Thanks for not taking me out of class…

The chatter of flipped classrooms continues to infiltrate blogs, twitter feeds and mainstream media. Thought leaders continue to weigh in on the pros and cons of a model that was already in play when I was working on a business minor at Indiana University.  I skipped attending the lectures, which I could catch on a university television station, and instead spent time attending small discussion groups to work through case studies and make sense of the concepts delivered in 45 minute lectures. It really didn’t feel so revolutionary at the time.

I’ve been tracking a few Graded teachers as they explore this same possibility with their students this year. I applaud teachers’ efforts to examine how they can move from the front of the room and instead use class time to engage students in making meaning together.  Thoughtful work is happening.

In an effort to support teachers in working through this model — as well as alleviating some of the tensions of leaving class to be of service to Graded’s organizational learning – I “flipped” our last PLAC (Professional Learning Advisory Council) meeting to get a deeper sense of the nuances of the learning environment that results from flipping the classroom.

I spent a lot of time thinking through how to best instruct colleagues in engaging in the independent task before we would meet. This was not just a video to watch, but an examination of a professional learning plan that will define our work in 2012-2013. I provided both written steps and a screencast that walked them through the steps, as well as a screencast that presented the plan, much like I would have done if we were together.

Colleagues had a week to do the work,  tracking their thinking and questions as part of the google site that held the plan for linking our learning.  I would jump in to comment on their ideas and answer questions that may hold up their progress, fostering a bit more dialogue than just a simple check in. Before our meeting, I had evidence that every member of the team had read and reflected on the presentation.

When we met face to face, I provided time to anchor in the presentation, taking time to read comments and questions that emerged before our meeting… then we jumped in to the work. And admittedly, I was dazzled by the level of critique in such a short time. Using wallwisher to capture their comments, so they could see each other’s thinking and skip repeating ideas and I could organize trends of comments to respond to as part of my reflection, I was armed with critical feedback to inform revising in less than an hour of meeting time.  

The debrief with colleagues highlights why this is a model to continue to explore:

  • It was a positive experience; we had the chance to learn at our pace at home
  • Appreciated the comments that were there as models – I knew what it should look like to participate
  • If you are confused, what do you do?
  • What is the trade-off to investing time in advance? Loved that our face to face meeting was shorter as a result
  • We didn’t just read and watch the presentation, we started the process in advance – we didn’t need to repeat the comments; moved on to deeper thinker
  • I was committed to the group – the comments drove that commitment
  • I think the quieter members found it powerful to take the time in preparing; different mode of communication with writing first
  • Having the time to process was important – there was a lot here that I just needed time to think about
  • Valuable to have both — wouldn’t want to have just this model
  • We knew the protocol; we were part of a community already and felt linked because of the thinking we have done together this year
  • This format should have a distinct purpose – it’s not for everything and I wouldn’t want to do it all the time
  • Thanks for not taking me out of class…

My goal remains to model learning that can link directly back to the classroom. There are many things I would refine when using this model again, and recognize that it was the strength of the culture of this learning community that led to this round’s success. Some good questions continue to percolate as part of reversed instruction – especially in terms of when does it best meet the needs of learners.


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

It’s never too late to reflect

Learning doesn’t happen from an experience; learning happens when one reflects on experience.

It’s been weeks since I’ve returned from ASB-Unplugged and this is really the first opportunity I’ve had to capture some reflection.  One thing I haven’t quite figured out is how to create the space for all of us at Graded to share out learning that emerges from conferences.  And as a result, I probably owe an apology to those that may have found themselves stuck with me at the lunch table my first few days back. This, however, is a feeble attempt to begin to close the abyss. I owe it to you to share what I learned.

Although I felt like I got to explore a lot, I didn’t walk away inspired to try a new digital tool,  or to significantly alter structures of professional learning, or change expectations I have (we have) for relevant, engaging learning. I didn’t come away with a deeper understanding of technology’s role in learning or how I can better serve Graded in moving beyond where we are to where we can be. I think we’re on the right track to figuring out solutions to some complex issues.  My biggest take away is linked to  the concept of benchmarking and trust. I know. Odd.

I think we commonly  enter a learning community with a lens of comparing to see where we stand in relation to what others are doing.  For those that know me, by nature I’m a bit of a case builder. I land on an idea and filter information to support my conclusions. I’m really trying to grow beyond this instinct.  The first few hours of the conference, I found myself thinking… “well, we do that… many of our classrooms look like that… we have that in place…”  After a session with Scott McLeod (click here to see our workshop resources) I began to grapple with a whole new idea. In an almost passing remark, he noted the importance of benchmarking not to organizations that match or extend our reach to excellence, but to benchmark to the organization we WANT to be – and that may mean not having another, specific program to benchmark against or measurement tools to evaluate what is valuable to our school at the ready. This may mean we need to benchmark to an ideal.   This is a much more ambiguous, daunting task than, for example,  identifying other international programs that are doing a “good job” and delivering graduates to the doors of ivy leagues.

