Sunday, August 21, 2016

Want To Be Innovative?

Want to be innovative? Then please keep it simple! Yes, keep it simple... focus on building relationships, solidify the "basics" and keep learning at the center. Innovation isn't about an app, a gimmick, a trend or "cool" way to do something we have been doing for years; innovation is about people, relationships and working towards the next (and hopefully better) iteration of ourselves.

Over the last several years I have read dozens (maybe even hundreds) of blog posts, articles and even books that focus on this notion of innovation. Aside from The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros, the majority of the pieces I have read focus on the thing or stuff one could use to be innovative in their school. Innovation, and particularly being innovative in schools, seems to be a goal for many; a "thing" that educators are trying to do in their classrooms, schools and districts. It is one of the "sexy trends" in education along with developing a growth mindset, allowing time for genius hour and launching a 1:1 device initiative (just to name a few). Trust me, I am not saying there is anything wrong with these trends; in fact, I have talked about them, written about them and even tried to implement them but the reality is, if we want innovation to be the norm and for our innovations to be sustainable we must keep it simple. We must slow it down and not focus on the stuff but instead focus on the people, the learning and the skills we want our educators and students to develop within our learning organizations. 

How do we make that happen? Keep it simple by focusing on these 3 things...

1) Build relationships! No innovation or innovative practice is going to be sustainable if we don't invest in the relationships within our school communities. Successful innovation is built on healthy relationships that are rooted in positivity, trust, and respect. Relationships that allow people to support each other but also push each other; relationships that make people feel comfortable within their space but uncomfortable at times when learning and growing; relationships that foster pride in the successes but also relish the failures as an opportunity to get better. Relationships are the key to innovation because if educators are invested in the people within their school communities then they will always be looking for ways to get better and disrupt the norm to help create an innovative space for themselves, the students and their families. Things aren't innovative; the people who create the "things" are innovative!  

George Couros- The Innovator's Mindset (from Pinterest)

2) Solidify the basics! During my time at #Cantiague, we tried many new things that we, ourselves, categorized as innovative. We tried Genius Hour, MakerSpace, BYOD and heck, we even started our own annual Innovation Day! Yes, we were willing to try anything and everything at Cantiague to make our school a better place for the kids, staff and families; but, that only happened after we built relationships and solidified the basics. For years we focused on basic literacy and math skills in an effort to empower our students and help them solidify the skills we felt they needed to be even more innovative (let's face it, many kids are more innovative before they enter school & then we squash it by breeding compliance but that is a whole other post). One of the most concrete examples is our implementation of writing workshop in Grades K - 5. We wanted our children to see themselves as authors in an effort to help refine their writing skills, enhance their craft and build their confidence. There were writing notebooks, folders and pens abound because we felt it was imperative for our children to be good writers so they could accomplish any goal they set for themselves. We wanted our children to be critical thinkers, creative, collaborative and strong communicators and we felt that by supporting their development as writers, we were giving them a way to accomplish their goals. Yes, we eventually started leveraging various digital platforms and tools (some would argue "innovative" resources) to enhance our writing workshop experience but we primarily focused on building a solid foundation. 

3) Keep the learning at the center! This one is quite simple - people who learn are people who have access and people who have access can be innovative. Ultimately, innovation is about creatively solving a problem; it is about looking at problems through the lens of opportunity; it is about disrupting the norm. Well, in my opinion, in order to be innovative, one must be informed and in order for one to be informed, they must be a learner first. Although we claim schools are about learning, what we know is that most schools embrace a culture of teaching first and foremost. Well, I think that by maintaining a culture of teaching, we are never actually going to be breed innovation in our schools; if we want innovation to be sustainable, we must shift from a culture of teaching to a culture of learning.

Yes, innovation can be an awesome and powerful process but don't forget that said process is about people and ideas not things and devices. So, if you want to be innovative in your space, keep it simple.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It's About The Implementation, Not The Standards

This weekend Diane Ravitch shared a reflection in the NYTimes Op-Ed section about the Common Core Standards and the negative impact they have had on children and the fact that they have cost billions of dollars. In her piece Diane writes specifically about the opportunity gap and the negative impact the Common Core has had on schools in communities impacted by poverty and racial segregation. She also writes about the billions of dollars dedicated to this national effort could have been better spent to have a direct and positive impact on the ones who matter most... our kids.

Well, Ms. Ravitch, thank you for sharing your take on the entire Common Core issue and please know that I agree with much of what you said. The last decade in education has been a dismal time and the current landscape of public education continues to be a negative one. 

With that being said, I do think the piece was a missed opportunity. I think it perpetuates the deficit mindset that plagues education. Yes, Ms. Ravich framed the problem for us but the fact of the matter is that those of us who currently work in schools and send children to schools have been discussing the problem for years and we can list the unending problems that exist...

1) The ridiculous high stakes tests;
2) The ridiculous amount of money spent on new Common Core aligned materials;
3) The misinterpretation of the standards, which caused flawed implementation;
4) And the list goes on and on. 

