Category: Instructional Strategy

Looking Away To Think About It


Why does looking away help us think about stuff? You may have had this experience. You’re in a conversation, it’s rolling along, all of the sudden one of you is stumped. A thought has flown right out of your mind. An idea escaped. Poof it’s gone. What happens next? The one who went blank looks away.

Typically he looks to the side and slightly up as if the thought or idea literally floated out of his ear and is drifting slowly toward the sky.

Do we expect to see it sailing away?Do we believe there’s a chance we’ll catch it like a dangling string off a drifting balloon? Not likely.

I think there’s a considerably more reasonable explanation for our slightly quirky processing behavior. Simply stated, I think it’s easier to think when we’re not doing something else. I think we look away to shift our focus into heightened gear.

What if we apply this instinctive human principle to other areas of life? It seems to make some sense.

My life as a parent and an educational leader is jam packed with stuff to do. Both rolls are “think on your feet” types. But what if I incorporated the “look away” method when possible?

In my experience challenges are generally addressed in stages, over extended periods, with significant growth-based adaptations involved. Problems rarely seem to be instantaneously solved.

Is it possible that looking away could enhance my ability to find viable solutions? Could removing myself for focused thinking and reflection be a reasonable alternative to digging in with urgency at first glance?

It seems to me effective learning & leadership requires a commitment to developing an ever-deepened understanding of human behavior. Maybe taking cues from our instincts is a decent way to incorporate best practices into positive progress.

So, the next time you’re struggling with a challenge whose solution is unclear, look away…a few moments removed from the situation might just bring you closer to where your looking to be.

Live. Learn. Lead.
Dream Big. Work Hard. Be Well.

Don’t Not Wag

Yesterday someone told me that her dog broke his tail by wagging it too much. She said, “He simply can’t not wag!”

Today I suffered a significant disappointment. I use the word “significant” because it was significant to me. I don’t know that other people would consider it significant.  Ironically, I suppose I don’t know that they wouldn’t either. Actually, that was the disappointment….I learned that I didn’t know a person as well as I thought I did. Life is often rich with irony.

I’m what some people consider naively optimistic. I’ve been told so. I believe things that some people find silly. For example, I believe that the glass is always half full. I’m not suggesting that I’m a “glass is half full” person, but rather that I actually believe that the glass is truly half full. I don’t even necessarily want to believe it, I simply do. I’ve experienced triumph born from what could be considered tragedy too many times not to.

I view the world through a lens of “What have we got and what can we make of it?” instead of, “We’ve really been given the short end of the stick!” And frankly, while I consider myself a fairly tolerant person, I have relatively little tolerance for “half empty” – “short end of the stick” attitudes. Not to mention, very little time for them.

Today I found out that someone I trusted betrayed my trust in a somewhat deceitful way, while masking a deeply negative outlook with feigned positivism and partnership. It stung. It stings. To the point above, I do believe that this disappointment will turn out to be an opportunity for learning and growth.

Even thought my tail feels broken at the moment…I believe that consistent wagging is good for me, and that it’s for those I serve!

As I frequently write in the pages of this blog, being human often causes me to have to process for a while before I can see a clear path to positive progress, but off the cuff I think that my take away from this particular disappointment begins with:

No matter how negative or disingenuous someone decides to get with you, if you’re a holistically optimistic, happy, and forward thinking person…don’t not wag!

Live. Learn. Lead.


Dream Big. Work Hard. Be Well.


Noticing Works Too

I’m currently in the process of reviewing a study that examines motivation through a lens of students’ and teachers’ perceptions of classroom instruction in various ways.  In part, the study addresses students’ views of their teachers’ perceptions of them, students’ perceptions of themselves, teachers’ perceptions of their classroom practices as they relate to “Learner Centered Practices” (LCPs), teachers’ beliefs about the effectiveness of LCPs, and how all of it combines to promulgate (or diminish) positive learning and growth.  It’s an interesting study, and in my opinion, worthwhile for several reasons, including the articulation and modeling of an extremely thoughtful and extensive developmental process for generating and testing survey questions for effectiveness.  However, as I examine it, I find myself thinking about the relationship between practice and research.  Being both a practitioner and a researcher, that thinking led me to the relationship between time value.

Mini, Informal, & Ongoing Research Projects:  Are They Happy?  Are they Learning 

First, and in no way to diminish the benefit of the study, I want to touch on a concept that was brought up in the learning theory focused organizational leadership philosophy class I completed last week.  We were contemplating brain-based learning theory.  The question at hand was:  Does scientific, empirical research enhance learning outcomes, and/or our ability to intentionally achieve them?  What if classroom teachers, building administrators, and district leaders were constantly engaged in informal, but targeted research projects?  What if it were easy to collect and analyze data?  What if an informal collection and analysis process were generally accepted as suitable practice for learning about learning?  What if it’s actually good enough to think about our target learners (be they adults or children), ask ourselves if they’re happy and if they’re learning, follow that with a “why” and/or a “why not”, scratch our thoughts down on legal pads, record them in iPhones®, or scribble them on sticky notes, bubble gum wrappers, or cafeteria napkins, then use those scratches, recordings, or scribbles for continuation, adaptation, and positive forward progress?  Maybe it is.

