Theory and Practice

Connected Collaboration

Permit yourself the luxury of doing just one thing.

-Lao Tzu

3rd graders read aloud their written descriptions of their totem poles they created in art class.

Using Professional Learning Communities to Bolster Comprehension Instruction by Katherine A. Dougherty Stahl (The Reading Teacher, February 2015)

This associate professor from New York University shares some insights on how to develop collaborative learning experiences around reading instruction. She suggests past “Research into Practice” columns from The Reading Teacher for possible article studies, organized by grade levels/departments and topics. Dougherty also offers specific literacy-related areas of focus within professional learning communities, such as read alouds in the primary grades and emphasizing disciplinary literacy.

Introverts, Extroverts, and the Complexities of Team Dynamics by Francesca Gino (Harvard Business Review, March 16, 2015)

Gino, a professor of business administration at Harvard, found through her own research that different leadership personalities are better suited for certain organizations. Extroverted leaders thrive in situations that are highly structured, with more passive employees looking for someone to tell them what to do. In contrast, introverted leaders find more success with proactive employees and a working environment that demands complex thinking from many within the organization.

As an example, Gino highlights Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon. “Every meeting begins in total silence. Before any conversation can occur, everyone must quietly read a six-page memo about the meeting’s agenda for 20 to 30 minutes.” Also important to note is that the agenda is written in narrative style, to provide a familiar and relatable structure to the meeting. This quiet, reflective time allows more introverted employees to gather their thoughts and their courage to make significant contributions to future discussions.

How One Urban District Designed STEM for All by Anne Jolly (MiddleWeb, March 15, 2015)

This education consultant and author poses a question: “So, how do you design a program that allows all students access to STEM, not just the kids who seem obvious choices for a handpicked class?” STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) courses have picked up steam in recent years as schools and districts focus on what the future holds for student employment and job creation. Her role is to guide teacher teams toward a more integrated and authentic curriculum.

Instead of selecting instructional resources to purchase and implement, the school Jolly worked with started by defining their beliefs about STEM instruction.

All students need to know how workers in industry tackle real problems by designing technology-based solutions. They need to recognize the value and power of math and science in those solutions.

After focusing on this curriculum initiative and intervention for seven years, the staff realized a number of benefits from their collective efforts.

  1. Students experienced a seamless integration of math and science.
  2. Math and science teachers increased their content knowledge in joint professional development.
  3. Students developed high interest in and positive attitudes toward STEM.

Achieving schoolwide success in these content areas, along with an increase in engagement among their most disenfranchised students, did not come easily for the staff. It was about more than just the time and effort involved. “This complex intervention is, by design, disruptive to school-as-usual.” Beliefs and practices were altered in the process, seemingly for the better.

I’m Sick of SMART Goals by Dan Callahan (, March 29, 2015)

A former classroom teacher laments about education’s infatuation with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals, connected with new professional evaluation systems. Callahan refers to this yearly process of developing and monitoring educational outcomes as “evaluation theater”. He believes teachers go through the motions in this area. His biggest concern is the arbitrary timeline and less-than-aspiring objectives that SMART goals create. “It (teaching) is the work of years, and I don’t think I’ve figured it all out yet, but I know I’m not very interested in playing it safe.”

Learning Should NEVER Be Lonely by Bill Ferriter (Center for Teaching Quality, March 17, 2015)

Ferriter, a middle school teacher and author, shares his slides from a recent presentation regarding personalized learning. He expresses concern about the overuse of technology to give every student what they appear to need, while potentially removing the essential connection between peers, the teacher, and the world.

In my worst nightmares, I see rows of quiet kids sitting behind computers in quiet classrooms clicking away at keyboards as they work on individual tasks that are “customized to meet their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses.” I see principals reveling in “the responsiveness of their classrooms” and teachers relaxing because there’s nothing to grade.

Time to reflect and connect…

Our school has had a focus on writing, in some form or another, for the past five years. Five years! Here is the kicker: It wasn’t until recently that we started to feel like we have a good handle as a faculty in teaching this discipline at high levels across the curriculum, grades and departments. The integration of art and literacy you see in the above image is a telling artifact.

At the same time, I don’t think anyone on our staff would say that we have it “figured out”. For example, when we collaboratively assessed student writing in the fall, we determined that while their work was technically very good, it often lacked voice and personality. Our leadership team has responded by giving staff time to share lesson plans and subsequently spread creative writing ideas throughout the building.

Organizational learning is all process, with brief yet important points for assessment and celebration. Goals help us stop and take stock, even if they are developed arbitrarily through the SMART framework. Are we too focused on literacy in our PLCs? Should we expand our perspective, and start integrating STEM topics into our literacy instruction with more intention? What we focus on is probably less important than the fact that we are all focusing on one thing.

