Friday, December 28, 2012

Branching Into Food Writing

I love to eat, and I love to talk about eating.  So, it was only natural that besides writing about family, technology, and education, I would start to delve into food writing.  I'm happy to announce that I just wrote my first restaurant review post for All Things Next, a great site for what's new and upcoming in the northern New York City suburbs.  Here's the post.  Let me know what you think:

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Solving the "Play" Problem

As I write this, I’m sitting on a plane traveling to Phoenix, Arizona for one of the National Science Teachers Association’s regional conferences.  The flight’s a fairly long one from Newark, New Jersey, so between almost completing today’s Times crossword puzzle (anyone know a four letter word for “jazz line?”) and reading about some great “geek science” opportunities in this month’s Discover magazine, I’ve had quite a lot of time to reflect on an important conversation I had earlier this week.  

One of my roles as a regional science coordinator has me working with classroom teachers on any myriad of science education initiatives they choose to explore.  As I was planning an inquiry-based “deep observation” experience with a teacher, we got into talking about the topic of “play.”  This teacher mentioned the challenge that many of his students have with seeing more than the forest when they look at a stand of trees.  To quite a number of his students today, a plant is a plant is a plant.  Why would they need to know any more about it?

This view is a troubling one, and is a reflection of the constantly “on” lifestyle our students (and many of us) lead.  Very few of our students can remember a time where their mother or father told them to, “Get out of the house and play.”  Why?   Because hyper-scheduling has made any unstructured play a near impossibility.  Whether this is due to countless after-school activities or more time spent on homework, the end result is a crop of young people who don’t have the time to truly observe the world around them.  This is an annoyance for us as educators, but may prove to be a bigger concern if the trend continues.  True innovation requires deep thinking, and deep thinking can only happen when one has truly taken the time to observe, consider, and learn from all that is encountered.  To truly be creative, we need to have the opportunity to think outside the box, and that requires time and exposure to unique and new experiences (as opposed to the same old routines).  In an article by Tom Kelley and David Kelley in the Harvard Business Review, the need to avoid a “creativity crisis” is a main focus.  The authors emphasize that we shouldn’t stifle the innovative and creative impulses that all children are born with.  They write that education must encourage students to embrace “messiness,” the judgment of others, and taking the first, often frightening, step to exploring something a little different.

As educators, we have to be the guides that lead students along this slightly less-beaten path.  Here are a few tips for helping your students become reacquainted with play, creativity, and innovation:

·         Provide time to be one with the world.  Too much education takes place indoors.  For students who aren’t involved in outdoor sports, their only outdoor time in a given day may be running from the front door to catch the bus.  That isn’t good, and it doesn’t provide time for students to truly “see” a different world then they are used to.  Contrary to what some might believe, any class can be held outdoors.  That doesn’t mean the focus of a lesson needs to be on studying the world outside, but a Shakespearean reading on school grounds, a study of bus idling procedures, and/or a playing field area calculation all provide students with the chance to observe more than a classroom.

·         Promote percolation.  Instead of letting the class end with a bell (or the transition to lunch or recess), build in five or ten minutes for students to reflect.  For many students, reflection doesn’t just happen, and strategies (such as creating a “Questions I have. . .” chart, or an “If it were up to me. . .” learning progression statement) should be incorporated to help students begin to become more active thinkers.  By making thinking time a necessary part of your work with students, you’ll encourage them to reflect regularly and often.

·         Push for unstructured “play.”  The teacher I was working with earlier this week told me about a recent time that he was taking a bunch of students outside for recess.  Unfortunately for students, the playground balls that were usually available for recess could not be used.  Students stood around for a minute or so, and then asked to return inside.  Very few seemed to even realize that there was much more to do outside than play an organized game of football or soccer.  In some respects, many of our students today need to be “forced” to play in an unstructured-environment, if for no other reason than to learn what it means to just be a “kid.”

It worries me that my daughter, who will be three in a few months, and who engages in imaginative play at the drop of a hat, could lose that important quality, and partly because of the design and structure of our educational system.  I want her to be a truly innovative leader who thinks critically and isn’t afraid to imagine.  I believe we want that for each and every student we encounter.  We can’t afford to experience a further “creativity crisis,” and it should never be a problem for students to play.

Works Cited:
Kelley, David and Tom Kelley. (2012).  Reclaim Your Creative Confidence.  Harvard Business Review.  90 (12), 115 – 118.

Friday, November 16, 2012

“Disconnected” Doesn’t Mean “Not Connected”

This past weekend, as I sat down with a cup of tea and enjoyed what might be the last hints of warm weather here in New York, I turned to an incredibly intriguing article from the New York Times.  Written by Aimee Lee Ball, it discusses the struggles and eventual “coming around” of children and families to lives without power after a natural disaster, and just as importantly, without constant connection.  The article hints at the fact that a loss of power begins almost like any withdrawal event, and eventually gives way to rediscovering (or discovering for the first time for young children) what it means to “unplug.”  It highlights the hardships of having to give up or shift from a routine (which is anxiety-producing enough . . . read Charles Duhigg’s book on habits for more about this) to something that feels “new,” and discusses the challenges with rebuilding (or building for the first time) skills that many would consider “old school.”  For instance, in our house, after putting our daughter to bed, my wife and I spent the better part of a night playing rummy, something we haven’t done for quite some time.  While it was certainly less technologically stimulating than being hooked up to our phones or tablets (or both at the same time), we interacted personally much more effectively than if I had been playing Angry Birds: Star Wars and she had been spinning away on a slot machine app and we both just happened to be sitting in the same room.

