Monday, September 1, 2014

Genius Hour!

Genius Hour!
I feel that our traditional bell schedules and classes taught in isolation at times contribute to our student’s not being able to produce high level authentic creations that would truly wow us.  I often wonder what we could do to try to rethink our current structure while also preserving some of the pieces we know help our students become productive citizens.  I believe that the structure that made our educational system a success now too often gets in the way of what our students need to develop their problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking skills.  In order for our students to be globally competitive and future ready we need to look for alternative opportunities for our students to develop these traits and this could mean rethinking our approach.  If we hope to stay an economic power our success depends on our students having the ability to move into jobs that require higher level creative work.  If you question anything I just said, I would encourage you to read the work of @mcleod and @danielpink.  These two show how jobs are changing and what plays into our motivation. 

In July, a group of South East Junior High teachers attended a four-day STEM Innovator and Entrepreneurship Institute sponsored by the Jacobson Institute and College of Education at the University of Iowa.  Focused on the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math, the teachers developed a plan to roll out the Genius Hour project for the entire school.  Based on the Genius Hour concept made famous by employees at Google, students will spend 40 minutes every other week focused on a topic of their choice.  Using Design Thinking and the Business Model Canvas taught by the University of Iowa Business, students will identify a problem, plan their research process, attempt to create a solution, and then share their results. The projects will be entirely student-directed, with homeroom teachers available for troubleshooting, guidance, and encouragement.  (Thanks to @MsSimsICCSD for letting me steal this from her press release.)

Check out our video here! 

The goal will be to have our students solve real world problems, explore their passions, and possibly fail in a productive way.  We are hopeful that students will make community connections and forge new relationships when solving their problem.  These projects may be done in groups of students or by individuals. 

There will be several skeptics that wonder how this could work if we are not grading the students work or monitoring them continuously.  In fact some students will undoubtedly struggle with this as well.  We may run in to some problems or challenges, but I am optimistic that we will be shocked by the student’s ability to create high level solutions to problems that we encounter on a daily basis.  Stay tuned to see what the students are doing @SouthEastJHIC! 

Be Great! 


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pockejtke – We need to find our sweet spot!

Some of the happiest memories I have of my childhood were spent on my Grandpa and Grandma Upah’s farm.  I can remember spending a week with them every summer and more holidays than I can count.  In the summers I would wake to my grandma making a plate full of bacon and eggs.   I would chase it with coffee that would be heavily loaded with milk and sugar to the point it did not really resemble coffee, but it was great! Then I usually was allowed to watch some cartoons and the old school Adam West, Batman TV show.  

Throughout the day my grandma would let me help her pick food in the garden, feed the bottle calf, catch and tame kittens, play with the dog, show me how to butcher chickens, and help her bake delicious desserts (more on this to come).   At the end of a long day in the field my grandpa would let me ride the tractor with him to “help” him do chores, which included feeding the livestock and pets.  After dinner, which if we were lucky included a trip to town to hit Hardees and Dairy Queen, he would drive his orange and white ford pick-up truck to his pasture so we could count the cows.   The best part of this drive was when grandpa drove up the steepest hill in the pasture and then would hit the gas as we went flying down the hill hitting all the bumps and laughing all the way down.  When we would return home he would show me the projects he was working on in his wood shop, many of which are still in my house today.  He is also the man that taught me how to fish and we had many conversations while trying to catch the next big one.  This man is one of the most special men I have ever known and I miss him every day.  Sometimes at holidays I catch myself thinking about him sitting in his rocking chair saying pockejtke (which is Czech for, wait/hold on) when we would ask him for help or assistance in putting a new toy together. After we patiently or impatiently did so he would call us over and slip $5 in our pocket and tell us not to tell our mom and spend whatever amount of time we needed with him. 

