Sunday, 7 June 2015

How do we alleviate poverty in our schools?

Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?
 -Dorothy Day

I was really struck by this quote from Dorothy Day this week.  I feel conflicted.  We are trying to do our best for the students we work with in a poorer part of a city dominated by families from a whole variety of countries of the Global South.  But are we making any difference?  Do we ever raise above charity to really promote social justice.

Last week, I listened to Joel Westheimer at the University of Ottawa.  He made the excellent point that few schools really focus on social justice - we are great at charity - boxes of clothing, extra school supplies at the beginning of the year, money for families in dire need of groceries, etc.  But what are we doing to really change the level of poverty in our city?

This is a very uncomfortable question - it reminds me of the quote by Dom Helder Camara

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Alleviating poverty or even making an even playing field is just something we don't talk about.  Some schools  have vibrant parent volunteer committees and really substantial financial reserves due to their fundraising efforts.  Other schools struggle to engage their parents and have no reserves to spend on the extras that make school a more holistic experience for students.

I have spent years working on issues of poverty and inequality in the Global South.  Until this year, I have not realized how great the inequality exists right here in this city.

What is the solution?  How do we level the playing field?

I really don't know, but I would love to hear from others who have some ideas on this and I would like to start a real dialogue on this topic over social media.

What I have discovered is that poverty and social justice are not well understood.  The ideals of social justice are never spoken about and there is no concerted effort to bring about true equality in most schools.

What I have found is that if you want to mobilize people to really do something you have to work extremely hard and make connections within charitable foundations and the business community. Interesting, it seems to be that certain foundations and businesses have a much clearer understanding of social justice than educators.  

There is a problem with this.  I always thought that school districts should be advocates for social justice and stand in opposition to policies that increase inequality.  There are certainly some wonderful groups out there that do this.

I realize that if I am going to work for my school I will need to work harder to develop these linkages.  One has to realize that to speak openly about the a lack of social justice could lead to the same kind of condemnation that Don Helder Camara writes about.  There are so many other ways to marginalize a voice.

Can we start a dialogue on this?  Or will we just stand back and be satisfied with the status quo?  I hope not, I hope people want to talk about this.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

How do we REALLY connect as professionals?

This is not one of those posts where I list the "TEN BEST WAYS TO CONNECT TO YOUR NETWORK ON THE INTERNET"

I am asking the question - what is a good way for administrators to connect and exchange meaningful information that will improve their profession and do this in a confidential environment?

Confidentiality is becoming for me one of the most important factors.

Our teachers and students are bursting through the 21st century, adopting sophisticated ways to communicate and innovate.  They are adopting new teaching techniques to adapt to the rapidly changing face of education.

What has not changed at all in my thinking is the industrial age structure of management.  We are caught in the middle - we are not teachers and we are not in a position to affect policy change.  We want to support change, but we are obliged to support official doctrine.

We all still exist in a hierarchical structure that were generally composed or fashioned during the industrial revolution.  To be fair, most major institutions - churches, hospitals, universities - follow along in the same model.

I have no idea how to change that and I don't even want to posit a way to change such structures, I am not sure they can.  Maybe this is asking too much of a large institution.

However, how do middle managers - principals and vps safely communicate within that structure so that they can communicate effectively and bring about just a little change at least in their own schools - our only sphere of influence.

Let's take a look at a few tools:
Google+ Communities do not seem to offer a good environment for admin to communicate.  The groups are not really private.  The information discussed within these groups becomes the property of Google or the district if your district has signed on with Google.

Managers seem to find this a complicated tool to use and I have yet to see any kind of useful prolonged conversation on a community that lasts any length of time - maybe three posts maximum.

Twitter we all acknowledge, is a great tool for educators.  I love Twitter chats like #satchat and most weeks the conversation is very interesting.  However this tool doesn't seem to work for smaller groups of professionals and it certainly not private.  This is not the place to get into any topic in any depth.  The 140 character limit is frustrating and I think it encourages shallow thinking.  I will still use this tool every day, but not to connect to my colleagues for advice on issues of concern in our district.

