Sunday, October 23, 2016

Branding 2.0

Branding... it is one of those words in education that generally garners one of two reactions... either educators love it and see it as an important aspect of the work in schools or educators push back against it because they argue that schools aren't businesses and that creating brands is about perpetuating perceptions and not focusing on realities. Well, I, for one, see branding as a powerful and important part of our work as educators because it can be transformative if done thoughtfully and with intentionality.

For the purposes of this post (and beyond), when I use the word branding I mean the following...

1) The work we do to tell our school/district stories using different digital platforms to accelerate and amplify the story beyond our context;

2) The work we do to engage our families in the learning within the school;

3) The work we do to create an identity that allows all members of the community to connect in some way;

4) The work we do to elicit a positive (hopefully) emotional response from the kids, staff and families when they think of our school/district;

5) The work we do to ensure that the brand promise we make to families matches the brand experience of our students and staff; 

6) The work we do to build high levels of transparency between home and school as a vehicle for developing trust;

7) The work we do to celebrate kids;

8) The work we do to help redefine the narrative of public education in this country by spotlighting the many positive things happening in our schools;

9) The work we do to communicate our brand through a personalized school/district vision or mission statement;

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to connect with educators from around the world and contemplate the power of telling our collective school/district stories and branding our educational spaces. The conversations have been incredibly thought provoking for me because I have engaged in discussions about the difference between the personal brand versus the school brand; the discomfort with feeling like educators are bragging when they are sharing their school stories; and finding the time to actually do the work. Through these exchanges, which have occurred both face to face and through various social media platforms, I have been refining my thinking on the importance of telling our story because the impact it can have goes deep and it can truly change the work unfolding within an educational organization.

How does that happen? How does taking pictures of kids within schools and sharing them through social media change what's happening in schools? How can branding a district or school or classroom be transformational? It comes down to one word... intentionality. Yes, we must be incredibly intentional and thoughtful about the brand we are building through the story we are telling because the results can change everything. 

Branding 2.0

When Joe and I had the privilege of co-authoring The Power of Branding: Telling Your School's Story (thank you Corwin Press and Peter DeWitt for that awesome opportunity), we spent a lot of time framing the concept of branding and storytelling within the context of schools. Our emphasis was on helping educators see the importance of being the Chief Storytellers within their spaces on their way to branding their classroom, school or district by using different platforms and approaches - a branding "how-to" of sorts for educators. 

Now, the time has come for Branding 2.0 - the branding with intentionality that goes a bit deeper. 

Here are the 5 steps to Branding 2.0 for educational leaders:

1) Spotlight the instructional practices that you hope to see become the norm within your school/district. For example, let's say there is a focus in your school on small group reading instruction, when taking pictures during classroom visits capture the moments that embody best practices as it relates to small group reading practices because those are the things we hope to see in all classrooms.

2) Be intentional about the pictures you take so in addition to telling a story for the community the byproduct is personal and professional development. For example, if you see a fourth grade teacher using Minecraft in a meaningful way during a math lesson, instead of just tweeting out the pic, tag some other teachers from that grade level or school on the tweet so colleagues can see what is unfolding in each other's classrooms. What can happen as a result of this practice? Here are some possibilities...

  • Teachers can discuss the lesson during common planning time and figure out next steps;
  • Teachers can use that idea as the impetus for a session at an upcoming EdCamp session (both within and beyond the district);
  • The activity can pop up in other people's classrooms as a result of a collaborative share;
  • Teachers can decide to explore other ways to incorporate Minecraft into their learning experiences;
  • We break out of our silos;
  • This could lead to intervisitations so teachers in the same building can learn from each other's expertise;
  • The list can go on and on...

3) Get kids involved in capturing the learning experiences in  their classrooms. We explored this possibility in our latest book, Hacking Leadership, whether in the form of social media interns or classroom photographers, there are meaningful ways that we can turn over the storytelling to our kids so we amplify their collective voices and give them ownership of the story!

