Category Archives: Aligning Resources with Priorities

Professional learning that works

There is no paucity of articles bemoaning the state of professional learning and providing suggestions as to what to do about this.  I have been collecting articles about this since I began the draft version of this post back in August.

Doug Peterson’s post, “Thinking about Professional Learning”,  based on Tom Whitby’s post, “Poor Teachers, Who is to Blame”.

Katie Martin’s post, Re-envisioning how teachers learn  and two posts by EdSurge about personalized learning for PD.  Part 1 and Part 2

Mark E. Weston’s post, Flip the Switch for Professional Learning and Professional Development vs Professional Learning by George Couros.

These are all great reads about the need to personalize learning for teachers.  My reflection here provides insight into the models which I have had the privilege to lead and that I believe have been very effective for us in our District.

One of the key components in all of these is that professional learning opportunities I have led are voluntary in that teachers choose to participate.  

The Collaborative Inquiry Model

Many Districts in Ontario have been employing this method of professional development for several years now.  The point of a Collaborative Inquiry (CI) is not to come to a session where a District leader gives you a mass of strategies to go and try and then you are on your own.  It is a learning process which involves trial and error, co-learning, co-assessing, and reflecting.  It is iterative and requires a sustained commitment to meeting regularly.  At the end of the inquiry, there are no golden answers, but a better understanding of how to approach a student need.

The basic components of this model of professional learning include:

  • developing an inquiry focus to address a student need based on data (including standardized test scores, student work, and observations/anectdotal information)
  • unpacking assumptions (both teacher and student)
  • experiencing strategies and protocols rather than just presenting them and thinking about what these look like in the context of the student need
  • determining and/or developing resources needed
  • selecting two or three students to observe closely over the course of the CI
  • co-planning, co-teaching, co-debriefing
  • observation of student learning in the classroom
  • reflection and refocus based on student learning and feedback

For example, a Collaborative Inquiry I ran last year asked the question, “If we give students greater opportunities to plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning will they become more self-directed learners?”  The question came from a desire for English teachers in my District to address the “Reflecting on Skills” strand in their Curriculum expectations.

And though our journey began with this very broad and lofty question, when we reflected on student work and listened to student feedback we realized we needed to reassess our direction and focus on something more specific: we decided on metacognitive strategies with reading as we noticed this to be the more student urgent need.  In the end, the students involved in the inquiry did see a value in metacognitive reflection before, during, & after reading, and became better at planning, monitoring, evaluating their own learning.  The teachers with whom I worked felt they had more strategies to address metacognition, and we all came to a better understanding of what metacognition looked like in a high school English classroom.

Learning Series

The Learning Series model is a solution to the  one-off PD session which we all know does not work, but is less intensive than the Collaborative Inquiry model (which is fairly time intensive as it requires co-planning, co-teaching, and co-debriefing and ideally works better with a smaller group of teachers).  A Learning Series model allows for teachers to come together to address a specific student learning need and meet regularly to address it.

This model includes the following elements:

  • establishing Norms for working and learning together to create a risk-free environment
  • community building activities and opportunities for sharing and asking questions
  • selecting two students of “interest” to pay particular attention to as we move through the learning series
  • experiencing a variety of strategies and protocols and brainstorming ideas for how to best incorporate these into the classroom
  • trying it out–teachers go back and try the lesson, idea, or strategy/protocol in their class; co-teaching is voluntary
  • collaborative assessment of student learning and conversations about next steps
  • hands-on integration of technology in the context of the student learning need
  • regular assessment of whether or not the series is meeting the needs of learners a re-focus as necessary
  • participants (the same group) meets about five times over the course of the school year
  • culminates in sharing and celebrating

My Learning Series this year is focused on Reading in the 21st Century. This particular series is also concerned with meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities, so we went through similulations in order to better understand what accommodations need to look like to support those students. Though I do provide the framework for the sessions, these are guidelines only and the sessions themselves are participatory and hands on.  If we need to spend more time on one idea, rather than move onto another, then that is what we do.  The time spent in community building means that teachers feel comfortable challenging one another (and me), and asking questions.

