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Showing posts from May, 2016

School Improvement is More than Curriculum and Instruction Expertise

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Curriculum and instruction. Those are the foundation of what we do in education, but they are not the center of successful school improvement. Many improvement efforts fail because they focus completely on curriculum and instruction. Campus leaders are prone to making this mistake. After all, principals were teachers, instructional specialists, and curriculum experts. District support staff lean towards making this mistake because most support staff work in curriculum and instruction. And rightfully so - curriculum and instruction are at the center of our business. They just are not the center of successful school improvement. Culture is the center of successful School Improvement Think of Southwest Airlines, General Motors, Facebook, and Google. These are the names of thriving businesses. They are the result of successful on-going improvement efforts focused on organizational culture. They continue as a part of our everyday lives because they have strong organizational cultures. The …

Fear Failure & Lose the Campus Culture

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Failure. It has a paralyzing effect on us all. It is the one demon that grabs our heart, literally, and makes it race. It changes our thinking. It warps our confidence. If you fear it, it will take hold. Fear feeds failure into a monster that cannot be conquered.

Principals and Educational Leaders, fear of failure will...
Bring the organizational climate to a grinding halt.Create a culture of intimidation and distrust.Be translated by teachers as criticism, disappointment, and dissatisfaction with their performance.Replace innovation and risk-taking with compliance.Cause you to look out for your self-interest.Cause teachers to look out for their self-interests.
Teachers, fear of failure will...
Kill innovation and creativity in teaching.Stunt creativity in students.Slow or stop professional learning.Make change unfathomable.Destroy your motivation and enthusiasm for your craft.Send the feedback to students that they are either smart or not.Recommended Related Read: Mindset for Outlier Te…

Listening, Possibly the Best Formative Assessment

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Three days into the unit, and we have no clue if the students understand it or not. What do we do? We design a quick quiz to give to them right? A quiz will tell us whether they know it or not. Or does it? Limitations of a QuizDoes a quiz really expose the missing gaps in student understanding? Can a quiz expose the misconceptions?  It probably can tell you the factual knowledge they can recall. It probably can tell you if they can identify correct understandings. Properly designed, it might even force higher level analysis. But it probably doesn't tell you their misunderstandings. To do that, the quiz would need to be open-ended written responses. But that's a large time investment.
So quick quizzes are limited because they are looking for correct answers, not misconceptions. And addressing misunderstanding is one of the most critical purposes of instruction. It is necessary for ensuring long-term student success. Misconceptions can seriously undermine future learning.
There …

Data is NOT the Solution for Teachers

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Data-driven instruction was a good idea back before our students were born. In the early 2000's, it was the right idea because no one looked at data. There were just the annual reports from State accountability. But now the misuse of data-driven is more like the Iditarod sled races in Alaska. It’s like the sled being driven by a whip. The teachers are the huskies and the well-intentioned #edleader is the driver. Mush! Mush! Let's Go! Pull your weight! Data driven, but not data-informed.
Some administrators even use the data for competitive reasons and then talk about collaboration. Competition is the mode of operation, and collaboration is just talk. In most cases, the competitive trumps the collaborative. The intended campus culture is undermined by a fear-driven (huh-hmm, "data-driven") culture. Therefore, the solution is not data driven.
Data Informed Reflection The solution is data-informed, and more importantly, results reflected. Results reflected is the idea t…

Measuring Student Growth with Vocabulary: Part 2

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They just don't understand a word I say!
They act like we have never done this before!
Ugh...did anyone in the lower grades ever teach this?

Ever heard this before...maybe in your own head? I know I have. Weeks after a unit, a student is asked to do a summary. She meekly and tenderly responds, "What is a summary?"

We just spent a whole unit working with summaries! You don't know what that is!?!

The Problem is Vocabulary
The problem is not the student. The problem is not the planning or teaching. The problem is vocabulary. Academic vocabulary instruction needs to be taught systemically across the district from year to year. This is the single most important spiral practice and teaching we can do. It builds the necessary background knowledge, so students aren't confused or lost when we say, "summary." Or when we say any other academic term.

Teaching and Monitoring Vocabulary
We can teach academic vocabulary quickly each week. Direct and explicit instructio…

Time for Creativity in Elementary

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The best teachers push and pull everything from every minute of every day. They squeeze the potential and pull every ounce of talent from their students. The best teachers know that every second is valuable and make the most of the opportunity to learn. However, many Elementary classrooms have very little time allotted for creativity.
Random Stuff One of our classrooms recently created a station called creativity. At this station, the students were given a box of supplies with random things. Items such as plastic trash bags, tissue paper, napkins, paper clips, close pins, glue, scissors, markers, and other supplies. The directions were simple - be creative. The teacher was surprised when the students were confused. Students responded by saying, "We've never had no directions." "What do we do if you don't tell us what to do?" The teachers seized this as a moment for creativity. She responded by repeating, "Be creative. If I tell you anything else, you won&…

Team Tom TV

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I'm very excited to discuss a new offering from our team. !
Team Tom is in the beginning stages of producing a video blog series called TeamTomTV. One of our team members will host the show, bring powerful viewpoints on a variety of educational topics that directly impact student learning. Instructional strategies, educational leadership, school culture, teacher collaboration, and the power of focusing on student growth.
I'll share updates as we go. Right now, we are in the beginning stages, website design, episode planning, and marketing strategy. Can't wait for you to see us soon on TeamTomTV!
When the first episode airs, I ask that you take a moment, view, and tell us what you think!

Measuring Growth, Not Just Grading Papers!

