Making the Expected Seem Extraordinary

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Yesterday I shared the #BestThingISawToday from one of my 3rd grade classrooms. There was nothing flashy, nothing gleamed from social media. It was simply a teacher understanding the standard her students needed to know and planning every activity connected to that standard.

The standard was about distinguishing the author’s point of view. Her small group read a story and had to determine the POV; students watched a Flocabulary video about POV; they read a story independently and answered questions about POV; and each student had a goal and scale about POV that they could refer to to gauge their progress. Nothing flashy, nothing gleamed from social media. But in all ways it was an awesome lesson and exactly what every teacher should strive for. Now, this teacher also does the flashy and gets ideas from social media, but none of that “extra special stuff” matters if she doesn’t know the standards and knows her students.

I love the innovative and the extra special because it invites students in and makes their educational experience more memorable. But first you need to have your basics down and make sure that your students leave with an understanding of what they are going to learn and how they are going to get there.

I love nothing more than to celebrate the teachers who can make the expected seem extraordinary.  I am lucky that I get to work with many teachers who have this ability.  And these teachers know that the “extra” comes after the basics.   When you have a teacher who combines it all, then it is the students who win.

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Throwing a Chair (The Best Thing I Saw Today)

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Blog.jpgI’m an education nerd.  I can’t help it.  I live and breathe education.  That’s why I love Twitter.  It’s a place where I can learn and connect from and with educators from all over the world.  I want to hear about what everyone is doing for their students so that I can bring back these ideas to my own learners.  I want to share what we are doing at my school in the hope that we can inspire others so that even more students can benefit.

One of the best aspects of my job is that I have the opportunity to be inspired every single day.  All I have to do is visit the classrooms in my school.  My teachers are constantly going above and beyond for our students.  The joyful noise of students fills our classrooms.  The sound of collaboration permeates the hallways.  Teachers are providing learning experiences where a textbook is simply a resource and not the driving force of our curriculum.  Many classrooms have flexible seating options, but even in classrooms that do not, students are moving around the classroom and are not tied down to a desk.  Visitors to our school are always blown away by what they see.  It is truly amazing to be part of a school culture where everyone assists and shares ideas so that all of our students benefit.  You will often hear teachers talking about their lessons in each other’s classrooms and in the hallways.  Our classrooms are beautiful spaces where students feel welcomed and loved.

All of what I’ve written builds up to the first part of the title of this post.  For some reason I make the statement “I feel like throwing a chair” whenever I am in a classroom and catch some type of awesome moment between a teacher and students.  I have literally ran out of a room ready to tell one of my Assistant Principals about what I was just a part of.  And I have literally thrown a chair in my excitement.

So what makes me want to throw a chair?  When a student grasps a concept and let’s out a noticeable ‘Yes!’.  When a teacher is dressed as a zookeeper reading a book to her class.  When a first grade student demonstrates what she is learning and can explain why using language from a learning target.  When teachers are collaborating after school, sharing ideas for an upcoming standard with each other.  When one of our third graders helps their Pre-K buddy learn how to kick a ball.  When a veteran teacher shares an innovating strategy with a group of new teachers.

I already showcase the awesome at Gator Run via my Twitter and Instagram pages.  Our school and my teachers rightfully get a lot of credit for the amazing experiences that our students get to be a part of.  We have definitely taken control of our own narrative.  Our hashtag, #gatorrunrocks, has helped to define our school.  This year I am going to be more intentional with how I highlight the amazing things that take place in our school.  I posted the Tweet at the top of this post in a Twitter chat recently.  I’m already in my classrooms a lot.  But this year I’m going to be on a mission to find the Best Thing I Saw Today and share what I found not on our afternoon announcements.  It can be anything extraordinary that I am a witness to in our classrooms or throughout the school.  I’m not sure what it will be yet, but I’m excited to find out.  I will share my findings and my progress in a future blog post.  Stay tuned.

