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Set Your Stage

3 Jul

The world of theater is exciting, creative, and designed to entertain an audience.  Any director knows that the success of a show is directly dependent on the stage set. A show can be brilliantly written, choreographed, and planned, but without a terrific set, the performance may fall flat. The setting of the stage, and ensuring that the environs are just so, is crucial to its success.   The stage is manipulated to ensure that the intended outcome is inevitable.  So, what does this concept have to do with education? Quite a lot, actually.  Just as theater directors rely on the set to entertain, we educators rely on our set to teach.  You will find this connection in one of my recent finds:

  • The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning, by OWP/P Architects + VS Furniture +Bruce Mau Design.

This engaging text is written by a team of international architects and designers with a mission to improve teaching and learning. This fast-paced 242 page read clearly shows how we can be the crucial set designers of our own theater  of education. The text is organized within a colorful barrage of multi-fonted print and photos which invite the reader to browse through in either direction. The authors and collaborators take the reader through 8 chapters such as: Basic Needs, Minds at Work, Bodies in Motion, Community Connections, Sustainable Schools, Realm of the Senses, Learning for All, and Rewired Learning. We learn through the authors’ use of statistics, facts, and expert narrative, how to set the stage for learning within our schools and classrooms. The interesting element of this text is the strong connection in which these authors link learning and their individual passion(s) for architecture, design, and environment. These folks are true experts in the use of research and design knowledge, to set the stage of that which we call learning.

So, as we move forward as educators, parents, community members and collaborators, let’s look to the wisdom of these environmental, structural design experts around us.  Allow their inspiration to show us how to work with our surroundings to create successful learning sets.   We must open our eyes, and rely on the (sometimes invisible) Third Teacher to help us set the stage. Let’s work with our set design, not against it, to transform the learning of our audience. Let’s strive to set the school stage so that student success is not accidental, but calculated and intentional. May you become adept at setting the stage for your very own theater of learning.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

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Bait the Hook

2 Jul

Educators make a living out of presenting information. We make a career out of engaging others in what we have to say. The success of our students is determined by our ability to communicate. The level of  learning is directly proportionate to our skills to guide, lead, teach, model, and coach students through a multitude of tasks. Keeping our audience engaged is crucial. Keeping the human brain interested in consuming what we’re serving up is the secret to our success. Quite simply, if we don’t bait the hook, those fish won’t bite. So, what are we to do? How in the world do we ensure that our audiences,  of children and adults alike, stay awake long enough to grab that worm on our hook?

Once again, I find the answers in research. One of my favorite texts on the topic of brain research is the following:

  • Brain Rules, by Dr. John Medina

Dr. John Medina is developmental molecular biologist who specializes in brain function. He’s one of those guys in the white lab coat, who’s way smarter than 99.99% of the non-molecular biology world.  But what I love about this book is that Dr. Medina delivers the goods in an easy-to-read 280 page text designed for the rest of us.  He gives us carte blanche access into the best of brain science research.  The book clearly defines 12 simple brain “rules” of our human hard-wiring. This text, while based on these rules, is a thorough synthesis of all that good brain research that’s been pumping out of think tanks for decades.

One of the brain rules that Dr. Medina explains is the concept of attention. He simply states that we humans don’t pay attention to boring things. So now you’re wondering why we need a 280 page text to tell us this. Nice try. There’s more, I promise.  What Dr. Medina does in this chapter is explain the real key behind keeping the attention of our human brain. He explains that emotion is the trigger that really excites our brains. We pay attention to emotions. Emotions are the invisible signal to say, react, think, or do something in a particular way. This concept is important to educators because without emotion, or without a hook, we lose our audience.  I know we’ve all been there, and truth be told, it’s no picnic.

Now that we know stimulating the brain is the only way to keep our audience engaged, what do we do? First of all, stop talking. Teachers who love to lecture, I’m talking to you. Seriously, stop talking.  If we must blather, keep it to a minimum. Stay under 10 minutes, and then use a hook: fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity, you name it. Reel your learners back in with a brain break. Make the  emotional hook relevant. Don’t dangle the wrong kind of bait. Know your audience and their background. Make the bait palatable for those you’re teaching. Additionally, keep in mind that fidgeting, movement, squirming and wriggling are all natural responses to the brain falling asleep. For those of us dedicated to teaching youngsters, find a way to make peace with the fidgets, wiggles, and giggles. Our kids are just like us, but with even smaller attention spans. Know that when we use the best of brain research all our audiences benefit.