Scientific research takes time.  Educators are really busy people.  Educators are typically engaged and passionate learners.  Thousands of grueling, detailed, and intense hours have been spent digging into how the brain works (not by me).  Even so, we know relatively little about the subject.  What parts of the brain are firing when our emotions take over?  Where are students generally working from during moments of engagement, excitement, and truly penetrating focus?  Can we design instruction/communication that directs learners to access those parts at any given time?  All valid questions, but how complex do we need to make the asking process?  What if we could transform time consuming, complex research methodology into a very basic, and widely accessible system for practitioner application?  Maybe we should each design our own.  Maybe if it works, it is good enough.

If you know a classroom teacher, you know that the myth of extensive down time is just that…a myth.  While the much needed and well-deserved vacation structures are an important part of recharging for everyone involved, most teachers work day and night, winter and summer, rain and shine.  When they’re not developing plans for instruction, they’re implementing and adapting them.

Teachers talk about the professional challenges they face over dinner and in the dentist’s chair (even with food and cleaning tools in their mouths).  They are the kind of folks who can’t turn it off, even when they want to…which they typically don’t.  Teachers teach because they’re passionate about doing so.  Teaching is a calling.  They want to be doing research, but they need that research to be doable within the constrained time frame in which they work.

Noticing what you need to know.  The idea is that we don’t necessarily need to know the neuroscience behind happiness to know that we learn better when we’re happy.  We don’t necessarily need further evidence suggesting that supportive teachers affect the parts of students’ brains that allow those students to take risks, because we see it happening in real time.  If we’re thoughtful about our interactions, we can simply notice effective interactions, reproduce them, implement them, adapt them, then notice, reproduce, implement, and adapt them again and again (and even again if we’re so inspired); O.K., maybe not “simply,” but with dedication and hard work.

Try something like this (if you’d like).  In my experience, some form of integrated record keeping system helps.  What records are you keeping already?  Maybe add a key to your record book or other student files that you already keep.  Maybe keep a notebook or a binder with lists or pages for individuals and groups of learners.  One key might be as simply as this:





Maybe you mark a letter by each student’s name as you take attendance or record notes during a directed reading conference.  Maybe you write a sentence or two about your observations and reflections.  As time goes on, you can use the key to identify students who might need interventions in one or more areas that you’ve identified as important (“happy” and “engaged” are two of many possible attributes to look for in your students – you should decide what works for you at any given moment, with any group of learners).  I have found that simply (there’s that word again) keeping track of the things I do while I’m trying to achieve particular outcomes enhances my ability to achieve those outcomes.  In doing so for several years now, my systems have changes many times.  Less and less as they become increasingly refines, but still changing nonetheless.  I recently found a notebook that I kept in my first few years of classroom teaching.  It looks pretty different from the one I keep today.  However, there are threads of commonality.  In keeping my thoughts, recording my experiences, identifying landmark attributes that seem to contribute to growth and development for any individual or group of learners/stakeholders, I have found a relatively simple path to my own positive progress as a learner, and educator, and a leader.

Give it a shot.  Do it in whatever way feels comfortable to you.  Change it when the wind blows in a different direction.  Let me know if you discover something cool!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Digging For Details Via Thoughtful Questioning

I was looking at a leaf yesterday.  It was the big, broad leaf of a hosta plant.  It had rained that morning.  The world was mostly dry by the time I got to the leaf (the part of the world that I was in anyway).  The leaf was in the shade.  As a result of being in the shade, it was still covered with water droplets.  The sun had not evaporated them.  Now I’m no science guy, but if I’m not mistaken, I think that it rains because water evaporates into the air.  Hard to imagine, but true (to the best of my knowledge).  I know what you’re thinking; it seems like magic, but water does transition between various forms.  One of those forms is gas or vapor.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one.  Water vapor’s molecules are spread out, and as a result, it doesn’t weigh much.  If I understand it right, water becomes vapor when it gets hot enough.  Believe it or not, when it does that, it actually floats up into the sky and meets more water vapor that’s gone through the transition already.

As if that’s not wild enough, all of that water vapor meets in the cold sky and its molecules slow down, connect, and form clouds.  Eventually those clouds get saturated with the water vapor.  The vapor molecules slow down again, they connect even more, the clouds buckle under the increasing weight and size of the water vapor transitioning back into liquid, they can’t hold it, and the liquid water falls back to the earth as rain.  Incredible…right?  Are you with me so far?  Do you know what this means?!  Neither do I!  But I do know what it reminds me of.  It reminds me of learning.

