Better Together

There seems to be a strong pull on teachers to think that they are lone wolves. It seems to me that we have an archaic idea that we need to go it alone, forge our own path. Teachers won’t say it, but I have seen many act as though asking for help is a sign of weakness.

Perhaps this is left over from the one-room schoolhouse days. Maybe this is simply how the educational culture has evolved in some schools.

I know that I have personally been pulled into this trap at different parts of my career. It was a mix of not wanting to bother others and what I thought would be expedient. I thought it would just be easier and faster to do things myself.

In my experience, it is almost always better to work together. This applies equally to solving problems as it does to general everyday instruction. In the words of one of my favourite artists, Jack Johnson, it is Better Together.

I know it is not always easier, but it is my experience that it is almost always better. More ideas, more support, better end result, less work.

Of course, the hard part can be navigating the personal relationships that are involved. This can be difficult, but the results are worth it.

Happily, this trend is slowly changing. With more possibilities of connecting digitally, more research coming out on the benefits of working together in collaboration, with new ways to organize professional development, we are working together more.

The next time you are thinking of forging ahead by yourself, take a minute. Remember that we are Better Together.


Teachers Matter

There are days when teachers feel down, powerless, ineffective, used up. The great plans have gone sideways. It feels as though our students have taken every ounce of strength and energy from us.

We often ask yourselves whether we matter in the lives of our students. We ask ourselves, “What impact do I even have?”.

It is during these days that we must remember that what we do has an affect on our students. Teaching matters. It has the largest impact of any factor of school.

Teachers have the power to change lives. What they do with their students is more important that any other thing at school. What power and what responsibility!

We recognize there are others factors at play. Our students come from different home situations, they each have their own story of how they came to be with us in our class. These different situations have a big impact on their learning, but we don’t control these factors.

What we control is the school they walk into and at school the teacher is number 1. Let’s make it count, because teachers matter.

The Right Size

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment. Our learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

A question that we have had to answer as we are organizing our professional learning around Learning Sprints is “How many people should be in a Learning Sprints group?”. This might seem evident, but we have struggled to find a number that works and have learned some lessons along the way. Through our trials and tribulations I think we have come up with the definitive answer: it depends. The biggest thing that I have learned in my time with PLCs, Learning Sprints, Departments, etc. is that the perfect number is affected by multiple factors.

The first factor that I believe needs to be in place is that the group should have a common link in what they teach that enables them to find common outcomes to focus on. This might be a certain range of grades, it might be a common subject or department. When I worked in a High School, our subject departments were a great way to form a group around common outcomes. Whether that be around Science, Language Arts, Math, it works well. I have even had a personal experience where a group of teachers who were the only specialists in a school came together by finding common outcomes they could all focus on. I was part of a Modern Languages/Fine Arts department that brought together the French, German, Japanese, Art, Band, and Drama teachers. We needed to be open to what we all shared in our different subjects, but ultimately we were able to focus on how we were designing our instruction to ensure our outcomes were being met. Other examples of groups that I have seen to work are junior high humanities or Science/Math teachers, Grade 1-2 teachers. The list is endless, but the important piece is that there are common outcomes that the teachers want to focus on.

The next factor that determines the optimal size of your Sprint Group is the ability to meet. If there are too many differing schedules and the group cannot find a common time to meet the work will fail. I have written about how groups need to “Check In to Win”. The best ways to organize this meeting is to schedule time in the timetable, but often times this is not available or is an ongoing goal. In the times where the timetable is not in place to allow teachers to meet during the day, there must be a time when all are available on a regular basis. The availability of the members will determine the size of the group.

My experience is that there is a certain point when consensus becomes difficult to obtain. To say this another way, at times when there are too many divergent perspectives and the group cannot choose one outcome to work on. This number varies widely based on the personalities in the group, the subject areas, the past experience and the buy-in of the group. At times, this is when 3 highly different people come together, other times it is a significantly higher number.

Though all these factors come into play, don’t get stalled in implementation. A group, whatever the size, that actually makes progress on meeting the needs of students is better than none. Get together, make progress, learn along the way what size of group is going to be right for your school. Get started today.

