Top 10 Tips for Leading in a Crisis

This past week an episode from the Innovator’s Mindset podcast came out that I was privileged to be a part of.  The interview was from the very beginning of Illinois’ Stay at Home order that resulted in our school buildings shutting down and switching to remote learning.  Listening to it has been a wonderful reflection tool for leading and learning during a crisis. Although almost six weeks later the themes we discussed still ring true, there is definitely more that I have learned in this journey.

Below are my greatest takeaways thus far.

1.      Continue to Focus on Relationships

This is truly the most important thing that we can do at any time, as leaders and as human beings.  Whether by email, text, phone call, virtual meeting or letter in the mail, find a way to regularly check on your staff and families solely for the purpose of seeing how they are doing.  Like George said in the podcast, this includes everyone.  People who you may think are completely fine may not be.  See if they need anything and just have a friendly conversation.   I have sincerely appreciated staff members who have reached out to me as well.  One of my teachers sends me funny memes and pictures on a regular basis.  I look forward to them so much!  They’ve helped really bad days when there’s a lot going on turn into manageable ones.  Social distancing may mean that we can’t be physically close, but shouldn’t mean that we distance ourselves from continuing meaningful relationships.

2.      Take Care of Yourself

You’ve probably heard this many times, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.  I know it’s hard.  I’m in 8 million virtual meetings on a daily basis myself while trying to balance with family responsibilities it can feel impossible to find the time, but you’ll be better if you do.

At the beginning of this I thought I could do it all.  I went about two weeks at full throttle and almost completely lost it by day 15.  My usual positivity was really forced.  It was hard to think and I don’t know that I was making the best judgment calls.  I had to change something fast.

For me, the taking care of myself ended up being a change in routine.  Monotony is my worst nightmare and I was trapped in a cycle of just that.  I started walking outside during some of my meetings.  I picked up coffee at a local coffee shop a few days a week for a treat.  I gave myself permission to not be busy every minute of every day and to sometimes just sit.  I started working on things outside of school that fed my creative soul.  It all made a huge difference and I am sincerely a better leader and human because of it.  Please, please, please take time for yourself each day.  You’ll actually get more done in the end and be happier doing it.

3.      Continue to Connect with the Community

Connecting with families is such an important part of leadership in any time, but when we don’t have the four walls of daily interaction to keep us all connected, it’s imperative that we find new ways to do so.  As an anchor of the community, supporting teachers, students and families will only make us stronger in a time of crisis.  Because there isn’t physical connection, regular facetime is imperative.  Look for ways to provide structure and routine that mirror what was happening before while also bringing in new and innovative ways that capitalize being at home.

At Jefferson, this connection has included:

  • A daily morning message that is a hybrid of home and school.  I start the announcements celebrating birthdays each day, acting as the host.  The rest of the announcements is run by student contributions such as leading the pledge, sharing a talent, a challenge for other students, a wondering or even an example of some family fun.  It has been wonderful getting to see students show off talents that we might not have seen at school like acrobatics on a trampoline or cooking demos.  Today’s announcements included our PTA president and his two sons playing a rock version of the Star Wars Thrown Room Song.  I always close it with some encouraging words of positivity for the kids and/or parents.
  • Both staff and student bedtime story read-alouds that come out at 3:00 p.m. on our YouTube Channel.
  • Opportunities to connect virtually both synchronously and asynchronously through GoogleMeet, Zoom, FlipGrid Challenges, Instagram and Seesaw posts.  Every Friday in May I meet with groups of 5th graders to catch up and talk about their thoughts about going to Middle School.
  • Spirit Week and last week of school activities developed by our Student Council that include a whole school virtual picnic and Field Day.
  • Social Media posts about what our students have been up to while they have been at home as well as individual daily posts celebrating our graduating class of 5th graders.
  • Staff collaboration videos sent to our families sharing how much we appreciate and miss them as well as what we’ve been up to at home.

Make sure that the sharing is not just one way.  Look for ways to incorporate families as well as staff in the community connection.

4.      Consistent Focus & Messaging

Since the beginning of this crisis, we have focused on two major things:  Connecting with kids and consistent communication.   Although there have been some shifts as to what this looks like as we continue to gain experience in the virtual world of learning, our focus continues to be the same.  I continue to reinforce this during team meetings, emails, 1:1 conversations as well as in my weekly Friday newsletter to staff and to families.   Feedback from our families has been incredibly positive in the area of both communication and connection as a result.

We have had some shifts from our district office throughout the time we have been at home related to various aspects of operations, grading and planning.  When these occur, I’ve found that significant changes are best communicated in a whole group virtual meeting (actually recommended to me by one of my awesome 5th-grade teachers).  This makes sure everyone hears a consistent message as well as gives opportunities for feedback which leads me to my next tip…

5.      Create Feedback Loops

Giving and receiving feedback is critical at any time, but especially when we are remote and not seeing on another on a regular basis.  Throughout this process, I meet with teams weekly to find out their needs as well as to receive feedback on processes and information being shared.  Our teachers have been asking both the parents and students for their feedback on our eLearning plans as they have progressed.  During the first month, I also hosted a “Town Hall” at our April PTA meeting to share with parents our plan as well as receive feedback on how we were doing in meeting Jefferson students’ needs remotely.  At the end of this month, I will also be sending out a final survey to families for positive feedback as well as suggestions for the future.  All of these things combined contribute to the regular improvement of our processes and helps to keep everyone connected as well.  It also will help to bridge a shared vision of education when we return in the fall or if we have to continue remote learning at any time in the future.

6.      Trust the People Closest to the Kids

This message is critical to the success of our students learning and feeling cared for at home.  Our teachers have been working with students since the beginning of the year and know them best.  They were rocking it when we were in school, but I have been blown away by the ways my teachers have been shifting their teaching practices to meet the needs of the students at home.  Trying out new technology, new ways to present lessons, and new ways to connect with kids have all come from my amazing staff.  This was rooted in a foundation of trust in staff expertise.  When we empower others, as opposed to limit their abilities based on a singular interpretation, great things happen for kids.  

The same applies to trusting our parents who know our students better than anyone on the planet.   Including parents’ ideas and feedback as well as supporting them when they need help is all an important part of the learning process, inside of school and out.  One of my greatest hopes after this is all over is that the collaborative and trusting relationships that we have continued to build during this time will continue when we return to our brick and mortar buildings.  The level of trust we give to our parents is a large factor in the success of this.  We can’t just ask for feedback, we need to act on the suggestions given.  If the idea is not feasible, it is important to explain why.

7.      Keep Meetings (& Messages) Short & Flexible

I don’t care if you are the funniest, most charismatic person ever, no one, and I mean no one wants to sit in a 3-hour virtual meeting.  People are trying to manage working remotely with taking care of family and 8 million other objectives of the day.  Prioritize your agenda to what is most essential.   The other items will still be there when we return to brick & mortar education and will be heard in a much more meaningful way when they actually apply to the work being done.  The same holds true for emails.  Keep your messages short and to the point.  When in doubt, default to what is reasonable.  

