The Age of Uncertainty: Who is Bold?

What are we doing in school that can not be Khanified?

I love it when ideas converge. I wrote a blog post on the plane traveling to ASCD 2013 on the concpet of uncertainty. Then, as luck would have it, soon after finishing my session, I had the opportunity to hear from Will Richardson. Honestly, I needed time to decompress after my session, but I couldn’t miss the man who has me wrestling with that enduring question… Why School? For 90 minutes Will took me to the future, through the past, and directly back to the present.


Will has an amazing gift of asking questions. For instance, reflect on these:

– Why School? (Buy this book!)

– What are the conditions for optimal, sticky learning?

– What are we doing in school that can not be Khanified?

– What do students need to learn in school when they can learn so much without us?

– Why college?

– What are the skills that our students need now to succeed?

– Where do we start?

I used to think I knew the answers to those questions. I am not sure (maybe a bit uncertain) as to what the future holds for our concept of “education.”


Will didn’t just leave us with big questions and then walk away. He gave us two words on how we can answer those (and many other questions).. BE BOLD! Along with those two powerful words, he gave us nine qualities of Bold Schools.

Bold Schools are…..

1. Learner Centered

2. Inquiry Driven

3. Support Authentic Work

4. Digital

5. Connected

6. Literate (by 21st Century Standards)

7. Transparent

8. Innovative

9. Provocative


Are you in a Bold School?  


Thoughts on the plane (prior to the Be Bold session by Will Richardson) … 

Are we facing something that we haven’t faced before? Are we entering a new age? Does anyone really know what tomorrow will bring? This is the age we are living in…. The age of uncertainty. It has appeared at the school doors, ready to be let in… Maybe even demanding to be let in!


Recently, as I reflected on my leadership as the principal of a Focus School, I thought about the concept of transparency. Am I open with my staff, or do I shoulder too much of the responsibility? Have I gotten away from the “many hands make light work”? Do I understand change, and uncertainty? These questions forced me to learn a valuable lesson, and it was my teachers who, once again, taught the lesson.


On a cool morning in march about 12 teachers participated in the first Transparency Leadership Committee (TLC).  The TLC is designed to provide an opportunity for collegial discussions, problem solving, and transparency. I began this committee after I had a great talk with a teacher leader in the building. She presented concerns from the staff in such a professional way that I knew I had to take action.


I began the meeting by recapping the recent professional development I attended through the state DOE and local RAC. My gut was telling me that the staff was wondering why I was out of the building so much. Then it hit me. Although that could have been a concern, the most important concern they had was what in the world was going on next year with the impending uncertainty of teacher evaluations, common core, parcc, and the model assessments. These just happened to be the topics I have been working on this year!


As I reflect on the meeting, I learned that transparency can open the door to understanding uncertainty. As a leader, I have to balance the responsibility of being the “lead learner” (thanks @joe_mazza) with being a “systems thinker” (thanks @drgentile_mps) and “story teller-in-chief” (thanks @nmhs_principal). Now I am working on being the systemic, transparent learner in chief…. In the age of uncertainty (thanks @willrich45)


“To be truly innovative you have to look beyond what’s easy and focus in what’s right” Nick Update, OnStar

Science Leadership Academy Where Inquiry is the Constant

SLA’s core values

Throughout the process of transitioning to the Common Core, I have been considering various approaches to supporting the depth, breadth, and nuances of the new standards. Recently, a team from my school district visited the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia, PA. SLA, whose most notable contribution to the education community is EduCon, offers a unique opportunity to research the impact of Problem Based Learning (PBL). Lead by Chris Lehmann, the SLA is a magnet school within the district of Philadelphia Public Schools.


We arrived at our destination on a cold March morning.  The wind was whipping through the City of Brotherly Love with such force, it made walking a few feet a chore. As I approached the building I saw High School students running by me. They dipped into the building ahead of me. Could that be their gym class? Later on I found out that it was. SLA embraces the PBL philosophy even in terms of how they utilize their limited space (no gymnasium) and resources.


Our tour guide for the day, Jeremy Spry, met us at the main office. His relaxed, almost too calm for school demeanor  was both a welcoming and refreshing approach to our busy morning. He told us we would learn a lot more then just PBL on our visit. His excitement for the SLA learning environment was evident.