Reflections on Report Card Season

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment. Our learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile Network.

In our corner of the world we have just emerged from the dreaded report card season. We are all feeling a little over-taxed and under-rested. Perhaps it is the lack of sleep, but I was reflecting on student assessment and reporting. I often think that in the report card bustle, we forget what is important. Many teachers, even me when I was in the classroom, get so focused on the reporting piece of assessment that we forget about the valuable functions of student assessment. We at times make assessment about what we will use on the report card, instead of using this data for more beneficial uses.

My view is that the most important thing we can do with student assessment is to change our teaching, based on the information, to meet the needs of our students. This does not mean that I don’t value reporting, I do. I just believe strongly that assessment should inform the teacher on what to do next. The other functions should be secondary.

First, we should define our assessment strategy based on our most important goals. The things that we feel our students need the most.  If you are using the Agile methodology or a Learning Sprint protocol, this would be your focus. If you are using a Backwards Design lens, this would be your big learning outcomes. Evaluate their progress in this area where we feel it will help them develop as learners. Use a few assessment strategies to get a clear picture of progress, but don’t use so many that you feel overwhelmed. This selection should be done carefully to make sure we are getting the data we need to inform our practice.

One way I like to do this is by choosing the assessment strategy at the same time as we are planning. We usually brainstorm a bunch of assessment strategies that we may be able to use, them eliminate the ones that we think will not work or will not get us the information we need. We are looking for the tools that will get us the best information about whether our students are making progress on the goals we have set out.

It is easy, when we have a big reporting task ahead of us, to start choosing assessments that are going to help with report cards, rather than assessments that that are going to inform practice. I think we need to maintain our focus on what is important, responding to student need.  Assessments let us know whether what we decided to do, as the clinical practitioners of learning, was successful or not.

If one does assessment right, these 2 worlds can collide (what helps for both report cards and practice decisions). It means that the evaluation tools both give data one can share with parents and help make good choices for student programming in the daily setting.

Let’s focus on what is important, ensuring our teaching meets the needs of students, rather than making sure we can fill out a report card every 3 months.

If you are looking for some help with selecting which evaluation tools to use, I suggest the following 2 resources:
Hattie’s 2017 Updated List of Factors Influencing Student Achievement

Lean Assessment Plan Tool

Check In to Win

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment. Our learning was facilitated by the Alberta Teachers’ Association Agile School Cohort.

If you are like most of the teachers and administrators that I have worked with in schools, work is pretty darn busy. It is easy to get caught up in the cascade of demands put on you by students, parents, administration, etc. Often times, the goals that we has set out for ourselves quickly vanish in the daily grind. What if there was a way to remind yourself of the important things that you want to accomplish? What if there was a technique that you could put in place that would allow you to share your successes and failures with others who were working on the same things as you? You are in luck! The process of “Check ins” or “Scrums” does exactly this.

So what is a check in or a scrum? Essentially, it is a pre-set time where you meet with the other members of your Professional Learning Community (people who are working on the same goals as you) to each answer 3 questions related to your most important goals. The meeting only lasts 10 minutes and the 3 questions are:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. Are there any impediments in your way?

Ideally this would happen frequently, how frequently is really dependent on your schedule. Some people find the time to meet everyday, others meet once a week.

The beauty of this simple process is that it keeps you continually focused on your most important goals. It lets you learn from one another’s triumphs and defeats. It also lets your administrator (yes, they should be a part of this too) know how they can help you to achieve your goals by removing blockers or impediments.

As I have said before, schools are busy places. So why in such a busy workplace would we add another time commitment? The answer is simple, because it will help you to reach your identified goal. If you have done your research and targeted your goal properly, it should have a meaningful impact on student learning. It is the change that will make you a better teacher and your school a better place for learning. This worth making a small amount of time for, if you believe it will have real impact.

Now you could go on losing your focus and finding it hard to concentrate on your most important objectives, or you could try a check-in. The choice is simple, check in to win.

