Time to Breathe

Yesterday I wrote about a writing activity I have used with staff called List, Jot, Write Long. It helped us think about our beliefs about instruction, and move toward developing individual and team goals. This morning, I actually presented this information to my teachers during our all staff gathering. Here was the agenda:

I felt like I was as prepared as I could be. Or so I thought. I shared visual samples of what the Individual Professional Development Plan could look like. An example of a SMART goal was distributed as well as presented on the whiteboard. We confirmed the due date for these goals to be submitted to me (within a month).

As one might guess, the problem I ran into was changing too much at one time. I threw two new things at them today: 1) Connect your individual goals to a team goal, and 2) Do it in the context of a professional learning community. Expecting staff to make two shifts at one time is not realistic, especially when we have state assessments and other initiatives breathing down our backs.

If I think back to my days as a teacher, I knew not to differentiate more than one piece of my instruction. Otherwise I would potentially lose my students due to too many choices and lack of focus (Content + Process = Product). For example, I could differentiate the process I used to present the content through visual, auditory and kinesthetic means, but that meant my content and product needed to stay the same.

So why didn’t I follow what I knew to be best instruction? Maybe I am also feeling the pressure of getting information delivered without a lot of time and resources. Nevertheless, as I came back from our staff gathering I reflected on how it could have been better. I touched base with a few teachers and asked, “What are your thoughts after today?” The general consensus was that it was good information and they understood what is expected of them. It was just a matter of finding time to look over all the materials.

I appreciate that my staff is so honest with me. It shows that we have a good level of trust, that they know I am looking out for their best interests and vice versa. Around the same time, the former principal at my school stopped by to drop off some documents. Always willing to lend an ear, he listened to my concerns about all this information being delivered to staff without enough time to truly integrate it with integrity. His response: Give them more time.

Brilliant! And why didn’t I think of that? Maybe because I was too mired in the conflict itself and needed another perspective. At any rate, I developed a plan that extended the due dates as well as bring in subs to give grade level teams substantial time to collaborate. When I sent out the new plan, staff responded immediately with “Thank you!” and “I appreciate you understanding”.  The fact that my teachers didn’t say much until I asked them speaks volumes about their character and their willingness to follow their principal into new territory despite their uncertainties.

I think any public educator can make the claim that we are being inundated with initiatives like we have never seen before. I don’t believe this to be hyberbole; has their ever been a time before the present when standards (CCSS), teacher evaluations (value-added) and instruction (RtI) are all being overhauled at the same time? We as leaders need to recognize this, for our staff and ourselves, before leading change. All of these initiatives are truly secondary to the energy and well-being of the educators who work with our students every day. In spite of whatever comes our way, we need to build in time to breathe so we don’t become overwhelmed or forget why we entered this profession in the first place.

What I (Think) I Know About the Educator Effectiveness Initiative

What is the Educator Effectiveness Initiative?
It is the new way we are going to be assessed as public educators. Instead of the once every three year dog-and-pony show, there will be several shorter observations every year. These snapshots of teaching will be collected as artifacts over time. Every three years, you and your supervisor will come to a rating based on the many pieces of evidence collected. A rubric with four ratings (Highly Effective, Effective, Minimally Effective, Ineffective) will be used to make a final determination. It is based on the Charlotte Danielson model for instruction.

Where did this initiative come from?
A little while back, the federal government was offering states Race to the Top funds. States applied for these funds to receive waivers from Adequate Yearly Progress and No Child Left Behind. Wisconsin applied twice and was denied both times. It may not be a bad thing, however. States that were initially accepted for RTTT are now expected to follow through on their commitment on using student outcomes in addition to supervisor ratings for evaluation purposes. There have been some problems with this, especially in states like California. We are being told that Wisconsin is looking at how the other states are progressing when developing our plan.

Will our ratings be public, like principals’ evaluations are now?
No. It was stressed by several organizations representing educators that public educators’ evaluations not be for public consumption. That means newspapers and citizens will no longer be allowed to request this information. Act 166 is the legislation that contains this language.

What will these “more frequent observations” look like?
They can take many forms. A few that were encouraged by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction include walkthroughs and look-fors, narrative feedback, minutes from staff collaborations, student products, video documentation of lessons, peer observations, surveys and more.  Also, the teacher and the principal will work together to develop goals for each year. Observations curated in an educator’s portfolio will be a collaborative effort, although the supervisor will make the final rating.

