About Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 14-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he did time as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt blogs at Reading by Example (readingbyexample.com), tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. His book about digital portfolios will be published by Powerful Learning Press in the coming year.

School Leaders as Readers: Education for Outcome

The following passage is my most recent post I shared in our Goodreads community, School Leaders as Readers. This fall we are reading Mindfulness by Ellen Langer. If you are a school leader, I encourage you to join the group.

“From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.” (p 35)

Have truer words ever been written? This is the one of the biggest problems with standards, Common Core or otherwise. They become the product in themselves, instead of a general focus for teaching and learning. Forgive my football analogy, but standards should serve as the yard markers, not the end zone.

I was watching a video today on the Teaching Channel. The teacher had “buckets” on the wall, paint cans that had labels detailing a few words which culminated high school literacy standards. In each bucket were specific skills written on paint sticks related to each standard. The teacher would pull sticks, and this is what the students would focus on that day.

Buckets of standards

Buckets of standards

Source: Teaching Channel (click to watch video)

I almost sent this out to my teachers – mindlessly! – but caught myself. Thankfully I asked, “Is this what students come to school for? To master standards?” Of course not! They come to learn about great ideas, great thinkers, about our history up until now. Sometimes I think they come to get away from all of the connectivity too. Yes, students should also develop certain competencies, but not removed from the context of these big ideas and know-hows.

Langer emphasizes on page 36 that we need to retrain our focus, and that of our students, to asking “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?”. This can best happen in the context of authentic and relevant learning activities. What are your thoughts?

Cover Crop

When fall arrives, we remove what’s left of the vegetable plants from the raised beds and plant a cover crop.

Photo Credit: Susy Morris

Photo Credit: Susy Morris

In our case, winter rye works the best. Other gardeners use clover, but I prefer rye.

A cover crop is what gardeners and farmers sometimes plant in the soil when they are not growing vegetables to harvest. Cover crop prevents erosion, inhibits weeds, and, maybe most importantly, adds nutrients to the soil.

As the rye grows to maturity, we can till it back into the soil. The winter rye becomes green manure, adding to the health of the soil as it decomposes. By doing this, along with a dressing of compost in the spring, we don’t have to add fertilizers or anything unnatural to the soil before planting next year’s vegetables.

Some people prefer to do a fall season of vegetables, and squeeze more harvest out of the soil. But I find replenishing the soil more beneficial in the long run. The rewards are delayed, but greater.

(Re)Defining Student Engagement

“The best evidence for student engagement is what students are saying and doing as a consequence of what the teacher does, or has done, or has planned.” – Charlotte Danielson

This past week I conducted instructional walks in ten different classrooms. Using only paper and pen, I wrote observations describing ten distinct teaching styles. These initial visits have confirmed what I have known for several years of experience as a school principal and teacher evaluator: Engagement in learning happens most frequently and deeply when students are actively involved in instruction.


photo credit: IMG_6414 via photopin (license)

Engagement (student involvement in instruction) can be described in a variety of ways. I think too often engagement is exclusively predefined by educators as “hands on”, “students doing more talking than the teacher”, or “active”. These descriptors may all be key indicators of engagement. But the definition should not stop there.

For example, I was the fortunate observer of a math lesson that would seem to run counter to this pattern, at least at first glance. The learning target: Demonstrate multiple ways to solve multiple digit addition problems. The teacher, who already modeled a few problems by working through them in front of students on the document camera, asked if there were three students willing to show their peers one of three ways to solve a given problem. Several hands shot up. Once selected, the three volunteers headed to the board.

The rest of the class was directed to also try one of the three methods at their desks. As some students completed the problem before others, the teacher, who was roaming around the room doing spot checks and providing quick feedback, announced, “If you solved it one way, why not try it another way?” Every student who was ready took her up on the challenge. This option gave other students more time to work.

Once the students at the front of the room were done with their work, they went back to their desks. Their faces beamed with pride. The teacher went over the process with the whole group: “Yes, you regrouped here…the place value alignments are accurate…” The teacher also asked the rest of the class to show their work on their dry erase boards with their partner sitting next to them. “Did your method work just as well as your partner’s? Talk about that.” They did.


photo credit: UF Keene-Flint Classroom Desks Windows via photopin (license)

We in education talk so much about engagement in concert with terms like “collaboration”, “technology”, and “passion”. Is this where the best learning takes place? Sometimes, maybe even often, but certainly not always. For example, I can have passion about something, but if I don’t put the necessary time, thought, and energy into developing the skills and understandings related to it, then it is merely a hobby and possibly not worth knowing well. One passion of mine is writing. If I didn’t sit down and “do the work”, I’d have nothing but half-developed ideas floating around in my mind.

