Creating a Culture of Connectedness from the Top Down

Photo Credit: gfpeck

In my post yesterday Teaching in a Participatory Digital World, I wrote about our need to change as a whole. That easily draws back to the questions of how and where do we start. There is a great blog post by John Robinson titled “5 Principles That Make Outdated Educational Practice Impossible.” In it, he deals with the #edchat topic, “How should teachers deal with colleagues who are comfortable with 19th century and punitive measures for non-compliant students?” He states that we are asking the wrong question:

At first glance, I would agree that the administrator does have the responsibility to address the issue of teachers using outdated practices. However, I think the real solution is a bit more complicated and can be captured with another question: How can a teacher engaged in outdated pedagogy and practice possibly exist in a true 21st century school? Should the school environment not be so innovative and challenging that such teaching is impossible? Perhaps the real problem is that we have been fooling ourselves into thinking our school is a “21st Century School” when it’s not. Just maybe our school systemically allows teachers to continue do what they’ve always done and avoid growing personally and professionally

He then goes on to discuss what a school or school district with that culture may look like. Here are his top 5 things with my commentary listed after each:

1. A strong expectation of personal and professional growth permeates the school and school district environment.Everyone, beginning with leadership, are lifelong learners, and their every action is focused to that end. There’s an attitude of perpetual learning and professional development surrounding everything that is done.

Me: Agreed. Obviously it will be more difficult to change those who are not knew to the campus/district because they have a practiced method they are comfortable with. Start working on them a little at a time with the goal of having made that shift inside of two years. Above all else, make the culture evident in ALL new hires. Let them know what they are getting into and what the expectations are. The cream will rise to the top.

2. The school and school district culture values risk-taking more than playing it safe. Valuing risk-taking takes courage from leadership and everyone else. It means accepting failure as part of learning. Leadership that values risk-taking can’t ask others to take risks if they themselves aren’t willing to do so.

Me: Not only value the risk-taking, but make it a part of the teaming process and campus meetings. Give purpose to those meetings. Have an open dialogue with staff on these things. let them know they are safe to discuss the failures with the larger group. Everyone needs support to grow. Who better than the folks who are near and dear to them?

3. Leadership in the school includes more than the principal. When the leadership includes strong teacher leadership, it is difficult for those not growing professionally to exist. Teacher leadership means there are peers pushing those teachers to develop professionally.

Me: I completely agree with this statement. One of the hardest things to get teachers to do is mentor other teachers unrequested. Teaching is a professional career. Until we start doing all of the things that professionals do, it will be difficult to get the community to accept us as such. Doctors and lawyers wouldn’t stand by as others in their profession did things against their code or in a less than professional manner. I’m not sure why teachers do not feel compelled to help those around them become the best they can be in their careers. Sometimes it only takes a short email or conversation in the hall. Or, maybe a few minutes of PD added to grade level or department meetings can do the trick. Admins should make that a global expectation and then find and mentor those special teachers on campus who have a knack for leadership and are respected. Nurture and grow that talent so that it can spread. 

4. Collaboration among staff is the norm. When issues and problems and challenges are viewed as “our issues/problems/challenges” then everyone is expected to be a part of the solution. This means those who are hanging on to outdated practice find it more difficult to do so. Their colleagues are pushing them to take ownership of the school’s future and they can’t continue to exist in their tiny isolated compartment within the school. 

Me: This is where being the academic leader of the campus comes in. Jumping in and being a part of the process of learning instead of just being the leader of the campus. Joining in on the planning, implementation, and resolution of good work in the classroom shows support and encouragement for both staff and students. Parents will appreciate the knowledge the campus leader has of what is going on in the classroom. This helps grow great practices much quicker. Like the teacher who handles classroom management issues by the proximity they are in the room, campus admins can do the same. 

5. There’s a strong sense of entrepreneurship among staff regarding the school. They feel that it is “their school.” Staff who feel this aren’t just provided a token opportunity to give feedback on School Improvement Plans. They have a say in the direction and focus of the school because it is genuinely their school too. Teachers engaged in obsolete practice can’t continue to operate in an obsolete manner because colleagues push them to do better.

Me: This really ties into the last two, but I would add that it is imperative that educators have time during the school day to grow together. Teaming, PD, and PLCs are all important things that should occur each school day. Teachers are so overwhelmed with the testing culture that has been created. They know that routine well. Grade homework, cover new topic, review new topic, assign homework over new topic…rinse, repeat. It is going to take some time and effort to get them out of that cycle. They will find it tough going to begin with, but they will appreciate the pushing and urging in the end. More than that, the students will benefit from that in the end. 

Just like we expect our teachers to plan their weeks out in their classrooms, admins must do the same if they expect the culture/paradigm shift we so desperately need in our classes. Target high needs areas and staff. Do some mental RTI work to plan out the best way to grow the skills of those in need. Find that time to allow staff to work together to grow each other and be a part of that process. Showcase the positives more than spotlighting the negatives during group meetings. Create a culture where failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. Create a culture where connecting is the expectation and not the exception. 

