Collaboration = Convergence of Ideas

I have written about Convergence before. It’s a 2-day professional development conference sponsored by my current school district, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS). The name is not happenstance.

Dictionary.com defines the act of converging as meeting “in a point or line; inclin[ing] towards each other, as lines that are not parallel.”   WCPSS Convergence brings together library media and technology teachers across the vast school system to share with and learn from each other. It is clear Spring Convergence 2017 is focused on collaboration.

Almost every session I attended today used collaboration as its core whether the collaboration was virtual (Google Drive & Classroom) or the keynote address by Chris Barton and Don Tate about their collaborative efforts in creating the book Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions.

I, too, presented about collaboration with my “batty” partner-in-crime, Krista Brinchek. Krista and I collaborated on a unit with 4th and 5th graders. Students learned about bat conversation and white nose syndrome in Science specials class with Mrs. Brinchek. In library, students learned how to conduct research, determine important information, cite resources, and use Google Classroom while researching general information about bats and their habitats. Our unit hit the next level when Christy Bigelow, technology teacher, incorporated 3-D modeling having students create 3-D models of bats using geometric shapes.

Today’s presentation, titled “Does Collaboration Make You ‘Batty’?” was fun to create and present because my collaborative partners make it so. We allow each other to dream an idea then help one another bring the idea to fruition. Part of today’s session allowed attendees the opportunity to think about and note drivers and barriers to collaboration. It is clear collaboration can happen within any organization if adults allow it.   Teachers are not silos. They work best in groups holding each other accountable and pushing one another outside of comfortable spaces. The session ended with an opportunity for attendees to share their successful collaboration stories. This was my chance to learn from those to whom I had been presenting. I now have ideas to implement!

As the name implies, I believe Convergence is about building relationships, trusting others, and bending my instruction to others’ best practices and successes. My presentation is linked here for you to view. If you have any collaboration ideas, and especially if you have success stories to share or how you overcame barriers, please share in the comments below. I want to continue my learning.

Photo credit:  @stacydarwin

The Librarian without a Voice 😷

Earlier this week, I succumbed to the “ick”. That is the technical term that I, without one day of medical training, have given the virus going around. The ick is not quite the flu virus but something different from a cold. For me, it felt between a head cold with cough and springtime allergies. I never felt sick or tired. I just would have coughing fits and a runny now. The worse symptom of all was a weak voice.

So there I was at school Thursday morning with a pocketful of Ricola cough drops. I thought I was doing well until I opened my mouth to welcome students entering the school.   The sound I emitted was not quite a squeak but certainly not a voice I’ve heard before. Throughout the morning I sounded as if I were once again experiencing the vocal change of my early teen years.

I learned a few things about my instruction on Thursday.

  1. Students want teachers to level with them and speak with them not to them.

I was honest about my voice and told my students that if I spoke quietly, all was good. I reminded them of the procedures and expectations then asked for their help. They all spoke quietly and regrouped immediately when asked.

  1. PBIS works!

For those who do not know, PBIS stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. My school has taught and practiced the procedures and expectations. After winter break, we retaught and practiced again. I admit that I have spoken negatively about the focus on the extrinsic rewards earning PBIS tickets (ours are called Gator bites). But when it comes to being a community following expectations, PBIS works amazingly. My students knew when to raise their hands, how to move safely throughout the library, and most importantly, how to show respect for each other, themselves, and me.

  1. My lessons do not work well without me leading them.

This is a tough lesson to learn. I want students to be at the center of their instruction. That is the reason for instituting the 20Time project. Yet, this project is new to my students and me. This week, we were at the pivotal step of selecting projects and determining timelines and strategies. I tried to plan around my speaking by typing directions and guiding questions for students to discuss in groups. This worked well but I could tell my students kept waiting for me to lead the discussion. I have not instituted enough student led discussions for them to yet have ownership. I need to do so for their sake and mine. I resisted the urge to interrupt and take over the conversations. Instead, I put another Ricola in my mouth and pointed to the timer and guiding questions for discussions. After a few minutes of awkward conversations, little by little table groups began having true discussions.

