Reflections of a First-Year Principal

Today is officially the last day of my first year as a principal. Every crazy, inspiring, funny moment from the past year is permanently etched in my memory and will inspire and inform my decisions next year and beyond. The lessons I’ve learned and skills I’ve developed are many, but there are some things that stand out as the most important points to identify as I sum up this year and move forward.

Leadership develops from the ground up. My staff and students dictate what I do, and being in tune to their needs helps me lead and support them. I need to constantly check in with them to assess what is working in our school and what is not.

Developing a thick skin as a leader is essential, but you must work just as hard to keep your heart intact on the inside. Principals are bombarded with a lot of negatives: difficult students, sad home situations, disgruntled parents. The job is emotionally draining, and it is important not to get too absorbed in every hardship experienced by students, staff, and families. At the same time, it is important to maintain compassion and empathy when dealing with unfortunate situations. Balancing an openness to distress with an emotional detachment to remain strong is a constant challenge.

Setting high expectations for all fosters a growth mindset and helps ensure that everyone is working toward their his or her greatest potentials. Both children and adults will perform at the level where you expect the least capable member of the group to function. Believe that everyone can achieve greatness, and most will reach that level of performance. It isn’t enough to just articulate what you expect. A good leader needs to be ready to provide assistance and resources, as well.

Relationships are everything. All members of the school community needs to feel that they are unique, valued, and have a voice. Through developing relationships with students, staff members, and parents, a school leader cultivates trust. That trust motivates individuals to work harder and take risks using their unique talents. In turn, a positive school culture emerges when people feel that their principal supports them and cares about their well-being.

With my first year of learning as a foundation, I look forward to using this insight to make the second year even better than the first!

Life Lessons from Charlotte’s Web

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Artwork by Heather Hatcher

March is over, and the Belle River school community just finished reading Charlotte’s Web. Together, students, staff, and parents shared the seemingly simple story about an imaginative girl, farm animals, a small pig, and a barn spider. Although a multitude of children’s books of various themes and genres have been written since E.B. White published this short novel in 1952, I cannot think of any other children’s book that contains as many important life lessons in 184 pages as Charlotte’s Web. White used a deceptively mundane and ordinary setting, set of characters, and plot to explain the profundity of life in ways that people of all ages can understand.

Charlotte’s Web teaches us to…

Celebrate and Make the Most of Life

Wilbur is saved from an untimely death by Fern and likes to spend quiet time thinking about what is is like to be alive. In the background of the story is the nature world in its constant state of life, death, and replenishment from year to year and generation to generation. Charlotte ponders, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” Life is precious, wonderful and beautiful, especially when it is well-lived.

Realize the Importance of True Friends

Friendship is certainly the foundation of the novel. Fern’s love for Wilbur saved him, and Charlotte taught Wilbur how to make and be a friend. Charlotte’s life had purpose because she saved his life and made him happy. The meaning and satisfaction of friendship is one of the greatest joys of life.

Appreciate Diversity

There are a variety of animals in Charlotte’s Web: cows, sheep, geese, a horse, and even a rat.  Even though they share the same space in the barn, they do not 12778674_1669994383251660_6483419314232506641_ohave any interest in becoming friends with one another. The animals do not trust what is different from their own kind. Simple and kind Wilbur sees past the exterior appearances of the animals, and the friendship shared by Wilbur and Charlotte inspires the rest of the animals. Ultimately, the barn animals work together as a team to help Wilbur and Charlotte. Although everyone has different appearances, cultural backgrounds, and customs, people are similar on the inside and have talents to contribute to the greater community.

Stay Humble

“Wilbur was modest; fame did not spoil him.” He maintained his lovable, kind personality, and everyone in the story liked him even more. People respond well to humility because it shows that you place yourself at the same level as others, and not above them.

Cope with Loss, but Never Forget

After Charlotte died, Wilbur loved her children and grandchildren, but “none of the new spiders ever took her place in his heart”. Fern grew up and stopped visiting the barn, but Wilber maintained his fondness for her, too. Although life is not the same after a loss, memories remain unchanged.

Show Compassion Whenever Possible

Both Fern and Charlotte show tremendous compassion for Wilbur. Charlotte is even compassionate toward her victims, putting them to sleep before eating them so that they feel no pain. Both great and small acts of compassion should be applied to our choices and actions.

