Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dear Principals,

What if you were to ask your faculty and staff within your building this one question:

Who do you view as the instructional leader in our building?

Who do you think they would say?
Better question, who do you know they would say?

Something to think about.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Teaching Student Writing in a Digital Age

Guest post by Neven Jurkovic.

Consistent access to technology can enhance virtually any classroom, no matter the subject or grade level. One subject that can be especially impacted by the presence of technology is writing. This is because writing done for online spaces and audiences is in many ways fundamentally different than writing that has traditionally been done in the classroom, on paper, for a small, captive audience. With the help of technology, here are four key things teachers should do to help students learn how to write for an online audience.

Hook the reader, then keep it concise: Unlike captive classroom audiences, digital audiences have virtually infinite options of what to read. As a result, students must be taught to hook the reader with a catchy headline, title, or opening sentence. Once they’ve hooked the reader, the remainder of the piece should be concise – even more so than when writing on paper. Posting on Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is a great way for secondary students to get good at making a point quickly.

Mix written text with links, audio, and video: Whereas paper and pencil writing is limited to text alone, digital writing can include hyperlinks to websites, links to an audio podcast, videos, images, and more. Students must be taught to take advantage of these options, when applicable, to make their writing even more effective for an online audience.

Edit and collaborate more effectively: One of the best parts of writing on the computer is the ease in which students can edit their work – a few clicks can replace the previously painstaking use of erasers, editing marks, and proofreading marks. Students can also collaborate on writing more effectively: instead of being limited to an in-class peer editing session, virtually any number of students can work together to create and edit their writing in real time using Google Docs accounts.

Expect an audience: As mentioned above, students in the past expected their written work to be read or heard by their teacher and perhaps some classmates. Writing that is posted online, however, can reach a potentially global audience – but that audience must be earned. Students must be taught not only how to hook that potential audience but also to be thoughtful about what they choose to post online in light of that audience. Teaching students to be digital citizens who carefully consider the digital footprint they are creating is essential.

Digital writing is truly a separate skill that must be taught to students, distinct from offline writing. Students must be given frequent access to technology as well as specific digital writing instruction to ensure that they become proficient in writing for online audiences.

About the Author: Neven Jurkovic
Neven Jurkovic’s interest in teaching mathematics with technology developed while pursuing a Master of Science degree at Southwest Texas State University. Apart from publishing a number of papers on the application of artificial intelligence in elementary mathematics problem solving, Neven is the creator of Algebrator, a widely used math tutoring software. Currently, he lives in San Antonio, TX and is the CEO of Softmath:

Saturday, June 30, 2012

In The End, What Matters Most?

On June 29, 2012, I completed my final day as principal at Dibble Middle School.  As I packed the last book (What Great Principals Do differently: 15 Things That Matter Most by Dr. Todd Whitaker - It's always the first book on and the last book off my bookcase) I took out my phone for one last pic of my empty office.  I then embedded the pic in a tweet to my connected staff.  I immediately received many sincere and somewhat lugubrious responses. As I walked out the door for the last time, I wondered to myself: Did I make a big enough difference?  Will everything we worked so hard to put into place continue and improve?

At exactly 11:25 p.m., I received a tweet from one of my teachers, @MrsBeck25, who had altered and enhanced the picture that I had previously tweeted out.  To me, this picture says it all.

This photo will now be framed and represent the 16th thing that matters most:  
Instilling In Others, A Passion To Progress Forward

Thank you Mrs. Beck

Friday, June 22, 2012

Assisted Learning

Recently, Tom Whitby wrote a provocative article called Hypocrisy in the Profession of Education. I ask that you take the time and read and share this article. In fact, if you are short on time, stop reading my thoughts and click here.

The biggest hypocrisy of the Education Profession is that the educators too often have become poor learners unwilling to leave their comfort zones to improve their learning. They are not “bad teachers” they are however victims of bad practices of a complacent education system. To be better educators, we first need to be better learners.” - Tom Whitby

I believe that educators do the best they know how. In other words, they can only do what they know. How can we as leaders assist teachers in increasing their knowledge and know-how? I believe it starts with the leader. Only when the school leader is the lead learner, can we effectively assist teachers in eliminating bad practices due to complacency.

As leaders, we should...

