Building a Personal Learning Network

Building a Personal Learning Network

In December 2009, I decided to sign up for a Twitter account. Some of my friends were talking about it, and at that time I was noticing more places would share their Twitter handle on advertisements. Like most people, after signing up, I started following people or accounts I was interested in. On that list, I added friends, some favorite athletes, a few news sources, and people from pop culture. In the beginning, I was mostly a “lurker.” I followed conversations, but never posted or replied. I would log in from time to time, but it wasn’t something that I utilized on a regular basis.

About three years later, I was driving to school when I heard an interview that gave me a fresh perspective on the potential uses of social media as an educator. On Morning Edition on NPR, I heard Scott Rocco talking about this weekly Twitter chat called #satchat. Scott and Brad Currie, another superintendent in New Jersey, co-founded #satchat as a chance to have a discussion on important topics in education through social media channels so that more people could be involved. At the time of the interview, there were about 200 people that participated in this weekly chat.

It was the fall of 2012. I was a classroom teacher at the time. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I was coaching junior high football and basketball and had 2 young children at home. I was busy! I knew that I wanted to continue to grow as an educator, but I didn’t necessarily have the time for book studies and conferences. I needed something that could be a little more on my own schedule. Hearing about #satchat let me know that maybe there was another way for me to learn that could be on my own time. That radio program taught me that an app on my phone could connect me with educators and emerging leaders in education from all over the world.

Soon after I participated in my first ever #satchat. I don’t recall the specific topic, but I did start following several of the other educators that were active in the chat. Since then, I have looked at Twitter as my own Personal Learning Network. While I still use social media for a variety of purposes (I still follow athletes and pop culture icons, and it’s often the first place I look for news on just about any topic), it is also my go-to resource for growing as an educator and leader.

This belief about social media was only reaffirmed as I listened to Matt Miller at Ditch that Convention in 2017. I don’t want to steal his story, and some of you may be aware of who Matt is. During the keynote, he said:

Matt was the lone Spanish teacher at a small rural school in western Indiana. As the only teacher of his subject in his school, he felt that he struggled to create meaningful learning opportunities for his students. Eventually, he found a Professional Learning Network through Twitter and realized there were many more possibilities for his students. His learning through Twitter led him to begin presenting to countless educators, writing multiple books, hosting podcasts, and more. Without those connections created through Twitter, he felt he might have burnt out, and eventually left education.

So, here’s my suggestion to all of you reading this – If you aren’t on social media to learn as an educator, start making use. Twitter is still my go-to source for learning from others and sharing about amazing things happening in my own school and world, although others prefer to use Instagram, Facebook, or even TikTok. If you follow me, you’ll see posts about things happening in my school and district, but I also share pieces of my personal life as well. I like to be able to be my full self.

If you are new to using social media as an educator, seek out people in positions like you. When I moved into my current role, I began following as many elementary principals as I could. Next, learn to use hashtags! Some of the ones I check in on regularly still include #satchat on Saturday mornings, but I also like to look at #echat, #edleadership, #PLCatWork, and #TLAP. As you check out those hashtags, start following anyone that is posting things you are interested in, or would like to learn more from.

As an educator, I believe strongly in the importance of lifelong learning. While there are lots of different ways that we can learn, one of the greatest sources for me in the past 10 years has been through social media. The portability of my phone allows me access to the world no matter where I am or what I’m doing. If you’re new to the world or social media in education, feel free to seek me out. I’m @brian_behrman on both Twitter and Instagram.

Now, go on and build your own Personal Learning Network!

Adults have trauma too

Adults have trauma too

During the first semester, I wrote a post based on a tweet from Brad Weinstein. That tweet included this graphic:

The post was titled “The reason behind the behavior” and really focused on the fact that so much that happens to the children who walk into our school each day is well beyond their own control. As adults, it’s important that no matter the why behind a student’s behavior, if we can create a warm and caring environment, students will want to be here and do their best (If you’d like, you can see that post here). The graphic above and the post brought up some of the traumas that impact our kids and their ability to be ready to learn.

After sharing that post, I got a response from one of the teachers at our school. This is what she said:

I enjoyed reading this blog and agree with how students can show up with so many unknown traumas. My number one strategy is just to be kind.

Another thought that I had is that there are staff members that show up with unknown trauma, and because we teach all day, we feel like we need to be “on” all the time.  This can be really hard to do when you are the one in front of the class teaching all day and some days feeling like you don’t have time to just sit and decompress.  

I guess I just wanted to respond because I just think it’s important to always keep in mind that both kids and adults can carry unknown trauma. (Although adults know how to deal with it better.)   

Even though this response came from a teacher almost 6 months ago, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. That idea of being “on” all the time is something that I’m quite sure we all feel. Teachers are great at showing up and putting a smile on their faces to create positive learning spaces for their students, no matter what might be going on in their heads. Sometimes we face trauma of our own in our lives. Other times, we take on secondary trauma when students share their own trauma with us.

But the reality is that if we can’t take care of ourselves, if we can’t take care of our family, how can we ever be expected to take care of the children that walk into our classrooms each day?

