Sunday, December 09, 2012

Effective Professional Development

Our School District 57 Superintendent Brian Pepper recently posted a blog about Effective Professional Development. While his blog does not currently allow comments, he notes in an earlier post that "this blog, if you can even call it that... will not be interactive. I just don’t have time to read, respond and monitor the interactive comments... I am confident you will be able to make your views known in other locations!" I'm not exactly sure if this refers to views about what he has posted or just views in general, but I thought I'd go with the former and take up the challenge to respond to some of the observations in his recent post on Professional Development.

Brian discusses Helen Timperley's book Realizing the Power of Professional Learning and the knowledge-building cycle of inquiry that promotes valued teaching and student outcomes:
Timperley’s book certainly adds credibility to the process our district has been using for some time: learning team grants. The grants’ primary purpose is to support teams of educators working together on inquiry-based learning that will be utilized in the participants’ classrooms. In addition, the grants create opportunities for teachers to work together, to learn from each other, to create and to innovate. The rich discussion and sharing of successful practice is motivating, deepens understanding about the process of learning, heightens awareness regarding the critical nature of assessment, and often leads to improved results for students and improvement in teaching practice. This year over 150 of our teachers are working on learning team grants, in the areas of curriculum and instruction, technology, aboriginal education, play-based learning and assessment.
We need to celebrate and share this important work in a more effective manner moving forward. We need to direct more funding into inquiry-based learning initiatives. We need to expand the circle of involvement and influence beyond the school and district and into a province-wide professional learning conversation and interconnected professional learning initiatives that benefit our most important resource: children!
I'll respond specifically to the use of Learning Team Grants (LTGs) and the need to celebrate and share this work. Our district's use of LTGs started about 10 years ago with what were called Action Initiative Grants, essentially release time for teachers who wanted to work on shared inquiry. We also had something called Technology Innovation Grants that offered funding and release time for teachers who wanted to employ some new technology-informed practices with their students. The LTGs succeeded these grants and are now the default means for teachers to get time away from class to work on curriculum & instruction projects. The other means available are to seek release or lieu time from a principal or the Curriculum & Instruction department directly, or to seek an Inquiry Project grant from the Pro-D fund administered by the teacher's union. This idea of taking a bit of time to sort out pedagogy and hone our craft is not new, it has been going on for decades but has often been arbitrary... "please sir, can I have a day off" kind of thing. I think a more formal process like the LTGs is a good move, it provides the potential for accountability, collaboration, and student-centered action.

The part where LTGs are not working, as Brian suggests, is the celebrate and share part. I've informally polled a few elementary and many secondary teachers; there are clearly some misgivings about the quality and quantity of work being done. The majority of these LTGs appear to be secrets within their own schools, let alone the district level, and we have no established means of communicating either their presence or the results. Our staff email system, primitive locked-down websites, and limited social media presence are not up to the communication task, and as a result the LTGs live and die in small pockets of usefulness. A colleague recently told me that he thinks he is part of a Math LTG but is not quite sure. Is he one of the 150? The "best-kept-secret" problem reminds me of the S.A.L.T. group we used to have at our school. I think the S stood for Secondary but it became known as the "Secret Assessment Learning Team" because most staff had not heard of it, did not know what the acronym stood for, did not know how it was formed, or what it involved. Why are we so shy about professional learning? We do have an "All Around Our Schools" feature in the local paper; this gets into some of the fun events and student activities, but is not really scaled to delve into the "province-wide professional learning conversation." More deliberate and interactive tools are needed to make the connection. My wife had a good suggestion -- a searchable database that would allow teachers and others to scan past and present LTGs and other professional learning to find good matches for their own needs. Something between a list on a website and a wiki perhaps. In the olden days, educators working on curriculum projects would type up their reports and photocopy their resources into a booklet that would be stored at the District Resource Centre and at schools. My classroom bookshelf still has some of these now-dusty publications: local history, enrichment, critical thinking in Social Studies, student questioning techniques, etc. with names on them like Garvin Moles, Calvin Cosh, Keith Gordon, and my dad Walter. What astounds me is that 30 years later, in our hyper-connected digital world, we're still having issues archiving and sharing our professional learning.

