Inspiration for Transforming Education

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.  The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”  These words were spoken over 50 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the height of the industrial-age when education modeled assembly line standardization with desks in rows, teachers front and center, and students compliantly following directions and “taking” instruction.

Interestingly, nearly 20 years into the 21st century there is still a great need to remind ourselves of Dr. King’s words and the necessity to develop critical thinkers.  Our workforce moved from the industrial-age and into the information-age years ago, yet our education system often lags far behind in many areas.  To promote the long-term retention of content and the requisite thinking skills for 21st century learners, there must be movement from teacher-centered pedagogy to learner-centered pedagogy.  This will require teachers to abandon the predominate use of ‘sit and get’ strategies that are best for low-level learning.  Educators must retool and develop strategies to facilitate active learning and no longer be merely presenters of information. It takes time to “shift” instruction, but the time-clock doesn’t even begin until first-steps are taken.  If you are looking for inspiration as a starting point for creating a culture of innovation and critical thinking at your school or inside your classroom, then consider the following entry points:

  • Use of Space- Is your school/classroom set-up in such a way that it promotes and encourages collaboration and a student-centered approach?  A culture of collaboration, healthy debate, diverse perspectives, and creativity/innovation are all important in shifting the educational culture in your classroom and/or school.  It’s difficult to reach today’s students with 1950’s classrooms.  Consider taking first steps in shifting educational culture by creating environments conducive to student-centered learning.
  • Relevance & Relationships-  Consider the instruction happening in your school/classroom.  How can you teach your required standards in a connected way that brings relevance to students and builds relationships?  Students need to understand how the learning taking place in their classrooms will prepare them for their “real-world”.  There are many ways to accomplish this goal, but a few that I have found to be game-changers are school-wide themes, project-based learning, 21st century skills integration, and entrepreneurship.
    • School-wide themes:  The use of school-wide themes brings some connectedness to learning across all grade-levels within your school.  Themes can be somewhat generic, but they are a great way to build thematic units or design project-based learning units.  By publicizing your school-wide themes and sharing learning activities related to your theme, you begin to build a collaborative and unified learning culture.  If you have the opportunity to record student-led morning announcements, there are many opportunities to share your school-wide theme.  Another great addition to the “school-wide theme” concept is to utilize quotes as your themes.  For example, our quarter one, two, three, and four themes for this school year are listed below.
      • Q1-  “The things that make me different are the things that make me.”-          Winnie the Pooh
      • Q2- “If you can dream it, you can do it.”- Disney
      • Q3- “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”- Seuss
      • Q4-  “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”- Gandhi                       Not only can the use of school-wide themes bring relevance to the learning taking place at your school, themes can also teach lessons, develop character, and set the tone for your school culture.  Your school-wide themes can in essence tell your school’s story.
    • Project-based learning:  PBL is a student-centered inquiry-based approach that begins with a driving question.  With school-wide themes, the driving question can be connected to the school-wide theme.  Learning takes place THROUGH the project.  Project-based learning isn’t “doing projects”.  Remember, the goal is for students to think and problem-solve.  Using authentic PBL doesn’t happen overnight.  The process is deep and has to be developed overtime.  Authentic project-based learning requires research and professional learning.  If you are interested in incorporating PBL in your school or classroom, one great resource I have found to be very beneficial is BIE.org.  I am sure there are others, as well.
    • 21st Century Skills Integration- The Partnership for 21st Century Skills developed tools and resources for integration of the 21st century skills: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking.  In fact, there is even an “Educators Guide to the 4Cs” on the National Education Association (NEA) website.  A specific focus on 21st century skills assists educators in focusing less on “tools” (i.e. specific technology) and instead shifting that focus to what students are doing with tools.  Are students using tools and resources to create, innovate, collaborate, and think critically?
    • Entrepreneurial Skills-  How great would it be if we could develop young people who grow up with the skill-set to find new ways to solve old problems? How great would it be to help young people recognize the importance of grit, tenacity, and perseverance?  What if we harness the creative spirit of young people and allow them to be outside-the-box thinkers?  Teaching entrepreneurial skills to young people provides experiences that cultivate the aforementioned learner.  I recognize that not all students will grow up and start their own business, but the same skill-set required of entrepreneurs is needed for success in any profession.  When you watch 5th grade students work collaboratively in diverse teams to design solutions to environmental problems and pitch their solutions to adult mentors from real-world settings, it becomes easy to see the many benefits of teaching entrepreneurial skills.  The level of student questioning, critical thinking, communication skills, etc. is amazing when students are afforded relevant, real-world experiences that allow them to innovate, connect, and collaborate.
  • Scheduling & Educator Capacity:  Creating a culture of innovation and critical thinking cannot happen without intentional scheduling.  Once you have that really awesome collaborative space, you need to make certain it is being used!  Equity is also important.  I don’t know about you, but I want all students to benefit from a wide-variety of experiences. Through creative scheduling, every student in kindergarten through fifth grade can be afforded opportunities to code, utilize design thinking and 3D printers, create with a variety of digital tools, engage in PBL, art, and choose their own weekly electives.  Creative scheduling and building resources for this type of learning does not have to be limited to certain schools, districts, or zip codes.  Let’s provide all children with opportunities that allow them to think critically and innovate so every child has the background knowledge necessary to dream big.
    • Educator Capacity:  How can we develop students who are critical thinkers and creative if we strip all creativity from the ART of teaching?  Build teacher capacity by expecting student-centered practices and provide ample opportunities for growth.  Focus on sound instructional practices and build a collaborative culture among educators for continued learning.  For instruction to be “outside-the-box” teachers need the freedom to break “outside the textbook”.  There is little connectedness, relevance, and collaboration coming out of the side bar of a textbook.  Develop teachers who are creative and critical thinkers themselves.  Grow and learn alongside them and NEVER STOP LEARNING!

