Sunday, April 29, 2012

Assess and Coach NOT Test and Judge

Over the last several weeks, in light of all the standardized testing taking place in the state of New York, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ideas of assessment and testing and how important they are in the world of public education. In New York State we have reached a point where our children are sitting for at least 6 days of standardized testing in grades 3, 4 and 5 in the areas of English Language Arts and Mathematics. As if that weren't enough, the results from these tests will serve as the proverbial rock thrown into the middle of a placid lake on a beautiful spring day. We all know what happens next because we've seen it - the pond fills with ripples and the rock disappears. These ripples represent our children, their families, our classroom teachers, fellow building principals, schools as a whole and our communities at large. Everyone, at least in the state of New York, will be impacted and judged based on the results of these various standardized tests.

Well, I say the time has come to stand up and say NO to testing for the purposes of passing judgement! Say NO to being judged by non-educators who are taking the results of a test, which only represent one moment time, to make sweeping statements about our schools, teachers and children. A recent study (Moon, Brighton, Jarvis and Hall in 2007) found that standardized tests led to teachers and students feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to perform well. Additionally, teachers felt a significant amount of pressure to rely on drill and practice instruction techniques as opposed to maintaining a child centered classroom where children are encouraged to create, construct and apply understandings. Although it will be difficult, we must find ways to protect our children and instruction so that we do not succumb to these pressures and compromise the quality of our daily instruction and leadership.

One way I think we can make this happen is by shifting the focus from testing and judging to assessing and coaching (a special thank you to the amazing #educoach chat on Twitter on Wednesdays that reminds me on a weekly basis how important it is for me, as an instructional leader, to continuously be coaching). As a building principal one of my favorite parts of the job is spending time in the classrooms where I get a better sense of my teachers and children. By visiting the classrooms, and spending time watching, doing and listening, I am able to informally assess the staff and students to get a sense of what is currently happening and what we should be planning for in the future. I always remember how important it is to use these informal assessment opportunities (quasi-formative assessment) not for the purposes of judgement but instead, as an opportunity to develop collective goals for the building and to begin thinking about ways to coach the staff, and children, in their efforts to enhance their craft and skills and move the building forward at the same time.

The idea of coaching is one that is very near and dear to my heart because as a fourth grade teacher, I will never forget the year where I had a coach pushing into my classroom on a weekly basis. I grew so much that year because of the coach and his ability to see things in me that I never knew possible. He would watch me teach (another type of formative assessment) and then would offer me feedback and suggestions on ways that I could do things differently (he never said BETTER just DIFFERENTLY but in the end, his suggestions were always better). There were also times when I would get to watch him teach, which also helped me grow exponentially because I got to see the subtle things he did that made a tremendous difference in the levels of student engagement and performance. Working with the coach also challenged me to think about how I could change my approach to teaching so that I served more as a coach to the children and not just a source of information (sage on the stage versus guide on the side).

As educators I think it is imperative that we view ourselves as coaches (instructional leaders coaching staff and teachers coaching children) who could work collaboratively to enhance practice, assess skills and establish goals for growth and development. Being a successful coach is not easy to accomplish but it is definitely worth the effort if we remember a few important ideas...

1. A successful coach spends a tremendous amount of time observing, listening, supporting and building trust; without trust, there will be no risk taking, honestly or growth; without trust there can be no meaningful coaching;

2. A successful coach spends time getting to know the readiness levels of those around them so that a plan of action can be developed; this allows the coach an opportunity to build on the expertise that already exists; (I am fortunate enough to work with an amazing literacy coach at our school who has really been able to accomplish this goal; connect with Lisa on Twitter - @LeedeeLitCoach)

3. A successful coach is able to serve as a model teacher who can show others how to assess the strengths and needs of their students and thoroughly plan with that data to effectively reach every learner and push them to the next level;

4. A successful coach is able to coach from the side when someone is willing to take a risk or needs a gentle push; the "side-by coach" doesn't sit back and judge; instead, the "side-by coach" takes notes, reflects, offers suggestions and presents a different perspective to the teacher when a lesson or activity is completed;

