Saturday, July 29, 2017

Knowledge. There's more to it than that.

Recently, I couldn't help but laugh when a group of friends and I were in a non-school discussion and I linked it back to learning, to school, and to leadership. Someone in the conversation remarked that no matter what, I seem to be able to bring most conversations back to education. I have yet to decide if that's a good quality of a bad quality (it's also gotten me in trouble at times). Regardless, it's forced me to acknowledge one thing: nearly all the time, teaching, learning, and leading is at the forefront of my mind.

In recent months, I've invested some time learning about where Bloom's Taxonomy intersects with the SAMR Model. And what I've come to be reminded of is that school is meant to be so much more than basic recall and recitation of facts, and more than the teacher imparting knowledge on his or her students.

Knowledge. There's more to it than that.  

So this summer, I've been deliberate about learning and in some cases, re-learning, something with which I'm already familiar, but making the time to see it through a different lens. These activities have provided a fresh look at something I've done before.

For example, bicycle riding. There's nothing quite like the feeling of engaging in strenuous physical activity. It can have a significant positive impact on our mental and emotional states as well. I alluded to this in a post I wrote entitled Stretch. Since the writing of that post, it's been a physical (and in turn a mental) struggle to maintain a steady running habit, as a result of a series of nagging injuries.  So I've moved on to something new. Who among us hasn't ridden a bike, for pleasure, right? 

In recent times, I've come to miss the sensation, the benefits of distance running, that have long served as an outlet for creative problem solving, stress relief, and physical fitness. So this year (at the urging of my teenage daughter), I began attending spin classes, which happens to have been part of my physical fitness regiment years ago.

This same daughter, who I taught to ride a two-wheeler some years back, was now inviting me - encouraging me - to join her in this new "everything old is new again" challenge. And what have I learned as a result?

My visceral reaction is that we spend far too much time, in education, allowing ourselves to treat teaching and learning like riding a bike. Are you the kind of teacher or school leader who prepares for parts of the school year, as you always have done?

Don't get me wrong. Classroom and school routines and expectations are important. Efficiency and consistency are important. And high impact protocols and practices are important. But now consider the last time you tried a completely new approach to start or to end the school year. When was the last time you took an "old reliable idea", and reworked it with enhancements to both the teaching and the learning side of the equation? 

This new school year, why not challenge ourselves to re-imagine something familiar? 

Enter...the spin class.


The very first thing I noticed as I entered my first spin class in nearly 15 years was how the instructor welcomed each of us with a smile, a greeting, and some small talk that made each participant feel welcomed and valued. It's such a simple and important gesture to build community. This theme ran consistently throughout the class. 

Do we capitalize on building a culture of trust in our schools? 


We each sit in neat rows, facing the instructor, who is also seated on her bike. While she makes several announcements that pertain to maximizing the overall experience for us all, there is also space for differentiation. When she squawks, "When you're ready, a quarter turn to the right!" followed by, "A full two full turns." At this point, I realize my starting point and turns will differ from my neighboring bike rider. And to start each transition with, "When you're ready," I come to appreciate that, as a new rider, I am going to be ready at a different time than anyone else.

How might we personalize our approaches to new learning?  


The instructor is positioned at the front of the classroom. If this were a school setting, this may be a red flag for a teacher-driven classroom. However, there's a distinct difference here: the teacher is doing the same thing that the students are doing, and at the same time. We can pattern our form after seeing what the teacher is doing. We can appreciate the joy of the experience and the thrill of overcoming incremental challenges. And maybe best of all, we can celebrate a shared accomplishment. 

Where do our opportunities lie to learn alongside of our students?


Each series builds on the previous series, as the workout intensifies. To experience this as a learner, this is distinctly different when riding a spin bike. The instructor sets the scaffold for a given series, and it is my job, as the learner to regulate and to monitor my own progress, making adjustments where they are needed. The teacher encourages us in to add resistance, she is transparent in the struggle herself, and she adds feedback, in the form of praise and encouragement, each member of the class seems to respond to the challenge to scaffold his or her own experience.

When might we scaffold of our own learning, with or without the support of others? 

Formative Assessment

One area in which I invest significant time with our teachers is in effective use of formative assessment, as a means of informing both teaching and learning. Sitting on (or leaning over) a spin bike, I can't help but notice the role formative assessment plays in how the class runs. A favorite aspect of this particular class is the strong playlist that drives our motivation throughout. But having attended this class on multiple occasions, I've come to appreciate, not all of the songs are the same, or are played in the same sequence from one day to the next. The instructor reads the room and is responsive to our feedback, which could be based on the energy we bring, both individually and collectively, to the class. Based on non-verbal feedback the class offers the teacher, she alters the instruction accordingly.

What role does formative assessment play in your instructional decisions, that will lead to greater levels of meaningful learning?

Each one of us is surrounded by opportunities to push our schools, our teaching, and our leading beyond our comfort zones, and past dispensing knowledge to others in our learning communities. And when we have the courage and the tenacity to do this, we often realize, we're not the only ones who are thinking this way; case in point, the tweet below, from Cornelius Minor. The tweet was attached to a short video clip...about how we can push the outer limits of riding a bike. 

One has to wonder, if we can push limits with a bicycle, what's stopping us from doing more of this in the education field?

26 Days of Learning Leadership
Day 1:   Accountability
Day 2:   BRAVO
Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
Day 5:   Evolve

Monday, July 17, 2017

Journeys & Meetings

Each year, my mom ventures to Ireland, to visit with her cousins. While this has been a lifelong dream, she only started the tradition two years ago. This particular year, she returned from her adventure with a gift that sits on my desk: a paperweight.

