Thursday, June 30, 2016

What Matters Most in the Principalship

I hated school, especially high school,  so  I surprised a lot of my old pals at the first few reunions when I became a teacher. I made the "top list" about 10 years ago as the graduate with the least likely profession- school principal.  I always loved reading and writing, but cultivated my passion for literacy at home. I’m sure I would have excelled in math also except that I had such poor math teachers. I became a teacher to give children a school experience that would help them grow into well-rounded adults who love to learn because of their school experience, not in spite of it. I became interested in special education as a result of teaching first grade. There were kids that I taught that struggled and I just couldn’t break the barrier to reading for them. Special education opened up a fascinating door. I learned so much about all areas of development as well as strategies to break down learning and teach so that any child would be able to access content. I expected to stay in the classroom my whole career until I got a taste of professional development and the influence that had on an entire school. When I applied to my leadership program, an essay on “Why I want to be a principal” was required. I wrote the essay and renamed it, “Why I don’t want to be a principal.” I learned in those classes that the principal has the greatest influence on learning. So after spending a year in a curriculum position and having very limited influence, I had the fortune to return to the school where I taught and had already cultivated some strong relationships. I am sharing my thoughts on my final day of my career.

The top 10 things I’ve learned in my career:
1.     Parent communication directly from the principal is essential. No one else’s words can replace your own. Your own voice speaks the passion and vision that you own.
2.     You have to be “hands on” meaning that you have to visit the classroom of the misbehaving student. You have to learn with teachers and develop assessments, strategies, and try new products. Reviewing lesson plans is a must. 
3.     The vision and values of the school must be repeated over and over again. I have experienced a strong commitment towards an effort and then, when it gets tough, the staff wants to disregard it. It’s the principal’s job to make sure that no one forgets what they jointly committed to.
4.     The culture of the school must be one in which new teachers are supported by everyone. That culture is developed and pushed by the principal. The principal should provide coaching support, but also needs to encourage other teachers who have something of value to add for the new teacher, to share with her. Secretaries and custodians need to be included in conversations regarding new teachers and shown how they can help foster a welcoming environment.
5.     Nothing happens without thorough planning. Details need to be attended to whether it’s lesson planning or planning a curriculum night. Lessons can be learned by observing event planners. The principal does not need to do it all, but does need to make sure that all aspects are covered.
6.     The development of teacher leaders within a school is critical to the operation of the school as well as the career path of those individuals. Finding ways to pair new teachers with veteran leaders to learn together as well as take on a responsibility will cultivate future leaders. Principals should stay aware of those that are quick to take new responsibilities. Coaching and support of teacher leaders is critical. New leaders grow strong through helping them to think through goals and pathways. The ideas and strategies will be their own, but the principal’s guidance will give them confidence in their work. Working with teacher leaders strengthens the skills of the principal. The adage, “to teach is to learn twice” applies to everyone.
7.     Visiting classrooms daily serves many purposes. Principals should be involved in planning either directly as part of the collaborative group or viewing the plans. Observing those planned lessons help the principal with coaching and next steps. Reflect on your daily practices in order to get better.
8.     Take care of yourself and each other. The age-old idea that you are no good to anyone else if you can’t hold it together is so true. There’s settings on most phones that will protect you from alerts or rings that happen after you’re asleep. Speaking of sleep, you’ll need plenty in order to keep all the plates up in the air and spinning. Exercise will energize you as well as to keep your brain and body strong. Schools can be awesome communities if everyone remembers how powerful support and positive action can be in good times and bad.
9.     A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is essential. In this era, connectivity with anyone who can support student and adult learning is critical. Showing new teachers the power of the PLN early on and then continuing to support and encourage use is essential for teacher growth. It goes without saying that principals have to fully participate in learning with teachers. I have observed teachers noting their disengaged principal tapping away on emails or texting throughout a PD. Not only is that poor modeling, but the principal missed the opportunity to learn.
10. Relationships are invaluable for growth. Learning is accelerated within a good relationship. We all will work harder for someone that we like and genuinely cares about us. There is no difference between kids and adults when it comes to this idea. Teachers should work tirelessly to develop meaningful relationships with their students. Principals need to do the same with staff members. Some people are easy to like and others, not so much.

I hope this helps someone. No one will get it right all the time, but effort toward what matters most and good reflection habits go a long way. Our kids deserve the very best from us! Marilyn

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Hacking Unit Planning

A school-wide elementary science or social studies unit holds so many possibilities for learning, but can be overwhelming to create. We have been refining a school-wide world culture unit for the past couple of years and decided last spring to develop one for science. Earth Day 2016 came at a great time of the year. We tried our hand last year at hosting a hands-on science fair. While that was fun, it did not really provide the in-depth learning our kids need. Another problem that we were hoping to resolve is providing some needed professional learning of the NGSS.

The evolution of the unit can be daunting. Last summer I worked on a sample unit, trying to take one NGSS standard and create lessons across all grade levels. I’m comfortable with the notion that no one will use what I create, but will enjoy my sample of imperfection. I was looking forward to their enhanced work.  At the end of February, I presented my ideas to the staff and included a Google Doc for them to begin posting their work. Our school’s time and energy is hyper-focused on literacy and math. The critics would suggest that the science standards can be woven into literacy. That will work well after in-depth work with the NGSS.  At this point in time, our kids will benefit the most by grade-level aligned work.
The Google Doc is a great hack for vertical alignment and coaching support. We don’t really have time to schedule any more in-person meetings, so I asked our science teacher and a district instructional coach to support the work through the comment section on the Doc. Half of our students are English language learners. Our ESL teacher and a reading teacher who is ESL endorsed are both passionate promoters of best practices and agreed to jump on “comments” to coach.

