Maybe We Should Do a Word Search

If you aren't excited about examining your students' work, you are giving the wrong types of assignments.” 
via @davidwees on Twitter

Our school district recently (finally!) received our results from our first-ever PARCC administration. Like almost every other educator I know, I am not overly excited about testing and it certainly had nothing to do with my decision to enter the noble field of education; I am much more passionate about children, teachers, and leaders, and how we all interact on a daily basis than I am about standardized testing. Still, as a public school teacher, principal, and, now, district office administrator, I have never wasted much energy complaining about these annual tests and I actually have no serious problem with them as an inevitable part of our job. In addition, although we spend little to no time “teaching to the test” in our district, we do take our results seriously and try to learn whatever we can from these each year as we move forward. Thankfully, we continue to get top-notch scores, on par with the best schools/districts in the entire state. Having said all this, however, my post today is not really about testing or test scores; instead, it is about the work we assign students and I was reflecting on this as I pored over our PARCC results earlier this month.

In a way, I felt like a student when it came to analyzing our test results this year. You see, we had never administered the PARCC tests before; this new assessment replaced the ISAT assessments, which had been the annual standardized accountability program norm in Illinois for many years. Over the years, I had become quite familiar with the ISAT and very adept at analyzing our data and sharing this with all stakeholders, including our Board of Education. This year was different: I had to learn an entirely new system with an entirely new way of assessing, scoring, and reporting student achievement scores. I had a lot to learn and the pressure was on; there had been plenty of negative press and reaction in neighboring communities about the PARCC. I really had to learn this stuff inside and out and was not sure where to begin. I’m not gonna lie; I was in panic mode. I turned to Marcie, a colleague whose opinion I respect a great deal. Unfortunately, she was equally dumbfounded. Determined, I pressed her for an answer. Finally, she said, “Well, I know my daughter has to do a word search every week. Her teacher says this helps her learn her spelling words.” Then, she paused and suggested, “Maybe we should do a word search.”

Eureka! This was the “Ah-ha!” moment I had been seeking; I needed to get up to speed on all things PARCC and the sooner, the better. I enlisted the help of Amy, yet another colleague; together, we brainstormed all possible words relating to the PARCC assessment. Next, we Googled, “Create a word search,” and came 

up with this:                                               

We immediately knew we were on to something big! I asked Marcie if we should complete the Word Search separately or together, thinking that, together, we would find the words more quickly. Alas, she informed me that her daughter was not allowed to do this and, in fact, was required to do the Word Search assignments for homework. Armed with this information, I printed three copies and we each took one home to complete. We arrived to work the following day giddy with joy: Marcie and Amy had each found all sixteen words (they are really smart!); meanwhile, I had found all but one (sadly, Amy, a mean-spirited stickler for rule-following, subtracted an additional point because I inadvertently highlighted an extra letter in the word "percentage"). We were feeling pretty good about our PARCC knowledge at this point and marched into the superintendent’s office to share what we had learned and how this would inform our presentation to the Board. Imagine our surprise, then, when he did not share in our joy, but, instead, began firing off ridiculous questions, asking how we compared to the state average, how we compared to neighboring districts, how the PARCC scores compared to our previous ISAT results, how these data looked across schools, grade levels, and demographic subgroups, and to what extent we could discern whether our instruction was aligned to standards. Furious, he grabbed our worksheets, tore them to shreds, and told us to start conducting some legitimate research into all aspects of the overall assessment design as well as our own data. He demanded that we create a comprehensive--yet simple-to-understand--multimedia presentation. He further insisted we collaborate with neighboring districts to see what they had learned. Finally, he charged us with establishing a plan for communicating our results and findings with staff, students, parents, and the community. Our superintendent is, admittedly, a bit of a killjoy by nature. Still, we had to admit upon leaving his office that the work plan he suggested was likely to yield vastly superior results compared to the word search approach we originally favored. 

So we spent the next few days digging into the project with zeal. Honestly, it was a laborious process as we toiled both alone and together to gather as much information as possible before synthesizing and evaluating it all. However, when we finally finished, we were proud of what we had accomplished and confident in our ability to present our findings clearly. The project was a challenging one to be sure, but it was important work and we were pleased with our performance.

Obviously, this is all intended to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet there are serious points to consider about the work we assign kids. In fact, I tend to agree with Phil Schlechty and others who suggest that engaging student experiences do not happen by chance; they are the result of teachers’ designing compelling work for the students they serve. 

To be fair, some students probably enjoy doing mindless activities like word search puzzles. I am convinced, however, that they are even more engaged, inspired, empowered, and--ultimately--joyful, when we challenge them with more authentic work that demands more of them. More important still, if we want our kids to gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed, we need to assign them work that requires them to create, collaborate, communicate, and think critically. Asking what it is our kids need to know and be able to do and then going about the hard work of intentionally designing quality assignments designed to equip them thusly is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

A Compass for Innovation

Change is an opportunity to do something amazing.” 
George Couros

Among the many things I was thankful for this past Thanksgiving was the time to finish an amazing book by an educator I respect a great deal, George Couros. The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity is one of the best educational
 books I have read and I recommend it enthusiastically to all teachers and school leaders. In this well-written, inspirational, and practical book, George provides readers--as Dave Burgess suggests in the Introduction--a “compass” for creating a culture of innovation in their classrooms, schools, or districts. 

Image via Amazon

Although I have been focused on helping to create innovative classrooms and schools for years, this new book challenged my thinking and offered new insights into the direction we need to head in our own district. It all starts, as Couros suggests, by understanding that innovation is not about skill set; it is about mindset. The way we perceive changes and new ideas determines the extent to which such changes will be successful and such ideas will be implemented. I love the example George provides in the book when talking about Vine, the six-second video app. Some people asked, “What in the world can you do with six seconds?” Others (those with an “Innovator’s Mindset”) said, “I wonder what I could do with six seconds?” When new tools such as Vine present themselves to us as teachers, learners, and leaders, each of us has an equal opportunity to innovate. Some of us do and some of us do not; we are the variable.

