What inspires you?

What inspires you?  

I’d like you to think about this question in a few different ways.  

First, think about it in a general sense – What inspires you to get moving?  To get things done?  To be productive?  For me, the biggest inspiration for me to get on a roll and really be productive is actually getting something done.  I know that seems obvious, so let me explain.  When there is something big that I need to get done, whether it’s a research paper or a big project around the house, the easiest way for me to get the inspiration to tackle those big tasks is to accomplish a small task first.  Typically, I’ll wash some dishes, fold some laundry, or vacuum the house.   The feeling of accomplishment is enough to inspire me to keep going and tackle the bigger project that previously seemed daunting.  What inspires you to get going?  Music?  Coffee?  Exercise?  Everyone has their own inspiration…what is yours?

The next way I want you to think about the question, “what inspires you?” is in a deeper, more existential sense.  What inspires you to continue being the person that you are?  What keeps you moving forward?  I don’t know when this started or where it “came from” but for as long as I can remember I’ve always been inspired to learn.  I find joy and excitement in new experiences, learning about people, trying new things, and learning about other ways of thinking.  (Side note: I was never really inspired by school but that’s probably a topic for another day!) For many years, traveling and living overseas allowed me to continuously be inspired as I engaged with all the new people, experiences, and different ways of thinking.  Recently I’ve been inspired by Clayton and learning how to be a parent…I’ve learned more in six months than in 10 years of living and traveling overseas!!  What drives you?  Some people are inspired by money, fame, or power…others by giving back to their community, their religious beliefs, or politics.  We’ve all got something…what makes your ears perk up when you hear someone talking about it?

Lastly, I want you to think about what inspires you at work.  What keeps you coming back?  What puts that twinkle in your eye and a smile on your face?  As an educator it has been a couple things for me over the years.  At first I strictly fed off the energy of the students.  Seeing their faces, watching them learn, and seeing the light bulbs go off when a difficult concept finally clicked, this drove me everyday for years.  In fact, this still drives me a lot of the time!  However, when I have a really good philosophical conversation about education I’ve realized that it will light a fire inside me that burns for a rather long time!!  I’ve been lucky to have had some amazing colleagues over the years who have pushed my thinking, helped me open my mind, and encouraged me to see things differently.  I’m inspired by those people and the conversations we’ve had to this day, there are many lessons that come back around quite often!  I’d imagine as educators you’re all inspired by the students as well, it’s really the driving force behind the work we do.  Are there other parts of being an educator that inspire you?

As we begin the second semester, take a minute to reflect on what inspires you.  Once you’ve identified that, focus your energy in that direction.  There is nothing like being inspired to excite the mind and energize the body!!  

Physically, but NOT Socially, Distant

As you know we’ve been doing a lot of planning in preparation for an eventual return of students to our building.  The vast majority of that planning has been logistics – hallway traffic flow, room setup, cafeteria capacity, parent drop off, etc.  One of the goals with each of these logistical topics is to do our best to maintain a safe amount of space between people.  A term that has become rather popular to describe the process of creating a safe amount of space is “social distancing”.  It is a term I’ve come to despise, mostly because when taken literally is it the exact opposite of what we should be doing right now! 

The space that we need to be creating between humans is not “social” in nature but rather “physical”.  We should be (and I will be) calling the process of ensuring a safe amount of actual, physical space between people “physical distancing”.  We need the opposite of “social distancing” right now, we need to be “social connecting”.

COVID-19 has led many people to feel isolated and, in some terrible cases, actually be isolated from other humans.  If I had to guess, and if one could somehow quantify it, these past 10 months have been devastating for the overall mental health of the world.  We have all been isolated and kept from our normal social interactions in some way, shape, or form.  I’m sure we could all share stories, either our own or of friends and family, about the emotional struggles suffered during these times of stay-at-home orders, remote schooling, and reduced or even canceled family gatherings.  The last thing we need right now is to further socially distance ourselves!

As we move forward you’ll hear/read the phrase “physically distance” with regard to our efforts to maintain safe amounts of space between each other here at Gifford.  I would also like that phrase to remind you that we need to be working hard, for ourselves and our students, to connect socially (while remaining physically distanced of course).  Many of you have been working hard to create a remotely-social environment for you and your students.  I’ve seen a lot of opportunities for students to hang out remotely at lunch time, during office hours, before school, and after school.  I love joining in on the wide variety of morning meeting rituals that create valuable opportunities for students to share and connect with you and their classmates.  All of these examples help create a socially-connected school community; that is who we are and who we will continue to be once we move beyond the need to be a physically distant community. 

This week we can return to the building for the first time since Thanksgiving and I’ve never been more mindful of the need for social connection.  Working remotely has been very challenging for me and I can only imagine the same is true for many of you.  While we will continue to observe safe physical distancing measures, I want to encourage you to create opportunities to engage socially with your colleagues.  Wear your masks, stay safely distanced, but connect with others.  While we work to physically distance, I’d like us to also work to socially connect (safely, of course!)  Gifford is strong because we are a community, a tightly knit community…we must work to persist as such despite the importance of physical distancing.

