What Kind of Students is Your School Producing?

One of my favorite sources for intellectual challenge is the Modern Learners website — a home for provocative content being created and curated by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon.  This week, I stumbled across a bit from Will that introduced me to the thinking of Seymour Papert — an MIT mathematician and longtime leader in efforts to use digital tools to reimagine learning spaces.

Specifically, Will spotlights a quote that came from a speech given by Papert way back in 1998.

Here it is:

(click here to view quote and image credit on Flickr)


In one concise statement, Papert neatly summarizes the outcome that our schools should care the most about.

I can’t think of a single parent, principal, policymaker or pundit that would disagree with the notion that successful schooling results in students who know how to act when faced with situations that they haven’t been specifically prepared for.  More importantly, I can’t think of a single student who would struggle in life after learning how to act confidently and competently in the face of uncertainty.

But here’s the hitch:  So little about what we prioritize in schools prepares students for unexpected situations.  Instead, “being prepared” means learning the same sets of basic facts that our parents and grandparents learned.  Our lessons — and the tools that we use to rank and sort both schools and students — almost always emphasize knowing, not doing.

Stew in all of that for a minute:  If producing students who are ready to act regardless of the circumstances really WAS a priority, how would your instructional and assessment practices have to change?



Related Radical Reads:

Here’s What We Have to Stop Pretending

Where Have All the Beautiful Questions Gone?

What if Schools Created a Culture of DO instead of a Culture of KNOW?

Three Traits of the Best Principals.

Let me start with a simple statement of truth:  I am JUST a classroom teacher.  

I’ve never worked as a building principal — and my knowledge of the principalship is limited to tons of reading, tons of conversations, and my first-hand experience working with tons of different principals and assistant principals during my 20+ years of teaching.

What I DO know is that regardless of their unique sets of strengths and weaknesses, the best principals that I’ve ever worked for shared three traits:

They made me feel hopeful:  Whether pundits, politicians or policymakers are willing to admit it or not, education has been gutted in the past fifteen years.  Teachers are constantly asked to “do more with less” even as the students in our classrooms become more socially, economically and academically diverse.  Making matters worse, we live in an era when the competence of classroom teachers is openly questioned at every turn.  Criticism of educators — and public education — is now the norm, rather than the exception to the rule in our country and in our communities.

All of this leaves me completely overwhelmed — and I often catch myself questioning my own ability and the ability of my colleagues to tackle what appear to be insurmountable challenges.  In those moments, the best principals have always stepped in with confidence and reminded me of the different ways that our school HAS made a difference.  By consistently pointing out our victories — rather than continually fueling the narrative of our failures — they build my confidence in our organization’s capacity.

The result: I’m willing to be hopeful, too.  And that hope might just convince me to move forward no matter how difficult our task appears.

They were knowledgable and reflective:  As unfair as the constant criticism of public education can be, the truth is that our schools really DO have to change.  The students in our classrooms — regardless of their academic or economic standing — need us now more than ever simply because they are entering an increasingly competitive world where the skills that define success remain poorly defined.

Arguments about just HOW schools need to change are everywhere — and the best principals I’ve ever worked for read them all.  They were voracious consumers of ideas — with stacks of books on the corners of their desks, feed readers full of blogs written by practitioners actively reimagining teaching and learning, and social streams loaded with provoctive thinkers.  Better yet, the best principals I’ve ever worked for were always ready to start a conversation with ME about something that they had read.

The result: I was willing to believe in the direction that my principal was setting for our school because I knew that there was clear and current thinking behind every decision.  It is just easier to believe in someone who has spent a ton of time reading and reflecting on the changing nature of education.

Finally, they created conditions that made my work doable:  While I’ve always loved principals that instilled hope in me and who were knowledgeable and reflective, I’ve also worked for principals who talked a good game about just what our school was capable of but did little to make my work more doable.  They were heavy on inspiration and information, but light on action — and they lost credibility with me in no time.

There’s nothing worse than cheerful optimism as a reform strategy.

The best principals paired their enthusiasm and awareness with a commitment to using their organizational authority to create the kinds of practical structures and opportunities that facilitated learning.  Whether that meant simple things like freeing teachers from supervisory duties so they could spend more time working with struggling students or more complicated things like finding extra money for tools and technologies that made it possible to quickly and easily track student progress, every action served as tangible proof that I had a powerful ally on my side.

