Welcome to Leading Blended Learning

"The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means to an education." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, July 21, 2014


The title of this blog, Leading Blended Learning, came out of a deeply held desire to change the way school looks and feels for kids in my district. It came from a place where I looked at what school was offering and realized that the phenomenal teachers and leaders at each of our 51 campuses had the capacity to give kids more than what we were giving them.   We could challenge them to be great and they would rise to it.  I have spent the better part of the last ten years trying to figure out how to lead an authentic shift from good enough to amazing.  Its not so much about wanting our district to have national exposure, or to be the best in show across the State of Georgia, but rather its about making sure that those kids that I met in my office as a middle school principal who had a twinkle in their eyes could see a future where they made it happen.
    I look at the community that I have adopted as my own, after 15 years and having left and returned, it is my hometown now and I see tremendous intellect, strength of spirit, and ingenuity.  I see compassion, dedication, and work ethic.  I see possibilities.  But, I also see self imposed limitations. I see hoops and rules and low expectations. I see bias and hear way too many "bless your hearts." So many of the young people in our community don't believe that they have the power to change not only their world, but the grander world that is at their fingertips. We are now globally competitive, but so limited in global awareness.  We can see video of a conflict in a country 2500 miles away and espouse solutions, but seem to be willing to look deeply at the conflict in front of us that limits our impact.  We want to protect our kids from the harsh realities of the world, without realizing that those same arms that hug and protect also stunt and limit growth and opportunity.
   A wise advisor always said you got to start, and end, with the why.  People have to know and see and feel and believe in the vision of the future that is better than the world they believe they exist in day to day.  They don't have to understand it deeply, commit to it passionately, or even necessarily agree with it... but they have to be able to see it.  Leadership towards this requires time, conversation, commitment, clarity, understanding, and steadfast focus.  It requires meaningful interactions, engaging dialogue, and courage.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Personalized Learning Tenets - Learner Profiles

It is my deeply held belief that school really should be about preparing kids for life, but not just in the traditional liberal arts view of exposing them to deep thinking and the power of learning and not just in the current fashion of economic preparedness that focuses on creating workers.  American public school should operate as an equalizer, giving all kids the opportunity to better themselves, to create their own world of opportunity, to open doors for them.  It should do so by giving kids learning experiences that are personal and common, customized and shared, unique and collaborative all at the same time. After thirteen years in school, our students should come out ready to greet the world with inquisitiveness, with an entrepreneurial and  innovative spirit, with a deep sense of inner creativity and a connection to the world that is both emotional and intellectual.  Kids should leave our high schools as young adults with a vision for the world and a dream for their own experience of that world.
Our district has been deeply diving into what personalized learning means for us and for the future of school for our students, teachers, parents, and community.  For us, the definition of personalized learning really revolves around the tenets you see in the graphic below.  I will be doing a series of five blogs postings talking about each one these tenets.

Each one of the tenets are essential to providing kids with a high quality, rigorous, and meaningful school experience that prepares them to be successful citizens and all around cool people. We believe that the tenets of personalized learning are the tools/processes/mindsets necessary to design school to prepare kids to be awesome college and career ready graduates.

Learner Profiles:
For us, a learner profile is the foundation of relationships with kids.  Kids learn best when they have strong relationships with caring adults.  A learner profile is one way to ensure that teachers know about their kids.  They need to know academic background, behavior background, attendance background.  They need to know about skills gaps and areas of deficiency. Teachers need to know about areas of strength and aptitude where kids excel. Teachers need to know about what kids find interesting, where they have ability, and what they can do.  It needs to include a portfolio of student work as well. This can be housed in a profile that kids, parents, and teachers can see and monitor and use.  This needs to be an easily accessible, intuitive, and focused platform that integrates information from a variety of places into one dashboard.

We see the learner profile also including a personalized learning plan that is co-created and monitored by teachers, students, and parents.  This PLP serves as a place to plan and track learning for the student towards demonstration of mastery of high school and beyond.  The tool for the PLP should be able to list the competencies and courses kids need to complete based on their plan and have a consistently updated progress monitor of that progress toward mastery. This is where kids take ownership, responsibility, and an active role in their own education.

