My Life in Seven Stories

The bridge between knowing and doing is feeling. – Unknown

Reading the acknowledgments in Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, Jennifer Allen thanks Franki Sibberson for her initial interest in the professional learning activity “My Life in Seven Stories”. It sounds like this idea was the seed that resulted in the book we read today.

“My Life in Seven Stories” is the title of a professional learning activity. Teachers make a list of seven titles that touch on past experiences in their lives. Then, they take one title and write about this small moment. They can share with a group of teachers or decide not to, their choice. The purpose is to get teachers to write during monthly staff meetings. Through these snapshots, the literacy leader can then demonstrate a writing strategy, such as revising leads, using their personal narratives. “My Life in Seven Stories” also helps build trust by being vulnerable and integrating feelings into the literacy work.

I thought I would try this here – My Life in Seven Stories:

  • Dessert in Elmwood, Illinois
  • Thunderstorm
  • All-Star Game
  • The Missed Shot
  • Going to College
  • The Apartment
  • The Move

I purposefully avoided titles related to my kids; I could have created a list of seventeen topics to write about related to them. Instead, each title/topic is about my life.

Below is my short narrative for the title “The Move”:

I sat on the front porch of a rustic cabin. No television. It was a summer evening and I was enjoying a cold shandy. Right now, my family and I were in between residences. We had our home for sale up north while we waited for the closing date on our new home in our new town, Mineral Point. Because there was much to do to get myself ready for the new school year, I would come down during the week, rent whatever was available, while my family stayed up north. Not a lot to do in the evenings, I sometimes found myself on a cabin porch, staring across the street at the new school I would soon be leading.

It was at this point that I think our move become 100% real for me. For sixteen years, my wife and I had served as educators in another town. We had friends, were logistically close to family, and had made many connections with other educators. Why did we move? The reasons were many, yet at that point they didn’t matter because here I was, sitting on the front porch of a log cabin, staring at a school (and community) we knew little about. This was exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. “How can I take advantage of this fresh start?” and “Will our house sell before we move in?” were questions that constantly swirled in my head during this tumultuous and sometimes lonely time.

Being a literacy leader means that we sometimes need to be vulnerable with our faculty. If we expect teachers to take risks and grow with their colleagues and their students, then we have to model this. My willingness to share a personal part of who I am through writing (and I know I could improve upon this initial offering) will more likely lead to teachers doing the same with their students. If we can cause that change by opening ourselves up emotionally, even a little bit, that may lead to teachers and students discovering the larger purpose to reading and writing.

I don’t plan on sharing my other personal stories in this space. One is enough. Maybe we will use this professional development activity in the future at our school. It’s hard to be vulnerable without trust, yet without taking a personal risk, trust may never be gained.

 

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Cothren House – The cabin I stayed in

 

 

 

Mistakes Will Be Made

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I recently read aloud the first book in the Timmy Failure series to my son. The author, Stephan Pastis is the creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. The first volume in this series, Mistakes Were Made, aptly summarizes Timmy’s struggles. He is a young, clueless detective who could not find his way out of a paper bag. Timmy’s ineffectiveness as an investigator is due to his overconfidence and his unwillingness to listen to others, even when they are right and are trying to help. My son has thoroughly enjoyed this series. He listened to the second book in the series on CD. We purchased copies of the first two volumes for him so he can reread them. He is now asking me to read aloud the third installment. I am only too happy to oblige.

I thankfully do not have a lot in common with Timmy. While I am a part of a new school district, it will be with a position I am familiar with (elementary principal). My experience as an educator spans sixteen years. I would like to think of myself as a good listener and leader. As prepared as I feel, however, I know that mistakes will be made.

I bring this up because more than once someone has told me how much they are looking forward to what I will bring to Mineral Point Elementary School. A humbling news article was printed in the local paper almost immediately after I was hired. The expectations are clear: The school will only improve with my addition. While I appreciate the vote of confidence, I know the sheen of my hire will eventually dull. I’ll make decisions in which not everyone will agree with. Circumstances will put me in no-win situations. Plus, I am a person. As they say, “To err is human”. It’s the nature of everyone, not just the principalship.

So what can one do in these circumstances? First, it is imperative that trust is built and relationships are developed. There has to be an investment in people, that social capital in which I can draw upon down the road when I make hard decisions. Staff need to know that I am there for them and will get to know them as a person. With trust built and relationships developed, they will be more likely to see me in that same light.

The toughest thing about the power of trust is that it’s very difficult to build and very easy to destroy. The essence of trust building is to emphasize the similarities between you and the customer.

