A Planning Day – Sharing our Process

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.

Today I want to share some very concrete ways that we organize our collaboration days when planning Learning Sprints at our school. Although relatively early in our Learning Sprint implementation, we have experimented with different ways to ensure we use our teacher collaboration time effectively. This past week, teachers had the opportunity to meet in their Sprint groups during school. The school brought in substitute teachers to replace them for a few hours so that they could meet to discuss their Learning Sprints.

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Graminia Teachers during the “Could Do, Must Do” protocol.

Our basic agenda for a 90 minute meeting looked like this:

  1. Review Past Sprint
  2. Define Broad Focus of Next Sprint
  3. Narrow the Focus
  4. Discuss Assessment & Intervention
  5. Create Sprint Canvas
  6. Review Timeline and Set Dates

Now, let me give you a few more details about what we did in these sections and the reason we chose the protocols and activities.

  1. Review of Past Sprint – Here we had all participants bring student work from our previous sprint. The conversation started from the student work and was informed by the student work. I underline this process of speaking to the actual product of learning because we have seen a big improvement in the quality of our review when we start all our analysis on what we see concretely form the students.
  2. Define Broad Focus of Next Sprint – In this portion of the meeting we intentionally keep to a broad area. We used the Boulder-Pebble-Sand Protocol, but stopped at Pebble (no Sand in this round). This allowed us to define the students we wanted to reach and the general area we wanted to make progress in.
  3. Narrow the Focus – Here we used the Must Do, Could Do Tool to drill down in the exact strategy that we were going to focus on in the coming Sprint. We found it helpful to ensure teachers were talking about their choices of strategy and the area where they put their strategy (was it a “Must Do” or a “Could Do”). We were able to group many strategies together and comment on what we thought would have the highest impact. At the end, we chose one group in the “Must Do” section as the focus of our coming Sprint.
  4. Discuss Assessment & Intervention – Now that we have a specific area to focus on, we made a section to ensure that our intervention was based on good research or refined the intervention based on what research was saying. We have been working with the book Visible Learning for Literacy by Fisher, Hattie, & Frey, so this part was rather simple this last round. We also planned our assessment strategy to ensure that we knew if our intervention had an impact on student learning. We took a moment to talk about the tool and in this case create the tool that we will use.
  5. Create Sprint Canvas – Usually at this point, I have a whole bunch of little papers around me about what our plan is but no one place where we have clearly articulated our Sprint. I made sure we planned to take a minute to complete the blank Learning Sprint Canvas.  This way we will not forget the conversations that we had about what our main focus is during the Sprint.
  6. Review Timeline and Set Dates – Here we review when our Check-ins will take place and set the meetings in our schedules. We also review when our next planning session will take place, which indicates the end of the Sprint.

That is the details of our planning day. We had 2 groups roll through this same process twice in a day, during 90 minute sessions. I would not take less time that 90 minutes for this agenda, in fact if we had another 30 minutes our conversations could have been more rich. In the end, we had 90 minutes so we dealt with what we had.

Here are the 2 Sprint Canvases that we created in this last round:

Sprint Canvas (Humanities) Dec 6 2017

Sprint Canvas (Math_Sci) Dec 6 2017

While I am sure that our process will change, I hope that the sharing of our exact process helps someone to organize this process in their own school. Happy Sprinting!

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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.

Beginner’s Mind

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.

The concept of “Beginner’s Mind” comes from Zen Buddhism. According to Shunryu Suzuki it describes the feeling of openness to all possibilities, the innocence of first inquiry, acceptance, and freeness from habit. It was with this approach that I was participated in a session on the introduction of Learning Sprints with Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear this past week.

Why the need for a beginner’s mind? I had recently spent a week-long course on this practice and had launched the Learning Sprints model in my school. I was feeling confident in my understanding of the concept, but this also made me wary. What was I missing? What did I still need to learn? The beginner’s mind approach made seeing things as they were and forgetting what I wished them to be more evident.

The beginner’s mind approach is also a useful way of confronting many problems that we have as teachers. At times, the master teacher does not see all the possibilities in a solution and gets caught up in a single-minded approach. This leads to less innovation and similar results being reproduced. The beginner sees the possibilities of the ways to intervene. The beginner is open to new ways and makes a choice to start.

The first lesson that my beginner’s mind received was the fact that Learning Sprints gives teachers the structure for effective collaboration. I have seen too many collaboration sessions where teaching professionals waste their most important resource, time, with conversations that do not ultimately lead to impact on learning. This usually happens innocently, they simply do not know how to structure a conversation to focus on what is important and what needs to be done. Learning sprints give a structure and keeps the conversation oriented on the intervention and the result. Let’s not waste the precious time we have with our colleagues on unimportant banter any longer.

Lesson 2, learning sprints seek to create clinical practitioners. This does not mean that we are looking to create a bunch of doctors, but rather we are seeking to create professionals that use the scientific method to analyse data and use it to inform decisions. The Learning Sprints model gives the foundations for changing how teachers think and act in regards to their students. It teaches to analyse data, survey options that are based in research, make an informed choice of intervention, and collect data to verify impact. One would take for granted that their doctor follows this practice, but it is at times missing from the world of education.

The adaptability of Learning Sprints is another interesting observation that my beginner’s mind made. Regardless of how research changes, what the school/divisional/state/provincial goals are, what the needs of the population you serve are, this approach gives you the structure to enact change. It is adaptable to the future needs of the student population and to the future information that we will get about learning. It also make change incremental and iterative, so that it does not feel overwhelming. Small changes, over time, lead to big changes.

The focus of the approach to implementation in Alberta (and perhaps other places) has been that the 3 levels of leadership of a school need to be involved and are active participants. The teacher leaders, the school administrators and the divisional/district leaders should all be present and implicated in the learning sprint. I had a personal example of the efficacy of this at our last meeting. In the course of a conversation between our team, a question came up about creating a report to give teachers data to target their interventions. Our divisional representative was able to give an answer right away and offer to work with our software developer to make the report widely available. In the course of 2 minutes, we were able to make important data easily available to all teachers in our school division because of the fact that we were all around the table.

The last point that I will touch on with my “openness to new ideas” is the possibility that this approach could lead to joy. The concept of craftwork, detailed in the book “The Craftman” by Richard Sennett, proposes that we can all feel a deep inner satisfaction when we perfect our work. That in process of making something better and producing something of quality, we may increase our joy. We need more of this kind of joy in education, as the stakes are high. Instead of making beautiful furniture or playing a beautiful piece of music, teachers are contributing to another human’s life. We are creating learning that ultimately helps people and a communities. What a joy it is when we do that well.

A special thanks to Agile Schools and to the Alberta Teachers’ Association Council for School Leaders for organizing an incredible learning opportunity.

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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.