Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Using standards based grading practices to improve student learning.

If you have a kindergarten student this year you would have noticed that their grade report looks a little different.  You would have noticed that grades have been removed.  In the place of grades is a list of standards or what we call “I can statements.” These statements are student and parent friendly standards.  They are what our teachers expect all kindergarten students to know and be able to do by the end of the school year.  Standards based reporting is considerably different for parents who expect a grade.  Grades give us very little information.  For example what does a “B” actually mean?  To many parents and students a “B” is a good score, but it may not tell the full story.  The points that make up the “B” could be heavily weighted with more daily work assignments than assessments.  This does not show a true picture of achievement for that particular student.  The student may have struggled in a certain area and was able to move on due to the other averaged grades.

Doug Reeves an expert on grading explains that there are distortions in grading due to using the average.  Review the follow assignment grades what grade would you give this student?  Assignment 1 = C, Assignment 2 = C, Assignment 4 = Missing, Assignment 4 = Missing, Assignment 5 = D, Assignment 6 = C, Assignment 7 = B, Assignment 8 = Missing, Assignment 9 = B, Assignment 10 = A.  Most would average all assignments and give this student a “D” or an “F” due to the missing assignments.  What if the “A” was the final test?  Maybe it took the student until assignment 10 to master the concept. In a majority of classrooms it only matters if a student gets the concept by a specific date.  We know that students learn at different rates, some faster than others.  

In the past we focused on teaching and rarely focused on learning.  It was common for teachers to move on to a new unit without everyone understanding the material due to time constraints.  We are making the shift at Rugby Public Schools to place a strong emphasis on student learning.  We are now creating a system that focuses on mastery.  Robert Marzano an educational researcher explained that most school’s curriculum and instruction is a mile wide and an inch deep.  The sheer size of what teachers need to cover prevents in depth understanding.  Every week on Wednesday morning our teachers work together in developing what students should know and be able to do in all subject areas.  Over the past few years each grade and subject area has developed a list of “I can statements” based on the North Dakota State Standards.  Each of these standards will be assessed and interventions will be used to get each student up to a certain mastery level.  This process does not just focus on students that struggle it also involves discussions about what we are doing if a student already knows the material. 

Grading plays an important role in this process.  Grades should be meaningful and provide parents, students, and teachers with valuable information to improve student learning.  For grades to be meaningful they must reflect specified learning goals.  This requires teachers to organize grading around “I can statements.” Aligning grading practices to standards allows teachers and parents to provide help and intervention in areas where students struggle.  A “D” does not provide us with adequate information to improve student learning.  We need to pinpoint where the break down occurs in student learning and provide timely interventions.  Implementation of this new way of grading will be methodically implemented at Ely Elementary over the next few years.  The goal is to extend standards based grading to first grade next school year.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The struggle

Growth is about struggle.  Learning and improving is about struggling with a concept or new idea. Things should be difficult at times.  As adults we need to struggle.  That new idea should cause us to get uncomfortable.  Today we had real conversations within our professional learning committee.  We had dialogue that was authentic.  People challenged each other in professional ways. We struggled grasping what it is we want from our district's professional learning plan.  We are having crucial conversations that are making positive impacts on our school.  It's not easy, and we will continue to struggle.  Innovation is messy and often lacks a clear path.  I think at times you have to struggle, take risks, reevaluate, have more dialogue, and create the path.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Be thankful

I am reminded today that we should cherish people who have helped us be who we are.  I am believer that I didn't get to where I am because of myself alone.  There are many people along the way in my life that have helped and assisted me when needed.  There have been people that have helped when I didn't want help.  We need to thank those that have been supportive of us and remember that it isn't us alone that make us who we are.  It is the people, and experiences along the way that make us who we are.  Be thankful.  

This is such a great message from Mother Teresa:

"People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Does social media amplify meanness and cruelty?

The parent advisory committee and I are currently reading It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens written by Danah Boyd.  Boyd challenges our thinking in regards to the use of social media. 

It is often difficult to define bullying, especially in the digital era.  Each person may define it differently depending on the situation.  Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus provides three components that are central to bullying, and they are aggression, repetition, and imbalance of power.  This means that one-time acts of harassment, and reciprocal acts are not bullying based on Olweus’s definition.  According to Boyd, “Adults use bullying as an umbrella term” (Boyd, 2014, p. 132).  We have to be careful when we use the term bullying.  We have to know what it is, and what it is not.  Many of the issues that we deal with at school are reciprocal acts, like friends spreading rumors about each other because of a recent fight.  It doesn’t make these acts less painful, but we would not consider these incidents as bullying.  The acts may include aggression, but lack repetition and differential power which are essential to the above mentioned bullying definition. 

