A Learning Pathways Approach to Professional Development

A Learning Pathways Approach to PD

In May, I published a post on Leading Professional Development. This post emphasized our school’s need and readiness for a more personalized approach to professional development for our teachers. This approach has been implemented in more schools recently. From micro-credentialing, or badges, to complete free choice. One of the dangers of this approach is having teachers pursue a hodgepodge of topics that are disconnected and/or not aligned to building or district goals. As @RossCoops31 writes in his blog post, “We need to balance choice with vision.” I agree a balanced approach is necessary, and a school should only implement a personalized learning approach if it is balanced with other department/district professional development aligned to its vision, mission and goals. Feeling confident in the quality of department and district professional development, and its alignment with our vision/goals, was a prerequisite for our school choosing to pursue this model for our building PD.

After soliciting topic ideas from teachers, we narrowed down our Learning Pathways into the following seven topics: School/Classroom Culture; Foster Traits of an Effective Learner (3 small groups); Growth Mindset; Project-Based Learning; Social-Emotional Learning; Technology Integration; Digital Citizenship. We then organized teachers into small groups of no more than 4-8, based on their pathway choices. We organized groups with a focus on creating diverse representation of grade level and content areas.

My assistant principal, @MurphysMusings5 and I, then met with our SILT (School Instructional Leadership Team) and identified teacher leaders that would facilitate the work for each pathway. We are extremely fortunate to have a large group of effective teacher leaders, which we have been encouraging and empowering the past few years. This was a major factor in giving us the confidence to take our learning pathways approach. During our meeting we shared a Learning Pathways planning guide. This included guidance on creating norms and goals, identifying materials and resources that will be used, and developing a plan. It also includes ideas for how the work can be shared at the end of the year. This guide was designed to assist our teacher leaders with the facilitation of the work their groups would be pursuing.

The most encouraging thing so far has been teachers who have already begun work on their pathway before the school year has even begun. Teachers have shared planning documents, access to their Google Classroom page they will be using, research they’ve found, and resources they would like to pursue or purchase. This evidence of motivation shows signs of a good start. I am excited to see the learning and growth this empowering approach yields throughout the year. I plan to update our progress in future posts.

What thoughts or feedback do you have on this approach so far? Has your school tried a similar approach? If so, what guidance do you have for our school on our journey?

 

Leading Professional Development

Traditionally, and all too often, professional development sessions have been designed and facilitated in a top-down manner. District and building leaders identify areas of focus, sometimes with little input from teachers, and design sit-and-get sessions for teachers to “learn” so they can improve their practice. There are several flaws with this traditional model, including a lack of learner input, engagement, monitoring & measurement, and follow-up. In this model, there is an overall lack of ownership over one’s learning. This has led to tons of criticisms and jokes from teachers. My favorite was one comment I heard from a co-worker when I was still teaching. While leaving a PD session, he said to me, “That was just like Chinese food, it went right through me.” Personally, I thought that was an insult. But to Chinese food, not the PD session. His assessment of that, I felt, was accurate.

@PrincipalMKelly (1)

As a building leader for the past six years, I have tried to balance professional development that is focused on district and building goals, with personalized learning opportunities. Balancing building goals with personalized learning is an ongoing challenge when designing professional development. To try and personalize PD, our school has facilitated teacher led, #EdCamp style PD sessions, and administered surveys to identify areas in which teachers wanted to learn. In addition, our School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT), which is made up of about 15 teachers and building administrators, meet monthly to discuss and design building PD. However, I must admit that as the building principal, over the past few years I have identified certain areas that I felt our school needed to improve, such as grading and assessment. As a result, some of our building PD topics have followed a more “top-down” approach. This is where the challenge of balance comes in.

Looking forward into next year, my assistant principal, @MurphysMusings5,  and I discussed whether there were any glaring areas of improvement in need of building-wide professional development sessions, which were not already being addressed through department work. We both felt our building was in a good place, and there was no single-topic that required PD for all teachers. As a result, we began to discuss next steps for our building professional development. From our discussion came the idea of Learning Pathways.

