Unlimited Growth & Connection: Creating a Common Vision

“It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.” – A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Now maybe I’m being a bit dramatic using the opening line of a book about the dichotomy of people’s lives during the French revolution to describe my inner turmoil as I drove to work on the opening institute day of the year, but I honestly don’t think I could describe it any better.  Never in my life have I been so insanely excited about something while also so completely terrified at the same time.

As a former instructional coach, I know that trust starts day one. It’s not one thing you do, but a collection over time that builds up.  Brene Brown tells a story in Daring Greatly of a time that her daughter lost trust in one of her friends who hurt her deeply.  Her daughter’s description of how trust works has become one of my favorites.  (I actually used it on the opening slide of my keynote that day.) 

“Trust is like a marble jar. You share those hard stories and those hard things that are happening to you with friends who over time you’ve filled up their marble jar. They’ve done thing after thing after thing where you know you can trust this person.” 

I had started building a few marbles of trust with my staff over the summer, meeting in coffee shops individually or in groups to get to know them better, but this was the first time I would be addressing them as a whole, sharing my hopes, my fears, my dreams and promises to them as a leader.  The importance of vulnerability is another concept I learned from Brene.  This felt like vulnerability on extra strength steroids. On this day not only was I was going to be incredibly vulnerable, but in one of our activities, I was asking my staff to also be vulnerable as well.  It was a perfect storm for complete success or epic failure.  

I learned from Katie Martin visiting our school last year the power that sharing your why can have in creating connection as well as a direction for the vision of the school.  With this in mind, my instructional leadership team (myself, assistant principal & coach) planned out an activity where staff members were asked to bring two objects, one representing their personal why and one their professional why of everything they do.  They then were asked to get into groups of four with people they don’t normally interact with and share the stories behind them.  Finally, they had to create a visual that represented the common theme among them.  They had about an hour to do this and then were instructed to come back to our Multi-Purpose Room to share what they had created.

Our greatest hope was that we would find a common thread among them that would focus everything we did for the year.  Our greatest fear was that nothing would be connected and we would be coming up with an artificial idea that some people would get on board with, but others would find greater disconnection.  

My assistant principal and I spent the hour walking around classrooms listening in to the powerful conversations that groups were having with one another.  Many shared stories of people, adults and children, who had had a great impact on them.  The positive energy was flowing as smiles and memories lit up the faces of everyone involved.  It appeared that although each story was unique, there were definitely common themes emerging.

At around 10:00 the moment of truth arrived and we asked the groups to return to our MPR to share their common threads.  As each group stood and shared their creation, it was truly amazing to hear the ideas that each group shared and the inspired ways they chose to represent them.  You can see a picture of what they made below, but one group made a chain with important words connected together.  Another group drew a puzzle with different pieces connected.  Another team talked used Buzz Lightyear in their image to represent that students need to know that they have infinite possibility.  A couple groups used nature to demonstrate how as educators we want students to grow to their full potential.

It was completely inspiring to see how much we had in common.  I deeply appreciate the vulnerability it took to have these conversations in sharing their passions and beliefs.  It was because of this that our vision for the year emerged easily:  Unlimited Growth and Connection, applying to both our staff and students.  

We spent the next hour sharing ideas for how we could better connect with students at the beginning of the year and throughout.  Splitting up the ideas into the four categories of:  Classroom Community, Community of Learners, Sense of Belonging and Student Strengths teams, we created a chart that could be referred back to throughout the year.  Each staff member selected one to two ideas of something new to try this year and created a plan of action.  

The week and a half following our opening day has been nothing short of amazing.  As I have been in classrooms and around the building I have seen our focus unfolding and evolving as each person has been connecting with our students in inspired and inventive ways.  Yesterday one of our staff members shared an idea with me that she and another staff member have for our entire staff for Unlimited Growth and Connection that totally blew my mind.  They are hashing out the plan for it this weekend and I sincerely cannot wait to talk to them about it on Monday.  

We have decided to use #unlimitedgrowthandconnection in our social media posts for the year to share our journey with others.  

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This is another quote that I shared on my first day to describe the best team I have ever been a part of.  It was truly the best time in my teaching career and I thought it would be impossible to duplicate.  As I have begun to build relationships, I am seeing this same quality emerge in my Jefferson staff, students, and community.  That sheer and utter terror I had on the first day has turned to delight, pure joy and excitement for the great work we will do together.  

As always, thanks for reading!  Christina

Overcoming Worries About the Beginning of the Year

This post is mostly a reminder to myself, but if you are an educator like me you might appreciate this message as well.

It’s that time of summer when “Back to School” ads seem to start popping up almost everywhere.  When I was a teacher this signaled the time when I started thinking more heavily about the upcoming year, dreaming about the classroom I would create, the students I would have, and reflecting on what I would do differently.

I would start making lists.

Lists for classroom decorations like nametags, posters and bulletin boards.

Lists for activities I wanted to plan the first week.

Lists for copies I needed to make and fancy things I wanted to laminate.

Lists for days I would do the things on said prior lists.

You needed a list for something?  I had a post-it or notebook page for that.

My routine almost always went this way:  The first day I would come in for only a half-day and ease myself back into the classroom.  Take the lay of the land.  Plan out placement of the new shiny things I wanted to put up.  Laminate 1-2 said shiny things.  Maybe open up a few boxes.  Catch up with friends I hadn’t seen all summer. I was in around 10 and out by 2 at the latest.  As the days progressed I would start to spend more time and by the day before school, I was always ready.

The problem was I spent a good portion of those weeks anxious.  Even though I had made plans upon plans and lists upon lists, I was worried.  Worried that it wouldn’t all get done.  That I wouldn’t be ready when the first day started.  So, instead of enjoying my time when I was not working in my classroom, I spent the time with family and friends feeling anxious and crabby and worried that it wouldn’t all get done.

My husband would tell me every year, “Don’t worry, you’ll get it done.  You always do.  You’ll be great.”  And guess what?  I did.  I always got it done.  And the things that I didn’t, it didn’t matter, I did them later.  Or better yet, had the kids do them.

So I promised myself that I would stop worrying and remind myself at the start of every year how I always got everything done and as the years progressed things got gradually better.  (I can’t say they totally stopped.  I am naturally a little neurotic.)

New Role, New Worries

This year I will be a principal for the first time at Jefferson Elementary School in Elmhurst, IL.  I have spent the past two weeks meeting with many of my staff, and each time I meet with a new person I get even more excited to be a part of the school.

Even though I have had all of these incredibly positive and energizing meetings & ideas, school officially starts in two weeks.  Once again, feelings of doubt and worry are creeping into my mind and dominating my thoughts.

Will I be enough?

How can there possibly be enough time to get everything done?

How am I not going to fail miserably and let everyone down?

I care.  Deeply about this work.  When I first got into education I remember telling someone that if they offered me a million dollars to stop I wouldn’t take it and I still stand by that today.  

Becoming a principal is an incredible honor and just like my teachers, I want to make sure I am fully prepared to start the year.  There are relationships to build (the best part), schedules, routines & processes to create (or just understand), class lists to double-check, a collaborative vision to be built, plans to be made, emails upon emails and meetings upon meetings.  I want so deeply to be the leader that the students, staff, and families are proud to have.  At times it can feel a bit insurmountable.

So even though I am trying hard not to, I have honestly spent a lot of time in that familiar place of anxiousness and worry.

When this starts to happen I have been going back to the words of my husband reminding myself of all the times I have overcome something that I once thought was impossible, like getting my doctorate or becoming a mother.  I assure myself that I have all of the talents and skills to do this well.  I wouldn’t have been given this job if many others didn’t see my work and believe in me as well.  I focus on the joy instead of the fears of what I am about to do.

Many times I think of the quote below that was posted by Linnea, a dear friend of mine, several years back on my Facebook wall.  I’m not even sure she knows of the impact it has had on me.  I love how it uses personification to change the concept of worry from an intangible, uncontrollable thing to something I can choose to let into my mind or not.

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So as a final reminder to myself (and anyone else in full-on school panic mode)…

You will get all the things done.

You always have.

You are more than enough.

I believe in you.

Whether you choose to worry about it all is up to you. 🙂

Making the Last Days of School Meaningful

Busy. Busy. Busy.

That one word has permeated my vocabulary since I took over as interim principal a few months ago at Emerson Elementary School.  I’m not just talking about myself.  With state and district testing, about a million end of the year activities as well as normal teaching responsibilities I’ve watched my staff and students move at a frenetic pace making sure that all of the things are done. 

This upcoming Friday is our last day of school making this the last week I will spend with this wonderful group.  Planning out our all school assembly for the last day of school has gotten me thinking about the activities I used to plan with my students at the end of the year as well as reflecting on what I would do now with these last precious moments if I were still in the classroom.

