Saturday Success Program Week 2: It’s all about learning

Completed success with the tangrams

I have learned that the purpose of this program is create opportunities for our learners to achieve success! Believe me….. the tasks this week were frustrating (All the teachers have to do the activities and experience the frustration along with the students).


Our morning activity was a lesson on metacognition (how we process new information). The students did an exercise that allowed them to experience the metacognitive process (mull, connect, rehearse, express, assess, reflect, revisit and learn). I learned this exercise through working with Let Me Learn, an organization whose mission is to research and provide insights into the learning process.


In math and language arts, in addition to the allotted time on Success Maker, the students were presented with problem solving activities through the use of Tangrams. Our teachers assisted the students through the process as they experienced frustration with the task. All students eventually solved their Tangrams puzzles and were elated! This lesson integrated percentages, spatial sense, vocabulary, angles and revisited a variety of math concepts.



In the Problem Based Learning, we asked the students to reflect on three simple questions:

  1. What makes school hard for you?
  2. What would you do to show your teacher you learned something
  3. What activities do you like to do outside of school? How would you show a friend how to do that activity?


The discussion on learning was very interesting. The students were able to make connections about how they learn things naturally and how they are required to come out of that comfort zone in school.  Next week will build on their learner-awareness and they will begin to formulate their ideas on how they can help close the achievement gap!


Our final activity was Silly Cup. We split into 4 teams and we had to flip a cup over so it was right side up. Of course our team won, but eventually every student completed the activity and they all got to keep their cup. The students and teachers were cheering each other on, and we ended the day on a very positive note.

How about we let the kids figure out the achievement gap?

We started a Saturday program at my school in order to provide students with additional academic remediation, support, and some fun. I know that some of you might think this is just another “test prep” venture to raise scores considering we identified specific students, and it’s April…. You would be both correct and incorrect (or maybe it is just how you define test prep).


Here is a little information about the program. We have targeted about 30 students in grades 3, 4, and 5 to provide math and language arts remediation through a very effective tool. The tool that we use is SuccessMaker which is a digital learning curriculum that is designed to assess, remediate and instruct based on the Common Core and New Jersey Model Curriculum. In addition to the online instruction and assistance, we have teachers who work with students individually on their specific needs. SuccessMaker can develop specific lessons for the teachers and students to master. Additionally, SuccessMaker also facilitates 21st century learning as the students are required to use high levels of Blooms Taxonomy to solve problems while also providing them with the experience for taking the online assessments such PARCC.


But there is more to our program then SuccessMaker. First, team-building and cooperative learning activities are embedded within the structure of the program because we feel urged to not only address the academic needs but also the social and emotional needs of our learners. We want them to feel confident as they approach problems and situations that involve critical thinking.  Since we have the students grouped into three teams, we wanted to continue to push the envelope and challenge the students, and that is where Problem Based Learning comes in.


For our “problem”, the students are going to have determine why there is an achievement gap and what they can do to “solve” the problem. During the first session,  we presented them with the challenge and what the end result could look like (an invention, commercial, iMovie trailer, etc.). We also asked them to define what is a “problem” and why are some students achieving while others are not. For instance, in order to engage them in self reflection (we all know that kids like to point fingers), we asked the students this question, “Who is responsible for the achievement gap… is it parents, teachers, principals or students?” Most, if not all the students said the responsibility falls on themselves. Their rationale for owning the problem included items such as low self esteem, not paying attention, and not taking school seriously.


Over the next few weeks the students in PBL will be presented with data about the achievement gap as well as what adults say about the achievement gap. Ultimately, the students will solve this problem and present their findings to parents, teachers and other students at our culminating event on May 11.


I will make sure to report back on their progress each week as well as their solutions to this age old problem… why do some students achieve while others do not…..



Are you a producer or consumer?

Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context.An insight that manifests itself suddenly, such as understanding how to solve a difficult problem, is sometimes called by the German word Aha-Erlebnis. The term was coined by the German psychologist and theoretical linguist Karl Bühler. It is also known as an epiphany. Source: Wikipedia

When I read Insights Into Action, I was hooked from the introduction. Bill Sterrett asked himself this very reflective question… “Am I really prepared for this?” I know that every school leader has wrestled with this question from time to time and for Bill to begin his book with that question was powerful. There are times when being a school leader is isolating and challenging. Throughout the book, Bill provides concrete examples of how to address the isolation and challenges. He needs us to take action!


I felt many parallels to Bill’s experiences as a school leader.  Bill was the principal of a Title 1 school in Virginia, challenged with the task of improving student achievement with limited resources. He had a very supportive superintendent, and was encouraged to take risks. Sound familiar?(If you have followed my blog you will see the striking similarities) So Bill challenged himself to tell his story, even going so far as telling me in a recent Skype conversation that we need more school leaders to be producers, not just consumers. Bill’s epiphany was clear, we all have insights into the education system, but how many of us are taking action?


Insights Into Action will be a quick read for anyone who is interested in a succinct framework for being a more effective leader. Bill integrates his interviews with some of the most influential practitioners of our age. You will read stories from:

  • Baruti Kafele, a vision-oriented, high energy school leader who provides his cell phone number to students, parents and teachers.
  • Rick DuFour, one of the leading proponents of being a learning leader through the use of PLCs.
  • Alex Carter, a Milken National Educator and coauthor of The Insider’s Guide to High School, as he discusses the crucial role Professional Development plays in leadership development.
  • Bill’s former superintendent Pamela Moran, the superintendent of Albemarle County Public School who is an author, presenter and active blogger as she discusses how technology as enhanced critical thinking skills.

