A GLN Before My PLN…The Power of Networking

I had a interesting epiphany yesterday while home on vacation, which really reinforced for me the importance of PLNs (Professional Learning Networks) and why they are so valuable.  Indulge me for just a moment as I build some context about my own early experiences with networks and their value in supporting learning.

Thomas Martellone and PrinceLike most kids, I was no different in that I loved learning.  I was a voracious reader, searching out information on Bigfoot, Loch Ness, and many other subjects that provided my sense of curiosity something to “dig into”.  When I was about 12 years old, I met my extended family in Louisiana for the very first time.  How was it I had gone for 12 years and never knew I had four cousins, and an aunt and uncle that were as excited to meet me as I was to meet them?  It was on that first trip that I was unknowingly launched into one of the most fascinating hobbies and a journey of a lifetime that would build my early PLN (GLN) back in the late 80’s.  

My aunt was an avid genealogist when we met, and eager to share with me her research about our family. I can’t say that I jumped on board immediately, seeing that I was only 12 years old, but as I mentioned previously, I was always curious and an eager learner, so I listened to what she shared with me about genealogy research and I listened closely to the stories she told me about our family.  Within a few years, my interest in genealogy and family history grew, and before I knew it, I was totally hooked.

Martellono Family Arizona 1911As I write this, it is hard to believe that I’ve been working on my family history for 33 years now!  It seems like just yesterday, I was listening to the stories, dabbling here and there, just trying to figure out how all the puzzle pieces fit.  Over the years, my research has brought me into contact with many, many people, some who have been related in some form, and many that were helpers along the way.  I’ve had people that I’ve been distantly related to and we’ve stayed in contact for over 20 years, sharing findings, pictures, documents, and stories.  Some folks have been helpers, giving phone numbers, looking up quick documents, and some even as kind as going to a cemetery in Texas and photographing a gravestone for me since I live so far away (Boston).

Two days ago, I connected with a gentleman through Ancestry DNA and he was able to share information with me that connected me to another line of my family and helped me get back two more generations!  Our sharing took place via Ancestry messaging and then E-mail.  It was amazing.  It was in that moment that I realized I had been working with an early PLN/GLN (Genealogy Learning Network) for the past 33 years!  Right along, I had been part a learning network, much like the PLN I belong to now professionally!  My GLN provided me the following:

  • Networking with like minded individuals that had similar beliefs, successes and challenges
  • Opportunities for discussion, research, problem solving and inquiry
  • New and available resources and sharing of resources
  • New learning and research techniques
Shared from hacklibraryschool.com
Shared from hacklibraryschool.com

I don’t think I ever realized this was an early PLN due to my immersion in the research and work.  My participation in a great Twitter chat yesterday alongside my working on my genealogy made me realize that my PLN affords me the same opportunities as my GLN.  The interactions I’ve had with my genealogy network have shown me the importance of being networked and have proven that the collective power of networking professionally can provide some of the most limitless learning that can take place!  

Of course I’ll continue to work on my genealogy and family history as I’ve done for the past 33 years, and I’ll also continue to network with those people that I can support and that can help support my research as well.  It is always about sharing resources and ideas.  As I continue that work, I’ll also continue to capitalize on the power of my PLN in regards to my professional life as a school administrator.  After reflecting on the amazing discoveries I’ve made with my GLN, I know that my PLN can help me do anything I set my mind to, and that I too, can help support other administrators and educators as well.  

John Edwin Courtney & Mary Elizabeth Harper Courtney Circa 1873
John Edwin Courtney & Mary Elizabeth Harper Courtney Circa 1873

If you aren’t a part of a PLN, I welcome you to join me and the people in my network.  They’re great educators, thinkers, innovators, and people that are working to make a difference for students.  I know from my GLN the power of collective thinking, so don’t wait, and be sure to be building your PLN today!  If you’re also a genealogy buff, let’s connect!  I’m always interested in learning and sharing!  I can be reached at tommartellone@gmail.com

 

Data: Education’s New “Dirty” Word

It seems that in some circles, data has come to be one of education’s “dirty” words. I suspect I know why, and unfortunately, it is difficult to convince those people who think that way otherwise.

