Are you a writer? Show them.

Nate shares his Storybird about friendship with his class.

For the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to spend multiple days in many of our classrooms. Last year I wrote this post about my “principal’s visit” days and how enjoyable it was to spend quality time with students and staff.

These visits not only serve as an escape from the drudgery of office tasks, they allow me to see instructional strategies at work; how we address curriculum; the engagement of students in a variety of learning scenarios; how resources are being allocated; teacher-student relationships and peer interactions; whether schedules are appropriate; types of assessment being used; and planning processes.

There’s no better feeling than the jubilation of seeing a child excel at a task or when a teacher’s heart and love for kids lead her work with students each day. On the flip side, it’s possible for an administrator to develop a certain “gut feeling” when something doesn’t seem quite right in the classroom.

So far this year, I’ve had the chance to read interactive stories with kindergarten; facilitate small reading groups, review time concepts, and introduce Little Bird Tales in Grade 2; spend the entire day with Grade 6 inWashington, D.C.; help students create their first Prezis and collaborate using Google docs in grade 4; explore point of view through reading different versions of The Three Little Pigs (with one of my favorite tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigswith some of our young English language learners; help students in our Life Skills classes interact with math activities on the iPad and explore phonics patterns; and analyze text structure and write collaboratively, complete small group math activities, and discuss the writing process in Grade 5. I am looking forward to time in grades 1, 3, and our special classes in the weeks ahead!

A month or so ago, Dean Shareski wrote a post entitled It’s not 1985, about the need for us to ensure our students become fluent in digital literacy, particularly in writing. That, if we continue to teach writing as we always have, we are doing a disservice to our students. I agree wholeheartedly, and one of the reasons why I so enjoyed my visit with grade 5 writing classes is because I had the chance to discuss with them my journey as a writer.

Had I taught this “lesson” a few years ago, there would have been no mention of blogs. Or digital footprints. Or comments and interactions with others. ClustrMaps. Blog analytics. Storybirds. iPhones. Facebook. Or authentic audiences.

It went a little something like this:

I have always loved writing. I filled spiral-bound notebooks with story after story. Then, when I was in middle school, my family got its first computer: an Apple II GS. And suddenly, I learned how to type. I became more prolific in my writing and could edit with ease. I learned how to cut, copy, and paste text. My pieces were more polished. So, as technology changed, so did my platforms for writing.

I showed them my blog. We talked about purpose and audience. I told them what a “digital footprint” was, and how it is shaped by everything we do online. Every photo we post or tag, every word we write. I emphasized that it is important that they control their digital footprint and make it a positive, lasting impression of which they can be proud. We talked about how I use embedded hyperlinked text, videos and images to lead my readers to other resources. I showed them my ClustrMap and Feedjit stream. They wanted to know how dots appeared in the middle of the oceans! I shared comments with them, and many of them understood the importance of quality commenting from their work with Kidblog in fourth grade. Then, I walked through the process of how I wrote my first Storybird, which I shared with them at our opening assembly. I had the idea while I was driving in my car. I didn’t have access to paper or pencil. I use my iPhone to record my ideas. Ramblings, really. I told them how my brainstorming paragraph was riddled with errors and that, when I started using Storybird, I was inspired by the amazing illustrations so much that I revised a lot of my original text. My story took on a life of its own when I engaged with the Storybird format. I shared how I shared it with my primary audience – our students and staff at an assembly, but also published it on my blog and shared with my virtual community as well.

Using my repetitive writing pattern as a model, grade 5 students have begun writing their own stories. I had the opportunity to read several of their stories, and they are beautiful. I am looking forward to working with their teacher so she can embed them on her webpage to share with families.

Do I think this conversation was meaningful for my students? Yes. I received a lovely thank you email from the teacher expressing her gratitude for taking the time to share my “story.” And isn’t that what we should be striving to do at every opportunity? Share our stories with students?

My “gut feeling” is that when we teach students to write, we do so too methodically. We sometimes allow adherence to form trump creativity. We assess according to state-issued rubrics that call for a certain structure to be followed. We “score” students on their abilities to be focused, include enough content, stay traditionally organized, use proper grammar and spelling, and use “style.” We neglect audience. We’re churning out writer-robots who spit back the format they think we want to see. We graphic-organizer-them to exhaustion.

Yes, we need to help them learn structures of writing. But we can’t stop there. We can’t repeat the same lessons year after year and expect them to produce the same types of writing over and over again. Snooze.

In a #cpchat conversation recently, we pondered, How do we know that our use of technology is improving learning opportunities for students? And we talked about the typical measures that schools/states/nations are using to determine if students are “proficient” in academic areas. Historically, our school has been high-performing on the state writing assessment. Last year we were in the top quintile of performance for schools in the state. What does that mean? That our students can write in response to a prompt, demonstrating they have control over conventions, organization, style, content, and focus?

(Incidentally, I hear many teachers state with great exasperation, Style is just so hard to teach! when we ponder over students’ lower scores in this area. Perhaps… if we allowed students’ creativity to flourish, and make it a priority… style would take care of itself? The students whose Storybirds I read were able to embrace style like they never would have on a paper-pencil assessment.)

But how would students’ command of writing on traditional state assessments translate to proficiency in digital literacy? According to the NCTE, what do 21st century readers and writers need to know and be able to do?

Today, the NCTE definition of 21st century literacies makes it clear that further evolution of curriculum, assessment, and teaching practice itself is necessary.

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies.

These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

• Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
• Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
• Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
• Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
• Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
• Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

Administrators and teachers, consider the influence you could have on your teachers and students; on instructional methods and curricular choices; on developing your students’ 21st century literacy skills. If you are an administrator who has discovered the importance of ensuring your students are fluent digital readers and writers, how are you modeling this in your learning organization? How are you sharing with your students?

The bar has been raised.

“How do we get reluctant administrators on board with utilizing technologies to communicate, connect, and collaborate?”

This is one of the most prevalent questions I encounter when chatting with educators on Twitter, through informal conversations, and in presentations I’ve shared. It came through loud and clear in the Connected Principals ISTE session that teachers want their administrators to value the opportunities to use technologies to enhance learning opportunities for students and to encourage collaboration and connected learning.

I decided to roll with Scott McLeod’s prompt suggestion of: Using the National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A) as a starting point, what are the absolutely critical skills or abilities that administrators need to be effective technology leaders?

How do reluctant administrators begin? By owning up to the fact that their participation and leadership in this area is essential. It’s crucial. This is one of my favorite graphics that Scott created:

In my opinion, it can happen…. I’ve seen many rogue teachers propel their classes forward in a manner not necessarily supported or understood by the administration. But it’s not easy. And it’s not systemic. And it won’t be as meaningful for all kids as it needs to be.

