Blog “Rebranding” with a Narrower Focus

Blog %22Rebranding%22 with a Narrower FocusFrom Broad to Narrow

This blog started as a digital portfolio that I created as one of the requirements for earning my K-12 Principal Certification. Up until now, pretty much all of the content has dealt with education, but the topics of the blog posts have been a bit scattered. For any given post, I have more or less “thrown a dart at a dartboard” and written about whatever has come to mind. To reflect this broad approach, the site title and tagline have read “Ross Cooper: thoughts from a k-12 curriculum supervisor.”

Now it is time to narrow my focus.

A few days ago I changed the title and tagline to “Cooper on Curriculum: curriculum & unit design. inquiry-based learning. assessment & grading. professional development.” In regards to the title – Cooper on Curriculum – it reflects my passion for curriculum (which I have had since I taught fourth grade), and a major focus on curriculum is now a part of my official job as a K-12 curriculum supervisor. (In fact, I have often wondered how educators could not be passionate about curriculum, since it is what we deal with each and every day.)

Concerning the four topics in the tagline, these are the curriculum-related areas about which I believe I am most enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I came up with these four off the top of my head, and to make sure I was not missing anything I spent some time browsing through my education books and previous blog posts and articles. I tried with all of my might to narrow it down to three, but it just wasn’t happening.

Why Narrow?

Since I have entered into education I have grappled with whether I should (1) spend the majority of my time improving upon areas in which I am not particularly strong or (2) dedicate myself to getting the most out of my areas of strength.

While I have come to believe it is important to be knowledgeable across a variety of education-related areas, it is not reasonable to expect an educator to be well read or the “go to” person across several of them.

Also, in Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the significance of focusing on areas in which you are passionate about and excel, and Tom Rath mimics these same sentiments in Strength Finder 2.0. Both Collins and Rath (as well a plethora of other researchers/research) emphasize that successful people and companies tend to take this less is more approach. (Also, isn’t this the same approach we want teachers to take with their instruction, as opposed to curriculum that is mile wide, inch deep?)

After “casting the net wide” for quite some time, it is now obvious to me that (1) there are specific curriculum-related topics that for me stand out above the rest, and (2) by focusing on these topics I can ultimately make more of an impact on our students. So, in the end, I look forward to approaching my writing with more of a focus, and diving deeper into topics about which I (1) am passionate, (2) have had experience, and (3) believe I can speak intelligently. Finally, there is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to learn in these areas by writing posts that incorporate research, force me out of my comfort zone, and stretch my thinking.

Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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America’s Best Pizza?

cherry tomato, fresh cream, roasted corn, basil

cherry tomato, fresh cream, roasted corn, basil

I had first heard about Pizzeria Beddia when I was sitting at the bar at Pizzeria Stella, waiting for two friends to join me for dinner after I had made the four-hour trip to Philadelphia for an educational conference. At the time, I considered Stella to be the best pizza in Philadelphia, so I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to the bartender about just that, pizza. Despite that fact that they are in competition with one another (although that can be disputed based on entirely different locations and styles), the worker was quick to crown Beddia as the city’s top pizzeria.

Fast-forward a few months and a Bon Appétit article is written, which declares Beddia the best pizza in America.

Fast-forward another few months and I am on my way to the Philadelphia area (this time, only a one-hour trip) to pick up a bed at IKEA. One of my former co-workers (and his pickup truck) had joined me on the journey. My friend was quick to agree to the plan that we would first head straight into the city for pizza at Beddia, which opens at 5:30 pm, and then make our way over to IKEA, which closes at 9.

We drove up to Beddia around 4:15, and it soon became apparent that this would be a journey for pizza and nothing more.

The Wait

Upon arriving at Beddia, roughly 25 hungry and dedicated individuals were already waiting in a line that wrapped around the side of the pizzeria, which is located on a corner in Fishtown, Philadelphia (think, an up-and-coming hipster neighborhood that is trying to mimic one of the cooler spots in Brooklyn). After we assumed our positions at the back we commenced to make small talk with those in front of us, and then with those who soon lined up from behind. Although nobody with whom we conversed had actually eaten at Beddia, they were all locals who had read the Bon Appètit review and were able to regurgitate that the pizzeria (1) is only open Wednesdays through Saturdays, (2) makes only 40 pies per day, (3) allows for a maximum of two pies per party, and (4) there is a strong chance that you will not be getting one of these pies if you are not one of the first 25 to 30 people in line. Of course, all of this information is on their website, but hearing it in person made me somewhat nervous given our spot in line.