It’s raining somewhere right now, and that’s because a process has been happening for some time that’s prepared it to do so.  Nature doesn’t leave much to chance.  Our world is constructed of intricate and complex details.  Each detail matters uniquely to the intricate and complex outcomes it contributes to.  Essentially, everything happens for a reason.  If you think about it, things are happening right now that are contributing to an outcome which might be significant to you later on today, next week, or even in a month from now.

When you trace outcomes backward, you can often highlight many of the details that contributed to them.  Some are easier than others.  For example, I know that I have to lose fifteen to twenty pounds.  I know that it’s at least in part because I am magnetically drawn to Slurpee® machines at Seven Eleven.  This equals that.  Drinking large volumes of crystalized sugar water on a daily basis (and washing it down with bags of potato chips) makes me have to lose fifteen to twenty pounds.  Strategically planning my commutes based on where the local Seven Elevens are, is quite likely another contributing detail to the same outcome (sometimes I’m magnetically drawn to multiple Slurpee® machines).  Those are some pretty easy breadcrumbs to follow.  I can adjust the details in an effort to change the outcome to a more desirable one.  Details however, are not always as overtly connected to outcomes.  Sometime we have to pay closer attention than we are accustomed to, and even then, we aren’t always able to discern the pieces to any given puzzle.

Furthermore, even when we do see the details with clarity, we can’t always influence outcomes in ideal ways.  However, when we pay close enough attention to the details, we are more likely to know, and have some ability to guide what’s happening…as it is.  I believe that thoughtful questioning helps, in fact, I would argue that it might be our best shot.  Being an educator, educational leader, and a parent, I find that kind of exciting.  I need to be careful to not get to enthusiastic though.  Detail identification is a tricky ambition.  The details are often so intricate and complex that it’s often easy to be wrong, especially because in education, we’re working with people.  People, as you may have heard…are complicated.

I once heard a comparative anecdote featuring blueberries that laid it out pretty well.  Those of you in the blueberry business can fairly easily figure out where and when blueberries grow best.  You can narrow down soil nutrients, watering times, sun and shade ratios, and pretty well get at ways to produce consistently positive outcomes (when it comes to the blueberries).  Also, when unsavory blueberries make their way through the systems you have in place, you simply need not put them on the shelf.  You might even use them for jam, syrup, or ice cream flavoring.  Those of us in the people business are able to rely much less on generalization about what works.  We serve diverse populations of people, we are charged with moving each of them forward, and we are strictly prohibited from doing so in form of jam, syrup, or ice cream flavoring (which would be very Willie Wonka-ish).

The point is, we must pay attention to the details.  Give yourself a break when you get it wrong.  Keep working to get it right.  Educators, educational leaders, parents, and anyone else who is in the business of serving human beings as they learn and grow, must be attentive.  We have to realize that it’s all happening all the time.  We have to constantly ask ourselves what outcomes we’re looking to achive, then remind ourselves again and again.  Even before we get close to any particular ends that we’re aiming for, we should always be aiming.  We also have to be ready to shift and adapt at any given moment.  We should be every questioning, and the questions have to target the individual and collective goals we have in mind for our school communities.

Are the students we serve tired?…Are they hungry?…Do they feel valued?…Are their voices heard?…Do they have autonomy?…Are their unique interests and abilities considered as they progress along any given instructional pathway?  Are our teachers well supported?  How is their work-life balance?  In what ways do we communicate with our parent population?  Are we modeling our core values?  Are our core values congruent to those of our students’, faculties’, and other stakeholders’?

What questions do you ask yourself as you make decision and act them out?  How closely do you understand the detail of how things are unfolding in your district, your school, and/or your classroom?  Lately I’ve been thinking about what type of structures I can put in place with my students, their parents, and my faculty to perpetuate the asking of essential questions…maybe something digital?  We could keep and ongoing Google Doc, or open a regular Twitter chat.  Maybe one-on-one style meetings with key stakeholders would work.  How about an old-fashioned “essential question” box in the office, or casual/informal conversations.

