Student-Driven Differentiation

I am excited to announce that my first book,  Student-Driven Differentiation (forward by Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson and published by Corwin Press), is now available for pre-sale on Amazon.com. You can check out the contents and preliminary reviews here.

What is Student-Driven Differentiation?

Student-driven differentiation shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn. The focus also shifts from the teacher as the owner of the knowledge and the students the receivers of such knowledge. Student-driven differentiation requires teachers to find a healthy balance in their relationships with all students, use multiple types of evidence to ensure student growth, and partner with students in the process.

  • Shifts the focus from what students are going to do to what students need to learn
  • Requires teachers to find common ground with all students
  • Creates learning environments where students have control over their learning
  • Gives students the autonomy to create, learn, and grow at their own pace
  • Requires honest and mutually respectful teacher-student relationships
  • Students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan

 

The greatest deficiency in education is our obsession with showcasing deficits.

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This August marks the first time in 15 years that I didn’t have an official first day of school. Instead, this August, I transitioned to full-time educational consulting and I had numerous “first days” of school at districts in the Chicagoland area and elsewhere in the country.

As I wrap up my first month of consulting, I have one overarching takeaway: in every building, in every district, in every city, in every state, there are administrators, teachers, and students who are so passionate about learning that you can feel the positive energy in the room. It’s humbling, heartwarming, and inspiring.

Yet, what I also see are lots of educators and students who frequently second guess themselves, continuously ask for permission to do anything, or who render themselves silent in large groups and appear to have “given up.” However, behind closed doors, these are the same educators and students who are overflowing with enthusiasm and have a wealth of knowledge.

Naturally, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the strikingly similar behaviors both adult educators and student learners demonstrate in our current educational system. What causes passionate learners to become apathetic toward their passion? Why do students and adults alike ask for permission to learn? And, I keep coming back to one simple conclusion.

The Deficit Model of Education Has Worn Us All Down

Focusing on the deficits (or the kinder term, areas for growth) of students, teachers, and administrators is the go-to in education. We spend so much time beating ourselves up about the areas data shows we need improvement that we forget about our strengths. And, no one is pointing them out to us.

Our expectations are flawed. In theory, all students are expected to master all standards. All teachers are expected to be proficient at numerous criteria in a variety of categories, and all administrators are expected to cross every t and dot every i, always.

When a student, teacher, or administrator demonstrates expertise in one area (i.e. a student is strong in reading, a teacher is strong in curriculum mapping, an administrator has strong parent communication) we give them a quick pat-on-the-back and then immediately present them with their deficit (student- you need to work on math computation, teacher you need to differentiate, administrator- you need to improve student test scores).  Instead of celebrating someone’s strength and recognizing how this strength could help build the capacity of the entire organization, we treat individual’s strengths like items on a checklist. ✅

But, strengths are worthy of more than a check.

What if, instead of focusing on what students can’t do, teachers won’t do, or administrators didn’t do, we focus on what we can all accomplish together? How might education look different?

We need to find systems to authentically detect individual’s specific strengths, share these strengths publicly, and create a culture where we tap into each other’s strengths to build each other’s capacity ultimately benefiting our organizations and the field of education on the whole. We need to retrain our minds to start looking for the skills and qualities that set people apart and focus solely on that.

One idea that can work if properly implemented is something I refer to as a reverse pineapple chart. The traditional pineapple chart is a popular system of professional learning that allows teachers to invite one another into their classrooms for informal observation. The chart is set up in a common location: the teacher’s lounge, the copy room, hallway, etc.

What I propose is that rather than putting the onus on ourselves to promote our own strengths, we create a reverse pineapple chart where we promote each other’s strengths and hang that in a high traffic area within the school. The items we celebrate must be authentic and unique, and not general statements like, “John is child-centered.”The key is that everyone in an organization is looking at each other to find the good and recognize them for that.

pineapple chart revearse

The same process can be used in classrooms for students and in central offices for administrators. By using strategies that promote strengths over needs, we can create school climates where applause drowns out protest.

What are your thoughts on focusing on student, teacher, and administrator strengths rather than deficits? Share in the comment section or connect with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

3 Lessons I Learned Leading Startups That I Wish I Knew as a Principal

Having worked in leadership roles in both public education and in the edtech startup industry, there are three organizational behaviors that, should I go back to school or district leadership, I would implement on Day 1.  

#1:  Daily or Weekly Standups

What’s the best way to have a well-run organization (whether a school or an edtech company)?  Communicate!  Take ten minutes every morning and assemble your office staff.  Go through the day, discuss what is expected to happen that day, and give every person a chance to ask questions.  Not only will doing so ensure everyone is on the same page, everyone’s day will run smoother.  

Standups allow for daily communication.

Oh, and what’s with the “standup”?  Everyone stands up for the meeting.  There isn’t a more effective way to keep a meeting short and on-task than by making people stand up while it’s happening.

#2:  Chat

I am against intercoms in schools.  In my opinion, they are the most intrusive and abused devices in existence – completely disruptive to teaching and learning (or general sanity). Download Slack (or embrace the use of any messaging tool that your teachers already like) and let every teacher and staff member in your building use it to communicate. These tools are efficient and allow for regular communication.

I like Slack because users can create “channels” that your staff can follow (i.e. lunch duty, after school clubs, 5th-grade team, etc.).  Of course, your staff may think big brother is watching their conversations.  But, as long as conversations on your messaging system put students first, what’s the worry?  

#3:  Ring the Bell!

