Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Houses Implementation: Take 2

In July 2018, I wrote a blog that featured the House system that I implemented at my previous school. In the original blog, you can find out a bit more about what a House system is, its origins, why it's valuable, and my experiences in helping schools establish them across the country. 

This year (2021), I led the charge in establishing a House system at my new school, in a new district. While there were certainly similarities, many aspects were different, proving that this can look different ways and still be equally impactful. Read below on how we rolled it out:

Planting Seeds:

Starting at this school in August 2020 meant that navigating COVID was the primary focus. Establishing a House system was not on any type of priority list, however, it remained a long-term goal that could have subtle seeds planted along the way. For starters, the term Houses is something well known and widespread, but I had an opportunity for it to be something unique. Our school mascot is the giraffe, and a play on this fascinating animal provided a chance to take the term Houses in a different direction. I researched and found that a group of giraffes is known as a tower, and subsequently a great alternative name for a House. To begin getting this term in the daily vocabulary of my school community, I created a hashtag for our school to use on all social media posts, #TowerAbove, with the play on words bringing various meaning. 

Later in the school year, I welcomed any interested teacher to join me in a "culture" committee where I could build a team to help bring the implementation of this new program to the school. In all, I had 8 volunteer, which gave us a great representation of staff in this planning committee. The committee met throughout the spring to plan out the Tower names, the rollout, earning points, and other details to help make this a successful endeavor.

The Plan:

Our committee decided upon four Towers, each named after a giraffe subspecies (which by the way there are actually nine in all!): Rothschild, Thornicroft, Masai, and Kordofan. Each had a color and positive character trait to accompany it. We decided that we would "sort" staff prior to returning to school with a balloon popping ceremony along with a special surprise at the end (more on that in a bit). The students would be sorted on the first day of school using Tower colored bandanas inside of to-go boxes out on our field. 

Before the end of the school year, we had a roll out meeting with staff to explain the new concept to kick off the next school year. Details had been thoughtfully considered, though feedback was definitely encouraged. Having the planning committee consist of classroom teachers provided much credibility to the roll out of this and led to very few questions or concerns. Folks were excited! I also shared this roll out with our wonderful PTA, who would be instrumental in the execution of this from a merchandise standpoint. 

Of course, planning this at the end of one school year and introducing it at the start of the next school year meant that there had to be anticipation and an element of mystery built in. So using iMovie on my phone, I made a series of videos that would get my school community excited (and wondering) what was to come. You can watch the first teaser video here. And then another one here.

The Execution:

The first order of business was sorting the staff on a teacher workday to start the year. The plan was to place numbers 1-4 inside of black balloons with staff member names on the balloons (teachers were strategically sorted ahead of time to help ensure equity in Tower distribution). We would go outside to the field, release everyone, they would find their balloon, pop it, and then go to the table that had their corresponding number. From there, once everyone was sorted at a table, they would release the magical sorting surprise! I ordered "smoke grenades" ... kind of like you see at baby reveal parties. Each of the grenades would be in the colored smoke of the Tower. I also found a person who does drone videography and would record it all for me! Everything was flawless on paper. 

When we went outside and released the balloons, the balloons were inflated so much that several began popping on the blades of grass. We recovered enough of them and luckily I had a sheet with me to tell people what table to go to in case their balloon popped. So we eventually got everyone sorted, and it was time to pull the release on the smoke grenade! It was a beautiful sight as three of the four grenades released perfect clouds of smoke. Unfortunately, the purple Tower (my Tower) had a dud grenade and no smoke released. We used our deductive reasoning, however, to determine our Tower color. You can see the video here

Staff was now sorted and so attention was turned to the first day of school! My lovely PTA assisted in stuffing the boxes with the bandanas and I had volunteers from a local university the first day of school come out and help put equal amount of boxes for each Tower in each homeroom. For example, if a homeroom had 20 students, they would have five boxes of each of the Towers in their pile. When classes came outside that morning, each teacher found their sign, stood around the boxes, and when I said "go" they each selected a box and opened it. Once they had their bandana, they went over to the table with a table cloth that matched the bandana. After everyone was sorted into their Tower, we had our first competition of the year using a hula hoop race. I also invited parents to witness this and had PTA set up their merchandise table so parents could buy shirts immediately after their child was sorted. You can see the sorting here.  

