It’s automatic.

CC licensed photo shared by inane_ramblings

CC licensed photo shared by inane_ramblings

The other day I stopped my car at a 4-way, stop signed intersection. (Really, truly stopped, not one of those I-bet-if-a-cop-was-watching-me-right-now-I’d-get-ticketed-slow-rolling-pauses.)

I glanced to the right, saw another car had arrived a few seconds before I did, so I paused to allow that car to proceed before I moved ahead.

I’ve done this probably one bazillion times in my driving life. For whatever reason, this time I reflected on how truly remarkable it is that this process, this act of allowing a driver to your right to make the first move at an intersection, came to be automatic in my driving repertoire. Yield to the right.

I don’t much think about it. I just do it.

What processes have become automatic to us as educators? Which of these processes benefit student learning? Which detract from it?

I pondered these lists of automatics…..

Automatic (and they shouldn’t be)

Screen shot 2010-12-22 at 7.51.24 PM

Automatic (and they should be)

Screen shot 2010-12-22 at 7.51.08 PMIn rereading Blink, I began to appreciate the skill of being able to assess a situation at first glance, and with a certain gut instinct and an ingrained set of background knowledge and experiences, make an important decision in an instant. As administrators, we’re presented with a seemingly endless stream of conflicts and situations that need resolutions. Some of them are solved in an instant. Others require patience, evaluating all facets of the problem, and involving other stakeholders in the decision-making process.

The skill, then, is not necessarily being able to solve problems in an instant, but being able to differentiate among which situations require a more thought-out solution and those that can be solved in a cinch. Automatically.

I’d love to hear your automatics and your reflections on how they impact your daily practice and student learning opportunities. A holiday break is upon us, and I hope to be able to find the time to reflect upon the things that I do daily, automatically, and decide how my priorities need to be better aligned to serve students. How should I more wisely spend my time? How can I better support my teachers? How can I work more collaboratively with my administrative team members? How can I promote student autonomy in the learning experiences we design?

If the willingness to improve doesn’t become automatic for us, we won’t yield for that integral reflection, and we deserve to be ticketed.

Be there.


Three years ago when I first started as principal in my building, I told my teachers they should expect to see me on a daily basis, even if it was just to pop my head in the classroom and say a quick hello. As every administrator knows, this is easier said than done, especially on days when central office demands have you running across town to three meetings at two different buildings. I think my first year I did a fairly good job of “showing my face” around the building. Teachers no longer stopped instruction when I walked in the room to find out if I needed something. Students stopped being curious as to why I was there. They knew it was because I wanted to see my little learners in action and get to know everyone in my new school.

Last year we embraced the ideals of the Fish! philosophy in our school, one of which is Be There. The premise behind “be there” is fairly broad in that not only do you need to be physically available for your staff and your colleagues, but you have to be emotionally available for them as well. Being present means you make yourself available to your constituents, listen actively, and continuously work to strengthen relationships.

The teacher supervision model with which we engage consists of electronic walk-through formats as well as a formal observation protocol. I was finding that I was falling short of completing my desired number of documented walk-throughs each week, falling victim to the perils of management and not allowing the joys of leadership to drive my actions each day.

A few weeks ago I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to experience an entire school day in the life of a first grader?” I glanced at my calendar, noticed, despite being few and far between, there were some days without any scheduled meetings or commitments. Right then and there, I blocked off days for every grade level and specialist class in my building.

I drafted a document called It’s a Date! and emailed my staff:

What’s the best part about being a principal?

Watching all of our children learn!