We find our answers through deep discussions, quiet reflection, and strong decisions regarding next steps. Our schools’ stories are being told by everyone-educators, students, parents-involved in their perpetual outcomes.

Theory and Practice

Time and Money

The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice by David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Two Harvard business professors explore the two roles that often play out in professional settings: Advisor and advisee. This article relates well to teachers, administrators, and instructional coaches. They identify the many hurdles involved in giving and receiving advice, including an inaccurate assessment of one’s own knowledge, dismissing ideas because they don’t fit with one’s predetermined line of thinking, and surrounding oneself with poor advisers.

When you pick your advisers, you pick your advice.

For advisors, the best way in helping those looking for support and ideas is being an active listener. This includes providing ample time to ask open-ended questions in order to determine the role one should play as the advisor. It is ultimately about helping the advisee become independent as a leader in their organization, as the advisor won’t be there forever. Garvin and Margolis provide a good metaphor.

If you are the advisor, think of yourself as a driving instructor. While you provide oversight and guidance, your ultimate goal is to empower the seeker to act independently.

In addition to the practical advice, Garvin and Margolis offer guidelines for each stage of advising, for the person on each side of the table:

  1. Finding the right fit.
  2. Developing a shared understanding.
  3. Crafting alternatives.
  4. Converging on a decision.
  5. Putting advice into action.

One of the main points to take from this article is that while both parties are striving to find a solution to the same problem, their roles and mindsets are very different. “An individual is likely to think idealistically as an adviser but pragmatically as a seeker, even when confronting the same challenge.” A need that both roles have in common is time to have these ongoing conversations.

All the Time They Need by Ellin Oliver Keene (Educational Leadership, November 2014)

“The fact is, if we want students to think at high levels, we’re going to have to give them time. And we’re going to have to get comfortable with silence.” So states Ellin Oliver Keene, literacy consultant and author of Talk About Understanding: Rethinking Classroom Talk to Enhance Comprehension (Heinemann, 2012).

Keene details a demonstration lesson she conducted in a 3rd grade classroom for about 20 teachers. Her interaction with Adyana, one of the students, about a think aloud they just facilitated does not closely resemble the tennis match that conversation too often resembles in classrooms. After posing a question to Adyana that forces her to think more deeply about what she initially shared, Keene allows for silence. She describes the response of everyone in the room.

I can feel the teachers’ eyes on both of us; I can hear a murmur circulate among them. The other children squirm and try to get my attention. But I force myself to wait. Adyana looks at me, her beautiful brown eyes begging to be bailed out. I smile at her. Uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe what I’m feeling.

Fortunately, everyone does become used to the quiet. This allowed Adyana the time to come up with a thoughtful, deep response to the question. Also, it is noted that the type of question posed is as important as the time that is given to respond to it. Keene follows up with practical advice on structuring lessons to allow for time to think, such as asking “What else?” after one student shares their thinking. “Believe me, there’s always more to say.”

Superintendent: Why I must violate state law to help my students by Valerie Strauss (The Washington Post, March 13, 2015)

Strauss shares a letter written by Dr. Arthur Tate, superintendent of public schools in Davenport, Iowa. Dr. Tate explains to the school community his decision to break state law and dip into their district’s fund balance. He states that this is the only way to make up for the shortfall that the state government has created by not properly funding public education. Dr. Tate recognizes the risk he is taking, but he also understands who he truly answers to in his position. “I care more about our students and their needs than I do about the state law in this case.”

How to Attract Teachers to Poor, Rural Areas by Madeleine Cummings (Slate’s Schooled blog, March 13, 2015)

It can be very difficult to hire highly-qualified teachers in rural areas. High poverty rates, lower than average pay, and professional isolation are often cited. Sam Bruner, an administrator for two schools on a Native American reservation, has taken a different approach to this problem: Offering candidates autonomy in their instruction and the time to develop relationships with their students. He has found some success. “Teachers say a financial incentive, like subsidized tuition or loan forgiveness, might pique their interest. But they ultimately came to teaching—and stayed—for the kids.”

What’s important

We recently surveyed our staff about our professional learning plan, regarding how effective and useful the offerings were this year. Overall our activities, such as technology training and collaborative assessment, were rated positively. Then we asked everyone what we should focus on for next year. The majority of staff requested time to upload evaluation artifacts and student intervention information.

I would like to say this information is surprising. Why select the activities that will have the lowest impact on student learning? However, given the current national climate in education, it really wasn’t. We know that time and money are necessary to engage in powerful conversations, between principal and teacher, teacher to teacher, and teacher with student. Ongoing training in these powerful practices are essential. So when school funding is reduced while more is being added to our plates, I can see why autonomy and time with students has become a recruitment tool.

