There are No Happy Accidents Part 2

In my last post I talked about the need to be purposeful in creating positive school cultures. Recently George Couros posted in his blog, The Principal of Change, 10 Easy Ways to Create an Amazing #SchoolCulture as a Principal This Year putting into words many of the ideas I’ve been thinking about and that I believe to be keys to transforming school culture.

I think George’s post nails down some practical steps that not just principals but all educators can take to improve school culture. As I read through George’s post I was pleased to see that as a school we’ve started many of these things. In this post I want to talk about some of George’s ideas and share how we are implementing them in our building.

George’s first tip is to Be Outside and Welcome People in the Morning. Both my LeadLearning partner, Tierney Cahill, and I work hard to make this happen, as well as a large number of your staff. Greating our families is something that ensures the start to a postiive day. We also make sure we are there at the end of the day to say good bye and thank them for coming. We often joke that we we fight over who gets to do cross-walk duty since this is often the start and end of the day for our students and we feel it’s key to setting the tone.

George talks about getting into classes and hanging out. This is something that I am a huge believer in. Maybe it’s my ADHD or the fact that I HATE paperwork but I believe that after 20 minutes I need to be in classrooms or interacting with students in some way, I even have a paper that reminds me of this next to my desk.

I let me staff know at the beginning of the year they will see me a lot. Sometimes they will get feedback from me and other times I’m not there to see them but there to just see kids. Last year the joke was that if I wasn’t in my office I was most likely in Kindergarten, since there is nothing better than hanging with kinders and watching them soak up amazing instruction.

George also talks about the importance of sharing the awesome things going on in classrooms through Twitter. He points out that this tool allows instant access to seeing amazing things that peers are doing and in the process strengthen collaboration. Last year I worked to build the twitter presence at my school and with the move to my new school I see that Twitter is not the only medium we need to be using. I realize that Twitter is great PD tool for educators but that many of our families are on Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. So for this year we will build our Twitter presence for both staff and families but also focus on sharing across multiple platforms. I see Twitter and Voxer as tools that can be used to share with peers what is happening but to truly reach all families we need to communicate with them through the tools they are most comfortable with.

Learning the names of all the students is also something George writes about and this a key focus for us this year. All our staff and students wore name tags for the first couple of weeks of school and we worked to learn all the students names. Our intermediate staff is departmentalized so this means that they had the added task of learning about 80 names. For me it means learning 580 names. To do this I ask each student to tell me there name and then practice it. I try to great each student I see and use their name. With only 5 weeks under our belts this often results in me using the wrong name and having to be politely corrected by the student, but I do think I’m getting better. In the past it was always “hey man” or a generic “hey there”. But the positive connection that is created when using someones name is invaluable.

One of my personal favorites that George talks about is having lunch with students. I know many people who invite students into their office or classroom but I prefer to eat with them at their table in the lunchroom. This simple 15-20 minutes teaches you more about your students than an hour in their classroom. Just as George talks about you learn not just what kids want from their school but about them. Over time I’ve gotten to know many of my students and about their wishes and frustrations, I’ve also found these lunches to be times that I learn about the underground culture of the school, which kids are struggling at home, whose being a bully, which 6th graders are “in love” and other bits of kid world that you can’t get from sitting in an office or classroom.

George has other great ideas and I hope to implement all of them in the coming year. I also realize that I need to be consistent with the ones I just mentioned. Am I going to do each one everyday? No I know that is not possible with the amount of other tasks I have but I do feel that without these those other tasks will never be successful. Ensuring that we have a purposeful plan for creating a strong #schoolculture is the only way we can create a learning environment in which each student makes growth.

Cheers

There Are No Happy Accidents

There’s a phrase in education “learning can’t be a happy accident” that gets passed around. Its often used to make the point that we need to plan learning opportunities and anticipate where students might struggle. Planning becomes key in ensuring that each student has learning opportunities and that just by putting a bunch of kids in a room with an adult learning isn’t necessary going to occur.

I believe school culture is the same. If we think that we can build a strong classroom or school culture just by the sake of being there and smiling, we’re waiting for an accident to occur that may never happen. If we think that just by presenting a vision and mission that promotes positive culture that we will obtain it then we are fooling ourselves. We need to plan it, model it and live it. And then return to it often.

Many of us have been part of teams that craft school a vision and mission only to forget about it once the day to day begins. These lofty goals get stuck on some district document, web site or sign only to vaguely be referred to. Rather than driving the decisions of the school they become slogans in the rear-view mirror.

