A Staff That Serves

So, I often write about the incredible school I call home and the people and things that make it such an incredible place. So often, these “things” are collections of moments; some so small and seemingly inconsequential that you might actually not even notice them if you weren’t paying attention. And I try to pay attention. Because other times those moments are great big things that happen — the type of things that cause one to be filled with inspiration and appreciation for the people who are creating them. So I try to pay attention because quite frankly, I don’t want to miss a single tiny or big moment.  I don’t want to miss them because this incredible school, with the incredible people who make these incredible moments happen, really must be shared. Last night, I experienced another of those moments. This one was part of one of those great big moments we have here, one that deserves it’s own post.

For a little backstory, two years ago couple of teachers got together with some students and formed a club called “The Giving Tree“. The club meets monthly to volunteer in the community.  Here is a feature story about this club. Last night the club had one of those events. We went out at 6pm and, for a couple of hours, we helped the “Feed the Hungry” campaign. This is a national campaign and we sorted and packed meal kits which will be delivered to places like Haiti, Dominican Republic, Kentucky…all over the world. There were about 40 of us there, including staff, students and a few parents as well.


All the credit for these moments, these acts of love and service, go to the wonderful educators that plan and organize them and inspire so many of us to get involved as well. What a difference these teachers are making in the lives of so many others…including myself.

I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to stand together as a group and serve others. It was such a great opportunity to make a difference that had nothing at all to do with school, but everything to do with school. What I mean by that is, there is just something special about working together like this. We laughed, we packed, we got tired, we danced (there was music) and we celebrated as we announced the completion of each box we filled with meals.  All in all, we helped pack enough food to feed aroud 35,000 people. And we did it as a group. A family.

We have had the opportunity to get involved in so many other activities like this as a staff, some as part of the club and some not.  Making cards for veterans at the local assisted living facility. Helping at the local food bank. Working on a house with Habitat for Humanity.  This is a school that serves.  Those moments are big, but inside those big moments are the small, tiny ones. The ones that make you smile. The ones that make you feel like you are a part of something very special; something unique. Something bigger than each of us. We are a staff that serves. That loves. That cares. That makes a difference inside and outside of school.

We are a staff that thrives on making moments and celebrating life. Do you think this spills over into the campus? The kids? The classrooms? What about instruction? Lesson design? Collaboration? You better believe it does. But, those incredible moments I will save for another post….




Why Me, Here, Now?

berryLast week was our district’s leadership conference and the learning centered around the word “thrive“.  For our keynote, we were honored to hear Dr. Bertice Berry  speak about servant leadership. During this address, she said something that really resonated with me and, judging from our district conference hashtag, many others as well:

Walk with purpose and you will collide with destiny.

I thought about that remark. I thought about the word “thrive” and what it means for our school community. For my relationships. For me. To help us focus in, we were asked to take a few minutes and ask ourselves:

Why me, here, now?

Think about that question for a moment. It’s not as easy one to answer, is it? In fact, it requires a great deal of self-awareness to begin thinking in terms of one’s purpose. For instance, I might start by asking what service I am able to provide– here, and now– that will help both my campus and district thrive. What can I do to help my relationships thrive?

This will be my second year as an Assistant Principal. Last year, my goal was to survive. It was really that simple. Don’t get me wrong, I still have so much to learn. But this year, I want to really focus in on the service I am providing.

And I don’t want to just “do my job”. I want the job I do, to help our campus, and our district, thrive.

I am going to start by asking myself this simple question every day: Why me, here, now?

Look at this tweet that went out one day during the conference:

Relationships. Communication. Empowerment. Trust. Indeed these are the types of things one might find in a thriving organization. In thriving relationships. In a thriving life. So why me, here, and now? How can I contribute to a thriving culture at my school? I believe that to lead, one must serve. So what service do can I provide this year, at my campus, in my district? How can that service help the students and staff thrive? How can it help me thrive?

Here are some more thoughts that I discovered in the hashtag stream that I want to share with you:

These thoughts…how do they shape the ideas I have about purpose? About thriving? About helping others thrive? I am only just now beginning to discover.

I also enjoyed this visual of what “thriving” organizations look like:

And finally, I want to remember this simple piece of advice, given by our Superintendent:

Leave the place better than you found it.

Service. Purpose. Thrive.  The words float around in my mind as I begin getting ready for the upcoming year. Delivering textbooks to classrooms. Checking in with teachers who are starting to put their rooms together. Helping my principal prepare for our upcoming staff development.

Why me, here, now?

These are some things I am thinking about as I get ready for the new year. Perhaps you are thinking about them, as well.


Teachers and Students Leading Professional Learning

One of the unique ways we have found to support teacher collaboration and growth on our campus this year is through a weekly Staff S’more.  This started out as a one-way communication from admin to teachers, but we quickly discovered that this is the perfect vehicle for teachers to share their ideas, learnings, failures, and risks. It’s also a lot more interesting and has led to many more “conversation starters” than if it’s just admin to teacher. More information on how that came to be can be found in this blog post I wrote a while back.

Teacher Led Professional Learning

So we started off by approaching teachers and inviting them to write the weekly S’More. We were hoping teachers would be willing to share a little bit about what types of things they are doing in the classroom, or want to try, or just what’s on their mind. Soon, teachers began to ask if they could write an upcoming S’More, on a topic that they feel pretty passionate about. For example, next week a teacher will be writing on the topic of teacher burnout.  We are thrilled with the teacher ownership we are seeing in this! Our weekly Staff S’More has enjoyed tremendous success, with lots of views each week and conversations in the hallways that sound something like, “Hey I read your Smore article, can you tell me more about how you...”  It’s one of those rare things that just takes off right from the moment you introduce it and just seems to power itself.

