Monthly Archives: April 2012

3 Tools to Assess and Guide Your Deliberate Leadership

So, you’re working on your school’s big change. Maybe it’s getting instruction shaped up for the introduction of the Common Core. Or maybe all your students and teachers are getting laptops or tablets. Or maybe you’re making the move to customized learning, or project-based learning, or…

And if you’re reading this blog, then you’ve probably found this model for school change to use when it’s a biggie, such as when it requires a paradigm shift for educators (and perhaps the community) because it’s different than when they were a student and maybe they have never taught this way or been trained to teach this way.

And maybe, like a lot of schools, you had a good start and you paid attention to all the Key and Supporting components of the model, but as the year went on, and the initiative went on, and the day to day running of the school/district loomed big, you have begun to wonder, how do I know we’re still paying attention to all the moving parts of our initiative? How can you get a little check to make sure you’re still on track?

The three tools described below are designed to do exactly that. The three work in concert to help you or your team identify what you’re doing in the initiative, where there may be gaps in providing leadership for the initiative, and what can be done to make the initiative more complete.

This process can be done individually by an initiative leader, or with a leadership team, or with a larger group of stakeholders. I’m partial to using a team effort. Over and over and over again, I’m surprised about the things that are captured and dealt with because team members have perspectives and strengths different than my own. These were always things that would have fallen through the cracks, if it hadn’t been for the diverse perspectives of team members. When working with a group, decide if it is most appropriate to work through each component as a whole group or to divide up into smaller groups, each working on a different component.

A group can work through all three of these tools in 2-3 hours.

The Lead4Change Check-In Tool
The Lead4Change Check-In tool has one sheet for each of the 7 components of the Lead4Change Model. The intent is to reflect on what work is currently underway in each category. It’s a way to gather your list of efforts toward your initiative. The intent is to determine what is going on right now, in preparation of asking the question, are we dealing with all the parts we should be dealing with?

As each effort is listed on the form, the note taker can check which piece(s) of the Component the effort relates to. Some efforts will not only relate to more than one piece of a Component, but to more than one Component. There is no problem with listing an effort on more than one sheet. In fact, you want to make sure that all your efforts toward each Component are recorded.

I’ve done this work with a leadership team through a modified Carousel Activity. I broke the large team into smaller groups. Each small group worked on a different Component for a certain amount of time, then passed the individual Component sheet to the next group. The next group would add to the sheet, passing it to the next group when time was up. Each Component sheet would eventually visit each group. One advantage is that this kind of small group work is more likely to engage every member of the large group than when the same work is done in a “whole group” approach.

The Where Are The Holes? Tool
The Where Are The Holes? tool let’s the same group of reflective practitioners to then look back over the Check-In documents and think about each piece of each Component. They would decide if that piece is “covered” or a “hole.”

Why not skip the Check-In and jump right to here? I think that sometimes, when presented with a checklist, it is too easy just to look at an item and say “Yup! Doing that!” without really stopping to think about “how are you doing that?” Using the the Check-In tool forces you to provide the evidence of if you have covered it or not.

Is it always a problem when there is a hole? No. Large-scale school change initiatives take time and have lots of pieces to pay attention to. There are times when you will look at a hole and say something like, “It is okay that that is a hole right now, because it isn’t time yet to do that. We will be addressing that next semester/year/etc.” But finding the holes insures that any current hole is a hole on purpose, for a good reason, and not just because the team has overlooked it.

The What Could We Do? Tool
So now you know what is going on, and where you have holes and need to pay attention. Now is the time to capture some ideas of what the initiative could do, especially to fill those “overlooked” holes in implementation.

The What Could We Do? Tool helps with this. Groups fill in their ideas of what could be done, recording whose idea it was, who could be a contact person, as well as, what Component and piece it relates to. Special attention should be paid, of course, to those pieces that you identified as holes.

The ideas listed on the sheet are brief and sometimes the sheet sits for a while before the leadership team gets back to it. Capturing whose idea it was allows the leadership team to go back later and find out more about the idea if they have clarifying questions.

Listing a contact person allows the group to get in touch either with who would be responsible for getting the suggested idea going, or with an outside contact person who has implemented similar work.


