Learning People

“Without the time machine, all choices have the possibility of being wrong.”

I recently read Scott Berkun’s book, The Year Without Pants.” It is an informativeBook Cover The Year Without Pants and entertaining book about his more-than-a-year working for, reporting on what it is like to work in a remote-only environment. He offers insights into the daily life of managing a team across the globe, and compares them to his own insights on leadership and management.

The quote from the book that serves as title of this post is taken from a chapter that focuses on decisions. When given a choice, should one wait to fix issues as they come up (responsive), or make updates/changes to improve and lessen the potential for issues (proactive)? Eloquently, Berkun argues that there is no way to truly know which choice to make. Managers have to take the available information, and pick what they believe is the best path. Unless you have a time machine of course.

This is one example of the variety of informative commentary found throughout the book. I have a particular predisposition to enjoy the book since it is about working for (the parent company is called Automattic, founded by Matt Mullenwig). I have been an avid WordPress user for a number of years. I fall in the self-hosted category of WordPress because I purchased my domain and host this WordPress blog through Dreamhost. I go so far to have attended a few WordCamps, and even had the fortune to hear Matt speak at a WordCamp in Toronto a few years back – very cool it was.

I want to highlight a couple of other “jump-outs” to me from the book. I could spend a long time on these, but will keep it reasonably short. As with any reading, the items I notice are in tune with what I work on every day.

“…companies confused supporting roles, like legal, human resources, and information technology, with product creation roles like design and development. Product creators are the true talent of any [organization], especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do.”

This quote is in reference to what the leaders at Automattic noticed about other companies that struggle to succeed. In K-12 education, the creatives are the teachers and the students. What they create and do together is most important and everything should serve that. It sounds basic on the surface, but when implemented it seems like we tend to put processes, procedures, and rules in place that get in the way.

“You see a similar downward spiral at schools that try to measure teacher performance. They create new tests for evaluating teachers that reduce time teachers have to teach real lessons, which lowers their scores, which, sad surprise, leads to more testing.”

I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. This book was published in September of 2013, around the time teacher evaluation was getting to a frenzied place across the country. Berkun’s point in this quote was regarding using metrics to measure employee performance. As soon as there is some system in place to measure performance, he notes “Everyone eventually realizes that the metric, which was good for a time, is now being gamed. Employees go so far out of their way to score well on the metric that it has negative effect on the real quality of what the company makes, something people recognize intuitively.”

The power of success at Automattic is that the only real performance indicator is when an item is released to the public on Since there is no workplace, and everyone does their work when and where they want to, the focus is totally on what gets done. This concept is the complete opposite of what goes on in K-12 public schools since by nature everyone shows up in the same place at the same time to work/learn. We are a massive mountain of organized minute-managing. The new world of remote work is on the other side of the spectrum. Online learning is beginning to change education, but when it will take hold, and parents stop putting their kids on the bus, remains to be seen.

“He wanted a data-influenced culture, not a data-driven one.”

This is a reference to Mullenwig’s style of engaging in decision making. Data is important to the process, but he only lets the data influence decisions, not drive them. There is a part of decision making that is left to intuition, or gut, when the numbers don’t tell the whole story. This is true about every child in a school. Assessments certainly shed light on what students know, but people have hunches that go far beyond any report available.

  • Self-motivated people thrive when granted independence.
  • Managers who want better performance must provide what their staff needs.

The above is obvious, but still hits home as a necessary ongoing reminder. Successful teachers are by nature self-motivated. It is the job of those who support teachers to figure out what they need (asking is an easy way), and make it happen for them.

Looking back on what I chose to highlight from the book, it is interesting very little is about the remote-worker concept that it purports to be about. Remote work is the reality now for many, and for many more in the near future. Regardless of where the work happens, there continue to be challenges to success in companies that will always be present. How one deals with the challenges remains the constant.

Obviously a big hat tip to @berkun for some thought-provoking reading!

