We’re Producing a Season of Television to Help Our Teachers Learn (21/365)

I got to work on one of my favorite projects of the school year Tuesday. Our district is in the second year of implementation of a new set of elementary literacy curriculum resources. This would be enough pressure. Now, add the fact we have 26 elementary schools spread across 13 communities and 411 sq. miles.

Getting folks on a page around deepening their practice is exceedingly difficult. Scheduling professional learning classes after school works for some schools if they’re nearby and creates a hardship for others who might have to drive 30 minutes immediately after teaching.

That’s why, this year, we’re taking a new approach to professional learning, communication, and information sharing. We launched a television show. The fourth Tuesday of each month, we stream a live television show using Youtube live. The show itself is about an hour in length and teachers who sign up for credit then complete an assignment related to the episode’s theme.

In August, we started with an episode dedicated to routines and procedures at the beginning of the school year. Yesterday’s episode was about using mid-year data to form a body of evidence to meet students’ needs. Each episode features news and updates from the curriculum office, a listing of upcoming classes, and teachers from the district.

This month’s episode included a 1-on-1 interview with one of our district assessment coordinators, a taped segment from a kindergarten classroom leveraging student inquiry, and a panel discussion featuring a second-grade teacher, a third-grade teacher, their principal, and the school’s literacy teacher. For 25 minutes we all discussed the practical ways the school works to build a body of evidence for each student’s learning and how they respond to identified needs.

Participants logged in from across the district, including those featured in the tweet below. No one had to get in their car, and those who had scheduling conflicts can watch the episode later. What’s more, we work to catalog each resource mentioned within an episode and link it in the show notes. We’ve started to see resources from one edge of the district pop up in classrooms three towns away.

What’s more, we’re creating artifacts that can be utilized long after each episode airs. Principals looking for resources to use in staff meetings can pull one of the taped segments with accompanying reflection questions. They can zero in on a piece of the panel conversation to push their teachers’ thinking.

Come time for new teacher orientation next year, we’ll have an archive amounting to a full season of television to share with teachers new to the district.

The approach is not perfect. We’re certainly learning from each episode. But, we’re also hearing from teachers across our schools telling us they’re watching with their teams, streaming in their pajamas, and – in today’s case – gathering as a school to have conversations and learn from their peers.

Let’s honor the questions in the room

Finger face with a question

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” 
― Thomas PynchonGravity’s Rainbow

I called a store today to ask for a thing. It quickly became clear that this was the wrong store for the thing I was looking for. Usually, this would be the end of the conversation. It turned out not to be in this case.

“Well, what kind are you looking for?” the salesman on the other end of the line asked.

I explained in greater detail the doodad I was looking for, which, remember, we’d already established his store DID NOT HAVE.

“Hold on,” he said, “Let me take a look online.”

I waited a moment while he followed up on some leads. “Okay, here’s where you need to look,” he told me and then sent me on to a site with which he and his store were wholly unaffiliated with.

I thanked him for his time and attention to detail. Before we ended the conversation he told me to call back if those leads proved fruitless and he’d see what else he could do.

You, as I did, are probably flashing back to Macy’s and Gimbel’s. I want to take it a step further, because it’s been jangling around in my head as an important point to remember as we lead classrooms and professional learning.

The questions we’re there to answer may not be the questions those with whom we are working show up excited to ask.

It happened all the time for me as a student (at all levels). The teacher would introduce a topic of study and my brain would immediately begin generating questions sometimes ancillary, sometimes tertiary related to the topic. I would raise my hand, ask my question, and be greeted with a reply that told me I asked an interesting question, but that wasn’t the business of the day.

Eventually, I learned how to play school a little better. When a subject was introduced, I stifled the questions brewing from my own perspective and started to try to ask the question I thought the teacher or professor wanted me to ask. Sometimes, I knew the answers, but I’d learned that wasn’t so important to the teaching the teacher was there to do.

What the man on the phone reminded me today, and the lesson I hope to take with me the next time I work with a group, is that I’m there to help whomever I’m working with find answers to the questions that walk into the room. If we do that in our classrooms and staff meetings, then the other folks in the room – the ones walking in with the questions – might see our time together as that much more valuable.

