Sunday, November 19, 2017

School of Dreams

As many people know I am originally from the Northeastern part of the United States.  I was born and raised in New Jersey, where I also became a teacher and eventually a principal.  After meeting my wife in 2002, I moved to Staten Island, NY and resided there for thirteen years. To be honest, I never thought I would leave that area of the country as my wife, and I had such strong roots there. Things change, however.  The successful digital transformation at the school where I was principal attracted a great deal of attention from the mainstream media, schools locally and globally, and organizations, in part because we were able to show efficacy in our work.  It was at this time that I decided to take a calculated risk and attempt to help other schools scale their digital and innovative change efforts.

As I transitioned from principal to Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) my work began to take me all over the country and the world.  I vividly remember the day when I was away working in Hawaii, and Staten Island got dumped with over a foot of snow.  Shortly after I returned home, my wife sat me down and gave me an ultimatum.  I either had to go back to being a principal so I could be home to shovel any and all snow in the future or we had to move somewhere else in the county where it was warm and didn’t snow at all.  My wife knew full well how much I love the work that I do so out came a map of the United States and the discussions as to where we would raise our family for the foreseeable future began.

During our discussions, I had to set my non-negotiables.  She wanted warmth and no snow while I needed a huge airport that was centrally located to cut my flight times and connections down.  There were only two realistic choices at this point, Dallas and Houston. Since Houston was a bit further south and we could get the exact home we wanted the decision was made.  One other factor that weighed heavily in our decision-making process was the school district that our children would attend.  The icing on the cake for me was that when it was all said and done taking into account our non-negotiables, we decided to build our home within the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District (CFISD). 

CFISD is an amazing school district that is not only one of the highest achieving large districts in the state of Texas, but also firmly committed to scaling innovative practices to improve learning for all 120,000 students. For the past year and a half, my team and I at ICLE have been assisting the district with doing Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) K-12, incorporating blended learning, and aligning sound pedagogy to the use of flex spaces.  We have also used our Digital Practice Assessment (DPA) process to help them determine where they are at, but more importantly where they want to be for their learners. Now back to my story.

Shortly after arriving in the Houston area I was contacted by Cheryl Fisher, a local CFISD elementary principal.  She had been following me on Twitter and asked if I would be willing to visit her school and see how they were implementing blended learning across all grade levels.  What I saw just warmed my heart, but more on this later.  A little over a year later Cheryl was named the principal of Wells Elementary, a brand-new school right smack in the middle of the community where I lived.  I couldn’t control my excitement, but there was a challenge ahead in the form of my daughter, Isabella.



Bella, who was in 4th grade at the time, had a big decision to make. Stay in the other community school where she had made friends for two years or go to a brand-new school for her last year of elementary school. To be honest, she was leaning on staying put. I discussed this with Cheryl, and she said quite bluntly, “If your daughter decides to come to Wells she will love learning every day.” Well, I was already hooked, but Cheryl also made the time to meet with Bella and explain in detail the vision she had for the learning culture at Wells.  What followed was the waiting in anticipation of what Bella would decide to do. 

Well, my daughter, on her own without much pressure from my wife and I, decided to attend Wells Elementary. Every day I ask her how school was and literally tear up when she responds as the answer is always the same – “It was great Daddy.” My daughter is entirely in love with the school. As an educator and parent, this means so much more to me than her consistently being advanced proficient every year on all standardized tests.  Wells Elementary to me is a school of dreams because my daughter loves learning.  Here are some specifics as to why:
  • School-wide decision to have no homework.
  • Students K-5 are empowered to use their technology to support their education as part of BYOT. In addition to this, technology is used to support and enhance learning while providing authentic opportunities to explore concepts.
  • Strategic use of the station rotation blended learning model to maximize learning time and increase student agency.
  • Incorporation of flexible learning spaces throughout the building.
  • Portfolio-based assessment using Seesaw and Google Classroom to provide better feedback to students.
  • An entire staff that believes in the power of being connected and the importance of having a Personal Learning Network (PLN).
  • Systemic use of a variety of social media tools to communicate with stakeholders and keep them in the know.
I encourage you to check out this video where Cheryl and one of her teachers discuss the digital transformation at Wells Elementary.



It is important to know I am not just making the casual statements about using only my parent lens.  I am honored by the fact that I am the one who is engaged with Wells as part of ICLE’s partnership with CFISD to support the district with our Digital Leadership and Learning solutions.  As the job-embedded coach for the school, I have been working with the teachers and administrators and will continue to do so throughout the school year.  Even though there are some fantastic initiatives in place as mentioned above, the Wells community knows that there is room for improvement.  This is the case in any classroom, school, or district. Together we are working on the pedagogical shifts needed to support their bold vision and plan for innovative learning.  