Another fact, which I did not know, is that Beddia takes all 40 orders almost as soon as they open their doors. As each order is placed a time is provided as to when it will be ready.

At about 5:20 the line started to move, and it was apparent that Beddia opened a bit early (maybe this is the norm). At roughly 5:45 we entered into the narrow, no frills pizzeria, with a front of the house that contains not much more than two IKEA style tables at which roughly six customers per station can comfortably stand (not sit) and eat their pizza. Meanwhile, the wide-open kitchen contains just enough space for the basics: prepare the pizza, do the dishes, store the empty pizza boxes, etc. Noticeably, Beddia’s oven is gas, not wood or charcoal. To the best of my knowledge, the only other notable pizzeria with a gas oven is Brooklyn’s Di Fara. This similarity is not surprising, as the Bon Appétit article mentions how Joe Beddia – the owner and sole pizzaiolo of the establishment – has learned from watching Di Fara’s Dom DeMarco, the legendary pizza maker who produces every single pie created in his pizza sanctuary. Also, while waiting in line I followed Beddia on Twitter, and his profile photograph is with none other than DeMarco himself.

Ordering Food and Killing Time

Around this time we continued to overanalyze the menu, which hangs on the wall adjacent to the register, and we ultimately decided that for our two pies we would order (1) the cherry tomato, fresh cream, roasted corn, and basil, and (2) the arrabbiata (or angry pie, with spicy sauce and jalapeños). The only other pizza on the menu is a plain with optional toppings (mushrooms, salami, sausage, etc.). In other words, although the menu only contains three pizzas, we had to painstakingly decide to eliminate one from our order as only two are allowed. It should also be noted that the cherry tomato pie is seasonal, and therefore subject to change. All pizzas come in one size only.

Walker (left) and Beddia (right)

Walker (left) and Beddia (right)

At around 6:00 pm John Walker finally took our order, which set us back about $50 in all. Out of the 40 pizzas to be made on that day we were told that we had been awarded numbers 30 and 31.

Other than Joe Beddia, Walker is the pizzeria’s only worker, and he seems to take care of everything other than the making of the pizzas (and I know his name because it is mentioned in the Bon Appétit review). Walker was over-the-top nice in every way possible, as he constantly used “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome,” and he did not hesitate to answer any customer questions. (I even overheard him detail the dough making process for someone who was curious.) It was like he truly valued the business of each and every customer, and as if he was putting on a free clinic for those who needed to be taught manners. My mind flashed back to a few years ago when I had waited about 2.5 hours for brisket and ribs at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, and one of the workers took the time to ask about where I was from, what I was doing in town, etc. Often times, when visiting a place that is well known – such as Pat’s Steaks in Philadelphia or Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn – it is sometimes thought of as “cool” to be treated indifferently. However, Franklin and Beddia have been the exceptions, almost as if they are grateful for the fact that customers are willing to wait in such a long line to eat their food.

Since Walker told us that our pizza would not be ready until 8:20, we had a few hours to kill. We ended up spending the majority of the time right around the corner at Fette Sau, the second location of a restaurant that originated in Brooklyn, and what I consider to easily be the best barbecue in New York City. I ended up eating a ½ pound of brisket with a side of baked beans. Both were excellent, but easily a notch below their Brooklyn counterparts. It should be mentioned that Frankford Hall is also a block away from Beddia, which makes for another enjoyable way to let the time fly while waiting for pizza.

Our Return

Around 8:20 we made our way back over to Beddia, checked in with Walker, and were told that our pizzas were right on schedule. By this time it was somewhat dark outside, and my friend and I were the only two customers in the small-scale restaurant (a few would arrive later on while we were eating). With all of these factors combined – darkness, nobody else there, size of the pizzeria – it felt as if we were Beddia’s and Walker’s personal guests whom had been invited over for dinner.