This powerful book is filled with page after page of keen insights and sharing my thoughts about these go well beyond the constraints of a short blog post. However, here are seven brief points I find myself still reflecting on after perusing this book:

  1. Have We Forgotten Our “Why”? Couros reminds us to examine why schools exist and why we serve as educators. I find myself hard pressed to improve upon his offering of a collective “Why”: “When forward thinking schools encourage today’s learners to become creators and leaders, I believe they, in turn, will create a better world.” Helping to create a better world is a Why? I can get behind.
  2. Defining "Innovation." Again, it would be a waste of my time to attempt a better version of the definition George uses for the purposes of his book: “A way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either ‘invention’ (something totally new) or ‘iteration’ (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of 'new and better' it is not innovative." Change for the sake of change is never good enough and, in fact, often counterproductive, if our goal is meaningful innovation.
  3. Innovation vs. Transformation. After reading this book, I realized many of us have been using these terms interchangeably and, therefore, incorrectly. In essence, Couros maintains that transformation requires dramatically altering the work we are doing in education. To truly transform our work is beyond the scope of an individual teacher or administrator. Innovation, on the other hand, is within easy reach for each of us, no dramatic shifts required. Each of us has the ability to innovate almost immediately, regardless of our role. For teachers, of course, it helps when school leaders have worked to create a culture that inspires and empowers them to take risks in order to provide the best learning experiences possible for the students they serve.
  4. Innovation “Inside the Box.” Couros notes that people are always challenging us to “think outside the box.” This sounds innocent enough and, indeed, I have employed this mantra myself as an exhortation to educators with whom I work. After reading this book, I will instead focus on innovating “inside the box,” as George suggests. This point is directly related to the previous one of transformation versus innovation. Great educators do not necessarily innovate outside the box; many are too impatient and realize that it is more effective and efficient to simply innovate inside the box--often by creating new and better methods to teach the required curriculum. In public schools, we are likely to have standards we are required to teach for many years to come. Although some may disagree, I maintain that we should have such standards. Instead of fighting against these or fighting to teach different versions, great educators create innovative learning opportunities for the students they serve within the constraints of the system.
  5. Innovation as “Doing” Rather than “Knowing.” One of the first steps on the path to encouraging innovation within our students is getting them to see themselves as creators because real learning begins when students create. Whether we are focusing on our kids or ourselves, we must always keep in mind that what we learn is not nearly as important as what we create from what we learn. 
  6. Innovation as a Series of “What If’s”. When George speaks to groups, he often shares a slide with the following question: “What if all teachers Tweeted about one thing each day that they did in their classrooms and took five minutes to read other teachers’ Tweets? Imagine the positive impact this would have on learning and school culture." In this book, he includes a series of questions that begin: “What If…” as a way to challenge us to dream big and figure out what is most important for us as educators and for the organizations we serve. These are powerful questions well worth reading and reflecting upon.
  7. Innovate or Teach “Basics”? I find myself agreeing with Couros wholeheartedly when he answers, in essence, “Both.” It is counterproductive to get caught up in the extremes of either school of thought or be forced to choose between one or the other. To truly innovate in any field, our kids need basic skills, whether the area of study is literature, music, art, or science. Leaders should not insist on one or the other; teachers should not pretend they cannot do both. Having said that, although the basics in any field of study are of critical importance, in order to truly innovate, we must move beyond knowing into creating and doing.
image via slideshare

I have been a huge fan of Couros’s work for several years now; after reading his new book, I am even more impressed with his passion for innovation as a way to improve learning for our students and his ability to clearly communicate his passion in a way that inspires me to re-dedicate myself to this important work. As Burgess says, the book is not a step-by-step guide nor a checklist one can follow or complete to “become” innovative. In fact, no such book does or ever will exist; skill sets can be taught in such a way; mindsets require much more. However, I encourage you to read this book for what it is: a compass for cultivating an innovative mindset within yourself and empowering those with whom you work--students and adults--to become innovators as well. 

image via Debbie Saviano
When speaking of compasses and directions, one inevitably learns about “magnetic” versus “true” north. There is a significant and critical difference between true north and magnetic north. True north will lead you directly to the North Pole. Magnetic north is influenced by a pulling effect of the earth’s magnetic core. In reading George’s book, I noted that he comes back time and again to simply doing what is best for each and every child we serve. Innovation and an "Innovator’s Mindset" is but a means to this noble end; the “magnetic north” may well be innovation, but the “true north” which compels us to innovate is continuously asking ourselves and each other, “What is best for kids?” Keeping our eyes on “True North” is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

What's Best for the Best Is Best for the Rest

All great changes are preceded by chaos.” 
Deepak Chopra

In the midst of a week rife with international terror incidents, I recall the chaos that accompanied 9/11 in our own country. Although this remains one of our nation’s greatest tragedies, some “great changes” definitely resulted from the “chaos” that ensued on that day. One example is that air travel is now much safer than before. While we may never be able to guarantee air travel completely free from terrorist attacks, systematic steps we took as a global society immediately after 9/11 almost certainly prevented a number of additional tragedies.

One small, post-9/11 security change in our country was to cease the practice of allowing non-passengers to proceed through security to airport gates. Prior to 9/11, I actually enjoyed walking to the gate 
with friends and relatives who were departing on a flight. 

Even as a young boy, I would head to O’Hare with my dad every holiday season to accompany my grandmother to the gate as she would venture off to San Francisco or Hawaii to spend the holidays with one of her other children. We would watch her walk down the tunnel to her seat on the plane. I would remain in the gate area with my dad, waving to the windows of the plane, hoping “Granny” would see me. I enjoyed this and even now it is a nice memory. Yet, times have changed and I believe that it is simply no longer best practice, nor can a case be made that it is a necessary option for travel in our world today.

So, after the chaos of 9/11, what happened in this area? Almost immediately, every airport in the country ceased the practice of allowing non-passengers to accompany passengers to airport gates and instituted more strict security precautions throughout the entire air travel experience. Notice that this was not left up to individual airports to decide on a whim. What was determined to be best practice for one airport meant that it was best practice for all. Every. Single. Airport. Some people were angry with this new practice. Some still are, while others have adjusted to the change readily after an initial negative reaction. Regardless of whether the general public thought it was a sound idea, a horrible idea, or something in between, the change was made. I do not recall having a vote in the matter, nor do I recall a long, drawn out conversation. It just happened. And, almost everyone adjusted immediately, to the point that a few short years later it actually seems odd that we once could and did do this.

