Setting My Purpose: What’s My Why?

When I realized that I had to think beyond my one classroom in order to have a greater impact, my why changed. I no longer wanted to teach just because I wanted to help kids, 35 at a time or even 165 at a time. I wanted to help the whole system get better at helping kids.


One of my favorite things about working in education is that every new school year gives us a fresh start. New students, new materials, new attitudes, sometimes new grade level or school. After a summer off, I can come back with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. As we all know, teaching can be exhausting, and without summers off, teachers would burn out. So what keeps us coming back, year after year, to face the challenges, the workload, the frustrations, the little freckled faces? We sure aren’t doing it for the money or the fame. So we must have a good reason why.

Simon Sinek explores this question in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. This was part of my summer reading list. Having heard Sinek’s Ted Talk on the topic, I was intrigued by the challenge of identifying my own why and exploring how it impacts what I do.

I had a gut level feeling that I had a why for becoming a teacher.  It would be easy to say it is because I care about kids or I love teaching reading and literature, but I think it is more than that. I once heard that teaching is radical activism, and I have always believed that, at least on a small scale. I decided to become a teacher after tutoring an adult beginning reader through the Carlsbad Library Literacy Services, where the experience of teaching reading to a young woman struggling at a 4th grade level clicked for me, and I knew I needed to change careers.  By opening our classroom doors to every student, rich or poor, regardless of race, religion, or even reading ability, we give every child the chance to gain an education that might change that student’s life, and maybe change the world. That’s powerful stuff, but also pretty idealistic. After 17 years in the field, I know that these ideals are often met by the brick wall of reality. Teaching with such lofty goals in mind is either an exercise in frustration, or a practice in patience.  Yes, we can impact one student, and teachers often do make a lasting impact for the better on more than one student every year, but no single teacher can change the world on her own, even one student at a time. When I chose to go back to school to earn a teaching credential as a second career, I did so because I believed in the promise of public education. I saw my adult beginning reader as the tip of the iceberg, and I knew I could do more good on the classroom level. I spent the first few years working really hard to be a good teacher to the cohort of students that came through, only to have to start all over the next fall. I was doing just enough to help the average and advanced students move to the next grade level with sufficient skills, and I was often successful at helping a struggling student or two make a breakthrough, but after a number of years, I was frustrated by the limited impact I was making.

When I realized that I had to think beyond my one classroom in order to have a greater impact, my why changed. I no longer wanted to teach just because I wanted to help kids, 35 at a time or even 165 at a time. I wanted to help the whole system get better at helping kids.  

What I was doing in the classroom, teaching English to twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, was not matching up with my why.  Simon Sinek talks about the Golden Circle, where what and how you do what you do is in service of your purpose.  I know, my what was admirable, I was doing something pretty important. I don’t discount how essential good reading and writing skills are for success in the real world, and I did have the amazing opportunity to help kids start to think critically, really think and see and consider other perspectives, and that was precious. Every now and then, a student’s essay, a socratic seminar, or a research presentation would wow me with how an adolescent could make leaps and bounds in maturity and intellect in ten short months. And that felt good, it felt valuable. But I wanted to be able to replicate that experience more consistently and to ensure it was happening not just in my classroom and not just on the good days. I was also pretty sure that those aha! moments were happening in other classrooms under the direction of other teachers, but that no one was collecting these moments as data and sharing it with the world.  And while I was struggling to remain positive and continue expending great energy towards getting those wonderful, infrequent, and hard-to-quantify results, the media and politicians were stirring up talk about charter schools and vouchers and the failure of our public education system.

I refused to believe them.

I knew that a lot of good teaching and learning was going on, but the only data getting publicized were standardized test scores.  The educators who were doing great work were too busy in their classrooms to advertise their own successes, and even school leaders were sometimes too distracted by test scores and budgets and punitive accountability systems to promote the promising practices happening on their campuses.