8.      Professional Learning Should Match Teacher & Student Need

Just like when we are in the four walls of a school, professional learning should include choice and be directly connected to the work teachers are doing.  Instructional coaches are making a huge difference during this time.  Our instructional coach at Jefferson attends virtual team meetings weekly and looks for ways she can support teachers to take things off of their plate.  She has created instructional tutorials for parents & students, modeled how to use tech tools to aide in synchronous and asynchronous teaching, offered office hours for families if a teacher is introducing a new way of learning to students and more.  She is thoughtful in the ways she shares new ideas or resources by communicating one new idea once a week at a scheduled time.  The things she shares are connected to conversations she has heard in team meetings or build upon the prior week.  Teachers can also reach out to her for coaching on any topic of their choosing.  For more information for how she is supporting our staff in new and innovative ways, check out my post, Coaching During a Crisis.

Avoid assigning articles on theory or required learning like scheduled webinars. Assigning blanket learning for all, especially when it is disconnected to the work currently being done is a major misstep that shows a lack of empathy as well as creates a perfect breeding ground for mistrust and resentment.  The most meaningful learning that will happen at this time will come directly from your staff.  We need to value their time and knowledge base as well as educator’s natural inclination and gifts in seeking out information and new ideas.  When we do, their teaching will far surpass anything we could have possibly imagined.

9.      Celebrate & Share the Good

There is so much good happening right now, but it may be hard to see because we’re all teaching in our own virtual classrooms.  My instructional coach and I have been attending team meetings once a week virtually for the purpose of seeing how we can support teams, but also to be able to share what other teams are up to.  This has been great for sparking new ideas as well as trying new things with students.  I continue to send emails to staff about the great work they are doing as well as share on social media learning happening as a result of my teachers.   When parents share something positive with me about a staff member I make sure I share it with them.   One of my colleagues highlights in her weekly newsletter something wonderful she’s seen in each of her team’s plans.  I plan to start doing this as well.  Good ideas need to be shared!

10.    Continually Learn & Plan for the Future

In any situation, the best thing we can do is reflect on our experiences to plan for the future.  As a staff, we are already thinking about next year, considering what teaching strategies and tools we want to make sure we continue to utilize.  A strategic plan for teaching students at the beginning of the year how to use various technological tools has been a large part of this conversation.  To start the year, my staff has asked that we focus our professional learning on various aspects of technology to better prepare ourselves if this were to happen again.  Teams have also been brainstorming ways they will use what they have learned in their classrooms in the fall.  If this happens again, (please no!) I am confident that we will be prepared because of our thoughtful reflection and planning.


At the beginning of this, I felt like my greatest role was supporting my staff and families to stay connected as a community.  Six weeks later I continue to stand by this conviction.  Without our regular routines and interaction, it can be easy for anyone to start to feel disconnected and alone.  As leaders, our actions can either fuel that isolation, or be the antidote, bringing everyone closer.   When in doubt, air on the side of empathy.   

“Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.”  – Brene Brown

Coaching During a Crisis

Click Here for the Audio Version of this Post

Like the rest of the world, education has been deeply impacted by COVID-19.  From the ways that we build classroom community to instructional practice itself, we are reinventing, experimenting, and remixing almost everything we do.   Even the most technologically savvy of us weren’t prepared for the emotional toll this would take on our students, ourselves and our communities.  We’ve home for almost a month in my district and I am only just now feeling semi-comfortable in the shifts to my role as a leader.

It’s a time like this that I’m thankful for instructional coaches, especially our instructional coach at Jefferson, Pia Bartolai who jumped in from day one supporting teachers in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  In just a few weeks she has been working non-stop to help not only teachers, but students and families as well.  Her “greatest hits” have included:

  • Creating tutorial videos for both staff and families to use (Seesaw, Zoom, GoogleMeet, FlipGrid, Screencastify etc.) 
  • Holding virtual office hours for students and families to get help from her when a teacher is trying out a new technology 
  • Creating an eLearning Dashboard that has everything teachers could need during this time all in one place with simple headings (Think 1-Page Hyperdoc Extraordinaire)
  • Not overwhelming teachers by sending them a million resources at a time.  Instead, she sends out one email on Monday with a resource they might use with examples of how they might use it 
  • She tries out the tools that teachers may be using first with a faux account so that she can answer questions from how students might be seeing the technology 
  • She makes herself available whenever teachers may need her sharing her calendar so they can make appointments, letting teachers drive the meeting with what they need
  • She attends each team’s virtual meeting each week and frequently offers to help create tutorials, videos, templates, etc.  She comes to the meeting with the attitude of, “what I can I do to help most?”
  • She doesn’t, “should on people.”  (Listen to the podcast to understand this one)

When I thought about writing this post I realized that these ideas were probably best talked about in an audio form so that Pia could explain in more detail her thought process.  The recording is about 35 minutes.  I have included most of the transcript below.  To play the interview, click here.  Highlights include:

Up to 5:30:     Introduction & Pia’s Background

5:41:               Shifts in Coaching Since COVID-19

7:56:               Supporting Teachers in Technology with a Wide Variety of Experience

10:32              Rebuilding Classroom Culture & Community

13:50              Two Recommended Tech Tools for Remote Learning

17:38              Coaching Requests from Teachers

19:41              Leveraging Students Being At Home

20:38              Supporting Teachers in the Feedback Process to Students

24:56              Positive Effects & Possibilities For Teaching Moving Forward

26:41              Advice to Teachers, Coaches & Admin 

C: Can you share with our listeners how you’ve supported teachers throughout their time at home vs. at school?

P: Yeah, so I think my approach to coaching, my big rules for coaching haven’t necessarily changed. So I kind of live by two rules as a coach and one is like practice empathy and then the other one is like, don’t “should on people,” which is what was told to me I think in one of my first years of coaching, they just said, like, “Don’t should on people.” And so what I’ve noticed is in our new reality right now is that practice empathy. Empathy is hard right now because oftentimes as a coach, I’ve relied on my experience in the classroom to help to support me with that. I had nine years in the classroom so I would often ask myself as a coach like, “What would I want from a coach, as a teacher right now? If I was a teacher in their shoes right now, what would I need?” and none of us have ever experienced anything like this before, none of us have ever done remote learning. And so, you know that Brené Brown video…that we’ve watched about empathy and how she talks about… It’s got the animals and she talks about like don’t stare down into the hole and say like how’s it going down there, like actually get down in there with people. So that’s really what I’ve been trying to do as a coach is really try and get down there with teachers right now and try as much as I can to be able to put myself into their shoes. So what that’s meant for me is, I’ve been doing a lot of creating of tutorials and videos. I’ve been practicing what it would feel like in order to teach remotely, so I do a lot of screencasts, and Flipgrids, and virtual tutorials, a lot of trying to teach through Hangouts, or supporting teachers through Hangouts and sharing of screens. So it’s been a lot of just trying to get myself to understand as best as possible without ever having experienced what our teachers need right now and what they’re going through right now without having experienced it for myself.