Why School? Will Richardson tells you why.

Below are my thoughts on Will Richardson’s new book Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere. I have to say, this was a great read that I have already shared with my entire admin staff. We are reading it prior to a district visit with Will and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach October 2nd. Looking forward to the follow-up conversations this book will lead to. It steps on a few toes, but it does so lightly and appropriately.

The following is my review of the book I posted to both Amazon’s site and the iTunes Book Store.

I’ve read lots of “school needs to improve” books over the last decade or so. What happens is that they get bogged down in repeating the same problem with different verbiage over and over. It gets old and boring and I quit reading. Will went the right track with this text. He nails the issues at hand, offers a little commentary, and moves on. This is a quick, but insightful read for any person interested in making positive, proactive changes in their schools and classrooms. Keep in mind what you want for your own child as you read throughout. One of my favorite passages from the book:

“What doesn’t work any longer is our education system’s stubborn focus on delivering a curriculum that’s growing increasingly irrelevant to today’s kids, the outmoded standardized assessments we use in an attempt to measure our success, and the command-and-control thinking that is wielded over the entire process. All of that must be rethought.”

I would postulate that the group who contends “if it was good enough for me when I was in school, then it’s good enough for these kids” are the group causing all of the drop out issues we are facing today. The quote above describes the Industrial Revolution education systems that are still in use today in far too many places. It is that mindless, fact regurgitation system that bores kids and disconnects them from the love of learning new things they had as toddlers. Failure to adjust leads to failure to succeed.

Listening to politicians and big business has gotten us nowhere over the least several decades, unless you consider making the testing companies giant, rich automation factories. Take from this book and consider the part you can play in improving the education system. Quit letting others with their own special interests make the decisions for you.

Some things really disappoint me

Of all of the things to spend money on and be concerned about in EDUCATING our students, this is not one of them. I’m not faulting the school or the teacher. They’re only playing the game with which they are trapped in by the state.

“Highlights” from the article (emphasis mine):

Photographs of each teacher hang nearby. Next to them are the average test scores for each of their classes, color coded in green, blue and red marker for high, average and low. Picture a super-size spreadsheet.
Teachers also can get bonuses or pink slips based on how their students do.
“the data room” – is the new meeting place for teachers.

Really? You need a “data room” to keep teachers and students focused on goals? What goals? Passing a standardized test that has no actual bearing on success in life? That goal? Wow, our focus is sorely misplaced in Texas. Read the article. $6000 to “design the room.” Salary for someone to be the “improvement coordinator.”

And the goal is to pass a test.

A test that has no bearing on college success.

A test that does nothing to prepare our students for the real, working world.

A test that the state of Texas spends $100,000,000 (that’s 100 MILLION dollars) on each year to administer (not counting local costs) while woefully underfunding actual education and not funding enrollment growth (which grows so fast each year it’s like adding another Fort Worth ISD annually).

A test that steals 25% or our school calendar to administer (not counting prep and practice days).

A test that does nothing but prepare our kids to take more tests.

A test that kills the love of learning in students.

A test that kills the love of teaching in teachers.

A test that kills innovation.

A test that kills creativity.

A test.

This is not what I want for my children. This is not what I want for other children. This is not what I want for our staff.

At what point will the Texas Legislature realize that if they truly want to be “successful” like the world’s leader, Finland (read that link, it’s worth your time), they have to go the opposite direction. You know, the direction that includes critical thinking, problem solving, free exploration of a subject as opposed to rote memorization. The one that mandates equity among ALL students and schools. The one that focuses on building successful citizenry.

Yeah, that one. </rant>

PBL and Buck Institute for Education Day 3

And on to day three of my first PBL training experience. I will say that at this point in my training, I was thinking about how I could not believe it was already three days of training and over with. I have sat in one day trainings that seemed longer than this was. That is a testament to the work BIE is doing and the skill level of Tim Kubik.

This is one of my all time favorite history videos. It is a killer mashup of American history and a song the students are familiar with from a group called One Republic. Well worth your time to watch:

Too Late to Apologize: A Declaration

This was Dan’s suggestion to go along with a little media introduction of American history. And the cool thing is that this was shot in the White House:

Lin-Manuel Miranda Performs at the White House Poetry Jam: (8 of 8)

The idea here is that no one student gets trained to be the only one to know how to accomplish something in the group. At least train an additional group member in case something stops the responsible group member from completing the task. It does not hold the entire group back. It’s called collaborative work for a reason.

Notice accountability does not always mean a grade. Let the students know the difference and how their ongoing accountability “scores/notes/etc” with you play into an assessment that ends up in the gradebook.

I said this in the beginning, but you can see I really meant it. And with good friends in my PLN like Adina checking up on me, how could I not want to keep on learning. twitter

This was a metaphorical game to prove the point that when one coworker gets down during the school year, we can always bring the one to bring them back to life.