So here are some thoughts on how we might help take on the trauma that the adults in schools have to take on:

  • Have a person – In every school that I’ve worked in, I’ve found the ability to have at least one “buddy” that I feel like I could share anything with. I’ve talked to colleagues about stress, loss, sadness, and about celebrations. Knowing you have someone you can turn to (and maybe more than one person) can be such an important part of keeping ourselves balanced. If you don’t yet have that person, what can you do to create that type of relationship? And if you notice someone who appears to be off their game, you could check in. Sometimes just knowing someone noticed is more than enough for me!
  • Use your prep time – I feel confident in saying that I am not the only person who went back to my classroom during prep time, closed the door, and took a moment for quiet, or maybe even for a quick cry. Sometimes when we’re going through our own trauma, we just need some solitude. I’ve mentioned mindfulness in some of my past posts, and when I’m having a really rough day, I pull up the Headspace app (free to K-12 educators – click here for more info) and select a session that fits my needs – there are different topics and genres or you can just select the next one cued up in your list. Taking a few moments to yourself can allow you to get recentered in a moment when you don’t have to be “on.”
  • Take care of yourself outside of school – For those of you that know me well, you know that I’m big on getting my exercise. It’s part of what helps keep me balanced. I get up and get my movement in before the day even really starts. This morning when the alarm went off, I didn’t really want to get up, but I knew that I had a lot on my to-do list at school, and then after school, there is family stuff too. Occasionally I will allow myself to sleep in a bit and then do something after school. Because of my schedule today, I knew that wasn’t an option, so I went ahead and got up. Once I was up and moving, I felt so glad that I made the choice I did. Now, I’m not saying you must do what I do – exercise might not be the thing you need to keep yourself balanced, but hopefully, you have some hobby that helps you unwind and relax. Finding a way to disconnect maintains that healthy balance and boundaries between your professional and personal self.
  • Do things to minimize decision-making – Think about how many decisions we make as educators each day. I’ve seen blog posts that suggest that during a typical school day, educators make 1,500 or more educational decisions. I can’t find any data to back that up, but the number seems almost low. Teachers are managers of their classrooms, content holders, master communicators, and support systems for our students. Decisions fatigue is a legitimate thing! The more decisions we make in a day, the harder it is for our brains to make more (that’s why the brownie sitting on the counter after dinner turns into the evening snack instead of the grapes in the fridge – we all know what’s the healthy decision, but our brains are fried!). To avoid having to make additional decisions, there are some things I do every evening to remove some of those morning barriers. I set up my coffee and breakfast things, I make sure my school bag is packed, I set out my workout gear prior to going to bed, and I pick out my clothes for the next day. The more choices I make in the evening, the less I have to worry about in my day, which allows me to spend my morning preparing for my day. Be thinking about how you can remove some of the decisions from your day.

It’s so true, as a colleague suggested, that the adults at school have trauma too. We are human. But if we take steps to help ourselves stay balanced, we’re better able to create the kind, caring, and supportive environment that our students require to find their own success. And know that the people around you are masters at helping people (typically their students) handle their traumas. Turning to those you are closest to can help with your own care.

What are some of the things that you do to maintain that balance? What could you try that you haven’t previously used when you are having a day that you don’t quite feel like you can be “on?” Share your thoughts in the comments below!



Recently, I attended my annual recertification in Mandt. For those of you not familiar, Mandt defines itself as “a comprehensive, integrated approach to preventing, de-escalating, and if necessary, intervening when the behavior of an individual poses a threat of harm to themselves or others.” For me, the most important, and most utilized aspects of this training are the concepts of relational interactions and de-escalation. But while I have participated in this training many times, this time something new struck me – the importance of teamwork.

I have long thought of the people I work with as my team. We are all engaged in work with a similar purpose – to have a positive impact on our students in terms of learning and personal growth. When we’re going through the training in Mandt, we are taught about how powerful teamwork can be in the process of de-escalation and/or intervention. But, teamwork applies to so much more of the work we do in schools too!

Recently, I have had a few posts related to the importance of the work we do within our PLC team. If you want to look back at them, you can find “Habits and teaching” here, and “Thoughtful in what we do” here. As stated before, a team is defined as a group of people who are working together toward the same goal and results. My hope is that does, or will, define the PLC team that you are a part of. If you don’t know that you can currently define your team in that way, my hope is that this post will help you to build a truly collaborative team that has common goals and results they are seeking. Even if you can define your team in that way, hopefully you’ll have some things to reflect on to strengthen your team even more!

In 2013, Steve Kozlowski and Bradford Bell released a review of a great deal of research on teams titled “Work Groups and Teams in Organizations” (you can access the full piece here). Two key points garnered from this work are:

  1. Psychological safety on the team contributes to team success.
  2. When we believe our work is interdependent there is higher information sharing, team learning, and team effectiveness.

This reminds me of something else that I’ve written an awful lot about – Collective Teacher Efficacy. As a reminder, that concept says that there is a shared belief that through their collective action, educators can influence the outcomes and increase achievement for all students.

Now, here’s the reality that I know we sometimes don’t talk about openly enough – not all teacher teams are holding themselves accountable to these beliefs. Sometimes, a PLC team goes through the motions of doing the work of the PLC but doesn’t see the influence on student outcomes and increased student achievement that we might hope for. I have a couple different theories for why this might happen, but today’s will primarily focus on the work of the team.

A few years ago, John Spencer wrote an excellent blog post that ties into this concept of teamwork. That post was titled “The Difference Between Cooperation and Collaboration.” You can see that post here, or watch a short YouTube video from John here. He argues that for healthy teamwork to exist, you have to have both cooperation and collaboration, so really they are not versus, rather they work in tandem with one another to strengthen teamwork.

