PD for an Entire Division: Part 4 – What Did We Learn?

After sixteen different Data Days with teachers from Grades K-12, what did we all learn? As I have stated in previous posts, learning is personal, contextual and complex. All I can do is consider this question from my own perspective and through the observations, comments and follow up questions we received as a result of these days. We had goals and we had lived out experiences. How well did they reflect each other and what are some of the things we figured out? Here are some realizations that come to mind:

  • Elementary teachers teach differently from high school teachers. No one was surprised by this but it is interesting to see data to back up your perceptions. In grades 1-6, 100% of teachers report reading to their students, while 62% read to them in grades 7-12. In grades 1-6, 94% of teachers explicitly teach learning strategies and this number drops to 54% in grades 7-12. In grades 1-6, 60% of teachers invite students to assess and reflect on their work and in 7-12 this jumps to 82%. We compiled data across grade levels and this was informative enough to allow us to see where we still need to target professional learning opportunities. I recommend this particular activity to other divisions.
  • Teachers found the Data Days to be positive, on the whole. In fact 126/150 teachers in grades 7-12 reported feeling energized, optimistic, validated and challenged after their Data Day. 20/150 left the workshops feeling overwhelmed and frustrated and 4/150 had no comment. Overall, this speaks to the professionalism of teachers and their willingness to learn.
  •  Data is really interesting. Anytime we look at data, it invites us to ask questions. One of our main assertions was that we weren’t trying to come up with all the answers by exploring our demographic, perceptual and academic data; we were trying to ask the right questions. It is only through asking the right questions that we can hope to provide responses that will have an impact. Anytime we engaged in data throughout the day, we had robust discussions. Patterns and trends are compelling.
  • We have a tendency to add on instead of release. Without judgement, I assert that I found it very interesting how strongly we work to defend our current practices. It is hard to explore the idea that we may be engaging in instructional approaches that may not be giving us the results we hope for. I, too, am guilty of this. So, when we were exploring that huge list of instructional approaches, every group found a way to justify most practices. I think it makes sense that things are contextual and that how we engage in practices impacts their success. However, I also know that we try to do too much and do not target our approaches enough based on student need (academic, engagement, skill set). So, this is a conversation that will continue into the future, no doubt.
  • Revisiting ideas again and again is essential for learning to occur. It is no different than in a classroom. We know we have explained something but it just didn’t sink in on the other end. We know we have discussed certain ideas but the person listening wasn’t positioned to apply that learning just yet. So, revisiting terminology during the triple Venn activity served a strong purpose to re-engage in ideas. We realized there were terms we regularly use that not everyone was hearing in the same way. Building a shared understanding and a shared language is essential for a system.
  • The physics article was the perfect route into a discussion about teaching and learning. Teachers behave just the same as their students and a simulation is a nice way to make this visible. It also helps us connect the notion of learning and stamina to emotional responses and pre-conditioning to certain activities. By giving the teachers an article at a level that was challenging for all (even our physics people), we forced them to activate their own learning strategies in a highly visible way. We saw their learning as it was occurring and documented it. This helped us show the power of anecdotal documentation and it also helped us explain the importance of activating highly able students in the same way – in order for these students to keep growing, they need to be challenged to use strategies in new ways.
  • It seemed to be helpful  to think about metacognition in the contexts we were facilitating. We have been talking about this for some time, but it was really clear on this day, for many, that inviting students to explore the thinking behind what they are doing is the key to growing learning in a responsive way. The Learning Strategy poster was photographed and discussed over lunch hour on many days, which led me to believe it was a helpful way to think about interventions and feedback. The stack of learning strategy cards was also requested by many (we sent it to everyone) and we were really happy to hear teachers imagining ways to use the cards, both on their own and with students in all subject areas. We think this is a pretty important piece of reflection, feedback, formative assessment , interventions, RtI, and daily learning experiences.
  • Exploring data and why students are struggling is something we need to find time for more often. In some of our sessions, we asked how often the teachers sit back and look at the learning of students by outcome or by strategy. The majority of teachers acknowledged doing this very little. We understand- teachers are busy. Really busy. However, many thanked us for the time to really explore their students in this way. This leads us to believe that sometimes, in order to be pro-active and build really good scaffolds and supports (or withdraw them when students are ready), we have to look at students with this diagnostic lens.
