Why Are We Meeting – Strategies for Effective Meetings

We’ve all been there – a terrible meeting. We don’t why we are there, people are talking over each other, it feels like a waste of time. Many of us are required to meet, whether that’s a traditional staff meeting or a weekly team meeting with fellow teachers. These meetings can either be quite productive and satisfying or disheartening and a complete waste of time. At my school, we were initially mandated as instructional coaches with our teams, yet we had no idea why were we were meeting. We struggled to get coaching off the ground, and in faxct, the lack of structure and purpose to these meetings may have sabotaged the trust we wanted to build. Here are some of the lessons learned this year when it comes to meetings.

Adopt the Seven Norms for Collaboration
We’ve been regularly using the seven norms for collaboration in our meetings, and often ask participants to set intent on which one(s) they want to focus on. These norms include ones such as pausing, asking questions, presuming positive intent, and paraphrasing. These norms are different from “Working Agreements.” Norms are considered to be trusted and effective ways of interacting that are effective regardless of the team or content, whereas “Working Agreements” are ad hoc agreements specific to the context and team. These might be more related to “being on time” or “bring prepared materials.” Holding people to these norms and processing after the back can build capacity of the team to be effective group members.

Clear Outcomes
You should never meet just to meet. I even struggle with the term “check-in” meeting.  What are we checking in on? There must be clear meetings for every meeting. If you are planning a meeting, you need to have clear outcomes that seem feasible to meet in the time allotted. These outcomes might be to share reflections on a past unit, plan a new lesson, look at student work, set goals for professional development, plan for another meeting, or even discuss material needs. Clarity and transparency builds trust, so make sure every meeting has clear outcomes.

Agendas and Protocols
As outcomes are effective, a clear agenda with these outcomes and how they are met can build trust and transparency of the team. What is purpose of each section of a meeting? To get feedback? To share information? To make a decision? From these specific purposes, the “how” needs to be address. This one is particularly important for decision making? How will decisions be made? Majority vote? All members agreeing? “Will of the group?” In fact, consensus is a term that various understanding, so a common understanding of it is critical for decision making. When people know how decisions are made, it helps build trust and allows decisions to be made efficiently and effectively. These should all be clear from the start. In addition, these agenda must be shared well before the meeting to allow participants to come prepared and ready to learn, work and collaborate.

“I’m in an ineffective meeting, how do I get out?”
So you are stuck in a terrible meeting, what might you do to work through it. It might be appropriate to clarify outcomes to allow those to leading the meeting to bring them to light, or to redirect participants to focus on those outcomes. I also encourage you to ask for an agenda before the meeting as well. You might also ask how decisions are made or what the process is. Of course, you can approach those who lead the meeting after the fact and do the same. Expressing your concern and giving helpful advice can help everyone involved in making meetings meaningful and effective.

These are just some tools and considerations for making meetings better. What are some tools or strategies you use to make your meetings a valuable experience?

The 3Cs of School Culture – Curation, Conversation, and Celebration

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

School culture is just as important as teaching practice, but work towards improving them doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In fact, teaching practice gives us an opportunity to build school culture, just as a focus on school culture can improve teaching practice. At the Shanghai American School where I work as an Instructional Coach, we have adopted a mantra in our team “Building Culture By Building Practice.” It has been a force that has driven our work and gives us a focus and meaning as a team.

Recently we asked teachers to partner with us on a professional development experience modeled after the Project Based Learning method. Our school is working on a guaranteed and viable curriculum, but we wanted to approach this process of curricular alignment in a fresh and meaningful way. Instead of taking the “deficit” approach where we communicate “Curriculum is not aligned, so align it,” we decided to focus on make the hidden curriculum visible to all which would lead to a place of refinement and reflection on not only curriculum, but also teaching practice. We answered the question “What is the story of learning” in our middle school. Parents wanted to know, teachers wanted to know, and administration wanted to know. More importantly, we wanted to curate and celebrate the great work teachers are doing everyday with students.

Through this project, 3Cs of school culture (similar to Fisher and Frey’s school culture pillars) have emerged for me and my team – Curation, Conversation, and Celebration:

Stories matter. Both teachers and students want their stories told. It is powerful o document experiences to learn from them. Why else do we watch documentaries? Part of purpose of curation wasn’t simply to have teachers fill out a form. A template doesn’t tell the full story of learning. In fact, simply curating standards, assessments and daily lessons aren’t that inspiring. We decided to curate both student and teacher learning through the use of Discovery Cards. In our Discovery Cards, we the coaches took on the heavy lifting. Instead of having teachers fill out a template, we had discussions with teachers and students. We curated driving questions and the overall description of the project. We also took photos of students engaged in the work to really make the learning come to life. Finally, we curated reflections from teachers and students, as we wanted to tell the story of learning of both teachers and students.

