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5 Principles of a Successful Digital Transition

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All across the country, school districts are adapting to digital curriculum to give their students the competitive edge they will need once they leave the classroom. Making this transition to digital learning can be fraught with fresh challenges, but there are a few best practices that will help newcomers navigate their way to success.

Here are five principles to help guide your digital transition.

1. Good instruction trumps everything.

A great number of digital transitions get derailed when they are solely focused on devices. If you begin with the supposition that good instruction drives meaningful change, form will rightfully follow function.

2. Students and teachers need help navigating the oceans of digital content.

Content that engages students online must be deemed a priority since a significant amount of available content is superficial and dependent on sources that can’t be easily verified.

When it comes to digital content it’s usually feast or famine. There’s either too much for students to meaningfully interpret or not enough of the right type of content. This is where districts turn to trusted services to vet and organize content for them. Getting the content aligned with district curriculum also saves teachers a little bit of their most precious commodity: time.

3. Effective digital transitions are thoughtfully planned, executed, and measured.

The success of a digital transition is directly related to the clarity of its goals and vision, the sustainability of its plans, and the thoroughness of its reporting measures.

Presenting a clear and detailed explanation to all stakeholders of the educational goals behind a digital transition should be your first priority. It is also important to acknowledge that new methodology may initially impact workload.

What’s needed most is a realistic approach that employs reporting measures that reflect how predetermined educational targets are being met. For the short term feedback (that is essential to win funding), plan on collecting anecdotal reports that show early success.

4. People will only buy into a change they believe adds value.

Teachers and parents alike want to understand why their school has opted to refocus classroom instruction to take advantage of technology. Visit schools or search the web for stories of successful digital implementation to show the benefits of a digital transition.

5. Digital transition is a major culture shift. Ignore this at your own peril.

Digital transition is about the people involved more than the technology. Schools and districts that ignore this often wonder why their expensive tech investment collects dust in most classrooms or is used for occasional entertainment.

Take the time up front to help teachers learn the expected instructional change. The first year of a successful tech roll-out should include demonstration classrooms that allow other teachers, parents, and community members to see the change expected, while teachers have access to the anticipated technology. This ensures that year two, which may include wider scale transition, is built on a firm foundation of in-district experience.

This type of attention to the human-cultural aspects of digital transition dramatically increases the likelihood of an instructional return on investment.


With over 26 years experience as an educator, Marty Creel leads Discovery Education’s innovative curriculum and instruction team. Marty began his career as an engaging social studies teacher known for creative use of technology to deepen learning. As a district-wide curriculum, instruction, and professional development leader in a large urban/suburban school system he was the architect for a thoughtful transition to instructional standards that empower teachers and principals as instructional leaders.

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Why Embracing New Ways of Teaching is a Worthwhile Risk

This column was submitted by Branchburg Township School Districts’ (NJ) Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Gensel.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s quote is one that’s been applied to many other fields. So it should come as no surprise that his wisdom also applies to how good educators can bring out the best in their students.

To decompress at home after a long day, I throw clay on a pottery wheel. I’m no Michelangelo, but one of the things this hobby has taught me is that forcing something into what I want it to be usually doesn’t work out. I’ll throw a ball of clay on the wheel, setting out to make a mug. But as the wheel spins, and I influence the clay by putting pressure on it or moving it around the wheel, often I discover the clay has a mind of its own for what it wants to become. I’ve learned that if I incorporate that tendency of the clay, rather than beat it back into what I had intended it to be, the result is much more successful.

Over the years, I’ve learned that relinquishing control often yields a more beautiful piece of art than what would have existed if I insisted on exerting my will over the clay.

One of the recent challenges my district’s teachers have been faced with is making the leap to a new relationship with students – one augmented by technology. Instead of a top-down, authoritative approach to classroom instruction, many teachers have embraced the notion that by democratizing access to information, they don’t always need to be the expert on every topic.

Rebecca Gensel, superintendent of Branchburg Township School District

More of our teachers are looking to their students to help them become better educators. Without a doubt, our students know more about what’s out there than we do. Giving them the opportunity to share what they know by flipping the teacher/student relationship certainly has its advantages.
Though technology has been a cornerstone of our district for decades, our use of technology has been transformational over the past four years. Classroom devices have moved from discreet computer labs to an everyday presence throughout school buildings. We’ve equipped our K-8 students with classroom devices ranging from laptops to tablets. We’re not just teaching keyboarding in our tech labs anymore. We’re using those labs now to teach coding, showing students how to master technology by understanding what makes the computer do the things that it does and what happens when you manipulate those programs in new ways.

These devices have given students opportunities to learn and share their learning with their peers and a broader audience. Students’ responsibilities have evolved from rote memorization and single-audience term papers to exploring abstract concepts in group settings.

Services like Discovery Education Streaming and Techbook are woven into the canvas of resources our students can explore and through which they can share, expressing what they’ve learned in their own unique way.

Technologies like these give our students opportunities to choose how they learn, rather than limiting all students to only one avenue for expression.

We’re fostering learning environments where we can say to our students, “Here’s the topic-now go explore. Open your laptops, see what you can learn, share it, and we’ll connect the pieces together.” At this stage in their education, it’s not necessarily about defining a career as much as it is about helping students understand the possibilities that exist for learning.

This is a lot to take in for many educators. It requires taking a risk-giving students permission to fail while trusting that they’ll learn from their mistakes. It requires being a mentor and a guide, not a dictator or a drill sergeant.

Through Discovery Education’s professional development sessions, our educators’ eyes were opened to the possibilities of what can be achieved by integrating technology into the curriculum. We’re collectively beginning to shift our own understandings for what our students can be.

Rather than forcing our students, like a ball of clay on my pottery wheel, to learn in the ways we think are best, there is much to be gained by following their lead as we all move forward in our learning.

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5 Classroom Technology Fears and How You Can Conquer Them

Worst case scenario: You’re not totally comfortable with your classroom technology. You’re standing in front of an impatient, adolescent audience during the last period of the day, pressing Play on a hilarious video you’ve selected to demonstrate the law of gravity. But nothing is happening. Let’s add another fear factor: your administrator is in the room for an evaluation. Maybe it’s better to play it safe and rely on the pictures in the textbook or your trusty egg demonstration.

Fear and anxiety are major drivers in our world. In fact, they are affecting our students in larger proportions than ever before. Recent studies show that about 25 percent of teenagers have suffered from anxiety at some point. Acknowledging and conquering our fears have become all the more important. Overcome your fear of technology in the classroom and you can be a role model for your students as you show them how to accept imperfection and face reasonable risk.

Fear often arises from the unfamiliar, and technology is evolving so quickly it can be hard to stay fluent. Let’s tackle some big fear-based objections to incorporating technology from an educator’s point-of-view, with a special lens on how they may be addressed in the classroom and with your students’ help.

FEAR 1: It’s Just Too Complicated

 Basis for Fear

A recent search for “educational technology tools” turned up over 72 million results, and a link on the first page boasted a list of 321 free technology tools for educators. With such a volume of options available, it’s no wonder that educators with any hesitation may be turned off. With mysterious names like Voki, Smilebox, and 19Pencils, each tool comes with its own flavor of quirks — some require registration or access on your school network may be blocked, or they may be incompatible with something your district is already using. That’s a lot to digest.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Get recommendations from trusted sources:
A great place to go for recommendations on technological tools might be right next door or down the hall. Your colleagues certainly have their favorites, and they’ve probably already undertaken the effort of figuring out what works well with the special limitations you may face at your site. You can also turn to your virtual PLNs. Almost every virtual community has discussion boards and messaging functions, so find your tribe according to subject, interest, or comfort level with technology.

Work with students:
Your students likely have a set of go-to apps and are used to selecting tools for the best features and user experience. Have them apply their research and analytical skills to a review of tools for a particular instructional strategy. For instance, if you want to choose a tool for collaborative annotation, ask a student or committee to research and recommend the best one. They’ll become experts in the room and can help you use the selected technology at the appropriate time. Be sure to be explicit about the skills that are required for these tasks (e.g., compare/contrast, cost-benefit analysis, synthesis, presentation/communication) – it will help them identify their own strengths and extrapolate them to other work.

