One of my favorite routines during the day is greeting our students (and parents) as they arrive in the morning. Seeing the smiling student faces as they hop off the bus or enter into the school campus is always pretty uplifting, and a high-five is a great way to start the day. While I have a long way to go before I can match my singing and dancing Arkansas colleague Gary Logan (goo.gl/9eIfeV), I am not ruling out the possibility of giving it a go someday.
Being visible in the morning is one of the most effective techniques I have found in building meaningful relationships with students and parents. From first eye contact, I can tell exactly what that student might need. For most, it's that simple high-five or a greeting, but for others a "good morning" is an invitation to tell a whole story of the events of the previous evening or weekend. Some of the very best stories come from birthday parties, athletic events, music performances, family vacations, play dates, and of course, visits from grandma and grandpa. I am thankful that I get to hear about a lot of these special moments.
I believe that seeing the principal out front of the school every morning allows the students a predictable time where they know they will be able to find me at least once throughout the day. And while the principal can never match the same relationship that student has with their teacher, sometimes it's the presence of another caring adult at school that can make an impact.
These interactions have another benefit: the building of social capital. Positive interaction after positive interaction set the stage for the "withdrawal" that sometimes needs to happen when students make bad decisions. Students know that a mistake is just that, and that the care the adults in the building have is unconditional. I feel that my students also feel that level of trust even though the next morning interaction might include a "hey, let's make some good choices today" or "I'm going to be checking in with you later on".
My hope is that these quick social interactions set the tone for a safe and caring school, and that our students know they are welcome and valued each and every day. I wouldn't be completing the picture if I didn't mention those days when students arrive at the school angry, upset, crying, tired or hungry. These days happen, and when they do I am glad that I am there to welcome these students.
I appreciate our students for getting my day off to a great start, and I hope I can do just a bit to return that favour. Who knows, maybe one morning I will bring out the karaoke mic and belt out some of my favorite tunes. I do know all Frozen songs by heart.
"Who's watching that kid in the red shirt? Where are his parents?"
I can vividly remember the day I ran into Red Shirt Kid. It was one of those wonderful summer days where we packed up the young family and headed to Calaway Park. As kids are apt to do once you've gone and paid a lofty price to enter the park, they headed right for the free, non-mechanical, nothing special, Freddie the Fireboat playground area. I wasn't too worried about it at the time though because the sun was shining, I already had my popcorn, and the rest of the day was bound to be great. The playground was a bit different in that it was a kids-only play area. No parents were allowed, or could even get inside the structure. My wife and I bid our then 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter farewell and took our seats on the observational rock seating waiting for them to come out.
My son was gone, but my daughter would make her way into our audio-visual range to wave and get our attention with a "Mommy, did you see me..." or "Daddy, watch me...". We smiled and continued our adult conversation. Everyone was happy. That was, until Red Shirt Kid showed up.
Red Shirt Kid made his first appearance as he bumped my daughter as she was waving to us. He was big - larger than most kids at the playground, but what made him stand out even more so was his pace. That kid was moving! And there was no obligatory "excuse me" as he cut his path. This kid was on a mission. Captain's steering wheel? Look out kid, I'm the captain now. Cargo net climb? Move it kid or I'm going over top of you. Red shirt kid was taking no prisoners, and he had some of us parents making eye contact with each other and proverbially rolling our eyes. Then, Red Shirt Kid made his big mistake. He knocked my baby girl to the ground and made her cry.
I sprang to my daughter's side. A hug, a couple kisses and a reminder of the ice cream I had promised seemed to do the trick. After a minute or two she was clambering to get back into the playground to be with her brother and new-found friends. I, on the other hand, was going to make sure Red Shirt Kid got a message from me.
Now, as a teacher, I was pretty sure my interaction was going to be pretty grounded, soft and casual, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't running a bit hot. As I made my way toward the entrance of the playground I scripted out my words to Red Shirt Kid carefully. I scanned the crowd wondering if I could spot his parents. Then I waited for him to zoom by the entrance so I could grab a quick word. As expected, I could hear him before I could see him. I knew he was coming. I calmed myself and prepared to launch in, but I never did say anything. Before I could open my mouth, I quickly read the words on the front of that red shirt. They read "Be Patient With Me, I Have Autism".
