Shelley Burgess

Reflections of an educational learner and leader


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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!

 

 

 

 


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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.

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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.

 


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5 Reflections on the Language of Leadership

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Remember the old adage ” Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?  I beg to differ.  Words have power… A LOT of power.  The words we use as leaders matter.  People pay attention to them.  People make decisions based on them.  People go home from work uplifted or beaten down because of them.  Something we say out loud that might be insignificant to us may have a more powerful impact on someone than we will ever know… so choose your words wisely.  Once they are out in the world, you can’t take them back – EVER!

I may not be the most eloquent writer, but as a leader I have always been a student of words… their power, their impact, their influence.  I choose what I say and how I say it very purposefully and thoughtfully because I want people to hear and understand my message in the way I intend for it to be sent.  There are many lessons I have learned about words, their power, and the critical importance of good communication, and I wanted to reflect on a few of them here…

1.  As leaders we have lost the luxury of thinking out loud!

Like it or not, it’s true.  Even if you define yourself as a highly collaborative leader or a servant leader (or any other kind of leader) – you still don’t have this luxury. As a new principal, Itaste your words learned early on that once I spoke or shared a thought, others would clam up and be less likely to share their thoughts and ideas.  Apparently, once I had spoken and shared my initial thoughts, they assumed the decision had been made and their ideas didn’t matter.  That is the opposite of who I am or want to be as a leader.  In my first year as a principal, I adopted a strategy that I have used on many occasions ever since – instead of being the first to talk, I am the last to talk. Instead of sharing, I pose questions – very carefully planned and crafted questions, and then I  listen to the other voices in the room.  When they have finished sharing, I take on the role of summarizer and synthesizer, and I add my two cents if the thought hasn’t already been shared.  Strategies like this one have been essential for me because I genuinely believe that all of those other voices matter and that with lots of ideas we can build one or two amazing ideas to carry us forward, but as soon as I start to think out loud… I run the risk of stifling those other voices.

One of my favorite stories about this idea which I share with every new leader I have the opportunity to coach, comes from a principal I used to work with.  He had an “aha” moment in his first year as a principal where he was freely sharing with one of his teachers several thoughts and ideas that he had just learned about at a PD he had attended.  He was “thinking out loud” about the kinds of things they could be doing as a school, ideas and thoughts he had about changes they could make etc. etc. By his account, he stopped mid-sentence after noticing the teacher was turning a little bit green.  She was overwhelmed by all that he was saying and the impact all those changes would have on her.  I’m sure her mind was going a mile a minute about all she would have to do.  His reflection with me about that moment was that he suddenly realized that while he was just chattering away in his excitement about things he had learned, she was staring at the new giant red stamp that he was now wearing on his forehead that said “BOSS”, and she was interpreting all he was saying through that lens.

As leaders, we need to be heard, people need to know who we are and what we stand for.  They need to know what to expect from us and be able to predict how we will respond to a variety of situations.  If we always just say the first thing that pops into our heads at any given moment, we can run the risk of diluting our message and creating confusion for people who count on us to stay focused and consistent.

2.  Find alternatives for loaded words and phrases

positivesIf you want your message to have maximum impact,  pay close attention to how people respond when you use certain words and phrases – do the words uplift and inspire?  Do they set off triggers and cause negative reactions?  I want my words to influence and inspire great work.  I want the words, phrases and tones I use to convey to people that we are all part of the same team moving forward together.  I want my words to ensure that I value you and believe in you as a professional.   I want the words I use to motivate people to try new things, take risks and feel safe.  I don’t want them to turn people off, so I’ve also learned that while I may be married to a concept or idea, I need not be married to a particular word or phrase.

As an example… I no longer use the word “rigor” when I talk with educators or facilitate professional learning opportunities.  It’s too loaded.  Let me be clear, I truly love the concept that most people are trying to communicate when they use that word, but I don’t use it anymore. I’ve used it often enough in the past, but too many people are turned off by it.  They aren’t necessarily turned off by the concept it is intended to convey in education, but they are turned off by the word. I have watched people sneer and roll their eyes when it gets used in PD, and I’ve read numerous blog posts about the horrors of the word (including one written by my husband @burgessdave) So I made a deliberate decision to take it out of my vocabulary when interacting with educators.

