Saturday, November 30, 2013

In Praise of Competition

Panama Canal under construction, 1907 By H.C. White Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
During the construction of the Panama Canal, several men held the position of Chief Engineer of this monumental project, some with excellent effect, others to disastrous results.  There was one, however, who stood above the rest, and that was George Goethals, the final Chief Engineer who led the project to completion over the final 7 years.

Mr. Goethals displayed many admirable leadership traits and some not so admirable.  I was intrigued by his use of competition to spur on his teams.  There were two ways in which he used competition to increase the quantity and quality of the work that was being attempted.  The first way was by simply noting the amount of cubic square feet of dirt removed by each steam shovel in their Canal Record, which was read by one and all who worked on the canal.  This simple public pronouncement of progress increased the amount of dirt removed tremendously.  Here's what one of the steam shovel operators commented about it's effect on him and his colleagues:

"We were going along doing what we thought was a fair day's work ... [but then] away we went like a pack of idiots trying to get records for ourselves."

I'll never forget a summer school PE class when I got the baton as  the anchor runner of my relay team.  We were in 2nd place, BUT, Ron Schwab was behind me in 3rd.  Ron Schwab was a cross between Arnold Schwarzeneger and Usain Bolt (slight exaggeration).  Nevertheless, I was afraid of Ron Schwab, so I ran and ran hard.  Somehow I avoided Ron Schwab until the finish line and passed the lead runner in the process to take  home first place for my team.  Competition made me run harder, with more determination, and therefore faster than  I would have run on my own.  There is  definitely a place for healthy competition.  When used strategically it allows individuals to perform with greater effort and intensity.  The same methods can be used to spur teams to work harder and give m ore concentrated effort.  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

How do we know our students are learning?

How do we know our students are learning?  

The answer to this question is one of the motives behind NCLB and it's a fair question every school and every teacher should be able to answer with confidence and evidence.

Alongside our first question you have to ask what's the best way to assess that learning in a way that is efficient, fair, and quantifiable.

So, here comes Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  And as the saying goes, "The best laid plans of mice and men..."

I recently sat with my colleague in Chula Vista to look at future assessments related to CCSS and  I left that meeting nauseous, depressed, unenlightened and dazed.  I fear that my trusty colleague who sees much good in CCSS will be proven right when he says, "I'm afraid we'll screw it up".

The horizon in terms of assessment appears more daunting and overwhelming than ever. While I appreciate and am a champion of high expectations and challenging standards for my students, I fear that common sense may not be a part of the CCSS assessment plan.

Since we have no control over the CCSS assessment plan, what should we do in the realm of formative, ongoing assessment (specifically for English Language Arts)?  We have to have an answer to that question so let's get started.   

1.   We need assessments that demonstrate what our students understand about content and their ability to express themselves.  
2.  We need assessments that allows students to demonstrate their ability to gather information from texts, synthesize that information with their background knowledge, and draw conclusions, make assertions, and state evidence-based opinions.
3.  We also need assessments that allow students to explore their curiosities.  Therefore, if students are curious about a certain subject, they should be able to prove  their ability to research that subject, to make judgments about that subject, and to synthesize their learning in a concise and clear manner.  
4.  What about discrete skills and what about content knowledge? Those things are important as well.  They need to be embedded within in the assessments we give. 
5. From a teacher's perspective these assessments also need to be efficient. You need to be able to gather information from a small amount of production in order to make that next instructional move

We must design formative assessments that will clearly help teachers discern the point at which students need more support.  Based on all of these criteria, it seems clear to me that students need to speak and write about what they are learning.  Formative assessment should spring from this logical progression of speaking to writing in ever more complex and sophisticated manners.   These speaking/writing assessments need to be short, frequent, and included in all content areas.

These are my thoughts.  What do you think?

Martin Haberman on Successful Teachers

"On the other hand, teachers - Share As Image

Every New Direction is Challenged by Culture

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Essential Question

I've been reading "7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness" by Eric  Metaxas and I noted in his treatment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Bonhoeffer pondered for years the question, "What is the church?".  This led him to write several books on the subject of Christian community, but more importantly make choices about his own actions that led him to fight the Nazi regime openly and subversively.  These actions eventually led to his imprisonment and hanging at the order of Hitler.  I was impressed by the fact that it was in seeking an answer to this question, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to clear conclusions about the proper role of Christianity in life, which underscores the power of a well crafted question and continuous and focused attention to its answer.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

6 Lessons Learned from Opening a New School

It seems like a long, winding path finally came to an end as our community celebrated the first day of school this past Wednesday.  Actually it only seems like a long and winding path because it indeed WAS very long and very winding.  Here are a few thoughts on what was learned from opening  Camarena Elementary School this past Wednesday.

