Learning at the Top

So….I’m on Twitter a lot.  I spend a lot of my time looking at what others are doing in their classrooms.  I spend a lot of time sharing what PVSD teachers are doing in their classrooms. One of our favorite areas of learning right now is the use of coding, robots, and drones to teach students such skills as computer science basics, coding, sequencing, problem solving, iterative processes, etc.

I also see a host of companies, educational organizations, and non-profits sharing their excitement and support of such activities.  I see Ozobot, Dot and Dash, Sphero, Tickle, Google CSFirst, ScratchCode.org, and countless others sharing the excitement students have over this kind of learning.

One thing I didn’t see a lot of was this type of sharing coming from leadership, such as principals, cabinet level leaders, and others that make important decisions about teaching and learning. Now, in all fairness, I am sure there were a lot of principals and leaders sharing these things.  I’m sure there were people from within my organization doing so…I just didn’t see what I thought was enough at the time I decided to write this post.

It’s hard for a principal to know about EVERY activity, resource, or instructional strategy, and we tend to share the types of things that are in our own wheel house. I wanted to give our leaders the chance to experience the fun and challenge of coding, so I devised a plan to host the Inaugural PVSD Sphero Golf Tournament.  IMG_7398

Our next Technology Leadership meeting was going to be hands on. I work better with a great team, so I called upon my dynamic TOSAs (Michelle Sciarillo, Jamie Alvarez, Shaun Blumfield, Shirleen Oplustic, and Carolyn Alexander).  Take a minute and click on their names, and follow them on Twitter…….

We grabbed some cardboard and a bunch of blue painters tape. We created a 6 hole Sphero Golf Course that would require our school leaders to work together to code Sphero drones to complete the holes in as few attempts as possible.


As the district leaders arrived, we welcomed them, explained the rules of our golf course, and gave them a crash course in the Tickle App. Each team received an iPad and a Sphero rolling drone. Each team was given 6  minutes to get used to their Sphero.  Some teams immediately started to practice their first hole (this tournament was a scramble- where every team starts on a different hole, as opposed to everyone starting on Hole 1). Other teams began to use more advanced planning, measuring the distance their Sphero travelled per second, at certain percentages, etc.

The fun and learning began immediately.  A sense of friendly competition was sparked. Our school leaders worked together, discussed coding strategies, and used their varied learning strategies to conquer each hole. One team, having completed a fairly simple hole, started augmenting their recently completed hole. After a minute it became clear what they were doing; they were constructing the next, more difficult hole. They didn’t wait around for the next assignment or challenge.  They began working ahead of schedule so that they were prepared for the next task.  Now tell me you don’t want your students challenging themselves to learn ahead of schedule.

After an hour, each team was quite proficient with the Tickle App.  When the end of the Tournament was announced, there was a vacuum of disappointment. The results from this activity include camaraderie, enthusiasm, and most importantly- an understanding of the way that coding, robots, and drones are much more than toys or add-ons. Within 2 days, 3 schools placed orders for Spheros. Our TOSAs visited two schools to lead teachers in a short golf experience, and the results were nothing short of positive.

As we move forward with the intentional integration of technology, it’s critical that school and district leaders are given the chance to use these technologies so that they can become advocates and ambassadors for the strategies and tools.

Big thanks to Sam Patterson (@SamPatue) for providing the #BlueTapeCertified inspiration!


Keeping Track of the Conversation

In the past few weeks, I’ve had conversations about the way the classroom is changing, and how this change is based on the way that the teacher now interacts with his students. One of the most important changes is based on the move away from whole class instruction/lecture towards collaborative thinking and working.  In the classroom of old, it was fairly easy for the teacher to manage the conversations taking place and thus hear what students discussed. As the classroom moves away from a single speaker environment, how do teachers keep track of the conversations taking place in their classrooms; online and face to face?


The first conversation I had about keeping track of conversations was with a vendor. We were discussing the challenges faced by the teacher in a 1:1 classroom. When the expectation is that students are working collaboratively, sometimes asynchronously, how can a teacher keep track of the conversations between students?  It’s in these conversations that a teacher can glean a great deal of information about student understanding.  With a view of these conversations,  teachers can intervene and reteach or clarify.  The teacher can see the direction of student work and offer guidance or point out resources.  However, most teachers do not have a tool to track these conversations, and the important insight into student learning is lost. What teachers need is a quick, searchable, savable, and integrated forum for students to chat and hold discussions. Otherwise, a vast majority of student thought is lost to the ether.