Questions

A good reflection always starts with a great question.  I believe the purpose of school is to grow curious learners and build on their unique talents as well as help them to discover new ones.  I want kids to leave my classroom knowing how much I appreciate their uniqueness and believe in them.  With that in mind, the following questions made me think a little deeper about what I would plan for the last week.

  1.  What do I most want students to remember from this year?  or What was most meaningful from our learning?
  2. How can I continue to shine a spotlight on the talents of my students so they leave my classroom confident in their abilities and native genius?
  3. How do I continue to spark the curiosity of learning in students in my classroom beyond this year?  

Ideas

As a teacher of 10+ years prior to becoming an instructional coach and now administrator I have ended the school year in a variety of ways with my students.  In thinking about previous activities I had done with students as well as new ones I might try, here are some thoughts on how I might end the year now that fit with the questions I just posed.

Celebrate Learning Fair.  Have students think about how they have grown this year.  They can think about academic as well as personally.  I might have students include a quote that they create or choose from someone else.  I honestly wouldn’t give them too many parameters and create what is most meaningful for them.  On the day of the fair students would set up their area and other kids would come and talk to one another about their memories and growth for the year.  I would invite families to come in as well and share in our celebration.

Personal Memory Book.   Similar to the learning fair students think about how they have grown and what they want to remember most.  This can be an actual paper book or digital.  Like the Celebrate Learning Fair I wouldn’t want to give kids too many parameters, but would let them create what was most meaningful to them.  They could choose to focus on the personal aspects or academic or both.  If students wanted to share, I would give them time to meet in small groups or partnerships to share their ideas.  

Students as Teachers.  One of my good friends used to end the year with kids creating lessons about something they were passionate about.  I loved this idea and actually think it’s important to do throughout the year.  It allows students to see that we have just as much to learn from them as they have from us and also shines a spotlight on their talents.  The students would sign-up for a time that they would teach the class a 45 minute to an hour lesson to the class.  The things they taught varied from all sorts of things from cooking to sports to art to math tricks to photography.  

Academy Awards of Books.  When I was in the classroom I would have students create book trailer recommendations for books that they loved.  We then compiled these in a doc with links in our classroom.  With this activity I might have kids think about their favorite book they read that they would recommend to friends for the summer and come up with a category they would nominate it for.  They would then create some way of pitching the book to their class with an award given to the book at the end.  This would expose kids to new titles as well as encourage them to keep reading over the summer.

Summer Bucket List.  Bucket lists are currently very popular and I know many of my friends have their kids create these for summertime fun activities.  Why not do the same thing, but in the classroom?  It could include things they are curious about, but also ways they want to recharge over the summer.  When they come back in the fall they could come back and share all they have accomplished with you.  It would be a great way to touch base when school starts again.

Wall of Curiosity.  What are your students still curious about?  Create a question board using Padlet or another technology and tell students they can continue to add content to their questions or their classmates as the summer progresses.

Classroom Awards.  I did this every year when I was in the classroom on the last day of school.  I used to think about what was unique about each student and create an award for that student based on that unique quality.  It was so much fun seeing their eyes light up on the last day knowing that their uniqueness was cherished and appreciated.  If I was in the classroom now I think I would also ask for ideas from their classmates so they could also contribute.

Individual Conferences with Kids.  This is a great way to continue to build relationships with students as well as help them to see their unique talents and abilities.  While the rest of the class is working schedule 15-minute conferences with each student to talk about the year with them.  Name their strengths, ask them for their thoughts and create a plan for their dreams.  Keep track of what they said and touch base with them on it next year.  

Conclusions

With so many activities at the end of the year it would be impossible to do all of these things.  I would encourage you to think about what do you want students to look back and remember and what impact do you most want to have moving forward?  For me, it’s no longer about the knowledge I’m imparting, but the relationships I’m building that I want to last. 

angelou quote

Multiplying the Talents of Students

Every morning I have about a thirty-minute commute to work from my home in Wheaton.  Most mornings my routine is pretty similar.  After giving Alexandra a big hug and a kiss (sometimes 4 or 5 depending on what mood she’s in), I hop in my car, order my morning coffee and listen to whatever music I happen to be in the mood for.  I let my mind wander to nonsense during this time, but after I get my coffee (Americano, 2 sugars) it’s “Go Time.”

I turn on a podcast, listen to a book on Audible or spend the next twenty minutes reflecting on my practice.  This week has gotten me reflecting about one of the quotes I discussed from my last post about building a strength-based culture in our schools, (Making the Positives so Loud)

“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” – The Multiplier Effect & Multipliers

Instead of thinking about it in the context of building leader to teacher, I have been reflecting more on the implications within the classroom and how teachers can unleash the talents of their students.  In Chapter 2 of Wiseman’s original book on the same topic: Multipliers:  How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter she discusses a three-step process called, “Name the Genius” that is connected to this same quote. 

Like the title alludes to, “Name the Genius” is the process of finding what individuals are innately good at with the purpose of multiplying the ability.  The first part of this process involves reflecting on an individual’s strengths.  The book offers four questions to help leaders to define the native talents in others:

• What do they do better than anything else they do?
• What do they do better than the people around them?
• What do they do easily (without effort or even awareness)?
• What do they do freely (without being asked or being paid)?

In the context of education I might simplify these questions to the following:

  • What does the student excel in at school? (What comes easy for the student – NOT just academics)
  • What does the student choose to do when he or she is given choice in the classroom?
  • What do the other students tend to come to this student for help with?

Step 2 in the process is literally putting a label on it.  Some examples given are, “synthesizing complex ideas,” or “building bridges.”  I think the labels in school would depend greatly on the age and the different students comprised of the classroom each year, but some of the ideas I have are:

Category Student Description
Natural Leader This is a student who naturally takes the lead when working in partnerships or groups.  The other students tend to look to him or her for leadership in the classroom.
Organizational Ninja This is a student whose desk, locker, all materials are always organized. He or she has a system for everything.  This may transfer over into other subjects like writing.
Idea Generator This is the student who is always coming to you with an idea for something they want to work on in class or out of class.  When you ask questions, this student almost always raises their hand and has a unique answer. They love to talk and share ideas.
Creative Artist This is the student who the other students are always coming to to draw things for them.  They are always drawing or doodling something in class.
Creative Writer This is the student who excels in creativity in writing.  Whether they are designing new worlds or interesting characters their mind thinks creatively when putting pen to paper.
Tech Guru This is the kid who loves working on their computer.  When something breaks down in the classroom this student can usually figure out a way to make it work again.
Voracious Reader This is the student who reads volumes of books in school and out.  He or she has favorite authors or genres and can be found reading whenever freetime is given.
Mathematical Mind This is a student who can find an answer to even the most complex math in the classroom with what appears to be little effort.  Many times the student has different strategies for solving as well or can combine numbers in unique ways.
Kindness Coordinator This is a student whose empathy runs deep.  He or she works well with any student in the classroom and can often be found helping other students to solve problems.
Performance Artist This is a student who when given choice is always creating a play, song or dance related to the topic.  He or she loves to perform in front of any audience.

The final step in the process is the most critical, share with the student what you’ve noticed as their native genius and then look for ways to multiply it or put it to use in the classroom.  

There are a variety of ways I might do this in the classroom.  I would first schedule individual conferences with each student where my conversation might sound like this…

“I’ve been looking for the unique talents of each student in our classroom and I’ve noticed that you are an Idea Generator.  When I ask questions in the classroom your hand is almost always raised.  When you are working with other kids I’ve noticed that you are the one who comes up with unique ideas or are often the first to share.  You frequently come to me with ideas about our classroom or things you’d like to try outside of school.  This is a true talent and gift that will make you very successful both inside and outside of school because you come up with ideas that others may have never thought of before.  I’d like to use your unique talent in our classroom more.  Here are some ideas I have…What do you think?  Do you have more?”  

Just like in a literacy or math conference, name the observation and then give examples to the student of this trait.  By sharing the native genius with the student he or she is more likely to focus on this talent and use it more often in the classroom and beyond.  

The next thing I would do is incorporate ways to enhance students’ native genius into my planning.  If I’ve got a classroom of students who thrive on creativity then I want to plan lessons that are going to give opportunities for that genius to flourish.  Many times the answer will be obvious like offering choice in how students demonstrate mastery with creative options.  Sometimes though the creative answer is not always apparent to us as educators because that may not be our native genius.  This is an opportunity to ask the students how they would incorporate creativity into the lesson.  The more we give students opportunities to contribute, the more not only their talents will grow, but the ideas that we have for future practice will increase as well.