  • It is a delicate balance to provide support but also build independence. I read a really good article called Are You Scaffolding or Rescuing? by Terry Thompson. It speaks to our discussions about equipping students with the strategies to be successful but also knowing when students are ready to make some of these decisions on their own.
  • Small group instruction in a whole group setting requires finesse. When we discussed small group time with our grades 1-6 teachers, it wasn’t quite as huge a stretch as with the 7-12 teachers but every group had to do significant thinking and discussion about how to structure classes to facilitate this idea. Some people shared their work with Daily 5 and Guided Reading. Others talked about their center work or work in classrooms as co-teachers. However, translating these processes to a grade 12 physics class (for example) wasn’t easy. We also had to clarify that small group instruction is different from flexible grouping. The role of the teacher is different in each. Also, it is really important that when the teacher is working with a targeted group, the rest of the class is reinforcing skills using processes they are already familiar with. This is the only way to ensure all students are engaged in meaningful work all at the same time and won’t interrupt the teacher while they are working with a smaller group. We discussed essential skills in each subject areas that could be practiced during set times, so interventions could be directed more easily in a predictable fashion by the teacher.
  • Providing enrichment for those students who are ready requires consideration and works better when we anticipate it occurring. Our discussions around exploring outcomes with enriched understanding took different flavours depending on the grade levels we were working with. Our grades 1-6 teachers were concerned that they were not structuring the opportunity into their learning and assessment experiences. Once we clarified that the EU level on our rubrics wasn’t about “impressing the teacher” or “blowing the teacher’s socks off” but rather was more about showing they had walked through the outcome door with confidence and were ready to explore the landscape beyond, teachers began to consider how this could look. In grades 7-12, the discussion was more around why so many students were achieving this level and whether or not our assessment was authentic. They also seemed concerned with the marks conversation piece and in finding ways to ensure that if students were achieving EU, then it was based on solid time spent exploring the outcomes more deeply to this degree. I had several follow-up conversations with teachers about this very point.
  • Elementary teachers have a homeroom, which means increased flexibility. It is really hard for 7-12 teachers to explore cross-curricular learning and building in structures that invite flexibility when they are tied to one hour a day with a new set of students each time. On top of that, curricula is really demanding and all teachers are feeling the pressure of “getting it done.” That kind of mindset means that reflecting on responsive instruction and providing interventions feels like a way to guarantee you will never “get through your curriculum.” These factors make solutions more challenging for sure.
  • Pre and formative assessments are essential for responsive instruction and timely and specific feedback. You simply cannot target instructional approaches if you don’t authentically know how students are doing. You cannot engage students in goal setting and reflection if they don’t know how they are doing. Assessment as learning does not yet have enough emphasis in classrooms. Many teachers acknowledged this as an area for growth in their reflection forms. Everyone agreed that students are challenged to reflect well and set meaningful goals but in order for this to get better, teachers have to work hard at helping students be a part of the assessment experience. In the past, we have spent too much time talking about the number of formative assessments we should be doing and not enough time thinking about what these assessments tell us and the students with whom we work. Formative assessment cannot be a check-box in a  list of “to do” items. Educators have to be clear about the purpose and the information it provides and base decisions on the information they get. I have written a more in depth blog post about this previously called, “Assessment, inferences and making thinking visible.”
  • Learning strategies are the destination and content is the vehicle. This idea, shared in the Data Days, was one that seemed to give much food for thought to participants. Many people approached me and wanted to discuss this idea in one of three ways: 1) They agreed completely and wanted to express relief at having this stated 2) They have always felt this was true and wondered when our curriculum would catch up 3) They found it hard to understand how this could be the case, and still “get done” their curriculum. No matter the response, it was a great catalyst statement for discussion and I am quite sure we will be talking about this in education for some time. We still have some things to figure out.
  • Teachers are committed, caring and enthusiastic about their work and their students. On our reflection form, the final prompt was “My students are…” There was not a statement made on a single teacher’s form that wasn’t positive. Teachers feel very strongly about their work with students. There are times when we hear contrary stories and opinions but I would challenge anyone to have attended these days and not seen the passion teachers displayed. It is a privilege to work in this profession and I feel incredibly optimistic about learning for our students.