The day wasn’t pretty and I certainly did not teach my best lessons. But I got through it. All teachers have experienced this day before. It’s what we do with the lessons learned that matters. I learned that while my voice is back, next week, I plan to point to the timer and guiding questions again as students start their work. I want to step back and give my students ownership of their projects. Although weakly voiced, I think the best thing I said on Thursday was this: “I can’t answer that question or give you advice. Students, what do you think? I’m afraid if I say anything it will be exactly what the project should be or what I think it should be. And that will be what he does. It’s his project. What ideas do you have for him? He needs to hear from you, not me.”

Thanking a Teacher

A recent Twitter trend is reaching out to a former teacher who made a positive impact on you and saying “Thank You”.   I often thank back to those who taught me and wonder how they influenced my journey becoming a teacher myself. Reflecting, I think about which teachers I would have enjoyed working with and which ones I would want my son to have a teacher if he could time travel to do so. I contemplate which ones I would want to avoid. Then the memories swirl and blur leaving me with less an impression on each teacher individually rather becoming focused on specific experiences, lessons, activities, and field trips.

While I can name almost all of my teachers and have great admiration for each of them, I am uniquely drawn to two for various yet eerily similar reasons. The impression of both teachers that has stuck with me over some 30+ years is focusing on each learner individually.

I will start with Mrs. King, my fourth grade teacher at Windsor Park Elementary. I cannot tell you how she looked, how old she probably was, or even much of the relationship we shared. I was a good student in her class earning all As and one solitary B (why did I get THAT ONE B to ruin a perfect run?). But I do remember she allowed us to work at our own pace.   Early finishers always had additional learning experiences in which to choose. And depending on the weather and I’m sure other factors, early finishers could play. Yes, we could actually play.   Most of the time, the play was outside because our classroom opened directly onto our school’s small wooden playground. Imagine the motivation to complete work quickly in order to earn extra recess time! But it wasn’t finishing the assignments quickly. I remember always taking my work to Mrs. King and talking with her about it as she looked over it. If the work was not completed correctly, I returned to my desk to figure out where I went wrong and how I should redo it.

Sure there was some competition in the class and as one of the students earning really high marks, I didn’t always have to watch my classmates go outside one by one. But I do remember when I did not complete an assignment correctly by myself the first try being encouraged by Mrs. King to work with others, compare answers, discuss, and try again. As I sit here, I realize we, the students, must have talked a lot in her class. We talked to her about our work. We talked to each other about our work. And as students came outside to play, we talked about how easy or how difficult the assignment was and which part we needed to do again to be able to get outside. So while my motivator was playing on the tire swing, I actually learned through collaboration and communication long before they were part of the 21st Century 4Cs!

Teacher Two, I will call Ms. Algebra. Ashamedly, I cannot remember her name at all. Part of me wants to call her Mrs. King but really what are the odds? Ms. Algebra taught my 10th grade Algebra II class at Garinger High School. It was somewhat a remedial Algebra II class because we did not have Trigonometry included. I was one of a handful 10th graders in the class. Mostly it was comprised of upperclassmen. Our classroom was too small for the number of students. Some students sat at the extra tables and at least one student sat at her desk. Ms. Algebra always stood at the overhead (do you remember that piece of historic technology?). What stands out in my mind about her is every Friday she wore the school’s sweatshirt. She always celebrated and encouraged school spirit. But more than her spirit, I remember a speech and subsequent change in her teaching style. The memory is vague on the specific assessment or assignments leading up to the speech.

Yet, I remember her sitting on a stool with the overhead turned off. She apologized. That is how she started her speech. She apologized to us. She said she had neglected to teach us correctly because we were not showing any understanding of algebra. She said something was wrong and together we would fix it. She told us that beginning that day, we were starting the school year over in her class. We were going back to the first lesson and get as far as we could by the end of the year. But math is foundational and we needed the foundation of algebra before continuing. She forced us to commit to her we would do our best.

