Wish Lists

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving!!  If you’re anything like us, as soon as the leftovers were put in the fridge the winter decorations started coming out.  With little else to do we felt extra motivated to put the tree together (yup, it’s fake…so much easier!), hang ornaments, and get everything ready for the Christmas season.  Once the dust settled it was time to start looking at wish lists to get ready for all the after-Thanksgiving sales!

Everyone has their own flavor to their wish lists, I always find it fun looking at what people are asking for each year.  My nephews sent their wish lists…lots of video-games and sports gear (not a shocker!)  Our nieces also had some predictable items (accessories for their dolls, etc.) but you could also see that my sister-in-law had some influence with the presence of STEM related toys and activities.  Then it came time to make my wish list, and I’m just sooo boring compared to them!

My list has a few things I “need” or would end up buying for myself anyway (a pair of shoes, a scarf to replace the one I lost, etc) and then it has books…lots of books.  If you’re anything like me, and you’d be interested in finding some good “Edu-books” to add to your wish lists, then I’ve got a few recommendations for you (Note: I’m linking to Amazon to help you find them but I am, in no way, getting any compensation for doing so!!):

  1. Mindset by Carol Dweck:  This book was written in 2007.  While not technically an “edu-book”, if you haven’t read it, I think it is a must read for anyone…educator or not.  It’s a quick read and well worth your time.
  2. Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover:  This one came out more recently and was very popular when it did.  There’s a reason…this memoir is mind-blowing at times and elicits a lot of emotions throughout.  As an educator, it’s amazing to think about her story from a perspective of “traditional education”.
  3. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You:  A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi:  This young-adult version of Stamped from the Beginning is a shorter and slightly less dense version of the original.  Despite that, this book is very powerful and will challenge you to think differently about racism, antiracism, and your role in both (personally and professionally).  In my opinion, this is a must read!  If you’d like to borrow the original version I have it in my office and would happily loan it to you.  
  4. Teach Like a PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator by Dave Burgess:  This is a great book for any teacher to read.  Another quick read with loads of practical strategies and tools to get you thinking outside the box.
  5. The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros:  George is an outstanding educator from Canada who is a leader in innovative education.  The best part is that most of his ideas aren’t so far outside the box as to be unimaginable.  This is another quick read with loads of great ideas!
  6. Upstream:  The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath:  Heath is an outstanding author.  He and his brother have co-authored a number of great books like Made to Stick and Switch.  In this book, Dan goes it alone and hits a homerun.  More thinking outside the box in this book.  In actuality, this book helps you start looking at everything in life a little bit differently…and it’s another quick read but not necessarily an edu-book.

My wish list for this year isn’t complete yet…if you’ve got some books that you’d recommend to me (edu-books or otherwise!) I’d love to hear about them!!  Thanks for sharing 🙂

Giving Thanks to Gifford

I know this might sound crazy but 2020 is always going to hold a special place in my heart.  Obviously, Amy and I will be forever fond of 2020 because of Clayton’s arrival. Beyond that, however, this year will always be special to be because it’s the year I was fortunate enough to join the Gifford community!  

This week I wanted to take a minute or two to stop and say “thank you!!”  As we go into a much deserved five-day weekend to reflect and give thanks, I started a little early 🙂  

So, “thank you” to each and every one of you.  This school year has, obviously, been terribly challenging and trying for each of us.  While at the same time, beyond school, we’re facing what is likely (hopefully) the craziest time of our generation(s).  Yet, despite all of that, you’ve shown over and over again that as people and as professionals you are an amazing community of educators!  