5. A successful coach is a fountain of knowledge and information for any staff member or student seeking it; the coach is a resource so that when a staff member has an idea for a lesson or unit of study but is having difficulty executing, the coach is there to offer support, to share ideas and to suggest materials that might help the lesson/activity come to fruition; the coach also helps the children realize their ideas and plans during a project or activity;

6. A successful coach is always using opportunities in the classroom with teachers and students to formatively assess the activities, decisions, performance and outcomes; using formative assessment allows the coach an opportunity to offer constructive feedback, inform instruction and help staff members or children change things in the moment or near future;

7. A successful coach works with the staff or children either one-on-one, in small "guided" groups or as a whole group to further build capacity, help foster a Professional Learning Community (among the staff) and nurture a free flowing share of information, ideas and resources;

8. A successful coach plans with the staff and students on a regular basis; the coach will listen to what units of study the teachers want to implement and helps the teachers see how they can align their units and individual lessons to the standards and district curricular expectations; or the coach will listen to what the children want to accomplish during a unit and will help scaffold them to attain that goal;

9. A successful coach helps move the staff or children beyond their comfort zone; the successful coach knows just how far to push the staff or children so that they meet with some amount of success because a feeling of success will be empowering and encourage people to go a step further the next time;

10. A successful coach exudes passion, confidence and never makes anyone feel like they are going to be judged based on their actions! A successful coach never uses a test to measure someone's growth, knowledge or abilities!

If you are passionate about coaching or interested in learning more about how you can be a coach to your children or staff, check out these sites...

Although there are many more characteristics, qualities and traits of a successful coach (whether coaching students or teachers), the basic idea is that a successful coach is someone who can assess the current state of things and collaborate with key players to problem solve, execute and grow. Coaching staff members and students, based on data amassed from various formative assessments, encourages risk taking, collaboration and growth, which are the things we should be concerned about when evaluating teachers and students. The scores from standardized tests will not show us if our children can collaborate to work through a problem and apply various skills across content areas. Pencil and paper standardized tests will not allow us to formatively assess our students and immediately use the data to guide instruction and help our children grow. Instead, the tests are more about judging than they are about informing teaching and learning. So, lets say NO to testing and judging and YES to assessing and coaching!            

Monday, April 23, 2012

Test? Assessment? Neither!

This past week the children in grades 3, 4 and 5 in our school participated in the New York State English Language Arts Tests. These tests spanned a three day period and lasted somewhere between 90 and 180 minutes each day depending on the individual child and their specific needs. The tests, which have been administered in some way, shape or form for over a decade in NY state (Grade 4 students have been taking these tests since the late '90s), are given to assess how our students are doing in the areas of reading and writing - or at least that is what the state tells us. The state also tells us that these tests can help us see how much our children are learning and how effectively our teachers are teaching. Unfortunately, after administering these tests to two students on different grade levels, and informally taking each part of the test myself, I don't agree with what the state is telling us.     

A test is defined by Google as a procedure intended to establish the quality, performance, or reliability of something, especially before it is taken into widespread use.

An assessment is defined by Google as the evaluation or estimation of the nature, quality, or ability of someone or something.

Based on the definitions above, I don't think the New York State English Language Arts tests from this past week qualify as either a test or an assessment. In specifically looking at the definition of an assessment, I don't think the ELAs really tell us anything about the nature, quality or ability of our students or teachers (even though we are going to start connecting teacher evaluations to how the students perform here - don't get me started on that one). Furthermore, I don't think the NYS ELAs qualify as a test either because they don't accurately establish the quality, performance or reliability of instruction in the areas of reading and writing. From my vantage point, the product here is flawed and the only ones being impacted negatively are our children and their educational communities.

To think that a multiple choice test, which doesn't really give children an opportunity to show their skills as readers but instead tests their stamina and ability to answer tricky questions, is a meaningful reading and writing test is somewhat concerning. Basically, we are boiling it down to reading a short, sometimes out of context, piece and asking our students to find the best multiple choice answer based on other people's thinking (the people making up the test) -not the thinking of the children, which is what we are supposedly assessing. Over the years, I have watched some of the best readers and writers in our school perform in the average range on these assessments because they couldn't really show their thinking or skill set on this type of assessment. Where else do we assess reading or writing skills in this fashion? How can we claim that this type of test is the best one we can come up with to assess our students' abilities in the areas of reading and writing when we know there are better alternatives? In order to authentically assess children and teachers, I think its imperative that the state (and the powers that be) look at alternative types of assessment...

