Things That Suck!


We’ve run 2 staff meetings this year using an #edcamp format. They were very well-received, productive, successful, and provided instant feedback for staff and/or immediate classroom learning opportunities for kids. We changed things up a bit for our most recent staff meeting, and did “Things That Suck”. Inspired by an edcamp session I did not attend (but piqued my interest by title alone), a tweet from @CurtRees, and this blog post by Bill Selak, I decided to give it a try. The result? Yet another hit spawned from global collaboration and sharing!

This format provided a platform for our staff to have candid conversation in a safe environment around pertinent topics that impact our daily work. We discussed homework, 1:1 student device initiatives, CCSS, Standards Based Grading, merit pay, and tenure. For those new to “Things That Suck”, I believe it can be productive in an environment that is already safe, candid, collaborative, and comfortable, or used to break the ice toward creating an environment with those characteristics. Either way, “Things That Suck” definitely does not, and will make a fine addition to your staff meeting format repertoire.

If you have other staff meeting formats that have been well received, or other ways to make collaborative time productive, I would love to hear about them.

The Lego Movie: Making Education Reform Simple

The Lego Movie

I’m not much of a movie guy, but I did see The Lego Movie last weekend. My son left with a list of new toys he wants, and I left thinking about the educational metaphor I just watched. If you have not seen the movie, don’t fret; I won’t give up any information you haven’t already gotten from reading reviews or hearing others rave about it.

First, movie background:President Business 2

President Business is the powerful “leader” of Lego Land. He knows exactly how everything should work, and wants everyone and everything to abide by the instructions. When they don’t, micro-managers are sent to get everyone back on track, and/or punish those who work off script.

Master Builders are imaginative and can create anything when provided basic materials. Instructions serve as a baseline to work off of for these inquiry based explorers. When caught creating new awesomeness off script, micro-managers capture and imprison Master Builders for not following instructions.

Benny the Spacemen

The Special

The Special is someone who simply needs to believe in himself to achieve and succeed.

Educational Metaphor. Unfortunately, some educational environments function this way. Whether kids feel like their teacher is President Business, teachers feel like their principal is, principals feel like district office admin are, or district office admin feel like policy makers are, many of us feel like our boss behaves like President Business. In education, President Business is a know-it-all, who knows it all based on past experiences with past kids during past policy eras with past resources. Educational President Business takes aggregated results from the past in conjunction with expectations from the past and apply to current kids and teachers in the current policy era using current resources to construct future achievement–without allowance or a factor for current and future possibilities. Educational President Business encourages thinking differently, being creative, and thinking out of the box—until someone does (great article here). Then Educational President Business reprimands, punishes, and implements restrictions moving forward to micromanage.

In these environments, educational Master Builders–eager learners and explorers–experience extreme frustration. This frustration can lead to a loss of motivation, interest, and in some cases, defiance. Master Builders are very creative, so to lose that working for you and turn that against you can be a tremendous detriment. If President Business is a teacher, and he “imprisons” a student Master Builder, the entire classroom can suffer from a behavioral management standpoint. If district office admin “imprisons” a principal Master Builder, you can lose leverage in an entire community. Whether kids or adults, Master Builders are natural leaders because of their conviction and passion for moving organizations forward with their creative thinking. When you exile these leaders, you also exile their followers, which works against the progress of the organization and community.

I understand communities need governance, and The Lego Movie alludes to this with a visit to Cloud Cuckoo Land, where there are no rules and anything goes. Of course we need guidance, and guidance from people with experience; however, to micromanage the limitless potential of kids–and adults–working with technology and other resources our world has never seen, to create and accomplish limited things based on past experiences is extremely shallow and down right egotistical. As educators, we should create environments that foster creativity, work to provide foundations from which our Master Builders can explore, and support all along the way to be The Special.

Educators, let’s lead in a way such that kids, families, peers, and colleagues sing “Everything is Awesome“.

Everything is Awesome

Are Educators Passionate About Their Profession?

bored teacher at desk

Educators, do you have to go to work? Or do you get to come to school? There’s a BIG difference between the two…

I enrolled my 5 year old son into a hip hop dance class. The sessions are held in a sound proof studio with a window that allows parents to observe. It’s taught by an 18 year old kid (let’s call him Junior), with a high top fade (YES! They’re back!), wearing sagging skinny track pants (I still marvel at the fact that skinny anything can sag..) with half his boxers showing. I couldn’t hear the instruction, the kids’ questions, or Junior’s responses to their questions. As an educator myself, I wished I could because I felt myself slipping into observation mode. As I slipped deeper into observation mode, I realized that just like in the classroom, I don’t need to focus much on the teacher; I can gather a lot of information from observing the kids.

