A Poverty of Expectations?



This morning I once again had the great privilege to join in the #supefriends Saturday morning podcast.  In addition to being a virtual dose of espresso, it is a wonderful group of diverse thinkers and thought provocateurs.  This morning’s topic was poverty in education.  Throughout the conversation I was left with a dichotomy of thought.

For students in which school serves as their retreat and haven for safety, shelter, assured food, and supportive adult relationships, I believe Maslow would dictate that these fundamental needs must be at the forefront of these student’s experience.  Yet therein lies the challenge.

  1.  If our expectations for these students are lessened due to the impoverished world they experience outside of the school house, have we not contributed to the vicious cycle of not asking these students to strive to reach their full potential so as to enable them to improve themselves and their situation.
  2. But, if we are to hold these students to the high expectations of self-actualization and reflective growth and development, are we being blind and naive to the impact that a child’s environment outside of school has on their learning inside of school?

Our conversation wandered (as it oft does) to the realization that poverty comes in many forms.  And while there are definitely distinct challenges associated with students who are living in households that are under the socio-economically defined poverty line, there are also students that face poverty in other forms (poverty of love and affirmation, poverty of physical and/or mental health, poverty of voice…etc), and therefore bring these challenges with them to our classrooms each day.

In the end the strategies that were most professed in our morning discussion were not unique to this population, rather they were moral obligations for all teachers in this noble profession:

Form, foster, develop and celebrate relationships with each of your students so that they will feel welcome and supported to share their interests, their dreams, and themselves with you and with the class.


#ISTE2014 Evolution of a Culture of Mindset, Growth & Connectedness (Part 2)

I had the privilege of sharing an ignite presentation on the Evolution of a Culture of Mindset, Growth and Connectedness.  The intersection of this highly structured format and the topic which is a passion of mine was an exciting learning experience for me.  Over the course of 2 posts, I am going to “un-ignite” this topic, so that I can expand on each slide and the process our community is taking to daily grow for the betterment of ourselves, our students, and our community.

In this section I will share the growth of Ed Rounds; our work on examining and cultivating a growth focused culture; and our initiatives to expand our learning and sharing from insular to connected.


Ed-Rounds have become an integral part of our faculty culture and growth, largely stemming from an intersection of our peer coaching and a push to look more closely at both vertical and horizontal alignment, expectations, and future growth.  All teachers are now required to observe 3-5 other teachers solely for their own personal growth.  There is purposefully no expectation for the observer to share feedback with the teacher being observed as the observer is there as a learner, not an evaluator.   The goal is to observe colleagues with strengths in areas where teachers want to enhance or improve so as to find ideas and inspiration to replicate in their own classroom. After completion of the rounds, teachers meet with me to reflect on the process and their takeaways, but by design this is meant to be about their own growth not what they did or did not see inside of a colleague’s classroom.


As our professional growth community became increasingly robust it was incumbent on us to make sure that we were actively engaged in assessing, nurturing, and discussing our culture. As such, we were privileged to have John D’Auria, presidents of Teachers 21 and former principal and superintendent from the Boston area, come work with our Admin team and entire faculty on topics of non-discussables, difficult conversations, and Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset.


Every organization has their non-discussables, but we realized that if we wanted to continue the transformation to a truly learning environment, we had to break down the fear and anxiety that surrounded these areas and foster true dialogue.  As such we asked all members of the faculty to make a “non-discussable” pledge which asked that issues be brought to the people for which the original situation existed.  Furthermore, it informed colleagues that if they were approached by a colleague who wanted to vent that there responsibility was to help coach the colleague to either addressing the issue with the colleague in question or in bringing the issue to me.


The second big takeaway from our work with John was the amazing research done by Carol Dweck.  The idea of a growth mindset resonated with our teachers and helped us flip our thinking to not only be more accepting of the idea of failing, but in embracing this as an opportunity for true learning.  John shared a great story in which he told all new hires that they would not receive a contract the following year unless the showed up in his office a minimum of 3 times in the year with a problem that they did not know how to resolve.  Flipping the paradigm to show that requesting help, admitting your vulnerability, and aspiring to learn are signs of immense strength as opposed to weakness; this shift further strengthened our learning culture.


