Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Progress Principle

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. 

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Learning What Works Through Failure

Misconceptions are a natural phase in the learning process.  Here's  a great quote from Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning about the benefits of failure and problem solving.

It's not the failure, that's desirable, it's the dauntless effort despite the risks, the discovery of what works and what doesn't that sometimes only failure can reveal.  It's trusting that trying to solve a puzzle serves us better than being spoon-fed the solution, even if we fall short in our first attempts at an answer.

Research shows that effort is required for learning to be lasting and durable.  Sweat equity must be paid and the task for teachers is to design learning experiences that allow for productive struggle and determination without leading to frustration and burnout.

Every Child

“I have never encountered any children in any group who are not geniuses. There is no mystery on how to teach them. The first thing you do is treat them like human beings and the second thing you do is love them.”

 Dr. Asa Hilliard

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

It's Always About the Learning

Camarena Elementary is considered a technology school.  Some days I feel like that is unfortunate, because I don't want the perception to be that our focus is primarly on technology.  As the two posts below show, the focus needs to be first, last, and always about  learning.

Words Matter: Let’s Talk About Learning, Not Technology

This summary of phrasing sums up this point of view well.

Technology is a Tool, Not a Learning Outcome

Bill Ferriter's summary helps put learning and technology in their proper place.

2 Class Dojo Points for Bill!!!

At the end of the day, my hope is that our work with students moves the needle forward on learning and we will use any and every technology tool that helps us accomplish that goal.  

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Everything Bad is Good For You

That's the title of an intriguing book by Steven Johnson and appears to be the theme of the science of learning form the authors of Make it Stick.  In my first summay, I described the testing effect and how it is superior to rereading.

The next section of their book describes the antitode to massed practice or blocked practice, the idea of practicing one skill until it is burned into memory - think math homework over the past 50 years.  It turns out that this type of focused and repetitive practice is not as beneficial as we would believe.

The antitode to massed practice  is spaced, interleaved, and varied practice.  It turns out that the goal is to make the practice a little harder to encourage retrieval in a manner that leads to improved descrimination skills.

Spaced Practice - Leaving a little time (at least a day) between practice sessions allows the learner to forget just enough so that it requires effort to retrieve the content.  It is this act of retrieval after a little forgetting that actually impedes the forgetting process.  Daniel Willingham summarizes the studies about massed practice and shares suggested implications here.

Interleaved Practice -  Learning several new and related concepts at the same time is actually slower and feels less productive. Intuitively we all want to practice one thing at a time until it is mastered.  It turns out that for long term benefit, even though we feels like we are not, we are actually benefitting from a less uniform approach to learning new concent.  Instead of learning the formula for area of one shape at a time, it will be better for long term memory to learn the area formula of several different shapes interleaving them together thus solidifying our ability to choose the  right formula when needed.

Varied Pracitce - The authors cited another study that showed two groups who were practicing tossing a beanbag.  One group practiced consistently at three feet. The other group practiced at two and four feet.  They were both tested on a three foot toss and the group that had NEVER practiced on three feet performed better than the group that ONLY practiced on three feet.

My biggest takeaway is that we need to develop practice routines that allow the learner to rehearse the decision making that they will face in an authentic setting.   In closing, the authors spoke about the need to add reflection to all learning expereinces. Asking questions such as What happened?, What did I do?, How did it work out? are invaluable tools to cement learning in every experience.  Finally, we should ask, What should I do next time?

Friday, November 28, 2014

Maybe Weighing Pigs Does Make them Fatter?

Photo Credit: Ethan Block on Flickr

A good friend of mine likes to remind me that simply testing kids doesn't increase their learning, thus the title of this post derives from her catchy phrase that, "weighing pigs doesn't make them fatter".  The authors of Make it Stick (Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel) might disagree with that statement.  The subtitle of the book is The Science of Successful Learning and their aim is to review the research on what practices help us learning.    You can get a summary of their work on the American RadioWorks podcast here and a related podcast here.

The first strategy that they discuss is the benefit of retrieval to aid memory, especially when compared to simply rereading content.  Retrieval is described as self testing, using flash cards to practice the content, summarizing after reading short chunks, writing key ideas after reading, and low stakes quizzing.  Study after study compares the benefits to learning that accrue when one retrieves the information periodically during a course of study instead of simply reading and rereading the material and notes.   Students who stop to recite what they are learning or are asked to answer short quizzes learn more both in the short term - and here's the big bonus - in the long term.  This is called The Testing Effect.  For those of you who are still bent on cramming, you will see some immediate benefit from that frenzied approach, but the gains quickly disappear in to the black hole of long term forgetting.  You will get more benefit from studying and testing yourself AND you will remember more of what you have learned a month later.

