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4/25/2019

ENCORE: New Kid at the Conference…What I Learned When I Stepped Outside of My Comfort Zone

By: Virginia Ressa

GettyImages-618766306.jpgEditor’s Note: Last week, the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI) wrote a guest blog about Autism acceptance and shared resources for promoting acceptance. In addition to those resources, OCALI’s premier event, OCALICON, offers nationwide attendees a space to exchange ideas about policies and practices related to people with autism and disabilities. In November, Virginia Ressa wrote about her first experience at OCALICON, and we think this is the perfect time to share her story again.

I always enjoy going to conferences. Spending time with colleagues, discussing content and pedagogy issues and debating the latest concerns always renews my commitment to education. As a social studies teacher, I looked forward to the Ohio Council for the Social Studies conference every year. I looked forward to having lunch with old friends and talking about our shared struggle of making ancient history interesting to seventh-graders. I really enjoyed participating in this conference and similar conferences, like the Ohio Council for Law-Related Education’s Law and Citizenship Conference, each year. I knew people and was comfortable in those settings. But, looking back, I wonder if I was really learning anything new. I heard updates from the Ohio Department of Education, learned about new resources and maybe picked up some ideas on how to teach certain topics. There was a great deal of value in the renewal and re-energization those conferences provided, but was I really stretching myself? Did these conferences really challenge me to grow professionally?

My last blog post was about attending the Future Ready Ohio conference. I chose to write about that conference because I got so much out of it. Maybe it was because the content was new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. I ventured out of my comfort zone and, as you might expect, I learned a great deal. This month, I attended all three days of OCALICON. Do you know about OCALICON? Some quick background: Here in Ohio, we are lucky to have a nationally recognized organization that works to improve achievement for students with disabilities. OCALI (formerly known as the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence) holds an annual conference that attracts more than 2,000 participants from across the country and even internationally. Since 2007, participants have come from all 50 states and 17 countries.

This year, the Department’s Office for Exceptional Children partnered with OCALI to hold its Special Education Leadership Institute in conjunction with OCALICON. It was a great pairing and allowed Ohio’s attendees to participate in some Ohio-specific events and access all OCALICON’s rich content. Participation was up to about 2,900 attendees! I was one of the new attendees, and I felt the mild tension of being in new territory.

When I was a content area teacher, OCALICON wasn’t on my radar. None of the special education conferences were. Yet, all my classes included students with disabilities. I had their individualized education programs (IEPs) and knew what kinds of accommodations I was supposed to make. That seemed like enough. I never realized how little I knew about students with different disabilities and how to support them in accessing grade-level content. By attending conferences only related to my content area, I was limiting my learning and my ability to improve my practice and meet the needs of all the learners in my classroom. At OCALICON, I found myself outside of my comfort zone — and it was great. There were a few familiar faces and session topics, but most were new to me.

Of this year’s 2,900 attendees, only 60 were general education teachers. This number grew slightly from last year’s 38. Still, the majority of attendees are special education teachers or intervention specialists and special education directors. I’m beginning to think we are approaching conferences in the wrong way. I’m a social studies teacher and know a lot about history because it is something I’m interested in. I read books and watch movies about history all the time. What I don’t know enough about is how to support students with multiple disabilities. What I don’t know enough about is how to use technology to provide students with intellectual disabilities access to grade-level content. About 80 percent of our students with disabilities can, with accommodations, access grade-level content. This would be much more doable if our intervention specialists were not the only ones who knew how to do it.

So, what have I learned? I’ve learned I should attend conferences that focus on content I don’t know a lot about. This is one of those “aha!” moments when I realize I’ve been looking at something the wrong way for years. I wouldn’t sign up for a course on something I already know, so why keep going to the same conferences? I know our content area conferences are valuable for networking and refueling, but I would argue that attending conferences outside of our comfort zones has a great deal of benefit as well. Conversely, for special education teachers and intervention specialists, that would mean attending a few social studies and mathematics conferences.

My challenge to you is to open your mind to a new, authentic learning experience by finding and attending a different kind of conference this year. For instance, you might consider attending the next Ohio Council for Exceptional Children conference. Without a doubt, you also will want to save the date for OCALICON 2019.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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11/29/2018

New Kid at the Conference…What I Learned When I Stepped Outside of My Comfort Zone

By: Virginia Ressa

GettyImages-618766306.jpgI always enjoy going to conferences. Spending time with colleagues, discussing content and pedagogy issues and debating the latest concerns always renews my commitment to education. As a social studies teacher, I looked forward to the Ohio Council for the Social Studies conference every year. I looked forward to having lunch with old friends and talking about our shared struggle of making ancient history interesting to seventh-graders. I really enjoyed participating in this conference and similar conferences, like the Ohio Council for Law-Related Education’s Law and Citizenship Conference, each year. I knew people and was comfortable in those settings. But, looking back, I wonder if I was really learning anything new. I heard updates from the Ohio Department of Education, learned about new resources and maybe picked up some ideas on how to teach certain topics. There was a great deal of value in the renewal and re-energization those conferences provided, but was I really stretching myself? Did these conferences really challenge me to grow professionally?

