Posted in podcast

What is Metacognition? How Do We Teach It? An Education Week podcast and response

I recently participated in an Education Week/BAM Radio interview with Larry Ferlazzo, Teresa Diaz and Laura Robb. The topic for our short podcast was metacognition.


Click here to listen to the podcast, and read on for my written response on the topic of metacognition.

Metacognition is defined as “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes”. Education leader Dr. Linda Darling Hammond describes metacognition more succinctly as “thinking about our own thinking”. The ability to be self-aware and to reflect upon our mental processes is a critical skill that should be taught and reinforced in schools today. When we are intentional about being metacognitive, we are more likely to clear up misconceptions, understand how we operate as a person, and make smarter decisions about the future. However, with how fast paced education seems to be considering all of the curriculum to teach and the standards to cover, teachers can feel overwhelmed to take even more time for this.

This should be a concern of teachers. Metacognition is important beyond the schoolhouse. Questioning and reflecting about our experiences is a cornerstone of becoming a lifelong learner. Consider the most recent presidential election and everything that led up to it. From what I read, most people who made public comments online about the race spoke in absolute terms: “Trump is a narcissist.” “Hillary is a liar.” I did not comment on how true these statements might be when I read them on social media. Yet I did wonder how informed each person who made the statements was about the issues. What types of questions might have been asked to help a person become more aware of what they were saying and why? Would the online conversation have led to moments of reflection? If the questions were not asked, was that the best decision? Critical thinking usually leads to smarter decisions.  

When we teach students to facilitate a deeper discourse about their lives using metacognition, we help make the world a better place. Insults are replaced with questions. Criticisms are couched in appreciative observations. People live their lives more informed and more open to the possibilities. As an educator, I cannot imagine better outcomes for our students.

Posted in article

Getting Started with Action Research

I wrote this article for the Stenhouse blog. I am reposting it here as it was. Enjoy!

Getting Started with Action Research
Matt Renwick

We recently facilitated action research for twenty of our district teachers. They came from all areas in grades K–12. The course was led by Dr. Beth Giles and Dr. Mark Dziedzic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers met one evening a month to explore their driving questions, set up action plans, collect and organize data, and prepare their work for an inquiry showcase this spring. Here are some of the questions that were specific to literacy, and what we learned.

What happens when we provide choice in reading and learning?

Three teachers investigated this tenet of engagement. A second-grade teacher conducted Genius Hour at the end of the day, a time in which students could tinker and make things of their choosing. A third-grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look and feel regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to keep.

What they found out was that choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, he or she had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building bookshelves. The third-grade teacher realized that some students liked working with peers regularly, whereas others needed quiet time to read and write. The second-grade teacher found that, for one student in particular, a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70 percent from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjust their instruction.

What happens when students are taught to ask questions and reflect about their reading?

A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher working with multiple curriculums in a split classroom realized that addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners was a tall order. Therefore, she wanted to find out if teaching her students to ask their own questions of the books they read and to reflect on their thinking in authentic ways through reading journals would lead to more independence.

She modeled these skills and strategies with her own reading. Gradually, she released the responsibility of questioning and reflecting to the students. Data she gathered were anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, they also noted what their peers were reading. Recommendations for what to read next led to students creating “Want to Read” lists in their journals. Also, students emulated how their teacher talked in their book discussions. This teacher later noted that she was looking forward to working with next year’s fifth graders in the fall.

What happens when teachers reveal themselves as learners?

A secondary reading interventionist was frustrated with her past students’ inability to exit her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mind-set in her most reluctant readers and writers. First, she wrote in front of her students about the struggles she was having as a teacher and as a parent. These were day-to-day ordeals—ordinary issues she was sharing publicly. Students were also asked to write about their struggles. Few initially took her up on it. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mind-set, more students followed her lead.

Because the teacher was so open about her own learning, students felt safe in her classroom to take risks. They started to shed their rough exteriors, revealing frustrations about classes and their home lives. This led to exploring literature that students could personally relate to, populated with characters and settings in which they could reside. Pretty soon, her students were coming to her with improved progress reports to share and celebrate. A few kids exited her reading intervention earlier than anticipated but didn’t want to leave. This teacher eventually published her action research in the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal.

