Strengths-Based Feedback

For many, the New Year is a time to focus forward on growth — the learning and habits that will make our lives better both personally and professionally.  Nicole Vagle’s post on strengths-based feedback caught my attention, and I thought it had great advice for building our students’ strengths.  Reflecting on her advice, however, took me back to a teaching failure that I will never forget.  This year’s writing will begin with transparency and a story about the important things we can learn from our students.

Her comment stopped me in my tracks.  I had just passed essays back, and one of my honors student moaned, “Ms. Thompson, don’t you ever put anything good on our papers?”  In my mind, helping them to become better writers meant drawing their attention to the areas that could be improved, and even though I thought I had also put positive comments, it obviously was not true for this student.  My improvement started that day, and from that major failure (and that student’s honest feedback), I became a better educator as I got better at acknowledging students’ strengths in their writing.

Here’s why this is so important.  According to research by Susan Brookhart, when students are more confident, they will achieve at higher levels, they will be more open to feedback that helps them improve, and it fosters a sense of possibility (2013).  Isn’t that what all of us want?

From failure comes growth.  Building on students’ strengths is a core belief, and it took a student’s feedback to make me aware of how I could improve.  Thank you, Starsha.  You helped to make me a better teacher.

For more on strengths-based assessment, go to Strength-based Practices Increase Achievement and Confidence.

Building a Culture of Reading

Day One Sets the Tone

Providing daily class time to read shows students that we value their regular engagement with reading. . .  Just ten minutes of daily reading can have a significant impact.” (29)
Start right away to get to know students as readers and learn what they need” (30)
Gallagher, Kelly, and Penny Kittle. 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Heinemann, 2018.


After a quick welcome, Orem Jr. students started their first day of school with a book browse.  Piles of books sat on each table, and as students rotated, they added titles to the list of books they’d like to read.  One class coordinated with the teacher librarian who brought in books organized by genre.

What did you do this last week to encourage a love of reading in your students?

Day 1 book browsing at Orem Jr.

Onward . . . Reflection on Assessment

It’s the idea of balance that pulls at me as I write this post.  It’s an attempt to bring together ideas from three very separate texts that I’ve read – two of them today.  My key takeaway is that it has solidified my belief that a balanced approach (to just about anything in our lives) is the best method because it is developed from the strengths of various perspectives.  It’s the gold that comes from refining thought.

In Student-Centered Coaching at the Secondary Level, Diane Sweeney presents three coaching models:  student-centered coaching, teacher-centered coaching, and relationship-driven coaching.  Student-centered coaching held the biggest draw for me because it focused on collaboration and using evidence to ensure that our students master the standards.  Teacher-centered left a negative influence because its focus is evaluative — moving teachers toward implementing a program or instructional practice.  Relationship-driven held some interest because the coach provides support and resources, which is something I hope to be able to do this next year.  However, data is rarely used, and “sharing” comes into play with things — technology, textbooks, and programs which strikes me as impersonal.

In a totally unrelated blog post, Carol Black writes about “Children, Learning, and the ‘Evaluative Gaze’ of School.”  In it, she relates a personal experience from fifth grade when she shared with her mother that “I just realized that you should never do anything you love for school, because that will make you hate it!”  What the author realized is that the constant scrutiny over the assessment of work, takes the focus away from learning and toward evaluation.  It’s this constant “scrutiny” or assessment that is hurting our kids.  As psychologist Peter Gray puts it, “Evaluation, when it is not asked for, and when it has consequences as it does in school, is a threat. It narrows the mind… it inhibits new learning, new insights, and creative thought—the very processes that some people think school is supposed to promote.” [Italics are my own].  As we move toward our district’s vision for deeper learning, I worry about a conflicting focus on assessment.  Is the answer in finding a better balance in order to reap the benefits of meeting academic standards while still focusing on critical skills and keeping a love of learning alive?

I believe part of the answer comes from Elena Aguilar in her new book Onward:  Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators.  In the appendix, she provides a Habits and Dispositions of Resilient Educators self-assessment which asks about how strongly you feel about that habit or disposition using a 1-5 point scale.  Then, she follows with a reflection:

  1.  What, if anything, surprise you after doing this self-assessment?
  2. Based on this self-assessment, what implications are there for how you engage with this book?
  3. In which habit do you most want to make growth?

What fabulous questions!  It’s the “What?”, “So What?”, “Now What?” formula that can drive any action plan.  When we’re clear about where we were on the self-assessment, and we have to look at the implications for practice, how can we not grow?  Why don’t we turn over more of the assessing to our students using something as simple as a three-question reflection?



What Can You Stop Doing?

       Week three’s #IMMOOC challenge came from these questions:

          What can you start doing? 

          What can you stop doing?

           What can you improve?


I’m going to start with the “stop doing” one.  This is a tough one for teachers and one that I don’t think gets enough emphasis.  The common refrain I hear is that it’s always “one more thing” whether that’s integrating technology, assessment for learning, new standards, deeper learning pedagogies, etc.  What are the most crucial changes and what’s getting in the way of that getting done?   Contine reading

What If?

