Category Archives: PD

Does Your School have an “Avoid at All Costs” List?

A few weeks back, I shared the story of Carl, a principal friend of mine who was frustrated with the pockets of innovation in his building.

While he knew that good work was happening at all grade levels and in all subject areas in his school, that work was inconsistent.  Some teachers were running with technology integration but ignoring a school-wide reading program.  Others had made PBIS work on their teams or in their classrooms, but did little to integrate the 4Cs into their day-to-day instruction.

My push back to Carl was simple:  Pockets of innovation are almost always evidence of a lack of focus in a school building.  Carl’s faculty wasn’t being resistant by letting important school-wide initiatives fall by the wayside. They just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to make several different significant changes at one time and had decided to prioritize some practices while tabling others.

That’s a survival strategy, y’all.

So what can YOU do to avoid falling into the same trap?  Start by stealing an idea from Warren Buffet and developing an Avoid at All Cost list!

Here’s how:

1).  Make a list of 25 things that your school is currently working on — or that you anticipate working on over the next few years.

Include everything that matters to you and/or your district.  Are you rolling out new devices?  Has your state mandated new diagnostic testing for students in specific grade levels?  Are the NGSS science standards pushing their way into conversations in your district?  Is your school tinkering with intervention or enrichment periods?  Write it all down.  And then have your teachers review it to be sure you haven’t inadvertently missed anything.

2). Circle the five most important items that you find on your current list of projects, programs and priorities.  

Are some of the projects, programs and priorities listed in step one more important than others?  Why?  How do you know?  Which ones are valued by classroom teachers?  Which will have the most direct benefit on student learning?  Are some mandates that can’t be ignored?  Do some have the support of the communities that you serve?  Is your school uniquely suited to implement some initiatives over others?  Structure conversations — within learning teams, during leadership meetings, with parents and students — to get feedback about your five priorities.

3). Invest EVERYTHING into moving forward on your five most important priorities.

Now truly invest in your priorities.  Every purchase that you make should have a direct connection to one of your five priorities.  Every scheduling decision that you make should be tied to one of your five priorities.  Every faculty meeting that you have, every professional development session that you provide, and every message that you share with your parents, teachers and students should focus on one of your five priorities.  Practice what Doug Reeves calls lifeguard leadership and keep your attention on the things that really matter.

4). Turn the remaining 20 items that you have been working on into an Avoid at All Costs list.

The real mistake that schools make when trying to drive change is focusing on too many different projects all at the same time.  That makes every single one of the remaining items on the list you generated in step one a potential pitfall.  Sure, they matter — but when everything becomes a priority, nothing gets done.

So make it clear to everyone in your school community that those items are to be avoided at all costs until the five priorities you settled on in step two have become a part of the fabric of your school.  No matter how much potential you see in the remaining 20 items brainstormed in your original list, you have to push them completely aside if you are truly setting priorities.

You see what’s happening here, don’t you?  

The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward isn’t just identifying a small handful of priorities.  The key to keeping your school focused and moving forward is identifying a small handful of priorities AND actively pushing against everything else that threatens to draw your collective time and attention away from the things that matter most.  Developing an Avoid at All Costs list can help you to do just that.


Related Radical Reads:

Pockets of Innovation = Lack of Focus

School Leadership is a lot Like Lifeguarding

How Clear is YOUR Vision?

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

What are You Doing to Encourage Curiosity in Your TEACHERS?

In a response to my recent bit on the importance of encouraging curiosity in the classroom, an undergraduate education student going by LaurenUSA made an important point that I hadn’t considered.  She wrote:

“Ironically, I also see that I will have to use my own curiosity and creativity alike to come up with the actual assignments that will engage students in their own curiosity! However, I feel that as an educator this will be an important part of my job.”

That’s legit, isn’t it?  Learning spaces that value interesting questions over correct answers are most likely led by curious teachers.