My last blog post was about attending the Future Ready Ohio conference. I chose to write about that conference because I got so much out of it. Maybe it was because the content was new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. I ventured out of my comfort zone and, as you might expect, I learned a great deal. This month, I attended all three days of OCALICON. Do you know about OCALICON? Some quick background: Here in Ohio, we are lucky to have a nationally recognized organization that works to improve achievement for students with disabilities. OCALI (formerly known as the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence) holds an annual conference that attracts more than 2,000 participants from across the country and even internationally. Since 2007, participants have come from all 50 states and 17 countries.

This year, the Department’s Office for Exceptional Children partnered with OCALI to hold its Special Education Leadership Institute in conjunction with OCALICON. It was a great pairing and allowed Ohio’s attendees to participate in some Ohio-specific events and access all OCALICON’s rich content. Participation was up to about 2,900 attendees! I was one of the new attendees, and I felt the mild tension of being in new territory.

When I was a content area teacher, OCALICON wasn’t on my radar. None of the special education conferences were. Yet, all my classes included students with disabilities. I had their individualized education programs (IEPs) and knew what kinds of accommodations I was supposed to make. That seemed like enough. I never realized how little I knew about students with different disabilities and how to support them in accessing grade-level content. By attending conferences only related to my content area, I was limiting my learning and my ability to improve my practice and meet the needs of all the learners in my classroom. At OCALICON, I found myself outside of my comfort zone — and it was great. There were a few familiar faces and session topics, but most were new to me.

Of this year’s 2,900 attendees, only 60 were general education teachers. This number grew slightly from last year’s 38. Still, the majority of attendees are special education teachers or intervention specialists and special education directors. I’m beginning to think we are approaching conferences in the wrong way. I’m a social studies teacher and know a lot about history because it is something I’m interested in. I read books and watch movies about history all the time. What I don’t know enough about is how to support students with multiple disabilities. What I don’t know enough about is how to use technology to provide students with intellectual disabilities access to grade-level content. About 80 percent of our students with disabilities can, with accommodations, access grade-level content. This would be much more doable if our intervention specialists were not the only ones who knew how to do it.

So, what have I learned? I’ve learned I should attend conferences that focus on content I don’t know a lot about. This is one of those “aha!” moments when I realize I’ve been looking at something the wrong way for years. I wouldn’t sign up for a course on something I already know, so why keep going to the same conferences? I know our content area conferences are valuable for networking and refueling, but I would argue that attending conferences outside of our comfort zones has a great deal of benefit as well. Conversely, for special education teachers and intervention specialists, that would mean attending a few social studies and mathematics conferences.

My challenge to you is to open your mind to a new, authentic learning experience by finding and attending a different kind of conference this year. For instance, you might consider attending the next Ohio Council for Exceptional Children conference. Without a doubt, you also will want to save the date for OCALICON 2019.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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9/28/2018

Getting to know Future Ready Ohio — An Introduction to the Framework and Available Resources

By: Virginia Ressa

Ohio recently hosted its first Future Ready Schools Institute, which I was lucky enough to attend. Prior to the institute, my knowledge of Future Ready was limited to an understanding that the focus was on personalizing student learning. As a specialist in the Office for Exceptional Children at the Ohio Department of Education, I was hoping to learn how the Future Ready Schools initiative supports teachers in meeting the needs of Ohio’s diverse learners, including our students with disabilities, gifted students and English learners. It turned out to be a great two days and well worth the travel and time away from the office. I learned more than I expected and was left thinking about how the Future Ready Framework and its focus on personalized student learning can help Ohio work toward supporting the whole child.

Future Ready Framework

The Future Ready Framework has seven key categories or “gears,” with personalized student learning at the center. The outside rings emphasize the cyclical nature of transformation and the importance of collaborative leadership. Check out the framework on the Future Ready Schools website.

The Future Ready Framework

What I like about this graphic is that personalized student learning is right there in the middle, at the center of all of those other important pieces that are essential to successful school improvement. The framework details how each of the gears supports the goal of personalized learning. Clicking through and reading the content in the Future Ready Framework is a bit daunting at first — there is a great deal of content to engage with. Self-assessments can be used to encourage leadership teams to question and analyze their current practices, an essential step to any improvement effort. You’ll also see links to many evidence-based resources, research reports and case studies of successful reforms. There are even rubrics to assess our adult practices! Another nice feature of the site is that the content links take you back to the ideas in the seven gears — a consistent reminder they are all connected.

Personalized Student Learning

Being at the center of the framework, personalized student learning is called out as having the greatest importance in this model. You might think defining personalized learning is easy or obvious, but a quick Google search told me otherwise. So, how do the folks at Future Ready Schools define personalized student learning? They offer a couple of different descriptions depending on which “gear” you are focused on — I like the description connected to Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment:

Educators leverage technology and diverse learning resources to personalize the learning experience for each student. Personalization involves tailoring content, pacing, and feedback to the needs of each student and empowering students to regulate and take ownership of some aspects of their learning.