I made a recap video on all of the action that had happened to sort the staff and students for parents and the community to see. You can see that here

The Day to Day:

The sorting provided plenty of excitement and buy-in, but that can be short lived if there is not a clear plan in place for how to sustain the excitement. Over the course of the first weeks of school, we would come on the morning news and give little tidbits about Towers, we would update the leader board on our television each day, I would praise classrooms that were giving points, and we had our first Wheel Spin! The Wheel Spin is something that provides a weekly reminder to everyone that Towers is always there. I purchased the physical wheel off of Amazon and had my talented friend Katie Mense create the wedge inserts inside of them. The actual game play of the wheel is a bit complicated, so that may need to be in a separate post. You can see video of our first wheel spin here.

Things were going as I expected in the early weeks of Towers. Generally, those who were in it from the beginning were all in. We had some staff who were eager, but not exactly sure how to participate yet, and then a small few who were just on the outside looking in. It was a typical rollout of a new program. I believe this all changed in week 3 of the year during the Friday wheel spin. By some stroke of luck, one of the spinners that week managed to make her way down to the final row, where the spinner has the ability to earn 100 points, something that I had only seen happen a few times in the decade plus of seeing wheel spins at various schools. Long story short, she got the 100 points, and the energy of this one event turned on even the most skeptical of folks to the excitement that Towers can bring. You can see it happen here.

Since then, and now to the winter break as I write this, Towers has grown each day. We have bi-monthly Tower meetings or events, Tower competitions, and Tower Tuesday where the kids wear their Tower colors. Parents come up to me all the time to tell me how much their kids love Towers. Teachers have incorporated it into their daily instruction and classroom management. 

One of the most unique features of this implementation of Houses/Towers that I had never done before is our deliberate inclusion of a service learning component. Thanks to one of my committee members, she had the idea of embedding service learning into our Tower program. We decided upon "waste" as our yearlong theme, with quarterly themes of food waste, paper waste, plastic waste, and water waste leading our activities. This has led to community partnerships, including a local farm, the city recycling center, and local artists. 

Leadership opportunities have also risen from our Towers program. We held elections for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade Tower leaders. We also have done a book buddy program, where older students are matched up with younger students in their Tower to buddy read. 


I have witnessed so many iterations of Houses over the years at schools across the country. The words of advice that I always offer schools is to make it work for you. There is no one right way to do it. But I do have a few pieces of advice for it to be successful:

1) Have a plan and be transparent. Flying by the seat of your pants causes more questions and anxiety from those who you need support from most.

2) Be flexible. Not everything will work great or according to plan (see Tower reveal from above). Accept failures or bumps in the road and adjust accordingly.

3) Build a team. No one can do this alone. Find dedicated folks who are willing to take this on with you. Accept that not everyone will jump on right away, and some may never. Keep pushing forward with those who can support the mission.  

4) Have fun! This is something that is supposed to build a positive school culture. Bring innovation in your design of your program!

Thanks for reading! Feel free to follow me on social media @adamdovico and check out my books: When Kids Lead, The Limitless School, and Inside the Trenches for more tips and strategies for the classroom!

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Teaching Limericks

If you don't laugh, you'll cry. Let's have a few laughs then educator friends. I had some time today and was inspired to write about common teacher-y things that we encounter. Relax, it's not about anyone in particular. Except if it's you. Then it is. 

There once was a student named Stu
Who quickly came running to you.
With a funny look on his face
And not enough space
He sneezed without a tissue.

There once was a student named Drew
He had an obsession with eating glue.
He said it tasted like candy
Which is perfectly dandy
Because it kept him from eating his shoe.

There once was a student named Ry
Who came in with a special look in his eye.
Your day is in shreds 
Because he hasn't taken his meds
So it's movie day just to get by.

"Ms. Sweeting"
There once was a teacher named Ms. Sweeting
She infamously talked at every meeting.
When we were just to disband
She would raise her damn hand
And ask questions that warranted a beating.

There once was a custodian named Mag 
Who got called to change out a trash bag.
There was vomit covered food 
That had never been chewed
And she immediately started to gag.

There once was a student named Don
Who had a giant booger on his crayon.
He opens up wide
With a smile in his eye
And now suddenly the booger is gone.

"Ms. Beam"
There once was a teacher named Ms. Beam 
Who was hated to the extreme
Her crime was ghastly  
When she tried to move fastly
After she jammed the copy machine!

"Mr. Classes"
There once was a teacher named Mr. Classes
Who generally moved as fast as molasses
But when there was free food
He came unglued
And pushed through all ya'lls asses.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

It's Been a While

Where to begin? 