The shifts in PD structure and our culture were impactful, but one of our greatest shifts was the decision at the beginning of 2013-14 school year to actively expand our learning for ourselves, our students and our community from insular to connected. This year we realized that all the amazing learning we had done was not enough.  We needed to connect ourselves, our students, and our school with the world.


The Davis Twitter Initiative has done just that.  Teachers are using grade level hashtags to document and share the excitement of the learning.  This enables parents, grandparents, and loved ones to share in the joy and feel a part of the journey.  This has opened the door for students to learning from and with students in states all across the US and in countries all over the globe.  Teachers are now connecting with other educators to collaborate both in planning and in implementation, and our parents are not only connected and seeing the communication, but they are engaging with their kids and teachers to further enhance the learning.


We now have kindergarten students and teachers learning math with classes in New Zealand, 3rd grade students sharing poetry with students in Manitoba, and 8th graders students reciprocally evaluating each other’s work for historical accuracy between classes in Nebraska and Georgia. Moreover, our teachers are engaged in sharing ideas, asking for assistance, and reflecting not only within our school but with a broader educational network, and then bringing this learning back to our faculty team and our students.


While we have consciously expanded our learning community to extend beyond the classroom, city, state and country, we have also refocused on sharing our learning with other stakeholders in our community.  This year in addition to parent led learning via our counselors on social and emotional stages of growth, parents were invited in to participate in a parent-hour of code, a parent work shop on twitter, and a grandparent workshop on the role of social media in the lives and learning of our students.


I often say and truly believe that “the students are always watching. The implicit curriculum of how the adults in a building engage one another and engage in their own learning, has equal if not greater impact than that of the explicit curricula of math and language arts.”  It is with this in mind that we are already hard at work on our 2014-15 PD slate, making revisions and enhancements to our ed-rounds with a new feedback protocol, and diving deeper into a “year of presenting dangerously” which will encourage our educators to share their knowledge and skill with the large educational field through presentations and articles.


While I began post 1 with a bit of light sarcasm about the amazing place where I am fortunate enough to have spent the past 14 years as an educator, administrator, uncle, and parent, I recognize the true blessing of the dynamicity of the culture and team we have.  It is based on this culture and community that we individually and collectively continue to strive to grow for the betterment of ourselves, our students, and our community.



#ISTE2014 Evolution of a Culture of Mindset, Growth & Connectedness (Part 1)


I had the privilege of sharing an ignite presentation on the Evolution of a Culture of Mindset, Growth and Connectedness.  The intersection of this highly structured format and the topic which is a passion of mine was an exciting learning experience for me.  Over the course of 2 posts, I am going to “un-ignite” this topic, so that I can expand on each slide and the process our community is taking to daily grow for the betterment of ourselves, our students, and our community.

In this section I will share the difficulties of nice; the origins of our school wide professional development plan; and the birth of a culture of growth.

I work in an incredibly challenging situation in which my teachers and my admin team genuinely like each other and enjoy working together. It is not uncommon for members of our team to refer to each other as a family and indeed our faculty families, share milestones together as our kids grow up together as an extended multi-age class unit.


To further complicate and frustrate the situation, we have an incredible student body, which has the audacity to get out of the car each morning with a smile and very often a hug for the teachers greeting them at carpool that day.  While I am all too aware that this predicament is incredibly advantageous in many ways and far preferred as compared to the alternative wherein negativity abounds, it also has the potential to be an obstacle to growth.


Over the last five years, we have taken a multi-faceted approach to transitioning a school from a positive culture of nurture into a laboratory of personal and professional growth for all stakeholders. We have implemented a myriad of strategies to: increase personalized professional learning plans and cross divisional growth teaming; provide for vertical and horizontal reflective and innovation teaming; enhance peer-to-peer dialogue on each other’s instruction and practice; facilitate personal GPS navigation for all teachers on where they are and where they want to go in areas of technology integration, curriculum development, and character education. Seemingly small variations to previous plans have impacted the shaping of the current culture which manifest a number of new ideas for how to begin or enhance the journey to a culture of mindset, growth, and connectedness.


5 years ago our school’s educational expectations and requirements extended only to our students.  While we had many fabulous teachers who sought out their own professional learning and growth, these were teacher initiative-dependent that were infrequently brought back to the large community of practitioners for the benefit of all teachers and students.  In realizing the need for formalizing the learning expectation for all members of our community, the administration selected Carol Ann Tomlinson’s How to Differentiate Instruction in the Mixed-Ability Classroom as a full school PD strand.  This state approved PD program would enable all teachers to receive their required PLUs without having to attend expensive workshops or miss school days, while also allowing our team to build a common vocabulary through studying and learning the same content over the course of the year.