This could become a tedious post if I worked through a variety of social media tools that certainly allow for professional sharing, but have yet to be picked up by the people I work with and are questionable from a security point of view.

Maybe I am under the influence of the Academy Award winning film Citizen Four (you really should watch this), but most of the forms of social media we use are compromised and we have to be wary.

Don't get me wrong, I think we need to communicate with the wider educational community and also within our own district.  We had a great conversation in Joe Mazza's @Joe_Mazza Voxer group, but we never reached a consensus on what is the best way to communicate.

One contributor suggested going to where the people are, but what do you do when the people aren't anywhere?

So I put it out there - how do we communicate?  Not LinkedIn or Google+ - both tried and failed. Facebook? WhatsApp?  Snapchat? Twitter? Voxer?  What will work?

Maybe a combination of tools - a small Voxer chat with very strict social convention rules (no sharing without permission) supplemented by a less private Twitter chat with a unique hashtag - not private, but maybe its good to use more than one tool.

What works for you?  I would love to hear your ideas!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Questions to ask when considering a 1:1 program - how do we respond at our school?

We are on the cusp of starting a limited 1:1 program at our school.  As we prepare, it is important to consider al sorts of questions - as we prepare, I want to consider answers to questions asked by Ann McMullan in the article:

The 10 questions to ask before you start your one-to-one program

McMullan shared 5 start factors that are keys to success for one-to-one programs:
  1. Start with “Why?” What are instructional goals you hope to accomplish?
  2. Start small, think big. “Find some of those teacher leaders and let them try out the devices,” she said. “Find out what the issues are with the network. But do think big; it becomes an equity issue very quickly.”
  3. Start with teachers first. It’s critical.
  4. Start the conversation across all departments.
  5. Do start: Go for it. Failure is part of the learning process.
We have been getting closer and closer to 1:1 especially at the junior level all year.  The key point for us is the teachers.  We have a group that is willing to experiment and learn.  We have had several group PD sessions during and after the school day to work on our understanding on how various apps - especially Google Apps can improve student learning.  We have had great results with Read and Write and are learning how to give more effective feedback with Kaizena. We are learning more about digital portfolios.  We are also learning new ways to deliver PD to staff.  For our last PD venture, we invited a teacher from our partner school to spend the day with teachers and classes to work on digital portfolios.  Having an experienced teacher with us in the classroom made a huge difference. The conversation continues.  Within the next ten days we should have enough Chromebooks for all the junior (grade 4,5,6) students.  Each student will receive a machine and will be expected to bring the Chromebook home every night.  Our partner school is following the same process.
According to McMullan, here are the top 10 questions schools should ask themselves, and the order they should ask them in:
  • What is the mission of the district and how does the one-to-one program align with it?
We are very fortunate to work in a district that is flexible and open to change.  Years ago, the school board created the conditions for innovation by providing every school with a reliable wifi network.  Each year, we receive more devices from the school board.  For a small school like ours, it is now possible to take the final leap to make sure that every junior student has a new Chromebook to work with.  We also were early adopters of Google which has been huge for us.  Every staff member and every student has their own Google account.  Everyone has equal access to all Google apps.
  • What are instructional goals that will be supported by a one-to-one program?
We have examined our School Improvement Plan to see what goals already exist that can be supported by our 1:1 program.  We have been putting an emphasis on feedback for the past few years.  Kaizena is a very effective feedback tool that if used properly and consistently will advance our ability to give effective feedback to our students.  We also have a very high ELL population.  Apps like Read and Write can be very effective in assisting ELL students move ahead with their reading comprehension and writing skills.  This applies as well to students with learning disabilities.  When distributing our machines, we have focused first on our LD and ELL students.  We have observed some significant gains in their learning based on their day to day use of the Chromebook.
  • How will all major departments, selected administrative and teaching staff, parents, and other stakeholders be involved in the planning and implementation of a one-to-one program?