1. Possibly a writing continuum where children write across different genres for different purposes and audiences; (check out this link for some information about a narrative writing continuum - Teacher's College)

2. Possibly a portfolio that is amassed over the course of the year where children can track their thinking as readers based on the different texts they experience during the year. This type of portfolio would also avail itself to allowing the children to self-reflect; (check out this link for some information about portfolio assessments - TeacherVision

3. Possibly a better constructed standardized assessment that challenges our children to use critical thinking and allows them to show off their literacy skills. (By the way, I do think the structure of the Day 2 & 3 portions of the ELAs have the potential to become this better standardized assessment as there are a reasonable amount of reading passages and the children are posed with some good open ended responses but work needs to be done

Whatever the case, I think there are better options out there for our children and our schools in general. Options that will provide us with meaningful and accurate results. Options that will allow our children an opportunity to show what they have learned without becoming frustrated and exhausted. Options that will provide us with rich and useful data to guide future instruction!

Understand that I am not against testing (standardized or other) because I do think its important that we assess our children so we can gather more data to help guide our instruction and help our children continue to grow as learners. Unfortunately, I don't think the NYS ELA tests accomplished this goal because they will not provide us with this type of meaningful data in a reasonable amount of time so that instruction can be targeted to best meet the needs of individual students. Don't get me wrong - I think the NYS ELA tests accomplished a lot... they exhausted our children for about an average of ninety minutes a day; they made many teachers feel compelled to increase the amount of meaningless test preparation they did on a daily basis leading up to the test; they frustrated children and teachers with tricky questions that seemingly had multiple answers; they forced us to halt instruction for almost a week because after the tests were completed, the children weren't in the frame of mind to embrace new concepts or ideas; they deflated teachers and students who felt "mediocre" after completing the tests. So, did the NYS ELA accomplish a bunch of things? Yes, as you can see from the list above, but I don't think any of these were intended goals. 

Call me quixotic but I like to believe that every educator in the state of New York is in the business of teaching and learning for the purposes of impacting children in a positive way. I know I became a teacher in a public school in NYC because I thought I could make a difference in the lives of children and I believed in the public school system. We send our son to a local NYC public school because we believe in the public school system and we know that he is in the hands of dedicated and knowledgeable educators. I am now the principal of a public school in a suburb of NYC because I believe in the public school system and on a daily basis, I witness how much a child can learn and grow as a result of working with a group of dedicated educators. In the end, I believe in public education in New York State and my hope is that by accessing the awesome amount of expertise that permeates many of the classrooms in our state, an authentic and amazing assessment/test can be developed that will accurately show us how much our children have grown as readers and writers. An assessment/test that will provide us with data to help enrich and support based on the individual child. And hopefully, an assessment/test that will fuel the children's love of reading and writing - not extinguish the flame!              

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Changing Education One Tweet at a Time

This evening I had the pleasure of participating in the weekly #PTChat facilitated by Joe Mazza (@Joe_Mazza). What does PTChat stand for? Where did this chat take place? How long did the chat last? What was discussed? Well, the answer is simple... everything took place in my own Twitterverse while sitting on my couch! The power of Twitter can best be described in one word - AWESOME! This social media/micro blogging site helps me to connect with like-minded educators to share ideas, discuss different "hot" topics, answer various questions, share problem solving techniques and even facilitate book talks/chats! This list doesn't even begin to cover everything that one can accomplish via Twitter but one thing is for certain - Twitter is changing the world of education one tweet at a time!

