Listen to the students

Voices of Students

I’ve recently been reading a couple of books that have me thinking about innovation – both in terms of education, and in terms of the world as a whole. I’ve seen lots of different ways to define innovation, but the one that I think is the simplest to understand, and that I find myself going back to again and again is the one that George Couros shares in his book The Innovator’s Mindset – Innovation “is a way of thinking that creates something new and better.” Just because something is new, that doesn’t necessarily make it innovative. Handing our teachers the hot new tech tool won’t make that teacher innovative, but it is possible that the things they accomplish with that tool is innovative because it makes learning for our students better!

I think it’s also fair to say that all of us that work in education know that there are students that our current system of education is not working for. I bet anyone who teaches or works in a school is visualizing at least one student, if not several!

I recently heard a quote, I think it was on a podcast, but I was driving and I didn’t write it down at the time, but the concept stuck with me (to be honest, I can’t even tell you what podcast it was on, I tried to figure it out, but can’t recall!). The gist of what the speaker said is that an innovator looks for resistors. When they design a product, or are working on a redesign, they don’t want to talk to the people that the product works for. The feedback they get from those people is simply that they like it. Any true innovator wants a room full of the people who the product is not working for. If a designer can create a product that better meets the needs of those that the product is not working for, they are usually able to come up with a design that better meets the needs of all the potential customers.

So what does this have to do with education? That’s what you may be wondering… Think about the kid that the current education system is not working for. When we think about the concepts of Universal Design for Learning, creating a system that benefits our kids who struggle doesn’t take away from the learning of those who the system is currently working for. It typically leads to better learning opportunities for all our students.

The next time you get a chance, take a moment to listen to your students, especially the ones who are really struggling. What do they say they need to be more successful? I’m an adult and I struggle to sit for long periods of time – If I can’t do it, why should we expect our students to be able to?

Have you ever made changes because of feedback that students shared with you? How did it work out? Did it benefit more students than just the person you were trying to help? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Today I was sitting in a meeting with colleagues. During the meeting, we had a conversation around the idea of whether we were a person who led through checklists, or if we were one who led through the rally cry mentality. I know that for me, definitely trend towards the rally cry side of things. I like to think about big ideas, about making change happen, about causing good trouble, about being a ruckus maker for the benefit of all the learners in my school (notice the intent of learners – that’s not just students). But the tradition in educational leadership has trended more towards the checklist mentality.

I think that this checklist leadership has led to an education system that relies on their checklists. I think that those checklists are what cause us to pull out the same activities from year to year, not being responsive to our students, not being responsive to the environment around us. It’s why in January we write stories about snow even when there isn’t any snow on the ground, or why we might spend a lesson in science on what a full moon is even though if we were to look at the night sky we might notice that the moon is currently in the new moon phase.

If we operate on checklists, our system is going to stay the way that it is. And here’s the thing… The system as it is can be hard to argue with for some. If you teach in a school that “does well” on the standardized assessment, even though you operate from that checklist mindset, it’s going to be hard to convince you, or your families, or maybe even your students, that there might be a better way to make learning happen.

But I believe there is a better way, because our checklist mindsets create kids who think in checklist ways. But our world doesn’t need checklist thinkers. In a recent article from Forbes (The 10+ Most Important Job Skills Every Company Will Be Looking For In 2020), the following list was shared:

  1. Data Literacy
  1. Critical Thinking
  1. Tech Savviness
  1. Adaptability and Flexibility
  1. Creativity
  1. Emotional Intelligence
  1. Cultural Intelligence and Diversity
  1. Leadership Skills
  1. Judgment and Complex Decision Making
  1. Collaboration

Or you could take a look at the list of Key Attributes that Employers Want to See on Students’ Resumes (click here). This survey, put out every year by National Association of Colleges and Employers, doesn’t list skills that could be achieved by checklist thinking anywhere near the top of their list.

Excitement and CuriositySo, my mindset is that education needs a little bit of a jolt. A swift kick in the behind. Because the system as we know it doesn’t help create students who are prepared for these skills listed above. Not to mention, I’m very fearful of any system where its users enter with excitement and curiosity, and exit feeling bored and disconnected. Visit a kindergarten classroom… After you get past all the hugs and stories, you’ll see learners who are excited to tell you about the littlest details of their curiosity. But somehow, by the time they reach late elementary or middle school, that excitement is mostly gone.

These fears drive me to a lot of conversations with other educators about what schools could be. About what we need to do to create a system that our users exit just as excited as when they enter, but with all the skills listed in the lists above. What’s hard about those conversations – so many of the educators I have those conversations with are checklist thinkers. They have the thing that they do every year because it’s the first month of school, or because it’s almost winter break, or because it’s the middle of winter and no matter what it looks and feels like outside we’re writing our snow stories.

