iLEARN – Engaging Students in Their Learning

Officially, Day 1 of the AASSA conference today was exciting.  Dan Kerr and I spent most of the day in the same sessions learning and digesting together.  Something we’ve been thinking about for a while now is bringing PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) down (or up!) to a student level.  During a session focused on feedback with Bill Cotter and Kelly Paredes we had a chance to think a little further about what this might look like.  Take 2 minutes and 47 seconds to listen to our reflections and thoughts about iLEARN (individuals – Lead, Engage, Assesss, Reflect, Network).


Trying to Place the Roosevelt Innovation Academy in Context

The first thing I have to say is that if you haven’t read or listened to my colleagues reflections from Day 1, do it…now!  What an amazing group of educators, and the level of thinkers that have joined us on this adventure at Academia Cotopaxi is down right phenomenal!   

Today I went to the preconference led by the amazing team behind the Roosevelt Innovation Academy.  Again, wow, what an inspiring group of educators.  This group has reimagined what education can look like, they’ve inspired kids and the results are out of this world.  We were lucky enough to speak directly with a handful of students from the IA and it was rewarding to say the least.  We spent the morning learning about the program and sharing in some of the results…the CrepeZ cart was absolutely yum-tastic!!  

Charged with reflection for our collaborative learning blog I decided to try something different this week.  Visiting FDR is exciting for me for many reasons, one of which is that my good friend Michelle Juhasz works here as an Associate Principal.   A few years ago I sat with her at an EARCOS conference in Thailand, she took notes in a mind-mapping style.  I was intrigued but haven’t been motivated to try until now.  So, here is my mind map for today.  I actually did two, which I’ll explain further…

This is the second “mind-map” that I made.  The first was what we were “taught” about the IA.  This one comes from a discussion we had as a group of AC colleagues at the end of the day.  We talked about how this (the IA) could work in our context.  With people from every corner of AC involved in the conversation you can see it went in a lot of directions.  The IA is in the center, a rocket ship blasting off into the future.  My drawings are lame attempts at art but they help me visualize the ideas.

Have a look…what do you take away from my mind-map?

Strengths Based Reflection

As the semester has drawn to a close there has been a lot of reflection happening.  Kids, parents, teachers…everyone is thinking back on half a school year’s worth of efforts and thinking about how they can grow and improve.

It’s a refreshing but tiring time of year.  With thoughts of an extended holiday on our minds it is sometimes tough to sit back and think about all that has occurred.  As I sat with a middle school boy today and talked about his growth (sometimes lack thereof) so far this year it dawned on me, reflecting is HARD!

Very rarely do we sit down and focus solely on the positives.  In fact, many times people sit down and think about, “Oh man, what went wrong?  What can I do better?”  This kind of thinking is exhausting and defeating.  So as I was reflecting on reflecting today I drew a connection to a conversation I had with a teacher earlier this morning.  We need to practice what we preach.

With students who are constantly testing our patience and require discipline, or negative interactions, we need to build ‘credit’ by forcing positive interactions.  For example, when contacting a parent about their child’s misbehavior it’s important to show that we aren’t focused totally on their negative behavior.  To do this, we include some compliments or point out some of the positive interactions that have occurred with that student.  Then we can get into the details of the areas for growth.  Similarly, when we write our reports we aim for “two stars and a wish”.  The goal being to celebrate the positive and target potential areas of improvement.  This is how we have to treat self-reflection as well.

I’m going to keep this (relatively) short this week and ask you to take some time over the semester break to self-reflect.  Start with focusing on what went well this past semester, taking a moment to celebrate your growth as a professional.  As you do this, progress into thinking about goals and targets for the next semester.  What kind of things would you like to strengthen and improve from the first half of the year into the second?

Self-reflection is an important part of the growth process but focusing solely on the negatives won’t lead to the desired growth…start first by thinking about your strengths and the positives you want to draw on.  Build on the positives, keep working on your strengths as well as any areas of growth you identify.

Happy semester break and Carnival.  Enjoy the break!!

Modeling Excellence

We’ve received a new resource for our Transitions and Cougar Time programs and I’ve been spending a lot of time reading through it.  One of the things I’ve found very interesting while looking at the “teacher edition” is the constant urging (by the author) for teachers to essentially “practice what they preach.”  

As I make my way into classrooms, follow up with students about missing work, and speak with teachers it often dawns on me that a lot of the time we (the adults) are asking our kids to do things that we aren’t doing.  “Stay organized” we say, when our desk is a mess of paperwork.  “Meet deadlines” we beg, as we delay two weeks to turn back tests or essays.  “Show pride in your work” we encourage, when a quick glance at our classroom spaces show few efforts of our own pride.  There are few teaching tools better than a positive example, yet too often we fail to provide that example ourselves.