As Walker set up our plates and napkins at the table closer to the window, I took the time to admire the pizza creation process. Up until then Beddia had not said a word, and with him came some of the same type of mystique that is usually reserved for pizzaiolos such as Di Fara’s Dom DeMarco, Lucali’s Mark Iacono, and Pizzeria Bianco’s Chris Bianco. In typical fanboy fashion, I kept asking myself, “What is he like?”

I finally built up the courage to walk over to the counter to start taking photographs of Beddia in action. After taking the initiative and speaking to him first, I was surprised at the way in which he opened up (almost like that charismatic girl at the bar who refuses to be the first one to make a move). I cannot remember the last time I was so nervous when carrying on a conversation, and as I talked about pizza I kept telling myself to not say anything that would make him look down upon me as a wannabee pizza lover who did not really know his stuff. Nevertheless, the highlight of the interaction was when he seemed genuinely interested in what I thought was the best pizza in all of New York City (Lucali, by a long shot). Also, I just loved the way both he and Walker reacted with excitement when I mentioned the clam pie at Frank Pepe Pizzeria in New Haven, Connecticut.

The Pizza

pizza arrabbiata

pizza arrabbiata

When I joined my friend back at our table (just a few steps away), we were first met with the cherry tomato, fresh cream, roasted corn, and basil, and I managed to devour a slice of it before the arrabbiata arrived. After one bite of the cherry tomato I knew that the Bon Appétit article was not exaggerating when they declared Pizzeria Beddia to be the best in America. The pizza has a farm-to-table fresh taste with all of the ingredients working together beautifully. While the flavor of the corn does stand out, nothing overpowers what is the most important part of any pizza, the crust. Meanwhile, the arrabbiata pie is dead on with its level of heat. While the spicy sauce and jalapeños do enough to zap your tongue and let you know what you are eating, you do not have to go running for water after each bite.

In regards to pizzas’ crust, I would go as far to say that achieving this type of greatness out of a gas oven is unprecedented. Yes, Pepe’s, Lucali, and Bianco might have a slight edge overall, but the former uses coal, while the latter two use wood. Also, it is impressive enough that Beddia is even in the same conversation as these renowned pizza institutions. Overall, the crust is as thin as it can possibly be while still maintaining enough strength to support its toppings. At the same time it has the typical char that we would want every crust to have, and a chewiness that enhances anything that comes with it.

Of note, before each pie is served Beddia sprinkles on extra cheese (Old Gold cheese, according to Bon Appétit), and pours on some extra-virgin olive oil, which he learned from Dom DeMarco. While DeMarco’s overabundance of oil has the tendency to overpower the rest of the pizza and make it “heavy,” Beddia’s smaller amount serves to enhance the rest of the flavors.

In the End

Upon leaving Pizzeria Beddia I could not definitely say that I had just devoured the best pizza in America, but it is definitely in the conversation. Once again, that is impressive enough. I have tried what are considered to be the best pizzerias in some of the country’s most notable cities. More or less, my reaction to eating the pizza is the same each time, “It’s good, but it’s not New York City (unless I am eating in NYC).” As I made my way to Pizzeria Beddia I was fully expecting myself to have the same reaction, and I even scoffed at the fact that I had to wait in line for pizza in Philadelphia, of all places. Of course, I was proven wrong.

Nevertheless, a part of me resents the trouble that we have to go through to obtain pizza at Beddia. While Joe Beddia undoubtedly takes pride in being responsible for each and every pizza that is created – much like his hero Dom DeMarco – only 40 pizzas are made per night and the establishment is only open Wednesdays through Saturdays. What we are seeing is a combination of (1) Beddia and Walker purposefully generating excitement through supply and demand, and (2) the two workers taking their time, relaxing, and treating pizza as their hobby/passion while still being able to enjoy their lives outside of the pizzeria. No matter the case, if you want this pizza, plan on dedicating an entire afternoon or evening to getting your hands on two pies.

Looking ahead, I do not see the buzz of the Bon Appétit article wearing off, and I envision Pizzeria Beddia being wildly successful simply because the food speaks for itself. Nothing more, nothing less. It is “one of those things” that you have to try at least once, and whether or not you go back will probably depend on (1) your proximity to Philadelphia, and/or (2) your passion for pizza.

