Protocols? What protocols?

I have mentioned this to a number of families over the past week, but I don’t know that I have used the world protocol more than I have this year in our return to campus.  There are so many processes and procedures in place that to ensure the safety and health of each individual; yet, I remain in wonder of our devoted faculty who have done so much to transcend the limitations placed upon their pedagogy and relationship-building in order to make the day fun, challenging, and most certainly engaging.  There are a lot of changes in our daily program, and we are constantly analyzing the way we do things in order to consider improvements and alternatives.  I think of the phrase “final draft” when considering our middle school program.  In truth, these two words are oxymorons.  There is nothing final about a draft; there is always an opportunity to enhance or adjust even the smallest component of the schedule or program to make things better for the benefit of the child(ren) we teach.

As we all negotiate the reshaping and restructuring of this school year, I recognize that there are diverse approaches to managing the inevitable (yet sometimes unforeseeable) changes.  How does your household manage change? This week, I read through an article that serves as a support to the journal and calendar that I keep (BestSelf – it’s awesome, by the way).  That journal offered an intriguing graphic on the different ways that people manage change as it appears in the day to day.

As you can see, this graphic approaches the ability to manage change based on the ability to see beyond the comfortable.  Sometimes, we find that living into the uncomfortable can get us to a level of growth far beyond imagination. The benefits for stretching into new places in order to try new things allows us to live into that best version of ourselves that my school calls confidence in every child. The ability for an individual to move “into the green” of the above graphic requires significant trust in the constructs and people that care for us. This trust, for some more than others, may be easier in a challenging assignment or project. Everyone that I know is living through their first pandemic; thus, moving “into the orange” can prove incredibly daunting. The maximum amount of trust in each other to follow those previously mentioned protocols (temperature checks at home, masks that fit properly, hand washing, social distancing whenever possible) will allow us to tiptoe into new zones of comfort and growth.  It is my hope that my school can remain a dependable place with practices that allow you and your child to come to school with confidence and a willingness to grow. I am grateful for the trust that our families have in our institution. Our team of educators continues to work hard and remain transparent with regard to changes or adjustments. We will confidently provide an innovative, fulfilling experience for each student.

Reframing the Vision: Online Learning

This blogpost was created by me with the editing assistance of Dr. Mark Carleton.

There has never been a more interesting time to assess and improve the way learning occurs in the hearts and minds of every child. Many schools already succeed in developing school-wide programs that imbue intrepid, independent learners with confidence and passion. The secret to these inventive opportunities rests in the hearts and minds of experienced teachers working to shape the wonder and creativity of eager students.  Today, Online Learning programs have been designed by these teachers with these students in mind.  Through its growth and evolution, we seek to tap into the wonder and creativity of our children, in different but no less lasting ways.  Below you will find lessons learned from that experience as well as a glimpse of how we must commit to improve every child’s day-to-day experiences. 

In full disclosure, much of this blog post is credited to the thinking and development of vision inspired by Jennifer Gonzalez’s most recent post, 9 Ways Online Teaching Should be Different from Face-to-Face. If you haven’t yet read or listened to this installment, stop reading my blog and move to that one first. The whole blog/podcast, and specifically this single post, is gold on paper.

Teacher will begin to create moments that allow for sharing stories, interests, and dreams so that we can begin to know, love, and challenge each child to become more than ever before.

A Trusting and Inspired Environment

Above all else, teachers value the relationship a child and family will cultivate with caring, charismatic educators.  Especially in Online Learning, we must ensure that the teacher-student relationship remains at the heart of every interaction.  This year, in the days before Online Learning begins, teachers will reach out and make contact with every child. Whether it’s a phone call or a drive-through-and-wave event at school, I expect that our teachers will invest in building a positive, constructive relationship with their students and families. They will begin to create moments that allow for sharing stories, interests, and dreams so that we can begin to know, love, and challenge each child to become more than ever before.

Direct instruction—things like brief video lessons and readings—will happen mostly in asynchronous (anytime) form, using checks for understanding like embedded questions or what educators call “exit slips.” These “flipped lessons” will lay the groundwork needed to build something that is truly inspiring. Further, this asynchronous approach allows us to use synchronous (real time) meetings for more interactive, engaging work that is focused on capturing the attention of the learner with practical activities to enrich their understanding.  Working creatively with class material, categorizing it, organizing it, sharing further thoughts on it, having a discussion about it–all of these are great things to do live and even in small groups.

Teachers will continue to focus on the individual needs of each child. However, Online Learning doesn’t universally connect in consistent or even beneficial ways with each student.  In that of that imbalance, we must build creative assessments that demonstrate applied and practical learning, we should explore new technologies so that children have improved access to their adult mentors; and we need to reflect and offer feedback as essential components of the learning environment so that teachers can analyze how a student has learned and what he or she can do to improve.  We must retool our grading practices to focus on growth and grace as we acknowledge the demands on children who are trying to succeed in a socially constrained environment.

