Category Archives: Structures and Systems

Rekindling the Commitment

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I think last year’s World Cafe reminded all of us that collaboration is hard and is often uncomfortable. A number of colleagues pointed out that Professional Learning Communities are as much about who were are as learners as it is about supporting student success. As one colleague admitted, “I’ve learned a lot about myself as a learner. Collaboration is not always easy – it takes time, energy and practice.” Another stated, “I learned collaboration is challenging, but it’s necessary to go through the process in order to create change.”  Snapshots from this Wednesday’s PLC continues to highlight the power of our cross grade level and multidisciplinary teams.  What does some of that work look like?

  • Teachers turned to one another to examine case studies focusing on effective feedback strategies
  • Teachers used a dilemma protocol to get past barriers for using digital tools to nurture metacognition in the classroom
  • Teachers shared shifts in shared language aligning to the integration of key concepts from Theories of Knowledge across the high school
  • Teachers reported out on the impact of peer observations during workshop lessons
  • Teachers highlighted projects that enable more individualized learning
  • Teachers showcased depth of student learning and reflection through revised portfolios

In short, teachers used PLCs not only as a means of accountability to “force us to keep commitments for change” but inspired colleagues to reconsider a practice, an assessment, a day’s plan for supporting students better.


A Snapshot of Practice

Below is a quick summary of walk-through observations for Semester I, 2012. The elements I tracked align to Graded’s Principles of Teaching and Learning as well as our Continuum of Assessment Practices. They are the same elements I use every semester so we can identify areas of growth. (Head to “What I can do in three minutes” for another data set and additional background.) The goal of the data is to trigger reflection and to determine if we have met the expectations for teaching in the Graded community.


The invariable chill…

When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to play this weird game on each other’s backs. For some reason, we found it absolutely hysterical. One would stand behind the other and synchronize a story with hand motions. “X marks the spot with a dash and a dot…” it would begin as we marked each other’s back.  “In goes the fork…” we would say as we pretended to stab, “out comes the blood” we would follow with fingers drooling down. “In goes the knife… out comes the blood.” On it would go, ending with spiders and cool winds blowing – and something made up –  then the invariable chill that always followed.  I bored easily from the predicted rhyme, but loved when they made something up to add to the story.

The plot of Graded’s Professional Learning Communities reminds me of this game. We’ve taken a structure used by schools all over the world  and collaboratively we’ve made something up that adds to the story of learning for educators.  The last round of reflections from this semester not only serves as a celebration of how far we’ve come, but the data maps clear next steps for us to tackle in order to ensure this structure serves teachers, and ultimately students, in powerful ways. (If you click on the charts, they will open a bit bigger).


Observation 1:  Although designed to support the core work of Graded’s school improvement goals, PLC’s are falling short  in terms of supporting all teachers in meeting expectations. 36%  of teachers did not choose into a PLC that aligned with the expectations for unit refinement. Where does the time and support come from to support the 41 teachers who do not use this structure for that purpose?

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Observation 2:  We’re making progress in two key, significant areas. 34% of teachers embrace one of the primary reasons our PLCs are designed specifically to cross divisions and find the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other divisions the most powerful aspect of this semester’s PLC work. This represents an increase of 10% from last year’s data. Additionally, PLC work is  applicable to classrooms in various ways. The greatest percentage, 22%, believe that their instruction has been impacted as a result of the work with colleagues. The next greatest category, 20%, explicitly aligns to our school-wide goals.

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Observation 3:  Graded School reflects a community of voracious learners, yet we still struggle with taking that learning to a classroom level in a way that impacts student success. 56% believes that their work with PLCs will impact student success within the next semester.  This data point, along with the feedback that teachers provided last year, serves as a clear rationale for year-long PLC groups.

Observation 4: Graded School reflects a community of voracious learners who know how to advocate for their needs.  The greatest need for support falls into three key categories: additional research, models and structures to track impact.  How can leaders best provide these resources so they are valuable, timely and are easily transferable to the craft in your classrooms?

