5 Ways to Increase Higher Order Thinking Skills

Student led Socratic Seminar in LAL

Our school is going through the revalidation process to continue being an AVID National Demonstration School. Based on the feedback from a prior visits, the staff have been working on increasing Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS).

Starting this year, the AVID site team began providing weekly instructional practices, developed a Google Form to collect best practices, and they meet with me on a monthly basis to coach me how to use HOTS in the weekly email, staff meetings, and for teacher feedback.

We also began correlating the McREL Walkthrough data from last year as the compare the instances of remembering and understanding with analyzing and evaluating. The revalidation process has definitely caused our school to reflect on where we are and to improve in areas to make student learning better.

Here are Five ways we are increasing Higher Order Thinking Skills …

  1. Highlight areas where it is happening. Just because the administrator doesn’t see it in the walkthrough or in the observation doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. We created a Google Form to encourage teachers to share their HOTS on a weekly basis with the staff
  2. It starts at the top. This year I made a pact with our AVID site team to hold myself accountable to modeling Higher Order Thinking Strategies. Prior to meetings, weekly blog/email to staff, and professional development I share with the team and they help me to take it to the next level!
  3. Let the students take the lead. In the Google Form one of our advanced math teachers shared this powerful insight, ““Students were amazed at some of the great strategies they were taught by their peers. One of the best classes. I’ve had in awhile. The students taught each other and became competitive looking for better ways to solve problems.”
  4. Point of Confusion. This AVID technique is extremely powerful for students as they engage in their weekly tutorials. They identify an area they are struggling with and share it with their peers. Their peers are taught to use questions to assist the students in understanding and making connections with the material.
  5. If the teacher, then the student. We made this chart to help teachers and students make small changes to increase HOTS.
If the teacher…. Then the student will ….
Starts with why Know the relevance of the topic
Allows students to embrace the struggle Be able to implement Growth Mindset and participate in HOTS activities
Makes judgments based on criteria and standards` Use the text citations to support their claim
Identifies patterns or relationships See the interconnectedness of their learning
Plans questions ahead of time Be able to see concrete examples of HOTS Thinking
Allows student to produce knowledge learning takes place Students will add their original thinking and ideas
Asks questions with more than one possible answer and with evidence from the text Students will be challenged and have more opportunity to participate

This process is something that can be put into practice at any school or level. The most important aspect to this is the professional relationship between the staff and the administration with identifying and solving the problem collaboratively. Everyone becomes the expert and everyone improves!

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.

Summer School: It’s More Than Just the Grades

Officer Rick Kott speaking to the students about overcoming obstacles.

Two years ago our school implemented a Retention Policy. Prior to that, as I was told, we allowed students to be promoted with 2, 3, 4 failures in academic classes. Teachers were frustrated, students were being sent mixed messages, and parents were under the impression that No Child Left Behind meant we were unable to fail anyone.

The School Leadership Committee (SLC) worked for a year on drafting a Retention Policy. They looked at what surrounding schools were doing, did some research on the impact of retention, and eventually came up with a progressive Retention Policy. We implemented the policy in the fall of 2016. Students, parents and the community were made aware of the policy which basically retained 6th graders if they failed all 4 classes, 7th graders if they failed 3 or more classes, and 8th graders if they failed 2 or more courses. During the 16-17 school year teachers, guidance counselors and administration worked with students and parents on this policy. There were increased face to face meetings after each marking period, additional resources assigned to students and more referrals to the I and RS team. At the end of the year there were 8 students who were scheduled to be retained. Each of those students either transferred to another school or enrolled in our Alternative School. The SLC closely monitored the policy and ended up requesting that we revise the policy for the 17-18 school year due to a lack of rigor.

The revised policy for the 17-18 school year was far more rigorous than the previous year but there were additional assistance added in. The new policy, which was throughout all 3 grade levels, required any student who failed more than 2 year long classes to be retained, and anyone who failed 2 classes would be required to attend summer school. As we went through the year, we continued to monitor the academic progress of the students in danger of being retained, increased our contact with parents, and added in additional resources.

At the conclusion of the 17-18 we had 17 students retained and 38 students eligible for summer school. Due to some poor planning on my part, we also didn’t have a budget for summer school. I wasn’t able to hire any staff. I had to ask all the 12 month guidance and administration in the building to assist me in running the summer school. We were also very fortunate that our contract with the online learning platform Edmentum still allowed us to use the diagnostic program Exact Path. So, in a sense, the academics would be taken care of through the online program.

