Friday, September 25, 2015

Doing it Right the First Time

     As the principal of a Title I eligible campus, I have the privilege of working with a wide variety of kids.  They come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and represent multiple cultures.  We have great kids here at The Ranch!  For a myriad of reasons, our students sometimes have conceptual gaps.  High mobility, language barriers and family dynamics are just a few of the battles many of our kids face.   Because of these gaps, it is easy to get swept up into a variety of interventions designed to move them to where they need to be academically.  As an Instructional Leadership Team, we recognized how important it is that we provide quality instruction the first time.  It makes me think of this quote from Steve Jobs:

With this in mind, we began the work of describing some of the elements we believed were fundamental to quality first time instruction. 

      Bell-to-bell engagement - Our time with students is fixed and it is imperative that we maximize it.  We were purposeful in not describing this as bell-to-bell instruction.  We did not want to imply that teachers should stand and deliver, in a lecture format for a full period.  Even the best orator would struggle to keep folks engaged for this amount of time.  I would recommend the text, “Eight Myths of Student Disengagement” (Fredricks) to anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of how engagement influences learning.  Specifically, I appreciate the differentiation between behavioral engagement which is low level, on-task compliance and cognitive engagement.  Cognitive engagement involves those activities that cause our students to be challenged and think at higher levels.  Just because students are working in a quiet compliant manner, does not mean they are being stretched to think and learn.

     Clear objectives – Sometimes the most obvious and basic things get overlooked.  A clearly-stated, overtly-shared objective is one of those basic elements related to effective teaching.  Our collective campus expectation is to have the objective written as an “I can…” statement.  Without this clear direction for what is to be learned, even the most active lesson can become little more that entertainment.  Entertainment does not always equal learning.

    High level questioning – Questioning that leads to learning is an art.  Initially, this area of our model was focused on moving toward more open-ended questions that promote high cognition.  In an effort to make this work come to life, we did a study of the verbs in our standards (TEKS).  We pulled the most common verbs and organized them according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  We then created posters that are in all our classrooms that have this information.  We call these “High Side” posters.  These are a reminder to our teachers of this expectation during lessons and in planning. Over time we have expanded our focus on questioning to include wait time and randomizing who answers the question.

      Technology as a tool – What an amazing time to be alive!  Technology that was once science fiction is readily available and has the potential to bring us together like never before.  At times, we can get more focused on how amazing the tool is rather than what we need to accomplish that might involve the use of the tool.  I think about how I love to stroll through Home Depot and look at new hand tools.  I have a recent memory of purchasing a drill and then looking for something that needed a hole in it!  Historically, purchases have been made for schools in a similar fashion.  After the purchase, teachers are made aware of the latest hardware or software and then look for what to do with it.  Our belief is that we should identify what we want to do instructionally and then look for the best strategy to reach our goal.  This may very well involve a technology tool.  We are delving into the SAMR model and trying to move to more transformative uses of these tools.

             Differentiated – This is one of the great challenges for teachers is working with a group of students who have a variety of background experiences and competencies.  If you want students to be motivated from within, differentiation is key.  Dan Pink’s work on motivation is a solid place to start to understanding the "why" for differentiation, Check out the video, “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.”  He identifies 3 areas that drive an individual’s intrinsic motivation.  These include autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose.  Two of these three are reflected in a differentiated classroom.  Central to autonomy is learner choice.  Masterful teachers find ways for students to have locus of control within a framework that targets a standard.  As humans, we sometimes avoid things that we don’t feel competent at.  I am not a good dancer… yet! Because I don’t feel very masterful at the art of dance, I avoid it.  This same issue abounds in our classrooms.  Students choose not to engage because they are not masterful at the level of activity we put in front of them.  The challenge is to start at a level that they can find mastery and bring them to where the need to be.  It is great for us to promote high standards, but we must provide a scaffold to those who have a large instructional gap to leap.  This is why differentiation for readiness level is so necessary for many students.  Central to our understanding was Carol Tomlinson's work.

     Assessment guiding instruction – So often it seems that assessments are more like an autopsy than a checkup.   Of course it all about how we use the information.  Retests and do-overs after focused post assessment instruction support the use of data in a formative way.  Rick Stiggins does an excellent job of helping us understand the difference between assessments OF and FOR learning..  Summative assessment has its place for reporting but formative assessment is what drives student growth and learning. 

     With these areas identified in our Accomplished Teaching Model, we began our year-long staff development focused on these areas.  My next blog will discuss how we worked to identify what a passionate educator looks like.

Friday, September 18, 2015

¡Soy Capitan! Navigating the Creation of an Instructional Model

     Have you ever driven a boat?  If so, you know it does not handle like a car.  Acceleration, steering and stopping are less exact.  The bigger the vessel, the greater the need to anticipate your actions to ensure successful navigation.  I love this analogy for the principalship.   As the captain of the large vessel that is my school, it is critical that I ensure clear direction, and steer with a steady hand.  Quick steering, without a clear direction, does little to change the direction of the ship!  One might end up like the USS Minnow!  I think of the verse in Ritchie Valen’s song La Bamba, “Soy Capitan.” I am the Captain and it is my responsibility to mark and steer the course. What follows is the voyage that we embarked upon to bring clear direction to our instruction at Morton Ranch Jr. High.

     On a fine summer day in June of 2011, I sat in my office reflecting on another good year.  I let my mind wander toward what my focus would be for the upcoming school year.  My excitement started to build in anticipation of staff development week.  I love staff development!  I am in my passion when serving in the role of “teacher.”  My possibilities seemed endless.  As I continued to ponder, a critical understanding began to unveil itself.  How would I bring focus to our work?  We had a strong vision statement that captured what our campus climate looked like.  What about how we teach? This question led to my quest for an instructional model to guide our work. 