Student Led Professional Learning

This week, one of our fifth grade teachers was working on her S’More feature, which is about Book Clubs.  She had some artifacts, handouts, and descriptions that she wanted to share with teachers along with her article. After a few minutes of discussing the content, she suggested the idea of having her students produce a video, in which they “taught the teachers” about how she implements book clubs. What a fantastically unique idea! Soon, I received the email below, a student-made video explaining to the staff how Book Clubs look in their classroom:

Here is a link to the final S’More for this week, our Book Clubs S’More, which includes the article written by our teacher, the student made video, corresponding instructional ideas from our principal, and additional articles, videos, and other resources that I curated which support the topic.

Throughout this year we have learned alongside each other through this S’More, on topics ranging from formative assessment, differentiation, performance assessments, technology, learning spaces, growth mindset, Genius Hour, math stations, guided reading, and so much more! And now, our plans are to continue to invite students to add to our learning through our weekly Staff S’More.  We are going to ask students to begin sharing their ideas, learnings, failures, and risks…right alongside their teachers. We truly believe that as a learning organization, we can exponentialy grow in our practice by listening to the voices of one another, and that includes our students.  We are very excited for this next phase!

Up Next

In a future S’More edition, our P.E. teacher Mr. Rob will share with the staff about the 21 Days Of Healthy Snacks Challenge, which he launched in his classes this week. He will ask some students to create a corresponding video share to with our staff about how they are engaging with the program. Is the message of healthy eating important to them? Why or why not? How are they implementing this at home, if they are? What challenges have they faced? What solutions can they offer?

I will keep you updated on our teacher and student-led professional learning journey as it continues to unfold this year! What unique ways have you found to infuse teacher and student voice within your learning community? We would love to learn from you!


My Struggle With Wait Time


Wait time was something I tried to practice regularly as a classroom teacher. It is always in our nature as teachers to want to jump in and solve a student’s problem, help them when they are stuck,  respond immediately to a question they ask or problem they have. It took a lot of focused and conscious effort on my part to “unlearn” this.  Wait time allowed for several things to happen. One, the student had the opportunity to think longer, which usually allowed for deeper thinking as well. Two, it allowed me as a teacher time to think about my response and consider what might I say to guide that student toward more critical thinking or problem solving. Wait time was something I struggled to develop but tried really hard to do. Now I’m an Assistant Principal.  There are so many times throughout my days when I’m faced with a problem that needs solving, a question that needs an answer, or an action that needs a response. I’m not referring to emergency situations in this post, just the general day-to-day things I am experiencing.

In my first three months, I have found that my natural tendency to lunge into immediate action in response to, well basically anything, is still present in this new role.  I want to respond to things in a timely manner. If a problem presents itself, if a concern or question is brought to me, or even if we as a campus are seeking ideas for this or that, I want to immediately offer them up–I am in full brainstorming mode and sometimes, or a lot of times, I am the first one to say, “Well, what about this…”. It’s not that I think I have all the answers. I have so much to learn and I definitely do not want to present myself as some kind of expert.  I do all this with good intentions, just like when I was a teacher. I want to help. I want to do a good job. I want to fix or contribute or move things along. The problem is, “timely manner” to me often means right now. It was the same way when I was in the classroom. I thought about this a while back. How this is so familiar to me, how this mirrors my struggle with wait time in the classroom.

Some may ask, “Well, what’s wrong with that? You are efficient.  Johnny on the Spot”.  Well, a lot of things are wrong with that, I am learning. Here are a few examples:

  •  I don’t always have all the facts. I may only hear one side of something and my immediate response is not the best idea when I hear the rest of the story.
  • Waiting a bit and mulling over a situation allows me time to push past “immediate idea” and I have time to think a little more creatively.
  • If I wait and think about my immediate idea or “gut instinct”, I then have time to think of what would be on the other side of that decision. This often allows me to see how a new or different problem might arise based on my response. I am now thinking broader.
  • Situations that may have one or more parties in strong emotional states have time to cool off if I wait. This helps everyone go from “venting” to “conversing”.
  • In response to, “How might we facilitate _____ on our campus” type of conversations, my immediate idea might be a good one but the timing may be off, or the steps I offer up may be better done in a different order. If I exercise wait time, I might have a better chance of realizing that, laying out a different set of action steps.
  • Giving myself wait time allows me to get input from others who have more experience than me. Who may have done the same thing I am thinking of and can share their experiences. Who may have a much better idea that I have not thought of. Who may pose questions that I have not thought of, that allow me to clarify my own thoughts.
  • Waiting gives me time to see things that I may be overlooking.

Today I happened to wake up very early and I dropped into #satchat. The question that came through my feed was about what traits are usually seen in highly effective leaders. Questions like this really jump off the screen and hold my attention as I watch the responses flow in from everyone. As a new AP, I really want to hear this! Here is a  response that came in which really jumped out at me:

Wait time!  I may be effective in my normal state of immediately attending to things.  But am I highly effective when I do that? Probably not. I know I’m not. Who would be?

Later today, I was co-moderating #nt2t (New Teachers To Twitter) chat and somewhere during the conversation I posted this Tweet:

Sometimes it seems like things just sort of start popping up…little reminders to ourselves that we might miss if we are not paying attention to them. As I think about my first three months in this role, I think about the principal who shared that advice with me a while back. I think about my current principal and how she does such a good job of modeling “wait time” for me. I am reflecting on how my natural tendency to rush and act may be something that hinders my ability to be highly effective. How my struggle with wait time still exists and seems continues to be an area in which I need to grow.

