Sunday, September 28, 2014

Building A Culture Of School Collaboration Using Twitter

Liberty was just featured in an article in Edutopia about our use of twitter to help drive professional learning for our teachers, communication with our families, and an overall sense of positivity and possibility in the school.  However, the author of the article, Elana Leoni never took credit for the critical role she played in the development of our twitter strategy, so I wanted to spend some time explaining our journey and thanking her for introducing us more fully to this powerful tool.

I have had a twitter account since spring of 2011.  For the first two and half years of having my account, I think I sent a total of 150 tweets, posting my 140 character message a few times each month, and reading the messages of those I was following while waiting in line at Starbucks.  I was a very passive twitter user, and in doing so, didn’t reap the tremendous benefits that can come from thoughtful use of this social media tool.

A New Twitter Paradigm

My lackluster use of twitter can be tracked to two elements a) it was never a priority for me because I didn’t see the purpose in it and b) I didn’t feel like I had anything valuable to tell the world.  Enter Ms. Leoni who I ran into at an informal Edcamp session at last year’s South By Southwest Edu.  I believe her great gift to both myself and my school was to systematically unpack why my two holdups around twitter were wrong.  We talked about various ways that schools had found purpose in twitter usage including letting parents know what is going on in classrooms, connecting teachers to external resources, building a learning community, recognizing teachers for their work, and advertising upcoming events.  More importantly, she helped me overcome my humility, by addressing hold up number two and letting me know that Liberty was a wonderful school, with outstanding things to share, and important messages for other urban schools around the country.

Upon returning from the conference, I utilized the next staff meeting to introduce a new twitter initiative at Liberty.  I explained to my staff the epiphany that had occurred in Austin and made a pitch for why this could be important for our students and community.  We did a little workshop talking about the twitter lingo and I helped to ease the fears of some staff members (many of whom are not digital natives) that twitter functioned in much the same way a text message worked.  Staff members were encouraged to tweet out great things going on in their classroom and parents were encouraged to follow the feed to see updates and get a sense of what was going on at school hour by hour. 

Tweets Started To Trickle
The tweets started in trickles, just a few postings each day.  I would try to model the practice by going into classrooms and telling teachers I just tweeted about the activity I had just seen or the learning that had just taken place, but they would need to harness the software to see what I had said.  I would similarly encourage teachers who I knew had accounts to tweet things from their classroom when I saw spectacular feats of learning.  “That was really great use of technology, make sure to tweet it out so others can see” or “Fantastic small group activity, make sure to tweet it out so all the other first grade teachers can apply the same strategy”.  What we saw were teachers learning from another; great activities that were planned in one class, got posted onto the feed, were seen by teammates, discussed at team meetings, and ultimately applied in another classroom, with twitter as the vehicle for this informal learning community practice.

We also targeted the parents to try to get them in on the action.  Postings in the weekly school newsletter identified this new strategy and welcomed parents to ‘join the conversation’.  Using the Tweetbeam program, we have the #Liberty64 hasttag on constant loop in the office so all teachers, students, and parents can see what people are posting throughout the building.  We also did a twitter training for parents at Back To School night and the first PTO meeting to get people acclimated to basic vocabulary, let them know why they should post, and explain the connectivity that could be generated by following the feed. 

A Current Assessment Of Progress
The system is far from perfect.  I still have about 1/3 of my teachers who post frequently, a 1/3 of teachers who post once or twice a week, and 1/3 of teachers who do no post at all.  Similarly while we have made a push with parents, there are truly only a few who have taken advantage of this (yet).  But ultimately, this is a free service, that takes little investment of time, and has the potential for a lot of positive. 

I think just in terms of helping to build a learning community, raising morale, serving as a communication medium, and connecting good teachers with good ideas to one another, it has been an overwhelming success.  I assume my story is not unique, and that many individuals working in the educational space feel the same trepidation I felt at the beginning; who cares about what goes on at our school, or my classroom on a daily basis (the answer is, lots of people, imagine if you were a parent and your child was in your class) and what is the purpose behind tweeting regularly (I hope this blog post has helped to frame some meaningful purposes).  I will leave you with a few practical tips and strategies to get your system going.  I am looking forward to following your school/classroom hashtags.  Happy tweeting!!!

