The One Question I Ask Everyone (4/365)

question marks painted on tree trunks in a forest

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Just before I started my new job last year, I tried to think about what kind of signature I might want to add to conversations. I was about to meet many more teachers in our district than I’d ever had the chance to interact with before, and I wanted to be conscious of the impression I was making – using it to someone start to shift culture.

The question I settled on, “What are you reading?” As a language arts coordinator, it made sense.

When I would meet with grade-level teams, start a professional development workshop, engage in a coaching conversation it was the same question. From k to 12 I’d ask the room, “What are you reading?”

A few days after a meeting with a team of elementary teachers whom I’d worked with several times across the year, their principal told me one of the teachers had confided he was upset following our time together. I was understandably worried. Not only do I take my job to support teachers seriously, I’m a Midwesterner. “No, no,” the principal said, “He thought the conversation and work were great. He was upset because he made sure he had an answer for when you asked what he was reading and then you didn’t ask.”

I hadn’t.

It was the end of the year, I was working with a team of teachers with whom I’d established a rapport, and I hadn’t felt a need to break the ice. What had initially been meant as a seemingly innocuous question that could start to chip away at culture had been repositioned in my mind as a convenient ice breaker. The thing was, this exchange was evidence the culture was changing. The same teacher who was upset I hadn’t asked was one of the many many many teachers throughout the year who had needed to take a beat on my first asking of the question.

“I’m not really a reader,” many teachers would say before we dove into the work of helping students build identities as lifelong readers. To a person, though, they were able to list several texts when I would push, “So you didn’t read anything yesterday?”

“Well, not a book,” they’d say, and I’d point out that I hadn’t asked what book they were reading. From there, teachers would talk about magazines, news sites, blogs, and any other medium you can think of. By the end of the conversation, I’d usually jotted down a few new places I was interested in reading.

Then, I would point out, “If this is the longest conversation you’ve ever had in this building about yourself as a reader, then we’re missing an amazing opportunity to connect with our students.” If the kids in our care only see us as people who make them read the things you’re “supposed” to read in school, and not actual daily readers ourselves, then we’re missing myriad opportunities to be powerful role models of literacy.

After this conversation at one of our middle schools, the school’s librarian polled the faculty on their favorite books and then took pictures of each person holding the book. She pulled the titles from the library shelves and displayed them alongside the pictures at the top of the stacks. Within days, each of the teacher-preferred titles was checked out.

Another teacher of elementary students took to posting a printed photo of the cover of whatever book she was currently reading outside her door. Alongside it was a paragraph explaining what the text was about and another recounting how she had come to choose the book.

One principal posted photos of what she was reading on her office door – a teacher book and a juvenile title. When students found themselves in the office as a result of a poor choice, situations were diffused when conversations started with questions of whether they’d ever heard of either of the titles.

In my own office, where only adults ever come to visit me, I have two printed pictures hanging, the book I’m reading as part of professional learning and the book I’m staying up too late each night reading (Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, respectively).

The folks I meet with know me pretty well now or know what I do in the district before we sit down. As a result, I’ve shirked asking the question. I plan to bring it back. I miss the expectation of it. I miss the positive assumption that the people with whom I work, people charged with fostering learning daily, are readers. I also missed the sometimes overwhelming lists of recommendations the question elicited like when I asked the question in a meeting of librarians and we ran dangerously close of scrapping the whole meeting agenda while we shared our newest favorites. You know what, though, we captured every title and everyone in the room asked if we would share the list in the meeting notes. Building an expectation of reading means building a culture of reading. And that means giving people space to talk about their reading.

What are you reading?

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.

Join Us for a Book Study and Conversation Series on Connected Learning

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 10.10.55 AMDo devices arriving in the Fall have you feeling a little unprepared? Do you find yourself excited about the prospects of teaching in a connected classroom, and yet also unsure where to start? Have you dabbled with connected learning in the past and are looking for a group of like-minded folks to push your thinking?

If you answered, “Yes,” or even, “Maybe,” to the questions above, you’re going to want to join the SVVSD ITC’s book study of Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom.

The book offers an introduction to the principles of Connected Learning as well as real-world classroom examples from classroom teachers across the country who share their stories of leveraging connected classrooms to increase their students’ abilities to create and connect in the world at large.

Who: Anyone who is interested is welcome to join the book study which will be facilitated by SVVSD Instructional Technology Coordinators Bud Hunt and Zac Chase.

What: An informal study of Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom.

When: The group will hold meetings twice each week on Tuesday at 3:30 PM and Thursday at 8:30:30 PM beginning June 3, taking a recess throughout July and then continuing in August with a concluding meeting the week of August 18:30. Participants are welcome to join either or both weekly calls. (All times MST.)

Where: The meetings will take place in Adobe Connect in this classroom (https://connect.svvsd.org/connectedlearning/). The book can be downloaded as a free PDF here or for $.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store here.

Why: As our classrooms become places of greater and greater connectivity, it is incumbent upon us as teachers to consider the best ways to leverage that connectivity to help students learn and impact the world in which they live.