This graphic shows a bit about what John sees as the difference between cooperation and collaboration:

Think for a moment about teams that you have been on. What do you recall about the teams that felt the most successful? What about the teams that felt the least successful? I’m guessing that for most of us, the teams we remember as being the most successful probably had a high culture of collaboration. But one of the things that John points out is that in a collaborative team, we sometimes grow stagnant.

So, for our teams to be successful, we need to be both cooperative and collaborative. How do we get there? Kenneth William, a former teacher and administrator shares that the key to making sure that our teams operate in a state that leads to efficacy we need to not only have norms for the way we do work, we must also have accountability protocols (You can see his article on this topic here). In my school, at each team meeting, we start by doing a brief review of the team norms. This is also a time for discussion about whether we need to add or change a norm.

But something that we have not yet implemented is an accountability protocol. I’ll be honest, it’s not something that I’ve thought about a lot because once we set norms, we all generally have this optimistic belief that no one will violate the norms. But setting an accountability protocol is the way we answer the question “What is our process for holding each other accountable in a respectful and dignified manner?” Maybe your team has a norm around not allowing any one person to dominate the space, and yet there is a member who continually does dominate the conversations. What do you do? If you don’t talk about an accountability protocol when setting your norms, it may feel too uncomfortable to let that person know that they are dominating the space. One thing I know about most of us as educators (I’m raising my hand here) is that we don’t ever like to come across as rude!

Here’s what Williams says are potential scenarios if we don’t address accountability protocols:

  • The norm violation is not addressed, and as a result, unspoken tension and frustration grow within the collaborative team.
  • The norm violation is addressed, but inappropriately. With no established protocol, the reaction to the confrontation becomes defensive.
  • Too early in the process, the team takes the issue to the principal for him or her to handle.

Going back to the graphic from John Spencer, what happens to the collaborative culture if one of these scenarios happens to our team? What will that do to our collective teacher efficacy? I’d argue that not having accountability protocols will prevent your team from reaching its potential. As educators, that should be very concerning. So while some of us might struggle with how to hold others accountable, a failure to do so is a failure of our team to do the work.

So pause for a moment to think about the team that you are a part of now. Is there a healthy collaborative culture? Are your students learning and growing at the rate you’d hope? Does the culture of your team feel good to all the members? Then you probably are in a place where you have been holding one another accountable as a collaborative team, but also as a team that is excelling in the work. If the answer to any of these questions is no, I’d suggest that you need to go back first to your norms to make sure you have a shared understanding of what those norms mean. No matter whether your team is high-functioning or not, you need to then do the work of setting some accountability protocols in case something doesn’t go well.

I’d love you to share your thoughts. Does your team have accountability protocols? If yes, what does that look like for your team? Sharing some ideas might spark a system for others who don’t. And if you don’t have accountability protocols, what steps can you take now to help set something up? Or what ideas do you have for ways you might hold one another accountable? Let us all know in the comments below!

Connecting language to reading

Connecting language to reading

In last week’s post, I was talking about the way the human brain processes language (you can see that post here). Those processes include the phonological processing system, the meaning processing system, and the context processing system. These systems help the human brain listen to what others say, respond with words and sounds, and understand what those words mean within the context of what’s being said. As homo sapiens, this brain has adapted over the past 200,000 years to process language that is spoken and heard.

As I shared last week, for most of human history, words only existed in verbal form, so the brain was ready to process that information. With the development of a written language, a new process had to be developed within the brain.

Now, I’ve got to pause here for just a moment to share just how fascinating the human brain is! It constantly is redeveloping itself, adapting one portion of the brain for new uses, and learning from past experiences. From some past learning, I know that a portion of what now makes up the orthographic processing system in our brain used to be used by the same part of the brain that helps us to recognize faces. When someone looks familiar to you, your brain is using similar areas of the brain as when you look at the letters on the device you are reading from right now. Think about how the human brain has had to adapt in the last 20ish years of the digital age. But the difference is that skills like reading must be learned by the brain. On the other hand, the language processing system is online for each human even before birth.

So here is how the brain had to change. With the development of written language, a new processing system had to be developed in the brain. We call this the orthographic processing system. This system is able to learn to recognize letters, and then eventually letter strings. In time, those recognitions come to feel almost immediate. To a proficient reader, most words seem to become sight words.

So what does this mean for us instructionally? It means that once our students have a strong foundation of language comprehension, the next step is to support them in phonemic awareness. This means that students need support in first noticing, articulating, and manipulating the smallest sounds in words. Eventually, after they have strong phonemic awareness, then we move into phonics where we begin connecting the sounds we hear in spoken language to the letters that make up those sounds.

In Shifting the Balance, there are a few shifts in instructional practices that Burkins and Yates suggest. Here are just a few things you might consider:

  • High-leverage instructional routines – We might start with skills like noticing how sounds are made, then progress into putting sounds together to make words, then take words apart, then listen for similar sounds, then taking sounds off a word, and finally changing one sound to make a new word. These phonological awareness skills help build the sound knowledge that students need prior to bringing the orthographic processing system online.
  • Word lists – There are several different resources that I have seen that could be used at various grade levels to assess students understanding of the various skills. In the district where I work, we could utilize the differentiated spelling lists that go with HMH/Into Reading, or we have access to the digital teacher’s version of Words Their Way. If you’re looking for another source, there are some excellent decodable word lists sorted by skill that were put together by Burkins and Yates as part of their work on Shifting the Balance. You can find those lists on their website here.
  • Multisensory scaffolds – Utilizing tools such as Elkonin boxes with chips or counters, then progressing into letter tiles or magnets. Burkins and Yate point out that these multisensory tools might be especially important when a task is new or students are struggling.
  • Assessment plan – As with any other skill that we want our students to know, formative assessment should serve as our guide along the way. Are there phonemic awareness skills that some or most students still need to develop? Do we need to create or utilize a more formal assessment to check your student’s phonemic awareness? This information will help us to know when it’s time to make the jump from focusing on the sounds in phonemic awareness to the point where we add in the work of connecting letters to sounds in phonics.