Say what? We have to create portfolios now?
Not in the traditional sense, but my understanding is yes. There has to be a way to curate and store all of these observations to go back to later. I think technology will play a big part in this. Currently the DPI is still exploring tools for this purpose and is open to suggestions. My thoughts? I think Google Sites could be a great way to house all of this information in a secure way, but I am also open to whatever works for us.

Is this going away?  No, and that could be a good thing

List, Jot, Write Long

We expect students to write every day at school. As teachers we scaffold this process, by helping them come up with ideas, get those ideas down right away, organize their thoughts in a way that makes sense to them and others, and then start to compose a piece of writing that effectively communicates these ideas to an authentic audience.

As a staff, we have an expectation that we write every day, too. Our intended audience is our students. Our purpose is to develop writers in our classroom by modeling this process, then gradually releasing the writing responsibility over to our students.  At the same time, I have encouraged my staff to write for themselves. They could blog and share their great teaching ideas and connect with other educators, or just journal after a day of instruction to reflect on what went well and what to work on for next time. The audience for this type of writing are colleagues and/or themselves.

With the new Educator Effectiveness Initiative in Wisconsin, also known as Act 166, all educators will be expected to write a little bit more. The audience? Their immediate supervisor.

Starting in 2014, teachers and principals will no longer be evaluated once every three years. Superintendents and principals will now be observing schools and classrooms several times annually. What is replacing the long narrative evaluation tool are several pieces of evidence over a three year period. These artifacts can include walkthrough forms, checklists, video observations, peer coaching sessions, and documented informal conversations.  Although this is another thing coming at public educators in the midst of Common Core, Response to Intervention and Smarter Balanced Assessments, the concept of making several observations over a multi-year period of time instead of the one time dog and pony show should be a welcomed change. The writing part for staff comes when they are asked to curate and reflect on their pieces of evidence that has helped them meet their professional goals.

I am all for giving my staff information ahead of time. Not too much that they are overwhelmed; just enough periodically so they have an awareness of what is coming. The process we are using this year to start becoming more reflective practitioners by 2014 is a tool Regie Routman encourages for goal setting: List, Jot, Write Long. It is adapted from an activity developed by Jennifer Allen in her educational resource Becoming a Literacy Leader.  Always trying to model the teaching process in my own communications with staff, I have taken part in this activity myself.


The first of three steps is to list five ideas important to you. I chose to highlight three of our school’s shared beliefs about literacy, along with two recommendations from Richard Allington. I circled one of these ideas (#4) to write more about later.


After listing my initial thoughts, I jotted two more ideas from each main idea. I think the concept is to help flesh out my initial thinking and develop details for the last step.

Write Long

This is the end product, the culmination of a prewriting activity to help develop individual and team goals. As you can see, it is very reflective: I probably ask more questions than answer. That is okay, because this process is designed to help me discover what I want to focus on as a learner for the school year.

The Next Step

With my beliefs and aspirations made visible, I feel like I am in a better position to set some goals for the school year, for my students and for myself. Using building objectives and district initiatives, I wrote my own goals as a staff member in my building. One goal is student-specific; the other encompasses the entire school, from more of the principal perspective.

This process of starting with a simple writing activity and slowly progressing toward a final product has been helpful. Going from an initial idea (“Students should be reading and writing 50% of the school day.”) to a comprehensive objective along with strategies and assessments was made much easier because I started with our beliefs of practice and worked up.

If you think this activity is the type of learning that could work for your building, I highly recommend Jennifer Allen’s resource and Regie Routman’s professional development series. Have you done something similar in your building? How could an activity like this be used with the students in your school? Please share in the comments.

30 Days, 30 Posts: A #blogathon Challenge

The upcoming National Novel Writing Month (#nanowrimo on Twitter) is a motivating challenge for aspiring fiction writers. Ever since I heard about this, I have wanted to try it. Only one problem: I have no aspirations to write a novel. I like reading them, I have my favorite authors, but that is as far as it goes for me.

Through Crystal Brunelle (@librarygrl2), I found out about National Nonfiction Writing Month. Hosted by Nina Amir, it is a similar set up to #nanowrimo. The goal is to complete a work of nonfiction in 30 days. Participants sign up and set a goal for number of words to write for the month of November, along with a plan for putting the sentences together once the month has ended.