4) Use your Twitter feed (or Instagram posts or Facebook wall) as another source of information for planning future professional development sessions. Get a team of teachers together (and maybe some students) and start planning future PD sessions/days based on what you are seeing as emerging themes in your story. What are you seeing a lot of? What are you seeing some of? What are you seeing none of? Use the answers to these questions to help plan next steps in regards to learning and teaching in your school/district. 

5) Use your Twitter feed (or whatever platform  you use) as an important data point when assessing yourself as a leader and reflecting on the practices of the educators in your space. When leaders tell me they don't have the time to tell their story I typically push back and argue that they are not doing a critical part of their job. The reality is this (IMHO) - posts on SM come as a result of classroom visits and if a leader is spending more time in their office than they are in classrooms (yes, I know there are exceptions to this) then they need to rethink the way they are doing their job and reflect on priorities. When we spend time in classrooms, even if the impetus is to tell our story, we are also seeing what is happening in regards to the actual teaching and learning - the norms, the routines, the practices, the resources being used, the strengths, the needs, etc. This information will help us reflect on how we can best support our teachers and students; this information will also help us when we sit down to write up an observation or evaluation - we will have so much valuable and rich information if we devote time to this important work!

Although I know there will still be some pushback on this whole notion of branding in education, I think the possibilities that come as a result of Branding 2.0 far outweigh the concerns. 

So, are you ready for Branding 2.0? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below... do you agree? disagree? do you have more to add to the list above? I would love some feedback so that I can refine my thinking and broaden my point of view because I believe Branding 2.0 is about intentionality and the only way to be intentional is to be informed!         

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Critical Conversations

Our Work Is Challenging

"I am so glad to hear that I am not the only educator dealing with this issue!"

I cannot count how many times I have heard the statement above (or some variation of it) over the last several years. In fact, I have said it myself dozens of times; and for all the times I have said it out loud, I have thought it to myself hundreds of times. 

It happens in that moment when we break free from our silos and engage in conversations with other educators. At some point during the exchange we hear someone else utter the words that have been floating around our heads for days, months and maybe even years. The words that have potentially been weighing heavy on our hearts and souls because we thought we were the only ones; we thought we were alone; we thought we were a failure... but, we are not! 

The reality is, we are one of many and the time has come to engage in more and more of these critical conversations with other educators so we can escape our silos and engage in discussions that will help us in many ways. Whether these discussions merely help us feel less isolated or help us find a solution to a problem we have been struggling with or even make us appreciate that someone else's reality is worse than our own, we are better as a result of engaging in critical conversations. 

Where do these critical conversations happen?

The contexts of these critical conversations is incredibly important when considering the outcomes. For example, while we often engage in conversations in our own districts and schools, sometimes these discussions are not the most fruitful because we are regularly struggling with the same issues and thus become fixated on the problem instead of seeing a path towards a solution. Don't get me wrong - these internal discussions are important too because they help us come together and potentially work towards a solution but the time has come to engage in critical conversations beyond our contexts. Here are some possibilities...

1) Go to a local EdCamp and just talk to people! EdCamps are a great place to connect with like minded educators and just talk about the kids, the work and the profession. EdCamps are also an ideal space to spontaneously suggest a session to discuss a problem of practice!

2) Join a Twitter chat and decide how you want to engage! Chats can be a great source of inspiration and a treasure chest of ideas so join a chat that meets your needs. A chat participant can just sit back and watch the flow of ideas or can share their own ideas or even engage in "conversation" by responding to someone else. 

3) Organize a gathering at a local coffee house or book store so people from different educational organizations can get together and engage in some critical conversations. Recently I had the chance to participant in a book talk at the Whitehall Barnes & Noble and it was great because a small group of us just spent a couple of hours talking, comparing experiences and sharing ideas. 

4) Organize a Google Hangout with edufriends! Yes, thanks to social media, we can develop amazing and sustainable friendships with other educators from around the world so why not organize a video chat and get everyone together (virtually) to share what is going on in their professional worlds?

