Book Review: Leading with Focus

For the past five years in my career in education, I have promoted this concept of “do less better” in the face of multiple so-called requirements and initiatives that tend to distract us from doing any of them well.  Some things are tied to the money we receive, to which we unfortunately must attend.  This is sad derailment of our focus, so when I saw Mike Schmoker had put out a book about school leadership I ordered a copy before it was out.  When I read his first few lines that, “It is vital that we simplify and demystify…the primary obstacle to effective leadership is our failure to identify, clarify, and then focus on certain actions that ensure optimal instruction.”, I knew this book would bring me home!

If you’ve ever read Schmoker’s work, or read my previous reviews of his research, you’ll know that Mike Schmoker stays on message like no other mainstream education specialist.  Each of his recent books, Results Now!, Focus, and Leading With Focus, reinforce the need for coherent curriculum, solid amount of reading and writing, and effectively structured lessons.  In four short chapters, Schmoker rams this message home with subtle nuances from previous books tailored to school leadership roles, with examples of how this has worked to improve student experience and a “starter kit” for how it might work in other contexts.

The true power of Mike Schmoker’s repetitive cry for simplifying school so that real literacy learning occurs is that his recommendations are so authentic to what many of us believe about good and timeless teaching, but especially because his advice remains clear and consistent across whatever role you have in a school.  It is about learning and kids, and how getting adults to pay attention to what’s important makes their work actually easier.  I give this one 4.5 SutterStars.

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Book Review: On Your Mark

The district I serve in moved to “standards-based report cards” a few years before I arrived in 2007 and I can honestly say they have created heartburn and lively debate three times each year.  These have been revised and re-aligned as standards have changed and teachers have had a great voice in the process, but confusion still remains in many pockets (including among parents that reports cards are designed for) on how these work.  It took me about five years to realize that the report cards are not the problem as much as our lacking knowledge and agreement about grading practices across many grades.

This confusion led me to order Thomas Guskey’s book, On Your Mark, the day I saw it advertised in Ed Week because I have read his editorials about grading practices and he makes a lot of sense when talking about grading practices and the historically absurd things we include in “a grade” from PreK-College, such as attendance, not using bathroom passes, using 0’s rather than incompletes, etc.  While some may argue that these things are legit because that’s the way it’s been and kids should get used to “real life”, Guskey provides thought-provoking argument around purpose leading to process in grading, something that often is lost as educational institutions seek efficiency and mass compliance.


Guskey frames this book around three critical steps for approaching grading:

1.)    Clarify the purpose of grading and reporting.

2.)    Align all classroom and school policies and practices with the stated purpose.

3.)    Ensure proposed changes are supported by strong research evidence.

These steps are clearly not a how-to for improving grading and allow the natural leadership and collaboration that must happen within the context of a school or district, but they clearly state the parameters for reaching sound grading practices.  While much of the book has an activist tone, it is from Guskey’s conviction that this topic IS important enough for us all to question, rethink, and improve if we as educators are truly about learning and not schooling.  Amid the passionate voice is sound evidence from history, research, and personal experience of this esteemed educator.  Each chapter presents concepts worth challenging, the reasons they exist, and their flaws in practice.  Some are painfully familiar, my favorite being to “Challenge the Bell Curve”, which elicited much conversation with friends who are far more statistically minded than me!

While the book won’t walk you through revising your school or district’s grading culture, it will stem the conversations and thinking about practices and personal beliefs that can begin that process.  These are conversations that should happen soon in many institutions, so I give this book 4 SutterStars and recommend it to teachers K-16!

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I Get to Go to School

As I was feeling exhausted, frustrated, and futile the other day, I asked myself why I go to work.  In such desperate moments I can easily find myself answering first with many of the things I don’t go there for.  I don’t go for a paycheck, because if I did I’m pretty sure I could get a fatter one with less effort and personal sacrifice.  I don’t go so I can be yelled at by a child whose home life is lacking or by a parent who really just loves their child and feels misunderstood.  I don’t go to watch my peers have physical symptoms because they are so concerned about a student, and I surely don’t go so I can use my education degree (read NOT finance) to solve financial shortcomings created by far-away politics that punish and deprive.  I certainly don’t go so I can watch kids cry during a high-stakes test or to send them home when the attention they so crave drives them to anti-social or dangerous behavior.  And I really don’t go so that I can kiss my own kids and wife goodbye before they wake up and hope to be home before their last bite of dinner.  None of that stuff I do each day is why I go.

