Carousel Dialogues

At the recent NESA Fall Leadership Conference, I engaged in a brilliant strategy, the Carousel Interview.  What I love about this strategy is that it allows for a synthesis of voices but also provides space for each person to speak deeply about multiple topics.

The Carousel is organized around questions that are discussed in pairs and finally in Jigsaw format.  We recently engaged in one to synthesize a range of ideas we’d been discussing regarding assessment.

Below are our questions and the format.  Feel free to adopt and adapt as you wish.

Here are the questions we used.  Because we were discussing a lot of information, we posed the question on one side and an artifact related to the question on the other side. One point to note in designing questions, as per Lynn Sawyer, is that there should be a question that allows for dreaming and one that allows for the voicing of frustrations and challenges.

As a whole, this was a fun strategy that allowed for interaction among several people and a synthesis that ultimately included the voices of the entire room.

Fair Isn’t Equal

After finishing my MFA thesis, I recently started a new poetry project.  Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of advice giving.  About how telling people things isn’t the most effective means of communication, and yet, there is so much to tell.  As a parent, particularly, I know that my children will resist advice and long lectures.  And so I started writing a book of poems for Mia.  Poems of experience, poems of advice, poems that I will give to her as she nears adolescence.

I’ve been working on the project for about a month, and it is a project definitely intended for Mia.  This has bothered me and I have wondered why this project is so intensely Mia.  Perhaps, I think, I will be inspired to write something like this for Madison when she is five.  And yet, I know this isn’t true.  As I write the poems, I am writing for Mia.  If I start thinking about Madison, the context changes entirely.

Even though I know my girls are completely different with varying needs, it has bothered me that the poems are for Mia.  I have been holding on to an antiquated idea that to be fair, things have to be the same.

Cupcake for MadA couple of weekends ago, Mia and I spent a wonderful afternoon painting in water colors.  The last painting I created was for Madison…a cheeky cupcake running away with a present.  Immediately, I was inspired to write a different set of more playful poems for Madison using paintings as illustrations.

I have long known that fair does not mean equal.  Yet, until that weekend, I didn’t understand the entirety of this statement.  The narrative poems for Mia are suited to her.  I know who she is and what she needs in the same way that I know Madison will respond to the playful narrative.  Knowing my children deeply means responding to them in different contexts, and though this sometimes feels unfair, ultimately, I have to give them what they need.

The same rings true in schools.  When we talk about assessment, which is a huge focus of conversation these days, we should also keep in mind that fair isn’t equal.  This is why we need choice.  Feedback.  Assessment to standards, which really means multiple means of reaching standards.

Some may read the above to mean differentiating assessment to decrease rigor.  This is not my intent.  I simply mean that there are multiple ways of reaching a standard and choice-based assessments create deeper engagement and ownership, and ultimately, greater fairness.

Fair is not equal because we all have different needs.  Rather than focus on what others have or don’t have, we should give space for each other to receive what we need.  I may spend more or less time with one child, one team or one student, but I will always be focused on what each individual needs.  That’s what’s fair!

My Brilliant Five-Year-Old

Last week, as I walked in the door from work, Mia greeted me by bouncing around me, waving the below picture in my face, and shrieking, “What’s the right answer?”

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 1.34.08 PM

Completely lost, I paused to have a look.  Mia kept up a running dialogue.  “Choose the correct picture.  Guess the main idea?  What picture tells the story?”

“I can’t choose because I don’t know the story.”

“Oh?  Just a minute.”  With that, Mia ran off and wrote the sentences around the picture.  Then, she asked again.

The sentence reads: “One day a little girl played in the garden.”  The answer can be chosen from the following: A girl kicking a ball, a butterfly flying, turning on the light or a flower growing.

I love her brilliance and her new found resilience.  From what I can decode, they must be learning main idea in her kindergarten class by reading a story and selecting the picture that best tells the story.  No big deal.  But, I’m pretty sure the students themselves aren’t supposed to be writing the story, drawing the pictures and quizzing their parents on the main idea.

Parenting is taking delight in the little surprises each day.  With Mia, I am constantly astounded at her enthusiasm and her creativity.  And I am definitely a proud mama because this makes me think she’s the most brilliant five-year-old around.  At the very least, I’m glad she finds so much joy in school that she’s inspired to do it all again at home.  That’s learning!

Faculty Meeting Unconferences

I love the idea of EdCamps, which are founded on the idea of participant driven dialogue or what is now termed the Unconference.  Having participated in my first version of an Unconference a year ago, I became inspired to try it at our school.  Since then, we have organized two faculty meetings using an Unconference format, where the topics of discussion have been generated by our faculty.  The conversation is based on exploration and reflection, rather than an outcome, though the conversations have certainly inspired many actions.

Below are the slideshows of the two sessions we organized, along with a recording worksheet.  In the interest of time, since we are running these in faculty meeting sessions, we did “cheat” slightly by generating the topics throughout the week before the dialogue.  However, we have held true to the rest of the Unconference Protocol.  Feel free to use, tweak and develop as you wish.