What happens when we let kids read?

A fifth-grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with a lot of texts to read, and we decreased the reading requirements placed upon them. I would come in once a month with a box full of high-interest books and do a quick blurb about each one. The teacher also used her allocated funds to enhance the classroom library. She taught the students how to have a conversation with peers and frequently conferred with students about their reading and goals. Her work derived from the research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston, highlighted in a Stenhouse blog post four years ago.

My role as coresearcher was to survey the students once a month using a tool developed by Ivey and Johnston. What we learned was that every student was different. Their reading lives varied from month to month. One student who proclaimed “I hate reading!” in February was excited about a new series he discovered in March. Other students also became more honest about reading in school. “I am SO glad to be done with my reading contract, so I can read whatever I want.” This type of data was more powerful than any screener or test score. Reading lives look more like a heartbeat than a straight line. Readers—kids and adults—have their ups and downs.

In observing these teachers’ journeys, I have discovered new truths about principalship. Just as students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff, but really engaged. We need to trust in their professionalism. We need to provide teachers the room to ask questions and grow. We need to honor the process as much as the outcomes. We need to celebrate both their mistakes and their successes, always striving to become better every day as professionals. Letting go of some control as a school leader is hard. Yet when we do, teachers are able to be the leaders of their own learning.

Tips for Getting Started in Action Research
If you are a teacher…

  • Ask yourself, “Why do I want to engage in action research?” If you can identify the purpose for this work in your professional life, it will motivate you to get started.
  • Do your homework on action research to build a knowledge base about the topic. Excellent resources include Living the Questions by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Power (Stenhouse, 2012) and The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).
  • Develop a community of professionals who also want to engage in action research. You can leverage the power of the group to persuade your principal to support this initiative as part of the professional development plan. If you cannot collaborate in person, check out online communities related to classroom research, such as The Teachers Guild.
  • Find a question that you want to explore and that is embedded within your current practice. This wondering should relate to your professional learning goals and offer artifacts that can serve as evidence for your evaluation system.
  • Include your students in your action research as much as possible. They will become a great source of information as you study the impact of your work on their learning. They will also come to see you as a learner, which enhances the entire classroom community.

If you are an administrator…

  • Be deliberate when considering action research as a possible professional learning experience. The phrase action research can scare off some teachers who might otherwise be interested in this approach. Start small, maybe offering it as a voluntary course beyond the school day for graduate credit or pay.
  • Connect with outside organizations that can facilitate a course instead of trying to host it yourself. There is vulnerability involved in action research. The more we can have others lead the initiative, the more likely teachers will be willing to open up and take risks in their pursuits of becoming better practitioners.
  • Conduct action research yourself. I did this, using the resource The Action Research Guidebook by Richard Sagor (Corwin, 2012). The author offers several examples of a principal engaging in professional inquiry at a schoolwide level. I would share my findings and reflections in staff newsletters and at meetings. The message you send is the same one teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
  • Prepare a multiyear plan for facilitating action research in your school or district. Teacher questions seemed to lead to more questions during the school year. At the inquiry showcase, teachers were already asking if they could conduct action research again. “I feel like I just discovered my question,” noted one teacher.
Posted in event

Join me for a Twitter chat!

In a matter of hours, I will be joining the Good to Great (#G2Great) chat for a conversation around the connection betweeen leadership and learning in schools.


It’s a great opportunity to answer questions, pose new inquiries online, and engage in real discussions about education. Hope to see you there!

Posted in article

Seasons of Change

Below is an article I co-wrote with two other educators about a year ago. It was rejected by Educational Leadership. I thought mid-summer might be a good time to get it out there for others to read and reflect on. Have a great start to the school year!

Seasons of Change

By honoring, empowering, and encouraging teachers, school leaders can promote a culture of continual growth and ensure all learners realize their true potential.

by Laurie Hittman, Mary Peters, and Matt Renwick

Relationships are the agents of change.

– Dr. Bruce Perry

Theory and Practice

Teacher morale is low. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, “half a million teachers move or leave education every year. The costs for this attrition on the U.S. is 2.2 billion dollars annually” (2014).