The Learner Profile is more than a piece of software.  The PLP is more than a set of aspirations. The two tools work in concert to provide student voice, autonomy, and purpose to the educational process and act of doing school for kids and parents.  This is a radical shift from doing school TO kids and instead engaging in learning WITH kids.

Check out more at www.henry.k12.ga.us/personalizedlearning

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The teachers do all the talking....

This year my family has hosted a foreign exchange student from Europe. It has been a phenomenal learning experience for all of us.  As I talk with her and a few of the other exchange students that sometimes come around, I ask them about school and particularly about their American High School experience versus their experiences in Europe.  Resoundingly, they all talk about how boring school and classes are here in Georgia.  They talk about being challenged only by their mastery of English and not by the classes or instructional model. In all fairness, they are only talking about a dozen teachers' classrooms that they have been in as students. Most telling is probably an offhanded commented I heard two of them share with each other when we were driving in the car.

 "The teachers here in America do all the talking."

It struck me that as I looked back on my high school experience as a student, as a student teacher, and as an observer over the past 20 years, that it is pretty much the case that in most classrooms in most schools, the teachers are doing all the talking in class time.  Our district is engaged in work to become a personalized learning district, a place where education and instruction are focused on students getting what they need, when they need it, and how they need it.  It is fairly simple term for a mightily complex shift in the design and operation of public education.  As our team thinks about the challenges ahead of us in shifting our entire district's focus from teacher to student, its evident that the largest change is going to be moving our administrators and teachers to a place where the job of teacher is not defined by how much one talks in front of a group of students. 

This isn't new though.  The idea that education should be learner-centric, that teachers should be problem posers and providers of feedback and not givers of knowledge, that coursework should be built around clear end goals that students meet with mastery, the idea that different kids need different supports and paths through the curriculum.  Really, none of these ideas are new ones to those educators that have read an education publication in the last half century.  One could argue that these are ideas that John Dewey espoused a century ago in Democracy and Education.

The core of this fundamental shift for an entire district is to get everyone in consensus that our schools exist and have as a primary and ultimate purpose ensuring student demonstration of  mastery of skills and knowledge.  We have recently added to this the idea of college and career readiness to better define those skills and knowledge that students will demonstrate mastery of in their dozen years in K-12.  In order to allow all students to demonstrate mastery, in its simplest form, the students need to be doing all the talking.  This is the fundamental shift in school operations that will be so challenging.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Assessments and Teacher Evaluations

This week, our district has about 50 professional educators (teachers) working on redeveloping the Student Learning Objective Assessments that are required as a part of Georgia's Race to the Top grant.  Our evaluation system, TKES, will have about 40% of the evaluation based on student growth.  We will be using standardized tests for those teaching tested subject grads.  In GA, that means Math, ELA, social studies, and science in grades 4-8 and 8 different End-of-Course Tests in high school.  Everyone else who teaches is going to have to have a pre/post test that is developed under the direction of state DOE guidance, but directed and created by districts.   The SLO assessment process has been a challenge because we are trying to serve two masters with the assessments.  
First, we are trying to serve the need of the evaluation instrument to have a measure of student learning over the course of the school year.  This presents a number of important considerations around validity and reliability of the assessments.  Although there is a fairly rigorous process in place to attempt to ensure this, there is no item analysis, distractor analysis, or other psycometric evaluation of the assessment items after they have been administered.  We try very hard to train teachers in two or three days on how to construct good test items, but there are still questions as to value of the data as an accurate measure of student growth over the year.   This is in stark contrast to the "tested" subjects that have industry created and vetted items used with huge sets of data and field testing of each item and teams of trained psycometricians ensuring the items are valid and reliable.  Both the "tested" and "non-tested" growth models impact Teacher Evaluation in the same manner. 
The second master we want to serve with pre/post assessments is the instructional work of teachers in the classrooms.  There is significant research supporting the value of pre-assessments and subsequent instructional decision making based on the data that comes back from the pre-assessments.  However, the value of this type of work tends to be more helpful at the unit or lesson level and is signficantly less impactful at the course level.  We can determine what students know or don't know about course content, yes, but when you are attempting to do a survey of all the knowledge and skills learned in a Chemistry I course when students come in with little chemistry background, the test is limited in what it offers as meaningful data for the teacher.  Thus, the SLO assessments are limited in their ability to inform instructioanl decisions on the fly or after the initial work in the first month of school. 
This data problem is a frustration for teachers and administrators alike.  We are once again taking at least 2 days of instruction to collect "autopsy" data that in theory could guide instruction, but in practice is limiting in what it offers for teachers in the classroom.  Not only are we taking that instructional time away, but we have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in "professional learing" around building these SLO assessments.   There is value in exposing teachers to Webb's Depth of Knowledge and how to use it to evaluate standards and assessment items to match and there is value in training teachers in what makes good assessments.  But that value is limited in its scope and influence because it is focused on SLO assessment development and not on an overall assessment plan/vision that impacts instruction for all kids from day to day.