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Observation 5: This last piece of data is a text analysis that identifies the 28 most important words that emerged in your responses focused on highlights. You can judge where its importance resides based on the size of the word. Assessment, Colleagues, Discussion, Sharing, Learning. Students/Teachers, and Tools are all elements of success for this semester.  The good news is that all of these concepts related directly to our school-wide goals on nurturing the conditions for collaboration, assessment and the integration of technology.

It takes time for a structure to grow deep roots in an organization. A mere eighteen months later, Graded’s multi-divisional and multi-discipline PLC structure is beginning to take shape. I never said it was going to be easy, only that it would be worth it. It is with deep gratitude that I read and reflected on the semester’s learning. I look forward to the next round with the same anticipation of predicting how my brother may change the story. Such thoughtful work will forever give me chills.

Practicing What We Preach

The year’s assessment cycle is wrapping up quickly. (Dare I admit to counting the remaining 27 days of the year?) Students are hunkered over desks completing IB exams, and principals are hunkered over computers completing summative evaluations as part of Graded’s Professional Growth and Supervision Plan.

As instructional leaders our goal remains to model effective practices. I’ve been reflecting on how our school-wide work with assessment needs to have direct implication on the strategies we use to support and hold teachers accountable.  How should (does) our work look different based on what we’ve learned with our teachers and students? Using the Assessment Continuum,  I gathered a quick snapshot to share with the Leadership Team to see where our practices align and where we still need to stretch.

Engagement and Appropriate Challenge

Teacher Practice

Leader Practice

Evidence May Include

I align course learning targets with school standards. I align expectations to the Teaching and Learning Principles of the PGSP and our school-wide goal. Focus on assessment continuum in feedback
Aligned to teacher goals
Direct use of language from Teaching and Learning Principles to build shared understanding
I use previous assessment data to identify students’ needs. Assessment data may include standardized data, grades or course-specific assessments. I use previous assessment data to identify teachers’ needs. Use of team notes
Previous evaluations
I design assessments to match the targeted learning. I identify assessments to match the targeted learning. Targeted observations
Lesson plans
Student work
Rubicon Atlas
I create opportunities for student self-reflection. I create opportunities for teacher self-reflection Goal setting
Semester reflection
Final reflection as part of the written
I include students throughout the assessment process (e.g. goal setting, reflection along the way, self-assessment, etc) to engage students in continuous improvement. I include teachers throughout the assessment process (e.g. goal setting, reflection along the way, self-assessment, etc) to engage students in continuous improvement. Running record linked to principles of teaching and learning
Records of dialogue
I provide students with choice of assessment type for the same learning target (s). I provide students with choice of assessment type for the same learning target (s). Teachers set own goals based on self-assessment against school-wide goals
Teachers determine the best evidence to demonstrate their growth

Variety and Purpose

Teacher Practice

Leader Practice

Evidence May Include

I use different types of assessment. I use different types of assessment. Summative and formative feedback is informed by targeted observations, walk-through evidence, Rubicon Atlas (curriculum design), student assessments
I communicate the purpose for the assessment (diagnostic, formative, summative). I communicate the purpose for the assessment (diagnostic, formative, summative). Surveys to inform the work in advance
Explicit about summative evaluations vs formative cycles
Explicit about the role of walk-throughs vs. targeted full class observations

Authenticity and Transparency

(Definitely where we have the most room to grow as Leadership Team)

Teacher Practice

Leader Practice

Evidence May Include

I provide targeted and effective ongoing written and oral feedback on a learning target. I provide targeted and effective ongoing written and oral feedback on teacher’s goals. Running records reflect characteristics  of effective feedback that we committed to as a team:

  • easy to understand
  • explicitly tied to goals
  • includes information a user can use
  • focuses on qualities of the work or processes/strategies to do the work
I think we’ve grown as a team, but we need to continue  to let go of practices that we know ultimately do not serve adult learning well.  Concretely, what changes should teachers see as a result for integrating the same assessment practices we look for in the classroom?