Two further complications are the LTG criteria and format. The LTGs are limited to release time and won't cover other costs such as professional materials or technology, so the only way to take advantage is to prepare for a substitute and dodge class (which many teachers are loathe to do). One of our district LTG groups was surprised to find that their agreement to meet on their own time in exchange for some software related to their inquiry would not be met. That LTG, then, had a financial value of $0; a definite challenge in the "celebration" department -- might as well have stuck with twitter. The dilemma is that enrolling teachers (that have kids in seats everyday) have to incur substitute teacher costs every time they want to interact. 150 teachers using three release days costs the district about $135,000, more than the entire Professional Development Fund for the district's 900 teachers. How do we turn face-to-face professional learning from something one needs to escape their class to do into something embedded in our day-to-day routines? How do we schedule and fund that? Many schools have tried various schemes over the last 10 years to build "collaborative time" into the weekly schedule, but a variety of issues have made this divisive, especially at the secondary level. How might we listen and learn from the schools where formal collaborative models have resulted in "buy-in?" How do we remove the coercive elements (and major source of division) from collaborative models and shore up our capacity for mutual (peer) accountability?  Is there a role for the board to examine timetable/calendar adjustments to afford more paid time for professional learning?

The format can also be an issue -- it seems that all it takes to be approved for an LTG is that one frames a project idea in the form of a question... this apparently makes it an inquiry. Teachers and educational leaders often have the bad habit of confusing asking a question about work that is already firmly established and classic inquiry-based learning, where the outcome is less certain. Perhaps we've developed this habit from 10 years of writing school growth plans that muddle this process. We play a lot with data without a clear understanding of correlation versus cause, and almost none of what we write down in school or district plans would withstand statistical analysis. That's a problem outside LTGs, but I wonder if our notion of academic inquiry and action research is related to our lack of training and leadership in these areas (spoken by someone who failed a first-year stats course!). One way the district could improve the quality of inquiry is to provide facilitators, curricular specialists, or mentor teachers (different roles) that are available to meet with LTG participants. I have seen the value of this recently at Pro-D Rep training with a BCTF facilitator Teresa Fry (and our Pro-D chair Kim Rutherford) who guided us through the Inquiry Project model and a basic EdCamp. Adding experts to the groups would, of course, require an investment in more release time, part-time or full-time secondments, or other arrangements and appointments.

These LTGs provide nice little breaks for teachers to "work on stuff" and as a result are greatly appreciated, but do we know much more about them? A more thorough sharing of how they turn out is crucial for providing accountability for these projects; having a public audience for one's work is a very effective way of kicking up the quality of reporting and amount of professional pride invested in the work -- and helps ensure that the focus is on students success. If one digs around on the district website it is possible to find a list of the LTGs from the 2011-12 school year. To be blunt, many of them appear to be release time for teachers to do lesson planning, project design, and other work they would or should do anyways.  I can understand why that appeals to busy teachers -- this is a chance to work creatively with others and build some student activities that would be arduous without the collaboration and extra time... I've used release time for this "relief" before, so I am not condemning the process. We should be careful, though, to mistake this for innovation. Some of the LTGs appear to be replacements of district committees and ad hoc leadership groups that used to exist -- district-wide professional development and meeting time for core interests like literacy and numeracy. Among the LTGs from last year, there are a few that were probably innovative, but we have no way of knowing without the sharing and celebration part -- the lists do not contain detailed project descriptions or links to their work.  I also do not know of any formal invitations to share their work, although anyone can host a session at our annual Professional Development Conference (next one March 8, 2013). The LTGs will become less invisible as we make sharing habitual and not accidental. The tools and even the provincial network are already in place; many of our teachers and educational leaders are engaged at the district and provincial level through Social Media and their own channels of communication -- increasingly educational leaders in other parts of the province are interconnected and accessible. Our district has a lot of ground to make up -- an uncontroversial place to start is a concerted effort to bring the hidden success stories into the conversation. Much needed and more provocative work can follow.

This is also a great opportunity to forge a positive culture, to reverse some of the malaise that afflicts true partnership between the various employee groups in the district. We need to break the cycle with a few positive habits and narratives around professional learning that serve as a common "hearth" for us to hear each other and set new directions. To start, the innovative stories from among these 150 teachers should be profiled, posted, and praised -- tweet, blog, web, news media -- there has got to be at least one great story a month of how district-supported teachers are innovating and bringing benefit to students. I had a chance to drop in on a LTG group that was using a "critical friends" approach to review each other's designs for project-based learning. It was well facilitated, exciting for the participants, and had as an outcome the subtle turning of familiar designs for learning into innovative plans. I also had some lingering doubts and questions addressed about the value of the "project tuning process." This is what we hope for out of "co-creative" collaboration. How could this group's success be shared with others? How could we speed up the rate of "contagion" related to their excitement? We seem to be doing a good job with Timperley's knowledge-building cycle at the classroom level and likely within these LTGs, but are we serious about trying this openly at the organizational level? How often do our staff meetings capture this cycle?

