Saturday, November 30, 2019

S.P.E.C.I.A.L.: A Deeper Dive

I was recently in a fruitful Twitter thread conversation where the use of acronyms were being discussed, and there was a comment from an individual who said that acronyms are "devices to get students through tests, not to prepare them for anything authentic." The person furthered, "If you understand the principles, you don't need an acronym to recall it."

For those who know me, I have quite an affinity for acronyms, so this one kind of hit home.

I replied, "Principles are a goal of any concept, but there is nothing wrong with having strategies for encoding information in your brain. Mnemonic devices such as acronyms can serve as a strong foundation for enhancing learning toward deeper understanding."

That Twitter conversation, though, made me think more about my use of acronyms and the importance of using them as a platform for deeper teaching and an ultimate goal of (as the Twitter user said) understanding the principles. Because yes, after deep understanding and true learning have taken place, the acronym should no longer be needed.

For many years, I have used an acronym called S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as a foundation for teaching social skills and making a positive first impression. Classrooms and schools across the country have used this acronym to teach students, and I have conducted trainings and workshops centered around this.

If you've ever heard me talk about S.P.E.C.I.A.L. in person, you know that I describe this concept in comparison to building a house. You don't build a house starting with the roof. You lay the foundation first, and this is what I refer to S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as. It should be treated as the groundwork for what is a very complex set of principles that go into the art and science of social interactions.

Because after you lay that foundation, you need to take a deeper dive with students to help them understand that having conversations involves humans, not robots, and therefore, there is not an absolute way of doing it. In addition, it's important to learn cultural competencies and human comfort levels and abilities when interacting, so you can come off as respectful, understanding, and knowledgeable.

For example, where I teach maintaining eye contact as a part of S.P.E.C.I.A.L., it is also important to teach that in some Native American cultures, looking down is actually a sign of respect. In some Asian countries such as Japan, bowing, not shaking hands, is how you might greet another person. If you meet a non-binary person, you would use a gender neutral honorific (such as Mx) to address them. And if you meet an Orthodox Jew of the opposite sex, you would not extend your hand to shake because it is forbidden for members of the opposite sex to have physical contact.

These few examples are just a sample of the many customs that we must become more aware of so that we respect other people's beliefs, identities, and cultures. And personally, there's more I am learning every day!

It's also important to dive deeper into S.P.E.C.I.A.L. to learn how to correspond with others who may not have the same physical abilities as you. What would you do if you met someone who is deaf? Or blind? Or was not born with a right hand? Or was confined to a wheelchair? All of a sudden the "norms" in which S.P.E.C.I.A.L. uses must be adapted and that deeper training comes into play.

As a principal, I utilized S.P.E.C.I.A.L. as a training guide for my entire school. I had a poster in every classroom and in the hallways. We did schoolwide training and frequent role play scenarios as a school. Teachers also followed up with their own individual refreshers throughout the year and differentiated the delivery to meet their students where they were. We also taught the entire school sign language, so that any student could communicate with our deaf and hard of hearing students. I held deeper dive trainings with my Ambassadors, who were responsible for providing tours of the school and interacting with many different types of people.

So in closing, I would argue against the statement that acronyms prepare for tests, not anything authentic. I believe that S.P.E.C.I.A.L. is a training tool for something quite authentic in our life. However, I do agree that once one becomes trained and immersed enough with a principle, an acronym would no longer be needed because you now understand the precepts. In the meantime, for you educators, parents, and coaches out there working on building social skills with young students for the first time, don't be afraid to start with a foundation. Even if it's an acronym!

Shameless plug time: If you're interested in having a S.P.E.C.I.A.L. poster in your classroom or school, I just released the new primary version of it, found here

Sunday, July 7, 2019

What's Next

Ever since I shared that I would be moving to Greensboro, NC, the number one question I get is "what's next"? A logical question for sure, and one that I will try to explain below.

First, a little history leading up to this. For the past 15 years, I have based most of my life decisions on professional opportunities. I have moved to different cities and taken different jobs based on amazing opportunities that have presented themselves. I have no regrets on any of them and I am proud to have been able to work in several sectors of education.

