Category: Critical Thinking

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.

Support & Encouragement Can Foster Enhanced Self Esteem

Active listening is a wonderful way to collect information about those we teach.  Using that information to support and encourage our learners makes it extra wonderful, in that it values the information, and can encourage enhanced ownership of the learning process and outcomes.

It is well documented that leaners’ motivation and engagement is enhanced when they’re able to take ownership over their learning.  I’m regularly seeing some amazing classroom teachers make great efforts to understand their students.  In turn, I’ve been seeing them take that understanding to the next level by incorporating students’ needs, abilities, learning styles, background knowledge, and life experiences into account as they plan for and implement instruction.

I’ve seen these incredible educators:

– Confer with individuals and small groups

– Observe and take notes during class

– Check for understanding with regular/quick written and oral assessments

– Take interested inventories before instruction

– Use backchannels and other digital tools to generate data during instruction

– Facilitate a variety of Visual Thinking Strategies to unlock potential

Data collection is critical in any learning context.  More importantly, what is done with those data makes all the difference!

We are busy.  We are beholden to standards, stakeholders, policies, and plenty of other forces that guide our planning and prioritizing.  It is difficult to consider the individual needs of each of our learners.  It is arguably even more difficult to weave those needs into the systems and structures that serve to connect those learners to content through their needs.  However, we are sometimes gifted relatively easy pathways.  We have to take advantage of those gifts when they come along!

The other day I had a conversation with one of the organizers of our school’s computer coding club.  The conversation was about a piece of persuasive writing that she composed for another purpose.  It was stellar!  She wrote with passion, she expressed authority, she was thorough and clear with her intentions, and it was among the most engaging pieces of writing I’ve ever read (certainly from a middle school student).  It was truly exceptional!

The connection to data collection and application was extremely poignant to me.  During the summer, this student expressed an interested in creating the coding club.  She developed a plan and was given that opportunity to do so by our Principal.  She was listened to, and her voice was expressly valued.  It was a great example of a student offering information and an educator having the foresight and wherewithal to incorporate that information into the student’s learning paradigm.  Kudos to my boss!  Incidentally, it’s a great way to learn for the adults in our building as well.

During our conversation, this student told me that before she had the opportunity to develop the club, she would have never written the letter I referred to above.  She told me that she did not have the self-esteem.  She went on to tell me that the experience of being encouraged and supported in doing something that she was passionate about was powerful and transformative.  How cool!  This student brought a great idea to the table, she was given the green light and some essential guidance, and she took off running toward what became a life altering developmental experience.

Sometimes we have to work hard to understand and build relationships with our learners.  Students do not always come to us with such explicit ideas.  However, when they do, it’s essential that we listen, process, support, and encourage.

What is it that your students are looking to get involved in?  Listen closely, find out, and then make sure that they have opportunities and assistance.  It may contribute to their learning in ways that are truly meaningful and go well beyond the moment!


Dream Big.  Work Hard.  Be Well.


Educator’s Toolshed: Beauty-Vision

I think this is beautiful.


It’s a weed. In fact, I was standing on my very own lawn with some friends the other day when they pointed it out. A weed, smack dab in the middle of my very own lawn. How do you like that?  I’m on the lawn daily, and somehow, it didn’t occur to me that there was one dandelion I didn’t pick, sticking up out if the middle of my otherwise impeccably green grass.

My wife and I are gardening/ landscaping enthusiasts, so we take a lot of pride in maintaining our lawn. But for some reason I didn’t notice this one.  Maybe the reason is unfolding right now…a romantic notion, but conceivable nonetheless.

My friend looked at me and said, “you’re really slacking man!” He pointed to the weed and we all had a good chuckle. My first instinct was, “Destroy!” But with a closer look, I realized, “This is beautiful.”  I’m glad I missed it, because it’s reminding me of an important lesson that I repeatedly learn, and sometimes forget.  Beauty is truly all around us, everywhere and in everything. The rub, as you know, is that it comes to light in the eye of the beholder. As beholders, we have to stop, we have to look closely, we have to recognize the beauty everywhere and in everything in order to share the joy and wonder that it brings into our lives.

