Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Archive for April, 2012

The Purpose of Ed Tech

“It’s not an ed tech conference, it’s a conference on learning and teaching,” Silvia Tolisano (@langwitches) astutely pointed out in the opening keynote of EdJEWcon. In that moment, as in so many magical learning moments in groups, I felt as though Silvia was speaking not merely to the group, but directly to me; gently, caringly, correcting me in order to support my own learning and growth. I had called EdJEWcon an ed tech conference not only once, but just about every time I shared with others where I would be April 29th-May 1st. In that moment, as Silvia defined the purpose of edJEWcon, I understood; I learned; I grew. I was in the presence of teachers skilled in educational technology; but far more significantly, I was in the presence of learners wanting, as Andrea Hernandez (@edtechworkshop) shared in her introduction to the conference, to engage in collaborative co-created learning. With Silvia’s and Andreas’s words, a tone was set for our group of twenty plus individual school teams to become a learning community.   
Our responsibilities are significant. The world of education, reflecting the world in which our students are growing up, is changing rapidly. Silvia Tolisano shared that Generation Alpha, those born around 2010, will arrive at school already having a digital footprint. It will be our responsibility as educators to help them make that digital footprint a positive one. I reflected on what a daunting task we share; focused for me not primarily on technology, although the technology matters, but on character. How can we help our students define their own identities in positive, meaningful ways in a world in which so much that was once private is now transparent, shared, and open? How can we support our students to contribute to community in a world in which the very definition of community is in constant flux? 
In the past several years, I have grown more comfortable with questions that have no immediate answer; relishing in the creative chaos of finding our way together. I also appreciate the calming voices among us who remind us of the substantial gifts we have to guide us. Jon Mitzmacher (@jon_mitzmacher) did not disappoint, joining his voice to the keynote, pointing to the necessary contemporary skills that have ancient grounding and have always  been part of the fabric of Jewish schools: critical thinking, global connection, second language acquisition, and social learning.  The tension in my body eased a bit and I recognized that  while expectations are high,  we share many supports to reach those expectations.  As much as our world is changing, much remains the same: the importance of character, compassion,  and care. Ultimately, our world remains dependent upon the strength of communities of value.  
And so, I add to Silvia Tolisano’s message. EdJEWcon is not an ed tech conference and not even a conference on learning and teaching. EdJEWcon, at least for me, is a conference on creating communities of learning and character in a rapidly changing world.  

The Learning Walk Shuffle

“What are all these teachers doing here?” more than one child asked as a group of nine adults filed into the classroom. “Just learning about the great learning you do,” we answered with a smile.  “Shuffling up our professional learning,” I happily thought.

Learning walks have shuffled our professional learning, moving us from our expected “spaces”, or rather classrooms, into our colleagues’ classrooms. This year to date our faculty has celebrated five learning walks (with more to come); in which a group of teachers visit classrooms in each of our grades K-5 along with one specialty class. Our purpose – to break down the isolation of educators, moving us into each other’s classrooms to notice and wonder about learning in our school as it is and as it might someday become.  We plan to make it possible for every teacher in our school to participate in at least one learning walk per year.

What on our learning walk looks different than it would have looked five years ago?  What might look different on our learning walks two years from now?

I posed these two questions during our learning walk debrief. It was the first time I had asked in quite that direct manner. The answers were insightful.

What on our learning walk looks different than it would have looked five years ago?

Whether in kindergarten or fifth grade, and indeed any grade in between, regardless of subject, we saw a similar sight – students spread throughout the classroom working in combinations of small groups, partners, and independently. Teachers were either guiding a group or conferencing with individual students. In only one class, other  than in physical education, were students participating in a full class experience and in that case it was a debrief on work they had  been engaged in independently prior to our visit.  Classroom furniture was arranged to promote collaborative learning and there were comfortable corners for students to read independently or with a partner. There was a relatively noisy buzz of students speaking with one another. There was a mix of required learning activities and opportunity for student choice among various options. There was ample evidence of differentiation and student engagement, the two foci of our learning walks to date this year.

Five years ago, had we participated in learning walks, we would have observed far  more full class experiences led by the teacher and far fewer opportunities for students to choose from among different learning experiences.

What is the same?

While interactive white boards are in each class in the school, in many classrooms we visited they were not being used. Students did not have technology, whatever the specific device, flexibly available for their use. Bulletin boards, for the most part, displayed class expectations and learning resources important all year, as well as substantive, completed student projects which might or might not be connected to current learning experiences. Bulletin boards did not, for the most part, display the most recent student work along with rubrics explaining specific learning goals, with expectations and resources that change as student progress unfolds.

Two years from now we anticipate seeing on our learning walks many more technology tools (whether iPads, laptops, or other devices) available to students in our classrooms, not merely in our computer labs and media center, actively utilized in fluid, flexible organic ways to support student learning. We anticipate seeing evidence of student work in progress, along with rubrics and shifting resources based on student progress prominently displayed and recognizable as the basis for instructional choices, with the spot light visibly on student work to drive instruction. We anticipate even more differentiation and opportunities for choice in learning experiences.

