Synergy 8 Beginnings – Day 1 and Day 2 Recap

As a student for many years, I can remember the general trend of the first day of classes. As a whole, most of my teachers distributed a handout with numerous rules and expectations. We were told what kind of notebook to carry, how to organize it, how much quizzes and tests counted in our averages, what not to do in class, etc.

As a counselor at Camp Sea Gull, we learned that first impressions are powerful. Captain Lloyd used to say that it takes only minutes to form a first impression but days and weeks to change or alter that first impression.


In Synergy, Jill Gough and I wanted to facilitate a careful and thoughtful first impression of what the course would be focused on. Our first class period is only 15 minutes long because of the orientation design of our first days of school. In that quarter hour, we hoped to inspire our 24 teammates – all 8th graders – to know that Synergy was about empowering us to be the change we wish to see in the world. So…we began with Kiran Bir Sethi’s 9 minute TED talk:

In the minutes that remained, we asked the student learners to reflect on why we would begin the course with such a video “act 1.” Several piped up and said, “Because we can do things to make a difference.” “This class is about applying our subjects to making a difference in the world.” “We are just kids, but we can act to change things that we see need changing.”

A successful beginning!


On day 2, we began with the Marshmallow Challenge (see Tom Wujec TED talk). Shortly after the class, we cut this 5 minute video:

The student learners wrote some responses in a mediated journal, and the focus centered on the importance of prototyping and engaging in an iterative process of trial, error, success, improvement, revision, retrial.

Next, we explained that our team would engage in a common practice and habit of observation journaling. To kick off this tool-explanation session, we employed Jonathan Klein’s TED talk:

Students briefly reacted to the power of visual imagery and using images (text, sketch, or picture images) to drum up awareness, reaction, and discussion. This was our jumping off point for beginning the powerful habit of recording our observations in a kind of regular diary about what we see and what causes us to question.

Jill and I then demonstrated a method that we both use to keep our observation journals – a great e-mail based blogging system called Posterous. Jill “postered” an observation journal of me postering” an observation journal:

Finally, before we had to depart, we provided the students with the private access code to our class Schoology site – our primary means of digital communication and archiving for the Synergy community.

From my seat, it was a great beginning with a team of 26 people full of the “I Can” bug…ready to engage the iterative process of prototyping…so that we can take charge and use our images and voices to make a difference in this world. I still don’t know what kind of binder we should use, but that seems relatively insignificant. And we have weeks to overcome that first impression about notebooks and binders!

A World of #PBL Possibilities

I am training myself to see more #PBL possibilities. Through the years, and from reading such works as Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Carol Dweck’s Mindset, I am convinced that being an artist largely involves practicing the acts of looking and seeing. Why would becoming a “PBL-ist” be much different?

Here are a few examples of how I am practicing being a PBL seeker, with resulting ideas for PBL. Oh…that’s project-based learning, problem-based learning, etc.

1. Using TED talks to spur thinking.

Each morning, thanks to an RSS feed, I watch at least one TED talk – it’s delivered to my computer, like a newspaper to a house. Before I even touch that beautiful red “play” arrow, I ask myself, “What is this going to show me that could be related to PBL?” This morning, I watched Geoffrey West’s “The surprising math of cities and corporations,” which I have embedded below. Throughout the talk, I imagined middle schoolers studying our city of Atlanta – understanding its historical growth, its environmental and business challenges, its political scene, etc. In my mind’s new PBL-eye, I could see students collecting the type of data that Geoffrey West describes, and I could see the students Skyping with other students in other cities as they exchanged city data and ideas. I could see them applying science thinking and sociology thinking and economic thinking to some of the issues our city faces.

2. I use my iPhone and iPad to capture pictures that spark inquiry and curiosity in me.

This week, I happened upon this growth in a nearby building. I wondered why this was growing here…what is it…how could we prevent it from growing here again? What a strong possibility for students to integrate science, math, history, and persuasive writing to enact a plan that addresses this unanticipated indoor fungi!

3. I combine #1 and #2 – I think in my mental Rolodex about what I have photographed and what I have seen on TED.

For example, with colleague Mary Cobb, I recently completed the 6th annual hanging of the Junior High School Permanent Art Collection (this is one of my greatest joys each summer!) This year, as we hung student art, we discussed Amit Sood’s TED talk, “Building a museum of museums on the web,” which I have embedded below. Can you imagine the “coolness” of students building such an online gallery of our JHPAC? Then, can you imagine this resource potentially being linked with Amit Sood’s project? The JHPAC could be another virtual gallery alongside the MoMA and the Louvre.