I am now fortunate enough to be in a position where my scope of contact is much wider than one classroom. I get to see all those great teachers in action. I am a witness to such talent, energy, dedication, and innovation that I can’t help but brag. I also know that we are not doing everything perfectly; there is room for growth. But now, what I do matches my why. My job now is to support teachers in doing their work well. I help them find materials and resources that support the teaching of content standards and key skills, I provide coaching and resources to promote the use of effective instructional strategies. Sometimes I get to brainstorm strategies with a teacher who wants to try something different, or observe a teacher who wants feedback. I get to send teachers to workshops and conferences so they can advance their expertise and get inspired. I facilitate collaborative conversations around student performance and next steps for instruction. In short, I get to help find, promote, and replicate those practices that will make public education deliver on its promise. I get to be involved with how our schools are providing high quality education to all of our students.   And I get to share what I see and hear, and what I know is happening in public education, with a wide audience, thanks to social media. I can help drive excellence in public education from within, and I can also spread the word outside that public education still is the vital and viable mandate it was meant to be.

Some days, when I can’t help a teacher in the way they want, or my day has been spent unpacking dusty boxes of books in the warehouse, or adding up costs to see how much money we don’t have for professional development, what I’m doing feels very distant from my why. But every day that I do something that helps teachers on the front lines do what they do best is a good day. I believe that so much is going right in public schools, especially in the schools in my district, and that we are collectively headed in the right direction. I feel privileged to be able to contribute to that effort. That’s my why. What’s yours?


Being Innovative Can Be Lonely

Not only did these teachers get to share ideas, ask each other questions, and get feedback on their plans from like-minded professionals, but they could see and feel that they, indeed, were not alone.

Being innovative can be lonely.

Just consider these famous innovators:  Nikola Tesla, Alan Turing, Steve Jobs

If you know their stories, you know that they faced great adversity, in the form of doubt, even opposition, to their ideas. Their brilliant inventions did not necessarily bring them happiness, relationships, or respect.

Our teachers pursuing out-of-the-box thinking can experience isolation as well.

I met recently with a small group of teachers who share a passion for innovation and are trying out similar new ideas in their classrooms. This was not a formal meeting or PD event, but an organic “pop-up” meeting, if you will. Based on the #coffeeEDU  concept, these teachers reached out to each other on Twitter, where they had all met before during #cusdlearns chats or via their shared Twitter connections, to organize an informal get-together. Several of them had not met each other in person yet, although we all work in the same small district. It’s amazing how easily classroom teachers can feel like we are on our own island with only the children to keep us company.

We’d all been drawn together over the last few months by threads on Twitter on topics including digital portfolios, flexible learning environments, station rotation model, personalized learning through playlists, project based learning, and student-led conferences. The teachers have been implementing new practices based on these topics in their classrooms and even leading school-wide implementations, to varying degrees. In some cases, they have been operating alone while in other cases that had supportive colleagues willing to follow their lead. But all of them were wanting – needing – more support and connection to buoy them up.

The digital connections and conversations have been helpful, even essential, but these teachers are so passionate about what they are pursuing that they wanted to meet in person, on their free time. All it took was a tweet over the Winter Break from one of our most enthusiastic teacher-innovators, @MarisaEThompson , and nearly a dozen positive responses came back – yes, while we were all on winter break!

The actual gathering which took place after school resumed was small; only four of us could make it on a Saturday morning, but so worth it. Not only did these teachers get to share ideas, ask each other questions, and get feedback on their plans from like-minded professionals, but they could see and feel that they, indeed, were not alone.

Since then, I’ve heard (or read on Twitter) about progress being made on several of the areas we discussed. Student-led conferences have happened at two schools, students are producing impressive digital portfolios, and two teachers are preparing to share their insights and experiences with wider audiences at upcoming education conferences.

It’s exciting to see the momentum that begins when teachers are inspired and empowered to innovate. I think this wave is building in size and shape, and Carlsbad teachers are ready to ride!