Inquiry Carousels

Last Spring, our elementary Curriculum team (led by Sonia Racco, Annette D’Addese, Yvette Sztorc, and Simone Kennedy) created a professional learning opportunity in the form of Inquiry Carousels as the culmination of some of the Collaborative Inquiries they ran.  What did this look like?  Essentially teachers who were involved in the CI’s, set up stations and shared their learning journeys including artefacts of student work. Participants (Teachers K-12) were invited to visit each station for sharing and asking questions.   It was a great consolidation and sharing opportunity for teachers who had engaged in the Collaborative Inquiry throughout the year, and an engaging experience for people who had never been a part of a CI, but who were interested in learning more about Inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. Most people left saying it was one of the best sessions they had attended.  It was organic, fluid, and very learner-centered.

Student Learning Proposals

Our District allots a budget for teachers who are interested in pursuing their own professional learning needs to submit a proposal for teacher-release time.  In this model, a Curriculum consultant or program resource teacher’s support may be requested if needed.  Primarily the learning happens at the school level and is driven by a community of learners interested in pursuing a common problem of practice.

When one-offs are inevitable

A few weeks ago, my colleague Gina Micomonaco and I had to run a session on Assessment for our NTIP (new teacher) program: A one-off and NOT voluntary like the other opportunities listed here. With only 2 hours and an after lunch time slot, the easiest thing to do would have been to engage in the presentation model with occasional opportunities to “turn and talk” with a partner.  We opted for a more constructivist approach.  We gave each group a different artefact (student work, an assessment tool, etc…), a copy of Growing Success (our Assesment and Evaluation guidelines for Ontario), and guiding questions about Assessement FOR, AS, and OF learning.  The result?  Almost the entire session was spent discussing the nuances of assessement in small groups in ways we would never have been able to achieve by presenting information at the front of the room.  We strategically and intentionally modeled what learner-centered instruction could look like, even in a very content-driven context and though there were still questions at the end of it, their feedback indicated that they really had a better understanding of assessment by the end.

EdCamps and District-Level Conferences

Let’s face it, the average teacher is not afforded the luxury of attending a conference–it’s just too cost-prohibiitive.  So it is incumbent upon District leaders to provide opportunities to teachers to attend an EdCamp and/or an in-house conference, free of charge which is modelled after some of the bigger conference experiences.  Teachers can choose sessions that will help them to learn and grow and are provided with the opportunity to network and share beyond the walls of their own classrooms and schools.  Best of all, our sessions are facilitated by our own teacher leaders which ultimately buids the capacity of our own talented teachers.

Elements of this model that have worked for us:

  • Lead learners from throughout the District facilitate sessions based on successful classroom practices.
  • Ignite sessions (by both teachers and students) which provide just the right amount of ideas and motivation.
  • Lots of opportunities for hands-on sessions where participants are doing rather than listening, blended with opportunities to pose questions and have discussions about topics that are important to them.
  • Providing food and prizes and not charging our teachers to attend
  • providing a back-channel for feedback and questions

Is all of the Professional Learning offered by our District this personalized?  Of course not.  But these are some concrete examples of professional learning opportunities that have worked and that we continue to model as we move towards more learner-centered and participant driven approaches.

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This post by Dean Shareski, Professional learning is messy is an interesting read on the topic and suggests that job-embedded practices are top-down, which they can be.  It’s worth a read.

What are some of the examples of professional learning models that have really worked for you in your District?  What has the best learning looked like for you? Please share!




One, Two, Three How Many Literacies?

As a Literacy Consultant, I have long been rethinking the traditional notion of Literacy as simply reading and writing.  Because I am also involved in a Board wide initiative to support teachers with technology enabled learning, I have been thinking about the concept of Digital Literacy which I have understood to be the technical skills needed to navigate the connected, digital world in which we live.

This week,  as part of a Digital Literacy course I am taking through UOIT, I realize that there are various terms that are out there that educators (including myself) often use interchangeably when talking about Digital and other literacies.