I think there is an assumption that social media has amplified the amount of bullying that occurs inside and outside of school.  The media has highly publicized bullying and now most states including North Dakota have bullying laws.  Many of the teens that Boyd interviewed indicated that bullying was not a significant issue in their peer group.  Students that were interviewed separated gossip and rumors from their own bullying definition.  Boyd explained, “These teens confidently told us that bullying was “so middle school” and that teenagers “grow out of it” (Boyd, 2014, p. 137).  Instead, teens referred to interpersonal conflict as drama.  Boyd defined drama as, “performative, interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active, engaged audience, often on social media” (Boyd, 2014, p. 138).   It is difficult to find who is at fault in these instances due to the reciprocal actions of those involved in the drama.  Students that get caught up in the drama often see other people as the ones causing problems.  According to Boyd, attention becomes a commodity, and teens that participate in drama intentionally or accidently can be hurtful to others. 

When teens understand how their actions online affect others – they are more apt to understand the consequences of their actions (Boyd, 2014).  I don’t believe social media has amplified meanness and cruelty, but it certainly has made these issues more public.  Social media can increase the damage and speed of rumors and cause pain to others.  Empathy and resiliency are important traits for all teens to have as new technologies come our way.  Blaming new technologies or sheltering our children from them will not decrease conflicts.  Helping your teen to understand conflict, and the appropriate ways to handle it are vital to their growth. 


Boyd, D. (2014). It's complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How are you today? Well... it's a Monday...

How do you respond in your workplace when someone asks how you are doing in passing?  The choice of words we choose says a lot about us as an organization and us as a person.  What do we hope to accomplish when we reply with, "eh...okay, or, well... it's Monday..., or even, it's Friday, and it's almost over..." Does your response to this question depend on the day of the week?  

We are all dealing with our own issues outside of our organization.  These issues range from health issues, to loss of a loved one, or maybe it was extremely difficult to get your kids to daycare on that day.  These comments seem very subtle, but over time bring us down.  Negativity kills organizations. Rath & Clifton (2009) found that negative employees can scare off every customer they speak with - for good. They also found that 9 out of 10 people felt they were more productive when they were around positive people.  

It's amazing how a simple response can impact an organization.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We need to promote our profession!

I recently attended the joint boards meeting with Career and Technical Education, Education Standards and Practices Board, and representatives from our teacher preparation programs in the state of North Dakota.  We talked in great detail about how we prepare our teachers, and more importantly about the teacher shortage we are seeing in North Dakota.  Janet Welk the director of ESPB mentioned that we are seeing far less graduates from teacher prep programs than in years past.

The teacher shortage is a complex problem.  In years past we would get upwards of 30 applicants for an elementary position.  Last year we received a total of seven.  Why are we seeing less people go into this great profession?  I think there are a myriad of reasons why, but I believe it stems down to respect for the profession.  We as educators do not do a good enough job promoting teaching as a career option.  I have heard comments from teachers directed at some of our best and brightest questioning why they would want to be a teacher.  Unfortunately, they believe they can do more.  I even caught myself wondering why my second grade daughter wants to be an art teacher.

If we do not promote our profession we will continue to see a low applicant pool.  This may impact our ability to fill positions with high quality people.  We need our best and brightest to choose education.  Those are the types of people that we need to do this very difficult job.  Teaching cannot be seen as a back up career choice for young people.  We need to sell our profession and talk positively about it with students heading to college.  We need high quality people to enter this profession that are passionate, and motivated to change lives.

Teachers - talk highly about what you do! You have the hardest, yet most rewarding job in the world!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Get caught reading!

In a recent report out of the United Kingdom, Cleverdon (2014) found that children who did not enjoy reading by age 11 are more than likely to have fallen behind their peers in school.  Cleverdon also found that there was already a gap in early literacy levels by age three.  This gap was about a year and a half between low income and high income families. The foundation for literacy is built prior to the school years.  The report mentions, “What happens beyond the school gates and in homes is critical” (Cleverdon, 2014, p. viii). Reading to and with children is important for both parents, but according to the report fathers have a great deal of impact after their child has started school.  Cleverdon explained, “Children whose fathers read with them less than once a week at the age of five had, by the time they were seven, a reading level half a year behind those who had been read to daily” (Cleverdon, 2014, p. viii).  Fathers should be reading role models to their children.  According to Cleverdon, “Children whose fathers spend time with them and read with them do better at school, an impact which lasts into adult life” (Cleverdon, 2014, p. 32).  Just ten minutes a day can make a huge difference in your child’s literacy levels.

