Sunday, November 27, 2016

Developing a Common Instructional Language

Common Language
Creating a common language of instruction allows for a more consistent, effective, and efficient communication within a school district.  When language is consistent, it allows for one teacher to easily communicate ideas to another teacher.  Consistency of language leads to more effective communication and a more common understanding of why we do what we do.

Many teachers in Fremont Public Schools practice gradual release.  Gradual release is the idea that you begin a lesson with "I do," where the teacher does most of the work. The teacher explains or  models a strategy, concept, or idea.  The lesson then moves to "we do," where the instruction now focuses on shared instruction and guided practice.  Finally the lesson moves on to "you do," where the students do most of the work and practice independently.  I will go more into depth with Gradual Release of Instruction in a later post.  For the sake of this post, I use gradual release simply as an example.  This is a concept many teachers understand.  However, if we don't create a common language of instruction, teachers may have many names and many different understandings of the purpose of gradual release.  By defining this model of instruction as gradual release, we create a clearer definition of the model and create a more efficient and effective communication between educators.  Now teachers can have more clear and concise discussions with their grade level in their building and across the district.

Origins of the Playbook
Fremont Public Schools went through an exploration of an instructional model in 2016.  This produced what we now refer to as the "Fremont Public Schools Instructional Playbook."  This playbook is built upon the design questions from "The Art and Science of Teaching" by Robert Marzano (2007).  The playbook supports educators in selecting the best research based strategy to increase student outcomes.  Choosing the strategy best for students at a specific time is more of an art than a science.  However, much research has been done about the effectiveness of strategies and therefore, within this playbook, each strategy is correlated with the effect that strategy has on student learning.  Below is an example from the playbook:

Provide Clear Learning Goals and Scales
Effect on Student Learning
Create and Communicate Measurable and Student-Friendly Learning Goals
Learning goals are written, verbally communicated, or drawn with pictures in a way that all students can understand.

The teacher clarifies learning goals that state what students will know or be able to do at the end of a lesson, unit, or semester.  

Goals should be written in a way that you can evaluate and/or assess students learning mastery.

Declarative knowledge: Students will understand______.
Procedural knowledge: Students will be able to _______.
Establishing and communicating clear learning targets are the starting place for effective instruction (Marzano, 2007).  

Clear learning goals support  teachers in providing effective feedback (Marzano, 2007).

Goal setting enhances learning because students understand what they need to know (Marzano, 2007).

Clear learning goals allow teachers to provide effective feedback to help students grow (Marzano, 2007).
Shining a Light on Instruction
By creating a playbook of instruction, we shine a light on instruction.  At the district level, we often focus on curriculum, pacing guides, and assessments.  However, if we fail to identify important instructional strategies that are research based, we will not reach the full potential of a powerful curriculum.  

Development of the Playbook
The playbook was created by teachers from across grade levels and because of that, it includes strategies that can be successful in an advanced high school class or in a kindergarten classroom.  We intentionally put one teacher from each grade level in the elementary schools that also represented every elementary school in our district.  Specialists and a special education teacher were also included on this team.  Additionally, we had 4 educators from our middle level schools who represented different departments.  Our 4 high school teachers represent 4 different disciplines as well.  The instructional and PBIS coaches created the content of the playbook for the teachers to review and add to during about 5 sessions of approximately 7 hours each.  We began the process not knowing exactly where we were going but through lengthy discussions and research, we decided to start with an instructional playbook before moving to a full instructional model.  You will find the playbook below.  The instructional playbook is printed for every teacher in the district and is used regularly in our Professional Learning Communities and Professional Learning days, each of which will be discussed in future posts. In the document below, you will find an instructional framework that provides our key  professional learning points of the 16-17 school year.

Next Steps
Instruction is a focus within our district.  We will continue to work towards a full instructional model including a revamped evaluation that connects to the model.  In future posts, will will look at the digital playbook (which is linked above), resources that will be linked to the playbook, and our professional learning focus.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Building Grit in Kids: The role of Activities

Developing grit is linked to all sorts of positive outcomes such as gritty people are more likely to graduate from college,  more likely to succeed as a teacher,  more likely to make it through US Military Academy at West Point, and many other positive results.  Developing grit requires perseverance over a period of time.  You can't build grit overnight.  Being committed to one activity for multiple years is an indicator of grit.

Kids need to spend time doing things they like but that takes practice.  Doing so with a supportive and demanding adult is the ideal condition.  Demanding doesn't mean degrading of the child.  It means that the adult sets high expectations and holds the kid to those expectation.

In my family's experience, my children are both able to participate in activities.  Each of my children participate in athletics and in music/theater.  These activities provide an opportunity to practice skills over a long period of time.  Whether it is running cross country or acting in a one act play, it takes considerable time and effort to improve in either of these activities.  Of course, these activities are fun.  That doesn't take away the fact that it takes effort to become better.  The fact that they are of interest helps kids stick with it.  It appears that ability to stick with an activity as a child will be transferred to other activities as child becomes an adult.