Learning People Russo's Ramblings

My Answers

Taking the questions from the previous post, Questions for Thought, I am going to turn the tables and take a turn as if the questions were posed to me. The framework for my answers sometimes relates to how technology supports learning, since that is the focus on this site. Here we go…

1. What do I need to know about you? An analogy I like to use is marathon runner – steady dedication to the task at hand is what gets results. Careful, long-term training and practice will reap rewards in the end. Being keenly aware of your surroundings, and seizing opportunities when they arise, are the benefits of keeping skills honed. I did run one marathon, and was successful – not fast, but successful. The regimen I put in place paid off, and I enjoyed the process. I hope to run another marathon someday to prove it was not a fluke – I enjoy running in general.

2. What do you need from me more than anything else? From anyone I work with, communication is what I need most. Simply ask for what you need, and if you are unsure of how to do something technologically, just say so. Don’t be worried about what anyone thinks – say what you need and we can get it done.

3. What does success in the classroom mean to you? Students who produce original, meaningful works that they are proud of. Watching the expression on a face when a student shows off their video is an example.

4. What do you know about how people learn? I know that when it is something they WANT to learn about , almost anyone will do whatever it takes. For example, a student wanting to learn some Minecraft tips will figure it out quickly using a Google search (just ask my son). A student trying to make a robot turn to challenge his Lego Mindstorms partner will figure out which switches need to be put in place to make it happen. A student trying to figure out the changes to Coltrane’s Giant Steps needs to make it just between him/her and the music, but this video doesn’t hurt (unless the video is used totally in place of the ear!):

5. What’s the most creative thing you’ve ever done? I’ve done some tribute videos for colleagues that I am really proud of. The storytelling that goes on when you build video is really fun. You have to go on a hunch, gather whatever resources you can, and go for it. Click here for one example on this site.

6. How can technology be used for learning? At this point, in 2015, the question is really how can technology NOT be used for learning? There are, and always will be, times when technology is not directly involved in learning (reading a good old-fashioned book, for example) but it is right there to support learning (tweeting out favorite quotes from said old-fashioned book, for example).

7. What does it mean to understand something? When you can verbalize what you know and don’t know about a topic, and are comfortable attending to what you need to figure out in order to better understand it.

8. When was the last time you’ve solved a problem? Last night with some pesky screw holes that were rounded out. I needed to fix the hinge so the cabinet door would work again…

9. How do you respond to expectations? I do everything in my power to meet them. Professionally, I place great emphasis on meeting the needs of those I support, and work as well as I can to get the job done.

10. What is your proudest moment? Watching students succeed in their endeavors. For example, three students I worked with were recognized two different times in the CSPAN StudentCam Competition. They worked hard, and the results were great. StudentCam is an excellent competition as it provides a venue for students to pursue and share their voice on important issues.

11. What do you want to learn about? The Great American Songbook, hands down. I’ve only scratched the surface of what transpired in the first half of the century regarding the development of music. The GAS is an incredibly deep and rich treasure that is worthy of ongoing enjoyment and study.

12. Are you a picky reader? What are your strengths as a reader? I am not a picky reader – rather I am a willing participant in a story and am happy to let the author take me where he/she wishes. I am not sure if I can verbalize strengths – I enjoy reading, and wish I devoted more time to it.

13. What is your personal philosophy? Pick something, and go for it. Life is to short to worry if it is the right choice – if what you decide to do is not the way to go, that truth will uncover itself before too long.

14. When do you write best? When I have mental room – as in a few hours where it is just me and the keyboard. Having time to digest and create (and find links, appropriate media, etc.) takes time.

15. What’s worth understanding deeply? See #11 – The Great American Songbook. Speaking of which, here is a sample of a tune I studied for a while – The (Boy) From Ipanema. A great twist on a classic, performed by Diana Krall and Rosemary Clooney, with John Pizzarelli on guitar! Note this is an unofficial YouTube upload – it may disappear at any time…

16. What are your best habits as a thinker? Repetitive thinking – I like to revisit big ideas over time to see how they last. Good ideas stand up over time, and pass the “fresh look” impression. In other words, if an idea or product is good, it gives that “good feeling” vibe the next time it is looked at, after a bit of a break. One does not always get the luxury of taking a break to reflect on an idea, but it never hurts. In the world of de Bono’s six thinking hats I think this is red hat thinking – feelings, intuition, and hunches. But, they are delayed intuition, not immediate, so maybe it is more blue hat, or process, thinking.