Planning for small groups or partnerships is another way that strategically planning with the students’ native genius is a benefit.  When planning for small group collaboration I might put students together who have very different strengths, but together would create a much better synergy than if they had worked in a homogeneous group.  For example, in a group of four, I’d look to have a leader, an organizer, a creative student and a student who is incredibly kind.  Depending on the type of work I might also put an Idea Generator, a Tech Guru, and a Creative Artist together.  At the end of the collaboration, I would have students reflect on what worked well, what they learned from the other students and what they might want to try to emulate.  I would use this information to plan for future groups.  

The final action I would take is to create something called, “Mastermind Groups” in my classroom.  These groups would be comprised of students with similar talents.  They would meet once a week and get to work on the things they loved most together.  It would kind of be similar to a passion project or genius hour, but with a group of like-minded individuals who could push one another due to their similar strengths.  I might also use this time as a brainstorming session with students to get more of their ideas of how our classroom could be enhanced by posing questions like the following?

  • When is learning best for you in my classroom?  
  • What problems do you see in our classroom or school?  How do you recommend we solve those problems?
  • What suggestions do you have for making learning better in our classroom?

The ideas and feedback could then be incorporated into future planning for learning experiences or classroom procedures.


The actual title of Chapter 2 in Multipliers is The Talent Magnet.  I have relistened to this chapter on my way to and from work probably 3 to 4 times, each time grasping something new.  Essentially, great leaders who are Talent Magnets draw talented people to them because they not only recognize the talent in others, but are able to take that talent and increase it exponentially.  

The longer I am in education the more I realize that it’s not the standards or content that is the most important thing, it’s the relationships I build with students and the way that I help them to grow and become the best possible version of themselves.  The role of the teacher (as well as leaders) is truly one of a Talent Magnet. 

“Multipliers not only access people’s current capability, they stretch it. They get more from people than they knew they had to give. People reported actually getting smarter around Multipliers. The implication is that intelligence itself can grow.” – Liz Wiseman, Greg McKeown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making the Positives So Loud

I’ll admit it.

George Couros is one of my favourite (spelling intended) people in education.  Not only is he skilled at telling a captivating story that can cause both tears and inexplicable laughter, but his ideas about education are thought-provoking and real, grounded in his own experience or ideas he has recently read about or seen.

Since being introduced to his work and hearing him speak at a conference last year, I’ve been influenced by not only his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, but also his regular blog posts, podcasts, and tweets.

When I originally encountered his popular quote, “We need to make the positives so loud so that the negatives are almost impossible to hear,” I quickly connected it, as many people do, to the context of making sure that the positive voices are heard so loudly in the school that they outweigh any negativity from the naysayers.  In a year of rapid changes in my district, this quote resonated with me as a great strategy to build a positive school culture.

What I realized recently though is that although that interpretation is completely valid, it actually has a variety of meaningful contexts that relate to not only students and staff, but to education as a whole.  Administrators need to regularly share the strengths of their team and teachers need to do the same with students.

In one of the studies mentioned in Paul Tough’s book, Helping Children Succeed he discusses a strategy that social workers used with parents of toddlers to improve their parenting skills.  Instead of focusing on what they were doing wrong after each visit, the social worker gave feedback explicitly naming what the parents were doing correctly. The impact of this study was profound, elevating not only the overall confidence of the parents, but their parenting skills as well.

At first as an instructional coach, and now an administrator, I have tried a variety of strategies to emulate this philosophy and grow a positive culture.  

  1. Every time I visit a classroom I send an email to the staff member explicitly stating positive observations related to their instruction, interaction with students or even classroom environment.  
  2. “Bite-Sized Feedback” cycles are also an awesome way to highlight great instruction.  First, we talk about something they would like me to observe and then we set up a 15-minute time slot each week for me to come into their classroom. Afterward, we talk for 10-15 minutes about the laundry list of awesome things they are doing followed by me offering a tip for how to enhance one of their strengths.  I have seen more impact on instruction as a result of this practice than any traditional observation.
  3. I regularly tweet out pictures and videos of the amazing instruction I see when I pop into classrooms.  Sometimes it is a student, sometimes a staff, and sometimes me reflecting on what I saw and the impact it had on students. 
  4. This year we have started a podcast at one of my buildings where we interview one of our staff members about their instructional practices.  This helps our staff to get to know one another’s strengths, and also gives us an avenue to share the amazing learning happening in our building.
  5. Involve students in telling the positive story of the school. This year I am working with groups of students in both of my buildings to do this.  At one of my buildings this developed into creating a documentary about our entire school and in the other building, the students have been creating short videos about individual classrooms.  

In the book, The Multiplier Effect:  Tapping The Genius Inside Our Schools, authors Wiseman, Allen & Foster agree with the importance of not only recognizing, but sharing strengths with those whom we serve.

“But if people aren’t aware of their genius, they are not in a position to deliberately utilize it. By telling people what you see, you can raise their awareness and confidence, allowing them to provide their capability more fully.” 

Walking through classrooms or in conversations with students & staff, I am amazed daily in the creative genius that surrounds me.  Telling them their brilliance shines a spotlight on their talents and says, “DO THIS MORE!” This builds not only confidence and a positive school culture, but causes even brighter ideas and more innovation to spread in our school.  

Please know that by saying we should highlight the positive, I am not saying that we should never have reflective conversations about shifts that may need to be made in instructional practice. It has been my experience that when I focus on sharing strengths instead of telling a list of changes to be made, that we end up actually having even more of these types of conversations.  This is because when people know that you see them for their unique strengths and talents as opposed to a project that needs to be fixed a greater trust is built.  Staff members often come to me with ideas asking for feedback or I am able to ask reflective questions resulting in instructional shifts. When change comes from within, it is deeper and more likely to last.  

Educators don’t always see the amazing strengths within themselves.  As leaders, the more we recognize and celebrate the strengths of those we lead, the more we create a positive culture that drowns out negativity and grows the innate talents of our school community. 

A Million Dreams: Creating a Shared Vision with Students, Parents, & Teachers

I wouldn’t really describe myself as someone who cries easily, but as the closing melody of “A Million Dreams” began to play I found myself overcome with emotion, unable to hold back tears.  Looking out across the audience of parents, students, and teachers I realized that the moment that we had been planning for months had arrived and the true journey was about to begin.

The Spark

It all started last fall when author Katie Martin visited our school to talk with our teachers about her amazing book Learner-Centered Innovation. (Side Note:  If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it.  Check it out here.)  As part of the day she held a workshop with our parents that included conversations about our own school experiences, what we really want for our children, current success indicators vs. what we truly value and messages from parents to the teachers.

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There were tears at this event as well as many participants realized that the message they were sending in their language and actions didn’t match the future that they deeply wanted for their children.  Our community found connections in shared memories of their own school experiences, dreams for their kids, and what they valued most in education.  They created new language stems to use with their children that better matched their desired outcome of a growth mindset, kindness, and empathy.

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What I found to be most powerful about the workshop evolved out of one of the last questions:  What do you want to share with the teachers?  Smiles ensued as parents wrote down positive messages of support, a desire to be a collaborative partner, and deep admiration for the work that they do.  They also discussed a need for increased communication due to the recent changes including a no homework policy, Standards-Based Reporting and a workshop approach to the classroom.

I walked away from that day with my mind brimming with ideas.  We collected a lot of great information, but I knew the conversation couldn’t stop there.  We needed to engage more people, collect more feedback and continue the dialogue started that day. The result could be a shared vision that went beyond just our district or school by integrating all of the stakeholders in our community.  This would pervade everything we did and shape the culture of our school.

Beginning Stages of the Work

Knowing that a great way to engage the parent community was to first go through our PTA, I reached out to Erin Stratton, our dynamic PTA president.  An organizational ninja, filled with ideas and always willing to lend a helping hand, she has been such an asset to our school both inside and out.

When I initially proposed the idea of engaging families in creating a shared vision of the school she agreed with me that this was a great idea, but posed a really great question:

How are you going to engage all stakeholders?  Not just the ones who come to all of the meetings.  How will you ensure that all voices are heard?

This question literally drove the rest of our conversation for the meeting as we brainstormed ways to get more people to come.  We talked about typical ideas like making it fun, including food and maybe even holding it off school property so that we could include an adult beverage or two.  What really struck me though was Erin’s honest conversation with me about the need to open up the school, give parents a window into what was happening in the classroom.  Parents will always come if it is somehow connected to the kids and they can gain a greater understanding of how their children are learning.

This got the wheels turning in my mind again.  I thought about doing a learning fair where we opened up the entire school and students could pick any sort of way they wanted to demonstrate their learning.  Parents could move around the school, talk to the teachers and students, and get a sense of what learning looked like.  After they did this we would have break out rooms to discuss what they saw and talk about what resonated and also other ideas they had.