My “thank you” is personal but it is also on behalf of those who can’t, won’t, don’t know how, or are just too busy and tired to say it to you themselves.  “Thank you” from your students, who are able to continue learning from their own homes as this pandemic rages, thanks to your efforts and energy!  “Thank you” from the parents of those students, all of them (yes, all of them), who whether they’ll say it or not appreciate all that you do to help their students continue learning.  “Thank you” from your colleagues who benefit from your ideas, knowledge, teamwork, and communication each and every day.  Finally, “thank you” from me both as the Principal at Gifford but also as a new father, you’ve all been helpful, supportive, and kind as I’ve learned and grown in both of my new roles this year!  Thank you, thank you, thank you…you’re all amazing and continue to impress on a daily basis!

Someday I’ll be looking back at 2020, I can see myself telling Clayton about the wild year that he was born into this world.  I’ll smile as I think about the Gifford community and how it opened its arms and embraced me while wearing a mask and staying six feet away!  I’ll tell him how, despite all of the safety restrictions, I felt that embrace and valued the caring and kindness shown to me each day.  I’ll tell him how people gave me feedback to help me grow as a leader, how people offered words of encouragement and support, and how people asked about him, his mother, and me to make sure we were doing alright.

I imagine that conversation will end with watery eyes as I think back to all of the people who helped make 2020 such a special year for me and my family.  You, the Gifford community, are at the top of that list…thank you so much for everything you’ve done, both professionally and personally, for me so far this year!!!  

To you and your families: From me and my family, your students and their families, and all of those in the future who will be impacted by the effort you’ve given this school year…Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Engaging Remote Learners: Sign Language

As we continue to search for ways to engage our students online, I remain on the lookout for strategies to share.  On Friday, as I popped-in to celebrate Crazy Hair Day with one of our second grade classes I came across another awesome idea!  As I was leaving, Melissa asked her class to sign “thank you” to me.  What a brilliant tool for communicating and engaging our students…American Sign Language (ASL).

In talking with Melissa I learned that she teaches her class the alphabet, words, and phrases in ASL every school year but this year it has come in even more handy that usual!  We’ve all struggled with muting and unmuting, microphones working and not working, and struggling to engage kids in general.  Since leaving Melissa’s class I’ve been thinking alot about the power of ASL in both the remote and in-person setting, there are so many ways that you can use this tool in both settings that it’s almost silly not to try it out!!  

I went poking around for some more resources about using ASL remotely and it just so happens that one of my go-to resources had an article that was written a while back.  The author of this piece points out that most teachers are using nonverbal communication already, so why not use something that could be transferable and can help build understanding of how other people learn and communicate?  In addition, things like improved focus, increased webcam usage, and even a small opportunity to use the Total Physical Response of learning, are also indicated as benefits of implementing the use of ASL in your classroom (whether remote or in-person).

While investigating I learned a bit more about sign language too.  It was introduced most prominently in France around 1755.  I found this particularly interesting because Louis Braille also invented his system for reading and writing in France.  There could be some really rich conversations with students around sign language that could help build empathy while further engaging them in ASL.  Here is one resource that offers more reasons to teach/learn ASL while providing more resources for doing so.  This is an interesting piece that includes some history of sign language, it could be good for some of our more advanced readers or as a conversation starter with younger students.  Finally, do you know the origin of the huddle in football?  I bet you can get close to guessing if you’re paying attention 🙂

A huge shout out to Melissa for her willingness to share her name/ideas and let me publicly recognize the awesome ideas coming out of her classroom!!  Do you have ways that you’ve employed to better engage your students remotely?  Please share, I’d love to highlight and share as many good ideas as possible!!!  (Note:  If you’re not comfortable with me sharing your name, I can write this anonymously too!!!) 

Engaging Remotely: Scavenger Hunts

We’ve all been searching for more ways to engage our learners in this remote environment.  Many (probably all) of us have used a scavenger hunt or two (or 10) already as an SEL or culture building tool.  Therefore I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you think this has become a boring strategy and is unlikely to engage your students.  However, I’d like to encourage you to take this a step further than just going and finding fun/random items, although there’s still room for that!  John Spencer (who is a wealth of knowledge) has some great ideas as to how to employ scavenger hunts to engage your learners.  I’d like to add a few things while expanding on a few of his ideas.  (I’d recommend reading his piece before looking at my thoughts below.)