I don’t know yet.  I can’t quite put my finger on the connection or how it will play out in real time.  What I do know is that, like rain and the water cycle, things are going to be happening during this upcoming school year.  I’m going to want to affect those things with positive momentum, enthusiasm, and forward progress.  One of my goals this summer is to consider possibilities for digging into the details that will help me do just that.  I’m looking for strategies and systems that might assist me and all of my partners in learning to stay ahead of the rain, to be ready for it, and to celebrate the positive aspects of the outcomes we are certain to achieve.  I’ll keep thinking about it and report back with reflections as those thoughts unfold.  Please let me know if you have any ideas!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Collect Data, Build Relationships, Affect Positive Progress

This post loosely, and in very general terms, explores some prospective functional implications of various learning theories on daily education and educational leadership practice.  It matches what educators (and others concerned with learning) think about doing with what we actually do, and is intended to illustrate a few ways in which what we do works in favor of positive growth and achievement for learners across a spectrum.  In and among the following paragraphs I attempt to illustrate merit in various constructs while maintaining the assertion that no singular theory holds holistically true for any given learning scenario; instead, that educators and educational leaders are well served to consider compound perspectives and boundless possibilities as we work to enhance the experiences of all stakeholders in our school communities.

Behaviorists theorize that conditioning mechanisms such as positive and negative reinforcements, along with punishments, are primary catalysts to learning, and that the underpinning of subsequent habitual developments enhances and perpetuates learning pathways.  Through Social Cognitive Learning Theory, the ideas of interaction, perceptions, attitudes, and environment add to the conditioning argument, while Constructivists suggest individualized, multifaceted, and unique developmental pathways, based on additional factors like readiness, experience, and aptitude.  In the next sections I will briefly relate those concepts to my practice, reflect on where I’ve found continuity, and suggest connected ideas for continued application.

Varied Pathways to Learning & Growth

Learning theory offers multiple lenses through which educators and educational leaders can think about and develop systems and strategies for, and attitudes toward learning and growth.  I would argue that to focus on one particular theory as a tell-all for effective practice diminishes the notion of personal development.  While human beings are similar to one another in many ways, it is our individualized and unique characteristics that determine our individualized and unique learning patterns and pathways.  Through my lens as an administrator, it stands to reason that we are each subject to a distinctive combination of traits and experiences, which allow us to each progress with inputs and outputs connected to those traits and experiences.  We seem to be ever growing, ever changing, and in turn, our learning and communication needs seem to vacillate over time.

Data Collection & Feedback

Having served in multiple roles during my decade as an educational leader (both as a teacher and an administrator), I’ve found data collection to be an essential ingredient in positive progress toward student achievement.  In fact, I would argue that along with subsequent feedback, it might be the essential ingredient.  In a recent conversation with a colleague, immediate and connected feedback was identified as “the most important aspect of effective teaching practice.”  Immediate is relatively easy, it’s the connected part that takes some elbow grease.  That’s where the collection of data in its many forms comes in.  Arguably, any professional whose intended outcome is the growth and development of those he serves (children and/or adults) should be consistently collecting data in both formal and informal ways, with the intention of translating that data into connected, relevant feedback.

Informal.  When considering growth, even through a comparative rather than targeted theoretical lens, we need to have a starting point.  Individuals might very well learn some things best by way of consistent and repetitive conditioning, and, it is certainly possible that the learning might be enhanced if those same individuals were given information and instruction to aid in a developmental process by which they could find meaning in whatever outcomes the aforementioned conditioning is meant to achieve.  Furthermore, I have no basis for denying that connections to individual growth pathways, social paradigms, and established skill sets would further enhance, solidify, and integrate the learning for meaningful application and the scaffolding of continued development.  However, I do believe that in the light of any theoretical inclination, effective data collection is essential to progress.

Suppose your goal is to have students walk in straight and quiet lines.  To that end, an understanding of the kind of lines they are already accustomed, and/or able to walk in would be important.  There would be no conditioning, enhanced depth of understanding, or development of new skill sets necessary if they are meeting the mark at the onset.  A quick dig for informal data, even by simply being observant while walking with the targeted group of students, might work well.  The same would be true if your intention was to have students participate in sustained silent reading for twenty minutes each day, partner on research projects, or function in rotating workshop-style math activities.  Informal, observational, and intentionally collected data sets are wonderful contributors to instructional design for both classroom teaching and adult programming.  They allow educators an enhanced depth of understanding of learner needs, and can support developmental analysis through multiple, and even combined theoretical frames.

Setting & clearly communicating expectations, gathering data, and then using that data to reinforce those expectations through directed practice, ongoing instructional adaptation, and targeted communication is one process by which educators can truly support those they serve.  It’s an informal process that can be repeated and adapted to consistently meet the needs of a diverse population of learners.  In practice, it is simply about remaining deliberate and aware, while focusing on integrated short and long-term learning goals.

Formal.  The formal collection of data has also proven effective for me in working with a range of stakeholders, including students, teachers, and parents.  Among multiple other methods, surveys are efficient ways to collect, organize, and distribute data.  Whether I have intended to affect behavior or guide groups in constructing and integrating knowledge, the use of surveys has allowed me to step back and thoughtfully organize data.  Feedback from a survey may be less immediate than feedback from an observation or a conversation; however, it can often times be more complete. 