In my experience there are many children that do not want to be seen as a reader.  To them reading is not cool.  Cleverdon explains, “being a reader is seen as geeky, uncool and boring to some children” (Cleverdon, 2014, p. 23). Close to 20% of children involved in the study said they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading.  This statistic is a shame.  Reading should be something all children enjoy doing.  Children that are ages 8-11 who enjoy reading are four times more likely to read at their expected level.  Only 6% of children who never read out of school read at their expected level.  Cleverdon suggests that we need to celebrate the enjoyment of reading in all areas of our community.  As mentioned above, it is imperative that reading occurs outside of school.  Children should not view reading as a school thing.  It should be something that we as a community and a family encourage every day. 

When children are very young they are building their foundation for literacy.  These early experiences prior to school play a pivotal role in their early language development.  According to Cleverdon, “A two-year-old’s language development can strongly predict their reading skills on entry into school, as well as their later attainment” (Cleverdon, 2014, p. 25).  Income levels play a role in levels of reading.  20% of the children involved in this study from low income families went from advanced at age three to behind at age 11.  In contrast, children from higher income families who were behind at age three had a greater chance of being advanced by age 11.  Poverty and reading levels are linked. 

Good schools make an enormous difference in improving literacy levels of all students.  At Rugby Public School District for example we are using our teacher collaboration time to focus on literacy in the elementary setting.  Our teachers work together on Wednesday mornings to establish precise standards that we expect all children to achieve and master.  At Ely Elementary, in particular we have created literacy intervention blocks where teachers and para-professionals work together to meet the needs of all students.  At Rugby High School, we continue to improve our student responsibility block (SRB) at the end of the day to meet more needs.  During SRB on Friday our students read a book they are interested in.  Improving literacy levels should be a job for everyone.  Improving literacy cannot solely fall on the school, or the parent, support also needs to come from the community.  We need to make reading cool and support our young children in developing a strong foundation of early language development.  Modeling is one of the best things we can do as a community and as a parent.  Find a good book from our local library and get caught reading by your children, friends or community members.   


Cleverdon, J. D. (2014). Read on. Get on. London: Save the Children.

Friday, September 12, 2014

PLCs are more than a conversation

I am proud of our professional learning communities.  I have been asked several times to present on this topic at various conferences, and schools across the state.  I believe we are doing great things that will pay off.  I am a realist though and have had many conversations and understand that there are various levels of buy in.  The core of what we hope to accomplish within each PLC are the following:
  •      What do we want students to know and be able to do in every grade and every subject area? (Powerstandards and I-can statements)
  • How do we know each student has learned it? (Formative assessments developed by the team for each powerstandard, may include multiple assessments for each powerstandard)
  • What structures and interventions are we using to ensure that all students reach a certain level agreed upon by the team?
  • What are we doing if some students already know and understand the material? (What enrichment opportunities are we providing?
I know this work is hard and we like to look at the big picture and that makes this process look immense.  My dream is that at some point down the road we will be able to have conversations about formative data that we generate from the precise standards that we establish.  That to me is what this process is about.  We review and improve our lessons together, we discuss objectives together, we have difficult conversations about why students in my class are not performing as well as yours.  We begin to develop and think outside the box on how we can meet the needs of all kids. 

I think Schmoker (2004) says it best, “Mere collegiality won’t cut it. Even discussions about curricular issues or popular strategies can feel good but go nowhere.  The right image to embrace is of a group of teachers who meet regularly to share, refine, and assess the impact of lessons and strategies continuously to help increasing numbers of students learn at higher levels.”

Effective PLC teams relentlessly question the status quo, seek new methods of teaching and learning, test the methods, and then reflect on the results together (Ferriter, 2014).  I am asking each of our PLC teams to think about what I have mentioned above.  Are we effective? Do we have a purpose for each and every meeting? Have we developed a set of expectations on how we will operate to make a short amount of time meaningful every Wednesday? I came across the word hyperbole the other day.  Hyperbole means exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.  Does this word describe your PLC?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Poverty and its impact on children and their achievement.

In a society that values material goods and social status we often forget about the less fortunate.  There are some people that believe that being poor is a choice and that those living in poverty choose to stay there.  As someone who lived and breathed this lifestyle during my childhood this sentiment could not be farther from the truth.  In most cases poverty impacts student achievement negatively.  The most basic definition of poverty is, “persons with income less than that deemed sufficient to purchase basic needs – food, shelter, clothing, and other essentials – are designated as poor” (Jensen, 2009).    

We are not immune to poverty in Rugby, ND.  In fact close to 25% of our children qualify for free and reduced lunch in our school district.  This is approximately 170 of our 571 students.  We use our students on free and reduced lunch to determine our poverty levels.  According to Jensen (2009) there are four at risk factors that afflict families living in poverty.  These are: (1) emotional and social challenges, (2) acute and chronic stressors, (3) cognitive lags, and (4) health and safety issues.    

