A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself) 

Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt proud of my self”

Apart from making my day/week, this little snippet has been playing on my mind. 

The 9th grade student who shared this reflection has been working with his class and the 2nd graders to design and build a picket fence. It is going to run along the perimeter of the Grade 2 kitchen garden. The 9th graders are working on Geometry, design, cost analysis and construction. The 2nd graders are working on perimeter and area, volume (of water when watering the plants), measurement (as the plants grow) and graphing (all the data they gather during the growing). The Art teacher will use the fence as a canvas for the Grade 2 students to decorate, illuminate, illustrate. I’m taking part as the Woodworking teacher, utilising the skills I learned in high school (and have refined ever since) to help build the fence.

That this 9th grader should highlight the building of a fence as a source of pride is funny on one level, and deeply significant on another.

“Why?” Is the question I am asking myself! What is it about this activity that has resonated for this student in a way that (seemingly) nothing else has?

Is it the fact that he/she is building something? Is it the sense of accomplishment having designed the fence, cut up the timber to create the pieces, drilled the holes and assembled it all? Is it that he/she is working with the 2nd graders and contributing to their learning? Is it that he/she is not sitting at a desk staring at a whiteboard of death by Google Slides? Is it that he/she is getting dirty, getting splinters, risking the amputation of fingers in the power tools, wearing safety goggles and generally making a lot of noise and banging things with big hammers? Is it none of this? Or is it all of this?

Or is it because this is different to what he/she has sat through every day, in every class since August 15 last year?

I intend to find out.

Because once I know, I will let his/her teachers know. And then, they can try to use that piece of information to change the way they teach him/her so that every day, he/she can reflect that his/her learning felt great and that he/she felt proud.

If our students cannot honestly share a reflection like this every day then we need to be doing a better job! Our students should not be coming to school to be bored!


Do You Need To Change Anything?

Being a BIG proponent of reflecting, I asked everyone to complete a short survey reflecting on our recent Symposium II day of PD. Overall, the responses were positive, but like anything, you can’t please everyone.

Being completely anonymous, the responses were quite candid. One respondent answered, “It was nice to have a wide range of choices. I enjoyed learning with other teachers who I normally don’t have chance to hang around with.” to the What-went-well question. This was balanced by a What-could-improve answer – “Encourage inclusiveness vs. cliques by having beople [sic] work with those who are not in their regular social circles.”

There were some very positive comments – “The workshops offered were interesting, fun, and engaging. They helped us to get out of our comfort zone and learn things that we wanted to learn. It was also nice to be able to put on a workshop about something that we enjoy. Seeing other peoples’ talents also helped me to appreciate and admire the staff more as well.”

Some a little critical (from the What-could-be-improved question) – “Making sure that all teachers went to the sessions. I know of one teacher who skipped out and did grading instead of attending one of the sessions :(. It would be good to make sure all teachers are involved all day.”

And some very critical – “The creativity and fun aspect of the day is certainly a plus. But I question whether “remember what it’s like to be a learner” is a significant enough of a goal to spend an entire day this way. I wonder if the goal were something like “learning about other subjects with the goal of integrating,” it could lead to more valuable learning while maintaining the creative aspects. Then if we have sessions on art and dance and movie making and photography, teachers can learn those skills to better help students develop them and use them in their science and English and Korean and math classes. It might provide a better focus for choosing and developing sessions. And it might result in a bigger impact on teaching and learning. Also, it would have been really helpful if you had asked teachers their opinion about how to spend all three PD days AHEAD of time. Teachers really should be playing an integral role in the planning process of every single PD day at this school.”

My experience in developing these sorts of programs for faculty and staff across a number of different international schools over the past 15 years has led me to know that this range of opinions is expected, and even more importantly, is essential.

As an administrator it is important to know how things can be improved, what worked really well and that some colleagues felt the day was a waste of time. It is important to hear that the value I see in devoting a whole day to professional learning is shared by most, but not by all.