The reason why I go is because, unlike most people, I don’t have to say I’m going to work.  I get to say, I’m going to school!  I get to see huge, yellow buses roll up and unload lines of smiles and high fives.  I get see kids’ change over the months from passive recipients of knowledge to active engagers in learning.  I get to hug when a grandparent has died over the weekend and polish new trophies won in recent events.  I get to see teachers laughing with kids, in a relationship that can only happen in a classroom.  When I feel exhausted, frustrated, and futile, I get to go to school and be with kids, who are really the coolest form of humanity on earth.  They make things not feel so futile.

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Brother Love and Lovely Dove

There’s a kid in my school who inspires me.  Work doesn’t always come easy for him, but he doesn’t stop trying.  He’s not very organized, but he doesn’t seem to care.  Life moves at a little slower pace; a pace he has created…no sense of urgency which I admire and am frustrated by all at once.  He earned the nickname “Brother Love” from me for always asking me to “bring it in for a hug” whenever he is tardy to class and I see him in the hall.

When I see “Brother Love” towering above his peers in the hall, I tell him, “Up high!” and salute for a high-five above his friends’ heads. “Lovely Dove” he started calling me, as a way to rhyme when we slap hands.  How many middle schoolers nickname their principal (to his face) and get away with it?   That’s the kind of laid back peace this kid brings.  He’s cool and once we had these nicknames in place, he stopped being tardy.  Relationships go a long way.  Kids can inspire adults.  I see Brother Love and I remember to slow down, smell the flowers, smile quicker, laugh longer…call myself a silly name like Lovely Dove.

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Book Review: The Instructional Leader and the Brain

I’ve been poking in and out of this book for a few months now, interrupted by other reading.  The growing fields of cognitive and neuroscience have fascinated me, but the intersection of this research with practical application has been scattered so this title was alluring.  The book ended up not being so great though.  Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 6 were worthy as the author provided an accessible outline of brain structures, emotions, processing, and memory, respectively.  These will be good reference chapters for me to return to when I confuse the work of the amygdala and the hippocampus, or to activate my own memory about how we remember things.


The other chapters had buzzy titles about engagement and feedback which are even more familiar to me, but I found the content to be thin and sometimes the reasoning was contrary to other research I have read on how the brain works in those contexts.  I found myself not highlighting or feeling much practical learning out of large chunks of the book, though there are a few useful vignettes regarding teaching practices.  The truth is the title was a little misleading.  Each time I felt the scientific info was going to be followed with application of how it would be used, the book gave examples of what you might recognize in practice in specific contexts that didn’t really lend themselves to generalization.  This felt like connections that would benefit a novice instructional leader looking for particular behaviors.

I didn’t hate it, but I’m also thinking my pokiness with this book was a result that it just wasn’t setting my neurons on fire.  I’ll give this one two SutterStars.

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Technology Amuck

A young lady was recently telling me her woes about a boy she had a crush on.  The woe was this: he hadn’t “liked” a picture she posted of them earlier that day.  I asked her if his opinion was really that important to her self-esteem.  Her reply, “My self-esteem is fine because I have 91 likes on that picture, just not his yet.”  Her connection of her self-concept to anything digital made my stomach turn…and as a parent or educator, I’m not exactly sure how to bridge this chasm of communication and values in a way that will be meaningful for the children in front of me.

The truth is, the world our kids are growing up in is different and the challenges of technology and social media are crippling a vast majority of kids, whose brains are not developmentally ready to navigate these rough waters.  Our challenges as adults shouldn’t be to fight this digital culture, but to deeply understand why it is so pervasive and what our children need to develop safely and soundly within it. I don’t advocate eliminating it, but I do have a few ideas to consider about the effects of this new culture.