C:  In coaching, we’re always trying to take off the plate as opposed to continually add to the plate. One of the things that I noticed that you’ve been offering in addition to making tutorials for the teachers, so that they could use those with their classes or giving those to parents is that you’ve actually offered office hours for kids to check in with you.  What’s been your feedback on that so far?

P: Yeah, so that’s something that is pretty new since we’ve been trying to move more towards some things that maybe teachers haven’t tried before. So teachers are really being asked to step outside their comfort zone right now, and teach in a completely different way than they ever have before. So, we have some teachers at our school who have been teaching for 25 years and have never been asked to teach like this. And so one way I’ve been trying to take some stuff off their plate is like you said by offering some office hours for students where they can check in with me or parents can check in with me to support them through some of the technology that they’re being asked to use that they may not have been asked to… Or been asked to use before. So, for example, with one grade level, they are gonna be doing with Flipgrids so I created a tutorial about Flipgrid from both a teacher point of view but then also from the student and parent point of view so that they can share that out with students and families, so that families can see it in action before they try it.

P: And then we set up a day where I will have office hours with those students and their families so if they needed to get in touch with me through Google Hangouts, and I can actually walk them through it, and we can share our screen so I can show them how to do it or if they just need to email me they have access to that. So that’s an option that we set up in order for me to best support not only those teachers but then also the students and the families with some of the new technology that they’re trying out.

C: Yeah, and I really appreciate that a lot. One of the pieces of feedback that we’ve gotten from a lot of our teachers through this is that the questions that they’ve been getting over email, most of them have been related to tech-related issues and so Pia really saw a need in a way to show that empathy, but also to help out our families and our community as well, and so I think that’s gonna be a really nice addition. So in talking about the learning piece, and how you’ve been helping teachers to maybe discover some new tools or some things that might just help with what they’re doing and planning, what have been your new thoughts about how you’ve been going about doing that?

P: Well, we initially set up an E-learning dashboard where teachers could go just so that they had easy access to everything that they might need. My number one goal right now is just to help teachers stay sane. And so, I know that they’re getting tons and tons of stuff so I’m trying not to overwhelm them with an overabundance of resources which is really hard and this time because there are so many ideas floating around out there. And so I’ve been trying to navigate through and mine through a lot of different ideas and kind of just share one a week with teachers. That could be really useful and beneficial to them and their students.

P: So that’s one way that we’ve been going about that, you know, it’s also, like I said, going back to just a place of empathy, we’re asking teachers to do something, a completely different teaching style. They had no warning. They had very little warning, they had very little training on this. So just reminding teachers that we’re not gonna be able to replicate their exact classrooms in a virtual environment, but they can recreate that same vibe that they had in their classrooms. A lot of their classrooms were built on relationships and community building and feedback for students. So, those things are more challenging in a digital environment but they are definitely possible in a digital environment so helping people think through how can they go back kind of to the beginning of the school year and… Like, when we were establishing our classroom community when we were thinking through how to build relationships in the community and in our classrooms. Like what were some of those things we needed to do then and how do we kind of do that now through… In our current reality with the digital environment.

C: And what have you seen our teachers kind of choosing to do that? How have they been going about setting that backup?

P: So, a lot of them are doing it through Zoom Meetings or through Google Meets, more so through Google Meets now to actually get some face-to-face time with students. I’ve seen a lot of teachers reading aloud to students which is such a huge community builder like in the actual classroom and that just carries over right into a digital environment that’s such a perfect way for teachers to just keep that classroom community going. And it allows kids to, you know, hear a great story and then talk about it and we know that those are just good things for kids all the time.

P: A lot of teachers are doing things like screencasting a lesson and then sharing it out with teacher… Or with their students or setting up Flipgrids for students to be able to actually provide feedback to each other. So teachers love Seesaw and I love Seesaw so much but one of the hardest parts about Seesaw is that kids aren’t always able to see each other’s work and comment on each other’s work, I mean you can set that up, but Flipgrid is such a perfect opportunity for kids to be able to see each other in, you know, reality… See each other’s faces at least it’s not in real-time and then actually comment back and give feedback to each other so that the teachers aren’t having to give as much of that feedback that students can actually provide that feedback to each other and cheer each other on and be each other’s cheerleader. So that’s such a huge… It’s such a great tool, and there are a whole bunch of tools but I mean if there was one that I really was like, this is working right now, Flipgrid and Screencastify are probably two of my biggest ones right now.

C: Yeah, the thing I love about Flipgrid ’cause I’ve been invited to some teachers to respond and also I’ve created some for our school is that you can respond in a video, so it’s nice that it’s more than just, I’m typing you a comment, ’cause the biggest thing you know we’re all being a little bit more isolated. A lot more isolated than we have been in the past. And so having that opportunity to connect and to see faces, I think is just so important and I love that option on there. For people who aren’t familiar with Screencastify can you talk about that a little bit more.

P: Yeah, so Screencastify is a really great tool it’s actually an extension on… Or I have it as an extension on Google Chrome and so and right now they’re offering out the ability to take off the five-minute limit which is a huge help. And so what it actually does is you can either record yourself in a video or you can record your screen. And so you can then share it and it goes automatically into your Google Drive if you’re a Google for education or district, and then share it straight from there so that students can have a link either to a video that shows the teacher, or that shows the teacher’s screen. So, for example, today I just did a tutorial using… I can never pronounce his name Steve Wyborney, sorry if you’re listening. [chuckle]

P: Exactly, exactly, but he has these amazing… His blog is amazing but on there he has these esti-mysteries. And so I actually just created like a little video for kindergarteners and first graders using an esti-mystery using Screencastify and so he has them in Google Slides and so as a teacher I was able to pull up Screencastify, bring up my… The Google slide with the esti-mystery and walk through the esti-mystery and I actually put stopping points in the video to say like okay, pause your video now and and change your estimate if you need to based off of the clues that we had in it. And then I’m sharing that out with teachers so that they can actually either use that as an exemplar if they wanted to try it out themselves or that one they could actually share with their kindergarten and first-grade students. So, I mean, Screencastify has so many options but it’s just a really seamless integration with Google Drive which makes it super useful, right?

C: Yeah, which is nice and with that asynchronous learning then kids can choose to access it when they would like to as well, which I think is also such an important thing. Knowing right now, how many demands we have upon families, and that their school day or their time for learning may be completely different than another families so…

P: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. I mean that is such a… I mean, when I listened to that webinar with George Couros and with AJ Juliani and Katie Novak and when they showed that synchronous versus asynchronous image of like synchronous is you know your virtual meetings, face to face meetings versus asynchronous would be like a Flipgrid or, you know, a Screencastify and just that realization that not all families have more than one device in their home you know and so if we’re asking students to be in face to face meetings with us, that’s wonderful for community building and it’s great for instant feedback, but it may not be reasonable to expect that of all students every day and so also giving students that same opportunity to engage and see your face. And, you know, get some of that face to face time. But in an asynchronous way at a time that works for them and their family is really powerful.