My (possibly controversial) reflection is this…

At it’s core, “Teaching” is about “Learning”. You cannot be a great teacher if you are not a great learner. We spend a lot of time (comparatively) learning about teaching (as expert learners), and in the process learn very little! (Generally, not a lot of our fundamental teaching practices change after a conference or a workshop!) We spend very little time (comparatively) learning about learning. This day of learning was designed in the hope that we would experience what being a NOVICE learner was like again. Because that’s what it is like for your students – EVERY day! Maybe EVERY lesson in a given day! Adults are rarely NOVICE learners. And even more rarely do they spend an entire school day being a NOVICE learner.

Before you begin to teach today, consider what it will feel like as a student to sit in your classroom to LEARN today. Do you need to change anything?


Becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day!

Yesterday, after some careful planning and logistical tap-dancing, our full faculty enjoyed a home-grown professional learning day focused on passions. Teachers were invited to offer presentations on something they were passionate about to their colleagues.

Here’s the list of what we had to choose from:

  • iMovie Basics
  • Planning and Integrated Inquiry Unit
  • Sharing gratitude
  • Maximizing SmartBoard use with Notebook Software
  • Introduction to Lego Robotics
  • Cooking: Chinese Dumplings
  • Supportive and Investigative Teaching
  • Woodshop – Build yourself a stand!
  • Learn to Tie Asian Knots
  • Basic Drawing & Shading
  • Coaching the Mental Game
  • Tech-Infused Formative Assessment
  • EAL Resource Website
  • Strength training and conditioning
  • Photography 101
  • Cooking: Unrefined Sweets
  • Fitness Room 101 – Strength and Resistance Training for Beginners
  • Photoshop Basics
  • Let’s Bboy (and Bgirl)
  • Juggling 101  
  • Pumping Up Our Reading Culture
  • Jazz Dance Routine

It was one of the best days of Professional Learning I have participated in in nearly 25 years of working in schools!

For the first time this year, every teacher in the building was truly transported into the role of the student. The NOVICE learner. The student who truly knows very, very little about the topic and is expected to listen, learn and demonstrate their understanding at the end of the day.

There was struggle! For the life of me I just could not fold those Chinese dumplings right. Too much filling. Not enough filling. Clumsy fingers. Ugly Jiaozi!

There were teachers who for the first time were donning protective eyewear as they ran lengths of timber through a table saw. Noise. Fear. Danger. Sawdust. Triumph! The look of satisfaction on the faces of those same teachers who left with a wooden creation of their own making was so inspiring!

There were teachers who had always wished they could juggle but had never taken the time to try, standing up at the end of the day performing feats of juggling for their peers! The balls were dropping left right and centre but the smiles were so big that everyone in the audience cheered!

And there were teachers breakdancing. Yep, BREAKDANCING!

The juggling was led by an English teacher. The Woodworking was led by the Elementary Principal. The Fitness Conditioning was led by the Kindergarten teacher. The Jazz Dance was led by a Korean teacher. The Lego Robotics was led by the Biology teacher. The Breakdancing was led by the Chaplain!

It was truly inspiring to see so many of my colleagues stand in front of their peers and teach something they truly love doing, that previously we had no idea they knew anything about. I mean, a breakdancing Chaplain!!!

So what are the takeaways from the day???

  • Any school can run a day like this – your colleagues have secret talents!
  • For a teacher, becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day is a very, very valuable perspective shift
  • Our culture of learning just received an enormous boost
  • Professional learning is as much about “the act of learning” as it is about what is learned
  • Smiles. Everyone left smiling!