The real issue we are still struggling with is the lack of a solution - how do we make things better for our kids today? So, while I applaud Ms. Ravitch for openly admitting she was wrong for supporting this initiative at its inception, I do wish she would have used her platform to focus on some of the potential positives of a national standards and some of the ways we could improve things moving forward. The bottom line is that our kids deserve better and it is our responsibility to help improve education and change the narrative. 

Although I am not necessarily a fan of the Common Core Standards (I know they are flawed in parts), I would like to offer my take on how we can make things better and how we could possibly make national standards work to the advantage of our kids...

1) The Common Core Standards should be a living document so that they can be revised and improved. Aren't we always working towards a better iteration of ourselves? The standards should be doing the same. Educators, students, families should be able to reflect on the standards and how they are working and possibly tweak them when necessary so that they are developmentally appropriate and are supporting our students. The tweaks can happen every three years so we can assess how the previous tweaks impacted learning and teaching.

2) Instead of spending billions of dollars on materials that are "Common Core Aligned" we should be spending the money on professional development for our teachers so that our practices and techniques are "Common Core Aligned." You see, while I agree with Ms. Ravitch that our teachers should be given autonomy to do what is best for their own students, I don't think all educators are equipped with the skills to actually do what is best for kids. I don't think all educators have a sense of "best practices" and research based instructional techniques that are proven to be effective. We cannot go from one extreme (scripted curriculum) to the other (complete autonomy) and expect different results - we know that doesn't work. If we all agree that our children deserve the best instruction then we should fight to ensure that our educators have the best too - the best on-going professional development that will empower them with the basic skills they need to tailor instruction to best meet the readiness levels of each of their students. The next step in this process is professionally developing the educational leaders in this country so they, too, are aware of best practices and can best support the efforts of teachers.

3) National standards, if implemented correctly, could help lead to vertical alignment within buildings and horizontal alignment across the country in terms of the learning and teaching within our schools. I worked in schools before the Common Core Standards and in many instances, the instructional practices were fragmented across grade levels and children were learning the same things over and over again yet not at a depth where the learning experiences actually resonated with the learners. These are problems that national standards could address with the proper support and appropriate implementation.

4) The Common Core Standards should not be about standardizing HOW we teach and what resources we use to teach. I would argue that we don't need a scripted curriculum because of the Common Core Standards. The standards offer us the "floor" for what all kids should know and what skills they should be working towards mastering; the standards do not offer a "ceiling" so how they unfold in our schools and classrooms and impact our children is up to us. We should give teachers, in conjunction with the above mentioned PD, the opportunity to make the standards come to life in their classrooms in a way that is most meaningful for their students. The standards do not have to equate to standardization. 

5) If we want to address the opportunity gap, which in my opinion is the real issue in our society and not the superficial achievement gap, then we must be willing to acknowledge and accept that racism is a systemic issue plaguing our schools today. Standards won't fix that problem; high stakes testing won't fix that problem; and "Common Core Aligned" materials won't fix that problem. Racism exists in education today and we must deal with that first if we want to make things better for all of our students.

Thank you Ms. Ravitch for spotlighting some of the issues that exist with the Common Core Standards and their implementation over the years. This conversation is one we must continue having because we need solutions. Let's dedicate our energies to finding solutions and contributing positively to education so we could change the narrative of public education and make our schools better for kids, our country, and our future.      

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Disney World in 3 Steps

I was recently discussing my upcoming professional transition (I wrote about here) with a local colleague from another district and within moments of me sharing the news she responded, "Why the heck are you leaving Cantiague? That place is like Disney World and you are never going to find that anywhere else!" I just laughed off her comment and changed the topic. Truth is, initially, all I wanted to do was cry because Cantiague is a pretty awesome space and maybe she was right... maybe I would never find Disney World again and everything moving forward would be a let down. Ugh - definitely not the way I wanted to be thinking about the next phase in my professional journey.

Fast forward a few days and Paul and I were discussing Disney World and how badly we wanted to go back (we have been 4 times). We both agree that the Disney experience is a magical one. As we were discussing why we both love Disney and all the rides we love, Paul shared a comment that really got me thinking about the exchange with my colleague: "The thing about Disney is that it's about how feel when you are there because of the way the employees treat you and because of how excited everyone else is to be there!" YES!!! That is exactly it... Paul hit the nail on the head... Disney is much more than a place... Disney is an experience... Disney is a feeling... Disney is about relationships... Disney has its own culture... Disney is about the people; not just the physical space! 

A few days later, I called my colleague back pretending I had a professional question and near the end of the conversation I explained to her that I had been thinking about her Disney World comment and while I agreed that Cantiague is very much like Disney World, I also went on to explain that I believe any educational organization can have a Disney World feel by taking the following 3 steps...

1) Invest in relationships! Everything that happens in a school comes down to the way people relate to each other... the way kids relate to teachers... the way teachers relate to each other... the way teachers relate to families... the way leaders relate to the community; it is all about relationships! Relationships are at the core of Disney World - it is a magical and happy place because of the way people relate to each other and I think we can capture that magic in our schools if we take the time to build healthy relationships rooted in trust and respect! Take the time to get to know people's names and their passions, interests and the names of their family members. Build connections, share stories and find ways to relate to those around you because if you invest in relationships, the magic will start happening. If you need some tips on how to build those relationships, check out our new book Hacking Leadership!  

