Monday, December 29, 2014

The incredible growing todo list

So, I have this staff member at my school in a new position who still has a lot to learn about todo lists. I was checking in with her during the in-service before school, asking if she needed anything. She pulled this little piece of a sticky note out and showed me. I was amazed that she only had two things to remember to do, but I remembered that she was new and the students hadn't arrived yet. Then it hit me, here was a staff member using **scraps of sticky notes** to keep track of tasks. Aargh!

How could this be? This would have to be the least efficient task management system in the history of todo lists!

Once my heart rate returned to normal, I took a deep breath. Here I was, the digital principal, mister productivity himself staring at a one-inch square piece of sticky note of a todo list. I calmly suggested that my colleague think about a more efficient system. Did she want me to help her come up something? She told me that she would take care of it, that she was still figuring things out. Ok. I moved on to talk of the coming year.

A few days later, once school was in session, I was in the hall talking with the staff member. I asked how she was doing? Could I help her at all? She pulled out her hand from her pocket and showed me an index card with her new todo list. Well, her list had grown from two items to about fourteen. That seemed reasonable for the second week of school.

Hold on a minute, this was just that same as the sticky note only enlarged. Holy moly! Again, I nearly fainted. I asked if she was keeping up with everything. Sheepishly, she said something about having a little trouble remembering everything she had to do. Really! Again, I offered help getting organized. She said yes this time.

I wish that could tell you about how this staff member has become a digital pioneer and a productivity trailblazer using Evernote and an Apple Watch or Google glass and a chip embedded in her brain.

It turns out that this staff member wasn't interested in any high tech task management. She settled on a good old fashioned notebook and pen system. Now, whereever she goes, so goes the notebook. What she writes down, she remembers to take care of. Nearly four months later, it still works. And that, after all, is what matters most in a todo list.

What do you use for managing your tasks? Digital or analog list maker? What works for you?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The students win when it is RC v. PBIS

As part of a class I am currently taking, I was asked to read and respond to an article ( that discussed how Responsive Classroom (RC) works with Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS). This assignment was perfect for me as both approaches are in heavy use at my school.
Instead of writing something new about the relationship between RC and PBIS, I figured I would just publish my assignment.

PBIS and the Responsive Classroom Approach article: Reflective Question

Both PBIS and Responsive Classroom fit well with my philosophy of education (my complete statement can be found here: Essentially, PBIS, RC, and I all agree that it is up to the teacher to change the environment to support student success. We all agree that positive approaches work and "that punitive or ‘get tough’ strategies can be counterproductive and are harmful to children." Over time, my philosophy of education has shifted to include student behavior into the belief that all children can learn and be successful.

The complementary approaches of PBIS and RC are focused on supporting all children to find success. The article explains that using RC can help with a successful PBIS implementation. While RC does not provide meaningful systems for intensive behaviors, it does provide the foundation for the Universal Tier of PBIS. Classroom environment, rule creation, teaching and reteaching procedures and behaviors, and positive adult language all work together to set the stage for students to be successful. RC fills in some of the ‘how’ in the PBIS system.

These two systems are in-sync with one another. Staff who are fully trained in RC (as many Wolcott staff have been when at JSC) are primed for work in a PBIS system. The small differences (language v. material reinforcement, universal v. leveled tiers) are surmountable when some flexibility and creativity are applied. Those staff who truly adhere to either can usually adapt to use the other. The challenge is not whether RC and PBIS fit together. The challenge is helping staff evolve their thinking from punitive to positive, from reactive to preventive. Together, RC and PBIS support my philosophy that all children can learn and succeed.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Three Questions

No, this is not a discount Passover story (ask a Jewish person about the FOUR Questions). This post is about the Three Questions that I asked staff at the very first faculty meeting of the year.

I've been collecting feedback in a variety of ways from the staff since I began as an administrator. Last year, I happened upon a set of questions that many families use during weekly family meetings (my family started this process at the same time). I decided that these questions can work very well for the school family. So, in August, I asked every staff member to write answers to these three questions:

  1. What things went well in our school last year?
  2. What things could we improve in our school?
  3. What things will you commit to working on this year?

