What’s in Your Front Drawer?

I want to stop and think about the requirements of the modern educator. Considering ways to upgrade the design of education and move the construct away from silo-based learning models to one that resembles an mobile think-tank, we have to remember that the instruments of learning are many. Ideas in a learning space should move in many directions at once. Adding in the potential for a hybrid design of school, we have to recenter learning properly.

Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein.

Think about all the time we have spent in quarantine. Most of us have not taught in a classroom since last March. That leaves six months of time when a learner was left to her own devices – daily accountability becomes harder and harder to maintain when the structure of the day disappears and consistency is lost. Even when remote school programs were in session, interactions that occur organically during in-person school were sorely missed – all instruction and collaboration had to be constructed and thus felt artificial. Learning spaces are small ecosystems of growth and development, requiring an educator to know every inch of the physical or digital space and the opportunities therein. Oftentimes, the supremely talented educators do not have the extra bandwidth to think about the system as a whole. And rightly so: the amount of work that goes into one learning space is exhausting and requires one’s full intellectual capital.

The Road Ahead

As a school leader, I must work to connect the dots and create a supportive cultural web which aligns with school mission and values. This is what I like to think of as my “Front Drawer” material. When opening the front drawer of your desk, what is it that you see? Do you have necessary items for the day, or is it loaded with surgery snacks that you aren’t allowed to have at home? (I have fallen prey to the latter throughout my career.) Is there a journal, or loose leaf paper for writing down ideas? Does the drawer have quick access to references that provide a focus on the vital pieces of school policy and culture? Are there reminders of why you are where you are?

Now, think about the abstract files, components, and capabilities that may appear in your “mental” front drawer. I have had a few conversations on this topic and will share what I believe to be essential components in the mental front drawer of the modern K-12 educator. I’m sure I’ll miss something, so feel free to chime in (though know that I will steal your idea as a contribution to the list!).

Here are the components and capabilities that I’ll review over the next few weeks:

  • Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention
  • Explicit vs. Implicit Instruction
  • Technological Confidence
  • Culturally Aware and Anti-Racist Educators
  • Practical Approaches to Modern Learning Using Brain Science
  • Understanding Divisional Expectations

Designing Learning Opportunities with Intention

The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration.

Teachers should have a endgame plan for anything introduced in the classroom. Inspired teaching surfaces when an educator has an innovative idea for a learning session filled with wonderful conversation and discovery. Moving from good to great teaching occurs when the educator connects the innovation to a bigger picture that he or she is hoping will take root in the minds of students. Without that connection, the session becomes a one-off moment of light bulb explosion without a denouement. The best approach here is to start with a goal that is malleable, not in a way that compromises the end game, but in a way that allows the learner to define how his or her process can arrive at the established goal. In other words, teachers must set parameters wide enough to allow for a goal to live and breath, adapting to the direction each child takes it. The resulting garden of ideas allows for diversity of thought and joyful collaboration. A goal whose scope is too narrow in its original form may develop a glorious flower, but that flower is singular in design, and more often that not fails to personalize the learning process for each child as they are only enhancing someone else’s work instead of making the work her own. Build a rich garden – many colors, many sizes and shapes. It’ll last longer in the minds and maximize the capabilities of the gardeners.

Speaking of a beautiful garden, let’s consider how to set that up. I encourage educators to consider ways to build a demonstration of the learning that rests on top of the learning goal as opposed to creating an assessment that comes at the end of the process. Learning offers the opportunity to make minor course corrections along the pathway to understanding. The ability for a young person to iterate based on discoveries over the course of the learning process is a skill that needs guidance with a focus on metacognitive reflection. Therefore assessment of the learning process best occurs (for the most part) in real time so as to encourage reflection and refinement. There may be a final rubric to which a learner must adhere; in many cases there is a need to finalize and move on. For this reason, the comprehensive rubric should be available from day one so that the target reference is always accessible. As a student reflects, she can build and adjust her contribution to garden as she sees fit within the ecosystem created as a palette.

An assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their discovery with someone else.

Though I’m over-simplifying, “I’ll just put a question about today’s lesson on the next test” simply doesn’t cut it. Would you want someone to acknowledge a great feeling of accomplishment by assessing how much has been memorized as a way to determine success? On the contrary, an assessment should be a palette of your creation on which the students can design a way to show that they have both realized something and are eager to share their ideas with someone else. It is up to each educator to create the framework which inspires this way of thinking from the start. The process through which this constructive-based knowledge should manifest can stem from different lesson constructs. Every teacher has his or her own way of building lessons, and that is great as long as the pattern of creation is consistent. Whether using Backwards Design, Universal Design, or Design Thinking models, all must first start with a goal for understanding followed by a way to connect the daily activity to the overall learning goal. I encourage you to explore these three models to learn about them and how they fit your pedogogical opinions and connect to the idea of tying daily activities to the big picture.

What is your method of content creation? Do you refer back to a guiding question you have created or adopted? Please share in the comments.

It’s a brand new day – make it the best one yet

This post begins with a deep breath.

The world we live in seems to be in a free fall – from the flames of racial injustice to the deepening curve of a pandemic, there are so many in turmoil. People have expressed agony over the excrutiating and arduous task of navigating such difficult conversations in the midst of social distancing and mask-wearing. Most certainly, a return to “normal” does not seem very likely.

And thank goodnes, because I don’t want to go back to the way things were.

I want every voice to be heard and respected. I want every student with whom I engage to believe in herself and cheer on their classmates and teachers. I want kids to learn from inspirational and charismatic adults that I am responsible for encouraging and motivating so that they may have confidence to empower young people to speak their minds, to listen to the words of others, and to agree that different opinions matter and are vital to the development of a rich society filled with trust and empathy.

If you attempt to implement reforms but fail to engage in the culture of school, nothing will change

Seymour Sarason

That effort starts with me. Let’s start with engaging school culture. The culture in the school which I work is filled with joy and determination. When the COVID-19 quarantine occurred mid-March, we didn’t falter…we built anew. My boss, the head of school for my institution, defined our effort as building a boat while trying to sail it. While we had to leave the shore, we had a hope and a prayer that the vessel was shipshape. And we thrived – not as good as in-person learning, but most certainly in a way that was maximized by our well-developed relationships with students. The relationship is the key (which is our biggest fear of the coming school year without those great relationships developed). So we have to consider ways to build empathetic relationships, and build them quickly.

A few parents have reached out to me this summer, sharing their concerns regarding the start of school. Health and safety are paramount, but I am humbled by their desire to have in-person school to propel the positive culture of my school forward. They want confirmation that we will have that enriched environment like they depend on to help develop their own children into the best versions of themselves. I have responded with a similar template that applies to each child. I’ve posted it below:

Your concern about factors that we can and cannot control in determining an in-person return to school are completely warranted. Please know that we are doing everything we can to ensure a safe, in-person experience can happen for everyone. For your family’s safety and that of our faculty, our goal for this summer remains in the plan to have both an in-person learning plan and a remote option for learning. They need to exist simultaneously. They need to be excellent. And they need to be available on day one.

Up until this week, the plan was all but certain to be in-person from day one. Like you, I now worry that the spread of coronavirus has taken our ability to execute that plan out of our hands. We cannot supersede the restrictions of our government officials, and we will not compromise the safety of our students. I pray that people in the city consider ways to be careful and focus on the general state of health in the city. All this being said, we have not changed our planning tactics, though we will create various scenarios which adjust the delicate balance of in-person and remote class time to ensure that learning can continue to flow with gusto. From advancing our middle school scheduling to considering better assessment practices, we are going to be ready.