We met with our SILT and discussed the idea of creating several learning pathways (topics), which teachers could choose from to focus their professional learning. Our SILT brainstormed about twenty possible learning pathways and our plan is to allow teachers to select their pathway, or create their own. During our meeting, we discussed the idea and importance of collaboration. Rather than having individuals follow their own path, we felt it was important for teachers to work in groups of 6-8, so they could benefit from a collaborative learning experience. This is where more balance was needed, between personalized and collaborative learning.

Our idea is that teachers will work in groups on their learning pathway, design their own goals, share leadership and facilitation responsibilities, and guide their own learning. This will empower teachers as leaders within our school. As administrators, we will participate in one of the learning pathways, while providing coaching and resource support to teachers in other pathways. In our school, we are very lucky to have a tremendous group of teacher leaders, which makes it easy to put our trust in their leadership. 

We hope our plan for creating a personalized Learning Pathway PD model, with a focus on collaborative learning, will be a success. In future posts, I plan to share updates on our growth and progress.

Has your school ever tried a similar professional development approach? Was it a success? What feedback do you have on the ideas I have shared in this post?

 

Traditional Grading Flaws and Fixes

arbitrary GradesTraditional grades are at best, arbitrary, and at worst, destructive to student learning. For those of us stuck in a traditional grading system, there are flaws we need to be aware of, and practical fixes we can implement, to at least improve the system in which we are stuck.

Purpose and Beliefs

Flaws: Most teachers and schools have not established a specific or consistent purpose for, or beliefs about grading. In most schools, the teachers within a building establish their own individual policies, practices and calculations of grades. Due to a lack of quality focus on grading in undergraduate programs, these policies and procedures are usually based on their own educational experiences, personal opinions, and other non-research based factors. This inconsistency creates poor communication and understanding of grades for students and parents.

Fixes: School leaders should work collaboratively with faculty to develop a set of beliefs and/or guidelines about grading. For example, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a “Student’s Bill of Assessment Rights” created at his school. If you are a teacher and cannot push for school wide change, create your own set of beliefs and guidelines and clearly communicate them to students and parents.

imageIn our school, we’ve been using the belief statement: “A grade should accurately communicate what a student knows, understands and is able to do, as related to course learning objectives.” We use this statement to guide guide our work related to our grading practices. In our school, we do not have standards based grading, but we have been working to ensure our grades accurately represent a student’s level of mastery of course learning objectives (which we’ve created for each course, based on state standards).

What Gets Graded?

Flaws: Tradition, and lack of understanding related to student motivation have caused most teachers to create a “kitchen sink stew” of items to make up a student grade. Teachers add a little testing, a touch of homework, a pinch of participation, a sprinkle of attendance, and a handful of “secret ingredients” to create their own, individual grading recipes. Apart from the confusion and inconsistency this creates for students, it also creates an inaccurate reporting of student learning. This links back to the need for a belief statement. If we believe grades should accurately reflect student learning, then adding things like attendance, behavior and work completion make the reporting of actual learning, inaccurate.

Fixes: When discussing or evaluating WHAT we grade, there are a few topics that always seem to come up in discussion. First is the grading of formative assessments (ex: homework; classwork; some quizzes). Since formative assessments are used to provide feedback, drive instruction, and guide student learning, their purpose is not to be included in a grade. Teachers should only be including summative assessments in their grade calculation. Rick Wormeli has stated that a teacher has the power to ultimately decide when an assessment becomes summative. This means that teachers have the power to allow redo’s and retests in order to provide additional opportunities, after an intervention, to reassess. The student’s grade should then reflect the new, and hopefully improved, assessment score. Averaging the first and second scores, or deducting points for attempts, would then fail to meet our previous criteria of reflecting an accurate grade.

The other topic that inevitably comes up is the inclusion of behaviors into a grade. Things such as attendance, participation, work ethic, or taking points off for late work, would lead to an inaccurate reporting of the academic grade. However, these behaviors could certainly be reported elsewhere on a grade report, as they provide important feedback to students and parents.

Weighting

Tom Petty once sang: “The wai-ai-aiting is the hardest part.” Well, when it comes to traditional grading, I find that the “weighting”  of assessments is the hardest part.