A Few Tips To Get Started
·       Leadership Matters- As with most things, leadership matters.  It is hard to encourage others to tweet if you are not tweeting yourself.  This provides a great opportunity to model the behavior you would like to see, while also improving moral, and highlighting positive things going on in your classrooms.  You would be surprised the dividends that is yielded from a tweet about a positive practice being identified in your school and broadcasted to the world.

·       Have Teachers Develop Individual Twitter Goals- Our teachers have developed individual twitter goals.  This is an initiative that by nature will need to highly differentiated, particularly if you have a lot of digital immigrants on your staff.  We had the teachers each set up an annual goal that could range from a plan to tweet out once a week, or once a day, or perhaps just set up a handle and follow the conversation.  There are so many ways for people to be involved, both actively and passively.  Ultimately, I think initiatives that occur organically through professional diffusion have the best chance of working.

·       What If Your School System Blocks Twitter?- It shouldn’t matter, most staff members these days have smart phones that are on their own wireless plans that do not connect to the filter.  Don’t let this fear block you’re ability to take advantage of this twitter use in your school environment.

·       Take Advantage Of Tweetbeam- this is an excellent tool for any office kiosk or lobby television which you have looping your school events.  It allows you to set the program to a handle or hashtag and it loops popular tweets in a very visually friendly interface.  There are paid versions for professional presenters, but in the school context, the free version works very well.

·       Suspend Your Trepidations- this was really present throughout the blog, but don’t believe that your story is not worth hearing.  Educators are often very humble and think what they say to the world is not important.  Your messages are critical, to your families, to fellow educators, to policy makers, and your colleagues.  Never deny your importance in the educational conversation and use twitter to let your voice be heard.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Are Our Methods For Improving Teacher Effectiveness All Wrong?

In education circles, all the rage these days is around teacher effectiveness.  Research has shown teachers to be the critical cog in student learning, the most decisive factor in promoting student achievement and success.  Subsequently, much of the talk has been around how we recruit the best and brightest and reward the best teachers to stick around (merit pay), while simultaneously finding poor teachers and determining ways to exit them from the profession.  In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, we have developed elaborate evaluation systems (much of this motivated by requirements to obtain Race To The Top funding) to make critical judgments on teacher effectiveness.  The hope is that these evaluation tools and the observations they are derived from will work to improve teacher performance and make our educators better.

This seems like a solid strategy, myself as the principal, the instructional leader of the school, will go into classrooms, perform informal and formal observations of my teachers, and use the extensively developed rubric or checklist to let my teachers know what they can do improve.  I do wonder though, whether this assertion is totally wrong.

What Does Your Pie Chart Look Like?
I have been reflecting back on my teaching experience and what I attributed my growth in practice to over the seven years I was in front of students.  If I was to devise a pie graph, it would probably look something like this…

The pie graph looks a little confusing and convoluted, so I have also included my data chart as well.  Now granted, during my years of teaching some of the great PD tools we now have available to us (twitter, Pintrest, etc.) had not yet matured and similarly some of the experiences I try to provide my teachers with (school visits, attendance at professional conferences, consultant professional development) were not options available to me (nor are they available to many teachers).  Yet to me the most striking thing about these charts is how little impact some of the formalized structures we rely on like administrator feedback and formal mentoring experiences had on my professional growth, particularly in comparison to the vastness of the informal learning experiences (talking to colleagues inside/outside of the building, learning from student reactions).

Trying new things, seeing how student react to them, and making adjustments
School visits
Video observation and self reflection
Feedback from school administration
Reading professional literature
Talking to colleagues within the building
Talking to colleagues outside of the building
Formal teacher mentoring
Workshop experiences
Professional development days
Examining student work
Team meetings
Graduate classes
Cohort experiences
National Board Certification process

This make me wonder if while we have spent all our time, energy, and money refining our evaluation systems, developing our rubrics, and marking our checklists, we have missed an opportunity to hone and envision a structure that emphasizes informal structures for teacher growth.

My Answer- Professional Learning Communities
In his seminal work Building Community In Schools, Thomas Sergiovanni discussed the need to grow learning communities within schools.  To me, the concept makes sense.  It is challenging for administrators, even in the best of circumstances, to spend an adequate amount of time in each classroom when there are often dozens of staff members on monitor and observe on their caseload.  With 24 teachers whom I supervise and around 35 instructional hours each week, it is mathematically impossible for me to spend a total of 90 cumulative minutes in each classroom each week.  This mathematical problem is assuming that all I am doing all day is observing teachers and providing feedback and doesn’t account for meeting with parents, IEP/SST meetings, paperwork, system mandates, and student discipline issues.

