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Friday, December 4, 2015

Dear Students...

Dear Students...

You may not realize this, but the reason we come to school each day...your principal, your assistant principal(s), your teachers, your counselors, your paraprofessionals, your custodians...is because of you. We wake up early, stay late, and study hard just for you. We talk about and plan for your success, your goals, and your aspirations. We talk about your future, our belief in you, and the fact that you matter and will make a difference. We work hard to plan activities and a curriculum that is customized to your needs, even though it is extremely challenging for us. We love you, we respect you, and we give all we can each day so you can be successful.

Dear Students…

We see you hiding in the back of the room, don’t think we don’t...We know school doesn’t come easy, and we know you come to school hungry, tired, and desperately needing support. We know some of you leave school and go to work to support your family, we know that many of you are homeless, coming to your fifth school in three years, or are far more focused on surviving....let alone trying to pass the class. But guess what? We won’t let you fall, we won’t give up on you, and we will never stop believing in you.

Need food? We can get that for you. Need help? We are ready to support you. Need someone to hear you? Listen to you? Guide you? Provide school supplies? Counseling? Technology? Access to the whole world? Yup...we can do all of that too.

Don’t see a future? We do, and it is one where you are successful, impactful, and is a future filled with stories of perseverance, challenges conquered, and a life worth living.

Dear Students…

We see you getting all A+ grades without even trying. We know school comes easily for you…We know you are bored, and are even willing to get in trouble just to change the pace of the day. We have challenges ready for you, we have a plan for you...here is the truth, we want you to grow and be challenged just as much as the student who is struggling next to you. Are you ready? Are you willing to fail? Are you willing to focus on the process instead of just the results?

Here is the truth for all of our A+ students...while we are proud of the effort, the grades, and the success...we want more for you. We want you to feel challenged, pushed instructionally, and feel you are learning something new each and every day. So much so, we would bet every teacher you have ever had, if given the choice, would trade your A+ grades for a new learning moment each day...in the end...we are hoping for both.

Dear Students…

We know you are stressed. We know the pressure to be the best is always on your shoulders...perfect grades, honor roll, class rank… We know you want to do it all, but please don’t forget that you are only a student for one season of life. You will blink and graduate elementary school, blink again...high school, and before you know it, college.

Working hard is a great thing, getting great grades is a great thing, trying to be the best is a great thing… Just remember this: It’s not the ONLY thing. You matter. You have purpose. You make a difference, whether at the top of your class or not, you can be successful, and make the world a better place.

Dear Students…

We are not perfect. Believe it or not...we are only human. There are times we won’t understand what you are wanting us to hear. There are times we may seem tired, may seem exasperated, may even seem a little lost… Here is the truth, we - the educators in your life - work hard to look like we have all the answers, have it all together, but in the end...well, we want you to own your learning. We want you to take responsibility and join us on the journey to your educational success. We will always be prepared, always ready to welcome you at the classroom door, always ready to give you our best lesson...but, you need to be ready to learn something new.

Dear Students…

As you grow up, as you go out and change the world, cure diseases, become teachers, athletes, mechanics, engineers, architects, nurses, lawyers, firefighters, police officers, counselors, graphic designers, store managers, food servers, veterinarias, custodians, web designers and so much more...don’t forget us. Don’t forget we believed in you even when you struggled, and we knew that one day you would do great things.

Thank you for giving us a chance to watch you grow, watch you learn, and watch you become the amazing person you are today. We might have only been a small piece of your journey, but we are so proud to have been a part of the ride.

Sincerely,

Well, you know who we are…

The educators who are so very proud of you!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Problem with Soapboxes

I love a good soapbox - there is nothing like going off on a tangent for a long time as passion builds and frustration kicks in because you KNOW what you are saying is right, and anyone not following your belief is clearly off the mark.

I have a great soapbox for all types of topics...Library vs. Learning Commons, makerspace, special education, curriculum, planning, student support, family support, team support, and on, and on, and on…

It's funny how quickly a soapbox can kick in as well, and it doesn’t take much...don’t believe me? Go up to any teacher and say this: “I think teachers are overpaid babysitters.” --- Then sit back and wait, trust me, a soapbox lesson will shortly follow.

I was talking with a parent the other day and she pitched me a soft ball right over the plate when I thought she said…”You know, I think the problem in education is kids just can’t learn these days, everything is just handed to them so they don’t know how.”

I couldn’t help myself...I couldn't just leave a statement like that sitting out there, so I respectfully disagreed with a 10 minutes soapbox speech that would be been up for an Academy Award had it been filmed. I made my point, the parent seemed to agree with my thoughts.

We finished our, admittedly, one sided discussion, and as she left she said this: “I love how passionate you are about these kids, maybe parents giving kids everything these days isn't the problem.”

I sat there, silent. Wait a minute, I just gave this lady a phenomenal soapbox speech about why kids can learn. I thought we were debating the idea that kids today can’t learn...not questioning parenting today. I ran back through the conversation in my mind and realized I made a mistake. What I chose to hear was, ”You know, I think the problem in education is kids just can’t learn these days, everything is just handed to them so they don’t know how.” Yet, what she said was,“You know, I think the problem in education is kids just can’t learn to do things on their own, everything is just handed to them by their parents so they just don’t seem to know how.”

Slight difference, she was sharing her thoughts on parenting today, yet got a friendly lecture from me about why our kids can learn.

Soapboxes are driven by passion, by beliefs so strongly rooted that we often find reasons to share these thoughts. Truth be told, until that moment I never saw anything wrong with a good soapbox. But I decided to do an experiment…

I asked 10 teachers what their biggest soapbox topics were - Admittedly, I did ask people who I knew may have different opinions - something very interesting happened as they were as follows :

Teacher 1: Special education students need to be in the general education setting at all times

Teacher 2: Special education students need settings and supports built for their specific needs

Teacher 3: Departmentalizing elementary is key to student success

Teacher 4: Non-Departmentalized schools are most effective

Teacher 5: Students must have choice in order to have ownership

Teacher 6: Problem based learning is the future of education

Teacher 7: Everything in education is cyclical, keep doing the same thing long enough and you are doing the right thing again

Teacher 8: Change in education is vital to student success

Teacher 9: Instructional technology is the fastest growing, and most important, part of education today

Teacher 10: Technology is nice, but nothing is more important than a paper book and a great teacher

It doesn’t take long to notice a glaring issue...Not all soapboxes match.

For most people, when it comes to sharing a soapbox moment the mouth moves and the mind turns off. Look back to the example I shared above, I spent 10 minutes talking about why kids can learn, yet never did I stop, think, or even reflect on the actual conversation/comment. Soapboxes are usually created on core beliefs, beliefs we will fight for, argue for, and stand for. Yet, for me, when a soapbox begins, the learning stops.

The learning stops...that is the problem with soapboxes. In the world of education things change constantly - in order to truly be a successful educator, you need to be learning constantly. In essence, if you want to have a soapbox, it needs to be fluid.

Look at the examples above...I have a counter soapbox speech for at least half.

Maybe, for those of us with soapboxes loaded and ready, we need to step off the soapbox and shift to a seated conversation. After all, if our goal is to be successful educators, and we know we need to learn constantly, we might as well listen and share, as opposed to lecture and stand.

Full circle...think back to my parent moment...what if, after she said: “You know, I think the problem in education is kids just can’t learn to do things on their own, everything is just handed to them by their parents so they just don’t seem to know how.”

I simply responded with - “I think you make an interesting point...let’s talk about that more.”

Imagine what I might have learned...

Friday, October 30, 2015

How Do We Reach All Students?

It’s 1:13 a.m.

I’m lying in bed and watching the blades of my ceiling fan spin.

As my eyes rotate with the fan the same question continues to repeat itself in my mind...How?

As a campus principal, how do I ensure we are reaching the entire student body? How do we create an educational experience that is individualized to the needs of every child?

There are only so many hours in a day for a teacher...in those hours they have to plan, assess, analyze, manage, support, care for, adjust, change, create, and ensure every child gets what he or she needs. So much to do, so little time.

It’s 1:17 a.m.

I am sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the clock in front of me...thinking...thinking… How? What’s the answer? How do we reach every single child?

Is the answer programs? A one-size-fits-all program?

No, would never work. Our kids range from non-readers to gifted and talented all in the same room. There isn’t one program that will reach every child…

Maybe if I change the schedule, maybe if I change the routine, maybe if I can grow our parental involvement, maybe if we adjust our positive behavioral supports...maybe...

It’s 1:21 a.m.

I am now pacing back and forth as the faces of my teachers begin to flash across my mind’s eye. Classroom, special education, specialists...The faces of the amazing people who are working so hard each day to try and answer the questions that keep me up at night. The people who give everything they have...every single day, to each other, their kids, and to me.

The truth of the matter reaches me in the early morning hours...there is only one answer to the question: How do we create an educational experience that is individualized to the needs of every child? That answer...love, support, and trust my outstanding teachers.

