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

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…”

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.

Embedding Learning

In The Principal, Michael Fullan makes the distinction between instructional leadership and learning leadership. Instructional leadership, though well-intentioned as a strategy, creates the persona of the principal as the expert instructor and evaluator. In this role, the principal espouses knowledge and attempts to pass this along through individual teacher evaluation and feedback systems. This probably also involves large group, one-size-fits-all professional development.

A learning leader, in contrast, learns alongside the faculty. This leader is a master manager in terms of creating systems and structures that allow for collaboration and embedded continuous learning. The learning leader’s primary role is to develop ‘group efficacy’ by focusing on the group, not the individual. Most importantly, it’s leader remains a learner, someone who models redefinition, refinement and failure.

In my own leadership journey, I have experienced this all too well. Years ago, as a fledgling assistant principal, I was shocked at how little impact faculty meeting presentations or individual goal-setting had on creating any lasting change. Mind you, these were interactive presentations that involved discussion and creation, and goal-setting was personalized and centered on school goals. Yet all too often, most teachers went back to their classrooms and did what they did.

Things improved greatly once we built a master schedule that embedded common planning time into the school day. Teams met daily to plan together, learn together and engage in dissonance together. Still, the efficacy of the team varied greatly, so we added another layer.

Once our admin team became a regular part of team meetings, we really started to grow as a collaborative culture. Though we were largely listening members who attended only once every 2-3 weeks and did not set agendas, we became an integral part of the dialogue. We engaged in regular professional conversations with teams of colleagues and we were part of the planning and goal-setting process. Between team meetings and regular walkthroughs, we knew our programs inside/out, which helped us communicate accurately with the community and cross-pollinate ideas across departments. We were also able to promote fidelity to our mission, assessment philosophy and other school initiatives. And when needed, we were able to help groups function more positively.

We were proud of our structures and our ability to build a culture of collaboration. In fact, I’m still proud of our work in this regard.

However, once we added learning coaches to the structure, things really started to move!

Fullan writes that instructional leadership is a myth because we learn more from our peers than authority figures. Thus, by nature of position, people will learn less from their principal. Certainly, in my own experience, there were times of deflation where I was left wondering why teachers didn’t engage in an idea I had. If all ideas are created equal, why were mine less so?

  • though I was a regular member, I didn’t attend every meeting
  • I was a member of multiple teams, so I could not follow through on implementation of ideas
  • some of it probably was positional, as Fullan notes

Learning coaches, however, can become an integral part of the team. In my last year as principal, I worked closely with a literacy coach and a technology coach, who worked closely with our teams, meeting regularly and setting team goals. The growth in our teams was phenomenal (both in literacy and technology) and we all learned together – teacher, coach and principal.

More importantly, ideas were implemented with the guidance of coaches, so teachers received continuous, job embedded support.

Most importantly, the impact on student learning was tangible and real. Even when one wasn’t in love with a structure (such as Writers Workshop in place of direct instruction), we could not argue the impact it had on student writing.

For years, principals have been schooled to develop the capacity of the individual teacher.  Fullan points out the futility of such exercises, focusing the learning leader on the group so that the leader becomes “the curator of positive contagion…who models learning, but also shapes the conditions for all to learn on a continuous basis.”

For Change: “Just Keep Nipping Away”

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If you missed tonight’s Rugby World Cup 2015 South Africa versus Japan game, you missed a “rugby miracle,” rugby history, sports history.  In an epic game, Japan, the underdog, won the game.  But they didn’t just win and they certainly didn’t get lucky.  As one commentator said, “They weren’t lucky; they worked incredibly hard…”

This was the first game Japan, a tier 2 or tier 3 team, had ever played against South Africa, who are rated among the top three teams in the world.  And they won.  In the last minutes of the game.  Because they refused to stop and, as one commentator noted repeatedly, “they just kept nipping away.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 9.42.11 PMAn astounding game to watch, Japan got a penalty kick seconds before the end of the game.  But did they take it and go for what would still have been a historic draw?  No! They went for the try.  And 4-5 minutes later, they won because they refused to quit. It was a glorious win, but it wasn’t glamorous.  They pushed forward and were taken down.  Passed the ball and went down again.  And again and again.  But they “kept battering away” until they scored the try and made world cup and rugby history.

Not only have they inspired rugby fans and ensured that this will be a memorable World Cup 2015.  Their bravery in not taking the draw is inspiring from any perspective.  Whether we are striving for change in our profession, peace in our world, or simply trying to raise compassionate children, Japan showed us that no matter how small a chance, we can succeed.  We should not settle.  We deserve to go for the win.

#courage #RWC2015 #JPN

Inspiring Thought

Yesterday, we ran a positive opening convocation.  I say positive because the room was filled with energy, people were exchanging ideas and “cross-pollinating” and, based on feedback, the session generated hallway talk after.  In fact, one person told me that he’d overheard three or four conversations inspired by the convocation as he passed through one of the halls.

This makes me happy because the goal of learning should always be to inspire thought.  If just one person is left thinking, I’m happy.  Whether we agree or disagree, the thinking, talking and reflection is what helps us learn and grow.

Certainly, it should be our goal to inspire this same type of thinking in our students, so that they are left “buzzing” after their time with us.

Posing questions is one of the best ways to inspire thought, and using protocols from sources such as Critical Friends and Thinking Collaborative can allow for increased engagement, voices from all learners and ultimately, more learning.

An essential question for everyday should be this: Have I inspired thought today?