Culture needs to be crafted and revisited in a purposeful manner and not just at the beginning of the year but throughout. One of my favorite sayings is “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” (often attributed to leadership guru Peter Drucker).  Often in education we spend more time worrying about the strategies to increase student achievement and hope that those will build the culture we crave. I’m beginning to think we need to be flipping that idea. By first creating a strong culture first staff, students and families will more likely work to find the instructional strategies that meet the needs of each student and go beyond just the grade book or test score.

For the 2016/17 school year my school has adopted the phrase “attitude = altitude” and to me this is the essence of any school culture. The attitude of staff, students and families determines much more than just high test scores or graduation rates. It determines success in life. How this will play out in student learning is something I’m excited to see.

Over the next few blog posts I hope to explore these ideas a little further. Starting with the work at my own school around building staff culture as well as some ideas that our teachers have for connecting that positive culture to student learning. 

Remember the climb to the top might be hard but the views are well worth it

Cheers!

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The Dreaded “CHANGE” Fears

 

If you read my last post you’ll know I just started a new role as Assistant Principal at Alice Maxwell Elementary School. And if you’ve ever taken a new position at any school, or any job for that matter, you have an idea of the flood of emotions that come with this type of change.

excitement

fear

happiness 

fear

anticipation 

fear

Did I mention fear?

Change is scary.

john duh

Over my 19 year education career I’ve changed schools, grades, positions almost every year, you’d think I’d be used to it. But every change brings a bit of that nagging, back of the head, fear.

You know those self-doubting questions that pop up in the middle of the night….

“Am I ready for this?”

“How can I make sure I’m effective?”

“What if I do something wrong?”

“What if I say something dumb?”

“What if I loose my keys?”

“What if no one talks to me?”

“What if I get lost?” ricky-bobby-on-fire-o.gif

“What if I catch something on fire?”

 

 

 

I never said fears had to make any sense.

What I have learned through all these changes is that we survive. Our fears often amount to nothing. If and when, cuz we will, say something dumb no one seems to notice or is just to polite to say anything. (unless they are a Kindergartner and then they call you on that S@#*).

I’ve found that taking the time to prepare for all those little things that can happen alleviates a lot of Change fears. We can’t anticipate everything that happens in a school day but when we take care of the little stuff the big stuff seems to fall into place.

I also think you need to have a support network, those peeps you can call and vent to or ask that question you think is too dumb to ask. Having those people are essential to easing Change fears.

When we take the time to breathe, create a plan and surround ourselves with good people Change becomes easier.

I can honestly say that my fears have been dismissed over these last few weeks. Working side by side with my amazing Lead Learning Partner, Tierney Cahill, the prep I got from the awesome people at my last school and the support I get daily from my kick ass wife, I’m feeling ready.

Well, maybe not totally ready but more ready than before.   not freaking out

Now if I only new where the keys to the school were?

 

 

 

New Adventures Begin (an update)

I’ve been a bit remiss in updating my Rummages and Ramblings. Spring found me engaged in many personal and professional adventures which sadly meant I neglected other stuff, like writing this blog.

So what’s new…..

 

Maxwell 6th
not this pic

The 2016 school year ended with me being offered the chance to become the Assistant Principal at the school where I attended 1st through 6th grade. This amazing opportunity came at the end of an exciting year that found me full of mixed feelings. I was going to be leaving an amazing staff, families and group of students to take on meeting and connecting with a whole new group of amazing educators, students and families. It was a roller coaster of emotions that included wandering through the neighborhood I grew up in and sitting in classrooms that look so much smaller than when I was 9.

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This new (old) school means a whole new set of adventures as I learn the role of the AP.  My Lead Learner – new principal – is also in her first year so we are going to be learning together, sharing an office, laughing and crying together and using the “We didn’t know we couldn’t do that, we’re new.” line quite a bit.    new here

So during this summer break  I’m going to be reading more, meeting with my new staff, planning for an amazing year and once again trying to kick my own ass on the bike and running in the mountains. It also means that I’m going to work to be more present with this blog, sharing my journey through the 2016/17 school year.

So here’s to an amazing summer of building up momentum to an even more amazing school year.

Cheers!

Now go outside and play!

Ben

 

Whats the curb appeal of your school?

Thinking more about this as we head into that time of year when we can feel a little fried….plus going through that whole house thing again reminded me of this one

Rummages&Ramblings

Another school year is upon us and we are all scrambling to clean our rooms, offices and heads to prepare for another year. So what better way to begin a new school year than by deciding to sell your house.