So, there you have it. Our PD for an entire division in four easy blog posts! Needless to say, it was challenging and rewarding all rolled up into one package.

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PD for an Entire Division: Part One – The Set Up

This year, our team made the decision to host one workshop day for every teacher in our school division in order to look at student data. In our most creative moment (enter sarcasm), we called these days Data Days. As I type this introduction, I can almost hear the gasps – PD for everyone? Where every teacher listens to the same thing? More sit and git (or whatever else we call terrible PD these days)? And about data…the dreaded data that hinders real student learning? Well, I know we worked pretty hard to make sure our Data Days were responsive, constructive, applicable and personal. And, while each teacher who has attended will have all sorts of perspectives on our success, I can only offer my perspective and thoughts (based on reflection, feedback, follow up emails and conversations) about why I feel this has been an incredible journey despite the “whole group” beginnings and my own personal anxieties about doing this with any success.

First of all, the planning team consisted of three coordinators – our Early Learning Coordinator, our Continuous Improvement Coordinator and me (Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment). We later added one Superintendent, who shares provincial and divisional data at the beginning of each Data Day. We rounded out the facilitation team with the addition of one learning coordinator at each day as well as one IT support person to ensure we could access our data electronically. Finally, and on a very positive note, our Director and all three Superintendents of Schools have ended up attending days here and there and have immersed themselves in working groups, co-constructing with teachers. While this could have been intimidating for teachers and boring for these leaders, it has turned out to be incredibly positive for shared understanding and relationship-building as well as very supportive to the Early Learning Coordinator and me, who have facilitated each day.

Our team planned and re planned; constructed and deconstructed; researched and reflected for well over a year on how these days would look. We settled on the Pre-K to grade six teachers attending with their grade level cohort group (these groups have spent five years together, working on curriculum, planning, assessment and responsive instruction). Those eight days were held before Christmas and they involved extra reading, observational and environmental data sets acquired from some division-wide assessments we do. In January, we hosted a day with K-6 teachers who do not teach ELA (and likely don’t have a Homeroom). We have since followed up with four days with grades 7-12 teachers, with the last three of their days happening next week. In other words, sixteen days in total when we are done (and from a teacher or administrator’s perspective, one day each). When I consider the learning, discussion and questioning that has occurred as a result, I don’t even know where to start! These days have certainly achieved the goal of acting as a catalyst for further discussion and, for me, have given me so much to be excited about for our students.

In documenting the set up of our Data Days, I should explain the PD journey our Division has travelled since we became a larger school division, amalgamated from several smaller divisions eight years ago. This is important because we could not have had these days work the way they did without the previous ground work. So, some highlights:

We have spent time on PLC development, including developing strong Mission, Vision and Values in each school and as a Division (based on the work on the DuFours).

We worked together to examine renewed curricula with a UbD lens (see Wiggins, McTighe and Ainsworth), unpacking each and every curricular outcome, creating strong Essential Questions and thinking about what student needed to know, do and understand.

We spent years exploring assessment, resulting in an Assessment and Evaluation Handbook (based on the work of many authors, including O’Connor, Wormeli, Cooper, Marzano, etc.). We also created a rubric for every curricular outcome, adopting a consistent four level continuum in every subject at every grade level. We then created possible assessment events for both formative and summative purposes. We also developed our own divisional grade book and new report cards for all grades. We moved to reporting documentation in Pre-K and K, alpha codes in 1-8 and percentages in 9-12 (but still based on outcome-based learning and assessing as well as rubric use for creating responsive instruction and offering timely and specific feedback.)

We created a division website called Curriculum Corner ( http://curriculum.nesd.ca/) where we house all the above work. We share this work with the world as a show of solidarity in our global desire to support learning.

We have spent years exploring differentiated instruction, including embedding DI Facilitators in every school. Our work was based on authors such as Tomlinson, Silver and Hume, among many others. We have since shifted to co-teaching in all schools this year, with workshop days held to support this work.

We have spent three years developing our RtI approaches, forming response teams in every school. We have adopted PBIS as an pro-active approach to behaviour and learning and each school has developed their own Behaviour Matrix. We have also purchased and modified a data tracking system for RtI purposes.

We have worked with early learning educators on creating and nurturing play-based environments, documentation of learning, invitations to learn, etc., focusing on the work of Reggio Emilia.

We have worked with all teachers in grades 1-6 on readin; in particular, administering and responding to the Reading Assessment District and Diagnostic Levelled Reading. We have talked a great deal about learning strategies and metacognition in our many days together as cohort groups.

We have offered optional PD within our division from well-known presenters like Deb Silver, Rick Wormeli, Damien Cooper, Karen Hume, Tom Schimmer, etc. We have also held our own workshops on topics like: Inquiry, Daily 5 and Guided Reading, Creating Responsive Environments, Learning Strategies, Core French, Arts Education, Health Education, FNMI Art and Math, Physical Education, Leadership, Google Ecosystem, I Pads, Digital Storytelling, Digital Citizenship, Anxiety in Students, etc.