Make no mistake, right behind the intercom, bells are the most obnoxious systems in schools.  But, in the workplace, ringing a bell is not the way employees know when to stop doing “this” and start doing “that” like the way many schools use bells to determine when Math is over and PE begins.

Bells are a way to let people know something positive has happened somewhere in the organization.  Full disclosure, this is stolen from car dealerships who ring bells with every car sale.  But, at Otus, big or small, we ring the bell.  A code bug is squashed…ring!  A sale is made…ring!  And, more of a full disclosure, we literally ring the bell emoji in Slack (you already know how I feel about distractions).

Bottom line, find your bell.  Don’t literally ring a bell in your school, but do make a point to publicly celebrate successful moments with your staff.  Maybe send an email blast or a group chat message containing small victories from the day (a great PD session, a positive call from a parent, etc.). Everyone has bad days and by “ringing the bell” you are showing that despite your bad day, good moments are always happening at school.

This post is written by my former co-worker and current husband, Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.


About Keith: Dr. Keith Westman taught third grade, served as a K-8 technology coordinator and was a middle school principal during his ten years working in school districts.  He left public education to work with his childhood friend who had started an edtech company.  That company, Aspex Solutions (now part of Frontline Education), grew up to provide AppliTrack and K12JobSpot.com to thousands of school districts and millions of job seekers throughout the country. Keith is the COO of Otus, the makers of the Otus Student Performance Platform, based in Chicago’s popular Fulton Market neighborhood, and moonlights as an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University.

How To Coach For Differentiation

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A teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who ‘already differentiates instruction.’ Rather that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, every day in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better match for its learners. – Carol Ann Tomlinson

Raise your hand if differentiation is on your school district’s list of initiatives? If your district is like many across the country, differentiation is something that is talked about frequently, and perhaps a struggle to implement.

I recently completed my second year as an instructional coach who specializes in differentiation, and in this time I’ve started to recognize trends as to why differentiation (which clearly helps students learn) is not fully embraced by educators (who strive to ensure students learn).

Differentiation Is Not the Goal

In short, there is a lot of confusion about what differentiation is, how you do it, and what it looks like.

Because I have the word differentiation in my title, teachers would often seek me out with a predetermined goal for our coaching cycle: “I want to differentiate instruction.”

Initially, I thought the fact that teachers came to me with a goal would make my job easier. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, when teachers came to me with this specific goal, our cycles were not as successful as cycles with other identified goals.

It took several stalled coaching cycles for me to recognize why this was happening. Once, I realized the reason, however, my coaching practice improved. The reason is: differentiation in it of itself is not the goal; rather differentiation is the result of the achievement of a number of smaller goals.

What do you mean?

Here’s an analogy. Many people set a goal to “lose weight.” As they make their action plan, they set a series of smaller, more manageable, and trackable goals: eat smaller meals more frequently, limit sugar intake, increase exercise, etc. Weight loss is a natural by-product of any of these smaller goals steps, assuming they are done with fidelity.

The Big Four

In Instructional Coaching, author Jim Knight identifies “The Big Four”  areas in which teachers and coaches can partner to set goals. The big four are: classroom management, content, instruction, and formative assessment.

To differentiate effectively, and to effectively coach around differentiation, the natural starting point is to examine at each of these categories need to be considered for individual teachers.

Classroom Management: The learning environment is instrumental for effective differentiation. Teachers and students must have a mutual understanding of expectations and the climate must be evident of respect and rapport. If these elements are not evident, it is in the best interest of the coach, teacher, and students to start here if the teacher is willing.

Sometimes teachers are hesitant to form a classroom management goal as they feel pressured to implement initiatives, like differentiation, and feel they are wasting time and administrators won’t “see” differentiation in their classroom.

I strongly encourage coaches and teachers to not give into that perceived pressure and to engage in a classroom management cycle if needed. It is the coach’s responsibility to also work with administrators so they understand the multiple small steps/coaching cycles that may take place before differentiation is readily evident and effective.

Classroom Management

Example Classroom Managment Coaching Cycle Goal: I want to decrease the number of disruptions. ➢    Data Collected: Number of disruptions in a 40 minute period ➢    Strategy used: Break up whole group instruction with structured partner work (specifically a Kagan Strategy called Rally Coach) ➢    How did differentiation ensue?: Rally Coach allowed for students at different placed in their learning to partner and challenge each partner appropriately

Content

As more and more school districts switch to standards-based grading which requires educators to study the language of the standards (CCSS, NGSS, C3) they are assessing, a common conclusion made is often times, there is quite a bit of leeway as far as specific content.

While this can, at times, still be a hard pill for some content experts to swallow (why isn’t studying the Civil War mandatory?) this change allows for teachers to differentiate for student’s interests within a unit of study which ultimately benefits their mastery of the skill being assessed.

Example Content Coaching Cycle Goal I want students to see the relevancy of the content in a unit. ➢    Data Collected: Student engagement data ➢    Strategy used: Essential question(s) ➢    How did differentiation ensue?: Students self-identified areas of relevance to the content and then wrote pieces on different topics all related to the subject area, rather than in previous years where all students wrote on the same topic.

Instruction

Oftentimes, instruction is an area that will require multiple goals and the use of more than one strategy for each goal (read more on why here). This is also an area that lends itself nicely to coaches and teachers partnering as co-teachers for part of the learning phase of the coaching cycle.

