PD Formats as a reflection of a community’s values #edchat


I have this joke I like to tell: “Did you hear about the awesome lecture on Differentiated Instruction?”

It gets laughs because the very concept, on the face of it, is ridiculous. But the funny part is that every teacher has either experienced this or knows a colleague who has experienced it.*

“The medium is the message.”

Marshall McLuhan

I’m constantly fascinated by the ways in which learning organizations like schools consistently model poor instruction with how they structure PD. Teachers can go years in their schools and districts only receiving lectures in large groups. Unless the schools want their teachers to lecture all day wrong, then they’re doing it wrong.

Here’s the thing about instructional models: they all carry implicit messages about how learning occurs. In the classroom, this is how teachers make pedagogical decisions all the time. When working in the classroom, once I’d made a judgement call that, say, Project-Based Learning would be the most effective way for my students to understand the content, then that’s the approach I would use. At other times I would use other systems based on my understanding of the content and my students’ instructional needs.

But what if the content of your instruction is the art and science of instruction? Well, then, you need to consistently model the kind of instruction that you expect to see. It’s one thing to hear about or read about a kind of instruction, but the magical** part of Professional Development is that it’s a real opportunity to experience that kind of instruction.

Choosing a format for your PD is a test: do you believe in what you’re saying? If so, you need to make sure that the explicit message, the content, is closely matched by the implicit message, which is the format of instruction. It’s the opportunity for a school to not just transmit expectations for teachers, but to model expectations for teachers.

So if you want your teachers to use Problem-Based Learning in the classroom, the only way that makes sense to show them that is by using Problem-Based Learning. If your school is moving toward Blended models of learning, you should be delivering that instruction both in-person and online. If you want there to more discussions in classroom, have more discussions during your PD. If you want students to learn cooperatively, make sure your teachers learn cooperatively.

And if you want your teachers to differentiate instruction, you had damn well better differentiate your professional development.



*Once I said that, and the teachers all told me that was going to be their PD the following day. They pulled out the agenda to prove it to me.

**If your PD isn’t magical, then you need to rethink your approach, Dumbledore.

PD Content as a reflection of a community’s values #edchat


(part 1 of this series here)

Time is precious.

From what I see, most schools have between three and six fall professional development days a year built into their schedule. If you add in time for early releases, or late starts, or after school PD, you maybe get to 5% of the teachers’ work year spent in professional development. With this time at a premium, schools have to prioritize. The content that they choose for their professional development time here is an awful lot about the things of a value.

In theory, anyway.

In practice, for many schools professional development really is a reflection of the values of the administration. The administration decides what is going to be content for the PD. In too many schools, this ends up being a large group having to sit through a PD session by the administration in which the teachers have limited voice and choice to decide on what they are going to learn about.

Yes, how the content is chosen already demonstrates the values of a community. Schools that operate by a system where one person (or a small, select group of people) choose the content demonstrate that they value control. Schools that only have one offering for an entire group value conformity. Administration that operates in this way sends important messages about how dependent they believe their teachers are.

Similarly, schools that systematically engage in making sure that teacher voice and choice are reflected in their PD offerings also demonstrate certain core values about how they see their teachers as professionals. They believe that teachers can exercise autonomy and that leadership can be shared amongst multiple members of the community.

Then you actually get to the content that the teachers get to engage with. Schools can choose to spend PD time talking about new regulations. They can spend time talking about collecting, reading, and interpreting data. They can spend time talking about the use of educational technology. They can spend time looking at differentiating instruction. They can spend time discussing discipline.

Each time a school engages in a PD effort, the amount of time it devotes to that effort demonstrates the value it places on it. Some schools choose very few topics for teachers to engage in, and emphasize depth of learning. Others choose to cover different topics every single time and value breadth of learning.

Here’s a graph that kind of places me on the right path towards understanding where things might fall just by looking at the indicators of autonomy/dependence and breadth/depth.


Looking at that chart, where do you think your school falls? What kind of values is it demonstrating by the content it chooses? What benefits does your school’s values have over another set of values? How are those values reflected in the instruction that happens in classrooms?