Consistent Communication and Active, Productive Dialogue

Whether a child is in Kindergarten, 4th grade, or somewhere in the Middle School, families should expect easy access to the following: (1) ready knowledge of the learning opportunities children will explore, (2) ease of access to these opportunities, and (3) an up-to-date understanding of each teacher’s vision for assessing growth through these opportunities along the way.  We will devote the resources and time needed to educate families on how to use the learning management systems associated with our school so that children know where to find their online school community and parents know what to expect when they get there.

With regard to internal communication, the setting has changed the way we must execute our collaborative effort. In the years before the pandemic, teachers would have frequent structured and unstructured meetings throughout the day. These in-person conversations developed our curriculum, allowed for course corrections, and ultimately enhanced the teacher-student relationship.  With Online Learning, those collaborative meetings can be challenging to schedule, so when we are in this platform, we will be intentional about carving out time for teachers to use their collective experiences in and out of their virtual classrooms to hone and develop authentic, high-quality learning opportunities. 

Strong partnerships are developed through transparency and trust.

Lastly, and with equal importance, is the extrinsic and essential value of including family feedback in as much of our program as possible. When it comes to setting goals for a school year, the opportunity to finish on target depends greatly on our ability to make course corrections along the way. By keeping a predictable line of communication open, students and their families can have a voice throughout the learning experience. We will encourage every person in the community to contribute when called upon to offer feedback as we bravely navigate this new path together. Strong partnerships are developed through transparency and trust.

In conclusion, faculty and leadership in my school have spent considerable time reflecting on the program we offered last spring. Throughout all our discussions, one expectation is clear: a school is a place of innovators that should offer a truly unique experience for the learner. In order to do this, we must work harder and build a united mindset. When we can achieve this effort, we will take control of this pandemic narrative, harness our collective intellectual capital and create a phenomenal learning experience for every student, parent, and teacher. We are determined to make tomorrow better than today, so we must continue to learn from our past decisions to make the coming year more meaningful, valuable, and joyful.

Throughout all our discussions, one expectation is clear: a school is a place of innovators that should offer a truly unique experience for the learner.

Featured image created by nurun

What’s in Your Front Drawer?

I want to stop and think about the requirements of the modern educator. Considering ways to upgrade the design of education and move the construct away from silo-based learning models to one that resembles an mobile think-tank, we have to remember that the instruments of learning are many. Ideas in a learning space should move in many directions at once. Adding in the potential for a hybrid design of school, we have to recenter learning properly.

Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein.

Think about all the time we have spent in quarantine. Most of us have not taught in a classroom since last March. That leaves six months of time when a learner was left to her own devices – daily accountability becomes harder and harder to maintain when the structure of the day disappears and consistency is lost. Even when remote school programs were in session, interactions that occur organically during in-person school were sorely missed – all instruction and collaboration had to be constructed and thus felt artificial. Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein. Oftentimes, the supremely talented educators do not have the extra bandwidth to think about the system as a whole. And rightly so: the amount of work that goes into one learning space is exhausting and requires one’s full intellectual capital.

The Road Ahead

As a school leader, I must work to connect the dots and create a supportive cultural web which aligns with school mission and values. This is what I like to think of as my “Front Drawer” material. When opening the front drawer of your desk, what is it that you see? Do you have necessary items for the day, or is it loaded with surgery snacks that you aren’t allowed to have at home? (I have fallen prey to the latter throughout my career.) Is there a journal, or loose leaf paper for writing down ideas? Does the drawer have quick access to references that provide a focus on the vital pieces of school policy and culture? Are there reminders of why you are where you are?

Now, think about the abstract files, components, and capabilities that may appear in your “mental” front drawer. I have had a few conversations on this topic and will share what I believe to be essential components in the mental front drawer of the modern K-12 educator. I’m sure I’ll miss something, so feel free to chime in (though know that I will steal your idea as a contribution to the list!).

Here are the components and capabilities that I’ll review over the next few weeks:

  • Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention
  • Explicit vs. Implicit Instruction
  • Technological Confidence
  • Culturally Aware and Anti-Racist Educators
  • Practical Approaches to Modern Learning Using Brain Science
  • Understanding Divisional Expectations

Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention

The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration.

Teachers should have a endgame plan for anything introduced in the classroom. Inspired teaching surfaces when an educator has an innovative idea for a learning session filled with wonderful conversation and discovery. Moving from good to great teaching occurs when the educator connects the innovation to a bigger picture that he or she is hoping will take root in the minds of students. Without that connection, the session becomes a one-off moment of light bulb explosion without a denouement. The best approach here is to start with a goal that is malleable, not in a way that compromises the end game, but in a way that allows the learner to define how his or her process can arrive at the established goal. In other words, teachers must set parameters wide enough to allow for a goal to live and breath, adapting to the direction each child takes it. The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration. A goal whose scope is too narrow in its original form may develop a glorious flower, but that flower is singular in design, and more often that not fails to personalize the learning process for each child as they are only enhancing someone else’s work instead of making the work her own. Build a rich garden – many colors, many sizes and shapes. It’ll last longer in the minds and maximize the capabilities of the gardeners.