The reason I share these memories is because of an event that recently got me thinking about one of these experiences as it relates to our role in education.  My grandma used to let me help her occasionally bake as I mentioned above.  She often would make a Czech dessert, called Kolaches.  Every year Cedar Rapids, hosts a Kolache festival and they too are very good, but they are not my grandmas.   I am sure if she wanted to she could still make them the way I remember them.  The best part of the process was filling the “sweet spot” in the Kolache with the different fillings – apple, cherry, prune, apricot, and my favorite – poppy seed.  Recently when I was at the Kolache festival I got to thinking that in our careers all of us need to try to find and function in our sweet spot as much as possible.  Some authors and researches have called this experience flow.   Athletes most recently like Tim Howard of the USMNT refer to it as being in the zone. 
Have you ever asked yourself how often are you operating in your sweet spot at school? To function at a high level we need to and as leaders need to help staff members operate in their sweet spot for a great portion of their day. This is really about being passionate and committed to your work and having external barriers removed so that you can get there!  There are some obvious challenges and frustrating aspects about our work, but I love what I do and cannot imagine being in a role that did not involve helping people in some way.  If you are not operating in this zone then ask yourself, why not? What is holding you back?  How can you change?

Better yet, how can we change the experience for our students? How many of them operate at this high level throughout the day? The more I thought about it the answer is a little scary.  I thought to myself pockejtke, I am not sure that many of them do for the majority of the day/week at school.  Rather how many do we hear say they are bored or disillusioned with what we ask them to do at school.  I feel strongly about the fact that we have to work to change this.  We have to be better.  We have to change.  We have to give students a voice to channel their passion!  They need to have the same opportunity to work in the zone, flow, or sweet spot.  Let’s challenge ourselves to find our sweet spot and give students the chance to do the same thing! Please share with myself and others what you are doing at your school to increase these opportunities for students.

Be Great and Get Better!


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Project Achieve!

Recently in collaboration with City High School and the Belin Blank Center at the University of Iowa we have started a new effort called Project Achieve.  This program is for high achieving minority students that are under-represented in Advanced Placement (AP) and upper level courses.  City High is farther into the process than we are having met with their students a few more times.  I have the fortune of working with City High Principal @jbacon23, City High Guidance Counselor Linda Hoel, @SouthEastjhic Guidance Counselor @BrianPIngram, and my wife @Drkkdegner, who is the administrator for Iowa's Online AP Academy, on this project.

I remember @casas_jimmy telling me about a conversation he had with 2013 NASSP Principal of the Year @TrevorLTGreene and when Trevor said, “everyone deserves to be part of something great.”  This has stuck with me and I am always considering this perspective when thinking about all of our students.  We are hoping to work with this group of students and show them that they our great and can and should be part of something great. 

Our first meeting @SouthEastjhic included hosting @drkkdegner, some University of Iowa students from National Society of Black Engineers (NESBE) and City High Senior Soumba Traore.  She talked to the group about her experience in taking upper level courses at the high school and why she believes it is important they do so.  She talked about owing it to her family and wanting to make them proud.  The best part of the luncheon that day is how she connected with these 7th and 8th grade students and gave them an example of somebody that is doing it and living it.  I was so impressed by the passion and resolve she showed these students and the time she spent talking to them after the meeting. One of the long term goals is to hook the junior high students in with a high school mentor that continues the message Soumba started.  

You could see a visible change in how these students exited the library (no it wasn’t from the pizza) after hearing from these different groups of people.  They were beaming with pride knowing that they are being recognized for the work they are doing. It is amazing what happens when you just tell students you believe in them and they can do it! Never forget the impact these conversations can have.  

Finally, I was reminded by reading a post by @danpbutler this morning that we don’t always have to have everything figured out to get started either.  In terms of this project we are not sure of how it will all come together but we did know that we needed to get started on this important work.   I am truly excited to see how this project takes off and the impact that is could have for the long term.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

Out of Bounds - What can and should we do about bullying?

This week I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with a group of professionals at the University Of Iowa College Of Public Health.  The panel included Marizen Ramirez, M.P.H., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, Associate Director for Research, Injury Prevention Research Center, Briana Woods-Jaeger, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Community and Behavioral Health and Shawn Zierke, parent involved in the development of the show and a MA student in the College of Public Health. 

The panel followed a public preview of the play, Out of Bounds by Working Group Theater.  The event was sponsored by the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health and Hancher.   The full length performance was performed at our school and the other two local junior highs in November.   This is an effort to have the arts help create some conversations about bullying. 

