education

Looking For Learning

Getting back into some sort of blogging routine feels a lot like getting back to the gym.  I have great aspirations, but do not seem to always find time to fit everything in.  It’s hard.  So last week, I set a small personal goal for myself … try and build a blogging routine by posting something this week.

Following up on my previous post, I continue to find myself thinking about learning — its big idea, what it means to me, and my colleagues? What does it look like in our community?  I am a firm proponent that schools should always be learning focused collaborative endeavors.  As an educator, my professional practice continues to be a work in progress, constantly changing, adapting, and evolving. Now I am much more of a “coach” or “critical friend” to the kids I work with than ever before.  Quick, timely, formative feedback is incredibly powerful either on the ice at a hockey practice or in a reading workshop.  I would not want it any other way.

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As an educator, I am looking for a similar critical friend or learning coach to help improve my professional practice.  It is something I look for in my colleagues and formal administrators.  Fieldwork Education’s   Looking for Learning protocol is the closest experience I’ve had to receiving consistent, timely formative feedback.

Looking for Learning, is an effective process for working collaboratively with colleagues (teachers, instructional coaches, parents, principals, etc.) to see what learning is happening in classrooms.  The focus is on student learning.  So talking to kids about their learning is at the center of each visit.  Should a teacher be in the midst of a mini-lesson, classroom visitors can simply move on to another room, and drop by later when whole group instruction is no longer in progress.

Ten to 20 minutes is the typical length of a teacher or administrator’s classroom visit.  In the busy day to day routines, finding ten or 20 minutes here and there to visit a colleagues classroom is easily manageable.   However, it is absolutely fabulous when I manage to set aside an hour to visit and talk with students about their learning in a wide range of classrooms, grade levels, and content areas.

When visiting a classroom and talking to kids, four essential understandings helped shape conversations:

Is this a learning classroom? This simple line of questioning is incredibly powerful.  It is non-threatening and one that every educator, parent, and student would expect to hear a resounding, YES!  When a learning community has an established, shared common definition of learning, the power if this question is amplified.

Is the learning appropriate and sufficient?   As an elementary literacy teacher, this idea always makes me think of students’ “Just Right Books”.  Ideally, learning for the kids should not be too difficult, nor too easy.  It should be just enough of a stretch that they can independently achieve a level of success.  When speaking to kids, I tried to speak with them in order to find out if they were learning something new, consolidating their learning, simply treading water, or drowning.

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What is helping or hindering the learning? This is perhaps my favorite line of questioning.  I always found it to be amazing to hear students reflect on who they are as a learner, identify what they see as a need to further support their learning, and articulate exactly what is helping them on their journey.

Here’s a list of possible questions to help guide your conversations with kids.

The final piece of the puzzle is getting together with a colleague to share and discuss your visit.  This always created the biggest challenge for me, but I soon found that a short conversation over coffee at recess worked best.  It is easy to participate in a reflective conversation with your colleagues because Looking for Learning is not evaluative.  As the visitor, your role is to simply share out the evidence you collected during your visit, not your impression, your opinion, or suggestions for next steps.  When visiting classrooms, I tried to take detailed notes because I always found receiving specific quotes from the kids seemed to encourage reflection because they helped me recognize if my perception matched those of my students.

I am a BIG fan of Looking for Learning. Not only do I see its great potential to support student learning, but what I like most is that after speaking with students and my colleagues, I find myself energized and enriched by the experience. Thank you Pam Harper and Fieldwork Education.

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Check. Please!

Originally Posted September 2011

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In Saudi Arabia, the new school year started on Saturday.  The start of each school year is an exciting time.  It is a  time to reconnect with friends and colleagues who have flung themselves on great adventures around the world and close to home.   As an international educator, it is also the time to meet new colleagues and build new friendships.  This year, the rituals of the “Welcome Back Coffee Mornings” were enjoyed by one and all, but quickly, everyone jumped back into the swing of things to get our school ready to the nearly 900 kiddos who will arrived at our doors.