What is the cause? A number of factors contribute to this situation. First, student test scores are still being tied to teacher evaluations, despite the fact that assessment experts do not endorse this practice (NASSP, 2015). Second, the variety and severity of the mental health needs of today’s students is daunting. Teachers are not only instructors, but also serve as parents, advocates, and counselors. When you combine this reality with a reduction in resources and the expectation that all students meet grade level benchmarks, it is no surprise that teachers are feeling stressed.

Educators cannot solve all of the world’s problem. When expectations for teachers are unrealistic, a sense of despair can pervade throughout the school climate, like a sheet being spread over a bed. In our experiences as teachers, administrators, and consultants, we have found three ways in which the culture and climate of a school can be improved:

  1. Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.
  2. Empower teachers to become school leaders.
  3. Encourage teachers to innovate in their practice.

In the next section, we will describe why these actions are effective and provide examples of this work within one elementary school.

1. Honor teachers’ personal and professional lives.

Recently, Mary found herself stranded in Cleveland when her flight was first delayed and then cancelled. The flight crew had logged too many hours and were required, by federal law, to end their work for the day. It occurred to her that educators (and those they serve) don’t have similar protections. School leaders have to attend to these issues of stress and workloads. People’s basic needs must be met before principals can build trust and develop relationships with and within the faculty.

Recognizing the school’s situation (high poverty levels, reduced resources), Matt connected with Laurie and Mary to facilitate a Courage and Renewal retreat called “Exploring the Seeds of True Self” for all school faculty on the first day back for teachers in August. Courage and Renewal retreats are based on the work of Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (Wiley, 1997, 2008). The premise of the book is simple: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (p. 10). Seldom do educators take time to ask “who is the self that teaches?” (p. 4).

When the agenda was shared out, a few staff members were suspicious. “We’re not talking about literacy or mathematics?” asked one teacher. Even Mary and Laurie shared concerns about expecting all staff members to participate in this opportunity to reflect on why we went into education. Can we force reflection? It was decided that what we needed as a school community went beyond academics.

Our retreat was located in a local woodland shelter next to a lake. Hosting the retreat outside of our school removed any temptation for correcting papers or checking email. The location also provided a sense of peace. In our constantly connected world, the quiet was noticeable and welcomed. In addition, our woodland shelter provided the opportunity to evoke powerful metaphors to better understand the professional journeys.


Leaves of red, orange, and yellow floated to the ground outside as we settled into our chairs to start the retreat. Within the hall, chairs were circled around a small table. Rocks, a small bowl of water, and seeds sat upon it. The seeds would serve as our main metaphor for our time together that day. Metaphors serve to develop an understanding by “experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff and Johnson, 5). Laurie and Mary started the purpose for our time together by asking the faculty to connect the concept of a seed with our own lives. Here were a few of their offerings:

Seeds need the right conditions to grow.

A seed can grow into something much bigger than itself.

It is sometimes hard to predict what a seed will become.

The needs of their students as well as themselves were on their minds. This led into a written reflection activity about why each of them went into education in the first place. The staff placed themselves throughout the property, finding quiet spots to think and write by the nearby lake, on picnic tables, benches and even the grass.

The concept of school was no longer the constant within this experience. Our institution’s constraints were shed in favor of our personal and professional needs. For example, there was no limit on time during our opportunity to reflect, write, and think. We came back to the circle when ready, instead of a predetermined time listed on an agenda. Choice was a tenet of our renewal experience.

To create a space in which our ideas and feelings would be both honored and safe, touchstones were shared. Touchstones are similar to group norms or meeting guidelines to follow to ensure a safe dialogue. In groups of three (triads), each person had the opportunity to share why they went into education for five minutes. Everyone else listened and could not respond. Once each person in the triad spoke, only then could they ask each other questions and have a conversation. Listening without judgment or comment – a rarity in our connected world where responses are expected and silence is an offense. The respect shown by colleagues honored their personhood and who they might become as professionals. The participant evaluations were overwhelmingly positive.

2. Empower teachers to become school leaders.

Leaders cannot affect change by themselves. It’s a fool’s errand to go it alone. They have to employ their best and brightest within their organization to realize the mission and vision of their school.