2) Personalize the experience! Disney recognizes people who are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries or family reunions and they do it in a way that makes people feel like they are special and that they are the only ones that matter. We can do that in our schools once we have established those healthy and positive relationships. We can personalize the learning for our teachers and students; we can personalize the schooling experience for our families; we can find ways to make everyone feel special. Whether it is announcing birthdays over the loud speaker or letting teachers plan and lead their own professional development based on their needs, if we can find ways to personalize the experience, then we have created an identity... a feeling... a culture!  

3) Have fun! Yes, school is about learning, teaching, assessing, writing, reading and all that stuff but that doesn't have to feel like work... it can be fun! It can feel like an exciting opportunity based on the way we frame and present things. You know what I mean... For example, as educators, we all detest the dreaded "Faculty Meeting" where we all have to sit in silence and listen to one person ramble on about things that could have been communicated in an email; as students, we all detest that class where the teacher does all the talking and we can only show our learning through worksheets and tests that are typically completed in silence; and as family members, we can't stand when a school only communicates with us for bad reasons and problems! We can make school FUN! We can turn Faculty Meetings into time for teachers to pursue Passion Projects; we can embed concepts like Genius Hour into our classrooms so our children have ownership and choice in how they learn, what they learn and how they communicate their understandings; and, we can include our families in the fun of school - engage them in learning, call them for positive reasons and get to know them. If we make school fun (of course, I know it can't necessarily be fun and games all day) we starting spreading the magic!

Yes, Cantiague is like Disney World! Cantiague is like Disney World because of the children, the educators, the families and the community as a whole. Cantiague is like Disney World not because of the physical structure but because of the relationships that exist within. So, while I am sad to be leaving this Disney World, I am also excited about the opportunity to step into a new Disney World and do whatever I can do contribute to creating that magic!  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


"Listen mom, you know when you when you have a hammock and everyone wants a turn? When your turn is up, you need to share!" 
~ Z.D.

Those were the words spoken by a brilliant second grader (I may be a little biased) upon hearing the news from her mom that this year would be my last as a Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love being compared to the hammock and how impressed I am by this child's ability to understand that it might be time for me to move on and work with a new community of children, families and educators. Yes, I am moving on. As of July 1, 2016, I will be joining the amazing Plainedge School District and community as an Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction. Yes, my time at Cantiague is soon coming to an end and the next step in my professional journey will take me to the central office level where I will be able to work with an incredible community of children, families, educators and colleagues to help shape the trajectory of learning and teaching on a kindergarten through 12th grade continuum. 

WOW... I still can't believe it's happening because the truth is, I never thought I would be able to give up the "hammock" I have grown to love so dearly. Even though the second grader was comparing me to the hammock, from my lens, the hammock represents Cantiague because in so many ways Cantiague has been my hammock for the last eight years. Cantiague feels so comfortable to me - it is safe, warm, nurturing, inviting, inspiring and on some levels, I have become one with the hammock. So, why get out of the hammock and try out a new one if this one works so perfectly? 

Well, as with any hammock that you've had for a long time, you start to realize that you might be just a little too comfortable in this perfect spot. No, it's not bad to get comfortable but the time has come for me to step out of the hammock, share it with someone else and try out a new hammock for myself. It is literally about pushing myself out of my comfort zone so that I can continue to learn and grow. It is about giving our amazing Cantiague community to the opportunity to become its next best iteration with the support of a new educator in the position of principal. It is also about learning with and from the Plainedge community in this new role where I can share my passions, experiences and knowledge in an effort to do what is in the best interest of children because I know that is something the Plainedge community believes in too.

Clearly, I would not have been ready to even take this next step if it wasn't for our amazing Cantiague educators, kids and community. I have learned so much over the last 8 years from every member of the community and have loved watching us become even better versions of ourselves many times along the way. We took risks, we tried new things, we abandoned things that weren't best for our kids, we successfully navigated some difficult times in education and all along the way, we kept it positive, productive and had a whole lot of fun. These are the people (and many not pictured) who were part of this 8 year journey and have shaped me, inspired me and helped me be a better me... 

As I slowly step out of my hammock at Cantiague and walk towards the new one at Plainedge, I realize a lot of what we accomplished at Cantiague was only possible because of the culture that exists in our building and community. It is a culture of yes! It is a culture of love! It is a culture of support! It is a culture of camaraderie! It is a culture of learning! It is a culture of putting kids first! Culture... it is an interesting thing. Not necessarily something you can hold or see but definitely something you can feel. Over the last 8 years I have had the honor to be immersed in the culture of this special place and as I prepare to move on to Plainedge, I take with me the hope, love, passion and culture of yes that I am excited to share with a new community of learners. Yes, Plainedge has its own unique culture that I will have the honor of getting to know and understand, but for now, the lessons I have learned at Cantiague will definitely impact how I navigate this transition and experience the first moments in a new hammock.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In Light Of The World Today

As an educator who values the power of the PLN and all that I have learned from colleagues and friends from around the world, I wanted to share the following email that I sent to our staff today. The contents of the email were in response to the terrorist attacks in Belgium. It may contain some information that other educational leaders, educators or families find useful when discussing the topic with their children...