Depending on the context and the conversation, I now use phrases like “level of complexity”, “complex thinking”, “challenging and thought-provoking work”, “Asking a meaty question that allows for divergent thinking” and other phrases like these.  I can communicate the same concepts I was trying to get across when I used the word rigor but without any of the negative reactions the word can evoke.

3.  Remove judgment language from your feedback

WordsPeople don’t like to be judged.  I know I don’t.  I love feedback… I love reflecting with people… I love being challenged and pushed to be better, but judgment… no thanks!  I have supported and coached many educational leaders, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders over the years, and I believe this is a challenging, but essential one for leaders to get good at, and we are all so prone to do it.  We make assumptions and pass judgment all the time – even when we don’t notice we are doing it.  So, to get good at eliminating judgment, we have to notice when we are doing it… we have to pay attention to the common “judgment phrases” we use and replace them with new language that is void of judgment.   Some of the common ones I hear administrators use: “I really didn’t like the way he…”  “I just wish she would have…”  “That’s not the way I would have…”  “If only she…” “What was he thinking?”   We are quick to judge and make assumptions and often don’t take the time to understand.  One strategy I have found to be particularly helpful is when I find that I am ready to judge, I need to ask a genuine question… not one of those fake/manipulative questions that people know are judgmental, but a genuine question to help me understand.  here is an example:

To know me as an educational leader is to know that I have a strong commitment to having insanely high expectations for students and an unwavering belief in their talents and capabilities.  Probably the quickest way to set me off (in my own head at least as I would carefully craft my words before having the conversation) is to tell me that “kids can’t”, so when I walk into a classroom and observe a lesson that appears to be way below grade-level expectations, I can be quick to judge.   I had to notice this about myself first, and when I found myself wanting to say “The learning objective you were teaching was WAY below grade-level… What were you thinking???” I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that I wanted to understand – not judge… so I started asking genuine questions in a true attempt to understand.  I now say something like this instead…

“So when I walked into the room, I noticed you were working with the kids on _____.  Tell me more about that lesson and why you chose it as a focus?  I’d love to know what made you decide to go there with them.” Over the years, I have received amazing responses to that question.  Things like: “I had just given them a quick pre-assessment on an essential pre-requisite skill they needed for the lesson 10 minutes before you walked in, and they didn’t have it down, so in order to ensure their success I spent 15 minutes teaching the essential pre-requisite, you should see how they later rocked the lesson.”  or “I was reading over their essays last night and noticed a common trend, they just didn’t seem to have a grasp on… so we spent some time on it today.  Then I had them re-write… and they were so much better.”  Things I might never have known if my language put people on the defensive.

When we observe lessons, we can see a lot, but we also have no idea what happened before we walked into the room and no idea what happened after we left.  If our assumptions make us quick to judge, we can let judgment language dominate our feedback and conversations.  This can quickly close doors to us and rob us of amazing opportunities to have incredible dialogue with our teachers that can inspire them to move forward in their practice.  If we want to be invited into the real conversations about teaching and learning in our schools, then our teachers need to feel safe and know we aren’t judging them.

4.  Be careful… most of our praise is judgmental, too!

Yep!  Phrases like “Great job”, I SO loved your lesson on…”  “I really liked the way you…”  are also judgmental, and I would argue that we should eliminate these from our feedback as power-of-wordswell.  I’m not advocating that we never tell someone they did a great job, but I am advocating that we need to be careful when and for what we say it.  When giving feedback on a lesson… I almost never use positive judgment language for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost… I don’t want it to be about me and what I like or don’t like… I want it to be about what engages students and helps them learn.  I don’t want people to plan, adjust and change their lessons based on whether or not I like them – that shouldn’t be the criteria on which lesson planning and lesson delivery are based, and I don’t want my language to convey that I THINK that is the most important criteria.  So, what do I do instead… I use “noticing”  language, and I am convinced that people actually have more of a sense of satisfaction when I do than if I were just to say “great job” or “awesome lesson”.  So what does it sound like?  Something like this…

“Hey when I was in your classroom today, I noticed that you were trying out a new strategy (insert strategy here).  I could tell that it was really making a difference for your kids.  When I sat down and talked to Sarah and Johnny, they had real depth in their responses. Sarah said… Johnny said…  What were some of the things you noticed?  How are you going to expand on that tomorrow?  Would you mind if I came by to see that – I expect it will push their learning even further, and I am excited to see where it might go.”