I’ve had discussions with colleagues about whether there will be a connected “tipping point,” a time when we are too digitally connected to truly be efficient and when the benefits of knowing everything as it happens pales in comparison to what we’re missing.  Many of my colleagues feel that being digitally connected 100% of the time is a good thing.  I tend to be a little more reticent in that regard.  While I certainly consider myself a digitally connected educator I believe that there is much more to being connected than communicating through the digital cloud.  Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Pinterest, augmented reality, and ad infinitum all have excellent educational implications, but so too does sitting down with a group of other educators and engaging in heated discussion to solve a real problem in real-time.  While I imagine some would argue, I find it much easier to enact positive change when I can meet with others, face-to-face. 

The challenge, of course, for many of us, is finding a way to disconnect.  We might want to visit the classroom or office next door, but we just have so many emails to respond to.  Or, we just saw that Twitter post about Hostess going bankrupt and we have to check it out (no more Twinkies? Inconceivable).  There are so many advantages to being digitally connected 24/7 that we don’t think of the advantages of taking a break from time-to-time.  Here are three things you can do to disengage, if only for a short time.

  • Take a walk with some colleagues.  Seriously.  A change in environment forces you to disconnect and often gives a different perspective if for no other reason than the fact that the scenery has changed.  Plus, it is easier to walk and talk than it is to walk and use your phone/tablet (trust me, I’ve experienced this one first-hand).  If you still need convincing, remember that it is great exercise.  I’ve found that a twenty/thirty minute walk during lunch is particularly re-energizing.

  • Shut your tech down for an hour each day.  Build some time into your schedule where you can take care of non-tech items.  Maybe this is meeting with other educators in your district, doing some planning/reflecting alone, observing classrooms, or reading from a book.

  • Vary your media.  If you have to send an email to someone, consider changing things up and placing a phone call.  Or, if applicable, take a few minutes to visit with that person face-to-face.  Communicating with someone in each of those three scenarios requires a different set of skills.  Our students (and therefore by extension, all of us) need to be experts in all of those skill sets.  So, why not practice?

In my eyes, we should always strive to be 100% connected.  But being connected digitally is very different from being a truly “connected” educator.    Only through the proactive action of varying our connection media can we claim that prized title.

Ball, Aimee Lee. (2012, November 12).  Hurricane Sandy Reveals a Life Unplugged.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from

Duhigg, Charles. (2012).  The Power of Habit.  New York: Random House.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Positives of Protocols

Note: A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post on the importance of adding meaning to meetings and a number of steps educational leaders can take to do more of this.  I received a number of comments from readers, and I wanted to build on that post by touching on what is an enormously important part of meeting facilitation: the engagement activity.

Plenty of meetings run like this: Everyone arrives, the meeting organizer speaks, he or she asks for questions, everyone leaves.  While this general structure may be common and may even be a fine way to hold some gatherings, it is missing a necessary piece, the engagement protocol.  As meeting organizers, we can get into the habit of assuming all participants are coming to a meeting with their minds on what we will be discussing.  After all, if we’ve spent the last few days building the agenda and running through the important points, clearly the subject must be on everyone’s mind. 

Of course, while it would be wonderful if that were true, we know deep down that it is far from it.  So, it falls on us to make sure that when we do meet, all of our participants are on the same page.  For that reason alone, the importance of an engagement activity with a meaningful protocol can’t be overstated.  Interestingly, if we think about meetings we’ve facilitated and/or organized recently, those engagement activities may be totally absent.  Paradoxically, we regularly expect our teachers to provide some sort of engagement activity at the start of each meeting with their students.  Shouldn’t we be doing the same?

Protocols and engagement activities are fairly easy to design and with a few key rules in mind, can take meetings from “mindless” to “meaningful.”  Here are a few quick tips for positive protocol production:
  •      Keep engagement activities and the protocols used short and sweet.  Successful activities can be as straightforward as a five minute “pair/share” on the topic of the meeting to a lengthier twenty minute activity such as the protocol I recently created (see picture below).  Make use of the 25% rule: Your engagement activity should last no longer than 25% of the allotted meeting time, and realistically, engagement activities should not last more than thirty minutes.  Beyond that, they become a meeting unto themselves.

  •       The protocol used should take participants from a general state of mind to one that is focused on the meeting topic.  Therefore, strong protocols should begin by focusing on a question, idea, or thought process that can appeal to everyone in the room, regardless of their frame of mind.  The protocol should end by placing all participants in a mindset that prepares them to focus on the meeting’s objective(s).  In the protocol pictured above, I began by asking participants to go to the picture that best represented their personality.  Then I drilled down to having them stand by the picture that best represented their thoughts on the state of contemporary public education.  Finally, they moved to the picture that best represented their thoughts on New York State’s new Professional Evaluation system.  Can you guess what the focus of the meeting was going to be?
  •       Use your objectives to design the “personality” of the engagement activity.  Protocols and the activities they are used for can be incredibly upbeat, intensely reserved, or seriously focused.  The topic of your meeting should set the mood of your engagement activity, and the protocol should direct participants to that state.  By nature of the design of “The Big Picture” protocol, the activity held a light tone despite the seriousness of the topic eventually discussed.  Sometimes, that’s exactly what you want. 
What’s great about engagement activities and their protocols is that there is no downside to incorporating them.  They can only help the flow of your meetings, and though their generation can be challenging, the data gathered from a focused meeting is enough to turn any non-believer into a practicing “protocolist.”  After all, in today’s world of education, we can’t afford to waste anyone’s time.  Every meeting we have has to be meaningful.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Adding Meaning to Your Meetings