Their research about this topic also found that learners benefited from questions and testing that were spaced out to allow some forgetting to occur such that the act of retrieval was accompanied by cognitive effort.  The greater the effort (so long as there was ultimate success) the more that the learner remembered.   Other benefits of frequent quizzing (effortful retrieval) included students understanding the content that they knew and didn't know in order to study more effectively, lower test anxiety because frequent quizzes helped students gain confidence, and slight improvement in attendance in higher education courses.

I see several implications for schools.

1.  Teach students how to study.  Explain to students the benefits of summarizing what they are learning through taking notes about the content they are grasping.

2.  Embrace low stakes quizzing throughout all units of study.  While we are in an environment of high stakes testing and there are plenty of reasons to eschew more testing.  Research has shown that low stakes questioning will enhance learning of all content and allow students to perform higher order thinking because of the rich content that is solidifying into their long term memory.

3. Implement this research today.  Too often educators have sneered at research that seems counter intuitive and the big losers are our students.  Check out the research yourself and you will see that this practice consistently allows students to learn material at a much higher rate than merely rereading.

Let's try this out!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Misconceptions, Mistakes, and Error are the Seeds of Learning

In an excellent article at Edutpia, Richard Curwin discussed 9 ways to embrace mistakes to enhance Learning. I especially like #7:

"Instead of (or at least in addition to) walls filled with students' achievements, have a wall where students can brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them"

Indeed, if we are able to develop risk takers and curiosity we will ned to embrace errors without judgment so they we can all be better off because of them.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Motivating Teachers

A colleague asked for some tips on motivating teachers for a school and district that are facing conflict and tensions.  I thought I'd collect my ideas here if it would be helpful to others. Actually, the request was simply for inspirational videos, as I have used videos in the past for motivation.

However, I thought it important to say some things about the context and culture that need to be in place for sustainable motivation to occur. Showing an inspirational video during a time of crisis may lead to temporary feelings of re-commitment or renewed energy, but we need the determination that comes from day to day motivation that can only be achieved through attention to culture over the long run.

My thoughts are based on my own experience and Daniel Pink's book Drive, which outlines the three main drivers for motivation in the knowledge worker economy.  Those drivers are Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy.


In order to motivate teachers, it's critical to reconnect them with the goal of our work.  This is not a difficult task.  It's not like we're selling vacuum cleaners.  What teachers do every day is, without question, life changing and transformational even on an ordinary day.  Videos and discussion about the purpose of learning will reengage teachers with their initial calling to work with children.  More importantly, the day to day actions of leaders must be congruent with the goal of improving learning opportunities for all students.

Leaders need to ask, What is the purpose of our school?

Sometimes, it's best to let the kids start the conversation. Adora Svitak can get them to see What Adults Can Learn from Kids

and teachers can answer the question Do you Believe in Me, by Dalton Sherman.

Furthermore, Rita Pierson will remind teachers,  Because Every Kid Needs a Champion.

If you are rethinking your school mission, vision, or purpose, you may want to watch Simon Sinek's excellent talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

While working on purpose, one must focus on the future and not the past. Opportunities for new learning are everywhere.  Get your staff thinking about kids,  while imagining and creating an amazing future together.

Maybe you want to discuss Dan Meyer's Math Class Needs a Makeover

or Ken Robinson's provocative How Schools kill Creativity.

You could also read Seth Godin's treatise on Stop Stealing Dreams: What is school for?.  Some of his ideas will anger or frustrate but they will get your teachers talking about the future of schooling and encourage them to band together to write their own story for their students.


Everyone who shows up for work wants to be known for excellence.  Leaders can create the environment where excellence can thrive.  You need to embrace the growth mindset, which says that everyone can learn. Leaders should highlight existing strengths within their staff and elevate teachers to lead the learning.  Teachers should be encouraged to share their best work by blogging and sharing through other social media streams.

Leaders need to ask. How can I create a school where adults and students are always learning?

