A Good Mind


My son and I have taken Tae Kwon Do together now for almost a year. He joined so he could engage in an extracurricular activity that would also benefit him down the road, in areas such as self-discipline and healthy habits. I joined to lose a few pounds as well as to stretch out an ailing back.

We both have graduated to our next levels. This means we are that much closer in our learning progression toward black belt – the ultimate prize. What it also means is that our next short term goal (a red stripe for me and red belt for my son) will require a longer interval between testing dates.

Thinking back to my initial test for yellow stripe, this event occurred after only two weeks of training. The forms and techniques were simple. Success was essentially guaranteed.

Not so now. The techniques and forms asked of each of us is a challenge every time we enter practice. So what keeps us going? How will we, especially my young son, stay motivated to achieve that next goal, which is at least four months away?

Our master instructor often addresses this during practice. While we are sitting down and stretching on the floor of the dojang, he will make comments like “You don’t need to be the greatest athlete to be successful (in tae kwon do). But you do need to have a good mind.”

So if it is mostly mental, what does it take to develop a good mind? Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (Mariner, 2012), explores this question. He is a journalist who looked for answers to why some kids succeed against great odds while others do not.

For instance, Tough visited and observed students in highly volatile areas within the city of Chicago. What he learned is that, in spite of these kids’ tough situations, some overcame the obstacles they faced through positive relationships with others, especially parents. In fact, he found that “parents can overcome histories of trauma and poor attachment; that they can change their approach to their children from one that produces anxious attachment to one that promotes secure attachment and healthy functioning” (38). This is promising. Even if we as parents have made mistakes in the past, it may not be too late.

But what if parents do not make these changes when warranted? How do we as educators handle these situations? The author relates this knowledge to how schools might attempt to help students develop better habits of mind. As an example, Tough highlighted an inner city chess club advisor, Elizabeth Spiegel. Her middle school students regularly win both individual and team awards at the national level. Her secret? Besides an incredible amount of chess knowledge she has attained, she also provides her students with unflinchingly honest feedback about their performance. She isn’t mean with her observations. Spiegel is just very direct and specific about where her students can improve for their next competition. Her goal is to help her students think, as well as to encourage the idea that they can always improve.

Back in the dojang…

In spite of our lengthened time before our next testing date, I am starting to now see how those that came before us were successful.

First, our practices are reliant on our community. There is no shame in being a white belt, because everyone started at this point. If someone is struggling with their form, a higher belt is assigned to that person to perform it together, as a shared demonstration. If there is more than one belt color that needs help, another student is place in between each of them. They then execute the same form together. When practice is not in session, we have several opportunities to celebrate, such as at tournaments and family gatherings. There is no shortage of trophies and food. These positive relationships keep us together during our individual struggles.

As well, our practices are all about growth. We don’t look back at a time when we were not successful. Rather, a focus on that next step toward becoming a green belt, red belt, or whatever goal is the aim. The feedback we receive from the master instructor is always about our actions and never about ourselves as a person. Even if the mistake was “upstairs”, the response from our teacher is still focused on our habits of mind. Are we lacking focus? What is going on right now that is preventing us from being present? Whether physical or mental, we have total control in making adjustments to better our performance.

Why does this matter?

In school, so much of our time is wasted on focusing on goals that are not attainable in the near or distant future. Standardized test scores and other forms of summative assessments are outcomes of excellent instruction. But they mean very little to learners in the here and now. When a school attempts to become proficient in a matter of one year after receiving results that indicate underachievement, it is like going from white belt to black belt. It is not going to happen that fast. That goal is only attainable if a school were to alter the system itself. This would mean cheating the assessments, which has become a reality for a few schools and districts.

Instead, schools that are the most successful create a culture of continuous learning toward attainable goals. They develop a climate where it is perfectly acceptable to admit one’s areas of need and seek help in becoming better. Schools that make large and regular gains see the success in one area as a result of a collaborative effort from many. Feedback given and received is visible, transparent, and focused on what we are doing and can do better in, instead of nebulous goals that are unattainable and irrelevant to students’ learning lives.

As I embark on my fourth year as an elementary principal, I plan on coming in with the same mindset of wonder and enthusiasm as I did when I stepped into my first classroom. Cultivating a climate of trust, collective responsibility, and hope will be my first priorities. I am confident that the other important mandates will fall into place.

Blog Tour for Digital Student Portfolios

Starting Monday, August 11, five educators will be posting their thinking on their blog regarding my new book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment.