It seems strange that even overt and obvious beauty is sometimes so difficult to recognize and appreciate. As an educator, headed into a new school year, this dandelion’s message is extremely impactful to me. Those of you who are also educators can understand very well that in the middle of a stressful day or a challenging week, it’s difficult to look around and see the beauty that exists everywhere and in everything.

Look closely.


This dandelion could be a galaxy filled with brilliant stars or Dr. Seuss’s inspiration for Horton’s world with in a clover. It could be an underwater colony of phosphorescent plant life or a sacred Elf city woven masterfully into one of Tolkien’s fantasies.  Moreover, putting aside what it could be, think about what it is. I don’t know the details of how a dandelion pollinates, but it seems to me that a strong gust of wind would send those little, beautiful, sparkly, feathery, fluffy, seedlings flying into the air, traveling along paths that would lead them toward the eventuality of catalyzing new life.  Seems beautiful to me.

Ironically, just about a moment ago, it simply seemed like…well…frankly…it seemed like a weed.  In any case, as a beholder of this dandelion, and someone who was seconds away from destroying it, I am now constructing an argument to illustrate that in fact, there is beauty in how it looks, and beauty in what it does. I simply needed to slow down, to take a closer look, appreciate, and enjoy.  Moreover, I’m now suggesting that there’s beauty in the message it’s giving me just by existing…a triple threat!  This dandelion, in all of its beauty and wonder, has reminded me of something very important.  I need to work hard at seeing the beauty that surrounds me.  It enhances my life, and I believe that it increases my capacity to function as the type of educator, and the type of leader, that I’m constantly working to be.  Especially in the most challenging moments, I believe that zeroing in on beauty and wonder can enable educators to embrace potential, and inspire learners with authenticity.

Beauty does seem to be in the eye of the beholder, and I believe that beauty does exist everywhere and in everything. So, it’s up to the beholder to live in such a way that beauty becomes apparent to others. What happens when educators lead in ways that expose beauty to those they serve?   What happens when educators lead in ways that that encourage students to appreciate the unique and amazing beauty within themselves?  Take one more moment, look again, behold this weed, this nuisance, this lawn pest.

Do you see its beauty?  Do you hear its message?


Dream Big…Follow Your Heart…Be Well.


Great Ideas Are All Around – Keep Your Eyes Open!

The Point: 

Collaboration is one essential key to growth and achievement.  Great ideas are all around us.  When we engage in thinking about (and working on) those great ideas with others, we enhance connected growth opportunities for ourselves, and everyone else involved.

The Story:

The wonderful Arin Kress has initiated a great collaborative learning project through her blog, and complimented the effort by engaging the Twitter-sphere with #videoblogchallenge (follow Arin of Twitter @KressClass & do yourself a favor…read her amazing blog)!  I’m extremely excited to be participating in this first challenge.  The challenge is simple:  Go to Arin’s blog, watch the video, create a blog post based on the video, and attach a link to your blog in the comment section of the #videoblogchallenge post that you’re working on.   I love this idea for several reasons.  To begin with, it’s a wonderfully creative idea for engaging multiple learners!  I happen to be a huge fan of wonderfully creative ideas, and I’m an equally huge fan of video use/production in the classroom.  Specifically, I really appreciate how effectively using and/or creating videos can engage learners in the writing process.  Through the #videoblogchallenge Arin is grabbing my attention, making participation fun, and giving me something to think about as I work to conceive of, create, revise, edit, and polish a blog post.  I’ve thought critically about blog purpose and design for some time now, spent hundreds of hours in development, and written several dozen blog posts, and I’m still a novice.  Blogs are phenomenal learning tools, however, it takes a lot of focus and motivation to create and maintain one.  Imagine how the #videoblogchallenge could work to enhance that process for you and your students.  Might you show a video to introduce the concept of blogging to a group of fifth graders this fall?  How about having rotating groups of third graders create videos each week for an ongoing digital conversation about geometry?  Where does Arin’s awesome idea take you?

