Sunday, October 30, 2016

One notch better

Dave Burgess talks about designing lessons that will fully engage learners.  He is crazy passionate about it!  Read his book, Teach Like a Pirate, and you will understand!  He fully admits that it is impossible to make every single lesson into the best possible lesson.  He says that it takes incredibly hard work, time, energy, and occasionally some cash to make it happen on a regular basis.  He goes on to say that it is our duty as educators to bring our very best to every possible lesson!

He goes on to say that we should consider several facets of the lesson to determine if it is the best possible decision has been made.  In my opinion, this is the key question for making incremental improvements.  How can I do this better???

As you head into this week, look at your lesson plans.  Look at the activities that include a worksheet.  For every worksheet, ask yourself, "How can I make this one notch better?"  Then do it.  As many times as possible.

Worksheets are not engaging.  Students don't like them.  Teachers don't like them.  This week, fully investigate every worksheet and make it one notch better.  Get rid of a few of them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Does something need to get better? Of course it does.  When a need to improve something is noticed, the first thing to do is examine the current reality.  Where are we now?  If the data tells you that things are in pretty good shape, then you tweak a few things and monitor the improvement.  If the data tells you that things are in bad shape, what usually happens?

In schools, there are two common answers:

1.  We tweak.  We make a few changes and hope for the best.  We hold on to what we know and try to do some sort of facelift.  We make a few adjustments while grasping on to the current practice because it is what we know.  Even if it doesn't work, it is comfortable.  Comfortably uncomfortable.  We need a big improvement and hope for a big payoff due to a few minor tweaks.  This rarely works.

2.  We make a purchase.  We pay for a system and throw it into practice.  We know we need to get rid of the bad and replace it with something.  Anything!  For example, we hear about this great new web-based service that will revolutionize learning for students and we buy it! has simply gotta be better than what we are doing now!  They wouldn't be selling it if it wasn't worth buying!!!  We buy it.  We train, then we hope it is better.  Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.  All the time, it costs a bunch of dollars over several years before we can truly determine if it was worth it.  It might make things better and it might not.  It usually doesn't revolutionize the learning process quite like the salesman promised.  A few years down the line, if teachers don't eventually buy in, it fizzles and dies.

A third, less-common answer is convening an improvement team to investigate the whole thing and create something new that will fill the need better than ever.  This is the tough one.  It takes time.  It takes research.  It takes a team dedicated to improvement.  It takes a group of folks willing to address the brutal facts, determine the current reality and define the perfect destination, then create the best system to get there.  It takes a group that is passionate about the effort and willing to learn as much as possible to make it better, especially if the members realize that they do not already own the necessary knowledge for creating the vision.

An improvement team effort almost always aligns more stakeholders to the cause.  The team's efforts are built on a shared vision and a common goal.  Improvement teams usually layout a multi-stepped plan for improvement rather betting on one magic arrow.  This process may actually include tweaking a few things or buying a new program.  However, they are included in a well thought out plan that was created collaboratively.  The collaborative part builds shared buy-in and shared ownership of the efforts.

Everything improvement in education seemingly needs to happen immediately.  Fix it now!  Make things better!  Immediate fixes are like band-aids.  Sometimes they cover the problem.  Take the time to truly investigate the current reality and determine how to fully address the issue.

***I have been writing this post slowly over the last several weeks.  As I added the last few sentences, I remembered that I already wrote a similar post.  I appreciate your feedback on either one.  Leave a comment!***

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It ruined my whole day

Yesterday was an abnormal day for me.  I got stuck.  Really stuck.  For too too long, I couldn't get my brain beyond the barriers.  The two people at the table with me later asked if I was having a rotten day.  One of them told me that my mood was obvious when I first walked in the office.  This is not normal me.

Normal me has no problem looking at the current reality and looking for ways to get better.  I look for ways to learn and improve all the time.  Some folks even say I need to occasionally slow down my talk of improvement long enough to celebrate the good things that have been done.  Normal me doesn't stay down too long at all.  Normal me may say one thing one way, then immediately address the same topic with a positive, forward-thinking mentality.

Just like everyone else, my mood can swing back and forth.  I do think that one of my strengths is being able to swing it back to positive quickly.  I don't stay down in the dumps for too long.  Even if the barriers in front of me seem daunting, I usually can get to the pro-active, barrier-beating attitude that is necessary for continuous improvement.

When one of my kids makes a poor choice and forces me to make a tough decision as a parent, I usually bounce back from it really fast.  I don't want my children seeing that one negative event can ruin a whole day.  When I am working on Title One documentation rather than working to improve teaching and learning, I don't let the government-mandated paperwork ruin my whole day.  I push through it as quickly as possible so I can spend time on more important things.  Even if I am forced to use up an entire day to meet a due-date because of my continued habit of procrastination, I do so with as much of a positive spirit as possible.  I may get grumpy on occasion, but I typically bounce back quickly.

