Longing for Endless Immensity

kiteIf you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This quote came across my Facebook feed this morning and hit me like a ton of bricks.  I am gearing up to moderate #slowchated this coming week (read more about it here), and my chosen topic is creating a culture of risk-taking, creativity and innovation among adults and students.

As an administrator, it is always my goal to support teachers – to unleash their powers for creativity so they can unleash the creative powers of the students.  I have run into a few problems with this goal, however, some of which I attribute to people (teachers, students AND administrators) unwilling to take risks.  What could be holding us back? What could push us further more quickly? I have several hypotheses myself, but will wait to write about them after the week is out.

The National Equity Project defines leadership as taking responsibility for what matters to you.  If we educators all agree that creativity, innovation and risk-taking are important in all aspects of school, how can we act as leaders to foster those habits?  I look forward to an interesting (dare I say creative, innovative and revolutionary) chat next week.

Join #slowchated starting March 3 for the discussion – join me in longing for the immensity of the sea.

In the meantime, here are some resources to get your thought juices flowing:

  • A TED talk by David Kelley about gaining creative confidence, and gaining self efficacy (also, if you have time, read the interview).
  • A blog from #slowchated Papa, David Theriault (@davidtedu), “Increase Innovation in Teaching and Learning by Taking the Low Road.”
  • A blog from Reed Gillespie (@rggillespie) about how administrators can encourage teacher risk taking.
  • Ed. Leaders Balance Risk Taking and Failure.” by Katie Ash in Education Weekly.
  • Blog post from  Ben Grossman-Kahn and the Children’s Creativity Museum, “Taking Creative Risks and Failing Forward.”
  • Blog post from Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), “Taking Risks and Breaking Rules.” (Source is unclear, but it is a thought-provoking read).

Neatness Counts?

honeybearI was frustrated lately by an assignment my son had to complete.  They are studying ancient Egypt and had to create a sarcophagus for a stuffed animal they were going to embalm in class.  It was a very involved project that included making a box colored to resemble a sarcophagus, in addition to making the four canopic jars, a scroll of some sort, a hieroglyph of the stuffy’s name (Cal Bear), and some other doo dads as well.  We spent maybe 8 hours over the week creating this thing (note the honey bear likeness), and when I say we, I mean we – my husband, my son AND myself. The project was worth a lot of points, and my son really wanted it to look nice.

You probably already know the question I am going to ask.  Why?  Why did my son, diagnosed with ADD and seriously lacking in the “neat” and “organized” categories, spend 8+ hours of his home studying time making a sarcophagus for his history class?  Especially because as we were creating the pieces I kept asking him about them – and he already had the knowledge about embalming, the after life, and other Egyptian facts.  The creation was not solidifying the learning, nor was it helping him learn anything new (we won’t even go into the debate about the essential components of a history education are).  He LOVED using the gold spray paint, and he likes artwork, so that was a good thing.  My problem was that it was a history project, designed to help him learn history, but graded on neatness and components of what was basically an art project.  We are already pressed for time at our house.  This did not work for me!

There is also the fact that to be successful in school – and indeed in life – my son will have to learn to take greater care in things like neatness and attention to detail.  In the meantime, however, he continues to have “disorganized” stamped on his B- and C grades, while “understands the content well” is written in narrative reports.  This experience highlights for me the case for standards-based grading in which my son could have an accurate reporting on his knowledge and skill in the content, as well as in larger “life” skills such as organization and collaboration.  It also highlights the case for meaningful homework that will allow my son do delve deeper into important questions rather than will assess his ability to spray paint a shoe box.

Teachers – even if you think you’re not one of them, ask yourselves this – is this homework I’m assigning meaningful to the deep understanding of the larger goals of the learning for students in my class?  And if it is not, how can I change what I assign to ensure that it is.

Making Decisions: Pins and Needles

CharlieMy oldest son had (minor) surgery this week to fix a metacarpal that had been broken by an errant baseball from a pitching machine.  We had a choice to make – the doctor could manipulate it with her hands, put a plaster cast on it and “hope” that it set properly, with the possibility we would have to re-break it later; or we could bite the bullet, and opt for a quick procedure where the doctor would put pins to keep the bone in place to ensure it healed properly.  Without thinking we opted for surgery – let’s make sure it is done right and that it sticks, even if that meant more pain at the outset.  His number one goal is to get back out on the baseball field and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there quickly.

