“Would you like to go Cajun dancing? It’s for my friend’s birthday.” I have to admit: at the time that I heard this request from my wife, I might not have been attentively listening. If I had, I imagine I would have asked a series of questions.
“What is ‘Cajun’ dancing?”
“How much does it cost?”
“About how long do we have to stay?”
My inquiries would have been more about my desire to avoid this activity than any interest in dancing. Alas, the day came and I had committed. At the very least, we could connect with friends and have a night out.
We got to the dance hall and checked in. The instructor called us to the middle of the floor for the lesson before the dance. After a brief introduction of the style of music, we got started. “Okay, we are going to start with the basics. Three steps to the left, lift foot and dip, and then three steps to the right, lift foot and dip.” She modeled this with a partner plucked out of the circle at random. Then we tried it.
My wife and I only got to briefly dance together during the lesson. The men were moved one partner to the right after each bit of new instruction. I could tell which partners were as new to this as me by the mutual sweat in our palms. Those more veteran to Cajun dancing were unfiltered in their feedback. “Be sure to put your hand on the blade of my shoulder, not the side.”
Having adequately introduced ourselves to just about everyone in the hall, the instructor transitioned our music from a CD to an actual Cajun band. They needed to do a soundcheck before the official dance began. Feeling good about our progress, our instructor announced, “Okay, don’t worry about being perfect. The most important part about Cajun dancing is to…have fun!” The band started playing and we danced.
The beginning was rough. We bumped into other couples. I lost my step count more than once, even though I was counting under my breath. “Are you leading me, or am I leading you?” my wife quipped with a smile. Yet for all my initial fumbles, I finally found my rhythm, more or less. Counting steps gave way to spins and turns.
This new learning experience revealed missing elements in too many classrooms. When was the last time we as educators kept reading and writing instruction to the bare minimum? What would happen if we positioned our students as teachers and learners for each other more often than not? How would our student respond to the announcement, “Don’t worry about being perfect; just go have fun!” after a brief writing demonstration? Yes, some students would flounder. But not for long.
In an educational world where accountability as left no lesson untouched, the victim of standardization is engagement. We have lost faith in our students’ natural abilities to learn. Our fear of mistake-making has squeezed out some of the joy that should be a by-product of this process.
Let’s get our kids out on the dance floor as soon as possible. Yes, we should teach strategies, offer feedback, and provide assistance when needed. But is achievement without engagement an education worth having?
I am currently scheduling one- and two-day workshops for this summer. Topic: How to use classroom technology for developing self-directed learners.
Educators participating in this workshop will become more confident and fluent in using digital tools in the classrooms. The goal is to identify practices and technologies that can nurture self-directed learners. This professional learning experience will be student-centered, engaging, and relevant for all educators, K-12.
Every year around the Thanksgiving holiday, I provite a short list of memorable blog posts I read the last twelve months or so. This is not an award show. I cannot say that these are the “best blogs” of the year or anything, although these posts were very well written.
I curate other writers’ posts on my own blog for two reasons. Selfishly, I want to have an easy way to come back to what they wrote to read again and possibly inform my own writing. Unselfishly, this list (and past lists) are a great place to start exploring what blogging looks, sounds and feels like. Maybe their posts will inspire you to blog yourself.
Father Tom is the priest of the Catholic church our family used to attend. Here he writes about the importance of journalism in the era of the 24 hour news cycle and social media. Father Tom also reflects on the challenges of the priesthood. His honest reflections coupled with his prior experience as a journalist makes for an insightful article.
An educational consultant offers his reasons for opting his oldest child out of the state test in New York. He shares the steps a family could take to ensure that they understand all sides of the issue. This post does not resemble other calls to opt-out that merely demonize testing. Lehman provides an objective, factual and personal piece.
Peter Skillen provides a brief history of making and makerspaces. His piece stand out due to his belief that this approach to learning is about more than just electronics. Makerspaces allow us to be “active creators of our own knowledge” in all disciplines.
Building poems, art, music, mathematical solutions and so on are all part of the ‘maker movement’ in my mind.
If we are tinkering but never building understanding or developing new ideas, then we are not utilizing makerspaces on behalf of students to their full potential.
