Monday, February 17, 2020

Hands-On CTE in a Virtual World

February is Career and Technical Education (CTE) month.  Students who live in Bismarck have access to multiple CTE programs at the Career Academy, Technical Center, and our three high schools.  However, what about students who live in rural North Dakota? Do they not deserve quality CTE programs also? Many North Dakota rural schools do provide various courses in some CTE programs such as Family Consumer Science, Agriculture, and Business, but what about Aviation, Engineering, Health Sciences (Medical), Marketing, Graphic Arts/Photography, or Information Technology?

The Central Regional Area Career and Technical Center (CRACTC), is a collaborative CTE virtual center between Bismarck Public Schools and the Central Regional Education Association (CREA; formerly MREC & MDEC).  The program began 12 years ago as a grant from the State Career and Technical Education (CTE) Department as a grant to Bismarck Public Schools. BPS District leadership at that time had the vision and foresight to realize the need for expanding CTE opportunities was as much a regional concern, as it was local.  Leadership began a partnership with the local regional education association (REA), the Missouri River Educational Cooperative (MREC), to help develop, expand, and enhance CTE programming within the south central region of ND.

Since its inception, the CRACTC has expanded to 42 member public high schools and four private high schools in central North Dakota, ranging from Bowbells which connects with the Canadian border, down to Ashley who connects with the South Dakota border; the CRACTC membership covers over 17,000 square miles!  Currently we are serving over 620 students within 47 different high schools throughout North Dakota, within 39 different course offerings, including BHS, CHS, and LHS utilizing the online Medical Terminology course and a few other offerings when scheduling conflicts occur. The virtual center courses are a hybrid approach with most content occurring online or over ITV, with face-to-face learning opportunities to apply the content learned online, complete industry certification requirements, and/or career exploration opportunities for students within the program areas of Agriculture, Aviation, Family Consumer Science, Graphic Arts/Photography, Health Sciences, Information Technology, Marketing, and Technology & Engineering.  Here's a look at the 2020-2021 CRACTC program course catalog.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What do you see as some of the larger challenges of teaching an online or ITV class where students are at a distance or not physically in the same room?
  2. What are some of the scheduling or other benefits of online classes for students?
  3. How can meaningful student feedback be given within an online class?
  4. How could Career Ready Practices (soft skills) be applied within an online/ITV course?
  5. What ways could be used to encourage student discussion and participation with an online class?
  6. What classroom resources/teaching tools could be utilized in an ITV and/or online class to increase student engagement and/or teacher-student interaction?

Saturday, February 08, 2020


Two years ago, my teaching partner and I set out to get our Master’s in Education in Leadership through a shared partnership between NDSU and BPS. One of the key assignments was an action research project and paper to be submitted at the end of our program. We brainstormed many different topics and possibilities of what we would like to spend time researching. We both came to the realization that we wanted something that had to do with the increased behavior we were seeing in our classrooms. We wanted a way to not only be proactive within our own rooms, but we wanted something that would also be a benefit to all staff and students in our school building.
We settled on reviewing the effectiveness of a social-emotion program that our district adopted a few years prior-Second Step. Second Step is a social-emotional curriculum that is endorsed by the Department of Education and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). It targets four categories: skills for learning, empathy, emotional management, and problem solving. As stated on the Second Step website, “Second Step’s holistic approach helps create a more empathetic society by providing education professionals, families, and the larger community with tools to enable them to take an active role in the social-emotional growth and safety of today’s children” (2012-2019). 

Our hypothesis was that if we offered school wide support for the Second Step curriculum, staff members would commit to providing continuous opportunities for students to practice social-emotional learning (SEL) skills after teachers had given explicit instruction in the classrooms. This will, in turn, enhance students’ understanding of and their abilities to use social-emotional skills. The schoolwide number of minors and majors reported in an academic year would decrease.