Student Choice

As I work through the “8 things to look for in Today’s Classroom” from George Couros, “Choice” is one of those that we might immediately consider more difficult than some of the others – especially if we are teaching a prescribed curriculum, or an prescribed course, with a text book, a time schedule and an external exam on a given date in May! I’m not going to say it’s easy, or that I know how to suddenly infuse your course with CHOICEs – that’s for you to consider. What I do understand however is the fact that when students have choices they are more engaged, and when they are engaged, learning becomes more effective. I did originally write “learning becomes easier” here, but many times it doesn’t.

Engagement doesn’t make learning EASIER! From a personal perspective, when I am engaged I’m prepared to struggle with my learning for a lot longer than when I’m not. I tend to persevere more. Through this willingness to persevere I learn more. The learning isn’t any easier. In fact, because I am prepared to persevere more it would be fair to say that in some respects the learning is harder, or at least there’s more struggle.

So coming back to Choice…

From an institutional perspective, some schools do a better job of allowing Student Choice to permeate their school culture than others. Some schools allow students to choose their high school courses, to fit into a set schedule. Others have flexibility in scheduling and can allow some degree of student choice in timing of when they take those classes throughout the day. Some schools opt for a “no uniform” policy and allow students to choose what they wear to school. Others don’t. Some larger schools allow students to choose which teacher they want when there are multiple sections of a course. And then there are graduation requirements that guide student choices for extra-curricular, sporting, cultural, service and other activities. While these institutional level choices are important, the more critical arena for student choice is the classroom.

If you work in a classroom (note I didn’t say “Are in charge of a classroom”), here are some questions to ponder:

  • If you drew up a pie chart titled “Teacher Choice – Student Choice”, how would the two sections of the pie compare in size? Have you thought about how you might be able to make the Student Choice slice bigger?
  • When you are designing an assessment task, how do students get to choose?
  • When you are planning a unit of instruction and are considering learning activities, how is student choice built into the planning?
  • When students take notes in your class, do they get to choose how they take their notes?
  • When an assessment task is finally assessed/marked/graded, do your students get to choose their result/grade/mark (self assess)?

Alfie Kohn, in his September 1993 article, “Choices for Children – Why and How to let Students Decide” put it pretty bluntly when he wrote,

“Much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behaviour may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not.”

If you have some time to read through the whole Alfie Kohn article it is well worth the time! If not, at least begin to consider how you might be able to introduce more student choice into your classroom. Alfie Kohn suggests possible starting places when he writes, “The four key realms in which students can make academic decisions are what, how, how well, and why they learn” and goes on to expand upon these ideas.

The article titled, “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment” takes the idea of “how” and “how well” and challenges the idea of prescribed assessment tasks, suggesting,

“rather than a teacher mandated sequence of assignments, students are presented with assignment options and they decide which ones they will complete. Or, students do all the teacher selected assignments but determined what percentage of the grade each assignment is worth. Lots of variations are possible. In my graduate course on college teaching, students completed all five assignments, with each being worth 10 percent of their grade. I gave students the other 50% of their grade and let them divvy up that amount between the assignments.”

While I am not advocating every teacher suddenly creates an assessment buffet for students to help themselves from, it does help us to rethink something that possibly has been considered un-rethink-able. Again, the whole article is well worth a read (and is a bit shorter than the Alfie Kohn article).

In summary, engagement is critical for deep learning, and giving students choices in the what, the how, the how well and the why of learning can only serve to increase engagement.


George Couros. “8 Things to Look For in Today’s Classroom.The Principal of Change. 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Alfie Kohn. “Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide (*) – Alfie Kohn.Alfie Kohn. PHI DELTA KAPPAN, Sept. 1993. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.

Maryellen Weimer, PhD. “A Role for Student Choice in Assessment? – Faculty Focus. Faculty Focus. 2011. Web. 06 Mar. 2016.


Committed to Teaching or Committed to Students?

I am committed to teaching:

This is what I do as a teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. Student learning as defined by grades. THEREFORE. I am a good teacher.

I am committed to students:

I aim to be a good teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. This is what I do for my students. THEREFORE. Student grades as defined by learning.