C: So, when you’re thinking about like teachers and I know they’ve been reaching out to you throughout this, what have they been coming to you with the most that they’re looking for help with or for coaching on.

P: Originally it was you know tech support ’cause I think that’s just the reality of coaching right now is that a lot of us have… That’s where the need is right now is just because that’s the reality that a lot of families and students are living in at the moment, but recently in the last you know week or so it’s switched over more to. We feel like, students are spending too much time with tech and digital tools,  “Are there ways that we can recreate the same kind of experiences for kids? But in a non-digital way?”

P: And so, that’s really where I’ve been trying to support teachers through thinking through that. So I just created and I had a whole list of ideas, and I just keep adding to it, and trying to support teachers and thinking about: How can we recreate that same learning experience, but giving kids an opportunity to be creative, leverage the fact that they are at home? As much as this is difficult, it’s also an amazing opportunity for kids, that they have access to their pets, so why not encourage a kid to take notes like a scientist about what their pet is doing throughout the day, and then write a creative story about a day in the life of their pet. Or use the tools that are… Or use the things that are in their bedroom to recreate a scene out of a book that they’ve read. Or use their stuffed animals to recreate, or a public show. So those kinds of things are really where I think we’re gonna get the most bang for our buck with students, and that’s really where I’m starting to see a shift in some of the conversations that we’re having away from… Not away from the tech ’cause I don’t wanna say we wanna move away from the tech, but just so that not all options are tech-related.

C: Yeah, I love that. I think we had a conversation with our first-grade team, and they were talking about having their students create a habitat for one of their stuffed animals or a pet or something like that, out of things in their house. And I really think that we need to look at students being at home as a strength and a learning opportunity. In my morning announcements, I give opportunities for families to contribute in a variety of different ways, and one of them is the talent section. And a lot of the families have sent in videos of things that there’s no way we would have been able to replicate at school. And so, it’s just been really wonderful to strengthen that partnership of homeschool, and really look at that from an advantage, and how can we capitalize on it. So I love that you framed it that way. So moving forward, then, what do you think you’re going to start providing a little bit more support in with teachers?

P: So I know it seems like right now, the thing that is in the top of everybody’s mind is: How do I give feedback on all these things that I’m getting? There are all these different platforms. Students are submitting work on Seesaw or through Flipgrid or through Google Classroom. And I’m getting two, three, four pieces of evidence or artifacts from kids of what they’re doing and what they’re learning every single day. How do I actually navigate that and provide meaningful feedback when I’m getting 60, 70 things a day in my email? So definitely, moving forward, I wanna help start thinking with teachers and help identify, “What are the big outcomes we want for kids during this time? We have, at least four weeks, maybe eight weeks, who knows? And so, if we can really sit down together as a team and think through as a second-grade team, a third-grade team, a fourth-grade team, what do we really want students to get out of this time?” I think right now, understandably so, we’re all living very day-to-day with the uncertainty causes us to revert back to living day-to-day. But if we can think longer-term about what is it that we want students to know and be able to do by the end of this, even if it’s not academically-related, maybe it’s social-emotional, maybe it’s with their families. And then, really streamline our instruction and feedback to reflect those priorities that we set.

C: Yeah, that is something that has come through a lot in our conversations with teachers. When they were in the classroom, they were meeting with small groups or they were giving that live feedback right there. But now, they aren’t able to necessarily do that unless it’s in a virtual setting. And so, whether they are meeting with small groups of kids and giving them that feedback that way, but it’s added a much larger volume of assignments of videos of whatever it is for them to be looking at and responding to. And so, how do we give kids feedback that is meaningful? And also, how do we decrease some of that volume? Because that is a huge stressor, and we wanna make sure we’re taking care of our teachers, too, because they’ve gotta have balance in their lives, as much as everyone does.

P: And it’s… Yeah, it’s also, I think a lot of it, we’re starting to realize our students are dependent. And I think that’s just a reality of elementary school. But how much feedback, informal feedback we were giving to students throughout their learning and throughout the process, and so, we could head off some of those misconceptions and some of those mistakes that students were making before they even submitted an assignment. And I think that’s something that teachers are having a tough time with this, it’s like, “Now, I’m waiting until after they’ve submitted the assignment to catch some of those things.” So what can we do to help students start to… It’s hard in a K-5 building, but at least, start to self-reflect and self-assess. And where can they be a little more independent with that so it doesn’t all fall on the teacher to do it after they’ve already submitted the assignment?

C: Yeah, and that is another thing that I’ve seen you’re doing with teams in offering to them, and the conversations they’re having about what they’re assigning, talking about that success criteria, what should that look like. And you’ve been offering to work with them to create an example so that students have that. So if the teacher is not there live, which is really in most of the occasion right now, that they have something to look at to reflect themselves, and then make those choices for what their next steps are while they’re waiting for feedback, for the teacher. And my guess is that through this, kids are gonna end up being more independent. And that’s gonna be one of those great benefits that we’re going to have out of this time.

P: I agree, I think that is a silver lining, is that even through all of this, this is pushing some of the ownership of learning back onto students. And this is a great opportunity for teachers to experiment with some of those things that we’ve talked about like success criteria and self-reflection and goal-setting, all that kinda stuff that does empower students to take that ownership of their learning because we have to, right now. Otherwise, parents and ourselves, we’re going to go crazy because they’re still gonna be dependent on us, and we’re not right there with them. And so, really, I think going back to your original question of where do we go from here, is that’s really what I wanna start thinking about is: How can we support teachers in some of that with thinking about goal-setting, thinking about success criteria and thinking about feedback? And how all that plays together in really turning the ownership of learning back over to students so that they’re not as dependent on us.

C: Yeah, I definitely agree. And I think within that realm, giving our teachers that creativity, the creativity piece has really, not that we didn’t offer that before. I like to think that Jefferson’s a school that loves taking risks, and I see that in our teachers all the time, but there’s a different type of creativity that this offers. It’s almost like starting teacher teaching from scratch. There are certain things that we know work really well with our kids, but we can also just try a lot of new things, and see how they go, and keep reflecting and refining along and throughout the process.

P: Absolutely.

C: So if you were gonna give any advice to teachers at this time, what would be your greatest advice to them?