For us, the key 'departments' for implementation have been resource (Learning Disabilities) and ELL (English Language Learners).  Our resource and ELL staff have worked with teachers and students to teach them how to use the Chromebook.  Resource especially has become a center of innovation where students have been well trained on how to use apps.  They in turn have taught their school mates how to use the same apps
  • What device will best meet the mission? (“Notice, that’s not the first question,” McMullan said.)
This depends on the grade level.  We have more iPads at the primary and kindergarten level and more chromebooks at the junior level.  Now however, we are finding that we need more Chromebooks in the primary classes so students can get acquainted to Google apps and how to use their Google accounts.
  • How will the one-to-one program be financed and sustained?
Sustaining the program will be interesting.  We think that once we have made the initial investment, our regular IT allotment will be used to replace older or defective equipment.  The key factor is making the initial investment.
  • What IT systems need to be in place to support and maintain our one-to-one program(s)? (Here, McMullan shared an anecdote about one district that purchased 20,000 Chromebooks, only to have them sit in boxes because there was no wireless access in classrooms).
We have the wireless access and this system will actually be enhanced and strengthened in the near future.  All machines purchased through the school board are supported by IT technicians employed by the board.  As more schools go 1:1 the board may need to look at more IT support, but at this point we are able to access IT support to assist us when we need it.
  • How will district and school administrators and board members be prepared to lead and communicate the vision?
There is value in starting small.  The current implementation plan involves only two schools.  I am not convinced tat 1:1 should be implemented across the entire school board.  You definitely need a willing staff and school leadership willing to take the 1:1 leap before you even consider moving in this direction.  The human factor is easily the most important thing to consider before going 1:1.  Staff and school leadership need to be working together and share the common vision that going 1:1 will improve student achievement.
  • What ongoing professional development strategies will be provided?
This is probably one of the biggest questions.  On-going embedded PD is crucial.  The PD has to continue throughout the year and it can't depend on teachers 'volunteering' to learn more about the newest app.  It is crucial that 1:1 implementation be a major component of the School Improvement Plan and that the school's PD budget (release time) be devoted to staff development.  It is also important that staff be consulted - always - on what they need to learn next.  This shows basic respect for the adult learner and ensures that staff will buy into the learning plan for the year.
  • What processes will be in place for making adjustments as needed?
Good communication is the key.  The principal must be open to the ideas and thoughts of staff and staff need to feel supported enough by the administration so they can talk freely about how the program is going.  As mentioned earlier, the human factor is the most important, we need to keep in constant contact with each other and learn together.  There will be bumps along the way, but teachers are good at change; all we need to do is manage it carefully.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Moving to 1:1 with Chromebooks


 We are taking the leap into 1:1.  We are close to this already at the junior level (grades 4,5,6) and we feel it is time to move to a Chromebook for every student.

Today, we have put in an order for 20 more Chromebooks.  This is an experiment we are taking part in with another school with similar demographics to ours. My job will be to offer staff all the support they need to help this work.

I am already working on more PD sessions that I hope will help the  teachers adapt to a 1:1 environment. Once the machines arrive, each student will be assigned a machine.  The students will then have to take the machines home and bring them back the next day.  Not bringing a machine to school will easily be the equivalent of not doing your homework.  I have also purchased six more tech tubs to help with storage.

Having the machines at home is really important for us.  Many of our students do not have computers at home and it is difficult for us to extend the learning going on at school if students have limited or no access to computers. We will probably make mistakes, but we will learn together.  There are lots of good articles out there from people who have already gone down this road - we will take our direction from those who have gone before us. I will use this blog to document how we do.  I really believe this initiative will bring about significant change in the way we teach at our school.  Now it is time to find out! Here are some of the articles I will be re-reading:

Devices Need to Support Learning - 

Technology can close achievement gaps, improve learning - Stanford University

Five Steps for Implementing a Successful 1:1 Environment - Edutopia

Why 1:1? Why Chromebooks? 

