Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Interview with Rod Berger @Scholastic

I recently responded to a series of questions regarding my new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work (ASCD, 2017). This Q & A was with Dr. Rod Berger for his blog with Scholastic, titled Down the Hall. You can click here to read the entire interview.

Below is an excerpt from the interview.

I hope the start of your school year has been successful! -Matt

(P.S. My book is now available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as through ASCD directly.)

RB: The subtitle of your book is “Showcasing and Assessing Student Work.” We often focus on the assessment part and overlook the showcase element. What are some of the ways digital portfolios create a good showcase for student work and why is this important?

MR: Students, and really everyone, want to be recognized for their accomplishments and best efforts. Our society has little problem with handing out trophies and medals for success in sports and extracurricular activities. Celebrating academic work should not be a significant shift for anyone when we consider this context.

Digital portfolios can facilitate showcasing student work in a variety of ways.

  • Post pictures of students’ final products. These images should be shared with an accompanying text caption in which students describe what they created, how they did it, why it’s important, and what they want to work on for next time. This explanation, self-reflection, and goal setting provides context for student work and their future goals.
  • Upload video of student performances. Our families cannot attend every play, concert, and demonstration of learning, nor should they be expected to. Digital portfolios can bring families into the classroom by documenting their performances via video and then uploading this media for families to watch and enjoy at a later time.
  • Record audio of students’ current skills and understanding. Showcasing our students’ best efforts should not be limited to only final projects and performance tasks. There are reasons to celebrate every day. Maybe a student achieved the next level on a reading benchmark assessment or was finally able to pronounce a specific sound during their speech and language intervention. Parents can experience this success with their kids by hearing evidence of their accomplishments.



Student Goal Setting in the Classroom

Below is my response for Larry Ferlazzo’s Classroom Q & A for Education Week. You can view all of the responses by clicking here. Enjoy!

Used smartly and with intent, goal setting can be a game changer in engaging our students in their own learning process. Writing down goals makes them concrete. Sharing goals with peers, teachers, and family members puts more accountability on oneself. Including others in setting the goals provides a support system to help achieve them. Others become invested in their success. When students finally do achieve what they set out to accomplish, everyone celebrates.

So how can we use goal setting with our students? I believe the first step in this process is asking students what they are interested in as well as their needs. In one 2nd grade classroom, one teacher I know (my wife) asked her students questions regarding their interests and needs. One student, who in previous years had significant behavior issues, said he wanted to “build more because I like to tinker”. This information translated into co-developed goals between teacher and student around creativity and the importance of choice in learning. Over the course of the school year, both his behavior and academics improved dramatically. Both the process (choice) and the product (building things) were a part of this example of student-involved goal setting.

Including students in the goal setting process also benefits from making the learning process and eventual outcomes visible. By visible, this means documenting student learning as it is happening and sharing their work for a wide audience. Digital portfolios are an effective way for facilitating this approach. Going back to the previous example, my wife used FreshGrade to capture images and video of her students building during Genius Hour. Families could observe the idea generation, collaboration, prototyping, and collaboration that led to an exciting product as it was happening. By making visible a student’s pathway toward goal achievement, it takes the mystery out of the learning process and celebrates their work.



Cultivating the Student Growth Mindset

The article below was written in collaboration with FreshGrade. It is an administrative companion piece to an upcoming eBook I wrote on instructional strategies for developing self-directed learners. Click here to read my conversation with Dr. Rod Berger via Scholastic’s Administrator blog for the article. And stay tuned for more information on the free eBook!

Leadership Strategies For Building the Mindset Around Student Growth | Matt Renwick

In 2006, Dr. Carol Dweck published the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She has studied people’s attitudes toward learning for some time. Her work revolves around comparing fixed mindset (mistakes are indicators of failure; intelligence is fixed) and growth mindset (mistakes are opportunities for learning; intelligence can be developed). Her research made an impact on the educational landscape. Many teachers and school leaders started proclaiming that they were “growth mindset oriented.” A fixed mindset was the enemy. If a student became discouraged, the objective was to praise their effort and encourage them to persist within the adverse situation.