Hello everyone,

As most of us are probably aware, there was another alleged terrorist attack in Belgium. Although details are still emerging it seems that the attacks were very similar to what occurred in Paris and California earlier this year – extremists who believe they are doing the “right” thing for a specific cause. Even though the facts and motives are not necessarily clear, our children are growing up in a world where terrorist attacks are more the norm than the exception. 

Additionally, as a result of these terrorist attacks the rhetoric against Muslims is also growing (the current presidential campaign isn’t helping matters) and for those reasons we must be attentive and supportive.

As educators in a world that is diversifying, I think it is important that we keep our ears open for things our students may be discussing related to these matters to ensure that all of our children feel safe regardless of their religion, ethnicity or skin color. We have labeled this the Year Of Happy at Cantiague and have talked a lot about empathy but more so than ever, I think it is imperative we encourage the following with our children: empathy, patience, understanding and avoiding the inclination to paint certain groups with broad strokes. 

I leave it to each of you to decide if anything needs to change in your classrooms as it relates to learning but in case the subject of terrorism does come up and you feel compelled to address it, I wanted to share some age appropriate resources that might be helpful… 

Again, these are just some resources you may want to explore depending on the needs of your children or the things that come up during class discussions – no expectations just possibilities. Ultimately, I am firm believer that if we are going to change the world, it happens through education not reaction.


Please feel free to use any of the text above or contribute other relevant resources in the comment section below. Together we are better for all of our children!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Reading Levels Are For Books... Not Kids

The following is a guest post by Lisa Palmieri, who is a reading specialist at #Cantiague Elementary. Lisa's passion for reading instruction has permeated our school community and her knowledge makes her an incredible resource for our teachers. In this post she reflects on how leveling might be having a negative impact on our readers... 

Reading Levels Hit Home... 

My son Dean is a struggling reader. This is so hard for me, as you might imagine, as a reading specialist and a parent.  So, when Dean and his friend, Brenden, were sitting in the 3rd row of my minivan talking about books, I turned down the radio and listened carefully. It was a crushing conversation. Dean proudly announced, “I moved up to H and I! What are you Brenden?”  Brenden casually said, “Oh, I’m M and N.”  Dean processed this and seemed to move on with the conversation. When we got out of the minivan, the boys played for all of 5 minutes before Dean was practically beating-up Brenden.  Brenden went home. I apologized to his mom.  On the car ride home, Dean was upset.  After some time we spoke and of course, the root of the problem was the reading levels. Dean was upset that his friend was at a higher level. It’s that simple. And, I understood.

The conversation between Dean and Brenden is not uncommon. I wonder how his reading level was communicated to him, and it got me thinking about the message we are conveying to our students. His classroom teacher administered the F&P Benchmark Assessment. The only piece of the conversation Dean recalled about the testing session was his letter and that he went up.  In Dean’s classroom the library only has leveled book bins. Each book is clearly labeled with the letter on the cover, and Dean’s independent book baggie is see-through.  Everyone knows his level and he knows everybody else’s level. 

Are Reading Levels Good? Bad?

I have a love-hate relationship with student reading levels. I love that I get a snap-shot of a student’s reading abilities and can plan accordingly. This is the heart and soul of my job.  I love them and need them. The feelings of “hate” surface when students identify themselves by their letter. “I am ______.” (Fill in any letter of the alphabet.) I know this is a common feeling among many of us. I have spoken with educators and parents who feel the same way.

The A to Z guided reading level is a useful tool that teachers use to assess, instruct, and evaluate students. It provides important data for the teacher. It can be very useful when planning our teaching points and selecting books. But reading levels can easily be mishandled and misunderstood by our children, and even well-intentioned parents.  Our children may use them as a way to identify and compare themselves. It can create a divide between students or a pecking order, and that can play out on the field, the classroom, back of a minivan or anywhere.  It can be hurtful and damaging to their self-esteem.  

Our goal as teachers is to teach students to read and hopefully to love reading or as Pernille Ripp said, “To hate it a little less.” A reading level derived from reading assessments is meant to help the teacher plan lessons. The level, despite its value, does not help a child develop a love for reading. The levels never did and never will. This has been an age-old struggle. I still remember being in the Blue Jay reading group when I was in elementary school, and I certainly knew who was a Red Robin!  

Let's Focus On Books... Not Levels!

I wish I could talk to Dean’s teacher about his feelings, and the controversy and competition unintentionally created when schools identify students in this way. I would prefer if she talked to Dean about how to select a book that matches his abilities. What are the book characteristics that match him as a reader? How would he know if a book was too hard or too easy? So what if the book he selected did not have “his” letter labeled on it. If Dean knows the type of book that he can access yet focuses on his interest and purpose, doesn’t that trump the letter/level that it has been assigned?  In the words of JoEllen McCarthy, “Wantability trumps readability.” If a child wants to read a book then (s)he will figure out a way to access it! 

What Do We Do Now?