I am grateful for your hopes and prayers that this virus takes a turn for the better. I appreciate the sense of urgency your inquiry offers to ensure that a plan is in place for your student. I will continue to work tirelessly to achieve a plan that promotes maximum effort, enthusiasm, and opportunity for every person in (and out) of our building.

My “What” and My “Why”

I’m on my way back from Santa Fe, NM, after attending a Division Heads conference for area private school leaders. As I sit in the back of the airplane, I find myself surprised to find a unique opportunity to reflect on my practice. For inspiration in this effort, I turn to the May 2017 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine, particularly to an article entitled, “Is Your School Better Because You Lead It?” by Bondi K. Kafele. Within the article, Kafele asks two questions for the reader to ponder: “What is your work about?” and “Why do you do it?

These are perfect reflection questions for any professional. I will take a slab in building my own answers here.

What is your work about?

There’s nothing like a 30,000 foot question to get me thinking. My work is all about the privileged child and how that young person can better understand the opportunities afforded to him or her because of various, unique environments available either at home or in our school. Facing reality, my 250 students enjoy an elevated classroom experience free of outside, standardized influence when compared to the typical experience which manifests in thousands of public school learning environments because requirements which exist outside of their control often tie their hands behind their backs. It is therefore my role to guide our teachers and students in the conversation that explores how this special opportunity to teach in a private educational environment reveals an obligation to lead others to success. That success manifests in various professional and personal avenues to be appreciated and celebrated.

Why do you do it?

I love kids, plain and simple. I recognize that, as a product of private school learning, I have so much to give to my community with regard to academic knowledge and how to use it as a way to improve the world around us. This gift includes and is most consumed (for me, anyway) by lessons I have learned, good and bad, about the life in a privileged environment. I love how young people see the world, the naivete that their varied experiences bring, and the way that exposures to life outside their “bubble” broaden their scope to reveal passion and identity. I also love the educational environment; I feel comfortable in private education because I am surrounded by like-minded individuals. The various perspectives of my colleagues may not always align with my own, but the beauty inherent inside the ”hows” of education (ie, pedagogy, technology, relationships, etc.) are better shared with those who start from a place of love and responsibility to serving today’s youth in some way, shape, or form.

So, there you have it. What has developed into more of a manifesto than a reflection, I have put to paper my reason for being in education and, specifically, in educational leadership. I hope you have the chance to reflect on your craft as I have today. It’s a refreshing and energizing activity. Please share your thoughts when you do!

Making Failure a Priority

This image appeared on my LinkedIn feed yesterday, sparking thoughts and reflection about why the middle school years are so crucial. Tweenagers, children between the ages of 10 and 15, go through a roller coaster of changes. They discover independence and passion for new ideas and interests, particularly during the school day. As they discover opportunities to make decisions sans parent influence, tweenagers find their path more open and free as their capabilities have increased. However, this freedom comes with risk attached. In discovering passions, the inevitability of failure surfaces. For students at my school, a fear of failure predicates all decisions. Quite often, they test the waters only to back off after a mistake or an undesirable result develops. As you can see from the examples below, it’s that “comfort zone” of effort that we need to expunge.

“My parents will kill me if I don’t make an A.”
Students love the easy ‘A.’ The gratification of seeing a good grade on a test or report card starts early and carries forward throughout our adult life. But anyone can take the easy road to make the grade; the more memorable academic work arrives when taking the road less traveled. However, students are hesitant to take risks on a project or paper because the uncharted path, though more interesting and dynamic, may not provide an easy avenue to earning high marks. Pursuing a unique and creative path takes effort and iteration which means patience in academic effort. Teachers are welcoming of this path; looking at a new topic or seeing a student take a new angle with a project is energizing to a classroom. We as educators need to remain vocal in our support of these trailblazers so that they can see the value of the road less traveled.