17. What’s most important to you in life? Supporting others, and bringing people together.

18. What is the relationship between learning and #17? Supporting others in their pursuit of learning is fundamental. Bringing people together to learn really rocks.

19. Where does your inner drive come from? I think fundamentally from my mother. She was always working on something, doing something, or LEARNING something. She never made a big deal out of it – she just did it.

20. Who are your heroes or role models? Don Quixote comes to mind – he is selfless and single minded in making the world a better place. The acting delivered by Peter O’Toole certainly contributes to the effect of the storyline in the movie version, too. Speaking of movie characterizations, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is another great one. His delivery of O’Shaughnessy’s famous line is memorable – “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

21. Why study (insert your content area here)? Because (insert content area here) is worth knowing about! In my position as an Instructional Specialist for curricular areas outside of my personal expertise, I have gained valuable insight into those ares. For example, I have a far greater understanding of the value of and need for Family & Consumer Science instruction. Michelle Obama said it very well in the article linked here.

22. What are you good at that nobody knows? Riding rollercoasters with really big drops. I don’t think this is a skill, but I consider it a talent to enjoy being launched at 120mph and head 400 feet into the air.

23. What do teachers sometimes misunderstand about you as a learner? I am a quiet student, and my tendency to not always verbalize sometimes leads to others thinking either I’m not interested or do not have an opinion.

24. What does it mean to study? Revisit, gain clarity, understand more deeply.

25. How do you respond to complex texts or digital media? It depends – if the text is complex because it is dense with difficult content and terminology, it takes time to digest. I find it hard to keep concentration when this is the case – Edwin Gordon’s seminal book in music education, Learning Sequences in Music, comes to mind. I needed a nap after every paragraph to process it!

26. If I get out of your way this year, what will you be able to do? Be out in classrooms, supporting learning!

Learning Russo's Ramblings

Questions for Thought

I recently was introduced to a great post written by Terry Heick last year around this time, 26 Questions Every Student Should Be Able to Answer. The questions are terrific, and get to the essence of what the teacher/student relationship should be about. Moreover, they are the same exact questions to be used in an administrator/teacher relationship. Or any learning relationship. The questions are basic enough, but powerful enough, that they provide the fuel for excellent classrooms. Great teachers and students already implicitly search for/provide this information, but the list is extensive and thinking about them in an ongoing fashion is a very good idea.

I do not have too many “wall-hangars” (items which I feel are important enough to print out and tape to the wall above my desk). As soon as I read this one, I clicked print immediately.

These questions feel like they are stuff for future posts, focusing on my personal thoughts for specific questions. For now, here is the list. My top question as a supervisor going into a new school year? Number 26, for sure.

1. What do I need to know about you?

2. What do you need from me more than anything else?

3. What does success in the classroom mean to you?

4. What do you know about how people learn?

5. What’s the most creative thing you’ve ever done?

6. How can technology be used for learning?

7. What does it mean to understand something?

8. When was the last time you’ve solved a problem?

9. How do you respond to expectations?

10. What is your proudest moment?

11. What do you want to learn about?

12. Are you a picky reader? What are your strengths as a reader?

13. What is your personal philosophy?

14. When do you write best?

15. What’s worth understanding deeply?

16. What are your best habits as a thinker?

17. What’s most important to you in life?

18. What is the relationship between learning and #17?

19. Where does your inner drive come from?

20. Who are your heroes or role models?

21. Why study (insert your content area here)?

22. What are you good at that nobody knows?

23. What do teachers sometimes misunderstand about you as a learner?

24. What does it mean to study?

25. How do you respond to complex texts or digital media?

26. If I get out of your way this year, what will you be able to do?

Conferences Learning

A Space is Worth a Thousand Ideas: Word11 at the CSI Annex Toronto

Work area at CSI Annex

Imagine walking into the space above to learn. That is what I had the opportunity to do at Word11 in Toronto this weekend. Word11 was an event for bloggers to get together to learn and share about the purpose and business of blogging. The space is the Center for Social Innovation (CSI) Annex, one of two (soon to be three) properties run by the CSI.

