October 3, 2015

Putting The Problem Back On The Students

My classroom is student-centered and instruction is blended.  I’ve got 23 Macbook Airs in my room.  I don’t know for sure but I imagine this is my students’ first experience in a student-centered blended classroom.  I say that because their reactions to my classroom indicate pretty clearly the type of classrooms from which they have previously been a part.



In a very general sense, my instruction runs in three phases: Instructional, Practice, Assessment.  It’s a lot more fluid than that, but that’s enough to understand the purpose of this post.  The instructional phase represents the time that I offer the most support.  Perhaps it’s the phase that appears most like a 20th century classroom.  I incorporate a buffet of opportunities for my students to dive into the skill or concept.  The next phase represents the biggest phase, from the standpoint of time.  During the practice phase I often gauge the level of support needed by my students by the number of hands up in the classroom.  During this time, I rarely address the entire class as a whole, rather I spend most of the time down on a knee beside one student or a group of students.  I issue the daily agenda through our learning management system, Canvas, and this allows me to spend more valuable time with my students.  As I said, during the practice phase, students generally get my attention with a raised hand or a verbal cue.  During the class, I find myself constantly gauging the level of support needed by the class, diagnosing common weaknesses, and identifying common strengths.  This means I occasionally need to stop and address the whole class.

I’m realizing, through observation and conversations with students, that the number of hands and verbal cues I’m receiving during the practice phase doesn’t necessarily indicate the level of support students need, rather it indicates the level of support students want.  Putting the problem back on the students means I have to intentionally exercise caution during my interactions with students in order to continually put the problem back on the students.  Most importantly, I have to employ the right kinds of questions when dealing with students.  Questions that require them to think, because it’s likely they would prefer that I respond in a way that liberates them from thinking.  See, the number of hands up during class more accurately indicates the lack of thinking.  The system I have put in place in my class arms each student with opportunities to learn.  In general, I’m finding that they view these opportunities, even using Google, as a way for me to stop teaching.

Ultimately, I’d like for my students to develop resilience, grit, and perseverance that empowers them to relentlessly dig at their problems before giving up and seeking support from me.  

This goal is not achieved without a teacher that is intentionally aware of the effects of each interaction with students seeking support.  It requires the teacher to act more as a coach.  A coach empowers his/her students to hone the skill of learning by putting the problem back on the students.  The right questions are key for a teacher or coach to put the problems back on the students.  For example, one of my students held her hand up for 15 minutes in class this week waiting for me to make it around to offer support.  When I made it to the student, her question was “Is this a negative sign or a minus sign?”  First, bless her heart for holding her hand up in the air for 15 minutes.  I’m afraid she worked harder holding her hand in the air than she did in solving her problem.  My response could have easily been “that number needs to be treated as a negative” and I could have walked away and moved on to the next student.  That would have done nothing to foster resilience or risk-taking in that student.  The situation that exists with this student depicts the struggles in all of my students.  She has never been empowered to take control of her learning, take risks, and accept failure.  These skills are critical to success in today’s global society, yet they are perhaps the most neglected in today’s classrooms.  Students have been conditioned to believe that arriving at the right answer is the only measurement of achievement that matters.  Risking failure or making a mistake is shameful and not something that is embraced by many of today’s classrooms.  The following tips can help you begin to empower students to embrace failure as part of the learning process.  This is critical to putting the problem back on the students.

  • Be aware of your language and the impact that it has on cultivating learners.  Praise and encouragement are not the same thing.  Too often praise is given as a result of the product.  It’s more effective to provide encouragement during the process.  Be sure you’re emphasizing the process over the product.
  • Questions, questions, questions.  Your questions are key to empowering students to leverage the tools available to solve their own problems.  Your questions should require reflection and risk taking.  Too often students are spoonfed the answers, rather than provided opportunities to think.
    • Can you draw a picture that may help? 
    • What would happen if you tried it? 
    • Is there a similar problem we’ve done that may help us understand this one? 
    • Have you Googled it?  Yes, that’s right.  Teach your students to leverage the tools they will use in the real world.  If you don’t want your students Googling your answers, then start asking better questions.
    • What have you tried that hasn’t worked? 
  • Talk about a growth mindset.  Our students should know the term and understand that growth is not limited by prior experience or our genetic makeup.


  • Growth-v-Fixed
September 15, 2015

Remediation: A call for change

Having spent about 4 weeks in the high school math setting, I can say with certainty that reaching those students that are hard to reach is not given enough attention in middle school, or at any level for that matter. The quality of math courses at the high school cannot endure the percentage of students sitting in those courses with monumental deficiencies.  A student that has failed 6th grade math, 7th grade math, and 8th grade math lands him or herself in 9th grade math at the high school level a high percentage of time.  That statement is not meant to condemn the practice or lack of practice of holding students back when they can’t perform to a minimum acceptable level.  The statement simply means the system places a growing percentage of students and teachers in a difficult position, to put it kindly.  This post really isn’t meant to spout statements that math teachers have been spouting for years.  Instead, I’m reminded of the importance of reaching EVERY student all the time, especially during the critical years where learning foundations are established.  More specifically, I’m thinking about what that requires.