Example Instruction Coaching Cycle Goal I want to e ngage more students in class discussions. ➢    Data Collected: Types, kind, level of questions asked and number of students volunteering to answer ➢    Strategy used: Questioning (using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge) and options for multiple students to answer simultaneously (using various tech tools) ➢    How did differentiation ensue? Asking questions at various levels (more open than closed questions, more analysis questions than knowledge questions) increased the number of students contributing answers which allowed the teacher to assess students’ understanding of concepts more thoroughly and adjust pacing for those students (differentiate the process) accordingly.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is the heart of differentiation as it provides the evidence as to what students know, don’t know and when done correctly, formative assessment provides both the teacher and student with information as to what to do next.

The biggest hurdle with formative assessment is many times the word assessment is misinterpreted (you can read more about that here) and teachers and students miss opportunities to use valuable pieces of evidence.

Example Formative Assessment Coaching Cycle Goal I want to involve students in the formative assessment process. ➢    Data Collected: Type of peer feedback offered ➢    Strategy used: Peer feedback and video analysis of feedback ➢    How did differentiation ensue? Student products were differentiated as peer feedback promoted student autonomy and allowed choice in showing mastery of a concept or skill.

In the end

Both instructional coaching and differentiation are complex topics and this blog post just scratches the surface. The more educators engage in dialogue about coaching and differentiation the more opportunity we all have to learn and perfect our craft. Please share your experiences with differentiation and working with/as an instructional coach by commenting below or connecting with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

For more on differentiation, read these posts or check out my book Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning In The Classroom

For more on instructional coaching, read these posts:

Who Is Really Responsible For The Summer Slide?

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground guest blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

School let out in the Chicago suburbs just over a week ago. While I have never been a proponent of the “last days of school countdown” and much prefer Twitter movements like #lastbell, I must admit, I like the time off. I appreciate waking up in the morning without an alarm and drinking coffee from a real mug.

Similarly, my children (ages 11 and 8) have enjoyed sleeping in and playing outside. It wasn’t until day 6 of our time-off together that we did something “educational.” We visited the library where we greeted by a large poster reminding us to read and avoid the dreaded “summer slide.”

What is the summer slide?
The summer slide refers to the phenomena of lost academic growth by students over the summer months when they are not actively engaged at school. On average, students lose one to three months of learning during the summer, with students from low-income homes being disproportionately affected (ASCD).

There are a plethora of recommendations for minimizing the impact of the summer slide. Most suggestions, including those listed in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, focus on two aspects of the slide, one preventative and one reactionary:

  1. what parents/guardians can do to avoid the summer slide

  2. what educators can/need to do to fix the damage done over the summer when school resumes in the fall

Why are we placing the burden of preventing the summer slide on parents?
As an educator, I have insight into what my children should be doing over the summer and I have the luxury of time-off to do things like read with them. Yet, to be honest, I don’t assess whether or not our activities help their retention nor do I want to do so. This leads me to wonder about the majority of parents who aren’t trained educators or who don’t have time-off from work. Are they really the right party to rely on to prevent the summer slide?

There are people, like Geoffrey Canada, who say the idea of no school in the summer is asinine altogether:

“every 10 years they reproduce the same study. It says exactly the same thing: Poor kids lose ground in the summertime. The system decides you can’t run schools in the summer…who makes up those rules? — I went the Harvard Ed School. I thought I knew something. They said it was the agrarian calendar, — but let me tell you why that doesn’t make sense….anyone knows if you farm, you don’t plant crops in July and August. You plant them in the spring” (Ted Talk, Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough, 2013).

However, considering that a systemic change (like mandated year-round school) could take years to legislate, we ought to focus less on what parents and students should do to prevent the summer slide and focus more on what we (educators) can control.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are:

  1. What are we doing during the school year to ensure that the growth our students make is permanent?

  2. What are we (inadvertently) doing to make students resistant to learning in the summer?

And, I propose that the following practices (or lack thereof) are unwittingly contributing to our students’ summer slide:

Reliance on Bells and Schedules
During the nine months we have students in our classrooms we consistently send them subliminal messages that learning is fixed and structured, rather than fluid and ubiquitous. This is not malicious, but true nonetheless.

We offer our students instruction in the form of “periods” or “blocks” which typically rely on bells to indicate when learning starts and stops. Students learn reading from 8-9, and then they learn science from 9-10. And, while many schools claim to teach literacy in all classes, or engage in interdisciplinary learning, on the whole, these connections are not clear to students. Students struggle to transfer information learned in one class to another class, let alone from one year to another.

What we need to do is recognize, vocalize, and celebrate the fact that the content, skills, and concepts we cover in our classrooms just scratch the surface of what there is to be learned. We need to focus on building students’ metacognitive awareness so they recognize when and where they are learning, so they can self-identify what strategies to use to best understand the new information to which they are constantly exposed. By doing so, even when students are at home “playing video games” all summer, we give them the greatest opportunity to learn something from playing these games (plotline of a story, digital imagery, strategizing) and make connections.

Incorrectly “using” formative assessment
In Formative Assessment 2.0, Larry Ainsworth offers Stiggins’ explanation of formative assessment as something that, “happens while learning is still underway. These are the assessments that we conduct throughout teaching and learning to diagnose student needs, plan for next steps in instruction, provide students with feedback they can use…”

When done correctly, formative assessment (sometimes referred to as assessment for learning) informs both the teacher and the student of whether or not concepts/skills have been consistently mastered. The consistent “loss” of skills or knowledge over the summer months is indicative of improperly assessing students’ progress/mastery throughout the year. Furthermore, this loss suggests the focus is on moving students as a whole, rather than focusing on individual student growth which would require the use of formative assessment evidence to differentiate for their needs.