So, now that we know, let’s make the best use of what years of brain science teaches us. Remember that baiting a hook isn’t just something we do while trout fishing; it’s how we educators must teach. Use our skills wisely in using our knowledge and brain power to work with us, not against us.  May you be successful  reeling in the big ones during your next lesson.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

It’s Easy Being Green

30 Jun

Being a professional educator offers unlimited opportunity to  learn and  grow while inspiring others to do the same. The key to doing this well comes from staying true to one’s colors. In today’s world,  it’s easier said than done. We live in a culture of influence. Forces abound, and there’s always a bandwagon, fad, or gimmick to follow. Living in integrity and working purposefully, requires true knowledge of one’s self, values, and core beliefs.  It’s a matter of knowing  who you are, your home base, and your bottom line. So, how exactly do we figure this out?

When I  seek answers to questions like these,  I look for role models. I seek out those who  exemplify the spirit, and integrity of which I hope to follow.  I turn to the sources which will offer a lesson to challenge, improve, or even inspire  my current practice.  I find inspiration in text.  One such text that’s inspiring and fun  to read is the following:

  • Before You Leap: A Frog’s-Eye View of Life’s Greatest Lessons, by Kermit the Frog

Now, before you begin to wonder why this title, written by a pig-loving Muppet, made it’s way to my professional educator’s blog, let me explain. Jim Henson was a genius, a role model, and an artist. Jim Henson Fraggle Rocked.  Now, I admit, I may be a bit biased since I was a kid of the 70’s, and I’m of  the Muppet generation. I grew up on everything Henson and  proudly toted a Muppet Show lunchbox and matching thermos.  But seriously, the message that this puppeteering master left us, via his amphibious alter-ego, was his unwavering commitment to his mission. Jim Henson never strayed. His true colors shone brightly, and always a swampy  green, of course! The truth is, the world could never accuse him of being anything but himself.  Mr. Henson marched to beat of his own drum, albeit oddly with many friends, down a Street named Sesame.

As I reflect on the life of Mr. Henson,  I find inspiration in his work, and his Muppets. You see, Jim Henson’s success wasn’t accidental. It was a byproduct of living his dream and living in integrity. He knew who he was.   So, what’s the take away? What’s the lesson for us as educators, parents, and students?  How do we stay true to ourselves and work in integrity?  I think the answer lies in a  wonderful quote by Kermit, in which he offers the advice: “Innovate, don’t imitate.” As we listen to the words of Kermit the Frog, we know the true, resonant voice of the master behind those words. So now that we know, let’s go for innovation. Let’s march to the beat of our own drums, down a street of our own choosing.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

Feed Me Coach

26 Jun

Authors and management experts Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson claim that “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” This expression exemplifies the essence of current  research which illustrates how corrective, timely and specific feedback increases performance.  Effective feedback is  a component which propels us forward. This propulsion enables us to attain higher goals, achieve greater learning gains, and become more productive in the workplace and at home. Feedback is one of those things that simply makes the world go ‘round.

The concept of giving feedback, constructive criticism, tips, and pointers is not new. Any athlete or coach can attest to the vital importance of feedback.  Imagine watching a major league manager, or coach, walk into a practice, without talking. Imagine what would happen if the coaches were silent?  What if managers let those ball  players just “do their thing?” What if coaches claimed since all the plays and  skills were previously taught, it’s the players responsibility to simply remember? If this were the case, professional baseball would suffer a ridiculous demise. We’d never  buy another bag of peanuts or a foam finger ever again.

So, what does this segue into the seventh inning stretch have to do with education? Everything.  Just as coaches know the importance of routine, timely, specific, and skills-based feedback, we too must adopt this style of interactive dialogue with all our students. This crucial component is clearly articulated in one of my favorite professional texts:

  • Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners, by Jane D. Hill & Kathleen M. Flynn

In this 12 chapter text, authors and educators Hill & Flynn identify several components of effective practice targeted toward English Language Learners. Chapter 3: Setting Objectives & Providing Feedback outlines a simple synthesis of best of research on the topic:

  1. Feedback should be corrective in nature.
  2. Feedback should be timely.
  3. Feedback should be criterion-referenced. (Give specifics based on skills & performance rather than a numbered or letter grade which may not have any meaning to the student).
  4. Incorporate opportunities for students to self-evaluate learning.