Flaws: How many teachers participated in education courses or professional development on the practice of weighting assessment items or assessments in general? The answer here is “very few.” So, in a traditional grading system, how do teachers determine the appropriate weight, or “number of points”, to assign to each question, task, or assessment? At best, the answer is “arbitrarily.” Often times, teachers assign a certain number of points based on the type of question or task. Test? 100 points; Quiz? 50 Points; Homework? 2 Points; Multiple Choice question 3 points each. Essay question? 30 points.

When I created assessment as a teacher, I would assign a number of points based on how difficult the question. The assignment of points ignored the amount of course content, or number of objectives I was assessing with a question, task, project or test. On a test, I would sometimes assess a lower level skill, but through the use of an essay question. I would assign it 20-30 points. My essay prompt asking students to compare and contrast the Virginia and New Jersey Plans was really only assessing my students’ ability to recall the similarities and differences of the plans. This was a low level task void of  evaluation or analysis. At the time, it seemed good to me. It was an essay question afterall. I imagine other well intentioned teachers have made similar mistakes.

Fixes: This is a challenge! However, teachers in our building have been working to assign a weight, or number of points, to an assessment based on the amount of learning objectives it assesses. For example, if their course has 100 learning objectives for the year, they would assign up to four points for each objective. This allows them to grade the assessment of the objective using a 4 point scale. Therefore, the score of the assessment would be based on the student’s performance on each learning objective assessed. Focus on learning over product. One student may be able to demonstrate mastery through a conversation, another may do best offering a presentation of the content, while a third most accurately demonstrates learning on test. If the points are based on demonstration of mastery, the method in which students demonstrate learning, is not as imperative.
Our teachers have also been discussing the fact that not all our objectives are the same level or rigor. We have been working to evaluate objectives and agree upon a 1.0 or 2.0 weight, based on the level or rigor.

Marking Periods

Flaws: In a previous post (found here) I called for an end to marking periods. I explained that in my situation, a student’s final grade was calculated by averaging the grades from each marking period. Aside from averaging being a bad practice itself, giving each marking period an equal value/weight was misrepresenting the grade report. The final grade certainly did not meet the criteria for being a mathematically “accurate reflection.” Due to weather, standardized testing, field trips and award ceremonies, not all marking periods were created equal.

Fixes: If marking periods are a problem, why not get rid of them? This year we are piloting a “Continual Grading Period” with our sixth grade students. In this model, the entire year serves as one long marking period. This allows teachers to implement best practice in reteaching and retesting without the frustration of arbitrary deadlines. The continual grading period also eliminates the unfair weighting of clearly unequal marking periods. How did we make this magic happen? The steps, process, and reflection on this endeavor will be shared in a later post.

Setting a purpose and beliefs about grading, deciding what gets grading, developing weighting methods, and establishing a fair way to report student learning are key first steps for those of us stuck in the traditional grading system.

What are some other practices or strategies we can use to improve grading practices in a traditional model?

 

 

 

Five Simple Rules of Teacher Questioning

Teacher questioning can be a very effective and engaging instructional strategy. However, if misused, it can be a strategy that has very little impact. As we know, since the days of Socrates, teachers have been using questioning to encourage student thinking and check for understanding. However, high-quality teacher questioning is much more than just tossing out questions. Developing questioning skills can take a lot of time and professional development, but there are some simple rules teachers can follow to make some immediate improvements.

Here are Five Simple Rules for Teacher Questioning:

1. Have a Purpose!

When asking a question, the question itself should have a purpose. A teacher should know if the question is intended to promote a conversation, dialogue, discussion, or simply solicit a simple response to check for understanding. Good questions engage more than one student at-a-time. They provide an opportunity for students to discuss (ex: turn and talk; debate; conversation), lead to students generating their own questions, and allow for multiple responses. However, when teachers ask a question that has one specific answer, and call on one student to answer it, the question has very little value for the rest of the class.

2. One at a Time!

Most teachers would be surprised to have a count of how many questions they ask in one class period. In our building, when we tallied the number of questions teachers were asking in one, 42 minute class period, the total number was usually between 100 and 200 questions. In some classrooms, the number of questions posed in one class period exceeded 200. Without realizing it, many teachers use a rapid-fire approach to questioning, asking multiple low-level (Webbs DOK) questions, one after another. When it comes to high-quality questioning, less is more.

Challenge: Have someone come into your room, unannounced, and count how many questions you ask in one period.

