Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hanging With Old Coats at Thanksgiving!

I love this time of the Year!

There is a rhythm to the school year, where November and the upcoming holidays seem to be placed at just the right time. Time to back away from the intense work pace of school life, release fully into family and friends, grab onto the changing seasons and take a bit of a breath.

As someone who has defined himself as a teacher, and these days a public speaker, there is a favorite graphic I often use to start my seminars this time of the year. It always gets a good laugh because of its understood truth by everyone who spends his or her life’s work, in the crazy profession of education.

The “study” (from the Department of Education (DOE) back in 1993) still rings true today, does it not? It is as if the Thanksgiving Holiday comes just in time to help us through that potential disillusion stage!

I grew up in the Midwest and there is a weather shift that comes with the holiday season. It gets much colder and our favorite winter coats get worn once again. Thanksgiving day is a lot like that too. Family members and friends show up, and in some ways get worn once again, as we sit around the table and share, and laugh, and cry and hope and maybe even dream.

Oscar Wilde says that "Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation."

Over the years, some of my best memories at Thanksgiving were based on conversations around the table. It all started as a child growing up. We would be at my Aunt Dottie’s house (I think it was my uncle Al’s house too, but somehow it seemed to be her house to me) and I would wake up at 5:30 am to the smell of coffee, bacon, and breakfast being made. I would sneak into the kitchen, and there would be my Aunt cooking away and getting ready for the day.

The best part though was the way the two of us would sit down and just talk at her kitchen table. No one else was up yet, and I had her wisdom all to myself. I loved those quiet, meaningful conversations with her. And I sought them out every Thanksgiving for as long as I can remember.

Much older now, that tradition continues each year with our kids as best we can. A few years back, our oldest daughter sat with me during an early early morning coffee at our Thanksgiving day table, as we shared stories of our work (we are both educators and the stuff of her life and mine overlap quite a bit). I love and live for those conversations. 

More recently, at an early morning table, our son and I had a serious conversation about his commitment to become engaged and get married. It was one of so many conversations we have had that have meant more to me than he can know.

And just yesterday, over coffee our youngest daughter and I sat at a table and talked about her next steps and hope and dreams for college. Life, and time marches on. Somehow, the Thanksgiving table brings those old friends, those old coats back together and slows us down just long enough to engage in that “bond of companionship – conversation.”

This past summer, a favorite thought leader of mine (John Ortberg) quoted this verse from Victor Hugo: "My coat and I live comfortably together. It has assumed all my wrinkles, does not hurt me anywhere, has moulded itself on my deformities, and is complacent to all my movements, and I only feel its presence because it keeps me warm. Old coats and old friends are the same thing." 

Who is your old coat? Celebrate with them this Thanksgiving if you can.

I have had 40 such Thanksgivings now, since my first year in the trenches so to speak at Stillman Valley High School, in 1973. Not every Thanksgiving has been joy, there has been sadness at missing those that are no longer at the table, and there has been disjointedness as family circumstances change who is at the table. Kids grow older and lots of demands are placed on where everyone wants or needs to be. Sometimes the coats, the friends change.

I have always found the joy in those early morning conversations around our table…none more so than with the person who was willing to take me on and wear me as her old coat. There is not enough thanks I can give for that commitment. It reaches beyond my own understanding. 

I wish the same for you this Thanksgiving - time and conversations with your old coats. Wherever that table may be, whatever time of the day it might be, whoever that old friend and old coat may be, and whatever that conversation needs to be.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Aim high: Beyond the Common Core!

Since the release of our 2012 Series, Common Core Mathematics in a PLC at Work, my colleagues and I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of teachers, teacher teams and school leaders across the country trying to urgently and consistently seek deeper and more meaningful solutions to a sustained effort for meeting the challenge of improved student learning in mathematics. From California to Virginia, Utah to Florida, Oregon to Connecticut, Wisconsin and beyond, we have discovered a thirst for implementation of K-12 mathematics programs that will sustain student success over time.  

Certainly the CCSS –M has been a catalyst for much of the recent focus and conversation (and to some extent the national rhetoric and angst) but your essential work as a mathematics teacher and as part of a collaborative mathematics team in your local school and district, takes you far beyond the politics of the standards – whatever your state standards may be.

