February 28, 2009

Teachers on a pedestal

So I am here at the last day of the PLC conference listening to Robert Eaker, who is hilarious. He is the first of two speakers we will see today.  Yesterday was another great day.  In addition to Richard DuFour we saw Michael Fullan, Lisa Carter, and Timothy D. Kanold.

Michael Fullan began his session by talking about implementation.  He stated that, to nobody's surprise, in the first stages of implementation things usually get better before they get worse. But, he said, although it is important to make sure everyone has "training" and is ready to start, it is equally important to start.  Fullan asked that we adopt the "Ready, Fire, Aim" theory of implementation.  Think about this theory and what it means to you...how do you think it would look and what would be the benefits of implementing something this way?  What about the disadvantages?

Fullan also talked about the importance of teachers and the system they are a part of.  First of all, Fullan believes that teachers need to be placed on at least an equal pedestal to students, that is, we need to create a system in which the teacher is at least equal to the student.  Out of this line of thought comes the idea that if something isn't working don't look for someone to blame...look instead at where the system fails.  

That is not to say, of course, that teachers shouldn't be held accountable.  And with that he moved on to his next idea, which was creating success in a collaborative environment.  Basically, within our traditional system, it is difficult to rate ineffective teaching without somebody getting defensive.  I know that if someone tells me something I am doing is ineffective, I am most likely going to get defensive.  Fullan demanded that we drop this type of thinking.  Identifying ineffective teaching and moving forward is a crucial development that the system needs to foster.  He also argued that it is possible to identify ineffective teaching and not be judgmental about it.  I am not sure, however, that he made that sound of an argument.  What he did say, in a roundabout way, was that a true collaborative atmosphere would ensure this type of thinking.  And then I got it.  If everyone is working together to improve student learning and their own teaching methods, then identifying ineffectiveness would be part of the system of that collaboration.  Teachers would be looking at getting better, not based only on their own standards, but by asking for feedback and comparing their success with that of other teachers.  

February 27, 2009

I have never had someone's words ring so true to me as did Richard DuFours today.  After my conference today I thought o myself, self, why are you at a conference in Phoenix and not going outside.  Well, self, I guess this conference just has me too engaged.  However, I have gone outside briefly - twice, and here was my experience: two homeless men were eating lunches out of the garbage can - our boxed lunches from the conference to be more precise - and one of them tried to dance with me.  This is when I realized that Richard DuFours words were more than just words...they were ideas that can actually change lives!  One can only imagine that the education system failed the two gentlemen I encountered on the street.  And why?  Did they get "left behind".  Did they not get supported?  And if not, why not?  If the teachers that taught these two men could see them now, then go back in time, what would they do differently?  And better yet, would they know how to do things differently?

Richard opened his session by talking about storytelling - something that is huge to me...especially within our school.  Stories are an excellent teaching tool - and who makes the stories about teachers...that's right - Hollywood.  So, we brainstormed movies that have been made about teachers: Freedom Writers, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, etc....  Feel good movies that show teachers changing the world one student at a time.  But, as Richard mentioned, imagine the teachers in these movies 3 years down the road burned out and defeated...and why?  Because they are doing it all themselves.  Where are the movies about teachers being collaborative and working as a team?  And why don't they exist?

And this was really the main topic up for discussion - actually it has been a common theme for this entire conference - collaboration.  As I watched the homeless men sift through chicken and pesto wraps Richard words rang in my ear: "We are playing educational lottery with our student's lives".  His words were true...there was the proof, right there in front of me.  He stated that we are often inconsistent in our educational practices - some teachers let students retake tests, some don't, some teachers phone parents when a student is falling behind, some don't.  What happens when students don't learn -well, that depends on who the teacher is.  In fact, you could spend your entire careers not knowing if the teacher next door is having more success or doing a better job of teaching a skill than you are.  PLC's get rid of this.  Actually, to simplify, collaboration gets rid of this...which is what PLC's are all about.

In his school and in their division Richard asked: "Why has what to do been left up to the teachers?"  Example: "Boy I have this student that is really struggling, what can we do"...Division: "we don't know...we don't have a plan" (I am however, happy to say that this is not the case with our division...as a teacher I feel fairly supported).  Well, Richard wanted to have a plan, they wanted to have a system. 