Summer is winding down and we are getting close to the start of a new school year.  I have rested and relaxed but now I’m ready.  Ready for the awesome that my teachers will bring.  Ready for our students to grow and learn in a loving, dynamic environment.  I can’t wait to share the Best Things I Saw every day.  I’m really ready to start throwing some chairs.

Give Me a Break

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A few weeks ago I attended the amazing NAESP (National Association of Elementary School Principals) Conference in Orlando.  I brought back ideas that I can implement at my school and made and reinforced connections with leaders throughout the country.  It was a great way to rejuvenate during the summer.  One of the highlights was Dan Pink’s keynote speech.  I read Dan’s most recent book, “When”, earlier this summer, so I was thrilled to hear him explore some of the concepts even further.  “When” goes into the science behind timing, how we can take advantage of time and how we can be intentional about when we do things.  As I related his keynote and book to my own work, the following slide highlights some takeaways that I would like to delve into a bit:

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1 – This first part is about our mindset.  Breaks must be a part of learning.  We have to believe this.  So often we think that we don’t have enough time in schools.  And, truthfully, the school day is short when you consider all of the material that we are expected to cover during a school year.  However, breaks allow learners to process what they were just engaged in.  Your students will benefit from a few minutes to recharge.

2 – Intentionality.  If we believe that breaks must be a part of learning, then we must plan ahead for breaks.  Just like I believe that we must intentionally plan the questions that we use in classrooms, we must also plan for breaks.  This is easier in elementary schools where one teacher controls the order of the day, but all teachers need to incorporate breaks into their blocks of time.  Give students the opportunity to reflect and to rest their minds before introducing a new concept or assessing them.  This is especially important before tests.  Pink states that “A 20-30 minute break improves average test scores…Our results also show that low-performing students are those who suffer more from fatigue and benefit from breaks.  Thus, having breaks before testing is especially important in schools with students who are struggling.”  His research shows that students who take a test after a 20-30 minute breaks produce scores equivalent to spending three additional weeks at school.  With information like that, how can we not be intentional about scheduling breaks for our students?

3 – Recess.  Very simple.  Never take recess away from students.  If you feel like you don’t have any other avenue to take for discipline?  Never take recess away from students.  Recess is not a reward for good behavior.  Recess is a necessary part of a student’s day.  Those students who you would like to have sit out recess or walk around the field during recess?  They need recess even more.  One more time – never take recess away from students.

4 – Teacher breaks.  This is one that I want to work on this year.  Breaks for teachers was my first takeaway after reading When and something that I sent a message to my Assistant Principals about.  A teacher’s day is jam-packed.  Lunch and planning time exist, but do teachers truly take a “break” during these time periods?  How can we help teachers take the “right kind of break” more often?  I love what Pink says about these types of breaks: “something beats nothing; moving beats stationary; social beats solo; outside beats inside; and fully detached beats semi-detached”.  We need to have conversations with teachers about the types of breaks that would benefit them in the long run.  Teaching is very hard.  Be mindful of the power of breaks.  If you are an administrator, help your teachers take the right kind of breaks.  If you are a teacher, give yourself a break.  Move.  Detach from the school day.  Have a conversation about non-work topics.  Walk outside.  Science shows it might be the best thing you do for yourself.

 

What’s the Rush? Happiness is the Key to Life

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“When I was 5 years old my mother told me that happiness was the key to life.

When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I wrote down “happy”.

They told me I didn’t understand the assignment.

I told them they didn’t understand life.”

This quote has been attributed to John Lennon, but there is a question as to whether he really said it.  But that doesn’t matter to me.  The quote highlights my philosophy of life and of what ‘school’ should be.

During my time as an educator, I have noticed that there are a lot of problems with ‘school’:

So many believe that a large amount of homework equates to a solid learning experience, even at the expense of family time, extracurricular activities, and time to just be a kid.

So many believe that grades are the driving force of school, rather than questioning whether these grades demonstrate true understanding.  Know this – grades do not measure intelligence.

Letter grades and numbers do not define any of us. All of you are more than a test score or letter grade can ever show. You are enough, just by being who you are. You matter – to everyone in this room, to your family, to all of your friends and teachers, to me.

