March 2, 2009

Veggie Wraps and Southern Accents

So Fullan went over his time limit...oh well, he must be Canadian. It was off to lunch for some more pink mustard (won't get fooled again). However, the joke was on me...Chicken and pesto...I wonder what this wrap is like? The lady beside me, sensing my curiosty, leans over and whispers: "It's really good" it's some big secret that she has just let me in on. It must be good. Well, although it was good, like the pink mustard, it wasn't what it appeared to be. Pesto yes, Chicken no. And I am not one to eat vegetarian wraps...but I did anyway - after all, this conference was all about trying new things.

After lunch we heard Lisa Carter speak. Her Southern type accent had everyone's attention right off the what she was saying was pretty interesting too. She started by stating that meaningful change makes a difference and has a positive impact on student learning. She offered encoragement by saying that we must change what we now, for right now we are doing the best based on what we know. And this is one speaker said "I have not yet met a teacher that wakes up every morning and says 'I can't wait to get to school and make everyone's life miserable'". We are teachers because we want to be...because we see it as a chance to make a difference in this world. As Timothy Kanold would later say: "we are in the most important profession...we have the most power to enact change...politicians may try, but we have the most power to make drastic changes in society". I have to say that I agree with Timothy 100%...and based on what Lisa was saying - we need to make sure the changes we put forth are positive ones.

So, knowing that teachers truly do want to make a difference and impact the world in a positive way what do we need to do to ensure this happens? Well, as Lisa would explain, we need to create conditions to support our new ways of knowing - that is, we need to create conditions that support what we know and foster positive change. For example: some schools have said "we are now a Professional Learning Community - here is your team - here is time to do it - go forth and do good things". Obviously this won't work. When these PLC groups get stuck they are asked "what do you need to be can I/we help you?" Although the intent is there the conditions are not. If these groups knew what they needed to be successful, then they would already be successful. Lisa said that schools instead need to ask themselves "what conditions will we create to make sure things are supported and successful?" And yes, this is as easy as it sounds...but in a collaborative environment the answers to questions such as these come easier.

Finally Lisa talked about TIA (no it does not stand for "This is Africa", but rather - "Total Instructional Alignment"). What is that you ask, well pay attention. Total Instructional Alignment refers to vertical, rather than horizontal planning and makes a whole heap of sense (sorry, the Southern accent must have influence me there). Anyways, the first idea to wrap our minds around - and one that is really at the heart of PLC's - is collaborative planning. So rather than planning all summer by ourselves wouldn't it make more sense to plan collaboratively with teachers is similar positions to our own. One: it would cut down on our workload and two: it would ensure that classes are aligned. She offered this story as an example: two teachers were teaching the same grades of elementary school within the same school. The Social Studies curriculum had two units two it: one was on the global community and the other was on Tenesse history. Now these teachers never really planned together and as a result, did not know when the other one was teaching each unit...which would have been okay except... A new student showed up and had already taken Tenesse history. Since neither one of them was teaching the global community in the second semester, that student took Tenesse history twice. Granted he did very well on Tenesse history for the second time...but because their instruction wasn't aligned, he missed out on the unit on the global community.

But wait, she offered more. What if, instead of only planning horizontally (e.g. with other teachers from the same grade, we planned vertically as well [e.g. with teachers from grades below us and grades above us])? She said that this is what we need to be doing - we need to be planning with the teachers before us and the teachers ahead of us to ensure that our curriculum objectives are lining up. As a simulation, in a staff meeting we could have teachers sit at "vertical" tables and put a standard in front of them. Teachers would then need to come up with a way that they are going to meet that standard. Basically, we need to ask ourselves "do I know what the teacher before me and the teacher ahead of me are teaching?" If teachers from 3 different grades, for example, wrote about a curriculum objective that is similiar in each grade (e.g. knowing the difference between fact and opinion) each teacher may have different expectations for that objective (e.g. simply knowing the difference between the two, identifying the differences between the two, and demonstrating in writing the many differences between abstract and factual ways of thinking). See how students might get "lost". It is in most cases, not a logical progression of the skill. And why not? Well, the answer is simple: the problem lies with the system, not the people doing the work.

Although I know that you all probably "get it", I'll just hammer it home. TIA is simply making sure that what we are teaching, what we are assessing, and how we are teaching it is congruent from year to year. The focus is on natural (and we define natural) progression and improvement). Traditional ways of planning are focused more on the teacher (it is up to the individual teacher to interpret objectives and plan for classes) whereas TIA focuses more on the student (what specific skills will this student gain year to year, how will he be taught, what will he be assessed on etc...?) She also said that vertical conversations can start occurring right away, but the conditions first need to be created in order to ensure that we
become vertical planners.

Can I just say wow? I never thought about planning in these terms before. Some of you probably have...and some of you probably are (I'm guessing elementary because they always seem to have their &#*$ together). Whatever the case, I see this idea as extremely important to promote our "learning for all" motto.

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