All of this has caused me to wonder: What are the conversations teachers are having with students? How are books organized and selected? Is privacy considered and protected? Can we modify our language and word choice to help foster a passion and purpose for reading rather than to foster competition and insecurity? All of this is just something for us to think about as educators and consider if in fact this practice is in the best interest of children.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Growth Mindset... Grit... Grrrr!

Grit and Growth Mindset: It's Personal... 

Over the last several years, many of my family and friends have commented on the fact that Paul (my amazing son) seems to possess an incredible amount of grit, positivity and perseverance. Some have even commented on the fact that a growth mindset seems to come so naturally to Paul because he rarely focuses on his problems or issues. You see Paul was born with a few medical issues and one of them is congenital scoliosis, which means he has surgery every six months to have the rods in his back expanded as he grows. Truth is, Paul rarely gets upset about the situation (except right before and after surgery) and he bounces back quickly and never allows his "issues" to impact his daily functioning. His doctor calls him the wonder child because of his ability to bounce back and his willingness to try almost anything regardless of his physical limitations. People are always in awe of Paul and his GRIT and often comment how they wish their children possessed some of that stuff!

Well, here is the thing, grit, and other current buzz words in education related to students' personal development, such as growth mindset and perseverance, are incredibly complex and I don't know that most educators realize and understand those complexities. You see, I do believe that Paul shows a tremendous amount of grit and perseverance but I don't necessarily think he was just born with it (he was born with some of it though); I think part of Paul's grit and strength are a result of the love, support, access and privilege he has experienced since birth. 

Yes, that's right - although some kids may be born with these qualities, I don't think life and environmental factors always give them an opportunity to grow and thrive within each child. Fortunately, many times children do develop the growth mindset and grit to overcome many of the obstacles they encounter... but that doesn't happen for every child. I believe these qualities are ones that are nurtured in children and although some children may be predisposed to accessing them more easily, I think we need to recognize that the conversation is a complex one.

Grit and Growth Mindset In Education...

Psychologist Carol Dweck, who developed the notion of growth mindset, defines it as...

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” 

This idea of growth mindset is juxtaposed against a fixed mindset, which is basically the opposite because people who embrace a fixed mindset see things like their intelligence and talents as "fixed" things that cannot be developed further... either you have it, or you don't. Of course, based on these definitions, we want all children (and educators) to access a growth mindset over a fixed mindset - that is an awesome goal and one worth working towards.

Often times, the notion of growth mindset gets commingled with this idea of grit because that is another quality we want our children to possess. Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as...

"Grit is a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades."

Yes - based on that definition, that is certainly something we want our children and students (and educators) to possess... a lot of growth mindset with some grit because then we can accomplish anything and achieve all of our goals. In fact, it seems that some educators might even argue that growth mindset and grit are the keys to education reform and the proverbial silver bullet that will fix all the problems that plague schools and society in general.  

For example, some would argue that kids who are impacted by poverty can overcome that challenge by showing some grit and embracing a growth mindset. Others would argue that children who come across entitled will be better served if they develop some grit or employ a growth mindset. "These" kids would do so much better with some grit; "those" kids would be better served if they developed a growth mindset; or any number of statements along these lines that suggest we have found the silver bullet.

But, in my opinion, it is not that simple. Just because we have decided, as the adults in education, that we want our students to possess these qualities and traits it doesn't mean it's going to happen and it doesn't mean we are going to reform education in one fell swoop. Don't get me wrong, I definitely thing we want to nurture these qualities in our students and ourselves but we need to understand the complexities that accompany them.  

Things To Remember...

If we are going to continue pushing kids to develop their grit and growth mindset, we need to remember certain things...

1) We can't expect kids to access those "skills" or qualities if we don't embrace them as the adults in the learning community! Educators and schools must begin embracing a growth mindset and accessing some grit. I believe the first step in making that happen is shifting the focus from teaching to learning - remembering that we are learners first and as learners we can continue to grow and enhance our skill set, even when it makes us uncomfortable.  

2) We should move away from grading kids on these qualities because they are more like a spectrum than just something that we can check off as met or not met. When we grade it, we are trying to qualify it in some way and that is a subjective and slippery slope to try and navigate. What makes one kids grit better than an others? Who is showing a stronger growth mindset? Not only that, but once it is graded and a child scores a "high" grade in these areas, the journey is over and they can check them off their list. You get the idea - these are not easy questions to answer but in the end, grading things like grit and perseverance don't seem to be in the best interest of children and in fact may be an example of embracing a fixed mindset ("this is just for a grade") over a growth mindset ("I can always get better at this")! 

3) These trends to embed notions of grit and growth mindset in our daily work with children are admirable and important but they are not the silver bullet that will fix all that ails education or society. We cannot help foster grit or growth mindset or perseverance if we don't first focus on building healthy and positive relationships with our kids and with each other as educators. 

4) Access and privilege do impact the development of qualities like growth mindset. I believe that children who have access, as a result of their family or community or SES, will not only have a better chance of developing these skills but will then be able to leverage them to advance themselves because of their access and privilege. Growth mindset, grit and perseverance are not going to fix all that ails society because they don't often get developed in a silo (of course, there are exceptions). 