Center for Social Innovation, you wonder? It is a community workspace. From their site, the CSI intends to:

“… catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world.”

Regarding the space, CSI states:

“Shared space forms the bedrock of our model. Being physically together is what sets the conditions for new relationships, new projects and unexpected outcomes.”

Shared working spaces are popping up all over the world. Check out the article, Collaborate, Create, Co-work, from the August 2011 issue of Go magazine. The article highlights co-working spaces in the U.S. including Sandbox Suites (San Francisco), Coop (Chicago), and WeWork (New York City).

Bloggers at Word11 were a collaborative group by nature, and the energy coming from the interactions was awesome . I had the opportunity to speak with a diverse array of people and found all the conversations rewarding. I definitely put myself in the casual blogger category, and the stream “developing the casual blogger” had many great talks. It was great to interact with such talented professionals and entrepreneurs.

It is no surprise that that the CSI Annex was the location chosen for the event. It got me to thinking about what if school spaces were designed like this? What could happen if students were able to cross-pollinate their ideas in collaborative setups, instead of like this:

Now I am not saying that every classroom is like this – that is simply not true. However, by and large, the design of schools built more that 30 years ago (which is most schools) have inherent space issues (aka walls) that inhibit the flexible, dynamic setup seen in co-working environments.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills just recently released a new publication and video titled Above and Beyond. The idea is to foster thinking about what they call the 4 Cs of 21st century learning: communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Here is the publication:  4 Cs Poster

And here is the video:

I know where I really want to work and learn, and I think our students want (need) such spaces as well. Thank you, Word11, for organizing such a great event in such a great space!

Image credit: BYU Observation Classroom from Cherice on Flickr

Learning Russo's Ramblings

New Tagline

As I mentioned in a recent post, with my new position, I have been wondering about the tagline for the blog. The tagline is what appears just under the title of the blog, which is Point A to Point B (see the top of the page). I have decided since my new role expands beyond technology tools to curriculum, I will expand the tagline as well.

The previous tagline was:
“Technology is transforming learning. All you need is an idea of where you are and where you need to go.”

The new tagline is:
“Learning is Job #1”

This tagline really reflects my personal bias – learning, in any form, is what school (and life) is about. I think this is a fitting time to once again share my favorite quote:

The best thing for being sad, replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.
~Merlin to Wart (Young Arthur) in The Once and Future King by T.H. White

I am really looking forward to how the blog grows in a new direction!


Moving On

I am delighted to report that the work to get my administration certificates has paid off. This past week I was appointed to an administrative position within my district, Williamsville. Effective July 1st, I will be the Instructional Specialist for Fine and Performing Arts, Business Education, and Home and Careers. That is a long and complex sounding way to say I am the  curriculum and instruction coordinator for Music, Art, Business, and Home & Careers.

For anyone reading some of my recent posts, you may have noticed a distinct focus on what is going on in the New York State Education Department (NYSED). One of my main responsibilities in the new position will be to keep up with what is going on at NYSED, and how it will affect the teachers and curriculum in the areas I am responsible for. As I have been going through the interview process, I became much more in-tune with the happenings in Albany, and therefore posted more about that. One could easily devote a full-time job to keeping up with NYSED 🙂

As I move into the position, one of the things on my mind is how this blog will work into my new role. I will absolutely keep it going, but I wonder what focus the blog should take on.  I started blogging in 2004 after hearing David Thornburg speak at an ISTE conference. Back then “blog” and “wiki” were relatively new terms, and being a technology integrator, it has been a perfect fit for me. I have grown through and enjoyed the writing I do.

I also wonder if the title and tag line is appropriate in my new position. Here is what is at the top of the blog:

Point A to Point B
Technology is transforming learning. All you need is an idea of where you are and where you need to go.

The title of the blog, Point A to Point B, and the web address (which I own) I think are appropriate for any educational endeavor. Regardless of the content, everyone is at point a, and is trying to get to point b.

