Archive for the ‘protocols’ Category

When meeting as a Critical Friends Group (CFG)  it is essential to surface assumptions. Assumptions about the work, about each other. Assumptions about learning and the learners. Last July in Alpharetta, GA we started our 5 day institute experience by exploring our working assumptions for the following days.

  1. Our work products are better when we collaborate.
  2. Protocols offer equity in voice as well as efficiency.
  3. All 3 jobs: participant, presenter and facilitator require practise in order to improve.
  4. Creating and sustaining collaborative cultures is rigorous and intentional

At times when dialogue is stunted or a group is stuck it may be entirely necessary to voice your assumption in order to move beyond a hump. When it is time for the facilitator to allow time for Q and A it is important to understand that Q and A stands for Questions and Assumptions. If we had the answers we wouldn’t have the questions.  Coming together “beyond the place of right and wrong” makes for rich and fertile learning ground.  Rumi continued “there is a field, meet me there.”  At the heart of the CFG is equity of learning for presenter, facilitator and participant in a place where we can see things together.


We are all unique, but we are not alone. I can see things you can not see and you can see things i can not. We must try to see what is there together. M. Holquist

This poster was hanging in the space that we were using in the media centre of Alpharetta High School.  Apropos of our CFG work I thought.  You?

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Below is an exerpt from the School Reform Initiative’s website which defines a Critical Friends Group. This is the institute I attended in Alpharetta, GA in July 2012 lead by Dr. Thomas VanSoelen (@tvansoelen). I attended with the professional learning intention of building my facilitation skills. I left understanding that I had done so through exercising and practising my participant skills.

CFG builds the learning capacity of the group by engaging members in significant work in an environment that supports risk taking. To make it more likely that learning in CFG will build the group’s capacity for transformational learning, several key elements are essential.

  • Groups are voluntary and sustained. A critical friends group is made up of a group of six to ten educators who meet regularly, perhaps every four to six weeks, over a sustained period of time. Membership is often voluntary. Voluntary participation helps to increase the likelihood that the members are committed to taking on risky and challenging work and staying engaged over time. Similarly, CFGs continue to work together beyond the completion of a particular time cycle such as a semester or school year.
  • A skilled and experienced facilitator or coach supports the group. The coach, who frequently is a member of the group who has participated in professional development to develop the skills, strategies, knowledge, and dispositions to facilitate the group’s learning.
  • Groups use protocols to build their capacity for learning. The disciplined use of protocols or agreed upon processes and structures helps the CFG build its capacity for learning. Protocols help sustain a steadfast focus on teaching and learning. And, they offer the structure that allows a group to deprivatize their practice and explore the most difficult and challenging issues of insuring that students experience educational excellence.

Since I have returned I have officially started a CFG. 11 amazing administrators volunteering their time, trust and academic energy to learning and leadership reflection.


Presenter Check-In (Fish Bowl) following Issaquah Protocol by Dr. Thomas VanSoelen

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Golfing with me Da made it to my heart list in Atlanta. I am very fortunate.


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I had the great opportunity to work with a classroom teacher most recently.  Sure, you say, that is what Principals do.  This was different.  It was like undercover boss.  I co-planned and co-taught with the teacher.  This experience was different.  Together the teacher and I hurried through some plans to delivery a background knowledge lesson on Making Connections.  This was uncharted territory for both of us.  What the teacher expressed as intimidation I expressed as anxiety.  We were in this boat together!

The interesting piece here is the result.  Prior to working together the teacher, very honestly, articulated that she was quite intimidated by the thought that I was making qualitative judgements about her teaching along the way and that I may not respect her as a teacher when the lesson is through.  I expressed the very same fear and was able to recognize that it was our ego talking.  Post teaching the exact opposite was quite clear.  I, very honestly, articulated the exact opposite of her initial fear.  I respected and valued the work this teacher was doing 10 fold now that I had got into the trenches with her.  Her willingness to team with the Principal, her ability to voice concern, her ability to reflect and her acceptance of coaching along the way all worked together to strengthen my qualitative judgements of her abilities as a “Learn Maker”.