Professional Development is an expression of a community’s values #edchat #edcamp

*Warning: This is simultaneously the culmination of over a year’s worth of thinking about PD almost non-stop AND a complete rough draft of my own framework for understanding that. I’m going to embrace it by thinking in public. You have been warned.

Today I facilitated an Edcamp with the Coalition of Essential Schools. Every year they have a Fall Forum, and this year they wanted to try out having an Edcamp on the tail end. It was a pretty awesome group, with a blend of people who had attended the conference all week plus a good number of people who lived in the area and wanted to come do the Edcamp thing with us.

At some point during the morning I grabbed a picture of the schedule and tweeted it out.

Room 106 10:00 looks like a crazy miss-mash of a bunch of ideas. And it was. But it was glorious.

Here’s what I said: “An #Edcamp session board is an expression of the values of the community that builds it. Here’s what #edcampces values”

I was about halfway home before I realized that I was only partly right.

During the second session, I participated in a session about Progressive Education and Public Education. Mostly I sat and listened as the room talked about a ton of different ideas.

This makes slightly more sense if you were there.

At points the debate got a little heated, and in retrospect I realized that some aspects of the discussion, such as trying to define things like Progressive Education and the Purpose of Public Education, were also very much arguments about the values that the community holds.

Important realization of the day: Everything a community does is an expression of its values.

Given that, Professional Development is an expression of a community’s values.

If we know this and own it, how would we change the way that PD operates in our schools and organizations? Do we think the way we run PD is a reflection of what we want our values to be? Are we failing our values? How can we improve PD to better reflect those values?

This all is feeling very important to me right now. I’m increasingly feeling like all of my conversations these days keep coming back to ideas around how communities work, and how that work is informed by the things they actually care about, which is sometimes in opposition to the things they say they care about.

I’m thinking my next few posts (ack! public commitment to write!) here will take a look at 4 big buckets that I see for the ways we plan and implement PD, and try an unpack the ways they reflect the kinds of values we want to express in our environments: Content, Format, People, and Structures.

Help! I'm addicted to PowerPoint SmartArt!

think I’m going to hit those in more or less that order (although I keep going back and forth about switching Format and People), so if you have anything you’d like to say right now that you’d like me to know and/or wrestle with in terms of Content, I’d love to have you talk about it in the comments below. Or on Twitter. Or by e-mail. Or by carrier pigeon, because how cool would it be to have a message delivered by bird?

I’m Sick of SMART Goals #edchat


As new evaluation systems have crept up across the country, they’ve brought with them SMART Goals.

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

And I’m sick of them.

Here’s how it typically works: Teachers has to come up with their SMART goals for the year. They go through the criteria listed above. They come up with a terrible unambitious goal that they can make without difficulty. They achieve their goal. They get a good evaluation and a pat on the head for meeting their goals.

It’s Evaluation Theater.

Let’s break it down:

  • Specific. Sure. Be as specific as you want to be about the goal. No skin off my nose. But does it always need to be? Specificity denotes the idea that you know EXACTLY the thing that needs to be done.
  • Measurable. If it’s pretty specific, you can probably measure it in some way. No problem. But, again, do you always needs need to be able to have a clear measurement for your goal? If you can’t measure it, how is that inherently bad?
  • Attainable. This is is where things start to break down. To say that the goal is attainable is to play it safe. If a chief criterion of your goal is that you can attain it, it means that nobody is going to try and aim high for their goals. There is nothing built into the system to encourage them to take risks. I’d rather have Inspirational goals than Attainable goals.
  • Realistic. This is just to reinforce the Attainable strand. If it’s realistic, it’s something that’s within your reach now. You don’t have to work hard to get there. Why can’t we have unrealistic goals that we would need to work our butts off to achieve? If you fall short of an absurdly unrealistic goal, chances are you’ve probably made it further than you would have with the complete safe, realistic goal.
  • Timely. Something you can implement and accomplish in basically one year. Teaching, though, is the work of a lifetime. It’s full of constant refinements and sudden changes.

You take all of these elements together and they lead to boringly safe goals.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

From the day I decided to make education my life’s work, I always set one simple, yet completely unspecific, unmeasurable, unattainable, unrealistic, and untimely goal. It’s Aspirational:

I want to be a great teacher.