FEAR 2: I Don’t Trust It to Work When I Need It

Basis for Fear

Time is tight, you need to teach bell-to-bell, and one glitch in the plan can throw off an entire period. Plus, it can be rattling to experience technical problems in the moment when you’re supposed to be teaching, which can make it harder to problem-solve effectively.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Plan to fail:
Run a troubleshooting session before using a new tool during a class activity. Think about what could go wrong to derail the momentum. What if the screen is blank? Identify and secure connections ahead of time. What if the accessories don’t work? Make sure clickers and remotes have fresh batteries and are stored properly. What if buffering is unbearable? Download media you’ll be using in class, whenever possible, and delete it when the lesson is complete.

Work with students:
Students will value being able to help you troubleshoot technical problems in class, so take a deep breath, admit defeat, and let your students be the lesson’s heroes. It is important for them to see you have a problem, identify it, and allow someone to help you fix it.

FEAR 3: The Students Will Be Out of Control or Surfing Constantly

Basis for Fear

If students are using all the technological tools available to them, there’s a good chance they’re looking at different content on different screens. The days of all eyes on the board are over. Especially if they’re on personal devices, students may click over to their social accounts, stream movies, or play games. (Lots of adults would be tempted to do the same in a meeting.)

Overcoming the Hurdle

Incorporate structures that keep students on task and accountable:
Encouraging students to use technology does not have to mean setting them loose. Use intentional strategies that include checkpoints to keep students moving through relevant content and assignments without having too much time to wander online. Strategies that require students to break for pair-share, rotate through stations, or respond to prompts keep students focused as they work.

Work with students:
Discuss your concerns with students before you begin using devices, whether that’s at the beginning of the year or somewhere in the middle. Be respectful and realistic about how difficult the request to stay on task may be for some students. Have them help you define the expectations.

FEAR 4: My School Doesn’t Have Enough — Support, Equipment, Bandwidth, etc.

Basis for Fear

Most educators are short on time and resources. It can seem like too much to invest time and energy in learning about new technologies just to be disappointed when they are impossible to implement with your school’s limitations. If something is great, it may require registration, a subscription, individual tablets/clickers, or more bandwidth. If something is free, it may be blocked or have tiered plans that limit the functionality.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Take advantage of what you have:
You probably have access to staff that would appreciate the opportunity to help you select tools for your instructional needs. Your media librarian, technology director, or instructional coach are great resources. You may also have access to services to which your district has subscribed, and those services should run smoothly within your district and classroom (and have customer service numbers where you can usually find enthusiastic support).

Work with students:
Students may not have much power to help in this area immediately but, as you look to the future, it may make sense to advocate for a student technology representative or committee at your school or in your district. Some schools even have a tech team based in an elective course where students earn credit helping with technology throughout the school.

FEAR 5: It’s Not Rigorous Enough

Basis for Fear

We want students to be able to perform well on tests and meet standards. It can seem like learning and assessment in a digital environment are less rigorous than the paper and pencil assessment we’re more used to. Can a digital assessment really demonstrate the same learning as an essay, a written unit test, or a lab report? The answer to this question lies in the assessment design. If the questions and prompts within the digital assessment are thoughtful and the demonstration of learning is rich, then a digital assessment can be just as – if not more – rigorous than a paper-based assessment. Among its many benefits, a digital assessment can be customized, include student-created materials and performance recordings, and provide faster feedback during the learning process.

Overcoming the Hurdle

Match the technology to the learning:
Trying to retrofit a cool new tool to your instructional and assessment needs is a tough road. Instead, if you start with the understanding (e.g., standard, concept, skill) you are asking your students to investigate or demonstrate, you’ll likely find a digital tool that supports the learning rather than showcases students’ technological savvy.

Work with students:
Make sure you provide clear learning targets and a detailed rubric, so students can put emphasis on the relevant information and requirements.

There are so many technological tools to choose from today for almost anything you want to do better. But “with technology” does not automatically mean better.

In the classroom, aim to incorporate tools that positively impact learning, make assessment more accurate, and make everyone’s day more engaging. And take advantage of the opportunity to be fallible, afraid, and human in front of – and for the benefit of – your students. Let them see you struggle, learn, accept help, and conquer your fear of technology. It will serve them in class tomorrow and maybe even for the rest of their lives.

Jeanette Edelstein is an educator dedicated to making learning more engaging for students of all ages. She has been a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and program developer. She was a founding teacher and the gifted and talented coordinator at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. Her curriculum projects include Hive Alive!, a collection of teaching resources about honey bees, Animal Planet Rescue, a disaster relief and educational vehicle that rescued over 1,000 animals, and CapsinSchool, an elementary curriculum based on the math and science of hockey.

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6 Structures and Supports for the Inquiry Based Classroom

Human beings are born to question. We are born to ask why. Inquiry begins with acquiring data and information through interactions with our environment. Stimuli provide us with information, and we ask questions to make sense of it all.

Unfortunately, traditional educational offerings often work in ways that discourage inquiry and limit students’ innate curiosities. This stifling of a student’s need to know has served to shift the focus of today’s educational system from inquiry to assessment. The shift has manifested in classrooms filled with students less likely to ask questions and more likely to be told what to learn and what questions to answer. Memorizing facts to help answer questions is an important skill for students to master. Inquiry, however, is a skill that will lead students toward being prepared to enter a workforce that is placing increasing emphasis on creativity and problem-solving.

Inquiry implies a need to know. Further, it highlights a desire to find out, to determine, and to continue exploring a topic to arrive at a resolution that sufficiently quenches the student’s thirst for understanding.  Effective inquiry relies on the effective implementation of instructional practices weighted heavily in favor of student exploration. Structures that support student engagement, collaboration, open-ended questions, and teacher facilitation are just some of the tenets of inquiry-based learning.

Fostering Civic Responsibility

The C3 Framework was developed to provide states with voluntary suggestions to update and enhance social studies curriculum. Aligned with the Common Core through similar language and student outcomes, the focus of the C3 Framework is squarely on inquiry as the catalyst for deep student learning.  Using the Framework as a guide, teachers of social studies can begin the conversation with colleagues and administrators about how to ensure that the content facilitated by the teacher is rigorous and fosters civic engagement.  At no other time in America’s history has the importance of structuring social studies classes to not only provide historical perspectives on

At no other time in America’s history has it been more important to structure social studies classes not only to provide historical perspectives on events, but to also foster the development of a student’s deep understanding of civic responsibility.

Today’s social studies educators continue to strive to balance the demands of teaching the curriculum with a desire to move beyond it.  Teachers focused on the process of learning, rather than simply what is learned, serve to foster an inquiry-based learning environment in their classrooms. If the goal of an inquiry learning environment is clear, the steps for successfully implementing this type of instruction can be challenging. In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow

In order to have students think deeply, it’s important to provide them with content to think deeply about. So what steps can an educator take in order to create this type of learning environment? How can an educator move beyond what is required and allow inquiry to move students to what is possible?

1. Engage in Inquiry-Based Professional Development

Learning to think deeply, critically, and creatively requires that educators themselves receive the type of professional learning that facilitates inquiry-based learning for students. Teachers need to model, through their thinking, actions, and comments, what it means to read critically, think deliberately, and respond in an informed way. Deeper learning is the byproduct of intentional planning and deeper teaching. Inquiry-based learning demands hands-on learning experiences for those teachers whose responsibility it is to facilitate deep learning for students. When embarking down the inquiry path, consider professional learning options that offer the opportunity to learn how to support students in creating complex and incisive questions. Those types of questions serve as the backbone of inquiry-based learning and are essential to the success of an inquiry-based learning classroom.

2. Create a Community of Inquiry

To create a community that values opinions and thoughts of others, it’s imperative that teachers create structures that encourage students to share their opinions even if different from those of their classmates. Asking questions, developing opinions, and researching topics of interest must be standard practices in a community of inquiry. Discourse must be accepted and encouraged. Collaboration among students is at the focal point of an inquiry-based classroom. But to get to the point where students are comfortable sharing their ideas, it’s imperative that the teacher formulate rules, norms, and expectations for how students will interact with the content and with one another.

Class meetings where students have opportunities to discuss issues pertinent to the class or share a connection they have to a particular topic allow students to appreciate the uniqueness of their classmates while teaching them the importance of actively listening to one another. Establishing how the class will run and the important part each student will play in the success of the class will provide students with a model upon which to build their community.