Give People a Chance

Charlotte seems fierce, brutal, and bloodthirsty to Wilbur at first. He gives her a chance and learns that she is kindhearted, clever, and compassionate. Some people may seem rough around the edges on the outside, but they usually have endearing qualities on the inside.

My hope is that our students will hold on to this story as they grow up, always keeping in their hearts the lessons of friendship, life, and loss that will help them navigate through their lives and be better people. When they are adults and have the urge to reread Charlotte’s Web, perhaps with their own children, I hope they remember with fond memories the first time they read this classic story as students at Belle River Elementary.

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Artwork by Heather Hatcher

My Word for 2016: Intention

 

imgres-7Rather than developing a New Year’s resolution, I decided to choose a vision for the year based on one word: intention. This year, I made a commitment to myself to live every day with intention. Every moment of each day is a choice, and I want to mindfully direct my actions with my goals, beliefs, and dreams serving as the compass for each decision I make. Every day, I want to intentionally choose how I spend my time, how I exert my energy, how I focus my thoughts, and the environment that I create to surround me. With my intentions driving my actions, I believe I can maximize my opportunities and have the greatest impact. The idea of living with intention will be the anchor that steadies my focus on being purposeful and mindful in all aspects of life, particularly in my role as an educational leader.

In order to fully develop my understanding of intention, I read books and blogs, listened to podcasts, and collected quotes. All of the thinkers I examined shared similar beliefs that intention is about knowing who we are, assessing the culture around us, and making choices. Being intentional is living the life you were born to live, finding your passion, setting goals, staying focused, and learning from other people. It is apparent that intention extends into all facets of life from personal to professional, which is how I intend (pun intended) to apply what I discovered about intention in the various roles of my life.

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Intention is very spiritual. It helps you discover your true character and find ways to develop yourself to your greatest potential. Setting intention is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are being in the present moment. Your attention is on the here and now in the rapidly changing course of your life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.

Intention is about being creative and abundant. Most people view intention as having determination or strong will or control, but it is more about having the power to create and tap into unlimited abundance. According to Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of The Power of Intention: Learning to Co-create Your World Your Way, intention is a source of energy that lives within each of us. He feels that intent is inspiration, “when an idea gets hold of you and you feel compelled to let that impulse or energy carry you along.” Great musicians, writers, athletes, and artists tap into that source. “When you’re connected to the power of intention, everywhere you go, and everyone you meet, is affected by you and the energy you radiate. As you become the power of imgres-2.jpgintention, you’ll see your dreams being fulfilled almost magically, and you’ll see yourself creating huge ripples in the energy fields of others by your presence and nothing more.”

Intention is about getting results. According to Dr. Mindy Hall, author of Leading with Intention, “Every interaction—whether presenting to an entire organization or talking one-on-one with a colleague—is an opportunity to influence and inspire others to achieve extraordinary results”. She feels that your ability to do that depends on how aware you are of your impact and the care and discipline with which you choose your actions.

As an elementary principal, I want to be more aware of myself in each moment and truly understand how my choices and actions are impacting my students, my staff, parents, and the greater school community. Throughout the day, I need to see myself from the perspective of those I serve. Am I coming across as being grounded, prepared, transparent, approachable, and competent? Am I contributing and making a difference through my deliberate choices? Are my beliefs and values about children, teaching, and learning reflected and executed through my actions? Am I consistent in my efforts? 

Four days into 2016, and I have awakened each day and asked myself, “How am I going to make this day great and engage in every moment?” Each day, the answer to that question has been grounded in intention.

Happy New Year!

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Parent-Teacher Conferences Truly Matter

Parent-teacher conferences are scheduled at Belle River Elementary next week. This is an opportunity for the essential stakeholders to meet for a frank discussion about the successes and challenges facing each learner at our school. With the implementation of online progress reporting and digital communication of classroom and school news, this face-to-face meeting is especially important for members of a child’s learning team to address specific issues and develop a relationship that cannot be cultivated through electronic means. Rather than just informing parents through a one-way stream of information, a conference is a two-way conversation that fosters a partnership between home and school. Parent-teacher conferences serve the following purposes:

Parents need to see firsthand what is happening at school.

Often there are misconceptions based on public perception or lack of knowledge of current practices in education. A parent-teacher conference allows the teacher to share work samples and information that reflect day-to-day student work. It is a good time to share instructional practices, curriculum information, assessments, and data that are used to inform instructional strategies and interventions. Conferences provide parents an opportunity to see into their child’s world at school.

