Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Journey of a 4SI Principal

The 4SI ( Student Success School Support Initiative) process has been the richest professional development experience of my 15 years as a Secondary School administrator. There are a number of elements that have contributed to this richness:
1)      Because this was a Ministry mandated program, I needed it to be my #1 priority for moving our teaching practice forward as a school
2)      Because it was my #1 priority, I was thoroughly engaged throughout the process, learning from and with our Professional Learning Team (Plt)
3)      Because we learned together, we built trust in one another, and in the process.
4)      Because we built trust, we could urge each other to “step off the edge”, as one of our group likes to put it.
5)      Because I was at the table, the teachers felt they had “permission” to make mistakes.
6)      Because we made mistakes, we learned from them.
7)      Because we “stepped off the edge”, we created lessons that were accessible to the most at-risk students in our classes and took the teachers off the center stage.
8)      Because we made our lessons accessible to all, our most at-risk students miraculously became engaged in their learning and we were awed by them.
9)      Because we were amazed that our most disconnected students dove in and grabbed their learning by the throat and ran with it, we came to embrace Dweck’s “growth mindset”.
10)   Because we learned to trust in our students’ ability to learn when the conditions were right, we could no longer accept that the old way was good enough. We couldn’t go back and blame them for not learning. We knew in our hearts that if we created lessons that were differentiated and based on Hattie’s prime evidence-based teaching strategies, we would level the playing field and invite all of our students to the table.
11)   Because of all of the above, our student achievement has risen remarkably and our PLT has deepened our understanding of how students learn and how to help make that possible.
12)   The experiences of our PLT have spread throughout the school in rich discussions, shared practice, and an excitement for change in our teaching practice as a school.

During this process, the need to deepen my knowledge of current research on teaching and learning has become increasingly important and because we refer to this research on a regular basis, it’s relevance is the more evident.

At the beginning, although we were identified as a 4SI school, I knew from experience that this could not be “just another Ministry-imposed ‘thing’ ”. We would have to find a way to align it with the important work we were doing on our school’s SMART goal which had been identified as “critical thinking” (find the wording in SIPSA). Our staff had embraced Lucy West’s inspirational work around “accountable talk”. We had rallied around her wonderful quote that “traditional schooling involves 30 people watching 1 person work”. Our staff PD focused on creating strategies and lesson plans that turned the tables on our students and brought them into the learning through cooperative learning and active inquiry into concepts. There was a buzz in the prep rooms about how to make this work. We had understood that if we were going to develop ‘critical thinking’, then we were going to have to, in fact, find a way to know what students were thinking. This had to happen through “accountable talk”.  In studying the Ministry documents which referred to Hattie’s work, the PLT quickly identified two strategies that would promote this reality: “Self-verbalization” and “ Higher-level questioning”
(As an aside, John Hattie’s seminal work “Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 80 Meta-analyses relating to Achievement”, is a must-read  for Administrators. If offers so many insights into evidence-based strategies that can help direct school improvement through an emphasis on teaching and learning.)

One element of the 4SI process involves creating diagnostic tools for each of the subjects involved. This provides baseline data for comparison with post-diagnostic assessments.  In addition, the PLT identifies skill gaps that inhibit success in those subjects.  In English, the teachers identified Inferencing and Making Personal Connections, while the Math group identified Proportional Reasoning as the skill sets that they would be seeking to develop.

The 4SI process directed us to identify a model for our PLT. We benefitted from the previous experience of two of our Math teachers, Bruce McLaurin and Al Overwijk who had participated in Lesson Studies in their earlier Ministry-funded TLLP project. This proved to be the most profound co-learning experience that we could have ever imagined.

The Lesson Study involves bringing together the PLT in order to co-plan, teach, and debrief “our” lesson.
The steps involved are as follows:

1)      As a team of four, then five teachers, two of whom teach English, and three who teach Math, each teacher took a turn in the cycle to teach a lesson.  We recommend that you put aside a full day for the first planning session of the Lesson Study process. You will need this time to learn about the steps, discuss your students in a general way, identify your “learning gap(s)” and begin to get to know one another better. Let me say at the outset that our teachers found it difficult to absent themselves regularly from these most at-risk students. We learned that although this is part of the sacrifice of participating in a Lesson Study, the pay-back was life-changing and the ultimate benefit for our students worth the cost.

2)      You will need two half days for  prepping, teaching and debriefing the co-created lesson. On the first half-day the teacher in question brings along an idea for a lesson, the “big ideas”, or curricular expectations linked to the lesson, and the class list with the students’ pictures attached.

3)      Our first step was to discuss each of the students in the class (because other teachers frequently taught the same students, the insights were even richer). Teachers would describe the students’ strengths and challenges, social behaviours, family or socio-economic situation, attendance, and any other contributing factors to their learning. This is an important element for our observation of our lesson, as we have thus identified the most at-risk students and can focus more effectively on their engagement in the learning process.

