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.

focus image final

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.

‘Bad Moms’ and Why Parents Need Professional Development, Too

parent-learning-community-graphic

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.

“Organizations only improve ‘where the truth is told and brutal facts confronted.”Jim Collins: Good To Great

(This is part two of a two-part series of posts on parents. Please note, this post refers to the community where I reside, not the community where I am employed).

Last week, I wrote Teachers Make The Worst Parents which explains how I struggle being both an educator and a parent. I find it almost impossible to separate my roles when engaging with my childrens’ teachers. Well, my conflict of interest is not limited to other educators; it also extends to other (non-educator) parents, particularly PTA members.

I used to think my feelings toward PTA members stemmed from a subconscious jealousy (sure, I would love to volunteer for one of your events or be a room mom, but they all seem to be between 8AM and 3PM and I have a job which happens to be educating children).

Or, I thought because I am an educator, I was more aware of how the PTA doesn’t seem to gather or use feedback from parents, teachers, and students to operate. Rather, they employ a top-down (and usually inefficient) approach to attempt to engage the community (as always, we will be selling pizzas to raise money to buy graduation tshirts for students who cannot afford them).

But, then, I saw last summer’s sleeper hit comedy “Bad Moms” which parodies a suburban PTA chapter and it’s members. Scott Mendelson from Forbes Magazine said: “movies like “Bad Moms” don’t get to $100m+ from a $23.8m opening unless the people who saw it liked it and talked about it with their friends.” And, all of a sudden, I realized other parents, whether they are educators or not, also felt disenchanted with the PTA.

In particular, this scene resonated as a crowd-favorite:

Gwendolyn: Now, I called this emergency PTA meeting to address an issue that radically affects the safety of our children. The bake sale.

Amy: Is this a joke?

Gwendolyn: Now, this is a list of the toxic ingredients that are absolutely banned from the bake sale. No BPA, no MSG, no BHA, no BHT. Plus no soy, no sesame, and, of course, no nuts or eggs or milk or butter or salt or sugar or wheat. Okay?

I have friends who are active in the PTA. I understand the importance of food safety. I also understand that the truth is said in jest and if “Bad Moms” is the current or perceived reality of parent teacher organizations, this partnership is in trouble.

“A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”Allen Klein

Being able to see other perspectives is a powerful communication and leadership skill and undoubtedly also one of the hardest concepts for people to master. Unless humans make a conscious effort to see things from another person’s point of view, the path of least resistance is to point fingers and make the other party “wrong.”

In fact, that is exactly what I did when I initially drafted this post. I did not have trouble rattling off all of the outdated and irrelevant activities my local PTA continues to promote. I did not struggle to list examples of how the PTA has marginalized working and minority families, and I certainly did not have a difficult time citing ways some PTA members use their roles for personal gain rather than to support the PTA’s mission: to advocate for all children. (pta.org)

But, I couldn’t seem to publish that draft. Something didn’t feel right, and that something was the hypocritical nature of the post. While I am deeply disappointed to live in a community where many PTA members are so lacking in perspective that it gives Hollywood fodder for movies, I also recognized I hadn’t considered the PTA’s point-of-view.

So, I attempted to remove emotion and intellectually consider the other side’s perspective. In doing so, my parent/educator conflict once again got in the way. This happened because I am privy to information and experiences that non-educator parents are not. I know that there is a vast difference between the “school” I experienced as a student and the “school” I experience as a professional educator. And, this I believe, is precisely the problem: because all parents are former students, they mistakenly feel as if their experiences with school give them a level of educational expertise.

Look Back To Move Forward
The PTA was created in 1897 to be a “voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education.” Throughout history, the national chapter of the PTA has been responsible for instrumental changes to the landscape of public education like the creation of kindergarten classes and healthy lunch programs.

But, what, if any, learning specific to the field of education have members had since 1897? What level of understanding do chapters have about district initiatives? If the PTA is truly a partnership between parents and teachers to benefit all students, don’t parents need relevant professional development as well?