  1. Timing is everything:  Mix scavenger hunts into the middle of class, perhaps in between a mini-lesson and work time, to get kids moving and the blood flowing again.
  2. Real world connections:  Use scavenger hunts to show your students how the day’s lesson ties into the real world.  Are you doing a lesson on measurement?  They can find multiple tools for measuring or food items with different measurements.  Are you doing a book club with a small group?  Have the students find three items that would be in the main characters’ backpack and have them explain why they chose one of those items.  Never has it been easier to help students see how their personal context connects to the potentially abstract lessons they’re learning in school than now!  (If you want to help them make deeper connections, use the asynchronous version talked about by John.)
  3. Speaking of Asynchronous:  Have students add photos of their items to a Google Doc/Slide/Form etc. before class begins.  They can add a short caption or paragraph explaining why they chose this item.
  4. Conversation starter:  Do you have students who don’t seem to participate as much as you’d like?  Try an asynchronous scavenger hunt.  Ask a specific student (privately) to plan on sharing their item and talking a bit about it.  Meet with them beforehand to let them practice and gain confidence, then support them with the knowledge they share during practice (should they need it) while “live”.  Building confidence with those learners who are reluctant to share is key, once they see they can do it they’re much more likely to try again!
  5. On the fly:  Don’t be afraid to use a scavenger hunt as a quick brain break.  Give kids three minutes to find something, anything, in their house.  Their favorite article of clothing, a favorite snack, something from a different room/floor, anything!  
  6. Flip the script:  Let the students send you on a scavenger hunt in your classroom/house.  As an incentive let them send you off to find something!!

This idea is something you can deploy right away and something you could use frequently.  While it may only seem like it’s helping temporarily, this may help to engage students and get cameras turned on (especially in the older grades.)  A well-timed scavenger hunt may help keep kids engaged throughout class, even with their cameras turned off (they can also be a good check-in for you to see who’s still engaged!) 

I’d love to hear how this goes or if you’re already using scavenger hunts academically.  Please share if you’ve got more strategies or ideas!!

Parent Conferences: 5 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Philosophically I believe in student-led conferences as the best means of celebrating at the end of certain marking periods. Students developing portfolios, learning to communicate their growth and areas for continued focus, and taking ownership of their learning are all very valuable experiences in education. However, at present we’re faced with Parent-Teacher Conferences happening over the course of the next couple days and I’ve been thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years when it comes to PTCs.  All of the items below are things that I did, mistakes that I made, and the way I would handle those situations differently today.  Hopefully this is just a friendly reminder for all of you and my mistakes are things you’ve learned to avoid over the years as well.  I’ve grown and changed a lot as an educator, here are five of the ways I’ve changed when it comes to parent conversations:

  1. Who Should Be Proud?:  It feels good when someone is proud of you, right?  I used to tell my students all the time, “I’m proud of you!”  I hoped it made them feel good, it probably did.  When it came to conference time I would say to parents, “You should be proud of your student!”  However, over the years I’ve learned to reframe this conversation with both students and parents.  My new way conveys the same message but the implications are tremendously different.  I now tell students, “You should be proud of yourself for…” and I say to parents “Your student should be proud of themselves for…”  The message is still received, you’re recognizing the student’s efforts and achievements.  However, it’s important that students learn to be proud of themselves and not rely on others for validation.  They should learn to know when they’ve been successful and receive that intrinsic reward!  Try it out, “You should be proud of yourself for…”
  2. “Surprise!”:  Most people don’t like surprises.  Parents at conferences hate surprises.  When I first started teaching I didn’t have the courage to contact parents when their student wasn’t being successful in class.  The first time they found out was when we met at conferences, that didn’t go well!  I learned very early on that I needed to be in touch with parents as soon as possible, especially if their student was struggling in any way.  “No surprises” has been a motto for me ever since!
  3. Where’s the Evidence?:  When I first started meeting with parents I would tell them everything I was thinking about their student but when they asked me how I’d come to these conclusions I couldn’t show them anything.  I, of course, believed that I knew what I was talking about and that my assessments of their students were correct.  However, my data was arbitrary.  Number grades that penalized for late homework, zeros for projects not turned in, extra credit for helping me clean the room after school, my “assessments of their learning” weren’t that at all.  No rubrics, no standards with multiple assessments, nothing.  I learned that I needed to be able to, not only for the parents but for myself, show actual evidence of learning.  I stopped penalizing for late work, I didn’t allow students to earn a zero (they had to do the work or they received an “NG/No Grade” for the grading period), and extra credit was removed from my vocabulary.  Students had clear expectations, knew how they’d be assessed, received clear feedback, were given multiple attempts to demonstrate their learning (retakes!), and were always held accountable.  I never lacked for evidence again and never needed it either, no one ever asked because it was always there from the start!
  4. Growth Mindset:  You’ve all heard of Carol Dweck’s theory about “fixed” vs “growth” mindsets.  This isn’t that.  I used to sit down with parents and tell them about their student’s scores.  Why they received an 87% instead of a 90% or whatever.  Over time I learned that achievement was a lot less important than growth.  As I learned to use evidence (see above), I was able to clearly show growth from the beginning to whichever time period we were talking about.  This was very important because so many of my learners were at different places in their education.  So, whether they were two grade levels behind or two grade levels ahead, we were always able to have a conversation about their growth throughout the course of the year.  This probably carried more weight with the high-achieving students’ parents than anyone, they valued seeing growth and also the plan for continued growth!
  5. The Rose Ceremony:  When I first started meeting with parents I would just spew whatever I thought out onto the table and hoped they would leave without questioning me too much, I needed a better plan!  You’ve likely heard of things like “Two glows and a grow” or “Two stars and a wish”; the idea of celebrating some positives and then presenting an area of growth is nothing new.  Over the years I’ve developed an organization to parent conversations that I call “The Rose Ceremony”.  I start with the “stem”, the constant that is holding up the flower.  This is typically something about the students work ethic, curiosity, or prior knowledge.  It is the thing that is demonstrated very regularly and really drives their learning (or lack of it in some cases…but no surprises!).  Then we talk about the “buds” and/or “flowers”, these are the areas where we’ve seen growth and the student is “blossoming” or we’re on the verge of a breakthrough in the case of a “bud”.  Lastly, there’s always a “thorn” or two to be discussed; these are the “grows” or “wishes”, the areas of focus moving forward as we continue to grow.  I use the analogy of “The Rose” for myself, it’s not something that I share with parents but it’s how I visualize the pieces of the conversation that are the most important to me.  

You guys are all awesome teachers and your students/parents should all be very thankful for your efforts to make this first quarter so successful for them!!!  Thank you!

Self-Care: My Cooking Hobby

In the spirit of thinking about self-care and practical applications, I wanted to share one of the things that is most important for me when it comes to self-care.  It is practical because, well, it’s cooking and we’ve all got to eat!!  

I’m no Master Chef or anything but I found out a while ago that I enjoy cooking for some reason.  I like to try new recipes, modify them to fit my needs, and there’s always a tangible reward at the end…sometimes it’s even tasty 🙂

I see this as one of the most important pieces of my self-care routine because it is something that serves many purposes.  I enjoy eating good food, so there’s that.  However, I’ve found that following a recipe and focusing on preparing a dish is a really good way to take my mind away from the stresses of work.  In addition, I almost always strive to make healthy meals that taste good (because how many “healthy” meals taste good?!?).  Finally, when it is all finished, I can sit down and enjoy the fruits of my labor…something we don’t get to do very often in education! 