Parents want ideas to help support teaching and learning.

Teachers have spent years developing skills and techniques to help children learn, and parents really want to tap into that expertise and take away some ideas to help their children think and learn. Teaching parents the terms related to instructional programs, sharing book titles and educational apps, modeling questions to foster high-level thinking, and providing strategies to help children study are some ways teachers can teach parents learn how to help their children improve as students.

Parents need to understand and provide insight into the uniqueness of their student.

In order to better personalize the learning experience for our students, parents are key in developing the learning plan. Both teachers and parents can share the students’ strengths, interests, and opportunities for growth from their perspectives. They can also offer suggestions. Teachers can direct parents toward resources, and parents can inform teachers about students’ personalities and preferences that might inform learning activities. Through combining the school and home points-of-view, instruction can be individualized to better meet the student’s needs. 

As much as digital communication has taken over schools, communicating in person will always be the most effective. The teachers at Belle River are ready to answer questions, share observations, provide suggestions, and learn from parents in order to ensure the success of each of their students. We hope to see all of our parents next week at conferences!

Following are some questions for parents to ask at parent-teacher conferences:

  • Is my child performing at grade level?
  • What are my child’s strengths and weaknesses in each subject?
  • How much time should my child spend on homework?
  • Are my child’s assignments completed accurately?
  • Does the school have special programs to meet my child’s needs?
  • What are my child’s special learning needs?
  • Does my child have close friends?
  • How well does my child get along with the other students?
  • What can we do at home to support classroom learning?
  • What is the best way to keep in touch with you?

We look forward to seeing all of our parents at conferences next week!

Be the Principal of Change

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Tomorrow is my first official day as a principal, and Gahndi’s words keep reverberating in my head. This is my chance to lead and innovate and positively influence all who enter my school. Because I feel I was called to administration as I was with teaching, I cannot help but reflect back on my first day as a teacher. As a new teacher, I wanted to make an impact. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of learners and build capacity in them to reach their greatest potentials. I wanted to seek out and design effective and engaging teaching methods. I wanted to be the kind of teacher that I would want for myself and my children. I wanted to “be the change” rather than just talk about change.

So, what does it mean to “be the change” as a principal? It means to let every action reflect my beliefs and ideals. It means to be accountable and responsible, not making excuses. It means to lead with commitment and heart. It means to put ideas into action. It means to do and be rather than just talk.

In the spirit of Gahndi, I hope that my leadership changes others for the better. As I begin my term as a principal, my goal is that others will see the following actions reflected in my words, actions, and principles.

  • Be supportive
  • Be accessible
  • Be visible
  • Be fair
  • Be collaborative
  • Be kind, caring, and respectful
  • Be an example
  • Be with students
  • Be a good communicator

Literature Circles

One of my favorite instructional practices in reading that I’ve used for two decades is literature circles, based on the work of Harvey Daniels.  A literature circle is a group of students who read the same book and meet together in a book-club format to discuss the book and work together to better understand their reading. 

When I first introduce literatures circles in the beginning of the school year, I teach the students various “roles” to use as lenses through which to engage with the text. The roles are Discussion Director, Vocabulary Enricher, Connector, Summarizer, Literary Luminary, Researcher, and Illustrator. Students are assigned a different role each time their literature circle completes a reading, and then the groups meet the following day with each person contributing to the discussion from the perspective of his or her role. 

Assigning different roles works for one or two books with students becoming experts at discussing and analyzing text. I find, however, that the novelty of literature circles wears off and students settle into sharing their roles in a “round robin” format that lacks excitement and substantive conversation. When that phenomenon occurs, I introduce the Advanced Literature Circles form that I created that include all of the roles. This format helps students examine a book through all of the desired aspects, better understanding how a reader asks questions, develops vocabulary, makes connections, summarizes, appreciates the author’s craft, and visualizes during the course of a particular reading session. After completing the Advanced Literature Circles form and gathering for the next day’s discussion, students begin to share what their notes in a more natural way as the conversation calls for particular contributions. 

Eventually, students become so adept at using this note-taking process to synthesize during reading that they do not need to use their notes to discuss. After months of developing the skills associated with all of the literature circle roles, the students are experts and become so caught up in discussions characterized by high-level thinking and substantive conversation that they do not need prompts. Wanting to capture this type of dialogue in which students abandon their literature circle scripts and move beyond merely recounting the facts of a book, I recorded an impromptu video of a group of girls reading Esperanza Rising. Watch as they analyze and debate their ideas and predictions about the story with a natural passion and love for literature. 