3. Inquiry is not a ‘Special Activity’

Students need to fully understand that deep learning isn’t something that takes place in one classroom session. To learn about something deeply and to ask the questions needed to get students to that level takes time. Inquiry is not reserved for special times during the school year, nor is it an activity to be done once and then never revisited. In classrooms where inquiry thrives, students rely on the structures they’ve been taught as the framework to guide reflection and action. As Edutopia writer Andrew Miller states in his post Creating a Culture of Inquiry, it’s not enough for the teacher “to simply state that their classroom is inquiry based, and doing an occasional inquiry-based activity is not enough.” Every day needs to be focused on providing students with the type of learning that fosters their innate curiosity for inquiry to succeed.

Middle school classrooms provide excellent settings for the introduction of inquiry as a tool to foster deep learning. Teachers who challenge students to develop their own questions centered around their desire to learn more about a topic help to create classrooms where inquiry thrives. Opportunities to teach with inquiry in mind occur throughout the recommended social studies curriculum in middle school. When considering a debate that will focus on the concepts of right versus wrong, for example, students can be provided with a setting for debate, mock trials, and role playing. These interwoven and connected learning opportunities become the norm, rather than the exception, in a classroom focused on inquiry.

4. Deep Learning Requires Connections and Relevance

Making learning relevant to today’s students requires that teachers help their students find connections to documents and historical events. Reviewing the Declaration of Independence, for example, and reimagining how the document would be different if it had been written by women or people of color, allows students to think deeply about the issues taking place during that time period from the perspectives of those not reflected in the document.

Students think outside the box in order to make personal and lasting connections with historical documents and time periods. In this way, learning becomes meaningful, powerful, and relevant.

5. Reflection on Practices

Even the most seasoned educator can struggle with the concept of facilitating, rather than directing, student learning. It’s important to set goals and outcomes regarding what you hope to achieve as a teacher in an inquiry-based classroom. The Inquiry Arc, found in the C3 Framework, helps students “develop a capacity for gathering and evaluating sources and then using evidence in disciplinary ways.” The Arc provides the structure for teaching and learning within a social studies classroom. It’s a set of actions that form the basis for what students should experience in an inquiry-based social studies classroom.

If, for example, the teacher’s goal for his or her students is that they understand the importance of reviewing more than one document to answer a question, the Arc would recommend that the teacher ensure that documents available to students allow them to effectively compare, evaluate, and find evidence to support their research. Reflecting on their own understanding of a document, it’s relevance in history, and the perspective these documents will provide to students are key actions of the teacher whose practices support, rather than direct, student learning.

6. It’s Not Just About the Question

Effective inquiry-based learning moves beyond just a well-thought-out question. It requires the teacher to consider the purpose of the questions posed and how student responses will help to facilitate student discussions. Inquiry-based learning demands that the teacher pose questions to students, elicit questions from them, and allow their responses to questions to be heard. In addition, the questions posed by students help to drive the content learned and the rigor with which it is understood by students. Inquiry encompasses the actions, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of the learners in the classroom.

For this type of learning to succeed, students have to make the connection that their civic responsibility is inherently tied to their deep understanding of history and historical events.  Being well informed about the way our past has served to shape our future is essential for students to develop an appreciation for civic responsibility and participate actively in society. Simply asking questions of students in the hopes that an interest is sparked is not enough to reach a deep level of learning. Complex questions that help students create learning for themselves must be at the forefront in the inquiry-based classroom.

Establish a Culture of Inquiry

Students who ask questions, think critically and learn deeply become informed and responsible citizens who do the same. But without the creation of an emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe learning environment by the teacher, this type of learning cannot thrive.

Careful consideration should be given for the learning that must be undertaken by the teacher in order to effectively facilitate an inquiry-based classroom. To do so allows both students and teachers to learn not only in a deeper way but in a more meaningful way; a way in which both are prepared to meet the demands of an ever-changing civic landscape.

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Helping Students Find Their Voice

When I attended college, some of my favorite classes were those in which I felt empowered in how I pursued my studies. When my professors provided options, valued my opinion, and shifted the responsibilities for learning over to me, my level of engagement increased dramatically.

That college student is now a middle school math teacher with her own room full of students, and I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of fostering student voice in my classroom.

Student Voice describes how students provide input into what happens in their school and their classroom.

One of my goals as a math teacher is to help my students see themselves, their ideas, and their thoughts reflected in the required curriculum. Student voice does not mean student takeover. To the contrary, the idea of students having a voice in what they learn, when they learn it, and how they learn it leads to collaborative opportunities to increase engagement and facilitate deeper student learning.

Even though my classroom is primarily built upon structures that foster independence, it’s still a shift for me to scale back the responsibility for student learning from me as their teacher and place it with them as the learners. Over the years, I’ve made deliberate decisions about how to approach the content and ensure that it’s delivered through a student-centered lens. I’ve reflected about each decision and considered how the shift to a classroom culture that values and supports student voice has impacted the overall learning of my students.

While I don’t have any hard and fast rules, there are some guidelines that I follow to help ensure that student voice is at the forefront of my instructional decisions.

1. Create Classroom Norms Together

Norms and rules are not the same things. Rules help to establish the practices and procedures that allow tasks to be completed in classrooms. Norms provide teachers and students with shared agreements about how best to support one another and learn from and with one another, and they help create a culture of and for learning.Developing norms with my students has allowed them to have a voice in the structure of our classroom, which helps to contribute to a positive classroom culture.

As I began to infuse student ideas and suggestions into our classroom expectations, I began to see the value in co-creating these norms rather than creating them independent of my students.

Collaboratively creating norms helped me better understand what my students valued and what was important to them. During the creation of our class norms, it was apparent that students appreciated the chance to give their opinions and thrived on the opportunity to hear what their peers thought as well. These norms continue to provide the structure upon which our classroom culture was established. We review the norms periodically and add things when needed. Occasionally we adjust our norms in order to better meet the changing nature of our classroom.

To this end, our classroom culture depends on the students upholding the norms that we create together. When students interact with each other during collaborative problem solving, it’s an understood norm that each student will have a responsibility for contributing to the discussions during the group work. Further, my students understand that every voice in the group is important and will be valued.

I do get students who, from time to time, deviate from the norm. But because I’ve established with my students the expected behaviors, they are quick to reset the conversation and get back to the business at hand.

Norms don’t need to be elaborate. I’ve found that establishing a number of expectations regarding how students treat one another in class provides students with the opportunity to see and hear their voice reflected in our classroom practices. When I establish norms with my students, we focus on what language is and isn’t acceptable during classroom collaboration and discussion and the responsibility that each student has in contributing to their own learning and the learning of others. For example, my students understand that they are expected to be their own best advocates and ask questions accordingly. Their questions help me differentiate my instruction and enable me to reflect on my practices in order to better meet their needs. I expect my students to communicate with me and with one another, especially when things get challenging.

It’s also equally important that students learn to trust me and to trust their classmates. Our norms reflect my students’ deep desire to learn from one another and their willingness to take responsibility for their own learning.

Rules might govern student procedures in my classroom, but norms help to facilitate a classroom culture conducive to student responsibility and student learning.

2. Foster Feedback and Flexibility

Perhaps no other educator tool has the potential to elicit change and facilitate student responsibility more than feedback between teacher and student and between the students themselves. In our classroom, feedback is given carefully and always through the lens of improvement. We focus on what students are doing well and address specific steps students can take to continue to improve.

If there is a specific goal a student is working toward, students feel comfortable enough to ask for suggestions from their peers to help them reach that goal. Feedback becomes the structure through which students become more involved in their own learning and the learning of others.

In my classroom, it is not uncommon to hear students reflecting on the lesson and sharing their thoughts about the curriculum, objective, and math concepts learned. We talk about the culture in class that must be present for my students to grasp challenging concepts. Recently, when my students were working together to defend the strategies they used to solve a problem, several students thought it would be best if the groups were smaller than the 28 students in our classroom. Their theory was that the smaller groups would let each student ask questions about the strategies that were shared and not be rushed to hear everyone’s strategies. This was another example of the way in which my students began to take more ownership for their learning.

Hearing that my students valued the opportunity to learn from their peers reinforced the continued inclusion of student suggestions in my instruction.

We tried it, and the kids were right. The smaller groups did help to facilitate better discussion and more engaged student-to-student conversations. The feedback I shared with them about the difference that this small shift made for student learning allowed students to feel comfortable making suggestions at other times as well.