All in all, this is a school of dreams in my opinion.  The fact that my daughter loves learning and is being prepared for her future means the world to my wife and me.  Thank you to all the educators at Wells and CFISD who are have brought so much joy to my daughter. With the compelling learning opportunities she is experiencing, I hope that she will be further motivated to follow her dreams, no matter what they are. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Pulse of a Learning Culture

What makes a great and successful learning culture?  If you were to ask the majority of stakeholders, they would typically say that a school or district that has high levels of achievement in the form of standardized test scores represents success.  Many parents will choose to move to an area and raise their kids there for this reason alone.  All one has to do is look at all the hoopla surrounding national and state rankings to see that this indeed is the case.  Parents and community members observe these scores as they have the power to positively or negatively impact real estate values.  No matter where your school or district lands in these rankings, there are always disgruntled people, unless you are number one.

Achievement is often viewed as the single most important outcome of a thriving learning culture that is preparing students for the demands of their next stage in life, whether it is grade level promotion or moving onward to college or a career.  However, those of us who work in education know that this is the furthest thing from the truth.  The playing field is not equal in many parts of the world.  Privilege is bestowed upon many by the zip code they live in or whether or not a privately funded education can be afforded.  Thus, in many cases achievement is directly tied to income. Even so, it can still be debated whether this equates to a thriving and prosperous learning culture. 


Image credit: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/10-reasons-why-learning-culture-crucial-your-jonathan-wood/

It doesn’t matter how successful the adults think a learning culture is. Quite frankly, it’s not about us.  Educators don’t work for administrators, central office, superintendents, heads of school, boards of education, or parents.  We work for kids!  Thus, the best way to get an accurate pulse of a particular learning culture is to engage students as to what they think about the educational experience they receive in school and then see how this compares with traditional metrics such as achievement and other forms of data.  I am not saying achievement doesn’t matter.  What I am saying is that the experiences that shape our learners and help them discover their true potential matter more.  Some of the best learning that any of us ever experienced wasn’t given a mark, score, or grade.  It was our ability to work through cognitive struggle, construct new knowledge, and authentically apply what we learned creatively that helped us develop a genuine appreciation for learning.

The bottom line is we need to cultivate competent learners in the digital age while putting them in a position to see the value of their education.  Engaging the number one stakeholder group – our students – in critical conversations about the education they are receiving provides us with an accurate pulse of a learning culture.  Just because a student achieves doesn’t automatically infer that he or she appreciates or values the educational experience or will be able to use what has been learned authentically.  With all this being said three guiding questions can be asked of students to determine where your learning culture is:

  • Why are you learning what you are learning?
  • How will you use what you are learning?
  • What is missing from your learning experience?

It is vital to continually put a critical lens to our work and look beyond what the majority of stakeholders see as the leading indicator for district or school success.  Powerful qualities such as leadership, empathy, integrity, resilience, humility, creativity, and persistence can’t be measured per se, but are so crucial to future success.  A thriving learning culture blends these elements to not only support the achievement of all learners but also to prepare them for their future.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Clean Slate

All kids have greatness hidden inside them. It is the job of an educator to help them find and unleash it. To make this goal a reality, we must change our thinking and believe in our abilities to improve learning for all kids.  It’s interesting that many of us are ready to embrace and celebrate the ideas of others openly, but we don’t necessarily believe in the ones that we either think of or develop on our own.  The best ideas in education come from practitioners in the trenches. It is these people after all who implement innovative practices and ultimately find success.  The challenge though is to begin believing in what you have to offer and not worry about what others think. 


Image credit: michaelwoodfitness.com

This is where mindset comes into play. The hallmarks of a growth mindset include embracing challenges, persisting in the face of setbacks, seeing the effort as a path to mastery, learning from criticism, and finding lessons and inspiration in the success of others.  A mindset shift is the first step, but then we have to act. Change begins with all of us.  We must change ourselves first before we can expect others to follow suit.  

Recently I have been refining my latest keynote presentation on cultivating a transformational mindset amongst both learners and educators.  The six essential elements that comprise this mindset shift include competency-based, entrepreneurial, maker, empathetic, efficacy, and storyteller. Preparing students for the new world of work require us all to embrace a bold new vision and strategy for transforming learning today.  This might seem scary to some. Others might find it daunting or even unachievable considering the obstacles that lie ahead. It is natural to feel this way, but in the end, we have to think about the needs of those we serve – our students.

For some context, I encourage you to watch this short, yet powerful video.  It is all about the decisions and changes we don’t make that after time passes we come to regret.  If we shift our initial approach to a challenge or impending decision through a different process, we can overcome the potential roadblock that our mind manifests. A transformational mindset focuses on the “what ifs” as opposed to the “yeah buts” and shuts the door on potential regrets.