Professional Learning for Everyone (No, Really)

Some Things

  • Our district has started moving to a 1:1 device-to-student/teacher ration in secondary schools.
  • Our elementary schools will also be getting a sizable influx of devices.
  • There are only 6 instructional technology coordinators (ITC) in the district.
  • Realizing our capacity and teachers’ and students’ needs weren’t quite aligned, we started to design a new system.

Since not long after I started at the district, this project has been my baby. A few weeks ago, it started hitting its stride.

The basic idea is to create a range of 1-2 hour online self-paced modules in our district MOODLE install where teachers, students (anyone, really) can log in and  work through their learning whenever they’d like.


Each module follows a simple structure:

Overview – This offers a description of the main ideas within the module, the driving objectives, and the essential questions.

Investigation – Here is a curated pathway for learning about your module’s topics complete with explanations, links and ideas for learning.

Application & Discussions – In this section, you’ll complete a specific activity related to the module topic that asks you to put your learning into action, and a link to posting and sharing your learning for deeper discussion.

Further Investigation – If the initial Investigation was dipping your toe in the learning, this section gives you a chance to dive in, explore things more deeply, and provide yourself with an archive of resources for shifting your practice.

Wherever possible, the application gives participants a choice of tasks that both speak to the learning of the module and remain open enough to fit participants’ needs.

Realizing that 1-2 hours only scratches the surface on many topics, the Further Investigation section holds all the resources we identified as valuable, but not necessary. The hope is that participants will follow their curiosity.


Anyone can look through a module. There’s no need to complete the application if you drop in and find what you were looking for, we’re happy you stopped by.

If you’re looking for something more, we’ve built that too. The fine folks in Professional Development have included module completion in the PD Course Listings. Participants can sign up to complete 4 modules (including application and discussion) for .5 hours of course/salary credit.

What’s more, any face-to-face course we teach has an accompanying, abbreviated module. This way, a teacher completing a course can answer a principal’s request for sharing what was learned in a faculty meeting can reply, “Sure, I’ll walk them through the module.”

Finally, modules de-centralize the knowledge. Whereas there might have been one of us in the office who was equipped to lead a training on classroom workflow or any other topic, modules mean we can all own the landscape of any course. It’s not a script, it’s a container, a bag of tricks.


When we started planning, we didn’t want these modules to be “another thing” for teachers. This made it important to align each module with other district instructional initiatives. Each connects with Tier 1 instructional practices, the teaching and learning cycle, and the newly-adopted Colorado Teacher Quality Standards.


Everyone is building these modules. It’s part of the beauty of starting from a basic structure. ITCs, curriculum coordinators, teacher librarians, classroom teachers, and contracted instructional designers have helped us bring 17 modules to life with the goal of having around 50 completed by the end of the school year.


When a module has been created by someone in the school district, that person remains the teacher within the course. They are notified when assignments and forum posts have been submitted, and jump in for conversation and comments.

When a contracted instructional designer has built the module, I fill the role of teacher.

Participants completing 4 modules for credit complete this form when they’ve finished their work, I confirm completion, and sign off on the work for OPD.


One piece that’s different for our MOODLE courses is the location of the discussions. While each module includes a discussion portion, those discussions all live in a single course here. This allows all curious folks interested in discussing a topic to find the forums in one place. It meant an interesting course architecture dilemma, but we’ve got it working.

Open to All

Perhaps a unique aspect of our MOODLE install is that anyone anywhere around the world with an Internet connection can sign up for a user account. Thus, anyone with an account, no matter their district affiliation can work through a module.

We also started the project with an eye on openness and sharing. Each module has been Creative Commons licensed for attribution, non-commercial sharing and uploaded to moodle.net, the hub for sharing MOODLE courses. If you’ve got MOODLE, you can install these modules and tweak them to your edu-landscape.

131/365 Trust the Start

My new job has me thinking quite a bit about the flow of systems. For the majority of my career, I’ve been at one end of the educational system – in the classroom – working directly with students and other teachers to make learning and formal education better.

Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the system. I’m not in charge of anything, per se, at either end of the system. I support teachers and students and I support the leadership of the district. Sometimes (not often) that support looks drastically different.

I’ve found myself realizing and hoping for a specific string of trust to be enacted and embodied by the district.