The biggest obstacle I saw with this was time.   When would students work on these projects?  If it was going to be during the school day how would teachers feel about giving up some of their instructional time to facilitate these projects?  The other tricky component would be asking teachers to give up a night for essentially another Open House at our school.

At the end of the meeting, we talked about building excitement for the event and advertising it to our community.  I don’t remember whose idea it initially was, but we decided that some sort of promotional video that involved students would be a great idea to spark conversation and get people interested.  It would include snippets of instruction as well as some sound bites.  I told Erin I would reach out to Kate Allt in our communications department to help produce it.

We also sketched out some questions that we wanted to ask parents at the event to spark the conversation and decided that we would have a sign-up that night for parents to join a Shared Vision Committee that would do the work of putting the vision into action.  The questions we initially thought we would ask were:

What resonated with you about what you saw in the video?

What was your experience like in school?  What do you still use now?

What do you wish they would have learned in school?

What do you most value for their children in school?

What is your vision for your child’s future?  

Hawthorne wishes for the school…

As Erin left the meeting I was excited about the work that was before me, but nervous about how it would actually all play out.  The idea of a movie about our school really resonated with me and I started thinking it could go beyond just the promo and be the focus of the evening.  I decided to reach out to Katie Martin to get her feedback on the idea and sent her an email with an outline of the plan.  She liked the idea of inviting the community to a movie night that would spark conversation about a shared vision for our school, but added one piece of advice that ended up changing the trajectory of the film:

“I think you should definitely invite students to the movie night and see if a few of them can help you out the movie together. Their insights throughout the process would be valuable.”

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t considered this.  I was currently working with a group of 5th grade students, The Hawthorne Hawkeye (YouTube Club as the kids affectionately named it), who were learning about video production with the goal of creating 5-10 minute videos about each classroom in our school.  We had spent most of the year working on building their skills and understanding of film, but hadn’t actually started creating the mini-documentaries yet.  They would be the perfect group to do the work of telling our school’s story.

Excited (yes, I know I get excited a lot), I reached back out to Erin to meet up again and talk to her about the slight shift in plans.  She was in agreement that this was a good plan and we sketched out a tentative agenda for a “Movie Premiere Night” complete with popcorn, tickets to the event and maybe even a red carpet.  The attendees (parents & teachers & involved students) would first watch the film and then meet in break-out sessions to discuss the questions listed above.  After this, groups would carousel around to read other groups responses and we would create a list of themes.  There would be a sign-up sheet for anyone who was interested in continuing the conversation and actually putting the vision into action. We decided to replace the PTA meeting on February 19th with the premiere which was a little over 3 months away.

Getting the Students Involved

Creating the video with the students was a three-step process with many intricate details and nuances along the way.  I sincerely wish that I could say that the students drove the entire process, but with the time crunch and the fact that I could only meet with them once a week, I did take control of facilitating and designing of the structure and process.

Because asking good questions was going to be key to building a great film we started there, brainstorming questions for both our teachers and parents.  Based on what we captured in interviews, it was our intention to then go in and capture “B Roll Footage” of classroom instruction that matched what the interviewees said.

In designing the questions I told the students that we wanted to capture what was positive about learning at our school, what made Hawthorne unique and what are some hopes for the future.  After working in partnerships to come up with ideas, our teacher questions ended up as the following:

  1. How long have you been teaching at Hawthorne and why did you become a teacher?
  2. What is your favorite thing about teaching or What’s your favorite teaching moment?
  3. What are attributes that you think a good learner should have?
  4. What is your favorite thing about Hawthorne school?
  5. What do you expect from your students?
  6. Is there something that you want your kids to learn that you don’t teach? If so, what is it?
  7. Did you like school when you were a kid?  If so, what was your favorite subject?
  8. What is your favorite subject to teach?  Why?
  9. What is your ideal classroom or school?

We then set up a schedule for teachers to sign-up to be interviewed during their lunch hour in our library and TRC.  The students worked in teams of two to interview each teacher, one working the camera and the other being the interviewer.  Mr. Chambers was kind enough to send over York High School students from Ytv to mentor the students prior to this in how to use the cameras and tips for capturing the best shots.  I could see from the way that the students operated behind the camera as well as performed in front of it that this had a lasting effect on their work.

We did not have every teacher sign-up, but I did have teachers reach out to say they would have participated if all the slots weren’t already full.  Our staff is amazing at jumping in and contributing to a variety of opportunities in our building.  If we ever did this again, I would try to accommodate them all.

After Winter Break, we began the grueling process of interviewing students and collecting classroom footage.  For the classroom work, we had the teachers sign up over a period of three days for 1-2 students plus myself to come in and record in their classroom for about an hour.  We didn’t give them any specific parameters, only that it should represent learning in your classroom and that it didn’t have to be fancy.   We ended up with at least one teacher volunteering in every grade level and even had a few specials sign up.

When it came to the actual recording, one of the students would man the stationary camera while another would capture more candid footage.  At about halfway through the time the students would move outside of the classroom and would pull students to be interviewed to find out what was happening in the lesson from their perspective.  They also asked them the following questions that the group had developed during one of our meetings:

  1.  How do you learn best?
  2. What do you wish you got to do more of in school?
  3. What do you want to be when you grow up or what problem do you want to solve in the world around you?
  4. What is your favorite subject and why?
  5. What is the best thing about your grade level and why?
  6. What is one thing you would change about Hawthorne?

We also interviewed students during lunch and recess time with these same questions either individually, in a partnership or in a small group.

Although I had initially wanted the students to be involved in the parent interview portion as well, scheduling and time got in the way and I ended up creating the questions with feedback from Erin Stratton.  We decided it would be best to send out a Google forms survey to the parents to pull quotes from first.  The last question asked participants if they would be willing to be interviewed on camera answering these questions.  We used responses to that question to invite parents in to ask them some of the same questions, plus a few more.

  1. How would you describe learning at Hawthorne School?
  2. What does Hawthorne School do really well?
  3. What is your greatest dream for your children?
  4. How does Hawthorne help your child to reach that dream?
  5. What do you want to share with the teachers at Hawthorne?
  6. When you imagine the ideal school experience for your child, what does that look like?
  7. My favorite moment or favorite experience at Hawthorne School is…
  8. How do you think Hawthorne is different from other schools in or out of District 205?
  9. What do you wish Hawthorne did more of?
  10. What was school like for you growing up?

One of the things I learned in conducting the parent interviews was how amazing it is to sit 1:1 with a parent and talk about their experience in the school.  I met with parents who had children at Hawthorne from 1 year to 15!  It was incredibly insightful to hear either viewpoint and moving forward I would like to start scheduling these annually to get an idea of where we’ve been and also where we want to go.  If I was still a teacher, I would do the same practice, but with parents of students in my classroom.  Surveys are great, but you miss out on some of the nuances and ability to probe more deeply.

The Editing Process

The editing process went through several iterations.  The students quickly discovered that looking through film to find interesting quotes and clips was not as fun as doing the recording itself.  These meetings tended to drag and I was honestly a little worried that we would ever finish based on this progress.

What made a huge difference was the way that we ended up organizing the way that we took notes on the clips.  Instead of the original template that looked like this:

chart 1

 

I ended up making a specific template for each group we interviewed with a section for each question.  The students then signed up for the question they would be paying attention to as they listened to the interviews.  (Try to picture the example below with a section for each question as well as the stakeholder.)

chart 5

 

This expedited the process significantly because it gave students something to focus on.  I also made a copy of the questions for each of the groups for writing down specific quotes that we might turn into quote slides in the documentary.

When it came time to decide on the structure of the video itself we went through and looked for themes in the questions and decided to organize the documentary that way. Here are a few examples of where we started:

 

Chart 6Chart 7

By organizing all of our ideas ahead of time we were able to put the actual video together in much less time than if we had just input all of the videos into WeVideo and tried pulling clips as we went.

One huge obstacle to consider if you are considering having students do something like this with WeVideo is that the students can’t all simultaneously work on the same project at one time, even if it is in collaboration mode.  To solve this problem and not waste students time during lunch I had them each sign up for individual times they would come down to my office throughout the day to work on the project importing clips or adding in design style like transitions, music etc.   I am sincerely grateful for one student in particular who I am pretty much convinced is the next Steven Spielberg with his creative genius and ability to figure out any video creation obstacle that we needed to overcome.

The Premiere

If I thought Erin Stratton was a creative and organizational ninja before this process started, working with her on this project only reinforced that idea tenfold.   Leading up to the event she dropped everything to come in, talk on the phone or even text about ideas.  Her questions and ideas added incredible value to the focus of the evening as well as the smooth organization.

