Vision & Values into Practice

This past Saturday, I was awed to see families writing together.  I was awed to see young children take agency, write their own stories and read to an adult audience.  I was awed to hear the voices of our students about their hopes and fears in school.  I was honored to talk to parents about their hopes and fears for their children.  I was inspired by our community of teachers, students, parents, administrators and staff who came together on a Saturday to write vision stories together.

Last year on Edutopia, a great article posted about why every school should tell its story.  It’s a read that resonates, and for our district, it has affirmed our own storytelling practices.

For the past year, we have engaged in an exercise titled Vision and Values into Practice.  It is a modified Future Search that we learned from Bernajean Porter, which we have used to frame our reaccreditation process.  For us, it serves to engage our community in our guiding principles and system goals by creating stories of what we hope to become.

Essentially, we frame our protocol around three components

  • Engage in a discussion about what we are trying to envision, which in our case is our revised mission/beliefs (Guiding Principles) and the strategic goals that emerged from our self study
  • Create a Wave Packet by using a Best Hopes/Worst Fears protocol; this serves to present two possible realities and allows us to name our fears; once we have named then, we focus on creating the reality we wish for, our Best Hopes
  • In collaborative groups, we then write stories set 5-7 years into the future, in first person, from the perspective of a student/teacher/parent describing what success looks like

Not only does this exercise communicate our goals and generate enthusiasm, it also builds our community.  It creates engagement in our school.  It is fun.  And, to quote Bernajean, “once you have a story, you know what it looks like.”  It is a narrative action plan, but more than an action plan, it inspires action because we know what we are trying to achieve.

Summer Daze Infographics: Building Independence & Agency @ Home

Every weekend, one of my daughters wakes me up early, 5 AM early, to ask me if they can play.  And every weekend, I grumble a “yes” with my eyes shut tight.  Rarely though, do I ever fall back asleep.  Never have I told them that they can’t play.  And so this past weekend, we had a discussion about it.

“Why do you always ask me if you can play on the weekends?”

“Because we don’t wanna wake you up Mama,” says five-year-old Madison with her perfectly clear and logical voice.

Of course.  They’re being thoughtful.  They want to make sure it’s okay to get up and make noise.  Kind, but entirely too dependent on us, their parents, for direction.

In my work life, I am obsessed with learner agency.  I know that children can do so much more than we think they can.  If we get out of the way.  (As an aside, the same holds true for leadership.)  Yet, at home, my children are highly dependent on me and I worry about practicing what I preach.  I don’t want to be a compliance based parent.  Yet, I do want children who are clean, healthy and kind.  That may seem basic, but when you live in my house and fight twice per day about teethbrushing, you’d understand the clean factor.  And so as often as I think about agency at school, so do I think about it at home.

Because I am trying to develop agency and independence, I detest telling my kids what to do.  Mornings are a perfect example.  They both know the routine, and yet, they always ask what’s next.  Teeth?  Hair?  Shoes?  Breakfast? Packed lunch?  I have taken to posing the question back rather than telling them.  Still no independence.  Last week over breakfast, I asked Madison her plan and she told me what she was going to do and in what order she’d like to do it.  Then she proceeded to walk around the house with her toothbrush for 20 minutes before I eventually inquired about what she had to do.  10 minutes later, she brushed her teeth.  Argh!

I have toyed with the idea of a daily menu or checklist, yet, I’ve not had time to create it.  Then, it struck me.  An infographic for the summer.  With daily and weekly expectations.  And so tonight, we sat down and designed one.  I had some basic ideas of what should go on it, but I wanted to see what Madison decided.  Interestingly, she chose many of the things I would have picked.  Healthy food, journaling, reading.  

“The days are long but the years are short.”
–Gretchen Rubin

I am very pleased to present Madison’s Summer Days, an infographic we designed and created together, which will serve as her daily and weekly checklist.  Summer weeks can fly by and a bit of haplessness is great, but I find my kids do much better with a flexible routine.  My goal with this inforgraphic is to allow them to develop independence and ownership of what needs to happen, in addition to allowing room for voice and choice.  It’s an experiment that I hope works; I’ll report along the way.  In the meantime, feel free to download a PDF here or use Piktochart to create your own.  Good luck as we head into the Summer Daze of parenting. 