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In a recent twitter conversation #sblchat, several tweets really hammered the point home:

A7 - With Standards-Based Learning, we choose not to grade the practice while we are learning. We grade only once we've got it! #sblchat — Rik Rowe (@RoweRikW) May 12, 2016
A1 Purpose of grading is feedback on learning --- so SBG makes too much sense #sblchat — Donald Gately Ed.D. (@donald_gately) May 12, 2016
A3: Ongoing timely, descriptive feedback which guides instruction #sblchat — Jasper Fox Sr. (@jasperfoxsr) May 12, 2016Grading is not the end result. It is merely a communication or reporting tool. Learning is the end result. And growth towards learning is what needs most critically to be measured and reported.
Measuring Growth is...encouragingrewardingeasy to automate and use technologyevidence that effort worksevidence that students are progressing toward goalsevidence that teaching is or isn't work quickly enough to reach the goals in timedata to use for reflection and professional lea…

Measuring Student Growth with Vocabulary: Part 1

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The principal calls you in for a meeting.  She pulls out your recent Common Assessment scores.  Everyone questions the quality of the test. You had no input on creating the test. Only 30% of your students met the standard. 
She then pulls out your team scores and shows that two other teachers' are 3 points higher than yours. What in the world is wrong with this scenario?
Big Problem with the Common Assessments First, the statistics are horrible. Not the scores, but the actual mathematics. The single largest problem with these assessments is their lack of statistical reliability or correlation to anything. 

Read more on the Dangers of Assessment Data.

No more research terms, but essentially the same exact student can take the same exact test tomorrow and score 10 to 20 points higher or lower. That's what I mean by reliability - it is not measuring "pure" learning over time. Other major problems persist in the scenario above. But let's look at a solution. So what is better?

Posting Expectations for Students

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One of the simplest and most powerful techniques for minimizing distractions and optimizing opportunity to learn is posting explicit expectations. For example, how do I get supplies? This question can seriously erode the momentum in a classroom, especially if asked over and over. It wears on the teacher and distracts other students' attention. 
Here's one simple approach.


Discuss different instructional approaches (i.e. small group, whole group, 1-to-1 tech, etc.). Then discuss what it looks, sounds, and feels like in each approach.Get student input on what will help the class run smoothly. Teacher takes notes on board.The next day, post a summary of the discussion as an anchor chart or poster and review it. Do a quick role play and periodically review the expectations. This takes a little time up front. However, an ounce of pre-teaching is worth a pound cure. Hmm...something like that.
Here's a Team Tom resource that is free for all small groups. It's marketed as guided …

9 Traits for Principals

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Teachers were recently asked - What do you need most in a school leader? Nine themes consistently showed up in teachers' answers:


Trust and protect your teaching staff by supporting them and involving them in all aspects of decision making. Their craft is too important to our students to leave them alone.Stay connected to the classroom. Visit often. Teach each semester for a few hours. Everyone will respect you better if you walk a little in their roles. You'll also appreciate the details more.Build your staff. Not train. Know them, their strengths. Talk with them - not small talk, but about their craft. Admire them, challenge them, and build on their strengths...teachers have so many!Have their back. Every moment of every day, teachers have to be on top of their game. Everyone can criticize and attack them from legislators to the public to the media... Be their support - we are on the same team, with the same purpose. Let them solve problems with parents before you try to step…

What Effective Leadership is Not

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What makes for effective school leaders? This week, @RELMidwest tweeted this list: 
Great (if not standard) list of the most important leadership responsibilities of the principal. Here's my opposite list.  What Leadership Is Not:
No one on campus ever remembers or uses the mission statement in practice. Posting the mission and vision statement on the CIP or website, but never referring to it during decision making, staff meetings, goal-setting, and team meetings. Making those statements verbose and eloquent, but it's useless.Demanding weekly meetings. When admin enters the meeting, the room goes silent, innovation stops, creativity halts, ideas are squelched, and teachers look to the principal in fear, doubt, or cynicism.Failure is to be avoided at all costs. Taking a risk is bad. Experimenting is a waste of time. Results are avoided or useless. Politics and opinions matter more than evidence.Where's the principal? Not around teachers on a day-to-day basis. Spends more time …

Content Area Vocabulary: What does the research say?

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How much time should I spend teaching vocabulary? How much does it really benefit students at different ages? What are best uses of my time if I do teach vocabulary?

Recent research gives us a lot of evidence for the answers. Here's a quick summary from recent years:

If you're reading texts in science or social studies middle school or high school, directly teaching content words helps students! From a 2012 Study.Middle schoolers (grades 6-8) benefit a lot! From a 2009 Study. Combine direct instruction of academic and content words with other strategies to get the biggest results. Vocabulary plus these tasks is really good:deep readingstudent discussionsstudents developing and supporting argumentsdeveloping persuasive essaysStudents can learn curriculum vocabulary best if a combination of strategies is used:explicit teachingteacher-structured pairing of studentsuse of videos to prompt student discussionprolonged use of graphic organizers (over 9-12 weeks)Avoid drill and practice…

Social Studies and a Better World

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As educators, we want to inspire. Too often we're trapped by various pressures. We feel like we can't touch sensitive ethical issues. We feel like there's no time to go deep into real topics that impact students' thinking.


A couple of days ago I wrote about getting deep into social studies lessons. Then I read a blog about a related topic on edweek.org. Zoe Weil made several great points along the same lines as my recent post: It is a school's job to protect students' physical, mental, and emotional safety. That safety comes when children learn to have agency; to contribute meaningfully in the world; and to cultivate qualities such as integrity, compassion, and kindness. Our education system must present ethical concerns through school curricula, empowering teachers and students to think about these issues in different ways. We must help students become adept researchers able to examine the complex systems that impact all of our lives. We must ensure, through sch…