Earth Day Makerspace

Since our exploration of the makerspace concept has been a huge success and the students were asking for more tinkering activities, Earth Day seemed like a great opportunity to link makerspace activities to conservation. Makerspaces in schools are stocked with various supplies and materials for students to use to invent. With this in mind, I thought it would be fun to invite students to bring in recyclables and items destined for the garbage to use to create. Students would learn how to reuse materials to produce novel things, combining conservation with innovation.

I shared our plan with Laura McDonell, a middle school teacher whose class has been collaborating with my class on Genius Hour projects and makerspace activities. She sent me a list of makerspace ideas generated by her students to use for our Earth Day projects, and we were ready to celebrate Earth Day in a fun, creative way.

On Earth Day, I printed the makerspace ideas on slips of paper and readied a table for the students’ “trash”. After the children arrived, I partnered them and told the pairs to choose an item to create. Then, they could pick six materials from the garbage/recyclable table to use in some way in their inventions. In addition to the selected materials, the students could use any other available material or resource in their construction. They discussed their ideas, planned designs, created prototypes, redesigned and improved their ideas, and tested their inventions. The final projects were clever and forward-thinking in design, and throughout the entire process students were excited and engaged. The students are excited to share their creations in the video posted below! Happy Earth Day, every day!

Socrative Circles

I have always believed that my ultimate mission as an educator is to teach students how to think. That is why I was excited for the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which are founded on developing students’ abilities to think critically, communicate globally, express their creativity, and connect across multiple forms of media. These skills are essential for students to be successful in school and in the global workforce in their futures. One instructional strategy that has helped me impart these thinking and communication abilities is Socrative Circles.

A Socrative Circle is an activity in which students work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer through participating in an intellectual conversation centered on a text, video, piece of art, or other form of media. The word Socratic comes from the name of the classical Greek philosopher, Socrates, who developed a Theory of Knowledge. He believed that the answers to all human questions and problems reside within us, and the way to discover those answers was through the practice of disciplined conversation. Socrative Circles or Socrative Seminars have become common practices at the secondary level, but I found a way to implement this practice at the elementary level. The results have been better than I imagined!IMG_0911

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First, students watch a video or read a text. I often use short TED Talks that are connected to a particular concept we are studying in social studies, like pollution or entrepreneurialism. Students watch the video twice and take notes. Then, I count students off and they form groups of four to discuss the ideas presented in the video. Students are given a list of questions or considerations that I’ve created beforehand to springboard their small group discussions. After about twenty minutes of substantive conversation, the students push all of the desks to the perimeter of the classroom and form a large circle of chairs. Then, the entire class participates in a whole group discussion about the topic.

During the whole group discussion, I silently observe and take notes about how students participate. The children take the lead and work together to participate in a high-level, mature discussion. This is the result of time spent establishing and following sets of goals and norms.

Goals:

  • Listen better to what others say.
  • Explain your own ideas.
  • Speak and work with others whether you are close with them or not.
  • Receive correction and criticism from others.
  • Ask about what you don’t understand.
  • Admit when you are wrong.
  • Think about questions for which answers are uncertain.
  • Learn from others.
  • Teach others.
  • Understand a public issue more deeply.

Norms:

  • Be respectful of others.  A discussion is an exchange of ideas and not a debate.  There should be no side conversations, because each person should be engaged in the conversation and all ideas should be shared with the group.
  • Read texts and view videos carefully.  Your opinions are important, but these opinions are your thoughts about the text or video.  Think “claim and evidence”.
  • Listen carefully to what others say and do not interrupt.  Hands do not have to be raised, and you can contribute your ideas to the conversation naturally when another person has stopped sharing.
  • Speak clearly and loudly so others hear and understand you.  Repeat what another person has shared before contributing your questions or ideas to ensure that you understand what he or she said.
  • Pay attention to your “air time”.  We want to hear from all of the voices in our classroom.  Gently encourage students who have not shared to contribute to the conversation.

At the end of the discussion, students reflect on the discussion process and their conclusions about the issue being discussed. Then, we brainstorm ideas for taking action or using our new understandings.