Ms. Algebra assigned us seats and put us in heterogeneous groups. She would present part of the lesson or teach a mathematical skill/step. Then we had to teach each other. Those in the groups who were stronger with the skill retaught the group first. I was that person for my group. Then we listened as others in the group taught the skill. We clarified for each other misconceptions. I can only speak for me. The previous two school years I struggled through advanced math classes and felt very uncomfortable and unsure about math ability. Yet, in Ms. Algebra’s class, I found my voice. We did not finish the textbook that year. But I thoroughly understood what I had learned and it set me to have two remaining successful years of advanced math in 11th and 12th grades.

These two teachers forced their students to talk. Through communication, I became a better student. This challenges me now.   I do not believe in a quiet library and am often met with side eyes and uncertain glances from more traditional teachers and parents. But I am a talker and I want my students talking. But I realize I have been allowing talking for talking’s sake. Mrs. King and Ms. Algebra allowed talking for understanding’s sake. I need to remember and set my practice on these two teacher’s example. Maybe in 30+ years, one of my students will not remember my name but remember the communication I required in the library forcing deeper learning and understanding.

Find Your Tribe: They are your wind, energy, and dreams.

 

Dreamers, realists, doers, thinkers…people are grouped into categories. These labels have a ring of truth but most often one person is a mixture of all types. In Launch Cycle by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, the first chapters outline the types of teachers within a school building. The premise is it takes all types to create a well-rounded instructional program and enact systematic educational change.

Much like the various types, my small “tribe” at Taylor had a mixture. While all groups and my relationships to each group mattered, it was the small tribe that gave me wings. The music and art teachers comprised this tribe. Much like when the architect, engineer, and artist collaborate, the three of us dreamed, designed, and built.

The relationship mattered because we found common allies who were not afraid to challenge the status quo of education. We saw a greater vision and understood for it to become reality, large and small changes were needed. The tribe began with art and music collaborating. I was already a friend with them so they would run ideas by me for my input.   When I saw how I could support their dreams, I jumped aboard their ship.

Some of the plans only impacted our individual programs. More often than not, the dreams were wide scale. Something seemingly insignificant as tweaking the master schedule for the next school year has huge rippling effects throughout the building. It touches core principles and beliefs of teachers. To change the master schedule required important, tactful steps.

School dreams only become reality with administrator support. Our tribe never dreamed anything without plotting out the entire approach and presenting information including all possible pros and cons, along with human impacts, to our principal. In many ways, he was our tribal leader. Our sage was the ITRT. Their wise council moved our vision to either become reality or go back for rethinking. Our tribe never accepted “no”. We tolerated and understood “not right now”.

A functional tribe understands its impact. Our tribe was a force. Much like a hurricane, our force grew when we were fueled by one another. The more we allowed each other space to dream, the greater our dreams became. The bigger our dreams, the larger instructional impact we would have.

Our tribe identified and understood unproductive dreams and instructional changes. Those ideas never were spoken to our principal. Sometimes, they were addressed with our ITRT to see if there were tweaks to make the dreams plausible. Because we tolerated each ideas, we happily agreed with one of our tribe members who pumped the breaks.

This relationship made us all better instructors. As a dreamer, I am always imagining what can happen in the future and constantly looking for improvements. I become bored when work is the same day after day, year after year. This tribe ensured it never was boring.

The Dynamic Duo: Librarians and Instructional Technology Facilitators

School librarians and Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT) are islands within their school buildings. Most schools have 1 of each. The librarians and ITFs in these buildings are the lucky to have a counterpart. Some schools only have 1 person to do both jobs! How lonely this must be. The luckiest of all, are schools that have larger teams with more than one librarian and/or ITF.

My Batman to Robin was Ena Wood, former ITRT in Arlington Public Schools (APS). We were truly the “Dynamic Duo.” Ena’s supportive shoulder, guiding thoughts, and listening ears served to be invaluable to my career. Actually, Ena had a large impact in me teaching at Taylor Elementary School in APS. She knew of me through common connections. When an opportunity arrived for me to transfer, she encouraged me to apply. When I was hired, she served as my unofficial mentor. This mentorship grew into a true symbiotic relationship that helped one another grow personally and professionally.

