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!

Getting to “I Can”

Educator Kiran Bir Sethi shared this inspirational message in November 2009, so perhaps you’ve already heard the story of how she and her colleagues in India’s Riverside School empowered their students to lead change among themselves, their school, their community, and their country. I just recently viewed this talk and found her message to be so simple, so real, and so attainable that I wished to share it with you.

Sethi sought to design a process that could “consciously infect the mind with the “I Can Button.” She believed that if learning was embedded in real world contexts, thus blurring the boundaries between school and life, that children would embark a meaningful learning journey. The steps of this process involve students seeing the change, changing themselves, and then leading the change in others.

Aware – Enable – Empower

Feel – Imagine – Do

This process directly increased student well-being and allowed students to become more competent and less helpless in their own learning. I was so intrigued by Sethi’s descriptions of the authentic examples of how her students changed the perceptions of child labor in their community. Having first lived the experience, they enabled themselves to transform their own thinking. These experiences changed mindsets. They caused her students to passionately educate and lead adults in their community to understand more about this issue. And these weren’t high school students taking to the streets with their message- these were 10 and 11-year olds.

The “I Can” mindset is a shift from “teacher telling me” to “I can do it.” Isn’t this what we want for all of our students? How can we make this happen in our classrooms on a daily basis? This technique may seem well-suited for lessons involving the social sciences, but what about math? Reading? What about the pressures for students to succeed on those pesky standardized tests?

The Riverside School parents had the same questions. While they appreciated that their children were becoming better human beings, they said to Sethi, Show us the grades. As she replied in her talk, And we did. Her students outperformed the top 10 schools in India in math, reading, and science. When children are empowered, they have the tools they need to do well in all aspects of their lives and education.

The Riverside School students influenced their city to devote time and “give to the children” because in the future, the chlidren will give back to the community. As we debate over tax increases to fund our schools and deal with incessant budget crises across our nation and beyond, I sometimes think our taxpayers and politicians fail to recognize that an investment in our students’ education is an investment in human capital. We want our children to return to the communities that educated them, and use their gifts to enhance our lives in many ways. Sethi’s students inspired their communities to recognize this important fact.

Sethi ends with, Contagious is a good word.  As we work to inspire children to say, “I can,” their enthusiasm will empower us as a learning community to say, “We can.”

How will you infect your learning community this year?

I learned to love to read.

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user alex.ragone

Sometimes we as administrators take for granted how easy it is to contact a teacher during the instructional day. Call the room. Leave a personal voicemail. Email them. Send a Skype message. While the lines of communication are open, they can also potentially interrupt instruction and learning. Flashback to the early 1980s, when I was in first grade. My teacher, Mrs. Koller, whom I adored, needed to step outside into the hallway to have a conversation with another staff member. Times were different then… no one had to arrange for coverage by a certified teacher to watch her class of  sprightly six-year-olds. We would be just fine on our own.

I can still picture very clearly in my mind where we were sitting when the other teacher popped her head in the door to get Mrs. Koller’s attention. My classmates and I were seated criss-cross-applesauce on the carpet. Mrs. Koller was seated in her rocking chair, the place from which she engaged our minds and hearts by reading aloud to us. When her colleague requested her attention, she had a variety of options. She could have had us talk quietly to our neighbors until she returned. She could have asked us to return to our seats and complete another task. She could have given us no directions and allowed the free-for-all to ensue. 🙂

Instead, she looked at the group of students seated patiently at her feet. She handed Charlotte’s Web to me, and said, “Lynmarie, I would like you to continue reading to the class. Please sit in my chair!”

My heart swelled with pride. My mind raced! Would I be fluent enough for my classmates to understand me? Would I be able to hold their attention? I pulled myself onto what felt like the world’s most distinguished chair, and confidently read the next several pages of the story to my classmates. I remember feeling so incredibly proud that she chose me for this task. Perhaps it was because I was seated near the front of the circle. Perhaps it was because she was confident in my abilities to read the text. For whatever the reason, it is one of my most cherished memories from elementary school.