Time for Reflection: Shifting Moods and Mindsets

An introduction to November’s innovative classroom “look-for,” Time for Reflection.

In a matter of days, the weather has changed from hot, dry Santa Ana conditions threatening fire and beckoning us to the beach, to drizzly and cool with dark clouds. The change of seasons brings with it a shift of mind and mood, as if we can hear an old, familiar melody carried faintly on the breeze. Our thoughts turn to traditions and rituals, holidays and memories. In classrooms, the newness has worn off and our students are now familiar, our classroom routines becoming comfortable. When we hit this stride, we may be lulled into complacency, or we could use this shift as an opportunity to reflect.

The classroom “look-for” this month will be Time for Reflection, so together let’s shake up that complacency a little and talk about how we reflect in our own lives. For me, at this time of year, I tend to look back on my personal relationships and note if I haven’t been in touch with someone enough this year. I make sure they are on my holiday card list, but also, maybe it’s time for that overdue phone call or to meet for lunch. I also look at my charitable donations – only two months left to count those donated dollars towards my taxes! I also look at house repairs – are there any possible roof leaks? Last chance to schedule yard projects or garage sales! Is there anything else left “undone” from this calendar year?

How do you reflect at this time of year? Perhaps the Thanksgiving holiday allows you time to consider what you are grateful for. Maybe the earlier sunsets cause you to get home faster, spend more time with loved ones around the hearth. Or perhaps the impending holidays – and all the associated feasts – make you reassess your gym schedule for the next few weeks!

On the school calendar, just over 25% of the year has gone by. The end is not even nearly in sight, but it is the perfect time to check in, with ample time left to change course if needed. We as teachers, administrators, and staff can practice reflection in our own lives as a way of preparing ourselves to guide students in reflection.  What have we learned so far this year in each of our roles? How are we serving our students, our clients or customers? How do we know?

If I don’t know, maybe I need to find a way to check in. In my role, that can be difficult. I don’t give quizzes or collect Exit Slips. I do send out surveys after every organized professional development event. Even so, I don’t often get a lot of feedback from my clientele. But that doesn’t mean I can’t reflect on how I am doing in reference to my own goals. One goal I have had this year is to be present on school campuses more, available to teachers and interacting with students and staff. I have to admit, I could do better. Lucky for me, it’s only November 1, and there is time.

Expect to hear from me soon about a visit to your campus!

And feel free to reach out to me to invite me on site, and to share the ways that you make time for reflection!Lagoon with bird

An Invitation to Play with Poetry

This blog really is for you! It’s good for our brains to operate in a different modality from time to time, and I’m sure our students will be appreciative of the change in pace.  

I hope you’ll allow me to divert from the “8 Things to Look For” list for a moment, because it is April, and spring is in the air, and I’m feeling creative! April is, after all, National Poetry Month. So let’s wax poetic and get our creative juices flowing and have some fun!

Wait! Don’t tune out yet, you teachers of math and science and other logical, sequential, “non-artsy” types! This blog really is for you!

I know, for some, the mere mention of poetry makes their stomachs clench and their mouths go dry. I apologize to you on behalf of every English teacher who ever forced poetry on you and made the experience of it painful and stressful. Poetry should be experienced with joy! It should be freeing! After all, breaking the rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and capitalization when writing poetry is approved and encouraged. Just look at the works of E.E. Cummings, whose middle name may as well have been “Eccentric” for his strange ways of using and arranging words and punctuation. Take a look at his poem [2 Little Whos].

2 little whos
(he and she)
under are this
wonderful tree

smiling stand
(all realms of where
and when beyond)
now and here

(far from a grown
-up i&you-
ful world of known)
who and who

(2 little ams
and over them this
aflame with dreams
incredible is)

And Cummings isn’t the only famous poet who played with the rules of convention. Here is the brief and simple “Between Walls” by  William Carlos Williams:

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

It might have been written by an elementary school student still making sense of print concepts and complete sentences. Kind of takes the pressure off! Whether you are an adult who fears making a grammar mistake or you have students who struggle with language conventions, poetry can give you permission to express yourself without being distracted by having to follow all the rules.

