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Complex Times

(Cross posted as my staff update for the week).

This is the time, this is the place.  So we look for the future, but there’s not much love to go round.  Tell me why, this is a land of confusion.

If you close your eyes you can see Phil Collins on stage with the other members of Genesis singing this.  You can see the crowd signing along and dancing to the beat.  The image in your mind doesn’t appear that confusing even though that is what the song is about.

Fast forward to today and the lyrics might be something like this:

This is the time, this is the CCSS.  We continually look for resources, but there’s not much round.  Tell me why, this is land of complex times.

I’ve never said I was any kind of a song writer, but I think we can all agree that this is certainly a time of complexity.  We are all looking for the simple solution to the work we need to do, but in doing so we sometimes make things a little more difficult.  Know that we are not alone in our struggles.  A massive teacher survey conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 78% of the teachers surveyed were somewhere between somewhat prepared to very unprepared to teach Common Core standards.  Only 22% of the respondents felt very prepared.  Complex times indeed.

Our work with ELA CCSS over the past month has really brought to light that reading and text are quickly becoming the center of classroom instruction.  Tied closely to this is an increase in the rigor of the reading and an increase in text complexity.  Students are now expected to be able to engage more actively with complex texts in all content areas and grade levels.

With this expectation comes the challenge of finding appropriate level texts for your students.  In order to select appropriate texts we first need to understand how the Common Core assesses for text complexity.

The Common Core uses a three-part model that includes qualitative measures, quantitative measures, and information regarding the reader and the task when assessing for text complexity.  The qualitative measures relate to items best measured by practitioners.  The measures include levels of meaning, structure, language clarity and the demands on knowledge needed to understand the text.  Quantitative measures are generally done through the use of formulas.  This is where the readability is determined through determining word frequency and sentence length.  The final piece of measuring text complexity takes into consideration the readers knowledge, motivation, and interests.

Many of you have asked the question of what do our students need to read and what is appropriate for the grade I teach?  Given how text complexity is determined, these guiding questions might prove helpful in selecting appropriate texts for the student or your class.

Can students understand what they are reading?

The answer to this involves professional judgement and an understanding of where students reading abilities lye.  This really focuses on the quantitative level of the text.  What is the Lexile range?  What is the reading level (ATOS, AR, etc.)?  It also brings to light the expected comprehension of the student.  Students need to understand and comprehend what they are reading in order to feel success.

Is the content appropriate for my grade level?

The answer to this question also brings into consideration professional judgement and really understanding the social emotional level of the students in your class.  Even though a student should be reading a book with a Lexile level of 900, the content of the book might be well beyond their level of understanding.  Not to mention it could be completely inappropriate for their age.  When looking for books that are appropriate it is important to consider the knowledge demands and levels of meaning that are placed upon a student.  Books that make few assumptions about a readers’ life experiences and that contain a single meaning are easier for students to comprehend and interpret.  The more clear the language is along with a structure that is simple allows the reader to engage with the text and comprehend the authors’ intent and purpose.

Is the text going to be motivating?

Simply put, if a student in interested in the topic or are interested in the topic will engage in the text regardless of its difficulty.  This is where we hook students to stretch their ability and present them with more complex texts.  Allowing students to choose a text to read within certain parameters can have a lasting and profound impact on developing their skills to comprehend complex texts.  All students should read texts that appeal to them.

Complex times indeed, but if we keep a few simple things in mind our work will become clear.

Anxiety to Growth

We are transitioning to a new evaluation system for both teachers and administrators.  This was something I shared with staff in regards to my transition to the new system.

“Anxiety is an unpleasant state of inner turmoil.”

Many people often experience this general state of worry or fear just prior to confronting something challenging.  Something that means a lot to them.  Something that comes with some kind of judgement.  Anxiety is most often associated with a test, interview, public performance, or presentation.  The feelings that accompany anxiety are easily justified and normal.  At least that is what I kept telling myself when I began to read and digest the leadership framework from which I will be evaluated this year.  The more I read the more anxious I became.  The anxiousnes I felt soon transitioned to feelings of inadequacy as a school leader.  Especially after reading the first two rubrics:

Is proficient AND provides leadership and support such that shared vision and goals are at the forefront of attention for students and staff and at the center of their work; communicates mission, vision, and core values to community stakeholders such that the wider community knows, understands and supports the vision of the changing world in the 21st Century that schools are preparing children to enter and succeed.

