Friday, 18 September 2015

Are you married to your PLC?

Are you married to your PLC? Are you just flirting or dating? Or maybe engaged? What is your level of commitment to the PLC process?  These were the questions and conversations that surfaced repeatedly as I crisscrossed North America this summer, working with schools and districts in their Professional Learning Communities.

Almost all of the staffs had already had some form of introduction to the PLC concepts. Some districts had sent administrators to a big PLC Institute, others had sent teacher teams to a one-day or two-day Pro-D Event. A few more had already had a whole-staff introduction of some sort.  Several had already made some of the structural changes such as proving collaborative PLC time which was built right into the timetable, or creating formal PLC teams with guidelines and team norms. Everyone I spoke with liked the concept of PLC. However, the level of commitment was hit and miss.

In his recent book, In Praise of American Educators, Rick DuFour reminds us that the “primary challenge in the PLC process is changing, and not merely tweaking, the existing culture” (p. 100). DuFour insists, it is not so much about what PLC’s do, but rather how the individuals and the organization think and act together. PLC is not a checklist, it is a way of being. Ken Williams and Tom Hierck go even further in their new book, Starting a Movement, when they push our thinking about the “patterns, habits and actions” that demonstrate “the commitment required for PLCs to be embedded into the culture” of the school (p.96).

According to Williams and Hierck, we are flirting when we have just a surface level of exploration or implementation. We are dating when we demonstrate some of the characteristics of a PLC, but we don’t have any personal commitment to it. When we are engaged in the process, we demonstrate a deep commitment to the purpose, process and our collaborative team.

In my conversations with several school staffs recently, we took it one step further.  What will it look like if you are married to the PLC process?  If you and your team are married to the PLC process, there will be a deep commitment to the process.  Communication will be clear; everyone will know the mission, vision, values and goals of the school. They will have a collective understanding of WHY we are all here together. Collaboration will be meaningful; teams of teachers will work interdependently to clarify the most essential learning in each grade or subject, and will share best practice for both instruction and assessment.  PLC members will celebrate each other’s strengths and support each other to work on areas of improvement. People married to their Professional Learning Community will know they can lean on each other. They will help each other get better, and sustain each other through the inevitable tough times.

Many excellent resources are available that outline the big ideas, key concepts, critical questions and desirable attributes of a PLC. These books are very helpful, but they risk becoming more checklists. Members of a PLC must be willing to work on the commitment and relationships required of being married to their Professional Learning Community.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Creating the Conditions for Success

At a recent 2-day workshop on Pyramid of Behaviour Interventions, the conversation turned to the question: “What do you do with the kids who just refuse to do the work?” We had already discussed the foundation of working collaboratively in a PLC (Professional Learning Community), being clear and consistent on priority learning outcomes, having a pyramid response to intervention (PRTI) and being willing to differentiate for the needs of different learners. “Ya, but…” asked one participant, “what about the kid who outright, defiantly refuses to do the work and disrupts others in the process?”

Great question. My first response to that question is always “Is it a CAN’T or a WON’T?” As Buffum, Mattos and Weber so succinctly put it, “Behaviour and academics are inextricably linked”. Is it that the child CAN’T do it, WON’T do it, or BOTH? It is often difficult to separate the behaviour problem from the academic problem.  As you move higher up the pyramid in terms of intensity and frequency of defiant behaviour, it is almost impossible to separate the two.  To help answer that question, I asked all of the participants to think of a very challenging student they had worked with recently.  On their own, I asked them to describe in as much detail as possible all of the details surrounding that defiant behaviour. What behaviour did you observe?  Can you recall the setting and situation just before the defiant behaviour? What task was being asked of the student? What was the intended learning outcome of the task? What was the student getting or avoiding by exhibiting the undesirable behaviour?  Participants then shared these observations with a colleague.

Together, we walked through the process of “ABC Analysis”. This is a very simple version of a Functional Behaviour Assessment that can be done by almost any educator. It does not replace the work of a trained Functional Assessment specialist, but it is a very helpful tool for most teachers and education assistants.  By breaking down the observations of the interaction, most educators are able to begin to identify “triggers” to the behaviour, as well as “consequences” that result from the behaviour. Consequences, in this context, are the things the student either gets or avoids. Working as a team, educators can usually differentiate the CAN’T from the WON’T. They are also usually able to identify some of the underlying causes to the symptoms displayed and, in most cases can usually prescribe some form of prevention, intervention, adaptation or assistance.