I composed this dichotomy some time last year, left it in my drafts and found myself thinking about it again this week. The catalyst for bringing it back into my consciousness was two days of training with Dr Virginia Rojas, a leader in inclusive teaching and English language acquisition strategies for English language learners.

Over the course of those two days I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and observing a significant amount of teacher discussion around those topics and could see that significant growth was occurring in the room! And yet… there were pockets where these seeds of new ideas fell on rocky ground and did not take root. In fact, there was resistance and in some cases, outright disbelief that the strategies presented by Dr Rojas, and the need for those strategies, actually existed.

As I pondered this wide spectrum of readiness to accept these practices (shown through research to be effective) I wondered what was going on. And then this little piece I had penned popped back into my thoughts. Maybe it goes some distance towards explaining what is going on.

Those resistors I could loosely categorise as teachers “committed to teaching”. It is teaching that shapes their identity. Observing them at work you would see a classroom where order rules, the teacher talks and the students follow. The systems are running, the routines are set and observed and the teacher has a good sense they are doing a good job. When ideas are presented that will upset the system or routines, those ideas are explained away or minimised in their usefulness. Subtle (or not so subtle) challenges, often wrapped in the “in my experience” bludgeon, place the value and observations of personal experience over the educational research spanning thousands and thousands of different sample sets, and experts are gently asked to sit on the bench and watch the “real” game go on. No need to let any “new” ideas upset the systems or routines that are producing good results with my students! “My students already get good grades in my class, why should I change what I do?”

And then there are the teachers who are “committed to students” – the fertile ground! When an expert walks into the room they lean in, listening. And when those ideas start flying you hear these teachers say things like, “that might work with some boys in my class”, “Kelly would really respond to that sort of approach”, “I wonder if that would work with Suzy?”. There is no thought of routines, or systems or interruptions to “what I’ve already planned!”, there is just a mind clicking through all the students, working out what will help who. This teacher is thinking about what he or she can do for his or her students – to enhance the learning. Grades are a byproduct of the enhanced learning!

I’m not sure I’m at the point where I am ready to begin talking about how to make stony ground fertile, or even the best approach to trying to plant in the rocky places, but I acknowledge that these challenges present themselves. Maybe the starting point is for each and every teacher to recognise the readiness of their own soil. Maybe I can help with that! So…

I am committed to teaching, or I am committed to students… which one are you?


Why do we have schools?

At a recent conference I was challenged by the speakers in attendance (Prof. Sugata Mitra, Prof. Pasi Sahlberg, Dr. Tony Wagner, Dr Yong Zhao) to consider why we have schools. Here is my challenge…

Office vs School


I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


Struggle & Success

As I was visiting classrooms last week, chatting with students about the work they were engaged in, one comment in particular left me thinking. I had asked the student what she was working on and she responded she was working on an assignment related to something she had recently read. When I asked what was the most challenging element of the assignment, she responded immediately with, “Finding the evidence in the text.” And then she followed with, “If I had known I was going to get this assignment I would have highlighted more as I was reading.” When I asked if that would have made writing the assignment easier she nodded her head. “Yes. A lot easier” was her comment.
Finding that right balance as a teacher is always hard. How much do I foreshadow what is coming, and how much do I ask unannounced. We want our students to struggle – to some degree. But we also want our students to succeed. The balance point between the two is a hard one to find, and is different for every student. Differentiation, at it’s heart, is all about finding that balance for each student.

Setting the same homework for every student in the class may not strike the right balance for all. Some may find the struggle such that they find no success. Some may find too little struggle as they cruise through the task. For some, the set homework might be just the right balance between struggle and success.

So as you go about setting homework, designing tests/quizzes, creating an assignment, expecting notes to be taken in a certain manner, plan a lesson, etc… consider that balance. And then consider how you might be able to adjust something in the task for some of your students so that for them, there WILL be balance.
Reduce the scope of the homework, give the option of submitting the quiz verbally, let each student choose how they want to take their own notes, give students options for how they present an assignment.
You might be surprised at the level of learning students can show when they can work with the right balance between struggle and success.