After 20 plus years in our little 1950’s ‘starter’ home, my wife and I have decided it’s time to move. This means lots of things, meeting with realtors, photographers, mortgage companies… And it also means taking a critical eye to our own home. Because when you get ready to sell your home you realize that all those little things that don’t bother you or that you were too lazy to change or fix are major issues for someone else. Those doors that don’t quite close without a shove need to be replaced. That drawer full of junk that can’t be pulled all the way out, gotta fix that.

And those same things…

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Of mountain bikes and education. Part 3: Small adjustments make a difference

One of the things I love about bicycles is the mechanical aspects. The simple, yet complex nature of the parts. A single chain, pedals and group of sprockets creates motion and power. I love how these things work together and how small changes can have dramatic effects. Take these two little screws on the derailleur of bike.

shifting
don’t touch that!!

The derailleur is that thing that moves the chain either up or down gears, making the pedaling easier or harder. These two little screws if turned even a ¼ turn can have a dramatic effect on the

i dont think so
Ummmm….. I don’t think so

whole way the bike performs. it can make it so much better but sometimes so much worse. Take your bike into any bike shop and complain about its shifting and the first thing the mechanic will ask is “Did you turn these screws?” 

I learned along time ago to figure out how these screws worked and about all those other seemingly magical parts. I learned to improve my own ride, avoid paying for a bunch of new stuff and more importantly, not have to answer questions from the mechanic at my local shop.

And as I sat digging through my stack of tools and spare parts earlier this week I began to see a parallel to my professional world.

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Yes, my desk looks like this too.

In education we often miss thinking about all the little parts, thinking that its just always going work the same. You think you now what’s about to happen, what you’re always going to do, how things basically work and how people are going to react. You begin to think that only the big and dramatic can make any sort of lasting impact.

Thinking this way means we sometimes overlook small things, thinking that we need huge innovations, dramatic initiatives, that will change everything. But sometimes it’s the small changes, the tiny screws we turn, that can have the most dramatic effect, both good and bad.

We might try taking time out of the day to bring doughnuts to the staff or stopping students in the hall to ask how their day is going.  It could be standing on the corner in the morning to greet parents or taking the time to ask about someone’s weekend. These small steps can change peoples’ days and create a smoother ride.

Or sometimes it’s a change in your routine, when you skip waiting outside to greet each student in favor of last second grading. It could be changing the seating arrangement in class or maybe not explaining why schedules needed to be swapped that ends up creating chaos. These seemingly small moves can have a dramatic effect on teachers and students, causing a miss shift.

So get to know your parts, know how they work together and how to make small adjustments to improve performance. But also know that some small changes can cause bigger problems. We need to remember that to create change and innovation we don’t always need the new and shiny. Sometimes we just need to make some small adjustments and get things shifting smoothly.

Now go outside and ride your bike.

 

 

Of mountain bikes and education. Part 2: Yield to the Uphill Rider.

 

This is part 2 of a series of posts on the connections between mountain bike etiquette and education. File_000 (1)

One of the joys of riding bikes around in the mountains is bombing downhill, but in order to get to that lovely downhill you often need to make the climb up. You need to earn your turns with a little sweat equity. And as is the case with many great trails, you will encounter some traffic. This can be in the form of hikers, runners or other bike enthusiasts.

Now there is nothing more annoying than to be grinding along an uphill slog, the sound of your own heart attempting to rip out of your chest, only to be greeted by the blur of someone headed down hill, oblivious to those around them. Want to know why people hate mountain bikers?

Keystone_Canyon_Trail
Start of some of my favorite trails photo: http://trailingahead.blogspot.com/

The general rule is that one always yields to the uphill rider. Heading downhill and you see a rider coming up, head down legs spinning. Stop. Step off the trail, wish them good day and let them grind on past. Sure you might be in the middle of some great downhill, feeling that flow as the trees fly past, but remember we all have to make that climb to enjoy the down. Slow down and give some words of encouragement.

I think its the same with education. We’ve all had those moments, weeks, sometimes months where we feel like we’re just grinding it out on an endless uphill climb. When we see our colleagues in this state:  head down, shoulders hunched, don’t just whip on by. Stop, step aside and ask the how its going. Take the time to see how you can make their climb easier.

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photo: singletracks.com

Sometimes its just a “how’s it going?” and other times its a “let me help shoulder that load” kind of thing. Whatever their uphill task we need to remember that, even when we are in that state of flow, we’ve all had to make that uphill grind at some point, we’ve had to earn our turns to get to this point.

So be aware, don’t get so caught up in your own moments that you neglect others making the climb. Be supportive. Don’t bomb on by. Slow down and look for times that you can help lighten the uphill grind of others.