I’m not sure any of the kids blinked during the entire hour long session, as their eyes were fixated on Junior, and everywhere he moved around the room. Every kid immediately and enthusiastically vaulted into action following direction. Kids’ faces were beaming with smiles and the room filled with laughter following apparent jokes from Junior. Each kid’s body language screamed pride: straight posture, chest out, chin up. When Junior asked questions, all hands shot up in the air, and no mouths moved until Junior called on someone, and only that one mouth moved. Because it was sound proof, I couldn’t hear what was taking place. But through my observations, it was very clear what was taking place: Junior’s passion for his craft was overflowing, contagious, and positively infecting kids!

A “classroom” filled with kids from 4-10 years old, at 7 o’clock in the evening. My 5 year old son gets up at 7:00am, and is at school until 5:00pm. On this evening, he came home, ate dinner, played for just a bit, then was right back in the car on the way to dance class. I can’t speak for the other kids in the class, but this makes for a long and exhausting day for my son, constantly on the go. I make this point because during the hour long session at 7:00pm in a room filled with kids 4-10 years old, not once did a kid: ask to go to the bathroom, want to see the nurse, request to get a drink, or lay his/her head down during instruction. Not once did Junior have to send a kid to the hallway for a “timeout”, or call the front desk for help managing behavior. Why? Because he is passionate about what he does. Kids don’t want to miss out on instruction. Kids don’t want to miss the next dance move. Kids don’t have the urge to find something better to do, like poke a friend or make faces at someone across the room. Kids want to hear Junior’s next joke, answer his next question, receive his next high five.

“Yeah, but Sam, the kids choose to be in this class so Junior has an automatic advantage.” Not true. I can’t speak for the other kids, but my son actually did not want to be in this class–and specifically, he didn’t want to be in JUNIOR’s class. He had a great past experience with another teacher, Tracy, and if he couldn’t be in her class, he had no interest. We enrolled him anyway. Now, he LOVES Junior.

There’s no reason the classrooms in our schools should be much different. To be clear, I am not saying kids should never go to the bathroom, need the nurse, get thirsty, or be tired. I am not saying teachers shouldn’t redirect our kids, or seek appropriate support when necessary. What I am saying is that our educators’ passion should be evident, overflowing, contagious, and positively infect our kids. This is a great way to combat disengagement and win over reluctance (student & parent!).

I challenge you to ask yourself, “Am I passionate about kids, teaching, learning, and education?” If you are not sure, just ask your kids, parents, and colleagues. Because they know.

An educator passionate about kids, learning, and education, with a bachelors and no experience who gets to come to school? Or an indifferent educator with 20 years experience, 2 masters, and has to go to work? Give me the passionate educator every time. They will find a way to make everything else happen.

I would love to hear the top characteristic on your list when thinking about who should be in front of our kids. teacher-with-students

Do Educators Actually DO Anything?


I attended my first #EduCon this past weekend. I observed and participated in many great things: learning from educators who regularly take risks, sharing my experiences with others, and bonding with the 6 staff members who let me accompany them to Philadelphia for the PD. One thing that stood out was consistent with my experiences at #PlayDateDG58 and #EdCampChicago: these educators do stuff. They try new things and take risks. They reflect, revise, learn, grow, and share.

One of the conversations I participated in at EduCon was “Engaging with Networked Thought Leaders: Let’s Write a Book in 90 minutes.” I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve never written a book. I don’t have a background in Language Arts. It all sounded out of my league, out of my comfort zone, intimidating, and…something I wanted to be a part of! Dozens of educators, most strangers to one another, but drawn together by commonalities of being student centered, curious, and willingly to take a risk and do something. And that’s exactly what we did. By the end of the 90 minutes we had created this publication.

Other than being an awesome experience, why does this–and all my experiences with the educators I’ve connected with at EduCon, PlayDateDG58, and EdCampChicago–stand out? Because these are people of action. Too many times we sit in meetings and discuss issue A, get all the complaints out, then are directed to some homework which will be followed up on next time. Then, next time, we’re “too busy” to follow up on and resolve issue A, and delve into issue B. We get all the complaints out for issue B, then are assigned a homework task to be followed up on next time. Like clockwork, next time we are “too busy” to follow up on and resolve issue B, and jump into issue C. This cycle continues, looping when we get to issue Z and realize we have a…new(?)…issue: issue A from weeks/years ago! Then the cycle repeats itself.  Lots of talking. Lots of complaining. Tons of frustration. And no action. We don’t actually do anything.