5) If we think growth mindset, grit, etc. are critical to the success of our children and schools then we must stick with them and make them the new norms in our educational communities. We cannot abandon them when the next "sexy" trend, initiative or term hits our schools - we must show some grit and stick with it!

What do you think about growth mindset, grit and perseverance? How do you see them impacting our schools and students? Do you agree with my take? Disagree? Why? Please let me learn and grow!   

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I Think He Can

Deficit Thinking: It Is A Reality In Education...

The more and more I interact with educators from around the country, the more I come to understand how pervasive the deficit mindset is in the world of education. I have been an educator for almost 20 years and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard statements that start with... "These kids can't learn this because..." or "Those teachers can't implement that instructional model because..." or "This community of families can't do that because..." and they each end with something negative that is generally connected to physical context (and the perceptions about it), socioeconomic status or some other perceived disadvantage impacting students, teachers or the community at large. 

What Is The Deficit Model?

The deficit model is not a new concept in education and although it is traditionally associated with the labeling of special education students or students living in impoverished communities, the negative mindset (otherwise known as a fixed mindset) doesn't end with children because it also impacts the way teachers are viewed, schools are viewed and practices within a school community are implemented. For example, I have consistently heard about schools that are hesitant to consider a BYOD model to technology because of something that might happen or an isolated incident that has occurred that only involved a small number of children yet impacted the whole community. Or the school that doesn't want to use the reading or writing workshop model within their literacy block because their teachers aren't "ready" for it and instead receive a scripted program that delineates what should be happening every minute of the day. Or the classroom where children aren't encouraged to access challenging materials or concepts because they can't "handle" it. This is all deficit model thinking... considering the problems, pitfalls and cants before looking at the possibilities, opportunities and cans!

My Personal Struggle With Deficit Thinking... 

This was something I struggled with as a parent when I was considering coming out to my son. In the months leading up to that day, I heard the opinions of many people who felt my son couldn't handle the gay thing; my son couldn't understand the gay thing; or my son wasn't ready for the gay thing. In spite of those naysayers, I felt like my son was ready so on that day, I woke up with the opposite of a deficit mindset... I woke up with one idea... I think he can handle it. It was the day that changed both of our lives and one that still impacts us today. 

It had started just like any other Thursday during the summer. Went into work, did some stuff in the office, spent time with our main office team, walked around the building with our custodial crew and actually sat down and had an early lunch. With that being said, this Thursday was different. It was the most important Thursday of my life. In fact, it might have been the most important day of my life, period. You see, that Thursday was the day that I came out to my son. Over some fried onion rings and a warm loaf of bread, I explained to my son that I am gay. 

Coming Out... 

I have shared a lot of things with my son over the last ten years but this one was unlike any other. This one would explain why our family would be different moving forward. This one would explain why I had struggled so much emotionally over the last couple of years. This would explain why my future partner in life would be a man and not a woman. Although leading up to that day I had come out to many people in my world, I had yet to tell my son. Paul, who I had shared so much with over the years. Paul, who had taught me about unconditional love; Paul, who had shaped me as an educator and human being; Paul, who was the most important person in my life. I hadn't told Paul... yet. 

As we sat there waiting for our fried onion rings, I couldn't keep it in any longer. The time had come for me to come out to my son. An excerpt of the whole exchange went something like this...

Me: "Paul, after all this time, I realized I am gay."

Paul: "Oh. So that means you are going to love a man?"

Me: "Yes, I am going to love a man."

Paul: "Oh, ok. Well, you're still my dad and I love you."

Needless to say, I bit my tongue hard to hold back the tears. I had never been so in awe of another human being as I was at that moment when I shared my news with Paul. You see, Paul responded with love, understanding and acceptance. My son was "ok" with my being gay. In fact, my son asked if he could come sit next to me and so he slid over to my side of the booth, hugged me and kissed me and said, "I love you so much daddy!" 

That final moment is what I will always remember about the day I came out to my son. He showed such maturity, composure, compassion and love. That moment was what helped me realize that he could handle it and even in that incredibly difficult moment, he was able to access the opposite of a deficit mindset... he was open, positive and willing to look at things differently. Granted, it has not been all sunshine and roses over the last couple of years because Paul and I are still figuring things out but, I am so relieved that I didn't succumb to the deficit mindset on that incredibly important day.

Why We Must Move Away From Deficit Thinking... 

I share this personal reflection because I think it is time we move away from deficit thinking in education. It is time that we give our children the space to learn, grow, fail, try again, and succeed on their terms (with our support and encouragement)... not based on our preconceived notions of the disadvantages that impact them. It is time to consider all the things are children CAN do... not all the things we think they CAN'T do. It is time that we empower our teachers to make the best decisions possible for their students as learners... not just asking them to follow scripted curriculum or zero tolerance policies. It is time that we engage our families in meaningful ways on our journeys to becoming true partnership schools... not just blaming families for all the problems that ail a community. 

The time has come to embrace an innovator's mindset... an opportunity mindset... a growth mindset... a positive mindset... or whatever you want to call the opposite of a deficit mindset because our children, educators, school communities and families deserve the opportunity to do what they CAN!  