The answers were very instructive. Some answers will seem obvious to anyone who has ever worked in a public school. Others are quite particular to Wolcott Elementary. Still other answers are actually highly personal.

Right away I noticed that the responses are filled with contradictions. For example, there were four comments about how staff interactions went well last year and seven comments about how we need to improve staff community. Six comments about improved behavior/PBIS last year and eight saying we need to improve those areas.

I was particularly pleased that one of the main areas indicated as needing improvement (behavior/PBIS), was an area that we spent a lot of time on over the summer. I spent four days with a team of staff in July and another day in August preparing a whole set of changes to our behavior and celebration systems.

And, of course, there are the perennial areas such as communication. Please see my previous post for ways that I am working on improving communication for staff.

And now for the responses themselves:

I left out the personal commitment answers from question three because many were too easy to identify the author.
Within each question, I loosely grouped responses together. Blanks equal personally identifying information.

What Went Well Last Year?
  • Celebrating children
  • Children seemed happy and valued
  • School spirit
  • PBIS
  • Having _____ available for behavior interventions and guidance
  • Extreme behavior challenges seemed to be under better control with use of interventionists and _____
  • Last year I was with an amazing teacher that taught me so much
  • Collaboration among faculty and staff went well last year
  • Working with the people I get to work with
  • People seemed to get along better children and adults
  • We designed some changes that will bring us to the next stage
  • Decisions to change thing up and head out on a path to improvement
  • LLI now in k - 3
  • Math interventions and planning
  • Music
  • Art collaboration with classroom teachers
  • Spring/ winter concerts with Kristin’s leadership and talent
  • Art integration / art shows and music performances
  • 1st grade parent involvement and k - 2 evening events
  • ASP! More tech integrations
  • I didn’t hurt myself!!!

What We Can Improve?
  • PBIS / expectations and procedures
  • RC and PBIS
  • PBIS
  • Consistent discipline
  • Behavior / school climate
  • Consistency in student behaviors/ expectations
  • Authentic celebrations of success [academic, behaviorally, social]

  • Our focus on academic excellence celebrating academic achievement
  • Community building between faculty and students

  • Our community feeling among staff [more parties, get togethers, camaraderie]

  • We need to find new ways to respect each other
  • We need to improve on gossip among staff
  • Negative energy
  • To make all staff [not just faculty] feel equal
  • Kindness
  • Communication with all staff
  • Communication
  • Communication
  • We could improve our communication with each other
  • Communication between coworkers is something that could improve
  • Better communications
  • Lunch choices
  • Becoming more organized
  • Noise control from hallways/ classrooms that student’s complain about as distracting
  • More planning time
  • Quieter ______ classes for more focused work
  • Curriculum - vertical align, dynamic inst., celebration

I conducted a follow-up staff survey in early November and got lots of good feedback about the new behavior/PBIS initiatives. There were also a few comments about how good the climate was among staff. I will return to this sort of practice again and again as we continue our work.

How is your year going? What needs to improve? What will you commit to improving in your practice? Please leave comments below.

Cross posted to Connected Principals.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Feedback and Communication: 2 Top Things, Part 2

In my last post, I came to the brilliant conclusion that Feedback and Communication are the Top 2 Things that Teachers want from the Principal. Nothing really new here. In fact, if you've been reading education blogs during the last five years, you will see these two themes, or variations thereof, come up nearly every day. In any case, I promised in my last post that I would follow up with a post that describes some of the ways that I communicate and provide feedback. So here it goes.

But first, a stipulation...
I hereby stipulate that I have lots of room for improvement both in how (and how much) I communicate and in the frequency and quality of feedback I give. However, I think that I can honestly say that have made some progress on this front.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog post...
I have been working on improving and increasing feedback and communication for a while in a few ways. As you read through my list of ways I communicate or provide feedback, you will undoubtedly notice that many of the specifics items could easily fit in the other category. You will just have to accept that categorizing is a wildly imperfect act.


