Sunday, August 14, 2016

In This Moment

Being both a principal and a mom, I know a thing or two about time.  For one thing, I am always trying to find more of it!  Minutes, hours, days, school years seem to fly by faster than the ones before.  It seems like more often than not, I look up at the clock in my office and it reads 8:00am, and then suddenly I am glancing up and it's 3:30pm.  Where does the time go?

My younger brother recently became a father, and I love getting pictures of my tiny, perfect nephew. I look at those pictures and it seems like a lifetime ago that my daughter was that little.  But it was actually only 20 months ago.  Again, I think, where does the time go?

The other night, as I was about to go through our regular bedtime routine, Emerson asked for me to rock her in the chair.  This was a pleasant surprise.  The two of us snuggled into the big purple rocker, wrapped ourselves up in a knitted blankie, and began to rock.  As I stared into her sleepy eyes, she whispered the names of different family members, neighbors, friends, and pets.  She was comforted in the fact that I reassured her they were all going "night night" just like her.  In the nightlight lit room, we quietly sang "Twinkle Twinkle" and "Eensy Weensy Spider" and her favorite, "Wheels on the Bus."  And even though it was too dark to see the words, I read her the book On the Night You Were Born; no need to see the words on the pages since I know them by heart now.  After that, I'm not sure how long we rocked.  All I know is one second she was giving me a kiss, holding my face in her hands and saying "my mommy," and then the next second her eyes were closed and I was listening to the familiar sound of her sleeping and breathing.

For a few minutes, it seemed like time stopped and nothing else mattered.  In that moment, nothing else mattered.

In that moment, I could have rocked all night and watched her get a little bit older.  I could stare at her forever with tears in my eyes, still full of amazement that I made this tiny, perfect human.  I don't like that minutes, hours, days will go by again and I will think where did the time go?  How many more rock to sleep nights will we have together?

For now, I am going to do my best to remember to slow down, let those moments happen and tuck them into my heart pocket.

Those minutes, hours, days, school years are going to keep flying by.  But which moments are you going to slow down for and remember?

And just because we all need a good cry now and then, take a listen...

Monday, August 1, 2016

Feedback: The Sound of Silence

**Reflection post for UDL course, How would student feedback be useful?

In the classic song, "The Sound of Silence", Simon and Garfunkel sing about "people talking without speaking" and "people hearing without listening."  Their message a few lyrics later?  They don't want the only sound to be the sound of silence.  They sing "hear my words that I might teach you, hear my words that I might reach you."

Why did this song pop in my mind when I started thinking about student feedback?  Well, probably because I don't think it's an area that we have really addressed and tapped into as educators.  When you ask teachers if they take feedback from their students...sometimes you get a blank stare and the sound of silence.  For some reason, feedback for many of us humans is a tough pill to swallow.  It's not everyone's favorite have someone come into your classroom and watch you work.  We get nervous.  We think about making the wrong move or saying the wrong move and then because we thought that, we get ourselves all flustered in the middle of a lesson that we normally had no problem doing.

Here's the thing.  You have a lot of someones watching you work everyday.  Even if their eyes aren't always on you, they are usually listening.  And we all know how brutally honest they can be!  Since it is our students who are with us day in and day out, they should be the ones to give us honest feedback.  They should be the ones to help us improve.  It's their future on the line, and if we aren't doing what's best for them, if they aren't hearing us or we aren't reaching them, then we need to know that and make improvements.

Think about this.  If one teacher asks her students for feedback, makes changes and improves her teaching, that class benefits.  If all of the teachers in the school ask for student feedback, make changes and improve, then the whole school benefits.  Teachers improve.  Students improve.  Teaching improves.  Learning improves.  Seems pretty simple to me.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

An Open Invitation

To all of the people who don't spend their days (and nights) in classrooms and schools:

When I opened up my Momentum screen this morning, my daily quote was so fitting: "Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love."  After listening to people talk recently, both nationally and locally, about what is best for our schools and what is best for our students, I have to admit, I'm not really feeling the love.  But I am going to try and take the high road.