The one thing I have sacrificed the most, however, is my personal life. My family. My wife has been a trooper as we have moved to different places so she can support my dreams, even finding ways to make her dreams work within that. I have two children as well who have never gotten to play on a sports team or go to an after school activity because mommy and daddy were too busy.

Flash forward to this year and I had to make a difficult decision to leave a school that I was leading and in love with. I loved the teachers, students, and families at Moore. We did many incredible things in two short years. I think back with only fond memories.

I decided that it was my chance to support my family as they are now able to fulfill their dreams. My wife landed an amazing job as a pediatrician and my boys will be able to start sports and activities in the fall with me on the sidelines.

As for me, since many have asked, I'm keeping my options open. I will not be jumping back into a principalship right away. It is a job that requires the right mindset and right now I would not have that. I do plan on occasionally traveling to continue professional development opportunities that I have not had a chance to do as much the past couple years. And, of course, you'll see me at places like Ron Clark Academy, Get Your Teach On, and Get Your Lead On. I will also be working on projects with friends. It is exciting to be able to work on my terms and schedule for a while. I absolutely see myself back in a school in some capacity in the future, but I want to make sure I find the right fit and opportunity.

I appreciate all of the kind words and thoughts from people over the past month. It's been a blessing knowing that people are out there cheering you on.

So that may not answer every question about "what's next" but when I figure it out I'll let y'all know :)

Monday, May 27, 2019

Ambassador Program

I recently posted a video with one of my 5th grade Ambassadors doing a Greeter training (click link to see the video). This prompted a lot of questions about Ambassadors, Greeters, and how I set this all up. For all those wondering, here you go!

What are Ambassadors?

Ambassadors are a special group of my 5th graders who are expected to be representatives of my school. They conduct tours for guests, attend community events, attend district recruitment events, and partake in other events that require representation.

How do you become an Ambassador?

At the end of their 4th grade year, interested students have a week to apply for the position. The application is simple: obtain signatures from their homeroom teacher and three of their specials teachers (art, music, PE, etc.) and write an essay on why they believe they would be a good Ambassador. Based on the completed applications, my leadership team selects the top 15-20 to interview. For their interview, the student meets with my leadership team and is asked a series of questions (e.g. Tell us about your greatest strengths that would make you a good Ambassador. What is your favorite part of Moore and why?). We are not so much concerned about what they say, but how they think quickly on their feet, remain calm under pressure, and speak clearly and fluently. After the sit-down interview, the student does a mock tour down the hallway with members of the leadership team, explaining the school to the best of their ability in a short amount of time. Again, we're not concerned as much about what they say as we are in how they hold themselves, speaking voice, remaining calm, etc. In the end, 6-8 Ambassadors will be chosen.

How do you train Ambassadors?

Ambassadors begin training at the end of their 4th grade year. They begin learning the way to greet guests, talk about the school, differentiate their conversations depending on who is in the building, and building confidence in their skills. Much of this is modeled at first by the outgoing 5th grade Ambassadors, who also do one-on-one training with the newly inducted Ambassadors. During the summer, I bring in the Ambassador for at least two or three "boot camp" training sessions, where we dig in deeper and begin the real tough training. I admit, I fuss a lot at these sessions because the Ambassadors are the face of the school, and I need to ensure that they are top notch. Once the school year starts, training continues for several weeks with intense scenario role plays. All of the training is based on a system I created called S.P.E.C.I.A.L. You can read more about it here

What are Greeters?

In addition to my Ambassadors, every K-5 classroom in my school has two important jobs: classroom greeter and hallway greeter. The classroom greeter is an assigned classroom job where anytime a person walks into a classroom (administrator, school guest, parent, etc.), that student walks over to that person, shakes their hand, and greets them. The greeting usually goes along the lines of "Good morning, my name is _______. Welcome to Ms. ______'s room. Today we are doing _______. It was nice to meet you." The hallway greeter has the same idea, but is done in the hallway. A pre-assigned student approaches a guest or administrator in the hall, and greets the person. You can see a video about Greeters from a local news station here.