I could create the best schedule, invite the most parents, buy the most expensive software, even provide the best professional development money could buy - all good things...yet, if my teachers are not successful, if my teachers aren’t willing to take risks in the name of reaching everyone, if my teachers aren’t willing to plan effectively...well, than in the end every child won’t be successful.

Love, support, trust - repeat. These are the key ingredients to the question that keeps me up at night…

This is my second year of being a principal - I have made mistakes and have taken risks… For some, this would be seen as a recipe for disaster. Yet, I work with a community of teachers that all share the same passion and the same desire...we want our kids to be successful.

Love. I tell my teachers I love them. That’s right, I said it...love. We don’t hear that often in education. Well, actually we do, all the time...we hear it in classrooms all over. Our teachers tell their students they are loved, they are cared for, they matter. Why shouldn’t teachers receive the same sentiment back? The parallel couldn't be more perfect...as much as my teachers love their kids, I love them.

Support. From supporting the risk a teacher wants to take, to providing that much-needed professional development, support comes in many different forms. Regardless of how it is provided, our teachers need to know they are supported. I have their back, I am in their corner, and I want the best for them. I might raise the bar high, but I will help them reach it in anyway I can.

Trust. In all honesty this is the hardest one for me. For a long time I lived by the idea: I will trust you once you show me I can. This of course means I didn’t trust anyone at first...in essence, a recipe for a negative school culture. It was my first year in administration, in middle school no less, when my principal modeled and demonstrated something I have tried so hard to embody. She gave trust freely, and it stayed there until proven no longer possible. It was the opposite of what I knew, yet was the most freeing idea that I have come to believe in. I trust my teachers, all of them. I trust they are here for our kids, trust they are doing all they can, and trust they understand they are an important part of something larger than themselves.

It’s 1:32 a.m.

I lay back down - close my eyes, and for the first time, in a long time, I am able to sleep.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

More Than Title

I have a great friend who doesn’t work in the field of education, yet loves to stay on top of what is happening in schools today. While he lives in the business world, he understands the importance of the educational one. For the last several years, every time we get together he throws out several questions that are complex in nature, and always underlined with the need for more opinions that factual evidence/data. Questions like: Why do you think our educational system needs to change? Why it is that schools in this city outperform those of the surrounding cities? What is school culture? Why do I keep reading that teachers are leaving the profession faster than ever? What does great teaching look like? Etc…

Educators are funny - whether we are at school or not, we can’t help but enjoy a great conversation about what we do. Yet...it was my most recent conversation with my friend that hit me to the core...it all started with this question: “How do I make sure my child isn’t going to be attending a Title 1 campus?”

My response: “Why do you ask that?”

My friend answered: “Everyone knows that Title schools are the bad ones.”

Before I move on let me make one thing clear --- I am a proud principal of a Title 1 school, my kids are amazing, my teachers are outstanding, my community is my second family...and we are more than “Title” ---

For those who are not sure what makes a school Title 1….Here it is: 40% or more of the student population qualify for free or reduced lunch/come from low income families.

That’s it...the only qualifier, yet somehow...in the minds of many...Title 1 means: A school with families that don’t care about their children’s education, kids that misbehave/bully/fight, sub-par educators that don’t really care about kids, lack of parent involvement, lack of community support, lack of ability, and an overall horrible place to go to school. I have to ask...Why is this?

Here is what I know - here is what I believe - The amount of money a family makes does not dictate the level of care or support they offer. The amount of money does not dictate what a child can or can’t do. More money does not translate to more love, more desire, or more ability.

Let’s be honest: Title 1 schools do have challenges - In fact, according to the Marzano Center the three largest challenges facing Title 1 schools are the following: RTI interventions are not sufficient to prepare struggling students for college and careers, new standards require whole-school alignment, and lagging indicators of student achievement are too little, too late.

Bright Hub Education suggest teachers in Title 1 schools face students with multiple distractions. They point out that some students are working part time jobs to support their families, are facing real world challenges, may feel it is impossible to break the chain of events they see in life, know someone in jail, use food stamps to buy food, often go hungry, or lack parental support thus requiring the teacher to often act as a cheerleader or confidant.

There is no question there are challenges in education, and that many students from Title 1 campuses do come with less than those in more affluent situations. There are heart-breaking stories, families just trying to get by, parents working multiple jobs thus missing time with their children, as well as family members at home unable to read/write.

Yet, in the end...regardless of the struggles, regardless of the challenges, remember this….we are more than Title. The response “Everyone knows that Title schools are the bad ones” breaks my heart. There isn’t a soapbox large enough to support my belief that Title 1 or no, our kids are amazing, our teachers are nothing short of phenomenal, and our community is one built on the belief that we are all in this together.

So to anyone with the same question as my friend, let me be clear. The decision to have your children attend your local school should not be based on whether or not it happens to be Title 1. Visit the school, talk to the community, contact the principal, and be ready to learn about the amazing things that are happening...because I assure you - this country is filled with schools that are much more than Title.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Post for Sharing

I simply wanted to share: http://www.niusileadscape.org/docs/ChangingtheOdds.pdf

Above is a Changing the Odds issue by Bryan Goodwin

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Only Getting Started

As educators, we are always “Only getting started” … It doesn’t matter the grade, subject, or time of year - from kinder to twelfth the same rule always applies...we are only getting started.

There is often a thought in education that everything happens on a yearly cycle… In fact, the story problem looks something like this: Child X needs to learn amount Y by the end of the year. If Child X is able to learn Y before the state test than Child X was successful. Then, the next year, Child W needs to learn the same amount Y by the end of the year...and so on…sound familiar?

There is a fallacy in this thinking. Why? Because it implies the job is done once the test is over...but here is what I know, what all good teachers and school leaders know...we are never done teaching, never done moving forward, never done learning - because we are always only getting started.

Now don’t get me wrong (amazing grammatical line) - I am not saying that we are always starting over, always discounting the progress made, always having to hit the reset button - always getting started doesn’t mean from the beginning...but it does mean the journey is one where we are always looking ahead…

This theory works beautifully when we know all students learn differently. Pick a school, any school. Pick a class, any class, and I promise you this...not every child is or needs the same. The challenge of education is that every child needs to learn, yet no two students are the same.

The magic of always getting started goes something like this….Eric is a student in Mr. Pelosi’s class. Eric has struggled with division as long as he can remember. 32 divided by 8 equals...who cares? Eric would always shout out comments in class like, “When are we ever going to need this? Why does this even matter?” But like all great teachers do, Mr. Pelosi pressed on, never gave up...and then one day, something clicked, something happened, and Eric could divide.

What was Mr. Pelosi’s response? Was it...Way to go, you did it, you are all done? - Nope, it was simply this…”I knew you could, now get ready, because we are only getting started.”

For many, this is a mindset shift - after all, the idea of only getting started could be viewed negatively… One could read into a statement like that and assume I am discounting all the progress made, all the hard work from the past, all the effort put in...that of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

The journey of learning takes place on a long road, full of rocky moments, exciting stories and steep hills. Rarely is it perfect, rarely is it easy...but it is always worth it...and no matter how far you go or how much you learn, remember this...you are only getting started.

Monday, September 7, 2015

First Two Weeks

We are two weeks in - two weeks into the school year. Ten days of planning instruction, building relationships, implementing routines, and getting to know our students.

As the year begins, as I walk the hallways, peek into classrooms and sit in planning meetings...I can’t help but take note of how much I love my teachers and staff members. There is an excitement in the air, a hint of what’s to come, and a feeling that something amazing could happen at any moment.

It is clear we have a building filled with educators who love their children, are willing to work painfully hard preparing for each day, and all share a willingness to collaboratively reflect on the process of ensuring every child receives the best education possible.

I left the classroom four years ago, this will be my fifth year away - I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss it, because I do, almost every day. To me, there was nothing more exciting than the first two weeks… Meeting my students for the first time, creating a first impression that would last the entire year. As I walk the hallways I see teacher after teacher creating a memorable first impression, one built on love and respect.

For most administrators, most district leaders, and instructional specialists...leaving the classroom is about hoping to make a larger impact. I was no different, I wanted to be part of something larger than myself, work hard to help the greater good, support teachers, and ensure students were successful. I love being a principal, I love coming in each day hoping to make a difference, hoping to serve all those in need, and hoping to learn something new around every corner…

But...there is something about the first two weeks of school that always gets to me. I miss the overwhelming feeling of nervousness as I prepared for that first day. I miss looking over my lesson plans to ensure what my students experienced for the first time would be memorable. I miss trying to imprint each student's name into my brain before lunch. I miss planning with my team, welcoming new families, and trying to identify the need of each student who walked in the door.

There is nothing like being a teacher. It is hard, it takes time, it is exhausting, emotionally draining, and a daily challenge. Yet...I miss it.