 

Don’t go around the mud

bike
it really is

Dragging out the Brown Bomber to grind up and down local single track I was lulled into a haze of lactic acid, winter flab induced sweat and the sound of my own huffing. The trails were a combination of hard pack, tacky moisture, jagged rocks, trace snow and full on mud. The general need to focus on something other than my own gasping got me thinking of how mountain bike riding and the etiquette of said activity seemed to be a great analogy for educational leadership.

Now those of you who have perused these ramblings and rummages will know that I think lots of things work as analogies for education and leadership, bikes, cartoons, Martians….  

So why not mountain biking?

Mountain biking has its own rules, etiquette and nuances including how trials should be shared with others. The International Mountain Biking Association has listed some and some are just ones that are just plain common sense (which means they often are ignored). So the connections to educational leadership seemed easy enough.

So in an attempt to avoid admitting that my winter calorie intake had bordered on insane I began to make some connections between two wheels on dirt and educational leadership which I’ll be sharing in the next few posts, the first of which being:

Don’t make new trails when you encounter the mud puddle.

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Several times during my ride I encountered a muddy section of trail only to be greeted with several tracks going around the section, leading to a bulging of the single track ribbon. The result being a widening of the trail that come July will turn beautiful single track into a double lane highway (hyperbole for dramatic effect)

Now I think one of life’s greatest pleasures is flying down the trail to be greeted by the splash of tires and the taste of Earth but I guess some people want to avoid that.

And it’s the same in education. Confrontation with the mud puddle is to be avoided. We let negative comments about students, staff and parents sit in the middle of our trail, skirting around them.

Too often we confront that mud puddle, that person who presents the negative attitude and language that seeks to suck us in and slow us down. They seek to gum up the situation with words like  “can’t”, “won’t” or “these kids”. I’ve often thought it best to avoid these people but I’ve come to realize that going around the mud only creates a bigger puddle and maybe it’s better if we just head straight in.

baconA wiser person than me once said “you don’t get in the mud with a pig” but then a much funnier person than me said “sometimes you get in the mud with the pig, slaughter it and make bacon”.

 

Sometimes you can’t avoid that mud puddle and shouldn’t. Negativity when working with kids should never be tolerated. Things like “These kids can’t” or “Because of their parents” do nothing to improve any situation. Comments made in staff meetings, hallways and in-front of families need to be dealt with. Don’t get me wrong it is hard to confront that mud, sometimes it’s deep and it will suck you in. But if we constantly go around it, we widen that trail, scarring the land around it and allowing the mud to spread.

So go fast, go straight and confront the mud. Positive momentum will get you through. Sometimes it takes some pedal strokes, some effort, but what I’ve found is every time you confront that same mud puddle a little more mud gets displaced and it begins to dry out. Pretty soon that puddle has disappeared and in its place a nice smooth ribbon of single track.

Now go outside and get dirty!

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Get on through that mud! 

Continue reading

#BeLessHelpful in 2016

singletrackscom
Keep reading and this will make sense    Photo courtesy singletracks.com 

One of the things that the new year brings is thoughts of what has passed but also what is possible in the following year. Last year my #oneword was #positive and helped me start this blog. This year my #oneword2016 is #BeLessHelpful

Ok so yes-technically this is not “one word” but since it’s my word I’m calling artistic license.

“Artistic License!”

Ok now that that is out of the way, why #BeLessHelpful?

 

Assuming that most of the people reading this are educators I can guess many of you did not go into the profession with the desire to not be helpful and watch kids squirm, cry and struggle. If you did then you’re name is probably Miss Trunchbull and are a fictional character.

trunchbull
roalddahl.com

 

We came to this profession with a desire to help, to change situations for students, to provide the tools kids need to survive the big adult world. We’ve seen the path they need to travel and we want to ensure they are up for the journey, that the rocks and roots don’t stop them.  But somewhere along the way our desire to help and support changed. We felt a need to not let kids fail, to look at where kids come from and some of their horrible situations and  smooth out the road for them, thinking that this would give them a head start on the path to adulthood, “why make things hard for them, they’ve got no (insert deficit mindset term here).”   Now when I say “we” I am speaking in large generalities. The collective “WE” could be teachers, it could be parents, it could be the system or society as a whole, but again somewhere “fail” became a dirty word. We began to want to make sure all students succeed at to do that we needed to make the path less rocky more smooth, we end up clearing the roots and paving over the rocks. There are lots of examples of this throughout education such as the idea that just having kids read easy books and thinking they would gain literacy skills. Challenge is seen as the enemy of success and in our quest to provide students with support we end up loving them into mediocrity. We miss opportunities to provide students with challenge and in return create bored students with a false sense of success unprepared for the real road they face as adults.