  • Work to recognize what our teachers want to learn, as well as, what they need to learn. Then, make an effort to spark their curiosity. Keep teachers in their uncomfort zone. Ask the right questions and want to hear their answers. Assist by asking “How” and “why” and “what if” questions to stretch the boundaries of their minds.
  • If a teacher has an iPad or iPhone, introduce the personalized magazine App, Zite. Assist the teacher in choosing topics of interest such as Education, Professional Development, etc.  This is a great way to stay abreast of the latest issues and trends in education.
  • Sit alongside a teacher and assist in setting up a Twitter account. Do this at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday so that at 11:00 a.m. you can introduce #edchat and participate together for the first time.  Share a list of other chats that would be of interest to the individual teacher.
  • Assist a teacher in setting-up an RSS feed. There are many different ways to do this such as Google Reader. Share specific blogs that would be of interest to the individual teacher. For instance, for 4th grade math and social studies, introduce Paula Naugle's classroom blog. Here is a link to Cybrary Man's Class Blogs.
  • Urge teachers to take the time to practice what they learn. Curiosity without initiative does not translate into results. Many times it takes a change in behavior to cause a change in belief.  Assist teachers by providing them the time and resources they need to put new ideas into action.    

I truly believe the more you learn, the more you will want to know. By assisting and distributing expertise throughout your staff, the level of what your teachers' know and are able to do will increase substantially.  Before long, many teachers will be challenging you as the lead learner!

A little assistance and a new way of learning can prepare educators to thrive in the ever changing environment that we face every day.  Please add to the conversation.  What are some effective ways school leaders can assist teachers in continuous learning?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Reflect, Adapt and Remain Relevant

My favorite part about summer is having time to reflect and begin thinking about the possibilities of the upcoming school year. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Preparation is essential to a strong beginning especially if you plan to implement any fresh new ideas.

Preparing for requires reflecting upon what has worked and what hasn't in the classroom, despite how painful it can sometimes be. When I was a physical education instructor, I found ways to assess my own teaching.  I would ask students to write me a letter after each unit simply answering two simple questions. What did you like most about this unit and what was something that you did not understand or would like to know more about during this unit? First of all, you must prepare yourself for very honest answers and most importantly, be willing to learn and make adjustments accordingly.

“There are three methods to gaining wisdom. The first is reflection, which is the highest. The second is limitation, which is the easiest. The third is experience, which is the bitterest.” - Confucius

Without exerting genuine effort and real intention into your self-reflection, you are wasting your time. The unexamined teacher can lead to ineffective and outdated lessons year after year. Times change, technologies change, best practices change, and you must change in order to adapt and remain relevant in the ever-changing world of education.

REFLECT ON WHAT? Ask Yourself These Tough Questions - And Be Honest!
What can I do to make my teaching more authentic while adding to my students' learning and enjoyment?
Which lessons or units am I only continuing to perform out of habit or laziness?
What changes can I make to my instructional delivery in order to directly increase my students' learning?
What assessment types am I utilizing with every student, every day, to make sure they have mastered the instructional goal? What are you doing with the results of your assessments to adjust instruction to ensure student learning? 
Are there any aspects of the profession that I am ignoring out of fear of change or lack of knowledge? (i.e. technology)
What can I do to be more proactive in my professional development?
How can I increase valuable parental involvement?
One of the best things about teaching is that every school year offers a fresh, new start. We owe it to our students to reflect, prepare, and make student learning inescapable!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Helping the Technophobic Teacher

The following guest post was written by Mark Pullen, an elementary teacher in a 1:1 classroom in East Grand Rapids, Michigan.  

The infusion of technology into the classroom has the potential to be the greatest change agent in K-12 education for the foreseeable future. As a result, I believe that one of the most important goals for today’s principals must be helping their technophobic teachers to learn to utilize technology more effectively. Here are four ways in which principals can do just that:

Set clear technology goals: While this will be important to all of your staff members, this will especially aid the struggling teacher. Don’t be vague: “All students at Lincoln Middle School will learn to become active digital creators and safe web 2.0 citizens” may be fine language for your building’s official tech plan, but to the technophobic teacher, it means little.

Find in-house technology mentors: Mentors aren’t only for new teachers. Identify your best technology mentors and pair them up with teachers who need extra help. Students can be used to mentor other students as well; for example, in the elementary grades, schools often designate “reading buddies” – older students who pair up with younger students to read with them. For elementary principals reading this, why not encourage the creation of a “technology buddies” program where your older students pair up with younger ones to help them learn some core technology skills?