I always appreciate hearing about other writers’ struggles, of course not to revel in them but to feel okay about my own many rejections. Liao shares how she received 43 rejections and didn’t meet her goal of 100. Why 100 rejections? According to a colleague of hers, “If you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”
Dr. Brad Gustafson, an elementary school principal, shares his debate on whether to host an all schol picture using a drone for his building’s 50th anniversary. He understands the need to celebrate, yet has concerns about disrupting the school day and classroom instruction. Brad realizes the importance of holding his “no’s” at bay, at least at first.
Ben visibly shares his struggles with a teacher evaluation system that does not align with his professional philosophy. He shares a personal experience as a golf caddy to illustrate the importance of being objective when observing teachers. Ben’s thoughts about the limitations of staff supervision are candid and appreciated.
I submitted a proposal for the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) convention. It was rejected. This post from an educator working with at-risk students provided some perspective. Rosenzweig found that the ISTE experience was “a sales environment” and a lost opportunity for educators to engage in deep conversation about how technology might improve teaching and learning.
My favorite quote from his post is: “What problems are we hiring edtech to solve?” Wise words. It reminds me of another turn of phrase, adapted by me: “If technology is the aspirin, what is the headache?”
Ever since I read Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom (on sale now), I have been a big fan of Stager’s and co-author Sylvia Lebow Martinez’s work. Here, Stager admonishes education’s infatuation with “free” technology. He points out the problems in not paying for technology that supports student learning, including the challenge of smaller software companies to produce excellent resources.
Shareski offers his perspective with regard to integrating technology with instruction in the name of being more efficient in this endeavor. He sees many flaws in the approach. “Education at its core is about relationships and experiences. At its best, it involves caring adults designing and guiding learners through rich learning tasks.”
I was so thankful when I discovered this post. It said everything I felt about the inappropriateness of telling a child they are a “level” when self-selecting books to read. To a deeper point, any teacher using an assessment should be able to tell you a) who it’s for and b) why it’s being used. Backman offers a concise rationale for why levels are not for kids.
A topic not often brought up in educational leadership discourse is the importance of the front office of any school. Casas offers a helpful comparison between morale builders and morale killers. It is a post worthy of sharing with your own office staff.
If I had to pick one post – one article – as a favorite read from the past year, this would be it. Black offers an expansive overview of the limitations of applying research to education, specifically in reading. This is essential reading for any parent questioning a school’s decision on behalf of their child.
This is a transcript of my speech I gave for our 5th graders’ Moving On Up ceremony. It is also my last address I will give at Howe Elementary School, as I have taken a leadership position with the Mineral Point Area School District, also in Wisconsin.
So how many days are left? (smattering of responses) Uh, teachers, I was addressing the students…;-)
That’s okay! Having a clean end to a school year can be rewarding for all of us, educators included. It allows us to take a step back and reflect on the school year as a whole. A little bit of disengagement with the current pace of life is not a bad thing.
During these transitions, it is also good to take stock in our current situation. This means acknowledging where we came from, where we are at, and where we anticipate going. As I took some time to do this recently in preparation for this speech, I discovered that my life as an educator has followed three basic principles up to this point. They are not steps to be taken. Rather, these principles served as guideposts. I share and describe these with you today, as I believe they might also apply to your own personal learning and living journeys.
The first principle is passion. When I was your age, I was passionate about pretty much one thing: Sports. It didn’t matter if it was Little League, our school’s basketball team, the wrestling club, or a pickup football game in a friend’s backyard. If an athletic contest was taking place, I was sure to be involved.
Okay adults, you may want to cover your ears…One thing I did not have a passion for was school. It wasn’t that I was a bad student. I just didn’t work as hard as I could have. Part of that is my own fault – I could have made more of a commitment to my education, and getting my grades up to where they belong with a little more effort. But I didn’t. Also a part of this lack of engagement was that I often didn’t see the relevance in the learning experiences I was asked to pursue. Unlike sports, where our practices were always in preparation for an opportunity to showcase our talents and abilities, school lacked that same opportunity for me. I did what I needed to do in school in order to participate in my passion.
