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!