Emotional and social challenges are very real for those living in poverty.  According to Saudino (2005) DNA accounts for 30-50 percent of our behaviors, and 50-70 percent is the environment in which we grow up in.  Children that grow up in poverty may lack a strong attachment between themselves and their parents.  This is largely due to the stressors on the parent that are associated with being poor.  Students living in poverty are often left to fend for themselves while their caregivers work long hours.  Less time is spent outdoors and more time watching television (Jensen, 2009).  It becomes crucial for schools to embed character education that embodies respect, embeds social skills, and creates a familial atmosphere.  These aspects are the core parts to the Character Counts program at Ely Elementary. 

Stress is a part of life and life can be a rollercoaster at times.  Acute and chronic stress refers to stress sustained over time.  According to Jensen (2009) children living in poverty are more prone to experience these types of stressors than their more affluent peers.  Chronic stress: is linked to over 50 percent of all school absences, impairs attention and concentration, reduces cognition, creativity, and memory, diminishes social skills and social judgment, reduces motivation, determination, and effort, increases the likelihood of depression, and reduces the growth of new brain cells (Jensen, 2009). 

Socioeconomic status is the level of income a family generates, SES is the acronym to refer to income status.  SES is linked to a child’s cognitive level.  This includes IQ, achievement tests, grade retention rates, and literacy according to Jensen (2009). The difference in achievement between low-SES and their high-SES peers is staggering.  SES has been linked to literacy levels in the home.  In impoverished homes there are often less books, caregivers read less, caregivers often speak in more grammatically simple sentences, and literacy is not a primary focus.  According to Jensen (2009) the children of professional parents add words to their vocabularies at about twice the rate of children in welfare families.  A few years ago we started Imagination Library in Rugby.  This is an excellent program that provides one free book a month to any child up to the age of 5 in our district.  This is a great way to increase literacy levels in all homes in our district.  Please contact our school if you are interested for more information. 

Studies link socioeconomic status with the overall level of health.  This means that the lower the SES the lower his or her health will be.  The lower the parents income the more likely it is that children will be born premature, low in birth weight, or with disabilities (Jensen, 2009).  Inadequate housing may also impact the overall health of the child due to environmental dangers.  Lack of health insurance may cause a minor health issue to become a major health issue if left untreated. 

PISA is an international achievement test used rank countries according to their student’s scores.  In the most recent PISA, researchers found that poverty seems to impact children more in the United States than any other country in terms student achievement.  I painted a bleak picture regarding children living in poverty.  These parents care about their children deeply, but struggle due the issues associated with a lack of income.  We need to empower parents and begin doing something about the increasing poverty level in America.  Children are not given the choice to be poor and a childhood spent in poverty often sets the stage for future setbacks. 


Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind. Alexandria: ASCD.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Practical ways to make professional learning more individualized and meaningful

Over the past two years we have worked hard on revamping our professional learning practices. We had two goals in mind: make professional learning more individualized, and more meaningful for all. Deep conversations have taken place over the course of two years.  It is really easy to schedule school wide sit-n-git sessions for all to take part in.  Like most districts, we've been there-done-that.  It's difficult to individualize and make professional learning meaningful for all.  Is it even possible?

This past June we met as a committee and planned next year's professional development.  In total there were nine teachers and three administrators that worked together over two days.  Our initial goal was to create teacher led professional development for each of upcoming our professional learning days.  We ended up scrapping most of those ideas.  Instead we kept coming back to the two main questions:

1) How do we individualize?

2) How do we make it meaningful for all?

I believe high quality professional learning practices merge the above concepts together.  As we progressed in our conversations, we gained clarity.  We decided to use our professional development days in the following ways.

Each individual professional learning community (PLC) will develop their own Professional Learning Plan focused on student engagement.  We established professional learning (PL) mentors to help guide this process.  Each PLC with the help of the PL mentor will select from the following developed options to focus on throughout the year:
          School Visitation(s):
    • If your PLC chooses the school visitation option, you will identify a focus to improve student engagement within your PLC and obtain research articles or texts that are helpful. You must find a school or teacher that is implementing methods you would like to emulate. A visit must be completed by January 19, 2015. October 29 and December 3 are identified half days for our professional development. If at all possible, use those identified days for your visits. We do understand that you may need a full day to complete your visitation. You will need to carpool and complete your visits as a PLC team. Student engagement methods observed and research based activities should be incorporated into your classroom throughout the remainder of the year. 
          Study Group:
    • If your PLC chooses the study group option, you will identify a focus to improve student engagement within your PLC and obtain research articles or texts that are helpful. You will research and select a book pertaining to your focus area. The book(s) or professional journal article(s) you choose should be research based and target your specific needs for improving student engagement within your classroom. Once chosen you will need to provide your rationale for the selection. You will then be expected to read, discuss and implement specific ideas from the book according to the timeline for professional development.  You will have put something into practice by January 19, 2015.
          Online Learning:
    • If your PLC chooses the continuing education course for your professional learning plan, you will be able to choose from a list of pre-approved   1 credit classes available through UND’s continuing ed. program.  There will be a list of pre-approved courses relating to our goal of improving student engagement in your classroom. You will enroll on September 29th.  Completion of the class is required and a transcript must be submitted to receive reimbursement. 
      Course Options:
      1.     21st Century Tools for Teachers