To combat this cruel series of events that plays out every year, many schools are turning to extra periods of remediation and intervention, loss of recess, extended class periods for math, and a deluge of other techniques that really only increase the time to “learn” math.  Instead, I wish more schools, administrators, teachers, etc. placed more of the focus on improving the experience for those students in their regular math class.  I’m not talking about adding time, taking away an elective so the student can be placed in remediation classes, or doing more of the same thing only longer.  I wish more teachers considered why that student was failing their class instead of how they can get that student to spend more time doing math.  None of that is to say that more traditional means of remediation aren’t or can’t be effective.

It’s time to look at remediation from a comprehensive whole-child perspective.  I feel like we’ve completely overlooked reaching that child during class and jumped straight to “what can we do to that kid during remediation?”  The following list represents the tip of the iceberg, but I wonder what results these would yield in comparison to traditional remediation techniques.

  • The failure that is occurring, by teacher and student, can only be remedied if a relationship is present.  In fact, if you’re talking remediation but the conversation doesn’t begin with “How do I get into this student’s bubble?  How do I break the shell?  What can I do to reach his or her heart?” you’re wasting your time talking strategy, technique, or pedagogy.
  • Have you called home?  The first call home should be on purpose, it should be early in the year, and it should be positive.  Not sure which students need called?  Unfortunately if you just listen to the previous grade level teachers, they’ll probably indicate who needs a phone call.  The names usually follow “just wait till you have…”
  • A handwritten note takes a mere seconds to write.  “Never underestimate the value of a well placed compliment. -Todd Whittaker”  The students that need the most love, the most reinforcement, and the most pats on the backs, ask for it in the most unloving ways.  Don’t let that stop you from writing a 30 second note.  This practice seems easy, but when you’re talking about these students, you have to watch for something positive, on purpose.  I know, positive behaviors may be like Bigfoot, you hear about him every once in a while, but you never see him.  If you watch on purpose, you’ll find something to write about.  Think about it, we watch for negative behaviors all day long and often find them.  Try watching for positive behaviors a while and see what happens.
  • Have you given up a lunch break to eat with a student or group of students?
  • Have you visited the home?
  • I know what you’re thinking, “Gee Wiz Oldfield, there’s no way a person could do all these things.”  The perpetual and consistent failure that these students experience year after year acts like a huge weight on the everyone: teacher and students.  The quality of courses is not enduring this weight that is only getting heavier year after year.  The level of performance is declining and bars are lowering.  What we’ve been doing isn’t working.  Nothing great is accomplished by doing something easy.

I’ll be honest, the focus of this post came from my own frustration entering the high school math realm for the first time this year.  I was previously an 8th grade math teacher for five years.  I often wondered back then how teachers at the high school actually taught their courses at the level required by the standards without failing more students.  I thought one of two things were occurring: the teachers were extraordinary teachers of the kind of talent I could only dream about, or the teachers recognized the cavern between the instructional level of the students and the performance required of the standards and spent the year measuring student learning at the current level then stamped a grade on the report card under a course name that did not really represent what was being taught.  I believe the cure involves better reaching those students who are hard to reach.  Consider the penalty if they get left behind?  Prior to high school, the penalty is… they move on.

Now don’t get me wrong, do I believe instruction and pedagogy need to improve?  You bet I do!  I believe too many students sit in classrooms designed for a style of learning that is irrelevant and disengaging to today’s learners.  That’s for another time.

August 20, 2015

The Handwritten Note




I adopted the practice of writing handwritten notes about 3 years ago.  It wasn’t until this year that I really began to harness the power.  Before, I would occasionally write a note when a student performed extraordinary in class.  If I recognized that a student had overcome a large obstacle in content, I would try and write the note and deliver it within the same day.  At my previous school, we had Blennerhassett Middle School post cards that you see in the above picture.  I moved schools this year and realized that as far as I knew, I didn’t have anything similarly suited for writing handwritten notes to students.  I have used Vistaprint this year to order business cards that include my contact information, website, and instructions on signing up for my Remind class.  On the back of the card, I included a motivational image from Dave and Shelly Burgess, authors of Teach Like A Pirate. IMAG1052 IMAG1054

In addition to ordering the business cards, I also ordered postcards for handwritten notes.CYMERA_20150820_075401


This year I determined to leverage the power of a sincere note to a greater degree than I had before.  During the first few days of school, I made literal and mental notes about students through observation and conversation.  I tried to identify students who seemed disengaged.  In some cases, I have students who are repeating the course for a second of third time.  As I identified those students, I watched closely for that small spark of excitement, engagement, or some input to any conversation.  That was when I jumped on the opportunity to praise!  As soon as I could I wrote a handwritten note, checked out their schedule, and began delivering the notes during my planning period.  In four days of school I have delivered four quality notes with a sincere and personal message to that student.  I ordered my Vistaprint cards late so I had to use notecards for a few days. IMAG1045

Often the only feedback you get from a handwritten note is the evidence of excitement, motivation, and engagement that student displays the next day in class.  Occasionally you’ll get a “thank you” in return.

