Google Keep in the ELA classroom:
you can now go to the “Tools” menu and click “Keep Notepad” and instantly any notes you have taken can be pasted directly into your document.
Google Keep in the ELA classroom:
you can now go to the “Tools” menu and click “Keep Notepad” and instantly any notes you have taken can be pasted directly into your document.
As educators, we all want every student to have access to a great teacher. Where education leaders vary is how to go about making that happen. I discuss the flaws in traditional PD experiences here, so I won’t go down that path again. I would like to focus more on the 1:1 interactions between teachers and instructional leaders. How can we leverage those conversations into something that results into improvement?
I recently read an article, PD is Sinking... where the author, Gustafson, maintains
Teachers being told what to learn and why it matters should no longer be the predominant means of professional learning.
Many instructional leaders struggle to initiate change because they rely on the method that Gustafson mentions. “Here is what you need to know and why you need to do it.” Sometimes we believe that if we find the right answer – then everyone will just jump on board. So, we are constantly seeking the next best thing. I contend that lack of implementation has less to do with the quality of the strategy/program and more do to with the plan to implement learning.
This is probably an oversimplification, but when your goal is to help someone improve or implement some initiative, you can act in two very different ways: you can offer advice or you can coach them to be better. Advice is quick and easy on your part, while coaching requires much more time and effort. Both definitely can be useful, but I would argue that coaching will result in a larger impact.
Advice can be great. Think about all the great advice you’ve gotten in your lifetime. We seek advice when we don’t have solutions on out own. So, advice can be really effective when it is sought out. Those who sought it did so because they already knew they had a problem they needed help with, and are, therefore, already motivated to do what it takes to address the problem; they just need to be pointed in the right direction. The problem with relying on simply giving advice as an “implementation plan” is that many educators are receiving advice they aren’t seeking – therefore not motivated to act on it. Below I describe a few specific reasons why just simply offering advice will fail to result in large scale improvement.
If you have kids, you have probably received a plethora of unsolicited advice. Around 10 years ago – I was overwhelmed with all of the advice thrown my way from parents, in-laws, friends and even random people at restaurants. When receiving unsolicited advice, the quality of the advice does not matter one bit. Most people, myself included, immediately write it off. It could be the best advice in the world – If I didn’t ask for it, I ignored it. Not only did I not follow that advice, but I got a little peeved at the person who offered it. When one offers unsolicited advice, it is always accompanied with an underlying assumption that the person on the receiving is not doing something well enough. While that may be true – this fact is often not overlooked by those who receive unsolicited advice.
When PD is centered around someone else’s perspective of what teaching should be – it won’t be effective. Teacher’s deserve ownership in what and how they learn. Whether we mean to or not, when we ask teachers to change their practice without including them in the conversation, we are implying that their current efforts aren’t good enough. That is a hard pill to swallow for anyone, and the result will likely be resistance to whatever advice is offered – no matter the quality of the advice.
2. Advice places burden of execution solely on teacher
When teachers do attempt to implement advice, they often do so without clarity and a thorough understanding of what it is they are implementing. Advice tends to be overly general lacking details on how to actually implement a strategy. Consider the following common advice teachers often receive:
“You should work harder to build relationships with your kids”
“Maybe using cooperative learning will help”
“Try lecturing a little less”
“You really need to work on procedures”
This type of advice is ineffective for several reasons. 1: This advice is annoyingly vague. 2: Even if the teacher wanted to implement the above advice, he/she is now left to guess at how these “strategies” should be implemented. If these are teachers who are struggling in any of these areas, why on earth would we allow them to try to improve on their own??? That would be like telling Shaq who was notorious for being a horrible free throw shooter- “Ya know, you really should work on shooting free throws,” and believing that you have offered them something of use. Even if your advice had a little substance, without setting goals, modeling technique, observing and offering feedback it won’t get results. I would imagine many coaches/players gave Shaq a few tips or offered advice about how he could shoot better, but it wasn’t until Shaq worked with shooting-coach legend, Ed Palubinskas, that his free throw percentages soared from 38% average to up to 70%. He talks a little about that process here.
