Filling in the Gaps – A Must in Digital Learning

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Love this pic! Create opportunities for guided instruction wherever students are using digital resources to help fill in the blanks

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:

  1. Guided instruction – This is a district initiative. Teachers create specific opportunities to have conversations with students on pertinent learning objectives.  The difference maker for these conversations is if they are planned or unplanned. Unplanned conversations can end up being progress monitoring or conversations focusing on lesser important topics. Planning out these conversations ahead of time helps make sure we hitting on essential learning points we think student will have regarding the learning targets. Utilizing digital resources in a blended environment helps teachers have these impactful conversations and build up relationships with students;

    A flexible space and detailed planning with digital resources facilitate guided instruction
  2. Messaging with students – Regardless of your LMS, connecting and communicating with students either whole group, small group or individually can be effortless but again, there needs to be forethought given. Our district uses Schoology and our teachers are very adept at creating assignments and communicating with classes. Through the LMS, we can plan activities and discussions for targeted groups and individual students on very specific concerns we may have. Our teachers have shown us the data they collect on pre-assessments for upcoming units and standards. Using this information, we can plan check up questions for students who struggled the most or showed little understanding once instruction has began. Utilizing the LMS is a good low-key way to also engage our students who maintain a quiet voice in the classroom. And even though email is old school, email works if teachers work it;
  3. Archiving instructional support – Our district hasn’t bought textbooks for several years [way to go]. As such we have to work to find and use impactful and relevant resources for students. Delivery is an important part of what we plan for but what do we do after we have taught a concept – where do we archive resources to easily allow students to access and refer back to if needed? An LMS [like Schoology], website like Google or Weebly or a blog are important assets to have. But we have to make them part of the learning landscape. Regular mention and specific talks about them help families know where to go and use resources regularly as part of instructional support at home.

Purposeful planning with technology is needed to enhance the great things teachers do in the classroom.

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Sharing GoogleForms Observations and Teacher Feedback

   Several weeks ago, the principals in our cluster got together and did an instructional walk thru in my building. This is the second one we’ve done in our district, the first at our cluster high school. This great talk inspired me to offer my school as the next walk thru site. I’ve always invited open feedback into the instructional practices in my school – this transparency is a great way to make a difference in learning and teaching. I asked the visiting administrators to visit any and every classroom they felt like. Every classroom, even empty ones, has data we can use to provide teachers information that will affect learning. We had a great follow up discussion and shared several points my team acted on immediately but a great discussion to evolve was how we use GoogleForm as a walk thru tool and data collector. We shared our process and tool with the administrators. Since we use iPads for our visits, we shared iPads from our iPad cart. The experience left the administrators wanting to learn how to create their own walk thru tool.

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Sharing and Building

   This past Friday I led a collaborative share session with these administrators and school leaders on creating a GoogleForm for a walk thru tool. Our group consisted of principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches and teachers. This larger group represented the school leaders who play an active part in the instructional monitoring in their building.

   My talk broke down into two parts:

  1. Rationale for walk thrus and using GoogleForms as the tool;
  2. Creating the GoogleForms Walk Thru and installing the component that will enable feedback to be sent to the teachers.

   Collecting and reviewing data on teaching and learning is a critical part of instructional supervision. It has become an integral part of our dialogue, training, and planning process. I’ve written about it here in a previous post. Adding the component for enabling feedback has multiple steps and technical but we led the group through the process. Now everyone in attendance has a fully functioning, walk thru form that can email feedback back to teachers. This is a difference making process for the schools in our district.

   I‘m a firm believer that you get more from sharing and this experience has only validated that. There was a lot of dialogue generated from this visit. One great piece came from Kevin Hasinger @KevinJHasinger, Principal at Long Hill Elementary. Kevin had some great value-add regarding adding metrics to observations to help communicate engagement. That piece, in addition to the other observations made about the tool will help all the schools with their observation efforts.

