Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Combine instructional rounds and Twitter to make learning visible

A few years ago we started doing instructional rounds to allow teachers the opportunity to get in other teachers' classrooms. There is something very powerful about teachers observing other teachers. It encourages reflection, creates awareness of the energy and feel of other classrooms in the building, and provides an opportunity to provide feedback and encouragement to colleagues. It broadens perspective.

Typically when we do this activity we will schedule our instructional rounds to take place over a two-day period. We invite teachers to use part of their conference period on one or both days to visit other classrooms in the building. They choose where they go, how long they stay, and what type of follow-up to provide to the visits. We emphasize that the purpose of the event is to encourage one another and learn from the brief observations. We expect it will stimulate discussions about instructional practices.

In the past, we would post large sheets of paper in our commons area where teachers would write positive comments about their visits. The event built community and showed students we are interested in celebrating the learning process and sharing our classroom space with other teachers.

But this year we tried something new. Instead of the paper and pen, we used Twitter exclusively to celebrate and provide feedback related to the visits. Based on my experience with Twitter as a learning tool, I believe every teacher would benefit greatly from engaging in the conversations related to teaching and learning on social media.

As a result of using Twitter for this purpose, a number of teachers started Twitter accounts and a few tweeted for the first time. I emailed resources about Twitter in advance and gave teachers a few ideas of things to look for in their visits. We used #BHStour to tag our posts.

We believe this idea has even greater potential. A follow-up meeting could be help to share out and facilitate further processing of what teachers learned. Another idea would be to frame the visits with certain goals. If the school is working on effective feedback, then the classroom visits could focus on the interactions that provide feedback for learning.

What other ideas would make this activity even more beneficial? I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment.

The archive of our tweets can be found at the Storify publication of our event:

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

How Bolivar High School became a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School

Gov. Jay Nixon visited BHS to speak to students.
After Bolivar High School was announced as a 2013 National Blue Ribbon School, I received a number of phone calls from other districts, agencies, and even the governor's office congratulating our school on the honor, but also asking what we did to achieve such uncommon results with our students. The callers were interested to know what programs we used to enhance learning, did we have an extended school day or school year, could they get a copy of our school improvement plan, and more.

A few of the conversations seemed to end in disappointment as I explained that we didn't utilize any externally developed programs, nor did we have additional learning time through an extended day or calendar. I explained we would be happy to share our improvement plan, but it was not really the reason for the excellence reflected in our results. We operate as a Professional Learning Community (PLC), but that is part of our process and not a program. Although our strategic plans are important and help guide our work, the essence of our success is the people who work in our school--teachers, students, and support staff--who value relationships, community, and a culture of learning. In short, our success is attributable to people, not programs.

It seems that most school improvement efforts largely ignore culture. The culture of a school can be difficult to describe and quantify. But I will do my best to share a few of the things that I believe make our school culture effective for learning. Of course, these qualities aren't present 100% in every situation. We all make mistakes and have off days, but overall the culture of Bolivar High School nurtures these qualities.

1. Teachers, staff, and students genuinely care about one another and celebrate each other's successes. Sharing celebrations and "gratitudes" is routine at meetings, through email, and in personal conversations.

2. Honest communication is encouraged to solve problems and support learning. Staff are given latitude to challenge the status quo, and develop solutions that work for their classrooms.

3. Trust and respect are highly valued. Individuals have confidence in one another and are respectful of differences. Teachers support the work of other teachers and encourage students to do the same.

4. Teachers and staff are committed to helping students learn and just plain helping students. While learning is the focus, everyone is committed to helping students who are in need. Teachers invest in the lives of students.

5. Desire to learn, grow, and improve. Teachers and administrators are learners who seek new knowledge, admit mistakes, and model life-long learning for students.

6. High expectations are evident for all. Blaming and complaining is not commonplace. Instead, individuals take full responsibility for solving problems. If it is to be, it starts with me.

7. What's important is important. Frustrations over dress code issues or other building management issues are secondary to matters that strongly impact learning.

8. Risk taking is encouraged. Teachers and students try new things in a supportive environment. Failure is viewed as an opportunity for learning.