3. Advice lacks follow through
Advice is typically take it or leave it. More often than not people tend to leave it (see #1 for reasons). I suspect people rely on vice more often than coaching because it is a ton easier to give advice than it is to coach someone. Anyone with experience and know how can notice things that probably should happen in a classroom and advise a teacher, but it is much more difficult to share expertise in a way that results in the teacher making actual improvements. I suspect that is why offering advice is more common than coaching. Everyone is strapped for time; it is easier to offer advice and walk away – then it is to put together a plan for improvement. I have heard it said – “What gets monitored; gets done.” Giving “drive-by” advice removes any accountability from the process – and sometimes some peer accountability may be what teachers need to push them to grow.
Reflecting and improving as a teacher is a difficult and time consuming endeavor. It requires a certain amount of vulnerability that can be emotionally taxing. It’s not easy for anyone to admit that their practice can be improved. It’s kind of like joining a diet/exercise program to be more healthy; you know it’s something you should do but it’s really hard to do things differently. That’s why so many of these programs have components that build in accountability. Some have point systems – where people can hold themselves accountable for the food they eat. Others involve actually meeting with personal trainers, that hold them accountable and push them to do things, they wouldn’t have done on their own. On social media, people post all the time about how many miles they have ran, or calories they’ve eaten. These people are looking for that attention to help them reinforce behaviors that will help them hit their goal. I don’t think it is a stretch to think that teachers need that sort of follow through to help them meet their professional goals.
Instructional coaching addresses each area where advice falls short.
Most teachers would agree that it is difficult to “force” learning onto their kids. Adults aren’t much different. Instructional coaches intentionally plan enrolling activities to inform teachers and administrators the benefits of coaching. Some teachers may not be ready to work with a coach. That is fine! Adults learn in different ways; for some reading professional literature and online blogs may do the trick. Administrators should expect that all teachers are committed to continuous improvement – anything less than that would be unprofessional. There is nothing wrong with referring a teacher to coach as one of several options – but assigning them to work with a coach can be detrimental to the work coaches do and more importantly it probably won’t work and is therefore a waste of teacher’s and coaches time.
Other options could include:
-Independent or small group book study
– Attend a training
– Observe other teachers at site
-Observe teachers in other schools
– Social media: Twitter chats, blogs, other education groups (ie English Companion Ning)
– Work directly with a mentor teacher or administrator to create a plan
– Work with instructional coach in a deep coaching cycle
2. Coaching provides teachers with the support they need to improve.
Where advice fails at providing any actual support to teachers, coaching walks teachers through a process designed to support them to identify goals, learn high impact strategies, and monitor their progress towards those goals. Coaches learn and practice how to model and communicate strategies in a way that honors the voice and expertise of the teachers. Coaches don’t aim to “fix” teachers that are broken or failing; they simply use data to show the current reality and help teachers learn strategies to improve that reality.
3. Coaching helps ensure follow through
When working with an instructional coach, there is always some tacit accountability built into that relationship. This accountability goes both directions. Coaches are accountable to teachers to collect data and suggest and explain effective strategies. Teachers who decide to enroll select goals and are accountable to do something in order to meet those goals. The ultimate decision of what strategies they will do to meet those goals lies in them. Once a goal is set, that goal also becomes the coaches goal. I think this is why coaching works so well, because both parties are mutually accountable to each other. The work that follows is not about blaming one party for results, but focused on solutions and improvements.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to help educators grow professionally. After spending quite awhile thinking, I’ve come to the following conclusion:
A. Getting better at complex tasks doesn’t happen by accident.
B. Teaching is a complex task.
C. Therefore, in order to get better at teaching, one must learn intentionally.
Therefore IF A and B then C right???
