Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Top 10 Things I Learned from Being a Principal for Seven Weeks

For seven weeks, I was an interim, elementary principal in one of my district's elementary schools. It was an opportunity and experience that was invaluable. When I began I was nervous and full of anxiety, but when I ended, I had wonderful memories, great new relationships, and a very real and meaningful learning experience. 
So as I look back on my seven weeks as an elementary principal, and try to put things into perspective, these are my top ten things I have learned.  
Be Visible
From my very first day, I knew I had to be out of my office and in the halls, classrooms, cafeteria, and out on bus duty. I needed to show students, parents, teachers, and staff I was there for them. I could not do that from staying in my office trying to sort through all the emails and paperwork. While those needed attention, being visible was more important. 
Be Real
While I was filling in for another principal in his building, I still I had to be myself as I addressed issues and worked with others. I couldn't pretend or try to be someone I wasn't. If I wasn't myself, then chances were my time as interim principal would have been a disaster, and I would have left with regrets. 
Be Supportive
Whether it was support for students, teachers, parents, or staff, being supportive was probably the most important thing I did. I tried to be supportive in various ways, whether it was just being present in the hallways, cafeteria, out on bus duty, or offering to cover a teacher's class while they explore a new topic or need to collaborate with another teacher. Simply put, I listened to, talked with, and followed up with people, and I took the Rocketbook notebook everywhere I went.   
Be Engaged
This was one of the funnest parts about the job. Going into classrooms, the hallways, the cafeteria, or out on bus duty allowed me to interact with the students, parents, teachers, and staff. Just getting to see the wonderful things going on in the classrooms and talking to everyone allowed me build meaningful relationships in the seven weeks I was at the school. One teacher asked if his students could share their Google Docs assignment with me. Of course I agreed, and I commented on each of the students' Google Docs. The students then responded to my comments. What a great way to connect to the students and get to know them in a short amount of time.   
Being a principal I found that communication was vital to everything. If I did not communicate clearly or if others did not communicate with me clearly, then there were going to be some bumps in the road. The more everyone communicated with each other, the smoother the days went. Even if there were difficult conversations that needed to take place, I always wanted to be honest and upfront. I would always choose to talk, rather than not talk.  
Build & Strengthen Relationships
I cannot underestimate the importance of building trusting, honest, and sincere relationships. Relationships need to be established with all stakeholders. I tried to build these relationships by being visible, listening, smiling, getting back to people, letting people know they are doing great things, giving little notes of praise and/or encouragement, attending after school functions, making phone calls (even the difficult ones), sending weekly emails, and establishing a strong, positive social media presence. Relationships always need attention. They cannot be let go. 
A part of being a principal that cannot be ignored is handling discipline. As soon as I began my principal experience, I had to deal with discipline issues from kindergartners to sixth-graders. They were classroom issues, bus issues, cafeteria issues. You name it and it seemed to follow me, and I was okay with that. I wanted to support my teachers and my students, even the students whom I had to talk with. By handling the discipline it was a way of supporting my teachers and students, while at the same time building and strengthening trusting relationships. Yes, I had some difficult discipline issues, but my answer was always remain calm, be firm, be clear on my expectations, and talk with the students. For some students that needed a little more help, I would ask them what I could do to help make their time at school better. By doing this, I let them know I truly was there to help them, and the next time I saw them, it made that next meeting much easier. At the end, I would always touch base with the students' parents and teachers to follow up with them, and I would also follow up with the students the next day. Discipline was more than consequences, it was more about helping students.   
Pick Up the Phone
Whether it was picking up the phone to call a parent or picking up the phone to call a fellow administrator, the phone was a great tool. Calling home to talk to a parent about their child, immediately starts to build a relationship. It did not matter if it was good new or bad news, I wanted to the parent to hear it from the school first, and I wanted to be able to connect with the parent in a more personal way, rather than an email. There were also very few days I did not pick up the phone and call another administrator for help or advice. Just because I was the principal, it didn't mean I had all the answers (especially being the newbie). I use my PLN on Twitter often for support, so why not use my PLN in my own district? I wasn't afraid to ask questions, and that was one of the smartest things I did. 
A Principal's Voice Goes a Long Way
As principal, it was important for me to keep in mind that what I said and how I reacted to situations would have a significant impact on the culture of the building. People looked to me to calm a situation down, not escalate it. They listened to how I spoke with others. Having that voice as principal was a great opportunity to make a positive impact on the school. 
Expect the Unexpected 
From day to day, I could not predict what was going to happen next. I did use Google Keep to help keep me organized or at least give me a starting point from day to day, but it quickly got changed around. I could not change the unexpected from happening, but understanding all of the above ideas helped me handle the unexpected with a much greater sense of confidence and calmness. 
Being an elementary principal for seven weeks was a honor and privilege. I was in an amazing school and witnessed everyone going above and beyond to help a fantastic bunch of students, and the students weren't the only ones learning. I was right there along with them. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Above and Beyond