4. I listen to and talk with faculty.

Colleague Danelle Dietrich has become increasingly interested in various capabilities of the TI-Nspire (a graphing calculator and software). On Thursday of last week, she was sharing her excitement as she was thinking about the mathematics of leaf veins. She had some great ideas for importing leaf images and studying the vein-ation of the leaves. We started to brainstorm about the relationships of blood vein-ation to leaf vein-ation. Then, we hypothesized about the relationship of computer networks and communications veins to leaf veins and blood veins. Can you imagine students writing letters and websites to city politicians explaining their study of the communications systems of Atlanta and the need to rethink the vein-ation of our networks around town?

What ideas are you imagining? It all starts with imagination…just like a young child imagining a pretend world. We are only limited by our capacity to realize our imaginations through creative expression. And our capacities can expand – with teamwork, practice, and persistence.

Get your #PBL-lenses on!

Different Ways of Knowing

Almost everyday, I watch a TED talk as part of my daily learning routine. Today, I watched Daniel Tammet’s talk, “Different Ways of Knowing.”

His 10 minute and 54 second talk has me thinking about a number of things, and I share below just a few:

  • Isn’t the work of an educator to explore different ways of knowing? Isn’t our life’s work to examine how all of the learners in our care might perceive and understand a thing?
  • Isn’t the intersection of words, numbers, and pictures interesting?
  • How do we show what we see in our minds? Do we too often ignore the synthesis of things because of the complexity of demonstrating?
  • Literacy today (throughout time) is really about understanding the synthesis of words, numbers, and images, isn’t it? About how to communicate effectively?
  • What was Daniel Temmet’s life like in school? Was he a “problem student?” How can we discard that term, problem student, and strive as educators to honor and connect the ways of knowing in our school community?
  • How can I better use my observation journal to understand the rich and complex world around me?

LOOK! Crackers, an iPhone and FSBL

FSBL – “Father Son Based Learning.” An actual and experimental/metaphorical journey – time with my son and time to examine place-based inquiry learning.

On Friday, April 22, from 10:30 a.m. until about 4:30 p.m., my four-year-old son and I embarked on an Atlanta adventure. I had just come home from reading and writing at a coffee house, after I had dropped my older son at school around 7:40 a.m. JT, or Jbird (he has two nicknames), and I decided on a whim to go get on a MARTA train and see where we ended up. JT loves trains, so trains seemed a good hook to begin the adventure. Getting on a train was the only real decision I made for Jackson.

I took two packages of Captains Waffers and my iPhone and wallet. Those were our supplies. With my iPhone, I would take notes and pictures/videos and post to “Posterous” – an email-based blog system that is as easy as easy can be. I have my Posterous set up to auto-post to Twitter, too, so I get a “two-fer.” On my first post, I failed to include the # symbol, so it will not show up in a Twitter hashtag search. But here is the post that launched the adventure: The other posts can be found on Twitter, using the #FSBL hashtag, or one could simply browse backwards through my 4-22-11 Posterous posts. [There is a link to my Posterous blog on the right column of this It’s About Learning blog – it’s called “Bo’s Links – Bo’s Observation Journal.”]

First and foremost, JT and I had an AMAZING day! We rarely get time for just the two of us, and the time on Friday was magical. We had a blast! But I also got another two-fer…

Secondly, though, I felt I was continuing my investigation of place-based learning possibilities. At Westminster, we enjoy a 180-acre campus. But I am not at all certain that we maximize our use of this incredible resource – our space around us. What if we mildly guided students to explore campus with a package of Captains Waffers and an iPhone-like device? What images and questions might they capture about Nancy Creek or other features of our campus? As teams explored our surrounds and posted to a Posterous observation journal, the other teams could keep track of other explorers via Twitter. What connections might be discovered? Project possibilities might arise from such a day, or even just a period, of exploration. Someone might get interested in the water quality and biology of Nancy Creek. All of a sudden science and writing and history and math might become integrated as field studies led to persuasive letters to Atlanta City Council about cleaning up Nancy Creek – a battle place during the Civil War. Other explorers might use something like the Wild Lab Birds app to chronicle the species of feathered creatures we have on campus. Other teams might examine our use of space in campus planning…”Why did they put that building there?” Such a question might lead to asking to see the master plans for campus which are stored in our Physical Plant and Business Office. Now students could be interacting with other school staff about “city” planning, architecture, and landscaping/environmental issues. Perhaps a team might decide to tap parent resources – people who serve as city planners, architects, etc. Perhaps students might design presentations for improvements and enhancements to their own school or city of Atlanta.

