Because Counting Our Blessings Just Isn't Enough

Posts tagged ‘Change’

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.  
 
  

Walking the Learning Walk

What do six teachers, two members of our educational leadership team, four reflective prompts, two educational foci, one ten minute orientation, five minutes in each of seven classrooms, and one twenty minute debrief equal? A moving professional learning experience!

We set off on our school’s first teacher led learning walk armed with information from a brief orientation along with the following reflective, nonjudgmental statement and question prompts:

I wonder if . . .

What if . . .

I noticed . . .

How might . . .     

Entering classrooms as a group of professional learners, with eyes and ears and minds wide open, we sought insight on two carefully selected foci: student engagement and differentiated instruction. We strove to witness student engagement via levels of participation, attentiveness, observable indicators of a commitment to learning, and focus on task. We looked to recognize differentiated instruction via the range and levels of learning activities and supports available, groupings of students both with the teacher and with peers and independent learning experiences in which students participate.

Our learning walk included not only observations, but also interactions. As possible we spoke with students and teachers in the classrooms we visited, asking them to reflect on their experiences. To students we queried, “How do you know if you do good work in this class?” “If you need help, where can you go?” We refined our questions in response to the specific learning activities we witnessed, asking students to explain their learning and to share and discuss work in their portfolios and notebooks. To teachers we asked questions to help us place our snapshot view of learning into the bigger story of ongoing learning in the classroom.

While we focused our attention primarily on the students, the learning environment was also part of our reflection. We “walked the walls” of the classrooms and hallways to see how visuals speak to learning: what kinds of charts and other visual aides are present and what models of good work are available to students. We explored the physical arrangement of the classroom, wondering about how the organization of space facilitates learning. We examined classroom resources such as libraries, computers and interactive whiteboards, considering whether the arrangement of books facilitates good use by students and how computers and the class interactive whiteboard are used to promote learning. We compared resources from classroom to classroom, pondering whether adequate resources are equally accessible to all students.

After each visit, potent and meaningful, came the heart of the learning walk experience: the hallway huddle. We gathered outside the classroom and crafted thought-provoking, reflective questions and wonderings, aimed not to offer feedback to those visited, but to spark walkers’ thinking about our own teaching and our own students’ learning. Some examples of questions and wonderings included: I wonder how the teachers’ assessment of student learning will be used to guide further learning. I wonder if students in my own class could answer questions about the purpose of instruction. What are alternative ways in which the interactive whiteboard could have been utilized? What if a learning strategist had not been present as a push-in classroom resource during this particular lesson? I noticed lots of interaction between students and teachers and between students and peers. I noticed the teacher asking “what do you think?” questions. How might seating arrangements impact how students seek assistance from each other? How might different layouts of student activity sheets support learning?

As a principal, I listened, awe-struck by our teachers’ insights and their openness to reflection and learning. As if looking into a mirror, rather than observing a peers’ classroom, our wonderings and questions reflected not sage guidance we could offer others, but thoughtful musings on how we could improve our own practice. At first I was quiet, too quiet, taking in classroom experiences through the lens of our teachers, amazed by how much more I can absorb when buttressed by the perspectives of teachers than I can on my own solitary daily classroom walkthroughs.

Our courageous faculty leader, Brandi Minchillo (@MrsMinchillo) reminded me of my role as a participant, gently pointing out to both our Assistant Principal, Ilanit Cury-Hoory (@hoory1) and me that we are allowed to share. I smiled, grateful for the reminder that at times the silence of a leader is welcome and at other times it can be distancing. I jumped into the conversation as an equal, not as a supervisor, in the process gaining understanding into how I can view classrooms more reflectively along with more thoughtful ways I can phrase and communicate what I notice and wonder about on my walkthroughs.

The learning walk ended in my office with a debriefing at which we discussed take-aways and insights. We concurred that we were surprised by how much one can learn from even a five minute visit to a classroom. We remarked on how important it is to utilize prompts to formulate nonjudgmental questions and wonderings. We noted that the learning walk supported us to consider what we can change in our own practice in order to enhance learning. We recognized how enlightening it is to observe classes at each grade level, K-5.