If you’re an educational leader of some kind, you know meetings.  You’ve been in them, led them, and likely given/received feedback on them.  Depending on your history as a meeting facilitator and participant, they may or may not be an enjoyable part of your profession.  They can, however, be extremely rewarding, and they should, always, be extremely important to the needs of your building and district.  A wise person should have once said, “The difference between disorder and accomplishment is a purposeful meeting.”  While that might be simplifying matters just a tad, meetings can be the difference between a clear course and a rudderless ship.  With that in mind, use the tips below to allow for meetings that sail smoother.

·         Communicate Well.  The true purpose of any meeting should be communication.  With that in mind, a meeting can’t be successful if the components aren’t communicated prior.  A strong agenda is one of the most important parts of any meeting, whether committee, cabinet, or full faculty.  Agendas should be clear and concise and should accomplish three tasks:
o   Describe a topic
o   Identify the speaker/facilitator
o   Give a timeframe (note that the jury is out on this one; timeframes keep presenters and participants focused, but can backfire if time is extended and/or if meaningful conversation is cut short. . . include this only if you can keep to it).
A well written agenda also provides space for notations and next steps, and should never exceed a page.  If your agenda needs more than one page, you need more than one meeting.  Note that prior communication also extends to informing your audience about the date, time, and location of the meeting.  A good method to doing this is the 4-1-1 process.  Send an email out to staff 4 weeks or a month prior to the meeting providing the draft agenda and time/location details.  Send a reminder 1 week prior to the meeting date with the same time/location details and agenda (this provides an easy way to let your audience know if the agenda has been reworked or modified in some way).  Send a final one sentence reminder 1 day prior.  In this way, you have provided your staff with timely meeting information and documentation.

Here is a recent agenda for a meeting I facilitated.  Note one page design and decipherable topics.  I used a total time frame at the top since I knew there would be quite a bit of important discussion.  I also regularly notate which items have handouts to help participants organize their thinking (and materials).
·         Listen as Much as (if Not More Than) You Speak.  If you’re the lead facilitator in a meeting, your goal should be to be an information receiver as much, if not more than, an information giver.  We always have an internal audience in our head, but we don’t always have one that can provide us with views different than our own.  Meetings should prove to be learning opportunities for those facilitating just as much as for those participating.  While an inexact science, one method is to provide the same amount of time for discussion as was spent providing information to attendees on an agenda item.  This accomplishes two goals: First, it shows you are interested in what others have to say, and second, it makes the meeting much more interesting for you and your audience.

·         Prompt and Push.  One of the best parts about holding a meeting is that you can solicit input from those in attendance.  So, as much as possible, you should prompt your attendees to share their thoughts.  If actions are to be taken, push them to explore and experiment with these actions.  Note that once you begin to do this, your audience will expect you to take positive risks as well.  Being a lead learner also means being a model. 

·         Provide a Detailed Recap. . . Quickly.  Once the meeting physically ends, there is still an important meeting item to take care of: documentation.  Minutes for the meeting should be composed effectively and efficiently.  Detail should be provided without writing a novel, and turnaround time should be quick; realistically, no more than a day should pass without minutes being distributed.  If your schedule is too intense for this, do one of two things: Have rotating minute takers, or reschedule your meeting.  Since education is a busy business, most of your audience will forget meeting discussion very quickly.  Timely minutes show you are serious about what was discussed, and provide an anchor for discussion of next steps and the taking of action.  If you won’t be the minute-taker, make sure that the person responsible knows what the minutes should look like and what they should include.  Communication is only as good as how it is communicated.

Here is a section of minutes from the same meeting as the agenda above.  Items are descriptive without being unwieldy, and I make it a habit of mentioning participants by name where they were involved (hence the redacted segments).

In today’s educational sphere, meetings aren’t going anywhere.  But, that doesn’t have to be seen as a negative.  If facilitated effectively, even the smallest gathering of professionals can have a gigantic positive impact.  Gatherings should always equal growth.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Is Your PLN Truly a PLN?

I’ve really gotten into Twitter over the last year or so.  As far as social media networks go, I can’t think of a better one to connect people and ideas (truth be told, I only joined Facebook two months ago, so I can’t speak to its effectiveness, and no, I haven’t been living under a rock J).  Besides sharing ideas, I greatly enjoy the many different chats designed for educators using Twitter.  I am a regular participant in #edchat, and when I can, I love participating in #ptchat (parent/teacher chat) and anything related to science. 
I’m also a lover of all things language, an ed policy follower, and a scientific skeptic by nature of my background.  So, needless to say, I’m always paying attention to what members of our profession believe the next big educational “thing” will be, and what the inherent benefits and risks of that “thing” are.  Some might call my devil’s advocacy and toe-dipping before jumping in “educational pragmatism,” others might simply call it “frustrating.”  Regardless, as I’ve become a more frequent user of social media tools, I’ve started to think more and more about PLNs and our use of the term.