Just as a PLC creates the conditions for academic success for an entire school team, the process briefly described here can help create the conditions for success for individuals with both behaviour and academic challenges.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Holiday Homework

I hate homework over the holidays. There is only one other thing that bugs me as much as holiday homework, and that is chain-letters. So, you can imagine my initial reaction when I got a Twitter invitation from Peter Jory (@PeterJory) to join an online-blog-chain-letter campaign over the Winter Break. My first reaction was "Homework for the holidays? Don't believe in it". I had no intention of participating in, or supporting two things I don't believe in. Then, I read Peter's blog and a couple of others and thought: "Pretty good idea. If I have some spare time I might throw something together". But there was no commitment. It's the holidays! I'm more of a "lurker" than a true "tweeter", but I did follow a few chain-blog posts to see how this idea was evolving. After another peer pressure prod from Peter and after reading a few more posts in this blog-chain, I decided "OK, I will do it, if I have time". You have to know that I value vacation days tremendously and, this year in particular, I needed to turn my work-brain off and turn my attention more to my family. It was quite a 2013, but I won't bore folks with all that.

So, here I sit on New Year's Day. Happy to have put 2013 on the shelf and start fresh with a positive and productive 2014. Family is still asleep. Strong coffee is on. Keyboard is warm. I hope I can add a little bit of wit and wisdom to this little project.  I believe it was started by Cale Birk (@birklearns). For those who have not been following this chain, the idea is to share:

  • 11 random facts about yourself
  • 11 questions answered from another
  • 11 questions of your own to others
My 11 random facts:
  1. Born in an ambulance at the corner of Broadway and Burrard, Vancouver, BC
  2. Quickly moved to the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island and, except for university and travel, have stayed there ever since
  3. Happy to live the lyrics of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town"
  4. Travelled to 35 countries on 5 continents. First with my childhood family (Thanks, Dad) and then with my own family (Thanks, Deanie)
  5. Bounced around several departments at UVIC before deciding on Education. Second best decision I ever made
  6. Best decision I ever made was to settle down and marry Deanie (Byron) Coleman
  7. Have two fantastic boys, almost 17 and 14, who are so much more responsible than their dad was at the same age. Must be their mother's influence!
  8. I'm a runner. Right now it's just recreational to burn off a little stress and a few pounds. I will never be able to compete with Tom Hierck's marathons completed (45+), but it's a pretty safe bet that Tom will never beat my PR (3:07-ish)
  9. Owned and operated my own restaurant, Just Jake's Downtown (while I was a new teacher)
  10. Have been a principal at high school, middle school and elementary
  11. As a sideline, I've been an educational consultant & presenter in 8 provinces and 20 states
The original 11 questions from Cale Birk:
  1. Ketchup, salsa or hot sauce? Salsa (say it like they did on Seinfeld: Sal-sa)
  2. What is one thing that you are part of (or believe in) that is bigger than you? Family
  3. What do you do that is great? Not 'good', GREAT. Hopefully folks would agree that I'm pretty great at making others feel great about what they do. Motivation and morale
  4. If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why? Cowichan Valley, British Columbia. I stay here by choice. No matter where I travel or work, I am always happy to come HOME
  5. If you were a breakfast cereal, which one would it be? How come? VECTOR, it tastes good, and it sounds cool
  6. What is the one thing (outside of your family) that you absolutely make time for - no matter what? I should say friends, or exercise, but in 2013 the honest answer would be red wine. I told you, it was a rough year!
  7. If ________ could be eliminated from your life, you would be stress-free. Online, chain-mail blogging over the holidays
  8. What is a talent that you have that would surprise those that think they know you well? I used to be able to cook just about any item off the menu at Hy's Steak House and the Keg. Chicken Cordon Bleu was a favourite 
  9. If you were to give yourself a pen name, what would it be? George Blyth. I could finally have a use for two useless middle names. When you read that racey novel by George Blyth you'll now know that the characters are based on folks I know
  10. Your favourite movie is? So many... I guess, John Grisham's THE FIRM
  11. If schools closed tomorrow, I would go be a ______________. Travel Journalist. It kills me that Anthony Bordain (Parts Unknown on CNN) stole my dream job. Eat, drink, travel, talk politics!
The 11 questions that Peter pestered me with:
  1. Where did you grow up, and what place still feels like home when you go there? See above
  2. When did you decide to do what you do? Still deciding! I love the current job that I do, and all the things I do on  the side, but I never know that I have "arrived"
  3. Describe something that you struggle with and what you've designed as a coping skill or compensation? I know that my confident, outgoing personality can come across to some folks as cocky arrogance. I have to always remind myself to "tone it down"
  4. What makes you the proudest when you think of your work? The book that I co-authored with Tom Hierck (@thierck) and Chris Weber (@Chi_educate). "Pyramid of Behavior Interventions" is more than a book about behaviour. It tells real life stories about positive learning experiences with teachers and kids. I'm proud of that.
  5. Who got you started on Twitter?  The first two I followed were Tom Hierck (@theirck) and Tom Schimmer (@TomSchimmer). Two BC boys who've gone on to share their expertise as full-time consultants and presenters. I knew them before they were famous!
  6. Name your all-time favourite fictional character, and describe how that "person" has influenced you. I have to go back to my childhood and choose Robin Hood. I'm not sure which I like more. The fact that he lived the life of "eat, drink and be merry", or that he stuck it to the King and Taxman by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Romantic notion, either way
  7. In what way are you quirky? My quirk is that I can't admit my quirks
  8. Describe a very public moment that didn't work out for you. One time, while co-presenting with Tom Hierck in Nova Scotia, I was in the middle of telling a very animated story and joke to a crowd of a few hundred.  This story-joke had always worked with every crowd, getting great laughs and lots of knowing nods. Not on this day. I was giving it everything I had and the crowd just did not get it. They sat and stared, in stunned silence. While I made a fool of myself, Tom stood in the background killing himself laughing (1) for the fact that this tried-and-true schtick was dying and (2) that Tom got to watch me sweat it out. Ask Tom about the "Poo-Poo on the Potty Dance" the next time you see him!
  9. What is the best fruit? Bananas. I'm a runner. All runners should answer bananas
  10. Describe an event where you had a surprisingly brilliant time. The first BCSSA conference I attended. I was not sure that I wanted to spend two days in a room with the "suits" at the superintendent level. To my surprise, I was engaged and met many folks with whom I have enjoyed interacting with ever since. I've been to a few now, and always enjoy the learning and networking.
  11. What would you like people to say about you after you are gone? He had it figured out. He knew how to work hard and play hard, and always had the balance between family and friends, work and fun.
My questions to you (should you choose to accept this mission):
  1. How do you strike that balance between work and play?
  2. If you could hop on a plane today, regardless of time or cost, where would you go first? Why?
  3. If you could sit down at a dinner party with 3 historical figures (dead), who would you invite and why would you choose those 3?
  4. If you could also invite 3 living guests, who would you add to that table and why?
  5. What is your most significant career-related achievement?
  6. The Lotto Max is about $45 million this week. How would you spend the first $20 million?
  7. What are the first 3 words your "significant other" would use to describe you?
  8. Who was your best friend growing up? Describe one great childhood memory with that person.
  9. What recent non-fiction book do you recommend?
  10. What recent fictional novel do you recommend?
  11. Do you have any regrets? Care to share?
The 11 new victims of this Twitter Chain (hopefully you have not been hit by someone else):
  1. Pat Duncan @PatrickHDuncan
  2. Gillian Braun @Gbraun41
  3. Tom Schimmer @TomSchimmer
  4. Sherri Bell @SherriDBell61
  5. Venessa MacDowell @VMacDowell
  6. Lori Hryniuk @lhryniuk
  7. Nicole Boucher @NicoleBoucher
  8. Sheryl Koers @Skoers1
  9. Larry Mattin @larry_mattin
  10. Glen Posey @gposey79
  11. Anthony Muhammad @newfrontier21
P.S. There is no pressure or expectation that you do this homework. It is NOT for marks!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Both Sides of the Pyramid: Behavior & Academics

“It’s hard do the collaborative work of a Professional Learning Community if your school is struggling with student behavior and school climate issues”. This was a comment from a teacher at a recent workshop. We agree.

Co-author and friend, Tom Hierck and I recently hosted the “launch” of our 2-day workshops based on our book, “Pyramid of Behavior Interventions: Seven Keys to a Positive Learning Environment”The team at Solution Tree always does a great job of putting on these professional learning opportunities. Participants were actively engaged and their feedback was very positive.

What became clear to the K-12 educators in this session is what Tom and I (and our third author, Chris Weber) have been saying for years. In terms of school improvement, behavior and academic success are inextricably linked. Students struggling academically, often act out with negative behavior. Students with behavioral challenges, often struggle with academic success.  The challenge for educators is in finding a way to address academics and behavior. Both are important.