On that train of thought Richard continued to talk loosely about leadership and having a system.  He cited the walkthroughs that principals are doing and said that often direction is misplaced.  We need to be assessing learning - not teachers and teaching.  Granted, good walkthroughs do assess learning, but we need to be aware of the objective.  He took it a step further and said: "what if principals took the time they spent assessing teachers and spent it helping collaborative teams?  What would be better: sitting down with the principal once a year to discuss year plans etc...or sitting down and planning, reflecting, sharing, and discussing once a week with a collaborative team."  This type of thinking is a step toward schools becoming truly collaborative.

Think he's done...think again.  "We need to take an interdependent approach to schools....we should not be concerned with 'my' kids, but 'our' kids...we need to be concerned with all kids in the school".  Wow, this guy was on a roll!  He used an analogy that I particularly liked: many schools right now are like a "team" of marathon runners.  Can you really call a bunch of marathon runners a team?  No.  Why?  Because they are competing against each other!  Ahhh, but are they really.  Ask any marathon runner if they enter marathons to win and they will most likely reply no.  Then what are they there to do - JUST FINISH.  And if they beat their best time, great.  Now I don't know if he meant a teachers main goal is just to finish, but I do know that he meant we are like the marathon runners in that we are all part of the same "race", we all want to do our best, and we are not really competing against each other.  Yet we are not a team.  He encouraged us to instead be more like a rowing team, in which we need to work very closely as a team to achieve our common goals.

As a final thought the pressure to change and do better in terms of collaboration does not lie solely on teachers, and it does not lie solely on administration...it lies on all of us.  He did however briefly talk about how to change teacher's minds for them...anyone familiar with the Jedi?  Actually, he talked about how to influence teachers and he said (he quoted someone but I can't remember who) nothing changes someone's mind like cold hard data hitting them in the face.  Which is true, but not always.  He offered this example of a conversation between a principal and a teacher: Principal: "your students failure rate is three times higher than anyone else's, aren't you concerned about that? Teacher: "Well that's because I am the only one in this building that holds students accountable...I am preparing them for the real world".  And on that note he made a very interesting point in terms of "real world" preparation.  

Now how many teachers, and be honest here, have not let a student hand something in because they missed a deadline?  Now how many teachers have failed to hand in their marks on time?  Did the principal or vice-principal say "nevermind, we don't want your marks anymore!"  No, chances are they gave you a "talking to" and took your marks anyway.  In the real world there are consequences for missing deadlines...but responsible people still have to hand stuff in.  This should be our approach to learning...even if it means we will stand over the shoulder of that student until he/she gets it done...we will not let them fail!

He ended with this humorous analogy.  A mother and father say to their son: "son, if you don't mow the grass by Saturday then you won't get to come to grandma's house with us and you'll be left here unsupervised"  Well, Saturday comes and the grass still isn't mowed, so they leave him behind...and he has a party...and mom and dad come home...and the cops are there...and the cop is threatening to charge them with negligence etc...  "We're sorry officer, we thought he liked coming to grandma's house, we thought we were punishing him."  "Listen, you seem like nice people...a little naive, but nice, so I'm going to let you off the hook."  Next weekend comes and the same thing happens. Now, is that officer going to be so nice?  Probably not.  His question was, then why do we let ourselves, as teachers, get away with the same type of behavior?  Student: "you mean to tell me that if I don't hand in this assignment I won't have to do it...ever? And all I have to do is receive a zero?"  Well not all students would be okay with that...but some would.  So not only do we need to change the way we think, but we also need to change the way we do things...we need to change our system .  And PLC's and collaboration provide the vehicle for that change.

February 26, 2009

The Mysterious Pink Yogurt

Just got back from today's sessions...and by back I mean back to my hotel room.  So far I have only travelled vertically...I have yet to go anywhere that requires horizontal movement.  This conference could be in Big Beaver and I wouldn't know the difference...but that's okay because the conference is proving to be really interesting.