Yes, poetry can be formal and follow strict rules of structure, such as haiku or cinquain. Those forms have their charms, and for the writer with an ear for rhythm and metrics, it may be fun to try to conform words into a strict pattern without losing power and flourish. In fact, metrics and patterns in poetic forms may appeal to our student mathematicians. Lewis Carroll applied the rules of symmetry and logic in his poem Square Stanza, which can be read both across and down.

You could challenge your young mathematicians to write an equational poem, using mathematics symbols to express relationships.

Blue + yellow = A sunny day

Friends  fighting = Sadness

(Credit to: me!)

It’s good practice with math symbols, and demonstrates how math is a language and equations are like sentences.

There are also plenty of poetic forms that make writing poetry easy for the unpracticed. Try an acrostic poem. Here’s one that seeks to define what a poem does, using the word “poem” as the structure:


(Credit to: me again!)

It’s super easy, especially if you don’t require that the end product actually makes a complete thought.  As long as the words evoke images or emotions that relate to each other, and to the main word, the message will come across as complete. This is a great activity to do with vocabulary terms in a science, math, or social studies class. See if the students can take a word from their content and create a poem that conveys its meaning. For example,

Science includes things like…
Carbon, and

(Credit to Cathcart Science 7th Grade.)

There are some more great examples on Poetry Soup.

I also love found poetry as an entry point for the reluctant poet. It’s perfect to use with reading from content area texts, too! While reading an assigned or chosen text, students will need to identify key phrases that they feel are most important to understanding the main idea of the text. They write these key phrases on strips of paper, then arrange them as they wish – not necessarily in the order they were read – to convey an overall understanding. Here’s an example from a geography lesson. The students read the text  “Baikal: Russia’s Sacred Sea” by Don Belt (1992).

Baikal is Special (unsigned)

Suddenly, his memory turned a corner and he wondered aloud
Barely a year had passed since Stalin’s death, and the dictators hand still lay heavy on the land
Ordinary citizen banded together to fight it
Baikal was special

Been living on a ship that brought Cold Warriors and industrial handiwork to these shores
He was astonished to find himself talking freely with an American

Man does not have enough feelings to respond to this wonder
Baikal is a living museum of aquatic plants and animals, incredibly rich in life at all depths

A breathtaking region rarely seen by foreigners
A natural laboratory for the study of evolution
Call it the Pearl of Siberia and the Sacred Sea

Baikal is special

(Credit to:  Ellen J. Foster (2012): Finding Geography Using Found Poetry, The Geography Teacher, 9:1, 26-29)

Instructions for setting up a found poetry assignment in History/Social Studies classes abound on the internet. Here are a few.

However you decide to play with poetry, I encourage you to jump into the celebration of poetry this month, or at least before spring is over. It’s good for our brains to operate in a different modality from time to time, and I’m sure our students will be appreciative of the change in pace.  You could consider using poetry as a way for students to access learning in your content area during testing, when they desperately need a brain break! And I hope you will find – or write – a poem to keep in your pocket and share generously on April 26, Poem in Your Pocket Day! Plenty of poems are available to download and print from the poets.org website!  Or find an English teacher friend – I’m sure they have verses to share! (You can ask: me!)

Critical Thinking: Keeping it Real

Critical thinking, the 5th “look for” in George Couros’s list for today’s classroom, is often overlooked. We hear the term “critical thinking” frequently, but I believe that its true meaning and importance are glossed over and misunderstood. Critical thinking, when done right, is more than a desirable by-product of a rigorous curriculum; it is a driver of real learning.