The content was to be delivered through monthly required reading selections and message responses.  The message board questions were aimed at going beyond comprehension of material covered to asking teachers to reflect on their own practice, implement a new strategy, and/or comment on the reflections of their colleagues. Furthermore, because the message boards were only accessible by our teachers, they became safe places where teachers could engage in dialogue about best practices.


This new format also meant that faculty meetings switched from an arena for minutia sharing to designated times for state approved hours of learning. Outside professionals were brought in to facilitate further learning on the topic selected.


Lastly there were additional PLUs available should two or more teachers want to partner up for reciprocal observations of Peer- Coaching.  Each teachers was required to meet with a peer/peers to conduct a pre-observation meeting, conduct the observation, and complete a post-observation reflection.  As the administrator, all that was turned in to me was the pre-observation worksheet and a confirmation of the time of observation.  This was done purposefully to maintain the integrity of the process being for professional growth, and not as evaluative measures.  As such the notes taken during the observation and the post observation worksheet were kept confidential between the partners.


From the simple roots laid in our plan 5 years ago came forth a robust culture of learning and growth for our faculty. All of the shifts can find their roots in this original plan. One of the first and most important shifts has been from administrator selected and delivered PD, to teacher proposed, led, and interest-based selected areas of growth.


Throughout the course of the year, I receive statements of interest from teachers who want to lead strands of professional development for the following year.  I sit with these teachers to help them identify materials and lessons that would support the development strands.  In the fall of each year, the teachers leading the strands share there courses with the larger school community.   All teachers are required to participate in at least one strand of interest.  The courses for the 2012-13 school year included Brain Based Learning, Positive Discipline in the Classroom, Teach Like a Champion, and trends in Jewish Day Schools. The shift to faculty leadership combined with the opportunity for teachers to select areas of growth that most interested them, yielded a huge increase in investment and engagement.  Though only required to participate in 1 strand, a large majority of our faculty participated in at least 2 of the learning opportunities.

This year saw another evolution to the structure.  In addition to 3 regular strands Character Development, Reading Comprehension Strategies, and Daily Writing we saw the advent of 3 cohort models that found their own delivery format via edmodo, weekend learning conferences, and bi-monthly meeting/sharing sessions developed on the topics of The Power of Story Telling, Project Based Learning, and Advanced Technology Integration. Last, this year we had two additional cohort teams doing yearlong group PD programs from outside programs on eportfolios and Hebrew instruction.


The expansion to multiple strands meant that every faculty meeting was designated to be related to a specific strand.  This would enable all participants of our community, whether enrolled in the strand or not, to share in the learning.  Furthermore, the activities became more targeted towards experiences that would allow for direct transference in the classrooms. The teacher leadership in these meetings also spilled over in to the divisional meetings, with the creation of a new format for these as well.

All division meetings begin with Kudos – teacher sharing words of praise, thanks, and/or recognition for a colleague, and then proceed to instructional and/or integration based sharing.  In some cases (frequently after local and state conferences) this sharing becomes the sole content of the meeting, and if this is not the case, the remaining time is allocated for learning activities that have been generated via teacher request.

In the next section I will share the growth of Ed Rounds; our work on examining and cultivating a growth focused culture; and our initiatives to expand our learning and sharing from insular to connected.


Open the Door!

Last night I posted the following tweet


This simple message which seems inherent to the thousands of connected educators, both at ISTE and following around the globe, resonated with me throughout the evening.   Why should this thought be novel?  Have ineffectual performance review structures created a Darwinian structure of only the strongest survive?  Has fear of being seen as inadequate caused us to retreat to our silos?  Has the failures that are such an integral part of risk taking become so anxiety laden that innovation can only be done in solitary? Does anyone think this is best for themselves? Their school? Their students?

Closing the door and teaching is not enough.

As we are prepare students for an increasingly collaborative learning and workplace experience, we must model this practice in our own learning and instruction.

Less than a year ago, I was inspired by the words of Alec Couros. In actuality (with no offense intended) it was nothing in particular that he said; rather, the nature in which he shared his thoughts, the way he propped up and shared the members of his PLN, and the way he shared his authentic self, made me realize that I too had become silo-ed.  While our collaborative and learning culture in our school was/is robust, the learning was mostly generated and distributed in and amongst the school.