The second impact of the changing classroom on a teacher’s ability to track conversations is in the “new” classroom, where centers and small group instruction are gaining an ever greater role. As the teacher instructs small groups in one corner of the room, how does hear the “read to others” in a Daily 5 class, or hear one student give feedback to another on a piece of writing? In a STEM lab or makerspace, how does the teacher hear conversations without altering those conversations with her presence? Thinking about this pair, would you want to interrupt whatever is going on? No! You want to hear what they are discussing, and examine the source of their wonder.  What you DON’T want to do is stop their work.


The physical limitations of the human ear require the teacher to get out of her seat- thus disrupting the small group instruction- and move around the classroom, thereby interrupting whatever learning is taking place in the other areas of the classroom. Even the best managed classroom and the most honed teaching strategies can’t help a teacher hear conversations from across the room. In a loud, collaborative classroom, teachers need a way to hear all of the conversations taking place in a way that does not influence the content of the conversations.

A question for you: How do you keep track of student learning as demonstrated by student conversations?



Beyond Student Engagement

Every few years, a new buzzword tops the charts as the newest educational pinnacle to be reached.  When I started teaching, it was “differentiation.” Since that time, the word that has taken over educational conversations is “student engagement.”

The dictionary tells me that “engagement” means (after definitions related to an agreement to be married) “a promise to be present at a particular place and time.” Tell me that your goal for instruction is to have students “present” and I’ll show you the door.

A simple search of the etymology of this word shows that “engagement” is not the bar we should be shooting for. Its origin is the word “to pledge” or to “hold to an obligation.” Again….if your goal is for students to feel obligated to be there, or to just be there….

In our district, the Pleasant Valley School District (@PVSDCamarillo) we are focusing on some ideas that are not unique to us: STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), PBL (Project Based Learning), and the maker movement. Earlier today, I led a tour of two of our makerspaces, at Tierra Linda Elementary (@TLSHawks) and Camarillo Heights STEM Academy (@CamHeightsSTEM). We welcomed about 15 teachers and administrators from the Hueneme School District, Rio School District, and Ventura Unified School District. They were interested in what our makerspaces looked like, what we had in them, what we did in them…you get the idea.

We stood by as 2nd and 5th grade “buddy classes” worked on a stop motion movie using Legos and an iPad.  The students were telling a story through the use of these tools (Creativity and Communication).  The Big Buddies had already learned how to use the app in a previous lesson, so they were to coach the Little Buddies on the how to make a movie (Collaboration).  Students were not limited to the Legos for inclusion in their movies, and some turned to the supply cabinets to aid in their production.  One group wanted to film a plan taking off, and discovered there was string available to them (Critical Thinking). BAM! In less than 5 minutes, all 4 Cs were in use. It was exciting to watch.  Here is a snippet of what it was like to be in the room of about 60 kids.  Believe me, the students weren’t just “present.”


After about 30 minutes of working together, most groups had created a 10-20 second video.  While not quite ready for an IMAX showing, the students clearly understood the incremental work that needs to be done to animate or create stop motion.  Here is an example of one:

Cute, right? The best part is that this group of boys planned on going home and working on one for longer, so that it could be “perfect.” Again, that’s way more than being “present” or “obligated” to do this work.

Next, we went to Camarillo Heights STEM academy, where we saw 2nd graders using the Design Process to create catapults using soda cans, popsicle sticks, and tape. Beyond the building of the catapults, students had to test their design for RAP:
Range (How far can my catapult shoot something?)
Accuracy (Can I hit a target using my catapult?)
Power (Can my catapult shoot something hard enough to knock over another object?)

Students were testing their designs throughout the room, using classroom developed measuring tools like this to measure Range:
IMG_6511 (1)

Students measured accuracy by shooting those little plastic counting bears into a pyramid of plastic cups.