How are you going to move away from deficit thinking in your school community? What will you do differently tomorrow? Will you consider BYOD? Will you move away from zero tolerance policies? Will you include teachers, students and families in conversations about the future of the school community? Please share your ideas below...     

Sunday, February 7, 2016

I Don't Miss The Classroom

That's right, I said it... I don't miss the classroom. Yes, I love being an educator and I love working with kids, their families and other educators but I don't miss the classroom. 

You see, I recently had the opportunity (a most amazing one) to teach kindergarten for the whole day. It was a Monday morning and we had only three substitutes in the building but five teachers were out. Yup - two uncovered classes. This is not necessarily unusual for a school on any given day - not enough subs - but there was a lot going on and I had to make a quick decision about who would be teaching kindergarten. I looked at my calendar and it was open for the most part and although I had a million "administrative" things to get done, I realized it would be the least disruptive thing to put myself in as the sub for the day. 

I didn't cover the class so I can walk around the building and tell everyone about it. I didn't cover the class so I can flood my social media feed with pics of myself "working" with kids (who cares about me?). I didn't cover the class so I could be seen as the "savior" who took one for the team. I didn't cover the class so I could be in the "trenches" for a day. I didn't even cover the class because I necessarily wanted to do it. 

I covered the class because I thought it was in the best interest of children (not necessarily the part about having me as their teacher but that is a whole other story). The kids would have one teacher for the whole day, which would allow for some consistency. I also covered the class so I didn't have to pull someone else from their program or class, which would have been disruptive to other kids. Bottom line... covering kindergarten for the day was about our kids and teachers, not me.  

So, I headed down to Room 6 and although I was initially somewhat nervous (I had never taught kindergarten before) I didn't have much time to think about it because the day had started and we needed to get moving - those little munchkins were ready to learn! Fortunately the classroom teacher had left the most detailed and awesome plans that were the key to us successfully navigating the day. We did everything from shared reading, to math, to several Groundhog Day themed projects to visiting the science lab and going to Art. That was all the stuff laid out for me in the amazing plans that literally accounted for every minute of the day. We also went off course a couple of times... we did a Google Hangout with the incredible Mr. Greg and his adorable kindergarten class in Tennessee (we counted to 100 to help them celebrate their 100th day of school). We also ended the day with some Twitter based "exit slips" where the children sat on the rug and partnered up to come up with one thing they did or learned during the day that we then tweeted out to the world. Before I knew it, it was time to go home. Overall, it was an awesome day filled with lots of learning, smiling and fun! 


After dismissing the class, I went down to the Main Office where a bunch of teachers were chatting, sharing stories about their days and laughing (the norm at the end of the day at Cantiague). Of course, everyone wanted to know how my day went as one of the kindergarten teachers... apparently the building had been buzzing about the fact that I taught kindergarten all day. 

Everyone wanted to know if I was exhausted (I was tired but being a principal is draining on every level too because I deal with hundreds of people on any given day). 

Everyone wanted to know how challenged I was by the day (there was a lot to get done and it was a busy day but as a principal, I am often running around like a chicken without a head because I am trying to meet the needs of dozens of people while putting out fires at the same time). 

Everyone wanted to know how I did with managing the little munchkins all day (they were full of energy but they were so good, they were so kind to each other and they were excited to learn, which is not something I always experience when dealing with people as the principal). 

Everyone wanted to know if spending the day in kindergarten made me realize how much I missed teaching. I laughed at some of the questions, answered them with a smile and then eventually retreated into my office because I was slightly embarrassed to share my one big takeaway from the day... that I don't miss the classroom. 

That's right, I don't miss the classroom. It has been almost 11 years since I had my own class when I last taught fifth grade. Yes, I loved teaching and learning and working with a small group of kids... a group of kids that eventually became my kids over the course of the year. But, about 11 years ago I decided I wanted to try administration and I took on my first building leadership position and basically, I have never looked back. 

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely moments when I would much rather be in my own classroom with my own kids but overall, I love being a school leader. I love the opportunities being a lead learner provides me. 

I love working with and interacting with our children, teachers and family members on any given day. 

I love being able to spend time with our children during class, lunch and recess because not only do they make me laugh and smile but they share really rich and important perspectives. 

I love amplifying student voice and then acting on what they share, which have accomplished by including students on our Shared Decision Making Team (made up of students, families, teachers and me).  

I love being able to chat with teachers during formal and informal meetings because these conversations impact the trajectory of our collective journey. 

I love interacting with parents and family members during PTA gatherings and functions because they provide me tremendous insight that helps us get better. 

I love participating in and facilitating professional development because keeping learning at the center of our community is a daily goal. 

I love being able to spend the majority of my day in all of our classrooms. 

I love being able to capture images and then using social media to amplify and accelerate our story by sharing all of the amazing things happening at Cantiague. 

Basically, I love being a principal. I love all of the opportunities and experiences it affords me. I love being able to connect with every classroom and every child and every teacher and every family member! I love the work I get to do with the entire school community and that is the main reason I don't miss the classroom. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

5 Steps To Rebranding HW

My Take On HW...

