Pineapples and PD

I still remember when I started my career as an administrator. I was a 29 years old former physical education teacher and basketball coach who was going to be in a leadership position, the boss of educators who I could have had as teachers a decade earlier.  I had put up with the annoying ¨dark side” jokes, complete with the Darth Vader voice shouted into the industrial sized van station in the gymnasium where I taught. I believed then, as I still do, that there is no ¨side¨. Regardless of your position, you are either in it to help kids or not.

The one administrative task I was most concerned with and probably my biggest area of weakness at the time was classroom observations. I would be going into classrooms and trying to provide feedback that would help teachers improve instruction. I explained to the teachers that it was not a ¨gotcha” approach, rather a collaborative conversation with the goal of improvement.  It sounded good to me, but I am sure some thought who does this kid ¨gym teacher¨ think he is to tell us what we’re doing right and what we are doing wrong?

If I am being honest with myself they were probably right because quite frankly I didn’t know where to begin. Lucky for me, my principal was a patient, skilled mentor who happen to be an outstanding administrator.

Early on, Paul had several conversations with me that resonates to this day and has helped to shape my philosophy on instruction.

He started by outlining what solid instruction looked like in the classroom.

¨Teachers need to have clearly stated goals for each lesson.  Those goals need to make sense to kids.¨

He explained that the goals need to be reviewed with students, make sense to the students, and teachers needed to avoid  ¨Edulingo¨ which he describe as ¨terms no one really understands, especially kids, but they sound good¨

Next he touched on the opening activity, one in which the teacher could get the student excited to learn by building suspense, getting them excited, intrigued, passionate about learning. ¨If you want to learn more about this and how to get middle school kids excited to learn I would suggest reading this.¨  That is when he whipped out what was to be my educational bible for the next five years, a signed copy of Rick Wormeli’s Meet Me in the Middle.

The next day he continued with his new Assistant Principal, schooling me on was what he called ¨Say, See, Do¨ cycles. He explained that it was important to break down information in small cycles of learning, providing students with some information, showing them how do use that information, and then having the students use the information on their own.

¨If you are teaching students a math problem, it is best to show them the simplest of problems and strategies then how them solve the problem.  Too often teachers do all of the teaching and then have the students work on all of the problems they have been taught to solve. It is much better when they break it down into the smallest possible parts. When we observe Denise you will see what I mean.¨

He then provided me with a copy of Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones, a great resource for any young educator trying to understand the basics of instruction.  

He continued to ¨chunk the material¨ for me, modeling how he felt teachers should do it for students.

Valuable lessons on:

  • The importance of getting students out of their seats and up and moving.
  • How using music, smells, and emotion to strengthen the long term retention of the learning experience.
  • The importance of group work and collaboration.
  • Relationships and how going to a game, a concert, or simply greeting the students as they enter your class can make all the difference in the world.

He spent the most time emphasizing the importance of the end of a lesson.
He was obsessed with  the closure of a lesson, and many a teacher in Chester were dinged on their observation reports for failing to sufficiently wrap up a lesson.

¨You start at the beginning by clearly stating the goals and objectives. You must be clear on the most important things the students are gonna learn, but it is equally important it to summarize those goals and objectives at the end and find a way to check for understanding.¨

The next step in my learning process was visiting classrooms. Paul dragged me, sometimes reluctantly, to as many lessons as the never ending ¨to do list¨ of a building level administrator would allow. We practiced writing the observation reports, but the most value came from the conversations we had about instruction, about students, and about what went right and what didn’t.

I started to realize that  philosophical practices we read about are important, but not as important as the art and skill a masterful teacher demonstrates as they deal with runny noses, behavior issues, crying students, raging teenage hormones, angry parents, and more.

I learned rather quickly that things never go as planned. I learned the truly expert teachers work just as hard on getting to know their kids, and sensing the vibe of their classroom. The best teachers are always adjusting, while grabbing hold of and shouldering the burden their students carry.  They do all of this while implementing solid pedagogical practices, and always trying to learn, improve, and keep things fresh.

