Category Archives: Staff Dev

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Sharing Ed. Content In Ways That Don’t Suck

I work in a decent sized school system. We have 69 schools and about 50,000 students.

That means we have a lot of teachers, a lot of teachers teaching the same content, a lot of teachers struggling with the same problems, a lot of teachers re-doing work that’s already been done.

At a district level we spend untold hours and untold amounts of money trying to provide support for teachers and trying to promote best practice. We have teachers who exemplify the concepts we’re trying to share but they are, too often, unknown outside their school, or their grade, or their subject, or their classroom.

So our current goal is to end anonymity, to effectively publicize best practice on a global level. One of the ways that we’d like that to happen is through online content distribution and building conversation around that content. The ability to put multimedia content online is nothing new. What has changed is the facility with which it can be done and the ability to easily have conversations1 around very specific pieces of media.

Changing the concept

It’s important to look at how educational content sharing has failed in the past and present if you’re going to try to get it right. I looked at as many different online sharing options as I could find.2 I’ve also been on the user end of a number of systems.

I think we can go ahead and skip the file hierarchy systems. They suck in such a huge number of ways. There’s no visual, no readily available meta data etc. etc. Their one benefit is they’re easy to publish with but that’s not much of a benefit when no one bothers trying to use them.

The place I’d like to focus is on the database backed web content creation systems. I think it’s key to have them on the web and open to anyone who’s interested and it’s key to have the database backend to prevent needless duplication and other hassles for the creator and consumer.

There are two big places these systems tend to fail. They can fail to provide what the consumer needs and/or they can fail to facilitate the creation of content on the producer end. I’m arguing that these two aspects are more tightly linked than it might initially appear. I see both issues stemming from a misunderstanding about what teachers want out of these sharing sites. Most sites focus on providing a highly structured and rigidly standardized lesson plan format. Essentially, ‘Here is your lesson in a box.’ I don’t think that’s what teachers want and it’s certainly not the way you get teachers thinking about changing practice. The other path for these sites is ‘Here’s your widget to add to your widget collection.’ The most interaction either option tends to give teachers is the ability to rate the content.

I think we’re pitching the wrong content and doing it in the wrong way. “This is perfect. Download it and follow the directions. We know what’s best.” is not a message that works. People drop in, they glance around and if they don’t find engaging content before having to go download a file, they leave.

My Pitch

So here’s my pitch on how I’d like to see this system work.

Philosophy: Teachers are looking for inspiration and community as opposed to directions. This is as much about the conversation that occurs around the content as it is about the content itself. As a result –

  • loosely structured narratives should replace highly structured lesson plans
  • content should be housed in a way that encourages conversation to occur around it (as opposed to elsewhere)
  • it’s not just about perfect finished products, this is a valuable space for exploring ideas


Main Page: On the consumer end, you have to make this content look interesting and keep it fresh. What shows up, as well as how it shows up, is absolutely key. So my main page would be very similar to the way a number of consumer sites work. I think those sites have quite a lot to teach in terms of what people expect and want when browsing for content online. I think iTunes is an interesting model to look at. It has a wide user base and I think it does a good job of displaying content.3

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We’re not talking rocket science here. Many blog themes also echo this display format. Essentially, you’ve got a larger box that is animated and shuffles editor designated content. Then you’ve got some content showing up based on user interest and activity. All of this is visual and allows the user to drill down into more specific detail. It is simple but it’s also the opposite of nearly every education based website I could find that shares content. Apple’s Learning Interchange gets close on the display side. I also really liked the revamped look of the CUNY Commons site. Compare these initial interfaces to sites like Merlot, Lola or the OER Commons. I’m not arguing content, social purpose etc. here. I just want you to look at the page and compare how you feel viewing it.

Search: The next place people will end up is the search page. There are so many ways this is done in unpleasant ways. I’ll use the Merlot example below because it’s actually one of the better options but suffers from pretty universal flaws.
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The only image on the page is the “Editors’ Choice” badge. The data is laid out in ways that don’t really take advantage of the space, nor do they use formatting to help make the data more legible. I found the dual star based review systems somewhat unpleasant and for some reason it was hard for me to count the stars. What data is present in this view should also change pretty radically if it doesn’t function as a link to other information in that same category.

I remade it with the same essential information below.