I have set aside days in my calendar to spend immersed in a grade level/class for the day. I am really excited about this! I will be in the classrooms from students’ arrival through the end of the day, planning to spend time in the rooms during academic times and will visit specials with your classes. I am happy to sit and observe, but reeeeally what I would love to do is join in the fun. Please put me to work! During your PLC meeting closer to your visit date, discuss how you will include me in your class activities. Need someone to facilitate a small group? Want to team up to teach a topic? Would you like to have someone work 1:1 with a student? Should I bring in some tech? These are all ways I’d be happy to help. Decide whose classrooms I will visit at what times of the day. If there is work/planning I need to complete before that day, kindly let me know a day or two in advance. 🙂

I began with first grade. What a wonderful day! In the morning I spent time working with small groups of students with reading concepts and making words activities using the Smartboard, and in the afternoon, three of the teachers enlisted my help teaching a lesson about extinction, where we read Dinosaurs! and the students interacted with classification and vocabulary on a Smartboard activity. I went to art class and music class and, although I often dine with students, joined them in the cafeteria. It was an exhilarating and exhausting day!


This past Friday was Third Grade Day. I didn’t have as many teaching responsibilities this time, so I was really able to sit back and observe the children and all of the wonderful things they were learning. (And take a lot of photos and shoot some video!) Highlights: collaborating on critiquing persuasive writing blog posts with a class in another district using Flockdraw… experimenting with solids, liquids, and gases (using root beer floats! and hot chocolate with whipped cream and peppermint sticks and marshmallows!)… reading poetry with small groups of students….getting a class set up on Kidblog for the first time and helping them compose their first entries…glazing the clay bowls I threw on the potting wheel last spring while the third graders glazed their autumn leaf pottery….eating scrumptious 🙂 macaroni and cheese with the children and cracking up at their absurd jokes…observing “challenge day” in math class, where students are free to choose which activities and challenge problems they’d like to complete, either individually or in teams… working 1:1 with a young man who reeeally wanted to learn algebra, so, we worked together on some simple equations, and then I watched him teach another student 🙂 …. observing students use the Activotes to interact with graphing problems on the Promethean board… loving the feeling of walking past my office door, closed, while the sign outside that indicates where I am the building reads, “Visiting Classrooms.”

3rd Grade Day on PhotoPeach

My colleague David Truss has coined these days in the life of an administrator “No Office Days.” As I recently drafted this post and planned to share about my grade level days, I was so excited to see David’s inspiring post and read about his day of learning with students. Be sure to read about his experiences in his latest post!

We have to be there for our students and staff. We can’t do that from behind a closed office door, or even an open office door. I will freely admit what doesn’t get scheduled, doesn’t get done. Be sure to block out times on your calendar for walk-throughs or more time-intensive observation experiences. The perspective you will gain as a learner and administrator is invaluable. Watching your students’ faces light up as they experience an “aha” moment, seeing your teachers work so hard to make classroom experiences meaningful for students, and knowing your presence is positively impacting the lives of your students and teachers awakens the realization that being a school principal is the greatest!

Cross posted on Connected Principals

An #edcamp experience


Photo by SpecialKRB via Flickr

Yesterday I attended my first “unconference,” Edcamp NYC, held at The School at Columbia in fabulous New York City, which was definitely a day of learning that warrants reflection.

The session board filled up quickly upon arrival, and I’m thankful that everyone took the time to share their expertise and talents with others. That’s what this day of learning is all about.

I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from Lauren Goldberg, whose involvement with the Peers Forum for Excellence in Teaching has shaped her experiences with best practices in teaching and learning. Along with Kevin Jarrett and David Ginsburg, we discussed the current emphasis on covering curriculum and how we can shift to a curriculum design that focuses on “the big ideas,” spanning content areas and centering on student learning. I enjoyed hearing from an elementary math instructor at The School at Columbia who detailed their assessment practices: 1:1 interviews with students, portfolios with authentic student work samples, and plenty of anecdotal notes on student progress. There are two teachers in each classroom, so while one teacher leads instruction, the other transcribes the lesson, which is saved to Google docs. When it comes time to report on student progress, the transcripts of learning can be accessed by any teacher, who can draw upon students’ actual learning experiences to shape their report. Amazing!  I absolutely loved hearing about Lauren’s experience with a school-wide topic of study, and would love to bring this practice to our school. She described a school whose study topic was “India,” and every grade level, across all content areas, sought to plan experiences that helped students engage with that topic in some way. My other take-away from Lauren’s session is the list of ideals shared in their learning organization: Caring, Responsibility, Respect, Honesty, Excellence, and Joy.  The two most important ideals? In Lauren’s words, “You just can’t learn without excellence and joy.”