Fast forward ten years to the present day. Growth mindset has become a part of education’s lexicon. However, this has not lead to widespread improvement in student dispositions toward learning. There are a few reasons. First, Dweck believes teachers and parents often misuse her research when interacting with kids (Barshay, 2015). Specifically, teachers praise effort but are not as effective in offering feedback to improve performance. Also, adults would claim they use a growth mindset, but their actions promoted a fixed mindset. In addition, Dweck has revisited her work since it first came to the educational forefront. One area that has been revised is the strict dichotomy between fixed vs. growth mindset. “Maybe we talked too much about people having one mindset or the other, rather than portraying people as mixtures. We are on a growth-mindset journey, too” (Dweck, 2016).

As one school leader to another, I ask you: If Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the area of psychology and learning, can revise her current thinking, what is stopping our teachers and us from the doing the same? Her example gives us permission to question our current strategies in how we empower students, engage parents, and enable educators in our respective buildings. This article will describe the better practices in education that encourage student growth, the challenges to expect in this instructional change and the indicators of success. We will focus on four areas of consideration for facilitating this change: Cultivating the conditions for success; Clarity above all; Feedback, feedback, feedback; Authentic work for a real audience. To be clear, this is not a prescription for success. Rather, it is one pathway your leadership team might take to promote a growth mindset in all of your learners, teachers and students.

Cultivating the Conditions for Success

Before a school can move forward toward developing a collective growth mindset, the educators have to assess current reality. People need to understand that everyone has room to grow and should strive to become better. I like the verb “cultivate” instead of create. It evokes imagery of a gardener, tending their soil in preparation for a growing season. Amendments such as fertilizer and compost are added to help ensure a healthy harvest. Weeds are removed so the garden can flourish. To follow the metaphor, the level of health of a school’s soil is largely comprised of the trust colleagues have for each other as well. Trust does not happen naturally; it too has to be cultivated with intentional leadership acts.

One activity I have facilitated with teachers is allowing them to share their concerns regarding the past. Teachers write a statement which articulates their issues on a small piece of paper. A sentence stem, such as “In the past, I felt…” helps get people started. The school leader can model this first, sharing out loud any grievance they might have kept welled up until that moment. Educators appreciate it when leaders demonstrate what is asked of them. It conveys honesty and makes ourselves more transparent. Once teachers have an opportunity to share their personal concerns verbally, everyone puts their note in an empty suitcase. Then the principal closes it up and announces, “I appreciate your feedback. These concerns are mine now. I will do my best to address them in future conversations with everyone.” Staff will feel listened to, acknowledged, and more ready to move forward. Principals can take this one step further and categorize the concerns by themes. This will provide focus and allow school leaders to prioritize staff concerns and effectively address them. (Thank you to my superintendent Luke Francois for sharing this idea with me.)

Once major concerns have been heard, a second step toward cultivating the conditions for success is developing collective commitments. These are like norms, created as a faculty that serves as guidelines for professional conversations. A difference between collective commitments and norms is the former is directly connected with the mission and vision of the school, more like principles. To get started, leaders provide different professional articles for faculty to read ahead of time. Each article should speak to one of the school’s or district’s initiatives for the school year. Encourage teachers to closely read the text of their choice with a pen in hand and be ready for a conversation with colleagues. Doing some reading ahead of time will prepare everyone for more productive dialogue. Assumptions are not made about any educator’s background knowledge. Once teachers have read and discussed the content, the entire faculty can develop collective commitments. A consensus strategy such as “Fist to Five” can help ensure faculty buy-in. The alignment between mission, vision, and collective commitments ensures goal alignment.

Essential to the success of this work is having the time, resources, and training to engage in it. To capture more time, a number of schools and districts have gone to early student release once a week. This time is then allocated for teacher teams to look at student work and results, and adjust their instruction to meet students’ needs better. Educators’ mindsets start to bend toward student learning results instead of only instruction. Professional resources and training should be a school priority. Within this conditions, teachers can start to emerge as leaders. The autonomy provided within the commitments and goals of the school treats teachers like the professionals that they are. This type of environment can lead to a necessary level of trust that allows all school members to start taking risks in their personal learning endeavors.