It starts like this – Trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

From there, direct interactions should be set up in such a way to give them support they need to do what they feel they need to do to help kids. This would be at the principal level. From there, outside the schools, intermediate district personnel should move to support principals based on the assumption that they trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

If I believe that’s what principals believe, I’m going to be better at my job.

The same assumption is what I hope for those to whom I report. As I move through schools, help teachers and administrators learn and consider new practices, I hope that those in charge of me assume that I trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students growth and learning.

I want others to assume it in the system, and I want those others to assume that I believe it as well.

If we all operate from this believe, if we all trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning, a foundation is established on which we can build, improve and design pathways to even greater capacity.

Assuming teachers are doing all they can is not assuming that they are doing the absolute best, it is assuming that they are doing their absolute best in the moment, and that it can always be augmented.

If I work with a group of teachers to build capacity around some new tool or practice, approaching our time together from the assumption that they are doing all they can will result in conversations much more replete with respect, listening, and care than conversations based on the assumption they are slacking, skating, or faking their way through the school year.

I want the best for anyone who endeavors to add to the learning, understanding, and choices of students. The best way I can think of to support and work alongside these folks is to trust they are doing the best they can and move from there.

51/365 What if We Can’t Play?

I had the great opportunity to work with Bud Hunt Wednesday and co-lead a summit workshop at NCCE on hacking the curriculum for the Common Core. A room of 50 educators who work as teachers, IT coordinators, district personnel, librarians and everything in between filled the room.

Bud being who he is and me being who I am, we designed the day around exploration moving toward participants identifying how they could leverage the Common Core to evolve teaching and learning in their sites by hacking the curriculum in the afternoon.

The conversations were rich and the room was full of good will moving into the afternoon.

When we got to the hacking portion, though, it was surprising the number of people who continued conversing about things rather than building something to take back and move their respective conversations.

It wasn’t everyone by any means, and I certainly do not begrudge anyone a rich conversation about practice. What it got me wondering, though, was how much we’ve conditioned teachers away from play and the idea of creation.

The day to that point had been resource-rich and open to many conversations about the problems and goals folks were carrying with them through their workdays.

When the scheduled time to address those problems to, “build the thing you’ve been wanting to build but haven’t had the time,” came, not nearly as many as I would have expected chose to do so.

I don’t know the answers to why, but I do have some ideas and some questions:

  • Did they choose not to because we have built a system where creativity and the building of useful things is seen as devoid of value?
  • Were they restricted by the space (a convention center conference room)? And, if so, what can such a feeling in a room that bears striking resemblance to many school classrooms tell us about what we are doing to students’ own feelings about making?
  • Am I reading the experience completely wrong? Were the conversations in place of making more valuable or necessary before these folks could make their way to creating? If so, what does that tell us about classroom experiences?
  • What could we have done, if anything, to structure the day so that people felt internally compelled to make when given the time and space?

It was a successful day, and I’m happy with the results. People had useful conversation and feedback has been positive. These are the conference equivalent of the questions I’d ask myself after a lesson in my class, no matter how successful I thought it had gone. They are the the weight of feeling like I must always ask, “Why did what happened happen, and how could I have made it better for those who entrusted me with their time?”

I’m thankful to Bud for asking me along today, and I’m thankful to everyone who committed to the experience as worthwhile to improving teaching and learning in their spaces. I’m excited to improve upon it next time.

You can find the wiki for our summit here and the blog posts that came out of folks’ time for writing here.

Things I Know 281 of 365: Schools should stop casually dating their teachers OR Why schools should be more like frats

Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

The more readings I complete for my courses this semester, the more it seems that American school systems see their teachers as short-term boyfriends or girlfriends. They invest just enough to keep the relationship friendly and interesting, but not so much as to risk vulnerability should the relationship go south.

While I am tempted to criticize this line of thinking as jaded or cynical, I stop short of it. The transience feared by many districts and schools if they invest too heavily novice teachers’ professional development was exactly what took place in my own career. My school district in Sarasota, FL invested thousands of dollars in my professional development as part of a pilot 21st century learning initiative. A year after the training completed, I was recruited away to teach in Philadelphia. With me went Sarasota’s investment.