P: I think one of my favorite things, and then I had seen this on Twitter so many times, and it’s really striking a chord with me, is that idea of Maslow before Bloom, that we need to make sure we’re taking care of kids’ needs, and making sure kids feel safe and connected to school before we can push rigor and all that kind of… All those good educational terms on them. So really, making sure that students feel connected to you as a teacher, feel connected to their classmates, feel connected to their school. And we’ve been doing so much at Jefferson to try and support that, and I know teachers are trying to do that every single day. And just reminding them that that is first priority is making sure kids are safe and connected.

P: And then, one of our teachers said it really best, and we talked about this earlier, but take advantage of the fact that students are at home. And they can be creative, and we can try things out with them, and they can show you, I think you talked about this, what they’re really passionate about outside the confines of the school. They can build, they can create, they can make videos. We are not restricted to that bell schedule anymore right now. We’re not restricted to that time schedule that we have in school where we only have literacy block from 8:30 to 10:00, and then it’s done because we need to be moving on to the next subject because somebody’s coming in. So to take advantage of that and find those silver linings and the things that we can try out and do differently now that we have a completely… We basically have a blank slate for education right now. So I know, and that sometimes feels super overwhelming, but just small things that we can do to, again, turn the ownership back over to students and give them some say in their education, and say in their learning. Those are my two biggest ones, is take care of their needs first, their safety needs, and their need to have that sense of community. And then also, just take advantage of the fact that we have a blank slate for education right now.

C: So what advice would you give to other coaches, then?

P: Not being an expert in this by any means. I think it’s just be there to support your teachers and try the best we can to not pile on anything additional. That is my number one thing that I keep saying to myself every time I create something or do something. I’m like, “Is this adding more onto their plate? Or is taking something off of their plate?” And just really, again, same thing for us as coaches, we have a blank slate here of trying different things in our coaching practice that we may not have been able to do within the school setting. And there are some teachers that I know that I haven’t reached out to yet, and I need to make sure that I’m making those connections with everybody and making sure that they’re doing okay, too. Because our teachers are stressed right now, and rightfully so. And so, just really making sure we’re taking the time to practice what we preach for our teachers with ourselves.

C: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I was thinking about touching base with everyone is just so important because on the outside, we can all say whatever, but… And those internal moments, giving people an opportunity to share and take something off their plate, or to help out where we can. And I really see that as my job, as well as an administrator, of just taking care of my people. And that includes students, that includes families, that includes everyone. And so, that means checking in as much as you can.

P: Absolutely.

C: So then, my last question would be; What advice do you have for me as an administrator, also knowing I’m a parent?

P: I think, and this is really challenging for me, not being a parent. And so, I guess it’s, again, really just thinking about what is essential right now for our students and where can we push, maybe, and push some of that independence on our students. I think as a teacher, this was one of my hardest things that I had to learn early on in my teaching career, was the idea of productive struggle, and not jumping in and saving students. And I know that some students are probably going to struggle. And parents, as a parent, I am sure that they’re gonna wanna jump in and save when math is challenging and a student doesn’t necessarily understand that they’re gonna wanna jump in and say like, “Here, let me show you.” But allowing students the space to struggle productively is a huge learning experience for them. So for parents, that would be, I think, the biggest thing, is giving your students some space. It’s gonna be hard and that’s okay. Again, this is new for all of us. And for administrators, you’re doing such a great job. [chuckle] You’re being so…

C: Thank you for saying that. I don’t know if that’s true.

P: No, I know. As I told you, no one was ever trained on how to be an administrator or how to be a coach or how to be a teacher or how to be a student or parent during a global pandemic. So we’re all trying to figure this out together. And so, again, just being as supportive as possible of your teachers, backing up your teachers, giving them some space to do some of those creative things with students, and allowing them to know that that is okay. I think sometimes, we just need to hear it from an administrator that that’s the right thing to do. And so, really just being there and being supportive.

C: Well, thank you, I appreciate that advice. Well, Pia, I just wanna thank you again for everything that you’re doing for our staff, for our students, for our community. And I am just grateful that you took a few minutes, actually, to do this podcast with me today, as well, because I know your schedule is definitely slammed with all the work that you’re doing. So thank you again, and that’s gonna be it. Bye, everyone!

I started my newsletter this week with this quote from A.J. Juliani:

“The sooner we realize that there is no instructional manual for this situation, the sooner we can give each other grace to experiment, learn, and iterate to the best of our abilities in the worst of circumstances.”

Our coaches are the ones helping to make the experimenting, learning and iterating a little less scary and a lot more successful.  To all of the coaches out there supporting teachers during this crazy time, thank you.  The difference you are making is immeasurable.  

Learning Along the Way

I have to admit this is the third post I have attempted to write in the past few weeks since we have been home due to COVID-19.

Wanting to write something meaningful, but going through the same struggles as many in adjusting to a new normal has given me pause.  I’ve had some wonderful moments having extra time with my family and connecting with others in new ways, but there have also been moments of feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and unsure of what my role is as a school leader.  Having never been through something like this I’m just trying to figure it all out as much as the next person.

In the spirit of newness and we’re all in this together, here are my greatest takeaways so far:

Start with simplicity and then build from there.

This is new for everyone.  Kids, parents, and educators need to learn and adjust to the new routine.  There will also be a learning curve for the tech piece for some.  Create a simple template that follows a pattern and uses some foundational technology that you plan on using throughout the time kids are learning at home.  Spend the first few days making sure that everyone can use the technology and provide assistance when needed. Creating or linking tutorial videos can also be helpful for avoiding some of the technology confusion.  Many educators I have spoken with have said that this is where most of the questions came in the first few days.

Once the routine is established, you can start to add in more new to what you have created.  If you are concerned that some students need more of a challenge at this time, add in some optional activities so that all kids can have their needs met.

Relationships are more important than ever.

One of the greatest losses that students are experiencing at this time is the sense of community.  Whether it’s a virtual meeting, a phone call, an email, or a handwritten note, reach out to students regularly to see how they are doing beyond academics.  At Jefferson, my teachers have used Zoom or Google Hangouts to get everyone together as a class.   Although not a live form of connection, they have also used Seesaw for communication and inviting students to share what they have been working on.  We want students to continue to learn during this time, but placing an emphasis on the relationship first will lead to a stronger ability for students to do that.

You can never communicate too much.

During times of uncertainty, people need communication more than ever.  Last week I started virtual daily announcements on our social media platforms for the purpose of keeping a routine and helping families to continue to feel connected to Jefferson.  Just like our in-school announcements, I recognized birthdays and shared important information about virtual activities for the day.  This will continue throughout our time at home as a vehicle for both daily connection and communication.  Our teachers will be sending out a communication to families at the beginning of each day letting them know important information for the day.  Additionally, families will continue to receive my weekly communication with both school and district information.

Beyond communicating about “all the things,” it’s also important to remember to let people know that we are all a team in this process.  Many of our families have two parents now working from home and maybe feeling overwhelmed at the thought of also now being a full-time teacher.   Reassure families that if they don’t know how to help their students in something they are working on that is okay.   Letting families know that we are here to help and providing communication channels for when they need help is also incredibly important.