“Is proficient AND establishes and promotes successful systems and methods for communication that extend beyond the school community; creates a productive feedback loop among stakeholders that keeps the dialogue ongoing and purposeful; methods are recognized and adopted for purposes beyond school; staff report confidence in their ability to engage in essential conversations for ongoing improvement; consistently communicates high expectations and standards for staff and students regarding ongoing improvement.”

This feeling of less than only grew as I read through the rest of the document and began my self-evaluation.  I remember at some point becoming kind of numb and detached to the process.  Maybe this was my way of coping with the anxiety I was feeling.

Little did I know this was just the beginning.  Not the beginning of feeling down and beat up, but rather the beginning of a new way of thinking.  After a few days of reflection I began to see the real beginning.  The beginning of a new challenge and chapter.  The beginning of truly embracing a new way of working and a new way of learning.  The beginning of promise.  The beginning of moving to real learning, real growth, and real improvement.  The beginning of a professional growth mindset.

This acceptance of the change in my thinking could be viewed as something I had to do.  Something that was required or that I was just conforming.  However, I didn’t see or think about it that way.  I saw it as a way of improving.  I saw it as a process that clearly defined what I needed to do to grow.  This was comforting.  All to often we are asked to change, adjust, tweak and are not given the pathway or resources to grow our expertise.  I am thankful that this is different. I am thankful the pathway and resources are built into the system.  All I need to do is embrace the challenge and be open to the change. I don’t see the change as a way of saying what I was doing was wrong, but as a way of seeing the promise of building on the skills that I have.

As we continue the transition to the new evaluation system there will continue to be anxiety and concern.  My hope is that the more we work with and understand the framework we will embrace the promise of growth, rather than worrying about conforming to the law.  We will need to support each other through this shift and help each other see the promise and potential of the new system to improve our craft and impact student learning.

I am excited about our work and couldn’t ask for a better team to do this with!

Taking a week off from giving an instructional tip and what I saw and am providing a link to a great TED talk by Tim Ferriss entitled Smash fear, learn anything.  According to the description, Tim’s talk is fun, encouraging and his anecdotes show how one simple question – “What’s the worst that could happen?” – is all you need to learn to do anything.  I agree, will you?


Welcome Back Letter

Each year my in my mailbox at home I would receive a welcome back letter from the principal.  Receiving this letter would usually signify that summer was about to be over and I needed to put two weeks of fun into one.  Somehow I managed to do that!  The letter usually contained nuts and bolts about meeting days and other pertinent information.  However, what I appreciated most about the letter was the small message of thanks for the job we were doing at the school.  Sometimes it was a story.  Sometimes it was a quote and an explanation to our work.  Other times it was a personal anecdote.  Regardless of what it was, it always produced a smile and made me glad I worked where I did.

I have tried to do the same thing with my welcome back letter.  This year I came across a message that greeted all employees at Apple when they were hired.  The Apple message was clear.  You are joining a team that cares deeply about greatness and the fulfillment of life’s work.  A team that is willing to sacrifice and do big things.  I saw a number of parallels to the Apple message and the work we do everyday in our schools.  I shared the message in my letter and will use it throughout the year as a reminder of our the work we do.

Here is what I sent:

August 13, 2013

Dear Laker Staff:

“There’s work and there’s your life’s work.  The kind of work that has your fingerprints all over it.  The kind of work that you’d never compromise on.  That you’d sacrifice a weekend for.  You can do that kind of work at Apple.  People don’t come here to play it safe.  They come here to swim in the deep end.  They want their work to add up to something.  Something big.  Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else.”  – Welcome to Apple

WOW!  This is the first thing that greets every new employee at Apple.  Many of us were lucky to get a key to the front door of the school when we were hired, let alone an inspirational message that inspires and motivates.

As I read the statement, I couldn’t help but think about the work you do for the students and community of Nine Mile.  Your daily actions indicate this is your life’s work.  You freely give of your time and sacrifice countless hours to have your  work count and make an impact on each of your students.  It is evident that you want your work to add up to something that will be lasting and meaningful.  Something that will serve our students well as they progress through life.  Something that each student can take with them.  Something that allows them to be thankful for their time in your class and our school.  Something that says this is Nine Mile Falls Elementary and that is something to be proud of.  I am extremely proud to be a part of something great at Nine Mile and watching you do things that Apple says couldn’t happen anywhere else.