How are learners in any given situation progressing through varied phases of instruction or communication?  What are some important aspects of the backgrounds of individuals in a group?  How do those aspects contribute to, or stifle learning?  In what ways might thoughtfully modified instruction and/or communication enhance learning?  The formal collection of data gives educators an enriched ability to think through these types of questions while removed from the learning environment, rather than submerged in, and possibly distracted by it.

Relationship Building

As with the collection of data, the building of relationships has proven essential to my development as an educator and my thinking with regard to learning theory.  When done well, it has afforded me a heightened understanding of the population that I serve.  Also, I unfailingly continue to realize that effective relationship-building efforts result in enriched individual and collaborative learning experiences, while failed, or overlooked relationship-building efforts/opportunities result in diminished individual and collaborative learning experiences.  Whether through behavioristic conditioning or more complex developmental processes intended to access growth-related patterns, readiness, and/or environmental influences, the effective building of relationships can help bring educators, educational leaders, and learners together with collectively agreed upon outcomes.

The Bottom Line

 The bottom line is that my buy-in to various learning theories changes with my experience.  It doesn’t simply progress in a straight line.  It goes forward, sideways, and even backward.  I am at a place where I believe that there is one consistency in learning among all people, and that consistency is inconsistency.  There is no doubt that patters and connections exist.  In that, we have to recognize likenesses and move forward with systems, structures, and strategies that prove effective with uniformity.  However, educational leadership offers wonderful surprises around every corner.  It is essential to keep at least one eye on the ball at times, while be open to and excited about adaptation.  In no moment can we ever afford to lose sight of our collective mission, which, while articulated in many ways, boils down to the health, wellbeing, and achievement of our students (and the various others that we serve).  As it stands, by way of the varied learning pathways I’ve strode, I believe that the intentional collection of data and authentic building of relationships are two non-negotiable practices in effective educational leadership, regardless of theoretical leanings.


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well

Hey, What’s Your Problem (And How Will You Solve It)?

This past week I was charged with putting together a presentation on Cognitive Learning Theory to deliver with a partner who would be doing the same, only on Constructivism.  In the end, we worked to draw parallels in a combined effort at outlining learning theory in practical ways.  Our intention in doing so was to inform best instructional practices from an educational leadership perspective, both for adults and children as learners.  We delivered our presentations on Wednesday evening.  I know what you’re thinking…my invitation must have been lost in the mail.  Please don’t feel left out.  While you were walking your dog, eating a lovely dinner with your family, or catching up on some pre-recorded episodic television, seven lucky educators were excitedly engaged in our riveting presentation.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Regardless of the visceral enthusiasm that you may or may not feel upon hearing about the event, there was some content that might be useful to you, whether you’re in educational leadership…directly responsible for the ongoing learning and growth of various adult stakeholders in your school community, or a classroom teacher…responsible for the same with regard to your students.  Below are some summative thoughts from our take on how Cognitive Learning Theory and Constructivism might inform instructional design (for my reflection and your consideration).

How are you delivering information?  Learners come with some degree of knowledge, some individualized skill bases, and unique levels of readiness.  To varied extents, with care not to pigeonhole or limit, children at any age should be viewed as developmentally ready or not for processing further information and attaining certain skills.  Adults, in part because they have complex lives, filled with distractions, frustrations, interests, and aversions, can similarly be thought of as developmentally ready or not.

For adult learners, it could be argued that the intake of particular information, and the development of particular skills, is sometimes preempted by frame of mind.  For example, considerations like emotional availability, political culture, and relationship structures can be viewed as motivators or deterrents, and should not be overlooked when designing professional learning structures in school communities.  Also, even in ideal, collaborative school climates, knowledge of assorted learning styles is essential.  Some adult learners receive information well through lectures and presentations, others are better served to read articles and process on their own, while a third group might benefit from experiential, hands-on activities.

Are you offering tools and time to process?  Do you include structures in your lesion planning (classroom or PD) that give learners the opportunity to reiterate or clarify information that is being delivered.  Children and adults tend to come into learning situations with a framework that is in many ways unique.  Whether individually, with partners, in small groups, or through the facilitation of whole group discussions, it can be beneficial for learners to reflect on the intake of information, and to consider the reflection of others.  In what ways do you work to solidify the consumption of information, for individuals…and for the group?

In what ways do you perpetuate the making of connections?  When content isn’t relevant to the learner, the learner tends to be less engaged…or not engaged at all.  What is the meaning of any given learning or developmental scenario?  In what ways will the learner be able to incorporate new knowledge and skills into his/her paradigm, and make them useful in his/her daily life?  This is where the problem comes in.  “What’s your problem?” is an essential educational question.  We learn in the name of progress.  Educators are charge with the development, implementation, and maintenance of programs, systems, and structures that help stakeholders move along pathways of next steps aimed at achievement (students first and foremost, but all stakeholders to that end).