Brian relays a good question: “What will it take for what we know to change what we do?” I would suggest that what we know is that some of our systems of communication and collaboration are broken and that we've known this for many years. The "sustainability" process of 2010 and last year's labour dispute exposed some wounds across all employee groups that have been long untended (or even unexamined) and as a result we deal with a high level of distrust and reluctance to engage at the organizational level. Knowing this has been a keen push for many teachers and parents to change what we do. I've seen the board of trustees (that includes my wife Kate!) and others make some strides here, but much of the change that needs to happen takes place outside of the board's usual gaze. The realization of broken systems and seeing the potential for positive change has spurred me to get more involved with educational advocacy and professional discussions over the last five years. Thankfully I am not alone in this. It has also been the impetus for thinking about what my own professional growth plan should look like and to consider how I can step up my approach to professional learning and leadership at the district and provincial level.  The "need to celebrate and share this important work in a more effective manner" also poses a challenge to the work of our district teacher's Professional Development Committee. We try to do a lot with limited funds, and much of the work is done in isolation of the LTGs even though the focus is very much the same.

I have seen plenty of vibrant "interconnected professional learning" in our district and elsewhere -- learning teams, personal learning networks, and individuals that keep being awesome regardless of what goes on around them. Maybe the informality of this work is what makes it work? But if we want to turn these into "interconnected professional learning initiatives" that are part of the "province-wide professional learning conversation" we first need to get out LTGs out of the closet, or look at other means of supporting and communicating professional learning. Too much of the best work in our district happens "underground" -- we need to be more deliberate about coaxing educators out of their bunkers. There are barriers that need to come down (I've blogged about that ad naseam), but more than that we need coaxing that is welcoming and progressive -- more freedom and means to speak freely about our issues and successes, more freedom and means to experiment wildly with improvements to teaching and learning conditions, and sometimes simply to temper wild ideas with actual research and planning. How do we do this? What does that look like? Where's the best return on our effort or bang for the district buck?

Challenge: What would you change about how our district celebrates and shares the work of teachers? What would be the most effective use of district funds to support professional learning among teachers and other educators that results in a benefit to students? Feel free to comment, share the success of your LTG, or relate your own experience if you are from another jurisdiction.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Jerry's Journey - Guest Post

A Guest Post by Jerry Bleecker on Technology for Learning

A little background on Jerry. He is a public secondary teacher who has provided a consistent example of how to embed technology into teaching and learning throughout his career. Jerry is the definition of earnest, and is without guile or agenda beyond the techie curiosity he opens up to his students. His idea of complaining is to politely suggest alternative methods of solving problems and offer to do the work of testing the alternatives himself. He would love to press on with media tablet pilot projects and other interesting "21st century learning" technology and practices that are currently unsupported or even blocked by our school district. He is one of many among principals and teachers that have met barriers while attempting to pursue "learning empowered by technology" -- there are many other stories like this, but they don't often make it out of the staffroom. Why a "wall" exists is a whole other story (and too often the subject of my blog posts!), but as usual Jerry's reaction is to continue articulating a pedagogically sound philosophy. More than just a rant about contexts, Jerry's Journey is an example of how teachers have adapted to the challenge of working in technologically-charged school environment. It is probably fair to point out that there are also bigger fish to fry in public education than the state of technology at the work place -- on a daily basis we deal with kids who are drug addictied, tech addicted, suffering from anxiety, out of shape, ignored by their parents, etc. Technology is just one of the things that occupies our time, but is nonetheless an area that should be very easy for an educational community to get right. And yet, providing progressive options for teachers and administrators who want to venture beyond the "vanilla" has proved elusive, starting from the communication and planning about technology in our district and moving through issues of access and function.

Quite a Journey by Jerry Bleecker
An Army of One (not really, but more about that as we proceed ...)

Hi folks. What's an Army of One you might ask? Well, it's about time I relayed my own story online to illustrate my motives in using educational technology. It's never been about hardware or software, but learning, although that's become obscured as [fellow teacher] Kathy aptly points out in her recent post [on a local Technology Forum]. 

When I started with SD57 in 1998, I was blown away with the inventive and mind-blowing possibilities in using technology to educate kids. From the first PowerPoint Jeopardy game that I created over a long weekend (37+ hours) for Science 8 (with the light-up Jeopardy-style table), I knew what a difference educational technology could make. It was fun and the kids loved it.

