Why Every Parent (and Educator) Should Play Pokemon Go

IMG_2086Over the past two weeks, Pokemon Go has taken the world by storm.  Over 25 million people have downloaded the app and are out in our neighborhoods.  Players are EVERYWHERE hunting for Pokemon, setting lures to draw them in, battling for gyms and recuperating needed supplies at PokeStops. By now even if you aren’t playing, you know the rest of us when you see us… we are walking around everywhere looking up and down at our phones and stopping once in awhile to flick our fingers across our screens.  We congregate  in certain areas because we have heard they are hot spots for catching rare Pokemon, and you see our fists pump accompanied by our enthusiastic “YES!” when we catch something new.

I admit it… I am a highly educated 45 year old woman, and I am a Pokemon Go addict, and glad I am.  I know I’m not alone… I’ve mingled with some of my peers recently who also make those sideways glances at their phones to see if a Pokemon has crossed their path! This weekend at my son’s lacrosse tournament, I actually chose where to sit and watch the games because it was situated right in between two PokeStops! I went from level 14 to level 16 over the course of the weekend!

My husband Dave and I downloaded the app on the second day of its release, and I haven’t looked back (unless of course, I need to look back to capture a Pikachu). So now that I have been playing for two weeks and have reached Level 17, here are the three things I’m loving most about playing Pokemon Go (and I think you will too)

Learning together:  Both my children (I have a 12 year old daughter and a fifteen year old son) and ALL of their friends are playing, and I can guarantee you all of your students are playing too.  What has been so awesome as a parent, is that my children and I have been learning the language and the rules of the game together.  I have constantly been engaged in conversation after conversation with my kids and their friends about the game.  They are teaching me stuff, and I am teaching them.  We are comparing our Pokemon, teaching each other new tricks and strategies and collectively we are getting better. From them I have learned things like how to delete items to get more storage space, the “pidgey  hack”, and the best times to use my lucky eggs… they have made me better!  Putting myself in the role of a learner with my kids is a wonderful place to be.

Connecting and Collaborating:  What an awesome opportunity this has been to connect and collaborate with my own children and their friends.  While it is often the case that when I drive a group of teens around town, I’m simply background noise if I talk to them.  Now I’m an engaged partner in the conversations.  They want to know which Pokemon I have caught and what their CP levels are… they want to show me their phones and celebrate their latest catch. We share genuine excitement when we come across a rare Pokemon, take over a gym, or hatch an egg, and we commiserate with each other when our screens freeze or the game won’t load.  We have also had serious discussions about how we think the game could improve.  (Niantic… If you are reading this, we unanimously agree that their need to be additional ways to earn stardust, and we also strongly believe that when you transfer higher CP Pokemon or evolved Pokemon, you should get more candy!)  What a treat these types of conversations are for those of us who parent (or educate) kids at this age.

Getting outside and exploring our neighborhood:  Because we are all on a quest for Pokemon, my children have been willing to go anywhere with me.  In the past two weeks we have been to Balboa Park, the Coronado ferry landing, the Oceanside pier, Chicano Park and many other places we wouldn’t have been this summer, some of which we have never even been to before.  I even think I will be able to convince my kids to go to the zoo with me next week. We have walked and hiked and sometimes just sat together for thirty minutes chatting while we drop a lure and wait to see what comes our way.   The game is getting us outside allowing us to explore new places and revisit old stomping grounds.  We have shared memories of times we have been there before, and we are creating new ones now.  The game is causing us to ask each other, where do we want to go next?

I have heard many adults over the past few weeks complain about the game and the “damage” it is doing to our kids and our society, and I wholeheartedly disagree.  It has been a wonderful opportunity for me to be a part of something that matters to my kids, and we are having a blast playing together.  If you are a parent or a teacher and haven’t given it a shot, try it out… I think you’ll be glad you did!

Happy hunting!





#LeadLAP Challenge: L is for Learner

change learnerDuring my time as a principal coach, I’ve often worked with people to help them overcome what can only be described as a “fear of having to be the expert”.  Something happens to our brains when we step into administrator roles that seems to make us think we can no longer let people see that there are actually things we still have to learn about teaching and learning.  I’ll be the first one to say that when you decide to step into an educational leadership role, you should know a lot about curriculum, instruction, assessment, sound pedagogy and effective practice – your competence in these areas (along with your character) are a big part of what will start earning you trust.  There is no way you know all there is to know, and that’s ok!  What’s awesome is that you are surrounded by a team of professional educators who can help you fill in your own learning gaps and contribute to your own professional growth on a daily basis… How cool is that?  But for whatever reason, when we walk into classrooms and then later engage in coaching conversations, we feel we have to wear the hat of “expert”.  We observe the lesson and decide what we think worked well and what didn’t and we package it up into feedback that we hope will “fix” the teacher, then we assure them that our conversations and feedback aren’t evaluative and then we ultimately we scratch our heads and wonder why they don’t find our feedback all that valuable and why they get a bit stressed when we walk into their classrooms.