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The study focused on implementing Second Step building-wide through various methods, ultimately targeting as many school staff members as possible. Our building principal incorporated Second Step into morning announcements. Monthly assemblies revolved around a Second Step component carried out by staff members; groups of classroom teachers and specialists would focus on a Second Step skill and present a skit, activity, or game to the rest of the school. Teachers in grades 3-5 received training for Second Step’s online curriculum, and students were given access to individual lessons and review activities. Instructional aides were trained in the problem-solving process as laid out by Second Step. Pioneer’s school leadership team created a handout for staff members that is meant to serve as a guide to help determine what type of behavior warrants a minor versus a major. In order to promote home involvement, we printed off worksheets that talked about the weekly lesson and gave an opportunity for the students to practice their skills at home. In addition, staff members received Second Step support materials: lanyards that display the problem-solving process and posters for all specialists. 

In one year’s time, we saw our majors and minors drop by 76 infractions from the year prior, even with more students enrolled at Pioneer. It may not sound like a lot, but Pioneer Elementary is comparatively a smaller school in the district. We were able to conclude that since social-emotional learning helps students regulate their behaviors, ultimately enhancing their focus and attention in school, SEL should be an integral part of the school day.

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Since our study, our school has added many positive behavioral supports for our students. We have adopted the PBIS framework that has complimented the SEL curriculum. Our staff has also been educated in Trauma-Informed Practices & Teaching. Because of our found-passion while conducting our research, my teaching-partner and myself have become Trauma-Sensitive School trainers where we can train other districts and teachers in trauma-informed practices. This opportunity has been such a positive experience for us both. We look forward to leading our district in positive behavioral support as well as sharing our experience of the importance of social-emotional curriculums within all aspects of a classroom and school.

by: Lindsay Mock & Arlene Wolf 

Q1: What are some practices that you've implemented in your classroom/school that support social-emotional learning?
Q2: How do you encourage families to support the social-emotional learning of our students at home?
Q3: The overall health of educators is equally as important as the overall health of our students. What do you do to maintain/enhance your own social-emotional health?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Teacher Leader Academy reflections

Starting a new year is a natural time for reflection. What worked in the previous year, what you want to change or do differently, what you want to start. Much of my 2019 (and quite a bit of 2018, too) was spent pursuing my M.Ed degree through NDSU and the BPS Teacher Leader Academy (TLA). I, along with 17 other fantastic teacher leaders, spent five semesters learning, working on practicum experiences, attending (and presenting at!) conferences, and action researching (is that a real phrase?) our chosen topics.
            There are so many exciting opportunities that I could share with people interested in participating in the next BPS Teacher Leader Academy (and I do!) but, for me, my learning in Educational Leadership was supported and most successful by our continuous implementation of one phrase: Bird by Bird.
            It may seem like a small phrase but it hugely impacted my success and confidence in myself during the Teacher Leader Academy and beyond. During our first few meeting times, we read parts of Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life 
The section titled “Bird by Bird” became somewhat of a mantra for our TLA cohort. Basically, Lamott details a story of her younger brother neglecting to complete a report on birds during his summer vacation. The night before the report was due, the brother panicked because his report was unfinished and the task looked beyond impossible. Their father sat down with the brother and took out the encyclopedias and shared with the brother that they would get this report finished “bird by bird” - basically taking things one step at a time, especially when we feel overwhelmed, which was a common concern at the early stages of our TLA cohort. 
As a (self-appointed) Type A teacher, I have often felt overwhelmed by constant to-do lists and wondering how I am going to get it all done. Those feelings were amplified when I was contemplating starting a Master’s degree and I knew I would feel overwhelmed with balancing work and life and graduate school (vulnerability was also a topic we discussed important!). 
I was so fortunate that our TLA cohort started (and continued throughout) with reminders to take it all “bird by bird”. Yes, we can write an action research report. Yes, we can complete 110 hours of practicum experiences, Yes, we can present at a TLA conference. Yes, we can do it all when we take it one step at a time. This simple phrase (and all of the meaning behind it) is something (just one thing out of MANY positive experiences in the Teacher Leader Academy!) that I will be able to take with me as I move forward in my journey as a Teacher Leader.  - Sarah Morrow (Sunrise Elementary)