Regular reflection to move forward.

Reflection is an important skill at any time, but during this unprecedented time in the world, taking time to reflect is more important than ever.  In the beginning, I spent a lot of time thinking about my role as a school leader at this time and what I could do to make my greatest contribution to our Jefferson community.   As a result, I have spent most of my days focusing on connection and communication.  Each day I reflect on the day’s process, what went well, and what I could have improved upon.

Additionally, I’ve thought a lot about this experience and what might we learn that we can bring back when we return to our regular school schedule. (whenever that may be)  What has really stood out to me so far is the home school connection and how much this has brought us all together.  I actually feel so much more in touch with our families as a result of this experience because I’m seeing or hearing about home life so much more.   I see possibilities for more creation of a shared vision and a greater partnership with the home when we return as a result.

I think about teaching practices as well.  Learning at this time has caused us to focus on what is essential, instead of trying to do it all.  We’ve focused more on relationships and connecting with one another.  We’re building on what we know works well with our students, but we’re also taking more risks.  We’ve incorporated more technology than ever.  How might that impact our planning and instruction when we return?

One Last Thought

We’re all trying to make meaning out of our new existence.  Do the best that you can.  When you are stuck, reach out to a friend or a colleague (hopefully both).  If you’re a parent, no teacher is out there judging you if you don’t get all of the math or Seesaw post 2 done.  If you are an educator, it’s okay to reach out to your principal and say, I’m overwhelmed, I need help.  If you need to spend a day just connecting with your own children that’s okay.  If you need to spend some time just doing something you love all by yourself, that’s okay too. (I mean, if you have kids, you might want to talk your partner about your plan to retreat to the basement to binge-watch Tiger King and eat a box of chocolate first so you don’t reappear with a live re-enactment of Lord of the Flies occurring in your living room.)  This is a time to give yourself grace, and also extend that courtesy to others.   

 

 

 

What’s Your Classroom’s Reading Culture?

As an admin or coach do you ever have a moment when you wish you could go back into the classroom?  This week it happened to me when I was attending a professional learning experience facilitated by my instructional coach and literacy coach about literacy instruction.

The purpose of the PL was to give teachers an opportunity to reflect on their literacy practices individually, explore some articles and books of their choosing (linked in a hyperdoc), and then have a conversation with their peers about the elements of literacy instruction that they felt had the greatest impact on students.  (Using the “Event-O-Meter” Protocol from the book Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk)

After having time to think about the way I structured literacy when I was a teacher, there were many things that I did that helped students to grow.  At the beginning of my career, I learned the importance of having a balanced approach to literacy because not all students learn to read in the same way. Because of this, I incorporated independent reading, small group work, word work and writing daily.  I taught students explicit strategies, regularly gave them feedback and helped them to set future reading goals based on this feedback.

As I progressed to the later years in my career, I started incorporating more choice, conversations about reading with peers and reflection.  We did service-learning projects that helped them to learn to about the world and the difference they can make.  Students blogged, created videos about their books and could choose from a wide variety of activities to demonstrate mastery of skills and strategies.  Students often had organizers to complete along the way and were provided with questions to answer to help facilitate deep thinking and discussion.

All of these things definitely made a positive impact on students and their ability to interact with any type of text.  However, after doing some deep reflection and listening to the conversations of my staff, I realized that for most of the years, my reading instruction was all about me and doing what I asked.  Even though I gave choice in activities, I was the one who created the projects to choose from, questions to answer and direction of most conversations.  Students had time to read independently, but it was always with the purpose of answering my questions, practicing skills, creating a project or coming prepared to talk in a group discussion.

I started thinking about the message that my literacy instruction was sending to students and I was pretty sure it was something along the lines of…”the purpose of reading is to read the words, think about the text and complete some sort of task for a grade.”  Many of my students loved learning and loved reading which they probably continue to do today, but I’m guessing that there are other students who stopped reading the minute it was no longer a required school activity. 

 If I ever went back to teaching, my first priority in literacy instruction would be the reading culture of my classroom.  We would start by exploring students’ reading identity which would be more than just their preference of genre or series.  I’d ask questions like…How do they view themselves as a reader and what do they think they want to grow in?  What are their strengths and how can we use them?  (Question from a great blog post by George Couros)  

We would talk about the purpose of reading in our classroom and the many reasons for reading beyond school.  We would discuss what we want our reading culture to be like in our classroom and what our steps and expectations are for achieving that culture.  I’m picturing something like this…

The students of Dr. Podraza’s classroom enjoy reading and will be given opportunities to develop a love of reading daily.  The reasons why we read vary depending on our purpose.  We may be reading to find answers to questions we have, to expose us to new ideas, to prepare to talk with a partner or group, or purely for the enjoyment of it.  When we are reading, we will approach the text in a way that meets the purpose.  As we read new information or a genre, we will look at it with with an open mind and think about whether the new ideas confirm, contradict or complicate our previous thoughts.  We may not all enjoy the same type of book, but that is okay.   We will be given opportunities to read a variety of different texts in Dr. Podraza’s classroom, but will always have the choice to read the types of texts that we enjoy most.  It is our job to grow as readers so that we can read any type of book that we want, learn about the world around us and make an impact in evidence-informed action.  We will push one another’s thinking and help one another to grow.  Dr. Podraza’s job is to introduce is to new ideas, help us to stretch our brains, and work with us to create goals that are meaningful and give us feedback.  To help achieve our goals we will read individually, in small groups and in partnerships.  We will be given opportunities to explore questions and issues that are important to us.  We will get to create based on our learning and when it makes sense to do so.  Dr. Podraza will offer suggestions of ideas, but we are always welcome to develop projects on our own.  We are readers because we want to learn, to question, to have fun, to collaborate with peers, and to grow in our ability to see other perspectives and empathize with others.  

In essence, we would develop a reading identity as a group first.  The instruction would come next, all built around the dialogue and agreements we had as a class.  My literacy instruction would involve more time for students to just read, simply for the joy of it and to develop their reading interests and passions.  When they worked on projects, they would have a purpose beyond just turning it into the teacher.  I’d still meet with students in small groups and 1:1 conferring etc., but there would be more authentic collaboration and discussion in general among students instead of just with the teacher.  

I’ve heard the quote from Peter Drucker many times that,”Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  In the context of literacy, this statement especially holds true.  No matter how many great strategies we teach kids or interesting work we give them, if they only see the purpose of reading as something they do to get a good grade in school, then our impact is only as far as the end of the school year.  When students are immersed in a classroom culture where reading is valued for authentic reasons they will continue to pursue and enjoy reading for a lifetime.  

What are Your Blind Spots?

I had the privilege of attending an amazing workshop on Monday with author and researcher Jane Kise.  It was a part of our Elmhurst D205 Professional Learning Strand initiative where teachers get to pick one topic and delve deeply into it throughout the year.  Her presentation was part of the Teacher Leadership cohort, but could have applied to any of the other four strands – Innovation, Inquiry, Behavioral Health, or Workshop Model.