Teacher, "Recess time!"
Students, "Yeh!"
Teacher, "Let's play some football!"
Students, "I wanna be on your team!"
Teacher, "I'll be the all-time quarterback, punter, and ref."
Students, "Yeh!"
Teacher, "Ready. Set. Hike."
Students, "I'm open! I'm open! Throw it to me! Throw it to me!"
Recess is one of the best parts about elementary school for students, but also for teachers and principals. It is fantastic to see the enthusiasm that comes out from students at recess and how engaged they can really be.
One of the things that I am quickly realizing as principal (just over one month in) is just how important it is to the students, parents, and other staff members to have teachers that go above and beyond for their students in ways that are meaningful and personal to their students. When I have teachers volunteering to be all-time punters, quarterbacks, and referees at recess they are building lasting memories for the students, while at the same time building stronger relationships with their students and their students' families. And that has a greater impact than many realize. 
What do you think a student is more likely to talk about when he gets home from school, the lesson on fractions or that their teacher played with them at recess? As a parent, I know if I am hearing that my child's teacher played a game with them at recess, I know my child is getting taught by an educator who truly cares about their students and sees their job as more than just that. They value their time with my child in a way that goes beyond the classroom lessons. As a principal, I love to see those connections and relationships being made stronger because I see how that builds a strong sense of trust and supportive community that is needed in the overall culture of a school. The importance of relationships cannot be overlooked.
Now, I am not expecting to see all of my teachers playing football with their students. That is obviously not the only way teachers are going above and beyond for their students. I am also seeing teachers go above and beyond by staying late to make that extra phone call home or send that extra email home when they have their own families to get home to. I see them communicating with families at home through Class Dojo or Remind, which gives the families a meaningful glimpse into their child's day. I see them talking with that troubled student over and over in a quiet, reassuring voice never once losing their patience. I see them willingly cover other classes over and over when there are not subs. I see them getting down on the ground with students in their classes and meeting them at eye level. I hear them telling parents to contact them anytime of the day or night. I see them eager to learn and try new ideas to better improve their time with their students. 
All of these teachers who go above and beyond to build strong, lasting relationships, need to be celebrated. They need to know that they are making a significant difference not only with their students or their classes, but they are making a difference in the entire building and school community. I must do my part to acknowledge and celebrate these teachers. I need to go above and beyond for them. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