It’s important that we take the concept of engagement and rethink its meaning, as it has been defined within the context of today’s classroom. Consider:

  • If students had been left to their own devices and allowed to work in loose groups, what guarantee would the teacher have that everyone was developing a better understanding while this collaboration was happening?
  • Speaking of devices, kids could certainly have seen some worked problems online prior to class, and then provided more time during class for the teacher to work with students who needed the support. But could we be assured that every student watched the recorded instruction actively and without distraction?
  • As a former middle level mathematics teacher myself, I know how challenging it can be to instill a sense of passion for the subject. By including the students in the instructional responsibilities, everyone had a stake in the process and the outcomes. Passion is then connected with purpose and community.

I call on all school leaders, myself included, to put aside our biases and misconceptions regarding student engagement, as we engage in our own learning experiences during our frequent visits to classrooms. When classrooms that are set up in rows of desks are described as “tombstones”, we make unfair generalizations of a teacher’s abilities to educate their students. When we document the lack of technology integration in a lesson that has no need for it, we show our bias toward a maximalist approach to digital learning. When we find a quiet classroom, it may be inaccurate to assume that learning isn’t occurring. Let our student actions and dispositions guide our professional assessments.

Wisconsin Legislator @SenStroebel to Introduce Bill to Reduce Payments, Raise Retirement Age for Public Employees

According to Molly Beck of the Wisconsin State Journal, Senator Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) plans to introduce a bill that would lay the groundwork for “changes to state workers’ pensions that could reduce the monthly payouts and raise the age at which they could retire.” His reason: To ensure solvency of the state retirement system, even though this system is already solvent. A representative for the Employee Trust Fund stated that the retirement system can currently cover 100% of its obligations.

Here are the two specific details of the bill, which you can find by going to the School Administrators Alliance website:

  • The bill would base retirement payments on the average of the last five years of a public employee’s salary, instead of the last three years. This would reduce retirement payouts by approximately 2.4%.
  • The bill would increase the retirement age of public employees from 55 to 57, and of public safety workers from 50 to 52.

One of the people interviewed for this article summed up this potential legislation with the follow statement: “This is a solution in search of a problem.” If you would like to contact your local legislators about this development, click here.

How to Start an Online Book Club on Goodreads

I write this title to draw in readers with the assumption that I know what I am talking about. Yes, I do know how to start a book club. But to get it going and sustain it for the long run? That will be the topic for another post.

Here are the steps I have taken to get things started on facilitating a book study for a group titled School Leaders as Readers:

1. Get a Goodreads account.

Goodreads is one of my favorite social media tools. It combines my love of reading with the online networking that creates unique connections with other readers. I wish we had something like Goodreads for kids. You can create an account through your Facebook profile, which is what I did. Otherwise just create an account through your email.

2.  Start adding books and bookshelves.

You can categorize books in three ways: “To-Read”, “Currently Reading”, or “Read”. I have several books jockeying for attention in the first two categories. As for the books I have completed, I recommend creating personalized bookshelves. This is a helpful way to curate what you have read for others to reference, or simply for you to reflect on later.

3.  Create a Goodreads group.

While it may seem odd to complete the first two steps before this one, I think it is pretty important. To start a book club online, I believe you need to be seen as an avid reader. It’s not enough to read a lot but are not actively sharing our reading lives. We expect this of our students; why not us?

Starting a group is pretty straight-forward: Select “Groups”, then “Create a Group” on the upper right side of your screen. At this point, Goodreads guides you through the next steps of giving your group a title, adding a book you want to read with your friends on Goodreads (friends will find you or be suggested to you, no worries), invite friends to your group, and then create discussion boards related to the major parts or chapters of the book you are reading.

You will want to keep your book club group’s title and purpose pretty generic, as you will hopefully be reading several books around topics of interest within this online community. Since you are the leader of the group, it is imperative that you start the discussion ball rolling with your own initial posts. Below are the first three I shared for our group’s first book, Mindfulness by Ellen Langer.

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As you can see from my initial post, I really need to read this book.

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I ended up gifting a copy to the librarian, and buying a gift card for the Good Samaritan.