In our adult world jobs, we have to use critical thinking all the time to solve problems and to operate more efficiently. We are motivated to learn new things and expand our skill sets and understandings because the outcome is important. We push through confusion, discomfort, and challenge in order to accomplish a goal in which we have a vested interest (could be that our job depends on it, or it will make our jobs easier, or we may get a raise or promotion, or even just earn pride and respect.)

Here’s how the NEA defines critical thinking in its Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”:  “Reason effectively, use systems thinking to analyze how parts of a whole interact, make judgments and decisions, and solve problems.”  We do these things in everyday life, especially as we interact with the real world.

When you evaluate whether you have time to stop at Starbucks on the way to work, you take into account various factors such as traffic, the length of the line at Starbucks, and whether you really need that coffee, and weigh them against the potential consequences. We use critical thinking when we decide whether to drive to the airport or take the train, evaluating the monetary cost of long term parking versus the cost of time required to catch the train early enough and the hassle of dragging luggage around.  We weigh pros and cons and multiple small factors (weather predictions, how many bags we’ll have, how early will the alarm have to go off) and arrive at a logical and reasonable conclusion.

Now in the classroom, critical thinking activities can have a manufactured feel. The task is often something with an academic goal that has little connection to a young person’s day-to-day life. We give students a checklist, perhaps a rubric, of our expectations. The compliant student will perform in this simulation to the best of their ability, but will the learning stick? NEA describes the importance of critical thinking in the Guide, explaining, “Today’s 21st century families must sift through a vast array of information regarding financial, health, civic, even leisure activities to formulate plausible plans of action. The solutions to international problems, such as global warming, require highly developed critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.” When we provide opportunities for students to think critically and solve problems in a classroom setting, we are training them for these real life situations, but kids aren’t living those scenarios yet. If student perception of the opportunities we create is that they are disconnected from their real lives, then they won’t find them meaningful and may lack motivation to really dig in.  

Dan Pink explains this in his 2009 TEDTalk “The Puzzle of Motivation.” Discussing the effects of rewards and incentives on employee performance, Pink points to multiple studies that showed that tasks that required complex thinking and allowed for autonomy in problem solving (“out of the box” approaches) led to higher performance outcomes than tasks that had a clear set of rules and required only mechanical skill, even when significant rewards (such as money) were offered. When motivation to solve a complex problem came from intrinsic factors, namely autonomy, mastery, and purpose, participants outperformed those who were offered extrinsic rewards like money.

Dan Pink’s observations are closely related to the practice of schooling because when we give our students challenging tasks we often offer them extrinsic rewards as motivation. Grades are the primary reward, but sometimes we even dangle early dismissal or a raffle ticket to our bucket of miscellaneous prizes as a carrot. How often do we give our students true autonomy – the ability to determine for themselves how to go about addressing the task – or allow them to select tasks with purpose that is meaningful to them? It’s hard to do – we are trying to cover our standards and keep the learning focused on measurable skills. But think about the last time you had to think critically to solve a problem that was important to you. Here’s a recent example from my life, setting up my new car’s bluetooth audio and navigation system.  No one offered me 20 bucks to do it, and I was not going to earn an A. In the end, however, it mattered to me to be successful because it is a convenience in my day-to-day life to have it all set up correctly. That’s purpose. And I got to fiddle around with my phone and swipe through the dashboard screens in the order that made sense to me, following the owner’s manual when it helped me but reverting to prior knowledge and instinct when I got irritated with the book. I don’t feel like setting up my phone book contacts yet, I’d rather do the radio first so I can listen to tunes while I figure out the boring stuff! That’s autonomy. And in terms of mastery – the desire to succeed in order to get better and better –  of course I wanted to get more proficient at using the high-tech extras that make driving more enjoyable and safe! So how can we make our classroom learning tasks more like these real-world challenges?