As in great baseball performance, effective learning requires great feedback. Adopt a coach-like attitude and share relevant, useful, and timely feedback with students. Use this as a way to create a dialogue in which each student has a chance to grow, improve, and learn. Just as that coach uses his or her expertise to engage in critical dialogue aimed toward improved performance, you too can do the same.  Our students deserve our very best, and our best includes giving feedback.  So, now that we know,  let’s go feed those students the breakfast they deserve…let’s make  learning champions out of them. And who knows, someday we too may work our way to Fenway Park, coaching the majors.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

Make Learning the Bottom Line

23 Jun

Today’s world of education is dynamic, challenging, and ever-changing. Every day we serve millions of children in hopes of meeting social, academic, and learning needs.  Individuals in today’s educational system often feel driven by legislation, state mandates, authoritative boards, and the all-mighty greenback. Any educator, who’s been out of (teacher) college more than a mere nanosecond, understands this powerful concept. As we strive to do so much with so little, it’s tempting to feel the pressure, the crunch, and the squeeze. All this can leave us asking, what’s our bottom line?

In the traditional business sense, the standard bottom line is money.  This model is a familiar to us, as it’s a model in which our systems of business, government, and education have been based upon for centuries. The interesting thing is, despite this system which drives our engines, I know money really isn’t everything. I believe our true bottom line is what we value, what we believe in, and the decisions we make which impact children—despite having the fiscal resources. In short, I know our future of education depends on our ability to make a series of good decision which results in student success.  This success will be determined by our ability to keep student, and adult learning,  at the center of all that we do.

As I strive to hold on to learning as my bottom line, I  crack open a well-worn, dog-eared,  “go-to” professional text:

  • Leading Learning Communities (2nd edition 2008), published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

In this text you will find an in-depth description of Principal Standards,  and descriptors for self-assessing your current implementation level of these standards.  The following 5 key elements (and my translation)  break down just this one primary learning standard into actionable items. Each element describes principal practice which supports the learning process for our children, and the adults who educate them:

  1. Stay informed of the continually changing context for teaching and learning. Translation: Keep up with the current. Swim, paddle the rapids, and know what’s going on in education.
  2. Embody learner-centered leadership. Translation: Make no excuses. Support a community in which everybody learns. Period.
  3. Capitalize on the leadership of others. Translation:  Surround yourself by knowledgeable, professional “rock-stars,” and let them be leaders. Believe in your teachers, and let them shine!
  4. Align operations to support student, adult, and school learning needs. Translation: Have the courage to challenge status-quo, and align resources toward high-impact behaviors which ensure student learning every day.
  5. Advocate for efforts to ensure that policies are aligned to effective teaching and learning. Translation: Know your community, know your stakeholders and engage in dialogue, advocacy, and action which matters to student, families, and educators.

So, now that we know the experts attest to the benefits of keeping student and adult learning front and center, what are we to do?  Knowing the research is only the first step. The real impact is realized only when we put the learning, or knowing, into action.  Be courageous in using these 5 key points in your work as a school leader. May you journey well on the path of student success, and be unwavering in your commitment toward leading as if learning is your bottom line.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

Why Getting it Matters

21 Jun

No double entendre here. I’m an educator, and I’m talking about comprehension. Good old-fashioned understanding. Cognition. Synapses firing. Making meaning. Reading text and using brain power to understand the ideas behind the text.

Reading is a process many of us educators take for granted. For those of us who know how to read, we  don’t often take time to consider what actually happens in the ol’ rock tumbler to create meaning. The process of reading is dynamic and there’s no shortage of research interest, because it really is that fascinating.

Because reading is so fundamental to a child’s educational foundation, it’s been a career passion of mine. I’ve spent years learning the mechanics of how to teach reading,  and how to make the process make sense to children. In short, I’ve made a career of helping students “get it.”  As I reflect on my years of teaching, I realize the how teaching students, especially the struggling readers how to get it, is still a challenge.  We know that grade-level reading ability is a strong indicator of continued academic success, and without it a learner may face  needless academic challenges. Given this, it really is a moral imperative that we care. Getting it really does matter.