3. Pick One Question!

Teachers should know the question they are going to ask, and ask it clearly. If it needs to be repeated, it should be repeated verbatim. Many times, teachers will ask a question… immediately rephrase it… add more detail… ask it again in a different way… add even more detail… then rephrase the question again. By the time the teacher states the final, revised question, it is drastically different than the original one. This can leave the student who raised their hand to answer the original question, pretty confused. Pre-planning some of our questions is the only way to ensure we are asking high-quality questions. These questions should be aligned to the objectives or learning outcomes for the lesson. Of course, teachers can also utilize spontaneous questions, as appropriate. However, key questions should have a purpose, be pre-planned, and align with objectives or learning outcomes.

4. Wait a Minute!

Some teachers feel rushed to get through a lesson. Others feel uncomfortable in silence. However, it is important for teachers to provide appropriate wait-time after asking a question. Remember, if teachers are asking high-quality questions, requiring thinking and discussion, it will take time. Teachers should avoid calling on the first student who raises their hand. Personally, I stopped allowing students to raise their hand in my classroom. I called on students randomly, making sure I always responded to them in a way that made them feel safe, whether they knew the answer or not. Although I am not aware of a specific, scientifically proven “appropriate” amount of wait-time, I like to use at least ten seconds. It is also important to never include a student’s willingness to raise their hand as part of a “participation grade” (which shouldn’t exist anyway). I’ve heard teachers say a student’s participation grade has suffered due to lack of participation. Then I’ve watched the same teacher repeatedly call on the first or second student to raise their hand, which didn’t even give most students a chance to participate. Give time for students to process the question.

5. Use Scaffolding!

When planning questions, it is important for teachers to review the content around the question. Teachers should review the prerequisite knowledge, as well as the knowledge that will extend the learning beyond the initial answer. If a teacher asks a question and a student doesn’t know the answer, they can scale down to more simple, prerequisite knowledge questions. Then the teacher can build back up to the original question. This strategy is more supportive of that student’s learning, than just jumping to another student when someone doesn’t know the answer. Be able to adjust questioning from simple to complex, as a student requires.

Reference Disclaimer:

Some of the rules and ideas shared in the post were adapted from information shared by Dr. Rebecca Woodland, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the work of the East Penn School District Instructional Leadership Team, during a professional learning session.

Student Behavior: It’s Not About You!

“You don’t have the skills to get a job a Walmart. Even they require their employees to remember to bring their vest everyday!”

It is with great shame I admit these horrible words once came out of my mouth… to a student. It seemed like the hundredth day in a row one particular student forget his pencil. My frustration, with what turned out was my lack of control, overflowed and I let him have it. I verbally attacked, and probably humiliated, this student in front of classmates. It was soon after this shameful experience that I realized something was wrong with my traditional methods of classroom management. Sure my rewards and consequences approach seemed to work for many students, but not for all. In reality, any system works for the majority. Eventually I realized, even when something works, it doesn’t always make it right. In addition, my approach certainly was not working for some of my students. I knew something had to change.

Changing Your Mindset

The first step in establishing a positive classroom environment is to have the right mindset. In his book, Lost at School, Dr. Ross Greene (2008) proposes the idea that “kids do well if they can.” This idea promotes a belief that if a child is not meeting academic or behavioral expectations, it is because they lack the skill to do so. Early in my teaching career, I had a very hard time accepting this belief. In fact, my beliefs in terms of students being able to meet behavioral expectations were completely opposite. However, after a few years of teaching and implementing traditional behavior management strategies, it became clear to me that no child would willingly subject themselves to the punishment and embarrassment I sometimes put them through.

By changing my mindset, I began to approach all students, in all cases, as if they needed help to meet expectations. I started to believe that kids would do well, if they had the skills to do so. When a student wasn’t getting started on an assignment, I would approach them and ask questions like:  “Is everything okay?”, “It looks like you’re having trouble getting started, do you have any questions?”, “Let me sit with you and help you get started.” I completely stopped assuming students were just refusing to do their work.

And, when a student forgot a pencil, I gave them one. In reality, it didn’t really matter why they didn’t have one. Ensuring they had what they needed to be successful became my only priority.