The challenge continues to be how to effectively evaluate the impact of an individual teacher on student achievement and how to isolate their impact away from all other factors that impact student learning.  We all agree great teachers have significant impact on student learning, but being able to quantify that impact in a fair and reliable way is very difficult and complex work.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Twitter's Influence On Me

Public schooling as a career is still pretty isolationist, in the sense that teachers can still close their doors and do their own thing with only students and an occasional parent to interrupt the flow of teaching. As long as you make it appear kids are learning and don't do anything that will get you in the 24 hour news feed, its all good. School administrators can filter those who get to see them or get to talk to them or get to influence them and largely keep control over their schools with only the occasional interference from a central office lackey or parent or intrusive state official every once in while.  As long as you appear to keep good discipline numbers and make it appear teachers are teaching, its all good.  The status quo is acceptable because its what "people" have come to expect.

Of course, the vast majority of educators are working hard to make sure the children entrusted to them by an unwritten social contract get world class educational experiences. But, so many are doing it in isolation because it is not seen as an effective use of public dollars for teachers and administrators to learn about their craft and get better at it through professional learning, professional conferences, or professional dialogue while on the clock.  The common perception is that if you aren't in front of students, you aren't doing the job of a teacher.  If you aren't with students or observing your teachers, you aren't doing the job of a principal.

Most parent surveys or polls of the general populace indicate that public schools are all bad, that is except for the ones MY kid attends.  Its not a new thought that because nearly everyone in America has experienced formal schooling on some level and the vast majority have experienced public school, nearly everyone has an opinion and feels entitled to declare what schooling should or shouldn't be. It makes it difficult to engage in meaningful, knowledgeable, evidence based discussions about what's best practice in teaching and learning.  Folks who wouldn't dare offer an opinion on how to write a legal brief or suggest how to lay out a business plan for a loan don't think twice about expressing how to "fix" public education.  This is an oft-lamented point on the edublogs and teacher sites across cyberspace.

In light of these three points, its easy to understand why highly educated professional educators keep to themselves and keep doing the best that they know how for the kids entrusted to them. But, social media is changing the landscape for educators both from a professional standpoint and from and instructional standpoint.  Twitter has become an extended personal learning network for many professional educators.  The micro-blogging space has created the opportunity for educators to engage in any number of chats at specific times each week where they get together with complete strangers to discuss something completely essential to their being as people and professionals.    Its created for me an opportunity to engage in discussions with other educators about topics that are meaningful in my day to day work, but also on a deeper philosophical basis.  From exploring the power of social media, to the best ways to use formative assessment, to how to be an effective principal the conversations are as diverse as those engaging in them.  Its is powerful to hear that the work we do in Georgia in our district can be both informed by and informative to the work being done in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Kansas, Texas, Rhode Island, and California.    Not only that, but a good many of the chats are done at convenient times when kids are in bed, families are settled in and the few minutes of solace that educators can grab to think about their work can be shared with others from the convenience of a smartphone, mobile device, or computer.  My PLN has inspired me to keep digging in and working for the right things for kids and for learning. It has helped to invigorate me when I needed it, and center me when I needed it.  Its like being in graduate school all over again.  Not the parts of graduate school where I was in class or writing papers, but the parts of grad school where I was engaged in profound conversation with intelligent people that cared deeply about the art and science of education and leadership.   If you haven't discovered Twitter and created your own PLN, you are missing out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Inspiration at Teacher Induction

Below is the text of the speech I gave at the Teacher Induction Program for new teachers. 

