Three Characteristics of a Winning Team

The San Antonio Spurs are one of the most successful basketball teams in the NBA and one of the respected organizations in all of professional sports. They are having another successful season, currently 15-4, with their latest victim being my home state’s Milwaukee Bucks. I have noticed three characteristics of the Spurs that could be found in other successful organizations.

Focusing on What Matters

Recently, the San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich incurred a team fine of $250,000 for sitting four of their five starters during a regular season game. While I am not necessarily agreeing with the coach’s decision, as I am sure there were some disappointed fans, it is a clear example of what it means to focus on what matters. Regarding the fine, the coach probably knew he might get in trouble for his decision. He still went through with it. My guess is he felt his players’ current health and future success in the playoffs were more important than ticket sales and television revenues.

Open and Honest Conversations

A comment was made two years ago by Spurs’ future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, after being asked by the press if his coach was pleased with their win that night.

“Absolutely not. What did they score? Like 70-something points,” said Duncan. “That’s 70-something reasons for him to complain.”

(Retrieved from:

The quote speaks volumes about the relationship Tim Duncan has with his coach. They can have an honest exchange of words while maintaining a level of respect. Each person knows where the other stands. This quote also shows a sense of humor among the team, probably developed from many years of working together and establishing strong relationships.


Gregg Popovich is the longest tenured coach of any professional sport team (16 seasons). How has he lasted this long? One reason is his ability to give credit to his players. The quote below speaks loudly about his character and leadership.

“He (Tim Duncan) doesn’t really even talk to me anymore. Half the things I say he doesn’t even hear…Time to go!”

(Retrieved from:

In his own witty way, Gregg Popovich acknowledged that the players on the court are the people who make a difference. He comes across like he is just along for the ride, even though that is not entirely true.

These characteristics have prompted questions in my own mind:

  • As a principal, am I advocating on behalf of my teachers? Are they getting enough time to collaborate and rejuvenate? Am I successfully filtering out the “administrivia” so they can focus on instruction and learning?
  • Is my building focusing on what matters? Is our purpose (student learning) a priority over outcomes (test scores, report cards) mostly beyond our control?
  • Do I allow and even seek out an open and honest dialogue with my staff and families?
  • Are the people who are doing the heavy lifting getting the credit?

Where is your organization at in building and sustaining a winning team? Please share in the comments.

Highest Common Denominator

Parent involvement nights, a focus on writing across the curriculum, and a culture of acceptance are just a few components of what makes my school such a great one to work at. My staff is also willing to consider new practices if they have the potential to enhance the learning experience. One topic we have often discussed is the role of social media in schools today. We have taken it slow, but I think we are starting to reach a point where we may be ready to collectively take the Web 2.0 leap.

One area of specific interest is our weekly classroom newsletters. Teachers are diligent about sending home a summary of the learning that occurred during the week to parents. Families refer to them often at PTO meetings and in informal conversations. No surprise that the classroom newsletters were listed as one of the best pieces of our school communication efforts.

Even so, we have looked at ways to make these newsletters more accessible to all families. A few teachers have tried Facebook. Other classrooms are currently piloting blogs. Whatever the tool, an obstacle to our efforts is the fact that some of our families still don’t have access to the Internet at home. Our poverty level and lack of technology training in the community could be part of the reason.

At the same time, what about the families that prefer to use social media for communication? And does poverty always limit a person’s access to the Internet? In the book Why Social Media Matters by Carnes and Porterfield, several statistics are cited about parents’ use of social media today. I shared some of this data with fellow principals Curt Rees, Jessica Johnson and Jay Posick at an administrator conference recently via Prezi.


75% of parents ages 18-29 use social media.

8% of adults under 30 read a print newspaper.

90% of families with incomes between $30,000-$49,000 own a cell phone.

I suspect these percentages will continue to rise as parents model these technology behaviors for their kids. So while a print newsletter is fulfilling the important need of parent communication, we may still not be communicating with all parents. For example, what if a teacher had a blog that they posted with their students, and then printed off a copy for families who prefer paper? You are still honoring parent preference for communication. At the same time you are appealing to the highest common denominator with regard to what could be a more effective way to communicate.

Other benefits of a classroom blog include posting audio, images and video of student work, responding to comments from families to support two-way communication, giving parents an easier way to share their child’s learning with out-of-town relatives, and just being relevant in today’s Web 2.0 world.

Do you have a classroom blog? What have you found to be effective in promoting this type of tool as a way to communicate with families? Please share in the comments.