My son, Maddox, and I were discussing an article that we read about the most popular class in the history of Yale.  It is a course entitled Psychology and the Good Life.  It is basically a class about happiness.  Some cynics might say that students might have signed up because it’s an easy class without homework and not many requirements.  But when you read about many who took this course, you will hear stories of sacrifice.  Sacrificing much of their childhood, many years of school, so much time that could have spend with their families, that they don’t know how to be happy.  I wonder how many of us feel the same – that we don’t know how to be happy.  Parents, families, I challenge you to preserve our kids’ childhood, to protect them from losing time, to allow them the opportunity to just be happy.  You and I know that we never get our childhood back once we leave.  (Well, unless you’re me and act like a kid most of the time, but that’s another story).

I often speak about the need to protect childhood.  What’s the rush?  Yes, I care about your academic success. But I care more about how you treat others, about how you care for this world, about the difference they will make in the lives of those around you.

You are going to take many tests and hand in many assignments. And people are going to tell you that getting the correct answers is what it’s all about. And I’m certainly not telling you to not strive for the correct answers.  Getting your high school degree and possibly a college degree are important to certain types of jobs you might be seeking. What I am saying is something that Erno Rubik, creator of the Rubik’s Cube said – “Questions are more important than the answers.”  I believe this.  And those of you that believe this will be those who truly change the world.  Because you won’t be OK with the way things are.  You will question why things can’t change.  And then you will be that change.

And ‘school’ should be about making mistakes and taking risks.  Resiliency is a skill that every one of us needs. Because life is not easy and there will be times that you fall and you will fail.  I promise you that.  You will fail.  And that’s more than OK.  What’s more important is what you do after.  How do you learn from your ‘failure’?  How do you get back up and try again?

School should also be about finding your why.  What is within you that you need to share with the world?  So many adults go to work each day dreading what they do.  Don’t be like them.  Find your passion and live it.

I’m not sure if you even think about it, but we talk about every single one of you.  We have meetings with your teachers to talk about your progress and about any barriers that might exist that prevents you from being successful.  We also ask if there is anything else we can do to help you.  And when we are talking about you, I end up saying the same thing every single time – “Man, I love that kid.”  And I catch myself, and I smile because I say it about every single one of you.  You see, my mission when I began my education career started off being to make kids’ lives better but it has evolved into how can I make the lives of  all those around me better.  And what happens is along the way to those of us in school trying to help make your lives better, is that you end up making our lives better too.  Thank you for making your friends better.  Thank you for making this school better.  Thank you for making my life better.  You are all my kids and I love each of you so very much.  Now go out there and show the world what the young people of Gator Run have to offer.  Go show them what kindness and compassion are.  Show them what creativity and hard work look like.  Change the world.

MO(ve)MENT

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I am recycling my #OneWord choice for this year. The word I am choosing, “Moment”, was also my #OneWord a few years ago. But this year, I chose it for a different meaning than before. Two years ago “moment” to me was all about appreciating the interactions with everyone I came in contact with. I believe that I have done and continue to do a fairly good job with appreciating each moment and understanding how quickly time goes. Valuing time has become a big part of my philosophy of life. This year I choose “Moment” because of two reasons.

The first reason is that I believe that we need to understand that moments in education are more imporant than the final outcome. What I mean by that is that we need to stop focusing on the end result and instead put our energy in the small chunks of time that we are with our students and with each other. The end results will come, but only if we are allowed the freedom to focus on what we know is important as teachers and administrators. We need to be allowed the freedom to implement innovative strategies and practices that we know will encourage our students to become lifelong learners. We are failing our schools with the continued emphasis on test scores and school letter grades as the ultimate outcome of education. This reduces the opportunities for our teachers to make a difference each day and with each moment with our studnents.

I also chose “Moment” because of the quote that I attached to the top of this blog post. I discovered this quote yesterday by musician and freedom fighter, Michael Franti. He was speaking about his journey to understanding his own physiology and health. This quote speaks directly to the importance of appreciating the moments, the millimeters along the journey rather than the miles at the end of the journey. This is so true for those of us looking to transform what “school” is and what it can be. We need to move away from the outcome of learning as being the grades on a report card or the scores on a cumulative assessment. Rather, education should focus on the process of learning, those moments and millimeters that take place along the path to true understanding.