The arts are a core part of what schools should offer.  We know that it is good for students to participate in activities so we need to make sure we find ways to ensure as many kids have access to music, arts, and athletics as possible.  Unfortunately, access to these activities are not always even for a variety of reasons.  When kids are young, you often have to pay to participate in club athletics or learn to play an instrument.  Some activites require that you drive your children all around town or require you to travel across the state which become very cost prohibitive for many families. The more we are able to offer these at no costs, the more our society benefits from the development of gritty children.  Often times, when looking at what should be cut in schools, the arts take the biggest hit.  It is critical that we look at these activities with the value they truly provide students.  In schools with high poverty, we should be looking at ways of expanding arts, not cutting them.

Recommended Reading 
"Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance" by Angela Duckworth

SAMR Model

SAMR Model was developed by Dr. Ruben R. Puentedura.  I learned of this model in "Ditch that Textbook" by Matt Miller

Substitution-substitute one tool for another

Augmentation-Functional improvement in the lesson based on technology

Modification-Actually changes the lesson

Redefinition-Allows for something that couldn't have happened without

If you want to learn more about SAMR, you can go to or

The key takeaway for me from the SAMR model is that we can't do it all in using technology in the classroom.  However, we should analyze carefully when and why we use technology.  Simply substituting a computer for a pen with no other purpose may not provide any benefit.  If it takes 3 minutes to get computers from the back of the room and another 2 minutes to log in, that is a wasted 5 minutes.  However, if you are blogging or digging deeper into a subject, then that 5 minutes is a small price to pay for the benefits the students will get by using a device.  If you are modifying or redefining your instruction by using technology, then your students are gaining from the use of technology.  The big shift is between augmentation and modification.  Substitution and augmentation are both low level uses of technology that might be appropriate at times.  However, to get the greatest instructional impact, we must go to modification or redefinition.

Embrace Technology to Deepen Learning

Teachers and schools are no longer the gatekeeper for information.  The internet has made information much more accessible.  The teachers role changes from provider of information to the guide for the journey.  Students can now find and create content on the internet.  The abundance of information can be difficult to to traverse.  Students now can find information but struggle to analyze if it is credible.  Teachers must help students determine and analyze sources of information.

Students can now collaborate beyond the walls of the school building.  Teachers can set up skype sessions with classrooms around the world.  Students can collaborate using google documents or websites.  Students might read another students blog and comment on it giving the other student feedback. Teachers facilitate these activities and can assist in connecting students to other classrooms/students.

Students can create content using blogs, videos, and websites. Students can share content using social media.  Students now have many opportunities to create content and teachers play an important role of pushing them to focus students and help the students create meaningful content.

Students can dig deeper into content.  As an example, students in a geography class have always learned about different places throughout the world.  Now, the student can actually go and look at the place on google earth or connect with a student who lives in the place they are studying. They can interview someone about their state, city or country.  In an English class, students might connect with an author.  Technology, on it's own, will not develop passion.  However, if given the right classroom environment that embraces going deeper and connecting with people outside of the classroom, students can dig into areas that they are passionate about.

Embrace Technology
It is important to embrace technology.  Teachers must consider their role in deepening student learning using technology.  Technology isn't the answer alone.  Teachers using technology in meaningful ways can deepen student learning.

Recommended Reading
Matt Miller's "Ditch That Textbook"

Friday, November 18, 2016

Need for hope

Students need to feel hopeful.  They need a sense of what is possible.  Educators can help students with specific strategies and with an intentional focus on mindset.

Growth mindset→Grit→Optimism→ Happiness→ Performance
*Growth Mindset-belief that you can grow and change (Dweck)

*Grit is tenacity and strength to pursue your long-term goals in the face of obstacles over time for something worthwhile. (Jensen)

*Optimism-see setbacks as temporary and can identify specific causes of suffering (Duckworth)

*Happiness-Optimism leads to happiness

*Performance-performance is enhanced through happiness

See connections between actions and consequences or what happens as a result of actions. (from Chapter 9-“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth)

Develop Hope-Growth Mindset
  1. Understand talent and intelligence can grow.
  2. Practice optimistic self talk
  3. Ask for help / Looking for mentoring

Develop Hope-Grit (p.96-97-Poor Students, Rich Teaching by Eric Jensen)
  1. Help student continually value their gutsy goals
  2. Show students what grit looks like
  3. Model Grit
  4. Teach students the ability to stay in the moment
  5. Create a grit vocabulary
  6. Assess grit
  7. Foster conditions for grit
  8. Make grit real in many ways
  9. Reinforce grit in action
  10. Give grit a chance

Don’t overreact to setbacks-learn to quickly move past setbacks and understand that setbacks are part of the learning process.

Believe that what happens in life is largely under your control.  Ten percent of life is outside of your control.  You get to choose how to react to the parts of life outside of your control.

Keep feedback on specific to effort and process rather than focusing only on results.