One of the biggest challenges people have with leading ANCHOR conversations is the “Collaborative Conversations” piece, and I think it has a lot to do with them maintaining the “boss” or “expert” role during the conversation.  The administrator does most of the talking or telling and the teacher listens politely (most of the time), says “Thank you” and happily exits the conversation.  A truly collaborative conversation is one where there is no perception or belief by either party that there is an imbalance of power in the conversation.  You both believe that what you say carries equal weight. In other other words… the administrator’s ideas don’t automatically trump the teacher’s just because they carry the title of “boss”.  As leaders… one of the things we need to work hard to do is shake this perception that comes with the title – at least we do if we want to be invited into the real conversations that are happening on our campuses about teaching and learning.

One way to begin to shake this perception is to take every opportunity to show your team that you are a learner too… that you appreciate feedback and learning from them just as much as you enjoy helping them learn and grow.  So, this week’s challenge is all about showing your team that you are a learner (and it will get you into classrooms, too!)

Take at least two hours this week in any configuration that makes sense on your calendar to visit classrooms (but get it on your calendar now or the time will slip away from you).  Try to visit at least 15 classrooms. While you are there, erase any thoughts of things you see and want to fix and instead focus on what YOU are learning from THEM and then tell them.  One of the most amazing opportunities I have had as an administrator is to observe thousands of lessons, and I have learned a TON from what I have seen other teachers do, and I’m certain you have too.  We just have to be open to it and then be willing to share our learning with them.  One of my favorite things to do is to get an opportunity to sit down with a teacher and say to them… “That strategy… method… tech tool… app… content… is new to me.  I learned a ton just by watching you for five minutes. I want to know more – can you teach me?”  Putting ourselves out there as learners, too goes a long way in building the trust and rapport with our colleagues that we need if we want them to find value in the coaching and feedback we provide to them.

So… get into those classrooms this week and drop ANCHORS of LEARNING!

  1.  Set aside two hours to visit classrooms – visit at least 15 over the course of the week
  2. Focus on what you are learning from the teacher during the observation
  3. Drop an ANCHOR of LEARNING… tell the teachers what YOU learned from THEM
  4. Be sure to share how it goes using the #LeadLAP challenge all week

Shelley and Beth


#LeadLAP Challenge: Continue the Appreciation!

Happy New Year to All!  We hope this week finds you back into the swing of things in your schools and districts and ready for a new #LeadLAP challenge!

This week’s challenge has three sources of inspiration…

  • First, our continued belief that as educational leaders, we need to be in classrooms as much as possible – it’s where the magic happens!  When we first come back from break it’s easy to get caught up in other things, so if that’s happening to you – this is the week to get back out there!
  • Second, our commitment to ongoing appreciation of our staff and the work they do day in and day out.  If we want to grow a PIRATE culture in our schools, then we need to appreciate the daily efforts our team is making to grow, learn, change, and create amazing learning experiences for our students.
  • The third source of inspiration, actually comes from my 12-year old daughter, Ashlyn.  I host a weekly chat for educators… #satchatwc and this past Saturday, we did something very different.  We had my daughter, a seventh grade student, host the chat.  She wrote the questions, crafted her responses, and interacted with easily 100 educators over the course of the hour long chat.  It was clear from her questions and her responses that she has some pretty strong opinions about school and what works and doesn’t work for kids.  But what also came out is that she has a true appreciation for teachers.  As we were working on the chat and as we chatted afterwards, she had story after story to tell about what she APPRECIATED about different teachers over the years.  She shared memorable lessons and described why they were engaging or she gave specifics about what the teacher did to help her learn.  Dave and I enjoyed watching her light up when she described a particular simulation her social studies teacher created for her class on feudalism

Inspired by all three of the items above – here is this week’s challenge….

  • Get back out into those classrooms.  Visit at least an average of 3 per day (or a minimum of 15 total throughout the week)
  • Spend 3-5 minutes in each classroom and then talk to the kids…  Ask THEM what they are appreciating about the lesson, their teacher and/or what they are learning.  Encourage them to be specific – even using a frame like this if you need it:
    • I appreciate when _______ (my teacher) does/did _____________ (be specific about what he/she did exactly) because _____________________ (how did it help you? push you? engage you?)
  • Then drop that appreciation ANCHOR for the teacher, but instead of telling the teacher “I appreciated… ” start with “When I was in your class today, I had a chance to chat with _____________ (Insert student name here).  I just wanted to share with you how much he/she appreciated _______________ because ___________________.

When we take the time to appreciate (whether it is big things or small, routine things) it helps raise self-awareness in the other person.  They become more conscious of the choice they made or the work they did and are more likely to repeat it because you have pointed out that it made a difference… and the fact that the appreciation comes from a student takes it up another level.  So let’s take this week to get back into the appreciation routine.  It will help you shape that PIRATE culture and make for a better week for your staff AND you!

We hope you will take the challenge and share with us how it’s going over the course of this week using  #LeadLAP on Twitter.