It seems that today many adjectives are placed before the word literacy.  In my readings this week alone I have seen: Media Literacy, Visual Literacy, Multiliteracies, Multi-modal literacies, Critical Literacy, Games Literacy, Web Literacy, and Information Literacy.  Even as my understanding of these terms was swirling around in my head, George Couros shared an article on Twitter by Amy Erin Borovoy in Edutopia, about News Literacy  which more narrowly defines what I would have otherwise called, Media Literacy.

David Buckingham wonders if “Literacy comes to be used merely as a vague synonym for “competence” or even “skill”.   He also suggests that the term “literacy” carries a degree of social status which may be why we associate some other terms with it. (Buckingham, 2008, p 75). Does this then mean that we dilute the term?  Does it really matter what we call it?

He uses this organizational framework which I think can apply to anything:Digital Literacy Components

Then, I watched Doug Belshaw’s talk and realized that perhaps Digital Literacy really should be plural.  Belshaw outlines the essential elements of Digital Literacies in this TED Talk:

But what is essential to everything?  What do our kids really need to do to understand the world?

If I had to choose one (and though I’m sure I will rethink this again next week) I think it’s Critical literacy which can currently be found in the English Language Arts Curriculum 1-8 and the English Curriculum 9-12 in Ontario, as well as in the front matter of every curriculum document. Critical Literacy is about questioning and contextualizing text: a skill students really need today.

Critical Literacy Curriculum

The Adolescent Literacy Guide  provides a good framework for teachers.  Consider some of the questions found there:

Critical Literacy Questions Related to Text

  • Who created/produced the text?
  • What does the author want me to know, think, or feel?
  • What assumptions does the author make about my beliefs?
  • What voices, points of view & perspectives are missing?
  • How significant is their omission?
  • What information does the author leave out?
  • Who will likely benefit from this text?
  • Is the text fair?

Critical Literacy Questions to Prompt Action in Response to a Text

  • How can I find out about other perspectives on this topic?
  • How have my attitiudes changed? Why?
  • What action might I need to take to address a concern?
  • How can I use literacy to support those who are treated unfairly?
  • How can I use literacy to make a difference in the world?

What I really like is that there is the authentic call to action; students don’t just ask critical questions but recognize that they need to do something as a result of their new understanding.

Below is a Mindomo I’ve created around the topic of Critical Literacy.  In particular, consider how easy it would be to incorporate Critical Literacy questions into day to day instruction for any subject.  And how essential that skill is for learners today!

Would love to hear your thoughts as l continue to refine my thinking further.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Escape Room Concept in EDU

Our family and my nephew recently engaged in an Escape Room activity in our area.  We were given a scenario, put in a room, and had to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape.  We had 1 hour.  The puzzles had us using Morse code, figuring out word clues, mathematical clues, using a dark light, lasers, a periodic table, etc…  It also had us collaborating and working as a team.  As educators, my husband and I left thinking this idea would be awesome in a classroom!

When I think of the 6 Cs, it touches on most of them:  Critical Thinking, Creativity, Character (because being in a time-sensitive situation really is a test of character), Communication, and Collaboration.Escape room

Soon after, I talked to my friend Karen Holmes about it who created an escape room for her Leadership class.  Her scenario involves a zombie apocalypse and culminates in students finding the vaccine (she draws on her science background to have students mix two gases together):

Now it’s time for you to think,

For the TRUE vaccine is the one that turns PINK.

Choose the ACID or the BASE,

Pour into one test tube and then place

Two drops of phenolphthalein in.

If it turns pink… Guess what… 

     …YOU WIN!

Hurry now, no time for fear,

The zombie’s footsteps are very near…

She spent lots of time creating the challenges and I convinced her it needed to be shared.  Here is a copy.  Please give her full credit if you use the activity.

Sarah Thomas, who reserves Fridays in her classroom as “Figure it Out Friday” , and others in my Edumatch Voxer group, told me about BreakOut EDU which is basically the same thing as an Escape Room. Best of all, they have resources, templates, and ready-made games which you or your students could use to create Break Out scenarios.  It is currently in Beta but you can sign up and use some of the games already on their website. Kits are available from their website and (Canadian residents need to submit a request). They have recently added lots of new games for a variety of subjects!