I flew to Philadelphia, sat in a room with dozens of strangers, and in 90 minutes collaboratively published a book around prompts given on the spot! There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to sit in a room in our own districts/schools with colleagues we work with regularly around issues we are already aware of united by a shared vision and collaboratively put something into action promptly. Leaders, please foster these environments of shared leadership, risk taking, and action. As educators, it is a responsibility we owe ourselves, and our kids.

Should Principals Stop Visiting Classrooms?

NO. This one word reflection could definitively be the end of this post, but I will elaborate…

Principal Skinner

One of my teachers shared this article with me: Should Principals Stop Visiting Classrooms? I think the article got around to making some valid points, which sparked my reflection.

#1 Feedback This is a critical component of making classroom visits effective. I agree that many teachers may not perceive classroom visits as an opportunity for development; however, I think this should be a call to principals to make revisions to our processes of classroom visits, not scrap them.

#2 Relationships Feedback has the most value when there is a mutual relationship of respect, trust, and appreciation. Teachers who feel this may be more likely to view their principal as a colleague, making collaborative and candid discussion more comfortable. Collaborative and candid discussions are likely to lead to a sense of sincere care on behalf of the principal, creating a higher likelihood of feedback to be received constructively and positively by teachers.

#3 Climate A positive climate expedites genuine relationship building. Making the staff lounge a safe place to be and engage, conversations carrying on naturally despite the principal’s entrance, and trading greetings, smiles, and/or high fives as you walk past colleagues in the hallway are a nice foundation.

#4 Culture Creating a team-oriented culture of high expectations in which you need the expertise of those around you to succeed opens classroom doors, breaks down barriers, and fosters collaboration. Cancerous negativity has no choice but to recede, fertilizing the soil for a positive climate.

#5 Professional Common Sense Even humoring the suggestion for principals to stop visiting classrooms is an example of research and data getting out of hand. I don’t need someone to conduct a study to tell me whether or not I should make time to visit my classrooms. Culture, climate, relationships, and feedback start at the top. Principals can’t effectively lead teachers we don’t know. We can’t make decisions appropriate for a system we’re out of touch with. We can’t connect and have a feel for the pulse of our buildings by pinning ourselves in our offices. The only way to connect is to visit classrooms, observe the great things our teachers do, and engage with our kids.

As mentioned in #1, I agree that many teachers may not perceive classroom visits as an opportunity for development; however, I think this should be a call to principals to make revisions to our processes of classroom visits, not scrap them. I feel so strongly about this that I dedicate entire days, bell to bell, to simply visiting classrooms (#NoOfficeDay). I continue to focus on the steps above, working toward a goal of positively received and value-added classroom visits. There is no research, data, or article that will keep me from pursuing this in the interest of my staff and kids.

Please share with me your thoughts on making principal classroom visits productive for staff and kids.

Principal Make the Right Moves

Reflect with Humility

when 1 teaches, 2 learn

It takes a lot from us educators to provide our kids, communities, and each other with the learning experiences we deserve. Two qualities that are near the top are reflection and humility, and the relationship between the two. I am growing to think reflection is a skill, and like all skills, must be practiced and exercised to be at its best. I have also grown to realize that humility allows for clear and accurate reflection. A lack of clear and accurate reflection can cause difficulty in addressing the needs of our kids, colleagues, and community in real time.

The skill of reflection tends to progress from occasional (yearly?) to on-going second nature (instantaneous during a lesson/presentation leading to immediate improvisation). We all care and are passionate about the work we do all day everyday with and for kids, and looking ourselves in the mirror and candidly assessing what is there can feel uncomfortable, to say the least. But, when the skill of reflection is refined, it is a humble focus on exactly that care and passion we have for our work with kids that should guide us.