I like how this description uses the phrase “learning experience” because it acknowledges that learning is ongoing and not a set of isolated events. The description also includes two high-impact, research-based formative instructional practices: feedback and student ownership of learning. However, the most important word in that description is “empowering.” We can and should empower our students to be active participants in planning, regulating and assessing their learning. Empowering students to participate in decision-making provides opportunities for students to reflect on their learning, think critically about their work, self-assess and determine next steps toward success.

Personalized Student Learning in Ohio

The State Board of Education and the Ohio Department of Education recently approved a strategic plan, Each Child, Our Future. One of the plan’s three core principles is equity, stressing that, “Appropriate supports must be made available so personal and social circumstances do not prohibit a child from reaching his or her greatest aspiration” (Ohio Department of Education, 2018, p. 10). A focus on personalized learning will accelerate Ohio’s work toward implementing the principle of equity.

Aligned with Ohio’s strategic plan, Future Ready Ohio is working to advance authentic, personalized learning experiences. Future Ready Ohio helps districts develop comprehensive plans to achieve successful student learning outcomes by 1) transforming instructional pedagogy and practice while 2) simultaneously leveraging technology to personalize learning in the classroom. Future Ready Schools and the Future Ready Ohio effort can help districts as they work to contribute to Ohio’s strategic plan.

I encourage not only educators, but families and community members as well, to learn more about Future Ready Ohio. Did I mention the FREE resources available? Free self-assessments and rubrics are available to assist districts with creating and implementing action plans focused on empowering students to be ready for the future. I’ve just touched on one aspect of the framework — there is so much more to learn about the resources available to Ohio districts. For more information, contact Stephanie Donofe Meeks, the director of Ohio’s Future Ready work, and be sure to read her excellent blog posts.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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7/12/2018

Beyond Engagement: Empowering Students to Take Ownership of Learning

By: Virginia Ressa

GettyImages-846567624.jpgSummer “vacation” is one of those things that non-educators sometimes misunderstand. Some people, even our family members, think teachers have three months off to lounge, sleep in and binge watch the shows we missed during the school year. We know differently. First of all, it’s not three months – it’s maybe two and a half after you factor in required planning and professional development days. But that’s not what I want to discuss today. I want to talk about how we use that time. Educators are also learners, using their time “off” to take classes to maintain their current license, earn a new license or an advanced degree.

What motivates us to continue our education and complete graduate classes?
What inspires us to engage in the learning process? To finish the vast amount of academic reading? And to complete the group projects that are so ubiquitous in grad school? I can tell you from experience, there are no rewards that give graduate students bonus bucks to spend at the university store when they complete the required reading. Rather than extrinsic rewards, we develop our own intrinsic motivations that keep us focused. We have ownership of our learning because we know why we are engaged in the learning. We know where we are going and what is expected of us.

Why don’t our students develop the same ownership of learning that we do?
Think about our K-12 classrooms and how we involve students in learning. Many of our schools and classrooms have rewards systems with stickers and bonus bucks in an attempt to motivate reluctant students. We try to provide extrinsic rewards because we have not given students the information and tools they need to develop ownership of their learning and intrinsic motivation. Teachers make the decisions about what students will learn and how they will be assessed. Teachers determine the timing of lessons and units of study. Teachers collect evidence of student learning. Teachers keep track of student progress. Teachers retain most of the control of teaching AND learning decisions, which leaves students as directed, passive participants.  

As classroom teachers or grade level teams, we can offer rewards and privileges that might work for a short time, but rarely result in enduring motivation. Most of our attempts at external motivation fall far short of creating the engagement we genuinely want to see in our classrooms. What we are actually striving for, and what we experience as students ourselves, is ownership of learning. Student ownership goes beyond engagement and motivation, and empowers students with a sense of control and responsibility for their learning. Creating the conditions for students to take ownership of their learning requires teachers to work with students to set and communicate clear learning targets, collect evidence of their learning, track and analyze their progress, and provide opportunities for self and peer assessment.

We often see students engaged in classroom activities – they are busy, on task and focused. But if we stop to ask them what they are learning and why, can students articulate either? They may be on task simply to complete the activity before the end of class so they don’t have homework. Maybe they are on task because they want to earn a spot in Friday’s field trip. They may not know why they are doing an assignment, but have been provided with enough outside motivation to complete the assignment. Yet, research shows that when students know why they are engaged in a learning activity and understand how their learning will contribute to their long-term goals, they are more likely to be self-motivated and to reach their goals. In other words, students are more likely to be motivated to reach goals they’ve helped to set. They are more likely to keep working toward their goals if they can see and track their progress.


“Formative instructional practices involve students throughout the teaching and learning process. These practices – done well – enhance student efficacy and motivation to learn.”
-FIP Learning Modules


If you have participated in any of the Formative Instructional Practices (FIP) professional learning, you will recall it emphasizes four core practices: Creating clear learning targets, collecting evidence of student learning, providing effective feedback and supporting student ownership of learning.