The NETS-A was developed with a critical understanding that the bar has been raised for school leaders. A school leader who wishes to “create and sustain a culture that supports digital age learning must become comfortable collaborating as co-learners with colleagues and students around the world” (aka “I don’t do technology” is no longer acceptable.)  Also, this framework seeks to help school leaders propel their organizations forward as members of “dynamic learning communities.” Vision is vital.

The NETS-A are organized around 5 major themes: Visionary Leadership, Digital Age Learning Culture, Excellence in Professional Practice, Systemic Improvement, and Digital Citizenship. 

If you are an administrator, read the descriptions of the components of each category and ask yourself, “Am I there yet?” If so, how will you influence and develop others in order to contribute to the shared vision? If not, how will you begin to develop professionally in order to get there? So you can get your teachers and kids there?

Visionary Leadership: Educational administrators inspire and lead development and implementation of a shared vision for comprehensive integration of technology to promote excellence and support transformation throughout the organization.

Key ideas: all stakeholders; purposeful change; maximize digital resources; exceed learning goals; support effective instructional practices; develop and implement technology-infused strategic plans; advocate for this vision at the local, state, and national levels

Digital Age Learning Culture: Educational Administrators create, promote, and sustain a dynamic, digital-age learning culture that provides a rigorous, relevant, and engaging education for all students.

Key ideas: ensure instructional innovation; model and promote effective use of technology for learning; provide learner-centered environments to meet the individual needs of students; ensure effective practice in the study of technology and infusion across curriculum; promote and participate in learning communities that allow for global, digital-age collaboration

Excellence in Professional Practice: Educational Administrators promote an environment of professional learning and innovation that empowers educators to enhance student learning through the infusion of contemporary technologies and digital resources. 

Key ideas: allocate time, resource and access to ensure ongoing professional growth in technology fluency and integration; facilitate and participate in learning communities to nurture administrators, teachers, and staff; promote and model effective communication and collaboration using digital tools; stay current on the latest educational research and emerging trends in educational technology to improve student learning

Systemic Improvement: Educational Administrators provide digital-age leadership and management to continuously improve the organization through the effective use of information and technology resources.

Key ideas: lead purposeful change to maximize achievement of learning goals through appropriate use of technology and media-rich resources; collaborate to collect, analyze, and share data to improve staff performance and student learning; recruit highly competent personnel who use technology creatively and proficiently; leverage strategic partnership to support systemic improvement; manage and maintain a robust infrastructure for technology

Digital Citizenship: Educational Administrators model and facilitate understanding of social, ethical and legal issues and responsibilities related to an evolving digital culture.

Key ideas: ensure equitable access to appropriate digital tools and resources to meet the needs of all learners; model and establish policies for safe, legal, and ethical use of digital information/technology; promote and model responsible social media interactions; model and facilitate a shared cultural understanding and involvement in global issues through the use of communication and collaboration tools. (ISTE, NETS-A, 2009)

When I read over these components, none appear glaringly over-demanding.  I cannot image an instance where an administrator wouldn’t consider these competencies important enough to at least begin to acknowledge, given the needs of our children who walk through our schools’ doors each day. Is it going to happen in a year? No. Will competencies and the expected skill set of a principal change continuously throughout her career? Yes. Are the daily demands of a principal exceedingly unreasonable and intolerable some days? Absolutely.

But I think where it begins is with connections. It begins by developing a supportive network of peers that can enhance your comfort and familiarity with the components of these domains. I think where it begins is with no excuses. Try something new. Read about the latest. Communicate in a different way than you did before. You’ll find that you like it. Empower your teachers and students to help you develop in this area professionally, and share what you learn with others.

In last year’s post for Leadership Day, I reflected upon my experiences utilizing various technologies in my role as an administrator. I conjectured about how it came to be that I became so comfortable with the tools and connecting, collaborating, and communicating via social media. I re-read the list of ways in which I used technology to communicate with my school community and further my own professional growth, and this made me realize that my knowledge base has blossomed in so many different directions since Leadership Day 2010. I owe much of this to to the ever-expanding network of professionals I have the privilege to engage with each day and my own self-driven desire to continue to learn more about the benefits of connected learning. Thank you to everyone who continues to contribute. A post recently written by Jon Becker really made me think. Yes, many of us are good at sharing, collaborating, creating. But what do we have to show for it? How can we demonstrate our growth in ways that demonstrate the impact on student learning? I am going to set a goal of sharing more of those stories this year. Of working to ensure what happens in our classrooms isn’t necessarily about the latest tool or gadget, but rather has a focus on learning.

It’s Leadership Day 2011! I hope you’ll add to the conversation!

You know who you are.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user always be cool

So a little bird tweets me that there is some sort of list out and about that has my name on it. Neat-o!

Only, upon further inspection, I examined the list and realized, Hey. Let’s all simmer down here. The fact that my name appears on that list is silliness. I know for a fact there are other edu-tweeters out there that are waaay more influential than me. (And have a significantly higher Klout score, for what it’s worth. (Not much.)) Plenty of fantastic people are represented, from whom I learn an awful lot on a daily basis. But this post is not going to debate who should or shouldn’t be on that list. To do so would give it even more attention than it warrants.

What’s worth recognizing is that the list exists. And why is that? Because someone is paying attention to us. We, as a collective network of educators who care about children and their futures, are sharing with one another on a regular basis and helping to influence our practices in positive ways. People are noticing.

I’m thinking about my network. I can easily name ten people who influenced my practice today. Do I need to publicize it in a list? No.

You know who you are.

This influence is not limited to the intertubes, of course. I’m considering the people who’ve shaped me into the educator I am trying to be today. Most of those people aren’t on Twitter. They don’t blog. They don’t have Facebook accounts, can’t get into Google+ no matter how many invites they receive (thanks for nothing, Google), and they surely were not at ISTE. But their influence, care, compassion, and support have forever changed me. They’re the people that demand I put the phone away when we’re out to dinner. Or at an administrative retreat. (I was taking notes, I swear!)

You know who you are.

Tonight I was all set to compose my post-ISTE reflection post, and it seems as though I am now going to combine both my reflections of that event with my ramblings about online popularity. They’re weirdly related.