There are so many examples of individuals who have overcome struggles to achieve great things.  I always get emotional when I see the story of Jason McElwain, the autistic basketball manager who finally gets in a game and then ... well, you'll just have to watch it.

Of course, some athletes achieve greatness because of their God given abilities but hard work is still needed especially when it comes to other areas of their life. This decorated and famous University of Georgia football player was a highly sought out recruit who decided to become a great reader too.

Everyone wants to work in an environment where they have the tools, collegial relationships, and encouragement to produce their best work.  Leaders who inspire provide all the ingredients necessary for mastery to occur.  They provide clear and explicit targets with lots of timely feedback that helps every learner in the school learn and grow.  There is great satisfaction in mastering something that beforehand seemed impossible or out of reach.  Teachers are motivated when they are improving in their craft and they see the fruit of their mastery in the lives of students.


Finally, when teachers take ownership of their learning to improve their craft, they will be highly motivated to do the work that lies before them.  There is no one who will eagerly pursue rote implementation of programs and curriculum that are handed down from the state, district, or even the Principal.  Teachers should be deeply involved in the development of the course of action at a school as well as its implementation.  Do you want motiavted teachers?   Give them a voice.  Give them choice.  Give them "autonomy" to define how they accomplish the goals you have set for your school.

You can do this in any number of ways.  Leadership, grade level, and course alike teams are all vehicles through which teachers can chart a course (with guidelines of course) that make sense to them and allow them to define their reality.  In Ed Catmull's excellent book Creativity Inc he describes the feedback that directors receive on their films from a group called The Braintrust.  Although The Braintrust gave many suggestions, ideas, and feedback, ultimately it was the director  of the film alone who was tasked with choosing from all of these suggestions to modify and adapt the film based on the feedback.  Teachers need that same structure and power if they are to be motivated to pursue excellence  in the classroom every day.

Leaders need to ask the question. What structures and processes can I create so that you can do your work better?

So, if you want to motivate teachers to create schools where students AND adults can flourish, then by all means, show some video!  However, you also need to commit to doing the work every day that builds the kind of environment where motivation is ongoing and sustainable.

What other ideas do you have for motivating teachers?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Flow and Learning

I came across this quote from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow and it reminded me of the work we are doing around success criteria, feedback, and visible learning.

One reaches flow in activities where ... "a sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing."

This quote demonstrates several truths that are the hallmark of quality learning experiences.

First, the learner must believe that she has the skill to meet the challenge so a) there must be some challenge and b) the challenge cannot be so great that the learner doesn't believe that she can attain the goal.  

Second, sufficient structure must be provided so that the learner can navigate the activity with a certain degree of certainty.

Finally, feedback must be connected to the goal that one is pursuing and must be explicit in describing the current performance against the ideal state.

Does this square with your beliefs about what quality teaching and learning looks like?

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Reading Instruction from the Master

Richard Allington, in his recent article at Educational Leadership has some concrete steps that teachers can take to improve reading instruction.   He unmasks two villians of poor reading instruction 1) Overusing and misusing  oral reading and 2) Asking Low Level Questions.  Here is his remedy for oral reading.

  1. Use oral reading selectively. By the middle of 1st grade, most reading should be done silently.
  2. If you elect to have students read a text aloud, consciously bite your tongue as they read. Wait until the student has completed at least a full sentence before you interrupt, and then interrupt with a comment that encourages the student to self-regulate.
  3. Ensure that other students who might be following along or listening to the student read aloud also do not interrupt the reader.
  4. If you're concerned that you cannot monitor the accuracy of students' reading when they read silently, remember that all you really need to do is ask them to retell what they've read. Misreadings become obvious during retellings.

(numbers not in original, because bullets drive me crazy.)

And here is what he prescribes in place of Low Level Questions

In a study of high-poverty schools, Taylor and colleagues (Taylor, Pearson, Clark, & Walpole, 2000; Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, & Rodriguez, 2003) found that more effective teachers asked five times as many higher-order questions and offered twice as many opportunities for discussion as less effective teachers did.  The more effective teachers were also more likely to ask students to respond in writing to higher-order questions.

He goes on to describe a familiar routine of turn pair and share that is an excellent structure in which to engage students in literate conversations answering high level questions, while also including writing about what they are reading.

Monday, September 29, 2014

If You Could Write the Formula for the next California Academic Performance Index (API)...