Regarding the tag line, technology is certainly transforming learning in every area including the ones I will be responsible for. As a matter of fact it was music technology that was the catalyst for me making the jump to becoming a technology integrator in the first place! Many staff and students I have worked with in recent years are surprised when they learn that music is my background.

I have come around to where, like many, I know it is not about the technology, it is about the learning. So how about this for a tag line (it is actually my Twitter tag line right now):

Point A to Point B
Learning is job #1

I do not think one could argue learning is our fundamental purpose. My writing will focus more on the content areas I’m involved with. I will still probably draw out connections to technology, but I am actually really liking the fact that I can focus on technology from a content perspective instead of technology as a separate “thing” (which I admit I can do quite easily…). At the end of the day, it is about the learning (in Music, Art, Business, and Home & Careers, etc.) and not about the technology.

I would love your thoughts on what I have outlined here. If you have any comments or suggestions for the tag line, I would appreciate that also. My “point a” is changing, as is my “point b”, and I’m looking forward to the journey!

Image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on Flickr

Learning Russo's Ramblings

Cogito Ergo Blog

I reflect, therefore I blog.

A tweet came through last week that caught my attention. I retweeted it, favorited it, and now have spent some time looking back, reading, reflecting, and now writing:

As is the case with social media, the path to the origin of the thinking took a bit. Shelly Terrell sent this tweet about a post by Justin Martin on the Connected Pricipals blog. Justin’s post was in response to the “ground zero” post by Ryan Bretag, “My Principal Doen’t Need to Blog.” Ryan’s original post is brilliant – he uses not too many words to propose an argument that blogging is not worth it for his principal (who is an exceptional leader). What Ryan unleashes is an awesome response across the spectrum related to administrators and the value/need/time in blogging (including my response here…)

The thought about “to blog or not to blog” hits home with any blogger since we constantly wonder, “is it worth it?” As I read through the original post, comments, and subsequent posts, here are a few things that stood out to me.

In Ryan’s argument, he makes the following comment:

In life, we make trades of our time and the question really comes down to whether blogging would be a better use of time for our principal than…

  1. Visiting classrooms
  2. Getting to know and connect with 2,100 learners
  3. Getting to know and connect with hundreds of educators

In my first administration experience as summer school assistant principal, I made a conscious effort to be out and about as much as possible. My daily social media connections definitely went down (not logging into Twitter, Skype, etc). I completely agree that the most important job of an administrator is personal connections.

One of the responses to Ryan was from Russ Goerend:

For me, blogging is where I reflect with the purpose of asking other, smarter, people to reflect with me. Reflection is the one thing I saw missing from your list of what your administrator does. Is that a possible reason that tips the scales?

Reflection is the bell-ringer for me in blogging. I think reflection in teaching practice is important. Any good teacher or administrator reflects, whether in voice (chatting with a colleague) or in public (a blog). The difference between vocal reflection and written reflection is that writing it down makes a difference. To paraphrase Peter Reynolds, writing turns ideas into action. Writing it down in public makes a bigger difference. Is written public reflection on practice for everyone? Nope. Can it make a difference in the practice of a teacher or administrator? IMHO, yup.

Before I move on to more of my own thoughts, I want to point out one more comment that came through on this topic. It is a video post by David Truss:

I love the media response, as opposed to a typed response. His thoughtful comments, along with visual support, is awesome. Thanks, David, for providing an exemplar for media communication. I hope to move that direction in my own blogging – I think it is much richer 🙂

To bring together my own thoughts about why I blog, I took a look at the wikipedia article for blog. Under the sub-heading for types of blogs, here is the description for a personal blog:

Personal blogs
The personal blog, an ongoing diary or commentary by an individual, is the traditional, most common blog. Personal bloggers usually take pride in their blog posts, even if their blog is never read. Blogs often become more than a way to just communicate; they become a way to reflect on life, or works of art. Blogging can have a sentimental quality. Few personal blogs rise to fame and the mainstream, but some personal blogs quickly garner an extensive following. One type of personal blog, referred to as a microblog, is extremely detailed and seeks to capture a moment in time. Some sites, such as Twitter, allow bloggers to share thoughts and feelings instantaneously with friends and family, and are much faster than emailing or writing.

