Category Archives: Uncategorized

It Doesn’t Take Much

IMG_0490My daughter and I just decorated her door with streamers. She’s been asking to do this for several days. I’ve had the typical responses to helping her, “Sure…later,” “Not now; we’re too busy,” “Uh huh, but I have to do x, y, z first.” You know the story. There’s a lot going on. People are waiting on us. The family needs to be fed, the counter needs to get cleaned off (again!), and the laundry…don’t even go there!

So today after lunch, I said, “Yes! Let’s do this!” We looked through the supply of streamers, found all of the colors we had, then got started. She handed them up, I stood on the stool and taped them. My choice of decor? Definitely not. But then again, anything I would have chosen never would have brought as much joy and laughter in the process. It’s the simple things that matter. A short time spent together, no care for the Scotch tape on the door frame, allowing for perfect imperfections, and a lot of laughter on the way.

Finding our Spark!

I’m reminded over and over again these days of just how amazing each of us is. I like to talk about my belief that we are each capable of much more than we think we can do, so some of you have heard this from me before. Every once in awhile, the circumstances allow us to be surprised by our own capacity—we run farther and faster than we have, we find the right words to reach a given audience, something we do has a bigger impact than we ever envisioned. But all too often, we miss out on reaching our full potential, and instead of creating in new and awesome ways, we settle for less. 

In my own reading and social media perusal of late, I’ve seen countless references to what it is that makes us tick and leads to high levels of success and satisfaction. We are looking for ways to get out of the predictable patterns that we often fall into without even noticing. The book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg focuses on keystone habits—the things we can change that cause ripple effects in our other actions, producing desirable results. When we’re looking to make changes in our lives and work toward a goal, it’s a keystone habit that will set the course for success. Many are talking about the work of Carol Dweck in Mindset regarding the difference between the growth and the fixed mindset. Those who are able to persevere when tasks are difficult and avoid frustration while solving complex problems have the growth mindset—a core belief that they have power and can learn and grow through failure and adversity. They have grit. And speaking of grit, have you seen all the talk about grit and resilience lately? Here’s a list from Edutopia that will give you a few things to read. 

The best news from Dweck’s work is that the growth mindset is something that can be learned and cultivated. People don’t need to be stuck with a fixed mindset, but can develop a growth mindset. But what is it that makes us get out there, step outside of ourselves, and as Kid President says, “Be More Awesome”? All of us in the education field grapple with intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I’m an Alfie Kohn fan, and as a teacher, I tried for the ideal of kids going above and beyond in the classroom based on their own interest and drive. However, I can still relate to getting goose bumps about how amazing my content is and the engaging lesson I have planned, while still wondering if a game and some candy bars would get my students to buy in more. Just as Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards) maintains that carrots and sticks do not cause us to perform better, Daniel Pink reiterates this concept in his book, Drive, and in this cool little video that sums it up. Unless we’re talking about rudimentary tasks that require little to no cognitive engagement, we don’t perform at higher levels based on receiving more reward. Even more startling is that we actually perform worse on tasks when they have even the slightest bit of complexity and a higher reward is promised for stronger performance. Pink maintains that the three things that motivate us to work hard and actually perform at higher levels are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

This makes sense. People want a say in what they do and how they do it, they want to attain high levels of expertise in areas of interest, and they want their work to contribute to something greater. We, the teachers and leaders in our schools, know this. We know that kids are all capable of learning at high levels and doing great things. We look for opportunities to push our students, recognize and take pride in their successes, and incorporate their interests in their learning. What if students take the helm? Teachers have great ability to guide students in designing how they learn and demonstrate their learning. What would students create, what connections would they make, and how would they change their community (close by and afar) if they were empowered and encouraged to realize their potential, particularly in ways that interest them? In our schools, one of our goals through our strategic plan is to nurture students’ spark. When we find the intersection of their interests, learning, and meaningful application, they will do great things. This is the basis for the new student group I’m starting called Spark!, where students will have a place to come together solely to work on projects that interest them and see what they can accomplish when they learn by pursuing their interests in a purposeful context of their choosing. If I can help our students to recognize how unique, amazing, and powerful they are, my efforts are more than worthwhile. It’s time to get out there, embrace opportunity and excellence, and Be More Dog