  1. Goal setting/Summative
    1. Goals with every professional staff in the fall; every support staff in the winter. Every year.
  2. Formal Evaluation/Observation
  3. Walkthroughs/Mini-observation
    1. I visit classrooms on a regular basis. Even at this small school, it is quite tough to get to each teacher to ask and share about what I saw. Instead, I email: What I noticed... Students were... A question to consider...
    2. Through November, I've completed 97 documented mini visits
  4. Weekly Teacher Meetings/[insert something here to have a slash like in the previous three items]
    1. Every full-time teacher, every week. Sometimes we talk about questions front the walkthroughs, sometimes we talk about specific students, sometimes we talk about fluency progress monitoring data, and sometimes we talk about our pilot of implementing the EngageNY math units. Oh, we also sometimes just talk about life and parenting.

  1. Monday Memo. I send out a simple email, usually on Sunday evening. I send very few other announcement-like emails. The staff learned quickly that the Monday Memo is their one stop shop.
    1. Great Things I Noticed Last Week
    2. New Items
    3. Reminders
    4. EST (an update about the most recent Education Support Team Meeting)
    5. Events This Week
    6. Tech Tips
    7. Our Values
  2. Auto-forward school Facebook postings to the staff email group
    1. I want to make sure that staff see what parents do.
  3. See Nos. 3 and 4 under Feedback above
  4. Attend weekly team meeting for each team in the building.
  5. Hang around the office and staff lounge and just chat.
  6. Keep my door open most of the time.
  7. Walk the halls, lots. Especially after school.
I suspect that when I am an old, grizzled, soon-to-retire principal, I will still be working on communicating more often and more clearly (hopefully my dentures won't come undone every time I try to communicate). Even at that advanced age, I will still be perfecting ways to give helpful feedback to teachers.

Please add a comment with ways that you give feedback or improve communication.

Cross posted to Connected Principals.

Monday, October 20, 2014

2 Top Things Teachers Want from Their Principal

In early 2012, I wrote a blog post called "7 Top Things Teachers Want From Their Principal (published on Principal’s POV and on Connected Principals

At the first faculty meeting in August 2011, I asked every staff member to answer, on a notecard, the question, "What do you need from your principal?" I grouped the responses into seven categories:

  • Practical support
  • Technology
  • Special Education
  • Teacher Support
  • Feedback/Availability
  • Communication
  • Miscellaneous Leadership Qualities

I have repeated the notecard activity with the full staff each year since. In subsequent years, I altered the question slightly to "What do you need from the principal improve student learning?" This was a subtle change away from some very practical needs and toward our primary mission of ensuring student learning. The answers changed with the changing question and the changing years. However, as you read this list of the major categories from the last several years, the pattern will be apparent.


  • behavior
  • communication
  • teamwork
  • visibility
  • scheduling


  • Clarity
  • feedback


  • feedback
  • consistency
  • communication (2-way)

Whoa! Did you see that? Over the years, the staff at my school have narrowed their annual feedback to me from seven categories to three. Furthermore, the combo of communication and feedback appears every year (in the years when the exact words did not show up, it is an easy argument that communication and feedback are intimately linked to the ideas that were featured).

Now, you have to understand that I am a little slow. I mean, you'd think that with all of the books on leadership and several years on the job, I would already know that two-way communication/feedback is vital to a smooth running, high performing school. Then again, if it were that easy there wouldn't be so many books (and workshops, seminars, blog posts, webinars, mentoring sessions, and more devoted to the topic).

So, here I am, with incontrovertible proof that what teachers really want from their principal is feedback and good communication.