And here’s the thing that drives me crazy. As soon as I start talking about my admittedly crazy ideas, as soon as I share a little bit about what it might mean for us to truly adjust what we do to be more responsive to the day to day needs of our students, and be responsive to the future needs of our society, I almost immediately get one word thrown back at me…


And I get that, I really do. When we live in a checklist mindset, our most important factor of those checklists is being able to check off the things on the list. And that means we have to do it at the time that we plan on checking it off.

But when I’m talking about change, that means we need to go into design thinking mode. When I say the word innovator, who do you think of? Maybe Einstein, or Edison, Tesla, Jobs, Musk, Wozniak, Gates… Those are the people that we think of as innovators. As we get into a problem-solving mindset for education, I want to remind you of a quote from Einstein that I love:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.”

You see, Einstein got that our ability to solve a problem doesn’t lie in the solution itself. Rather it lies in the ability to appropriately identify the problem. And if you were able to talk to Einstein, or any of the other innovators that I listed above, you’d learn that one of the last things you do in an innovative design process is start to allocate resources.

Time is a resource.

Let me say that again a little louder for the people in the back:

Time is a resource.

And as a resource, it’s not part of our innovative discussions. As educators, there are definitely some resources that we can’t solve. We probably don’t get to pick the location of our school. We typically don’t get to make many changes to the physical building itself. We can’t ignore our state standards of learning. But what happens within the walls, the pedagogical decisions, the allocation of staff, the assignment of students, those are all things that can be adapted. There are schools who have found ways to build regular collaboration time into the school day for teachers. There are schools who have removed a grade-based system, and instead meet each kid right where they are in terms of the instructional decisions that need to be made. Other people have figured out ways to make these innovative things happen. And they didn’t let that pesky issue of time get in the way.

Unless I’m missing something, that 24 hours a day thing is kind of consistent everywhere. Others who have made massive changes to the way they do education don’t have any more time than we do. They’ve just chosen to allocate that resource in a different way. They’ve chosen to change their dispositions, to change their mindsets.

So here’s where I am right now. I’m ready to throw the whole system out on the table. From soup to nuts, what’s not working? What might work better? Let’s try things. Let’s ideate as a staff. What do our kids need in order to be able to leave our building just as curious as the first time they set foot in it. Let’s put it all out there. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Then, let’s start testing. Just like how SpaceX must test each and every part in order to build a rocket that can do this:

We must be willing to ideate, innovate, test, reiterate, and test again. Eventually we can land our own system that creates students who are ready to leave us with the skills that employers need.

This IS GOING TO BE A MINDSET SHIFT for us all! But I’m on board. I’m ready to start testing, start trying, start building. These kids are too important to not.

They are all “our” kids

So, I’m just going to put it out there – there’s something that I’m really struggling with right now. I have noticed in every building I’ve worked in that there are some who define the students they teach based on the labels that they have. And even more so, the teachers define themselves by those same labels.

Advanced, resource, disabled, ENL, poverty, trauma; these are just some of the labels that can be used to describe the children who walk into our schools each day. And then, it seems that there are some who ascribe those same labels to the teachers who work with students who fall into these subgroups. And those labels also creep into the mindset of some of who work with students who may fall into these subgroups.

I have witnessed situations over the course of my career where a classroom teacher refers to the resource students in their classroom as “your kids” when talking with the resource teacher. I have also seen teachers who work with advanced students refer to their class as “my kids”, sometimes implying that the work they are doing with those advanced students is somehow significantly different than the teachers who work with students who are not advanced. There are a few things that bother me about language like that. First, it groups all of the students with these labels together. It implies some type of sameness. But each child is a unique human being with specific needs, wants, and desires. Second, it sends the message to all who hear it that certain students may not be as important. And third, it creates division among the teachers in a school, which goes against the idea of collective teacher efficacy.

This mindset is something that is hard for me to wrap my mind around – and I think that’s partially because of the role that I had in the classroom. For the majority of my teaching career, I taught science (yes, I taught many other things over the years, but science was the subject that I was assigned the most). In my years, I often had students who had IEPs, ILPs, FBAs, etc. But as the science teacher, I never received support in the form of a push in or pull out. The students who needed additional support had to receive it from me. Now, that’s not to imply that I was perfect. Many times, I had to work with a resource teacher, or an ENL teacher, to have ideas about how to adapt what I was trying to accomplish. Ultimately though, I was the teacher of service for every kid who walked into the classroom. I saw it as my job to take ownership of each and every student.

Was it perfect all the time? No. Did I have missteps and struggles? Yes. Were there times I may have felt defeated and wanted to throw in the towel? Absolutely. But when I kept my mindset focused on doing my best work so that each student who walked into my class would learn and grow, I found small wins that would keep me working to do better.