My First Few Weeks as Elementary Principal

On January 23rd, my 15-year career as a classroom teacher changed dramatically, as I began a new role as interim principal in one of my district's elementary schools. Then on January 24th, my wife and I celebrated our third child being born. It was a week full of emotions but most of all excitement. 
Being a father of two, I knew what to expect with our third child. Late night feedings, sleepless nights, changing diapers (lots of diapers), and a return to the 5S's. But being a first-time principal, it was a lot like being a first-time parent. You could read all the books and get all the advice, but until you actually went through it, you couldn't really understand it
Much like bringing my first child home from the hospital after she was born, I had some, well a lot, of anxiety going into my first day as principal. I had scheduled a full faculty meeting to introduce myself, and while I was only an interim principal in another principal's building, I still had to be myself in order to find success. Prior to my first day as principal, I created a brief video of myself using the Screencastify extension, where I introduced myself to the students. At the full faculty meeting, I asked the teachers to play the link I emailed them in their homeroom, and explained that I would then be around throughout the day to formally introduce myself to the students. I did not want to interrupt the school day with a 15 minute whole-school assembly, that inevitably would turn into at least 30 minutes, just to introduce myself. By creating the video, I accomplished three things right away. First, I let my personality and passion be shown immediately. Second, I connected with the students in a way that is relevant to them. Third, I showed the teachers how much I valued their time by causing as little disruption to their day as possible. Things were off to a good start, but after that, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from my day.
As a teacher, I knew what I was going to do day to day due to my lesson plans. Yet, as far as I knew, principals didn't make lesson plans. So I wondered, "What was I going to do?" I quickly found out as soon as the full faculty meeting was over. My day immediately got filled up on its own, without me planning a thing. I don't think I was in the office for more than 10 minutes that entire day, and I don't think I had but a three minute lunch. And that was how I wanted it. I knew I needed to do what middle school principal Beth Houf (@BethHouf) said on Twitter, "Be real. Be visible. Be engaged. Be supportive." And I needed to do these things not just my first day but every day.
As I made my way into the classrooms, halls, cafeteria, I carried around a small legal pad taking notes feverishly of all the things I needed to address after talking with the teachers, students, secretaries, and custodians. Then to give me a focus for where to start the following day, I utilized Google Keep and its label feature to create "To Do" lists. Google Keep is yet another fantastic, practical tool from Google to put in your toolbox. Like all Google Docs, my Google Keep notes became a living documents, as I found myself revising and updating them constantly.   
As my first few weeks have gone by, I have gotten into every classroom and have seen all the fantastic things going on from students and their dedicated teachers. I have talked with students, parents, teachers, have seen students working in the music room, worked with students and their parents to help make their day in the school as best as possible, left positive messages for teachers on their desks after spending time in their classrooms, gotten to begin to learn my teachers' and students' passions, attended after school functions, and participated in new Twitter chats to help build new PLN's in hopes of learning more about leadership.
While my new role as principal has definitely been a different kind of busy than what I was used to as a classroom teacher, the position has not been overwhelming. It has been rewarding. I am in a very fortunate position to build and strengthen relationships with so many people, and that is what I find most rewarding. I am looking forward to the rest of my time in this position and continuing to work with and get to know better all the wonderful people that make up the elementary school I am honored to be a part of. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Enter The Twilight Zone with Blended Learning

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension - a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone. 

I feel that opening part of the show The Twilight Zone directly relates to my school year this year. This is my second full year of running a blended learning classroom, and I feel as if in some way my sixth-grade students and I have crossed over into the Twilight Zone. Strange but wonderful things are happening in and out of my classroom, that I have not, unfortunately, witnessed before in my 15 years of teaching. Students are embracing the idea that learning can take place anywhere, anytime and that their voice matters to others, as they enter a whole other dimension in Google Classroom. They are seeing learning opportunities on their own outside of the school day and wanting to share their experiences with their classmates, because they know that not only am I listening but more importantly, so are their classmates. 

Enter The Twilight Zone

The Key of Imagination: Google Classroom
The key of imagination unlocked the door to the Twilight Zone and to our successful blended learning year. Google Classroom has allowed me to use my imagination, as I started creating relevant, meaningful assessments through Google Classroom and other Google apps. Now, after going through half a year using G Suite for Education tools, students are posting their own learning experiences in Google Classroom, with no prompting from me, to share with their classmates. Students are not only extending their learning on their own by creating their own story lines that relate to the assessments, but they are also seeing and demonstrating learning anytime, anywhere. Now they have their own key of imagination and they are using it. 

Dimension of Sound: Communication & Collaboration
As the year has gone on, and my students have been becoming better and better at using G Suite for Education tools, I started encouraging more communication through the comment feature in Google Docs, as well as using Google Slides where all can edit the same document to collaborate and learn from each other. Adding this dimension has given my class the authenticity it has lacked in years past. Now, students are continuously communicating and collaborating with their classmates in ways never possible before.  