But what does this have to do with education? Well, I find myself wondering if there are some "givens" that should be in place at every school in the entire country. Right now. Today. For all kids. Everywhere. Since 2009, I have flown more than 500 flight segments into more than 50 airports (I traveled for work 100% of the time for three consecutive years). During these travels, I noticed that airports around the world vary greatly in any number of ways: size, parking, car rental locations and protocols, dining choices, tram options, frequent flyer lounges, WiFi offerings, availability of charging stations, and many other variables. 

However, when it comes to matters of critical importance--such as our safety--these widely-varying airports were remarkably similar. The people in positions to make such decisions determined that it was fine for O’Hare to establish a restaurant with a Chicago Blackhawks theme and A-OK for the Nashville airport to set up an annex location of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge within. It was also up to the local sites to determine I would be taking a tram to get from the terminal to the Rental Car center at Newark and San Francisco, but I needed to take a bus to the rental car facility each time I landed in Albuquerque. These decisions are relatively inconsequential. Truthfully, I preferred the smaller airports, like Lubbock or Lehigh Valley, where I could simply walk to my rental car, but I was still able to achieve my goal of procuring a rental vehicle regardless of the local procedures in place.

This pushes me to reflect on certain practices in schools, at least schools in our nation. We tend to value and fight for local control of our schools. In many ways, we should; we know our kids and community best, our relative strengths and needs. 

But are there some aspects of education today that are so obviously necessary--or best practice--for ALL children that they should be in place everywhere, immediately? If so, what are those things? Are children’s futures in the schools across our great nation still subject to the zip code within which they reside? I have worked in schools located in more than half of the fifty states in the past decade and have seen shocking discrepancies in facilities, technology, safety, curriculum, and quality of staff among and within these states. These visits leave me wondering if local control is always the best policy. There are simply some things that the “best” schools have or do that should also be in place or done at all schools. If it is best for the “best,” it is likely best for the rest.

Here is my initial list of five things that should be in place in every school in our country right now. Perhaps there are many more; what would you add to my list? In addition, feel free to let me know which of my five you would not include:

  • A device for every child in every grade. I am a big believer that it is our pedagogy, not our technology, that drives achievement, but in 2015 every child should have access to a device to accelerate their learning and enhance the ways in which they show what they know.
  • Free access to high quality internet both at school and at home. 24/7.
  • Safe, inviting, aesthetically pleasing, inviting, modern, collaborative facilities with classrooms designed for student centered learning.
  • Blocks of time regularly reserved for students to learn about topics/problems of their own choosing.
  • Instruction focused on clear, compelling standards and reporting practices that provide honest feedback to students and their parents about how students are performing to such standards.

Public education in America may not exactly be in a state of chaos just yet, but when I look at the inequities that exist from community to community across the fifty states, I honestly think at times we at least teetering on the precipice. Perhaps that would not be a bad thing, though, if it forces us to finally effect large scale, systemic change for the better--for all kids everywhere, not just in my backyard.

Going to the gate with my Granny as a youngster was fun. I’m glad I have those memories. Having said that, I think it was wise to do away with the practice of allowing non-passengers to do this. Just because it was fun does not mean we should keep that practice in place. As important as it is to START doing best practices in every school in every district, it is equally important to STOP doing the things that no longer make sense, regardless of our fondness for doing them. What we should stop doing in every school in America immediately is, perhaps, a post for another day.

As educators, it is our responsibility, of course, to do what is best for the kids we serve directly. Knowing these kids well, building off their strengths and interests, identifying and supporting their areas of need and wanting them to have the very best goes without saying. Wanting this for every child in our country as well is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

We've Sung Every Hymn in the Hymnal

“Teacher growth is closely related to pupil growth. Probably nothing within a school has more impact on students in terms of skills development, self-confidence, or classroom behavior than the personal and professional growth of their teachers.” 
Roland Barth

This photo of Saint Simons Island is courtesy of TripAdvisor

For seven years, I lived on St. Simons Island, Georgia, a beautiful coastal community roughly halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. While living there, I attended services at Wesley United Methodist Church at Fort Frederica every Sunday for seven consecutive years. One Sunday, near the end of my time there, the music minister stood to tell us which hymn we were about to sing and added something that surprised me: “After singing today’s hymn, we will have sung every hymn in the hymnal since I arrived here as the music minister.” Even though I had attended services at this church nearly every single Sunday for seven consecutive years, I had no idea that we had worked our way through every song in the hymnal or that the music minister had an apparent strategy behind what he was doing in his leadership role. Although this particular moment took place over a decade ago, I was reminded of it recently when reviewing feedback from our staff about a recent professional learning day in our district. caption
For three years, I have had the honor to help plan--along with a host of other very talented colleagues--the professional learning (PL) events in our district. We take these opportunities rather seriously since there is never enough time for professional learning and we want to maximize what precious time we do have available to us. Immediately after each formal PL event on our calendar, we send a survey to all staff asking whether the time spent on PL was useful and soliciting feedback on how we can do better. Thankfully, the feedback we receive is always positive overall, a testament to the fact that the vast majority of staff in our district are not only teachers, but also lifelong learners themselves who are continuously seeking ways to grow and become even better at what they do. When we perused the comments section of the survey from our most recent PL day, we noticed that some folks suggested we bring in “outside experts” on a topic (which we have done on several occasions) while others asked for extended time to work in job alike teams for planning purposes (which we have also done on several occasions). Still others suggested we plan an Edcamp style event (which we did two years ago). It struck me that, in a way, we have “sung every song in the hymnal” over the past three years when it comes to what we have planned and implemented in terms of PL experiences.