Just as with most other forms of learning, there is a progression that most students follow, first learning the skills of recognizing words in a sentence, then breaking words into syllables, then noticing beginning or ending sounds, and eventually identifying all the sounds of the word. When students miss steps along this progression, they might struggle further down the line. What I’m recognizing now is that many of the students who came to my classroom as a 5th or 6th grader who struggled with reading skills were probably missing some of those early phonemic awareness or phonics skills. Backing up and supporting some of the early language fluency skills might have helped them develop the skills they needed to be more successful readers. Hopefully for those of you who are teaching students who have reached the stage that we expect them to be “reading to learn,” there are some steps here that you might be able to integrate into instruction for your students.

What are your takeaways from this? What will you commit to trying based on this new learning? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Thinking about reading

Thinking about reading

Not that long ago, I wrote a post called Science or craft (you can see that post here). One of the things I talked about in that post was the fact that I felt as an educator, being involved in a series of “Reading Wars” was not beneficial to the concept of learning and growth. In my view, one of our goals as an educator should be to learn as broadly as we can on the topics that matter to us. As an educator who has an impact on some of the earliest learners, literacy must be a big part of my focus, and therefore it must be an area I am seeking continual growth. That has in turn led me to ongoing learning about the Science of Reading.

In the post referenced above, I shared that it felt as though there are some who view the teaching of reading as having two sides, and neither one saw value in the other. It made me a bit uncomfortable because I had taught in a Balanced Literacy Classroom for years of my career as an educator, and while that format had worked for me as a learner, and felt comfortable to me as a teacher, I could also see that there were kids who were not learning to read at the level they needed to. You see, I spent all my teaching career as a fifth or sixth-grade teacher. Once students reach that level, for the most part, they are no longer learning to read, rather they are reading to learn. As a content area teacher – teaching both science and social studies over the years as an intermediate school teacher, I expected students to come with me ready to use their reading skills to learn about our topics and standards. I did not feel equipped at that level to intervene and support their reading skills.

Over the years of working with some talented colleagues, I eventually better understood how to support my students who came to the classroom without strong reading skills – finding lower-level texts on the same topics, providing students with read-aloud recordings of the text, and more.

But in my current role, I now feel the challenge of how I help ensure that the students who leave my school are prepared to read to learn in their intermediate school classroom. I began to look for ideas that supported my beliefs about a learning environment, while also fulfilling the needs of students as learners. Luckily, I have a wonderful coach who I work with that recommended the book Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates. I’ve been digging into that book for a little while and found myself texting our coach on the evening I started the book telling her that I had lots of things to talk to her about.

Based on my reactions to the short time I’ve been reading this book, I’m guessing that this will not be the last time you see me referencing it here, but I want to share with you one of my biggest aha moments so far. And it has to do with how the human brain has developed.

Going back to the earliest humans, the only way to share information was through the passing of stories verbally. What this means is that our brain got good at listening to what others said (this happens in the phonological processing system) and being able to respond with our own words and sounds. Hearing someone else speak would then cause our brain to retrieve the meaning of the words we hear (this happens in the meaning processing system). Then our brain uses our background knowledge to help us understand what meaning fits the context of what’s being shared (this happens in the context processing system). I imagine these different parts of the brain as something of a triangle, with information passing back and forth through each of these processing systems.

These three processing systems are genetically wired into the human brain and are a part of the system of thinking that we are all born with. It’s why a young child can often understand words before being able to say them. It’s why, even though I haven’t taken a Spanish class in over 20 years, when I hear someone speaking it, I am able to make meaning of pieces of that conversation.

This combination of processing systems has developed in the homo sapien brain over the last 150,000 to 200,000 years. So what that means is that our brain has adapted over that time to make comprehension of spoken language to be a natural skill that our brains can do. But written language has been around a lot less time than that. You see, most scholars generally agree that humans began utilizing written language about 5,500 years ago. Let’s think about what that means – for a little more than 97% of the history of modern humans, words only existed in their verbal form. After being spoken, they would disappear into thin air. Then, somewhere around 3,400 BCE, in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), some of the earliest written language was developed. Now, the things that one person said could be recorded, exactly as they had said them, in the form of symbols, and be shared over and over again.

The huge aha moment for me comes from this point – written language is spoken language saved for later retrieval. Once retrieved, written words are put back into spoken language. I’m assuming that when you read, you can hear your own reading in your head. The speaking part of your brain is saying the words, and the listening part of your brain is hearing the words. What this means is that if our students cannot understand words and language when they are spoken, they will not be able to comprehend those same words and sentences when they read them.