The result: I was willing to push my own practice because I knew that there was a good chance that my principal would find a way to make new actions and behaviors possible.

Does any of this make sense?  More importantly, what traits do YOU look for in the best principals?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Three Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from Sherpas


Note to Principals: You Can’t Keep Ignoring Social Spaces

For the past several years, I’ve been pushing principals to build a presence for their schools in social spaces like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram simply because social spaces tend to be spaces where our primary customers — parents and students — spend a heck of a lot of time.  If you believe that communicating effectively with the people that you serve matters, then you simply CAN’T keep ignoring the tools that the people you serve are using for communication.

Need more proof that sharing in social spaces matters?  

Then consider the fact that 63 percent of the respondents to a recent Pew Research Center on Journalism and Media survey reported turning to Twitter and Facebook for news “outside the realm of friends and family” — a percentage that has grown significantly since 2013, that cuts across demographic and age groupings, and that will only continue to grow as both services develop new features that make it even easier for users to consume news from their sites.

Think about that for a minute, would you?  

Can we really rely on weekly automated phone calls, static homepages on the web, or monthly “From the Desk of the Principal” newsletters to communicate with our communities when our communities are growing increasingly comfortable finding news in the kinds of spaces that we have traditionally avoided?  Don’t we lose valuable opportunities to tell the story of our successes when we cede our messaging presence in social spaces to other news sources?

One of the easiest ways to tap into the messaging power of social spaces is to establish — and then encourage everyone in your community to start using — a school and/or district hashtag.

The beauty of using hashtags to organize your school/district presence in social spaces is that every stakeholder can add to the conversation without needing access to specific social media accounts.  That facilitates sharing.  School personnel can post traditional communications — calendar updates, school closing information, details on special programming or deadlines — just as easily as classroom teachers can post pictures of cool classroom happenings or community organizations can post links to resources that parents and students might find useful.

Need some examples of the role that hashtags can play in your school’s messaging efforts?

Then check out this handout — which encourages readers to reflect on the content being shared by four different schools and districts who are using hashtags as a communication tool.  Doing so will give you a better sense for how hashtags can be used to create a positive presence for your school in the kinds of spaces that our audiences have already embraced.



Related Radical Reads:

Simple Truth: Hashtags Can Save You Time

Five Twitter Hashtags that Can Save School Leaders Time

Who Wants to Play Hashtag Bracketology

Communicating and Connecting with Social Media [Excerpt]

Presentation Materials: Solution Tree #atplc Institute

Over the next few days, I’ll be working alongside the super motivated educators at Solution Tree’s PLC Institute in Louisville.  The goal for most of the participants will be to find ways to polish their collaborative practices in order to help kids learn.  Together, teams from individual schools will study everything from the core beliefs that support learning communities to the nuts and bolts of making collaboration more efficient and effective.

I’ll be delivering three different breakout sessions at the Institutes.  Here are the materials for each session.  Hope you find them useful:


How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC

For professional learning teams, collaboration can be nothing short of demanding.  Developing – and then organizing – collections of shared materials, making important decisions, and communicating with colleagues across grade levels and departments often requires additional time that classroom teachers just don’t have.

As a result, many teachers question whether or not the costs of coordination outweigh the benefits of collaboration in Professional Learning Communities.  In this session, full-time classroom teacher and Solution Tree author Bill Ferriter introduces participants to a range of free digital tools that 21st Century learning teams are using to make their collective work more efficient – and therefore, more rewarding.  Participants will also discuss ways that tools that facilitate collaboration can be used to make differentiated instruction doable.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Student Wiki Sample

Zaption Sample

Student VoiceThread Sample

Using Digital Tools Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitating collaboration between teachers.

BYOD Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitiating learning in a BYOD classroom.

Teaching the iGeneration Quick Guide – A series of tools for facilitating learning with technology.

#kinderchat and @mattBgomez – Oftentimes, participants in this session want to see examples of digital tools being used in primary classrooms.  The best source for those examples is the #kinderchat hashtag and Texas Educator Matt Gomez.

For more information on using digital tools to facilitate collaboration or classroom instruction, check out Bill’s newest books — How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC and Teaching the iGeneration (2nd Edition).


Small Schools and Singletons:  Structuring Meaningful Professional Learning Teams for Every Teacher

The PLC concept resonates with most educators, but making collaborative learning work in small schools or for singleton teachers can be challenging.

