Exploring possible solutions

As our school continues to work on school improvement for next year, we have reached a time to explore possible solutions. This past week we met again in small groups to begin brainstorming ideas to address one of our areas of improvements… hallways!

I asked the staff to reach out to friends, relatives, Google and social media outlets to see what other schools were doing to address issues in the hallways. I led the discussion by saying, “We are not the only Middle School in the country. There have to be answers to our questions somewhere.”

When exploring possible solutions there is no better place than your PLN on Twitter! I placed a very generic Tweet to help me to see what was going on at other schools. Fortunately, @Teacher2Teacher, picked up the Tweet and asked if it would be OK to share the question on their community. Of course I agreed and very shortly the ideas came flowing into my Twitter notifications.

Know that none of us have it all figured out. We’re all learning everyday. Surround yourself with positivity and always keep an open mind and heart. ~ Teacher Emily Francis

I received dozens of ideas that schools are using throughout the country. Some schools are playing music in the hallways with one actually having kids play drums. Other schools pride themselves on having staff in the hallways greeting students with high fives and fist bumps. Everyone chimed in that presence in the hallways (both admin and teachers), and clearly defined rules are the keys to success!

Just like that you can explore possible scenarios with a click of the mouse (or thumb). Be sure to include Teacher2teacher!

Spike Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click AwayBreaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

 

Reverse Brainstorming: How can the problem get worse?

Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

A few months ago Margaret Keefer, a Professional Development Specialist in our district lead us through a Reverse Brainstorming Activity for our Professional Learning Communities. She asked us to list all the things we could do to allow ineffective PLCs in our district.

At first I was puzzled by the request. I was thinking to myself, “You want us to say how we can continue to allow ineffective PLCs?” So I began to write as many ideas as I could think of and when we shared out I could see how this information would eventually work to help the process! The ideas we listed ended up informing our solutions!

What can we do to allow ______ to continually be ineffective at our school/district? ~ Reverse Brainstorming prompt

A few weeks later we were planning for our School Improvement Process for next year and we needed an idea to get staff thinking about improving our hallways. Beth Benfer, Professional Development Specialist and I immediately thought of the Reverse Brainstorming activity. We then developed this prompt, “What can we do to continue to allow ineffective hallway behaviors at our school?”

We did this activity with about 100 staff members from from teachers to paraprofessionals, secretaries to guidance and administration. The feedback from the process was very insightful. Staff members were able to be honest (and vulnerable) by listing all the things we could do to basically make the hallways worse. The activity was a good starting point for us.

So if you are looking for something that would create good discussion and get you started on solving a problem in your classroom, school or district try a Reverse Brainstorming Activity. Here are some suggested ways to implement the activity:

  • Identify your problem or issue
  • Develop a prompt that would allow the problem to get worse
  • Have everyone write down individually as many ideas as possible
  • After 3 minutes have each person share one idea at a time. If someone else has that idea they can either piggy back off the idea or share another one
  • Take the ideas and reverse them into solutions or actions to eventually solve the problem

Spike Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click AwayBreaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

What is your One Thing?

I was recently talking with the Transformative Principal Podcast host Jethro Jones and he recommended reading The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller. He recommended that I read The One Thing to help me personally and professionally. I am very grateful for his recommendation!

Personally, the One Thing requires you to answer a seemingly easy question, “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” The beauty of this question is that it is not very easy. Thankfully, the book assists you with a process of determining that One Thing and then putting it into motion.

For me, I analyzed my morning routine. I have been keeping a Gratitude Journal and mediating for about a year and a half. This routine has helped me in many ways and I have been very dedicated to keeping this going. According to Gary Keller, it takes about 66 days to create and implement new habits. Here I thought I was being disciplined, but if you read the One Thing you will learn that discipline is a bit of a myth. In all honesty I had one thing going but what was leading up to that one thing (the Gratitude Journal/Mediation) was not helping.

Like many people today, when I woke up I was immediately going on my phone. At first it was to check some messages and then 30 minutes later I have checked email, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Then I would be rushing to get into the shower and afterwards speeding through my Gratitude/Mediation. This was not working for me.

