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.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


This is just my second year at the big old high school in our little town.  Despite the stereotyping that goes on in education about large high schools being places where kids fall through the cracks, I have been pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. At our high school, the staff has worked as a Professional Learning Community (PLC) for many years. This does not mean that we have everything just right. What it means is that we have teams and time to make sure we work collaboratively to try and get it right.

Our recent semester change-over and end-of-semester exam results period, was yet another example of how we are trying to make a difference kid-by-kid-by-kid.  Even during teacher job action, where official classroom grades are hard to come by (for readers not from here: BC teachers are in a labour dispute with the Provincial government), our teams of professionals continue to work hard to ensure that students are NOT falling through the cracks.  Here are a few examples:
  • Most teachers had already communicated home early and often, letting parents know about student progress and any concerns regarding incomplete work. There were few "surprises".
  • As the semester came to an end, many teachers worked closely with students to help them get what they needed to be successful in class and on the final. In addition, we added extra time in our schedule for exam preparation and work completion.
  • Counsellors and Administrators sat together at the end of the semester to go over the list of kids who were at risk of failing. One name at a time, we went through the list to discuss the individual student challenges and needs for support.  This was not a pass-fail conversation. This was a "What can we do to help this kid pass?" conversation.
  • There was a creative willingness to start with the learning that the students had already demonstrated, not just automatically relegate them to repeating an entire course.
  • Students who were just under that magic 50% passing grade, were asked to have a conversation with the teacher to see if there was any learning they could still demonstrate to earn a passing grade.  Sometimes a counsellor would volunteer to help the student with that conversation.
  • Students who were a little further below that pass-fail mark were again discussed one-by-one. Many questions were asked such as: "What is this student's graduation plan? What pathway are they on? Does he/she have a learning disability? Does this student need some kind of intervention? Do they need remediation or do they just need more time and more support? Maybe a support block in the timetable?"
  • In some cases, the team determined that it would be best for an individual student to re-do the course content, but this decision was not arbitrary or automatic.  The process was thoughtful and personalized.
  • In many other cases, we enrolled students into a flexible block of "Credit Recovery" where students would be assigned to a teacher or an administrator who would customize a "completion package" of work for the student to demonstrate the gaps in their learning.
  • A few teachers volunteered to do this directly with the students who had "failed" their class.
  • When the Provincial Exam Results came in from first semester courses and the exam scores were blended with the class scores, teams of teachers again took a close look at the individual success rates of their students. Many suggested ways for the student to legitimately earn an improved grade. Others offered to tutor students prior to taking a re-write on the exam in question.
  • Counsellors and administrators met with many students one-on-one to discuss their results, trouble-shoot their challenges, customize their timetables and find the right combination of pressure and support to help each student be more successful.
Again, this does not mean we've got this all right.  Taking a closer look at the individuals who are not being successful should prompt us to have deeper conversations about instruction and assessment as well as relationships and student engagement. Are students failing because they don't live up to our standards and assessment practices, or are our standards and assessment practices failing these kids?  Are there better ways to teach? Are there better ways to assess? Are there better ways to timetable students so that they can be more successful?  Do some of these kids have gaps in their learning that require different, more intensive intervention? What else can we try?

All good questions. I'm looking forward to continuing to find the answers alongside my colleagues in our professional learning community.

Charlie Coleman:

Monday, 30 January 2012


Over the past few years, our district and our school staff have been working to improve our assessment practices.  Most of this has been centered around AFL: Assessment For Learning. In our high school, each Department is organized into subject-related Professional Learning Communities (PLC) where they have been given the task of making meaning of these six strategies in their area and to make a connection between their classroom practice and the school goals. Each team is at a different place on the continuum, but each is making progress.  People are gradually becoming more comfortable with “learning outcomes” over “tasks and assignments” and there is growing willingness to find more time and more support to help kids “show what they know” without strict and arbitrary deadlines or one-size-fits-all assessments. However, this is not a perfect world.

