This has been one of my most difficult years in the classroom, not because of the kids or the school, but a million other factors. Others on the Nex+Gen Academy staff would probably agree that it was a hard one. However, instead of leaving the school with a whimper, our faculty stayed on for a day of reflection and planning for next year, and saw some of the best collaboration I’ve ever seen. I left the building ebullient.
I post this (extraordinarily long) piece to document what went into the planning and execution of the session for two reasons; first, because it will be helpful for me next year, and second, because faculty from other schools might find it useful.
Our staff always allocates a day or two after the students leave so that we can reflect upon the year, and if possible, come up with a theme or a focus for our PD in the coming year. The focus is usually the result of looking at the past year, and saying, “What can we do better? How can we improve learning for students?” Three years ago, it was “Collaboration”. The next year, we changed our learning outcomes, and so we made it a bit more broad – “Teaching and Assessing of the Learning Outcomes through a lens of growth mindset” We did that two years in a row, and the general sentiment was that it was time to assess whether that theme would continue to serve us and our students, or if we needed to change it.
The time we planned for our reflection was 5 hrs, including breaks…so it was kind of like planning for a week of a class. Below is a sort of description of the day, but I have organized it by the guiding principles we used in planning the meeting.
Collaborate in the planning
I am the “Teacher Leader” on campus, which I took to mean in this instance that I would serve as point on the planning – I didn’t want to do it all by myself, because that doesn’t create as much buy-in, and honestly, by myself, I can’t come up with a plan nearly as well as our collaboration can. I asked different people to do different things: our drama teacher helped plan some of the fun stuff; our language teacher helped with overall design; two of our English teachers helped brainstorm, and served as critical friends for a couple of the activities. I also wrote to our NTN coach, and a few others at New Tech to get some help with ideas.
Plan ahead, and share plans
Adults tend to dislike surprises about their work, so I wanted to help the faculty accurately anticipate what was going to happen on our PD day. I sent out this email before our meeting:
Friday, we start our PD at 11:30 in room 112. LUNCH IS PROVIDED.
We’ll go until 4:30. In that time, we will
· Do some fun stuff, quarterbacked by Ryil
· Address our learning from last year’s focus
· Consider the Youth Truth, our Planning document, and an overall reflection
· Use that information to decide upon a yearlong focus for next year
· Decide about beginning of the year schedule (when do we come in before the start of school?)
· Plan on committee work moving forward
· Hug and kiss goodbye for the summer
See you then!
But even before this email, I sent them some of the data we would be analyzing: the “Youth Truth”, which teachers would have to read, and the “Planning document,” into which teachers wrote. More about those below. In general, I started the planning process at least a week before the actual day.
Allow time for sense-making and pattern-finding
Because one of our primary goals for the day was to come up with a focus for the coming year, it was certainly tempting to just start the day with the question, “What do you want to focus on next year?” However, that likely would have yielded 23 different answers from our 23 staff members, and those answers may or may not have been as informed as they could be.
We resisted that temptation to start with the question of focus, because we knew we had to be patient. In “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, author Ron Heifetz points out that when considering a system, you need to spend lots (and lots, and lots) of time diagnosing problems before attempting to come up with a fix. While our work was not necessarily about ferreting out a particular problem, it was about examining the system in many different ways, and looking for patterns that might emerge from the data. Those patterns would then inform decision-making about our year-long focus.
Our day was 5 hours. 4 were spent in looking at data, discussing learning, and making sense of it. 1 hour was allocated for coming up with a focus.
Consider several sorts of data
Our French teacher had the idea that before we have teachers discuss ideas together, they should ground themselves in their own observations. Our first reflection was an individual silent quick-write, considering the year. Teachers were asked to not necessarily share this when done, but to keep it in mind as a data source.
Second, we looked at student responses from the Youth Truth survey. The results of the survey create a lot of graphs like this…
…as well as narrative responses from the students. We have used this survey in the past, and it has been a major factor in our decision-making for the school. A few things came out with this: students were looking for rigor. Engagement wasn’t as high as it has been in the past.
As part of the data gathering, we wanted to make sure that teachers were getting their individual voices heard regarding issues that they needed to talk about. We asked teachers to fill out a chart out on a Google doc – one row for each staff member, with the headers as you see below. So that you get the gist, I’ve included my own entry. Some of mine have stars after them, because other faculty members agreed with the question. So our third examination of data had us looking for patterns in conversations the staff wanted to have.
Summer Work that needs to be addressed
Conversations about teaching and learning
Conversations about Culture (both student and staff)
Conversations about logistics (tech, policies, etc)
Other notes? Other needs?
Train New Teachers
Integrate new principal
curriculum/ set norms / establish routines etc.**
What have we learned from the year-long focus?**
How do we teach the students about use of technology and how do we use the tech that best matches our content? *
How do we connect the work from one grade level to the next, so that we build upon student performance?*
Does the staff have enough fun together?***
How do we promote not just good culture, but good community?
How are PLC memberships determined? What should be our criteria?**
Is there a tardy policy that can actually work?*
Fourth, we wanted to collect the learning from our focus from the past two years. Much of that learning had been captured because teachers had presented to the staff over the year, but we had not collected all of our thoughts in one place. Because most of the conversations about the focus over the year were done within PLCs, we got together in the PLCs, and answered these 3 questions:
1. What did you learn?
2. How did it affect or change your practice?
3. How did it affect your students’ performance?
People answered this set of questions as many as 4 times – because we had four learning outcomes (Agency, Collaboration, Inquiry & Analysis, Communication) that we considered over the past two years.