Focus on key proficiencies, not ever-changing sites and tools: Help your technophobe teachers to understand that the goal isn’t necessarily to have students learn Prezi, Glogster, VoiceThread, Animoto, and Adobe Premiere by the end of the semester; rather, it is to have students become comfortable with presenting their learning in a digital form. The specific sites and tools will change too quickly for the technophobic teacher to ever feel confident in understanding them, but the core student competencies needed will generally remain more stable from year to year.

Create differentiated professional development opportunities: Your technophobic teachers need to be met where they are and brought forward from there. Too often, I’ve seen professional development that is far too complex for some teachers and far too simple for others. I’ve seen teachers that struggle to attach a file to an email; if that’s where they’re at, professional development about starting a classroom Ning network just won’t be helpful.

Our mindset toward technophobic teachers should be similar to our mindset toward struggling students: all teachers can learn, and we need to intentionally provide those struggling teachers with instruction that meets them where they are to help them increase their tech competence and confidence.

About the Author:
Mark Pullen has been an elementary teacher for 13 years, currently teaching third grade in East Grand Rapids, MI. He’s an advocate for classroom technology integration, and writes extensively on that subject on behalf of Worth Ave Group, a leading provider of laptop, tablet computer, and iPad insurance for schools and universities:

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Why?" Often Leads To Change or Trouble

Every so often, I like to take a moment to share a few of my favorite tweets from the last few months and a brief explanation as to why.

Bill Ferriter, a remarkable teacher in North Carolina and part of the 2% within my PLN, brings up the importance of the always relevant question "why?" and it's ability to bring about change.    As school leaders, when a teacher asks "why," do you perceive this as a threat? As teachers, how many times do you perceive the "why guy" in class as the "wise guy?"

These pair of tweets caused me to write one of my most popular posts found here.  It also sparked this post by a colleague, Anne Beck, who addresses the importance of embracing the "why guy" in the classroom.  All of this because @plugusin, @L_Hilt, @Stumpteacher, and @johntspencer had a great conversation.  It's time we begin embracing our valuable, critical colleagues and/or students.

Unless we CHOOSE to be!  In this case, I believe we are limiting our students to what one teacher knows and is able to do.  As Mimi suggests, it is time we break down classroom walls and go beyond the expertise of one teacher.

Take a look at Paula Naugle's blog post and how her students became the "experts" who educated other classrooms around the country.  We now have experts at our fingertips.

Thanks Kelly for such a meaningful tweet.  As educators, it's time we change how we perceive failure.  I also believe it's time we change the way we look at success.  Great teachers understand that failure is a success in learning.

Failing also builds resilience.  It's important that we teach our students not to dwell on their failures, and instead, acknowledge the situation, learn from their mistakes, and then adapt and move forward.  As the Japanese proverb states, "Fall down seven times, get up eight."

Thanks Becky for tweeting out your experience at NAESP12.  I had the privilege of hearing Rafe Esquith speak about 7 or 8 years ago and the way he introduced Kohlberg's stages of moral development to his students resonated with me. Level 6 thinking is when an individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon.  Take a look.

We have all watched the following movie clip from The Shawshank Redemption.  Rafe Esquith uses this scene to demonstrate level 6 thinking.

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to read earlier posts highlighting my favorite tweets here and here.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


As I complete my thirteenth year as an educator, I would like to share thirteen lessons learned throughout my time as a teacher and/or principal.
  1. I've come to realize great educators take responsibility for their own learning rather than waiting for the school district to tell them when and what to learn.

  2. Great educators take responsibility for student learning and believe wholeheartedly that failure to reach mastery is not an option. By the same token, they understand that failure is a success in learning.

  3. Great educators continuously rethink the way in which they learn and are comfortable with being uncomfortable. They work to remain intellectually curious inside and outside the classroom.

  4. Great teachers never fail to plan and understand that 90% of differentiation happens before the students ever enter the classroom.

  5. Talking about great ideas and actually putting these ideas into action are two very different things. Great educators let their actions speak for themselves.

  6. I've experienced first hand that excellence doesn't happen by accident. Great educators believe there are no 9 to 5 jobs in education, only opportunities to make a difference.

  7. As an educator, if you find yourself stuck between two decisions, I've learned the one that requires more work is the best decision for kids.

  8. As a school leader or teacher, "Because I said so" or "Because its the way we have always done it" is never an appropriate response to the relevant question "Why?"

  9. No news is good news” is no longer the case when it comes to parent communication. Effective educators strive to establish partnerships with parents to support student learning. Great teachers understand this relationship may be the most important ingredient in a child's success.

  10. Great teachers refrain from grading students during formative assessments and assist students in learning from their successes, failures, mistakes and misconceptions.