As we analysed the students who were eligible for summer school, we noticed a few trends. First, these students were not your likely candidates. Very few had high levels of discipline and even fewer had attendance issues. We scoured their report cards and read the comments from the teachers.  It was through this exercise that we were able to identify the main reason these students were in summer school. Want to take a guess at what the main factor was?

If you guessed motivation than you would win!

The major theme of the teacher comments on the students centered around motivation. It was not a case of “can’t do” but rather a case of “won’t do.” Armed with this data we developed a summer school that would get to the core of the issue for the students so that they could use this time to change their mindsets about school, learning, teachers, and most importantly, themselves.

We are only one week into the program and of the 31 students who chose to participate, we have a 90% attendance rate. Students are doing daily gratitude journals, practicing mindfulness, analyzing their 17-18 school year, and learning about the impact of growth vs. fixed mindset. They spend about half their time working on their academic areas of concern and the other half working on themselves. We show daily motivational videos and we have scheduled local community members to visit and talk with them about overcoming obstacles.

The 5 staff who are working the program have learned a lot in one week. As we have read through their essays and journals it has become clear to us that these students have so much to offer our school. Some of them are dealing with a mountain of obstacles both personally and in their community. They will admit that school was not their top priority but they are now seeing the value.

What will the next 4 weeks hold for the summer school? We hope that we continue to build the students motivation and understanding of their amazing potential. We will continue to expand their horizons and have them begin working on their service learning projects. There are even a few students who are going to be developing a presentation to the administration to show the staff based on the popular book If She Only Knew Me. Stay tuned for more as the summer school develops.

About The Author

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.

Visibility and Vulnerability

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

As a leader do you struggle with being visible? Is it difficult to be everywhere at the same time? Frustrated that the cloning software hasn’t kicked in yet? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, we are in the same boat!

I am fortunate to be teaching a graduate class at Rowan University this semester titled Education Organization and Leadership. One of our recent assignments was for the students to interview an administrator about the management of the building. The students wrote such compelling accounts from their interviews and inspired me to reflect on my own practice. I am so grateful for their inspiration!

Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. Brene Brown

In my first Principal position I rarely was concerned with my visibility. I was the only administrator in a building with 320 kids and about 40 full time staff during the day. There were 3 floors and about 22 classrooms. The front office and my office was connected by a sliding door. Moving throughout the building was relatively easy, and I was able to check in with staff on a daily basis. This was my life for 5 years. Believe me, there were difficult times and I am sure that amnesia has kicked in regarding my perception of visibility, but for the most part this was my world.

Fast forward to now as I get closer to my two year anniversary at Lakeside Middle School. I struggle with visibility. I am the building Principal with 3 vice principals, 120 staff during the day and 1,100 students with over 75 classrooms, two floors and 10 hallways. One hallway is literally a 1/4 of a mile. It is an exciting building to work in and there is never a dull moment.

What does the data say?

We use the McREL Walkthrough system and I was able to go back through to see how many walkthroughs I have completed in the past two years. I have done 205 classroom walkthroughs.

In that same time, I have formally observed about 75 staff with an average of forty minutes (some with pre-conferences and all with post conferences). I have attended about 25 PLC sessions. We have had monthly staff meetings, subcommittee meetings, department meetings, and about 10 Professional Development days.  In addition, I have done about 160 cafeteria duties (very few this yer) and have been out for countless class changes. I spend almost every morning and afternoon in the front of the school directing traffic and directing students.

According to my SAMs data, since October of 2016, I have worked about 2,300 hours. In 2016-17, I spent 53% in “instructional” time as compared to this year where I have spent only 40%. In both years I have spent about 30% of the time in “management” and about 3% in personal time (I rarely take lunches). Each year I average about 17% in “unscheduled” time which is basically me having difficulty recalling what I actually did.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change. Brene Brown

So what is the problem? 

Looking at the data above it appears that I am very active in the school building, but I have to admit that I have had staff members say the following to me:

  • “You still work here?”
  • “I haven’t seen you in ___ days”
  • “Well, at least you aren’t as bad as one of our previous principals, I didn’t see that person for 39 straight days one year. “
  • “Thanks for stopping by”

Honestly, the people who have said these things are not saying them in a mean or attacking way, but as someone who is constantly reflecting, it bothers me…. alot!