Perhaps the district should have required a commitment on the part of pilot participants that they would spend a minimum length of time in the district following program completion to limit attrition to other districts. Even this seems implausible. I had no plans of leaving Sarasota prior to admission to the project, and would gladly have signed such an agreement.

Instead of shifting admission and selection practices for professional development, schools should stop thinking of professional development as casually dating all of its teachers and look for a model that better serves its purposes.

While the idea of teams as described by Richard Hackman in his examination of what makes a great team serves as a possible alternative, it lacks a specificity many schools would require for high fidelity of implementation. I agree with Hackman’s assertion of the importance of setting the conditions in which it is likely a team will work effectively and reach desired goals, and in applying this thinking to schools, we must consider the expectations for team membership. Specifically, how do we build successful teams that account for and accept member transience rather than working to play the odds of building a team around those members seen as least likely to depart?

In this space, I offer collegiate fraternities and sororities as models for the way schools should begin to think about their team members and how to support them. Such institutions are built around an acceptance of high annual turnover, the need to constantly pass on institutional memory, and build unique cultures attractive to a multitude of applicants in a system awash in options. Additionally, fraternities and sororities maintain loose networks across the nation and honor their individual histories while shifting to maintain contemporary relevance.

These organizations meet each of Hackman’s conditions for team effectiveness, account for annual turnover and allow for adaptability. What’s more, they thrive on what Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink identify as the three kinds of knowledge most common to leaders in Sustainable Leadership – Inbound Knowledge, Insider Knowledge and Outbound Knowledge.

By engaging all of these knowledge types jointly, fraternities and sororities create the kind of stability, boundaries and adaptability Hackman describes and set the stage for reversing many of the negative trends in professional learning.

What I want to know is how this shift in paradigm could best be brought about. SLA gave me a fair bit of this feeling. Though not a teacher there anymore, I continue to feel connected to the school and the people. I continue to feel a sense of ownership and stewardship in a way I might have if I’d rushed a frat in college. If this is how SLA was designed, how can an existing school shift its culture to bring about those same feelings of belonging?

Things I Know 269 of 365: I’ve got an idea for disrupting PD

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.

– Charles Darwin

I’m working to understand a framework for professional development and capacity building that disrupts traditional thinking and builds toward the type of risk-ready culture Richard Elmore describes and of which I was a part at SLA. In the simplest of terms, it’s a culture of responsible citizenship and stewardship for the educational community. Several different ideas have been influencing my thinking.

The first was the idea of the “Chinese restaurant” approach to “spreading” an educational model described by Charles Leadbeater in his TED talk. Not everything looks the same, but you know when you’re in one. For me, the idea of a coffee shop works best. They are places I seek out, that “pull” me as Leadbeater said, and invite me to stay longer than I intend. It’s got me thinking how one could design a space (physical or virtual) where this is the reaction of those students and teachers who are part of the community.

As my studies returned me to our thinking on “the instructional core,” I started to think about a recent Forbes interview with Don Tapscott. Describing the path to “Enterprise 2.0” and a looming crisis of patent expiration in the pharma market, Tapscott said, “You need to change the whole modus operandi of the industry and how you do research. They need to start sharing science and sharing clinical trial data… The current model is unsustainable, even if it didn’t happen to be coincidentally all coming together over a cliff.” I’ve started to wonder if pharma’s cliff is near education’s cliff.

In many ways, this strikes me as the path to the type of interaction and capacity building Richard Elmore writes about. It also seems a fair way for inspiring risk-taking he mentions. This is a similar idea to that of KIPP Open Book, a project of Philadelphia’s KIPP schools meant to make their data and practices more transparent. It’s an example of system-level transparency of practice, that could potentially influence the transparency of teachers and students, though it would likely require a substantial shift in pedagogy to allow for the agency required for teachers and students to feel more comfortable to take risks associated with such transparency.

This returns me to the question of how I would build a culture comfortable with risk-taking and responsible citizenship to increase capacity and align our practice with a goal toward improvement. To the extent possible, I’d hire the “right” people. At Science Leadership Academy (SLA), each interview committee included the principal, teachers from the department with the open position and at least one student and one parent. These committees were formed ad hoc. Though the principal maintained final say, I cannot recall an interview where the final decision differed from the consensus of the committee. This practice was built into the culture of the school. Oftentimes, students were the first to speak up in deliberations to point out that a particular candidate was a poor fit for the school. In my own practice, I would adopt a hiring approach similar to if not the same as SLA’s.

