Living on the edge.

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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

Be an artist.

In Linchpin, Seth Godin asks us to consider the task of emotional labor: doing important work, even when it isn’t easy. It’s the type of labor we often avoid, due to its difficulty and the fact that to some people, emotional labor is a gift given without reward. In reality, emotional labor perhaps yields the greatest benefits, to both the giver and the recipient of those efforts.

The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show- these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.

Godin’s message is to bring your gifts to work. Your initial reaction to this idea may be, “Why should I? I just want to leave work each day and go home and do things I enjoy and be around people I actually like.”

What gifts do you bring to your school? Clearly you seek to display your strongest leadership qualities on a daily basis, in the hopes of modeling and shaping learning for your staff and students. What art do you create on a daily basis, at work, that allows your organization to flourish?

If you believe that your role as administrator or teacher or parent does not fit the definition of “artist,” I ask you to consider the following:

  • Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that’s creative, passionate, and personal. And great art resonates with the viewer, not only with the creator.
  • Art is about intent and communication, not substances.
  • Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.
  • Art is a personal act of courage, something one human does that creates change in another.
  • Art is the product of emotional labor. If it’s easy and risk-free, it’s unlikely that it’s art.

I didn’t want this to post to be filled with feel-good fluff and void of actual instances of how I know emotional labor is being expended each day in schools, and how this work benefits our kids. In our elementary school, there are artists creating at every turn.

  • My guidance counselor recently designed a “break the mid-winter-blahs” picnic lunch day for the entire school using her gifts of compassion and her awareness of our school climate.
  • For a few weeks of the year physical education teacher transforms our gymnasium into an amazing obstacle course, complete with hanging “vines,” hula-hoops, clever contraptions made of PVC-pipe, and opportunities for rolling, tumbling, running, laughing, and learning.
  • One of my kindergarten teacher’s many gifts is her unrivaled ability to break into song, dance, skit, funny character voice… basically whatever theatrics is necessary…to excite and energize her students and engage them in learning.
  • My 3/4 hallway has this amazing chemistry. You can feel it when you walk through the hall. It hits you in the face. I love their contagious energy!
  • An incredible group of teachers and staff imagined and implemented a now-annual Day of Service for our entire school community in honor of a teacher who lost her battle with breast cancer last year.
  • Grade 2 teachers designed a Parent Blogging Night, where they will introduce parents to the learning opportunities their children will be involved in using blogs and where parents will help their child write their first post!
  • Students offer to stay in from recess to assist a teacher. They offer to make posters and visit you at lunch time and give you their ice cream and deliver cupcakes to you when it’s their birthday.
  • Dedicated parents in our parent-teacher organization write grants for technology and run science exploration clubs for our young scientists. Another parent blogged with a third grade class on his recent business trip to Shanghai and visited us upon his return to share this experience with our students.

None of these given gifts are written as requisite activities in teachers’ job descriptions, nor in any of those instances do you see the words standardized testing, curriculum map, or homework. They clearly all involve love, care, and learning.

How will you be an artist today? How will your emotional labor and efforts change your organization? Take a risk. Your passion-driven efforts will not go unnoticed, and you will find that when you expend emotional labor, although sometimes exhausting, it will be deeply gratifying. What we often forget, as Godin reminds us, is “The act of the gift is in itself a reward.”

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.

Win the battle.

Robert Bruce Murray III - Flickr
Robert Bruce Murray III - Flickr

A few weeks ago I starting drafting a blog post titled redundancy.

I was becoming pretty flustered. I felt like I was saying the same thing over and over again. I felt like the articles, blog posts, and tweets I read and composed just yappity-yapped the same ideas. I kept thinking, “This is super… now what??”

Clearly, there are many days when I feel like Will Richardson:

But here is the thing…read between the lines in most of these descriptions and you get the sense that we see it, we want it, but we ain’t gonna get it very soon. Budgets are being cut. The people in charge don’t really see this vision. We haven’t figured out that assessment thing very well. And so on.

But as one of the “people in charge” (so I like to think), I have to muster up all of the stickwithitness in my soul to make change happen in my school. For my kids. I have to suck it up when the district officials impose more budget cuts and think creatively to do more with less.