(Original Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock)

But here’s the hitch:  We do next to nothing in most schools to encourage curiosity in our faculties.  Instead, we develop rigid pacing guides and require everyone to work through them in the same order without question.  We provide highly structured sets of instructional materials that require little in the way of imagination to be delivered.  We set predefined learning requirements for professional development that everyone is expected to master regardless of their current levels of experience or expertise.

Sadly, learning for the adults in our school buildings is rarely inspiring or creative or self-directed.  Teachers aren’t free to explore and experiment their way to new discoveries.  Our work is heavily governed by decisions made by people in positions of power.  If we want to wonder or imagine, we do that on our own time and our own dime.  Curiosity becomes a subversive act — a risk taken by those who simply aren’t satisfied with the scripts that we are expected to follow.

Can we REALLY be surprised, then, when those same practices define today’s classrooms?

Why would teachers who are rarely encouraged to take intellectual risks make intellectual risk-taking a priority in their classrooms?  How can we expect teachers who spend their careers learning to follow paths created by others to design learning experiences that facilitate multiple paths to mastery?  When will we realize that every choice that we make for the teachers in our buildings sends explicit messages about what we value as a learning organization — and that the work happening in our classrooms is a mirror reflection of the work happening in our professional development sessions?

So here’s a challenge to every principal and district level professional developer in Radical Nation:  Start your next school year by asking individual teams of teachers to develop sets of three or four learning-centered questions that they are curious about.  Then, commit regular time during faculty meetings and inservice professional development days to the exploration of those questions.  Ask teams to share what they are learning.  Push them to take their questions further.  Celebrate every discovery regardless of how small those discoveries may seem to you.

You will have to be patient and prepared to provide differentiated support to the teams in your building.  Teachers — like students — haven’t had many opportunities to set their own direction.  Some will struggle to get started.  Others will stumble along the way.  All will benefit from targeted and timely suggestions about new directions worth considering AND your ability to marshal resources and opportunities uniquely suited to individual needs.

I promise that there will be moments where you question whether anyone is learning and whether the time that you are investing in the entire process is “producing tangible results” or “having a direct impact on student learning.”  In those moments, remind yourself that the outcome that matters most ISN’T testing results.  Instead, it is giving teachers first-hand experiences with the excitement that comes from asking and answering interesting questions.

The simple truth is that teachers who see learning as a joyful act are more likely to create joyful learning experiences for their students.




Related Radical Reads:

Is Learning a Joyful Act in YOUR School?

Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

The Teacher Professional Development Fail


Check Out These Three New Radical Reads!

With another school year coming to an end and summer right around the corner, my guess is that at least a FEW members of Radical Nation are starting to stock up on professional reads to challenge their practice during one of the best times to dig deep into new instructional ideas.  Reflection is always easier in July, isn’t it?

To that end, I wanted to introduce you to the three new books that I’ve had published this month.  They are all extensions of the content that I share here on the Radical — so if you dig my blog, give ’em a look:

Creating Purpose-Driven Learning Experiences (80 pages):  Creating Purpose-Driven Learning Experiences makes a simple argument:  If we want to create highly engaged learning spaces, we need to center our studies around real-world problems.  The text details the work that my students do to fight world poverty and to raise awareness about the amount of sugar in the foods that we eat on a regular basis.  A quick read that you can finish in about an hour, Creating Purpose-Driven Learning Experiences will challenge you to give students the chance to make a tangible difference in their worlds while simultaneously mastering the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

Teaching the iGeneration, Second Edition (200 pages):  One of the messages that I push in every conversation about preparing today’s kids for tomorrow’s world is that our work needs to center around the kinds of essential skills that define successful individuals.  In this updated version Teaching the iGeneration, I introduce readers to best practices for helping students to master five of these skills:  Managing and evaluating information, building knowledge through collaborative dialogue, being persuasive — both verbally and visually, and solving challenging problems together.  I also introduce readers to a set of core digital tools to faciliate these kinds of core behaviors in our classrooms.