I need to remember that while trying to do a good job in my new role, wait time is still important. There are things that require immediate action, but there are other things, things that make up the majority of my time, that really would benefit from some wait time from me. Which brings me to a final reminder. This was shared at the end of a chat today, and the idea of “courage” written in it really hit home:

What do I fear, that causes me to fail to wait? Do I fear that I might seem unsure? Do I fear being “uncertain”?  Why do I fear that? For some of us, for the “Johnny On The Spot”s like me, courage doesn’t necessarily mean act.  Sometimes, it takes courage to wait.

I am working on this.



The Power of A Phone Call

I grabbed my notepad and began my typical routine that morning, stopping into classrooms and watching all the great teaching and learning going on in the building.  The first room I stopped into was a 4th grade math class. The teacher was just beginning to introduce decimals, and the class was having a discussion about what they know (think they know) currently about this topic.  The teacher asked for volunteers to come up and put a mark on a number line to show where they thought a particular decimal number would go.  Well, it was quiet!  It seemed all were afraid to take this risk and be brave! After some coaxing from the teacher, one boy raised his hand and offered to try it out.  He came up and put a mark on the line. Next the teacher asked if anyone else wanted to try it out. This time, a student on the other side of the room volunteered. While she was walking toward the front, three or four others raised their hands in anticipation of being the next to try it out.  He had started a “brave” moment!!


I asked the boy his name, wrote it down on my notepad, and went on visiting a few more classrooms.  In each one, I saw at least one student who did something extraordinary, who had an impact on others, who added great value to the learning community. I spent the rest of the morning looking for students taking risks and being brave. Taking deliberate steps to “find” those profound moments changed the lens for me. It brought my visits into a different focus.

Later that afternoon, I called the parent of the boy I mentioned in the beginning.  As I told him who I was, I could hear this quiet “sigh” and a shaky kind of “yes”? After all, when an Assistant Principal calls you at work, it is usually not good. I told him I had been visiting classrooms that morning, and I happened to walk into his son’s math class, and “I just feel it’s important to call and tell you what I observed from your son while I was there”.  There was total silence, and then dad said, “Ok, let me close the door”.  He sounded very disappointed.

I then told him how the class was beginning a new unit on decimals. How the teacher had asked for volunteers to come share what their current thinking is on decimals. How nobody seemed to want to be the first to do this. And how, after a few awkward moments of silence, his son slowly raised his hand, walked up to the board, and said, “This is what I think”. How his bravery in that moment inspired another student to share her thinking, and that the next thing I knew, hands were up and students were having to wait for their turn to go to the front of the class. I told him how his son’s willingness to do that had created a sort of bravery chain reaction, and how much I appreciated his engagement in class and contributions.

Again there were a few moments of silence. Then dad asked me, “So, that’s it? There’s no shoe dropping”? I said, “Nope, I just wanted to call and brag”. He then began telling me how he couldn’t believe this, how he had never received this type of call, and how proud he was of his son at that moment. He thanked me multiple times and told me that he was going to take him for a burger that night and let him know how proud he was of his being brave in class. He told me that my phone call had made his day.  After we hung up, I sat quietly for a moment and thought about what had just occurred.

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Even though it was only a ten minute call, that call brought ten minutes of joy and pride to this father. And it would have a lasting impact on him the rest of the day. It would also have an impact that evening when father and son go out for that burger. I could do nothing but smile at the profound effects that one “Good Call Home” had on this family.

Imagine, if we do this every day. Imagine how this might change things for some parents. For some kids. For some entire school communities.

Scott Capro (@ScottCapro) and Rik Rowe (@WHSRowe) have started a great movement for educators everywhere: Placing Good Calls Home, and the power of a simple phone call! There is even a sign up sheet for educators to sign up, committing to making Good Calls Home. (I encourage you to check it out — here).

Using the hashtag #GoodCallsHome is a great way to build momentum and to hold each other accountable.   I shared the idea with my Principal, who enthusiastically supported it, and she made a commitment to do this as well! So we are now both committed to the #GoodCallsHome movement and we are holding each other accountable!  We have created a Google Doc so that we can each enter the name of the student(s) we call about, and we are going to include a space for reflecting on the reactions we have received.

I am grateful to my buddy Rik  for giving me the push to began my own Good Calls Home campaign. He wrote a blog about this movement, which you can find here. There is no way to really express the joy it brings….you really just have to try it for yourself.



The Curious Concept of Agency

Google Images
Image from brian.magierski.com and retrieved from Google Images.

I always enjoy seeing students engaged in work that causes them to take action in one or another direction in their life. Recently, my daughter experienced this type of learning. She visited a doctor to have some allergy tests run, and when she came home she spent the next few days researching all she could about histamines and how they interact with and through various body systems. It amazed me how much she learned from that independent research, as she came out informing me of these processes using terms and ideas that I really am only vaguely familiar with. She is now on a quest to figure out the educational steps one might take in order to design her future the way she dreams of it: researching rare medical conditions and disorders of the immune system, conducting lab tests, learning…. This is not something new; she has spent most of her life on her computer, researching this or that, always with a particular interest in the areas of health and wellness.

So what changed? Why suddenly is this something she feels has given her life direction? Has given purpose to her education? Why did this experience cause her to feel compelled to act? Curious and driven to research, learn, teach, and contribute to the understanding in the field?

In a recent PBL chat with @newtechnetwork and others (see archive ), a word was shared with me that I really have not pondered much in my life. A word that I thought, at the time, I may not even fully understand. A word that I found out, after some research of my own, I actually do understand and a word that explains, at least in my opinion, the curious explosion that occurs when purpose and action collide.


I considered my (vague) conceptual understanding of this word. It is a curious word. Or maybe it is just curious when considered alongside such words as empowerment, ownership, growth mindset, and engagement. It is not a word I hear much; it’s not frequently used in educational circles and conversations I have, at least not that I can remember. So I began looking into this word; more specifically, the ideas and concepts behind it. This idea of “agency”… What is it? How does it affect or contribute to student learning and achievement? How does one develop it? And how can we as educators support it?