So, going back to that mindset that some have about “your kids” as compared to “my kids”… I think it’s important that we remember the impact that may have on a student. We may feel that those mindsets are something that we can keep to ourselves, but I believe that students can sense when a teacher doesn’t truly embrace them as a full member of the class. Our nonverbals tell our students our intent. Based on your intent, students will decide if they like you. Students will not work for you or learn from you if they do not like you. I’ve always loved this quote:

Watch your thoughts

I don’t want to credit this quote to anyone in particular because some research has shown versions of it going back to a Zen precepts, Chinese proverbs, Navajo beliefs, and even Ancient Roman leaders.

What I guess I’m looking for is a mindset shift. Instead of seeing students who fall into certain subgroups as someone else’s responsibility, we need to work towards an understanding and belief that all the kids that walk into our classroom, our building, our school system, or even our world as OUR KIDS. We need to be sure that we take ownership of the students that we work with, no matter what label they may carry. Because, as Brené Brown has said, “We all want to be seen, known, and valued.” That’s what I’m here for. That’s what I can get behind. Who’s with me?

Starting with why

A little over a month ago, I transitioned from the role of assistant principal at Riverside Intermediate School to my new role as principal of Fishers Elementary School. This has been an exciting opportunity for me, but has left me reflecting on what to do as we move forward. My number one goal has been to work on building relationships with the staff and students at Fishers. At the same time however, I’ve been thinking about working on defining a collective definition of beliefs, vision, and mission for Fishers Elementary School as we move forward.


I have long believed that in order to be able to create a collective definition of our beliefs, vision, and mission, we have to be really clear on our individual beliefs. For that reason, I created what I hoped to be something of an Ignite session defining “My Why” for what I do. I decided to take the slides from that presentation and turn it into a post for the blog. In a recent post (Start With Why) I wrote about how Simon Sinek’s TED Talk influenced some of the steps we were going to take moving forward at Fishers Elementary School.


A few years ago, Will Richardson (@willrich45) presented at Innovation Exchange. During his presentation, he talked about the importance of having a strong understanding of why we are here. The most successful companies out there are the ones who can clearly define their why. In order to be able to build a collective why, we first have to know our own personal why.


I am a 4th generation educator, so I guess you could say that teaching is in my blood. My great-grandfather was a teacher, college professor, and administrator during his working career (he also ran a farm, wrote poetry, and published several books). I can still remember visiting the family farm and learning about genetics from the rabbits he raised, or listening to his poetry in the pieces he would share. My grandmother was also a teacher – she taught home-economics, but also worked as a nutrition teacher who would travel to different schools in the area to share her lessons and introduce students to foods they might have never tried before. My mom was also a home economics teacher at the high school level – her lessons didn’t just impact her students, I still credit her as being the reason I love to cook. I think I started to learn to help out in the kitchen when I was in kindergarten!


When people ask me about my why, the first thing that comes to mind are my own two kids. Lainey and Brody both are curious kids who have things that they are interested in. When I think about what I want for each of them in an education, it reminds me that every kid who walks into a school deserves those same learning opportunities that I’d want to create for my own children.


As for me, I was your typical elementary kid from the 80s. I loved IU sports, I liked to play with my friends, and school was a place I went to be with those friends. I looked forward to lunch, recess, gym, and dismissal time. Then 5th grade happened. (Check out that awesome 5th grade school picture!) I had Mrs. Gromer as my teacher, and she created a caring learning environment that you wanted to be in every day. We would talk about the most recent episode of The Simpson’s every Monday morning, and she’d use the phrase “blueberry pie” in the sentence of every spelling word. But it was also a time of learning and growth. I think of 5th grade as the year I became a reader, and I’m sure Mrs. Gromer was a part of that! While I can’t tell you everything that I learned that year, I can tell you plenty about how I felt in that classroom! We were a community!


Mrs. Gromer wasn’t the only one who made me feel special. Much of who I am today comes from teachers like her, such as my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Rowland (who also attended my Eagle Scout ceremony and my high school graduation), Mrs. Samuelson (who had to put up with me in 1st grade and 6th grade), Mr. Rainey (one of the funniest math teachers I know), and Señora Cease (my high school Spanish teacher). They all created spaces that I felt I wanted to be on a daily basis. Because of their strategies, I wanted to create similar learning environments for my students!


But not all of my experiences in education were so positive! I’ll always remember my third grade teacher. One day I brought some baseball cards to school (not actually the ones pictured above) to show to friends at recess. During class, a classmate of mine took them out of my desk without my permission. My teacher took them away. I tried to explain to her what happened. I never got my baseball cards back.