This clip by Taylor Mali is one of my favorites. I watch it before the beginning of every school year and it helps focus me on the work that we do to support teachers in our district. Yesterday, you heard from the members of the business community about their strong support for Henry County Schools and for the teachers we have here. Over the course of the past two days, you have heard about the vision to ensure the success for each student. You have learned about your area of curriculum, you have learned about classroom management, and you have learned about the importance of being passionate and engaged in the work you do every day.

As Taylor Mali points out so poignantly in his poem, teachers have with them an incredible level of influence and power to craft the experiences of young people. The vast majority of our Tipsters this year are secondary school teachers. As middle and high school teachers, you have a special and noteworthy challenge in front of you. You may hear some naysayers talk about how kids at 7th or 11th grade are a lost cause because they have already become who they will be. I challenge that supposition and I challenge you to do so early and often. From my own personal experience, the teachers I had in high school are the ones that had the most impact on me because I can remember them challenging me and allowing me to challenge them back intellectually. They helped to push me to find a course through life that would eventually lead me to here. You still have the influence, the power to make or break a child’s spirit.

High School teachers are near to my heart. My wife is a high school teacher here in Henry County. She teaches freshmen at Ola High School and coaches cheer leading. Every day she reminds me that our focus must be on supporting teachers here at the central office. She reminds me of how the decisions we make here, in our role of support those in the classroom, truly impact the work of teachers. I need to tell you a bit about my wife. I think my wife is phenomenal teacher. Not just because she is my wife, but because she is known as one of the toughest teachers at Ola. Kids dread going into her class as freshmen, but all the parents know they should be there. But she’s not a great teacher just because she lesson plans a 9 weeks at a time, she’s not a great teacher because she is the most amazingly efficient and effective grader I have ever seen, (its rare a paper isn’t turned back to a student with comments and entered in the grade book within 24 hours.) She’s not a great teacher just because she pushes kids to do more than they think they are capable of. She is all of those things. But what strikes me each day when she comes home is the stories she tells of how she is worried that her tone of voice or rushed end to a class may have impacted a student negatively. Her attention to those small details exhibit how deeply she cares about those unintentional moments that can so easily be overlooked.

Its not always the intentional things we do that impact students and their ability to be successful. So often, in the course of the day or the course of a semester, it is the unintentional things that we do that make a huge difference to a student. From the time the shy student in your class raised her hand meekly and you didn’t call on her and she never raised her hand again because you didn’t want to hear what she had to say, to the time you responded sharply with sarcasm to an incorrect answer and made a student fear opening his mouth again. Unintentional consequences from mostly harmless actions.

But it cuts both ways. There are the good things that come out of unintentional actions. The time you ask the trouble maker in class to be responsible for clicker that controls your PowerPoint and it pulls him into your lessons for good or the time you use a sample of writing of a student anonymously to demonstrate excellence and that student decides to become an author. Unintentional consequences surround us every day as teachers. Be mindful of the power and influence you have over the minds and spirits you are charged with every day. You have the power to change lives for good or for evil.

Every summer, the administrators from across the district come together for a leadership retreat. This past summer, I told the administrators that we are at a great cross roads in education in Georgia.

With the AYP waiver and the new CCRPI being put in place, with the adoption of the CCGPS, with the implementation of the POINT in Henry County, and with the increased prevalence of technology and the opportunities that new technologies offer we are at a place of great opportunity. We have the opportunity to take hold of educating our kids in ways that are innovative, transformative, and revolutionary. We have an obligation to create a school experience profoundly different from our own experiences for the students that come to our schools on August 6th.

We are doing that with a multitude of programs in Henry County. This year, we are launching Impact Academy, a full time enrollment online program for 8th, 9th, and 10th graders that allows students to take most or all of their coursework online, yet still be a part of their home school for electives like band or FACS or play on the football team. It is program built on flexibility, accessibility and customization that still maintains a high level of rigor for the students.

Here in Henry County High School, we house the Academy for Advanced Studies where students engage in CTAE coursework, dual enrollment coursework with local universities, and where they work to get industry certification to be job ready upon graduation. Next year, we will open the Academy for Advance Studies as a Charter College and Career Academy that will allow all high school students the opportunity to enroll in these programs while maintaining their enrollment at their home school.

Here in Henry County, we have students who graduate from high school in four years and at the same time they received an associate’s degree through our dual enrollment and articulated coursework. They have two years of college paid for and completed as they walk across the stage to receive their high school diploma.