Shelley and Beth

Start With Appreciation – Further Thoughts on Language of Leadership

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about the language we use as leaders, and I had a few more thoughts I wanted to share…

Recently my good friend @AmyIllingworth and I had the opportunity to present a full day workshop to a group of new and aspiring principals on “Monitoring Implementation of the Common Core”. One component of our workshop focuses on the critical responsibility of principals to visit classrooms often and to provide coaching and feedback that motivates and inspires.  As part of our seminar, we shared ideas about what to look for during classroom visits and ways to provide meaningful feedback. We also watched video clips of classroom teachers and their students during lessons and asked the participants to diagnose what they saw in the lesson and practice giving feedback.

As participants started this task, we were a little bit disheartened with some of the comments we heard.  They were judgmental and their was a distinct lack of language that showed appreciation for any aspects of the lesson which ultimately led to uninspiring feedback. None of the lessons we watched was perfect, but what lesson ever is? Each lesson we observed had moments  that might be worthy of discussion on how to strengthen and enhance the experience for the students, but every one of them had moments that deserved appreciation.


If you find yourself in a role where you are fortunate enough to be in classrooms often and provide feedback through coaching, then language of true appreciation is essential.  As an observer of thousands of lessons in my career, I have yet to see a single lesson where there weren’t several things to appreciate. No, they have not all been award-winning lessons, but they have ALL had merit and value that was deserving of kind words and appreciation.

In the first lesson we watched, a middle school social studies teacher was trying the strategy of close reading with a text.  Admittedly, it was not a “perfect” lesson and didn’t go exactly as I’m sure she would have liked, but it was NOT deserving of harsh criticism and negative judgment.  Here are just some of the things Amy and I noticed and appreciated about the teacher and her lesson:

  • We appreciated that the teacher allowed a camera into her room to film her lesson
  • We appreciated she was taking a risk and trying a new strategy
  • We appreciated she was trying to give more ownership of the learning to the students
  • We appreciated she was structuring time for students to talk to each other about a complex text
  • We appreciated she tried to have kids use context clues to figure out word meanings
  • We appreciated that as she was checking in with the groups, she noticed when they were struggling, and when she did, she brought them back together whole group to model her thinking as she read the piece to them
  • We appreciated she identified the major error the kids were making and adjusted her instruction to try to help them through their struggle

And we appreciated a lot more!

Was this the most polished close reading lesson I’ve ever seen? No. Could her lesson have used refinement? Absolutely. My guess is she knew that before anyone else since as educators we are often our own worst critics!

The teaching of new standards, trying new strategies, doing something different, takes practice, reflection, feedback, refinement, more practice, more feedback, more reflection and so on.  If we don’t notice and appreciate the risk-taking, the practices, the approximation, the trying on of new things, and instead we judge best efforts and first attempts as poor or unsatisfactory – many teachers will stop trying and fall back on the things they already know, and we will sit back and wonder why nothing is changing in our classrooms and schools.

If as leaders we want to promote risk-taking and trying new things, then we shouldn’t judge the practices! Appreciate the approximations, and provide coaching, support, and new learning that inspires growth, motivates new thinking, and reminds teachers that they are the magic and they are capable of making miracles happen for kids in their classrooms everyday.


Mandates… How Do We Lead Them?

So… I was inspired to send my first voice “Vox” today based on a question posed in the #bfctlap Voxer group that I belong to by an educational leader wanting some advice from the group on balancing State and District mandates with the needs of her school (I’m abbreviating this a bit, but it captures at least some of it).  This is a subject I am passionate about, so while my voice “Voxes” were a little clunky, I enjoyed being a part of the conversation and hearing insights from teachers and leaders a like.  The conversation went in many directions and has inspired a lot of thought, but I wanted to share my initial two cents on the topic of leading someone else’s mandates.  I hope my thoughts are more eloquently stated in writing than they were while speaking into the “walkie talkie”… at least in writing, I know I won’t use the word “umm”.

It doesn’t matter your role in education… there will always be mandates.  Things that come down from above that you will be required to do – some of them you will agree with and others you won’t, but how we handle these mandates contribute to who we are and how others see us as leaders.

The mandates come from somewhere, and I truly believe they often come from a very well-intended place from a group of people who are trying to find solutions to an often glaring problem.  Just getting your arms around that can help you lead them.  Take NCLB for example – I know as educators most of us hate that mandate at this point, but it was very well-intended legislation trying to make sure that districts and schools were paying attention to the very real achievement gaps we had (and still have) across the country.  It was intended to say that EVERY child matters, and EVERY child deserves a high quality education.  While we may have disagreed with how this legislation played out, I would be hard-pressed to find a professional educator who would disagree with its premise.

This leads me to my point… to lead someone else’s mandate, it’s worth the time up front to understand where it’s coming from and the problem it is trying to solve.  One example I shared in my Vox conversation comes from my time as a principal.  I was charged at the end of my first year in that role with carrying out a district mandate to use a new curriculum for our English Language Development Program beginning the following year.  I HATED the program.  It was one of those fully scripted “take the teacher out of it” programs that literally caused people to say things like “Even the custodian could have an ELD group!” Are you kidding me?  I had fabulous custodians at my school, but they were not professional teachers… See my blog “Programs Don’t Teach Kids, Teachers Do” for more of my thoughts on that topic!!