            It has been just over a month since we wrapped up the first BPS Teacher Leadership Academy and I find myself reflecting back to those 5 semesters often.  Something I go back to is receiving feedback.  Feedback can be intimidating and when we were first faced with doing peer reviews we froze up.  As teachers we naturally give feedback to our students daily without thinking twice. When asked to give our paper to someone else for peer review we were all a bit nervous and you could hear “I’m sorry”, “It’s a really rough draft.”, “Don’t judge.”, and other very nervous conversations.  Why were we so nervous to receive feedback from our peers? Why is it so hard to be vulnerable and show your hard work?  As we worked through the multiple peer reviews of our leadership book it hit all of us like a ton of bricks, we began to thrive on the idea of receiving feedback from each other.  
            In our fourth semester we were fortunate to have a speaker come into our class and talk about feed forward and giving/receiving cranks.  A crank is a way to expand possibilities and have an outlook of “How can we make it even better?” This is a way to feed FORWARD.  Something our speaker spoke about was how when the animators of Pixar films do their daily rundown of their work they reflect as a group.  When a member gives feedback they cannot simply just say the problem and leave it at that.  When giving feedback, they also need to propose an alternative solution for the team to consider.  Guess what, Pixar film makers aren’t the only ones that use this. TEACHERS do this EVERY day! We don’t realize how often we give feedback and how often we receive feedback. We naturally give cranks every single day and encourage our students to keep moving forward.  But when we take time to ask for feedback we get uncomfortable. Why is that? Maybe if we look at it from cranking each other up, we might begin to look for opportunities to receive feedback from each other more often!  - Melissa Haas (Liberty Elementary)

Q1: How do you take things “bird by bird” (achieve balance by taking things one step at a time)?
Q2: What is the hardest part of receiving feedback?
Q3: How can we incorporate feed forward into our daily/weekly/monthly work time?

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Fostering Collective Teacher Efficacy through Collaborative Inquiry

I am continually inspired by teachers. Again and again, I sit beside teachers who come together to grapple with the hard questions of teaching and learning. Sure, experts have answers, but these teachers dive into the messy and complex work of situating these answers within the walls of their classroom and in response to the students in front of them. These are teachers who believe that by grappling together around these challenges they can help all students learn and thrive. We call this shared belief collective teacher efficacy, and it has the greatest effect on student achievement. To foster this belief, we must give teachers the green light to pursue their questions through collaborative inquiry.

Here’s what I love about each part of this equation:
  • Action Research – Our students and classrooms are often our best teachers. 
  • PLCs – The smartest person in the room is the room. 
  • Backwards Design – Start with the end in mind. 

When you put these three things together, you have a powerful process and an empowering journey for professional learning. What I love most about collaborative inquiry is it puts teachers in the driver’s seat of their learning, or more so, a team of drivers gets together to choose how to navigate this arduous journey together. 

Below are key components of the collaborative inquiry process. With each, I’ve described what makes it especially powerful and how I’ve seen it with BPS teachers:

Framing the problem – During this initial phase, teachers dig into the gap between desired reality and current reality. They look for possible reasons this gap might exist, examine the possibilities within their control, and determine which to address for greatest impact. What I love is the grace of this process – hypothesizing which problem to address and how to address it. This requires us to closely examine what’s within our control and have the courage to try tackling it. 

A group of middle school ELA teachers began talking about students’ use of comprehension strategies. The more they dug into this, they realized the gap: Currently, students use comprehension strategies effectively in the ELA classroom, but they weren’t transferring these strategies to other classes. One option was to support other content teachers to use these strategies in their own classes to reinforce connections, but the more they talked, the more they realized this wasn’t the best possibility. They determined that the real question was how their instruction could foster ownership and transfer of these strategies.

Collecting and Analyzing Evidence – As with backwards design, this process gets teachers talking about what success would look like and what evidence will help us know we’re making headway. Too often, collecting evidence is viewed as a cumbersome process that turns students into numbers when really it should be an opportunity to more deeply understand our students and learn from them - their strengths and needs. The beauty is in the diversity of student work.