The first two weeks are a wonderful time of year - So, to all teachers completing their first two weeks of the school year let me just share this: Enjoy these moments, cherish the excitement of the first few days, and embrace the difference you are making...because I promise, you will miss these days when you are no longer teaching.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Challenge

Every educator, from classroom teacher to district administrator share the same challenge in education. A challenge that is daunting, a challenge that keeps educators up at night, a challenge that pushes educators to take risks, and a challenge that requires educators to never stop learning… Our challenge is this: We as educators need to ensure EVERY child reaches his or her greatest heights.

The challenge? We must push every child forward, ensure every child receives the very best education, and create a culture built on the belief that every child will succeed. Make no mistake, this is no easy task. Why? Simply put, because every child is different, every child needs something unique, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all program to accomplish this.

Imagine you work for an auto company as a vehicle designer. You are brilliant, and you pride yourself on the ability to get people from one location to another safely, quickly, and effectively. One day your boss comes into your office and asks you to custom design a vehicle that can get a person from one city to another. Seems simple, but then she lists a wide range of challenges that will require the vehicle to have specific additions to complete the trip safely - things like icy roads, steep angles, and rocky terrain. You smile as you are already imagining larger tires with heavy traction, four wheel drive, a high ground clearance, 300 horsepower, and the ability to turn on a dime...yet before you can finish putting the ideas together in your head your boss says - alright, that’s one. She then describes the need for another customized vehicle that must tackle all new challenges. Then another, and another, and another, and another...until in total you are required to create plans for 147 different vehicles. Oh, and you need to be able to complete this by next week. You may be brilliant, but you are only human,

Being an educator may not be like designing cars, but the challenge of customizing an education to the needs of 147 students on the secondary level is very real. Whether you teach on the elementary or secondary level, the challenge of ensuring each child receives the very best, and reaches his/her greatest heights, is not taken lightly.

Tomorrow morning we are going to welcome over 700 elementary students into our building for the first time this school-year. Together, we are going to do all we can to ensure that each and every child is successful, safe, and challenged. Why take on such a difficult challenge with open arms? Because we are committed to creating a culture where we collaboratively design a rigorous learning opportunity for every child. We believe our students deserve the best, and it's only together that this can happen.

You see, there is one major difference between the example of the auto designer and an educator - we are not alone.

So, how do you meet a challenge that can sometimes seem impossible? You tackle it as a team. So to all those gearing up for, or just beginning, this year’s challenge of ensuring the success of every child let me remind you - you are not alone, we are in this together, and you have those on your campus, and even within your #PLN, ready to help you tackle a challenge that will change the world one child at a time.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Before the Year Begins

Teachers,

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

You are about to start a new year, see new faces, welcome new challenges, and start once again on a one-year journey of student success. You are about to meet a child who will challenge you, push you, and may even go against the grain. You are about to meet a child who needs you more than you will ever know. You are about to meet a child who has failed more times than succeeded. You are about to meet a child who doesn’t get breakfast at home, and dinner is often a hit or miss experience. You are about to meet a child who already knows over half of what you are supposed to teach, but desperately needs you to push him forward. You are about to meet a child who doesn't understand how to make friends, communicate effectively, or work within a group...but is so amazingly smart. You are about to meet an overbearing parent, a parent who doesn’t want to hear from you, and a parent who will do anything to support you.

Every child you meet in a few weeks will be different. Every child will have different needs, different goals, and different past experiences both good and bad. But here is the thing I need you to remember...every child you meet needs you, whether they realize it or not.

Teaching is such a challenging profession....it's not a job, it’s a calling, and one that is not answered easily.

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

You matter, you make a difference, you have a purpose, and you can change the course of a child’s life. Think about that...how many professions afford the opportunity to change a life? But remember this...it can be for good or bad.

One year makes a difference...A child who fails over and over again is likely to stop trying. A child who fails to move forward for one year is likely never to fully catch up. A child who feels unloved, unwanted, or unnoticed for one year is likely going to struggle finding self-worth in the future. Understand the power you hold...it’s not just about teaching the subject...its about making a difference in a child’s life.

One year makes a difference...A child who feels loved every day for one year can build a sense of self-worth that will last a lifetime. A child who feels successful each day for one year can find self-efficacy that can sustain the trials ahead. A child who learns the value of working hard, persevering, and understands learning is about the process - not just the product, will build a foundation for a lifetime of success.

Before this year begins I want to share something with you…

I love and appreciate you. Teachers in all areas, paraprofessionals, custodians, food and nutrition services, coaches, and parent volunteers. I love that you chose to come to school and change lives, make a difference, and give children the chance to feel successful. I love that you work hard, tackle challenges, and refuse to give up when it would be easy to do so.

You are about to meet many new children, children who need you, children who will love you, and children who will know more tomorrow because you worked hard preparing something new and exciting today. Let’s change the world one child at a time...and let's do this together.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Why #EdSlowChat?

It’s hard for me to believe I have only been building my PLN for a year. One short year...yet in that time I have formed relationships, found guidance from brilliant people I never dreamed I would meet, and have learned more about education, dreams, and student success at a higher rate than ever before.

Twitter, Voxer, and Blogs… The big three, these three are the main sources for my PLN, three sources that never seem to stop giving me new ideas, encouragement to change, and support when mistakes are made.

Twitter was the beginning - I started by following any well-known educator I could find. From there I joined in on the #TxEduChat and #IAEdChat each week…then from there I found new EdChat after EdChat...to name a few: #LeadUpChat, #Sunchat, #Fledchat, #ChristianEducators, #EdChat, #SatChat, #PISDEdChat, and #PPAEdChat.

Yet for me, something wasn’t right...While I truly enjoyed the fast pace and people I met during the one-hour EdChats, I found I was only able to follow so many posts and read so many ideas shared. In one hour hundreds of ideas were shared, yet I was truly unable to capture it all. On top of that, I began to find it was becoming more and more challenging to make each EdChat, be a part of each discussion, and make the starting times each night...especially since they tended to occur around dinner or story time with my daughter...I didn’t have an answer, but I was beginning to feel anxious trying to balance it all.

Here is what I knew - I loved reading other’s ideas and thoughts in their blogs, had formed strong professional relationships on Voxer, and I was learning at the speed of light on Twitter...yet, I wasn’t able to balance it all. I was struggling to participate in everything I enjoyed being a part of...and I was trying to figure out how I could model digital leadership yet ballance my life at home.

It was around this time that I was invited to participate in a Voxer group of school leaders. Since I was struggling with balancing the time, I threw out the following question to the group - “How do you balance it all?”

It took about five minutes for me to realize that I clearly wasn’t alone in the struggles to balance my life and PLN - I was amazed to see not only was I not alone in this issue, but others were trying to find ways to schedule, prioritize, and figure out compromises in life to make both work. It was then the idea of a slowchat was offered as a - what if? What if there could be an educational chat that focused on one question per week? What if you could jump on when you wanted to? What if you could have time to read and reflect? Enter... #EdSlowChat

Each Sunday morning I ask a new question, one that allows for ideas and multiple answers…

In order to help explain the idea I worked with @artwithbailey, @NancyWTech, @techclara, @techknowleah, and @mike_svatek to make this video:

I also created the following Google Doc so others could share the questions they would love to see asked: Click Here

It has been amazing for me to see #EdSlowChat grow. While I still read as many blogs as I can, continue conversations on Voxer, and do the best I can to participate in as many EdChats as possible, one thing's for sure...

#EdSlowChat was created for someone like me...I want to learn, I want to share ideas, I want to get to know others in the educational community, I just need a little more time and flexibility to join, think, share, and reflect. It is my hope that you have been able to jump in as well -

Friday, June 12, 2015

A First Year Principal's Reflection

I can’t count the number of lessons I have learned this year - 2014/15 Marked the first year I was a school principal, and as this year comes to a close there is something that sticks out above all the rest...my desire to be and do everything fell short.

Here is what I know...I want more than anything to be everything for my teachers and students. I want to have all the answers, know how to jump every hurdle, take all the right risks, and avoid all the mistakes...I did my best, I fought the good fight, I ran a good race, but in the end I learned a valuable lesson - I am only human. As it turns out...there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

You see, luckily, being human doesn't mean I am a failure, it just means I am not perfect...of course, as I wrote in a previous post, perfection means the learning stops, so it’s not all bad -

The learning curve that exists for a new principal is like nothing I have experienced before. As a teacher I would carry the weight of my students’ success on my shoulders - in elementary it was all 26 or 27, in middle school that number jumped to over 100 students...but as a principal, well...I now carry the success of both the teachers and students, a combined 820 people - all of whom I give my all to every single day.

In a previous blog post I shared how each day I work with teachers, students, and parents. Three separate groups, all with different needs, ideas, questions, and time needed. While I truly love working with all three parties, it’s not uncommon in one day to think about: Student success, teacher success, campus progress, changes coming, ideas to move forward, parental support, strength of the PTA, district and state testing, teacher needs, classroom management, student management, instructional coaching, professional learning, school budget, campus needs, building facilities, and so much more. Learning how to serve all three groups as a first year principal was quite a challenge...an amazing experience, but a challenge.