Now for the updates:

Professional Learning:

For the past few years our primary focus has been on increasing our expertise through effective collaboration.  This will be the case for the coming year as well.  It is comforting to me to know that our work will continue to be around a process that has shown great success for us as a school and district.  The specifics of the work might look different, but as we discussed at the end of the year the intentional examination of standards, instruction, and assessment won’t change.  This focus will help guide the work we have already started and will allow us to continue to grow and learn together.  The work will be tough and involve continuous reflection, respectful and courageous conversations, vulnerability, and failure.  However, in the end we will all be better equipped to meet the demands of our work and create something we can be proud of.

Here are a few dates where our collaborative work will begin:

Tuesday, August 21st at 8:00 am – Common Core math training continues at the high school.  The work will focus on curriculum, pacing, and assessments.  Plan on bringing your own lunch and the work will conclude at 2:00.  Clock hours will be available for your participation.

Thursday, August 29th at 9:30 am – We will meet in room 10 and our work will revolve around achievement data, goals (school and individual), summer learning, and the instructional framework.  Our time will end at 3:30, which gives an hour of down time until the 4:30 – 6:30 supply drop off.  I will have some snacks, but lunch will be on your own.  This is an optional day for certificated employees.  Classified staff are encouraged to attend and will be able to receive comp time that can be used during student conferences.

Tuesday, September 3rd at 8:00 am –  This is the all-district (certificated and classified) opening and will be at the high school this year.  Breakfast will be provided.  We should be done at LHS around 10:30.  The rest of the day will be a continuation of our work from Thursday the 29th and some nuts and bolts stuff we need to complete.

Other News:

The building is in great shape thanks to Ron and his work.  Everything from the floors to the windows has been taken care of.  There are still a few things to be completed, but nothing major.  Should you need something or are in need of help with something in your room, Ron will be around to help.  Be sure to thank him for a job well done.

As of this time there hasn’t been a whole lot of changes with our enrollment.  Classes are still close to full, but there is a little wiggle room.  Should new students register or we receive a records request for someone leaving, I’ll work with the grade level staff to find a suitable placement for the student.

Finally, I wanted to share with all of you some of the things I learned this summer.  I spent time reflecting, reading, and watching videos.  As I reflect on my learning, I sit in awe of the amazing thinkers we can access with the click of a mouse or a simple web search.  With that in mind, I wanted to share with you some of what I viewed or read.  I created a webpage with links to some of the things I read and/or watched this summer.  I encourage you to take a look at the page and watch one of the short video clips or read one of the articles I have linked.  The website can be found here:


I am looking forward to seeing everyone again!

What is Exemplary Teaching?

We recently concluded interviews for a high school principal position.  I was fortunate enough to be a part of the interview team.  Many of the questions were predictable, but there were a few that caught the candidates by surprise.  One such question was when we asked, “As a leader how would you ensure all students were able to discover and explore and their strengths and passions” (special thanks to Chris Wejr for that one). Another question that caused some surprise revolved around having the candidates describe a time they used courage in their professional career.  Each candidate did a great job and I was thankful to have been a part of the day.

As with most days, I found myself reflecting on what had happened.  I thought about our process, the questions we asked, the responses from the candidates.  I thought about how I would have answered some if I were interviewing for the position.  Upon giving the day more thought, the following question really stood out for me, “What key concepts do exemplary teachers include in their instructional practice?”  It didn’t stand out because the candidates felt it was difficult or it surprised them.  It stood out for me due to the variety of answers that were given.  This person will be hired as the instructional leader of the school.  Each of the candidates were current administrators, yet none of the answers were consistent.  I thought to myself as the perceived instructional leaders of a school, shouldn’t we be able to explain what strategies an exemplary teacher uses on a day to day basis?  Shouldn’t we all have some consistency in our thinking?  I think we should, and as I thought about it a little more I tried to figure out what my answer to the question would have been.

Here is what my response would have been regarding exemplary teacher practices (in no particular order):

1)  Clear Learning Targets:  Learning should be transparent and attainable for every student in the classroom.  The use of learning targets that are shared visibly and through discussion allows all students to know what they will be learning.  An exemplary teacher does not and should not create a “gotcha” scenario for students through instruction or assessment.  An exemplary teacher conveys what it is that a student is expected to know, understand and be able to do at the conclusion of a lesson.  They also create targets that are specific, student friendly, and action oriented.  Every student wants to know what it is they are supposed to do and an exemplary teacher understands this and provides this for their students.

