Monday, July 7, 2014

Why Career Technical Education Works - A Year of Reflection

"Vocational High Schools: Career Path or Kiss of Death?" reads the headline.

Reading the article got me thinking about career technical education; thinking about career technical education got me reflecting on what I've seen this year in my first year at a career technical school.

I've watched students dissect hearts and walk me through what they were looking at and what function each part of the heart served in our Health Services shop.

I've watched students in the Plumbing shop build a fully functional bathroom meeting all handicapped accessible regulations from scratch.

I've watched students in the Painting & Design shop transform a school cafeteria into an elegant ballroom for a dinner reception. I've watched our Culinary Arts students prepare a six course meal for hundreds of guests for said dinner reception; they built the menu and venue from scratch.

I've watched students from the Drafting, Electronics, Machining, and Welding shops collaborate in the design, construction, testing, and editing of functioning robots.

I see on a daily basis HVAC students fixing heaters or replacing filters on the roof; I see Construction Tech students building stages for the school art show; IT students fix staff computers; the Plumbing students laid the pipes for the renovations to the examining area of the Dental Assisting shop; I've dropped my car off in the Auto Tech shop at least 5 times.

Thinking about what I've seen our students do has got me thinking about why career technical education works.
"School is no longer about the 'quick right answer' but about the ongoing mental work of understanding new ideas and information." - Ritchart, Church, Morrison, Making Thinking Visible, p.28
It works because the learning is embedded in action; I just read in Educational Leadership that the best kind of professional learning for teachers is job embedded; the same holds true for everything that we do; career technical education works because it's what's best aligned to how people learn things.

It works because the students and instructors care for the building inside and out. Ownership is more than a figure of speech.

It works because the acquisition of transferable skills is prioritized. Our Business Technology students will leave Office certified, and soft skills such as professionalism, effective communication, and healthy living are embedded in our Career Enrichment classes.

It works because professionalism is the norm; our Cosmetology students work in a live salon with paying customers. There was a BMW in the Auto Body shop a few weeks ago. Expectations are high. Anything less than professional really can't be an option.

It works because academics are embedded in production; the applied mathematics in our Electrical or Drafting shops makes abstract concepts tangible. I never truly appreciated the Scientific Method until I saw it applied in front of me on so many walkthroughs and classroom visits this year alone.

It works because with mastery comes creativity; I've seen our Auto Body students paint family crests on hoods of a car, Welding students sculpt art, and Multimedia Communication students design brilliant public service campaigns.

Thinking about all of this brought me back to the article linked at the top of the page; the argument goes that if a student spends 3.5 school years in the cosmetology shop every other week alternating with academics but does not enter the field of cosmetology as a profession, then their high school experience was the "kiss of death;" the time was wasted.

The argument is wrong. The argument ignores the transferable skills and habits of mind the student learns in the career technical model that puts them a leg up no matter what path they pursue after high school.

The student learned that skills aren't acquired just by showing up; one doesn't learn how to do an updo by sitting there and watching. Learning is about getting in there and performing what needs to be done; whether it's comparing and contrasting poems or building a circuit, action is required to learn how to do it. Action is embedded in the career technical model.

The student learned that hours of practice go into mastering one thing; they learned that mastery is a marathon not a sprint.

The student learned how to learn something beyond knowing it for a day or two.

The student learned what it takes to be able to perform something successfully on demand with different variables over and over.

The student learned how to make their learning visible.

Many still look at career technical education and academic education as an either or, zero sum game; they see it as students are on one path or the other. It doesn't have to be and, furthermore, shouldn't be that way.

Career path or kiss of death? There are a lot of other possible outcomes.











Sunday, May 18, 2014

10 Reflections of a First Year Evaluator

I just finished my first round of summative evaluations in my first year as an evaluator; it was also the first year of the Massachusetts Model System for Educator Evaluation; instead of a formal observation with the traditional pre-conference, observation of a full class, and post-conference summative evaluations are based on classroom walkthroughs, teacher goals, and teacher provided evidence related to I believe 33 elements that are on the state teacher rubric.