      2.     Authentic Innovation in the 21st Century Classroom

      3.     Student Engagement: Inquiry Based (Teacher driven)

      4.     Differentiation: Inquiry Based (Teacher driven)

      5.     Other course options: (Must be approved by PD committee) 
We rolled these new changes out yesterday at our inservice and I think it went over well.  We are going away from the traditional 2-3 days of sit-n-git PD of the past.  These days will given to PLCs to guide their own learning.  It is exciting and risky at the same time, but I believe these changes are necessary for us to truly move forward.

Here is a Dropbox link to our documents to guide this process: Professional Learning Plan

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is it about the grade or the learning?

I have had several conversations with parents and other people involved in education regarding grades.  I think we have talked this topic to death over Twitter and other mediums.  To me it comes down to a simple question.  Is it about the grade or the learning?  To most unfortunately it's about the grade, and I guess it's hard to argue when colleges and universities base entrance predominantly on the GPA.  Although this might be slowly changing - recently 48 New England area colleges are now accepting standards based grade reports.  These reports do not report a grade, instead they report the progress of a student in regards to a specific skill or standard.

Shouldn't success be determined by the learning and not the grade?  It is too bad that the grade tends to trump the learning that occurs.  I have seen this first hand where students will intentionally dodge more difficult courses so that they don't risk their perfect GPA.  Is this what we really want?  Kids that choose not to take risks because of the impact to their grades?  I think standards based grading switches the focus from the grade to the learning. If grades aren't attached kids are more willing to take risks.  To me as a parent I want to know how my child is doing on specific skills rather than grade that tells me very little.


Friday, July 11, 2014

The Shame of the Nation

I have been reading The Shame of the Nation written by Jonathan Kozol for a grad class I am currently taking.  It has been an interesting read.  The gist of the book centers around inequities in schooling for kids that attend large urban inner-city schools.  As a rural school administrator at times it has been difficult to relate to the trials and tribulations that inner-city students, parents, teachers. and administrators face.  Kozol's outrage  is felt throughout the book.  I found the following themes very intriguing.

Kozol discusses the use of standards and standardized testing in education. In the schools that he visited he found the use of standards suffocating.  Teachers were not allowed to deviate and he compared students to robots. In many of these inner-city schools everything centered around a rubric, set of standards, or directions.  Kozol found very little freedom for students and teachers to think independently.  One of the quotes from a principal referring to standards education was eye opening.  She said, "If the road does not lead to Rome, we don't want it followed" (p. 110-111). I am a proponent of standards based education, but not to the extent written in the book.  All students need to master what teachers deem as essential standards, but this choice should be up to the teacher.  Rote memorization and the test prep associated with this book to the air out of the balloon in the schools Kozol visited.  He also makes the argument that this sort of regimented factory style education would never fly in a middle class school.  We have to remember that teaching is both an art and a science.  There was sentiment throughout the book where policy makers, and educators felt that without this relentless structure "these" kids could not learn. This was alarming to me.

One could compare the inequities in North Dakota in a similar way.  We don't have inner-city issues of course, but there is a definite disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots." Our disparity occurs between what we would call urban communities and rural communities.  All one has to do is to take a drive from an urban hub and head out to a rural school.  Most rural buildings pale in comparison to those of our regional hub cities.  The course offerings at a rural school are typically bare bones when compared to our larger cities.  In Kozol's experience less experienced teachers typically get their start in the inner-city schools. This is no different in rural areas in North Dakota where young and inexperienced teachers make up the workforce.  A person could make the argument that rural schools are expensive and inefficient and should receive less to operate.  Equity will always be an issue from inner-city to suburban to rural.  If you want to see further disparities take a drive to a reservation school where all of these issues are further compounded.

We have an oil boom that has been occurring in Western North Dakota.  Many schools are dealing with unprecedented growth.  Communities and schools are doubling in size in short periods of time.  I have heard many discussions from other administrators that are concerned with the clientele we are receiving.  North Dakota is an excellent place to live and the way of life is certainly changing for many that have lived here their entire life.  We should be welcoming growth and the increased diversity that comes with it.  As Kozol writes, we have to be careful about putting labels on kids.  These "new" kids will impact our schools in both positive and negative ways and we need to be okay with that.  Diversity is a good thing for our communities and our schools!