Photo credit:

For years I have longed for a dynamic school dashboard. I'd like to refresh my computer every morning and look at all the most important data to help me get a picture of how the students at my school are progressing toward their individual and collective goals?  But, so many questions remain.  What is of greatest importance and how best to meausure?  Here are some things I believe would be beneficial to measure (notice I didn't say easy to measure).

  1. Attendance - Easy to measure and of obvious importance
  2. Tardies - would definitely encourage commitment to getting to school on time.  
  3. Number of books read - This is of critical importance.  The challenge is verifying that students have actually read... or I should say read with high comprehension.  
  4. Reading Conferences/Writing conferences - I believe anytime that a student spends time with a teacher getting feedback on their reading and writing life they are on the way to reaching the next step.
  5. Writing Entries - All writing is beneficial (just like books) Of course, it would be even more beneficial to get data on writing that is of high quality or meets certain criteria.   Since we are working at Camarena Elementary to get every class blogging, we could measure blog posts rather easily.
  6. Mastering Math Facts - Whenever students master these building blocks of learning they become more capable and able of thinking critically and problem solving.
  7. Student Teaching Videos Created - Clearly these need to be previewed and judged for quality, but it is without a doubt that the creator of these videos solidifies and enhances their learning.
  8. Formative Assessments - Students tested on their skills learn more when that assessment is coupled with explicit feedback.
  9. Parent/Community Volunteer Hours - Parent engagement in school (for any reason) strengthens our connection with families and supports learning in every way.

What am I missing?  What would you add to this list?  What would you take away?  What assessments of these areas would be most helpful to collect?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Persistence in Teaching and Coaching

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Give Students a Purpose for Listening

Caught this excellent post on Educating Grace about small things that increase participation in classroom discussions and especially appreciated this nugget:

Providing clear instructions for how others should engage when their peers are talking, beyond simply "tracking" or "listening" or "following along," such as "listen for whether you used a similar method or did something different" or "as you listen, think about how you would say this in your own words" or "listen for how [student] used a pattern to find a solution" gives students a reason for listening...

This is a much more authentic reason for listening that gives students a clear purpose that will enhance their own understanding of the content and process that is being discussed. Go on over and read the rest here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When Your Disadvantages Prove to be an Advantage

New York Times archives

Why do we complain so much about defeat or disadvantage or difficulty?

It is absolutely true that we all benefit from overcoming challenges, therefore we should not shrink in the face of insurmountable odds and difficult tasks and we should be very leery when life is smooth, and peaceful and pleasant.

Two examples...

William Howard Taft

Theodore Roosevelt

William Howard Taft grew to be over 300 pounds and faced several bouts of illness while serving in the Philippines before returning to the US to work on Roosevelt's cabinet and eventually succeed him as President. His physical state deteriorated over years of indulgence and lack of physical exertion.
Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, was the picture of health and vitality who regularly took foreign ambassadors and reporters through the woods of Washington DC on rigorous hikes where the only rule was you must go straight over whatever was in your path.  He also was known to dabble in boxing and other combat sports.

So, how did these men start the race?

One of them was the picture of strength and youthful vigor standing over 6 ft tall,  strong and athletic  the quintessential high school quarterback who probably dated the head cheerleader.

The other was sickly as a youth, suffering frequent and severe asthma attacks that nearly led to death.

William Howard Taft is the first example, and Teddy Roosevelt the second.

The lesson here is that it was not the advantages or disadvantages of the hand that they were dealt, but how they responded to them that matters.  William Howard Taft, blessed with physical size, strength, and vitality, wasted away those physical gifts through a life of leisure and indulgence.

Teddy Roosevelt, through the mentorship of his father, attacked his weakness with vigor, dedicating himself to disciplined and rigorous exercise and strength training that helped shape him both physically and mentally.

The lessons are obvious. Encourage your students to do two things in honor of Presidents Taft and Roosevelt.

Don't fret because of difficulty or challenge, but embrace it and improve through disciplined effort.
Don't take for granted your strengths, but seek always to improve and build on the foundation you have been gifted.

What about you, do you have any examples of determination in the face of challenge?  I'm afraid we can all point out plenty of examples of failure in the face of great promise.


Reference: The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Study Smarter

Here's a summary of research on effective study techniques alluded to by John Hattie at the Visible Learning Conference.  The big winners are:

Dunlosky and colleagues report that spreading out your studying over time and quizzing yourself on material before the big test are highly effective learning strategies. Both techniques have been shown to boost students’ performance across many different kinds of tests, and their effectiveness has been repeatedly demonstrated for students of all ages.