Cliques. Clusters. Cadres. Cohorts. Cavorting. Cackling. Keynotes. Abuse of alliteration. Cafes. Conversations. Contempt for Comic Sans. Connected Principals. Some sort of fancy dance. All of this and more, at ISTE 11! Many of the ISTE reflection posts have focused on the power of relationships, the importance of conversations, and the jr.-high-esque social mentalities that can ensue when you bring a whole bunch of people together. #sigh

I’d like to highlight two of my favorite memories from ISTE. First, this: Kids displaying their awesomeness. Like this sharp-dressed young man:

who eloquently explained how his school’s project involved using technology to improve our Earth’s ecology. I listened to his podcast using ear buds that probably 100 other people placed in their ears. And I didn’t really care. He shared his thoughts in carefully dictated English, his second language, mind you. This group had it made. They sent out recruiters – pint-sized bits of adorableness- into the crowds to ask attendees, “Do you want to hear our presentation about technology and ecology?” Heck yes, I do. And then they led me to the booth. Gold.

To the kids who inspire me every day, from those in my first sixth grade class to the children I only briefly interacted with at ISTE: You are amazing. You know who you are.

My second favorite memory of ISTE is Irene from the Newbie Lounge. I wish I had taken a photo of  Irene. She was truly awesome. By no means in her first years on the job (or her first twenty years), Irene sat on the couch with her iPad 2 and called out, “Can you help me with this?” as I walked by, with just a few minutes to go before our Connected Principals panel session. (Thanks, by the way, to everyone who attended. It was slightly overwhelming.) I wanted a bottled water desperately. I glanced at the mile-long concessions line longingly and then thought, What the hell am I thinking? This person needs me. So I sat with Irene for about twenty minutes and walked her through the process of bookmarking a website on her Safari browser. She was truly astounded that whenever she wanted to visit that wiki filled with resources from the last session she attended, she could just go to her bookmarks and … poof! There it was. She was so happy. I was so happy.

Irene, thank you for centering me and helping me realize how much I love being a teacher. I will agree with others that the shared conversations in hallways, cafes, museums, sidewalks, and #Edubros venues were certainly well worth the price of admission. I became a tad bit emotional having to say goodbye to some very good friends on my last day there. Yes, I said it, friends. Real live avatar-people that turned into friends. Shocking! Thank you to the presenters and attendees, young and old, who inspired me at ISTE.

You know who you are.

I guess, that in the end, that’s all that really matters. That you know the positive influences you have on the work and lives of others. I agree with Kristina that many of us felt as though something was missing before we developed this supportive network of professionals via Twitter, blogging, and other media. The connections have certainly added value to our lives.

Yet in a way I also disagree. I am not so sure that something was missing so much as it was lost. Lost inside of each of us. After experiencing powerful learning, working to positively influence others, and doing the right things for kids, every one of us should be able to examine our personal accomplishments and be proud. Be very, very proud. We will make mistakes, falter, and lose our way. We will share ideas and then take too long to act on them. Just pick yourself up, put a plan in place, do something, and continue to be awesome. No list can define our ability to do so. Only you can make that happen.

You know who you are.

Leading the charge.

In many school districts, when summer arrives, administrative teams come together for the annual “admin retreat.” When I first heard this term, I envisioned principals and central office personnel packing up their camping gear, overdosing on bug repellant, and venturing into the Pennsylvania woods somewhere to discuss the trials and tribulations of the role of the administrator. For the past two years, my experience with the admin retreat has consisted mainly of day-long meetings (drowning in data) held in overly air-conditioned rooms (how can I concentrate on all of this delectable data if my body temperature is 92 degrees?) at a local conference center or golf course banquet hall (greens fees not included).

Not so this year.

Kudos to my superintendent for exploring alternative options for our retreat this year, as we spent the day immersed in stories of leadership through the lens of the American Civil War, on the battlefields of Gettysburg. Battlefield Leadership, led by former school administrator Dr. Michael McGough, was highly engaging, personally relevant, and one of the most meaningful days our administrative team has spent together.

Interwoven through his detail-rich tales highlighting the people, places, and events that comprised the battle of Gettysburg, Mike used examples of Civil War leaders’ thought processes, strategies, and character traits to shape our understanding of various leadership styles and provide us with essential principles for educational leaders. He often referenced Jim Collins’ Good to Great, John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, as well as wisdom shared by Lee Iacocca in Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

I’d like to share with you several of the leadership principles and ideas we discussed yesterday.

  • “A leader without followers is just a person taking a walk.”
  • A leader understands her role in the organization.
  • A leader doesn’t allow his followers to forge ahead without first surveying the lay of the land. He leads from the front, but he always gauges where his team is, and knows how he will adjust if necessary.
  • Great leaders always have a plan B. And a plan C. A great leader is always focusing on his next move in checkers, not the move he’s about to make.
  • True leaders breed other leaders.
  • Powerful leaders know the people they’re leading. Build relationships.
  • “The absence of leadership is chaos.”
  • The people you’re leading should always know exactly what you’re asking them to do. When there are communication lapses, it causes frustration for both the leader and his followers.
  • Leaders understand that they are part of the emotional framework of the organization. They lead with civility and compassion.
  • Always be willing to adjust long-term goals based on short term successes and strategies.
  • What one thing made Lincoln such a powerful leader? Unwavering vision. (Did Lee lack this quality?)
  • A leader knows the difference between winning and not losing.
  • A great leader concerns herself with the critical mass. She does not base her effectiveness on the accolades of the two people who think she walks on water, nor the two people who criticize her every move.
  • Ego-driven leaders are not true leaders.
  • You’ll never hear the bullet that hits you.
  • Leaders effectively and eloquently react to unexpected circumstances.
  • Leaders are directly responsible for some successes, and others are delivered to them by successful team members. Know the difference. Recognize and celebrate the team members who bring the organization success.
  • It is essential for a leader’s followers to respect the leader and what he does. It is not essential for a leader to be well-liked by everyone in the organization.
  • Leaders know when to admit defeat and take responsibility for it.
  • Leaders have the desire to express a lot of things… but true leaders know what’s appropriate to express and how to do so.
  • Leadership is time, place, and situation sensitive. Leadership can be studied, refined, and augmented to meet any condition.
  • When issuing directives, make it clear whether you want the task completed effectively or efficiently. Dedication to one may be at the cost of the other.
  • A great leader knows where a person best fits within the organization. He delicately and personally evaluates each person’s performance and moves them to another role if necessary for the good of the organization.
  • Leaders make sure to differentiate between fact and opinion when someone else delivers information to their door.
  • It’s not degree or pedigree… true leaders are born of hard work. True leaders are tired at the end of the day.
  • Leaders understand the power of words and know how to use them.

We were asked to consider each thought in the context of our role(s) within the learning organization, and I encourage you to do the same. At the start of our day, we were given green and yellow index cards. Our task was to consider our goal-setting, our strategies, our actions, and jot down things we wished to stop doing on the yellow cards, since these things were not contributing to or aligning with our ultimate visions. On the green cards, we were to document ideas for how we might improve in an area or do things differently. At the conclusion of the day, we sealed the cards in separate, self-addressed envelopes, which we will receive anytime over the course of the next six months. These short messages will serve as reminders of our day together and all that we have learned.