Adina was looking for some additional PBL resources for her own personal learning. These are worth looking into.
PBL Checklist 4 Teachers

This is always a sticky subject when working with students, but it is one that needs to be broached. Consider my next few tweets:

In other words, they cannot argue their own expectations. When the parent who wants to gripe realizes it is the expectation their child helped create that he or she is failing to live up to, then they have only their child to debate with.

They cannot just say that Johnny is not doing his part. They must present their side of the argument based on their contracts. What is he failing to live up to? Is it fire worthy? Can mediation solve it?

Enough said.

As a longtime teacher of gifted students, this would be like a car accident: you know not to look, but you just can’t help yourself.

This is the real meat of the entire topic summed up. Creating a culture of professional hiring and firing is absolutely real world.

I believe we call that….failure.

This is a pretty killer idea worth considering. You don’t think you have a day to spare in your schedule? Hmmm. Consider the time saved long term in this.

Critical friends can be harsh, but it is not called lovey dovey friends. The point is that the students need to see it is okay to hear constructive, critical feedback on their project. Better to receive that BEFORE it is presented for assessment than after.

The kindergarten teachers handled all of the questions like champs. I was proud to be a part of the group.

This helps limit the areas the peers can go. In other words, it limits the side trips kids tend to take when they start talking. It keeps it focused and valuable.

This goes back to the video about how important the First Follower can be in group dynamics. The Lone Nut is the one who puts him or herself out there. It is not until the First Follower steps out to support that person that the idea can take hold and draw many others into the fold. The video below demonstrates it perfectly, but just know that PBL is is the Lone Nut worth following. Your kids deserve it. Your career deserves it. You can be part of the epic success of the student, or you can be the one the kids remember as the teacher who was a worksheet master. Your choice.

First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

PBL and Buck Institute for Education Day 2

I have absolutely no idea how I got off track in posting the second and third day of my reflections from my PBL training with the Buck Institute for Education via Twitter on my training. I apologize to my mom and the other person who clicked on the link in Google after a search for PBL. Let me get back to completing the two days before something else gets in the way. Again, since it has been so long, I am posting what I said on Twitter during the training and adding a short reflection as needed to show what I was thinking or what I wanted to better understand. It might not be the best way to reflect, but it’s my blog, so what the heck.

If you haven’t seen the RSA Animate video Drive, you really should. Like now.

This was mentioned at the beginning of the day to let us know what to expect. I really like this method of review and it helped me prepare mentally for the end of the day expectation. In other words, I didn’t want to get caught in the fishbowl with nothing to say. That’s not very productive as a learner, for sure.

This tweet was retweeted a bunch of times, and deservedly so. It was a great line by our trainer. Gives you something to think about, and I know every time I use the word grade now, I have to pause to make sure it is what I meant. Assessment is a much more meaningful word. It is also a much more meaningful process. Keep that in mind.

Read my notes above.

The fist to five was new to me and most assuredly an easy one to utilize to immediately assess each student’s comfort level with the current topic. Basically, hold up the number of fingers on how you feel you are doing with the concept being discussed (you choose what number means great or not at all). You can quickly average/estimate the scores to decide if you move on as a whole group or a small group. Exit tickets lets students share their opinion on post it notes or similar on the way out the door, at the end of the project, at the end of a lesson, etc. 

I like this part. One thing you need to make sure of, though, is that you get enough grades in they system to show the student’s actual progress. Can you really show a true average with only four or five grades per six weeks? Does it give the student and parent something to use to help the student growth? I’d say it depends on the topic(s) covered. If it is one topic covered in all of those grades, then probably so. If different topics, then most assuredly not.

This is great to keep in mind when CREATING the assessment tool(s) for the project. Don’t slap down a one size fits all rubric and force the kids to adjust their learning to your personal thoughts. That truly kills the point of PBL. What you have done at that point is just turn it into a project. Anybody can do that at a low functioning level.


Yeah, I know many of you think QR codes are stupid and a time waster, but it is a new technology that these teachers are trying out. I love the fact that they are stepping outside the box here to tie in something different. Besides, QR codes are a way of life for many marketers, fitness devices (parks use QR codes to give instructions on outdoor equipment), and information links in general. Folks should be familiar with them.

See my notes before. Maybe it is the fact that someone gave me an expectation of learning at the beginning of learning. Maybe it is the fact that I find myself excited about learning in general now. Regardless, I love the transparent process that the fish bowl activity provides. It invites anyone to be a part of the conversation…or not. Yet, we all learn from the conversation that is inherently a part of it.

Ooooo. Burnnnnn. In other words, don’t just go download a project off the web and think everything falls into place easily. It doesn’t. You have to consider many angles of where the students can take the learning. It is more time intensive in the beginning, but it pays much larger dividends in the end for you and the students.

Wow!. All I can say here is, Wow!