I wrote recently about being consistent with our students in order to hold them accountable.  However, what if we didn’t even need to reach that step in the first place?  By setting an example that we expect our students to emulate we are showing them a path toward success.  The problem, often times, is that our students have seven or eight different teachers and therefore just as many “examples.”  Perhaps, there is an opportunity to come together on a set of common understandings and expectations for all students…sounds like a challenge!  

This may sound like a crazy idea, bringing everyone together to agree upon a set of common expectations for our students, what a lot of work?!  However, isn’t it worth it if it helps our students be successful?  

In my first couple years of teaching I shared about 60 sixth grade students with another teacher in what was called ‘intermediate school’, a mix of elementary and middle school.  He had half for the first part of the day to teach Math and Science and I had the other half for Language Arts and Social Studies.  After their specials class and lunch the kids switched classrooms.  Keith (my partner teacher in these early years) and I communicated very well and held a common set of expectations for our students – it helped that I was a very green teacher and needed all the help I could get!  Our students did very well and, for the most part, were able to meet our expectations with very little reinforcement along the way.  This was a happy medium of sorts, not too many teachers but not just one teacher like an elementary school…it made things easier and taught me some important lessons:

  1. Everyone has to be on the same page (easy with two teachers, very tough with eight!)
  2. Common understandings and agreements must be agreed upon and communicated by everyone.
  3. ALL teachers need to model and live these expectations.
  4. Common understandings and agreements need to be consistently revisited for potential improvements.
  5. Agreements and teacher communication should be done with positive language.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves perhaps there is some individual work to be done before trying to tackle common understandings.  Take a look at what you’re asking your students to do; whether be to class on time, meet deadlines, stay organized or show respect to their peers.  Are you doing these things?  Are you providing a positive example of the very things you are asking your students to do?  If you’re anything like me there are certainly a few areas where you could probably tighten up your own habits to improve the example you’re sending to students.  Take a minute to slow down and give it some thought…

The Pursuit of Positive

We’ve had students in our classes for six weeks now and in some ways it seems like just yesterday that we were coming back from summer.  Classes are in full swing, multiple assessments have already happened, and we’re talking about first quarter reports and comments.  School is in full swing and while we all love our jobs, things can definitely get stressful and even a bit overwhelming.  

Fortunately we have a small reprieve coming next week in the way of a three-day weekend and a chance to get out of the city and enjoy a few days of relaxation.  Before we get too far ahead of ourselves I’d like to share a few ideas for helping to continue pushing a growth mindset in our classrooms.  Not only is this way of thinking the best way to help our students grow but it is also a great tool for helping ease the anxiety and stress that comes from consistently working with all of these growing, changing, and (at times) awkward teenagers.

We’ve all surely heard of the placebo effect and the power of this phenomenon.  While it is most often discussed in the context of medicine, there is a lot of evidence that supports the power of the mind as a tool to help students grow in school.  The power of positive thinking has many implications in the classroom.  I’d like to share a couple different articles about how this might look in your work with your students.

This first piece discusses the importance of positive relationships in the classroom and just how powerful they can be in the pursuit of student learning.  The article speaks, briefly, about the science behind positive thinking, the necessity for sincere interactions with students, and the importance of character.  It comes from Mind/Shift, a blog focused on the “future of learning.”

The second piece comes from a wonderful blogger, Elena Aguilar, whose articles are regular reading for me.  She blogs for and is a Transformational Leadership Coach in Oakland, California.  In this piece Elena discusses a strategy that will help you as a teacher to manage stress and at the same time build resilience. Focusing on the positives, no matter how small, will help foster positive interactions and improved classroom performance.  As Elena says, “The good news about our brains is that we can rewire them. We can train them to notice the positive.”

Mindset research and its impact on education is a topic for another day but these two articles are a very interesting segment of the Mindset conversation. Enjoy those articles and as an additional bonus have a look at this inspirational video about a young man, Austin Hatch, who has one of the most tremendous stories ever…it’s 15 minutes or so, watch until the end, it’s absolutely amazing…I promise it won’t disappoint!

A New Year, A New School…Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador

It was an amazing summer, filled with a whirlwind finish as my youngest sister got married (the wedding was two days before our departure to Ecuador).  However, it seems like ages ago.  We’ve been here for just over three weeks now but we’ve jumped right into the mix and summer is a distant memory already.

