Sunday, August 28, 2016

Enhancing Student Learning Website

Over the past few years, BC school districts have reported out to the Ministry of Education with the School District Achievement Contract in June, and the Superintendent's Report on Student Achievement in December. The purpose, as you might imagine, would be for district staff to look at their ongoing data and set goals with the former, then consider the results relative to those goals with the latter. (You can see what our documents looked like by clicking here.)

As a teacher and even as a school principal, I admit I wasn't particularly aware of my district's reporting responsibilities, and I suspect that wasn't unusual for school staff. Further to that, the two documents had a fair amount of redundancy between them, and the timing of school and Ministry data cycles sometimes made it difficult to get the most current information in place in time for publication. The Ministry of Education, to its credit, listened to feedback from the districts and recently elected to revise the process, and as of this recent spring, the publication dates are to be determined by the districts who will use following framework to design their own reports.

Given the opportunity to create a process that met our needs, we considered guiding principles that included improved transparency and communication, timely and iterative data publishing, and the ability to reach a much broader audience. These concepts, among others, pushed us toward developing a website.

Our new SD48 Enhancing Student Learning website, in its current form, is published on the simple, reliable, and inexpensive Wordpress platform, and includes elements of the both previous annual documents, other District documents, and as parts of our competency-focused District Strategic Plan. At this point, our intention is to treat the site like it is in perpetual beta by changing the structure and adding or removing information to keep it fresh and effectively reflecting our learning goals. Expect short video clips with students describing their learning to appear on the site in the coming year.

We haven't had any official conversations about the site, as of yet, but we are hopeful that it will become a practice that works for the Ministry as well as our own learning community. However, at the recent BCSSA summer session when Deputy Minister Dave Byng told the audience, "Sometimes you get out in front of us and we actually like it," I interpreted that as a hearty thumbs up. Take a look if you are interested, and feel free to give some feedback in my comment box below.

Visit the SD48 Enhancing Student Learning website by clicking here. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Student e-Portfolios on Scale? No Problem.

We are in the process of implementing the Aspen student information system in our School District (branded as MyEducationBC in British Columbia) and after introducing the core SIS, the Gradebook, the Timetable Builder, and the SPED module, we have taken a bit of a hiatus before moving forward with Pages and Portals.

Full Portal implementation has been delayed by a system glitch. Data transferred over from the old student information system incorrectly, with every contact replicated for each of the last several years, instead of just once for the current year. The problem is being corrected through a combination of automated and manual solutions which will delete redundant contact record instances; password management will become possible by the end of this year or early next year, and parents will be able to use the Portal feature to check in on student progress and communicate directly with teachers.

The Pages feature has generated some excitement. Essentially, anyone with an account can create a "group" of members and create a private webpage with built-in widgets that gives each member access to documents, links to websites, a blog, and a forum. The creator of the group can give anyone in the group admin rights so the page could have an unlimited number of contributors within the organization, giving our district a place to collaborate online. Earlier this year, I created achievement data pages for each of the schools, and we are planning to use the Pages feature as a secure place for forms and operational information, with the blog widget being a handy place to give clarity as needed.

Pages use can includes students as well, as it is very easy to make class groups and pages to give students access to resources, as well as a place to share with each other, or even give feedback using the forum widget. School staff will like the Pages feature as it is user-friendly and there is enough functionality there to meet the electronic sharing needs of most teachers and principals. After full roll-out, we hope its use will become pervasive across our school district and our teacher teams will build their own collaborative spaces.

Still, the Pages interface isn't what I would call cutting-edge. It looks okay, but it doesn't stack up well against the third-party offerings by Scholantis or Avantage or many currently available Web 2.0 platforms. Many of the widgets are still inactive and some would be considered quaint at best in their functionality. The calendar widget appears to the user very much like the picture shown below, a static calendar that essentially shows the current the month. As a presenter said in a recent conference, "Pages has improved a lot in the last few years. Now it looks almost as good as Moodle." Another update is coming soon, which will take it to another level, we are told.

Before we go any farther, we have to stop and ask if this program is going to meet our needs, because what we really want is for MyEducationBC to act as an e-portfolio tool for students. There are already countless free Web 2.0 programs available which students can use to build e-portfolios, and thanks to Surrey Schools and their excellent permission form which we have adopted, we can use any that we choose and be FIPPA compliant. Students are using Seesaw and Weebly with positive results, for example, in many of our classrooms already. However, if we are really going to engage teachers, students, and parents with a meaningful e-portfolio experience across the entire school district, we need to be able to gather together within the same fully-supported and centrally-managed electronic platform. Our hope was that MyEducationBC could be this platform, not necessarily as the means to create an e-portfolio (though it does have some useful functionality), but as a place to collect the files or links that students create and provide access to them as needed. This type of manageable curation tool is what we were really hoping for, and we had been holding off on other solutions until we better understood its potential.