It’s about more than just time or money. It is about treating educators as professionals striving to always become better in a very complex profession. Only in an environment that honors the nonlinear path that learning sometimes takes can this occur.

Theory and Practice

Social Identities

I teach only the truth – but that shouldn’t make you believe it. – Martin Fischer

Source: Sean MacEntee via Flickr (
Source: Sean MacEntee via Flickr

Why Your Customers’ Social Identities Matter by Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, and Emma K. Macdonald (Harvard Business Review, January/February 2015)

Three business professors and researchers explain the importance of social identities. This concept can be defined as the personas people take on and the decisions they make based on the community or group in which they are associated with or represented by at that time. When a social context changes – for example, a couple of famillies installing solar panels in a community – this action influences other people’s behaviors that reside in this neighborhood (they are more likely to buy solar panels, too).

This phenomena relates to all communities and groups, online and otherwise. Individual interviews about how a person feels about a product or service does not necessarily equate to decisions they might make in a different context or circumstance. Also, people often have multiple social identities, especially on social media. For instance, I am more apt to share my personal life on Facebook, because my social context in this forum is friends and family. On Twitter, you see a more professional side of me.

The authors of this article note how businesses tap into this need to belong to a group. As an example, the unique look of the Toyota Prius provides a visual association with environmental awareness. There are assumptions made about people who drive a Prius. People adopt social identities on Twitter and Facebook as well. Their bios, the hashtags they use, and the posts they share all help to identify and define that person’s beliefs and dispositions.

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I am highly interested in literacy, technology, and leadership, and the connection between the three in today’s schools. It is not surprising that the vast majority of people who I interact with online also have interests in one or more of these areas. Subsequently, learning potential is increased within my personal learning network. But we are also more likely to feed into each other’s already self-determined beliefs.

Social identities are more than a lens for understanding customers’ current social behavior.

Rigor and Grit by Dean Shareski and Jon Samuelson (Techlandia Podcast, February 9, 2015)

The hosts of Techlandia invited Dean Shareski, community manager of Discovery Education, to their podcast. Dean and the group ranted about a number of words and phrases that permeate the education lexicon, such as “future ready” and “rigor”. Their biggest concern is how these terms are not context-specific. Educators latch onto them and expound their virtues in tweets and posts. But are these sound bytes relevant to the students we have today?

Twitter’s Facebook envy by J.J. McCorvey and Nicole LaPorte (Fast Company, February 2015)

Twitter executives have always preferred that you not compare their company to Facebook.

So reports these columnists about the rise of Twitter and its foreseeable future. However, Twitter has shown a desire to adopt some of Facebook’s functions, such as notifications of popular tweets. “Twitter needs to be relevant to its users around the clock, rather than solely when news is breaking.” This is a shift from the real-time information feed that Twitter is best known for. McCorvey and LaPorte note that both social media giants have found reasons to emulate one another.

Dick Costolo Thinks It’s O.K. To Never Tweet by Farhad Manjoo (The New York Times Magazine, February 25, 2015)

The CEO of Twitter responds to questions about Twitter’s future. The title of this article references the discrepancy between active and inactive users. Costello addresses this, noting that, “everyone wants to know and stay up-to-date on what’s happening in their world and be connected and know what’s going on. That’s what Twitter provides. So I think that irrespective of whether you want to tweet, everyone can get value out of Twitter right away.”

What’s trending…

People identify themselves with others based on shared beliefs and interests. The Internet, and social media specifically, have expanded these offerings. And like organizations that congregate in person, the purpose and context discovered through hashtags, Facebook groups, and online communities of practice can motivate participants toward greater levels of learning and influence.

Yet those same benefits can also create limits on a group’s thinking. When we associate ourselves with a mission or organization, we tend to own those beliefs in a personal way. So what happens when certain aspects of the group’s practices are called into question? People tend to defend their beliefs, primarily because their identities with the group are an extension of themselves.

This can happen even when evidence points otherwise. I am a prime example. When we introduced Evernote as a digital portfolio tool in my school, I was initially blind to the limitations of this software for this purpose. Only through listening to others outside of my immediate network, such as in the Google+ Community I created on the topic, did I see different possibilities. We are now exploring FreshGrade as a better option for portfolios.

When we find ourselves struggling with a principle of a community that we belong to, here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Invite divergent thinkers into the group, and encourage respectful discourse.
  • Ask thoughtful questions that do not feed back into a group’s existing beliefs.
  • Read widely. Even though I am an educator, I find that publications such as Harvard Business Review and Fast Company give me a better perspective.
  • Write about what you read and question on a blog, sharing your struggles and inviting conversation in the comments.
  • Leave a group for a while, or permanently, acknowledging the need to rethink your beliefs in order to find time for other pursuits.
  • If leaving a group is not an option, take Dick Costolo’s advice and stop posting. Maybe just read what others are sharing and reflect.