Music teacher Jessica Allen has an approach she uses. For the culminating concert of the school year, she asks her high school orchestra students to plan their own concert. She turns over all of the logistics to students: song selection, advertising, fundraising, program design, etc. The only parameters she gives are the total time limit and the date of the show. If the students want an audience, they have to figure out how to advertise effectively. The difficulty of the music selections is up to them, but so are their bragging rights if they over- or under-challenge themselves. They know how long they will have to plan and practice, and they organize their tasks, musical and logistical, towards their own success. They also take turns conducting their peers while their teacher takes the student’s place on their instrument. Not only are students experiencing a dose of reality, but Mrs. Allen also keeps it real by sitting in the students’ seats, literally. “It helps refine my teaching for me to be in the student’s place during this 10 week process,” she says. I’m sure she experiences some reflective reasoning from that perspective!

When we can, we should design classroom simulations that allow students not just to practice critical thinking but to use it to achieve relevant goals. Project Based Learning strives to place relevance and authenticity at the heart of student learning; especially when students are involved in crafting the Driving Question for inquiry and selecting the end products and the public audience for them, the factors of autonomy and purpose that Dan Pink discusses are present.  Reflection, also a key component in PBL, along with step of Critique and Revision, helps students understand their skill level, seek supports for improving their skill, and ultimately work towards mastery. For classroom teachers, framing their lessons through the lens of PBL is one way to close the gap between critical thinking simulations and activities with real-world relevance.  

And in the long run, if we do a good job with critical thinking in schools, students will benefit. Because, as George Couros points out, “Better thinkers lead to a better world.”

What is Innovation?

I think what innovation means to me in the context of education is… really examining approaches that are more effective for our students than current practices and being willing to take the risk to try something new.


December’s focus is on innovation, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

It sounds exciting, and it is certainly a popular buzzword these days, showing up in Twitter threads about entertainment, healthcare, business, and yes, overwhelmingly, in posts related to education. If it is such a hot topic, then it is probably important for educators to have a solid understanding of what it means!

Is innovation similar to creativity?  On some levels, yes.  Its definition implies newness, change, and novelty. In that sense, of producing or designing something in a new form, creativity is the sibling of innovation. However, innovation implies not just changing something to make it different but also to make it better.

Innovation shares a prefix with invention, and seems closely related in meaning as well. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and I suspect that innovation works the same way. If something isn’t working the way we want it to, we make a change to improve it.  George Couros uses this definition of innovation:  “…a way of thinking that creates something new and better. Innovation can come from either “invention” (something totally new) or “iteration” (a change of something that already exists), but if it does not meet the idea of “new and better,” it is not innovative.” 1  The innovation movement in education is not just based on a desire to be like the technology companies or mimic celebrity fads but on a real need for change.  If we desire to improve the state of education in this country, we become innovators by necessity.

Catlin Tucker proposed in a Tweet on November 30 that, “Being an innovative educator requires pushing against common assumptions about how school is ‘supposed to work.’” 2  That means being willing to scrutinize and question everything we know about how schooling works from years of being students as well as our time as teachers. That’s a lot of un-knowing! It is uncomfortable work to question the way we were taught to learn and taught to teach. But I am pretty sure that innovation doesn’t mean that everything we know and do must change – only what could be better! (And how do we know what isn’t working or could be improved? See my previous posts on Reflection!)

I think what innovation means to me in the context of education is not gratuitous invention for the sake of the shiny, new technique, but really examining approaches that are more effective for our students than current practices and being willing to take the risk to try something new.  It can be as simple as rethinking the role of homework: is it reinforcement of skills already taught, or preparation for concepts yet to be learned? If whichever approach I am using is not yielding my desired results, maybe I should try the other! Notice that I did not mention how the homework is delivered or completed, whether online or on paper, written, recorded, emailed, or hand-delivered. Thinking differently about how about how to do something doesn’t have to mean adopting the latest technology trends.