Empowering teachers to be leaders within their learning community provides multiple benefits. First, they can experience a sense of ownership for their school because the decisions are made with their input. Teachers is positions of leadership carry more pride in how the school is run and perceived by others. Second, the principal has taken something off of his or her plate. He or she can attend to other matters that involve instruction. Finally, when a group is tasked with decision-making authority, the outcomes are generally as good as or better than what one person could make alone.

What does this look like in practice? Our school has adhered to the tenets of Regie Routman’s work around increasing knowledge about literacy and leadership throughout the entire building (2014, pg. 231). One practice we have applied from her work is using focus groups. These teams are focused on a schoolwide topic, including building business, behavior management, academic intervention, parent partnership, and instructional leadership. Teachers can select two focus groups they want to join. Matt makes the final decision to ensure balance in teacher placement.

Of special note is the separation of building business and instructional leadership. School leaders can attest to how nonacademic topics, such as scheduling parent-teacher conferences, can creep into staff meetings that should be designated primarily for professional learning. By assigning building business for a specific group, schools give the proper attention to pressing issues while still holding the available limited time sacred for a whole faculty. Matt strives to attend all focus group meetings, serving as the facilitator for instructional leadership and as a primary resource for the other team meetings. Agendas are sent out ahead of time to ensure communication about the different conversations are transparent and clear.


Education does not follow the changes in seasons as suggested by our calendar. Fall starts when school does. When the snow starts to fly, it is officially winter.

Matt’s school took a new approach for their time together for professional learning. Instead of having staff gatherings taking place in the library, each grade level team selected one month in which they hosted faculty meetings in one of their classrooms. Before getting started, the grade level teams was asked to share one thing that was going well for them. Materials or a write up were not expected – just have a brief conversation about what’s working for them and why.

What was shared was brief but profound. One grade level team highlighted how they use a graphic organizer to facilitate student reflection about their independent reading. Another team found a better way to communicate student learning with families. Allowing teachers’ idea to spread and take root in other environments can have big benefits.

Once teams shared, Matt presented the host teachers with a gift of appreciation continuing with the theme of seeds from the August retreat. The gifts were nominal: A bottle of water, a notebook and pen, or a candle. However, the meaning of the gift-giving was deep. The water represented an essential element for seeds to start. A notebook and a pen were tools to reflect and to document growth over time. The candle represented how educators can burn bright, but sometimes at their own expense. These metaphors were stated as the gifts were given.

Winter is also a time of dormancy, for seeds as well as for people. This season can be a good time to curl up with a book and read by the fire. Several teachers, both at Matt’s school and in within their district, elected to do a book study for The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. Mary and Laurie served as instructors so educators could receive university credit. Because it was sometimes difficult to get together with our busy lives, teachers used an online space, a Google+ Community, to post questions and share thinking. While this forum provided for quality conversations, it wasn’t the same. Subsequently, some teachers came together at a local coffee shop to talk about the book and what it meant to them as professionals and leaders.

3. Encourage teachers to innovate with their practice.

The definition of innovate, according to Merriam-Webster, is to “to do something in a new way; to have new ideas about how something can be done”. What is hidden within this definition is in order to innovate and do something in a new way, educators also have to give up past strategies. This is challenging because teachers personalize their practices. As Jim Burke notes, “Teaching is so public, so personal, so dangerous. You walk in each day, to each class, to begin that unit, that lesson, that activity as if for the first time because you have never taught that lesson to that class or this kid” (Intrator, 13). It takes courage to change as well as to teach.

One way to innovate as an organization is by developing shared beliefs. Also from the work of Regie Routman (2014, pg. 83), this process includes identifying what one currently believes about instruction, comparing these beliefs with what colleagues hold to be true, and then having a conversation about everyone’s responses to these beliefs. For the beliefs in which everyone came to agreement, the school faculty then owns them. They are expected to be applied into practice throughout the building. Examples of literacy beliefs Matt’s school owns include “Students need writing models in order to write well.”, and “Students need to see their teachers as writers.”

Areas where staff disagree are not seen as points for argument, but rather opportunities for conversation. Using a discussion protocol, similar to what staff used in the fall with Mary and Laurie at the Courage and Renewal retreat, the teachers took turns speaking and listening about why they agreed or disagreed with a statement about literacy. While they did not own these literacy beliefs, everyone walked away with a better understanding about why we are doing what we are doing. The conversation promoted empathy and modeled for everyone what it means to have the capacity for growth.