One of my rituals at the start of each school is to delve into my “Back to School” folder.  I always go looking for a checklist that I received years ago from a principal in Monterrey, Mexico.  Ever since, this checklist has helped me organize and plan each school year.  I must admit, it is a bit of a laundry list with more than 30 items to think about, but it serves its purpose.  The “Back to School Checklist” helps me make sure that the simple and mundane pieces of the puzzle are not forgotten or allowed to fall between the cracks.  I couldn’t agree more with Atul Gawande, who in The Checklist Manifesto noted :

“The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we. land?).”

In the spring, my son was finding learning to read a challenge.  He loves school, loves books, enjoys listening and telling stories; but found learning to read quite difficult.  He has been fortunate to be supported by some of the best literacy teachers I have ever encountered, yet he still struggled.  We met.  We discussed strategies, plans, approaches, and after months, eventually hit upon eyesight.  It has been about 6 months since he had had his eyes last tested.   In short, he got glasses and began experiencing greater success with his reading.  As an educator and a parent, I found myself asking … why didn’t I think of it sooner?  I know better!  I needed a checklist.

Checklists exists throughout the world, in every profession.  They are central components to aviation.  Pilots have well developed checklists for everyday routines like taking off, or the unexpected incidents of a bird strike.  The medical profession is adopting a 90 second surgery checklist that has reduced patient deaths and complications by 1/3.  The skyscraper industry uses checklists to reliably manage complexity.  Van Halen even added “no brown M&Ms” to their concert riders (checklists) to help monitor compliance.

In the many schools since Monterrey, ASFM has remained the only one that provided teachers with a back to school checklist.  End of year checklists have been more common, and few have used checklists to support student learning (RIT, support services, etc.).  I find myself wondering, how can the world of education make better use of the checklist to improve student learning?   What checklists can I use to more deliberately to effectively manage the increasingly complex world of students, education and learning?

Pearls

Original Posted September 2nd, 2010

I must confess, I am finding that my educational leadership journey is a lot like having children.  I have been around kids and teachers or principals all of my life.  I have had great and not so great moments with each.  They feel familiar.   Comfortable.  However, not until I had children of my own, did I truly understand how little I actually knew about kids and how much I had left to learn.  Labour, delivery, lactation, episiotomies, Apgar scores  … the learning curve was steep.  I can say the exact same thing about my growth as an educational leader.  Missions, visions, difficult conversations, instructional supervision, school improvement processes …. there is always something new to understand.  Although the learning curves are steep, they are incredibly rewarding.

For the past nine years at the International School Bangkok, I have been fortunate to work with many exceptionally talented formal and informal educational leaders.  They have been incredible colleagues, leaders, role models, and mentors.  They have generously shared many pearls of wisdom.  I admire and respect each of them for their unique strengths and leadership qualities.  There is one particular quality that they have in common.  Each possesses an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge.  They exemplify the idea that “If you want to lead, you’ve got to read!”.   And read I have.  Reading is an essential element of my professional development plan. Fullan, Hargreaves, Marzano, DuFour and other gurus provided excellent starting points.  However, I soon realized that there were other authors and sources for inspirational ideas.  So I filled my RSS reader and set up a netvibes account.  I started to read Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, the Harvard Business Review, and Chip and Dan Heath.  Malcolm Gladwell was viewed through an entirely new lens.  I am always on the lookout for a good recommendation.  Do you have any?

Dr. Atul Gawande has perhaps been the most influential author of late.  Better is a book he wrote about how the medical profession improved itself.  It inspired this blog.  While reading, I kept thinking about applying the lessons he shared from the world of medicine, to the world of education.  It’s from his story of Dr. Apgar and the development of the Apgar scale that I gleaned a second pearl of wisdom.  “If you want to make any change, big or small, simply start counting”.  It seems so simple.  If you want to loose weight, start counting calories.  If you want your New Year’s resolution to get to the gym to become a reality, write it down in a log.  I quickly adapted this to my classroom practice and now regularly track essential instructional practices like the types of sharing that close a readers’ or writers’ workshop.  It has made a difference.  Dr. Apgar transformed the world of medicine simply by counting.  A complex procedure, additional resources or time were unnecessary.  She simply collected the information already at hand and used it in a different way to influence change.  Have something that you would like to change? Try counting.

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