Monday, April 30, 2012

Summer is approaching. Should you "Stay on target!?"

Gold Five: Just before becoming space dust
At this time of year, it is not unusual to see quite a few education bloggers write about summer vacation and the challenges facing teachers and students to remain focused.  I like this one by a member of my PLN, Justin Tarte, and I share their challenges.  But I also take a somewhat unusual perspective on the challenge of approaching summer.  I flip the challenge and look for the opportunity.

 As Gold Five says in Star Wars: Episode IV, teachers want their students to "Stay on target!" during these distracting days.  I for one remember, though, that soon after uttering those words, Gold Five was turned to space dust.

Instead, maybe taking the Luke Skywalker approach is more appropriate (at least it was in the movie).  Pay attention to the things distracting students, trust your instincts, and learn to "let go." For example, if students are staring at a beautiful day outside, take them outside.  Find the distraction and try to work it into your lesson.  You may find that the challenge of the approaching summer vacation offers a chance to inspire creativity and end the year having instilled one last attempt to develop a life-long love of learning.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Guest Contributor Alexia McCormick: 5 Ways Integrating Technology into the Classroom is a Good Idea

The following post was contributed by Alexia McCormick.  Alexia is a writer for Netop.

Students today are well-versed in technology. Many aspects of their lives include technology. Starting at a young age students are playing computer/video games, using iPods, connecting with friends through social media, texting and reading from electronic readers. It does not take a brain surgeon to conclude that
technology is a major part of students’ lives.

Not only is technology a large part of students’ lives, they are good at it. They have a lot of practice, and
they like it. Most technology students use is for entertainment. They see technology as something fun.
This reason alone may get more teachers to incorporate technology into the classroom. It is a way to
engage and interest students. It enhances learning and better prepares students for the technological
world they are living in.

How do I implement technology in my classroom to enrich learning?

Classroom Management Software

Integrating technology into the classroom is not just to enrich the curriculum for the students.
Technology can also play a major role in organizing and preparing the teacher. Software for classroom
management is used by the teacher for lesson planning, recording grades, sending messages to
students, posting grades online for students and parents, seating charts, and attendance taking.

Schools may purchase this software and provide licenses for individual teachers. If you aren’t blessed
with that luxury, you can buy an individual license. This is a great tool to provide good communication
to parents and teachers regarding a student’s performance. Not only are parents and students more
informed, teachers are better prepared. So many of the daily essentials are recorded and taken care of
in one place.


The invention of the tablet was literally genius. The usability is phenomenal. Classrooms as low as Pre-
K are finding benefits through tablets in the classroom. This is a more expensive form of technology, but
perhaps the use of grant money can aide in a classroom set to be shared throughout the school.

Tablets can be used as an e-reader, a research tool, a place to take notes and provides younger students
with educational ‘games’. Students also find that they are more interested in the material when they are
using a tablet.


While tablets contain an e-reader, they can be a little on the pricey side. E-readers are a great tool for
students. Not only can students get all their textbook information and novel prose in one place, it can
eventually save the school money in the long run. Not having to buy textbooks every year or so will save
a lot of sure. Sure you will have to pay to download the textbook, but the price will be much lower.

Using the Internet

The number one reason the Internet is used in the classroom is research. Students are familiar with
the Internet. Most of them enjoy the Internet. Why not use a tool they can easily relate to? Using the
Internet for research can introduce students to a wealth of information. It can also help students to feel
more comfortable with the research process because they are already familiar with the Internet.

The Internet can also be used to create website and blogs. If you incorporate these things, students are
more excited about the assignment. Their world is online. Writing for a self-created blog is much more
enticing than writing an essay on a sheet of lined paper.


Using technology in the classroom is a great benefit for teachers. Online assessments can create reports
for teachers of frequently missed questions or sections of an exam that a lot of students struggled with.
This can help the teacher know curriculum that is not fully understood by the students.

In conjunction with this, teachers can improve their differentiation using online assessments. Different
assessments can be given to different kids. It can be a great way to address students with special needs.

About the guest contributor:

Alexia McCormick is a writer for Netop. When Alexia is not writing, she enjoys sewing & learning about advancements in education.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Learning, Doing, and TED-Ed

A recent post by Shelly Blake-Plock on TeachPaperless, The Problem with TED Ed, suggests that the lessons presented through TED-Ed are not really lessons at all because they do not require any "doing."  With the doing part out of the equation, there is no learning and, therefore, no lesson.

Before I share some of my thoughts on learning, I should make a few points clear.