The cast etched into the paperweight appears to be two people, facing one another. Either between them or behind them (depending on how you see it) appears to be an an obstacle, maybe a road or a river. While there is story unto itself regarding the meaning of the etching, I couldn't help but relate the symbolism to the journeys we take on the road to Learning Leadership.

The title of the image is Journeys & Meetings.

Maybe you look at this and see two different people, facing one another. Or, maybe you see this as one person, looking at a mirror image of himself or herself. Regardless, recent weeks have taken me on new personal-professional pathways. This time has also given me pause, to look back on what I've learned in the last school year.

In the days that followed the end of the 2016-17 school year, the 3rd Annual Edcamp Leadership: Long Island was hosted at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, New York. And then last week, I was fortunate to be invited to serve as a facilitator at the AMLE Leadership Institute in San Diego, California. But this post is not specifically about either of these two events, or the hundreds of passionate educators with whom I've learned. Rather, it's a first attempt to fuse what those who I met in recent times have helped me discover, about who I am and may become, as a school leader.

One of my very real fears headed into this past school year was that I wouldn't be as familiar with our middle school students as I once had been. I mentioned to my Faculty at our final meeting the year prior that I was concerned I wouldn't know our students, their names, and their stories.

Because I've been on a fortunate journey my entire career, which has now spanned two full decades.

As a teacher for the first half of my career, I'd gotten to know families of students quite well, in ways only a teacher can. Each experience resonated: the successes, the struggles, the failures, and the progress.

As I transitioned out of the classroom and into administration, the students who I taught were the students who I supported as an assistant principal. Then, when the middle school where I work as principal opened, my first students were my first seventh and eighth graders. It was rewarding to see these students (and their families) again, as "our kids" shifted from childhood into adolescence. As a new middle school principal, to enter into a new unfamiliar role, it was uniquely comforting to know that some of the same students who learned to love reading, writing, and math in my classroom, were among the students who would help me learn how to lead as a school principal. In recent years, as members of the last class I taught graduated high school and embarked on the their own life journeys, I've been confronted with some complex emotions. The school I had devoted myself to for two decades left me feeling isolated and alone.

Then this year happened.

This year, I opened myself up to the idea my professional journey could take me places I couldn't anticipate or imagine. Like my mother, following her lifelong dream to travel the countryside and meet her family, I too, could commit to new meetings, and new journeys.

Outside of school, I've fortified my professional priorities to become a highly effective principal, so our school community (and all it's members) can thrive. While there are, no doubt, parameters outlined in rubrics and offered through isolated snapshots of feedback, being "highly effective", I've also come to realize there are many, countless in fact, educators among us who engage in highly effective practices. And maybe best of all, they are also willing to open their doors, their minds, and their hearts, to willingly engage in dialogue that supports and promotes the improvement of other leaders.


Here are three things I've learned so far...

We Can:
Love what we learn, working with teachers.

The void I feared heading into this year was filled by my effort to connect, personally and professionally, with each of my teachers. What this has taught me is that we should assume that teachers want nothing but the best for our students and our profession. I've also learned that teachers are always willing to help, but that it will look different, teacher-by-teacher, and I need to be aware that I'll have to ask at different times and in different ways. While I'm not there yet will every teacher, every day we are that much closer to understanding one another. We share common priorities: learning, caring, professionalism, collaboration, and a value for clear two-way communication (to name a few). My teachers this year have taught me to do what I've often told them, when they'd ask what I expected: Enter new situations with an open mind. And know that we all enter our school building with the best intentions for our students and for one another.

What have you learned this year,
from approaching new learning with an open mind?


We Can:
Embrace learning the stories of others.

Simply put, some of my best days this school year have been talking to students one-on-one, but really, REALLY listening to their stories. Thematically, the most meaningful stories I've heard this year have involved adolescents overcoming obstacles. A ten-year-old, who overcame an illness and a prolonged hospital stay. A 13-year-old, who challenged himself to ride his his bike for 40 miles, to challenge himself physically and mentally. A teacher who is navigating family illness and personal loss. And a father who is advocating for his daughter, because even though it may not come across this way, he only wants the very best for his daughter's academic future. These are among the dozens of stories I've heard, and the hundreds of stories that are out there yet to be learned.

This year, I've moved from a stance in which I am primed to react or respond, to one of active listening, in hopes that I can better understand the root of their concern for a child. I've come to appreciate and value the time spent with my staff, especially one-on-one; it's helped me realize, there is so much more to those who come to school and teach kids. Personal stories, shifting family dynamics, struggles and successes, all shape who we are and they impact what we bring to our interactions with students.

What student's, parent's, or staff member's story has helped you understand how others see the world?


We Can:
Resist isolation. (Remember, we are not alone.)

This year, I've had my share of unexpected family health struggles and a few unanticipated professional challenges. Being willing to embrace wearing my heart on my sleeve, remaining tenacious and true to myself, listening to the stories others have shared, and striving to surround myself with people who inspire me to be better has focused me and continues to drive me. Best of all, as long as we make time to nourish our relationships, the connections we've made will only flourish. They've provided a frame of reference, a standard to which we can apply to new relationships. Tuning into what's important, cross-pollinating professional learning, and honing in on what works will nourish us. It's good to know I'm not alone in thinking about this. To paraphrase a tweet I read recently (about hiking and mountain climbing):

"...remember...the best views are not only at the top. Enjoy the journey."

What is a view you've enjoyed, along your journey?

My Journeys & Meetings from this year continue to have a profound impact, on how I treat others and how I see the world. They've provided context and vision for the next opportunity to learn; to learn about serving others, fueling our profession, and driving myself on the road to Learning Leadership.

What Journeys & Meetings lie ahead in your future?
This post is dedicated to those who are part of my journey: my School Family, my Edcamp Long Island Family, and my AMLE Leadership Institute Family.

And of own Family.