So this is my open invitation.  Come to my school.  Walk through the hallways.  Sit in the cafeteria and talk with the students.  Play four square on the playground with kids.  Plop down on the rug in a kindergarten classroom.  Examine seeds under a magnifying glass with some 4th graders.  Sit shoulder to shoulder with a student and read a book.  Get your hands messy solving and erasing and trying again to solve a math problem on the whiteboard.  Be the one to give a child a tissue when they are crying in your arms.  Watch a teacher stop a lesson and problem solve a disagreement among a group of students.  Come to my school, and spend more than five minutes in the front lobby.  Come to my school, not to meet with me and hear me tell you about our struggles and our successes, but to see the teachers and students in action.

To those of you who think you know what is best for our students, to those of you who share your opinions about education and needs, this is my invitation to you.  Come spend two weeks in my school.  Watch staff come in early and stay late and come back again and again, fueled by coffee, candy and a commitment to making a difference in the lives of children.  Spend two full weeks, not two hours or two minutes, but two weeks watching the work, the struggle, the celebrations, the learning, the mess ups, the laughs and the tears, the dedication.

Then, after those two weeks let's talk about what our students and our schools need.  I will be more than happy to listen to people who don't spend their days (and nights) in classrooms and schools tell me what our staff and students need after they have lived for a little bit in this business of education. You can look at data and charts and numbers, but that is not where the real story is.  The real story is happening and ever-changing every single day when our students walk through the doors and we do our best with whatever resources we have, don't have, purchase with our own money or borrow from another school that is in the same boat.  I am going to include an amazing video clip that a principal friend of mine from Illinois shared with me last night.  (Yep, there are principals in every state, every town, all over, who are doing their best to guide their staff and lift up their students even when others keep telling them that it's not enough.)  Take 5 minutes to listen to what this guy is saying.

As an educational leader, I am discouraged and trying to not listen to the voices of those who are not educational leaders.  I know what I am doing and continue to do is worth it.  I know what educators are doing and trying to do is worth it.  Our students deserve for us to give our all to them everyday, but those outside voices can and do knock us down.  I am reading a great book called Kids Deserve It by Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney.  Here's a powerful line from the book: "We have the power to tear down or build up the children who walk into our lives everyday."  Unfortunately, in this crazy mixed up system of policies and regulations, all of those people who don't spend their days (and nights) in classrooms and schools, they have the power to tear down or build up the educators who teach our children.

Please, come to my school.  As this guy in the video says, come see us teach "chemistry and character, decimals and decency, grammar and grit."  Come spend two weeks within our walls and then let's talk about what we need to do.