I can't really explain fully what the next hour or so was like, but I think you can see that by talking about this all those years later that it had a very profound impact on me.. I can say directly in moment that my mood switched from irritation to compassion. I talked to my wife (also a teacher) about how awesome that shirt was and how proactive his parents had been for putting it on that day. While she's always interested to talk about these types of things with me, I am sure that the next hour was probably exhausting for her because I don't remember stopping my running commentary on it. Some of the things I thought about then and since included:
I didn't notice Red Shirt Kid doing anything too offside on the playground after that moment. I wonder now if it's because he slowed down a bit, or because my own way of thinking changed. I didn't say anything to him, and I didn't make out his parents either. What I did end up leaving the park with that day was a tired, happy family, and an awareness that every kid we meet has something special and unique about them and it's our job as professionals to find out what it is. Believe me, they don't all wear helpful t-shirts.
As I began my teaching career, I became very close, very fast with my colleagues. As a single guy living on my own away from my own family in Ontario, my work friends became my family. We laughed and cried and shared moments beyond teaching. We cared for each other.
I can distinctly remember a conversation with my team teaching parter who was somewhat terrified to inform our principal that she was serioulsy ill and was going to be needing to take some time off work. The tears were visible - the outward expression of fear and the unknown. Sadly, the illness was very closely related to stress, and according to her, the biggest stressor was how she was going to tell the principal. I was somewhat surprised, because I thought it was a pretty easy thing to do. "Just tell her", I can remember saying. "I know, I know" she said behind the tears as we walked together down to the office where she would initiate the conversation.
Over the past few years I have found myself on the other side of that conversation. Now I'm the one that the staff have to come to. Each time one of my colleagues comes to my office door and greets me with "do you have a minute to talk?", or I receive an email saying "can I meet with you?" I recognize that my role shifts a tiny bit, moving from the principal, to that of caring colleague.
The pending conversations can be followed by unwelcome news, usually dealing with health concerns, involving themselves, their children, their spouse, or their parents and extended family. There is often, as with my team partner all those years ago, tears and sadness. There is also another feeling I have had trouble explaining.
Not all conversations are sad. Some are joyful - "I just wanted to let you know that my husband / my wife and I are expecting a baby". Some are exciting - "My spouse won a trip and I am going to need to take a week off work". And some shockingly wonderful - "I am thinking about a career change and am going to go back to school to pursue a law degree". Despite the nature of the conversation there does seem, from my end at least, that a conversation with the "boss" can be a real defining moment at that particular stage of the process.
Not too long ago, I experienced that range of emotion myself. I had to inform my own boss that I would be needing to take some time to return home to Thunder Bay to be with my ailing father. It was the closest I have come to explaining that feeling I have had trouble with. For me, it was relief. I guess it meant that I was able to step away from my job to deal with something more important. My boss was nothing but helpful and it meant the world to me at that time. Even though I knew she would be supportive, there was something about just telling her that made me feel better. It was kind of like getting permission to deal with what needed to be dealt with.
I realize, and humbly accept the responsibility I have in my role as principal to be able to listen to, support, comfort and celebrate with my staff during these moments in their lives. I know and care for my staff. In that way, we are family. We're here for each other, and we're here in our best times and worst. My hope is, that as a caring colleague my staff never have to experience the stress of telling me what they need to say.
I was in the classroom when my team partner came back after her meeting with the principal all those years ago. She was still crying, but she was laughing too in that wild way we do when we're overwhelmed with grief, joy and relief. "What did she say?", I asked. "She gave me a big hug and told me it was going to be ok." Of course it was, because making things better is what a family does.
The Mighty Thor #274 (published in 1978) became my gateway to a new childhood love - comics. I don't remember precisely how this gem came to me, but I think my mom and grandma snagged a whole bunch of comics at a garage sale one day to bring out to our summer camp on Lake Superior. For a curious and busy little guy like I was, I was sure it was in hope that I could sit and chill for a while, especially in the mornings when they were trying to sleep, or in the evenings when they were wishing I might fall asleep.