After a little more than two weeks at Academia Cotopaxi I couldn’t feel more welcome!!  I’m tempted to say “I couldn’t feel more at home” but I realize that the ‘home’ feeling takes time, so for now I’ll stick with feeling welcome.  Making a transition to a new school/company is always difficult but add in the extra stress of moving to a new country and the level of difficulty is multiplied exponentially.

Thankfully we’ve hit the ground running here at AC.  Quito is high up in the Andes mountains (more than 9000 ft.) but the obvious lack of oxygen hasn’t prevented anyone from being extremely positive.  During our time with the returning teachers we were consistently invited to join any number of events and activities, all of which showed us a piece of Quito, gave us new experiences and introduced us to new people.  Being welcomed into a new community with such gusto is more than anyone could ask for as they make such a huge transition like moving from China to Ecuador.  

The students here at AC, as everywhere I’ve been, are amazing.  They’ve encouraged me as I’ve stumbled through learning over 300 names in just one week (I even received a standing ovation from one student when I finally got his name correct after about 20 mistakes…they’ve had such patience with me!)  The returning students here have welcomed new students so warmly that I have at times mistaken new students for returners because of the sheer number of friends surrounding them at lunch and break.  It is a truly welcoming group of students, astounding really!

All of this, however, pales in comparison to the interactions I have witnessed over the last week as everyone has welcomed new special needs students into the community.  As an inclusive school we are working to make AC as diverse a learning community as possible.  The staff, students, and overall community couldn’t be a more welcoming and inclusive group…awesome!!  I couldn’t be more excited for the years ahead working with this amazing selection of educators and students.

As the school year unfolds I will continue to write about the professional experiences at AC as well as share other important learnings.  There is always a lot to learn but being new makes it even easier to find opportunities to grow and improve 🙂

A Little Now For A Lot Later

Yesterday there was an issue at school that required my attention.  I debated in my head about how I should deal with this particular situation.  I knew that I could just let it go without much fuss and it wouldn’t be a big deal (at least not in the short term) or I could dig in and make it a point of focus immediately.  I decided to pursue the more aggressive route, which meant I’d have more involvement in the short term.  However, it was my hope that by taking care of it right away and not just brushing it off as “boys will be boys” that I would be able to bring a close to this ongoing conflict.  In the end everything worked out beautifully and I was reminded that a little effort up front can save a lot of time and energy down the road.

I thought a lot about this idea over night and again this morning…how often is this true in our life?  How many times could we put in a little now to gain a lot later in the future?  Retirement accounts?  Relationships?  Education…what about in our classrooms?  With our students?  With their parents?

I met with an 8th grade student the other day about his math performance and we looked at his Power School record for homework…crickets, zeros, nada.  He admitted that he’d given up, it was too hard, he said.  Fair enough, he was discouraged and frustrated because he didn’t get it, while a lot of his classmates did…so why bother?  Then I asked him what this school would look like if I did that with my job and every kid who was slacking off in Middle School – what if I just gave up on every kid (him included) who “was difficult”?  He laughed, he understood my point.

This 8th grader could’ve really saved himself a lot of hassle if he would’ve put in some effort early on and buckled down, other than keep digging a hole that was impossible to get out of in the end.  He sees this now (I hope!) and knows that as he moves on to his next school that there are going to be some difficult times and tough challenges.  All of us know that there is no reason for this student to have gotten in this hole in the first place, all it would’ve taken was some extra effort in the beginning and he would’ve been on a much better trajectory.

What are those things that you could’ve put a little more effort into at the beginning of the school year to see payoffs now?  Perhaps it’s a classroom management thing that would’ve saved you the constant stress and hassle of a disruptive student.  Maybe it’s a little time invested in building positive relationships with a particularly challenging student or class.  None of us are perfect and we all have things that could’ve gone better.  I had a huge realization the other day that will leave me with regrets about an opportunity I missed this year BUT I know now how I will approach a situation like that in the future.  The year is coming to a close but I know that none of us are retiring yet…we can always think about how we can improve our practice for the future 🙂

Enjoy the weekend!!

Lipgloss Shows Who We Are – Awesome!

Sitting in the Lipgloss audience last night I was overcome with how absolutely amazing our school community has become.  It started with the thought of how impressive our students were on stage, how talented they were as dancers and choreographers.  Then I started thinking about the specific kids in the performance.  With more than 120 kids to think about, it’s not a surprise that their stories are all different.  However, whether they’re a student that’s been here since Kindergarden or a student that arrived in April…everyone has their place at SCIS.  We are a warm and welcoming community, easy to transition into and (as we’re about to see in a few weeks) hard to leave.