One of the things all these experiences tell me – our words and actions have an impact on each student we meet. Our relationships will affect our students longer than we might ever realize!Slide8.jpeg

In 5th grade, we also had an experience to spend the week at Bradford Woods. This was a week of camping with our class, our teachers, and a few chaperones. Our counselors were seniors in high school who led us through all kinds of outdoor learning activities during the week. As a high school senior, I was able to apply to be one of the LOTS (Leadership Opportunity Through Service) Seniors. I was paired with a 5th grade classroom, participated in a variety of activities with them throughout the school year, and then went to camp as one of their counselors. I credit the LOTS Senior experience as the reason I am in education today.


As a classroom teacher, I wanted to know all of my students, but I would try to make it a point to spend time learning more about the “quietest kid in the class.” Some kids are really easy to get to know, while others make it a bit more challenging. If relationships can have such a huge impact on our students, I think we have the duty to make sure that those relationships are as strong as possible. Our students need to feel that they are seen, heard, and known when they enter our class.


At the end of my first year of teaching, my principal pulled me aside in the hall. He let me know that he felt I had the potential to be a leader. He encouraged me to look into becoming a school administrator. At the time I thought he was a bit crazy – I felt that I’d been treading water for that whole school year. Over the years of working in education, I’ve had many different leaders. The best ones gave others the chance to lead in their own ways. Eventually I did take the advice of my first principal and sought out my Master’s in Administration and Supervision.


While I was working on my Master’s Degree, my mentor trusted me to work on special projects including building our school mission and vision. The leadership opportunities he gave me allowed me to grow not only as a teacher, but also in my leadership skills.


Even in my time as a leader, I still found myself drawn to students who struggled. One of our students from a couple years ago spent a lot of time in my office. In our time together, we were able to build a meaningful relationship and I saw him as a different person than his teachers. The quote above was something he shared with me during one of our marathon sessions of discussion. I know that as a teacher it can be hard to find the time to really get to know all of your students, but especially with the most challenging students, they want to be known, heard, and valued!


So now back to this quote I started with. One thing I believe we can all agree with Will Richardson on is that we must have a really clear understanding of why we do our work. When we know our why, the decisions about how and what we do become so much easier!


Now, by no means to I claim to have all the answers, but my why has led me to some conclusions about how and what we do. More than anything, I believe the work we do comes down to our mindset!


Dreams are important to us all! I know that I have dreams. I’m hopeful that each of you has dreams of your own. I’m sure that as adults, we all know that for our dreams to become a reality, there are steps we have to take and plans we have to make. Encourage your students to chase their dreams, but help them to understand that a dream alone isn’t enough. Students need to know how to plan so that they can make their dreams become a reality.


Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard a lot of talk around the idea of “following your passions” as a guide for what our students might want to do as they move forward in their life. But here’s what I’m starting to wrap my mind around – following passions may not be the best advice for our students. Right now, my daughter doesn’t seem to have real clear passions, so suggesting that she follow her passions might lead to a blank stare. On the other hand, there are several things that she is curious about. Those are things she could learn more about. Maybe those curiosities will become passions, but maybe they just become a hobby that follows them throughout their lives. Let’s seek ways to encourage our student’s curiosities!


In George Couros’ book Innovate Inside the Box, he talks about the core of innovative teaching and learning. With Sinek, the golden circle starts in the middle with why, and then we work our way out with the how and what. Just like with the golden circle, innovative teaching starts from the middle and works its way towards the outside. Relationships need to come first, then we build from there to create meaningful learning opportunities.


According to John Hattie’s work, Collective Teacher Efficacy has the greatest impact on student learning. It’s the belief that we, as a school, as a faculty, as a team, have the ability to positively affect students. As we look around in our building, remember that is your team. We can all be stronger by relying on the knowledge of one another to support our students.


So, as you start building your own personal definition of why, ask yourself how you want to be remembered – what do you want your legacy to be?


And added to the question of what you want your own legacy to be, we also want to think about what OUR legacy should be, as a collective.

At Fishers, we have started the hard work of defining our own why so that we can then build a collective understanding of our beliefs, vision, and mission. I can’t wait to share the progress as we work through all of this! It will be a project that will carry on throughout the rest of this school year.

In the comments below, share your thoughts. Why do you do what you do? What is it that drives you to be the person that you are? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

It’s called winter BREAK for a reason

It’s called winter BREAK for a reason

It’s the last week before winter break, and what a break it’s been! We started the week with 2 days of 2-hour delays due to the snow that fell. On Monday, we even had an early release. As I write this, it’s Tuesday afternoon, but I honestly had to check my calendar because I wasn’t completely sure!