I know that I will be returning. Again, and again, and again.

Connect with Ross on Twitter.

Blogs I Follow

DucksA few weeks ago, one of my friends asked me about the educational blogs and websites that I follow. So, here they are. These are the resources that I have plugged into my Feedly, a free news aggregator application for the web, iOS, and Android. Using Feedly Pro (paid version) in conjunction with the IF app for iOS, I have customized my feed so new posts from specific blogs are automatically tweeted out. If you’re not using Feedly, or something like it, you’re really missing out.

Here are the blogs and websites:

A.J. Juliani: Teach Different
Alice Keeler: Teacher Tech

Amy Hollingsworth: The Seven Minute Scientist
Andrew Miller
Brad Currie
Christina Luce: MotivatED – Stories of Teaching and Learning
Dan Meyer
Diane Ravitch
Donald Gately: In the Middle of Learning
Eric Sheninger: A Principal’s Reflections
Erin Murphy: Murphy’s Musings
George Couros: The Principal of Change
Glenn Robbins: Connected Lead Learner
Jeff Zoul: Teach. Learn. Lead. Repeat.
Jenny Magiera: Teaching Like it’s 2999
Jimmy Casas: PASSION…PURPOSE…PRIDE
Joe Mazza: Innovate. Relate. Create.
Joe Sanfelippo
John Harper: Bailey & Derek’s Daddy
Justin Tarte: Life of an Educator
Kelly Croy: Wired Educator
Kristen Swanson: Teachers as Technology Trailblazers
Larry Ferlazzo: Websites of the Day…
Lisa Meade: Reflections
Mike Kelly
Patrick Larkin: Learning in Burlington
Pernille Ripp: Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension
Peter DeWitt: Finding Common Ground
Randy Ziegenfuss: Working at the Edge
Seth Godin
Sharon Plante: The Road to Learning
Silvia Tolisano: Langwitches
Spike Cook
Steve Anderson: Blogging About the Web 2.0 Connected Classroom

Starr Sackstein
Starr Sackstein: Work in Progress
Todd Nesloney: Ninja Reflections on Education
Tom Murray
Tom Whitby: My Island View
Tony Sinanis: Leading Motivated Learners
Vicki Davis: The Cool Cat Teacher
Vicki Day: Rethinking Education

Connected Principals
Education Week
Edudemic
Edutopia
Free Technology for Teachers
Google Docs Blog
Harvard Education Letter
New York Times Education
Phi Delta Kappa
TeachThought
Technology & Learning
TED

What are your favorite educational blogs and websites? What should I add to my list?

My Top 10 Education Books

BooksWhile on holiday vacation in Florida, a friend emailed me and asked for my top ten education books. Here is how I responded, verbatim. Please keep in mind that this list was created off the top of my head (so I may have missed a few), and the books are presented in no particular order.

