The Listening Test

I found an interesting set of notes this morning.  It dates back over two years and is titled, “First Family iPad.”

I had used iPads at work, but on this particular day, I brought home an iPad that I was also going to share with my children, both under 7 at the time.  When I took it out of my bag, they swarmed me.  My son had worked with an iPad at school, and my daughter certainly knew what one was.  I turned it on, went into the kitchen to make some coffee, and said, “have at it.”

In the kitchen, as my admittedly overly complicated coffee ritual (see image below this post) unfolded, I listened carefully to their first 20 minutes with the family iPad.  As I listened, I jotted.  And this is what I heard:

“Let’s use that app [garage band] to make a song.”

“Can we mush together those two sounds?”

“What’s this do?” (5 times, at least)

“Look what I did.”

“Look what I made.”

“Let me help you.”

“Let me show you.”

“I like what you made.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Just tap around and figure it out.”

“Drag it.”

“Copy that.”

“Make a note.”

“You have to speak very clearly into it.”

Looking at this list for the first time in a while makes me want to listen more in my home.  My kids get along as well as most siblings; they have moments of grace and its opposite.  But, in this case, they were doing all the things I want them to do when they learn: asking questions, trying things to see if they work, learning from successes and failures, collaborating, sharing their work, combining things to make new things, practicing, adjusting…

Looking at this list for the first time in a while makes me want to listen more in my classroom and my school.  What happens — what really happens — when students interact with all the technology, all the tools, all the special speakers, all the texts and lab materials and furniture provided by my school?  We invest money and time in all kinds of resources to spur student learning, but what do these resources encourage students say to each other?  What questions do students ask when they engage with these resources?  If we truly pay attention to what our curriculum and our school resources cause students to do and say, are we happy, proud, and even inspired?

Do our classrooms and schools pass the listening test?

My “admittedly overly complicated coffee ritual”:

Found here:

Closing Up Shop: 12/18/15

Today’s a special “edition” of Closing Up Shop because it’s the last day before Winter Break.  So I’ll be away from my desk until January 4, 2016.

So. . . what insight, earned by doing my job to the best of my ability, do I  want to keep for the future?

Schools empty out very quickly on the Friday before a long break . . . take note of the students who stick around, who don’t run home, and make sure to connect with them when school starts up again.  

Happy holidays, and thanks for reading!


The Most Valuable Resource

Last month, during in-service at my school, I had the chance to talk to our full faculty about some updates to our Professional Growth Process, a homegrown program that helps each teacher collect and process feedback throughout the school year.

I’ve written about this process elsewhere, and answered a lot of questions about it over the years, so I thought I’d share an amended version of my remarks and slides.  It makes for a long (slightly rambling) read about how one faculty tries to grow.



I’m hopeful that the changes to our PGP (Professional Growth Process) will seem necessary . . . and not too dramatic.  This isn’t a new initiative. By now, for most of us, it’s an old initiative in need of a haircut and maybe a slightly more serious exercise routine.

I chose those analogies carefully — because they are about reducing and simplifying.  The revision of the PGP started in earnest over the summer when the PGP Committee looked at a quotation from the world of software development.


We were trying to re-build something in a radically simple way — to clear away clutter and ensure that PGP time will directly benefit your work in the classroom, your work with students.  We were looking for the simplest set of rules to guide us.

But before I continue, I want to talk about the makeup of the committee that drives the PGP process:

The committee is comprised, and has always been comprised, of a mix of people from all three of our campuses. We insist on having faculty voices and administrative voices and voices that straddle those lines. This helps us to reach our goals as a committee: 1) to surface and vet the best ideas from outside the school, and 2) to listen closely to our own faculty, on all three campuses, as they use the PGP to learn more about themselves as teachers and their students as learners.

So since it’s inception, the PGP Committee has tried to wrestle with research about how educators and non-educators grow best.