Twitter for unbeatable Professional Learning

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about podcasts (and referenced the fantastic chat with Pernille Ripp) and how they can be a fantastic source of professional learning. Just listening to other professionals doing the same thing you do and hearing HOW they go about their job can be SO informative! This week I would like to draw your attention to Twitter!
For me, Twitter is hands down, without a doubt, the single BEST professional learning tool available! Why, I hear you ask? Well, here’s why…
Teaching, like a lot of other professions out there, is a job that REQUIRES us to be constantly learning because our job is so dynamic (in a changing-all-the-time sense). Teaching is also a profession where one of the best ways to get better is to watch/talk to/ask questions of a colleague. Some of us are lucky enough to have colleagues in the same building who we can do that with (as an aside, if you don’t, I would URGE you to start looking now!). Some of us may be the only teacher of that subject, or the only person in that role within the school, so making those connections is a little more difficult. So, enter Twitter.

Twitter is at it’s heart, a community notice board. You want to tell the world something? You compose a short (160 character) message and “tweet” it, or “post it” or “pin it onto the noticeboard”. You don’t get to choose who listens. You just put it out there. If that was all, then Twitter would be rather useless. But that is the less interesting part of it.

Twitter is all about LISTENING!
The REAL power of Twitter lies in your ability to choose who you listen to, or in Twitter parlance, who you choose to “follow“. At last estimate, there are around 288 million active Twitter users. That is one HUGE noticeboard! But you don’t have to listen to all of them. You get to choose. And here is where the professional learning begins to take shape.
Of that 288 million, there are a handful (probably in the thousands) of active twitter users who do exactly the same job as you. And they regularly “tell the world something” about their job. It might be a cool resource they have just found. Or it might be about something they tried in the classroom. Or it might be a question they have about the course they are teaching. Because you do the same job, those resources, ideas and questions might be useful to you. My experience has been (and continues to be) that these resources, ideas and questions are the most useful source of professional learning you can get your hands on.
So what is the catch I hear you asking? It can’t be that easy!

So OK, there is a catch. The “work” is in finding who is worth listening to. As you might guess, not everyone is “telling the world something” that is necessarily worth listening to. Do I care what Justin Bieber had for breakfast? Do I care who Miley Cyrus is saying happy birthday to?? NO! So I don’t “follow” them. I follow people who are doing the same thing as me, who “tell the world” interesting stuff about how they are doing their thing. And that took a little bit of time and trial and error.

So, now that I have convinced you of how fantastic Twitter is :-), here is my advice…
  • Download an app (Twitter, Tweetdeck, etc) and use Twitter through the app. The website is good, but an app makes it a little more deliberate.
  • Use Twitter to listen. Don’t feel you need to start posting anything.
  • Find one person worth following. Check out who they are following and then follow some of those people.
  • “Follow” no more than 30 people when you first start.
  • When you do start posting, consider replying to “tweets” from those you follow.
  • Share the love! If you find something really useful on Twitter, let your colleagues know about it (and that you found it through Twitter!)


10 lessons from the first 100 days

Today marked the 100th day of my first year as a principal. Twelve months ago I thought I was heading for the chair in the soon-to-be-empty Elementary Principal’s office, but as it turned out, that chair was rolled into the workshop. It was disassembled and combined with the Secondary Principal chair and rolled back into service for me as the the new K-12 Principal. Tonight, for the one hundredth time, I turned off the light, shut the door and left that chair in a darkened, wintery office illuminated only by the pulsating green light of the Nespresso machine waiting in the corner. It is starting to become a little more comfortable, but at times has been the last place I wanted to sit.