If you find yourself stuck inside a 20th century classroom, school, or district I encourage you to begin taking action toward transforming your classroom(s).  Our students deserve to be prepared for their world and future.  Just take the first step….

Take the first step

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Unexpected Outcome from #OneWord2018

Approaching the new year, I fell upon the #OneWord concept as I was perusing Twitter.  I loved the idea of narrowing my focus to just one word for 2018, rather than choosing several “resolutions” that would likely only last through January.  This post isn’t really about my #OneWord2018, but I’ll share it anyway.

I began contemplating my “one word” and made the decision to choose the word, “NOW”.  I chose “NOW”, because I am naturally a “forward-thinker”.  I believe it is important for leaders to be forward-thinkers, because without forward-thinkers an organization is in danger of becoming complacent.  What I have come to realize, though, is that you can’t become so forward-thinking that you forget to appreciate your NOW.  There are too many positives in my life right now to lose sight of the present,  so NOW represents the HERE AND NOW in one aspect.

NOW- for me- also represents NOW OR NEVER.  I want to remember that you have to grab life by the horns and accomplish tasks now.  Now is the time to do those things you tend to put off– like blogging for instance…

While I have read many posts about others’ “one words”, the purpose of this post isn’t about my personal word.  What I wanted to share was the unexpected outcome of this concept that I gained as a leader.  After reading about #oneword2018, I decided this would be a great “back to school” activity to share with my staff for the new year.  I gave them a little heads-up to allow some think time before our first day back, and this was one of the first activities we completed when we returned.  It was a simple activity.  Everyone grabbed a marker and a piece of paper I had printed, and they simply wrote down their “one word” and discussed its purpose with their group.  I then asked if there were people willing to share their “one word” and what it meant to them.  THIS IS WHEN THE UNEXPECTED HAPPENED.  Word after word had similar meanings.  The words were different, but the meaning and purpose behind many of the words was very similar.

Balance.  Pause.  Purpose.  Mindset.  Peace. Consistent.  Word after word was a glimpse into the soul of our organization.

I was quickly reminded through this activity that teachers are givers.  They often give of themselves, not only at school, but outside of school as well.  I think I knew this before, but it was amazing how apparent this became through this “one word” activity.  It was a little “aha” as the leader of these great people.  Our teachers and staff (and maybe any employee in a successful organization) need to be constantly reminded to take care of themselves so they can take care of others and work to their fullest potential.  As their leader, I need to take care of THEM so they have the balance and peace they need to take care of others.  Many teachers will give, give, give until their bucket is empty.  (Many leaders do this, as well.)  Each of us must take time to refill our buckets and take care of ourselves.  If we do not, then everyone around us suffers.  As the leader of any organization, it is our job to build this level of respect and empathy into our organization. We can’t suck the life out of people and in-turn expect their best work.  I feel this is applicable to any profession, but as educators it is incredibly important due to the nature of our work and the fact that we are touching the lives of children.

Interestingly, what I thought would be a positive, uplifting New Year activity for my staff quickly became a learning experience for me.  If we want to see our schools, teachers, and students rise to their fullest potential we must take care of them, respect them, uplift them, support them, inspire them, and provide opportunities for them to flourish.  We need to do this for our teachers.  We need this for ourselves.  Most importantly, this needs to happen for the betterment of our students.  And we need to do it. …. NOW.