There is a myth that experience ALONE may make one a better educator. I disagree. Experience without reflection is well… just experience. If we are serious about improving as educators, we need to take specific steps to ensure that we are getting better. In a series of posts. I would like to outline the steps educators should take to learn intentionally to improve their practice.
The logical place to begin would be to discuss how to figure out where to begin.
Helping teachers determine their Current Reality
In order to grow, it is helpful to have a firm understanding of what our current reality is. My favorite show as a kid was GI JOE. Each episode a character would remark “Knowing is half the battle,” while explaining the moral of the episode. If knowing is one half, the other half is doing (along with a bunch of red and blue lasers), but it’s impossible to know what to DO before you KNOW. Once you are aware of what is working well and what isn’t, then teacher’s can set up some action steps to guide their professional growth.
What do we mean by current reality?To identify our current reality involves understanding where we are in our instructional practice. We all have hunches about what our strengths and weaknesses are, but few find the time and resources to go beyond hunches and feelings. If a runner wanted to increase their mile time, it would be necessary to know what there time was in the first place. To improve a runner may make some adjustments to their stride, try a different show, or change their diet, but without knowledge of a starting point they would never be able to track which adjustments actually led to improvement. There is a huge market these days on gadgets that help us track our current reality. Athletes are able to track their number of steps, distance, time, heart rate, average speed, calories burned, and probably several other things I don’t even know about. We now live in a culture where collecting data is easy, it is deciding what we do based on that data that is a little more difficult. What kind of data would teacher’s need to begin their journey to improvement? To help make this more concrete here is a list of questions I think teachers would benefit from knowing the answers to:
While we have certainly many innovative tech tools available, to my knowledge there is no special apple watch that tells us which kids are paying attention and which ones are simply mouth breathing, or an app that sends us a notification the moment a kid actually gets it. There is nothing that generates a report that tells us which questions you asked were most effective, or the number of times you struggled to get the attention of the entire class.
So while we wait for the tech giants of the world to invent apps and tools to instantly give teachers indicators on their current reality, I have three suggestions to tide you over.
In professional sports, video and various forms of data play huge roles in their decisions. Watching film is a common practice beginning as early as high school sports.
If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball you know how powerful data analysis can be. The Oakland A’s used various statistics like on-base percentage to build a roster of cheaperbut effective roster. This focus on data enabled them to improve and compete with teams spending millions of dollars more than they were.
While teaching it is impossible to internalize the all of the complex things going on during a typical class. When teachers work with coaches using video and data, they take guessing out of the equation. The discussion is anchored around objective facts rather than subjective opinions. This allows teachers to set clear and measurable goals meaningful to teachers that are centered on students.
While overcoming the discomfort of watching yourself on video and finding time to have reflective conversations with coaches about data prove to be difficult hurdles, I believe that they are worth making the effort to jump. We aren’t going to improve by simply showing up to work. By finding our current reality, we will be able to KNOW what we are doing is really helping students and what needs to be tweaked – and knowing is half the battle.
In my next post, I would like to go into more detail about setting goals based on that current reality.
Those of you who have been aware of the #oklaed issues floating around the twittersphere the last few years will have noticed that education has seen better days. There are MANY issues educators are dealing with. Without belaboring all of the issues, let’s just say that many educators feel that they are not treated like true professionals.
For those in admin or coaching positions, it is important to be aware of state of the teaching profession and make an intentional effort to communicate with staff in ways that convey mutual respect and professionalism. I have been reading one of Jim Knight’s latest books – Better Conversations and stumbled across some insights that struck home with me related to this issue.
During a dialogue, participants must make conscious decisions when to advocate for their ideas and when to seek to understand the ideas of others. Advocating involves sharing your ideas or perspectives, while inquiry is seeking to understand the ideas and perspectives of others.The problem with many conversations that occur in schools – especially regarding effective teaching practices, is there is often a lack of balance of advocacy and inquiry. When this occurs, what we THINK is a dialogue morphs into something else.