An Educational Leader Trying to Do What's Best for Kids

Friday, July 22, 2016

Bookfessions of Two Readaholics

This post was co-written by Lindsy Stumpenhorst and Liz Garden (aka readaholics)
Bookfession #1:
Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.12.45 PMThis spring, Illinois had an insane amount of rain. As in…4 inches per hour. I (Lindsy) am an insanely committed person and as I was walking down the basement stairs to my 4:30am dread-mill workout, I was greeted with a carpet full of sopping wetness. My first thought as my sock absorbed the moisture was, “Oh No!!! My books!”
I remember the exact moment that I became a “reader”. I had a high school English teacher that INSISTED his students read from every genre imaginable. I was so irritated, I already knew that I preferred realistic fiction (aka Laureen McDaniel), why would I want to read a fantasy novel?! Enter stage left…Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in order to fulfill my fantasy requirement. I only read it because I had to. I didn’t really love it, but I MAY have checked out Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, on a Tuesday after school before volleyball practice.
Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.12.52 PMFast forward almost 15 years later, and I am sharing photos on twitter of my June “book stack” and then my July “book stack”. This summer my 9 and 6 year old have spent hours sorting books. It is extremely pleasing to see my son and daughter sneaking glimpses of illustrations as they place books on shelves in what we call the “toy room” (editor’s note: there are far more books than toys).
Under my daughter’s pillow you won’t find loose teeth, you will find piles of picture books, she can’t sleep without them. There are mornings when I look at the bags under my son’s eyes and ask “what book did you finish last night?” because I know…he is just like his momma, and he didn’t go to bed until he read the epilogue.
Bookfession #2:Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.12.59 PM
The first step is admitting you have a problem.  So here goes…I, Liz Garden, have a problem.  I just can’t say no to books.  When I pack for a trip, the number of books might occasionally outnumber my articles of clothing.  I have more bookshelves than any other piece of furniture in my house.  I have an intimate relationship with my Amazon cart that is always full of books just waiting for me to hit the submit button.  And while I don’t know the names of most of the streets near my neighborhood, I can tell you exactly how to get to at least 6 different bookstores that are within a 25 mile radius of my house.  Yes, I have a problem.
While I am fairly certain my mother, a fellow avid reader, had a hand in the start of this problem, I know that I can pinpoint one teacher who lit the reading spark for me, actually he more like doused my reading bonfire with gasoline.  Funny thing is, he steered me onto the path of reading addiction by not teaching me reading.  Mr. Page was my 1st grade teacher.  I was the student that made him scratch his head and go “hmmm.”  I entered 1st grade reading at a 6th grade level.  There was no color coded reading group for me.  So what did Mr. Page do?  He sent me to the library and said “read.”  So I did.  I read and read and read.  I spent the majority of my first grade year reading my way through our school library.  After that, I was so far gone down the rabbit hole of reading that there was no turning back.
Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.13.06 PMToday, I am no longer a 1st grader, although as a principal I definitely get to hang out with a lot of 1st graders, and I certainly don’t get to spend all day in the library reading, but books are still a huge part of my life.  I like piles.  And there is just something awesome about a pile of books waiting to be opened and read.  If I were to give you a tour of my house, these are some of the piles we might discover.  In my kitchen, naturally there are piles of cookbooks, but there is also a pile of young adult books that I recently bought after some friends recommended them.  Next to my bed, which also has built in shelves in the headboard that hold…you guessed it, books, on top of the dresser, there is an inspirational pile of professional books, fun summer reading books, and a positive thinking quote book.  On the couch, there is a pile of picture books that I have read and will be recommending to teachers as read alouds.  In the bathroom, (come on you all know you need books in the bathroom), there is a pile with a graphic novel, a Dr. Seuss book belonging to my daughter and a book about behind the scenes of the making of the movie “The Princess Bride.”  On the dining room table, there’s a pile of books that I brought back from some of the conferences I attended this year.  And in my daughter’s nursery and playroom…I don’t think I have time to list all of the book piles you would find.  Right now, she’s actually asleep in her crib, where she requested her stuffed elephant, her blankie and naturally, her books, when I put her to bed.
Yes, I have a problem.  I am a readaholic, and I am proud of that fact.  And lucky for me I have a job where I get paid to encourage others, adults and children, to beScreen Shot 2016-07-22 at 2.13.13 PMcome readaholics!  I especially love that I am creating my own mini-me book lover, my daughter.  When I was pregnant with her, and I went for my big ultrasound, the doctor may have been shocked, but the image that I saw on the screen came as no surprise to me… 
The Making of a Readaholic
  1. Make reading appeal to kids! You can make the most boring thing sound amazing just by the tone of your voice. Reading is far from boring, but some kids need us to “sell” it before they are interested.
  2. Read aloud books that appeal to kids, not just books that appeal to you. I am gladly suffering through a Fantasy series with my son now, because he loves it (only three books left!).
  3. Create your reading mantra and repeat it to kids whenever you get the chance.  I go into all of the classrooms at the beginning of the year and start with saying something like “You all know what my favorite thing in the whole wide world is, right?” And by now, most of the kids know and will shout out READING! 
  4. Give kids choice!  Let them choose what they want to read.  We all suffered through  whole class novels, but that doesn’t mean that our students today need to do that.  You need to give kids a chance to self select what they want to read.  And in order to do that, you also need to have lots and lots and lots of books for them to choose from.  Did I say give them choice?  Can’t repeat that enough!
  5. As the Queen of Readaholics, Donalyn Miller, herself would say, be a reading role model. “Adults who read and share their love of reading with kids send a powerful message that reading matters for personal reasons, not just academic ones.” Oh Donalyn, you are my reading hero!
  6. No one is too old for a read aloud. I don’t care whether you are a 5-year-old who is literally hanging onto my leg while I read or a 15-year-old who sits back, contemplating and relating to the words being spoken, everyone loves to listen to a good story. If you haven’t done a read aloud in front of a group of adults, then you haven’t really lived. Try it at your next staff meeting!
  7. Talk about books with kids whenever you get a chance. Ask them what they are reading. Really listen to what they are saying about the book, the characters, the connections. If they aren’t reading a book, recommend one to them. Make it so that book discussion is a natural part of any conversation.
  8. Classroom libraries and school libraries need to be full of good books. Make sure that kids have access to the awesome new books that are continually being published. Way back in 2002, an NAEP report stated, “When students are provided with well-designed classroom libraries, they interact more with books, spend more time reading, exhibit more positive attitudes towards reading, and exhibit higher levels of reading achievement.” There you have it…survey says…if you fill those libraries with books, they will come.
  9. Socialize around reading. Offer book clubs. Have a “dress like a book character” spirit day! Post graffiti walls where kids can write about books and make recommendations to other kids. Get kids to blog about their reading. Invite authors to visit or talk with students through social media. Host a book battle. The list goes on and on of how you can get kids interacting and socializing around books.
  10. The most important way to make a readaholic…give kids time to read. It really is that simple.
Here’s to all of the teachers that establish a love of reading in a child, whether a parent, educator, librarian, or fellow readaholic!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On the Road of Life