2)  Responsive to Students:  An exemplary teacher responds to the learning needs of their students.  They do not teach as they best learn.  They teach how their students learn best.  An exemplary teacher honors students’ preferences in learning and adjusts content to meet those needs.  They also actively seek to understand their students’ skills and talents so they can match an appropriate strategy for the learning needs.  An exemplary teacher is responsive in that they close the gap between knowing what to do and really doing it.  Being responsive is doing what is fair for students and exemplary teachers understand this.

3)  Intellectually Challenging:  An exemplary teacher has the technical expertise and content knowledge appropriate for the class.  They create multiple opportunities for students to engage in the material and ask questions.  An exemplary teacher works at not being the “sage on the stage” and assumes the role of facilitator.  They get out of the way of students and their quest to learn.  In doing so, they create a classroom environment of engagement that fosters intellectual stimulation and curiosity.  The exemplary teacher is able to organize their lessons and create pathways for this to be possible.

4)  Builds Relationships:  We can’t teach what we don’t know.  We also can’t teach if we don’t know our students.  If a teacher does not know their students how can they respond to the learning needs?  One of the biggest things a classroom teacher must do is get to know their students.  An exemplary teacher understands this and works on doing this each and every day.  They build relationships by being positive with students, interacting with them both in and out of class, they make themselves available to help students with their work after class, and treat each student as an individual.  Fair isn’t always equitable and exemplary teachers understand this notion when working with students.

5)  Assess, Assess, Assess:   For many, I realize the word “assess” conjures up negative thoughts as we think about AYP and the number of exams our students take today.  Suffice to say, this isn’t the kind of assessment I am talking about.  Rather, I am thinking about formative assessment.  An exemplary teacher employs formative assessment techniques and strategies multiple times during a lesson.  They continually assess whole group, small group, and individual students to determine comprehension of the learning target.  Through these routine assessments an exemplary teacher will make instructional adjustments on the fly in the hope that all students will be able to demonstrate mastery of the learning target.  An exemplary teacher realizes that students cannot learn without formative assessments.

6)  Reflection:  Exemplary teachers understand and utilize the power of reflection.  They reflect upon themselves, their practice, and their students work.  They think about and remember what they did.  They think about what was important during the lesson and if students understood.  They think about using certain pieces of the lesson again at a later time.  They think about the patterns of learning they saw in the classroom with certain students.  They think about how well they did and what did the students produce that led them to their conclusion.  And finally, they think about their next steps.  Exemplary teachers become automatic in their reflective processes.  They also work at developing these techniques in their students.  Reflection is the mother of all learning and an exemplary teacher practices this until it becomes permanent with them and their students.

I am sure there are other things I could include on this list, but I think this is how I would have answered the question during the interview.  Some of you may agree with items on the list, think I left some items out, or disagree with what you have ready.  If that is the case, feel free to leave a comment for further discussion.

Building Community – Identity Day

Community is an extremely powerful aspect of any school and its success.  The community a teacher creates in the classroom can either engage and motivate the most reluctant learner or turn off the most motivated.  The community that is created within the walls of a school either supports the academic and social growth of its students, or stifles it to a point students do not feel safe.  Enlisting and engaging the broader school community creates partners that communicate a positive message about your school, or talk negatively about their child’s experience in your school.  No matter how we look at it, building a supportive community that engages, supports, and motivates is hard work and is worthy of our time and attention.

There are many things a teacher does in the classroom to create a sense of belonging for their students.  The greater challenge lies in creating a sense of belonging between all students at the school.  The more difficult thing to do is to expand this sense of community to include students at multiple grade levels.

I was able to witness the power of cross grade level student involvement when our 1st grade class hosted other classes for the reading of the “All About” books they created.  At various times throughout the day a class would rotate through the 1st grade classroom and 1st grade students would read their “All About” books and answer questions.  It was an extremely powerful experience for both.  To hear 1st grade students read their creation to a small group of 4th or 5th grade students was flat out cool!  I was personally moved by the conversations that were happening right in front of me, but what was even more moving was seeing how interactions in the hallway or playground changed after this event.  No longer did the 1st graders feel as if they didn’t belong.  Now they knew they belonged.