For example, I recently had a discussion with my eleven year old regarding where he did his homework. I advocated for the idea that he should it at the dining room table rather than in front of the television. He took a different stance. He informed me that he was more comfortable on the couch. I further advocated for my position by explaining to him how a well-lit, quiet spot, free from distractions would result in higher quality work. I was on the verge of using research to support my argument when he interrupted:
“Dad, I always do my homework here, and I have straight A’s! I think it’s working fine.”
I hesitated thinking how I could reason with him. That hesitation gave him the opening he needed to solidify his argument with:
“Looks like I won this conversation – BOOM!”
Well played son… Well played.
In this instance, dialogue turned into something else indeed. There was no balance of advocacy and inquiry. Both Parker (my son) and I, were intent on advocating our own perspectives and competing to “win” the conversation. I am learning that using logic, and other forms of rhetoric to advocate for one’s perspective is useless when the other party has no intention of seeking to understand that perspective. Similarly, I have noticed when I fail to come to a shared understanding, I often make decisions that I later regret.
To remedy the lack of effective dialogue in schools, we should all learn how to be humble. As Trump would undoubtedly say we should all be able to say
“There is no one that is more humble than me, In fact you wouldn’t believe how humble I can be; I am bigly humble.”
Status is very important to us in education. Those of us in the classrooms take a lot of pride in our craft and enjoy being known as a “great educator.” We like it when students refer to us as there favorite teacher. Many people don’t know this, but there are people who actually teach because of that feeling they get when our planning and hard work results in students learning new things. Sometimes we run into them at Wal-Mart years later and they tell us that they appreciate how we have helped them become successful. You see, for some, it’s more than the glitz, glam, and glory of lesson planning, faculty meetings, grading papers, and parent teacher conferences.
Whether we are master teachers, instructional coaches, admin, central office, or local celebrity #oklaed bloggers, in order to have effective dialogue we need to have the ability to set our status aside and approach dialogue with the intention of balancing inquiry and advocacy.
If you are reading this and thinking “Ya know, these are some good points. I wish people would start doing these things. It would be great if people would listen to me more when I share my ideas. In fact if they did, I think schools would be better – all that needs to happen is people needs to listen to me more…”
You have missed the point of this completely. We can only control OUR half of the dialogue. It is not helpful or productive to wish things about the other half of dialogues. Perhaps, if we model humility, empathy, and inquiry in our dealings with others it will be contagious.
This is the second installment of a blog series about educators love/hate relationship regarding Professional development. In case you missed the first piece: here , I will catch you up.
In the first installment, I described the two types of educators:
I went on to describe some traditional methods of PD that are really only effective with the crazies in group one. In this part, I would like to suggest an alternative form of PD to help our teachers in latter group.
While I consider myself one of the crazies in group one, I have endured my fair share of time-wasting PD ranging from PD on things I already knew how to do, things that didn’t apply to me as a secondary English teacher, and things that… Well let me just insert one more quick anecdote…
Having 4 or 5 years under my belt as a teacher in addition to completing graduate coursework had made me into a pretty good teacher. During the summers, I spent time attending PD when I could, reading some professional literature, and going over my curriculum ready to start some new and great things for my students. Fast forward to the first day teachers are back in the building. You know the day when teachers are excited to get into their rooms, arrange furniture, make a ton of copies of syllabi, interest surveys, and all the other first day of school regulars. Despite the desperate need to work on all of these things, Admin seems to always have an equally desperate need to keep all staff members in the same room for PD. You may be wondering “what PD could possibly meet the needs of all the different teachers in the building and make a lasting impact on our students ?”
Team building activities that’s what.
