Sunday, August 23, 2015

Your choice of words

I recently traveled to a conference and had an amazing experience at the hotel in which I was staying. I arrived after midnight after a long delay at the airport and it took me a while to unwind and get ready to fall asleep. I called down to the lobby and requested a wake-up call in the morning so I made sure I was up for the opening session.

When the phone rang, I was anticipating the traditional wake-up message, "This is your 6:30 a.m. wake-up call."  I was pleasantly surprised to what greeted me when I answered the phone.  The calm voice on the other end said in the most pleasant tone, "Good morning. The sun is shining and it is going to be a great day. Smile and enjoy your day."  What a change from the traditional wake-up call. I laid in bed thinking what a beautiful way to start my day.  It was the same message as the standard wake-up call yet it was more inviting and started my day with a smile.

How are our messages at school perceived? When we are talking with students, is there a way to share the same message just with a different tone, inflection or words?  When we are conversing with our colleagues, is there a different way we can express ourselves, share our thoughts, and enhance our professional relationships?

I know I will be thinking of the lady on the other end of the wake-up message when I am interacting with students, staff and families this year.  Will you?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Back-to-School Playlist: Lessons Learned from our Favorite Songs

This post was co-written with Steven Weber and cross-posted on ASCD EDge.

The popularity of music festivals, online sites like Spotify, Pandora and iHeart Radio, and satellite radio are evidence of just how much music is part of our culture. How does music impact our professional lives and influence our behaviors as educators?  As we begin a new school year, reflect on the following songs and how they relate to the important work of teaching and learning. We hope your school improvement plan, student growth, professional learning team, and this blog Rock you like a Hurricane!
“Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran
Teachers who create engaging learning opportunities filled with creativity, problem solving and critical thinking leave their students wanting more. Students should leave classrooms more excited about the what waits for them the next day. Administrators who give their teachers autonomy and opportunities to learn from and with one another leave their staff wanting more and more. Teachers should leave staff meetings more excited about their learning than when they started the meeting. Whether it is through innovative learning experiences like Genius Hour, STEAM projects, or connecting on social media, learning should create the feeling where learners want to scream “I’m hungry like the wolf.”

“Something to Believe In” by Poison  
Every learner - both adults and students - are geniuses in his or her own way. Each learner has a passion just waiting to be shared. Each learner has an unique way to creatively express his or her passions. How are teachers encouraging this creative passion? Are we allowing staff to drive their own professional learning? Are we providing students relevant learning experiences to be creative? At the end of the day, initiative fatigue kicks in. Students need teachers and teachers need a team of adults to provide them with something to believe in!

“Out Loud” by Dispatch
Relationships are the key to learning. Greeting learners at the door, knowing learners as individuals and not just students, welcoming learners’ ideas and thoughts, thanking learners for participating and being a part of the learning process are ways we can continue to develop and nurture relationships. A true relationship exists when someone accepts your past, supports your present and encourages your future. Every learner needs to know that there is someone who makes them feel proud.

“Danger Zone”by Kenny Loggins
What is the danger zone in today’s classrooms? Perhaps it is the classroom itself. What have schools done to move beyond the factory mentality of the 19th century with desks and chairs? Sitting in rows of desks can limit learning opportunities. Providing flexible, comfortable furniture which can be manipulated to meet the needs of today’s learners and allow students to be communicators, critical thinkers, collaborators, and creative thinkers breaks out of the danger zone and creates learners prepared for college, career and life. How are schools creating learning environments like the offices at Google, Facebook, and Apple so a student can avoid learning in the “Danger Zone”?     

“Here I Go Again On My Own” by Whitesnake
No member of a high functioning professional learning community (PLC) ever said, “Here I go again on my own…...Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.” How should a PLC function? “A Professional learning community (PLC) is an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. Professional learning communities operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators” (All Things PLC, Solution Tree). Students deserve a team of professional educators who are willing to share ideas, build formative assessments, focus on student understanding, and celebrate small wins. Does your school allow teachers to walk alone?

“Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson
The world is changing at a rapid pace. This year’s kindergarteners know more about playing games on a smartphone than they do about inserting a VHS tape in a VCR. The kindergarten class was not introduced to half day kindergarten with a nap. Teachers grew up in classrooms without computers, blogs, VoiceThread, Google Docs, or Skype with an Author. As society continues to change, teaching and learning will change. While we are strong advocates for teacher teams, the truth is that change begins with the man/woman in the mirror. Are you willing to transform teaching and learning in order to meet the needs of today’s students? We know teachers and administrators want to make the world a better place, so take a look at yourself and make a change.