What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

I decided to cut out my phone from the morning routine and get out the door for a walk. I love walking (really wish I could run but that is another story) and I felt that if I got out of the door and started walking everything else would be easier. I wouldn’t end the day looking at my step count only to be disappointed. I wouldn’t waste time in the morning on the various social media apps. I would have already accomplished something and that would make everything else easier and unnecessary.

I am only a few days into implementing the One Thing in my personal life. I have many days to go to get to the “sweet spot” of 66 days. Yet, I can already see changes!

Professionally, I implemented the One Thing into our School Improvement Plan for next year. I will be following up on a post about this shortly. In the meantime, be sure to check out the One Thing and be ready to get extraordinary results!

Spike Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

Mindfulness and Leading with the Heart

Spending time in nature can reduce stress

Life will constantly teach you lessons even when you don’t realize it. Using mindfulness on a daily basis can assist with life’s challenges and celebrations. There are many resources out there to assist with the daily practice of mindfulness. This is my humble attempt to share what helps me and what others have suggested.

How can you integrate mindfulness into your daily practice as an educator? Here are 5 suggestions:

  1. Take a daily temperature of your mindfulness. If you use a scale (like 1-5) how would you rate your day? A follow up question to that would be ‘what would have made it higher?’ Be sure to do this in a non-judgmental manner. This activity is designed to help you track days to maybe identify trends. For instance, if Mondays are always tough, this could give you an opportunity to focus on being pro-active when Monday rolls around.
  2. Daily gratitude list. Either in the morning or the evening be sure to identify at least 5 things you are grateful for. This could be a simple thing like sunshine or more specific. It’s your list so you can write whatever you want.
  3. Use your heart. It is very important to exercise and get your heart pumping. Another activity to get your heart going is meditate on your heart. Are there people in your life that you want to send love to? These people could be family members or friends, and it could even be people you disagree with. Send love for healing!
  4. Get out of your head. Thinking, over-analyzing and catastrophic thinking (thinking the worst case scenario) will not get you very far. If you find yourself in your head try to do something to get grounded. Grounding activities include working out, meditating, cleaning, listening to music or even talking with a trusted friend. Whatever “story” you are telling yourself has to be let go. Maybe just changing your perspective on the story could help. Tell yourself that whatever you are worrying about as already happened. Whatever the outcome it is important to remember, you can not control it. You can only control your reaction.
  5. Stop judging yourself. We can be the toughest critics on ourselves. This doesn’t help our mindfulness practice. You have to forgive yourself for mistakes, accept how you look, and send yourself love. Similar to number 3 (send live from the heart) it is imperative to send love to yourself.

Do you have any mindfulness activities? Be sure to comment and share your ideas.

Spike Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

 

School Security: A Serious, and Comprehensive Issue

Photo by Nicola Tolin on Unsplash

I want to start out by expressing my sincere condolences to the community of Parkland, Florida. This tragedy has not only impacted the community of Parkland, Florida but also all of us who work in schools in the United States.

This post, however, is not about the politics, mental health or gun debates that are currently filling up social media networks as well as local, state, and national news. This post is about the seriousness of school security and the reality of being a principal having to deal with it.

No where in my Principal training was there a class or certification for school security. We discussed ideas, argued about the difference between being managers or leaders, and developed a leadership platform. We learned about school finance, researched best practices for curriculum and instruction, and wrote papers about the schools of the future. Honestly, this is what what should have been doing as aspiring school leaders.

However, throughout my experience as a teacher and guidance counselor, vice principal and Principal we have spent a lot of time discussing school security in professional development. I have learned from some of the best local law enforcement officials about how to keep a school safe and how to deal with tragedy. I’ve read countless articles on how to make a school safe and proactive approaches needed to ensure school security.

For some reason, schools are a target and we are required to act accordingly. None of us wants to do the security drills but we do because we are committed to keeping kids safe. We take this aspect of our job very seriously.

Security drills are nothing new to education. In some form or fashion we have been doing fire drills, bus evacuation drills, safety drills, nuclear war drills, and depending on the region there are countless weather related drills. After the Columbine School Shooting, schools began implementing active shooter drills, shelter in place, lock downs and evacuation drills. No matter the drill, teachers and students take these exercises seriously even as they may occur at any time. It has become part of what we do.