One misunderstanding of our professional learning project was that it was only about the Discovery Cards and Curation. In fact, the cards were a catalyst for powerful conversations. Once we curated one or more cards, we asked teachers to set up a time to engage in a reflective conversation on the project, task or unit we focused on. Teachers reflected on what worked, assessment practices, areas of improvement and more. The coaches helped teachers settled on dilemma or something to tune in protocols that occurred in staff meeting times. In summary, we had more organic, cognitive coaching sessions as well as structured conversations with protocols. Templates don’t align and improve curriculum and instruction, conversations and people do. Focusing on conversations can support a culture of collaboration and reflection.

The coaches knew we need to celebrate the work that teachers did. We decided to work on creating an anthology of learning which would include not only some of the information of discovery cards, but information from other partners and stakeholders. We included comments and questions from parents after they participated in a Gallery Walk of the cards. It included articles from the coaches and what they learned, as well as from administration and what they learned. We wanted teachers to walk away from the school year with a meaningful keepsake, and we will culminate that in a celebration to “book end” the project.

We hope to leverage as much as we can of this model moving forward. We have noticed teachers engaging more with us coaches in reflective conversations and invitations to come and visit classroom. We are also seeing a clear focus on talking about student work, curriculum and instruction. More importantly, we are already seeing a change in school culture. Instead of teaching in silos, we are constantly collaborating, opening our doors, and seeking constant refinement of our daily practice.

Go Slow to Go Fast

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

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The beginning of a new school year brings both excitement and anxiety. We are excited to see our students and start on the path of learning for the year, but we are also stressed with the logistics of getting started. Room setups, technology infrastructure, processes, curriculum planning—we have a lot to do as educators to make the year start off in a positive and productive way. We are also pressured with the idea of limited time. “I only have a year to get through the curriculum” or “We need to start the unit now” may be some of the thoughts that creep into your mind. Breathe. Those things will come, but only if we take time to slow down. All of us—teachers, students, administrators, and parents—need to slow down at the beginning of the year.

What’s the Why?
Things happen so fast that we often forget to ask why? Between assemblies, field trips, meetings, and so forth, when do we take the time to ask why? Why are we doing this? What’s the reason behind this? Why is this useful? Tradition can be important, but it can also be a prisoner. If we commit to asking why, we commit to continuous improvement as a school and as teachers. When you explore the reasons for doing something, you will feel more confident in your decision and establish a sense of purpose. If there isn’t a why yet for something you do, maybe it is time to craft one. My team of instructional coaches sat down and created our shared purpose for how and why we work together so that all decisions are informed and aligned. Take some time to do the same before you make decisions or jump in. Slowing down to think about the why is crucial and important for school morale, mission, and vision.

Focus on Culture
This, of course, is nothing new, but it’s really important to take time to build and rebuild the culture of your school. Are there new issues around school culture to address? Are there school culture initiatives already in place to build upon? Consider addressing culture at both the school and classroom levels. Are they in alignment? Are students receiving mixed messages? There is and should always be time to slow down and focus on school culture. Take time daily, or perhaps take entire days, to work solely on culture. When you rush to the curriculum, you miss a valuable opportunity to set and sustain culture. When you focus on culture, student achievement will naturally follow suit.

Take Time for Yourself
Don’t forget about your personal life. Take care of your mental and physical health. Build in norms and routines to support yourself. Reflection is a way of thinking, and you may need to set sacred time aside for reflection as you start to get more and more busy with different tasks. What do you need to do to slow down and take care of yourself? Some of the teachers at my school and I meet regularly for mediation every Monday morning. Look at your week and find ways you can incorporate things that provide a sense of calm and focus.

Remember, we all need to go slow to go fast. When we take time for ourselves, our school and classroom culture, and our shared purpose, we can feel confident about our next steps.

Three Tips for More Engaging PBL Projects

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

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Project-based learning (PBL) is a powerful tool to promote student engagement. It allows students to investigate real-world challenges and problems and create high-quality work for authentic audiences. It allows students to work collaboratively and individually to learn the content and skills they need to be “future ready.” Books by John Larmer and Suzie Boss are great tools to get started designing these high quality projects, and educators can reinvent projects of the past to make sure they are truly engaging. Here are three tips to consider as you design and redesign PBL projects for your students to make them even more engaging and focused on learning.