A couple years ago I had a student that many educators would have considered a handful, to say the least.  During our team plan, this student’s name would come up often when discussing behavior issues.  This student was among the top five offenders in detention-hall that year.  I wrote him a handwritten note praising him for his perseverance during an exercise in class one day.  A few days later I noticed his binder laying on the floor next to his desk.  In the clear plastic sleeve on the front of his binder was my handwritten note.  He was displaying it proudly for all to see.  I didn’t want him to notice, but I tried to quickly snap a picture of that binder that day.  The image isn’t real clear but that’s my handwritten note in the sleeve.  IMAG4724 He never thanked me for my note.  I got all the thanks I needed when this student worked his butt off in my class the rest of the year.

July 6, 2015

How Do I Change and Why?

I regularly read blogs from a circle of educators that I follow on Twitter.  Though I haven’t actually met most of these people face to face, I feel as though I know them well.  Each time I read a new post, I have a good idea where their feelings and thoughts are coming from.  With that in mind, this post comes from an educator entering his 7th year.  Five previous years have been spent as an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting.  I became a connected educator about 3 years ago and I started blogging to keep a record of my own growth as an educator.  To be transparent, I’m also in the middle of Learn Like A Pirate by Paul Solarz and many of Paul’s points inspired my motivation to write this post.  I’ve started the change discussed in this post and I wanted to write down my thoughts today.

Rewind 4-5 years ago and the phrase “student-centered instruction” or “learner-centered classroom” were buzzwords I probably would have used in a job interview, but that was the threshold of my experience with those phrases.  Looking back, my preservice training in college wasn’t bad, but I did not enter the profession in 2009 armed with the shifts in teaching that prepares a teacher to reach today’s students.  In fact, my student teaching and my first year as a full time teacher likely reflected the exact same teaching style that I received when I was in middle school back in 1997.  I want this post to highlight some steps any educator could take to begin to move away from a very teacher directed classroom dominated by rules, compliance, and students playing the game of school.  If you’re a teacher today you’ve definitely heard of the phrase “student/learner centered classrooms”.  You’ve likely heard your principal, instructional coach, professional development facilitator spout those terms about your school as if everyone in the building, regardless of experience, knows exactly how to initiate those changes in their own classroom.  Not to mention, the fear and anxiety some educators may feel every time someone stands and talks about a classroom that sounds nothing like their own.

I’m not going to outline these steps in any order, though I’m pretty adamant about the first one.  I realize that whatever order some of these appeared for me, may certainly not be the same order in which they appear for another educator.  The point is, read these points and consider which ones you can begin to initiate now and be brave enough to risk the change and see what happens.  If you haven’t gathered yet, I am a believer in this “new style” of teaching that describes teachers as more of a facilitator of learning than a driver of learning.  In fact, I spent much of the first week last year explaining to my 8th grade students exactly what my role would be.  You see, in a student’s eyes, a learner-centered classroom can sometimes lead a student to believe that the teacher does nothing.  My students’ evidence of teachers’ work is bound to:

  • the teacher towering over graded papers
  • the teacher standing up front and “teaching” for several minutes before assigning homework and retreating to his/her desk for the remainder of the period
  • the teacher rigidly supporting classroom rules by enacting consequences in the form of D-halls, pink slips, you name it
  • the teacher adhering to strict deadlines meaning he/she will not tolerate late work and zeroes will be given if such work is turned in late

Notice that all of those actions begin with “the teacher”.  In my students’ eyes, they typically evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher by the actions of the teacher.  This is understandable and I’m not trying to place guilt on any student, not at all.  The classrooms that most teachers today grew up in were dominated by the teacher.  The leading in the classroom was driven by the teacher.  Teachers took part in most of the action (24/7) while students were mostly passive.  The learner-centered classroom seeks to reverse most of the features of 20th century classrooms.  Below you’ll find some shifts that any educator can make to his/her classroom in an effort to transform it into one where students take risks, willingly lead, monitor their learning, and engage.