Honestly, this has not been accidental; indeed, it has been intentional. We do not believe in a one-size-fits-all model of learning for kids; we are equally opposed to such models for staff. As a result, we strive to plan widely varying PL events in our district. We have hosted nationally renowned leaders like Tom Guskey, Todd Whitaker, and Tom Murray in our district to name but a few. We have sent staff to local, regional, and even national conferences near and far. We host an annual Teaching and Learning Conference each January as a way to kick off the second semester to each school year. We schedule ongoing grade level and PLC meetings to continuously re-examine what it is we want kids to know, how we will know if they know it, how we respond when they do not learn, and how we respond when they have already mastered what we intended to teach. We have hosted district wide Twitter Chats on a variety of topics, asking all staff to choose one in which to take part. We have joined forces with neighboring districts to host an annual summertime “TechCamp” focusing on teaching and learning in a 1:1 environment. We have hosted optional face-to-face after school workshops and within the day “lunch and learn” workshops. We have created a district hashtag (#engage109) on which many staff share articles, resources, and ideas they try out in their classrooms. This year, we even unveiled our new anytime, anywhere PL platform we call Deerfield University, offering over 30 opportunities to complete a mini PL course, with topics ranging from Project Based Learning to Home-School Connections, and allowing staff to earn digital badges and incentive points along the way. Honestly, this brief list merely scratches the surface of the amazing amount of professional learning opportunities that amazing educators in our district have planned, designed, and implemented over the past three years.

In reflecting on these wide-ranging professional learning opportunities, it seems we have attempted to offer every type of learning on every possible topic during a relatively short period of time, much like the music minister in my former church was able to cover all the hymns in our hymnal over time. Not to belabor the point, but when comparing these two seemingly-unrelated events, I find a few additional parallel points worth noting:
  • Although we sang every hymn in the entire hymnal at our church, some were way more popular than others the majority of attendees. Likewise, some professional learning events tend to be more widely popular with most staff than other events.
  • Not everyone in my church had the same favorite hymns. Hymns I considered the absolute best were ones my neighbor did not like at all. Likewise, some professional learning events we have planned were extremely popular with some staff while somewhat unpopular with other staff members.
  • The actual singing of the hymns was only a small--but extremely important and talked about---part of the entire service. Likewise, professional learning is but a small part of our school year, but equally important and talked about.
  • The actual singing of the hymn was only part of the overall point. The meaning behind the words, how--if at all--they impacted us, and how we acted as a result moving forward was more important than the actual singing. Likewise, professional learning events themselves are only a small part of the learning; what we DO with what we learn is more important still.
  • As but one individual among hundreds of church members, I had no idea whatsoever the strategy and intentionality behind the music leader’s efforts. I marveled when I learned there was actually a rhyme and reason to the songs he selected each week. Likewise, although it may seem random to some, in school districts with effective professional learning, designers of such learning start with the Why? and have a purpose in mind for every learning event they schedule, as well as an overarching, long-term strategy.
Excellent teachers I have observed over the years plan and deliver daily lessons and units of study that are intentionally designed and which purposefully call on students in the class to engage in a wide variety of learning activities, all aligned to specific learning goals. As adults, our learning must be equally intentional and purposeful. Engaging in a variety of professional learning experiences on a variety of topics is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!

Great Teachers are Boring!

A teacher is one who makes him/herself progressively unnecessary.” 
Thomas Carruthers

As someone whose title is “Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning,” I spend a great deal of time in classrooms observing--not surprisingly--“teaching and learning.” In the past few years, many of these visits have been very brief. This year, I enlisted two colleagues in our T and L Department, @mfaust and @arubin98, to kick off the year by spending a full hour in one classroom at every grade level and every subject area across our district. One goal we have in doing this is to focus on great teachers across grade levels/disciplines to analyze what themes emerge regarding what great teaching looks like. As of today, the three of us have observed for a full hour in the following grades/subjects at different schools in our district:

1st Grade
2nd Grade
3rd Grade
4th Grade

5th Grade            
6th Grade Math
8th Grade ELA
8th Grade Social Studies

Fortunately for Amy, Marcie, and me (and, more importantly, our students and parents), our district employs scads of outstanding teachers from which to choose if one wishes to observe top notch teachers. Not surprisingly, these rock star teachers readily agreed to let the three of us barge in and spend an hour closely observing teaching and learning and taking notes on what we observed. We still have many observations scheduled for the weeks ahead, but after just a few, I made a general “observation” about my “observations,” which, honestly, went contrary to my expectations. Some of these 60-minute chunks of time were largely student-centered, while others were largely teacher-centered. To test my observation, I posed a question to my PLN: “Which lessons do you think have been more fun to watch, the student-centered ones or the teacher-centered ones?” For anyone reading this question, what is your own guess?

I would not be surprised if you answered as did my PLN. With near unanimity, they quickly replied, “The student-centered ones!” That certainly seems the logical choice; after all, we regularly promote the idea of “student-centered” classrooms as a point of emphasis. Although there needs to be a balance and there is nothing at all wrong with teachers leading the learning, we have spent considerably more time and energy working with teachers to create student-centered classrooms in which students are more in control of the learning with much less time devoted to traditional “stand and deliver” teaching strategies. However, after just a few observations, I realized that the teacher-directed lessons were actually a bit more “fun” and somehow “easier” to observe than the student-centered lessons we observed in which the teacher did little in the way of traditional, direct instruction. Why is this? What meaning might we take away from this generalization?

When I observe lessons in which “traditional” teaching is occurring (i.e., the teacher is doing the majority of speaking, the teacher is standing up and leading discussions, the teacher is providing direct instruction to the whole group, etc.), I am in my comfort zone and know just what to do. I draw on my own eighteen years of teaching experiences and am able to focus on everything the teacher is doing. It is easy to provide feedback, highlighting what worked and offering possible alternative actions the teacher might consider. In a great teacher's classroom, when traditional teaching is occurring, I am entertained and marvel at the way the teacher rolls out the sequence of learning events. I suspect kids are, too. I reflect on comments teachers offer, questions teachers pose, movements teachers make, stories and jokes teachers share, body and facial language teachers employ, and their pacing of the lesson segments. Moreover, it matters not whether I judge the traditional teaching to be outstanding or unsatisfactory; with either extreme, it is still somewhat fun and certainly easy for me to observe this type of teaching, providing appropriate feedback. I am comfortable with this type of teaching and learning and look forward to sharing my insights on this type of teaching and learning with the teacher.

On the other hand, during my recent observations of less traditional, more “student-centered” learning, I have found myself feeling almost a bit bored and having a harder time focusing. The teachers weren’t doing anything! They were not at the front of the room, they were oftentimes silent, and nothing they were saying or doing seemed worthy of writing down to reflect on later. How could I provide feedback on their “performance” as a teacher when they were not “performing”?