So now what? 

Since this has been bothering me for quite some time I have already begun to address the problem. Honestly, no one cares about the data I shared above. It doesn’t matter how big or small the building is, or how many walkthroughs or observations have been accomplished, if I don’t feel visible, the staff surely feels the same way.

Here is my game plan:

  • Being vulnerable and writing this post!
  • Use the SAMs program to it’s fullest. Adhere to the schedule even if it says “monitor class switches” or “visit staff and students”
  • Save email for later. Yes I get between 80-90 emails a day, but again, who cares? Schedule uninterrupted time to complete the email tasks when the building is less occupied.
  • Reduce meeting time by 20%. I have a lot of meetings in my office that can range from 45 minutes to an hour. I need to streamline these meetings to allow more time out of my office.
  • Try a “no office” day each month. This is something I could easily do with technology and wifi. My office can literally be anywhere for a day. There are 5 months left in the school year so I should easily be able to have 5 “no office days.”
  • Continue with the feedback cards. I started this on January 15 and I have been able to distribute about 30 cards. It has forced me to respond to staff about what I saw, what I wonder, and to acknowledge the great work going on in their classroooms!
  • Connect with staff and students beyond the walkthroughs and observations. Ask questions, listen, be present!
  • Be where the staff is (at sign in, sign out, common areas, etc)

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

I am excited about addressing these issues and more importantly sharing them with you. What advice do you have? What are some struggles you would want to share? Be sure to comment so we can get better, together.

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.

What happens when things go right?

I recently had the opportunity to hear Valorie Burton speak at the National SAM Conference. She began her talk asking the audience to reflect on this basic question that framed her discussion, “What happens when things go right?” What seems like an easy question can reveal a lot about how people look at the world. Sadly, there are so many people who would not be able to answer that question.

Burton discussed the research that points out that maintaining a positive outlook on your life can actually change your life and ensure that you would have less stress, anxiety and difficulty with change. Positive psychology will not prevent negativity in your life but rather it could help you to ground yourself as you experience difficult times in your life.

She asked two very powerful questions for us to reflect on:

  1. What do you need permission to give yourself permission to hope for?
  2. How do you define success?
  3. What happens to you when things go right?

These powerful questions can act as a guide as we experience the triggers that are prominent in our experiences. She encouraged us to stop trying to fix our weaknesses. We need to be kind to ourselves and focus on those triggers that prevent us from reacting (or over reacting) to situations. Valorie said that this way of thinking can start at any time. In fact, she said, “Today is a starting point!”

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.



Celebrate Two Staff Members a Day

Photo by Jony Ariadi on Unsplash

On a recent PrincipalPLN podcast, we interviewed “Principal In Boots” Lindsy Stumphorst. As we talked about her day, the question came up about balancing tasks. Lindsy shared a great idea that I am definitely implementing and maybe this could be something for other administrators to try.

Lindsy developed a system of recognition cards with her secretary to celebrate teachers throughout their building. He secretary keeps track of the list to ensure that everyone is included. When Lindsy comes into her office every morning there are two cards with teacher names. Lindsy’s sole mission for the day (on top of all of the tasks she already has) is to fill out the cards and get them to the teachers.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well, in order for the system to work, the Principal must be cued in on how and what the teachers are doing. It forces the Principal to focus on positive contribution of the staff and to spread out their time. We have about 90 days left in the school year so if I can implement this, I will be able to celebrate 180 (of course there will be duplicates) staff members by the end of the year.

I will be sure to check back in and let you know how I do. Thanks for reading!

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.

Book Review – From Leading to Succeeding!

Order this now 🙂

From Leading to Succeeding: The Seven Elements of Effective Leadership in Education By Douglas Reeves

Review – Spike C. Cook, Ed.D.

School leaders are constantly searching for a practical book with realistic opportunities to improve teaching and learning. From Leading to Succeeding: The Seven Elements of Effective Leadership is a book that will exceed the expectations of the reader. Be prepared to be inspired and to enact a systemic process of change that will benefit teachers, students and the school community. In short, this book should be required reading for all school leaders!

Reeves outlines seven elements that will assist leaders. The seven elements are purpose, trust, focus, leverage, feedback, change and sustainability. These comprehensive elements provide a scaffolding for leaders to take their organization to the next level and beyond. Reeves doesn’t take this opportunity lightly to assist leaders seriously being concrete with the application of these elements and more importantly why they exist.