4)      The co-creating process is extremely enriching. In our experience, because we had combined English and Math, the English teachers often felt out of their depth in the references to Math concepts. The Math teachers mirrored this feeling in regards to the English lessons. The power of this disconnect became immediately evident:  what was important in the lesson was not so much “what” was being taught as “how” and “to whom”. Our rich conversations reflect  how  difficult it can be to make self-verbalization happen in our classes, and how much thought must go into planning lessons where higher level questions are created, both by the teachers, and more importantly, by our students. ( Another wonderful resource that we have discovered at our Department  Heads’ Book Club, and which has since been disseminated throughout many departments, is “Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding” by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins )

5)      As the Principal, in addition to formalizing the PLT work through my engagement in it, I have sought to encourage the team to ‘dare” to make mistakes. As Eleanor Duckworth says: “learning is messy”. We have pushed ourselves “off that edge” numerous times. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes not as well. But we have always learned from it. Sometimes we begin to rely on traditional methods that won’t get us where we want to go. I see part of my role as one of keeping  our collective eye on the ball. Reminding us that we are falling short of creating opportunities for self-verbalization, answering too many questions, not leaving room for student co-creating, taking too much place in the learning process – allowing “30 people to watch 1 person work”.
In doing this, we have all taken on this role in the lesson study process, each teacher bringing his or her expertise to the planning process and challenging the whole to raise the bar.

6)      On the second half day, which is chosen so that the lesson is always the first class in our two-period half day, the teacher provides us with copies of the students’ names and faces, as well as the write-up of the lesson. One of the powers of the Lesson Study is that we are not watching the teacher, it is not his or her lesson, but “our” lesson, and our emphasis is to watch how the students, and particularly those at-risk students, engage in the lesson that we have co-created. We interact very little with the students who are surprisingly unaffected by the presence of five or six teachers in their classes! We observe and take notes, and sometimes pictures of their work, and of them working. We are eager to see how effective our lesson is.

7)      We use the period after the lesson to debrief. The teacher whose class we have observed is first to offer his or her observations about the class. What he thinks worked and didn’t work. What her reactions to various students’ engagement or lack of are, and her feelings in general about the experience. The other members of the PLT then offer their observations about the lesson, about individual students’ engagement and what each has learned through the process. 

8)      It has been our experience that, as we go deeper into the Lesson Study, and as we seek to integrate our identified teaching strategies into our practice, other gaps begin to appear in the students’ learning, and in our own practice.  For example, although we initially created lessons that allowed students to respond to open-ended questions and create their own, it became obvious that, in fact, they frequently did not know what a good question was.  This led to a subsequent lesson study that focused on having students identified the criteria of “good questions”. Further along the practice, and supported by Hattie’s research, we became aware that we needed to develop our students’ ability to self-assess. This underlined how important allowing students to co-create  criteria is to their ability to self-assess.

9)      The importance of the teachers’ identifying the “big ideas” of their courses became increasingly obvious. In this way, as we “designed-down’ our lessons, we helped our students make the links to the over-arching expectations of the course
(I would suggest that you might like to read a very useful little book: ‘Lesson Study: Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice”: by Brenda Augusta, Ruth Gauvreau, and Gerry Hector . It provides you with a fulsome description of the Lesson Study process and its elements.

An interesting spin-off from the Lesson Study experience is how it  has changed my approach to the TPA process. Rather than the previous method of discussing what I will see in the observed lesson, then debriefing based upon my scribed notes, I now approach the experience through the Lesson Study lens. The teacher in question and I co-create the lesson. The teacher presents the students to me, describing their individual strengths and challenges (this is an insight in their relationship building with their students, and if they currently have a Growth Mindset). We discuss the overarching expectations of the course, and how the particular lesson relates to them (knowledge of curriculum and Ministry documents). The teacher describes potential formative feedback opportunities (knowledge of A&E and Assessment As, For, and Of learning). Together we review the initial idea that the teacher has for the lesson, emphasizing that the end product will be judged based upon the engagement of the students in the process.  That this is OUR lesson and if things go poorly based upon what we have attempted, it will not be held against the teacher. The teacher takes away our notes and finalizes the lesson
When I go into the class, I am in a position of knowledge about the students, their needs, and their potential. My note taking will involve observations about the student engagement and the teacher’s adoption of the teaching strategies that we  have identified in the earlier discussions. 
The post-observation discussions are so much richer than previous TPA’s! We have learned together, the teacher has tried something new in an safe environment, and the TPA becomes what it should truly be – a professional development opportunity. Next steps can more easily identified and allow me to direct the teacher to professional development opportunities that reflect his/her needs as well as opening the door to richer conversations between us in subsequent visits. (I would not engage in this process with a teacher who I know is a likely candidate for an Unsatisfactory TPA)

The original Lesson Study activities have generated considerable discussion and curiosity throughout out school. Although teachers were at first reluctant to even consider having one or more colleagues visiting their classes, there is much more openness to such observations now. During the first year, no other department was interested in creating a Lesson Study. Now, most departments in the school have run at least one cycle this (second) year. Either one of the Vice Principals or I participates alongside the teachers, again formalizing the process and learning together with them. The art of teaching is considerably deprivatized as teachers discuss, test, and adopt evidence-based teaching strategies that advance our school SMART goal of critical thinking.

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