We say it every year, and we mean it every year. Time flies! I haven’t yet decided if it’s a result of getting older or just a condition of the human existence that days seem to go by at an alarming rate. We have so much to do! No less is the case with this school year. It is hard to believe that another school year is coming to a close, but it is. Each school year begins with lots of hopes and ideas of doing things differently…teaching that lesson that we did not get to the year before…adding that project that just seemed to be on the ‘I’ll do it later” list.

Whatever the idea, let’s not forget one thing…it’s the DO-ing that is important. Having the great ideas is the first step to DO-ing differently, and is often a step that many educators find rejuvenating and exciting, but time flies and we often fail to DO. As this year comes to an end, let’s not only think about what we could do differently but resolve ourselves to actually DO things differently.

The world of education is in constant evolution as we strive to improve the quality of the learning experience for all students. We have our own lingo, and it does not take you long to realize that within the educational world there are lots of ways to say things. We spend lots of our own money on resources aimed at creating a challenging learning environment. We speak of differentiating, increasing the rigor, developing critical thinking skills and using higher-order questions as means to deepening the academic experience for our learners.   We spend countless hours in professional development sessions learning new strategies. In fact, just look at the session agenda of any educational conference where you will find lots of sessions on “How You Can Have a Challenging and Differentiated, Rigorous Classroom Where Critical Thinking Skills are Developed Through Asking Higher Order Questions.” 

Just google the word differentiation and you get no less than 16 millions hits. Wow! With all of this emphasis on what these types of learning environments should be, we often neglect to talk about how things are in getting to these types of classrooms.

Let’s face it. It’s awkward. What do I mean by that? In our best intentions and desires to have a challenging classroom, we do not mention that it creates a time of awkwardness on the part of the teacher and learner. This awkwardness, or sense of being uncomfortable, is created when the learner struggles to achieve at higher levels. This can be seen in the form of students struggling before they answer, being unsure about what to do, students who typically respond with confidence getting things ‘wrong,’ et cetera. In reality, it is this awkwardness that you WANT within your classroom as you are designing an academically challenging class or school. If the instructional level presented by the teacher does not create a sense of dissonance (uncomfortable), then is the instruction at the appropriate level? Instead of this awkwardness causing the teacher and learner to give up, it should be seen as a sign of success and a step toward getting the type of learning environment that matches the learner’s needs.

If struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it. (MindShift)

So, embrace this uncomfortable feeling as you are intentional about raising the level of instruction in your classroom. It’s a good thing!

It could have been accomplished by telling the staff that we were low on funds to purchase cases of paper. It was true that each school had been allocated a specific number of copies that could be used before the local school would have to pay for the copies. For any amount of copies that exceeded the yearly allotment an incurred cost of $.04 each copy would be billed to each school. This may not sound like much, but left unchecked, this could eat away at the instructional dollars that could be invested in non-fiction books for the leveled library, technology to support technology integration, hands-on resources for STEM-based learning activities and other resources which are better for today’s learner.

What we did do was to frame the conversation around this essential question:

How could we more effectively engage our leaners without running this through a machine?

This simply worded question had profound impact across the teachers who all truly wanted highly engaged learners in their classrooms each day. Teachers gladly talked about and collaboratively planned a day, ‘No Paper Day,’ around this. What leaders have tried to get teachers to do in sometimes unproductive ways, resulted in teachers gladly embracing and willingly collaborating around this concept as their entire grade level worked to design lessons for ‘No Paper Day’ on their hallway. This level of engagement on the part of adults along with the excitement and energy that were created spilled over to our students at Kelly Mill ES.

On the day that teachers decided for their No Paper Day, students and adults eagerly participated and authentically engaged in their learning. For some teachers, this intentional ‘push’ allowed them to realize the effectiveness of the integration of technology as a normal mode of delivery for their students, They saw, first-handedly, that technology did not have to be nor should be considered an ‘add-on.’ Once teachers saw the level of excitement from their students and heard the depth of conversations that students were having regarding their learning of the content, they were hooked.

Teachers extended this ‘one day’ of purposeful and intentional focus on engaging without worksheets to be their normal way of collaborating and instructional delivery in their classroom,

This is the ultimate in professional development to take a concept from hearing to doing. Teachers translated what they learned into classroom practice that changed the learning activities and experiences for their students.

So, what about your ‘No Paper Day?’

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One of my passions is photography. I absolutely love the ‘click of the shutter.’ I am an avid iPhoneographer, Instagram user, Photoshop editor, Canon, Nikon, and even Olympus 35 mm fanatic. Yes, I say I am an amateur. When people ask me about photography I simply reply, ‘It keeps me sane.‘ It is an outlet for me.

As a continual learner, I am also currently enrolled in a digital photography class. I am operating in my own sense of ‘flow‘. In our first class, the instructor said that basically a photographer’s job is to…

‘create art out of a cluttered and unphotogenic world.’ (via Phil Winter).

This statement has rolled around in my thinking since last Tuesday’s class. As I have thought about it, I see a parallel to the work we do in schools and as leaders. No, I am not implying that our students and staff are ‘unphotogenic’ on any level,  but I am suggesting that our role is to help the learners in our organization make ‘art’ out of the vast amount of information that is readily available to 21st Century learners at an alarming rate.