Perhaps, if we truly shift our focus to assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning, and resume teaching our students where they actually left-off the year before, the gaps will not be as cavernous.

Making reading a punishment
If (as advertised) reading is the key to preventing the summer slide; the one thing all educators must do is curate a love of reading.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to do just the opposite and systemize reading. For many students, reading is seen as a chore, a measure of compliance, or worse, something it is ok to “lie” about (read more about this here or here).

With this in mind, it is no wonder that students choose to not read in the summer. They need a break because reading feels strenuous and stressful.

Rather than assign reading in it of itself, we need to pose relevant and provocative questions which will naturally compel students to read. Instead of assigning 20 minutes of reading a night, we can ask students questions about what they read outside of class (online, in books, in magazines, even subtitles) and accept that reading takes on many forms.

When we expose students to reading in a variety of forms and recognize learning from reading of any source (wow, that’s pretty cool. where did you learn/read about that, I’ve never heard that before? Can you show me that?) it’s pretty incredible how much more students are willing to read.

In The End
Until school runs year-round we may never fully eradicate the summer slide. But, we can certainly do our best to ensure that what our students learn is permanent and not fleeting. What are your thoughts on the summer slide?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Student-Driven Differentiation: Putting Student Voice Behind The Wheel

Student Voice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Over the weekend, while at a BBQ, I had a conversation with some middle schoolers and their parents about our summer plans. I mentioned the work I will be doing with student-driven differentiation which prompted one of the parents to ask me a question I get asked frequently, “what is student-driven differentiation?”

I replied as I normally do. I stated the traditional definition of differentiation (an approach to teaching in which educators use ongoing assessment to actively plan for students’ differences and adjust instruction so all students can learn). Then, I explained that student driven differentiation calls for the use of one additional, non-negotiable, piece to effectively plan instruction: student voice.

After giving this long-winded answer, one of the middle schoolers sitting at the table said, “Oh, my teacher asks me a lot of questions, but she never listens to any of my answers.”

I respect my students, just ask them!

A few months ago, I read The School Voice Report published by The Quaglia Institute. The report disclosed some very thought-provoking numbers. Most notably, after surveying over 60,000 students and 4,000 teachers, researchers found 99% of teachers surveyed reported they respect their students, while 58% of students surveyed reported feeling respected by their teachers.

Additionally, of those surveyed, 82% of teachers said they actively seek out student opinions and ideas, yet only 47% of students feel teachers are willing to learn from them.

These discrepancies did not surprise me. I often see a disconnect between teachers’ and students’ perceptions of respect and listening. Many teachers will ask students for input and innocently, yet mistakenly, believe that just asking students questions is a clear indicator of the respect they have for them.  However, students feel respected when their thoughts and questions are heard and addressed accordingly. So, without action (whether that be a change or a valid explanation of why a change cannot occur) students do not necessarily feel respected.

When differentiating instruction (student-driven or not), teachers are mindful that some students will master content and skills more quickly while some students will struggle to learn the same content and skills. With student-driven differentiation, rather than plan in advance how to address student needs, students’ voices (collective and individual) are sought to craft the plan. Student-driven differentiation lends itself to teacher action which produces the ultimate result: students who feel respected, heard, and who learn.

But… there is always a “but”.

In my work with teachers on student-driven differentiation, I regularly encounter concerns about differentiation in general (read more about that here), and with student-driven differentiation, teachers often share two additional concerns: not having enough time (we have so much content to get through, it doesn’t leave time for talking with students) and the number of students they have (I have too many students to talk to all of them on a regular basis).

In Student Voice: The Instrument of Change Russell Quaglia and Michael Corso address these and other perceived barriers to seeking student voice to which they respond with the following statements:

  • Time sacrificed in the short run to listen to students pays off in the long run in the form of higher engagement (26).
  • It is impossible to teach well without knowing your students (53).

Back in my day, teachers didn’t talk to students.
In the blogpost, Why Differentiation Misses The Mark for Gifted Students, I ascertain that one of the reasons differentiation can seem unattainable is due to remnants of the factory model of teaching that still exists in today’s classroom. The lack of attention to student voice would be a prime example of one of these remnants. Historically, taking student voice into consideration has not been a component of teaching and learning.

Therefore, using student voice to guide instruction can seem foreign to teachers and they often have fears about adding this element into their practice. When I partner with teachers on student-driven differentiation once we get past worries about time, I frequently hear and address the following matters:

Concern #1: I don’t know what questions to ask students which will help drive my instruction.
Remedy: As educators, we often overthink things. Debating the right questions to ask students would be an example of such overthinking. In short, the answer to any question you ask a student can likely inform instruction. However, I know teachers want more direction than that. So, teachers and I usually work together to create questions related to the four categories of differentiation. For example:

  • Content: What intrigues you about this concept/topic? Or, (for an apathetic student), why do you find this topic boring?
  • Process: Is taking notes helping you to understand the material? If so, how do you know? If not, what learning strategy might be more helpful?
  • Product: In an ideal world where you could show your understanding of this concept/topic in any way, how would you show your understanding?
  • Learning environment: Are you and your groupmates able to work collaboratively on this task? If so, how do you know? If not, what are your groups’ obstacles?

Concern #2: Students will become entitled if I do whatever they want.
Remedy: Listening to students relay information about their wants and needs does not necessarily mean you do whatever students say. Rather, listening means students’ thoughts are considered. To show such consideration for these thoughts you can follow these steps: ask questions of students, summarize their responses to check for understanding, and then genuinely think about their questions/thoughts in relationship to your expectations. In doing so, you will gain information as to how to differentiate for their needs within the realm of your expectations. For example:

Teacher check-in with student: “It appears that you haven’t made any progress on your PowerPoint.”