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.51.43 PM

One thing I have appreciated about this online community is the sense of a “closed space”. I can write what I want to write, and not worry a whole lot about grammar, audience, purpose, etc. Of course, I am attending to those elements of good writing, but I am not worrying about it as much I might with a blog post (like this one) or more formal writing. No responses yet, but we only have six people in our group. If you are a school leader, consultant, or public education advocate in general, I hope you will join us for this initial experience. Click here to access our Goodreads community.

Bonus: Leave a comment on this blog post, and you are registered to win a free copy of Mindfulness by Ellen Langer!

Using Mr. Brown’s Precepts to Engage the School Community

One of my goals for this school year is to be more present in the school. It’s not that I was away a lot. Rather, I am aiming to make my presence more known in a couple of ways. One strategy is through increasing my frequency of walkthroughs and classroom visits. I have a formidable goal of 300 walkthroughs for the year, or around 100 per trimester.

The other way I plan on increasing my presence is through morning announcements. Right now my school counselor facilitates this daily event. This is great, and I am just looking to join her more frequently with some words of wisdom.

IMG_3674My source of wisdom is 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Brown’s Book of Precepts, written and edited by R.J. Palacio. This is a companion to the book Wonder by the same author. In the story, Mr. Brown is a featured teacher in the school where the main characters attend. He has quotes that serve as monthly precepts, or principles, which are shared and posted once a month. In this text, some of the quotes are from historical figures, and others are from the fictional characters within Wonder. Last year, one of my assistants posted selected precepts on our school marquee once a month. The response was positive from the community.

I have taken this idea and applied it at the schoolwide level by sharing a precept or two each week. I will read it aloud two times on one day via our PA system, and encourage the school community to ponder what the precept means to them. I will follow up on another day by sharing my own interpretation of what the message is all about and means to me.

Actions may speak louder than words, but that doesn’t mean what we say, read, and write are any less important. Language can create visuals and meanings for someone in unique ways. Word choice can “ground” an idea and make it more understandable, according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, authors of Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago, 1980). Analogies and other forms of figurative language provide frames in which we understand the abstract through a concrete lens. We live our lives through words, embodying them in our interactions with others and in our personal habits.

So the school community can visibly see the precepts I share over announcements, I sequestered a bulletin board. Already covered in black paper and a border that represents our school colors, I use a metallic marker to write the precept on the board, located right across from where students line up for lunch. As the year progresses, I will continue to add to our collection and reference them as needed.


The board title is a take on Lakoff’s and Johnson’s resource. The first of Mr. Brown’s precepts I wrote serves as a mantra for Wonder:

When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.

-Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

This is a quote I referenced in my last post. I imagine we will revisit this precept throughout the school year.

Learning Through Words: Some Thoughts from “The Art of Slow Reading” by Thomas Newkirk (Heinemann, 2012)

imgresI have been reading an excellent resource lately. It is titled The Art of Slow Reading: Six Time-Honored Practices for Engagement by Thomas Newkirk. He was a college professor, former urban high school teacher, and now the lead editor for Heinemann.

Newkirk believes that education moves way too fast, with the advent of technology plus all the standards and academic expectations set upon us. Classrooms should slow down and be more mindful about what students are learning right now. He speaks about strategies he has found that helps with student engagement and slow reading (p 42-43):

  • Performing (attending to the texts as dramatic, as enacted for an audience, even internally)
  • Memorizing (learning by “heart”)
  • Centering (assigning significance to a part of text)
  • Problem finding (interrupting the flow of reading to note a problem or confusion)
  • Reading like a writer (attending to the decisions a writer makes)
  • Elaborating (developing the capacity to comment and expand on texts)

One of the most surprising quotes for me addresses the importance of committing words to memory. On page 77, Newkirk believes that memorizing a piece of text “isn’t rote learning. It is claiming a heritage. It is the act of owning language, making it literally a part of our bodies, to be called upon decades later when it fits a situation.”

Memorable phrases, such as principles and analogies, make the abstract more concrete. Consider the following precept, discovered in Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind. – Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

Isn’t this so much more accessible for people, young or old, instead of “Make better choices”? Dyer’s words seem worth owning. The phrasing and word choice also help to make the precept memorable. It is language that I am committing to memory.

As you and your students explore excellent literature together this year, in what works will you all find phrases and principles to live through, share, and discuss? How might this slow down learning and deepen engagement in your classrooms? I am excited to find out – please share in the comments.