1.  We have definitely proved that you need to get the right people on the bus. - The teaching and support staff at Camarena are exceptional in every way.  They bring skill, dedication, and devotion to creating a great school for our community.  As the leader, I'm inspired and motivated to help build the culture that will support this dynamic staff and their lofty goals.

2.  Infrastructure is Invisible and Essential - We had some plumbing issues the first week - nasty plumbing issues!  Are there any other kind?  It reminded me of the critical importance of the infrastructure that we often only notice or appreciate when it doesn't work.  Our IT department installed a robust wireless system that will make it possible for us to connect all of our students with the information and experts that can enhance their learning continuously.  People like Barbara Uribe, Beth Hart, and Antwon Lincoln helped us prepare devices and plan our roll out for maximum impact on learning.  That is only a small segment of the army of people who helped get this school ready for 950 students on opening day.  There was the Human Resources Department that helped us hire our staff.  There was the purchasing department and the impressive Ann Pering who ordered materials, chased down vendors and kept track of PO#s and deliveries like an expert wedding planner.  And this is only a sampling of the countless folks who had a hand in this massive undertaking, and whether they were ordering and delivering textbooks or planting sod on the fields, they all had a contribution to the final product that our students are enjoying.

3.  Communication needs to be constant, varied - Our school website has successfully connected with many in our community to help them stay abreast of the changing dynamics of our school opening.  We gained visitors and viewers all summer until we peaked at 650 visitors and over 5,000 views on opening day.  Our communication is still FAR from perfect but it was important to use a variety of channels including website, phone, e-mail, and community forums to reach out to as many families as possible.

4.  Details matter, but don't sweat 'em too much - Wayne Kibbe, the building superintendent from Balfour Beatty really impressed me with his knowledge of and attention to details.  He left no stone unturned in getting our magnificent building and grounds ready.  As we approached the final hours of preparation, there came a moment when it was time to head home and leave well enough alone. It is possible to get too focused on minutia and lose sight of the big picture.  I have always love the expression that says you can put a dime so close to your face that it will block out the sun.

5.  Media attention is nice but I'm looking to make more substantial connections - Since we were a new school, we attracted attention from local media and it was gratifying for our community to get some positive press on the opening week.  However, my hope is that we will make far more connections of the type that will bring experts and fellow learners into our classroom through virtual tools and social media.

6.  Relationships First - My last 20 minutes with the staff at the end of 7 days of professional development focused on Teacher Student Relationship Quality.  That is the most important aspect of our work and the foundation for positive and productive learning for our students.  Our teachers value this highly and got off on the right note Wednesday morning with positive greetings.  My point was that we may not get everything right and probably didn't, but we must get that teacher/student relationship, and indeed the parent/school relationship right every time.

These are just a few of the lessons that I've learned from opening this new school.  I must say I'm a little glad to have the pomp and circumstance behind us so that we can now focus on the reason why we came together in the first place - to create a learning environment where every child can thrive and our neighborhood will be enhanced.  Looking forward to the next step in our journey here at Camarena Elementary.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

8 Steps to Selecting a Dream Team of Teachers

Here are just a few of the many positive comments I heard after selecting 35 staff members in our unique interview process for Camarena Elementary.

"I felt like you really got to know my skills and abilities".

"I wanted to take the opportunity (sic) Dr. Winters and his team for putting together the most comprehensive interview process I have ever experienced. Thank you for interviewing me and congratulations on doing such a great job of putting together a solid hiring plan. Parents, you should know that your kids are in good hands. You can just tell that they know what they're doing!" (posted on school website)

"I felt like I was interviewing at Google".

So what was this interview process, you ask?  Here are the steps that we took to select those amazing teachers who now call Camarena Elementary home.

1.  Develop a Mission, Purpose, and Values
2.  Develop Criteria for the teachers who sill implement #1
3.  Review candidate narrative against #1
4.  Contact current Principal for direct reference
5.  Set up 15 minute observation for strong teachers before interview
6.  Ask candidates to prepare by sending references, reading iPad article, and sending in student work.
7.  Send interview questions for one on one session 4:00 the night before and notify them that they will have 20 minutes to answer all questions.
8.  Interview Day consists of group problem solving, writing task, and 20 minute interview.

1.  Develop a Mission, Purpose, and Values - This was developed through several iterations and conversations with prospective teachers and community parents.  That document is attached.