At this point I think most friends, colleagues and members of my PLN know how I feel about HW and in case someone missed it, I am not a fan. I have written extensively about HW on my blog (this post is the third post in a 3-part series - part one and part two were shared over the last couple of weeks). I have also shared dozens of comments on social media about my own HW experiences as a graduate student, about my son's HW as a middle schooler and other general opinions about this decades old practice that doesn't seem to have a positive impact on students and their learning... yet we keep assigning it. 

HW: It May Be Here To Stay... 

With that being said, it doesn't seem that HW is going away anytime time soon. In order to see HW eliminated there has to be a thoughtful process that is respectful of everyone's preconceived notions about HW. For most of society, HW is just the norm... the way it has always been done. Most of us had HW as students growing up and so we expect our children or students to have the same experience. In fact, some parents might argue that a lack of HW is indicative of a lack of learning. So, HW is probably not going away without a fight (in spite of all the research) so I think the time has come to REBRAND HW and make it something that children will be excited to engage in and parents will no longer dread.

Rebranding HW in 5 Steps... 

Here are my 5 steps to rebranding HW:

1) Eliminate it! The over abundance of research that shows no positive correlation between HW and academic performance in school should be reason enough to eliminate HW; but if that does not seem like a good enough reason, then listen to the students because my guess is they would express a strong dislike for HW, which should speak to it being irrelevant and meaningless to the people it is supposed to be impacting the most!

2) Call it something else... anything else because the mere mention of HW generally garners a negative reaction from most learners. For example, in Kindergarten at Cantiague our children are expected to read at least 2 nights a week but, instead of calling it "Reading Homework," the teachers call it Book in A Bag and the kids get super excited when they realize it is a Book In A Bag night! Someone else shared that at their school students get math homework 2 - 3 nights a week but instead of calling it "Math Homework," the children become Number Explorers one night or Magical Mathematicians the other night. The assignment may not necessarily be any different but because the word homework is nowhere to be found, the children respond differently. So, get creative and start by eliminating the word homework and see how that impacts your students!

3) Give learners choices with what they can experience at home to extend their learning (see what I did there? Didn't use HW). For example, create a menu of activities that gives students a voice in how they want to deepen and broaden their understandings in a specific content area. For example, at Cantiague, our kindergarten students practice their words using a “word study menu.” The teachers have provided the children with different activities to choose from that tap in to different modalities and interests.  These are as simple as writing their words in the steam in the shower, tracing words on a family member’s back, cheering the words like a cheer leader or building the words out of legos or different materials. After speaking with the children about their choices as part of the word study menu, it is clear that they look forward to these activities and the teachers are seeing a new level excitement surrounding learning their sight words. Basically, what the children see as a fun project, game, or activity is helping to build their foundational skills. Although this example is specific to kindergarten at Cantiague, it is super easy to change it up for older students and across all content areas because the basic idea is giving children choices so they are empowered learners beyond the school day. For example, instead of having fifth graders read about the Civil War in a textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter, give them the pertinent information and then give them a choice about how they could communicate their knowledge... maybe they could create a video about what could have happened if the South won the war or they could start a blog and write a diary as a soldier from the north or create a historical fiction picture book based on the war... the possibilities are endless!  

4) Take experiences such as Genius Hour or MakerSpace and have the children engage in activities of that nature at home where they can try something new, create something from scratch or pursue a new passion! Whatever it looks like, it builds on step 3 where students have choices for what they learn outside of school but gives them more independence over the actual process and product. This is something we are going to start doing at Cantiague where we have dubbed Tuesday nights... Try It Tuesday! This idea was suggested by one of our amazing fourth grade teachers at Cantiague who was already trying it in her classroom. This is how she framed Try It Tuesday... Every Tuesday night instead of traditional homework, the children have to try something new. It’s kind of like Genius Hour at home with no limits! I have found that the kids are motivated and engaged to experiment, imagine, plan, create and improve their “designs,” whatever that may look like to them. I started this Try It Tuesday ritual and have found that it encourages appreciation and happiness in my classroom! Based on this suggestion about Try It Tuesday and the positive feedback it received from students and their families, we will be making this a school-wide experience starting in March. Every Tuesday night at Cantiague will be TRY IT TUESDAY and although the children will be able to do whatever they want, they will also have a menu of ideas to chose from in case they are stuck for inspiration at home. I am super excited about this shift in our HW practice!

5) Flip the classroom experience and try doing HW in school while letting the children do some of the learning at home. For example, instead of having children do a worksheet about fractions at home, have them watch a short video about fractions at home and then come to school the next day and engage in various fraction based activities. Although I never tried this as a teacher, I have observed several teachers who have used this approach and their feedback is that the students have a more positive attitude about the homework and the teachers feel like they have a better understanding of their students' readiness levels because they are seeing what the children can actually produce in class. This is one of the problems with HW - we never know how much support a learner might be getting at home and how much they actually understand. So get out there and try flipping your classroom!

These are just 5 steps to rebranding homework but I am sure there are dozens more so please share some in the comments below! Although I would love to eliminate homework completely, I don't think we are there yet so I am hopeful that rebranding the experience will make it a more positive one for students, their families and educators!