We’ve looked at the work of Charlotte Danielson, Liz Wiseman, and John Hattie; been to a Project Zero workshop with Howard Gardner; read Doug Lemov on practice, Robert Kegan on adult learning, and countless other texts.  We’ve kept our eye on Harvard Business Review, Phi Delta Kappan, and Independent School magazine.

Such work has helped us to settle on practices that work for most of our faculty, most of the time.

Since PGP 1.0, the PGP has provided the opportunity for every faculty member to receive a variety of feedback every year.  The process honors the student voice and a kind of collegiality that is focused on thinking and talking productively about teaching and learning.

As a school, we clearly abide by Robert John Meeham’s dictum:


We have good administrators, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t get better as teachers because someone in authority tells us to.  And we don’t get better at teaching just because we walk into a classroom every day (studies show that we might actually get worse).  We certainly don’t get better because of a single, one-off evaluation.  In fact, the PGP committee was originally charged with marching us away from the conventional evaluation process used in so many schools . . . we were asked to find something better.

That’s why our classrooms are more porous than they used to be, why you could just as well be visited by a peer as by a supervisor, and why we are increasingly comfortable sharing our student evaluations of our own teaching, and our students’ work, with one another.  By helping us map the territory of our own blindspots, the PGP aspires to help us to better understand the true impact of our instructional choices.  That’s been true since PGP 1.0.


For me, one of the most resounding insights from our recent, and ongoing, accreditation and strategic planning process is that people who are outside our community have been so deeply impressed by the quality of conversations that happen within our community — the way we talk about our work and make decisions, the depth of our conversations and considerations.

The PGP Committee has always wanted to leverage this strength, and that is why PGP 2.0 moved the PGP from an individual concern to a more collaborative concern.


And that’s why we’ve devoted considerable in-service time, over the past few years, to debriefing various aspects of the PGP.

Conferring around feedback, as a key component of the PGP, was born of a recognition of the strength of our departments and our grade level teams, PreK – 12.  The committee wants to honor and extend the leadership of these teams, while acknowledging the countless ways people lead from within them.  We trust our teams, and our teams trust one another, forming crucibles for individual growth.

PGP 3.0 plans to capitalize on the successes of the first two iterations, sticking with the three feedback mechanisms that are grounded in research, sticking with the kinds of productive conferring conversations that we do so well . . . while trying to make things a bit simpler.

Also, we want to extend, in a way we see as logical, the best aspects of PGP 1.0 and PGP 2.0.  If you collect feedback carefully, and confer with your teams deliberately, you are primed for meaningful adjustment.


You are ready to try something new as a result of what you learned.  This is what we ask our students to do every day; this is what the PGP is now asking of us, as teachers.

This idea of adjustment is informed, in part, by the synthesis of Peter Sims, a Silicon Valley observer who advocates for the use of small changes, or little bets, to drive innovative practice.  As he writes . . .


To me, that sounds like what we do every day in our classrooms.  We may have a plan, or a direction, in mind . . . but we make adjustments based on what actually happens.

This shift to adjustment is informed, too, by the recommendations of good executive coaches, who tell clients that the best way to change – after a seminar or conference or class or counseling session or 360 degree evaluation – is to commit to a small adjustment.

And that’s crucial.  These adjustments need not be huge. As Doug Lemov writes, in a book about practice:


So, for example, you might learn from an observation that you should work on wait time.  That’s a small adjustment that could be very useful.  Or, you could do what one of our colleagues did last year.  After reading some research about the importance of Social Emotional Learning, he made a small adjustment that cost him very little but had a huge payoff — he stood at the door of his classroom every day and greeted each student by name as he/she entered the room.

The PGP committee hopes that foregrounding the process of feedback and conferring, with an emphasis on adjustment, will allow you, the faculty, to use the PGP to more directly impact the work you do in your classroom.