We spent another 30 or so minutes watching students work in groups, record each other’s data, share ideas on how to improve each other’s design.  Again, do you hear the 4 Cs? It was an electric place to be.  Throughout the day, I was mindlessly snapping photos of everything. Afterwards, I was perusing all of the pictures and videos that I had taken, and I saw it: THE picture that sums it all up.

So far, this post is abut 660 words, and this picture adds at least 1,000- as the saying goes.  This picture shows the look that I long to see on my own children’s faces when they are at school.  This is the look that provides the “Why” for me as an educator.  It is more than “engagement.”  It is WONDER. It is EXCITEMENT. It is PURPOSE.

IMG_6508 (1)

Now those three words are buzzwords I can get behind.

Improvement is NOT a Circular Process

Since I can remember, leadership books have always shown the iterative improvement process as a cycle.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these, or something like them:

I don’t disagree that the improvement process entails the steps of Plan, Do, Assess, Plan, Do, Assess, etc.

The issue I take with all of these images is their circular nature.  What they portray is that the work we do always has us ending up in the same spot. I would hate to think that the substance of our professional careers has us ending up in the same place we started. Don’t get me wrong, I know from Modest Mouse that “The universe is shaped exactly like the Earth: If you go straight long enough you’ll end up where you were.” This isn’t a discussion of astrophysics.

It’s a discussion of the iterative process of planning, doing, assessing, etc.

I’ve spent the last few days at CUE Rockstar Admin at Skywalker Ranch (yeah, I’m pretty lucky). In one of our sessions, Eric Saibel led us in a conversation about the Inclusion process; including those affected by the change. For me, this includes the teachers in our 1:1 Learning classrooms and all teachers who are working toward the integration of the Maker movement into their instruction. At the end of the conversation, we were asked to put our thoughts into some kind of imagery.

I started to think about the way we plan, work, get feedback, and adjust. In my head, I saw a back and forth between District Leadership and the sites, a back and forth that was reminiscent of a skier going down the slalom.

Each “cycle” should move us forward.  With each set of feedback, we move the entire process forward, inching ever closer to our constantly evolving goals.  Played out over time, we can never reach ‘the end’ of the process, similar to the circular diagrams above. However, in a more linear fashion, we continue to move forward, seeking a goal that is ever moving. I visualized it this way:

Copy of IterativeFeedback

We cannot rest on our laurels, we cannot shy away from the challenge. We must keep moving, though there may be resistance, though there may be unforeseen challenges. In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald,

“tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The Great Gatsby

Are You a Pump or a Filter?

I recently had a great conversation with John Puglisi and Mike Vollmert, from the Rio School District.  We are both K-8 districts, neighbor each other, and face many of the same challenges to moving our instructional programs into the next phase of 21st Century teaching and learning.  Our students feed into the same high schools, so it behooves the students if we can work together to provide Rio and PVSD students the best possible instructional program.  We met because, as silos, our districts are not capitalizing on the collective knowledge and skills each of our districts possesses. We expect teachers to open their doors to other teachers at their school site, and we expect schools within our district to collaborate, share, and build each other up.

Why, then, don’t we expect the same of ourselves and other school districts?

This first meeting felt like a first date of sorts: each of us trying to figure out what the other one has in mind for our future together. How much should we share right away? Are there things we don’t want to necessarily share right away because they might indicate some imperfection?

As the conversation began to flow, we were ruminating on the critical role of the school principal.  There are many studies that indicate that the Principal is the linchpin for instructional growth.  Take the Wallace Foundation study, or Marzano’s seminal work on leadership, School Leadership That Works….both point to the immensely important role that principals play. District leaders can have the most amazing ideas and plans, and the principal decides- through their leadership- whether those ideas and plans die on the vine, or are turned into fruit bearing actions.

We spoke about the way that a principal can take an overarching theme or idea (i.e. make formative assessment an aspect of EVERY lesson) and magnify that idea by providing teachers the resources to try new forms of formative assessment. Mike referred to this in the conversation as “a pump.” We all know that pumps take something (usually a liquid) and moves the liquid from one place to another, usually with great force.