Next, I believe that it’s attitudes and initiatives like Arin’s that perpetuate the most effective professional development opportunities available.  We all know that education can be a very isolating business.  There is so much to think about and do on a daily basis.  It’s easy to get stuck in a classroom or an office.  By offering the #videoblogchallenge up to her Twitter PLN Arin is rallying a community of like-minded educators around critical reflection and active learning.  What a great model to take back to each of our school communities!  When done well (and with intention), both blogging and Tweeting can bring people together and move common goals forward.  Here I am, on my own time, processing an idea that came to me through my Twitter PLN, wondering how it can positively affect growth and achievement in the community that I serve, engaging in a really fun learning activity, writing a blog post, making connections, and having an ongoing dialogue with Arin and others.  This is great PD (not to mention extremely cost effective)!  How might this model transform some of the PD in your community?  In my experience most educators would agree that interest, collaboration, fun, self-pacing, individualization, and convenience are some worthwhile components of quality learning.  Also, digital environments can be great platforms for otherwise hesitant communicators to feel comfortable expressing themselves.  This project has so many rich and effective pedagogical components.  I hope that it inspires you in the way that it’s inspired me!


So, here’s the video followed by my #videoblogchallenge post (you don’t need to watch the last 30 seconds):

It’s amazing how quickly life changes.  In one moment I’m comfortable moving along my path with every bit of confidence that things are looking up, when all of the sudden…the escalator just stops.  It’s that shift into an unexpected challenge that can throw me off.  If I took a moment to relax and think, I might realize that I could simply walk up the rest of the way to get where I’m going.  However, it’s hard to relax when things don’t go according to plan.  I have to be somewhere, do something, meet someone, finish some project, etc.  Who has time to relax and think?  So often the answers are staring me directly in the face.  An escalator is literally a moving staircase, which means that when it’s not moving…it’s literally a staircase.  If I had approached a staircase I would have simply walked up the stairs, but I didn’t, I approached an escalator – and I expected it to escalate me!  This video reminds me that life is unpredictable.  Thankfully, I’ve been alive long enough to understand that adaptability is essential.  I know that plans are frameworks we use to achieve desired outcomes.  As necessary as it is to make those plans, it’s necessary to be ready to change them.  My wife and I are constantly talking about our belief that we’re surrounded by opportunities, and that being prepared to take the ones that fit us is the best way to achieve our goals.  As a husband, a father of three, and an educational leader, adaptability is an extremely important component of that preparedness.  I love the excitement that the two stranded escalator riders expressed when the repairman came to their rescue, and the disappointment they expressed when his escalator broke down.  I wonder how this scene would have played out if the three of them put their heads together to make a new plan by which each could continue on his/her individual path, and then took collaborative action to implement that plan with a continued willingness and ability to adapt as it unfolded.  My guess is that it would have been more effective.  Great video Arin!  Thanks for the challenge:)!

Some Things to Consider:

1.  Finding ways to collaborate can enhance initiatives that would otherwise be developed/implemented in isolation.

2.  Keep a “Great Ideas” journal.  We are surrounded by great ideas.  When educators keep their eyes open and gather ideas for use/adaptation they enhance their abilitie to engage all learners.

3.  Read & follow Arin Kress on Twitter @KressClass…you will learn and grow!

4.  Explore video production/use for classroom instruction and professional development.  Check out some more thoughts and ideas at

5.  Expand/engage with your Twitter PLN & Blog (read and write)!


Your input is always welcome and appreciated…happy learning!



Summer Learning Happened So Fast!


Keeping Kids Engaged All Year Round



Kids will engage in learning over the summer if they are given exciting opportunities to do so.  Finding creative ways to connect students with their peers and their parents through playful exploration motivates them to keep the learning wheels turning.  With passion, play, and purpose it is possible to avoid the summer lag!