In this particular instance, our Admin went above and beyond and hired an outside consultant to do team building exercises and generally motivate us to change the world. If you are going to do a thing – you may as well do it big… right? Well they definitely went all out with this guy. His name was, and I am not joking, Mr. Happy. Mr. Happy brought out all the stops. He had all 80 of us in the gym, doing the congo, giving each other back rubs, doing the hokey pokey, and of course we had to do that thing where we partner up and study our partners than turn around and change something about our appearance, then turn back around and try to find all of the things that were changed which of course led all the participants to have a earth-shattering paradigm shift about “noticing the little things” with our students.
Armed with this new knowledge and renewed enthusiasm we then strolled out for our hour lunch and returned to our classrooms to “watch” our blood-born pathogen and sexual harassment videos do by the end of the day.
I am sure many have experienced similar pd. I think this is why the amount of teachers in group 2 is so high. We are extremely short sided in what we offer in terms of professional learning. I may go as far to say some simply are happy with just filling the time with “stuff” to do – kind of like the teacher that assigns busy work to make sure they are going bell to bell.
The way I would suggest going about this new and improved PD plan would be to use “instructional coaches.” Instructional coaches are pedagogy and communication experts – meaning they are very familiar with best practices and are able to communicate them to others. They are the ones who experiment with new ideas in the classroom and reflect on data to determine what worked and what didn’t work. You may already have these coaches in your building without knowing it. They may be principals, assistant principals, or teacher-leaders. While each of these people already have plenty on their plate, they somehow find some time to mentor other teachers. However, the most effective coaching programs involve hiring full time coaches who aren’t limited in time due to grading papers, disciplining students, reasoning with parents, or searching for the culprit who sprayed fart spray in the elevator.
In short, instructional coaching is needs-based, job embedded, individualized, and it’s always a choice. There is emphasis on that last bit about it being a choice, because I believe some think “coaches” are the people who go in and fix all the bad teachers. That could not be further from the truth. It is very dehumanizing to take away a teacher’s right to say “no.” While all professionals SHOULD be committed to improving, being coached is only one way for that to happen.
Coaches help teachers to
1: identify student-centered goals
2: learn specific strategies to meet those goals
3. reflect on progress and make adjustments in order to improve.
Identify –> Learn –>Improve
If there is one thing that the people who are in this group really love (besides per diems) it is feedback. Feedback is addictive. It is one of the reasons people play video games. People like knowing they are getting better, or if they are struggling, they want to know what to do to fix it. Most video games keep score, or provide increasingly difficult levels (think Angry Birds). These components that provide consumers with instant feedback are the thing that makes video games addictive. No one would play Angry Birds if it was the same level the whole time or there was no score to beat.
Instructional coaches provide teachers with this instant feedback that helps teachers understand their current reality. This is different from evaluative feedback. This isn’t you did good or bad – this is “Wow, 90% of your students were engaged! What do you think you did that excited them?”
For those who are always trying new things, instructional coaching provides them an audiences and means to reflect on the impact of all of the new things they try. Coaches will ask tough questions for teachers to really consider if these strategies need to be changed, scrapped, continued, or presented at a conference because they are so awesome.
For our highly skeptical friends, instructional coaching ensures that teachers aren’t getting trained on stuff they already know, stuff that doesn’t relate to them, or stuff that they just don’t care about. There is no “death by power point”, or “my way or the high way” directives. The focus is not on test scores, but on goals the teacher comes up with. The the teacher is in the driver’s seat of their own learning when working with a coach. The major appeal for our friends in group 2 is that instructional coaching is a pd model treats professionals like professionals by offering them voice/choice in their own learning.
To learn more about instructional coaching, I highly recommenced the work of Jim Knight. Jim Knight has researched and written several books about coaching designed to address needs and hurdles associated with the complexities of adult learning. Read more here. Did I mention that Jim Knight and I are besties…? Here is proof.