The key to this relationship is that we understand what it is like to be a “silo” or “island” in our school. Her focus was professional development and increasing the effective use of instructional technology while mine was similar in terms of information literacy. We saw the connectedness of our programs. As the school population grew and classroom/office space shrunk, we contemplated moving Ena’s office into the library.

She subbed for me teaching library skills when I was absent. I served as her back up for technology support. We met at least weekly but rarely in a formal capacity. We made sure to eat lunch together no less than once a month. Our friendly informal rapport allowed for greater free flowing ideas. During these “chats” we planned professional development, lessons, and the vision information and technology literacy’s impact to our school.

But just as importantly, we helped one another personally. We shared our personal lives with each other. Serving as counselors and confidants, we ensured appropriate work-home life balance. Having someone at work to share and celebrate home life helped me focus at work and focus on home when each needed it most.

Our Dynamic Duo collaborated to present at ISTE and VAASL (then VEMA). We helped create and implement many APS I-Safe initiatives. But our impact at Taylor was vast. Together, we shaped the school’s technology and library programming. We served on our school’s leadership teams, helped design the school wide instructional focus, and challenged and supported all teachers and students.

We challenged one another as well. When one of us noticed a sign of boredom or static growth in the other, we talked about it. I encouraged her to take leadership roles in the district and state. She encouraged me to get my administration degree. We wrote letters of reference for one another as we pursued other career opportunities or were nominated for awards. This relationship matters to me. Librarians and ITRTs who do not have this same type of relationship, please do yourself a favor and start talking. Start collaborating. Start building trust. Your relationship (or lack there of) matters to each other and to your school community.

Day 3 – Differentiated Instruction: Observable Improvement for My Evaluation

Let me get right to it. I need to improve in the area of differentiated instruction. I could make a list of excuses for why I have not moved beyond proficient in this area but that does nothing to improve my teaching practices. Nor does it help me correctly focus my attention.

Much like differentiated instruction improves all student learning, we need to differentiate how we approach this instruction practice for teachers themselves. Differentiated professional development is essential to model quality instruction. But teachers need to take it upon themselves to seek information sources, supportive and challenging peers, and good observable examples for differentiated instruction.

So I am putting myself out there right here and now. I want to hear from other teachers, especially specialists (librarians, art, music, PE teachers, etc.), how you differentiate for student learning.

Also, I am searching online. Edutopia is an excellent go-to source for almost all topics relating to education. I found this remarkable slide share showing 18 strategies for differentiating instruction. Nothing is new or earth shattering. After all the research, professional development, staff meetings, and conversations I’ve had over my career, I will be hard pressed to find some brand new idea around differentiation. But I continue to learn and put into practice what I am learning. Lina Raffelli’s 18 strategies post is excellent and great page to keep handy.

When I look at my observation feedback and evaluation rubric, I always get a gut punch when I look at the differentiation check mark. I know that I am differentiating my instruction. At least, I feel like. Doesn’t that mean it’s happening? Of course it doesn’t. If my observers are looking for it and only find a proficient level of differentiating, I need to improve. I need to grow. I will.

By the way, I know I have an unannounced observation coming up soon. I better be prepared. Not just because I want to rate distinguished on a rubric. I need to do better because, borrowing the phrase from an awesome educators support and inspiration source, my “KIDS DESERVE IT”.

Day 2–For the love of the game: Breakout EDU

I love games. Growing up, my family’s summer beach trips were spent playing in the ocean all day and then playing games all night back at the house.   The games were often card based. My family had an affinity to “Spoons” where you pass cards around from person to person and then someone stealthily (or not so) takes a spoon from the middle of the table. Once a spoon has been taken, it is important to quickly grab a spoon before everyone else. It’s almost a card version of musical chairs. The last person without a spoon gets a letter. Once a person has spelled the word SPOONS, that person is out of the game.