I would argue that feedback like this is both powerful and perceived as highly positive, but it is also void of any judgmental language.

5.  Take steps to understand yourself as a communicator

communicationIf we want to become powerful communicators, we have to do the hard work to understand who we are as communicators now and how others perceive us.  I recently had a conversation with a long time friend of mine who was sharing a story about a PD session she attended in her district.  The presenter was a district leader and someone sitting at my friend’s table, instead of listening to the message being delivered (which ironically was about the importance of PLCs and teamwork) was keeping a tally of how many times the presenter said the word “I”.  I can’t remember the exact number she told me, but it was something like 176 times.  I’m guessing that this district leader has no idea how often he uses the word “I” when communicating to his team, but it was clearly a turn-off to people who were listening, and as a result, his message wasn’t heard.

We have to be aware of our patterns and habits when we speak if we want to become better at sending the right messages with our words.  So, enlist some help!  A long time friend and principal colleague of mine was great for me in this regard.  He knew how much words mattered to me, so even when I moved into the assistant superintendent  role where I was technically his boss, he would help keep me on my toes with my language.  He would catch phrases that I might start to overuse and send me little slips of paper with the phrase and a big “X” drawn through it.  He would help me catch some of those “trigger” words that were starting to cause some grumbling among our colleagues.  He would help me understand which words and phrases had made a powerful and positive impact on him.  I appreciated every one of these exchanges because they helped me grow and get better.

I could go on and on for days about language and its impact, but for now, I leave with this…

power-of-word-good-one

 


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Ever Wish You Could Have a Do Over?

Sometimes I wish I could have a “do over”.  Remember those when we were kids?  I had one of those moments earlier this month when I hosted our educational leadership and principal teams in our first collaborative learning sessions of the school year.  While I am convinced that the content we were learning about is a critical part of our work if we want to move student learning forward, I made a rookie mistake.  I did not do nearly as good of a job as I usually do at connecting something new to what we incessantly define as our most important work around teaching and learning.  I’m still beating myself up about it a little bit because typically it is something I am very good at as a leader, and I am relentless as a coach of other school and district leaders about clarity of vision, focus, and message.   With a little distance though, I have had an opportunity to reflect and remind myself of some critical leadership lessons:

1.  Vision, focus and clarity are critical to success.  Your actions and words need to stay in constant alignment or you will throw people off course.  Marcus Buckingham author of The One Thing you Need to Know says this:

Employees crave simplicity and clarity; they want to know precisely what they can do to be most effective—and then not be distracted from that. Their highest priorities—the “core”—must be clarified incessantly. Clarity is the antidote to anxiety … if you do nothing else as a leader, be clear.

2.  Be explicit about how any new ideas, concepts or learning connect to your vision, focus, and message. When introducing something new into the work, give people time to process and make connections.  Don’t assume everyone else will see the same connections you did right away.

3.  Value and use the organizational language, frameworks and structures to introduce new concepts.  Spend time learning the concept using language that is already part of your system long before sharing any new labels or buzz words, and frame it in a structure with which your team is familiar.

4.  Relationships matter.   While I prefer to think of myself as a valued colleague and member of the team when I work with principals and central services administrators in my department, at the end of the day, I am also the boss.  People typically want to meet the expectations set by their boss, and in many cases won’t give their boss honest feedback.   If you have established relationships, good rapport, and a culture of learning rather than perfection, your team will be honest with you.  I so appreciated my colleagues who called a “time out”and challenged me to a better job of communicating how this new piece of work connected to our focus.