Speaking of a beautiful garden, let’s consider how to set that up. I encourage educators to consider ways to build a demonstration of the learning that rests on top of the learning goal as opposed to creating an assessment that comes at the end of the process. Learning offers the opportunity to make minor course corrections along the pathway to understanding. The ability for a young person to iterate based on discoveries over the course of the learning process is a skill that needs guidance with a focus on metacognitive reflection. Therefore assessment of the learning process best occurs (for the most part) in real time so as to encourage reflection and refinement. There may be a final rubric to which a learner must adhere; in many cases there is a need to finalize and move on. For this reason, the comprehensive rubric should be available from day one so that the target reference is always accessible. As a student reflects, she can build and adjust her contribution to garden as she sees fit within the ecosystem created as a palette.

An assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their discovery with someone else.

Though I’m over-simplifying, “I’ll just put a question about today’s lesson on the next test” simply doesn’t cut it. Would you want someone to acknowledge a great feeling of accomplishment by assessing how much has been memorized as a way to determine success? On the contrary, an assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their ideas with someone else. It is up to each educator to create the framework which inspires this way of thinking from the start. The process through which this constructive-based knowledge should manifest can stem from different lesson constructs. Every teacher has his or her own way of building lessons, and that is great as long as the pattern of creation is consistent. Whether using Backwards Design, Universal Design, or Design Thinking models, all must first start with a goal for understanding followed by a way to connect the daily activity to the overall learning goal. I encourage you to explore these three models to learn about them and how they fit your pedogogical opinions and connect to the idea of tying daily activities to the big picture.

What is your method of content creation? Do you refer back to a guiding question you have created or adopted? Please share in the comments.

It’s a brand new day – make it the best one yet

This post begins with a deep breath.

The world we live in seems to be in a free fall – from the flames of racial injustice to the deepening curve of a pandemic, there are so many in turmoil. People have expressed agony over the excrutiating and arduous task of navigating such difficult conversations in the midst of social distancing and mask-wearing. Most certainly, a return to “normal” does not seem very likely.

And thank goodnes, because I don’t want to go back to the way things were.

I want every voice to be heard and respected. I want every student with whom I engage to believe in herself and cheer on their classmates and teachers. I want kids to learn from inspirational and charismatic adults that I am responsible for encouraging and motivating so that they may have confidence to empower young people to speak their minds, to listen to the words of others, and to agree that different opinions matter and are vital to the development of a rich society filled with trust and empathy.

If you attempt to implement reforms but fail to engage in the culture of school, nothing will change

Seymour Sarason

That effort starts with me. Let’s start with engaging school culture. The culture in the school which I work is filled with joy and determination. When the COVID-19 quarantine occurred mid-March, we didn’t falter…we built anew. My boss, the head of school for my institution, defined our effort as building a boat while trying to sail it. While we had to leave the shore, we had a hope and a prayer that the vessel was shipshape. And we thrived – not as good as in-person learning, but most certainly in a way that was maximized by our well-developed relationships with students. The relationship is the key (which is our biggest fear of the coming school year without those great relationships developed). So we have to consider ways to build empathetic relationships, and build them quickly.

A few parents have reached out to me this summer, sharing their concerns regarding the start of school. Health and safety are paramount, but I am humbled by their desire to have in-person school to propel the positive culture of my school forward. They want confirmation that we will have that enriched environment like they depend on to help develop their own children into the best versions of themselves. I have responded with a similar template that applies to each child. I’ve posted it below:

Your concern about factors that we can and cannot control in determining an in-person return to school are completely warranted. Please know that we are doing everything we can to ensure a safe, in-person experience can happen for everyone. For your family’s safety and that of our faculty, our goal for this summer remains in the plan to have both an in-person learning plan and a remote option for learning. They need to exist simultaneously. They need to be excellent. And they need to be available on day one.

Up until this week, the plan was all but certain to be in-person from day one. Like you, I now worry that the spread of coronavirus has taken our ability to execute that plan out of our hands. We cannot supersede the restrictions of our government officials, and we will not compromise the safety of our students. I pray that people in the city consider ways to be careful and focus on the general state of health in the city. All this being said, we have not changed our planning tactics, though we will create various scenarios which adjust the delicate balance of in-person and remote class time to ensure that learning can continue to flow with gusto. From advancing our middle school scheduling to considering better assessment practices, we are going to be ready.

I am grateful for your hopes and prayers that this virus takes a turn for the better. I appreciate the sense of urgency your inquiry offers to ensure that a plan is in place for your student. I will continue to work tirelessly to achieve a plan that promotes maximum effort, enthusiasm, and opportunity for every person in (and out) of our building.