Family beach week was also when I learned how to play Rook. Rook involves bidding on hands, relying on partners, and winning rounds. It’s important to win the points you need but not to carry around points you don’t. Much like Spades or Hearts, Rook involves trump cards with the ultimate trump card of the Rook itself. It is fun. It is strategic. And at midnight, it can be downright funny.

As a fan of games, especially those that involve strategy, solving puzzles, and unraveling mysteries, I have always wanted to participate in a “break out room.” Getting locked in a giant puzzle room, working with others to solve the mystery to get out, sounds like the geeky, crazy fun that I would enjoy and probably laugh until I spewed Diet Dr. Pepper or hyperventilate (whichever comes first). So when I first started noticing so many teachers Tweeting about Breakout EDU boxes, I was immediately intrigued.

Breakout EDU is a boxed version of break out rooms. There are a series of locks—some keyed, some combination—to unlock. Finding the clues to the combinations is the trick to breaking out of, or in reality breaking into, the box. On the welcome page to their website, Breakout EDU states:

Breakout EDU games teach critical thinking, teamwork, complex problem solving, and can be used in all content areas. We created this Breakout EDU Kit to get you going and hopefully answer questions you might have.

Over the past year, I have read about the box, watched videos of teachers setting up their rooms, and followed teachers Tweeting about their experiences. Recently, I asked my principal if we could purchase a few boxes for our school. The awesome administrator she is not only responded with a “Yes!” but upped my request by many more boxes!

The boxes arrived just after Winter Break. I dug through the website, found a scenario I wanted to try with my 4th grade students and set to work. So far, I am halfway through using this scenario with all 4th grade classes and I’ve learned a lot from just two experiences. First, I learned that while some puzzles seem easy to me because I have all the knowledge, even if the solution is blatantly obvious, the locks themselves could be tricky for students to navigate. Due to my class schedule, I have attempted to teach about the box and run a breakout within one 45-minute session. Having no prior experience with Breakout EDU or other break out games is the first real hurdle students must overcome. Thus secondly, I have learned to adapt some puzzles to make them easier for students. Understanding your students is essential when using a set of banked games and scenarios.

Most importantly, I learned that it really does work best when the groups are smaller but not too small. So far, all the groups that have successfully broken out have been comprised of 5 members. My four member groups seem to get stuck at the beginning seemingly overwhelmed where to start. My six, seven, and eight person groups have all spiraled into battles for control struggling to listen or not listen to all members’ viewpoints. But the 5 member groups rarely breakdown. When they have, it’s been quick. Maybe it is because there are short balances of power. Even with human nature wanting to break into dyads, there is a middle person swinging back and forth serving as fulcrum for groupthink.

But based on my very limited experience with Breakout EDU so far, the best part is witnessing students take control of their learning. I set up the scenario, stage the room, and assemble the locks. But once the box and materials are in their hands, they literally control their destiny. I walk around listening and observing. I offer a hint when the group unanimously agrees to hand in a “Hint Card”. But the teaching and learning is all theirs.   The most significant piece is observing groups that did not successfully break out still talking afterwards about the scenario and stating facts discovered and learned. Even today, one student made a connection between the scenario used for Breakout EDU over a week ago and a television show he watched last night. He sought me out today to share with me his connection. I have not been as successful building a relationship with this student as I have with many of his classmates. His excitement today was infectious and I feel like he and I will have a better relationship going forward. I know he is a leader and has great potential. I was trying to find a common connection between us. Now, I see that Breakout EDU has laid the groundwork for our connection.

The 30-day blog challenge recommends day two’s blog posting focus on technology I hope to incorporate into my teaching. Some people may not view Breakout EDU as technology because it’s not a computer or digital. However, it can incorporate devices and it can easily be used online in digital Breakout EDU format.

Breakout EDU looks like a game. And maybe it really is just a game at its core. But it is much more. It is engaging. It is challenging. It is rooted in communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. It is any curriculum you need it to be. But mostly, it is fun.