Maybe We Should Do a Word Search

If you aren't excited about examining your students' work, you are giving the wrong types of assignments.” 
via @davidwees on Twitter

Our school district recently (finally!) received our results from our first-ever PARCC administration. Like almost every other educator I know, I am not overly excited about testing and it certainly had nothing to do with my decision to enter the noble field of education; I am much more passionate about children, teachers, and leaders, and how we all interact on a daily basis than I am about standardized testing. Still, as a public school teacher, principal, and, now, district office administrator, I have never wasted much energy complaining about these annual tests and I actually have no serious problem with them as an inevitable part of our job. In addition, although we spend little to no time “teaching to the test” in our district, we do take our results seriously and try to learn whatever we can from these each year as we move forward. Thankfully, we continue to get top-notch scores, on par with the best schools/districts in the entire state. Having said all this, however, my post today is not really about testing or test scores; instead, it is about the work we assign students and I was reflecting on this as I pored over our PARCC results earlier this month.

In a way, I felt like a student when it came to analyzing our test results this year. You see, we had never administered the PARCC tests before; this new assessment replaced the ISAT assessments, which had been the annual standardized accountability program norm in Illinois for many years. Over the years, I had become quite familiar with the ISAT and very adept at analyzing our data and sharing this with all stakeholders, including our Board of Education. This year was different: I had to learn an entirely new system with an entirely new way of assessing, scoring, and reporting student achievement scores. I had a lot to learn and the pressure was on; there had been plenty of negative press and reaction in neighboring communities about the PARCC. I really had to learn this stuff inside and out and was not sure where to begin. I’m not gonna lie; I was in panic mode. I turned to Marcie, a colleague whose opinion I respect a great deal. Unfortunately, she was equally dumbfounded. Determined, I pressed her for an answer. Finally, she said, “Well, I know my daughter has to do a word search every week. Her teacher says this helps her learn her spelling words.” Then, she paused and suggested, “Maybe we should do a word search.”

Eureka! This was the “Ah-ha!” moment I had been seeking; I needed to get up to speed on all things PARCC and the sooner, the better. I enlisted the help of Amy, yet another colleague; together, we brainstormed all possible words relating to the PARCC assessment. Next, we Googled, “Create a word search,” and came 

up with this:                                               

We immediately knew we were on to something big! I asked Marcie if we should complete the Word Search separately or together, thinking that, together, we would find the words more quickly. Alas, she informed me that her daughter was not allowed to do this and, in fact, was required to do the Word Search assignments for homework. Armed with this information, I printed three copies and we each took one home to complete. We arrived to work the following day giddy with joy: Marcie and Amy had each found all sixteen words (they are really smart!); meanwhile, I had found all but one (sadly, Amy, a mean-spirited stickler for rule-following, subtracted an additional point because I inadvertently highlighted an extra letter in the word "percentage"). We were feeling pretty good about our PARCC knowledge at this point and marched into the superintendent’s office to share what we had learned and how this would inform our presentation to the Board. Imagine our surprise, then, when he did not share in our joy, but, instead, began firing off ridiculous questions, asking how we compared to the state average, how we compared to neighboring districts, how the PARCC scores compared to our previous ISAT results, how these data looked across schools, grade levels, and demographic subgroups, and to what extent we could discern whether our instruction was aligned to standards. Furious, he grabbed our worksheets, tore them to shreds, and told us to start conducting some legitimate research into all aspects of the overall assessment design as well as our own data. He demanded that we create a comprehensive--yet simple-to-understand--multimedia presentation. He further insisted we collaborate with neighboring districts to see what they had learned. Finally, he charged us with establishing a plan for communicating our results and findings with staff, students, parents, and the community. Our superintendent is, admittedly, a bit of a killjoy by nature. Still, we had to admit upon leaving his office that the work plan he suggested was likely to yield vastly superior results compared to the word search approach we originally favored. 

So we spent the next few days digging into the project with zeal. Honestly, it was a laborious process as we toiled both alone and together to gather as much information as possible before synthesizing and evaluating it all. However, when we finally finished, we were proud of what we had accomplished and confident in our ability to present our findings clearly. The project was a challenging one to be sure, but it was important work and we were pleased with our performance.

Obviously, this is all intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet there are serious points to consider about the work we assign kids. In fact, I tend to agree with Phil Schlechty and others who suggest that engaging student experiences do not happen by chance; they are the result of teachers’ designing compelling work for the students they serve. 

To be fair, some students probably enjoy doing mindless activities like word search puzzles. I am convinced, however, that they are even more engaged, inspired, empowered, and--ultimately--joyful, when we challenge them with more authentic work that demands more of them. More important still, if we want our kids to gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed, we need to assign them work that requires them to create, collaborate, communicate, and think critically. Asking what it is our kids need to know and be able to do and then going about the hard work of intentionally designing quality assignments designed to equip them thusly is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

A Compass for Innovation

Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” 
George Couros

Among the many things I was thankful for this past Thanksgiving was the time to finish an amazing book by an educator I respect a great deal, George Couros. The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity is one of the best educational
 books I have read and I recommend it enthusiastically to all teachers and school leaders. In this well-written, inspirational, and practical book, George provides readers--as Dave Burgess suggests in the Introduction--a “compass” for creating a culture of innovation in their classrooms, schools, or districts. 