This issue sat at the back of the pack for a long time. I preferred Archie and other kid-friendly favorites like Garfield and Family Circus. But the artwork and captions ("Balder the Brave is DEAD") on the front cover always had my attention. Each summer I would return to camp to devour the same comics again and again, but it wasn't until a few summers after it's original discovery that I was finally ready for The Mighty Thor.
A funny thing happens when you pick up a comic series 274 issues into the series, and your brain has to work extra hard to try and figure out what the heck is going on. It was easy to figure out who Thor was, but if you take a look at the cover there were dozens of characters, an alternate universe, a rainbow bridge, and of course all of the connections to Norse mythology. I was hooked.
Day after day, I re-read that same comic. Where there was information I didn't have, or more likely, things I didn't yet quite understand due to my age, I simply made it up. While I wasn't really an artist, I learned to draw Thor. I figured out that if I held the comic up to the window I could trace very well. I spent hours and hours making my own comics.
Outside, on the beach, and in the waters and woods surrounding my camp, I became Thor. I had a red beach towel as my cape, held tight by a clothespin from the line (my grandma used to get so mad because I used so many pins). I had to work extra hard just to be able to first pick up, and then run around with the old sledgehammer my great grandpa kept in the tool shed next to the outhouse. Knowing how heavy sledgehammers are now, I can't believe my skinny little 9-year old self could have even moved it. Maybe I WAS Thor. I organized all my friends to play superhero games. As I think about it now I wonder how all our camp neighbors felt watching the horde of kids running around with beach towels flowing behind them and that one kid carrying a sledgehammer. The visual is hilarious to me now.
Back in town for the fall, winter and spring, I found myself seeking out new comics. I naturally gravitated to the Avengers (as Thor was a key member), and then graduated to more complex titles. While I would never really become a hardcore collector, I certainly had a passion for comics. They were my go-to literature of choice. As I became a bit older, and into my teens, I started to read more books, but I always made time for some comics. At night I would read some of whatever book I was reading, and my "treat" for reading a chapter or two was always that I could fall asleep to reading a comic. Of course, the attention to comics faded over time, until they were all just another childhood memory, stored in a box in my mom's basement.
As I became a teacher, I always rallied against what I perceived to be a professional aversion to comics in the classroom. Teaching grade five and six students suddenly created a new opportunity for the box of comics in the basement. To my surprise, many of my students could have cared less about the comic box I was so eager to share. There were however, a few students who took to them and I bet you could guess who those students were - yep, my struggling readers. While they had some trouble engaging with the text (you would be very much surprised by the vocabulary of comic books), they could engage with the artwork. And, I think it was because they had a teacher who supported their new love, they didn't feel singled out or different. Those students then started to share their favorite comics with their friends and before long I had more and more comic book fans in the classroom. Kids started to bring their own, and parents would bring in their collections or finds from garage sales. The words and vocabulary the students used in class was beginning to connect to similar encounters in their comics ("Hey, I think I saw that same thing in X-Men #whatever"). The students asked to stay in at recess to draw, and thanks to the miracle of Comic Life, they could begin to create their own comics too. And to come full-circle, those struggling readers, supported through additional daily interventions, became readers.
While I know comic books did not turn these students into readers, I think I can better relate to what the conversation about Joyful Literacy is all about. I was Thor, but it was so much more: I read the comic, I drew the pictures, I wrote the captions, I became the character, I improvised character lines, I collaborated with friends, I connected to deeper learning, and I came back for more. Looking back, the most interesting part of all was that I was totally oblivious to the fact my love was even literacy. It was pure joy.
This past Friday, thanks to the help of my wonderful Assistant Principal, Poppy Johnson (@poppyjohnsonedu) I got to relive my childhood love. For one more day, I became Thor. Mjolnir will now forever reside in my office reminding me of the importance of a joyful youth, and the literacy connections made over many summers on the shores of Lake Superior.
This week, our school had the privilege of working alongisde the Curriculum and Pathways team. During this time our students worked through the Design Thinking process. This flexible 5-step process leads students through Discovery (Empathy), Interpretation (Define), Ideation, Experimentation (Prototype) and Evolution (Test).