If you would like to inquire about this learning experience and how it can serve your organization, Mike can be reached at Many thanks to Mike and my administrative colleagues for a day immersed in history, learning, and camaraderie.

Principal 2.0


CC licensed image shared by Flickr user davidr

This piece was originally posted on Powerful Learning Practice’s Voices from the Learning Revolution blog. Visit Voices and be inspired!

“The principalship is the kind of job where you’re expected to be all things to all people.” (Fullan, 2001)

“Wanted: A miracle worker who can do more with less, pacify rival groups, endure chronic second-guessing, tolerate low levels of support, process large volumes of paper and work double shifts (75 nights a year). He or she will have carte blanche to innovate, but cannot spend much money, replace any personnel, or upset any constituency.” (Evans, 1995)

“At the present time the principalship is not worth it, and therein lies the solution. If effective principals energize teachers in complex times, what is going to energize principals?” (Fullan, 2001)

Not worth it. That is a pretty significant phrase, but one that I don’t believe most administrators find true. I would like to instead address Fullan’s question, “What is going to energize principals?” One possible answer? Connected learning.

I experienced some feelings of isolation my first year in the classroom, as my assignment was in a small, rural school where I was the only sixth grade teacher. The feeling of not having readily available help that first year pales in comparison to the isolation I felt in my first year of the principalship. Add to that the increasing demands Fullan describes, and the rate at which administrators are expected to lead change, and the complexity of our role increases hundredfold.

An administrator has the option of seeking guidance from a principal colleague or central office administrator, although there are times when doing so could cause the principal to feel fearful that she is exposing a weakness or lack of judgment. She instead turns inward for solutions, for explanations, until the isolation compounds and the day-to-day management tasks overwhelm the true leadership that should be prominent in her work.

As administrators, we expect our teachers to collaborate, cooperate, and continue to learn. We ask the same of our students. Why should we hold ourselves to a different, even lesser, standard? I believe assuming the role of lead learner in our school community is one of the most imperative roles we can play.

Harnessing the power of social media

We live in a time where the tools and technologies we are afforded have flattened our world. Principals and school leaders now have a vast array of options for learning and connecting with others. I have experienced the very real benefits of time invested in developing my own personal learning network, utilizing the Web and social media tools.

By harnessing the power of social media, principals can take advantage of improved organizational efficiency, solidify and broaden communications, serve as lead learner, and develop relationships that will ultimately build an organization’s capacity and benefit children. Our students will be expected to enter adulthood as critical thinkers, problem solvers, and collaborative, productive team members. We must model the power of digitally enhanced learning for them, for our teachers, and for the community.

We must connect. If you’re capable of connecting and learning from those in your physical realm, consider the power of building relationships with other inspiring educators from around the world. Too often we think: how could that person’s experiences help me when their schools and circumstances differ so greatly from mine? That’s precisely the reason we can learn so much from one another. I have as much to learn from a high school principal in an urban school setting as I do from an elementary principal in a neighboring district. The varied perspectives are invaluable.

So, where can an administrator find these connections? For me and many others, Twitter has been the main vehicle through which we’ve built a network of professional learners. This article can help you get started, and I personally am willing to help any interested administrator embark on this journey! The blog Connected Principals was essentially born out of the relationships built around conversations on Twitter. George Couros, recognizing the valuable contributions stemming from our online discussions, decided to create a common space for administrative bloggers, to bring us together and unite our voices under a shared purpose. I know that if I ever need advice, ideas for projects or resources, or just someone willing to let me vent, I can go to any of my Connected Principals colleagues who will be there for me with a supportive, critical voice.

We must share. As a starting point, consider the simple benefits of using shared, digital spaces such aswikis to organize and exchange information with staff. Respect your teachers’ time by only holding a faculty meeting when there is an agenda item worth true discussion. Empower your teachers to be wiki contributors so they can add information of their own. Stop the insanity of searching aimlessly through email inboxes to try to find that tidbit of information someone mass-emailed two weeks ago! Do you and others often locate great resources to share? Use Diigo or a similar social bookmarking site to share and even annotate those resources in a streamlined, organized manner. Collaborate on projects usingGoogle Docs. No longer do precious minutes have to be wasted in meetings if project authors can work in a common digital space and contribute at times that best suit them.

We must build community. Communications with families and community members are vital to the success of any school and can be powered up through the use of social media. Consider the advantages of writing about school successes in a public blog or Facebook page regularly, highlighting the wonderful accomplishments of students and staff. Social media affords principals the opportunity to develop forums where community voices can be heard and valued. The benefits of managing public relations before outside sources distort the facts are innumerable, and the platforms through which these communications can occur are, for the most part, free to use!

We must be transparent. Are you transparent in your learning? Would you like to be? What does transparency entail? For one, allow your teachers and students to see that you value your own learning. Have you ever discussed with a teacher how a book or article you’ve read could impact classroom practice? If so, you’re comfortable with sharing your learning in a local forum, so consider branching out to share your ideas with other interested parties. Blogging is a great first step to becoming a producer, not just a consumer, of information. Simply take the thoughts you’d normally converse about and compose a post! Posterous, WordPress, and Blogger are all user-friendly platforms and ideal for the beginning blogger.

Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong ways to express one’s feelings and share knowledge. New bloggers often ponder, “Who really wants to read what I have to say?” “What if someone doesn’t agree with what I write?” Begin blogging as a personal form of reflection, to help you examine your decision-making processes and actions as principal. Read other educators’ blogs. Subscribe to RSS feeds and organize the flow of new ideas with Google Reader. Comment and include links to your own writing to develop a readership. Get to know the other educators you’re connecting with. Learn about their philosophies, and let the shared wisdom you discover help guide your work.

Principals leading the way

The role of the principal is definitely worth it. It’s a role that should, first and foremost, be about sharing, building relationships and community, and connecting for learning. Principals need to ensure they are modeling and building capacity in the most efficient and meaningful ways possible. We need to embrace, not ignore, the tools we now have available to build powerful learning communities. We are faced with a compelling need for change, and we owe it to our children to lead the way in bringing connected, enhanced, and authentic learning opportunities to our schools, communities, and world.

Evans, C. (1995) ‘Leaders wanted’, Education Week.
Fullan, M. (2001). The new meaning of educational change. Teachers College Press.


Crossing the finish line.


CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user iman Khalili

It’s not whether you win or lose… it’s how you run the race.