PLNs, or Personal Learning Networks, are referred to regularly in Twitter chats, and tend to mean a group of like-minded people who want to learn together.  But, according to an excellent piece I read recently in the Teachers College Record, true PLNs should do much more than just bring people together to talk about similar ideas.  While I won’t recount the entire study (it is a great read if you have a subscription), the basic premise of the paper I’m referring to is this: Real PLNs have to go beyond simply “talking,” and have to result in actual “doing.”  Not only that, but they must do so with actual data as the roadmap.  True PLNs, communities that actually operate as PLNs are “supposed” to, take on what the researchers term an “improving stance,” whereby teachers use data to focus on limitations in classroom practice.  Weak PLNs spend more time validating their own worth by occupying what is referred to as a “proving stance.”  In other words, proving to each other what works and doesn’t work in education based on their own practice, and usually what they believe they do quite well.  The researchers also describe how ineffective PLNs use “disconnected talk,” where anecdotes are supplied without fact, and labels, generalization, and “buzzwords” are used regularly.  They contrast this to “true” PLNs that use “inquiry-based talk,” where conversation spirals from participant to participant (no one participant “needs” the floor), and questions and discussions are always, always, based on data, and analyses are always, always, explored and reflected upon as a community.

What, if anything, does this have to do with Twitter?  As I read this research, I began to think about all the times I’ve tweeted about how great it is to have a Twitter PLN, when, in all honesty, my engagement in Twitter chats is fairly “unPLN-like.”  I would be willing to bet, that for many of you, it is the same.  Chat discussions are often a hodge-podge of answers to questions that are extremely relevant, but often very general.  This “big picture” focus provides a great jumping off point for participants to share their thoughts and beliefs, but very little opportunity to explore and analyze “real” and “crunchable” data.  Most responses to questions, while regularly very empowering, provide anecdotes without much grounding, and only occasionally does anyone share/cite actual data.  Yes, it is tough to do that in 140 characters.  And yes, the fast pace of chats tend to make it difficult to stay focused for more than a second on any one tweet.  But, why shouldn’t we make our online PLNs as data-driven and specific problem focused as our face-to-face ones? 

Imagine this. . . What if #edchat (or any Twitter chat for that matter) was less about sharing beliefs and anecdotes and more about actually delving into a specific problem to solve?  Or, what if (and maybe this happens already), #edchat serves as a general starting point and then members from that #edchat meet up (either virtually or in person) to look at some real data about the topic that was discussed and begin to hash out ideas, solutions, and next steps.  In a future #edchat, this group could report back to the others “in attendance” and those interested would take these ideas back to their classrooms, districts, and face-to-face colleagues.  True, this would drastically reduce the speed of the Twitter chatting phenomenon, and yes, it would require those of us who participate (like me, for instance) to do more than exchange emails or Skype every once in a while with other educators in my online “PLN.”  But, if we’re going to use an educational “buzzword,” we should use it well, and more importantly, our actions should speak louder than our words (both the ones we truly speak and the ones we type).

I would love to experiment in turning an #edchat into a #beyondedchat.  If you’re interested in exploring ways to make social media PLNs more like true PLNs, let me know.  I would love to embark on a data-driven Twitter journey with you.  Contact me through Edge, or you can always find me on Twitter at @fredende.

Works Cited
Deuel, A., Holmlund Nelson, T., & Slavit, D.  (2012).  Two Dimensions of an Inquiry Stance Toward Student-Learning Data.  Teachers College Record, 114, 1-42.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Good News About Giving Bad News

I was given two rounds of bad news last week.  In one situation, the bad news was delivered appropriately, and the situation ended quite well.  In the other, well, the way the message was relayed made the bad news even worse.  With it being a “bad news week,” I had the chance to really reflect on the finesse necessary when delivering bad news.  In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the degree in which news is perceived as good or bad is often directly correlated to how the message is relayed.  Needless to say, that has major implications for any “people person” position, and education is no exception.

Whether teacher, building leader, or district administrator, we’ve all had the opportunity to be on both the receiving and supplying ends of bad news.  As receivers, there is only so much we can do.  If we have a good enough outlook, and the bad news is not catastrophic, we often validate its impact on the world around us, and set to work dealing with it.  But, as deliverers, we have much more say in the matter.  In these instances, we often have to deal with both the news, and the fallback from delivering it.  But, with that added weight also comes decision-making power on how we choose to relay that information.  And, as contrary as it might sound, there are good ways to deliver bad news, and in fact, from a community and collaboration standpoint, bad news can actually be quite good.

