Sunday, December 15, 2019

Christmas Wish List and Playlist for Educators and Schools

By Vicki Bechard, Secretary

When you see a kid with missing front teeth at this time of year, we immediately smile and begin to hear that familiar jingle playing in our head, All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth…” At no time do you think there is something horribly wrong with the child; their missing teeth are just a reflection of the growth process they are undergoing.  The song is a fun poke at the growing pains we all go through and gives one hope that in time, once those teeth come in, things will be just fine.  Speech will become clearer, the ability to whistle will return, and eating will be easier.  No Grinch will steal their joy. It will be so much easier to wish everyone a Merry Christmas (Happy Holidays, Hanukkah, or whatever one is celebrating!)!

Music sparks our thinking and engages our emotional attachments.  We know from lots of research (here’s one source from Neuroscience News) and perhaps your own personal experience, that music is engaging and helps connect us on a deeper level.  As learners, the use or playing of music often is associated with better concentration, improved cognitive functions to create meaning, increased vocabulary and reading levels, all of which can lead to higher levels of achievement and better learning experiences.  If music can be helpful in the classroom to improve focus, meaningful connections, engagement, and overall success, why not use it in the school improvement processes we undertake?

As schools, educators, and students experience growing pains every year, we look for better ways to create a culture of learning, acceptance, and success. If we thought about every school’s Christmas wish list that would take them into the New Year, what might that look like?  Sometimes they might be looking for their “2 front teeth” – a natural part of their growth process, but other times it might be something that leads to a much bigger transformation.  To create a deeper commitment, how might we include music to touch the hearts of educators and engage their minds and work? To that end, I’m sharing my Christmas Wish List (and including a Playlist to support that list) for schools, educators and students this holiday season as they continue their improvement journey into the New Year: (disclaimer: there are MANY more songs that would work based on what you or your staff like to listen to!). 

1.       Purpose and Goals:  The Impossible Dream (The Quest) – This song speaks of the quest of goal seeking with purpose and perseverance.  When learners understand their purpose (WHY), set a goal (WHAT), and develop a plan to achieve that goal (HOW), the quest becomes their improvement journey. This quest will have detours and obstacles, but the determination to succeed will lead achieving that goal.  Climb Every Mountain (from Sound of Music as performed by Audra McDonald) – reinforces the idea that perseverance is required to achieve one’s goals even when mountains stand in your way.

2.       Believe/Efficacy:  This is Me (from The Greatest Show on Earth); Believe (Josh Groban from Polar Express). Both of these songs encourage the importance of believing in yourself and your abilities and by doing so, you will give wings to your dreams and fly.  When a group or team believes in a common goal, collective efficacy emerges and success typically follows.

3.       Collaboration & Teamwork: When We Stand Together (Nickelback) – We win when we stand together; work together; hand in hand; no one can divide us, no matter the obstacle.  While this song addresses more worldly issues, it also can be applied to the world within our schools. Collaboration and productive teaming focused on improving teaching and learning is a win for everyone! We know we are #BetterTogether and We Will Rock You! (Queen).  Consider attending the Learning Forward Kansas Annual Conference Feb. 2 & 3, 2020 in Wichita as Collective Efficacy with Jenni Donohoo will be the feature of our 2020 Vision on Collaboration and Leadership. Click here for more information or to register.

4.       Change and Growth: Everything Will Change (Gavin DeGraw) – If we are not changing and growing we are not improving.  Change happens or it needs to “before it gets too late.”  How do we do that? “Walk the talk.  Separate the men from the boys; women from the girls; tools from the toys.  Even if you’re freaking out, just relax.”  Find your purpose; take a risk; work together; persevere. Change means having to make adjustments to avoid remaining the same.  Even this funny throwback video from the Brady Bunch talks about when It’s Time to Change, it’s time to rearrange.

5.       Supportive Leadership:  Vision is a hallmark of leadership, but more importantly the cultivation of relationships, commitment of support, and willingness to stick with those whom they lead through the trials of implementation are critical to creating and maintaining a culture of learning. Leaders anchor staff and provide the glue as they work together to achieve the desired goals. We can see this theme of trust, connection, and dependable support in these songs: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel); I Won’t Let Go (Rascal Flatts); You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel; Celtic Women version)

6.      Gratitude: Above all, be grateful for the leadership, staff, and community members who work tirelessly for the kids.  Be grateful for those kiddos who depend on your wisdom, caring, and guidance.  Look for the silver lining.  There is plenty of good and promise on which to focus our thoughts and actions. Louis Armstrong got it right when he encouraged us to just look around and appreciate What a Wonderful World we live in.