As I get a bit older, I find my faint memories of my elementary school experience fading further and further away. One of the moments I do remember quite distinctly was during a grade 2 math class in which I just couldn't seem to get my head around subtraction. The worksheet featured a bunch of quick math facts asking to subtract 1, 2 and 3 from two digit numbers less than 20. My teacher, would circulate the class with the classic red pencil and put checkmarks on the correct ones, and a big old X beside the incorrect ones. My page featured a bunch of Xs. I felt dejected, and I did was most 7-year olds would do when frustrated, I cried. I remember my worksheet becoming riddled with my own tears, causing the red pencil to run, making me even more upset. What happened next was equally memorable, a classmate sitting in front of me named Jan, turned around and showed me how to do it. I think she showed me how to use my ruler to figure them out. That simple trick helped me out, and I got the sheet done. I was the last in the class to finish, and I remember that equally well because I was eager to get out for recess.
My High School experiences with math class fluctuated between "a-ha moments" and similar frustrations. What I do remember about those classes were thick textbooks, a lot of homework, and a series of "Charlie Brown teachers" talking really fast, and really knowledgeably about new learning that seemed hard to grasp. What I ended up taking away with from my math classes was that I "just wasn't a math person". It wasn't until I started working with students in my 20s that I re-discorvered mathematics, and how beautiful it could be. Suddenly, I was being asked to teach math, but I was armed with teaching strategies. I had master teachers, and colleagues who helped me learn how to teach children to understand basic, intermediate and complex concepts. And you know what the result was? I discovered I was indeed a "math person". The concepts that had proven difficult in my youth suddenly made sense. I became a confident teacher, but more directly I started to implement math more instinctively in my day-to-day life. Mental math and estimation were automatic.
This week, I saw a great Tweet from one of my teachers, which featured a quote from a student:
"Today I realized I'm actually really good at math! Was never confident to share my math with others but now I am for sure!"
I don't know what it was about that moment, but I found all those aforementioned experiences came flooding back. I pictured myself as that student, and realized how amazing it would have been if I had experienced that feeling in elementary school. I wonder if my educational experiences would have changed, or if my paths, course selections, and interests may have led me elsewhere.
I came across a great article a while back entitled "Why We're Bad at Math: It's a Confidence Thing" (http://educationpost.org/why-were-bad-at-math-its-a-confidence-thing) and I realized that this is a very common theme. As a school administrator I have encountered many colleagues, parents, and other professionals who have all told me stories similar to the ones I have shared. Adults seem to have no problem whatsoever in sharing their proficiency (less so) or deficit (more so) as a math learner. I hear the same refrain over and over: "I'm just not a math person" which is almost always followed up with a story full of rich and vivid memories.
Listening to, and learning from afar from Dr. Gina Cherkowski (@gcherkowski) has helped me to understand what an important job we have in ensuring success for our students in mathematics. Her work with STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) has illustrated that helping establish the right attitudes for students, and ensuring they are engaged is essential to the learning process. She illustrates her work through studies and research that show how vital a strong mathematics foundation is for jobs and careers that will be available to our students.
I realize we, as teachers and parents, have to be better at shaping the right attitudes toward proficiency in mathematics, and it starts with adding one word to "I'm not a math person", and that word is "yet". Creating a healthy growth mindset for mathematics learning is key to success for our students and children. Some simple steps to assisting in this include:
1) actively listen to your student / child as they talk about their math learning experiences
2) teachers must personalize instruction through formative assessment and a specific plan
3) at indication of struggle, seek to show things in a different way - there are many ways to discover math other than "how we learned it in school". Khan Academy videos are a great example of a useful support (https://www.khanacademy.org)
4) recognize that "getting it" might not happen right away, and that's ok
5) accept that practice, repetition, application, extension, and connection are all parts of the math process, and that learning math is more that a checkmark or an x on a page
As educators, we aggressively teach and support our non-readers. We would never accept a student saying something like "I'm just not a reader". I think we need to have the same attitude toward teaching students needing a boost in math. It's important that we always respond directly to our students / children when they say "I'm just not a math person". Simply state, "You mean you're just not a math person, yet."
ps. picture at the top is from Good Will Hunting, one of my fave movies that always made me wish I was a math genius
"How do you do the claw part again?"