Madison Summer Days

Leave Unstructured Play Unstructured, Please

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In a conversation about homework and unstructured play, we find an assumption that unstructured play happens outdoors.

  • What about children who live in apartments?
  • Should homework be used as a babysitter?


Unstructured play = imagination.  You can play for hours in a small corner.  My girls play for hours inside.  And outside.  With a myriad of tools or none at all.  Their greatest tool – imagination.

  • Should we provide examples of unstructured play?
  • Do we show parents how to do it?


As soon as we start providing examples, it is no longer unstructured.

While I understand the need for education and examples, I do feel we need to be very careful that we don’t create formulas that can be copied.  The beauty of unstructured play is freedom and choice.  Rather than provide examples, let’s provide the ingredients necessary for unstructured play to happen.

imagination + freedom + choice + inspiration (in the form of a rock, toy, shell, spoon, etc) = unstructured play

After this, let’s just let them play.  It is exhausting work, and when left alone, children can and will do it for hours and hours.  My greatest joy as a parent are the occasional moments when I overhear their play.  It’s inspiring.  And it can happen anywhere.  As long as we stay out of it and let them dream!

Yes or No is the Wrong Question

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-8-15-07-pmWe were posed a question.  Yes or No?  Defend it.

We defended it.  Die hard defended it.  To the point of emotive words and condescensions.  To the point where emotion interrupted listening.

Even though we all really agreed upon the issue.  Were all like-minded.  Were participating in a constructed exercise.

The question was the wrong question.  It drove us apart.

Argument isn’t yes or no, black or white.  It’s a myriad of gray.  Let’s stop bowing to the wrong question and the rhetoric that surrounds it.  If we pose the right questions, we can arrive at alternate solutions and explore every shade of gray in between.

Did we forget the Why behind unit design?

All RIghts Reserved by Pixabay
All Rights Reserved by Pixabay

We fooled ourselves. Created a false narrative.  Told ourselves that if we wrote Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings, planned assessment using a GRASP framework and filtered instructional activities from there, we’d transform learning in our classrooms.  

We built robust digital infrastructures and have thousands of archived units.  Built coaching teams to support unit design.  Created five-year plans for implementation of a fully articulated curriculum.

Does school look vastly differently 10+ years on?  Are students self-directed?  Are they engaged in authentic work.  Perhaps so…but is this the norm?

To what end?  Why are we building these units.  Has it produced the desired effect?  If not, why not?

I would argue that focusing on unit design is the flaw.  The product is the student, not the unit.  The thinking behind the unit design process is flawless, but only when it focuses on the student.  

  • What understanding for the student?
  • What assessment experience for the student?

It is a thinking process intended to change classroom practice, not a template to complete a unit for digital submission.

Here is a very draft learning walk for a backwards design classroom.  I wrote it because I wanted to showcase to teachers the “why” behind unit planning.  It is intended to show what my classroom would look like if I were implementing my unit design and the changes I would see in my classroom.

Let’s remember that a well articulated curriculum that lives in a palatial digital infrastructure is not the goal.  The shift in the student experience is the goal.  Always.  How is school relevant and meaningful to the future of my students?  How do I want them engaged during my class time?  What thinking do I want them involved in?  What will they create?  What will they remember…

What about the Scenic Route?

Wiggins and McTighe use a brilliant airplane metaphor to address the need for planning. They state that when a pilot wants to fly to London, she doesn’t just get into the airplane, set the destination, kick back her feet and hope for an arrival several hours later.  Instead, she monitors progress along the way, makes adjustments based on feedback and lands artfully having been fully alert throughout the journey.  

For years, I have used this metaphor to defend mapping, unit planning and formative assessment.  I still believe in it.  To a degree…

Yet, of late, I have started to question what has happened to this model as it has scaled around the world.

I have seen brilliant units, intriguing essential questions, inspiring assessments for the past 12 years in class after class, discipline after discipline.  I have worked with wonderful teachers who commit to the model and spend hours building curriculum maps and units.  

Still, education has remained largely unchanged.  