When you see a great teacher you realize what talent they have, what energy they have, and the hard work it takes to get to that level. Great teaching is a art, and the best teachers are the Michelangelo of the classroom.

As my career has progressed I am so thankful that Paul showed me the value of watching teachers teach, and the importance of talking about the craft.  

What we learn during professional development sessions, all the practices we are exposed to at conferences, all of the great ideas that we read in educational books, find in the data are essential components of growth as an educator. Yet I am convinced more today than ever that the most valuable professional development is watching teachers teach, and informal conversations with the practitioners.

We need to set our pedagogical standards high. We need to study the research, to understand the best practices, to find new methods, but, at the end of the day, it’s got to work in the classroom. You have actual kids in front of you and it has to work with them.

The only way to see what truly works with the ever-changing student within the ever-changing dynamics of the classroom is to see the experts in action.

The best way to learn about students, the best way to learn about what works in the classroom, the best professional development is to get into the trenches.  Go to classrooms, watch other educators teach, have candid conversations with teachers, with students, with support staff.

Unfortunately for a long time  teachers worked in isolation, doing their thing in silos.  Possibly because they were not afforded the opportunity, did not see the value, busy schedules, fear, or possibly because of a poor building culture.

The good news it is changing! Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are breaking down walls in schools. Teachers are sharing ideas, learning from each other and finding some solace in what can be a lonely job by building a professional learning network of like minded educators.

We are tipping point in our field in part because technology has improved communication and has let educators from around the world to connect. The growth is becoming exponential; we are about to see real changes in our field.  Brave educators are working together to call out the nonsense we sometimes are resigned to doing in schools just because ¨we have always done that¨ Our field will thrive because of it and students are going be so much better off for it.

One of the leaders in this phenomenon is Jennifer Gonzalez.  She is a the creator of the immensely informative and popular Educational web site Cult of Pedagogy. She started somewhat of a movement when she outlined a process for teachers seeing other teachers teach  in the article How Pineapple Charts Revolutionize Professional Development. A ¨pineapple chart¨ is placed in a common space usually the faculty room. The chart has boxes for each day of the week with teachers encouraged to indicate when they be willing to open their classroom to their colleagues.

Many participating teachers will decorate their doors with a pineapple, which is  an international symbol of welcoming. Apparently upside down pineapples have a different meaning, which is pointed out to me after I started our District wide ¨Pineapple Challenge¨

Last year, we offered a District Twitter challenge. This is an idea that came about when I saw similar challenge on social media by Jennifer Hogan.

Ed Maltbie, our director of technology, had been talking to me for a while about digital badging, a concept he had been intrigued by after reading Hacking Digital Learning Strategies by Shelly Sanchez Terrell.  The book proved to be an incredible resource for implementing technology in the classroom effectively.

I had become somewhat  obsessed with Twitter the past year after attending the New York State Technology conference. I quickly saw the value in this tool as a means to disseminate information to spark ideas and, most importantly, to learn from and connect with other educators.  

That is how the North Rockland Twitter challenge was born. Those who chose to participate had a task to complete each day with the purpose of learning the basics of Twitter and how it can be used to progress as a teacher.

When the challenge was completed, you received a digital badge and a NR Twitter pin. They also had a chance to have me cover their class so they could have an extra prep.

The challenge proved to successful, over 100 teachers voluntarily participated and most  are still active on Twitter.

I was looking to build upon this momentum and come up with a new challenge for 2018-19.

I went to one of the most creative instructional technology minds I know, our District’s IT specialist Craig Mantin. After some back and forth, we came up with the next challenge, The North Rockland Pineapple Challenge.

I sent a few teaser emails that included pictures of pineapples, which led some to mistakenly think  it was going to be a contest to make the best pineapple dish or door decorating contest to help make our schools feel more welcoming. Some that know me well thought it may be some spin off of Jimmy Buffett and  Margaritaville. I love Jimmy Buffett and his Margaritaville restaurants. One time while traveling to a state championship sporting event, my boss took us on an hour detour to the Carousel mall in Syracuse because they had a Margaritaville restaurant.