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#OneWord2018

Better Together- #DENSI2017

This time one week ago I was completing my first evening of Discovery Education’s Principal Summit- DENSI 2017 in San Diego, California.  It is hard to believe an entire week has passed.  As an aside, I spent Thursday (of last week) flying from one end of the country to the other with a couple of local colleagues who were also selected to attend this professional learning opportunity.  We hit the ground running, meeting a room full of innovative administrators from around the country and Canada.  We attended great session after great session, collaborating with and learning from outstanding administrators until Sunday afternoon when we caught our flight back home.  We arrived home Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. and were back at work at 7:00 a.m. the next day.  This week (like most) has been incredibly busy, and now exactly one week later I have finally come to a point of reflection.  What’s important here?  … Coming to a point of reflection.  It is so easy to get busy and leave the energy, enthusiasm, and learning behind.  I am not your typical note-taking type, but throughout the conference I highlighted take-aways through tweets and jotting notes in an app on my phone.  In an effort to reinforce my learning and share with others, I’ve decided to create a “short list” of the quotes, tools, and thoughts that really stood out to me during this collaborative learning opportunity.

Quotes, Ideas, & Thoughts:

@DrBillZiegler- “Future Focused Leaders” (Check out his book!) Feedback is important- Not only from your faculty, but also (and especially) from your students!

@PostleBrown- “If your staff didn’t have to attend your professional development (staff meeting, etc.) would they be there?”  Rachael presented engaging ways to lead professional development in your school.  I like to think I am “innovative”, but Rachael helped me realize how many engaging options are out there to move our schools forward.  She shared gamification tools to enhance professional learning, and her session was amazing!

@PrincipalStager- One of our first learning experiences was from Theresa who talked about the importance of connectedness.  We are “better together”.  Find ways to grow your PLN (professional learning network).  The greatest way I have found to grow my PLN is through twitter.  You can connect with others from all over the world!  This DENSI experience was also particularly amazing because we were a fairly small group of principals with diverse backgrounds.  It is amazing how much you can learn when you come together with others who have had different experiences than you.

@rockourworld- We had a powerful session about focusing on our strengths.  We took the Gallup “Strengths Finder” assessment to learn about our top five strengths.  It is so true that in the field of education we very often focus on weaknesses and how to improve our (school’s, student’s, etc.) weaknesses.  I learned you can much more effectively grow your strengths than your weaknesses.  This was enlightening for me, because I had never really considered this before.

@Ryan_Imbriale- DO NEW THINGS.  “Innovation matters.”  — His message was affirming and inspiring…. and reminded me of my blog!

Tools/Resources I want to Remember and Explore:

Storify, Lewo- Jenga: Can be used for team-building and also to teach empathy by limiting people by removing a “strength” (play with one hand, play blindfolded, etc.), 360 camera and Thinglink, DENtrend Report- latest education articles found on @DiscoveryEd website, Rocketbook Wave, Coding: CoSpaces, Alexa- Treehouse, Universal Clip-On 60x Microscope, Bloxels- Video Game Creating, Discovery Ed Kindness Resources & STEM resources, Creating mini green screens out of pizza boxes….

Connections:

During this conference I was able to sit and talk with other principals from California, Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Canada, Louisiana …. I’m sure I have forgotten places.  We talked, laughed, and shared stories, tools and resources.  I feel I was blessed to sit among the “best of the best” at this conference.  My tweet to “wrap up” this event was: “Awesome learning.  Awesome people and connections.  Awesome city.  Thanks @DiscoveryEd.  My first #DENSI2017 experience was incredible.”

My experience was indeed incredible.  As I reflect on my week of learning, I am reminded of the power of collaboration.  It is difficult to grow if you are on an island all alone.  We are so much better together.  I am thankful for the opportunity to connect with the other amazing principals at this conference, and I look forward to putting my learning into action for the betterment of my students.  While this post includes only a “short list” of the many great ideas, tools, and thoughts presented at this conference, I hope it serves as a reminder of this incredible experience.

 

 

 

Leaders- Let’s Model not Mandate #OutsideTheBoxED

Shifting the educational landscape from teacher-centered to student-centered is not an easy task.  Many teachers grew up in classrooms modeled after standardization.  We have fond memories of sitting in our desks, absorbing new information, and idolizing our teachers.  These great students grew up fond of school and became teachers themselves, but a lot has changed in our world since we were young.  Our students today need a different skill-set to be successful.  Information is at their fingertips.  Now, we must know what to do with all of this easily accessible information.