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or alternately
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In a perfect world, I’d probably have a number of things activate based on mouse overs. So you could get a better description if you wanted it but a lot of the initial interest would be based on the look, title and metadata regarding ratings and conversation.

That’s probably enough for now. Next time around I’ll get into tagging, searching, aggregation and what the content and conversation might look like.

1 I’m defining ‘conversation’ pretty loosely here.

2 Feel free to send me any good examples you’re aware of. I have no need of additional bad examples.

3 Music is not an inherently visual piece of content but album art has played a major role in its packaging for some time. iTunes certainly takes advantage of that.

4 You may say that image sucks and has nothing to do with the content. I’d agree except it’s from the content which sucks in ways I have a hard time explaining.

The Academic Achievement Team

The Academic Achievement Team is a group of people that have a series of meetings at schools in danger of not making AYP. This movie is an attempt to help individual schools organize these meetings effectively and make sure they’re looking at the right things and having the right type of conversations. Chris Corallo, our director of staff development, was the guiding force behind the whole thing.

Academic Achievement Team from Tom Woodward on Vimeo.

I have mixed feelings about this video. I think this is the right way to do this kind of meeting, I just worry we’re working hard at doing the wrong things well. I’d really prefer these meetings addressing real learning rather than SOL test scores.

The video itself is ok. I’m slowly learning some stuff about Motion but I’ve got a lot to learn on a lot of levels before I make a video I actually like. I would really be happier with a second cameraman.

The amount of pre-planning that needs to be done to get this kind of thing right is pretty insane. We had to shoot the interview portion later to provide context for the meeting and then add voice over as well.

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The Three Buckets of Staff Development

Disclaimer—- believe it or not this is really worth reading and thinking about if you have anything to do with staff dev or have been the victim of hit and run staff dev in the past. Arm yourself and be ready to counterattack in the future. 1

This idea is the brainchild of our director of staff development, Chris Corallo2. I believe that this structure has the potential to really change the conversation around staff development in schools.

We are putting it out into the wild under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Which is a cool and good thing for him to authorize.

So I’ve excerpted the document below. It’s available in full here.

There are three types of staff development- experiences, training and professional growth. These simple buckets will help you have a conversation that gets you somewhere else. Most people want to provide professional growth but deliver experience or training. These buckets allow you to show people that and move towards staff dev that’s longer term and more focused on changing practice and impacting learning.


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This is an opportunity to explore new learning without making any commitment to implementation or change in practice and/or with no expectation of impacting student learning.



This type is typically required to carry out management or process tasks. There is a level of expectation that the new learning will change practice in someway, but with no direct link to or measurement of student learning.

Professional Growth

Professional Growth

There is an expectation that the new learning will be implemented (with appropriate support) in the classroom to change teacher practice. There is also an expectation that this change in practice impact student learning.

Professional Growth Cycle- In order to both change practice and impact student learning, the following cycle should be implemented:

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Assess: Review of data to identify the need for improved student learning.
Learn: Engage in new learning to meet the need.
Implement: Receive support for implementing new learning.
Reflect: Continually collect data and monitor outcomes of implementation of the new learning to determine if it is meeting the goal.
Assess: Revisit the data to identify further need for improved student learning.

The following is an example of how staff development on one topic can be seen through the three types of staff development. The only difference between each type is the expected outcomes in terms of teacher practice and impact on student learning.

At the opening of school the principal wants to set a warm tone for the school year and decides to do an activity around communication and building relationships. She uses the Whale Done video series and has the teachers talk about the video in small groups. She then leads the faculty in a team building exercise with the hopes that everyone will leave the meeting feeling like a member of the team.

Scaffolding: None
Outcome: Immediately following the team building exercise the faculty members feel like a team.
Expectation for Student Learning: None
Expectation for Change in Practice: None

At the opening of school the principal wants to set a warm tone for the school year and decides to do an activity around communication and building relationships. She selects this because she believes her teachers often take a combative tone with each other as well with parents and students. The principal decides to introduce the Whale Done video series and has the teachers talk about the video in small groups.