For someone who is relatively new to Twitter and hasn't necessarily contributed that much to his PLN yet, the hash tag has been my guide to connecting with some amazing educators. The Twitter hash tag (example - #Edchat) starts with the "#" symbol followed by words or abbreviated words that are focused on a specific topic or subject. For example, the #PTChat I mentioned earlier is an abbreviation for the Parent/Teacher Chat. So, every Wednesday at 9pm, Joe Mazza facilitates/moderates a chat about different topics or issues that are relevant to parents, teachers and the successful parent/teacher connection. Initially, all I did was sit back and watch the new Tweets as they popped up on my screen to see what people were discussing and thinking in regards to education as they related to parents and teachers. Eventually, I started sharing my thoughts and experiences because I felt comfortable and confident that I was in a "safe" place where my opinions, perspectives and insights would be respected as long as I respected those of others. In order to participate in these chats and sharing of ideas, I realized that I needed to include the following "#PTChat" somewhere in my tweet. By including the hash tag in my tweet, I was able to share my tweets with people who weren't necessarily following me, nor I them, but because we were all participating in the same chat, what we tweeted was seen by all. Well, needless to say, participating in a chat of this nature by simply adding a hash tag to my tweet exposed me to hundreds (if not thousands) of people I would have never known! I started to come across familiar names and faces (pictures are important in your Twitter profile) and began cultivating and expanding my network of fellow educators who had a similar set of core beliefs. After a few weeks I realized that the power of the hash tag took the Twitter experience to a whole other level for me!

Fortunately, there are hash tags for almost any subject, topic, person, etc. so finding hash tags that are of interest will be easy. Now, mind you, not every hash tag is necessarily associated with a formal or regularly scheduled chat, but nonetheless, by using the hash tag in your tweets you are sharing your tweets with all the other people who are interested in that subject and are using that hash tag regardless of whether or not you are following them. In my short time on Twitter, I have found five hash tags that I use often that I think are worth sharing...

1) #PTChat - see above

2) #CPChat - Connected Principals Chat

3) #Edchat - Education Chat, which takes places twice on Tuesdays - in the early afternoon and evening; this is a tag I use often and has connected me to some AMAZING people who I learn from all the time such as Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby), Steven Anderson (@web20classroom), Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte), Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) and Tom Whitford (@twhitford) just to name a few (there are literally thousands of people so check out this hash tag)!

4) #Educoach - Education Coach, which is associated with a chat that takes place on Wednesdays at 10PM (EST) and is facilitated/moderated by Jessica Johnson (@PrincipalJ), Shira Leibowitz Ph. D (@shiraleibowitz) and Kathy Perret (@kathyperret). The weekly conversations here are amazing because they inspire me to hold on to what I know is right in terms of being an instructional leader and teacher of teachers!

5) #Elemchat - Elementary Chat, which takes place on Saturdays at 6pm. By using this hash tag, I have connected with other amazing elementary level educators who are dedicated to doing whatever necessary to meet the needs of their students! Some of the people I have learned from by using this hash tag include Bruce Arcurio (@PrincipalArc), Peter DeWitt (@PeterMDeWitt), and Lyn Hilt (@L_Hilt) just to name some of the amazing educators who willingly share their passions and knowledge on Twitter!

Although my list of hash tags could go on for quite a while, and there are many more I don't even know about yet, I think the above mentioned are a great place to start. Also, if you are interested in more, check out Jerry Blumengarten's site (@cybraryman1) for an amazingly robust and comprehensive list of the education hash tags and chats that are currently functioning. And, just one more thing, if you decide to join a hash tag chat, which I hope you are more inclined to do after reading this post, I highly suggest using, while participating in the chat because it automatically updates tweets quickly and keeps everything flowing beautifully (thanks to Joe Mazza for sharing that one).

To all my fellow educators, I say, the time has come to enter the Twitterverse, explore some hash tags, connect with some people and join some chats because together we are literally changing the educational landscape one tweet at a time!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Accountability Gone Wild

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a group interview process as part of a doctoral program I was considering. The experience was interesting and challenged us on various levels (that's a whole other post) in thinking about the decisions we make as educational leaders. After getting situated in the group interview room, the process was kicked off with the following question (I don't remember the exact wording of the question because it's been almost two months)... Should educational leaders be held accountable if their former students do not contribute positively to society after their schooling experience? Again, the wording provided here isn't verbatim what was asked on that day but the challenge that lay before us was to think about the idea of accountability and what amount of accountability was considered reasonable.