Cooking has become a bit of a hobby for me.  I’m not going to be inventing dishes or even thinking off the cuff too often, I’m mostly just a recipe follower.  However, I do modify and change recipes as I make them over and over.  I listen to feedback (mostly from my wife) and try to improve the dish each time I make it.  So, over time I’ve built up a sort of “go-to” list of meals that I prepare fairly regularly.  I’d like to share one with you today.

This particular dish has become a “go-to” because it is quick, easy, relatively cheap, and yummy!! I can put this dish together from start to finish in less than 30 minutes and with a little help on one or two tasks I can even sneak a break to enjoy a sip or two of a beverage while I’m preparing…enjoy 🙂

More Tools: Edutopia Stikes Again

Last week when I shared some tools for teaching students who are hard to reach I said that I wanted to focus on things that could be of practical use to you in the current setting.  This week I want to share a great piece that I came across titled 7 High-Impact, Evidence-Based Tips for Online Teaching.  I’d encourage you to have a look at this list and pick one to focus on for the week.  If you feel like more than one could be helpful to you, feel free to dig in and keep going but I’m strongly recommending starting with one!  Have a look at the full article here.  Each of the tips comes with an explanation and some practical tools to help you accomplish the specific advice.  To get you started these are the seven tips included:

  1. Your virtual classroom is a real learning space – keep it organized
  2. Chunk your lessons into smaller, digestible pieces
  3. The best online teachers solicit lots of feedback
  4. Annotate and interject to scaffold learning
  5. Frequent, low stakes quizzes are easy to do, and highly effective
  6. Fight the isolation of remote learning by connecting with your students
  7. Take care of yourself

I know that you are doing some of these things already.  For many of you this list may just be a good reminder to refocus your attention to some of the things that you already know to be important.  I also know that some of us are at the point of saying, “I’m doing all that I can, I don’t need more things to worry about!”  If that’s the case, then by all means don’t worry about any of this.  Thanks for reading anyway 🙂

Thank you to everyone for all that you do for our students!!!

P.S. – One bonus tool for anyone looking to make a virtual word wall for your students.  This video is super helpful at demonstrating how to create your own virtual word wall and this link (@MrsParkShine is a great follow on Twitter!) will take you to a template (File, Make a Copy) that will save you lots of time on the front end!!

Reaching the Hard to Teach During Remote Learning

Last week I met with a team focused on supporting students of concern, especially those who have been hard to teach during remote learning.  This past weekend, I was introduced to a recently published book by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie called The Distance Learning Playbook (yeah, they didn’t waste any time getting that published!)  While I was looking through the book there was a particular section that caught my attention, probably because it’s been on my mind ever since that meeting last week – Reaching the Hard to Teach.

The authors suggest a couple pretty low-effort strategies that could really jump start the process of engaging some of those students who’ve been hardest to reach (for whatever reason) during remote learning.  Mind you, in this instance we’re talking about those students who are showing up but aren’t engaging much beyond that.  (For those who aren’t showing up, please be in touch with your grade-level counselor and social worker for support.)  Essentially, the authors suggest making a deliberate effort to shift the dynamic with those hard to reach students.  

I’m attaching two charts, from the book, that will help you think intentionally about those students who have been hard to reach.  The first is a chart to track specific behaviors, it could help engage those students and (hopefully) shift that dynamic.  The authors noted, “Many of these behaviors seem to come naturally, at least when it comes to those students with whom we have a positive relationship.  But it takes deliberate action to disrupt established communication patterns that are avoidant in nature” (Douglas et. al., 2021, p. 57).  It would be very worth the time and effort to print this chart and use it for at least four or five days, tracking interactions with those students who you’ve found it hard to reach during remote learning.  

After you’ve collected this data, for at least a week or so, take some time to reflect on both the data and any possible changes that you’ve noticed in the interactions with those students you’ve targeted.  You can use the second attachment to help you reflect on this data; these three questions will help guide your thinking.  Please note, this is not a cure-all and may challenge your thinking.  If you’re unsure, remember, no one has to know you’ve gone through this process.  You can do this completely on your own and don’t have to share it with anyone, so what do you have to lose?  (I’d love to hear from you if you do try it, especially if you feel like it was beneficial!!)