The Essential Questions are integral to the learning process at SLA


Grade 9 is Identity; Grade 10 is Systems


Grade 11 is Change

The “best student at SLA” with our team from Millville


As we toured the building, everyone seemed to know Jeremy. He took us into a science class that was studying genetics. We were introduced to the self proclaimed “best student at SLA”. After his warm greeting (of course took a photo), he went on to describe the Punnet Square concept with such ease, it was as if he was the teacher. Ironically, after observing their collaborative presentation on the genetic disposition of Huntingdon’s Disease, it was evident the students are in the driver’s seat of their own learning.


Jeremy explained that SLA’s core values (Inquiry, Research, Collaboration, Reflection) are integrated into everything. Furthermore, SLA is very specific on the progression of learning as the students enter 9th grade (Identity), then 10th grade (Systems ) which leads into 11th grade (Change), and then culminating into a capstone project in 12th grade.


From there, we spent time in a freshman English class. There was a lively discussion about what is art and what is not art in terms of paintings, and music. I actually had to ask Jeremy who the teacher was because the students were facilitating the discussion. He pointed to the teacher, and honestly, I thought earlier that he was a student. The class conversations were reminiscent of a collegial debate type atmosphere where everyone felt they could share their differing opinions while maintaining a respectful demeanor.


When we visited the digital video editing room, students were engaged in film projects that offered an answer to a number of questions. For instance, one student told me the focus of his film was about his conspiracy theory surrounding Chap Stick. He asked me, “Does anyone ever really finish a Chap Stick?” I had to laugh because I don’t think I have. When I watched his final product, I was amazed at his production skills and thoughtful consideration of character development.


Lunch time at SLA is much different from most schools. Students hang out and eat…. wherever. Sure, there is a cafeteria, but most kids line the hall near the main office, or in out coves throughout the school. Lines are blurred, and there are often teachers who are right in there eating with the kids and discussing life’s big questions.


Chris Lehmann and I at SLA

Our tour concluded with a sit down with the principal and SLA founder, Chris Lehmann. He told us that the school may seem unorganized from an outsiders perspective, but that SLA flourishes because it stays true to the core values. Chris doesn’t look for mavericks at SLA because he knows that most were at their prior teaching positions, but at SLA it is incumbent for everyone to be going in the same direction. Chris rarely suspends students, sees no need for a traditional dress code, and encourages his students to be treated as adults, as equals. Chris truley cares about his students. While we were talking, Chris had to balance being a host to us, and the sign ups for the Ultimate Frisbee team he organizes, and a student who was upset about something. His door was open the entire time, and anyone had access.


The visit to SLA was heavy. On the way home, I felt inspired by our experience because I believe our students can benefit from integrating the PBL philosophy into our own learning environment. As we continue our transition to the common core, I now have resources and experiences that can help our teachers and students dig deeper in the curriculum.





“The Atlantic Ocean” guest post

The author, Henry W. Cook

I am so proud to have a guest blogger this week (although I have to do the typing)! My third grade son wrote a very interesting piece and after reading it, I asked him if I could put it on the blog. He was smiling ear to ear. He really loves his Russian heritage, and when given the opportunity to write about immigration, he got right to work.


The Atlantic Ocean

One day Henry will visit Moscow!

My name is Reznov and my dad’s name is Nikoli. We’re from Moscow, Russia sailing to America. My dad and I brought some food and water. I’m excited to have freedom. Our ship name is the Thorn Of Hope. After two days…. a storm! The boat is shaking crazy. We’re all starving and thirsty but we won’t give up. We’ve come too far to quit!


Russian immigrants at Ellis Island

On the 88th day we see a star, unsure what it is, we get closer and closer, “The Statue of Liberty,” says the crew. We went to Ellis Island. There are 22 of us (including crew). Four of us were sent home and eight were held for more inspections. The rest of us made it through.

We can translate some words like me, you, love and there by hand motions. On the 31st day we learned English. We got our names changed too. My name is Henry Reznov Venskov and my dad’s name is Dominic Nikoli Venskov.

By Henry W. Cook


He really enjoyed the unit on immigration. He interviewed his grandfather on his mom’s side, and his grand mom on dad’s side. I think he combined some of the stories they told him. Henry’s fascination with Russia (grand mom Checkoff) has continued to grow and develop. He really wants to visit Moscow. We will make sure to one day make his dream come true…..