She trusted me. She empowered me. She believed in me. I always loved stories, but when Mrs. Koller handed that book to me, I learned to love to read.


Thanks, @thenerdyteacher, for encouraging us to take the time to remember and share the wonderful things school has done for us!

Principal for a day!

My guest blogger today is Alecia, a sixth grade student at our school who entered a raffle drawing to win the prize of Principal for the Day…. and what a fantastic prize it turned out to be, not just for Alecia, but for me. 🙂 Alecia has been a strong presence in our building today, observing classrooms, interacting with students, completing fun tasks like student birthday cards and helping me prepare for our Students Rebuild paper crane project for Japan, as well as serving as photographer for our 10-Picture Tour!

Here are Alecia’s photos, with descriptions of why she chose to showcase these areas of our school, as well as some reflections about what it’s like to be a principal! Thanks for a great day, Alecia!

1. Our main entrance - I picked this picture because this is where we come in and out of the school from.
2. Our library - I like this picture because this is where we do our research.
3. Our art room - I choose the art room because this is where we do our crafts.
4. Our multi-purpose room - The multi-purpose room is were we do multiple activities such as gym, music performances, and it turns into our cafeteria at lunch time.
5. Our wall of teachers - I choose the wall of teachers because it shows who works in our building.
6. Our front showcase - I choose the front showcase because it just shows an Easter/spring theme.
7. Our quilt - I like the quilt because it welcomes you to Bowmansville.
8. Our hallways -The hallways were chosen because they show student work!
9. Our computer lab - I picked the computer lab because it shows the students hard at work.
10. Our mural - Everyone in our school got to help make the mural by placing a tile on the project.

Alecia ~ what did you enjoy about your day as a principal? What did you learn? What advice do you have for anyone who wishes to become a principal?

I enjoyed being a principal. It is really fun just to go around and see what other kids are working on and just to be able to be in charge of the school is really cool! Some advice I have for people who want to be a principal is just to be understanding with children and have fun!

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.

Be there.


Three years ago when I first started as principal in my building, I told my teachers they should expect to see me on a daily basis, even if it was just to pop my head in the classroom and say a quick hello. As every administrator knows, this is easier said than done, especially on days when central office demands have you running across town to three meetings at two different buildings. I think my first year I did a fairly good job of “showing my face” around the building. Teachers no longer stopped instruction when I walked in the room to find out if I needed something. Students stopped being curious as to why I was there. They knew it was because I wanted to see my little learners in action and get to know everyone in my new school.

Last year we embraced the ideals of the Fish! philosophy in our school, one of which is Be There. The premise behind “be there” is fairly broad in that not only do you need to be physically available for your staff and your colleagues, but you have to be emotionally available for them as well. Being present means you make yourself available to your constituents, listen actively, and continuously work to strengthen relationships.

The teacher supervision model with which we engage consists of electronic walk-through formats as well as a formal observation protocol. I was finding that I was falling short of completing my desired number of documented walk-throughs each week, falling victim to the perils of management and not allowing the joys of leadership to drive my actions each day.

A few weeks ago I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience an entire school day in the life of a first grader?” I glanced at my calendar, noticed, despite being few and far between, there were some days without any scheduled meetings or commitments. Right then and there, I blocked off days for every grade level and specialist class in my building.

I drafted a document called It’s a Date! and emailed my staff:

What’s the best part about being a principal?

Watching all of our children learn!

