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:

Curation
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.

Conversation
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.

Celebration
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.

The Tyranny of Being On Task

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



I remember when I was first teaching and was getting ready for my first official observation and evaluation. I was very nervous. My principal had told me she would be looking for a classroom where students were on task. Heaven forbid that any students were off task. I thought that if my classroom even hinted that some students were off task, I would never be a successful teacher, and perhaps told to leave the teaching profession.

I now know that it is unreasonable to ensure complete on task behavior from every student at all times, but back then I wanted a good evaluation, and I wanted my students to be on task so that they would learn and I could support them. Before the observation, I was told by my colleagues to have students quietly work on an assignment after I gave some instruction. “Don’t have them do group work. Don’t have them present. It’s too risky!” This advice seemed to be successful. When my principal came in, the students were quiet as I moved around to check in with them. After the observation, I was praised for my success in keeping students on task.

Many years later, I taught in a school with a focus on project-based learning. Learning was messy and conflicts emerged as students worked together to solve problems, but ultimately students succeeded. The meaning of “on task” was different there. Yes, there were times when students were off task and I needed to redirect them. Yet I struggled with the expectation of consistent on task behavior.

There seem to be forces in education that push us to make sure students are on task. Why do we attempt to meet that demand when we know it’s unreasonable? Why do we demand on task behavior when it is not equivalent to student engagement? Isn’t it OK for students to be off task from time to time? In fact, don’t students need time to be off task? To take it to another level, what if off task is really on task?

What Does the Science of the Brain Tell Us?
Adults have built executive functions of the brain, and we receive a dopamine reward when we do the right thing. Our students have not yet built up those functions. In the teenage years, students receive that same dopamine reward for very different behavior, when they take risks and explore. When a student does something that is a risk in the classroom, something we might consider off task behavior, they are doing so because they receive a dopamine reward for doing so. Science tells us that students will not only be off task on occasion but might even have strong motivations to behave that way.

What Can We Do?
Instead of working against off task behavior, we should embrace it and try to reframe it as an on task moment that is necessary and useful to our students. Judy Willis calls such moments brain breaks in her book Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. She wants us to understand that such breaks are needed and are useful to students. They prevent the brain from becoming overloaded and give time for information to be processed and retained effectively. On a related note, Eric Jensen explains that movement gives new spatial meaning to information being processed, and increases oxygenation of the brain as well (subscription required).

We should explore ways to incorporate brain breaks more into our classroom routines and norms. Some other practical strategies include:

Be mindful of students’ attention span and chunk activities and tasks appropriately.
Break up tasks with conversations and checks for understanding.
Admit personal challenges and failures related to staying on task.
Meet with students one on one to discuss off task behavior rather than shame them.
Smile and laugh more.
Balance louder and quieter activities.
Move more.

Brain breaks are essential to classroom culture and student learning. These seemingly off task moments are truly on task because they provide a space for students to learn better, and take into account the fact that students are growing and maturing. Brain breaks are responsive to students and help us become allies of their behavior rather than punitive figures. In fact, brain breaks help us as educators to rethink the binary nature of on task and off task and to realize that all the work is on task and helpful to children as they learn and grow.

What brain breaks do you use in your classroom?

Tools for Student Self-Management

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >



As educators, we have so many tasks to handle each and every school day. Student absences, assessments, phone calls, meetings — these can pile up on our plates. Classroom management is often considered one of the tasks we need to take on. While this is true to some extent, perhaps we can take some of the classroom management load off the teacher and put it on the students themselves. Management doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, something teachers decide or handle on their own. Students should be invited into the process of managing learning in the classroom. Here are some tools many teachers have used to empower students to self-manage.

Team Operating Agreements
Agreements or contracts created or co-created with students can be a great tool to help them own their challenges when it comes to self-management. While you might have class or school norms, students may not find a true attachment to them. When students create norms, they are more likely to follow them. In addition, students can create norms and agreements that are personalized. While one team might need an agreement about keeping their hands and feet to themselves, another might need one about the free expression of ideas. Norms and agreements should meet the needs of students, not simply be imposed upon them. When students help create the norms, it’s more likely that they will meet the students’ needs.

Task Lists
In addition, students may need scaffolds to organize their thinking, planning, and overall work. They can use task lists to assign tasks to specific team members. Sometimes these sheets have places for teachers, team leaders, and others to sign off when tasks are completed. Scrumy is an online tool I have used with students to organize their work — it functions as an interactive planning tool. Task lists are also great tools for assessment and conversations on equitable collaboration.

Checklists and Rubrics
Of course, rubrics and checklists are tried-and-true tools for self-management. There is nothing new here, but it’s a good reminder that assessment tools are also great management tools. They promote reflection and goal setting, as well as ownership of the work. Checklists and rubrics are more powerful when they are co-created with students, as students tend to understand and take ownership of expectations. Keep checklists and rubrics available to students and plan intentional time for students to use them to assess themselves and their peers, to help manage projects, and to keep constant momentum in the learning process.