3. Embrace Student Voice to Drive Engagement

I knew that I was on the right path when students began showing up in my classroom during lunchtime. These students were looking for extra help or support. But their true motives were revealed to me when they began to talk about why they liked our math class, how they felt important and believed that I genuinely cared about them. I noticed the shift to “our math class around the same time I noticed an increase in lunchtime visitors. My students were deeply involved in their own learning. They knew their voice not only mattered but was truly valued. In turn, my connection with students has never been better.

Student voice and student engagement are not, however, synonymous. While the first can lead to the latter, it’s rarely a straight path. To fully embrace the idea of student voice, teachers must be willing to do the work to ensure its continued existence in their classroom.

Just because my students offer their thoughts doesn’t mean they are deeply engaged in learning.

As I learn more about how to inject student voice into my instructional practices, I continue to seek out additional resources and ideas, such as those found on sites such as SoundOut and Teaching Channel.

4. Improve the Classroom Experience with Their Voice

The small things that I did over the years to establish a culture of student voice continue to pay dividends for my students and for me. I’ve continued to refine my practices to include student- developed assessments, choice seating, and more personalized approaches to student learning. I truly hope that by working collaboratively with my students, I am helping to provide them with opportunities to own their learning not only in my classroom but elsewhere as well.

As a school-based team, my colleagues and I have talked about opportunities to include more student-selected choices in our instruction. We’ve reviewed upcoming lessons and created learning menus for students to work with. Students will have the chance to choose from a variety of options related to the math problems they will solve or the data they will use to construct their own questions. Collectively, our team continues to discuss additional ways to foster student independence and responsibility through the inclusion of student voice and student choice.

It’s my hope that the norms established in my math class are those that students can use to enhance their experiences in other settings as well.  Ultimately, I want my former students to look back at their time in our classroom and feel that they not only made progress academically but also socially and emotionally. To this end, the continued inclusion of student voice in my daily instruction will serve to reach this goal.

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Column: Building a Child’s Educational Cathedral

This column was submitted by Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ (Va.) Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence, Virginia’s 2017 Superintendent of the Year.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of spending a day with students from across the state who were attending the Educators Rising (formerly, Future Teachers of America) State Leadership Conference. I was asked to share my thoughts with them on what it means to be a teacher. That’s a great topic. I could talk for hours on what it means to be a teacher, but here’s what it comes down to, and here’s what I shared: Teachers matter. Teachers REALLY matter. They matter to individuals, they matter to our schools, and they matter to our community.

How do I know this?  I asked this group of students to close their eyes, think back to their own experiences in school, and identify the one teacher who has made a difference in their life. I asked this group of aspiring teachers to describe the characteristics that these teachers have in common, and here’s what they shouted out:  they’re caring, they’re interested in who you are as a person, they’re passionate about what they do, they’re enthusiastic. The response that struck me the most?  They love their students. That’s it, isn’t it?

The fundamental thing that we want in a great teacher is an adult who really cares about each of us as a person before they care about what they want us to learn.

Certainly, there are many other reasons that teachers matter, and I could not be more proud to work in public education. Our profession is incredibly important. We know the impact schools and teachers have on individual children and their families. Teaching has an authentically transformative power in the life of a child. Through education, we develop thinkers, makers, artists, entrepreneurs, and citizens, and we create hope and opportunity along the way. Because of our work, worlds of opportunity open up to our children as they transition into adulthood. What job possibly could be better than that?

Candidly, however, it’s also an incredibly challenging time to be in education. Seeking to steer the country forward, politicians and reformers have turned an increasingly critical eye toward our schools. In fact, doing just a quick Google search on the failure of public schools revealed 22 million results with just one click of the mouse!  Whether they are lamenting a lost past where education just seemed better, demanding an ever more intensive model of accountability and high-stakes testing, or advocating that we should abandon public education altogether and let the free market economy take over through vouchers or charters, each of these critics believes deeply that they have grasped the solution to a series of increasingly complex problems.

And make no mistake about it, the challenges facing our schools are complicated. Our society has changed dramatically, and there are often good reasons young people today struggle while in school. Many of our students care for their brothers and sisters, work to bring income in for their family, worry about where their next meal is coming from, and deal with domestic situations that many of us could not have imagined growing up. In an environment like that, schoolwork may not be the first priority.

Expectations for our students in school also have changed considerably over the last two decades. The federal government and state legislatures demand that every student pass rigorous state tests and that every student graduate on time and ready for college and careers. While ratcheting up expectations in this new era of accountability and high-stakes testing, the curriculum also shifted dramatically. Math concepts that were once taught in middle schools are now routinely introduced in elementary school. College-level coursework is becoming the expected norm for all high school students.

This rush for advanced coursework is done with the goal of preparing our students for the future, but there are no clear definitions for what it means to be prepared.

With college readiness, for example, some would argue that success on state standardized tests indicates academic proficiency, while others would argue that these tests tell us relatively little about a student’s readiness for college or other post-secondary learning. There are questions about the value of GPAs, class rank, dual enrollment courses, etc., in terms of their predictive value when considering future success. And of course there is the rhetoric (lively and ongoing for more than a century now) that, regardless of changes to the curriculum and advances in supporting all students through remediation, enrichment, and acceleration, our schools lack rigor and do not prepare the majority of students for higher education.

As difficult as understanding college readiness can be, career readiness is just as challenging. We frequently hear that our students are not ready to be employed. When we ask about that, we hear more often than not that they lack soft skills rather than content knowledge. In other words, some are concerned that our children might be able to read, but they can’t work together, communicate with one another, or creatively solve a challenging real-world problem.

And so we have to change and adapt. Why?  Because our schools of the 20th century were simply not designed to graduate 21st-century employees and leaders.

How do we do that?

The answer lies in part in a visit I made to one of our local military installations not too long ago. The focus of the visit to the Joint Expeditionary Base at Little Creek was on STEM and the real-world applications of STEM learning in today’s military. It was an amazing visit. We had the opportunity to hear from sailors in the dive community, river patrol units, the Naval Construction Force (also known as Seabees) and many others about their work. It was, in a word, extraordinary, and the connections between our military partners and what we are working toward with our students were many and obvious—it was no great leap to imagine students in our VBCPS STEM Robotics Challenge going on to design the Navy’s next generation of robotic tactical machines.

While talking with the Navy team, another visitor asked one sailor what was the most sophisticated equipment he had available to him. The sailor and his CO both quipped immediately that it was the sailor himself.

That was a key takeaway from my visit. While tools are critical, and the ability to understand them and program and operate them with high efficiency and effectiveness can mean the difference between mission success or failure, it is the person behind the technologies that makes all the difference. More specifically, it is his or her understanding of the math and science and engineering and his or her ability to apply that understanding to an array of new and challenging problems that are so critical. And it is his or her ability to connect with and work with teammates and to communicate clearly and to persist in the face of obstacles that determines the sailor’s success.

This trip affirmed my conviction that we must do more than teach our students content. We must make sure they learn rich and rigorous content (almost every sailor I spoke with loved science, for example) and we must make sure they can apply their learning in authentic ways. And of course, we must help them develop the skills they need—teamwork, collaboration, communication, and grit—to be successful when they leave our schools.

We have to be intensely committed to knowing that our students, like those sailors, have mastered the skills we have established as being vitally important. You simply cannot be a successful student without the fundamental skills needed to move through life—reading analytically and for pleasure, the ability to communicate clearly in writing and orally, fluency in mathematics, and understanding our history and the importance of civic engagement, to name a few.

But there has to be more to the educational experience than mastery of these fundamental skills.

I like to think of it like a cathedral. When you walk into a cathedral, you are always standing on a solid stone floor, and the cathedral wouldn’t be what it is without this foundation. But what really captivates us about cathedrals are the ceilings. The great cathedral builders were always wondering how high they could take their ceilings, how much closer to the heavens they could point them as a physical manifestation of man’s desire to be closer to God. They weren’t just building a church. It was a much more creative expression than that, and there was a kind of passion and joy that was captured in the work being done.

As educators, we have to have a firm concrete floor for kids to stand on, but we must also be intensely interested in how high their ceiling can be.

How can we provide experiences that ensure our students are deeply engaged in the processes of inquiry, problem-solving, and creativity? Moreover, how can we ensure that there is passion and joy in the work and an opportunity for the child to really find out who they are and what they love to do? After all, learning is a natural instinct. The processes of learning new things should be full of curiosity and wonder and excitement about solving a challenging problem.