Problem solving is a key ingredient in forward progress along those pathways…and, in order to solve problems, we need to have problems to solve.  One approach to critical processing with regard to relevant problem solving is the incorporation of problem finding into the learning process.  What structures can you put in place that will allow your learners to think of and explore problems that are relevant to them and their individual and collective developmental pathways?  How can you help them put the learning into play, in real time, and in meaningful ways?  What can you do to provide experiences that parallel, or even resemble the experiences for which the learning is intended to inform and enhance?  Again, what’s your problem?  What’s their problem?  By what processes can it…and will it be solved?

What’s the bottom line?  Through a relatively basic lens, when combined, Cognitive learning Theory and Constructivism contend that our brains are hard wired to make sense of the world in which we live.  We are always in the process of construction new knowledge and developing new skills.  Our brains take in information, process it, make sense of it, store it, and access it when needed.  Additionally, there is a social component of learning and development that, when incorporated into instruction can add depth to development and enhance the process/outcomes for everyone involved.  The social component, when accessed effectively, can build comprehension by adding multiple perspectives to an otherwise individual experience.

This post is filled with questions rather than answers, in large part because I’m much better at asking questions than I am at giving answers.  It’s how I learn.  My hope is that considering these questions will assist me (and anyone else who cares to consider them) better design learning opportunities to meet the relevant and connected needs of my school community (and theirs), and effectively address the many meaningful ways in which we each contribute to the progress of the world at large.


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

The Benefits of Shared Learning and Leadership

I  just spent an incredible week working and learning with an amazing group of people.  These people include students, parents, teachers, and the support staff of the wonderful elementary school community that I am honored to be serving as interim principal.  It was an interesting beginning in that we had two snow days in the first week of my service, so we were only in school together for three days.  However, those three days were jam packed with enthusiasm, collaboration, learning, and fun!

The thing that struck me most was the universally promoted and unwavering attention to maintaining excellence through shared leadership.  I pointed out in last week’s post that the building principal has been healing from an accident and out of school for the past few weeks.  As a testament to her leadership and this community’s dedication, they have truly risen to the challenges that her temporary absence presents.  In the very short time I’ve been involved, I can see clearly that shared leadership is a cornerstone of her philosophy, and a deeply embedded value, held and practiced by all.

From my first moments in the building through the end of the day on Friday, I was consistently approached by staff, students, and parents with welcoming words and invitations to visit classrooms, join in planning and development, and share in the excitement that fills the halls of this great school.  Everyone has been warm and welcoming, stressing through actions and words that we are all partners.  It has been wonderful to meet and talk with so many like-minded people in such a short period of time, each driven to play a critical and collaborative role in perpetuating student achievement and wellbeing.

Not only has the group of amazing teachers been receptive to my regular classrooms visits, they have taken it to the next level by sending e-mails asking if I “have a minute to stop in” at “any time” during the course of a day.  Multiple people have stopped me in the halls and the office with similar messages, saying things like, “Hey Seth, if you have some time this afternoon, we would love for you join us!”  When I have, I’ve found myself amazed and overjoyed!


In the classrooms I experienced a laser-like focus on learning and progress.  I saw the writing process unfold through explicit drafting instruction and practice in 3rd grade.  I witnessed hands on science and math exploration in the form of a cool paper plane project in 2st grade.  I spent time with 4th graders as they engaged in language arts and science instruction simultaneously, developing an understanding of how communication and experimentation connect.  I saw comfortable and inviting classroom libraries, accessible and rich with literature.  I found organized systems of management that included student leadership and accountability components.  I enjoyed the many collaborative, authentic, connected, and engaging instructional practices in place across grade levels, and embedded within the various “specials” I visited.

In the lunchroom I was bombarded by offers to “sit with us!”  Moving from table to table I learned many incredible things from students of all ages.  Has anyone ever told you that people in China ride motorcycles in their pajamas?  Are you aware that the mix of catsup and ranch dressing makes a wonderful dipping sauce for popcorn, chicken, & pizza?  Did you know that we are each “real” artists because we can each create beautiful things in our own way (one of my favorites from an insightful kindergartener)?  If you didn’t, now you do…and there’s plenty more where that came from!