Not all teachers are on board with the shift in thinking I’m trying to embody within our school walls. I can’t force them to collaborate. I can’t make them follow me blindly. I can only demonstrate the incredible power in sharing knowledge with one another, for the benefit of our children. I am going to provide my teachers with learning opportunities that allow them to see the benefits of autonomous, masterful learning with a purpose in action.

I have to model for them that I am passionate about learning. Every day I want to learn something new. I want to do something differently, better than I did the day before.

I will take risks, and I will fail. But I will learn from the experience. When I do fail, I know there will be people to support me.

We can do this, you know. We can, little by little, individual by individual, exalt student learning opportunities to the levels they deserve to be. There are success stories everywhere. I think of the VanMeters and the Identity Days and the Karl Fischs and Dan Meyers of the world. I think of organizations such as PLP that are raising an awareness as teachers and administrators taking on the lead learning roles in their schools. I think of my Connected Principals colleagues, who, in a matter of a few short months, have become such an integral part of my professional life. I think of the countless teachers and administrators who blog and share their experiences and make me want to be better.

Right now we’re swimming upstream in a river of redundancy. We’re not clear how we’re going to join forces to completely revolutionize education for our students, but that begs the question- can we win the war before we win the battle?

Start with you. Your school. Your teachers. Your classrooms. Your students. Your community. And for heaven’s sake, SHARE what you are doing. Help us all become better at serving our kids.

What are your plans for reform? Share them on your blog, and don’t forget to post here: . See all contributions here:


Now I know.


This post was written for November’s Project PLN: The Admin Issue.

I used to think students should sit in rows. (Made it harder for them to chit chat while I was imparting wisdom on them.) Now I know they should sit…stand…hang…together. (Makes it easier for them to talk and learn from one another.)

I used to think I needed to cite standards in my lesson plans. (This handy-dandy cheat sheet will help me quickly identify standard 2.1!) Now I know we should evaluate the standards, using them to guide instruction, yet allow students to pursue their passions. (What does this learning mean for you, children?)

I used to think my good ideas should stay in my classroom. (I worked hard developing those lessons!) Now I know more students will benefit from the expertise of teachers who share. (Collective genius. Sharing is caring.)

I used to think I never had enough time. (Lesson plans…grading papers…surviving…) Now I know it’s important to work smarter, not harder. (Make time for the things that matter most.)

I used to think a child who scored poorly on an assessment didn’t study hard enough. (They had a study guide one week in advance! What is the deal with that kid?) Now I know a student who doesn’t perform well on an assessment does not have the problem. (The teacher does.)

I used to think sitting down with a parent was scary. (They’re older than me! They’re parents, for crying out loud! What could I possibly know that they don’t?) Now I know talking with parents about their children is enlightening and meaningful. (Parents are tremendous assets to every school.)

I used to think in-services were an opportunity for me to address my staff about important issues. (If I’m going to wear a suit to work, I may as well stand up in front of you with this PowerPoint presentation!) Now I know that I am not comfortable spending 6 hours of the day leading professional development sessions in which teachers have little ownership. (Let them lead the way).

I used to think teacher supervision was something that happened to teachers. (Everything’s ship-shape in here. Sign on the dotted line). Now I know teacher supervision is something that happens for teachers. (I appreciate your strengths in these areas. Where can we find opportunities for improvement? I will support you.)

I used to think a child who did not follow the rules was non-compliant and clearly did not want to learn. (A rigid system of consequences will help students realize what is expected of them.) Now I know every child who demonstrates the need for behavioral supports deserves an arm around the shoulder and our relentless care. (Let’s problem solve this together.)

I used to think people who put their lives out there on Twitter were crazy people. (Okay, some of them are actually crazy people. Why would you write about what’s happening in your school?! What if your superintendent reads it?!) Now I know my involvement in social media is the most powerful professional development opportunity I’ve had in the past year. (Thank you, PLN.)

I used to think bragging about our accomplishments was pompous. (Ugh, will that teacher ever stop yapping about how great her students’ projects are?) Now I know celebrating our successes spreads good ideas like wildfire. (It ignites teaching and learning!)