So what is the end product for me? I am not sure yet, although I could possibly see putting together many of my blog posts into an educational resource someday. Looking more short term, why would I want to write a post a day for thirty days, with an average of 1000 words a post? My initial goal is to just become a better writer by writing more. It helps to read other educators’ blogs. Many are a model for what exemplary writing looks like, which motivates me to write more. In my conversation with Crystal and other educators on Twitter, it was also brought up that writing every day is something we expect of our students. Wouldn’t it be good practice to write every day ourselves?


Being an administrator, I have an innate need to plan out everything. A strength or an idiosyncrasy, making a list helps me tackle large tasks like this. With that, here is my schedule of tentative posts:

So here it is. All laid out, just waiting for me to put the figurative pen to paper.

Anyone interested in joining me? I would be happy to add your blog link to the end of this post. You can connect with me on Twitter at @HowePrincipal, or leave a comment on this post. I will be using the #blogathon hashtag as well.

See you November 1st!

Blogs to Follow
Tom’s PLC Spot by Tom Whitford (@twhitford)
Blogging, Exercise, and Education: They Belong Together by Phil Griffins (@philgriffins)

Is Knowledge Power?

As I was leaving school this week after Bedtime Story Night with primary students, I caught my marquee’s new message.

Is this true anymore? I thought. It’s not that I am against knowing things. We all need to have a strong and deep base of experiences and information to make good decisions. But how we arrive at this knowledge may be the difference in today’s world compared to the past.

Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Why School? by Will Richardson. It is a short and engaging book about how schools need to change the way we as educators help students learn. No longer are we the deliverers of knowledge. Why do this, Richardson asks, when they have the sum of all human knowledge in their pockets, in the form of a smart phone? Instead, the author suggests we model for students how to ask the right questions and show them where reliable information may be found. Teachers should be surveyors instead of purveyors of knowledge.

And it is not just Will Richardson that is proposing this method of teaching. He is supported in his cause by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). This organization published a policy listing 21st-century literacies of today’s world, for teachers as well as for students:

  • develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross culturally
  • manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • create, critique, analyze and evaluate multimedia texts
  • attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

Nowhere in NCTE’s position is it stated that students must be able to regurgitate information that can easily be found through a simple Google search.

My school has started moving toward this approach for instruction. My job as a principal is to recognize that we are successful at what we do now, while continuing to learn as we teach to ensure best practices are being used in our classrooms. Activities in our approach include incorporating mobile technology in classrooms, becoming more connected educators through social media and working in professional learning communities.

Please share what you are doing in your school to meet the demands of today’s learners.

Recommended iPad Apps for Administrators

My team of elementary principals has agreed to purchase iPads. If we expect teachers to use technology with the purpose of improving pedagogy and learning, we need to model it. The fact that I discovered through Twitter that there is an iPad 4 only emphasizes our need to be connected learners. Without this knowledge, iPad 3s would be getting shipped to us as I write.

One of the first steps we are taking is deciding what apps to have preloaded on our devices. Here are a few that I am recommending to my technology director, Phil Bickelhaupt (@WRtechdirector). Many of these may be familiar to you, and I suppose there is a reason for that.


  • Evernote – Excellent way to record and document gatherings (not “meetings”). Just this week, I held an impromptu staff gathering about some decisions made in our leadership team. Because of the short notice, not everyone could make it. I used Evernote to write down notes and record our conversation. Afterwards, I emailed the combined content to the rest of the staff. I am aware of at least two teachers who did listen to the audio while reviewing the notes.
  • Skitch – This app allows me to annotate over any photo or screenshot. I can then email that photo to a colleague, save it on my Camera Roll, export it to Evernote (this app is part of the Evernote Trunk), or create a public link as a final product. In the past, I have mostly used Skitch to email annotated photos of students to staff, but it seems like there is much potential with this tool.
  • Chrome – I had this app a while ago and didn’t like it. As people are want to say, Google doesn’t play with Apple. Since then, Chrome must have been improved. I can now check my school email account, modify my Google Site, work on Docs and use it as the browser that it is.
  • Dropbox – While Google Drive is nice for storing many kinds of documents, Dropbox does the rest. If I have photos or video I took in a classroom on my iPad, I can use this storage application to directly upload this content to my account. Once I have downloaded Dropbox to my computer and my phone, I can view these items wherever and whenever I want. Other perks include sharing folders with colleagues as well the iWorks Suite (Pages, Numbers, Keynote – all essential apps as well) now allowing uploading of files to Dropbox.
  • Flipboard – There is so much information out there. It is hard to wade through everything online without some type of reader app that delivers your favorite educational information to you. Flipboard subscribes to blogs and online news providers and puts the content into a magazine-style format. Content that you like can easily be shared via Twitter and email, or saved to read later. Zite is a similar reader app that is popular with educators.