And here is a close-up of the part about Inquiry and Analysis
Again, this afforded an opportunity to look for patterns, and get a sense of the overall work that we had been doing. You might notice that there was a lot of attention paid to collaboration (which has been a challenge with varied skill sets in the classroom), and inquiry & analysis, as we push our students to write and think analytically.
We used only one, actually. Before we looked at the school wide focus from the previous year (the learning wall), we did a sort of mid-way synthesis, using the 4-2-q Protocol. This has groups identifying 4 celebrations, 2 areas of growth, and 2 questions. Below is a sampling from different groups of some of the items we saw:
Spokes & Electives, including five dual-credit CNM courses will be offered here at nex+Gen next year
Leveraging student choice
Areas for Growth
Chronic absences and PBL – a match made in hell
Differentiation & supports for Q1 students
What is the nex+Gen student actually looking for when they go to our school? We increasingly lose kids at the top as well as the bottom.
Are we meeting the needs of our q1 and q4 students (the students on the edges)?
How can we serve both without sacrificing either?
This “benchmark” analysis served as yet another form of data from which to glean our instructional focus later in the day.
Throughout the day, we hit upon a common activity that was meant to lighten the mood, and remind us that we like being around each other. In this case, our principal was retiring, so we did a sort of combined “Newlywed Game” and Roast. A few of us created some multiple choice questions about our principal. Each question was meant to be a bit of a mini-roast, based upon his idiosyncrasies, so even before anyone answered them, the questions were funny. The principal would answer, but keep his answer private. Teams would answer, then we’d compare. Points were kept. Good times were had.
We also had a celebration of “Teacher of the Year”, which was brilliancy of our drama teacher. His contention: our factuly is so great that we can choose a Teacher of the Year randomly, and in less then 5 minutes, come up with a meaningful speech that highlights how awesome that teacher is. So we did it: we pulled a name out of a hat, sent that person away to the bathroom (we asked her to walk kind of slowly), then everyone brainstormed why that person deserved to be “Teacher of the Year”. Our recipient returned, her teaching partner made a (fantastic) speech, and she received a standing ovation. Every staff should do this.
By the way, the last thing we did was to finish off the day with the last “roast” questions about our principal. As George Costanza would say – “END ON A HIGH NOTE!”
In any kind of cooperative classroom, teachers think carefully about grouping. In my own class, I’ll group differently, according to a project, and the goals of an activity.
For this day, there were different goals at different times. To begin with, we thought that people should be comfortable, and willing to discuss right away, so we put people into their PLCs, where they were used to carrying on conversations all year. Other times, we thought that people discussing in departments might get us further when considering specifics about instruction.
Finally, when we wanted to have people generate a whole-school focus, we wanted people to avoid “groupthink”, and instead do some synthesis based upon a varied set of perspectives, so we grouped people randomly, using Excel. It worked.
The result of all of this? Our last planned activity was the most ambitious: synthesize all of this, and generate a focus for next school year. We broke up into 4 groups to discuss. I offered criteria for a yearlong focus, which were developed with some great minds at New Tech Network. We suggested that the focus…
- Should address the instructional core
- Should have potential for rich conversation in PLC
- Results of our learning (from focus) should be observable in the students
- Should not be so broad that effort would be too diffuse
- Will be accessible/understandable to new staff
We also stated that each group must back up the need for their suggested focus with evidence…using any of the data or observations from the day.
Our plan was to have each group brainstorm, then share out. Anticipating some differences from table to table, we planned to then coalesce 4 groups into two, and have the two super-groups synthesize the ideas from the initial share-out.
At the initial share out, this is what came to be:
group 1: Differentiation
group 2: World Citizenship, or Differentiation
group 3: Differentiation
group 4: Differentiation
It was a moment of beauty. Literally, I fought back tears at the synchronicity of it all.
Of course, one might say that we didn’t meet one of the criteria, because hoo boy – “Differentiation” a broad topic. However, despite the fact that we have been using the word “focus”, I think what we really mean is “theme”. When one of the groups reported out their thinking, they said, “A focus on differentiation would allow teachers to make experiments in their classroom, and report out the outcomes to their PLC and the broader faculty group,” which met with many nodding heads around the room. So in this way, individual teachers, or PLCs can discuss the ideas of differentiation, generate their own “theories of action”, and then examine the effects. This can inform the broader work of the school, so that we can ultimately point to and document best practices.
After our share out, it was just a matter of putting some wording into it, and identifying some “sub-themes” to accommodate some of the minor differences from group to group. Our final focus (or theme):
Differentiation in PBL
With special attention to:
Appropriate and effective use of technology
Addressing needs of the first and fourth quartiles
The relative ease with which we came to this decision certainly reinforced the careful planning that went into the affair. If there was a “special sauce” that made the day particularly delicious, I think that the ingredients are written above, (collaboration, fun, adequate time, etc) but in choosing the ingredients, I keep thinking back to a few questions that drove design: “How can we engage all stakeholders in both design and execution?” “How do we foster and capture learning?” “How do we make it enjoyable AND useful?” … which are exactly the questions I ask myself in designing robust learning experiences for kids.
And behold! Much of what works for kids works with an adult learning community – with the theme written on the board, and one last roast of our principal, everyone left patting each other on the back, looking forward to next year.