Dimension of Sight: Creativity
G Suite for Education has allowed me to give learning opportunities, that were once out of reach, to all of my students. Now students are not doing mindless, fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but rather they are creating and thinking how they can demonstrate their learning in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them. They are proud of their work and actively look to share their own, authentic, and creative work with others.  

Dimension of Mind: Critical Thinking
Students are thinking critically about the work they are producing. They are thinking how it relates to themselves, their classmates, and others in the community. They are making connections and asking me and their classmates real questions about their learning. Everyone has a voice in Google Classroom, and everyone, even the quiet students in class, are giving high quality feedback. Students are taking the enrichment ideas offered and running with them, and some are coming up with their own enrichment activities.  

Land of Shadow & Substance...Things & Ideas: The Future
This year, my blended learning classroom is truly preparing students for their future, not my future. The purpose of blended learning, as I see it, is to help students find relevance and meaning in their learning, during their time in education, not any previous generation's time. My students this year are focusing on the 4C's, and those will never become outdated. Those are skills they are learning now that they will use in the future, and while technology definitely helps foster these ideas, technology is not the driving force behind them. Technology or no technology, the 4C's are skills that will translate into the 21st Century.  

Episodes of The Twilight Zone always ended with an unexpected twist, but the only twist here is my students are learning outside of school whether they realize it or not...and that's not a bad twist to have.  

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Snow Day? Shovel Your Way Out

It is 5:30 AM on a weekday during the winter and the phone rings. That can only mean one thing, SNOW DAY! I have to admit, at that moment, I do not feel like the 15 year veteran, sixth grade teacher I am, but rather, I feel like one of my sixth grade students. I roll back over in bed and fall back asleep, only to get woken up by my wife as she gets up to get ready for work (seems like she is extra loud getting ready on snow days...nah, she wouldn't do that, would she?). I tell her to, "Keep it down. I'm trying to sleep. I've got a snow day." That goes over about as well as getting a snowball in the face.
Living in Pennsylvania, snow days are part of the school year and one of the great perks about being a teacher, unless you end up having too many of them. Then you have to make them up in the summer. Then they quickly become an inconvenience. They can also become an inconvenience with what you had planned for class those days. Inspired by Matt Miller's Ditch Summit session with Alice Keeler, I thought about what they shared and how I could use that to connect with my sixth grade students on snow days.
Now one thing I wanted to ensure, was that a snow day was still something to look forward to for my students. I knew whatever I created for them on a snow day, needed to be creative, collaborative, and fun. I wanted my students to be comfortable. I wanted them to be able to stay in their PJ's, drinking hot chocolate, sitting in their favorite chair, listening to their favorite music, all while in the comforts of their own home doing some math and finding relevance in it.
So I decided to use the power of Google Docs and create a Google Slides for a snow day. Below is simple breakdown of it, followed by a link to my Snow Day Class document. 
Google Slides:
I decided to use Google Slides to make a collaborative document called "Snow Day Class." It is ready to go in case of a snow day, in Google Classroom. This document will be made available for everyone to edit if and when a snow day comes. While all at our homes, we can still collaborate and communicate as if we were all in class together. 
Slides Layout:
In slide one, I have the directions for the snow day class. While the students will be asked to answer the questions I pose to them, part of the directions are for students to view their classmates' work and thinking and give quality feedback by posting comments on each other's slides. I want my students to be sharing their ideas with each other and learning from each other, as if we were all in class together, even if we are not. Slide two is my question slide, which is where I will ask all of my snow day questions. The rest of the slides are the students'. They find an open slide, add their name to it, and begin following along. The idea is very similar to a Twitter chat, only using Google Docs. 
Where and When:
I also created a Google Drawing that I posted under the "About" section of my Google Classroom for my students to reference. It is a simple document that tells students where the snow day class takes place and what time it begins. 
I do not expect all 29 of my students to participate in the snow day class when we do have a snow day, but the fantastic thing about Google Docs is that they are living documents. Whether it is a hour later, a day later, a week later, or a month later, students can always go back and add to it or simply review it. So if some of my students are entrepreneurs out shoveling snow and can't make it during the snow day class time, they can look and add to it later.
In case you do get a snow day, and would like a copy of my snow day document, click here and then make a copy. Only thing I can't share with you is my shovel. I just might need that. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