1.)    Kids need a break – When we grew up, before iPods, tablets, and cell phones were in the back pocket of nearly everyone older than 10 in our community, we got to take a break.  It was called going home from school, playing with different friends, or none at all.  When there was drama at school, those few hours between 3:30 and bedtime were an unrealized blessing to cool out, move on, and usually get over it.  When our kids are immersed in social media, they don’t get respite from the ongoing conversations about who said or did what.  Friends are in each others’ business, sometimes until after bedtime and first thing at breakfast.  Kids need a break from each other and from the normal drama of childhood and we need to impose those breaks. Kids also need a break from the blue light waves that stimulate their brains…limit the screen time so brains and emotions can rest.

2.)    Kids need monitoring – What we used to call a bully was the kid who cornered you on the playground, behind some play structure where adults couldn’t always see. He wouldn’t act that way in front of adults because he knew it was wrong!  With today’s tech, even texts provide a false security of being anonymous which gives more kids the courage to say or do things that they know are wrong, but without the face-to-face encounter their words grow a little more course, insults a little more cutting, audiences exponentially larger.  Kids need to be accountable to one another and themselves, which means if we give them the access we need to monitor how they use it, or receive it from others.  How we build empathy among our children and show them how to be allies is more important than ever!

3.)    Kids need reflection and forgiveness – If I had every ridiculous, embarrassing comment or decision I made as a young person plastered in front of me as a reminder, who knows what kind of angry jerk I could have turned into.  John Dewey proposed, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”  This is why we laugh at the occasional photo of our break-dancing clothes or Aqua-Net bangs from 1985, but our self-concepts aren’t based on those mistakes.  Our kids are documenting every meal and moment of their young existence, not only for the world to hold against them, but immediately capturing every instant of growing up and allowing those mistakes to haunt them day in and out.  Kids need the past to be the past, and allow memories to turn into lessons through reflecting on them, not have them posted as permanent reminders of their development.

4.)    Kids need to be kids – We have watched academic content be pressed from higher grade levels to earlier ones in the name of rigor and higher standards.  Kindergarten is the new first-grade, someone recently told me.  PG-13 used to mean what it says, but now it’s basically what we used to call Rated R.  Pop culture and technology have made a vacuum that has shortened childhood.  Kids need support to be kids, by adults being adults…even if it means we’re not cool or we hear ourselves sounding like our parents. Toys, games, and sports are as important as ever for real relationship and social skill-building.

As parent of a 10 and a 14-year old, and as an educator responsible for 450 other family’s kids, I share the responsibility laid out here and I’ve failed at it often.  I may even take on more of a burden as I envision education evolving with more digital tools that make my own advice that much harder to follow.  But I see the effects of unfettered technology with young children every day and I know that even if our kids resent us for it now, they will be better adults if we raise them with technology, instead of on it.

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Hey Stripes! Nice job.

For over 35 years, I avoided any interest in sports whatsoever. I literally would not stay in a room where a ball game was playing on a TV.  It just wasn’t part of me and I wasn’t missing out on a thing.  Then my son turned 8 and his interest became infectious in a way I’ll never explain.  Learning sports through him, as an adult, has become a fun hobby and connection.  Watching his games is one of my favorite activities now.

One thing I’ve noticed is how referees and principals are pretty similar.  We’re both there doing a job for the kids (or players) and the spotlight is on them, but we’re supposed to be watching for rules and keeping everyone inside the lines.  People love or hate us, there’s not much space in between.  And that love, or hate, is based simply on the view from where one sits.  Refs and principals have to know the game and make just calls quickly.  We usually do it well, but sometimes we don’t see all the angles.  We don’t have the view from the bleachers just like the audience doesn’t have the view from the court.  And always, one of those views is incomplete.  Sometimes it is the ref or the principal, because we are people too.

Just this weekend, a ref came to the stands I was sitting in and asked for the parents of a player.  The parents around us shook our heads, not knowing who or where those parents were.  We all assumed the kid was at risk of being ejected if the ref was coming over. Then the ref told us he needed to apologize because he’d made a bad call on their son.  Sometimes calls can’t be taken back, but a caring person acknowledges, apologizes, and moves on.  That’s how we learn and serve.  Nice job, Stripes!