5) Join a book club or book study! Yes, critical conversations anchored in a shared text can be incredibly powerful because they allow participants to deliberate ideas, broaden their respective points of view and inform their craft! Best thing about book studies or talks in 2016 is that they are often happening on digital platforms (Voxer, Facebook, etc.) so people from around the country can connect from their couch and talk shop!

Why Are Critical Conversations Important? 

Clearly I think that critical conversations are important. With that being said, I do think we need to be mindful of the goal of those conversations so we can avoid a "gripe fest" where we only focus on the problems. To avoid that situation, here are the 3 steps for framing critical conversations so that they are powerful and productive... 

1) Share The Struggle... yes, our work as educators is a struggle sometimes and we encounter hundreds of challenges, issues and problems each year so sharing the struggle is an important part of the process. This is where we can be reminded we are not alone and we break free of the silo!

2) Ponder The Possibilities... after framing the struggle(s) engage those around you in a really critical aspect of the conversation - what are the possible solutions, answers and next steps. There is a saying I have encountered many times on SM: "The smartest person in the room is the room," and I have found that to be true. When I am struggling with a problem, I lean on friends, colleagues and members of my PLN to help me see the possible solutions... and there are often many!

3) Optimize The Opportunities... after pondering possible solutions, now leverage those ideas and reframe the struggle or problem into the opportunity it really is! Yes, ultimately, problems are opportunities in disguise. They are opportunities for innovation, growth and for becoming the next/better iteration of ourselves as individuals or as an organization. So, get out there and optimize the opportunities!

While I know the idea of engaging in critical conversations in education is not a new one, the reality is that many educators are still stuck in a silo. Whether they are a classroom teacher, building leader or superintendent, the silos are real and often times, incredibly limiting. So, let's get out there, connect with other educators and have those critical conversations because together we are better! 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Initiatives Should Be About People

Initiative Fatigue... What Is It?

Recently I was having a professional conversation with a colleague from another state about the impact of initiatives in education. We discussed the reality that educators often feel overwhelmed because of the increasing number of initiatives within their schools or districts. As depicted in the graphic above, which represents the work of Dr. Doug Reeves, we see that as we lay new initiatives over "old" initiatives (which may in fact have been new the month or year before) and that may be pushing educators closer to overload and potentially burnout. While I am not certain that initiative overload leads to burnout, my colleague and I did discuss that initiatives often lead educators to feeling stressed, crunched for time and pushed to "cover the curriculum" because they are dealing with initiative upon initiative. 

What Is The Problem With Initiatives?

I would argue that initiatives, as they are generally rolled out within education, are often doomed for failure before they even have a chance to impact educators and learners. Why are initiatives in education so problematic? Here are a few reasons based on my experiences as an educator...

1) Initiatives are about a program and not about a skill set... whenever I think of the initiatives I have experienced as a teacher (and even as a principal), they generally revolve around a new "research based" program, resource or system. Whether rolling out a new math textbook or an online reading program, the initiative is almost always focused on the resource and not the people implementing the resource. We consistently devote professional development to unpacking a program/resource but rarely devote time to developing the skill set of the educators within our spaces. 

2) Initiatives are piled one on top of the other... I was a teacher in a district once that, over a 2 year period, rolled out four different literacy based initiatives - FOUR initiatives in less than 20 months, which comes to about one new initiative every 5 months! Three of the initiatives were reading based and one was writing based. Yes, as teachers we appreciated the access to all these "wonderful research-based" resources but we weren't quite sure what the priority was and how we were supposed to (if we were supposed to) fit them all in throughout the day. Talk about initiative overload! 

3) Initiatives are often about doing the new "trendy" thing in education and not about doing what is best for OUR kids... I cannot count how many times in the last 20 years I have been part of an initiative that was based on a decision influenced by what "most" other schools/districts were doing instead of being influenced by the what our students needed. For example, recently I was talking to a colleague about how her district made a decision about a new phonics program for their primary grades. So, the story goes that there was a hot new phonics program many districts were using a few years ago and because the leaders in those districts raved about its impact on their students (there was no data shared - just word of mouth), the leaders in my colleague's district adopted the program and it became the next new initiative. Although the program was piloted in some classrooms, no other program was piloted so it was clear from the start that the choice had been made before the pilot even launched!