So, now that we educators understand and appreciate the need to get it, what are we to do? Once again, I turn to the experts, particularly those passionate about reading.  Author and educator Cris Tovani is one such expert.  She offers excellent reading comprehension strategies in the following text:

  • I Read It, but I Don’t Get it: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers, by Cris Tovani

In this quick, easy read, Ms. Tovani outlines excellent strategies targeted toward the older (non-primary grades) reader. Each chapter describes  practical, relevant, and research-based strategies which engage the reader in the process of making sense of text. Here are some examples of the tools outlined in the text:

  1. Setting the purpose for reading
  2. Tracking confusion—asking questions about text
  3. Fixing errors
  4. Creating wonderment about text
  5. Inferencing
  6. Developing a reading plan
  7. Using writing tools to support learning

All in all, this text is simple, practical and spot on. It’s most applicable for teachers of reading with students in grades 4-12. For a professional development activity for teachers, I suggest reading this with several colleagues. Each person could easily tackle the  7-13 pages per chapter. It will definitely be a great investment of your time because it’s always worth it to help our kids get it…after all, that’s why we read. We all want to get it.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

Why Another Staff Meeting?

19 Jun

Author Scott Snair describes  the one-on-one  meeting as a “powerful personal vehicle of influence.” This is brilliant, and really a no-brainer in my book. We know that personal interaction is far more meaningful than the whole group-time-sucking-wheel-spinning-stuck-in-the-mud staff meeting. So, why do we continually insist on a culture of traditional staff meetings in the world of K-12 education?

One book I’ve turned to for inspiration, gems of wisdom, and just no-nonsense goodness is the following:

  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Motivational Leadership, by Scott Snair

In this text Mr. Snair, a West Point Naval Academy alum, gulf war veteran, and among other things, a leader in the business world, shares the following guidelines for staff meeting criteria. He references an earlier text of his: Stop the Meeting, I Want to Get Off! in which he proposes  a list of questions to answer to help determine  if, a meeting is necessary, or unavoidable. Here’s the punchline:

  1. Are you holding the meeting because that’s the way it’s always been done? Are you giving in to  status quo?
  2. Could the dynamics of the group actually derail the overall  progress?
  3. Can this information be replaced by walking around and talking to folks, on-on-one?
  4. Can this meeting  be replaced by mentoring of individuals?
  5. Can this meeting be replaced by strong leadership?
  6. Can this meeting be replaced by better utilizing organization resources?
  7. Can this meeting be replaced by delegating?
  8. Can this meeting be replaced by better use of information  technology or communication?
  9. Is the meeting being asked by another higher up? Can you deny the request appropriately?

So, after reviewing these questions, you ask if the meeting is 100% percent necessary. If so, then you make it happen.  The next steps include ensuring that you actually follow through with an effective meeting–and clearly understand why most meetings fail, but that’s another post. Keep rolling these questions around in your rock tumbler. I wish you well on you efforts toward planning, executing, and following through with  efficient and effective staff  meetings.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

Chaos Theory, Tension, and Lincoln

17 Jun

Chaos, tension, and strife. These are three things that,  if given the option, we’d attempt to eliminate  from everyday life. There are those exceptional individuals, however, who  find ways to not only cope, but thrive in the midst of chaos. One such individual who comes to mind is Lincoln. Yep, good ‘ol Honest Abe.

Abraham Lincoln, during his tenure as our nation’s leader exemplified expert  management of chaos, tension, and among other things, a war. Lincoln has been described by some as  a Master of Paradox. This point is beautifully illustrated in  of my favorite professional titles:

  • Lincoln on Leadership, by D. Phillips

In this text, Phillips paints a picture of Lincoln in which he mastered the art of paradoxical leadership. Lincoln led his constituents, his troops, and a nation by being unyielding yet flexible. Demanding yet compassionate. A risk-taker yet calculated. Authoritative yet collaborative.  So how was it that Lincoln managed… the chaos, the tension, and strife?  How should we deal with the chaos and tension in our professional lives? Why does is take us so many college degrees, text books, and seminars to figure this out, when Lincoln had this under control way back in the day?

I believe the answer is simple. It’s  because of one thing Lincoln did  better than the rest of us. He  understood people. Did you get that? Lincoln really got it.  Lincoln listened. Lincoln walked with the troops. Lincoln had compassion.  Lincoln just plain rocked.