  • Every teacher sets a goal  and tracks progress using evidence towards that goal; follow-up reflection and documentation with principal
  • Summative assessments (evaluations) do not speak to the same depth in each of the domains (instruction, assessment, learning environment and professionalism). This year, especially, more detail will focus on teacher goals and the assessment domain due to our school-wide goal, with great strengths and areas for improvement identified in the other domains if  evidence is significant on one side of the teaching and learning continuum or the other
  • In the final write up, more references to different components of your professional life/learning – Rubicon Atlas, evidence from running records reflection observations and meetings, student work or assessment tasks you may choose to share, PLC contributions
  • No surprises! You should read your final write up and notice that it balances your voice with your principal based on evidence collected over time

The Sublimity of our Ideas

 “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand–that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”

from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

I’ve been exploring the wave of Common Core Standards, not because we are preparing to implement them at Graded School (we’ve done excellent work with our present standards adoption through the curriculum review cycle) but because it is driving a provocative national dialogue about reading, writing, math and shifts in educational practice.  Shifts in educational practice… this is what fascinates me.  Putting change theory aside, what compels a leader, a  teacher, a learner to change practice?

My last post on evidence from my walk-throughs does not reflect significant shifts in practice as a community.  It feels fair to say that we continue to get better at what we already do…  and that there are individuals that have stepped out of their comfort zone in an effort to redefine what the role of the teacher can be in the classroom. I can’t help but wonder is that enough for us to serve all kids well. And I can’t help reflect on my shifts in leadership practice.

In my role as a school designer and regional director with Expeditionary Learning, my primary goal was the replication of a project-based model that defined student success by academic achievement measures and character. This had implications on school structures, leadership practice, curriculum design and instruction. I started schools — hired leaders and teachers committed to implementing a shared vision from day one and strategically supported an implementation plan that was “field tested” in many ways.  Graded has asked me to be a different leader.

I have learned to say “I don’t know know” more often – and as a result have landed on solutions developed collaboratively with teachers and leaders that I never imagined. I have clarified a commitment to outcomes (tasks with high cognitive demand, students empowered to pursue individualized learning, strategies for authentic collaboration) instead of specific practices or structures. I have learned to navigate and leverage an online network of voices and opinions that both affirm and challenge my perceptions in an effort to deepen my practices and refine my actions. I have developed a deeper empathy for readiness for change… because it has been asked of me in ways far greater than I imagined. But there was an urgency to change – I couldn’t serve the school well if I didn’t.

As much as we have in place to act as a catalyst for change in much the same way the Common Core is predicted to shift practice, we still have to make a choice to commit to change.  As we move towards growing our 1:1 program through Grade 12, I recognize it is possible for teachers to instruct in some of the same ways.  As we move towards implementing curricular commitments born of our review process, I recognize it is possible for teachers to sequence the same material in similar learning experiences. And after two years of focusing on assessment, I recognize some of our practices remain stagnant. But, if we get to know our students well and appreciate the future that is before them, the there is an urgency to change. We cannot serve all kids well if we don’t.  It does not matter how sublime our ideas may be if we don’t take the time to re-envision the implications it has on the work that we do.

What I can do in three minutes…

I’ve finally wrapped up a few bigger tasks in the last few weeks (except for that whole Innovate 2013 conference planning, support for the HS 1:1 roll out,  and putting together an accreditation plan) so I’ve been able to make it to classrooms more often. This isn’t about evaluating your work, it’s about evaluating mine. We’re devoting more time to professional learning structures and they are only as successful as the impact that they have on student learning. 

You’ve set goals with your administrators that serve to anchor their observations so I’m using a short, informal structure of a three-minute walk-though  focusing only on the learning environment as it aligns to our Professional Growth and Supervision Plan principles. I’m also tracking the integrity of our documentation of the student learning in Rubicon Atlas.