Clarity Above All

The work that educators engage in to develop their mission, vision statements, collective commitments, and building goals aren’t worth the paper they are printed on if they do not translate into action. Clarity about our work is achieved when there is complete alignment between the more abstract artifacts previously mentioned and the concrete actions of teachers and leaders in classrooms. We know we are on the right pathway when the assessment results reveal student growth over time and achievement of essential learning objectives.

One of the best ways to achieve clarity in our work is by looking at the types of assessments and the priority placed on each. Assessments in school generally fall into three areas: formative, interim, and summative. Formative assessments include helping students understand the criteria for success, offering and receiving feedback, and providing students with opportunities to improve on their work through reflection and self-assessment. Interim, or benchmark, assessments are more summative in nature. They serve as checkpoints in a student’s learning progression toward essential understandings and skills. Summative assessments, such as exams, quizzes, and projects, help teachers and students gauge what was learned and at what level of understanding.

If a school directs the majority of their focus on summative assessments, then teachers’ mindsets become more concerned about the results of student learning versus the process students took to get there. Summative assessments are fixed; once you take the test, or place a score on student work, the learning stops. In an educational world hyper focused on end results and ensuring all students succeed, it is little surprise that a growth mindset can be so fleeting in classrooms. Teachers and students are clear about the purpose, but the purpose may not lead to deeper learning in these situations.

To address this situation, school leaders have to shift their mindsets by placing a greater priority on students and teachers capturing, reflecting on, and sharing formative assessment results. In my prior school, we did this by selecting six weeklong windows during the school year in which each student would upload a writing artifact into their digital portfolios. We used FreshGrade to house and share out students’ best work. Before each window, teachers would identify the learning targets to be addressed and then prepare instruction to guide students to achieve them. The fruits of their labor – informative texts generated by the students independently – was showcased within FreshGrade’s web-based portfolio system. In addition, families and colleagues could see growth over time in each student’s writing from fall to spring. To ensure that this process remained formative, teachers were expected to confer with each student while they uploaded their work, asking questions such as, “Why did you select this piece?”, “What did you do well in your writing? And “What do you think you need to work on for next time?”. Within a portfolio system, students start to see learning as a dynamic process instead of a static event. Clarity is evident in what the students produce and how they grow.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

I list this element of formative assessment three times because it is so important for developing a collective mindset around student growth. Feedback is any information that helps to guide or affirm student work and offers pathways for improving upon it. Feedback is also the information a teacher receives from a student in response to their instruction. Examples include written and verbal comments and reflective questions that focus a student’s attention to their process. NonExamples of feedback include grades and test scores (summative assessments). To be sure, not all feedback is created equal. If students are unable to use the comments and questions to further their learning, it renders the teacher’s efforts as ineffective. “The most important things about feedback is what the students do with it” (Wiliam, 2016). Therefore, it is critical that teachers receive training on how to best provide and use feedback in the classroom.

The best feedback for developing a growth mindset can be categorized into two areas: Descriptive and prescriptive (Kroog, Hess, & Ruiz-Primo, 2016). Descriptive feedback is objective commentary about the student’s work. The language should be specific and revolve around the attributes of the content, skill or strategy. Descriptive feedback should acknowledge the student as the learner, allowing him or her to own their learning by connecting what they accomplished with their efforts. An example of feedback on a piece of writing might be, “Kyle, when you used sensory details in this story, I could visualize the scene.” This type of feedback gives students a window into their current reality. It also offers an opportunity to celebrate what’s going well. Conversely, prescriptive feedback provides students with a pathway for improvement. It can be a direct suggestion or a thoughtful question. Following the same example, a teacher might want Kyle to expand on his descriptions by asking, “What other senses might you include in this description of the forest?” Of course, all of this feedback is only as effective as the level of clarity conveyed to understand the criteria for success (Hattie, Fisher, & Frey, 2016).