The most critical element of student ownership and FIP is the creation of clear learning targets. Clear learning targets are the keystone in this set of practices because we cannot successfully implement the other practices if we do not have well written, aligned and easily communicated learning targets. Most significantly, clear learning targets provide educators with the key to empower students to take ownership of their learning.

This summer, Ohio’s teachers will have many opportunities to participate in professional learning. it is now easier than ever to learn about formative instructional practices. Free resources are now available on the Learning Management System (LMS). I’ve given you an introduction to student ownership of learning, but there are modules in the “FIP in Action” course that will help you to envision the practices in the context of content area classes. Once you have had a chance to take some time for yourself, visit the LMS and look at the many options available for improving your use of formative instructional practices.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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2/7/2018

Using #MyOhioClassroom to Celebrate Teaching and Learning Across Ohio

By: Virginia Ressa

Butler-Tech.PNGI get really excited when it is time to visit a school. I know I’m going to get to talk to students and teachers, see displays of student work and listen in on lessons and classroom discussions. When you enter a school for the first time, it takes a minute to orient yourself, to get a feel for the atmosphere and culture. You might hear the sounds of students in the gym or see a line of kindergarteners headed for the art room. Some lobbies are full of trophy cases and pictures of graduating classes from 50 years ago. Others are modern and sleek, with announcements on bright monitors. Each school is different because it is the community of students, teachers, administrators and families that create the school. School buildings come in all shapes and sizes, and even those that may look similar on the outside are wholly unique on the inside. Then, as you walk through the hallways and peek into classrooms, you see that each classroom is as unique as the students and teachers working within.

Krohn.PNGWhen I worked for a district, I often had the opportunity to visit schools and observe classes. I frequently found myself thinking, “I wish other teachers could see what this class is doing!” I have seen great examples of instructional practice and wished I could capture the scene to share with other educators. Before smartphones, tablets and social media, this was difficult to do. However, in today’s world, it’s easily done. Smartphones allow us to take great pictures and videos, and social media allows us to share those images instantly. We have the tools to celebrate and share the outstanding work happening in our classrooms every day.

If you follow the Ohio Department of Education on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, you’ll see that State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria has had the opportunity to visit many Ohio schools and classrooms. I love to see the pictures, and especially the videos, he posts. It’s inspiring to see our teachers and students in action, to see the colorful classrooms full of literacy materials and art projects, to hear students learning together. By sharing his pictures and videos, Superintendent DeMaria has taken us with him on his tour of Ohio schools, sharing with us the hard work educators and students put into the learning process and celebrating their accomplishments.

Wadden-1.PNGThe superintendent isn’t the only one sharing the happenings in our classrooms. When you search Twitter and Instagram for #MyOhioClassroom, you’ll find pictures and videos of elementary, middle and high schools from small districts and large districts, urban and rural schools — using #MyOhioClassroom, we can connect to students and teachers anywhere in the state and share in the unique learning happening in their classrooms.

Inviting others in to our classrooms using social media provides us all an opportunity to celebrate teaching and learning. As Ohio works to improve our schools, we need to look to each other to share ideas, motivate us to try new things and provide our leaders with examples of the high-quality teaching and learning happening in so many of our schools. I encourage you to search for #MyOhioClassroom to see what teachers are posting. I just found pictures of Butler Tech students starting clinical rotations at a local nursing home. I see that Ms. Krohn’s students at Moreland Hills Elementary are writing in their math journals. First-graders in Westlake City Schools are wearing surgical masks as they become “word surgeons” creating contractions. Third-graders in Crestwood Local Schools are having lunch with Principal Gerbrick as a reward through their Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system. If you regularly follow the hashtag, you will see that teachers are posting new items every couple of hours. What will you find when you search for #MyOhioClassroom? What’s happening in your school today that you could share?

Crestwood.PNGIf you aren’t familiar with Twitter, do not be intimidated. It’s much easier and more fun than it looks at first glance. Here’s a blog post from the International Society for Technology in Education — “Twitter is dumb! Or is it?” — that will help you get started. Once you get your account set up, you will want to follow @OHEducation to get news and updates about public education in the Buckeye State and @OHEducationSupt to follow along with Superintendent DeMaria as he visits schools and posts pictures and videos. (Fun Fact: If you follow his feed, you may get to see him singing!) I also welcome you to follow my account @VirginiaRessa, as I do my best to share evidence-based practices to help all students be successful.

Have a question? Post it in the comments below or write to me directly at Virginia.Ressa@education.ohio.gov.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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12/6/2017

Formative Instructional Practices: Beyond the Basics

By: Virginia Ressa

ThinkstockPhotos-486325400.jpgWhat seems like ages ago, the Ohio Department of Education secured a Race to the Top Grant that allowed us to develop new tools and resources in collaboration with districts across the Ohio. Thus began my adventure into the world of formative instructional practices (FIP) and the challenge to lead the development of online professional learning resources with our partner, Battelle for Kids. The federal grant funds allowed us to create 57 online learning resources, including modules and guides, and a video library to support the improved use of formative instructional practices in all classrooms. The grant included a team of FIP specialists to work regionally with participating districts. We managed to reach half of Ohio’s districts and more than 40,000 educators!