There have been two main limitations with using MyEducationBC as an e-portfolio platform. One is that the student "locker" feature, their on-line storage, is completely private with no file-sharing capacity. This was a disappointment to discover. The second is that while we can make pages for students, which could be used to collect evidence of learning for an e-portfolio and even give them opportunities reflect and share, this process is far more difficult to facilitate than we had hoped. Because there is no mass create feature for individual student pages like there is for class pages, and students cannot create their own, assigning groups and pages to students would need to be done one at a time by a staff member. This staff member would then have to manage every single student's group and page as the page admin, including changing every association as each student transitions from grade to grade and school to school until they graduate. It is clear this isn't going to work as hoped, and in a recent conversation, the platform's vendor Fujitsu informed us they would not be adding functionality here, as they have realized they could not compete with with some of the bigger players in this regard. My hope is that they change their mind, and deliver this important option as promised, and in a timely fashion. We will continue lobbying whenever we get opportunities to do so.

Meanwhile, this has left us in a dilemma. If we are to expect our students to show their learning through e-portfolios, we are going to need to support our teachers to support our students with a program that does meet our needs. If MyEducationBC cannot be our only official platform because it cannot be used to create, warehouse, or share student e-portfolios effectively on its own, then we need to choose an additional platform. This leads to us duplication, the dreaded doubling-down of workload and expectations in a universe of finite resources. Soon our District MyEducationBC Steering Committee is going to get a closer look at two of these bigger players in the online portfolio game, Google for Education and Microsoft 365. Both come free with monster storage capacity, their own set of procurement tools, and the ability to batch create and manage accounts on a broad scale, and they are both utterly magnificent. All we have to do is pick one, then show every teacher how to use it when we do our upcoming Pages sessions, then support every school with a second set of passwords for teachers, students, and perhaps even parents.

No problem.

[Since publishing this blog, I have had conversations with executives at Aspen, as well as Follett, the parent company, and several staff and committee members that advise the provincial roll-out process. The programming needed to make this change is the easy part. We need a mass create feature for student pages, automated transition of associations, and an easy way to manage viewing rights, or much more simply, maybe just a setting that makes the student e-locker visible. The hard part is making this a priority with our provincial vendor Fujitsu. As much as these other platforms I mentioned are amazing, we really would prefer them to remain optional.]

Friday, January 1, 2016

Yong Zhao and the Poetry Game Show

We are currently reading Yong Zhao's Counting What Counts at our district office, which will give us some more research-based ideas to support our continuing focus on competency development. The part that has caught my attention the most so far is on Short-Term Instruction vs. Long-Term Education starting on page 171. Here is a quote describing just one of the studies:

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, also with four-year-old children, found similar results (Buchsbaum, Gopnik, Griffiths, & Shafto, 2011). When the experimenter did not provide direct instruction like a teacher, the children did more exploration and found out a more intelligent way of getting the toy to play music. However, when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children merely imitated her without discovering any novel solutions to better play music. Children in the latter setting became less curious and less creative, although if their learning as acquisition of what the teacher instructed had been measured, they probably would have done very well. (pg.172)

This quote speaks very directly to one of our three tenets from Dr. Tony Wagner, which encourages us to move our system from "compliance to engagement." It also speaks to better instructional design. It is relatively easy to tell students what to do and when to do it and guarantee reasonably good specific short-term effect. It is harder to design activities that shape constructive exploration which will lead to better long-term outcomes.

Looking back at my own teaching career, I certainly recognize my tendency to be controlling. The students were to do my things my way and on my timelines. We didn't do project-based learning or inquiry, of course. Those concepts were not on our minds at the time, unless we were gifted enough to get there that far out in front of everyone else.

My being overbearing nature really showed when I was coaching basketball. I focused on fundamentals, stingy pressure defense, ball control, and careful shot selection. Some old coach had described his style as, "We play a run and shoot system. If my players run, I shoot them." We were a little like that. My philosophy was effective in regard to keeping us competitive with the often larger schools we competed against, but was it fun?  No, and in fact, it probably felt stifling. Did it inspire my players to become ballers who just wanted to play all the time and develop their craft on their own time? I would say it did not. I remember often telling my players, only partially in jest, "Now, don't go thinking on your own. That just causes trouble." While this may have been true in regard to their short-term learning, it certainly wasn't helping them with their long-term basketball education.

