Friday, December 20, 2013

The PLN Blogging Challenge

The PLN Blogging Challenge

Over the past two days,  I was presented with a blogging challenge by Jenn Sheffer, Jennie Magiera, and Megan Valois.  I want to thank each one of you for including me, you are all very important to me as I continue to grow as an educator.  Thank you!
Jenn, you have been inspiring me from afar with your work with putting students out front at BHS, something we are trying to push as well here at Leyden.  Jennie, you are one of my best edufriends and I’m so lucky to have been able to learn so much from you in the past few years, I’m constantly in awe of your energy, enthusiasm, and intellect.  Finally Megan, I was so happy to get to meet you in person in Montreal, you have been part of a group that is really shifting my thinking of how we assess for learning and what that can look like in our high schools.
HERE ARE THE RULES:
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.  (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

Eleven Random Facts About Me:

1. I am from Iowa.
2. I have never been outside of North America.
3. I was an extra four different scenes in the movie “The Breakup”.
4. I coached basketball for most of my career.
5. I love sushi, especially salmon and tuna, but can’t eat either of those fish when they are cooked.
6. I am an education conference junkie.
7. I have worked at East Leyden twice, as a teacher and then returned as an administrator.  #lucky
8. My daughter Lucy is named after Lucy Stone.
9. I attended the University of Northern Iowa.
10. My career goal is to keep my current job forever!
11. I have seen Pearl Jam live 26 times.
11 Questions I need to answer.  These are a combination of the questions from Jenn, Jennie, and Megan.

1.  iPhone or Android?  ANDROID, not even close!  I have the new Moto X and wouldn’t trade it for an iPhone.

2.  What’s your favorite TV Series?  All time it’s a tie between MASH and Seinfeld.  Currently it’s Parks & Recreation.

3.  PC or Mac?  Chromebook!  It’s all about the web!

4.  What’s your favorite thing about blogging/tweeting?  I feel like as educators we must live what we talk about with our students.  By blogging and tweeting, I’m constantly asking questions, learning new perspectives, and reflecting on this learning.

5.  Favorite place you have traveled?  New York City followed closely by Mexico City

6.  Favorite movie of all time?  Too hard to pick just one:  Malcolm X, Good Will Hunting, Garden State, and Ghostbusters are all up there.

7.  Proudest moment?  Probably when my six year old daughter told her 1st grade teacher she wants to be a Principal like her daddy when she grows up.

8.  Favorite Twitter chat?  I have to say #ILEdchat to represent Illinois!

9.  Favorite educational website?  I would probably say Edutopia.

10.  Who inspired you to become a teacher?  I would say the elementary students I worked with when I was a mentor in high school.  When I saw firsthand the impact I could have on young people I knew even then I wanted to be a teacher.

11.  Do you believe in having both a personal and professional Twitter account?  For Twitter I only have one account.  I use it primarily for professional discussions but those of you that follow me know my personal life bleeds over.  I think it’s ok to let people  know who you are and what’s important to you.



Here are 11 members of our community that truly inspire and influence me on a regular basis.  They simply make me a better educator.


11 questions I have for my blogger:

1.  How has blogging and being “connected” impacted your practice?

2.  What is a blog post you have read recently that you would like to share with others?

3.  What is your favorite food/restaurant?

4.  Why did you choose to be a high school, middle school, or elementary educator?

5.  What is your favorite movie, book, and song?

6.  What is your favorite vacation destination?

7.  Where do you want to travel most that you haven’t been to yet?

8.  What are you most proud of in your career?

9.  iPhone or Android?

10.  If you had a superpower what would it be?

11.  If you could change one thing in education, what would it be?

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Critical Role of Relationships and Extra-Curricular Activites

The Critical Role of Relationships and Extra-Curriculars

Ask someone what their best memory from school is.  The answer is likely the powerful connection they had with a teacher or another adult in the school, the sense of belonging and achievement of a team or club, or some combination of those two.  

At least for students who had a successful school experience.