Yes my boss is better than your’s.

Our teachers soon found out the Pineapple Challenge was a path for them to be exposed to the very best PD available, which is to learn from the very best, each other.

Initially we struggled a bit figuring out a way to have a district-wide pineapple chart, how would this could be done, how would we put this all together. After many iterations, Craig Mantin, our structural technologist who is a Google and pretty much everything else tech related genius, designed a website and a calendar that would allow teachers to indicate participation.

It was also important for me to keep it about the teachers. It is clearly laid out in the Cult of Pedagogy article that this is an informal process, it is not about filling out  paperwork; it’s about organically learning from others. It is about seeing what’s going in other classrooms, it is about positivity, it’s not about judgment rather about getting ideas, sharing ideas about kids and instruction.

I didn’t want it to be a conformity based, prove it to me type of challenge. These are professionals and I wanted to treat them as such.

Just as I want teachers to empower our students to take ownership in their learning rather than for the sake of grades or points I wanted to treat our educators with the same respect.

There would be no pictures, no paperwork. It would be just a Google Doc indicating that they completed the challenge.

I did incentivize it a bit because I believed this would be valuable PD that took time. Participants were offered  CTLE credits and in service hours.

The pineapple challenge was simple, read the article by Jennifer Gonzalez, watch my favorite Ted talk by Rita Pearson, decorate your door with a pineapple, then observe three teachers in action and have three teachers observe you.

Completion got a pineapple pin, a laptop sticker, and a certificate that captured the hours and credits earned.  

I was excited; I kept advertising and kept checking the website to see who was participating. There were a few, but to my dismay it didn’t seem to be taking off as I had envisioned.

My first reaction was a negative one. The heck with them if they don’t want to do it and they’re too lazy to learn and grow. They must be too set in their ways to learn.

But that was the angry shortsighted winter that had taken its toll administrator talking, not the type of leader that I want to be, one that I want my principals and APs to be. I want to be a leader who figures out a way to make things work even when they go wrong at first.

So I stopped pouting and went out and talked to people that I trust. The feedback was pretty consistent. They all said the same thing, great idea we want to do it just seems too complicated.

They agreed the website was great, but it was just one more thing to do.  I pushed a little bit further and they said to me why don’t you just tell us find three people to come to your room go to three people’s rooms that have the pineapples on their door to observe.

I swallowed my pride and put my sometimes large ego in the closet and sent out an email adjusting the pineapple challenge.  Simplifying it as our teachers suggested.

From there something pretty cool happened; the completion form kept creeping up. I was excited and wanted to personally congratulate the teachers so I started to hand deliver the pins, but it started to become too much is so many people completed the challenge!

The number continues to grow and as of today over 75 teachers completed the challenge!  

Teachers who hadn’t gotten a pin started pressing me when their would arrive. This was a good problem to have and with the help of my assistant Diane, it was solved. She put together certificates, pins, and laptop sticker packaged with a letter of thanks from me. Then, she sent them inter-office. This helped the momentum pick up even more, and those who had not filled out the form yet or had not received their swag called or emailed asking for it. Each of these emails and phone calls made me smile each and every time, not only because they liked the cool pins and stickers we made, but because they were learning from each other, from the great professionals that we have working in our District.

It has been great to see high school teachers connecting with kindergarten teachers and being in awe of what they do on a day-to-day basis.

It has been wonderful to see elementary teachers going to the high school and their shock at the transformation the little children they once taught.

It has been wonderful seeing top notch educators who did not know each other connecting.

We are better when we connect, a lesson I am grateful to have learned early in my career. I now see it as my job to smash down the walls that keep people from each other.  The latest challenge confirmed for me just how important it is to connect teachers with other teachers.

The challenge I am facing now is after the Twitter Challenge and Pineapple Challenge is what challenge can we design for 2019-20?

If you  have an idea or are already doing something worthwhile in your school I would love for you to share on the padlet linked here.

Keep learning, connecting and sharing!


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