Some of the misconceptions of teaching and learning in a digital environment is that instruction comes from the computer and the teacher’s role is primarily making sure students have fixed attention to their computer screen. Part of this reasoning has developed from how we were taught and even our beginning teacher experiences. Delivery for most of us was one sided – with the teacher talking/lecturing or asking questions, maintaining the prominent role in the classroom. Over the years, better teaching strategies have developed and become widespread and technology has gained popularity as an engagement opportunity. Our ongoing work as connected educators is to provide clarity that its not just an engagement opportunity but an chance to empower students to dive into passions/interests and curriculum objectives free of printed limitations and empower teachers to create new ways to connect with students.
Our rural middle school went 1:1 with iPads 3 years ago. We are still discovering nuances about what digital learning and teaching looks like. In some recent midyear conversations with teachers, the topic of ‘filling in gaps’ with teachers has repeatedly come up. Our teachers have become very adept at creating inviting learning classrooms and integrating technology to help with delivery of concepts. As we bring data in the conversations, we discuss opportunities to change or adjust practices that will help us clear up any misconceptions students may have but may not share or even be aware of:
Purposeful planning with technology is needed to enhance the great things teachers do in the classroom.
For most educators, this is welcome news, borderline excitement. I’m convinced that the inner child in all educators turns a couple of cartwheels at the announcement. Let’s face it – we welcome a break. The appeal of a late start or the ‘challenge’ of a day of sledding is too great to not be happy about. The only drawback to snow days for educators and students is the possibility of having to make up the instructional day.
Work from Home – The Innovation
As such, our visionary superintendent, Dr Lynn Moody @lynn_moody and her administrative team, unveiled a plan to district principals that will allow teachers to work from home on inclement weather days. This only applies to inclement weather days wherein teachers have an optional workday. Traditionally on these days, teachers would have to come to school to work or be take a leave day. Rowan-Salisbury Schools rolled out the ‘Work from Home’ plan.
The foundation for this is our technology rich platform and our commitment to growing the skills of our educators. We are a 1:1 district with iPads and MacBooks supplied to educators and student in our 3rd year of deployment. Added to this has been an intense focus on next-level professional development centered around alternative teaching and learning strategies, differentiated collaborative efforts and our various technology capabilities. With the resources and training in place, along with the monitoring plan our teachers enjoyed their first work from home day this past week.
Work from Home at West Rowan Middle
Social media posts show various success stories from district level educators. One of my favorite shares was from our district’s Teacher of the Year [and now NC Regional Teacher of the Year] Anthony Johnson turning his living room into his workspace for the day. [This is what teachers do on a ‘day off’]
In a nutshell, our teachers loved this day and it was very productive. Using the resources provided, they did a great job of cataloguing their work and collaboration with each. Our advance talk and prep about what to do those days paid off and our ongoing communication throughout using social media and tools like Remind really helped everyone stay connected and on the same page. Teachers planned, made contact with parents and students, researched, ordered materials and too many other things to name.
A Virtual Administrator
I loved these days.
Using our digital and technological resources, I had some very rich experiences with my administrative and leadership team:
This was an invaluable experience for teachers. We say that we are preparing students for their careers and future education and part of that is collaboration with the strong possibility of virtual tools. This was a ‘get you hands dirty’ activity – experiencing high level work activities with digital tools. I can’t state enough that we cannot have enough talks with teachers about changing mindsets. Shifting the thought of what is possible and real is a big part of what allowed us to have these experiences.
We are very intentional in our work to make change and trying make teachers feel safe and respected in our endeavors to change students’ lives. I’m very careful to avoid using words like ‘successful’ and ‘right’ because I think it promotes previous stereotypes and mindsets that things have to be done a certain way and/or failure is the worst thing in the world.
Recently, one of our teachers gave us a great compliment during her midyear progress talk. It really floored me and inspired this blogpost. This is our 3rd year in our iPad 1:1 deployment, my second year here at West Rowan Middle. With a new principal, assistant principal and instructional design coach, we essentially have a new leadership team. There is a lot being asked of teachers – from us and the district and we are aware of this. I know I am asking them to reconsider a lot of fundamentals about education they hold on to or value. This is tough for anyone. But during our talk, this teacher-leader spoke a lot of the fact that this change is needed change and it has to happen at our school if we are going to be responsive to student needs. That was good to hear but not the great part.
She talked about her conversations with other teachers, in and mostly outside of our building and their feelings on change and support. She created a powerful image of teachers being unsure of a lot of things, hesitant of new conversations, trainings and directions. Even visits to classrooms were stressful for some because people never knew where conversations would go or what they reaction they could expect. But she finished her talk by saying, ‘I’m not afraid of the door handle.’
She’s referring to a new direction our team has taken since I’ve joined West Rowan Middle to not just visit classes but also to provide immediate feedback and make sure we are having growth conversations with teachers -taking the ‘gotcha’ out of growth and change. But in the bigger context, she also meant that she is not afraid or leary of having conversations or trying new things that may come up in conversations with us or anyone else. It was validating to hear. To say it made my day is an understatement.
A lot gets lost or neglected in our efforts to lead people in these endeavors and it takes purposeful work and attention to make sure we are connecting with and growing our teachers. Change is hard and leading change is a significant endeavor. Point of clarity – if you think you are leading initiatives you are mistaken, it important to remember you are leading people. And people come in all flavors of confidence, competence, tolerance and understanding. A good leader’s job is to balance all the needs of the people in our school and differentiate support as much as possible.
Our talk has made me reflect on some of the things we have done this past 1.5 years to help ease the fear of our ‘opening classroom doors’:
Do what you can everyday to lessen the fear of hearing the door open.