So 100 days in seemed like a poignant moment to take a rhetorical lean back in that chair and jot down some thoughts on what I have learned in those 100 days. I address you as if you are about to move into a Principal’s chair…

Restraint. This is the first big lesson of my 100 days.

Be restrained. Think carefully about everything you say. Think carefully about who you say the things you want to say to. Think carefully if “saying” is really what is needed. Spend twice as much time listening. Most people know what they need to hear. Let your speaking help them listen… to themselves!

Learn. This is the second big lesson of my 100 days.

A new leader in a new school has a LOT to learn. Tell others around you that you are in the PROCESS of learning. Let them know how they can help you learn. ASK for help. Be thankful when it is given. Apologise when you get it wrong (and never by email!).

Write with a pen. This is the third big lesson of my 100 days.

Thanks written in your hand with blue ink on a small piece of paper communicates a message that reading is not required for, that is remembered for a long time, that others mention. It takes time. It is time well spent!

Reflect. This is the fourth big lesson of my 100 days.

Mistakes will become more regular, more obvious and more impactful. Take time to notice them, ponder them and act on them. Find a person you can trust. Let them listen to your story. You know what you need to hear. Let them help you say it.

Hold on and breathe. This is the fifth big lesson of my 100 days.

There are no such things as slow days. There are fast days and there are are REALLY fast days. There are days when someone has broken their leg, the fire alarm goes off, a school bus crashes on the way to school, three students get caught smoking in class, a parent wants to know whey their child received a B+ and not an A (can he retest???) and a teacher decides today is her last day. These are every days. They don’t get any slower!

Spend a part of your day with students. This is the sixth big lesson of my 100 days.

Without fail… it will be the best part of your day!

Make teachers smile. This is the seventh big lesson of my 100 days.

Sometimes teaching is the toughest job in the world, so do all you can to make teachers smile. When teachers smile, they feel good. When teachers feel good, they teach well. When teachers teach well, students learn well. It’s not rocket science. Make teachers smile.

Grow a pair. This is the eighth big lesson of my 100 days.

If calling a meeting with a teacher who is not doing a good job is going to be tough for you, get some training on having hard conversations or rethink your movement into school administration. Bad teaching needs to be addressed. Address it. Or frame an apology to the class full of students (and their parents) who have been subjected to Mr I’m-doing-my-best-but-it-is-still-really-crap!

Love your work. This is the ninth big lesson of my 100 days.

If you don’t obviously love doing the job you are doing, students will notice. Teachers will notice. Parents will notice. And no words you say will dissuade those folks from believing what they think they have already noticed.

Get your calendaring system organised. This is the tenth big lesson of my 100 days.

You will begin to live by your calendar. If it is not set up properly and others cannot add appointments to your calendar for you, you will look stupid.

And that rounds out my Top Ten. Please take a moment comment and add anything you think I might have missed.




Tear here to open…

ChocolateThere is something wrong when you find yourself twirling a block of chocolate in your hand and you notice a printed message and a perforated line indicating “Tear here to open.” I mean, when faced with a block of chocolate (72% cacao no less!), who is ever going to put the block down lamenting they don’t know how to open it? IT’S A BLOCK OF CHOCOLATE!!!

It made me think of how we sometimes teach our students.

We plan our lessons so that every step along the way is described, modelled, scaffolded and templated so that they encounter success and feel confident as they go about their learning. WRONG! We are writing “tear here to open” on the block of chocolate.

Learning is meant to be messy. Learning is meant to be a struggle. It requires failure, mistakes, errors and wrong turns. It should pose a challenge, demand problems to be solved, stretch young minds to consider new ways of doing things and it should be engaging.

Nobody needs to be told or shown how to open a block of chocolate – the motivation is there, the reward is obvious, a labour with immediate fruits!

As teachers, we should make sure our chocolate is the best chocolate in the world, wrap it up so that getting into it is a challenge and not even bother with instructions. That’s what I want my classroom to look like!

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