While OUT OF TOWN, she continued to work behind the scenes to ensure that this event was a success.  She helped organize parent volunteers to facilitate the post-film discussion, recruited PTA President-Elect Jennie Beal to help with set-up and coordination for the night including assigning tables, decorations and food, and somehow managed to get back to help set up for the evening.

The final plan for the night ended up being the following:

Facilitation Guide

Prior to the event starting, I met with the 10 table leaders to discuss how they would facilitate the discussion based on the guide.  We were expecting around 100 people who RSVP’d including parents, teachers and students who were involved in the making of the film.  We ended up with less than this number, but the conversation had by those involved was a powerful one.

After watching the documentary (huge applause, happy tears), tables started out talking about what resonated with them from the film.  Many agreed with the positive messages about our school being one that focuses on the needs of the students.  They smiled as they shared stories of the impact that particular teachers had had on their children and even discussed behaviors of teachers who had the opposite effect (I did not hear specific names used).  I overheard conversations about liking our workshop model approach and how their children come home happy with school.

What sparked an interesting debate was our recent “No Homework” policy.  Some parents thought that this was a great new policy because their children have so much they’re involved in after school and this gave them back more family time.  On the flip side, parents who also had middle school and high school students were concerned that this wasn’t preparing students to develop organizational structures and responsibility when they start getting homework again as they are older.

Another interesting conversation that occurred at one of the tables came out of a conversation about bringing in more experts from the community to talk about the work they were doing.  Some parents thought that we needed to do more of this because it would expose students to career ideas for their future.  Another parent brought up the point that we spend a lot of time focusing on preparing students to be “career and college ready,” but we are missing out on the development of the whole child if we only focus our efforts there.  It was an interesting conversation for sure and one that I would like to continue.

The cumulating work of each table was to create two posters based on the following:

Imagine a school where…

Then we need leaders who…

Then we need teachers who…

Then we need parents who…

I loved hearing tables debate back and forth about what was essential for our students and what we might need to make that happen.  It was also amazing to hear families say, well, we already do a lot of these things.  I want to make sure you know that this is not a criticism, but just our best ideas.  A few of the posters created:

I had many amazing conversations that night with parents.  One of my favorites came from a parent who was teaching a religion class and had started reading every Smokey Daniels book she could get her hands on.  It was so fun talking to her about inquiry and how passionate she had become about instruction through this process.  She jokingly mentioned that maybe parents could come to some of the staff development workshops that we did.  I seriously thought this was a fantastic idea and wasn’t sure why we didn’t do this more!  (Side note:  I already picked up Upstanders and am enjoying it immensely)

After the Shared Vision Night, I took the posters and typed them up into this document.  The starred items are ones that had additional markings on the posters indicating that more than just one group agreed with that statement when they did the gallery walk.  Just like the day that Katie Martin visited our school, the themes that stood out were more greatly related to students truly enjoying learning, developing character and strong relationships being created among all parties.

The Work is Just Beginning

As much fun as it was working with the students to create the school documentary, the true work begins now.  As you can see from the charts from the evening there are so many ideas for what our ideal school might look like and what teachers, parents, and leaders might need to do to achieve that dream.  The Shared Vision Committee will be meeting soon to discuss:

  1. What are the common themes from each of the sections?
  2. What do we already do well?
  3. What are areas for growth?
  4. What are our next steps in achieving our goals?

My greatest takeaway from this work is the importance of everyone having a voice in what goes on in our schools.  In Learner-Centered Innovation, Katie Martin articulates

“If we want to better align our schools with the world we live in and develop the type of learners and people that will be productive citizens, administrators, teachers, families, and the greater community must work together to develop a shared understanding of the desired outcomes for students and align the vision, policies, and practices.”

Schools are the center of the community.  They have great potential to connect those who might not otherwise connect, to bridge differences thought perhaps previously impossible, to create unimaginable and limitless possibilities for those they serve. As educational leaders, we can no longer sit behind the walls of our building developing plans based solely on academic outcomes related to levels of achievement.  When we engage all voices, we go beyond academics and get to the dreams of the human beings we serve and start the journey towards the world we want to create.

If you are interested in watching either of the videos you can see them here:

Full Documentary (40 minutes)

5 Minute Ending “A Million Dreams” Song (5 minutes)

A Few More Shout-Outs

You may have already surmised this from the rest of the story, but a key component of this process was generating help from others, sometimes by asking, and other times being the grateful benefactor of an awesome human being who hears a need and reaches out.

The first part I am referring to is our awesome music teacher, Ms. Cunanan.  She is seriously one of the most generous and creative human beings I have come into contact with in education.  Last year she helped myself and our instructional coach out when we were creating an end of the year video for the staff by having the choir record a song that we had written a parody to about all of the amazing instruction our teachers were doing.  What’s even more amazing she didn’t ask any questions, she just said yes and did it.  This year was no different.

I think I asked her in January if she thought that the choir would be able to learn the song, “A Million Dreams” and be ready to record it by February she didn’t hesitate.  She found a lead singer, practiced regularly with the students, organized permission slips for the kids to record at York High School one morning and essentially took it over.  I honestly couldn’t have organized it any better.  I definitely couldn’t have gotten 40 students ready to record in the record time that she did.  THANK YOU Ms. Cunanan and the Hawthorne choir for practicing relentlessly during your lunch recess to produce such a beautiful tune!

This brings me to my next musical genius, Mr. Chris Gemkow, the music production teacher at York High School.  Last year he helped myself and a group of students to record a song for our “21st Century Learning” video for teachers at Lincoln at the end of the year.  It was such a wonderful experience and I was excited for the opportunity to work with him again.  The morning of the recording he gave up his own time to set up the sound booth to record almost 40 students plus one soloist.  After this he produced the song and got it back to me within a week!  Seriously blown away by his kindness!

Finally, there is ZERO way this video would have happened if it weren’t for the amazing and incredibly talented, Mrs. Leban, our creative tech teacher at Sandburg, one of our middle schools.  (Side Note:  If you do not follow her on YouTube you are missing out!)  She actually reached out to me about WeVideo after hearing me talk about my technology dilemma with students using the Chromebooks in this process.  I had been talking about it on one of the SuperCharged Learning podcasts and she emailed me to get together. We met during her lunch/plan time one day and I am sincerely grateful for her help!

Data Review – A Little Less Talk, a Lot More Action

Data.  It’s a four letter word.  Especially in education.

It has been argued by many to play a pivotal role in increasing student growth.  The four key PLC questions from DuFour are centered around it.  Even Danielson includes it as part of Domains, 1, 3 & 4 of the teacher evaluation rubric.

And yet, when many educators hear that it’s time for a data review meeting they either cringe, cry, or circle up their friends to plan out who’s bringing what treats to get through the agonizing process.

So what’s wrong with data?  Specifically, what’s wrong with data review and why does it get such a bad rap?  More importantly, what can we do about it?

Problem #1 We Don’t Engage All Stakeholders

When I was a teacher I remember being invited to countless data review meetings where the reading specialists would project graphs of student growth (or lack of) using something called AIMSWEB.  We would painstakingly go through each student with the specialists all sharing their insights. Periodically I would be asked for feedback on my students, but in the end the decision would be made to change some sort of intervention that I was not involved in by the other “experts” in the room. 

I sincerely hated those meetings.  I became an expert head nodder at those meetings.  Most of the time I was dreaming about what I would eat for, let’s be honest, any meal, or thinking about which member I would take from my favorite boy bands to form the greatest band of all time.  (This is way trickier than you think.  You need at least one bad boy which means you can’t just take ALL the cute ones.)

From start to finish, each stakeholder, from educator to specialist needs to be both an active creator and participant in the process and beyond.  The reason why data review has gotten such a bad name is that many educators, like myself, have experienced it as something being done to them as opposed to the collaborative process that it should be.  No one ever explained to me WHY we were having these meetings or what the expected outcomes were.  No one ever asked me what data I thought would be meaningful to look at or even to bring data with me.  I was simply told I had a substitute and was to show up to these monthly data meetings.  They were supposed to be these all important events, but I usually left them wanting two hours of my life back and needing a coffee.

Problem #2 We Never Get Anywhere

When I was an instructional coach one of the big parts of my role was Data Coach.  I ran data review meetings, helped teachers to look at formative classroom data, and facilitated discussions in PLC’s.  DATA was a four-letter word regularly used in my vocabulary.  And (gulp), I liked it.

Here’s What, So What, Now What” was my jam.  We used it to evaluate everything from exit slips to Fountas & Pinnell assessments to reading responses and everything in between.  The feedback that I got was positive from the teachers I worked with.  It was a well-organized way to present the data (Here’s What), talk about causes (So What) and then come up with a plan of what we were going to do about it (Now What).