As the first semester comes to an end and you head into the winter break, may your heart continue to be touched and motivated to be the best you can be as educators so that your students can be their best too.  We at Learning Forward Kansas challenge you to come back after the holidays, refreshed, renewed, and recommitted to improving your instruction to impact student learning.  Let us know if we can help with that. Thank you for making a difference.  We know we are all #BetterTogether.

Happy Holidays from Learning Forward Kansas! 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“Inspired to Learn and Other Lessons from Kansas Stories”

By Vicki Bechard, LFKS Secretary

The videos are completed.  The series, Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories, is ready for use.  We are proud of the product, but the journey was more than an end point. What did we learn in this process?  From the beginning this has been a learning journey filled with hope, joy, frustration, perseverance, and pride.  We have been inspired by those we interviewed, and those who were willing to let us peek into their professional learning experiences. We have been energized by the convictions and expertise of these Kansas educators. Our own learning and passion have been reignited.  The “we” in this blog represents Dayna Richardson (LFKS Executive Director) and me - partners, colleagues and friends in this journey.  A year after we intended to be done, here is a glimpse of our story…

The journey of Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories is much like a school year – only longer.  We began with a vision in the application process 4 years ago, and started with so much hope, excitement and energy once we received this 3 year grant just like the first day of school.  Our “classroom” was filled with unknowns, dreams that needed direction, and the desire to acquire skills and support to make those dreams a reality.

Transforming professional learning was our focus in Learning Forward Kansas as we rebooted our organization.  As LFKS reached out to educators across the state, we continued to hear, “But what does it look like in my school?”  This driving question became the trigger for LFKS to apply for the Learning Forward Affiliate Grant in 2015.  The Kansas State Board of Education approved the Standards for Professional Learning in 2012, but few schools knew about this, much less utilized the standards to improve their instructional practice.  Our vision was to do something different:  to create a video series featuring Kansas educators that could be a resource to schools and educators who were seeking to improve their professional learning experiences.  Our purpose was to facilitate their understanding so our initial plan was to create a video on each of the Standards of Professional Learning, plus one on the process of change. 

Every educator begins their school year with a vision and a plan to support that vision.  But the needs of the students often alter those plans.  Our experience with the video series was very similar.  Once we received the grant, our thoughts began to shift into a different direction based on continued discussions and observations from the field.  Educators didn’t need another resource defining the Standards for Professional Learning.  They wanted something to help them use and implement them.  After discussing our new understanding with our LFKS board, several Kansas educational leaders, and our support group from Learning Forward, we realized that we must create something that was useful, modeled effective professional learning, and helped guide educational leaders to use the Standards of Professional Learning collectively, not individually.  Silos were a thing of the past.  We soon came to realize, we are better together.

Kansas has a wide range of school sizes, strengths, and needs.  One size does not fit all for learning in the classroom, with the faculty, or from one school to the next.  What effective professional learning looks like in an urban school is vastly different than a small rural school hundreds of miles from a large city.  Regardless of the differences in resources, delivery methods, or personnel, the goal remains the same:  every educator wants to use effective instructional practices that lead to student success.  And to that end, all educators are inspired to learn, and want to know “What does that look like in my school?”

Our Work:  Inspiration, Listening, People, Collaboration, Time and Feedback (repeat 5 times)
When we listen to the learners, our instruction becomes more focused on the needs of that learner.  Sometimes what we believe to be the best way to learn may not be the best method for the learner.  With that understanding comes revision and a renewed focus on the purpose of our work.  What is the learning goal?  How will we get there?

Our first video attempt was too long and lacked clear focus.  We got some tough feedback from a supportive organization of educators.  We swallowed hard but we listened and started again.  We realized we had failed to establish the WHY and convey that what we were doing was important – not just to us – but to all Kansas educators aspiring to improve teaching and learning.  It wasn’t enough to have great sound bites from great educators; we had to weave a meaningful message of the importance of effective professional learning.  Our learners spoke to us and we listened.  Those plans we made when “school started” were put aside and reworked with a renewed focus on the learner’s needs.