Examples of Practice: Using iPads and Evernote When Assessing Readers

All K-12 teachers are reading teachers. The school, grade level and content area we work in does not matter. In every classroom, a random group of students will come in with varying degrees of reading ability. And their levels of ability can and do differentiate based on which skill we choose to focus on. That is why it is so critical that teachers have sound understanding of where there students are at in their ability to decode and comprehend text. When we know them as readers, we are better at helping them choose books for themselves, we tailor instruction to meet their specific needs, and we know when to release the learning responsibility to the student so they can become independent readers.

I share this because in a few days I am going to make a case to approximately 20 or so K-12 teachers that using Evernote on an iPad can enhance their abilities to better assess their students’ literacy skills. Two things I have learned through exploring technology is that a) the “why” needs to come before the “how” and the “what” (Sinek, 2010), and b) the technology should support best practices in the classroom. Form follows function.

The “Why”

Dr. Ruben Puentedura developed a framework to help educators understand the place of technology in the context of learning and education. It is titled SAMR, which stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, and Redefinition.

(Image retrieved from

This framework shows how the various levels of learning can be raised with the appropriate integration of technology. This bears the question: Is a student not able to reach their potential in the absence of these tools? I don’t know that yet. However, if there are ways to enhance learning in the classroom and we choose to not leverage it, this may be irresponsible of us as educators.

The “How”

The iPad is a computer in the loosest of terms. Yes, you can use it to type a letter, email a friend, and post something on Facebook. What separates it from other computing devices such as the desktop is its mobility, the engagement factor, content creation and integration.

Any teacher can use tools such as Evernote to store student information. What makes the iPad (and other mobile devices) a better fit is it can travel with the teacher. No longer do students always have to come to the bean-shaped table for small group and one-on-one instruction. The teacher now comes to them. If you think about it, this is big. The student is not singled out, the conferring and assessing can happen anywhere the student feels comfortable, and the technology allows the teacher to teach and assess concurrently.

I don’t know what it is about these devices that just captures the students’ attention. An example: I was using the Reflection app to mirror the iPad screen to the whiteboard. Second graders and I were using Notability to compare and contrast the book and eBook version of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I started the Venn diagram, then handed off the writing responsibility to the closest student. With the iPad on their lap and stylus in hand, he wrote one of his ideas down on the screen. There was no hesitation on his part. This might have been different had I asked him to go to the board and write in front of peers. What was also interesting was that the entire class was reading the words as this student wrote them.

Content Creation and Integration
The compare and contrast notes the second graders and I made together could be a start to other projects. We could use these notes to write a persuasive essay on Pages and then publish it on a classroom blog. We could create illustrations on Drawing Pad and then use them in an iMovie to highlight the elements of a story. I could go on and on. The possibilities that come with the iPad are multiplied because so many of the applications work in concert with each other. With a simple multi-finger swipe, I can switch from one app to another as I put together a project.

The “What”

Here is how I see teachers using Evernote on the iPad to assess readers. For a framework, I am using the “Assessment to Instruction” steps outlined in The CAFE Book by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. After each step I also identified the step’s level on the SAMR ladder, based on how the technology would be used to enhance practice.

Two things before getting started:

  • I recommend setting up an Evernote account prior to using it in the classroom. Create a notebook for each student. Also, find out what your Evernote email address is so you send information to a specific notebook with ease.
  • With each step, put the step’s description in the title of the note. Create a new note for each step of the assessment process.

1.  Assess Individual Student (Augmentation)

Take a running record of a student. Then take a picture of it with the iPad and email it to Evernote using your Evernote email account. To put the image of the running record into that student’s notebook, put the notebook title in the subject line of the email message preceded by the @ sign (i.e. @Mike). To add tags, use the same process, only put a hashtag in front of each key word (i.e. #September #BB16 #GR18). If your assessing skills are a little rusty, I highly recommend Peter Johnston’s Running Records as a quick resource.

For older kids or when a running record is not enough, Janet Allen offers a variety of ideas that could also be used to assess readers in her resource Yellow Brick Roads, such as surveys, observations, checklists and sentence completions.

2.  Discuss Findings with Students (Modification)

What Evernote provides is the ability to record audio while taking notes. A teacher can go back to this recording and listen again for what the student said. The student could also be given an opportunity to listen to your discussion of the findings later in the year. Seems like a great opportunity for both teacher and student to reflect on their growth as a reader.