Oh the places we could go! Oh the projects we could explore! Oh the difference we could make! If we would just rethink what it means to be in school. If we would just innovate and leverage the potential of combining our community space with 21st century technologies. Endless learning possibilities. Real learning possibilities.

Wanna go explore? Get a pack of crackers – just in case. And take a 21st century field notebook. Then remember that joyful word that begins many a toddlers vocabulary – “LOOK!”

Beautiful Music

While I have not done any real, substantive research into this etymology, I understand that the term “principal” comes from “principal teacher.” Like a principal violinist or principal trumpet in a symphonic orchestra. I am a principal. I consider myself to be a part of the body of players with instruments. Yet, I am often likened to the conductor or director. Such is why I strongly prefer the title of principal – it reminds me everyday that I am amongst the musicians with instruments in hand. While I see the conductor or director of an orchestra as an accomplished musician, there is something different about standing up front, facing a different direction, and waving a wand rather than a wielding a stringed instrument, a woodwind, or piece of brass. Yes, I am a principal…teacher. A principal…learner. A principal…educator.

Consequently, I feel a visceral reaction rising from within me when I hear things that imply or directly name “us” and “them” thinking. Recently, a colleague of mine sent me a tweet (with no intent to incite, I am certain) that made reference to “admin” and “faculty” participating in something together, and I responded with this…

However, at the same time, I empathetically understand the thinking that “my principal evaluates me, so he/she is not really ‘one of us.'” I will not give up the career objective, though, to “be one of us”…co-teacher, co-learner, co-educator. I want to be in the band with the faculty. I am a (principal) teacher, a (principal) learner, a (principal) educator.

In my efforts to break down this industrial, hierarchical, twentieth-century, mental model of “us” and “them,” I believe that the way principals conduct (ironic, I realize) observations is critical. The shortest, most concise summary of my thinking on this issue comes from Kim Marshall’s extraordinary article, It’s Time to Rethink Teacher Supervision and Evaluation. If you have not read the article, I encourage you to do so. I think it is profoundly powerful. Here’s a hook that I hope grabs you: 

The theory of action behind supervision and evaluation is that they will improve teacherseffectiveness and therefore boost student achievement.1 This assumption seems logical. But the vignettes above raise a troubling question: what if the theory is wrong? This article takes a close look at this possibility and explores an alternative theory of action.

Marshall listed and explained 10 reasons why the traditional model of supervision and evaluation is ineffective:
1. Principals evaluate only a tiny amount of teaching.
2. Microevaluations of individual lessons don’t carry much weight.
3. The lessons that principals evaluate are often atypical.
4. Isolated lessons give an incomplete picture of instruction.
5. Evaluation almost never focuses on student learning.
6. High-stakes evaluation tends to shut down adult learning.
7. Supervision and evaluation reinforce teacher isolation.
8. Evaluation instruments often get in the way.
9. Evaluations often fail to give teachers “judgmental” feedback.
10. Most principals are too busy to do a good job on supervision and evaluation.

As Marshall transitioned from describing the problems and shortcomings to detailing the practices that can actually improve instruction and learning, he wrote:  

Ive argued that the theory of action behind supervision and evaluation is flawed and that the conventional process rarely changes what teachers do in their classrooms. Here is an alternative theory: The engine that drives high student achievement is teacher teams working collaboratively toward common curriculum expectations and using interim assessments to continuously improve teaching and attend to students who are not successful. Richard DuFour, Mike Schmoker, Robert Marzano, Douglas Reeves, Jeffrey Howard, Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and others believe that this approach is a critical element in high achievement. I agree, but with a proviso: if a school adopts this theory, it must change the way teachers are supervised and evaluated. If it doesnt, the principal wont have the time, energy, and insight to get the engine started and monitor it during each school year. 