In addition to developing thinking and communication skills, the Socrative Circle discussions have resulted in students thinking globally and taking action locally. After our Socrative Circle discussion on plastic pollution in the Pacific gyres, Samantha and Sophie wrote a letter to the editor that was published in The Voice newspaper. Students also started brining in reusable water bottles instead of disposable plastic ones. Another discussion about young entrepreneurs motivated some students to research how to create an app. Students are also independently reading articles critically and evaluating them as potential topics for future Socrative Circle discussions. Finally, students really see how how the concepts they are learning about in class connect to the world in important, useful ways.

Letter to The Editor written by Samantha and Sophie
Letter to The Editor written by Samantha and Sophie

Since we are currently studying U.S. government, our most recent Socrative Circle was about leadership. The students watched a short video of children talking about the qualities of good leaders, and they also read a list of quotes about leadership made by famous people. Then, the children discussed the video and quotes in small groups and met for a whole-class talk about what makes a good leader. This video highlights some of the deep thinking and ideas from the large Socrative Circle. Based on the conversation, I am confident that my class if full of great leaders!

App of the Week: Monster Physics

A favorite app used in our classroom is Monster Physics. The app allows students to build various contraptions including cars, cranes, rocket ships, tanks, planes, and helicopters using an assortment of parts made from different materials. The parts are connected by welding them together, drawing chains or ropes between them, or using special joints. After completing an invention, students test their creations. In addition to learning and applying physics concepts, students using creative-thinking and problem-solving skills. We use the lite version, and you can check out how Mac and Jack have been tinkering with the app in the video posted below. Below that video is a promotional video of the full version of the app, showcasing the additional features.

Embracing the Maker Movement

After the successful implementation of STEM activities in our school, I have been casually researching the Maker Movement as another revolution in education through which to develop complex ideas through hands-on fun and creativity. The Maker Movement was born from the success of MAKE Magazine’s annual Maker Faire, a gathering in which “makers” from all disciplines (science, engineering, art, technology, performance, literature, crafting, etc.) share innovative things they have made or learned. These events have been replicated around the world, even in Detroit. This grassroots movement is quickly increasing momentum, and these crafters, tinkerers, hobbyists, tech enthusiasts, and students are creating new products and even starting their own companies. The movement is also finding its way into classrooms. 

The founder of the Maker Movement, Dale Dougherty, feels that students should be offered opportunities to make things in order to view themselves as producers, not just consumers. “My goal is that all people, young and old, come to see themselves as makers, creators and doers because I know that all people who have the skills and knowledge to make things have the power to make the world a better place,” says Dougherty. Consequently, the maker movement dovetails perfectly with best practices involving STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics), problem-solving, and hands-on, student-driven learning.

These ideas made sense to me, but it wasn’t until teacher friend Laura McDonell recommended a book, Worlds of Making: Best Practices for Establishing a Makerspace for Your School by Laura Fleming, that I decided to get serious about exploring the Makerspace concept. Fleming’s ideas resonated with me and perfectly aligned with my philosophy of education. Fleming argued that to be successful in the knowledge economy of their future, students need to be skilled in using creativity and inventive thinking to continuously innovate and manage novel and improved goods and services. Making fosters those skills and also integrates multiple subjects. Making also connects concrete, hands-on learning with high-tech digital tools. Learning while making is student-centered and personalized. These concepts epitomized my vision of the ideal modern classroom, and I especially felt inspired by this quote from the book: “The Maker Movement is about moving from consumption to creation and turning knowledge into action.”

The inspiration was energizing, but providing the time and a space for students to “make” while in the midst of teaching the mandated curriculum was a challenge. Again, Laura McDonell solved that problem. She was experimenting with making in her classroom at St. Clair Middle School, and she had shared two videos of students participating in a “Makerspace Box Challenge” that she facilitated. Laura suggested sending a challenge to my class for one or more students to complete. I knew this was the perfect opportunity to dive in to the Maker Movement!

The materials and challenge arrived in my school mailbox, and I chose two students, creative in different ways, to work on the challenge in the hallway. Other than checking in on them and taking a few pictures now and then, I did not supervise the process. For about twenty minutes, the students took the lead to choose an idea, brainstorm, design, gather tools and extra materials, build, improve, test, and refine their invention. The result was incredible! The two created a very clever camera, but the success of the activity was not about the product or the materials used to produce it. My students had collaborated, applied their knowledge, made connections between concepts, and made sense of the world in a way that I couldn’t develop in a traditional lesson. Those were the outcomes that meant the most. I am so proud Carly and Isaac, and I cannot wait to offer “making” opportunities to the rest of my students.