As the snow started to melt and the trees revealed their buds, sleds were replaced with basketballs and snow hats traded in for ball caps. Howe Elementary followed nature’s lead.

At the last staff meeting of the school year, the host teachers were presented with a small pot of soil. Inside was a seed not identified to the faculty. They ended their time as they began: By using the metaphor of seeds, and now growth, to understand themselves and their students as learners.

Growth happens minute-by-minute.

You may never know the impact you make on a student.

You might be surprised by the outcomes.

It was evident in their responses that the teachers viewed this season as a time of renewal and an opportunity to continuing growing, right up until the last day of the school year.

The goal with bringing in Mary and Laurie was to provoke a new way of thinking about our professional lives. Teachers needed to keep their sense of self-worth in the face of time constraints.

An example is when the school social worker at Howe decided to lead book clubs for teachers following this yearlong experience. She was inspired by the spring courage and renewal retreat that culminated Mary and Laurie’s book study. While continuing the conversations about the tenets of Palmer’s book in the same shelter we started, she realized that she didn’t want this to end. So she created her own context instead of allowing outside factors to determine it. Now some of the teachers meet every two weeks to discuss a book of their choosing during lunch and after school.


School leaders have to recognize that the needs of their staff sometimes extend beyond academics. They should understand how the dispositions of educators can be just as important as a professional training or classroom resources. Change is inevitable. By providing time to reflect and renew, along with empowering and encouraging leaders within a school, they sow seeds of opportunities and cultivate the right conditions for growth.



Alliance for Excellent Education (2014). “Teacher Attrition Costs United States Up to $2.2 Billion Annually, Says New Alliance Report”. Press Release. Available: teacher-attrition-costs-united-states-up-to-2-2-billion-annually-says-new-alliance-report/

Intrator, S. (2002). Stories of the Courage to Teach: Honoring the Teacher’s Heart. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (n.d.). “Value-Added Measures in Teacher Evaluation”. Position Statement. Available: ue_Added_Measures_in_Teacher_Evaluation

Palmer, P. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, 10th Anniversary Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Routman, R. (2014). Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Posted in article

A More Responsive Schoolwide Approach to Student Behavior

This article was submitted to an online site but was not published. It happens. Now you can enjoy it here. Have a great summer! -Matt


Every building has their issues with student behaviors and how to support kids who struggle socially and emotionally in school. We sometimes refer to these students as “frequent flyers” as they are repeat visitors to the office. The usual reasons include noncompliance, disruption, disrespect, and physical aggression, at least at the elementary level.

Schools that focus on responsive language, common expectations, and a coherent approach to addressing behaviors usually experience success with 80% – 85% of the student body. So what about the 15% who need additional support? It’s easy to administer consequences that stop these behaviors in the short term: Detention, suspensions, even police referrals. But these are not strategies that help students over time. They are quick fixes but do not address the root of the problems that students are experiencing.

Here are four strategies our school has found to be effective for our students with the highest needs. They are not prescriptive. Schools should make informed, professional judgments about which approach(es) might best address the situation.

  • Quality Classroom Instruction

This is sometimes the elephant in the (class)room. In the case of a poor teacher, a student might be acting out because they are bored or they do not have a good relationship with the adult. It falls back on not having high expectations and/or not taking the time to build trust and a community with the students. This requires that the principal be in the classroom more often, offering coaching and feedback to improve instruction.

Also a factor in classroom instruction is how a school places students into classrooms the prior spring. My predecessor started a process where every teacher notes the level of academic and behavioral support each student needs. This is communicated with next year’s teachers, who then place students so there is a mix of high, medium, and low needs in both areas across the grade level. Of course, this is a challenge with smaller schools.

To help monitor classroom instruction, we ask all staff members to complete an office discipline referral form in the situation of a student misbehavior. This form is not a “write up” or similar documentation that treats the student as a problem to be fixed. Staff are instructed that this referral form is a data collection tool to help us find patterns and trends in a student’s behaviors if it becomes an ongoing issue. There are consequences for student’s negative choices, but they usually only address behaviors in the short term.

