A New Theory and Practice Podcast – Connected Leadership

Principal PD (4)

Tomorrow morning (Saturday, February 21, 8 A.M. CST), I will be joined by Spike Cook, Jessica Johnson, and Theresa Stager to discuss connected leadership. The title references Spike’s book from Corwin, part of the Connected Educator series.

During the podcast, we will discuss three articles I summarized from a previous post here at Theory and Practice. This podcast will be broadcasted live, either by clicking here or the embedded video below. In the meantime, leave a comment on this page to possibly win a free copy of Spike’s book!

Theory and Practice


disrupt, \dis-ˈrəpt\, verb: to cause (something) to be unable to continue in the normal way : to interrupt the normal progress or activity of (something) – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Vince, a pianist with Orchestra for the Young, uses an iPad to house all of his music.
Vince, a pianist with Orchestra for the Young, uses an iPad to house all of his music.

Disruptive Innovations in Reading Research and Practice by Susan B. Neuman and Linda B. Gambrell (Reading Research Quarterly, January/February/March 2-15)

The editors of this literacy research journal explore the concept of “disruption”. They compare the corporate world’s definition of this idea, which focuses on the bottom line, with education’s understanding, which “is to promote lifelong learning”. Neuman and Gambrell do not see education as a problem that needs fixing, but rather encourage subtle changes that can agitate the status quo. Both feel this is a necessary step in teaching reading and writing today.

If we are to participate – no less compete – in a global society, we will need to open the door to a number of disruptions in reading education.

Neuman and Gambrell highlight certain areas that are ripe for disruption.

  • Bilingual Education (Disruption): Monolingual Education (Disruptee)
  • Universal Full-Day Kindergarten (Disruption): Hit-or-Miss Full-Day Kindergarten (Disruptee)
  • Multiple Literacies (Disruptor): Traditional Literacy (Disruptee)
  • Online Teacher Education (Disruption): Brick-and-Mortar Teacher Education Programs (Disruptee)

They close their editorial by calling on the reader to “use this notion of disruption to our advantage”.

To BYOD or not to BYOD? by Aileen Hower and Tom Whitford (Reading Today, January/February 2015)

Two educators square off on the promise and problems with bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives. Hower sees lots of possibilities, including increased student engagement, quick access to resources, and easy ways to assess understanding through apps such as Socrative.

In contrast, Whitford finds pitfalls in BYOD initiatives. For instance, how do schools address lack of access to devices and wireless for some students? Also, the management of multiple devices can be daunting for a teacher. What’s interesting is that neither Hower and Whitford denounce BYOD as a learning initiative, making the title somewhat misleading.

B.C. report cards enter the age of social media by Tracy Sherlock (Vancouver Sun, December 5, 2015)

Elementary teachers across British Columbia are using a web tool called FreshGrade to capture and share student learning as it happens. Parents get a notification on their smartphone or tablet when their son or daughter has a new artifact entered in their online portfolio. One teacher loves this aspect.

They (students) will do something that they’re so proud of and they will say to me, ‘Can you put this on my portfolio so mommy and daddy can see it?’ I can do it instantaneously — I push ‘share’ and the parents get it right away. The communication with the parents is amazing — they understand because they can see it.

The ability for students and teachers to upload video, audio, images, or text in real time is also supported by school leadership. Antonio Vendramin, elementary principal, questions the traditional grading structure now that many of his teachers are using online portfolios.

I think this is the direction we need to go — we need to make reporting less of an event. We need to make sure this communication with parents is happening as we go, not just three times per year.

IMG_0192Interested in learning more about online portfolios? Check out my book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment. It is on sale through February – $5 off when you use the code PASSION5 during checkout. You can also join our Google+ Community on the topic. There are over 300 people to share resources and connect with on authentic assessment.

K-12 MOOCs Must Address Equity by Norman Eng (Education Week, February 5, 2015)

A professor of education in New York questions the effectiveness of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. While these online learning platforms have seen some success at the university level, there are two big reasons why they are ineffective at the K-12 level. First, the delivery of information is often lecture-based, no difference than a lecture delivered in a physical classroom. Second, disadvantaged students may lack broadband access to the Internet at home. Eng sums up the issue well at the end of his commentary.

How you use technology is more important than the technology itself.

e-text and e-books are changing the literacy landscape by Bridget Dalton (Phi Delta Kappan, November/December 2014)

This article focuses on “the array of multimedia and multimodal devices and applications that promise to help struggling readers and engage all learners.” Dalton, a literacy professor, applies the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework to ensure that digital curricula and texts address learners’ needs and explore the possibilities of enhancing student fluency and comprehension.