Recommended Reading

  • “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth
  • “Mindset: the New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck
  • “Poor Students, Rich Teaching: Mindsets for Change” by Eric Jensen

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Growth Mindset: 5 Questions to help determine if your school (classroom or district) is aligned with a growth mindset

Growth mindset

Growth mindset was popularized by Carol Dweck from Stanford University in the book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." Dweck's book is a must read for anyone interested in developing a growth mindset. Mary Cay Ricci and Eric Jensen take mindset and bring it home to educators. Mary Cay Ricci writes about using growth mindset in the classroom in her book "Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a Culture of Success and Student Achievement in Schools." Eric Jensen, focuses specifically on poverty and the impact of mindset in the book "Poor Students, Rich Teaching: Mindsets for Change."

Mary Cay Ricci describes a Growth Mindset as "a belief system that suggests one's intelligence can be grown or developed with persistence, effort, and a focus on learning."

Growth mindset matters
Fixed mindsets lead students to believe that their intelligence can't change.  You either have it or you don't.  Students with a growth mindset recognize the importance of persistence, effort, and resilience.  For teachers, it is important to focus feedback on growth.  Teaching traits of persistence leads students to success and the ability to overcome adversity.

5 Questions to help determine if your school (classroom or district) is aligned with a growth mindset:

1. Are expectations high for all students and are all students challenged?
Students should be challenged and encouraged to go deep into the curriculum. Critical thinking should be required of all students. Critical thinking includes reasoning, making decisions and judgement, and students should be problem solvers. Mary Ricci points out that some students who are not great readers or aren't great at math may never be required to think critically. This is a disservice to these students as some students may be strong in critical thinking skills regardless of math and reading skills.

Strategies should be implemented to ensure learning for all students. Some of these strategies may include (from FPS Instructional Playbook):
  • Ask students a variety of level of questions
  • Provide multiple opportunities for students to respond
  • Ask follow up questions
  • Provide wait time to ensure opportunity for all students to process questions
Teachers should avoid inappropriate reactions to responses such as:
  • Telling students they should have known the answer
  • Ignoring a student's response
  • Making subjective comments about incorrect answers
  • Allowing negative comments from other students
  • Avoid using sarcasm when addressing a student's response
Teachers should probe incorrect answers with low-expectancy students
  • Using an appropriate response process
  • Letting students "off the hook" temporarily
  • Answer revision

2. Are instructional groupings flexible?
Students may be at a variety of levels. It is important that students not be placed in "ability groupings" that never change or change very slowly. Instruction should be based on a students current understanding of the specific learning goal. Pre-assessments can be used to determine instructional level. Both Ricci and Jensen discuss the importance of "not labeling students" which comes, at least in part, from the research of John Hattie. Not labeling students is listed in the top 20 factors of Hattie's 138 factors that impact learning. Labeling students as poor (or minority students or disabled students) and therefore unable to learn is a fixed mindset. Each student should be met where they are at in relation to the learning target. Instead of permanently labeling a student "gifted" maybe change the language to "highly motivated." This shifts the thinking from the student is smart to the student has control over what helps them to be successful. Even labeling students as "gifted" can have a negative effect as students don't know what to attribute their success to and may worry that if they are not successful, that they will no longer be considered gifted. This leads some students to avoid challenges.

3. How are students graded?
Students should be able to recover from a failure in your grading system. Students should be able to identify the learning target that is being assessed. If grades are mainly used as a way to sort and select students, this does not encourage growth. Instead, grading becomes a game that students learn to manipulate. If students are graded on the first day or early in the learning process, then the student's grade become fixed based on the knowledge the student had at the beginning of the learning cycle. A growth mindset grade recognizes where the student is once the learning is completed. Formative assessments are used regularly along the way but are not included in the gradebook. They simply inform next steps in instruction.

4. How does the school (teachers, administrators, parents) respond to failure?

“Experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.” -Cognitive Psychologist Jerome Bruner (1961)

In a growth mindset school, students are challenged. When students are challenged, they will fail sometimes. If you are only asked to do activities that you never fail at, then you are not really learning, you are just practicing things you already know. Responding to failure is key to growth.  As discussed above, grading systems that are used to sort and select students can be manipulated by students avoiding challenging courses and coursework in order to attain the highest possible GPA. Students who are allowed to take risks without permanent penalty will be more likely to accept the challenge. Students should be encouraged to not look back long and to use failure to inform future growth and future decisions. Failure should not be permanent.  Students should be celebrated for accepting difficult challenges.  

5. What do adults focus on in their feedback to students?
Adults should focus on the need for persistence, resilience, hard work, perseverance, and ability to shift gears as keys to growth mindset. These behaviors are vital to student success both in school and in life. Parents should be included in giving this type of feedback. Schools should reach out to parents to explain what growth mindset is and why it is so important. As parents, we sometimes protect our children from failure. In reality, we would better serve our children by encouraging them to challenge themselves and learn from failures. Hattie's research shows the great importance of feedback in student learning. Feedback that has a focus on persistence and effort will give students a greater understanding on what they should focus on in order to be successful.