  • I am a subscriber to TeachPaperless through my Google Reader and have long enjoyed the challenging posts shared on that blog.  As a matter of fact, it was probably the first blog I subscribed to (at the suggestion of a friend).
  • The thoughts shared in this post are not intended as a critique of the opinions shared on TeachPaperless.  Instead, my thoughts were inspired by the TeachPaperless, and for that I am grateful for having learned a little more about myself.
  • I am a big supporter of TED and TED-Ed.  As a matter of fact, I have used TED and TED-Ed talks/videos as the primary resource for my own grade level meetings with middle school students.  I was also an early joiner of the TED-Ed forums which was an early phase to the development of what TED-Ed is today.
Now, back to the learning.

Yes, TeachPaperless is right.  Doing is learning.  When we learn to tie our shoes or a tie, we do so by doing it over and over again.  So, yes, doing is learning.


Doing is not the only learning.

If you examine learning as knowing something new as a result of going through a process, doing does not and cannot be the only learning.  I say this not as a critique of learning by doing.  As a matter of fact, I am a big proponent of active learning, especially in middle school.  However, anytime one walks away from an experience with more knowledge than they did going in, learning takes place.  For example, on day one of a history class, a student walks in with a bank of knowledge about the subject.  Let's say for the sake of argument that the teacher ONLY lectures all year - no doing lessons.  On the last day of school, that same student leaves with more knowledge of the topics and even clears up some previously unclear understandings.  Sure, the AMOUNT of learning may not be as much, but even if the student's level of understanding moved just a small amount, learning took place.

The point here is that learning can happen in many forms.  Doing is one of them - and a powerful and meaningful one for sure.  But not all learning comes from doing.  We learn through conversation, listening, asking questions, watching others, etc.

Sometimes, we need to jump start our motivation to actually try to "do the doing."  Sometimes, a well made and engaging video about a topic that, otherwise, would have never been presented to your class is the spark that ignites a passion in a student who then is motivated to go out and act on his curiosity.  If the acting on curiosity is part of the teacher's lessons and incorporated in the curriculum, then there is a great opportunity for learning.

If the spark leads to a student's independent investigations (those done for the sake of understanding, not because it is required in class), then maybe the TED-Ed (or other similar type) video taught the student the most valuable lesson of all - find a passion, act on it, and live each day to learn a little more.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Growth Mindset or Procrastination?

People with a growth mindset, in the most general sense, make the decision to place value on the process rather than the outcome.  This is a result of believing that in almost any area of life, they can get better (as opposed to those with fixed mindsets who are driven to "be good").

Procrastinators delay taking action until the last minute; often missing the chance to "get better" or do well enough to "be good."

What is the possible connection?

With both, you may get a sense of "not yet" when you engage with them.  The growth minded person is getting better, but is "not yet" where she set her goal to be.  The procrastinator, when asked if he has begun his work, simply says, "Not yet" (usually accompanied by a number of reasons why).

What is abundant with the growth minded person is lacking severely in the procrastinator - effort.

As a teacher, you may face both with your students.  For the growth minded ones, support their journey and celebrate their hard work.  For the procrastinators, review their goals.  Make sure those goals haven't changed.  If motivation is lacking, remind them of WHY the goal is important.  If the action plan is too complicated, help break it down into specific pieces by asking WHAT.

Monday, April 23, 2012

3 Tips for Productive Student-Initiated Conversations

Initiating a conversation with a teacher can be a very difficult thing for many students.  Any number of fears and concerns can emerge as the student struggles to make his or her point.  Students can find their these attempts frustrating and leave feeling as if their teacher "doesn't understand them."

Here are three tips for students that can help their conversations with teachers go more smoothly.

1.  Questions or concerns about YOU are best addressed away from the group setting of class.

Ask the teacher if you can stay after class or for a time when you can have her full attention.  Unless the class is engaged in an exercise that allows the teacher to spend time one-on-one with you, respectfully asking for time away from the group puts both you and the teacher in a better position to be effective.  

2.  Make your intentions clear to the teacher.

After thanking the teacher for her time, your next sentence should establish exactly why you need the time.  I often advise students to begin with something like, "I appreciate you taking this time to talk with me.  I really want to do better on this unit.  I also know that I haven;t been very cooperative lately.  I want to change that and prove to you that I want to learn this topic."

3.  Ask the teacher to be more specific.

This tip usually follows #2 because teachers and students often have different definitions of unspecific terms.  For example, the teacher may tell the student that he would benefit from making a better effort in class.  Upon hearing this, the student needs to ask the teacher clarifying questions such as, "I know that I need to work harder, but can you give me a few examples of specific behaviors that would communicate to you that I am putting forth the effort you expect?"