Teachers, parents, and students would be wise to focus on these strategies for learning instead of the less effective strategies like summarizing and highlighting.  Here's the full study:

Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology

Monday, July 14, 2014

6 Qualities of a Great Follower

Leadership is a popular topic.  I mean, who doesn't secretly or not-so-secretly want to be known as a great leader?  When we read the stories of the past, we all see ourselves as the one who would be sitting in the same seat as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, or Marie Curie.  But why so little love for the follower?  After all, each of these leaders would be nothing without a legion of faithful and gifted followers.

This summer I had the opportunity to join my son on a hike at Philmont Ranch in New Mexico.  We went on this journey with my son's boy scout troop.  There were 20 hikers total and I place myself squarely in the follower role.  I don't like, enjoy, nor have much knowledge about hiking and camping so I was looking to my leaders to make this a positive endurable experience.  During this 13 day journey of 75 miles where we ascended and descended 4000 feet I learned some lessons about how to  be a good follower.  I hope these will help you as you contemplate your critical role as a follower.

1.  Ask questions to become better informed

I was completely at the mercy of our lead navigator and guide.  At the outset, I wasn't clear about our daily direction or course and was not always given the information that I felt would help me attack each day with confidence.  The more I asked questions, the better I understood the overall scope of our trek and the daily expectations of the trail.  By asking questions, I helped our leaders see what was clear and ambiguous about our journey. I found the leader began to anticipate our questions as the adventure continued and provide the kind of information that we found helpful.  If I had continued in silence, all of us would have been less comfortable and informed.  Great followers ask questions to be informed and "in the know"

2.  Before a decision is made, give your open and honest opinions freely

There came several times during our hike that we had to make decisions about which trail to take or which activity we would attempt.  During those times I stated my preference or asked clarifying questions as did others.   Great followers offer their opinions with openness, honest, and respect.

3.  After the decision is made, enthusiastically embrace the decision and help make it successful

Unless the decision is not the decision you preferred!  Actually this last statement IS NOT a trait of a good follower.  Remember, you are the follower, not the leader.   The leaders is the decision maker and, if you want to be a great follower, from time to time you will need to invest your energy and enthusiasm in a decision that you did not wholeheartedly endorse.  A good follower will put his head down and make every effort to see this course through successfully.  Great followers implement decisions even those for which they disagree, as if it was their decision.

4.  Allow yourself to be influenced by the passions of your leader.

Did I mention that I don't like hiking and camping?   However, I noticed that most of the participants of this adventure were truly excited and enthusiastic about this opportunity so it got me wondering, "What is it about hiking and camping that entices these men so much?"  I tried to maintain a positive attitude (very challenging) and keep my grumbling and complaining to a minimum (didn't do so well there!).  In the end, I tasted a little of the feeling of accomplishment and sense of adventure that seems to drive these fellas.  I won't say that I'm planning a trek into the Sierras with a toothbrush and a space blanket, but at least I look back on our trip with some fondness for what we overcame and experienced.  Great followers allow themselves to be influenced by their leaders.

5.  Take initiative to take responsibilities

It's very easy to be a passive follower.  It's possible to only do what you are required to do or directly asked to do.  You won't really get any grief for this approach as no one is expecting more.  However, I noticed there was no shortage of tasks to be accomplished so I took it upon myself to learn how to put up and take down the bear bags (food and smellables that needed to be put up in bags 30-50 feet in the air so the bears wouldn't come visit our camp).   Doing this one small task made our camp set up and take down go a little smoother and it felt satisfying to contribute something beyond the minimum.  Great followers take initiative and learn new skills.

6.  Provide aid and assistance to your peers.

A leader can't be every where at all times.  Our daily hiking regimen meant that we were hiking in a single file line with 10 people back to back.  One one treacherous hike we were descending a narrow canyon trail that had some tricky spots.  One of our hikers was struggling and anxious on his way down.  He was assisted for a couple miles by a dad who took it upon himself to provide individual guidance, modeling, and encouragement.  This task could not have been done by the leader even if he wanted to since he was out front navigating our direction.  This follower (Mr. Warmbier below) provided the perfect assistance for our colleague and made the descent more effective and smooth for the whole squad.  Great followers help one another to strengthen our collective effort.