As I progressed through school and entered college, I started coaching the very same teams that I used to participate in as a younger student. This is when I realized that my passion for athletics could also be merged with a career, specifically working with kids in school. This led to the second principle I discovered of living and learning: Persistence.
We hear a lot about “grit” and teaching kids to persevere through challenges. It is my personal opinion that you cannot teach this skill. As educators and parents, we can only create the conditions in which learners will want to pursue a level of mastery and expertise in an area of interest. That is what happened with me. Once I knew what I believed I wanted to do as a profession, I worked harder in my academics. I rose from a so-so student in high school to being named to the Dean’s List in college several times. A little bit of passion can go a long way.
The thing about passion creating the conditions for persistence is, when someone wants to become very good at something, we start to identify gaps in our skills and abilities. For me, this happened in my 2nd year of teaching. Previously, I had taught 5th and 6th graders in all subject areas, including reading and writing. I thought I was flying along in my first year, offering kids great literature and opportunities to write about what they read. When I moved to a 3rd and 4th grade position the next year, I realized that while I had been teaching reading and writing, I was not teaching readers and writers. It became evident to me with these younger students that I could not merely expose them to resources.
So I read everything I could about effective literacy instruction. I pored over current resources, attended conferences about differentiation and assessment, and observed veteran teachers in their classrooms. Once I persisted in improving myself, I gradually became the teacher I wanted to be for my students.
When I felt I had become proficient in instruction, I found this need to share it with other educators and make a difference in their professional lives. This led to me getting my administrative license ten years ago, which leads me to my current position at Howe. When I accepted the position five years ago, I felt like this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This was my purpose in life, the third principle.
What I didn’t anticipate was how my purpose might change between then and today. My passion for education and my persistence in learning everything about my profession evolved into writing about my experiences and the knowledge I had gained to support our work. Writing online in the form of social media and blogging has led to published articles and books on the topics of technology in education and school leadership. This was not in the plans five years ago, yet here I was, trying to balance a full time principal position while writing and share about my work and finding balance with my family and personal life. It was becoming an impossible task.
This year, I realized that purpose in education has changed a bit. I am no longer content with leading a school as my sole pursuit, as admirable as this vocation is. The saddest part about this discovery is that my passions and pursuits are not conducive with being the principal at Howe Elementary School. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family, nor my writing and everything that comes with that.
Enough about me. (By the way, have you noticed that principals like to hear themselves talk?) This is about your special day. You have achieved a major milestone in your educational career and I congratulate you. You should celebrate. Once the confetti settles, consider some humble advice as you take that next step in your life:
Your passions may not align with your current responsibilities. That’s okay. Keep working hard. The habits you build now will transfer when you find what excites you in the future.
Don’t let what you believe you are good at right now necessarily determine what you will become later in life. While I loved sports, as many of you do, I did not have the necessary talent to “make it”. I became open to combining what I loved to do with what I could provide for others that would bring satisfaction and stability in my life.
Persistence is largely dependent on how relevant one finds their current learning and living experiences. Try not to rely on every person in your life to connect your situations with your personal pursuits. Instead, figure out where the connections are between what you love and what is possible.
Allow your circumstances to reveal what your true purpose in life might be. If you look closely enough, you might see that what you are striving for may not be what you originally anticipated. This is also okay. It’s a natural part of the change process.
Write out or draw a visual of your dream job. I did this at the recommendation of a close colleague. It was excellent advice. When I started applying for positions this spring, I approached each interview as an opportunity for the district to partner with me on our mutual goals (instead of trying to sell myself as a “good fit” for the district). If I was going to move forward, it had to be on my terms with regard to my dream job.
Resist allowing others to frame what you are seeking. This is important. They mean well, but they don’t know you or what you are truly after. For example, a few districts did not hire me for the position I sought, but thought I would be excellent for __________. I politely declined. Although it was scary, especially for my wife as I had already resigned my position at Howe, I am glad I kept after what I really wanted.
At the same time, consider the advice of others, especially those you respect and admire. They have most likely gone through similar experiences and can offer suggestions that will be helpful. Having good mentors in your life is essential. Still, keep your focus on what you are really after. When ready to move forward with what you really want, don’t settle. You may regret it.