  • GoodReader – This tool has been described as the Swiss Army Knife of apps and for good reason. As a principal, I have many files and documents I need to read, but I don’t always have time to do it. With GoodReader, I can save and organize this information into folders. I can also retrieve files from Dropbox or Google Drive by linking these accounts to the app. One of the best parts of GoodReader is being able to annotate and highlight a PDF, then save it and email it to a colleague later.
  • Notability – If the interface of GoodReader is a bit too busy, check out this app. It has a much cleaner look and is somewhat easier to organize files. Although I cannot connect with Google Drive, I can upload content from Dropbox. I use both apps for different purposes. While GoodReader is excellent for reading (hence the title), Notability is great for jotting notes with the handwriting tool. I can also import photos into the document as well as record audio. I think there is a lot of potential for using this tool with instructional walkthroughs. So why not use Notability instead of Evernote? Even though the former allows me to handwrite, the latter embeds the audio within my notes when sharing the content online.
  • Instapaper – When you think about it, the majority of our days are spent reading, much of it online. Viewing this much web content can be hard on the eyes. Instapaper is an app that allows me to bookmark text online and read it later in a plain, Kindle-like format.
  • Grafio – This app allows me to create diagrams and flow charts for my ideas and plans. It is very intuitive in that when I attempt to make certain shapes, it autocorrects the circle or square so it is perfect. Dragging a finger from one shape to another creates an instant arrow link. I have used this app to create a visual for my building’s professional development plan and to assign lunch supervisors to specific parts of the building.
  • iMovie – Creating videos using photos, video and audio is a cinch with this app. In my humble opinion, it is better than the Mac version because it is simpler. I can stretch out the audio or photo in the timeline by spreading the file out with two fingers. Uploading the finished movie to YouTube or Vimeo allows me to share the final product through a web link. I have used this app for recognizing student achievement and recording student book talks.

As an elementary principal, these apps are what I use the most. What are your favorites? Please share in the comments.

Resisting What We Need the Most

I recently ran across some terrific posts by Christine Comaford, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, about growth and change. Although she puts her advice in the context of business, her writing is very applicable for Educational CEOs (otherwise known as administrators).

For instance, in her post How Change Fails: CEOs Focus on Symptoms NOT the System, she explains that for organizations to be successful, leaders need to explicitly explain to their staff that experiencing friction when growing is a normal part of the change process. Christine also points out that when these issues arise, as leaders we need to look at the system to find a solution rather than focusing on the problems. She includes a nice visual in her post:

Image Credit: Christine Comaford Associates, LLC (c) 2011

As school leaders, imagine all the fires we put out in a day, yet don’t take the time to reflect on how they started in the first place. Consider the following:

– There have been several instances of physical aggression on the playground between students (hypothetically speaking, of course). Are we serving the students best by suspending them repeatedly every time it happens, or by taking the time to listen to concerns and help them solve the problem in a more socially acceptable way?
– The noise level in the cafeteria is too high. Do we split the students up and take away their social time, or do we reteach everyone what an acceptable volume of talking sounds like?
– You introduce technology to staff with the goal of using it to augment instruction and increase student engagement and learning. When teachers express concerns that they don’t have the time to put one more thing into their day, should we dismiss their worries as just complaints, or should we offer opportunities for discussion about these legitimate issues?

I think most of us know the answers to these scenarios. Yet we as leaders don’t always react as we want and should. We can chalk it up to forgetfulness, lack of time, or just taking an easier yet temporary path to peace once again. But the easier path is also the status quo. Change is hard. At the same time, we have to follow that path if schools expect to stay relevant for students today and in the future. And that requires vision, based on a school’s beliefs, values and mindset. Going back to our foundation is the best and probably only way to continue growing as a community of learners.