Scaffolding: She shares with the faculty her desire to see more positive interactions and asks if they would be willing to continue work on this. The faculty agree to continue working with the Whale Done series as a faculty. At the first staff development day the principal brings in a Whale Done trainer who focuses attention on the three tenets of the programs communication model. Faculty are trained in the steps to implement the model. The faculty makes a commitment to each other to use the model in working with each other. They also all agree to give permission to be “coached” in the model, which means that each teacher has the right to remind others of the model when their specific behavior does not match the model protocol.
Outcome: Teachers will initiate more positive interactions.
Expectation for Student Learning: None
Expectation for Change in Practice: None

Professional Growth: A school leadership team is examining its end of year data and determines that they have a school-wide discipline problem. The principal wonders if this issue is created by poor relationships between teachers and students. At the opening of school the principal wants to set a warm tone for the school year and decides to do an activity around communication and building relationships. She uses the Whale Done video series and has the teachers talk about the video in small groups. As part of the group discussion the teachers review student behavior data (discipline referrals) to identify issues. They discover a large number of referrals for inappropriate and disrespectful comments made to teachers. In relating this to the video they watched the teachers decide to delve more deeply into the Whale Done concepts with hopes that, if they improve their communication skills and are able to build relationships, there will be less student discipline issues.

On the first full staff development day, faculty are trained in the steps to implement the model. The faculty also makes a commitment to each other to use the model in working with each other and students. They all agree to give permission to be “coached” in the model, which means that each teacher has the right to remind others when their specific behavior does not match the model protocol. In fact, they pair up and periodically do short observations of each other in the classroom to provide feedback about their use of the Whale Done model with students. At monthly team meetings they review student discipline data to monitor their progress toward meeting their goal. If they have students who seem to be having specific behavior problems they may coach the teacher in how to work with the student.

After reviewing the discipline data with all the teams and getting feedback from the teachers, the principal sets up the next staff development day to delve more deeply into one of the parts of the Whale Done program. The entire faculty get additional training in “redirecting energy.” The teachers recommit to the process and continue their classroom observations and team meetings. At the end of the year they revisit their goal for improved student behavior to see if they met their goal of reducing the number of discipline referrals.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

1 Oh, yeah and I don’t really know why they’re called buckets. Feel free to call them cups, cans, decanters etc.

2 I’ve quoted a document he authored with input from various members of our department below.

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From Good to Outstanding-PD on Steroids

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From Good to Outstanding

Follow teachers as they work to improve their practice with a team of experts. Each teacher delivers an initial lesson, observed by school inspector Clare Gillies, then using her and other expert feedback, they fine-tune their skills and try deliver an outstanding second lesson a few weeks later.

This is one of those things that makes me want to move to the UK. If you have anything to do with professional development at your school this should really get you thinking.

So basically-

  • the lesson is filmed and observed by a master teacher
  • they post the raw class footage
  • people can then offer suggestions etc. online
  • the input from the master teacher and online suggestions is analyzed
  • expert feedback is given
  • the lesson is retaught
  • a compiled version showing before, expert mentoring and the after lesson is posted

I’m looking at it like this.

  • Classroom visits- You want teachers seeing other teachers teach. The way they capture the raw footage and put it up on the site is awesome. If you’re doing this you’re building a library of visits for people to use whenever and wherever without the additional overhead of providing subs etc.
  • Modeling classroom skills- Perfect, real-world demonstrations of skills teachers want to learn done with your population. The video may need additional aspects to make it a complete package for this but you’ve can show the skill happening in the classroom and that’s invaluable1.
  • Modeling coaching- You’ve got the chance to show adminstrators, department heads, grade level chairs exactly how to help teachers improve practice- how to have those conversations and it’s in a real-world, authentic situation. How do you give useful feedback? What types of questions do you ask?
  • Set standards- I forget the book right now but the author talks about how varied people’s ideas are regarding good practice and the problems this causes. This gives you a chance to discuss that and build a very concrete set of examples.
  • Professional Development- You’re giving people all sorts of ways to improve their own practice. They see things they like/don’t like and start thinking about how to incorporate or remove those things from their own classroom. They also have the ability to comment on ways to improve the lesson when it’s initially posted in raw format. That conversation, done correctly, could mimic some of the things Dan’s WCYDWT series that I find so interesting2 It also brings in elements of the Iron Teacher concept that I like. And there’s no reason you couldn’t have both those options working alongside the Good to Outstanding videos.

There are a million other advantages and ways I would use this. There are a bunch of videos up there now. Go check them out and then figure out what it’d take to make your own. Even without the after part, the raw video footage would be incredibly useful.

1 and almost always missing or done with models or simulated etc.

2 Despite the fact that I’m totally out of my element with math instruction.