I really believe in the work they are doing and know that as a school administrator this is an issue we deal with on a consistent basis. We try to solve problems but also serve as resource for our students and families.  I shared during the session that I believe people really do try to do the best they know how.  I do not think our parents, teachers, students, or administrators have gotten worse or more ineffective.  I do think that the methods that we see some of these issues come forth are very different now in part to emerging technologies. 

To effectively address these situations we need to work as partners.  It pains me that there is a level of mistrust in allowing school officials to help work though situations.  I do know that some parents have been burned by the schools response or lack thereof, and movies such as Bully show that schools do not always get it right creating some of the reason for the mistrust.  The best way to establish this trust and to regain confidence is to take these situations as serious as the victims perceive what is happening to them and to provide effective follow through.  Being an overweight child growing up and getting teased and picked on relentlessly I think helps me relate our student’s struggles. 

At South East when presented with these situations I believe there are important lessons for our students to learn. The first is empathy.  See by sending a text message, post or picture our students never have to deal with the emotion that comes from the person on the others side of the screen.  It is just like as adults how we misuse email where we saw more and in a different tone that we would in person.  Having students confront the feeling this caused to another person is a powerful experience.  The other topic I commonly address is being kind and humane to people.  I credit @joykelly5 for helping me frame this conversation.   Is it more important to be right or to be kind? Who are you reserving your best manners for? Is this what you want people to think about you?  Why are you allowing yourself to be treated this way?   Bullying at its core involves inhumane treatment of others and it is not something we can allow others to look away from.  

Finally, I always involve the bystanders.  I tell them if they are not being part of the solution then they are part of the problem.   When we see these situations we need to be advocates for others and not allow this type of treatment to continue.  Most always all bullying situations or peer conflicts that we have end with some mediation between the students involved.  The success rate I have seen by doing this is very high.  Without taking this step the problem often continues for some of the same reasons listed above. 

During the panel I learned from the research of Dr. Ramirez that schools do a really good job with having policies but that there is great inconsistencies in the programs schools use to address bullying.  No matter the program we use as school officials we know, as @ToddWhitaker always says, it is the people not the programs that make the difference.  We need to make sure that the people working in our schools have the skills to navigate the conversations and work through interventions to resolve these situations.  If you are a parent reading this and have an unfortunate circumstance involving your student I hope you will give us a chance to work as partners.  

Be Great! 


Monday, January 6, 2014

PLN Blog Challenge

The thanks for this post goes to Aaron Becker @aaron_becker32. You passed the challenge on and it hit me at the exact right time. I have been neglecting getting to my blog but I am excited to do a better job this semester.

Here are the Rules: 
1. Acknowledge the nomination blogger. 
2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
4.  List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition.
5.  Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate and let all the bloggers know they been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

11 Random Facts About Me

1.   I have a grandma (Degner) that is taller than me.  The mother of my father is from an extremely tall lineage.  I also have an uncle that is 6’8” and a cousin Joe 6’6” that played basketball at UNI and professionally in South America and Europe. 
2.  I am a die-hard Chicago sports fan although you may have deciphered this one from my tweets.  I love the Cubs but we are in full blow rebuild mode.  Remember me for this one though, we will get it right with the current management structure.  The Bears are my next love and I too think the pieces are in place for a championship soon.  I fell in love with the Bulls because of Jordan and watch them only when the Bears are out of it.  Finally, the Blackhawks get turned on only in the playoffs, but I did watch every game of the Stanley Cup playoffs last year.  My wife thinks I have an issue.  I probably do. J  My son probably will too.
3.  I love Mexican food and while I worked for @casas_jimmy in Bettendorf I was treated to some of the best Mexican I have ever had prepared by his Mom! So disappointed I wasn’t close enough to get the Christmas time delivery. 
4.  I have a love of swimming pools and swimming.  Although I never have swum competitively I have been a lifeguard, swim lesson instructor, and pool manager. 
5.  I graduate with a class of 48 people from North Tama High School in Traer, Iowa.  Ever since that time I have had a preference for larger communities.  I enjoyed my time but also enjoy some level of anonymity.
6.  I was a chubby (fat) kid growing up.  I share this because I think it has given me a level of higher level of sensitivity when dealing with bullying situations as a principal. 
7.  I suppose every Principal feels this way, but I think I would be such a better teacher now.  I almost wish I could go back and help all of those students I had and do it better. 
8.  Both of my grandfathers were farmers. I think this taught me a lot about work ethic and appreciating what you have and not being concerned with what your neighbor has.
9. My parents never allowed me to think I wouldn’t go to college.  I was the first one in my immediate family to get a four year degree and they are responsible for that. 
10.  I love to go fishing.  I enjoy the quiet and the simplicity in it all, but it allows me time to think and also prevents me from trying to do something else. 
11.  I recently got a smoker for Father’s Day and it has turned into my new hobby. I hope to take on a lot of different meats and woods this Spring. 