As to the question of professional development, I’m tempted to stray further from the norm and suggest a rotating position of Professional Coach. Each year a different teacher would assume a reduced course load to work with the school’s leadership team as the director of professional development. The role would entail observations, leading PD around the school’s improvement goals and helping to research particular issues of practice in the coach’s own classroom. The position would last a year, after which, that teacher would return to a full load. Other teachers would submit their names (and perhaps an application) for the following year and the leadership team, whole faculty, or principal would select the next year’s Professional Coach. Again, it’s an idea I’m toying with, and I’m still working to conceptualize the possible impact on school culture.

The thing I want to know is this, how can we prevent the standard testing accountability measures from being the tail that wags the dog of professional development and setting the definition of improvement?

Things I Know 219 of 365: A good start is asking what we’re orchestrating class to do

Designers think everything done by someone else is awful, and that they could do it better themselves, which explains why I designed my own living room carpet, I suppose.

– Chris Bangle

Wednesday, we had out first class meeting of Professor Elmore’s A-341 Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement.

Much of the class was directed toward establishing class norms and getting a general sense of whom we were learning with. While I loved it (we were moving around, meeting one another, having purposeful conversations and reporting out), it was one question that stuck with me as the defining moment of the class.

In describing what would drive our teacher observations for the class, Elmore asked, “If you were a student in this classroom and you did what the teacher asked you to do, what would you know how to do?”

The simplicity of the question reminded me of why I’d been drawn to apply to the course during shopping.

What’s more, Elmore wasn’t asking us to make judgements about the legitimacy of any of what we observed. He was asking us to observe.

Admittedly, this will be difficult for me. I’d imagine it will be difficult for everyone in the class.

I like the idea. I like the shift in focus from what the teacher is doing to the student experience.

As Elmore pointed out, the process starts not from a standpoint of “Here’s what should be going on here!” but one of “What’s going on here?” And, it starts from moving to the perspective of the student.

Starting out in the classroom, I asked myself, “Would I want to do the assignment I’ve just created?” It was a simplistic question.

Moving forward, I’d collected student responses to hundreds of assignments and had a better idea of the varying perspectives in my classroom. As a result, I felt I was designing assignments more likely to pique my students interest.

It wasn’t until moving to SLA and working with the unit planning template of Wiggins and McTigh’s Understanding by Design that I was asked to unpack where I wanted my students to head in what they were able to know, do and understand as a result of their time in the classroom.

Sparks of Elmore’s question could be seen in my review of student work, assessing how closely the students had come to reaching my goals for the unit.

This isn’t quite the essence of the question.

The question asks for a more complex and paradoxically more simplified observation.

When designing the flow of a given class period, what knowledge or abilities was I helping my students to have at that class’s end?

I wonder how classes would change if all teachers stepped into their classrooms tomorrow, mindful of that question.

Moving forward with the course, I’m curious to see and hear the variety of responses my classmates and I have to that question as we observe the same classes.

Things I Know 137 of 365: Conversations are excellent professional development

Change that eminates from teachers lasts until they find a better way.

– Roland Barthes

Continuing to tie up the year during SLA’s weekly professional development meetings, it was my Professional Learning Community’s turn to present what we learned during our independent study in the first semester.

My very small learning community consisted of Mark, a math teacher, and me. That’s it. Just two of us.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t love learning with Mark in the first semester.

What began as a plan to find new tools and writings to bring to each meeting shifted into something more directly applicable – conversation.

Each time we met, Mark and I shared what we were doing in our classes and brainstormed ways in which technology could transform students’ learning into something more engaging, authentic and differentiated.

As Mark admitted, I’ve a bit more proficiency with tech and learning. Often, our conversations consisted of me learning about the math concepts he was teaching his students and then throwing out whatever ideas came to mind.

Because I realized math is Mark’s domain of understanding and had no qualms admitting my deficiencies in its instruction, I didn’t hold back my ideas, nor did I take offense when Mark dismissed an idea as impractical.