This year I had the privilege to experience wonderful moments of celebration, I felt the pain of heartbreak when mistakes were made, and I tried to focus on the success stories both small and large...I did my best, I gave it all I had, and yet...I can’t help but wonder if I could have done better or completed even more...

The year ended with what-if questions like: What if I could have found a way to spend more time with the students? What if I modeled the use of technology for professional learning even more? What if I had more time set aside for meetings? What if I didn’t take that risk and tried something different instead?

Of course, playing the game of “What If” only leaves doubt and angst - The truth is, while I may be only human, and lack any sort of true perfection - I was able to learn a ton, love my teachers unconditionally, support each teacher in his/her strive to be better, and offered encouragement and excitement each day.

While I may not have reached every goal I set in one year, there is no doubt this year was a success - not only did I learn a ton, not only did each one of our students get an amazing year of learning under their belts, not only did I build relationships with the amazing teachers I work with each day, not only did I begin to form a bond with my wonderful community and parents...I was also blessed to see 820 amazing, wonderful, brilliant faces come to school and learn together.

In the end - I look at it like this: One great year of learning down...and here is to praying for many more to come!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Learning Should Look Like

This past week Christie Elementary had our very first Engineer Expo -

Imagine this...Kindergarten all the way through fifth grade spent two weeks tackling interesting challenges all based on one state standard of the teacher’s choosing…The teacher chose the guiding instructional standard, the students created the driving question, and while in collaborative groups the students engineered and presented products that amazed us all. It was a much-needed reminder that authentic student-owned learning is NOT measured by circling the correct letter choice.

In kindergarten they knew their four steps...Together they created marble runs, designed multi-leveled boats to carry passengers across flooding waters, and created a safe place for Humpty Dumpty to land so he wouldn't crack.

First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth - Every grade level, filled with collaborative groups engineering all types of products: Dog Massager, Sink Mechanical Systems, Instruments, Cars and Ramps with Limited Friction, Freezers, and SO MUCH MORE -

One day...two weeks in the making - and it was one amazing learning moment after another. Student after student excitedly shared with community members, teachers, parents, district leaders, and other students the creative things they designed and built together….

Students were collaborators, readers, designers, engineers, re-designers, learners from failure, writers, researchers, innovators, partners, friends, and public speakers to name just a few...what they weren’t? Letter bubblers...Why? Because The Engineer Expo started with one goal in mind...for students to own their learning, and I have never seen more engagement! I can’t think of a single time as a teacher, or administrator, where students were handed a multiple choice test and they cheered excitedly, talked about it at home, spent every waking hour working on it because they just didn’t want to stop, or made mistakes along the way as authentic learning opportunities...but that is exactly what I saw during the engineering process from EVERY student.

At the end of the day the students and teachers were equally tired, yet smiles were everywhere. I couldn’t help but think one thing...Now that is what learning should look like.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Problem with Perfection

When I was in school there was always one objective - get the right answer.

Seemed simple enough...want to seem smart? Be successful? Make your parents happy? Go to college? Well then...get the answers right, be as perfect as possible in each subject, each day.

Needless to say...I wasn’t a huge fan of school. There were times I tried to cheat, especially in Spanish class. There were times that I would fake being sick...always on a test day. There were times I was stressed, times I was bored, and most of the time I just wasn’t interested in what was being shared at the front of the room...Why? Because I wasn’t perfect at school, and I didn't want to be either.

I love to learn, I love to make mistakes and then learn from them...that’s why I loved the game Mario Brothers as a child...yes, the first one...because it was the mistakes I made and the “Game Over” screen that drove me to continue and start all over again. Somehow, the way I loved to learn as a child through making mistakes didn’t seem to translate to success at school. It was as if mistakes made were not acceptable, only perfection was….but here is the thing: There is a key problem with perfection...it means the learning stops.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with getting that perfect grade, or getting all the math problems right...but what I am saying is that it is in the moments of perfection that we are no longer required to learn and grow. So while as educators we push our students to find the right answer, I have to ask, how can we also create an environment that encourages mistakes to be made for real learning opportunities to take place?

In an educational world filled with the next big thing, it’s important to remember the little things we can already do in our classrooms today. Creating an environment rich with learning from mistakes all starts with this one word: “Why?” It’s then followed up with phrases/questions like: “What do you want to learn about?” - “It’s alright if you're wrong, it just means we get to try a new strategy.” - “How can we make that?” - “How ever will you solve that?” - “What are you interested in?” - “Looks like you have a great plan, but what if…” -

So often teaching sounds like this: “Alright class, to solve this problem...first you do this, then this, enter this formula, cut this paper on this line, cross out the wrong answer, then you have your answer...alright, your turn.”

Why do we do this? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for modeling, and I fully recognize there is a time and place for direct instruction...but let me throw out a challenge...just once, try having a lesson sound like this: “Alright fourth grade, I have a problem, and I am hoping you all can help me. My daughter wants a dog so bad, and I would love to get her one, but...I don’t know what kind to get. I need a dog that doesn’t shed as I am allergic, and it can’t be larger than 30 pounds. I also will need to build a house for it outside and need to figure out the design, as well as all the materials needed. Plus, I found this website with all kinds of items and prices for things I will need from the pet store, but I don’t know what all I need to buy or how much it will cost...do you think you all could help me? I was thinking if you all were in groups of four you could work together to get this puzzle solved. I need to find the right type of dog, materials and design for a home, and find the right items and total cost for all the supplies I will need.”

Now, there are a ton of better examples out there I am sure for a problem to be solved...but notice something...in order to be successful students will need to be able to read, comprehend, research, write, design, calculate angles/money/amounts, collaborate, engineer, and the best part of all...there isn’t one perfect answer.

Practice may lead to perfection, but learning comes from the mistakes we make along the way. If you can create an environment where mistakes are celebrated as part of the process of learning...well, you might just capture the imagination of your students, and from there...who knows, maybe they might actually take a risk, make a mistake, and learn from it -

What if we allowed students to solve problems they are interested in? What if we focused on the process and expected great results along the way? What if we gave our students the power to own their learning? What if we stopped looking for perfection in everything, and celebrated the moments we fall forward? What if...

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Loved, Supported, and Appreciated

As a principal, it never ceases to amaze me just how many things I think about each day…Of course, it only makes sense...after all, how many jobs require three separate groups of people to all funnel through one office? Each day I work with teachers, students, and parents. Three separate groups, all with different needs, ideas, questions, and time needed. While I truly love working with all three parties, it’s not uncommon in one day to think about: Student success, teacher success, campus progress, changes coming, ideas to move forward, parental support, strength of the PTA, district and state testing, teacher needs, classroom management, student management, instructional coaching, professional learning, school budget, campus needs, building facilities, and so much more...but the one question I always go back to is this: Do my teachers feel loved, supported, and appreciated?

It’s hard being human. As much as I wish I could be...I am just not perfect. Sadly, not even close. I make mistakes, I change my mind, and while I try - I know there are days when I just can’t seem to find enough time to meet everyone’s needs...but I do my very best. My hope however, is even though I am not perfect, each teacher at Christie knows I love them, I truly support them, and I appreciate all they do for our kids.

So to each of my amazing teachers please allow me say:

I love you - I really do. I love that you work so hard to reach each and every child. I love your passion, your willingness to change, and to take risks. I love that you learn from your mistakes, model lifelong learning, and support your team no matter what. I love that you don’t come to work for the money, but rather to change one life at a time. I love that you never give up, never make excuses, and always try to improve. I love that you correct my grammatical errors in my emails, challenge me to be the best leader I can be, and provide moments in your classroom that amaze me when I walk through. I love your heart, I love your desire, I love your perseverance, and most of all - I love that even though you leave exhausted at the end of each day...you come back ready to do it all over again.

I am here for you - You have my support, and I will catch you when you fall...I am here to encourage you, to watch as you take risks, make mistakes, and model for your kids what learning really looks like. I am behind you 100 percent, even when you're not perfect...because I would never expect you to be, and neither do your students. I am here to listen, here to help, here to offer a shoulder or a pep-talk. I am here at every hour of every day, and I am here to serve you - for it is you who is making the difference. I am here to celebrate your successes both the small and large, because I am your biggest cheerleader, and I am so very proud of you.

I appreciate you - truly. Don’t think I don’t notice your car is still in the parking lot when I leave at 6. I see you coming in early and staying late...jumping on EdChats and updating blogs. Please know this...what you do each day, it’s noticed and appreciated more than I could ever express. I appreciate the time you put in, the tears, the frustration, and the triumphs. I appreciate how you are willing to help your team, parents, and students. I appreciate how you handle discipline problems, work to solve problems that come up, and carry the burden of others when you can. I appreciate how you always greet your students in the morning, cover for your teammate who is running late, and welcome that new student even though we are almost done for the year. I appreciate your willingness to follow my lead, even when it might seem a bit crazy. Most of all, I appreciate you for being you, and for choosing a profession that is often thankless.