What I Learned from the Elf on the Shelf

There I was at 7:00 AM, bleeding, blood all over my hands, kneeling over our family's beloved Elf on the Shelf, Oliver, in the dining room, and my six-year-old daughter waking up and coming down the steps. It was my worst case scenario. My little girl was going to come downstairs and see me covered in blood with our Elf on the Shelf laying on the floor and think that I did something terrible to Oliver. 
Why was I covered in blood and bleeding at 7:00 AM in the dining room with Oliver laying on the floor next me? Because I was trying to make the Elf on the Shelf experience better for my daughters. The night before, I moved Oliver to a spot in our house that was just okay. I knew it was just okay at the time, but I thought it would do. The next morning I woke up, and decided I could do a better job with my placement of our elf. As I was moving him around in the dining room, so he would be hanging upside down like Batman, (much cooler than my first placement), I bumped a glass that fell to floor. I knelt down trying to catch the glass, but since I am well out of my 20's, my quickness just wasn't there, and I ended up kneeling onto a shard of glass and getting a 3 cm gash right by my knee. Four stitches later, and a bunch of Elf on the Shelf pictures put up all around my classroom by my colleagues, I was as good as new. 
As word at school spread about my near holiday massacre, a few people asked me why did I move the elf a second time. Good question, but if you have young children, you know why. Every morning, since the arrival of our elf, that is the first thing my six-year-old and three-year-old look for. Then when they find him, they have to show everyone in the house. They talk about Oliver all day, and I find them quietly talking to Oliver when they think no one is watching. They draw him pictures, and write him little notes. To see that every day from my daughters is worth more effort from me in my placement of him. And as I thought about the answer to the question, "Why did I move the elf a second time?" I couldn't help but relate that to my classroom. 
So here are my Elf on the Shelf Lessons:
Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.
It's an old saying, but it's true. If I had moved our family's elf with that idea in mind the first time, then I wouldn't have ended up in the predicament I did. Same thing is true in the classroom (to some extent anyway). If you take time to plan well crafted lessons, it might not go as planned every time, but your efforts will be appreciated. 
Your lessons are not for you, but for your students
If you can see that look on your children's or students' faces, then you know you have done your job. It makes putting in the time to create relevant and meaningful lessons so much more enjoyable. Yes, enjoyable! Don't take the easy way out with your lessons. It's the only time in their life and in your life you will have that opportunity to make an impression on them. The impression you make is up to you.
If you know you can do it better, then do it better
Similar to the first lesson, but worth restating. If you reflect on your work, and you know you can do better, then don't sell yourself or your students short. You might not like changing things at the time, but in the end, you'll be glad you did. And you will remember that more, than the time spent revising.
Take risks (you might end up with some stitches, but you'll learn a lot and have some great, memorable stories)
This particular incident I had this holiday season, will be one my family, my colleagues, my students (kid-friendly version), and possibly those reading this blog will remember and laugh about for years to come. The risk I took ended up being memorable. The risks we take in our classrooms can end up being memorable, too. But you won't know, unless you try.
Let yourself see the wonderment in your children's eyes and use it
Once you see that wonderment from your children or your students, you can't ignore it. Take time to appreciate that wonderment you see, and remember that when planning your lessons or assignments. Our children and our students can be our best motivators. 
While I was waiting to get my stitches, my first stitches ever at age 38, I got a notification from one of my 6th grade students who posted something in our class's Google Classroom. She said, "I am watching CBS This Morning, and they were just talking about the best five jobs. Google was in 4th place ;)." In my blended learning classroom, we use G Suites for Education daily to collaborate, communicate, be creative, and think critically. My students are thriving. They ask for work because they know they can create their work, as compared to filling out a worksheet. They post questions about topics discussed in class, and they answer each other's questions. When I look out across my classroom, I see that wonderment in my students' eyes this year. So when I got that message, it was the only Novocaine that needed to get my stitches (well, not really, but it made me feel a whole lot better).
So what happened? Did my daughter come downstairs, turn the corner, and see me covered in blood, bleeding, and kneeling over our Elf on the Shelf, Oliver? Did she scream in shock and terror? Fortunately, no. I managed to hold my gaping wound together with one hand, while I grabbed Oliver with my other hand and shuffled to the kitchen to quickly place him elsewhere before she turned the corner. By that time, my wife was standing by the broken glass keeping my daughter out of harms way, as I hobbled through our bedroom and into the bathroom bleeding. And what do you think my wife's words were to me as I went into the bathroom, past our bedroom? "Don't get any blood on the carpet." 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Road Rules on the Blended Learning Highway