In our book, we have re-phrased the core PLC questions to also consider behavior:
  1. How is it we want our students to behave?
  2. How will we know if each student has learned how to behave?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not behave?
  4. How will we extend and enrich the learning for those students who have demonstrated proficiency?
In our workshop, we demonstrate how school teams can tackle the issues of behavior and academics at the same time.  By combining of the proven practice and structure of the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model with the research-based concepts of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS), school teams can create the systems and interventions required to improve student behavior and learning simultaneously.

The PLC structures that support this work include:
  • Collaborative Teams
  •  Collective Inquiry
  • Data-Driven Dialogue
  • Targeted, Results-Oriented Interventions

The PBIS practices that support this work include: 
  • Creating a school-wide Behavior Matrix
  • Collaborating on agreed-up values, priorities and essential outcomes
  • Targeting instruction based on evidence or data
  • Generating a tiered approach to intervention

Of course, there is more to this work than can be simplified into a few bullets in a single blog post.  What we heard from participants as they spent the two days making the connections between behavior and learning, was that creating a school climate that is conducive to a collaborative focus on student learning is important work. Participants also agreed that creating a pyramid of interventions that addresses both behavior and academics is critical for school improvement.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Intervention Time In Our High School

We tried something new in our high school this year.   The plan was to give students more time and support to get INCOMPLETE work done.  In addition to all the time that teachers give up at lunch, before and after school, we introduced an “I-Week”.  During “I-Week” our bell times were changed slightly, so that we could add an “X-Block”. Each day, this “X-Block” became an extended period where students with incomplete work were required to stay in that class and work on incomplete assignments, labs, tests, etc. Teachers were available in class to help these students during these extended periods.

School start and end times stayed the same, so the school day was the same length of time. Regular classes (4 blocks per day) were shortened by 10 minutes each so that we could create a 40-minute “extended X-Block” for Intervention.  We rotated this extended block so that each of our four regular blocks got one X-block that week.

This time was MANDATORY for students with incomplete work. During “I-Week”, those students who were all caught up had a choice. They could stay in school to work on other things, go to another class where they needed to catch up, use it as a study block, or they could choose to have an extended lunch hour (only with teacher permission). This was seen as an earned reward for being all caught up. There was some trepidation that this extra free time could cause new problems in terms of behavior, but that did not happen. Students took this opportunity seriously and rose to the occasion.

As a follow-up, a few weeks after the I-Week, we also added an “I-Day” into our calendar. Again, this time was mandatory for students with incomplete work. We ran our 4 regular blocks with regular bell times. It was optional for students who were all caught up. The intent was to help students get caught up before teachers had to submit their end-of-term grades.

By all accounts, this experiment has been both popular and successful.  Students have commented that they appreciated the structured time to get caught up. This was true for both struggling students and for many more academically-minded high-achievers. Students also liked the small group settings where they could get more teacher time and attention. Teachers liked it for similar reasons. It gave them more structured time, within the school day, to help students get caught up on missed work, or to provide additional instruction for students who needed more one-on-one time. Many parents praised us for trying something different, and thanked us for providing extra time and support for kids who needed it. It was a win-win-win.

The results are not in. All of this anecdotal feedback is positive, and we already have reports that there are fewer students who will receive an “I-Report” (Incomplete). We anticipate that this will result in fewer students getting failing grades, and more students getting better grades. We will be monitoring the results at the first report card, and make adjustments to this pilot project based on that data. 

Time, support and intervention are only part of the solution. One thing that became clear in our planning and reflection during this experiment, is that we need to have more conversation about instruction and assessment. We need to discuss Learning Outcomes vs. Task Completion, Feedback vs. Grades, Upgrading and Re-Tests, and the Great Zero Debate. It's a great start! 

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Revitalizing Your PLC

Educators have a rare opportunity every summer to rest, relax and recharge.  Most people in many other businesses and professions do not have the same luxury. Sure, they can take vacations, but rarely do they get to STOP and START over each year. As educators we get to wrap-up one year, take a break, and start fresh with a new school year. This summer, I had the good fortune to rest and relax with family and friends, as well as to refresh and revitalize with other educational colleagues. I enjoyed both.

My “working holiday” this summer included collaborating with the staffs from many schools across several states including Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan and Illinois. What continues to amaze me, as I travel and share in this work, is how many similarities there are despite the differences in locations and locales. Rich or poor, large or small, urban or rural, most of these K-12 educators face many of the same challenges. The common theme this summer was: “How do we revitalize our PLC?”