Jonathan Martin provided us with a detailed summary of his reflections after viewing Race to Nowhere, a documentary film that highlights the lives of high school students, parents and families, and teachers and administrators, all in the context of a system that is broken and failing our children. As Jonathan stated, it is “emotionally manipulative,” and the first sentence of the About the Film description on its website indicates that it indeed features “the heartbreaking stories of young people across the country who have been pushed to the brink, educators who are burned out and worried that students aren’t developing the skills they need, and parents who are trying to do what’s best for their kids.”

I didn’t know what to expect from the film, and I actually wasn’t prepared to take notes, but about 20 minutes in, I knew that I needed to write a reflection on the film’s contents. I covered the fronts and backs of scrap pieces of paper I had in my purse with seemingly incoherent scribblings. (I had owned my iPhone for about 1 hour prior to attending the screening, so, unlike Jonathan, was not yet skilled at taking notes on my phone in the dark. 🙂 The quotes below are my reflections as I remember them and may be paraphrased.

These are my take-aways:

On happiness:

  • Children are trying to balance lives that few adults would be comfortable balancing. Something that resounded with me was a student explaining how people always want to know from her, Aaand… “I’m a member of the student council.” And? “I have straight A’s.” And? “I play sports.” And? Why aren’t you doing any community service??!
  • We are basing students’ successes not on how happy they are, but rather on a systemic assumption that they need to get into a good college and make a lot of money, which will lead to happiness.
  • Why cant happiness be a metric used to determine the success of our schools? Why just reading and math scores? Focusing on academics alone does not respect the child.

On accountability:

  • We have a “tremendous preoccupation with performance.”
  • Our educational system is an inch deep and a mile wide. What is important is NOT “knowing a whole bunch of things.”
  • We’re always preparing kids for “what’s next.” Think about it: “In middle school, you will have to do X, so in sixth grade, we’re going to make you do X to prepare you.” “In fourth grade, your teachers will expect you to write in cursive, so in third grade, we’re going to learn cursive.”
  • Due to the pressures of No Child Left Behind, we teach students formulaically so they can pass a test, but if they encounter something unlike that which is on the test, they fall apart. The tremendous pressure to produce leaves out time for critical processing. Cheating has become “like another course.”
  • Kids want to know exactly what’s on the test and not go beyond it. We give them study guides! We base our teachings off of those guides!
  • Teachers feel like “yes men” doing what the district, state, or government wants, even if it’s not best for kids. One teacher cited the example, “like teaching them what a semicolon does.” She went on to explain the need for us to teach students critical thinking, problem solving, and how to work in groups. This passionate teacher explained that she wants for her students to be learners. She stressed that if you’re not teaching what you love, you can’t do this job. “I’m a mother to my students. I see them more than they see their families.” This teacher’s frustrations with the system and feelings of helplessness eventually caused her to resign.
  • The tutoring industry has exploded because we are treating all kids like they need to be in the top 2 percent academically. Children are nervous about upsetting and disappointing their teachers if they don’t perform. And that they may “lose recess” for incomplete work.

On homework:

  • “At what point did it become okay for school to dictate how a child will spend time outside of school?” It’s not about learning anymore.
  • There is no correlation between homework completion and academic achievement in elementary school. (This was my absolute favorite line of the movie.) In middle school, there is a slight correlation, but past 1 hour of homework, it lessens. Past 2 hrs of homework time in high school, the effect lessens. Reference made to Sara Bennett’s and Nancy Kalish’s work, The Case Against Homework.
  • We all need to educate ourselves about the effects of homework. Why do we insist upon assigning it? Teachers think it’s necessary to cover content. Parents expect it.

On passion-based learning:

  • Our kids have grown up in a “world of training wheels” and have been coached from a very young age. They don’t realize they can fall off the bike and pick themselves up.
  • Instead of taking 5 classes, think, here are 3 classes I’m really interested in taking. One student expressed his belief that college is going to be a place where I “start to learn.” What does that say for his high school experience?
  • “Smart” has so many different meanings. The system is ignoring a great group of kids that is talented artistically, visually-spatially, etc. “Absolutely no appreciation for that kind of talent, or thinking.”
  • What creates the opportunity to be innovative? What does it take to create a creative human being? Children need time, so we must provide that downtime. Play is children’s work. It’s a tool to figure out how the world works. They’re not able to figure out what they love to do or find their passions without that freedom.

I was surrounded by a very emotional audience at the screening I attended. The movie was shown in the high school auditorium of a neighboring school district, one whose name is synonymous with wealth and high academic achievement. We have often looked to this district for ideas about how to implement programs and structure schedules due to their documented successes. The parents in the audience were likely those of high school students, and it was clear, from only 30 minutes into the film, that they would start to reconsider the types of discussions they would have with their children about learning and achievement. I wonder how this movie’s message made them view their roles differently?

There was a member of the audience with whom I’ve interacted on several occasions in her role as consultant. She has spent hours with our administrative team, reviewing the RtII framework, discussing data at great lengths, and yet, her best intentions noted, not once did we mention a child by name, or discuss actual, meaningful learning. I wonder how this movie’s message made her view her role differently?

The president of my parent-teacher organization approached me about the film and asked if I thought it would be beneficial for her to view. I agreed it would be, and she is taking a group of our parents to see the film in a few weeks. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

One of my colleague principals had a chance to view the film, and I feel it’s important for us to share our thoughts with the rest of our administrative team. I wonder how this movie’s message will cause them to view their roles differently?

I’m actually overwhelmed composing this post, as I decipher my notes to try to articulate just exactly what I’m feeling about this film’s message. I agree with the conclusions shared at the end of the movie that we need to rethink how we “do schooling.” What do we want to invest in? What matters most? The quality of teaching is what matters most.

We have to start asking ourselves how films like this, articles we read, success stories we hear, problems we encounter, and convictions we hold cause us to think differently. And then we have to do something about it.

There is no easy fix to the flaws in the system, because the inherent problems are so complex. But there is so much that we are doing right in schools across the nation and beyond. What I’d love to do is create a Race to Nowhere-esque documentary that captures and celebrates the extraordinary learning that’s going on within and outside of our classrooms each day. (Many of us do this with our blogs. But is it enough?) We need to share our successes with a wider audience. We need to inspire each other and start to build a collective body of knowledge that can help lead us in the direction of a finish line worth crossing.

Living on the edge.