Here is an overview of the seven elements:
What is the purpose within your organization? For instance, as you approach tasks as a leader are you able to articulate why something is worth everyone’s time and energy? Do you know what the end results will be? These are questions that Reeves delves into providing applicable answers.

When you think about your relationship with your staff or community is there a level of trust? Reeves points out that people will not be able to follow a leader that they do not trust. In addition, Reeves is able to challenge even the most well intentioned school leader to revisit the organization’s mission statement and how decisions can support or detract trust.

When was the last time you examined the initiatives in your school? Are you trying to do too much at once? In this section, Reeves helps school leaders to avoid the initiative fatigue that plagues school districts. His practical advice will cause school leaders to take a step back from the next shiny toy and develop a “less is more approach.”

In this section, Reeves helps school leaders to understand how and when to use their influence to improve the organization. In addition, he points out that school districts need to assess their standardized assessments and curriculum to determine which issue requires the most attention to yield the best results.

If immediate and frequent feedback to teachers is not common place in your school, you are running the risk to stifle improvement. Reeves challenges school leaders to help teachers go beyond right and wrong answers to being specific with feedback. He also provides technique suggestions on how feedback improves performance when given in a timely manner.

Have you ever wondered how you lead change? Do you have any idea whether you are effective in leading change? If you have, Reeves provides support and clear insight on how to not only manage but lead change in your school. Be ready to answer tough, reflective questions such as: what can you control, what will you change, and are you willing to be unpopular due to the change initiative?

Will your legacy be short lived or will it be an opportunity for the organization to be poised for long term, effective growth? Reeves expresses the research pointing out that school leaders do not have longevity. Therefore, it needs to be understood that decisions need to be approached with a higher level of consideration, will have long lasting impact on the organization, and can be met with cynicism.

In conclusion, if you are ready to do the hard work required to improve your organization, Reeves’s book will be a helpful tool to assist your leadership because it combines theory and practice as well as structured activities that will take you from Leading to Succeeding.

Butt-ing in Line (38:365)

source: lifehacker.com

source: lifehacker.com

Ask any elementary principal this question and I can guess their answer, “Do you have problems with kids in lines?” I guarantee you that everyone will say YES! I was thinking about this today when I saw yet another write up of a kid in line.


No one likes when kids butt in line. When I was a kid I didn’t like it and I am sure you didn’t either. I talk to kids all the time about butting in line. I ask Why so often. Why do you care? Why do you butt? Why did you step on their toe? Why did you push him/her? It’s not like teachers aren’t teaching it because I see evidence of their efforts. Teachers in early grades practice standing in line. They try different combinations of the line. There are line leaders, tails, trails and the strong middle. Everyone has a place. Everyone will get a turn. Yet it goes on and on.


Fortunately, the older I get, the less I have to stand in line. I find myself in lines if I am going to a busy concert, sporting event or a supermarket before a snow. I am thankful I don’t have to sit in traffic because some of those lines are long! I have been more than annoyed at adults who just can’t wait their turn and butt in line. When this happens, I think of what I tell the kids and try to find peace with it.


Somewhere along the line (no pun intended) it stopped mattering….



Are we there yet? When change takes time

source: www.wauwatosa.k12.wi.us

source: www.wauwatosa.k12.wi.us

This year we have transitioned from traditional faculty meetings to Professional Learning Communities (PLC). The reason for this shift is twofold. First, our new evaluation tool requires (if you want to get higher rankings) participation and leadership in a PLC. The second, and more important reason, is that we are ready! But this change did not come over night, it took time!


I want to thank not only my PLN, but also those advisers and mentors who encourage me to push the envelope and try new things. In preparation for this change, I was provided so many tools and resources. I was told to “trust the process” and “empower the staff.” I am so thankful to have a network of stakeholders willing to provide guidance!


source: www.hr-survey.com

source: www.hr-survey.com

Based on our needs, we established PLCs for Math, Language Arts, Technology(these take place during the first faculty meeting of the month) and PBIS, Healthy Schools and Family/Community Engagement (which takes place during the second faculty meeting of the month).

Each of the PLCs has a chair and co-chair that was selected this summer. Yet,anyone can choose to present or take on a leadership role based on their interests. The PLCs have an agenda and are required to record their minutes.