As we start the 2014-15 school year, it would be a good time to review the qualities of a follower that we embody.  Whether you are a teacher following lead teachers or a principal, whether you are a principal following a superintendent or cabinet, it would behoove us all to be great followers, which will encourage our leaders to be better leaders and make our organizations and schools stronger overall.  Just think what we can accomplish through the efforts of a legion of Stellar followers!  After all, you won't be able to see views like this without a little hardship, dedication, and teamwork!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Social Media Journey of Camarena Elementary

Incredible tools exist today that allow schools to build a stronger partnership with their community.  When we opened Camarena Elementary in July 2013 I was eager to utilize these tools to connect with our families, believing that vibrant two way communication would be critical to growing and developing a healthy school culture.  Though I didn't have a strategy at the outset, in retrospective there were several key steps that I took along the way to build our social media presence.

Step 1 Wordpress Blog. 
Six months before opening our school we created our school website and invited parents to connect and engage with us as we crafted our plan for opening day.  This proved to be an excellent way to communicate with our constituents before we had a physical building to call our own. After our first school year we have received over 1,000 comments and questions via the school website. The ease of posting and connecting on the Wordpress platform made for a simple way to stay connected.  Here's a screenshot of our first post:

Step 2 Expose staff to power of social tools. 
At our opening staff meeting last June, I asked the teachers to work together and post a picture on Twitter of a learning space around campus. This gave our teachers a chance to play with this tool. There was no concrete requirement that teachers actively join Twitter, but there was an expectation that they explore and experiment with various forms of social media.  The result was that we had about a dozen teachers who became consistent users of Twitter for professional learning.  Some started initially then pulled back because of the addicting nature of Twitter, however they saw the power of this resource for professional learning.  Here is one of those tweets from our first day:

Step 3 Create and broadcast a hashtag. 
We decided the #camlearns hashtag would be our coordinating tagline. This made it easy for us to share ideas and follow the thinking of one another. One teacher also created a Twitter list of Camarena teachers which was another way for us to follow the professional conversation and learning among peers.

Step 4 Combine #camlearns hashtag through Instagram and Wordpress via IFTTT.
People love to see their kids working at school. For parents who can't attend school regularly, we wanted to open the doors of our classrooms so that parents could connect with their kids. First, I created a photo blog on Wordpess, then used IFTTT to create a menu that connected every Instragram post using the #camlearns tag to simultaneously post to the Wordpress site.  Initially I was the only person who made posts, but as the year continued we saw more and more staff and parents postings.  For teacher appreciation day we posted pictures of teachers around campus and encouraged parents and students to take selfies with their teacher and post to twitter or instagram using the #camlearns hashtag and gradually we started to get more traction from the community.  At our final event of the year, a 5K color run, several families and staff contributed to the hashtag and community blog.

Step 5 Student Curated Twitter Account
Finally, I had started a school twitter account that was slow picking up followers so the last quarter of the year, I assigned a student to curate the account one week at a time. (with parent permission).  We had students from 1st grade to 6th sharing what they were learning and thinking about during the school day and started to gain some followers and retweets of our school Twitter account.  The kids caught on fast:

All of these attempts have slowly grown our social media life with our entire community.  I can't encourage you enough to jump in at some point by starting with your purpose.  What are you hoping to gain by investing your time in social media?  For me, the primary purpose is to connect our families and community with the daily work of students - to open a window to the hard work and accomplishments of students fall day long.  This helps break down the traditional isolation of the classroom.  Also, I want to tell our story of Camarena Elementary from the point of view of students, staff, and parents.  In this way we take control of the narrative that is told about Camarena Elementary.  Feel free to share your social media journey as well so we can add some new and fresh ideas to our plans for 2014-15



Saturday, May 10, 2014

Making Misconceptions Visible

Learning occurs when misconceptions are revealed, addressed and overcome.  For this to happen, teachers must be comfortable and patient to first surface those misconceptions then do the challenging work of probing student thinking to help guide them to their error and a path toward a clearer, more correct understanding.

At Camarena Elementary, teachers are embracing this approach by exposing student error front and center and questioning the student's faulty thinking, engaging in whole class dialogue to bridge the gap between current misconceptions and the target skill or concept.  I observed this a few weeks ago in Kirsten Mena's class where she masterfully accepted a student's erroneous thinking in math and led the class to gently and respectfully probe that wrong answer until the student in question finally raised his hand to state, "I respectfully disagree with myself..."  Brilliant!  This is far superior to simply correcting error and giving the student the right answer.  Comprehension and understanding are highly doubtful in that second example.