As I was contemplating this choice, I began to think of education (of course – I know we ALL do it), and how this type of choice related to my job as a leader.  There are some decisions we make that model more the first choice.  We see something broken, and little by little we fix it, massaging it here, sticking a band-aid on there, and eventually whatever it is settles into place, maybe not perfectly, but close enough.

And then there are other decisions we have to make, where the goal is immediate and clear and where getting it right really matters.  Those are the decisions where the course of action might be painful and carry a higher risk to those involved.  As leaders we can make those decisions and work with everyone involved to make the pain as low as possible, but because of the high stakes – learning for ALL students – we know we sometimes have to endure the pain to ensure we’re doing what’s best for kids.

Obviously school leadership is not quite the same as a broken bone.  There are many more people involved at every level and at every step.  As people who chose to go into the helping profession of teaching or counseling, making hard decisions that cause pain to those we care about can be difficult.  But sometimes causing minor pain in the short term sets the systems up properly to support long-term gains in very important goals.

So when you’re making a tough decision in whatever area of leadership you find yourself in, ask yourselves – is a cast good enough, or does this situation require surgery?

My Education Heroes: #sunshine #edblogs2013


Part of my PLN

I received THREE blogging assignments over the winter break, and didn’t complete one.  The first is from hyper-active educator and blogger Eric Saibel who is collecting 2013’s best blogs via #edublogs2013.  Next, I was given the #sunshine challenge by two of my favorite Bay Area Educators, amazing coach Sergio Villegas and Principal Amy Fadeji, maybe the youngest principal ever.

I’m blaming the drought for not completing any of those assignments – I was too busy outdoors to get any real writing and reflection done.  I have decided to catch up now, however (I hope that time is the variable here and that my late work will be judged on it’s merit, not it’s tardiness).  I’m not going to write three posts – but here is my combo post – the best #edublogs of 2013, my #sunshine superstars, and why I love my PLN.

I guess I should give props to Eric (@ecsaibel) first.  His writings on his blog Principals in Training are reflective and thought-provoking, and it reminds me of why I got a lot from working at the same school with him for three years.  I like all of his posts, but here I will highlight The Art of Coaching: Or, Disrupting the Echo Chamber.  As an administrator it is important to remember how to be a coach first – how to nurture the potential in all teachers.  Eric highlights some amazing coaches and what makes them successful.

Also on my list this year are new PLN colleagues and friends, Amy Fadeji (@mrsfadeji) and Adam Welcome (@awelcome), both Bay Area elementary school principals.  They are the dynamic duo of local leadership – they met each other at the first #edcampmarin and have not looked back.  I enjoy both of their blogs on their own merits (Adam’s here and Amy’s here), but one of my favorite posts of theirs this year was one they wrote together – Wire it Up – about being leaders in a digital age.  They are both amazing examples of leading by doing and I hang close, hoping their energy and enthusiasm will wear off on me.

One of the coaches highlighted in Eric’s piece is Sergio Villegas (@coach_sv), the second funniest tweeter, and a person who has so much energy and enthusiasm for awesome teaching and learning experiences that it is hard to keep up.  Here I’ll highlight his post What’s your filter? A case for CUE as your Instant PLN, both because the introduction is a perfect summary of the type of “let’s do it” person Sergio is, and because it highlights the amazing things that can happen for educators and their students when we connect with each other.

Rounding out my #teamnorthbay PLN is principal Catina Haugen (@chaugen).  I love the elementary connections I’m making as my focus has been on high schools.  Catina is another of those who lead by doing, and one of my favorite posts from her this year is from the #gafesummit in Napa in early January.  If it’s not working, change gears. #growthmindset highlights some of the tools Catina learned at the summit, but more importantly (to me, anyway) highlights her own attitude toward learning.  “It’s exciting to work through a problem…and come out the other side a more flexible thinker.”  Sounds about right to me.

Another new PLN member is the amazing and talented teacher David Theriault (@DavidTedu) who writes an all-time best blog :The Readiness is All.  There are so many gems on this blog about all sorts of topics including good PD, making Twitter chats better, and how to make a winning short video.  One of the things that captivated me the most, however, is the section called Cool Pictures to Use.  Here, David shares images and offers ideas about how to use them with students.  In fact, that is what I love about David’s blog – it is ALL about how to make student learning experiences in school better.  Head to the blog only if you have a few hours – it is hard to leave.