At the end of every meeting, the PLC must do  “plus/delta” to conclude their meeting. All minutes are then emailed to me and I send to the entire staff (eventually we will use a tool such as edmodo to chronicle our PLCs but we are not there yet). We are in the infancy of this model but it is clear that we are going in the right direction.

 I had leadership goosebumps

source: blog.speek.com

source: blog.speek.com

During our most recent PLCs, I found myself in a really great place. Honestly, I had leadership goose bumps. The conversation was thoughtful, and focused on continuous improvement. Teachers laughed, encouraged each other, discussed data, and made connections. I was impressed by the chairs who provided the framework for action research through their thoughtful integration of best practices, peer reviewed research, and technological resources that could be immediately implemented in the classroom. For instance, the Family/Community Engagement PLC used a tool I was not familiar with… Padlet! They used it to take notes and share their learning. I learned something new!  hashtag wow!


source: www.newcenturyeducation.org

source: www.newcenturyeducation.org

Honestly, we could have never engaged like this last year or the year before…. For one, I wasn’t ready! This transition is purposeful and takes a long time to build the capacity needed. As a principal, coordinating meetings in a de-centralized manner requires you to give up the traditional “control.” For some principals out there, it might difficult to up give that control… yet I see it more about giving control to those who matter most… your teachers!


Eventually, I would like to make these (and all PD sessions for that matter) voluntary. I feel that by giving teachers a choice on how they would like to develop professionally is the key to unlock the potential of true professionals! I can see in the future our staff getting beyond PLCs and creating something new based on their person and professional needs. We are not there yet…. yet!


Co-Authored by Celese Nolan (@litcoachmps), Instructional Coach, RM Bacon Elementary 

Micro-managing vs. sweating the small stuff?

In my previous post, We need to get down from the balcony and sweat the small stuff, I reflected on my evolving understanding of leadership in terms of being more connected with the details of student learning. Thankfully, the post initiated conversations both online and in person. I love it when a post can spark discussion!

source: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&docid=B8kFPlGYq4n55M&tbnid=oZhFxm4QJ2GsLM:&ved=0CAQQjB0&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.kraniumhr.com%2Fwhat-is-micromanagement%2F&ei=b-RVUpXvN_a-4AOR2YGIAQ&psig=AFQjCNHrV16h16qZQv94715rCS7VBgf9iA&ust=1381447090761891

source: http://www.kraniumhr.com/

I felt like I needed to revisit some of the concepts in sweating the small stuff. My interpretation of the small stuff is that we have to place importance on those things that move the organization forward. Some of these specific details such as the teaching standards, learning needs of students and importance of espoused theories vs. theories-in-use. In one of the follow up conversations, I was able to explain myself much clearer. One of the readers wondered if I was going to “micro-manage” more. Ugh, I never want to be viewed as a micro-manager. I stressed to this person that I was not going to become a micro-manager.


Then, as reflected more, I really thought about this question….


So what’s the real difference between micro- managing and sweating the small stuff?


 Here are some common attributes of a micro-manager:

  • They can nor or do not like to delegate
  • They spend time overseeing the process
  • They like to place value on little details as opposed to the bigger picture
  • They do not like people to make their own decisions


In contrast (or comparison) here are the attributes of sweating the small stuff:

  • The details of a project are important and can lead to a more effective outcome
  • The process should be followed and people should be held accountable for what they say they will do
  • Problems exist, and should be addressed before they become bigger
  • Ask the question…why?


As an employee I do not like to be micro-managed! Not sure who really does and I will not micro-manage as a leader. As a leader, I will sweat the details, ensure that things get accomplished, and if not, I will ask….why?

Dig the well before you are thirsty ~ Chinese Proverb

The Paradigm Shift: The Principal’s Evolving Role as Instructional Leader

Here is my PowerPoint for the presentation The Paradigm Shift: The Principal’s Evolving Role as Instructional Leader through the EIRC on July 17, 2013.


This workshop is designed to help school leaders find out how to…

  • Model 21st Century Leadership
  • Encourage staff to use tools to connect with parents and teachers
  • Redesign staff meetings to meet the needs of the common core
  • Make sense of digital curricula and how it impacts teaching and learning
  • Use data to drive school culture and climate
  • Use “Process-Centered” decision making