There is a definite movement happening in education as there are so many connected educators who are working almost underground as we learn and share best practicies that are seeking to redefine what the educational experience should be. I am examining new nuances of my #OneWord by placing “moment” within the word “movement” to signifiy the importance of appreciating these moments, these millimeters along the path to the educational movement that I hope to help amplify this year and beyond. Our profession needs those of us with a voice to speak out at every opprotunity to help change the minds of those who believe that “school” should still be like it was when we were kids. This year I plan on taking my actions to another level. I am tired of only reaching those that have already changed their minds. I need to find those opportunities to reach those that hold a different viewpoint and engage in meaningful dialogue that will hopefully change minds and ensure that all students are receiving the best education possible. Thank you to those of you who are already on this journey. If you are not, we need your voice and your passion for doing whatever is possible to help tranform “school” into what it should be for kids. Join the “MO(ve)MENT”!

KP

Perception is Reality

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”Open-minded school with a very advanced teaching method”

“The diversity and acceptance.  Every child is important at Gator Run.”

“I love how innovative the school is.  Children are allowed to explore and investigate to find out new information.”

“I like the school culture…The high standards and the emphasis of learning in creative ways.”

“My child is not a number at school, everyone knows him and looks after him.”

     Four years ago when I started as Principal of Gator Run Elementary, I made a few promises to my new family.  I told everyone that we would be considered the leader in innovation in our school district.  I stated that we would continue with the high standards previously established at the school while also instituting creative ways to reach our students.  I promised that each child would feel like they are the most important child.  I said that our school would be one filled with love, both of learning and for each member of our school family.

The statements listed at the top of this post come from our most recent customer satisfaction survey.  These comments and so many more like them tell me that we are on the right track to making my vision come true.  That the word is out that our school is a destination for learning and love.  That we are building a culture of constant learning and improving.

But we aren’t there yet.  Nor we will ever have fully arrived.  I am never going to be a leader who feels like we have done all we can do and there isn’t anything left to give.  In addition to the positives, there were many parent comments that also told stories of dissatisfaction with some of our procedures and policies.  I appreciate feedback that can help us continue to grow and evolve.  There was one area though that stuck out to me from the survey comments.  That area is related to my belief about school culture.

I recently posted this message on Twitter: “No matter how great you think your school culture is, know that student and parent experience will depend on the quality of individual teachers.”  One of the comments from our parents hit this truth home for me: “I feel the experience is very different depending on the teacher. I have two children at the school and the experience this year is quite inconsistent. One teacher offers a great learning environment, little but relevant homework and open communication with parents. The other teacher, complete opposite. A lot of homework that we cannot see how value is added, communication with parents. The other teacher, complete opposite: a lot of homework that we cannot see how value is added, communication with parents could be improved as well.”  Students and parents, our customers, can have totally different views about our school.  A school held in high regard.  A school that many parents offered amazing, poignant comments about.

So I shared these comments with my staff and I highlighted the particular one detailing the differing experiences.  I wanted to thank those that have helped us achieve what we have so far; those who are the reason we have received so much praise.  I want nothing more than for every student in my school to have the experience of the students in my best teachers’ classrooms.  I will never stop until this is the reality.  It drives me.

I also shared these comments because I needed to challenge those who are providing an alternate experience.  Continuous self-reflection is vital for all educators.  So let’s reflect this summer.  How can we create the scenario where every child is with a teacher who is passionate about education and relentless in doing whatever is possible to reach our students?  Then when we return for the next school year, let’s learn and share from each other.  Find colleagues who excel with communication.  Seek out those who build trust and collaboration in their classrooms.  You have your challenge – what if we could ensure that every student has an amazing experience each and every year?  It’s never too late to change how you will be remembered.

“The fact that the teachers are in constant communication with us, the parents, such openness allows me as a parent to be more proactive in my child’s education.”