Ask a Biologist is a site that has created Virtual Escape Rooms for Science in collaboration with the Arizona Science Education Collaborative.  Check it out here.

Kelly Tenkely of iLearn Technology has some ideas about using Virtual Breakout Rooms in the Classroom.

Here is a link to a few puzzle ideas put out there by Quora members.

Practical Applications in the Classroom

  • A teacher-created Escape room can provide a valuable opportunity for students to practice collaboration and teamwork.  Students can reflect on the choices they made and how well they communicated and collaborated with one another.
  • A Leadership class can create one for students coming in for grade 8 or 9 orientation.
  • Subject-specific Escape Room puzzles can be created as an alternative to a test.  In English class for example, puzzles can be created around grammar or figurative language concepts. Students would need to know the material very well in order to create clues.
  • This activity provides a unique opportunity for a variety of subject classes to work together on one culminating project (English creates the word puzzles, Math creates the puzzles involving calculations, Science utilizes the periodic table, etc..).
  • Once a semester or once a month, the school makerspace can be transformed into an Escape Room.  This might encourage a variety of other students to come into the space to see what’s going on.
  • I also think there could be potential for this to work with another class similar to a Mystery Skype.  It would require some collaboration by the teachers, but it would add yet another interesting element to the challenge.

In a similar vein, I learned about an online critical thinking challenge happening in November using computational skills called Bebras Challenge. More details about this can be found in this post by Doug Peterson.

What ideas do you have for bringing the Escape Room/Breakout EDU concept into the classroom?

Big Idea at ISTE2015: Student Agency

I was fortunate to be able to attend the ISTE conference in Philadelphia.  There were over 15,000 educators there, so you can imagine the passion, excitement, and learning that happened!  I will share the tools I learned about over the course of the summer, but in this post, I want to reflect on the presentations that had the most significant impact on me.  Perhaps it is because I have been focusing on digital leadership and student voice in my own work,  but the big idea which seemed to be an over-arching theme  at ISTE for me, was the notion of student agency which I heard a few times at ISTE and which is articulated nicely in this post.  The idea being that when students are given autonomy and power over their own learning, they are in control of their own development and therefore more invested in the process of learning. This is not a new idea in Education–it’s been a buzzword for a long time now, but it’s one thing to talk about it, and another to see examples of this in action.  Below are the presentations and the examples which made this idea come to life for me.

Jennifer Scheffer, Panelist for ISTE 1:1 PLN — Challenges and Solutions for Large-Scale PD

Jennifer Scheffer (@jlscheffer), a Technology Integration Specialist/Mobile Learning Coach for Burlington Public Schools, located in Burlington, Massachusetts spoke about a unique course she created in which students run a Help Desk to assist other students and teachers.   This was perhaps one of the most significant examples of the power of student agency.  Students are not only assisting other students with tech applications at their own school, but they are interviewing industry people, and using social media to create a powerful digital footprints.  They are true Digital Leaders!  Check out the link to the Burlington Publish School Help Desk Site for a glimpse into what this looks like.

Here’s Jenn’s ISTE Ignite where she encapsulates the BHS Help Desk program in 5 minutes/20 slides:

What is the impact of this program? This powerful video reflection by one of her students says it all.

I’ve reached out to Jennifer, who has been amazingly helpful, and hope to explore what this could look like in our District.  Surely, there is potential for the Help Desk idea to happen anywhere?

Shannon Miller, ISTE Librarians Network Annual Breakfast Keynote.

A Teacher-Librarian extraordinaire, and Tech Integration Specialist, Shannon Miller (@shannonmmiller) has made connecting students a priority at Van Meter in Iowa.  She engages students in opportunities to connect with experts and other students around the world and advocates that it is important for students to have access to other people in the world.  One of the most powerful testimonials came from a young 6th grade student whose school experience was transformed when she connected with an author on Skype.  Meridan has gone on to create her own blog, Meridan’s Little Voice,  in which she showcases tech tools and inspires other students.  Check it out here.

In her keynote, Miller focuses on the many ways in which connecting students and giving them a voice is not only rewarding, but should be a priority for educators.

(Fast forward to 10:15) The quality isn’t the best, but it the message is worth the effort.