I did NOT want to use this program in my school, but I had a very wise mentor once tell me that while I might feel like the “boss of the school”, I was really only middle management… hired by the Board and the Superintendent to help lead their vision, so part of my job was to figure out how to do that well, and if my found myself in a place where I truly didn’t believe in their vision, then I needed to find another system in which to work!   Not bad advice… and I know I worked in a place where ultimately our values and beliefs were in alignment.

So… I spent a lot of time thinking about how to take this back to my staff because I knew they were going to have the same negative reactions to the program as I did. What I knew for sure was that I was NOT going to walk into a staff meeting and share  with them “The district wants us to do a new ELD program, and by the way… I hate it!” – that would have taken all of my influence as a leader away from me, and I knew that at the core of the decision to mandate this new program was the fact that English learners across our district were NOT learning English at the levels that they should or could.  So, I did this instead…

I prepared a sea of data about how our school’s English language learners were performing.  I had been digging deep into this data for awhile, but I went deeper.  I created a data set to share with my staff that started with the big picture and ultimately drilled down to individual kids.  I was prepared for all of the challenges that might come up – you know the ones… they usually start with “yeah, but…”  What I ended up with as my final slide was data, names, pictures etc. for a very small number of students – 23 of them to be exact!  So who were these students?  They were English language learners who had just “graduated” from 6th grade the year before who had been in our school continuously since they were in kindergarten or first grade. They did not have chronic attendance problems and they did not have a special education label… and two, yes ONLY two of them had demonstrated proficiency in the English language by the time we sent them on to middle school. They had been in our care for at least six years!  I let that sink in for a minute, and then I remember saying something like “Is there any one of these students that we collectively don’t own?”

I was met with silence, downcast eyes, uncomfortable twitching and movement, and I let that go on for a for what I’m sure seemed like an eternity, but was probably about 60 seconds!  And then I asked, “So why is this happening and what are we going to do about it?”  From there we had small group table discussions, charts and charts of thoughts and ideas about how we might move forward, and we started to formulate the beginnings of a plan…  Over the course of the next few weeks, we formed an ELD Committee, ironed out the plan, pointed out obstacles, and identified the things we needed to learn more about.  While we knew we had hard work ahead of us, we had generated positive energy around doing this good work and charting a course to do better by our kids.  At some point, in the midst of all of this, I introduced the new District ELD program and asked my team to help identify how the new resource could support OUR plan, and guess what?  It did support our plan… it wasn’t a complete solution, but it filled a need.  We had clearly identified problems with what we were currently doing… we were not systematic enough in our delivery of ELD and didn’t have the right assessments – we were creating, not closing gaps because of this.  We had also had some teachers share that they weren’t fully confident in their ability to teach the English language, and the new program helped with that.


So while I was never enamored with this district mandated program, we found a way as a school team to make it our own and to fit it into OUR plans to support OUR teachers and kids.  One of the things we talked about in the Voxer group was the idea of “positioning” to our staff.  While I didn’t think of it then, I have reflected on it since… I’m not sure that we are after as leaders is the right “positioning”.  I think what we are after is working with our team to find value in new ideas and new ways of thinking, and yes… even value in new programs.  But that doesn’t happen by accident.  It takes careful planning and paying close attention to the needs of your students and the needs of your staff.  It also takes faith and trust that you are leading a team of professionals who when presented with the data and the problem that needs solving that they will roll up their sleeves and want to be part of creating and carrying out the solution.  It also means making a commitment to setting aside the time it takes to grow and learn together and it means not beating people up when they take risks and make mistakes.

So, my #bfctlap Voxer friends… this is one of the things I was trying to articulate in my clunky and awkward Voxes.  Thank you @KeriSkeeters  @marcihouseman @BethHouf @rosy_burke for raising such important issues, asking great questions, thinking about solutions and for being the educators that you are.  I look forward to the day when we can have these conversations in person!

Learning Lessons from my Son’s Scuba Class

scuba 2Last weekend my 12 year old son completed his scuba diving courses and earned his certification to be able to dive up to 60 feet. For so many reasons as a parent, I am truly proud of him for this accomplishment, but I have mostly found myself thinking about his journey wearing my educator hat and reflecting on what made this such a successful learning experience for him.

Choice:  For over a year, Hayden has had a strong desire to learn to scuba dive.  Choosing what he wanted to learn about and get good at also led to motivation.  Because he was highly motivated, he put an incredible amount of effort into his learning and work.

Belief in the students:  On day one of the scuba course, Hayden’s instructor, Jay, did a quick pre-assessment of the skills each of the new students brought to the course, and they were extremely varied.  Several students had significant diving experience and others had none.  Despite the varied skill levels, Jay announced that they ALL would make it through the course and earn their certification, not 80% of them – all of them.  He made an unwavering commitment to his students and instilled confidence in them before they ever got into the water.