Shared via Imagebase

Since much of the most relevant knowledge on the edge is tacit knowledge, edge participants naturally place a heavy emphasis on building diverse networks of relationships that will help them to collaborate more effectively with others in the creation of new knowledge. For this reason, conferences and other gatherings where participants can share stories and experiences, learn from each other, and identify potential collaborators become particularly prominent on edges. The Power of Pull (Brown, Davison, Hagel)

Do you live on the edge? Are you an educator who uses the power of pull to access, attract, and achieve in shared, passionate-filled learning spaces? Having recently attended Edcamp NYCEducon and Pete & C, with ntcamp Burlington to follow next weekend, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the educators involved in the passion-driven organization of these events harnessed the power of pull to make these learning experiences a reality for attendees. What’s so great about gathering together in these types of learning environments? Why do so many of us count down the days until the next Educon, Edcamp, Ntcamp, ISTE…  what’s in it for us?

As our passions become our professions, we begin to see how social networks can provide us with an unparalleled opportunity to achieve our potential by allowing us to access resources and attract people who can help us while we help them. We construct our own personal ecosystems, an interesting blend of local relationships and global relationships, and a mutual leveraging occurs.

Not long after arriving in Philadelphia for Educon, I was surrounded by familiar faces. How was that possible, considering I had never before met most of those with whom I interact in the Twitterverse? Because we’ve spent the last few months…years… connecting. We’ve reached out to one another in times of need, shared our excitement and successes, and revealed personal tidbits of our lives to help connect with one another. Throughout that weekend, I was able to engage in meaningful discussions about learning (and sometimes nonsense), breaking free of the 140-character limits to really get to start to build relationships with the educators in attendance. There was much laughter, camaraderie, and a little karaoke. Once the connections are made, they require attention. Forming meaningful relationships requires time and a lot of hard work. Those of us in attendance benefited from face-to-face interactions that provided a whole new insight into the hearts and minds of our colleagues. These interactions allowed us to identify those with whom we could exist “on the edge” and continue learning from.

Edges are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn significant new unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk takers.

Would you describe your school as a “fertile ground for innovation?” Most would not, although I think some of us are starting to see glimpses of what is truly possible! This is because in many organizations, businesses, and schools, push is the preferred mode of operation. Teams of administrators or policy makers forecast needs based on past performance, then design efficient systems using a standardized method to ensure that the right people and resources are available to meet system goals. We push standardized curriculum, lesson plans and strategies, and learning materials onto students and teachers. Push models treat consumers as passive recipients of information, and can lead to boredom and stress among program participants. These conditions are necessary in a push environment because they yield somewhat predictable results that can then feed into the cycle of forecast planning. Push programs are important when explicit knowledge is valued over tacit knowledge. But I do not believe any of us want our students to be passive, bored, and stressed recipients of information that may or may not be relevant to their lives and learning.

Pull differs from push in that it escapes institutional boundaries, seeks to help individuals realize their fullest potentials, and values knowledge flows and experiential knowledge more so than standardized bodies of unwavering factual knowledge. The authors of The Power of Pull examine three powerful levels of pull: access, attract, and achieve:

At the most basic level, pull helps us to find and access people and resources when we need them. At a second level, pull is the ability to attract people and resources to you that are relevant and valuable, even if you were not even aware before that they existed. Think here of serendipity rather than search. Finally, in a world of mounting pressure and unforeseen opportunities, we need to cultivate a third level of pull—the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance required to more effectively achieve our potential.

Pull also requires awareness of trajectory (what’s your vision?), sufficient leverage (how will we best use the passions and abilities of other people?), and the best pace (how fast will we move with these changes?) to make meaningful forward progress a reality in a world that’s constantly changing.

Sometimes it truly amazes me how I managed to assemble such a powerful learning network of educators in such a short period of time. Serendipitous encounters definitely played a role, facilitated by social media, as I know others have also experienced. We can’t be satisfied with the connections we’ve made, however, and not continue to branch out and bring new people to the edge. A comment that has often been made following an Edcamp or Educon is, “Well we’re all just preaching to the choir. Everyone here gets it.” Let’s get new people on board so they, too, can connect, build relationships, and contribute to the tacit knowledge flow that we all seek to learn from. As we increase the number of people we connect with, our ability to pull from that network grows. Doing so will help us all achieve the third level of pull, where we reach within ourselves to achieve our fullest potentials.

The subtitle of this book is How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. And isn’t that what we’re constantly discussing, debating, and detailing? The educational reform movement is a “big thing” that we are starting to put in motion with each one of our smartly made, small moves. We have to continue to connect, build relationships, share knowledge, and live on the edge to make our collective ideas the new reality for today’s students.

Cross-posted on Connected Principals

Inspiration delivers.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Minneapolis Institute of Arts

My vision for how staff development should look in my school has undergone a transformation over the past year. In my first year as a principal I recall the dread of conducting the marathon faculty meeting on opening day, droning on and on about everything from recess line-up procedures to my expectations for lesson plan submissions. In Year 2, most of our professional development days were dictated by district initiatives, and the few “building days” planned by principals were spent on data analysis. We looked at a lot of data. No shortage of graphs in those meetings.

We covered a lot of topics, but there certainly wasn’t a lot of learning going on.

In October, Chris Wejr described his plan for covering his teachers’ classes to allow for them to engage in collaborative opportunities, the focus of which would be self-directed and hopefully involve an elements of creative thinking and innovation:

This would benefit me as I would get to spend more time with students, it would benefit the teachers who take me up on the offer as they would be motivated to take a risk and try something innovative, and most importantly, it would benefit the students as the teacher would deliver something to our school that would impact student learning.  The extra prep period would be their “FedEx Prep.”

Chris was inspired by Daniel Pink’s Drive, a book that delves into the fascinating world of human motivation and how the ways businesses and schools currently motivate their employees (and students) is a far cry from the way science says they should.

I finally finished reading Drive a few weeks ago and knew I wanted to explore the idea of helping my teachers be more autonomous in their learning. I wanted to ensure our organization was striving to reach mastery (but never attaining, of course, since mastery is an asymptote) and develop a strong sense of purpose for our actions.

I knew I could accomplish this without having my teachers read Drive, but I certainly brought the book to school and shared it with those who were interested. To start, I asked my teachers to view three short videos: the RSA Animate version of Pink’s Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us talk; Two questions that can change your life; and What’s your sentence? By taking just 10-15 minutes to view these videos, I feel most of my teachers came prepared to start the day understanding the fundamental ideas behind why we were taking our professional development in this direction. Teachers were asked to consider a “sentence” that exemplifies their role in our school/their life, and when they were comfortable doing so, post on the Wallwisher I created.

I summarized Pink’s key points regarding autonomy, mastery, and purpose and outlined the expectations for the day on our wiki. An excerpt:

So today, your task is to be self-directed in your learning. Be productive. Live your sentence. Ask, am I better today than yesterday?  Seek mastery in your role. Remember our ultimate purpose. The only rule? You must deliver. A product…a project…ideas…action.