On top of the fact that we’re such a welcoming community we’ve also created an environment where kids are comfortable taking risks.  There were students on stage last night who would’ve NEVER been on that stage if we weren’t such an open and understanding community.  There were kids who have a hard time finding success academically but were nothing short of masterful in their dance performance.  What an amazing opportunity for them to feel the sweet taste of success!  And don’t even get me started on how stinking cute those Lower School students were, it was so neat to see them dancing side by side with Middle and High School students.

None of this would’ve been possible without the amazing guidance and leadership of our three dance teachers (all of whom are new to SCIS this year!)  The time and effort they put into this show was incredible and it certainly all paid off last night and (break a leg) tonight!!  As I thought about how these three new teachers put on this amazing show I couldn’t help but think of how awesome our community had to be in order for something like this to be even remotely possible.  Without the support and understanding of our community a show like this can’t happen, even with amazing teachers such as we have here at SCIS.  This is all in addition to what our Drama teachers (both new this year as well!) have already done with their brilliant performances…how can one school be so awesome?!?!

Lipgloss and the Arts department is just one (very public) example of the wonderful things happening at this school.  We’ve got new and veteran teachers working side by side each and every day to help our students (no matter who they are) be successful in the classroom and beyond!  The community we’ve established at SCIS is all of these things and more…and it all happens everywhere, not just on stage!!

Whenever I give a tour to new families I tell them that “the kids are the best part of our school!” However, that’s only part of the truth.  The reality is that behind those students stand an absolutely amazing support network, comprised most importantly of their teachers.  So for every kid standing on that stage last night taking a bow you should all be taking a few bows of your own for all of the hard work that you do each and every day to make this place as awesome as it is for our kids.

China Trips Mission: Listen

What a wild week, it always seems that the short weeks are the craziest!!  We’ve got a great one coming up next week and I couldn’t be more excited for the adventure!

China trips gives our kids a great opportunity to try some new things, push their comfort zones, and learn outside the classroom.  For me it is a great chance to learn more about our students as well as consider all the wonderful growth happening within our students.  After having John Francis visit yesterday I am inspired to LISTEN more over the course of this next week.  I don’t think I’ll manage to stay quiet for an entire hour, let alone a whole day, but I’m going to certainly make an effort to shut up and listen!!

One of the best parts of our China Trips experience is the opportunity to step back and be a fly on the wall.  The Insight leaders can do their thing and we can just be there.  I know how hard I’m going to have to work to shut my mouth and just listen but that’s my goal.  The guides and counselors from Insight are there to lead and I want to let them do that, no matter how bad I want to jump in and take over.  Sometimes things have to run their course and that might mean stepping back and watching instead of butting in and speaking up.  My goal is to practice listening and try to learn something.  I figure, at the very least I’ll learn how to step back and listen 🙂

John Francis said, “How can we be teaching if we aren’t learning?”  I know that when we evaluated our character strengths back in November that a lot of us found out that we fit the “Learner” profile (not to our surprise!)  My question this week is, “What are you learning and how are you learning it?”  Take some time this weekend to think about what you’re going to learn next week…what are your goals for the coming China Trip week?

Wherever you’re off to (or not) find something to focus on this week and learn!!  Enjoy your trips and take lots of pictures for the kids 🙂

‘I Feel Summer Creepin’ In…’

As the weather turns and the days become more beautiful it gets hard to be trapped inside all day!  We all feel it and there is no doubt that the kids feel it too!!  I call it the “Tom Petty Blues” – ‘I feel summer creepin’ in…’

Last week I challenged you to take a risk in the classroom, try something new and exciting.  My intention was to push you to improve your educational practice but after speaking to many of you this week I realize that I may have stumbled upon something else that’s really important at this time of year…

Trying something new and pushing yourself to be a better educator will help you on these beautiful days; it will help you to remain engaged when it is so easy to drift off to the beach, the lake, or the golf course.  We’re all aware of how the kids are ready for summer and, being honest with ourselves – we’re ready too 🙂  However, we know in our hearts that the school year is far from over.  There are still major topics to be taught, important skills to learn, and myriad opportunities for our students to have great experiences.

Hearing the stories of the risks that some of you are taking in your classes is tremendously inspiring!  Teaching a lesson in a new way, experimenting with different learning games, reconfiguring class groupings, trying out 20-Time, creating a ‘flipped lesson’, and “talking at the class less” are just some of the risks being taken in our Middle School.   It doesn’t have to be earth shattering or something that will rewrite the history books but trying something that is new-to-you could have a huge benefit for not only your students but for you as well!!

So, are you ready to take a risk and step out of your comfort zone in the name of helping to keep summer at bay for just a few weeks longer?!?  Give it a shot…whatever your motivation!