High standards and expectations:  The skills you need to master, the exams you need to take, the reading you have to do to get certified does not change no matter the skill set you bring to the table.  Hayden was the only 12 year old in the class – most were adults.  The 250 page textbook they had to read over the course of the class was incredibly challenging, the vocabulary new and unfamiliar, the science concepts complex.  The material was not watered-down for Hayden because he was 12 – he was expected to meet the same high standards as everyone else.

Crystal clear learning targets:  What Hayden was expected to learn and do was made clear to him on the first day and each objective was made explicit as they were working on it together.  There was no guesswork on Hayden’s part about what was essential for him to know and what skills he needed to master in order to receive his certification.

Multiple ways to access the information:  In addition to reading the textbook, Hayden was also provided with a video so he could watch the skills he was reading about in his text.  The instructors also explicitly modeled complex skills prior to having students practice them in the water.

Collaborative practice and support:  In scuba diving, everything is done with a buddy.  The instructor stressed the importance of working collaboratively and helped foster a community of learners.  As Hayden learned new skills, he always had a partner to work with who provided encouragement, support, and feedback.

Practice and application in increasingly complex environments:  As he read about, watched, and learned new skills, Hayden had to apply them, first in a less challenging environment – the swimming pool, and then in a more challenging environment – the ocean, and then at increasing depths.  As he demonstrated confidence with his skills in the less challenging environments, he would move to practice in more complex ones.

Ongoing, individual assessment with specific feedback:  Hayden had written quizzes and exams he needed to take during each class period.  After each exam, scubaeach concept he didn’t know was retaught and reassessed until mastery was achieved; this was often done in small groups.  In addition, every water skill listed on the set of objectives was individually assessed over the course of the class to ensure the instructor had accurate information regarding Hayden’s skills.  After each skill assessment, Hayden received explicit feedback on what he was doing correctly and what he was doing incorrectly.  If he needed additional modeling or practice, the instructor gave it to him, and then would assess his skills again until mastery was achieved.

Encouragement and Fun:  Hayden’s teacher encouraged him, praised him, highlighted what he was doing right, and continued to build his confidence in his own abilities.  He also gave the students regular ‘play time’ in the water where they could practice their new skills in a fun and safe environment.

As I think about this authentic learning experience, and the impact it had on my son, I am reminded that all students are hungry to learn!  When we provide them with the right learning environments, the right set of experiences, the right levels of support, and we make sure they know without a doubt that we believe in them, they will reward us with uncommon effort and commitment and continue to surprise us with their amazing accomplishments.

Focus So Students Will Thrive

My colleague (@DirectorAmy) and I have just wrapped up our summer professional learning series we have been providing for teachers over the course of the summer.  The workshops have been well-received and for the most part, I would describe the mood in our District as we move to full implementation of our new CCSS units of study to be one of nervous excitement as we head in to our new school year which begins July 29th!  At the end of my final session last Friday, I found myself engaged in a wonderful conversation with one of our teachers…  while there were many highlights of our conversation, one thing she said continues to rattle around in my head…

To give you some context:  We had spent the day unpacking what we are calling in our district our “embedded standards”, which are essentially six standards from the Common Core which we have defined as critical to the work we do with students all year long.  We took an especially deep look at reading standards 1 and 10 (close reading and text complexity).  So, what she said to me was basically this:  If we could just spend all of our time getting good at this, our students would thrive.  She talked about the journey to getting good as one that would take multiple years, and she talked about the need for administrators to understand that getting good at something takes practice, it involves risk-taking, and it will include some failure, and we need to be prepared for that.  She also talked about our need to be relentless in eliminating distractors that might take time and energy from this important work.

As I have reflected on our conversation, I am reminded of my love of Mike Schmoker’s work and his construct for the work he believes we should do in schools – a relentless focus on “what we teach, how we teach, and authentic literacy”.  I highly recommend his books Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning and his book Results Now:  How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning.  I consider them ‘must reads’ for all educational leaders.

“What we Teach”:  For us, it is now the standards identified in the Common Core, but we need to understand them in context and with the big picture in mind. The critical instructional shifts can help us frame the big picture:  We want students to 1.  build knowledge through content-rich non-fiction and informational text; 2. read, write, and participate in rich conversations grounded in evidence from text; 3. Engage regularly with complex text and its academic vocabulary.  Getting good at this means we have to invest  time to develop collective understanding of what the standards are asking of our students and the implications they have on our instruction.  We need to collaborate with our colleagues to design the curriculum that will best support students in becoming thoughtful and strategic readers, writers, speaker, and thinkers, and we need to sort and sift through the resources available to find the ones that best support our learning targets.  We also need to design the rich and complex student tasks that will provide students with regular practice on the essentials while providing us with valuable information about whether or not they are meeting their learning goals.