Many professions, such as medicine, law, finance, and even construction use data on a regular basis to inform their work. If you were to go to the doctor’s office and get on the scale, the doctor would use that data to draw some conclusions and make some recommendations. The doctor does not only use the scale and the number it gives however. The doctor may also check your cholesterol, your blood pressure, and may make other observations that inform her of what it is you need to do or not do to preserve or improve your health.

Like other professions, education also benefits from using data. When a teacher administers a formative assessment to her class, she reviews the results of the assessment and then determines if students need further instruction, or if they have demonstrated an understanding of the content taught, thereby, letting her move more deeply into the content or beyond. Additionally, teams of teachers use time together as PLCs to look at student work and make determinations about units they’ve taught and content they’ve covered. The team’s review of data and student work helps them decide how they proceed with their instruction.

Sadly, data has been given a bad connotation through the use of accountability measures, where often times, student performance is “boiled down” to a spreadsheet full of scores, or an accountability report that attempts to show a profile around school performance. This very narrow and limited view of student performance has led many to believe that school administrators are only concerned with number and scores, and that the faces of the students attached to those scores are null and void.

Shared from CIOKorea.com
Shared from CIOKorea.com

I believe that data is not a dirty word when used correctly and in the best interest of those it is intended to serve: students. As a school level administrator, I must be able to manage the “tension” of using both quantitative and qualitative data to make instructional decisions for students and staff. It can never be “or”. It must always be “and”. Because of the nature of my work, I move back and forth between scores and performance, as well as aggregated and disaggregated data, which helps inform me about groups of students and individual students. Data (quantitative) should always tell one piece of the story. For instance, I recently had teachers upload writing scores from a mid-year writing prompt that was administered and I wanted to look to see how students had done. For one particular grade level, I noticed that the scaled scores for each student looked relatively low. Before jumping to conclusions, I knew I needed some qualitative data to help inform me. As it turned out, my teachers on this one particular team had used the pre-assessment for the writing prompt to help inform their instruction. Had I not asked and not looked beyond the scores on the spreadsheet, I might have made other conclusions. The writing scores did reflect students’ ability prior to instruction, therefore, after instruction, the scores should have looked differently.

Another example would be looking at a student’s fluency score on a universal screening tool. For some students, their reading rate is low, however, they are accurate readers. Without a qualitative discussion with the teacher, these students may look like they are not proficient with their reading, when in fact, they are slow but steady readers that have a high ability to comprehend what they read.

School districts, department heads, principals and teachers have relied on data for years. Teacher observations of students, report cards and other assessments have all played a role in providing educators feedback to support student learning. The advent of standardized testing linked to state and federal accountability frameworks has turned some educators and the public against using data when it has only been representative of one small sector of an assessment system or when no further qualitative investigations have taken place.

As we continue to live in an age of accountability where everyone is concerned about student achievement, it is imperative that those closest to the work (principals and teachers) use data in mindful ways that provide them an indicator of student performance. Principals should thoughtfully be working with teachers to engage in rich discussions about the scores and not only be looking at the aggregate or overall performance, but be mindful to not overlook the individual performances of students as well. It is through that level of analysis that educators truly work as learning communities and adjust their instruction and intervene on behalf of students.

Shared from www.pewstates.org/
Shared from http://www.pewstates.org/

Lastly, the truth is, behind every score is a student, and behind every student, is a story. Those of us working closely with educational data need to ensure that every child’s story is told, so that every child may benefit from our collective efforts. If not, data will continue to be education’s new “dirty” word.

Mission and Vision: Which Direction Are You Rowing?

Have you ever been part of a team sport?  I’ve never been a person to participate in group sports activities.  Golfing and snowboarding are activities I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy doing on my own.  While I have never participated in it, rowing is one sport which requires a high level of interaction and coordination among teammates.