Do we as schools place the proper importance on these two factors in our student’s education?  At times people argue that the arts, athletics, and other extra-curriculars are the fluff in school and perhaps don’t have a real impact on learning.  Teachers can feel as though they don’t have as much time to connect with their students due to the depth and breadth of content they are required to cover.

If you need convincing of the power and importance of these two factors then consider East Leyden student Daniela Leon.  Daniela arrived to our school over a month after the year started from Colombia.  Luckily, she landed in a class, Spanish III, with a teacher who understands that relationships and students being connected to the school play a critical role in student success and happiness.

Mrs. Porro realized very quickly after talking to Daniela in Spanish, Daniela didn’t speak a word of English at the time, that she possessed great charisma.  Mrs. Porro knew that if she could connect Daniela to something beyond her classes at school that not only would she benefit but also it would benefit what ever group she would join.  Luckily the timing could not have been better, this year was the first time Leyden was going to put on a play, La Gringa, in both Spanish and English.  Time was short, Daniela arrived in school from Columbia on Thursday and auditions were Monday.  On Friday, Mrs. Porro who had taken the time to get to know her new student, sent Daniela home with the play and told her to read it over the weekend and on Monday she would see Mr. Mitchell the play’s director to audition.  Daniela was unsure, but those of who know Mrs. Porro know it’s difficult to say no to her.

Sure enough Daniela went home and read the play and practiced.  She arrived Monday for the audition and landed one of the starring roles in Leyden’s first ever all Spanish-speaking cast of a play.

Rather than my recap, let me share with you some words from Mrs. Porro, Mr. Mitchell, and Daniela herself.

Mrs. Porro:
This experience will help her to not only overcome barriers that arise due to her sudden change in lifestyle, but also to adapt to a completely different school system than the school system in Colombia. In this way she will build up her confidence and feel like a member of the school and the Leyden community.

Mr. Mitchell:
When I auditioned the 44 students for La Gringa, it was natural for me to want to
audition them in my native language of English.  After all, it is the language I read in, think in, and dream in.  It is the language I can be creative in and in which I can assess the creative possibilities in others.  So, I auditioned the actors in English, regardless of whether they wanted to be in the Spanish-speaking cast or the English-speaking cast.  Only one student mildly protested: a quiet, petite young lady named Daniela Leon, whom I had never met before.  When it came time for her to read, she said she didn't want to.  That she only wanted to audition in Spanish.  I respected that and skipped over her, continuing to audition the remaining 43 students using cuttings from the English script.  We read for male roles.  We read for the female roles.  We read some funny scenes and we read some dramatic scenes--trying to assess the breadth and depth of the many talented kids who hoped to be cast.  As the clock ticked away, the two and a half hour auditions were in their final forty-five minutes and I had yet to have any of the students read in Spanish.  And I knew it would be another fifteen minutes until I would do so.  I went back to Daniela, who by this time had sunken so low with despair in her chair that she had almost disappeared.  I asked her if she would reconsider reading in English for the last cutting so I could have a basis to compare her with the other actors.  She reluctantly, but respectfully, agreed, knowing that my Spanish was severely limited.  It doesn't take one long to realize that any Spanish-speaking preschooler would sound like Miguel de Cervantes compared to me.  It was only then when she took the stage to read that I understood her apprehension.   She read well, being able to pronounce the words, but she was understandably limited in her ability to LIVE them as though they were her own, since English was not her own language.  I thanked Daniela for trying and she returned to her seat and sank lower into it than ever before.  She was probably resigned to the idea that she would have spent the entire afternoon for naught and that she would never be an actress.

When it came time to read actors from the Spanish script, Daniela perked up.  She
smiled a small smile, leaped up out of her chair, took the stage, opened her little mouth, and let out the sassiest, most spirited, most heart-felt reading I had ever heard!  She literally transformed herself!  She WAS the character!  She FELT the character!  She lost any vestige of her former self.  Spanish was the language Daniele could read in, think in, and dream in.  When she was done.  She looked up at me with her timid brown eyes and saw my dropped jaw rise into the biggest smile.  She reciprocated with the biggest smile of her own.  Ever since than she and I have done a lot of smiling.  And a lot of laughing!  Daniela is a natural actress.  You will see her on stage in the Spanish-speaking production of La Gringa as Iris, the comedic and realistic Puerto Rican cousin to the serious and idealistic American Maria.  She is funny.  She is adorable.  She is a director's dream come true.