Time Management Logs
Using time management logs, students document how long they spend on specific tasks, assignments, or collaborative work. They can do this over the course of a week or longer. The intent is to document and then reflect upon the time they spend learning and working. The log may surprise students and inspire them to use their time more efficiently.

Flexible Seating and Spaces
I’m a big fan of classrooms that have a variety of places for students to work. Some students need quiet zones while others need collaborative tables. Some students work well with exercise balls as seats while others prefer standing desks. There are many possibilities for meeting students’ needs in classroom seating and arrangement. Meeting those needs can promote student ownership of how and where they work and learn. As the teacher, you can coach them through the process of selecting appropriate spaces to work and learn, and students will learn to self-manage this choice as well.

Reflection and Goal Setting
All of the tools above are completely ineffective unless they are paired with reflection time. Just as we take time to reflect on content learning, we also need to take time to reflect on the learning process. All of the tools above provide great opportunities for students to reflect on how they have learned in targeted ways and to set goals. Learning logs are a great tool for this as well, as they promote the process of learning, not just the product. Don’t forget reflection on self-management — it’s critical.

Remember, the greatest tool for management is engagement. Even when our students are engaged, they still need tools to manage themselves. Different tools work for different students, so try experimenting with a mix of the tools above to have students take more ownership of managing their learning process.

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 >


Miller Go Slow Go Fast Rectangle
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.

Do No Harm: Flexible and Smart Grading Practices

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


3Alwayslearning
My Edutopia post When Grading Harms Student Learning generated a lot of buzz. Grading is an emotional subject, with strong-held opinions and ideas. I was really excited to see discussion on all sides of the issue. The best feedback for me was that, while many readers agreed with parts of the premise, I hadn’t been specific on support strategies. Thank you for that feedback — it was specific, actionable, and created the need and excitement for a follow-up post. While there are many tools out there that help address concerns around redoes, zeroes, not grading homework, and more, here are some of my favorites:

Address Behavioral Issues Affecting Academic Achievement
Points off for late work may not motivate students. I know that when I took points off for late work, some students just accepted their losses. It didn’t address the behavioral issue of late work. Similarly, it didn’t address the problem of incomplete work. I needed to figure out a way to motivate students without using points as a method. I had a form, similar to Myron Dueck’s late or incomplete assignment form (click the link and scroll down to Figure 1.3), which tried to address what was getting in the way of turning in work on time. Here, students identify those issues, from heavy course load to procrastination, and then set a new goal for completion. They also identify the support structure they might need. These forms are great behavioral issues assessments that are responsive and not punitive. It’s an approach that truly helps students to be ready for a future when it’s much more detrimental to turn in work late.

Request to Retest
This is a great way to put the student in the driver’s seat of what they’ll redo and how they’ll redo it. It puts the onus on them to be self-advocates for their learning and helps them set goals for improvement. In a request to retest form (PDF), students reflect on their score and the concepts or skills that they failed. They also identify next steps on how to improve their test. While this is specific to a more traditional test, it could also be used for other major assessments that have many components or concepts.

Redo Parts of an Assessment
Some assessments that we give students have very clear categories. For example, a history exam might assess multiple concepts or ideas, or an essay might assess thesis and organization. Here the data is easily disaggregated. If this is the case, you might have a student redo only the parts that he or she needs, leaving the rest as is. That also means that you have to re-grade or reassess much less. It saves you time as an educator and helps you really target your assessments. Again, this may not be a useful strategy for assessments that synthesize concepts or skills, but rather for assessments that can be easily disaggregated.

Reflect on Assessments
One strategy that I’ve seen many educators use is ongoing reflection throughout the assessment process, whether we’re talking about a small quiz or a major exam. For example, after students complete an assessment, they reflect and discuss questions such as:

Were you prepared for this test? How did you prepare?
How long did you study the material outside of class?
Did you feel more confident about some parts or sections than others?

These questions allow students to recognize their strengths and weakness in what they need to learn, and how they can better prepare to learn the material. What I also enjoy about this strategy is how it connects to behavioral issues that get in the way of academic achievement, addressing them directly in a non-punitive way. It also helps students and teachers plan for redoes that may not be full redoes, saving teachers and students time and stress.

Pick Your Battles
You know your curriculum. You know that some assessments and assignments are crucial in showing evidence of learning. Other assessments, mostly formative, are simply check-ins and don’t affect the grade much or at all. These smaller assessments may not be worthy of redoes or late/incomplete assignment forms. On the other hand, bigger, more comprehensive assessments may present better opportunities for offering redoes and addressing behavioral issues. As a master educator, you can pick your battles and focus on what matters most in terms of assessment. Use your best judgment!

Again, It’s About Hope
I hope that you find these tools useful in your classrooms. We need to be realistic and recognize that, no matter what we try, we may not get all students to do the work that we want in class. But we do have an opportunity to rethink how we assess students and create systems that allow for hope of achievement rather than relying on antiquated systems that haven’t met the needs of all students.

Pin It on Pinterest