The ability to think critically, problem-solve, problem-find, and think “outside the box” – innovatively- are skills that are needed more than ever before.  These skills cannot be easily learned through lecture.  Students need relevance and opportunities to connect their learning in meaningful, real-world ways.  Students need to have opportunities to collaborate with others, hear different perspectives, and grow their thirst for learning.  I would guess you rarely (if ever) will be able to provide these opportunities to students by following a script or teaching a textbook cover to cover.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have resources.  But being resourceful means utilizing the resources available to you to get the job done.

Let’s say we agree that students need to develop the skills mentioned above.  Maybe not everyone agrees- but for the sake of this post let’s say we agree.  Before we can expect our students to become problem finders and solvers, think critically, and innovate, would it be safe to assume our teachers need these skills (and this mindset) as well? Teachers are professionals.  Many have these necessary skills, yet they are “boxed-in” by mandates, deadlines, and programs that hinder their ability and opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

Before a culture shift can occur, we as educational leaders have some “shifting” to do as well.  Just as the traditional, standardized instructional approach fails to meet the needs of today’s students, the traditional top-down, managerial leadership approach fails to meet the needs of today’s teachers.  And failing our teachers fails our students.  Teachers need to be supported.  They need leaders who are learners.  They need leaders who light the spark and get out of the way! Teachers need to be given opportunities to collaborate, problem-find and solve, think critically and be innovative.  We cannot MANDATE these skills and opportunities, but instead we have to MODEL them.  Today’s leaders need to inspire, encourage, and stretch thinking. And we also need to listen.  As the leader of any organization, it is true that “the buck stops with you”.  We do have to make the tough decisions.  As instructional leaders, we have to make decisions we feel are in the best interest of our students.  But to shift a culture to one that is truly student-centered, we must lead in a way that allows our teachers to utilize the same skills we expect to see their students using in their classrooms.  I believe in my heart of hearts this will never be accomplished through “tighter reins” and an iron fist.  We may get compliance that way, but rarely does compliance equate a person’s best.

I haven’t been in leadership for all that long, and I do not by any means feel I have all of the answers.  In fact, I make mistakes often.  I have teachers who would probably read this and think, “You’re one to talk!”  Part of the reason I enjoy writing my thoughts, though, is because it requires reflection.  Reflecting on our practice allows us to continue to grow and fine-tune our craft.  As I reflect on the previous year and prepare for the next, I hope I am able to practice what I’m preaching.  Our profession is losing too many great teachers, among other educators, because they lose their “WHY”.  I’m afraid their “why” is getting buried underneath a lot of other less important distractors that suck the life out of people.  Let’s not allow this to happen.  Not to them- not to us. One of my all-time favorite quotes is Gandhi’s, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  If we want to see instructional shifts in our schools,  then we must shift too.  As leaders, the buck may stop with us… but sometimes more importantly it starts with us, too.

Doing Education Differently

As an elementary principal I always feel pride in the work my students, staff and school are doing. The question I always have is: How well are we doing for our 5 to 12 year old student population outside of what we can see in the school building?

Students have a way of making sure you get the right feedback. 

We recently hosted a number of guest entrepreneurs for National Entrepreneurship Week, and we also make frequent attempts to bring in experts from our community to serve as role-models and field experts as our students work through project-based learning units. As my teachers and I talked with our guests, a common theme began to emerge. What comment was being made about our students repeatedly that validates what we are doing?

I am so impressed by the level of questions asked by your students.

Elementary students asking deep and thoughtful questions. THAT specific comment, repeated by multiple recent visitors brought a smile to my face and validation to our work like none other in recent times. Guest speakers are expecting the usual childlike fare of questions. However, when someone working in the real world of business and entrepreneurship gets asked probing, well-reasoned questions by an elementary school student it leaves a mark. It translates to a mark of validation for the work our staff does each and every day.

In a world filled with information overload, how refreshing is it to hear that young people are asking good questions? For the past few years, we have made a specific point to begin shifting instruction by focusing heavily on what has been coined as the 4Cs- communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. In an effort to prepare students to become members of the 21st century workforce, we are changing the educational landscape by teaching students to problem-solve, innovate and work in collaborative learning environments. Through a focus on the 4Cs and project-based learning, our students are gaining real-world learning experiences. Traditional subjects (reading, math, science, history / civics) are being taught through less-traditional means by merging subject matter into more relevant contexts where students are allowed to research, explore, and lead their own learning with the support of their teachers who facilitate. Though we may be using different methods there is no change in the importance of these fundamental subject areas.