Pink calls providing this autonomous time for innovation a Fed Ex Day- employees choose what to work on, with whom, and however they’d like. The expectation is that “they must deliver something: a new idea, a better internal process, a refined lesson plan – the next day.”

As you work today, consider the following:

  • Task – Choose tasks that will benefit and impact student learning. Think differently!
  • Technique – Design your activities and project work in your own way, so long as the end result is a benefit to students.
  • Team – Work with anyone you want to work with today- you do not need to work with your grade level teams. Consult with the many knowledgeable people in our school! Individuals that choose not to collaborate will still be responsible for “delivering.” Consider the importance of the collaborative efforts!
  • Time – Use your time as you see fit. You’re free to head home at 11 AM. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Our day began at 8 AM. We met briefly in the library for a 5-minute, “go and have fun today!” speech from me. That was it. I saw a lot of smiles. I saw an almost-equal amount of incredulous looks. (She’s lost her mind, does she think we’re actually going to work today?!) I told the team I’d be camped out in the library if anyone needed me or wanted to collaborate with me.

So… what resulted? First, I have to share our sentences. They are really beautiful. What I wonder when I read them is how I can urge more of my teachers to be transparent- to not choose to post a sticky under “Anonymous” when they have such meaningful work to contribute?

Watching my teachers work together on our “Fed-Ex” Day actually made me a little giddy. I seriously may have had a smile plastered on my face all morning long. I did a lot of listening. The conversations were encouraging. I relished in the fact that many of my teachers were leaving the “comfort” of their grade level hallways and teaming up with other teachers, including our specialists. To say I was impressed with how my teachers embraced this first foray into autonomous PD would not be fair. They blew me away. And it’s not that they were creating such innovative projects that were going to revolutionize the face of education as we know it… it’s that they were opening their minds to new ideas, they were enjoying their work, they were considering alternatives to current practices, and they were definitely stepping outside of their comfort zones.

Our ESL and special needs teachers teamed up and located a fantastic resource and planned for our students to engage with e-Books in their learning. A team of intermediate teachers considered how to develop students’ skills for error analysis in their work. Primary teachers gathered around the Smartboard, some of whom do not ever use the tool, to consider its use with their students. They created a team Diigo group to share resources. Two second grade teachers planned for how they would involve students in reader’s theater, and came to me to discuss their options for recording and posting their performances. Third grade teachers wanted to explore how to better immerse students in literature and enlisted the support of our media specialist. Our music and art teachers seriously debated why in the world we give grades in the specialty areas. Both teachers planned on bringing Fed-Ex type days to their classrooms. The Mid-Winter-Pick-Me-Up-Picnic was born. Primary teachers designed a way to incorporate more student-choice into their project work. One of my tech-savvy teachers bounced from group to group, leading the way with various initiatives. A revelation from a teacher who was working on a document to share with third grade colleagues: “Wait. Why am I using Word for this? I should be using Google docs!” Me: “Uh, yeah!”

Thoughts from the teachers? The day was not without a limited number of grumblings, however, on the delivery form they were asked to submit to me following their work day, I was so pleased to read positive feedback. One of the questions asked, Did they enjoy the format of the day?

  • Yes, because it gave me a chance to be creative in my own way.  If I have had any success in my teaching career, it is because of a format or structure like today, being able to create on my own, curriculum, selecting activities that best meets the every changing needs of our students, with administrative support but without administrative restrictions.
  • I was extremely annoyed at first when I heard the plan, because I had a lot of s$*t that needed to get done, but I have found the day to be extremely exhilarating and rewarding. 🙂
  • Yes we did! We got a lot accomplished and feel that what we did will have an immediate benefit to our students! Thanks for the opportunity.
  • LOVED IT! More please 🙂

And allow me to share the reflections of my most-excellent of guidance counselors, who will not at all be alarmed that I am posting her thoughts on my blog… I think her words perfectly depict her personal journey to planning a new community-building activity for our school, an idea she’d been thinking a lot about but, until Wednesday, had not brought to fruition. I introduced our Fed Ex day on Monday, which is when her wheels started spinning…

“Monday/Tuesday:  Hated it  (too open-ended.  daunting.  outside of my comfort zone.  getting in the way of getting my “real” [boring & mundane] work done.  scary.)


Tuesday/Wednesday:  Loved it (went crazy.  found and discarded ideas. refined them.  enjoyed bouncing them off a bunch of people.  liked having people show me what might not work and what would work better.  especially enjoyed watching people go from “What a ridiculous idea” to “Hey … that might actually be fun.”)

You and Daniel are very wise.”

I know that I will be mandated by my central admin to include specific activities on future professional development days, but I also know that a) I will try to transform the day so that I meet district initiatives while granting autonomy to my teachers and b) every chance I get, we’re going to have another day like we did on Wednesday. I enjoyed the feedback on Chris’s post and would love the same about our day’s structure and how I can improve this idea in the future.

I am very appreciative of Chris and all of the innovative principals who’ve inspired me in this area over the past year, and of course to Dan Pink for sharing his thoughts with us all, and making me want to be better and do things differently tomorrow than I did today.



To me, the Edublog awards aren’t about distinction, or “winners,” or getting a sweet badge for your blog. They’re about appreciation, and recognizing people who have positively impacted my practice. Thank you to these amazing educators as well as to the hundreds of other bloggers whose work I read each week. You’ve truly made a difference in the way I think about education, and you help me love to learn.

* Best individual blogDavid Truss – Pair-a-Dimes for your Thoughts

David is an amazing soul. He is consistently positive, eager to help colleagues, and his posts are inspirational and informative. I appreciate reading about his experiences and ideas, and I’m thankful he has taken the time to comment on my own thoughts on many occasions.

* Best individual tweeter – Patrick Larkin @bhsprincipal

It’s been a privilege getting to know and work with Patrick this year. I always know the resources he shares on Twitter and his blog will benefit my work with kids!

* Best resource sharing blog – Richard Byrne – Free Technology for Teachers

Each week I share various “tech” resources with my staff. This is the site I first reference when looking for great tools and ideas to share. Every time.

* Best teacher blog – John T. Spencer – Spencer’s Scratch Pad

John’s writing style drew me in immediately. I keep reading because of the very honest, real way he depicts life as a teacher and his poignant interactions with his students. The guy also earns some serious points in the wit category.

* Best school administrator blog– George Couros – The Principal of Change

George reminds us, in every post, that administrators are human. His writing displays emotion, shares his successes (and sometimes failures), conveys enthusiasm for his school, students, and lifelong learning, and inspires us all.

* Best educational use of video/visual Shelly Terrell –Teacher Reboot Camp

Shelly’s 30 Goals challenge first led me to this amazing blog, so full of resources and know-how. Love her featured interviews with educators from around the world. She’s also so supportive of everyone in her network!

