A Call To Explore

Years ago I visited the Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C.  Standing with a friend near the Eternal Flame, we found ourselves in awe both by the setting and the words from a JFK speech inscribed on a wall.  Breaking the silence, my friend simply stated, “it feels like he took all the best words.”  I simply nodded my head.  She was right.  leadership & learningAs a result of my PLN growing over the last several years, I have become convinced that investing in ourselves is paramount to growing stronger as leaders.  If you are not pushing yourself to learn more – either through reading, writing, posting, or lurking – then you are robbing others of all you can offer.  Don’t do that.  Instead, get in the game.  Personal or professional learning is now available 24/7 from the comfort of your couch.  Will it come in spurts?  Will it ebb and flow?  Might it be hard and confusing at times?  Yeah, probably.  The most important stuff usually is.

Merriam-Webster offers as a definition of the word “explore” the following:  to become familiar with by testing or experimenting. Inherent in the definition is being an active participant.  As I continue to work on my own leadership, I find myself drawn, more than ever, toward learning more about leadership in many forms.  Whether it is through my reflecting on an article, blog, image, or a personal lesson learned, I commit to #explore what it means to be a leader, especially when working with both students and adults on a large urban campus.  I intend to hold myself accountable through my reflections within this blog.   img_5fa2bec61763-1Accepting that JFK was right and our learning is critical toward our leadership, how can you commit to be active now?

 

The Trio That Serves as My Totem

Inception is one of my favorite movies not only because it is highly engaging and well produced – it also references the idea of each person needing a totem.  For the characters in the movie, they employ a totem so that they know whether they are still dreaming or not.  The idea is to always carry something simple with them so that they can take a potentially complex issue (asleep or awake) and solve it by using a simple item.

Occam’s Razor.  KISS.  Robert Fulghum.  These three ideas or people are what serve as my totem and often help me recover as a leader.  They do this by reminding me that the ability to hear, understand, reflect, and address/solve a problem or issue is usually completely within my zone of influence.  Occam’s razor is a philosophical principle that says that the least complicated explanation is usually the correct one.  KISS is a reminder to Keep It Simple Stupid!  And Robert Fulghum is the author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, the book that reminds me of both the previous ideas – namely that, at its truest essence, any idea/concern can be resolved by utilizing a concept I learned long ago.

This month as a member of the #CompelledTribe, we were asked to share a book, or multiple books, that influence our work and that we would recommend.  AIRNTKILIK is such the book for me as it has always served as a powerful reminder that when dealing with people – which is what we do all day every day – so much of what we learned as a young person can still serve us well.  My tattered copy that stays nearby was a high school graduation present, and it became a life lesson piece for my family moving forward.  Some of the reminders are timeless:Share EverythingPlay FairPut things back where you found them.Clean up your own mess.Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Take a nap every afternoon.Be aware of wonder. Hold hands anWhile many of these remain aspirational – still no cot in my office – I do try and embrace the others when interacting with others (both while wearing my principal hat or my parent hat).  And as a leader, I have literally and metaphorically grabbed on to this advice as it reminds me that at our core, each faculty and staff member made a decision to step in to a classroom or school where children are in need of so much.  And often what they need, what we all need, is simply hope.  The idea that things can be better.  Complication does not usually inspire.  Simplicity does.

Finally, I would add that a large part of what we do in leadership is connected to the stories we share.  Creating a narrative that makes an experience accessible to others can enable a vision to be understood and a path forward to form.  The Storytellers Creed from Robert Fulghum is also a reminder to me of the charge we have as leaders on a school campus.  Each year I try to share this advice with seniors as they embark on their next adventure.  What helps you reset when faced with a challenge?Storytellers Creed

Coaching Teachers Without Asking Why

At the end of last school year, one of the areas of learning that our faculty/staff identified was feedback.  Teacher to student, student to student, leadership to teacher, etc.  The campus wanted to learn more about how to offer feedback that was useful and could be leveraged for improvement.  Having this focus enabled me to return to some training I had received years ago based on the work of Carolyn Downey and the 3-Minute Classroom Walk-Through.  Click here for a strong description.

So what I find most valuable from the Carolyn Downey work is the reflective question.  Essentially, the idea is that after you complete your walk-through, either via email or a planned “bump into”, you share what you observed and then leave them with a reflective question.  Follow that with built in time for them to reflect on it.  Perhaps you tell them you’ll check back in later.  Or simply leave it open-ended.  The purpose is to have them reflect.

John Dewey

I find this most powerful when I focus on a decision that they made.  Perhaps its the strategy they used to check for understanding; or maybe its a choice they made to use segments of a video; or merely directing students to either work independently or collaboratively.  The point is that they select their next steps, they consciously decide to do something.  For many it is muscle memory.