The realization that I found “traditional” teaching more interesting and fun to observe than “student-centered” teaching bemused me; how could this be and what did it mean? The answers, perhaps obvious, are still worth remembering when we are observing “teaching and learning” in our classrooms:
  1. Why is observing “traditional” teaching “fun”? I get to sit back and watch and am often entertained. The teacher does the bulk of the work; I am off the hook.
  2. Why is observing “traditional” teaching easier than observing “student-centered” teaching? I simply focus on everything the teacher says and does. I know and am comfortable with this type of teaching. I have done it, seen it, and have provided tons of feedback previously on such teaching. 
  3. What does it mean and what must we do? In many schools, we have encouraged teachers to leave their comfort zones and release more responsibility for the learning to students. We must understand that this may push many of our students outside their own comfort zones as well. Sometimes, “traditional” teaching is easier and more fun for our kids, too. We need to push teachers and push our students to leave their comfort zones. At first, it may not be as fun or as easy, but fun and easy should not necessarily be our goal. Hard work and fun go hand in hand and this is an even better outcome. Finally, anyone who is observing a teacher (and I hope that includes not merely formal, administrative observations, but also teachers observing teachers), needs to work harder as well; it will be fun (not boring!) when we do. Instead of sitting and simply watching the teacher and noting all s/he says and does, we need to get up, immerse ourselves in the learning, and focus on students: What are they saying? What are they doing? What is the task? How are they collaborating, communicating, creating, thinking?
And now, a confession: I do not really believe that great teachers are boring; in fact, a few truly great teachers I have observed recently in our own district are also the very antithesis of boring. They are all ridiculously great teachers; in addition, they are among the most unique, interesting, passionate, energetic, and dynamic human beings you could ever hope to find. So, admittedly, I am trying to be a bit provocative with my blog post title; at the same time, I do believe there lies a hidden truth within this statement. 

Too often, we still equate great teaching with teachers who play the leading role in the classroom; charismatic, entertaining, sage-on-the-stage, stand-and-deliver orators and presenters of information. This still has a place in the realm of great instruction, but I have also learned that great teaching (maybe not teachers) can look quite boring, including the “teaching” I saw in a recent observation in which the teacher said nary a word for 13 consecutive minutes while the kids did all the talking--and teaching. In this sense, then, great teaching can indeed be “boring.” To shift this mindset and understand this type of teaching is not boring, we need to shift our focus when observing in classrooms, observing the teacher less and students more and observing “teaching” less and learning more. Focusing on learning, not teaching, is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!

Homework: Give It Purpose or Give It Death!

I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” 
Lily Tomlin

(This post was co-written with my colleague Marcie Faust, Director for Innovative Learning in Deerfield Public Schools)

My daughter, Jordyn, is 21 and a senior in college. Marcie’s daughter, Valerie, is a 9-year-old third grader. In commiserating with Marcie about Valerie’s recent homework experiences, we realized that not much has changed in the quality of homework assignments during the 12 years that have passed since Jordyn finished, and Valerie began, third grade. Marcie became so frustrated with the inane assignments her daughter was expected to complete that she posted this video capturing her daughter completing a word search (38 minutes that neither of them will ever get back) on a recent evening:

Video: Last Night's Homework (1 minute) via @mfaust

We suspect that Marcie and her daughter could have put their limited evening time together to better use than laboring over a word search. Our PLN pal (also a parent), Adam Bellow (@adambellow), has shared his own frustrations on the topic of homework on more than one occasion, including this wonderful short video he created two years ago about the dreaded “Homework Packet.”

Video: The Homework Packet (1 minute) via @adambellow

Honestly, we are a bit surprised that homework packets, word searches, and other random assignments still go home with such regularity. We have many strong feelings about this issue, enough to fill a book as opposed to a mere blog post. For now, however, let us first take a page from our revolutionary pal Patrick Henry by suggesting, if nothing else, we must either give it purpose...or give it death. To elaborate just a bit, let us share five quick additional points:

  1. First, we are not advocates for never assigning homework. Adopting such a rigid stance presents almost as many problems as having a policy FOR assigning a certain amount of homework each night. Like most issues we face in education, homework is not a black/white, always/never issue and we are well served to align with neither side of extremist stances. What we do stand for, however, is ensuring that any homework assigned is…
  2. Assigned with intention. Every single homework assignment we expect kids to complete should be assigned with a clear purpose in mind--for every student expected to complete it, which leads us to…
  3. Not all homework should be assigned to all students. Even our educator friends who advocate for no homework policies generally agree that, if there is a legitimate purpose to homework, that purpose is to practice skills first learned at school. We find it highly dubious that every child in any given classroom of 20 or more students needs the exact same amount of practice on the exact same content. When we do assign homework for practice, it should be…
  4. Differentiated to meet the needs of each individual student. To use a medical analogy, when we diagnose (through daily formal and informal formative assessments) that a student is showing symptoms indicating a need for some type of support, we might well start by prescribing additional practice during class or at home. However, we should no more prescribe the same type/amount of homework practice for every student than we would prescribe the same medical remedy for wildly varying ailments, as evidenced shown in this video: 

Video: Prescribing Homework (2 minutes) via @mfaust 

In a recent post another friend, Eric Sheninger, touched on key differences between personalizing versus differentiating learning. We think this subtle, yet significant, distinction applies to learning at home as well. When not assigning homework for targeted, intentional practice, we may want to assign it to inspire individual exploration/extension of learning. This type of homework assignment should be personalized based upon the individual student. However, whereas in differentiation of homework assignments, we differentiate based on the academic needs of the student, in personalization we again differentiate, but based on the academic interests, passions, and desires of the student.

Discussing homework often provokes strong reactions among teachers, students, and parents, with views ranging from those insisting on certain amounts of homework nightly to those insisting we abolish homework altogether. Although there is no clear consensus on this topic, we believe it is important to start with a somewhat obvious question, “What is our purpose in assigning homework?” and then--assuming we can identify a legitimate reason--intentionally differentiating our tasks by asking kids to complete additional (but limited) amounts of practice to reinforce learning based on their needs and to personalize assignments by challenging students to extend their learning after school hours by exploring topics based on their interests and passions.