Yesterday, I let the barriers blind me for longer than normal.  And I was lucky to have these two folks with me.  They did not let me bring them down.  They didn't let the fact that I was stuck get them stuck too.  They listened to me and considered my thoughts, but they did not let it impede their desire to implement the much-needed improvements to a campus-wide process.  Yesterday, I simply could not see the benefits of the new process according to our current reality.  They refused to see the barriers I saw as insurmountable.

When I initially came aboard my current campus as principal, I was tasked with hiring a new assistant principal.  I told the committee, "I need somebody strong enough to tell me NO."  I'm glad she is here.  I also needed someone with a true coach's mentality.  Someone who knows how to make me examine my own words and thoughts.  Someone who is not afraid to engage in rigorous professional conversation and hold me accountable for rational thoughts and words.  I am lucky to have an instructional coach of the highest caliber.

Because of them, I was held to a high standard.  I wasn't allowed to negate the importance of the improvement efforts that will surely benefit our students and give our teachers a better system for working with struggling learners.

Sometimes, when one of those days rolls around, the best thing to do is to trust the good people around you to not listen to you.  Trust them for their passion and their character.  Know that they share your goal and they want what you want.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


I just met with a 1st grade teacher who has thirty-one adorable little ones in her room.  Thirty-one is a bunch in Texas!  The state says there should be no more than twenty-two children in classrooms of Kindergarten through 4th grade.  Sometimes, we put more kids in a classroom when we cannot find the right teacher.  Luckily, the teacher I met with today is the right teacher for this classroom!

Thirty-one kids have not changed her desire to meet their needs.  Thirty-one little humans has not diminished her willingness to extend her own learning and become a better teacher.  Some teachers may downshift a bit and simply strive to survive.  The brightness of this teacher shines brightly!  She thrives!

Her work this year is absolutely not easy.  She has already made several major adjustments to the routines that have worked for her in previous years.  I asked her if she had been able to shift more responsibility to her students with so many of them.  Through a big grin, she said, "Oh, yes!"

In the past, she would welcome kids into her room and take their daily folders from them and put them in order.  With thirty-one, she now focuses her energy on the classroom environment and has student helpers put those folders in order!  I do believe the new process is good for those little student leaders too!

Thirty-one kids has not slowed her desire to learn!  She had to find a way to ensure her students learned the first grade sight words.  Even before she received her class roster, she wanted to improve this part of her language arts instruction.  Some teachers may have seen thirty-one names and decided to do what has always been done in the past because it was familiar.  Not her!  Even with thirty-one, she designed a better way to personalize their sight word development!  I cannot wait to watch her efforts!

She is also working to design guided math groups this year.  Some teachers would have seen thirty-one and headed the other direction towards more whole-class instruction.  Not her!  She has already noticed that she can really provide more targeted instruction with small group instruction!  I encouraged her to have fun with this effort and to bravely try new things!

Thirty one kids would scare a lot of teachers into survival mode.  Not in this classroom!  I know thirty-one students who are in good hands!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Meet better

Many years ago, I remember hearing about a Microsoft study that looked at the effectiveness of Powerpoint presentations.  While it may be completely fictitious, I remember hearing that Powerpoint slide shows decreased effective communication within the Microsoft company by 22%.  Even if the study never happened, I have experienced enough "Death by Powerpoint" to know that this form of presentation can be completely disengaging.

If you are presenting to a group and you hear yourself say, "Here are some more bullet points to remember...," please consider a serious recalibration of your lesson design process.  If your slide show contains bullets that the audience needs to know, do not expect your audience to copy the bullets, memorize the information, or magically own the information communicated through your bullets.  Instead, guide your audience through clarifying conversations, then check for consistent understanding.  Too many bullets kill your presentation.

If you are meeting with a group in order to make a shared decision, do not show bulleted information, chat with the group, and expect everyone to magically absorb the seemingly agreed-upon decision.  Be extremely clear about the agreement.  If the group is discussing and deciding upon the details of the action plan, afterwards, be sure that those agreements are communicated clearly.  In writing.

If you are presenting bullets to a group and more than 20% of your audience is looking at their phones at any given time, rest assured that another 20% of them are daydreaming.  If more than half of your audience is looking at phones or checking emails, rest assured that pretty much no one is engaged.  If your meeting does not contain well-designed conversation, the group will quickly become disengaged.

If they are not engaged, they are not getting your message.  If your presentation contains to-do items, be sure the audience receives a list of the to-do items.  If the message you are sharing needs to be understood the same way by each audience member, let them talk about it, then check for clarity.  Don't expect them to capture notes from your words and leave with the same interpretation.