Speaking personally, every year I look back on the previous year with mixed emotion. Due to continuous reflection and immediate revision, I feel proud of all the risks I took, mistakes I made, and revisions I implemented to grow as an educator and learner which have contributed to my best year yet! Then, it is with some embarrassment, that I look at the prior year and harshly ask myself, “That’s it?? Sam, that’s all you were able to offer our kids??? That’s the best you had??” And although the humbling answer to all of those questions is yes, it is with tremendous excitement that I look forward to the upcoming year. Another year of continuous reflection and immediate revision will repeat the cycle of making me ask the same questions of all of this year’s growth and accomplishments. To think, as proud as I am of this year, is as excited as I am to learn and grow to a point of questioning my current level. And to know that can be the continuous cycle of my career? Now that is exciting!

The relationship between reflection and humility should drive a continuous cycle of pride in your current place, interrogation of your past, and enamoring excitement for your future in providing kids, community, and colleagues with the learning experiences they–and you–deserve!

I would love to hear your thoughts on reflection, and perhaps how to strengthen its role in our development as educators.Life is a mirror

2014 Resolution: Tame Your To-Do List

To Do List 2 To Do List To Do List 3

If you are passionate about what you do all day everyday with and for kids, it is easy to feel constant pressure and stress; however, now feels different.  Today’s external demands and expectations can feel importunate, at times.  It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as your to-do list grows while you’re continually sidetracked by unexpected demands for your attention.  If this describes you or someone you know, perhaps the following suggestion may help: accomplish more, better, by minimizing your to-do list.

Look at your to-do list and ask, “What are the things on here that can only be accomplished by me?”  That becomes your to-do list, and everything else gets delegated.  You know who can handle what.  When those tasks are delegated appropriately, they will be done promptly and efficiently.  You may even find they’re done better than you would have done them–especially if you believe enthusiastic buy-in and positive reception by the people they’re intended for are important.

You may also find a growing number of people who are capable and want to be delegated to.  You are surrounded by people that want to help (and want to help you!).  Whether they’re kids or adults, the people around you want to help, learn, contribute, and be an active part of the good things happening.  So let them.  As others see this opportunity, they, too, will become willing and active contributors you can confidently delegate to.

Now, you not only have more time to dedicate to the “only me” tasks, but can do so with less hanging over your head.  Your new to-do list is limited to only these tasks.  You may find it to be just a handful of big “only me” tasks, which you now have more time to offer your attention.  And who knows, with more time to dedicate to accomplishing and reflecting on these “only me” tasks, you may find another task or two in there that can be delegated.

Administrators, if you have subordinate administrators you can delegate to, please do so.  You know which ones you can confidently delegate to, and when others perceive this style as the norm and witness the opportunity to help, learn, contribute, and be an active part of the good things happening, they, too, will step up.

Teachers, when looking over your lesson plans, ask, “Can this lesson be executed without kids?”  I know this sounds laughable, but there are such lessons.  Take, for example, the following lesson:

  • Teacher plans the lesson
  • Teacher dictates expectations
  • Teacher lectures
  • Teacher tells students what to write down
  • Teacher gives kids worksheets to do at home (maybe parents do them..?)
  • Teacher grades all worksheets

Compare that to:

  • Teacher plans by having an end point (objective/standard) in mind and inquiring of kids for ways the end point may be reached (or at least approached)
  • Teacher and kids determine expectations, rubrics which guide learning
  • Kids share prior knowledge, brainstorm, research, and build shared knowledge
  • Students notate pertinent info (specific for them) to drive toward end point
  • Teacher allows kids the freedom with which they show evidence of their learning and takeaways
  • Kids peer edit, self-assess, then teacher assesses

The first example can be done entirely in the absence of kids from start to finish; however, not a single phase of the second example can be done without kids.  This is the difference between teaching and learning–and perhaps a post for another day.  The point is, by delegating to the capable people around you, your to-do list is efficiently minimized.  In the first example, the teacher must determine every aspect of the lesson.  Subconsciously or not, this can lead to a self-imposed pressure to “stay on track”, which can minimize differentiation, at times.  The teacher has to determine expectations, memorize the lecture, make sure all students write down “the right” things, run off copies of the worksheets, and robotically grade them.  In the second example, the teacher is an active learner in every phase, making differentiation and best practice along the way applicable natural reactions, from planning to assessment, and every point in between.  You know which kids can handle which tasks, and when delegated the right way, you’ll find many more kids can–and want to–handle much more than you may have originally thought.

Although I’ve only addressed admin, teachers, and kids, don’t forget about parents and community contacts.  From big tasks to daily routines, by taming your to-do list you can accomplish more, better.  In doing so, you may find yourself progressing from a “Proficient” educator to an “Excellent” educator.  But when you do, please don’t do it for your evaluation; do it for our kids.


i love my teacher

Are you your students’ (and families’) favorite teacher?  You have every opportunity to be.