My English class did have some exceptions to this compliance model, though, and I want to point them out. My Romeo and Juliet unit had some lessons that allowed for a certain amount of autonomy. Paragraph and essay writing was done in a writer's workshop style, with lots of choice and peer review opportunities, and though the timelines may have had some flexibility, the processes were still a bit lock-step. The most creative and engaging activity, however, was something I called Poetry Game Show.

In Poetry Game Show, students would assemble themselves in groups and take turns performing improvised poems for the rest of the class using criteria on cards drawn from three different piles. One pile would contain the style of poem, one would have a topic, and the third would contain a poetic device or two that had to be included. They might have to create a haiku about a pet dog with onomatopoeia in it. It might be a limerick about construction work that contained personification. How about doggerel about a watermelon containing with a cynical tone? The piles rarely matched well and it was often more fun when they didn't. If we did this activity a few times the level of challenge would grow, and it was best when the students added to the piles, knowing they too might draw the card they contributed. No marks were assigned. Sometimes we had team points and sometimes we did applause and sometimes we showed appreciation by snapping our fingers beatnik-style. It was loud and messy and never the same twice, except for one factor:

They always wanted to do more.

If I were to look at Poetry Game Show in regard to the two or three Ministry potential exam questions on figurative language, it probably wasn't the most efficient way to master them. If I were to look at Poetry Game Show in regard to developing competencies like creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, it was pretty good. It also had the chance to create a love of language and love of learning and long-term educational impact in a way that most of my other activities never could. It's tough to reflect back on my own practice like this because it typically leads to regret.

Like Oscar Schindler said in that great Spielberg movie, "I should have done more."

Monday, December 21, 2015

Not So Fast

We have been watching teaching videos with our principals to build consensus regarding effective learning environments. During these sessions I'm hit over and over with the same strong sensation, one that I felt when observing classrooms during Instructional Rounds training. Everything seems so rushed.

I've been in the school system for a while now in one role or another, I have my degrees, and I have plenty of contextual knowledge that I can connect to during a classroom lesson. I think I'm relatively safe on the assumption that if I am having trouble keeping up with the teacher, at least some of the students are having trouble as well. Making sure the students understand what is expected of them is critical to task completion, as well as to their confidence and connection to the community, all of which are vital to the learning experience.

Beyond what we what have typically tried to accomplish with our learners, we must now support them in becoming better critical thinkers. When we ask questions, the responses that students give right away will be based on recall and will represent low-level understandings. Deeper and more critical thinking requires time for deeper understandings to take hold. This means making time for those processes to occur in the lesson. It means questioning in a different way. It means spending more time on what matters, and not rushing in and giving an answer before students have had a chance to consider the question.

One of our teachers said this the other day: "The best answers in my class come after twenty seconds of wait time. I need to have the patience in my class to let the kids think longer. I need to get comfortable with more dead air."

Overall, I think this is one of the things we do well in BC. We tend to value mindfulness, thoughtfulness, and the power of giving our kids time to ponder. I think its one of the reasons our system is effective. I also think there is more potential there.

We are currently in the process of building a student survey to help us determine the success of our Education Plan in our School District. One of my favourite (draft) questions is "Do you have the time to think deeply every day?" It is important as a organization to collect evidence that convinces us we are doing what we think we are doing. As well, the data we choose to collect sends a message back to the members of the organization of what it is that we actually value. If we truly value deeper thinking and we really want to start Counting What Counts, we need to slow down and ask these types of questions.

Needless to say, our survey isn't quite ready. We need to think about it for while yet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

That's Not The Work

Admit it. You've been to a conference in the last few years, and maybe more than one. The food was hearty, you saw some old friends, the breakout sessions were fine, and the keynote speaker did a nice job. In fact, you quite enjoyed the presentation. You laughed, you agreed more than once, and you had a couple of "ah-ha" moments which you shared with your table or your online PLC. Then you went back to your district office, school, or classroom, and you carried on exactly as before.