Camarena students and staff will 
  1. be models of character demonstrating integrity, perseverance, and leadership as members of a community where they are valued for their individual strengths.
  2. be voracious learners, inspired to explore and know the world around them. 
  3. be clear thinkers through structured social learning, the interplay of ideas, deep reflection, and evidence based opinions.
  4. be fully literate (including digital literacy) integrating their knowledge in all academic arenas.
  5. be excellent collaborators and communicators who listen critically and empathetically to one another and speak with clarity and effectiveness enhanced by multimedia.  
  6. explore their passions and interests every day, publish what they are learning, and create products that exemplify their unique talents and skills.
  7. embrace technology to facilitate the acquisition of the best knowledge and information, the development of products and presentations, and to make connections with experts and co-learners anytime, anywhere.
  8. embrace languages through a Dual Immersion program and foreign language opportunities.

Purpose: Just as Enrique Camarena inspired so many through his life of community service and self-sacrifice, Camarena Elementary will serve as an inspiration to the local, national, and international community as a pioneering school where all learners are engaged by pursuing their passions and interests in an atmosphere of innovation, teamwork, and joy.

Mission: To make Camarena the model neighborhood school for learning in the 21st century.

2.  Develop Criteria for the teachers who sill implement Mission, Purpose, and Values.  Here's what we came up with:

  1. Inspiring and motivating teachers who differentiate instruction based on student needs and understand that learning is enhanced through quality relationships.
  2. Skillful users of technology to accomplish learning goals and increase student engagement.  Evidence of incorporating technology in content consumption, deliberate practice, and content creation.
  3. Experts at designing instruction around Understanding by Design (UBD) principles and essential questions and integrating material across content areas.
  4. Evidence of instructional maturity.  Ability to inspire the love of learning in students through engaging instructional routines.  Embraces literacy and instills the love of literacy in students.  Understands how standards fit into the big picture of learning for authentic purposes. Not program dependent but able to THINK about and design quality instruction around the BEST content.
  5. Eager team players who make those around them better by sharing their great ideas and absorbing the best ideas of their colleagues.
  6. Not satisfied with the status quo.  Wants to be a part of something uniquely different and better than the current school model.  Knows that there is a better way and is eager to join with others to co-create a school that works for students.
  7. Learners who can adapt to new environments, change, and fresh ideas.  Evidence of personal ambition to learn through any means - reading books, articles, web search, social networks, professional networks, experimentation, noticing, action research, etc.  
  8. Skilled at engaging parents in the education of their children through two-way communication, empathy, personal outreach, and perseverance.
  9. Affable - Fun to be around.  enjoys life and learning and students.  Laughs at jokes (especially very punny jokes)
  10. People of the highest integrity and moral character.
  11. Bilingual preferred or willing to learn another language
  12. Experience, knowledge, and professional development in Dual Immersion Program and instruction
Actually we had to get rid of #9 since I guess I really can't require people to laugh at my jokes.  I should have known that since my wife and daughter won't do it and they're quite fond of me.

3.  Review candidate narrative against Listed Criteria

Many narratives were clearly written for a generic position. Those candidates were not the ones we were looking for.  If you didn't connect with the mission, purpose, and values, you weren't going to be right for Camarena.

4.  Contact current Principal for direct reference

I have interviewed candidates for many years and it was only until recently that I started calling the Principals before the interview.  This sure makes a lot of sense.  You begin to find out early who your top candidates will be and look a little carefully at those strong candidates to find qualities that will separate them from the field.

5.  Set up 15 minute observation for strong teachers before interview

This also proved to be very beneficial. I was able to see candidates in their own environment and with apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, you can tell in the blink of an eye a quality classroom when you walk into his/her room.  Culture has been established over nearly a year and big differences become apparent instantaneously.

6.  Ask candidates to prepare by sending references, reading iPad article, and sending in student work.

Some of our candidates rolled their eyes at the extra "work" that was being required, but this step helped to weed out candidates who were not serious and gave us nuggets of information to help separate the nearly 200 candidates that applied for our school. Of course, the content of your request should be based on the criteria you are seeking.

7.  Send interview questions for one-on-one session 4:00 PM the night before and notify them that they will have 20 minutes to answer all questions.

My belief is that the traditional interview of forcing someone to think on their feet with no preparation has limited benefit.  In their actual job, teachers almost always have plenty of time to prepare their lesson.  In fact, giving questions ahead of time presents a very different challenge of being succinct and to the point.  We had several candidates who went way too long on a couple questions and never got to the end of the interview.