I bolded the part that stands out to me most – blogging become more than a way to communicate – it is a way to reflect. The comment about bloggers taking pride in their work, regardless of readership, also rings true. I have always blogged for an audience of one (me), although it is fun when people stop in to read and/or comment.

Blogging takes time. My personal goal is to try to do one post per weekend, when the idea comes to me. Note that it happens on the weekend, and that there are the time trade-offs that allow me to find those few (3-4) hours to craft my thoughts. I have found that I do enjoy the writing process. Not everyone does, and not everyone has the time to devote to blogging. Ryan’s principal doesn’t, but he is still a great leader. If his principal does try blogging (and makes the trade-offs to do so), I believe he will find it valuable. I do not believe that anyone who takes the time to do it will find it un-worthwhile.

In any case, for me, cogito ergo blog. Thanks for taking the time to read this.


Collaboration, Coaching and Reflection

Professional development is a key component in helping students learn. When teachers are focused on improving student learning, they need support (i.e. professional development) for themselves to continue to learn. Some of the most inspiring colleagues I have worked with are those who, even after a long career, continue to seek out opportunities to improve their craft. Experienced and successful educators acknowledge that there is always something new to learn, a new technique, or new concept that will help kids.

Collaboration, coaching and reflection are not new concepts. What they are, however, are new ways to approach professional development to improve learning in a systematic way. I will use the analogy of my past experience as a band director to draw connections to how teachers have always coached, collaborated and reflected, and compare that to how we can make systemic change.

From the beginning of time, musicians would perform a concert, and then go out to celebrate (or commiserate) afterward on the performance. This is true of concert musicians as well as music teachers after a school concert. What typically happens in the “after-hours” celebration is a lively dialogue among teachers involved in the concert and colleagues who attended the concert. Discussion ensues about what went well, what could go better, and steps to take for next time. It is a dynamic, fluid process of collaboration, coaching and reflection that moves teachers forward. Next steps that might happen is that a particular teacher might go to visit a colleague to see how he/she works with their students to solve a similar challenge. A guest clinician might be brought to school to coach teachers on rehearsal techniques. Teachers may get together after school for a few weeks in a row to teach each other about instrument intricacies. These types of experiences are informal, and occur spontaneously after a performance. How can we formalize this process so it benefits every teacher, every day, but does not water-down the effectiveness?

The same exact scenario above can be played out by any teacher in any discipline immediately following a major benchmark assessment or other summative assessment, such as a state exam. Math teachers, for example, will have a spirited dialogue about an exam as it is being administered, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses they suspect among their students and how they perceive students will perform. This continues as the results are reported and strategies are investigated to help students succeed.

How are more recent professional development models in-line with the collaboration, coaching and reflection needs of staff? With the data team as a fundamental unit now, the model is in place for regular and routine dialogue along these lines. At its core the data team is a formalized way for colleagues to collaborate on how students are performing, and identify strengths and needs for students. During this process they might decide that assistance is needed with a particular instructional strategy or technology so a coach is called upon. In my role as technology facilitator I consider myself the “technology coach” for whomever needs assistance. Throughout the data team process, reflection is built-in as well as teachers think about their students’ performance and their own teaching.

As an aside, with the NYS Race To The Top initiative, one of the key components of the new structures being created is called the school-based inquiry team. NYSED defines the inquiry team as:

School-based Inquiry Teams – comprised of teachers, teacher leaders and administrators – are charged with becoming expert in accessing, understanding and using data to identify a change in instructional practice (e.g. teaching division of fractions) that will accelerate learning for a specific group of underperforming students. Based on what is learned from that experience, teams work with school staff to implement and monitor system-level change to benefit all students. The reflective practice that is used as the basis for the Inquiry Team’s work is intended to support continual, evidence-based improvement of student learning. While each school is to have at least one Inquiry Team, more teams may be put in place should the school find it valuable to do so.

Click here to see NYSED document with this definition.