* Best educational wiki – Dianne Krause | eToolbox

If one of my teachers needs a tutorial on how to use a certain tool, or ideas about the relevance of the tool and its use in the classroom, I go to this wiki. This resource is so comprehensive and user-friendly. And Dianne’s a Pennsylvania girl, so… that makes her even more awesome.

It’s no surprise that many of the listed blogs/people are contributors to Connected Principals. It’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know and share with these educators this year. Thanks again to George for envisioning CP and bringing it to life.

Which leads me to…

* Best group blog– Connected Principals

* Most influential tweet / series of tweets / tweet based discussion– #cpchat

* Best use of a PLN – Connected Principals

What does it look like?


What does it look like?

Administrators visit classrooms. They may focus on “look fors” while visiting and consider “ask abouts” in their discussions with teachers. After reading Danielle’s Thoughts on Connectivism and Where We Really Are, and her struggles with finding ways to incorporate connected learning opportunities in her school where perhaps the administration and community has not yet embraced these ideals, I appreciated her list of “these-are-the-things-I-can-do”s. Because that’s what we’re asking for, right? For teachers to try to do things just a little bit differently? To consider the possibilities? To take risks and have an open mind?

After reading Danielle’s thoughts, Lisa Christen asked me to consider what connected, constructivist learning may look like in the elementary classroom. I told her that sounded like some fine material for a blog post. So here we go.

Opportunities for student collaboration – This is easy. Children are social creatures. Do they inherently know how to collaborate effectively to problem solve? No. So we need to model that for them and help them acquire skills for doing so. There are many ways to infuse technology into this practice, but the tools won’t ensure students are collaborating. Primary students can handle this. Example. Last week I observed a first grade lesson where students had just finished reading a picture book about the life of George Washington Carver. Their next learning task? Work in teams to invent something new with the “peanut” as the key ingredient. You get the same tools Carver had available to him. Brainstorm your ideas, draw your process, write your steps, present to the class. Think like scientists. The ensuing thoughts were not only hilarious, they were creative and sparked children’s interest in the process of invention. Peanut crayon? Genius. Peanut clay? I’d buy it. Students took on different roles: team leaders emerged, some jumped right into sketching their designs, others teamed up to describe their steps. Was there a test following this activity? Nope. Was there even a rubric? Nah. Did they learn anything? They clearly did. I watched them do it.

Outside of the classroom, there are so many opportunities for connected learning in which we need our children to take part. Skype with an author or a pen-pal class. Create and maintain a system for housing student blogs. The possibilities with writing, commenting, reflecting, and passionate learning are endless. Begin the process of having students develop portfolios of their work. What an amazing opportunities for them to grow and reflect as learners. Create a Twitter account for your class and use it to connect with other classes, schools, and parents.

Learning is connected – So many standards, so little time. Why we teach subjects in isolation in elementary school is truly mind-blowing to me. Here we are, in a school where a student is likely to spend his entire day with one-three teachers who know him really well. I believe we should be rewriting elementary curriculum to address basic skills in a way that is truly integrated across disciplines. Imagine the connections students could make if they spent two weeks immersed in Colonial Life. From the second they walked through the door, they were transported to a time of the early Americas where every problem they solved, piece of writing they composed, and book they read reflected essential learning strands grounded in that theme. They’d be living their learning.

Stay true to constructivist theory – What I want to emphasize here is that constructivism is a learning theory, not a method of teaching.  Constructivism suggests that children (aka people) learn by constructing knowledge out of their experiences. Students need to construct knowledge by connecting new material to the knowledge they already possess. (Or think they do.) Let’s also ask our children to “deconstruct” their knowledge. Question everything. Prove it to be so. Evaluate the “right answers.” Find the resources to do so. In an elementary classroom, this can be achieved with carefully thought-out processes for delivering content. Consider a math lesson where the objective for students is to learn how to add fractions with unlike denominators. In most instances, the teacher will demonstrate how to do this, explain the steps, review key vocabulary terms, then ask the children to practice a few problems, then do some for homework. Snooze. The child in that scenario is a passive, not active, participant in the learning process. Instead, present a story problem with fractions with unlike denominators as the key ingredients. Ask students to solve the problem. Give them manipulatives, access to resources, and each other to solve the problem. Don’t look for the right answer- look for the process, and for students to be able to explain to one another how they arrived at the “solution.” Bring the class together to evaluate the methods and determine a course of action for solving similar problems. Allow them to argue and make mistakes. Guide them along the way.

Student choice– In the elementary classroom, particularly in the primary grades, we are pretty skilled with providing differentiated learning opportunities for students based on their academic needs. Where we sometimes miss the boat is providing those same small group or individual, passion-driven learning experiences for students, or designing our lessons to allow for more student choice. How can this be accomplished when there is so much curriculum to “cover” and so many standards to address? We need to shift our energies from thinking that every student needs to master every standard, every year. It’s just unrealistic, and frankly, inappropriate. We need to start looking at the big picture. I believe we need to help our children learn how to read and comprehend what they read. From there, they will work wonders. Why not lay out for students the content topics to be explored in social studies for the year, and ask them to choose where they’d like to first start exploring? Or, within a science unit on ecosystems, give students the freedom to choose through which ecosystem they’ll show mastery of the big ideas? And allow them to choose the method in which they’ll demonstrate their learning. Maybe every once and awhile we need to just stop with the routine and give kids what they really want. They’ll never be more engaged.

Opportunities to connect with teachers outside of school – Here I’d like to see a focus on communication with the student and the family outside of school. One thing that has been really powerful for us this year is the development of our teacher webpages. While students are not always contributing content to the pages, the teacher is posting curricular topics, links to relevant material, examples of student work, photos, etc. to share with parents. The parent has access to our classroom experiences 24/7. We are fortunate in that parents are very involved in our school, but we need to do a better job engaging, rather than simply involving, parents in the learning process.

I met with a teacher today who truly wants to transform her practice and student learning. But she is at a loss. She doesn’t know how to balance the enormity of the standards and curricular demands with her passion for bringing individualized, engaging learning experiences to every one of her students. After combating a moment of helplessness where I thought, “How can I possibly tell her she can do this?”, we cracked open the curriculum and decided which of the listed standards were just unnecessary. We talked about the big ideas and ways she could start incorporating project-based, student-centered learning experiences into the content areas. We’ll support her. She’ll make mistakes, and I’ll be okay with that. She is so driven, so student-centered, that her students will learn more this year than ever before.

I’m confident about that, and I know that every time I visit her room and watch her children learn, I’ll know that’s what it looks like.