Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Monitoring Student Learning

Teaching and learning looks quite a bit different than it did when you and I went to school. We have spoken of this before here, and the most common illustration of this change in learning is the infusion of technology into instruction. Here in Hudson we refer to this as Connected Learning. While a great example, it only scratches the surface of how education has changed in our school district since the time we used chalkboards and overhead projectors. I would like to take the next couple of weeks and give you an idea of how much education has changed on the inside, and what you don't see from your vantage point, or even what you might hear from your youngsters at home. And one of the biggest changes you probably don't know about: the collaborative nature of teaching.

Third Grade team discussing an upcoming assessment,
Principal Schlatter asking about alignment.
The art of teaching used to be a very isolating and sometimes lonely occupation. You wouldn't think that would you; in fact it seems preposterous doesn't it? But think about it. The bell would ring at 8:05 and teachers would retreat to their classrooms, close the door and proceed to teach group after group of students for the next several hours without having any outside interference or adult interaction. Left to their own resources, teachers could pretty much cover they content they wanted, how they wanted, when they wanted, and assess it how they wanted. They could count on not being bothered by the principal (who was isolated in his or her own office as well) for the duration of the school year. They had responsibility for 'their' students and 'their' students alone. The trouble with this model of education is that when a teacher would run into a snag with instruction, they had to figure it out on their own. Sure, there might be an opportunity to grab some informal advice during a lunch break, but deep and meaningful conversations about instructional practice and solving 'problems of practice' were, for the most part left to research and study at the local university.

My how the times have changed! For starters, I cringe when I hear teachers (from other school districts mind you) say the principal has never been in their classroom, or they can't remember the last time they saw the principal. For the record, supervising the teaching staff is a primary responsibility of the building principal, and done well, this supervisory role puts the principal squarely in the middle of knowing about instructional practice in their school. In Hudson you should (and will) see building principals roaming the halls and visiting classrooms on a pretty regular and consistent basis.

The isolating nature of the work has changed dramatically as well. No longer do teachers refer to 'their' students; but rather 'our' students. A problem of practice is formally shared within a teaching group where they can collaborate to form a solution. At the elementary, our teachers meet weekly with the building principal in grade level meetings to discuss matters of instruction. In those meeting, student achievement data is shared across sections. If one teacher's scores are higher than their colleagues, the discussion isn't about how great that teacher did, but rather what they did, and how it can be replicated across the sections. On the other hand, if scores in a teacher's classroom aren't at the level they should be, it is an opportunity to lift one another up and work collectively for a solution.

Third Grade team discussing assessment questions while
Principal Schlatter looks on.
About two week ago I had an opportunity to sit in for a brief time with one of our grade level team meetings. In addition to the grade level teachers, was an instructional coach and the principal. The conversation around the table was about the assessment instrument that was going to be administered the next day. The principal was asking which content standards would be covered by the questions. The teachers were wondering which questions might trip the students up. The instructional coach was discussing what would happen after they collected the data.

Then last week, after the data was collected the conversation shifted to, 'now what do we do about it?' Were the teachers right about the questions that tripped up the students? Did the students meet the standards for maturation they had anticipated? And then most important: What do we do about the students that haven't mastered the content? How about those that are ready to move on?

For those of you that have been following our conversation the last couple of years this should sound somewhat familiar because this is known as the PLC (Professional Learning Community) process where our instructors answer four key questions about instruction:
  1. What is is we want our students to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know if we are successful?
  3. What will we do if students met our target?
  4. What will we do for those who haven't?
In our PLC work we have continued to focus on three key ideas that have been discussed by Richard DuFour in his book, "Learning by Doing". Our purpose is to ensure that all students learn at high levels; success requires a collaborative effort; and we must focus on the results of our students. This means that teachers have to work outside their comfort zone!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Extra-Curricular: More Than Just Good Entertainment!

Each Sunday evening Iowa educators have an opportunity to participate in a live discussion about an educational topic on Twitter called #IAEdChat. I usually check in a few times to see what the topic of the evening is but don't consider myself an avid participant. I'm more of a casual observer from the corner, and will occasionally opine with a comment or two. This past week was no different, and honestly I was more interested in seeing the Vikings beat the Packers than participate. However the topic was the value of extra-curricular programs so I thought I might share a few thoughts here today.

Usually when we talk about extra-curricular activities we immediately think about our athletic programs. There is no doubt they get the most attention and tend to draw the largest groups of students. This year it is especially true in light of the success our athletic teams are having! But to draw a line directly (and only) to athletic programs would mean missing a whole host of other programming options we have for our young people.

Middle school students participating in Lego League, an
extra-curricular activity designed to introduce students to
robotics and engineering. 
Extra curricular programs are those not connected to a content area or have a connection to classroom activities. Participation in these activities is dependent on academic eligibility and being a student in good standing. Co-curricular programs on the other hand are directly tied to a classroom activity and participation in these activities is usually tied in some way to an academic grade. Because of the fact participation is grade dependent, academic eligibility is generally not a factor. The commonality between both is that they typically occur outside the confines of the regular school day. Mechanically the difference is important, but for the purpose of this discussion we will pay it little attention, because what I would like to focus on is student engagement in school.

The idea of programming extra curricular activities for students outside the school day has long been woven into the fabric of the American school system. The fact is this is a uniquely American educational experience. European and Asian countries don't typically have extra curricular activities in schools. If students want to learn to play a musical instrument or play a sport, those events are reserved for time outside of school. It is interesting and somewhat ironic then, as American schools try to conform to other schools around the world (i.e. Finland or China), some of these same systems are trying to emulate what we are doing in our schools. Don't take my word for it, this has been well documented by the educational researcher Dr. Young Zhao @YongZhaoEd (who went through the Chinese education system) who suggests in his book, 'Catching Up or Leading the Way' that we may, quite frankly, have had this right all along.

But, why? Although the entertainment value at a concert on Thursday night or volleyball match on Tuesday night would make a great argument, this is more of a secondary or even tertiary benefit. The same can be said about community pride: great secondary or tertiary benefits but not the primary benefits for school sponsored extra-curricular activities.

We do know that there is a great deal that we can teach our students through our extra-curricular programs that cannot be replicated in a classroom. We can run simulations or experiments in a classroom, but the observations gained here are far inferior to the wisdom and understanding that can be gained from actually doing it. Sure, one can talk about problem solving and teamwork. But it is not the same as actually being on the team!

Perhaps the primary reason for extra-curricular activities in school is about forming a connection and bond between the student and school. There are reams of scholarly research that suggest students who feel a connection to their school do better academically, have a larger social network, and are less likely to drop out. So therein lies at least part of the solution to a vexing problem in schools. The more we can encourage youngsters to participate in activities, the more likely they are to have school success. They learn about being on a team, a member of an organization, or an integral part of the band. They begin to develop pride in themselves, the team, and the school. A connection is developed and a bond is formed.

As our students are all different and have different interests, so must our extra and co-curricular program. After all, we can only have one quarterback on the football team, and we can only have one lead in the musical. For these reasons we try to diversify our programming and provide enough unique experiences, or menu of options to meet the needs and interests of our entire student body. So yes, we have a football team, a band, and basketball. But we also have a student council, a show choir, robotics, and model UN! This is part of the American educational experience and what forms a comprehensive and rich school experience. It is also part of what makes it 'Great to be a Pirate!'