The debate regarding homework is likely to continue and we do not profess to have a one-size-fits-all answer, anymore than we would assign one-size-fits-all homework, but here are two final challenges:

Like many of you, we are not only educators, but also parents, and we have experienced the homework challenge from both ends of the spectrum. Full disclosure: Once we became parents, our perspectives changed a bit as we saw first-hand how homework impacted our families, oftentimes negatively. So as a challenge to teachers everywhere, we encourage a practice we first learned from Nick Provenzano (@thenerdyteacher), who took it upon himself as a teacher to actually complete himself all homework assignments he assigned to his students. We wonder, as he did, “ much homework teachers would give if they were expected to complete it.” To be fair, however, it is often our parents, not our teachers, who expect and even demand that we assign homework. To parents, we suggest asking your children, “If you could do any kind of work for a homework assignment, what would that be?” Our guess? Your child(ren) will likely NOT ask to do something meaningless like a word search or writing their spelling words five times each. On the other hand, they may answer--as Marcie’s daughter did when asked that very same question, “I’d like to create my own country and design its flag. Then I would build my country in Minecraft for other kids to see.”

Although some of our friends still lament the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we actually believe that when it comes to homework, the Common Core--interpreted at face value and implemented with fidelity--compels us to act in a way that will actually result in a decrease of mindless homework assignments. The overarching goal of the CCSS--to ensure that all kids leave their PK-12 experience college and career ready--is a noble goal; we are hard pressed to argue against kids leaving us fully prepared for the next stage of their lives. Alas, assigning mindless homework to all kids, without taking into account their current knowledge and skillset and not allowing choice and interest to play a role in whether or what kind of homework to assign strike us as ways to actually do the opposite.

So, we ask: Is the work we are assigning our kids to complete at home tonight designed to prepare them for their tomorrow? If not, let’s reconsider. Deciding if and when to assign homework can be problematic to say the least; it might behoove us to put on our medical hats when considering what to assign. Monitoring our students’ learning “symptoms,” “diagnosing” their current status, and based on such diagnoses, “prescribing” a course of action (including, perhaps, no homework at all if the “patient” is healthy) is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion!

Why Joe Maddon Should Be a School Principal

“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will just take care of itself.” 
Tony Hsieh, Zappos

I am writing this post with a great deal of trepidation, fearful I am about to bestow a new curse upon my beloved Chicago Cubs, a team I have followed fanatically for my entire life. However, the other day I was on a Voxer chat and Joe Mazza--one of the few members of my PLN who understands my passion for all things Cubbies--asked me what I thought about Joe Maddon as their manager now that we are well into his first season in the role. Reflecting on this question, I realized that not only do I consider him an outstanding baseball manager, but I would also hire him to be a principal in our school district. Although I suspect he is not “highly qualified” in the eyes of our State Board of Education, I am confident our students and teachers would fare well were we able to lure him away from Wrigley and bring him to Deerfield to lead one of our schools. In fact, I stand ready to extend him an offer.

What makes me think this? Because school success starts with successful school leadership and successful school leadership looks a whole lot like successful leadership in any other walk of life. Perhaps the foremost responsibility of a successful leader--in schools or on the baseball field--is to, as Tony Hsieh suggests, "get the culture right." In many ways this is a leader's Job #1 and it is a job at which Joe Maddon has excelled. The Chicago Cubs are winning this year NOT because their roster is filled with star players; rather, they are winning because they finally have established a winning culture. Some may disagree regarding my estimation of the players' talent on this year’s squad, so let’s confront some brutal facts about my favorite team:

  • As I write these words, the Cubbies are dead last in team batting average in the National League. They are not merely bad in this area, they are the worst in the entire league.
  • They are also dead last in team hits, more than 30 hits behind the team immediately ahead of them in this statistic.
  • They do find themselves in first place in one batting statistic, however. Unfortunately, that stat is strikeouts. Yep, they lead the league in Ks, having struck out almost 200 times more than the next worst team.
  • In terms of individual offensive stats, the Cubbies have nary a hitter who is batting .300 this year, typically considered the batting average of an excellent hitter. In fact, their shining star in this stat is Anthony Rizzo, whose average is a pedestrian .281.
  • Maybe they are winning because of defense? Nope. Only 5 of the other 29 teams in the majors have committed more fielding errors than my beloved Cubbies this year. My mom (age 82) would likely commit about as many errors as Starlin Castro has this year had she been playing infield for them.
  • Well, it’s gotta be the pitching, then. Statistically speaking, this is a comparative bright spot. Their team ERA of 3.59 places them 5th best among the 15 National League teams, so they perform in the top third. However, they have but two consistently reliable starting pitchers: Jake Arrieta, a true superstar, and Jon Lester. Nearly anyone who follows the team would agree that Lester is the team’s second best starting pitcher. His current record? 8 wins; 10 losses.

Looking at these stats alone, an uninformed observer would be excused for suspecting the Cubs overall team record to be pretty miserable. However, in terms of winning--the only stat that truly counts--the Cubbies are unbelievable: There are but 3 teams in all of Major League Baseball with a better record (unfortunately, of course, for us, 2 of those 3 teams are in our own division). How is it, then, that a team with mediocre talent and statistics among the worst in baseball, finds itself playoff-bound for the first time in years (unless, as I fear, I have now doomed them, adding to the many curses with which they already face)? Leadership. And the Clubhouse Culture that Maddon--and other team leaders (e.g., Rizzo) have created. Are there any comparisons to be made between the Cubbies success so far this year and school success? Here are just a few thoughts:

Relationships First: Maddon cares about the players he leads. He knows them, treats them with dignity and respect, and appears to genuinely like them. Successful school leaders start with relationships, too.

Team Over Individuals: Maddon does not need (and perhaps does not even want) a mere superstar or two on his team. He is interested not in pockets of excellence, but in networks of excellence. He will sacrifice the interests of an individual team member in favor of the interests of the entire team. Successful school leaders cultivate a team mentality, focusing on the collective mission, vision, and values, too.

Gotta Have Fun: Although playing baseball for money seems like a pretty cushy gig, Maddon knows that over a long 162-game season, it can also be grueling. It requires discipline, tedious practice, and an intentional focus on fundamentals. To get the culture right, he is equally intentional about having fun. As an example, look no further than the recent team pajama party! Successful school leaders know that teaching is tough and important work. They find ways to balance this work and seriousness with a regular dose of fun, too. 