When responding to student misbehavior, it is important to remember it is not about you. It’s not personal. It is not you v. them. Remembering this in a frustrating situation can be difficult, but when it becomes part of our everyday mindset, it gets easier.

Creating a Positive Classroom Environment

Here are a few ways to establish a positive classroom environment or respond to misbehavior:

 

  • Give Verbal Praise (A LOT OF IT!)

 

This is one of the most powerful strategies a teacher can use. Recognize students, individually or as a class, for every direction/instruction they follow. Students who crave attention will often adjust their behavior to receive this praise.

Examples: “I really like the way you are walked into the classroom; Thank you for using a quiet, raised hand; I really appreciate the way you are including everyone in your group discussion.”

  1. Use Subtle Strategies for Redirection

Using proximity, walking over and standing next to a student while continuing to teach, will often be enough of a cue for a student to stop talking.

Quietly going over to a student and whispering “Do you have a question?; Is there something I can help you with?” will either unearth a student question, or cue them to get back on task.

A teacher can also quietly ask the student if they can speak with them on the side, or in the doorway. When doing so, the teacher should state the expectation the student should be meeting, and ask them what they can do to help them meet the expectation: “I see you are having trouble getting started on your fraction activity, is there something I can help you with, or any questions I can answer?”

  1. State/Restate the Expected Behavior

When a student is not following a direction, instead of using “no; stop; don’t”, recognize a student who is meeting expectations, or restate the expected behavior to the whole class.

Example: If a student is calling out in class, a teacher can remind the class, “Please remember to use a quiet, raised hand when you would like to participate.” The student who is not following the expectation will often get the hint.

  1. Avoid a Power Struggle

When responding to students with challenging behaviors, it is important to avoid power struggles, especially in front of their peers. Teachers can completely destroy a relationship with a student in a power struggle scenario. If a student is refusing to do work, and does not respond to offers of support, it is important not to increase the demand and create a power struggle. Threats such as, “Do your work or go to the office; Get started or I’m going to call your parents,” create a me v. you power struggle. In this situation, even if the teacher wins in the moment, overall, they lose. They lose because they damage the relationship. And ultimately, that damage will have to be repaired at some point in order for the teacher and student to have success working together in the future. If a student is not causing a significant disruption to the whole class, the teacher is better-off waiting until the end of class to have a private conversation to establish the cause of the student behavior. Other students pick up on this, as well. Creating a scene by yelling or posing threats does not “prove” to the rest of the class that you are in charge. Instead, they may be left worrying about the possible consequence the next time they make a mistake. Maintaining composure and offering respect, even if it is not being reciprocated at the time, goes a long way in building a positive classroom culture.

How do you ensure students’ emotional needs are being met in your classroom? What strategies are successful for you?

To learn more about responding to students with behavioral challenges, I recommend:

Greene, R. W. (2008). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York: Scribner.

Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. New York: HarperCollins.

Improving Formative Assessment

Our school’s journey toward improving formative assessment begun two years ago with our faculty reviewing and discussing a list of Fundamental Instructional Practices (FIP’s). As a group, we chose formative assessment as the practice we felt was the most high-leverage and worth focusing our attention and professional development. Over the course of the next two years, our School Instructional Leadership Team (SILT) made up of 14 teachers and 2 administrators (@MurphyMusings5 and I) began to study, plan, implement, monitor and revise formative assessment definitions, frameworks and planning documents.

Establishing a Common Understanding

After our faculty chose formative assessment, we first had to build our common vocabulary on the topic of assessment. At a faculty meeting we compared summative and formative assessments, including definitions, characteristics, examples and non-examples. We eventually created a summary document we titled a Formative Assessment Overview. As a group, our common initial understanding of formative assessment was that it was something we did (check for understanding), rather than an ongoing process. Checking for understanding would become just one step in this process.

Developing a Framework

Over the next few months we also began to create a Formative Assessment Framework, including a working Theory of Action. This document is still in revision, but the goal is to create a framework to help guide us in the systematic evaluation of implementation. The framework would not be used to evaluate individual teachers, but instead, as part of the Instructional Rounds process which takes a systemic look at school-wide implementation of a specific practice.

Identifying a Process


After initially creating our formative assessment framework, it became evident to our SILT that although we kept referring to formative assessment as a “process”, we actually lacked the identification or formalization of this process.