French Immersion Teacher Shortage: A Call for Better Professional Learning

Statistics Canada has recently come out with numbers regarding French Immersion registration in Canada. There are reasons to celebrate, enrollment is up 20% between 2011-12 and 2015-16. The program is a huge success and increasing numbers of parents are choosing French Immersion as a way to ensure their children are bilingual. Overall, those involved in French Immersion should be very proud of the work they have done.

A major issue that this increase in enrollment has created is a shortage in the availability of qualified French Immersion teachers. By qualified, I mean having both great language ability and pedagogical knowledge of second-language instruction. This shortage has been developing for a while and is now reaching a point where school divisions are having to make difficult decisions around their French Immersion programs. One school division in Ontario is considering closing their FI program because of a lack of teachers.

We will need the collective effort of Educational ministries, Universities, teacher colleges/unions/federations, and school districts to help solve to root causes of this problem. In the meantime, there are FI teachers available who may have varying levels of the 2 skills previously mentioned. It is my view that the most important thing we can do today to ensure the continued success of French Immersion is to improve the quality of teacher professional learning.

To this end, I believe that one of the best ways for schools to ensure continued school improvement is to implement Learning Sprints. This way of organizing teacher collaboration and educational improvement ensures that teachers are focused on changes that will improve learning, that changes are manageable in size, are based on research, and take into account the individual community that they serve. There is a global community that is implementing this teacher learning strategy with high levels of success.

In the face of this French Immersion teacher shortage, school leaders need to focus on what they can control. Leading excellent professional learning with teachers is the action that they can most control. Learning Sprints is a practical way to ensure continued improvement. Here is the Learning Sprints plan translated into French to help with implementation in French Immersion and Francophone schools.

First Check In

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

Our teachers have been in their first sprint for almost 2 weeks, so it was time for a check-in. The first sprint was designed to be a bit longer at almost 5 weeks. We chose this length as it was the start of the year and teachers are getting to know their students and as deal with all the start-up paperwork and routine building. Even though we are early in the year, I felt it was important to come together to get some feedback, make adjustments, and at minimum make sure teachers did not forget about our sprint focus. Sure enough, there are lessons to be learned already and changes to be tried.

Our first sprint was put in place quickly and our goal was less defined than it could have been. My thoughts were that this quickness would help us to learn fast and it was OK if we made errors at the beginning as we were new to this process. It makes me think of the early Facebook mantra of “Move fast and break things”. Our goal was to have teachers start a small improvement right away. The lack of refinement and definition of the goal is something we will tighten up next time. Some teachers have not had a problem with this broad goal, others found it more difficult. New rule, always define your goal more than you think you need to.

Our first intervention was a strategy focusing on summarization. I have learned that even a strategy can be too broad and too big. When we started discussing how this strategy had been put into place, we realized that it could get overwhelming. Summarization is a complex skill and our students had differing levels of mastery. Some teachers found their group could dive right into summarizing texts, while other teachers needed to explicitly teach some ways to summarize (and even define what summarizing was). Lesson learned, even a strategy needs to be small.

Another area that we will improve in the next sprint is clearly defining the assessment tools that we will use to know the impact of our intervention. Again, in the interest of moving quickly, we did not define how we would know if what we did made any changes to student learning. We have decided to aim for more qualitative feedback from students during this sprint, but I want to move into more quantitative measures for the upcoming sprints. Change for next time, know how you will know if what you did had an impact.

My last reflection is on the leadership aspect of this process. I realize I need to hand over more authority and responsibility to the teachers involved. I need them to know the structure of the sprints, the areas to cover when evaluating, the ways to come to define the different aspects of the process. My goal is that as soon as possible, they can engage in this process without me there. I need to remember that we are in the incubation period and that if we are to scale this project, I need people who are independent with this collaborative process and can work out issues that arise. I will not be able to attend every Learning Sprint meeting in my school, which means they need to do this themselves. My goal is to take the lessons learned from this group and refine the process for the others that will follow if we are successful.

We are in the early stages of this process, but I am confident that we are putting in place structures that ensure meaningful improvements. Onward.