I have been on somewhat of a hiatus with regard to blogging, but I am hoping to turn that around to some degree. Since thelast I posted, I have begun a new endeavor which includes a new title Instructional Coach II. Rather than coaching teachers, I now spend my time working directly with instructional coaches.
While instructional coaching has been around for awhile, there are few districts to my knowledge that commit to providing teachers with the type of job-embedded, needs-based professional development that can only be offered through instructional coaching. My point isn’t to condemn other districts; with the financial crisis our state is in our district leaders are forced to make extremely difficult decisions. An effective instructional coaching program is, unfortunately, a luxurythat many districts can’t afford.
In this post I want to talk about professional development practices. What is the best way to increase the capacity and effectiveness of the adults in a school district? I want to examine some of our traditional practices and then discuss how instructional coaching is a more effective alternative.
Traditional Professional Development
There are two types of educators (I know this is a gross over generalization but bear with me) Those that LOVE PD! and those that would rather go to the dentist and get a root canal on PD days… There are both good and bad educators in each group. This will be important later so remember the two groups.
For me and probably most of you reading this. You are in the first group. That doesn’t mean we are better educators than the other group. In fact, there is probably something wrong with us. At least that is what my colleagues tell me. Why on earth would a sane, educated person actual ENJOY pd? I will answer this question with a brief anecdote.. digression from my early days as a teacher.
It all started on a cool January morning almost 12 years ago. I woke at 4:00 am to get ready for my first job as a school teacher. I had been waiting for years for this day to some. All that time I spent watching Head of the Class, Dangerous Minds, and of course Dead Poets Society, had me convinced I was about to start changing the world one student at a time. Whistling, I grabbed my coffee, kissed my wife, and sauntered out the door… Okay actually, it wasn’t anything like that. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I was so scared I would fail I didn’t sleep much and woke up a lot later than 4:00, my wife was still asleep because she was up all night as result of being pregnant with our first son who was born two weeks later, I hadn’t really discovered the necessity of the morning coffee, and there was no “sauntering” – more like a hesitant “panic walk” toward my car. You know the kind of walk you do when you are lost in an airport; you don’t know where you are going but you are in a hurry. Yeah – that was it.
Oops! I forgot I am supposed to be talking about PD… Okay so that is basically how I spent my first semester teaching. Sleepless and clueless. I was not a good teacher and questioned many of my life choices up to that point. Starting mid year didn’t help, and I didn’t have much help in the form of coaching from colleagues because they couldn’t watch me teach; they could just hand me resources and say this is what I use – leaving me to make sense of it. I needed help. My principal had suggested that I attend an AP institute in Norman – led by the legendary Brook Meiller. I did and it probably saved my career.
I recently got to tell Dr. Brook Meiller how it was because of that time I spent in Norman that I became one of “Those people who actually like PD.” The pd she offered was fun, engaging, and, relevant to my classroom. We DID stuff. We didn’t just listen to her talk about doing stuff. Or listen to her list the best ways of doing stuff. She would explain something and we actually did that thing. We participated in inner/circle outer/circle discussion, we practiced annotation strategies, we analyzed poetry. Then we talked and discussed how we could use these in our classrooms with our students. She listened and answered questions in a way that communicated that she did not consider herself to be the “holder of the right answer.” She encouraged us to try these strategies and change them until they work for us and our students… And that’s how I became one of the people in the first group.
Professional Development – to some teachers these two words have a negative connotation. When they hear the words together, you can see the eyes rolling towards the back of their skulls, and the Napoleon Dynamite-esque sigh “Gahh! Why do I have to do this!”
This reaction is understandable. It is a result of years of top-down PD that do not include any voice, choice, relevance, or ownership. PD has become a chore for staff to attend. It is a result of attending “death by Power Point” sessions given by admin who may have good intentions, but haven’t had training in giving engaging presentation. It is a result of being put in a room with a team of teachers and told to “PLC” without ample direction or training. It is a result of an education system that provides no reinforcement or incentive for teachers to build their capacity by attending pd and incorporating their learnings into their practice. I get why many people balk at PD; I don’t get why many schools/districts continue these practices.