As I looked through what I had noted throughout the year and wrote the evaluations I jotted down notes for myself for my second year as an evaluator. I ended up with 10 tips that I think will make me more relevant as an evaluator trying to increase student learning and facilitate teacher reflection and growth.

1. I need to do more walkthroughs. I felt like a I did a lot; I tried to get out of the office and into classrooms, but I didn't do enough to have enough data to give as much meaningful feedback as I wanted to. I may have done enough to make claims and issue a rating, but I'm hoping to have more impact than that.

2. I need to be more strategic with how I use my time. The administrative part of leadership really heated up after February vacation; I feel like I haven't left my office since March. There was much more time to get out on the floor and into classrooms in the fall and early winter; I need to use that time next year more purposefully as it relates to observations and classroom visits.

3. I need to make a rotating schedule in advance; I should use time in the summer to make a schedule of pre-planned walkthrough time of all teachers who I'll be supervising and fill my calendar. Furthermore, I need to treat the walkthrough time in my calendar like I do admin meetings; it is time that cannot be negotiated with, and I need to stop what I'm doing and tend to it when it's scheduled.

4. My feedback after walkthroughs should be organized consistently - make a claim, provide evidence from the walkthrough to support the claim, discuss how that impacts student learning, make a recommendation related to the claim, and asks reflective questions. If I keep the format standard, then the focus can be on the content and opportunities for growth and reflection.

5. I need to build in conversation time for each walkthrough; I learned this year that walkthroughs without conversation afterwards make little impact.

6. My feedback needs to be more clear. My words need to be careful and intentional. Sugarcoating is well intentioned but proven through experience to be ineffective. We can't achieve unclear targets.

7. I should include the students in my walkthroughs either during the class or afterwards. I know I need to do more walkthroughs, and I'm always looking for more opportunities to interact with students about their learning; it makes sense.

8. I should intertwine my feedback with our school's PD plan for the year - why not make both more relevant? I can use the PD plan to have pre-planned lenses to focus my walkthroughs each month, and provide feedback related that specific skill or practice of focus.

9. I need to find value in any kind of data. If I walk in on a test or quiz, then I need to find ways to take advantage of that kind of walkthrough. If I walk in on a test or quiz I'm not going to leave; I can ask the following questions to the teacher:

  1. how do you use the time when students are taking the quiz?
  2. what do the students do after the quiz?
  3. how do you plan for students finishing at different times?
  4. what are you assessing?
  5. how did you prepare for the assessment?
  6. how do you differentiate your assessments?
  7. what formative assessments have you done to prepare?
  8. how will you follow up after evaluating the assessments?
10. I need to be more active in August during the self-assessment process; the self-assessment is my chance as the evaluator to find out what areas of focus are relevant to the teacher. When the self-assessment is more meaningful the feedback is.

Some things to consider for next year. This year went well; I feel I was able to generate some great dialogue and reflection with many teachers I worked with. But it can always improve, and there's definitely a lot of opportunities for me to grow as an evaluator next school year. I'm looking forward to it.





Monday, May 5, 2014

3D Printing for Safety

I took a call from one of our administrative assistants this afternoon near the end of the school day, and she told me that a student was asking to show me something.

When I went out to see the student he asked me to come with him to a teacher's classroom to see something him, another student, and an engineering teacher were thinking about.

I obviously obliged.

When I arrived the teacher told me that he had been thinking about school safety since a presentation was given by our local police department, and that he and the two engineering students thought of a way to better secure classroom doors in an emergency by creating a hinged metal frame to extend across door windows that would not only secure the window but also the door itself. When closed it would stick out no further than boxes that cover wires, and when opened would automatically click on the other side to a latch. A teacher would only need to unclick the frame, and it would open and lock on its own. They had built a quick model out of cardboard.