“Don’t Stop Believin” by Journey
As we begin a new school year, teachers and administrators need to hold on to that back-to-school feeling. Several educators claim that they can barely sleep before the first night of school. The idea of working with a new group of students and supporting student understanding is hard to explain to non-educators. We don’t teach for the paycheck or the glory. The highlight is seeing a group of students grow from the beginning of the year to the last day of school. When students are prepared to enter the next level ready for more challenging work and more mature, there is no greater feeling in the world. Throughout the school year, don’t stop believin…..Hold on to that feelin’!

Thank you for choosing to serve as a teacher or administrator. Each year, millions of students enter schools around the globe. Parents drop their child off at the bus stop or in the car rider line, with the hopes that their child will be respected and will grow as a learner. We have a responsibility to provide students with a quality education that will prepare them to graduate College and Career Ready. We hope your staff enters the school year with the following attitude - “Rocket baby! C’mon, we’re gonna fly!”

Next Steps
Take a moment to reply to this post. Explain which song resonated with you. Choose your favorite song or lyrics and share how the song applies to education.

Matt Wachel is an Elementary Assistant Principal with the Park Hill School District (MO).  He is a 2015 ASCD Emerging Leader and Co-Author of the book Having an Impact on Learning due out later this fall.  Connect with Wachel on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @mattwachel.

Steven Weber is the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (NC).  He is a board member of North Carolina ASCD. Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

3 Ways to Start the Year off Right

As summer winds down and the start to school begins in a few weeks for many students and schools, starting the year on a successful note is essential for a year full of learning, memories and experiences. There are three ways educators can prepare for a successful year.

First Day
On the first day of school, don't talk about rules. Students typically come to school the first day on their best behavior eager to see what their new teacher and room have to offer.  Instead of spending hours and hours talking about ways to be safe, respectful and responsible as well as how to sharpen a pencil or where to put your folders (which are very important - just maybe not on the first day of school), inspire your students. Bring your best and most engaging lesson to the classroom on the first day. Have your students leave the school on the first day excited, eager and looking forward to day number 2! Let them leave school on the first day wanting to come back on the second day with more zeal than they had on the first day.

If the answer is seven, what could be a possible statement? 4 + 3 = 7? 12 - 5 = 7?  There are seven days in the week?  The possibilities are endless.  How often do educators offer choice to their students?  Educators should design their lessons and intentionally plan with specific learning objectives in mind; however, they should be flexible and offer students choices as to how they will demonstrate their learning.  Maybe it is by writing a poem, creating a short video or building a model - students will flourish and exceed our expectations when they are given choices. Give the students the choice and let their individual personalities, passions and talents shine!

Nothing is more powerful than the relationships built between a teacher and her students and their families. Educators can spend the first week sharing with their students their own passions, interests, and learning. Take the time to learn about the students - what are their interests, concerns, hobbies, and passions. Continue the relationships beyond the first week through the Friday Five. Each Friday, make a phone call home to five families and share something truly special about their child. Through the Friday Five, educators can continue to develop and nurture relationships throughout the school year.

When you first meet someone, your opinion is generally formed about that person in the first ten seconds.  Think about that.  It takes only ten seconds to form an opinion of someone. How do educators make an impression in only ten seconds?  The answer is making sure that those ten seconds count – in words, in body language, in a handshake, in a smile.  In short, we have to think about how we present ourselves to people.  Starting the year off strong will allow educators the opportunity to have a year full of success and memorable learning experiences.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Lessons from the beach

This past week, my family and I took a family vacation to Clearwater, Florida. This was our first big vacation we have taken with all three kids. There were many firsts on this vacation - first time flying on an airplane for our youngest, first time swimming in the ocean, first time collecting sea shells, first time riding the waves, first time getting sun burned... the list goes on and on.

As we were having our last dinner together in Florida, we spent some time talking about our favorite parts of the trip (this is often a dinner table discussion for us we call "Best and Worst" where each family member shares the best part of their day and the worst part of their day to learn from one another). As each family member took the time to share their best and worst parts of the vacation, I took away key lessons from our time together.

I loved seeing the excitement on our children's faces with each new adventure. The days leading up to our vacation were filled with unbridled enthusiasm. Every day, they would talk about how many more days until our vacation. The shuttle ride from the commuter lot to the airport was a thrill. As the kids were waiting in the terminal for the airport with weighted breath for our airplane to arrive, there was a sense of wonder and awe for the adventure waiting for us. Each night as we were getting ready for bed, our kids would ask "What are we going to do tomorrow?" Their genuine excitement for the next day was contagious! As educators, how are we creating experiences where are students are excited and thrilled for the next day? How do we end the day so our students are more excited about tomorrow than they were today?