― Thomas J. Watson

Also, having systems in place to allow for trust to build and relationships to develop is necessary. Mineral Point Unified School District has invested in this professional infrastructure. For example, there is a full time library media/technology integration specialist at the elementary building. Time has been allocated each week on Wednesday afternoons to discuss curriculum, instruction, and assessment. A current elementary staff member has been repositioned as an instructional coach. Providing time, resources and support for professionals to have important conversations about our practice will only deepen trust and relationships.

Finally, it is critical to keep the focus on the reason why we work in education: Student learning. It is not about the curriculum or the tools. It’s about the kids. It seems quite simple. Yet as anyone who works in education knows, it is much more complex than that. So many expectations and tasks, helpful and otherwise, are thrown at us throughout the year. It can be easy to get bogged down in the details. My job is to help staff stay above the fray by protecting time to collaborate and offering strategies for being more effective in our work.

As I said, mistakes will be made. This is one of the few things I can count on as I prepare for the school year. By building trust and developing relationships, providing structure for our professional conversations and focusing on what’s most important, any mistakes I make will be mitigated with these positive and intentional efforts.

I will be taking some time off in August from my blog to complete some writing projects. I may post my progress on my website (mattrenwick.com) in the meantime.

Starting Over Again

During the 4th of July weekend, our family visited my parents in the small town I grew up in. It was nice to see familiar faces and catch up on things. My son, a very curious nine year old (as most nine year olds are), asked what I did for fun when I was his age. He is aware that my childhood was not filled with smartphones, tablets, handheld gaming devices, or streaming video on demand, a.k.a. The Dark Ages. Reminiscing for a moment, I responded, “Well, we played outside a lot, especially around the creek down by the bridge.” Immediately, he wanted to check out this creek. Seeing neighbors heading the same way to let their dogs cool off, we joined them on the two block journey to the creek.

Walking with my son along a pathway I had followed many times myself, I couldn’t help but notice how life tends to circle back on itself. For example, I grew up in a large, historic home in a small town. We now have our eyes on a large, historic home in a small town (Mineral Point). Also, I started my career as a teacher in a rural school with a lot of community support. Seventeen years later, I am coming back to a rural school with a lot of community support. The journeys I have taken in my past experiences, both physically and emotionally, are becoming opportunities to start over again. Familiar as my surroundings may seem, new possibilities are just around the corner.

It is not just me that is preparing for this transition. My family is preparing for a move that none of us expected. The students, staff and families of Mineral Point Elementary School are preparing for a new principal. Former colleagues and connections in Wisconsin Rapids are preparing for the next principal at Howe Elementary School. I can empathize with both the excitement and the anxieties that this type of change can bring. No amount of preparation will fully temper or ease these feelings. And why should we? Life is a series of transitions. Taking time to acknowledge both emotions has been helpful for me to be present in and to enjoy the moments.

When my son and I arrived at the creek, we looked down from the bridge at the gentle rapids, teeming with darting minnows above a somewhat rocky bottom visible through the clear water. “How did you get down to the creek? Did you go in barefoot?” he asked. I explained that my brothers, friends and I threw on old tennis shoes to avoid stepping on any sharp rocks on the creek bed. More confident, he climbed down the side of the bank and stepped into the cold water with the neighbors. He was wearing Crocs, shoes I wish I would have had back then. Still, I didn’t feel the need to revisit the past for too long. As familiar as it might be, I am looking forward to what the future might bring.

 

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Moving Forward

The following is a letter to Howe Elementary School families regarding my decision to take a new position in Mineral Point, Wisconsin

On Monday, May 23, I was hired as elementary principal in the Mineral Point Area School District. This position will allow for some curriculum duties as well as more opportunities to write, consult, and facilitate professional learning for other educators. I have enjoyed my time as the building leader at Howe and as an educator with Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools for the past seventeen years.

Change is a natural part of life. We see it in the seasons, in our kids growing up, and as technologies and globalization create a smaller planet. One of the few constants in our lives is change.

What is not a constant is how we respond during these seasons of change. Situations arise that cause a disruption in our lives, and we can view them in one of two ways: As obstacles to be overcome, or as opportunities to embrace. Our perspectives about these types of situations are guided by our beliefs about learning and life, which informs our judgment. As a father, I want to model for my own kids how to discern between the two and be open to the possibilities.

When I became principal at Howe Elementary School five years ago, I believed that this is where I would remain as an educator. Then I became connected. Resources and ideas were available everywhere via Twitter, Google+, and professional blogs. I learned from others outside my own immediate circle and my knowledge expanded. Pretty soon I was blogging and tweeting myself, which led to publishing articles and books about educational leadership and classroom technology. It’s been harder to balance this position and my writing efforts.

My journey has taken an unexpected path that has diverged from my current position. This is not a move for the better or for the worse. It is simply the next step moving forward which had to be taken elsewhere. I wish everyone the best here at Howe and in the Wisconsin Rapids area. I am very proud of our accomplishments as a learning community.

Best,

Mr. Renwick