So now we needed a process. However, instead of attempting to develop this from scratch, we began reviewing books and literature on the topic and we found exactly what we were looking for in the book “The Formative Assessment Action Plan” by Nancy Frey and Doug Fisher. In their book, Frey and Fisher outline a practical four-step process for formative assessment. We immediately ordered copies of their book for our entire SILT and began our work to adapt their process to make it our own. We tweaked the names of the steps a bit, but ultimately stuck with the process. In addition, we worked with our faculty to create and revise a practical planning document that could be used to assist in their thought and planning process when designing formative assessment.

The process to create these documents and develop our understanding of formative assessments involved monthly meetings with our SILT, as well as the devotion of faculty meeting and professional development time. Many of these meetings were led by teachers who were part of our SILT. This was work we believed in and our teacher-leaders invested a lot of time and effort to ensure the high quality results that could be transferred into the classroom.

Back to Basics


After implementing the formative assessment process into classrooms throughout our building, through observations it became apparent that we could not accomplish steps 2-4 to a high degree of quality before we first were able to appropriately set the purpose for learning. Our course curricula lacked clear, specific, student-friendly learning objectives. If we were going to engage students in the formative assessment process, they first had to be able to understand the learning objectives. After modeling and sharing examples of student-friendly learning objectives, including the use of “I Can” statements, we allocated numerous hours of time during faculty meetings and professional development for teachers to write objectives for their courses. This involved reviewing curriculum, pacing guides, unit and lesson plans. Teachers worked together to create “I Can” statements for each unit in their curriculum and began to communicate them to students on a daily basis in their classrooms.

Modeling the Practice

As teachers began to implement the use of student-friendly learning objectives into their classrooms, building administrators modeled steps 3 and 4 of our formative assessment process by giving ongoing, specific feedback to individual teachers so they could continue to improve their practice.

Next Steps


Our next steps as a school include revising our Formative Assessment Framework to better reflect the four-step process we developed. In addition, our faculty survey feedback and observational data show that we need to spend professional learning time on methods and strategies related to Step 3: Feedback and Step 4: Follow-Up.


Reflection

During this two-year journey we have learned so much TOGETHER. I think this is the best outcome from this process and journey. A group of teachers (SILT) took a leadership role in improving instruction, engaged the faculty, and devoted an appropriate amount of time for the work. During this time, our school did not focus solely on formative assessment, but also on Questioning, Grading Practices and other topics. However, our formative assessment work is where we really invested ourselves and has helped us create a culture focused on improving instruction.

How does your school create a culture that focuses on improving instruction?

A School Where Teachers Want to Work

“What makes a school a place where teachers want to work?” We posed this question to our faculty three years ago. The feedback we received was the catalyst for changes that would improve our school culture. To be completely transparent, the school I serve in has a history of success and good culture, so the changes we’ve made are not worthy of a complete “school turnaround” story. However, I do think they moved the needle into greatness.

The Survey

One of my goals is to help make a school where teachers want to work. When we surveyed our faculty with this one open-ended question, we received a long list of things that varied from very specific complaints (sometimes harsh and hard to read) to broad areas needing improvement. However, we were able to take this long list of feedback and classify it into the following seven categories:

  • Great Teachers
  • Great Students
  • Support
  • Staff Culture
  • Good Communication
  • Awareness of Student Needs
  • Shared Decision Making

The Follow Up

What we did next, I feel, was the most successful decision. We shared these categories, with all the feedback classified under them, with the faculty. We divided them into groups and asked them to help us develop solutions. Essentially, instead of a group of administrators sitting in a room and stressing over how “to fix” all these things, we asked the faculty to help us make improvements for the school. We took a risk and asked them to take ownership of the improvements. The results were outstanding!

Each group of teachers came up with a list of practical solutions to improve the school in all categories. They asked to classify committees, define their purpose, and improve the way they communicate their work to the rest of the school. They asked for improved communication of meetings, agendas, and professional development. They asked to be included in more building decisions and came up with ideas to ensure this happened. They suggested ways to increase support for our fast-growing population of students with special needs. They asked for more recognition of all staff members. The group’s solutions were specific and realistic. The staff was empowered to take complete ownership and leadership to improve our school.