Here in Henry County Schools, we have nationally acclaimed ROTC teams, bands that have traveled the world to play for royalty, and Zell Miller Scholars receiving full ride scholarships to Georgia Tech. We are a district focused on ensuring success for each student and we take that charge seriously.

I shared yesterday that I left Henry County in 2003 to pursue my Master’s degree at Harvard University. Upon graduation, I had the opportunity and choice to go anywhere in the world to make use of that degree. I chose to come back to Henry county because of the school system and the belief that I had then and still hold today that this is a great place to teach and to learn because it continues to get better each day in every classroom. Each year we welcome new teachers to Henry county Schools through TIP and encourage them to make the most of each and every day they have with our students. This year you join the ranks of accomplished educators. As you step into your classroom this year,

I charge you with becoming the best teacher you know. I encourage you to own the title of teacher. I dare you to sculpt your classroom in the image of success and excellence that every child in Henry County deserves. Finally, I challenge you to be miracle worker everyday.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Educators are afraid of BYOD because they don't do it themselves

Recently, Cobb County's BYOD inititative made it into the AJC Get Schooled Blog moderated by Maureen Downey.   The interesting part of the article wasn't the push in Cobb, which isn't new in the metro Atlanta area as Forsyth, Henry, and several others have similar initiatives, but rather the back lash that you read in the comments to the posting.  The view overwhelmingly is that technology in the hands of kids will distract them and make it so they can't/won't learn in school.  It makes me wonder whether that view comes from one of ignorance about what smartphones can do and how kids are comfortable using a phone or a tablet for work and play or whether it arises from a less conscious fear of becoming irrelevant.   Ultimately, I think it is a lot of both. 
I think the first part is really a lack of knowledge and experience with technology and that creates fear for educators.   Can kids text each other answers and tweet about class?  Yes.  Are they already doing it? Most certainly, you just don't know about it because you aren't following any of your students.  (some of you are lost with what the idea of "following" is and that highlights deeper issues.)  Will kids use Facebook as a place to say mean things to others?  Yes, they already are doing so, just like they are saying mean things in the cafeteria or the hallway.  But, kids are also using Twitter and Facebook as places to share and collaborate on difficult homework problems they don't know how to do on their own. They are using microblogging and global publishing sites to put their essays, stories, and other writings out in the public domain for more than their teacher to read and critique.  They are studying together, sharing ideas together, and building their own personal learning networks (PLNs) without the guidance and support of educators who could make that work and experience so much richer if they engaged in it.

Not only do schools need to allow and encourage BYOD initiatives, but the need to use and leverage mobile technologies in ways that support the educational goals and standards we want kids to meet in the Common Core and in life.    Over and over again, business leaders tell school leaders that prospective employees need to be innovative, need to be problem solvers, and need to be able to communicate effectively via written communication. (email,etc.)  Mobile technologies offer a way for schools to harness the power of a device in every student's hand and to do it at minimal cost to the district. 

However, the technologies used must have a purpose in schools and in the lessons teachers craft.  Teachers must consider using services like Poll Everywhere to create formative assessment feeds that inform their next steps in direct instruction in the classroom. They must ask students to do work that can't just be looked up on Google or Wikipedia.  Teachers must become aware of Twitter and PLNs and Instagram and the thousands of websites kids access everyday.  Instead of blocking out of fear, we need to learn how to use it ourselves so that we can teach kids the best ways to use technologies for productive learning.  YouTube can offer thousands of videos to help learn how to do any number of activities and it offers hours of inspirational speeches and lectures.   But right next to the TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson on creativity in schools there can be a link to a dancing flamingo.  We must teach students how to wade through the millions of bits of information now at their fingertips and to make decisions about what is meaningful and important and supportive of learning.  By blocking technology, by not engaging in it with them, we only teach them that there is a world out there that adults don't want you to see.  As a teenager, that means there must be bad stuff and I got to get to it. 

I strongly encourage you to get a Twitter account, if you don't have one and begin to follow educators around the world to learn how they are using technology effectively.  Begin by connecting with someone you know and by looking at #edchat or #cpchat.  Jump into the world your students are already engaged in and begin to change the way you integrate tech into your life.