  •  Family Communication

If the instruction is of high quality and the general level of classroom community is strong, yet a student still struggles with behaviors, we have found that frequent family communication is key to seeing improvements. (We use the term “family” instead of  “parent” because we have such a wide range of home situations where a parent is not necessarily the primary guardian.)

This isn’t simply a note going home anytime a student has a bad day. For students who fall in that 15%, families need regular feedback about how school went for their child. It should be objective and related to a student’s goals for improving behaviors. One approach we have found effective is Check in-Check Out. This is borne out of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system. It involves the student checking in and checking out with an adult in the building about how their days are going with regard to their goals.

Students receive ratings for every part of the day on their performance regarding areas they need to improve upon. This data is put into software to see how students are faring over time. Staff and families can monitor how the child is progressing. Once students meet a certain threshold for success, such as an 80% success rate, they are exited out of the program.

  • Relationship Building

Dr. Bruce Perry said it well: “Relationships are the agents of change.” All of the feedback and structure we might provide will not be successful in the long term for our students with the most needs without a caring person who they can trust in their life. Relationships are the foundation in which all other successes are built, both academically and socially/emotionally.

Going back to Check In-Check Out, we have found that it is this scheduled time with an adult who shows interest in and listens to the student to be the largest factor in improved behaviors and school performance. When a student is doing well, the adult celebrates their efforts that led to their success. When a student is having an off day, the adult is taught to inquire about why he or she is struggling. They also help the student connect where they have been successful during the day to the situations with less success. The hope is the student will start to generalize these positive habits of mind to all areas.

Relationship building has become a part of our acknowledgment system when noticing positive behaviors during the school day. In our school, students receive paw prints (our mascot is the bulldog) at unexpected times when they display expected behavior in sometimes problematic areas of the school. Instead of trinkets or prizes, students can bank these paw prints to have lunch and play a board game with the counselor or principal, help the custodian scuff out black marks, or work with the library aide to check in and reshelve books. As they work and play with the adults, a relationship is developed beyond the formal student-teacher connection that often occurs in schools.

  • Personalized Behavior Plans

For those few students who do not respond to interventions and supports limited in duration and intensity, a school services team needs to come together and decide how to address an ongoing, chronic situation where a student is losing valuable instructional time and even preventing the teacher from being successful in his or her classroom. Although each child is different, most of these issues are either a) an outcome of a child’s home environment, or b) a mental health issue that is not being adequately treated.

We usually administer a functional behavioral analysis when beginning the development of a plan. This assessment helps determine why a student is acting the way they are, when and where this is usually happening, and what happens before and after the behaviors occur. It gives a school team more specific information about how to design an approach for this student to help him or her experience more success at school.

These plans detail the goals for the students, describe how often the team will reassess growth, and offer specific strategies that both the family and educators can utilize to help this student now and in the future. Strategies we have found successful in the past include: frequent breaks, scheduled opportunities for movement, fidgets and other sensory tools, regular counseling, outpatient therapy facilitated within the schoolhouse, and individualized instruction regarding acceptable choices. Students are involved in every step of this plan development to help ensure buy in and a sense of ownership.

If all else fails…

If a student has not experienced long term success after a considerable amount of time, effort and supports have been provided and implemented, we know within reason that a student is going to need more accommodations than what is currently available within the regular education programming. At this point we might look at a special education referral for an emotional or behavioral disability, hopefully with parents in agreement.

Having a system in place that creates consistency with instruction and is flexible enough to accommodate a student’s needs allows for a school to properly address almost any situation in the building. In the end, a student will receive what they need. It’s a matter of determining what that need is and monitoring progress of the implementation of the intervention and other supports. The ultimate goal is to help every child be able to experience and build upon success as well as see themselves as a learner.

Posted in What I'm Reading

What I’m Reading: March 2016

In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow


School conditions matter for student achievement, new research confirms by Alex Zimmerman (Chalkbeat New York, March 24, 2016)

Matthew Kraft, an economics and education professor at Brown University, studied what conditions positively impacted student learning in schools. Kraft and his team found four attributes identified in schools that experienced consistently high achievement:

  • School safety and order
  • Leadership and professional development
  • High academic expectations
  • Teacher relationships and collaboration

Specific professional learning offerings for teachers include one-to-one instructional coaching and school leadership opportunities. Teacher retention and higher test scores have been the result of these efforts. Notes one of the teachers at a school participating in the study:

The teachers are more experienced, they’re more experienced with our particular population, [and] the curriculum gets stronger each year. Our retention of teachers has gone through the roof compared with prior years.