Unconference to Process In-Service Week

In this Unconference, we kept track of questions raised in our in-service workshops and meetings.  Then we ran an Unconference to share ideas, clarify understandings, and, as per the Unconference norms, “allow what is supposed to happen to happen.”


Unconference to Process Assessment Non-Negotiables

In November, we decided to summarize our assessment philosophy into a few non-negotiables.  We self-reflected and then discussed each of the non-negotiables in small groups led by our Department Chairs.  This generated a lot more reflection and conversation, so we decided to run it as an Unconference at our next meeting, this time allowing each conversation circle to focus deeply upon a topic.


Recording Live

Here is the worksheet we’ve used to record.  The format was shared by Brian Hartman of CollegeBoard.  We hope to be recording live soon, but for now, we are using pen and paper.  We do share the notes though, so that people have the benefit of sharing in the conversations they did not participate in.

The Unconference has been a fantastic tool for discussion.  We share ideas, get to know one another and the concerns of others deeply and generate questions for further exploration.  The most positive benefit is that the conversations have inspired further reflection and conversation.  They inspire thinking, and though we often pose more questions than we answer, this is how we grow, for as Carol Commodore states, “We are always in a state of becoming.”

Are you a problem-solver or a problem creator?

Do your questions inspire more questions?

Deletion or Transformation? Problem-Solving by a Five-Year-Old

Every morning, my daughter Mia draws in my office before school.  This has been our routine for three years, and this year, our routine has been disrupted slightly by my youngest, a whirlwind of a person, who began school and therefore joined our morning routine.

Where Madison is easygoing, Mia is a perfectionist, and so often, when frustrated, Mia will crumple her paper and quit her drawing.  As a mother and an educator, this is not okay, and so I have been working with her on building resilience and dealing with frustration appropriately.  Thus, I am delighted by the following anecdote.

Mia was drawing a family portrait.  Madison was chatting away and I was working, not paying much attention to their conversation.  Once Mia had finished her drawing, she came to show it to me, proudly stating, “Look Mama, I drew a picture of us, but Madison was mean to me, so I turned her into an apple.”


IMG_0775It turns out, Madison had been unkind while Mia was drawing.  A couple of months ago, true to her perfectionist nature, Mia would have gotten visibly upset, perhaps quitting the drawing or crumpling the paper.  However, this week, she simply carried on drawing, changing her plan and working at it calmly.

Despite the fact that she had no issue calmly erasing Madison from the scene and turning her into an apple, I am thrilled at her progress.  This apple represents resilience, critical thinking and problem-solving.  That’s one great apple!

Innovation in the Traditional One-Room Schoolhouse

As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie.  Not the TV show, but the books, all of which I have read multiple times. As an educator, I often think about Laura’s teaching days and of her narration of the prairie schools in which she taught, the traditional one-room schoolhouse.

As I reflect on education, I realize that the model of the one-room classroom is really quite innovative by our standards today, characterized by a multi-age model, differentiation and meaningful homework.

Though inspired by necessity, rather than a model of innovation, the multi-age model allowed students to work and achieve standards at their own pace.  Ability, rather than age defined the placement of students and the expectations for learning.

Imagine, planning for all of those ages and lessons.  Multiple subjects, ages, skill levels and learning abilities.  All the while, keeping order and control.  And perhaps we think it was mostly rote learning, but I would argue that there were some very valuable and insightful assignments given.  The lessons were also based on what students needed to know in order to live their daily lives, and though it may sound old school, reading, writing and arithmetic are essential.

Students weren’t assigned elaborate projects or a myriad of problems to complete at home. They were expected to study each night in preparation for a demonstration of learning the next day – sounds a bit like a flipped classroom.

Perhaps the one-room schoolhouse conjures images of stern teachers, silence and rote learning.  However, teachers back then had to build relationships with students, inspire them, and motivate them, just as we do today.  I think we can learn a lot from looking back, as we dream forward.

What if we look at the lessons learned from the one-room schoolhouse as we upgrade the structures in our schools?  Perhaps we create learning centers for research, problem-solving, inquiry and etc. We could develop standards for each, expect students to master standards, but allow them to work through them at their own pace.  This could foster focus and deepen learning.

The one room schoolhouse is really an interesting concept, one that deserves our admiration and our attention.

Questions for the Quest

In my last post, I wrote about upgrading the quest of our education system, which inspired a really nice conversation on LinkedIn – thank you.  As part of my personal quest, I am posing more questions.  Hence, here is a post about learning quests inspired by questions.  I don’t have the answers to any of the questions…they are just meant to inspire thinking and more ideas.  In fact, some questions contradict others…again, they are exploratory.  Questing for answers or simply more questions!

What quest are students currently on in school?  Is it a quest for knowledge?  A quest for grades?  A quest for high test scores?  Who defines the mission?  Universities?  Parents? Teachers?  Something or someone bigger?

What would it look like to redefine the quest?  To upgrade what we value?  In actuality, to quest for what we say we value?  Creativity?  Inquiry?  Collaboration?  Problem-solving?

Who defined the core, and is the core still core?  Who said four years of English mattered more than one year of tech?  Or that World History is mandated while Psychology is optional?  Where do we learn how our minds work?  How to collaborate in relationships?  How to develop the best of ourselves?