Unfortunately, as I have been reflecting upon this protocol in preparation for some data review with my current staff I have come to realize that there are some serious flaws in the way we used this protocol. 

Wait, what?  Did I just say the mack daddy of data protocols is all wrong?

Yep.  I did.

Here’s why.  I’m a control freak.  And I broke it.

Yep.  I’m a control freak.  Ok, recovering control freak.  Back in the hard core CF days I thought we needed a list of guiding questions, as well as categories of students, to look at when talking about data.  I needed a predictable structure that would get us from point A to point B to point C each time.  I mean how would teachers know what to talk about if I (God of Data) didn’t guide them step by step each time through the process? 

Recovering CF me realizes how incredibly idiotic this was for two reasons:  

  1.  See Problem #1
  2. There are so many questions and levels of students to talk about that we rarely made it to the Now What (THE MOST IMPORTANT PART) in a 45 minute PLC time and would have to continue to the next meeting

Although we had some GREAT conversations about students using this protocol I have to imagine that my staff walked away feeling frustrated when we had to wait a week to get to the action plan or meet at another time after school to finish it.  Without action, data review is just a pretty little template with some glorious notes about our thoughts, but no real impact on student learning.

Here’s What, So What, Now What is still a great protocol, it just needs to be simplified.  Don’t try to look at all the subgroups at one time.  Select the group that is most meaningful for your team to talk about and only use it for that group.  Select a few questions to focus on during your conversation.  Doing “All the Things” is not productive when discussing data.

Problem #3 Meaningless Data

Problem number three could be argued to be a large part of number one.  

Many times we are asked to analyze data that is not very meaningful because the data has gone well past its expiration date.  Standardized tests like PARCC or IAR or whatever it’s being called this year are thought to be important data to analyze because often our school success is judged by this benchmark.  However, when it comes six months into the following year it’s hard to find any correlation between the results and current teaching practices.  The kids have grown.  Our teaching has changed.  Nothing is the same.  It’s hard to have buy-in to discuss something that is related to something so far in the past.  

Another way that data can be meaningless is when it doesn’t match our strategic outcomes for students.  If we are saying that as a school we are trying to foster collaboration, creativity, communication and any of the other six C’s, then it is difficult to make the argument that we should spend hours analyzing a multiple choice test or any other form of assessment that doesn’t show evidence of those indicators.   If data is going to be meaningful for analysis it has to match with our intended outcomes.

Other times it really does go back to Problem #1.  If we don’t explain the why or ask for the feedback of everyone involved in selecting data to analyze then there ultimately will be little impact on students. We have to move beyond the idea that data review has to involve fancy charts, graphs or percentages.  Coming from a business background, I love me a big fancy spreadsheet with a pie chart or bar graph involved, but if we never move beyond simply looking at numbers data review is going to continue to lack meaning for many.

My So What

In order to combat the full fledged groans that usually commence at the mention of the word data we have to simplify the process.  Let’s stop making it this mystical thing that requires elaborate templates and official numbers. The whole point of looking at data is to cause growth in students.  The best way to do this is to select meaningful evidence that will help us to make instructional decisions that we can act on. 

That being said, I don’t have all the answers (yet), but here’s where I’m currently at:

  1.  Select a facilitator.  Have this person engage all stakeholders prior to the meeting about an area they see a need to talk about. 
  2. Decide on some evidence (data) that would demonstrate this need. (exit slip, writing sample, conferring notes etc.) 
  3.  Decide on how you will be assessing the data prior to the meeting as a team and come to the meeting with it already “graded.” (Note:  This is not extra work.  This is simply assessing something you would already authentically be doing or have done.)
  4. At the meeting answer the following questions:
    1. What does this evidence tell us about our students?  What did they do well? What did they struggle with? 
    2. How could we build on their strengths to create success? 
    3. What action steps do we need to take so that each student will grow?
    4. What questions do we still have?
    5. Create a plan of action with a follow-up date included.

Albert Einstein allegedly once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” To me this means that we need to simplify the process, but not the thinking involved in looking at student data.  It is my hope that through several iterations and feedback from my team we are able to further refine these processes and get to the heart of what will move all students forward.

Christina

 

 

How Do We Change The Way Students Experience Learning?

Curious.

When you have a moment to yourself throughout the day, (driving in the car, running on the treadmill, when the sun is rising and you’re just waking up) what does your mind go to?  In the past, it’s been anything from how can I get ALL of my students excited about reading to imagining myself singing an epic (most likely 80’s) song on stage with a live band.

Lately though I’ve been reflecting a lot on my last post about the purpose of education.  A former instructional coach and now administrator, I’m always thinking about the practical end of my ideas.   The questions that seem to be recurring most are:

  •  What is the core foundation of instructional practices in a school that values creating meaningful learning experiences that build on strengths and develop students’ passions?
  • How do I actually go about making this vision of a learner-driven education a reality?  More specifically…
    • What structures need to be in place? (schedule, student grouping, learning spaces, etc)
    • What are the mindsets and values of the leaders and learners in this type of school and how can I help to develop them if they are not already there?
    • What shifts should be prioritized first?

So I was blown away when I started listening to a recent Modern Learners podcast (if you are not listening to this podcast you are seriously missing out) where the hosts, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, interviewed Megan Power, a teacher who had not only explored these questions and more, but had been part of designing and opening a PUBLIC school that was actually DOING all of these things.

Located in San Diego, Design39Campus, is part of the POWAY School District.  Its inception story is similar to many public schools around the country.  Because of the growing number of homes being built in the area, a new school was needed to help with overcrowding in other buildings.

That’s pretty much where the similarities stop.

Instead of building a school that mirrored the others in this high performing district, the superintendent took this as an opportunity to go beyond what they had done before.  With this in mind, he put together a team with a very specific challenge, how do we change the way we do school?  The team took this question a step further and asked…

“How do we change the way students experience learning?”

The result of a deep exploration of this one question is what has built the foundation of this incredible school:

“Learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind. As a collaborative community, we nurture creative confidence, practice design thinking, learn through inquiry, connect globally, use technology and real-world tools, and promote the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world.”

This approach has not only impacted traditional academic metrics (Their 6th-8th grade students consistently outscore the other students in the district on standardized tests.), but the mindset of the students as well.  Instead of being excited when they have days off of school, parents are reporting that their students are actually upset not being able to attend.

Lessons Learned & Ideas to Emulate

Rather than rehash the entire episode, I’d rather focus on the big takeaways related to the questions I have been reflecting upon lately.

1.  Time & Design Thinking

The first thing that really stood out to me was the amount of time that Megan Power and the team took to think deeply and explore every possible avenue related to their big question.  Using a design thinking approach they “threw every piece of the education puzzle onto the floor” and reflected on each piece to see what worked and what they might want to change.  Because of a grant, the members of the team were had an entire year out of the classroom to focus solely on this endeavor.

It has been my experience that in education we have a bit of the “Squirrel!” mentality where we jump from one new idea to another without really delving in deeply to explore why we want to implement the initiative.  Even worse, we don’t take the time needed to explain the purpose and build the capacity of those who will be implementing said initiative.  This results in either shallow implementation confusion or overwhelmed colleagues which inevitably leads to push-back from many.

2.  Building a Shared Vision

One of the models of complex change that I continually come back to use in reflection is from Ambrose.  complex change

In order for complex change to occur, the five elements above must be woven into the work.  If one is not present, then any of the five items on the right will occur.

One thing that the founders of Design39Campus did exceptionally well is build a shared vision and understanding among ALL of its stakeholders before even opening its doors.  This started with parents.

Instead of telling parents what Design39Campus was going to be all about they held community nights where they asked participants what they wanted for their students and for the school.  Attendees were asked to respond to the following:

  • Imagine a place where students could…
  • Then we need teachers who…
  • Then we need leaders who…
  • Then we need parents who…
  • What skills do parents use in their jobs all the time?

They wanted this to be an open forum so, in addition to holding multiple events, they collected every single post-it response created, typed them up, and posted them online.  Their goal wasn’t to convince the community that they had all the answers, it was about getting their input so they could help decide what their school could be.

And it wasn’t just about getting their input in the beginning, the parents continue to be a partner in learning. They regularly hold workshops for parents and also share articles, videos and books aligned with the vision.  Parents are frequently asked for feedback and this feedback is incorporated into the workings of the school.  It is a continual collaboration between the community and the school.  On their website, there is a plethora of information including a genius glossary of all of the terms they use in their school that includes everything from instructional approaches to places in the building.

3.  Getting “The Right People on the Bus”

Because they were building a school from a design thinking perspective, the team knew that they needed the right type of educators to become a part of the team.  They wanted to hire teachers and leaders who were creators, innovators, and risk takers who would create deep learning experiences for students that would foster curiosity.  With this in mind, they changed the titles of teacher and administrator to Learning Experience Designer and Lead Designer.  I love how this small change already creates a different mindset of what each of these roles has traditionally meant.