The term I am starting to use for sessions that don't lead to actual change is "edutainment." They are usually affirming. They might even feel inspiring. In the end, in the interest of pleasing the audience, presenters are not prone to pushing very hard or demanding too much from the audience in regard to actual participation. Sadly, this type of event really is a cultural norm in the education world. All manner of us attend conferences with this same model and most of us fully accept the low level of accountability around the work, despite the significant cost in public money. Attendees will need to pay a conference fee of several hundred dollars, often stay in a hotel, and if they are a school based employee, get coverage that costs hundreds of dollars a day. A good chunk of this money will go to the conference keynote, often a professional presenter, and their fee will be in the five figure range. In fact, if they are in demand enough to work regularly, their annual earnings will be 3-5 times (or more) than the superintendent of your school district, the person who is actually accountable to your Board of Education for moving student learning forward. I know a few part-time presenters who are leading their own organization in an effective manner, but their responsibilities in their real work prevent them from engaging in a consistent presentation schedule and gaining full keynote status. I recognize that the professional presenters do work hard to stay relevant, but some have never actually worked in the field, or have long since left the learning environment and in doing so have fully converted from practitioner to educational celebrity. Professional presenting can be a rather lucrative micro-industry, but in the austere environment of education, this type of low-yield spending is pretty tough to defend.

If learning and leadership are both about change, the event needs to be more than preaching to the converted and get beyond mere edutainment. So, I ask you to consider these questions:
  • Did the opening presentation act as an anticipatory set for a legitimate planning session?
  • Did it push you to think differently and consider much broader perspectives?
  • Did you get the tools you need to do something you couldn't do before?
And most importantly:
  • Did the facilitator lead you and your learning team through a planning process that will move your class, school, or district forward in a genuine manner?
If the answer to all these is a "no", then you may have been wasting your time and the public money you spent to attend. I recognize I'm hardly out in front of this conversation. The research has been pointing out the fallacy of the "one-time" "sit and git" professional session for a long time, and we are overdue to make the shift to something more impactful. To be honest, I still like conferences, and I'm not quite ready to join or initiate a full boycott. However, after the next session is over, if I go back to my district office, school, or classroom, and I carry on exactly as before, what I participated in was edutainment, and that's not the work.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Go Ahead and Blog

The term "blog" is a short for "weblog" and its use as a verb seems to date back to about 1999. This creative process can add value to your learning experiences and really help you develop professionally. Here are six reasons why an educator may want to go ahead and blog:

1. A blog makes you and your work more accessible to the public. Creating and sharing content through a blog is a way to introduce yourself to your community and allow others to know more about your interests and priorities around learning. You can share the purpose behind a classroom activity or a change in your practice. You can share your students' successes and describe how that happened. As a principal, I've had countless conversations with parents which were started by something I've shared online, and I think doing so was extremely beneficial to the development of our school. There are very few educators who can genuinely influence others through their writing alone, but a blog can certainly support the work you are doing in your own context.

2. A blog allows you to learn and model the effective use of digital media. The impact of the online world on our thinking just keeps growing and growing. Participating in even a minimal way will help immensely with your understanding of the Internet, social media, and Web 2.0 tools, all of which will help build your comfort level with technology use, as well as your credibility and potential influence with your colleagues and students. When we wanted to encourage inquiry in our classrooms, the first thing we did was an inquiry project with our principals, and it was very impactful. If you want your students or teachers to learn to use digital media well, start by learning about it yourself, and a blog is an easy way to get started.

3. A blog helps you manage your digital footprint. Many people have done a Google search on themselves and been uncomfortable with the results, or the lack of results for that matter. Old Facebook photos, newspaper articles, and even the delightful Rate My Teacher site are some of the ways your identity could surface. There is a lot of random information available online, and in the absence of something meaningful, this is what may end up representing you. Creating your own content through a blog gives you an opportunity to develop a more accurate and meaningful presence on the Internet and show others what you are actually about. You can't control people's perceptions, but you can, at the very least, actively contribute to the very content that influences them.

4. A blog makes your learning visible to others. The Internet was originally conceived as a giant sharing tool, and it is amazing how it has changed just about everything about everything. No doubt you have spent countless hours consuming content that was helpful to you and your own practice. A blog can be your chance to add to the body of knowledge in your area of interest. You might be amazed at the connections you make, the collaborations you grow, and who you end up supporting by sharing your learning. In same way an idea shared by someone else might be the missing piece for something you are working on, your idea might be that missing piece for someone else. Even when someone disagrees with something you published, you may actually be helping them clarify their own thoughts around a topic. What was the first thing you learned in kindergarten?  That's right. Share. So get started.