District Superintendent Jennie Snyder (@POUSDSupt) is another local hero and blogger.  Her short but sweet posts show that she is the ultimate learning leader – reflecting on her learning and on education in general.  One of my favorite posts from her this year is Growing a Culture of Innovation.  In addition to being about the meeting where I first met Jennie face-to-face, the post is a great example of a leader taking some important and inspirational work and applying it directly to her own District.

If you want a quick inspiration, check out #edcamp maven Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson).  Her blog Teachers as Technology Trailblazers is awash with inspiration and ideas for making education the best it can be.  Can Education Save the Middle Class? makes this #sunshine list because it highlights the importance of amazing education in a thriving global democracy.  Follow Kristen if you can keep up…

OK – I think I’ll end this now.  The idea of this post has been my excuse for not blogging – I HAD to do this post before I could move on with the year.  There are so many other inspirational people in my PLN that I think I’ll have to consider other ways to highlight their work.

The Wisdom of Students Part II: A perfect school

sciencejpgIn my previous post I described an English assignment that had students reading about education and educational research and then designing the perfect school.  I was happy to serve as a panel member, asking questions and giving feedback as appropriate.  While the names and architecture varied quite a bit, there were similarities across all presentations that seem to indicate general student (at my school) consensus for what makes a good school.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t too different from the school they already know.

Fairness in grading

The idea of fairness in grading took several different forms, although almost all of them were based on the letter grades and 100 point scale that students are used to.  Two groups proposed mandating teacher collaboration time with the specific goal of aligning curriculum and instruction so the learning and grading were the same no matter what teacher you had. (Learning is my insertion – their concern was really fair grades).  They all still had the grades based on the 100 point scale and A-F, however – we are behind in communicating with them.

Outside classroom

Without necessarily recognizing that this idea is a privilege of our Northern California climate, all of the groups but one suggested some form of design that allowed them to be outside more.  Two of the groups suggested outside classrooms that would be “checked out” by teachers like computer labs are now.  It was heartening to me after hearing so much hoopla about students being plugged in to the point of not attending at all to their environments that the students longed to be outside more.  This idea has even gained some purchase with our parent community – look for the RHS outside classroom coming soon.

Departmental Divisions

All of the groups created self-contained department “areas” within their schools, and none of them talked about integration of disciplines or problem-based learning at all.  One group suggested that there should be a competition among departments for increased pay if students learned the most in that subject.  They understood that one test at the end of the year wasn’t an accurate measure, so they suggested that the teachers could be judged by their peers based on observation and multiple measures (again, my words) of learning.

Physical Education

Surprisingly, several groups did away with PE as a requirement (in California, there is a four semester requirement for high school students), believing that it was a waste of their time and took up space in their schedule that could be used for other things.  I know our school has moved to a more standards-based approach to PE, meaning more time in classroom for students who used to feel some relief of movement during PE each day.  The question is – how do students learn the habits and ideas in the curriculum and get to move each day as well?


It was interesting to me that while the students created circular classrooms, outside access sand some other creative changes, basically the schools they created were the same as they are in now.  In Visible Learning, John Hattie (2009) talks about the fact that school culture is so hard to change because educators have been apprenticed to the way it exists since we were five.  The same can be said for the students who presented to me.  They can understand the problems that exist (i.e. grades are unfair) but are hard-pressed to imagine changes that would represent real differences in school.  This makes evident the need for leaders to focus on changing culture to change long-standing and perhaps outdated ideas of what schools should be.

The Wisdom of Students Part 1: A teacher’s epiphany

UnfairJPEGI received this email from English teacher Steve Hettleman after his AP language students researched education policy and wrote essays about their perfect school.  I served on a panel of experts who listened to the presentations and asked questions.  I will write Part 2 about their ideas next but this email speaks for itself:

“I love when my students make me see things in ways I never considered them before. This from one of today’s Ideal School presentations in AP.

Our current grading practice treats two people who are farther apart in achievement more equally than it treats two students who are closer, even almost identical, in achievement.

“If we stuck strictly to our scales, a student who earn a 79.5% would earn the exact same GPA as the kid who earned an 89.4%, but the kid who earned an 89.4% would earn a completely different GPA from the kid who earned an 89.5%.  In a semester where kids can potentially earn a total of 1000 points, the first scenario says that the kid who earned 99 points more than his peer is closer to that peer than he is to the other peer who earned 1 single, measly point more. (Even if you account for the fact that some of us bump a kid on a borderline grade, the basic fact holds true.)