“I love that our school believes in the ‘whole child’ approach to teaching, where kids are not only valued for their grades but for who they are, their skills and their interests while recognizing and helping children.”

“Warm and personal feeling I get when I enter the school. My kid matters.”

 

What I Would Have Said

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Recently I was nominated as one of the six finalists for Broward County Public Schools’ Principal of the Year.  It is a great honor just to be nominated and even though I didn’t win, the love and support from my family and school community was so strong that I left feeling like a winner.  My main motivation leading up to the ceremony was to make the following speech from the stage.  I really wanted the chance to thank my parents from the stage (how often do we get to do something as cool as that in education?).  I also wanted to make a statement about the importance of innovation in education and how standardized testing is limiting the likelihood that innovating ideas can spread throughout all schools.  

Thank you…

This is truly an honor. It was an honor just to be nominated along with my five distinguished colleagues. This is listed as an individual award but anyone in my position knows that one person cannot do it alone. You have to have support from all those around you. I am blessed to be a part of the awesome Gator Run community with teachers and staff who go above and beyond each and every day for our kids. With kids who bring their energy and excitement and who are literally banging on the doors to get into school like Black Friday at Macy’s. With the most appreciative and supportive parents and community who want what’s best for kids and who will fight to make even the craziest ideas from me happen.

I am also blessed with an amazing family. My wife, Susie, and our kids, Taylor, Maddox and Jagger. My in-laws, Norma and Jay. And my parents who are the direct reason I am here tonight. My dad, Jeff, who taught me the value of hard work and the importance of “Family First”. My mom, Bonnie, who saw a directionless 20-something and asked the question that forever changed my life – “Keith, you are so good with kids, why don’t you become a teacher?”. I owe you both so much.

Wayne Gretzky was considered the best hockey player of all time – his nickname is “The Great One”. But Gretzky wasn’t the fastest player, or the strongest, and he didn’t have the best shot. But what he did have was an ability to see the ice better than anyone else; he could see plays happen before they did. Wayne has a quote that I think we can relate to education: “To be a good player, go to where the puck is; to be a great player, go to where the puck is going to be.” We can apply that to our classrooms and schools. Sure we can be good teachers and schools and keep doing what we’ve always done. Or we can choose to be great and seek out better ways to reach our kids. You see, the world is changing so rapidly but sometimes education cannot keep up. We need to innovate in our schools. Our kids deserve new ideas and strategies.  There are many new ideas that teachers and schools are implementing right now to incorporate what I feel are the two most important elements we need in our classroom today – student voice and choice.

In order to make innovation in schools happen, we need more self-reflection and collaboration. I urge you to reflect on your current practices and seek out those who are trying new ideas. Because if school is just about giving out packets of worksheets or going page by page in our math books or giving hours of homework, then we aren’t doing anywhere near enough for our kids.

Unfortunately the biggest barrier to innovation in schools is standardized testing. Those of us within education know this and we hope that those outside will recognize it too and help us make a change. Schools should be about passion and creativity but we are sometimes limited because of the fear of standardized testing results. Too much emphasis is placed on these results that can put a ceiling on our potential as schools, teachers and students. Let’s keep speaking out and not become defined by results. Because our schools are more than a letter grade! Our teachers are more than an evaluation score!  Our kids, my kids, are more than a test score!

Peter Drucker was considered a guru in the business world. He would often ask “the Naïve Question” to businesses. The Naïve Question is “If you were going to start over again, would you do it this way?” I ask that we apply this question to our schools. If we were going to start ‘school’ over again, would we do it this way? Or are there better ways? My guiding mission statement is to “make kids’ lives better”. Let’s go back to our schools, reflect on our current practices, collaborate with each other and share our best practices.

I promise to use this honor to speak out and collaborate with all who will listen (and some who won’t) to help make education better for our students and for those of you who want nothing more than to simply try to make kids lives’ better.

 

 

#Whatifwecould Live Like Jose?