I know that these final few days before break are going to be CRAZY. Sometimes student behaviors ramp up. The upcoming holidays can bring out stress in all of us (adults included). But before we know it, it’s going to be Friday afternoon, and the bus radio will go quiet. For some of us, we’ll be running out of the building, possibly almost as excited about the break as most of our students. Others may stick around to wrap up a few things after the school goes quiet. At some point though, we’ll all hit the point on Friday where school is done.

Almost everything will work again if you uplug it... Including you.The reality is though, as teachers, often a break isn’t something we completely afford ourselves. Due to technology, most of us are never truly disconnected from school and our students. Some of us may religiously check out email first thing in the morning, while we’re eating lunch with our family, or right before bed. We want to make sure that we haven’t “missed something important”. And it’s hard for us to turn that off over a break. Others of us can’t stop thinking about our students. Many of us will have kids that we’re worried about for a multitude of reasons. Maybe it’s because you don’t know if they’ll get a hot meal every day of the break, or maybe you worry that they’re going to struggle because they won’t be in their normal routine.

If you’re anything like me, that will take up much of your thoughts over the first 3-5 days of break. Eventually you’ll get to the point that you can disconnect, but it takes time.

Then, when we creep into the second week of break, we’ll probably all start thinking about what we’re going to do with our students when they return after break. Some of us may spend a day or two in our classroom doing end of semester grading or beginning of the semester planning. We may use the time to come in and work on reorganizing something in our classroom that we’ve been putting off.

What I know and love about educators – we all have a hard time turning it off.

So, let me take a moment to make a suggestion: Take advantage of the break! During those first couple of days of break when you feel the desire to check in on your email, know that it can wait.

relax_fireplace-600x490Here’s the way I’m planning to disconnect over break:

  • No email until after Christmas day – if there’s an emergency, most people who need to get hold of me have my cell number
  • Put my “school bag” away for the beginning of break – out of sight = out of mind. If I don’t see my bag with my school stuff in it, I won’t be as tempted to pull school stuff out.
  • Limit my email usage after Christmas until at least New Year’s – I’ll peek at my email to get rid of junk messages from time to time, and if there is anything that appears to be really important. Other than that, it can still wait.
  • After New Year’s, I’ll probably start ramping up a little with work stuff, but I’ll limit my work to times the rest of the family is in bed.

I want you to take the time to think a little about your plan to disconnect over break. What commitments are you making to yourself? Write them down, maybe share them with someone – a family member or colleague who can be an accountability partner. We all need a break in order to recharge. I believe that for each of us to be out best self as an educator, we have to take the time to take care of ourselves first. Use the break for that purpose!

If you’re looking for some additional ideas for how you might recharge over break, check out this short article from Todd Finley on Edutopia:

What other ideas do you have? Is there a tried and true recharge strategy that you’ve used in the past? Share with us in the comments below!

Start with why

Why? It’s a question I’m pretty sure I have heard a million times from my son. He’s a super curious kid. Any of you who have kids or have worked around young kids know that why is one of the most important questions in the eyes of a child.

That question of why is the reason that prior to the first opportunity I had to meet with my new staff at Fishers Elementary, I shared Simon Sinek’s TED Talk – How great leaders inspire action. (If you haven’t seen it, you can get to it here)

golden-circleIn this talk, Sinek refers to the Golden Circle. As he describes it, a lot of companies can define what they do, some can even define how they do it, but only a select few can define why. In companies with great leadership, they start with the why.

Think about a corporation like Apple. Ultimately, they are a technology company. But when we think about what made Apple the brand that it is today, it was the complete focus on the fact that they were making beautiful products that fulfilled their customer’s digital needs. They worked the golden circle from the inside out.

So, what’s the reason that so many of the companies that start with defining their why in the first place end up being so successful? I think a lot of it comes from that childhood sense of wonder we all have. Intrinsically I think all humans are wired to be curious beings. We all want to understand the why. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that is what we need. I can’t remember who said it, but they told me if you really want to understand a person’s thinking, keep asking the question why. When you get to the 7th why, you probably have a pretty good grasp on where the person is coming from.

So, Sinek’s TED Talk now has me thinking. In the notes app on my phone I now have a note titled My Why. Currently there are 13 bullet points in this list. I hope to work on it and refine it some, because I plan to share my why with my staff at the next staff meeting. Then, we’re going to work together on first identifying our own personal why for what we do, and then work together to build a shared why. The purpose behind this activity will be to build a vision for what Fishers Elementary stands for moving forward.

I’m excited about the work that this will entail. And I’m ready to take my time. We are not going to walk out of our next staff meeting with our mission and vision, rather we are going to be working on this throughout the next semester. It is my hope that by the end of the school year, we have gathered input from our teachers and staff, from our students, from our families, and from our community.

It’s an exciting time to be a Tiger! I’ll be sure to keep you all updated on the process!