Conversely, the principal can choose not to emphasize the big idea.  Whether it’s through intentional ignorance or a lack of ability to understand and promote the idea, the principal is key.  Either way, this idea is moving toward a school, and either loses momentum, or is completely stopped before entering the school.  At this point, I said, “Like a filter.” An idea can be moving with great momentum, then be slowed or stopped.

There was a pause….a recognition that we had just characterized the role of the principal in a new way that made sense to us.  Having all been principals in the past, we recognize the absolute importance of the role. The principal can be what stands between a school and its forward momentum, or what stands behind gracefully pumping growth.


Working Together vs. Thinking Together

The idea that group projects are “project based learning” is untrue. Students have to THINK together in order for collaboration to take place. Students have to disagree, argue, negotiate, and agree in order for collaboration to take place.  Group work refers to hard skills, such as “who will type this part up,” or “who can put pictures in the presentation.”  Collaboration is a soft skill, which includes the ability to articulate ideas, discuss content, with the division of labor coming naturally from the higher order skills. Group work is the “dessert”- there are a few choices and it comes at the end of the main dish (i.e. after instruction).   On the other hand,  collaboration is the “buffet” (i.e. there are many choices to be made serves as the main source of learning).

I recently reflected on the importance not just of problem “solving” but also of problem “recognition.” To simply instruct students to solve a problem we have identified is not authentic. In your job, do you find yourself more apt to work hard on a problem that’s been assigned to you, or do you prefer to have ownership over the work you do? Do you think students are any different?

I think this presents a barrier to most teachers, who were trained and have practiced their craft in an age of prescriptive curriculum. Allowing students to work on a project that has never been done before requires the teacher to let go of some control; a very scary idea for some. Most teachers are comfortable with creating an project, and assigning the students to groups, and then asking them to ‘work together.’ This is not enough…students need the authentic practice of thinking together to identify a problem and generate a solution.

let it go

Problem Solving is Not Enough

I recently began the Leading Edge Administrator Certification through TICAL.  It’s been 2 years since I completed my doctoral program, and I was hesitant to once again be a student.  After just two weeks of being in Leading Edge, I am so glad that I took this step. While I have always maintained pretty voracious reading habits, the program is asking me to reflect on my ideas and goals.

A recent assignment asked us to formulate a vision statement for the year 2020- how do we want our organization to function in the future? As someone “in the trenches” it’s easy to get caught up in the immediacy of projects and problems.  By asking me to think ahead and dream big, I came to a particular realization. I was reflecting on how project based learning helps students become “independent problem solvers.”  There was something about this idea that felt incomplete.

It’s not enough to teach students the skills to SOLVE problems.  In order to be meaningful contributors to society, students need to be able to IDENTIFY problems on their own.  While problem solving is a worthy educational focus, we are not serving tomorrow if students depend on someone else to tell them what the problems are that need to be solved. How can we say we are developing innovators if we are not ensuring that students have the capacity to analyze a situation enough to recognize that there is a problem to be solved?

5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending

My PLN is beginning to fill up with posts about #makeschooldifferent.  Educators from every corner of the US is sharing their own ideas about the current state of education.

The posts that are capturing my attention are based on the “5 Things to Stop Pretending” list.  I like this type of post because it distills someone’s philosophy on teaching and learning into a short a list of priorities and beliefs.

At first, I thought it would be simple to generate this list. I have many strong convictions about teaching and learning, school structures, and our systems in general.  It has been quite difficult, in fact, to narrow these ideas to 5 short sentences.  (Each of the 5 Things I selected could be their own blog post, so I am congratulating myself for resisting the urge to make a list of paragraphs.)

So, without further ado, I present my “5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending”

1. Teachers should be completely in charge of student learning.
2. Technology is the answer to our problems. (Yes, I am a Tech Director)
3. Large scale testing provides us meaningful information about a student, classroom, or school.
4. We need to have an adopted curriculum in order to have a coherent curriculum.
5. Change in pedagogy and curriculum can be incremental.