   This was a great experience for our cluster school leaders. It is a real example of the need for educators to continue to share and connect. I learned information from my PLN and was able to share with school leaders in my cluster and district.

Middle School Schedule [6]: Book Review ‘Making Teamwork Meaningful’

‘If teams of teachers are going to accomplish anything of substance, they need regularly scheduled opportunities during the school day to collaborate. In addition, if a school truly want to provide differentiated learning experiences for students – the teachers need regularly scheduled opportunities during the school day to provide targeted interventions.’ Ferriter, Graham, Wight, 2013

   Fortunate circumstances or divine intervention led my friend Bill Ferriter, @plugusin, to share his latest collaborative venture with me. I feel honored that he thought enough to share this great book. Bill is an authority on PLCs and building collaborative, goal oriented cultures in our schools. You’ve probably seen a couple of his works on the Solution-Tree catalog.

   Making Teamwork Meaningful is a great piece that dives into looking at all the systems and processes in a school that affect how students learn and teachers teach and a big part of that is how we promote and protect collaboration. This includes taking a look at our hiring process, developing intervention efforts and of course increasing our efficacy in collaboration and as the book points out, the school schedule is a critical starting point. This is a piece that all school leaders have to key into if we are going to make student learning a priority.

   Related to my series on middle school scheduling, there are some takeaways I thought that really resonate:

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  • Teachers can’t be effective in ineffective structures
  • Outlining priorities and planning methods to protect them
  • The master schedule should support collaboration
  • School leaders have to create and protect opportunities for teachers to collaborate
  • School leaders should  consider how reflection and a commitment to flexibility will play a role in the schedule

   In addition these great points the book provides four key questions in guiding the building of the school schedule:

  1. What are our organization priorities, and who should help protect them?
  2. Who needs opportunities to collaborate to advance priorities, and how will we create time during the school day for that collaboration?
  3. What role will reflection and a commitment to flexibility to play?
  4. How can we be creative with positions and time to free teachers for intervention?

 I received this book well into our planning efforts for next year’s schedule but this was a timely read. Of course there are more aspects to this book developing a school scheduleIf you’re a school leader that’s involved in the decision making process including school improvement planning, building the schedule or designing interventions this is a must read. There are great points on every level for every level.

Middle School Schedule [5]: Intervention and Operations

intervention   The transition next year is about  bettering how we teach and how students learn, those are first and foremost. Our discussions in SIT and leadership focus on how this move will significantly affect those areas and change what we do.

One opportunity created from this move is our ability to manipulate our schedule  and create a small period of time wherein we determine how it will be used, when it will be used and how regularly we will use it. I’m breaking down the benefits of this time into two functionalities – its opportunity for intervention and how it benefits school operations. Both of these are critical in how we protect and promote better practices in teaching and learning.

‘The How’s’

Our schedule will essentially be four blocks of 95 minutes with slight adjustments for added time homeroom and lunch to two blocks. By taking 10 minutes from each block and chunking that time we create a 40 minute opportunity. This flex period, with design and planning, will address student needs on multiple levels. Keep in mind, even when this flex period in place for the day, there is still 85 minutes of instruction for each block. The flex period, that we will call Bronco Time at Spring Lake Middle, can be inserted before or after any period. The school scheduler will need to be mindful of the changes to minutes and schedule because this will affect the lunch period, transition times and any other functions specific to a school that are set in the day.

Intervention

A big part of middle school concept is to design and structure support systems for kids in this transitional time. Middle school educators know that all students need support academically [either remediation or enrichment], socially [mentoring, group discussions]. Design and planning will help address these needs. Typically, this time is scheduled at the beginning of the day to reach kids while they are fresh are receptive.