Daniela, thank you for your patience with me, "El Gringo," as I continue to discover
from you and the others the many beautiful layers of our precious show, La Gringa.  Thank you for the lessons you have taught me.  Thank you for the laughter until I am in tears.  You are my little sister and I welcome you to Leyden Theatre!

Daniela Leon:
Para mi es importante estar en “La Gringa” porque es una experiencia maravillosa
ya que me gusta mucho actuar y es un buen comienzo. Para mí fue un muy buen logro que yo recién llegada a los Estados Unidos, adicioné y entre a la obra con un muy buen papel. Desde pequeña me llama mucho la atención las obras de teatro y me siento muy orgullosa de estar en “La Gringa”. No hablo inglés pero siento que si lo aprendo muy bien poco a poco voy a poder también adicionar para obras en inglés porque me encanta actuar.

Translated quote from Daniela Leon:

(For me is very important to be part of “La Gringa” because it’s an excellent opportunity since I love to act and this is a good start. To reach this point was an achievement for me because I just arrived to United States, I tried out and I am part of a play and hold a very important role. Since I was little, I have been fascinated with plays and what is going on in theater. I feel very proud to be part of “La Gringa”. I don’t speak English, but I have the feeling that after learning the language I could be part of plays in English because I love to act).



Without our school and our teachers recognizing the importance of both relationships and extra-curricular opportunities I wonder if Daniela would have had such a successful transition from Colombia to Leyden?  Thankfully we do recognize the importance of both of these and now I can just sit back and watch her shine!



Thursday, November 7, 2013

Change vs. Evolution

Change:  To become different.*

Evolution:  To change or develop slowly often into a better, more complex, or more advanced state.*

*Both definitions via Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

In schools, as in any other organization, we often hear about how hard change is.  This makes sense when we consider the simple definition above.  Think about your own life, if you were to set out to become different, this is a giant task and often we don’t even know where to start.

However, if we consider the process of evolving, to simply follow the organic process of developing and becoming more “advanced” this seems to be not just attainable but an essential part of growing and progressing.

I can understand the resistance to change for the sake of change, but when there is resistance to evolving we need to look much closer at what the discussion around the resistance is.  There can obviously be debate over which is taking place, so perhaps the first thing that should be looked at is are you satisfied with your current results.  If the answer is no, then it seems to me we are compelled to explore change or push to evolve?  As Einstein famously said “ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”   This can be looked at as a harsh statement to those who are uncomfortable with change, but actually I use it to get us to look deeper at the results.  Do we truly expect different results?  The honest answer from some may be no.  Some educators may think they have maximized the potential in their classroom with their current practice and this may be their point in resisting change or evolution in practices.  If the answer is yes, we do expect different results, then the only question is what is the best path - change or evolution.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The New PSAE Days

The following idea was directly influenced by the great work of educators like Ryan Bretag, (GBN Site), Jesse Mclean, Matt Bebbington, and Josh Stumpenhorst.  Please click on their names for their blogs/sites about student led days they have facilitated in the schools they work in.


Lip service is defined here as a: Verbal expression of agreement or allegiance, unsupported by real conviction or action; hypocritical respect.  Is there anything worse than when we pay lip service to something, especially something as important as student voice?  In our school we talk a lot about students “finding their passion” and “pursuing a sense of fulfillment” in their education.  I truly believe we have been living up to these ideals, just take a look at our extensive course offerings.  