Here's a short little slice that goes along with a longer story that I hope to eventually write...

Right now, I am sitting in the passenger seat watching fields, rail fences and clouds approaching on the horizon, while my past and all its disappointments get smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror.

Almost three years ago, I was counting down the days until I went from Ms. to Mrs.  Final fitting done.  Guest total counted.  We were making plans for an unforgettable honeymoon on a tropical island.

Right now, I am embarking on what will surely be an unforgettable trip.  No tropical island.  No guests, just me and my mom.  No fancy dresses.  And not that I'm counting, but it's been a matter of days since I went from Mrs. back to Ms.

Almost three years ago, I described myself as engaged.  I had a fiance.  I was about to get married and make a commitment that would last a lifetime.

Right now, I am going to have to start using the 'D' word to describe myself.  I am riding in a car across the country with my mother.  At least her commitment is long-lasting.

Almost three years ago, I was envisioning celebrating anniversaries, traveling with my husband, starting a family.

Right now, I am sitting in the passenger seat trying to figure out how to create my vision for the future.  Going to have to stop looking back at the ugliness of my rear view mirror past.  This wasn't how it was supposed to be.  But right now, this is my life.

Right now, we are passing a massive red semi-trailer truck.  The message on the driver's door reads: On the road of life, sometimes you have to drive through a lot of shit.

Yes, Mr. Truck Driver, yes you do.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

You All Raise Me Up

                                 You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
                                      You raise me up to walk on stormy seas;                                   
                                 I am strong when I am on your shoulders;                                       
                                        You raise me up to more than I can be.

I love it when song lyrics can sum up what you are thinking.  As I sit here reflecting on my experience over the last few days, I keep coming back to Josh Groban's lyrics listed above. Several years ago, I attended my first national conference in Vegas, the ASCD Conference.  I was a new Twitter user. I was blogging some.  I was a new principal.  I did not know anyone at the conference.  But I was excited to soak in new learning.  Yes, I attended sessions.  And yes, I talked to people sitting at my table.  I tweeted out a few good nuggets to share back with my district, and I was inspired to write some blog posts like, 'The View from Above' and 'Gaudy Goals'.  But that conference came and went, and I traveled back to school, back to admin island to keep doing my thing at my school on my own.

Fast forward to this month.  I attended my second national conference, #NAESP16.  What a difference a few years makes, along with a few very special connections through Voxer.  This time, I spent the weeks leading up to the conference talking with others who were going to be at the conference.  We were all excitedly winding down our school years and counting down the days until we would all come together in our nation's capitol.  People were making plans to meet up.  People who had been before were answering questions from us newbies.  Even though this trip meant my first time away from my daughter, I could not help but be excited that I was going to meet face to face with these voices, these social media muses that had been carpooling with me for months.  