Every member of a rowing team must be certain to move in a calculated rhythm that helps the team move in a forward motion.  One or two wrong strokes of an oar can result in the team either moving in the wrong direction or not getting to where they need to go, specifically, losing a race.badrowing

Working within a vision or mission are much the same as being part of a rowing team.  A well focused rowing team knows why they are rowing and what they need to do to stay in synchronization.  Every person on that team  knows their specific role and how they contribute to the team.  Additionally, they all know which direction they need to row in, and they know the certainty of what will happen if one of them should be rowing out of sync or in the wrong direction.


School mission and vision statements provide the same framework and structure as a team of skilled, synchronized rowers.  Your school mission statement “brands” why you are there and what your purpose is. It provides, or should provide, the lens through which all of your decisions get made.

Often times, staff have gone through mission writing exercises only to come up with either a lofty or unclear mission statement that worse yet, gets published and no one ever looks at.  If the mission of your school is not clear, how do you make decisions and are your staff focused on why they are truly there?

Similarly with vision, where do you want your school to be heading? What do you want to be known for? A team that thinks they are rowing in the same direction, but in fact, are not, will end up not achieving what they hope, whether it be a rowing team, or a group of educators.

Vision provides staff with a framework around what they want to become and the way they would like to be viewed as they work to accomplish their mission.  Like mission, vision should be visible and should be communicated.  I think of vision statements as “the dreams schools are made of”.  What is it that you dream of becoming so that you can educate children and learn and grow? How do you want people to talk about the work of your school and what do you want to be known for?

A leader’s role with mission and vision is to not only guide the work in their development, but also to build a core group of people within the school that believe in the mission and vision and want to work towards them.  The leader’s other job is to maintain a “laser-like” focus on them as decisions are made around student learning. All decisions should be made within the framework of the school’s mission and vision.  Once a leader is able to generate support and belief in the school’s mission and vision, the work then continues by making that visible, and truly bringing the mission and vision “to life” within the school.

Rowing

One resource I truly found valuable in working with staff around mission and vision is the text, Professional Learning Communities at Work by Richard Dufour and Robert Eaker.  The book clearly outlines what it is that mission and vision are and helps the reader frame the work around those definitions and the value of mission and vision within a school setting.

Hopefully, you may be thinking about your own school’s mission and vision if you have not done so recently.  You may want to ask yourself, “Is everyone on my team rowing in the same direction? Are we all clear about why we are rowing and where we are rowing to?”  It is a great opportunity to look at why you are doing the work you do, and what you hope to be that will help students learn and grow.  In a time of great upheaval in education, a school’s mission and vision may be just the thing your school needs to help keep you focused on why we all got into this work in the first place- student learning!

 

School Leadership: What Are Your Big Ideas?

Mike McCarthy, a 30 year educator in Maine shared with Edutopia what his big ideas were around school leadership.  The very first idea shared by Mike was, “Your School Must Be For All Kids 100 Percent of the Time”.  This is a pretty powerful statement, and while one would think that every administrator would have this as one of her or his “big ideas”, it is sometimes harder to actualize than most would think.

ideasPrincipals at all levels face pressures from a number of constituencies across the school community: Parents, teachers, school committees, superintendents, students, state and federal agencies, and other central office departments.  Decision making can be hard, especially if you know that the decisions you will make are in the best interest of children and your school, yet you know that not everyone will like them.   When you do make tough decisions, what happens when not everyone likes them or believes in them?  Even though you may be for kids one hundred percent of the time, it can be easy to back away from discourse when staff or community members do not like the course you have chosen.  My experience is and has been, make decisions based on what is best for students, be prepared to explain the “why” and stand firm.