     As I quested, my mind settled on the work of Jim Collins in the book, “Good to Great.”  One of the power quotes in this book is, “Good is the enemy of great.”  I felt like this was just where our campus was… good, but not yet great.  This book and its accompanying monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors,” are classic research-based leadership texts.

     In this book, Collins discusses Isaiah Berlin’s classic essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." The fox is clever in his attempts to eat the hedgehog, but is unsuccessful due to his scattered approach.  The hedgehog is masterful at meeting the fox’s challenges with his simplified approach of rolling into a protective ball!  Collins celebrates the simple, focused approach of the hedgehog over the diffused approach of the fox.  He argues that this is what many successful organizations do.  This simple, focused approach is described as the Hedgehog Concept.  It can further be described as simplicity within three circles.  My desire was to become more like the hedgehog. I was seeking a clear way to avoid the pendulum of educational change.

     This concept can be easily represented as a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles.  Collins provides guiding questions to lead a discussion related to completing the diagram. With this structure, my instructional leadership team embarked on an abbreviated book study of “Good to Great.”  This team is composed of assistant principals, counselors, department chairs, instructional coaches, the librarian, ESOL Team Leader and the campus secretary.  When we met together at our summer retreat, we collaborated to build the model pictured below.

     The first question I asked of the group was, “What is our main thing?”  The answer we came to was student success.  This idea we represented with the picture you see in the central “sweet spot” of the graphic above. I facilitated the completion of the three circles in the model by using the guiding questions that Collins provides.  When it made sense to do so, I modified the question to fit our purpose.
  1.         What are you deeply passionate about?  We identified passion for the content and a passion for student success.
  2.          What can you be the best in the world at? We made the decision that quality first time instruction was the thing we could be best at.  In a Title I eligible campus, it is critical to get it right the first time!
  3.         What drives your economic engine?  I adapted this question to read, “What drives your instruction?” We landed on content as our focus in this circle. 

     The final decision we made was the title of our instructional model.  We ultimately landed on the title, “Accomplished Teaching Model.”  We felt that this moved our expectation beyond what the teacher did toward the ultimate goal of students learning.  Accomplished teaching equals learning.

     In my next blog, I will begin describing how we fleshed out each circle with specifics and our journey to become deeply aligned with the model.  ¡Soy Capitan!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Don’t You Put That Evil on me Jimmy Casas!

     I view time as my most valuable resource and am always loathe to surrender it without a clear payoff personally or professionally.  I am honored that you made the decision to spend your precious time reading the words I am penning here.  I always appreciate a good story, so I will describe a bit of my journey that has led me to the world of journaling for all to see, a.k.a. blogging!

     At a conference in 2013 I had the pleasure of spending a day with technology guru Alan November.  Alan has tremendous energy and passion when he presents.  I felt as if I was peppered by a shotgun blast of ideas that day.  One pellet from that blast that tweaked my interest was the use of Twitter as a tool for professional learning and as a means to celebrate my campus.  The next significant player who put me on the path to become a blogger was Jimmy Casas.  I first met Jimmy last school year at a district principal’s collaborative.  Jimmy is one of those passionate educators that makes you think about how you do your work and challenges you to stretch to the next level.  During a follow up conversation about my campus push for using Twitter, he challenged me to begin blogging.    Questions to myself: Is it worth my time?  Would anyone really care to read it?  I dismissed that challenge.

     During the summer, our district leadership participated in staff development centered on the book, “What Connected Educators Do Differently”  (Casas, Whitaker, and Zoul).  We used Twitter and Voxer as our means to dialog about the book.  This was an amazing opportunity to connect with authors Jeffery Zoul and Jimmy Casas.  The topic of blogging came up again during this time.  Although many KISD principals began to blog after these conversations, I still was reluctant to commit the time.

     During our Administrative Conference in July, Jimmy visited our district again.  I was fortunate to once again have a conversation with him about my work with Twitter at my campus.  Again, he challenged me to stretch and begin blogging.  As I drove away from that encounter, I was thinking about a scene from Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  In this scene, Ricky’s pit crew chief exclaims, “Don’t you put that evil on me Ricky Bobby!”   Of course, I substituted Jimmy’s name for Ricky’s as I once again feared for the time taken.  After some further reflection, I have decided to accept Jimmy’s challenge.  His persistence has created the professional imperative for me to begin sharing my craft knowledge in a different way.  

Inherent in the decision to blog was my belief that:
  •          I have a set of experiences and ideas that are worthy of sharing
  •          Expressing my ideas to others helps me to clarify and articulate my vision
  •          Blogging is a means to build a personal legacy

     As I look at this bulleted list, I realize that this the “why” that Simon Sinek urges us to always start with.  Now that I had the “why” it was time to look at the “what”. I want my blog to be professional and focused.  I sat with my mentor, Tory Hill, and shared that my stretch for this year was to begin blogging.  I wanted to know his thoughts on the “what.”  Like all great mentors, Dr. Hill is able to identify strengths and coach your growth areas.  Dr. Hill suggested I share my practical approach to providing instructional leadership. 

With this focus of sharing a practical approach to school leadership, I am now in that excited state that one has when you have been given a professional imperative and a means to accomplish it.  My next blogs will be all about how we developed our instructional model here at MRJH.  We call this our Accomplished Teaching Model.