Student response: “Can I make an infographic instead of a PowerPoint to present this information?”

Teacher response: “It sounds to be like you would like to present information about (state concept) in an infographic rather than a PowerPoint. Can you tell me how you will (state learning intentions) in an infographic?”

Teacher’s next steps: Continue to converse with the student to determine the best way the student can incorporate the learning intentions into his alternate product suggestion. If along the way it becomes clear that the suggested alternative won’t allow the student to show understanding, converse with the student as to the reasons why; the student will likely have already come to the same conclusion.

Concern #3: I don’t want to blur the lines with my students. I am their teacher, not their friend.
Remedy: We have lots of conversations with people who we aren’t trying to become friends with, why are students any different? Instead of worrying your students will see you as a friend, follow the three tenets of building genuine relationships with students through conversation:

  • Be Real: ask questions and share appropriate personal anecdotes to find common ground and connect.
  • Be Consistent: deliver on promises and react to similar situations in the same way regardless of which student is involved.
  • Be A Listener: seek first to understand your students before you ensure their understanding of you.

What other questions or comments do you have about student-driven differentiation? How has listening to students helped you meet their needs? Feel free to comment below or contact me directly.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

It’s Time For The Field Of Education To Step Up To The Plate

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This post was originally published on LeadUpNow.


One of the best parts about being an instructional coach is learning from other teachers. Like today, when one of our math and STEM teachers, Fil Dudic, stopped by to talk about two of our favorite topics: education and The Chicago Cubs.

Ok, I admit, I’m not a die-hard Cubs fan like the rest of my family, but I certainly like all that goes along with the Cubs: hot dogs, getting sunburnt in the bleachers, singing Go, Cubs, Go. But, until this conversation with Fil piqued my interest, I knew very little about the team or the game of baseball in general.

As Fil and I discussed the Cubs, Fil quoted Cubs Coach Joe Madden’s statement about themes for the Cubs 2017 season, “It’s really important to be uncomfortable. If you become a comfortable person, I think that subtracts growth from the equation” Fil was struck by this comment as it also applies to much of the work we are currently doing in the field of education.

As Fil and I dove down the rabbit hole of educational topics we have grown so fond of visiting, we landed again on one of our favorite topics: the application of research and use of data in education.

I told Fil about a compelling Ted Talk I watched recently Our failing schools. Enough is Enough!  by Geoffrey Canada. In his Ted Talk, Canada gives a compelling call-to-action, urging us to look critically at our system and practices:

Look, you go into a place that’s failed kids for 50 years, and you say, “So what’s the plan?” And they say, “We’ll, we’re going to do what we did last year this year.” What kind of business model is that? Banks used to open and operate between 10 and 3. They operated 10 to 3. They were closed for lunch hour. Now, who can bank between 10 and 3?  The unemployed. They don’t need banks. They got no money in the banks. Who created that business model? Right? And it went on for decades. You know why? Because they didn’t care. It wasn’t about the customers. It was about bankers. They created something that worked for them. How could you go to the bank when you were at work? It didn’t matter. And they don’t care, —one day, some crazy banker had an idea. Maybe we should keep the bank open when people come home from work.

Why don’t we [do this in education]? Because our business has refused to use science.As a profession, we have to stop this. The science is clear.”

Canada made it seem so simple, the evidence is clear, we need to change.

So, why then, does the business of education, in large part, turn a blind eye to science?

This was the question I asked Fil and proposed a simple answer. That being, there are some deep-rooted reasons for resistance, the most prominent one being nostalgia.

Using science to inform educational practice would undoubtedly tell us we desperately need to do something different. But, that is uncomfortable and intimidating. But, when we start contemplating what change entails, inevitably our heads start to hurt thinking about all of the systemic shifts, bureaucratic hurdles, and fear of doing something wrong.

We start telling ourselves, “things are fine the way they are. Students have gone through systems like this for years and they are fine.” And, to truly convince ourselves of this sentiment, our minds start producing examples of fond memories of our own school days, and before we know it, we are lost in a sea of nostalgia…”those were the days….” and we stop thinking a change is needed, we may even convince ourselves the science is flawed, not the system.

At this point, Fil brought the conversation back to baseball. He pointed that baseball could possibly the most nostalgia-inducing pastime in America.

I agreed, at this point, not quite seeing the connection until Fil told me about the book Ahead The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution where author Brian Kenny illustrates how some of baseball’s common practices (fielding errors, MVP election, pitching win-loss record, and more) are exercises in tradition rather than effectiveness.  And, moreover, Kenny articulates how baseball hasn’t changed, but our thinking about the game has evolved. For example, 150 years ago, walks were tabulated as an error for the pitcher, and today, pitching a “walk”  is considered a highly-cultivated skill.

Ok, and what does this have to do with education?

As the understanding of the game of baseball evolved, there was quite a bit of resistance from baseball fans. In the 19th and early 20th century, batters could request pitcher throw a certain type of pitch. Therefore, if a pitcher threw a “walk” it was an error as that was not the request.  But, then in 1900, some savvy pitchers realized throwing walks could be advantageous and strategically threw them. The MLB and fans were outraged. “Throwing walks is unfair!” people shouted. These pitchers’ tactics were not well-received and were considered an example of “gaming the system.”