Finally, in many of the inner-city schools that Kozol visited he found a common theme of "school to work" programs. In many instances students had to choose a career by the 9th grade.  How is this possible?  I am a believer in exposing kids to a wide variety of careers before they have to make that decision.  As a superintendent I hear often from business in the media about how we are not preparing kids for work and how schooling is about preparing kids for their career.  I understand that work preparation is a large part of getting an education, but is that all education is for?  I think school would become pretty mundane if all we did was teach kids how to cooperate in a work environment.  Education should be about exposure to a wide variety of things.  Kids should be prepared to think independently and critically.  How much of the work preparation should be the job of the employer?

Find some time to read The Shame of the Nation.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Curious Garden and Leadership

Image Source:

The Curious Garden and Leadership

This book is one of my children’s favorite books.  It is a story about a little boy named Liam. He lives in a polluted world and discovers a small garden on an abandoned railway.  He is a very curious child.  He begins to water and nurture the garden back to health.  Little did he know the impact he would have on the polluted community and how the garden would change the community forever.  Liam displays many effective leadership skills throughout his story. 

Toxic culture:
“There once was a city without gardens or trees or greenery of any kind.  Most people spent their time indoors.  As you can imagine, it was a dreary place” (p.2).
Liam’s community is toxic and is similar to most toxic organizations.  They lack collaboration and the people within the community are very isolated.  Isolation within a school organization is toxic and creates a dreary, stale place.  Innovation and growth cannot occur without teams of dedicated individuals working together.  It is important for the leader to encourage and create structures that allow collaboration to occur.  Collaborative environments and support from the leader help combat toxic cultures. 

“There was one boy who loved being outside.  Even on drizzly days, while everyone else stayed inside, you could always find Liam happily splashing through his neighborhood” (p. 3).
Liam put himself outside when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.  He was the only one willing to venture outside and did so happily.  Leadership can be lonely, and leaders have to be willing to walk the talk.  If we are implementing change it is imperative that the leader is visible, because change is messy.  The leader must be “there” to help ease tensions and help members of the organization navigate the path.  I believe effective leaders have a sense of humor and are positive people.  They are positive even on drizzly days, and their positivity is infectious.

“It was one such morning when Liam made several surprising discoveries.  He was wandering around the old railway, as he did from time to time, when he stumbled upon a dark stairwell leading up to the tracks” (p. 3).
Liam is curious and willing to take risks.  Curiosity is an important trait of successful leaders.  They want to explore how their organization can be more effective.  This is done through needs assessments, interviews with staff members, and exploring data.  Effective leaders take risks and create a culture that not only allows risk taking, but encourages it.  A successful organization that encourages risk taking must also make it safe to fail.  Failure is important for the growth of individuals within an organization. 

Leaders are made:
“Liam may not have been a gardener, but he knew that he could help.  So he returned to the railway the very next day and got to work.  The flowers nearly drowned and he had a few pruning problems, but the plants patiently waited while Liam found better ways of gardening” (p. 6).
I believe that leaders are made.  Effective leaders are constantly refining and reflecting as they gain experience.  Liam wasn’t sure how to raise a garden in the story so he tried different things.  Over time he got it right and the garden began to grow and expand under his guidance and support.  This is similar to my growth as a school administrator.  As you gain experience you gain confidence in your decision making and your skills as a leader. 
“As the weeks rolled by, Liam began to feel like a real gardener, and the plants began to feel like a real garden” (p. 7).
Our experience gives us confidence in our leadership abilities. 

Leadership development within your organization:
“The tough little weeds and mosses were the first to move.  They popped up farther and farther down the tracks and were closely followed by the more delicate plants” (p. 8).
Developing leaders within your organization are important to creating progress that leads to major breakthroughs.  For example, in a school organization it’s imperative that leaders develop and distribute leadership to teachers to increase momentum.  As the story goes, you need “tough little weeds and mosses” (Teacher leaders) to move first.  Teacher leaders make the path easier for the “delicate plants” (People on the fence) to join them.

“Rather than waste his winter worrying about the garden, Liam spent it preparing for spring” (p. 16).
Liam was not satisfied and continued to better himself by learning about proper gardening techniques and reflecting on the previous spring, summer, and fall.  Effective leadership is about proper preparation and having a growth mindset.  An effective leader is continuously improving. The leader should be the lead learner, they should be at the forefront of best practice. Preparation and creating a path that all can understand is key for a successful organization.

Leadership by example:
“But the most surprising things that popped up were the new gardeners” (p. 24).