Well for starters, it's been a while since I wrote one of these. 669 days to be precise. I started this blog back in 2012, wrote occasionally on it for a handful of years, and then it became a weekly habit during 2017-2018 as I documented my first year as a principal.   

Lots has changed since then. My family moved to a new city, my wife got a dream job, and a thing called COVID-19 changed the entire world as we know it. I also started a doctoral program in Educational Leadership and took a job as a curriculum facilitator at the school my kids go to. Fortunately, I still have the opportunity to present around the country, and even though the pandemic changed the travel part a bit, I was able to do a number of virtual keynotes and presentations. 

And there's some things that haven't changed at all. I still love bacon, Dr. Pepper, and wearing whacky suits. 

I'm not sure what my goals are for kicking this blog back up again, but I do plan on writing about timely issues and random thoughts as they pop up again. I was inspired to write about a topic recently after a Tweet I posted surrounding school leaders trying to make everyone happy and that is not what is best for kids. It is worth a deeper explanation, so here it goes:

First, that Tweet was self-inspired. I like making people happy. I try my best to appease others, especially when it is for someone I care about. I have always had a hard time saying "no" and to some extent that was a personal challenge entering my first year as a principal. The first thing you realize as a school leader is that adults are simply different to work with in comparison to kids. Adults come with more experiences, baggage, responsibilities, and opinions than children, and that inherently makes them more complex. 

As a principal, I learned quickly that when a teacher "wanted to talk" there was usually something wrong or there was a need involved. That's not a bad thing, but it is something that school leaders must be prepared for. I was not at first. I simply assumed that when people came to my office they wanted to just chat, like I did as a classroom teacher. What I realized is that in any given hour, I may receive any number of unrelated inquiries:

1) "I have a vacation scheduled for next week, I will need to take personal days."

2) "I found this reading curriculum resource from TpT that I really want to get for my classroom and I was hoping the school could buy it."

3) "This child will not behave and the parent and I think it would be best for them to be in another class."

As individuals bring these topics to you, as a leader you have to remember that this is the most important thing to them at that moment. For you, it may be nothing but a blip on a radar in your day, but they do not care about that, so you treat each conversation with respect. Some topics naturally are more urgent than others, but the person who brings you these inquiries wants an answer.

Going back to the three examples from above, the easy answers to each of those questions would be: 

1) No problem.

2) Sure.

3) Okay.

But when faced with these types of questions, though, what does that say about our commitment to children when we blindly agree to each of these requests without more information? Because here are the deeper questions that could be involved in each of these issues:

1) Did you follow the school/district policy with requesting personal days off ahead of time for approval so that we can properly prepare for a sub or for coverage?

2) What is the resource? Does it align to our curriculum and provide grade appropriate content/instruction for the students? How do you plan on using it? 

3) What have you done to build a relationship with the student? Have you worked with administrators or appropriate school personnel to come up with a behavior plan or incentive program? What does your classroom behavior management look like? Who prompted the discussion around changing the classroom between you and the parent? 

Naturally, there are many more questions that can be asked within each of these scenarios, but this is a start. What I am getting at is that it would be the easy road to just "say yes" to each of these, because it is the desired response from the adult inquiring. The underlying question that must be asked though is what is best for children? Back to the scenarios:

1) If the teacher asked for these personal days just a day or two ahead of time, it is extremely difficult to find a sub in such short notice. The result is that students may need to be dispersed, which overcrowds another classroom, or you pull an assistant, which means that whoever that assistant was supposed to be working with is now not receiving that instruction. Not only that, but this sets a precedence that you do not need to follow protocol for requesting time off.

2) Do we know if this resource is responsive to the needs of our students? Yes, it may be cute, but does it contain the instructional components that we have asked to contain. If not, our students will be wasting tremendous time learning in a manner that contradicts or creates gaps in our learning sequence. 

3) What does it say to the student when they can misbehave and simply go to another teacher? Does that teach the child (or adult) anything about building relationships? It tells the student that this teacher has given up on them and they are now passed to another teacher. It has also told the parent that if they do not like one teacher, they will now be granted another. Again, not a precedence you want to set.

As one of my professors once said about all situations that come across your desk, "it's murky". None of these scenarios have a clear cut answer, and "yes" may be the final one, but I encourage school leaders to consider the questions that need to be asked when you come upon the daily inquiries you receive so that we are doing what is best for students.