Something did come out of this for me.  I realized, with her help, that I ask a great deal of questions.  I have reflected on this much.  Many of my colleagues and teachers alike would suggest that was my job!  “You are supposed to ask the questions!  If you don’t who will?”  I can hear them say.  This idea has not helped me reflect on why I ask the questions.   Ah-Ha moment!  Instead a fellow teacher hearing our debrief after the day was through commented, “Sir, you ask questions like a Gatling Gun!”  We all laughed.  I reflected.  Do I ask questions to get them where I want them?  Do I ask questions to get them to think deeper?  Do I ask questions as a tacit effort to move them?  or…….Do I ask questions to allow them to find their own way.

Print Your Own Gatling Gun Colouring Page if you too are reflecting on your questioning technique!

I followed my experience up with a Skype call to a genius.  A member of my larger PLN is a facilitation leader and thought leader on Protocols and Critical Friends Groups.  I needed help.  I understand that just by virtue of exploring my questioning techniques and motives I am headed up the right path.  I have two resources that I can put into my “arsenal” to help me gain insight on my practise.  I have a protocol that I will use in a PLC setting with my instructional coach to help my learning become more public (Focus Point-School Reform Initiative) and The Pocket Guide to Probing Questions is a reference that I will use to guide my reflection on my “Gatling Gun” like questioning quality.

The experience was a rich one.  The follow-up plan for the student work and achievement has already begun with the teacher I worked with.  My continued work on providing teachers valuable feedback through a coaching stance is causing serious self-reflection about what school administrators can do to take the focus teacher instructional improvements for student achievement improvements to the next level.

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I have embarked on a major project as part of my NSDC Academy Class of 2011.  I am working with 20 other elementary administrators like myself in some ways and very different in some ways.  We are engaging and learning together with a critical friend from another jurisdiction on the continent.  Our critical friend is a fellow learner, administrator and a skilled facilitator of adult professional learning.  The goal of my work is to enhance, develop or initiate the facilitative leader in all of us.  We are building on leadership skills that we all have.  We are building on the facilitative skills that lie in the realm of pressure and support.  We are working in the realm of relationships and protocols for engagement.  We are working so we may harness the true power and expertise of our teachers for improved student achievement.

First things first.  I am using technology to engage with my counterparts.  Using Twitter, Blogs, YouTube, Wikis and Google proved to be far to complex for many of my colleagues.  The learning curve was simply too steep for many.  I went to the one stop shop for professional educators:  The School Improvement Networks, PD360.  This on demand professional learning experience is tailored for educators.  It combines almost all the components of the above mentioned network tools in one place.  There are limitations however.

I look forward to updating this blog entry regularly as it will serve as my journal for my work with colleagues.  So far…14 of 22 have signed in for the first time.  Not bad.  We have two different physical meetings scheduled including our first….how to….coming up soon.  In all we will be working through protocols for PLCs from the School Reform Initiative and Michael Fullan’s newest Motion Leadership.

There is work to be done.  I am doing the work alongside my friends and colleagues.  I am engaged in and implementing the learning simultaneously.  Exciting and tiring.  Our kids are worth it.

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Clearly technology is not the sole answer to the teaching  learning gap.  It is just another channel to watch.  I view Twitter dialogue (#edchat) as a Protocol for my learning.  140 characters is concise to say the least.  A person of my loquaciousness needs boundaries.  Twitter gives me that structure.  Because it is on the public timeline I have also maintained public integrity.  I know that my digital existence is infinite.  I will be held accountable for my words.  Thus there are inherent “norms”.  My efforts are to get my colleagues to the table to discuss the issues in the same light.  I do not have a lack of faith or belief in any of us.  I know that people don’t “hate” me for talking it up.  On the contrary I understand that each of us has deep understanding for the role that education has played in our lives and we wish to provide that to our communities.  Technology is one avenue to get to that conversation outside of the time crunch and certainly outside of your circle of influence.  I have pictures of technoids sitting in rooms with handhelds engaging in Tweetups!  This is a structured protocol.

My friend’s email was included as a response because it helps me recognize the obstacles to having other educational leaders join the conversations.  I respect my friend immensely and thus view these perceptions as real concerns and obstacles for other professional educators.

  1. The time needed to learn the technology.
  2. The superficiality of the “Twitterverse”.
  3. The feeling that being self-referential is a bad thing.