The Follow Through

We immediately made some easy, practical changes. We also set the ball in motion to make some changes that would take a lot longer, such as developing new ways to include faculty members in leading professional development sessions (This year over 30% of faculty did so). Each year, we’ve made changes and have continued to survey our teachers, asking the faculty to respond to survey statements and rate each of the areas we categorized.

The Results

We have found continued improvement in all categories, including staff culture. The tone of the feedback has shifted from focusing on complaints to focusing on ideas and improvements. Each year, we share the results with our faculty. Our teacher leadership team reviews the data and feedback, and generates recommendations to improve our building.

This summer a group of teachers is creating a “welcome package” for our new hires, including a school t-shirt, mug, and a new, teacher-created, “Survival Guide.” Our faculty never ceases to amaze me with their leadership and commitment to taking ownership of their school and making it the best place it can be.

It’s amazing what results from asking just one question. What questions do you ask?

*Thanks to Erin Murphy (@MurphysMusings5) for her input on this post. Be sure to check out her blog:  Murphys Musings.

The Teacher Interview: A Principal’s Perspective

“That person must work at our school!” That’s what we want to be saying to our interview committee when a teacher candidate walks out of the room. We want to be thinking that our school cannot afford to have that person not working with us. This is the level of excitement we want to have when deciding to hire a new teacher. We want to feel like this person not only fits into our culture, but will bring something we don’t have, will move us forward, and will make us better.

It’s interview season! Time to get to work filling positions created by retirees, transfers, or if you’re lucky, additional staffing. Now the downside. All the paper screenings and computer algorithms in the world cannot always find us the best candidates. To me, you need to meet people, speak to them, and get to know them both professionally and personally. I need to learn much more about them then just their credentials (already read their resume), or what their favorite lesson was. I need to know about their attitude, guiding philosophies and what motivates them everyday.

This year, we’ve tossed around using some new questions such as “What is your life motto, or words you live by?; What’s your favorite song?; What leadership roles do you hope to fill at our school?; How do you stay current in the field of education?; How do you prove to your students they are important?” These questions are aimed at trying to get some insight into who the person is and what their attitude and mindset may be. Shawn Blankenship (@Blankenship_S) wrote a post that appeared on Connected Principals back in April, called “Teacher Interview Questions That Work“. The questions Shawn shares not only allow us to get to know about a teacher’s craft, but also allow us to see into their personality, attitude and desire to improve. They help us get a more complete picture of the person in whom we are investing.

Positive attitude, motivation, determination, innovative, growth-mindset, sense of humor, sense of caring… These are just some of the very important intangibles I look for in a candidate. What other attributes do you look for, and what creative questions do you use to try to seek them out in a teacher candidate?

What I Learned Designing Student Projects

* This blog post was co-authored by Erin Murphy (@MurphyMusings5; psumurphette.com)


As a former social studies teacher, I loved to design elaborate projects that required students to work together in groups to create something that looked REALLY cool. The students would often spend weeks, inside and outside of school, researching information and working on creative ways to present it to others. Although some of the results of these projects did look REALLY cool, the project itself didn’t really result in much high-level learning. Over time, I learned a few guiding principles to designing projects, which really improved the level of learning for students, and often saved a lot of instructional time. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1) Identify the specific learning standards, anchors or objectives.

Start with the end in mind. Of course, we’ve all heard of the backward design model. However, this is a crucial question step that will guide the approach to other questions. When choosing objectives, make sure they are higher level objectives. Having students research information on a topic, put it into a PPT, Prezi, Poster, or any other presentation tool, isn’t very high level if they aren’t required to “DO SOMETHING” else with that information. For example, I use to assign a ‘President Project’ which required students to research and present a ton of information on an assigned U.S. President. The presentations looked cool, but all they accomplished were students proving they could find and present information. There was no evaluation, synthesis or higher-level thinking required. It was like a fancy book report. Very little meaningful or challenging learning was accomplished. Instead of having students research information and report it in some way (almost the equivalent of finding a pile of rocks and moving them from one side of the road to the other), have students answer a question based on their research. Have them evaluation the research or synthesize data or information and then answer a question or solve a problem. The big question is: What are students required TO DO with the information? If the answer is just, report it out using a fancy presentation tool, then it doesn’t meet criteria for a quality project.

