What does effective collaboration really look like?

As an aspiring administrator and a relative newbie in the role of mid-level leadership I’m always trying to learn how to become a better leader. I have a lot of learning still to do. Part of this process of getting better involves pride and ego. It means recognizing the areas where I can improve while also having the awareness to see those around me who are simply better in certain areas than me. Through Twitter I can see thousands of educators doing amazing things I could only dream of thinking up or having the time to pursue.

I was in the midst of writing a post on effective whole-school meetings when Andrew Miller beat me to it, writing clear guidelines much more concisely than I could have. He argues three important points: (1) Quit the announcements       (2) Teacher-Led PD          (3) Meeting Protocols

I instantly made connections between what I had already drafted in my post and his main points.

I have always struggled with the notion of announcements at meetings because they can open a can of worms that can lead down a long, dark road. If the idea is simply to inform the audience then it is best to do this through email or other forms of electronic sharing. I love efficiency and the time spent on announcements never seems well spent. If you consider, for example, that there are fifty teachers at a meeting and twenty minutes are spent on announcements then 1000 minutes of teacher time has been dedicated to announcements. If ten announcements are made perhaps only two will apply to each person resulting in a lot of daydreaming. Even within a team setting I like to reserve announcements for email. I put the onus on the team to read the emails I send and make sure only to press send when it’s absolutely necessary. This allows our team to focus on collaborating to accomplish tasks such as creating assessment criteria, discussing pedagogical approaches for upcoming outcomes or assessing data to make informed decisions.

I believe Teacher-led PD can be so powerful. Every single teacher has something that they know or do that can improve the practice of others. Actually seeing a strategy or idea put into practice within a classroom can be very helpful for teachers new to inquiry. The theory of how something works means little if we can’t see the actual form and function of it. This is especially important for a school like mine in Saudi Arabia where it is exceedingly difficult to bring in experts and leaving school for PD during the academic year is challenging.

I led a staff meeting once where I ended up with more questions than when I started. It was a mess because I didn’t engage the staff in a clear protocol. Simply having an agenda is not enough. We were also too many to negotiate an agreement as a whole group. Trying to reach a decision with a large group is challenging. Often the outspoken few lead the discussion while many educators with great ideas keep quiet because of the imposing large group setting. Reaching a decision can also be tricky because there’s always a counterpoint that leads down another road. A few days after my mess of a meeting I was able to get past my ego to see what a bad job I had done. As Andrew Miller wrote in his post, teachers like to talk. And talk. And talk. Without a clear protocol the conversation can go on forever and never actually accomplish anything.

Collaborating effectively in a small-group setting provides different challenges than the larger, whole-staff group. Last year, in my first year as a team leader I focused on important elements like collaborative planning tools, shared agreements for assessments and instruction, and team reflection. I had an incredible team that was completely open-minded and supportive of every initiative. There was a focus on collegial sharing and respectful discussion. I thought I had done a good job in leading the team. Then I discovered this rubric and other resources. After swallowing my pride I realized we needed to dig deeper, especially in terms of evaluating our practices. It cannot simply be enough to share practices and reflect thoughtfully at the end of the unit. We need to be evaluating whether our practices were truly effective and this can’t just be based on hearsay or recollections. This is where data needs to play a part. Cross moderation and peer observations play a pivotal role in the validity of this data. To say something worked well without being able to point to data to support this is a pretty empty statement. I know that our team did use data to impact our individual teaching but I never led us to do this as a whole group. Such a scenario adds an element of vulnerability because now the data is for all team members to see. However, in a safe and collegial setting this can be done successfully.

The Role of Provocations

If you haven’t engaged in a #pypchat via twitter I strongly recommend it. Every two weeks a different topic is discussed on twitter for an hour with PYP educators around the world. This past week “powerful provocations” was the focus.

I love the idea of a great provocation to get children thinking about concepts and ideas. In fact, I felt as though this would actually be an area where I might feel confident sharing ideas and past experiences. Early on in the hour of chat I realized I’m just scratching the surface in terms of provocations and a mind shift occurred.

In the beginning of my career I truly had no grasp of provocations. It was one of those things that fell through the cracks in any PD I experienced and I was busy enough trying to stay afloat that my own independent inquiry into  the idea was the farthest thing from my mind. I remember it clearly years later, on every unit planner I considered the unit texts we had available as the provocation. Then one day a new colleague of mine took nearly everything out of his classroom one night, leaving the walls bare and shelves empty, and the next day had his students complete tasks with limited resources. It was then that I realized that the provocation should be powerful and leave an impression.