Asking powerful questions sparks conversations that can lead to endless possibilities and potential for growth.  In Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius, Katie Martin opens with the question, “What if?”

Learner-centered innovation is all-inclusive – students, teachers, and administrators.  What if we were all learning together?  How would that change our schools?  What if being learner-centered was truly at the core of our vision?  What would need to change? Contine reading

Innovator’s Mindset Week 2 Reflection

Networking has been crucial to my growth as an educator,  and I’ve been exceptionally blessed by the people I’ve met and learned from.  Twitter, blogs, and conferences have provided important ways to connect to lead learners and extend my PLN in ways that weren’t possible just a few years ago.  For me, the innovation that is new and better than what previously existed is the power of collaboration through a connected learning community.  It is no longer just my team — it consists of educators and administrators from around the world.

It was through a conference that I first met George Couros.  In 2014 he was a keynote speaker at UCET (part of an all-Canadian duo with Dean Shareski), and in 2015 my team was at the FETC Executive Summit with George, Eric Sheninger, and Tom Murray.  Besides conference notes, George has pushed my thinking through his blog, “The Principal of Change” and his book, The Innovator’s Mindset.  

As part of my reflection on this first part of the book study, I went back to my notes for some of his guiding thoughts.  Here were some highlights:

UCET 2014

  • The biggest shift for educators using tech is not skill set; it’s mindset.
  • Are schools teaching for yesterday or tomorrow?
  • Tech should empower us to do something differently.

FETC Executive Summit 2015

  • “Often the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking. It is not the policies, it is not the curriculum, it is us. I hear things like, ‘Well we can’t possibly do that because of our (parents, students, teachers, principal, lack of resources, government, etc.)’ yet someone somewhere has done whatever you might be trying to do facing the same adversity you face.”
  • Tech will never replace great teachers, but tech in the hands of a great teacher is transformational.
  • To be a master teacher, you must be a master learner.

Being a master learner is my goal, and through my collaboration as a connected educator, I will continue to grow and be challenged every day.

The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC – Intro

My learning journey has taken me to many places, but for me, the best parts have been the connections with people and the questions and ideas that won’t let my brain rest.  My goal with this post will be to summarize several hours of learning.  Common themes are the need for a change in vision and culture.  If we truly want to create a mindset for innovation, what must be included? What are the big questions?

Questions drive learning, and what I’ve discovered is that great leaders and visionaries are willing to ask hard questions.  Through conferences, Twitter, and my PLN, I’ve connected with some amazing influencers, one of whom is George Couros.  As a current participant in The Innovator’s Mindset MOOC, I think back to meeting George Couros when he was a keynote speaker at UCET 2014 (Utah Council for Educational Technology).  His keynote was titled “Innovate. Create. Vision.”  

Then in 2016, our team was fortunate to attend the FETC Executive Summit where George talked about “Building a Culture for Innovation.”  My key takeaways and big questions follow:

  • 8 Characteristics of the Innovator’s Mindset:  empathetic, problem finders, risk-takers, networked, observant, creators, resilient, reflective.  Does this describe our students and the work they are doing in schools?
  • School vs. Learning: Are we creating consumers or creators? Are we emphasizing answers over questions? Are we asking for surface learning or deep exploration?
  • “Often the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking. It is not the policies, it is not the curriculum, it is us. I hear things like, ‘Well we can’t possibly do that because of our (parents, students, teachers, principal, lack of resources, government, etc.)’ yet someone somewhere has done whatever you might be trying to do facing the same adversity you face.

In the introduction to his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, George encourages us to “share what you’re learning and what’s working for you” (9), so I’m going to stick with simple.  Here’s what stood out to me and what will become foundational pieces for action steps and reflection:

  • Embrace a commitment to continuous learning.
  • Create the conditions where change is more likely to happen.
  • Take a strengths-based approach in creating those conditions for change.
  • Model the kind of innovation we want to see.

And the learning journey of this MOOC has begun . . .  Here’s the challenge:  What amazing things can we do as a result of embracing change and asking hard questions?

Relentless Collaboration on Ideas

It isn’t often that a phrase sticks in my mind from the “Acknowledgements” page, but this one did.  For me, it captures the essence of the work that is ahead of us.  What can we accomplish if we focus on a “relentless collaboration on ideas”?  This was the foundation for Michael Fullan and Maria Langworthy’s newest work, A Rich New Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learningas they collected stories, interviewed people, and made observations.

Their goal was also noteworthy.  What they’ve discovered are students and teachers teaming up “to make learning irresistibly engaging, and steeped in real-life problem-solving”  (i).  As we look to redefine learning in order to prepare our students for lifelong learning, careers, and citizenship, a collective effort is essential.