In other words you must rise above the rhetoric and simply do what is best for the student learning of mathematics. And what is best is increasingly NOT up for debate (See my top ten list of “Must Do” actions at the end of this blog).

The local school district, mathematics program or department goal has always been to achieve a level of mathematics performance greatness well beyond the expectations of your state. As I have often said in many professional development sessions, if you are aiming at the local level to only meet the assessment expectations of your state, then you have aimed too low. 

Whether you are from a state that is participating in one of the two state CCSS assessment consortia, or from a state that uses a unique mathematics assessment designed only for that state, it should be your goal to establish work activities that allows you to far exceed those expectations – whatever they may be. 

It begins by understanding the thousands of instruction and assessment decisions you, your leadership team, and your colleagues will make this year, as you inspire students to learn. What does matter (in terms of high levels of student achievement) are the thousands of decisions your collaborative teacher teams will make every year, every unit, every day. And whether or not those decisions are any good.

A vision cannot be true or false but ultimately is evaluated against other possible directions for your classroom, your school or your district.  
                                       — Kanold The Five Disciplines of PLC Leaders (2011)

I suggest in this blog, that if you want to aim high, you must pursue a coherent, non-negotiable and compelling vision for mathematics instruction and assessment built on 10 essential collaborative team actions. 

There is only so much time and energy. Yet, you can also feel the inequity and pockets of inadequacy that remain in your school due to too much isolated decision making. Your teaching and assessing decisions need to become part of reflective collaborative team decisions based on evidence of student learning.
As John Hattie (2012) states in Visible Learning For Teachers:
My role as a teacher is to evaluate the effect I have on my students. It is to ‘know thy impact’, it is to understand this impact, and it is to act on this knowing and understanding. This requires that teachers gather defensible and dependable evidence from many sources, and hold collaborative discussions with colleagues and students about this evidence, thus making the effect of their teaching visible to themselves and to others (p.19).  

Over the past 3 years, and with more than 10,000 mathematics teachers and school leaders across the country, my colleagues and I have asked the question:

“Quick. You have 30 seconds. You turn to a colleague and declare your vision for mathematics instruction and assessment in your school. What exactly will you say? More importantly, on a scale of 1 (low) to 6 (high) what would be the degree of coherence between your vision for instruction and assessment and those stated by your colleagues?”

 And the answers have been consistent: Wide variances on assessment coherence (low 1, 2 or 3 coherence scale scores mostly) and wide misunderstanding and views or vision for mathematics instruction and assessment – this is from school leaders and teachers in the same building – much less across buildings in your district. In most school districts, student mathematics performance almost always lags behind other disciplines. The lack of a coherent and consistently implemented vision for instruction and assessment is one of the primary reasons.

One of the greatest problems with mathematics instruction, and instruction in general in most school districts, is that it is too inconsistent from classroom to classroom, school to school, and district to district                                                                                        Morris & Hiebert (2011)

Vision Focus and Action – My top Ten

You use the Unit (or Chapter) of content as a natural cycle of time (think Grain Size for Analysis) for meaningful formative assessment, analysis, reflection, and action by teachers, students and administrative leaders throughout the year. The unit might last one week, two weeks, but no more than four weeks, as the cycle of this work becomes part of a continuous learning process for the students and for the teachers.

There are 10 critical team pursuits on a Unit-by-Unit basis.

Before the Unit Begins

1) Agreement on the expectations and intent of the common “Big Idea” Learning Standards for the unit and the processes (mathematical practices) for student learning of those standards.  

2) Development of high quality common assessment instruments (tests) for the unit based on an evaluation tool for improving current unit assessments.

3) Development of accurate scoring rubrics for the common assessment instruments and a plan for scoring those assessments.

4) Identification and discussion for the student use of high cognitive demand tasks as part of the instruction during the unit. 

5) Development of high quality common unit Homework Assignments based on an evaluation tool for improving current assignments.

During the Unit

A robust vision for the instruction of mathematics distills down to what your students are doing during class. How are they engaged? Where are the most significant conversations taking place in your classroom: Student-to-Student or Teacher-to-Student? Moreover, do students see each other as reliable and valuable resources?