  • As I said above, I feel this first one needs to happen immediately.  It’s difficult to shift and transform yourself and your classroom if your level of feedback to students is suffocating under the level of grades you give.  Let me say that again: feedback needs to heavily outweigh the number of grades your students receive.  As a facilitator of student learning, this is one of your most important jobs and it’s one that your students, regardless of age, probably won’t recognize.  In fact, if you’re good at it, one could argue that the students shouldn’t recognize it.  I sometimes use the analogy of the rudder.  Passengers never see the rudder and rarely can even tell when it’s moving, but it impacts the direction of the ship constantly.  Your feedback can come in the form of a whisper in a student’s ear, sitting with a few students while they work, catching a student during lunch to talk to them about their work, a handwritten note, or a posttest conference.  There are nearly countless ways to offer feedback and perfecting any one of those ways is an art that today’s teachers need to practice.  If your grades outweigh the number of times you offer feedback, make this priority number one.
  • Information literacy is perhaps the most important skill our students need today.  The responsibility for this skill cannot be placed on any one teacher, grade level, or department.  21st century teachers are no longer masters of content tasked with unloading this knowledge into the brains of today’s students.  Many of our students come to school with content in their pockets.  The role of any teacher should be to design instruction that provides students opportunities to acquire content and create.  This is a huge task in my opinion, because depending on the grade level, it’s not uncommon for students to be more information literate than the teacher.  Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly many classrooms today where the teacher is doing more work than the students.  Here’s a start, consider the amount of work your students are doing and consider the work you are doing.
  • Do you have “A” students who breeze through your course without putting out much effort?  Do you find those students put forth minimal effort required to achieve their A?  Do you have struggling students that you find hard to motivate?  A learner centered classroom is not described by one pace fits all.  Rather, a learner centered classroom is driven by improvement.  Students aren’t bound to rigid deadlines and rewards aren’t determined by grades nor are punishments determined by compliance.  To place a priority on improvement and learning, the teacher needs to communicate flexibility in deadlines, learning styles, pacing, home lives, and relationships.  Teachers in learner centered classrooms are likely leveraging technology to aide them in managing this new flexibility, especially when it comes to learning.  Do you allow retakes on your summative assessments?  It’s tough to prioritize improvement over grades if you aren’t willing to allow retakes on your assessments.  What would a second or third opportunity to demonstrate learning do for that student that you find hard to motivate?  Incorporate relentless feedback during that cycle and I’m confident you’ll have a student willing to try to improve his/her score rather than one disappointed again with a low grade.  Accept that zeroes do nothing but let that student off the hook.  If your assignment was important enough to design than it should be important enough for students to complete.  Placing a priority on learning means zeroes have no place in your classroom.  Zeroes belong in a teacher directed classroom, not one that is learner centered.
  • Let your students lead.  Consider some menial tasks that you are carrying out during a typical week.  How many of those tasks could be completed by students?  Allow them to lead.  Paul Solarz writes in Learn Like A Pirate that allowing your students to interrupt the class at any time is one important aspect of a learner centered classroom.  Students will feel empowered when they understand their teacher is serious about allowing them to interrupt the classroom.  This obviously takes practice, flexibility, modeling, and constant feedback to direct appropriate interruptions and misdirect inappropriate interruptions.  Communicate early and often your system for allowing students to interrupt the class.
  • If the only evidence of learning you have from your students is a letter on top of a test, quiz, assignment, etc. than you are likely driving too much of the learning and your students are likely forgetting a high percentage of what you’ve worked hard to teach.  A learner centered classroom means students are given the tools and opportunities to not only regurgitate their learning, but apply and create with their newly acquired knowledge.  Evidence of learning in a learner centered classroom comes in a variety of forms.  2015 presents classrooms with a buffet of choices for teachers and students to incorporate in their classroom as means to demonstrate our learning.  Students today are creating avatars that demonstrate learning, they are creating social media accounts of historical figures using Fakebook , they are producing instructional videos and uploading them to a global audience, they are blogging and documenting their learning through text and pictures, and they are using Minecraft to visually represent the acquired skill.  These are just a few drops in the bucket of ways that students are doing and creating with their learning.

If you’re like me, you have probably thought at one time, or perhaps you’re thinking it now: “this all sounds good, but it just wouldn’t work for my students” or “I like these ideas, but I’d be the only one trying it and it’s just not worth it.”  Imagine with me for a minute, what type of students our schools would be sending out post-high school if all classrooms were learner centered.  Imagine what the work force would be like if all teachers made it a priority to design classrooms where students felt comfortable to lead, felt comfortable documenting their learning in a variety of ways, viewed content as something that is readily available, but viewed application of that content as a necessary skill to survive today.  Imagine what content and skills would be retained if students stopped playing the game of school and started valuing growth and improvement over a grade.  I have already imagined it and that’s what convinced me to step out and try it.