I strive to ask the question in a manner that focuses them on an instant – a decision point.

“When you decided to have the students work collaboratively on the lab, what outcomes were you striving to achieve?”

“How do you think your lesson would have gone for the students if they had been provided guided notes for the video you showed?”

“When introducing a new concept, what do you consider when choosing a formative assessment tool or strategy?”

Each of the questions above works from a premise that they were fully prepared and thoughtful with the questions they asked, or the lesson they designed.  It then moves from there to a choice they made and asks them to reflect on it.

Could I have sought the same information by simply asking “why did you have them work with partners?” or “why did you or didn’t you provide guided notes?”  Maybe.  That’s certainly more direct.  However the word “why” is incredibly powerful.  Generally speaking, it leads the receiver of the question to take a defensive position.  And that is the last thing I want to do when building rapport for feedback.  Asking “why” can lead them to narrow their thinking just as I want them to expand it.

baby pondering

As you work toward having teachers understand the effects of the decisions they make, of the plans they develop, what strategies do you employ?

What would it look like for you to not use the word “why” for the next week with your students or your staff?

My First ISTE Conference and It Hurt My Brain

In high school I loved to write fiction. In college I continued but it was harder. I realized that it was work – that for it to be quality it took lots of time, effort, reflection, and perseverance. It’s not easy to commit to all of that so I stopped. Yet as I reflect on my learning from #ISTE2017, and especially the opening night keynote from Jad Abumrad, the creator of the Radiolab Podcast (Check it out here) , I realize that when I gave up on the process, I cut myself off from many other opportunities.  And I realized that my desire for it to be better wasn’t a detriment.  Rather it was the challenge I needed; the push that each of us need when we try something new, as we strive to find our voice.  

More than 20 years since college, I now find my desire to identify and develop my voice stronger.  Whether it is with this blog or my latest LEARN project where I started a podcast focused on seniors at my high school, I more fully understand that I need to stick with the process of continuing to work.  It’s not great yet and I’m okay with that.  


Additionally, during the same keynote, Jad shared with us a great piece by Ira Glass where he speaks about the Taste Gap.  I’ve included a link to the 2 minute video here: The Taste Gap.  This spoke to me in a powerful way in that it reminded me of the fact that the work must continue.  And that being aware that it’s not good enough yet is important as that is what will keep you working. Imagine that – the very idea that may seemingly stop us from continuing to create is instead exactly what we need to persevere.  The idea that we think it’s not good is the fuel we need for the journey.  Personally, I t was not uncommon for me to reach the point of it not being what I wanted it to be, and the conclusion I reliably drew was that it just couldn’t be any more that that.  Yet ISTE & Jad showed me there was more value to be had by simply “fighting through it.” 

So as I recover from the end of the school year and refresh through my learning at my initial ISTE conference, I find my brain throbbing like the overworked muscle it is.  Thinking and working at another level leave me both exhausted and motivated.  I am excited about engaging again in my own learning through both blogging & podcasting.  Neither is where I want them yet; I get that.  Yet ISTE helped me understand the power in the process & that you must keep plugging along.


What are you struggling with right now in terms of your creativity?  Where does your Taste Gap currently reside?

Spring Break 2017: Stepping out on to my Skinny Branch

As I stared at the lid and wondered what waited for me inside, I remained a bit dazed at the prospect that I was across the world from my family.  Chopsticks near my right hand and a tall glass of water near my left hand, I lifted the lid of the Bento Box and my eyes opened.  I was no longer in the comforts of Houston, TX; rather I had just checked in to my hotel in Kyoto, Japan.  Spring Break 2017 was definitely going to be an adventure and little did I know how much it would impact my life as an educator.

Bento Box

Just before Thanksgiving break, two impassioned (and persuasive) teachers approached me about serving as a chaperone as the student tour of Japan had grown in popularity and they needed another adult.  What’s important to know at this point is that I can be a real homebody.  I love to be outside, i love to see friends and go out to eat.  Yet the solidarity and predictability of home also has an allure – especially during the few breaks in the school year for a high school principal.  So I said I would have to check with my wife and kids.  Secretly, I figured they would be my “out” and offer me “cover” to not be able to go.  Aw shucks, I would say.  Right?  Wrong.  My wife, my daughter and my son all said I would be silly to not go.  I protested that the food would be tough for me to handle (I’m not picky, rather I’m boring – ha!).  Again, they took away that excuse and every other one I tried (long flight, family time, currency exchange rates, etc.).  Where I was wrong in how they might respond, I can now say that they were so right in knowing that I needed to do this adventure and I needed to do it now.