I believe the answer to this problem lies in Sergiovanni’s concept of learning communities.  You multiply your power as a school leader, by empowering staff around the building to help each other grow and develop.  It is not a new concept, and the learning communities charge is a bit cliché, but for something that everyone deems as important, there are few structures and little emphasis to make this happen.  Think about it, when was the last time you went to a professional development session that discussed elements of a strong learning community.  Now contrast this with the last time you went to a professional learning session and they talked about some type of instructional rubric, how to implement it, and assumed this was the answer to developing good teachers. 

Building Learning Communities
Whenever I talk to people and relate my ideas about the importance of learning communities, they always ask the same question, “okay, I get it, learning communities are important, but what do you actually do to build them”.  I will them go through some structures we have attempted at Liberty to try and build a strong culture of professional learning, and while the effectiveness of these structures will differ from building to building, the critical element is that all of these structures are nested in a foundation of trust.  Trust is the key element to any strong school learning community and without it all the structures addressed below will not work.  How do you build trust?  This is a much harder question and is itself individualized for each school, but loosely I would say it is built on a culture of credibility, generosity of spirit, kindness, and freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.  I would also say checklists, rubrics, and compliance documents may do more to undermine a culture or trust than accelerate one. 

If you have built a culture of trust, you may try the following programmatic elements to further develop your learning community…
  • Conduct school visits- At Liberty we try to do two or three of these each year.  We will pack up the entire cohort of teachers on a professional development day and coordinate with a local school to visit.  We spend the morning wandering around, asking questions, looking at the work on the walls, and discussing with one another what we are seeing.  Afterwards, we will meet for a group lunch and debrief what we saw and begin to chart up ideas we want to ‘steal’ and things we observed that will help us improve.
  • Send teachers through portfolio processes in cohorts- Many districts, including ours, have moved to a system of identifying model teachers through a portfolio submission process.  Yet it amazes me how few administrators see this as a unique professional learning opportunity for their staff members who, through the process of reading each other’s entries, looking at data, and watching videos are receiving authentic, job-embedded professional development.  The National Board Certification process provides an opportunity to leverage a highly respected portfolio process to build teacher capacity.
  • Video tape each other and discuss- This technique leaves teachers extremely vulnerable, but if the conditions of trust have been established and the culture is structured around growth and not judgment, video observation and analysis can be a critical tool within the learning community.  At Liberty we have even developed a structure we call ‘greatest hits’ where the best 2-3 minute clips of particular classroom practice are highlighted and presented during teacher professional development sessions.  This structure aids capacity building in many ways- it highlights best practice occurring in the building, recognizes teachers for their great work, and gives targeted snippets of particular areas of instructional focus.
  • Create books clubs- Granted, this is a structure we have used at Liberty with limited success, but I think the potential exist for rich professional learning if you can get teachers in your building reading common text, using common language, and centering ideas that are rooted in a common place.  The main problem, teachers are busy, exhausted, and have to make reading a priority to make this work.
  • Get teachers on social media- We really tried to push twitter use as a school this year.  I feel like social media, particularly twitter and pintrest provide so many unique opportunities to share ideas, not just within the building, but outside of the building.  On a daily basis, I encourage teachers to tweet out excellent practices in their classroom using the hashtag #Liberty64.  This allows colleagues to follow the conversation and connect around instructional techniques, materials, and ideas.
  • Participate in professional conferences as groups- This summer was the first time taking the staff away to attend professional conferences.  I think the resulting camaraderie and community that develops which is centered on instructional innovation and excellence is well worth it, particularly if structured correctly.  I think the key is taking groups that are large enough where teachers can share ideas and collaborate, but small enough where there is a strong nucleus holding the group together.  This summer we settled on six participants at each conference which worked nicely.  We also learned that teachers got much more out of sessions they attended with a colleague than going to sessions independently.  Conferences are a great means of building a learning community, and while expensive, may be worth every penny.
So these are my musings for the week.  It seems like as a team and community we are always stronger than when we stand alone.  Collaborations in groups that are constant and rich will always supersede individual, one off, interactions.  My constant challenge, each day, is how to help my teachers grow and become better, I think the answer is by empowering the others in my building to make this happen.