Our primary students are engaging in projects that require them to think about problems and create solutions, often collaboratively. They are working through the engineering design process. They are learning about entrepreneurship and how to look at problems differently. Our elementary students are learning to code and utilize 3D printers to build prototypes of inventions. They are utilizing a variety of technological tools for creation of digital products. Throughout this school year I have seen learning unfold through a variety of meaningful projects and experiences:

  • 3rd grade students creating commercials to advertise national parks
  • 5th grade students utilizing the engineering design process to solve realistic problems on a “foreign planet”
  • 5th grade students determining solutions to environmental concerns
  • 1st grade students earning money through chores which they then in-turn used to purchase pumpkins to decorate and walk to a retirement center as a special present to the residents
  • Kindergarten students raising thousands of dollars through a hero walk and Kindernational Food Truck Festival to donate to a hunger organization researched and voted on by classmates
  • 2nd grade students creating business ventures based on the fairy-tales and fractured fairy tales they had been reading
  • 4th grade students creating iMovie book trailers for Caldecott Award winning books after creating Newberry book reports using their tool of choice

The aforementioned project examples are just a snippet of the meaningful learning take place, and through all of these opportunities students are meeting the standards for all required subjects. More importantly, students are learning the purpose behind their learning. They are learning to think critically, innovate, communicate effectively, and collaborate with others. They are learning empathy. And, yes!  They are learning to ask GREAT questions.

In a few short years, these young students will move on to their middle/junior high and high school years and find themselves in a new learning environment and new situations. By equipping students with the skills outlined above, their learning can continue to blossom through their inquisitiveness. Our culture of active learning has equipped them with a tool-kit gained through well-rounded and meaningful experiences. The multiple compliments by guests about our students questioning helped me reflect on the validity to this shift in instruction taking place at our school. When teachers are the sage on the stage (only there to provide endless information) students do not learn to question or think critically. We must facilitate active, meaningful learning and begin to “do education differently”. We hold the future in our elementary schools and through my lens, our future is bright!

Shifting from #EDUtradition to #OutsideTheBoxED

Trends are exciting.  They catch on like wildfire.  Every educator across the United States could probably very quickly name the two-word toy “trend” that hit out of nowhere and infiltrated schools across America throughout the month of May — that’s right — the infamous fidget spinner.  But what if education itself became the trending topic?  What if the latest trend taking America by storm was one that celebrated student innovation, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, real-life learning through PBL (project-based learning) and entrepreneurship education?  Wouldn’t that be exciting?
More importantly, this shift in education is necessary for the success of our students as they move into our “connected”, global society.

I am reminded of the Anthony Robbins quote, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” How many school systems across the country are pouring over standardized test scores this summer trying to figure out, “WHAT WENT WRONG?”  In education we tend to look in every direction for the solution, but maybe we have yet to discover or define the actual problem.  This, in essence, is where the idea of #OutsideTheBoxED originated.

Our world is no longer standardized.  We are far removed from the industrial-age when standardization was key, so why are we using standardized tests as our sole measure of student success? It is difficult to define the problem with such narrow measures.  During the industrial-age, workers needed to learn a specific skill and perform it well.  Education was modeled after the workforce.  Desks were in rows, and the teacher was front and center providing the information necessary for students to learn.  Far too often, our schools are STILL modeled after this same style of instruction.  Our students are sitting bored out of their minds listening to teachers spill out information that *newsflash* could be googled with far less trouble, until they are saved by the bell and walk classroom to classroom like zombies from “The Walking Dead”.  And then we wonder why they aren’t performing well.

THANKFULLY, this isn’t the case everywhere.  Many schools are making great strides to shift their educational culture to a student-centered approach that promotes critical and creative thinking, innovation, collaboration, and communication.  As an instructional leader, I am committed to preparing students for their future- and their today.  Through a focus on the 4Cs Essential Skills: Communication, Collaboration, Creativity and Critical Thinking, project-based learning, entrepreneurship education, arts education, STEM, and digital literacy we are exposing our ELEMENTARY students to a wide-variety of experiences to build a firm foundation for their success.  I intend to use this blog as a tool to share different aspects of what my faculty and I have found to be beneficial for our students and ourselves as we made the shift from traditional to #OutsideTheBoxED.

I encourage you to share stories, pictures, tweets, and examples of the progress your school is making in shifting its educational landscape.  Feel free to share and comment on this post!  Let’s start a new trend!  Boxes are so lame.  It’s time to shift from #EDUtradition to #OutsideTheBoxED and meet the needs of today’s learners!