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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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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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