In the end, the conversations between student and teacher can make a huge impact on student achievement and teacher frustration.  Students who approach their teacher with a plan that includes the three items described above place themselves in a good position to get the guidance they are seeking.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

2 Ways to View the Progress of a New Idea

I remember a friend in college who at the start of every NFL season would proudly declare his team is 16-0 (a perfect regular season for the non-NFL fans reading).  Beginning in week one, he would adjust his outlook based on his team's results.  For example, if they won in week one, he would continue to declare his team to be 16-0.  If they lost, his team was now 15-1.

This was the very definition of eternal optimism, in my mind, because his favorite team rarely had winning seasons.

On the other hand, someone else looked at the beginning of each season with a 0-0 record and either proudly (in case of a win) or quietly talk about their team's progress.  A win in week one and they were now 1-0; slightly better than before, but still moving forward.  Lose in week two and they were now 1-1; time to get back on track in week three.

Hopefully, you are beginning to see the two different ways of viewing progress.  One only sees the positive.  The other celebrates wins, but is tempered by reality and the realization that there are roadblocks ahead that could make a winning season challenging.

It is always exciting, as a leader, to implement a new idea.  Observing how the idea works once it is implemented can also be a source of great pride - or concern.  Obviously, you want the ideas to work and add value to the school, but there is a danger in taking the eternally optimistic view.  Underestimating the difficulties associated with progress and achievement can create an environment in which setbacks are difficult to understand, and almost impossible to learn from.  After all, we are still "15-1" right?  Well, what happens when your idea wakes up after "week 9" and you haven't won yet?  Are you really going to proudly announce a "7-9 season" is coming?

Maybe the better mindset is the second.  New ideas generally involve complex or untested operational aspects.  Take these one at a time and focus on the details.  Make adjustments as unanticipated issues come up and work towards building momentum from small wins.  Over time, you will be more likely to see a "winning season" developing for your idea.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A School Leadership Quiz


Are you ready to be a school leader?  Are you already one and want to test your judgement?  Find out by taking this simple quiz (unscientific and somewhat for entertainment purposes).

For each question, pick the answer which best matches how you feel.  Write down (or remember) your answers.  When finished, use the point values to add up your score.

1.  A student comes to you to complain that her teacher does not seem to care about her.  Do you...
     A. Tell her you are sorry, but the teacher is doing his best
     B.  Listen, ask questions, then provide advice for how to talk with the teacher about the issue
     C.  Blame the district office for assigning the teacher to your school
     D.  All of the above

2.  You hear about a teacher who is doing interesting and engaging lessons using technology.  Do you...

     A.  Visit the class to see the lesson first hand
     B.  Tell the teacher you are hearing great things about her class
     C.  Ask the teacher if she would be interested in helping her colleagues learn how she used technology
     D.  All of the above

3.  You see on your calendar that you have an upcoming meeting with some representatives of the school's Parents' Club.  Do you...

     A.  See it as an opportunity to praise the work of the staff and listen to the feedback from the parents
     B.  See it as a chance to drink free coffee and eat free pastries
     C.  Dread the meeting because you have more important things to do
     D.  All of the above

4.  At a recent faculty meeting, a group of teachers presented an idea to enhance student engagement using current school technology resources.  You respond by...
     A.  Dismissing the idea at the meeting then going back to your office to make the same presentation to your supervisor, thus taking all the credit for the idea.
     B.  Tell the group that although the idea seems like a good one, you just don't think the school is ready to make that change.
     C.  You ask clarifying questions, invite the team of teachers to meet with you to discuss the matter later, and offer to help support the exploration of the idea.
     D.  Don't understand how technology is used in class, so don't care one way or another.

5.  Which of the following appears to be the most attractive part of being a school leader?
     A.  You may get a nice office.
     B.  You get a pay raise.
     C.  You are responsible for more of the operations of the school.
     D.  You believe you have skills and abilities that you want to share for the betterment of the school.

Ok, let's see how you did.  Add up your points and check your score.

#1:  A = 2, B = 4, C = 0, D = 0

#2:  A = 3, B = 3, C = 3, D = 4

#3:  A = 4, B = 0, C = 0, D = 0

#4:  A = 0, B = 1, C = 4, D = 0

#5:  A = 2, B = 2, C = 3, D = 4


18-20:  Well done!  Go forth and lead.  Your school will be well served.
14-18:  Not bad, but you may need a mentor.
8-13:    Are you sure you want to lead a school?
0-7:      Schools face enough challenges.  You should consider a different line of work.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Teacher's Spring Time Reflection: 10 Questions

In the time it took me to write this post, you can do a quick reflection on your class.  As most of us are entering the last part of the school year, here are 10 questions to think about.