8.  Interview Day consists of group problem solving, writing task, and 20 minute interview.

We organized each interview day into sets of four candidates.  All four came in at the designated time to have a 15 minute discussion on three different topics or tasks.  These sessions were invaluable in getting to know which of our candidates would be able to work together with their colleagues. Some groups actually started to bond in the hallway before the meeting.  Others said nothing to each other and came in cold.  Once the group session was over, three candidates went outside to write while the fourth candidate waited for his/her turn for the interview.   Our panels had discussions about candidates after every group session and each individual session.  I would share what I had heard from Principals and in my observations.  Panel members would also share what they knew of each candidate.

This process was extremely time consuming because of the sheer number of candidates, however every minute was worth it as the staff that we finally selected for this school was of the highest caliber.  In fact, you could make an extremely successful school from the top 30 candidates that we were not able to hire.

I highly recommend you consider some or all of these steps as you gear up for your next round of interviews.  What are your thoughts?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pray for My Friend Shayne Wilson Today

Here is her latest post.  

Hair Loss
Written 15 hours ago
I am now officially losing my hair.    I woke up at 4:30 a.m. this morning with a terrible stinging sensation around my head.   This was followed by a very bad headache.    My friend Soosan, who also has breast cancer and is about 5 days ahead of me with her chemo, told me that she started losing her hair and had the same sensation.   It is really a "TRIP."   You can literally just pull it out.   FYI - even when you only have about 3/4 of an inch of hair, hair loss is a mess.   Frank and I decided to shave it almost bald so I would stop picking at my head.  :)   

Next Tuesday is my next chemo session.   I am DREADING it.   :(    It is like someone telling you, "Here!  Take this pill!   It will make you incredibly sick and you will feel like you are going to die."   Then you purposely, knowing all of that, take it.   I just have to keep reminding myself that I have no choice in the matter.   BLECH  >:oP       I know that I can do this, but it still sucks.   

So now you have all officially seen me in my bad mood.   I don't feel like having cancer today. 

Shayne - you inspire me with your courage and strength through this unthinkable adversity.  You are in my thoughts and prayers every day.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Innovation at CVESD Word Cloud

created at

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Connected Learning

Now, this is an essential question worth pondering:

How might education come to life if children were to possess a burning need to know?

More here in this video from Connected Learning

Connected Learning: 'ESSENCE' from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

3 Things I learned at the Deeper Learning Conference

Friday's Keynote speaker Tony Wagner likened our current state of educational reform and accountability to Charles Dickens opening to A Tale of Two Cities.  We are in the best of times. We re in the worst of times.  Well, I think that all depends on what we educators do with the hand we are dealt.  Here are three big ideas that resonated with me while at the Deeper Learning Conference this weekend at High Tech High San Diego.

1.  Iterate, Iterate, Iterate.
Tony Wagner told is this was his new favorite word and it's a great way to look at schooling and life. Mary Hendra from Facing History described her online PD program as being on the 6th year of "pilot".   Basically, it will always be in pilot. Do you know what is no longer in pilot?  The horse and buggy, the Yellow Pages, the CBS Evening News.  Therefore, iterate ... or become obsolete, or as Scott McLeod says, "Irrelevant".

2.  Authentic, Authentic, Authentic
Many school tasks are "So What" tasks.  They are done for the teacher, read only by the teacher and end up as landfill. It turns out projects are not immune to this syndrome. While learning about Challenge Based Learning (CBL) I was reminded of the  supremacy of the authentic task. Pseudo context, as Dan Meyer has pointed out on many occasions ain't fooling anyone. Student work should be for a real audience who would benefit from the end product.  Whether you are writing a friendly letter or creating a multimedia infomercial the purpose and audience must be crystal clear and... authentic.

3. Innovation and Accountability Need to Be Introduced to each Other
The energy at the Deeper Learning Conference was high. Much like Educon, these are the true believers of educational reform who have jumped in with both feet to make education relevant and meaningful for children. So, one question remains for those of us who believe there is a better way to do school.  Can we innovate in the era of the Standardized Test?  I think we can, but the burden is on us to articulate the skills, knowledge, and dispositions our students are acquiring in this different model.  It was encouraging to attend to several conversations with those who were wrestling with low test scores in a project based environment or networked digital professional development.  Assessment in this environment is messy and more subjective than those beautifully hard and fast numbers that actually mask a lot of important details.  So, if we believe that standardized test scores don't tell the whole picture -and they don't - then we need to tell the rest of the story.