Obviously an awesome idea. It's great that students and staff are actively thinking about ways to make the school safer. Seeing it and leaving it at that would make this a great vignette about what's beneficial about critical thinking and solution-based learning. It would be a great example of student and staff investing in their school community.

But there's more.

We got to talking about taking it to the next level and building a more authentic prototype, and using the resources we have in our vocational technical high school to make this idea a reality.

One of the students said we could fabricate the metal in our manufacturing shop, and the other student said we could use the 3D printers in drafting to figure out how to build the latch.

The students said they would begin drawing up the designs to begin prototyping, and figuring out the measurements and math required to make the gate expand and move exactly how it needs to and the teacher said he would oversee the engineering. They also said they could figure out how to manufacture the whole thing for less than $10.

We are always looking for ways to make the school safer; the high prices we pay for security upgrades is well worth it if our school is safer, but imagine for a moment if this idea produces a viable prototype.

$10?! Sometimes my lunch costs more.

I don't know what will come from the prototyping, and whether this particular idea will produce as designed.

What I do know is that tools like 3D printers aren't awesome because they're cool; they're awesome because they represent the idea that one doesn't  have to purchase their solutions. 

What I do know is that when you have a community of problem solvers they may come up with ideas that solve problems.

What I do know is that when you have the tools in your school to allow the problem solvers to actually produce the thing meant to solve the problem they just may create the solution.

What I do know is that our first instinct is often to pay for someone to solve the problem, but outsourcing becomes less necessary when we can do it ourselves.

What I do know is that when we have the full capacity to create we're less dependent.

All you need are problem solvers and on-site prototyping.






Saturday, April 26, 2014

17 Ways to Go Beyond "Think About It"

A common response to someone telling us that they don't understand or cannot do something is to tell them to "think about it."

Think about it; you'll figure it out

I've just started reading Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners and I've immediately taken notice of how the authors identify specific thinking moves integral to understanding, judgment, and other destinations thinking leads us to.

Rather than thinking about assuming that all thinking moves are instinctual I'm already thinking of generating alternatives to how I can better communicate what type of thinking I'm looking for with students or colleagues.

Instead of giving the vague and often unhelpful "think about it" response I could have made it more tangible and more likely to result in the action I was promoting:


  1. Observe closely
  2. Describe what's there
  3. Build explanations and interpretations
  4. Reason with evidence
  5. Make connections
  6. Consider different viewpoints and perspectives
  7. Capture the heart
  8. Form conclusions
  9. Wonder and ask questions
  10. Uncover complexity and go below the surface
  11. Identify patterns
  12. Make generalizations
  13. Generate possibilities and alternatives
  14. Evaluate evidence, arguments, and actions
  15. Formulate plans and monitor actions
  16. Identify claims, assumptions, and bias
  17. Clarify priorities, conditions, and what is known
The authors write, "by being clearer in our own minds as teachers about the kinds of thinking we want our students to do, we can be more effective in our instructional planning." (page 15)

Different Types of Thinking


And why is it important to go beyond "think about it" and make the thinking visible and connected to doable actions?

The authors write, "As we make thinking - our own as well as that of our students - visible, we draw attention to the mechanisms by which individuals construct their understanding. To the extent that students can develop a greater awareness of thinking processes, they become more independent learners capable of directing and managing their own cognitive actions." (page 21-22)

Instead of thinking of  generalizing what thinking is we ought to think of  clarify thinking as the result of specific and intentional moves.

"Think about it" isn't helpful and probably doesn't result in what we're looking for; focus in on what you're looking for and direct intentionally.

By going beyond "think about it" we move everyone toward the ultimate goal of independent learning and doing.





Thursday, April 24, 2014

5 Reasons to Blog or Tweet Even if Nobody is Reading, Retweeting, or Responding

This blog gets very little traffic, and that's ok. For all I know most people read my posts and X it before finishing the intro; that's fine by me.

Some of my "best posts" in terms of personal value and impact have received less than 20 clicks, and I'm pretty sure half of the clicks I got were me.