At the same time, we hope that such a process will seem so natural and intuitive that you won’t have to think of it as the PGP, or as an event.  We will all continue to collect seasonal feedback – peer observation in the fall, questionnaires in the winter, student work in the spring – but we also want to crystallize this process for anytime, or even everyday,  use.

If it helps you in a conversation with a peer, that’s great.  If it helps you in a conversation with a student, even better.  If it helps you with an advisee or a parent or a direct report . . . you get the idea.

So we’ve sharpened our process, and we hope,  made it more broadly applicable to our daily work.  And we have also clarified what’s driving the process.

We’re shifting our driver from a “What’s Your Question?” model to a “What’s Our Question?” model, with the shared question being: “How can I most significantly improve teaching and learning in my classroom?”


If this doesn’t seem earth shattering our groundbreaking, that’s good.  Remember where we started . . .


Sometimes the simplest things seem the most obvious . . .


…and yet, because we’re always so busy, simple things are the most difficult aspects of practice . . . to actually practice.

Think for a moment about your recent peer observation . . . or even your last few classes . . . or about some feedback you received in the past.  Now think about how you would answer the question about how you could most significantly improve teaching and learning in your classroom.  If I were to ask you to confer with the person next to you and then talk about a related adjustment, and then try that related adjustment, you’d be doing PGP 3.0.

The PGP committee hopes to create that opportunity for that kind of radically simple practice — time and time again.

Having one question that we all share allows for focus to shift when it needs to shift. You might bring something back from a conference that sends you down a different path, with a different answer.  And that’s fine. You might work with a colleague on a particular topic, and that’s fine, too.  You might read a book that sends you back into your classroom with a different focus.  You might spend a department meeting talking about the most significant thing you could do for learners in your discipline.

We’re sharing the same question not because we’re the same, and not because we hope to answer the question in the same way . . . but because we share the same students and the same mission.  We are also planning to adjust the feedback mechanisms of the PGP to ensure they are both as rich as can be and as radically simple as they can be.

Diane Hulse, who led our accreditation process and is now leading parts of our strategic planning process, asked my favorite question of 2015 during the recent strategic planning retreat. She asked, “what is one value that MKA would hold onto even if it started to hurt you in the marketplace?”

The answer I immediately thought of was our commitment to the growth of our faculty.  Our growth model has changed over the years, but I still remember being hired at MKA and the Headmaster at the time assured me that I would have the chance to get better here.  And that was true.  I know we say the same thing to everyone we hire today — and that it’s still true.

I’d also suggest that, in answering Hulse’s question, we wouldn’t give up on our belief in the long term, transformative power of what we do everyday.

Our shared question is a powerful reminder of the possibilities inherent in the very foundation of our school. How do we most significantly improve teaching and learning for young people?  Partially, by being a PK – 12 school and by leveraging the possibilities inherent in this set up.  On any given day, a Pre-K teacher might answer the question — about significance — differently than a senior English teacher, but that’s only because these two teachers are meeting the same students at very different stages of their development.

Constant adjustment and a commitment to mission, no doubt implies a tension.

We’re asking you to change when necessary, to know you have to grow continuously . . . to adapt, to make small bets.  But we’re also asking you to serve a mission that will not change . . . to play the long game of student learning, which in some cases, requires patience, persistence, constancy, and plain old faith that a student will arrive, in time, at the right place.

This tension has kept the PGP changing and kept parts of the PGP exactly the same.  Change is important.  Being consistent is important.  At a dynamic school with a strong tradition, growth doesn’t have to be an either . . . or.

In the past, the PGP led to a fair amount of talk about teaching; PGP 3.0 will ask us, at some point, to stop talking — to commit to small, significant adjustments and to really testing them when it counts — in authentic moments with students.  May such work remain messy, vibrant, and in progress . . .



Doing Your Thing

If you know me you know that I love to write. I also love to work at a school. On good days, these two passions line up, feed one another, intertwine like flames in a fireplace.

