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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Letter to the Christie Staff

Dear Christie Staff,

I love to have fun - to have a lot of energy. I love to get overly excited about 3D printers and new paint. I love to celebrate the small things. I love to play games and make mistakes, change my thought process on a dime, and think 10 steps ahead. But most of all - I love to laugh...and in this profession, sometimes if we don’t laugh the alternative is to cry -

Yet...while I do believe in having fun, there is something I want you all to be certain of...when it comes to you, when it comes to your success...which results in the success of our students...I take things very seriously. Because here is the thing, I want our students to go to the best school in this state. That is where I have set the bar, the very best -

That said, for me...the best school doesn’t necessarily mean the school with the highest test scores on STAAR or the largest growth rates on MAP (Although it never hurts to try) - The best school doesn’t mean the school with the highest parent involvement, endless amounts of money, or the newest technology in every class. No...the best school, the very best, is the school where every person on staff, from the classroom teacher to the unsung paraprofessional, has the same belief - that we love our kids, and each one is going to be successful this year and every year after.

For me, the best school is one filled with colleagues not afraid to take risks, make mistakes, to learn from failure, or to believe in every child no matter what. The best school is filled with staff members refusing to judge or ridicule the people working so hard beside them, and truly accept them for the not-perfect people they are. The best school only has teachers who are always looking for ways to improve, to reach that struggling learner, and to learn something new. Teachers who can’t help but worry about that student who literally refuses to do anything, even when you said please, and gave him Cub Cash, and a Rachel’s Challenge link, and gave him choice, and used proximity control, and praised him in class, and then called home with a complement thinking that would get him to like you… The best school is the school that never gives up, never makes excuses, and understands that above all else, together...anything is possible.

There is nothing in this world like being an elementary school teacher. You would think in college, while we were looking into the profession, we would have stopped and said….”So let me get this right, you are telling me if I go into teaching I have to work with students, AND parents AND other teachers. That I won’t be rich. That students won’t just want to sit down and work hard because I say please. That even with summers off I will still end up working more hours than the average business man/woman each year. That I will be required to be a master teacher in math, science, social studies, reading, writing, health, technology AND citizenship, manners, and how to be a friend. That I will rarely get a Thank You, and many of my parents will be pretty sure they know more about my job than I do. Oh, and I may get a principal that likes change.”

Here is the crazy part - our soon-to-be professor would have said, “Well, Yeah.”

And our response? “Well, sign me up.”

Let’s face it, you just have to be a different kind of person to do this job. Because the truth is, it is hard enough when we are not striving to be the best. But here is the thing...that is exactly where the bar has been set.

This afternoon you heard about the idea of mindset and praise. Let me be clear, we need to build up our students. We need to help our students form a self-efficacy that will carry them well into the future. We just need to be authentic and honest in our praise. We need our students to understand that we don’t love them because they are perfect, or because they got all A’s. No, they need to know that we loved them even before they tried, that we are going to celebrate the process, and expect great results along the way.

Christie staff, I am not going to lie to you. We are taking risks both now and in our future. We are going to welcome technology owned by the kids into our classrooms. We are going to utilize project based learning for the first time K-5. We are going to work with instructional coaches to become better teachers in the areas we have room to grow. We are going to teach differently, try new things, and learn through every step of the way. We are going to focus on writing in every subject. We are going to teach our students how to be both digital and personal citizens. We are going to work hard, maybe shed a few tears...but we are going to do it together.

We WILL be the best school in this state. I truly believe that. Our kids deserve the best. You deserve the best.

Each day I come to Christie hoping to serve you all to the best of my ability. De’Cole and I want nothing more than to say this: At Christie we may not be perfect, we may make mistakes, and we may even take a risk or two that doesn’t pan out the way we hoped...But we did it together. We did it as a team...because we truly understand that together, anything is possible.