This morning we listened to Thomas Many, whom I've already mentioned, and then had lunch (I had the Havarti Turkey sandwich...which was a lovely blend of crisp and smooth palettes).  Included in my lunch was a small container filled with a mysterious pink cream.  Yogurt, I thought, and saved it for desert.  Weird, why didn't they give me a spoon to eat my yogurt?  Oh well, I'll just use this knife.  Took a knifefull and oops, it's mustard.  Has anyone ever seen pink mustard?  Trust me, it exists.  Anyways, it was off to Cassandra Erkens to hear her talk about Transformational Learning.  Was really excited to hear how I could incorporate Transformers into my classes.  So Cassandra started with a big question: how can we use grades and assessment to promote student learning?  Oh great here comes the theories...wait...what is this....she actually has advice and suggestions?  Ok, what are they...here we go:
  • We need to teach students to be wise - to know what they know, what they don't know, and in some cases - what they cannot know.
  • We need to teach students to think diagonally - to understand other's opinions even if we do not agree with them
  • "We really have to rethink grading: If I put a grade and a comment on a student's paper what is the first thing they look at - the grade...and then their neighbor's grade...but not the comment.
That last quote is quite interesting.  If students are only focused on grades is that a good thing?  Wouldn't it be better to focus on comments and improvement?  Well here is what Cassandra offered: Some PLC's are not giving grades until that grade is an A or B.  Once the student gets to that stage they let them know...but until then they provide feedback to help them get there...failure is not an option.  This demonstrates that these teachers truly believe that all students not only can learn, but will learn.  She also talked about individual learning.  For instance, rather than teaching all students adjectives why not study their writing and have them work on what needs improving (e.g. "Little Johnny, I really loved your piece on the different smells of flatulence...and I think you would benefit from adjectives...) Get the point?  Finally, she offered this: "We are a bunch of professionals that eats our own...if you take an innovative teacher and put him into the staff room what's going to happen - we're going to chew him up and spit him back out".  Not exactly encouraging words but somewhat soberly true.  We are not literally going to eat that teacher with knives and forks...but spoons and toothpicks...just kidding.

Finally, in the panel discussion with who's who of the PLC world this advice was given: inviting people to be collaborative does not work (there goes my New Year's collaboration party).  You need to build it into your day to day school structure.  The question was asked: "how do we collabor vs. coblabber".  Panelists suggested those involved in PLC groups need to find the group relevant.  This can often be a problem for positions such as Special Ed. or within a small school where there may only be one Grade 11 English teacher.  However, we need to find others to link up with in order to create relevant group...perhaps this means creating a group with other teachers from other schools (too bad we abandoned the Division wide PLC's).  The Dufours added an exclamation to this point by stating that they will always be advocates for collaboration but will NEVER be advocates for artificial collaboration - meaning we need to make our PLC groups relevant to our teaching assignments.

Below is a video featuring snippets from Rebecca and Richard DuFour as well as Robert Eaves and Cassandra Erkens at the panel discussion.  My favorite quote comes from Robert Eaves discussion of changing your school's schedule: "One thing I often hear is 'our scheduler won't allow it'...who is this Mr. Schedule; I mean, he must be one powerful dude!".  Oh, let me know if I am going to to to jail for breaking some sort of copyright law...not too sure about this kind of stuff.  Just a note...it will need to be quiet in order to hear everything...turn your volume to 11 (all the way for those of you not familiar with Spinal Tap)

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut somedays!

Our conference room

Well Thomas Many is done...and he was pretty good. He talked in length about how to successfully implement PLC's...lots of which I will inform everyone on later. But to respond to Palaniuk's comments, Many said that there are some aspects to PLC's that are non-negotiable: that teachers will work in teams, focus on curriculum and focus on good assessments. The rest is pretty much moldable. He stated that when teachers know why they are doing what they are doing, that's when they "get it". If teachers start out in groups that make sense to them, they are already one step ahead of the game. He also talked about the "blind squirrel" problem in which schools or groups change direction year to year (or even more frequently). It's like a blind squirrel looking for a nut...he runs from place to place never really having any true direction. Perhaps some of our experiences in PLC's have been like the blind squirrel's. Just a question to you as educators...are you part of any "blind squirrel" systems right now? And if so, how does one go about choosing a direction and sticking to it?

February 25, 2009

Random Ramblings after Too Little Sleep

I just got back to my hotel room after listening to Rebecca Dufour talk about the power of PLC's and am really wishing that there was someone here with me.  The main topic up for discussion, after all, was collaboration.  Now I have all these ideas floating around in my head and nobody to bounce things off of.  Thank god for the wonderful world of blogging!  