So my challenge with my #oneword2016 is to counter that. I have seen many situations where my desire to help ends up eliminating the challenge rather than providing support needed to overcome it.

We need to provide students with challenges that stretch them, that cause them to experiences disequilibrium and then seek solutions. This does not mean we sit back, feet up on the desk and watch the chaos unfold, but we provide the support where it’s needed based on the actual needs of the students. Instead of scaffolding the whole lesson at the start, we let kids work through tasks and problems and then provide the guidance at the point of need. We provide challenging texts and tasks while building up the student’s skills that they then can transfer to different challenges. Isn’t this the goal of education? We work to give students tools and strategies that will get them over the rocks and roots that line their path.

This works for adults also. Often administrators, in a need to keep staff from feeling overwhelmed, swoop in at a moment’s notice to solve problems, both real and perceived. A disruptive student is removed from class not to return until the next day, a first parent call not made by the classroom teacher but from the office and hard conversations are avoided due to some misguided fear of making someone feel bad. In our quest to help smooth out the trail at the first sign of a rock there’s cause for panic and a search for someone else to navigate.

So for this year I’m going to #BeLessHelpful and work to help others do the same. This means providing them with the tools to recognize when they need to step in and when they need to step back. It means monitoring my own need to jump in and solve problems and being able to sit back and listen, providing guidance rather than solutions (something I know I struggle with) #BeLessHelpful means taking the time to really see what tools and strategies people need to help them meet the rocky challenges, including having hard conversations at those points in the trial.

#BeLessHelpful is not about not helping it’s about helping others develop their strength and stamina to meet those challenges and being there on the journey to navigate the path rather than remove the path.

Normally this is where there is some skateboarding or other such nonsense for you to watch but instead I want to thank my most amazing IMG_2323wife Ann Marie for being,  well… amazing and putting up with me for 2015 and all those 25+ years before this one.

 

Happy 2016 and go find your #oneword2016

Cheers!

 

Student Solutions

 

Of all the things we teach in elementary school one that seems to not get the attention it deserves is leadership. Sure high schools have leadership clubs, student councils and class elections. But I’m talking about student servant leaders. The idea that a leader is there to serve their stakeholders and help shape a shared vision. We don’t often talk about these things with elementary age students. But we should.

File_000 (1)One thing that we have started at my school site is student advisory. We have representatives from each class in each grade 1-6. 4th, 5th and 6th grade students meet at one time and 1st-3rd at another, with the goal being to find out the issues that students care about. And let me tell you they have a bunch.

We start by talking about pluses and deltas and what those mean. We also talk about coming up with solutions and not just naming problems. At first this can be a long process but once the students understand it’s not about creating a list of unsolvable problems they get into it and come up with solvable problems and the possible solutions.

One recent success had to do with advisory students feeling their peers don’t understand the rules of the school. They felt that kids didn’t know how to act correctly in the lunchroom, halls, bathrooms and outside. After some discussion about what was happening in these areas and some of the root causes,  the kids came up with the idea that some guidelines and examples of correct behavior were needed.

Their first solution was that we (administration) should just go in and tell students how to act appropriately. We explained that they were the student leaders in the school and maybe it should come from peers, the students took off with ideas on how they could solve the issue.

(Side note, we, as a staff, repeatedly review the rules and procedures for students but obviously based on the students responding that we should just do it again, this method might not stick. Shocking that just talking at students over and over doesn’t seem to work.)

Long story short the students devised a series of PSAs about what it should look and sound like in the areas of concern,  with the playground being the biggest. The 4-6 student advisory decided that short films should be created to explain the correct ways to play games and that they could be shown during lunch. Once students return from break they’ll finish up the filming and begin work on the next PSA.File_000.jpeg

This has proven to be one of the best things I’ve done in my career. I serve only as a technical advisory and occasional herder of cats but for the most part it’s all students. The creation of the scripts, assigning of roles and planning has been student led. I’ve had students track me down to ask if they could meet. (what students asking to come in at lunch and do work?} File_000 (2).jpeg

And these students are not necessarily the “High” students or “popular” students. They are the students that other students and staff identify as leaders. They are the ones who students watch and listen to. As a school it makes sense to engage them in the shared leadership process. We often think that students aren’t concerned about how the school is run but we are very wrong. Students spend hours and hours at school and have strong opinions about problems and solutions. All we need to do is ask and provide a way for them to create solutions.

Here’s some kids playing skateboarding