The part that I found most fascinating was regarding people’s psychological preferences and how that affects pretty much every aspect of life.   She discussed four different types and had us consider which type we were.  

  • Sensing & Thinking  
  • Sensing & Feeling
  • Intuition & Feeling
  • Intuition & Thinking

We then got into groups with others who approach the world like we do and discussed the following prompts:

  • Three ways we contribute to teacher efficacy
  • If you want to influence us please…
  • And please don’t…

It was amazing how easy it was to consider these ideas with like-minded individuals and how normal it made the little things that I had thought were weird quirks about myself seem.  I am an Intuition/Thinking type so I thrive on seeing the Big Picture.  I think about future implications and design coherent plans based on those ideas.  I love challenges and many times prefer to work alone.   It was funny answering the last two bullets because we all immediately said people who influence us have to be knowledgeable and if someone doesn’t have a plan it makes us go crazy.  

If you are reading this right now and thinking, “Wait…doesn’t everyone think this way?” then you might be an intuitive thinker.  If you are wondering why I didn’t list considering the feelings of others as important, then you might be a Sensing & Feeling type or one of the others.  The important thing to remember is that there isn’t “one best type.”  It’s just related to our preferences and how we approach things.  Like being right or left-handed, our tendency is innate, but we can learn the others.

Our preferences connect with our strengths, but can also be a source of our blind spots.  When we get so used to thinking about things and approaching them the same way we may be missing out on better ways of doing something or we may be ostracizing others causing resistance to new ideas.  One way to avoid our blind spots is to regularly collaborate and ask for feedback from trusted colleagues who have a different lens.  If you are leading a team (or classroom of students), checking in regularly with a survey or meeting is another way.  Try to create groups that include people who have diverse perspectives.  If this is not possible, consider what blind spots the group may have and work to address them when making decisions.

As a principal, I have started asking for feedback from my staff at the end of each trimester through a survey.   It is broken down into four categories to better pinpoint our strengths and areas for growth:  Operations/Logistics, Communication, Professional Learning/Instructional Leadership, & Relationships.  (click here for a copy)  I review the results independently for individual reflection, and then meet with my leadership team to create responsive plans.  The more I think about this I am realizing the importance of connecting with a coach or colleague in a different building who approaches leadership from a different lens to help me with regular reflection.

It’s impossible to think about blindspots as a leader without considering classroom implications.  What are our teaching tendencies?  Creating predictable structures and routines is a hallmark of good teaching, but what might we be missing if we always do things the exact same way?  When is it appropriate and how often are we asking students for feedback on our classroom?  If a student is struggling, is it because they lack knowledge or is it because we’re not structuring learning experiences in a way that connects with them?  

I’m not advocating changing every moment of the day to fit each child’s preference.  Just like learning to write with the opposite hand, kids can learn to work in a variety of non-preferred structures.   However, considering that they may approach or think about the world in a different way than the way we are structuring learning might help us to figure out the puzzle of students who appear unreachable or disengaged.  For example, a student who views the world through a Sensing-Thinking lens craves structure, immediate feedback, organization, and right or wrong answers.  If your classroom is filled with mostly open-ended projects, explorations and collaborative work this student may start to feel frustrated with school even though you are using practices that most students adore.   Giving students opportunities to work in structures that connect with their lens will help to engage all learners in school.  A simple way to do this is to offer choice throughout the day in your classroom.  If you are interested in learning more about the four lenses and how they connect to choices you might offer in the classroom, click here.  

Our strengths are what make us individually great, but considering our blindspots and being open to feedback and other perspectives will create a place where everyone’s greatness is maximized.  

 

Am I Doing It Right?

During my five years as a coach in Naperville, we implemented at least 15 new initiatives, maybe more.  So it makes sense that I was frequently asked, “What’s the right way to do this?” or similarly, “Am I doing it right?” Questions of this variety reflect our desire as educators to do our best.  Many of us grew up in an education environment where there was almost always only one path to the correct answer.  When we became teachers that mentality had already been ingrained in us so it makes sense that we would continue to ponder correctness of our actions in the classroom.

The problem is there are so many “right ways” to teach depending on our students that there really isn’t an easy way to answer that question.  When teachers ask me if they are doing it right, I always respond with, “what’s the impact on the students?”  If you are seeing students grow, then you are “doing it right.”  If not, it doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong, it just means it’s not working for that group of students.  And that’s okay.  It just means we need to reflect on what we know about our students, tweak our approach and try again. 

Some years one structure or teaching strategy will have a phenomenal impact on kids and other years it will absolutely flop.   The best teachers are constantly in “beta” stage, regularly creating, reflecting on student growth and refining their work in a continuous cycle of improvement.  When something doesn’t work they don’t give up or blame the students, they try something new from the plethora of strategies in their own toolbox or reach out to their PLC or PLN for more ideas. 

Change is inevitable and constant in education.  As we implement new strategies and structures, it is important to not get hung up on perfection of the thing being implemented, but instead, place greater importance on the impact we are having on students.  Asking the simple question, “what’s the impact on students?” will always lead to “doing it right” for our kids.

Predictions for the Next Decade of Education

I recently read this article from the Atlantic titled, Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong.  It’s an interesting read for a variety of reasons, but what stood out to me was the plethora of evidence that confirms what many of us have known for decades: the standardized testing movement simply doesn’t work.  Despite our efforts to systematize learning and add more “rigor,” we continue to end up with the same results along with an ever-expanding achievement gap.

The author, Natalie Wexler poses the questions, “

“What if the medicine we have been prescribing is only making matters worse, particularly for poor children? What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized—including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?”

She pokes holes in many common literacy practices in the U.S. as well as presents examples of teachers who are finding success in trying out different approaches.  The article got me thinking about education overall, how we have tried so many new things, abandoned many ideas, gone back to the same ideas, but education has, for the most part, looked the exact same way for generations.

The start of a new decade feels like a fresh start for everything, education included.  There is no guarantee of what the next 10 years will bring, but I am optimistic that this decade will bring what the past hundreds of years have not, an education system that is valuable for all.  There are a plethora of amazing educators who are leading the charge and sharing their stories on social media and beyond giving me hope that we can and will create powerful educational experiences to help ALL kids succeed.    

Predictions for 2020-2030

The ideas I present in this post are a result of two decades of personal experience working with students, a lot of reading, watching & learning, and most of all, connecting with amazing educators across the globe.  (Thank you PLN!)  You will notice that no idea is brand new.  I believe that we already have the answers which we seek, it is the way that we use them with students that has the power to shift education for the better. 

Less About the Right Answer & More about Great Questions

One of the chapters that stood out to me in The Innovators Mindset was the chapter where George Couros discusses the importance of students being “problem-finders.”  This was sparked from the work of Ewan McIntosh. The premise is that we spend a lot of time working with students to come up with solutions to problems, but what we really need in a dynamic world is students who can find problems and innovative ways to solve these problems.