While learning walks are non-judgmental, human emotion and our passion for our craft are not ignored. We huddle in the hall after each classroom visit and reflect using the prompts, “I noticed”, “I wonder”, “What if” and “How might”. The reflections create an opportunity for celebration – joy in our progress along with excitement about possibilities for continued growth.

We notice what we value.  Our recognition of evidence of differentiation and student engagement, the two foci for our learning walks to date is potent. Similarly, our ability to imagine a not so distant future with greater educational technology integration and more substantial focus on student work in progress to drive instruction speaks to our self-awareness as professional learners and reflective educators able to envision learning goals not yet accomplished.

Just as a strategy of good readers is to visualize what they read, a strategy of good educators committed to growth is to visualize school as it might become. By filling in the prompts “I notice”, “I wonder”, “what if?” and “how might?”, our learning walk shuffle not only brought us into “spaces” in our present reality, classrooms of our colleagues, but also shuffled us through the boundaries of time, bringing us to “spaces” of our future, enabling us to envision what we anticipate we will notice on learning walks of our future.  Those images fill us with excitement and energy.

Doctoral Confessions: 14 Years Later

“Doctoral confessions” is a series of stories started by my twitter friend, Will Deyamport (@peoplegogy) on the good, the bad and the ugly in pursuing a doctorate. Will, currently in the final stages of his doctorate, refers to those of us who have graduated as “brave souls”. I think it’s more honest to call us “persistent souls”. There are surely much more difficult experiences in life than pursuing a doctorate. Getting a Ph.D. doesn’t require bravery; just time and patience.

I hadn’t intended to start a doctorate. It was the early 90’s and I was a rabbinical student, not yet sure how I would craft a career. I taught religious school as a means of supporting myself and found I loved being in the classroom; adoring the middle school students I taught. To improve my teaching skill, I added to my schedule as many education electives as I could. I found myself drawn to education.

At the time, the field of Jewish education seemed to be expanding and there was great demand for qualified Jewish educators to serve in a range of settings. My school, The Jewish Theological Seminary, among other institutions was asked to produce doctoral students capable of becoming educational leaders. Apparently, I was gaining a reputation for holding educational promise. The chair of the education department, with whom I took a course, invited me to lunch. Would I be interested, he asked, in a full scholarship along with a living stipend to pursue a doctorate in Jewish education?  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The experience was a dream come true. I continued rabbinical school, with the cost of classes covered as part of the same scholarship I received for my doctoral studies. I engaged in learning with professors and colleagues who stretched my thinking. I read countless books and journal articles that were meaningful and thought provoking.

Do I have “war stories” – the bad and the ugly as it were? Well, of course I do. There was the German exam I failed miserably, finally squeaking through the language requirement with a B- (by the skin of my teeth) in two semesters of German.  There was the moment I and three colleagues in my program approached our department to schedule our comprehensive exams, following six months of intensive study, only to be told the department had a new literature list and we would need to begin our exam prep anew. We protested that decision and were allowed to take the exam on the material we had initially been told to learn. There were the demanding years of intensive writing, critique and revising. Through it all, I always felt privileged both for the opportunity to learn and for the potential to contribute.

Now, looking back 14 years into the past, the pain of grueling hours, days and years of writing almost forgotten, I wonder whether the intensive academic study prepared me for real challenges in real schools. Hubris aside at being able to call myself Dr., I question whether the study made me a better educator today than I would have been without pursuing the doctorate.

I suppose the answer is yes – my academic training has helped me become a more effective educator.

I can read and apply educational research utilizing critical thinking honed in my doctoral program. I can ask good questions. I can research and I can write. I can assess the quality of data and utilize data to formulate hypotheses and opinions. I can recognize the possibility of multiple interpretations of the same data. I am open to differing perspectives.

And, I suppose the answer is also no – my academic training is not primarily what makes me an effective educator.

I wasn’t prepared to support a child excluded by peers or frustrated by work that is too challenging or not challenging enough. I wasn’t instructed in ways of assisting a parent saddened by a child’s difficulties or angered by a school decision. I wasn’t shown ways of empowering teachers stiving to meet ever rising demands. I wasn’t made ready to allocate insufficient financial resources during economically trying times. Perhaps most significantly, I wasn’t equipped to lead the cultural change required in response to the rapid changes our world has experienced in the past fourteen years since I received my Ph.D. All of that I have learned from experience.

Was receiving a doctorate worth the effort? Absolutely! Was it sufficient? Not by a long shot. Are there other paths to becoming an effective educational leader? Of course! Am I still grateful for the opportunity I received? Unquestionably; grateful and ever-committed to utilizing the gifts given me in order to make a contribution for the sake of our children.

On Mindset, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg & Teacher Evaluation


Politically independent, and typically loathe to share my eclectic political perspectives, I will say that there is much I admire about New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On education policy though, I’m a skeptic, growing more disillusioned.  Principal of an independent school and humbly reticent about making remarks on public education, I comment on this week’s education news out of sadness; increasingly convinced that to improve our schools, educators can together design and present alternative approaches to evaluating our own effectiveness.