I used to think I wanted to be a teacher. Now I know I was right.

And more so, now I know I want to be a learner.



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

Playing school or living learning?


I was honored to contribute to Amy Sandvold’s Passion-Driven Leader blog. Please visit her blog to be inspired as more educational leaders share their passions! This is the post I shared…

“Playing school” was one of my favorite pastimes when I was a child. My two younger brothers influenced my playtime habits (think He-Man, Transformers, and GI Joe adventures), but I repeatedly subjected them to assuming the role of “student,” sitting attentively in the makeshift classroom in our playroom. My mother would bring home used basal readers or textbooks if she was yard sale browsing. Whenever my teacher was purging supplies, I’d grab stacks of old workbooks and handwriting paper. Our stuffed animals and dolls joined my brothers as pupils. I’d stand in front of a giant chalkboard and review math facts and spelling words. I made worksheets, they’d complete them, and then I’d grade them. I rewarded their efforts with star stickers. We went out for recess. I loved playing school!

Out of curiosity I Googled “playing school” and came across this Wikihow article detailing 17 how-to steps for playing school.  It made me laugh. And simultaneously sad. Here are a few high/lowlights:

  • The sheer ridiculousness of Step 9: Make a misbehaving list. “If the students misbehave, they’ll have their name added to the list, which will result in loss of privileges.” The dreaded list… also troubling is the “I’m going to put your name on the board and put checkmarks next to it with each infraction” visual.
  • And Step 17, that I’m sure this teacher and this principal would really appreciate: Have a reward system. “If your students do good deeds, add a gold star to a chart, or make a special mark by their name and they can get a special treat! And, reward them if they do good with a substitute. And don’t reward them if they are bad.” Note to new teachers everywhere: equip your classroom with gold stars, charts, the “list” (see above), and treats, and you’ll be just fine.
  • Fundamental materials described in Step 6: Get a teacher’s notebook. “You’ll use this for keeping attendance, the timetables, behavior codes and grades. And, you should probably draw out the plans for that day. If you are teaching P.E., track the students’ progress.” So many key essentials in one notebook? I enjoy how the author mentions you should probably draw out plans for the day. Nice to see mention of P.E., though.

The most valuable part of this article is found in the “Tips” section below the step-by-step guide:
“Make sure that the kids have fun. Make it enjoyable for them. Don’t bore them!” Point well taken!

I don’t pretend for a second that the Wikihow entry meant to serve as a resource grounded in educational best practice, or even a resource that anyone is ever meant to gaze their eyes upon, ever, but it does raise some interesting points about the perceptions of what teachers and students do in schools and the purpose that education, and educators, serve.

Unfortunately, playing school isn’t good enough when it becomes our life work. Yet many educators do just that. They go through the motions. Teaching is a job to them. The monotony of the same lessons, schedules, and curriculum, year after year, can gradually cause the passionate spark once held by a teacher or administrator to fizzle. With good intentions, these educators continue with business as usual, because frankly, it is comfortable, and it has worked (sort of) thus far. Adding to the stress of the daily lives of teachers and administrators are the countless legislative mandates, conflicts with stakeholders, dwindling budgets, and attempts to bring change to institutions that are among the hardest to change. The passion that may have once been there, in the early days and years of teaching, fades alarmingly fast.

What is passion? Many things. An outburst of strong emotion or feeling. A strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything. What can we do to avoid playing school in our daily work with students? How do we remain passionate educators?

Some teachers are passionate about their content areas. They have absolute enthusiasm for chemistry and everything it represents and means to our world. They genuinely want students to develop a passion for chemistry akin to the passion they currently possess. I think of Dan Meyer who clearly is passionate about mathematics, but he goes a huge step above and beyond respect for the content. He works tirelessly to ensure his students (and the rest of us) are truly engaged in thinking about mathematics. Without that passion – the passion to craft learning experiences that help his students own their learning, his affinity for mathematics is just that- a content area he thinks is kind of cool.

