Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Steven Farr - Teach for America

I remember reading an article in The Atlantic last year titled "What Makes a Great Teacher."   The article outlined the Steven Farr's role within Teach For America and highlighted a lot of the work that he has done to help identify the characteristics that TFA looks for when hiring teachers, and the methods that their best teachers employ in the classroom to help students learn.  To be honest, I was very interested to hear more about the practice that TFA has utilized to develop their framework and better understand how they have analyzed student data to identify which teachers they believe are great.

After almost 20 years in existence, TFA has developed some very complex structures to collect and analyze student data, but their definition of effectiveness is relatively simple.  They believe that effective teachers are those that create the most learning in their classrooms.  In order to identify where the most learning is taking place, they focus on standardized assessment data to ascertain how much growth has taken place during the time they are in a teacher's classroom.  Although he talked at great length about the imperfections of standardized data (various assessments, quality of test, alignment to standards), they have created a system to try and provide some consistency to the various testing tools that are used state by state.  At the end of the day, this analysis allows TFA to identify which teachers have caused the greatest gains, and they then study those teachers to try and find patterns in their methods to create their model of great teaching.

Personally, I really love the fact that TFA's model has been created by looking at exemplary practices in the classroom setting and that it is focused on student achievement (albeit a snapshot due to their exclusive use of standardized data).   Over the past few years, they have watched countless teachers and have found that the teachers who were able to create the most learning all did the following things.
  • Set big goals
  • Invest in students and their families
  • Plan purposefully
  • Execute effectively
  • Continuously increase their effectiveness
  • Work relentlessly
To be honest, I found this model to be really affirming as it is very similar to what we are hearing from other presenters in NESA, and directly related to what we have been working on as a faculty at ACS.  I also thought that the website that has been created by TFA is an amazing idea.  On the site, they have outlined their rubrics that have been created to describe the characteristics of great teaching, and attached a variety of resources to help teachers understand how they can improve in any of these areas.  Feel free to check this site out at

Friday, October 22, 2010

Open Spaces

I am currently in Kathmandu at the NESA leadership conference and having a great time. NESA (Near East South Asian Schools) was created many years ago to provide professional development for overseas schools in our region and is led by an inspirational educator, David Chojnacki. At the opening address yesterday, David shared a poem with us to help us focus our efforts as we enter our weekend of sharing and learning. The poem, "Fire" by Judy Brown was a great catalyst and really made me stop and think a lot about how we can use professional development to re-ingnite our passion for education.

Fire - Judy Brown

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

This poem made me think about a video by RSA Animate which describes Steven Johnson's latest book, "Where Good Ideas Come From." In his book, he asks, "what are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation?" What he discovered is that there are recurring patterns throughout history that lead to the conditions necessary for innovation and creativity. In addition, he contends that innovation has historically increased as the amount of spaces to share ideas has increased. Fortunately for us, we exist in a period of time when the number of open spaces has exploded and many educators are using a wide variety of tools to collaborate and share strategies that will help to improve the learning of our students. The great news is that this method of collaboration can occur at any time and from anywhere, and its effects are exponential. The more people who take part, the more we will all be able to improve.

I know that many people attend conferences to take advantage of the open spaces that are provided to connect with colleagues and share ideas. This is a wonderful opportunity and I always return to school refreshed, reinvigorated and inspired. I also know that these conferences are not the only way for me to share ideas with other educators who are seeking innovative and creative strategies for our schools. As David said this morning, it is the open spaces that can re-ignite our flame or passion for learning. How amazing is it to realize that we have access to tools that allow us to share spaces and keep that fire burning on a daily basis?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Can Google Help?

We have all heard the joke about the 3 most important things to consider when purchasing real estate; location, location, location.  I believe that principals will tell you something similar if you asked them about what they needed to do to be more effective in their role; communication, communication, communication.  I am very happy to say that my ability to communicate has increased significantly since we introduced google docs at ACS this year.

Although this may sound a little bit like an advertisement for Google, they have created a very powerful platform for educational communities.  Here are a few of the ways that we have used these tools at ACS.

Gmail – this is a no brainer but it is amazing how much better our email systems now work.  In the past, we relied on our parent community to submit their emails to us and we would place them in powerschool to create our email lists.  This led to a couple problems:
  • Many of our parents change jobs or emails and we didn’t always have the correct address on file
  • Our email client we used previously had trouble communicating with various email agencies (eg. Hotmail) and many families never would get our correspondence
With the google domain, we were given enough email addresses to give each of our families their own.   Our community knows that all of our letters, report cards, etc will be sent to this address and are checking it regularly or having these emails forwarded to their primary address.  Our tech gurus at ACS have also created our email lists by linking this information to our powerschool database and our parent lists are automatically updated as students enroll or withdraw from our school.

Calendar – I have always been a big supporter of iCal, but the transition to google calendar was very easy.   The calendar functions are great, and the ability to share calendars with my assistant and fellow teachers is wonderful.   In addition, google calendar syncs with my mobile phone almost instantaneously so I can see where I am supposed to be wherever I am in the school.

Docs – We have a very collaborative culture at our school and I am increasingly hearing the phrase “lets put that on a google doc,” from teachers, students and parents.  Our parents are very willing to help out at school events and we have been using google docs as a sign up list for various activities.   Do you need parents to supply food for the MS dance?  Let’s make a google doc.  Want to run a parent book club and need to find out who would like a copy? Let’s make a google doc.   These docs are easy to create and parents can access them with a simple click on the url link embedded in a mass email.

Forms – this might be my favorite.  We have already used forms a few times and it allows us to collect information in spreadsheets very quickly.  Basically, forms is a survey tool and can be used to send out short, focused surveys to various parent, student and teacher groups within the school.  I have also used forms to send out a survey to a principals’ list serve that I belong to.  One of forms greatest features is the ability to embed the survey in the body of your email.  This makes it even easier for your respondents to participate and has allowed for more people within our community to have a voice.

Sites – As an international school we have some pretty tight guidelines about what information we post on our general website for anyone to access.  At times over the past few years, I know that these restrictions have made it difficult for me to keep parents informed of important events or field trips that we have at our school.   Our email problems of the past also meant that there were often parents who were in the dark about wonderful events that were taking place in our school.   Google sites has allowed me to create a Parent Page,  basically a website, where we are able to post very specific information about school events.  The great thing about sites is that our parent page can only be accessed by people within our google domain.  This allows us to  keep this information private while giving parents access to the information that they need.

As you can tell, I am a big supporter of google docs and think that they have really helped me to engage our school community.  I am looking forward to learning more about these tools and am sure that we will continue to discover new ways to use google at ACS.