“How we Teach”:  As we are getting clear on what we are teaching our students, we also have to invest time in continuously getting better at teaching it.  We know from decades of research that highly effective, strategic, and precise instruction matters.  In fact it is so powerful, that over time it can eliminate achievement gaps.  As a result, we need to be relentless in our pursuit of honing our craft.   When students aren’t learning what we intended for them to learn, we need to ask ourselves questions that cause us to reflect on what we can do differently.  We need to invest time in seeking out the research on effective instruction and apply it in our classrooms. If the evidence we have collected shows us that our English learners didn’t understand the concepts we just taught, then we need to commit to doing some learning together about how we can adjust our instruction to meet their learning needs. We also need to create structures in our classrooms and schools that allow for differentiated time and support based on learner needs.

Authentic Literacy and Intellectual Development:  As we work on what we teach and how we teach, authentic literacy has to be at the core of what we do. Click here for a link to Schmoker’s description of authentic literacy. We need to invest time in learning how to structure our schools, classrooms, instructional units and daily lessons to move well beyond basic literacy.  We need to engage all learners, beginning in kindergarten, in meaningful and rich literacy experiences.  We need to cultivate close, deep and strategic reading, and we need to nurture an environment where students believe in the “miraculous power of writing” and the power of their words.

So…  I have to say, I agree with my teacher colleague who said if we could just spend all of our time getting better at this, our students would thrive!

My Reflections on Implementation of the Common Core

In our system, we are moving to full implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English language arts beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.  We have spent the past couple of years in various phases of building awareness and starting this transition, and next year is the year we are asking everyone to make this shift.  We have done a lot of work to build up to this point, and I think the most common feeling in our District is one of “nervous excitement”.  That is a good place to be and it is the result of a lot of hard work by many dynamic people in our organization.  As we have reached this point, here are some of my reflections on what I currently think will be necessary for this transition to be successful.

“Full implementation” takes time and does not happen in just one year.    What full implementation really means this year is that we all agree to make the switch from one set of standards to another and we agree that we will begin to grapple with them on a daily basis.  In our system we have developed a framework for new units of study aligned to the CCSS, so full implementation means we are all going to use these units as the foundation for our work. I also believe it entails asking and answering the question:  “What will be different in our schools and classrooms next year as a result of our Common Core alignment and implementation?”  We have to have clearly articulated goals about the implementation and we have to have ways we are measuring ourselves to know that we are getting better and closer to reaching these goals.  At the end of the year, we have to evaluate where we are and define our next steps.

Be really deliberate about making connections to work you are already doing.  We have had a strong literacy initiative in place in our schools.  We have schools and classrooms who have been making shifts that align with Common Core expectations, so this transition is not about something brand new…  it is about enhancing and refining work we have already started, but making the connections is critical.  As an example, we have several schools who have been deepening their understanding of how to teach reading comprehension – particularly comprehension of informational text – there are several pieces of the work that are in direct alignment with Common Core expectations.  A good question to ask ourselves is “How is reading comprehension of informational text defined in the Common Core Standards?”  Let’s get clarity on how it’s defined and then ask ourselves, “What pieces of this are we good at and what do we need to strengthen?”  The answers to these questions should directly impact the development of our goals for the year.

It is important to understand how the CCSS are different from what we do now.  While there may be many pieces of the work we are already doing that align, there are several critical components of Common Core that are different and have significant implications for teaching and learning.  We have to be honest about what these are.  If we think Common Core is now an invitation to dust off the old dinosaur unit from ten years ago, we are not understanding the shifts Common Core demands of us.  If we redo our class schedule to include two hours of “Common Core” time, put up a new Common Core Standards poster and continue to teach reading, writing, speaking, listening and language the way we have always taught it,  we have not done what the Common Core requires of us.  Be very wary of publishers who are recycling old materials with new Common Core labels!!

Understand the big picture and see the good in the Common Core.  Sometimes it is hard to get on board with a national or state initiative or mandate. While most agree that the Common Core is not perfect, it is now what we are being asked to work with in our schools and classrooms.  I love the question Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Chris Lehman ask in the first chapter of their book Pathways to the Common Core “Will you choose to view the Common Core Standards as curmudgeons or as if they are gold?”  If we understand and talk about that at the heart of Common Core is helping our students thrive as strategic, thoughtful, thinking-intensive readers, writers, speakers and listeners, we may be able to build more commitment to the shifts.

It is critical to understand the role the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards play in the Common Core.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  In order to understand the CCSS and how they work, we have to understand how the anchor standards have informed the CCSS grade-level standards.  Every grade level has part of the responsibility for helping students achieve the CCR Anchor Standards, and all of their grade-level standards align with the anchor standards.  Every teacher has a responsibility for their piece of the puzzle in getting kids College and Career ready.  There is an elegant design to the CCSS and the Anchor Standards are at its core.

