Learning Lessons from my Son’s Scuba Class

scuba 2Last weekend my 12 year old son completed his scuba diving courses and earned his certification to be able to dive up to 60 feet. For so many reasons as a parent, I am truly proud of him for this accomplishment, but I have mostly found myself thinking about his journey wearing my educator hat and reflecting on what made this such a successful learning experience for him.

Choice:  For over a year, Hayden has had a strong desire to learn to scuba dive.  Choosing what he wanted to learn about and get good at also led to motivation.  Because he was highly motivated, he put an incredible amount of effort into his learning and work.

Belief in the students:  On day one of the scuba course, Hayden’s instructor, Jay, did a quick pre-assessment of the skills each of the new students brought to the course, and they were extremely varied.  Several students had significant diving experience and others had none.  Despite the varied skill levels, Jay announced that they ALL would make it through the course and earn their certification, not 80% of them – all of them.  He made an unwavering commitment to his students and instilled confidence in them before they ever got into the water.

High standards and expectations:  The skills you need to master, the exams you need to take, the reading you have to do to get certified does not change no matter the skill set you bring to the table.  Hayden was the only 12 year old in the class – most were adults.  The 250 page textbook they had to read over the course of the class was incredibly challenging, the vocabulary new and unfamiliar, the science concepts complex.  The material was not watered-down for Hayden because he was 12 – he was expected to meet the same high standards as everyone else.

Crystal clear learning targets:  What Hayden was expected to learn and do was made clear to him on the first day and each objective was made explicit as they were working on it together.  There was no guesswork on Hayden’s part about what was essential for him to know and what skills he needed to master in order to receive his certification.

Multiple ways to access the information:  In addition to reading the textbook, Hayden was also provided with a video so he could watch the skills he was reading about in his text.  The instructors also explicitly modeled complex skills prior to having students practice them in the water.

Collaborative practice and support:  In scuba diving, everything is done with a buddy.  The instructor stressed the importance of working collaboratively and helped foster a community of learners.  As Hayden learned new skills, he always had a partner to work with who provided encouragement, support, and feedback.

Practice and application in increasingly complex environments:  As he read about, watched, and learned new skills, Hayden had to apply them, first in a less challenging environment – the swimming pool, and then in a more challenging environment – the ocean, and then at increasing depths.  As he demonstrated confidence with his skills in the less challenging environments, he would move to practice in more complex ones.

Ongoing, individual assessment with specific feedback:  Hayden had written quizzes and exams he needed to take during each class period.  After each exam, scubaeach concept he didn’t know was retaught and reassessed until mastery was achieved; this was often done in small groups.  In addition, every water skill listed on the set of objectives was individually assessed over the course of the class to ensure the instructor had accurate information regarding Hayden’s skills.  After each skill assessment, Hayden received explicit feedback on what he was doing correctly and what he was doing incorrectly.  If he needed additional modeling or practice, the instructor gave it to him, and then would assess his skills again until mastery was achieved.

Encouragement and Fun:  Hayden’s teacher encouraged him, praised him, highlighted what he was doing right, and continued to build his confidence in his own abilities.  He also gave the students regular ‘play time’ in the water where they could practice their new skills in a fun and safe environment.

As I think about this authentic learning experience, and the impact it had on my son, I am reminded that all students are hungry to learn!  When we provide them with the right learning environments, the right set of experiences, the right levels of support, and we make sure they know without a doubt that we believe in them, they will reward us with uncommon effort and commitment and continue to surprise us with their amazing accomplishments.

Ever Wish You Could Have a Do Over?

Sometimes I wish I could have a “do over”.  Remember those when we were kids?  I had one of those moments earlier this month when I hosted our educational leadership and principal teams in our first collaborative learning sessions of the school year.  While I am convinced that the content we were learning about is a critical part of our work if we want to move student learning forward, I made a rookie mistake.  I did not do nearly as good of a job as I usually do at connecting something new to what we incessantly define as our most important work around teaching and learning.  I’m still beating myself up about it a little bit because typically it is something I am very good at as a leader, and I am relentless as a coach of other school and district leaders about clarity of vision, focus, and message.   With a little distance though, I have had an opportunity to reflect and remind myself of some critical leadership lessons:

1.  Vision, focus and clarity are critical to success.  Your actions and words need to stay in constant alignment or you will throw people off course.  Marcus Buckingham author of The One Thing you Need to Know says this:

Employees crave simplicity and clarity; they want to know precisely what they can do to be most effective—and then not be distracted from that. Their highest priorities—the “core”—must be clarified incessantly. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety … if you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

2.  Be explicit about how any new ideas, concepts or learning connect to your vision, focus, and message. When introducing something new into the work, give people time to process and make connections.  Don’t assume everyone else will see the same connections you did right away.

3.  Value and use the organizational language, frameworks and structures to introduce new concepts.  Spend time learning the concept using language that is already part of your system long before sharing any new labels or buzz words, and frame it in a structure with which your team is familiar.