Academic – Its important to know where our students are in terms of knowledge gaps and concept mastery. This is why schools use a variety of data points, both formative and summative, in their planning efforts. Using your schools’ data, you can create groups that focus on different objectives. The challenge here is to think beyond the traditional. We typically think in terms of who has reached a certain cut off in tested subjects and design lessons or activities that are either remedial, covering objectives students didn’t score well in or give some kids the opportunity to preview some new material. This support is important but we cannot limit our efforts to only this course of response. As a math teacher to my heart, I know this reaction well. This is a time for us to develop some creative lessons and activities that we normally wouldn’t dream of during school year [which we should be doing] and challenge all kids.

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Social – All kids need mentoring. This is their time to learn about themselves, dealing with people and problems and life and they need guidance. It is our duty to put a plan in place that will help kids. The students at Spring Lake Middle are great kids and many come serious needs that can easily be overlooked in the day. Our Bronco Time will be a strategy to provide regular talk and share time for our students. When the middle school concept began, there was major effort creating and maintaining an ‘advisory time’ for adults to connect with a group of students. Some middle schools have shifted from this practice. Speaking honestly, I have not given this the priority in my schools that it deserves. Protecting this times and planning the year out ahead of time will go a long way in minimizing internal school conflicts and helping kids know better ways to deal with problems.

While there is value in meeting regularly, using this intervention time will not be daily or even weekly for Spring Lake Middle. Strategic planning and implementation doesn’t mean we have meet every day or every week. It means we have to plan for our desired outcome, design instructional activities and implement them effectively.  Individual school needs will warrant different balances between the two intervention tactics. Be willing and ready to differentiate.

Operations

   This flex period can be held between any blocks of the day, including before and after the 1st and last blocks. Thinking of this period of time as a moving piece that can be placed strategically at any point of the day helps us in planning events. These include pep rallies, guest speakers and other special school events. It helps me protect the school schedule by making sure that we are planning school events that don’t significantly impede our school schedule. This is an important piece in our duty to protect the schedule – making sure that we are maximizing instructional time. Having a plan for these times beforehand is important. The above schedule outlines two of the more common uses for the flex period at my previous school. It will be worthwhile to develop a schedule for other possibilities and share all them with the staff at the beginning of the year. The staff needs to know what’s expected and how the day will look like. Making decisions on a whim is how we harm teaching and learning.

The flex period, our Bronco Time, will play a big role in reaching kids. I’ve seen it make a difference in a high school. We thought of that time as the opportunity to tutor kids who normally couldn’t attend after school. Expanding our thinking here to meet not just the academic but the social/emotional needs of our kids is how we are going to make a huge difference.

Middle School Schedule [4]: Our Schedule

Our current schedule is a seven period day. It affords 50 minutes per class in all subjects. The way the seven period day has run here over the last couple of years is grade levels are given one common planning period in the morning by having the grade levels go to electives during  either 1st, 2nd or 3rd period. Grade level teachers are given a second planning after lunch. This second planning is not with the grade level though and is not guaranteed to be with the common subject teacher.

Picture3   Our schedule next year has a block framework. We divide our day into four 95 minutes blocks with additional time added to first and third block for homeroom and lunch respectively. The first picture shows the framework for the school schedule. One huge difference we make next year is that all four groups will go have common planning. This is grade levels and grade level subject areas. Maximizing our opportunities to plan and collaborate will make a huge difference in lesson and activity design. Our leadership team has started developing a planning tool that will facilitate and drive our planning efforts. This tool outlines essential elements of what a great lesson looks like.

   Mentioned above, our grade level teachers have common planning in the morning but not in the afternoon. This has significantly hampered creating middle school teams. This has been one intervention that I think we have sorely missed. Our students come from elementary schools where they may see 2 – 4 teachers a day and are now put in a mix where they see seven teachers daily. This is how students get lost. The middle school concept began as a means to support students during this adjustment period by utilizing teams as an intervention strategy.  Transitioning to this new schedule shows that a schedule can either create or hinder intervention opportunities for students.    