Formative instructional practices are the formal and informal ways that teachers and students gather and respond to evidence of student learning. Notice that this definition includes students as an active part of gathering and responding to assessment information. FIP includes four core practices that research has shown to be among the most effective for improving student achievement. The four practices include the following:

  1. Using clear learning targets;
  2. Collecting and documenting evidence of student learning;
  3. Providing effective feedback;
  4. Preparing students to take ownership of their learning.

The FIP professional learning resources purposely focus on just these four core practices. This focus allows educators to improve their practice without the overwhelming feeling of having to change everything. During Race to the Top, the Department received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the FIP resources from administrators, teachers and even pre-service teacher education programs.

Then, the inevitable happened, the grant ended. Our team of FIP specialists went their own ways, our contract with Battelle for Kids ended and I took on other work. A couple of years later, I am very glad to report that FIP has survived beyond the Race to the Top grant and my relocation to the Department’s Office for Exceptional Children. With the help of Allie Sberna from the Department’s Office of Educator Effectiveness, I am glad to announce the next generation of FIP professional learning, FIP 2.0, back by popular demand!

We have received many inquiries about what happened to the FIP modules. You can now find all of the FIP resources on the Learning Management System for Ohio Education (LMS). Educators can access the LMS through their SAFE accounts. Once they log in, they will see a link within their list of available applications. Within the LMS are resources from across the Department, including everything from early learning to career-technical education.

Allie and I encourage Ohio educators to explore the additional learning and resources that go beyond the introductory level. Many schools began by promoting the use of the FIP Foundations modules — a series of five modules designed to introduce teachers to the basics of formative instructional practices and provide a big picture of how they can improve teacher practice and school achievement. We encourage you to go beyond the basics and enroll in one of the courses with more in-depth content.

These six additional courses go beyond the basics, focusing on specific practices and content areas:

  • Leading & Coaching FIP;
  • Clear Learning Targets (broken down by subject area);
  • Reaching Every Student;
  • Designing Sound Assessment;
  • Standards-Based Assessment;
  • FIP in Action.

The FIP courses can be used for independent study or as part of a blended learning experience that includes face-to-face meetings with colleagues. Facilitation guides are available within the courses and can be used to guide discussions about evidence-based practices, reflection on current teaching practices and goal setting for implementing new practices. FIP courses also can be integrated into Resident Educator work, growth and improvement plans and individual professional development plans (IPDP).

Wondering what happened to the FIP videos? They’ve moved to YouTube and can be accessed here. All the videos include Ohio educators and students during real classroom interactions. Along with each video, you will find information about the class and teacher, discussion questions and connections to the standards. What can you learn from their practice? How would you coach them to keep improving?

Allie and I are working to update all the FIP resources to reflect current language. For instance, Ohio’s Learning Standards are no longer the “new” learning standards. All the FIP resources will get a refresh over the next few months, but we didn’t want to wait for that to be complete to make them available to you.

How are you using formative instructional practices? Share your work via Twitter using #MyOhioClassroom and #ohFIP.

For more information about FIP: Beyond the Basics, you can contact Allie and me using the information below.

Virginia Ressa
Office for Exceptional Children
(614) 728-6920
virginia.ressa@education.ohio.gov

Allie Sberna
Office of Educator Effectiveness
(614) 369-4071
alison.sberna@education.ohio.gov

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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10/12/2017

Forgetting About Friendship: Making the Best of Your Teacher Teams

By: Virginia Ressa

GettyImages-504875442.jpgImprovement efforts, like the Ohio Improvement Process (OIP), have advocated for a move away from teachers working autonomously toward participating in teacher-based teams. The goal of teaming is to provide a forum for teachers to share ideas, collaborate, learn from each other and, ultimately, better meet the needs of students and improve student achievement. However, just like putting four middle school students in a group does not necessarily result in collaborative learning, assigning teachers to a team does not always result in effective collaboration.

I worked on a team of five dedicated middle school teachers. We met once a week during a common planning period. What did we do with all that time? It’s hard to say. Some days we focused on one student, inviting a parent or guardian to join us. We talked a bit about students’ work. For instance, who was and wasn’t doing homework, who was falling behind, who needed a phone call home or to see the guidance counselor. We planned field trips, dances and other special events. We shared stories and laughed about the crazy things students do in middle school.

More important is what we didn’t do. We didn’t bring our lesson plans to the table for feedback. We didn’t plan collaborative, interdisciplinary lessons. We didn’t share assessment data to determine student needs. We didn’t talk about instruction or about trying to improve our instructional practices.

Since my tenure in middle school, I have learned a lot about the value of working in teams to analyze practice and collaborate on finding solutions. As teachers, we know that using evidence of student learning can help us plan instruction that meets the needs of students. However, we often shy away from, even avoid, discussing assessment data and instruction with our colleagues. I know this isn’t true of every team of teachers, but it is a barrier for many.