    1. Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics by John Van de Walle, Lou Ann Lovin, Karen Sharp, Jennifer Bay Williams: There are versions for grades K-2, 3-5, and 5-8. In East Penn (my former district) we purchased a version for every teacher at the elementary level. It beautifully combines research with practice while clarifying the expectations of Common Core Mathematics.
    1. Strategies That Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis: This was my go to book for reading comprehension instruction, as the explicit strategies were frequently the focal point of whole class instruction and guided reading. This book defines what close reading should look like in the classroom. A comparable book for the primary level would be Reading with Meaning by Debbie Miller (which I have not read).
    1. The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe: While the Understanding by Design book is an indispensible resource, it is lengthy and very difficult to consume. This book does a great job of highlighting its main points in a much shorter format.
    1. Learning by Doing by Richard Dufour, Rebecca Dufour, Robert Eaker, Thomas Many: While the Dufours have written several books on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), this is the one that is the most actionable, helping districts to determine where they are and then guiding them to where they need to be.
    1. How to Grade for Learning by Ken O’Connor: This book really encompasses pretty much any vital question that can arise when looking at standards-based grading procedures. It can be tough to get through, but different sections can be called upon as needed without reading the entire book. Many books touch upon different aspects of grading, but this has it all in one spot. The best resource for creating standards-based reports cards would be Developing Standards-Based Report Cards by Tom Guskey and Jane Bailey.
    1. Rigorous Curriculum Design by Larry Ainsworth: If you are going to use one book to assist in redesigning your curriculum, this has to be it. While your district does not have to adopt everything here, you can certainly adapt as needed in order to fit your specific needs.
    1. Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner: Everything by Tony Wagner is just awesome. This book takes a look at people who are innovators, and then explores their history in order to uncover what inspired them and what made them who they are.
    1. Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam: Probably the definitive book on formative assessment by the subject’s top researcher. Wiliam does a crystal clear job of explaining why formative assessment is so vital to student learning, and after reading this book I could not imagine any teacher not changing his practice in one way or another. Checking for Understanding by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey (which I have not read), would probably be a nice follow-up read, supplying teachers with instantly usable strategies.
    1. Leading Change by John Kotter: As much as I like Michael Fullan, John Kotter’s work is easier to read and is just more “fun.” This is his most notable book. As an administrator with autonomy, I could see myself always keeping an extra copy nearby and referring to it often, especially when promoting change.
    1. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo: Last year, I read this book along with John Kotter’s Buy-In, and they both have helped me in reimagining the ways in which I provide professional development, deal with resistance to change, etc. The Jobs book does get a bit repetitive after a bit, but it is easily a worthwhile read nonetheless. 

What are your thoughts on any of these books? Also, are there any books that you would add to the list?

The Educational World in Grateful Dead Lyrics

GD LogoDisclaimer: This blog post was a joint effort between Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) and Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31). Click here to explore Starr’s work.

Music has a way of encouraging thought provoking discourse about life. When we listen to the words of our favorite bands, we can find the sage advice applicable to many aspects of learning.

Check out some life lessons brought to you by the Grateful Dead.

    1. You ain’t gonna learn, what you don’t want to know.”
      We need to take chances to move beyond what we think we know, keeping an open mind to truly grow as learners. The choices we are afforded in our professional learning help us propel to deeper understanding.
    1. “His job is to shed light, and not to master.”
      As educators, we must harness and build upon the curiosity that exists in young children, and inquiry-based learning is a natural way to make this happen. When engaged in such learning, it is vital that we monitor the information provided to students. Too little information can result in anxious students, while too much can transform exploratory learning into direct instruction.
    1. “I’ll get up and fly away, I’ll get up and fly away, fly away.”
      The line between school and home should be blurred, as students constantly leverage the same devices and programs (Google Drive, learning management systems, blogging platforms, etc.) in both environments. Schools must also provide students with time to explore their interests (20 Percent Time, Passion Projects, etc.), and direct instruction should not be used unnecessarily and excessively. If public schools do not satisfy the needs of students and their families, these customers will go elsewhere. Plenty of other options now exist.  
    1. “Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait.”
      Walk into a teacher’s classroom and the first thing you will notice is whether or not the educator has a positive rapport with his students. Does he converse with his students in conversational fashion? Does he compliment in public and constructively criticize in private? Are students provided with choices in regards to their instruction and/or classroom routines?
    1. “Ship of fools on a cruel sea, ship of fools sail away from me.”
      Connected educators often live in their own separate world, sometimes overlooking the fact that they are the minority. We gather at conferences, acting as if we can solve the world’s problems (which maybe we can), and we are so passionate and driven that we can easily lose sight of how everyone else may perceive us.
    1. “Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.”
      A life lesson of epic proportions. Sometimes when the world seems to be pushing against us as educators, we need to smile and keep moving forward.
    1. “We can discover the wonders of nature, rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.”
      All kids can learn about life and the world from experiencing it. What better way to learn about science than by going into nature.
    1. “You who choose to lead must follow, But if you fall, you fall alone. If you should stand, then who’s to guide you? If I knew the way, I would take you home.”
      Each of us has a process to learn from and we must make our own mistakes. However, when we work together, we have guides that will make it easier to find our own path in the learning journey.

    2. “Some folks trust in reason, others trust in might.”
      In our estimation, the pen is always mightier than the sword and as we teach students to use their words we become a stronger learning community.

    3. “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.”
      Every day we teach the students whose eyes see the world as it is. We have a great obligation to expose them to the truths of what is out there and let them decide for themselves what they want to see.