Dalton highlights a number of benefits of using e-books with learners, such as interactive vocabulary software embedded in the digital texts to help the reader make meaning of a challenging word. She also offers five clear steps for selecting and teaching with e-books and e-texts:

  1. Use e-text with audio narration to provide access to the general education curriculum and grade-level text.
  2. Select e-books with meaningful enhancements for vocabulary and comprehension.
  3. Teach students how to use e-text features.
  4. Create an e-reader community.
  5. Use professional development and get technical assistance.

The author believes that using digital tools for reading and communicating should be more than just an enhancement to the school day. “Every child should be reading e-books as part of his or her literacy curriculum.”

Putting the puzzle together…

Anything for the kids
Anything for the kids

Yesterday I was a waterfall. That is, I portrayed one for my students and school during a performance by Opera for the Young. When I wasn’t twirling a banner to simulate cascading water, I was sitting next to Vince, the accompanist for the singers.

At first glance, you wouldn’t really notice anything different as he played. But from my vantage point, the implementation of the iPad to hold his music was more than just not having to carry around songbooks. For instance, the app forScore saved all of his music in Google Drive. Also, Vince could annotate right on the sheet music, such as reminders during the performance to cue me as to when to stand up and perform.

Even more amazing were the pedals by his feet. He could press this device that was connected to his iPad via Bluetooth, and it would turn the digital page of music, half sheet at a time. There was no more quick gestures to flip a physical page. After the show, Vince shared that there was no way he could go back to physical sheet music. He was a better pianist because of this innovation. Disruptor = digital text; Disruptee = traditional publishers.

Can BYOD or MOOCs make this claim, that the introduction of their technologies has disrupted learning to the point of no going back? Apparently not yet. I took a MOOC myself last summer and can concur with what Norman Eng shared. As for BYOD, these initiatives vary in their implementation from school to school. Unfortunately, too many decisions to allow all students to bring their own devices came about because administrators got tired of being the cell phone police in their schools.

I think educators have been more discriminating about effective use of technology in classrooms than technologists and corporations give them credit for. This might be a disappointment for them, as they may view schools as antiquated and a market, respectively. When we have the ability to determine that e-books and online portfolios have a more positive influence on achievement than MOOCs and BYOD, we give the control of learning back to our students and ourselves. We can decide what’s worth disrupting.

Theory and Practice


Students write their favorite quotes from a book they are reading independently on this board. The teacher noted that they love using the metallic markers.

People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience)

The Relationship of Print Reading in Tier 1 Instruction and Reading Achievement for Kindergarten Students at Risk of Reading Difficulties by Jeanne Wanzek et al (Learning Disability Quarterly, August 2014)

The title for this study clearly describes the inquiry these four researchers explored. They observed over 100 students at risk of reading difficulties from 26 different kindergarten classrooms for this study. Here is what they found:

  • Core classroom instruction is students’ first line of response for reading instruction.
  • On average, students were actively engaged in the act of reading print for just over 1.5 minutes (90 seconds) during a 90 minute literacy block. This finding is consistent with related studies.
  • Choral reading accounted for 90% of all print engagement during the literacy block.
  • The instructional quality of the teacher was not correlated with the amount of time students were actively engaged in the act of reading print.

As you can see, kindergarten students at risk of reading difficulties received lots of instruction in how to read, but few opportunities to actually apply these skills. This occurs in spite of the wealth of evidence that there is a “significant positive correlation in time actively engaged in reading and all three major measures of reading achievement (letter-word identification, word attack skills, passage comprehension)”.

One surprising correlation the researchers found was the amount of time spent in authentic whole classroom instruction, such as think alouds with authentic texts, and increased engagement in reading print. Conversely, small group learning had a less positive association with engagement in reading print. The researchers suspected that while the teacher was meeting with one small group, the rest of the students were doing busy work such as worksheets so he/she could teach.

Wondering + online inquiry = learning by Diane Carver Sekeres et al (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014)

Four university professors offer a clear framework for scaffolding inquiry-based units and assignments in online spaces. They suggest using a gradual release of responsibility when teaching students how to find, curate, and synthesize information from websites and resources beyond their classroom: Modeled inquiry, structured inquiry, guided inquiry, and open inquiry.

By using structures and scaffolds, several benefits are realized. First, students are given more choice and voice in their school work. Second, teachers are better able to assess whether students are learning and how deeply they have learned the content and skills. Third, families have more access to their child’s progress and final products. Finally, by posing questions as checkpoints along students’ learning journeys, thoughtful reflection can be nurtured and taught when exploring online resources.