So, how do you deliver bad news well?  Here are three rules to never forget:
  1. Deliver bad news early and often.  Chances are, delivering bad news isn’t on the top of any leader’s “To Do” list.  It often gets put off as long as possible, so we can focus on the items that bring joy to people, rather than pain.  But, waiting can be problematic.  Aside from any initial waiting necessary to collect fact-based information, bad news should be delivered as soon as it is complete, and as often as updates are available.  While this sounds like bad news overload, the opposite is even worse.  If you've ever been in a situation where people discovered bad news before you had the chance to deliver it, you know how off-putting it can be.  It can cause lack of trust and respect, rather than putting the focus on moving forward.  In short, it presents additional hurdles that deliverers and receivers of news have to negotiate.  It literally makes everyone’s life more difficult.  So, share information as soon as you can.  Inform receivers that more information will be coming, and though it might be tough to handle, it is important to you that everyone is kept in the loop.  This builds capacity, and solidifies a team that you’ll need to help you address the crisis.
  2.  If you must delegate a deliverer, make the message incorruptible.  The challenge with bad news is that everybody hears it differently.  So, if you can’t deliver the news and have to delegate a messenger (never ideal, but as we all know, it does happen), make sure the messenger knows the ins-and-outs of the news, and that you've briefed that person on potential questions coming from receivers.  The worst result of delegation happens when a message is delivered that is wrong, or a question is asked that is answered incorrectly.  It’s never fun for the messenger to go back and correct his/her mistake, and it is never pleasant to have to undo damage a messenger may have made that likely resulted from your inability to get the message across correctly.  So, deliver all bad news yourself.  If you can’t, delegate effectively, and know your audience.
  3.  Finally, empathize, encourage, and embark.  At times, bad news is taken well.  At others, time stops.  As a deliverer, you must first empathize with your audience.  Allow receivers to cry, vent, be alone, etc. with the understanding that you are a shoulder if needed.  Next, encourage your receivers to reflect on the news and let them know that you will work to help them deal and move on, and will provide support, leadership, and understanding.  Never take responses from bad news as personal, and be active without being reactive.  Finally, embark on a journey to turn the bad news into something good.  Use the news to help solidify the community and move forward.  Constantly discuss where you’re going as opposed to where you've been.
These three rules aren't the only considerations that should be made when delivering bad news, but they are the three that I have found to be essential when I’m tasked with being a deliverer.  I've found that if nothing else, rule #1 is the trump card.  As upsetting as bad news is, when information is shared regularly and often, you've already built capacity as a leader focused on the community-at-large, and as we know, the only way to truly grow from bad news is to have family, friends, and colleagues working together and supporting each other.

I hope that the start of your school year is only filled with great news!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ready, Set Goals!

The school year is beginning for many within a few days, and with it comes the excitement and anxiety of a new year and all its possibilities.  For many of us in education, we spend countless hours considering the goals of our charges (whether they be students, teachers, community members, etc.), and much less time really thinking about our own personal goals.  In fact, I would be willing to wager that for most of us, our own personal goal creation is fairly pitiful when compared to the goals we create or collaborate on with others. It’s not that we don’t want to further our own knowledge (heck, we’re born learners, after all), it is just that deep introspection takes lots of time, and in education, time is a commodity that is never in large enough supply.

Happily, I’m here to be your goal setting conscience.  Since the school year never seems to slowly rev up, but rather always starts at full throttle, here are a few goal-setting rules to consider while you’re still at “coasting” speed. 

1.  Plan with parsimony.  Ever heard of “Occam’s Razor?”  In science, it is the idea that barring any reason not to, one should always consider the simplest hypothesis before those of a more complex nature.  Why?  “Simply” (sorry, couldn’t resist) because the greater the complexity, the greater the room for error and competing variables, all of which will make it tougher to tell whether the hypothesis has been verified or not.  The same can be said for goal creation.  Goals, whether personal or for stakeholders, should be simple enough for all to understand with no bias or room for misinterpretation.  Considering how busy everyone’s lives are these days, goals must also be simple to pursue.  Keep in mind that just because a goal is simple to understand and get started on, it need not be simple to achieve.  Challenge is good.  Goals that are too simple really aren’t goals.  Some food for thought: If the creation of a goal takes longer than meeting the goal itself, than it isn’t a goal worth creating or achieving.

2.  Get time on your side.  Goals require a finite time span.  In reality, time spans for goal completion should be mid-range in nature, providing for enough time to devise goal-meeting strategy and adequate reflection, but not so long that time lapse causes the goal to get buried by other initiatives or antiquated by the nature of today’s fast-paced world.  So, a two-week goal?  Likely too short a time period.  A three-year goal?  Not short enough.  In fact, I would be willing to argue with anyone interested (I love a good debate) that a “one-year goal” is actually too long.  Rather, goals can be appropriately timed by the structure of your building or district’s terms.  Quarterly or semester-based goals are appropriate, whether they are your goals, your students, or your teachers.

3.  Try triads.  Goals can be stressful.  Whether building benchmarks for yourself or for others, reaching new heights is anxiety producing.  The more goals set, the higher the inherent anxiety, and the more likely some will fall by the wayside.  Of course, if only one goal is set, it leaves little room for flexibility in goal achievement and can stifle collaboration and strength/weakness pairing.  The human mind is an incredible tool, and it seems to work quite well with ideas grouped in threes.  So, keep your goals to a triad to provide just the right amount of flexible thinking opportunities and positive stressors.

4.  A final important rule is don’t set goals for others unless you plan to have a few set for yourself.  So, without further ado, here are my professional goals for the next three months (I’ll look to report back by the end of November and let you know where I stand. . .remember, goal reporting and discussing is always key):

  • Explore and then implement one new technology tool.  I’m currently looking at Socrative (a handy-student response tool that works with “any” device; and some handy Twitter SAP tools (  I’ll look into them in more detail and then try one of them out with the students or teachers I work with.  If those tools don’t pan out, I’ll increase the social media exposure of the science program I work with by creating a Facebook page (our Twitter feed has been quite successful).
  • Design and facilitate one new science education workshop.  We always like to provide teachers with new offerings, and I’m looking to run a session on life science content for elementary science teachers and/or Next Generation Science Standard characteristics that teachers can begin implementing now (even while the document is in “draft” form).
  • Complete our first grade audio book portfolio.  I’m in the process of developing and recording audio books for our younger elementary curriculum.  I’ve finished the kindergarten selections but haven’t been successful in keeping up with this project for first grade.  Time to make it happen.