To close, the principles of passion, persistence, and purpose lead me to think about an important phrase you most likely learned about during your social studies instruction. It is at the beginning of our country’s Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Notice that it is not “Life, Liberty and Happiness”? “the pursuit of” is critical language. Our founding fathers understood that while it is our right to live our lives as free people, it is up to us to find our true happiness. It is not an entitlement, but an opportunity if you so choose to pursue it. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. I will be thinking about you as I pursue my renewed purpose in life. Have a great summer.
New York Times bestselling author Michael Perry (Population: 485 – Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time) visited Howe Elementary School today. He spoke with our 4th and 5th graders about his new book for middle level readers, The Scavengers. Perry shared his process for writing, including the research he does prior to starting a book and his methods for revising his manuscripts once a draft is written. The teachers I spoke with thought he gave an excellent presentation. “The students were totally engaged in his stories and insights – you could have heard a pin drop in the cafeteria,” described one teacher.
I had a school administrator meeting, so I was unable to enjoy the presentation. Fortunately, Michael Perry was speaking at our public library the evening prior. This was the main reason he was in town in the first place: McMillan Memorial Library hosted our first ever community book club. It was titled “Rapids Reads” and focused on three of Michael’s books (Population: 485, The Scavengers, and The Jesus Cow) to read. The author visit at the library was the culminating activity.
The assistant director of McMillan Memorial Library, Brian Kopetsky, introduced the program and the author. It was nice to hear the purpose and the expected outcomes of hosting a community read. “We wanted to create a dialogue around a story, and through that dialogue we can come to discover our values.” One of the activities hosted by the library was a youth writing contest. To my pleasant surprise, two Howe students were the winner and the runner up!
Next up was Michael Perry himself. He started off by sharing that he was very shy by nature and did not naturally enjoy speaking in front of others. Perry’s preferred lifestyle is writing in his second floor office in his farmhouse in Northern Wisconsin. “I will spend multiple days not talking to anyone. This recharges me and allows me to speak to audiences such as writing groups and community programs.”
Next, the author went into his life as a professional writer (and part time farmer). He specifically spoke about the revision process as something he really enjoys.
I am a polisher. I love to revise and edit my work. For example, I will play what I like to call “desperate literary solitaire”: I will print off my manuscript, cut up the sections into smaller pieces, and then move the pieces around until they make sense to me.
Michael Perry did not attempt to glorify the life of a writer. It is his livelihood. He finds joy in his profession as a writer, yet he does not wait to be inspired.
My muse is Mr. Jim, the bald guy nine miles away sitting at the Chetek State Bank who holds my mortgage.
With regard to generating ideas to write about (Perry also writes a weekly column for the Wisconsin State Journal), he finds the best ones derive from his everyday life.
A lot my stories come from phone calls from my brothers.
As I listened to the various stories he shared about his family and friends, I found that these narratives relied on the language and the dialogue of the characters. Their words revealed who they were. What Michael Perry does, in both his speaking and writing, is to pace the narrative in a way that allows for unique phrases to provide a big pay off.
I wasn’t able to stick around for the entire event – my wife had Zumba. Perry read aloud from some of his work and also shared some personal thoughts on the book that I am reading right now, Population: 485.
It is your classic “Can you go home again?” book. What I can say about this book is that I am very grateful that I was able to write it. I got the opportunity to work on something for two years on a topic that I love – the small town of New Auburn and the volunteer fire fighting department.
This post does not adequately convey Perry’s humor, modesty, and honesty that I witnessed in person. If you can bring Michael in for a community read in your area, or to speak with your students, I highly recommend it. His observations about writing, small town America, family and friends, and what it means to be a part of a community are not to be missed.
Around this time of year, I highlight selected posts written by bloggers within the past twelve months. What these posts all have in common is they were worth saving for my own learning and reading enjoyment. You might also find them helpful. This annual post is also my way to show gratitude for other educators out there who are taking the time to share their thinking online in an honest and thoughtful manner.
This Wisconsin principal reflects on his experience as a spelling bee contestant during his elementary school days. He was wronged in his dismissal from the competition (there are two acceptable spellings of “judgment/judgement”). He applies this lesson to how educators approach learning with their own students, positively or negatively.