2) Create an assessment criteria.

What will be assessed? How will it be assessed? How much point value will be assigned to this project? There are a few things to consider here. First, make sure you are assessing the identified learning objectives. Often times, teachers attribute points to cover pages, neatness, effort and other areas that are not aligned with the actual learning objectives. We can teach teach and model these things, but we need to make sure we are assessing and grading are the actual learning objectives. This is not to say that some point value cannot be allotted for things like neatness of a presentation, but it should be a very small percentage, as that usually was not the goal of the learning. If neatness, presentation skills, organization, design, etc will be assessed, be sure you have taught and modeled the skills. We cannot expect students to meet expectations for these elements, if we have not made them clear.  It’s not really fair to grade things we don’t explicitly teach.

Second, the number of points should be somewhat relative to the number and level of learning objectives the project assesses. Is it fair to give a 100 point test, which assesses 10 learning objectives, then assign 100 points to a project that only assesses three? This is something to consider when setting a point value. Just because it takes a week, doesn’t mean it must be worth more points. Try to find a balance. A clear rubric can help. Create a rubric that breaks down the assessment of learning objectives and sets values for different levels of mastery. Review the rubric with students and ask for their feedback prior to finalizing. You can also allow students to help create the rubric. I never did this as a teacher, but wish I would have. I learned about this idea last year and have heard of some great approaches and examples. One would be, to start with a project exemplar/model that would normally earn a “C”. Have students give input on what would improve it to a “B” and an “A”. Document and create the rubric based on their feedback. There are other ideas, but that is just one. Discussing, and not just reviewing, the rubric prior to giving to students to begin their projects is extremely valuable to improve clarity of expectations.

3) Set a timeline.

The timeline should be relatively based on the number of specific learning objectives the project will assess, and somewhat on the assigned point value. For example, if it only assesses two objectives, a three-week timeline is probably not appropriate. This was definitely an area in which I grew a lot over time. Some of my early projects would take weeks, yet only measure a couple, low-level objectives. Be sure to consider this when designing a project.

4) Determine Student Groupings.

Should this project be individual? Partners? Groups? Ask yourself, what are the benefits of each option. Make sure there is some rationale for your decision. For example, are there four somewhat equal parts that each student can do, and you can assess individually? If so, place the students in groups for four. When assigning group projects, make sure their are roles for each student that hold them accountable to the learning. This will not always be perfect, but one student should not suffer, or be rewarded, for the work of another. Individual assessment and fair grading are usually some of the biggest challenges to designing group projects.

5) Evaluate the need for Differentiation.

Projects lend themselves to differentiation. Differentiation should be based on student readiness, interest, or learning style. Differentiating the product is a good place to start… When assigning a question for students to answer, or a problem to solve, the available options for students to show their knowledge are many. Allowing students to choose their product is one way to differentiate. As the teacher, you can provide some options, but also allow for student choice. You can also differentiate content by assigning a series of questions, or problems, students can choose to answer or solve. Remember, WHAT (content, process or product) you differentiate should be based on WHERE your students are (readiness, interest, or learning style). A differentiated project increases student engagement, when it is appropriately rigorous and allows for student choice.

6) Stay involved.

Designing a project is hard work. While students work with their groups, it is tempting to spend this time catching up on other things: finally grading the papers put on hold while preparing this learning experience. However, this is when students need their teacher the most. It is imperative that we remain engaged with the students while they work on the project. In the design phase, brainstorm all of the mistakes or stumbles students might experience. Create a list of guiding questions to help keep the students focused and poised for success. If a project will last more than a few days, build in check points. “Elevator Talks” are a quick and easy way to measure group progress. Visit each group individually and randomly select one of its members. That student has approximately one minute – about the length of an elevator ride – to fill you in on their group’s progress. We recommend keeping these talks private, just you and the group. It will be important to model this experience with the class, first. Give an elevator talk about the previous day or a favorite TV show. Be sure to point out that the talk highlights the most important information, but saves the small details.

Designing projects that meet the learning and interest needs of all students is always a challenge. Please share any ideas or insights you may have on the topic.


*This blog post was co-authored by Erin Murphy (@MurphyMusings5; psumurphette.com)