  1. What has been the most effective lesson of the year?
  2. What topic generated the most interest from the students?
  3. Who has been your greatest success story in class?
  4. Who is in the most need of your help during this final part of the year?
  5. What are you looking forward to the most from this point forward?
  6. What new technique will you try again before the end of the year?
  7. What is your progress on your goals at this point?
  8. Have your students had a chance to explore a topic of self-interest?
  9. Do your students know how proud you are of them?
  10. How can you begin, today, to explore the greater potential you have to make an impact on the lives of your students?

Please feel free to share any of your own reflection questions by leaving a comment below.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

4 Essentials For Every Student Check-In Meeting

Part of every goal setting plan should include an agreement to have regular and scheduled student check-in meetings.  I sometimes refer to these as "check points" and they serve to maintain motivation and examine progress.

While checking in is important, as important is going into those meetings with an established routine and clearly understood expectations for both you and the student.

This meeting may take on a variety of functions based on the goals, but there are four essential pieces that should be in place for each check-in.

1.  Highlights since last meeting

Each check-in should begin with asking the student to mention any specific highlight or notable occurrence that happened since the last meeting.  While the highlight may be directly related to the goals, it may not.  The purpose here is to start on a positive note; if it relates directly to attaining goals, even better.

2.  Feel about or evidence of progress

This is where you take the student's temperature about how they feel their progress is going.  It can also be a time for you to ask for evidence of progress, particularly if the highlight relates to the goal.

3.  Next steps

After reviewing progress, ask the student to tell you what they believe the next steps are towards reaching the goals.  One part of this step to establish is also to come to an agreement on what type of progress is reasonable for the time before your next meeting.  This is yet another way to build ownership of the goals.

4.  Your perspective

Now, the meeting isn't just you listening to the student.  At a reasonable point, make sure you have the chance to provide feedback from your perspective.  If you believe a student is getting off course or their ideas for the next steps are misaligned, this is your chance to work through it with the student.  Ultimately, you do not want to set yourself up to micromanage the process.  Rather, having an honest conversation about what you see and working to help the student see your insights as a resource to them is the key.

In the end, both you and the student should walk away having had a productive meeting from which both sides leave with clear expectations of the future and a framework upon which the next meeting is built.

Helping Derailed Students Get Back On Track

When working with students who have set goals and are working to attain those goals, it is important to remember that, sometimes, life gets in the way.  Thus, there are times when even the best goals and plans get derailed.  When this happens, it helps to have some ways to help the student who is now looking to get back on track.

Here are a few.  Feel free to add to the list by commenting below.

Remember.  You are not alone.

Remind the student that you are part of her team.  You are invested in the success of the goal and that she is not alone.  Sometimes a simple reminder that you are there to help and support the student goes a long way.  Knowing she is not going at it by herself can be the boost she needs to get back to her goals.

Be honest with yourself.

The student does, however, need to be honest and come to grips with the fact that he has gotten off track.  Students may be tempted to offer up multiple reasons and excuses.  That is normal, but don't allow the student to get stuck in that way of thinking.  Recognize that factors sometimes cause plans to go awry.  Then, work to get the student to be honest and identify where he could have prevented the situation from going to where it is.  Once he is able to accept, honestly, the situation, he is likely to move forward effectively again. 

Accept responsibility.

This is similar to the previous suggestion.  The difference here is that in addition to honestly accepting reality, the student must also accept that she had a role to play in the derailment.  Where she is responsible, she needs to accept responsibility.  This does not mean she needs to punish herself, not does it mean you, as guide, need to make her feel bad.  Rather, this is an opportunity to learn from mistakes and begin to recognize when similar mistakes are lurking.  Accepting responsibility takes courage and courage is often what is needed most to push through the challenges of achieving worthwhile goals.  Chances to build courage should be embraced, not hidden from.

You are the same person who got this far.

While the student may have made some changes in the process of attaining goals, he is still basically the same person who started the journey.  The skills and determination that got him to this point, can serve to move him back on track.  In other words, "You got this far, you can finish."

Reflect on last success.

Sometimes, the reason why it is so hard o get back on track is that the student cannot remember where the derailment happened.  She wants to get moving again towards achieving her goals, but is having a problem with where to start.  Reflecting on your last success can help remind the student about where exactly in the process she was in order to get back on at the appropriate point.  When in doubt, I suggest risking going back too far back than ahead in the plan. Ground already gained is easier to make up than moving ahead and realizing that important pieces were accidentally skipped.