As I watched the news reports from the most recent incident in Florida, I felt a deep emotion for those involved. I couldn’t help but to ask myself the question, “What if that happened at my school?” Honestly, if you work in a school in the United States, you asked yourself that question. The answers, I am sure, would vary. It made me think about an incident that hit close to home.

Prior to the Winter Break, our school had a “shooting threat” that turned out to be a vicious rumor fueled by misinformation, judgement and hysteria. We went through our protocols, included the local police, did thorough and extensive interviews only to find out there was nothing…  no threatening posts on social media, no guns at the student’s house, no written accounts, not even a confirmed one on one conversation. We informed the teachers when were allowed to and we informed the parents when we were allowed to. Honestly, as I reflect back on this experience, all I think about are the parents and community members who rushed to judgement, pointed the finger at us and insinuated that we were not doing our jobs. The feeling I felt was that people actually thought it was our fault and that we were not doing enough. That hurt the most.

As a parent and an educator I understand the emotions behind this entire debate. No one wants to send their children to a war zone, they want their kids to learn to read and write. This is why we practice drills. This is why we take threats seriously. This is why we investigate. This is why we involve law enforcement. This is why we are constantly being trained, and re-trained on crisis management. This is why we work together.

When it comes to school security we take this very seriously.

Spike Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click AwayBreaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

 

 

5 Takeaways from the National SAM Conference

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 11th Annual National SAM Conference. SAM (which stands for School Administration Manager) is a process to ensure that School Leaders increase their instructional time in their schools. The program was created by Mark Shellinger who was a former teacher, principal and superintendent.

This was my second SAM Conference and I am in the second year of working with the program. I know I need to do a blog about how crucial SAMs has been to my leadership but for now I will just focus on the conference.

Here are my 5 Takeaways from the conference:

  1. SAMs is inclusive! The SAM conference is one of the only conferences that secretaries and school leaders attend together. The idea behind SAMs is to increase instructional leadership at all levels.
  2. SAMs is innovative! All of the keynote sessions were in the sand on the beach at Marco Island Marriott Resort. I can honestly say I have never imagined listening to speakers with my feet in the sand. In addition, this year at the conclusion of the conference we had a “choose your own adventure.” There were three speakers to choose from at the same time (LaVonna Roth, Willow Sweeney, and Ken Williams) and with a headset you could listen to one or toggle between the three.
  3. SAMs focuses on listening! One of the best workshops I went to was on Deep Listening by Kirstin Olson. We learned techniques to become better listeners for our students, staff, parents and community members.
  4. SAMs focuses on Professional Development! I received 6 books at the conference. Marc Shellinger made sure that we received all books from the Keynote speakers. I now have a long list of reading to do! Here are a list of the books we received: The Big Disconnect by Catherine Steiner-Adair; Successful Women Think Differently by Valorie Burton; Visual Intelligence by Amy Herman; Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny; 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t Be Wrong by John Antonetti.
  5. SAMs is about networking. Throughout the conference I worked with educators from throughout the country. I met colleagues who were able to share ideas with me and challenge my thinking.

This was such an amazing conference. I am re-energized to improve my daily practice as a Principal at Lakeside Middle School. I am prepared to be a better listener and encouraged to take chances to improve my leadership!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click AwayBreaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

My #oneword 2018 Gratitude

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ 

I am not setting any New Year’s Resolutions. I haven’t joined anything new, or set out on any new adventures. In year’s past, I have set and achieved New Year’s Resolutions (Blog 365 Challenge, ran a marathon, and lost weight). I have also set and failed to follow through on countless New Year’s Resolutions (way too many to write about).

This year I saw something interesting on Twitter… What is your “one word” for 2018? I thought that sounded interesting and achievable. So, I chose the word GRATITUDE. If you have been reading my blog, you will have seen a lot about gratitude. It really has become something essential in my life. No matter how difficult or trying the day has been I can always find at least 5 things that were good, positive, worthwhile, and even excellent. Why not continue with it?

Thank you for reading this!