I had read all fall and winter about schools hosting an Identity Day.  After reading about the results of those that hosted an Identity Day in their school (Grade 1 Teacher, Forest Green School, Kent Elementary) I decided we were going to have our own Identity Day.  I needed to take advantage of the foundational work our 1st grade class did in regards to creating an entire school community.  So on June 16th, we hosted our first ever Identity Day!

The day only involved our 5th grade students making projects.  We set their displays up in the gym and created a schedule for each of our classes to come see what they made. Parents were invited and it quickly became a community event.  I can’t begin to describe how awesome the day was.  Below are some things I learned:

1)  It helps you realize each child has passion. One of the first things I noticed was that each student was truly excited to share what they created.  It wasn’t long before I realized their excitement came from the fact they were talking about something they were passionate about.  It engrained in me that we need to continue to provide learning opportunities that allow students to express themselves.

My Project

2)  It the increased self-esteem of each student.  Everywhere in the gym students were smiling, laughing, and sharing.  They interacted with adults, teachers, other students, and community members and the confidence they displayed as they shared their project grew with each person.

3)  It teaches you something about the students in your school.  Knowing something about the students in your school is critically important.  It provides you with the opportunity to have a conversation with the students in your school around something that interests them.  What a great way to create a positive relationship with each student!

4)  It builds community.  Seeing the interaction between students, teachers, and community members at such a positive event can only enhance the connection each group has to the school.  Interactions between students will be more positive.  Teachers learn more about the students in their class and the school.  Community members have a positive story to tell at the local cafe’.

I know we will continue to have an Identity Day in our school.  As you get ready to begin another year in your school what purposeful activities do you have on your school calendar that will enhance and build your community?  Are there minor adjustments to current activities you could make that would allow the opportunity to engage your greater school community?

Conquering Fear


For some, fear is a powerful motivator.  For others, fear can paralyze.  Should fear create paralysis, than conquering that fear can sometimes be insurmountable.  This is where I have been and continued to be for a long period of time.

For the past couple of years I have immersed myself in the development of a personal learning network (PLN).  I have read, experimented, shared with others, given presentations at state conferences, and grown from both a personal and professional perspective all because of my PLN.  It appeared to me that the natural next step would be to make my learning transparent and begin blogging.  After all, I was sharing with anyone I could the power of learning through reading blogs.  Yet, something was holding me back…….FEAR.

I have never considered myself a confident writer and it does not come easy.  Conveying ideas and or thoughts through writing is something I struggle with.  Yeah, I know this can be said about anyone that writes a blog.  However, I think I am different.  At least that is what I kept telling myself every time I would read a post by someone.  They had commas in the right spot, grammar was accurate (as far as I could tell), their ideas were well thought out, they had compelling things to say, their thoughts made me think and inspired action…..how could I ever do that.  Then I realized the biggest fear of all – other people would read my writing!  No longer was it going to be shared with just one other person.  It wasn’t turned into the teacher and given back to me with a grade that usually let me know I had to spend time re-writing my paper if I was to pass the class.  Rather, as soon as I let others know about my post anyone with the link could read my post.  Talk about the ultimate pair of cement shoes!

Well, I kept making excuses for about a year.  I investigated every blogging platform available and found a reason why each of them would not work.  Couldn’t email a post, the templates weren’t very flashy, uploading media was cumbersome, and so on.  In my mind that was enough to keep me away, but what it really boiled down to was that I was unwilling to confront and conquer my fear of writing.  That is about to change!

As of this day I am pledging to conquer my fear.  I will be blogging and sharing thoughts or things I find interesting.  Yes, there will be grammatical mistakes (just as I am sure there are some in this post).  Yes, some of my ideas or thoughts could be explained more succinctly.  Yes, I will continue to second guess myself when I hit publish as to whether or not this blogging thing is a good idea.  Yes, I will struggle with writers block.  Yes, I hope that what I share will be meaningful, helpful, or create action with at least one person.  Yes, I will continue to conquer my fear!

Who knows maybe this whole writing thing will become easier the more I do it!  Whoops, did I just end a sentence in a preposition?

Kaizen: A Way of Life

Wordle: Kaizen

First blog post about continual improvement/learning will be coming soon! Just getting everything set up.

Random thoughts and thinking from a reflective learner who loves his family and cycling. By day, I am the Director of Teaching and Learning in Nine Mile Falls, WA.

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