5. A blog is a great way to catalog your own learning and experiences. Over an educational career you will be a part of many interesting and rewarding endeavours and you will appreciate having a record of them. Making these entries public also encourages you to take the time to refine and clarify your thoughts before hitting the publish button because you will want to make your thoughts presentable to a potential audience, and that extra reflection will help you make meaning of the activity well beyond what you immediately understood. It is often said that without reflection, there is no learning. This is true for our students, and it is true for us.

6. A blog can be cathartic. I think we tend to assign meaning to many things after the fact. We are humans and we are therefore thoughtful by nature. We strive to make sense of the world. We reflect. We even rationalize. Creating and collecting and sorting our thoughts is a healthy process and it makes us feel better. I may have created this site for reasons 1 through 3, but I probably keep doing it for reasons 4 through 6. If reasons 5 and 6 are meaningful to you but 1 through 4 make you uncomfortable, you can stay offline or password protect your site and still benefit from much of the process. Either way, write it down. It feels good. A blog is the spiral notebook of the new millennium.

Sold?  Great. Here are three tips to help you get started:

First, I don't think the platform matters that much. I've used four different programs, each has its own strengths, all are free to use, and none required a computer science degree to figure out. Sure, some are fancier than others, but in the end it will really be about you and your content.

Second, think about your purpose and your audience. If you are starting a blog to be accessible or to model, then connecting to your school or district website might work for you. However, as you drop down this list, you may want to consider creating a bit of a partition from your work identity and only share your blog through Twitter or Pinterest. You are still you of course, but a direct link to an official website implies endorsement, which might mean your employer may have an opinion on your opinions, so to speak. It is also important to remember that if your blog is public, you cannot control who reads it, so try to keep that in mind.

Third, shorter is better. In fact, I'm pretty sure that for every hundred people that view this entry, only a handful of you will have actually made it this far. Whether the content is interesting to you or not, Internet reading habits are such that most of you would have hit the link, scanned the body for the main ideas, got the gist of it, and moved on to the next thing. Apparently the average human attention span is down to eight seconds, so the more concise you can be, the more your ideas will be read. Obviously, I'm still working on this one, and good for you if you actually made it this far!

There you go.  Hopefully this was helpful and encouraged you to get started or gave you reason to get back at it. Now you can go ahead and blog.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

What Are We Doing About it?

While working in another district years ago, I had been a member of a committee tasked with the development of our district's annual achievement plan. At one point, in a reporting meeting with a representative from the Ministry of Education, I found myself describing the very unique challenges we faced in a particular school with its large number of struggling, often non-attending students. I have a clear and distinct memory of the Ministry rep looking right at me, eyes flashing in perfect harmony with the sequins on her silk scarf, her pointed question cutting through my "poor us" rhetoric. "Well", she asked, "What are you DOING about it?"

This question became the source of my understanding of the true purpose of these types of sessions. Any time we get together to share an achievement plan at the school or the district level, it should not be about complaining or justifying or even showcasing. These meetings should be about digging down into the real work that needs to done by our educators to improve learning in our schools for our students.

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a School Planning Council meeting led by a particularly thoughtful principal. We did tour the school, visiting classrooms where the students were engaged in typical learning with no sign of special activities invented for our benefit. Upon reconvening, our conversation quickly turned to the SPC's greatest concerns, which focused specifically on their students' literacy gaps. These gaps had been exposed then triangulated through several forms of school and provincial data pieces and teacher observation, and then humanized with specific stories about struggling students - who remained unnamed, of course. The decision to focus on these literacy gaps was formed in close consultation with parents, and led to the development of a Theory of Action, which was followed by the creation of a multi-faceted and school-wide instructional plan to address the issues, which would then be supported by Learning Rounds. Again, student progress would be tracked through further collection of the same data pieces, and analysis of that data would lead to adjustments to the plan and perhaps even a refining of the Theory of Action.

The conversation was earnest, humble, but very, very purposeful. It was refreshing to be included in this authentic process, and to get some real insight into the genuine work the school needs to do. It also focused on the two questions I feel are germane to every meeting of this type:

1. What are we most concerned about?  

2. What are we DOING about it?

These types of reporting meetings have been around for a long time. It is easy to get distracted by the scope of the challenges we face in our schools and struggle to prioritize. In some cases, the showcasing element can take over at the expense of considering the genuine work, and while I can understand the temptation to provide a certain amount of sizzle, I just happen to be much more interested in the steak. Making those two questions the focus of the session will not only honour the participants, but will likely help your organization take a significant step forward in its most important work. I also think it is what your learners deserve.