9. Involvement in decision making. Our building leadership team consists of teachers who help set a direction for the school. Where possible, decisions are made at the classroom or department level.

10. There is a strong pride in the history of the school, it's story, and the traditions that bond us together. We tell the stories of our past and celebrate the tradition of excellence, but we are also always looking eagerly to a positive future.

It was truly an honor to receive the award. We were just one of eight schools in Missouri and among just 236 public schools in the nation to be recognized as a Blue Ribbon School for 2013. The award was based on high achievement in ELA and math over multiple years as measured on the Missouri End-of-Course (EOC) Exams. In addition, we were required to complete an application process. An excerpt from the application follows and the full application document can be viewed through this link:
 pdf icon to print school application

Bolivar High School is located in Bolivar, Missouri. The town was named for Simón Bolivar, the South American political and military leader. On July 5, 1948, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Venezuelan President Rómulo Gallegos visited the town to dedicate a statue of Simón Bolivar. Soon after the visit, BHS students voted to forfeit “Tigers” as the BHS mascot and adopt “Liberators” as the school’s namesake.

Nearly 10 years ago, BHS sent a group of teachers to visit Adlai Stevenson HS in Lincolnshire, Illinois to learn more about Professional Learning Communities (PLC). From this initiative, the school engaged in a comprehensive PLC certification process and developed a strong vision of improvement to ensure high expectations of achievement for all students.

As a result, the school has cultivated a culture of collaboration and a focus on results. Teachers collaborate weekly with the sole focus of improving student learning. Each content area has developed essential (priority) standards that align with the Missouri Core Academic Standards (MoCAS). Teachers utilize formative assessments and feedback to monitor student progress and guide instructional decisions. Students who are not proficient receive additional time and support until reaching mastery.

The unwavering focus on learning has resulted in increased student achievement. The successes have been a result of incredible commitment by talented teachers and staff, along with excellent parent and community support. Although nearly half of our students are economically disadvantaged, we send 70% of our students to 2-year or 4-year colleges/universities. Moreover, our free/reduced lunch population has performed extremely well on state tests as we strive to ensure that all students learn regardless of socio-economic status or any other factors.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

25 years later I thanked a former coach

Today I made a phone call I've been meaning to make for a long time. Nearly two years ago I decided to contact one of my former high school coaches who made a big impact on my life. I searched online to try to find him and through a Facebook connection obtained his phone number. But then I didn't call right away.

But today I called. I hadn't talked with Coach Radford for nearly 25 years. I wasn't even sure he would remember me since he was only my coach for a short time and it was so long ago. He was the varsity basketball coach, but I wasn't a varsity player. Before I had the opportunity to play at that level, my family moved away, and I was playing for a different coach at a different school.

But in the short time I knew Coach Radford he really helped shape the direction of my life. When I decided to come out for the team, I wasn't in very good shape and wasn't a very good basketball player either. I remember in preseason conditioning I was ashamed at how badly the other boys just left me in the dust in the sprints. But Coach Radford didn't see me for what I was, he saw me for what I could become. He constantly encouraged me even though I was just a freshman kid who might not ever help his basketball program succeed. Had it not been for his uplifting words, I probably would've quit.

So I guess the thing I'm so grateful for is that he believed in me and made me feel like I could do it. And that small action made me want to coach and teach and help students succeed. As I considered different career possibilities, my memories of Coach were always very powerful in leading me to be a teacher.

And that's how it is for each of us who work with students. We don't know when a conversation or a situation might help spark in a student something lasting and worthwhile. It often doesn't take grand gestures and heroic interventions to make a difference. It simply means investing in students and taking a genuine interest in their life now and in the future.

I was amazed that Coach remembered me immediately. We chatted about life and our families, and I shared with him how much he meant to me. I thanked him.

And he was so gracious in return. Just like before, he made me feel worthy and successful. He said the phone call meant so much to him. He thanked me over and over.

It really is true that none of us has ever accomplished anything by ourselves. There have always been people who have supported us, encouraged us, and even pushed us toward success. Be sure to thank those people while you can. It's never a good idea to delay gratitude.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why I am blogging...