Teachers...You change lives. You make a difference each day. You perform miracles. You provide hope. You build character. You give kids the power to make better choices. You change the course of history one child at a time. You are amazing...and it’s to each and every teacher that I say...from the bottom of my heart...thank you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What's Your Classroom's Story? Why Every Teacher Needs A Class Blog

Everyone has a story. A path taken, opportunities missed, regrets from mistakes, and wonderful triumphant moments - In education though, it moves from every person, to every class. Every class has a story. Each teacher has his/her way of creating a unique and wonderful culture. This is especially the case in elementary school, where those 20-something kids are in the same class all day. Relationships are built, successes take place, and amazing things happen each and every day. So I have to ask, why aren’t more teachers sharing their stories?

At Christie, each teacher has a class blog. Why would we do this? Why would I ask such a thing from each teacher? Wouldn’t there be pushback? Wouldn’t they ask questions like: Who is going to read this? Why would anyone care what I have to say? The short answers...To share our stories, to increase transparency, some, yes, yes.

I would be lying if I told you that when asking each staff member to have a blog (updated weekly I might add) they all cheered. However, they all signed up...hesitant? Maybe. But here is the thing, we need to share our stories.

There are two things our teachers blog about: Classroom activities/learning, and the teacher’s personal learning along the way. Two parts...equally important for our parents, colleagues, and community.

Blogging our Activities/Learning: Miracles happen daily in schools. Students who never thought they could succeed do, teachers who thought the bar might be too high see students reach it, educational risks are taken, students make mistakes and learn from them, and kids build a self-efficacy that will last a lifetime. How can we not share this? How can we keep this to ourselves? Not only does blogging allow the sharing of ideas, but also the stories behind them. Teachers at Christie share activities taking place, lessons coming up, ideas for home, and pictures of great products along the way.

Sharing Your Learning: Having a PLN and utilizing Twitter is a great way to grow professionally. However, by blogging about their learning, teachers offer a transparent moment with other teachers, parents, and even students about their lifelong learning journey. “We want to create Lifelong Learners.” How many times has that phrase used in education? Yet how often do we model this? Blogging opens the door to not only learning from others, but also sharing our personal journey.

PLNs are the new PLCs - but that only works when you share digitally. PLNs are only successful when you are sharing your learning, as well as taking in the learning of others. At Christie we are willing to share, willing to try something new, and willing to step outside our comfort zone...and here is the best part...we are sharing this journey along the way.

So why does every teacher need a class blog? To share their classroom story, and to share their personal learning with others.

Make no mistake - Every week may not bring a literary work on a professionally epiphany that has changed the course of education as we know it...but it will deliver a small piece of the class journey. One week might simply say: This week we reviewed area and perimeter, wrote a story with the letter C, and learned how to get a boiled egg into a glass vase using a match… While the next week might bring a story of how a class came together to help a classmate through a difficult challenge. Both are important, just in their own way.

Miracles are happening, children are learning, wonderful moments are taking place...at Christie, we want to share these moments. It’s as simple as that -

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Teaching Challenge

There is no question that teaching is a challenging profession, teachers today are asked to education 20 to sometimes 40 students at a time, while making sure that each child is seen as an individual. David E. Kelley created a legal drama that aired on ABC from 2004 to 2008 called Boston Legal. During the third season of the show, Shirley Schmidt (played by Candice Bergen) gave a closing argument that tells the challenge of teaching quite well. In the episode, a teacher was being sued by a child’s parents because the child died of a nut allergy while the teacher used her cell phone in class. According to the episode’s transcripts, Shirley Schmidt used the following closing argument:

Lawsuits are about allocating burden. For example, we want our cars to be safer, so we hit the manufacturers with a judgment that makes it more cost-effective to install the airbag. The problem here, as Ms. Bixby correctly states, is we have more and more special needs kids going into our public schools, combined with an unprecedented escalation in auto-immune diseases, autism. The peanut allergy alone has doubled in recent years. So, who do we heap this responsibility on? Who else? The teachers. The average annual starting salary for a teacher is $32,000. For that, we ask them to teach, police, provide emotional and social guidance. In some schools, they actually have to clean the toilets. Now, let's throw in healthcare.

This teacher, she works 65-hour weeks. In addition to her actual classroom duties, she teaches sex education to the older kids, she teaches a standardized test the school mandates in order to qualify for funding under the No Child Left Behind Act. She spends another ten hours a month meeting with parents. She supervises extracurricular activities, goes on overnight class trips, cleans and disinfects toys, coaches. She teaches fire drill safety procedures, healthy eating habits, she's certified in CPR, first aid, and food sanitation.

She is so overextended that when her own father had to undergo a life-threatening medical procedure, she couldn't be at the hospital. So she called on her cell phone to see if he had lived. Which he hadn't. She then turned away from her students, so as not to traumatize them with her grief, which as a teacher she was expected to internalize.

She has no savings ... no house. And today she's being sued because, without her knowledge, one of her students snuck a bite-sized candy bar containing traces of peanut into her classroom. Now she's being publicly blamed for the death of a child whose parents had the means to implement a multitude of safeguards. They implemented none of them except a teacher. Is it any wonder half our teachers are quitting the profession outright within five years? Never mind who's going to handle the epi-pen. Who's going to teach?

Wow…When I first heard this I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just sat there on my couch, my mouth dropped open in amazement, because an hour long legal drama made a pretty decent argument. Shirley Schmidt is right; the list of responsibilities placed on teachers continues to rise, and when asked in an informal manner, fellow educators provided the following expectations/titles placed on them by their community leaders and families: Caregiver, support system, parent, guardian, advocate, identifier of educational needs and the solution for those needs, special education specialist, language barrier breaker, mind reader, counselor, nurse, a shoulder to cry on, an answer for every question, and so much more.

Teachers are asked to educate a room full of children, while at the same time making sure that each child’s individual needs are met. This by no means is a simple task, and requires teachers to have a strong understanding of all grade levels within their subject area. For example, in an average sixth grade language arts classroom, the reading level of each student can range from as low as kindergarten to as high as college. Remember, teachers are called to reach all students, so although the textbooks provided are created for an average sixth grade student, the material may only reach the needs of 40 to 50 percent of the students. Add this to special education needs, second language learners, behavioral issues, and different home lives, and you have the typical daily challenge for a teacher, and that is just one subject.

The weight of our future it placed on the shoulders of educators, yet there are still teachers being called “glorified babysitters.” The challenge is there for all teachers, no matter the school, the numbers of students, or the curriculum provided, the challenge is there. Teachers are asked to do nearly the impossible... The amazing thing? We strive to do so each day. Why? Because what we want more than anything is for every child to be successful. Every child to reach his/her highest potential. Every child to dream big and own his/her own learning. The challenge is there...but we are ready to reach it.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Faith Like a Child

As a Christian, one of the most difficult things I am called to do is have faith like a child. Whether you believe, like me, that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, or believe he was a prophet, or a guy, or even a fictional character in a story...the challenge is an interesting one: Faith like a child.

This past week I was awarded the opportunity to participate in a visioning institute meeting. During the meeting a video of Ken Robinson was played: Video - I had previously watched this video at least a dozen times, but what stood out most to me in the video was the information he shared about the importance of divergent thinking and it’s connection to creativity. During his talk he discusses a study that was done where 1,500 kindergarteners were tested on the genius level of divergent thinking...and what percentage of students scored on the genius level? 98 percent! Let me say that again….98. As the students grew older their scores dropped….why? Life, education, experiences, etc. all slowly take away the ability of a student/person to believe in anything without question. Enter the challenge: Faith like a child…

There is nothing quite like having a conversation with a group of kindergartners. If you have ever worked in the elementary school setting you know exactly what I am talking about. When simply asking a group of kindergartners what they would like to be when they grown up I was given the following answers: Doctor, artist, my mom, principal, and my personal favorite...a lion. Yup, a lion. Of course I had to ask why? The answer, “Well duh, because they are king of the jungle and I want to be king.”

Children enter education ready to become anything. They don’t see the challenges life will bring, they don’t see the hurdles they will need to overcome, they don’t see the curveballs life might send their way. The world is theirs for the taking, and there is nothing wrong with that.

How do we keep this alive? Better yet, how do we as principals, teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents maintain the belief our students have in themselves? Here is the truth: Life moves forward, and it won’t be long before our students begin to learn about barriers such as stress, finances, time, and other challenges along the way. In essence, it won’t be long before our kids stop dreaming about being a lion, and start settling for the future they feel is reachable, which in reality may just be the tip of the iceberg each child is capable of achieving.