I’m becoming more cognizant of how and how often I am using the term ‘learning.’ Like most, I’ve been using it mainly to describe how well students regurgitate facts and associate it with an achievement score. I was recently sharing with some principals in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and about halfway through the presentation I started to key in on how we were all using this word to talk about our essential work and the essential components of our work. Some of the mentions applied to a newer understanding of what we want our students to be able to do but some were still under a standard from 10-20 years ago.
When you’re in a conversation and the term learning comes up, do you know if its a reference for a newer understanding of learning and exploring or can you see that its a mention of regurgitating facts and an end score? For instance, describing the process we go through when we encounter setbacks and what we go through to overcome them. Or describing how we as lead learners create opportunities to shift mindsets of educators in our building and departments to challenge the status quo. Or just to describe that everyone, students and teachers alike, have to commit to being lifelong learners and continue to acquire new skills and embrace the work in evolving understanding and mindsets to make sure we are reaching kids.
We can talk about the acquisition of facts, which many adhere to as the definition of learning, but this limited definition does not fit the vision and scope of what learning and school need to be. Learning is not a destination or a grade or a final report. We should be willing to embrace the different direction we see instructional design and passion inspired investigation taking us.
Profound learning occurs when:
Student engagement has always been a critical goal for how we set up classrooms and develop lesson plans. Ensuring that we have a tight time frame of activities and that we were monitoring students of on-task behaviors were [and are] essentials. This defined quality lesson planning.
Some recent training in my district on engagement led me to find and share this infographic from the Schlecty Center on Levels of Engagement. Great, clear illustration of where students fall into the spectrum of activity and attentiveness. I really like the illustrations on the side where the student moves from his head down to his hand up. If you haven’t seen or heard about these levels of engagement, give this a good read. We should have a clear understanding of strategic and ritualistic compliance. We will change the world when we change practices and beliefs to keep kids from just ‘doing school.’
My recent conversations about engagement have forced me to reconsider how I look at it and place it on the spectrum of what goes on in the classroom in terms of learning and student agency.
Motivation, meaningfulness, inspiration and inquisitiveness are all important components and explained well. But when I think of the great work my teachers do here at West Rowan Middle and the work we are building up in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, I identify a key missing component as empowerment.
I believe empowerment is a next step. We can have engaging and interesting lessons created by teachers. I would safely guess that we have all been students in classes where the teacher created a lesson that was fun to dive into. But at the heart, that was a teacher-centered activity or at least a teacher driven lesson that had students captivated, engaged in completing.
Empowerment is the action of giving students choice and/or freedom to develop their own understandings or deepen their knowledge about a topic. When we have options we chose when we want to be challenged and how far we want to go.
Please consider the below stock photo I found of the interwebs. While I’m not sure how they were used for original intent, I am going to make some assumptions [yes, I know] about them that we can hopefully apply to our schools and classrooms.
I consider the students in this picture engaged. Students are attentive, no one is throwing desks, eyes on screens appearing to attend to work. Again, we would have to get in the classroom and have a couple of talks to find out the true nature of the work and how students are truly progressing. Check out the teacher?
Here I see different student activity. By design, students are encouraged to talk and mix it up. I see students working at their own pace. What is the teacher doing?
Again, there are some assumptions with these pictures. But the difference in student activity can clearly be seen.
Power of Empowerment
I took this picture Friday afternoon two minutes before dismissal. This student’s 7th grade ELA teacher, Mrs Brawley, has embraced Genius Hour, or as her classes like to call it ‘Radical Research’ [same concept]. Mrs Brawley builds in time amongst their requirements for students to explore some personal interests and later present some findings. This young lady was so engrossed in her research topic [her research area was outside the door of her classroom] she was unaware the time [2 minutes before school dismissal], afternoon announcements [earbuds and search engines] the world around her [hallways filling with kids at lockers].
Engagement is a crucial step by not the last.
Teaching is one of the most fulfilling professions ever. Ask any teacher who’s had a previous student return to talk fondly about their time in the classroom and you’ll know what makes this job so rewarding. But along with this fulfillment comes some of the greatest challenges – committing to lifelong personal growth and professional development and being willing to shift beliefs, personal and professional. We can’t be great teachers if we don’t agree to change and adapt practices to suit every new group of students we receive every year.
I think this is one of the baffles for pre-teachers or non-educators – why not simply teach the way we were taught? Why not run classrooms and schools like they were 10/20 years ago? Straight rows, teacher at the front of the class answering questions, 10 neat problems on a sheet of paper, raising hands, etc. We know this way and how things can be. The problem with this thinking is we have had years to look at why and how this model ends up marginalizing different learners and different types of learners in the classroom. By embracing new and better, we can truly change our practice to reach more students where they are and grow them as learners and citizens.
I was recently sharing with a great group at NC Association of Compensatory Educators and we started talking about the need to shift thinking and teaching practices to reach all students, especially in our most challenging schools. Its easy to settle or make excuses for what we think is the good of students. Settling can come from a good place but it has harmful consequences.
Lowered Expectations is a New Form of Discrimination
When we accept student limitations or make judgements/predictions based on their family or neighborhoods or race or gender, no matter how we phrase it or who we speak to, we are putting them in a box. The bias we are creating eventually becomes a reality of practice in the classroom or school.
The above visual is one of my favorites. The first box represents the one size fits all classroom it is so easy to create. Its easy to see how the student who needs us the least gets the most, often unnecessarily. And our neediest student, who may not always ask for help or doesn’t know how to ask for help, gets left out or hurt the most.
What can we do to ensure we have high expectations for our students?
We have to agree that all students can learn at a high level. We have to agree that all students can grow, that they can leave us better than when they came to us. And we have to accept this will be hard, great work to see it through.
Our parents send us the very best they have, we have to do the very best we can to improve every aspect of their lives the best we can.