Also, I truly appreciate the rich, developmental talk that teachers were engaged in with one another.  Brainstorming ideas, reflecting on lessons, and actively learning together throughout the building.  These people do an amazing job of collectively accepting the responsibility of educating and caring for all of their students!  It’s been wonderful to step into a place where the shared leadership expectations have been so well established.  It is exceptionally clear to me that I’ve entered a community of people who expect a lot from themselves.  That expectation, along with their combined commitment to fulfill it, contributes greatly to this school’s incredible strength!  I am very much looking forward to more wonderful weeks of shared learning and leadership!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

Using Scissor Skills as an Inroad to Positive Student Growth

Recently, my four-year-old procured a new sheet of temporary tattoos.  Angry Birds.  Couldn’t he want to play with something called Happy Birds, or even Mildly Frustrated Birds?  “Angry” is just so harsh.  Anyway, I think that the sheet may have come from a birthday party gift bag.  Regardless, yesterday was tattoo day.  After a long morning of rotating between Tickle Monster & Daddy Jungle Gym, I was ready for a bit of rest.  We climbed the stairs and headed for the Lego drawer in the living room.

Part of my great love for Legos is that they’re awesome!  My kids love to create.  They reach deep into their imaginations to construct things that one might not think would be possible to construct with Legos.  While all of their architectural masterpieces don’t exactly resemble those “impossible” things, they always seem to make some sort of sense with creative explanations and close inspections.

The other reason Legos are cool is because when we play with them, no one is jumping on stomach, stomping on my face, beating me in the head with a Styrofoam hockey stick, insisting that I pick them up by their feet, swing them around, throw them up in their air, and repeatedly chase them around in small spaces for hours on end, or sneezing directly in my face at close range (incidentally, I’ve experienced some relatively productive sneezes in that fashion, but that’s beside the point).

As the Lego play ensued, a look of pure joy came upon my big guy’s face.  He remembered the sheet of tattoos sitting on the kitchen counter.  One of those tattoos was just waiting to be adhered to the back of his hand.  Jumping up and down, he declared, “Daddy, we need to do our tattoos!”  He and his little brother grabbed each other and bounced around as if they just connected on a game-wining touchdown pass.  Little sister and I looked at each other and smiled.  Those goofy boys!

Here’s the rub, when we got to the kitchen I asked which tattoo each of the brothers wanted, then I proceed to cut the specified tattoos out of the sheet.  My four-year-old looked at me in amazement.  He said, “Daddy…you are a great cutter!”  At the risk of lacking humility, I must admit, I am a bit of a tattoo-cutting wizard.  I never go over the lines, I leave plenty of space in between tattoos, and I can get the one right in the middle without damaging any others.  I know…impressive.  Seriously though, it’s a skill that he admires.  While it’s nothing to most adults, four-year-olds find cutting that way pretty challenging (and not just because their rounded, plastic, scissors don’t work as well as ours).

When I put this in the context of education, I remember that we have many opportunities each day to connect with students around growth and development, simply in the ways in which we model and respond to their perceptions of us.  One of the things we’re looking to do as educators is help these young people function with increased automaticity in progressively more ways as they advance through school, into college, and eventually independent adult life.  When our students look at us with amazement, whether it’s because of something relatively basic like our expertise with scissors, or something relatively complex, like our ability to negotiate consensus through conflict, we need to be aware, take note, and make a plan.  Those moments are ripe for learning, connections, and delivering a sense of value to those whose positive growth is our charge.  Take the time to follow up with students who express interests in learning things that you know.  A few sessions of “Scissors 101,” can go a long way in showing a kid that he/she can, and that we care!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.

When Creative Play Turns Into Video Production

This morning my four-year-old decided to wake up extra early.  It was quite a feat, given that we all went to bed extra late last night.  Adding insult to injury, my wife was up every hour on the hour with our runny-nosed infant.  Even as my mind raced to come up with some good reasons why it should be her turn again, I knew that I wasn’t nearly that clever.  I rolled out of bed.  My feet hit the floor with a bit of a clunk.  My shoulders stood up before my neck or head, bringing them along for the ride.  I followed the sound in the dark.  “Momma?  Momma?”  He was calling for her.  Didn’t that mean anything?   I knew it didn’t.

When I arrived at his bedside (little brother sawing logs next door) I naively asked if he wanted to rest some more in Momma and Daddy’s room.  I crossed my fingers, threw salt over my shoulder, held my breath, and visualized all kinds of pennies and rabbits’ feet…all to no avail.  The words didn’t come out right away.  It appeared as if he was considering the invitation.  I hoped.  In hindsight I think he must have simply been shaking that last bits of sleep off before dropping the, “I want to go downstairs” bomb.  He followed that classic with, “and I want apple sauce, milk, yogurt, and a Fiber One bar.”

I ached for my bed.  It called to me.  The whisper of my pillows slithered through the hallway and shimmied in through the boys’ cracked bedroom door, “Seth…we miss you.  We miss your head.  Please come back and lay down!”  I could almost feel my face resting against a revitalized “cool side.”  Alas, it was but a dream.  I was awake, and it was “go-time.”  Then I remembered yesterdays’ post.  “Be present,” I told myself.  Life is short.  I get to sleep every evening (for a little while at least).  However, I don’t get to wake up and play with my buddy every morning.  A burst of energy shot through me.  I picked the kid up, and down we went.