Next I had the pleasure of stepping way outside of my comfort zone and learning from Dr. David Timony, who declared, “Your brain is not your friend and may actually be out to get you.” Frightening, eh? Our group discussed the fallacy in learning styles, the differences between traits (characteristics of a person that are generally not going to change; the ways you look, act, things you do) and states (temporary; affected by an interaction with education). We pretty much debunked the ideas of learning styles, multitasking, and differentiated instruction (the importance of what most consider differentiated instruction “is that you’re teaching the same thing four or five different ways!”) and how some of the things we think we know, but really don’t know, about our brains are severely impacting our educational organizations and student learning. Recommended reads: Self-Efficacy, the Exercise of Control (Bandura), Polanyi’s work on tacit knowledge, and What Kids Can Do. Recommended viewing: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

I caught the end of the Skyping session led by Mary Beth Hertz and Dan Callahan, demonstrating the power of this tool in the classroom. At the start of their session they actually Skyped with an #edcampcitrus crew, and when I arrived, teams of teachers were discussing the use of Skype with students. Great resource from the session found here.

Following lunch (“Are you really going to eat that, Nick?”), it was time for Things that Suck, hosted by Dan Callahan. A popular session whose format is borrowed from Barcamp Philly, Things that Suck asks participants to consider a topic, then physically move to sides of the room indicating their stance on the topic as either “Sucks” or “Rocks.” Indifferent folks stand in the back middle. (I have to admit I spent a lot of time in the middle on most of the issues.) And then the debate ensues. Topics we discussed: the federal department of education, differentiated instruction, the current structure of schools, homework (by far the most heated, opinionated conversation- secondary English teachers represented loud and clear their ideas about homework), and your school’s discipline policy (the topic where I found myself on the “Rocks” side. Hey– I’m the principal.) A most spirited, thought-provoking session. Think of how meaningful this type of session could be in your classroom with students!

It was a pleasure meeting one of my Connected Principals colleagues, Larry Fliegelman, who agreed to moderate an end-of-the-day session with me entitled (hat tip to Deven Black), “Talk back to administrators.” How many teachers would love to candidly speak to administrators about what’s on their mind, yet don’t often have the opportunity? We wanted to give them the chance to do so by leading a discussion about the qualities of administrators that teachers most need and appreciate. We ended up hearing from Deven, David, another instructional consultant for New York City public schools, and two teachers, one of whom has served children for over 40 years. We discussed best practices in teacher supervision, the importance of administrators defining and developing vision in their schools, the absolute necessity for administrators to be visible in their schools and develop relationships with students, the struggle for administrators to put their leadership responsibilities well above managerial tasks, and the use of peer evaluations and “critical friend” reflections in professional development.

Each of the four sessions I attended were filled with insights that made me reflect upon my own practice and how our school operates. Something George Couros has taught me is that it wouldn’t be enough for me to passively soak in the wealth of information being shared; the real learning would occur when I’d take that next step and consider how I’d put into practice those ideas to positively impact my school. I’m excited to start uncovering our curriculum, designing learning experiences that focus on the big picture, trying alternative forms of assessment, helping my teachers understand the science (or lack thereof) behind “learning styles,” evaluating our differentiated instruction and homework practices, and strengthening my supervisory role and increasing teacher ownership in lesson observations and teacher professional development.