As an instructional coach, I am very proud to see more and more school districts implementing the most effective form of professional development for teachers: job-embedded instructional coaching (read more about coaching here). In contrast, parents are usually informed of changes rather than involved with the change.  This severely limits parents potential for true understanding. Parents are educators’ partners, and we need to ensure that we include parents on our journey and not just tell them about our trip.

What is the solution? A new type of PLC.
Educational PLCs (professional learning communities) use a systems approach to allow for teacher autonomy while working collaboratively on teams to achieve common goals with shared accountability. In the book, On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, contributing author Richard DuFour highlights the three big ideas of effective PLCs:

  1. Ensuring that students learn- shift from focus on teaching to focus on learning

  2. A culture of collaboration- create and use structures to promote working together

  3. A focus on results: establish a goal, work together to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

I believe three similar big ideas could also be the operating system for parent-teacher organizations also called PLCs (parent learning communities):

  1. Ensure students are the beneficiaries- shift from focus on what parents want (or what has been done historically) to focus on student interests and needs

  2. Promote an inclusive culture: create and use structures to guarantee the diverse perspectives and needs of all community members are heard and considered

  3. Focus on results: establish a goal, cooperate to achieve goal, and provide periodic evidence of progress

The infographic accompanying this post provides suggested guidelines for parent learning communities. This new take on PLCs coupled with professional development would provide parents greater learning opportunities and a way to implement their learning. If resources allow, instructional coaches should be considered a primary form of PD using a team coaching approach.

As with any change, altering the way parent-teacher organizations function will take time. I am a strong believer in evolutionary change rather than revolutionary change so long as we take steps to get there. What do you suggest is the best first step?

Questions or comments about this post?  Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Student Portfolios: A new take on an old tradition

create-student-portfolios-003In the age of blended classrooms and digital learning, the popularity of student portfolios has exponentially increased. Digital student portfolios can continue to be used for their original purpose of highlighting work that the teacher or student is particularly proud. Parents will no longer have to take up closet space or secretly dispose of paper portfolios when their children go to sleep (no judgment, parents- I get it).

Using student portfolios as a tool to help increase student learning in addition to showcasing final projects is a relatively new take on an old tradition. Try one of my 5 favorite ways to maximize student learning with portfolios.

1. Student Goal Setting (.5)1

Back to the basics. Have your students use data to determine 3 skills-based/standard-aligned goals for each of the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Goals should be skills-based in order to make them applicable to as many content areas as possible. Students can then document their rise towards meeting their goals in all of their classes by adding examples of work that show growth.

2. Teacher Student Feedback (.75)

As you assess your students’ work, add items to their portfolios with actionable feedback. For example, you have a student who struggled with a portion of an assignment. You can star this assignment and add the item to the student’s portfolio with your feedback, “You seem to be struggling with comprehending this text. What other strategy could you try?” When the student tries another strategy and succeeds you add the new item with new feedback, “Performing a focused read really seemed to help you comprehend this text. What do you think was the difference?”

3. Student self-reporting of grades/mastery level (1.44)

Have students assess their own work using a rubric that you have co-created with them. They can do this digitally, on paper and upload, create and upload a video, or use a variety of other mediums to add their self-assessment to their portfolios.

4. Examples of mastery learning (.58)

When students are able to see examples of work at different levels (approaching, meets, exceeds standards, or A,B,C, D) they are able to better understand what is expected of them. Use this year’s student portfolios to help inform next year’s students of expectations.

5. School-home communication (.52)

Student portfolios can promote the school-home relationship as they provide more than just a grade. Student portfolios become the vehicle for driving parent/teacher conferences and furthermore encourage constant and consistent conversation between parents, teachers, and students.

This list is by no means a comprehensive compilation of ways you can use student portfolios. These are provisional examples that can be tweaked to best work in your classroom. Try them out and see what you think. Please consider sharing your experiences using portfolios with your students; we would love to hear your success stories!


1. Numbers indicate effect size of on student learning as researched by John Hattie of the Visible Learning Institute in his synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. Criteria that score above a 0.4 are considered to have a greatest impact of student learning.

This blog originally appeared on the Otus Student Performance System features blog. http://otus.com/creating-student-portfolios/