Here is the schedule for next week:

Monday, 8/11: Jessica Johnson, http://www.principalj.net/
Tuesday, 8/12: Curt Rees, http://curtrees.com/
Wednesday, 8/13: Cathy Mere, http://reflectandrefine.blogspot.com/
Thursday, 8/14: Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, http://www.thedailycafe.com/
Friday, 8/15: Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan, http://assessmentinperspective.com/?page_id=45

I am very grateful for their willingness to speak about authentic assessment and giving students every opportunity to show what they know, can do, and understand. The educators featured here are some of the most knowledgable learners I know in these areas.

Leave a comment on one of their posts and possibly win a free copy of my book!

In addition to the blog tour, Powerful Learning Practice will be co-hosting a Twitter chat with me on Sunday, August 17 at 6 P.M. CST. Click here to sign up for this event.

And if you want to start chatting now about Digital Student Portfolios, request to join our Google+ Community on the topic: https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/107299147056550128738

How Do You Find Time to Write a Book?


photo credit: dhammza via photopin cc

With yesterday’s launch of my new eBook, this question seems to come up the most. It is sometimes followed up with, “You know, I have always wanted to write a book. It would be about…” I don’t have a simple answer, but I do have some suggestions if you also aspire to write about something you are passionate about and want to share with the world.

In the beginning of this project, about one year ago, I did not intend on this becoming a book. I simply started reflecting about our school’s progress in embedding technology into instruction through writing. I started writing a “booklet” to share with staff, especially faculty who were new to our learning journey. Even before that, I often blogged about our practices here.

Once I realized that this booklet was becoming something bigger than anticipated, I submitted what I had written so far to a publisher, Powerful Learning Press. The editor, John Norton, liked what he saw and encouraged me to write more.

So what happened between then and now? To begin, I dedicated time to write. This meant selecting certain days and times where I would just sit down and write. I wasn’t worried too much about images to embed, grammar, or organization. My goal was to get my thoughts down on paper, digitally speaking.

What I found out about myself is that I have a hard time writing at home. Too many distractions? I don’t know, but I would go to certain establishments that specifically did not have wireless. This way I wasn’t tempted to check my Twitter feed or see what’s shaking online.

In addition to dedicating time to write, I also read a lot. Seems counterintuitive, right? How would I have time to read if I needed to write? The ideas suggested in my text did not come out of thin air. They are a series of connections I have made between different people’s perspectives. This includes books, articles, websites, tweets, blog posts. The information I gleaned from reading was in addition to the in-person and online conversations I had with many experts on authentic literacy assessment.

Whether I was reading or writing, I also became better about identifying and utilizing writing emergencies. This is similar to “reading emergencies”, those unexpected downtimes for engaging in reading that Donalyn Miller promotes in her book Reading in the Wild. Writing emergencies would come up when taking the kids to swimming lessons, or when I might be waiting for an auto repair. I would pull out my laptop and write a few paragraphs during these lulls.

So where does one find the motivation to write and complete a book? Having a helpful and supportive community was essential for me during this process. My wife was very encouraging about taking time to go write. My editor and other beta readers provided needed feedback. Also, having loose deadlines was definitely motivating to “get after it”. This book had one author’s name on the cover, but there were many contributors.

Maybe the most important factor in finding time to write this book is that I was compelled to share what I now knew with others. Our work we were doing was unique and deserved to be promoted. I was constantly thinking about it. It was hard to “turn off” all that was happening. The only way to get these ideas out of my head was to document and share them. Some time spent away from family and friends was hard, yes, but I would like to think I was more present for them when I was done with writing for that day.

To learn how other writers who are also practicing educators develop their resources, check out two blog posts:

Both their experiences and expertise far exceed mine.

So do you have an idea rattling around in your head? Is it all you think about? Would others benefit from learning from what you know and are able to do? Maybe it is time to share it in a more formal capacity. Please share in the comments where you are at in your thinking right now.

Why I Dropped Out of My First MOOC

I am in the midst of final edits for my first eBook, to be released on July 31. After sending these to my editor, I realized that lately I have not completed any work for this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I enrolled in this summer. The topic of learning was teaching and assessment in the 21st century.

So why didn’t I complete it?

It was a lot of sit and get.

There were a series of videos for each of the five weeks (I got through the first three weeks). Each video ranged from seven to twenty minutes long, with five or more videos each week. While the content being shared was fine, I had a problem with the way it was delivered. It was just the two main professors, speaking to the text that was shown on the screen. I was wondering how this is any different that sitting in a lecture hall. This is not how I would choose to spend my summer.

The content lacked context.

This is unfortunate, because I felt the people who developed this course have some interesting thoughts on the topic of 21st century instruction. However, not at one time did we see a piece of student work nor students actually working. The best that was shared was listening to two high school students trying to collaboratively solve a computer-based story problem, which leads me to my next concern…

I felt there was an agenda.