This past year has been a transformative year for me in terms my own learning and growth.  I have had the great fortune to build my own PLN via Twitter, blogs, conferences, and other avenues.  These fantastic teachers permit me daily to stand on their shoulders and be provoked by their thoughts, moved by their candor during their struggles, and inspired by their visions for the future of their own and their student’s learning.

Every learner benefits from a PLN

This is not meant as an extrovert manifesto.  If you are afraid of heights, I am not recommending starting with sky diving, rather it is a realization that the sum of our thinking and passion is better than the individual components. We must find and cultivate PLNs for our growth.

One of my greatest finds of the past year has been the amazing #blogamonth PLN (History).  This incredible group of diverse (roles, experience, geography) deliver monthly encouragement to blog, comment, and improve via thought provocation, sharing and reflection (I strongly encourage you to check it out and join at http://blogamonth.weebly.com).  This month’s thought provocation, optional topic is inspired by Jessica Johnson’s (@principalj) recent post Plans to “Sharpen the Saw” this Summer

For me, similar to my tweet that started this post, I sharpen my saw on the whet stone of the incredible members of my PLN.



Inspiring Message to the Graduates


Below are the beautiful words shared by Sarah Palay (Davis Academy Class of  2006) at our Class of 2014 graduation.

Hello Davis Academy Class of 2014!!! Congratulations.

You are now entering an amazing new juncture in your life: up until now, your path has been—more or less—dictated for you.  You have some freedom, but now is the time when you get a little bit more.  But of course with more freedom comes great responsibility, and that is both scary and incredibly exciting.

As you enter high school, you will all have very different experiences, but take comfort that as you begin to diverge down different paths, you all come from the same root: your Judaism and your education at the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy will always accompany you.  You will forever be tied to this place, these experiences, and these relationships because you are young students learning the significance of Judaism in the twenty-first century world.  And you have made lasting memories with people you care about.  Where you go from here is up to you, but no matter what you choose or where you go, Davis will always be a part of you.  I stand here today as an example of that.  I could not have imagined that I would be back here, standing behind this podium, speaking to a group of seventy-two magnificent graduating eighth graders.

I could stand up here and give you a speech about success.  I could tell you that Davis has prepared you well, and you will all succeed.  But you already know that…so I’m not going to talk about that.  Instead, I’m going to talk about the opposite of success.  Tonight, I want to speak about failure.

So often we perceive failure as a deterrent from success, pitted as success’s binary. Failure, in our society, is profoundly negative.  Look up “to fail” in the dictionary, and you’ll read that it means “to be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal.” I am, quite possibly, the dictionary’s biggest fan, but the dictionary is…wait for it…wrong.  I would like to argue tonight that this definition is very far from the truth.  My hope is that by the end of tonight, we will all write letters to the Oxford American Dictionary and demand that they amend the definition so that the entry reads: “to fail: a necessary step in the achievement of one’s goal.”

So here we are, in a world where failure is the exact antonym of success.  But what if it weren’t?  What if instead of beating ourselves up when we stray from the path towards success, we embrace our mistakes, lean into them, and learn from them?  Easier said than done, I know.  I am speaking to a room full of high achievers and their parents and the cold, hard truth is that no one here likes to mess up.  Especially me.  I am about to share with you a lesson that has had a huge impact on my life but that I have found very difficult to accept: the moment you stop embracing the possibility for failure is the moment you stop achieving.

This concept was brought to my attention two years ago by a very valued teacher and mentor of mine.  Fall of junior year at college, I received the honor of playing Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret.  We spent six weeks of rehearsals singing, dancing, and sweating our way through this huge show.  The rehearsal process was grueling.  It was both physically and emotionally exhausting, and I was in constant doubt of my ability to perform this role.  Finally, we opened the show and although I didn’t feel it was the “perfect performance,” I let myself off the hook and accepted it for what it was.  The following day, I received an email from the director, Anna, asking if we could meet a few hours before the next performance.  Anna and I met backstage, and she asked me how I felt the performance went.