Allow for Failure
In my Arias Publication Freedom to Fail, I give many tips and advocate for the power of failure as a learning experience. Many PBL projects focus on real-world design challenges, and just like in the real world, designers fail. In fact, many intentionally fail quickly to learn. As educators, we, too, can allow for failure in our projects. We can tell students upfront that they will learn and design high-quality products, and it will be ok to “get it wrong.” Students will be more likely to take risks and innovate—and then engage to learn more material.

Set Up Flexible Classroom Spaces
The classroom environment should communicate a message of collaboration and innovation for PBL. We should experiment with different spaces so collaboration is natural and easy. PBL is a great way to individualize learning, and different seating arrangements like standing desks and bean bags can allow the space to be personalized based on what students are doing in the project. Students can move in a fluid fashion and receive feedback from their peers, revise their work, or get direct instruction from their teacher as necessary.

Provide Opportunities for Student Voice and Choice
This is crucial to any PBL project. There should always be an element of choice in what students produce, who they work with, and how they work. This will look different depending on age, time of year, experience with PBL, etc. We know our students, and, therefore, can make great decisions around voice and choice. However, we should also trust our students. We might be hesitant to give them choice, but we know there are many ways to do so (e.g., time, place, products, and people). We can jigsaw content and allow students to choose their team members, the products they want to produce, when they will share benchmarks and final products, where they want to work in and outside of the classroom, etc. The possibilities for voice and choice in PBL are endless, and we should embrace these choices to empower students and create better student engagement.

There are many ways to revise and improve PBL projects to make them more relevant and authentic. Educators should take part in this revision process to create engaging experiences that encourage student learning.

Assess More, Grade Less

This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

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One of the best things we can do in our classes to not only increase student achievement but also improve school and classroom culture is to stop grading everything. We live in a world where much is driven by grades. College admission counselors want to see grades. Many district policies, in an effort to encourage formative assessment and reporting, demand a certain number of grades in a time period. Many of our students are grade driven and constantly ask, “What’s my grade?” There are several forces that drive teachers to grade. We must, however, push back on these forces and instead focus on assessment.

Do We Really Want to See Grades?
I would argue that when a parent, for example, wants to know his child’s grade, he really wants to know how his child in doing the class. A grade alone gives no clear feedback on what students know or where they are in their learning journey. Many schools realize this and no longer report grades; instead, they report on clear learning objectives. Work and assignments may be associated with these reports, but rather than grades coming first, learning comes first. Students and parents want the same thing—to know how they are doing. We should meet that need by providing assessments with clear feedback rather than simply reporting grades.

Grading Can Harm Learning
Yes, grading can harm student learning. Often, grades are used as an enforcer to make students perform; in reality, this approach doesn’t work. Grades are commonly used as the wrong consequence to address a problem. One prime example is how some teachers deal with late work. To try to prevent students from turning in late work, teachers threaten to take off points or negate a score. This is highly problematic because it muddies the true academic grade with a behavior issue, and it often doesn’t fix the root problem. We should stop using grades as punitive tools. In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck provides some great grading strategies, such as marking incompletes instead of zeros on late work to encourage students to work to correct a behavioral problem.

Focus on Formative Assessment
When we focus on formative assessment, we are actually taking a huge workload away. We aren’t spending all our time grading everything and can instead start working smarter. We can give more timely feedback in the moment. We can look for patterns in student errors and adjust our instruction accordingly. We can assign smaller, low-stakes check-in activities that help students know where they are in their progress toward the learning goals. Eventually, we may need to assign a summative mark to a student, but even then it shouldn’t be a priority. I was talking with a colleague about formative and summative assessment, and he jokingly said, “We give summative assessments when we are done with teaching.” We both laughed, but I knew he had a point. Summative assessments are assigned arbitrarily for the purposes of reporting, scoring, and sorting students. I say we instead focus on formative assessment to show that learning is never truly complete. Maybe I’m crazy, but it’s a dream I have.

Many teachers, schools, and districts have or are moving to grading models where assessment is meaningful and focused on feedback. It will take time to transform a culture of grading into a culture of assessment. We have to work with all stakeholders to reframe the conversation around student achievement and focus on meaningful assessments rather than hollow grades.

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