Having your leadership team work through these three tools, could be a useful approach to revisiting the Lead4Change Model as a piece of your continuous improvement plan.

Correct Answers vs. Building Understanding: What Do Learners Need?

My step-son, Sam, is one of those otherwise bright students who struggles with math. Back when he was in high school, his mom asked me to help him. He had gotten a question wrong on a Geometry quiz and didn’t understand the correct answer. My wife hoped that since I was a former high school math teacher that I could help him out.

The question was, “What is the intersection of two planes?”

He told me that he had answered that the intersection was a point, since only lines intersect. Sam went on, “I went in to ask my teacher about the question, but she just kept giving me the right answer. I really don’t understand it at all.”

“So, you’ve only talked about lines intersecting?”

Sam nodded.

“And you haven’t really talked at all about planes and how they intersect?”

Sam shook his head.

“Then I could see why you thought it was a point,” I told him. “But look at this.” His notebook was on the kitchen counter where we were talking and I said, “Let’s say this is one of the planes,” while tapping his notebook. I grabbed a magazine, saying it was the other plane. I held the spine of the magazine at an angle against the face of Sam’s notebook.

“How do these two planes come together? What kind of geometric shape?” I asked.

Sam got one of those “Oh, my gosh! Is it that simple?!” looks on his face and said it was a line.

Now, there was nothing wrong with the teacher asking the plane intersection question without first modeling it for students. It is a great way to have students apply the concept of intersection of geometric shapes and see if they really understand it. And the teacher was a kind and knowledgeable math teacher.

But students who struggle with a subject need more than just someone who is sensitive and kind and knowledgeable. Sam needed more than the correct answer. I think teachers who are intuitive mathematicians (or social scientists, or literacy specialists, or scientists) know their subjects in an intuitive way that makes it hard for them to explain ideas to students who do not understand their subject intuitively.

When students get an incorrect answer, it is too easy for teachers who understands their content intuitively to assume that the student simply made a mistake (perhaps in calculating), or didn’t study hard enough, or is simply a slow student in their subject.

What they don’t understand is that more often than not, a student’s wrong answer is actually a correct answer within the student’s current (but incorrect) schema for the topic – the student’s internal model that tells him how things work.

If the teacher’s goal is to have the student understand the material correctly, then simply offering the correct answer is less productive than trying to understand the student’s misconception and then think of an example or a way to model the material that will create a bridge between the student’s misunderstanding and the correct understanding.

Sam’s schema said only lines intersect and he knew that lines intersect in a point. We could either stop with proving that Sam was wrong by giving him the correct answer, or we could work to understand his thinking so we could lead him in the right direction.

I don’t blame the teacher. She simply did what I did when I was a math teacher. It wasn’t until long after I stopped teaching math and became of student of learning that I grew to understand this principle.

How much more effective would our teaching be if we approached our students’ incorrect answers as misconceptions rather than missing information?


Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing in Middle Level

I recently posted “Let’s Put the “Middle” Back in Middle Level” over on the Bright Futures Blog.

In it, I argued that we middle level educators are being pulled away from our core values by a lot of competing priorities and goals. I wrote:

Middle level shouldn’t be about test taking, or getting kids to put aside their cell phones or Facebook pages, or high school readiness, or work readiness. It’s not even about “hormones with feet…” First and foremost, middle level needs to be about young adolescents: what are their characteristics and what practices are harmonious with those characteristics.

And later:

And the more we get away from that being our center (no pun intended), the harder it is to teach middle level students. That includes (and is perhaps especially true for) that list of important (but supporting) goals for middle level education…

I also shared some really great resources! available for free on the AMLE website, that we can use with our teachers, school boards, and parents and communities to remind everyone about the main thing in middle level education.


It’s Your Turn:

How are you keeping the main thing the main thing in middle level education?


Put the Middle Back in Middle Level: Vote Mike for AMLE President Elect #WhyMikeAMLE12

The Association for Middle Level Education (formerly the National Middle School Association – NMSA) is a wonderful organization striving to be the go-to people for all things related to educating young adolescents.

They are currently having their annual elections for the Board of Trustees (elections opened April 5 and continue through early May).

I’m running for President Elect and hope you’ll consider voting for me.