As school leaders, we can promote these better practices during professional learning days and in the classroom. For all staff training, teachers can watch examples of other teachers using feedback in effective ways. The Teaching Channel offers hundreds of videos of real teachers in action, with dozens depicting effective feedback and formative assessment strategies. Teachers can also read related articles together, such as the ones cited in this section, and have professional conversations about the information. Once teachers have enough background knowledge about the nature of effective feedback, school leaders can model this skill when conducting instructional walks in classrooms. These walks are 15-20 minute classroom visits documented with descriptive and prescriptive feedback. Instructional walks are formative in nature, and should not be considered part of the evaluation process. With instructional walks, we are “looking first for the teacher’s strengths, noticing where support is needed, and also discerning instructional patterns across the school” (Routman, 2014, p. 198). I use a paper notebook and a pen, write what I observe, and then have a brief conversation with the teacher about what I observed. Before I leave the classroom, I offer positive affirmation of the day’s instruction to build and maintain teacher-principal trust. This process models for teachers how they might interact with their students, as well as how students might interact with each other in the form of peer feedback.

While what we say and do not say is critical for student growth, the best type of feedback comes from the students. It is in our interactions with kids where we can glean all types of information and adjust our instruction to meet their needs. This student-teacher interaction is dependent on the quality of the relationships in the classroom. That leads us into our last section on the importance of authenticity and audience in our daily work in schools.

Real Work for an Authentic Audience

If the only person that regularly sees student work is their teacher, we deprive our kids of opportunities to make their voices be heard. Bringing in an authentic audience for student learning increases motivation, raises the stakes in a positive way and facilitates the celebration of everyone’s efforts and accomplishments. Coupled with learning tasks that closely resemble what one might experience in everyday life, students will see that their work is important not only to them but others as well.

Preparing students to accomplish real work for an authentic audience does not necessarily mean teachers have to develop elaborate projects that take weeks at a time to accomplish. One of the easiest ways to facilitate this is by utilizing a digital portfolio to publish student work (mentioned previously). This is what many professionals do in their occupations: Maintaining a professional website that highlights their skills and abilities. The audience for student portfolios – families and other teachers – can respond to what students publish in the form of comments. Teachers can educate parents about how to offer better feedback by modeling it within the digital portfolio ecosystem. School leaders can offer after school sessions for families to learn the technology and how to comment on student work.

While celebrating student work is an essential component of building trust, we also need to honor the process that students took to get to the point of proficiency. That is why I advocate that students and teachers maintain growth portfolios in addition to best work portfolios previously described. Growth portfolios document the progress students are making as learners as well as the processes they used to make the progress. These types of portfolios are more teacher-directed, especially when monitoring progress with digital tools. However, there is no reason students should not be an integral part of this assessment process. One possibility is for every student to have a blog. Suggested blogging tools include Kidblog, Edublogs, and WordPress. Students can use these online journaling forums to post first drafts on topics of choice and expressing their thinking regarding interests or content areas. Teachers can show students how to comment on each other’s blogs effectively. This practice promotes a growth mindset because it says, “We are all learners here.” Competition is reduced, and mistake-making is recognized because of the visible and collaborative nature of blogging. An audience that consists of peers and families might be all that is needed for shining a broader light on the real work students do in school.


After almost a decade in school administration, I have come to believe that our actions as leaders make the biggest difference in the learning lives of students and teachers. We model the learning process by being learners ourselves. This includes co-creating an environment that sets everyone up for success, being clear about our goals and what excellence looks like, offering feedback in a productive manner, and providing an authentic audience for our work. A growth mindset is more about what we do rather than anything we might say. We develop this mindset by living out our beliefs in our everyday actions. When a faculty’s collective disposition moves from “We have a growth mindset.” to “This is how we do things here.”, a school can become a true learning community.


Barshay, J. (2015). Growth mindset guru Carol Dweck says teachers and parents often use her research incorrectly. The Hechinger Report.

Dweck, C. (2016). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’ Education Week. 35(5), pp. 20, 24.

Hattie, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2016). Do They Hear You? Educational Leadership. 73(7), 16-21.

Kroog, H., Hess, K. K., & Ruiz-Primo, M. A. (2016). The 2 Es. Educational Leadership. 73(7), 22-25.

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

Wiliam, D. (2016). The Secret of Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership. 73(7), 10-15.


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.

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.


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.


Suggestions for a First Year Principal (from a veteran principal who remembers)


Below is an article I wrote for the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA). Click here to view the original source. If you have additional suggestions for first year principals, please post them in the comments.