Writing across the curriculum

Writing across the curriculum

Leading wellRecently I started reading the book Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing by Lucy Calkins. The book is written to help guide leaders in buildings who are using The Units of Study from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in their schools. The book has my mind absolutely ABLAZE with ideas about the value of writing across the curriculum.

To make sure we are all on the same page, let me tell you what I mean when I say writing across the curriculum. In my mind this means that we are providing meaningful opportunities for students to engage in writing activities in all content areas. No matter whether your subject area is typically considered a subject that would be considered a course on writing, we have to wrap our mind around the fact that we are all literacy teachers!

Let’s use social studies as the subject we focus in on to start with… In many social studies classes, at a wide variety of levels, much of the way students are taught involves lecture or direct instruction, some reading about the topic, maybe they are shown some video that goes with their subject, or played some music from the time period and location of study. But what do all of those things have in common for the students in the classroom? I would argue that all of those things are pretty passive ways of learning. Students are taking in information, but not being asked to do much of anything with it except absorb.

Now, even if our next step is to ask the students some questions, or respond to some worksheet (or possibly something we have created on Canvas), there isn’t really a whole lot of deep thought going on there.

Now take a moment to think about what you do when you are writing. You have to reflect on the information you’ve taken in. You might have to go back to a piece of reading and reread. You might even go do some additional research on a topic. Writing is a much more active process.

writingWhatever the subject area you teach, there are ways you could bring writing and literacy into your classroom. In science you could have students write up a lab report or keep a lab journal, math could spend time writing a response to a deep-thinking problem that they solved or journal about thinking and learning based on your current unit, social studies could write about a topic that you have been covering in class. Even our related arts teachers can get on board with writing tasks related to activities that they have been doing in class.

Again and again, the idea of writing across the classroom has been shown to have high level of impact on learning throughout a school because it is such an active process. I know that many of you are working towards creating integrated learning units that carry across multiple classrooms and subject areas. If you are not a language arts teacher, and don’t feel confident in where to start with having students write in your class, find a buddy you can work with to talk about your goals and how your work might support the writing goals of your language arts teachers.

What are your thoughts on writing in other content areas? What have you noticed when you try it? Share your ideas in the comments below!


Take it up a notch

Take it up a notch

I was at a training last week and the presenter stated the following:

“When we stretch (students) brains beyond the baseline, they will be prepared for the baseline.”

It struck me because every year I hear statements like “This group can’t handle that because they don’t yet have the basic skills.” As teachers, we sometimes believe if students don’t have the base level skills, we can’t move into project work, or more hands-on assignments. We feel the need to make sure that our students had those base level skills first.

When I was in the classroom, I had points in time where I felt that way. For the majority of my career as a classroom teacher I taught 5th and 6th grade science. As a kid, I loved science! It was a hands-on subject, and that suited me well. I’ve never been one who learned well by being talked at, instead I needed to do something to help that learning to stick. Science was great for that. I remember building different styles of rockets in elementary school to investigate flight. I also remember days in elementary school of “creek stomping” in the creek that ran behind our school looking for fossils and learning about rocks and minerals. In high school, I remember spending hours in the chemistry lab making solutions and testing what would happen if you added X to Y. And in physics I remember using a laser to make my own hologram of a six-sided die. Those hands-on activities were the parts of the content that stuck with me over time. Science was awesome!

Once I moved into the classroom, I was excited to bring those awesome experiences to my students. Early in my career though, I think I may have lost my way. You see, I was of the impression that for my kids to be ready for a lab or project work, I had to make sure they all had the conceptual knowledge first. So, we’d spend time building that conceptual knowledge. What I didn’t realize completely at that time is that it’s really hard to build conceptual knowledge from taking notes, drawing diagrams, and watching video clips. True conceptual knowledge comes from the hands-on experiences that students do. Unfortunately because of the amount of time it took to learn that conceptual knowledge, sometimes we wouldn’t get to the fun stuff.

One year, I was teaching one enriched science class, and several classes that were not enriched. My students in the non-enriched classes started asking me why they didn’t get to do the fun stuff, and it caused me to pause and reflect. That year I worked on reorganizing the way I did my lessons. I started placing my lab activities and hands-on learning experiences at the beginning of each unit. What I found was that students seemed to do better in class when they had done a hands-on activity prior to teaching the conceptual skills. And as an added bonus to me, we often didn’t have to spend as much time on those concepts, because students had gained a greater understanding during the hands-on learning activities.

The same is true and other subject areas too. When we create math lessons that allow students to draw and visualize their thinking, they will better understand the concepts that go with what they are doing. When students look for grammatical structures within their own reading or writing they are more likely to value the importance of those grammar skills than when they work off of a grammar review sheet.