5.  Admit you made a mistake and work diligently to clear up the confusion.  Based on feedback during the meeting, I was able to make adjustments, and in the two weeks since, I have had several one on one conversations with principals and members of my team making sure we understand things the same way.  I have made revisions to the document we will refer to all year to make sure we stay focused on our most important work.   I have written a reflection that I have shared with my team presenting what I hope will be an enhanced part of our work this year using organizational language we are familiar with and putting the new concepts into a framework with which we are all familiar.  I have checked in with all of our principals about their initial staff meetings and the work they are doing to set focus and direction with their school teams and I am listening to hear if our meeting a couple of weeks ago threw them any curve balls, and I am clearing up my message if necessary.

So… while my best hope would be that I could have a do over and set a few things up differently from the beginning, I have appreciated the opportunity to reflect.  I have also appreciated the great team I have around me and their willingness to put up a mirror, hold me accountable, and not allow me to throw them off course.


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Lead Like a PIRATE

One of my favorite parts of the week is co-moderating the West Coast #satchat (#satchatwc).  The topics, the collaboration, and insights from other educators from around the world always inspire me.  Today’s topic was of particular interest to me because it is one I think about quite a bit – hiring highly effective educational leaders. We talked about the characteristics we look for, the different parts of the interview/hiring processes we find to be most effective and insightful, the types of questions we think are important to ask in an interview etc.  What we know is that hiring an educational leader, particularly a school principal, is one of the most important decisions we make, because the bottom line is that leadership matters… a lot!

TLAP BOOK COVERI’ve read countless books and articles on educational leadership;  I have read and embraced a variety of leadership theories and models; I coach, mentor and support educational leaders who serve in a variety roles; and I have held several leadership positions in my career.  But what I kept coming back to in my head this morning is the book my husband Dave Burgess (@burgessdave) recently published Teach Like a PIRATE, and I wondered… shouldn’t we also lead like Pirates?  If you are not familiar with Dave’s book, he uses the Pirate acronym to describe 6 traits essential to highly effective teaching, and I am convinced that they are also essential traits of highly effective leaders:

Passion – Highly effective leaders are passionate.  They know who they are, they know what they love, they know what they stand for, and they bring this with them to work in one way or another everyday.  The passion is contagious, and highly effective leaders have a knack for helping those around them ignite their own passions and capitalize on them.  I love walking into schools where passion is evident.  There is a hard to describe energy that radiates within the walls and around the campus, and it takes a passionate leader to create this.

Immersion – Highly effective leaders are immersed in their work.  They roll up their sleeves and they dig in.  They are people who work alongside their staff and their community. They have a constant “pulse” of the school because they are always paying attention.  They invest time in both the big and small moments of leadership.  You are likely to find them immersed in classroom observations and engaged with teachers and teams focused on student learning, but you will also notice them taking time to jumprope with a group of students on the playground, spending a few moments at a table in the cafeteria, reading a favorite book to a room full of kindergarteners, or chatting with a parent volunteer in the hallway.  No matter where you find them, you notice that they are fully present and they are invested.

Rapport – Highly effective leaders develop rapport and relationships.  They do this with staff, with parents, with students, with community members, with their colleagues, and with their supervisors.  They invest the time in getting to know people.  They learn about their strengths and where they want to grow.  They learn about their passions, their best hopes, their worst fears.  And they invest this time with everyone – even those who previous leaders had written off.  They embrace opportunities to hear multiple perspectives, and they value the contribution that each person makes to the organization, and they tell them so.

Ask and Analyze – Highly effective leaders ask many thoughtful questions and they are skillful at analyzing all of the data that comes at them.  When there are obstacles and challenges they don’t “chalk them up” to anything…  they ask probing questions and dig deep to get to the root of the issue, and they actively seek out solutions.  They reach out to others, seek advice, and they are hungry for answers.  They equally spend time focused on what is going well.  They are able to label the actions that took place to make something successful because they know success does not happen by accident.  It happens as a result of strategic and intentional decisions.  Highly effective leaders are connected, reflective, and they are learners.

