“Education isn’t a monologue, it’s a conversation.”

This weekend we had tickets to see The Lion King, the Broadway production, in Milwaukee. My wife had seen it before and told me how amazing all the technical aspects were but I wasn’t able to appreciate it until I’d seen it myself.  The way they brought the savannah of Africa to the stage was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a long time.  

Knowing the story so well from seeing the movie(s) so many times, it was fun to be able to focus on the amazing combination of engineering and creativity that went into the production of this show.  Making a movie based solely on talking/singing animals is one thing, but turning it into a theatrical performance where all of the animals are played by humans took some serious creativity! Beyond the creativity there was a lot of brilliant engineering that went into creating a show that was not only true to the original story but also “believable” enough so as to engage the audience.

As I contemplated this wonderful combination of technical work and creative juices, I thought back to a Ted talk done by Sir Ken Robinson.  It was recorded over ten years ago now but he discussed his thoughts about how the system of education that exists today is effectively designed to suffocate creativity.  It had been a while since I’d watched it, so I went back to look for it when I came across a new presentation by him. What is most interesting (depressing) to me about this new presentation is that the main idea hasn’t changed, we still have a lot to do to fix education.

In his new talk, Sir Ken Robinson discusses the important ways that education should impact those it intends to serve, the students.  He talks about how education inevitably has impacts on the economic, cultural, and social levels for our students. The last area that he says education should help our students is personally.  Sir Ken Robinson says, “Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.” 

How do we develop agile classrooms where there is “a community of learners being facilitated by an expert teacher” and where “dynamic encounters” happen with the guidance of knowledgeable mentors?

Sir Ken Robinson’s thoughts on education and the revolution that is needed within education should be heard by everyone.  Have a listen here and then I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts at any time: in the hallway, after school, in an email, or however you’d like to share.  This isn’t homework but I very much enjoy thinking about how we can be better for our students, if you’ve got any thoughts you’d like to share please do so!  

“Education isn’t a monologue, it’s a conversation.” – Sir Ken Robinson


Be a Champion, Know Your Why

Why?  Why do you do what you do?  Why did you begin in the first place?  Why do you continue?

I wrote last week about looking in the mirror instead of out the window.  The most important question we can ask ourselves when we look in that mirror is, “why?”  Beginning with understanding our why is the most important thing we can do.  Whether we are talking about our work with our students, going on a diet, or making the decision to buy a house…we have to start by asking, “why?”

I’m going to keep it short this week and want to share a couple videos with you.  First off is Simon Sinek, a marketing consultant, author, and motivational speaker.  His Ted talk, with almost 50 million views, will help you understand the science (don’t let the word science scare you, this is very interesting!) behind the importance of starting with the why.  As Simon says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  Everyone knows that you work with students every day to help them learn, but can you articulate (honestly) why?

Then, take a few minutes to get inspired about the work you do and continue thinking about your why with Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk.  Mrs. Pierson is an educator of 40 years, and wonderful storyteller, who knows her why and is incredibly inspirational.  If you’ve seen this before, that’s fine, watch it again as you can never see it too often!


Moving From Windows to Mirrors

If you’re looking out the window for the answers, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Instead, look in the mirror.

The most important work we do as educators is helping our students learn and grow.  However, in order for us to be better for our students and continue to help support their growth we need to make sure that we are giving ourselves the best chance to learn and grow along the way.  When we think about our students’ learning and the challenges we face helping them grow, it is easy to blame outside factors when things aren’t going the right way. Maybe it’s the parents, a lack of effort by the students, a background of trauma, or even a full moon.  Any of these reasons are convenient excuses, and they may well play a factor, but we should look at ourselves first.  

Back in December I wrote about reflection and suggested taking the time to think about the past calendar year and allow yourself the time to identify goals for 2020.  I hope you went through that process and have gotten yourself off to a good start in the new year, this would be a great time to stop and check-in with those goals and make adjustments as needed!  

As we begin the second semester of the school year we’ve come to another natural time for reflection.  When you look back at the first semester and consider the challenges you’ve overcome and those that you continue to face, try to identify the main obstacles.  Our natural tendency as human beings is to look outward, through the window, at external causes and blame those obstacles for the challenges we face. However, what if we started by looking in the mirror and examining how we could improve?  

I strive to improve myself each day, in at least some small way.  Without taking the time to look in the mirror and reflect I would never be able to meet that goal.  I have bigger, long-term goals as well as more bite-sized, short-term goals that help me stay focused on the present while keeping an eye on the future.  This, however, isn’t easy work. I frequently rely on mentors, colleagues, friends, and family to help me achieve my goals. Sometimes I seek specific advice from these people but many times I just need someone to hold the mirror for me, so to speak, and give me honest feedback.  Going through the process of reflecting, learning, and growing is not easy but the opportunity to be better every day is something that energizes me and makes all of the challenge worth it in the end.  