To me this refers to the data teams we already have in place. While there are many individual teams and no one overriding data team to analyze system-level change for the whole school, the purpose of our data teams is in line with the definition of the inquiry team above. It appears we are well positioned as components of the RTTT initiatives are rolled out in the coming years.

Image licensed from

While it is not as relaxed as an after-concert celebration, the more formalized process of collaboration, coaching and reflection built into our data teams and the coming RTTT initiatives put us in an excellent position to help our students excel.

Conferences Learning

Staff Development Day March 2011

On Friday the district held a staff development day where we split up by curriculum area K-12. The focus for the day was on design questions from Robert Marzano’s The Art & Science of Teaching. Facilitators for each curriculum area were formed into what were called design teams, and included content teachers, administrators, and a technology facilitator. I was the technology facilitator for the Health and IDEAS team.

In our district, health education at the elementary level is done through the IDEAS program. The IDEAS teachers are gifted and talented certified teachers who provide level one gifted programming services to every student in the school. Elementary students have IDEAS class once every five days from kindergarten through fourth grade. At the middle school level, students have health class for 20 weeks in eighth grade. At the high school level, students can take the required 20 week class during any year.

One of the biggest successes is that it was first time all the health teachers K-12 had the opportunity to work together for a full day! Just the fact that they could have professional dialogue with all level colleagues was awesome. They really enjoyed the time to work and share together.

One of the biggest challenges health teachers have is that many times the content they teach is about things students should not do (tobacco, alcohol, etc.) and true assessment can be difficult. While a student can have all the knowledge about why smoking is bad and get a good grade on a health test, it is whether or not they choose to smoke when outside of school that is the true reflection of their skills. One form of feedback we discussed is the Search Institute Survey administered every other year by the Town of Amherst in partnership with district schools. It is an anonymous survey given to 8th, 10th and 12th grade students about their supports and behaviors related to the 40 Developmental Assets. Results for the Town of Amherst (not just the Williamsville district) can be found on the Town website. Individual schools have results for their buildings.

We spent part of the morning defining and refining learning goals and had work time for each level (elementary, middle and high) to have dialogue on topics of their choosing. We also allowed time for working with technology tools of their choice. All of the documents we shared went through district Google Docs accounts in a shared folder. We used Prezi for the main presentation points during the day (see presentation embedded above), and also show examples from Xtranormal and Animoto.

I have the good fortune to see the health curriculum through not only this dialogue day, but also through our district curriculum council. The health teachers presented their overall curriculum recently, and to me there are two overriding themes to all the units health teachers do:

  • goal setting
  • decision making

These themes are found throughout every unit, at every level. Whether it is an elementary student thinking about food choices, or a high school student thinking about relationships, these themes are essential to those conversations.

Part of the afternoon was spent focusing on providing effective feedback. As many health teachers are also coaches, we used the coaching analogy to talk about how effective feedback in the classroom should be like effective feedback on the playing field.

I have to say for me this was one of the most stressful days to prepare for personally since I was not that familiar with the health curriculum or the teachers involved. That being said, it is not the role of any one person to be the expert at everything. This day was about collegial dialogue, where everyone has something to contribute. The other facilitators I worked with were awesome. We had many meetings where we discussed and planned how the day should go. Once the staff development day got rolling and we were working together, it was great. Overall I think it  went very well. Feedback indicated that participants were happy, and they provided ideas on how we will structure the next day we are together, which is scheduled to be at the end of August. I feel much more comfortable about the next time we are together now that we have some momentum!

I’ll finish with a great Animoto video created by Tricia DeSantis (Assistant Principal at East HS) on learning goals – note the awesome soundtrack!

Content Area Focus Digital Citizenship Learning People

Technology Integration in the New NYS Teaching Standards

New York is a winner of the Race to the Top funding initiative sponsored by the federal government. There is a whole host of passionate conversation about what RTTT means for education. I’m going to skip that part of the dialogue for now and focus on what has been going on in New York, and specifically on what has already happened at the state level and the implications for the very near future.

For the past 2 years during the state’s involvement in applying for and winning a RTTT grant, the Board of Regents has actively been implementing parts of what it calls the Regents Reform Agenda (RRA) (sorry for the multiple acronyms – it’s easier to type). The RRA is essentially the plan in place to carry out the items specified in the RTTT application.