I have set aside days in my calendar to spend immersed in a grade level/class for the day. I am really excited about this! I will be in the classrooms from students’ arrival through the end of the day, planning to spend time in the rooms during academic times and will visit specials with your classes. I am happy to sit and observe, but reeeeally what I would love to do is join in the fun. Please put me to work! During your PLC meeting closer to your visit date, discuss how you will include me in your class activities. Need someone to facilitate a small group? Want to team up to teach a topic? Would you like to have someone work 1:1 with a student? Should I bring in some tech? These are all ways I’d be happy to help. Decide whose classrooms I will visit at what times of the day. If there is work/planning I need to complete before that day, kindly let me know a day or two in advance. 🙂

I began with first grade. What a wonderful day! In the morning I spent time working with small groups of students with reading concepts and making words activities using the Smartboard, and in the afternoon, three of the teachers enlisted my help teaching a lesson about extinction, where we read Dinosaurs! and the students interacted with classification and vocabulary on a Smartboard activity. I went to art class and music class and, although I often dine with students, joined them in the cafeteria. It was an exhilarating and exhausting day!


This past Friday was Third Grade Day. I didn’t have as many teaching responsibilities this time, so I was really able to sit back and observe the children and all of the wonderful things they were learning. (And take a lot of photos and shoot some video!) Highlights: collaborating on critiquing persuasive writing blog posts with a class in another district using Flockdraw… experimenting with solids, liquids, and gases (using root beer floats! and hot chocolate with whipped cream and peppermint sticks and marshmallows!)… reading poetry with small groups of students….getting a class set up on Kidblog for the first time and helping them compose their first entries…glazing the clay bowls I threw on the potting wheel last spring while the third graders glazed their autumn leaf pottery….eating scrumptious 🙂 macaroni and cheese with the children and cracking up at their absurd jokes…observing “challenge day” in math class, where students are free to choose which activities and challenge problems they’d like to complete, either individually or in teams… working 1:1 with a young man who reeeally wanted to learn algebra, so, we worked together on some simple equations, and then I watched him teach another student 🙂 …. observing students use the Activotes to interact with graphing problems on the Promethean board… loving the feeling of walking past my office door, closed, while the sign outside that indicates where I am the building reads, “Visiting Classrooms.”

3rd Grade Day on PhotoPeach

My colleague David Truss has coined these days in the life of an administrator “No Office Days.” As I recently drafted this post and planned to share about my grade level days, I was so excited to see David’s inspiring post and read about his day of learning with students. Be sure to read about his experiences in his latest post!

We have to be there for our students and staff. We can’t do that from behind a closed office door, or even an open office door. I will freely admit what doesn’t get scheduled, doesn’t get done. Be sure to block out times on your calendar for walk-throughs or more time-intensive observation experiences. The perspective you will gain as a learner and administrator is invaluable. Watching your students’ faces light up as they experience an “aha” moment, seeing your teachers work so hard to make classroom experiences meaningful for students, and knowing your presence is positively impacting the lives of your students and teachers awakens the realization that being a school principal is the greatest!

Cross posted on 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.

Welcome Back!

Being a paparazzi principal does have its perks… we showed the video below today at our Welcome Back assembly…the students love seeing themselves and their friends, teachers, parents, and siblings on the big screen! It warms my heart when they giggle at the funny faces and cheer for their grade levels! I’ll definitely post this on my school webpage and also run throughout Meet the Teacher night next week. Another idea I hope to bring to fruition this year is for our student council members to create an “All About Brecknock” video for new students. It could feature a building tour, interviews with students and staff, and just general FYIs introducing our new students to our school! Copies could be kept in the district office and distributed to new families at registration. Looking forward to a great year!

Back to Brecknock from Lyn Hilt on Vimeo.

Leading with Walkthroughs


Walkthrough observations take many forms in the elementary, middle, and secondary levels. This practice typically involves the principal or other supervisor spending a few minutes observing a classroom to take a quick pulse of the teaching and learning occurring. Some districts tie walkthrough reports into the formal teacher evaluation system. Others use walkthrough forms to provide informal feedback to teachers. No matter what system is used, there are several characteristics of walkthroughs that in my experience have made them more effective in changing teacher practice.