I read recently that the number one topic written about in blog entries is blogging. So what better topic to start my blogging journey than such a popular one. Besides, I think it's an important question to wrestle with. Why am I interested in taking the time and energy to write my thoughts and share them publicly? Isn't there enough to do without adding a publishing job to my plate? Moreover, why would anyone be interested in reading my rambling thoughts? But alas, here I am, taking a risk and going for it.

As I've worked through some of the very good reasons for me to blog, I'm also dealing with the challenges and even fears that come with doing this. So here are five reasons I'm blogging and how each reason has a flip side that scares the heck out of me.

1. Blogging allows for reflection on ideas, issues, and events.

As a high school principal I am very focused either in the moment or in the future moment, and I rarely take the time to intentionally reflect on all the ideas making their way into my head. As an overarching goal, reflection is a primary reason for my blogging venture. We know how important it is to reflect. It helps us learn from what has happened, consider the weight of our actions, and process the massive amounts of information we take in daily. When we blog it requires us to think deeper and develop ideas more fully. It also helps us to create a written record of our thoughts and feelings on a topic. I often have ideas that begin to fade from my conscious thinking, but blogging can allow me to preserve these thoughts to refer to later. So in a sense, I am able to reflect now and again in the future as I revisit previous entries.

Flip side: I've never reflected like this, in a forum as public as a blog entry. What will I write about and will I have anything worthwhile to say? What if others hate the writing I produce? Worse yet, what if I really hate the writing I produce?

2. Blogging provides a forum to share my perspective.

There are many issues facing students and schools that I feel passionately about. The stakes are high for creating a future in education that is positive and effective for our youth and nation. Blogging allows me to develop my thoughts on the issues that matter and perhaps influence the thinking of others. There are many voices in the mix as decisions are made about local, state, and national education policy. I'd like to have my voice heard as well. We certainly don't want critical policy development left to individuals disconnected from public schools (see image below). In addition, I can share things that have worked in our school and how we are striving to improve the learning experiences for our students. While I have always worked to celebrate students success, this blog will give me the forum to really examine why certain strategies in our school worked or didn't work.

Flip side: Am I informed enough on important issues to make intelligent, meaningful posts? How do I balance sharing ideas on broad education topics versus things happening in our school?

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3. It's important for educators to model digital literacy and citizenship.

Relevance is an important part of learning. Students want to learn things they find relevant and beneficial to their lives. Since so much work and play is done online in our ever-changing world, I believe strongly that students should be taught digital literacy and citizenship throughout the school experience. Students need opportunities to recognize that the use of social media and other online venues can be a blessing or a burden. If students present themselves poorly online or engage in dangerous behaviors, the internet can quickly reduce chances for success and hurt one's personal brand. Through engagement in blogging and social media, educators have the opportunity to demonstrate how the internet and social media can be used for connecting and learning and helping make the world a better place. The effective use of SM and blogging can build one's brand and open doors of opportunity and influence.

Flip side: Will students find anything here relevant? Will my efforts to blog have any real influence on the way students view publishing online content? Will teachers be more likely to blog or have students blog? Or, is this a complete waste of time?

4. Educators can connect and share ideas through blogging and social media.

By blogging and by asking for feedback on my posts, I hope to learn by having my ideas tested against other views. I also hope to gain new relationships to add to my PLN (personal learning network), a group of educators sharing and learning through social media. There are so many experts that can contribute to my knowledge, and I love getting new ideas or refining old ones through new connections on Twitter. Collaboration and learning can be done at any time or place with our digital resources. And, I can always find a discussion that meets my own personal and professional needs. The autonomy of this type of learning is very rewarding.

Flip side: Will anyone even visit my blog? Will I truly learn from this or just attempt to collect followers?

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5. Other educators have developed blogs that have made an impact on my thinking.

My final reason here is that I've seen the great example of other educators who have produced blogs that are really thought provoking and have helped me be a better educator. My mission is to be the best I can be to help others and make an impact as an educator. Because others have shown the benefits of blogging, I am willing to give it a try in spite of fears I've shared here.

Flip side: Compared to other education bloggers, will my work be worthwhile?

Fears aside, it's time to give this a try! I hope you found something here to encourage your blogging interests. I'd love to here from you so share what you are thinking and writing.