My answers to @aaron_becker32
1. My favorite book to read as a kid was anything Matt Christopher. I loved his sports stories. 
2. My top two favorite athletes would be Andre Dawson and Kerry Wood.  I know they both lack a world championship but I have too many great memories from standout performances by both of them. 
3. My favorite teacher was Mrs. Robb.  She never accepted my good enough when that could have been better than most in her classes. 
4. I hosted a party in 2006 when the Bears made it.  Everything we served was blue and orange. So I suppose that sums it up. Blueberry ice cream, hot wings, cheese balls, you get the idea, right?
5. Leach Lake Minnesota.  As long as you like to be on the water.  My brother and I used to ride up in the back of my parents truck with a mattress and topper over top. 
6. Definitely go to Ireland.  Formerly a history teacher and history major in college I loved Irish history and also love Guinness.  I would also like to go visit Africa and the boys home my father in law started in Mombasa, Kenya. 
7. I would hang out with JFK.  I think the office of the presidency has a tremendous amount of intrigue.  I also think with his age he would have an interesting perspective. 
8. I like to spend as much of it as possible with my wife and kids.  My wife Kate works at the University of Iowa.  Jack (7), Liz (6), and Alice (2) get my time when I am home from school. 
9. “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower
10.  I really want to go to ISTE.  I am heading back to NASSP this year and had a great time with @casas_jimmy last year, but really am looking forward to getting to ISTE this summer. 
11. I would blow it up.  I think we need to rethink the traditional structure.  I often get frustrated at the rate of change we have to accept or work through in our current system. 

1. @gcouros
2. @patrickmlarkin
3. @jasonmmarkey
4. @casas_jimmy
5. @joykelly05
6. @BHS_TL
7. @christopherlike
8. @colinwikan
9. @mcleod
10. @danpbutler
11. @benjamingilpin

My 11 Questions
1. What is your stress reliever?
2. What Twitter chats do you participate in? Why?
3. What was the best conference you ever attended?
4. What is your best educational experience?
5. What is your worst educational experience?
6. What are your favorite athletic teams?
7. If you were not in education what would you do for a career?
8. What is your most noteworthy accomplishment as an educator?
9. What is one book you would recommend to others? What are you reading right now?  
10. What would you tell someone that hasn’t bought into social media as an educator?

11. What year will the Cubs win the World Series? 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Avoiding quicksand!

I am a sucker for sports movies. My all time favorite is Major League. I could recite lines from it all day long and laugh to myself. This makes my wife think she married a weirdo, but my brother and friends think its pretty cool. The fact that I know Jake Taylor tames Wild Thing, puts the bunt down, reaches first, and helps the Indians win the pennant is enough for me no matter the reaction. Last night during #IAedchat I found myself thinking how I could relate the feeling that I believe students can have when things do not seem to be going well at school. Then I got to thinking this is not unique to just students. I am sure teachers or admins feel like this more often than we think too. I still struggled for a way to put it into context and then a movie quote hit me. It comes from another sports classic, The Replacements.