What is the secret to successful implementation?

Solid training and constant feedback is necessary in order to make this program successful. If teachers are not bought in and held accountable, and administration is not firmly behind the implementation, then this will not work. It is best when consistent messages and modeling are heard and experienced.   

Need help making this happen?

I am currently booking professional developments for the fall. If you need help bringing this to your school, you can contact me here.

Also, check out Abe Hege and my book, The Limitless School, which is all about building positive school culture. It has an entire chapter on making positive first impressions within your school!







Saturday, January 19, 2019

What Keeps Me Up At Night

Excitement from an awesome day
Conversations I had to say.
News that elated the entire school
News that simply added fuel.

An angry moment
A sad encounter
A scary situation
A meaningful dedication.

The child who just did the unthinkable
Everyone who expects me to be reachable.
Praises from strangers far and wide
Critiques that are painfully justified.

The teacher who has had enough
The teacher who is merciful and tough.
A wall that separates forty students
You hope both act with deliberate prudence.

An upcoming meeting
A ceremonious greeting
A lesson to teach
A presentation to preach.

Social media to manage
An image to uphold
Watching every word
While still finding lines to blur.

A constant array of echoing voices
Sifting through the limitless choices
Identifying those you trust most
Reflecting on words that keep you engrossed.

THIS is what keeps me up at night.

#LimitlessSchool

Monday, December 31, 2018

19 for '19

For the past four years I have offered up my New Years Bucket List Challenges (18 for '18, 17 for '17, 16 for '16, and 15 for '15). I'll be honest, I'm kind of out of fresh stuff, so I decided to make the 19 for '19 Challenge with a little twist. Simultaneously, I wanted to create something that I could offer my staff as a challenge. So to kill two birds with one stone, I created the 19 for '19 Magic Maker Challenge. I have 19 challenges (some are specific to my school, others are more generic) that my staff can complete if they wish to enter the contest!

Side note: We did a 20-day challenge at my school before winter break and it was a lot of fun. Everyone who finished received a jeans pass and then the names of those who finished went into a drawing for a big prize.

Below is the 19 for '19 Challenge if you are interested in creating your own version for your school (no I don't have an editable version, sorry). Thank you to my dear friend Katie Mense (@littlekinderwarriors) for making the challenge look good! I hope everyone has a fantastic New Year and 2019!


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Break the Script

When you walk into Carley Parker's 2nd grade classroom, your eye is immediately met by a floor-to-ceiling sized sunflower mural that is glistened by the sun when it peeks through the window blinds. The students have a variety of seating options, commonly called flexible seating, from stools to wobble seats to cushioned floor seating. She has a beautiful wooden stage that students use to present upon or gather around during morning meeting. As students come in each morning, they take part in a schoolwide practice called Morning Choice, where puzzles, board games, Legos, and art have replaced morning work and busy sheets. As she starts her instruction, students take a look at the Smartboard to see their small flexible literacy and math groups for the day.

In August 2017, I began as principal at Moore Magnet Elementary, a Title 1 public school in Winston-Salem, NC with approximately 600 students. As I did my initial walk-through of the school, it resembled many of the previous 200-plus schools I have visited around the country over the past eight years as a professional development trainer and presenter. It was a clean building with experienced teachers and a positive history. Staff and students were kind and it was a place that people spoke positively about.

But I also saw untapped potential. When I saw a white wall, I pictured color. When I saw rows of desks, I pictured flexible seating. When I saw worksheets, I pictured collaborative work stations.

As principal, I was not going to settle on being like everyone else. I previously taught at an innovative school in Atlanta called the Ron Clark Academy, a middle-school-meets-Harry Potter-meets-Disney World, where teachers combine rigor and high standards with a loving culture and endless engagement. This "potion" has produced amazing results for over a decade, and I wanted to bring this formula to a public school in North Carolina.

You see, school is different than when we were there. Higher standards are holding all students and educators more accountable, rapidly evolving technology is forcing educators to learn what students already know, and social media makes us that much more connected (for better or for worse). The need to evolve our classrooms is my non-negotiable, and it was my personal mission as principal to make my school feel like a place where students wanted to come everyday.