(Image Source:  Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson)

Collective Wisdom & a Culture of Innovation

“Unlocking the power of the ‘collective genius‘ is the common denominator of all great leaders.”      — Alan J. Fuerstman, founder and CEO, Montage Hotels & Resorts in praise of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation 

I’m not sure where I first heard that phrase “the power of the collective genius,” but putting it into practice has become one of the greatest influences on my professional growth as an educator.   The book, mentioned above, was published in 2014 by the Harvard Business Review Press, and it was written by a group of four experts who came from Harvard, MIT, the business world, and Pixar.  When this kind of collaborative work is done,  experience and wisdom are shared and synthesized. By talking and creating solutions or a product together, teams achieve perspective, insights, and a depth of understanding that is impossible to achieve alone.

In education, this same principle can be applied.  Connecting and sharing with others creates coherence through a collaborative culture, clarity of focus, accountability, and deeper learning (Fullan)  By putting this powerful practice to work, here’s a quick summary of the ways I benefited from the collective wisdom of others this week:

  • Classroom observations:  Not only do I learn from watching teachers and students, but I get smarter by questioning, reflecting upon, and discussing what was seen.  Since we try to observe in pairs, that debrief provides a way to solidify best practices and understand what makes these teachers so effective in getting high growth and proficiency scores from their students.  Two consistent themes were the clarity of expectations for students and the teachers’ use of reflection to constantly improve their instruction.
  • A visit to NUVI, a local business:  This fairly new social media marketing company brought their president and CTO, a vice-president, and a manager to talk for over an hour with 0ur state-wide group of ed tech specialists. During that question/answer session, we learned about what our students will need in order to succeed in a business like theirs.  The answer?  Students must be thinkers, have self-awareness, be able to work independently, be able to build relationships and maintain a sense of curiosity.  The CTO also recommended a book that had influenced his leadership called The Art of Learning:  An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  A key idea he shared was “investing in loss.”  He said that when kids always “win,” they don’t learn.  They need to recognize the importance of going back, reworking solutions and sticking with something until it’s done well.
  • C-Forum:  This monthly meeting brings together ed tech directors, coaches, and specialists to learn together.  Part of this meeting was devoted to an EdCamp style discussion about issues that were chosen by the group.  In an hour, I was able to learn much more than I could have on my own.  Through that rich sharing of ideas, I learned about the changing face of professional learning, how to use technology like Voxer, a school YouTube channel, and Sway to build a stronger culture, and some new tech tools that people were using in their classrooms like Qball, PocketLab, and Bloxels.

I’m grateful to my PLN and to Kathy, Karen, Brenda, NUVI executives, and my C-Forum colleagues for pushing my thinking this week.  As you reflect on your own role, how have you benefited from the “collective genius” of others.  What have you learned that could help others?

P.S.  As I was reviewing and doing some additional research for this post, I realized that as we participate in making meaning by harnessing the “collective genius” of our peers,  what we’re really doing is building leadership capacity.  This shift to “collaboration, decision-based learning, and integrative decision-making”(Slocum) is crucial to innovative leadership, and the authors of Collective Genius reference companies like Google and Pixar to make their point.  “What is consistent in Collective Genius is that traditional formal authority gives way to nimble orchestration, informal facilitation, and contributions to community-building”  (Slocum).  There’s much to ponder, but that will be the catalyst for a future post.

Additional Reading:

Hill, Linda A., Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback. “Collective Genius.” Harvard Business Review, 1 June 2014. Web 15 Jan. 2017.

 Slocum, David. “Review Of ‘Collective Genius: The Art And Practice Of Leading Innovation’.”Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 31 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Jan. 2017. <>.

The Challenge of a Single Word

connect-collage-iiAt the start of a new year, many people are selecting their “one word” – a word that will add focus and intentionality to their thinking.  Until I did some early morning writing, I wasn’t going to do it.  But a word kept returning to my thoughts, and that word was CONNECT.  There was so much relevance for both my personal life as well as my professional life that I could not ignore it.

With family and friends, connections are so important, whether it’s keeping in touch through phone conversations, Facebook, or texts for those in distant places, or face-to-face talks with those who are near.  With age and wisdom, those minutes become treasured moments because, with the uncertainties of life, there are no guarantees that you’ll get them again.  All of us remember lost loved ones whose memory will influence us forever.  What time spent with family and friends will become your most cherished memories this year?

On a professional level, the word connect is relevant in so many aspects of education.  On a daily basis, we work to create connections with students and colleagues, building relationships and a safe culture so that learning can take place.  We connect with mistakes as we model what it looks like to be lifelong learners.  We connect what research and experience say about our instructional practices, always striving for continued professional growth because it’s students’ futures at stake.  This year we’ll look at how to ensure that surface learning leads to crucial connections with deeper learning and transfer of skills.  We’ll work together to build effective learning targets to ensure clarity and the connection of ideas.  We will connect with teammates through collaboration as ideas are shared and reflected upon in order to build something even better.  Think of the powerful connections in an effective professional learning network — the synergy and insights that are created when like-minded people are working together toward a common goal.  We connect through shared passions, truth, and humor, and we will build with trust, love, communication, and commitment.

What new colleagues will I connect with this year?  What ideas will each of you bring into my life?  How will you strengthen and build connections this year?