For us, that anything is the success of every child, no matter what -

It is a privilege to serve and support you,


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Journey from Library to Learning Commons

The library, at one time, was the center of the school building. It's where knowledge was held, books were shared, and ideas were generated. It was quiet, to the point that mini-lessens were taught about the edict required while in the confines of this environment. A library in 1980 could look very similar to one today - Why is this? Nothing else has stayed the same...our students are different, technology has changed the way we gain information, and brain research has restructured our approach to the way students gain and understand information. At Christie, we were ready to transform our library to a Leaning Commons, and to once again make our library the center for learning.

Before I begin it is important to note that everything we have done, all that was created, was due to Christie’s amazing teachers and supportive parents. Our teachers take risks, embrace technology, implement new ideas, and embrace change daily. I am so lucky and blessed to work with a wonderful assistant principal in De’Cole Kelly and such remarkable teachers and leaders…to them I say thank you…

One of the things I love most about education is our willingness, and even love, of sharing information. We share our trade secrets – and while in business that would be a foolish thing to do, it is one of the most important driving factors of our educational system. Sharing ideas builds success, and together we can do anything.

A colleague of mine, @matthew_arend, recently wrote a great blog post about his creation of a makerspace. As I was reading his well-written post I realized I needed to follow in his footsteps; I too needed to share our process of moving from Library to Learning Commons.

I wish I could take credit for the beginning idea of changing the way we use our library, but I can’t, it all started with @LorraineShimizu. As a principal, and attendee of a phenomenal visioning institute in Texas, Lorraine asked one question…How can we change our library from a quiet place where kids get books, to a heavily used and exciting place where kids learn? She visited several campuses across the Dallas metroplex, and decided she wanted to move in the Learning Commons (LC) direction. As life sometimes does, things changed, Lorraine was promoted, and I was given an opportunity of a lifetime…to become the new principal of Christie Elementary.

As a new principal I was ready to move forward with our LC. But where to start? Our library was large, space wasn’t a problem, but the white walls and old murals (which were nicely done I might add) didn’t paint an image of active learning…

So here is what I knew: I wanted to create a Learning Commons for ALL kids. A place where it didn’t matter what students had, where they came from, how many parents were at home, or what they did or didn’t have for breakfast. A place where the playing field is leveled, where every idea is valued, and any student can be successful. Here is what I didn’t know: What I wanted from the environment, what the teachers wanted from the environment, what our community and students wanted from the environment, what it could look like, how I would pay for it, and where to even start.

My first step was a good one, I started with someone who was already passionate about STEM, makerspace, Problem Based Learning (PBL), and technology integration in the classroom. That person was @jess_malloy, Christie’s science specialist. Together, Jessica and I painted a mental picture, a broad vision really, of what the space could look like.

Once the base for a vision was created – I had many conversations with my team leaders, teachers, students, PTA, parents, local businesses, churches, and other schools. Conversations about what we wanted in our LC – In essence: What activities/experiences would be most beneficial for our students? This list included: Makerspace, green screen video, Lego robotics, Makey Makey, collaboration center, Little Bits, Hexbugs, question board, research lab, cardboard creation, reverse engineering, iPad tech-bar, coding, iMovie center, drama/puppet area, and more…

We knew what we wanted, the dream was set, our PTA was on board, but we needed money and community support. So what did we do? I worked with @jess_malloy, @kristinransom, and @mike_svatek to make a video introducing our LC…yup, and NOTHING was actually done. Big risk to say the least.

Fundraising. Big challenge. At this point I should probably mention that my campus is a Title One campus…So like many campuses we were going to need to work hard to raise money. With the PTA’s support...our teachers, community, and parents rose to the occasion, and raised enough money to redesign and furnish our Learning Commons. Not only that, but Chase Oaks Church worked with the city to help collect used iPads and smart phones to be donated to our school.

With money designated for the Learning Commons, it was time to design, plan, and achieve. Much of this fell on the shoulders of @jess_malloy –

Step One: Paint. A significant change from white to purple, orange, yellow and turquoise took place.

Step Two: Order furniture and find temporary furniture. Mary Hewitt (@mkhewett), Executive Director of Instructional Technology, spent time researching, designing, and ordering amazing furniture for our LC. So while we waited for our furniture to arrive, we used temporary folding tables.