Starting Over in Schools?

I recently came across an opinion piece in the New York Times by Dr. Jal Mehta, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  In this piece he discusses how schooling might look different (or should look different) when the need for virtual learning goes away and we return to face-to-face learning.  Dr. Mehta specializes in helping schools transition from rote learning to getting students to a deeper level of engagement with their learning and he believes that, “It’s looking as though all schools should be able to open fully in the fall. The pandemic — and the pause in institutionalized schooling — has helped us to see what should change when that happens.”   

Dr. Mehta’s piece is part of a series called Let’s Start Over from the New York Times, which takes a look at what the “new normal” may look like in various sectors and aspects of society.  

I’m going to keep it brief today because I think Dr. Mehta’s piece is much more worthy of reading than anything I could write!  While I don’t agree fully with all of his ideas, there are certainly some very thought provoking points to consider.  I’ll include a few of the highlights (he goes deeper into each of these points) but strongly encourage you to have a look at the whole thing…and then I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts on any or all of his ideas!!

“The first lesson that the pandemic has revealed is the limits of one-size-fits-all schooling…When we reopen schools, could we do so in a way that creates different kinds of opportunities for all kinds of students — introverts and extroverts, fast processors and reflective thinkers?”

“A second lesson is the necessity of making schools more human.”

“A third critical issue is that we cannot set the needs of students against the needs of adults.”

“Fourth, there is the question of how to catch students up on what they missed during the pandemic.”

“There has been considerable attention to the health crisis, and some to the economic crisis. But there hasn’t been a serious commitment to the corresponding educational crisis. We need to rebuild and reimagine schools. We now have a chance to do both.”

Resolutions 2021

Happy New Year!!  

It’s been a long time coming and it’s finally here…2021!  While we’re not out of the woods yet as far as “C-word” is concerned, we’re hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel get brighter each day.  That hope fills me with excitement and helps energize me when I think ahead to what this year may bring.  

I’ve thought about resolutions in the past and even successfully stuck to a couple over the years. If you’re anything like me, you’ve learned through your own trial and error that sticking to resolutions is really difficult.  Three tricks that I’ve learned and now use as a basis for my resolutions are: resolutions need to have an element of regularity included, they need to be things that don’t require you to fundamentally change who you are, and they shouldn’t be “all or nothing”.

Resolutions work best (at least for me) when they are essentially a repeated goal…a small, manageable, daily goal.  Two of the years in which I was most successful at sticking to them, I made resolutions that fit this description.  One year I committed to taking a picture and reflecting on something positive in my life each day.  This took me 10-15 minutes each day.  The other year I committed to 10 minutes of mindfulness each day.  The short time commitment made it manageable and the regular nature of the goal forced it into my daily routine.  These goals were small and manageable (in terms of time commitment) and happened every day, eventually becoming so ingrained in my routine that I didn’t have to remind myself to do them. 

These two goals didn’t force me to immediately change who I was but they did, over time, lead me to grow as a person.  I’ve found that if you aim for a goal that forces you to fundamentally change who you are immediately, then you will eventually lose the will power necessary to maintain your goal.  For example, the ever popular New Year’s diet that I’ve committed to oh-so-many times never seems to work.  Asking someone who loves food (like me!) to completely shift their eating and exercise habits on a dime can only last so long…until their will power is exhausted.  These previously mentioned goals did, however, lead me to change as a person over time as the habit of focusing on the positive moments in life and practicing mindfulness regularly changed the way I viewed the world and my place in it.  

I’d be lying if I told you that I completed each of those resolutions each and every day!  For the daily photo, there were certainly a few days sprinkled throughout the year where I was scrambling at the end of the day or perhaps (shh!) I used a picture from a different day.  When it comes to mindfulness practice, I still do that most mornings but there have been times when things pop up or the snooze alarm gets slightly abused…and that’s okay!  By giving myself permission to have an “off-day” I don’t totally ruin my resolution, which allows me to jump back on track the following day without ruining the momentum.  

As you think about a New Year’s Resolution for 2021 I’d encourage you to remember these three tips.  Make goals regular and manageable (daily is best), don’t try changing your entire life cold-turkey, and give yourself the grace to miss your goal for a day here and there (don’t let this become a habit though).  Even if you’re someone who chooses not to set a resolution as we enter 2021, think about how this can impact your work with your students or even your PPG.  If you’re realistic, focus on the baby-steps, and allow for a slip-up or two, then you will have a much more realistic chance of meeting your goals and maintaining your resolution!  

My resolution for 2021 is to build up to an hour each day for making myself better.  I know that I can’t start at an hour right out of the gates, it’s just not going to happen.  So, I’m committing to at least 15 minutes for the first two weeks and at least 30 for the next two.  I’ll adjust as necessary moving forward until I’m at an hour regularly.  This time is going to be for exercising, trying new recipes, reading (I’ve fallen off completely since Clayton was born), researching and doctorate work, and other activities that will help me be better mentally, physically, or otherwise.  