We have also really pushed to acknowledge and amplify student voice in our schools.  Our students are really starting to understand this more than ever as we respond to their needs and requests, not always with a yes, but certainly in a sincere and respectful way.  To continue to build upon this we wanted to give the students the opportunity to completely design and lead their own learning experience.  To this end, following the lead of the above mentioned schools and educators, we have launched a committee who has started to plan for our 2014 PSAE days.  Those of you in Illinois will recognize PSAE, for those of you reading outside of our state, this stands for the Prairie State Achievement Examination.  This is not generally the most exciting two days for our students.  The state mandates all juniors take the PSAE and schools are allowed to design what the day looks like for all other students.  Typically we have given seniors those two days to take college visits, participate in job shadows, or otherwise choose how they would use their time.  Our freshman and sophomore students would complete a mix of testing activities and other teacher led activities.


What we have decided this year is for our freshman, sophomore, and seniors (optional attendance) is that we will reinvent with the same PSAE now standing for Passionate Students Are Everywhere.  We convened a committee of 5 adults and 5 students to begin to plan what this day may look like.  As we talked about the possibilities of student led workshops and community service events we quickly realized that to truly represent the passions of all students we needed to hear from all students.  So we designed a brief survey, explaining to students that we will be changing PSAE days to reflect their passions and give them the opportunity to choose what they wanted to learn and even if they wanted to lead the learning.


We had just shy of 1000 responses to the survey.  The most exciting response was to the question, “Would you be interested in leading a workshop during these two days?”  121 students said absolutely with another 500+ students saying maybe!  Not only did we find out they were interested in topics ranging from avionics, spoken work, political discussions, mobile app development, baking, breakdancing, graphic design, origami, and more,  they overwhelmingly wanted to share their own passion with others!  We are just starting on this journey and have a lot of planning to do, but we couldn’t be more excited to know that we are not just paying lip service to our vision for our students!  More to come...


Here is a quick promo we embedded in the survey from our students.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Who is Telling Your Story?

One of my goals this year is to try and write some follow-ups to posts that I shared about an idea or the beginning of an initiative, with the goal of sharing both the successes and challenges of what actually happens.  The first one, is a follow-up to Where is Your School’s Online Conversation , a post I shared last November.  Since this post was written just a month or so after we started using the #leydenpride hashtag, I thought it may be useful for others to read how this has progressed.

Created by our students.



  1. It’s a long road.

    Although, there were definitely some highlights last year, to be honest, the #leydenpride hashtag was at times much more of a push of tweets than a true crowd-sourced conversation. There were certain events that triggered a large response from students, but for the most part if I or a few others weren’t sharing to the hashtag it would have likely died on the vine.  If you search the hashtag now there are posts constantly from multiple students and teachers (typically 20 to 30 different people)  as it has become for sharing what we are proud of.
  1. What to do with inappropriate posts?
This is a question you will need to address if you start a school hashtag where you encourage students to post.  We have nearly 3,500 students at our two schools that use this hashtag, in the past year and half we have had less than 10 incidents that were inappropriate at all.  From the beginning we decided we were not going to “discipline” students for inappropriate posts but rather have a conversation with them.  When possible, I am the one having this conversation. I think it’s important they know from the principal how their post was received and they deserve a conversation about why we feel it was inappropriate.  The focus of the conversation is really two-fold, we start by letting them know, we are not monitoring their tweets, we are monitoring the hashtag.   We feel this is important because it puts them at ease when they immediately want to go to the argument that we have no right to be checking their tweets.  Then we talk about the idea of #leydenpride and simply ask, “do you think your tweet fits in with something you are proud of here at Leyden?”  There has not been one instance where a student has tried to argue this point and the conversation has always ended with them saying, “What can I do?”  The response is “Well, if you think the tweet doesn’t ‘fit’, you could delete it.  In every case they have deleted it; not because they were required to, but because in the end they understood.  Again, in over a year, this has only happened a handful of times, and for that I commend our students!
  1. To follow students or not?
This is an individual choice in our district but I do not follow students.  I have read people who I respect greatly like Chris Lehmann talk about following students on Twitter and how this has led to a greater understanding of their students.  I can understand this perspective, but in our case I believe that our students are using Twitter as a means of communication and I tell them if they want to communicate with me they can mention me or include #leydenpride.  These are the two ways that I will see their tweets and they know that.  I have a growing number of students who follow me on Twitter, but I want them to have the ability to make that choice on what they want me to see.  I’m always cognizant of the balance of talking to students about the idea of “digital citizenship” while allowing them their space.  This is something you will have to decide for yourself and your students.  