The reality was that I was disappointed in myself: every time I performed the show, I felt like I wasn’t good enough.  Anna said, “You should be proud of what you’ve done,” and then added, “but I feel like you’re just going through the motions.”  I was completely taken aback…it’s one thing to criticize yourself, but it’s another to receive it from one of your mentors, the very person from whom you crave support and praise.  Maybe you can understand the feeling I’m talking about: the feeling of wanting something so badly, of reaching for it, of putting your heart and soul into it, but just feeling completely inadequate.  Anna looked at me and could tell I was upset, and she said, “Sarah, you are absolutely paralyzed by your fear of being wrong.  Give yourself permission to fail.”

At first, I was angry: it wasn’t fair for Anna to put me in this position a few hours before I was about to walk on stage; the theater house was packed with hundreds of people, and my director had just completely rattled me.  And I wasn’t really sure what her point was.  How could I give myself permission to fail?  Wouldn’t that derail the show?  I was frustrated, upset, and overwhelmed.  I just wanted to do it right.  Then suddenly, it dawned on me.  That was the problem—wanting to do it right.  I was so scared of doing something wrong that I was holding myself back.  I was playing it safe and so paralyzed by the fear of failure that I wasn’t taking any risks.  As soon as I gave myself permission to mess up, I suddenly reached a new level.  That night, I performed in a state of fear, but the fear was very different—it wasn’t the debilitating fear of messing up; it was the exhilarating fear of walking into something unknown, the fear of taking a risk. And it was through that fear, the exhilarating fear, that I found joy and solace.

We all have moments when we put limits on ourselves: when you kept quiet as you watched a friend start an untrue rumor about another friend because you were scared of being the next victim; when you threw out that creative writing assignment that would have received a high grade because you were too scared of potential criticism about your deepest thoughts; when you would have aced that algebra exam had you not been too embarrassed to ask for help; when you had something meaningful to add to the class discussion but you stayed quiet, afraid others around you would dismiss your comment.  These are all missed opportunities.

During your life, there will be pressure to produce answers, to solve problems, to achieve perfection, to do things the right way, the best way.  And strive for that.  Strive for that with everything you have.  But if you encounter fear or difficulty, embrace it; don’t push it away.  Like the fear of attending a new school or being in a new environment.  It can be scary entering a new place, but see it as an opportunity.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to discover new friendships, to speak up in class discussions, or to be yourself.  If you are too careful and too afraid to screw up, you will limit yourself.  As the great J.K. Rowling once said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.”

As I look around this room, I see the faces of the next generation of leaders.  I have no doubt that Davis Academy has prepared you to achieve greatness.  But as you go forth in your journey, Class of 2014, do not be paralyzed by the fear of failure, but instead allow yourself to take risks and plunge bravely into the unknown.  This is the threshold where you turn something mediocre into something good; something good into something great; and something great into something truly sublime.  Class of 2014, dare to fail.  Congratulations!




The Goal Should Be: Not To Finish


As another school year comes to a close, the May #blogamonth topic is about “how to finish strong?”.  As an ardent believer in the continuous nature of learning, and one who, though a principal, readily relates to Mark Twain’s quote, “I have never let schooling interfere with my education,” I feel the trick to a strong finish, is not to finish at all. I believe we must reframe the end of the school year as a part of the learning cycle that certainly represents a transition but does not equate to a gap in student learning.  I believe there should be high expectations for the learning and “homework” that should occur over the summer.

Each child should be tasked with embodying the learning that they achieved during the past 9 months and using these new skills or perspectives in the summer settings (be it at camp, by the swimming pool, at a summer job, or simply enjoying down time with family and friends) in that they will interface to learn something new about themselves, their environment and/or the world.  The more we are able to shift our teachers and our school’s role from dissemination of learning to that of facilitation and/or a laboratory for learning and exploration, the easier it will be to see the responsibility that each student has to continue their own learning over winter, summer, and weekend breaks.

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”

(Greg Anderson)

Let’s reclaim the joy in learning so that the end of May simply becomes the start of a long independent study unit, that when shared in August will benefit each child, each class and each school community.Let’s reclaim the joy in learning so that the end of May simply becomes the start of a long independent study unit, that when shared in August will benefit each child, each class and each school community.


4 Great posts with similar themes

We Had Fun by @edrethink

#EdFailFwd by @billselak

The joy of learning by @gcouros

You (Still) Matter by @LisaMeade23




Life, Learning, and Laughter Enthusiast

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