  11. I've never heard of a student not doing his work; it's our work he's not doing.” If you give homework at all, it should be meaningful, purposeful, efficient, personalized, doable, and inviting. Most important, great teachers allow students to freely communicate when they struggle with homework and can do so without penalty.

  12. Competition can't beat collaboration! Great educators improve the curriculum together. They not only share responsibility for the achievement of all students but also admit other teachers contribute to their success.

  1. I see the student as myself.” Great teachers move beyond the narrow vision of content, skills, and knowledge and ensure that all of their student's educational needs are met. They are committed to educating the whole child. 

    What lessons have you learned?  Please share.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

“Why?” Can Make Change Possible

As principals, we're not afraid to ask a lot of questions when we don't know how to do something. But what happens to the questions when we discover how to do it? They stop, don't they? If we think we already know the right way to do something, or worse, it's the way we've always done it, how open are we to learning a better way or even a different way? We aren't, are we?

Think about the educators in your building. Do you have a “why” guy or gal? I'm not talking about the much dreaded “why”-ner whose questions often lead to - Why is this more work for me? I'm talking about that relentless teacher who consistently questions your educational philosophy, ideas, methods, programs, guidelines, and expectations by simply asking the relevant question, “Why?” How is this courageous teacher perceived by others? Does annoying, obnoxious, or a nuisance come to mind? A better question may be, how do you as the leader treat this change maker?

As principals, it's time we embrace the “why” guy or gal. Every day, this teacher is asking “why?” and if you’re on a quest to lead a progressive school, you should keep asking it, too. Just as important as answering it for yourself is answering it for those you lead. It’s important to show your teachers the reasons you do what you do. In fact, I believe if you ever want to have any influence among your teachers, answering “why” is the most critical question you'll ever address.

I truly believe as principals, it's our responsibility to build a strong partnership with the “why” guy or gal to challenge our assumptions about what we actually think we know. It's normal to find ourselves having a superficial understanding rather than the deep understanding we originally thought we had. This is the advantage of such a partnership. These teachers are constantly pointing us in the right direction. Beware, avoiding their questions can prevent learning and change. However, embracing their questions can make change possible.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Minimum Wasted Effort Accomplished Without Great Difficulty

Recently, I attended a conference in which the topic centered around teacher effectiveness accompanied with the three different evaluation models that each school district in my state must adopt by April 16th, 2012. I was excited to attend due to the fact that I have not only reviewed in depth each model, but have spent the past year piloting one of the approved models. The meeting consisted of seventeen superintendents and three principals within our network. Besides the fact that not one TEACHER and only three principals were in attendance, I was taken back by many, many comments coming from, what should be, the lead learners within a school system. The comment that was the toughest for me to swallow, especially because ninety-percent of the educators in the room began nodding agreeably, was this particular statement:

“As we begin to decide which model to recommend for our particular district, the most important question we must ask ourselves is, which model is most efficient and manageable for our principals?”

Unbelievable! I could not disagree more. Wouldn't a much more important question be, which model is designed to help teachers systematically improve on their instructional practices by providing specific and meaningful feedback? Shouldn't a strong teacher evaluation model serve as a powerful (confidential) road-map for school wide, as well as, individual professional development?

Maybe for this group of superintendents, taking evaluations seriously may be the most important point to consider. I would love for teachers to comment and provide your most important question involving an effective teacher evaluation model. Is your primary concern related to what is efficient and manageable for your principal? Before you comment, let's take a look at these two words.

Efficient: Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.
Manageable: Able to be managed, controlled, or accomplished without great difficulty.

I believe 'why' we perform these evaluations and 'how' they are developed are just as important in determining whether these efforts will be successful at accomplishing the ultimate goal - improving student achievement. If improving student achievement is linked directly to the quality of instruction students receive on a day-to-day basis, then it would seem that we would involve teachers on every aspect of the decision making. Instead, fifteen of the seventeen superintendents acknowledged at the end of a two hour meeting that they had made up their mind and were ready to recommend. Keep in mind, the rubrics were never presented other than the number of indicators accompanied with each model.

Model X (76 indicators)
Model Y (60 indicators)
Model Z (20 indicators)

Which model did the fifteen superintendents decide upon? You guessed it...... Model Z!
Does 20 indicators sound efficient and manageable to you?

Until our leaders and principals become educated in these efforts, I am afraid we will experience no significant change. I can guarantee that these rubrics will be as effective as the principal or instructional leader executing the process.