Don’t underestimate Reading Standards 1 and 10.  We can teach students to find central ideas and themes.  We can analyze text structures and determine the author’s point of view, but we are teaching standards such as these in the absence of Reading standards 1 and 10, we are not aligned to Common Core expectations.  While students are finding central ideas and themes, analyzing text structures and determining author’s point of view, they must be doing close readings of text and citing specific evidence from the text to support their claims (Reading Standard 1) and they must be reading and comprehending text at the appropriate level of complexity independently and proficiently (Reading Standard 10).

Choose a place to start and get really good at it.  While all of the Common Core Standards for ELA will be in play for us next year, there are many things we still need to learn deeply in order for us to be truly aligned to the Common Core expectations; Schools need to choose one or two of these things, learn deeply and ensure they become a part of our practice in every classroom.  You might start with understanding close reading and text complexity and what that looks like at each grade-level in your school or you might start with understanding Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework and using it to evaluate the level of complexity the standards demand and use the framework to design student tasks that are aligned at the level of complexity required in the standard.  There are several entry points for us to begin this work.

Foster an environment of collaboration and learning.  We are asking all of the educators in our system to make changes and do things differently.  In order to be successful, we have to create time for learning and collaboration.  Learning more about what we don’t understand reduces anxiety.  Having colleagues and partners to work through challenges and celebrate successes reduces anxiety.  Learning and collaboration also make us better.  We have to encourage risk-taking and trying things differently, and we have to understand that when we try new things, we aren’t always good at it the first time we do it.  Trial and error is part of the learning process, so don’t beat people up over it!

Be learners of what it means to lead complex change.  Change is a process, not a one time event.  As leaders of change, we have to anticipate and understand how change impacts people, and we have to be strategic in our planning for change.  We have to be clear about the expectations we have around change, and we have to be  thoughtful about the systems of support we will provide for people as we ask them to do some of their work differently.

I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections about successful implementation of CCSS in your district, school or classroom…

Stop Asking Kids to Just “Do School” – The Impact is Powerful!

Our topic today for our #satchat discussion was “rigor” in schools and classrooms.  It was an exciting chat with multiple perspectives and insights from great educators.  There were several tweets in our chat that talked about students taking ownership of their learning, stretching students’ thinking and moving our lessons away from allowing students to get away with simple answers and just “doing school”.  The tweets prompted me to link one of my older posts about my son and some of the experiences he has had with “doing school” and the negative impact of low expectations and a curriculum that does not challenge students.  It also prompted my decision to write this post as a follow up to that original blog.

My son is now in his first year of middle school this year and has been experiencing all of the excitement and challenges that go along with this new phase in his life.  One of the highlights for me, though, is the impact two of his teachers are having on his learning.


First, his math teacher… as a sixth grader, my son has been placed in an advanced pre-algebra class.  I was actually worried that while I WANT him to be challenged,  that this class MIGHT not be a good idea.  Turns out it was a GREAT idea thanks to my son’s teacher.  Hayden loves his math class.  While he is not one to share all of his experiences in school, math is a frequent topic of conversation this year.  His enthusiasm for math goes beyond getting the answers right.  He wants to “get it”, and we find ourselves frequently discussing the “why” of the math and how it works.  His teacher has clearly made the conceptual understanding important, and I can tell that “talking math” and “writing math” in his classroom is a part of their every day work.  Hayden has shared with us that his teacher has a special way of helping them understand complex math concepts and that he doesn’t give up on them when they don’t get it.  His teacher expects great things of them and believes that his students are capable.  His class is one of high expectations, lots of support, and an unwavering confidence in his students’ abilities…  Hayden is THRIVING in this class!

Next, Hayden’s English teacher.  As his mother, and also a former English teacher, I have consistently struggled with the lack of good writing instruction my son has received (I believe I highlighted how bad some of it was in my earlier post!)  Hayden’s English teacher has turned him on to writing and has also increased his passion for reading.  Imagine my shock the day my son came home insisting on reciting a poem to us – making sure he changed his voice and body language to elicit the proper tone of the piece!  In his English class, students are reading incredibly complex texts that prompt discussion of meaty issues.  They have read, discussed, and written about failure and the role of technology in our lives; they have read excerpts from Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed and from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset.  During the elections in November, they read about the battle for the Hispanic vote, and after the Sandy Hook tragedy they read an article in Time  called “Sandy Hook Shootings: Video Games blamed Again”.  In fact, they read an article like these at least once each week.  They are expected to read closely, ask questions, form opinions based on evidence, and participate in discussions about what they read.  They talk, debate, and ultimately write each week about what they have read and learned. One of my favorite writing topics was “What’s better… a hard earned B or an easy A?” Additionally, my son keeps an amazing writing journal and has developed several of his ideas into exceptional pieces of writing (he has even contemplated starting his own blog!)

In these two classrooms, my son has NOT been “Doing School”.  He has been learning and thriving.  He is being challenged and he is being treated like a thinker.  He is expected to do great work, he is expected to stretch his thinking and share it with others, and he is producing amazing work for himself and for these two teachers.

Whether you call it increasing rigor, having high expectations, incorporating higher-level thinking skills, stretching thinking, levels of complexity (or anything else)…  get it into your schools and classrooms.  Our students deserve it… and they are hungry for it!

