:

A compliment: You skillfully model for students the thought process required for estimation, or perhaps more accurately, mental math – an important skill. You carefully share with them the learning goal for the class and utilize language and visual cues in order to support student learning.

Reflective Feedback/Questions

I noticed students participating in a lesson, guided by your careful prompts.

I wonder ways of assessing the range of understanding of students in the class. I wonder ways of determining potential areas of misunderstanding. I wonder ways of determining whether any students are ready to delve more deeply into the material.

What if students completed pre-assessments and worked in guided groups based on their performance?

How might the classroom be organized in order to allow for even more individualized attention and differentiated learning?

The teacher, a skilled veteran who is highly self-aware and attentive to the needs of her students, in this case did engage in further conversation with me about the lesson. She reached out to let me know the feedback helped her to think about her teaching and she continued to wonder with me about ways of reaching the individual needs of her students. We brainstormed together how the collaborative, guided lessons typical of language arts learning in her classroom might be extended to math; reflected on possible ways of organizing the physical environment in the classroom to promote more collaboration; and considered supports that could be utilized to assist with enhancing respectful interaction among students during more independent learning time.  Such conversations do not follow each classroom visit, yet they happen frequently and are directed by teachers, serious about their own learning and about improving their own practice.

What approaches to feedback have been helpful to you? What are ways you believe we could transform teacher supervision from evaluation to opportunities for potent learning and professional growth?

cc licensed image shared by flikr user sakocreative

cc licensed image shared by flikr user sakocreative

“Too bold. Not bold enough. Too fast. Not fast enough.” As school leaders, administration and teachers alike, seek to enhance and even redefine the quality of learning and community for our students, we often hear variations on these four critiques.  At times in the past I’ve been accused of being too bold and too fast, to the point of appearing impulsive. And thus, in a recent coaching session, I was startled by my mentor’s suggestion that I strive to build on positive momentum and be bolder and faster or at least to consider more carefully the balance between being too bold and not bold enough, too fast and not fast enough. His words, part compliment and part critique, were a first after several years of coaching through which, among many other goals, I have sought to enhance my ability to “lead from the middle”, and not run out too far ahead of our teachers, being too bold and too fast. His challenge has me wondering. How can we consider the vital role of pacing in improving our schools? How can we consider not only time, but timing, as a precious resource? How can we be faster and bolder, while remaining thoughtful, patient and reflective?

Ten principles can guide us in leading change, managing the careful balance necessary between being too bold or not bold enough; too fast or not fast enough.

  • Say “yes” to those who seek to experiment and try approaches new to them, and new to the school, as often as possible
  • Be patient with those moving at a slower pace 
  • Embrace the perspectives of all, making disagreement and skepticism safe
  • Compliment and show appreciation for the individual contributions of all
  • Believe in the potential of teachers and students to achieve great things
  • Provide robust job embedded support and opportunities to learn
  • Encourage experimentation and embrace mistakes made while learning and striving to move forward
  • Celebrate successes, small and large
  • Recognize when you have gone too far, too fast and be prepared to slow down, reflect, and consider approaches anew
  • Have fun

What principles might you add? What approaches have you found effective in balancing the pacing of change?

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What is an EdCamp? Why has it been among my first priorities as a new Head of School to host not one, but two?

To begin, for those not yet familiar with EdCamp style professional learning, as shared on the Edcamp Foundation wiki, Edcamps are:

  • free
  • non-commercial and conducted with a vendor-free presence
  • hosted by any organization interested in furthering the edcamp mission
  • made up of sessions that are determined on the day of the event
  • events where anyone who attends can be a presenter
  • reliant on the “law of two feet” that encourages participants to find a session that meets their needs

Our first EdCamp of the year, organized as part of a year long series of  Jedcamp (Jewish EdCamp) events throughout the New York/New Jersey area, balanced elements of Edcamp and elements of more traditional professional learning events. Described to potential participants as an  Educational Technology and Social Media Conference, we sought to bring in educators not yet familiar with “unconferences”, for whom the thought of attending an event without knowing what sessions would be offered in advance still sounds foreign. On a chilly, Wednesday evening in Queens, close to one hundred educators from throughout the region came together to learn about ways educational technology and social media can enhance and even redefine learning and community for our students and their families. Sponsors covered the costs of dinner and snacks as well as door prizes and raffle prizes for participants. Attendance was free.

Session topics at our regional conference included: online and blended learning, project based learning and technology, educational technology for beginners, professional learning using social media, using educational technology to enhance the Judaic Studies classroom, using educational technology to enhance the Hebrew language classroom, eleven uncomfortable truths you need to hear about filtering the web, lessons learned from a 1:1 ipad rollout, using technology to more effectively differentiate instruction, smart use of smartboards in the Judaic Studies classroom, engaging parents through social media, collaborative learning with google docs, digital Judaic studies resources, blended learning in the Hebrew language classroom, and putting social media to work for school public relations.

The level of learning and engagement was extremely high and teachers from schools throughout the region gained knowledge, insight, and connections to continue their collaborative learning and exploration. Our own teachers who attended the event felt proud of our school as a place in which professional learning is taken seriously and asked for more, requesting that next year we have another conference and hold it, not on a week night but on a Sunday to allow more time for the learning and sharing. The talent of those presenting was impressive and the cost of such professional learning in traditional venues in which presenters are paid, would have been prohibitive. The open, respectful collaboration and commitment to engaging all participants was priceless.

Our second EdCamp of the year, planned on a professional learning day, was exclusively for our own teachers and ran as a pure “unconference”. We introduced the notion of participant driven professional learning and invited teachers to present and to learn. To our delight, session slots quickly filled with volunteers. While several adminstrators, including myself, stood ready to add our names to the sign up board to teach a session in the event teachers did not sign up to lead, we did not have to do so. Teachers stepped forward, excited about facilitating learning for colleagues. Topics included: classroom centers to support learning, bringing teacher passions into the classroom, making our teaching relevant to students’ life experiences, successes and challenges in implementing common core math, making modifications and accommodations for students with special needs, and helping students develop effective organizational skills to enable learning. Additionally, our educational technology coach, based on pre EdCamp teacher requests, led two sessions – creating online classroom spaces with Edmodo and educational technology tools to support reading comprehension.

“It wasn’t boring,” one teacher remarked, implicitly critiquing typical PD workshops well known to teachers in our school and in many schools. “No ‘expert’ read slides to us or spoke on and on without understanding our needs,” shared another. “I’m no longer afraid of technology,” excuded a third with a huge smile and a little dance, after attending both sessions taught by our ed tech coach. “We had fun,” said a fourth. “It was a fantastic day, and we all thought so,” asserted a fifth, confident she could speak on behalf of her colleagues.

Have you attended an EdCamp? Are there other opportunities for participant driven learning you have experienced? What ideas do you have to continue to make professional learning among teachers respectful, relevant, and impactful?

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