Since every online “challenge” (i.e. ice bucket, 5 Things, etc) has to include the challenge part, I challenge the following educators to share their list of 5 Things We Have to Stop Pretending in Education).  @WaggonerRobert @CoffeeNancy @dustin772 @scottmpetri

Getting a Tune-Up While Still Driving

In the last year and a half as a Director of Technology for a school district, I’ve learned quite a lot about leadership, technology, customer service, and of course, human behavior.  At most organizations, the IT department is tasked with two overarching goals: 1) Keep the current systems functional, and
2) Improve the current systems

This, of course, seems to be contradictory. How can one group of people tend to systems that are always in use, while also finding the time to make those systems perform faster, more efficiently, and in ways that better serve the other stakeholders in the organization (in our case: teachers, staff, students, and parents)? Further, how do we make these improvements and test them in real time without disrupting the use of the systems?

We recently experienced the unfortunate results of this contradiction.  One of our goals this year has been to condense the large number of different logins our staff and students have into a single username and password.  For anyone unfamiliar with the workings of identity systems, this is no small task.  Specifically, we have been looking at syncing our students’ Google Drive, Typing Agent, and OverDrive username/passwords – all through Active Directory (that’s our top level identity system).  This would make life much easier for our students and our teachers, who often have to contact our office in the middle of the school day when a student can’t remember their password (and thus can’t access their class materials or assignments).

Since so many students had changed their passwords internally in these systems, we had an issue where students had multiple passwords to remember.   Part of this syncing project required us to reset all student passwords to a default in Active Directory, so that the passwords for these programs would again be in sync. By mistake, the script to reset each student’s Active Directory password ran during the school day, which logged off any student who was at the time logged into any of the above mentioned services (mostly it was Google). The technician who created the script was upset because he knew this would impact and upset many teachers. The technician, by the way, is an outstanding person and employee and pretty much never makes a mistake.  Of course, an email went out explaining the change, and most people were unaffected by this.  A few teachers emailed thanking us because their students were managing as any as three passwords (not easy when you are 8 years old). Some teachers, however, were inconvenienced and a few let us know via email. They certainly had a right to be annoyed- we agree that changes made during the day should only be for emergencies.  But mistakes happen, and we rolled with the punches.  In the end, this has lead to a quickening of our password unification project.

And it furthers my understanding of the dichotomy of the IT department. We must at the same time maintain and improve our systems despite the fact that the systems are all in use all day long.

You Don’t Have to Agree to Be Right

This post is somewhat of a follow up to my previous post on PD presenters.  Since I have had quite a few PD experiences lately, it’s a hot topic for me.

In my career, I’ve been to many conferences, workshops, and other PD events. I’ve seen hundreds of presentations and scores of keynotes. I’ve seen former presidents, small town educators, and everything in between. During these workshops, presentations, keynotes, etc.i have seen a phenomenon that I am not comfortable with, especially because the behaviors I see are coming from educators.

Too often, I see educators blindly subscribing to the ideas presented by keynote speakers.  It’s almost as if some believe they have to believe what is being said by those on the stage.  I had one of those experiences the other day, listening to Eric Sheninger. Now, I must start by saying that I think Eric is amazing. I’ve followed him on Twitter since I first joined Twitter, and I have learned so much from him virtually-and as of last week- in person. This post is not about him, but rather about the way people reacted to him.

This is the part of the post where I warn you that I may say something you disagree with. “I disagree with something Eric Sheninger said to the wonderful and engaged group of educators at the Ventura County Office of Education.  While discussing BYOD at our table, I was assailed by arguments in favor of BYOD. Because this idea came form the presenter, it felt as if it was seen to be unassailably true.

Eric was arguing that BYOD is a great equalizer.  That allowing students to bring the device of their choosing will lead to great strides in education.  This post is not about BYOD, so I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of BYOD (you can follow the links to some articles that do get into the argument over BYOD).

What bothered me was the crowds quick willingness to subscribe to Eric’s point of view.  As educators, we are tasked with giving students the opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills.  We want our students to think for themselves, not be robots, yadda yadda yadda. Yet, as learners ourselves, we sometimes believe in the ‘Rockstars’ too much. (Here is a great reflection on the emerging Rock Star culture in education.)

As lead learners, it’s critical that you maintain your own though processes and make decisions on your own.  Just because someone has a microphone, it doesn’t mean they are right.  They are people with ideas, and you can agree or disagree with what they say.

Unless, of course, I’m the one presenting….