We are exploring and creating classrooms now that focus on collaboration and inquiry. Technology is regularly integrated into instruction as a tool to support problem-solving. You’ll see fewer and fewer classrooms with rows and more and more classrooms where students cluster together tackling essential questions about the content they must know. Our classrooms meet learners where they are, and rich intervention programs catch struggling learners and push them ahead in their studies. In short, we see more and more classrooms and instructional practices that are designed to help us ensure all children meet the more demanding expectations we have for them.

Yes, we still have much work to do and farther down the road to go, but we are all making strides in our respective communities. We need to be champions for public education and for providing opportunities for success every single child in our school divisions. We can and we must engage in this work!

Dr. Aaron Spence assumed the leadership of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) June 23, 2014. As superintendent, he oversees the operation of 86 schools (serving almost 69,000 students) as well as all administrative support functions for the school division. 

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Column: Managing and Leading Schools: Finding the Right Blend for Principals

I sat in the back of a second-grade classroom, watching students being offered a choice.

They could respond in two different ways to a text that the whole class had read — a folktale depicting a family’s annual tradition from another culture. Students could write a review of the story or create a how-to essay about an activity they are familiar with. Because the students’ choices were authentic, when they embarked on their writing, every one of them was engaged.

As the school’s principal, I regularly conduct formal observations like these. No matter how good the instruction is, I always try to look for possibilities for professional growth.

In this situation, one literacy choice stood out for its quality and meaningfulness: students could describe in writing their own family traditions. This activity was rife with possibilities. What if the teacher modeled for students the steps for successful memoir writing? Could she demonstrate with a personal family tradition of her own? How might this reading–writing experience connect with social studies and maybe even a deeper study into family traditions from around the world?

During this session, I briefly stopped documenting evidence of instruction and instead started jotting down these ideas and questions on a pad of paper. There was no reason to put this information in the teacher’s observation; I didn’t intend to make these recommendations without an initial conversation about how the teacher thought the lesson went. Our follow-up discussion would take place later that day. The formal observation became the impetus for a conversation about embedding better literacy practices throughout the school day.

This example conveys how important it is that principals have the necessary time, knowledge, and experiences to be the instructional leaders in their schools. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Ensuring that the principal is a constant, effective presence in school demands three essential strategies: identifying school priorities, making classroom visits a habit, and using these visits to guide future professional learning.

Management should not be separate from instructional leadership. They are inseparable and support one another.

The Truth Behind #NoOfficeDays

Old-school thinking when it came to building leadership was clear One could tick off a principal’s duties with the ABCs: attendance, behavior, classroom observations, discipline, evaluation of staff, etc.  Recently, these managerial tasks have been somewhat rejected by school leaders.

Principals are engaging in “no office days”, as evidenced by tweets of their experiences with the hashtag #noofficeday. Sometimes they will shadow a student for a day to gain a learner’s experience. Principals have even become a teacher for the day, giving one of their staff members the day to grade papers and plan for future instruction.

These efforts by building leaders to be more present and visible in their schools are admirable. I’ve tried it myself, participating in a day of independent reading to promote literacy. The reality, however, is that principals don’t get subs.

Unless a building administrator has an assistant principal, there is no one qualified to fill in for us. The less spectacular tasks that are relegated to the office will still be there when we get back. Staff are left covering for us. Making #noofficedays a habit could breed resentment with one group while we try to be more present for another.

I suggest a better approach for being an instructional leader in our schools while still addressing the day-to-day managerial tasks: Find the right blend. This means understanding the context of our school and what needs to get done on the office end, so we are a more consistent presence in the classrooms and on building grounds.

Every school has a unique mix of class size, diversity, climate, needs, and strengths. With this information, we can align our work with a few priorities. Finding the right blend also means scheduling our days so classroom visits are habit instead of an event. A smart integration of management and leadership duties can lead to improved teaching and learning. The following strategies can be applied to any school context.

1. Develop a Priority Plan

We can only focus on a few goals at any one time and still be successful as school leaders. In my school, I am new to the position. That means that building trust is a priority. I’ve done a lot of listening. I’ve asked staff about their thoughts and needs, and ensured I am visible throughout the school day. Our other priority is literacy, specifically around reading comprehension and fluency. The data was clear in this area. Our leadership team has responded with facilitating monthly professional development around authentic reading and writing experiences.

The idea of aligning our actions with our priorities into a plan comes from The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin. She defines a priority plan as, “a three-month extraction from your yearly goals that names what matters most for you and your team.” I look at my priority plan regularly as I prepare for upcoming work.

Having our priorities laid out and aligned with our goals and objectives accomplishes two things. First, the faculty are clear about what we will support regarding professional development opportunities and teaching resources. Second, it is easier to say no to requests that aren’t aligned with our priorities. It’s not a subjective or personal decision, but based on a clear rationale.

For example, I was recently asked why STEM is not a focus. The response: “It seems like that’s all education talks about.” I listened and then asked this person how literacy might support the STEM areas. We ended up agreeing that if students wanted to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, they had to be literate.

2. Make Classroom Visits a Habit

To ensure a school’s priorities are put into practice, school leaders must make classroom visits a habit. If we are successful in redistributing nonessential tasks to other personnel, this can happen every day. I put classroom visits on my calendar, which is shared with my assistant. The minimum is one hour per day, getting into every classroom for at least a brief time. Staff understand that this is protected time. Any interruptions should be an emergency. (I’ve learned that the term “emergency” also requires conversation to develop a common understanding.)

Being visible in the classrooms daily serves our dual priorities of building trust and increasing effective literacy instruction. To build trust, I make sure my visits are focused on teachers’ strengths, and that I let teachers know what I am noticing. The feedback can be given verbally or in writing. I ordered a stack of professional notepads with my name and school information. I will write down what I notice is going well and leave the note in the teacher’s classroom or mailbox. In addition, I will name the effective practice using common language we have learned together during our literacy-based professional development program.

Trust relies on open communication. This goes for the parents and community as well as the teachers and students. That is why I also use Twitter to post the excellent work happening in classrooms. My school tweets usually consist of a brief description, at least one image of the learning in action, and the hashtag #PointerNation so it shows up on our district’s social media feeds. Using the same process of noticing and naming, I can now recognize and celebrate teaching and learning around literacy in an open forum. An additional benefit is all this information can be archived digitally to document and organize artifacts for our professional evaluation systems.

3. Use Instructional Walks to Reinforce Professional Learning

As trust increases and literacy instruction improves, windows open in which I can start offering feedback about teacher instruction. During my regular classroom visits, I will sometimes sit in for a longer period to write a narrative of what is currently happening. It is noticing what is happening and then naming the practice. These one-page write-ups are referred to as “instructional walks,” in which “the principal notices what’s going well in the classroom—environment, management, engagement, level of student independence, lesson content, grouping arrangements, quality of student work,” writes Regie Routman.  Like the brief notes, the goal is to build on teachers’ strengths and create a relationship in which they are open to future guidance.

Because my walks are habit, I can address our collective instruction instead of conferencing with each teacher individually. The information gleaned from my daily visits is used to inform future professional learning experiences.

What if teachers are not applying the skills learned during professional development into practice? Certainly, I could note this during our formal observations for the state-mandated evaluation system. Yet I find the rubrics and evidence gathering to be limited at best—helpful for teachers in one or more areas, but unnecessary when teachers are already doing well. Formal observations and evaluations can even be detrimental to the daily classroom visit process. Trust can deteriorate when there is too much of a focus on ratings and rubrics. Also, evaluation systems are time-intensive. They used to monopolize my days, which is why I now do the bare minimum in this area.

Instead, as much as I can, I am a learner with staff and students. One way is by asking lots of questions. Whether during an instructional walk or formal observation, I will make inquiries about why teachers are doing what they are doing. For example, instead of leaving a vague, summative statement, such as “This was an effective activity, because…,” I might ask “What about this activity do you feel had the greatest impact on student learning?” Whether the learning experience was excellent or otherwise, the responsibility is now on the teacher to self-assess their instruction. Follow-up probes, such as “Why do you believe that? ,” guide teachers to cite evidence from their lessons to support their rationale.  My wonderings also happen during professional development. Instead of positioning myself as an expert, I might question a belief or a statement as if I were also teaching.