3.  Set Goal and Identify Strategies with Student, and

4.  Student Declares Goal on Menu (Augmentation)

With a copy of The Literacy CAFE Menu in front of you, create a new note to document this information. If the strategies and goal are also included as tags in the note, they will be more easily accessible when needed. Also, as a teacher plans for guided reading, he or she can quickly search among tags for a specific strategy to work on. This could greatly enhance the concept of flexible grouping. The same process might take a bit longer with a three ring binder. In addition, snap a picture of their goal and add it to the note for a visual component.

Quick iPad tip: Tags are added by selecting the circle button with the “i” in the middle, located on the top right.

5.  Teacher Fills Out Individual Reading Conference Form (Augmentation)

Again, using tags to note the students’ strengths, goals and strategies will make his or her information easier to find later. Once conferring commences, I could see a teacher using this one note six times before creating a new one. This would involve adding the categories outlined in the CAFE Reading Conference template each time (date, touch point, observation and instruction, next steps).

6. Teacher Fills Out Strategy Groups Form (Modification)

If a teacher is looking to start strategy group instruction based on similar skills (found through tags), he or she can pull students together based on need by creating a Notebook Stack. As far as I can tell, this can only be done on a PC. Just drag one student’s notebook over another and a stack is created. Once a student has shown proficiency in that strategy, he or she can be pulled out of that stack to another group.

But where do the strategy group notes go? My suggestion would be to create a whole new notebook within the stack to house these notes.

7.  Instruction (Redefinition)

This is where Evernote can be a real game changer. The whole point of assessment is to inform instruction in order to impact learning. If I were still in the classroom, I could imagine pulling up my students’ notes as I planned for future literacy instruction. Instead of hunting for each student’s individual goals and strategies, a quick search in Evernote will pull up what you need to know in a matter of seconds. Groups are quickly formed. They aren’t based on reading level either; instruction is tailored to meet specific needs. Students can receive guided reading instruction at the appropriate complexity level without feeling like they are in the “low” group.

Embedding formative assessment in the planning of instruction tends to get lost in the process when everything else needs attention too. Evernote and the iPad are tools that have the potential to both increase productivity and enhance the instructional practices of teachers.

Resources Cited

Allen, Janet (2000). Yellow Brick Roads. Stenhouse: Portland, ME

Boushey, Gail and Moser, Joan (2009). The CAFE Book. Stenhouse: Portland, ME

Johnston, Peter (2000). Running Records: A Self-Tutoring Guide. Stenhouse: Portland, ME

Puentedura, Ruben (2012). Building Upon SAMR. Slideshow retrieved from

Sinek, Simon (2010). Start With Why. Video retrieved from

Reflections After a #blogathon

This post is my last of November. Just before the month started, I pledged to write one post a day every day for the month. Now it is over and I almost met my goal (29 posts – not too shabby). I have learned a lot during this process. I thought I would share my reflections, along with how my experience might relate to teaching and learning.

Writing is Hard
I think some people have the impression that journalists, authors and other writers just sit in front of a computer and the words magically come from their mind to their fingertips. I never believed that before, and after this experience I am even more sure of this. To generate new ideas every day requires a lot of mental energy before, during and after the actually writing of words. In fact, I bet I spent more time thinking and revising than I did in actually producing a post on my blog that is worth reading.

Implications for School
My experience is not much different than what we expect of our students to do every day. It is generally expected that students write every day in a variety of genres and formats. For me, there were a few days that I simply didn’t want to write, but I trudged on anyway. What helped is I had made a commitment. Students should also be making commitments, in the form of personal learning goals each quarter. This might help with our most resistant students.

Write What You Want
One of the best decisions I made in the beginning of this process was making a list of thirty ideas for topics to write about. They ranged on a variety of subjects, but they all had one thing in common: They were topics that I wanted to write about. As I decided on a post each day, I tried to stick to the schedule. However, many times I had an experience at school or learned something new from someone else’s blog and decided to write about that. Being flexible and having choice about what I wrote was very motivating for me.

Implications for School
What percentage of your classroom writing assignments allow for at least some student input and interests? If it is less than 100%, I can understand why kids might not write to their ability or even flat out refuse to work. Writing is a deeply reflective process. It demands that the writer have ownership in their work. One idea that came to me is have students keep an updated list of topics to write about in a notebook, similar to what I did. Whenever an idea strikes, they can pull out this notebook and quickly jot it down for future reference. I’m sure someone has thought of this before, but it bears repeating.