1.  The technological learning curve is actually quite steep.  With the likes of WordPress, Twitter,  and other Web 2.0 applications that are web based there really is no length of time to learning these pieces of software.  There are oodles of people willing to help you once you are actually plugged in. 

2.  It is simple, only follow those people who offer something to your professional learning profile.  When they stop offering something to your professional learning profile stop following them.  Likewise you will notice that you can allow only those people you feel are following you for professional learning reasons.  Sure the web is full of stuff that just isn’t adding to the collective social consciousness of the world.  So are book stores.

3.  Delete self-referential and insert self-reflective.  T.W.I.T.T.E.R.-The World’s Intellectuals Taking Turns Exchanging Resources.  This was a Twitter post late last week by an educator I follow.  “Resources” are practical applications, web resources or could simply be the ideas, feelings, opinions and experiences that keep your mind actively assimilating new information.  Twitter provides a timeline for your self-reflection.  The self reflection you offer can stimulate others self-reflection.  It is essentially self-reflection for collective wisdom.  Please do not tell us what you had for breakfast.

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The use of protocols in Professional Learning Community meetings is essential to the continued growth and evolution of  a school.  Gains in student achievement depend on the learning and learning processes of the adults in a building.  If we expect our teachers to differentiate for students we, as instructional leaders, had better differentiate for their learning styles.  I believe that the appropriate use of protocols in PLC meetings do many things but most importantly they:

  1. reduce the threat of exposing yourself to the group and allow you to become vulnerable with colleagues
  2. increase risk taking behaviour and sharing through structured and formal practises
  3. allow for shared leadership as the facilitator is not the “Sage on the Stage” but simply the choreographer (there is nothing simple about it of course)
  4. engage all learners
  5. can be adapted by participants to be used with students of all ages

I refer to brainstorming  in light of a recent Blog post on Education Innovation that I read weekly.  The spoof “demotivation”  poster (that I was sent years ago-prior to PLCs in our setting) below depicts the concepts behind ineffective PLC time the best I think.  I am reminded of meetings my significant other would describe in one of her career settings.  She laughs every time she views this poster and states, “It’s so true!”  If we know this as educators and we know what makes the difference in PLCs why do we still revert back to old, less effective habits? 

The Power of Meetings

None of us is as dumb as all of us.

Recently I engaged a staff of Early Years and Primary teachers from 4 neighbourhood schools in the Interview Design and Dialogue Protocol to elicit as many consistent and common ideas around a battery of questions about the current state of balanced literacy in schools  (I adapted a protocol form from Jon Saphier of Research for Better Teaching).   More importantly was the form in which this process was done.  There was chart paper, stickies and markers but this was secondary to the fact gathering phase which was done far more precisely and structured than traditional “brainstorming.”  Using the design process we essentially eliminated any risk by engaging in one on one dialogue to start.   The only stuff that made it to the chart paper (dialogue: the second to last phase) had been consistently communicated across the length of the interview phase. 

Teachers in 4 groups of 8 heard 4 responses plus their own to the one question they asked.  They then met in “like question groups” to discuss and chart the most common and consistent responses to the questions.  An example of one question was: “What evidence of a balanced literacy approach exists in a classroom in our District?”  8 individuals asked this question 4 times and recorded the responses.  8 response pages with responses from 32 individuals became one side of a piece of chart paper.  Talk about precision.  Essential to the protocol was that once the question was asked all you were “allowed” to do was record.  This was an interview and not a conversation.  

I immediately thought of the above poster when I read the title (Dumber Together) off the Education Innovation RSS feed on my Netvibes page.   While the intent of its inclusion is humour it has been true for me in limited instances.  My goal as an instructional leader is to make this “demotivation poster” irrelevant.   A reader @Education Innovation comments that the information presented is unsourced.  Maybe . . . but haven’t we all been there before?  If the answer is yes than why, when we take over the reigns, do we seem to perpetuate this form of Professional Learning.  Brainstorming sessions can be effective.  There must be a sound protocol to make them work for everyone however.  I continue to work through the many protocols presented by the National School Reform Faculty in an effort to engage with adults in meaningful and unthreatening ways.  As I stated earlier, gains in student achievement depend on the learning and learning processes of the adults in a building.  I am dedicated to the use of protocols to make sure that each of us is as smart as all of us.

InterviewDesign from Jon Saphier at Research to Better Teaching

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