So...what am I going to do? What am I going to encourage my amazing teachers to do? Love the journey, fail forward, risk big, believe in every child, and focus on self-efficacy.

If our students have any hope of reaching their kindergarten dreams they need to learn one key thing: It’s alright to fail, especially when we fail forward. I can’t count the number of mistakes I have made in my life. I am actually quite good at it...but you know what? I am alright with that. I embrace the fact that I am human and absolutely not perfect.

I truly believe there are countless students sitting in classrooms across this country believing there is no point in even trying because they know they are going to fail. Depression, frustration, self-doubt, and devastating life choices happen when a student believes he or she is a failure. So what do our students need? Simply put...their inner kindergartner, or more importantly - self-efficacy.

I remember my first round of parent-teacher conferences as if it was yesterday. I was 21 years old and wanted nothing more than to show how smart I was to each parent. I carefully wrote an introduction to articulate my educational background to each parent, and I am still haunted by my breakdown of self-efficacy. It went something like this: “Please know, one of the biggest goals I have as your child’s teacher is to ensure the growth of his/her self-efficacy. I want my students to have a good sense of who they are, and in turn, have a positive view of their own self worth.”

It wasn’t until my second to last parent-teacher conference that I had a parent say, “Do you mean self-esteem? Self-efficacy is a student’s belief in his ability to be successful, not a belief in his self worth.”

Apparently it wasn’t enough to just say, “I think you mean self-esteem, not self-efficacy.” Rather, I was given the definition, backed up with a face full of pity pointed in my direction.

Although the hit to my pride was pretty hard, I learned a valuable lesson, and it wasn’t to check my facts (although that is important). Even though, on that day, I did mean self-esteem, from that day forward I began to focus on self-efficacy. The definition I was given from that parent spoke to exactly what I wanted to do, to build up each of my student’s belief in their ability to succeed.

The challenge: Faith like a child. A kindergartner can be anything - and a person with a strong self-efficacy can as well. Knowing that...Could there be a better gift for a child then self-efficacy? It may not seem like much, but a student’s belief in his ability to be successful can mean the very difference between settling for the surface of life’s journey, or growing up to be a lion. And who wouldn’t want to be a lion?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Risk to Learn Part One

I think the saying “Taking a risk in education” is starting to become more cliche than meaningful…

I was participating in an edchat the other day and the questions all stemmed around the idea of helping students improve. The majority of answers started to sound the same:

”We need to take risks in learning”

“Ts need to take risks with tech”

“Risks in education is the only way to get Ss successful”

“Support risks in the classroom”

“Allowing and supporting Ts to take risks”

The last one was basically what I wrote. After I had hit submit something dawned on me. What on earth were we all talking about? What risks? Who is taking them? What does that even mean? What does it mean learn through risk taking...or in my blog’s case - risk to learn?

It all starts with understanding what a risks in education are and why we need to take them...and for me, its really quite simple in concept - A risk in education is creating a learning environment for our students that steps out of the norm and allows students to own their learning. An environment that encourages students to ask questions, learn from failure, focus on the process of learning rather than the outcome, and using collaboration not as a point on a rubric - but a true sharing of new information and knowledge. Why? Students need something different...The teacher is no longer the keeper of knowledge...think about that for a second...The teacher is no longer the keeper of knowledge. What a shift in the educational world.

How long does a student have to wait to get an answer to a question they have? It is getting to the point where they only need to wait long enough to type a question or idea into a Google search engine...So how do teachers stay relevant and powerful...enter risk taking.

Where is the risk? It comes when we step away from the routine…This week I encourage you to look for those who are doing something different than the norm in a classroom. What is taking place with technology, collaboration, or projects? Where are student voices being heard and shared?

I will be doing the same this week, and I look forward to sharing the risks in education I see with others.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Learning Commons or Makerspace? Don't Forget the Library

Creating a Learning Commons, with the addition of a Makerspace, has been quite the journey. In the past I wrote, and shared, about the process we went through to create our Learning Commons - I also wrote about the importance of the Prinicpal-Librarian relationship - Yet as I continue to reflect on our tranision, it appears I have forgotten to address one very important thing...Our Learning Commons takes place in a fully funtioning library, as it should.

In the beginning stages, before walls were painted and shelves were moved, I consistently made one thing clear as plans were formulated...I am a literacy guy. In fairness, I am happy to see the STEM/STEAM movement, love a good engineering project, and even look forward to experimenting with PBL types of activities in the K-5 classrooms, but I - am - a - literacy - guy. Can’t help it, and I don’t want to...stories excite/inspire/entertain/drive me, and the value of a good book still outweighs anything I could create out of cardboard...well, for me anyway.

It was painful to walk by the library each day and see shelves of books quietly sitting there with little actual learning taking place around them. While we did have thousands of books checked out each year, and wonderful short stories read to children each day...it just seemed to be a quiet and empty place. Something needed to change, and for us, that was the creation of our Learning Commons/Makerspace.

In creating the right amount of space, some shelves were removed and our entire reference section was replaced with a laptop opened to Google.

Yet it is important to note that we worked very hard to keep each and every book that wasn’t needing to be weeded out. Why would we do this? It would have been much easier to just remove many books in order to add more room...Simply put: We didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In education, there is a tendency, at times, to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the pursuit of the next big thing...I mean think about it, how many times have you overheard, or been apart of, a conversation that sounded like this: “I would try that, but if you have been in education long enough you soon find out that everything is circular, give it time, that strategy will come back...so I don’t see a reason to change now.” Personally, I don’t think thoughts like this are shared due to an unwillingness to change, but rather a history of having new ideas completely replace other proven ones. --- Of course, there can also be a tendency in education to hang onto everything. So instead of replacing unsuccessful ideas, we continue to add and add, leaving less and less time in the day. It can be a slippery slope either way...

At Christie, we knew that something needed to change, we knew we wanted to create something amazing, but one thing was clear...we were not going to throw out the library with the Learning Commons/Makerspace.

So naturally one question needed to be answered: How were both the library and Makerspace going to thrive in the newly named Learning Commons? We want our Learning Commons to not only be a place to find a great book/hear a good story...but a place where inventions are made, ideas are shared, and the slogan “If you can imagine it, you can create it” reigns.

The first step was easy - Keep as many books as possible. I know this was addressed above, but I wanted to reiterate the fact that this was a crucial first step.

Once the books were moved and saved to the greatest extent possible, we created the Learning Commons - again, you can read about our Journey from Library to Learning Commons here.

The second step was equally important - identify and utilize several campus leaders to oversee the newly created Learning Commons. For me, it was important to find those, outside of the librarian, who would be excited and passionate about transitioning our library to a Learning Commons. This is a key point in ensuring the Learning Commons continues to be a fully functioning library - think about it...librarians are very important, but the idea of running a continually used Learning Commons/Makerspace as well as reading stories to students, teaching how to check-out books, re-shelving, and ordering/reviewing other texts would be an almost impossible task. While I am sure there are librarians willing to take on this task, the fact of the matter is that having a Makerspace used all day, as well as a fully functioning library requires multiple hands on deck...not just one person’s…

The third step was all about space - we are very fortunate to be able to have a library classroom that is not only inside the Learning Commons, but has a door with a room containing all the technology and elements of a school classroom. This space is a huge blessing for our campus - essentially what it does is allow the Learning Commons/Makerspace to be used all day - yet our librarian is able to continue to teach lessons, read stories, and help students through a traditional library lense when needed.

The natural fourth step was then to figure out scheduling - Due to the fact that this is the first year with our Learning Commons, we decided to make the use of this space optional. Using an electronic cloud-based calendar, we sectioned the day into 45 minute segments. Teachers are able to check out time in the Learning Commons/Makerspace during the instructional day. At the same time, our librarian created a schedule for our Kinder, First, and Second grade classes to come for a weekly library day with story time in the library classroom. Our third, fourth, and fifth grade classes also have a schedule in order for self-checkout and library lessons to take place as needed.

What has been most impressive is the learning that takes place and the creations made throughout the day from all our K-5 classrooms and students. As the principal, it has been nothing short of amazing to see first hand the use of: Lego Robotics, Lego Creation Center, K'nex, Circuitry, Makey Makey Inventions, Green Screen Video, Robotic Petting Zoo, Cardboard Creations, Reverse Engineering, Sticky-Note Designs through Blueprints, Research Tools, Coding, and so much more...in fact, our 3D printer is on the way…

Next year we are adding a third room/area that is attached to the Learning Commons which will be called our Multimedia Center. This area will house our green screen filming, tablet tech bars, 3D printing, and will be the home of our technology to be utilized throughout the building such as tablets, iPhones, Chromebooks, and additional laptops.

The last note I would like to add is this: Our teachers facilitate the learning in the Learning Commons. This is a crucial step that cannot be missed - it is our teachers who check out time, our teachers who decide what activities will ultimately take place, our teachers that care for and maintain the environment, our teachers that partner cross-grade levels, our teachers that keep our dream alive.

