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.

Lenses, Not Silos

I am reading an inspiring book about school design and program development with the student at the center. It’s called Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I’m enthralled with the motivational idealism that exists throughout the work; however, this idealism is galvanized by practical experience as the two authors, former school principals, have demonstrated how theory can become common practice. Every so often, a quote pops up which allows me the opportunity to reflect on our School practice. This morning, that quote came from a chapter on “Lenses, Not Silos.”

Good, thoughtful teaching and learning is a process more gerative of questions than of hard and fast answers. – Building School 2.0: How to Create Schools We Need

It’s the Lens

The context for this question stems from the fact that classrooms cannot harbor concepts and skills in exclusivity. In other words, the ideas presented and discussed in a math class must, at their core, facilitate how a student can view the world through a filtered lens. That filter depends on the reference point (or, in the case of school, the material presented); however, a child in the classroom should feel empowered to use this lens as an every day, any moment skill. So when that same student is in history class, there should be an opportunity to utilize a math lens to view the task at hand.

This blending of content areas can happen organically, for instance, in history and English classes. With a little effort, the courses sync to the point where students should not recognize the difference between history or English class…and that is wonderful. But the example I used above (seeing math in history) can be a bit challenging when material is not presented with intention. But this essay is not a challenge to create connections. On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

On the contrary, I’d argue that we should NOT try to create intentional blending between courses that don’t have that organic connection.

Content as a Vehicle

Instead, I’d offer that educators must focus on building the lens through which a child sees learning. The content used is merely a vehicle for practicing ways to use various lenses. When we can teach students how to think mathematically or process a concept within socio political paradigm, the endgame will present itself tangibly. In our case, the goal must be a capable young learner who can see the comprehensive opportunity to process content as he or she would in the real world.

So I encourage you, in this last month of school, to frame your conversations with the lens of learning in mind. Let’s teach our kids how to see the world as an interconnected classroom, where their ability can bring many thoughts and materials into a useful, practical, and joyful experience.

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!

if you got a problem…yo, I’ll solve it.

Ice, Ice, Baby

This is a great article, and one worth considering as applicable to students and to the adults in the room. I just returned from a conference with other Division Heads during which Dr. Rob Evans, educational psychologist and author, spoke in the closing session about the “tough conversation” between schools and families. One major connection to this article Kate shared and his talk occurred when he stated,
“We live in a time when opportunities for our children continue to increase exponentially, while predictability of future options has been decreasing just as quickly.” 
It sounds like the coping mechanism for anxiety is often medically prescribed, when, in truth, what we all need is more time; however, I don’t think any remedy outside of a magic wand can provide us more hours in our day. Yet we crave a time to think and reflect on our daily lives, our school schedule, etc. From the very youngest to the CEO, time to think would do us all a world of good and lead to better choices. Dr. Evans goes a bit further to discuss a very poignant fact:

Problems can be fixed; dilemmas can be managed. 

Often times, looking at the way we handle issues in our lives can determine how much anxiety we bring upon ourselves. We cannot control everything, yet our instant life via mobile devices makes us think we can. But true problems are in need of solutions that disrupt the issue and provide a new road to travel. A dilemma is more on the level of inconvenience; perhaps, dilemmas can be serviced better with a bit of white-out rather than trashing the blueprints altogether.
The summer provides me an incredible opportunity, even in the midst of shuttling my boys to and from activities to keep them occupied while I’m at work, to reflect on my practice. I can slow down, think about priorities and (for instance) write about my thoughts in a venue such as this blog. I can think about how I do school; my expectations and reasonings behind various events and actions throughout the year. Most of all, I need to consider what problems I can cut out, and what dilemmas I am capable of fixing.
I hope and pray that your anxiety levels drop with the coming of a slower, or perhaps an alternative schedule this summer. I invite you to view the future weeks with hope and possibility.