School Principal: Lead Learner? Lead Reader?

In a blog post for Nerdy Book Club, I quietly posed this question. I hear and see the title “Lead Learner” thrown out as a better way to describe the principalship. I appreciate the idea, as it seems to have good intentions, that we should all be about learning. A nice article in one of last year’s ASCD Education Update describes how two principals live out this title in their current roles.

Of course, there is critique in any level of change that has become an institution. For example, in that same article, Pernille Ripp questions why there needs to be a revision.

As adults, we get so caught up in titles, [but] kids are much more focused on what you’re doing rather than what they call you.

Baruti Kafele offers a similar sentiment regarding principals adopting this idea.

Why the title? I just want us to be a community of learners, but I don’t necessarily have to be the lead learner.

Like Pernille, Baruti emphasizes the importance of modeling what we want to see in our school. He offers examples in this video interview for ASCD.

For me, my title will remain “principal”. It is true that our position is defined in our actions rather than merely our words. I think about all the efforts made to promote authentic literacy in our school, from the morning announcements in which I share a book recommendation or a quote, to my staff newsletters in which I share my reading life, to the read alouds I do in classrooms. Yet despite all of these actions, I would not qualify myself as a “lead reader” anymore than a “lead learner”.

Reading aloud Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco to 5th graders this year. 

What I will say about reading and the principalship is that there are few habits more important than being a wide and avid reader. I read newspapers, magazines, fiction, nonfiction, educational resources, blogs, tweets and posts, research articles, children’s literature…the list is almost endless. Having a diverse and deep knowledge base has been essential in my success as a school leader. The level of respect I might have as an instructional leader is dependent on this quality. It’s so important that I now schedule time to read professionally during the school day.

Any title we give ourselves is only as credible as how live out these words in our actions.

Recent Books I’ve Read and Recommend

Being in between positions, I am finding more time to read books and write about them. I usually post my ratings and reviews on Goodreads. This social media tool provides an HTML code of your post to publish on your blog. So…here you go! Look for more reviews over the summer. If you have titles you have read recently and would recommend, please post in the comments.

The Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School TeamsThe Action Research Guidebook: A Four-Stage Process for Educators and School Teams by Richard D. Sagor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A comprehensive guide for educators to conduct action research in schools. The author provides lots of templates as well as examples from both the teacher and principal perspective. I used this text to conduct my own action research. The four stage process was explained well. It might be too much information for educators just getting familiar with the action research process.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby, #2)Beastly Bones by William Ritter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An entertaining follow up to the first Jackaby book. The author provides enough red herrings to keep you guessing about the perpetrator and its origins. A nice blend of mystery, paranormal, and humor.

Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? (ASCD Arias)Solving 25 Problems in Unit Design: how do I refine my units to enhance student learning? by Jay McTighe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice companion to the other UbD resources by the authors. I could see teams of teachers using it when doing a curriculum audit.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are few books I elect to own in multiple formats. Better is one of them. I listened to it as an audiobook, and plan to purchase a physical copy soon. There are so many ideas in Better that I want to come back to: Innovation, systems thinking, improving performance, and doing the right thing that any person can relate to. It’s a book about medicine, yes, but so much more.

Digital Reading: What's Essential in Grades 3-8Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by William L. Bass II, Franki Sibberson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the rare #edtech books that prioritizes pedagogy over technology. The authors take a deep dive into the benefits and costs of reading on a screen. I especially enjoyed the chapters on connectedness and home-school communication.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure, #1)Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nice departure from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy may be the worst detective in history, mostly because he doesn’t listen to others or make basic observations. His ignorance leads him into a lot of trouble that is more funny than serious. The author keeps things grounded when he touches on Timmy’s home life, a realistic portrait of a single parent situation (minus the polar bear).

Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get DiscoveredShow Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered by Austin Kleon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief text filled with many ideas for sharing your work and process with others. Felt it was too short. The author could have expanded on some of the topics a bit more. Still, well worth my time reading it.

View all my reviews

The Principal’s Bookshelf: What I’ve Read, What I’m Reading, and What I Plan on Reading

Summer has arrived, or is soon coming. The upcoming break offers school leaders time to read and learn something new, or simply to enjoy the written word.

Here are some books that I have read, am reading, or will read that I would recommend.

What I’ve Read

The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be
by Anya Kamanetz

A good overview of the testing dilemma in the U.S. The book is at its strongest when Kamenetz explores the possibilities of what testing could look like in the future. Specifically, how technologies could pull data about student progress while they are engaged in learning is intriguing. However, there was a lot of research left by the wayside, with the author too often utilizing anecdotes and quotes to support her position. Still, The Test is a very helpful guide for someone looking to better understand this topic.