In my next post, I will explain communicate about the ways I give feedback and the ways I try to improve communication. I may even throw in something about clarity and consistency.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tech Help #edchat #vted

When I last wrote, I mentioned the lessons I learned way back in 1997 (i.e. Always have a Plan B). This time, I write about another lesson from SummerCore: when you need help, ask someone younger. The idea is that kids are "digital natives" or something like that. Really, it may just be that kids aren't afraid to try things, but more on that in a future post. The advice is sound whatever the rationale behind it. Our students can be quite adept at helping us through our work with technology.

There is a great example of this at my school. I have one teacher who appoints a student to be "Tech Help" for the class. When the SmartBoard stops working correctly or some other problem, the teacher (who is tech competent) just calls for Tech Help, please. The student then comes up and attempts a solution. Most of the time the student is totally able to solve the problem. Surely the teacher has done some prior training; what matters is that works.

In fact, "Tech Help" is a great way to show that this teacher has mastered a piece of the ISTE Standards for Students (NETS-S).

6. Technology operations and concepts Students demonstrate a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations.   
a. Understand and use technology systems 
b. Select and use applications effectively and productively 
c. Troubleshoot systems and applications 
d. Transfer current knowledge to learning of new technologies

The teacher could try to solve the problems herself and move on with the lesson (and sometimes she does), but, instead, she lets the students show what they can do.

So, whether she asks for "Tech Help" because the youngsters know more than she or because she wants to give them opportunities does not really matter. What matters is that the teacher is asking the only people younger than her that really matter, the students.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What's Your Plan B? #vted #edchat

While watching an observation training video, I noticed the teacher accidentally turned off the projector and then did not get it going again for a while. The technology failed (sort of), and the teacher kept on teaching with little disruption to the lesson.
While this shows a fairly strong set of classroom/lesson management skills, it also shows that the tech was not particularly important. As I watched the rest of the lesson, I hoped to see something more than failed Substitution (learn more about Substitution and SAMR).
Setting my critique of the level of technology integration aside, I was reminded of my first edtech lesson from the week-long SummerCore in 1997: always have a plan B. In other words, be prepared in case the technology fails. At the time (and still, unfortunately) tech failed pretty often.

In other other words, if the lesson is only about the tech, it might not be a great lesson.

As for having a plan B, in the fall after that summer course, I was trying an Interactive Slide Lecture (from History Alive). I'd planned to show a slide (not a powerpoint slide, a real slide) and then switch to a graphic organizer on the overhead to model note-taking. In the course of the first 10 minutes, I blew the bulb in the slide projector and then in the overhead. Forget plan B, I needed plan C.

Have you ever needed a plan B during a tech filled lesson? Let's hear about it.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Leadership Day 2014 #leadershipday14

Technology use at my school can best be described as nascent. However, it was a very prolonged labor to get this far. My mostly veteran staff has been reluctant to embrace much in the way of Modification or Redefinition in their use of tech. When I arrived a few years ago, there was little more than some word processing going on. The staff had been scared by a recently-retired tech guy so that they barely touched the five year old laptops they had. The interim principal before I arrived had begun to modernize with a new laptop cart, document cameras in most rooms, and a Smartboard in one room. Slowly, over the these last last three years, the new tech guy and I have added laptops, iPads, and (soon) some chromebooks. We believe that different students at different ages with different tasks need different tools.

With some small exceptions, most of the technology use at my school is very basic substitution with a bit of augmentation thrown in of or good measure. Tech activities like math games on iPads or spelling sentences on google drive offer little new (other than exposure to technology) over their analogue counterparts. We are hoping to get teachers to move their practice by changing small pieces of their tech integration. For example, last year, one teacher started having students type spelling sentences into google drive. Once her students got the hang of it (and we ironed out some tech wrinkles), the tech guy and I pushed the teacher to allow the students to comment on each other's sentences back and forth before students submitted to the teacher. This modified the spelling sentence activity because the students in that class had never shared their sentences with classmates before.

I would love technology use in my school to redefine learning for every student. To get there, we are growing one unit, one level of SAMR, at a time. Just like our children gradually grow and mature, so to is our technology integration.