Over time, as most things do, emotions died down and walks became an acceptable strategy. And, the most interesting thing about this? The number of walks thrown when throwing was considered an error is higher than when it became considered a strategic play (Kenny, 113).

“But, it’s not fair” is commonly and frequently cited by some educators, parents, and students in regard to standards-based grading, differentiation, no counting homework, and more. But, fair, as baseball teaches us is a state of mind, just as our understanding of the game of baseball has evolved, so is our changing perception of the game of education. And, with that, we must remember to be patient. Change does not happen overnight, but over years.

As another baseball great, Hall-Of-Famer, Branch Ricky said, “Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept ideas. I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms.

The Three Biggest Time Killers We Do Little to Avoid

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Teachers overwhelming cite time (76% of those surveyed) as the thing they wish they had more of each day (Primary Sources). Teachers want additional time to assess student work, plan lessons, and meet with colleagues. On the flipside, staff meetings, professional development, and logistical tasks are listed as inefficient uses of time.

And, while I agree these responsibilities could be streamlined, I also believe there are additional contributors, which collectively kill as much or more time than staff meetings or paperwork, are under our (teachers) direct control, and yet little is done to address or change these practices. What I am referring to are our conversations: in the hallway, in the lounge, in meetings.

Conversations and Better Conversations
Last week marked the end of a year-long, intensive instructional coaching workshop led by Jim Knight which I attended (you can read my previous reflections here or here).

While the workshop focused on instructional coaching, much of the content applies to life in general; my learning from the workshop has positively impacted both my professional and personal life.

Case in point, the lessons I learned on how to communicate more effectively with others. In Knight’s session on better conversations (based off the book by the same name) Knight outlines the steps we should take to improve as conversation partners. These criteria ultimately lead to increased productivity and camaraderie. Knight includes an entire chapter on the importance of finding common ground with those whom we converse.

Knight suggests using the acronym ICARE (interests, convictions, activities, roles, experiences) to help us identify safe categories we can explore with our conversation partners to find similarities.

What if we find common ground, but the bonds are destructive?
Since the workshop on Better Conversations, I have keenly observed others engaged in conversation to see how they find common ground with their colleagues.

I have seen many positive examples of people connecting through ICARE conversations about favorite sports teams, graduate school classes, and weekend plans.

Conversely, I have also seen people finding common ground in non-ICARE ways (including me). Whether conversation partners are aware of this or not, many people find common ground rooted in judgment, gossip, or negativity. These likenesses certainly do not garner positive outcomes, and frankly, they are an unwise use of our most coveted commodity- time.

Judgment
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of structure at home.”

“I know. Johnny came to school without his homework log signed for the third week in a row.”

Judgment is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. People often engage in this type of talk and feel as if they have found solid common ground. After all, this is a discussion between two people who share a common belief (it is important for students to comply with teacher orders) which appears to be rooted in the best interest of children.

However, there is an underlying judgment of the students’ parents here (they aren’t doing what they need to do). Additionally, there is a judgment of the student (he should still comply even though he may not have the same opportunities to do so). And, frankly, this type of conversation is not productive. Yet, week after week, year after year, some teachers will continue to engage in conversations which are founded in judgment without consideration of what can be done to alleviate the problem.

Gossip
“Did you hear that teacher is being reassigned?”

“Yes, I heard that. But, I am not surprised. She really struggled this year, and I heard there were a lot of parent complaints about her.”

As Jane Austen once said, “Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”  These “spies” are quick to share their observations in an effort to preserve their own status. Gossip does not help the subject (what could have been done to help this struggling teacher earlier in the year) and gossiping immediately extinguishes trust. If you gossip about one person, everyone knows there is a chance you will one day gossip about them, too. Without trust, productivity is compromised, and again time is wasted.

Negativity
“Students have no accountability anymore. They are in for a rude awakening in the real world when there are no retakes.”

“I know. Every year we keep lowering our standards for students.”

Negativity may be the most pervasive conversation killer and it is also highly contagious. Negativity places blame and focus on problems rather than promoting ownership and a focus on solutions.  Simply, negativity brings everyone down, including our students.

In the end
Judgment, gossip, and negativity are a part of life. From time to time we all engage in conversations which allow us to vent. And, this is ok. The key is, recognizing when these practices are habitual and destructive. At this point, a change must occur. And, that change starts with us.

Few people volunteer to step up and redirect toxic conversations. Many of us try to avoid conflict and fear repercussions. Plus, it can be uncomfortable to be the voice of dissent, even though the dissenting voice is positive.

Yet, my question is, how do you feel when you mitigate your feelings and allow toxic conversations to continue? For me, I wind up feeling safe in the moment, but terrible after the fact. To find a happy medium, I employ the three suggestions below to safely redirect judgment, gossip, and negativity.

  • Be Proactive: Bring up your concerns, but make them about yourself (even if it is really about someone else). “I was wondering if you could help me. I noticed that I pass judgment on the families and students who don’t complete homework and I don’t like this feeling. I can imagine you feel the same way. How can we work together to better address our students’ needs?”
  • Excuse yourself: When gossip rears its ugly head; our tendencies are to either join in or to listen, but not participate. However, silence can indicate consent and give gossipers an unspoken thumbs up. To stop gossip, we need to remove outlets. Therefore, create a mental bank of excuses which you can use to remove yourself from gossipy conversations, “Oh, I left something in the teacher workroom…Sorry to cut you off, I need to use the washroom before my students get back from specials….I am about to go meet with so-so, can we talk later?”
  • Kindly state an alternate point of view: I recognize this can be hard to do. As stated, negativity is contagious. If someone sneezed, you would offer them a kleenex or move away from them to protect yourself. We need to treat negativity the same way.  Acknowledge your colleague’s point of view and kindly share another perspective, “I understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating when students take longer to learn, and we need to reteach. But, since our job is to ensure all students succeed, what is the alternative? If all else fails, go back to suggestion number two and excuse yourself.