Without all this work, we could not have had the conversations we did when we met in groups at our Data Days this year. In my next posts, I will attempt to explain the format of the Data Days, the data sets we were examining, how we tried to make the days personal and constructivist, how we ensured the work was relevant to what teachers would be doing in their classes the very next day, the challenges in our approach and, most importantly, the fantastic learning that resulted for me and those around me.

Answering another co-teaching question

Another great question about co-teaching came my way today: How would you best explain to a teacher the benefits of co-planning, when they have already taught the course several times? I feel very equipped to explain the benefits of co-teaching and co-assessing, but selling the idea of co-planning a previously taught course is still a challenge for me.

Benefits of co-planning when you have taught the course:

 1)    First, we have to define what co-planning means. If it means re-planning everything, then that would be a misunderstanding. This would be a waste of time for both parties. So, co-planning, means coming to a common understanding (ie. Shared and consistent) about the outcomes, including what students need to know, understand and do and determining how students will demonstrate those things. Co-planning might be a discussion about the plan that has already been created. It might be one person asking the other questions for clarification and so on. It does not mean starting from scratch.

2)    Regardless of whether or not the course is new to a teacher or not, what is new in a co-teaching situation is a) the two teachers working together, and most importantly b) the students. You and I both know that no year is ever the same as the one previous, just like raising one of my daughters was nothing like raising the other. So, even the best laid, most detailed and well-considered plans have to be adapted (differentiated) year after year. The advantage of co-teaching is you have two brains, two idea-factories, two personalities to do this, which results in richer plans.

3)    Two teachers means way different opportunities for learning. A unit planned for one teacher will look very different from a unit planned for two. It will have to be adapted to avoid the old “teacher acting like an EA while the other one teaches” syndrome. This is not co-teaching.

 I think the solution is to re-imagine what co-planning can look like AND acknowledge the actual ramifications of having two teaching professionals in the room at the same time. Students need to view these people as equal instructors, supports, partners. If these people, themselves, do not plan together, then this falls apart. I speak from tons of experience. Tons! I have had this succeed and I have had it fail. Every time it failed, we didn’t spend enough time together before we ever started with the students.

Why co-teaching, you ask? Here’s what I am thinking…

I got excited today after receiving an email from a colleague. She shared a concern about something we will be starting next year. Starting in the fall, we are beginning a new co-teaching model where we are assigning staffing and specifically timetabling co-teaching pairings in all of our schools. We are also going to be offering days when the pairings come together at a divisional level, so we can build relationships, plan, reflect on our students and our practice and engage in responsive instruction through co-teaching. I am very excited about this approach and cannot wait to learn alongside others! However, her concern was why we were engaging in co-teaching when class sizes are increasing. Why not just divide the students in half? What is the advantage to having two teachers with a larger class? That is when I got excited…because I had some thoughts about her question:

 1)    Co-teaching invites reflection and uses the model of a critical friend to talk about what happened in the moment, so the soundest instructional choices can be made. Two people means the chances of this happening are exponentially greater.

2)    Students do not always benefit from fewer students in class – fewer sometimes means fewer perspectives, less flexible grouping. We make far too many assumptions that fewer is always better – it always comes down to instruction. Always. More than any other factor (including class size, student demographic, gender ratio). So, co-teaching builds stronger, more responsive teaching.

3)    Two teachers mean greater chances for students to connect with an adult who shares interests, styles, abilities with them. It takes some pressure off trying to be everything to everyone. Teachers can share that role.

4)    Anyone who has been involved in a successful co-teaching relationship will tell you that the synergy is a case of the whole being far greater than the parts. True story.

5)    “Taking extra time” to plan together and concerns from colleagues about the “extra work” involved in co-teaching makes me think something that may not viewed as fair …but it occurs to me that the work we do is not primarily about US and OUR TIME. It is about meeting student needs. We are a service profession and two people serve better than one. I do not believe life should be filled with unreasonable sacrifices for teachers but I also do not believe that their needs always come first. In this case, more work at the front end means less work during and after because students will be more successful, more engaged, more connected and will need fewer re-dos, fewer re-teachings, fewer study halls…well, you get my point. Effective instruction means less time in the end, even though it initially seems like more.

6)    We are still building and learning – building strong planning, building effective instruction, building authentic assessment. When you are building, building together means greater success and the chance to share this success with others. Closing our doors again means we go backward, not forward. We need to keep going forward.