We were given a piece of paper, a pen and were told that we had 15 minutes to generate a response to the question. Although I had a million ideas floating around in my head, I couldn't get started because I was completely frustrated by the question! Don't get me wrong, I am all about accountability and I feel very strongly that while a student is a member of our learning institution the entire educational community is responsible for educating the child; for making sure the individual needs of the child are being addressed each and every day; and for equipping the child with the skills that they will need to be successful in the future. As an elementary level administrator, I take this responsibility very seriously because I see our role in elementary school as that of laying and solidifying the foundation as the child grows and evolves. I also feel strongly that it is our responsibility to continue to support our children as they move forward in their academic careers (MS, HS and even college). For example, recently one of our former students was struggling at the MS and several members of our team collaborated with the MS team to brainstorm about different ways to support this child and address the needs based on what had worked in the past. This child needed our support and there was no doubt we would offer it! Another example was the former student who was in college at the time studying to be a teacher and wanted to return to our school to complete her student teaching hours because she had such a positive experience as a student. This former student needed our support and there was no doubt we would offer it! Finally, there was my former 5th grader who finished college but was uncertain about a career path so he wanted to come meet with me in the hopes that I would offer some good advice (In the end, I told him he had to find the thing that he loved to do where he could support himself). This young man needed my support and there was no doubt I would offer it!

This is why I became an educator - to teach, learn, support and nurture my children in their many journeys and explorations. Teach, learn, support and nurture my children - not be held accountable for their actions in adulthood. Should I potentially lose my job if one of my former students makes poor choices in their life? No - I don't think so because that would be an example of accountability gone wild! At some point it becomes about choices... the choices people make based on their knowledge, experiences, skills and needs at any given moment in time. Those choices, and the ramifications of those choices, belong to the individual - no one else!

As I sat there thinking about how I wanted to answer the above mentioned interview question about accountability, one example came to mind that made the most sense to me. I have had dental issues my whole life - cavities, chipped teeth, root canals, etc. I am fortunate to have found an amazing dentist who has patiently supported me through correcting these issues and improving the situation. Recently, after putting in a temporary crown, my dentist told me that I should avoid chewing gum or eating anything sticky in the next couple of weeks until the permanent crown was put in place. Well, two days before returning to the dentist, I couldn't resist a piece of Dubble Bubble gum and guess what happened... thats right, my temporary crown got stuck to the gum and fell out! So, who was at fault for this problem? My dentist because he was the one treating me and he put in the temporary crown? Or me, because I disregarded his orders and chewed a piece of sticky, sugary gum anyway? In my mind, there is only one person to blame... the dentist! Ok, just kidding! The crown falling out was clearly my fault and my dentist should not be held accountable in any way shape or form.

In my mind, the same is true when looking at the idea of accountability in the world of education. Yes, I do believe educators should be held accountable for student performance and growth over the course of a school year (no - I still don't think its ok to connect teacher/principal evaluations to students' standardized test scores). I think there are many ways to assess student performance and growth - portfolios, project based learning, etc. - in connection with accountability but at some point, the educator comes off the accountability trail and the child/student assumes full responsibility. As an educator, I will do my best to equip my students/children with the skills and experiences they will need to be successful in life but whether or not they access those skills or experiences in the future is up to them - not me. Once we start holding educators responsible for the choices that former students make in their adult lives we have entered the world of accountability gone wild!    

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Isolation Island to Island of Instructional Leaders

The following post was intended to be the first on my blog and I wrote it on the day that I returned from the ASCD Conference a few weeks ago. I had been toying with the idea of starting a blog because it seemed like something I wanted to try but actually getting started was a whole other story. So, while charging my iPad at ASCD, I ran into Katrina (@KatrinaStevens1), who I had been following on Twitter for a while, and after sharing my blog struggles with her, she shared gave me some great advice and offered that push I needed to get started (thanks Katrina).  This is the result of that first attempt...