Management and Leadership are Not Mutually Exclusive

During the post-observation conversation with the 2nd grade teacher, I started by asking a series of questions, starting with “How do you think the lesson went?” and “Why do you think that?” Once we affirmed that the lesson was a success, I started to probe with wonderings to unpack what was possible for the future. “Of all the choices, which literacy activity might lead to future learning?” was the inquiry that led to a professional conversation about expanding on the family traditions writing activity. The teacher suggested a personal family tradition that she could use for a writing demonstration. I held off recommending that she tie in social studies with a deeper understanding of the concept of traditions. Knowing that my priorities were in place, that my classroom visits were a habit, and that I had a team to guide faculty in professional learning, I knew that I would have more opportunities in the future.

This is Matt’s seventeenth year in public education. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principal position and eventually head principal at an elementary school. Now as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, Matt enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education. You can also connect with Matt on Twitter at @ReadByExample and on his website at mattrenwick.com.

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Navigating Controversial Topics in Middle School Classrooms

Lately it seems as if every major issue in the country is dividing citizens. From the recent presidential election to debates about fake news, immigration, and health care, citizens are split on their positions. While having a divide isn’t unusual, the gulf between those who are pro and con seems wider than ever before.

This is not just a feeling. A Gallup poll from late 2016 proved it: Nearly 80 percent of Americans perceived the country as divided, topping the previous high of 69 percent in 2012. It seems the only thing Americans can agree on is that we don’t agree.

For middle school teachers hoping to introduce sensitive issues to students, this divisiveness can be daunting. And yet, the exercise has never been more important.

“We need to show kids how to talk about controversial things the right way,” says Larry Lhulier, the supervisor of curriculum, instruction, and technology at New Jersey’s Wildwood Crest Memorial School. Teaching students the skills to debate sensitive issues while still respecting others’ opinions is the best way to counteract the current corrosive debate, he adds.

“What we’re trying to do is prepare young people to participate in democracies,” says Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education.

Hess visited middle school classrooms and studied their debates to research her 2009 book, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion.

The benefit of having these discussions in middle school is that many children haven’t formed a solid opinion about most subjects, she adds. “I like teaching in classes where there’s a range of views and where people were not set [in their opinions]. It’s the puzzle of trying to figure something out.”

Teacher Tips

Rich Young says a teacher’s first move should be to communicate to parents, students, and the school’s administration any controversial materials chosen for the classroom, such as a movie or book. Explain why the resource is needed, how it will be used, and include class protocols for discussing current events. Young, currently the project director for Teaching American History at the Education Cooperative, was previously the social studies curriculum coordinator in Brookline, Mass.

“You can explore any topic, and if done right, you shouldn’t have any issues,” adds Lhulier. He and others advise teachers to keep their personal opinions out of each debate, but be ready to step in and play devil’s advocate if an entire classroom slants in one direction.

“I have strong views,” Lhulier adds. “I reserve them for home with my wife. The kids didn’t know where I stood on any of the issues we discussed.”

Young points out that classroom debates about the Second Amendment took on different tones when he taught in southern Indiana, where a majority of boys were active hunters, and when he was in Massachusetts, where most students were anti-gun. In both cases he would bring up counter arguments to make sure students had thought through all the issues in this complicated topic.

“Teachers who are really good do a good job of bringing in multiple perspectives,” Hess says. Her studies showed that more and more classrooms are breaking down along “red” and “blue” designations depending on where they are based. “We’re more politically polarized, and students are more likely to live in communities that agree with them.”

Push Past Stereotypes

It’s important to make conversations specific and evidence-based, Lhulier says. In this polarized political atmosphere, students can repeat negative stereotypes, unfairly labeling classmates and impeding classroom debates. Don’t let students equate someone’s conservative beliefs with racism, or someone’s liberal beliefs with not supporting the police, Lhulier adds.

“My experience is kids are really open,” Lhulier says. “A good teacher gets kids to think about their perspective in a nonjudgmental way.”

In Wildwood, the New Jersey shore community includes wealthy hotel owners and the families of people who work in the hotels, Lhulier says, offering a rich, socioeconomic diversity.

“Kids get excited about seeing something in a different way,” he says, adding that he considers it a success when a student ends up saying, “I get it. I see how that person would react in a certain way.”

Teachers have to be ready to rein in conversations, especially when students start to share personal details that shouldn’t be public, he says. “Kids are thinking out loud; they don’t have the filters that adults have.”

How you treat a student’s experiences depends on the student, Lhulier says. One golden rule is to “never make a student be an unwilling spokesperson for a topic. On the other hand, I never silence a child who wants to be a spokesperson for a topic.”

Encourage Simulations

At the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, simulations avoid the problems Lhulier mentions. The Boston institute, which includes a near-exact replica of the Senate floor, tasks students with arguing over bills that have been passed in the U.S. Senate—but with a twist. The institute assigns students to portray various senators. So as students dig into the immigration bill, they may represent a conservative senator from a border state or a liberal senator from the northeast. Since the institute opened in 2015, more than 30,000 students from middle school to college have come through its doors.

“It sets students back from their gut reactions and sets the ground rules,” says Kennedy Institute president Jean MacCormack. The simulations include giving students expert testimony to help inform them to reach a consensus. For instance, in the case of the immigration bill, students are told about H-1B visas that allow workers with special skills to enter the country to work for U.S. companies.

“Coming to a compromise is not an easy thing,” she says. “They have to choose between their own opinions, their party’s opinions, and constituent opinions.” Students who don’t agree with their assigned role frequently ask what would happen if they bucked their party or constituents, MacCormack says. “You may not get reelected.”

While sitting in a U.S. Senate replica adds to the drama of debate, MacCormack says the institute has taken its debates on the road, bringing the simulations to Mississippi and Martha’s Vineyard. While Senator Kennedy was unabashedly Democratic, the institute works with staffers from both Republican and Democratic offices to make sure the simulations are nonpartisan.

“Students can learn a lot from simulations,” Hess adds. But she cautions that teachers should be sensitive to assignments when creating conversations. Giving an undocumented student the role of an anti-immigration senator is a bad idea, she says.

MacCormack says the debate, which frequently starts before students come to the institute, typically lasts for days after they return to school. And that, to her, is the entire point. “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. You have to get involved.”

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Teacher Leaders: The (Not So) Secret Catalyst for Change

While teacher leaders have always been an important part of a school’s culture, this type of leadership continues to gain much needed attention and momentum in school systems nationwide. There is such a strong need for this type of leadership that a group of educators met in 2008 to form what we know today as the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. This consortium, comprised of a variety of stakeholders, formed to discuss how to best foster teacher leadership so that it brings about change in student learning and achievement.   In 2011, this group released the Teacher Leader Model Standards, which help teachers and school leaders foster leadership within their schools.

The Difference Between an Effective Teacher and a Teacher Leader

In our current work, we facilitate an abundance of professional learning around teacher leadership. What we’ve coined Digital Leader Corps takes groups of teachers on a journey toward digital transformation in their classrooms. The program, however, intends for teachers’ influence to spread well beyond the walls of their classrooms and aims to develop these educators as leaders among their peers. Teachers who participate in Digital Leader Corps learn about leadership through the Teacher Leader Model Standards—they learn how to facilitate the learning of their peers’, work collaboratively with their principals to elicit meaningful change, and gain strategies for creating safe and trusting environments where others aren’t afraid to take risks.

This sounds amazing, right? It is, when it works effectively. The biggest challenge of cultivating and growing a group of teacher leaders is recognizing the difference between an effective teacher and a teacher leader. Too often, school administrators don’t know how to discern the qualities and characteristics of a potential teacher leader. Similarly, many teachers don’t truly understand what it means to lead among peers.

Effective TeacherTeacher Leader
Implements best practices routinely in the classroomReadily shares and models best practices and/or resources with colleagues
Works to improve his/her own practiceWorks to improve the practice of others
Seeks opportunities for continuous improvementModels an attitude of continuous improvement in order to combat complacency
Maintains professional relationships with othersWorks to build relationships with others through active listening, facilitation, and mediation
Collaborates with colleagues and school teamsEncourages and facilitates collaboration among colleagues and school teams
Implements solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of his/her studentsProvides solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of all stakeholders
Creates an environment where students are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking.Creates an environment in which colleagues are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking.
Welcomes feedback from supervisors and colleaguesActively seeks feedback from supervisors and colleagues
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

The Power of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leadership has the potential to bring about positive systemic change that influences a variety of factors within a school. When teacher leaders fully understand their impact on colleagues, observable changes in student learning can occur. A 2005 study concluded that the professionalism teacher leadership has the potential to build—one that is based on trust, recognition, empowerment, and support—can improve teaching and learning in schools (Harris and Muijs, 2005). While the Teacher Leader Model Standards provide the framework for fostering such leadership, the process for equipping teacher leaders with the ability and confidence to carry out what the Standards call for is much more complex.