The next steps? We are answering them as they come. But again, it is important to remember that our goal was not to throw out the library with the creation of our Learning Commons...and we haven't.

At Christie, we focus on and celebrate the process, while expecting great results along the way. Our Learning Commons blends beautifully with this belief. What is most exciting about this space is it gives students an opportunity to create, imagine, and build something out of their imagination. We want our students to become creators instead of consumers, so utilizing the Four C’s (Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking) through the Learning Commons/Makerspace lense is one of the most valuable tools we use in education for authentic, student owned, learning.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why Your PLN Matters

The world is at your fingertips...I never really understood the value of that phrase. I remember my college professor would say that to us all the time. I remember at the end of high school and entering college, the internet was all of the sudden considered to be a research tool - yet many of us had no idea how to effectively utilize it. We would open up Google/Yahoo in the computer lab and type in a phrase/topic and then hit search...and then oh my goodness - magic. While the internet, as a research tool, was nothing short of amazing, never before had I learned at the speed and level as I do right now. That is because today I have a Professional Learning Network (PLN) through my new best online buddy...Twitter.

One year ago, almost to the day, my then principal - Lorraine aka @LorraineShimizu - told me I needed to get onto Twitter. As her assistant principal, I figured I didn’t have a lot of choice, so I went online and signed up. What did I do? Probably what most people do when first entering the world of Twitter...I followed anyone that could give me information on my favorite sports teams: Dallas Mavericks, Texas Rangers, Detroit Lions, and yes...even the Cowboys. Truthfully that was the end of it. All the while she was using it to share articles, relay information, reach out to our families, and grow what she called, her PLN.

A few months went by and I was given the opportunity to become the new principal of Christie Elementary. So what did I do? I took over the rights to the @ChristieCubs account and began to share information to those who followed me about what was happening… So to recap: I was sharing information and following my favorite sports teams. There is nothing wrong with this, except one major thing...I wasn’t learning anything of educational/professional value. Something had to change…

While at an educational conference in October we were asked to write our Twitter handle on our “Hi my name is _____” cards. So I wrote @ChristieCubs. It wasn’t ten minutes before several people boldly stated that I needed to get my own account. Challenge Accepted - quick note, there are a lot of people in the world named Ryan Steele - but after what felt like an hour I found a username that would work…@R_H_Steele was born.

What was the first thing I did? Well, I followed my favorite sports team reporters of course...but after that I decided I would start by following those at the educational conference. Then, here comes the truth...I looked at who @LorraineShimizu, @SKimbriel, and @matthew_arend followed so I could then follow them too. So at this point I had like 2 followers, but I was following 1,000 + people.

I made a deal with myself that I would look at Twitter at least once a day and see if there was anything valuable...within 10 days I went from checking once to checking constantly, joining EdChats, reading blogs shared through Twitter, and then connecting with other educational leaders from Australia, Toronto, California, New York, Florida and Iowa. 10 days...seriously...10 days.

Why does your PLN matter? Simply put, because I have learned more in the last six months then I can ever remember before. But it’s more than that...I have made connections, allies, and friends. I have found people who challenge my thinking and encourage me to be a better leader. In essence, my PLN is a network of people who have been willing to form a connection, a relationship really, with me...and that is nothing short of amazing.

There is so much to learn, so many things to read, so many ideas to try, and so many risks to take. A powerful PLN can offer guidance and support like nothing else, and for that reason alone...it matters.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Principal - Librarian Relationship

There was a time when the library was the true center of the school. Of course, it needed to be...after all, if you wanted to learn something new, read a great book, or find research to back-up your personal stance, where else were you going to turn? The library was THE room full of knowledge, stories, and ideas. It was a magical place, and its gatekeeper? The librarian. When you think about it, she had a lot of power...to single handedly hold the keys to the place where knowledge was stored.

I am not sure when it happened...maybe when the internet no longer took a dial tone to connect, or when one Kindle could hold an entire library worth of literature in the palm of your hands...but for many schools, the library is no longer the sole keeper of knowledge. No longer the center of the school building. No longer the magical place it once was.

Today, many schools are working hard to bring the library back to the center of learning. Makerspaces and Learning Commons are beginning to change the look and feel of the once silent center of learning. At Christie, we have moved from a library to a Learning Commons - it is now a place where hands-on learning, collaboration, and creativity are king. Yet, as I detailed this transformation in my blog post “The Journey from Library to Learning Commons” (http://risktolearn.blogspot.com) it became painfully clear...I created this environment with some amazing teachers and staff, but my librarian was not the driving force. How could I have let this happen? I changed a space that was once filled with rows of shelves and whispers, to a colorfully loud space full of books and collaboration without my librarian leading the way. I didn’t just move her cheese, I blew it up! So while we are both excited and encouraged by the authentic student-driven learning taking place...the truth of the matter is we didn’t get here together.

As I have talked to other librarians and principals something interesting has come to light. Somehow, for many, the relationship between the principal and librarian, while professional, is better described as a mutual respect/appreciation, rather than a true partnership. Why is this? How did many of us get here? More importantly, why does this need to change?

I can’t recall a single class I took during my undergraduate or graduate degrees that centered around the library. Not one. I can’t think of one class called, “Libraries and You” or “Why the Library is Important” … I would have even settles for a “Libraries 101” … but sadly, never happened. I used the library to study and learn, but I never studied or learned about the library itself.

As a principal, the success of my students is the single most important thing to me. It’s the reason I come to work, take risks, put in countless hours and do all I can to serve and support my teachers and community. In all honesty, before creating our Learning Commons, when making a list of the people I worked with each day to ensure the success of each child, it looked something like this: Teachers, Students, Instructional Specialists/Coaches, ESL Specialists, Gifted and Talented Teachers, Paraprofessionals, Office Staff, Parents, and Community Members...notice something? No librarian...Why was this? The answer: My mindset.

Here is what I have learned, and I don’t think I was alone in my thinking...I viewed my librarian as the person in charge of the space where books were stored, NOT as a key player in the student learning experience. Such a misguided mindset...Luckily, it took only a few short weeks of being a principal for me to figure out I was underutilizing and undervaluing my librarian.

Truthfully, I don’t know why I didn’t strive to build a partnership with my librarian right away. Maybe because “Libraries 101” was never offered, or because I viewed the library as an outdated environment that no longer supported our technology-filled lives. No matter the reason, it was foolish.

I believe the library, or in our case the Learning Commons, needs to be the center of our school buildings once again. A place where creativity is fostered, mistakes are made, problems are solved, and literacy is just as important as active engagement through authentic higher-level questioning.

So, why should there be a strong principal - librarian relationship? Simply put...if the library is going to once again be the center of learning, the librarian needs to be leading the way. Librarians are no longer the people who tell kids to be quiet then re-shelve books...they are teachers, leaders, learners, risk-takers, and knowledge seekers. As such, it’s time for our librarians to once again be our strongest guides to learning...and as principals, we need to help them get there. After all, we are in this together.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Letter to the Christie Staff

Dear Christie Staff,

I love to have fun - to have a lot of energy. I love to get overly excited about 3D printers and new paint. I love to celebrate the small things. I love to play games and make mistakes, change my thought process on a dime, and think 10 steps ahead. But most of all - I love to laugh...and in this profession, sometimes if we don’t laugh the alternative is to cry -

Yet...while I do believe in having fun, there is something I want you all to be certain of...when it comes to you, when it comes to your success...which results in the success of our students...I take things very seriously. Because here is the thing, I want our students to go to the best school in this state. That is where I have set the bar, the very best -

That said, for me...the best school doesn’t necessarily mean the school with the highest test scores on STAAR or the largest growth rates on MAP (Although it never hurts to try) - The best school doesn’t mean the school with the highest parent involvement, endless amounts of money, or the newest technology in every class. No...the best school, the very best, is the school where every person on staff, from the classroom teacher to the unsung paraprofessional, has the same belief - that we love our kids, and each one is going to be successful this year and every year after.

For me, the best school is one filled with colleagues not afraid to take risks, make mistakes, to learn from failure, or to believe in every child no matter what. The best school is filled with staff members refusing to judge or ridicule the people working so hard beside them, and truly accept them for the not-perfect people they are. The best school only has teachers who are always looking for ways to improve, to reach that struggling learner, and to learn something new. Teachers who can’t help but worry about that student who literally refuses to do anything, even when you said please, and gave him Cub Cash, and a Rachel’s Challenge link, and gave him choice, and used proximity control, and praised him in class, and then called home with a complement thinking that would get him to like you… The best school is the school that never gives up, never makes excuses, and understands that above all else, together...anything is possible.