Mayor Bloomberg, as reported in an article in The Wall Street Journal,  declared this past Monday that he wants teachers’ evaluations open for all to see. Why, Mayor Bloomberg? His answer: doing so will “provide pressure to constantly upgrade.”

Pressure to upgrade? Really? Does pressure improve practice?

Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), would likely disagree. Dweck compellingly describes the differences between fixed and growth mindsets, shared in greater detail in this 2007 article in Stanford Magazine. Dweck explains in Mindset that those with a fixed mindset believe their qualities are carved in stone, thus experiencing great urgency to prove themselves. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset believe basic qualities can be cultivated through effort, inspiring improvement and accomplishment. Not only individuals, but organizations have mindsets, and a culture of judging puts everyone in a fixed mindset. Instead of learning and growing, everybody’s fear of being judged paralyzes, impeding creativity and innovation. Pressure to upgrade? Sounds like a recipe for developing a culture of fear and fixed mindset.

So what’s the alternative? Dweck looks to CEO’s for insight, finding that in stark distinction to fixed-minded CEO’s, growth-minded CEO’s, the type featured by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great (2001), are deeply concerned with mentoring and employee development programs, seeking ways of providing feedback to employees in ways that promote learning and future success.

So, Mayor Bloomberg, why should we evaluate? Not, I would argue, to provide pressure. Instead, I would suggest, to offer support, guidance, and even at times, inspiration. As a principal, I would never be able to share honest reflections with teachers were those conversations, designed to be private, made public. For those teachers in jeopardy of dismissal, I need to be empowered to protect the dignity of professionals who, despite not being a match for our school, have strengths and have made contributions. Nonrenewal of contract is a painful decision, not to be taken lightly, nor publicized. For the majority of teachers, I need to be able to guide honest reflection on strengths and weaknesses, identifying areas for professional growth in a trusting and supportive environment.

So, what should teacher evaluations look like?

There are many possible forms, and like most serious learning resources, evaluation tools need to remain constantly a work in progress. Faculty members at our school are creating our own rubrics to assess excellence based on our school’s Standards for Professional Practice. We plan to use these rubrics for teachers to self-assess and for the educational leadership team to assess as well, leading to conversation on how teachers see their strengths and weakness and how the members of the educational leadership team see teachers’ strengths and weakness. I humbly view the rubrics as an assessment of my own knowledge of faculty in our school, and approach evaluation with trepidation. I understand that learning is complex and multiple measures of student learning and growth matter. I cannot imagine basing 40% of a teacher evaluation on one standardized test as is possible in New York City’s new system, nor for that matter on one formal observation, or indeed on one of anything. Effectiveness, like learning, is complex and requires multiple measures to assess. We must be careful about what we believe we know and cautious about judging skilled professionals or indeed about judging anybody. I wonder constantly how I can avoid acting as “expert”, regardless of the number of measures I amass, and instead function as a coach and a mentor. I question deliberately how I can nurture a growth mindset and facilitate teacher learning – helping good teachers become very good, very good teachers become great, and great teachers become even greater.

Luckily for our students, we are not and will not be required to publish our completed rubrics for all to see; neither will our rubrics be filed away for future reference only if a problem or a possibility for promotion arises. Our evaluation or rather professional learning rubrics will be living guides for our teachers – shaping professional learning goals, supports to achieve our goals, and assessments to recognize progress made. Our evaluations will, at their best, inspire nuanced, impactful, meaningful growth for the benefit of our children, based not on pressure and fear, but rather on joy and dedication. And that, Mayor Bloomberg, is a far more effective path than providing constant pressure to improve our schools.

Students Fighting Hunger

Our Fifth Grade Student Council has taken seriously as student leaders their responsibility to do what they are able to make a positive difference for others, focusing their efforts on planning a school-wide Campaign Against Hunger. They shared the letter below with our faculty. 

Dear Teachers,

Do you remember our commercial? If not, take a look again at this link:

We now want to build awareness in the school. Please think of ways to help. Get your students excited about donating food and tzedakah money to purchase food. You can work on a cheer. You can talk about how important it is to help the hungry. Maybe there are current events articles you can read with your class. You might ask students to write reminders to themselves in their homework planner to bring in food and tzedakah money. As a class you can do some research in the computer lab about the problems of hunger in our country and in our world. Find ways as you can to make participating in our campaign against hunger fun.

We will soon be designing and giving you pictures of baskets and small tokens. Each time a student brings food to donate you can glue or draw a token to put in the box. You can also add a token to your basket for every dollar your class raises. We’ll have a picture of a big basket in the front hall showing how much our whole school has contributed together.

Keep track now of what you are collecting until we get the baskets. When your class messenger comes down with attendance, you’ll also send the tallies of what was brought in.

Use your own creativity and imagination and help us figure out how to get the whole school involved. We are really relying on you to help.


Fifth Grade Student Council

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