If they were looking for a different type of educator, they realized that they needed to rethink their hiring process as well.  A three-part process, the goal was to really get to know the educators personally and see how they worked in a team dynamic.  The teachers would be meeting for an hour daily to reflect on practice and design learning experiences together so the ability to collaborate was critical to the success of the students and the school.

The first part of the hiring process they had teachers submit something called an E-Tell where could create anything they wanted to tell the school about themselves. In the next stage, selected applicants were asked to participate in a design challenge where they worked on a team to design a lesson.  The finalists from this stage were then invited back to participate in an interview with a group, but even this was more targeted at getting to know them as a person outside of the school setting rather than their curricular expertise.

4.  Deep Dives, Explorations & Integrated Learning Time

One of the trickiest dilemmas that I have reflected upon most often in this journey is how to balance building content knowledge and skills with fostering students’ passions and curiosities.  In addition, I have always wondered how do we help students to discover new passions in addition to the ones that they are currently interested in?  This delicate balance is an area that Design39Campus does incredibly well.

Design39Campus does not have a set curriculum that students must master at the same time each year, however, they do teach content.

“Yes, your children will learn phonics, write on lined paper, and learn how to read and do math. It is our plan to make those learning opportunities engaging and interesting for them so they never lose the joy of learning. Filling out stacks of homework packets is not what we are about.”

I can only imagine the conversations that inspired this quote. 🙂

The way they accomplish this is, instead of breaking up the day into subjects, which puts a focus on content areas, their school day is broken up into Deep Dives, Explorations and Integrated Learning Time.

Integrated Learning Time is when students learn content and build skills.  Just like it sounds, subjects are taught together as part of a broader question that the students explore.  This creates connected understanding and more greatly models the way the world works outside of school.  During Deep Dives students are able to explore a passion of their choosing in an academic setting.  Design39Campus has partnered with local businesses to create a wide variety of options.  Finally, students go to Explorations.  This is where they get to try new things that they might be interested in exploring more deeply later.

5.  Constant Learning

Everyone at Design39Campus views themselves as perpetual learners.  As Megan Power explained,  “they are going to be like a start-up forever.”  Because of this, they are constantly asking questions, reflecting and learning together.  Teachers observe one another’s practice.  They go and observe in other schools.  They even have time that they spend in local businesses to better understand the work that they are preparing students for.

With design thinking, you are focusing on solving a problem through the lens of the people that the solution will serve.  They spent the first institute day of this school year investigating the question, “What is learning?” demonstrating that, even though they have been doing this for five years, they know there are ideas to ponder and questions to explore that will even better the learning experiences for their students.  Although they have created an amazing model they know they can always improve.

A Step Further in Answering My Big Questions

This podcast was extremely helpful in coming up with some answers to the questions I have been exploring lately.  I especially love how a design thinking approach permeated the entire school from the start to current practice.  If you’re an administrator like me you’re probably wondering though, how could I come close to replicating this in a school that is already established?

Going back to the work of Ambrose, I believe it starts with creating a shared vision.  Because the founders of Design39Campus took the time to build a shared vision with all stakeholders, they created momentum for success for the future as well as greatly diminished a large push back to change.

It doesn’t just stop with vision though, a plan has to be created with specific ideas for not only actions to be taken, but knowledge to be gained by all stakeholders.  If it’s a vision similar to Design39Campus’, then part of the plan has to be building capacity in learning experience design.  When the majority of our educators went to college they were taught how to manage time, follow a curriculum and teach for understanding.  The type of learning experiences we are expecting teachers to create in this type of school involves asking big questions, giving powerful feedback and starting with the learner in mind as opposed to the curriculum.

We can’t just expect educators to make this shift overnight.  We have to build their capacity in a way that is meaningful and builds upon their strengths. We won’t be able to do any of this effectively if we don’t get to know the needs of those whom we serve first.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when I think about the structures that need to be in place I’m not sure that question can be answered prior to building vision and capacity first.  One thing that I think will definitely be a part of the plan if we are going to teach from a broader perspective is larger stretches of time for students to work as opposed to segmenting the day up into smaller chunks.  However, without building the common vision and understanding of why we need to do this the result will be a shallow change in instruction. Additionally, I would envision a large amount of push-back from parents and staff.

One of the most important takeaways from the entire podcast is that to truly do this well takes time.  Give yourself permission.

Explore.  Imagine.  Create.  Reflect.

Enjoy the journey.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from their website:

“Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why.”

What the educators at Design39Campus are truly empowering students to do is to be eternally curious learners.  And for me, that’s what makes all the difference.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.  Christina

Teaching Like a Coach – Part One

I’ve had a lot of great conversations since starting this blog about teaching and coaching and how the two are intertwined.  Two of the questions that have come up a lot are 

How do you ACTUALLY teach like a coach? 

What does that look like in real practice?  

This has gotten me to reflect about my own practice in a variety of roles in education as well as how for many of us, our schooling did not prepare us for teaching this way.  As many of you are doing your own reflecting and planning over Winter Break for changes and refinements you want to make in 2019, I thought that a series of posts dedicated to answering these two questions would be timely and hopefully useful. 🙂

It All Starts With…

Knowing your team.  I’m not going to try to pretend that I am the greatest basketball fan of all time, but I’ve learned a lot from Phil Jackson’s leadership philosophies via Dr. Marc Pinto.  He was a hockey coach and geneticist turned chiropractor whom I would have the most amazing conversations at our weekly appointments.  Dr. Pinto had read Phil Jackson’s books cover to cover hundreds of times and no matter what we were discussing his philosophies seemed to always creep into our conversation, especially when I was applying for the learning support coach position in Naperville.  One of the quotes from his book 11 Rings: The Soul of Success that really resonates with being a coach in the classroom is: 

“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.” – Phil Jackson

I love that Phil Jackson’s goal wasn’t just to create amazing basketball players, it was to build on the strengths of his players overall and in that action he created a dynasty.  Our main job as educators is to help learners to know their strengths, develop their passions and help them to develop new abilities that sometimes feel outside their grasp.  In order to be effective at this you have to essentially know your team inside and out.   

Deciding what skills you will be looking for is a critical first step.  There are so many options that it is easy to get stuck here, weighing the options.  If the thought of that is already making your head spin, here are some ideas to start with:

1.  The 6 C’sCommunication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Creativity, Character, Citizenship

This is helpful for:  Promoting more global skills in your students that will transfer to a variety of contexts, subjects, and ages.

Something to think about:  Because these are broad skills you might want to have a conversation with others or your PLC about what each of these look like at the age of students you teach to create a specific definition of each.

2.  The Standards – The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), College, Career & Civic Life (C3), ISTE Standards for Students

This is helpful for:  Collecting information that is more related to academic achievement in different subject areas (with the exception of the ISTE standards that are more global like the 6C’s)

Something to think about:  If your school uses standards based reporting, this is a great place to start.  Because the standards are vast, it might be good to see how the broader ideas from each of the subject standards are connected.  This document from NGSS does a nice job of making this connection already.

3.  Student Interests & PassionsThis one is pretty self-explanatory.  You are collecting information on things your students are interested in, especially the topics they are passionate about!  These interests and passions are often strengths we overlook because they may not be subjects we teach in school.

This is helpful for:  Diversifying the definition of what a good student is.  Helping students to be able to name a wide variety of skills they have that aren’t necessarily taught in school, but still incredibly valuable.  Creating engaging lessons connected to your students’ interests and passions.  

Something to think about:  You may find that your students have a broad range of interests and passions.  If you are overwhelmed in how to honor these strengths or incorporate them into the curriculum, ask the students what they think.  I am always blown away by the ideas my students come up with when I can’t seem to find a solution.  

So How Do I Organize All This Stuff?

You probably have your own way of keeping data on your students.  I know I certainly tried it a million different ways as an educator, coach, and now administrator.  What I found was there are basically two different ways you can go about this: individual or whole group.  Regardless, you are going to need a system that works for you, the simpler the better. 

Individual

As an instructional coach I started with OneNote for keeping notes on each of my meetings with teachers and eventually moved to a Google folder per teacher.  If I was back in the classroom I would most likely the Google.  Here’s what I would do:

Idea #1

  •  Create a Google form for the data I would like to create.  (Like this one that tracks the 6C’s) 
  •  Use the Doc-Appender Add-on so that the data I collected would automatically populate into individual Google folders for each student.  (Here is a video of how to use it if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.) 
    • On a side note, this add-on is amazing because now you have a Google doc for each student that can be shared easily with other teachers working with the student or parents.  It’s great for conferring notes as well. 🙂
  • As I was walking around and talking to students use my phone to use the form to quickly jot down notes.