“In what world other than a school would this make sense? It seems to me that the only reason we translate from a percentage to a letter grade/gpa– hell, the only reason we translate from meeting a standard to a percentage grade in the first place—is to satisfy colleges.

“In essence, we create MORE work for ourselves, and that ADDITIONAL work results in a system that is ILLOGICAL and UNFAIR. This seems to be the definition of madness.”

What do you think about our current 100 point percentage based grading scale?

Next: The students’ ideas on how to make great schools.

Public Reflection is Leadership

reflectionLast Thursday Marin County educators were lucky to have George Couros as a speaker as part of the County District’s series on Innovation and Imagination (thanks to Mary Jane Burke and Raquel Rose for creating the opportunity).  George (if I may be so bold) was one of my first Twitter follows, and I blogged about his blog in my third post ever back in 2011.  On Thursday I was happy to share directly with George how he inspired me, but I also let him know that I pretty much had stopped blogging because I feel like I can’t find the time.  His reply was (and I use the quotation marks loosely), “you have to blog.  Reflection is necessary for learning, but public reflection is necessary for leadership.”

And just like that, the glove dropped at my feet.

When used to blog I was blogging for my classes, with assignments that my teachers gave.  I actually love to write and I love education, so I liked the challenge of maintaining a blog about education.  At that point, however, I was hitting the publish button but I never published in the true sense.  I rarely tweeted my posts and never with any hashtags.  I knew my classmates were reading because they had to, and that kept me honest and trying to make it good, but I most certainly was not reflecting publicly.  As soon as my classes stopped, my discipline waned, and I let that first blog die a slow death.  Subsequently, I started a short blog on my former school’s web page, but that was not deemed appropriate spot for my reflecting on leadership. In essence, I don’t reflect publicly except the odd times in a faculty meeting or with small groups, out loud and in person.

So, George, I’m going to get all meta on you and publicly reflect on public reflection as a form leadership.  Challenge taken.  I have read many, many blogs by educational leaders, so I am ready to try to write my answer to the question: What is the role of public reflection in leadership?


My sister is going through a separation this year and has been reading a bunch of self help books.  She has been talking about Brené Brown a lot.  A lot.  I have been smiling and nodding as I do through much of her self actualizatin talk, but that name won’t go away – I keep hearing it from many different people in many different places.  Finally, as I was clicking down the TED talk worm hole, I ran into Brown’s TEDx Houston talk on vulnerability.  (This video has 12 million views). Her point is in essence that the key to human connections is the ability to be vulnerable. Leaders need to show their own vulnerability as learners if they expect that anyone they are leading will have the courage to try something new, share with colleagues and collaborate.  Not only is blogging as a leader modeling, it is actually reflecting to make adaptations in leadership strategies.  And here, I leave myself vulnerable by showing a Brené Brown TEDx Talk in my blog:


Doug Reeves defined seven dimensions of leadership, visionary leadership being one.  However, Reeves cautions, “Visionary leaders are not grandiose, as their visions are more likely to be the blueprints of the architect than the uncertain and cloudy visions of the dreamer.”  A public reflection is also a way to convey your vision as a leader by detailing and showing examples of great work that meet you vision, as well as creating a shared vision by interacting with others through comments and co-authorship. In choosing what you write about, how you comment, what media you share, you convey your vision of a school community even if you never state it explicitly. The National Equity Project defines leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters to you.”  By blogging, anyone, first grade student to superintendent, can lead by sharing what matters.

Collective Competition

A blog also allows a leader to engage in collective competition (a term I first heard last Thursday from George Couros).  Leaders can showcase greatness on their blogs and can get others to copy and improve on their ideas by sharing it publicly.  Other examples of collective competition include the #edurivals Google+ community which advocates the “use of #edurivals on Twitter to call out a fellow teacher and see if they can TOP THIS.” The multidimensional relationships created by public blogging allow for learning from the interactions with others, building on each others’ successes.  Couros points out that every time you post a blog about an idea and a colleague comments, you are in a sense getting free consultancy to make your idea better.


Spending three hours in the presence of such a real, creative, funny, and energetic educational leader was inspiring, as was the collegiality in the room and continuing on Twitter since (#mcoe).  (For a great summary of all that George covered, see Eric Saibel’s post). I’ve said it here before – and I’ll say it again.  I am re-committing to blogging as a necessary and important part of my leadership.  I hope my colleagues near and far will continue to challenge me to be my best.

What are your ideas about learning and blogging?