As Burkins and Yates point out:

What Burkins and Yates go on to point out is that opportunities to grow oral language actually help develop the comprehension mechanisms of reading. Now, let me be clear, just because a student has strong verbal comprehension does not automatically mean that they will be strong in reading comprehension, but it is definitely a stepping stone along the way. So, what does that mean for us in practice in the classroom? The following bullet points are ideas shared by Burkins and Yates, along with some of my thoughts relating to them:

  • Have a way to support language comprehension in your classroom – This would include utilizing read-alouds with rich language, things that will stretch your students’ thinking. Next, think about gathering text sets on a topic or theme representing multiple levels. Finally, have instructional routines to build and extend language (this includes conversations started by the teacher in a one-on-one or small group setting, questions to get students to explain their thinking, wait time for students to think and process, and repeating back to students what you heard them say so that they might be able to expand on it).
  • Use interesting words – One of my favorite things used to be encouraging students to notice and share interesting words they came across in their reading. We would use these words to create a list of interesting words that we kept in our writing notebook. Depending on your level, you could do something similar, or you could help students notice interesting words in your read-alouds to create your own list.
  • Engage in dialogic conversations – In their book, Burkins and Yates share a graphic on dialogic conversations. Check out the graphic below for a little more about what this might look like.

Ultimately, as teachers, one of the best ways we can help improve the three processing systems above is to create time and space for language within your classroom. This might be during a gentle entry time where students can play and talk, it might be in a daily community circle where students speak to one another and respond to interesting topics, or it could be through one-on-one or small group conversations happening during learning time either with the teacher’s support or with peers (think a turn-and-talk or small group discussion). The more work we do to support students in language comprehension, the more we help those processing systems be better prepared for reading skills.

Next week I hope to take a look at the next step – what happens in the brain when we start to feed written language into it, and how that has changed the processing systems that developed in the brain.

What strategies do you use to bring language into your classroom? Share with us in the comments below.



Recently, I’ve been reading a couple of different books about school design. You see, our district is working towards an expansion and renovation of our school. It’s been exciting to think about what a remodeled version of Fishers Elementary School might look like. When I learned of this process, I started a document on my desktop called “The Wishlist.” Currently, it’s broken up into 3 categories: Spaces, Environment, and Office. Much of my thought process has been about the design of the school. But this week, I finished reading a book called What’s in Your Space? 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design by Dwight Carter, Gary Sebach, and Mark White. One of my key takeaways was that no matter what kind of innovative thought processes are used when we design a school, if we don’t also spend some time thinking about what it means to teach Generation Z children, the school will ultimately continue to operate in traditional ways.

But why do we need to think in innovative ways at school? Today, schools are almost the only places left where students write by hand; when they are away from school, they text, type, and FaceTime. And when they are writing by hand away from school, you can probably bet that their writing is something to take back to school. We all know this, but as a reminder, our students of almost all ages constantly want to interact with technology. And related to that, their future will be filled with technology that is unimaginable today. Now, I’m guessing that writing by hand will never go completely away, but if I pause to think about it, almost the only time I write by hand outside of the school setting is when I’m leaving a note for my family or sending a greeting card to someone. That’s about it. I don’t even handwrite my grocery list anymore – I tell my Google Assistant at home what to add to my shopping list, then I pull the list up on my phone while I’m out shopping.

Why do we need to think about this? In the book What’s in Your Space the authors shared the results of an IBM Big Data study from 2012. That study shared that as society moved from an analog to a digital age, the time it took the knowledge to double dropped significantly. The graphic below represents the Knowledge Doubling Curve, first introduced by Buckminster Fuller, and later expanded on by research from IBM.

What this curve shows us is that the expansion of knowledge is an exponential curve. Around 2020, this meant that for each one of us, the knowledge that is available in our world more than doubles in the time that we are awake each day. That thought blows my mind! But at the same time, in our digital world, I don’t think any of us could keep up with all the posts on social media, YouTube, and other websites that matter to us, let alone the things that are not even in our sphere of interest.

So, the question that really hit me as I neared the end of What’s in Your Space was this:

One of the things that we need to think about as we serve Generation Z is that they will not be successful based on what they know. Instead, they will be successful with what they can do with what they know.

There are some sacred cows in education – things that we feel like we must teach every year. In fact, some of our standards, especially in content areas like science and social studies, force us into teaching and learning that is based on rote memorization. One of my long-term pet peeves has been States and Capitals, maybe that’s because I struggled with rote memorization as a child and did poorly on those tests and quizzes, but I have never had a high-stakes situation where my success relied on my ability to identify the capital of Idaho, although I can tell you it’s Boise. Here’s the thing, if our assessments and our questions are asking kids things that Siri can answer for them, then maybe we aren’t pushing them to where they need to be as a member of Generation Z. And our students know that.

Everyone has access to Google these days, in fact, the number of times I pull out my phone to hop on the Google app or ask my Google assistant a question might be shocking to some of you. But I also have skills that allow me to do my job in a way that Google would never be able to do. We need to help our students be prepared to do the jobs that will exist 20 or 30 years from now, not the jobs that exist today. And the reality is that many of those jobs are things we can’t even imagine.

So here’s the challenge for us as educators – the rest of the world does not exist in these 9-month-long bubbles of a school year. In the non-education world, everything is evolving constantly, but in education, we often just look at what’s happening for this school year. We all have to be ready for continuous evolution in technology for the rest of our careers. We have to be aware of the needs of our students and their future. Every day we are surrounded by the experts of the future, our students. A willingness to ask our students “Is there a better way for you to show me what you know about this topic?” might open our eyes to ideas that never would have occurred to us.

To meet the needs of Generation Z, our pedagogy must shift. The design of a school is just one part of the process of being able to meet the needs of future generations. We must lose the fear that exists in turning our students loose on technology that we might not fully understand. Our standards, objectives, and expectations don’t have to change, but often the best learning opportunities come out of the unscripted moments in learning. Our new role is to be the guide, not the leader, and as the guide sometimes that means getting out of the way.