When you get a chance…. tell me something good!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards.  Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

How to Spread Gratitude at Your School

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

Over the last year and a half I have been dedicated to practicing gratitude every day. Yes, every day when I wake up I reflect on the previous day and identify 5 things that I am grateful for.  After identifying these 5 things, I incorporate them into my daily meditation. In short, this daily practice of gratitude has transformed my life. No matter how tough my day was, I know that I can find at least 5 things to be grateful for. Based on this transformative work, I began to initiate activities at my school to spread this unique gift.

My first step in spreading gratitude at my school was sharing my personal journey with the staff. This wasn’t easy as I had to display vulnerability in front of 150 educators. Fortunately, best selling author and Ted Speaker Brene Brown gave me the courage to be vulnerable as she said, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we take if we want to experience connection.”

Staying vulnerable is a risk we take if we want to experience connection. Brene Brown

It got easier to share my experience the more I allowed myself to be vulnerable. In staff meetings, I continued to discuss my gratitude journey. I talked about how it transformed my perspective on life. In addition, I worked closely with the administrative team and we spent time in each meeting discussing our own gratitude. Encouraged by the positive feedback from the staff and administrators, I sought ideas on how to spread the gratitude throughout the school.

Based on the feedback from the staff, we implemented a Week of Gratitude at Lakeside Middle School in the fall of 2016. During this week, we delivered blank thank you cards to staff and encouraged them to thank someone, anyone. In addition, we gave blank paper to students and also encouraged them to write thank you cards to each other or staff. What may have seemed like a benign activity turned into an incredible buzz throughout the school. Teachers started spreading gratitude on their own by buying each other flowers, sending anonymous gifts and candy to each other.  

Over the summer I reflected on the impact of gratitude. It was clear from the positive feedback that gratitude was having an impact on the school. I could tell because of the conversations with staff at the end of the year and how they cherished the way their colleagues were treating each other. Some of these conversations brought me to tears. Who would have thought that seemingly random acts of gratitude could have such a profound impact?

I decided to take the gratitude to the next level. At the first meeting of the 2016-17 school year I distributed blank journals to each staff member. I talked with the staff about how they could use these journals to write 3-5 things each day that they are thankful for at Lakeside Middle School. I modeled how I use the gratitude journal personally and professionally. I shared that sometimes it is easier to find things outside of the school to be grateful for so that I was going to start a specific gratitude journal for the school.

After distributing the journals, I asked the staff to write their gratitude list individually and then share it with their small groups. I then asked for volunteers to share with the entire group. One teacher shared that she was grateful for her colleagues because her personal life had become very challenging. She then connected it to the experience that some of our students have and how important it is for us to create a safe space for them. This sharing brought tears and validation that we were going in the right direction with gratitude.

The teacher planted a seed with me as she shared her connection with the students. Prior to the Thanksgiving break, I decided to create a process for staff to share their gratitude with the students and families.

Here is what I did

  • Developed a Google Form for the staff with areas for them to identify about 3 students, why they are grateful for them, and the staff name.
  • Sent out the Google Form to the staff and gave about 2 weeks for them to fill it out.
  • I wrote a general letter for the parents and left space to add in the individualized information from the form.
  • Over a weekend, I copied each student name, staff name and gratitude into the letters. I would recommend doing a mail merge. 
  • We then printed out and mailed 140 letters the week before Thanksgiving.

Here is what I learned

  • The impact of these letters was incredible. Staff reported that parents sent them thank you cards, called, emailed or even pulled them aside at an event to personally thank them for the kind words. Many parents took pictures of the letters and posted them on Social Media, and their friends left positive comments on the activity.
  • The staff received the activity very well and were appreciative that I provided the platform.
  • As the principal, I learned about the identified students through reading the comments about them from their teachers.
  • I decided that this needs to be done several times throughout the year.

Since the gratitude letters had such an impact on the school climate and culture, I integrated this into my professional goal for the school year to hold myself more accountable. I then prepared another Google Doc for December. This time I allowed the teachers to nominate as many students as they wished and they responded. We sent 360 individual letters to students the week before the Holiday Break.