It was late January and our family was preparing for our son's upcoming surgery (that's a whole other type of Isolation Island). Being that there was ample stress permeating our lives, both my wife and I took the opportunity to unwind with some reading each night after tucking the little guy in. I was finally catching up on some professional reading when I came across an issue of Scholastic Administrator. I was immediately intrigued by the cover that featured a man holding a phone in front of his face and the Twitter "mascot" sitting atop the phone (I know many of you know the image I'm describing). I had heard a lot about Twitter but was extremely resistant to try it because I always associated it with celebrities (the Kanye Wests and Britney Spears of the world) sharing random thoughts and details about their lives that I had no interest in reading. There was also some talk about Twitter in our district a couple of years ago in regards to communicating with parents but once again I was resistant - mainly because I didn't know much about the tool. But, here was this guy, a fellow principal in New Jersey, on the cover of the magazine spotlighting how he used Twitter to enhance his craft. Being that I am always looking for ways to make myself a better instructional leader, educator and colleague, I dove into the article and soon found myself hooked and ready to create my own Twitter account!

The guy on the cover turned out to be Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal) and he was using Twitter for the purposes of professional development and for connecting with other like-minded educators (I recently had a chance to hear Eric speak at ASCD and I left the workshop feeling empowered and even more knowledgable). As the principal of an elementary school, with no other administrator in the building, the leadership experience often leaves me feeling like I'm on my own little island - Isolation Island to be exact. Don't get me wrong, there is rarely a minute when I am actually alone while at school but the ability to dialogue, problem solve or collaborate with other administrators doesn't occur on a regular basis (even though I work with some dedicated educators). There is something so exciting and inspiring that happens when dialoguing with other instructional leaders and administrators about their experiences, successes, failures and passions. Although I have attended conferences in the past, the experiences didn't necessarily have a lasting impact on my professional development because the ability to brainstorm, expand and collaborate with others on next steps was still that missing link.

Well, I am happy to share that Twitter has changed all of that for me - BIG TIME! Since I joined Twitter at the beginning of February (less than 3 months ago) my whole professional world has been thrown on its head - and that's a great thing! I can honestly say that I have learned more about teaching, learning and instructional leadership in the last three months than I have learned in the last three years. Since joining Twitter, and learning the ropes (I still have a lot to learn) I feel like I jumped off of Isolation Island and made my way to the Island of Instructional Leaders (and Pioneers)! So, what have I learned since joining Twitter? How have I been impacted as a leader since joining Twitter? Here are just a few things that have happened for me since joining Twitter...

  1. I have developed an amazing PLN (Personal/Professional Learning Network) filled with other passionate and knowledgeable educators who challenge me to think and push myself to new levels and in directions I never imagined! My PLN is made up of other principals, educators, central office administrators, life long learners - there are too many to name individually but I am grateful to each of them because I have gained something from them that has made me a better leader and educator!
  2. I get to follow some of the people in education who I respect and admire - Todd Whitaker, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Alfie Kohn, Kathy Schrock, and Fountas & Pinnell just to name a few! Not only do I get to read what they're thinking about or working on but I can reach out to them directly with a question or comment and can usually get a response!
  3. I have learned the power of the HASHTAG and how using the right tag unlocks a whole other world of professional conversations and sharing of ideas! Whether its the #ptchat on Wednesday evening or the #edchat on Tuesdays, there are literally hundreds of people online sharing ideas about a specific question, topic or book and the flow of ideas is unreal!
  4. I have learned about Zite, which has literally changed the way I start my day! I cannot begin getting ready for the day if I don't spend time reading through the blogs, posts and articles organized by Zite for me! (Eric taught me about this one at ASCD!!)
  5. I have learned about Google Docs (and many other Google components) that have shown me different ways to harness and focus the power of collaboration - what an amazing (and FREE) resource!! I have already created an account and started checking things out!
  6. I have learned about Evernote, which has literally changed my professional life! It is an incredible app that allows me to type up stuff, take pictures, etc. and access the material from any device where I have downloaded the app because of the way it syncs! So, while doing walkthroughs each day in the building, I walk around with my iPad and take notes using Evernote and then when I get home at night those notes are on my laptop, which makes my life so much easier when offering specific praise or feedback! I will definitely be using Evernote for my formal observations next year too!
  7. I have learned about Diigo, which is such an amazing tool whose potential I haven't even fully realized yet! Basically, it allows me to visit different websites, read through them, make notes or highlight parts of the text and then bookmark it to my diigo account so I can access it later! And, I can access Diigo from any computer so all my bookmarks travel with me - AMAZING!
  8. I was inspired to share the world of Twitter with my staff and colleagues through a voluntary training session where more than 40 people attended! It was great to see fellow educators get inspired and avail themselves to this new medium for professional development and for becoming a connected educator!
  9. I have learned about some great online resources like mentimeter, yolasite,,, twurdy, and socrative just to name a few! Check them out whenever you get a chance because they can change the way you do things in your classrooms and in your school!
  10. I started my own blog (hopefully you're reading it now)! I use Blogger for my postings and I am loving every minute of blogging! I find Blogger to be user friendly and the steps for getting started and refining my blog straight forward and easy to follow. Blogging makes me feel empowered and has allowed me a whole other outlet for my ideas, successes, failures and passions as they relate to the world of education!
These are just a few of the things I have learned over the last few weeks since joining Twitter and sharing my Tweets with the world. Needless to say I have taken my professional development into my own hands and the experience has been liberating! Sometimes I feel like I am learning so much that I don't know where to begin but I have come up with a system for that too - I Diigo the things I want to hold on to and access them when I ready to learn something new. I can honestly say that not a day goes by where I don't learn something new ever since I made the move from Isolation Island to the Island of Instructional Leaders!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Teachers, Not Programs, Have The Greatest Impact on Children