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Intentionality vs. Accountability

Generally, I find deep learning occurs through questioning, when I pose content in the form of inquiry it encourages students to reflect on what they know and engage in sense-making of the questions.  Sometimes though, we must provide specific evidence, direction, or make a concept explicit so more can be learned.  This dawned on me as I’ve been pondering the differences of being intentional versus accountable.  I’ve written before about the harm of mistaking responsibility for accountability…intentionality happens before those rich questions we create for learning.  It is taking a stand for what we are doing, not in refute of anything that has come and gone or that offends our natural sensibilities.  It is explaining our intention for our students and our work, specifically. Public educators are increasingly bound to measures of accountability.  By this I mean, hoops to jump and bars to raise, frequently without resources to support these expectations. (Think high-stakes tests or teacher evaluation systems.)

As an educational leader, I believe in shifting our mindset from false and ever-changing “accountability” to thoughtful intentionality.  This does not mean lowering expectations for students or ourselves.  It also doesn’t mean railing against the broken system that won’t change anyway. It means understanding intent and separating chaff from grain to apply it in our buildings.  It means controlling what we can and explaining in our contexts what we do, why we do it, and how we know it works…or if it doesn’t, what we learned about that!  When we make these three statements about our work, we increase efficacy and shift our locus of control from external to internal.  Doing this work collaboratively strengthens our confidence and reduces the emphasis we place on seemingly unrealistic expectations.  Intentionality is not independence.  For being intentional to make true impact, it requires interdependence to build collective understanding, purpose, and shared work so as not to re-invent wheels.  Intentionality starts individually, but needs the group to strengthen intentional activities.

I’ve been playing with this chart to help me envision these subtle differences of intentionality and accountability in public education.  What else does it need?


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Can’t Be Graded

As the first day of school approached this year, I couldn’t help but think of the last day back in June.  My daughter’s science teacher, Mr. Fink, called me at home at 9:30 that night.  When summer was supposed to begin for teachers and students, this teacher was calling to let me know that my kid improved, slightly, to a B+.  But what he really wanted to share was his appreciation in how she had taken some “at-risk” friends under her wing and he watched them improve socially and academically because of her example and encouragement.  We knew she’d spoken of various kids we don’t know, but didn’t realize that she was spending her days coaching, mentoring, and being a friend to help them find their potential from apparently less fortunate circumstances…and apparently it helped.

This teacher didn’t have to make that call to us.  We’d have eventually seen the report card, been happy with a B+, and not had this reason to be overjoyed with pride that our kid was becoming the servant leader we have tried to raise. Because he took the time, because he noticed this thing that can’t be graded, I felt a renewed sense of my own purpose to learn and serve.

As this first week of school ended, this memory came back to me and I reflected on the staff and kids in our building.  I have confidence that each of my staff would notice the same details of our students and care just as much to share it.  I have confidence that we will pursue academic improvement this year, but we won’t get caught up only in grades and things we can count, but in caring for each other and our kids.

For the first time in years, when I walked out of the empty building on Friday afternoon, I felt energized that I get to work in a place, and with people, I love and who I really feel care for me and all my kids.  That can’t be graded.

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Give Them Chores

Not long I was talking with a friend about raising kids, carpooling everywhere, working, fixing meals, and all the things that fill our hours between wake and sleep.  As I explained the chores list on our refrigerator that our children are expected to do to help make the family run, she was aghast.  “My job as a parent is to allow them to be children, so I do those things for them,” she said.  I was aghast right back, having never considered that being a child meant being void of responsibilities.  I really believe that chores are good for kids and should be part of childhood, not just to help parents and families, but to build skills that seem to be lagging in a society that increasingly values immediate gratification and unbalanced return on minimal investment.


When a child is taught how to do a chore, he learns a skill for being responsible.  When a child is taught how to break chores into smaller pieces, she learns sequencing and analyzing.  When a child is expected to care for his belongings, he learns the value of things.  When a child is taught the end goal of a task, then experiences the success of completing it, the dopamine rush in the brain actually becomes addictive to the experience of setting and reaching goals.  When a child is faced with a hard chore, she learns teamwork, problem-solving, and perseverance to complete them.  When a child is expected to balance work and play, he learns time management.

I do believe in play-based learning throughout life, but not in the absence of responsibility.  When we expect little to nothing, but for our kids to play at leisure or busy themselves with sports teams or a screened device, because it is undoubtedly an easier way to parent, we are unintentionally training their brains into patterns that not only handicap them in the school and workplace, but fail to serve them later in life.

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