The mandate to be nonjudgmental aside, we indulged ourselves a bit, allowing for celebration of learning occurring in our school. All noted how impressed we are by ways teachers we visited engage students and provide differentiated learning experiences. Perhaps most significant for us was our awareness that in every single classroom we visited, we saw evidence of students becoming independent learners, one of the primary school-wide goals this year associated with our reinvigorated approach to literacy learning. To our delight, we witnessed evidence of independent learning regardless of whether or not we were observing a literacy lesson. We observed teachers transferring pedagogic skill from one curricular area to learning across the disciplines.

We had prepared for the learning walk for months, explaining to teachers in both spoken and written format what would happen. Still, the reality of eight adults entering a classroom can be overwhelming and walkers expressed empathy for those observed, demonstrating sensitivity to the courage required to open the doors of one’s classroom to adult visitors. We agreed that although we were not giving feedback, teachers deserve a thank you e-mail from me.

There are seven more learning walks scheduled throughout the academic year and we plan for each teacher to have the opportunity to be a walker and for each class to be visited. As a start, we visited teachers we perceived would be among the most comfortable and selected as walkers those who had eagerly volunteered. With positive feedback from our learning walk pioneers, we hope our faculty will be reassured and enthusiastic. Our aim in implementing learning walks is to support our efforts at nurturing a self-reflective collaborative culture, breaking down the isolation teachers can experience. Learning walks are one important component of our efforts to transform our school into a learning community in which we focus relentlessly on improving student learning and in which we do so together.

What Will Be Different in 2020? What Will Be The Same?

What is the one most important thing that will be different in our school in 2020?” This profound question was asked at our headmasters’ tea welcoming parents new to our school.  Referring to a substantial ten year strategic plan, lovingly called Vision 20/20 because its realization is anticipated in 2020, this wise parent put eighteen months of strategic planning and another year of beginning strategic implementation into perspective. My mind raced; arriving at an understanding I had been grasping at, but had been unable articulate without the prompt of a meaningful query. Our strategic planning and implementation, impacting so many aspects of school life so substantially can, in my opinion, be described in its essence in one sentence.

In 2020, our focus will have shifted from teaching to learning.

 To some the answer may sound trivial; to others nonsensical; and to still others mere semantics signifying nothing. To me, the answer shapes a process of cultural change and school reform that has paradoxically been grueling and invigorating, oppressive and freeing, painful and joyous, and perhaps most meaningfully, transforming and eternal. Walking the narrow bridge balancing that which is in the process of being transformed and that which is eternal, I could not with integrity explain my answer to this parent’s question without first posing an additional question. What is the one most significant thing that will remain the same in our school in 2020?

In 2020, we will continue to be guided by the core values of our ancient, enduring Jewish tradition. Regardless of how much we change, our essence will remain the same.

Tradition and change has long been a tenet at the heart of Conservative Judaism, the Movement in which I was trained as a rabbi and with which my school is affiliated. But, I don’t believe I am being defensive of my theological heritage when I state that in today’s educational landscape, healthy schools – Jewish schools regardless of denomination, parochial schools of various religions, independent, public and charter schools – will need to balance all that must change with all that must remain the same. As we experience the tremendous responsibility to prepare students for a future we cannot imagine, in which many perhaps even a majority of our students will one day embark upon careers that do not yet exist, we must remember that values; enduring, eternal values, will continue to ground us, serving as a moral compass to help us navigate our rapidly changing world.

.There is no recipe for change just as there is no recipe for how to keep our core values central to all we do. Remaining the same does not mean mindless adherence to practices that no longer make sense, but rather embracing enduring values that are lived in the reality of our daily experiences. Changing does not mean throwing out all of the old, but rather carefully examining ourselves and our practices. We will have to reconsider curricula, the types of learning experiences we provide, student support models, assessment practices, educational technology and other resources, approaches to school leadership, and more. To be successful, we will have to shine the spotlight on the learner rather than the teacher, making each child the star of his or her own educational experience.  No matter how compelling or riveting a lesson may appear, no matter how interesting or engaging a curriculum may seem, we will have to be honest about how deeply students have understood, made our learning their own, and found a place in which their own curiosity, wonderings, talents and passions can emerge.

What will be different in 2020? What will be the same? Please join in this important dialogue and share your thoughts and reflections.

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