Some educators are passionate about the shift. They develop PLNs, inspire each other through blog posts, presentations at conferences, and #edchats. They seek to infuse technologies meaningfully into student learning experiences, not for the sake of the tool, but for the sake of learning. They and their students are driven by the desire to collaborate, create, and think critically. Teachers, principals and superintendents are becoming transparent learners as if to say, “We love what we do. We’re so excited about what the future brings! And we want to share that with you!”

Some educators are passionate about connecting their students with the world. They are helping their students reflect on their learning through blogs, involving them in projects that help make the world a better place, and are developing partnerships with schools that are separated by thousands of miles.

No matter which direction the passionate educator takes, one thing is certain. A passionate educator cares about kids. A passionate educator LIKES kids. Every decision made, every action taken, every word spoken, is done so with their best interests in mind. We love working with kids. They touch our hearts with their hilarious anecdotes, determination, imagination, smiles, and inventive spellings. They’re the reason we come to work each day. And if students are not the reasons why you vie for that parking spot nearest to the door each morning, then I might suggest that you are playing school – you are not living learning– and you need to reevaluate your place in our educational system and children’s lives.

Early in my life I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Shortly into my career I was inspired by my fantastic administrators to follow that path. There are days that absolutely drain me, and make me wonder why it is I continue to do what I do.

Then I see two kindergarten students walking hand-in-hand to return books to the library.
And a first grader asks to read me a story. We sit on the carpet and she reads beautifully.
A sixth grader offers a heartfelt apology to me.
A teacher leaves a handwritten note on my desk telling me how much she appreciates my support.
A parent cries in my office about a family situation and asks for our help supporting her child.
I watch a teacher skillfully lead a small group of students in a discussion about the theme of a story and its impact on their lives.
An entire fifth grade class offers to help our custodian put away chairs after an assembly.

Then I realize, I no longer play school.
I live it.

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.

Searching for answers…

Today  is opening day for teachers! Exclamation mark!

As a teacher as I was always curious about what messages our principal would be sharing with us on opening day. As a principal, I’m always curious about how my teachers will react to the messages I will be sharing with them on opening day. When developing schedules for the next two days, I was inspired to scale back on the amount of time I ask teachers to sit in meetings with me, and rather trust that they will use their classroom preparation time wisely in order to finalize everything for students’ arrival on Monday. I’m going to work hard at focusing on relationships this year, developing trust with our stakeholders, and, as always, keeping the needs of our students our top priority.

This year is my third in administration, and I have fallen into the intriguing position of “elementary principal with the most years of experience” in our school district. (Insert giggles, shock, awe, pity, etc.) By default, I’m the “expert” on how things work at the elementary level. I use the word expert loosely.Very loosely. I may know more than I probably realize I know, but when faced with a question from a new administrative colleague or teacher, I have resolved to be comfortable with the answer, “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know” are three scary words. Speaking them admits a certain vulnerability that not all leaders are comfortable revealing.

What if you truly don’t know? What’s next?

Simple- you learn. You seek answers to your questions. Principals need to be skilled learners, and model the habit of lifelong learning to students, teachers, and their school community. Here are some ways I continue learning every single day of my life and seek the answers to my questions.

Surround yourself with smart people.

I work with some amazingly gifted educators. My support specialists have in-depth knowledge of reading, interventions, data, and curriculum that I will probably never have. Several of my classroom teachers are the most creative, kind, energetic souls I have ever met. My administrative team is small, but mighty, and when we’re in a roundtable discussion about any topic, I truly am thankful for the support that they provide. My students are smart. They teach me something new every day.

To echo a sentiment that has been expressed here many times over, I so appreciate the network of professionals I’ve “met” through Twitter and other social media. I try to impress upon my teachers the importance of stepping outside of their classroom walls, our school’s walls, and our district boundaries, and learning about the innovative experiences of other schools. Outside perspective is amazingly valuable.

These are just a handful of the people that inspire me every day, a list I created here. I’m not sure exactly what constitutes being honored as a Twitter BFF, but I’m pretty sure it means that you’re awesome, so thank you to all of my friends for contributing to my lifelong learning experiences and helping me better myself by finding the answers.