What are your thoughts? How has pedagogy shifted in your time as an educator? What shifts do you think still need to happen? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thoughtful in what we do

Far too often in education, we spend time thinking about a question. It’s a question that will sometimes cause stress. It will sometimes lead us to look for new programs or resources. And at times, it creates overwhelm because we then feel like there is too much to do. The question I’m thinking of is “What more should we be doing?”

Depending on your perspective, that question may not feel like that big of a deal. But here’s the issue, if we always ask about what we should be doing more of, we end up with so much to do that we aren’t able to do any of it well. We can’t sustain the practice. Adam Welcome loves to talk about how schools in general are really good at collecting programs and things, but they are really bad at getting rid of those programs or things that are obsolete. This is something that I have definitely noticed (I have seen your pile of textbooks from 3 adoptions ago that you just can’t bring yourself to get rid of!).

The other issue I see with asking about what more we can do is that it leads us to a deficit mindset. That’s the thinking that leads us to only focus on the things that aren’t going well or the things that we can’t do enough of. Deficit thinking leads to a sense of hopelessness before we have even started anything.

One of the pain points that I have noticed in my time as a leader is that every spring and summer, I spend time with our leadership team. We look at the data we have, the growth we’ve made, and the areas to target for continued growth. Based on that information, we develop a school improvement plan that is focused entirely on the data that we can connect to the learners that we know in our building. Then, invariably, we come together at a beginning of the year administrative meeting, and there seems to be some new initiative or some new curricular resource that must be added to our plans. When that happens, the intentional design of the school improvement plan that was developed as part of our thoughtful work must be either revamped or potentially scrapped for a period of time.

I do have one quick caveat since I know that some of the people who read this blog are colleagues of mine, or maybe even are among the group that sometimes brings those initiatives to us… Oftentimes those initiatives involve us in doing good work that is for the benefit of our students, but it sometimes feels for the leaders in the buildings that we have now been given one more new thing to cram into the already busy schedule of the school year PD plan.

So, imagine if you could, hearing the following statement at your back-to-school meeting:

Much like Chris Lehmann, I believe that “Schools are better when they create spaces and expectations for reflection.” A formalized process for reflection is a necessity. This reflection can certainly occur as an individual, but I think the power of the reflection comes from when you are able to chat with others about what happened in your classroom, how the students responded to the learning opportunity, and what your data shows you about student learning and growth.

This is why I see such value in the PLC process. It’s the perfect place for the reflective process to take place. The four key questions of the PLC guide us toward reflection on a question that is much better than the one I mentioned at the beginning. Instead of asking ourselves “What more can we be doing?” we should be asking “How can we do what we’re already doing, better?”

Think about the power of that mindset shift with your team. Instead of coming into a PLC meeting with a deficit mindset that might imply that we don’t yet have the tools to be successful, we come in with the belief that within our team, we have the answers to help ourselves improve. That’s collective teacher efficacy at work.

And here’s the reality of this process. Sometimes we will start with reflective practices, we will begin by trying to problem-solve within our team, and we may find that the tools we have available to us are not working. This is where things get exciting for me. Now, your PLC team can begin some work in action research. Do some professional reading, ask for help from an administrator, work with your curriculum coach, or collaborate with another team that might not be having the same problem as you. Whatever you do, find a way to keep trying until you find something that does work for your students. Again, this is not about finding something new, it’s about refining something that we were already doing, but wasn’t working as well as we’d like it to be.

Another thing to keep in mind: as you begin to refine your processes, be sure to identify the pieces that you feel are already going well. Having an idea of the things that are working will help us feel more comfortable as we make shifts in the areas that aren’t working as well. Also, keep in mind that if you try to solve too many problems at one time, you probably aren’t going to solve any of them. Pick one area of growth to focus on and stay focused on that. Remember what your team’s limitations are for time and energy!

So, the next time you are together with your team and able to reflect on what’s been happening, be sure to focus on the question “How can we do what we’re already doing, better?”

How do you think that might shift the conversations in your work? As you reflect on what you can do better, how might you use that to set your own short- or long-term goals for your own learning and growth? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Habits and teaching

I recently finished reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you’re into understanding human psychology, it’s a really solid read. The gist of the book from my perspective is about laying out the framework for how habits are formed. It gives insightful strategies for forming new habits we want to have, and methods for breaking bad habits that we want to lose. While I think that there are many parts of the book that I already knew in some way, I’d never seen anyone lay it out in such an actionable way.

As educators, many of us have developed our own set of habits around the ways we do things. How we plan, what our day looks like, and what our learning environment looks like. These are just some of our own form of habits. Recently, the staff in our school has been devoted to a professional learning cycle that really digs into some of the pieces of the PLC. This work is happening with the hope of helping each of our PLC teams build some new habits around the PLC.

You see, in my mind, the PLC is all about the work of ensuring learning in our school. This learning is not just for our students, but also for the adults in our building.

This quote from Rick DuFour helps to lay out the values of the PLC. As a learning organization, we have to first, believe in the values in the PLC, and second, behave as though we believe them.

And let me be clear, I don’t think that anyone in our school is doing something “wrong” in the way we are utilizing the PLC process, but based on some recent conversations at our PD, and in the follow-up conversations I’ve had with some after our PD, it has become clear that there were some pieces of the PLC process that we can strengthen.