There is nothing in this world like being an elementary school teacher. You would think in college, while we were looking into the profession, we would have stopped and said….”So let me get this right, you are telling me if I go into teaching I have to work with students, AND parents AND other teachers. That I won’t be rich. That students won’t just want to sit down and work hard because I say please. That even with summers off I will still end up working more hours than the average business man/woman each year. That I will be required to be a master teacher in math, science, social studies, reading, writing, health, technology AND citizenship, manners, and how to be a friend. That I will rarely get a Thank You, and many of my parents will be pretty sure they know more about my job than I do. Oh, and I may get a principal that likes change.”

Here is the crazy part - our soon-to-be professor would have said, “Well, Yeah.”

And our response? “Well, sign me up.”

Let’s face it, you just have to be a different kind of person to do this job. Because the truth is, it is hard enough when we are not striving to be the best. But here is the thing...that is exactly where the bar has been set.

This afternoon you heard about the idea of mindset and praise. Let me be clear, we need to build up our students. We need to help our students form a self-efficacy that will carry them well into the future. We just need to be authentic and honest in our praise. We need our students to understand that we don’t love them because they are perfect, or because they got all A’s. No, they need to know that we loved them even before they tried, that we are going to celebrate the process, and expect great results along the way.

Christie staff, I am not going to lie to you. We are taking risks both now and in our future. We are going to welcome technology owned by the kids into our classrooms. We are going to utilize project based learning for the first time K-5. We are going to work with instructional coaches to become better teachers in the areas we have room to grow. We are going to teach differently, try new things, and learn through every step of the way. We are going to focus on writing in every subject. We are going to teach our students how to be both digital and personal citizens. We are going to work hard, maybe shed a few tears...but we are going to do it together.

We WILL be the best school in this state. I truly believe that. Our kids deserve the best. You deserve the best.

Each day I come to Christie hoping to serve you all to the best of my ability. De’Cole and I want nothing more than to say this: At Christie we may not be perfect, we may make mistakes, and we may even take a risk or two that doesn’t pan out the way we hoped...But we did it together. We did it as a team...because we truly understand that together, anything is possible.

For us, that anything is the success of every child, no matter what -

It is a privilege to serve and support you,

Ryan

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Journey from Library to Learning Commons

The library, at one time, was the center of the school building. It's where knowledge was held, books were shared, and ideas were generated. It was quiet, to the point that mini-lessens were taught about the edict required while in the confines of this environment. A library in 1980 could look very similar to one today - Why is this? Nothing else has stayed the same...our students are different, technology has changed the way we gain information, and brain research has restructured our approach to the way students gain and understand information. At Christie, we were ready to transform our library to a Leaning Commons, and to once again make our library the center for learning.

Before I begin it is important to note that everything we have done, all that was created, was due to Christie’s amazing teachers and supportive parents. Our teachers take risks, embrace technology, implement new ideas, and embrace change daily. I am so lucky and blessed to work with a wonderful assistant principal in De’Cole Kelly and such remarkable teachers and leaders…to them I say thank you…

One of the things I love most about education is our willingness, and even love, of sharing information. We share our trade secrets – and while in business that would be a foolish thing to do, it is one of the most important driving factors of our educational system. Sharing ideas builds success, and together we can do anything.

A colleague of mine, @matthew_arend, recently wrote a great blog post about his creation of a makerspace. As I was reading his well-written post I realized I needed to follow in his footsteps; I too needed to share our process of moving from Library to Learning Commons.

I wish I could take credit for the beginning idea of changing the way we use our library, but I can’t, it all started with @LorraineShimizu. As a principal, and attendee of a phenomenal visioning institute in Texas, Lorraine asked one question…How can we change our library from a quiet place where kids get books, to a heavily used and exciting place where kids learn? She visited several campuses across the Dallas metroplex, and decided she wanted to move in the Learning Commons (LC) direction. As life sometimes does, things changed, Lorraine was promoted, and I was given an opportunity of a lifetime…to become the new principal of Christie Elementary.

As a new principal I was ready to move forward with our LC. But where to start? Our library was large, space wasn’t a problem, but the white walls and old murals (which were nicely done I might add) didn’t paint an image of active learning…

So here is what I knew: I wanted to create a Learning Commons for ALL kids. A place where it didn’t matter what students had, where they came from, how many parents were at home, or what they did or didn’t have for breakfast. A place where the playing field is leveled, where every idea is valued, and any student can be successful. Here is what I didn’t know: What I wanted from the environment, what the teachers wanted from the environment, what our community and students wanted from the environment, what it could look like, how I would pay for it, and where to even start.

My first step was a good one, I started with someone who was already passionate about STEM, makerspace, Problem Based Learning (PBL), and technology integration in the classroom. That person was @jess_malloy, Christie’s science specialist. Together, Jessica and I painted a mental picture, a broad vision really, of what the space could look like.

Once the base for a vision was created – I had many conversations with my team leaders, teachers, students, PTA, parents, local businesses, churches, and other schools. Conversations about what we wanted in our LC – In essence: What activities/experiences would be most beneficial for our students? This list included: Makerspace, green screen video, Lego robotics, Makey Makey, collaboration center, Little Bits, Hexbugs, question board, research lab, cardboard creation, reverse engineering, iPad tech-bar, coding, iMovie center, drama/puppet area, and more…

We knew what we wanted, the dream was set, our PTA was on board, but we needed money and community support. So what did we do? I worked with @jess_malloy, @kristinransom, and @mike_svatek to make a video introducing our LC…yup, and NOTHING was actually done. Big risk to say the least.

Fundraising. Big challenge. At this point I should probably mention that my campus is a Title One campus…So like many campuses we were going to need to work hard to raise money. With the PTA’s support...our teachers, community, and parents rose to the occasion, and raised enough money to redesign and furnish our Learning Commons. Not only that, but Chase Oaks Church worked with the city to help collect used iPads and smart phones to be donated to our school.

With money designated for the Learning Commons, it was time to design, plan, and achieve. Much of this fell on the shoulders of @jess_malloy –

Step One: Paint. A significant change from white to purple, orange, yellow and turquoise took place.

Step Two: Order furniture and find temporary furniture. Mary Hewitt (@mkhewett), Executive Director of Instructional Technology, spent time researching, designing, and ordering amazing furniture for our LC. So while we waited for our furniture to arrive, we used temporary folding tables.

Step Three: Makerspace – @mike_svatek donated his time and energy to build four amazing tables/workbenches. The movable tables come together and separate to create a perfect building environment. A parent donated toolbox, PTA provided tools, and a ton of cardboard makes for an amazing learning environment.

Step Four: Stations and Green Screen – Enter @jess_malloy once again. She created station cards, think tanks, and activities so our students could fully utilize the space.

Step Five: Alphabet Wall. Enter teachers and their creativity. Christie teachers looked for and found some very cool letters to make this wall.

Step Six: Lego Wall. At 14 feet long our Lego wall is pretty amazing. We wanted to create a wall large enough to show an entire class’s designs and final products.

Step Seven: Explore Sign and Four C’s. Big thank you to Susan Dykes for making the Explore sign, and @mike_svatek for putting it up. Also, the PTA for paying for our painting’s to go up.

Step Eight: Our Learning Commons sign and entrance sign. Once again thank you to our PTA for paying for this and @jess_malloy for designing it.

Step Nine-Step ?: We just keep adding with more to come… Much of our furniture arrived, a Giving Tree (@LillyJensby idea) where parents can pick a leaf with a LC need written down, Keva Planks, Lego Table, and whatever the future holds.

To see the whole picture without new furniture: http://goo.gl/lEUuBP

While we still have a long way to go, this has been an amazing six months. I look forward to many more months of risks taken and changes made for our students. Thank you @modisette214, @dantzlersusan, @lorraineshimizu, and @reneegodi for your support and leadership.

I need to thank @swintonmary, @belindakinney, @danpbutler, @matthew_arend, @EdleadS, @skimbriel, @nancywtech, @bishopeducate, @zhpruett, @techclara, @leahpendleton, @brittainka, @mathneil, and @shiftparadigm for all your ideas - I have also learned so much from Twitter EdChats like #TXeduchat, #PISDEdChat, #IAEdChat, #FLEdChat and #aussieED.

Also, thank you teachers for all you do and bring to Christie! @ArmstrongTeach, @jess_malloy, @kristinransom, @mike_svatek, @bilingual_coach, @csander15, @kayleypults, @lillyjensby, @firstteacher23, @lindahigbee1, @twingmom, @jenniferr053, @beadles56, @christinekallm1, @hrobertsfirst, @karafields8, @mrs_paopao, @carriecormack, @fifthgradebrown, @rebomgardner, @kabownds, @morganramsey03, @stephy703, @kpattonmusic, @spechyacularinK, @bauchummusic, @mccallender1, @cmassey723, @bellbeuerlein, @kglewis7171, @sassykj5, @sassydoss, @chitownteacher1, @aparsonsfourth, @rticeart, @tmalbracht, @aharveymitchell, @batoolabbaas3, @scgben, #christielearns @christiecubs