In three minutes, I’m building a school-wide body of evidence based on the following questions implicit in our teacher evaluation rubric:

  • Do students know what they will (should) learn from engaging in the task?
    • Why I look for this? How can we empower kids to advocate for their learning if they don’t know the opportunities or the criteria for success?
  • Is there accountability to high expectations of  behavior and engagement in learning?
    • Why I look for this? The one doing the talking, the writing, the modeling, the problem-solving, the lab (etc) is the one doing the learning.  How can kids construct meaning unless they dig into the work and grapple with ideas?
  • What is the level of cognitive demand?
    • Why I look for this? How are we treating kids as thinkers? Are they engaging in tasks that require critical thought and “higher levels” of Bloom’s taxonomy or do we expect only lower order thinking skills, such as simply collecting or recalling information?
  • Is what is happening in the classroom aligned to what we say is happening in the classroom?
    • Why I look for this? Can we track the story of a cohort’s learning? Without the story, we cannot access where (and why)  there are strengths and challenges with understanding, determine where to replicate or replace, and hold ourselves and students accountable so we can continue to build a cohesive learning experience.
How do I use this data? Data never provides an answer. Its strength resides in our ability  to ask better questions. I think this can inform our work in many ways. First and foremost, it helps me target who needs support and it supports principals in deepening dialogue with all teachers in their division. Most importantly, I hope it pushes our reflection as a community. For example, how do we support kids in building skills of collaboration when our most prevalent classroom configuration is whole class instruction?  How do we celebrate the strides we’ve made in documenting the learning we put before students?
I recognize three minutes may not capture the power that happens within a block of  learning. This is about patterns and follow-up.  This is about how I can serve Graded better. 

A two-week snapshot of 22 classrooms

(Click on graphs for a larger version)

Level of Cognitive Demand

Alignment to Rubicon Atlas

Classroom configuration

Evidence of clear learning targets

Lifting the Lid on Graded’s PLCs


I spent a good chunk of this morning planning a workshop I’ll be facilitating at ASB-Unplugged. Entitled Re-imaging PD… Again?, the workshop has acted as a catalyst for reflection on the success and challenges of our PLCs at Graded. In a brief 18 months, our structure has grown from a fairly traditional implementation that is organized by subject area and grade level teams touted by the DuFour’s to one that is designed to accelerate a shift in our collaborative culture — to break down silos of practice to honor the expertise that exists across our campus and to honor the learning needs of teachers (McLaughlin and Talbert, 2006).


Graded’s PLC Survey – January 2012


Graded’s PLC Survey – January 2012

The part of our PLC’s that I haven’t been completely transparent about is the design and integration of digital tools. As educators, we are being asked to re-imagine schooling that is a far cry from our own learning history that often emphasized rote memorization, compartmentalized knowledge, and surface understanding of content. Our PLC structure is based on an assumption that for teachers to actively engage students in new technologies, they must have the opportunity to engage in ongoing professional development that mirrors such experiences. Before we can teach, I deeply believe we need to don the student hat first. In an analysis of your PLC pages and a review of presentation videos I discovered a rich array of tools that teachers chose to serve their learning needs first. Not only do they reflect a clear purpose, but they have the potential to impact  our learning culture  in ways that deepen our collaborative practices.

Hats off (student OR teacher) to Graded faculty.  I hope to continue to build a structure that serves the learning needs (student OR teacher) of Graded well.

Round and round… and round

Graded’s Curriculum Cycle  has defined most of the last week and good, albeit messy, work is happening. We’re smack dab in the hardest part of the work for “Year 1” subjects, de/re -fining department missions.  We’re not starting from scratch (which helps) but conversation at this stage is essential for colleagues to muck about in what can be — what should be — the expectations we have for student success. A commitment to a mission can have significant implications for our work. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.