Write for an Audience
I have tried journaling in the past to be a more reflective practitioner. It always failed, and I think I now know why. No one was on the other end to read it and provide feedback. Once I started on Twitter, and shortly after began blogging, I became a much more motivated writer. I still get excited when I see a comment is awaiting moderation. And I have never had a negative comment, which is amazing considering I have probably been wrong on several occasions in my posts.

Implications for School
My staff is very good about posting their student’s writing in the hallways. It’s a source of pride when I walk guests through my school for a tour. I also try to recognize their efforts by snapping photos of their work and having the students share them at all school assemblies as well as on Twitter. Our school’s next step is to start sharing student writing online. This has taken the form of attachments on emails to parents, blogs and ePortfolios. How has your school found a broader audience for your students’ writing?

Writing is Social
I was initially joined in this blogathon by fellow principals Tom Whitford and Phil Griffins. When one of us finished a post, we included the other two when we shared it out via Twitter. Often times, this was followed by at least a brief conversation about what we wrote and how it related to our positions and philosophies. Many times these exchanges of ideas led to other posts. It was a continuous cycle of think, write, discuss, reflect, and repeat.

Implications for School
How much time are students given to experience the whole process of writing, including thinking, discussing and reflecting? I am as guilty as anyone at times of pushing teachers and students to use every minute at school to be actually reading and writing, as Richard Allington wisely encourages. However, what may not always be given its due attention is time for kids to process about what they wrote and share their thinking with others. I need to be more careful about what I perceive to be “down time”. Some instructional time, as precious as it is, needs to be allocated for students to speak with and listen to their peers, both in their classrooms and globally.

Writing is About Quality, Not Quantity
When I first started blogging, I felt like I had to meet a certain word quota. If I was able to put down a thousand words, I felt like I had accomplished something substantial. As I quickly learned, number of words does not necessarily correlate with number of views. The blogathon helped me practice brevity even more. I was pressed to get my ideas down succinctly or risk doing nothing but blogging. Looking back at my statistics, some of my most popular posts were also some of my shortest.

Implications for School
Not to state the obvious, but writing is about communication. What’s the point of communicating if no one is listening? I have learned through this experience that I have to be just as aware about my intended audience as I do about what I want to say. Writing is about the reader as much as it is about the writer.

How do we model this for students? One way might be to write about something in front of the students. During the process, share your thinking with the students, such as “I think I am a little longwinded here. Let me see how I can shorten this up and get to the point”. The teacher could also get a quick check from the students by asking for their current engagement level on a scale of one to five. Then the teacher could ask the students why they were or weren’t engaged in what was being shared. This activity could also be an opportunity to teach students how to give constructive feedback.

Only the Beginning?

I laughed out loud when I read the title to one of Phil Griffins’ posts this month: “I am Never Doing Blogathon Again!”. I could definitely relate to how he was feeling. On the same token, I don’t know if I will feel that way a year from now. I really enjoyed the challenge and the feeling of accomplishment. My Personal Learning Network was also extremely encouraging as I wrote. They offered helpful feedback that helped me grow as a writer.

I won’t lie; I am looking forward to taking a day off tomorrow, and maybe even the next day. At the same time, I feel like I have developed a healthy habit of getting my thoughts down in writing on a more regular basis. If we expect our students to do it, why not us?

School Report Cards and Poverty

Every public school in Wisconsin recently received a state report card. These results were also published in local newspapers. The ratings aggregate a multitude of measures, including but not limited to student growth, student achievement and attendance rate.

All of our area schools’ scores were then sorted by what level of performance they achieved (significantly exceeds expectations, exceeds expectations, meets expectations, meets few expectations). What I did was average each schools’ free and reduced rate for each level of performance. Free and reduced rates tell us what percentage of our families live in poverty. Here are the results:

Schools that Significantly Exceeded Expectations: 26.7% free/reduced
Schools that Exceeded Expectations: 39.7% free/reduced
Schools that Met Expectations: 48% free/reduced
Schools that Met Few Expectations: 70% free/reduced

I was sadly not surprised by these results.

So what do these report cards tell us: Levels of achievement or levels of poverty?

Using Rubrics to Evaluate Educators

I live and work in Wisconsin. That means that, through a waiver for No Child Left Behind, I along with every other public educator will soon be assessed using a twenty-three point rubric. It will be on a scale of one to four, with one being “ineffective” and a four qualifying as “highly effective”.

Here is a sample of what the rubric looks like (draft only; it can also be found at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s website).


What’s Good About It

Clear Expectations
No longer can a teacher or administrator’s livelihood depend solely on a supervisor’s judgment. In fact, this rubric is but one piece of a more comprehensive evaluation system. With multiple measures, one would assume that the rating a teacher or administrator receives should be more valid.