For the weeks leading up to Florida, our five year-old son talked and talked about his plan for the beach. He was going to dig a tunnel in the sand leading to the ocean so that the water would come "rushing out and shoot out like a volcano" and if that didn't work he was going to "dig a tunnel in the sand to pop up in the ocean". I didn't want to break his spirit because he was so convinced his plan was going to work. When he tried this the first day at the beach, he realized his great plan was not going to work. He adjusted his thinking to let the waves fill up his trenches as opposed to digging a giant tunnel under the ocean. As educators, how are we fostering our learners' curiosity? Are we quick to correct these curious ideas or do we let them grow and experience them for themselves? How do we let the natural curiosity of our learners help steer the learning process?

About four years ago, we visited my family on the East Coast and went to a beach in New Hampshire. Our children were not old enough to remember that visit so this trip was essentially the first trip to the beach they would remember. On the first morning, we were going to walk the beach and find sea shells. The walk from the resort to the ocean was a good 400 yards and they were thrilled with the amount of tiny sea shells they were finding right outside the resort. They collected shell after shell in their buckets and pails - so much that their buckets were overflowing. Little did they know that the larger and more intricate shells were waiting for them closer to the ocean.  That night, we walked the beach after the tide had gone out and they found more and more shells to add to their collection. They simply did not know that they could find larger and "prettier" shells closer to the ocean. As educators, how are we developing our learners' schema to help them better understand concepts? How are we helping learners bridge the gap between their background knowledge and what is being discussed and learned?

Risk Taking
Our kids LOVED the water. There was even one morning when our youngest woke up at 7 to go swimming when the pool opened. Our oldest is a good swimmer who is just learning how to swim longer distances. Our middle child still uses floaties to help him swim. Our youngest just loves to splash in the water and is still a bit hesitant about being in water where she cannot touch the bottom. The first day, all three children were sitting on the step deciding how to get into the pool. Once they tried it out the new pool and tested the waters, it was non-stop swimming the rest of the week. As educators, how are we developing our own ability to take risks? How are we developing risk-taking in the classrooms? How are we allowing learners at various levels develop a growth-mindset and become risk-takers without the fear of failure?

A couple mornings and evenings, I headed out to the beach for the sunrise and sunset. It was an extremely peaceful time as I was alone on the beach listening to the sounds of the waves crash along the beach. These sounds helped me remember how lucky we are to live in such a place where all of our worries can disappear (at least for a week or so). As educators, how do we take the time to re-energize and re-charge our batteries throughout the school year and summer? How do we take care of ourselves so we can be the best we can be each and every day?

Our trip to the beach was full of exciting times, wonderful memories, and lessons for us all. As we were driving home from the airport, our youngest asked, "When do we get to back?" I am sure this vacation will be one they remember for a long time!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Be Contagious

Co-written by Matt Wachel and Steven Weber
The educators who are movers and shakers in K-12 education roll up their sleeves every day.  They jump out of bed in the morning, love what they do, and know they can make a difference in the lives of those they interact with each day.  It is the tension between what is and what could be that motivates contagious educators.  These individuals realize they have the power to influence others directly and indirectly through their words, actions, and emotions.

Normally, the term contagious refers to a person who is sick or someone you avoid until they recover.  A contagious educator has passion, leads change, and seeks to add value to others.  When you have a contagious educator on your team, you will see results and other educators become contagious.

5 Ways To Become a Contagious Educator
1.  Add Value To Others
A contagious leader is not afraid to “pay it forward.”  This may be the teacher leader who sends a motivational video to the staff.  It may be the support staff member who asks a student to assist her with her job and sees this student as a leader.  It could be the administrator who looks for ways to praise teachers in the weekly newsletter or on Twitter.  Adding value to others is an intentional act.  When a school reaches a ‘Tipping Point’ of educators who go out of their way to support a co-worker, help a student in another teacher’s class, and root for the success of the team, then you will know this spirit of adding value to others is contagious throughout your school!

2.  Share Your Stories
A contagious leader tells the stories of her classroom, school, and learning community.  This may be the teacher who creates weekly newsletters and podcasts sharing the learning in his or her classroom.  It might be the teacher who invites the media to come and participate in a culminating project showcasing project based learning.  It could be the administrator who works with the community to highlight the social emotional learning of the school community and business leaders to better equip our learners for the working world.  If leaders don’t tell the stories they want heard, someone else is going to tell the school’s stories - and why would any leader leave that up to chance?

3.  Show You Care
When a leader shares an idea or concept, it is because he cares.  He cares about helping students learn at a higher level.  He cares about the emotional well-being of students.  He cares about developing teacher capacity to learn and grow the craft.  Think of the many videos which go viral and how they often trigger a level of emotion in people.  Whether it is happiness, sadness, empathy, excitement, or surprise, when people know you care, they are more willing to listen and be influenced by a contagious leader.