The “You” in CommUnity

As I’m pondering my personal and professional goals for the year ahead, I’m struck by the interconnectedness of life these days. In the time of New Year’s resolutions, when many focus on personal goals and self-improvement, I’m thinking about collective success and how a large majority of our endeavors are not really individual at all, but collaborative and interactive pursuits of excellence. Furthermore, I’m thinking about the community that supports me and the role I play in communities of support to others.

When looking at education, the shift from isolated, independent practice to collaboration and shared responsibility for collective efficacy and success over the past several years has been dramatic. It’s not that we just realized that the highest levels of student learning and personal development require the support of many teachers and leaders, but collaborative practice has taken hold as a common way of working. We have embraced systems and protocols that embed collaboration into our daily practice. The PLC concept seems to have higher prevalence in schools these days than most other practices. The change from one classroom teacher taking sole responsibility for the learning of students in their classes to teams of teachers taking a collective approach and sharing responsibility for the learning of all students together is good news for our students. Beyond teachers pooling resources and working together to adapt instruction, respond to varying student needs, and provide multiple learning opportunities and assessment methods, I am also excited about the immense impact community involvement can have on student learning. What if students’ school experience allows them to interact with our world and learn from a larger community? This is also not a new idea. We’ve all heard the African proverb that was also used as the title of Hillary Clinton’s book, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Political biases aside, the idea is that to best raise our children, they need community support and involvement, as well as diverse experiences and opportunities. This just makes sense. So, where is the village in our schools?

As we grapple with providing students with choice in their schooling, integrating real-world project/problem-based learning, and customizing and personalizing learning for the vastly different individuals in our classes, how do we as teachers and leaders facilitate the benefits of connecting our students with the community? Technology has provided us with access to information that just a few years (or even a few months) ago wasn’t fathomable. Teachers and students can find facts, how-to videos, scholarly research, video lessons, discussion forums, directions, and networking opportunities that have never before been available to us. Advances in technology are simultaneously making our village bigger and smaller. We can connect with experts in almost any field and find vast amounts of information with ease. Limitations of time and space that have hindered our global connectedness are no longer as big of barriers as they were in the past. With these changes, our focus for student learning must include meaningful application and interaction with content knowledge. How can our students use the skills and information they learn to create something new?

While we work to build a community for our students in which they are connected with mentors, leaders, and experts and have authentic learning opportunities, we also must ensure that we are participating in a larger community ourselves. We must not only work collaboratively with our immediate colleagues and local communities, but also take advantage of the opportunities we have as professionals to develop our own PLNs (Personal Learning Networks). Through the use of digital tools and social media, we can increase both the size and diversity of our villages. We have the opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences and engage in thought-provoking conversations. These types of interactions enrich my learning and change my perspectives and practices for the better.

The purpose of this discourse (for anyone still reading) is that when thinking about what’s best for our kids, our communities, and ourselves, it’s important to think about the connections and relationships that support our goals and our collective capacity. As we set goals for our students, our teams, and ourselves, we need to think about the networks that best support our goal attainment. How are we reaching out to and contributing to our professional networks? Where are we part of the community that supports the development of others? How can we facilitate opportunities for our students to make connections with others and with the world that will support their learning?

And finally, it’s important that we sift through the overwhelming amounts of information and connections available to us to find the ones that really matter. While we are building our communities near and far, we need to continuously assess where we gain and add value. As we filter the numerous inputs, we need to also teach our students to discern which information and interactions add value to their learning and personal development. 