This exchange reminded me of an example in Bob Sutton's book Scaling Up Excellence.  He relayed a story of someone touring an engineers meeting at Google where there was vigorous debate about the merits of some particular course of action where higher level Google employees were questioning and being challenged by lower level engineers on this particular project.  In the end, the senior executive had been persuaded and he stated, "I now strongly disagree with myself".

From Google to Camarena Elementary, the environment where ideas are debated and challenged can only lead to more learning and deeper understanding.  When misconceptions are left unchallenged and left alone, students will remain in the dark and will have something worse than the wrong answer.  They will think that their wrong answer is actually the right answer and will go on practicing error in happy oblivion!  So, find those misconceptions, bring them into the light and lead your students to problem solve, probe, and reason until they are able to justify clearly and precisely the thinking you are pursuing.

What do you think?  How do you create an atmosphere of healthy debate and helpful critique?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What's the Main Idea? Bla Bla Bla

I have for years found the question, "What's the main idea?" unhelpful, inauthentic, and downright sinister and damaging.  OK, that might be a little over the top, so let me give you three details to prove my point! Actually, don't look for those details because you won't find them.  What I find is that authors don't write to make just one singular point. (unless they are writing nauseating textbooks sold for millions of dollars to school districts)

For example, is there a main idea in Romeo and Juliet?  There are themes a-plenty, but not a main idea with a singular purpose.  Sure, you could summarize the boo,  "Two confused teenagers (sorry redundant adjectives here) fall in love against family's wishes and end badly".  But, is that all that William Shakespeare was trying to get his readers to understand and appreciate?  Hardly!

So,  if we shouldn't ask about the main idea and supporting details, what should we ask?  Well, first of all it is important to know that articles and texts often make claims and back those claims with evidence and examples, therefore it is important for students to know the difference between a claim an evidence that backs up that claim.  As for how to get students invested in the author's intent,  Vicki Vinton wrote an excellent post about an Expeditionary Learning lesson on Esperanza Rising.  In the comments of that post, she posed the following question:

I’ve been finding that it really makes a difference if we ask kids what they think the writer wanted them to understand, versus what’s the main idea or the important details.

This questions causes the reader to consider that there is an actual human being directing the scope and purpose of the text, who might actually be trying to tell them something important, interesting, or even entertaining.  It also allows for a much richer discussion that will not simply contain that one perfect answer that is residing inside the questioner's head.  What do you think?  What are the questions you ask to get students to engage with a text and more completely understand what the author was trying to accomplish. In case my thinking was unclear, maybe this will help.

The main idea of this blog post was.

A.  Main idea is an illusion fostered by the Platonic school of philosophy
B.  Textbooks are written by robots
C.  Vicki Vinton - one smart lady
D.  Questions are kind of important

Monday, March 03, 2014

Feedback is a Gift, so Spread it Around

A colleague recently gave me some unsolicited, direct feedback about my poor facilitation skills, and I'm not gonna lie - It hurt!  Actually, I'm very grateful as it helped me reflect on behavior that I had NO IDEA was going on - and I consider myself a reflective fellow (he said, humbly").  However, this reminded me of a quote that Russ Roberts of Econtalk is fond of quoting from Richard Feynman, "The most important thing is not to fool yourself, and  you are very easy to fool."

As a Principal, I give a lot of feedback and getting a taste of that feedback makes me want to give direct and clear feedback to others more and more.  True professionals want to improve their craft and get better and they will only benefit from honest feedback provided in an environment that is safe and supportive.   I will definitely press forward to give clear, specific, and actionable feedback to others and gladly solicit that feedback for myself.  