That’s it. That’s the entire goal I’ve had guiding my career to this point. When I started teaching, I didn’t know what it would take to become a great teacher, how long it would take to become great, my chances of flaming out along the way. I didn’t realize that this kind of Aspirational goal is insidious in that it its goalposts keep moving, always moving backwards, so you have to keep on pushing forwards no matter how much work you put in and how much you improve.

But I also didn’t realize the power of having such a simple goal in mind could bring clarity to the things I would do and the decisions I’d make. With an Aspirational goal, it’s possible to ask yourself, “Does this move me closer to becoming a great teacher?” If the answer is yes, move in that direction. If not, move along. Having a wildly crazy goal that you’re not sure you’ll ever reach can encourage you to work tirelessly to do your best. It’s the kind of thing that colors your work not in short bursts, but over a sustained, interesting life.

Aspirational goals are also much more forgiving than SMART goals. The timeliness of the SMART goal means you have little room to maneuver if you make a mistake or follow the wrong path. The Apsirational goal allows you to realize you’ve made a mistake, take the time to ponder what didn’t work, and then use that as a learning experience from which to move forward. I was a terrible first year teacher, but the lessons I learned from that year sustain me to this day.

Aspirational goals can also shift over time. Having left the classroom this year, I’m doing a lot of thinking about my goals and purpose. Does this shift help me to meet my Aspirational goal? It’s a bit of both, probably. But it also opens up new avenues for what my goals can be. As I’ve adjusted to my new role and responsibilities, I’m finding myself shifting from the short-term thinking needed to survive a change in work and moving towards long-term planning and ideas for how I can both move myself and my organization forward. It’s the work of years, and I don’t think I’ve figured it all out yet, but I know I’m not very interested in playing it safe.

And I still want to be a great teacher. Someday, I might get there.

My School Library Keynote Speech #msla15 #tlchat

MSLA Keynote.001

The following are my prepared remarks for my Keynote at the Massachusetts School Library Association Annual Conference. I was much funnier in person as I thought of new things in the moment. I probably also spoke in more complete sentences, as this was a weird mashup of thoughts, ideas, and actual sentences I wanted to say. I’ll do the process in another post, I think.

Good morning, Librarians!

First, I’d like to thank MSLA and the Conference Committee for inviting me here today, and all of you for joining us this morning as we incorporate an unconference experience into MSLA’s conference.

I love the theme: Fill Up Your Toolbox.

You’re going to learn about lots of great tools over the next couple of days. I’m looking forward to that session on Blendspace tomorrow morning, myself.

There’s SO MUCH MORE to the library that goes beyond the tools, and I don’t always think that those tools even exist in either physical or digital forms. So I’d like to challenge you to think about the tools you already have at your disposal as librarians, to think about the tools you need today to serve your communities, and how you can best use them.

So first I’d like to think about what, to me, are four essential elements of a good library.

First: Tools.

Let’s start off with the tools you have. This includes all of the standard stuff that libraries have traditionally had, like books, magazines, and videos. It also includes the newer stuff like equipment such as ipads, laptops, cameras, and digital things like databases and apps. I believe in the biz you call this the collection.

Second: Skills.

A good library doesn’t simply provide the tools, it has to provide the skills needed to use those tools. Research skills, citation skills, learning how to navigate the library’s systems are the traditional skills. In more recent times, with all of the new technology tools available, many librarians are responsible for making sure their students are familiar with the use of databases, iPad apps, Google Docs, and so much more. It also extends to all of those critical skills that may get short shrift in some of the more content-driven classrooms, like critical thinking and collaboration.

Third: Freedom

A library is a place of freedom. Every librarian I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with has taken patron freedom of access to information very seriously. I’m never more proud to have librarians in this country than when they’re defending the public’s rights to information. This is why Banned Books Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year.

What’s this really about? It’s about the freedom to explore. To find out new things. To learn things even when somebody doesn’t want you to. This week people across the nation won a great victory by having the FCC declare net neutrality, ensuring a continued free access to information. Librarians have been protecting and promoting that bedrock of democracy for long before the internet existed, and will continue to do so long into the future.