One resource I looked at, which sought to define the term “agency” as a phenomenon related to education, was this paper written by Professor Gert Biesta of the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at The University of Exeter in 2006. This definition read, in part,

…the situation where individuals are able to exert control over and give direction to the course of their lives.

This aligns with well a general definition of agency as “…the capacity for autonomous social action” (Calhoun 2002).

New Tech Network, a nonprofit organization, offers this agency rubric on their website which I found to be marvelous. Interestingly, the rubrics, which are entitled “New Tech Network Agency Rubric, High School” reveal domains and criteria to be measured along the lines of growth mindset, seeking out of feedback, and reflective learning, among others.

Further researching turned up this article by Eduardo Briceno of Mindset Works entitled “Mindset and Student Agency”. He suggests:

Deeper learning requires students to think, question, pursue, and create—to take agency and ownership of their learning. When they do, they acquire deeper understanding and skills, and most important, they become more competent learners in and out of school. They become better prepared to succeed in academics, but also in 21st century careers and in life.

But agency is not something we can “give” someone else. It comes from within. What can we do in our schools and classrooms – even our homes –  to help promote agency in our students and in our own children?

As Briceno points out,  “growth mindset”, “grit”,  “motivation”,  and “college and career readiness” standards are important areas for developing personally aware and autonomous students “capable of driving their own learning”. These ideas, he suggests, are a part of  two distinct but complex components for developing and supporting agency:

Learner Mindsets and Learning Strategies and Habits

What are some examples of learner mindsets that we promote and invest in daily? I know for my daughter, who for those who do not know, is a 19 year old college student who is also autistic, we have focused a lot on growth mindset and perseverance. On self-awareness and familiarity with her own learning style and needs. On self-advocacy, reflection, and how to recognize feedback (both verbal and nonverbal) and then how to think through that feedback and use it toward continual growth and self-awareness. We have focused on confidence building and persistence. We have also focused on recognizing challenges and knowing when (and how) to seek help. We have also focused on purpose, a sense that she “belongs” and has gifts and contributions to make to the world. This is perhaps the most difficult mindset for her. Feeling “different” makes it hard to feel a sense of “belonging”.

So what about learning strategies and habits? It is one thing to have these different learner mindsets I mentioned above as one’s goals. She feels aware and she focuses on growth not ability, and she seeks feedback and strives for purpose and belonging. Great! But what happens when she experiences something that challenges those goals? What happens when she is not successful despite her persistence and “I can do it!” mindset? And how does this look for our students? I think this goes a little bit farther, a little beyond simply “embracing failure”.  Just how do we support agency?

My daughter, just like so many other students (and adults), experiences setbacks frequently. We might not be able to teach “agency” but we can teach learning skills that support the development and growth of agency.  Here are just a few suggestions from Briceno for learning strategies to support agency, along with my own reflections about these suggestions. I will use my  daughter as a little vignette here:

Teach students how the brain works. My daughter has taken numerous learning inventories, and we shared information with her early on about what autism is and how it impacts her specifically. We did this to build understanding and awareness; to help her build capacity. She remarked one day, “So that explains why I do _______!” after reading the book “Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers” by Luke Jackson (Terrible title, great read). This teaching, which was relevant and specific for her, seemed to not just bring awareness, but give her a profound understanding and acceptance of herself. Finally having a reason for her (sometimes odd) behaviors made her feel…well, normal. (I am not suggesting anyone take this approach, as this is a decision based on your own child and family, I am just sharing my own experiences and results).

Self-Efficacy. While she does have a growth mindset toward life and learning, she is also aware of paths to take should she need supports or information, or help. At school, this is again individual. For her, this came in the form of an IEP (for academics) and a few trusted adults to whom she could go to talk or ask a question, but could be any steps a student can take to meet their own needs. It is not enough to believe “I can do it!”, one also needs to know where, how, and to whom they can turn if they need help…if they can’t do it. These “paths” serve to truly support self-confidence…to enable someone to be confident in their ability to succeed, but just as confident in their ability to recover and go on in the face of an obstacle. How that looks is as individual as our students and their needs.

How To Work In Teams. While this was (and still is) a challenge for her, she has learned to offer up her particular strengths to help toward a common goal. Using her technology skills to create a video, for example, or doing the leg-work or research for a particular topic is something she does enjoy, and allows her to still work independently on her portion of a group task.

Developing desirable habits through cues and routines. Funny story to share here. She used to struggle with recognizing nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions or tones of voice. She would be talking away about the current tropical depression or other weather phenomenon occurring in some other part of the world, completely oblivious to the checking of the watch, walking slowly off to the side, and other non verbal ways her peers have of saying, “Nobody cares”!! She spent a great deal of time with her therapist and a computer program, learning to recognize these little cues and nuances which are so natural for you and I –but not necessarily so for others. She has learned to regulate; to recognize when the conversation has changed topic and how to adjust to that, and when it is time to really stop talking about a certain thing that is not interesting to the other person! This is all part of the important work that has gone on, and continues, for her to become a person with a strong sense of agency.

Because, if she does not believe in her ability to direct her own path, to be heard and understood,  if she doesn’t see a purpose and feel compelled to change the world, how will she ever go about changing it? How will she ever fulfill a purpose that she does not believe she is capable of fulfilling? She won’t. And neither will our students. Agency is the line between reacting to a world in which you are only a speck, and designing a world of which you are the creator.