This English teacher and author reveals how her life has changed as an educator since the birth of her daughter. Sacks lists four lessons she has learned since her family’s new addition: “Learning by Doing”, “The Value of a Network”, “Respect for the Caregiver of our Students”, and “Anything But Standard!”. Many parent-educators can relate.
The late Grant Wiggins, co-developer of the Understanding by Design curriculum framework with Jay McTighe, takes on an Education Week commentary. James DeLisle questions the effectiveness of differentiation. Dr. Wiggins picks apart his argument piece by piece, showing the reader how DeLisle’s quotes are taken out of context and highlighting several resources that do support differentiation. Grant is and will be missed.
A new idea, evidence of student and teacher learning, and a combination of humor and humbleness – these elements make this post an informative and enjoyable one to read. Mosher, a special education teacher, highlights the four steps she is taking to help her students become more actively involved in the goal setting process of individual education plans.
Some of our faculty and I actually used this process for a two day curriculum writing workshop this past June. Moore’s process worked well for us. The best advice I found from her post is setting dates for publishing student work. This has kept all of us accountable for completing our writing genre units of study. Of note: This site won the 2015 Edublogs Group Blog Award.
Sibberson, teacher and author, offers a classroom activity to help students reflect on their reading lives: Write 100 things about themselves as readers. She admits that no one ever gets to 100, but encourages her students to add to the list during the school year. Franki posts her own reflections as a reader (31 and counting).
“Writing ‘I can’ statements or the ‘Standard for the Day’ on the board felt forced and unnatural. I wanted it to be more about the awareness of learning and being responsible for using that learning.” Identifying a felt difficulty, Buckley instituted “Learning Reflections and Frames”.
Instead of listing expectations, this teacher and author now sets collective goals with her students. They also reflect on how well they met their goals at the end of the week. A simple yet powerful change in practice.
There are a litany of posts about homework that get published every year. Starr’s rises above the rest. She reflects on her son’s own school experience with his homework load, worrying that this work he finds too easy is “a waste of time at home”. In response, Starr differentiates between what homework “can be” and “shouldn’t be”.
Matt, an elementary school principal, received a very positive wake up call from the hotel staff where he was staying. This experience served as a good reminder for him in his own interactions with the students, staff, and families at his school. Matt also puts it on the reader to reflect on our language as professionals and the impact it has on others.
Elisabeth, an English professor in Nebraska, uses the everybody book The Story of Fish & Snail by Deborah Freedman as a springboard for her students to write about bravery in their future classrooms. She shares several of their responses in her post. Dr. Ellington also provides commentary about the nature of writing instruction in classrooms, especially the importance of taking risks as a teacher who models this craft for learners.
Writing that feels safe is often writing that’s just going through the motions. When I’m uncomfortable in a piece of writing, that’s when I know I’m getting somewhere.
This high school teacher from Michigan collaborates with his school librarian to create a learning space “to give students access to tools on their own to see what they will create”. Nicholas provides examples of student-driven projects, including a prototype for a knee brace that would keep a kneecap in place and a prosthetic hoof for horses. This post makes it clear that #makingmatters.
Dr. Shanahan, Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, takes to task an article from The Atlantic that admonishes the teaching of reading in kindergarten in the U.S. (in comparison to Finland’s more relaxed approach). For starters, the U.S. has a more diverse population with many different cultures represented. He also points to the higher level of parent education in Finland. Reading instruction is beneficial for early learners, Shanahan notes, provided that these experiences are authentic and research-based.
Teachers are always on the lookout for ways to be more effective with limited instruction time. Sztabnik, a high school English teacher from New York, enlists the 80/20 rule (“Find out what is vital, ignore what is trivial”) to prioritize practices. For example, he recommends asking better questions while teaching to promote student thinking and deepen their conversations. More time is spent being an active part of learning.
What blog post(s) that you read this year were most memorable? Please share the link in the comments along with why they are worthy of recognition! You can access previous year’s most memorable blog posts by clicking here.
50 books. 365 days. This was the goal for my reading life starting in January 2015.