Lifeworthy Learning by David N. Perkins (Educational Leadership, March 2016)

Perkins, education professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, highlights the always increasing repository of knowledge in our world. He advocates for teachers to take a different approach when designing curriculum for our students. This starts by asking the question, “What learning really matters for today’s learners?”

Educators can start reimagining instruction by asking ourselves what learning we experienced in our school careers that truly mattered in our lives. This reflection can lead to finding topics and themes from our current curriculum and assessing how well they fit within this mindset of lifeworthy learning. Four tenets of big understandings – opportunity, insight, action, and ethics – can serve as gatekeepers in this process.

The author also encourages us to rethink past topics of instruction and decide how necessary they truly are. Mitosis and quadratic equations are two examples mentioned that may be irrelevant for many of our learners. Perkins closes this piece of identifying three national agendas (achievement, information, expertise) that may have had too much importance placed upon them.

For more on this topic, check out my review of Perkin’s book Future Wise for MiddleWeb.

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores by Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant, March 16, 2016)

In this brief post, Scott McLeod shares a visual representation (below) of the most recent Gallup poll with regard to student engagement in schools.


The graph says it all. McLeod adds a brief commentary about these results.

The biggest indictment of our schools is not their failure to raise test scores above some politically-determined line of ‘proficiency.’ It’s that – day in and day out – they routinely ignore the fact that our children are bored, disengaged, and disempowered. We’ve known this forever, but we have yet to really care about it in a way that would drive substantive changes in practice. The disenfranchisement of our youth continues to happen in the very institutions that are allegedly preparing them to be ‘life long learners.’

Why I Don’t Like Play-Based Learning (Happiness is Here blog, March 20, 2016)

A blogger, who goes by Sara, takes issue with people’s perception of what play-based learning should be. She believes this approach should not be adult-directed. Play-based learning should allow for the students to explore their passions and interests without an outcome necessarily in mind. “Play is not something you do to a child. If you have an agenda, if you are requiring them to do it, if you have to make it ‘fun’ to get them to comply, if they are not free to stop at any time, then it is not play.”

Sara offers four criteria for defining play-based learning in its truest form: Play is self-chosen, enjoyable, inherently valuable, and unstructured. The blogger is an advocate for unschooling, a concept where children are allowed to teach themselves by interacting with the world around them. With this in mind, she is aware that there should be some room for structured activities for young learners. “I’m not saying don’t play with your kids, don’t make suggestions, or don’t set up things for them to explore.” However, there is a thin line between the two approaches. When setting up play-based learning, “be mindful of your agenda.”

Reading Assessment: Looking Ahead by Peter Afflerbach (The Reading Teacher, January/February 2016)

A professor of education at the University of Maryland, Afflerbach attempts to paint a broader picture of reading assessment in K-12 schools. He highlights three components that comprise effective assessment practices (p 413):

  • Educators must have and understand a detailed model of reading.
  • Educators must design assessment materials and procedures that yield valid and reliable information.
  • Educators must be able to make sound inferences with the assessments results.

Afflerbach transitions from describing quality reading assessment practices to the “insidious nature” of reading tests. Past mandates from the federal government, such as No Child Left Behind, have left residual effects on today’s literacy instruction. Curriculum has become narrowed, scripted programs are becoming commonplace, and instruction becomes too focused on the skills and strategies of reading.

We do well to not underestimate the pervasive influence of testing on reading instruction.

The solution, Afflerbach offers, is to 1) balance formative assessments with summative assessments, and 2) design assessments that measure the affective side of reading. Using formative assessments, teachers can start to better understand how students are progressing toward essential knowledge and skills. With regard to student dispositions, when we take time to assess their levels of engagement with reading, we place value on an often neglected aspect of literacy in the classroom.

Engagement and Learning

During spring break, our kids built an amusement park in our home. The weather outside was typical Wisconsin (cold and wet), so they entertained themselves by developing different rides and activities within all corners of the house. Cardboard boxes and duct tape were scavenged from the basement and my tool area. They even created a map of this new experience, which I used as they guided me through “Fun Play Land”.