Then, Marshall provided a set of bullet-points, on page 732 of the Phi Delta Kappan article, that significantly define what I strive to accomplish in my principalship – a philosophy in short order, rather than a checklist. Moreover, he created 12 steps to linking supervision and evaluation to high school achievement:
1. Make sure the basics are in place.
2. Decide on the irreducible elements of good teaching.
3. Systematically visit all classrooms on a regular basis.
4. Give teachers prompt, face-to-face feedback after every classroom visit.
5. Require teacher teams to develop common unit plans and assessments.
6. Require teams to give common interim assessments.
7. Have teams report on student learning after each unit or quarter.
8. Arrange for high-quality feedback on lessons for teachers.
9. Create a professional learning culture in the school.
10. Use short observation visits to write teachers’ final evaluations.
11. Include measures of student learning gains in teachers’ evaluations.
12. Use a rubric to evaluate teachers.

While I do not believe in or adhere to a rigid, all-points adoption of Marshall’s 12 step plan, I have tried to serve in my role as principal teacher by doing the following as overarching goals and action steps:

1. Create a culture of collaboration.

Since the 2007-08 academic year, the Westminster Junior High School has embarked on a journey to provide job-embedded, collaborative teaming for 100% of the faculty. Over this multi-year process, we are currently providing formalized teaming opportunities for 42 of the 74 teaching faculty. I hope to provide such for everyone in the Junior High, but it just takes time. Each year, we try to increase the number, the percentage, and the opportunity. And our model is agressive – a built-in period for teaming that mimics the student schedule for learning. Because student classes meet for 55-minutes a day, 4-days a week, so do the “teacher classes.”

When we only had one formalized PLC, I attended everyday as a co-learner, a co-participant. Now that we have five formalized PLCs in the Junior High, I am unable to attend every meeting, everyday. So, I schedule a minimumof one team meeting per PLC per week. Consequently, I am able to hear the planning and strategizing of the teams. I am able to participate in their discussions of the 4 Big Questions (1. What should students learn?, 2. How will we know if students have learned?, 3. What will we do if students already know it?, and 4. What will we do if students are not learning it?). I wish I could fill my schedule with ALL of the team meetings! Participating with my orchestra is the richest time of my week. These teachers are extraordinary, and I learn more about teaching and learning from these team meetings than from any other professional development in which I facilitate or participate. Collaboration is essential, and it enables me to know what people are thinking and learning. And it allows others to know about what I am thinking and learning. We develop relationships with those with whom we spend time talking. And at its core, teaching and learning are relational. First and foremost – RELATIONAL. Building relationships demands collaboration. An administrator worth his or her salt will work tirelessly to make such collaboration the norm rather than the exception.

2. Create more opportunity for conversations about teaching and learning.

On this front, the Junior High School has undertaken a multi-pronged re-envisioning as part of the developing Faculty Assessment and Annual Review Plan. To increase opportunites to talk about our teaching and learning, we have engaged in peer visits for more than six years now. [There is an interesting story here for another blog post.] Systemically, we have opened our doors in order to break down the isolating nature of teaching in an “egg crate culture.” Peer visits can occur between two faculty members, but we have also provided for instructional rounds, so that teams of teachers can enlist multiple lenses for feedback and discussion about teaching and learning practices. Additionally, we begin each year setting goals and engaging in self-assessment. With these reflections, we talk together about our aspirations and plans to reach them. I always send out my reflections to faculty, and I enjoy conferences with each and every faculty about their reflections. Until this year, all of these conferences occurred with individual faculty members. Now, teams can conference together with me about their team and individual goals. Faculty also collect student-course feedback. A faculty committee designed a process that has guided our programmatic inquiry of students’ perceptions about what and how they are learning. As principal, I use a similar model for my own evaluation, and I always share the results of this annual collection of feedback with the faculty.

Ideally, all of these pieces should work together as a whole system to enhance the conversations we are having about our teaching and learning. And our plan is a formative assessment plan for growth and development more than for purposes of evaluation. If engaged in the spirit with which this system is designed, the Faculty Assessment and Annual Review Plan is meant to work as an ongoing system of practicing and scrimmaging. For such is the universal method of learning and growing.

3. Create an understanding that the administrators are learning, too!

 As learners, don’t we prefer to have things done with us, instead of having things done to us? In the old model of teacher supervision and evaluation that Marshall wrote about, administrators were failing in large part because they were doing supervision and evaluation TO teachers instead of WITH teachers.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was given a rare gift. Two sets of regular weekly meetings were canceled, and I found myself with four hours of windfall-profit time. What did I do with this time? I learned. I tried to practice some of the observational tactics suggested by Marshall, and I tried to get wrapped up even further with being the principal teacher, the principal learner, the principal educator.