Fourth: Sanctuary.

A place that feels safe, where one can freely explore without judgement. For a certain type of student, which most certainly included me, the library as a sanctuary means that it is a place that can feel safe even when no other place does. Librarians provide a place where people can be themselves in a world which increasingly asks them to put on a face.

Put these things together, and you have the building blocks of a great library.

So I’d like to tell you about my experience with libraries and how they changed my life.

I’d like to start with Middle School. Not because I never went to the library before then, but because that’s when I started to become aware of how the previously mentioned elements help build a place worthy, or not worthy, of being called a library.

First, a horror story.

The Middle school librarian. The first time where we had library as a class, a place and time where we were supposed to learn. It was a nice enough library in terms of the tools available to us at the time. Decent collection, encyclopedias and atlases, and was the first place I encountered a computer with a CD-ROM for electronic materials.

Tools. But not skills. No freedom. No sanctuary. A library in name only.

She gave us plenty of busywork research activities, but refused to provide the skills we needed to meaningfully access them.
She wanted to spend more time taking kids down a peg than building them up. It was certainly no sanctuary. Our time was tightly controlled and gave us no meaningful opportunities or the freedoms to learn more about the topics and areas that most interested us. It was a nightmare of a year in seventh grade.

Thank god for the town library.

Caring librarians with a wide variety of selections for all ages. I spent many a summer day here checking out and tearing through Christopher Pike and RL Stine books. Help with research projects. A safe place to go, so much so that it was probably the first place your parents would let you ride your bike to alone.

Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.

High School. 2-3 hours every day after school until the bus would take me home. Where else would I go but the library?
A quiet place to go and work on homework, but also filled with a good variety of fiction. This library introduced me to Ender’s Game, which to this day is one of my favorite series of books. The librarians were always willing to offer a helping hand, showing us the things we needed to know to complete our assignments.

Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.

It ended up being so much of a sanctuary for me my freshman year that I spent pretty much every day there after school. I was there so much, they started to ask me to help around the library. Which meant…

I Was a Teenage Librarian. This is, of course, not technically accurate, but it sounds way better than I Was a Teenage Library Page.

So I went back to the town library. I got my first real job here in the children’s room. New tools. New skills. New freedom of opportunity. My first chance to do read-aloud to young children. It was here I first encountered Officer Buckle and Gloria, to this day one of my all-time favorite read-aloud books. This wasn’t just a great first real summer and then after school job, it was giving me the skills and confidence to define a new path for myself that led me away from my previous considerations of going to college to major in business and instead look at Teaching as a legitimate path that for me that would provide me with the intellectual challenges and emotional incentives I was really looking for in my life.

Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.

College. First time working in a much larger library, first real exposure to using electronic databases, helpful staff that would help you unlock the mysteries of these new tools, and always made sure there was a safe, quiet spot for studying. I can’t say that the library particularly stood out to me in any meaningful way other than as a functional place to accomplish the things I needed to do in college, but it still provided me with all of the essentials.

And then, I was a teacher.

I spent eight years teaching special education in Upper Darby School District, which in many ways is really an extension of West Philadelphia. If people could afford to get their children out of Philadelphia and its school system, very frequently we were the only place they could afford to move to. My students were overwhelmingly poor minorities with challenging special needs.

When I started teaching at DHMS, the library was a sanctuary, a place that I could take my students on frazzled Fridays, where they could enjoy the freedom to look through the stacks and find the books they were most interested in reading. They took library classes there and received the love, patience, and guidance that had not been provided to me in my own middle school library experience.

Over time, it became more than a place for my students, though. It also became a place where I could practice the skills I wanted to develop in terms of technology use. Through regular access to the library’s computer lab, I started to dip my first tentative toes into the dizzying waters of educational technology, at first starting off simply with things like spelling city and math practice sites, but eventually moving on to exploring the potential of having my students do things like build collaborative google maps.

Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the library alone was not enough. I was increasingly unhappy in the school overall.

I started teaching in 2002. Educational Policy wonks will note that this is the year that No Child Left Behind was signed into law.