4.  Serve on a Curriculum Writing Team
Teacher leaders are needed in every school district.  One way to support teaching and learning in a school district is by serving on a curriculum writing team.  Standards are not a curriculum, so teacher leaders are needed to align standards to the curriculum.  What should every student know and be able to do?  This question guides the work of curriculum writing teams and it cannot be done by a single person or a central office staff member.  According to Wiggins and McTighe (2007), "The job is not to hope that optimal learning will occur, based on our curriculum and initial teaching.  The job is to ensure that learning occurs, and when it doesn't, to intervene in altering the syllabus and instruction decisively, quickly, and often" (p. 55).  
5.  Have A Contagious Attitude
Todd Whitaker often says, “The best part about being a teacher is that it matters.  The hardest part is that it matters everyday.”  Leaders have a contagious attitude, even when the chips are stacked against them.  Maybe it is the teacher who knows how hard a student has been struggling because of the challenges he faces at home; yet she won’t give up on that student even when he pushes her to her limits day in and day out.  This teacher knows this student needs her love and support more than he will admit.  When other staff members see this leader remaining positive and supportive others will be affected by this positive can-do attitude. Imagine what schools would be like if everyone embraced this contagious attitude each and every day!
Who are the contagious educators in your school?  Quit waiting for the contagious teacher or administrator to show up and BE THE ONE!
Matt Wachel is an Elementary Assistant Principal with the Park Hill School District (MO).  Connect with Wachel on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @mattwachel.

Steven Weber is the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (NC).  He is a board member of North Carolina ASCD. Connect with Weber on the ASCD EDge social network, or on Twitter @curriculumblog.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What happened to the growth mindset?

I recently watched my son play Minecraft for the first time.  He picked up my iPad which has Minecraft on it so I can let students at school play from time to time.  Honestly, I have not played Minecraft much and was thinking to myself I would not able to explain to him how to play.  But that was okay because he did not need my help.  He simply started playing.  He moved his character around and when he encountered trouble or difficulty, he tried different tools - one after another.  It was fascinating to watch my 5 year-old son be so cognitively engaged, be a problem-solver, and be a critical thinker.

I then watched my 7 year-old daughter attempt to put together her new Lego set she received from her birthday.  She followed the steps exactly as they were printed. After 80+ steps, she had finished her building and her car and began to play with both of them.  Inevitably, not soon after completing the Lego construction, the car fell off the table and broke into several pieces.  She was devastated and even asked "How am I going to rebuild this?"

When my oldest daughter was younger, she often faced adversity the way my 5 year-old currently does.  Even for a first born child, who can be a bit of a perfectionist at times, she tried different ways to solve a problem.  But something has happened the last two years.  Is it our approach as parents? Have we led her down a dangerous path of the fixed mindset?  Have we not exposed her to enough of a growth mindset?  Is it something at school?  Is the crunch of competition and the desire to always be right in class creating this mindset?  I don't know what caused her from being a problem-solver who embraced a challenge to now being a child who wants it done the right way.

I know I can help all of my children see the powers of grit, endurance, perseverance, and battling through challenging situations.  I need to allow them to see me make mistakes, learn from mistakes, and not always be correct.  I need to celebrate the process of learning and not just the end product.  I need to be a model of learning for them all.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The keys to differentiating is all about "knowing"

Often principals speak with teachers about the topic of differentiation.  These conversations routinely focus on a wide range of topics - everything from learning styles to different activities, pacing, and assessments, just to name a few.  Perhaps we need to think about differentiation as a way to meet the needs of all of our learners and it all comes down to "knowing."

Know your students:
In order to effectively differentiate, teachers must know their students.  Teachers must know their students' passions, their interests, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  Teachers must know when to push and challenge their students and when to support and scaffold learning.  Teachers must know how to connect with their students on a personal level before any meaningful learning can occur.

Know your teaching:
After personal connections are made, teachers need to know how to meet the needs of their students. Teachers cannot begin to meet their students academic needs without knowing what their students already know.  Beginning with formative assessments, teachers can use that data to inform their instruction.  Knowing this baseline data will help teachers identify strategies to cognitively engage students, allow for critical thinking and problem solving.  Teachers must create lessons which extend the learning for some while providing remediation for others.

Know your colleagues:
It is unrealistic to expect every teacher to be able to effectively differentiate to meet the needs of all the learners in a classroom.  Essentially, every student has his or her own IEP.  So how can one teacher be expected to meet all of these needs?  They can't.  However, a team can.  Teachers need to know their own strengths and the strengths of their colleagues in order to be able to share ideas, leverage effective teaching strategies, and create skill based groups utilizing all the talents of the team.

Meeting the needs of all the students in a classroom is extremely challenging.  But if teachers "know" their students, their teaching and their colleagues, the task will become much more manageable and the students will all benefit.