I’m really dating myself by using a Grease reference for the title of this post, but it just seems to fit so well!  For you younger readers who aren’t making the connection…rent the movie Grease (it’s with the guy from Pulp Fiction).  To the point though, I have to admit that when I got the, “Hey all, our first Harlan Citizen Science meet-up is tomorrow,” text from the incredible Elisabeth Stayer, I thought, wow…already?!  I love that we just left the buildings and already this amazing group of educators from Birmingham Public Schools’ Harlan Elementary are coming together with students and parents to begin sharing the learning they’ve each been doing as Harlan Citizen Scientists over the past two weeks.  Mrs. Stayer and her colleagues organized this wonderful project around the book Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard by Loree Griffin Burns, with Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz.  Check it out at









From the title you can imagine that the book outlines ways in which children can use their curiosity and imagination to learn through exploration and critical thinking.  I was honored to be a part of the filming of the Harlan Citizen Science video that was used to introduce the concept to students at the end of the school year.  There was an assembly at which Mrs. Stayer and her team passionately outlined the plan and introduced Harlan students to the supplemental materials, including an awesome reflective learning blog.  Later, they distributed Citizen Scientist journals (that they created) to students who wanted to participate.  They gave parents the option of buying or borrowing the book.  There were 20 copies ordered and put in a plastic box in front of the building with a sign out sheet.  Harlan Citizen Scientists are trustworthy people.  How cool is a makeshift summer library based on the honor system?  Leave it to a media specialist and a group of highly passionate elementary school teachers!

Check out the blog for the video and more information about the project at









Meanwhile, Tuesday’s meet-up was a big hit!  The incredible Brianna McKinney and her awesome, curious toddler greeted me as I pulled into the Harlan parking lot.  We barely had a chance to say “hello” before the cars started to roll in!  Together with the first group of Citizen Scientists we walked to the outdoor classroom where we began to discuss explorations, observations, and ideas for next steps in unfolding the mysteries of backyard bugs and bird nests.  Did you know that the Black Capped Chickadee is the most common bird found at feeders during Michigan winters?  Neither did I.  Now I do!  I think I’ll put a winter feeder out so that I can get to know this round little breed a bit better.  Did you realize that some ladybugs look like taxicabs?  Some people even call them taxicab ladybugs.  The really funny part is that they’re scientific name is Propylea Quatuordecimpunctata.  We got a few good laughs trying to pronounce that!  We decided to stick with taxicab ladybugs.










In no time, Mrs. Simonte, Mrs. Stayer (along with her wonderful toddler and some Fig Newtons), and a whole bunch of other Harlan Citizen Scientists had arrived to confer and collaborate.  We looked over each other’s notebooks, we shared drawings and notes, we extended our research using iPads and iPhones, and we explored the field and the playground…hunting for butterflies, beetles, flowers, and dandelions.  We had so much fun!  We learned, we laughed, we thought, we talked, and we planned.  The student and their parents were excited.  I was amazed by the critical thinking that was taking place on that playground, and during summer break!  Some of the students were making lists and drawing pictures, some were talking about connections they had made and information they had learned, some were flipping through the model text, and others were serving as an authentic audience for their peers.  This is a group of real scientists!  The program, along with this first successful meet-up, inspired me to go home and continue the Citizen Scientist explorations I’ve been doing with my sons.  The learning is fun, the engagement is amazing, and the positive modeling is phenomenal.  I love that one of the kids is wearing a “The Future is Mine” t-shirt while being supported in an effort to actively develop himself as an engaged learner.  Well done Harlan Citizen Scientists…keep up the great work!


1.  Kids will engage in learning over the summer if they’re given exciting learning opportunities.

2.  With passion, play, and purpose it is possible to avoid the summer lag!

3.  Parents are excited to get involved in their children’s summer learner.  Giving them structures makes it easy for them to do so.

4.  Collaborating with colleagues to develop learning initiatives is a great way to move those initiatives forward.  Two, three, or more heads are better than one.

5.  Using model texts is an effective way to introduce and perpetuate learning.

6.  Giving students ownership can enhance their learning experience and outcomes.

7.  Exciting science opportunities exist right in our backyards!

8.  Teachers actively and authentically engaging in learning with their students can be an extremely effective motivator.

9.  Fun learning is engaged learning.  Students enjoy being explorers.

10.  Getting together a few times during the summer to perpetuate continued engagement is not a difficult thing to do; the benefit out ways the burden.