From 8:15 a.m. until about 11:30 a.m., I practiced some mini-observations. Here was my process:
1. Take my iPad and my Flip camera and find a classroom. Prioritize classrooms of teachers who sit in formalized PLCs.
2. Spend 10-15 minutes observing in the classroom, take some notes using Quick Office on the iPad, and record a 30-90 second video.
3. Go to the next classroom.
4. After three mini-observations, use Box to transfer iPad notes to the “cloud” so I could pick them up from my office PC. Return to my office for a “download” and sharing of feedback. Copy and paste my notes into an email, transfer the video to my PC, and attach the video to the email. Send the three emails to the individual teachers and copy the department chair and the dean of faculty.
5. Start the next round of three mini-observations.

During the morning, I observed 11 teachers in 10 classes. More than anything, I practiced a new method of observation that I think complements Marshall’s article and our developing Junior High culture better than my previous methodology. When the morning concluded, I had provided immediate feedback to 11 teachers…teachers with whom I regularly sit in team meetings. There was past context and collaboration for the observations. They were part of the system. Also, I had a master document of all the observation notes, and I produced a Camtasia video of all the observations together.

I sent the following request to the observed teachers:

Dear All:
THANK YOU! This morning I was able to visit 10 classes and 11 faculty in three class periods. I appreciate you letting me come in quietly and stay for about 10-15 minutes. You had no idea I was coming, and I used a Flip video camera without prior explanation, and you seemed nonplused. By now, you should have received my brief notes and any video I shot in your room (BC and AG are exceptions because of our decision for me to return later when the sun would cooperate).
I want to make sure that you know these types of visits are NON-EVALUATIVE. They are as much about my learning as anything, as we continue to develop our Faculty Assessment Plan, which is intended to be formative assessment. I try to offer observations, not judgements, as I attempt to provide another set of eyes and ears for you so that YOU can reflect on your practice with more data and feedback. I welcome any questions/feedback from you about the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of the notes and the video.
NOW THE REQUEST: I hope you will consider letting me share the observation video, at the least. I have compiled the smaller videos into an unedited, complete video of my morning. Also, I hope you will consider an additional request of allowing me to share the observation notes as a one-document transcript. Of course, from the earlier emails, you know I have shared already with [the Dean of Faculty] and your Dept Chair. However, I would like to share the video, and perhaps the notes, with the full ALT (Academic Leadership Team) and FAAR (Faculty Assessment and Annual Review task force). We have studied Kim Marshall’s article about rethinking classroom observation (attached if you get interested), and I am trying to learn more about how this type of observation practice could work. I read a lot about various observation methods, and I think we can learn so much from each other by sharing our practices and ideas.
Also, I would like to blog about the morning, but I would not use your real names in any post that I blog.
So, can you let me know:
* Bo can/cannot use my video.
* Bo can/cannot use my portion of the observation-notes transcript.
* Bo can blog about his learning from the morning.
Feel free to talk with others from this group, and take your time (a few days) if you want to think about it. I really appreciate your time and consideration!
Everyone gave me full permission for my requests. THANK YOU! I think we principal teachers can learn so much by sharing our own practices and being more transparent with each other, and particularly with our faculties – the rest of our orchestras. Here’s the resulting video from my morning:


Two things I wish I had done differently:
1. Use some PLC meeting time to have teacher teams establish what they would like for me to concentrate on during my visits – ask the teachers to own the process by giving me my “marching orders.”
2. Set a debrief meeting in which all of the teachers and I watched the collective video together to look for “whole-morning” trends that become apparent when we see all of the sections as one video voyeuristic.

My learning was further enhanced when I read this article, My Students Help Assess My Teaching. Threads of the same tapestry seemed to come together. Can we eventually use the excellent “look fors” in the article as a way to study such mini-observations together? There is real possibility here, I believe.

If you have read this far, bless you. This post is concluding in a place that I did not anticipate when I started. Probably, I would be better off to press “Save Draft” and to return later to polish the writing as a coherent, cohesive whole. But I am ready to push “Publish.” Writing is thinking, and I am ready to think out loud so that, hopefully, others will think with me. I hope that my own faculty might read this “thinking out loud post” and offer comment. I hope that other teachers and principal teachers will survive the 2600+ words and offer comment. For I am a principal teacher, a principal learner, a principal educator. And I don’t have all the answers. But I am interested in playing with my orchestra of fellow teachers, learners, and educators.

Together, we can make
beautiful music.