First Days of School

Over the last few days, I have seen several posts and comments about the importance of the first days of school and the impact they can make on the lives of students, so I thought I would share a letter/reflection I recently sent out to the teachers in our district as they get ready to welcome a new group of students on July 30th.

I am certain that if not now, then very soon there will be hundreds of teachers in our district preparing both physically and mentally for the first week of school.  What I remember from my days as a middle school teacher is that the yearly anticipation of a new crop of students standing at my door step always filled me with excitement, and I will admit a little bit of anxiety.  For most of my teaching career I taught 7thgraders, so on the first day of school I always stood before a whole group of students new to the middle school experience.  They would sit down in my classroom where I had spent painstaking hours before their arrival creating an inviting and warm environment for learning.   As the bell rang, they would often stare anywhere except the front of the room as they waited nervously for me to shed a little bit of light on what this whole middle school experience would be like for them.

Every year I taught I spent a significant amount of mental energy thinking about the experience I wanted them to have those first few days knowing that what I did would set the tone for us for the entire year.  I knew with 7th graders that my team and I held a significant amount of power in our hands because what we said and did when that bell finally rang would shape the thinking of 176 students of what to expect in middle school. My team and I took this responsibility very seriously and put a lot of collective thinking and energy into how to make those first experiences special and meaningful for our students. We didn’t want those first few days to be filled with rules of what they “can’t do”… we wanted to open their eyes to new possibilities and create experiences for them that made them want to come back for more. I am not sure we ever got it exactly right, but we worked hard to try to make those first few days memorable.

Although no longer a teacher, I have had two occasions in the past few weeks to revisit the power of those first few precious days we have with our students and the amazing impact the choices each teacher makes can have on the psyche of our students.  Within the first few hours they are with us, our students will be making decisions about their role in their classroom and the kind of year this will be for them.  We hold an amazing amount of power over their thinking!

The first experience I had came a few weeks ago when my husband, a high school teacher, finished the initial draft of his first book, and he finally let me read it.  There is a chapter in the book he titles “My First Three Days” where he shares what he believes is most important to convey to his students during the first three days they are in his classroom.  He describes the activities he does and the reasons he does them, but at the end of it all what struck me is his unwavering commitment to convince his students that the time they spend in his classroom is going to be different.  He shares that his first three days are a carefully orchestrated “sales pitch” to convince his students that no matter what their experiences have been in school, that his is a classroom where he will guarantee them success.  You can find his blog post, “The Third Day”  at http://www.daveburgess.com/blog/?m=201108 One of my favorite points he makes is this:

Many of the students who will be sitting in front of you as you start the year have not been successful in school in the past. School has beaten them up.  They have been told, and shown, that they don’t measure up…. They’re evaluating whether or not this will be an emotionally and psychologically safe environment.  They’re wondering whether or not it is worth their time and effort to give it another shot and try.  It’s easier, sometimes, to not give your best and then blame failure on a lack of effort rather than possibly be forced to consider that it could be a lack of ability.  If you don’t try, it’s easier to save face with your peers when you fail.  It is our job to address these unspoken thoughts that are rattling through the minds of our students and the earlier we do it the better.  My goal is to completely smash all thoughts and ideas that my students have about my class being more of the same for them.  I will pull out all of the stops to convince them that it doesn’t matter if they have failed before because my class is absolutely and completely different.  My class has been specially designed for them to be successful.”

The second occasion I had to revisit the idea of the first few days was at a conference session I attended led by noted author and educational leader, Alan November.  He is known for his work on integrating technology and web resources into the classroom and for pushing all of us to do more to help our students learn about their role in a global society.  He centered the theme of his talk around the idea of “students as contributors”, and he laid out five key roles he thought students should play in the classroom.  An article he wrote on this topic can be found at:


Ultimately he shared his thinking about how he would spend his first five days of school with his students centered around teaching them how to fill these roles and how to contribute to the classroom community.  My notes don’t do his work justice, but at the heart of his message was this – he would spend his first five days:

  • Building capacity for all children to contribute to the learning of others
  • Teaching children a variety of ways to document their learning and teaching them tools they would use as a class to document the learning of the group.
  • Teaching his students advanced research skills – showing them how to maximize their use of the internet to get the best content from anywhere in the world and to use it as a tool to help them search for what quality work looks like.
  • Encouraging students to think globally and understand there are multiple perspectives on any issue
  • Creating a community of learners who collectively build a shared library of resources.

Both of these experiences took me back to my days as a teacher and helped me reconnect with the memories I have of working with a great team of teachers to do our best to make those first few days of middle school special for our students.  They also made me think of each and every one of you who has had very little time for rest, relaxation and rejuvenation this summer and who will quickly be returning to a sea of little faces anxiously waiting for you to take them on a special journey of learning this year.  Thank you for all the time and energy you have spent, and will spend, to make your first few days, and every day after that, impactful and memorable for our students.