At my current school we try to engage the children in a provocation that connects to our related concepts but does not actually focus on the central idea. The idea being that we get students interested in the concepts and then connect that to the focus of the inquiry. In fact our newly developed inquiry model begins with “an invitation” to the unit, occurring through our provocation.

During the #pypchat I began to realize greater possibilities for the purpose and scope of provocations. @whatedsaid made me recognize that a provocation can be simple and yet still powerful, such as a question or statement on the board, a song played or a few images displayed. Provocations can connect to related concepts but also can be linked to creating new student questions, a new direction for the inquiry or action. The idea that provocations can happen throughout a unit was another point made and that had me instantly thinking of my current unit and ways in which I can continue to engage students in thinking and questioning right through to the summative assessment. Using provocations within emergent planning can help ensure student-led inquiry is truly happening.

The bottom line of it all was that the best provocations, no matter their form or level of sophistication, would leave a lasting impression on students, one which they would often think back on and connect to their learning.

Last year I used this provocation to get my students thinking about evidence. It truly was an experience that they would continue to talk about for the rest of the year and the concept of evidence was seemingly entrenched in their minds.

The #pypchat has become my provocation for teaching.

Checking-In

Having just completed a unit where I felt the students had a great understanding of the central idea, I was struck by a horrifying thought. I wasn’t entirely sure how that happened. How could I use this experience to help me in the future? In some ways, the reflection that takes place after a successful experience can be more important than the reflection that takes place after a disastrous experience. I’ve made pancakes for my daughter so many times and I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve done it well. In fact I can write a book about all the things not to do when making pancakes. Of course I wasn’t paying attention that one time the pancakes were actually edible so my poor daughter is destined to eat burnt and crispy pancakes for the rest of her childhood.

All the disastrous experiences don’t necessarily show you the right way to do something. So I went about searching for an answer.

When I analyzed everything our class had done I noticed that we had completed far more check-ins for understanding than usual throughout this unit. When I say “checking-in” I simply mean taking the time to talk to my students about how they’re going. Checking-in in our class can happen very informally. For instance, if we have a few extra minutes I might just ask the students to look at our lines of inquiry and central idea, and tell me what they’re still trying to figure out or ask what they want to spend more time looking into. Another idea the students really like came from my friend and fellow Inquiring Minds contributor, Adam McGuigan. It is simply a massive thermometer posted on the wall attached to a teacher question, concept or line of inquiry. The students post their answer to the question along the thermometer based on their own perceived level of understanding. The students can revisit this thermometer throughout the unit and adjust their level of understanding.

One of the most powerful moments in our recently completed unit focusing on beliefs and values was a simple task of analyzing student questions and having the children sort them into groups. We realized that a lot of children were still struggling to explain how they express their beliefs and values. It was at this point that one child raised their hand and explained that they were Muslim and they showed this by going to the mosque every Friday, praying at home every day and reading the Quran. All of a sudden children were raising their hand wanting to explain how they expressed their different beliefs and values. This went on for 15 minutes. The next day we followed up this conversation by trying to match beliefs and values with the ways in which we might express them. We used many of the examples from the day before. When we checked in again a few days later the children felt so much more confident in their understanding of the lines of inquiry and central idea.

In my mind checking-in is more than just formative assessment. The key component is actually listening to children. It’s not just about finding out what they know and what they don’t know. It can also lead you in new directions and it provides children with an opportunity to help each other in their journey towards understanding.

I would love to hear how others check-in.

It should be noted that my wife is a fine maker of pancakes.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I had started reading education blogs as a tool for professional development. Not only was I learning from great blogs like this but also I was inspired. I wanted to start my own blog but I didn’t think I had the time to write enough posts to maintain an audience. I also questioned my knowledge. I am not a rookie at the inquiry game but I still have more questions than I do answers. Though I assume that’s how many of us feel.

So I thought back to my days at Bonn International School. I’m not sure I was aware at the time how lucky I was to be surrounded by so many brilliant, motivated and inspiring educators. They were dedicated and innovative, always seeking out the practice that was best. They also instilled in me a sense of collegial sharing. There was no competition, only support and encouragement. So I thought I would call upon all these people to once again inspire and educate me, and invite others to learn from them as well.

These brilliant people are curriculum coordinators, ICT coaches, deputy principals, early childhood educators, heads of student support services, ICT coordinators, team leaders, publishers, and elementary school teachers.

So once everyone was on board I went about trying to write my first post. It was at that point I realized what I was up against. Writing to an audience is daunting. I have three different posts started and all have been pushed aside because I either lost my momentum or forgot the thought I was trying to express.

So what seemed like a good idea at the time suddenly appears more intimidating. But that’s why I’ve brought my friends along for the ride.

Enjoy what’s to follow and be inspired.