The Logistics of 1:1 Chromebooks at Leyden

 (really important article - note the date 2012!)

Teachers Manual to a Paperless Classroom - Educational Technology and Mobile Learning

My Livebinder Collection on 1:1
Click here to open this binder in a new window.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Developing a principal learning network - part II

Yesterday I outlined some of the key points discussed with Christine Waler from the Niagara District School Board.  The Niagara Board runs a very effective principal learning network that has produced some very interesting results from what I have seen at various workshops over the past few years.

One thing that I learned is that Stephen Katz played a key role in forming the networks.  He challenged the board to develop networks that went beyond the superficial and called on members to challenge each other in a respectful manner.

Katz in his studies asked the question - "How do we enable the kind of professional learning that will bring about change in practice."

This is a question that must be seriously looked by educational leaders.  We have done a very good job at examining the conditions that students need to learn effectively, but we have neglected to do this for adults, especially principals and vice-principals.

Katz in his work in Niagara stressed the need for the development of an Inquiry Framework.  This has developed over the years but it remains central to their professional learning teams.  The framework mandates teams to develop an inquiry question and from that question create a working hypothesis.  The framework asks the inquiry group some simple questions:

Develop an inquiry question ~ what is your challenge of practice and why?

Develop a working hypothesis ~ if/then statement ~ how you intend to intervene and why?

The framework continues on with a plan, success criteria and evidence to support the hypothesis.

Such a structured approach to networked learning is something that is bound to produce learning and results for the members of the networked group.

There has been a great deal of study that has gone into this framework.  Katz stresses that when adults come together they need to collaborate and challenge each other to produce real learning.  The video below summarizes his main ideas on what constitutes an effective network.

To finish, I am including a webcast from Stephen Katz that summarizes many of the key ideas outlined in these two blog posts.  The introduction to the 2008 webcast includes the following:

 Networks operate on the belief that when professionals come together and share their expertise, they build new knowledge, and that new understanding leads to a change in practice that will ultimately result in improved practice and student achievement.

This webcast will feature researcher Stephen Katz, who shares insights on what makes networks effective, based on his research and experience. He suggests that six characteristics consistently emerge as being essential to effective networks: Purpose and focus: participants need to become knowledgeable about their focusLeadership-full: using collaborative, shared, or multi-level leadership; developing the capacities of others becomes essentialCollaborationInquiryAccountabilityBuilding Capacity and Support
Networked Learning Communities  - Webcasts for Educators

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Developing a principal learning network

I am starting a series of posts based on my conversations with Christine Waler, principal in the Niagara District School Board and an active participant in Leading School Achievement (LSA) in Ontario.

I am writing these posts because principals need to be actively involved in learning from their peers. We challenge our students and teachers to become immersed in the inquiry method, but we have not taken on this challenge for ourselves.

From the Capacity Building Series, August, 2014

To start with, there is a good deal of research from Katz, Leithwood, Fullan and other authors mentioned in the August 2014 Capacity Building Series that supports the importance of collaborative inquiry for education leaders.

The McKinsey Report: How the world's most improved keep getting better clearly states that jurisdictions that are moving from Good to Great must focus on promoting professional inquiry and collaboration for teachers and school leaders. (pg. 28)  Throughout the report, the authors clearly outline that to go to great teachers and educational leaders need to develop their own inquiries and collaborate effectively to produce new learning.

"The power of collective capacity is that it enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things – for two reasons. One is that knowledge about effective practice becomes more widely available and accessible on a daily basis. The second reason is more powerful still – working together generates commitment. Moral purpose, when it stares you in the face through students and your peers working together to make lives and society better, is palpable, indeed virtually irresistible. The collective motivational well seems bottomless. The speed of effective change increases exponentially …” (Fullan 2010)

In the Niagara District, educational leaders meet regularly along with a superintendent.  Members are required to come prepared with an inquiry along with an action plan.  Group members are also expected to focus on teacher practice and bring examples of teacher work with them to these meetings.  Most meetings last at least three hours and the other members of the group are expected to act as 'critical partners' whose role is to crystalize the nature of the inquiry.