Bigger Shrine

I won’t go in to all the shrines we saw, the temples we visited, and the lovely vistas we soaked up.  Suffice to say that Japan is incredibly clean, safe, polite, and they could not have been better hosts.  Our 23 students were spectacular in the questions they asked, the foods they tried, & the manner in which they represented themselves, their school, and, in some ways, the United States.  I could not have been more proud.  And while it was an educational tour for them, I have not been able to temper my enthusiasm for how much learning I did on the other side of the globe.

This trip completely pushed me out of my comfort zone.  And yet I tried my absolute hardest to completely embrace the adventure.  I tried every type of food placed in front of me – sushi, tempura, whitefish, natto, flounder, swordfish, lots of rice, and many more dishes I can’t even remember.  And while I feel I can fairly say that Japan has a lot to learn about breakfast, I did feel much better as a result of the food being so fresh.  I did not use a fork for the entire week and resisted Cokes as well (thankfully coffee is a staple everywhere for that caffeine fix).

Trust

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t share that, upon further reflection, I have realized that when you take a risk, and push yourself in to new arenas of learning, you can surprise yourself.  And when we allow ourselves to genuinely trust others then our worlds really open up.  I trusted my family, I trusted the adult chaperones, and I trusted the kids on the trip.

Me in Kimono

Next year the same chaperones are headed to Greece and they’ve asked me to tag along again.  I don’t know if it will work out however I know that whatever the outcome it has nothing to do with fear or anxiety.  The walls of international travel have crumbled for me and I’m excited by what my future experiential learning may include.

Finally, I did resist American Fast Food throughout our travels in Japan – until we reached the terminal at the Airport heading home.  Then I had a Big Mac, Fries & a large Coke.  And it was glorious.

Final McDWhat have you learned from your travels?

My #OneWord for Two Lives

I am going to be honest in that I am not big on themes or resolutions.  In fact, I secretly would crack wise about the neighboring schools that felt a theme or idea should guide their year.  I believed that the work was the work and that we shouldn’t need pencils, or t-shirts, or shiny signs to get there.  I suppose I also took on this philosophy in my personal life and thus refrained from resolutions every January.  Sure, I might secretly mutter something to myself, however, I wouldn’t share it with others.

 

oneword2017Truthfully, I don’t know much behind the idea of the #OneWord.  I suppose that at it’s essence it is a decision to not subscribe to a specific act (eat better, be nice, say thank you, etc) and rather commit to the concept behind a word.  And so I am going to give this a try for 2017.  My #OneWord for 2017 is ENGAGE.  And this word will thread through both my professional and personal lives.

I choose to continue to ENGAGE in my own learning.  The past 12 months have been powerful for me as I pushed myself to remember what it’s like to be a learner.  I started this blog, reconnected via Twitter, began to build a larger PLN, and am enjoying my Voxer group.  It’s been a positive experience that I want to continue.  It makes me better.

I choose to ENGAGE in those difficult conversations that so often come our way as leaders.  In the past I may have prioritized the ones that were urgent or that challenged my curiosity.  However I know that when I am being honest with myself, I sometimes pushed off those tough chats in hopes they either resolved themselves or became moot.  The idea of something being “easier” can be quite alluring.  For 2017 I intend to resist the easy route and push myself to be better.

I choose to ENGAGE with my student body in new and exciting ways.  I know that I can’t personally connect with all 3500 students within one school year.  Yet I can make efforts to add new means for how, when, and where our paths do intersect.  Perhaps it will be via the use of video, social media, and/or a microphone.  I’m not sure yet.  It’s too easy to forget that it does matter just how present we are with young people and each other.  Around this notion, I know I can do better.

family-nyc-trip-july-25-2016

Finally, I choose to ENGAGE with my family more.  I could not be the type of high school principal that I am (and that I continue to aspire to be) without the support and understanding of my wife, my son, and my daughter.  There are times they get less of me so that I can offer more to my students, faculty, staff, and community.  My family rolls with it pretty well as that’s the gig we signed up for and they understand.  However, Jacob is in 12th grade and Emma is now in 10th grade.  They won’t be home for much longer and I can’t forfeit those remaining days and months.  So I choose to engage with them by sitting in their room together, making dinner together, listening to records together – trying to just be together.  These are small things however they matter and they can add up.  It’s important to me to be better with them.

In which ever way you interpret the turning of the calendar to January, I hope that you consider choosing a single word to drive your actions.  There are so many wonderful words out there to choose from; similar to a long journey beginning with a single step, your selection of just #OneWord might launch quite an exciting adventure.