Finally, I’ve realized that if I share my goal with people I have a much better chance of sticking to it, especially if others ask me about it and hold me accountable!  So, please ask me about how my goal is going at some point…it will give me a boost when you do!! 

Early Reflections on 2020

It’s that time of year, the time of year when you (hopefully) start slowing down to give yourself a break and enjoy some rest and relaxation.  It’s also the time of year when many of us reflect on the past year and begin looking ahead to the next one.  As I’ve been reflecting on the year that was 2020, there’s been a lot to think about!  However, as I look ahead to 2021 and think about how I want to work to improve myself in the coming year, I keep coming back to something I saw on social media recently.  

A friend of mine shared something that really struck a chord with me and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.  Reminders for Hard Days really hit me when I first saw it and it rings true every time I look at it.  The funny thing is, that each time a look at it, a different item hits home the hardest. 2020 has been hard for so many reasons and at any given moment it seems like (at least) one of these reminders is spot on. I liked these reminders so much, I print   ed them out and put them on the wall in my office at home (I’ll do the same in the building once we’re back there!) 

As the calendar turns to 2021 and I think about how I want to grow for/in the new year, I’ve decided that these reminders as well as What to Tell Myself When I Get Discouraged will be the inspiration for my New Year’s Resolution.  I’ve come to the realization that some of the hardest days of 2020 were days when I felt discouraged for one reason for another.  In the past I’ve focused on mindfulness as a resolution as well as focusing on the positive with daily reminders of the small things that make each day so beautiful.  Yet, despite all of that practice there are still moments when life (especially in 2020) seems to be a bit heavier than one would like.  

Over the next couple weeks I will continue reflecting on the past year and I will, no doubt, come back to those reminders often as I do so.  If you’re in the mood for some reflection over the winter break, I’d encourage you to do the same.  2020 was a crazy year but it doesn’t have to be a lost year.  There are many lessons we can learn from this unforgettable experience.  

Enjoy the holiday.  Relax, unwind, and spend lots of time away from your computer!!  2021 is a new year and it’s going to be the best year of all time!!!!  

St. Nick and the Power of Believing

This past weekend many of you likely celebrated St. Nick.  An interesting side note, this tradition is much more popular in the Midwest than other parts of the country, likely due to the local/historical connections with European countries like Germany, Poland, and The Netherlands.  Anyway, St. Nick has always been the big kickoff to the Christmas season for my family.  Another tradition that has developed in my family is watching The Santa Clause, which gets my vote for best Christmas movie!  This weekend, as my wife and I watched Bernard and Charlie try to convince Tim Allen that he actually IS Santa, I began thinking about the power of believing.

For those of you who haven’t seen this movie in a while (I don’t even want to think about the possibility that someone hasn’t seen it at all!) I’ll refresh you quickly.  Tim Allen’s character doesn’t believe in Santa, and then he becomes Santa.  He struggles with the new reality he is facing but eventually embraces it (I don’t think that’s a spoiler!)  Some of the other characters have a hard time believing in Santa as well but, by the end, those who are able to truly believe are rewarded for their belief.  So where am I going with this?

As educators we work very hard, investing a lot of time, energy, and emotion into our students.  However, on occasion, we lose faith and stop believing that a particular student CAN be successful.  We lower our expectations, we stop investing emotionally, or we work to “get them through”.  This doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens.  We don’t do it intentionally, but we do it.  If we’re being honest, it’s natural.  With all that is demanded of us as educators, we do the best we can to meet the needs of all of our students but sometimes we subconsciously lose that faith.

What happens, however, when we don’t lose that faith and we continue to truly believe in those students who would likely slip through the cracks?  That’s when the miracles happen.  It may take a long time, it may never happen, but when it happens it changes lives.  It changes students’ lives, it changes teachers’ lives.  When I got into education it was because I wanted to be a coach and thought it was a natural connection.  I stayed in education, however, because of these students…the ones who needed someone to believe in them!  These are the students I’m still in touch with today, they’re the ones who message me when exciting things happen in their life, and they’re the ones who give me the faith that ALL students can be successful.  

I’ve gotten to know this staff and community over the last 4+ months and I’d be shocked if there were any kids being left to slip through the cracks.  The hard work and support of our students has been next level this school year.  Thank you for believing, truly believing, in all of our students, always.  The joy for learning that I’ve seen as I visit classes, the smiles each morning, and the tireless effort from each and every one of you this year helps strengthen my faith in education.  Our students are lucky to have such amazing teachers working to ensure their success!!!  

Make these last couple weeks before break the best weeks of the year so far!!  It’s been a crazy journey this year but we’re here, staring down the winter break…it’s the time of the year for believing 🙂

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!!