What I’m beginning to realize about the innovative work we are doing in education is that whether we call it project work, project-based learning, or something else, every time we take the learning up a notch our students are able to accomplish that much more. And I understand that sometimes we freak out about doing something innovative in our classroom because we may not feel like we are experts in the technology that goes with that activity. As teachers we don’t need to be the technology experts, rather we need to be the pedagogy experts. I know for a fact that no one taught me how to use Facebook or Twitter or many of the other apps that I use on a regular basis, rather I figured it out by clicking on stuff and seeing what happened.

So, what are some of the ways that we can have our students actually take it up a notch? What if every 10 to 15 minutes you pause what’s going on in class and have the kids record an audio or video reflection of what they have been learning? What if you have them create a photo or image or meme that represents their learning in class thus far? What if you asked them to sketch out a picture that shows a solution to the math problem they are working on? Each time we do something like this we are forcing our students to stretch their brains beyond that baseline and I would argue we aren’t doing anything that is that difficult. When we ask our students to do a drawing or create a video of their learning in class, we are helping them with their summarizing skills. I would also say that those small moments of creation help our students to develop one of the most in demand skills in the job market: creativity.

expected skills

I challenge you to look ahead at something that you are planning to do with your students in the next couple of weeks. Identify an activity that you would typically start with conceptual knowledge and find a way to do it hands-on in the first place. See how your students react. Weave in the conceptual skills that they need as you go through the project. Then take some time to reflect. Do the students end up with a better conceptual understanding of the topic? It may take a try or two but in time hopefully we can integrate more of those skills that are expected in the workplace into the things that are happening in our classrooms.

So, what activity have you selected? Share with us in the comments below so that we can check in with you to see how it goes.

My self-care tips

My self-care tips

Ok, truth talk. Working in the education world can be stressful! The list of responsibilities that fall onto teachers and administrators can be completely overwhelming. It’s hard to imagine finding the time to finish them all (especially for those of us who like to be sure that things are just right). I’ve been talking to several teachers in my building, and I can tell that the stress level is on the rise.

In addition, we take so much time to try to help our students with their various social-emotional struggles, as well as support our colleagues when they are going through struggles. This can lead to moments of secondary trauma, where we haven’t actually lived through the trauma of those around us, and yet we feel the same effects of that trauma.

Due to all these reasons, I am a huge fan of self-care strategies. I’m going to share a few of mine below. You may have similar ones, you may have completely different ones, but hopefully there will be a few nuggets here that you can take back to your own self-care strategies.

IMG_4377But before I get to some of my strategies, I’m going to share with all of you one of the things that causes so much stress to so many of us: Perfectionism. Something I know about educators is that many of us were rule followers when we were in school. A lot of us liked to work hard to get the teachers attention in positive ways because we knew we wanted to be a teacher. And because of those things we did, we developed this drive for perfection that still lives in many of us today. The problem with perfectionism? It’s kind of like counting to infinity. There’s always the one more. We have to be willing to let go of perfection. Sometimes good enough is all you need to take the next step with your students.

My first self-care strategy – Email

It’s easy to let email drive our day. It’s on our phone, our iPad, our computer. Depending on how you have alerts set up, you may not ever be able to receive one without knowing about it. And it kills us all! I’ve turned off email alerts on my phone, iPad, and computer (even the pop ups that show up on the screen of my device). The only time I am going to know I have an email is if I intentionally check for one. The alerts completely distract me from the more valuable work I’m doing.

In addition, I NEVER check my work email after 7 pm. Let me explain my thinking on this. When I receive an email after 7 pm, what are the odds that what I receive is something that I can actually solve before I get to school in the morning? Slim to none. You might be thinking “what if there’s an emergency?” For that, I have my cell phone and people who need to reach me in an emergency know it. Prior to making this decision, I found that the stress of an email in the evening was affecting the quality of my sleep and my ability to be completely present when I’m with my family. When I stopped checking email as much, I started sleeping better and evenings with my family were better.

My second self-care strategy – Movement

When I am feeling stressed out at the end of a hard day, or because of something that I know is coming up, one of my favorite things to do is to get moving. It could be a simple as going on a walk around the school building or an evening walk with my dog and family. Other times it might be heading out for an early morning #RunBeforeTheSun. And when I really have time for something, I’ll go out for a 40+ mile bike ride. Movement, even in the form of a walk, creates endorphins (those magical chemicals that our body produces to relieve stress and pain).


Not only do I use movement as a way to handle moments of stress, I also look at it as a stress preventative measure. I try to get some form of physical activity 4-5 days per week. When I do so, even the toughest days seem to go a little bit more smoothly.