By putting into our classrooms and schools practices which value and support growth, effort, and learning, by recognizing and responding to individual needs, through building relationships and knowing our students, and kids, as unique learners and people, we have the best possible chance at supporting agency in our students. It will also help our students avoid the crippling effects of its absence, which she also experienced in her early life and learning experiences.

The curious concept of agency. Turns out, it’s not so foreign to me after all.

What do you think of agency? What practices do you think are important when designing an environment which helps contribute to the development of agency? I would love to hear more!

Sources: Teaching and Learning Research Program (www.tlrp.org); Prof. Gert Biesta , School of Education and Lifelong Learning at St Lukes Campus ,The University of Exeter: Working Paper 5 “Learning Lives“; New Tech Network (www.newtechnetwork.org), Calhoun, C. (2002). Dictionary of the social sciences [electronic resource]/ edited by
Craig Calhoun … [et al.]. Oxford : Blackwell, 2002





Telling Our Story


The inspiration for this idea came from a leader in New York, click here for story.

One of the most important things we can do as educators is tell our story. We share all the learning and positive things that are going on in our schools and classrooms because we are doing great things and they should be told! And as the saying goes,“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will”. As a teacher, I have mostly done this through a weekly newsletter which I send out via email and in backpacks for those who do not have access at home to email. I also have used the website to share information. But sometimes I have noticed that the newsletters are not always read, or don’t always make it home, and the hit counter on the website sometimes reflects that there were no visits that week. Can you relate?

Image from socialmedia.com

So, I wanted to try and make this sharing of information more interesting, and what better way to do that than to have the kids do it themselves! After tinkering around with a few ideas, my class and I settled on video newsletters. These are written and produced by the kids. My only job is to hold the iPad and hit record (and that could also soon be turned over to a student) and then of course to email the videos out. Sounds good right?! But how do we get it done? Well, we are still learning, but here is our early process.

First, we brainstormed ideas for what topics would be included as standard in each video newsletter. The major focus is on our learning each week. So, we identified Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies as standard segments, each about thirty seconds to one minute long.

Next, we decided to include a segment each week on “Book Recommendations”. It is also about thirty seconds. We also liked the idea of including a “character trait” to focus on each week in our video. We could also use that segment as a reflection on something we are currently talking about or going through, such as this past week and the conversations we’ve been having about making sure we are staying focused these last few weeks of school. So basically this is a segment that is related to character, but could be flexible. Our morning meetings usually reveal what this will be each week. If we are having an ongoing conversation about something, for example, we might talk about including this.

Finally, we know there are always weeks when we do something different and we wanted to include those as well. Things like field trips or other activities would be included as they come up. We also have different adventures we always seem to find ourselves involved with and we want to include those as well. For example:

1. A couple of weeks ago we participated in a global challenge issued by a principal (@GustafsonBrad) on my Twitter. The challenge basically was to take a “squiggle” he posted and create something new and original out of it, and then tweet it to the hashtag @stuconnect which he had set up for this. Some will be chosen to receive art sets! Here is the original Squiggle, along with one my students’ creations:

Picture for blog13


2. Last week, we participated in Teacher Appreciation by writing special notes on these cards that were posted by the U.S. Dept of Education and then tweeting pics to the hashtag #ThankATeacher.


3. We recently started using Go Noodle to have some fun brain breaks during our day. Boy do we like this! It has become a great addition to our classroom!


4. Mother’s Day gifts we made! (But we didn’t give away what they were, just that we have something up our sleeves!)

5. We learn new technology, and might want to include a favorite website or app that we are using, such as Kid Blog.

6. We put up our new Standards Boards each six weeks, and we would like to have a segment on these soon, maybe give a tour of them and talk about how we use them.

These are a few examples of additional segments we might have during a given broadcast. It really just depends on the week and what we decide we want to share.  We also have to choose carefully, because we want to keep these videos to around 5 minutes in length, so we are learning to be very purposeful when telling our story. This is the basic overview of the things that go into our classroom video newsletters each week.

After creating this rough sketch of what we would include as segment features in our news, we talked about how we would assign “reporters”. We decided that these would become our new classroom jobs, and rotate them each week. We have a student who is particularly skilled at creating videos, so he volunteered to be the producer and also train others along the way to do that job. Yay!

Here is how we go about putting it together:

On Monday, students are given their jobs. So for example, if John will be reporting on Math, he knows that by Friday Film Day, he needs to have written out about a 30 second summary of what we have been learning in Math. He will also decide if he wants to include an artifact in his report to help support his segment, and if so, which one. It is up to them to write these features and have their script ready to go Friday.

We hung a long piece of blue butcher paper on a wall in the room, and that is where we film. I just call each student back, quickly go over what they will be saying, and then I record them. It takes about 1 minute to do this for each segment, and we usually have about 6 segments, plus the intro/conclusion.

After each segment is recorded, our producer uploads them to our You Tube channel. From there, he downloads them, arranges them, adds text slides, and cuts them for clarity and length. And viola! We have a video! My job is to review what he has put together, make suggestions, and act as a second editor for things like spelling and grammar on the text slides. Then we all watch it, and I email it out.

I also made sure I have parent permission to share these, and we do not include our names.  We did talk about having reporter names, but decided to just forego that.

Below is our second video newsletter. Each week, we identify ways we could improve these. After watching this one, we know we need to make sure the volume is high enough, and that background noise is reduced as much as possible. We also tried to add special effects this time. But, we think they are better without these, because some of our words were cut off toward the end. It’s a learning process!

We have received compliments on our new newsletters from our parents! Below is a comment we received last week from one of the dad’s in our room:

Great job kids. I really enjoyed this look into the classroom. Keep up the good work. – Br.M.

We currently use One True Media for this newsletter. However, they will not be in existence anymore after May 30. My friend and IT Specialist Kirsten Wilson (@teachkiwi) recommended the app called “TouchCast” as an option for future recordings after OTM goes away. I don’t know anything about that particular app, and neither do my students, so we have something new to learn!