In the Province of British Columbia, we still have end-of-semester final summative exams, which on their own, seem to fly in the face of AFL. Students are still required to write these standardized, often multiple-choice, “high stakes” tests at a set time and place. These summative exams still have their place in education. Thankfully, however, the Ministry of Education has reduced the number of these exams and is now looking at a new “BC Education Plan” where there is expected to be more flexibility in how and when kids learn.  Until then, twice a year, we still have “Exam Week”.  With the reduced number of mandatory exams, our school district challenged all of our high schools to change the way we do Exam Week. The task was to find more instructional time and less down time. Up until now, there was always the “opportunity” for students to get lots of contact time and extra support, but the onus often fell to the students. Teachers were available. Teenagers, being teenagers, made terrific or terrible use of this opportunity depending on the type of learner they were.

This year, the School District Office Staff insisted that we do things differently. At first this was received with consternation and concern, followed by consultation and collaboration. We did this despite the current reality of “Teacher Job Action” in British Columbia, because there is no rule that says we can’t still talk with one another. At our high school, we discussed this with staff and students before building what we hoped would be a workable hybrid schedule for the NEW EXAM WEEK. This schedule was a mix of “mandatory” class time, “flex time” for students to study with teachers or peers and “I-time”.  The “I-time” was mandatory time for students with incomplete work (I) to get that work completed before the semester and course ended. Initially, there were doubters and skeptics, but everyone agreed to give it a try.

Last week was Exam Week and I am pleased to report that everyone – staff and students – made tremendous use of the new schedule and structures.  Most teachers used the “mandatory” time to give their own final assessments. Some of these were traditional summative tests, but others were more authentic, hands-on assessments. This obviously looked different in Physics than Phys Ed, Calculus than Cooking, or English than Electronics, but everyone made the most of the situation.  Similarly, “flex time” was very productive.  Some teachers held tutorials or mock exams, while others facilitated hands-on labs or guided study sessions.  Some students took advantage of this extra teacher-time, while others opted to find places to study alone or in peer-groups.  What was most pleasing from my perspective was the number of students and teachers making use of the “I-time” to get caught up on work that probably should have been done earlier in the semester but, for whatever reason, was not. The data is not in yet, but anecdotally, I can rest assured that many students found a way to pass a class that they were at risk of failing. At the same time, teachers were able to help students wrap-up their learning and prepare for the final assessments in whatever form those appeared.

Looking beyond this Exam Week, I am hopeful.  Staff and students report that they liked the changes and made the most of the time available.  Many teachers have already been making suggestions about ways we could enhance the structure and schedules for next semester. Others are already talking about ways to bring this mix of “Mandatory, Flex and I-work” into the schedule even before the next end-of-semester exam week. Many teachers are sharing the successes of the structured flexibility, the opportunity for other kinds of assessments, and the excitement of helping more kids be even more successful.

As we continue along on our AFL journey, these changes and opportunities offer very exciting potential.

Charlie Coleman:

Friday, 20 January 2012

You gotta love technology!

Here's to technology and social media in schools. After the decision to close schools due to dangerous icy road conditions, not only was the old phone tree enacted, but new technology kicked into action. Within minutes all staff were notified by email, the school web site was updated and messages went out to students and parents via Facebook and Twitter.  The school Facebook page was busy with kids asking about preparations for the upcoming Exam Week, mock exams, make-up tests and I-work completion.  Teachers were posting messages and directing students to teacher web sites or on-line grade books for updates and practice tests.  Students were able to email their teachers directly for help and advice. As the weather warmed and the roads became safer, the administrators (with good winter tires and 4x4) were able to get to the school and open the doors. Kids and parents made a steady stream to get textbooks and binders from their lockers to take home. Study groups have sprung up over the web and social media.

As principal of the high school, I don’t believe on-line learning will ever completely replace the deep, rich interaction and relationship-building of face-to-face learning, but it sure is nice to know educators have a few new tools in the tool kit as we move into the 2nd decade of the 21st Century.