Anyone who has been in education for at least 2 or 3 years has probably noticed that teachers are bombarded with many new initiatives that will solve all the problems in classrooms.These initiatives come in many different packages, in fact many are simply older initiatives that are re-packaged and called something different. Some are great – but none contain a magical solution for every classroom.
In the good ‘ol days, districts would choose which initiatives they wanted and send teams of teachers and other staff members to cities like Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans, or (if you are really lucky) Vegas. Today, this doesn’t happen as much; we can’t afford it. Now we may send 1 or 2 people and then expect those people to learn so much that they are able to provide the same quality PD they received from professional consultants over four days to the entire district, but you only have a 4 hour half day (which really turns into 3.5 hours because if you don’t release early for lunch you will be dealing with an angry mob).
Don’t get me wrong, these conferences can be really great. Oftentimes the presenters are engaging, you get to network with other educators, and you get a Per Diem! I’ll never forget when I learned this I told our financial secretary “Wait, you mean I get to go learn stuff, travel to a cool city, and the school pays for me to eat 3 meals a day! How many of these can I go to?!?” (It was the food part that really sold me). But remember, I am in the first group of people; I enjoyed the PD part of the conference as well, so attending conferences actually does impact my practice. However, that is typically not the case with most educators.
Here is how I think educators approach PD. They filter the information from PD into two categories:
This filtration is not a bad thing; I think most people do this; I do. But where the difference comes is what do they do with the two lists – especially the “Things I don’t do list”. People in group 1 ask a lot of questions to themselves.
Some of our group 2 friends approach the “Things I don’t do List” a little differently. They want to validate the things the are already doing and are slightly skeptical of things they don’t do.
Why should I bother with this because…
To be clear. I am not criticizing this train of thought. There is a lot of truth in these statements. I think everyone should be skeptical. I am clarifying that certain types of pd aren’t effective with some people. These are the hurdles that stand in the way of typical Grab ‘N Go PDs actually making an impact.
Those that love PD may also be skeptical, at least they should be, but they move forward anyways.Call it resiliency, call it idealism, call it naivete or call it annoying if you want. It can be any of these things. Sometimes we just like doing new things for no other reason than they are new. We can sometimes get tunnel vision and thing anything that is different than this “thing” that I learned about is damaging to kids. The danger here is to figure out whether these new strategies are actually making an impact. Are you doing something just because you saw it in a book, or are you doing it to help kids learn stuff. Was the old thing you used to do working better than the new thing? These questions provide a great segue way into the main reason I started typing this morning – instructional coaches.
I would encourage schools/districts to consider a different approach to providing professional learning. An approach that works for both groups of people. In part 2 of this series I want to go into more detail on how Instructional Coaching may do just that.
Just Try-It Tuesday: Unpacking Standards; a step-by-step guide
Below I have outlined 6 steps content area teams might use to unpack standards for the purpose of guiding their instruction and assessment throughout the year. I cannot take credit for this process; I have combined ideas from various classes, presentations, and books related to standards and assessment.
The majority of this process derives from the work of Larry Ainsworth – Power Standards: Identifying the Standards That Matter Most and Unwrapping Standards : a Simple Guide to make Standards Manageable.
Before getting on with the process I want to begin with one important clarification regarding standards. I understand that many view that using standards removes a autonomy and inhibits their creativity. I respectfully disagree. The goal of this process is about being extremely deliberate about what we want students to learn NOT how we will get them to learn it.
“The how” is always up to the teacher and should never be dictated as a top-down expectation. Teachers should always have the freedom to take risks and create innovative and creative lessons. Using unpacked standards does not dictate how a teacher chooses to help students learn – but helps teachers pinpoint exactly what knowledge and skills students should be walking away with. This is not about getting every body on the same page the same day teaching the exact same lessons in lock-step – but about ensuring ALL kids become proficient in what teachers decide is essential in their content.