We’re at the mid-year point here at school.  Whether you are being formally observed this school year or not I want you all to know that I’m more than happy to help hold the mirror up for you as you go through this reflection process, please don’t hesitate to ask!!

Showing Gratitude, Feeling Good

Last week I mentioned that we were relatively lucky to have such good custodians and support both during the day and after school.  I suggested that it is important to let them know how much we appreciate their efforts. I’ve been thinking about that message since I wrote it; it’s important that we let everyone, not just the custodians, know how much we appreciate them!

The power of gratitude shouldn’t be underestimated.  Whether you’re the recipient or the person showing gratitude, the effects are undeniable.  In either case you feel better about yourself and you become, overall, more positive in your life.  There’s a lot of awesome research happening around the power of gratitude and it shows, time and time again, that showing gratitude is one of the healthiest things we can do!  

The Greater Good Science Center, out of UC Berkeley, is a definite go-to for me when it comes to social-emotional or mental health conversations.  One article that I love was written almost ten years ago but is still supported by today’s research. I like this article because the author shares some of the physical, psychological, and social benefits of showing gratitude.  I’ll keep it short this week because I want to encourage you to take a look at this article (and watch the embedded videos if you have time) and then consider ways that you can incorporate more gratitude into your life. 

Make Your Layups: Why some feedback just isn’t effective

Do you ever, when you’re not at school, catch yourself still in school mode?  Maybe you’ve told a kid who was running in Target to slow down or you’ve used your teacher look with complete strangers at a restaurant.  It happens, we have a hard time shutting it off. This weekend I caught myself slipping into school mode and thinking about the level of feedback I was witnessing.

When I was in high school I started working as a basketball referee to make money.  I’ve always enjoyed basketball as a player and coach. Now that I’m too out of shape and too busy for those parts of the game, I stay connected by periodically reffing a few games.  This past weekend I worked four games of sixth grade girls basketball and found myself doing mini observations of the coaches, mostly about their feedback styles.  

At this level of basketball there is still a wide range of skill levels on the court at the same time, some players have clearly been playing and practicing for a long time and others have obviously just begun playing this year.  Being around basketball for so long I often feel like I’ve seen everything, but observing the coaches of these sixth grade teams through the lens of an educator proved very interesting.

Coaches who focus on their team and giving them feedback about their goals (versus yelling at me, the referee, the whole game) often see their teams improve tremendously over the course of a season and find success in the win column.  There are other coaches, however, who seem to be giving great feedback but not winning many games or seeing much improvement. This weekend I realized where the disconnect was most likely happening for one of these coaches.

I started to listen more carefully to one particular coach’s feedback for his team, it was full of the typical basketball jargon but when I really paid attention to his feedback I realized that it was focused on the wrong things.  Saying to someone “make your layups” or “stop dribbling the ball off your foot” doesn’t help them improve. In fact, this level of feedback probably hurts their growth by increasing their frustration level. They know the desired result, they are supposed to make the baskets and dribbling the ball off their foot is bad (duh!), telling them to do those things doesn’t help them improve at all. By focusing on the process instead of the result, the player can actually use the feedback to improve their skill set.  The quality of feedback provided is the true differentiator between successful feedback and wasted feedback.

As I drove home, I started thinking about how my coaching observations connected to the work we do every day with our kids.  The way that we give feedback and the quality of that feedback matter, a lot. Focusing on growth and helping students figure out what comes next in their learning process is a very important piece of helping them find success.  In the short term, not every student is at the same level, so they shouldn’t all have the same end goal. Each student is different and many will achieve their long term goals by following different paths. Providing students with quality feedback allows them to see their next steps clearly as you guide them through their learning.   Improving the ways that we give feedback as teachers is crucial to the growth and success of our students.  

Guiding our students in the learning process requires constant feedback and since we’re giving it so often we should always be thinking about how we can make it as effective as possible.  Solution Tree has a great “White Paper” about this subject that is a quick, easy read and can even serve as a sort of checklist for anyone thinking about giving effective feedback to their students.  Have a look here, it does a much better job than I’ll ever be able to do of explaining feedback, it’s importance, and how to ensure your feedback is effective.  