  1. It's not just Twitter. 

    This is simple, but remember, your students and staff will use this hashtag on any social media they use.  If you are going enjoy/monitor the posts, which I believe is essential, make sure you have accounts on Instagram (the most popular here), Vine, Google +, etc.  I actually use an IFTTT recipe where I automatically receive a notification if there is an Instagram post with #leydenpride.


  1. Building community


    The ultimate goal is to build community, provide students a voice, and hopefully build a sense of empowerment and ownership of their school.  There have been a few examples that have demonstrated we are on this path. 

    One morning this past summer I woke up and, as I always do, grabbed my phone and searched #leydenpride.  If you go down this path of having a school hashtag you will understand this, you will be watching it constantly!  The summer was slow on the hashtag as you would assume, but I quickly realized this day was different.   As far as I could scroll on my phone there were messages like : “RIP”, “#leydenfamily” “we will always be family” “leyden strong”, each tagged with #leydenpride.  Those of you who are principal’s know the feeling, you are always dreading that call on the weekend.  In this case, two of our students that had just graduated a month earlier had been involved in a car accident with one being killed. Our students wanted to make sense of it and share their grief, and they did so on #leydenpride. They shared their best memories of the student, their prayers, and their condolences for family and friends and they had a common place to do this.  This is the example you never want to see as a school but it made me realize the students are a community and they feel like this is a “place” they can come together.

    An example that is much more light-hearted just happened last Sunday evening.  The day after our Homecoming dance I was sitting with my kids and wife reading when my phone began to vibrate constantly for a few minutes.  I tried to ignore it as I’ve been trying to be more present at home with my kids but it just wouldn’t stop.  As I picked up my phone I saw the notification window was full with Twitter interactions, what was going on?  When I went to the Twitter app I saw messages about how our school should add another dance because our students enjoyed Homecoming so much.  Not just one or two message, but again as far as I could scroll all within a few minutes.  This was being “helped” along by our @leydenpride twitter account.  This is something new this year where we actually pass the account off to a new student or staff member each week to share they perspective of the week.  It just so happened Kristina, the student with the account last week, was also working with a group of students to plan another dance so she leveraged the @leydenpride account to drum up support online.  Brilliant!  When I noticed the explosion of tweets I had a decision to make, I knew I couldn’t ignore it because the students know I’m addicted to Twitter ( link).  Either I could say we will discuss this or I could just tell them we will do it and figure out how later.  I decided to tweet to them on the hashtag, “If I see enough RTs to show we are supporting a dance we will do it”  That simple message was retweeted over 300 times and led to countless favorites and new iterations by students passing along the message.  Our activities director,  Dominic Manola, and I watched in awe as the students took control and made it happen.  Now I know what some of you are thinking, it’s just a dance.  That’s true, but it was what was important to them at that moment and we listened.  When about 15 minutes later I tweeted “You convinced me we will have another dance this year” it was like I had granted them sort of magical wish.  How powerful it can be when we listen and give students a true voice in their school.  The next day students stopped me in the halls constantly making sure we were really having a dance and thanking me.  I told them, they don't need to thank me, they need to thank their fellow students who have built #leydenpride into more than hashtag but rather a community.




Here are a few more examples of particularly memorable days on ##leydenpride


So, as I shared last Friday on Twitter, I would love to see #FF replaced by #FS (Follow Schools).  I encourage you to give your students this voice.  It won’t be without issue, but the potential impact is well worth it!  Connecting educators is powerful,  connecting students can be transformational.

We would love have you share your ideas and feedback relating to this idea of a school hashtag in the comments below.