When I arrived at DHMS, my principal made a point of saying that he didn’t care at all about test scores. He just wanted us to do what was right for the kids. That’s a noble sentiment which didn’t last forever. As possibilities of sanctions started to pile up, he came to care about test scores an awful lot, as did other administrators in the district. We started adding formative standardized assessments. I was increasingly told to use scripted programs, so much that I spent 2/3 of my day teaching like a robot from a script.

At the same time, the professional development I was provided was worse than meaningless.

Let’s take a look at this diagram again.

Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary. Key elements of a good library.

But they’re also key components of what a school community should have. But what happens to students and teachers when they aren’t getting these things they need from their school? Many turn towards apathy, which leads to students checking out of their classwork and teachers becoming cynical and burning out. If I was going to grow and improve as a teacher, I had to take my professional learning into my own hands.

I started to look elsewhere for the kinds of connections I needed. For an raging introvert like me, this was hard. Fortunately, I had the Internet.

Twitter turned out to be my main outlet for this. It allowed me to connect with other teachers around the world and discover that while I was lonely in my school, I was not alone in my ideas.

I’ve been on Twitter now for almost eight years. But the most important connections I would make, the ones that set the next stage of my career, happened in the 2009-2010 school year.

First, in 2009 I agreed to meet with a group of other teachers that I only knew through Twitter at this thing called Barcamp, which was a form of unconference. Whatever that was.

It turned out to be an amazing experience, where an eclectic group of techies, businesspeople, artists, and teachers came together because they wanted to share. There was no agenda when we walked in, because WE created the agenda that morning. It was incredibly powerful, so much so that the teachers gathered there that day became determined to repackage it and gear it specifically toward teachers. We called it Edcamp, and on a beautiful May morning, 100 teachers showed up to experience it with us for a day many called the best professional development of their careers.

The next month another Edcamp was held in Virginia. Soon after there was one in New Hampshire. Then they started to spread like wildfire. There have since been more than 600 Edcamp events around the world.

The other connection I made was Patrick Larkin, Principal in Burlington, MA.

My wife and I were planning on moving back to Massachusetts, and one day I was tweeting about the move when Patrick reached out to me to find out more.

A few months later I came to Burlington to work as a Tech Specialist.

I had supportive administrators, and I worked with some great teachers.

But we had a problem. Our school had a temporary librarian, who, while wonderful in many ways, was not equipped with the skills a modern librarian needs. When teachers wanted to do research projects, they came to me, because the kids were doing the research on the computer, after all.

Having a problem means trying to solve it, and I love solving interesting problems. The solution was clearly to find an awesome librarian. So of course I went to Joyce Valenza and asked her what the job description should look like.
While that’s happening, I had already started to work with a librarian to bring Edcamp to the Boston area. At MassCUE that year, I went to a session run by Laura D’Elia on animation tools and, on a complete spur of the moment whim, invited her to our first planning meeting. I had a good feeling.

After working with Laura to plan Edcamp, I knew she was the librarian we needed. So I recruited her, told my principal he needed to hire her, and she started working with me that Summer. Because we needed to plan together before the school year started, of course.

This became the most powerful and meaningful professional collaboration of my career. We worked tirelessly to provide the kinds of library and technology programming we believed our teachers and students needed. We made sure they had the tools, piloting and then helping the district to roll out a 1:1 iPad program. We did our best to incorporate the kinds of modern skills needed by students into our curriculum, and model the skills needed by teachers. We gave our students the freedom to choose and design their own projects, and teachers the freedom to try out new things with our assistance and without judgement. We had a core group of students as library pages and technology team members who knew they always had a sanctuary in the library, as well as making it a safe place for some of our teachers to come with their own challenges.

Were we perfect? Absolutely not. Did we have significant challenges in our quest to improve the quality of teaching and learning throughout our school and district. Definitely. But we always tried our best to learn and grow as teachers and leaders.

Tools. Skills. Freedom. Sanctuary.

So let’s go through those elements of a great library again. There’s an art to building a library that’s supportive of students, but how can you expand that to truly be the heart of your school?

Tools: new tools, including things like Edcamp and other alternative forms of professional development. Your most powerful tools available are your ideas. Your creative energies and output can completely change the learning environment of a school. Always work to provide teachers meaningful opportunities to discover and interact with the things and ideas they need in order to be successful.