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Admittedly, there are 630 unread feeds in my Google Reader, but I will, by the end of the weekend, catch up. As a teacher I did not do a lot of professional reading. Three years ago on a plane I read Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and it reignited my passion for learning about learning. In graduate courses this year I was inspired by Fullan, Zhao, and Friedman. I listened to Gladwell’s The Outliers on audiobook religiously for a week as he fascinated me with tales of Canadian hockey-playing youth and Microsoft leaders and his theories on achievement gaps. I’m working through Curriculum 21 and will use it to guide my technology integration work with teachers. I can’t comprehend how a book published in 1969 contains so much relevant commentary on what’s right and what’s wrong with education. I read the best tools compiled by Richard Byrne, am inspired by Shelly and the #edchat crew, and love being challenged by the mind of Lisa Nielson. I learn how to be a better administrator when I read anything written by Chris or George or David and all contributors to the Connected Principals blog and elsewhere.

Ask for help. And listen.

The answers don’t come easy. Admitting you don’t know is step 1. Truly, actively listening to others is what will help you discover the answers. Administrators interact thousands of times every single day with their students, staff, and parents. This year I’m going to make a better effort to stop the one million thoughts running through my brain, if only temporarily, to focus on the person in front of me. I’m going to be present. I’m going to listen and find the answers.

Take a break.

Being an administrator can be isolating, frustrating, terrifying, aggravating, and downright exhausting. The good news? Its reward is unrivaled. But there will be days when you just have to step away from it all, and do something for you. The answers will come easier when you do. Go for a run, hug your dogs, visit the park with your family, watch reality television, or blast The Killers in your office at inappropriate decibels and just be.

Your staff and students don’t expect you to have all of the answers, but they do expect you to want to find them.

Charting Your Course

From Flickr user yachtfan

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Seneca

For many, the new school year has already begun. For others, we are in the final planning stages before teachers and students return. Where will you lead your school this year? How do you determine to which “port” you are sailing? How do you chart your course for success, and how will you use your resources to make it happen?

As a newbie principal in the state of Pennsylvania, I am required to complete coursework through the National Institute for School Leadership. In our introductory course we considered the role of principal as “strategic thinker.” We took a good look at vision and how leaders develop and sustain meaningful vision, referencing The Principal Challenge: Leading And Managing Schools in an Era of Accountability (Tucker and Codding, editors).

Our facilitator asked us to come to class prepared with our district’s vision and mission statements in hand. Before class, he randomly organized and posted them so our districts could not be identified, and the “dissection” began! What were we looking for? We assessed each statement by asking the following questions. Is/does the vision….

Achievable? Why include statements in a vision statement that are unattainable? Doing so will frustrate the organization, and the vision will not be realized.

Focused on results that lead to accountability? Educators need to be held accountable for the work that they do. A vision that articulates a focus on results will help drive the organization to routinely assess the impact of their actions.

Measurable? How will the school know when their vision is achieved? How will it know when it’s veering from the intended course?

Simple and clear? How many of us can actually recite our district’s vision statements verbatim? (Or even recall where we have last seen it?!) This is not to say the statement should be short, sweet, and without substance, nor are long, eloquently written vision statements any more meaningful. Simple, clear language is necessary to make the vision…

Actionable? To achieve this vision, what will we DO to achieve it? What is our strategy? Who are the key players involved? What is the timeline? What resources do we need?

Lead to hard choices? In order to achieve the goals of the organization, sacrifices in other areas must be made. In accordance with our vision, where do we focus our efforts to ensure it is realized?

Worth fighting for? Above all else, if a school’s stakeholders don’t believe the vision is worth fighting for,  it is not likely to be attained. And what is more worth fighting for than the education of our children?

It turns out, most of our example vision statements met at least two or more of the criteria, but not a single one would be considered an exemplary vision for a school. Many were almost poetic, yet not actionable. Others were vague and unmeasurable.

The start of a new school year is the perfect time to re-focus our efforts where they matter most. As educational leaders, we need to be able to identify our school’s/district’s vision and priorities. We need to keep The End in mind – our goals. We need to formulate The Ways – strategies for achieving our goals. We need to develop The Means– our people and resources that will help us meet our goals and realize our vision.

Sail on!