Since Lois Brown Easton’s article, “The Why, How, and What of Professional Learning,” appeared in Learning Forward’s Tools for Learning Schools in 2012, we have focused on the importance of establishing the “why” in everything we do and within every learning opportunity LFKS offers.  Further study of Simon Sinek’s work (which was the basis for Easton’s article), strengthened our belief in ensuring that establishing the why is the first and most important step to effectively change one’s practice.  This understanding and the feedback we received led us to the realization that our first video attempt lacked the WHY and subsequently required a major revision. Going forward, this philosophy guided everything we did and led to how the Inspired to LearnKansas Stories video series was organized. 

Lesson plans and learning goals continue to evolve during a school year, and the same thing happened in our video experience.  Once the first video was completed, the second video seemed easier to do.  We saw that educational leaders believed that professional learning was important but too many were relying on one-size-fits-all or sit and get sessions that just weren’t engaging, meaningful or relevant.  That lead us to - What does effective professional learning look like…. in Kansas schools?  Once we conveyed this message in video two, the questions began to shift – How does this work? How do we plan?  How do we engage staff?  How do we promote collaboration that changes practice and leads to student success?  Understanding why is critical.  Clarify what is important.  But how is the vehicle that takes us from knowing to doing

As a result, the rest of the videos revolved around how effective professional learning is achieved from multiple perspectives, using a wide variety of strategies.  As a teacher would personalize learning experiences for students in his/her classroom, our focus was fine-tuned, and the video series took shape.  We needed more interviews, different questions, and more examples of effective professional learning to feature in these how videos.  Sometimes learning and progress is messy as educators will tell you.  We also felt these same growing pains.  Confusion reigned sometimes as we watched draft videos over and over causing pictures and words to seemingly swim together.  Cutting footage typically came from asking ourselves to revisit our purpose for the video we were watching.  Did this comment or picture fit? Does it help tell the story?

One of our greatest aha’s was when we went together to film in a small 1A school in south central Kansas where educators were excited about project based learning and making learning relevant and engaging.  We discovered them when they presented with their students at the KSDE conference the previous fall.  How could we use their energy?  Their passion inspired us.  Their humility was revealed in their desire to simply do what was best for kids and credit each other for their success.  How could we bottle their success to be shared with others?  To that end, our questions to them weren’t about the project based learning itself, but focused on how they made this work.  What professional learning had to happen to get it started and more importantly, sustain this work at such a high level?  What lessons could they share with others on what to do and what to avoid? How did leaders support and facilitate their work? We started to understand the importance of HOW and the need to share this with our fellow Kansas educators.

If we were to do a “walkthrough” of our “classroom” one would see engaging lessons, modeling of effective professional learning, and a variety of learning strategies (protocols) that meet learners where they are.  One would see collaboration and deep conversations around thought-provoking questions.  One would see experts discussing their beliefs, experiences, successes and challenges.  Learning would be happening before, during and after viewing the video utilizing protocols in the accompanying facilitation guides. And one would see the learners taking this information and adapting it for use in their own work.  The initiatives that schools undertake are designed to meet the needs of their students so the examples in the videos are there for consideration and not intended to be the only answer.  Our intent for this video series was to spark real professional learning, where educators turn theory into action, or as we like to say, to go from knowing to doing.

When the culture in a classroom, building or district becomes focused on growth and success for ALL, and is supported through every action, and every professional learning opportunity, students win.  Our purpose in creating these videos was to support these efforts as schools and educators evolve.  Just like educators believe that everyone can learn given the opportunity, resources and sufficient time, this video series was created in the same way. 

Our Journey Continues.  It was a 3 year grant, but it took 4 years to complete.  Life happens in the middle of our plans sometimes, and we make adjustments.  We couldn’t have done this without the willingness of Kansas educators to share their experiences on camera or let us be a part of their school’s professional learning sessions.  We also relied heavily on the support and feedback of Kansas educators that we knew well and others that we befriended during this process.  Our technical support was second to none and allowed our dream to become a reality.  But without the dream, backed by the grant received from the Learning Forward Foundation, none of this would have happened.  Again our video series journey parallels the classroom experience.  Support matters.  Resources matter.  People matter.  

Our journey comes to an end during May, much like a school year.  It has taken us from knowing to doing, and while we are happy to rest a bit, we recognize we have much more to do.  Our future work, as we look to the next school year, will benefit from the valuable lessons learned firsthand that we are #BetterTogether.  Join us as we continue Learning Forward. 