Mike noted that it is important to create a vision, write it down, and start implementing it.  I appreciated this, especially his thought that by doing so, you bring consistency to the work that you do.  In a day and age where education is changing rapidly, what will help a school stay the course in the work it does for children?  Educational leaders “steer the ship” at the school level, helping move things forward no matter what initiatives are on the forefront.  It is key to have a vision and make sure that staff know what that vision is. As Mike noted, everything you do should be related to the vision that you share for the school.

People in education like it when things work the first time, which is great, except a reality is, not everything you try will be perfect.  You may even decide that you can’t perfect some things that you try, and maybe you abandon them.  Going into situations with realistic expectations always helps.  Additionally, letting staff know that it is “ok” if it does not work perfectly helps tremendously.  People need to know that they have permission to try things and that they may not work perfectly.  Mike McCarthy was sure to point out that as the leader, you have responsibility for the good and the bad.  I’ve always said, “All roads lead back to the principal”.

I agree with Mike’s thoughts on change, and that large change needs to come quickly.  Waiting for the “right time” or the perfect conditions can create a culture of mediocrity.  Now, that said, I don’t think that decisions can be made wrecklessly, but if a decision is going to be made in the best interest of students and change needs to occur, it is likely better to have everything thought out, be reflective, and push through.  It’s like taking off a band-aid…sometimes the slower you pull, the more it hurts.  One quick pull, and it is less painful.

Those are some of the ideas I liked from Mike’s piece.  To read the entire piece and see a short video clip with Mike McCarthy, click on the links below.  In the meantime, give some thought to what your “big ideas” are and where you stand in regards to school leadership.

http://www.edutopia.org/stw-maine-project-based-learning-ideas-principal-leadership

Thomas Martellone, Ed.S

Principal

Professional Learning Community: Buzzword or Good Practice?

SchoolThose folks who have been involved in education for any length of time will tell you that trends, fads, and buzzwords either always appear for a short period of time or that they always come back around at some point.  Perhaps it is because we don’t wait long enough to see if they will actually have any effect, so therefore, they are “buzz words”. We try them for a short period of time hoping to remedy something that needs tending to or that the public has made an outcry over. 

The term “Professional Learning Community” has been dubbed by some as the latest buzz word in education, however, I would beg to differ on that point.  In the late 90’s, the term “communities of inquiry” was used and so was the term “communities of practice”.  Additionally, no one would dare argue that the term “collaborative workplace” has probably been used over and over again within the past 50 to 100 years.  Many organizations would say that they are a “collaborative workplace”, using the collective wisdom of those people in their organization to mobilize and use their shared wisdom for the good of their organization.  Educators, for whatever reason though, seem to be quick to term something a buzzword and then become quick to move on when they do not see the results they had hoped for-often after a very short lived period of time.

My current school district has been working towards using and implementing the concepts of “Professional Learning Community” for the past 2 to 3 years.  Our focus began with a few administrators attending an out of state conference, and slowly spread to others attending and then to teachers and support staff.  Interestingly enough, that message has been a constant message for that time as well.  The words invidually imply several things:

Professional-Teaching is a profession, and those in the profession need to be individuals who work to a high standard on behalf of students.  Ultimately, they work for the greater social good, using strong foundational practices to educate the greater populus.  Learning-All members of the organization are learning, contributing members.  Everyone is a learner and has the opportunity and obligation to learn.  The focus is truly not the teaching, but the learning.  Community-A collaborative, collectively organized group who work for a common cause (the education of children and students) and do so with high levels of communication, trust, and shared values.

While the term “Professional Learning Community” may be called the most current buzzword, individually, the words that comprise it are ones which I would consider key areas of focus for almost any organization, educational or not.  Not only that, but doctors, lawyers, and architects, just to mention a few, are professions in which many individuals get together for the greater good of those they serve, often relying on their collective wisdom to solve a case, diagnose an illness, or build a structure.  Oddly enough, there continues to be educators that are quick to identify a buzzword and return to their individual classrooms, knowing how successful other professions are that implement “Professional Learning Communities”, but are unwilling to do it in their own profession. 

What is your current reality?  Where are you in regards to developing your “Professional Learning Community”?