Having completed the challenge early, I had time to reflect on this experience, share what I learned about myself as a reader, and offer suggestions for educators who help students become lifelong readers.
1. Setting goals is important, so long as the goal doesn’t become the goal itself.
I set 50 books as my goal with the knowledge that I can read a book within a week on average. Sometimes I flew through a text. Examples include The Martian by Andy Weir and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. With other texts, such as The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk and Mindfulness by Ellen Langer, I took my time while reading. My deliberateness allowed me to reflect on the information and consider how I could apply this knowledge to my current position as an elementary school principal. With every book I read, I selected it because I wanted to read it, not to meet my goal. The goal of 50 books served to keep me accountable for reading more,but not to simply read.
Implications for the classroom: If you are a classroom teacher, how are you developing reading goals with students? I emphasize “with”, because if you are doing the goal setting for students, there will be little ownership for the student. Also, the goal has to be meaningful. If it is a goal based on a skill or on volume of reading, do students understand the goal and what the results mean? If not, we promote compliance instead of engagement in our classrooms.
2. Fiction is not just for entertainment, and nonfiction is not just for learning.
I had little knowledge about space explorations before starting The Martian. But I was motivated to read it, with the movie coming out along with friends recommending it. I struggled with some of the science concepts and acronyms. Yet I persevered because the story about Mark Watney stranded on Mars was just so interesting. In the two days that I read The Martian, I explored various online webpages via NASA to learn more about Mars expeditions and what the future holds. I couldn’t “count” my additional reading, but that didn’t really matter to me. Fiction sparked interest in informational text.
Implications for the classroom: With all due respect to E.D. Hirsch and his acolytes, having enough background knowledge about a complex text before reading it should not always be required. Creating a dichotomy between engagement and information promotes the misconception that reading is done either for entertainment or for learning. The Common Core State Standards perpetuates this idea by separating informative and narrative reading. Educators need to embrace reading as a complexexperience that can offer multiple benefits simultaneously. In other words, discovering new information can be enjoyable, and you can learn a lot from a story. Context matters.
3. Be intentional about the role of technology with reading.
One of the biggest surprises for me during this Goodreads challenge is how much I prefer reading on print versus eBooks. Also surprising is how my wife, a 2nd grade teacher and less techy than me, reads almost all of her books on her eReader. So why the difference? Because we read for different reasons. Lately, I have had a passion for learning more about education as a profession and writing about it. This situation created a necessary demand that I have print versions of the texts on hand for easy reference.
In my wife’s case, she connects with other readers/friends on Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads. They recommend books to each other in their ratings and reviews, and want to read that next text without the wait. We also have two young children, so the natural light from her eReader allows her to enjoy a book when the opportunity presents itself in our busy lives. She is a part of a reading community, much like a classroom that promotes authentic reading experiences. These digital resources are necessary for some readers.
Circumstances change. Technology can also help readers adapt. For example, once I finished writing my most recent book, I welcomed the opportunity to read more fiction. A brief scan of my visual reading log on Goodreads confirmed that I had been favoring nonfiction lately. If my list of previously read titles had been text only, I would have had a harder time determining this. The ability of Goodreads to not only track my reading life but also to offer a visual summary with book covers provided this information more quickly. Goodreads also allows readers to create groups around a genre or topic to read and write about online. Currently, I am facilitating the group “School Leaders as Readers”, where we read and discuss texts relevant to our positions.
Implications for the classroom: Technology can be a necessary part of our reading experiences at school. Online reading communities and the availability of more books via the Internet and eReaders can serve to expand our students’ access to texts and how they interact with others about their reading.
Technology can also simply be nice. Take the one-to-one initiatives that put a device in the hands of all students K-12. Does every 1st grader need a tablet like they need paper, a pencil, and a good book to read? What opportunities for conversation and collaboration do we give up for students when we place a priority on being connected?
The biggest thing I learned from the Goodreads Book Challenge is that reading is a personal endeavor. If we are to create a personalized learning experience for our students, then educators need to make sure that goal setting is collaborative and meaningful, that the complexities of fiction and nonfiction are deeply explored, and that technology serves to support students’ reading experiences instead of driving them.