Liam gained momentum and other people began to come out – to help the curious garden expand.  Because of Liam’s leadership he inspired others to take part.  Leadership is about leading by example.  Effective leaders create cultures where people work together, and they take pride in their work.  They feel comfortable and trust the leader to take risks.  Liam provided the guidance and set the example needed to change the community.  Members of the community in the story bought into the changes established by Liam, because they trusted him. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My speech to the class of 2014

I want to talk today about the significance of grit.  Grit is the quality that enables individuals to work hard and stick to their long term passions and goals. 

I encourage you to reflect on your passions and what you want to accomplish in life from this day forward.  It is extremely important that you are passionate in whatever line of work you enter.  That is what will drive you towards personal and professional success. 
I am very interested in understanding how some students make it in life when they have everything stacked up against them.  What is that allows students with every at risk factor to succeed?

Angela Lee Duckworth is a researcher and has been conducting ground breaking studies on grit.  Grit is optimism. To be gritty is to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity.  So when times get tough, which they will, or they have already – How do you respond? When you are gritty you respond with optimism - the belief that if I work hard I can get through this tough patch. 

According to Duckworth grit is also about having consistent interests – and focused passions over time. 

Duckworth studied the relationship between grit and high achievement at West Point Military Academy.  She compared the Whole Candidate Score which included the SAT, class rank, leadership ability and physical aptitude in their short questionnaire on grit.  They found that the Whole Candidate Score which was the Army's predictor of success had no relation on whether a candidate would complete the program.  You see it wasn't about test scores, it was about how resilient the person was.

Grit predicts success over and beyond talent. 

It isn't talent that causes success, although it does help.  It is resiliency that is the greatest predictor of success for kids.  How many of us know people that were the most talented people in the world, but falter in life?

What about talent?  Can talent alone bring success without grit? According to Duckworth grit and talent either aren’t related at all or are actually inversely related.  In terms of academics – if you’re just trying to get an A or trying to get to some threshold and you’re really talented you may only do homework for a few minutes.  You get to a certain level of proficiency – then you stop – so you actually work less hard. 

Think about this if you are a talented individual.  If you are really good at something do you stop when you have reached a certain level? Push yourself! It is the people that are talented and gritty at the same time that push the boundaries of success. 

People who can set long-term goals and stick to them have a leg up on success in school and life. 

The sky is the limit for all of you sitting out there.  I can promise you that success doesn’t come easy and there will be plenty of ups and downs on your journey in life.  Don’t be afraid to fail – embrace it and learn from it!

As parents and educators we need to instill the attitude of "I can get better if I try harder" in our kids.  Encourage them to be resilient and help them to understand that failure is not the end of the world. Failure is an option, and helps us to become resilient.  

To wrapup I will finish with the famous words of Dr. Seuss, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” 

“You're off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So... get on your way!” 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Achievement as a constant not a variable.

There are many variables that impact student achievement from the home environment, to student decisions, and poverty.  In public schooling we can control one variable and that is quality instruction. We often want to push the problem off somewhere else, because it's easy to justify. We say things like: the kid is lazy, the parents don't care, or education is not a high priority.  All of these have an impact on the kid for sure.  We can't begin to understand what happens when the student is away from the school.  The only thing that is within our control are ourselves.

I believe wholeheartedly that achievement should be the constant.  We can melt away the effects of home environment, poverty and "lazy" kids by holding students accountable to precise standards of learning. In this world, achievement becomes the constant and not the variable.  We begin to talk about real solutions rather focusing on the problems.  The only control we have is when that student comes through the doors from 8:30AM to 3:15PM.  


Friday, March 21, 2014

Video for reflection

For the month of April we are asking that all teachers record 15 minutes of a lesson to be viewed by themselves for reflection.  We will also ask that they view their video with others within their groups during our May 7th Early Out.  The principals will each have a meeting to explain this in more detail in the next few weeks.  This process is not for evaluation, it's for growth.  This is meant to be a formative process for the teacher.  Video is a powerful tool that will help all of us get better at our craft.

Watching yourself on video is one of the most powerful strategies professionals can use to improve. However, it can be a challenge.  It takes a little time to get used to seeing yourself on screen, so be prepared for a bit of a shock.  After a little time you will become more comfortable with the process. (Jim Knight 2011)

Description of the process:

1. Record yourself for 15 minutes during a lesson that you would like feedback on. (If you are able to record the same lesson as your PLC counterpart please do so.  This could be a powerful experience for teachers that teach the same thing.) Principals will have a signup sheet to establish recording times.