This one loves to draw.  We collaborated on some farm animals.  I did the rough sketches and he did most of the coloring in.  He told me what to draw, and while my technique admittedly leaves much to be desired, it was good enough.   As we worked he began to tell the story of three farm friends.  Turns out, “Cow-iobi,” “Pig-iobi,” and “Sheep-iobi,” were best friends.  One day when Cow-iobi was walking near the barn, he saw Pig-iobi climbing down from a tree.  On the last climb, Pig-iobi leapt out of the tree, only to get stuck on the fence.  The two friends had to think fast.  What would they do?  It wasn’t long before they remembered that “Sheep-iobi” was a real handy guy.  If he could come to the barn with his hammer and screwdriver, he might be able to set Pig-iobi loose from the fence.  As luck would have it, that’s just what happened!  The three friends celebrated.  They were filled with joy, and in being so filled, they proceed to jump for it (joy, that is).

This morning our creative play reminded us that friends always help friends, a wonderful lesson to remember in my estimation.  We had so much fun drawing, coloring, and making up a story, that we decided to produce a short film about the farm friends’ adventure, another reminder.  Extending learning based on learners’ interests is a great way to promote longterm engagement and achievement.  Little brother joined us before long.  Then came Momma and baby.  We all sat together for a while, playing and creating the Berg Brother’s debut production.  So, without further glamorization or adieu, pop your corn, find a cozy spot, and enjoy the film that critics are calling the breakout hit of the holiday season!

The Berg Brothers proudly present:  “Farm Friends in ‘Stuck on a Fence’.”

Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.


Being A Toddler Stand-Up

I Learned

What works for one person does not always work for another.  As a parent and an educator, part of my job is to figure out what works for my children and my students, and then incorporate that into the learning/growth experience.

Here’s How

Today I found out that I’m really funny…to a toddler.  In fact, if I were a stand up comedian, I would bring the house down at a preschool!  The problem is, the silly nonsense that engages my two-year-old is not always the most engaging stuff for me.  This morning, I was doing some adlib at the breakfast counter.  Little man was feeling cranky (a slow wake-up).  There was a steady whine emanating from his mouth, which fluctuated in pitch and volume depending on the his message.

Responses came in the form of high-pitched, shrill, eardrum numbing, noises accompanied by wriggly, off balance, occasionally jerky, full bodied motions that repeatedly threatened to propel him off the counter chair he was barely hanging on to.  That would have been a disaster.  When not responding to anything, the whine was dull and droning.  Like the ever-present hum of florescent lights combined with an extended run of fingernails across a never-ending blackboard.  My eye was twitching.  Something was going to have to give.  I decided to pull out my most authentic Cockney accent (mediocre at best) complimented by a monster hand, a squinty eye, and a half raised lip, “Aw-right,” I began, “it’s time foe me to tickle yaw tummy!”

The toddler stand-up routine was working.  The whine slowed to a stop and became a giggle.  The long face scrunched up, his mouth became an ear hammock of a grin.  It was working!  The problem was that he wouldn’t let me stop.  “Do it again Daddy!”  He must have said it twenty times.  It got to the point that the sound of my own voice doing that silly accent was more distasteful to me than the whining I was working to get rid of.  But then a light bulb went off.  This kid was happy.  He was engaged.  We were enjoying time spent together.  We were pretending and being creative.

Like a flash, an idea popped into my head.  I decided to parley the fun we were having into an extended activity.  We got the pirate ship, we populated the couch with dinosaurs, dolls, and giant stretchy lizards.  We grabbed big brother and some blankets to build a fort.  The next couple of hours unfolded quite naturally from there.  Each incarnation of the game we were inventing built upon the previous one until it was time for naps.  I learned a bit about how to transition with these guys.  More importantly, their interests and needs guided the play this morning.  Good times for all!


It’s not easy to get excited about every experience we have as parents or as educators.  However, our excitement (while arguably important) is not always as important as our children’s and/or our students’.  When we find moments that learners are enthusiastic about, we should work hard to capture and build upon them.  This morning I noticed that the joy my boys were experiencing through my silliness and pretend-play made it all right that the games were repetitive and not inherently engaging for me.  I was having fun because they were having fun.  I was engaged because they were engaged.  Consistently, when I focus on keeping the joy and engagement of those I’m working/spending time with in mind, that the work/time we spend together will be more rewarding and meaningful for everyone involved.  This is turning into another “being present” lesson for me.  It must be worth my continued attention.  I’ll keep working on it!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.