My third self-care strategy – Rest

I’ve recently started using a sleep tracking app called Sleep Cycle. It helps me track not only my amount of sleep, but also the quality of that sleep in terms of a percentage. If I’m getting about 7 hours of sleep and my sleep quality is over 70%, then I’m going to be feeling pretty good for the day. If either of those numbers are much lower than that, I am probably not going to be feeling my best self the next day. Sleep is such an important part of our stress relief because it helps to clear our mind. The difficulty is though – when we’re stressed, we can’t sleep as well. Kind of a vicious cycle. So, see strategy one and two. When I remove potential stressors closer to bedtime, and I get a little movement in my day, my sleep quality is that much better. In fact, when I look at my Sleep Cycle app, on all the days that I had some form of physical activity in the past week, my sleep quality was higher than my non-workout days.

My fourth (and final for the purpose of this post) self-care strategy – Mindfulness

A couple years ago I participated in a Mindful Educator course and I learned about the benefits of mindfulness for our students, but also found great benefits for me as well. I try to carve out 5-10 minutes of my day for myself to take a mindful sit. I’m not very good IMG_870E48E7616A-1at doing this all on my own. I love to use an app to help guide my mindful moments. Both Headspace and Calm are free for educators. In fact, it’s as easy as saying “Hey Siri, let’s meditate” and it opens Headspace and goes directly to the Everyday Meditation which allows you to start a session for as little as 3 minutes or as many as 20. Much like sleep, mindful moments have a way of helping to clear out some of those stress chemicals from our brain, and I typically feel energized at the end of a mindful sit.

So, my message to you, find ways to take care of yourself! We take on so much stress in our role of working with little humans that we need to have a way to help clear out that stress. I give each of you permission to adopt as many of the strategies above as you would like, or adjust them to suit your needs.

But here’s the thing – I don’t hold the key to everything, and I love to learn from others! If you have self-care strategies that you’d be willing to share, add them to the comments below.

Experimental teaching in progress

The beginning of the school year is exciting for a lot of different reasons, but in the past couple of weeks I have been really fired up by the beginning of the year goal setting meetings I’ve been having with our teachers. It’s been so exciting to hear about the goals that teachers are setting to push themselves to new learning experiences and create amazing opportunities for their students. It’s a lot of fun to talk with them about their ideas and how to create a goal that will truly impact their teaching and learning throughout the year.

One of the things about learning new things, we all need to reflect on our learning. It’s a part of that learning cycle, and I look forward to the opportunity to help our teachers reflect on their goal throughout the year. But in addition to reflection, we also need feedback from others on how we are doing. When I think about my most powerful learning experiences, there has always been someone there to provide feedback – let me know what I was doing well and where I needed to improve. That feedback may have come from my coaches on the basketball court or football field, or it may have come from a teacher or professor in the classroom.

I respected the feedback that I would get from my elders, but sometimes the best feedback came from my teammates and classmates. They could often connect with me in ways that an adult just wasn’t able to. Even today, some of my most trusted people are peers who are in similar positions as mine. It’s so great to make a call or send an email to someone that I trust, share my thinking, and get their feedback. While there are definitely times that I hear “You seem to be right on track”, there are times they have said “You might want to think about that a little more and here’s why.” It helps me so much to get that peer feedback.

The problem with this in teaching is that we often live in our own silos. What happens in our classroom is often invisible to our colleagues, whether they be across the hall, on another floor, or in another wing. So what do we do about that? Luckily there are awesome people out there on Twitter who help us find solutions to our problems. This week I saw a tweet from Jed Dearybury that took me to his newsletter “A Dearybury of a Day”. (You can – and should – follow Jed on Twitter here). At the very end of the newsletter was this Fab, Fun, Freebie:

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Here’s what Jed said about this sign:

Whenever you are trying something new with students, hang this sign on your door to let those passing by know you are experimenting with a new teaching strategy. When this sign was on my door, it always made me relax a bit more because sometimes, experiments fail, and that’s ok!

So, here’s a thought – What if every time you are trying something new and you want to have feedback, you could hang this sign outside your door? What if you sent an email to the staff at your building with a picture of the sign? What if you shared the sign on Twitter (and tagged @mrdearybury)? There would be an awesome opportunity for people to come and watch what you are doing and give you meaningful feedback on what they saw. I know that many of us feel a little uncomfortable when we have other adults observing what we’re doing in our classroom, but we aren’t living on the growing edge when we’re totally comfortable in what we’re doing.

Remember, we’re all in this together guys! Our goal is to support the students we see on a daily basis, and the best way I can think of to do that is to support one another in our own teaching and learning. I’ll include a link to the pdf that Jed shared below.

So what are your thoughts? Are you comfortable to use a sign like this? I’d love to see some pictures being shared throughout your building!

Want to download the poster? Click here!