"You're playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can't move... you can't breathe... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand." Shane Falco - The Replacements

Why can school feel this way? As someone who has now fulfilled each of the roles listed above (parent, student, teacher, and administrator) I think it comes from school being a highly competitive environment that takes some skill and finesse to navigate. Not all of it comes easy no matter who you are. I take solace in knowing that Shane Falco has a happy ending, he gets the girl and the job. He overcomes his challenges and succeeds at quarterback. We call can succeed too. It is not that bad things will not happen it is how we respond to those unpredictable challenges that come our way that determines our success. We are not always in control of what happens to us, but we are always in control of our response. If you have spent any time as a parent, teacher or administrator you know that it is not if mistakes will be made but rather when. When that time happens we have a great opportunity to promote growth in ourselves or others depending on the circumstance, but we also need to look for help. This is what we have to be able to show our students. Too often I see students that give up after one negative behavior incident or a poor performance on a piece of graded work. We have to teach them how to deal with adversity. We cannot expect them to know the way out.  This is why we are here. As educators is to not only teach this important skill, but to practice it ourselves.


One way is through a support system. In the Replacements Shane Falco had Coach Jimmy McGinty to pull him through it. Who is your coach? Who provides you perspective? Who will that person be for our students? If you are a student it could be your parents, but what if they are not able or willing? If you are a teacher maybe a colleague down the hall, but what if you usually are the one filling that role? As a principal you are the go to when all else fails for parents, teachers and students, So who is your Coach McGinty? You have to find a colleague or mentor that can help you keep your frame of reference and mindset in the right direction. However, I would encourage you to take this one step further. No matter your role to turn this into a network of people not just one person. What happens to Shane Falco if Jimmy McGinty never comes along? He lives a life stuck in the Sugar Bowl being drubbed with 3 concussions. He never believes he can be better. It is all about the relationships we form and those people that help us be better than we thought we could be. There are often no quick solutions to our most difficult problems, but the people we surround ourselves with will help us create a path out. Social media gives us an avenue to do this and essentially removes any excuse for why we cannot do so. Build your network folks. 

Finally, when you feel like you have hit quicksand. Quit fighting back so hard. Get out of the office, step back away from the stack of papers, focus on completing one task first, talk to a supportive person. Sometimes as doers or overachievers our first reaction is to fix things right away, which can cause quick decisions that are often times not the best. You are not really in over your head, you just need to get your head back. You will not change what happened but you can plan your response and reaction. If we can successfully pass this knowledge on to our students then we have taught them a lesson that lasts a lifetime. 

Be Great!


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When was the last time you said, "I am sorry?"

From time to time I mess up; whether it is as a father, husband, brother, son or principal, etc. I make mistakes.  You get it, right?  At some point in any aspect of our life we all make mistakes.  Hopefully, we learn from them and improve.  That is what we are supposed to do, learn from our mistakes.  For me the first part of this is acknowledgement.  I also believe that this is often the most difficult.  Why is this so hard for so many of us?  Is it pride, fear of failure, appearing weak, anger? The reason can be different for different mistakes.  Whatever the reason when we have made an error, we need to apologize and say I AM SORRY. 

This can be especially powerful for our students to hear.  I was reminded of this during Rita Pearson’s TED Talk and a recent interaction with a student in my office.  She makes light of how students react to adults that apologize.  They almost seem shocked.  They shouldn't.  We need to model this skill for them and help them practice.  I asked a student to apologize to another student this week and they looked at me like I was crazy.  I did not force his hand at the moment because it was obvious he was not ready.  My mistake was forgetting to walk the student through what I would be asking him to do and practicing it on me.  I realized that this student may have not had to do this before and fears looking weak to peers by doing so.   This is a skill I will work with him to develop and come back to him when some of the emotion is removed from the situation.  The first thing I will do is apologize for putting him in that situation and come then come back to what he needs to learn and move on.  

 We also need to model how an apology is received.  A colleague of mine, would often be sure to tell students and adults that saying, it's okay, is not an appropriate way to receive an apology.  Instead it is important to say thank you.  Saying, it's okay, gives the impression that what they did was acceptable.  It definitely was not if they are apologizing for it so we need to acknowledge their apology, but not downplay that the behavior was acceptable.  

The last part of this equation is forgiveness. It is different depending on every situation and circumstance.  You can't tell someone they have to forgive someone else that comes internally.  However, I often tell my students that you can forgive somebody without forgetting what they did or how they made you feel.  

Be Great!