As someone who engages in frequent discussions with colleagues via Twitter, it was truly meaningful to have the chance to meet these fine educators in real life. You quickly realize, within seconds of meeting them, that they are exactly as genuine, intelligent, humorous, and engaging as their online personas make them out to be. Getting the chance to meet so many great people in my network was certainly the high point of my day. (Well, that and finding myself in such close proximity to a plate of oxtail.) I’m really looking forward to catching up with everyone (including, but not limited to, Nicholas Provenzano, Mary Beth Hertz, Kevin Jarrett, Rob Griffith, Mike Ritzius, Hadley Ferguson, Joyce Valenza, Dan Callahan, Larry Fliegelman, Deven Black, David Timony, Lauren Goldberg, and David Ginsburg) again at Educon, TeachMeet NJ, ISTE, and any other opportunities that arise! Thank you so much to the organizers of Edcamp NYC for their efforts in planning a fantastic learning experience for all.

Inspiration delivers.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

My vision for how staff development should look in my school has undergone a transformation over the past year. In my first year as a principal I recall the dread of conducting the marathon faculty meeting on opening day, droning on and on about everything from recess line-up procedures to my expectations for lesson plan submissions. In Year 2, most of our professional development days were dictated by district initiatives, and the few “building days” planned by principals were spent on data analysis. We looked at a lot of data. No shortage of graphs in those meetings.

We covered a lot of topics, but there certainly wasn’t a lot of learning going on.

In October, Chris Wejr described his plan for covering his teachers’ classes to allow for them to engage in collaborative opportunities, the focus of which would be self-directed and hopefully involve an elements of creative thinking and innovation:

This would benefit me as I would get to spend more time with students, it would benefit the teachers who take me up on the offer as they would be motivated to take a risk and try something innovative, and most importantly, it would benefit the students as the teacher would deliver something to our school that would impact student learning.  The extra prep period would be their “FedEx Prep.”

Chris was inspired by Daniel Pink’s Drive, a book that delves into the fascinating world of human motivation and how the ways businesses and schools currently motivate their employees (and students) is a far cry from the way science says they should.

I finally finished reading Drive a few weeks ago and knew I wanted to explore the idea of helping my teachers be more autonomous in their learning. I wanted to ensure our organization was striving to reach mastery (but never attaining, of course, since mastery is an asymptote) and develop a strong sense of purpose for our actions.

I knew I could accomplish this without having my teachers read Drive, but I certainly brought the book to school and shared it with those who were interested. To start, I asked my teachers to view three short videos: the RSA Animate version of Pink’s Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us talk; Two questions that can change your life; and What’s your sentence? By taking just 10-15 minutes to view these videos, I feel most of my teachers came prepared to start the day understanding the fundamental ideas behind why we were taking our professional development in this direction. Teachers were asked to consider a “sentence” that exemplifies their role in our school/their life, and when they were comfortable doing so, post on the Wallwisher I created.

I summarized Pink’s key points regarding autonomy, mastery, and purpose and outlined the expectations for the day on our wiki. An excerpt:

So today, your task is to be self-directed in your learning. Be productive. Live your sentence. Ask, am I better today than yesterday?  Seek mastery in your role. Remember our ultimate purpose. The only rule? You must deliver. A product…a project…ideas…action.

Pink calls providing this autonomous time for innovation a Fed Ex Day- employees choose what to work on, with whom, and however they’d like. The expectation is that “they must deliver something: a new idea, a better internal process, a refined lesson plan – the next day.”

As you work today, consider the following:

  • Task – Choose tasks that will benefit and impact student learning. Think differently!
  • Technique – Design your activities and project work in your own way, so long as the end result is a benefit to students.
  • Team – Work with anyone you want to work with today- you do not need to work with your grade level teams. Consult with the many knowledgeable people in our school! Individuals that choose not to collaborate will still be responsible for “delivering.” Consider the importance of the collaborative efforts!
  • Time – Use your time as you see fit. You’re free to head home at 11 AM. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Our day began at 8 AM. We met briefly in the library for a 5-minute, “go and have fun today!” speech from me. That was it. I saw a lot of smiles. I saw an almost-equal amount of incredulous looks. (She’s lost her mind, does she think we’re actually going to work today?!) I told the team I’d be camped out in the library if anyone needed me or wanted to collaborate with me.