If you are looking for a fun new way to tell your classroom or school story, I recommend you try a video newsletter! I am hopeful that this might expand to a grade level or even schoolwide newsletter!  What others ways do you have of connecting with parents? I’d love to hear your ideas!


Five Ideas For Creating A Classroom Community


I love the above video “Have A Seat-Make A Friend”, from Soul Pancake. No matter what type of teaching system we are in, be it self contained, team teaching, or departmentalized, creating a community of learners is one of the most important things we can do. Research has shown again and again that students will not open themselves up to learning, or contributing to the learning community, unless they feel safe, respected, and valued.

Building relationships is the key to our work with students, and we strive to help support strong student-to-student relationships as well. As I continue to think about the importance of students feeling connected to the school community (recent post is here), I wanted to share five simple ideas for building and sustaining an authentic classroom community:

1. Celebrate Uniqueness.

Each student brings unique perspectives and ideas to our classrooms. By getting to know our students, and what intrinsically drives them, we can highlight their individual strengths and perspectives.

diversity tree with quote

I will sometimes ask my students what things are on their bucket list; it’s a great way I’ve found to not only learn about them, but a good way for them to make connections with other kids. We often watch Kid President videos, and through these we have some great conversations which help to build one very important thing: how each of our unique selves are striving for the same common ground. This is a powerful way to model a love of diversity. By posing questions, inviting unique ideas and asking simple “How do you see it?” questions, we open the door for students to feel valued for who they are, individually.

2. Value Mistakes.

The closing of a lesson is a great opportunity to showcase mistakes as valuable learning tools. Often I purposely bring a mistake to our closing sessions. I will ask students to share a mistake they made, and how they worked through it. I identify these instances during the work period and plan them into the closing, so that I am not just highlighting those who got something right, but those who hit a snag! If the mistake hasn’t been worked out, often times that opens the door to rich discussions and collaboration around that mistake. Priceless! This is a simple way to put power behind the words and authentically show the value of mistakes as an important part of the learning process. Being transparent and owning my own mistakes is also a great way to do this. I share mistakes often and freely!

3. Honor Student Voice.

We are wise to give students a voice that matters in our instructional design and assessment processes. Allowing for a variety of ways to show learning is one way to give students a voice in their own learning. Another way is to solicit feedback from students on our own practices. I recently did this here and it was a great learning experience for me! It also solidified to students that their voice mattered, not only by giving me this feedback, but watching me make adjustments based on what I learned from them. Differentiation and allowing for student choice are further ways we can honor student voice in our classrooms. Finally, providing multiple opportunities for students to give feedback to one another builds trust, and trust is a key for a flourishing community. Students celebrate, push, question, and honor each other through each interaction they have. I recently came across this tool from @teachheath and I think it is really useful for strengthening student dialogue (and building a trusting environment):


4. Identify Experts.

We all have students who excel in different areas; set them up as experts! Our schools are full of students waiting to be dubbed the go-to for all things math, or writing, or football, or technology, or good reads, or….you get the idea. Not only does this allow them to experience the joy of helping others, it also pushes their own thinking. When we can teach someone else, we truly own the learning. Championing our students’ gifts and setting up our classrooms so that those gifts are sought after is a great way to help create an inspiring classroom community. It is also a powerful way to build collaboration within the community; removing me from “knowledge keeper” status and allowing students to truly learn with and through each other. My teaching has taken on greater depth as I have handed over the “expert” hat to my kids, and after all- I am no expert! I enjoy the freedom of being able to listen and learn from them. Maria Montesorri said, “The children are now working as if I did not exist”. I strive for that every day, because the learning is better and the community is stronger when we are all learning from one another.

5. Scaffold Learning.

None of us is ever going to be completely able in all experiences. We continue learning all our life, and don’t we scaffold for ourselves all the time? I know when I am making a new dish, or creating a piece of Mixed Media Art, I am always seeking input and feedback from those around me. I also need scaffolding, such as the recipe, or a picture next to it which is even better! I consult my artist friends for help on something I am trying to create, such as a textured background, and some of my earlier pieces took a great deal of scaffolding. When we honor the learning and maintain the integrity of the lesson, while scaffolding our students’ steps on their mastery journey, we set each other up for successes. And success builds success. By carefully scaffolding to their strengths and needs, we have engaged each student in that lesson. Day after day, this helps build an environment that supports risk-taking and nurtures feelings of being safe, understood, and included.

Creating a community is perhaps the most important thing we can do, not only to support and drive student achievement, but to support the social and emotional needs of the whole child.  But let’s don’t stop there! We can also use these same ideas as we build our staff communities.

What ideas do you have for building a classroom and/or school community? I’d love to hear your thoughts!



A Reading Safari


Are you looking for something new and fun for your students to do during reading, while also hitting multiple standards? I am!

In looking at the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), there are several reading standards that I want to specifically target in the coming weeks. I also want to make sure I have some solid time scheduled with my small groups. Today I thought I would share an activity I recently created. I think it allows for student choice, reinforcement of skills, and active engagement for my students while I work with small groups and individual kiddos. I used the TEKS to design each activity, focusing on the ones that I really want to hit in the next few weeks. You could easily adapt this to fit whatever your state standards are!

I have often wanted to start using this particular set of magazines I have, which until now have been residing on the back table in my room-not touched by the kids. These are a little like booklets, with laminated and sturdy front and back covers, and are by a company called Mondo. I actually received these last year but, quite honestly, I just have not taken the time to dig into them and figure out how to best use them. But they are way cool!