1. Decide on your “look-fors,” and be sure teachers are well-versed in this content.

Our district utilizes the iObservation system for walkthrough observations. iObservation provides a variety of comprehensive walkthrough forms based on the works of Marzano and Danielson. Many of the qualities of Learning Focused Schools are also represented on the forms, and since our teachers are expected to utilize these strategies in their instruction, the iObservation system provides us with many look-for options in the classroom. The forms I used most frequently last year were the Research-Based Instructional Strategies K-12, Research-Based Classroom Management K-12, and Teaching Authentic forms. Our district also has the option of accessing our state’s formal evaluation forms through this system. We use tablet PCs to visit classrooms, complete the checklist forms of the strategies we see in, and can add narratives when needed. iObservation includes banks of coaching questions to help lead discussions with teachers, as well as rubrics that identify teachers as Beginning through Innovating on specific strategies. The rubrics are probably the most powerful aspect of the program, as teachers can identify where they are on the rubric, and using the descriptors provided, work to improve to the Innovating level. For many strategies, there are embedded “Best Practices” videos that teachers can watch to see a master teacher execute the strategy in the classroom. It’s a comprehensive program that we have not yet used to its fullest potential.

The article Classroom walkthroughs: Learning to see the trees and the forest by Howard Pitler with Bryan Goodwin provides solid examples of look-fors in the classroom. They suggest principals ask these six questions to guide their classroom observations: Are teachers using research-based teaching strategies? Do student grouping patterns support learning? Are teachers and students using technology to support student learning? Do students understand their learning goals? Are students learning both basic and higher order levels of knowledge? Do student achievement data correlate with walkthrough data? The authors conclude with their thoughts that walkthrough observations should be used for coaching, not evaluation. Walkthroughs can be used to measure the school’s staff development efforts as well.

iObservation is an instructional and leadership improvement system. It collects, manages and reports longitudinal data from classroom walkthroughs and teacher observations. Teacher growth and leadership practices inform professional development differentiated to individual learning needs for every teacher and leader to increase his/her effectiveness each year.

Another tool I’m looking forward to using this year is ISTE’s Classroom Observation Tool (ICOT). This is a free online tool that helps administrators and observers look for key components of technology integration in the classroom. What I appreciate about this tool is that it does not focus strictly on technology use, but also on student grouping practices, varied learning activities, and NETS Teachers Standards observed.

Look-fors will vary from school to school, but it is imperative that teachers are knowledgeable about what supervisors will be observing on their visits, and that they are supported in using these strategies in the classroom.

2. Follow-up conversations are crucial.

Our teachers truly desire constructive feedback about their practice. Though it might not always be easy to hear, a teacher cannot possibly seek to improve without input from a supervisor or colleague. A walkthrough observation is not complete without some type of follow-up conversation. This can be as informal as making sure you drop into the teacher’s room after school to comment on the positive practices you saw, to offer suggestions for improvements, and to share your walkthrough paperwork. In our iObservation system, our teachers log in to access their completed forms. They can start an online conference in a confidential message-board-type-forum with the observer to answer any questions that were posed, or interactions can occur via the iObservation email system. The reflective practice component of walkthroughs is vital.

3. Talk to students!

I do not complete a walkthrough without talking to at least one student in the classroom. Questions I typically ask include, What is your essential question for this lesson? What do you think your teacher wants you to learn as a result of completing this activity? How will you know that  you have learned (insert objective here). How do you know your work meets the standards set for you? I also enjoy when students read their writing to me or show me their latest project work. If I am observing learning centers, I like to join in the fun!

Walkthrough observations were recently the topic of discussion on the #cpchat and #edadmin hashtag on Twitter, so be sure to check out the meaningful discussions to learn more. This year, I hope to expand the use of iObservation for peer-peer learning walks and observations. Administrators and teachers, please consider commenting on this post with walkthrough practices you’ve found to be most effective, or most ineffective.