Find your “point.”

When lost or stranded, one strategy is to find a point in the distance that can be easily seen and use that point as a reference to make sure you move forward instead of in circles (which is our tendency when lost or confused).  A similar strategy can be used here.  If in the planing phase the student identifies easily accessed "reference points" for their progress, you can refer to those points to help the student get back to making progress on his goals.


An unexpected derailment can cause some anxiety, but it may have also revealed some hidden opportunities.  Maybe the experience has opened up a new way of achieving the goals.  Maybe a new goal has emerged.  Some reflection on the actual derailment focused on any hidden opportunities can get the student thinking positively, which could naturally jump start their desire to get working again.

"The Question"

One of the most difficult challenges I needed to overcome in pursuit of my Ph.D. was getting started.  I had plenty of doubts about my ability to finish, whether I really wanted to do it, etc.  At this point my wife asked me "The Question" - "You are going to be 40 one day anyway.  Do you want to be 40 with or without a Ph.D.?"  That one question made a huge difference for me.  It was the answer I needed to make in order to get myself moving towards accomplishing the goal.  Since then, I have used a version of "The Question" with students and have found good results.  Often, students get caught up in the daily challenges and forget the bigger picture.  "The Question" can help refocus them, or at least challenge their motivation.  If they no longer want to attain the goal, "The Question" gives them a chance to discuss it with you.


Finally, reminding the student about why they chose that goal helps them in a similar way as "The Question."  Assuming the goal, in some way, is going to help the student "be better", remembering why the goal is important can raise motivation and help the student move forward.  While "The Question" clarifies what the student wants, answering "Why do you want to achieve that goal?" forces the student to articulate their motivation; a motivation that may have been lost in the derailment.

It is important to note that these tips work just as well with people other than students.  As an administrator, I am often called upon to help teachers with their goals.  These strategies have been as effective with teachers as with students.

If you have any additional suggestions or any experience using any of these tips, please feel free to comment below.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Yes! Another Schedule Change

Next school year will be my fifth at my current school.  The school is a PS to 12th grade private independent school in Northern Virginia.  I serve as its Head of Middle School (grades 6 - 8).

During my tenure, two of the more challenging issues on which I have worked to adjust are creating a daily schedule that supports a commitment to project based/active learning and establishing a team of teachers who are working solely in the middle school division.  Each year we have made some adjustment to the middle school schedule and teaching assignments to move closer to making each a reality.

For next year, we are once again making an adjustment to the middle school schedule.  Without going into the minutiae, the new plan calls for a predictable rotation of longer blocks (to allow for more project based learning) and a core subject (English, History, Math, Science) teaching staff that teaches only middle school classes.  While there are still a few kinks to work out, the faculty response to the new ideas has been quite positive.

Quite, not completely.

I say, "quite" NOT because there are those who are against the idea.  As a matter of fact, nobody has voiced complete (or even average) opposition to the plan.  I say, "quite" because  in one of my many conversations about the plan, one person said, "Isn't there any concern that changing the schedule every year sends the signal that we don't know what we are doing?"

I found that point of view interesting.  For one, I don't see change as a sign of ignorance.  After all, I work in education - which is supposed to be about changing lives and making a difference.  I also believe that making a change because it supports a way of doing things better outweighs keeping the status quo because it is comfortable.  After all, each year Apple has a big reveal on a new iPhone or iPad.  They make the changes because, I have to assume, they are constantly working to improve the product, attract new customers, and better serve current ones (oh, and of course, make more money).

We live in a world that is becoming  less and less interested in doing things the same way - for the sake of doing them the same way.  The world is shifting towards the expectation that organizations adjust their operations to better serve their customers, especially when the adjustment can be made swiftly and without compromising its mission.

In making yearly adjustments to our schedule, we have demonstrated our commitment to always seeking a better way to serve our students.  The fact that we have been able to do so without spending more, hiring more, or sacrificing our mission is a testament to the outstanding people who join me each day to serve our community.

Do we set out each year to change the schedule?  No, we do not.  On the other hand, we are also not afraid to move forward with good ideas when we have them.

So, another schedule change?  Yes!  Not because we can, but because we can do it better.


1.  The person who offered the suggestion that a change may signal a lack of understanding qualified her statement before hand as "playing devil's advocate."  She was not expressing her personal opinions.

2.   To read more about whether organizations should do more because they can or because they can do it better, read this post by Seth Godin, The essential question to ask before extending your brand.    
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