How do we do this? Well, I will be the first to admit this is not easy and has many factors, but one critical and nonnegotiable piece is enabling the learner-student or staff member-to take ownership of their own learning. We must become facilitators and not the traditional ‘sage-on-the-stage.’ We must help them create ‘art.’

Breathe in! Ahhhh! That clean crisp smell of New. It is unmistakable, isn’t it? In fact, one could even say that it is ‘intoxicating.’ Did you know they even make an air freshener called ‘New Car Scent‘?

How conscious we are to keep the New Thing…New. We are extra careful to maintain its original and pristine condition making sure that any particle of debris is quickly brushed away. How quick we are to make sure the exceptions to keeping the New Thing as such are not allowed. The New Thing can even, if only temporarily, change our behaviors…until..

Until the New Thing becomes the ‘thing’. And so it goes. Our behaviors revert to our comfort zone as is typical to the human experience. In fact, it is often this ‘comfort zone’ the speeds the process from the thing being the New Thing (shiny, clean, crisp, that ahhhh smell) to it being just the ‘thing’.

So goes the parallel experience of opening a New School. The clean hallways, the newly polished floors, the clean painted walls without the evidence of hot glue or masking tape, the doors without nicks, the playground with lush green grass all serve to produce the same ‘intoxicating’ and invigorating feelings and emotions. As a principal who is  humbled and fortunate to be part of opening a New School, Kelly Mill Elementary (@KellyMillES), I truly cannot put into words all of the excitement, energy, passion, motivation, enthusiasm, etc that describes this experience.

Pretty soon, the New Car Scent fades because you begin to eat in the car and leave the wrappers on the floor. Pretty soon the New Car just becomes ‘the car’ without the intoxicating and invigorating smells that provide a level of motivation to keep it clean and shiny.

I can also say this, the New Thing ‘smell’ with the new school will also fade with time and rightfully so as the building becomes what it is intended to be – a place that is active and alive with students and adults as they engage with knowledge. At some point, the New School becomes the school. So, what’s the point?

Once the New Thing becomes the thing, we must make conscious and intentional choices to continue to keep the car clean, to keep it vacuumed, to keep it in its best condition for optimal performance. No less is true with schools and students.

Once the excitement and energies of the new building wear off, we must make conscious and intentional choices to maximize the learning experiences we provide our students. To do any less would be to miss the opportunity to do amazing things and to reinvent and recreate education in meaningful and applicable ways.

In other words, to ‘make the atypical, typical.’

So what are you doing to ‘keep the new car smell?’

I just ended one of the most energizing two days with my staff @KellyMillES. The energy and enthusiasm truly filled the room. The staff willingly came together during their own time to continue our journey to become the best staff we can be and attain our great moments.  We met new people, had lots of laughs, collaborated with educators @shiraleibowitz and @S_Blankenship in a Google + Hangout, had lessons on fly fishing, pottery, phone photography, sacred harp (shaped note) singing, and weaving.

We spent time learning about ourselves (directionality) in order to learn about interacting and collaborating with others. We resolved to practice three concepts:

  • Commit. We understand that unless we all commit to each other we will not commit to do the right work for students. In absence of a commitment, the action becomes merely a task to be completed. It is the commitment, or connection, to the person that results in the highest levels of achievement. We commit.
  • We don’t have the answers. In an era within education where information multiples at an unimaginable rate and knowledge abounds, the work of educators is more complex that it has ever been. Progression of standards (Common Core), intense scrutiny on assessments, and other demands cause us to realize that having ‘the’ answer is an archaic mindset. We do; however, realize that having lots of questions is more important and allows for true learning to take place. We don’t have the answers, just lots of questions.
  • Listen to Learn. As part of the human race, we understand our nature is to teach those most like us in terms of personality, learning style, etc. As such, we miss many opportunities to reach our students who are not like us and collaborative interactions with others who can help us become better and connected educators. So, we choose to listen with open minds, not having a preconceived idea of what the other person is going to say or what they should do. We consciously listen in order to learn. We listen.

At the conclusion of an amazing time together, I shared a quote that, in flipping channels, I heard from a TV commercial.

You’ll never get to the next great moment if you don’t keep going, so that’s what I do, I keep going.

If we are true to the three concepts @KellyMillES, I think that we will get to our ‘next great moment.’ In doing so, the students and adults connected to KME, will have their next great moment.

I can’t wait…

~Ron

Recently, I have had the privilege to visit some other elementary schools as I am preparing to open Kelly Mill Elementary in the fall of 2012. I have been encouraged by the enthusiasm and dedication of teachers who have expressed interest in being part of the opening staff.

In one of these conversations, the teacher shared a story and commented how that bringing a staff together from varied backgrounds and experiences as well as having been under various leadership styles is ‘like a bag of Halloween candy.’ Her statement struck me as the perfect analogy for bringing a staff together at Kelly Mill.  I realized that, like a bag of candy, everyone is different and will come in many ‘shapes, sizes, colors, packaging, nutritional value’ (all of these terms are used metaphorically), but one characteristic is common…they are all candy. In other words, with varied backgrounds, hopes, dreams, expectations, skills set, dedication, and passion, have one thing in common…we are all educators trying to do what is best for children.

There is no one candy that satisfies that ‘sugar craving’ that we all get just like there is no one educator who has all of the skills, personality, knowledge, etc that can meet every student’s needs. So as the students, parents, faculty and staff think about Kelly Mill, remember Halloween Candy.