2. Once you have recorded the video our tech coordinator will come to save it in on a flashdrive for your PLC group. Please view the video twice.  We will provide documents (see attachment) that will guide this process. Your principals will hand these out. You will view it once to watch yourself and one more time to watch the students.  If you are unable to find time to view your video please let your principal know and we will provide coverage to allow you to view.

3. After viewing the video, review the notes on your document, and highlight items you will discuss with your PLC group.

4. On May 7th during our early out, you will view your video with your PLC group (Please bring copies of your lesson too). The group will view each video and the job of the others in the group is to provide comments and feedback to you.  The feedback will be centered around three areas: teacher was, students were, and general comments.

5. All videos must be recorded, viewed, and on our tech coordinator's flash drives by May 2nd.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

AdvancED Visitation

The past two days we hosted a team of six from AdvancED.  Our five year accreditation review is this year.  Three of them spent the last two days at Ely Elementary and the other three visited Rugby High School.  They spent their time visiting with students, teachers, parents, board members, administrators and many others.  They also spent time in the classroom observing student engagement.

I am proud of our school improvement team and our teachers.  It was an exhaustive process to prepare for this visit.  There was a ton of work put into it and the process has been eye opening for myself and our school.  We are looking forward to quality feedback and using it to help guide our improvement efforts.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

10 principles of formative assessment

In the latest issues of Educational Leadership, Carol Ann Tomlinson discusses the 10 principles that should guide the use of formative assessment.  Here is the shortened version for people who are on the run.

1. Help students understand the role of formative assessment.  

One of the issues that our teachers are dealing with right now is how students may not take these assessments seriously.  The student response is typically, "Oh, I thought since this wasn't graded I didn't need to try." Grading hinders the use of FA, but that's for another blog.  When we use formative assessment we need to thoroughly explain to kids what this is for and why.  

2. Begin with KUD's.

Tomlinson defines KUD as, "What is most important for students to KNOW, UNDERSTAND, and be able to DO as a result of the segment of learning.(p. 12)" When using formative assessment I believe it is important to pinpoint and establish our learning intentions.  Do we talk about the lesson objective and do we write it on the board?  We need to talk about what it is we are trying to learn.  

3. Make room for student differences.

Flexibility in how students are able to show what they know, understand, and are able to do is important.  Is there another way to check understanding? 

4. Provide instructive feedback.

Tomlinson explains that feedback should help the student know what to do to improve the next time around.  Comments like, "good job,"you got it," or "try again," do not provide the student with enough feedback to get better.  We need to guide them in their learning.  

5. Make feedback user friendly.

Tomlinson stresses the importance of how we provide feedback.  She states that, "feedback must result in a student thinking about how to improve (p. 12)."

"Praise and shame shut down learning far more often than they catalyze it.  It's more fruitful to straightforwardly share with students their particular next steps in the learning process. (p. 12)" 

6. Assess persistently.

In our district class we are reading Embedded Formative Assessment.  Our latest assignment had teachers create a formative assessment, assess the students, review the data, and then blog about their next steps.  Assessment for learning should become a habit and something that is done on a consistent basis. According Tomlinson, "Formative assessment should permeate the class period. (p. 13)" Teachers should constantly be checking for understanding and adjusting instruction on the fly.  
"Formative assessment is not ancillary to effective teaching.  It is the core of their professional work. (p. 13)" 
7. Engage students with formative assessment.

We need to include students in the assessment process.  They need to know why.  Ultimately it's about their learning and getting them to an acceptable level.  Tomlinson recommends peer feedback and working along side students as they struggle to understand.  
"Students also need to be involved in thoughtfully examining teacher feedback, asking questions when the feedback is not clear, and developing plans that specify how they will use that feedback to benefit their own academic growth."  Carol Ann Tomlinson
8. Look for patterns.

It's about the data.  Much of our discussion this morning centered on creating data.  It can be so simple as how many students need enrichment and how many need reteaching. (Great video on this concept here

We use a lot of anecdotal evidence (which has its place) but where is the actual data?  One may assume something and be completely wrong.  Data tells the truth.  

9.  Plan instruction around content requirements and student needs.

Tomlinson states, "there is little point in spending time on formative assessments unless it leads to modification of teaching and learning plans (p. 14)" 

Reteaching is not more of the same.  Not all kids will get a concept the first time.  What will you do different the second time around to bring clarity?  Having them redo the same worksheet is not reteaching.  Reteaching is teaching differently because those kids didn't pick it up the first go around.  It means changing the method you used.  
"An assessment is really only a formative assessment when teachers glean evidence about student performance, interpret that evidence, and use it to provide teaching that is more likely to benefit student learning than the instruction those teachers would have delivered if they had continued forward without using what they learned through assessment." Dylan Wiliam 
10. Repeat the process. 

Using formative assessment is about developing a habit of always checking for understanding and modifying our next steps.