Besides the fact that solving problems with predetermined answers can be monotonous and insanely boring, (geometry proofs anyone?), if we spend all of our time giving students problems to solve with a finite answer we are giving students the impression that the purpose in life is to simply get the right answer.   Students leave school thinking there is a simple methodology to life and if they follow the success formula given to them they will be successful when really the opposite is true.  We need creative thinkers, students who can look at the world with a new lens and make it better. 

A great way to develop this skill is by teaching students to ask great questions and giving them opportunities to explore ideas that are meaningful to them.  Genius Hour or Passion Projects, QFT, TQE Method, and Socratic Seminar are just some ways that educators around the globe are working to develop the questioning ability in students.  Each of these methodologies helps students to not only create questions of their own, but they encourage rich discussion among students as well which can lead to new ideas from students.  It is exciting to think about what kind of learning will take place when we spend more time empowering students to question, explore & discover as opposed to encouraging them to simply find the right answer.  

Experiential Learning 

In the next ten years, whether virtual or in-person, learning will extend more and more beyond the four walls of the classroom.  Mentioned in the Wexler article, research confirms students learn best when they have experiences and background knowledge to be able to comprehend the texts they are reading.  Creativity is the number one quality that employers are currently looking for.  Reeves & Reeves suggest in their book on creativity, The Myth of the Muse that one of the ways to enhance creativity is through inspiration from experiences.  The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) recommend starting science lessons with a phenomenon so that students have a shared experience to ask questions and develop theories from.  Although I still think the best experience is one in real life, Augmented and Virtual Reality makes this a daily possibility for students.  

One school that is doing an amazing job at teaching from this approach is the GEMS World Academy in Chicago, Illinois.  In this school, the teachers plan out larger units that explore a broad question related to an essential idea.  Included in each of these are field trips to a place in the city where students can explore.  From the shared experience students then create questions they have and spend the unit exploring answers to the questions they create.  Each subject area is tied into this big idea including specials.  The result is that students see learning as interconnected as opposed to limited to one subject area which enhances their creative ability to connect ideas and create new ones.

A More Personalized Approach to Education

If you would have asked me if this was possible ten years ago my answer would have emphatically been no.  It takes too much time.  It’s not necessary or realistic.  It is amazing what a decade of experience can do.  I now believe it is more necessary than ever.  As you will hear me mention throughout this post, in the dynamic world we live in we no longer need students who can just get the right answer, we need students who are curious, think creatively and can find new problems to solve.  We want students to leave school with a positive view of themselves, recognizing not only what their talents are, but how they can use them to make a positive impact on the world.   

When I say a more personalized approach to education, I am not saying that every student would be doing something different in every moment of the day.  Students need foundational knowledge in order to be creative, ask questions and generate new ideas.  However, I think it’s a different approach to looking at the school day.  Design39 Campus in California has been exploring this idea for the past five years.  You can check out this link for more information, but their day is split up into Integrated Learning Time, Deep Dives & Explorations.   During Integrated Learning Time is when they explore content across curriculums for purposeful application of skills.  Deep Dives is time for students to explore their passions in an academic setting.  Explorations give students time to explore new things they are interested in trying.  I love the way they organize their day because it gives students foundational understanding as well as time to explore passions and build new ones.  For more information on how the idea began and the success they are having with students, check out this podcast from Modern Learners.

Going Gradeless/Meaningful Feedback

At some point, we have to recognize that grades are just meaningless little letters that students look at and then toss.  Even when we add in comments to the grade or SBR number students associate more meaning with the grade and typically ignore the feedback.   Both John Hattie and Susan Brookhart have written books on the topic and the research shows that feedback is a much more effective learning tool for students over grades.  

Many educators are already moving towards a feedback-heavy or gradeless classroom.  (check out the #gradeless on Twitter) Instead of using grades or fear of punishment to motivate students to complete their work, they have shifted their instructional practices to have students set goals that are meaningful to them.  The teacher and/or peers give them feedback on progress towards their goal to move their learning forward.  Learning then becomes a continuum as opposed to an endpoint.  I’ve linked a few useful resources below if you are considering making this shift.

6 Tips for Going Gradeless by Starr Sackstein

More Teachers are Going Gradeless.  I Asked Them Why.  EL Magazine July 2019

Teachers Going Gradeless (TG² Podcast)

Collaboration Over Competition

One of the best videos I have seen this year that has had a huge impact on the way I think about the classroom is Why School Should Be about Us Instead of Me from Trevor Muir.  Besides the fact that it has a totally Hamilton-esque vibe, the premise that school sets up a culture of competition as opposed to what our world needs, a culture of collaboration, rings completely true.  I’ve watched it probably 20 times.

I was definitely one of the students who groaned every time I heard it was time to work on a group project.  There was always the people who did everything, a few people who did nothing, and then somehow a project evolved.  It never felt to me like there was any purpose in working together.  As a teacher, I tried to circumvent this issue by assigning roles to each student, but even this had uneven results with students continuing to work in silos as opposed to creating something together.

After reading a wonderful post by John Spencer about collaboration, what I realized was missing was students seeing the value in one another’s strengths and using those strengths to build something greater than what could be done alone.  Instead of starting group projects by assigning roles, have students share their strengths, set goals for the project together and give them opportunities to give one another feedback along the way.  This creates greater meaning for the work and also mirrors the type of work they will be doing outside of school.  In the working world students will be collaborating daily, we have to increase the amount of collaboration they do throughout the day, but it also has to be done in a way that is meaningful so that it doesn’t just become another one of the dreaded group projects.

If you’re looking for ways to create this type of classroom, Trevor Muir’s new book, The Collaborative Classroom, filled with practical ideas and examples, is a great place to start.

The End of Labels 

This last one I am most excited about, although I think it might take a little bit more time.  I predict that gradually the labels we use in education, “gifted, special education, EL” will disappear.  As we start to shift the focus of school from everyone ending up in the same exact spot to encouraging students to be curious learners who explore their passions and develop their talents, the need for labels will go away because we will see students for their greatness of whom they already are, not some arbitrary standard we want them to become.   



“Logic will take you from A to B.  Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein

We have spent the past hundred years approaching education from a logical standpoint.  Students need to learn ______________ so we will teach them ___________________.  We will set standards that everyone needs to reach and if they don’t reach those standards we will fix them with _____________________.   This is a very logical approach if we are working with products, but hasn’t always served us well with students.  We need more creativity and flexibility if we are going to reach all students.  

I am optimistic about the shifts I continue to see happening in our schools.  I believe that through these shifts we will have students leaving school with more creativity, empathy, equity, and curiosity than we ever have in the past.  It is inspiring to think about the wonderful world that these students will create.  

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.

joy pic

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