How else do you seek to find common ground with your colleagues? What successful strategies have you used and what other obstacles have you encountered and how have you worked to overcome these barriers?
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Teachers: Do We Appreciate One Another?

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Recently, my school district completed our second annual, year-long professional development program we call “mini-con.” Our theme this year was assessment, and I facilitated a course which was attended by 26 enthusiastic and dedicated professionals.

Over the year, our group spent time discussing and studying a variety of facets related to assessment. Teachers then applied their learning (individually or in teams) to create an assessment for their students. These assessments had a number of desired criteria. In short, we aimed to create assessments that:

  • authentically assessed a prioritized standard
  • had clearly defined learning intentions and success criteria which were mutually understood by the students and teacher
  • promoted student ownership

Needless to say, we were not talking about creating multiple choice tests. This was hard work.

At our last session, learning was facilitated by the participants themselves. Teachers shared a bit about their experience creating and using their new assessments. The goal was not for teachers to showcase their “best” work. Rather, this was an opportunity for teachers to ask their colleagues for feedback and answer each other’s questions.

The mini-con session was 90 minutes, and I spent the entire time sitting back and basking in the glory of what the teachers shared. There were a variety of highlights, namely the risks teachers took as they tried new ways of assessing students, how teachers collaborated with each other to analyze student work,  and how technology was integrated to formatively assess students in relevant ways. Teachers were transparent about their processes, emphasizing both celebrations and struggles.

I felt very proud of this tenacious group, and I was extraordinarily appreciative of their effort and strong will to grow as professionals.

On my ride home from work that day, I thought to myself, “How perfect that teacher appreciation week is soon. I can show these teachers how grateful I am for them.”  But, my train of thought was interrupted as I had an epiphany of sorts centered around these questions:

  1. How had I shown appreciation for teachers throughout the year?
  2. Do other teachers show appreciation for their colleagues regularly?
  3. Are our methods of showing appreciation for one another effective?

When it comes to appreciation, do we all speak the same language?
Several years ago, I read The 5 Languages of Love by Gary Chapman, and while this book primarily speaks to personal relationships, I have found the basic premise to hold true for a variety of interpersonal circumstances.

Basically, Chapman asserts there are five ways humans show affection for each other:

  • By giving gifts
  • By sharing words of affirmation
  • By spending quality time
  • Through acts of service
  • Through physical connection

Chapman goes on to explain that people have a primary and secondary love language which they use to express affection. These languages are also their preferred ways to receive affection.

Chapman cautions that just like with all languages, if two people speak different languages they may not understand each other. For example, if an individual feels affection through words of affirmation and someone gives them a gift to show their love, the recipient may not feel loved just by the receiving the gift alone.

Therefore, if we want to make sure our feelings for each other are properly communicated, we need to speak the same language. I can give a gift if that is my love language, but if the recipient of my gift speaks the language of words of affirmation, I need to also include a thoughtful note or explanation. Chapman suggests watching how others show affection toward others to figure out how they prefer to receive love.

OK, but how do love languages relate to teacher appreciation?
Results of a new study, Teacher Job Satisfaction and Student Achievement: The Roles of Teacher Professional Community and Teacher Collaboration in Schools published in The American Journal of Education conclude that a positive school culture and teacher collaboration are essential for student achievement. Additionally, a recent article in Forbes Magazine cites evidence from multiple studies all which indicate employees who feel appreciated are more productive and have more positive feelings about their work/workplace than those who feel unappreciated.

And, it is here where teacher appreciation and the 5 Languages of Love intersect. As stated, studies show employees who feel appreciated have stronger performance than those who do not feel appreciated.

When surveyed, teachers consistently report feeling underappreciated (OECD).  This leaves me wondering something: how many attempts at showing appreciation go unfelt because the wrong “love” language was unknowingly used to express gratitude?

Probably many. But, there is more to this than just using the right language.
Teachers most frequently say they feel unappreciated by society and administration.  And, it is easy to look outward at factors we cannot control, we can’t make society appreciate us. But, when we look inward, we must ask, what part do we, teachers, play in creating a culture of appreciation?

Sometimes we get so caught up in how busy we are and how physically and mentally demanding teaching is that we forget to show appreciation for others who do the same strenuous job.

Then, we have weeks like this one (Teacher Appreciation Week) where teachers across the country are showered with sweet treats in the teacher’s lounge, and are given tokens of appreciation from students, parents, and administrators. But, how many of us take the time to show genuine appreciation for each other on a regular basis?

When we consider ways to improve school culture and create positive, collaborative environments which ultimately benefit students, we often look to our district’s administration or the government to foster conducive conditions. Yet, we overlook the vital role we (teachers) play, individually and collectively, in contributing to a positive school climate.

So, in the spirit of teacher appreciation week and along the lines of the 5 Languages of Love, this week, take a step back and observe your colleagues. How are they expressing their gratitude toward others? Are they sharing words of affirmation, giving gifts, offering service?  Once you determine your co-worker’s language of love, consider these 5 ways to show appreciation for your teaching colleague(s) every day of the year:

  • By giving gifts- surprise your colleague with breakfast.
  • By sharing words of affirmation- Acknowledge what you appreciate about your colleague and share the specifics in an email, note, or in person. “I appreciate how you always keep our team student focused…”
  • By spending quality time: Look at your PLC meetings as quality time. During a meeting, share an example of something you have successfully implemented with your students which you learned from one of your PLC members.
  • Through acts of service: cover your colleague’s extra duty or make copies for them, because you value them, not because they asked.
  • Through physical connection- smile at your colleagues when you see them, everyday.