Blessed with another surprise in the mailbox today! The Staff at Lakeside Middle School nominated a total of 326 students they were grateful for. My daughter was nominated for her many fist bumps and positivity! Thank you to Mr. Williams for the nomination and to Dr. Cook for the awesome surprise. Michelle Asselta, Parent

One day as I was walking out to my afternoon duty, a student pulled me aside to talk about the gratitude letters. He said he was very thankful that we sent out these to the students but then he asked me this question, “How can the students do this for the teachers? Is there a way you could create a Google Doc so the students could tell the teachers why they are grateful for them?” I thanked him and told him that would be the next step in the spreading gratitude throughout the school!

Spike C. Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two book through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards.  Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.

My Top 6 Posts from 2017

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

Blogging provides an excellent resource for reflection. As I thought about this year, I was able to look through my posts (on this blog and on other sites) and see how much I have grown. Over the course of the year, I learned a lot about balance and the power of gratitude. As I look into 2018, I am poised to continue to help other educators through my writing, podcasts and presentations.

Here are my Top 6 posts/moments that I am grateful to have experienced. Please click on the links to help me travel through 2017!

Lakeside STEM Day (Written by Joseph Smith)
This was such a great experience for our students at Lakeside Middle School to see the many offerings at Millville High School.
Innovate My School is an amazing resource for educators. The site is based in the UK but has a global reach because of the resources provided!
We took a much needed break to work on other projects and to truly understand the work/life balance. This podcast was very fun and we decided to continue podcasting in 2018.
EdWeb.net is one of the best resources for educators through online learning. They provide relevant topics presented by practitioners who seek to make others better.
As I scanned the blog for the most clicked on post for 2017, this post on gratitude was at the top. I am very grateful for the support and it encouraged me to work on a follow up to be published very soon!
I am big fan of Solution Tree and they continue to send me excellent resources for review. From Leading to Succeeding is a book that I was able to put right into action at my school!
Thank you so much for your support of Insights Into Learning. I am looking forward to more posts in 2018.

We All Float On: My First Float

Source: Discovering Legacies

Spike Cook, Millville, NJ

One of things on my bucket list for the winter break was to do a “float.”

For those of you who have no idea what a float is or never heard of a sensory deprivation tank, here is the best description I can find:

Floating is an experience of ultimate peace and relaxation in which you spend one hour in a private, specialized tank filled with ten inches of highly-saturated Epsom salt water causing one to float completely effortlessly atop the water at near zero-gravity.” Float Haven Spa, Pitman, NJ

There are many benefits from floating and it has been around since the 1950s. Recently, Float Tanks have become popular from celebrities such as Joe Rogan and Stephen Curry who use them on a regular basis.

I wanted to give it a shot for a few reasons. First, I have never tried it and I believe in the statement, “When was the last time you tried something for the first time?” Secondly, I wanted to experience sensory deprivation in order to gauge my mindfulness practice. Lastly, I have had many people I respect in the yoga/mindfulness community highly recommend it.

My Takeaways

  • An hour isn’t enough – It does take some time to chill out once in the tank. For me this process took a while even though I was practicing my breathing.
  • You are going to bump the walls – I laid as still as I could be inevitably I gently bumped against the walls of the tank.
  • Eyes open and eyes shut – Throughout the experience I tried a few different techniques. I would keep my eyes shut for some time and open as well. Since there is literally no light in the space, it probably doesn’t matter.
  • It is salty – I could feel the salt crystals on my face and chest as I floated. This salt is what keeps you buoyant and provides restorative healing. After the float you can wash this salt off but I was instructed to let it stay. I sort of feel like I just got back from the beach.
  • One session isn’t enough – I plan to go back at least two more times. Now I have a better grasp on the experience, I feel there are things I can do in preparation to ensure that I get the most out of the float.
  • Visuals – It is dark, very dark! 

Overall, I had a very positive experience during my first float. I wasn’t able to solve all the world’s problems, or invent a new form of technology, but I was able to get an hour of peace, disconnected from the world with literally nothing holding me back.

Want to learn more about Float Tanks? Check out these Frequently Asked Questions courtesy of Float Haven in Pitman, NJ.