It is always helpful to have a “critical friend” handy who can look over your goals and discuss where you stand at the end of your time frame.  My wife is an educator and is an excellent educational sounding board.  In addition, my current supervisor has been an excellent source of encouragement and critical feedback.

As you ramp up from 0-60 (or 0-97 for our metric colleagues) in the next few days, make sure you’ve had the chance to put a few personal goals in place.  That way, when the year ends in a few short months (and next summer will be here before you know it), you’ll be able to look back at not just another year going by, but just how much you’ve accomplished for yourself and your stakeholders.  

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Practice Makes Permanent

Earlier this week I was engaged in a spirited discussion with a colleague on the topic of science education.  As with any discussion where both parties feel particularly invested in the topic at hand, the conversation included many examples, theories, and conjectures.  At one point in the conversation, this colleague said, “You know, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.”  We were clearly both surprised with the profound nature of that statement, as the conversation literally stopped at that point for us to consider the immensity of what was said.  I’m still considering it today as I write this post.

No one would argue that practice has an impact on what we do.  Whether learning to drive, cook, or engage in a sporting event (my wife and daughter are catching up on Olympic results as I type), constant repetition trains the body, mind, and spirit to make certain actions effortless.  Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book, Outliers.  The idea here is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to truly become an “expert.”  While Gladwell was focusing on those folks in society who are truly “world-class elite performers,” many would agree that a large time investment is necessary to train ourselves to accomplish key tasks. 

What’s interesting here is that this idea focuses on just how helpful constant repetition is.  But, what is missing is that practice doesn’t always lead to a positive result.  For instance, prior to making that profound statement, my colleague was explaining how he taught himself to play a number of musical instruments, including the flute.  He practiced constantly and at one point, was invited to attend a recital conference with some of the best flutists in the world.  Upon arriving he was about to play a piece with a number of others in attendance.  As they warmed up, he could not believe how much better they sounded than he did.  Though his hours of practice did make him an “expert,” they had made him an expert in playing the flute incorrectly.  In fact, he stated that unlearning errors in musical instrument play was much harder than initially learning how to play them.

We see the same thing in sports (that baseball star who is an excellent fielder, but can’t seem to unlearn his poor swing structure), conversation (adding in hundreds of “ums” and “likes” as we speak), and even writing (I can’t tell you how many times I write “occasion” as “occassion”).  In all these instances, practice does make us perfect, but perfect at doing the wrong thing.  So, inherently, practice doesn’t always achieve something good.

The key, of course, is practicing “correctly.”  And, as leaders, we must encourage both our students, and our colleagues, to not only build their skills through repetition, but to also be cognizant of the fact that just because you keep doing something, doesn’t mean what you end up with will be “right.”  

Beginning to make a move towards achieving this can be challenging, but there are a number of steps we can take to make this a more effective process for everyone:

Open Their Eyes.  Discuss with others that practice, by itself, isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Encourage Metacognitive Thinking.  When my colleague realized that he was the least prepared of the “exceptional” flutists, he had an epiphany.  These epiphanies must be made by others as well if they are to truly understand that we must practice correctly.  We can engage in a wrong process one thousand times and it will still be wrong.

Provide Support.  Nothing is worse than realizing that something you thought you did so well is something that you do so incorrectly (particularly if hours upon hours were spent getting to that point).  Provide colleagues and students the resources they need to break the cycle, and most importantly, help them “unlearn” what needs to be changed in whatever way you can. 

Share Successes and Failures.  We’ve all been there.  Talk about it, and listen to others.

Develop a Practice Protocol.  Schools can devise methods that will lead practice to truly be perfect.  These methods require three key parts. 
  • First, mentors and experts must be on hand (or readily available) who can help correct errors as they arise.
  • Second, constant opportunities for sharing and feedback need to be provided.  Even the seasoned expert can miss something from time-to-time.  Discussions and feedback sessions allow even the most hidden errors to be flushed out. 
  •  Finally, time must be scheduled for stakeholders to practice.  Teachers and students are beyond overscheduled these days.  Expertise requires time to develop.  If we expect our colleagues and students to develop in a manner that allows them to truly become pillars of expertise, the opportunity needs to be provided for those pillars to be built.

It is a lofty goal to strive for correctness in all content and processes internalized.  But, it doesn’t have to be an entirely impossible one.  We know that practice does lead to better retention.  Now we just have to make sure that what becomes permanent really is productive.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Problem With Adages

“If It Ain’t Broke. . .

. . . .don’t fix it,” or so the saying goes.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about adages, those sayings, like this one, that are ubiquitous throughout society and are supposed to be true universally.  Yet, as common as they are, many just don’t apply to education.  For that reason, as leaders, we must be careful how we use them.  Let’s look at this one as an example.

Most would certainly agree that portions of our educational system are broken, but a large number in our field work in buildings or districts that are somewhat “insulated” from the educational upheaval that we are currently experiencing.  This might lead some to utilize the “If It Ain’t Broke. . .” phrase as a mantra.  In other words, if things are working here, why change?