Skills. Teachers are going to need a wide range of new skills in order to support all of those new tools. Not just use of technology, but also exposure to and support in better methods of teaching that emphasize inquiry and experience over rote memorization. Always model the kind of instruction you want to see happen throughout your school building.

Freedom. Take the lead in lobbying for the most wide-open information access policies possible. Make sure your teachers can access every tool that’s out there on the internet. Help them understand the power in giving students access to the wider world around them. Show teachers the freedom they have to become independent learners through the use of social media, which can expose them to a wider variety of materials, tools, skills, and styles so they can work on developing their best professional selves. Know about the variety of ways they could do this, give them lots of options. For me it was Twitter, but for other teachers it’s mailservs, Pinterest, Flickr, Facebook Groups, and Tumblr. If you know where to look, you can find amazing teachers in all sorts of places doing interesting things, so take the opportunity to choose the community that’s right for you.

Be a safe place in your school for people who are brave enough to try new things. Support teachers when they’re ready to try that great new tool or strategy. Prop them up when they don’t work out the first, second, third time. Help them get better. Celebrate their successes! Challenge them to take those successes as learning opportunities to chart the next thing they’re going to try.

If you’re taking advantage of these tools, you will be the best librarian you can be for your teachers and students.

More importantly, though, you will be a model for your school about the possibilities that exist today. Librarians today can and should serve an essential role in transforming the learning cultures of our schools today. We need our schools to be like our best libraries. So seek out the opportunities to be the change. Our students, teachers, and schools need you now more than ever.

Budget games from the past continue to hurt our students today #edchat #tlchat


As teachers all across the country are aware, politicians like to play fast and loose with their ability to get the job done. If you’re a teacher today and aren’t aware of the games that have been played with teachers and schools in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Philadelphia, Newark, and so many other locations, it’s time to get informed fast.

Today, however, I want to bring to light an issue that’s more recently crossed my radar in my own state of Massachusetts.

“But Dan,” you might say, “isn’t Massachusetts some sort of Libertopia where everything is awesome and test scores are amazing?”

Yes, we do have many things going for us, it’s true. But still…

As we’re all aware, every time there are budget cuts, it seems like certain kinds of teachers are always the first to be cut. One of those is the school librarian.

School librarians are amazing. Tons of them are not only experts in literature and research skills for their chosen grade levels, but they’re really pushing the envelope of their chosen profession. They don’t just stay in their libraries, because they’re also master teachers and technology ninjas. A good library should be the hub of a school, where all learning is somehow related to the work students can do there.

When budget cut time comes, though, school districts will often ax nearly every librarian in the entire district save 1. A district that I used to teach in has 1 librarian for more than 10,000 students across a gigantic high school, two large middle schools, and numerous neighborhood elementary schools. It didn’t used to be that way. When I taught there, every school had its own librarian.

When budgets start to turn around, though, a lot of schools think they really don’t need those librarians back, so they don’t bring the positions back.

Now, imagine you’re a young teacher, or interested in becoming a teacher, and you think that you’d really like to become a librarian. You can have a real impact on the lives of every student in a school! You can help teachers make their lessons even more amazing! You can be the first one out the door when budget cuts come!

I’m pretty sure that last point is stopping a lot of good people from becoming librarians, and who can blame them?

I found out that in Massachusetts right now, there are thirty unfilled librarian positions across the state. That’s schools that actually want to have a librarian and can’t find any qualified candidates, because people have responded rationally to the cuts to libraries by not becoming librarians. Simmons, one of the few library programs left in the state, graduated just seven new librarians this year. Word has it they may consider eliminating the program because of lack of enrollment.

So thanks, politicians. Because you’ve refused to make supporting school libraries a priority over the past decade, now people have decided to stop becoming librarians. If everybody turned around and made it a priority tomorrow, it would take years just to fill positions in the schools that want them now, let alone in the more than 200 other schools in Massachusetts that don’t have librarians and aren’t looking to fill the position.

Anybody else tired of our country’s penchant for short-term planning with long-term consequences?