Whether technology is synonymous with, or inherently a part of, innovation is a question that comes up often. It’s a valid question considering the rapid proliferation of ed tech applications, online learning programs, and devices for classroom and take-home use.  I will definitely explore the role of technology in relation to innovation in upcoming posts, but for now I’ll paraphrase George Couros and say that we should focus less on the tools themselves and more on how various tools can be used for the success of our students. (Couros 20)

In the end, this look-for is about creating opportunities for innovation. So, once we have a pretty good idea of what innovation is, our very important next step is to create an environment and to structure the learning time to allow for and promote innovation – our students’, and our own.


  1. Couros, George. “Innovate Forward.” The Principal of Change, Word Press, 4 Aug. 2017, georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/7604. 
  2. Tucker, Catlin (@CatlinTucker). “Being an innovative educator requires pushing against common assumptions about how school is “supposed to work.” 30 Nov 2017, 7:17 AM. Tweet.

Diving Deeper into Reflection

When we talk about students reflecting on their learning, we are actually describing a partnership between teacher and student, not a solo activity. You see, when we ask students to do an honest self-assessment, it requires the teacher to be open to feedback as well. After all, a teacher’s impact on student learning is huge, so if a student’s self-reflection reveals difficulties or delays in progress, the teacher naturally takes that to heart and reflects on what he or she could do differently.  

As teachers, we are big-hearted people who want our students to succeed and are often willing to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of our youngsters. We buy supplies with our own money, we take grading home and stay late in our classrooms, we even share our lunch or keep snacks on hand for those kiddos we suspect are hungry.

But while compassion and generosity are hallmarks of the profession, vulnerability does not come easily to teachers. We have to be confident and self-assured, considering we have anywhere from 20 to 200 audience members listening to and looking at us every day. Not to mention the co-teachers, aides, and support staff that work closely with us, our principals and district personnel who parade through our classrooms, often touring a group of board members, community leaders, or visitors from other districts. We are on display constantly. And then there are the parents, whose well-intentioned interest in their child’s success sometimes manifests itself as over-concern with a grading policy, a book selection, or the way we spoke to their child about a homework assignment.  We have to believe that we are highly educated professionals who do know what we are doing and generally do a pretty good job, or we would not be able to show up each day.

We have to take down our armour to let in constructive feedback, even from ourselves.

Leadership can create a culture in which taking risks and being vulnerable are made okay by modeling vulnerability themselves. Brene Brown describes this in her book Daring Greatly.

Lowering our guards is hard, but modeling self-awareness for our students is important. George Couros says in The Innovator’s Mindset that taking risks is part of innovative teaching (Couros 51). He goes on to say that educators should “not try to answer [the question of “What is best for kids”] on behalf of our learners, but work from an empathetic viewpoint of our students.” (Couros “The Importance of Taking Risks”).  

In a recent Twitter chat on the topic, Carlsbad teachers shared some strategies and insights from their experience. They shared tools they have created for students to self-monitor their progress on learning programs such as Achieve3000 or self-rating scales from which the teacher determines small groupings for reteaching.

Achieve3000 self score 

Some of our high school language teachers are having students develop their own goals using positive statements to identify outcomes.  Many are using simplified, student-friendly rubrics to involve students in understanding their learning goals and monitoring their own progress. Digital portfolios are emerging as a promising way to have students take ownership of their learning goals and reflect on their progress in a tangible, comprehensive way. Our teachers are getting seriously creative about how to involve students in meaningful self-reflection, and that’s a great first step.

Next, as we ask students to tell us what is working for their learning and what is not, we need to listen to their answers. They may reveal something we need to know. Letting go of ego and taking student feedback to heart to improve our teaching is ultimately going to give our students their best chance for learning. So as we ask students to reflect on their learning, we must complete the circle in partnership with them.  