Remember when you were pestering your parents to teach or rather let you drive? You were sure you knew how to drive, as you had had extensive training starting from a very early age. Part of that training included sitting on your parent's lap while they were in the driver's seat and they "let you" drive the car into the garage, sitting on your parent's lap again as they again, "let you" drive the lawn tractor around the yard, then gradually building up to driving the lawn tractor around the yard by yourself, and of course driving the go-karts at the local go-kart track during the summer. With all that training, you were certain you could drive and drive fast. Then when your parents finally gave you the car, you realized the power and potential speed of that car, and that you really didn't know how to drive well, let alone safely. 
Learning to drive takes time, and as much as we want to get in that car and go fast, we soon realize we need to hit the brakes and slow down. Take things little by little, as we build up our driving knowledge and experience. We need to learn how to drive safely in all sorts of weather, on all sorts of roads, with all sorts of passengers, and during different times of day and night. And by the time we have all of that experience and knowledge, we realize driving isn't about going fast at all. It is simply about getting us from one place to another. How we get there, that is up to us. 
Last year, was my first year in blended learning, and it was a lot like being a new driver. I had extensive training, as I read books, did research on my own, and was active on Twitter learning as much as I could about it. And I wanted to go fast, or at least I thought I had to. This year has been a lot like being an experienced driver understanding the purpose of driving. I feel like I am kind of at that all important driving age of 25 when insurance rates go drastically down. My understanding of blended learning has grown so much as I continue to learn and grow from my experiences.
So after reflecting here are my road rules for new and experienced drivers on the blended learning highway.
Road Rule 1: Slow Down
Technology changes faster than teenagers want to drive, so it's too hard to keep up with everything. Don't feel that you have to learn everything at once. There are so many tools out there to bring into your classroom, that you can't possibly learn them all, but you do have eventually drive out of the parking lot and onto the road. It's the only way you will learn.
Road Rule 2: Learn the Basic Colors
Red, yellow, green, and blue. Blue? No, not traffic lights, but G Suite for Education. Take time to explore Google Drive and build from there. Work towards understanding how powerful and relevant G Suite for Education can make your blended learning class. You and your students will thank you for it. 
Road Rule 3: Read the Manual
Many of us, me included, tried taking the written part of our driver's test without really reading the driver's manual. Some got lucky and passed, others, like me, weren't so lucky and failed. I know I went back and read the manual cover to cover three times before taking the written test again. Second time I passed. For blended learning, find a good book to use as your manual. For me, it was Catlin R. Tucker's book, Blended Learning in Grades 4 - 12. This has been an invaluable resource for me, and after last year, I read it a couple times over. 
Road Rule 4: Learn How to Parallel Park
The dreaded parallel park has gotten so much easier now in cars with back-up cameras and self parking cars, but it is still something that needs to be learned. When running a blended learning classroom, whether it is your first year or fifth year, take time to learn how to park your mind. There will be so many things and ideas constantly streaming past you, that you need to take pause and reflect. Think about where you were and where you are going next. 
Road Rule 5: Share the Road
Share your experiences with others, whether they are your colleagues at your school or your colleagues in your PLN. Sharing your experiences will help you more than it will help them. It gets your thoughts about your practice out of your head and results in more clarity and a deeper understanding about the importance and purpose of blended learning.  
Getting my driver's license was one of the most exciting times in my life. It was something that I wanted since I sat on my dad's lap in his car as he "let me" drive into the garage. Now after 15 years of teaching, driving down the blended learning highway is just as exciting to me as getting my driver's license, and just like a vehicle, blended learning can take you to some really great places but you just have to know some road rules.