Transformation – Highly effective leaders want to make a significant difference, a significant contribution and transform the lives of their students.  They have a clear vision about where they want to go and why it is an important journey for people to take with them.   They have high expectations and create a healthy sense of urgency around the most important work, and they are skillful in managing and leading change.  They know that great schools can change communities and change the lives of generations. They believe in the moral purpose of providing students with an amazing set of educational experiences, they are clear in defining what these are, and they take deliberate steps to get them in place.

Enthusiasm – Highly effective leaders infuse enthusiasm into their work.  They “bring it” everyday, and they are committed to being “on” – even on the days they might have to fake it.  They are the champions and cheerleaders of their schools and champions and cheerleaders of those who work and learn there.  They celebrate successes both big and small.  You know enthusiastic leaders when you see them.  They are the ones who can bring you up when you are down; they help you re-ignite your fire when it is starting to burn out; they point out how you have contributed and made a difference; they smile; they laugh; they engage; they commit.

While I know the above list may not be an exhaustive one… it sure is a great place to start when looking for a new leader in your system or looking for ways to support the ones you have.  It is also a great way to reflect on your own practices as a leader… Do you lead like a PIRATE?


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Common Core Implementation- Reflecting on the “How”

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“As challenging as it must have been to write and finesse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, that accomplishment is nothing compared to the work of teaching in ways that bring all students to these ambitious expectations.  The goal is clear.  The pathway is not.” – From Pathways to the Common Core – Lucy Calkins, et.al.

 

I am sure like most of my colleagues across the nation, I am spending a significant portion of my time engaged in work that will help our districts, schools, and classrooms transition to full implementation of the Common Core Standards.  I feel fortunate to work with a knowledgeable, thoughtful, and dynamic team of educators, and what I know is that every time we sit down together to evaluate and modify our plan, we get reminded of just how many pieces there are in the puzzle, and also how important this work is.  I wrote a post awhile ago focused on the “why” of Common Core and how it is essential to help educators understand the “why” and not just the “what” of the standards, but where I find I am spending most of my time and mental energy these days is on the “how”.  Leading a successful change initiative is no easy task, but what I am noticing is that asking the right “how” questions is helping us be really thoughtful in planning, designing and implementing the steps that ultimately get us closer to full implementation.  So I thought I would share the questions that so far have been driving our work.  It is a work in progress and new questions get added as needed (in fact one was added yesterday based on a great dialogue I had with some of my colleagues from other districts).  I also tried to put them in somewhat of an order that made sense based on where we have been and where we are going on this journey.

  • How do we increase awareness of the Common Core Standards for all of our stakeholders?
  • How do we build the Common Core into our work over time?
  • How will we make connections between the Common Core and work we are already doing?
  • What might get in our way of a successful implementation, and how can we plan for these things?
  • How will we build capacity of our Educational Leadership Team (district and site leaders) to lead the Common Core initiative?  What do they need to know and be able to do to be successful?
  • How will we collaborate with our teachers’ union as we move this initiative forward?
  • How will we build shared leadership and ownership of the Common Core initiative?
  • By the time we begin full implementation of the Common Core standards, how will we ensure all administrators and teachers see a piece of themselves in the work?
  • How will we plan for and deliver professional learning opportunities?
  • How do we sort and sift through all of the resources available to find the best ones that will support our transition to the Common Core?
  • How will we include what may seem as separate initiatives (i.e. technology, English learners, Response to Intervention) into a single Common Core initiative?
  • How will we modify our District assessment system and what are the anticipated obstacles?

While not “How questions”… here are two that I have asked of principals recently that have sparked good reflection and dialogue…

  • What will schools and classrooms look like, sound like, and feel like when the Common Core is fully implemented?
  • What will we no longer see in our schools and classrooms when the Common Core is fully implemented?

If  you are grappling with other  questions that are assisting you in moving the Common Core forward in your school or district, I would love to hear what they are.  While the work is all-encompassing, I believe it is good and impactful work.  It is also work that is allowing us to reach across state lines and collaborate with colleagues across the country.  Powerful stuff!


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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:

http://novemberlearning.com/resources/archive-of-articles/digital-learning-farm/

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.