To go beyond checking for understanding from the front of the classroom, and move into meaningful formative feedback as part of instruction, requires the use of rich mathematical tasks that allow for robust student discourse, and requires well managed activities as teachers loop though class and orchestrate all types of advancing and assessing prompts – allowing student engaged exploration, discussion and action with their peers.   

There are three during the unit pursuits by your collaborative team on a Unit-by-Unit basis.

1) Team discussions regarding the development of student proficiency in each of the Mathematical Practices though the management and use of in-class high cognitive demand mathematical tasks as part of instruction.

2) Team discussions regarding the development of student proficiency in each of the CCSS Mathematical Practices though the use of effective in-class formative assessment small group discourse. 

3) Team discussions regarding the development and use of the CCSS-M Mathematical Practices Lesson Design tool (Kanold, et. al, 2012) as part of daily lesson planning and design.

At the End of a Unit

This [teacher collaboration] is not critical reflection, but critical reflection in light of evidence about their teaching.                   
                                —John Hattie, Visible Learning For Teachers (2012)

After the instruction for a unit is over and the common assessment has been given to the students, your students must reflect on the results of their work, and be willing to use the unit assessment instrument to serve a formative feedback purpose.
From a practical point of view, each collaborative team’s “act of reflection in light of evidence” is best served by performing an end of unit analysis of student results on the common assessment as you focus your next step teaching and assessing actions during the next unit.

There are two end of unit pursuits (for reflection and action) by your collaborative team on a Unit-by-Unit basis.

1) Ensure all students use the common assessment instrument as a formative learning  - goal setting and action -  opportunity.

2) Ensure evidence and results from the assessment instrument are used for Adult goal setting and action in the next unit of study and beyond.

Diagnose these ten high-leverage actions of every collaborative team. Rate the current levels of implementation (0 percent low and 100 percent high). How might you use this information to identify which adult behaviors and actions need to become a priority for your sphere of influence during 2014-2015 and beyond?
The new paradigm for the professional development of mathematics teachers requires an understanding that the knowledge capacity of every teacher matters. More importantly, however, is that every teacher acts on that knowledge and transfers the professional development they receive into their daily classroom practice.

I wish you the courage to take action – today, tomorrow and forever!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Moving at the Speed of Life!! Avoiding the "Because I Can" Syndrome in 2013-2014!

The 2013-2104 school year is about to begin! For some of you, it has already started. Don’t you just love the energy, the passion, and the hope of the new school year? Yet soon enough, you will settle into the rhythm of the year, and before you know it, that sense of balance and start of the year energy, begins to wane. Especially when you consider all that is and will be on your professional and personal plate this year.

Last week, I passed 1000 twitter followers. I was feeling pretty puffy about that accomplishment until I looked into my good friends Ken Williams (5000+ followers and dynamic leader), Bill Ferriter (12,000+ followers and the guy who convinced me to tweet a few years ago) and Charlene Chausis (2000+ followers and my personal tech guru).

Then of course there is Jimmy Fallon at 8,000,000+. I suppose it is all relative and personal to your community choice. And my community of choice is you: the educators of the world. More narrowly, the math teachers and leaders, the school administrators and leaders, the PLC process pursuers and the give it all you got folks.

So, in passing that 1000 marker, I was wondering who are you? Who are the people taking the time to join up with me in community? The Wordle sums it up. It is the picture of who you are. You are moms and dads, husbands and wives, lovers of dogs and cats, writers, nerds, outdoorsmen, students, teachers, music lovers, artists, coaches, math lovers, ELA lovers, principals, techies, enthusiasts, dabblers, directors, counselors, superintendents, bloggers, dynamic, passionate, creators, characters, learners, thinkers, runners, bikers, linguists and lovers of chocolate. 

In other words, as this 2013-2104 season is launched, you are wearing many work, family, and health related hats - pursuing much of what life has to offer. You are and will be spinning a lot of plates, as you try to give your time and your energy to all of the things you are and do. And if you are not careful, the speed of your life in 2013- 2014 will wear you down. You will make excuses about the speed of your life.

What are the signs that you will have a speed of life problem?

If you are relentlessly in a hurry to get everything done, you have a speed problem. If you are noticing the time for deep and meaningful relationships with those in your N-S-E-W spheres slipping away, you have a speed problem. If you feel overwhelmed by your workload, you have a speed problem. You are becoming out of balance.