Each chapter is organized in a way that allows the reader to reflect on their current practice, and then develop an action plan for improvement. I am excited about my action items I garnered from this book:

  • Start a book club with my colleagues (Insights Into Action) to enhance our professional practice together.
  • Continue to tell the story of my school, and district so that others may learn.
  • Schedule monthly walkthroughs with my colleagues to discuss instruction

“Even though we have busy schedules,” Bill said, “We need to be mindful of the importance of producing, not just consuming.”


What are you going to produce? 

The next frontier of reform: Just do it (right)

During the 2013 ASCD in conference in Chicago I was able to see one of my favorite speakers, Bryan Goodwin. Bryan, who was recently promoted to Chief Operating Officer of McREL and is a regular contributor to Education Leadership, discussed his take on the next frontier of reform.

Bryan began his presentation by asking a question about education reform… How well are we equipped with implementation? I could see his point because we often talk of ideas, espouse our theories, and pontificate on what is right… but do we know how to implement? Measure the implementation?

Knowing is not the same as doing

The objectives for his presentation were….

  • Identify common faulty assumptions about implementation
  • Provide you with new ways of thinking about implementation
  • Practical tips and guidance for better implementation

Bryan talked about some research that he conducted on the “Gold standards of studies” regarding programs to increase student achievement. The results were lackluster. What stood out to Bryan and his team was that the implementation had a significant impact on the the results. It left him with more questions then answers…

if we know better, why don’t we do better?

Bryan reviewed 5 implementation fallacies….

  • Truth shall set them free (When people know what to do, they will do it) -Professional Development doesn’t always work – Do people always automatically adopt new methods? He researched PD and found that just by telling people what to do (study the theory or demonstration or even practice) yields little in transferring the knowledge into the pedagogy  Yet, the research was clear that Peer Coaching has 95% transfer rate (Joyce & Showers,2002).
  • Talk slower and lower (Fear, facts and force overcome resistance)  – Bryan asked us a simple questions… Would you change or die? How many people out of 10 would change or die? The research shows that only 1 would actually change their behavior. What makes us change? Seeing how the change is possible, experiencing success and emotional support.
  • Shock and awe (Doing more does more) –What does your school implementation plan look like? Bryan showed us a few slides of various school districts’ implementation plans for school improvement. We were all amazed at how long the list grew (and what was put in the list)…. I think one slide had 50 or more implementation strategies (more like ideas) for improving reading… How could you possible achieve all 50 plus ideas?
  • Running before walking (ignoring improvement progressions) –  What is your progression? Mourshead, M (2010) researched how the world’s most improved systems keep getting better. For instance, aviation success rate is 99.999%. Standard Operating Procedures(SOP) ensure that the progression is always followed… What are your SOPs for continuous classroom improvement?
  • Focusing on the what, not the who (ignoring culture) – So much reform, so little change. Who have beat the odds, and actually improved schools? According to Bryan, the schools who have turned themselves around have somethings in common… Each has a culture of high expectations for learning and behavior. What is the secret sauce of improvement?  Culture is the secret sauce of school implementation!

Bryan then transitioned into discussing how implementation can be achieved…. He recommended that we read Start With Why by Simon Sinek.


No one buys what you do, they buy why you do it

Here are some suggestions Bryan offered us on implementation..

  • Focus – Do a few things well.
  • Challenge, engage, be intentional and motivational
  • Develop data-driven “high-reliability” systems
  • Create high-performance school cultures
  • Provide whole-child student supports
  • Seek quick wins with a 6 week cycle
  • Don’t do the Forrest Gump for learning (Box of Chocolates)

As I processed the presentation with my colleagues, our curriculum coach said, “We need to stop resting our laurels on excuses, and shift our mindset into a “can do” culture. This is how we can improve our implementation!”

For more information:

Bryan Goodwin on Twitter

Education Leadership 




Egg-Possible is Nothing!

“Doc” Bunny visited RM Bacon and had the kids estimate the amount of jelly beans in the jar for a clue to the Egg Hunt treasure

Ask any educator about the week before Spring Break and you will most likely get a similar answer. Even though it comes at different times each year, it always happens at the “right” time. Everyone needs a “break” from each other….

This year, we packed a few egg-tivities into our pre Spring Break Week.  We had a 5th grade math challenge, Students vs. Teachers Hockey Game, life cycle of a chick, egg dying, egg experiments,  egg tossing, scrambled eggs and the most intense Egg Hunt we have ever experienced (thanks to @mrsbensonsbunch for coordinating). The best part of the Egg Hunt was the prize waiting for each class when they finished… a new basket of toys for recess (courtesy of our Home and School Association).

In continuing with our schools’ dedication to “telling our story” we put together a video to show the lighter side of the week (the 9 minutes is well worth it because you see the Harlem Shake, the Wobble, and a lot of shenanigans)

Life Cycle of a Chicken

Mrs. Simpson also teachers students about Russian artifacts!

Egg-cited for Spring Break!

5th Grade Math Challenge

The 2012-13 theme for our school is “Impossible is Nothing!” but this week it was “Egg-possible is Nothing!”

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…..