Fish tales and teacher evaluation

Teach to Fish

A friend and colleague of mine posted this little comic on facebook today, and it at least made me think a little bit…ok, quite a bit. There are multiple ways to go with this–the legitimacy of standardized tests as indicators of performance (teacher or student), merit pay, teacher motivation (which is not actually increased by merit pay), and what it is we actually teach. Let’s talk about that–the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that our students need to learn.

Since we have this fishing analogy in front of us, I’m just going to expand on it a bit. I think we can all agree that the idea of teaching somebody to fish is more sustainable than just giving them a fish. Applicable. I can work with that. So now, we decide that a kid needs to know how to fish (answer questions), and we’re going to measure how well they do on a given day. I can work with that, too. But now, we’re going to hold the teacher accountable for all kids catching a certain number of fish on that given day. Then, instead of analyzing results and working with an almost certainly skilled individual (the teacher) to respond to those results, we’re going to get punitive. This is where I struggle. Here’s why.

Do you know how many ways there are to fish? Countless. But let’s go with the basics of bare hands, nets, traps or set nets, spears, or using a hook and line (maybe even a sinker…wah, wah, wah). Now, some of these methods might pull in a large quantity of fish in short time, while others take longer to catch anything. Some might take a long time to master, but then be fairly reliable. The time needed to master a given technique may have much to do with a person’s culture, upbringing, or family support. You get the picture, different techniques of fishing (answering questions) will take varying amounts of time for different kids to master, and even so, some may have better levels of success. What if on the given time and day to catch your fish, you’re just not quite ready?

Those levels of success will also be susceptible to a myriad of conditions–type of fish in the water, cleanliness of the water, fish population, presence of predators, etc. Furthermore, the fishermen (students) will have access to different tools. Some will have boats, depth finders, the latest rod and reel, bait specifically intended to pull in the desired catch, a cool drink and snacks to sustain them while they fish, maybe even good company in their effort. Some will have access to multiple bodies of water with good opportunity to catch fish, and others will be stuck on dry land or in concrete jungles. Should all of these fishermen be held to the same standard or quota? We can argue for an objective standard and say “yes.” In which case, I will say that we need to do more with the data than evaluate the fishing pro’s performance.

All of this aside, let’s also ask ourselves if we know that the fishing we’re teaching is the best. When we determine a certain number of fish that need to be caught (questions that need to be answered) and a preferred method for attaining the required results, we narrow our focus. I don’t know if you want to be fly fishing, deep sea fishing, ice fishing, trolling a line behind your boat, entering a fishing contest, or standing on the dock with a kid casting their first line. There are infinite goals and directions we can set for ourselves (or discover along the way), and I will venture that we all have many questions to ask and answer to get there. We need to foster our students’ ability to ask good questions, seek effective solutions, learn from mistakes, and change direction as needed. We also need to allow for our students to encounter meaningful ways to contribute to society and find fulfillment in their lives. This will look very different for different students.

What happens when we make a teacher’s livelihood dependent on the fish their students catch? Yes, the students will have other factors that influence their performance beyond the teacher’s control. But even more frightening is that the teacher will develop a laser-like focus on the skills needed to catch the fish that somebody else said are most important. The only reason that’s a problem is that in order to do that, they will cut out many of the other lessons that are indispensable for our students’ preparation for life. And what will the basis for their decisions be? It’s much more likely to be fear of punishment or humiliation than care for their students’ best interests.

And what do we say to the student who decides to try hunting or wants to start a garden and be a vegan? Sorry, you must fish well.

So, here I go…


I’ve been observing, pondering, and making meaning of the world around me through what I read, interactions I see and take part in, sights that blow my mind, and the aha! moments that spur my enthusiasm for life and learning. Now, I’m going to try my hand at sharing some of them. Despite my stumbling upon the quote from, “Blogging: Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few,” I’m going to give this a shot.

Thanks for checking this out. I hope to share some insights and questions that make others and me think and add benefit to our lives and efficacy to our actions.