The Teacher Leader Model Standards

The Standards are comprised of seven domains of leadership (Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011). These domains are not meant to serve as an exhaustive checklist or job description of teacher leaders; rather, they’re meant to guide those who want to lead and support them in doing so. Each domain further contains a list of functions that provides a deeper, more granular look at what teacher leaders who excel in this domain might do.

But reading and internalizing the Standards is only the first step in developing teacher leaders. Just as our grade level standards act as the blueprint for our curriculum, our lesson plans, and our assessments, the Teacher Leader Model Standards should serve to inform the work we do with our potential teacher leaders. Very few teachers will come to us with the skills and self-assurance needed to lead their peers. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create and mentor them through learning experiences that will develop them into strong teacher leaders.

Let’s take a look at the first Standard and its functions:

Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Functions:

  1. Utilizes group processes to help colleagues work collaboratively to solve problems, make decisions, manage conflict, and promote meaningful change;
  2. Models effective skills in listening, presenting ideas, leading discussions, clarifying, mediating, and identifying the needs of self and others in order to advance shared goals and professional learning;
  3. Employs facilitation skills to create trust among colleagues, develop collective wisdom, build ownership and action that supports student learning;
  4. Strives to create an inclusive culture where diverse perspectives are welcomed in addressing challenges; and
  5. Uses knowledge and understanding of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and languages to promote effective interactions among colleagues.

Unpacking this Standard and its functions tells us how important knowledge of adult learning theory is to a teacher leader’s success in this domain. In addition, a teacher leader needs to possess excellent active listening skills, be able to facilitate difficult conversations among various stakeholders, and have the emotional intelligence to bring different groups together to work toward a common goal. Simply telling teacher leaders they “should” be doing these things won’t bring about change; we must work diligently to create opportunities for practice and feedback in these areas.

The Importance of Administrative Support

Throughout our experience in both facilitating and designing the professional learning of teacher leaders, those who have the support and backing of their administration have been most successful in promoting a school culture that supports continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Teacher leaders who feel supported are equipped with the confidence needed to lead the learning in their schools. Effective teacher leaders have the power to reinforce the existing leadership in a school, and there are a variety of ways we can support them:

  • Provide Space to Lead. Teacher leaders lead well beyond the four walls of their classrooms. They’re consistently seeking to become better at their craft and want others to do the same. They can’t model this attitude of continuous improvement without a strong administrator leading them from behind. Involve teacher leaders in the planning and implementation of professional learning. Ask them to take an active role in faculty meetings. Teacher leaders are not simply those we can count on to volunteer their time and go that extra mile; they are our future instructional leaders. Mentor them.
  • Encourage Risk Taking. Most effective teachers will, by nature, willingly take instructional risks in their classrooms. Teacher leaders, however, won’t be afraid to take these risks in front of their colleagues as well. Encourage teacher leaders to open their classroom doors to others. These types of collegial walkthroughs will help create and sustain a culture in which teachers support one another by celebrating successes and embracing failures. Instill fortitude in teacher leaders and help them become courageous learners who consistently see opportunities for growth in all they do.
  • Model Vulnerability. Teacher leaders have the potential to create a school culture in which vulnerability is accepted and encouraged. But it’s not easy to air these insecurities. Through modeling your own vulnerability, teacher leaders become more comfortable admitting what they don’t know to peers and are then able to gain confidence in sharing what they do.
  • Champion Collective Leadership. A recent study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that high student achievement is directly connected to collective leadership in a school (Samuels, 2010). This type of shared leadership does not cause school leaders to lose influence. On the contrary, a principal’s role in establishing optimal conditions for student and teacher learning is crucial. As instructional leaders, it is unrealistic to believe we can simultaneously run the operations of our schools, maintain a pulse on the curriculum, and provide routine coaching for our teachers. With the help of our teacher leaders, however, these tasks become manageable. This can’t be done, however, without our leadership; create the time and space for good things to happen.

Leading from Behind – A Practical Tableaux:

John Davis, an elementary principal, had been working all year to create the environment and culture in which a shared vision could be realized in hopes of unifying his staff around a common goal that would impact teaching and learning in the building. Through increased collaboration time, more frequent professional learning, and informal opportunities for teacher leadership, John slowly built the ideal conditions in which a shared vision could thrive. However, he continuously struggled with helping the teachers he deemed leaders build and refine the skills needed to make an impact outside the walls of their classrooms.

Jenna, a master teacher who volunteered to lead her grade level PLC, had a great deal of untapped leadership potential. While she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to lead the learning of her peers, John knew Jenna had much to learn about facilitating the learning of her colleagues. After visiting Jenna’s PLC, John made some important observations about her leadership but continuously returned to this one:

  • Jenna always remained positive and took a solutions-based approach to challenges and problems raised by her peers.
  • However, the solutions always came from Jenna with little input from the group.
  • Rather than facilitating a collaborative discussion that would result in solutions, Jenna often provided “answers” for her colleagues.

While this approach was well received by the other members of Jenna’s PLC, John saw it as an opportunity for helping her grow into a leader who enrolls all stakeholders into important discussions.

John began scheduling monthly meetings with Jenna so he could coach and mentor her. What follows is a vignette from their first conversation:

Mr. Davis: Hey, Jenna. Thanks for coming in. And thanks so much giving me the opportunity to observe your PLC in action earlier this week.

Jenna: No problem. Your presence and support was really appreciated by my group.

Mr. Davis: How did you feel about the meeting?

Jenna: Overall, I felt it went well. Our goal was to figure out how to increase the expectations of our high achieving students. While a few challenges were certainly voiced, we walked away with some actionable steps we’re all going to take in our classrooms.

Mr. Davis: I made note of some of those challenges as well. Can you tell me more about how the group worked through those?

Jenna: Well, Janet and Shawn were the most vocal ones about some of the roadblocks they’d encounter as we attempt to increase achievement of this group. I tried to help guide those waters by providing possible workarounds.

Mr. Davis: So what I’m hearing you say is that you were readily able to provide some of the solutions to the perceived challenges?

Jenna: Yes.

Mr. Davis: I really love your solutions-based approach and attitude. I’d like to talk through this some more. Facing opposition from colleagues is a consistent challenge whenever you’re trying to lead. How we handle this resistance helps define who we are as leaders. So let me ask you: What could you have done differently to help the group—especially Janet and Shawn—solve some of those challenges on their own?

Jenna: I never really thought about it like that. I guess it’s in my nature to want to help, so I’m constantly giving, trying to solve problems, keeping everyone happy and positive. Now that I think about it, I was the one who quickly interjected what I thought would work best. I wanted to keep the peace within the group. And I’m their PLC leader, so I figured it was my “job” to face the challenges head on and offer solutions. Are you saying this may not have been the best approach?

Mr. Davis: I’m not saying it wasn’t the best approach; you certainly know your team. But it’s definitely not the only approach, and I’d love to explore some additional strategies you could use for facing challenges in the future. Would that be OK with you?

Jenna: Of course! I’m willing to take all of your feedback so I can become better at this. It’s all pretty new to me, and I want to do it well.

John: Of course you do. So let’s think about the first domain in the Teacher Leader Model Standards we discussed when you agreed to lead your PLC. Remember that your goal is to build a collaborative culture. So how did the group benefit from your willingness to solves its problems so quickly?

Jenna: Well, I guess it moved the conversation along. We didn’t get stuck and were able to leave with some next steps for helping these students.

Mr. Davis: How much buy in do you feel the group had in those steps?

Jenna: (pause) Not very much. I felt like we all just politely agreed to try the next steps.

Mr. Davis: I got that impression as well. It sounds like you are working very hard to create a very cooperative environment for your PLC, which is great. But think about how you can increase the group’s investment by making the meetings more collaborative.  How could you go about moving from cooperation to collaboration?

Jenna: I’m not really sure. Because I’m the PLC leader, the group trusts me to guide them. I guess that’s a good thing, but in retrospect, I dominated the conversation. I shouldn’t be the sole decision maker or the sole problem solver. I think I need to listen more and work harder in making sure everyone has input.