So… what resulted? First, I have to share our sentences. They are really beautiful. What I wonder when I read them is how I can urge more of my teachers to be transparent- to not choose to post a sticky under “Anonymous” when they have such meaningful work to contribute?

Watching my teachers work together on our “Fed-Ex” Day actually made me a little giddy. I seriously may have had a smile plastered on my face all morning long. I did a lot of listening. The conversations were encouraging. I relished in the fact that many of my teachers were leaving the “comfort” of their grade level hallways and teaming up with other teachers, including our specialists. To say I was impressed with how my teachers embraced this first foray into autonomous PD would not be fair. They blew me away. And it’s not that they were creating such innovative projects that were going to revolutionize the face of education as we know it… it’s that they were opening their minds to new ideas, they were enjoying their work, they were considering alternatives to current practices, and they were definitely stepping outside of their comfort zones.

Our ESL and special needs teachers teamed up and located a fantastic resource and planned for our students to engage with e-Books in their learning. A team of intermediate teachers considered how to develop students’ skills for error analysis in their work. Primary teachers gathered around the Smartboard, some of whom do not ever use the tool, to consider its use with their students. They created a team Diigo group to share resources. Two second grade teachers planned for how they would involve students in reader’s theater, and came to me to discuss their options for recording and posting their performances. Third grade teachers wanted to explore how to better immerse students in literature and enlisted the support of our media specialist. Our music and art teachers seriously debated why in the world we give grades in the specialty areas. Both teachers planned on bringing Fed-Ex type days to their classrooms. The Mid-Winter-Pick-Me-Up-Picnic was born. Primary teachers designed a way to incorporate more student-choice into their project work. One of my tech-savvy teachers bounced from group to group, leading the way with various initiatives. A revelation from a teacher who was working on a document to share with third grade colleagues: “Wait. Why am I using Word for this? I should be using Google docs!” Me: “Uh, yeah!”

Thoughts from the teachers? The day was not without a limited number of grumblings, however, on the delivery form they were asked to submit to me following their work day, I was so pleased to read positive feedback. One of the questions asked, Did they enjoy the format of the day?

  • Yes, because it gave me a chance to be creative in my own way.  If I have had any success in my teaching career, it is because of a format or structure like today, being able to create on my own, curriculum, selecting activities that best meets the every changing needs of our students, with administrative support but without administrative restrictions.
  • I was extremely annoyed at first when I heard the plan, because I had a lot of s$*t that needed to get done, but I have found the day to be extremely exhilarating and rewarding. 🙂
  • Yes we did! We got a lot accomplished and feel that what we did will have an immediate benefit to our students! Thanks for the opportunity.
  • LOVED IT! More please 🙂

And allow me to share the reflections of my most-excellent of guidance counselors, who will not at all be alarmed that I am posting her thoughts on my blog… I think her words perfectly depict her personal journey to planning a new community-building activity for our school, an idea she’d been thinking a lot about but, until Wednesday, had not brought to fruition. I introduced our Fed Ex day on Monday, which is when her wheels started spinning…

“Monday/Tuesday:  Hated it  (too open-ended.  daunting.  outside of my comfort zone.  getting in the way of getting my “real” [boring & mundane] work done.  scary.)


Tuesday/Wednesday:  Loved it (went crazy.  found and discarded ideas. refined them.  enjoyed bouncing them off a bunch of people.  liked having people show me what might not work and what would work better.  especially enjoyed watching people go from “What a ridiculous idea” to “Hey … that might actually be fun.”)

You and Daniel are very wise.”

I know that I will be mandated by my central admin to include specific activities on future professional development days, but I also know that a) I will try to transform the day so that I meet district initiatives while granting autonomy to my teachers and b) every chance I get, we’re going to have another day like we did on Wednesday. I enjoyed the feedback on Chris’s post and would love the same about our day’s structure and how I can improve this idea in the future.

I am very appreciative of Chris and all of the innovative principals who’ve inspired me in this area over the past year, and of course to Dan Pink for sharing his thoughts with us all, and making me want to be better and do things differently tomorrow than I did today.