How do you gain perspective in the social groups you associate yourself with, both online and offline? Please share in the comments. 😉

Theory and Practice

The New Tests

Can you tell my daughter lives in a home with educators as parents?

Everything you have ever wanted, is on the other side of fear. – George Addair

‘The good teachers are starting to leave’ by Valerie Strauss (The Washington Post, February 27, 2015)

Strauss, a reporter and a former teacher, posts a letter that a high school English teacher wrote to the incoming state superintendent in Georgia. Susan Barber has a positive outlook as a teacher, now seven years into her career. Yet she cannot help but feel disillusioned by the massive amount of testing required of her students. “If I am going to be measured on how well my students read and write, I need more time to teach them to read and write.” She is equally baffled by the amount of money being dumped into an education initiative that has no effect on learning. “Students do not directly benefit from testing, yet that is where the money goes.”

Testing is Biggest Moneymaker for Education Technology Vendors by David Nagel (T|H|E Magazine, February 24, 2015)

A report from the Software and Information Industry Association found that “vendors and publishers raked in $2.5 billion on digital assessment products in the United States in the 2012-2013 school year.” Language arts and mathematics, which happen to be the two topics tested on the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA), were the largest subjects of software purchased.

PARCC Tests and Readability: A Close Look by Russ Walsh (Russ on Reading, February 8, 2015)

Walsh, the coordinator of college reading at Rider University, examines the text complexity of the other widely-used new standardized test, The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). He notes that Lexile levels were raised at the request of the authors of the Common Core State Standards. Walsh then uses a battery of reading assessment tools to determine the grade level for each test. The result: Reading passages on the PARCC were “about two grade levels above the readability of the grade and age of the children by measures other than the Lexile level.”

ASCD Testing and Accountability Statement

In a short position paper, accompanied by a brief video explanation, one of the most respected education organizations calls for a two year moratorium on standardized assessments. The organization’s rationale includes “over testing, a narrowing of the curriculum, and a de-emphasis of untested subjects and concepts—the arts, civics, and social and emotional skills, among many others—that are just as important to a student’s development and long-term success.” ASCD also makes a point to separate the Common Core State Standards from “this antiquated accountability system.”

Noam Chomsky on the Dangers of Standardized Testing by Christopher Chase (Creative by Nature, February 21, 2015)

This post is a summarized interview with the well-known American linguist and author. Chomsky abhors the focus on competition with standardized assessments because of how it distorts instruction. “The student can’t pursue things, maybe some kid is interested in something, can’t do it because you got to memorize something for this test tomorrow. And the teacher’s future depends on it, as well as the student.” He notes how his own children were subjected to these types of comparisons, separating classmates into high and low level ability groups. Chomsky concludes this interview with a statement that gave me a pause.

All of the mechanisms – testing, assessing, evaluating, measuring – the force people to develop those characteristics… These ideas and concepts have consequences…

No quarter

Normally in these posts, I attempt to analyze the five articles and posts summarized and examine the grey areas of the topic.

But this is not a normal situation. Consider:

  • We are asking eight years olds to take a test that, for many of them, is two grades above their reading level.
  • The tool being used to deliver the test, a computer, gives an additional advantage to kids of more affluent families, because they are more likely to have access to a computer in their homes.
  • The reading for these tests is on a screen that has worse resolution than print, eReaders, and tablets.
  • These tests will take literally days to complete, which ties up the computer lab, which results in other classrooms not being able to use the lab for more important learning activities. (And if your lab is located in your LMC like mine is, kids may not be able to go in and check out books.)
  • The Smarter Balanced Assessment recommends that kids take these tests for 45 minutes at a time, even though eye strain can occur within just 20 minutes of staring at a screen.
  • In spite of the incredible amount of money flowing into these testing companies, their software is subpar. For example, students have to press an “answer box” before actually inputting solutions to math problems. As for the reading portion, the user cannot annotate the text, or even copy and paste parts of the text into their responses. Maybe Diigo should have created these tests (a free tool I use to pull together these articles).
  • What gets tested is what gets taught. Tying teacher evaluations to the results of these assessments helps ensure that the curriculum delivered is narrowed to primarily the core subjects. Creativity declines because the assumption that there is always one right answer to a problem gets reinforced with these tests.
  • Teaching to the test leads to a decline in staff morale, which can result in teachers leaving the profession.

I could go on and on. However, I doubt I am sharing anything readers don’t already know, or at least suspect. Still, I think this information needs to be shared over and over again. Advocacy is an essential part of school leadership. As I recently stated in my post yesterday, “To not advocate is to concede our authority as the experts in our profession.” We are in the right on this one. There is nothing to be afraid of.