I didn’t think I would write something like this, a list of strategies for new building administrators. Who am I to make suggestions?

Yet here they are. So what changed? First, I have been a school principal, either as an assistant principal at the secondary level or as the head principal at an elementary school, longer than I was a teacher. Second, I was the on-site supervisor for two building staff members pursuing their own administrative license. Third, I was asked. In this article, I’ll do my best to come across as experienced instead of an expert.

Get to know your staff

You only get your first year to make a positive impression with faculty. Don’t waste it. When I was hired for my current position as principal at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids, I invited everyone to a building listening session. This took place in the late summer in our LMC. I asked thought-provoking questions such as “What do you most enjoy about teaching at Howe?”. The staff provided their honest responses. I wrote down what they had to share on a whiteboard to show that I was listening and would take their input seriously.

Once the school year started, I hired a floating substitute teacher for two days so I could meet with each faculty member individually. No strings attached – we just had a conversation about their personal and professional goals. You glean a lot from these conversations if you listen with intention.

Revisit and review your school crisis plan

As a principal, your number one job is not to ensure students achieve at high levels. That is your teachers’ and students’ jobs. Your number one job is to ensure a safe learning environment that will allow for this learning to occur. Before the school year starts, go over your school’s crisis plan. Check to make sure it is aligned with district expectations. Share your revised plan with administrative colleagues for feedback.

Once ready, present it at a staff meeting, going over it line by line. We try to keep our plan no longer than two pages, including graphics. This plan should be revisited throughout the school year with inclement weather and school safety drills. There are lots of areas where the school leader can acquiesce responsibilities. The crisis plan is not one of them.

Examine your beliefs about instruction

Your school probably has a mission, a vision, or both. That’s fine. They are also not worth the paper they are printed on if they are not realized in the daily instruction that occurs in your classrooms. Examining your beliefs about instruction is a collaborative process of determining what you value as a professional educator and how they align with everyone else’s beliefs.

Our school has used resources such as Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Success (ASCD, 2014) for this annual activity. Faculty read twenty statements about reading and writing that are either aligned with best practice, or contrary to them. An example would be “Grammar should not be taught in isolation.” We selected “agree” or “disagree” for each statement in a Google Form, and then analyzed the results. After discussion and debriefing, we own those beliefs that we unanimously found common ground on, which are then visibly posted in school.

Visit classrooms daily

It has been said that what gets measured, gets done. I would expand on that statement with, “What gets recognized, gets done well.” This acknowledgment can only happen when we witness quality instruction in person. We can have all of the data walls and progress monitoring we want, but if we are not seeing the learning with our own eyes, we may be focused only on the outcomes, instead of the context and process where learning takes place.

Visiting classrooms shouldn’t be an event. In the beginning of the year, I let all staff know that I will be in their classrooms on a regular basis and without invitation. If someone shares concerns, I’ll reinforce that I am looking to document positive actions in their classrooms based on our shared beliefs. Often I will write a simple narrative of what I observed along with thoughtful questions. Sometimes I’ll take a picture of powerful practice in action with my smart phone, annotate it with feedback using the app Skitch, and then email it to the teacher while I am still in the classroom. I’ll also save this information as artifacts within Evernote, a productivity app.

Read widely

Anytime I hear an administrator say, “I just don’t have time to read”, I think about how their students or staff might react if they heard him or her say that in their presence. Reading widely means going beyond the educational resources and board minutes you might receive in your mailbox at school. While those are important, principals should also be reading books students are reading, leadership journals, local and national newspapers, excellent blogs and websites, current research on education, and of course fiction. We are smarter people when we draw upon a more diverse set of ideas and opinions.

What about when? Here are just a few of the places where I have been “caught” reading:

  • On the way to and leaving school, via audiobooks on CD or my smartphone
  • In the cafeteria while kids are eating breakfast or lunch
  • During your own lunch
  • With a group of colleagues in an online or in-person book club
  • On special days, such as the Scholastic Principal Challenge
  • In classrooms, reading aloud a favorite story from your own days of teaching

Not only do we become more knowledgeable leaders, we also model the most foundational skill that we promote in our schools.

This list is not exhaustive. Connect with your new colleagues in your district and online to make your first year an excellent one for you and your school.