“Playing School” Turned Christmas Into a Nightmare

Over the holidays, my wife and I traveled to see her family in Dallas where we enjoyed warm weather and lots of fun outdoor activities.  As much as I was able to relax and step back from school for a bit, it was Christmas morning when my mind was sent racing. Our nieces have been hoping for American Girl Dolls for quite some time now, so when they opened them on Christmas you can be sure that they were playing with them immediately!  After the excitement of gift opening faded and all the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I had the chance to sit back and watch as the girls began to play school with their new dolls.

Our nieces are nine and seven and attend a school that is rather similar to ours here at KTEC, a close-knit, community charter school with a STEM focus.  I had been talking to them earlier in the week about their teachers and their favorite parts of school (recess always ranks number one!) and they shared that they loved their teachers and really enjoyed reading and science, so I was a little surprised when, after a while, they started playing Math Class with the dolls. 

You may know that my wife is a high school math teacher and I was always passionate about math growing up as well, so while I was surprised it was a pleasant surprise to see them playing Math Class.  It started out as many math classes do, with the turning-in of homework. Then, “the teacher” started quizzing “the class” on math facts. They started out easy enough and “the teacher” was awarding extra recess to everyone who got them right, what a deal?!  However, things took a turn for the worse when the questions got tougher. As soon as “the class” started getting questions wrong recess was taken away and everyone had to do more worksheets…yikes!! Talk about being surprised, this beautiful morning had just turned into a nightmare for Uncle Bret!! 

I immediately went and found my sister-in-law and grilled her about this school, I mean what was going on around there?!?!  She assured me this was nowhere near the reality at their school, one they’ve been attending since kindergarten. She did, however, shed some light on the situation.  Our nieces, who are typically good students who work hard at school, absolutely loathe math. They feel constantly under attack by math homework, multiplication tables, and memorizing math facts.  It is a battle at home and anxiety mounts every time tests come around. My sister-in-law, who is also a teacher, expressed her concerns that math was going to be the thing that made her daughters start dreading going to school.

So, as I said, my mind started racing!  It started with, what can we do to help more students like math (in particular girls)? I then got to the point of, what are we doing to ensure that all of our students are having a positive experience in school, no matter their strengths or weaknesses?  School isn’t always going to be easy for everyone and I don’t think it should be, there is an appropriate level of challenge that all students should face. However, when I think about a class of 20-25 students, I wonder how many kids are being appropriately challenged all day long.  Are there students who are struggling to the point of anxiety all day or even part of the day? What about the other side, do we have students who aren’t challenged enough and thus bored throughout the day?  Like I said, my mind was racing!

As we return and continue planning for second semester, I’d like to ask you to work with your teams to think further about appropriate challenge and what we’re doing to ensure that all of our students are being met at their optimal level.  We talk often about those students who need extra support to meet expectations but what about those other kids, the ones who regularly meet or exceed expectations? How can they be appropriately challenged?

I know it is never easy when there are so many different kids at so many different levels, especially when we tend to get so focused on meeting expectations and standardized testing.  If you’d like to continue this conversation in person, I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and suggestions!!

Inspired by Elf Jr.

Watching our students perform Elf Jr. last week was exciting and inspirational.  Some of the students who were performing are outgoing and confident, it isn’t much of a surprise that they are excelling in the theatre.  However, seeing other students who are usually quiet, lacking self-confidence, or struggling academically get on stage and reveal a completely different side of themselves is a great reminder that there’s more to our students than what we see in the classroom!  

I often joke that I grew up in a gym.  If I wasn’t playing sports, I was watching, reffing, or coaching.  My life revolved around sports for many of my most formative years.  While I learned a lot of important life lessons from my experiences in sports and have no regrets about how I grew up, I would change one thing if I could go back in time.  I would get involved in the Arts, heavily involved. I think I would have a hard time convincing my young self to listen to that advice but knowing everything I know now, I’d work very hard to find a way to talk myself into it!

Providing our students with opportunities to think critically, solve problems creatively, and find success in areas beyond the classroom, are just some of the many benefits of Arts education, no matter where or when we provide it.  Unfortunately, Arts education is often infrequent or relegated to after school times due to the school-day focus on “core” academic classes. That’s not to say that the Arts and core classes are in competition with each other, in fact it should really be the opposite and they should be working together as much as possible.  In addition to the aforementioned benefits, there’s lots of research that shows that students involved in the Arts have more success in their core academic areas than students who aren’t. The importance of the Arts can’t be overlooked!

If you didn’t get a chance to see Elf Jr. this past weekend I think you’ll get a chance this week when our students see it.  While you’re watching, let yourself be inspired by our young thespians and keep in mind how important the Arts can be for our students.  Then, at your next collaborative time, take a few minutes to talk with your team about how you/we can incorporate more Arts into our programs – it will benefit our students in all areas.

Enjoy the show!!