Idea #2

  • Create a chart for each student using Google docs like this one.  
  • Print out each of these sheets and keep them in binder.  Create a new sheet for each student per week. (Or if you’re not a fan of paper, you could also do something similar with a folder for each student, but this might be difficult to manage as you are walking around throughout the day.)
  • Keep the binder with me throughout the day.  As I am noticing strengths, ideas etc. about students jot down a quick note in their tab. 

Benefits of Individual Data:  Great for looking at students as a whole.  Also easy to share with students, parents and other staff members because your forms are per individual student.  

Drawbacks of Individual Data:  When planning for groups or looking for patterns based on the information you have collected you may be doing a lot of flipping back and forth or scrolling to find commonalities.  This can be more time consuming.  However, if you use Idea #1 Google forms will allow you to sort the spreadsheet that the form creates which solves this problem.

Group

Sometimes I found keeping individual data overwhelming and found it easier to keep track of the entire class at one time.   When taking this approach you are having the descriptors at the top of the chart while the student names go down the side of the chart.  Here is an example of what I mean by keeping track of the class’ strengths.   One of the reasons that I like this chart is the ability to write down goals for students directly in the chart so that they are all in one place. (The student can formulate these goals as well)  This makes it easy when you are reflecting at the end of the week for next steps for the following week.

Another way you might do this is by using an old plan book and assigning student names to each box.  You can then use post-its to take notes through-out the week and stick them to the boxes.   

Benefits of Group Data:  All of your data is in one place.  It is easy to create groups and see overall how your class is doing.  You can make plans for next steps without having to look back and forth at individual students.  

Drawbacks of Individual Data:  It takes an extra step to share this data with individuals because you will have to transfer the information to individual forms.  It’s not as easy to see individual progress from week to to week as it is with individual data.

When deciding how to collect your learner data think about your personal preference for collection as well as your purpose.  I would recommend starting small.  Select one type of data you wish to collect and try out different methodologies until you find one that works best for you.  You can then transfer that protocol to the other information you are keeping on your students.  

R-E-F-L-E-C-T

Even if you find the ultimate way to collect information on your students there will never be any impact if you don’t take the time to analyze and reflect upon this data.  You might find that reflecting at the end of each day is better for you or perhaps weekly is more preferable.  Again, it’s your preference, there is no perfect methodology.  Here are some questions to consider when you are reflecting each week.

  1. What are patterns I am noticing in my classroom? (passions, interests, strengths, abilities that need strengthening)’
  2. Who stood out as a leader? Who struggled?  What is my plan for celebrating or intervening?
  3. What lessons should I plan based on this information?  
  4. What groupings or partnerships might I plan as a result of the patterns I am noticing? Who might work together best?  

If you are a fan of forms, here is a Google doc with these questions that you can use in your reflection.  Another simple way to reflect is to create a daily list of 3 accomplishments that you would like to achieve by the end of the day based on the observations and patterns you are seeing.  This could be individual or as a class.

It is powerful to share your reflections with students or to even do the reflecting side by side with the student.  Share with them what you have observed and create goals together.  By involving them in the process and citing specifically their talents or skills they need to work on you are empowering them to own the next steps.  


Recognizing and developing strengths, passions and talents in our students is not something new or revolutionary to education.  It’s what we do with this knowledge that makes the difference, positively affecting students and creating innovation in our schools.  Approaching the classroom as a coach creates a deeper understanding and connection to students because you are purposefully connecting with each student daily and reflecting upon, not what EVERY student should know and be able to do, but what is best for the individual learners.  This creates a classroom culture where students are energized to build on their strengths and empowered to learn in ways they may have thought previously was beyond their grasp.  

Part 2 of this series will be focused on the next step:  instructional practices.  I look forward to hearing your feedback!  Christina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the Time to Be the Difference

If you were to ask me why I got into education I would tell you a simple fact:

I LOVE working with students.  

Seeing their eyes light up when they learn something new.  

Building on their strengths.  

Showing them they can achieve ANYTHING.

Except when I really think about it, I don’t know that ALL of the students I have worked with throughout my career would agree with this description.  The “troublemakers.”  The ones who didn’t fit into my image of what a great student should be.  The ones who talked out of turn too much or didn’t follow the directions or appeared to be completely unmotivated in my class.  What would they say?

Would they agree…

I knew their strengths?

I valued their unique talents?

I BELIEVED IN THEM?

I don’t know.  Some would, but sadly I am pretty sure there are more than a few that would not. 

My short response when they asked a question I had already given the answer to.  The tone in my voice when I told them for what felt like the 800th time to stop interrupting.  The phone calls home to share my concerns of what they were NOT able to do in my classroom.  Classroom interactions focused on my disappointment in their behavior, getting started on work, missing assignments and how if they didn’t change there was not way they could ever be successful in school and beyond.  

Without intending it, these actions told them more than my actual words ever would. 

You are a nuisance.

Your faults are what define you.

I do not value you.

This was incredibly hard for me to reflect on, but I know it’s true.  The worst part is I could have fixed it.  

The Seeds We Sow and the Mark We Leave

When I became an assistant principal one of the things I greatly feared was that my role would primarily be of behavior interventionist.  I had visions of unending days in my office scolding naughty kids, dealing with upset parents and frustrating teachers if I couldn’t fix the problem child in their classroom.  I was pretty terrified.

So I was incredibly grateful last year when I found my role to be more of instructional leader and culture builder than an enforcer of compliance and behavior.  

But then something amazing happened.  I started having more opportunities to work with students who had behavior issues in school.  And it has literally become one of my favorite parts of my job.

Why?  

Simple reason.  We talk.  About anything they want. 

Cars.  Unicorns.  The history of the Ukelele.  How they hate math. Love their brother.  Hate their sister.  Mastering the floss.  Youtube.

I get to know them.  Their strengths.  Their passions.  Their unique qualities.  They teach me stuff.  I teach them stuff.  (Sometimes without them knowing it) 

And yes, we reflect.  We talk about what happened.  Why it happened.  What they will do differently next time.  Why it might be hard to avoid doing whatever it is they did next time, but how they will still vigilantly work to learn from their mistake.  

Instead of seeing them as someone who is disrupting my busy day I see them as a gift.  An opportunity for me to connect.  To Learn.  To Pause.  To help a kid see that even if they made a mistake they are still special, unique, and talented.  School is a good place for them.  They belong here.  They are loved. 

They are not a problem to fix, but an untapped talent with a potential for greatness.  

A Thought

When I was a classroom teacher there were so many pressures and demands of the job that made me feel like I didn’t always have the time it would require to build relationships with my most troubled students.  If we didn’t get through every part of the curriculum each day I was somehow failing as a teacher. 

We tell ourselves things like, If I don’t get through Unit 12 Lesson 9 in math by the end of the year something terrible is going to happen. This students’ behavior isn’t fair to the other kids.  It’s taking away their opportunity to learn.  It sets a bad example.  I need to DO something about it quickly or somehow this behavior will spread like a T Swift album.

I would argue with you the opposite is true.  If we don’t get students to see their unique talents and abilities then we have failed them.  If we don’t make school a place where kids feel connected, develop their passions and leave with a sense of drive and purpose then we are failing society.

Taking the extra time that it may require to build a relationship with a struggling student will actually take up less time in the long run because you will have an advocate in your classroom as opposed to an adversary.   

If you are still struggling with finding the time, I would recommend trying the 2X10 strategy.  I read about it in an ASCD article a few years ago and it has helped many of the teachers I have worked with to build better relationships.  Every day for ten days you take two minutes to share something personal about yourself with that student.  Many times when we ask our troubled students things about themselves they come back with crickets or very little information.  This strategy helps to overcome that barrier and the student starts to see connections with you which opens them up to share more about themselves.  It helps them to see you as a human being as well and not just the daily source of their frustration.  

I promise.  It’s worth it.


One of the reasons I felt so compelled to share this story this week was because of a new book I started reading by Dr. Brad Gustafson called Reclaiming our Calling:  Hold on to the Heart, Mind, and Hope of Education.  The foreward is actually written by a student who discovered his passion for drawing in Kindergarten.  This talent continued to be fostered throughout his elementary career by everyone in the school to the point where he has connected with published authors and is inspiring others and making a true difference.  His talent for artwork could have been seen as a nuisance or something to be put on the back burner for the curriculum, but it wasn’t. Now this middle schooler is inspiring others and making a difference.  Not gonna lie.  This story brought me to tears.

Let’s make stories like this one the norm as opposed to the exception in school.

Take the time. 

Build relationships.

Discover strengths.

Be the difference.

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Thanks for reading.  Christina