So Rebecca lead off with a brief discussion about closing the "learning gap".  She stated that the general public feels that the learning gap exists because of social problems and not because of the educational system.  However, the general public also feels that it is up to schools to solve this problem.  In comes the need for us to create highly effective schools - PLC's being a vehicle for this process.  This I get, this I understand and am excited about.  For, as she explained, PLC's are not something you do every Wednesday morning.  They are not something that you "did" last year, and they are not something that you change year to year.  PLC's are an ethos, a collaborative culture that promotes betterment of staff and students.  Being thrown into a group and being told to "go be collaborative" are counterproductive to this system and demonstrates a lack of understanding for what the true nature of PLC's really is.  She stated that in addition to this, staff learning curves need to be steep, for staff and student learning go hand in hand.

As she made her presentation I had several revelations.  One, it was a bit ironic that our discussion of collaboration consisted of us sitting and listening to a speaker.  But then again, how are 1600 people supposed to be collaborative?  Two: Rebecca asked us to think about what we had spent time discussing in our staff meetings.  If topics consisted of dress code and field trips...well...does that stuff really have an impact on student learning?  Bang on.  We have spent a great deal of time on our dress code...is this really having an impact on student learning. Probably not.  Three: everything she is talking about is very progressive and exciting.  Imagine a school in which not only is student learning the absolute most important aspect, but everyone is on board in a collaborative way, and on board to such an extent that they are extremely hungry for new methods of progressive thinking, and on board to such an extent that they can't wait to share that new progressive thinking in their collaborative environment.  Not such a stretch is it?  After all, many schools look like this.  But sometimes we get sidetracked.  

Final thoughts:
Going to conferences such as this one is great for recharging the batteries and getting excited about innovative thinking.  I am booked into a hotel full of people eager to learn as much as they can from some very innovative thinkers.  Everyone is excited to go back to their learning cultures and share their enthusiasm.  As a side not, 7 provinces, 46 states, and Singapore are attending this conference.  PLC's are HUGE!  And they are not going anywhere!  However, that is not to say that we shouldn't think progressively about PLC's.  They might not be the answer to all life's questions.  But, just as we would expect our students to do, we can mold them into what works for our school.  One aspect I am struggling with is the reappearing theme of data driven assessment and accountability.  Although the American education system is different from our Canadian one these are themes I see emerging in our province as well.  Data is an excellent thing, but it is expensive...and I don't think we're willing to spend the money.  When our division is moving toward a certain student to teacher ration - even if this means decreasing the number of professional positions, I don't know if accurate data driven objectives are as easy to obtain.  When I ask a teacher what mark does that student deserve and they reply: "75%" and I ask "how do you know" and they respond "I just know", that is the good data.  That is the stuff that we need to be measuring.  That teacher knows because he/she has spent a great deal of time with that student, he has done checklists (perhaps in his head), seen a huge sample of great variety.  But that "good stuff" is expensive...as mentioned here (watch this video...this guy is awesome!!!).

As I was sitting listening to "how are we going to get students to learn" I thought of my own learning style.  I am an active learner.  I need to move, question, discuss, and share.  And then I remembered a couple days earlier, when my Outdoor Ed class built snowshoes.  I had a loose format we could follow.  Instead, we moved around, asked each other what they did that worked, that didn't work, what ideas they had.  We discussed what we wanted to learn, how we were going to learn it, and how would we know if we were successful (one student said: "we'll know if they work if we don't fall through the snow).  The point is, we had our own PLC group right there in which everybody learned and shared in a collaborative environment centered on student learning (and my own).  It was an exciting environment to be a part of. 


Well I just arrived in Phoenix...here is the view from my hotel room, or is it...perhaps I just found this picture on the internet and am just pretending to be in Phoenix...perhaps.  I flew to Winnipeg, transferred planes and then came straight here.  I met a couple of good old farmers on the way here and learned about cutter bees (apparently they are worth $.001/bee...which is a great price).  

So, Phoenix is home to apparently 3.7 million people and the first one I met (cab driver) ripped me off.  He pulled the ol' I don't have enough change routine.  I would have sat there and watched him search all day long but some buggers stole my luggage...actually they were just the doormen, but I wasn't letting them get away with anything.  The hotel is full of teachers...which is weird because the hotel treats us like we are important. Well, I am off to register...then a session by Rebecca DuFour: The Power of Professional Learning Communities tonight!  Oh, it is plus 24 here...so I guess I didn't need to bring my winter jacket.  Why didn't somebody tell me this place is next to California?