Believe to Achieve: Many players on this year’s team were also members of the team last year, when they had the worst record in their division. What has changed is not so much a roster overhaul as much as an attitude overhaul. An attitude that believes they can do it. Successful school leaders instill confidence in the students and teachers they lead. They know that when kids believe they can achieve, they are likely to do so. They know that their own belief in their kids’ abilities to succeed influences whether the kids will believe in themselves.

Focus on What You Can Do, not What You Can’t Do: Maddon will not have the league batting champ on his team this year. Nor will he have the Home Run King, the Gold Glove shortstop, an established base stealing threat, or even a left-handed starting pitcher who can execute a pick off throw to first base. Guess what? None of that matters and he wastes little time fretting about it. Instead, he focuses on what he does have: decent hitters, reasonable power, consistent pitching, especially in the bullpen, and outstanding character. Successful school leaders focus on what they do have in front of them and do not waste time complaining about what they do not have.

Would I hire Joe Maddon to be a principal in our school district? Absolutely. Here’s the really interesting part: I actually disagree with many of his tactical decisions, probably more so than I did with Renteria or Sveum before him. I still despise his penchant for batting his pitchers 8th instead of 9th. I decry the lack of sacrifice bunting exhibited under his tenure. Still, I suspect he would be the type of school leader who would create a culture in which others would be empowered and encouraged to do great things. I suspect the students and teachers in a Maddon-led school would find themselves working hard, having fun, and being nice to each other every single day. These things are far more important than any single decisions we may--or may not--support.

So, Joe, please give me a call so we can commence with negotiations (that is, as soon as you wrap up the Series this October!); as difficult as your current gig is, honesty compels me to suggest you will find serving as a school principal even more difficult. However, I am confident you will do well and that you will find it equally--if not even more--rewarding! We likely will be unable to match your salary, but we offer amazing benefits: some of the best students and staff in the free world! Focusing on school and classroom culture like Maddon focuses on clubhouse culture is another way we Teach and Lead with Passion! 

The Future Before Us

“The future of the world is in my classroom today, a future with the potential for good or bad. Several future presidents are learning from me today; so are the great writers of the next decades, and so are all the so-called ordinary people who will make the decisions in a democracy. I must never forget these same young people could be the thieves and murderers of the future. Only a teacher? Thank God I have a calling to the greatest profession of all! I must be vigilant every day, lest I lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow.” 
Ivan Welton Fitzwater

The start of another school year finds me reflecting on years past and, in particular, many students I taught during my eighteen years as a classroom teacher. Since leaving the classroom, thousands of young students I taught at one time have gone on to achieve many amazing things. I frequently hear from some who keep me posted on their careers and family lives. Some have gone on to become doctors and lawyers. Others are making a difference in the corporate arena. Many of my former students have gone on to careers in education themselves. Still others have enjoyed successful careers in service industries and the arts. One of my former student-athletes has been recognized as perhaps the best baseball pitcher in the world over the course of the past decade and another played in the NBA for many years. Most of these outcomes have not surprised me much; in fact, in many cases, I could have predicted the paths these young men and women would take. But, as a new school year approaches, I am reminded of another former student with whom I exchange letters each month. His post secondary journey took a different turn, one that none of us who knew him then would have predicted. This young man is currently serving a life sentence in prison for murder.

A recent post written by Ben Gilpin motivated me to write about this former student of mine. Ben wrote about how he felt when he learned a former student was diagnosed with cancer. I will never forget the day I learned that James (not his real name) had murdered someone. I was serving as a principal in Atlanta, several hours from where I had taught and coached James. One morning, I turned to page three of the Atlanta newspaper to see a mugshot of my former student staring back at me accompanied by an article chronicling the incident. If you had asked any of his teachers the chances that this young man would become a convicted murder shortly after high school graduation, the response would have been one of disbelief. Sure, this young man had been a bit of a class clown and he was not our valedictorian, nor anywhere close. He was, however, an intelligent, charming, fun-loving, affable young man who mixed well with all types of students at the diverse high school he attended. He was an excellent golfer who played for one of the most successful high school programs in the country and graduated with a respectable GPA. I actually counted him among my most memorable and likable students in our 11th Grade English class because he made us laugh but knew when to buckle down and focus on the work. Like each of us, he had his faults, but, overall, he was a delight to teach and coach. A future murderer? Not a chance!

I am ashamed to admit what I did when I learned the news of his plight: absolutely nothing. For over five years, no less. Then, while working with a colleague, I learned that he also had a former student who had been in prison for many years. Unlike me, this colleague, Bill, had kept in contact, writing letters, sending gifts when allowed, and even visiting his former student. Why had I been so quick to mention and even brag about my former students now in professional sports and in Hollywood, but so quiet about this young man, who I recalled fondly and who could probably use some friendly support? Bill helped me research how to contact this former student and I immediately sat down to write him a letter. That was three years ago and we have exchanged letters monthly ever since. I have re-connected with his parents and have made a visit to see him in prison back in Georgia. By re-connecting with James, I learned that this young man has done everything in his power to hold himself accountable for the horrific crime he committed in a moment of intoxicated fury many years ago. He has dedicated himself to his faith and his education and training while
behind bars and has expressed sincere remorse for his crime. Although nothing he can do will ever erase the pain the victim's family must live with every day, I cannot imagine a prisoner more remorseful, nor dedicated to making the most of a terrible situation. I have also learned a bit about myself and human nature since reaching out to this young man and have become a better person as a result:

  • Part of my initial motivation for writing to James was to cheer him up. I am not sure if it did, but I do know this: his letters always have that effect on me. Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year: Make an extra effort to encourage your kids; they will be uplifted….and, in return, so will you.
  • In every letter James has written me, he has commented with intellect and keen insight on something about his current or past situation and/or something about my own current or past situation and/or something about current or past world events. I have honestly learned much from him through our correspondence. Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year: The teacher does not hold all the knowledge in the classroom; we need to listen and learn from our students and not just those among them who are the teacher-pleasers. All our students have much they can teach us.
  • I remain ashamed that, for the most part, I dismissed James from my life when I learned he was in prison for murder. Since reconnecting, I realize that--despite this terrible crime--he has done everything in his power to atone for his behavior, serve others, and continuously improve. Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year:  Never give up on any student. No matter how bleak their current circumstances might seem, expect the best and let them know you believe in them. Give them the gift of confidence--and second chances.
  • I often wonder if there is anything I might have done differently way back when James was at our school and in my class to prevent this tragic situation. In reality, I sincerely doubt that, but it still haunts me to an extent: Did I do everything I could to connect with him as a person and a student? Did I fully celebrate his successes and counsel him when he erred? Lesson/Reminder for us when working with our students this year: You simply never know what a difference you might make in any student’s life, including a difference you may not learn about until years later. Don't take what we do and our ability to influence our kids lightly.