In this session, participants will explore four different models for creating meaningful professional learning teams for singletons and teachers in small schools:  The creation of vertical teams studying skills that cross content areas, designing class loads that allow teachers to teach the same subjects, using electronic tools to pair teachers with peers working in the same subject area, and using student work behaviors as an area of focus for nontraditional learning teams.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Sample of a Student Survey as Common Assessment


Our Students CAN Assess Themselves

In the spring of 2012, Canadian educational change expert Dean Shareski issued a simple challenge on his blog when he wrote, “So I’m wondering if you’re ready to let your students assess themselves. Not as some experiment where you end up grading them apart but where you really give the reigns over to them?”

Dean’s challenge resonated with Solution Tree author and sixth grade teacher Bill Ferriter, who had always been dissatisfied with the grade-driven work being done in his classroom.  This session will introduce participants to the tangible steps that Bill has taken to integrate opportunities for self-assessment into his classroom as a result of Dean’s challenge.

Download Session Slides

Download Session Handouts

Download Editable Copies of Materials and Activities

Download REVISED Unit Overview Sheet

Download Student Sample of Unit Overview Sheet


And don’t forget:  You can read all of my PLC related posts on the Radical by clicking on this link.  


Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs

Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch

These are OUR Kids

More on My Beef with the Term “Instructional Leader.”

Dear Principals of Professional Learning Communities,

Can I push your thinking for a minute?

I’d like to suggest that learning teams — NOT school principals — should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs.  I’d also like to suggest that using titles like “the instructional leader” to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.

Here’s why:  In the best professional learning communities, teams of teachers relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning.  They design and develop ways to measure the impact of their instructional decisions and then take action based on what they have learned.  Their primary goal is to amplify the best teaching strategies on their hallway in the interest of seeing every student succeed.

On high-functioning teams, questions are asked, new ideas are tried, evidence is gathered, and changes are made over and over again in ongoing cycles of collective inquiry.  Teachers begin to trust each other and to tap into the professional know-how of their peers whenever they are struggling with a genuine problem of practice.  They take a “these are our kids” approach to their work — constantly sharing and reflecting and revising together.

That intellectual symbiosis — the genuine sense that every teacher can benefit from the individual expertise of their collaborative partners — is the pinnacle of PLC work.  Teams who reach that level of collaborative development go beyond merely surviving the school year.  They THRIVE, energized and empowered by the realization that they can tackle anything together.  

Leadership around instruction on high-functioning learning teams happens organically every time that individual teachers step forward to help their colleagues solve a particularly knotty problem.  What’s more, high-functioning teams learn to lean on the right leaders at the right time and to use the power of relationships to influence the practices of their peers in deep and meaningful ways.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I am NOT trying to diminish the role that principals play in the success of schoolhouses.  In fact, I would go as far as to argue that nothing matters MORE to the success of the school than the actions taken by principals.

On top of the never-ending list of managerial tasks that fall on your shoulders — things like garnering support in the broader community, monitoring upgrades to the physical plant, and making sure that the busses run on time — you help to articulate a core mission and vision for your building.  You provide direction by ensuring that every action aligns with that core mission and vision.  You build capacity in teachers — both as individuals and as teams — to tackle the kind of collaborative study of practice that matters.  You serve as an intellectual sounding board when teachers and teams stagnate.  You hold people accountable for doing more and being better than they ever thought possible.

ALL of that work is powerful and important and the key to the development of high-functioning PLCs, but I REALLY DO worry about the consequences of calling it “instructional leadership.”  

Why should teachers believe in the power of collaboration around practice if leadership around instruction — the fundamental task of classroom teachers and learning teams  — is officially given to the principal?  Similarly, why would we believe in the expertise of our colleagues when formal titles suggest that leadership around instruction is the responsibility of the principal instead of practitioners?

In fact, I’d go as far as to argue that the best PLC principals don’t even want to be “THE instructional leader” of their schools.  

Instead, they want to create the conditions that enable teachers and learning teams to provide instructional leadership to one another — and by constantly sending the message that expertise around practice belongs to practitioners instead of principals, they leave their learning teams and teachers empowered to accept responsibility for finding ways to meet the needs of every learner.

Does this make any sense?

I guess what I am trying to say is that if you want teacher teams to truly believe in their power — and their professional obligation — to influence practice, remind them that THEY are the instructional experts.

Whaddya’ think?


Related Radical Reads:

My Longstanding Beef with Instructional Leaders

What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

Three Lessons School Leaders can Learn from Sherpas