Reading in the Wild: Learning from Lifelong Readers by Donalyn Miller (Keynote given at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, February 5, 2015)

This curated list of tweets documents the important points made by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. She spoke passionately about the essential elements needed to grow lifelong readers in schools today. Here are a few of the more popular statements, based on the number of favorites and retweets.

Assessing Literacy Assessment by Peter Afflerbach (Session given at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, February 6, 2015)

This presentation by a professor of literacy and assessment at the University of Maryland questioned the usefulness of assessments for promoting deep reading habits. Standardized tests and test prep were specifically targeted as having negative influences on reading achievement during Dr. Afflerbach’s session.

Finding Joy in the Quiet Moments by Michael Perry (Wisconsin State Journal, February 1, 2015)

Perry, a self-described “author, humorist, and intermittent pig farmer”, describes the sounds and setting of a day in his life. His youngest daughter was not feeling well. With a pile of books and a box of Kleenex on hand, the rest of the family did their best to go about their day quietly while attending to her needs.

The sounds are backdrop and domestic, deepening in this feeling that in this moment we – the family – are in communion despite our silence.

He concludes his commentary by admitting that there was nothing profound about this “most unassuming sort of evening”.  Perry also finds that slowing down and appreciating the present can bring about unique insights.

Joy is elusive, and joy is fleeting. And yet – and this may be the premise of the riddle – those who chase it rarely catch it.

Taking time to reflect…

In public education, there is a strong demand for accountability. Just like in the article about online inquiry projects, there is this need to know what the students were learning and how. On the other end of this spectrum is what we know about learning: that the results of our efforts don’t always appear on a predetermined date. This is especially true when we apply practices that don’t initially appear, at least to the uninformed, to be making an impact on student achievement, such as sustained silent reading.

This practice of allowing students time to read and think about a text of their choosing may go against the grain of what we may believe about education. “If I am not teaching, then the kids are not learning.” It is true that teachers are the most important factor in a classroom. Yet students learn independently all the time. An example is video games. The manuals that come with the games when purchased are sparse and provide the most basic amount of information. The game designers know that much of the learning will happen while the users are actively engaged in playing the game itself.

The same thing often happens when students are independently reading. Given the proper amount of instruction, choice in what to read, access to lots of interesting texts, and time to read and think about their reading, students can often teach themselves how to navigate texts.  It can happen even when the comprehension waters get a little choppy. This type of reading environment, so well described by Donalyn Miller, also is a benefit to teachers. It reduces stress, puts more responsibility on the student, and helps the teacher focus on the reader instead of just what they are reading.

The question still remains: How do we know students are making gains and improving as readers when we give them time to read? Too often, classrooms overuse choral reading so teachers can hear the progress students are making, especially in the primary grades. There is also the all-too-real pressure of the looming standardized tests. Based on what I heard at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, these tests are an incredibly poor tool for assessing student and teacher performance (no surprise). And yet, we still use them.

So what is the solution? For teachers, I suggest blocking off at least 20 minutes, and preferably 30 minutes, for uninterrupted daily free choice reading. If your principal questions this, share the research highlighted in this post with him/her. I also recommend checking out publications by Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington. For principals, be thoughtful about scheduling. Give teachers time to allow for these extended periods of silent reading. Reduce or even eliminate announcements. Above all, limit test preparation to the bare minimum.

Michael Perry didn’t provide a quiet environment for his ill daughter because someone told him he should. He did it because it was the right thing to do. We also know what the right thing to do is in our classrooms and schools. By giving students the space and place to be the readers and thinkers they want and are meant to be, we prepare them not only for the test but to be lifelong readers. The 4th graders shared their favorite book quotes on the graffiti board not because it was required, but because the teacher provided them with the time, texts, and permission to do so.

Theory and Practice

The Networking, Ever-Present, Highly Connected School Leader


No jail cell or straight jacket could hold him! He shucked off handcuffs as easily as gloves. – Sid Fleischman (Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini)

Challenges and Successes: Online Communities of Practice by Ann Ware (Ed Tech: Focus on K-12, Winter 2015)

The role of the school leader has always been an isolating position. Ware observes this, noting that we often “work autonomously and feel geographically isolated”. She strongly recommends Google+ Communities as a tool of choice for the busy educator looking to better connect with other professionals. Ware offers clear guidelines for these third spaces for learning:

  • The community of practice should acknowledge the needs and interests highlighted by members.
  • Social media should be leveraged to support collaboration.
  • One member should be appointed as the community of practice leader.

She also suggests that communities of practice regularly self-assess the impact they are having on the participants, through such measures as analytics and polls.