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Last weekend our area lost a local hero as Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez passed away in a tragic boating accident. I don’t normally get caught up in the death of a ‘celebrity’ but Jose’s passing really hit me hard. I think it’s because of his story and the battle that he fought to leave Cuba and defect to America. Jose attempted to leave four times before he was successful and went on to become an unbelievably bright star both for the Marlins and for baseball overall. From all accounts even before his death, Jose lived his life in a joyous manner, with his manager, Don Mattingly, saying this “Thinking of Jose it’s gonna be thinking of that little kid. I see such a little boy in him … with the way he played. That’s the joy that Jose played with. The passion he felt about playing, that’s what I think about.”Often after a tragedy we are left to wonder about how this could happen to someone so young (24 years old) and what the rest of us could possibly learn from it. You see, Jose was more than a baseball player. To so many in the Hispanic community, specifically the Cuban community, he was a hero, an idol, someone who dreamed a dream, chased it and grabbed it full force.

So this week I ask #whatifwecould live each day filled with joy and passion?

I hope that we all can live life as joyously as Jose did. Feel the passion about what we do here at schools and in our own lives just as he did about baseball. Recall the energy and exuberance that we had as kids. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.

#whatifwecould

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I cannot state how excited I am for the start of this school year.  There is something magical in the air at Gator Run Elementary that is telling me that this will be the best school year ever.  I rolled out my opening day Faculty Focus to my teachers on Monday morning.  The energy that I receive from my staff on a regular basis is invigorating and this week that has multiplied.

My theme for this year and beyond is “What if We Could?”.  In the past I have always asked “what if” questions to my staff to cause outside and inside the box thinking.  I am always questioning past practices in education not just because I like to be a rebel (well, maybe a little), but because we should always question if what we are doing can be done in a better way.  I liked asking “what if” questions but never really felt like all the changes that we need were being put into practice.

So this year I changed my message to “What if We Could?” because to me the addition of “We Could..” puts the emphasis on action.  That we can make happen what we dream, what we wish, and what we hope.  And that’s what we need to do in education.  It’s time to stop wishing for change and to start making it happen right now.  We don’t need to wait for anyone outside of our profession, outside of our schools, to make necessary changes.  We need to be the ones to make the change.  When you have ideas on how to innovate to help make kids’ lives better, than ask yourself and your colleagues, “What if We Could?”.  Because you have the power to do so.  We have this power.  “What if We Could?” – We can!  We must!  We will!

So where do we start?  How about with Day 1?

  • What if we could…build amazing relationships with our students?
    • Know their names (and how to pronounce them!).  Please read this amazing post by Jennifer Gonzalez, @cultofpedagogy – Gift of Pronunciation
    • Present your best lesson on Day 1; worry about rules and procedures later.  Make students want to come back for more!
    • Make every child feel like your favorite.
    • We have to change the world moment by moment – take advantage of this power and change each child’s life for the better.
  • What if we could…build amazing relationships with each other and learn from one another?
    • Be kind to one another each and every day.  Love your colleagues!
    • Visit each other’s classrooms – the Pineapple Chart hack from the book, Hacking Education, is an amazing idea that should be implemented in all schools.  Visit each others’ classrooms and open your own for your colleagues.  We are not teaching in isolation anymore.  I recommend having your school team read Hacking Education by the aforementioned Jennifer Gonzalez and Mark Barnes, @markbarnes19.
  • What if we could…continue to share the awesome with our families and the world?
    • If we don’t share the amazing things happening in our schools, there is a chance that no one will.
    • What if…each teacher Tweeted one thing from their classroom every day using a school hashtag and spent 5 minutes reading other posts?  Thanks to George Couros, @gcouros, for this one.
  • What if we could…start with the standards, focus on learning, and not get caught up on ‘cute’?
    • Love this quote from the Kids Deserve It book –“We can’t get caught up in how much fun something looks if learning doesn’t also take place.”  Thanks to Todd Nesloney, @techninjatodd, and Adam Welcome, @awelcome, for an inspiring read!
    • We need to move away from copying from the board and filling in the blanks. If the end result of your activity is that all students have the exact same product, you taught a recipe, not a lesson. If you want cute, have the students create the cute rather than purchasing it for them.
  • What if we could…ensure that each of our students is excited to come to school every day?
    • Our goal must be to move from consumption to creation, with and without technology. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.
  • What if we could…provide our students the opportunity to discover their passions?
    • Genius Hour and Makerspaces must be in all schools so that we can offer voice and choice to our students.
  • What if we could…lift up our profession?
    • Promote the awesome – #trendthepositive and #CelebrateMonday.  Kudos to my friend Sean Gaillard, @smgaillard, for creating and sharing these amazing hashtags.
  • What if we could…have every teacher identify areas where they wanted to grow and worked with an administrator or coach to improve?
    • The message in all schools for students and adults must be – Feedback, Support and Growth
  • What if we could…get all of our students to Launch?
    • Provide students with opportunities to Launch – to create something that they can share with the world?  If you haven’t read Launch by AJ Juliani, @ajjuliani, and Jon Spencer, @spencerideas, go get it now and start reading!
    • Our students are creating and performing every day outside of school.  How are we leveraging that and allowing them those types of opportunities at school?
  • What if we could…be the school that changes what ‘school’ is?
    • Repeat after me – “We can, we must, we will!”