Mr. Davis: I think that’s a really reflective and insightful observation. Let’s talk about some strategies for helping you do this.

Mr. Davis is clearly dedicated to helping Jenna become an effective leader in the school. He observed her facilitating a meeting, identified an area of need, and followed up in a very deliberate and meaningful conversation that helped Jenna reflect on her own challenges as a teacher leader. He did this with the reticent skill of a leader who truly understands how to lead others from behind. While it’s unrealistic for John to meet with Jenna after every PLC meeting she facilitates, he followed up with her periodically, offering additional guidance, support, and feedback grounded in the Teacher Leader Model Standards.

Fostering Teacher Leaders

We all have great teachers who live within our schools—those who consistently strive to be better for their students, who seek out learning opportunities whenever possible, and who willingly collaborate with others. These teachers have the potential to share the leadership within your building. With the right opportunities and under the right mentorship, we can turn these “great” teachers into leaders who are catalysts for meaningful change.

 

References
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Harris, A., & Muijs, D. (2005). Improving schools through teacher leadership.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Samuels, C. A. (2010, July 23). Study: Effective Principals Embrace Collective
Leadership. Retrieved February 21, 2016, from
http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/07/23/37principal.h29.html
Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the
Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

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3 Things Teachers and Leaders Do to Personalize Learning

The students in Sarah Johnson’s third period Algebra hunch over their desks working through the mysteries of Pythagoras. The room quietly echoes the sound of pencils on paper and the occasional desk squeak. From her perch in the back Mrs. Johnson reflects on how similar they all seem when testing. But having dealt with adolescents for longer than most of them have been alive, she knows this is an illusion.

Twelve are boys and thirteen are girls. Each one is different. Even the “identical” Franklin twins are very different. Ali Franklin loves mathematics and is excited about what he will learn this year in Algebra. Abram is an excellent student, but he’s really nervous about how he’ll do in Algebra because mathematics has never been his best subject.

Mrs. Johnson’s superintendent has been telling parents that the district is working to personalize learning and she knows that her students could really benefit from instruction that meets them where they are. She’s been through differentiated instruction workshops and has tried her hand at a number of learning apps, but in the hush of 25 students working, who, by the way represent only one-fifth of her total students, she wonders: What exactly is personalized learning?

What is personalized learning?

Like many terms in education, personalized learning suffers from ambiguous definitions. Some proponents of personalized learning go to great lengths to distinguish among differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, and personalized learning. Others view personalized learning as an umbrella term that includes differentiation and individualization of instruction. For some schools and districts, personalized learning refers to what others call blended learning (combining some form of online instruction with more traditional classroom instruction).

In most cases, personalized learning is a three-part process:
• Instructional planning that promotes deeper student learning
• Understanding of each student’s learning needs and interests
• Provisioning of appropriate learning experiences that match each student’s unique learning profile

The 2016 National Education Technology Plan states, “personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.”

While different educators mean slightly different things when they refer to personalized learning, most seek to leverage technology to manage the learning needs of all students and to engage students as active participants in setting goals, identifying learning pathways, tracking progress, and determining how learning will be demonstrated.

From the teacher’s perspective, there are three guideposts that mark out the road to personalized learning:

1. Redefined roles for students and teachers

In traditional classrooms, teachers make most of the important decisions about learning. They select instructional materials, decide which assignments students will complete, and determine when the assignments are due. On occasion, teachers will build some aspect of student choice into their lessons, but even then the teacher is usually seen as making the important decisions while giving students some limited choices.

In personalized learning, teachers help students know how they learn best and where they are in a progression of learning goals and objectives. Teachers then work with students to determine specific learning targets and suggest a variety of learning activities that match the mutually agreed-upon targets. Begin by encouraging your students to choose the activities in which they have the greatest interest and to design a plan for how they will complete agreed-upon assignments. Build ongoing assessment into the plan so that students will be empowered to adjust and modify the learning plan. Research2 has shown that empowering students to make more decisions about how and what they learn is associated with higher student achievement. In a personalized learning environment, teachers facilitate learning and work as partners to maximize the learning of each student.

2. Flexible learning environments

A very consistent characteristic of personalized learning is expanding where and when students learn and making greater use of digital resources. If students have mobile technology, they can watch the video clip at home and come to class with a list of questions that they wish to discuss with their learning teammates. Students with mobile technology can complete practice exercises on their device while they are sitting on the school bus and going home. The goal is for students to learn everywhere and anytime. When learning is personalized, students can pursue their interests and continue to learn well beyond the traditional school day.

3. Competency-based learning progressions and personal learning paths

Okay, this is probably the hardest part of personalized learning. Historically in education, we have held time constant and allowed learning to vary. In competency-based learning, students continue to work on a given learning target until they are able to demonstrate mastery. The curriculum will have to be carefully rearranged into competency-based learning progressions. This will allow students to work on some topics in different order and still master expected standards within each unit. In fully rearranged curriculum materials, students may even be able to develop proficiency with the same set of skills using very different resources. It’s best to go down this part of the road with several partners – either find comrades to share the load of developing learning progressions for a unit or two or purchase a service that has already built curricula based on learning progressions. The Instruction team at Discovery Education has begun this work for middle school math.

Fully realized, personalized learning seeks to use different contexts to help students develop the knowledge and skills they are responsible for learning. Students, in consultation with the teacher, may select learning resources that match their interests, current skill level, and preferred learning modality. And at the end of the unit, students have choice as to how they demonstrate what they have learned. One student may demonstrate mastery by creating a new learning resource and another may write a more traditional paper.

From the educational leader’s perspective, here are three ways to facilitate and support the movement to personalized learning:

1. Begin with a vision

Collaborate with community stakeholders to create a shared vision for what our school/district means by personalized learning. Given the broad definition of personalized learning, it is essential that your district set clear goals to work towards. What strategies should be used to support personalized learning? How heavily does this vision rely on technology and what needs to transpire to ensure that we have the infrastructure to support these technology needs? With limited access to technology, what strategies should be used to support the use of digital content in the classroom? Do we have adequate digital content resources accessible in our schools? If not, what are we doing to enrich our bank of resources?

2. Cultivate a Learning Community

Support the development of a learning community on personalized learning. While there are a lot of questions related to technology, the heart and soul of a personalized learning initiative is about teaching and learning. It is essential to bring school-based and central office leaders together with teachers to learn about 21st century approaches to teaching. The learning community members will need to decide how personalized learning aligns with other initiatives within the district. The learning community provides the perfect opportunity for district leaders to demonstrate the power of “walking the talk.” Partner with other stakeholders and decide together what you need to learn. Get to know the staff members as learners. Give learning community members clear targets for what they are expected to know and be able to do and then give them lots of choice about how they move toward those expectations. Give them choice as to how they will demonstrate their knowledge. Explicitly show staff members how leaders are using the principles of personalized learning within the learning community model.

3. Develop a plan

Encourage learning community members to develop an action plan for implementation. Implementing a personalized learning initiative is a major task. Lots of activities need to happen and the team needs a plan to guide the implementation. Instructional leaders must communicate the vision and be prepared to support the acquisition of resources, while giving stakeholders primary responsibility for making decisions about a lot of the specific details.

Those closest to the students are the ones who need to understand in detail what this will involve and they need to see how it will benefit their students. Every teacher understands how different the students in her classes are and every teacher in her heart understands that personalized learning has the potential to improve learning for the students she works with every day. But teachers also need to understand how this will impact them and the work they do. They deserve the opportunity to be a part of the design of the initiative from the beginning. Now is not the time for classroom teachers to feel that those who work in the central office are forcing another major change on them.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina underwent a careful process of defining and planning for personalized learning. You can see the plan and definitions they created here: http://pl.cmslearns.org/

It’s an exciting time to be in education. Finally, the digital resources exist to make personalized learning a reality. Our students use digital resources all the time and they already know how to use them to learn more about their personal interests. Our job is to bring together their natural curiosity, their interests, and natural learning preferences to empower them into realizing their full potential. That’s an awesome charge.


With over 26 years experience as an educator, Marty Creel leads Discovery Education’s innovative curriculum and instruction team. Marty began his career as an engaging social studies teacher known for creative use of technology to deepen learning. As a district-wide curriculum, instruction, and professional development leader in a large urban/suburban school system he was the architect for a thoughtful transition to instructional standards that empower teachers and principals as instructional leaders.

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