How else will you show appreciation for your colleagues? Share your ideas and more importantly, share the results. How has showing appreciation for each other impacted your school’s culture?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Why Differentiation Misses the Mark for Gifted Students

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Last week I wrote Differentiation: Attainable or Somewhere Over The Rainbow which addresses some common objections related to differentiated instruction. One of these arguments being that many educators and gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students are not being met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.

Dr. Jim Delisle, author and gifted education expert, brought this topic to the forefront in his 2015 EdWeek Commentary Piece, Differentiation Doesn’t Work. I was first alerted to Delisle’s article via a Facebook update posted by a teacher I attended graduate school with thirteen years earlier. I remember initially feeling quite defensive when I saw her post:

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Delisle claims (and my former classmate concurs) that differentiation is nothing more than a great proposition which is impossible to achieve: “It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals.”

Delisle goes on to warn readers that it is our high-achieving students who stand to lose the most from the unfulfilled promise of differentiation and suggests there is only one possible solution to meet the needs of these students: “Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.”

Delisle is not entirely wrong.
If a teacher wants to differentiate effectively in a traditional classroom setting, I agree with Delisle when he says, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

Effectively differentiating instruction in a customary classroom setting (teacher imparts knowledge and students show they retain the information) is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Of course, one teacher cannot conduct three different lectures simultaneously. And, it is quite likely that we have experienced assigning group-work where the high kids do all of the work.  And, ultimately, when a teacher in a traditional classroom is presented with a class made up of all types of learners they are forced to teach to the middle which will undoubtedly build frustration for gifted and struggling students alike.

Therefore, I can understand when Delisle suggests reverting back to tracked classes, with students sorted neatly into groups with similar learners. All students deserve the opportunity to learn at a pace that is appropriate for them and tracking students certainly does make pacing easier.

Except, we are solving the wrong problem
Now, before the gifted folks jump on me again, let me preface, as a former gifted teacher and a differentiation instructional coach, I am an ardent proponent of identifying gifted students just as we identify special education students. The needs of gifted students, without question, require special consideration, action plans, follow-through, and monitoring.

With that being said, I also strongly believe that these students’ needs can be met through differentiated instruction in a “regular” classroom. Because, differentiation in it of itself, is not the problem. Rather, our nation’s lack of ubiquitous implementation of differentiated instruction is a symptom of a much larger problem.

The actual issue is the lingering remnants of the factory model/mindset of education still largely ingrained in our educational system today. Case in point, tracking students is a direct result of schools which prepared students for predetermined career paths.

During the industrialization era students were placed on tracks with finite destinations: factory worker, tradesman, professional with a higher-level degree. Future tradesman sat next to other future tradesman, future professionals learned alongside other future professionals.

But, putting students on these same tracks today poses a significant problem because these tracks no longer lead to known destinations. As first indicated in a report from  U.S. Department of Labor called  Future Work Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century and later analyzed for potential implications and solutions for schools by ISTE Connects, 65% of jobs to become available in the future have yet to be created.

Job trends since 1999 support this statistic as new jobs and categories in the services provided industry continue to experience exponential growth, while other industries like manufacturing, continue to trend downward (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

With this information in mind, our focus must shift from preparing students to interact with similar learners to finding ways to ensure our students can productively collaborate with all types of learners. Doing so is critical for our students’ long-term success.

Therefore, teachers must conduct orchestras, not trains.
If our ever-evolving world is not a compelling enough reason to focus on the real problem, let’s also consider this, even in a gifted or tracked class, teachers still need to differentiate for their students.

Programming alone will not meet students’ needs. In Beyond Gifted Education, Designing and Implementing Advanced Academic Programs, authors Scott Peters, Michael Matthews, Matthew McBee, and D. Betsy McCoach state, “Not all students who are labeled gifted require the same things in order to receive an appropriate educational experience. Just as not all gifted students require the same services, a given individual (gifted or not) does not automatically need the same services year after year.”

And, this is the bottom line. Learners’ needs, gifted or not, are fluid. Learning is fluid. However, our current educational system is largely static. We hear a lot talk about student and teacher innovation. Many times we look to the silver bullet (as Peter Dewitt points out in Can We Destroy the Silver Bullet Mentality Before It Destroys Us?) which takes on the form of implementing a tech tool or making something fit in our current practice without changing what we have “always done”.

But, what is really innovative is doing what needs to be done to help shape the next education model- one where the academic and social-emotional success of all students is the only priority. Differentiating instruction for our students needs is one of the ways to do this, and as indicated above, differentiated instruction is more effective when we consider the environment in which we try to implement it and adjust accordingly.

But, How?
I wish I had a linear plan for how to systemically change our educational model. But, I don’t.  I also recognize there are people who consider school reformers to be idealistic. And, I don’t know, maybe we are.

But, I also know there are steps educators can take to collectively propel us forward or there are things we can do (or not do) to ensure we stay stagnant. It is up to us to decide which route we want to take. As country music singer Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

I can’t help but think that, maybe, if we all adjust our sails, we may actually have a shot at changing the direction of the wind.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Education Radio @BAMRadioNetwork