These magazines are in sets of seven, with each set centered around a different topic. Multiple types of text are found inside each one, so even though there is a variety of genre, it is all related to the same central topic. Each magazine contains a fiction story, non fiction article, poem, play, persuasive letter, and vocabulary builder. And yes, these have just been on my counter not being used! FAIL!

I dusted these off and laid them out in my room. Here are the ones I chose for my students to select from for our first Reading Safari:

  • Hot Air Ballooning
  • Mountain Sports
  • International Explorers
  • Smart Animal Adapters
  • Life in Bali
  • Extreme Weather

They will be using this safari board I created with their chosen magazine. If you click on that link, you will find not only the activities I designed, but I’ve also included the safari music  I will be playing. This is also a great excuse to wear a safari hat to school 🙂

Here is a peek inside the “Bali” magazine (my personal favorite):

bali collage
These are really well designed with interesting stories, unusual facts, and compelling images. Another great  feature….they each come with a set of chapter books that I could use for my guided reading groups. Here is a picture of the books that come with the Bali magazine:


I can use these for book clubs as well as in guided reading groups. How cool!

Everyone will complete the same safari menu using their chosen magazine. Since all magazines are structured the same, I tried to design a safari board that would function with any chosen text.  I am not going to grade these safari’s; instead my assessment will be in the form of feedback and probing questions to get them to thinking more deeply. I am hoping that this safari will lead to my students’ becoming fully immersed in our latest addition to the classroom library!

This weekend, my students will be thinking about how they want to showcase their work. I have a group who thinks they might want to make a wiki and upload onto that. I have another group talking about creating little books using construction paper and notebook paper, and a few who might want to compile all the work into a live binder. A few are still thinking about the possibilities for how to organize this information and share it. So, it seems like an added bonus to this Reading Safari is that my 4th graders are going to be curating!

Today my students were able to look through each magazine and make their selection. They were very excited about these, as I anticipated!  I think they will be really engaged in reading, writing, and creating quality work while I am working with small groups and one-on-one during reading workshop. Looking forward to using this new resource!

What about you? Do you have any hidden treasures sitting on the back counter in your room? You might want to go on a safari yourself, to see what you can find!safari


Empowering Families Through Student-Led Conferences


One of the best things I’ve done this year was to implement student-led conferences. This was a learning experience for me! I definitely stepped out of my own comfort zone here by turning over the conference to my students.

I want to see students as critical thinkers in all areas,  including an awareness of their own progress. To be comfortable in recognizing struggle and seeing it not as a defeat but as a place to employ strategies and devote energy. To be aware of strength areas and informed about how they learn and demonstrate that learning.  To be comfortable and aware enough to share this information with their own families.

We know we are experts in something when we can teach it to someone else.

This is about life-long learning habits.  Below is the system I used this year, along with the documents I created to support it. I will also share what I am learning through the process.

Pre-Meeting First Conference:

The first step is to share data with my students. Because I teach all subjects, we discuss everything! Fluency targets, comprehension areas, math standards. I show them their own information alongside each area, and we discuss and celebrate the “wins” and “struggles”. I want them to see areas for growth as just another step on the journey, but I am careful in how this information is shared. Knowing each student well at this point, I feel comfortable in knowing how to share this information and how to have these conversations. I start always with the positives. If we come to an area where they are showing little progress, I have that conversation with them in a meaningful but positive spirit.

The focus is not on “how you compare”, but rather on “what progress you have made”.

They Do/I Do

About three weeks before the parent-conference days, I give each student this Student Led Conference Form and have them complete their section. They do this independently and I am careful to encourage them to think about it before answering. I tell them to be transparent, honest, and thoughtful as they think about and respond to each section. After a few days, I collect these, review them, and then complete my own section of  the form. You will see that I included a behavior section as well as a “learning targets” section (more on that further down).

Goal Setting

We then begin brainstorming goals. Along with their input, we identify specific, measurable goals both short and long term, and complete that section of the form together. I like coming up with short term goals that I am confident they can reach soon. I think this sets them up for success and by doing so, empowers them to continue striving to meet those long-term areas for growth.

Learning Targets

One thing you will notice about my student-led conferencing form is that it contains a section on “Learning Targets/21st Century Skills”. I did this purposely because I am of the belief that I don’t teach content, I teach kids. I think there is a place for “learning skills” in general and I also like that it isn’t content specific. We all have areas that we are great at and areas that we struggle with. Kids are no different. But “learning skills” removes the barriers that they might see in, say, math. If they can identify a learning goal, it can transfer over to the weaker content area and lead to improvement in something they may not have a lot of confidence in. For example, if a student believes “I can’t do math” (many do), but can identify “problem solving” as an area to target, this is a direct correlation minus the self-imposed defeatist attitude they may carry into that content.


Throughout the weeks leading up to the conference, students are in charge of collecting work that showcases their skills, improvements, and celebrations. They also collect work that supports the goals they have identified. This is kept in a folder with the SLC form we have already completed. They are in charge of keeping this data folder until the week of the conference. I have yet to have anyone misplace it. This becomes a very important folder! Within it lies their own thoughts, ideas, dreams….story

Meeting Schedules

Have you ever noticed how many parents will show up for their child’s performance in a play or choir concert, but then fail to respond to these conference requests? I have. It’s apparent that many may have either had their own negative experiences with school, or experienced a difficult and unhappy conference in the past. About two weeks prior, I send out information to parents asking for a conference. I let them know that their students will be leading it, and that they are eager to share their triumphs and their goals. I have found that parents are very eager and responsive when they anticipate that their students will be holding this meeting. It won’t be the teacher handing out information. It won’t be a conference in which the teacher is “talking to” them; instead, it is a gathering, and their students are leading the show. The unease that many parents may feel toward parent teacher conferences seems to evaporate. I had 24 out of 24 families schedule a time! The students are really looking forward to their “appointments” leading up to this time and they talk it up at home!