“Fare thee well now, let your life proceed by it’s own design. Nothing to tell now, let the words be yours, I’m done with mine. “

What songs inspire educational wisdom for you? Please share.

Questions From a Reader: Part 2 of 2

Recently I received several questions from a reader. My last post answered the first half of these questions, while this post answers the second half.

4. What would your top 5 “tools” be to ensure lessons are engaging and interactive?

Up until now I have purposefully avoided mentioning technology, for the most part, as I believe teachers must have a firm grasp of best practice before they could possibly attempt to mask any potential shortcoming with “technology pizzaz.” Nevertheless, technology can help in making lessons engaging and interactive. So, here is a list of my top five educational technology tools, in no particular order. Also, I will avoid hardware, such as the MacBook, iPad, Chromebook, etc.

    • Google Apps for Education – In my opinion nothing comes close. When it came to word processing, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint-like presentations, my fourth graders had not opened up Microsoft Office in roughly five years. All work is automatically saved to the cloud, students and staff can access their work from any device, and anyone shared on a document can synchronously work along with any other collaborators. This suite is a must have for any school district.
    • iMovie, or another video editing software – These tools are so flexible in that video production is something that can encompass pretty much any subject area or topic. With a little creative thinking, students could potentially create a video for just about anything. Furthermore, websites such as YouTube allow for students to easily publish their work for a public audience.
    • Kidblog – All students should be blogging. While websites such as WordPress and Blogger are more authentic, Kidblog is ideal for school in that a teacher could select almost any type of permission level for his/her class. For example, my students’ work was made public, but only the students had the ability to comment. Blogs can be made as public or as private as a teacher chooses.
    • Twitter – Although students might not be the ones interacting with the program, teachers can use Twitter to connect with other educators and/or discover countless resources. Social media can help to ensure that professional development is ongoing, rather than only taking place on “professional development days.”
    • A technology-based ecosystem – All teachers should have a “one stop shop” that contains student resources, study materials/games, a way for students to collaborate with one another and with the teacher, etc. My ecosystem was a classroom website that contained links to student blogs, our two learning management systems (Moodle and Schoology), student photographs and videos, curriculum-related materials, and more.

5. Could you describe your creative process of designing engaging lessons? Do you have a database of these maybe you could share?

My database of lessons would be this digital hub. While it does not contain everything that my students and I have done, it is the place where the most of our content can be found (aside from my MacBook’s hard drive).

Here is a brief outline of what my creative process might look like for a particular lesson or project. Please keep in mind that this process is always subject to change depending on what I am working.

    1. Start with the enduring understandings – Of what should my students possess a deeper understanding at the end of the project?
    2. Brainstorm “cool” ideas – Not only must an idea be engaging, but it must also “fit” with the enduring understandings and any standards that would be encompassed by the project. Ideas may or may not involve technology integration.
    3. Enabling knowledge – What must my students know in order to (1) develop these deeper understandings, and (2) “create” a successful project that demonstrates these understandings? Also, how will I deliver this content to my students?
    4. Assessments, formative and summative – Assessments should mirror the rigor of the instruction. In order for students to prove their deeper understandings they should be grappling with questions and information in somewhat unfamiliar contexts (transfer of knowledge).

6. What resources would you recommend someone wanting to become the best teacher they can be?

    • Your colleagues – Colleagues can include other teachers and administrators in your building or district, your students, parents, community members, etc. Remember to keep on asking questions, even as you become a veteran.
    • Amazon.com – I am of the belief that with a little bit of research on Amazon, you can find the definitive book on pretty much any topic. Do not wait for the professional development to come to you!
    • Twitter – I cannot stress enough the importance of “getting connected.”
    • Yourself – This may sound silly, but remember it is so important to be self-aware. Take the time to reflect upon your practice, be critical of yourself, and constantly try to improve across all areas. If you feel overwhelmed, drill down and work on bettering yourself one area at a time.