Time to Try and Offer Feedback
My district is part of a pilot for the Educator Effectiveness Plan. I am one of three principals using this new system on a trial basis only. Our team was given three days of intensive training to help us use this tool with greater reliability. In addition, the state team that developed this is asking us, the practitioners, to provide feedback about how effective this tool is for evaluations.

What Needs to Improve

The Four Point Rubric
When I taught 5th and 6th grade, I often used the web tool Rubistar to develop differentiated levels of achievement for various activities. The students and I would develop these together with a computer connected to the television screen (this is pre-SMART board era). What I remember finding most frustrating is trying to wordsmith the descriptors. For example, what is the difference between “differentiates” and “develops” when describing staff development offerings? I don’t know either, but both of these qualifiers are used in this new rubric within the same element.

The Levels of Effectiveness
This might be the area that needs the most attention. Why do we need four levels of effectiveness? Maybe I am a little too black and white on this issue, but I feel like I am either doing my job or I am not. For example, if I am holding others accountable in the area of professionalism, then I am meeting expectations. If I have failed to do this, then I am not meeting expectations. Anywhere in between should be handled with a candid conversation between the supervisor and the employee. I fear that breaking down every aspect of what a teacher or administrator does takes the thinking and doing out of our positions and attempts to simplify our jobs to a series of steps or processes. This profession is just not that simple.

Next Steps
I plan to continue to keep an open mind about this new system and hope I do not come across negatively. Many smart and caring professionals put a lot of time into this plan. As well, they are giving us the opportunity to share our thoughts on how to make it even better. I just hope they listen.

The Global Read Aloud

I recently had the opportunity to take part in the Global Read Aloud this fall. It is facilitated annually by Pernille Ripp, a teacher in Madison, WI. Leading a group of 4th graders, we joined many other classrooms online who were also reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. It is the fictional story of a gorilla named Ivan in captivity for almost 30 years, told from the perspective of Ivan. It is loosely based on a true story (the real Ivan recently passed away).

What was unique about this experience was technology was used to support and enhance the story as I read it to the students.


Every classroom involved received a code to join The One and Only Ivan group on Edmodo, a safe social networking site for students and teachers. As you can see, it has a similar look to Facebook, which helped us make sense of how it worked regarding posts, links, tags and other terminology.


We visited this site every time we read. However, we spent a lot more time actually reading than posting and responding. My purpose was to show students that social media can be a great tool for learning, as long as it is used responsibly.

Google Docs

While we linked with other classrooms on Edmodo, we also created a KWL on Google Docs. In it, students identified what they thought they already knew about gorillas, what they wanted to know, and what they had learned. I showed students how to bookmark this document in the browser so we could quickly go to it when needed.


Yes, feces was something they wanted me to write down.

Students developed an understanding through the use of a Google Doc that learning is not static, that it is ongoing for lifelong learners. For example, we would revise information once we learned that it was not entirely accurate. In addition, we were able to post our doc on Edmodo as a link to allow other classrooms to view it and even make comments if they wanted.


One technology tool we discovered from another classroom through Edmodo was Wallwisher. This is a virtual paperboard, where people can post responses to a question or suggested topic. The question we posed to ourselves was, “Is it better for an animal who has lived in captivity to go back into the wild?” Here are their responses.


I was impressed with how thoughtful and thorough their answers were to this question. What facilitated this impressive display: the technology, the question, or the book itself? It could be a combination of all of these that created a more authentic learning experience.


Some people have a lawyer in the family. Others know a plumber. I have a primatologist.

My cousin (pictured in the screenshot below) spent a substantial amount of time studying primates in the jungles of Africa. Now an environmental scientist at the Field Museum of Chicago, she wholeheartedly agreed to visit our classroom and answer questions about silverbacks through Skype.


Prior to Skyping, I shared our questions with her by emailing our Google Doc link. She provided some excellent information for us, knowledge that we just could not have easily accessed without the aid of technology. The students also had an opportunity to ask her off-the-cuff questions, such as “Are you drinking coffee?” and “How did you get that Howe shirt?”.

In Conclusion

The Global Read Aloud was an excellent learning opportunity. It enhanced our read aloud experience and modeled for students how to draw upon a variety of resources and experiences in order to become more knowledgable and responsible citizens. The technology tools were great, but they only facilitated what was more important: The connections we made with other people from around the world. Thanks go to Mrs. Ripp for making this happen.