Why is it so hard for us to share our data and solicit feedback from colleagues? During my research on teacher-based teams, I read quite a few reports that suggested some very thoughtful factors contributing to this barrier. I think you’ll quickly recognize some of these:

  1. Lack of trust: “What if a team member tells my principal about a mistake I made?”
  2. Fear of criticism: “What if the team thinks my lesson plan is really bad?”
  3. Fear of failing: “My students might not score as well on the assessment as students in other teachers’ classes.”
  4. Desire to work autonomously: “I’d rather just work by myself — I have my own style.” 

These are all valid concerns and could undoubtedly get in the way of collaboration. Experts suggest many solutions. School leaders could conduct trust-building activities and provide more training, or teams could utilize discussion protocols to keep conversations positive. There are a plethora of team-building solutions. Go ahead and do a Google search for “building collaborative teams.” I got more than 3 million results. In other words, we are not at a loss for solutions. Though it is hard to find a solution before you’ve clearly defined the root causes of the “problem.” Why do we distrust each other? Why do we fear criticism and critique? Does it really matter whose students perform better?

Through my research, I found that one of the reasons we struggle with collaboration actually is very simple: We want to retain their relationships and friendships and fear that having critical discussions about instructional practices will be too contentious and possibly endanger those relationships. We don’t all teach the same, and when we discuss instruction, especially lessons plans we have personally created, critical dialog is likely to offend someone. I might offend the department chairperson who makes key decisions about scheduling and distributes resources. I might offend my friend who teaches next door to me. Then there is the first-year teacher who I want to encourage and not discourage. Part of working in schools is creating and maintaining relationships, but we often avoid critical discussions of pedagogy, assessment and student achievement to preserve those relationships.

The glitch is, when teams avoid conflict, they miss out on the benefits of cognitive conflict and the learning it produces. Researchers have found that in their efforts to maintain harmony and “get along,” teams avoid any real discussion of differing opinions or divergent thinking (De Lima, 2001). Unfortunately, without dissent and divergent thinking, we suppress creativity and innovation.

Let’s go back to Google. This time try Google Scholar and search for “forgetting about friendship” (use the quotation marks). As you will see, researchers have been looking at the role of friendship in professional learning communities and teacher-based teams. It turns out, I think a little ironically, that our efforts to maintain harmony and create friendships are actually getting in the way of collaboration and learning. In order for practice to change and reforms to take hold, we need to go beyond comfortable conversations and get used to difficult conversations that challenge practice. Conflict and debate are inherent to social interaction and promote change; teacher teams are no different (De Lima, 2001). 

Video.PNG
The Teaching Channel provides video resources for teachers including this one showing an effective teacher team in action.

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.


References

De Lima, J. A. (2001). Forgetting about friendship: Using conflict in teacher communities as a catalyst for school change. Journal of Educational Change, 2(2), 97-122. 

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10/5/2017

ENCORE: There’s More than One Way to Scramble an Egg

By: Virginia Ressa

Editor's note: This blog was originally published on June 14, 2017, but some things are so good they deserve another look! We are re-running the post so everyone gets a chance to read this staff favorite.

ThinkstockPhotos-466406260.jpgI like to think of myself as a “lifelong learner,” but my husband keeps finding ways to challenge this notion. Do I really want to learn about classic '70s rock music? I’m fairly sure I could have lived without learning how to tile a foyer — though it did turn out pretty well. A while ago, he was watching cooking shows, finding recipes for “us” to try out. I was game for trying new recipes. I’m a pretty good cook, but my repertoire is definitely limited.

In the course of our mini adventure through cooking shows and new recipes, my husband told me about a video of Gordon Ramsay demonstrating how to make the perfect scrambled egg. Wait. I know how to scramble eggs. I’ve been scrambling eggs since I was a teenager. It’s simple, and there really is just one way to make scrambled eggs…right?

As adults, there are some things we’ve been doing for such a long time or so often that we have come to believe there is just one way to do that task, and we already know how. Teachers often think about their classrooms and instructional practices this way. We know what works, so we keep using the same methods over and over. Once we have found a practice that works well, we recreate it with each group of students with the underlying notion, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But is your method for teaching addition using buttons as manipulatives the only way to do it? Is it the most effective? What if you talked to other elementary teachers and asked what their best practices are? Maybe there’s another method that might also work well?

I eventually acquiesced and agreed to watch the video on scrambling eggs. I found out that there are, indeed, other ways to scramble eggs. There was Chef Ramsay using a pot instead of a nonstick frying pan. He had a spatula but not the flat kind I use to make eggs; he used the rubber kind that I mix things with. The most surprising part of his technique was the addition of crème fraiche. I was incredulous — I had never heard of anyone making eggs this way. I immediately got out the eggs, butter, a small pot, the spatula that Ramsay said to use and a container of sour cream (turned out I was all out of crème fraiche). I don’t know if I had set out to prove Ramsay wrong or if I was really intrigued about a new way of scrambling eggs. Of course, the eggs were really good. Light and fluffy, with a bit of a rich flavor added by the sour cream. Not only was Ramsay right, so was my husband. I had to swallow my pride and admit that there is more than one way to scramble an egg. Now, almost every Sunday, I make really good scrambled eggs for our brunch. I’ve experimented with some variations, like sour cream, and have found some small changes that work for me. I’m just confident enough to think I can improve on what Ramsay does.