Middle Level has been the driving force in making me the educator I am today. When I was first a teacher in the mid and late 80s, mostly I just knew that school didn’t seem to work for too many kids. Middle Level Education was my first introduction to an approach to education that really started with the learner and a hard look at the developmental characteristics of the age group.

Since then, I’ve considered my work to be being in the service of students. How could I make learning more interesting and engaging to them? How could I make school meaningful? How could I make it work for more students.

Along that journey, I’ve been a middle grades technology integrator, and part of the design team of the country’s largest middle level initiative, MLTI (the Maine Learning Technology Initaitive) which is still the only statewide learning with laptop initiative and started with every 7th and 8th Grade student and teacher in the state. I’ve been a teacher educator at the University of Maine at Farmington, and helped create their middle level education program and established the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning. My doctoral program emphasized middle level education, and my doctoral research focused on what motivates underachieving middle school students, producing a model that is now a state-approved School Improvement Model in Louisiana. I’ve been an educational developer, creating programs designed to motivate students. And I’ve served my state and national middle level associations, being a Board member and President of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE), and a Research Advisory Board member and an East Region Trustee for NMSA/AMLE. (Learn more about my contributions to middle level)

I’m ready now to leverage my experience to help put the Middle firmly back into NMSA/AMLE.

Please vote Mike for AMLE ’12!

Tell why you’d vote for Mike at

Or Post it to Twitter with the hash tag #WhyMikeAMLE12


Introduction to Twitter for Educators: 12 Resources & Strategies

The irony is that at the same time my district has banned Facebook and has a team working on a social media policy, our administrators are learning how to use Twitter for both Branding and Buzz and their own professional development.

(Well, maybe it isn’t irony. I think maybe it is exactly the Yin and Yang of social media that has schools confused about what to do with it. On one hand social media seems to lead to distraction and bullying. On the other hand, it is a powerful marketing tool and tool for building a professional learning community.)

Auburn’s administrative team will soon get a brief Introduction to Twitter inservice. These are the resources I will be sharing with them.

What other resources would you share? (please add your suggestions in the comments)


Getting Started with Twitter:


Leveraging Twitter as Your Professional Learning Community:


Leveraging Twitter for Building Branding and Buzz Around Your School:


Leveraging Twitter for Teaching and Learning


Are Parents Leaving Their Good Kids at Home? Easy to Teach and Hard to Teach

I’ve worked with teachers, who refer to their students as “quick learners” and “slow learners,” or “bright students” and “dumb students.” Other teachers approach me sounding as if they believe that kids either have motivation or they don’t, and that teachers can’t do anything about that. And some teachers act as if parents are keeping their good kids at home!

But this isn’t the right way to think about our underachieving students. It certainly isn’t borne out by research. In Insult to Intelligence, Frank Smith (1986, p. 18) explains:

We underrate our brains and our intelligence. Formal education has become such a complicated, self-conscious and over-regulated activity that learning is widely regarded as something difficult that the brain would rather not do…. But reluctance to learn cannot be attributed to the brain. Learning is the brain’s primary function, its constant concern, and we become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to be done. We’re all capable of huge and unsuspected learning accomplishments without effort.

And these students are certainly intelligent (in fact, sometimes you wish they weren’t so darned clever!).

It is important to remember that when we say a student won’t learn, what we really mean is that he won’t learn what we want him to!

All students learn well when they are learning what they are interested in or see as valuable – even if that only seems to happen outside of school. The challenge, of course, is motivating students to learn the content that we see as important and valuable to them – or perhaps it is more accurate to say the challenge is to create the conditions so students will be self motivated to learn what we want them to…

So, I’ve moved away from thinking of students as quick or slow, or bright or dumb, but rather as “easy to teach” and “hard to teach.” Not only do I feel that these terms are more accurate, but they aren’t disrespectful to our underachievers, who bristle at being called slow or dumb. Students I’ve spoken with don’t mind the labels easy to teach and hard to teach. They know how they are in the classroom.

But there is no doubt that some students learn almost regardless of what we do (of course! – by definition, they are easy to teach!), and other students challenge us, no matter what we try. But maybe we’ll get current with helping all students achieve if we have more productive terminology for referring to our students.



Smith, F. (1986). Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. Heinemann.