Somebody’s Favorite

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The following post was written by my Assistant Principal, Cyndi Felton.  I am happy to share her story of the importance of relationships and making every child feel loved.  

“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” I’ve heard James Comer’s words so many times and each time I nod my head in agreement. But I had an experience this summer that brought these nine words to life for me. I had the opportunity to serve as the administrator of a summer school program for 115 third graders that were all enrolled because they were unable to demonstrate proficiency on the state reading assessment. On my first day with the students I was struck by the fact that very few seemed upset about being in summer school. Although the grade level material was a struggle for them, most were on-task and putting forth the needed effort. However, I also had a handful of students who were regularly tardy and often fell asleep during class, as well as students who were sitting outside the school an hour before the doors opened because their parents left for work and no one was home.

One particular student, we’ll call him Kenny, arrived late each day and frequently remained at the school well after pick up time. I bonded with Kenny on my second day at the school. I would walk him to class when he arrived late, spending time with him at lunch in the cafeteria, and talking with him while waiting for someone to pick him up. We called the house multiple times to express concern and asked his mom to get him to school on time and have him picked up on time. He began trying to get to school earlier and would ask me each day how many minutes late he was. I believe he was doing all he could to improve his punctuality in an effort to please me. One day Kenny shared he had already been retained in first grade. However, he constantly tried to deflect away from the fact he had great difficulty reading and low self-esteem. Kenny was loud, always making jokes, and putting on a show for all. I noticed that there was always someone on him regarding his behavior and/or lack of attentiveness, including teachers, cafeteria staff, office staff, and other school personnel. It seemed that when he was told to be quiet, “zip your mouth” or even “shut it,” he only talked more, with a smile on his face. Kenny was desperately looking for attention and any attention would do.  

I was only at the summer site for a couple weeks before I needed to return to my home school in preparation for the coming year. On my last day, I spent time saying goodbye to students, praising their hard work, and letting them know just how much I would miss them. Kenny let me know he wasn’t happy about me going and asked me where my school was. I explained it was about a 25-30 minute drive from his school. Kenny proceeded to tell me he didn’t care, he was still going to go there next year. Grinning, I asked “Oh really? You want to come to my school?” and he answered, “Yeah, I’ve never been someone’s favorite before”. Stunned, I just hugged him and tried not to cry.

How can a child who has been in school for five years feel this way? Shouldn’t every child believe they are the teacher’s favorite? The difficult students are often the children who already lack relationships with caring, attentive, engaged adults. Student-teacher relationships can truly affect both their academic and social development. Research tells us that a student who feels a strong personal connection to their teacher, one with genuine interest and concern, is more likely to demonstrate increased engagement, higher levels of academic achievement, and improved behavior in class. But academics and classroom behavior aside, kids deserve to feel valued everyday. If that isn’t our highest priority, are we really in the right field?