So when I remember my education, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I can point to a handful of moments where teachers helped me understand writing as a key part of my identity. I’m not saying they all made the best moves at the best moments — a teacher once ripped me out of a chair by my collar because I was doodling with words — but I do think I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of the people I bumped into along my sometimes public (K – 8) sometimes private (9 – 16) schooling.

I remember writing a story in 3rd grade. It was called, “Time to Go to Bed, Oh Rats!”  When I was writing this story, the process itself grabbed me. I didn’t write the story; the story wrote me. I could see the story in my mind, and I knew exactly which words I was supposed to use as I worked the story — as the story worked me — toward completion. It didn’t matter that I was doing an assignment for school, that I was doing homework instead of shooting baskets. I was getting the words right. In that moment, that mattered. It was all I could see of the world.

I turned in the assignment, and a few days later, my teacher pulled me aside. She told me my story was good — made sure I knew it was good. She said, “you’ve really done something here.” She met my eyes even when I tried to look everywhere, anywhere, else.

Then, a few years later, I lost my way. It’s funny to say that because I was only in fifth or sixth grade, but that’s what happened. Again I had to write a story, and this time I was trying to impress a friend. He was tough, hated school, hilarious, and the reason my teacher had written home that “Steve is hanging around with the wrong crowd.” I wrote a story about two young boys who got ahold of a fast car and played football and skipped school. When I showed my wayward muse some lines before turning it in, he laughed — but not that hard — and then punched me in the arm.  I felt sore, but I wasn’t sure which punch made me feel that way.

I turned in the assignment and forgot about it until my teacher pulled me aside. I smiled to myself and started to blush a little bit; I knew this routine; I braced myself for the praise that would follow. But it never followed. This teacher had apparently looked at my writing from the previous grades and even chatted with some of my previous teachers . . . and she basically told me that I hadn’t improved, that I had let her down, that I had let myself down. I remember feeling a sense of shame. That’s the only word for it. I had taken something that was really important and special to me, my writing, and I had compromised it in order to be cool.

A few years later, another teacher pulled me aside and told me that I should go to a creative writing conference coming up at a local school. To apply, I had to submit a collection of poems. I was writing a lot at that point, trying my hand at sonnets and assorted rhyming verse. I was accepted to the conference, and during my one-on-one meeting with the director, he told me I shouldn’t use rhymes in my poems because modern poets didn’t use rhymes in their poems. He went on to quote and talk about a handful of poets I had never heard of and trashed my (then) heroes, Frost and Dickinson and Blake.

I went back to my own school the next day and didn’t mention any of this exchange to my teacher; in fact I didn’t even acknowledge that I had been to the conference. I was embarrassed and thought I had failed my teacher in some way. She believed in me. She picked me. She sent me to a poetry conference and the man who ran it, the man who had his name on the program, didn’t like my poetry.

Sure enough, a few days later, she asked me about the conference. I put my head down and mumbled. Luckily, this teacher was spunky and even a little mischievous (we knew this even then) and I remember her telling me, with no hesitation and pure confidence, to forget the director. He was entitled to his opinion, but he was just one person. She liked my poems and she thought I should keep doing my own thing, regardless of what the “directors of the universe” (she really spoke like this) thought of it. Afterwards, she wrote me a lovely note — in rhyming verse.

I no longer write in rhyming verse, but when I get the words right, when some crackle of life yips from a sentence I type, I often remember these three teachers. They took the time to work with me outside the curriculum, beyond the grade, in the nooks and crannies of time that can be really hard to find in a packed school day. They took the time to say, to make me know, this is your thing, that’s not your thing, keep doing your thing.

I’m proud to work in a school that recently rewrote its Mission Statement to include this line: “Our faculty’s deep and genuine understanding of our students as individuals and as learners fosters their ethical development, intellectual growth and personal success.” I continue to derive great joy from a near-daily writing practice. Teachers of mine, who had a deep and genuine understanding of me, gave me this gift.  I doubt anything in my education has mattered more.