Category Archives: PLCs

The Most Important Interview Question I Bet You’ve Never Asked

Let me start with a simple truth:  There is no single decision made by the principal of a professional learning community more important than who to hire to fill vacancies on individual learning teams.

After all, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty – working with students, influencing colleagues, shaping decisions, impacting public relations – for years to come.  Heck, the teachers that you hire today are likely to be a part of your faculty long after you have left for a new position.  That means every hiring decision that you make has tangible, long-term consequences for the families and the students that you are responsible for protecting and serving.

That’s obvious, right?  Then why is it that the interview questions we ask are so terribly, horribly wrong?

Why do we keep asking candidates to tell us about their experiences with integrating technology into their instruction or their strategies for managing difficult students?  Why are we interested in what a candidate believes about grading, homework or parent communication?  What is the point of asking candidates to tell us more about their unit planning process or to describe the worst lesson that they’ve ever taught?

Every one of those questions is centered around an individual teacher’s decisions and choices – and those individual decisions and choices are almost always made together by collaborative teams in professional learning communities.  When you are hiring for openings in a PLC, you have to recognize that you aren’t trying to fill a roster with remarkable individuals.  Instead, you are trying to build a team full of people who are willing to work together in service of student learning.

So what kind of questions WOULD we ask if we recognized that collective strength mattered more than individual talent? 

That’s easy.  The ONLY interview question that you have to ask to identify the best candidate for a position in a professional learning community is, “Describe a time when your instruction was deeply influenced by a colleague.”

At that point, ANY candidate that you are considering should be able to light up and tell you about a moment in their professional career where collaboration made them stronger.  Maybe it was a time when they developed a series of lessons that they refined and polished with a peer.  Maybe it was a time when a learning partner challenged a practice that they believed in.  Maybe it was a time when they became a better teacher by borrowing a strategy from someone on a learning team.

Whatever answer they give, look for enthusiasm and animation in their voice and in their body language.  The story should come easy to them and they should be excited to tell it.  They are likely to smile a lot and to lean forward in their chair.  They may talk faster and ask rhetorical questions.  They should be incredibly proud of the experience – and most importantly, they should be convinced that they are a better teacher as a result of the experience that they are describing to you.

And if they can’t give you an answer – or if their answer seems forced or false – thank them for their time and keep looking.

If you are convinced that collaboration between colleagues is the key to improving learning for students – and you should be – then it is time to start hiring people who have first-hand experience with the power and the promise of professional learning communities.

#period

#endofconversation

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Related Radical Reads:

Out of this World Hiring Lessons for the Principals of PLCs

Lessons School Leaders Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers

Simple Truth:  Collective Strength Matters More than Individual Talent

 

Want to Drive Change? Stop Planning and Start Acting.

I read a really interesting Matt Mullenweg article this week detailing one of Apple’s greatest strengths as a brand:  Their willingness to ship first and polish products later.

Mullenweg points out that every game-changing Apple device — including the iPod, iPad and iPhone — was panned by reviewers when it was initially released.  And in many cases, reviewers were right:  The earliest versions of many of Apple’s most successful products were far from perfect.  Sometimes, that imperfection was a result of flawed product design or important features that the company hadn’t anticipated.  Other times, that imperfection was a result of an inability to access required component parts at costs that could make each individual product affordable.

But perfection wasn’t the goal for Apple.  Usage was — and usage matters WAY more than perfection when you are trying to drive change.  As Mullenweg explains:

“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world…

By shipping early and often you have the unique competitive advantage of hearing from real people what they think of your work, which in best case helps you anticipate market direction, and in worst case gives you a few people rooting for you that you can email when your team pivots to a new idea. Nothing can recreate the crucible of real usage.”

You can see the implications for education, can’t you?  

All too often, we spend MONTHS — or even YEARS — polishing ideas instead of pushing them out into our buildings or our classrooms.  We get bogged down in committees who meet monthly to study and to research and to brainstorm and to build consensus and to raise awareness and to prepare — and all that happens BEFORE an idea is ever even introduced to a faculty.  Every change effort — think starting a 1:1 initiative or designing a school-wide remediation or enrichment period or integrating the 4 Cs into our instruction or moving to a project-based curriculum — becomes a long-term goal dependent on extensive planning and preparation instead of taking any kind of action.

But here’s the hitch:  When every change effort is seen as a long term goal, nothing ever changes.  Worse yet, when every change effort is seen as a long-term goal, your willingness to change direction when something isn’t working drops because you are completely and totally invested in a bad idea.

Mullenweg — who also happens to be the founding developer behind WordPress, open-source software that powers over twenty percent of the web — has a simple rule for pacing change projects:  He argues that if you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of anything that you “ship,” then you waited too long to get started.

So whether you are a superintendent, a principal or a classroom teacher, let Mullenweg’s “be embarrassed” rule drive your thinking this year.  Quit concentrating on developing the perfect initiative, project or lesson and start committing to an act first, polish later orientation to change.  Doing so gives you a better chance of developing something that you can be proud of.

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Related Radical Reads:

Hitting Home Runs 50 Feet at a Time

Our Compulsive Obsession with the Impossible Sexy

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

Developing Learning Cards for Primary Students

One of the instructional practices that I am the most passionate about is using Unit Overview Sheets to give students opportunities to assess their OWN progress towards mastering required outcomes during the course of a cycle of instruction.

(See here, here and here).