May 27, 2015

Help Wanted: Change

I have put considerable thought into this post.  I’ve avoided it for weeks.  I was reminded recently of what Dr Brad Gustafson said about blogging in his interview with EdTech magazine:


From: http://www.edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2015/05/qa-principal-speaks-out-power-youtube-can-have-schools

I don’t want this post to be negative, though it may sound that way to some.  I hope it ultimately makes a difference.  That’s why I do the things I continue to do; to make a difference.

I have been a connected educator for almost three years now and the evidence can be seen by observing my practice, reading my blogs, and viewing my digital footprint on Twitter.  I’ve also endured a rather trying year, professionally.  This post will hopefully reflect the frustrations I have about being a reflective connected educator stuck in a school and evaluation system that does little to empower educators to become better.  Sadly, it feels like there’s no room for an educator who has a passion for learning.

During this school year I’ve engaged in the following learning opportunities:

  • moderated and designed questions and topics for #wvedchat
  • visited Beaver Local Schools to participate in their day-long CE session with Dave Burgess: Teach Like A Pirate
  • completed the following webinars with Alliance for Excellent Education
  • My wife and I hosted the 2nd annual state-wide Edcamp event in Parkersburg, WV.
  • I read the book Teach Like A  Pirate and began incorporating the questions into my lesson plans.  I also made the TLAP philosophy a part of my classroom IMAG7209 (1)CYMERA_20150427_171802
  • I read the book by Eric Sheninger titled Digital Leadership: A Changing Paradigm for Changing Times
  • Eric supported me in developing a week-long graduate course I taught over the summer for RESA V
  • My wife and I attended Edcamp Columbus for the second year in a row
  • I participated in Connected Educators Month by participating in a Google Hangout sharing my story of how I became connected and what it has done for my practice
  • In an effort to start having conversations about instructional practice with educators inside my school building I attempted to start a weekly morning meeting.  The attempt was not embraced by enough staff members to keep it going.  Thank you to those who came.  As Todd Whitaker says, “nothing happens at random in great schools”.

I also continued to document my progress in refining my assessment practices to better communicate student learning.  Throughout this process, I began to move my classroom towards becoming paperless.  I incorporated more digital tools to provide me more formative feedback about my students (Kahoot, Nearpod).  Most importantly, I did something about that feedback.  I have participated in countless Twitter chats on topics including leadership, blended learning, professional development, family-community engagement, and building relationships, just to name a few.

I’ve written before about how isolation is now a choice educators make.  Every day I choose to connect with other educators, whether it be through Twitter, Yammer, Facebook, or Google+.  Yet, I still feel tremendously isolated because there are so few educators in my area engaged in the conversations of growth and development that I choose to be a part of so often.  Note: my wife, Julie, is also a connected educator engaging in her own opportunities for growth and development.  We often share a lot of these opportunities through conversations at home.  The isolation, though, was exacerbated during my end-of-the-year evaluation with my administrators.  Not a single thing in this post was discussed during my evaluation.  None of the efforts I’ve made to improve my practice were acknowledged during the course of my evaluation.  I want to confess that I don’t engage in those efforts listed above for higher pay, awards, or notoriety.  My investment in growth and development is done simply because I want to be the best educator that I can be.  I want to provide my students the highest quality experiences during their year with me.  However, it was very defeating leaving my evaluation questioning why anyone else would want to engage in similar opportunities.  Telling my story and sharing the tremendous value in these learning opportunities with others has provided little benefit in the eyes of my bosses.  I have a tremendous PLN and certainly don’t take them for granted, but it’s extremely lonely being in a school with little growth and development every year.  I was disappointed that my efforts to grow and improve my practice went unrecognized by my administrators and the evaluation system.  Aside from my self-evaluation where I filled boxes with typed narratives attempting to provide “evidence” of my own evaluation, I feel like I made zero progress in the eyes of those ahead of me.  My students low standardized test scores were acknowledged during my evaluation, perhaps indicating that I’m wasting my time investing in the opportunities for growth listed above.

What reason do other educators in my area have to engage in opportunities for growth, reflection, and learning?  There aren’t any administrators sharing their story of how the investment is changing their practice.  The evaluation system provides little to no recognition of your efforts to improve.  The only standard of measurement, that one data point measured by standardized tests, may be the only story ever heard by those above you.

I work in a school building that has almost zero conversations about improving instructional practice.  As a result, I appreciate the amount of opportunities I get to engage in those conversations online.  I apologize for the negativity in this post and do not intend to offend anyone.  I hope this post results in much needed change.  A change that empowers others to begin adopting a growth mindset.  I hope the change allows others to be recognized for their attitude and actions towards growth and development.  I hope my own fire is not extinguished but until my family can afford to move, I’m struggling to justify the burn.  For those that are offended, consider these questions:

  • What opportunities did you leverage to improve your practice?
  • What are you doing to empower others to learn, reflect, and grow?
  • Who do you have in your professional learning network that is better than you?
  • How do you engage in professional conversations with other educators?
  • What evidence of continuous improvement can you point to this school year?