But, as with much of life, things are never that simple.  When educating by this mantra, we ignore what is going on outside the walls of our classrooms, buildings, and communities.  We ignore one of the most important characteristics of strong educational pedagogy, the necessity to help students become life-long learners.  After all, if things seem to be going just fine, why learn or investigate more about them? 

When some see trouble waiting in the wings they retreat from it, close their classroom (or building) doors and go about business as usual.  But, that does an injustice to the future leaders of society under our charge.  Things currently aren’t business as usual, and, likely won’t be when this crop of students enters the “real world.”  So, why ignore the ocean just because the water is fine in our little lagoon?  After all, all it takes is one big wave, and that lagoon isn’t quite as comfortable as it was.

So, what to do?  How do we get our colleagues to drop the adage and see the forest for the trees?

For starters, we have to get educators to see beyond the walls.  For some, a simple conversation will suffice.  For others, a trip out into the “real world” is a necessity.  We shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to those whose straits are direr than ours.  There is much that can be learned from forming partnerships with schools that might currently have it worse off than we do.  For one, those in better positions can provide assistance.  In addition, the future is a fickle creature, and we never know when a school of excellence will become a school in need.  By collaborating regularly and often, schools can begin to design action plans for those “just in case” scenarios.  Unfortunately, for a few of our colleagues, those blinders can’t (or won’t) be removed, regardless of the support provided.  Decisions must then be made.  Is this person a good fit for the organization?  Can they help in ways other than in their current role?  Would they be a better fit somewhere else?  While these conversations are never easy, educational systems, now more than ever, must always be proactive, and obstacles to this must be addressed.

Keep in mind that just because educators see the big picture, doesn’t mean students do.  So, as a group of forward-thinking learners and leaders, we must engage students in curricula that focus on current issues in and around the community.  What are some of the challenges the neighborhood/town/state faces economically, socially, ethically?  How can we work as a class/school/district to address these?  What partnerships can we make with organizations outside our building walls?  How can we put a plan in place to prevent these hardships from impacting us in the future?  Even the youngest of our students can engage in these types of explorations.  The more we prepare students for the challenges they are to face as adults, the better we’ve prepared society to fix the things that are (and are not yet) broken.

So, while “If it ain’t broke. . .” will likely remain an adage in the collective society, its “kernel of truth” doesn’t quite pop when it comes to education.   Instead, it promotes a false sense of security, one that, as educators and leaders, we can’t afford to have, for our students’ sake.

(Note: As I write this I’m reminded of John Kotter’s Our Iceberg Is Melting. If you’ve read this, you know how powerful it is.  If you haven’t, I strongly recommend this quick read as an enjoyable look into leadership and the problems with complacency.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Learning and Leading

I had the opportunity this past weekend to attend the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's Leader 2 Leader conference.  It was a fabulous experience where I learned much about my leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses.  It also gave me the chance to set "100 day goals" which I blogged about on the ASCD Edge site.  Check out the blog post below, and let me know what you think.

Learn to Lead, Lead to Learn

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Talking Organization

I recently had the opportunity to compose a guest blog piece for Really Good Stuff's blog, The Teachers' Lounge.  I was asked to share my experience and expertise on materials management, something that I know a bit about.  When you have a few minutes, check out the post, and let me know what you think.

3 Tips To Organize Your Classroom

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

#NGSSchat Begins!

With the Next Generation Science Standards first draft being released to the public this Friday (the draft will be available at, we'll be holding a #NGSSchat on Twitter each Thursday at 8:00 p.m. to discuss the standards and their implications.  To get involved, simply log on to Twitter at that time and search for hashtag #NGSSchat.  Join us this Thursday for our inaugural session!

Hope to see you there!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Disney With Daughter: What Theme Parks Can Teach About Education

My wife, almost two-year old daughter, and I recently returned from a wonderful trip down to Disney.  Regardless of what you think about Disney as an institution, the similarities between the organization and a school system are tremendous.  So, it isn’t surprising that on the plane ride back, between singing the alphabet for the five hundredth time, and trying to teach my daughter that just because you can shake the seat in front of you, doesn’t mean you should, my brain was actively considering three very important lessons learned.

     1.        Regardless of how well you do something, someone will always do it better. 

Instead of taking that as a challenge, we should take it as an opportunity to construct new meaning.  Prior to our leaving for Disney, we thought we had a great plan for visiting the park with a young child.  As we found out, while our plan was “workable,” many other families had better plans.  So, rather than make up some sort of excuse as to why their plan wasn’t as good, or what advantages they had that weren’t available to us, we learned from them and adjusted our touring in subsequent days.

The same should be said of how we engage with our students and colleagues.  No teacher is truly an expert in all things, and to ever believe that we can’t learn from others is a dangerous thought indeed.  But, those who are better than us should be seen as teachers, not enemies, and it is important to approach a situation with a simple mantra: "I should leave this scenario knowing more than when I first entered it."

     2.        Prioritize.

Our schedules are packed, and recent regulations in many states make it appear that they will only become tighter.  No better example of this appears than when entering a Disney park.  There is only a set amount of time available to walk the park, and lots of outside factors impacting your time (food, weather, naptime, etc.).  So, it is important to think about your goals and focus on the priorities.  Is the goal to ride a certain attraction?  Visit a certain part of the park?  Be back to the hotel for a lunchtime nap?  These are important questions that must be answered, hopefully before you’re actually at the park.