I attended the PBIS Summer Leadership Conference this past July.  During one of the sessions I attended, the presenter shared a fun fact: teachers have roughly 3,000 interactions with kids per day.  The room briefly filled with gasps and murmuring, and on went the presentation; however, I became fixated on this statistic.  If this is true, we have 15,000 interactions with kids per week, 60,000 per month, and 540,000 per school year.

Every interaction with a kid is an opportunity.  An opportunity to be that kid’s Mr. Doug.  What if we make good on all 540,000 interactions with kids per year?  What if we blow a couple of those?  What if we blow a couple thousand opportunities?  Even if we blow a couple hundred thousand opportunities, we can still make good on 340,000 opportunities to be someone’s Mr. Doug.

Now, I’m not really good at anything, but if I get THREE THOUSAND chances PER DAY to try new things, take risks, reflect, revise, learn, grow, and share, I will find a way to succeed.  AND we get all of those opportunities with the thing our parents and families cherish more than anything on this planet—their kids?!?!?!  With all of those chances to succeed with the thing our families love more than anything in the world, how can we not become their favorite teacher?  We have every opportunity (3,000/day, to be exact) to make it happen.

You have 3,000 opportunities to positively engage with kids tomorrow.  Make them count, and become somebody’s Mr. Doug.

Are You a Leader or Manager?

Leadership chart

Most school districts claim to want to move from good to great, become world class, become a 21st century district, or fill in the slogan blank.  Getting past the cliches (and the fact that we’re 14 years into the 21st century already), effective implementation of these transformations/progressions requires progressive thinking and leadership.  Doing things the way you’ve always done them is not going to vault you to a new status; it will maintain your current status.  As a matter of fact, maintaining while others around you vault forward, relatively speaking, equates to falling behind.

Whether leadership positions are in classrooms responsible for kids, or offices responsible for adults, people look up to you everyday.  Leadership positions tend to be occupied by leaders and managers.  Some differences are:

Leaders… Managers…
empower manage
support creativity & divergent thinking teach “the right way” & make sure everyone knows what to think
trust look over the shoulder
delegate tasks of great responsibility delegate tasks of minor responsibility
ask questions tell the correct answer
seek knowledge from everyone have prior knowledge to impart on everyone
relate to people at work make sure people relate to their work
find big picture solutions provide quick fixes
focus on a few priorities take on many projects at once
assume responsibility and apologize place blame
don’t ask others to do anything they don’t do themselves ask others to do things they don’t do
do what’s right do what keeps them out of trouble
reflect to improve reflect to pat themselves on the back
create a climate of candor intimidate others into agreement
follow through on their word are too busy to follow through on their word
earn respect by giving it expect respect because of their title
find solutions find problems
inspire dishearten

The truth is, the style shows.  Kids know it, parents know it, colleagues know it.  A progressive environment requires a progressive leader.  At the end of the day, leadership is either the reason things do happen, or the reason things do not happen.  Whether it’s kids or adults, challenge yourself as a leader to remove obstacles for them, unlock invisible shackles, eliminate excuses, offer full support, empower, and be the reason things do happen.

I would love to hear more characteristics or your thoughts on leaders and managers.

Do kids have a voice? The power of choice

imagesAs I continue to connect, learn, and grow, I have met some amazing educators.  I attended EdCamp Chicago this past October and had a career changing experience.  The energy was high, passion strong, and enthusiasm contagious!  These educators were taking ownership of their learning, and having fun doing it.  Discussions were rich and engagement was 100%.  It was something I had never seen before!  And then I saw it again last Wednesday…

The staff at my school decided to employ the EdCamp model at our staff meeting.  Sure enough, I observed and felt the same results: high energy, strong passion, and contagious enthusiasm.  It is no coincidence that rich discussions ensue and participants fully engage when we are empowered to take ownership of our learning.

Do we provide our kids these same learning opportunities?  Do we allow our kids to have a voice?  Do we grant our kids the power and responsibility of choice?  Do we empower them to take ownership of their learning and be active participants?

Administrators, do we model this for our staffs?  Do we empower our staffs and support and equip them with the resources and drive to engage our kids?

I have done some light research into 20 Time, and would love to hear others’ suggestions and/or experiences employing it.  I would also love to hear from staff and admin who employ EdCamp or other similar models to empower our educators and kids to learn.