The Authenticity Paradox: Why feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth by Herminia Ibarra (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Authenticity is defined in this article as “an original, not a copy”. This concept is a hot topic in many discussions about management. It has become “the gold standard of leadership”, primarily because it describes that agreement between leaders being open about their abilities and still maintaining authority within their organization. Social media is but one area in which this balancing act takes place.

By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.

There seems to be little divide between our in-person interactions and how we represent ourselves online. The lines are blurry because so much of what we share about ourselves now is broadcasted for the world to see. “How we present ourselves – not just as executives but as people, with quirks and broader interests – has become an important aspect of leadership.”

Why a Great Principal Burned Out – and What Might Have Helped by Ellie Herman (Gatsby in L.A., July 11, 2014)

A writing teacher grieves over the departure of a principal and a friend who, by all accounts, was a very effective school leader in his three year tenure with the Los Angeles Public School System. She asked the question: Why would such a talented principal choose to leave the job? Here is what he had to share:

What’s so hard is keeping yourself open to 600-plus students, over 100 adults on campus, the parents, the community…there’s no rest, there’s no stop. How many things can happen in a day? At the end of every day I’ve heard six things that I’m not okay with, a kid who stabbed another kid with a pencil, a parent who called a kid out of class and hit him with an extension cord, I hated sending kids out on a 5150 [mental illness designation].

This example of extreme and constant stress led to the principal’s decision to go back to the classroom. Herman acknowledges as much, and also concludes by asking: “When are we going to stop demanding accountability without also demanding sustainable working conditions?”

Stop Checking Email So Often by Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn (New York Times, January 9, 2015)

Is email overload bad for you?

“Hmmm” says this principal, who always seems to have 20-30 messages floating in his own inbox. Kushlev and Dunn take a different approach to the usual blaming of email itself, and instead wonder whether it is the frequency in which we check email that is the culprit. In a study they conducted, professionals were separated into two groups. One group was instructed to check their email as frequently as possible. The other group could only check their email three times a day.

The results: Groups that checked their email as much as possible reported higher levels of stress compared to the restricted email group. Those professionals that were part of the limited email rules reported reductions in stress similar to people who applied stress-reduction techniques, such as deep breathing.

Swan Song (Techlandia Podcast #73, September 10, 2014)

Hosts Curt Rees, Allison Anderson, and Jon Samuelson talk with Shawn White about his teaching and writing experience on their weekly podcast. This entry is titled “Swan Song” because both Curt and Allison bid farewell to Techlandia, citing a need to find more balance between their professional and personal lives. Curt brought this topic into focus, asking each educator to describe their perfect Saturday. Common threads included time with family and personal interests.

You can listen to the entire podcast here:

Taking a step back…

EscapeToday’s post is especially relevant for the topic. Yesterday (Saturday) is the day I usually put my final thoughts together and then publish. However, I had promised my son that we would visit the Houdini exhibit at an historical museum in Appleton, Wisconsin. We have been reading the biography Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini by Sid Fleischman. He was excited to view some of the artifacts we have read about first hand. How could I say no?

My son attempts to pick a lock at the Houdini exhibit, using the hidden key he found in a crevice.

We had a lot of fun exploring the museum, picking locks and discovering more about the man’s life. It is an interesting title for the book (Escape!). It references more than just Houdini’s amazing exploits. Growing up, he had to escape abject poverty. As a fledgling magician, it took him years and countless failures to break free of preconceived notions of his profession, often viewed as no more than a circus sideshow. Houdini also struggled with his own ego, particularly with the desire to push boundaries and to be recognized as the best.

As school leaders, we also deal with these elements – poverty, failure, striving for success – on a daily basis. Maybe not to the degree that Houdini experienced, but they are certainly present in our professional and personal lives. We have an endless stream of emails to check, student issues to sort out, and images of our school and ourselves to uphold. I know exactly how that L.A. principal felt when he stated “there is no rest, no stop”.

Yet, some of these very connections that we form both in person and online can also help us get off “admin island”. Positions of school leadership can be very isolating, much more so than any other areas in education. We need all the help we can get. For me, I am so thankful for the communities of practice I am a part of on Google+ and Voxer. The people that make up these learning communities provide both perspective and support. They also allow me to be authentic, shedding some of my principal persona and just be real. I have even started podcasting with other school leaders, to explore ways to find balance.

Do I need help, or can I break free myself?
Do I need help, or can I break free myself?

So while these positions can be overwhelming at times, I don’t want to escape from the bindings that are both a part of the job and self-imposed. Yes, I certainly need to find time for myself, my family and friends. If I am always connected, have I ever left the office? I am learning that the key to balance is prioritizing what’s most important, because when I say yes to one thing, I am saying no to something else.