One of the components of the RTTT application is an updated performance review process for teachers and administrators. New York had to change its application, which was rejected in the first round, to reflect a more concrete process in which to demonstrate an updated review process. In May of 2010 new law was passed by the legislature – section 103 of the laws of 2010 specifically addresses teacher and principal performance review. The new section of the education law, 3012-c, can be found here.

The law indicates that teachers and principals must be evaluated on a combination of student performance (40%) and personal performance (60%). Regarding the 60% based on personal performance, the law states, “The remaining percent of the evaluations, ratings and effectiveness scores shall be locally developed, consistent with the standards prescribed in the regulations of the commissioner, through negotiations conducted pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law.” (Section 3012-c(2)(h))

The standards prescribed in the regulations of the commissioner (as mentioned in the law) were just approved by the Board of Regents at the January 2011 meeting. They come in the form of the New York State Teaching Standards. There are seven standards, with underlying elements and performance indicators, that outline the skills necessary for teachers. These standards were designed so rubrics for performance could be developed. The work group putting together the teaching standards stopped short of developing specific rubrics, as there are other groups working on that right now. For a list of FAQs surrounding the development of the standards, click here: Teaching Standards Q&A

Here is the full document with the newly adopted NYS Teaching Standards: New York State Teaching Standards

So in the age of technology and its use in the classroom, where does New York State stand in terms of what teachers should be doing with technology? One of the questions from the Q&A document provides some light:

Q. Is there a separate standard for a teacher’s use of technology?
A. The ability of educators to use a variety of technological tools, techniques, and  skills to inform and enhance teaching, learning, and other aspects of  professional performance is crucial to their effectiveness in today’s learning environment.  Since technology is such a prevalent factor in today’s world and is included in so many aspects of teaching and student learning, a decision was made to infuse technology throughout all of the Standards rather than to isolate it in a single Standard.  Therefore, references to the use of technological resources, knowledge, and skills are found throughout the Teaching Standards ( e.g. Elements I.6;  II.6;  III.4;  III.5; etc. ).

Technology, or technologies, is referenced 11 times within the standards – below are the specific references. Take a look and see what you think. Please note that I am only showing any mention of technology. Some of the items items are elements within standards, and some are performance indicators within elements.

  • Teachers demonstrate knowledge and understanding of technological and information literacy and how they affect student learning.
  • Teachers use technological tools and a variety of communication strategies to engage each student.
  • Teachers incorporate a knowledge and understanding of technology in their lessons to enhance student learning.
  • Teachers explore and use a variety of instructional approaches, resources, and technologies to meet diverse learning needs, engage students, and promote achievement.
  • Teachers incorporate instructional approaches and technologies to provide students with opportunities to demonstrate mastery of learning outcomes.
  • Teachers engage students in the development of multidisciplinary skills, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and use of technology.
  • Students utilize technologies and resources to solve real world problems.
  • Teachers organize and utilize available resources (e.g., physical space, time, people, technology) to create a safe and productive learning environment.
  • Teachers ensure that all students have equitable access to available resources and technologies.
  • Teachers use multiple measures and multiple formats, including available technology, to assess and document student performance.
  • Teachers advocate, model, and manage safe, legal, and ethical use of information and technology, including respect for intellectual property and the appropriate documentation of sources.

I like the fact that technology is not a separate standard, as it needs to be used as a tool. I like the fact that ethical use is specifically mentioned. I like the statement, “students utilize technologies and resources to solve real-world problems.” As a matter of fact, I think every statement included in the standards related to technology is excellent.

I wonder how this is going to play out. Since the annual professional performance review (APPR) is a locally-negotiated item, how will these standards come into play when the review document is created? According to the state, there are a number of pilots underway right now to test various types of rubrics to support the standards. As with any measure of professional performance, the meat and value of the review will come with the details of how the measurement is done.

The new New York State Teaching Standards represents a top-down model for improving teaching and learning, motivated by the Race to the Top initiative. We are going to spend a lot of time transforming current systems to this new model – I hope it’s worth the time and effort.