In an ideal world, this is kind of an outline of the process of the PLC:

  1. Map our curriculum
  2. Identify Power / Priority Standards
  3. Unpack the standards
  4. Build common assessments – both formative and summative
  5. Bring assessment data back to the PLC meetings during a learning cycle or unit
  6. Adjust our teaching during the unit based on the data
  7. Celebrate the learning and growth that has taken place during a unit
  8. Restart the cycle for our next unit

If you can say that all these pieces are in place with your PLC consistently, then that’s great! You’re a model for what we want to be doing, because if we follow this process, we as teachers have learned about our students and about our teaching practices, and we can ensure that our students have shown learning in our assessment data.

This semester, we have chosen to devote large chunks of our professional learning time to helping each team strengthen the PLC process. My hope is that through this work, we can all have data to share that supports the assertion that our school has helped each student to learn during the school year. None of the topics of our Professional Learning are intended to be stand-alone topics or something that you do once and forget. This cycle of learning is about making sure we have built a process for each PLC team to be able to work through the four big questions of the PLC (What do we want students to know? How will we know that they know it? What will we do if they don’t know it? What will we do if they do know it?)

When we talk about identifying priority standards, we don’t just want to pick one standard in one subject to focus on forever – the PLC is meant to be an ongoing process in multiple subjects. When we come together as a team, everyone should be bringing data – assessment data, student samples, etc., to help guide our conversations around the four questions. It means taking feedback strategies back to your classroom to provide students with steps for how they can grow from where they are to their next step in learning progressions. Then it’s about building a new formative assessment to check how that feedback strategy has worked.

For many of us, this may feel different than the way you might have utilized PLCs in the past. But going back to the Dufour quote above, it is our job to constantly be assessing our own practices in the light of student learning. If something is not successful, then there might be a strategy or practice that needs to shift. And going back to the concept of Collective Teacher Efficacy, I believe that the answers to our questions lie within our staff. We have lots of smart people with lots of great ideas. The PLC model allows us to talk about our own practices, and trust that the people around us will help all of us learn and grow.

What has been your experience with the PLC? Where have you seen the greatest strengths? What are your current pain points where you still need to grow as a PLC? This reflection can help you work with your team, your coaches, your administrators to build a stronger team concept and ensure learning in your school.

The power of the rerun

I try not to spend too much time sharing about the #educelebrities that I follow, or have had the privilege to meet, but for this week’s post, I’m back again with some more thoughts based on the day I spent recently with Cornelius Minor. One of the things he talked about was something he phrased as “The Power of the Rerun.” As a child of the 80s (I try not to date myself too much, but it’s my reality), reruns were a regular occurrence. Saturdays would often mean getting up, grabbing a bowl of cereal, and turning on cartoons. Unlike you millennials who might be reading or the Gen Z / post-millennials that we’re teaching, when you turned the TV on, you watched what was available. There were no streaming options. We couldn’t find what we wanted to watch on YouTube. Sometimes that meant watching an episode of GI Joe that you’d seen what felt like hundreds of times.

I have to be honest; I’ve always enjoyed reruns of shows. There are episodes of Friends that I have literally seen more than a hundred times, and yet I still laugh (pivot). I don’t know if I want to admit how many times I have watched the entire Breaking Bad series (probably still my favorite series of all time!), but I will share that it’s a lot!

What I love about rewatching a show is that often, I notice things I didn’t notice the first time. Maybe there’s a character that didn’t seem that important on the first watch that I now know is important later in the show. Or I might notice something that I missed in the background of a shot because I was so focused on the main action the first time. The rewatch allows me to dig a little deeper.

Now, I’m sure there are some that are wondering what in the world reruns of TV shows have to do with an education blog. This is where Cornelius comes in. While talking to us about ways we might model specific skills, he talked about the benefit of doing a reread of a text that was previously shared in class. The first pass of a story is a great time to introduce a concept or idea. If you are doing a lesson on character analysis, you might read a text where you want your students to notice what characters do over and over, so you read that text and ask students to pay attention to the actions of a specific character and ask them to think about what this teaches them about this character. That may meet a standard for you, but you recognize that your class seems to show clear understanding, or maybe even mastery right away. That might mean a reread of the book is a great time to do some deeper thinking about the text.

You see, once you’ve read a text one time, you have done most of the heavy lifting. The understanding of the story is already there. Vocabulary words have been defined and used in context. All your students have an initial understanding of what will happen in the story, so now we can go deeper.

Recently in our building, we’ve been spending a lot of our time in Professional Development focused on the power of the PLC. We’re really digging into each of the 4 key questions of the PLC. If you aren’t sure what those questions are, these are them:

  1. What do you want your students to know? (This one’s about knowing our standards, having a map, and identifying priorities)
  2. How will we know they know it? (This is all about how we formatively assess our students along the way, or how we summatively assess at the end of a unit so that we are ensured of student learning)
  3. What will we do if they don’t know it? (This is about what strategies might we try during a reteach to reach a student who didn’t understand the first time)
  4. What will we do if they do know it? (This is about how will we enrich the learning of students who seem to have already mastered the standard or skill)

So, when we think about the rerun of a text, it’s a great opportunity to approach skills that will enrich our students. What is the next level of the standard you are trying to teach? You might check the vertical alignment of your standard so that you know what your students will be expected to know or be able to do next year. During a rerun, you can push your students to a higher depth of knowledge because there is already an initial understanding.