I’m particularly fond of this strategy because I’ve done something similar in the past.  As a new assistant principal I found myself at odds with a small handful of kids.  Some would call them troublemakers (I likely did at the time) but others (hopefully me today) would see them as kids who required a little more effort from me.  Luckily, I had an amazing mentor who challenged me to focus on my relationship with these students.  He encouraged me to look for opportunities to engage with them when they weren’t in trouble; positive interactions or even just neutral interactions went a long way.  By doing this I was able to restore some of the broken relationships that I’d had with these students.  This has been a strategy I’ve employed throughout my career as an administrator, working hard to build a relationship with those students who I will likely encounter most often for negative reasons.  I believe, actually, that it has decreased the amount of times I’ve seen them for negative reasons because it shifted our potential dynamic before it even happened!

I’m pretty confident that every teacher in the world who is participating in this remote learning experiment could benefit from partaking in this exercise.  I don’t think it will take you much time but it will require a small amount of focus and dedication.  In the end, I think it will pay off on some level with those students who you choose to focus on…it’s certainly worth a try!!

Note:  If you’re keen to buy the book you can get it a bit cheaper off their website (linked above) but I got it on Amazon and it came within 24 hours!

Thank You!

I wanted to take this chance to step back and celebrate the amazing start to the year that we’ve had so far.  We’re five weeks into something that no one would’ve ever imagined at this time last year and, despite all of the challenges, you’re making learning possible for all of our students on a daily basis!  

Every day has been inspirational as I’ve had the opportunity to watch, listen, and work alongside one of the most dedicated buildings full of teachers I’ve ever seen!!  The passion, energy, and dedication you’ve brought to the challenge before you has been out of this world.  You’ve taken a square peg and you’ve fit it into a round hole, over and over again.  Our students couldn’t be luckier than to have such amazing teachers as yourselves!!

As we continue along this journey, I am confident that our students will continue to benefit from all of your dedication and passion.  The Remote World may not be an optimal learning environment but when I visit rooms (virtual or in-person) and see whole classes engaged in conversations and excited to learn, it shows how impactful all you’ve done really has been!  Thank you for everything you do to make learning as exciting and engaging has possible during this crazy time!!!

Resources for Improving Your Remote Presence

Eight years ago when I first started sharing philosophical tidbits with my staff at Shanghai Community International School as the Middle School Assistant Principal, it was mostly me sharing interesting articles I had read, videos I’d seen, and occasionally some of my own thoughts.  Over time I’ve grown more comfortable sharing my own thoughts and found a bit more of my own voice in writing.  However, from time to time, I like to “go old school” and share some quality articles/blog posts that I consider good/relevant resources.

So without further ado, here are three that I’ve seen on Edutopia recently.  I don’t agree with everything on Edutopia but there are lots of great contributors who have wonderful ideas to share.  These three all seem very relevant to some of the conversations I’ve been having around the building and in meetings lately.  Enjoy 🙂

6 Strategies for Successful Distance Learning

Teachers can create an environment in which both they and their students feel empowered for remote teaching and learning.

How to Choose Words That Motivate Students During Online Learning

Framing assignments in student-centric rather than teacher-centric ways can encourage engagement and persistence in learning.

5 Research-Backed Tips to Improve Your Online Teaching Presence

As the physical distance increases between you and your students, so can the psychological and emotional space. Here are some tips that can help.

Please note that, occasionally in some of my posts I will link to external sites.  It is important to understand that, while I’m providing these links for convenience and for informational purposes, they do not constitute my endorsement or my approval of any of the products, services, or opinions of the organization, site, or authors.  Additionally, I bear no responsibility for the accuracy, legality, or content of the external site or for that of subsequent links.