Invariably, this happens to every teacher and school leader some time during the school year. Eventually the speed of expectations, the pace of obligations, the “simpler, better, faster” mantra catches up to you—as a professional and as a human being. Your energy, your full engagement at work starts to falter, and you just can’t keep all of the plates spinning—at work or at home.

At some point in this school year, although you may not outwardly show or verbalize your angst, you know you are losing the pace and speed battle. You go into work earlier and stay later. By the end of the day, you have worked as hard as humanly possible. You have done as many tasks at the same time as you could. You have nothing left in the tank.

Since the pace of your work, home and health life can be relentless, a default solution for responding to the demands is the modern notion of multitasking. You try to do more things at the same time as a way of catching up with your workday. Some of you might be multitasking right now. As you are reading these words, what else are you doing: Listening to music? Checking your cell phone for text messages and signal beeps for incoming email? Running a load of laundry? Wondering about an overdue phone call? Reviewing your child’s homework?

Tony Schwartz (2010), in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, quotes University of Michigan researcher David Meyer regarding training for efficient multitasking: “Except in rare circumstances, you can train [for efficient multitasking] until you are blue in the face and you’d never be as good as if you focused on one thing at a time. Period. That’s the bottom line” (p. 185). Schwartz goes on to say:

We create plenty of distractions for ourselves by juggling tasks, making ourselves perpetually available to others, opening several windows on our computers, and focusing on whatever feels most urgent at the moment without regard to whether what we are doing is really important. (p. 196)

Making excuses and blaming others (external factors) for your inability to get things done are sure signs that you—or those in your sphere of influence—are drifting into an energy crisis. Author James Loehr (2007) highlights the making excuses issue as “faulty assumption thinking” (p. 70) and provides insight into how you tell yourself terrific excuses for why you do not need to plan strategically for a life of reflection and balance.

If you spend time in serious reflection about how you are doing in 2013-2014, you can penetrate the veneer of these excuses. The barriers imposed by excuse making will fall. The “no one else who had my current job, my current home situation, or my personal life and health situation could find happiness, either” is a wonderful, but delusional, barrier to hide behind.

Why do adults tend to blame others, especially the mysterious “they,” to justify their faulty assumptions? It is so much easier to just say, “They won’t let us do this,” “They are making us do this,” or “They just don’t understand our problems.” In other words, you don't take responsibility to own the speed of your life. One quick way to check the temperature of your life is to observe for the frequency with which they is used in your conversations - at work or at home. PLC cultures, by the way, have no tolerance for the faulty assumption thinking allowed by the use of the word they.

Loehr (2007) refers to the tendency toward faulty assumption thinking as the “because I can syndrome” (p. 74). Why do I check emails while on vacation? Why do I text during family dinner? Why do I interrupt a conversation to take another call or return a text message? Why do I work every night until midnight? Why do I answer my cell phone during my daughter’s concert? Why do I skip that afternoon workout? Why do I miss breakfast  every morning? Why do I get so little sleep?

Because I can.

No one is telling you how to use and manage the energy of your life. Can you identify any current pattern of behavior or faulty thinking in your life in which you suffer from the because I can syndrome?

Everyone I know has this issue. I suspect that, at one time or another, you too have taken on too many tasks and become overwhelmed. The demands of managing work, family, and health make it impossible not to skirt the edges of faulty assumptions. Eventually, one of those areas, if not all three, begins to suffer.

Becoming aware of faulty assumption thinking in your daily experiences and any tendency to make personal excuses to rationalize your behavior is a first step toward denying the energy drain often caused by the because I can (get away with it without being challenged) syndrome.

Take the time in 2013-2014 to ask, are there any because I cans I need to address? It will help you to move better at the speed of life this year. I wish you the best 2013-2014 season possible! 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Finding “Loose-Tight” Nostalgia In The Middle Of The Summer!

There is a rhythm to the seasons of an educators’ life. And early this morning, driving down the street, on a lazy, hazy summer day, this feeling kicked in that is hard to explain. I was simultaneously relaxed and nervous. It was the smell in the air, the children playing and the cars packed for vacation. It was this flood of memories and moments with my own children that always made summer so special.