When we think about our personal and professional lives, there are probably dozens of these types of everyday things we do that we would never consider doing differently. We have routines that we build into our classroom expectations because we think they work well. How do you help students get ready to leave the classroom? Do they wait at their desks for the bell? Do you have them line up along the tape on the floor? Here is a video from a teacher who uses music to focus her students on lining up for lunch. This is probably much more effective than the rush of middle schoolers I had waiting to push the door open and run to the lunchroom. Beyond classroom management, we also become comfortable with how we teach content. How do you teach the basic concepts of your subject area? Do you use a set of graphic organizers every year? Could you integrate technology to make the use of graphic organizers more effective? My point is simply that there are always other techniques to consider. Find out what your colleagues are doing. Check out the Teaching Channel for videos of all types of classroom practices. Take time to think about the teaching and learning happening in your classroom and how you might experiment with new ways of doing things that have become accepted practice.

If we are going to profess the benefits of being lifelong learners to our students, we need to be willing to be lifelong learners as well. I rewatched Ramsay’s video this morning and saw that it has more than 22 million views. Maybe we have more lifelong learners in our midst than I thought. In case you are feeling the need to learn how to do something differently, here’s an article from The New York Times with a series of videos about how to wash your hair. Yes, there is more than one way to wash your hair.  

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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8/10/2017

A Great School Year Starts with Knowing Your Students

By: Virginia Ressa

ThinkstockPhotos-477634708.jpgHappy New School Year! My colleague and friend, Stephanie Donofe, ended her blog last week by wishing everyone a happy new year. I thought it was perfect — that’s exactly how I feel at the start of a new school year. It may not be Jan. 1, but you’re starting anew: redecorating, buying supplies, planning lessons, organizing resources. It is a fun time of year, as long as the weather doesn’t turn too hot.

One of the most interesting aspects of a new school year is meeting your new students. They may not be new to the school, you may know of them from your colleagues or even have data in a file, but you don’t truly know your students until you spend time with them. There are lots of “interest inventory” tools out there to ask the students about themselves. Some of these are probably a lot more useful than others. Do you really need to know Johnny’s favorite food? Maybe, but I bet there are questions you could ask that would reveal a whole lot more about your students and their lives than asking for their favorite foods. Maybe it would help to ask students about what comes “easy” to them and what things they consider “challenges.” I saw a set of writing prompts that asked “would you rather” questions like, “Would you rather be really tall or really short?” or “Would you rather live in the city or the country?” These types of writing prompts also are great conversation prompts and could elicit important details about students’ lives, their interests, fears and more.

In Ohio, we have a very diverse student population. Almost 3 percent of our students are learning English as a second language. That might not seem like a lot statewide, but it is significant if those students live in your district. Students with disabilities make up 14.5 percent of our population and are learners in classrooms across the state. The most startling of the statistics I looked at today is the percent of our students who are economically disadvantaged: 49.9 percent. That’s half of our 1.7 million students living in households struggling to meet their financial needs, which we know has many repercussions. Part of those students who are economically disadvantaged are the 1.2 percent who are homeless; that is 20,185 homeless students in Ohio. Right now, Ohio is experiencing a record number of students needing stable, out-of-home care as a result of the current opioid epidemic.

When we meet our new students, especially those new to the district, they don’t come with signs on their foreheads that tell us what their needs are. We have to work hard to identify their strengths and weaknesses and to understand what their environments are like when they leave our schools. I don’t say that to sound depressing — I promise, I’m not here to spoil your new year. I bring up these issues because it is essential for teachers to learn about their students so they can better meet students’ needs. This is not an easy task, and we often unintentionally revert to applying stereotypes and making assumptions. In such a diverse state, making assumptions about who our students are is definitely not best practice and reminds me of my mother’s admonition about the result of making assumptions (do you know that one?).

I’d like to share with you a personal story that isn’t all that pretty. When I began teaching, I was working in an urban alternative school with “at-risk” students. As a history teacher, I thought it would be fun to start the year off by making timelines of our own lives. I created a sample on the board with details of my life, then I asked my seventh-graders to draw a timeline of their lives. I wanted them to go back before they were born and include their parents and other family members on their timelines. There was one student who just would not get to work. As a new teacher, I felt that if I let him “get away” with that, it would set a precedent for the year. So, I urged him to get to work a couple of times. I tried changing my tone from friendly to stern. Still nothing on his paper. I set a consequence, threatening to send him out of the room if he wasn’t going to participate. He made the decision to leave the room himself and cursed at me on the way out. What I found out when I talked with him later was that he didn’t know much about his family or when or where his parents and grandparents were born. Because I never asked him why he wasn’t working, I didn’t understand his behavior or his learning needs. I was naïve in assuming this would be a “fun” activity for all my students. I hadn’t considered the complicated emotions it might elicit because I didn’t yet know my students.