Don't worry about the crickets


Most of my tweets get 0 retweets or favorites, and that's ok. Sure, it would be nice to have hundreds of people read my posts or get multiple retweets, but it's not why I do it.

I'm not looking to make money off of my blog, I'm not all that interested in how many people follow me, and I don't need any extrinsic acknowledgement to know that writing about what I'm learning makes me better prepared to implement new knowledge and skills into daily habits and routines.

Even if your blog is unreadable, uninteresting, or unengaging there's still plenty of value in it for you as the writer; there's been plenty of value in it for me.

1. It cements your own learning - blogging and tweeting is the perfect follow up to what I'm reading, thinking about, or experiencing. Instead of sitting and thinking and forgetting or reading, highlighting, and forgetting I write it down. I may forget after I write it, but it'll be there when I need it. Blogging or tweeting takes annotating to the next level; it's like an infinitely sized margin of the book. It doesn't have to be on a blog, and it doesn't have to be published; recording it anywhere do more than letting it go.

2. Your words will be there when you need them - On Friday April 11 I left work feeling pretty low. I had an escalating issue that wasn't fixed by my first two rounds of interventions, and the situation was spiraling. Blame was being thrown my way. I was panicking a little, and frustration was overtaking critical thinking. In reading a post I wrote last June I was reminded of a similar situation I faced last year, and how to proceed became clearer and clearer. I re-took control of the situation, established exactly what my next moves needed to be and by the following Thursday the hostilities had subsided. I hadn't even thought about that post from last June since last June, but it was there for me when I needed it the most.

3. It keeps you in touch with the process of learning, reflecting, and creating - With each new piece comes new perspective on the creative process. It's through this constantly evolving perspective that we're able to provide the most effective guidance or instruction to the students or colleagues we work with trying to do the same thing in another arena. Instead of talking about what we think they ought to do, or what we've heard they ought to do, by staying fresh and continuously producing our own output we're able to talk to them about what we do.

4. You never know when someone is going to stumble across your words - Last summer I started my first full time school leadership position at a new school, and within a couple of weeks of being hired I was with my new colleagues at a summer leadership retreat. I hadn't interacted much with my new superintendent, but when we struck up a conversation he mentioned that he had read my blog and was impressed with what he read. It led to immediate conversation starters, and already established who I was as an educator to my new superintendent. And it wasn't even hard.

5. You'll have more effective face to face conversations - I work in education and I blog about teaching and learning and leading; the topics I write about come up in conversation all of the time. They don't come up because I write about them; they come up because they're crucial topics of conversation in schools in 2014. Reading and blogging about it prepares me for these conversations before they happen, because I've already worked through initial thoughts and synthesized information I've heard or read about. I'm a better resource for the people around me because of the writing I do on the side for sometimes the tiniest of audiences. 

The bottom line is that you ought not quit writing because you don't think anybody is reading.

It's not about your audience; it's about your own learning and creativity and growth.

The crickets are only temporary.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

5 Thoughts on Facilitating Better Meetings

One of the items lacking from any of my school administrator preparation courses was how to facilitate an effective meeting, but I've since discovered that we as school leaders facilitate a lot of meetings for a lot of different purposes.



Rare are the days when I'm not facilitating some sort of meeting, and rarely do meetings happen that don't leave me reflecting on how I can do better next time.

When planned right and executed well great meetings can produce important results and generate innovative solutions to persistent problems; the facilitator's role is crucial but also different with each circumstance for meeting. How I prepare will determine if the outcomes match the purpose.

I've learned 5 things about facilitating better meetings this year; please read below.

Prepare like you want your teachers to prepare their classes

NB: using backward design to plan my meetings has yielded great results. The meeting planner template linked above is something I put together adapted from Ubd lesson planning templates.