It was the knowing that at this time of the year, I can relax just a bit and enjoy these great summer days and moments, but knowing too, with a bit of subtle tension, that the next season (2013-2014) is looming out there… with all of its excitement, frustration, newness, adversity, knowns and unknowns. What changes would lay ahead, I would wonder – and will I be prepared for them?

Whether your 2013-2014 school year begins next week (as it does for our senior daughter), or in mid to late August, or even late September, summer offers a much-needed time of transition between the “seasons” of what becomes your career.

This summer is my 40th such summer in between the seasons of each school year, but one of my most memorable was the summer of 1993 - Twenty summers ago. It was a long time ago and yet it seems like yesterday too. That is how the seasons seem to work.  

It is memorable, because for me personally, while on summer vacation with my family, I had made a decision about my work leadership life that would eventually come to define me, although I did not know it then. I was most certainly feeling that tension of summer ending (we were having a lot of fun), and the uncertainties of a new season beginning (it was not going to be easy).  

The summer of 1993, I had read quite a bit about the term loose-tight. Could it be possible that a school leader could be “tight”—that is, direct the decision-making process—and be “loose”—that is, allow for participative decision making at the same time?

At Stevenson, for example, we had committed ourselves to implementing student engaged learning through reorganization of the classroom structure.  Seven teachers, including me, ran a pilot in the spring of 1993 with three different classrooms. We used a cooperative learning model called “teams of four,” a classroom design that eliminated the use of rows except in testing situations.

That summer I kept thinking:

We should all be tight about this “right thing” called student engaged learning – not just some of our faculty, but all. No options. No exceptions. We can be loose about how it gets implemented by each team of adults. And we should constantly evaluate what is and is not working… and take action.

And so, In August of 1993, I stood in front of the mathematics and science faculty on opening day (vision day) and stated:

It is time for our mathematics and science division of the school to take action on the district-wide vision of student-engaged learning. The time to act is now. This year. No option. Not a choice. Based on a pilot by seven teachers last year, based on the best we know from research, based on what is being taught by our national organizations, based on what we have learned from one another (all trusted sources), we will no longer, again—ever—teach our students with the desks sitting in rows. We will use a blend of whole-group and small-group instruction each day, forever.

I asked each of the pilot teachers to say a few words about how to do it well (the loose part), and then I asked, “Can anyone think of any educationally sound reason students should sit in rows other than on test days? Can anyone advocate for the continued use of rows?”

The room was silent. After a few moments, one mathematics teacher asked, “Do we have to do this? Is it required?”

It was a defining moment for me as a leader. My response would decide whether I was just a manager of my area of the school hoping for eventual vision implementation by invitation, or a leader willing to ensure that the vision of student-engaged learning as a coherent aspect of our daily lesson planning would be fulfilled—with no tolerance for anything less.

I was thinking: Yes, no options. How could we in good conscience defend a practice that was not effective? All courses. All teachers. Every day. How many pilots do we need to do to be convinced?

As a professional learning community teacher and leader you cannot afford to be laissez-faire about your work. If anything, you must be serious and passionate about the business of educating every child extremely well—even as it is done with a sense of compassion, humor, and grace. Inviting faculty, staff, and colleagues to take action on the vision is significantly different than declaring and ensuring everyone will take action. This was much more than an invitation. No options, no excuses, no exceptions.

My response to the teacher was:

Why wouldn’t we want to try to teach using research-affirmed practice? Why wouldn’t we want the benefit of improved student learning that results from student engagement with each other around meaningful work? Why wouldn’t we want to work together to make this an essential element of every lesson? How should we explain to our parents, the school board, and the general school community that we do not wish to pursue best-practice, research-affirmed instruction?

Teams must have some autonomy for how they do the work—otherwise adult motivation will dissipate quickly. So be careful to distinguish between the actual vision and the structures for achieving the vision. In this case, however, the existing structure had caused a 7-year delay to the full implementation of our vision for instruction. The status quo of rows —was not a choice anymore.That era was over. 

As your summer ends and you prepare for another season, what “era” needs to end for your teaching team, curriculum program or area of school leadership? What problem is worth your time, best effort, and effort? Will this new season provide a future defining moment of summer nostalgia for you? May you experience a 2013-2014 season that makes a difference!