Across the world in schools that have adopted backward design (or not),

  • Students still sit at desks and are directed to move by the teacher; even when we’ve shifted to flexible furniture and the students may choose to sit or stand, they are still largely guided by the teacher
  • Teacher to student talk is typically at a 70:30 ratio in favor of the teacher
  • Teachers pose more questions than students do
  • Projects are inventive and “authentic” but are driven by teachers, with tight deadlines and narrow choices; even 20Time Projects have become very scaffolded with rigid timelines

Those beautiful units we’ve designed, a model that I am sure Wiggins and McTighe intended to produce thinking classrooms, have tied us tightly to a linear path of achievement and forward momentum.

So I ask, what happened to the scenic route?

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When I was growing up, Europe by Eurail was all the rage.  A series of destinations over a specific time period driven by the the traveler.  We still know we want to go to Paris, Prague and Warsaw, but perhaps we decide on an extended stay in Slovenia or we veer from our path to take a side trip into Scandinavia.  Perhaps the plane metaphor, albeit well-intended, produced an opposite effect, one in which we fly directly to our destination with no unscheduled stops.  

How could we transform our classrooms if we shifted our metaphor from an airplane to a train?

  • Students are given standards and a timeline, but can choose how to navigate through them
  • Students create the itinerary, pose the questions and do the thinking and the talking
  • Students may step off a path to explore another route; perhaps they get back on the same route, or perhaps they arrive at the destination via an entirely different itinerary
  • We have checkpoints along the way
  • Our planning structures change to that of a thinking plan, not beautifully written documents that live in a digital archive

Perhaps the train analogy is not new but carries some remnant of mastery learning.  Perhaps all things done to scale eventually become too packaged and therefore produce the opposite effect of what they intend.  Perhaps the loosely defined outcomes are scary because we give up control and give it over to the learners.  Perhaps we embrace the plane metaphor because it is modern and because we have become rushed, frantic and too goal-driven as an attempt to counter the rapid rates of change in which we live.  

Whatever our reasons or our fears, as we move further into this century of overwhelming change, I urge us to stop engaging in “work” and start engaging in “thinking”…as educators, as leaders and as students.


Both Wiggins and McTighe have written versions of “How to Kill UbD…”


For years I have scored off the chart as an introvert. I’ve taken the official MBTI three times at three very different points in my life and I am always a definitive “I.” However, I still find myself energized by my colleagues, and when I am grappling with ideas, talking with trusted colleagues allows me to sort out my thoughts to arrive at a better outcome.

I find this interesting. The fact that I can collaborate to produce better work as opposed to going into my “cave” to work on my own. I find it interesting, particularly on the heels of the book Quiet, whereby the world finally took note of the needs of introverts, a book which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also know that being introverted is far more complex than simply being around people (or not), and I certainly need my time alone to reflect or simply just “be.” But I also need people.

As with most things that become mainstream, assumptions are made, and after Quiet, many have begun to critique the idea of collaboration, noting that it doesn’t honor the needs of the introvert. I take issue with this assumption.

Many people, introverts and extroverts, find it easier to work alone, because collaboration is difficult. It requires listening, cooperation, letting go of ideas, marrying thoughts, and more. This is not an easy skill, and yet, when we come together, we produce better work. Therefore, allowing introverts to work alone because of their personality, need, preference, style or etc. is actually to limit them from learning an important skill that can lead to greater gains in talent, achievement and success.

The issue with collaboration is not with the nature of collaboration, but with how we have often conceptualized it. In Quiet, Cain notes the issues with groupthink and provides a better alternative: individual brainstorming that later contributes to group collaboration. Similar to my need to talk through complex ideas with colleagues after I have thought of things alone, it seems when and how we collaborate is the issue, not whether or not we should collaborate.

I do believe in delving deep, silent reflection, meditation and “quiet,” but I absolutely do not believe there is an either/or. As we begin to honor the needs of introverts in our schools, I hope we will honor their need to build collaborative skills because though we can all benefit from a less harried, less frenetic, slower paced world, we cannot benefit without one another.

Learning not Evaluation

We’ve embraced learning walks as a tool to build collaborative culture, learn and grow together, share practice and reflect.  Beginning with literacy, we have now designed learning walk guide sheets that define and articulate our vision.  As we test our second iteration, we have felt it important to communicate what specifically learning walks are designed for.  Hence, this second infographic.