So are these both the best and worst of times?  For me the glass is not only half full but overflowing. If we take the bull by the horns and write our own narrative it will be the best if times if not a renaissance in education.  However, if we let others define our role and outcomes, we just might end up on the other end of a guillotine.  Our kids our counting on us to lead the way.  Let's get 'er done!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Understanding By Design

I recently read The Understanding by Design Framework by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.  Here are the quotes that grabbed me in this summary document.

Key Element #1
Learning is enhanced when teachers think purposefully about curricular planning. The UbD framework helps this process without offering a rigid process or prescriptive recipe.

Finding the right balance between prescription and choice is critical.  There need to be some clear boundaries that narrow the scope of instruction without cutting off the life flow.

Key Element #4b
This process helps avoid the common problems of treating the textbook as the curriculum rather than a resource, and activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.
 Amen to this!  Teachers can and should think about the goals of instruction, then choose the resources that best meet those aims.  Poorly designed textbooks have been a problem for a long time and until one is written by the best minds, thinking and planning will be required.

Key Questions: How will we know if students have achieved the desired results? What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and their ability to use (transfer) their learning in new situations? How will we evaluate student performance in fair and consistent ways? 

Once we have clearly articulated goals, we need to answer these question explicitly.  If the standardized test do not offer a complete picture of student learning (and they don't) we must develop our own organic assessment system that will help teachers, students, and our community KNOW when students have hit the mark and where they still need to grow.

A key idea in backward design has to do with alignment. In other words, are we assessing everything that we are trying to achieve (in Stage 1), or only those things that are easiest to test and grade?

Quality assessment is not easy.  I'm convinced, however, that it's not impossible.  Teachers do many things to assess student growth toward learning goals that we need to come up with a way to capture that information and provide students with feedback and report on student growth to parents and our community with clarity and completeness.

Key Questions: How will we support learners as they come to understand important ideas and processes? How will we prepare them to autonomously transfer their learning? What enabling knowledge and skills will students need to perform effectively and achieve desired results? What activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplish our goals? 

So, what does instruction look like if the stated goal is independent learning?  What instructional routines are crucial for this to happen consistently in every class, every day, for every student?

We have found that backward design, whether applied by individual teachers or district curriculum committees, helps avoid the twin sins of activity-oriented and coverage-oriented curriculum planning.

The bottom line:  Who learned?  Who didn't?  What do we do next to increase the number of students in the first group?

This perceived incompatibility is based on a flawed assumption that the only way to raise test scores is to cover those things that are tested and practice the test format.  Indeed, the data from released national tests show conclusively that the students have the most difficulty with those items that require understanding and transfer, not recall or recognition.

Yes, Yes Yes!  This flawed thinking is the NORM in schools everywhere.  We must understand that aiming at specific standards is way too narrow and low of a bar.  When we aim for deeper understanding we will get both.

Key Questions: What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What is the ultimate transfer we seek as a result of this unit? What enduring understandings are desired? What essential questions will be explored in-depth and provide focus to all learning?

Essential questions provide the purpose that drives all subsequent instruction. Activity grounded in purpose gives meaning to skill development and knowledge acquisition.

Performance tasks based on one or more facets are not intended for use in daily lessons. Rather, these tasks should be seen as culminating performances for a unit of study. Daily lessons develop the related knowledge and skills needed for the understanding performances, just as practices in athletics prepare teams for the upcoming game.

There is definitely a place for deliberate practice in this instructional model.

Teaching for transfer means that learners are given opportunities to apply their learning to new situations and receive timely feedback on their performance to help them improve.

Critique and feedback are another central element if students are to deliver high quality performance.

Because knowledge acquired in a rote manner rarely transfers, there is a need to develop understanding of the larger concepts and processes along with the basics. 

This framework makes sense to me.  What are your thoughts?  

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Tabula Rasa

In December I was named to be the Principal of Camarena Elementary in Chula Vista, California (5 miles from Tijuana, Baja California - Go Xolos).  The school is being built and on schedule for a July opening of this year.  I'm looking to my PLN in the Blogosphere and Twitterverse to join me in this opportunity to define the what, the why and the how of a great school in this incredible era of change.  I've opened up a wiki to seek ideas, input, discussions, resources, models from any and every contributor to help make this school special for our wonderful community.  My draft vision is attached here and on the wiki.  Will you please take some time to add your ideas based on your expertise and experience and contribute to a meaningful learning experience for our community?

Draft Vision

Enrique Camarena inspired many through his life of community service and self sacrifice, Camarena Elementary will serve as an inspiration to the international community as a pioneering school where all learners quench their thirst for learning in an atmosphere of innovation, teamwork, and joy

Please go to the Camarena Elementary wikispaces page to add your thoughts.