How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC (72 pages):  I haven’t hidden the fact that few opportunities have changed me more as a practitioner than the chance that I’ve had to work as member of a professional learning community.  I am a better teacher because I am open to the challenge of my peers.  But collaboration hasn’t ever been easy because it depends on sharing, coordination and collective action — practices that can be time-consuming and inefficient.  In How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC, I introduce readers to a set of tools and services that can faciliate the core behaviors of collaborative groups. My central message is a simple one:  Digital tools can make collaboration easier for everyone.

If you are a Prime shopper or a Kindle user, I’m sure that all three titles are also available on Amazon.  Just remember that if you search on Amazon for Teaching the iGeneration, be sure to pick up the second edition!  Chances are that they are still selling the first edition as well.

You can also purchase individual chapters of each title from my Author’s Page on Slicebooks.  That might be a great way to get a taste of all three titles.

And a quick favor to ask:  If you read any of these titles, I hope you will stop back here to the Radical to let me know what you think!  I’m CONSTANTLY refining my own thinking about teaching and learning — and your feedback on my ideas plays a central role in who I am as a practitioner.




 Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs

My Kids, a Cause and Our Classroom Blog

#edtech Reflections for Preservice Teachers

Don’t Mistake Simple Sharing for Collective Action.

In a recent article titled Meeting the Challenge of Infusing Relevant PD in Schools, Lyle Hamm and Kevin Cormier argue that professional learning communities — which encourage colleagues to relentlessly question their practice together in service of student learning — often fail as a professional development strategy primarily because they require peers to come together for weekly face-to-face meetings with one another:

Imagine being an educator and getting up each week during a Canadian winter and travelling into a PLC session for a 7:00 a.m. meeting prior to preparing to teach all day. Or perhaps even more exhausting for educators is attending a session for one hour each week after they have finished teaching all day. This adds minimal value to the pedagogy of the educator; instead, it potentially creates mild to major anxiety and toxicity among staff and affects the school culture negatively.

Hamm and Cormier go on to argue that the bulk of teacher learning can be done by facilitating digital interactions and experiences in online spaces — which allow participants to interact with new ideas anytime and from anywhere:

In this professional learning format, the learner is able to continuously build their educational and networking capacities by reading over professional development content and articles. They may contribute to and read discussions where many participants engaged in the topic share ideas and experiences. Key ideas can then be brought back to their own schools to share with colleagues and additional community educational stakeholders such as parents.

As a guy who has spent the better part of a decade working in a school structured as a professional learning community AND using digital spaces to facilitate my professional growth, I see two points of concern in Hamm and Cormier’s thinking:

Digital spaces facilitate sharing and networking — but sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices:

Hamm and Cormier are right to suggest that any teacher working in any subject area and driven by any professional interest can find information that will challenge their thinking in digital spaces.  In fact, that’s what I value the MOST about the learning that I do online.  The peers that I learn from in places like Twitter or Google+ or on the blogs that I follow in my feed reader are always sharing interesting content that I can access easily whenever I have a few free minutes and an Internet connection.

But sharing and networking are entry-level collaborative practices, y’all — akin to nothing more than knowledge-building in our classrooms.

Would we settle for learning experiences that failed to give students sustained opportunities to wrestle deeply or to test their ideas or to be intellectually challenged by their peers?  Would we be satisfied if our students were never asked to systematically reflect on who they are as learners or to back up their notions with evidence collected over time?  Then why should we settle for learning experiences that fail to give teachers the same opportunities.

Now don’t get me wrong:  Deep and meaningful learning done in partnership with thoughtful peers and sustained over long periods of time is technically doable using nothing but digital tools.  Determined colleagues really ARE joining together in regular Google Hangouts or Voxer conversations or Facebook groups to reflect around problems of practice together.

But the truth is that deep and meaningful learning in social spaces isn’t nearly as easy as simple sharing.  And as a result, simple sharing has become the most common pattern of participation for educators living and learning online. PLCs done well, on the other hand, are designed to move teacher teams beyond simple sharing and into careful reflection.