Image via Amazon

Although I have been focused on helping to create innovative classrooms and schools for years, this new book challenged my thinking and offered new insights into the direction we need to head in our own district. It all starts, as Couros suggests, by understanding that innovation is not about skill set; it is about mindset. The way we perceive changes and new ideas determines the extent to which such changes will be successful and such ideas will be implemented. I love the example George provides in the book when talking about Vine, the six-second video app. Some people asked, “What in the world can you do with six seconds?” Others (those with an “Innovator’s Mindset”) said, “I wonder what I could do with six seconds?” When new tools such as Vine present themselves to us as teachers, learners, and leaders, each of us has an equal opportunity to innovate. Some of us do and some of us do not; we are the variable.

This powerful book is filled with page after page of keen insights and sharing my thoughts about these go well beyond the constraints of a short blog post. However, here are seven brief points I find myself still reflecting on after perusing this book:

  1. Have We Forgotten Our “Why”? Couros reminds us to examine why schools exist and why we serve as educators. I find myself hard pressed to improve upon his offering of a collective “Why”: “When forward thinking schools encourage today’s learners to become creators and leaders, I believe they, in turn, will create a better world.” Helping to create a better world is a Why? I can get behind.
  2. Defining "Innovation." Again, it would be a waste of my time to attempt a better version of the definition George uses for the purposes of his book: “A way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of 'new and better' it is not innovative." Change for the sake of change is never good enough and, in fact, often counterproductive, if our goal is meaningful innovation.
  3. Innovation vs. Transformation. After reading this book, I realized many of us have been using these terms interchangeably and, therefore, incorrectly. In essence, Couros maintains that transformation requires dramatically altering the work we are doing in education. To truly transform our work is beyond the scope of an individual teacher or administrator. Innovation, on the other hand, is within easy reach for each of us, no dramatic shifts required. Each of us has the ability to innovate almost immediately, regardless of our role. For teachers, of course, it helps when school leaders have worked to create a culture that inspires and empowers them to take risks in order to provide the best learning experiences possible for the students they serve.
  4. Innovation “Inside the Box.” Couros notes that people are always challenging us to “think outside the box.” This sounds innocent enough and, indeed, I have employed this mantra myself as an exhortation to educators with whom I work. After reading this book, I will instead focus on innovating “inside the box,” as George suggests. This point is directly related to the previous one of transformation versus innovation. Great educators do not necessarily innovate outside the box; many are too impatient and realize that it is more effective and efficient to simply innovate inside the box--often by creating new and better methods to teach the required curriculum. In public schools, we are likely to have standards we are required to teach for many years to come. Although some may disagree, I maintain that we should have such standards. Instead of fighting against these or fighting to teach different versions, great educators create innovative learning opportunities for the students they serve within the constraints of the system.
  5. Innovation as “Doing” Rather than “Knowing.” One of the first steps on the path to encouraging innovation within our students is getting them to see themselves as creators because real learning begins when students create. Whether we are focusing on our kids or ourselves, we must always keep in mind that what we learn is not nearly as important as what we create from what we learn. 
  6. Innovation as a Series of “What If’s”. When George speaks to groups, he often shares a slide with the following question: “What if all teachers Tweeted about one thing each day that they did in their classrooms and took five minutes to read other teachers’ Tweets? Imagine the positive impact this would have on learning and school culture." In this book, he includes a series of questions that begin: “What If…” as a way to challenge us to dream big and figure out what is most important for us as educators and for the organizations we serve. These are powerful questions well worth reading and reflecting upon.
  7. Innovate or Teach “Basics”? I find myself agreeing with Couros wholeheartedly when he answers, in essence, “Both.” It is counterproductive to get caught up in the extremes of either school of thought or be forced to choose between one or the other. To truly innovate in any field, our kids need basic skills, whether the area of study is literature, music, art, or science. Leaders should not insist on one or the other; teachers should not pretend they cannot do both. Having said that, although the basics in any field of study are of critical importance, in order to truly innovate, we must move beyond knowing into creating and doing.
image via slideshare

I have been a huge fan of Couros’s work for several years now; after reading his new book, I am even more impressed with his passion for innovation as a way to improve learning for our students and his ability to clearly communicate his passion in a way that inspires me to re-dedicate myself to this important work. As Burgess says, the book is not a step-by-step guide nor a checklist one can follow or complete to “become” innovative. In fact, no such book does or ever will exist; skill sets can be taught in such a way; mindsets require much more. However, I encourage you to read this book for what it is: a compass for cultivating an innovative mindset within yourself and empowering those with whom you work--students and adults--to become innovators as well. 

image via Debbie Saviano
When speaking of compasses and directions, one inevitably learns about “magnetic” versus “true” north. There is a significant and critical difference between true north and magnetic north. True north will lead you directly to the North Pole. Magnetic north is influenced by a pulling effect of the earth’s magnetic core. In reading George’s book, I noted that he comes back time and again to simply doing what is best for each and every child we serve. Innovation and an "Innovator’s Mindset" is but a means to this noble end; the “magnetic north” may well be innovation, but the “true north” which compels us to innovate is continuously asking ourselves and each other, “What is best for kids?” Keeping our eyes on “True North” is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Cultures of Excellence

“ Culture is what enables teams of people to defy the odds and achieve the remarkable. ”  from the NfX Company Culture Manual “Culture”...