With the introduction of the Common Core Standards (CCS) and Teacher Evaluation System (APPR) there has recently been a lot of talk about the resources and materials our teachers are using in their classrooms. Many educators and instructional leaders are focused on making sure that the classrooms are filled with various programs, materials, etc. that are aligned to the rigors of the CCS (I hesitate to use the word rigor at this point). Furthermore, when looking at APPR and its potential ramifications, once again the conversation turns to what materials and programs are being used in the classroom to ensure that our children are prepared for the various assessments - both the local and state assessments.

Although I think everyone agrees that we want to make sure our children are learning and growing, I am concerned about the recent focus on the specific programs and materials being used. Don't get me wrong, I want to make sure that our classrooms are filled with rich resources and materials too because they are critical components to the learning experiences of our children but I don't think they are the key to learning. I think the key to learning lies in the hands of our great teachers - it is teachers, not programs, that have the greatest impact on our children and their learning! In my years as an instructional leader, I have seen many programs be piloted and eventually implemented and the common theme that runs through every implementation is that great teachers make the programs successful in the classroom; programs do not make teachers great nor do they make children learn. Often the conversation revolves around implementing a program on a specific grade level or throughout an entire school to ensure consistency in the learning experiences of our children but any good educator knows that its not the program that is going to bring consistency to the learning, it is the teachers! A great teacher knows how to bring the dullest or most scripted or structured program to life in their classrooms so that their children are highly engaged and learning. On the other hand, a struggling teacher will usually be able to implement the program only at a basic level and the children's learning and levels of engagement will be impacted as a result of this basic implementation. Again, its not about the program - its about the teacher and their individual skill set that will have the greatest impact on our children.

Regardless of the program, resource or materials being used in the classrooms, I suggest that our focal points needs to shift from this "stuff" to the professional development of our teachers! Whether a school or district is planning on implementing a basal reading series or adopting a balanced literacy approach to reading instruction, the focus should be on training teachers in sound pedagogical practice - not only on how to use the programs or materials! For example, we recently shifted to a balanced literacy approach and supplied every classroom with various reading and writing resources and programs to support this instructional approach. When it came time to train teachers, although we did spend time on exposing them to the materials, the thrust of our time was focused on sound instructional approaches that would impact all of our children on some level and would help all our teachers enhance their skill set. Our instructional focus happened to be the technique of the gradual release of responsibility of learning from teacher to student (model - guide - do independently or show me - help me - let me do it) because we felt that was a sound instructional model that could be used across all curriculum areas and would help our teachers have the greatest impact on our children and their learning.

In the end, I am not advocating for a specific instructional approach or program; instead, I am advocating for the professional development of our teachers because the bottom line is that our skilled teachers, not the programs they are using, will have the greatest impact on our children and their learning!