Almost all of the schools and districts had already had some level of implementation for their Professional Learning Community (PLC). Each of the schools I worked with was at a different place along the PLC continuum, but most had come up against road-blocks, or lost momentum for one reason or another. This is not surprising. DuFour et al often talk about the PLC Continuum, ranging from “pre-initiating” to “sustaining” (See Learning By Doing” for great rubrics on this). All of the schools were looking for ways to get back on track.  As I worked through some of the issues with these folks, a number of common themes emerged.  I’ll share some of the highlights here:

Many of these schools had done some work on these key concepts of a PLC. To varying degrees of success, they could point to documents or mantras that showed they had done some of this work at some time.  The question that I have in these situations is, “Is your mission and vision alive and kicking, or is it just a statement on the wall?”  Even if a staff or a PLC team did this work a few years back, it is important to revisit the mission or vision and to review and refine the values and goals.  What made sense to a sub-committee five years ago may not be crystal clear to the new team today.  It’s important to review these things regularly to make sure we all are still on the same page. It is equally important to identify the difference between and wish or a dream and a measurable goal or target. We need to ask ourselves: Do we have SMART Goals, or just rosy intentions?

Most of the schools and districts I have worked with have committed on some level to create collaborative meeting times for their PLC teams.  Some places have more time than others.  What was clear though, as I listened to each of the teams, is that meeting time alone does not ensure collaboration and collective inquiry. Harvard professor David Perkins warns against “co-BLAB-oration” - when teachers get together but talk about the wrong things. If teams aren’t diligent about this, PLC meeting time can easily slide into gossip or administivia.  It’s critical to keep the focus of every meeting on the “Big 3”: Learning, Collaboration and Results. The question we should be asking is: Are the teaching strategies we currently use making the biggest impact on kids and their learning?

We can’t have meaningful conversations about learning and results if we are not clear on what it is we expect kids to learn.  Most teams, even those who have been in a PLC for years, can usually do a better job of defining and refining those essential “Power Standards” (Ainsworth) that the team agrees are the critical learning outcomes for their grade and subject. This means having conversations with colleagues about what is “critical and essential” versus “somewhat important and nice-to-know”. Research by Marzano and others make it clear that we will never be able to do a perfect job of every single outcome, so we had better make sure we are clear about which ones we will do a terrific job of in our school.

Once the priority learning outcomes are clearly defined by a collaborative team, they can then do the work of creating some common formative assessments. These in-house, teacher-created, real-time assessments help both students and staff identify what the kids have learned, and who needs more time and support in order to learn what we have agreed is essential. We need to ask: How do we know if the kids have learned the most essential outcomes?

At many of my workshops, teams are eager to jump right to the intervention portion of the PLC.  This is risky. When asked to give a session on “Pyramid of Interventions”, I usually inquire: “Do you want to build a pyramid of interventions, or do you just want me to show you where you can send the kids who don’t get it?”  It’s important to remember that the first, best place to start our interventions is in the regular classroom setting. That is where most teachers spend the most time with the most kids. The better job we do of differentiating instruction and assessments to accommodate student differences in the regular classroom, the fewer students will need to move “up the pyramid”.  Intervention can be time consuming and costly, so we want to get the best bang for our buck.

If a PLC team is clear on the essential learning, and they have some common formative assessments to help identify those students with gaps, then they are more ready to properly place students into targeted intervention. The next challenge that comes up very often is TIME. Where do we find the time for intervention for students with gaps, let alone the time to enrich the learning of students who are already there? In most schools, the answer has not been a big pot of new money! No, we have to get creative. The solutions are as diverse as the many schools struggling with this challenge. A great place to start looking for answers is in Buffum, Matos and Weber’s two books on RTI. The answer lies in collaboration and flexibility. There are many great examples at the “allthingsplc” web site and blog. The question becomes: How can we alter our bell schedule, or adjust our staffing, so we can find those precious moments for both intervention and enrichment?

At every school where I have helped to implement or refresh their PLC, the staff has had to first reflect back and ask:
  • How are we doing now? 
  • How do we know?
  • How would we prefer to see our results?
  •  What are we willing to do differently to get different results?

The high school where I am now principal has been following a PLC model for a decade now. Our results are pretty good, but there is room for improvement. Over that same ten-year period, each department has been at a variety of points along the PLC Continuum. Are we all at the “sustaining” stage in all aspects of a Professional Learning Community? No.  But I am confident that we have the passion and expertise to collaboratively reflect, refine and revitalize our PLC. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey with this team. And, after a great summer break, I am refreshed and ready to get back at it.