As Fitzwater admonishes us in the quote above, we must be vigilant every day when working with young people, lest we lose one fragile opportunity to improve tomorrow. We often say that the possibilities are endless for the students we serve; typically, we mean that in a positive way, suggesting that they can become and achieve almost anything with the proper attitude, focused effort, and perseverance. Of course, the not-so-pleasant possibilities for our kids are endless as well, depending on the circumstances they face and the choices they make. Let’s cherish every minute we have while they are with us this year and do all we can to equip them for future success. The future before us? The future is right here, right now: every student sitting in our classrooms, counting on us to lead them to future success. Focusing on every student, every day is another way we Teach with Passion!

The Final Friday: The Possibilities are Endless!

The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.” 
Emily Dickinson

Wow! Another year has come and--almost--gone! Is it just me, or was this one the quickest yet? In our district, this past Friday was our final day of student attendance. Whether you finished last week, well before that, or have yet to finish school for the year, Thanks to teachers everywhere for another amazing year of engaging, inspiring, and empowering our students, yourselves, and each other. 

At this time of year, I often read about graduation speeches that have been delivered during these weeks. I, myself, have made a few over the years. Typically, when speaking to young people preparing to embark upon their next stage of life, I mention the themes of dreams, success, and possibilities. For our students, their possibilities are truly endless; thank you for sparking this sense of possibility within them throughout the year by kindling their imagination as Dickinson describes in the above quote.

A favorite book I used to read to 5th graders leaving a K-5 school where I served is Dream: A Tale of Wonder, Wisdom, & Wishes by Susan V. Bosak. Like Dickinson, she encourages young people to dream great dreams and to follow through on these by believing, doing, and thinking. It is not enough to merely dream of future greatness, however; we must also apply many hours of disciplined thought and disciplined action so that we realize our dreams. Students around the country learned this from their teachers this year and will be well served, many years hence, when their “possible fuses” burn down to the point of ignition--with astounding results!

For some of us, we are approaching a different stage of dreaming, a stage shared by Bosak in her book:

I have dreamed a lifetime of dreams
I reached many of them
Not all, but many
Many also changed along the way.
What I have most are fine memories
When you're as old as I am,
You still dream dreams
But they're different.
Mostly they're wishes for those who follow.

Like most passionate educators, I spend long hours at work and still have many goals I wish to accomplish both personally and professionally. Honestly, though, even more important to me at this point in my life are the wishes I have for my daughter and for all young people, including the kids who attended our schools, learning alongside us this year. Like me, I know that at times this school year, dedicated educators subordinated in importance their own time, interests, efforts, and dreams to those of the students with whom they interacted each day. Thank you for making such sacrifices in order to help make our students' future dreams come true at some point long down the road.

As Dickinson suggests, “possible” is indeed a long fuse, one which we must ignite and keep aflame each and every day if we are to succeed. This applies not only to us, but also to our students. To our classroom teachers I say: The work you have done this year was important and noble work; I hope your final days of school are/were among the best ones yet and that you enjoy a summer filled with laughter, love, continued learning...and imagining the possibilities. Doing these things are ways we Teach (and Live) with Passion!

The 34th Friday: What's in the Box?

The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” 
Anatole France

Last weekend, Joe Sanfelippo, a close friend who is also a superintendent in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, shared a story that I, in turn, want to share today, as many educators approach the end of another school year:

Joe said that his wife was subbing in a 6th grade classroom in his small, K-12 district last Friday. During the day, she noticed a group of high school seniors (who would be graduating the next day) leaving a 6th grade teacher’s classroom, talking and smiling as they left this classroom. This piqued her curiosity and--perhaps even expecting something was amiss--she went into the classroom to investigate--and learned why these boys had stopped by this teacher’s classroom just before their graduation. 

She learned that this middle school teacher, on these students’ first day of 6th grade nearly seven years ago, brought out a black box of
some kind, talked about it, 
described it, discussed what might be inside it, and then said to them: “If you want to know what’s in the box, come back and see me on your last week here before your high school graduation.” And that was it. That’s all he ever mentioned about it. He never said another word about the black box, did not remind them about it, nothing. The day before graduation, they all just walked down there and wanted to know what was in the box. 

I thought this was a powerful story on many levels and wanted to share three takeaways for us to remember today, as we may be but days away from saying goodbye to our own students for the year, depending on where you serve:

  • Our words are powerful and impactful. Our students will remember them, years after we say them.
  • Creating curiosity and a sense of inquiry within our students is a powerful way to engage them and, ultimately, help them learn.
  • Relationships are everything. Although I do not know this teacher personally, my hunch is that this person went about his teaching and learning business every day the remainder of that school year building positive relationships with his students. They returned to his classroom partly to satisfy their curiosity, but also to reconnect with someone they liked and respected as a teacher.

By the way, when Joe shared this story on a Voxer group chat with 10 other educators I communicate with via that app regularly, guess what all 9 of us asked almost instantaneously? You guessed it: “Joe, what was in the box?” Alas, his response was: “They won’t tell.”

As many of us prepare to bid adieu to the students we taught every day this year, let's remember the influence each of us has over these young learners. Keep creating a sense of curiosity within them. Know that your words matter to them and use them intentionally. Keep forging those relationship skills with them, right up to the very end. Doing these things is what causes our kids to come back and see us, years after they leave our classrooms. The are also ways we Teach with Passion

When Is It OK To Break the Rules?

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious,  I break them.” Ro...