Questions From a Reader: Part 1 of 2

In case you are wondering why I have not blogged in awhile (and I know you are), I have been in a state of transition as I accepted a job as an Elementary Assistant Principal with the Williamsport Area School District. Right now I am working between two primary K-3 schools. I have reached the point where I am settled down enough to start blogging and reflecting upon my current job. But first, I thought I would answer some questions from a reader of my blog. (I promise that I did not make up these questions!) In order to keep my posts shorter in length, I will answer the first half of the questions now, with the second half of the questions and answers coming later this week.

1. If you had a million dollars and 4 weeks to train someone to teach like yourself, what would the program look like? What if you had 8 weeks?

I really do not think a great deal of money is necessary for quality professional development to take place. However, at the minimum I would want (1) each teacher to come with his/her own laptop, (2) access to Google Apps for Education to share and/or collaborate on resources, and (3) access to Apple Keynote to create my slides.

In a nutshell, the professional development would focus on the following topics. More time would mean a more in depth study of each one. When applicable, we would review technology tools that would help in redefining our instruction.

    • Unit design – The Understanding by Design framework would serve as the basis for this portion. My teaching drastically improved when I started to primarily focus on unit planning through backwards design, as opposed to tedious day-to-day planning.
    • Rigor and letting go – We need to spend our time letting go and allowing students to be at the center of the learning process through productive struggle. In order to “meet teachers where they are,” start with the current series (from any subject) with which teachers are familiar and work on reinventing it in order to make it more inquiry-based.
    • Formative assessment – In short, “How do we know if students are learning what they are supposed to learn, and how are we responding to this evidence?” Professional development would include explicit strategies that teachers could use with their students.
    • Professional learning communities – Everyone benefits when teachers collaborate with one another, but defining “effective collaboration” is not easy and as a result it does not often take place. We need to open up discussion in regards to what an effective teaching team should look like.
    • Close reading – When I first started teaching the biggest mistake I made was thinking that reading comprehension consisted of not much more than students reading stories and then answering questions. We need to focus on what great readers do while they are reading through such strategies as inferring, visualizing, questioning, etc.

2. What are the biggest errors teachers make in your opinion, and in what way can they be fixed?

Here are three common teaching errors. Admittedly, I was guilty of all of these at one time or another. Also, not surprisingly, some of these mistakes tie into my answer from Question 1:

    • Teachers working in isolation – Make a conscious effort to get into the classrooms of other teachers, both in your building and throughout your district. Go ahead and schedule these appointments in your calendar to make them a priority. I am sure your administrator(s) would be more than happy to cover your classroom so you and your colleagues could learn from one another.
    • Avoiding the less is more approach – True inquiry-based learning is based on thinking routines in which students are forced to grapple with information in order to uncover and develop deeper understandings. We must not only create this environment for our learners, but also understand how to promote problem solving by providing students with just the right amount of information. Also, do not try to “cover” everything in your curriculum. If you have taken 85% of your curriculum and taught it in depth (and then covered the remaining 15%), you are fine.
    • Consistently giving students “one more chance” – When it comes to classroom management it is easy to remember to praise in public and correct in private. At the same time, we must also remember to deal with problems, quickly and efficiently. The “one more chance” approach rarely works, and all it does is lead to further distractions.

3. If you had to boil your teaching style down to 20% of your “toolkit” that produces the majority of your fantastic results, what would the tools be?

    • A positive attitude and genuine care for students – It all starts with relationships. If your students know that you care about them, everything else comes that much easier.
    • An ecosystem that is used to communicate with students and parents – Tools can include a classroom website, a classroom Facebook page, Twitter, blogs, Google Apps for Education, a learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle or Edmodo, the Remind app, etc.
    • The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units – The original Understanding by Design book is long and could be somewhat difficult to consume. The Design Guide summarizes the main points with simplicity and clarity.
    • Strategies That Work – From my experience, no other books comes close in (1) breaking down the importance of close reading and (2) providing teachers with resources and lessons to immediately get started with close reading in their classrooms. Everything beautifully ties into the explicit reading comprehension strategies that are touched upon in Answer 1.
    • Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics – Three different versions of this book are available: K-2, 3-5, 6-8. In the district in which I used to work, every teacher at the elementary level was provided with a copy in order to support our transition to the Common Core and inquiry-based mathematics. Go buy this book now!

The remaining four questions and answers will be posted later this week.