Connected Learning Principles:

Connected learning is…

  • interest-powered,
  • peer-supported,
  • academically, oriented,
  • production-centered,
  • openly networked,
  • and driven by shared purpose.
DISCUSSION SCHEDULE
Content Discussion Dates and Times
Foreword & Introduction 6/3 @ 3:30PM or 6/5 @ 8:30PM
Chapter 1 – Interest-Driven Learning 6/10 @ 3 PM or 6/12 @ 8:30 PM
Chapter 2 – Peer-Supported Learning 6/17 @ 3:30PM or 6/19 @ 8:30 PM
Chapter 3 – Academically-Oriented Teaching 6/24 @ 3:30PM or 6/26 @ 8:30 PM
JULY RECESS
Chapter 4 – Production-Centered Classrooms 8/5 @ 3:30PM or 8/7 @ 8:30PM
Chapter 5 – Openly Networked 8/12 @ 3:30PM or 8/14 @ 8:30PM
Chapter 6 – Shared Purpose & Conclusion 8/19 @ 3:30PM or 8/21 @ 8:30PM

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.

Design

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.

Implementation

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.

Alignment

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.

Building

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.

Monitoring

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.

Discussion

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.

How data are like beets

This is a guest post by teacher Paul Tritter. It originally appeared as part of this newsletter about professional learning in Boston Public Schools.


My first association with beets was borscht from a jar. My mother loved beets, and she made them lots of different ways, but my association was that borscht, and so I left beets alone. Then about 10 years ago I found myself in Avignon, France at a buffet, confronted with an aluminum serving tray piled high with diced beets. France, you may know, has a reputation for making delicious food, so I gave the beets the benefit of the doubt. Good decision.  These were perfectly cooked, just the right amount of snap in the texture, and dressed in a garlicky dijon vinaigrette that perfectly complemented the sweetness of the vegetable. I have loved beets ever since. Roasted, pressure cooked, grated raw on top of a salad, the greens cooked up with some garlic and vinegar. Beautiful. It turns out my mother’s roasted beets are delicious, too. I missed out all those years because of that borscht in a jar.

Oh, I’m sorry. This is supposed to be about professional development?

I also remember the first time I was introduced to the idea of using data in my classroom practice. There were three packets of MCAS data that covered the school’s history for the three previous years. There were twelve of us in the room, and we had fifteen minutes to look at the packets and discuss. We came to no conclusions. The conversation never continued.  Let’s call this borscht.

Later, I had the chance to sit with a group of colleagues and examine a more narrow data set, a student essay.  This one happened to be about the student’s understanding of the role of religion in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  We used a conversational protocol called the Collaborative Assessment Conference where my colleagues analyzed the work while I remained silent.  Later, we discussed the implications of this particular data point for teaching reading and writing and for understanding our students themselves.

The conversation included big picture thinking and specific next instructional action steps. Let’s call this French beets.

Any teaching and learning endeavor produces some kind of data: a test score, an artifact of student work, a spreadsheet, a story. Any of these could be made into borscht, and any into French beets. It’s what you do with data that matters.

With the right cooks and good quality ingredients you can make something delicious. Ingredients don’t drive the cooking process, but they do play a critical role. Similarly, educators shouldn’t let data, especially any single set, drive their work, but neither can we completely ignore the necessity to seek out and utilize good evidence about our teaching and students’ learning. Don’t let the borscht keep you away from using data, and don’t let the obsessive data hype make you use it the wrong way. Earlier in this newsletter, I plugged the Boston Teacher Leadership Certificate.  The Boston teachers who developed this program understand the value of multiple forms of data. If you are interested in becoming the Julia Child of data, you might want to check it out.

A couple of good recent posts about data have caught my eye:

If you don’t like food metaphors, Texas Superintendent John Kuhn, in his Tyranny of the Datum compares using data to hunting deer.

We are like a hunter who once hunted deer but then got sidetracked by obsessively examining deer tracks. We became experts at deer tracks. Now we hunt deer tracks. We make molds of them. We hang them on our walls. We haven’t seen a deer in ages, and we can’t really figure out why we’re so hungry. But we have a great spreadsheet that sorts our deer track collection by circumference, regularity, and a hundred other criteria. Because deer tracks are important for finding the deer, only we kind of forgot about the deer.

Venison with beets sounds good, no?

In What Role do Hunches Play in Professional Learning Communities?, Bill Ferreiter makes a compelling case for honoring the second-nature knowledge of experienced teachers while submitting that knowledge to regular, purposeful examination and reflection:

As a real-live, bona-fide, full-time practicing classroom teacher myself, . . . I’m sick of being doubted — and sick of the implicit suggestion in every right-wing press release that my choices are failing American children.  I know that my expertise matters and that my hunches aren’t just random guesses about what might work drawn from the professional ether.

But I also know that if we are going to reestablish ourselves in the eyes of our most vocal critics, then we need to constantly document the tangible impact that our hunches have on the kids in our care.  It is our responsibility to prove that the strategies that we believe in and the choices that we are making truly represent best practice — and when confronted by evidence that our strategies aren’t as effective as we thought they were, we have to respond, change direction and embrace something better.

Something better, like French beets.


Paul Tritter is Director of the Professional Learning Initiative, a partnership between the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Public Schools. He tweets at @btulearns and @ptritter.