I cannot verify this. But there were too many examples that led me to believe that a large standardized assessment organization was involved in this MOOC. The company’s name was referenced more than once. In addition, the collaborative problem solving example just mentioned distinctly resembled how new computer-based tests might look like next year. There was a whole lot of talk about assessment, but very little about teaching. The title of the course was misleading.

It lacked relevance.

I went back and forth about whether I should continue to stay active with this MOOC. What would I miss that others might gain? Would I be seen as another “MOOC dropout”? In the end, it came down to how ready I was (or wasn’t) to absorb this information, in addition to applying it to my current school context. I can see how collaborative problem solving in online spaces might be a part of the future of assessment. But we are not there yet. Are you?

This topic is not being discussed within my personal learning network.

I consider the educators I follow and connect with to be the most up-to-date learners. To my knowledge, they are not discussing on Twitter or Google+ how to best assess students as they collaborate with peers to solve contrived story problems with computer access only. My PLN is like a bellweather for me when it comes to issues I need to develop more awareness of.

So what has been your experience with MOOCs? Is it similar or different than mine? Should I give MOOCs another shot in the future? Feel free to share your thinking in the comments.

Data is…

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 12.00.20 PM

When considering evidence and artifacts for our own growth and for evaluation, it is wise to broaden our understanding of “data”. Numbers do not tell the whole story. This word cloud, made with Tagxedo, notes many different types of data. They are retrieved from The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Dana and Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).

(Click here to view the interactive version.)

Rethinking Reading Logs

In another lively #educoach Twitter chat, we discussed the first chapter of Donalyn Miller’s book Reading in the Wild. This excellent resource provides educators with many ideas on how to raise readers for a lifetime, and not just for that next test or quiz.

A topic that came up near the end of the discussion was reading logs.

There were multiple responses. Most of them were not favorable toward this practice. I realize why educators use reading logs: We want students to become habitual readers. But why do we develop habits? A habit is a behavior that we repeat over and over because we experience something positive from it.

Reading logs do not develop lifelong readers. It is the act of reading itself – the entertainment to be had, the information gained, and the subsequent socialization we experience – that keeps us coming back for more.

So how can we rethink this assessment tool, so that the accountability we place on students to become more regular readers augments instead of detracts from the experience?

Reading Graffiti Boards

Our 4th and 5th grade teachers all attended a one day workshop with Donalyn Miller last fall. Reading graffiti boards is an idea suggested by her. The teacher puts up black butcher paper. He or she then models how to write favorite lines from their book they are reading on the board. Metallic markers make the writing pop out.


During my regular walkthroughs, I enjoyed watching this graffiti board expand with student contributions. This tool for sharing led to students having more authentic peer conversations with each other about what they were reading. It also served well as a natural way to recommend titles.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Blog Instead of Log

My son hated filling out his reading log as a first grader this past school year. It was like pulling teeth, as they say. Because he liked technology (just like his dad:), we tried blogging about his reading instead.

We used KidBlog as our writing tool. Initially, it was still the same process of forcing him to respond to his reading. But once he started getting comments from family members, such as his grandmother, he became more motivated to share his reading life.

We hit pay dirt when one of his favorite authors, Johnathan Rand, posted a comment on his blog post about his book series Freddy Fernortner: Fearless First Grader. (I had emailed the author my son’s post about his books, in hopes of him responding.) After a discussion in the comments, including many questions from my son, I suggested hosting a Skype chat between the author and his classmates.

Before the Skype chat, the classroom teacher had the students suggest several questions for Mr. Rand. When they finally did connect with him, students had the opportunity to come up and speak with the author, each with a question in hand.


After this experience, I was told that many of my son’s 1st grade classmates were much more motivated to read, especially the Freddy Fernortner chapter book series. This included one student who last semester was in Reading Recovery.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

Create Book Trailers

In another one of our 4th grade classrooms, a teacher had discovered Educreations. This is a simple web-based screencasting tool that can be used on iPads and other mobile devices. Students in this classroom still had reading expectations, but they were to create a book trailer for a title they had recently read.


Book trailers are visual and audio summaries of titles, with the purpose of convincing someone else to read that book. The students in this classroom regularly shared their creations with their peers by mirroring the content onto the whiteboard. I was told that one of the more challenging students in this classroom, who refused to do much of any other work, was highly motivated to create these book trailers.

Would this have occurred with reading logs?

I realize my repeated question is rhetorical. The reactions, products, and feelings toward reading that I listed would not have occurred with the outdated practice of paper-based reading logs. There needs to be an authentic audience for the responses students are asked to produce about their reading. This audience creates a more profound purpose for these types of assessments and accountability tasks.

What is your opinion on reading logs? In what ways have you augmented how students respond to their independent reading? How do you know it is working, in that your students are becoming lifelong readers? Please share in the comments.