Carley Parker was one of my first teachers to join this movement. She began strategically transforming her classroom throughout the year, and piece by piece she would experiment with new ideas, getting rid of desks for tables, exchanging chairs for stools, putting up projects on DonorsChoose for new technology and materials for her classroom. As my teachers saw her results, they began jumping on as well. Teachers transformed their classrooms and their teaching. We are moving from a fact-regurgitation and skill-and-drill mentality to problem-solving and learning through multiple perspectives. White walls are being replaced by colorful paintings and murals. And teacher-talk time is being evaluated and reassigned to the students.

Let's be honest, unless you're playing bar trivia, the need to memorize facts is generally unnecessary these days. Siri and Alexa are at our disposal 24/7. What we do need are adults who can collaborate, imagine, trouble-shoot, and create. When our classrooms mimic environments where students have the opportunity to hone these skills, we are aligning our classrooms to the workplaces where students will one day work.

I see my teachers and my school moving more each day. As a person who likes things done yesterday, it can be hard waiting for change to occur. Even harder can be those people who do not believe that anything needs to be changed to make those changes. My goal then becomes to convince, not convert. While they may never be able to convert their classroom to the place that I believe it could be, I want to convince them that we do have a need to make our classrooms function differently. And belief is half the battle.

So in 2019, I challenge you to do school differently. Rethink, reimagine, and break the script of how school is done.


*You can follow Ms. Parker on Instagram at @sunflowers.in.second

  

Monday, September 3, 2018

One Chip


Math has always been my strength. I understand concepts and catch onto new ones quickly. It could be baffling, then, that my favorite game when I am in Las Vegas is roulette. For those unfamiliar, roulette involves a wheel with numbers equally spaced around it. As the player, you place chips down on a mat that has corresponding numbers to the wheel, hoping that a ball spun on the wheel lands on your number.

Mathematically, it is a tough game to play. The odds of winning are far lower than most casino games. I have learned various strategies in the game from observing others. My approach, frequently, is to have a chunk of go-to numbers that I play, spreading out my chips to try to increase my chances of winning. I do hit a number usually, but my return is smaller since I usually only have a dollar chip on the number. 

I promise this post is not about gambling! Something happened over the summer that provided an amazing “a-ha” moment in connection to teaching. I was presenting in Vegas this summer, and one night some friends and I went to the casino. I naturally gravitated to the roulette table, and my friends stood around to observe. I gave the dealer $100 and asked for my $1 chips so I could extend my time and go about my usual strategy.

Between spins, a man came over to the table, threw down $100 bill and said to the dealer, “One chip.” He proceeded to put his $100 chip on black, which meant that if the wheel stopped on a black number he would double his money, and if it did not he would be out $100. It landed on red. He shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Afterwards, my friends and I were a bit aghast at this maneuver and the “all-in” approach in which this man took. Later, I thought about it more and realized that as educators, we have parallel approaches to our teaching and schools: 1) the small chunks of deposits that we put into our students and classroom over time, or 2) the “all-in” strike that can blow the roof off a place. 

In the end, we hope for a “payoff,” namely, student achievement. With the first approach, this usually comes in incremental gains. Examples of this might be small flexible groups, book studies, debate, Kagan strategies, or inquiry-based learning. These strategies do not produce instant results in isolation, but spread out over time, and you can make gains with consistent use. On the flip side, you have the “all-in” approach, where you are putting a lot of stake into one focused experience. Examples of this might include a room transformation, professional development speaker or conference, or a presentation. 

With both approaches, there are naturally going to be pros and cons. With the first, mistakes usually go unnoticed. If something is going wrong, it is not hard to make the correction the next day. The downside is that results take time. With the latter approach, your eggs are in one basket. If it works, you are a hero, if it fails, you may not get a second chance. 

In my opinion, good teaching and leadership involves both of these approaches. Balance is important and finding strategic ways to pace your teaching, but also throwing in there occasional “all-in” moments provides students with consistency and excitement, which is important for maintaining engagement for teachers and students.