“We lost the game. We suck.”
When it comes to sports, middle school students are diving into a whole new world. No matter the game, the average tweenager is only developing the concept of being a “cog in the wheel.” After so many years of being in the spotlight, especially in today’s ribbon-happy athletic environment, being a piece to the puzzle versus the solution is humbling at best. Some young athletes reach puberty early, giving them the physical edge; this only adds to the disillusion of the rest of the pack as they watch their classmate get the glory.

Second, so many times in my coaching career I have heard the opinion of “we suck” based on the fact that the team lost the game yesterday. It’s hard for a young person to see the baby steps of progress that it takes to become a strong, successful team. As I speak to students after a game, the response to “how did the game go?” is always black and white. Win or loss. So my second question is always, “How did YOU do?” The response to this question is interesting – after debriefing personal performance, students are very quick to celebrate the success of a teammate. Perhaps the question triggers that “cog and wheel” perspective in the tweenage brain. But coaches and parents alike can help a student overcome that all-or-nothing response by asking about the space between.

Power in Failing
As I return to the image that sparked this post, let’s look at the key pieces to the acronym shown in the picture:


  • F: First – In order to fail, you have to try (and try again). Ramana Maharshi, sage thinker who devoted his life to exploring self-inquiry, is quoted saying, “No one succeeds without effort…Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance.” We must teach young people to take that first leap of faith, and to be comfortable with the outcome, whatever it may be.
  • A: Attempt – These days a young person believes that attempt = successful completion. I host an after school club every other week when students come to play chess and other types of board games. I find it interesting that, even in a gaming situation, students won’t make the attempt against an opponent they know is good (or better than they are) at a game. For instance, Alex is a chess master, and students are afraid to play him. With this decision, there isn’t a way to improve. We must educate tweenagers to re-engineer their understanding of an attempt to one of trial and error.
  • L: Learning – Skill development is the very essence of forming the teenage mind. To me, the definition of learning finds its foundation in skill development. To put it another way, failure is a part of developing skills. Finding out what doesn’t work provides a wealth of understanding for a young person. Failure is a life experience that helps, not only in the current effort, but in all those efforts to come.

Take a moment to reflect on how you teach failure in your classroom. It may be the most important lesson you can provide a young person.

Facebook is Not Ours. It’s Theirs.


David Weinberger:

For example, when blogging first blossomed, it was seen by its early enthusiasts not merely as a form of publishing but as a type of community-building. Our blog sites were our personal presence on the web, and we viewed ourselves as social. That’s why the “blogroll” was standard equipment on the early blogs; it was a list of blogs that constituted your bloggy neighborhood. You read those blogs, you commented on them, and they did the same to you. We supported one another emotionally, intellectually, and sometimes in the physical world.  

The blogosphere did not scale. I believe that problem could have been solved. But then Facebook happened.  In many ways, Facebook fulfilled the dream of blogging. It was fully social, came with sophisticated social-network maintenance tools, and was inviting even to those who didn’t like writing, didn’t have the free time to devote to it, and didn’t enjoy the self-assertion a daily blog requires. But my delight about Facebook is at best mixed for one crucial reason. We built the blogosphere ourselves. We wrote the posts, we linked to others, and what emerged was ours. At the time it stood in contrast to the content coming from the professional media. That content was written by them for us to consume. Blogs were ours.  

Facebook is not ours. It’s theirs for us to use. Facebook is now a far better Roschian prototype of the Internet than old-fashioned blogs are. The fact that I resist that fact makes me a prototype of a sad old man…  

If the new prototype of the Internet is not the Blogosphere but Facebook, then the argument that’s maintained me for 20 years has fallen apart. If users don’t come into contact with the Internet’s architecture, that architecture can’t shape them. If they instead deal almost exclusively with Facebook,  then the conclusion of the Argument from Architecture ought to be that Facebook is shaping the values of its users. And Facebook’s values are not much like the Net’s.

I can’t tell you how much that first paragraph resonates. Things have changed. 

Read the whole thing. 

Love this article. The Internet as a concept has yet to be realized…