So, I applied for and was accepted to the UBC Masters of Education Technology Program and taking a course each semester when I had a prep and over my summers, I learned with some of the finest colleagues and professors I could've hoped for. My Master's Portfolio Projects are located here, complete with a Matrix theme (it was an online degree program and certainly provided a great theme)

When I finished, I had a great conversation with Kerry Firth [former assistant superintendent] who reminded me to apply what I'd learned in the District and give back. Fair enough, I thought. The District supported my degree, paying a portion of my tuition. Following my graduation from the MET Program, I put my experience working with colleagues from all over the world to work here in SD57. Ironically, the amount of collaboration and interaction plummeted around the time of the DTT collapse. Discussions about educational technology and applying best practices digitally were gone. So, I forged on solo.

I put all my efforts into creating eLearning coursework, with the ultimate goal to flip my classroom.

Five years later, the result is two full eLearning courses in Moodle, and the startings of Science 8, and Math 9. This year, I outfitted Biology 11 with screencasts (full session podcasts / lesson videos) that I made on my own personal laptop, home internet access, using my own screencasting software (iShowU), my own USB headset, that I created outside school time, equating to hundreds of hours invested for students.

The Biology 11 course includes an open source digital textbook, all the animations I use in class (from freely available web sources), all the relative YouTube video links for each critter we study. Notes packages & study guides are also available. If students lose materials, replacements are just a click away if needs be. The site includes interactivities, formative assessments - self-scoring quizzes, diagram animations, and more. Working with Rod Carr over the last two years, we've collaboratively created study materials, chapter packages and more from our personal collections. Our collaboration continued even after collaboration time was dropped from the school time table.

In Biology 12, I'm proceeding along the same path as Biology 11. It will take hundreds of hours to bring up Biology 12 to speed with the work done in Biology 11. Recording screencast videos in real time is incredibly involving work. But, it's worth it. Additionally, I'm excited to create ZygoteBody ( interactive lab materials & study guides for the body systems studied in Biology 12. For those of you who haven't checked this out, it's a former Google Project released open source to the web -- an interactive and controllable voyage inside the body. It's an incredible voyage into the greatest free anatomy tool I've had the experience to use. Take it for a spin with an up-to-date version of the Firefox browser or Chrome Web Browser which have the web graphics abilities built-in to run the body-browser natively.

It needs to be noted that I received no funding to build/create these courses, but thank CLA/SD57/District Techs for the Moodle availability and network know-how to empower this. Access to Moodle started with a conversation with Steve Fleck [principal] and went from there. I never received funding to create course work, but kept working anyway -- even when District communications broke down just to see where a project like this could go with enough determination and zeal to see it through. There were no lieu days -- nada -- to create materials or screencasts or populate these courses with all these materials. Again, it's taken years to come this far.

The work was done to forge ahead and create new opportunties & avenues in eLearning. For students who fall ill or travel, I've strived to create an online learning environment with a digital version of myself teaching lessons. It has been a God-send for sports students who travel and can access Moodle via the web. The Senior Girls Volleyball Team watched the lesson videos on the road during their recent trip to Provincials. Cougar Hockey Players have accessed it from hotel rooms.

What else is done to help students using technology? Teachers can use Twitter to communicate. My own roost lies at #biology11 where I send screenshots of the overhead projector / whiteboard, etc. to convey instructions, lab details students might forget or overlook, push out study guides just in case students forget them, share any animations or new materials that I find that can improve their education. Occasionally, I post "Twitter-Bombs" -- questions to students to make them truly think, research, hunt-down information, and report back with eclectic facts about science. My feed lives at

What single request can I make of the District to facilitate / assist?

In one word --> provide access for students in classrooms, not just labs. Labs, while well meaning, are bottle necks in the long-term for access.

Medium to long-term, 1:1 access is the ideal goal. Notably, I can't send students down to the computer lab to partake in the course each class. Unless they bring their own devices (BYOD is a valid approach, but only one facet of access), I can't provide access. I don't have the money to purchase a lab set of iPads or test-drive a set of Google Chromebooks, which run Flash and cost $250 with no maintenance, 7-hour battery life that students can simply nab off a charging cart. It's why I go on and on about Chromebooks, iPad carts and more. These tools are relatively inexpensive and incredibly powerful. All being said, students don't have the necessary equipment to access and take advantage of an eLearning course each day at school. If they did, I could FLIP my classroom and move to the 21st Century Learning model that I always knew I would move toward when I graduated from UBC's Masters of Education Technology Program.