The most valuable collaborative partners are those who share deep contextual understandings and who develop trust through ongoing personal interactions:

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Karen Sobel-Lojeski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Technology and Society at Stony Brook University, introduces readers to the concept of virtual distance — defined as the social disconnect that can develop between peers who connect primarily through screens:

Today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them. Without a panoramic perspective, it’s difficult to form a sense of common purpose.

In fact, when a seemingly intelligent screen is the only frame in sight, people often default to decoding messages based on what they know, filling the contextual void using their own experience to color in the blank backgrounds behind their co-workers. But this can create distorted perceptions about other people’s values and beliefs, causing collaboration conundrums.

Sobol-Lojeski goes on to document the impact that virtual distance can have on collaborative efforts, noting that in organizations with high levels of virtual distance:

  • Innovative behaviors fall by over 90%
  • Trust declines by over 80%
  • Cooperative and helping behaviors go down by over 80%
  • Role and goal clarity decline by 75%
  • Project success drops by over 50%
  • Organizational commitment and satisfaction decline by more than 50%

Organizational commitment built around a common purpose is fundamental to successful collaboration in the professional learning community model.  When done well, trust and innovation and helping behaviors become the norm in PLCs because peers KNOW that they can rely on one another as they work towards a clearly defined vision of a better future for the students and school that they share.

More importantly, teachers working in PLCs receive targeted support from one another built on contextual understandings that peers in digital spaces can’t always provide.  I am uniquely suited to lend a hand to the guy working across the hall simply because I know his personal and professional strengths.  I also know the strengths of our students and the system that we work in; I know the stated and unstated expectations of the community that we serve; and I know exactly which resources that we have available to us.

Once again, don’t get me wrong:  There ARE tangible steps that can be taken to reduce the virtual distance between peers who work together primarily in digital spaces — but without careful attention, peers working together in digital spaces quickly become nothing more than fellow participants instead of collaborative partners.

The truth is that I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn from online.

The content and resources that they share are influential, forcing me to rethink my practices.  What’s more, connections to peers in other places provide me with a valuable lens for evaluation and comparison.  It’s easier to determine if I am on the right professional path when I can get a transparent look at the paths that partners in other places are taking.

And after investing thousands of hours adding comments to blogs, starting conversations in places like Twitter, and making time for face-to-face interactions at national and international conferences, I really do have a handful of peers that I know mostly through digital spaces who add as much to my learning as the peers I work with in person.  By nurturing those relationships over time in much the same way that I nurture relationships with learning partners in my school, I’ve eliminated the collaborative struggles caused by virtual distance.

But if I am being totally honest, the learning that I do in digital spaces still remains largely serendipitious instead of systematic.

I stumble across ideas that add value to my learning almost every day — but the value that they add rarely changes the work that I am doing right now.  Like the proverbial seeds strewn in a field, some of the ideas that I find today will take root months down the road.  Others will wither away and die almost immediately.  And a rare few will sprout as soon as I write my next set of lessons.  I know that I am learning whenever I am online — but I don’t often feel like I am truly studying my practice with intentionality.  My digital interactions are an essential complement to — but not a perfect replacement for — the work that I am doing with my learning team.

And that’s why I’ll never walk away from the peers that I learn with in person.

The simple truth is that they have a unique ability to challenge me as I struggle to meet the ever-changing demands of my classroom and my community.  The support that they can provide is truly “just in time” because they are using the same resources to deliver the same curriculum at the same time to students with the same sets of strengths and weaknesses.  What’s more, we have a history of interactions and experiences that we can use to inform our actions and our decisions.

I’m not suggesting that digital tools and spaces can’t facilitate LEARNING.  I’m just suggesting that when done well, PLCs facilitate COLLECTIVE ACTION — and collective action is the REAL key to moving any school or district forward.

Does this make any sense?  


Related Radical Reads:

Five Guys that I Love Learning Alongside

So Much More than a Personal Learning Network

The Power of PLCs