How can we create uncommon combinations?  STEM departments to replace Math, Science and IT Departments?  Why is AP Computer Science a tech class in some schools and a math class in others?  Why don’t Visual Arts teachers collaborate more with Digital Arts teachers as part of one department?  Can we embrace Humanities in place of English, Social Science and the Arts?  How many departments do we need?

How do we create more connection in school?  How do we tap into what students need to know and what they love?  Can we replace the five-paragraph essay with blog posts and editorials?  Can students conduct real research connected to real subjects?  What does real life really look like?  Is university real life?  If not, are we preparing students for university or life?  How can we do both?

What is essential?  Is it more important to be able to explain why A – B = 0 is A = B or to be able to solve complex equations?  Matrices?  Non-linear equations?  What matters more – who, what or why?

Can we upgrade the quest?  Can we embrace knowledge AND skill as essential?  What are the Essential Questions and Big Understandings, not just in individual subjects but overall?  Are they the same for everyone?  What matters?

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What if the quest was based on the school mission?  What if we used the content, standards and skills to assess the mission?  What if we designed structures that embraced the whole rather than compartmentalize the pieces?  What if we upgrade the quest?  Build on what we do well, but change it slightly?  Dream with determination?

What should the quest look like?

In Quest of Learning

Traditional Burberry Trenchcoat
Traditional Burberry Trenchcoat

A fellow COETAILer, Matt McGrady, got me thinking about quest based learning in a recent post he wrote, and I started pondering what a quest-based school might look like.  In some ways, students are already on a quest, particularly in a traditional high school, whereby they need to earn X number of credits in A, B and C.  The high-achievers take APs to boost their scores, while the disengaged teens take a host of electives senior year in the hopes of raising their GPAs in a last strike toward their goal.  All this in the quest of attending university.  Thus, our students are already used to quests.  But, are they used to quests in the pursuit of learning?

What if we enhanced our existing system, so that students still had to earn X number of credits in A, B and C.  Except, rather than the traditional ABCs of English, Math, Science, and History, we could replace them with ABCs like Collaboration, Research, Inquiry and etc.  What if classes looked more like learning centers and allowed for problem-based, interdisciplinary learning that was self-paced with the goal of publishing/presenting to a larger audience?

In Uplifting Leadership, Andy Hargreaves advocates “dreaming with determination” and doing so by “forg[ing] powerful and positive connection between the future and the past.”  In American education, we have a great tradition of schooling.  Our credit system allows students to explore interests in a variety of areas so that we can develop well-rounded individuals who are prepared for a variety of majors.  Thus, modernizing the quest to allow for the skills needed in the 21st century is simply an upgrade to our existing system.

The New Burberry
The New Burberry

Just like Burberry reinvented themselves by recommitting to their famous trenchcoat, so could we easily redesign school to provide engaging and interactive learning quests that meet the needs of the 21st century and still keep many of our existing structures.  What does that look like?  The updated quest in schooling?  The ultimate mission-based school!

Please “Drop the Worry Ball”

My friend Sarah Marslender recommended I read Drop the Worry Ball, which has turned out to be one of my best reads of 2014. Originally, I set off reading it as a parent, but I quickly realized that this is a must read for all educators.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 1.59.35 PMThe subtitle of the book tells a pretty good summary: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement. However, this is not a book about spoiled children. It is not a book about helicopter parents. It is a book about the effects of over parenting and rise of two types of children, the anxious teens and the disengaged ones.

As a parent and an educator, I wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone involved with children. It will change how we view one another, how we judge one another and how we work with one another.

A few of my favorite tidbits from the book:

  • “err on the side of benign neglect”
  • “teachers and parents are playing hot potato with the worry ball” but what are the children doing?
  • “watch, wait and wonder (as opposed to respond, manage and control)”
  • “so remember, when she screws up, and something painful is happening, she’s about to learn”

Essentially, in the last decade, our societies have become consumed with an over parenting culture that is detrimental to our children. Schools have also bought in, often expecting parents to “fix” a child’s behavior from afar. As a parent myself, I realize how impossible this is.

The best thing for our children and our students is for us, the adults, to “drop the worry ball” and let our children pick it up. Hopefully, they’ll fail early on, when the stakes aren’t too high. And if they don’t, eventually, they’ll have to live with the failure.

Well-written, engaging, humorous and honest, Drop the Worry Ball is a must read. Enjoy!

Developing Norms of Collaboration

In my previous post, I mentioned that we developed collective norms of collaboration as a faculty. The below slideshow details our process. We used the PLC Collective Commitments and Adaptive Schools Norms of Collaboration as resources.

    1. We used the process of collaborative summary to develop consensus.
    2. We reviewed the resources and came up with our own priorities for norms.
    3. Then we came together in small teams, combined our lists, and met again in larger teams.
    4. We ended up with four groups who each presented a list of five.
    5. Finally, we used post-its and faculty chose their top three from the list of 20 norms.

It was a positive process and served as our first workshop of our in-service week. Below, are the norms we developed, which we printed for everyone and laminated in card format. We revisit our norms frequently.