May 12, 2015

The Value of a PLN

A professional/personal/powerful learning network, as many call it, is of tremendous value to all educators, especially administrators.  Today’s schools are begging for a lead learner to step up and navigate the rapid changing waters of education.  Yesterday evening from my couch at home I tweeted four administrators that have provided me priceless wisdom, resources, encouragement, support, feedback, and scrutiny over the last couple years.  Eric Sheninger, Dwight Carter, Craig Vroom, Bobby Dodd were the ones I chose to include in my tweet.  I’ve personally met two of these administrators, Craig and Bobby, at Edcamp events in the Columbus, OH area.  I have not met Dwight or Eric face to face but have connected with both of them numerous times through Twitter.

Below you’ll see a screenshot of the conversation that emerged in a matter of minutes via Twitter.  Within 15 minutes I was provided quality resources by leveraging my PLN for resources.  You’ll also see that I included Remind in my original tweet and they also came to my rescue and provided me with quality links, one being authored by Eric Sheninger.


Working in isolation is now a choice all educators make.  It’s a choice to neglect the power of a PLN and refuse to make it’s presence part of your practice.  Working in isolation is the enemy of innovation.  Why not leverage the power of so many influential voices?  If you’re leading a school, you can’t afford not to.  Chances are your thoughts and your solutions are not unique and someone has already tried them.

I want to separate the resources provided to me yesterday to make them accessible to other readers interested in the same topic.  If you haven’t caught on yet, my intention yesterday was to gather resources about how administrators are using text message-based communication with their staffs.  I’ve been a long time user of Remind and Celly in my own classroom, but I was curious about how those tools are used to increase communication from administration to staff.  Remind has just released a beta version of their chat which offers users the ability to establish office hours to allow 2-way communication via text message.  I won’t go into further details as I’d prefer you check them out for yourself!RemindOfficeHours



January 31, 2015

My response… Differentiated Instruction

I was intrigued when I read James R. Delisle’s commentary from Edweek, “Differentiation Doesn’t Work.”  As some of you may know, world renowned advocate for differentiation Carol Ann Tomlinson responded recently in her commentary “Differentiation Does, In Fact, Work.”  I’m in no position to argue either one of these commentaries but I do want to comment on some positions Ms Tomlinson takes in her response.

I’m an 8th grade math teacher in a middle school setting.  I was fortunate enough to have the backing of a previous administration that allowed the counselor and I to experiment with flexible grouping of students.  Our intention was to begin the school year with classes (45 min periods) of students grouped by similar strengths and weaknesses as determined by a number of considerations.  These groups weren’t meant to be static “tracks” but would allow the teacher to systematically design instruction that would target those weaknesses.  Once a student demonstrated he/she could perform at a level demonstrated at the sequential level, he/she was to be moved to the next class.  The grouping was to be very fluid.  Ms Tomlinson first stated that tracked or grouped classes, particularly the lower groups tend to be taught by newer or less experienced teachers using a curriculum that is far less robust than that used in upper tracks.  She states that the intellectual climate is dampened because students placed in lower groups consider themselves less able.  Ms Tomlinson points out some other frightening considerations of grouping students by ability, but I’ll allow you to read the article yourself.

My immediate response was that if Ms Tomlinson is accurately describing the environment in which grouping has traditionally taken place, shame on those leaders who allowed that to occur!  I can’t imagine that a shred of research would support a situation like that.  Flexible grouping, from my experience, is far different than what Ms Tomlinson described.  Particularly in a middle school setting, it’s much easier to allow the same teacher to instruct all the groups of students, rather than a new less experienced teacher instructing the low groups.  A tremendous amount of communication is required to keep the grouping flexible in nature and to ensure planning is accurately diagnosing and addressing student weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that being the case if different teachers are instructing different groups of students in an attempt to keep student schedules flexible.  Grouping or no grouping, it’s important that the classroom provide a robust and engaging curriculum.  No one would argue that.  In reference to the intellectual climate, I made a concerted effort to build a climate where the lower groups of students (you know, the ones who hated math, sat in the back to never utter a word, care less about turning in work on time or passing tests) knew immediately that Mr Oldfield was not going race through the curriculum with entire disregard to whether they were learning or not.  I communicated effectively that there would be no time limits on learning.  I appeared in my class one day as a “guest speaker”, Mr Brain Researcher, to share with my students the knowledge that all students are geniuses in one talent or another.  I most certainly kept my word that students would move up to a different class once they demonstrated they were ready.  The students in my lower classes still contact me occasionally and tell me that my math class was the only one where they actually learned something.  The students dropped all fear and inhibition at the door when they came to class.  I still exposed them to as much of the rich, authentic, technology-enhanced instruction as I did with other classes, I just made an attempt to identify where they were, communicate where they needed to go, and determine how we could all get there.