So, what’s the lesson for us? What are we as educators, school administrators, and  parents to do? First, be like Abe. You  must know who you’re leading. Walk with the troops now and then. Lend them your ear. Listen to what’s important. Know your audience, and perhaps someday, you too with be a master of paradox.  But then again, at the very least,  let’s just hope that chaos, tension, and strive won’t throw you for a loop.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.

The Infinite Probability of Success

16 Jun

The infinite monkey theorem[1] states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare.

In this context, “almost surely” is a mathematical term with a precise meaning, and the “monkey” is not an actual monkey, but a metaphor for an abstract device that produces a random sequence of letters ad infinitum. The theorem illustrates the perils of reasoning about infinity by imagining a vast but finite number, and vice versa.

This  leads me to roll the following thoughts around in my rock tumbler…

This infinite monkey theorem demonstrates how we could theoretically experience success if we kept up an attempt, forever. Now if success is possible when given infinite opportunity, it begs the question, who has that much time?  I don’t know about you, but as a school administrator, I must rely on a more practical measure.  It’s imperative we look for shorter term gains, rather than hoping  for success via the theoretical and probable accident. The truth is, we don’t have unlimited time to hunt and peck, one unsuccessful keystroke at a time.  We busy educators need results, sooner than later.

When I need results, I turn to research. I turn to the folks in white lab coats who have more theories, time, and money than me. I turn to experts who study and publish work straight from the think tanks.  A great deal of this research tells us that targeted goal setting, coupled with specific, manageable, and tangible action moves us toward success.

So, what’s this mean for us as professionals? We need practical strategy. Some of my favorite goal-setting tips come from the following books:

  • Strategic Acceleration, by Tony Jeary
  • The Power of Focus, by J. Canfield, M. Hansen, and L. Hewitt

In these texts, we glean these strategies:

  1. Clearly articulate one professional goal. Give it a timeline and purpose.  Make sure  the goal aligns with your core values. If not, chuck it, and start over.
  2. Determine why this professional goal matters. Remember, it only has to matter to you. Don’t be swayed by the next best thing. Bandwagons come and go. March to your own professional drum (even when off-beat).
  3. Determine what needs to be accomplished this month,  this week, and tomorrow. Write it down.
  4. Write a daily behavior which will move you one step closer to this goal. Write it in your daily agenda, calendar, or write it in Sharpie marker on your hand. Do whatever it takes to follow through with the behavior. Think about how you will hold yourself accountable for completing this goal.

These simple steps won’t require you to break a sweat, but will require a bit of brain power, which is a good thing in my book. Let’s be purposeful and not rely on the statistical probability that we could create a masterpiece when given an infinite amount of time. We don’t need a theoretical accident, nor typewriting primate, we just need good strategy–one keystroke at a time. Begin by planning, and acting upon, a daily strategy which will  ensure success, sooner than later.  Here’s to making each keystroke count.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.


[1] Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. (2004, July 22). FL: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved June 16, 2010, from http://www.wikipedia.org

But I Don’t Have Time to Read

15 Jun

This is a common lament of busy professionals everywhere. It’s the frustration felt when urgent demands of  day-to-day work trump everything else…especially reading for professional practice.  So, what’s one to do?

Keep it simple.

Simplicity starts by choosing the right books. Focus on interesting, practical, non-fiction text which won’t require cover-to-cover reading, or in which chapters must only be read in sequence.  Educational journals, and  short, narrative vignettes shine just for this purpose. Start with just 5 minutes a day. Think about fitting reading into your every day life.  Make it a habit, like brushing your teeth, or checking email. Imagine the time it takes  to eat half a bagel, swig down a cup of espresso, or download 3  favorite NPR podcasts.  Now imagine changing your educational practice by purposefully reading professional text in this same time-frame.

Here are 3 examples of non-fiction books suitable for those interested in beginning a practice of professional reading on 5 minutes a day:

  • The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Telling Ain’t Training, by H. Stolovitch & E. Keeps
  • Brain Rules, by John Medina

So now that you know, in only  5 minutes a day, you’ll quickly add  a new title to your professional repertoire every 6-10 weeks. This roughly translates to 5-7 professional texts a year. Chances are, that’s probably a few more texts than you’re currently consuming. There’s no time like the present to get started. Get reading. Time is ticking.

I wish you the best in excellence and instruction.