Step Three: Makerspace – @mike_svatek donated his time and energy to build four amazing tables/workbenches. The movable tables come together and separate to create a perfect building environment. A parent donated toolbox, PTA provided tools, and a ton of cardboard makes for an amazing learning environment.

Step Four: Stations and Green Screen – Enter @jess_malloy once again. She created station cards, think tanks, and activities so our students could fully utilize the space.

Step Five: Alphabet Wall. Enter teachers and their creativity. Christie teachers looked for and found some very cool letters to make this wall.

Step Six: Lego Wall. At 14 feet long our Lego wall is pretty amazing. We wanted to create a wall large enough to show an entire class’s designs and final products.

Step Seven: Explore Sign and Four C’s. Big thank you to Susan Dykes for making the Explore sign, and @mike_svatek for putting it up. Also, the PTA for paying for our painting’s to go up.

Step Eight: Our Learning Commons sign and entrance sign. Once again thank you to our PTA for paying for this and @jess_malloy for designing it.

Step Nine-Step ?: We just keep adding with more to come… Much of our furniture arrived, a Giving Tree (@LillyJensby idea) where parents can pick a leaf with a LC need written down, Keva Planks, Lego Table, and whatever the future holds.

To see the whole picture without new furniture:

While we still have a long way to go, this has been an amazing six months. I look forward to many more months of risks taken and changes made for our students. Thank you @modisette214, @dantzlersusan, @lorraineshimizu, and @reneegodi for your support and leadership.

I need to thank @swintonmary, @belindakinney, @danpbutler, @matthew_arend, @EdleadS, @skimbriel, @nancywtech, @bishopeducate, @zhpruett, @techclara, @leahpendleton, @brittainka, @mathneil, and @shiftparadigm for all your ideas - I have also learned so much from Twitter EdChats like #TXeduchat, #PISDEdChat, #IAEdChat, #FLEdChat and #aussieED.

Also, thank you teachers for all you do and bring to Christie! @ArmstrongTeach, @jess_malloy, @kristinransom, @mike_svatek, @bilingual_coach, @csander15, @kayleypults, @lillyjensby, @firstteacher23, @lindahigbee1, @twingmom, @jenniferr053, @beadles56, @christinekallm1, @hrobertsfirst, @karafields8, @mrs_paopao, @carriecormack, @fifthgradebrown, @rebomgardner, @kabownds, @morganramsey03, @stephy703, @kpattonmusic, @spechyacularinK, @bauchummusic, @mccallender1, @cmassey723, @bellbeuerlein, @kglewis7171, @sassykj5, @sassydoss, @chitownteacher1, @aparsonsfourth, @rticeart, @tmalbracht, @aharveymitchell, @batoolabbaas3, @scgben, #christielearns @christiecubs

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Student Success Debate

Four years ago I found myself in the middle of a debate with a fellow teacher about whether or not one of her students was successful in her classroom. I was trying to point out that her child was successful, and she didn't see it that way.

“So let me get this straight,” she said, clearly agitated by the debate. “If Brian gets A’s on all of his assignments because he worked hard and did his best you would consider him successful right?”

“It depends,” I replied, “If the A’s represent a true picture of his understanding of the content, showing he has grown as a student, then yes, he is, without question, successful.”

“Ok, so how can you say Elizabeth is successful when she is getting C’s on her assignments when she was a C student last year?” She asked, in a tone that had just a hint of victory coming though.

“Because last year, despite getting C’s, Elizabeth worked hard and grew leaps and bounds in her understanding of each subject area, especially in Reading, where she jumped three grade levels in her comprehension. This year she is also getting C’s, but she is working hard, and has consistently shown an understanding of the material.” I continued, “So how can you say she is not successful when she has shown growth all year?”

“Easy,” she retorted, “C’s do not point to success!”

“Don’t they? Let me break this down…Does she work hard?” I asked.


“Has she been learning all year?”


“Have you been able to see the growth in her learning?”


“So why is she not successful?” Now the tone of victory could be found in my voice.

There were really two things being debated in our discussion, what constitutes as success? And do grades tell the whole story?

More to come...