Don’t get me wrong, the system I attempted to implement was far from perfect.  Learning is chaotic.

chaoticlearningThe levels at which all students perform throughout the year needs to be monitored constantly.  Benchmarks for students to accomplish in order to move up need to be communicated often.  What I can say with full certainty is that my system looked nothing like the ones communicated by Ms Tomlinson and other commentaries blasting tracking students.  I believe it can be done in a manner that puts students first, eliminates any negative perceptions, and fills in the swiss-cheese gaps created by traditional k-12 math progression.

Having experienced both flexible grouping and very heterogenous groups of students in each period, I can’t go to the extreme that Mr Delisle takes on his position against differentiation.  I will say, for me and my position, it was easier to differentiate pace, planning, instruction, activities, and support for my students when they weren’t heterogeneously grouped within the same class period.  In fact, I feel myself failing more often than not in filling those swiss-cheese gaps this year because each class period presents such a wide variety of skill levels.  The struggle to differentiate is a constant fight for me, mostly in terms of time.  The time required of me to genuinely structure 5 different class periods each day in a way that maximizes engagement and support, and provides content-rich activities for each student is a real commitment.  This commitment is one that often makes me question where to focus my time: my family or my job.  I will continue to take Ms Tomlinson’s advice and incorporate low prep strategies as much as possible, while continuing to make progress in those areas she considers high prep.  I applaud Ms Tomlinson for her work and do consider her an irreplaceable resource for me and my class.


January 6, 2015

The Power of Personalized Professional Learning

I’ve been a full time teacher since 2009.  Though that may not be long in comparison to many, it’s been long enough to realize the impact of what professional learning has looked like for many years.  The top-down, one size fits all approach where educators are often hoarded to an auditorium or library in large groups and subjected to sit-and-get passive forms of learning have long left school districts frustrated at the impact of this methodology.  In fact, I wonder if this type of learning has been so prevalent for so long that many district leaders are conditioned to accept these measures as adequate forms of learning.  In contrast, talk to any educator and you’ll find they’re often left frustrated at the lack of voice and choice, feedback, and follow up administered during this process called professional learning.  In defense of typical professional learning, each event is the product of a 20th century student from a 20th century upbringing.  I want to include this quote from Eric Sheninger straight from his most popular blog post written June 8, 2014:

For so long schools have resembled a hamster running on a wheel doing the same things over and over to improve sets of numbers.  We were no different and had succumbed to a fixed mindset. Every excuse in the book was at our disposal not to change and continue down the same path year after year. Heck, our education system has become so good at maintaining the status quo and enforcing compliance throughout that we and many others have been brainwashed into thinking any other course of action would be foolish.  If education is good for one thing it is making excuses not to move forward. There is still an innate desire to sustain a school structure and function that has remained relatively unchanged for well over a hundred years. This is a problem. It was a huge problem for us. We were in a rut and didn’t even know it. Luckily change came in the form of a little blue bird that gave me the kick in the butt that I desperately needed back in 2009.
Though Eric wrote this in context of his former high school of which he was principal, it is certainly descriptive of professional learning.  When will professional learning change?  How can school and district leaders begin to initiate sustainable change?

Social media has opened up a world of opportunities for educators to connect globally and take charge of their own learning.  For many, the decision to step into this journey was a personal decision taken on their own accord.  Perhaps they attended a conference and saw others connecting from inside and outside the conference via social media.  Perhaps others came to personalized learning by wading into it slowly through the connection of a colleague or friend.  No matter the avenue, personalized professional learning has the potential to transform educators by increasing relevance, connectedness, and effectiveness.  The rapid change that technology has imposed on education and it’s stakeholders means that districts can’t possibly provide enough learning opportunities, even if they were of high quality, to keep educators in touch with the most effective and relevant learning experiences for today’s students.  This translates to classrooms out of touch and unprepared to design student centered learning experiences that tap into students’ passions and interests.  If I were painting a picture, it would be a sore sight indeed.  That’s the current state of professional learning in too many schools and districts and it’s being modeled by far too many school leaders, principals, professional development coordinators, and superintendents.  

Kristen Swanson writes: “While we spend significant amounts of time and energy measuring the learning provided to students, we spend much less time measuring the learning provided to our teachers.”  If teachers and principals aren’t learning and growing, then how likely is it that they are adapting to the changes technology imposes on learning?  How likely is it that they are augmenting their instructional practices to meet the needs of today’s learners?