Had I paired up with another humanities teacher, my ideas might not have flowed so freely, and any negation might not have been so freely accepted.

When it came time to plan our presentation to the entire faculty, we experienced a moment of pseudo-panic. Had we been collecting and cataloging tools and articles throughout the semester as we planned, we would have been set. Read this, now try this, now plan a sample lesson, now share, now critique in small groups. It’s the unsweetened cereal of professional development.

When it came time for today’s presentation, we decided to share not only what we learned about the tools, but what we learned about process as well.

For us, learning had been social, collegial and immediate.

In the first five minutes, we gave an overview of our process.

Next, I asked each faculty member to think about where they would rate their comfort with technology in learning on a scale of 1-10.

“Now, use your fingers to show your number. Without talking, line up from highest to lowest.”

They did.

From their, we broke the line in half. The highest end of each half was paired with the highest end of the other half and they were broken into couples.

Then, down to business.

Laptops in tow, the lower numbers in each pair explained what they’re doing in their classrooms through the end of the year. The higher numbers listened, asked questions and then started brainstorming ideas on how tech could be better leveraged to help with learning.

Mark and I milled about the room.

At each table I stopped, a conversation similar to the conversations Mark and I had throughout the first semester was taking place.

After a few minutes, we paused, asked people to share what was going well and then gave a few more minute either to continue on their topics of discussion or to let those who had been brainstorming share what was going on in their classrooms.

For the finish, I asked the group what they noticed about the past 25 minutes that stood out to them:

  • People were working cross-disciplinarily. With one or two exceptions, each couple was made up of teachers from different disciplines.
  • People were talking one-on-one about their practice.
  • People were talking about things that could immediately affect classroom practice rather than living in the hypothetical.

We also talked about what could be done to continue this kind of conversation and collaboration. The thing that stuck the most was the idea of moving outside people’s normal routine to seek out the feedback of our peers.

That’s the key of it. In a structured, focused way, we asked people to move outside the routine of talking to those in their disciplines or the routine of curriculum design and have a one-on-one conversation about improving how they teach.

That should be the routine.

Things I Know 130 of 365: Professional development must be warts and all

Good design begins with honesty, asks tough questions, comes from collaboration and from trusting your intuition.

– Freeman Thomas

A group of teachers cam to visit SLA Tuesday. Particularly enterprising, their school is heading to a project-based model next year, and they’ve been using this year to experiment. While not fully project-based, their classes have featured a few projects throughout the year, and they wanted to talk shop.

When I sat down, they were talking to Tim Best about rubrics and expectations.

They wanted to adopt a similar approach next year, and I had a question.

I asked if they had a plan for getting the more hesitant members of their faculty on board.

No matter who comes to visit SLA, they never bring the most recalcitrant members of their faculty with them. Those who come to visit are of like minds.

This group had no plan.

They asked if we had any suggestions.

I had one.

Be vulnerable.

Whenever I’ve been part of a faculty or heard stories of a faculty that was adopting a new approach or program, there was never a sense of vulnerability.

Every launch, unveiling or introduction has been orchestrated with the promise of perfect like some sort of Kevlar-covered pedagogy.

Nothing ever is.

No matter what these teachers say next year as they start to shift the way their school approaches teaching and learning, it will not be perfect.

My suggestion was for each of them to sit down with a group of their peers and workshop a unit plan, project description or rubric they’ve built this year.

When new initiatives are launched, all many teachers hear is “We’ve figured out the problem with our school. You’re teaching the children wrong, and we’re hear to fix you.”

Asking their peers to sit down to a curricular discussion that values the knowledge and experience of everyone involved can be a way for their school to make thoughtful change.

Even better, those conversations will bring new eyes to the process in a structured way so that this beta group can refine their practice with the help of their peers rather than burning out mid-year next year because everyone is looking to them to keep pushing things along.

Some school initiatives fail because they are either bad initiatives or bad fits for the schools adopting them. Other initiatives fail because they’re thrust upon a faculty with pomp and circumstances, but lacking dialogue and reflection.

By inviting their faculty to the table as colleagues, these teachers could have a good shot at eliminating 50 percent of the reasons they might fail.

I like those odds.