Prioritizing in our classrooms or schools is no different.  What must be done to make sure students benefit the most from their time with us?  Who can assist with these tasks?  What can be delegated?  What constraints exist that might prevent us from meeting our goals?  The key is that we will never be able to accomplish everything we want to, but we can accomplish everything that is of the utmost importance.  And we should.  We owe it to our students, colleagues, and ourselves.

 3.        Have fun.

When you walk into a theme park with thousands of people, it can be easy to forget the sheer wonder of the place and focus instead on the stressors.  There’s a line just to get in?  How can this ride already have a 2 hour wait?  How much money did I just spend on that T-shirt?  Why is the bus taking so long to get back to the hotel?  While that type of thinking happens easily, and while that basic “disaster” mentality is likely a construct of our innate desire to always protect ourselves and those we love, it can deflate an experience very easily.  So, instead of focusing on what you can’t do, focus on what you can.  If all you get to is Dumbo, the teacups, and It’s a Small World, well, then rock on.

In our professional lives, we can’t forget this.  If we’re having a rough day for personal or work-related reasons, we must do our best to focus on the fun.  While recent data shows educators are less satisfied than we have been in the past, and while there is much to substantiate this feeling, our students are not to blame for this.  Whether we are classroom teachers, building or district leaders, or curriculum designers, our students shouldn’t suffer just because we do.  With all that many of them will be up against as adults, they deserve to have a little fun when under our care.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Talking Shop

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to share a project I had worked on with students in the past.  The project, an open-ended student data collection experience, was featured in a recent issue of Science Scope (one of the National Science Teachers Association’s peer-reviewed journals) and attracted the attention of Lab Out Loud, a podcast organized by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and moderated by two high-school science teachers, Dale Basler and Brian Bartel.  I had the opportunity to speak with them about the project, and what experiences of this type can do for education.  Rather than write the details here, when you have a moment, give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Future of American Education?

I recently had the opportunity to read Yong Zhao’s Catching Up or Leading the Way.  The book was an interesting look at our past, current, and future educational system in relation to that of our countries, in particular, China’s.  The premise of the book is that though the American system has its share of challenges, it isn’t in quite the hot water that we believe it to be.  The premise of the book is interesting, and parts of the book itself are intriguing.  In this simple short review, I want to focus on a few items, and then, if you like, you can read it yourself and let me know what you think.

Zhao does an excellent job of condensing American education into a few short pages and he focuses on the many policies and initiatives that have brought us to where we are.  This isn’t a history lesson by any means, but he approaches our educational growth from a “policy of fear” in a very intriguing way.  The first few chapters were quite informative.  I did question a few items Zhao mentioned early on.  First, he states that the American system is a true example of contest mobility because students are not sorted early on into different tracks.  As a classroom teacher from 2001 – 2011, I couldn’t disagree more.  Tracking in some sense started in our school as early as the sixth grade, and in many districts in my region, math and science are tracked as early as seventh and eighth grade.  That’s early in my book.  In addition, while this book was written in 2009, I wonder whether the claim about there still being a lot of support put behind the ideal of an “American Dream” exists.  How has the national economic crisis and media impacted this?  I would be curious to find out if most students (and most Americans) still believe the “American Dream” is attainable for everyone.  I would hope so, but I’m seriously left wondering.

Zhao’s chapter on China is wonderful.  It gives a great sense of why China is attempting to “Americanize” its educational system, and what led the Chinese down that path.  He uses this as a great juxtaposition to ask, “Why then is America going the other way?”  It was very well done.

I was less enthused by the following chapters and felt the book took a terrible turn.  I found it challenging to read and very repetitive.  In fact, it began to sound a lot like every other globalization book on the market.  I’m curious why Zhao took this route as I was very pumped up by the first few chapters only to be disappointed by the next few.  Zhao talks too much about the virtual versus real worlds, and the impact (or not so much) of job loss and overseas employment.  His claims are worth mentioning, but the three or four chapters devoted to it weigh the book, and its message, down tremendously.  In fact, by the time Zhao attempts to tie everything together, I was so tired of reading about globalization, that I couldn’t bring myself back to the true point of the book, where America is and whether we’re heading in the right direction.  It was a shame.  There are some intriguing aspects to these chapters, though.  For instance, his segment on core assumptions of globalization and keys to “globalization education” are great discussion points for contemplating how schools can truly engage the next generation and beyond.  In addition, I really found his proposed indicators of “input-oriented accountability” (a more “big picture” approach to measuring school quality) exciting.  I also gave a thumbs-up to his emphasis on personalized learning and the simple fact that today it pays for education to be “global.”  No one can argue with that.

Sadly, despite all these intriguing ideas, the book seemed to become an advertisement for the services of Michigan State University (Zhao’s place of employment) towards the end.  While I would hope that Zhao did not mean it to be this way and was just citing information he was professionally close to, as a skeptic and good “bias-finder,” it really seemed to be a conflict of interest.  I was also shocked with the research he cited showing no difference in effectiveness between online and face-to-face instruction.  Anyone research or study these areas that can confirm?

All-in-all, while I’m glad I finally got the chance to read this book, I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy more of it.  With a premise that solid, the book should have been much better.

As always, let me know what you think.