Changing outcomes begins with changing your mindset. Every day is a clean slate. Do the things you will regret not doing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Measuring Impact with the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA)

Note: This post is directly related to my work at the International Center for Leadership in Education

Efficacy has been on my mind a great deal as of late, and as a result, it has been reflected in my writing.  When I think back to the successful digital transformation and implementation of innovative practices at my former school when I was a principal the key driver for us was the ability to show, not just talk about, evidence of improvement.  By combining both quantitative and qualitative measures, we were able to articulate the why, how, and what, as well as the detailed process that went into each respective change effort.  The “secret sauce” in all of this was the strategic use of digital tools to proactively share the details of our efforts and resulting impact.  


Image credit: http://www.assafh.org/

During my tenure as a principal, I was always in search of tools and processes to help measure the impact of the changes we were implementing.  Unfortunately, nothing existed.  As I work with schools and districts on a weekly basis, I am often asked how they can determine the impact and effectiveness of the many innovative initiatives they have in place. Practices such as BYOD, 1:1, blended learning, personalized learning, classroom and school redesign, branding, makerspaces, professional learning, etc.  This need served as a call to action of sorts and catalyzed my current work.  As Senior Fellow with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), I have worked with a fantastic team to develop services and tools to help districts, schools, and organizations across the world transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  One of these tools is the Digital Practice Assessment (DPA). 

The DPA creates the context for our work with leaders and teachers, providing authentic baseline data to support personalized professional learning. It begins by examining the strategies in place at each school or district that support student learning with technology in the areas of rigor, relevance, relationships, engagement, and overall culture. The process then moves to understanding the current leadership practices in place to successfully implement technology and innovative practices, aligned to the 7 Pillars of Digital Leadership & Learning (Student Learning, Learning Spaces & Environment, Professional Growth, Communication, Public Relations, Branding, and Opportunity). 


Through this proven model, our consultants can help schools and districts identify opportunities to begin their transformation or take their digital and innovation goals to the next level, leveraging the knowledge, experience, and practice of ICLE’s thought leadership. The DPA process consists of a combination of a self-reflection questionnaire rubric, on-site observations, and online inventories comprised of data and evidence collection. We then leverage evidence-based rubrics to observe leadership and instructional practices while collecting artifacts to provide evidence of effective digital learning and innovative professional practice. Once collected and analyzed, a detailed summary report outlining areas of success, focus opportunities, and recommended next steps will guide the professional learning partnership with ICLE, supporting the development of a strategic professional learning and implementation plan. 

Below is a summary of the DPA process:

Step 1: The Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire is completed by the district or school. This 18 question rubric asks school leaders to reflect on their perceptions for where their school falls on a continuum from not yet started to well developed. During this reflective process, it is expected that school leadership teams collect and document aligned evidence for each item.  This information is completed and archived in the Professional Learning Portal (PLP), a free digital platform developed by ICLE to support schools in data collection,  reflection and goal setting, to grow and improve. The baseline evidence shared is in the context of digital leadership and learning (including examples of data, lesson plans, unit plans, student work, PLC minutes, rigorous digital performance tasks, walk-through forms, assessments, sample observations/evaluations, portfolios, PD plans, social media accounts, pictures, videos, press releases, media coverage, partnerships, etc). 

Step 2: On-site observations and interviews are conducted by consultants to validate perceptions and evidence collected for the seven Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire, as well as targeted classroom observations of student learning, aligned to rigor, relevance and engagement. Additional data is collected and archived in the PLP during classroom observations. The idea is to engage school leaders in dialogue about their culture, student learning and digital integration, no matter where they are with their digital transformation. 

Step 3: The data and evidence are tightly aligned to ICLE’s research-based rubrics to provide a detailed view of where a district or school is with their digital transformation.The data and artifacts are analyzed, leading to a summary report that details the current state of practice at each school or in the district. 

Step 4: The DPA report is shared and discussed with the school leadership team. In partnership with ICLE, observations about the evidence collected are shared and discussed. During the strategic planning process, discussions focus on areas of strength and improvements to develop a tailored and personalized implementation plan.

Step 5: On-going professional learning is implemented and progress monitoring through the online Pillars of Digital Leadership Questionnaire is documented to determine the efficacy of the digital transformation.

The DPA process has been created to support districts and schools looking for ways to measure and articulate the impact of technology and innovation on practice.  While data is valuable, it moves beyond this as the only metric for success by actually taking a lens to an array of strategies and practices that combine to create a thriving learning culture.  

The DPA doesn’t just look at technology and innovation. It also provides insight on all elements of school culture and student learning.  In addition to being informed by a broad body of research and driven by evidence, the DPA process is also aligned to the following:


We don’t know where we are and how effective change is until steps are taken to look critically at practice. We hope that through the DPA process we can help you develop, refine, measure, and then share amazing examples that illustrate how efficacy has been attained.  

If you are looking for a method of determining where you are and where you want your district or school to be in the digital age, please contact Matt Thouin at ICLE (MThouin@leadered.com).  He can arrange for an interactive and detailed look at the DPA rubrics and process as well as the PLP platform from the convenience of your home or office.  We look forward to supporting you on your journey toward systemwide digital transformation. If you have any questions for me, please leave them in the comments below.

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