Miller’s blog can be found here. 


Chris Lehmann and Diana Laufenberg:  Transforming Schools into Modern Learning Environments

Chris (@chrislehmann) Diana (@dlaufenberg) of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia spoke to the Inquiry process and how it has transformed learning for students at SLA.

I was completely inspired by the way in which inquiry-based learning has created a place for students to take control of their own learning.  One example Lehmann & Laufenberg showcased centered around the inquiry question, “How are local communities shaped by history?” Students were to create a hypertextual narrative telling the story of a building within their zip code.  They selected a building with a name on it and had to research the origin of that name.  The results?  Incredible and meaningful.  Check out their CAPStone Project in which students explore the questions,  “How do we learn?” “What can we create?” and “What does it mean to lead” through a self-selected and designed independent project.

I am excited about exploring the potential of Inquiry-based learning in secondary schools in our District and Diana has offered to lend a hand!

George Couros  The Innovator’s Mindset

George (@gcouros), whose presentations are always so dynamic and engaging (in fact people were pressed up against the back doors to hear his talk), speaks to the Innovator’s Mindset, which is intricately connected to giving students opportunities to not just “do school” but to become participants in what that school could look like.  He advocates that leaders spend time in schools to listen to students and what they have to say.  To me, Couros’ focus on relationships & the innovative leader are the essential ingredients: only by establishing a context of trust by leaders in Districts and schools can innovation flourish as in the examples above. Each of the presenters had Superintendents & Principals that were champions for them so that innovation could happen.  Couros resources can be found here.

Everyone who attended ISTE brought their own context and experience to the sessions they attended. I’m sure that what I got out of these sessions, may be completely different from the learning of others.   Feel free to peruse the #ISTE2015 hashtag for other perspectives and check out for post-ISTE reflections at Tech & Learning.

Reflections on using tech in lesson planning

Technology tool


I recently shared this image on Twitter.  It was presented by Eric Sheninger in his keynote at Connect 2015.  It’s not a new image by any means, but lately I’ve been far more reflective and perhaps cynical about using tech for tech’s sake.

Twitter wasn’t probably the best tool  to share my thinking on this.  What I was thinking when I shared the image was about my early days of technology integration/enactment.  When I learned about an “exciting,” “new,” tool, I would immediately try to bring it in my class or my co-teaching–I basically built my lesson around it.

The classic example was when I first learned about TodaysMeet a few years ago.  I loved that tool and thought it would bring so much opportunity for student voice and input into the classroom.  The first time I used it was a disaster from the beginning.  What I wanted, was students to infer meaning from an image and delve deeply into the issue of homelessness and our stereotypes around the issue.  My purpose was to elicit conversation and ensure that every student made a contribution.

What did I do?  I had students look a the image, post an idea to TodaysMeet, view someone else’s comment and comment on that.  Yes, I had a fancy transcript of the “conversation” and the students enjoyed using the tool because they had never used it before, but the technology distracted me and the students from any meaningful interaction.  Students really never delved further than their 140 characters would allow.  There was no real place in Todays Meet to pull all of the terms together as the comments fill in sequentially.  The focus became less on the conversation and more on what they were going to write using the tool within the confines of the character limit.  At the end of it, I realized that the lesson would have been far more powerful if I had chosen not to use that tech tool at all or if I had just used it as a Minds On at the beginning of the lesson to capture our initial ideas.

And that might be the risk of using a tool as a starting point.  What if I used this experience as a reason NOT to allow for the opportunity to integrate technology because it didn’t really help me to meet my learning goals ?

At the same time…

There were several students who never spoke in class the whole year who expressed an opinion on that day. So if I did allow this experience to jade my perspective, would I be limiting the transformational possibilities that can also come from using technology (especially for those students who require alternative ways to demonstrate their learning)?

I’ve since used Today’s Meet thoughtfully and effectively in my planning.  

But for that group of students on that particular day, I had allowed a shiny new tool to take away from rich conversations and deep learning.

So,  these are the questions that now guide my thinking:  What do I want my students to know, understand, and be able to do?  What tools might help me to help my students to get there?