Facilitate like you want your teachers to facilitate their classes

  • post and review the objectives, intended outcomes, and agenda before starting; leave it projected / posted throughout the meeting
  • get everybody talking and sharing but always bring it back to the objectives
  • settings where a small group listens to the leader talk about something aren't the same thing as meetings
  • it can't be your meeting; it has to be everyone's meeting
    • just as classes can't be completely teacher-centered, nor can meetings be completely leader-centered
    • let them find your conclusions on their own

Communicate for purpose

  • don't tell me about the problem; tell me about the solution and actions needed to get there
  • don't be afraid to be honest 
  • be clear - identify what you need people to hear and do beforehand
  • prepare your questions as carefully as you prepare your statements

Identify and follow up on further action items

  • establish at the beginning what actions are expected following
  • don't make it just about the meeting; what's most important is what happens after the meeting
  • meetings that don't produce or lead to anything didn't need to happen
  • you'll know how good it was a couple of weeks later after the action items from it are reviewed

Don't get nervous; get prepared

  • if you're expecting confrontation or hostility, then your best strategy is extra preparation
    • visualize yourself responding to certain claims or talking points
    • anticipate where the hostility may come from and plan for it
  • nervousness is pointless; thinking and dreading is not the same as thinking and preparing
    • don't dwell on it, but don't avoid it - be ready for whatever it is
  • focus on what you can control; how someone else intends to behave is outside of your power


Saturday, March 29, 2014

12 Ways to Use Words to Inspire Growth


Your words matter. 
The way we give feedback, lead meetings, or speak to our teams or colleagues matters. In reading Self-Regulated Learning for Academic Success: How do I help students manage their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions? several selected quotes throughout the book show how impactful or unimpactful our words are and how inspiring or uninspiring they can be.

"Praise is a mixed bag. Although it can increase students' self-efficacy and their expectations of future success, it can also lead them to feel helpless in the face of challenges if their self-worth is tied too closely to being praised." -page 11

Acknowledge effort over result. Don't discuss things outside of their control. Use words that make improvement seem possible.
Be specific with your praise. Identify why they're being praised. Don't use praise as a consolation for disappointment, or because you feel obligated to. Use words for a purpose.
Don't make them reliant on your approval or input. They need to be able to self-diagnose their own problems and solutions. The goal is always to grow and get better; it's not to receive kudos. Use words that promote dialogue.
Visualize later now. Talk about how the praiseworthy incident can be replicated elsewhere. Use words that make connections and promote transfer.

"When a child learns to associate task outcomes with the effort invested,he's more likely to attribute failure to a lack of effort and to adopt new strategies and work harder until he succeeds." -page 11

Acknowledge effort over result. People have to believe their efforts matter or else you won't be able to keep them motivated to embrace the challenge. Use words that will inspire more effort.
Focus on what's controllable. Don't waste time with things that can't be changed or that have already happened. I once spent an entire coaching season blaming our losses on 2 guys who had quit the team earlier in the season. What a blunder, and a waste of energy and time. I shouldn't have used words that caused people to dwell on things they couldn't control.
Action plans have to be achievable. Set them up for quick wins. Don't aim for a target that can't be placed or can't be achieved. Use words that can be realized.
Tell stories of your own failures leading to growth. Empathize with how hard it is to keep getting better. Use words that make it seem possible.

"...teachers can do a lot to further students' self-regulation by creating a warm and supportive social climate, providing collaborative learning opportunities, and giving feedback focused on the learning process rather than the learning outcomes." -page 19

Give them a tangible skill of focus. One improvement at a time. Use words that make it clear.
Include them in the planning and feedback process. Make it their plan and their result. Use words that get them to own it.
Create critical thinkers and decision makers. They need to be able to evaluate their own habits and ideas. Use words that cause them to reflect.
Don't waste time on things they already know. "Good job" or "you can do better than this" or "this is terrible" or "A" alone doesn't help anyone get better. We usually know when it didn't go we'll; tell us how we can improve. Use words that promote growth.

"...it can be difficult to remember that your verbal and written feedback should concentrate not in outcomes but on students' selection and use of learning processes and strategies. Doing this focuses students on what they can do to improve their work and gives them a sense of control over their academic success...." -page 26
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