As I think through supporting this work, I’m sensitive to the fact that Graded, as most international schools, remains vulnerable to change. In the first stages of work, many commented on a concern of “not wanting to recreate the wheel,” or wanting to “get it done right the first time.”  The nature of the cycle is intended to combat both – to build on what is in place and honor that improvement never ends. As thinking rises to the top, I’ve been grappling with how to embed the good ideas that are born in D-28 and E-12 into our current and continuing practices – and I think the second semester will be especially relevant in answering this question. Benchmarks aligned with grading practices, cornerstone assessments, clear and user-friendly communication tools, structures that carve out time to change our planning habits, orientation of new teachers and support for present teacher leaders in leading this work remain as tasks on my to-do list. (I’ve already started to rethink what my work looks like with principals in second semester).  Already I see pieces that were started last year failing to take deep root (insert 6-12 thoughtful, strategic sequence of experimental design, a conventions scope and sequence for grades 5-8, essential learning outcomes for English/Language Arts here) and one can easily see how easy it is to invest and then revert back to “business as usual.”  Sustaining change is the REAL hard work.

As I continue this work (work that has been at the center of my career for at least the last 10 years) I love the fact that we are still in dialogue with the likes of Herbert Spencer and John Dewey, and Paulo Friere.  I applaud the hard work of asking, What is a Graded diploma worth?, and will continue to problem solve how to ensure the work we are doing today, will impact the learning of Graded tomorrow.

I had six (scheduled) meetings today…

It has become a little bit of a running joke at the Broderick house of how many meetings I attend… and, well, I’m getting a little sensitive about it.  Teachers have meetings all day long – and you call them classes. Your meetings foster a journey of learning, of a cohesive and consistent dialogue – and so do mine… and I decided this morning when reviewing my calendar that if they don’t, then I’m walking out.  I didn’t walk out of one. I won’t bore you with each and every one, but a sample includes…

  • 8 am: Team planning with M- and K-.  ENERGIZING.  Clearly, the agenda was an ambitious goal – as I couldn’t imagine how one could get through updating Rubicon (3 cheers!) and identifying the core learning for the upcoming units. We started big – really big – asking, “what do we want kids to walk out the door knowing and doing…”  and then we whipped out those Essential Maps in Language Arts and Social Studies (happily stored on “The Hub”) and began to assign and align to units. This is where I had to exit to the next meeting, leaving them to 3 more hours of work!  I know how difficult it is to find this sacred time for sustained planning that gives the space to move from big picture, to the details of the day, and back again. BUT I IMPLORE YOU to advocate for this time and I’m happy to serve the process.
  • 9 am: LLT (Learning Leadership Team) I’m not going to lie, I was walking the fence on this one for about the first 20 minutes. Was I really going to walk out? Then we settled in… and communication was a key theme. We investigated the statistics of the Gazette readership. Dauntingly pitiful. I celebrate this moment for many reasons. One, the greater role data is beginning to serve in our school to drive good questions. Two, deep reflection about what we communicate, when we communicate, and how we communicate at Graded — which certainly gave rise to reflection about my own communication patterns. Three, the power of group thinking to solve a complicated issue – we really are smarter together.

11 am… 1:00 pm… 2:30…

  • 3:15: Individual teacher meeting contemplating leaving Graded. Sigh. This is a stressful time of year for many as the deadline for the “intent to return” draws near. I have been plagued with a poor ability to make decisions (insert Prufrock’s “analysis paralysis” here) for most of my life and recognize the quandry of many. Graded (and Brazil) is a powerful place. I don’t know how to advise someone of when it is time to move on… I appreciate the opportunity to reflect, to dream, to consider powerful paths that have the potential to feed us personally and professionally – and I am always a willing listener.  As this teacher concluded, I’m not looking for a new job, I’m building a career. I recognize and appreciate hard decisions, and respect where you land.

I include these as part of a survey of today’s meetings because they share a theme and do give rise to my own (and hopefully other’s) journey of learning.  All of them included deep collaboration – whether in planning, problem-solving or processing, and I HOPE all of them contributed to a layer of the ongoing dialogue of the organization, from the classroom to the school to the individual…

Bad acronym, good work

Bad acronym, good work

Taking action planning to the teachers – Professional Learning Advisory Council (PLAC) tackles supporting learning needs aligned to core initiatives at Graded. MAP, Backwards Design, Rubicon Atlas and Integrating Technology begin to get a plan for more consistent clarity.