It has been said over and over by leading educational speakers that teachers today can’t possibly prepare students for what lie ahead because teachers can’t possibly predict what tools and skills will be necessary once our students reach their careers.  The best we can hope to do is arm our students with the power and passion to learn.  The applicant who demonstrates an ability to learn something new will be the ones gaining position in a competitive market.  The culture of learning as an educator should be the same.  The quality of professional learning experiences answers this one question: Does it help a teacher learn how to learn?

Where does social media and the ability to connect, learn, reflect, grow, receive support, communication, data, and strategies 24/7 fit into quality professional learning experiences?  With greater access to more free-flowing information than has ever been available, I can’t understand why professional learning has not flooded into the world of social media in an effort to connect more with leaders and colleagues who are on the front lines fighting the same fight each and every day.  The exchange of ideas locally and from outside should be woven into professional learning all year long.

Tom Whitby says these shifts in professional learning come at a price.  It requires more innovation by school leaders to carve out time for collaboration and conversation.  It requires a practice of reflection.  Not just reflection that is talked about, but one that is modeled and put into practice by being vulnerable enough to expose ourselves to better practices that may be occurring elsewhere.  It will require a digital literacy to use technology.  Most of all it requires a shift in the concept of a teacher from content expert to that of a lead learner and mentor.    It will not require more time, but smarter use of time.

January 4, 2015

New Year, New Goal: 2015

Number 1: Re-enroll and complete my Ed Leadership certificate.  In fact, I need to set a goal of calling and speaking with an advisor this week!

2014 brought a ton of professional accomplishments my way.  My wife, Julie, and I hosted West Virginia’s first Edcamp in April.  We attended our second Edcamp in the Columbus, Ohio area and extended our friendships with some incredible educators in the area.  In December, we accepted an invite to see Dave Burgess and his day-long presentation on Teach Like a Pirate.  Those three learning experiences were incredible and they all happened in 2014!  The year also saw the hiatus of #wvedchat, the weekly statewide edchat for West Virginia.  I don’t see it as a defeat though.

Social media has become the catalyst for change for thousands if not millions of educators all over the globe.  It has provided tremendous opportunities for growth, reflection, and learning for me.  Though my own classroom presents me with plenty of opportunities to improve, search for higher quality learning experiences, and refine a more valuable system for communicating learning to my students and parents; I can’t squelch my desire to be in a position that yields more influence.  I know I could present a school and a district with servant leadership that is timely, relevant, and effective.  I believe God has blessed me not only with a desire, but also the tools to drive sustainable changes, perhaps yet unseen, in the place that He would have me to be.

Without my Savior and my family at the focal point of my efforts, success is out of reach.  I needed the reminder and the message has been received lately.

January 4, 2015

2015: 3 Word GPS

The new year always presents a good opportunity to write and though I enjoy writing, I’ve been lacking in relevant opportunities lately.  Dave Burgess has probably made the biggest impact on my career in the last year.  I had the opportunity to see him twice and read through his Teach Like A Pirate book.  In reflecting on the last year and looking ahead to my professional goals in 2015, I can’t think of a better way to begin than to write about my own version of Dave’s GPS challenge.

The GPS challenge is a must watch!  Five minutes into seeing Dave live in person I was thinking “this is awesome, I can do this!”  I had never seen so much passion, energy, and intensity come from an educator, not to mention a professional development speaker!  In 2015, I want to set my GPS to these three words:

  • Energetic
  • Caring
  • Extraordinary

I’m making a commitment to bringing more energy into my classroom.  I’ll be the first to admit, seeing Dave in person exposed some of my own shortcomings, especially when it comes to energy.  I intend to begin the new year by giving my students 100% of my attention during school and it will require more energy.  Listening is something I’ll always have to improve on and I want to take each and every opportunity to listen because my students need it.  I don’t want to serve raw steak!  It takes energy to preheat the grill, baste the meat, prepare a nice dessert, and serve an experience that is alluring to the senses.

I’ve always taken measures that seem beyond the norm to build relationships with my students.  You have to reach their hearts before you can reach their minds.  I’ve learned that my students remember the mark I make on their character, on their emotions, and on their hearts long before they’ll remember any mark I make on their intelligence.  I’m committed to making my mark in 2015.

One of the biggest impressions Dave has made on me in the past year is he’s helped arm me with a creative mindset that has unleashed extraordinary experiences in my classroom.  As I commit to asking myself more questions on a regular basis, I want to continue providing my students extraordinary experiences in the classroom.  This doesn’t come easy!  I have a long ways to go before I write my own book of #TLAP math lessons.  If I can continue to work in extraordinary learning experiences for my students now and then, I’ll make my goal.  As I continue to leverage the power of other pirates sailing these same waters, I know I can forge ahead transforming my classroom experience for my students.  Ultimately, I’d like them to say my class was EXTRA ORDINARY!