Another PLC was examining how to help students get better at determining key details and main idea. Each teacher was going to ask students the same question that week: What is the main idea? They each looked at their week ahead and planned for when they would use this question – with a documentary, class notes, a primary source, a political cartoon. They then planned how to ask it: a ticket out, at the end of class notes, think-pair-share, a quiz question. When they reconvened a week later, they were able to talk about the strengths, needs, and next steps of their students. And because this autonomy existed, they were able to learn from each other and muddle their way to clarity on what they really meant by “determining main idea”. 

Documenting, Celebrating, and Share – Ultimately, this process is about learning from our students and our classroom. Did my students improve? Do I know why they improved? This second question is the question that we often don’t spend enough time on. If we know why students improved, not only can we replicate this in the future, but we can also share our learning with our colleagues. 

Last year, a World Language PLC dug into improving students’ ability to infer at word, sentence, and passage level. They felt strongly that they first needed to address students’ willingness to take risks with the new language. If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you know exactly how right their hypothesis was! As they started their work together this year, they were able to quickly recall the most impactful strategies from last year in increasing risk-taking: increase collaboration, provide sentence frames and word walls, model risk-taking, lessen the consequences for risk-taking, and foster a classroom climate that celebrates risk-taking. 

The beauty of this collaborative inquiry process is how it invokes both vulnerability and empowerment. It fosters a culture of vulnerability and growth mindset, and it empowers teachers to be problem solvers of their own classrooms. The journey may be arduous, but this shared belief, this collective efficacy, makes it beautiful and worthwhile. 

Twitter Chat questions:

  1. Describe where you’ve seen or experienced collective efficacy (CE), the shared belief that together we can cause great things for all.
  2. Collaborative inquiry (CI) combines Action Research, PLC, and Backwards Design. Which of these components is hardest to engage in, and why?
  3. Which of these components most invigorates you, and why?
  4. What’s the professional question that’s been keeping you up at night? And who can you pursue it with?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Inquiry in the Classroom

We need to think about creating classroom environments that give children the opportunity for wonder, mystery, and discovery; an environment that speaks to young children inherent curiosity and innate yearning for exploration is a classroom where children are passionate about learning.

–Heard and McDonough, A Place for Wonder

My favorites moments in the classroom are when there is an excited buzz as my students share their noticing, wonderings, and new learning with each other.    In the last few years I have strived to provide more opportunities for students to engage in inquiry learning.   Inquiry based learning can be teacher directed (especially as students and teachers are new to inquiry-based learning), shared by students and teachers and ultimately directed by students.   The excitement students have in inquiry based learning transfers seamless to their reading, writing, and speaking and listening skills and deepens their passion for learning.  The power behind inquiry based learning is in putting the responsibility for learning on the students while helping them to develop and/or deepen a their understanding of concepts.  

Inquiry learning can be Design Thinking based where students generate ideas and tries them out, Problem Based where students try to solve a real word problem, Scenario Based where students work based on real world examples, or Meta where students are creating questions and activities that support the inquiry.
In my kindergarten classroom most inquiry is lead and guided by me, I spend a lot of time finding resources that can answer students’ wonderings, help them dig deeper in their understandings, and share their thinking.   As the year goes on students become confident, brave, and more curious.  They are also able to take more ownership in the process.  
This year we did an mini-inquiry about bats and my students had some great wonderings.  

My favorite project is fast approaching.  We work as teams to design the best sled.  Just like real engineers we
  1. Ask a question-How can we build the best sled (and brainstorm a list of wonderings)
  2. Imagine what is possible-we think, draw, and plan
  3. Create-try our idea and see what happens
  4. Improve-revise it to make it better.

It is amazing to see what they come up with and how they make it better. 


Inquiry is a way of life. Inquiry based learning is not about a final product at the end; Inquiry based learning is about living in a way that kids’ questions matter. Harvey 2014

Q1:  Do you feel your students have opportunities to engage in inquiry learning?
Q2:  What barriers hold you and your students back and how can they be overcome?
Q3:   Which type of inquiry based learning makes the most sense for your students?
Q4:   What impact does technology have on the inquiry process?