- overheard at a staff practice session for Thriller
This past week I got to participate in my first staff staff lip sync performance. The event takes place in this early stage of the school year in conjunction with our fundraising initiatives for our Terry Fox Run, and has become a fun and anticipated part of the calendar. But as mentioned, this was my first one.
Our school is not unique in our choreographed showcase for students. In fact, I was very impressed by the Salisbury High Staff Grad video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=KATD9DpGdkg) among several others making the rounds on social media. After every one I always say "That's awesome! We should do that!", and I am sure all of you do too.
It was amazing how quickly it all came together. Here's the honest part, about a week away from the event we were still conceptualizing what songs people were going to do, and we weren't even practicing yet. Then came the Monday before the Thursday performance, and the call went out announcing practice at 3:10pm. Soon, the gym was full, and everyone was getting into MJ mode.
Thirller is not an easy dance to replicate. Thankfully, we have some really talented staff members who took their own time to learn and master the dance, making it easy for the eager others to join in and follow. After three practices, we "had it", and were ready for the assembly on Thursday. The dance was preceded by a few amazing numbers (Shake it Off, Safety Dance, Life of the Party, Pen-Pineapple-Apple Pen, and Lose Yourself) before the ensemble cast of teachers took the stage for Thriller.
The message behind this post is pretty simple, sometimes you just got to put it out there. We talk about the need for our students to be collaborative, creative, risk-takers. Well, I can tell you that agreeing to get up in front of the school and strut your stuff to the complexities of Thriller embody all of that. More importantly, we as a staff created a collective experience with which we could share some good times and a few laughs. It was a collective effort and a lot of fun. So, if you're like me and you see one of those great staff videos and you wonder if you can do it too. Well, just shut up and dance.
If you're able to check out our Thriller, try www.facebook.com/daniel.polsky/videos/10101906038919731/
Finally, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I am thankful that you take your time to check in with my blog, and for the inspiration you bring to myself and our profession.
“Every child you pass in the hall has a story that needs to be heard. Maybe you were the one meant to hear it.”
I came across this inspirational quote on Twitter some time ago, and I can honestly say that it has stuck with me every day since. I won’t say that it totally changed my practice, as I feel that I’ve always been the kind of principal that would make time for students, but serves me as friendly reminder. Once you’re really tuned in to it you will be surprised how many times you hear “Can I tell you something?” from your students.
I had the pleasure of walking into the building the other morning with our kindergarten students. If you haven’t experienced this before, I liken it to one of those feel-good videos of puppies in a ball pit (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gaiw2hk3Be0). It’s all wonder, all curiosity, all excitement, all the time. And you know what? Every single student wanted to tell me a story. I can tell you the visit wasn’t on my agenda for the day, but making and taking the time for those students made a good day great, not only for me, but (I hope) for those students too.
The experience extended to visits with many students, in all grades, throughout the week. Despite the age or grade of the student, they all wanted to tell me a story. Some took a bit more encouragement than others (our grade 6 students aren’t quite puppies in a ball pit), but they were all happy to talk. I learn so much about, and from, our students in a simple, casual conversation.
One of the words that I hear constantly is “busy”. Adults are busy, kids are busy…life is busy. It’s become an almost automatic response in small talk. I don’t disagree, life IS busy. However, in our profession we have to remember that no matter how busy we are, there is always a student and a story that takes precedence over the work of the day.
Over the next few days, I encourage you to make this kind of time for your students. Your interest, time and visibility make a real difference in your building. I also hope that sharing this powerful motivational quote might serve as a friendly reminder of the importance of this commitment.
Professional learning can be as simple as going for a walk.
Over the past several years I have found myself falling completely in love with podcasts, and I have come to value them for not only their entertainment value, but for their contribution to my own professional (and personal) learning.
Podcasts are one of those things that people are either really into, or not into at all. Some of us can’t wait for weekly downloads, while others have no idea what that pesky purple icon on their iPhone is for, and why they can’t simply delete it.
For anyone in that latter camp, I can tell you that podcasts are completely free, and the content is as diverse as any other mainstream media such as television, movies, music, magazines, or books. In fact, many of these media outlets have turned to podcasting to either relay similar content, or complement their mainstream content with related, new offerings.