The inquiries need to connect to teacher ALPs, school improvement plans, board improvement plans and the provincial School Effectiveness Framework.  Inquiry groups can be formed based on demographics, school size, location or even comfort level of working together as a group.

Niagara District has developed a collection of documents that guide the inquiry process.  One statement from Katz and Dack summarizes what the networks are expected to achieve:

"Members of a network learning community engage together in challenges (problems) of practice so that understanding of those challenges grows deeper and is more unified.  Through investigations, proposed solutions emerge that are then tested to see if they help… Through such a repeated process, practice grows more sophisticated and powerful…"  (Katz & Dack, 2013, adapted from
Supovitz, 2006)
Katz and Dack have provided a number of other documents and templates, including success criteria that have guided the practice of the networks in Niagara.

For such a system to work and eventually prosper there needs to be a champion who will allow this collaboration to flourish.  In the case of Niagara, Stephen Katz played a key role in developing the system.

This networked learning system offers some very exciting opportunities for educational leaders. Time will tell how extensively these systems will be implemented.

It would be great to hear about other principal collaborative learning networks out there and I certainly look forward to learning more about what goes on in the Niagara District!

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Response to Thinking about Professional Learning - OSSEMOOC

This is my response to a recent blog post from the OSSEMOOC blog.  Lots of opportunity for great discussion here!

Lots of questions here that I would like to answer in the form of a blog post.  You are asking so many important questions that have to do with the reform of our educational system.

When it comes to PD, we need to grow a great deal.

Here is a challenging question:  "Do you think that “Professional Development” creates a culture of learned helplessness? Have we taught educators to wait for someone to teach them?"

To a great extent I believe this is still true.  However, there seems to be a bit of a split between PD offered to teachers and PD offered to administrators.

I am now seeing examples of learning networks being set up to explore questions important to educators.  Teachers are being given, in some situations, the opportunity to set their own learning agenda and work with others to develop and explore new ideas.  I see this especially in math instruction.

It is a good step, but I think we need to go further.  Teachers should be allowed to define and develop their own learning plans.

Here is another good question:  Is this the only PD really needed: “The opportunity to learn where to find something when we need to learn about it”?

I would say it is.  The most valuable PD for teachers is PD directed and monitored by teachers.  Fullan has written about this.  Several of the Ontario Capacity Building series articles focuses on the importance of teacher inquiry.  Here is one example Collaborative Inquiry in Ontario

When it comes to PD for administrators, I don't see any change.  Almost always, our professional development consists of sitting passively while someone talks to us.  There is no inquiry, no action, no learning.  How can we be expected to lead in our schools when the model we are continually exposed to is so antiquated?

There may be some hope.  Christine Waler has outlined an inquiry framework for administrators.  I don't know much about this model, but it really needs to be explored and copied if administrators are going to be involved in active inquiry and discovery.

Are there models for administrators out there?  I hope so, I would love to hear about them!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Time Management for School Leaders #SAVMP

Here is my response to Joe Mazza's post on the #SAVMP blog - on time management

Not sure I can use the egg timer idea - Pomodoro Technique to section off my time, but I work really hard at my gmail.  I have to say that as an administrator, gmail is easily the biggest time waster.  I now flag important emails and I archive all the rest.  I am sure I archive over 200 emails every time I do a 'cleaning', which really should be every day.

The second biggest time waster are meetings - especially at the district level.  Unfortunately, I can't control this, but I wish someone would take a look at how much time we waste in traditional meetings that by and large accomplish absolutely nothing.

Without a doubt, the best use of my time remains working with staff, students and parents - that's it.  My time management goal for this year will be to spend more time on these big 'rocks' and less time on e-mail and somehow on useless meetings!