Google Docs + Collaborative Learning Teams = win

Over the past year a half, our staff has deeply engaged in embracing a professional learning community (PLC) philosophy. Our teachers meet approximately twice per month during our 1:00pm student dismissal times for the purpose of collaborating around curriculum alignment, authoring assessments and looking at formative assessment data. Using a "loose-tight" framework, each collaborative learning team is in a different place along the PLC journey based upon their team make-up and students. We are tight in that the teams must focus their work on several questions:
  1. What is it we want all students to learn?
  2. How will we know when they have learned it?
  3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty?
  4. How will we respond when a student has already demonstrated understanding?
We are loose in allowing teams to dig into these questions from different angles. This creates a scenario in which teams of teachers are meeting more often together than we're asking them to meet in large group settings at the building or district level.

Google Docs is a tool that breaks down barriers and creates less paperwork for our staff members. Teams create agendas and track minutes in a Google document that is shared amongst the team and with building and district administrators. Some of our teams use Google spreadsheets to share student assessment data as well. This approach has several distinct advantages.

  • Accountability - At any given time a team member can refer back to previously made decisions within the document. Administrators can also gain a better understanding of the team's progress without being present.
  • Organization - Teams no longer need to shuffle through 3-ring binders full of handouts, agenda and minutes.  Teams are required to create a collection within Google Docs that encompasses their agendas and minutes, norms, goals and other pertinent documentation.
  • Accessibility - Our administrative team can access these documents where ever and whenever. For example, I was once in our elementary school meeting with a team, and received an instant message asking to elaborate on a comment I had left on a team's minutes from the high school. I was able to go into the Google Doc of the high school team and reply to their request.
Google Docs and collaborative learning teams have been an incredible fit for the staff members in our district.

In what ways is your school district or building or team using Google Docs? 

(cross-posted at SchoolCIO)

Feedback drives our professional learning

After every all-district professional learning day, we send out a google form to every teacher in the district.

Think of this form as our professional learning's formative assessment.  The results are used by our Iowa Core team (district leadership team comprised of 2+ teachers from each building, principals and district administrators) to plan for the next professional learning opportunity.  I wanted to take a moment to explain why we chose these specific statements and questions.  [Although I briefly explained it earlier as well]

The question, "Which statement best describes your current view of our professional learning opportunities?" is one that was added due to the timing of the year.  This probe helps us determine if our staff is feeling any sort of initiative fatigue at the halfway point of the year.

The statements about theory, demonstration, practice, collaboration and practice are all tied to Iowa's Professional Development Model. At any given time, our goal to ensure that any one of these aspects of quality professional development is not overtaking the others.  In the past, we've heard voices telling us things like "What I learned today makes sense, but I didn't have any time to begin putting it into practice."  Striking this balance is challenging, but we've been using this language to collect staff's perceptions of these ideas all year and will continue to do so.

The statement, "This professional learning opportunity will directly benefit my students" is one we strive to earn high marks every time.  If the staff give our learning low marks in this area, we know we missed the mark.

We also believe it's important to differentiate between a quality (or poor) messenger and a quality (or poor) message.  This is why we continue to use the statement, "The professional learning facilitator(s) was/were effective in his/her role(s)."

"I understand how this professional learning experience relates to building and district goals" is also an important prompt for our district leadership team, because it keeps us grounded in the work we've agreed to focus on for the year.

We've used the statements about follow-up from colleagues and administrators as an attempt to gauge the perceived gaps in our implementation.  To my knowledge, our survey responses this year have not identified any major discrepancies between staff and administration, but we continue to use the statements in the event it becomes a discussion point in the future.

We've only recently started using the most/least beneficial questions.  The results here have helped us break down the specific activities.  I correlate this to a more "standards-based" feedback.  We're attempting to differentiate the homers from the gomers.

Common formative assessments were the biggest new learning for the day, so it was important to get a feeling for how much more time and resources we might need to spend on this topic.  The results from the statement, "When I think about the common formative assessments work ahead of me and my team this year, I feel..." will give us a better idea of our future steps.

Finally, the open-ended questions give our staff members a chance to sound off and provide specific tips on what went well, what didn't go well and the areas they feel we should spend time on in the future.

Our feedback survey questions and statements have evolved over time, but our use of this qualitative data remains the same -- provide the best possible professional learning opportunities for our staff given the precious amount of time we're given.

(Note: I'm open for critiques of our form and would be delighted to learn about the questions, prompts and statements being used in your neck of the woods driving professional learning planning.  Comments are open.)

Eyes Wide Open

Cynthia McCabe said that:

Until one is hoisted into the high-pressure role of school administrator, there is no way to comprehend the complexities and competing interests that assert themselves into the myriad of decisions made within the course of a day.  It's easy for an observer to judge a school leader for decisions that seem to be made for the purposes of efficiency and peace in the faculty lounge.  I know I did my share of judging while in the the classroom.  However, that ended when my first administration position began.  By the end of my first week of crying kindergartners, complaining parents, voluminous paperwork, restrictive policies, tight budgets, and stressed out teachers, I completely empathized with all of my previous administrators and the decisions they had made.  My eyes were opened to the realities of the role. (p. 2)
I've had a few days lately when Cynthia's thoughts were real close to home.  Then I snapped out of it.  To use Cynthia's phrase, my eyes were opened to the tasks at hand that truly mattered -- providing feedback through classroom walk throughs; meeting with teachers in small groups to talk about what's going in their classroom; investing in the lives of my former students; encouraging classroom teachers;  and writing notes of appreciation to colleagues.

Our actions illustrate our values.  Sometimes I choose to value the management tasks.  Other days, I choose to value students and their learning.  It's not easy.

Re: Leading with technology

I wanted to capture this conversation as a reminder to myself of the danger in leading school reform/change with technology.  Specifically, this discussion is about the proposed education legislation here in Iowa.
Scott said...

to which I replied...
The conversation continued...

Teaching isn't easy. Neither is being a school administrator


I taught high school math for six years.   No doubt, it was challenging.  I grew frustrated with the generalizations that teaching was an easy occupation and that the solutions were simple.

Here are a few fictitious examples that aren't necessarily related to pedagogical strategies learned in teacher prep programs:

  • motivating Suzie who doesn't see the need to graduate high school
  • helping Johnny learn the three big ideas he missed while he was out sick for two weeks
  • working with Amanda, a student who is having difficulties focusing in school because her parents are going through a divorce at home.
Add in the complexity of assessment and grading that many of us are interested in and the job doesn't get any easier.  Providing quality feedback to students is great in theory, but challenging in practice.  Bill lays it out nicely here


I'm in my second year as a district administrator.   No doubt, it's a challenging gig, too.  I'm equally frustrated with the generalizations and simple solutions related to professional development and instructional leadership.  

Here are a few fictitious examples that aren't necessarily related to leadership strategies learned in administrator prep programs:
  • confronting Jeff, a staff member who is allegedly stalking a co-worker
  • delegating tasks to Brenda, a secretary who continuously tries to undercut her supervisor's authority
  • working in an office without a secretary once Brenda has been let go
Add in the ongoing balance of management tasks such as government and legal regulations with instructional leadership activities such as classroom walk throughs and meeting with teams of teachers -- the job doesn't get any easier.  


The purpose of this commentary isn't to suggest that one occupation is more challenging than the other.   It is merely a way I hope to briefly illustrate the complexities of both roles.   I believe many of our challenges lie within the system rather than the people themselves.  Teachers and administrators, let's work together to find solutions to the challenges we both face in the system!