Click here to learn more about the video series.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Making Sense of Snow Piles: Thoughts on Collective Efficacy

By Vicki Bechard, Secretary LFKS

Photo Credit:  Vicki Bechard
As the snow piles up in Kansas – which seems to be a real trend this season – do you sometimes feel like things are piling up in your school world too?  With redesign and the expectation to tailor our instruction to individual student needs that best prepare them for post-secondary success, it can be overwhelming when you consider how many ways we can accomplish those goals.  We know learning is best if it’s engaging, meaningful and relevant.  Oh yes, and we want it to be authentic so students can apply what they know.  Just like the big snowfall, it all looks pretty at first, but after a while, it might feel like more of the same or more than you want to deal with.  So how do we decide what’s best?  What do we keep; what do we change? In other words, how do we dig out from that snow storm of ideas and strategies so we can produce the desired result?  

Efficacy is defined as the ability to produce the desired result.  Today’s research leads us to realize that we want to empower teachers to develop the belief that they can truly make a difference in preparing our students for their future life.  This is called self-efficacy or teacher efficacy.   As learning leaders, growing teachers who believe in their ability to produce the desired result becomes our WHY.  Our WHAT involves identifying the results we want:  Students that can apply what they have learned, be adaptable, and lifelong learners so they can grow in a rapidly changing world much of which is unknown to us now.  But HOW do we accomplish this?  While self-efficacy is good, in most things, we are better together.  When teams of educators work together, believing and acting in ways to achieve these goals, they create a culture in their school that focuses on learning and growth.  Their combined efforts become collective efficacy. 

If we fail to empower teachers, all the redesign initiatives and school improvement plans in the world will be just like the changing Kansas weather, blowing through one day, piling up, and then melting, just in time for the next system to arrive.  And we may not be better prepared for future systems as they arrive.  These initiatives and goals that we worked so hard to create won’t mean a thing if those who are implementing them don’t have the confidence, knowledge, skills, resources, and support to fulfill these efforts.  The question becomes how do leaders change their culture and grow their staff to produce learning experiences that uncover student strengths and passions, and shore up weaknesses so that they can become successful high school graduates ready to face the world?  In the March 2018 ASCD Educational Leadership article, the Power of Collective Efficacy, Donohoo, Hattie, and Eells note:

When teams of educators believe they have the ability to make a difference, exciting things can happen in a school.

How do we make that happen?  Donohoo, Hattie and Eells remind us that “the greatest power that principals have in schools is that they can control the narrative of the school.”  What we think and talk about most typically becomes the focus of our actions.  Examine the conversations (those things that create our personal snow piles) in your school or team.  Are they dominated by talk around schedules, classroom management issues (i.e. student behaviors), testing, absences and tardiness, or following the curriculum?  Are we focused on compliance, or are we focused on growth and learning?  Some of the behavior issues we deal with on a daily basis may just be rooted in the kind and quality of the learning experiences we offer our students and teachers!   For so many, school is about being in your seats when the bell rings, sitting quietly unless you’re called on while the teacher does the work.  So how do we change the narrative to touch the hearts and minds of teachers so they can touch the hearts and minds of students?

Professional Learning will drive the bus on this journey to collective efficacy.  Navigating the snow piles we have created is part of this journey.  Educators want and need to have knowledge and skills to transform their instruction.  We recognize this type of systemic change takes time and deliberate practice. Keep shoveling!  As leaders we want to identify necessary resources, and provide the kinds of support required by these new ways of teaching so they can be effectively implemented. What “snow pile” if you will, needs to be hauled away or melted before the real growth can be seen?  In other words, we want to develop teacher efficacy that can be combined with others to create collective efficacy so the culture of our school is one where everyone believes they can make a difference for students in ways that will facilitate their success.

Donohoo, Hattie, and Eells drive home this point noting that in schools, “If the narrative is about high expectations, growth in relation to inputs, what it means to be a ‘good learner’ in various subjects, and what impact means, then teachers and students will think about learning in a different way.  They will believe that learning is about challenge, about understanding and realizing high expectations, and that setbacks are an opportunity to learn.  Students will also believe that coming to school means investing energy in deliberate practice.”  The snow pile will no longer impede our progress when we make this shift in our beliefs and actions.

Then and only then will we see the cycle of growth evolve so that students are prepared for an unknown future because their teachers are empowered and believe that they can continue to grow and make a difference in how they teach today’s students for tomorrow’s world.   

As the snow is swept away and new growth appears, nurture it and watch it bloom into vivid color.

Jenni Donohoo, John Hattie, Rachel Eells, “The Power of Collective Efficacy,” Educational Leadership, ASCD, March 2018, Volume 75