I was the crazy one who booked a flight for Wednesday morning.  Most of the group had already been there for a day or two.  I was tired and I was sweaty (and probably slightly smelly), yet when I found my peeps...
Just kidding, they looked more like this...
They were waving me over and welcoming me into the group.  And it was like we had always been together.  Because really, for many months, we have been together.  We have shared the ups, downs, and everyday in betweens of our principal lives with each other.  These voices that I had grown to know and love were now faces and hugs and right next to me.  Yes, this was going to be a very different national conference experience.

I attended some sessions with them and some without them.  I watched some of them present and some of them watched me present.  We swapped stories of our jobs and our families.  Within two hours of landing in DC and then landing in the middle of this group...
I sat around a lunch table with many of them and quickly realized in between bites of my sandwich and bits of conversation: These people, these amazing leaders, make me a better principal and a better person.  They raise me up to be more than I can be.  Throughout the conference, every single interaction I had with each of them, I learned, I grew, I wondered, I was challenged.  I also laughed. A lot.  In fact, I laughed the hardest while being raised up...literally, I was raised up in the air, in a tiny little enclosed space with seven other members of my new crew.  What an amazing memory, sitting high up in the air, overlooking the National Harbor in the Capitol Wheel, laughing until my cheeks hurt with seven other people who share my vision, who are making a difference in the lives of children every single day.

                                   When I am down and, oh, my soul, so weary;
                                  When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
                                     Then I am still and wait here in the silence,
                                          Until you come and sit awhile with me.

Not every moment was like the emotional and physical high of the ferris wheel experience.  But these amazing leaders, these people who make me a better person and a better principal, they were there for me.  Leading up to the conference, I was bummed that I couldn't find my #KidsDeserveIt shirt that I had ordered a while back. (Yes, there is most likely a laundry black hole in my house.  Don't judge.) Seems like a silly thing to be upset about, but I was looking forward to our group photo and proudly sporting my shirt with everyone else.  And then I saw a picture in the NAESPchat that made me smile...
My roomie for the conference, the amazing Julie Vincentson, had ordered me a shirt and had one waiting for me!  Are you kidding me?!  So a missing shirt didn't make "my soul, so weary," but it was the thought that Julie put into that simple action.  Remind any of you of the thoughts we put into our staff and students and the simple, yet powerful actions that we take everyday?  Then it came time for my presentation.  I was super nervous since I had a.) never done this presentation before and b.) attended some other sessions that were unbelievably amazing and inspiring, one might even say #FinestGreatestBest, right Nick Proud?!  But I was ready.  All of my people, those amazing leaders had raised me up.  Adrenaline was pumping.  Sound system was set.  People were listening to me.  And then...the internet connection stopped working.  But "when troubles come," who "came and sat a while with me" and shared her hotspot?  Edurockstar, Jennifer Kloczko.  She didn't even blink, went straight to work, and with a click of the button, visions of my video clips were dancing across the screen.

Finally we made it to the closing session.  Some of us had to catch flights and some of us were lucky enough to listen to Pedro Noguera speak to us, truly speak to our souls about how the "best schools are greater than the sum of their parts" and that "rigor is not just a lot of work, it's being made to think hard" and that "we need to think of our schools as gardens and as gardeners we wouldn't blame the tomatoes for not growing."  I, along with everyone else, was captivated by his every word.  And then I noticed a buzzing from my phone. (No, I definitely did not follow the direction of turning off my devices.)  And I took a call that no one wants to answer.  In a matter of minutes, I went from being inspired and raised up to being beat down and crying.  My family, who was en route to meet me for our vacation in Virginia, was in an airport in New York on a layover, and as a result of a medical emergency that happened to my stepson, they were now heading by ambulance to the hospital.  No longer was my head spinning with inspiration and motivation to bring back to my school.  Now my head was just spinning and I felt like I might collapse right there in the middle of the convention center.  I was helpless.  I am a leader.  I like taking action.  I like having a vision and marching toward that vision.  I am also a mother and a wife, and I was far away from my family when they needed me.  

                                      When I am down and, oh, my soul, so weary;
                                     When troubles come and my heart burdened be...

As I stood in shock and at a loss for what to do, something happened.  Actually someone happened.  Jessica Cabeen came to me.  And then, instead of swapping kindergarten stories like we had been doing the night before over ice cream, I was sobbing, the loud, ugly cry kind of sobbing, into Jessica's arms.  And she just stood there and hugged me and let me do that.  