Benefits of ‘The Block’

  Our new schedule has a block framework and creates some great opportunities:

  • By combining reading and language arts classes into a new ELA class we can teach a more holistic, integrated curriculum and the 95 minutes give us more time to play;11
  • We are able to increase math time to 95 minutes;
  • Changing to this format gives science and social studies classes the option to either continue teaching in 50 minute classes [daily] or alternate in a block rotation of their choice. Teachers have the autonomy to adjust the schedule to suit their needs based on what is being taught. Ex. They can teach all six classes in a day or do an A/B rotation by day or week however they see fit. Its important to note here that our Electives teachers, particularly our performing groups, want/need to meet with students daily. With this schedule, that is not a problem

We have constant talks with our teachers about changing our teaching practices – to decrease teaching and increase facilitation. This is especially needed as we move forward with this shift.

Mission POSSIBLE: Our iPad Planning Team

The Mission: Recruit several highly trained and motivated professionals for a secret iPad mission [not really top secret, in fact no secret at all]

The Team: 2 Instructional Coaches, 2 first year Science and Social Studies teachers and an veteran math teacher.

The Objective: To search and gather iPad apps and resources and plan for training delivery to our staff

Our instructional leadership team came up with this great brainstorm. With our newly acquired iPad Project Carts, we wanted to give the teachers good support in coming up with and implementing project based/cooperative activities with our new technology. Our project carts were designed for collaborative experiences, requiring students to work in pairs or small groups. The members of this team all have prior, deep experience with iPads either personal use or professionally. We’ve had talks and presentations on good collaborative work. Its our goal that these resources will help change what goes on in the classroom.

I truly regret not being able to participate in this planning. The teachers did a great job and we have some great outcomes:

  • Resourcing: The teachers searched the internet, combed apps and any resources that I have shared with them [check out the resource on the whiteboard] to find apps to begin framing projects for teachers to begin using in their classrooms. 
  • Integration: The iPad team made sure that all the work done, all the apps and programs found are not blocked and cost free. A major consideration and planning point they drew on was to plan for use of the apps and resources with Edmodo! We are an Edmodo district – ensuring that there is seemless integration will help tremendously with our teaching efforts.

The operatives selected for this mission proved to be valuable assets. We have realized two important mission parameters for all future missions and future teams:

    1. snackCollaboration is key! 6 great minds working on a singular vision is much better than 2
    2. Keeping operatives well fed [and on a sugar high] helps and is a prerequisite of mission success!

A Great Lesson

 These are pictures and notes I’ve taken from an observation with a new teacher, Mr. Caquias. Caquias is an 8th grade Social Studies/Science teacher. I visited him while he was teaching a lesson on properties. He has been an active co-planner with an 8th grade Science teacher who is impactful with students and instructional planning and delivery.

 There are several things that stand out about this lesson, things that get me excited about seeing a teacher enter the teaching field:

  1. The great noise – Students were up, active, talking on task and about the assignment.
  2. Real Life Connection – Students had to discuss properties of different objects and one of the objects is an automatic air freshner!
  3. BYOD[ish] – Our school has several computer labs, and multiple laptop carts. This year we have also purchased iPad Project carts. But for this lesson, simply allowing any student that had a smartphone, or their own tablet, that’s internet ready to conduct research, not only got the job done but was a best practice as well. At the core, this activity was designed for discussion and that’s what happened. For tech integration, we don’t always need a computer lab or a cart.
  4. Evidence of planning – If you want great learning, maximize your collaboration efforts with teachers. This lesson was about the teacher getting out of the way of the kids and their learning. The activities in the room aligned with the learning learning artifacts in the room, including the vocabulary wall and EQ.

I captured this video on my phone, it wasn’t planned but I had to make sure I recorded the engagement and focus on this lesson.

Great lesson! This is how we get our kids ready, not just for a standardized science test at the end of the year, but also for critical analysis, collaborative work – skills beyond this 8th grade experience