4) We are shocked when educators express feeling overwhelmed by a new initiative and are in need of more time to successfully implement it... even though some places keep piling initiative upon on initiative on school leaders and teachers, people are shocked when educators express feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by said initiatives. Many educational leaders would argue that the one full day of professional development devoted to unpacking a new resource should be enough and thus the resource should be successfully implemented within every classroom. Unfortunately, we know that is not usually the case - one day, or even several days, of professional development are not the key to a successful initiative implementation. Does it help? Sure. Does it equate to sustainable implementation? Not necessarily!

Yes - this list can go on and on but you get the idea... initiative overload is a reality in the world of education. Unfortunately, initiative overload is not making things better for our kids instead, it is leading many educators to feel overwhelmed and burned out and neither of those are good for our kids.

How Can We Eradicate Initiative Overload?

Although I would not profess to be an expert on successful initiative implementation (in fact, I have been guilty of doing everything I described above when I was a principal), I would offer the following ways we could possibly make initiatives more sustainable, well received and successful...

1) Make the initiative about developing educators' collective skill sets and not about a program... the time has come to make the focus of new initiatives about the developing skill sets of our educators - not about the new program they are implementing. For example, if a district is recommending a new math textbook series, don't make the initiative solely about that the series and its many resources; instead, devote a significant amount of time to professional development for our educators to be more effective math teachers. Or, if a district is embracing the Teacher's College Writing/Reading Workshop, don't make the professional development solely about unpacking and implementing the Units of Study; instead, make the professional development about understanding the "gradual release of responsibility for learning" instructional model because that is the foundation of the reading and writing workshops. Make it about the people and their skills; not about the program and the many resources!

2) If a new initiative is being recommended, then offer a suggestion for what we can let go of moving forward... we can no longer expect educators to add initiative after initiative within their classrooms with no guidance or discussion about where the new initiatives fit in and what old initiatives can come out. Every beautiful garden thrives when the weeds have been removed... let's spend time pulling the weeds in education and removing what we don't need and focusing on what we believe is best for our kids!

3) Make the new initiative about doing what is best for OUR kids instead of doing what is trendy... whenever we are recommending a new initiative, it should be rooted in our own, district-wide, action research that speaks to addressing the needs of our students. We should be looking at data, discussing our students' readiness levels and informing our instructional decisions based on various details. Yes, it is easier to just implement something other people are talking about but if it is not what is best for our kids, based on whatever data we have triangulated through our action research, then we shouldn't make it our new initiative! Let's face it, any new initiative recommended solely because of what other districts are doing will be destined to fail!

4) Listen to our educational leaders and teachers when it comes to how initiatives are going and work from there... we can no longer ignore the cries of educators when they are telling us that they are stressed and overwhelmed by a new initiative because they are the people who are going to determine the outcome of the initiative. We must listen to the issues and concerns, we must discuss the successes and challenges, and we must recognize that any new initiative is unsettling because it is pushing educators to do things differently. We must recognize that we are asking educators to embrace new approaches, mindsets and techniques and that takes time to happen... it takes years to happen. If we want to see a successful initiative, then we must allow the roots to grow deep and take hold by nurturing and watering them... not by ignoring them!

While I don't have research to support all four points I am suggesting above, I am speaking from my own experience as an educator for 20 years and specifically my time as a teacher and principal. We must begin shifting our expectations and practices when it comes to new initiatives and always keep the focus on the people, not the program or resource! 

What do you think? Is initiative overload a reality? How can we address initiative overload? 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Want To Be Innovative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

It's About The Implementation, Not The Standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Disney World in 3 Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

In Light Of The World Today

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

Hello everyone,

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, March 18, 2016

Reading Levels Are For Books... Not Kids

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

Reading Levels Hit Home... 

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

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

Are Reading Levels Good? Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We Do Now?

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Growth Mindset... Grit... Grrrr!

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

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

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

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

Grit and Growth Mindset In Education...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things To Remember...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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