Hey, call it my life's work -- I was always going to do this. It's just been more difficult since discussions stopped. As Glen has stated [in recent local Technology Forum posts], there are incredible pockets of work happening all around SD57. I can only imagine the impact if these pockets were fully empowered to realize the potential of their work. If only it were a bit easier -- & it's why ACCESS to me is such a major issue. I'm always working on the collaborative, constructive, discovery, and learning-style focussed initiatives, but am an army of one. Imagine what an army of many might accomplish under the right conditions.

If you'd like to see my work, feel free to contact me.
Jerry Bleecker

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


I finally gave in and left some feedback on one of the BCEdplan's feedback forums, specifically the one on Student Information Systems (I think today is the last day for input).  The government is looking to replace our cumbersome and oft-maligned student data tracking system (BCeSIS) over the next couple of years.

Well, the short version of my feedback is... make sure the replacement learns from the mistakes of BCeSIS.

Here is a sample of concerns that occur to me when reflect on BCeSIS.

  • pretty much universal agreement that BCeSIS failed to reach basic benchmarks for functionality and reliability
  • the system satisfied some office/administrative needs (a key user group), but was a disaster for marks and other needs of teachers (the other key user group) -- the Ministry appeared to have had only the first of these user groups in mind when they looked for a system
  • piloted in one of our rural secondary schools (McBride), yet the district ignored all the feedback from the teachers there and pressed on with early adoption and implemetation
  • the brutal interface and user experience at every level... slow, illogical, and difficult to navigate, no flexibility for alternate schedules, etc... this list could be VERY long
  • unwillingness in the first 5 years to allow data exchange between BCeSIS and the marks program that most of the district's teachers were using.
  • we had 1 techie and 2 principals, a crew of SASOs and trained secretaries assigned to BCeSIS (plus some of the tech support coordinator's and the FOIPPA officer's time) and yet there was still no way to address bugs in the system as all changes were handled at the parent company level
  • all the training time they allocated for the teacher marks portion was wasted as teachers stopped using it shortly after, if they even bothered at all... the cost of the principal's salary and the release time for dozens of teachers was close to useless
  • I think sometime in the first year they clarified a process for gathering input that would results in annual changes if the parent company agreed it needed fixing... a full year from problem to possible solution
  • many of the promised features in BCeSIS never came online or never worked... club & team databases, fee collection, IEPs were delayed for years, data exchange, parent contact module, etc.
  • constant browser issues, as they only developed it for one browser -- using a standard PC and the default browser (Explorer), logging in requires acknowledging warnings of virus-like activities and authorizing permission for unknown operations; doing this seems exactly like what we're not supposed to do according to our acceptable use policy, and yet we are required to use BCeSIS
  • one positive note: using BCeSIS is like working with a living artifact, a sentimental reminder of the glory days of archaic computer programming and a greyish, dehumanizing user interface. Every time I use it I feel like I am back in Computer Science 11, 1986.
A former colleague, John Vogt, has prepared a more substantive critique of BCeSIS implementation. He has shared it with school trustees, the BC Ed forum, and others (including myself) and has given me permission to share it here.

By way of introduction, John has a great way of offering substantive critique of educational planning in our school district balanced with powerful suggestions, a positive and dedicated example in his own practice, a willingness to conduct inquiry and research when others practice resignation, and wit. A personal role model for sure! Here is what John had to say:

I am a retired SD 57 teacher currently working as an instructor for the UNBC School of Education. I was working at DP Todd during the implementation of BCeSIS. Because of my 25 years of experience in working with computers in schools, I was asked to assist with the DP Todd implementation. I was also a member of a PGDTA technology committee which spent time looking into issues surrounding the BCeSIS implementation.

The implementation of BCeSIS in SD 57, and more generally in the province was deficient in many respects. I was reminded of this recently while reading a Prince George Citizen article reporting on an SD 57 trustee meeting where student information systems were discussed. It is always dangerous to jump to conclusions on the basis of a newspaper article, but as reported, presentations to the board regarding BCeSIS and its hoped-for replacement did not appear to fully recognize, analyze, or learn from problems in the implementation of BCeSIS.

A variety of problems with BCeSIS were correctly predicted before implementation in SD 57. A combination of issues (detailed in this Dropbox file) resulted in those predictions being ignored by local decision makers. The result was considerable angst among classroom teachers. A new student information system will face the same issues. If leaders in SD 57 fail to be proactive in working with employee groups to better understand the problems of the past, they stand to repeat them in the future.