Beginning in mere days, we will begin our accreditation process by first examining our mission and projecting a direction for our school.  We will use the outcome  to evaluate where we stand and build steps to become the school we want and can be. Admittedly, I’m curious to see where we land as a community. How aligned are we presently to a shared vision of schooling? Can we embrace a future we cannot define? Will we honestly question our assumptions and collectively commit to building a program that serves children well?

In my 20 months at Graded School, I continue to be surprised by the work. New questions continuously emerge and my learning curve remains steep (just the way I like it).  I trust that if we engage in the process with integrity, we’ll land on the benchmarks that will help define Graded in the future.

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.

How do we share the learning?

There are always a few articles that remain as anchors for my thinking. These are places I go back to in an effort to recalibrate the work. Often they are instructional, curricular or assessment based. My friend Steven’s article, The Power of Audience resonated deeply with me as I observed learning across Graded’s campus last week. There are learning experiences that naturally lend themselves to an audience – and in fact, fall flat without one. The perfect example is music. Tuesday night, as I listened to Robbie conduct the semester culmination of band classes, Steven’s comment, “the most effective way to engage  students in learning is to create an authentic audience, giving them a sense that someone else (besides teachers and parents) cares about their work. They need to have a vision of a product that matters. They need to learn content and develop skills to complete the product,” rang true.  And I began to reflect on where do students have a vision of a product that matters? A product that results in more than a grade in a grade book?

Clearly, the yearbook itself is much like music – audience is essential. But the stages along the way matter as well. Forward to Karin and yearbook and a panel of 10 teachers and administrators evaluating four different designs for the 2011-2012 yearbook.  It would have been easy to isolate this experience within a class, with classmates voting on the strength of proposals of their friends. Instead, as we probed the thinking that served to inform their designs, I was reminded of  the work of Graded’s Project-based PLC Group and the audiences that exist to serve student learning on a daily basis. (If you scroll to attachments, there is an article that serves to highlight different examples of audience, called “A Hierarchy of Audience”).

Finally, the 4th grade team also provided another example of the powerful role of audience in their “math games for parents” event. As I wandered through the classrooms, I was struck by students’ ability to teach their parents some rules and mathematical concepts that had a few mom’s and dad’s scratching their heads, including a certain superintendent that we all know.

I’d like to challenge Steven’s conclusion, “When student work culminates in a genuine product for an authentic audience, it makes a world of difference.” I propose that we don’t wait for a culmination, but take advantage of serving students’ learning along the way.

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.

… so how would you know you learned something if you didn’t get a grade?

“I don’t know,” was her response. And she looked at me with great confusion.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with two middle school students for “make up”  student-led conferences. We gazed intently at their laptops as they walked me through work they completed, observations of MAP scores and a self-assessment against some work behaviors (“I work hard in class all the time” – sometimes, always, never…) Unfortunately for them, I recently read Kohn’s The Case Against Grades and they were a captive audience coached to respond to my probing questions.

They were both well-prepared and I had been part of a thoughtful conversation with middle school teacher leaders on how to improve a potentially powerful structure. It seems things are off to a good start. Slides had been compiled to guide a story of the beginning months of school – but when it came to the question of “how do you know you’re learning,” they both hesitated, and started by going back to the grade to prove  they learned.

Kohn claims that, “Grades don’t prepare students for the ‘real world’ – unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant.” I’ve taught in non-graded environments, and although I believe deeply in the learning culture that emerges,  it was always a struggle. Learners need feedback; they need tools to help them measure their growth. They need to know where they are in relation to where they want to be. The question to me isn’t about grades, it’s about having a deep understanding of what the grade represents.

As we continued through her conference, one student spoke deeply about her goal – to play midfielder on the JV soccer team. Why? “It’s the hardest position – you need to defend and attack — you need to have endurance. You need to be a well-rounded player.” She knew exactly where she needed to grow to achieve her goal. It gave me pause of how I can support students in speaking with the same clarity in other areas.  As we continue with our curricular review and build shared clarity around strategies for communicating learning targets to students, I’m confident we’ll see consistent dialogue from the soccer field to the science lab about what it takes to advocate for learning. Our school-wide goal around assessment is intended to foster exactly this culture.

It is exciting to watch  practices emerge across the Graded campus, and hear thinking percolate about the importance of reflection as noted in a number of PLC Groups. Like the middle school students, I, too am tackling going beyond what I do – to consider what it means, both to the organization and to my own practice.

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.