Time for Reflection in the Classroom

I have been asked several times recently to reflect on how things are going with projects I am involved in. It is nice to be asked, because I don’t necessarily take the time to reflect on my own. I’m too busy! But I was asked by district leadership about our OER (Open Educational Resources) initiative that is underway with English/Language arts teachers, because they want to stay well-informed but can’t be at every meeting or touch base with every team. I was also asked by colleagues from other districts about this OER work because that’s what we do at our county-wide network meetings –  we share ideas and resources and learn from each other, and OER is new to everyone! In both cases, being asked forced me to frame my thinking in a different way. Rather than thinking like a planner or a doer, focusing on the what and how to get things done, I had to think evaluatively, reflecting on the results, the challenges, what changes could be made to improve the process going forward, and recommendations I would give to others about to start a similar project. You could call those the “take-aways,” the lessons that can be applied to future work. And that is meaningful to me, because this OER work is most certainly going to be an ongoing focus, and I need all the “aha” moments I can get as I try to ascend up the learning curve!   

In fact, in the context of the school year calendar, teachers have built-in opportunities to stop and reflect. Carlsbad High teacher Jeff Brandmeyer described it to me this way: “One of the greatest things about teaching is that we are allowed a “re-set” a couple of times a year–at the semester break and at the beginning of the year. How many other professions get to “start over” on a regular basis? I feel as if thoughtful reflection is one of the mini re-sets we can make any time.”

Our students are no different than us adults when it comes to being busy, wanting to focus on getting it done and moving on. I’ll bet you can think of children you know who exemplify this manic urge to finish an assignment or test (hand shoots up, “I’m done!”) as if it was a race. Perhaps we have even known some youngsters in our own homes, so hasty to accomplish a chore and be allowed to play that we end up re-doing their chore for them in order to have it done right. If we don’t build in structures and routines that slow them down and stimulate mindfulness, they are not likely to do it on their own.

Teachers have an opportunity within the context of classroom instruction to make reflection a regular habit, even an embedded part of the culture.

I’ll share a few examples that have been brought to my attention of ways to do this that don’t require great effort or reinventing of the wheel.

Good ole exit tickets can prompt reflection if presented that way. The exit questions can ask students to not just restate their understanding of a concept but also to reflect on what helped them learn it or what they need for better learning. I used to use scraps of paper (#reuserecycle!), but these days teachers can get techie and have students submit their responses on a Padlet wall or via Google forms, or even record a short video of themselves and post to Flipgrid. Inspired by the possibilities of Flipgrid in the classroom, I recently created my first video prompt and asked the teacher teams who are working on OER curriculum to record their reflections on how the work is going. It is good information for us in the District Office so we know how to support them, but I hope it also allowed the teachers to stop a moment and coalesce their thinking around this complex task that we are all navigating for the first time.

I love the universality of this TAG Feedback form that uses sentence starters to help students frame their thinking. It includes structured peer feedback but also self-reflection (see page 2). And the acronym TAG makes it easy for even young students to remember and follow: Tell, Ask, Give. It would not take long for students to become familiar and adept at using this tool on projects throughout the year. The teacher who shared this with me used it successfully with her 8th grade social studies students, but she was inspired by seeing it in her 4th grade daughter’s class! (Thanks, Mrs. Salz, Calavera Hills Middle!)

At Sage Creek High School, seniors complete Genius Projects that they start working on in junior year. Throughout the process, they blog about the experience. “Failing forward” is encouraged, and the students acknowledge the challenges they have along the way as well as their success. They express these reflections in writing throughout the process in the form of blog posts and they are also required to describe them when they present in “Ted Talk” style at the culmination of the project.  I heard one senior from the class of ‘17 describe his efforts to make a guitar using a 3-D printer. In the end, not only was the guitar beautiful to look at, but it sounded just like any quality store-bought guitar. On the surface, his project seemed like an impressive success. But to hear him tell it, he was tempted to quit several times, had to start from scratch and redesign more than once, and almost did not finish the project on time.

Hearing him describe what he learned about himself through this endeavor was the most powerful part for me. I could see a young man who was ready to move from the safety of school to the possibilities of the real world, equipped now with academic knowledge and self-awareness. Someone who would be able to handle a complex project with a steep learning curve and no answer key. Kind of like we do every day in our jobs as adults.