In other words, the results of determining and unwrapping essential standards is a detailed plan to fulfill a promise to students it’s like us saying:
We promise you will learn the most important things in this subject. We have come up with a plan to monitor your progress, and give you extra support if you need. If you already know these things than we won’t waste your time; we will challenge you to extend your learning even more.
I will be using one of the new ELA standards. I chose this because it is a versatile standard; it may not be included in all content areas, but this standard is one of those that impacts every subject area. The point of this post is not the standard itself though; it is the process of unpacking
This process can be applied to any standard in any subject. Furthermore, someone else could unpack this same standard and get something different, and most likely better, than I did. There is no ONE way to unpack each standard. The shared understanding about the standard is what makes this process really powerful for team.
This standard involves teaching students how to use context clues to figure out what words mean. Here is the language of the standard:
11.4.r.3: Students will use context clues to determine or clarify the meaning of words or distinguish among multiple meaning words.
11.4.r.3: Students will use context clues to determine or clarify the meaning of words or distinguish among multiple meaning words.
At this point, it might make sense to combine any targets that really do go together:
Finding the DOK helps determine what you and your team will use as the criteria for success for each target. Many people rely on verbs to help determine DOK levels. Although verbs can give some indication, they do not tell the whole story. On her blog, Alice Keeler discusses how to actually determine DOK. Several taxonomies exist; I will be using Webb’s DOK for this example.
At this point, it may also be helpful to discuss with your team the best way to assess students on each learning target and create a few sample items or tasks. Here are some things to keep into consideration:
This step is extremely important when planning the sequence of instruction. Once you have determined your learning targets and the level of thinking required, it is necessary to “think backwards” to determine what prerequisite knowledge and skills students need in order to meet the level of the targets.
Ideally, this should be done while collaborating with team members as the conversation that will happen will help build a shared understanding of how to interpret the standard.
Basic Vocabulary and Skills
After unwrapping standards into smaller targets and determining any prerequisite skills it’s time to plan the progression of instruction from the least rigorous to the most rigorous. Once thing to keep in mind here – depending on the prior knowledge of your students, you may not need to teach ALL of the prerequisite skills to EVERY student.
Unit pre-tests: It would be a good practice to begin each unit with a pre-test that assess the basic knowledge and skills students already have. The results of this pre-test could determine whether or not you need to teach the basic concepts and/or inform the pacing of your instruction. In addition, a well-designed unit pre-test would allow teachers to identify students who will likely struggle, but more importantly the specific targets where they will need extra support.
Learning progression for 11.4.r.3
**Notice I left out the target recalling basic vocabulary target – because most, if not all students, should have a basic understanding of these terms (context clues, synonym, antonym, inference, example, and definition). Therefore, I would not plan any whole class instruction to address this target. However, if I find during my instruction from pre-test or CFA data that some students do not have this understanding, I would still address this in a small group or 1 to 1 setting.
Once the learning progressions are clear to a team, it is time to find to determine where this instruction belongs in the big picture and what strategies and resources to use to help students meet targets.
Some questions your team may consider:
Just Try It: Whether you are learning new standards or reviewing your current standards, taking the time to unpack them and sequence your instruction with this “end-in-mind” process will help you focus your instruction on the targets that you and your team have determined are essential to your content.
Maybe I am just a curriculum nerd, which I have been told, but there is a nice feeling that comes when you begin a school year, or even just a unit, with knowledge of the exact targets you plan to help your students learn, the sequence you will teach them, and the assessments you will use to determine if students are learning them.
This feeling is doubled when you have a team that has the same interpretation and expectations regarding those standards as you do. Your team can collaborate to share resources, share the workload of creating assessments, discuss which specific strategies worked better than others, and even share students when it’s time for extensions and interventions.
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