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I have to say, I was pretty impressed with their ingenuity and creativity. They also played together without arguing – a celebration is in order!

The one challenge I had during this process was to not offer advice or suggestions. My wife and I are both educators. It’s second nature for us to step in and give feedback about our students’ progress. When every assessment in school is treated as a direct reflection of our instruction, it is a hard habit to break when we encounter student-driven learning experiences. Fortunately, I was able to bite my tongue throughout this process.

As educators, we leave our fingerprints on almost every learning opportunity offered to students in schools. This is primarily for two reasons: One, it was how we were taught. Two, the level of accountability placed on us to increase student achievement and close the gaps leads us to direct almost every aspect of the learning experience for students. Both of these realities make a shift to a personalized learning environment very challenging.

In each of the articles shared and summarized here, the common thread I found is the need for student-driven learning in today’s classrooms and schools. A change like this has to come from the ground level as well as from the top. Teachers in classrooms should be writing and sharing about their experiences with makerspaces, genius hour, and inquiry-based learning. District leaders and legislators have to provide a level of autonomy in schools that will allow them to take risks and innovate. It’s a collective effort.

When the benefits of a school experience designed with students in mind outweigh the costs of giving up some control over how schools are held accountable, only then we will realize the true purpose of school for our students.

Posted in What I'm Writing

What I’m Writing: February 2016


How Google Apps Help Develop Online Learning Communities (EdTech Magazine K-12)

Three tools – Google Groups, Google+ Communities, and Google Sites – are highlighted in this article. Brief directions are provided for readers on how to use these digital forums for online learning communities. Also included in the article are some suggestions for getting things started and keeping the conversations going. Frank Smith revised and edited my initial offering into an acceptable submission for online reading.

Interview with Kemp Edmonds for the FreshGrade Blog (

I spoke with Kemp Edmonds, Director of Marketing at FreshGrade, about the principalship and education in general. We discussed a variety of topics. Here is a sample of our Q and A:

What’s the most impactful technological change you’ve seen in education in the last 5 years?

In my opinion, it is the inexpensive, $100-200 mobile device. They are in the hands of virtually every kid now. Even in financially challenging environments there are smartphones, laptops and other devices that are not prohibitively expensive. Whether this looks like a laptop for every kid or they are bringing their own devices is still being determined. The policy of no devices in schools is not helpful. How do we teach kids to use devices in ways that enable learning? Can we use Instagram to highlight learning or assignments? It’s why we like FreshGrade, as it infiltrates the students’ and parents’ social media-centric world.

Taming the Screen Beast (ASCD Education Update)

This was not written by me, but I did contribute to this article in another interview. Sarah McKibben looks at the pros and cons of allowing mobile devices in the classroom, K-12 and beyond. While smartphones and tablets can become a distraction during instruction, they can also serve a tool for powerful learning experiences when planned with intention.

The Art of Visual Notetaking (

This post on my blog has received over 1000 views so far. It was a short post, highly visual, and specific in topic. I described how my serendipitous seating gave me a close view of how another educator uses images as well as words to take notes during a learning experience. I share my own initial offerings and my process for improving my practice.

If technology is at the forefront…

All of these articles revolve around using digital tools to augment and possibly redefine learning in the classroom. I have found that our natural inclination is to declare technology as the main factor in student achievement and success. Here are some of the key terms and phrases that are often referenced when connected educators making the case for implementing technology en masse in schools:

  • The digital divide
  • Education 3.0
  • “If you won’t tell your school’s story with social media, who will?”
  • 21st century learning
  • Technology integration

Cliché city! Many of these phrases have been used by me as much as anyone. I’m not saying they are poorly chosen. But what evidence do we have to support these calls to action? There are schools out there, such as the Waldorf schools, where students are experiencing great success with minimal to no digital tools used. I’ve been in these schools and have observed exceptional learning in action. The kids are doing just fine.

21st century learning is not necessarily synonymous with technology integration. Critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration can all happen in the absence of the digital element. It is when we recognize through our instructional preparations that these technology tools become necessary, instead of merely nice.