As an educator, I am drawn specifically to many podcasts, but three in particular are on regular rotation: TEDTalks (audio), The Harvard EdCast, and Educators Lead. I say that much of my own professional learning has come via these three podcasts, and it has influenced the work happening in the classrooms of my school.
One of my beliefs about teaching and learning is that we, as teachers, need to learn in the ways we want our students to learn. This can mean seeking new ideas through new technologies. For me, I find that walking the dog is the perfect time to plug in and get down to learning (more on the benefits of dogs and long nature walks in another blog post). It’s my “me time”.
I understand that you may not be into Educational Leadership as a theme for your own professional learning, and believe me, I have a lot more interests and favourite podcasts, but I find that the beauty of podcasts is that no matter what you’re into, there is something for you. You can search by interest or subject. You can try one and stick with it, or dump it right away. It’s all free.
We all have to walk our dogs anyhow. Why not make it a time for new learning? Enjoy!
Here are some of my personal favourite podcasts:
TED Radio Hour
This American Life
The Jay and Dan Podcast
Roenick Life Podcast
If you’re like me, you are probably a pretty persistent parent in your desire to initiate a dinner conversation with your child. You likely use some variation of this inquiry, “So, how was school today?” And, if your kids are like mine, you likely receive a response similar to “Fine.” If you try another angle, you might go with, "So, what did you do at school today?' only to be met with a "Not much". I choose to believe that those are conditioned responses rather than reflective ones. Well, enter Twitter.
There are multiple reasons why our school is bringing Twitter forward, but the primary reason is to establish a bridge between the classroom and your home. In this way, your child’s learning becomes visible. Suddenly, the flat responses “fine" or "not much" carry less weight. Then, it is the pending conversation with your child that offers an opportunity to transfer learning across contexts. When your child knows you share an interest in their learning, they strengthen their own connections, and are more likely to pursue and extend new learning independently. In addition, you as the parent are more likely to engage in learning alongside your child. This could include something as simple as side-by-side web browsing, or even related family outings. These are win-win-win situations benefiting your child’s learning, your relationship with my your child, and the work of the school.
Secondly, working with Twitter is a tool to assist in teaching our students digital citizenship. Engaging with authentic purpose with adult-to-adult communication helps your child to shadow and learn about social media in a controlled environment between trusted adults.
Finally, Twitter is a tool for you to connect to the greater school community. While you child’s teacher and classroom likely remain your primary focus, we are all part of a larger school community. You will find the majority of CBE schools are now on Twitter, including all of our new schools. Teachers and School Administration like Twitter as a communication tool because it’s a) quick and easy – mobile technologies provide quick access, b) succinct – thoughts are compressed to a handy 140 characters or less, and c) specific – it is targeted to an audience that seeks their content.
Of course, the main questions about use of Twitter have to do with safety. It is important to know that this is our priority as well. To protect our students, and to comply with privacy laws, we have all been instructed to use photos where students are “not identifiable”. This means that photos are taken from angles where student faces are not visible. In most cases, teachers will also choose to use a photo filter using apps such as Skitch or Waterlogue. All our classroom accounts are monitored by a teacher lead, and the entirety of the school accounts are monitored daily by school administration. As part of our role in digital citizenship we also discuss Twitter with our students, and make this documentation part of our ongoing discussions in the classrooms.
Feedback regarding our adoption of Twitter has been very positive. One parent commented that she talks with her child about Twitter posts at the dinner table and also that their child LOVES Twitter. Experience has proven that your child may soon begin to run home, excited, to let you know their teacher posted something from their class, possibly featuring them or their work.
In terms of organization, we have decided to join Twitter as grade teams instead of a centrally controlled school account. We encourage all of our families to join Twitter, but respect that some parents choose not to be active on social media. If you have not set up an account, you can do so by visiting www.Twitter.com. Set up is very easy. You may also find the following resources to be helpful:
Getting Started with Twitter:
Parent’s Guide to Twitter:
Good luck, and thanks for joining and following.
I am an elementary school principal, passionate about engagement, innovation, and learning from the unique skills and interests of students and fellow educators.