The Adventures of a South Pole Pig
by Chris Kurtz

I enjoyed reading aloud this chapter book to my daughter. It follows a similar narrative to Charlotte and Babe, yet the setting and major events make this book a unique read. Flora, a pig looking for adventure, gets hooked up with a team of explorers heading for the South Pole. She thinks she is destined to be a “sled pig”, but the ship’s cook has other ideas…

The Third Teacher
by OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, Bruce Mau Design

Are you involved in the building or redesign of a new school? Thinking about installing a makerspace? This book is an essential resource for reconsidering how the learning spaces in schools serve students and teachers. There are many ideas and examples that educators can pull into their own buildings. The book itself is a product of design with unique fonts and compelling images.

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time
by Michael Perry

I started reading this book shortly after hearing Michael Perry speak at our local public library. It’s a treat to hear a good author speak. They talk as they write – with the ability to spin a good story out of the ordinary. Population: 485 serves as a memoir for small town life in Northern Wisconsin. It also reminds the reader about being more present in our everyday experiences. For me, both hearing the author speak and reading his writing has helped me take life more slowly and deliberately.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

The things that bring you joy tell you a lot about who you are. (p. 126)

Life is a preservation project. Our instinct for preservation plays out in everything from the depth of our breaths to an affection for bricks. Even as we flail and cling, trying to bottle time, to save it, we love only through its expenditure. Memory is a means of possession, but eventually, the greatest grace is found in letting go. (p. 178)

It is occurring to me that to truly live in a place, you must give your life to that place. It is a dynamic commitment, but it is also a manifestation of stillness. (p. 210)

Three Times Lucky (Tupelo Landing #1)
by Sheila Turnage

Wow, what a book! This necessary read aloud for middle level classrooms highlights one of the most original characters to come to modern children’s literature, Moses “Mo” LeBeau. She was washed downstream and discovered by The Colonel and Miss Lana, now her adoptive parents. Mo frequently writes to her “upstream mother”, while investigating a recent murder in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina with her best friend Dale. Mo’s witty quips and heartfelt efforts to find balance in her life makes Three Times Lucky a favorite of mine for children’s literature.

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

by Peter Gray

If you are a public educator, read this book with an open mind. While the author does not hide his disdain for public education as a squasher of children’s creativity and love for learning, the research and experiences he uses to support his position are difficult to refute. I took the points that he made throughout this engaging informative text and considered how I might apply them in my current context as an elementary school principal. For example, can a school offer daily opportunities for kids to explore learning of their own choosing? I have a hard time seeing why not.

What I’m Reading

Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others
by Tom Romano

This resource will sit alongside my other writing references, such as On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott. Romano is a long time writing teacher at the University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio. Each short chapter serves as a quick lesson on one aspect of the writing process. Much joy, honesty and reflection inhabit this very personal book, which also serves as a memoir of sorts for Romano. Read Write What Matter slowly, and apply each bit of instruction to your own writing life.

Mistakes Were Made (Timmy Failure #1)
by Stephan Pastis

This first installment in a children’s book series, which I am reading aloud to my son, is within the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Timmy is a clueless kid detective who lives up to his last name by not noticing the obvious when taking on cases. We are only a third of the way through it, and so far we are appreciating the author’s unique sense of humor and the realistic family dynamics of Timmy’s life that add some heart to this series.

Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
by Atul Gawande

This book has been highly recommended to me. The author, a practicing surgeon, shares anecdotes and research about how the best organizations and individuals continuously focus on becoming better in their practice. Gawande’s writing is general enough that any professional can apply his principles to their own work. (For a good example of the connection between the author’s ideas and teacher practice, check out this article by Susan L. Lytle from the University of Pennsylvania.)

What I Plan on Reading

The Together Leader: Get Organized for Your Success – And Sanity!
by Maia Heyck-Merlin

I am reading this productivity resource to review for MiddleWeb. Getting more organized and efficient in my daily life as a principal is always an area of interest. In my initial preview of this text, the author offers several self-assessments to help the reader identify their strengths and areas for growth as a leader. Heyck-Merlin also offers a digital newsletter for readers to subscribe to with new strategies for becoming a better manager and leader.

The Art of Coaching Teams: Facilitation for School Transformation
by Elena Aguilar

In The Principal, Michael Fullan shares his belief that school leaders should focus on building the capacities of teacher teams instead of individuals. Aguilar offers specifics on how to make this happen. The author provides several protocols and templates for facilitating professional learning, as well as advice on how to work with different personalities within a school. The Together Leader and The Art of Coaching Teams are the resources I am exploring as I prepare for a new position in Mineral Point, WI.

Beastly Bones (Jackaby #2)
by William Ritter

The second installment in this YA series continues to follow the story of junior detective Abigail Rook and her eccentric employer R.F. Jackaby. They specialize in the supernatural and unexplainable. The book starts with Rook and Jackaby discovering creatures that physically change into the prey they are hunting. Ritter’s stories are full of creative ideas. It is hard to anticipate where the writer will go next, which makes these Victorian-age mysteries all the more fun to read.

So what have you read recently or are currently reading that you would recommend to other school leaders? Please share in the comments.