I’d love to hear about other ideas related to the concept of a “rerun” in reading. Have you ever used this strategy? How did it go? What worked well? What would you think about differently? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Building resilience

Last Friday, I was out of my building for a professional development opportunity. Cornelius Minor, one of my #eduheroes was in town and working with teachers and administrators from across our district. Anytime he’s around, I make it a point to spend time learning with him. I’ve had the privilege to meet him on 4 different occasions, and his message always feels fresh to me. I’ve written about his visits before, and I’m guessing that this most recent visit may result in a couple of different topics to share with you. If you really want to see a bit of my in-the-moment thinking, you can check out the thread of tweets I shared while Cornelius was presenting here:

For those of you who don’t know much about Cornelius, he is a Brooklyn-based educator who still spends most days in a middle school classroom, but his skills as an educator can translate to any level or subject area. Every time I’m in a room with Cornelius, I feel like I’m with a close friend who is helping me become the best educator I can be to support the students I work with!

On Friday morning, Cornelius started the day with a guiding question for our thinking: “How can we create conditions where all kids succeed?” While he did not come back to the question multiple times, the work we were doing helped to answer that question, at least for me.

One of the standout portions of the day for me was a conversation he shared about building resilience in his students. There were three things he said that he feels all students need to know or be able to do to be resilient in the classroom. He said that all kids need to know:

  1. What learning looks like
  2. When to pause
  3. How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home

Let me expand on each of those thoughts just a bit – some of what I share here will be based on the thinking Cornelius shared, but some will be my own thinking as I have been reflecting on the day.

What learning looks like – Think for a moment from the perspective of a student in your classroom (if you are a teacher). What must that day feel like? Depending on your age, you go from one learning activity to another, sometimes with a clear understanding of the purpose of what you’re doing, sometimes without that understanding. For our elementary students, most of these learning activities take place in the same room. For our middle-grade students and up, they may be transitioning to a different classroom every 45-ish minutes with a 5-minute break to get from one class to another. Our students might start working on reading, then shift to word work, then to writing, then to math, and hardly have a moment to pause and reflect between these transitions. In that whirlwind of a day, can you identify what the purpose of the activity is? How do you feel when your day is jam-packed with things to do? Can you remember what you accomplished during your day? I know for me, I cannot! As educators, we can help build resilience in our kids by defining what we are working on. Tonight, I asked my son what he was doing for math homework. He shared that he was learning how to figure out percentages, like adding a tip to the bill at a restaurant. I was excited about this answer because often the answer I get is “stuff” or “I don’t remember what we did today.” I must have caught him at the right moment. We can support this understanding of what learning looks like by sharing things like success criteria, or “I can” statements so that kids know what the target is for their learning and building in moments to pause and reflect in our lessons. If we think about the learning cycle, learning does not happen if there is no time for reflection. And if our students can’t share what they are learning, then did they really learn it?

When to pause – Life for a child can be a challenge, and for some of our students, these challenges can lead to a student acting out in a physical or verbal way, shutting down, or possibly even just leaving the classroom. When students notice that they are becoming dysregulated, they need tools to be able to react appropriately. If they don’t yet have the tools, we must teach them. Most of the time, there are three reasons students need to take a pause from what they are working on in class – they feel overwhelmed, they need a moment to think or process, or they need to help someone else. Often, students have not been taught yet how to pause what they are doing, so that pause may turn into putting a head down and not engaging in work, or it may result in goofing around, or worse! What students need is to know what a pause should look like. When students in Cornelius’s class need a pause, there is a three-step process: 1) Put your pencil down and find the clock on the wall and focus on the second hand. 2) Watch the second hand until it goes all the way around and is pointing at the same number as when you started looking at the clock. 3) Take a deep breath, pick up your pencil, and get back to work. And he also teaches students how to help someone who has taken a break – when they notice that their tablemate has taken a break, they can put their pencil down, watch the clock, and when their neighbor has taken a breath and picked up their pencil, they can turn and say, “How may I support you?” Sometimes kids may not be able to answer that question, but they know they have support, which helps them get regulated.

What I think we all know is that when we are feeling overwhelmed, or need a moment, we need to try to help our brain slow down. By focusing on the clock, we give our brain something to think about other than whatever is overwhelming us. During that time, we are breathing. When we stop whatever we’re doing just to breathe, the mind-body connection helps alleviate stress. Blood pressure will come down, and stress hormones are able to filter out of the brain. The pause allows us to come back closer to our baseline. After that minute, students should be better prepared to engage in their work.

How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home – This one probably applies more to students who are in our older grades or have moved on to middle school or high school. As teachers, when we have our students take work home, we know that there is a risk that parents may help their child. Or that a parent may say “I think you should do all the problems on this page for practice” even though you have only assigned a few. If parents do the work, we don’t really know where our kids are (one of my issues with homework, but that’s a different post). When parents ask their kids to do extra work, they are taking away a child’s time to be a child (parents do this with the best of intentions, but as a teacher, I know just as well if my students understand their math work after 4 problems as I would if they did 20). Cornelius has taught his students 2 sentences that they can use if a parent is trying to help too much:

“Even though I can’t do/understand it, I know the right questions to ask.”

“No thank you, I’ve got it from here.”

Parents just want to help, but part of what we need students to learn is how to advocate for themselves. By being able to say these things to their adults at home, they are advocating for their own skills.

These are just a few ideas that came from our day with Cornelius to support resilience in our students. What other ideas might you have? Do you have ways you help build resilience in your students? Share your thoughts with us all in the comments below.