Sunday, March 02, 2014

From Chaos to Clarity

Chaos, multitasking, overwhelming, Television and Social Media, Inbox NOT Zero
7 open books, 17 open tabs on Chrome, 15 active windows on desktop
Open loops, indecision, Watching, Tweeting, Superficial
Divided Attention, Weeds, Choking, Distraction
Pruning, Cutting, Prioritizing, Eliminating
Choosing, Saying No, Humility
Audience of One
Totally Present

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Assessment and Better Running Times

Thanks to the encouragement of a former colleague, Gavin Kelly, I took up running about 5 years ago and have enjoyed the many benefits to my physical and mental health because of that regimen.  About three years ago I ran my first Half Marathon and ran a respectable 1:57.  Being somewhat competitive and goal oriented, I set out to improve my time through training.  One of the tools I used was an app that could track my pace and speed as I ran.  When I first used this tool, it would blurt out my pace every mile as I ran and I quickly realized that this was completely destroying my running.  I was over emphasizing speed, enjoying my runs less, and losing some enthusiasm for running.  

Therefore I would turn off the alerts and simply run my prescribed distance and only check the rate at the end of a run.  The end result.  Three years later, I have continued to train regularly (approximately 3 times a week) and focused on the deliberate practice of short, fast runs during the week and long, slow runs on the weekend and my most recent Half Marathon time was right around 1:50.  

This got me thinking about the benefits and detriments of assessment during times of deliberate practice and the discussion that Doug Reeves started on antecedents of excellence in his book The Daily Disciplines of Leadership.  I'm more convinced now that when students are engaged in purposeful deliberate practice in many academic areas, assessment might actually get in the way of the usefulness of that deliberate practice.    When I ran, I DID have certain mile or time goals in mind, but I rarely focused on the speed and rate of my running.  

Once I got to the race, however, I turned that reminder back on and was able to modify my pace as I ran to reach my target race goal.  However, I was only able to monitor and adjust my rate because I had put in so many hours of relaxed running with less concern for time.   I think students will have more confidence and success on their summative assessments if they have logged in the prerequisite practice without the overemphasis on scoring and perfection.  My take away is that we need to be thoughtful and intentional about what we measure in students' deliberate practice so as to encourage the type of practice that will benefit their learning goals and maintain their interest and engagement in the work. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Focus is What I'm Thinking About

Photo Credit:

 We've been thinking a lot about what our focus should be at Camarena. I have pushed "digital literacy" which failed to take hold because of its uncertain definition. Since getting input from our entire staff, I've been reading about critical thinking and habits of mind and want to take a stab at clarifying my thinking to this point.

 Could we have a focus on clear thinking?

 What do I mean by clear thinking?

 Thinking that begins with an inquiry - a question. That question is followed by observation and the ability to make sense of a problem. This searching includes the ability to listen empathetically to a variety of viewpoints and make associations with past ideas and interconnect concepts from different fields with the end result of being able to construct viable arguments around the question as well as critique the reasoning of others. After undergoing this discovery process, our students should communicate their thinking with clarity and precision. The final stage of clear thinking involves reflection and revision as necessary.

 Having said all that, it would be very challenging to focus on every aspect of this process.

Make Sense of Problems
Listening Attentively
Construct viable arguments
Critique others
Communicate with clarity and Precision

 So, Where do we begin? It seems to me that we need to begin with the skill of inquiry. We need to become experts at asking great questions and teaching our students how to ask great questions.

Will such a focus allow us to go deep? 

Will this focus allow us to connect this skill to all content areas?

 Is this focus measurable?

 Is this focus worthy of our efforts?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

We have slowly discovered that our most effective goal is to be best at certain things. We now try to get our people to help us work out what these things should be, how to define best objectively, and how to become best in our selected spheres. You would be surprised at how motivating this can be. James Brian Quinn quoted by Peters and Waterman in In Search of Excellence
Of course, this is one of the same conclusions that Jim Collins found a few years later in Good to Great. These companies decided they could be the best in the world at something and pursued it. Steps two and three are very important 2) Define best objectively and 3) Actually become best in our sphere. These are questions that deserve thought, reflection, and above all, action!

Flexibility in Organizations

I think an inflexible organization chart which assumes that anyone in a given position will perform exactly the same way his predecessor did is ridiculous. He won't. Therefore, the organization ought to shift and adjust and adapt to the fact that there's a new person on the spot Fletcher Byrom quoted in In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman
Peters and Waterman begin their study on excellent American companies by explaining why the rational leadership model of the past was no longer the most successful model in the late 20th century. Successful companies allowed individuals to make their personal mark on the organization instead of following a script from their predecessor. There are still remnants of the command and control model within ourselves and within our organization. Focusing on purpose and meaning will help us all get to the core of what needs to be done and allow us to pursue that path with the gifts and style that most suits us.