4.  Relationships matter.   While I prefer to think of myself as a valued colleague and member of the team when I work with principals and central services administrators in my department, at the end of the day, I am also the boss.  People typically want to meet the expectations set by their boss, and in many cases won’t give their boss honest feedback.   If you have established relationships, good rapport, and a culture of learning rather than perfection, your team will be honest with you.  I so appreciated my colleagues who called a “time out”and challenged me to a better job of communicating how this new piece of work connected to our focus.

5.  Admit you made a mistake and work diligently to clear up the confusion.  Based on feedback during the meeting, I was able to make adjustments, and in the two weeks since, I have had several one on one conversations with principals and members of my team making sure we understand things the same way.  I have made revisions to the document we will refer to all year to make sure we stay focused on our most important work.   I have written a reflection that I have shared with my team presenting what I hope will be an enhanced part of our work this year using organizational language we are familiar with and putting the new concepts into a framework with which we are all familiar.  I have checked in with all of our principals about their initial staff meetings and the work they are doing to set focus and direction with their school teams and I am listening to hear if our meeting a couple of weeks ago threw them any curve balls, and I am clearing up my message if necessary.

So… while my best hope would be that I could have a do over and set a few things up differently from the beginning, I have appreciated the opportunity to reflect.  I have also appreciated the great team I have around me and their willingness to put up a mirror, hold me accountable, and not allow me to throw them off course.

Focus So Students Will Thrive

My colleague (@DirectorAmy) and I have just wrapped up our summer professional learning series we have been providing for teachers over the course of the summer.  The workshops have been well-received and for the most part, I would describe the mood in our District as we move to full implementation of our new CCSS units of study to be one of nervous excitement as we head in to our new school year which begins July 29th!  At the end of my final session last Friday, I found myself engaged in a wonderful conversation with one of our teachers…  while there were many highlights of our conversation, one thing she said continues to rattle around in my head…

To give you some context:  We had spent the day unpacking what we are calling in our district our “embedded standards”, which are essentially six standards from the Common Core which we have defined as critical to the work we do with students all year long.  We took an especially deep look at reading standards 1 and 10 (close reading and text complexity).  So, what she said to me was basically this:  If we could just spend all of our time getting good at this, our students would thrive.  She talked about the journey to getting good as one that would take multiple years, and she talked about the need for administrators to understand that getting good at something takes practice, it involves risk-taking, and it will include some failure, and we need to be prepared for that.  She also talked about our need to be relentless in eliminating distractors that might take time and energy from this important work.

As I have reflected on our conversation, I am reminded of my love of Mike Schmoker’s work and his construct for the work he believes we should do in schools – a relentless focus on “what we teach, how we teach, and authentic literacy”.  I highly recommend his books Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning and his book Results Now:  How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning.  I consider them ‘must reads’ for all educational leaders.

“What we Teach”:  For us, it is now the standards identified in the Common Core, but we need to understand them in context and with the big picture in mind. The critical instructional shifts can help us frame the big picture:  We want students to 1.  build knowledge through content-rich non-fiction and informational text; 2. read, write, and participate in rich conversations grounded in evidence from text; 3. Engage regularly with complex text and its academic vocabulary.  Getting good at this means we have to invest  time to develop collective understanding of what the standards are asking of our students and the implications they have on our instruction.  We need to collaborate with our colleagues to design the curriculum that will best support students in becoming thoughtful and strategic readers, writers, speaker, and thinkers, and we need to sort and sift through the resources available to find the ones that best support our learning targets.  We also need to design the rich and complex student tasks that will provide students with regular practice on the essentials while providing us with valuable information about whether or not they are meeting their learning goals.

“How we Teach”:  As we are getting clear on what we are teaching our students, we also have to invest time in continuously getting better at teaching it.  We know from decades of research that highly effective, strategic, and precise instruction matters.  In fact it is so powerful, that over time it can eliminate achievement gaps.  As a result, we need to be relentless in our pursuit of honing our craft.   When students aren’t learning what we intended for them to learn, we need to ask ourselves questions that cause us to reflect on what we can do differently.  We need to invest time in seeking out the research on effective instruction and apply it in our classrooms. If the evidence we have collected shows us that our English learners didn’t understand the concepts we just taught, then we need to commit to doing some learning together about how we can adjust our instruction to meet their learning needs. We also need to create structures in our classrooms and schools that allow for differentiated time and support based on learner needs.

Authentic Literacy and Intellectual Development:  As we work on what we teach and how we teach, authentic literacy has to be at the core of what we do. Click here for a link to Schmoker’s description of authentic literacy. We need to invest time in learning how to structure our schools, classrooms, instructional units and daily lessons to move well beyond basic literacy.  We need to engage all learners, beginning in kindergarten, in meaningful and rich literacy experiences.  We need to cultivate close, deep and strategic reading, and we need to nurture an environment where students believe in the “miraculous power of writing” and the power of their words.

So…  I have to say, I agree with my teacher colleague who said if we could just spend all of our time getting better at this, our students would thrive!