The way that I see it, we do our students a disservice when all of the goal setting and assessment done in a classroom is done by teachers simply because the most successful learners are also almost always the most reflective.  If our kids don’t get comfortable with identifying their strengths and weaknesses — or believe that assessment is the job of  every learner — they will struggle in a constantly shifting knowledge-based economy.

Don’t take my word for it, though. 

Instead, Check out John Hattie’s research on the instructional practices that have the biggest impact on student achievement.  Four of the top fifteen highest leverage practices identified by Hattie — self-reporting grades, teacher clarity, feedback and metacognition — can be easily integrated into classrooms using Unit Overview Sheets with students.

What makes Unit Overview Sheets even more powerful is that their development can focus a collaborative team of teachers.  

Deciding on a small handful of essential outcomes for each cycle of instruction is an approachable practice that also helps to ensure that every student at a grade level or in a school has access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum.  What’s more, unit overview sheets can be used to write assessments and to determine remediation and enrichment needs on a learning team.  One document, then, serves as a starting point for every conversation, simplifying what can oftentimes feel like overwhelming work.

But here’s the hitch:  The unit overview sheets that I typically use with students are almost always text heavy.

Check this one out, for example.  While it’s incredibly useful for my sixth graders, the fact that there are SO many words and SO little white space makes the document age inappropriate for students in grades K-3.

So I’ve been tinkering around with a new idea for primary teachers that I am calling Learning Cards.

Here are a few samples.

My thinking is that a Learning Card will include ONE essential outcome at a time — so the samples linked above would be printed on card stock and then cut in half.  Instead of passing out a Unit Overview Sheet at the start of a cycle of instruction and asking students to refer back to it time and again, teachers might share one Learning Card per week with students — a simple step towards keeping students from being overwhelmed by expectations.

Like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards will share expected outcomes in age appropriate language — and I still prefer the I Can Statements suggested by Rick Stiggins and his colleagues at the Assessment Training Institute.  Learning Cards, however, will also include pictures and/or other visual cues that can make the learning target approachable to non/early readers.  I’ve been getting those pictures/visual cues from The Noun Project website — but any source of interesting clip art would work.

And like Unit Overview Sheets, Learning Cards include a system for students to track their own progress towards mastery, but they are limited to two choices:  NOT YET and YOU BET — terms originally brainstormed by a group of brilliant teachers at Flynn Elementary School in Burlington, Vermont.  My thinking is that students would color the NOT YET box — maybe in red — for any Learning Card that they thought they were still struggling with.  When they were confident that they had mastered the outcome, they would color the YOU BET box in green.

If it were my classroom, each student would hang their Learning Cards on a book ring.  That would make them readily accessible for review.  Students could pull out their book rings once or twice a month, sorting their Learning Cards into NOT YET and YOU BET piles.  Better yet, students could use their cards during student-led conferences, walking their parents through the outcomes that they had mastered and the outcomes that they were still struggling with.

Finally, teachers could use the Learning Cards to quickly sort students into remediation and enrichment groups — and could bring learning cards to PLC meetings as a reminder of the skills that kids were struggling with across entire hallways.

Does any of this make any sense?  What are your first reactions to the notion of developing Learning Cards to use in primary classrooms?  What changes would you make — either to the structure of my Learning Cards or to my suggested strategies for using them in the classroom?  

Looking forward to hearing what you think!
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Related Radical Reads:

Is YOUR PLC Identifying Essential Targets Together?

Asking Students for Feedback on Unit Overview Sheets

My Middle Schoolers LOVE Unit Overview Sheets!

 

Three Lessons on Intervention from Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum

One of the real treats of my work with Solution Tree as a Professional Learning Community Associate is being able to learn regularly from REALLY bright people.  Recently, I had the chance to hear Mike Mattos and Austin Buffum — two of the three minds behind the RTI at Work process — talk through some of the most important lessons that schools interested in intervention need to learn.

Here are three takewaways:

Tier 1 Intervention isn’t really an “intervention” at all.  

Instead, it’s ensuring that ALL kids have access to high quality initial instruction around essential grade level standards.  And the key here is that ‘all kids” means ALL KIDS — including those who are several grade levels behind or who are identified by special programs labels or who have limited proficiency with the English language.  If some students don’t have access to essential grade level standards or learning targets because they are in remedial classes that have different priorities, your school has an equity issue that needs to be addressed.

The essential question to ask for students who have fallen several grade levels behind ISN’T “Can kids master essential grade level standards?”

Instead, the essential question to ask is “what can we do to get kids to master essential grade level standards.” That shifts collective attention towards action.  Ensuring high levels of learning for all only starts when (1). we realize that we CAN move every kid forward and when (2). we readily call out the  flawed assumptions about students that define learning — and learners — in traditional schools.  

Notice that attention remains focused on ESSENTIAL grade level standards.

That word “essential” is powerful, y’all.  Our work becomes more targeted and more focused — and WAY more doable — when we identify a small handful of instructional priorities that we want our students to master.  If your learning team is trying to tackle EVERY grade level standard in your collaborative work with one another, you will become overwhelmed before you even begin.  Instead, work together to define the outcomes that matter the most and spend your collective energy assessing that learning and providing multiple opportunities for your students to master that content.

Any of this make sense to you?  More importantly, are these core beliefs a part of the work that YOUR PLC is tackling?  

If not, why not?

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Related Radical Reads:

Structuring Tier Two Interventions in a PLC

Interventions are NOT Optional

Grouping Students for Learning in a PLC

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.  

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Related Radical Reads:

The Power of PLCs

Five Resources for School Leaders Starting PLCs from Scratch

These are OUR Kids