                                        I am strong when I am on your shoulders

In that moment, I certainly wasn't strong, but Jessica was there to offer her shoulder and hold me up.  She led me to a chair, got me a sticky note and pen to write information that I would need to find out from my husband, brought me a water, and simply sat with me.  And before I knew it, the rest of the crew was surrounding me and supporting me and seeing me at a low point and doing their best to still raise me up.  These people, these amazing leaders, these principals that make me a better principal and a better person...I am so grateful for all of you.  It's no longer cliche for me to say that we laughed together and we cried together.  Because I did that with you.  

And then Jessica and Lynn Colon and Mia Simpson went and sat with me and got me to eat lunch instead of dwell on the fact that I was feeling helpless.  We ordered all the bad things on the menu...chicken fingers, chips, know, feelings food (We were just missing the Ben and Jerry's Jessica!), and we talked and shared and they got me thinking and laughing again.

Fast forward to today, two days later and I am still not reunited with my family.  I am typing this while waiting for them to arrive on a plane later tonight.  While I am reflecting on the conference and all of my emotional highs and lows, I am also anxiously counting down the minutes until my husband and my children are back in my arms.  And I am being sent messages and thoughts and prayers from all of those amazing people, those amazing leaders that I am better for knowing and connecting with. And that I only just met a few days ago!

Thank you.  You all raise me up.  Whether it's the high moments on mountains that I strive to reach with my students or the stormy seas that I will weather during the school year, you all have raised me up and will continue to do so.  I am stronger and I will be more than I can be because of you.  

And for that I am eternally grateful.

Now that I have put the song lyrics into this post and into your's a great version of a kid singing it.  Enjoy!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

How Not to Wash the Dishes

**Thanks to Kate Messner's Teachers Write and a writing Voxer group, I have been motivated to get myself writing more this summer.  This was a blog space that I created a while ago and never continued with, but I think I am going to try to do more quick writes on it.  I am also going to try to do more writing in my journal...I have too many journals.  Like containers, sticky notepads and books, I have a problem and buy too many of them.  So here goes my first attempt at just sitting down and writing what's in my head...

On most days, I am the queen of multi-tasking, but today I was more like the court jester.  My husband was away for the day which naturally means that my 19-month-old was strategically choosing to not do her afternoon nap.  Makes sense.  I need to try to get at least one or two rooms in the house cleaned before we leave for vacation in a few days.  Instead of letting her continue to roam the house leaving a trail of shoes, plastic phones, balls and sippy cups, I strapped her into her high chair and shoved a freeze pop into her grabby hands.

"Elmo, peez!" she squeaked.

I opened up my laptop and clicked onto my youtube history page.  My viewing history consists of Ted talks, way too many versions of Wheels on the Bus, video clips about productive struggle (hmm...could have also been the title of this post), and Elmo, lots and lots of Elmo.  Found one of our favorites, "All About Shoes" (yes, daddy is in big trouble in a few more years), hit play and then followed the toy crumb path back to the sink to try to resume washing dishes.

"More, peez!" she demanded while Elmo danced with a talking shoe.

Back to the high chair I went.  Narrowly missing a basketball (where did that come from?) and only slightly twisting my ankle as I turned away from the sink.  I squeezed her freeze pop up for her and then went back to the sink.

"More," she said in my direction, but I was determined to finish washing a spoon.

"More, mama," she tried again.  I put the spoon in the dry rack and began scrubbing away at a pan.

"Maaaama!"  Yep, ok, drop the pan back in the sink and head back to the high chair.

So maybe giving the toddler a freeze pop was not the smartest plan.  I proceed to start explaining to my daughter how she can squeeze the freeze pop up on her own.  I tell her to look and watch what mommy is doing.  Then I hand her the freeze pop and tell her to try it by herself.

She points to the screen and says, "Elmo, shoes."

So that lesson on independence went really well.  She managed to finish the freeze pop, but since Elmo was still keeping her occupied, I rushed back to the sink to try to finish the dishes, sending a red plastic phone flying across the kitchen floor.

"Mama, all done!"

I managed to wash a spoon, a pan, a wine glass and a sippy cup.  At least the necessities are clean.