That’s a hard story to share so publicly. I have to remind myself that it was many years ago, and I was very young. But that’s not an excuse and doesn’t make my naïveté okay. What helped to make things right was the frank and honest discussion my student had with me about his life and the apologies we exchanged as we both pledged to ask rather than assume.

As you meet your new students, remember that there are many things you don’t yet know about them. Ask lots of questions, provide opportunities for them to share their experiences and lives with you and their classmates. Share some of your own personal stories, even your strengths and weaknesses. Take the time to stop and think before you assume anything about a student. A student may be learning English for the first time, but she also may be proficient in reading and writing one or more other languages — she already has strong literacy complex thinking skills that you can foster. A student receiving free lunch may have a more stable home than the student who comes in with a full lunch box every day. The student identified as having a learning disability is likely able to achieve at the same rate as his peers if provided the right supports.

I encourage you to embrace the diversity of your classroom by getting to know your students and avoiding making assumptions about them. This is a lesson I learned the hard way — I hope this is a time when you can learn from another teacher’s mistake.

Have a very Happy New Year! 

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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6/14/2017

There’s More than One Way to Scramble an Egg

By: Virginia Ressa

ThinkstockPhotos-466406260.jpgI like to think of myself as a “lifelong learner,” but my husband keeps finding ways to challenge this notion. Do I really want to learn about classic '70s rock music? I’m fairly sure I could have lived without learning how to tile a foyer — though it did turn out pretty well. A while ago, he was watching cooking shows, finding recipes for “us” to try out. I was game for trying new recipes. I’m a pretty good cook, but my repertoire is definitely limited.

In the course of our mini adventure through cooking shows and new recipes, my husband told me about a video of Gordon Ramsay demonstrating how to make the perfect scrambled egg. Wait. I know how to scramble eggs. I’ve been scrambling eggs since I was a teenager. It’s simple, and there really is just one way to make scrambled eggs…right?

As adults, there are some things we’ve been doing for such a long time or so often that we have come to believe there is just one way to do that task, and we already know how. Teachers often think about their classrooms and instructional practices this way. We know what works, so we keep using the same methods over and over. Once we have found a practice that works well, we recreate it with each group of students with the underlying notion, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But is your method for teaching addition using buttons as manipulatives the only way to do it? Is it the most effective? What if you talked to other elementary teachers and asked what their best practices are? Maybe there’s another method that might also work well?

I eventually acquiesced and agreed to watch the video on scrambling eggs. I found out that there are, indeed, other ways to scramble eggs. There was Chef Ramsay using a pot instead of a nonstick frying pan. He had a spatula but not the flat kind I use to make eggs; he used the rubber kind that I mix things with. The most surprising part of his technique was the addition of crème fraiche. I was incredulous — I had never heard of anyone making eggs this way. I immediately got out the eggs, butter, a small pot, the spatula that Ramsay said to use and a container of sour cream (turned out I was all out of crème fraiche). I don’t know if I had set out to prove Ramsay wrong or if I was really intrigued about a new way of scrambling eggs. Of course, the eggs were really good. Light and fluffy, with a bit of a rich flavor added by the sour cream. Not only was Ramsay right, so was my husband. I had to swallow my pride and admit that there is more than one way to scramble an egg. Now, almost every Sunday, I make really good scrambled eggs for our brunch. I’ve experimented with some variations, like sour cream, and have found some small changes that work for me. I’m just confident enough to think I can improve on what Ramsay does.

When we think about our personal and professional lives, there are probably dozens of these types of everyday things we do that we would never consider doing differently. We have routines that we build into our classroom expectations because we think they work well. How do you help students get ready to leave the classroom? Do they wait at their desks for the bell? Do you have them line up along the tape on the floor? Here is a video from a teacher who uses music to focus her students on lining up for lunch. This is probably much more effective than the rush of middle schoolers I had waiting to push the door open and run to the lunchroom. Beyond classroom management, we also become comfortable with how we teach content. How do you teach the basic concepts of your subject area? Do you use a set of graphic organizers every year? Could you integrate technology to make the use of graphic organizers more effective? My point is simply that there are always other techniques to consider. Find out what your colleagues are doing. Check out the Teaching Channel for videos of all types of classroom practices. Take time to think about the teaching and learning happening in your classroom and how you might experiment with new ways of doing things that have become accepted practice.

If we are going to profess the benefits of being lifelong learners to our students, we need to be willing to be lifelong learners as well. I rewatched Ramsay’s video this morning and saw that it has more than 22 million views. Maybe we have more lifelong learners in our midst than I thought. In case you are feeling the need to learn how to do something differently, here’s an article from The New York Times with a series of videos about how to wash your hair. Yes, there is more than one way to wash your hair.  

Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.

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