How will you start today to engage in your own world?

My Attempt at #GeniusHour with Adults

I have been a secondary principal for half of my education career – 12 out of 24 years.  Starting this fall, I will have been in the main chair more than I was anywhere else.  And so as I enter this off-season and reflect on the past school year, I can honestly say that I pushed myself in a new way.  You see, I was starting to get a bit stale.  Yes, I still was intensely challenged, and the commitment to my campus, its students, faculty, staff, and community, had not wavered.  I simply wasn’t sure what was missing.  And thus, I spent this past school year trying to figure out what I was trying to figure out.

1

Twelve months ago I entered the summer focused on the idea of becoming a learner again.  I juiced up my iPad, downloaded some great books, and read a lot.  The focus of what I consumed relied upon Twitter, and thus I resuscitated my twitter handle and committed to jump back into the learning.  I was excited.  I ate up articles, retweeted prolifically, and tried to spark wonderful conversation.  My followers grew slowly and my notifications were few.  I didn’t feel like I was gaining traction.  And so when the start of the new year came, it was easy to “get busy with school.”

In October I attended the What Great Educators Do Differently Conference in Chicago with two friends.  I was inspired and my learning engine was reignited.  This idea of discovery and sharing and pushing myself was exactly what I needed.  And as the conference closed, I kept hearing people mention #GeniusHour.  I didn’t know what it was, and, honestly, I was afraid to ask.  I nodded my head and figured it was something I could research later.

A few weeks later, I revisited my notes from the conference, and came across the term – #GeniusHour – again.  I decided to google it.  And as I perused the first website, and then the second, and then the third, I became energized again.  My thoughts raced from, “sure this can work in ES or MS, but what could it look like in the content-obsessed world of high school.”  And then the light bulb went off.

I spent the next two weeks constructing a #GeniusHour presentation for my administrative team.  I then presented to the 12 of them the idea of #GeniusHour followed by the challenge that would come their way.  I told them that we were each going to embark on this work and purely learn.  Topics could be related to school or education, or they could be something more personal.

GeniusHour Final

The room was silent.

A few members of my team had smiles as they knew what they were going to do.  Others had clarifying questions – perfectly acceptable.  And others basically kept their heads down.

I told them that they didn’t have to seek my approval.  That I was happy to support or be available as they wished.  I was specific enough to keep repeating the 4 caveats yet vague enough to make some restless.  And I was okay with that.

That was in late November.  In May and early June we took turns presenting our #GeniusHour projects.  What emerged has exceeded my expectations.  The topics ranged from learning a new language, to a DIY project; others focused on starting a blog while another was writing a novel with his son.  Two projects centered on relationships with one focused on just adults and the other on adults and students.  Finally, one teammate shared her journey from an inactive lifestyle to completing the Texas Ironman Triathlon.

And as we debriefed each presentation the common challenges of being a learner surfaced.  The uncomfortable feeling of starting something you weren’t certain you would understand or be good at.  The idea of learning taking longer or shorter than expected.  The focus on the outcome as opposed to the minutiae.  They had all reengaged as learners.  They also spoke about what it could look like in the classroom and how they might better support both teachers and students.

Prepared to be wrong

This #GeniusHour work that we embarked on will lead much of what we do in August with our entire team.  It wasn’t perfect – two members of my team chose not to participate.  And I had to come to terms with that as being okay.  They may not have felt safe or merely weren’t ready to reenter that space.  The remaining ten that did will share their learning with smaller groups on campus.  We will support our teachers in becoming a learner again.  Maybe their topic will center on an idea for their classroom or maybe it will be more personal.  Frankly, I don’t think the topic matters at all.  It’s the process that will count more.  It’s the experience that will stick with them as they move through the school year.

I didn’t know how it would go with my team, and I don’t know how it will go trying to scale it up with 185 teachers.  However I was certain that we needed a fresh challenge to jump start our work, and I’m counting on that same energy to launch our faculty forward as well.  If we don’t try then we’ll never know.

In my best case outcome, I see teachers embracing this challenge.  And I see them more able to empathize with the challenges of learning.  Each teacher will see that different learning styles exist, and that timelines and modes of sharing can enhance and empower the content they hold so dear.  Additionally, their students will no longer see themselves as the only ones taking a risk.  It’s increasing humanity on campus.  Genuine vulnerability in an intimate way.  Maybe it will help a student persevere a bit more, give it a go one more time.  We will see.

How have you recently engaged as a learner? How could you facilitate a #GeniusHour with the people that work alongside you?