Parent Input Form

I send the parents their own  Parent Input Form to be completed ahead of time. I ask them to return it to me prior to the meeting. By reviewing this ahead of time, I am more aware of what they are wanting to discuss and can add to our meeting documents and conversations as needed. I also note if they have concerns that they want to discuss privately and make arrangements for that to happen after the student has shared.  I have heard great feedback on this from my parents! They really enjoy the opportunity to submit what they want to discuss and know it will be brought into, and be an integral part of, our conference.

Meeting Week

I collect all folders and then organize them by day of appointment. If I have four conferences scheduled for Monday, I have them organized in order of time slot. It is easy then to pull them out and begin the conference. The prep work has already been done and I am ready to meet with parents and share the conference with my students. No time is wasted in walking around “gathering” my grade book  or grabbing work from student’s desks or binders. We get down to business!

Meeting Day

meetingweekI have students bring me any journals they want to share, with pages they have marked. It might be a reading response journal, a writing binder, a science journal. The excitement is felt this day as students anticipate their meeting! Parents are eager for this time and so are their students, who prior to this normally did not even attend this meeting!

When the conference starts, I thank them for coming, and explain again that their student will be presenting most of this information. The student begins by sharing out their great triumphs, following the form in order. I have coached the students ahead of time; we have practiced their conference and I have shown them how to stop after each section and ask if there are any questions or input from their parent (they have note card reminders in their hands as they go through the conference).  I do this because I am trying to structure it so students don’t go so quickly. Plus, I want them to be able to field questions as I think this helps solidify understanding and adds to the conference by giving parent and child an opportunity to engage in discussions.

I lead the data discussion myself with students taking the listening role. They are fine with this because I’ve already shared it with them. But there is more to the data story itself than what I have typically shared with students and so this area is the one I talk through.  At this time, if there is a need to meet privately with the parent I excuse the student. There are some conversations that a 9 year old really does not need to be present for, and the decision to share that is left to the parent. It’s a consideration I think is important to give.

Sharing Work

During each section, the student pulls out and shares the work that he/she has collected which ties to that strand of the form. They discuss the work using note cards which they have already completed and attached to each sample. This saves time and also gives them “talking points“. I have seen this to be a very good thing because many of them are so nervous at the conference, and might otherwise stumble over words! It also helps them refer back to their goals.

Parent Input

If parents have shared on their input form that they want to discuss reading, or have a specific concern about math for example, I try to have that worked into the section as we go through it. If it doesn’t relate to one of these areas already on the conference form, then at this time we have parent share time. I have already invited them to give input (via the parent portion form) and so this time is specifically reserved for them to share thoughts, questions, and suggestions. They also have this time to reflect and discuss anything that their student or I have shared thus far. Normally, I have heard “well, everything I wanted to know about has been covered”!

I then ask them what I believe is a very important question that often goes unasked, “What goals do you have now for your student“? I have found that most are kind of quiet at that moment because I suspect they’ve never really had that asked. We discuss their goals (many of which the student has accurately identified already).  I note this information on the parent goal section of the conference form and now I have it to plan activities for their student that supports that goal. The student also takes note of this and will then be charged with incorporating this into their own learning. We make that an integral part of their goal setting and daily work. The parents really enjoy having this type of impact!

I include personal goals because it gives me insight into the family and it provides a way for me as a teacher to support home/personal goals within the classroom.

Follow Up

About two weeks after, I have students complete a follow up which you can find here.  They report out on how they are doing with regard to their goals, and the parent’s input during our meeting.  This has opened up a lot of communication for my families; they often tell me that they discussed this at dinner, etc.  I’ve even heard about them being hung on several refrigerator doors! About two or three times is all that is needed for my parents and kids to tell me that they are engaging in ongoing dialogue about learning and progress. This is the most beneficial aspect of these student-led conferences. Family impact.

Time–And Other Questions We Ask

www.pics4learning.com pics4learning.com

The most common question I’ve been asked about student-led conferences is, “how long do you spend with each family”? My answer is: I spend as long as is needed.  I normally schedule these conferences in 30 minute blocks of time. If some are going to need to be longer, they are longer. I try to be aware of that and schedule accordingly. In the rush to get through multiple conferences, teachers sometimes decide to schedule back to back conferences in 15 minute segments, rushing through one to get to the next. I don’t agree with this. I think this time is far too valuable, and the lasting impact potential too great, to approach it that way. I use the two “late night” days we are given for this, but I also use about two weeks of other time. I want this to be meaningful, and for me, that doesn’t happen in that quick of a way. I don’t think of this as just checking off something on a list. I want it to matter. And things that matter, take time.

Followed by time, I’m asked about how I convey concerns with the student present. I don’t know why we shy away from this. I think it’s important that students are aware of areas where there is a concern. However, if it is something that can’t be framed in a growth-mindset way, if it is something that is of a delicate nature, this is taken care of in a separate, private conference. I think it’s important for all students to have the opportunity to shine and learn to lead a conference, so they engage in these regardless. Separate, additional conferences are scheduled as needed.

Bottom Line: We are in the kid and family business. The meeting itself is just a starting point, but it is a vital part of the process in developing habits, building relationships, and giving students a pathway to become actively engaged in their own education and learning.

The Little (Big) Extras

In starting student-led conferences, I have seen a great increase in parent engagement. Communication is at an all-time high, but more importantly, we have truly developed a bond and established a relationship upon which I can build throughout the year. We are truly partners.

Feel free to use my forms, system, or any other tidbits of help that I might have provided in this blog post. What are some suggestions might you have to grow in this area? I welcome and value your input!