Good coaching always disrupts the plan. Teachers got together as a grade level group and began hammering out their unit while keeping an eye on the grade level above and below them.  Just when everyone thought that first draft was a go, the helpers jumped on the Doc. The science coaches led the staff toward grade level appropriateness. The ESL coaching nudged the staff to include some universal accomodations that would improve learning for every student. All four coaches brought in fresh insight and resources.

With every email alert that a comment has been added to the Doc, my excitement re-ignites. The coaching comments provide affirmation for me that Lisa and Jenny are so much more capable of leading the learning of the NGSS. I am not an expert on ELL strategies. Maribel and Robin have earned their badges with the staff. The teachers are much more likely to respond their coaching suggestions than they would to mine.

Look forward to a post following the culmination of the Earth Day unit (April 22). Our families are invited to visit the classrooms and see what the kids have been learning.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Getting Our Heads in the Clouds

I am thrilled to be writing about Hack 1, Meet Me in the Cloud from Hacking Education; 10 Quick Fixes for Every School  by Jennifer Gonzales and Mark Barnes. I met Jennifer in the cloud (Twitter) when our district began to use  her single point rubrics that she referenced last year in her blog. I've learned so much through my cloud PLN  that I jumped on it when the #D100BloggerPD group decided to read the book together. Of course, I got it immediately on my Kindle, not wanting to wait for a real book to arrive. I did admire +Kristin Richey 's real version. I admit that the cover has a great texture, but I was able to read my book in the long line at the post office.

My school district has been forward-thinking regarding the use of technology. We have been 1:1 for several years and experienced first-hand all the ways that technology has enhanced learning- including the adults’ learning.  The first time I read the chapter, “Meet Me in the Cloud,” I didn’t even see the word, “meeting.” We rarely meet at my school to pass along information. My brain substituted “professional learning” as that is generally our purpose in meeting. Then, when I re-read the chapter, I realized that Jennifer and Mark were not including planned professional development in the chapter.  By planned PD, I think of workshops and EdCamp sessions that we’d have after school, throughout the summer, or at Institute Days. However, these same principles can be applied to planned PD as well as school and district meetings.

Here’s a visual that Jennifer and Mark use to show the difference between a traditional meeting and a cloud meeting. The hack is that the participants are not physically present and yet, they’ve collaborated together virtually and their documents are in a virtual environment.

Clouds Add Beauty to Your Day

How you wonder? Your work (think “task”) can be completed when you have time, not at a time set arbitrarily for you. Our teachers add to this planning doc (Google Doc) and then, when they meet, they are able to look at students’ work or come to consensus on what should be on the pre-assessment. 

RtI meetings are held on a rotating schedule. Teachers fill complete information that is stored on
Pivot. When the group meets, teachers that have worked with that student, look at assessment data, share insights and come to consensus on next steps.

We started using MAP this year so have had to learn a new system for periodic assessment of learning. We recently gave the 2nd assessment and got growth scores. There were several stored webinars  available in the MAP PD related to growth, so teachers watched one of three and then jig-sawed learning for each other. There was no need to gather together to view webinars when each of us could find a time most convenient to do that. I viewed all three videos while I made chili for my family.

A private discussion board on Schoology, our student learning system, has provided a cloud venue as well as a storage bin for our documents. Most recently, I met with a group of teachers across the district that are developing single point rubrics for writing assessments (thanks Jennifer!). The threat of winter weather as well as efficiency, moved our meeting to the cloud.  

Other learning management systems provide discussion boards. Give some thought to where you’re holding the discussion as well as the docs. I’ve found that quick comments are fine on a Google doc, but getting everyone’s thoughts on a topic are more efficient on a discussion board. 


Jennifer and Mark define a backchannel as a “discussion platform that allows for back-and-forth conversation between multiple parties. They cite Voxer (an app that you use on your phone similar to a “walkie-talkie” system) and TodaysMeet, a free, on-line storage of the back and forth conversation gathered in the meeting.  I haven’t tried Voxer for meetings, but we have used TodaysMeet successfully.

Backchannel prevents interruptions

Using TodaysMeet when teachers were learning how to establish workflow when we moved to iPad classrooms from MacBooks was a godsend. I was in charge of the TodaysMeet page. We set up two displays in the room. Participants were seated so that they could see both. The presenter showed the Keynote.  I shared a link with the participants to the TodaysMeet “room” that I set up on-line. Everyone was logged in to the “room” while they viewed and listened to the presenter. Instead of interrupting to ask questions or to clarify with a neighbor, all questions were posted on the TodaysMeet. I responded to the questions immediately, allowing the presentation to flow seamlessly.

Meeting With Students in the Cloud

School principals should do their best to protect learning time in school. Keeping this in mind, we rarely have an assembly. When I hear about schools assembling weekly, I cringe. Just thinking about the amount of time taken to get to the venue, get 500 kids seated and quiet, and return to class, is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Every Sunday I gather up the data on the top performing classes and students on the many apps that they use to practice skills, and I record it on a Google Doc. Teachers can add any additional shout-outs they want to give on to the doc. On Monday mornings, I broadcast a Google Hangout with the entire school. Classrooms can join live or view it recorded when they have time. I get real face-time with all the kids who are being recognized. The kids feel like Hollywood stars because they are being broadcast across all the screens in the school. 

Work and learn more efficiently using this great hack and do read the chapter to get the blueprint for full implementation. Thanks +Kristin Richey for launching this book study on your blog last week. Kristin has the schedule and links to the blogs that will be discussing each chapter. Next up on Wednesday, March 9, +Leah O'Donnell will discuss Hack 2; Pineapple Charts; Boost Teacher Collaboration with a Public Chart of "Open Door" Lessons.