7)    Through pre-assessing, two teachers can identify gaps, work to provide support to understand the missed content and introduce the new outcome, seeing success for that student.  Having two teachers in the classroom has lowered the pupil-teacher ratio and has very much benefited some of the struggling learners, while benefitting the teachers at the same time.

8)    Having two teachers in the classroom allows the opportunity for students who pre-assess as already understanding the intended outcome to show enriched understanding. 

9)    Having two teachers allows teachers to sometimes work in two locations at times – not only reinforcing the concept taught, but providing a platform for the student to take their fully meeting understanding and apply it to real world situations. 

 I am sure there are many more reasons but these are the ones I offered off the top of my head. I consider this step part of a journey – we are continuing from where we are right now. I am quite sure we will learn a great deal together. There will be challenges and there will be celebrations. Most importantly, we are trying something new in order to meet the needs of our students. There just isn’t a higher purpose than that.

Is change always fun?

My thoughts today center on the correlation between the feelings we have about something and our growth in relation to that same thing. Yesterday, I participated in the regular administrative council for our school division and we were talking about change and growth inside schools. We seemed to float between discussion and clarification about desired approaches to teaching and learning (inquiry and engagement in digital literacies to be specific) and how teachers feel about these approaches. We really puzzled over how to encourage experimentation with new approaches when feelings complicate the readiness to try something new. This began to remind me of an experience I had five years ago inside a school in which I was a Differentiated Instruction Facilitator.

At that time, I was working on my thesis and I spent months exploring the connection between motivation and achievement. I was really interested in the results of a survey I had done at the time with 150 middle and high school students. I asked each of them to rate their feelings about school, their classes and learning in general. I then tried to correlate their responses over time, to the work our school was doing in the areas of differentiated instruction, authentic assessment and learning preferences. I was hoping to see an increase in enjoyment and engagement in school once we began to shift our approaches to teaching and learning. It turns out my study was too broad and the variables were too vast to come up with strong enough conclusions. However, this initial study led me to continue to ask students for their feedback in relation to specific teaching strategies we had tried and overall classroom experiences in rooms in which I was working.

I learned a great deal from student feedback in those years as a facilitator and co-teacher. First of all, I learned that students felt very comfortable being honest. At times, it felt like they had been waiting for someone to ask them what they thought. Their responses were often much longer and more detailed than I expected. Most of the time, their feedback positively reinforced the things we had been trying but there was enough negative feedback to take notice at times. I specifically remember the feedback we received in a senior math class when we asked for reflections just prior to the final assessment. They liked having two teachers in the room and really saw the benefit of having several formative assessments throughout the unit. However, they expressed concerns over having to work with their peers so much (complaints centered on others “holding them back”), on spending so much time on misconceptions (we dwelled on things for too long) and on allowing so many questions by students (again, things did not move quickly enough). I remember feeling a little defensive and defeated at the time. I began to question some of the approaches we had adopted. Then we marked their final assessments and the results really surprised us.

We had been working with a combination of students taking the regular programming and five who were initially working on modified programming. Throughout the unit, we began to feel that our differentiated approaches might just allow the modified students to try the regular practice and eventually the regular final assessment. On this final assessment, all students but one wrote the regular assessment and every single student achieved 80% or higher. We were thrilled, of course. However, I was most intrigued by the juxtaposition between these very favourable outcomes and their feelings about the unit. Why, when they had clearly done so much better than on past assessments, did they have negative perceptions of some of our obviously successful approaches? I am sure this relationship can be explained in any number of ways – maybe their feelings would have shifted if we had asked them for reflections after the final assessment. Maybe some of our approaches did not actually contribute to success and these were the approaches they had disliked. Or maybe, because we were relentless in our pursuit of high quality learning, students who had traditionally either “opted out” or achieved by solely “jumping through hoops” perceived our approach as inconvenient to their understanding of “how school works.” Regardless of the reasons, what I learned from that co-teaching experience was that people do not always feel good about the journey through new and challenging learning. Happiness is not always directly correlated to growth and change. When I think about my own personal experiences, I know that I am often very uncomfortable during times of rapid growth. In fact, it is this press against challenging “surfaces” that makes growth happen.

So, this leads me back to yesterday’s discussion at administrative council. I wonder how much we should fret about people feeling ready to try something new? I wonder what the balance is between asking people to dive in and patiently waiting for them to feel good about doing so? I wonder how growth and change happen in systems and in schools? I continue to observe and experiment with these ideas. I am quite sure there is no straightforward answer but I suspect we can learn something about ourselves from watching students learn.